This story contains elements used in several of my stories, but never a girl as smart as Melanie. And everybody should have an Aunt Marilyn!
Connections, by Karin Bishop
Chapter 1: Guilty
“Michael, do you care to explain this?”
My mother held a tube of lipstick. My lipstick, the only one I had. I blushed almost as red as the lipstick.
“Um …it’s mine.”
“Yours.” My mother held it dangling between thumb and forefinger as if it were a dead rat.
“Mine.” It was difficult but I swallowed, and looked up into her eyes. “It’s my lipstick.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You mean, lipstick you’ve purchased to give to a girl.”
This was a moment suspended in time. This was a fork in the road, two roads diverging in a wood …whatever cliché applies. This was a chance to change my life. I felt a cold dread and calm certainty all at once. Irrationally, I thought of a prisoner standing before a hangman’s noose, accepting his fate.
Well, if I was going to be hung, I would tell the truth from the scaffold.
“In a manner of speaking, Mother,” I said as calmly as I could. “I bought it for me. To use. To help me be a girl.”
“Be a …” Her eyes widened. “But you are not a girl.”
“I want to be!” It burst out of me; I almost lost control. “I …am …” I mumbled.
She shook her head. “Wanting and being are two different things. We all want to be a lot of things. An astronaut, a movie star …but we are what fate has dealt us.”
“But then where do astronauts come from?”
“Come from?” She was shocked that I’d taken that turn. “From their training. From NASA. From …”
“Birth?” I asked, trying to keep a snotty tone out of my words.
She nodded. “Yes. From birth.”
“Astronauts are …” The silliness was beyond dealing with. “What about movie stars? Does everybody know they’re going to be movie stars from birth?”
She nodded. “Yes. You read that all the time, about the little girl that everybody said was so pretty she was going to be a movie star, and she did.”
“Mom, are you familiar with the actor Samuel L. Jackson?”
“I don’t think this is the point—”
“Please, Mother, just this one thing. Do you know that actor?”
“Yes, of course. He’s in all those movies.”
“He’s a movie star?”
“Mom, he’s the most successful movie star in history, based on box office receipts from movies he’s made. He passed Harrison Ford to become number one.”
“That’s an interesting bit of trivia. But what does it have to do with—this lipstick?” She still held it as if it smelled.
“Would you say that Samuel L. Jackson is the most successful movie star in history?”
“Based on the information you’ve told me—although I haven’t independently verified it—I’ll say a qualified ‘yes’. But Michael—”
“Mother, Samuel L. Jackson has repeatedly stated in interviews that he never had any interest in acting or movies or anything like that. In college, a buddy told him that the really cute girls were in the Theatre Department so he enrolled in a class only to meet cute girls. He had talent and aptitude and luck, but he’s the first to admit he never knew from birth that he was going to be a movie star.”
She looked at me, frowning, and said quietly. “And what does this have to do with …this?” She waved the lipstick with disgust.
“He discovered something about himself in college. I discovered something about myself a couple of years ago. He discovered he was an actor. I discovered that I’m a girl.”
“Nonsense! You’re a boy, and enough of this foolishness! How can you mean you ‘discovered’ you’re a girl? It makes no sense.”
“Not to me, either, at first.” She wasn’t expecting that response, so I went on. “I’ve never felt like a boy. That I can testify to, because I’m using other boys to judge. I hear them, I talk with them, occasionally I would play with them …but it’s like a foreign language. I know what they talk about, but not why they say the things they do. I don’t see the importance of things they talk about, and there are other things that are important to me that they ignore. And I don’t get their games …all the pushing and shoving and trying to beat the other guy. And may we please sit down?”
She’d confronted me with the lipstick in the hallway by the linen closet. I kept my girl things in the very top back of my closet; all I could guess was that the lipstick had fallen and rolled on our wooden floors into the hall, where she’d found it. Now we moved to the living room, but on the way I asked her if she wanted some tea. This had always been a signal of a serious discussion. She’d had tea—I was deemed too young to drink it, but sat there patiently—when she told me my father had left us. She’d had tea when she told me that my grandmother had died. I was allowed some then, with milk. And now I knew it was time for tea.
The brewing time also gave us each a chance to get our thoughts together. I truly believed that my case was hopeless, but I was going to finally tell her the truth—the whole truth—about her child. That was one of the odd things about her; she never called me her ‘son’. I was always her ‘child’. She’d call the pediatrician when I had a fever and say, ‘My child is ill’. When she introduced me to people, it was always, ‘This is my child, Michael.’ I’d asked her once why she didn’t say ‘This is my son, Michael’ and she said that it was redundant. If my name was Michael, I was a boy; if I was a boy and was her child, I was her son. Ergo—she talked like that; she’d been an English Lit major but worked as a records supervisor at the hospital—it was redundant. But I could be just a neighborhood child, or a nephew—which would establish gender as well as familial relation, she said—so she used the possessive ‘my’ before ‘child’.
