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.
The line at the entrance of the event is awash in floral prints, good jewelry and hats. Even my mum, not a dress-up kind of woman by nature, is wearing a little black bolero jacket with a leopard print fur collar and a leopard print beret to match. Alice’s jewel-toned sweater, frothy skirt and striped leggings, which dazzled at the parade in Santa Cruz, are oddly fitting here as well.
We pass a makeshift ticket window and make our way to a reserved table along the aisle led by Merritt, a big southern blonde gone silver. She’s Paula Deen in another decade. On Merrit’s heels is Cynthia, always a bit frazzled due to some crisis or the other. Today it is her husband, who has her rattled and she’s explaining the whole thing in vivid detail as we move along. Mom, Alice and I follow along behind Cynthia while Carol and Deann bring up the rear. As soon as we sit down, Carol pulls yarn and knitting needles out of her handbag. I sit beside Deann, who always seem so serene, as if nothing bad has ever even occurred to let alone happened to her.
The tables are laid out with delicate china cups and plates, a three-tier tower of tiny cakes, and bowls of fresh berries in the middle of each lacy tablecloth. There are also two baskets of tea bags, one of which my mother starts to peruse.
“What kind of tea would you like?” she asks.
“Earl Gray, hot,” Alice and I answer in unison and then giggle.
Mum looks momentarily mystified but goes back to picking through the bags.
“I’m sure they have that,” she says.
“No Grandma, it’s a Captain Picard thing.” Alice leans in over her shoulder.
“No, it’s Doctor Who and Jean Luc–”
“Never mind mom.” I elbow Alice. “Is there an apple cinnamon one?”
She is handing over the tea basket when a woman approaches with a serving tray. Balancing it carefully, she sets a steaming teapot on the table, followed by a cloth-covered basket of pastries, and little cups of what looks like Cool Whip.
“Excuse me,” Alice says, pointing to the fluffy white substance, “what’s that?”
“It’s cream, I think,” the woman answers, slightly embarrassed.
“Devonshire cream,” Merritt jumps in. “You put it on pastries like butter.”
“Yes,” the woman smiles shyly before slipping away.
“It’s also sometimes called clotted cream,” my mother adds.
“God, that sounds disgusting,” Alice says, widening her eyes and turning down her mouth in disgust. I make of show of giving her the elbow.
“Oh no, it’s rich,” my mum says and then proceeds to plop a spoonful of it onto the croissant Alice has just placed in the middle of her plate. Alice tries to drop the now-offending pastry onto my plate, but I wave it away.
“I don’t want anything that clots, babygirl.”
“Well you certainly want your blood to clot,” my mother pipes in.
“Yes, I suppose I do, but beyond that, I’m all clotted up.”
Alice sticks her tongue out at me and scrapes the cream onto the edge of her plate. My mum rolls her eyes at the drama and then passes the pastries to Cynthia.
“So the women serving are all members of the program here?” Deanne asks.
“They are,” Merritt says, “and once everyone has been served, they’ll be part of the fashion show.”
I look around the auditorium at the twenty-some-odd tables filled with guests. By the manicured, highlighted and good-handbag look of them, I don’t expect that they often venture into this part of town. In contrast, our servers share a certain quality that is at once both skittish and haggard.
“These are petit fours,” my mother points to the little decorated cakes on the tower.
“Little clotted cakes,” Alice whispers.
The second time I have to elbow her is thankfully the last. As the servers bring out tiny ham, turkey and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Alice and Deanne strike up a conversation around me about House M.D. and I end up trading seats with Alice so they can dish on all the drama. Cynthia has started up again, detailing her husband’s most recent failing. Moments later, someone announces the beginning of the fashion show, and Merritt hushes Cynthia with a sharp gesture.
One by one, the shelter residents come through the main door and down the aisle, pausing at various points to the “oohs” and “aahs” of the crowd. The announcer introduces each woman and describes her outfit, cobbled together from items donated to the mission. A polite smattering of applause commences with each new ensemble.
I’ve been to my share of benefits and charity functions, but this is the first in which the recipients wait upon and then are paraded in front of the donors. I find it unsettling.
There is a brief break in the program. Raffle prizes are handed out with much squealing and glee. Then a familiar march comes over the speakers and my mother reaches over to squeeze my knee.
“Oh, this is my favorite part,” she whispers as the waitresses-turned-models come down the aisle one after another, wrapped in yards of satin, lace, tulle and organza. This procession of brides in hand-me-down gowns is eerie, like a too-late First Communion or the set-up for a Moonies mass wedding ceremony.
As they make their way to the front of the room with a practiced slow-step walk, the announcer explains that these donated dresses are available for rental. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a rented-wedding-dress crowd but the delighted smiles beaming up from the guests suggest that the vision of these women as proper marriage-worthy ladies is what this day is all about.
I glance over at Alice, who is now staring with the same expression she had when my mother offered her clotted cream.
“What the…?!” she mouths.
I shake my head and bite my lips to shush her. As we’re gathering our things to leave a few minutes later, she leans in. “I thought they were going to bring in a bunch of homeless guys and marry ’em off right here!”
“Don’t say that too loud or they might just do it next year,” I whisper back.
As we’re leaving, I detour to the restroom and run into Merritt, exiting a stall.
“I’m so glad you came,” she says. “And your…little one seemed to have a good time.”
We walk to the sinks and wash our hands.
“How can I pray for you, Jules?” she asks. I recognize the question for what it is, a typical Christian response to the unspoken but obvious thought that clearly something has gone horribly awry in my family, and that Alice can be made normal if enough people pray. I’m funny about prayer in that I don’t believe there’s anyone listening but I encourage people who want to send out good thoughts and energy in my name to do so whenever they wish.
“Honestly, Merritt, I just need to keep Alice sober.”
“Oh!” she says, clearly surprised.
“So please, feel free to pray for Alice to have the strength to be who she is without self-medicating.”
“I will, my dear, I will.” Merritt lowers her voice to a whisper. “You should talk with Deanne sometime. She has a son who’s in that way.”
I realize then, that in responding honestly to Merrit’s question, I’ve just given her new gossip and she’s responded by passing some along as well. It’s not the kind of thing you can call someone out on. They’ll simply insist that they have only the best intentions. But now, like it or not, I know that the ever-serene Deanne’s family is like ours.
Later, when I relate the whole episode to Jay, he responds with frustration. “There’s just so much shame – it’s infuriating.”
And he’s right. If there wasn’t this veil of shame attached to addiction or abuse, even the transgender stuff, it would be different. People would talk about it, do things about it. There’d be support systems, and public outrage at lack of health care services. But all this fucking shame shuts us up and cuts us off.
I want to scream in the streets. I want to put a bumper sticker on my car that reads: HUMBLED BUT UNASHAMED PARENT OF A DIFFICULT THOUGH DELIGHTFUL TRANSGENDER TEENAGER WITH DRUG ISSUES. I can’t help but wonder what kinds of conversation that would start.