BROTHERS, BOYS, AND WHAT CAN I DO
The gym floor is hard, and my butt bones are pinching my rear. I shift my weight. There are a hundred kids around me in the gym sitting criss-cross-applesauce, the way our teachers demand we sit. Why do they care how we sit? I stretch my legs out in front of me, hoping my teacher won’t see. I am caught by 5B’s teacher, Miss Stugart, and refold them.
A man in thick, gold-rimmed glasses with floppy gray hair and a tracksuit—the kind my gym teacher wears everyday—starts talking into a megaphone. I forget about my aches as he explains how we can fight back against someone who is trying to hurt us. Oh yes, he’s saying, a kid can fight back against even a big, strong man. He tells us how we can insert our thumbs into an attacker’s eye sockets in just the right way to pop them out. He tells us to make ourselves puke all over the mean man. He tells us to kick or knee or elbow or punch the man’s groin or throat.
When the presentation is over, I untangle my sleeping legs, gingerly putting weight on them, and they shake under me on the way back to the trailer outside the school that is my 5th-grade classroom. My legs are covered in bruises from falling all the time. I’m incredibly clumsy. My mom lovingly calls them chicken legs because they are unnaturally white, skinny, and bony. But it doesn’t matter how skinny and little I am anymore. I know how to pop someone’s eyeballs out.
That afternoon at home, I am straddling my little brother, his arms pinned under the strength of my thighs, and I am spitting in his face while he screams. I let the spit drip slowly from my mouth onto his face, a long string of it, so he can see it coming. My mom sees it coming too and pulls me off him, sending me to my room. I get talked at for an hour by her and then another hour by my dad. You’re almost five years older than he is, they say. Someday, he’s going to be bigger than you, they say. What will you do then?
I cannot imagine a time when my little brother will be bigger than me. Plus, if he’s going to be that big, then I will be faster, I reason. And there’s always my eyeball-popping power.
My 7th-grade health teacher is talking to us about sex. I’m surrounded by pimple-faced thirteen-year-old boys who are sniggering at every mention of genitalia. My friends and I are too mature for that.
The teacher plays a movie. In it, a hot guy, a football player, is getting pumped up during a pep talk by his coach. It’s the homecoming game. He wins the game; he goes to the dance with his equally hot girlfriend, who has huge, teased bangs and even huge-er shoulder pads in her dress. They go back to his dad’s boat with a cabin in the hull, and he has sex with her even while she says no.
The class is silent. I feel something inside I’ve never felt before. I don’t know what it is, then, but later I will learn it’s the melting of my invincibility.
My brother is begging me. “Come on, Shannon!” he pleads. “Come outside and play with me!” I feel a twinge of guilt. I love my brother Ethan; his ten-year-old face is always open and honest. Since his birth, I have been his primary playmate. Although I still spend time with him every day, at fourteen-going-on-fifteen, I have outgrown our imagination games. I no longer want to fight the Snow Queen in the backyard. I shake my head no. “Argh!” he cries, water welling in his eyes. We are on summer break and live out in the country—he has no other friends nearby. Without me, he sees the long hours of the day stretching out in front of him with nothing to do. “I hate you! I want to punch you so bad!” I look at him, half daring him to hit me and half afraid he will. He gives me one last dirty look before turning away, headed for the basement and his Nintendo.
Matt is so gorgeous. We meet at a church dance. I check him out as he walks past me. When he catches me, I decide not to hide it, and instead look at him like, “What? You’re cute. I can look if I want.” We exchange numbers. My parents let us go on a double date since I am sixteen now, and my best friend Jess takes one for the team and goes with Matt’s much-less-attractive friend, Joe. We come up with a crazy idea for the date: an egg-and-tomato fight in the city park.
In the grocery store, the cold air from the dairy case makes my legs erupt in goosebumps, and I wonder, if he touches my legs later, will they feel pokey instead of nice and soft? At checkout, we decide, laughing, to have the boys pay for the tomatoes and the girls for the eggs.
It’s dusk at the park, and we divide ammo and hide before attempting to stealthily attack. I get Matt in the back with two tomatoes. “Cheap shot!” he yells, chasing me.
He catches me in less than fifteen seconds. As he tackles me—the star midfielder of the girls’ soccer team—I remember how, when I was thirteen, I ran a boy down.
