My Cousins

by George JM

I didn’t know what to do. He was my cousin. Everything about it felt wrong, and I don’t even remember taking my pants off. I must’ve done it, unless he did for me. We held our swords -that’s what he called them- and had a sword fight.

It was the summertime and we were in his bedroom. I was about to start first grade or so, and he was a year younger. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was blaring from the tiny television high up on his dresser and our parents were downstairs, far away. His room was like a sanctuary where we could do anything we wanted without anyone telling us otherwise.

The sword fight commenced. That’s all it was, like when we would pretend to be medieval knights or flashy Jedi in the backyard. But there was something more insidious regarding this bout with our flesh-like swords. It felt too real- the closed door, the lights off in the middle of the day, the secrecy of it all.

He hit me first. Then I hit him back. After a few strikes back and forth, it became less about hitting and more about rubbing, and feeling. For reasons I was unsure of at the time, this was not something I was capable of keeping up. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, though I felt bad pulling away from him. I could tell he was enjoying it, and I thought maybe eventually I could enjoy it too. Why else would he ask me to do this with him? Losing hope all at once, I ran from the room wiping away tears. Our parents intercepted me at the bottom of the stairs. They thought we had a fight, a normal fight.

At my mom and dad’s house, there’s a picture of the two of us sharing a bubble bath together. This must have been prior to that time in the room, because following our encounter, I decided I would never get that close to him again.

He said he wanted to be a priest when he got older. My mom told me that would be impossible. I remember she called him “the little devil child,” after he held her arm too tight. She begged him to loosen his painful grip, but all he would do was laugh, forcing her to tear his fingers off one at a time.

A few years later, another cousin stayed with me and my parents for a time. He was older by two years and he treated me like the younger brother he never had. I was always getting tossed around by him and having to lie to my parents about there being nothing wrong whenever they heard a violent bang emanate from my bedroom. Nevertheless, I looked up to him and we had shared a lot of good times together during his sojourn.

One day when we were playing around on my bed with my dog, this cousin exposed himself to me. He brought his sword close to the dog, joking about putting it in the dog’s mouth.

As he stroked himself, he told me about how he’s been trying to get his new girlfriend to give him oral sex, but she says she isn’t ready for that yet. Maybe, could I give him head like a girl would, he asked. But he wouldn’t have me touch him there. He would do that part himself; all I had to do was hover above him with my mouth open, and bob my head up and down. I agreed to do the thing that he said wasn’t gay. He told me not to worry, you’re still straight if you do this.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about these two instances of coercion and the effect they’ve had on me in navigating romantic relationships. The majority of my partners have been femme-presenting and their sex, female. Taking considerable steps outside of that experience has proved itself a challenge. It’s not that there isn’t any interest from other parties. I always tend to be the one making excuses or not putting myself out there enough for anything to happen.

Having a sexual relationship with a man doesn’t have to be like the way it was introduced to me in those bedrooms. The ability to be the lover I want to be exists somewhere out there, but the barrier I’ve put up through years of personal and systemic pressure persists.

The summer after I graduated from college, my dad’s side of the family got together for their annual barbeque. It was held at the same house where my cousin had me fight with him long ago. That cousin was there with a guy known to the family as “his friend.” We all know what that means, my mother told me in the car on the way home. A part of me was happy for him, while another was envious that he could be his complete self there in front of everyone while I stood in the shadows, his presence an unfair reminder of my own shortcomings.

About a year ago, I met a man who I thought was very attractive and charming. We had been on a few obvious dates where I mentioned that there was someone else and I was sorry for leading him on, which wasn’t completely true. I told a friend that I couldn’t bring myself to start something with this man, because he looked too much like me. My friend said that was ridiculous, especially since it’s so common for people to be attracted to those who look like themselves.

I began to realize later on that it wasn’t because of our similar looks that I was put off by this man. It was the reality that I look like my cousins.

George JM is a writer and interdisciplinary artist, working primarily in theatre and film. He holds a BA from Bennington College, and is an active member and organizer for Lino Kino, a Philadelphia-based media arts collective. His work has been featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Philadelphia, Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA), Neighborhood Film Festival, No Theme Performance Festival, Built on Stilts Performance Festival, along with DIY spaces throughout Philadelphia and New York City. He is currently working on his first full-length play.