I recall being Dracula on Halloween for three consecutive years, from about six to eight. First there was the Woolworth’s plastic mask, elastic string and all, then makeup and those false fangs that are connected at the jaw. They would cut my gums if I wore them for too long, but then I could spit real blood. There are pros and cons to everything.
Vampires were only one obsession. The family says I was all boy, stomping around pretending to be a T-Rex or snarling like the Wolf Man. Comic book heroes should have come next, but I had already started watching Clash of the Titans and the Sinbad films and pretty much anything involving mythology, muscles, and Ray Harryhausen claymation. Even after I started reading X-Men, I didn’t put it together until adulthood that superheroes and -villains are just modern versions of the gods, goddesses, and stygian beasts that patrolled the fantasy worlds of the ancients.
Mythology, even the true legends of the dinosaurs, gave me something to think about besides the powerlessness of childhood. The “all boy” label faded as I got older. Made to feel inferior to my peers for my sensitivity and complete lack of interest in sports (“Don’t duck! Catch the ball!”), I luxuriated in fantasies of being a full-blooded god, perhaps an agricultural one who could manipulate plants and animals to do his bidding. It never occurred to me that the male gods were rarely the ones who could command vines or wolves. It was goddesses like Artemis who did that.
My mother, the librarian at my elementary school, would bring home guides to world mythology. I read the Egyptian book, a particular favorite of mine, frequently. To be like Osiris and rise from the dead, blue-skinned and elegant; to be like Thoth and know the secrets of magic as well as science; these were aspirations that I couldn’t believe other boys didn’t hold. Who would want to be the Hulk and go around hitting things, when Atum could create life out of words? The Egyptian gods and goddesses were intriguing. After all, Osiris not only rose from the dead, he wore eyeliner and jewelry.
That’s why I gravitated to the Egyptian pantheon. There’s something not effeminate, but classically feminine about those gods. They’re subtle. They know the secrets of life and death, not just how to throw a lightning bolt down from the clouds. For the Egyptians, a god’s softness was refined. This wasn’t queer; it was regal. I began connecting power and prestige with the trappings of feminine gender in my already eccentric nine-year-old head. I have never felt like a girl in the transsexual sense, but as a kid I felt as though life would’ve been easier if I were born female, or at least godlike. I could read or play make-believe all the time rather than have to play games that involve being knocked down. No one would even notice.
I had other reasons to identify power with femininity. My father, a cinematographer, was away on business half the time, off in some exotic location like Australia or Belgium, filming episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. He got to be like Indiana Jones, plunging into Mayan temples. I wanted so badly to go with him. Instead, I spent long stretches of time with my mother, being raised by her, by my sister, and by an interchangeable cast of aunts and godmothers. Associating femininity with authority has, as a result, always seemed natural to me. Mom was in charge and perpetual, while dad was elusive and glamorous.
One afternoon, my mother surprised me by saying, “Guess what? We’re going to sleep over at Aunt Min’s!” If I was nine, Aunt Min would’ve been eighty-four. She is my mother’s aunt, but due to the unfortunate deaths of all of my grandparents by the time I was eight, Aunt Min has been the only grandmother I’ve really known. I love her tenderly, but sleeping over at her apartment in Margate, Florida was the equivalent, on the fun scale, of having a slumber party in the waiting room of a podiatrist’s office. Margate is the sort of retirement community where nothing exciting has ever happened. Even death is expected. It is the antithesis of a Mayan ruin.
For thrills, I used to wait until my mother and aunt were absorbed in vodka screwdrivers and conversation, then I’d sneak into Min’s bedroom and open her bottom drawer. This is where she keeps her prosthetic breasts. Aunt Min had a mastectomy decades ago, and she keeps several silicone falsies. I loved to poke them and feel the fake nipples.
“Pack your own overnight bag. Don’t forget clean clothes for tomorrow, and don’t forget your toothbrush.” My mother loomed in my bedroom doorway and smiled at me with her thin lips, her curly brown hair filling up the doorframe. She probably wore a dark, one-piece suit with a red plastic belt gathered just below her breasts. It was the eighties, and she has never looked more fashionable.
