- This Is How It Always Is
These were Penn’s second through twenty-ninth concerns. He felt bees buzzing behind his rib cage. But before Penn could settle on a parenting path, Claude slipped out of his chair, padded upstairs, and emerged again wordlessly, defrocked and de-barretted, Penn’s skirt-shirt gone, only his own remaining over a pair of navy shorts. Claude shouldered his peanut-free purse, and everyone went off to school. When he got home at the end of a much smoother day, he went straight to his room and pulled Penn’s shirt back on under his own, stuck the barrettes back in his hair, added a pair of Carmelo’s clip-on earrings, and sat down at the dining-room table to homework with everyone else. Penn bit his bottom lip. The outfit itself didn’t much worry him—it ranked in the high thirties, maybe—but its persistence was starting to creep into the top ten. Instead, he turned to homeworking.
Penn was in charge of homework, and he had rules. Homeworking never commenced—even complaining about homeworking never commenced—until after snack. And it had to be a good snack. Penn recognized peanut butter on a celery stick for the bullshit it was. Blueberry pancakes. Chocolate banana pops. Zucchini mini pizzas. These were snacks. Then the dining-room table was cleared, wiped down, and requisitioned for work. All boys—Penn included—sat down and got to it, homeworking quietly, asking questions or for additional help as necessary, calming so that others could concentrate. Homeworking en masse made it more fun. Penn recalled hours in his room as a child, slogging through math problems or write-ups of science experiments or memorizing the words for things in French. Downstairs, his parents would be watching TV or laughing together about their day while upstairs he suffered the isolating boredom and nagging insecurity of passé composé. At his dining-room table with his cadre of boys, however, he could approach homework, aptly, like dinner—everything shared, the trials and triumphs, each according to his abilities, everyone pitching in to help. Roo might say, “Can anyone think of another way to say ‘society’?” or Ben might say, “Is there even a word for ‘soufflé’ in Spanish?” or Rigel and Orion might be building a rocket together while their father hoped it was for a science project and not just for the sake of blowing stuff up.
Over the years, kindergarten homework had gotten more … Rosie said “intense”; Penn said “asinine with an emphasis on the ass.” When Roo was in kindergarten, there was playing with blocks and in the sandbox. There was learning to sit quietly on the rug and listen to a story. Now Claude had kindergarten homework of his very own. On this second night of school, it was to draw a picture of himself and write a sentence about what he hoped to learn this year. Claude’s sentence was “I hope to learn about science including stars, what kind of frogs live in Wisconsin, why oceans are salty, air currents and other winds, and why peanut butter is not allowed at school.” Penn marveled at his youngest son. So many children seemed somehow to age the littler ones more quickly, like some kind of obscure Einsteinian law of physics. Claude’s picture was of the whole family, and Penn could not decide if it was wonderful or alarming that, assigned to draw himself, Claude drew them all. Penn and Rosie and Carmelo stood with lanky arms around one another’s lanky shoulders, heads grazing the clouds just above them, the blue of the sky creeping occasionally over the outline of their faces so that their cheeks were smeared with the firmament. In front of them, sitting crisscross-applesauce all in a row in the grass, were five brothers: Roo’s hair curling out wider than his body; Ben’s glasses owling huge, dark eyes straight off the page; Rigel and Orion with ears unfairly cocked at right angles from pointy, parallel heads. And small in the corner—because he’d run out of room? because he got lost in his overlarge family? because he felt insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe?—Claude had drawn himself in his tea-length dress with ruby slippers and wavy brown hair down to the ground, held back off his face with a dozen barrettes that snaked colored ribbons in all directions, cascading over his brothers, over his parents, over the clouds and the trees and the grass and the sky, a small, windblown child in his own personal tempest, puzzling over air currents and other winds and his place in the world, which, it struck Penn, was right about there, right where he’d imagined it. Penn’s concern over the drawing subsided into the high teens.
The picture went without comment by Miss Appleton except for a hastily penned and not very convincing “Nice work!” plus a sticker of a grinning check mark (because, Penn wondered, actually making a check mark was too much effort?). So did the lunch purse as long as it didn’t contain peanut butter. And Claude, for his part, merely changed clothes four times a day: PJs to a dress when he woke, then into school clothes after breakfast, then back into a dress and heels and jewelry when he got home, then back into PJs before bed.
Saying good night one night, smoothing the hair back off Claude’s forehead, listening to him tell them sweetly, sleepily, about his day, Rosie squeezed Penn’s hand for support and took a deep breath. “Does it make you tired, all that changing of clothes?” she asked gently.
Claude’s forehead wrinkled. His tiny shoulders shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“You know,” Penn said carefully, so carefully, “you could wear a dress or a skirt to school if you wanted. It would be okay.”
“No it wouldn’t,” said Claude.
Rosie felt her eyes produce actual tears of relief that Claude didn’t leap at this chance immediately. But she persisted anyway. “Sure it would.”