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 I’ve been working with badass Bradley on revisions for The Complicated Geography of Alice and I just cut the following chapter from the manuscript. It’s always wrenching to tear stuff out, so I’m sharing it here to soothing my psyche. Honestly, it’s more about my general distaste for the carrot and stick method of providing services to needy people than it is about Alice. Still, there are little bits of her – of us – in here that still make me giggle. 

 

Grandma Jo has been trying. I’ll give her that. A couple of months ago, she let me drag her to a PFLAG meeting where Alice’s support group leader Elizabeth spoke on transgender awareness. It was basic stuff, and I’d hoped it would be enlightening. Mostly though, my mum sat and stewed about a man in the group who had been rude to her in some other venue. She is trying to change her language to appease us, but it’s becoming clear that she has no interest in changing her mind. This is just a phase that her grandson is going through and she’s going to wait it out patiently, pretending all along that it’s no big deal.

For this reason, I’m surprised when she invites Alice and I to join her for High Tea at a local homeless shelter. The event is a benefit for the women’s program at the shelter, which provides temporary housing, healthcare and education opportunities along with financial and spiritual advising. The thought of making food and shelter conditional upon the acceptance of spiritual advising makes me queasy, but I try to set that aside because Alice is excited to have been invited to such a gloriously girlie event. Especially by Grandma Jo.

When she arrives to pick us up, Alice has just finished applying her thirteenth layer of lipgloss and I’m still struggling to run a comb through my hair.

“You both look so nice,” Grandma Jo says as Alice dashes past her towards the car.

“SHOTGUN!” she shouts, diving into the passenger seat, leaving me to climb into the back. On the ride to the bad side of town, my mother explains everything as she is prone to do.

“Now there’s going to be tea, sandwiches and desserts, and then a fashion show. Do you remember the women in my bible study group? We’ve got a whole table to ourselves.”

We arrive at the mission, disembark and meet our little circle of ladies in the parking lot. My mother’s Bible Study Lady Friends are the kind of women who arrange casserole duty for grieving families, send encouraging little notes to one another with bible verses written in them, and structure the bulk of their gossip in the approved “prayer request” manner. They’re nice enough, some more so than others, but a generally congenial group.

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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.

Yep.”

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.)

 

 

 

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twitch

No mother expects to find herself sitting in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital, digging the drawstring out of her child’s new pajama pants so they’ll pass a safety inspection. Then all of a sudden there you are, or at least, here I am, tearing at Jordan’s plaid pajamas with my teeth.

It’s the evening of his second day at Fremont Psychiatric Hospital, perched on the northeastern end of Silicon Valley, an hour from our Santa Cruz condo. Jay and Max will make the trip with me tomorrow night, but for this first visit, I’ve come alone.

Getting onto the locked ward is no simple task. There are guards, heavy doors and no less than three places where you have to show identification. I huddle with five other parents in the elevator until we are dumped out onto the third floor in front of the Adolescent Ward’s nurse’s station.

As the charge nurse checks and records each of the items I’ve brought, Jordan comes bouncing up to the final barrier that separates us. Still in his camo pants, but wearing an unfamiliar t-shirt emblazoned with Bob Marley’s face, he taps her fingertips on the sturdy mesh gate and singsongs, “Open, open, open.”

I want to laugh.

I am going to cry.

We don’t belong here. He’s surly, but he’s not sick. He’s experimenting with drugs, but he’s not crazy. He’s got an ugly temper and is intent on being as rebellious as possible, but some boys are just like that, right?

The adolescent wing doesn’t rate its own visiting room. Instead, families gather in the long hallway, flanked on either side by patient rooms. There are too few chairs by half, and those without collect in tight bunches on the floor along the wall.

As I come through the gate, Jory trips into me for a quick hug and then grabs the clothes in my hands. “What’dja bring me?” He’s in a surprisingly cheerful mood for someone on a 72-hour suicide watch. I don’t know what I expected, but not this. “Come on, I’ll show you my room.”

I follow him down the hall, passing a crying mother and daughter in plastic chairs, a family of five playing “Go Fish” in a circle on the floor, a father and son leaning against the wall, staring at their feet, and a whispering group of girls who pretend not to be watching us as we go past. We approach a burly nurse standing casually with a paperback novel in his hand. Jordan jerks his chin up in acknowledgment.

“What’s up?” the nurse asks.