He had gotten the ball at midfield, and since my team was in the wrong place, I caught up to him from his team’s defensive position and kept him from scoring. He was the best striker on their team, and my dad was going nuts—red in the face, full of pride for his girl, yelling gleefully from the sidelines, “Get him, get him, YEAH!”
Matt is a video game junkie, not an athlete. Yet that night in the park, catching up to me is easy for him; tackling me even easier. We are both laughing, and I love his hands on my waist, the weight of him over my hips, but then—then I can’t get him off. I bend my legs, twist, and lift my hips, but nothing happens. My laughter becomes high-pitched. I’m scared, but he isn’t letting up. He breaks a dozen eggs into my hair, holding my arms down with one hand while I lie immobilized on the grass in August on my first date.
I had often imagined scenarios where I was kidnapped, and in my mind I always managed to escape, despite the brute strength of the man who took me. I could outwit him, outrun him, outmaneuver him, uneyeball him. But here, in real life, I am powerless.
When Matt has exhausted his ammo, he stands and bends to help me up. The yolks glop down my hair and onto my bare upper arms. We stand there awkwardly. Maybe he knows something is wrong. I definitely know something is wrong—something has shifted. Or perhaps something is as it always had been, but I hadn’t known that truth until now.
Somehow we end up in the fountain at the park with Jess and her date. We rinse off the eggs and tomatoes and go home.
At seventeen, I have a sexy boyfriend, Kris. We park his car in shadowed areas around town to make out. He is sensitive to my comfort level; his hands move slowly across my back, making sure I accept his advances. I feel safe with him. His masculine smell draws me in; it is intoxicating.
I am still unsettled about my powerlessness against Matt. How could I have won against that boy in the park last year, I ask Kris from his passenger seat. If Matt had wanted to hurt me, it would’ve been so easy. I couldn’t do anything, I tell him. It’s all about balance and not power, my all-knowing, sixteen-year-old, pothead boyfriend tells me. If you had just twisted your hips the right way, you could have beat him.
I don’t contradict him even though I know he is wrong.
At college, I can’t decide on a major. You can do anything you set your mind to, my mom tells me. I read articles about women balancing motherhood with careers in male-dominated fields. I hear there are no women in the engineering major, but there should be, and that my school doesn’t have enough female mathematicians. I feel like I should step up for women, but math is my worst subject.
I take a self-defense class one Saturday morning. Our instructor Daniel is short, square, blond, and muscled. He talks for the first hour, and he says to stay safe, the most important part is making good decisions. He tells us some statistics: one in five women are raped, most have long hair—we think it’s because it’s easy to grab onto, he explains. Rapists can pick rape victims out of their high school yearbook photos years before they were raped—we know there’s something that rapists sense in their victims before they choose them, we just don’t know what, he says.
Am I carrying this thing inside me—something only rapists can sense? Something that makes me rape-able?
He teaches us how to walk down streets like we own them, how to project confidence and toughness, to park our cars correctly, to never be alone in the dark, to listen to our gut and walk or run the other way if we feel an “animal-like sixth sense telling us something is not right.” He dons a red padded suit, and I learn how to hit and where. I pound on Daniel’s protected weak spots.
I go to the movies that night feeling like every man there is a potential threat I can now take down. My date and I watch Charlie’s Angels, and Drew Barrymore beats up all the men who cross her.
The next morning I fling off the too-hot blankets and sit up to drink some water. I am wearing shorts, and I notice my legs, still white but no longer so skinny, still bruised but now from others’ soccer cleats. Across from me is a print of my brother’s new wrestling picture; all the members of the high school team get them taken for the yearbook. He has big, broad shoulders, he wins matches, he’s practically balding already. He doesn’t need me to play with him anymore. He likes to joke that he got into wrestling so no one else could ever sit on him and spit in his face. What I did to him was awful, but it’s OK now, just a funny old family story.
My legs and his picture and my guilt and my memories merge, and I realize the only reason my gigantic little brother doesn’t hurt me isn’t because he can’t catch me or because I could overpower him with a few tricks I learned on a Saturday morning—it’s because he chooses not to.
Shannon Cothran is a professional food writer who prefers New England’s clam chowder and ice cream to New Orleans’ gumbo and snowballs.
Image credit: Larm Rmah on Unsplash
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #17.