Such was the linguistic wonderland of talking with my mother.
I prepared cups and saucers, spoons, sugar, and small lace placemats. That’s the way things were with my mother. I knew I could squeeze some honey in a mug, drop in a tea bag, fill with water and nuke it in the microwave for three minutes, dump the bag and swirl with a spoon over the sink. Not as traditional, maybe not as good as a cup of brewed tea, but it saved on washing and possible breakage and tea could be enjoyed more often. It just made sense to me, but we each had our own version of ‘sense’.
I loved my mother dearly. I loved her caring and her warmth when I was little; it had receded a bit as I grew older and she was clearly more distant now that I’d turned thirteen. I loved her reading Dickens and Jane Austen to me and watching the movie versions, and I loved her taking me to plays and the ballet and opera and her attempts to bring culture into our tiny suburban home. But I also despaired about her unwillingness to admit it was the 21st Century. She dressed like some New England librarian cliché, all tweeds and long skirts and sweater sets and hair in a bun—I’d seen it down once and was shocked by its length and fullness—and sensible shoes. Gray or black stockings, or tights, or whatever. It aged her. She was pretty, or had been and could be again, but her family upbringing, her failed marriage, and whatever personal history she’d never shared with me …they all seem to tie her in a straitjacket of gloom. Sensible, practical gloom.
We sat; she poured. We sugared, spooned, carefully placed spoons on saucers. Took cautious sips and blotted with napkins. It was time; now my world would change.
“Mother …do you know the term ‘transgendered’?”
“Yes, of course, dear.” She was as calm as if I’d asked, do you know the term ‘newspaper’.
“Could you tell me what it means?”
“Well, it’s a medical and psychological situation where …an individual feels that they want to change their sex. Not really proper to be discussing with a young child,” she added primly.
“Nevertheless, we must discuss it,” I said firmly. “Your definition is somewhat correct. I have done extensive research on this, so please accept that it is proper to discuss with me.”
She looked at me for a moment, gave a small nod, and reached for her tea. “Fair enough.” She sipped.
I took a moment and began. “You said that an individual ‘feels that they want to change their sex.’ I must inform you that we’re talking about two different areas and you’ve mentioned only sex. The other is gender. Think of it as sex being external and gender internal, for the purposes of our discussion.”
“You certainly are speaking as if you have researched this, and I am impressed by your articulate phrasing.”
“Thank you, Mother. Gender being internal, it is not provable like sex. A newborn is assigned one sex or the other depending on …genitalia. The assignment to either category is strictly based on anatomy.”
My mother tilted her head slightly. “Medically accurate, and I appreciate the sensitivity.”
She meant that she appreciated that I didn’t say penis or vagina.
“So, Mother, the rest of that newborn’s life is determined by an external observation.” I let it sink in.
She mulled it over for a moment. “I believe there are other determinations, such as gene typing.”
“Yes, good, you know about that. Forget the genitalia; chromosomes also determine—XX for females and XY for males. But how much or how little Y?”
“I don’t follow …”
“Set the chromosomes aside. Switch to gender. Psychologists tell us that gender has two bases, the internal, mental, emotional orientation; and the external world’s reinforcement of the expectations of that assigned sex. Does that make sense?”
“Which is the mirror and which is the mirror holder? That’s a reference to advertising reflecting consumer needs, or consumer needs reflecting the advertising.”
I looked at her for a moment, wondering if she was trivializing it, but realized she was not only serious but might have helped me make my case.
“That’s a great concept,” I said. “Okay. I want to set aside, for a moment, the internal emotional orientation and examine the external reinforcement.”
She pursed her lips. “I would speculate that the emotional orientation is quite difficult to prove without extensive testing, if even provable then. Such is the case with mental states. The difficulty in proving alleged multiple-personalities, for example.”
“Yes, Mother. As I said, I would like to set it aside and …speculate about the external right now. Alright?”
A slight nod of her head meant to continue. I took a sip of the tea and plunged in.
“Mother, if a newborn is identified by genitalia as a girl, ‘she’ will be raised as a girl. Now—setting aside, as we have, her own emotional orientation and focusing on what she perceives from the external world—internally, she will be thinking, ‘I’m a girl because they say I’m a girl’ and will usually think and act as a girl, at least by society’s definition, and each reinforces the other.”
“Certainly,” she nodded. “But that’s ignoring the fact that she’s a girl.”
“Let’s …let’s set that comment aside for later, because it’s important. It brings us back to the internal emotional orientation that I mentioned, and we’re discussing the external reinforcement. But right now, are we in agreement that the society-individual reinforcement is powerful?”
She thought, sipped, and nodded.
I went on. “Now, that doesn’t always work. You get a girl that doesn’t want to play by society’s definition; she wants to be an astronaut, or a steelworker, whatever, and doesn’t want dresses and dolls.”
“A tomboy,” Mom nodded. “I was a bit of one when I was younger.”
