DeenaByrne.com
Author.Traveler.Eater

Essays

I've written a bunch of nonfiction essays as an as-yet unpublished collaboration with my sister I wrote several years ago. Read on and let me know what you think!

Girly girl

My Sunday school class was an unapologetic sausage fest, as I was the sole pupil in my grade without a Y chromosome. Rather than rally in the obvious potential of the situation, i,e, the boyfriend possibilities, or the chance to get firsthand insight into the prepubescent male psyche, I felt isolated due to my lack of wang. I dreaded attending, and my mother’s frustration mounted as I became increasingly reluctant to abandon my Barbie-filled sanctuary in favor of the weekly testosterone gathering in the 3rd grade classroom at my synagogue’s religious school.

My mom relayed our weekly struggle to one of her good friends, who was a preschool teacher as well as member of the synagogue. She took pity on me, and began teaching Sunday school for my grade in order to add some much-needed Estrogen to the male-dominated age group. From then on, the males and I ceased our unofficial gender battle, and we began to co-exist in peaceful harmony. At least until middle school, when hormones were rampant and things got awkward, but I digress.

As a child, I tried my hardest to emulate my big sister, a girl who reportedly emerged from the womb with a graceful tour jeté. The two of us shunned the “Lost Boys”-type group that had taken shape in our childhood neighborhood, and instead favored roller skating and creating elaborate identities with our respective doll collections. We took dance lessons our entire lives and behaved like a Lisa Frank fan club with our affinity for all things pink, purple and dotted with unicorns. We watched “Days of our Lives” with our mom, and often strutted around the house with sock bosoms and high heels long before adolescence. We were hyper-feminine, there was no denying it.

I took things to the next level, as I’ve always been fond of doing, and refused to wear pants once I reached the very decisive age of two. My mom had to resort to putting leggings under my skirts and dresses, because pants had no place in my wardrobe even during the winter. Come middle school, I began my t-shirt boycott, declaring that anything cotton with a crew neck “reminds me of a man.” With my colorful painted nails, giant earrings and hair accessories, my chances of being mistaken for a man were slim to none. Alas, I only began to re-integrate t-shirts into my wardrobe recently, and even now I wear them sparingly, at most.

Flash forward a few years, when my sister started dating, and would eventually marry, a man’s man. He loathed shopping, soap operas and hair product, was extremely athletic, and doubled my petite sister in height and frame. While my sister and I kept a neat, tastefully decorated condominium in college, her boyfriend was living in a house boasting a “Man’s Room” and scarcely any soap in the bathroom. The front door was never locked, and the low-key house was a great comfort to many. It was a veritable revolving door of roommates and frequent visitors, most of whom took no issue with the stained, secondhand couches and various neon liquor signs adorning the right wall in the Man’s Room.

“Do you think anyone has ever peed on the couch?” I whispered to my sister, as I perched cautiously on the armrest during one of my first visits to the house. “Someone has to have puked on it drunkenly at some point, at the very least.”
She laughed at my paranoia, but made no point to dispel my fears. She was no couch fluid expert, after all, so I decided to regard my suspicions as truth from that point forward.

My future brother-in-law slept on a full-size mattress on the ground, stripped of all linen save for a fitted sheet that always looked as if it were meant for a twin size. Though he generally rotated between maybe five declarative t-shirts, such as “Nurses call the shots” and “Philosophy: I’m in it for the money,” his modest room was crammed full with clothes. He didn’t bother with décor, although I distinctly remember a furry tribal mask hanging from his doorknob and posters of John Lennon and Weezer on his walls. It was a man’s room, pure and simple; miles away from my sister’s purple flowered terrain.

Needless to say, my sister and I were out of our elements in the house that would never know a female’s touch. The few females who felt most at home there could funnel beers with the boys and not only laughed at, but participated in, Dutch Ovens. One frequent female house guest was fond of flicking her cigarette ashes on the carpet and drinking directly from the water filter. I mean her mouth was actually on the spout, contaminating the “purified” water. I once witnessed another female using the bathroom, and one of the guys purposely walked in on her. She started laughing good naturedly, while I looked on in horror. From that point forward, I took to using that bathroom only when urgent, at which point I would hold the door closed with determined force.

I had a sneaking suspicion that my mom wouldn’t jump to my aid as readily as she had a decade prior, so it was up to me to bury, or at least conceal, my tendency to succumb to bouts of extreme prissiness. The first of many tests came with the Halloween party I attended with many members from the aforementioned testosterone-abounding group. Few of us realized we were attending a costume party, as it was the weekend prior to the holiday. And, save for the one member who put a reel of VHS tape in his mouth and used a Sharpie to draw VCR buttons on his face, we were in regular, casual house party attire.

