One morning a couple of Sundays ago, I rolled over, fumbled for the cell on the bedside table, and dialed my brother before I even sat up in bed.
“I want a knife,” I told him.
“What?” he asked.
“You heard me. I said I want a knife. Like to carry with me.”
“You know, because they’re useful. Men have them. Not all men, but lots of men have them. You always have some kind of knife or your Leatherman tool on you to whip out of your pocket and poke or slice or cut open something that needs poking or slicing or cutting. It’s very helpful. I don’t always have you or another man with a knife around, and I think it would be useful. I want one. I’m sick of trying to use my keys or some such crap to open things or whatever.”
“Ok…so why are you telling me?”
“Because I was wondering where to get one. REI? Is that a good place to get a knife? Should I go to REI?”
“Sure, uh, yeah, I guess. REI would be fine, I suppose. It depends on what kind of tool you want. Do you want a flip blade? A Swiss Army knife? A Leatherman like mine?”
“Yeah, well…I don’t really know.”
“Can’t help you if you don’t know.”
“Ok, here’s the deal: I want a knife and I want you to buy it for me. That’s how it works. The man buys the knife, so you buy it, ok? You buy a knife for me. It has to come from you.”
I went on to explain that I was pretty sure that Dad gave me a little Swiss Army knife at some point when I was a kid. Probably a gift as a teenager. I seem to remember that and recall him making a bit of a big deal out of it at the time. Dad wasn’t macho. He was an ex-academic who worked in retail. He came from a generation of men who were moderately handy at a minimum, however, and he knew how to do stuff. He changed the oil and tuned up the fleet of old cars we owned himself — and taught me how to do it, too. Didn’t matter that I was his daughter. He was a feminist who believed that any child of his needed to be capable. From a very young age, he would pull a Black Label beer out of the fridge for the two of us to share and sit me down next to him out on the sidewalk to watch him as he tinkered and fixed. He’d spread out newspaper on the floor every Sunday night and commence the weekly ritual of shining his shoes for the week. I used to love to watch him work on the leather and set the polish with his lighter. I enjoyed bearing witness to how he performed a similar regular cleaning on his pipe collection. And, of course, I’d sit at his knee and watch him work his pocket knife rhythmically over a whetstone to sharpen it every month or so. Dad had all the accouterments of manhood, and he took care of them. So, it came as no surprise that he eventually gave me a knife of my own and tried to teach me to do the same. Being a snot-nosed punk teenager on the post-divorce outs with him and his alcoholism at the time, however, I paid no heed. I have no clue what eventually happened to the knife. Looking back now, I realize that I probably really hurt his feelings spurning his gift and showing no interest in what he tried to share with me. It hurts to think about it.
And that’s probably why I thought of wanting a pocket knife now. And why I thought it needed to come from my brother. Because “the man buys the knives” or some such bullshit. A pocket knife isn’t a very girlie thing for a woman to want. Then again, I’m not a girlie girl. Nonetheless, some strange gender script I had in my head kicked in and made me pick up the phone and make that request of my brother. That’s not how our family — our matriarchy, ironically enough — works. Granted, my brother’s an outdoorsy guy and so would be able to help me pick out something — it’s not as though the request was totally without merit. That’s not why I asked him, though. To be honest, it was all about asking him to be the “man of the family” for me. To ask my little brother to somehow step in and fill the father or, at the very least, big brother, role for me that I never needed filled before. While I was Daddy’s girl, I was never anyone’s princess. No shrinking violet, I. I’m a tough broad. I’m supremely capable — so much so that people tell me it’s intimidating. I can take care of myself, and I expect other women to be able to do the same.
Something has changed since Dad’s accident and death, though. Keeping everything together, holding back the Devil and his ever-rising tide of constant disaster night and day for a year just took it all out of me. I used it all up, burned through the reserve tanks. I don’t want to have to do everything myself anymore. I am ok with letting go and letting others handle things for me. I am especially ok with letting my brother step in and shoulder some of the load — he was my partner in all things he could be during The Crisis, and he did it all beautifully. I couldn’t have asked for a better sibling and other half. We were one well-oiled machine. A force to be reckoned with. Being a small family means that you need to band together to take care of business, and boy, did we ever. One of us was on research while the other beat the streets at the hospital with Dad or talking to bankers or lawyers or doctors. We took shifts. Took turns playing good cop to the other’s bad cop. He was the Mulder to my Scully. The ever-logical Spock to my emotional, take-charge Kirk. Everyone knew there was more than one of us to reckon with, and they took our unified front seriously. It helped. We were a traveling roadshow of awesome. At the end of each day we’d collapse on the couch together — out came the laptops as we put our heads together to process what medical and legal information we’d collected and map out a plan of attack for the next day. I’d fall asleep on his shoulder, and he’d put me to bed. Then, he’d get my poor, deflated corpse off the mattress to do it all again the next morning. Propped me upright and pushed me out the door for more. Kept me from curling up in a ball and just staying there. Leagally speaking, I was the one who had to do all the heavy lifting, make all the big calls, but I couldn’t have done it without him. I was, for all intents and purposes, completely out of my mind. We’re talking stark raving mad and screaming inside my head. Just going on adrenaline and automatic and a lot of Diet Coke. It was a pretty impressive pretense that I don’t think even he saw through, despite being up close and personal with it like no one else. I put on a good show. I would have gone under completely and ended up in an irretrievably dark and broken place without his help, even if it was just to be the body in the seat next to me, someone to pick me up from the airport in the in the middle of the rainy night, someone to make sure I ate breakfast, someone to drive me around so that my tired, distracted, and overwhelmed brain didn’t cause another tragic accident, someone to eat shitty, cold pizza and chicken fingers with in the hospital cafeteria at 1am, someone to keep me laughing so I didn’t go completely and forever batshit insane. He knew his job and he did well without me having to ask for anything. He was just there. Doing it.