“Mom, I’ve seen pictures of you as a girl. Only one shows you in pants.”
“Nonsense. I wore pants …well, sometimes,” she backed down.
The photo was actually overalls with paint on them, which was also on her face. She had looked to be about ten, and wore the overalls for a specific job. I had seen no other photo—of the few that she kept or showed to me—in which she wore anything other than dresses.
I extended an olive branch. “But you were a kind of tomboy, because you didn’t want to find a husband and make babies and keep house. You went to college—first girl in your family, from what you’ve told me.”
“You remember correctly. Of course, now that you say it, it doesn’t sound like such a milestone. But it certainly caused a ruckus in my family.” She smiled, but there was a sadness to it, almost a bitterness. “My father repeatedly told me, ‘Young ladies do not need college!’ but I was …stubborn.” She sagged. “Maybe he was right. Somehow I still married and started a family …”
“Mom, it’s not your fault that my father left us,” I soothed, knowing her hurt.
The truth—as far as I knew it—was that it was her fault. I’d heard some of their fights through my bedroom walls—mostly my father yelling and my mother’s short, muted responses—and knew that he had been fed up with her being straitlaced, conservative. ‘Not much of a woman, are you?’ he’d said in a particularly nasty tone. I’d wanted to leap out of bed to defend her, but fortunately there were no blows between them—only scorn, disgust, and misery. And then silence.
There was silence between us as we were alone with our memories of the time. I started up again.
“To our discussion, the other point about gender is internal. It operates independently of …what did we call it? ‘Society’s definition’. It’s the ‘alone-on-a-desert-island’ type. How does the individual see the world, feel about the world …how does the individual feel …”
“The essential personality …one might almost say, the soul,” Mom supplied.
“Exactly! So, that type of gender is entirely …between the ears, so to speak, not between the legs.”
“Michael!” she cried, shocked.
“You have to be clear on this, and it’s not meant to be disrespectful or …pornographic. Please, Mother. Between the ears?”
She looked at me for a moment and nodded. “Stay above the neck in the future, please.”
I nodded as well. “Between the ears is the important part …well, the heart, too,” I grinned, to a nod from her. “So, between the ears …is not externally provable. Or, as you said, quite difficult to prove. Well, there are some newly developed psychological tests, but basically it’s something that has to be taken on faith.”
“I’m not sure …”
“Mother, hear me out, please. If I were to think and feel like a racist, you would have no way of knowing it until I said some nasty racial remark.”
“I would hope that that isn’t the case.”
“It’s strictly hypothetical; Mom, can you go with me on this? The point is, until I said the racial slur, you wouldn’t know what was going on ‘between my ears’.”
“Ah. I see what you meant. Yes, I understand.”
“Sometimes somebody says something racist, and then they say, ‘I didn’t mean it; I’m not a racist’ but we have trouble believing them.”
“True. And the reverse is true; sometimes people say things they don’t truly believe, because it’s expected of them.”
Hallelujah! I thought; I don’t know if this was a random observation, or she thought it would end my argument, but it really strengthened it.
My mother looked proud and a little sad. “I must say that in a strange way I’m enjoying our conversation. Not the topic, but your clarity and ability to articulate …and your vocabulary. It’s quite refreshing. Certainly a change from some of the conversations I hear at the hospital.”
She was trying to change the subject as well as compliment me; I was on to her. “Thank you, Mother, but you know my IQ.”
“Yes, it’s quite satisfactory, but I am concerned about the A minus you recently received in History.”
“Thank you again, and the grade will be improved,” I said to mollify her.
‘Quite satisfactory’ was her way of letting me know she was very pleased but not letting me get a swelled head or anything because I was much smarter than my classmates. My nearly perfect grades—I would never score an A in PE—were a source of pleasure to her, so she was right to be concerned about the A minus. The truth was that History was in many ways my best subject, and the classroom work was so easy that I was beginning to daydream, looking at the girls in my class and how they were dressed and how I’d look in that skirt or those heels …
I sipped my tea and put the cup down carefully, with two hands. I turned and faced her, holding my hands in my lap. “Mother, I’m a girl. Between my ears—and in my heart—I know that I’m female. The way I think and feel about things, even when alone, correspond with what girls think and feel, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain. The way typical boys think and feel about things is completely alien to me. However, I was …diagnosed as a boy, so society’s definition of me—therefore, your definition of me—is as a boy, so I’m expected to think and feel and act as a boy. Well, I can act as a boy, although it is an act and it’s hard and I have to work at it and I’m not very good at it. But I can’t think and feel like a boy, no matter how hard society tells me I’m a boy.”
She looked at me, then turned to look at her tea. She reached out for it, stopped, and pulled her hand back to her lap. “I …I see. And how long have you felt like this?”
“All of my life. Since my first conscious thought; my first memory. I felt as a girl—a normal girl, a girl pronounced female at birth and raised as a girl—would feel like a girl all of her life. My heart and soul are female, and society keeps reflecting that I’m wrong. Well, I’m not wrong, it’s my body that’s wrong. And it’s not much of a body, anyway.”
