When I was five, I told my father I wanted to change my name from Betsy to Frank. We were driving around on our Saturday afternoon errands that I cherished, singing along with Bob Dylan or Chicago or Linda Ronstadt on cassette. Dad gave his permission right away; he seemed amused, but I meant business.
“I want to be a boy from now on.”
“Tell them my name’s Frank,” I’d whisper to my father if we dined at a restaurant while Mom attended choir practice and we happened to become chummy with the waiter or waitress. And he complied convincingly. Being skinny and sexless, I passed. The name change was not legal, but it began to seem official. My dad, an artistic ad man in his mid-40s, for whom my birth had been something of a shocker, encouraged imaginative play of all sorts. I remember he said he understood my decision to become a boy for the time being, which made it feel important—and completely acceptable.
“This is a big choice,” he said, “but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Frank.”
We agreed to leave my Southern matron mother in the dark, which generally proved easy to do.
In my neighborhood, the boys outnumbered the girls. My nearest friends, Michael and Greg, were six and already knew how to ride their boy bikes without training wheels, and they got to stay out until dusk or later without supervision (while I was due in the tub by seven), and always sported gory scrapes and gashes from outdoor adventures I’d frequently missed out on. I wanted to be a boy, too, to borrow their freedom. I wanted to learn to ride a dirt bike and brake with squealing volume. I still wanted to play schoolhouse with Michael’s little sister, Robyn, who could contribute to our game fairly well, though she was only three, but the possibility of dangerous Star Wars scenarios in Michael’s dark wood-paneled room held more allure.
My much older brother, Patrick, who hated everyone and everything, would leave his own dank man cave to play fast-flying Frisbee with me on days when I wore jeans, a hat, and a rugby shirt, whereas when I allowed my beloved college-attending sister, Jenifer, to dress me in scratchy ruffles and barrettes, he never seemed to offer. He never saw me that way. Around this point, it’s relevant to note, I developed a bizarre, deep-voiced Tom Jones impersonation dedicated to charming my musician brother. Standing on the coffee table, I’d croon, “Why, why, why, Delilah?” until he broke into riotous laughter. He saw me in this masculine way, too.
I saw no reason why I could not effect a very real transformation from girl to boy if I put enough effort into it. For the entire spring, I thought of myself frequently as Frank, and not in name only: I learned to ride my Dirt Squirt dirt bike, a Christmas gift, without its noisy plastic training wheels; I learned successfully to pee standing up, although my mother frowned on the endeavor without inquiring further (“Are you going to clean that up or am I?”); I also learned that I could look exactly like a boy, enough to frighten women and girls in public bathrooms, if I sported a short, slightly crooked bowl haircut (a modification of my typical ‘do, designed by my father) and wore Wranglers and shirts printed with athletic numbers as my play-clothes uniform. As Frank, my outward confidence soared.
The payoff was internal as well. In this disguise, and with my adopted new name, I could run my wiry bowlegs the length of our backyard under the vast Texas sky with my puppy mutt, Alfred, trailing behind me and feel newly like myself, a rowdy kid with a tendency toward mischief and fast action, a creature of my own design who didn’t need a playmate just then, girl or boy, who didn’t need to impress my sister’s serious boyfriend with my polite, ladylike quiet or lure my grumpy brother for a boisterous, bruise-making game of tetherball. For those few backyard moments, I saw the world in such focus; I didn’t need to be seen for once, to be the center of everything, the accident baby who’d proved her amazing, step-right-up-and-buy-your-ticket worth.
As I’d hoped it would, living life part-time as Frank brought me added social acceptance as well. The boys in my neighborhood embraced me as one of their own, with the rare rude exception (“She can’t climb this tree, can she?” to which I’d scramble up the trunk like a chimpanzee). I stood on the toilet watching through the window for Greg to return from his long day of first grade, then sprinted next door in my blue sneakers with the hot yellow stripes and asked him casually what he’d like to do with our afternoon. Greg, an adorable, freckle-faced runt with lightning white hair, always had bad ideas, the kind that made me feel like a good kid in comparison; in fact, I remember feeling specifically like a good girl in his presence, a good girl along for a crazy ride, a girl he’d train to become his accomplice, because I’d done the best I could with costuming and attitude. I remember thrilling over the damage we created.
One afternoon, Greg suggested that we find a way to put some sugar in his stepfather’s truck’s gas tank.
“What will it do?”
“Break the engine,” Greg said.
I had no idea where he came up with this inventive concept, but his stepdad was not the most likeable person, so I was happy to do anything I could to make his day stickier.
“But how can we pour it in?” he asked.
“A straw?” I suggested.
“You got one?”
“My brother has some in his car.”
“No, let’s use a measuring cup, that’s better.” And he was right. You can pour a lot of sugar in a tank that way. The prank was a success, such a success that Greg received a horrible spanking and couldn’t come outside to play for a couple of weeks, during which time I shrugged off my guilt and dropped by Michael’s house uninvited with my Star Wars Landspeeder and numerous action figures in tow. Michael, meanwhile, owned the Millennium Falcon; he had the Cantina; he had every incarnation of Boba Fett; he also had a collection of dozens of stinky cardboard cigar boxes, given him by his war hero grandfather, the perfect dwellings for a dramatic space population like the one we two would soon enough govern. If Robyn, now almost four but still baby-cherubic, asked to join our game, we typically insisted she pretend to be a nonverbal dog in the room, and for that I am sorry.