“I’m gonna show my mom my room, k?”

He raises an eyebrow but also works to suppress a smile—another authority figure who doesn’t trust my child but still finds him disarming. It feels like that awkward Parents’ Day at summer camp: The kids and staff share an odd intimacy, while the parents, identifiable by the mix of exhaustion and wide-eyed terror on our faces, are merely day-tripping into their curious little world.

“And I gotta put these away,” Jory adds, holding forth the stack of clothes.

The nurse nods and returns to his book as we move on.

“That’s Tyrone.” Jordan lowers his voice to a whisper. “He’s the guy they call when someone’s gonna get the Booty Juice.”

“Booty Juice?” I ask.

He ducks into one of the rooms, and I follow. It’s larger than I expected, and uncomfortably tidy with a pair of twin beds, two desks, a large divided closet and a small bathroom.

“When somebody goes psycho, Tyrone’ll hold ‘em down while another nurse gives ‘em a shot in the butt. It chills ‘em out.” Having dropped his clothes onto one of the chairs, he demonstrates the shot to his butt-cheek and then falls, splayed out, onto the bed.

“No way,” I say.

“Yes way. The prophet next door got the Booty Juice this morning just before group.”

“There’s a prophet next door?”

“Nah, he’s really just psychotic.”

He sits up and starts digging through the clothes, snatching up his favorite Guayabera shirt and the Vans I swiped from Max to bypass the shoelace restriction. He slips the Vans on over his hospital booties.

“My roommate, Alan, loaned me this shirt.” He plucks at Bob Marley’s dreads. “He’s got tics. You know what those are?”

“Like Tourette’s?”

“Yeah, but without the cursing. Mostly he just clears his throat and winks a lot.”

“He’s in here for that?”

“Alan freaked out after drinking too much cough syrup, so his parents had him locked up. He’s cool. But mostly I hang out with the suicidal lesbians.”

I watch him slip into his favorite Cuban gangster shirt and swagger back out into the corridor to flirt with the darkly pretty girls gathered near the pay-phone. He’s been a gossipy child for as long as I can remember and has always gravitated towards groups of giggling girls, so this is no great surprise.

“Scarface wore these, you know,” I hear him inform them in a sly, knowing way as he flicks the collar and shrugs his shoulder.

I spot two recently abandoned chairs and make a beeline for them. A minute later, Jordan breaks off from the girls and joins me.

He flips his chair around and straddles it with his arms over the back and his chin nestled into the spot where they cross. “The doctor thinks I might be bipolar.”

“I’ve heard that’s popular.”

He smirks and then looks away.

I lean in with my elbows on my knees. “I’m sorry.”

We sit in silence and listen to the Go Fish family for a while.

“I didn’t know you might be sick,” I say. “I just kinda thought you were being an ass.”
“That’s okay. So did I.”

We talk in hushed tones for the rest of the hour. He asks me to tell his teacher, Sarge, that he isn’t just ditching and to find out from the doctor when he can come home. As we chat, I notice that his left eye is twitching—not constantly, but every now and then. I find it unsettling.

“What’s up with your eye?”

“What do you mean?”

“Is there an eyelash or something in it?” I reach over to poke at him, but he pulls back and brushes my hand away.

“It’s fine.” He leans in close. “You see that girl behind me, the hot chick with the long braids?”

I glance over his shoulder and nod.

“She’s schizophrenic and super cool. She gets the best meds.”

Despite all his bravado, when Tyrone announces that visiting hours are over, I see Jordan’s chin quiver for just a second. Then comes the stab of realization that I have to get up and walk out of here without him, that I cannot just march to the gate with my child in tow and demand that they let us leave. How helpless it feels to hug him and walk out the door, down two floors in an elevator stuffed with weeping strangers, and out into the cold darkness of night.

I cry most of the way home. Later that night, I read up on the medications they’ve prescribed for him to see if any of them would account for a muscle spasm or eye twitch. Nothing does, but the twitch remains, popping up every once in a while over the next year. Finally, when it seems to be gone forever, I casually mention it, and he lets out a great laugh.

“That? It’s just something I picked up from my roommate back at Fremont. It’s a great distraction for grown-ups who’re just yammering on and on. You should try it some time.”

And just so you know, every once in a while, I do.