“Oh, that’s not true,” she said automatically, and then blushed slightly because she knew she’d just told a lie. An expected, comforting lie, but a lie nevertheless.
I was small, I was thin, I was pale, I had big blue eyes and lashes and full lips and thick dark brown hair—and a light, high voice. I’d looked at myself naked so many, many times, and I knew—we both knew that I was not a strong specimen of manhood. And I never would be.
“Yes, Mother, it’s true. In my mind, in my heart, and in my soul, I’m female. My body is sort of male. And it comes to this: I can’t envision a lifetime of this. I don’t want to exist in this agony, because it is agony. Can you imagine if you were to be put in a world that you couldn’t relate to, that you were uncomfortable in?”
“I’d cope with it,” she said primly with her Yankee stoicism.
“Really, Mother? You’re telling me that you could spend your life—and I’m not talking about an afternoon or a weekend, I’m talking about your whole life, year after year, through all the decades until death, spend your life—as, let’s say, a lumberjack? Bearded, manly, laughing and telling dirty jokes, scratching yourself rudely as you burp, and then going off to drink boilermakers at bars afterward and groping the waitresses?”
“Not all men are like that,” she said with a shiver of disgust.
“I know that, and apologies to lumberjacks who are not like that, but do you truly believe that you could cope with an entire life like that—but with your thoughts as they are now; your thoughts and feelings and soul?”
“Well …it would be tough, but I would learn to cope, I suppose.”
I knew she was ‘toughing it out’ to make a point to me, so I turned tables on her. “Alright, you might be able to cope being a lumberjack, belching, farting, laughing at how far you can pee—”
“Michael, don’t be silly!”
“That’s part of manhood, Mother,” I said with disgust. “Quite common with the boys at my school.”
She stared at me with incomprehension, then pursed her lips and shook her head, as if negating the truth.
I felt bad about what I was going to say, but I had to shock her somehow, to get her to drop that prim defense of hers; to deal with the reality of an existence of misery.
“Let’s leave the lumberjack. How about if you—the you deep inside—had to spend the rest of your entire life as a Las Vegas showgirl?”
“What?” She was completely off-footed by that.
“Yes. A Vegas stripper. Every night, coming to work in tiny miniskirt, push-up bra and spike heels, changing into pasties and a G-string and dusting your body with sparkles, then dancing naked in front of screaming, sweating men?”
“Michael!” she cried again, but this time there was an element of horror to it.
I forged on. “Sexily swinging your butt, rubbing suggestively against a pole, the men stuffing your G-string with money? And then you’re expected to perform a lap-dance on an overweight salesman from Toledo? And all the time it’s you in your head, thinking about Tennyson and The Brontës as you tease him with your breasts? Could you cope?”
“Michael, stop it this instant!” she shrieked, and stood up.
I realized she was shaking. I felt terrible; I stood up and comforted her.
“Please, Mother, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I had to find something shocking enough that would allow you to see the …disconnect. You thought you could be strong to be a lumberjack, but at what cost to the real, inside you? And I’m sorry for the pornographic description, but that’s a real occupation for thousands of women. But at what cost to you and your soul if you had to do it? Mother, neither of those lives is you. The real you, the true you. Neither of those lives is compatible with your soul.”
She sat slowly, I sat with her. She picked up the napkin and was gently kneading it.
“I think—despite your method, which I disagree with—but I think I understand something of what you were saying. About how you feel, about being …a stranger in a strange land.”
I knew with her it was the original Biblical quote and not Heinlein, but I appreciated the comment.
“Mother, I’m a girl. My body is not much of a boy’s body, but any moment now some element of male puberty might kick in. So I desperately wanted to see what I could look like as a girl before I …changed. If I change …”
“I think I understand. That’s why you have the lipstick,” she said, nodding slowly.
“Yes, and …a few other things. Hidden away. For dressing like a girl when you’re not here.”
“And how do you feel when you do that?”
“Well, I feel like I’m cheating, doing something behind your back. I’d much rather be a girl with your approval.”
She narrowed her eyes at that, then said, “I appreciate that, but how do you feel?”
“Like me. Like normal. Like normal,” I stressed. “And miserable because I can’t do anything about it. I can’t go out, I can’t even show my mother. So everything gets hidden away and I go on pretending to be a boy.”
She looked thoughtful, poured another half cup of tea, took a slightly-shaky two-handed sip and replaced her cup.
“I have only a few more questions at this point. The first is, do you think you’re overcompensating?” At my look of confusion, she went on. “As you said, you’re not …very manly, I’m sorry. It must hurt you to hear that.”
“Actually, not really, because, well, it’s true. I’ve had enough kids call me ‘sissy’ or ‘fag’ to last a lifetime, but I learned to ignore it.”
She stared. “You mean …they actually say those horrid things to you?”
