I managed to convince myself that I was a boy, and I made everyone call me Joe. I would have preferred to be called Oscar, like my favourite cartoon character on TV, but at the time Oscar was what we called the skeleton in our biology class, and was also a type of broom with a revolutionary new design. I was okay with being called Joe, even though you had to purse your lips like a chicken’s arse and make a totally boring O sound to say the name. But as long as it didn’t make them think of the Daltons, people would take me seriously.
Like me, my TV Oscar was a girl who dressed as a boy. She was captain of Marie-Antoinette’s palace guard, and she, much more easily than I, could conceal her real identity, under a huge coat that dripped with military medals and royal insignia. Not to mention her fantastic sword with its golden scabbard, her boots and spurs, her magnificent white horse, her piercing, self-confident eyes that were always brimming with tears and glowing with light, and the wind, oh my God, especially the wind, which caused mini-revolutions in her unbelievably long, thick, fly-away hair that whipped around in time with the show’s theme song: “Lady, Lady Oscar, she wears a man’s attire. Lady, Lady Oscar, her fame will ne’er expire.” You can’t have a hero in a Japanese anime without furious gusts of wind, just like you can’t have a plot that doesn’t include a few ransacked villages. Nothing says courage, strength of character, and resistance to the forces of evil like a head of hair blown by the wind but unbowed. Without wind you miss all that, as the Japanese totally get.
But the maze of little concrete streets and alleys in our neighbourhood killed any gust of wind that might have strayed into them. There weren’t many trees, either, apart from a few dead cottonwoods that were easy to mistake for telephone poles, so there was no whipping of leafy branches over the tragic paths of our destinies. And my hair, like my whole body, in fact, was already imbued with the spirit of contradiction. My hair obeyed the rules of gravity to a fault, no matter how insane that drove me, no matter how imperiously I commanded it to be unmanageable. Well, I’d just have to learn to live with it. Oscar became my whole life. I would immerse myself in the show and her terrible fate — every day after school, from 4:00 to 4:24 on the Family Channel — all the while quietly forging my own destiny.
I hadn’t noticed yet that social roles had evolved somewhat since the days of the French Revolution, and so I thought life would be better as a boy, that a pair of male arms would be useful things to have in our family, since we were not very rich. We weren’t poor, exactly, all things considered, but in my romantic mind, eager as I was to see strife and misfortune everywhere, I thought that having a few hardships to endure would make our situation more interesting than if we were a relatively comfortable, middle-class family.
Childhood is short-lived. Fortunately.
I would have preferred growing up in a different epoch, as the early 1980s, all cotton and pastel, didn’t lend themselves very well to heroism. Even the Colonial period would have been better, although what I really wanted was to live in the Middle Ages, which took place so long ago we hardly know anything about them anymore. I associated them mainly with castles and knights in armour, with broadcloth dresses brushing against stone walls and people swooning with platonic love (even though I had no idea what “platonic” meant). In medieval times I would have worked in the fields alongside a man with thick fingers and no teeth, who would have sent me flying with a mighty clap on the back against every stubborn stump stuck in the ground; I would have milked cows first thing every morning, cleared land, planted crops, built outhouses, and scraped callouses off my hands at night while sitting by the fire smoking my pipe. I dreamed of the suffering and what I would have to put up with just to survive. I imagined crossing the ocean in a stinking boat that would move only by the strength of our backs, wandering off course into the frozen Far North, suicidal treks across Siberia, being scarred for life — although not in the face, I still intended to be a beautiful heroine — the terrible thirst that rips at the throat. In all my imaginings I stood faithful and upright, facing into the wind, my legs planted solidly on the ground, my gaze fixed firmly into the red, agonizing sun, my eyes framed by an intricate latticework of telltale creases from all the miseries I had seen. Seeing me fighting the elements, the wind literally tearing off my clothes, anyone would easily gauge the full extent of my courage and strength.
How happy I was. Everything was so simple.