Becoming one of the boys wasn’t an easy task. I received my basic training in a small New Jersey town, sitting high atop tree branches, running bases on D'Agostino's softball field, and hanging out at Mim and Moe's Ice Cream Parlor - the hub of teenage camaraderie. There I perfected my role as tomboy extraordinaire.
My "teachers," the boys themselves, came packaged differently. They were as colorful as any gaggle of guys could be, each unique in their own ways. There was Danny, the redhead, with a splash of freckles that stained his entire face a pale caramel. Mickey, the mischief-maker, whose pranks were legendary. Harry, whose rear end stuck out so far he was nicknamed "Tush" and, Jimmy the Brain with a photographic memory, who could recite passages from the Encyclopedia Britannica...as if anyone cared.
My dedication to this "Mob of Misfits" ruled my life, and influenced me during a time when my pre-pubescent preferences centered on boys with whom I enjoyed hanging out.
As I stumbled for an identity and tried different personae on for size, I craved recognition from this particular foursome, and was welcomed as a member of their exclusive club.
Looking back now, I am not sure why I was so readily accepted as the only girl in this "fraternity." I certainly didn't give off an entirely masculine affect, and on occasion, even giggled, which on male turf, could have been a deal-breaker. But I had one redeeming and irresistible quality: I laughed at their jokes.
At that time, joke telling was a preoccupation, an opportunity to compete and prove how hilarious they were. Sitting under an oak on damp, green summer afternoons, I paid homage to jokes so ridiculously offensive that they practically polluted the environment by their sheer stupidity. But I wanted to please, and acknowledging their weak attempts at humor assured me a place among them.
I listened to complaints, which varied according to the moods of the moment. I was in a class by myself - the token girl - who helped to authenticate their existence as they groped for answers that would put their adolescent torments to rest.
I found their gripes decidedly more tolerable than girls' agendas - girls who whined, rather than talked, about everything from boys to hair to clothes, whereas boy topics ranged from sports to cars to the latest horror films the five of us attended on Saturday afternoons at the local movie theater.
It wasn't that I didn't cultivate female friendships. I had a gallery of girlfriends, but, for a while, the boys seemed more intriguing, allowing me, in some satisfying way, to remain safely androgynous.
Boys' diversions differed, and seemed more compelling. Girls went to hair salons and painted their nails with sorbet-colored lacquer. Boys went hiking. Girls talked on the phone for hours, and baked brownies. Boys went fishing with homemade rods made from sticks and string. Girls experimented with makeup, and read Nancy Drew mysteries. Boys biked on 10-speed racers, and could while away an afternoon shooting hoops, which, with much practice, I managed to do with some proclivity. Girls sent away for 8x10 glossies of their favorite movie idols. I sent away for a Dick Tracy decoder ring. It soon became clear that I was made of different fiber. I was rebellious and feisty, and I could even outrun the boys, a skill I utilized to my advantage on many occasions.
But there was another more important trait I possessed that held me in good stead: I could keep a secret. Because of this, I became the boys' trusty support system, the one on whom they could bounce off ideas, and use me as their measuring rod for any questions pertaining to the female sex. I was the authority. A girl for all seasons. The Bonnie to their Clyde, the mysterious Mata Hari, Florence Nightingale, and Mother Teresa all rolled into one. But more: I was their designated voice of reason, who thought she knew it all, mainly because they validated that assumption.
During those pre-adolescent days, my parents watched nervously from the sidelines, monitoring my behavior, and eventually consulting a psychologist as to why their daughter was more drawn to spending time with boys rather than girls. They were told it was a phase I would outgrow as soon as I switched gears, and my hormones began to rage.
The psychologist was right. I eventually got my period. I grew breasts, became appropriately moody and sulked with great style. And....the biggest turning point of all: I got kissed, not by any of "my boys" but by Joey DeVito, the heartthrob of the neighborhood, whose shoe-polish black pompadour rose like a giant wave above his head. Joey, who carried an Ace comb in his back hip pocket, and whose hair was so heavily greased, I believed it would break upon human contact.
It was Joey who, ultimately, transformed me. One kiss and every part of my newly acquired body tingled, and in that brief, pivotal moment, suddenly and without warning...I got girlie.
Sadly, the repercussions of my transformation were such that I slowly withdrew from the boys, and my identity crisis sank into oblivion. My hair, which for so long had been tied in a ponytail, was released from its elastic confines and fell to my shoulders in a voluminous mass of curls. I started wearing lip-gloss and smelled faintly of floral cologne. But, worse: I stopped laughing at their jokes, and was, finally and forever, banished from my post as "one of the boys."
Much to my mother's relief, I suddenly enjoyed shopping, and I would spend time in the kitchen. I donned an apron and learned how to bake. I sported a bra and took to wearing dresses in lieu of jeans. I even started keeping a diary in which I poured my heart out over every emotion I could squeeze into one, small lined page.
Joey DeVito and I lasted for one summer. But it was the summer of my awakening. We kissed under boardwalks. We kissed in parked cars, in dark, secluded alleys and sitting in theater balconies until I couldn't take another minute of his lack of intellectual acumen that never went past what I considered irreconcilable boredom. I needed more than Joey. I wanted an equal partner with whom I could indulge in meaningful conversations that went beyond "hey babe - what's up?"
And, I started to miss "the boys" of my earlier days - my peeps, who, for a while, accepted me unconditionally before they realized I was a traitor - a full-fledged devotee of another gender preference.
Looking back now, I realize how those early, conflicted and transformative years helped to set the stage and shape me for my launch into adulthood. I discovered myself through their eyes, and, in turn, came to understand the ways of boys evolving into men. And, for a while, being one of them allowed me to become the best version of myself. I was finally ready to separate, move on, and become an entity in my own right, no longer dependent on these juvenile mavericks to define and nurture my ego-development.
I wondered for years what happened to my boys. I later learned that Danny became an orthopedic surgeon, Mickey, a concert violinist, Harry, a criminal lawyer, and Jimmy, an English Literature professor at a girls' college. I heard that they all married and had kids, whom, I like to think are following in their fathers' footsteps and making delicious mischief. I imagine they are still telling their bad jokes to anyone who will listen.
Life has transported us all in different directions en route to the present. Time has healed many wounds, and our psyches are indelibly tattooed with scars.
Now, when I look up at high tree branches, I recall with bittersweet fondness and longing those days when I hid from the world as I sat on the brink of adulthood waiting for my life to start.
Even now, decades later, with most of my life behind me, I miss those afternoons with the boys that would never be as innocent again. A time long past when I slowly and finally emerged, not as one of the boys, but into something more: a young woman on the rim of my unknown future so dearly won.