A Novel, by Laurie Frankel (a summary by Pat Evert)
Once upon a time, Claude was born: Roo was born first, then Ben, then the twins Rigel and Orion, finally Claude. With four boys they were trying for a girl.
“I don’t know how you do it,” her neighbor said. This was another thing people always said, criticism disguised as compliment. “I mean, I guess Penn doesn’t have a job. But you do. I mean, I know he works. But it’s not a job. So doctor’s a real job. So is writer.” “I don’t know how you do it,” Heather said again, shaking her head. And then added, giggling, “Or why.”
If the baby was a girl—and surely it had to be: she had eaten fish and cookies; she had had sex in the afternoon facing east; she had done the thing with the spoon, and besides, it was her turn—she would name her Poppy. Did she believe this daughter would grow up and be, at ten, the little sister she’d lost? And then, soon, “It’s a boy! A healthy, beautiful, perfect, impatient baby boy,” the doctor said.
Penn could never remember the name of the friend of the friend who knew a doctor who was interested in dating a poet. Maybe he never knew it. So reading and writing in Rosie’s hospital waiting room was something he was long practiced for: lots of crying people, lots of pathos, the heights of tragedy, the heights of relief, which looked a lot like the heights of tragedy. It was one of the enduring ironies of their relationship how well the residency schedule worked for Penn. Even once she was wooed, Penn remained camped out in the waiting room, reading, writing, telling her stories in installments during her breaks between patients. He was happy to sleep when she did and to stay up when she had to. She’d have traded anything toward the ends of those thirty-hour shifts—her place in the program, her career prospects, her eyeballs. Staying had been another thing she was wooed to do. An Arizona girl, she was not remotely prepared for Wisconsin in February.
Bedtime stories were a group activity. “The armor wasn’t empty. The armor was full. What was inside the armor was a story, a story wanting to get out. Why did it want to get out? That’s what all stories want. They want to get out, get told, get heard. Otherwise, what’s the point of stories? They want to help little boys go to sleep. They want to help stubborn mamas fall in love with dads. They want to teach people things and make them laugh and cry. Nope, the story was a magic story. It was endless.
Things they told doctors
Claude’s first word, when he was only nine months, one week, and three days old, was “bologna.” There was no mistaking that one. Medical professionals always looked at Rosie with condescension. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be a chef, a cat, a vet, a dinosaur, a train, a farmer, a recorder player, a scientist, an ice-cream cone, a first baseman, or maybe the inventor of a new kind of food that tasted like chocolate ice cream but nourished like something his mother would say yes to for breakfast. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be a girl. And Rosie said, “You can be anything you want when you grow up, baby. Anything at all.” “I want to be a little girl when I grow up, a girl scientist. Then I can wear a dress to work.” He wore the dress all weekend getting ready for the play. He said he was in dress rehearsals. He even wore the dress to bed.
“Instead of Grumwald,” said Claude, “I’m bored of a prince. I want a princess.” “Princesses are boring,” Rigel whined. “Girls in fairy tales are losers,” said Roo. “No they aren’t,” said Claude. “Yes they are. Not like losers. Losers. Girls in fairy tales are always losing stuff. They lose their way in the woods or their shoe on the step or their hair even though they’re in a tower with no door and their hair is like literally attached to their head. Or their voice, or their freedom or their family or their name, or their identity. Like she can’t be a mermaid anymore. Or they lose being awake. And then they just sleep and sleep and sleep. Boooring.”
Princess fairy Stephanie was in charge of the night sky. They had to see that the stars came out on time, sparkled as appropriate, dimmed so the moon didn’t get pissed off when it was full, fell just when wishers were watching. This was a stressful job—way more stressful than SGA president or even prince—because there are a lot of stars out there, and Stephanie was in charge not just of making sure they were behaving properly but also that they were happy.
Then summer arrived and with it the boys’ grandmother, and everything got even better. Rosie’s mother’s name was Carmelo, known as ‘Carmy.’ She let Claude try on her dresses and jewelry and shoes. When Claude made tea to go with his tea-length dress, he said, “Will you love me even if I keep wearing a dress?” “I will love you even if you wear a dress made out of puppies. Loving you no matter what you wear? Loving you no matter what.” Even in a pink bikini with white and yellow daisies. “Isn’t it great?” Claude looked lit up.“Carmy got it for me for kindergarten. Cause next year I’m going to kindergarten.” “Why are you letting him wear that bathing suit?” “He loves it.” “He can love it at Carmy’s where it’s just us, but here? … everybody’s whispering stuff about him. Everyone’s staring. It’s weird.”