As we’ve both aged into our 30s, the seven-year age difference has dropped away, and it’s now blissfully impossible to tell who is the older sibling. Two heads are better than one, and I am more than happy to let him take the lead and be the capable one and put his skills and life experience to good use. To let him take care of me from time to time. He does it so skillfully, and releasing control to him makes me a happier and better person and sister. It’s been healthier for both of us. Having me be the boss all the time sucked and did nothing but breed resentment on both sides. I stepped aside and made some room for him, and he stepped right on up. He seems to suddenly know my needs intuitively and how and when to be by my side and bridge the gap. He also needs no help when it comes to gift giving. He never fails to knock it out of the park when buying presents for me, and he needs no suggestions. Some of my most prized possessions are gifts from him, from my heart rate monitor to the beautiful gold earrings he gave me for standing up with him at his wedding. I wear them every day. If the house burned down, those would be the one inanimate thing I would grab on the way out the door. He amazes me. He’s not only a fantastic brother, but I can confidently say that he has grown to become The Best Man I Know. I breathe easier knowing that he’s my kin and looking out for me.
It is this confidence in my brother that made me want to ask him to play this bizarre masculine role and let me somehow be…helpless? Feminine? Is that even the right word? Why is a knife a masculine thing? Is it because it’s a tool? Is it the potential violence of the blade? Is it that women aren’t supposed to be sharp or have sharp things? In any case I suddenly developed this bizarre gendered double standard and called the male in our family to ask him to be all head of the household for me and channel his inner hunter/gatherer and buy me a knife — a gift that also goes against my superstitious nature. You don’t give a knife or a pair of scissors or anything with an edge to a loved one, lest its sharp blade sever the bonds between you. If you do receive something like that as a gift, you give the giver a penny, so it’s not totally a gift. Money exchanging hands diffuses the edge. I’ve always done this with my brother when he’s bought me good quality cutlery in the past. He knows his kitchen knives, so I let him get them for me.
In any case, I hung up the phone thinking, “Well, good, that takes care of that,” with one side of my mind and a feeling of having sold out, being a fraud with the other. A voice in my head nagged at me for days after, telling me that I was a fake. A big, fat hypocrite. That I had no business teaching and writing about feminism when I would call up my brother to ask him to buy me a knife. You’re a big girl. Buy your own goddamn knife! the voice told me. Eventually, I put it out of my mind. I even had to laugh at myself a little when I remembered the way my ex and I used to stay up late drinking and watching “The Knife Show” on the shopping network wondering who cared enough about knives to buy all that stupid shit. Who was I that I was suddenly one of those losers?
Last week I was away at an academic conference where I presented my first paper as a Ph.D. student. My work was very well received, and I even won a little award for it, which both shocked me and made me proud. It was so nice to get a plethora of encouragement and feedback from so many people in varied fields. In the end, the whole week read like a coming out party of sorts for me, and I felt empowered and encouraged by the experience. I felt really capable — almost like my old self — again for the first time since Dad’s car left the road flipped over nine times in that scarred, muddy field and came to rest a twisted wreck in a ditch on that cold January day two years ago. I ended that week finally feeling back in control of something again. And that’s who I was when I strolled into the little shop selling local handmade Native American arts and crafts on a side street in Old Town Albuquerque a week ago. That’s who I was when I saw it sitting in the glass case waiting for me.
It had a three-inch folding blade with a handle inlaid in turquoise and jasper, so it’s mostly light blue with tiles of gold and flecks of red. It fits in my hand perfectly. I haggled the price and even got the proprietor to agree to ship it to my home address because I couldn’t fly with it in my carry on bag. He was more than happy to oblige, although I think he was baffled as to why a woman was so excited about a knife. I started to explain the personal symbolic importance of the purchase — that I was buying my own knife rather than deferring to a man to do it for me, that I was being true to myself despite my recent and inexplicable lapse of reason — but I looked at his face and decided to just default to, “I’ve been looking for one of these.” He seemed happy enough with that.
And so, my knife came in the mail today. She was wrapped in a big wad of bubble wrap in a padded envelope, and she arrived in pristine condition. I love her. I’m calling her Jasper. Yes, I know that’s a man’s name. I’ll name my knife whatever I want. We’re breaking down gender barriers here, so it seems in keeping. And my brother can still buy me a knife, if he wants, but what is undeniable and unchangeable now is that I manned up and bought my own blade in the end. Just like the old me — the strong and capable and real me that’s still at the core — would have done. I feel good about that. I feel more honest with myself. And I have more respect for myself now, too. Funny what a $50 knife can do, huh?
Maybe I’m insane. I don’t know. All I know is that this mattered to me, and I came home with something significant that celebrates more than one personal victory for me. Jasper was my perfect prize in more ways than one, and I smile and feel proud every time I look at my little tool. My weapon. My shiny new toy. She’s beautiful, and I think she’s an appropriate talisman to remind me that I’m sharp and to stay sharp. I am a blade I can wield all on my own. Now, all I need is a whetstone.