I was walking to the post office this morning, briskly. Bag slung from my shoulder, package under one arm. Suddenly, maybe 20 paces ahead, a guy turned the corner from one street onto mine, heading the same direction as me. The streets of downtown Santa Barbara aren’t exactly teeming with people at that hour on a weekday. Aside from the elderly lady I’d just passed, we were the only two people on this block.
So I studied him, as one does when one can’t be caught looking.
He was young — probably in his early 20s. His hair was so blond it looked white. He was wearing slouchy jeans, a light gray checkered shirt, and a shockingly aquamarine blue Stussy cap, the brim pointed just so.
I’m guessing you know the type.
He gazed around as he walked, glancing behind him once (at which point I pretended to be utterly fascinated by a tree). He didn’t so much walk as he ambled. He had a gunslinger’s stride: everywhere to go, nowhere to be.
I was moving faster than he, and was about to pass by when he abruptly veered towards a concrete block half-wall separating the sidewalk from a parking lot. In one smooth motion, braced his hand on the wall and swung his feet over, clearing it easily. Just like that, he was gone.
Somehow, I almost felt stung. Could I have done that as convincingly as he did? Well, of course not, not with the package I was carrying and the heavy bag on my shoulder. I would have to put those down first. And I am shorter than he was, so I would have had to put a lot more jump into it to make sure my legs got over. Plus I might have to stand back and eyeball it for a minute to get the angle right, and think about my approach, and look around to see if anyone was watching, because god, how embarrassing would it be to go full tilt at a wall in full view of an audience only to smack into it?
Yeah, I could jump it.
But not like he did.
I’m shocked by how comfortably, how effortlessly, men seem to live inside their bodies. Me? It’s a struggle to remember how to move. I keep having to remind myself to relax. Unwrap my arm from its awkward post around my waist, like I’m trying to cover myself up or hold myself in. I walk with purpose, but I don’t move with ease.
Time out for a caveat:
Physical ability is not true for all men, just as physical inability it is not true for all women. In this space I simply speak from personal experience.
Now, time out for a confession:
I get angry at my husband a lot because it seems like he is so goddamned good at everything. Like it comes naturally. Like when he was born, a light shone down from the skies and and bathed him in a golden glow. Yes, a voice said, this one. He shall be blessed with a halo of curls, eyes as blue as dusky mountains at sunset, a smile as wide as prairies — and he shall never know the shame of failure.
This is, of course, patently untrue — well, maybe except the part about the hair and eyes — but that doesn’t seem to stop me from railing against the vast unfairness of it all. Once, I got so mad after he won a game of billiards that I actually kicked him in the shins. This was maybe 23% the alcohol talking, and 77% my private horror, agitation, and disquiet at being confronted with my own limitations. At any rate, I was wearing jellies at the time, so my blows were about as effective as a butterfly landing. See? Another thing I’m apparently bad at.
I should clarify: when I say that the beau is good at everything, I’m specifically talking about sports and other physical activities. Which is just about anything that seems to matter in our social world. Gatherings with friends are always centered around some kind of performance, whether playing ping-pong or shooting pool or throwing darts. Just recently we met a large group of people at a bowling alley. Now, the beau and I have approximately the same amount of bowling experience under our belts, so the playing field was level. I didn’t do too poorly — I was probably among the top five scorers of our group — but the beau was superlative. One game he managed to get five strikes in a row, and the rest were all spares. I managed to choke back my latent rage long enough to ask him how he did it. “I just got lucky, I guess,” he mumbled, shuffling his feet sheepishly as the flashing black light cast a halo around his head and angels sung faintly above the thrumming bowling alley club tracks.
I’ll level with you: I don’t need to win at everything, but I live in utter fear of losing. I suppose that makes me competitive, yes. But over time I’ve come to realize that most of my competitiveness stems from an irrepressible desire to prove everyone wrong. Thanks to gender programming, I knew from an early age that girls weren’t supposed to be good at physical activities, and even at that early age I hated that expectation. The fact that I could throw a ball reasonably well became a point of pride for me, because I thought it would help me show them. Show them that girls aren’t bad at as many things as they think we are.
And then I grew up, and I met someone who moves as confidently as that tall stranger I saw jumping a wall on my way to the post office. And since then every trivial activity in which we engage has become my own personal life-or-death challenge to make that same metaphorical jump. If the beau closes out the bullseyes on the dartboard, I have to close them as well. If he knocks a ball into the billiards pocket, I have to knock one in as well. If he decides to run one more mile, well, I have to match him stride for stride.
And if I don’t, well. That’s on me. They were right all along. I’m just a helpless, hopeless, incapable girl.
I never, ever, not for one second thought I was competitive before I met the beau. I guess I still don’t, because the very thought of having to compete at anything makes my heart beat so hard I can hear it in my ears. But the blind anger I feel at not matching “the boys” at every step betrays me. I understand that I cannot singlehandedly reverse gender stereotypes, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from trying.
And failing, more than I’d ever care to admit.
I don’t know why I feel this way. I suspect that the answer lies somewhere along the indeterminate spectrum between my personality and my feminist ideals. And I don’t honestly know how to deal with it. So I want to ask you: have you ever felt pressure to meet or beat the boys in your life, whether they be your family members, your friends, or your partners? How do you cope with the sting of falling short?
And perhaps more importantly: how do you separate the concept of failing as an individual from failing as a woman?
Is that even possible?