Air currents and Other Winds
Due to a food spill on Claude’s dress he could not wear it to kindergarten on the first day. Mom put his peanut butter and jelly, banana, pretzels, and, as a first-day treat, chocolate-chip cookies—plus a note—in the purse to give it lunch-box cachet. But, the school does not allow peanut butter, so Claude had to sit and eat by himself at his desk in the classroom. Nor does it allow jewelry, headgear, shiny shirts or purses – anything distracting. They like students to be able to concentrate during class. “How did you teach your small human that it’s what’s inside that counts when the truth was everyone was pretty preoccupied with what you put on over the outside too?”
Homeworking en masse made it more fun. At his dining-room table with his cadre of boys, however, he could approach homework, aptly, like dinner—everything shared, the trials and triumphs, each according to his abilities, everyone pitching in to help. Roo might say, “Can anyone think of another way to say ‘society’? or Ben might say, “Is there even a word for ‘soufflé’ in Spanish?” Now Claude had kindergarten homework of his very own. On this second night of school, it was to draw a picture of himself and write a sentence about what he hoped to learn this year. Claude’s sentence was “I hope to learn about science including stars, what kind of frogs live in Wisconsin, why oceans are salty, air currents and other winds, and why peanut butter is not allowed at school.” Claude’s picture was of the whole family, and Penn could not decide if it was wonderful or alarming that, assigned to draw himself, Claude drew them all. Penn and Rosie and Carmelo and his brothers quite appropriately. And you would find Claude small in the corner—because he’d run out of room? because he got lost in his overlarge family? because he felt insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe?—Claude had drawn himself in his tea-length dress with ruby slippers and wavy brown hair down to the ground, held back off his face with a dozen barrettes that snaked colored ribbons in all directions, cascading over hising brothers, over his parents, over the clouds and the trees and the grass and the sky, a small, windblown child in his own personal tempest, puzzling over air currents and other winds and his place in the world. “No,” said Claude, “this is okay. Real clothes at home, school clothes at school. I can just change.” That “real” reverberated around in Penn’s brain until it was deafening. “Well that’s okay too, of course. But you should be able to be who you are, wear what you like. The other kids, your teacher, your friends, everyone would be fine. Everyone loves you for who you are.” But Rosie was also used to conflicting emotions, for she was a mother and knew every moment of every day that no one out in the world could ever love or value or nurture her children as well as she could and yet that it was necessary nonetheless to send them out into that world anyway.
But his pictures give us pause. He does not draw himself as we would expect from such a bright child. I love the way he sees the world, but how about the way he sees himself? Claude got smaller and smaller, later just a stick figure, just an outline, just a sketch. And then, soon, Claude was nowhere.
‘You shouldn’t push even though you want to’ isn’t the same as ‘You shouldn’t wear a dress even though you want to.’ Even if we’re willing to grant identifiably male behavior and identifiably female behavior, maybe we should not try to enforce it. Wearing a dress did not make him a girl, but neither did bearing a penis indelibly make him a boy if that’s not what he was or wanted to be. Though everyone else will have thoughts, and they’re unlikely to keep those thoughts to themselves or be entirely kind. Though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do whatever you want, just that you should be forewarned that if you do, there will be consequences. “I just feel a little bit sad. Sad isn’t bleeding. Sad is okay.”
Invention (or Intervention)
He’ll get beat up. No one will pick him for their team in gym. No one will sit with him at lunch or hang with him at recess. Why can’t he just play dress-up at home? It’s pretty amazing that he knows what he’s supposed to wear and wants to wear something else anyway, that he knows who he’s supposed to be but recognizes that he’s something else instead. You can’t tell people what to be, I’m afraid, said Rosie. You can only love and support who they already are. Now, Claude will have to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office. What’s going to happen when he goes to school dressed as a girl. Rosie felt only fear. Rosie felt deafened by the voices howling in her head that she was mad to consent to this, that it was her judgment which was not to be trusted. This path was rock-strewn and windblown, uphill both directions, and led she had no idea where. Here she was at the crossroads letting her baby boy run blindly down the path on the left (in a skirt and heels) while the narrator looked on reprovingly. Such a tough life, this is not the easy way. Easy is nice, but it’s not as good as getting to be who you are or stand up for what you believe in, said Penn. Easy is nice, but I wonder how often it leads to fulfilling work or partnership or being. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. Unfortunately, the only way to see what worked for any given problem was trial and error.
