In the early weeks of Alice’s transition, I experience a series of “Ah Ha!” moments and, in each instance, I stop whatever I’m doing and rush to her for confirmation.
“The skinny jeans!” I shout into the phone from my office.
“What?” she asks, like she hasn’t even bothered to pause Hitman and is continuing to play the game while balancing the phone on her shoulder.
“That shopping trip last month when you freaked out because I kept grabbing the usual baggy jeans instead of the skinny ones you actually wanted…”
“Oh yeah. Makes sense now, huh?”
“I had no idea, kiddo. I thought you were being difficult just to be difficult.”
“Mom, I’ve got people to kill.”
“And I’ve got people to make sure we don’t kill over here, but it just hit me that the skinny jeans were one of those signs I missed.”
“Yep. Love you mom. Bye.”
I continue to be amazed and surprised at having been invited behind the curtain, that for the first time in so many years we are privy to the inner workings of her psyche. Not all of it, you understand, but little peeks that illuminate wide swaths of curious and sometimes infuriating behavior.
Some of my light-bulbs over-reach, like when I Ah Ha! her love of the “Wig In A Box” song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
“Not a girlie thing,” she corrects me. “That’s just a kick-ass song.” She dances off down the hall singing a list of antiquated ladies hairstyles at the top of her lungs.
“Nothin’ girlie about that,” I mutter to an empty room.
Days later, I’m driving home from work when another little pop occurs. I resist the urge to call Alice while driving, but just barely. I swerve into the driveway, bolt through the front door and down the hall towards her room. Unfortunately, I’ve got too much momentum built up by the time I notice the vacuum cleaner loitering just outside her door and I rush headlong into it, tumbling through the doorway as I shout:
“Ah Ha! Marvin K Redpost is a girl!”
Briefly, there is silence as I fumble with the vacuum hose and right myself. When I look up, I realize that Alice and I are not alone. Standing a couple of feet from where I crash-landed is her friend Bret, whose perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression is doubly so today. But what’s most striking is that instead of the basic uniform of rock t-shirt and ratty jeans, Bret is decked out in Alice’s best white oxford shirt and black slacks, which are slightly too short for the lanky limbs poking through them.
Both Alice and Bret are standing stock-still, clearly surprised by my graceless arrival, but also in that zone of children who’ve been caught doing things children do when grown-ups aren’t around.
“My mom’s cataloging fifteen years of gender-bending in one week,” Alice says, rolling her eyes and holding out a hand to help me up.
I’m still staring at Bret, who’s looking over my shoulder for an escape route.
“You look incredibly…” I almost don’t say it: “handsome.”
The smile that follows is so worth the chance taken.
“Yeah?” Bret asks, turning towards the mirror above the dresser to examine the well-dressed boy staring back.
Alice gives Bret a shove with her shoulder to make room at the mirror so she can apply a fresh coat of bubble gum pink lip-gloss. Alice says as she paints, “I stole this book from the library ages ago…”
“Fourth grade,” I say, watching them huddled together in the mirror.
“…one of those Marvin K. Redpost books. He kisses his elbow one day and when he wakes up the next morning he’s a girl.”
“I meant to make you take it back but I bet we still have it.”
Bret is quiet, but grins while fussing with the collar of the oxford shirt. Up. Down. Up. I move up behind them and flatten the collar.
“Definitely down,” I say.
“I stole that other book too,” Alice says, “the one about the girl who dressed up as a boy to fight in the Civil War.” Alice says rubs her lips together and then leans forward to make a kiss-print on the mirror.
“The Secret Soldier?” Bret asks.
“My little book thief.” I fluff the hair at the nape of her neck.
“I learned it by watching you,” she says, swiping my hand away.
After Bret leaves, Alice comes into the kitchen where I’m chopping vegetables for Pasta Fagoli. She grabs a peeled carrot and chomps on it.
“Bret’s gotta hide the clothes so his mom doesn’t freak, but I figured you wouldn’t care if I gave ’em away.”
“You’re right. I don’t. And by the way, can I just point out that I was right about Bret months ago?” In the midst of all these unraveling mysteries, I’m smug about this particular point.
“And yet you totally didn’t see me,” she says quietly, pointing the half-chewed carrot at herself. “Seriously Mom, how did you not know?”
She will ask me this a hundred times. I will ask myself a hundred more. I never quite find a good answer.
They hand you a baby.
Someone announces Boy or Girl.
You never think to question it.
(Behind The Curtain is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir “The Complicated Geography of Alice” due out December 2014.)