- This Is How It Always Is
Claude had nowhere else to go, so he stayed late at the school. The woman with the painted cheeks put him to work cleaning brooms, which seemed like a waste of time to him though he supposed you couldn’t get clean floors with dirty brooms. When he finally got back to their room at the guesthouse, it was empty. It felt late—it felt like tomorrow—but his mother was nowhere. As soon as he opened the computer though, it rang. Claude hoped his father wouldn’t be too disappointed to find yet another son instead of his wife.
From fifteen time zones away, Penn held his breath as electrons danced across oceans and connected and a window opened in Thailand to reveal his daughter. Her stubbled bare head, her baggy clothes, her swollen red eyes burned through his computer screen and made her look like a small, sad, tired version of his little girl, but his little girl nonetheless. She could go halfway around the world and transform herself utterly, but she was still right there before him. He remembered back when she first became Poppy, how his brain could not use pronouns anymore, and this felt the same. This strange new boy who called himself Claude was only pretend. Penn could still see Poppy right there, unmissable as Christmas.
“How was your first day at the clinic?” Penn could hear the inanity of this as if he were asking how was school or had she done all her homework. But he didn’t want to scare her or, worse, plant as yet seedless ideas, so he refrained from asking what he really wanted to know.
“Stupid,” Claude sulked.
Penn kept his voice upbeat. “What did you do?”
“They made me teach.”
His father’s face lit up. “Teach what?”
“English. To little kids.”
“How wonderful!” Penn launched brain waves of ecstatic thanks toward Southeast Asia. “Pop … Claude, what a gift to you and to these children. What a fine teacher you must be.”
“They think I’m a monk,” Claude said.
“They do? Why?”
“Because I’m bald.” Claude ran a miserable hand over his miserable hair. His miserable nonhair.
“They’re little,” said his father. “They’re just confused.”
“Can girls be monks?” Claude did not raise his eyes from the keyboard. “Or does that mean they can tell I’m a boy?”
“I don’t know,” Penn admitted. “I don’t know much about Buddhist monks.”
“I thought maybe…” Claude trailed off.
“Nothing. It’s stupid.”
“I bet it’s not.”
“I thought maybe it would be like when you do an experiment in science and you make it so the results are fair.”
Penn’s eyebrows reached for each other. “Blind?”
“I thought since they were little kids and they never met me before if they could tell I was a boy I must be a boy, but if they thought I was a girl, then maybe…”
Claude trailed off again. Halfway around the world, his father chose his words very carefully. “You know, for you, this has been a big question all your life. Boy or girl. But not just for you—in this country, it’s one of the first things we notice about everybody. When someone has a baby, that’s our first question. When we meet new people, we like to be able to tell right away. Here, even people who’ve never asked the question about themselves still think about gender all the time. There, your little students probably see other things first.”
“Well, it’s probably unusual for them to meet a white person. You might be the first American they’ve ever met. You probably have a lot more money than most of the people they know, a lot of privileges they never dreamed of. They must have so many questions about who you are; boy or girl just isn’t what’s most pressing to them.” Penn imagined Claude’s identities reordering themselves like a split-flap display announcing train departures and arrivals. It made sense that these students saw foreign, white, American, healthy, rich, and whole before they ever saw male or female. Penn watched the flaps spin over and over themselves until they displayed forlorn, lonesome, and lost. “What do you see, sweetheart?” This was one of the things Penn really wanted to know but was worried to ask.
Claude thought about his day of children without futures or at least with futures unforetold. “I see nothing,” he told his father. “I am unforeseeable.”
Things unforeseen were plaguing Rosie as well. Everyone reported that Claude was great for the school, patient and gentle, an extra set of much-needed hands for the understaffed staff, for the understaffed students who had never imagined anything as exotic and far-flung as her baby. But Rosie was working when Claude was at school, so this poise and grace went unseen. She knew that the clinic’s students must be teaching Claude as much as he was teaching them, for the protected world of even a transgender ten-year-old is awfully small compared to what these kids had seen, foreseen. But Claude was usually asleep by the time she got home from the clinic, so how he was learning or growing or becoming went unwitnessed as well. Instead she got tears over breakfast or, worse, worry that precluded talking about it, that drew his eyebrows together and his mouth toward his shoulders.
She expected heartache and sadness of course. She expected shock: culture shock from being a stranger in a very strange land and gender shock from being a boy again for the first time in five years and general shock from finding oneself, suddenly, a bald English tutor in Thailand. But she had also expected all that would have started to fade, at least a little, now that they’d been here a few weeks. It was so beautiful in Thailand. There was so much wonder. But if Claude was still miserable, maybe it was time to leave already. Maybe bringing him had been a mistake. “Do you hate it here, my love?”