We went down to the park in the late morning, the time when the sun begins to crest above the Triboro Bridge and douse the playground in light. The rawness of winter had lifted, and the park once again was alive with the sounds of children. My daughter took her striped ball and began kicking it around, into the crowd of kids. I watched her chasing the ball, her slight two-year-old frame zigzagging erratically through the throng of other tiny beings, who were all equally unbalanced and awkward, and who, en masse, resembled an army of demented wind-up toys. She kicked it to a little boy in a yellow cap, who kicked it back, and then without warning she abandoned the boy and the ball and ran toward the playground structure with the steering wheel and began to drive.
“Beep, beep . . . beep, beep,” she screamed, her face diligent and determined to bypass the traffic.
“Beep, beep, ephalent, beep,” she carried on, slipping deeper and deeper into her world of make-believe roads that stretched for miles and miles, roads that would take her over water and through the trees, roads filled with trucks and animals all going to the same place.
And then he appeared: sweaty and snotty and too tall for his six years. “Hey, girls aren’t supposed to drive,” he said and nudged her.
She kept driving, oblivious to him and his disapproval.
“Stop, stop driving. Girls don’t drive,” he said louder.
“Sure they do,” I said, a dumb smile creeping across my face, the kind of smile that happens when people say outrageous things.
“No! No!” he stomped his feet and raised his voice, “Girls aren’t supposed to drive!” His eyes were hard and cold and angry.
“Yes, they are,” I said, no longer smiling.
“NO! NO! Girls don’t drive,” he yelled and pulled her hands off the wheel.
“Hey, don’t touch her.” I grabbed his hand.
“Driving, driving a fire truck,” she said to him.
“No. Girls don’t drive. ONLY BOYS. My father said so,” he shouted in her face, which collapsed in confusion. I suddenly saw her smallness next to him, and I wanted to weep.
Memories of my own girlhood, of wanting to play baseball and being dwarfed by boys who told me, “Girls don’t do this,” came rushing back in big unwanted fragments. My body winced at the recollection of that crude and abiding feeling of injustice, of wanting to show them that girls, this girl, would play baseball. But I always knew deep inside that I wouldn’t; I remember wanting to shatter that feeling of alone-ness, that feeling of being completely and utterly helpless, that feeling of hiding under my own shadow.
For years, I tried to untangle myself from the voices that seemed to keep telling me I couldn’t do something because I was girl, but every time I thought I had silenced them, they came back in some form or another. My seventh grade math teacher, a burly man with missing thumbnails, once told me that my poor math skills were “nothing to worry to about because a lot of girls didn’t do well in math.” So, I spent most of high school failing math, believing that my inability to grasp square roots and long division was in large part due to my girl brain.
Those days seem so far away now, not the emotions, but the reasons; it’s no longer pre-teen boys telling me I can’t play baseball that causes me to feel indignant and helpless, it’s middle-aged men telling me about fetal property rights or half-rapes or non-rapes, and now it’s a rage-filled, snotty, six-year-old telling me and my daughter that girls don’t drive.
I looked at my daughter, who was staring at him walking away.
This is being a girl, I thought.
“Hey,” he turned around and stopped, “tell your father that girls do drive; they drive steam rollers and trains and buses and fire trucks and bulldozers and boats and lawn mowers and scooters and dog sleds and planes and everything else that boys drive.”
“No!” he said staring at me, daring me. “No.”
I looked at him, and I saw that his pants were too short and that his left sneaker had a hole by the pinky toe. In the emerging contours of his face, I saw his boyhood and his manhood, his father, and his grandfather, and I heard the voices of his generations whispering, “Girls don’t drive,” and something inside me broke.
This is being a woman, I thought.