Phantom Balls

This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother.  Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others.  That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.

“Awrgh – my balls!”

I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.

This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”

Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.

A tomboy from the start

Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.

Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.

If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.

ryna and bryan
Ryna and Bryan – Thick as Thieves

At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.

There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.

I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.

What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.

The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.

Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.

© 2015 Ryna May

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One Last Walk

Dear Reader,

I know it isn’t the First Friday yet.  I am violating the protocol of my blog so that I can honor my best friend, Oberon.  For over 14 years, my beloved border collie has been at my side every day.  He has struggled in the past few months – his mind was as sharp as ever, but his body betrayed him.  Today, we let him go on to The Rainbow Bridge.  I am unaccountably sad to lose him.  I take comfort in the only thing possible: the knowledge that I gave him a great life.  He gave me a great life as well.

Oberon is named for a character in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The character is the King of the Fairy World.  The play has long been one of my favorites, so it was a natural, unique choice.  When Oberon came into my life, I didn’t want a dog – too much responsibility, I said.  I was in my final semester of my senior year of college at the University of Baltimore, I was applying to graduate school, and I was in a rocky relationship with the person who is now my ex-husband.

Oberon: The Old Man in the Sun
Oberon: The Old Man in the Sun

Why in the world would I want a dog?  I gave in – but only if I could choose his name. In every way, he has lived up to his namesake: he has been a magical presence.

To steal a phrase from Tim O’Brien, this dog has been the hero of my life.  I could not have known what a blessing Oberon would be.  For those of you who own dogs, you know. They are so much better than people in every single category.  They never hold grudges.  They always think the best of you.  They are always genuinely happy to see you when you get home – and they don’t get mad when you are running late.  Oberon has seen me through writing my master’s thesis, through my divorce, through a major life change when I finally opened up to the love of my life, through a new marriage, through bad, annoying days at work, through my doctoral program and all the tears and stress of comprehensive exams and the dissertation process, through everything.  He has been my constant, my touchstone, the buddy who reminds me that everything looks and feels better after a walk in the fresh air.

Oberon and Yorick
Oberon and Yorick

He has been a source of continual comfort. Just interacting with him always lifted my spirits no matter what happened during the day.  I’ll never know exactly what he thought about me, but I like to think he also saw me as a friend – though Billy Collins has some pretty interesting thoughts about this. (It makes me happy to think of the dogs writing poetry somewhere, out there. Oberon will write Shakespearean sonnets, I just know it.)

In my Philosophy class this semester, we have talked a lot about what happens to our souls when we die.  That discussion feels more real to me today.  Some believe, like Aristotle, that matter and form exist together, so when our bodies cease, everything ceases: our soul cannot exist apart from the body; but some believe we go on in some form – whether that is to heaven or to Plato’s world of forms or The Rainbow Bridge or just as energy that needs to find another way of expression.  When it comes to Oberon (and all dogs for that matter), I guess I prefer to think of his soul as the Eastern Philosophers do: as energy that has always been here and will always be here.  His energy is not here anymore inhabiting his body, but now it has been returned to the world.  It looks for a new way to interact, but it does not die, does not diminish.  That would be an unbearable loss.  To know that Oberon’s kind, gentle spirit will reincarnate into another form is the only thing that lets me let him go.

This week we have enjoyed the warmer weather, turned our faces toward the sun every chance we had. We’ve been noticing so much more together: how much greener the grass suddenly seems, the way the air smells different after spring rain, the red buds pixelating all of the trees, and the first smiling daffodils. All this will go on now, without Oberon this time. Today before the vet came to help him transition out of this life, my wife Stephanie and I took one last walk with Oberon.  It was something we were both looking forward to and dreading all week long, ever since we made the decision to let him go.

Last Walk
I wish we could keep walking forever

We walked slowly and comfortably in the direction he wanted.  He got to say goodbye to his best friend, Colby, a Golden Retriever who lives a few doors down.  He sniffed everything, breathing in the world and enjoying every bit of it. I could not help but think that I almost missed all of this – that I didn’t want him.  That seems incredible to me now.  I would have missed out on so much love and friendship.  I am grateful for every day of these last 14 years – I only wish we could have had a few more.  I hope it was peaceful, his final act. It was peaceful and heartbreaking for me in equal measure.  I just wanted to keep going, keep walking with him forever.

Tomorrow, I do have a post prepared for the First Friday.  I hope you’ll come back for that.

© 2015 Ryna May