- This Is How It Always Is
The doctors would always continue, “The babbling is an important first step, of course, but it’s not what we mean when we say ‘speech.’ ‘Ma’ and ‘da’ don’t count.”
“Bologna,” said Rosie.
“No, I’m afraid it’s true,” said the doctors.
In Claude’s linguistically formative weeks, meat had been a source of great discord in their household. Rigel was refusing to eat anything but deli. He demanded bologna for breakfast and lunch, roast beef for dinner and dessert, salami for snack. He came home from kindergarten with pictures of corned-beef rainbows. His dump trucks and spaceships all delivered ham. To balance this out, Orion ate nothing but carrots and carrot-shaped foods, and though his parents were grateful for the nutritional options thus available in the form of veggie dogs and granola bars with the ends chewed to a taper, this arrangement was not sustainable. The upshot, Penn explained to the doctors, was that a nine-month-old saying “bologna” was remarkable, yes, but sometimes even the remarkable got lost in the fray. Rosie’s point was more this: the normal state of children is nothing remotely resembling normal. Which makes it hard to identify the aberrations when they come.
Claude said “bologna” at nine months, was talking in full sentences before his first birthday.
“Does he have an older sibling?” said the doctors.
“Oh yeah,” said Penn.
And they seemed satisfied.
But Claude was precocious in other ways too. He crawled at six months. Walked at nine. During the year he was three, Claude wrote and illustrated a series of mysteries in which a puppy and a panda teamed up to solve crimes. He made a birthday cake—three-tiered—for Rigel and Orion with no help from anyone except with the oven. He said he wanted to be a chef when he grew up. He also said he wanted to be a cat when he grew up. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be a chef, a cat, a vet, a dinosaur, a train, a farmer, a recorder player, a scientist, an ice-cream cone, a first baseman, or maybe the inventor of a new kind of food that tasted like chocolate ice cream but nourished like something his mother would say yes to for breakfast. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be a girl.
“Okay,” Penn said the first time as he had to everything else, including the ice-cream cone. “Sounds great.”
And Rosie said, “You can be anything you want when you grow up, baby. Anything at all.”
She meant this to be encouraging, of course. She meant it as an assertion of faith in her baby boy, that his future was limitless because he was smart, talented, thoughtful, and a hard worker, that he would, in short, be able to do anything he came to want to do. She figured by the time he got there, he’d no longer want to be a cat or a train or an ice-cream cone, so his inability to achieve these goals wouldn’t be upsetting. That’s what she meant.
Remarkable though he was, however, Claude was still only three. “Mama?”
“When I grow up and become a girl, will I start over?”
“Start over from where?”
“Start over from being a baby.”
“What do you mean, sweetie?”
“Will I have to start being a girl from the beginning and grow up all over again? Or will I be a girl who’s the age that I am when I’m growed-up and can become one?”
“You lost me,” said Rosie.
“I want to be a little girl when I grow up, but when I’m grown-up, I won’t be little anymore.”
“Ahh, I see.” She didn’t. “I don’t think you’ll probably want to be a little girl anymore when you grow up. I don’t think you’ll want to be a train or a cat or an ice-cream cone either.”
“Because that’s silly,” said Claude.
“Instead, you’ll probably want a job. Maybe it will be farmer or scientist. Or maybe it will be something you haven’t even thought of yet. It’s okay. You have a long time to decide.”
“Are there girl farmers and girl scientists?” said Claude.
“Of course,” said Rosie. “I’m a girl scientist.”
“That’s what I want to be then,” said Claude decisively. “A girl scientist. Can I have a Popsicle?”
“Sure,” said Rosie.
Later—was it later that day or that week or that month? Neither Penn nor Rosie could remember when asked, again and again over the many years, how persistent, how consistent, he’d been, how sure—Rosie opened her eyes in the middle of the night to find Claude standing next to her bed.
“Sweetie. You scared me.”
“When I’m a girl scientist, can I wear a dress to work?”
She willed her eyes to focus on the clock then wished she hadn’t. “It’s 3:04, Claude.”
“I guess you’ll wear a lab coat.”
“Like my raincoat?”
“Yeah, but white usually. And not waterproof. And no hood.”
“Okay. Good night.”
Rosie slept in. When she came down for breakfast, Penn reported, “Claude wants to know if he can wear a dress under his lab coat when he’s a girl scientist.”