I nodded and shrugged. “Just my everyday life.”
“You never said anything!”
“What could I say that would make any difference? As long as I look like I look, there are guys who will say that. And …I cope. But the other point is that if I can somehow start my life over, now, as a girl, it’s good that I’m not manly. But to answer your main question, no, I’m not overcompensating. Wanting to be a girl is not a refuge or a way of making the name-callers go away. It’s not because I don’t have a male presence in the house; many boys live with single mothers and are perfectly, fully male. I am not. And I know it would be no simple thing to start living as a girl. But it’s who I am. A girl.”
“One more question, then. Do you think you’re homosexual?”
“No. Not in the sense that you mean. It’s difficult to explain because I know I’m not normal in this regard. I don’t have any sexual urges towards boys. But I don’t have any sexual urges towards girls, either, for that matter; I think maybe my puberty’s delayed that interest. So my feeling that I’m a girl is not a cover-up, or a response, or to be more attractive to male homosexuals. Mother, one of the things that I’ve learned in my research is that male homosexuals are glad to be male; many of them exult in being male. They are proud of their …genitalia. Even the minority that wear women’s clothing and are effeminate. Even they treasure their male genitalia. I do not. What I have is wrong and shouldn’t be there, so right there I fit no male homosexual category. I am female in my core. Now there is one odd point I need to raise. I truly am a girl, in my heart and soul, and as such, if I am within ‘normal’ parameters when I develop a sexual interest, I would be interested in boys, when that time comes. Boys would be the opposite sex to me. But that would make me a heterosexual girl, not a homosexual boy.”
“And the complete truth. Remember, the desert-island scenario? I would still be a girl even if there were no other boys or girls around.”
“So why dress up as a girl?”
“Trying to meet that society definition, I think. And I can relax and just be me, and it validates it. But it’s not only when I’m dressed as a girl that I feel like a girl. I feel like a girl right now. Like your daughter.” I paused. “I am your daughter, a girl who is sitting across from her mother.”
That brought her up short. It was the simple truth, t seemed to have had a profound impact.
After a moment, I asked, “Would you like to see me dressed as a girl?”
“You mean right now? No, I think not. I think it’s late and we’ve both more than enough to think about tonight. Tomorrow is Bridge Night and I’m hosting, but we’ll have a chance to talk some more before the ladies arrive.”
My mother was a very serious player of the card game Bridge. She played one Friday a month with three other ladies. Two were acquaintances, chosen for their skill at the game; Florence McAllister, a real estate agent, and Connie Boswell, who owned a ‘plus-size’ boutique. They’d been playing together for five or six years now; I only dimly remember other ladies before them.
The fourth was my mother’s best—and, I thought, only—friend in the world, a force of nature by the name of Marilyn. Currently she was Marilyn Stevens, but she’d been a Shepherd and a DiFarini and I think a Lucovic as well. I was not actually sure of her maiden name, but from overhearing the other bridge partners gossip, the general assumption was that she married rich and divorced or buried richer.
Marilyn was so much the opposite of Mom, but I knew that was very important. My mother was the staid, dignified, quiet New Englander, while Marilyn was always laughing, talking, and enjoying herself. My mother dressed very conservatively, in long skirts, sweater sets, and pearls; Marilyn dressed very femininely, very tastefully and fashionably, and always wore makeup and perfume. She had two daughters, Linda, a marine biologist in her twenties, and Carol, a high school junior and cheerleader. All three Stevens ladies seemed to be very happily well adjusted, supremely confident, and supremely feminine.
But Bridge Night …ah, that was sacred, especially if my mother was hosting.
“Mom, you won’t have time to get everything prepared and allow us any time to talk. I understand. Anything you need me to have ready for you, please let me know. But …we’ll talk when you’re able.”
The wind was out of my sails, so to speak, when she didn’t want to see me dressed as a girl. I didn’t have many things, but I could at least put on a skirt, top, and makeup and hoped that seeing me as a girl, moving and talking as a girl, would shock her enough to start to consider allowing me to dress openly. I’d thought somehow of ‘shocking’ a swimming pool’s chlorine by adding a whopping amount of additional chlorine, but tonight, the shock was not to be. Or perhaps I’d already shocked her enough, remembering her shaking as she thought of ‘coping’ as a stripper.
Mom told me that all she’d need would be for me to set up the table and chairs and ready the bowls—she actually used ‘Bridge Mix’ in them—and with the coffee going everything would be fine. Then she announced the obvious, that tomorrow was a school day, and I knew the discussion of my gender was closed.
Chapter 2: Bridge
My mother was gone when I woke in the mornings, so for the last two years I would wake to my alarm clock and make my breakfast. I’d envied other kids who had parents that did that for them, but it was now just a fact of life. As I showered I thought about our discussion and wondered if it might be a dead issue. Everything about my mother’s demeanor had pointed to my wanting to be a girl as ‘case closed’. She would dismiss it as an odd aspiration but one I would struggle with and overcome, as someone coming from ‘good Yankee stock’, as she said on occasion. I was supposed ‘to cope’.