Much to my chagrin, the party turned to impromptu mud wrestling in the backyard, headlined by two girls who stripped down to their skivvies and provocatively pawed at each other in wang-raising fashion. One of the girls in our group jumped in the pit in her bra and boxers, exhibiting fine southern hospitality by asking me to join. I politely declined, and tried to hide behind one of my guy friends to avoid mud splatter, to no avail. My white halter top, white flip flops and light washed jeans all fell victims to a muddy sheen, but I blinked back tears like the brave guy’s girl I was trying to be. I excused myself to the restroom, attempting to scrub the mud at least out of my once unblemished white shirt. Unfortunately, the bathroom was occupied by no fewer than three co-eds, none of whom were concerned enough about my muddy situation to exit the bathroom in a timely fashion. By the time I was allowed to enter, I had maybe 30 seconds of un-interrupted scrubbing before drunken party guests started demanding to use the facilities.

Needless to say, my entire outfit was laid to rest later that night, when my friend finally took me home long after the last of the party stragglers had gone. It would be months before I fully mourned the loss of my mud-drenched clothes. I’m not proud. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, when fashion fell victim as I attempted to abandon my prissy upbringing in favor of rough outdoor activities. I went against nature in my attempt to know nature, if you will.

My only exposure to the great outdoors as a child was watching “The Parent Trap” ad nauseum, so my future as an outdoorsman was starting to look bleak. I would have become a Girl Scout, but I always thought my extravagant hair bows would clash with the drab brown uniforms. The thought of abandoning my hair bows was appalling, so I quickly rejected that idea. In an attempt to hone my survival skills, I took a cue from my neighbor as we began to climb trees in her backyard. Of course, I was wearing my new flowered bodysuit with the faux pearl buttons, and it was not exactly tree-appropriate. When my mom discovered I had been hugging bark for several hours that day, she went apeshit, to put it kindly.

“You could have snagged your bodysuit, is that what you were trying to do?” She asked me incredulously.

I apologized, hung my head in shame, and metaphorically hung up my Park Ranger hat. My brief flirtation with the great outdoors was, well, brief.

Or so I thought. The aforementioned mud incident could be written off as happenstance, as I had not attended the party with the prior knowledge I would leave a muddier version of myself. One of my sister’s friends instituted an event soon to become an annual tradition, and I entered college in its second year. The aptly titled “ho down” was basically a giant nature love fest, as she invited several friends out to her parents’ many acre ranch upstate to engage in such events as the potato sack run, three-legged race, hayride and country music-themed karaoke. Her parents catered soul food such as collard greens, brisket and cornbread, and we were encouraged to bring sleeping bags to sleep in around the bonfire. Despite my appreciation for her family’s hospitality and the great bonding to be had on that ranch, I was less than comfortable being at one with nature. Each year I attended, I claimed to require use of the facilities several times, while I actually made a beeline for the car to touch up my powder and lip gloss. And yes, I am the girl who has always worn, and will always wear, makeup to the beach. I put on a brave, albeit heavily made up, face and participated in all the activities, though.

I had to draw the line at sleeping around the bonfire after my first year, because it was mid-November and I awoke doing a low budget imitation of Lucy Ricardo in the episode where she gets trapped in the freezer. One of my subsequent years, my sister, her future husband and I huddled under the carport overnight, which we deemed superior as it shielded us from the wind. I attempted to piggyback spoon for warmth, which was surprisingly not as comforting as it may sound. We were soothed to sleep by the far-off sounds of the infamous guy friends, who were entertaining themselves with some creative drunk dialing around the bonfire. Though the concrete carport was far from a king-sized Serta, and less comfortable than outdoors, we were relieved to have chosen it that night. The drunk dialing ringleader had fallen asleep in his sleeping bag too close to the fire, and awoke sans sleeping bag with a charred black spot to his immediate left. It seemed his sleeping bag was claimed by the campfire while the ho-downers slept, and his body remained unscathed. Also, a chair was claimed that night by the fire. We were relieved to be the hundreds of feet away in the safety of the carport, so as not to be mistaken for firewood. Anyways, ho down stole my nature innocence, but I still didn’t like it.

The guy friends I surrounded myself with were avid surfers, often waking in the middle of the night to drive to the beach when the waves were at their optimum heights. As a reformed connoisseur of everything Roxy, I was no stranger to giving off the impression of a surfer. I loved driving in cars with boards strapped to the roof, because at the very least, passing cars could look in and assume one belonged to me. In my deluded mind, the boards and boys who rode them increased my beach street cred. Of course, I had no intention of actually mastering the sport, and instead accepted every beach invite that came my way. My sister and I usually lay on our towels or walked around with our fellow non-surfers, while the boys caught waves for upwards of three to four hours at a time.

It was an ideal arrangement. That is, until the day when my sister could not attend the trip and I was the sole non-surfer going. It did not dawn on me that I would be left alone to sunbathe until we reached our destination, and the boys all made a mad dash for the decidedly more attractive waves. I decided to make the most of my situation, strategically placing myself near neighboring non-surfers with the most preferable beach music. I was just starting to enjoy myself when a massive shadow came between me and the sun. I opened my eyes in irritation, and was accosted by the image of a grey-haired gentleman standing directly above me.

“Hello, how are you doing today?” He asked casually, as if I were a pedestrian and he, a mere passing guard.