Why are you wearing a dress? Are you a boy or a girl?” from kids older and bigger and stronger than he. Because he didn’t know the answer, he said nothing. And because he said nothing, they kept asking the question. While they were trying to map the appropriate course, Claude charted his own. At dinner, he announced he was changing his name. I want my new name to be Poppy.
But others said loudly to each other as they passed, “Was that a boy or a girl?” or, “How do you let your kid do that?” or, “That mother should be shot.” By April though, Claude was gone, and Poppy, hair finally grown past his ears into a short but inarguable pixie cut, had taken over. They say it is what you never imagine can be lost that is hardest to live without. Suddenly, for the first time in either of his lives, all the kids wanted to be his friend. Shy, all-alone Claude was replaced by laughing, gregarious Poppy. She wasn’t used to her youngest having playdates at all, never mind coming home from them all smiles, suffused with quiet, almost private, joy. The moms would beam at Rosie. “She’s such a good girl.” Some playdates went less well. Rosie and Penn kept a no-fly list of kids with whom Poppy could not play again. As she and Penn kept telling Poppy, you don’t have to like everyone. Find who’s fun and smart and safe, and stick with them.
Rosie was working graveyard shift at the ER in the hospital. A young college girl was brought in with blood everywhere. There was a gun shot wound in the shoulder but that could not have produced all this blood. As they stripped off the clothes they saw her penis … Rosie knew immediately what had happened. At a fraternity party this young transgender woman had been discovered, beaten and left to die. They beat her to death.
Head colds should be tolerated. Children should be celebrated. The leap from tolerant to celebrated turned out to be an expensive one. So she kept looking. So they moved to Seattle.
Just before 5th grade Poppie had a slumber party with her three best girl friends. They had a seance and asked things of the Oiuja board like when will Poppy grow boobs, and who will start their period first. Sex ed in fourth grade had had nothing really to do with sex. It was about hair and breasts and blood instead. It was about how your body was going to get gross and need modification. They knew from older kids and older siblings that this year, fifth grade, sex ed would truly be about sex, which horrified them even more. Starting in middle school, they’d have to get actually naked and shower together after PE. And they all wanted to die. They told each other everything. Except for one thing.
Rival neighbor princess
They never planned to keep Claude a secret. It was an accident. It was an accident plus opportunity plus special circumstances. The first few hundred of them after they met someone, it was too soon, Poppy’s story too awkward and complicated, too intimate, too risky to share with new acquaintances. But by the time those acquaintances became close friends, it was too late.
It was Mr. Tongo, with his peculiar wisdom and quirky comfort, to whom it was somehow hardest to say goodbye to. At her farewell party, he’d reminded her that he wasn’t officially her therapist or her social worker but in fact her friend, and this meant he could be in Seattle whenever she needed him. “We discuss a lot of intimate things with our friends, but our genitals, and those of our children, are private. You’re not keeping secrets. You’re respecting your child’s right to privacy, which she has both need of and right to, just like the rest of us.”
And better than all those wonders, she lived next door. Poppy and Aggie were in and out of each other’s houses. But a sleepover – they didn’t want to make her feel unsafe, but they wanted to protect her. They didn’t want to suggest to her that her body needed hiding. But unfortunately it did. Where will you change into PJs?” Rosie asked. It’s like she’s forgotten she has a penis. She’s forgotten that a penis isn’t what she’s supposed to have, Rosie persisted. Maybe she couldn’t quite articulate it, but she knew the point was valid. She’s forgotten her friends have—and are expecting—something else.
In fact, for many years, accommodating Poppy boiled down really to the two percent of her life when she wasn’t wearing underpants.
“So. What happens when Poppy hits puberty?” Hormone blockers “to put a stop to what’s called Precocious Puberty. They would prevent her male puberty. They’d shut down the whole system so she would stay a little girl.” The blockers put a stop to what can’t be undone later. but Poppy will stay prepubescent while everyone around her grows into young adults.” the ones who tried simply to cut off the offending body parts. And there were the ones whose cuts did not stop there. There were not just a few. There were hundreds. There were thousands. “If you were a boy,” Aggie said to Poppy, caught up in the horror, “we couldn’t be rival princesses, we couldn’t have sleepovers, we couldn’t make the dogs make a play, we couldn’t paint each other’s toenails.” But Poppy swallowed and agreed wholeheartedly: “It would be the worst thing ever.”