I was grasping one straw, a thin one, and that was Marilyn. As I got into bed I realized I’d forgotten to put my backpack together because I’d been caught with the lipstick—which seemed to have fallen off the topic of conversation. My mother’s rule was that all homework be completed and the backpack ready for the following day before bedtime. I slipped out to my work area in the dining room and shuffled the papers together, closed it all up and as I passed Mom’s room I heard her sigh, ‘I know, Marilyn, but what am I to do?’
Marilyn was my mother’s best friend, true, but she was also her Rock of Gibraltar. Marilyn had been there at all of my mother’s historic events. She’d been Matron of Honor at my parents’ wedding; she’d been at both my birth in the hospital and my christening; and she’d been there to console my mother when my father walked out. I dimly remember Marilyn always being there and getting me ready for second grade, and my mother crying and looking …dark. So now my mother was facing another crisis—a son that wanted to be a girl—and she called her Rock of Gibraltar. The thin straw was that Marilyn was cool. She was not just pretty and rich and fun and all that; she was also very smart. I thought of the line from Good Will Hunting: ‘wicked smaht’ in that Boston accent. I didn’t know if my mother knew just how smart Marilyn was, but I was hoping for the open-mindedness that she’d shown me from time to time. Maybe, just maybe …she could convince my mother to ‘reopen my case’.
School was typical. I whizzed through all of my classes except for PE; we had a rope-climbing test and I couldn’t get much above the floor before dropping. The coach made his usual joke about ‘Shouldn’t you be signed up for Girls’ PE, Stanwood?’ and in my mind, I screamed, ‘From your lips to God’s ears, Coach!’
At lunch I got shoved into the doorjamb of the cafeteria, and evaded one foot stuck out to trip me with my tray. Just a typical day. I did pay better attention in History; we were into the New Deal and there were some fascinating implications concerning today’s political parties. Well, that’s what I was thinking about; the teacher was droning on with all of the Alphabet Agencies, the AAA, the CCC, and so on.
Back home I really wanted some quality ‘girl time’ before my mother got home, but with everything suspended it would feel like a betrayal somehow. Besides, I thought, if I truly am a girl, as I’d protested, then it didn’t matter what I wore. I could relax and be myself until she got home and didn’t need to dress up. I thought of the lipstick as the ‘white feather’ used in Dumbo. Well, this elephant could fly and didn’t need any Revlon Raspberry Bite!
It was a watershed moment for me. I would have preferred to be in a skirt and heels and makeup, but my only concession was pulling my low boy’s ponytail up to the top of my head so it swung freely …and to not look at myself in reflective surfaces after I’d adjusted my hair. I did my few chores and got things ready for Bridge Night as I always had, but this time with a big difference. I put it squarely in mind that girls didn’t dress up when they came home from school; they dressed down. They wore baggy jeans or sweats or t-shirts or whatever, and now, so did I. I was a girl. I was Melanie. The name had come to me in the last year. I was watching the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds one weekend. The heroine, played by Tippi Hedren, was a rich, spoiled blonde named Melanie Daniels. I was neither rich, spoiled, blonde, or even female, but the moment I heard her name, I felt a push of recognition. It was my name. Now, I was Melanie. As I moved, I allowed my body to relax and it naturally fell out of the stiff way I carried myself at school and into a more fluid—and, I hoped, graceful—way of moving.
I thought about ‘girl’ things, without being overt or silly. I openly thought about the clothes I’d noticed on girls today. I thought about which girls I’d be friends with and which I’d avoid. I even, tentatively, thought about boys in class. I didn’t have to consciously work at it to make them ‘the opposite sex’ because they’d always felt that way to me, as I’d told my mother. The only ‘overt or silly’ thing I did was talk out loud; not constantly, but if I was reading something, even a list of ingredients, I’d try for a melodic, lilting girl-speak but without getting into Valley Girl ‘omigod!’ territory.
Once everything was ready, I went to my room and onto the internet. I was looking at some of the teen girl sites—I didn’t dare have magazines like Seventeen around the house, but I could go to their and similar websites—when I had an idea. I’d bookmarked a site with film and TV scripts. I looked at the ones with ‘real’ girls, not the oversexed twenty-somethings, but ones like the DeGrassi High series. I found girl-girl scenes and also boy-girl scenes and tried reading them aloud, feeling slightly schizophrenic but having fun. I found whole paragraphs that I could say and, to my ears, I sounded like a regular girl.
The one downside of my afternoon was that I found it a little strange ‘going back to Michael’. My mother was due any minute and I’d left my computer for a drink of water in the kitchen—we had delicious filtered water kept very cold in the fridge—and I noticed I was standing, well, kind of girly. Butch it up, Melanie! I thought, giggled—and then mentally slapped myself for the giggle. And for calling myself Melanie when I had to be thinking ‘Michael’.