 

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092008

 Ruby and I are blocking a coveted parking space at the edge of Graceada Park just for you,” I tell my mother, as my sister pantomimes a bizarre yet brilliant space-holding dance a few feet away.

Through the phone, I can hear the tension in her voice even though all she gives me in response is, “Um Hum.”

I glance over at Alice, under the awning of the Pride Center’s festival booth, handing out Prop 8 stickers and brochures to a middle-aged couple.

Alice’s booth is ten feet away from this space,” I say in response to the strained silence on the other end of the phone. “It would mean so much to her if you came by to be supportive.”

Ruby stops dancing and shoots me a worried expression, knowing what’s coming.

You know, your Pops and I have prayed about this, and it’s just not something we can do.”

A tight little fist clenches around my heart. I know there’s no reaching her at this point and yet I continue to bash my head against this particular wall. It’s not that my mother doesn’t love Alice. It’s just that she can’t see her, and so she keeps waiting for this distasteful phase to end.

Nobody’s asking you to wave a rainbow flag, Mom. Just to let your granddaughter know that you support her on a day that’s important to her.”

Well, of course we do.”

Just not enough to show it in public?”

I’m sorry that you’re upset, but I’m going to get off the phone now.” She adds, “I love you,” before the line goes dead.

Alice has been looking forward to Modesto’s Pride Festival for three months. She shoved her way onto the organizing committee and took to carrying around a notebook into which she scribbled ideas, suggestions and plans to propose to the group. I get the sense that they tired of her “in Santa Cruz, they do it like this” suggestions but then these are people who understand Modesto’s queer history in a way that Alice does not. The fact that there’s a festival at all is progress for the traditionally invisible LGBT community.

But here we are in one of the town’s best parks, with its sprawling oak trees and full amphitheater where The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are camping it up, its tennis courts, its BBQ pits and, for today only, a Bounce House and portable waterslide set up near the play equipment. There is a nice mix of street food, and a whole slew of booths selling art, books, and crafts. Mixed in among the vendors are a smattering of non-profit organizations, a couple of churches and a booth for the Democratic Party of Stanislaus County.

I don’t know why you try,” Ruby says as we abandon the empty parking space and return to the park.

I know she has that whole ‘love the sinner; hate the sin’ thing but she acts like I just invited her to an orgy,” I say as we head towards a booth full of books. “It’s terrifying to her that someone might see her here and assume that she approves of…festival food and hula hoops.”

Ruby laughs and starts digging through the books on one of the tables. Within mere seconds, she’s selected three and is handing her cash to the bookseller. I grab the books from her and check them out as we move on to the next booth.

You realize this is gay erotica, right?” I ask, holding up a copy of Teleny.

Oh!” she blushes. “I just saw Oscar Wilde’s name and snapped it up.”

Not that I’m judging.” I slip the books back into her bag and step into the jewelry booth after her. Ruby is a fiend for jewelry so we’re in there for a while.

Finally, she holds up a big fat heart on a long silver chain. “Should I get this for Alice?”

Absolutely.”

With heart in hand, we make our way back to the Pride Center booth where Alice and Georgia from her support group are lounging in plastic chairs, making daisy chains. As soon as she sees us, Alice jumps up and comes out from behind the table.

Did you see Davey yet?” she asks excitedly.

No. He made it?” I’m delighted.

He was over there with The Sisters a few minutes ago. Is Grandma Jo coming?”

Nah babygirl, I’m sorry but she’s not.”

Is it the big gay army thing?”

Kinda, but check out what Aunt Ruby found.” I step aside, shifting the focus to my sister, who holds out the heart-shaped bauble.

With a squeal of delight, Alice reaches for it. “For me?”

For you,” Ruby answers.

Just then, someone bear-hugs me from behind and I turn to find Davey, decked out in a tight red t-shirt and a rainbow-striped faux-hawk.

I’m so glad you made it!” I say, hugging him fiercely. When we separate, I make a sweeping gesture towards the rest of the park. “What do you think?” I ask him. “Too quiet? Too sedate?”

Girl, you forget where I come from. In comparison to Amish country, this is practically a gay mecca.”

Just then, Fiona’s Crown Vic slides into the recently vacated parking space just behind the Pride Center’s booth. I wave in her direction and Alice runs over to the car, reaching through the passenger window to grab the yappy little dog off Dotty’s lap. At the same time, a group of giggling girls descends upon the booth and Alice rushes back with the dog at her heels.