Your whole stupid-ass life is a lie. You’re all ‘my daughter this’ and ‘my daughter that’ and, ‘At last! The perfect little girl I always dreamed of.’ You’re all, ‘Oh just don’t tell anyone about your sister, and that will be the truth.’ Well, it’s not the truth. It’s a lie. You’re lying to everyone you know. You’re making the rest of us lie too. You’re forcing your whole family to cover up your stupid-ass lies every single day.
They was used to keeping secrets. Because we’ve come this far, now every day they would have to be more careful than the day before.
Parent time is like fairy time but real. It is magic without pixie dust and spells. Your tiny, perfect baby nestles in your arms his first afternoon home, and then ten months later, he’s off to his senior year of high school. You give birth to twins so small and alike, they lie mirrored, each with a head in the palm of one hand while their toes reach only to the crooks of your elbows, but it’s only a year before they start looking at colleges. It is so impossible yet so universally experienced that magic is the only explanation. Poppy’s transformation, she would have told people, if she told people, was no more miraculous or astonishing or, frankly, absurd, than any of the others, nor any more apparent to her rainbow mama eyes. Parent time is magic: downtempo and supersonic all at once, witch’s time, sorcerer hours. Suddenly, while you aren’t paying attention, everything’s changed. Today I think it’s time we do a little after-school special: ‘Puberty Versus Blockers. A Love Story.’ It’s exactly the right time to be thinking about them. You all have some tough decisions just ahead. Blockers, and for how long? Cross-sex hormones, and when? Surgeries, and which ones? You accepted her as she was, she’s totally normalized her penis. It doesn’t connote maleness for her. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just how she pees. But that’s about to change. And soon, long hair and a dress aren’t going to be enough to keep her a girl.
“Mom. They know.” Who knows? “Everyone,” Poppy only just managed. “Everyone knows.”
Parenting in the dark
We heard you’re a guy, you have a giant dick. Actually, it’s probably a little one. In gym, someone said, Poppy, shouldn’t you be on the other side with the boys? and everyone laughed. Ms. Norton? I don’t feel comfortable with Poppy being here, and everyone laughed. That’s when Poppy packed up all her books right there in the middle of math and walked straight out of the classroom and down the fifth-grade hallway and out the front door of the school and called her mom. There was no use acting as if this outing did not change all their lives because those lives were here, already changed. During the day, fear stayed at bay and sensible perspective reigned. In the dark, only the horror stories rang true.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
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. “So. You’re a guy?” “No. I’m nothing.”
Six-year-old Poppy was too young to have to educate her peers, to have to stand up for herself all the time, to have to explain about sex versus sexuality or gender identity versus gender expression. In first grade, we’re still trying to teach little boys and little girls that nothing in their pants is appropriate conversation for school. But now she’s ten. She’s almost off to middle school, almost a teenager, about to start becoming a grown-up, so it’s time for her to explore and decide and be strong, to talk about who she is, to stand up for herself, and to deal with what sets her apart.
In between, half-assed, secretly, just socially, it’s not cutting it anymore. We have to commit. We have to go all the way. Otherwise, she’s just a guy in a dress. Or scared. Or confused. Or worried about disappointing us. Or worried about changing her mind. Or maybe she is depressed, but it’s not clear to me why. It could be that she’s depressed about not being all-girl. We have to live in the doubt place with her. She’s undecided, so we have to be undecided too. If she doesn’t know, we can’t tell her, can’t even have something in mind. These are her decisions to make. We researched. We thought about it. We discussed. And we made the best guess we could with the information we had on behalf of our children whose lives we thus changed indelibly forever. We do this because we know they aren’t as smart or experienced or informed as we are, so they can’t make these decisions for themselves. That’s what we’re supposed to do. This is a medical issue, but mostly it’s a cultural issue. It’s a social issue and an emotional issue and a family dynamic issue and a community issue. Maybe she—and you and I—need to learn to live in a world that refuses to accept a person with a beard who goes by ‘she’ and wears a skirt and be happy anyway. Maybe our response to that world should not necessarily be to drug and operate on our daughter. Rosie woke from fitful sleep sometime well predawn to send Howie a text: WILL GO TO THAILAND. IF I CAN BRING POPPY.
It doesn’t matter who I want to be, it only matters who I am. You are more fortunate than many, many people. This family needs a break from all the weight and drama. One day soon, we’ll all get to forget what’s past and live happily ever after. It isn’t instantaneous, and it isn’t painless. It’s years and years of frog kissing. It’s frog kissing for the rest of your life.
