I wasn’t planning to poke his boner. But as I sat beside my boyfriend, watching Blood Simple, I could feel what was coming. Frances McDormand was on screen, scantily clad. I was twenty-something, and for the first time having that uncomfortable moment when you watch your boyfriend watch a sexy lady and need to know whether he finds her attractive. And then it caught my eye: He had a boner. Without even thinking, I jabbed at it.
I had never poked a boner before. I had, however, been told that my quirks, demeanor, and pathological need to be myself added up to the personality type that was known in my family as a “bonerkiller.” This was just the first time I had taken the title so literally.
Growing up with all women, I became a bonerkiller early in life. This was the deep South; I was extremely poor and surrounded by hard, insufferable, opinionated women in every direction, three generations deep. I have three sisters; my mother has two; her mother has three. The men in our family tend to split real fast—or die—once they get to know us. My aunt Mira gave three guys, all of whom happened to be named Jack, a heart attack. Out of all these women, there has been only one man who stayed. This was Uncle Milton. We were all convinced that Aunt Maxine was either extraordinarily lucky, or that Uncle Milton was gay.
My father left when I was five years old, leaving with us a trail of fake birth certificates, fake addresses, fake birthplaces, and a fake name—as well as a lifetime of trying to sort out his real identity, the extent of his crimes, and what had made his tangle of lies necessary. When my parents split up, as we sat in a car outside the New Orleans airport, my dad turned to us and asked us casually: “Well, which one do you wanna go with?”
Only the eldest knew what that meant. “You,” April told my mother. Figuring she knew what was best, the rest of us went along.
A few days later, he called. This was after we met our maternal grandmother, who had no idea we existed until we moved in with her. I asked if he was coming back. “No, honey. I’m not,” he said.
I grew up without ever learning trust in men. I didn’t exactly identify the feeling as distrust until I was older, but I approached boys—and eventually men—with a sense of fear, intense attraction, and disgust. I resisted them for any reason I could think of, whether it was a good one or not.
There was my first boyfriend, Danny, in kindergarten, who always ate hot dogs and always smelled like hot dogs. “My mother packs them for me,” he said, when I told him the habit made us incompatible. I was unmoved.
Then there was Steven, whose guts I hated, which I told him after he tried to sit next to me in the third grade. A huge part of it was the way he drank milk and let it linger on his upper lip. “Well,” he said with hot, confident milk breath, “I love yours.” I never spoke to him again.
In junior high there were endless suitors, which only meant endless justifications for rejection: That one was too redneck; that one too dumb. That one misspelled too many words; this one didn’t know enough of them. That one looked weird when I pictured him tap dancing in my head.
My women relatives and I had no brothers, no father, no uncles, no grandfathers to offer a counterpoint to this irritation. To us, men were aliens. I learned about them as I began to date them, so I never had any sense of them as people—just as romantic interests. I was sure that this lack of a familial, platonic relationship to any man had fucked me up; had fucked us all up.
My mother was of little help. She never talked about our father, but she did tell us about a man with whom she’d lived in college. One morning she went off to class only to realize she’d left her textbook at home. She returned moments later to find him, his pants down, Playboy in one hand, member in the other, furiously going at it. Confused and embarrassed, she’d concluded that this was proof he couldn’t possibly love her. They split up soon after, when she met my father, a charming salesman who asked her to leave town immediately. She wasn’t hard to convince.
Eventually I realized men were something people of my gender and orientation generally found desirable, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually interact with them. My own relationships had been short, tumultuous affairs, with me and my boyfriends coming at each other in battle gear. It couldn’t have helped that I treated many of them more like interview subjects rather than paramours. I would quiz them, trying to make sense of their strange customs and desires: If you could see a woman clothed or naked, which would it be, I would ask, completely serious, too naive to understand that they would always pick the latter.
My sisters had similar problems. Men were drawn to their assertiveness and autonomy at first, only to find that—in a region that will hold onto gender roles as long as it has held on to lard-based cooking—we ultimately didn’t “need them” enough. And they were right: we didn’t need them, not how they wanted us to. We knew how to change tires, mow lawns, paint houses, refinish hardwood floors. We could clean out a barn, play sports, crush at Tetris, and argue over beers. April could burp the alphabet, repair a VCR, and arm wrestle grown men. Other girls we knew let their boyfriends open car doors, pay for things. They liked to feel safe. We, on the other hand, liked to fuck with men, and also with each other, heckling each other’s boyfriends and thwarting each other’s attempts at romance for kicks.
