- This Is How It Always Is
“The other kids would make fun of me.” Claude’s eyes were full too.
“That’s true,” Penn admitted. “They would. But that would be okay. They wouldn’t mean it. They would make fun of you for a day or two then forget all about you and make fun of something else.”
“They would never forget. They would make fun of me every day forever.”
“We would help you,” said Rosie. “We could think of things to say back. We could think of ways to ignore them.”
“We could not.”
“We could talk to Miss Appleton.”
“Miss Appleton doesn’t like me.”
“Of course she does!”
“No, she thinks I’m weird. And if I wear a dress to school, she’ll think I’m really weird.”
“You wouldn’t be weird. You would be you in a dress. Smart, sweet, kind, funny you in a dress. It would be okay.”
“No,” said Claude, “this is okay. Real clothes at home, school clothes at school. I can just change.”
That “real” reverberated around in Penn’s brain until it was deafening. “Well that’s okay too, of course. But you should be able to be who you are, wear what you like. The other kids, your teacher, your friends, everyone would be fine. Everyone loves you for who you are.”
“No one but you,” said Claude. “No one but us. We are the only ones.”
We are the only ones. This was the part that haunted Rosie, hunted her. It supplanted quite a few other concerns to leapfrog up to number three or four. Rosie was gratified that Claude felt so supported at home. Rosie was horrified that Claude felt so precarious outside of it. But Rosie was also used to conflicting emotions, for she was a mother and knew every moment of every day that no one out in the world could ever love or value or nurture her children as well as she could and yet that it was necessary nonetheless to send them out into that world anyway.
Rosie’s number-one concern was: what would make Claude happy?
Penn’s number-one concern was: what would make Claude happy?
But happy is harder than it sounds.
So Claude changed clothes, his parents worried and did a lot of laundry, and a couple months of kindergarten passed without further incident. With five kids in school, Rosie took more day shifts at the hospital, worked fewer nights. Penn put more DN words on pages. They weren’t always good ones, but they occurred, and that was something. The weather turned cold. The air smelled of snow, the house of fires in the fireplace and soups on the stove. There was a lull as everything froze over, froze in place.
For Halloween, Roo wanted to be a pirate which was easy enough, and Ben wanted to be Roo which was easier still, and Rigel and Orion wanted to be conjoined twins which they practically were anyway. Everyone waited for Claude to say he wanted to be a princess or a mermaid or Miss Piggy. But Claude could not decide what he wanted to be. It was breakfast conversation for many chilly weeks running.
“Everyone else was a pumpkin in kindergarten,” Rosie offered. For a few years there, they’d gotten away with passing costumes—or at least costume ideas; often the costumes themselves did not survive the day—to the next brother down. “You would be the cutest pumpkin.”
“I could knit you a stem,” Rigel offered, “or a leaf, but the orange part would take forever.”
“I could make you a policeman,” said Orion. “Or a fireman. Or a fisherman. I have supplies for all of those.”
“Police officer,” Rosie corrected. “Firefighter. Fisher … person? Mariner? What do you call that?”
“Girls don’t fish,” said Roo.
“Sure they do,” said his father.
“Not for a living,” said Roo. “And Claude is a man. So if he were a police officer, he would be a policeman.”
“Claude is a boy, not a man.”
“Policeboy,” said Orion. “Fireboy. FISHBOY!”
“Why doesn’t he just dress up as a girl?” said Roo, as if his brother weren’t at the table with him. “That would be easy. He does it every day anyway.”
“Do you want to be a girl for Halloween, Claude?” Rosie was careful to keep her voice exactly neutral. If he were going to wear a dress to school, Halloween was the day to do it. Maybe this wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe he’d get it out of his system.
“Girl’s not a costume,” Claude said reasonably. And then, “I want to be Grumwald.”
“Grumwald?” said Penn.
“You can’t be Grumwald.”
“Grumwald doesn’t look like anything. Grumwald’s only a story we made up. Grumwald doesn’t exist corporeally.”
“Core what really?” Claude was still precocious, but he was only five.
“Grumwald doesn’t exist except in our heads,” Penn revised.
“That’s good,” said Orion. “Easy costume.”
“I don’t need help,” said Claude. “I’ll make it myself. What does he look like, Daddy? In your head?”
“He looks like you,” Penn said.
“Why him?” said Roo.
“Well, he used to look like you,” Penn told Roo. “He looked like each of you. He looks like all of you really.”