Argumentum Ad Infinitum
There are a lot of things I can’t do because I’m a girl. I can’t be outside of the house after dark. I can’t walk home from school alone. I can’t ride my bike downtown. Most importantly, I can’t make many decisions about what I can and can’t do, because girls don’t know what’s good for them.
I also can’t put my finger on the biological button that separates me from my brother, Ryan. I’m ten years old, which is old enough to understand the physical differences between the two of us. I know he has a penis, but I’m not sure why that grants him access to freedoms I’m disallowed. Sure, he’s three years older than I am, but when Ryan was my age, he rode his bike wherever he wanted and never had to account for his whereabouts when the sun set as long as he was home for supper.
“Please can I walk to Kim’s house after school tomorrow,” I implore my father.
Kim is my best friend — and also a girl — who lives a mile or so away from our house. Her parents both work, which means her house is free from watchful eyes every day after school until five o’clock. We can try on makeup, play dress-up, and gossip about the boys from our class. She has her own key to her house and permission to make snacks in the microwave.
My own mother hasn’t worked since she had kids and left her secretarial job. Mom spends most days doing laundry, vacuuming and ironing my dad’s button-down work shirts. She’s always home after school, hovering just within earshot of any conversations I’m having with my friends. I don’t want to bring Kim to our house.
“No,” says my father sternly. “You can’t go walking around town by yourself or you’ll end up kidnapped or murdered.”
“But Ryan gets to go hang out with his friends on the whole other side of town,” I reason. “He’s still alive.”
Ryan is smirking across the kitchen table from me. I know he relishes his superiority over me, both in age and in gender. I can read the smug anticipation on his face as he awaits my father’s reply. He sits back in his chair and pushes his paper napkin aside to make room for the dinnerplate my mother is about to serve him.
“Ryan is a boy,” Dad points out.
“But why does that matter?” My voice is rising, my cheeks are flushing.
“It just does,” Dad mutters. “Can we eat, please?”
There are things I can do as a girl, however, that don’t seem to be recommended to boys. Mom says when I grow up I can be a nurse, a nice job for women to have. They get to take care of people, which is important. Dad sometimes asks me to type up his reports for work since he isn’t particularly good at typing himself, maybe because he’s a man. He hands me pads of yellow, legal-size paper with his title-case scrawl that I turn into well-formatted, typed documents. He misspells a lot of words, which I correct for him. Dad says I would make a great secretary, just like my Mom was when they first got married.
At school I seem to have more options than I do at home. In social studies class, our teacher says someday there will be a woman president. It’s hard to believe when I look at all the photos of people who’ve so far made it into our history books. They’re mostly men celebrated for bravery, even if they did things we consider bad now, like own slaves or kill indigenous people. I’m not sure I want to be president if I have to do so many bad things to get into the Whitehouse.
Two years ago my third-grade teacher Ms. McClay said I’d make a wonderful writer since I loved to learn words. I had worked my way through the entire spelling textbook before Christmas break, so when I came back in January, Ms. McClay made me custom spelling lists throughout the second semester. She taught me melodious words that were like songs in my ears: “epiphany,” “serendipity” and “sanguine.” I used them in letters I wrote to my pen pal in Wyoming and in the short stories I crafted and kept hidden under my bed. Later that school-year Ms. McClay suggested to my parents that I skip a grade or two, but my parents thought that would make me uncomfortable, and the idea definitely seemed to make my parents uncomfortable. I guess moving ahead is another thing girls can’t do.
My friends, like Kim, aren’t as aware of the restrictions on our gender that I am. Kim plays basketball, a sport I understand to be reserved for boys. Not that I have much interest in sports anyway, but on TV I’ve only ever seen men throwing balls around courts and fields. Women are cheerleaders or ice skaters or gymnasts. Mom says female athletes are elegant and lithe, not fast and powerful, which is why they’re not on the basketball court. I’m not particularly athletic in any sport, maybe because I’ve never had many chances outside of gym class to try dribbling or throwing. My favorite sport in gym class is square dancing, but they don’t have a team for that in the afterschool program.
Since I’m not on a team, I have to go home every day after school and watch soap operas with my Mom or help her do housework. I usually get bored and read a book alone in my bedroom. Girls have some amazing adventures in books, like time-traveling and crime investigations. Meg from A Wrinkle in Time is my favorite character because she ventures so valiantly into the unknown ether of the universe to save both her father and her brother from malevolent forces. (“Malevolent!” Another melodious word!)
As much as I love tagging along with Meg on her adventure into a wormhole, I’d rather be having my own adventures with my real-life friends. So, when Kim invited me to her house on her day off from basketball practice, I became adamant I would take advantage of the opportunity.
“I don’t care what you say,” I proclaim. “I’m walking to Kim’s.”
“No,” Dad retorts. “You ain’t.”
“Maybe I can just pick you girls up after school and you can play here,” interjects Mom.
My face feels as hot as the steaming plate of chop suey my mother sets in front of me. “We don’t want to play here. We want to play at Kim’s. And if she’s allowed to walk home alone, I should be allowed to walk with her.”
“If Kim jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” Dad asks. This was his standard rebuttal, which never made sense to me because no one is asking to jump to their deaths.
So I revert here to my own classic counterargument: “It’s only fair that if Ryan can walk to his friends’ houses, then I can too.”
Now it’s my brother’s turn to defend the family rule in the only illogical way he understands. “I can do what I want. I’ve got a dick,” he says. “You don’t.”
There it is: the mysterious penile access pass. Did that ugly, dangling member somehow emit a forcefield around its human host? Did it protect a boy from the barb of a knife blade or the lead tip of a bullet? My hands are trembling with rage, wrapped in fists ready to throw punches at every man in the room — no, in the world! — who would keep me locked up in my bedroom like an infant in a playpen. I’m strong, I’m capable, and I’m certain I’ve got something special inside me that my brother doesn’t
“Yeah?” I bellow. “Well I’ve got a uterus, and you don’t!”
At this declaration, my brother, who was gulping from his glass, squirts a fine mist of milk from between his lips and bursts into a belly-laugh so violent I think he might fall from his chair. My father, too, is choking on his mouthful of macaroni, chuckling hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. Even my mother is giggling. Their laughter shakes the dinner table, the reverberations rattle the plate in front of me.
“You can keep your uterus,” Dad explains merrily. “No one here wants it.”
I rise up from my chair onto my feet. I feel like I’m floating in front of my family. My limbs are stiff, my teeth are clenched and my eyes are burning up in their sockets. No one is looking at me anymore, though, as if I’ve somehow proven their point and the argument is over. I’m no longer in the room. There is a crack in my own time-continuum, and I’m falling backward into a great and glowing wormhole. There’s no one on the other side of it for me to save, though, except myself.
Nicole Jacques is traveler, sailor, and yogini from mid-coast Maine. Since earning an MA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, Nicole has worked as a communications professional and adjunct college instructor. She is currently writing a collection of personal essays. Find her on Instagram at @nmjacques.
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