By Maggie Ryan Sandford
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the most cruel, shameful behavior I’ve exhibited in my life occurred while I was dressed as a rat pirate. Not a pirate. Not a rat. A rat that is also a pirate. A pi-rat you could call it, yeah, that’d be clever. But I didn’t.
It started when Summer decided she was going to do a pirate theme for her 7th birthday party. Like any worthwhile seven year old, I was thrilled; dressing up like a pirate, what could be better? But my excitement was tainted with something more sinister. Because I, more than all other seven year olds, had a special calling for playing pirate––this I believed with every fiber of my being. In addition to the ultimately arbitrary fact that I came from a long line of sailors and fishermen, my parents were both actors, which meant that they had a professional expertise in creating the illusion of old-timey piracy. Many times had I seen them don swashbuckling garb, practice their shiver-me-timbers in the mirror as they applied mean facial scars and faded blue tattoos. Consequently, as if by birthright, I had been dressing like a pirate since I was like three. Kid stuff. Easy as a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.
And so it was that the challenge of a child’s thematic birthday party stirred in me an insidious hubris. It rose like a mutiny, demented in its insular logic: Pirates are my thing. My dad had probably finished reading Treasure Island to me like that week. I couldn’t just waltz into this party with a clip-on earring and a plastic sword like some land-lubbing amateur. I needed the other kids to know that I knew more about pirates than them, that I had been knowing more about pirates than them, and the only way to communicate this foreknowledge would be to show up in some off-beat, esoteric, avant-garde-yet-historically-accurate pirate costume the reaction to which would separate the men from the boys.
But incredibly, as partytime drew closer, the perfect pirate-snob attire failed to reveal itself. In vain my poor parents brainstormed suggestions, weathered my rising squall: “NoooooOoOo, you don’t get it… Every girl’s gonna be a lady pirate… Bandanas are boooring… A peg-leg is so ooobvious…”
Finally, in a tone of forced enthusiasm, “What about a ship’s rat?” my dad ventured. I looked at him through half-lidded eyes. I was well aware that he was referencing the shapeless homemade mouse costume that languished in my dress-up box, well aware that to repurpose it provided a convenient alternative to potential costume pieces for which we three could neither afford the money nor the time. Maybe I felt bad for being so petty, or maybe it was the image of skittering around pretending to bite the boys’ feet, or maybe it was the first of thousands of weakly rationalized last-minute decisions I would make in my life. But this hardtack was bait I was willing to bite. In that moment, Rat Pirate made some kind of sense. We went to work.
When you get right down to it, what’s the appeal of the pirate costume, really, at the most basic level? All the stuff. The bounteous weight of one’s garb. Heavy boots and dangling gold, layers of rich fabric donned in the slapdash manner of a greedy cutthroat with no eye for restraint. Anyone with an ounce of pirate experience knows this inherently, and yet, in the myopia of the last-minute…
Along with a pair of big, round Mickean ears and about twice the appropriate number of hand-drawn whiskers, my rat pirate getup included the following items: a pirate’s eye patch (sure, okay), a short vest and cummerbundy sash appropriate for the early modern era, and––that was it. Just a silver drawstring sack with holes for the arms and legs, and no pants. No tights even. And ballet slippers. Half rat, my pirate was half naked of course, which no one gave much of a second thought…in the comfort of my bedroom. And so it was that in my puffy sateen onesie, I sailed into battle.