Once, April’s then-boyfriend attempted to help our mother carry in groceries. My sisters and I narrated the event like it was the Preakness. “And here he comes, round the bend—oh boy, we got a real family man here, folks,” we cracked, in mock auctioneer voices from the stairs. He set the bag down and slowly backed away.
We thought it was all a gas, but as I got older, I started to think we were cursed. There was some implicitly understood social contract between men and women we’d never been taught, and it felt like it was too late to learn it all. We had no humility and no deference. Boys liked us for as long as it took to get to know us, and then they were gone. We felt we were just too hard, too difficult, too much.
When that boner popped up during Blood Simple, and after I’d instinctively swatted at it, I tried to remember why this boyfriend had wanted to get together in the first place. One night, while we were talking on the front porch, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes, he said he loved the “weird things” about me. He preferred girls who were “switched on,” who “pushed back.”
But his approval of the worst of me brought out the worst of him. The catch (and it was a big one) was that, in return for sanctioning my flaws, he needed me to approve of the fact the had slept with everyone in town, and maintained a bad habit of keeping former lovers close by.
Our entire dating life was running into one ex after another. Here was one at the first open barstool in the bar we’d just walked into. Here was another next to us at the movies. They were everywhere, and full of flirty laughter and inside jokes. My friends insisted this was abnormal, and that no one should have to put up with a portable menagerie of the ghosts of lovers past—particularly the kind who seemed to love bringing it up in front of you. But I was sure it was just the universe testing me. I could do it! I could accept an actual man for exactly how he was.
Of course I couldn’t. I got jealous; he got defensive. We went round after round and both eventually tired of the fight. Sometimes, in the midst of these arguments, I fantasized about having a father who would explain it all to me. But there was nothing to explain except for the fact I was in a bad relationship. In a good one, ex talk is a pastime, something you can talk and joke about. But I had never really been in a “good” relationship yet. I didn’t know this.
Instead, I sat poised for the poke, unable to let his attraction to other women go. Poking this boner would be our death, and I knew that. I also deep down knew what I wanted my imaginary father to tell me: namely, that an honest-to-god boner-for-another-lady wouldn’t have—shouldn’t have—mattered in the slightest if it’s attached to the right dude.
But my imaginary father was never there when I needed him. So I poked it.
“What the fuck did you just do?” he yelled, enraged. I’d gone too far.
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed. “It just happened!”
He swore to me then he didn’t have a boner, but even if he did, it was a psychotic way to find out if he was aroused, he said. He wasn’t wrong.
That would be the end of that, my first and last boner poke. I, a woman descended from a proud, long line of bonerkillers, had actually killed a boner. I had manifested my lifetime of self-sabotage, my emotional methods of dwelling on secrets and refusing to get close.
My life as a bonerkiller means that my perspective on gender relations will likely always be a bit skewed. But on the other hand, my bonerkilling—my curse, my superpower—saved me from staying with men that I didn’t belong with. My bonerkilling weeded out the ill-suited. My sisters and I ended up with men who knew what to do with the likes of us.
And we’ve had marginally better romantic luck as we’ve gotten older. I eventually went on to marry one of those men who knew. And when I got pregnant—even though I was sure the universe would give me a son as a kind of inside joke—I had a daughter. In raising her, and in accepting the fact that I actually need my partner to raise her, I have come to understand my inherited hardness and its relationship to vulnerability. I had to shed enormous layers of self-protection to become a mother, and in doing so I filled in many of the blanks I’d always guessed at.
But I haven’t abandoned my old skillset, and I pass it on to my daughter every day: I try to teach her confidence in her opinions, an ability to crack a joke, an instinct to question a faulty piece of logic. I advise her that not all of her edges need sanding. Sometimes, being tough to take can be a leg up, not to mention a very efficient way of making friends. And perhaps more than anything, having a knack for driving people off—so long as they aren’t the good ones—just makes clear that the ones left around are the only people who matter anyway.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.