- This Is How It Always Is
Roo’s English teacher graded papers at her dining-room table. One morning, her husband grabbed her folder instead of his on the way to work. When he realized his error in the middle of a meeting, he called in his assistant to swap it out. The assistant looked inside and recognized Roo’s last name and read his essay and relayed that remarkable piece of gossip to her own husband in bed that night. The assistant was Marnie Alison’s mother. She had a very loud voice. Or a daughter with very good ears.
This is the way the world ends.
In the three days it took the principal to put this together, Poppy—Claude—refused to take phone calls from Natalie or Kim. He refused to notice that Aggie did not call or text or come over. He refused to reply to his teacher who emailed to say that Poppy or any version of Poppy was welcome back at school at any time, where she would be loved and accepted for who she was, and anyone who didn’t like it could consider that fact from detention. He deleted without rereading a message from Jake who texted to say he was sorry and Marnie was a bitch and he’d only been teasing, and if he’d known it was true, he’d never have gone along with it. Claude did take a call from Carmelo, whose grandmotherly advice was, “Fuck the bastards,” and though those were in fact the most comforting words he received all week, they weren’t enough to convince him to leave his room. He ate only cereal. He did not answer the door when his parents knocked and called gently from the other side, “Sweetie? Are you okay? Can we bring you anything? Would you like to talk?” He was not okay, obviously. There was nothing they could bring him, also obviously. A time machine? A new body? A different life? Those were what he needed, and they were things his parents could not bring. He did not want to talk. He would rather die than talk. There was nothing to discuss about a life that was over except where to bury the body, and his life was over but there was nothing to bury. As usual, his body betrayed him in every way.
On the third night, the knocker was Ben instead of his parents.
“Go away.” Not angry. Desperate. A plea.
“Dude. It’s me,” said Ben. “Let me in.”
Claude peeked his bald head through the door. “Why are you calling me dude?”
“That’s what guys call each other.”
“Let me in.”
He did. “All guys?”
“Yeah. So. How’s it hangin’?”
“How’s … what hanging?”
“It’s an expression,” Ben explained. “It’s how guys ask each other how they are.”
“Why don’t they just say ‘How are you?’”
“They don’t want to get beat up.”
Claude’s eyes were wide. “Guys get beat up for asking how you are?”
“Guys get beat up for everything. Asking how you are. Caring how you are. Using big words. Pronouncing them correctly. Wearing colorful things.”
“Oh yeah. And that’s just the beginning. If you’re too smart, too dumb, too cool, too worried about being cool, too nicely dressed, too hiply dressed, not hiply enough dressed, listening to the wrong music, listening to the right music on the wrong device, asking stupid questions in class, asking smart questions in class, asking questions in class that lead to more work in class, slow in gym, nice to a little kid, nice to a teacher, nice to your mom on school grounds, too good with computers, too often reading, or discovered during a field trip to Washington, DC, to be in your hotel room watching a movie with subtitles, if you’re a guy, someone’s going to beat you up.”
Eyes wider still. “Who?”
“Someone.” Ben shrugged. “So it doesn’t really matter who. You also have to walk the right way, which you don’t. You’re too bouncy. You’re too sure about where you’re going and too excited to go there. Low. Slouchy. Don’t give a crap where you’re going or whether or not you get there. These are your goals.”
“I walk like normal.” But it came out more like a question.
“Not for a guy you don’t. And no more giggling. In fact, laughing at all is bad unless you’re laughing at someone. No speaking in French anymore, ever, not even in French class if you can help it. No words over three syllables. I mean it. And you’re going to have to change your name—again—because Claude is seriously European and borderline gay.”
Claude narrowed his eyes. This story, like all the stories told in his household, was starting to smell suspiciously like there was going to be a moral to it. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m helping. You want to be a boy now, you’re going to need help. A tutorial. Regular boys learn this stuff along the way. You were all playing with dolls and being accepted for who you were. But don’t worry—I can catch you up. I got your back.”
This was not his point, and Claude knew it. “This is not your point.”
“What is your point nonobliquely?”
“I have two. One is that fitting in and being normal doesn’t exist. Not for a few years in the middle. Your thing is you’re a girl with a penis. My thing was I walked wrong and talked wrong and wore the wrong clothes and read books and knew a lot about computers and knew a lot about a lot of things but not enough about when to keep my mouth shut and feign ignorance or disregard. You can have matching genitalia and still not fit in. You can have matching genitalia, and still kids will be mean and make fun of you.”