I was once a thumb-wrestling champion. I used to play my godfather. He was stronger than my father who was stronger than almost anyone. He had big hard hands. Mine were small and soft and agile. Sometimes when they were sweaty I could just slide my thumb out from under his especially easily. I’d slide out from under his thumb three or four times, and then I’d swing my thumb around the back and nail his down. It was a special trick. My range of motion was exceptional. There was no way for him to get me if my thumb was in that special place I could get it. I think he may have won sometimes, if my hands were too dry or something, but mostly I won.
If I could beat my godfather, I must also have been better than my father. We never played, but my godfather was stronger than he was and I was better than my godfather. And I definitely ranked above my mother, who was a lot weaker. In fact I probably ranked above everyone anywhere, except maybe someone who was even stronger than my godfather, but I couldn’t think of anyone who was.
It wasn’t really that my hands were stronger than his. They weren’t. But I strategized. I thought out each game carefully. I knew when to do what. When to hide, when to tease, when to allow myself to be caught so I could slide away again. Part of the game was to intimidate the opponent. To make it clear that you had control over every element of the game. Sometimes you needed to make them feel confident and comfortable so you could catch them off guard.
My godfather didn’t mind losing so much. He never said no if I asked him to fight me, and a lot of the time he asked me first. When I won he would shake his head a little and smile and say something like, “You’re pretty good at this,” and that would make me smile, but I wouldn’t make him feel too bad about it. After all, I was very young and it would make sense for him to be a little embarrassed.
I never felt like I needed to challenge anyone else. I knew I’d beat them, so there wasn’t really a point. I guess I knew I’d beat him too, but it was never quite easy. I always needed to work a little before I pinned his thumb down for the full ten. Eventually we stopped thumb wrestling. I don’t know why.
Then one day much later I thumb-wrestled my mother. She won. I was surprised and I told her after that it was weird she had won, since I used beat my godfather so regularly. “Okay,” she said. No really, I did beat him, I said. “You don’t think he was just trying to be nice?” I said that yeah that was probably true like I had thought it about it a lot already, but I hadn’t. I hadn’t thought about it at all and I felt stupid.
Once my sister, my godfather and I played hide-and-go-seek, and I found the best spot. There was a ladder that hung down from the ceiling where there’s a hole to get you up onto the roof, and I climbed up as high as I could get and made myself small in the threshold of the hatch. I sat there for five minutes before my godfather came in. He looked around, not really up, and then left. A few minutes later he came back again and started puttering around, putting stuff in a bag. He was singing to himself and I almost laughed out loud and gave myself away. He kept doing it, and soon I felt like I was snooping, which I didn’t like. So I called down and waved, and he gasped, but not in an unhappy way. He didn’t look like he had just been snooped upon, he just congratulated me on my hiding place.
Now, sitting with my mother, this event too became upsettingly transparent. Did I really know him at all? Did everything he ever said to me fall under this category of trickery? Did everything anyone ever said to me? I didn’t feel resentful toward him. He had only been polite, and I should have been able to distinguish that from candor, but I did feel the need to be wary of him. I wouldn’t be tricked again. I thought carefully about the things he said, and whether responding to them sincerely would prove me an innocent.
The more attention I paid to my godfather, the surer I was that my parents responded to him in the very same measured way I had recently adopted. They too seemed to be careful not to answer his flattery without a sticky-sweet strain running through their voice, just to make sure that he knew that they were not fooled. Either he never noticed or he pretended not to.
The very quality that had once compelled me to spend every moment possible with this man was now forcing me to distance myself from him, but he seemed not to see. It eventually became natural to remind myself he might not mean what he said, and I didn’t need process his words heavily any longer. But whenever I asked him if this tie goes with this jacket and he said, “Oh yeah. It looks great,” I was sure to get a second opinion. I’m not a thumb-wrestling champion anymore, but that doesn’t mean I never was.
Age 16, Grade 11,
Saint Ann’s School