“Good,” I said cautiously, purposely not inquiring about the state of his well-being.

“Would you like to go to lunch with me?” He asked, cutting to the chase as those in their golden years generally do.

Horrified, I claimed that my “boyfriend,” AKA my soon to be brother-in-law, would not appreciate me cavorting with a random septuagenarian who approached me as I was midway through tanning my front side. He was more persistent than I appreciated, but I ultimately managed to quell the desire that was preventing my tanning station from being successful.

The boys had a laugh about the single’s bar type atmosphere that had come into being in their absence, but I vowed never again. Just like that, the next beach trip marked my foray into the world of surfing. My friends first taught me to duck dive, which I only mastered after several failed attempts and subsequent thrashing courtesy of the waves. Once they decided I was ready to stand, one friend hoisted me up on the board while another friend steered my upper body and the board simultaneously. I was instructed to simply stand with knees bent, a feat that proved impossible for me to master. A few too many times, my board went flying, and often returned only to, cruelly, crash into me. When I was justly bruised both physically and in place of my former pride, I decided to call it a day. I much preferred lying on my board, beach towel-style, at the edge of the shore.

My most significant turn on the road to becoming less prissy happened the summer after sophomore year of college, when I randomly decided to be a camp counselor for the entire summer. I had never attended sleep away camp in the past, and had really never been so far from home (the camp was an entire state away, in Georgia) for such an extended period of time. Also, I never lived in the dorms in college, so that was to be my first true test of survival in communal living. I invested in a pair of $5 shower shoes, yet still packed several pairs of four inch heels, and headed for the hills. I was put in charge of the 12-year-old campers and shared a room with two co-counselors.

My transformation happened slowly, as I continued to blow dry my hair straight each day of the first session. I soon became known as “Barbie” by all my campers due to my grooming, and I suppose the bright pink high heels didn’t help my case. I snuck away while the campers were doing activities to touch up my hair and makeup, and I was no stranger to midday clothing changes. And, though I bought six pairs of shorts prior to camp, they never saw the light of day as I lived in my more stylish jeans and ballet flats all summer. It was a religious camp, so the weekly services were a convenient excuse to don the heels and tread all over the rocky camp terrain in them. I was disinterested in the typical rustic macaroni and cheese and shredded chicken they served as camp food, and instead I frequented the salad bar daily. Eating lettuce and raw vegetables conveyed a daintiness that was not possible with the “manly” former, so I avoided the unnecessary misconceptions one faces when she indulges in shredded chicken.

Midway through first session, I learned that we were to attend an overnight at a camp site nearby. We were to hike there, sleep in tents for a night, and hike back the following morning. I immediately tried to get out of the overnight, citing lack of experience and disinterest to my head counselor, aiming for sympathy and a get-out-of-overnight-free card. I was less than successful, so I prayed for rain to be my savior. As luck would have it, the rain started pouring down the evening we were supposed to depart. Of course, my plan backfired, and we were sent to camp despite the rain. Rather, I had to lead 17 12-year-olds through pouring rain and accumulating mud to the camp site, each of us slipping and sliding all the way there.

By the time we arrived, everyone was filthy and miserable, and my campers refused to go to sleep. As the rain continued to come down steadily, I coaxed the cranky campers to retire to their tents in order to spend some quality time with my fellow co-counselors. The campers were disobedient for a while, and one asked my advice on how to dispose of a sanitary pad in the woods. In the rain. It was LOVELY.

At night time, I bundled myself into a makeshift fort in the tent, determined not to allow any insects into my sleeping bag. As a result, I awoke at sunrise with a Daddy Longlegs staring me in the face. My co-counselors each slept peacefully across from me, both unconcerned with the accumulated dew on their glasses and probably countless creepy crawlies in their respective sleeping bags.

“Are you feeling as peaceful as we are?” One of them asked me, without a trace of irony, as we packed up the site. I huddled in my poncho while the rain continued to beat down, feeling as if I was missing the joke.

“Yeah, this was great,” I lied, looking for acceptance which I would never find with my nature-loving co-counselors.

The rain did eventually stop, but only after we returned to camp, naturally. I was free to resume my daily hair straightening regimen and strategic cosmetic application, but I was disinterested. Though I did not enjoy my forced overnight rendezvous with nature, I had survived! Something within me shifted, and I began to wear my hair naturally curly and lessen the makeup re-applications. Then I started to actually eat the camp food, which surprised even me. Not to say I enjoyed it every time, but I decided to make the best of what I had. I left that summer more laid back, relaxed, and fatter than I had ever been. And I wouldn’t change it for anything.

The several years post camp have been challenging, as I’m often warding off outbreaks of prissiness. From my occasional camping trips in college in which I was dubbed “Nature Girl” for my slight aversion to nature to my struggles with less than sanitary roommates, I have come a long way from the isolated third grader who refused to associate with those with wang. I can’t claim to be a fully reformed former priss, for I would still wear high heels in a camp setting. I may pack one less pair though, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t incredible progress.