Greg had been the visionary one to propose and strategize our daily crimes, but I got at least 50 percent of the playtime vote when I engaged with fair-minded Michael, the child of a progressive schoolteacher mother who had trained him to hold Robyn’s hand as they traveled our block, a job he took huge pride in.
In Michael’s room, with Robyn wordlessly looking on, often panting like a pup, eventually I opened my knapsack and withdrew Barbie furniture items, perfect for the elaborate cigar box apartments I saw us constructing.
“Aren’t they fighting spaceships?” Michael asked of the boxes.
“Houses,” I said. “And Princess Leia is the mom.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “Can I borrow a pillow for Hammerhead’s bed?”
As our girlie game got deeper, maybe I wasn’t Frank exactly, but I was myself, as much as I’d been me running beneath enormous cumulus clouds, with Alfred barking like a joyous lunatic. Incidentally, Michael seemed to be having a grand time, too.
That summer, my sister announced that she would marry her boyfriend, Roy. “And I want you to be the flower girl, Bee,” she told me.
“What does that mean?”
“You’ll get to drop petals along the aisle,” my mother explained. “You’ll get to lead the ring bearer.”
“Yes!” I felt so important.
“But,” Mom added, “your sister would like you to grow out your beautiful hair for the occasion.” The offer sounded less great. “How long?” I asked. “Just to here,” my sister said, making a chopping motion against her shoulder. “But it will take months.”
“Do I have to?” They nodded, winking at each other as if to agree I’d be making the ultimate sacrifice—but also to bring me closer to their feminine side of things. Secretly, I didn’t really mind the notion all that much. Secretly, I thought it might be exciting to wear long hair in princess ringlets for a day, not that I ever let on. No, all that broiling San Antonio summer I stuffed my growing locks beneath a Texas Rangers baseball cap. As my brother peeked in with a smirk, I grumbled when I had to be fitted for a pearl gown with blue sash, complaining the dress itched enough to send me to the hospital, but part of me was intrigued by my new camera-ready persona, my switch to this Betsy.
As I grew my hair long, Robyn and I became closer, which was purely coincidental. Michael had swimming lessons or some kind of lessons, I gather, because he would chaperone her to my house, then be on his busy way. (Maybe I’d been a bit too bossy with our games of House, Star Wars-style.) When Robyn and I played, now that she was a little older, we could construct conflict-strewn romantic scenarios for our Barbie dolls and generic Ken dolls to enact. We could rearrange their fancy cardboard townhouse—complete with plastic yellow elevator—three times in an afternoon if we felt like it. If we got tired of their cramped quarters, I might enlist her to help me rearrange the spare furniture and posters in my bedroom, interior design and layout being favorite elements of most every game for me. Summer ended, but we staged our home makeovers and increasingly more provocative Barbie love stories on weekends for years to come.
Greg moved away around this time, and I was by now attending school all day, meeting kids with tons of their own games to share, both boys and girls. But because I was a girl, a fact I’d begun slowly to accept and secretly make peace with, and because I wore store-bought girl clothes to school much of the time and colorful barrettes my mother jammed into my hair, the boys didn’t pay me much mind. Soon, I’d made best friends with a self-possessed girl my age named Rachel who joined our class late in the year. Every weekend we slept over at each other’s house, watching TV till all hours, baking cookies, making up awesome dance moves, drawing and reading, going outside and pretending to be people or animals we were not.
Sometimes I might tell her, “I’m really a boy.”
“I believe you,” she’d reply.
Other days, the thought didn’t occur to me. In the Betsy-Rachel dynamic, I was a confident warrior leading us into the outdoor unknown (I sneaked us into the pool on Greg’s “for sale” property, for example), while she was a budding bookworm who challenged me to sit still and finish longer works. Looking back, our friendship seems less of a female fest, more of a case of opposites attracting, two girls—two little kids—each with something authentically separate to give.
My sister’s wedding came and went. I led the three-year-old ring bearer, Sam, down the red-carpeted aisle, but halfway in, he gave up and threw the ring-balancing pillow to his grandfather. When he did that, and set the whole church laughing, I felt more regal and put together than ever. The highlight of the event, strangely enough, was being told by every member of my family, my brother included, how sweet and cute I looked in my beautiful satin gown, with my long hair curled to bounce as I walked, like a fussy heroine in a fairytale. Perhaps because I’d been bragged on so excessively, I made frowning ghoul faces in most of the group photos—I continually apologize for that behavior to this day.
The very next morning, as Jenifer and Roy began their honeymoon, I sat in a barber’s chair at a cheap men’s shop on Austin Highway waiting for an old man’s scissors to remove my feminine shackles, wondering if I was making the right decision. “You still want to chop it off, Frank?” my father had asked when I returned from my post-reception sleepover at Robyn and Michael’s house. Inside, I wasn’t totally sure. My mother called from the next room: “Oh, I wish you wouldn’t, little Bets—you look so pretty this way.”
“Let her decide,” said my father.
“Definitely, let’s go!” I replied, mostly because it meant I’d get to run errands with my dad. We would probably pick up cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes at McDonald’s. And for a little while longer, until it started to embarrass me, we’d sing off-key with his tape collection and, behind my mother’s back, against my floppy, pale-white ears, he’d call me Frank, the name of the person I’d been for a time, and would always be in certain invisible ways, only because he told me that I absolutely could.