I was thrilled to be packing my own bag. Finally, a little autonomy. I had been speaking in complete sentences since the age of two, but my mother hadn’t trusted me to pack my own luggage until then. I set about collecting all the essentials: two Ninja Turtles, two villains, minimal weaponry (no vehicles necessary), one mythology book, toothbrush, socks, t-shirt, shorts, and a yo-yo just in case I got bored reading and smashing Michelangelo into Shredder.
Soon we were in the car, driving the hour that took us from North Miami Beach to Margate. I tried to read my book but it has always been difficult for me to read in the car. The vibrations and bumps make the fine print bumble all over the place. My mother gave me gum to chew so I wouldn’t get car sick. Not that I’ve ever been car sick, but my mother thought that reading in the car would do it. I chewed the gum. I rarely disobeyed my mother. Disappointing her or worse, angering her, is a fear I carried with me for years into adulthood, an ice cube in my shirt pocket.
We got to Min’s and rang the special doorbell, one that played a variety of chimes from “Pop Goes the Weasel” to the traditional Japanese “Sakura.” After much shuffling, Min’s fifty or so inches of navy blue Ralph Lauren and puffy, snow-white hair opened the door. My mother has always had a key, but Min is a feisty old lady and does as much as she can for herself.
This particular evening, Aunt Min was still young enough to bake me chocolate chip cookies from scratch, something she has since given up now that she’s nearly blind. Despite pleading, I was never allowed to eat one before dinner. Even though I was starving, I knew I’d have to wait a queen’s reign before dinner was set before me at the China Doll restaurant and lounge, our usual eating place.
I brought my overnight bag with me into the bathroom and stripped down past my Ninja Turtle briefs. It was impossible to find Anubis underwear, or I’m sure I would have been that geeky kid with the Egyptian jackal god of mummification plastered across his tokhes. Towards the end of a lingering shower, during which I pretended that my action figures were fighting in a real sewer, my mom knocked on the door and said, “You’ve been in there for ten minutes. Wash up and get out.” I did as I was told.
After toweling off and rummaging through my bag, I found that I had failed to pack underwear. I can’t remember if I’d ever gone commando before that night. My mother insisted that I always wear underwear, something my father finds ridiculous. I asked her once why it was necessary to wear undergarments in summer in Miami.
“Underwear is there to catch the drips after you pee, or if you have to go so bad you start leaking. You will wear underwear, because no one wants to see drops of pee on the front of your shorts.”
Once, I was waiting at elementary school for my babysitter to pick me up, not wanting to run to the restroom and possibly miss her car and worry her. I had to be waiting where my mother told me to be. So I had a little accident. At age seven. Luckily, I had been given my science fair project display board back that day, and I was able to stand behind it and hide my shame. Wearing underwear didn’t help me that day.
My mother has also told me that women urinate just a little when they sneeze, particularly if they’ve ever had a baby. I don’t know if this happens to most women, or just to my mother. Her odd bodily issues and stranger explanations for mysterious phenomena (such as the reason why dogs in white neighborhoods bark at black people– because dogs like garbage, and black people take the garbage away) have convinced me that I cannot believe anything she ever told me. This may be another reason that I see something like gender as arbitrary. In my home, reality was a subjective thing.
The need to wear underwear was not arbitrary to my mother. I had to hide the fact that I wasn’t wearing any, and I did a good job of that until the car ride back to Aunt Min’s after dinner. The taste of crab rangoon still tangy in my mouth, I tried to hold this information in, but at nine years old I just didn’t have the power too. I suppose I just wanted to see what would happen.
“Mom, I forgot to pack underwear.”
“Evan, I told you not to forget anything when I let you pack your own bag!”
“I’m sorry, I forgot! I’m not used to packing for myself!”
Or ordering my own meal at dinner, for that matter.
“So are you wearing the same dirty underwear you wore all day, after you took your shower?”
“No. I’m not wearing underwear.”
In the rearview mirror, my mother frowned. Despite the subsequent silent treatment, I had to hide my impish grin, knowing I had trapped her and that she wouldn’t make me put on my used underpants. I could feel my boy parts airing out.
When we returned to Min’s apartment, I helped my great aunt through the door and she began puttering in the kitchen. I followed my mother as she immediately went to the guest bedroom to check through my overnight bag. She’s no different than most folks, having to look for herself to prove that something is true. I guess that if I couldn’t be trusted to remember underwear, I also couldn’t be trusted to find them in a three-gallon Transformers knapsack if I had packed them after all.
