- This Is How It Always Is
“I don’t get the middle way.” Claude made his legs make figure eights through the warm water and tried to match his mother’s certain tone.
“Because there is no middle way.” It came out between a groan and a whimper. “There are only two choices, and they aren’t even choices, at least not ones you get to choose. If you only tell some of the truth, that’s a lie. If only one tiny stupid part of you is a boy, you can never be a girl.”
“All of that seems true. It does.” His mother reached across the water and took his hands. “But it’s not. I think the middle way is hard for the same reason the middle way is right.”
“Because it’s invisible.”
“Like in a fairy tale?”
“No,” his mother said to the fish, then looked up at him. “Actually, yes, sort of like a fairy tale. There’s a fork in the road. It seems like there are only two choices. It seems like the task is to figure out which way to go, left or right, forward or back, deeper or safer, but in fact any of those choices is easy compared to the real trick. The real trick is you have to forge your way straight ahead through the trees where there is no path.”
“Why doesn’t that sound peaceful?” Claude, the budding Buddhist.
Rosie didn’t know. “Maybe it is in the long run? Maybe it takes time. Maybe peaceful and easy turn out to be opposites.” She thought of the whole lifetime it takes to grow up and become an entire person. She thought of the day she and Penn—a family of two at the time—painted the nursery yellow, the color of either way, of dispelling fear, of not-knowing. The color of Monday. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Claude looked up from the fish.
“I miss Poppy.” Rosie smiled.
Claude didn’t say anything. Then he said, “But didn’t you miss Claude when you had Poppy?”
“That’s not quite what I mean,” Rosie said carefully. “You know, I’ve called you Claude here because you asked me to. But it doesn’t really matter to me what your name is or what your hair looks like or if you’re my daughter or my son because no matter what, I only, I always, see you. You are always the same child to me, my brilliant beautiful shining child, my baby. You became Poppy, but you never stopped being Claude. You became Claude again, but you never stopped being Poppy. Boy or girl, Poppy or Claude, they seem so different to you, to the world. Not to me. Used to be, I couldn’t even tell them apart.”
“Used to be?”
“Now I see how different Poppy and Claude are, but not how you think. I miss Poppy not because I miss my happy, strong, laughing little girl but because I miss my happy, strong, laughing child. Claude is a lost, sad child out of joint. That’s what I’ve realized since we’ve been here. It’s not that Poppy’s the girl and Claude’s the boy. There’s boy and girl in both of them. They both have what they parade and what they hide. It’s that Poppy’s the happy child, and Claude is the sad one. Poppy’s the one who fits and feels comfortable, and Claude is the one who chafes in ill-shaped holes. And that makes it so much easier to choose between them.”
“But you said it’s hard, and you have to plow through the trees anyway. You said invisible middle way.”
“Because Poppy is the happy child, but Poppy is also the way through the trees I think. You have to be—you get to be—Poppy, even though it’s hard. What was wrong at home wasn’t being Poppy. What was wrong was trying to make it easy to be Poppy. Being Poppy isn’t easy. What we have to do is help you be Poppy even though it’s hard.”
“I never said being Poppy was too hard.” Claude crossed his arms over his chest, whether defiant or hugging himself his mother could not say. “I’m not afraid of that.”
“Maybe it’s not being Poppy that’s hard,” Rosie acknowledged. “Maybe it’s staying Poppy. Staying Poppy is going to get complicated for a while here. You have some tough decisions to make, but we’ll help. You have some tough reentry to go back to, but it won’t be as bad as you think. Being Poppy will never be featherweight, but I think it’s lighter than being Claude. And fortunately, Poppy is strong as seas.”
Claude—Poppy—shook garra rufa fish off dripping legs and went to find the restroom. Right there in the hallway, exactly where you’d expect the bathrooms to be, there were three of them. One sign had a blue person in pants. And one sign had a red person with a cute flip hairstyle in a skirt. And one sign was half of each, a person whose left, blue leg was in pants and whose right, red leg came out from under a skirt. Claude—and Poppy—stood for a long time looking at it, making sure it wasn’t a trick, making sure they understood. It seemed impossible, but here it was. For the first time in their whole, whole lives, there was a right door.
Inside, there was a bathroom. Sinks, toilets, toilet paper even. Ordinary. Nothing special. A miracle.
Rosie’s first day back at the clinic was a long one. She and Poppy—they were making an effort to reclaim the name, a statement of hope, a declaration of intent—had gotten back late the night before, and then Rosie had come in even earlier than usual. A woman pregnant with twins delivered the first baby quick and easy but the second baby slow and hard. It was after one in the morning when Rosie got on her bike and checked her phone. Fifteen missed calls from Penn. Fifteen. And seven texts, two words apiece, all exactly the same: CALL HOME. She did so instantly. Call failed. She raised her arm and waved her phone in all directions. No cell service. Though she doubted it could bear her weight, she tried standing on the bright-blue plastic table that passed for the clinic intake desk. It wobbled, held, but did not result in bars on her phone. Was it true or some kind of desperate urban legend that getting higher up led to cell service? She made it as far as the first branch of the (she thought acacia?) tree next to the Ambulatory Care Center before the threat of whatever might be living there and the insanity she was displaying outweighed the remote possibility of some kind of altitudinous arboreal connectivity.