Was it the misogyny, or what I didn’t do that nags me decades later?
My uncle’s comment still drives my aging brain into woulda-shoulda-coulda mode.
It was what I didn’t do to get back at my cousin, and teach my lackadaisical uncle and aunt a lesson.
I’m still kinda pissed, forty years later.
“Dat’s what you get for playing weet boys!”
I have enough to be neurotic about without adding the Fireworks Stunt to my existential angst.
I began pondering the crazy mini-traumas lodged in our brains after reading another Medium writer’s tale of sexual harassment on the school bus.
Her debut into the sexist world for her tween-age self still bothered her twelve or thirteen years later.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how little events can mark us for life, when we often move on from the larger, more serious ones.
What’s done to us by others is what sticks far more than ‘shit happens’. Studies after Hurricane Katrina found survivors were more traumatized by the government’s half-assed heckuva-job-Brownie response than by the hurricane itself.
Hurricanes gonna hurricane, but government officials make choices.
Getting groped by a schoolboy, not knowing what to do about it, or how to make him stop, still stuck in the writer’s craw. I wondered if she’s tormenting herself with the woulda-coulda-shoulda years later, as an adult, thinking now what she should have done?
I can relate. Forty years later, it’s glaringly obvious I should have taken my cousin’s knife. Or hidden it really well.
Ona hot July night my cousin played with my brother and some of the neighborhood boys in the yard. My cousin was the oldest, about 17, and the others were a little younger — my brother was twelve, the other kids in between. I went down to the basement via the outside entrance.
The basement doors slammed shut and locked. I was enveloped in darkness. “Let me out!” I demanded, and of course they didn’t. Boys!
“Come on you guys, cut it out!” I yelled, but they laughed. Exasperated, I groped for a broom I’d seen next to the fridge. My uncle and aunt were upstairs, directly beneath me. I pounded on the basement roof to get their attention.
After a minute or so, they failed to show up. What the hell, had they fallen asleep up there? It was early evening, right after dinner.
“Hey, let’s get a firecracker!” my cousin suggested.
Was he out of his mind???
The others exploded with excitement. He wasn’t serious, was he? Were they really going to throw a firecracker down here? Don’t they understand how dangerous that is?
Boys don’t think, or if they do they don’t care.
They opened the door, tossed a lit firecracker down, and slammed it shut. I felt held hostage. I knew the most important parts of me to protect. I shut my eyes, turned away, and plugged my ears.
The firecracker exploded, as did the boys. How hilarious! They locked The Girl in the basement! Would it have been even funnier if they’d blown a hole in my leg? If I’d been rushed to the hospital with a flesh wound? What if I hadn’t had the forethought to protect my ears and eyes? How funny would it have been then?
The adults didn’t take it any more seriously than the hormone-addled morons.
I ran upstairs to my aunt and uncle, placidly reading on the couch.
“Where the hell were you?” I demanded. “Didn’t you hear me pounding on the basement roof?”
“Oh, is that what that was?” my aunt replied, regarding me over her half-moon reading glasses. “We wondered where the noise was coming from.”
I exploded. I named my cousin, their son, as the ringleader and instigator.
My French uncle’s reaction? He laughed.
“Well, dat’s what you get for playing weet boys!”
“I WASN’T PLAYING WITH THEM!” I yelled. “I went downstairs to get a soda! And even if I had been, it doesn’t matter, what they did was dangerous! Don’t you understand? I could have been blinded, my hearing could have been damaged, it could have hurt my leg!” They laughed the whole thing off and told me to forget about it. My cousin didn’t get in trouble.
I’ll take his knife, I thought.
The Family Shuffle to accommodate our visit left me in my cousin’s bedroom, who moved upstairs to share bunk beds with my brother in the furnished attic. We’d celebrated my cousin’s birthday a few days previously, and he’d gotten some special knife he’d really wanted. I forget what was so awesome about it. Probably it was some sort of Swiss army knife.
It was on his dresser. I decided to take it home to Ohio and call him to say I’d bring it back next year.
Maybe that would teach him a lesson.
But as I thought about it, the more I considered this would backfire on me with the unsupportive adults.
When I told my parents about it, implicating my brother but still holding my cousin primarily responsible, they were sympathetic and my brother got scolded, but they wouldn’t confront my uncle and aunt about my cousin. My mother didn’t think it was her place, as the in-law. My father looked up to my aunt, who’d been a bit older and sort of a second mother to him, and he would never stand up to her.
My parents’ wimpiness didn’t help. But what really bothered me was my uncle’s comment. “Dat’s what you get for playing weet boys!”
We didn’t talk about misogyny and male privilege back then. We accepted oh, ha ha, boys will be boys. Society didn’t yet recognize toxic masculinity starts early, accompanied by sexual harassment. No one yet realized tolerating sexist behavior in children often cements male entitlement for life.
Girls were expected to grin and bear it, get over it and move on.
I sat on my cousin’s bed, still burning with righteous anger over the lack of empathy and concern for my safety. This wasn’t a silly, annoying boyish prank; my cousin should have been punished for putting me in danger. I kept thinking about my sight, my hearing, the permanent scar on my leg I might have gotten.
A lifetime of summer vacations with my misogynist cousin acting like a little dick flooded back.
Like not allowing me into his treehouse because it’s ‘no girls allowed.’ My aunt argued with him but didn’t make him come down if he was going to act like that, and she was a girl.
“Why does she let him do this?” I asked my mother. I was only five or six at the time.
“Shouldn’t she tell him to let me come up too, or he has to come down?”
That’s exactly what my mother would have done. I knew it. But she woul