- This Is How It Always Is
“Sure, sweetie.” In the few seconds that passed while Penn fumbled with the nightlight, Claude was already fast asleep, lavender nightgown bunched up around his waist, not so tea length after all.
Absent her usual nightshirt, Rosie came to bed that night in a button-down of Penn’s which, like Princess Stephanie’s, was short enough to leave her legs free for fleeter flight. And like two-fifths of her sons, she had nothing on underneath.
Through that whole winter and spring, Claude came home every day from preschool, shed his clothes, and put the princess dress back on. And there at the beginning, after the first afternoon or two, no one—not Claude, not his brothers, not his parents—gave much thought to his dress, for he was still and always just Claude, and was it any stranger, really, than Roo performing a séance in the downstairs bathroom or than Rigel licking the spine of every book in the house to prove he could taste the difference between fiction and nonfiction? It was not.
Then summer arrived and with it the boys’ grandmother, and everything got even better. Improbably, Rosie’s mother’s name was Carmelo.
“Like the candy bar?” Penn had asked the first time.
“Not Caramello. Carmelo,” said Rosie, as if the former were ridiculous but the latter as reasonable as Anne or Barbara.
Roo, because he was the eldest, had an opportunity to intervene and rechristen her something normal. Instead, he’d gone with Carmy, some combo of Carmelo and Grammy, which truly sounded like something chocolate-covered. But she was not a chocolate-covered sort of grandma. She did not bake. She did not inveterately hand out sweets. She loved from a different place than that, better for the teeth. She was always threatening to move to be nearer to Rosie and the boys, but Wisconsin was—obviously, nonnegotiably, self-evidently—too cold. So she stayed in Phoenix and held the weather to her heart as a talisman, clutched to her breast against all counteroffers.
But she came up for the summers. Phoenix’s weather need not be clutched to the breast for June through September. Every year, she rented the same rundown lake cottage from a colleague of Rosie’s who couldn’t be bothered to fix it up enough to rent to tourists. She stood on its front porch and watched the sun rise over the lake every morning and smoked Camels. She was the only grandmother any of the boys’ friends knew who would have been willing—never mind able—to take out six or seven of them at a time in the ancient green rowboat that came with, and perhaps predated, the house. She swam every day out to the glacial rock in the middle of the lake that felt like it had very lately been glacier itself, hauled herself onto the mammoth slab, sunned the chill out of her bones, and then swam back. She was the most glamorous thing the boys had ever seen.
It was one of those hot, humid, buggy Wisconsin summers where it went from snow to sauna in a week and a half and stayed there. The boys spent it perpetually wet from the lake, the sprinkler, a surprisingly durable water slide Roo built out of trash bags on his grandmother’s front lawn. Carmelo taught Rigel to knit. At first, she thought it was the resemblance of the needles to something a ninja might own that appealed to him, and maybe it was, but he fixed on it like sand to sunscreen and spent the summer trailing training scarves everywhere, dropped stitches unraveling like plot threads. Ben used practice tassels as bookmarks. Jupiter used abandoned projects as bedding. Orion employed them as bandanas, sweatbands, do-rags, tube tops, cummerbunds, and toga tails, coming down to lazy summer breakfasts as Bruce Springsteen and Julius Caesar (equally ancient in his mind), 50 Cent and Fred Astaire. But Claude wore them as long, flowing hair—tresses that cascaded down his back or could be attached via headband then rubber-banded up like a real ponytail. Roo began a practice he would hone to an art in the years to come: pretending he wasn’t related to any of them.
Carmy let Claude try on her dresses and jewelry and shoes. When Claude made tea to go with his tea-length dress, she pulled out cookies or cheese and crackers to go with it and changed out of her T-shirt and shorts so that Claude didn’t have to be fancy alone.
Only once, early on, did Claude wonder, “Carmy?”
“Will you love me even if I keep wearing a dress?”
“I will love you even if you wear a dress made out of puppies.” Carmelo nuzzled his neck, and he giggled. “I will love you even if you wear a hat made out of toe cheese.”
Claude wrinkled his nose. “You will?”
“’Cause I’m your grandma. That’s what grandmas are for.”
“Loving you no matter what you wear?”
“Loving you no matter what.”
Claude considered that distinction. “Is that why you still like Orion?” who was at that moment wandering through the kitchen wearing an unspooling umber pot holder as a loincloth.
Carmelo squeezed her eyes shut. “No matter what.”
Carmelo was also the one who took Claude to buy a bathing suit as a preschool graduation present. She let him pick it out himself, which is how Rosie arrived home from work one day to find her youngest son running through the sprinkler in a pink bikini with white and yellow daisies.
“Where did that come from?” She bent from the waist to kiss him way out in front of her so she would stay dry.
“Isn’t it great?” Claude looked lit up. At first she’d taken him to be sunburned, but in fact he was glowing. “Carmy got it for me for graduation.”