- This Is How It Always Is
Penn was trying to convince himself Roo was having an Annus Mirabilis. He was trying to value it because, though it was bad, it could have been worse. So far as Penn knew, Roo hadn’t set fire to anything, but otherwise, his seventeenth year had much in common with England 1666. He was at war (with his parents and siblings). He was with plague (lethargy, listlessness, an oppressive weariness with everyone and everything in the world). He wasn’t doing all that great in calculus.
And the main problem Roo was having was indeed historical. His AP history teacher had tasked her students with “making a video presentation on a current issue currently impacting America.” Had Roo argued he shouldn’t have to do such a vague and poorly worded assignment, had he come to his father to allege that, by definition, current events weren’t history, at least not yet, Penn might have been sympathetic. But Roo did the assignment.
Then he got an F.
Then he refused to redo it.
Then he forged his mother’s signature on the notice advising her of her son’s malfeasance.
When they got the report card for the quarter, Penn and Rosie could not help noticing that Roo was failing history.
Roo swore it had to be a typo. Roo admitted he had missed a quiz because he’d been at the dentist but that he’d made it up after school, and Mrs. Birkus probably just hadn’t graded it yet. Roo said he was doing well in everything else, except maybe calculus, so didn’t he deserve the benefit of the doubt? Roo said given that he was getting As and Bs in his other subjects, what were the odds he was getting an F in history?
They turned out to be pretty high.
When Rosie and Penn went in to meet with the teacher, Mrs. Birkus explained that Roo’s video was about the problems with allowing LGBT soldiers to serve openly in the armed forces.
“Impossible,” Penn said confidently.
“Alas, I’m afraid not.” Mrs. Birkus was used to disabusing parents of shiny impressions of their children.
“You don’t understand. Roo’s not antigay. He can’t be because … Well, we know that he … You see at home…” Penn found there was no way to finish this sentence, but he was relieved anyway because clearly there had been some kind of misunderstanding here. “Anyway, trust me, there must be a mistake.”
“Quite a few,” Mrs. Birkus allowed, “but not, apparently, the ones you imagine.”
Then she showed them the video.
It was a family affair. It starred a great many of Poppy’s dolls and stuffies dressed in Orion’s costumes and Rigel’s knitting projects. Ben was the puppet master, wiggling each character before the camera in turn, his hand creeping occasionally (Rosie imagined, guiltily) into the shot. It began with Roo’s best movie trailer impersonation: “In a world where the US Army is the greatest fighting force on Earth, gays do not belong. The navy is navy, not rainbow-colored. There’s no trans in the air force, no lesbians in the marines, no bi in the sky.” The particulars of the plot were hard to follow, but eventually a camo-clad Alice and Miss Marple spent some time rolling around in a sandbox with guns (Penn was guessing pretzel rods) and then rolling around in a bed together until an apparent superior officer (a roll of paper towels in a naval cap of Orion’s decorated with a few of Ben’s debate ribbons) burst in on them screaming. “You [bleep]ing [bleep]ing [bleep]s don’t belong in this man’s army,” the paper-towel roll opined. “The [bleep]ing government in its [bleep]ing wisdom may disagree, but they’re not [bleep]ing running things around this [bleep]. I am. So they can suck my [bleep].” In the next scene, three Barbies dropped incendiaries (Penn was guessing raisins) from F-15s, destroying LEGO villages below, but when one of the Barbies donned men’s dress blues for a party that evening, five plastic soldiers Penn had never seen before in his life (they were Aggie’s) came out of nowhere, stripped the Barbie, and attacked her. Given the limitations of the medium, the precise nature of the action was not clear, but though TransBarbie eventually kicked the plastic soldiers’ bleeps, it was not without more language bluer than his uniform.
“At least he bleeped himself out,” Penn offered.
Mrs. Birkus was unimpressed.
In the school parking lot, Penn was incredulous. “Roo can’t be homophobic. He can’t be antigay. He can’t possibly be antitrans and living in our household.”
“Maybe that’s why,” Rosie said softly.
“Does he need therapy?” Penn wasn’t listening to her. Penn wasn’t even listening to himself. “An intervention? A stint in the military himself?”
“Maybe he didn’t mean it.”
“It seemed pretty clear.” Penn was not keeping his voice down.
“Did it?” It had seemed like an embarrassing mess to Rosie.
“What is wrong with this boy?” Penn asked no one in particular. Milling-around high-schoolers stared at him disdainfully.
“Let’s go home and ask him,” said his wife.
At home, they sat Roo down at the homeworking table.
“We saw your video.” Rosie dove right in. She didn’t want to give him another opportunity to lie to them.
“Did you like it?” Roo sneered. It wasn’t the video that was going to cause his father to end his Annus Mirabilis. It was the smirk.
“Did you?” Penn tried not to shriek. Roo’s left shoulder more shuddered than shrugged. The rest of his body curled into itself like a comma. “Because it seemed like a lot of work. Long way to go to make idiot points and stupid jokes.” Roo cringed, maybe at the idiot, maybe at the stupid, maybe at his father screaming like a lunatic. “Long way to go just to humiliate people.”