- This Is How It Always Is
“You should spend winter break practicing, working with him on answers.” Victoria Revels was much less patient than Miss Appleton.
“Answers to what?” said Rosie.
“You can expect elementary schoolchildren to ask questions such as” —Ms. Revels was reading off her paperwork—“‘Why are you wearing a dress? Boys can’t wear skirts. Are you a girl? What happened to your penis? Why are you wearing earrings or other jewelry or makeup if applicable? Why is your hair long and/or in barrettes or other feminine headwear? What happened to your penis?’ Hmm, they’ve listed that one twice.”
“Is it entirely appropriate”—Rosie directed this toward Dwight Harmon—“for kindergarteners to be discussing penises so…?”
“Willy-nilly?” Penn was nervous.
The principal just managed to suppress a smile in front of the district representative but declined to answer the question.
“Do you have answers you’d recommend?” Rosie asked Victoria Revels.
“He should tell the truth.” She was a TV lawyer giving advice to someone wrongfully accused.
“Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what that is,” said Penn. “He has no idea why he wants to wear dresses and jewelry. Do you?” Miss Appleton fingered the gold birds hanging from each ear but said nothing. “Like all of us, he has no idea why he is who he is or why he wants what he wants.”
“I imagine the specific answers are less of an issue,” Dwight suggested, “than the tenor of his reply. As long as he can be calm and open—”
“And remember to use the nurse’s bathroom,” interrupted Victoria Revels.
“—and remember to use the nurse’s bathroom, he should be fine.”
“As long as he doesn’t bring peanut butter for lunch,” said Rosie.
“Or jelly you’ve dipped your peanut butter knife in,” Miss Appleton added. “Like if you were eating peanut butter over the weekend or something.”
Carmelo came up for the holidays armed, grandmotherly, with gifts. She brought Roo and Ben an apparatus to turn the dining/homeworking table into a dining/homeworking/Ping-Pong table. She brought Rigel patterns to knit a bowling set—balls, pins, bowling slippers, and drink cozies. He was excited but disappointed he couldn’t knit the lane as well. She brought Orion a Sherlock Holmes costume, so he spent the whole break investigating mysteries. Since there were no mysteries as such, he had to plant clues to discover himself. Soon fingerprints smeared all the mirrors, and scraps of scribbled-on paper accidentally fell behind desks, and rugs were helped to fray in suggestive and incriminating ways until Rosie put an abrupt stop to that particular line of investigation. Carmelo brought Claude a new tea-length dress because he’d outgrown the other one. She brought him a giant bag of new school clothes for a new year—skirts and casual dresses and cute cardigans with frilly tanks to go underneath and tights to keep his legs warm. She brought a pair of wings you donned simply by slipping your arms through the straps like a backpack, no more or less monumental than that. For New Year’s, she brought supplies to make brownies, banana splits, and noisemakers, never mind no one celebrating anything anywhere had noisemakers louder than the children themselves.
Rosie and Penn went out, their first New Year’s Eve out since the one before Roo was born, the difference now being basically everything, inclusive of the fact that they lacked the organization to have made a reservation or the energy to stay up past 9:45. They wound up at a coffee shop, where they drank tea with the grad students who had stayed in town over the holiday and made dinner out of two muffins and a chocolate-chip cookie.
Rosie didn’t feel hungry anyway. Rosie wasn’t sure she would feel hungry ever again. She gripped her temples and tried to decide whether, if she let go, her face would crash into the table or her head would float up through the ceiling into the sky like a balloon, smaller and smaller until it disappeared forever. “Remind me again why we’re doing this.”
Penn didn’t need to ask which “this” she meant. “We asked him. This is what he said he wanted.”
“He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s only five.”
“In order to be happy,” Penn added.
“He can’t possibly understand, never mind weigh, what’s going to happen when he goes to school dressed as a girl.”
“A girl fairy.”
“Next week,” Rosie added, just in case he was missing the enormity of the situation.
“Why would we ask him what he wants anyway? He wants to sleep in the crate with Jupiter. He thinks high heels are comfortable. This is clearly not a human whose judgment should be used to make major life decisions.”
“You’re not wrong.” Penn’s face felt frozen in a pose he hoped suggested concerned optimism rather than panicked mania. He remembered their first date, all those little lifetimes ago, another evening when he could not calm his racing heart or make his face do as he wished. If this worked out just a fraction as well as that had, it would be okay. He wanted also to believe that because that evening had worked out as well as it had, perhaps they were protected, perhaps nothing could go all that wrong. But maybe it was just the opposite.