I know everything about the Pride Center.” Alice waves her arms, like a carnival barker in front of the girls. “What can I tell you, sell you or do you for today?”

We leave her to it and move on towards the food vendors in search of a good taco truck. When we’re out of earshot, Ruby leans in to whisper: “Are you going to tell me what the ‘big gay army’ is?”

Just one of those things Mom and Pops are terrified of … the so-called militant homosexuals.”

Militant homos?” Davey pipes up. “Show me, show me! I do so love a man in uniform.”

I link arms with them both as we walk on through the park.

Alice isn’t angry that her grandparents didn’t drop by to support her. She’s sad, and yet she spends the rest of the day grinning and laughing and flitting around the park like a newly formed butterfly, the big fat heart bouncing against her chest as she goes.

I’m the one who’s angry. I let it go on the surface, but it burrows deep and stays with me because once again my mother has chosen a belief system over her own flesh and blood, hiding behind a god who tells her exactly what she wants to hear. There is so much shame in this world. What does it honestly cost us to instill a sense of acceptance and pride in those we profess to love?

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revelationWe’ve been waiting for you.” Linda says ominously as she opens the door to her inner office and gestures for me to follow. It is February 2008 and Jordan has been in therapy with Linda for nine months, but this is the first time that she has ever invited me in at 4:48 rather than usher Jordan out at 4:45.

I head into the office and sink into the comfy chair across from Jordan, who doesn’t look up but continues to roll a squishy water-filled tube between his palms. While Linda steps out to apologize to the waiting client for the delay, I pick up a plastic frog from Linda’s basket of fidget toys.

The frog belches a big pink pouch out of its mouth when you squeeze it. The wet sound it makes is oddly pleasing and Jordan sneaks a sideways glance at me when I belch the frog three times fast. His mouth twists up like he’s holding something in but he looks away too quickly for me to gauge what’s hiding behind that expression or guess at what new ill is about to befall us.

Finally, Linda comes back, closes the door and folds her lanky limbs into her own chair. She gestures towards Jordan and says, “The floor is yours,” but the child mutely shakes his head and points back at his therapist.

Well then.” Linda turns towards me and smiles uncomfortably. “Jordan has something to tell you but now he seems to want me to do it.” She squares her shoulders and exhales deeply. “When Jordan came in today, basically he sat down and said, ‘I know why I’m always angry. It’s because I’m sad. And I know why I’m always sad. It’s because I’m a girl.”

All of the air goes out of the room and her words hang in the void at the center of our little triangle. The frog in my hand belches unexpectedly and Jordan giggles.

She giggles.

I look at her and then I look at her.

Everything I ever thought I knew about my child has changed in an instant.

I cannot yet see the girl-child peeking out through the Boy Suit. True, she’s let her military buzz-cut grow out over the last few months so that her hair now lays flat, just barely starting to curl at the base of her neck, but all in all she still looks much like she’s always looked: a sturdy child with ash-blond hair, gray-blue eyes, a generous mouth and strong bone structure beneath a lingering layer of baby fat. An ordinary boy. Except that she’s not.

The oddest things come to you in moments like this. With Linda’s recitation of Jordan’s words still hanging in the air, I think of all the times I’ve said, “All I ever wanted was two sons,” which is the kind of thing that the mother of two sons will say casually though it is no more true than any other bit of revisionist history a parent passes along. It is this thought, and the realization of what that repeated statement must have felt like to the child who is apparently not my son, which prompts me finally to break the silence.

I’m sorry for anything I ever did to make it worse or make you feel bad.”

Jordan still won’t look at me, but Linda is gawking, open-mouthed, as if I’m a dog who just performed some trick she hadn’t even thought to teach me.

The rest of the meeting is a blur. I agree, without considering the full weight of doing so, to some stipulation about not mentioning this revelation to anyone until Jordan is ready. Linda asks tentatively if we are going to be alright until we see her again next week.

Oh yeah, of course,” I say quickly, and then there we are, descending the stairs and climbing into the car, me sneaking sidelong glances at this stranger and Jordan still awkwardly smirking and staring out the window.

“Of all the things,” I tell her, as I pull out into traffic, “I never would have imagined this.”

“I know,” she whispers.

“You’re not just fucking with me?”

“I am not just fucking with you and you can call me Alice.”

“Okay then Alice,” I say, and we are on our way.

 

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