Mom arrived with grocery bags; I put things away while she got changed, and I took the new bags of Bridge Mix and filled the four bowls on the table. I put out the coffee service and began brewing; fresh coffee and tea were always part of my mother’s Bridge Night. She also had a box of biscotti that I placed on a glass serving dish. I was surveying the set, so to speak, when my mother came in, double-checked, approved, and thanked me.
She’d planned last night’s meal to stretch to tonight’s dinner, so we reheated the leftover chicken and rice, added a tossed salad she’d brought home, and cold peaches. She told me about her day; I was pleasantly noncommittal about mine, although I did mention not being able to climb the rope. I did this because it would partly validate my weak grade in PE, but also to reinforce the fact that I was, well, a runt. I told her, reluctantly and under her questioning, about the coach’s comment. Her lips pressed together.
“I will notify the school that he is not to talk to my child that way! He has no right!”
“Mother, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t do that. Firstly, it will increase his dislike of me. Secondly, the way he speaks is ‘accepted practice’ in PE. Boys’ PE is a different world, this little world of sexism. For instance, if the entire class seems to be lagging while running laps, the coaches say something like ‘pick it up, ladies’, as an insult.”
Her mouth flew open. “I’m insulted to hear that! And I’m outraged. How long has this been going on?”
“At least a good hundred years, maybe longer. Maybe when George Washington was a teenager, his PE coach would shout, ‘lively there, lassies!’”
She did have to chuckle at that, then get serious. “Still …it reinforces negative stereotypes.”
“Yes, Mother, I’m aware of that. Why do you think sexism is so persistent? This isn’t the only cause, but females are used as examples of weakness and poor performance by high school coaches nationwide, and the boys become men with those attitudes.”
She looked at me with her eyes slightly narrowed. “And how do you feel about it?”
I looked her square in the eyes. “Mother, I’m outraged on behalf of all females. I wish they’d stop it. They’re so mindlessly …cruel. And so wrong about women’s abilities.”
Our eyes held for a moment, and she said, “Excellent, but I mean how do you feel about what the coach said to you?”
“About Girls’ PE?” She nodded. I considered, and went for it. “It doesn’t hurt, if that’s what you mean. It’s no different from anything he says to other kids. I mean, he doesn’t say it that often because there are only a few of us that can’t …perform very well. A really fat kid and a swishy gay boy.”
“Michael, don’t say …very well. I understand. Go on.”
“So everybody in the class is used to hearing it; it’s not like he’s singling me out, other than I get it a lot because I’m so …small and weak. But it also doesn’t hurt me because, well …” I defiantly looked at her. “When the coach says it, I pray ‘from your lips to God’s ears!’. He doesn’t know he’s saying my fondest wish.”
We looked at each other for several moments, and it was hard to hold her steely gaze. Then she nodded.
“I see. We will talk about this later; please respect my request. And I will honor your request and not complain about the coach’s repellent behavior—for now.”
Dinner was cleaned up, Mom had one final nod of approval of my setup, and at the first doorbell I was banished to my room.
This wasn’t a problem, because I had my computer, TV, and books. I looked at several more teen girl sites, clothing sites like Roxy and Alloy, as well as magazine sites like Seventeen, because they also had letters and personal stories by the girls and I learned so much. I stared at the computer screen for a moment and realized the importance of the girls’ networks—not just the telecommunications type, but the person-to-person networks. They were a support and learning system for girls, and the internet just allowed them to extend their circles of girlfriends.
I turned the computer screen off and then flopped on my bed to watch some TV. Heading down the hall to the bathroom I could hear the talk and laughter of the ladies in the living room, and I liked it. I liked the closeness, the warmth, and the sheer femininity of it. Coming back from the bathroom I stopped and leaned against the wall, listening, as I usually did. I loved the ebb and flow of their conversation, the rise and fall of the melodies of their speech—Mom’s melodic range being the narrowest of the group—and the words they used, the viewpoints they expressed, the way they could be gushing over a blouse and instantly be serious as they made their bid in the game, and continue on to the national political scene. I sighed and returned to my room.
Later I was in the kitchen getting some of our great cold water when Marilyn walked in.
“Hey, hot stuff,” she grinned. She’d called me that for years and I never really knew why. She helped herself to a glass of our cold water. She wore a pink sweater and a gray skirt that floated as she moved, and looked elegant and fun at the same time.
“Hey, Aunt Marilyn,” I said automatically. My mother had told me to call her that, and I knew that the fact that there was no blood relation bothered my mother’s strict sense of definitions, but it was the only polite way for me to address her. “Connie smoking again?”
She nodded, swallowing her water. “Thought she had it licked. Well, it’s harder to give up than heroin, they say. So, yes, we have fifteen minutes.”
I could hear Mom chatting with Florence; I envisioned them on the couch, relaxing after sitting in the card table chairs.
Marilyn said, “Hey, what do President Truman and an eight-year-old girl have in common?”
