- This Is How It Always Is
“Really.” This was only sometimes true. Sometimes Claude considered that probably they were not going to stay in Thailand forever, and probably his parents were not going to think a fourth-and-a-half-grade education was sufficient, and probably he was going to have to go back to his old life except his old life was gone. Poppy had friends, but Claude had none. Poppy had talents, but Claude sucked at everything. Poppy was normal, but Claude would never, ever, ever, ever stop being a freak. He had been able to picture Poppy’s life next year in middle school and then high school after that and how Poppy and Aggie would go off to college together and how someday Poppy would have a job and be a mom and eventually an old lady like Carmy, smoking and swimming in lakes and drinking gin and tonics and making her grandchildren laugh. Poppy had futures, but Claude had nothing. He couldn’t even picture Claude’s life now, even while he was looking at it in the tiny picture in the corner of his computer screen.
But sometimes he really was fine because none of it was possible, and this was a comfort. Claude was impossible but so was Poppy, so was Aggie, so was fifth grade, so was Seattle, so was last month when her biggest worry was those stupid, embarrassing movies they showed in health class. Sometimes all there was in the world was the jungle and a school that was barely a building and little kids whose parents had been killed by bugs and the small, scant, desperate possibility that somehow maybe he could help them a little bit, and in that case, who he was didn’t matter, not even to him. “Really,” he told his father. “I’m okay.”
“I miss you, baby,” said Penn. “I wish I were there.”
“You do,” Claude agreed, “because you can’t even believe it, Dad. They have Cinderella in Thailand. It’s like the exact same story only completely different.”
“Of course.” Penn played nonchalance, but even over grainy, laggy Wi-Fi, he saw his child spark. His daughter spark. For the first time since what had happened, there was a glimmering there. Seeing it was like a benediction. Seeing it was like a laceration. There were too many miles in between them to reach across and cup his hands around this precious flame, his arms around this precious child. This precious girl.
So he settled for chalk talk. “That’s how fairy tales work.”
“They’re renewed and retold and reimagined everywhere forever. The oral tradition. That’s what makes them endless.”
“I thought it was magic that made them endless. I thought it was the magic armor.”
“Well, sure, that too.”
“I was telling them about Grumwald—”
“Oh. Poppy. Claude. Sweetheart. I’m so…” But then his voice broke, and he didn’t finish saying whatever it was he was saying.
“There’s a lot I don’t know about because I never heard the beginning of the story or I don’t remember.”
“It’s your story, sweetheart. Not just your story to pass on. Your story to make up as well. Over time, stories change; they shift; they become something new but with elements of the original and elements of what’s to come.”
“Oh.” Claude was suddenly sullen again. “Like me.”
“Exactly.” Penn panicked for the precious flame. “Exactly like you. What a wonderful thing. Why would change make you sad?”
“Because it doesn’t mean different,” said Claude. “It means ruined. Why can’t one thing just stay the same?”
“Some things do stay the same. Like how we love you no matter what.” Penn thought how much easier it was to say things from halfway around the world sometimes. It wasn’t because it was on a computer instead of in person. It was because remote love hurt but gave you clarity. Sending your child to a jungle seven thousand miles away was oddly elucidating. “And some things change because it’s good and natural that they do. Because it’s time. And you wouldn’t want to stop them.”
“I would.” Claude started crying, and then he was embarrassed because if he was a boy now he couldn’t cry anymore.
“And some things change exactly because we try to prevent their doing so.” Penn dropped his voice and then his eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh baby, I think what happened was maybe my fault.” He’d been thinking about this since they left. He’d gone over it and over it. Marnie Alison was a nicer scapegoat and probably a more deserving one, but Penn recognized all that was at stake here. “I think maybe we waited too long to tell everyone how special you are. We tried to keep you a secret, but why would we keep anything as wonderful and remarkable as you a secret?”
“So everyone at school isn’t thinking about what’s in my pants.”
Penn had to admit this was a good reason. He remembered sitting in wet paint at recess once when he was in fifth grade and thinking he would die of embarrassment before the end of the school day, and then kids were just thinking about what was on his pants. And they probably weren’t even thinking about that. But Penn had realized something new. Something new about something old. Something important. “It’s funny you were telling stories with your students. I’ve been thinking about the same thing. You know what I like about fairy tales?”