Summer’s yard teemed with miniature humans masquerading as bloodthirsty murderers. Forgetting the eight inches of mouse ear atop my head, I crouched behind the car door to spy: My original extrapolation that everyone would be taking the dress code to a competitive level turned out to be unfounded. (Surprise, surprise. By the way, this would not be the last time I’d make this kind of miscalculation in my life, not by a long shot.) I left my parents with the adults and entered the fray. Costumes, it seemed, were tertiary to the goals of fighting and screaming/running away. If I had been the type to scream/run, which I wasn’t, my embodiment of a small, unobtrusive rat might have come in handy… If I were, myself, small and unobtrusive. Which I wasn’t. Even at seven, I was nearly a head taller than most of my peers, cute boys included. And that was without the ears. One such boy, a second-grade Errol Flynn, shimmied down the swingset beside me. “What are you?” he semi-asked, as if he needed to. I was a giant, pantless, one-eyed rat. In ballet shoes. I turned so he was in my blind spot and padded away. The party continued behind me. If just one rat leaves the ship, no one thinks much of it
Could this be the end of our fearless hero? No indeed, Dear Reader, for it was in this way that I found myself in a parley with the enemy: the mean girls. They had shed their half-assed costumes on the cement stoop, and sat brushing one another’s hair. “What are you?” they asked, looking sidelong at each other instead of me. “I was trying something but it didn’t work,” I said, “I’m the ship’s––never mind.” I pulled off my ears and flipped up my eye patch. “Who even cares,” one of them said, “Pirates are perverted.” “Yeah, pirates are perverted…hahaha perverted…” the word echoed on a wave of giggles and into the ether. It was intoxicating. Marooned on this godforsaken rock by my own crew, maybe I’d found a new calling. The call of the sirens.
They’d already drawn a victim: A little boy with a buzz cut and a Batman t-shirt. He was about five, too young to buccaneer out back, but his eyes burned into me with a hatred that said he thought I was one of them. Those girls. Without blinking, he raised his hands, folded them into a machine gun, and let fly. A banshee scream shook the stoop.
Someone had to do something. I wouldn’t be bested like this, not here, not today. Before I knew what was happening, words fell from my mouth like a curse: “Leave the big girls alone… Little Batman.” I assessed my facial expression: Had I done that right? I’d only ever sassed my parents before, never someone…smaller than me. My heart was pounding.
“Don’t call me that,” said Little Batman.
“Oh sorry… Little BATman,” said my mouth. That’s enough, I told myself, and was going to turn away when a chorus of titters stung my ears. I was powerless. “What’s wrong with it Little Batman, Little Batman? You’re wearing the shirt. You must like Batman. It’s a compliment.” The poison was quick. Already, I was advanced in my bullying tactics: convincing the victim he deserves everything he gets.
“I said don’t call me that!” said Little Batman, shifting in his sneakers, “If you do it again I’m going to tell my dad.”
“Pfft, please,” I said. He was bluffing. And even if he wasn’t, what parent could get mad for such a tame taunt? He had the t-shirt… “Whatever you say… LITTLE BATMAN.”
Like his namesake, Little Batman was gone in the blink of an eye. “That got him,” the mean girls cackled, but just as quickly they were talking about something else. I pretended to play it cool and listen to their slack-jawed gossip, but my eyes scanned the crowd.
“There she is! With the whiskers!” someone shouted. It was Little Batman alright, one hand gunning for me, the other on the meaty arm of a colossus with a buzz cut.
“Shiver-me-timbers,” I whispered.
If you’ve never seen a grown man chew out a child whom he doesn’t know in front of a group of girls that she doesn’t know, it’s about as painful as you might imagine. I tried to make a case for myself, but in the end I couldn’t argue with Big Batman. I’d been a bully. Not even a very good one. Where was this guy for every other picked-on kid on the planet? I thought as I looked at my dirty slippered feet. When the storm cleared, I ran for my own dad and told him I’d be in the car.
“Your ears are gone!” he said, “What are you?”
I shook my head, holding back tears. “I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.”
Maggie Ryan Sandford’s work has appeared on Slate.com, ComedyCentral.com, the Onion/A.V. Club, mental_floss, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and was recently included in McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals. She has read/performed at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, People’s Improv Theater, and the Moth StorySLAM in New York, the Seattle Poetry Festival, and on National Public Radio. She lives in Saint Paul.