My mother sighed and left the room. When she returned, she threw something the color of champagne down on the guest bed. It landed without making a sound.
“Put these on.” I can’t disassociate my mother’s words from the same line that Dr. Frank-n-furter says to Brad and Janet early in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, only he is describing lab coats: “Here, put these on. They’ll make you feel less, ahem, vulnerable.”
They were Aunt Min’s satin panties, all stretched out from her octogenarian hips and buttocks.
My mother stalked off, probably for an orange juice and vodka to calm herself down. I giggled with discomfort, the way you let out and then stifle an involuntary laugh when someone tells you particularly ripe news, like when my cousin was caught spray-painting giant cocks on the wall of his high school.
I was faced with a decision. Should I hide the panties and pretend to be wearing them, or just put the damn things on? I wondered if my mother would check. She was known to do such things, tug at the elastic of my shorts to peek in and see if I was indeed wearing underwear. I went into the bathroom and put the panties on.
I kept laughing quietly. The act was so transgressive, though I had no idea what that word meant at that age. My stomach was juiced to the rind. I was actually going to put on panties and wear them all night. Satin panties. Satin panties that, until two minutes ago, had belonged to an eighty-four year old. But they were my panties now.
I didn’t feel frightened or ashamed. In fact, remembering the sensations that trembled through my body, it was almost exactly what I felt when I inserted tabs of LSD into my mouth for the first time. What if I hate it, and can’t stop it? Then again, what if I love it?
I did. They felt delightful.
The gloss of the material was cool against my bottom and my front parts, too. The elastic barely held them around my waist and they drooped around me like, well, like granny panties on a nine year old boy. The rest of the night passed without turbulence, and I finally got to eat those homemade scratch cookies before climbing into bed and scooting back and forth for an hour, first on my back, then on my belly.
My father returned from Borneo or Brussels or wherever they’d sent him to record the confessions of alien abductees. My mother and I hadn’t spoken of the incident, except when she asked me to give her the panties after I changed, “as soon as you get in the house!” To this day, I don’t know if Aunt Min was aware of what happened.
Mom, Dad, and I sat at the table the night of his return, while he told us of his latest adventures. I don’t know if he realized how much I envied him. He always brought back souvenirs, like poster etchings of Tasmanian devils or, once, a wooden skeleton the size of a toddler, for which he was stopped at customs between Jamaica and the U. S.
Having learned exactly what happens when I let information slip at the wrong moment, I kept the panty raid to myself. I really wanted to say something right then, during dinner, and see what would happen. I guess I felt sorry for my dad, knowing that he would eat his own socks when he heard about it.
Plates washed, two more homemade cookies eaten, and then off to shower again. I waited all the way into the next day to deliver the news. My father was in the den, clad in his usual Hawaiian shirt and shorts. My mother was out.
“Whatcha doin, Dad?”
“Nothing, buddy, what’s up?”
“Is it okay not to wear underwear?”
"Of course, don’t be silly.”
“Oh. Mom doesn’t think it’s okay.”
“Well, your mother has some rules that she likes you to follow. You know you don’t have to wear underwear under your clothes if it’s just you and me and it’s a hot day.”
“Okay. Um, can I tell you about something?”
“Of course. Did you have an accident?”
Why was I still in danger of having accidents in the third grade?
“No, I’m okay. But...”
I told him the story, setting up the situation of the forgotten underwear, thinking that Mom would let me do without just once, and then I got to the part about the panties.
“You’re kidding.” This is my father’s reaction to all uncomfortable news. It’s not an accusation; it’s a rhetorical device he uses to stall for the extra seconds it takes him to avoid a knee-jerk reaction.
“Nope. She really made me wear Aunt Min’s panties.”
I believe that, at that moment, he was thinking about the time he was spending away from us, pulling us up from the near-poverty in which we lived when I was a baby to being firmly middle class. All his time on the road, lugging camera equipment, working sixteen hour days sometimes, making the money so that we could have nice things, did it all just amount to his absence? All his hard work and while away, his wife made his only son wear panties. He couldn't have foreseen that as a teenager and on into my twenties, I would be a cross-dressing Miami club kid, just as likely to go out dressed as Cupid as Kali or Medusa. He couldn't have known that this was only the beginning my own mythology.
He sighed, then said only, “I’m sorry.”
|...return to Table of Contents|