As long as I’d known her—all of my life, actually—she’d given me riddles and brain teasers. I thought about a couple of things, then remembered the distinctive thing about Truman’s name was that he had no initial for his middle name; it was simple the letter ‘S’. In other words, no period. And, of course, an eight-year-old hasn’t started menstruating yet.
“No period,” I said.
“Too easy; you’re getting too smart for me,” she grinned, and then looked steadily at me.
I could feel the ‘pregnant pause’.
“Uh,” I began eloquently. “Mom told you.”
“Yes. I’m your godmother; you knew she would. How do you feel about it?”
“Well, what did she say?”
Marilyn sat at the kitchen table, which was kind of an invitation for me to do the same. As I sat, she said, “Before I answer that, will you answer me a question, honestly and fully?”
I sighed; here it comes, I thought. Why do you want to be a girl? Or, What makes you think you’re a girl? Or, Are you gay? But Marilyn being Marilyn, she surprised me.
“How did you acquire the lipstick?”
I knew that she knew it would be easy for me to lie and say ‘A girl at school gave it to me’. I had the sense she’d know it was a lie and be disappointed in me, and disappointing Marilyn was unthinkable to me.
I took a deep breath. “I had read popular lipstick colors for teen girls at various websites. On trips to stores, I would walk down the makeup aisles on my way to another section of the store. In time I learned where the brands were, and which colors were recommended for my skin tone. I found where the color was on the Revlon display and felt it was the right choice. I knew the store staffing ebb and flow from observation, and so on a late Saturday afternoon, I entered a specific RiteAid to buy some school supplies that I actually needed. There was no line, and as I got to the counter I triggered my cell phone in my pocket with a technique I’d learned on the net. My phone rang, and standing there at the checkout counter I pretended it was my sister calling her little brother and begging him to get her the Raspberry Bite because she was getting ready to go out and couldn’t find hers and she’d pay me back. The clerk didn’t hear any of that, of course; it was the script running in my head as I pretended to talk on the phone. I asked the clerk if she had it; she put in a call and someone brought it while I kept playacting, complaining to my ‘sister’. ‘You owe me—how much is it?’ I asked the clerk and rolled my eyes and it was added to my purchases and I’m fairly sure nobody knew.”
Marilyn stared at me for a moment as I drank deeply. Then she said, “You’ve got to teach me that trick to make your phone ring. Can you time it?”
“Yes, at thirty or sixty seconds.”
She nodded. “Should be enough. Well, I knew you didn’t steal it; it’s not your way. And I’ve heard your mom go on and on about your lack of friends. I think it was a brilliant method to avoid suspicion. But I can think of another way.”
“What?” I asked automatically, and was aware that she was looking at me, serious and hard.
Softly, she said, “Put on a skirt and heels and walk proudly to the counter and buy your own makeup.”
My heart clenched; I could actually feel it kind of go ‘urk!’ and I looked at her and sagged. “Not possible. After our talk last night I think she’ll never let me even wear a scarf.”
“Don’t be so quick to judge your mother, honey. I’m not going to say anything right now, because I’m sure the three of us will be talking after the game; that is, if you’ll be up.”
“Of course I’ll be up. But I don’t know what to say that will make my mother understand.”
“Again, don’t be so quick. She and I had a long talk last night and she’s had time to think.”
“Aunt Marilyn …what do you think? About me wanting to be a girl?”
“About wanting to be a member of the best gender on the planet?” she joked, then was serious. “Honey, I’m not going to say anything to you until your mother is present; I owe her that. I will tell you this, however. Everything she says tonight, when we’re talking about this? Count to ten before answering. And be willing to bend so you don’t break.”
“Going to make me that mad, huh?” I said, dejected. “Well, you’re right. I’m so tied up in knots about this. I don’t want to hurt her, but I can’t go on much longer. Every day is closer to death.”
“Don’t even think that, if you mean by your own hand! Promise me, on everything that we’ve meant to each other, and the love I have for you, promise me that you will never, ever kill yourself.”
I took a deep breath. “I promise, Aunt Marilyn. And you should know me better than that. I’m talking about a …a ‘soul death’. Mine. No hope; just endless misery.”
“Giving up on life? That’s not your way, either. It’s not in you; I know you well enough for that.” She tilted her head at a sound. “Connie’s back in. Well, time to go take the ladies to the cleaners.”
She stood, I did as well, and she hugged me. I could smell her cologne; my mother never wore any so my nose was sensitized to Marilyn. And her soft sweater—cashmere?—was heavenly, and even as I hugged my godmother, a part of me wondered what it would feel like to wear something so luxurious.
Marilyn returned to the bridge wars and I went back to my room. I looked up more sites dealing with transgendered people, teens if possible, and wondered if I would ever have a chance to even dress prettily for my mother, let alone travel the long road to girlhood.
End of Part 1
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudo!
Click the Good Story! button above to leave the author a kudo:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.