In Bangkok Claude could not keep his eyes off the many women like himself—you could see that that swallowy bit of their throat was bigger than usual. You could see their hands and feet were bigger too. When they spoke to you, it was with lovely, husky voices, or they wore their makeup a little more thickly than the other women around them, or their eyebrows were more assertive, more certain, more there. They were beautiful, and they were everywhere, and everyone seemed to know their secret, and no one seemed to care, which, Claude guessed, meant it wasn’t really a secret at all.
If Claude wouldn’t grow up to be Poppy, he couldn’t imagine growing up at all. This was another thing he and the pigtailed little girls had in common: none of them could imagine growing up. Claude was totally over fifth grade, but even he could see that school was a miracle for Dao except she couldn’t have it without first becoming an orphan. It was the least fair thing he had ever heard in his life, which, considering the state of his life, was saying something. His first day he taught English to three young girls.
It was because remote love hurt but gave you clarity. Sending your child to a jungle seven thousand miles away was oddly elucidating. “And some things change because it’s good and natural that they do. Because it’s time. And you wouldn’t want to stop them. I don’t want to erase your past. You were a perfect baby. I don’t want to erase your transformation either. You’re so special, and you’re so brave. You proclaiming who you are and being who you want to be in a world that makes that hard is awe inspiring. I’m so proud of you, Poppy. I don’t want to pretend you’re ordinary. I want to climb your turret and shout your extraordinary to the entire city.
If you wrote your own characters, they didn’t disappoint you like real people did. If you told your own story, you got to pick your ending. Just being yourself never worked, but if you made yourself up, you got to be exactly who you knew yourself to be.
You could sit down with another mom, even one halfway around the world whose life was very different from your own, and find easy conversation, shared spirit, someone who understood why you might bring your ten-year-old into a malarial jungle rather than leave him behind, someone who understood what unspeakable things sometimes befell children and to what lengths you might go to fend them off. “Because you have noticed … I am like Claude.” “Kathoey.” K supplied the word. It sounded like cat toy. “One of the thing K stand for. Translate as ladyboy. “Not like for Poppyclaude I think. In Thailand, lots kathoey. Not so big deal. We all Buddhist. Is karma. Is life. Is just another way to be.” Just like Poppy, I am female soul so do not matter to me or Choochai or sons or daughters or anyone what is under pants. Story of change, of not-knowing to knowing, ignorance to enlightenment. But enlightenment is long, take a long, hard time. If it does not, it does not result enlightenment. Buddha was a prince.
The color of Monday
Buddha was born male, then cut off all his hair one day and got enlightened, then ended up looking like a girl. That was how Claude and Poppy became Buddhists for life. Dispelling fear, taming what was scary not by hiding it, not by blocking it or burying it, not by keeping it secret, but by reminding themselves, and everyone else, to choose love, choose openness, to think and be calm. They needed their fear dispelled, she and Penn and Claude and Poppy, because they could not live in fear anymore. But everyone else needed their fear dispelled too, a wide world of not-yet-enlightened people were nothing more or less than scared. The real trick is you have to forge your way straight ahead through the trees where there is no path. I miss Poppy not because I miss my happy, strong, laughing little girl but because I miss my happy, strong, laughing child. Claude is a lost, sad child out of joint. It’s that Poppy’s the happy child, and Claude is the sad one. Poppy’s the one who fits and feels comfortable, and Claude is the one who chafes in ill-shaped holes. What we have to do is help you be Poppy even though it’s hard. Being Poppy will never be featherweight, but I think it’s lighter than being Claude. And fortunately, Poppy is strong as seas.
Poppy could not be Claude, and she could not hide, and if they could not entirely plan for who she might be two and ten and twenty years from now, they didn’t need to. They could make hard decisions, together, when it was time to decide, and in the meantime, they could embrace what was now and what was good. A middle way. In the meantime, they had to live with not knowing, got to live with not knowing, got to help other people with what they had to live with too.
Grumwald had never thought of it like that. Losing one. The idea of life without Grumwald was devastating. The idea of life without Princess Stephanie was devastating. But the idea of life being just one or the other had become, simply, unimaginable. Both at once. Betwixt a prince and a night fairy is neither-nor as much as both-and. It is very hard. You have to tell, it can’t be a secret. Secrets make everyone alone. Secrets lead to panic. You get to thinking you’re the only one there is who’s like you, who’s both and neither and betwixt, who forges a path every day between selves, but that’s not so. When you’re alone keeping secrets, you get fear. When you tell, you get magic. Twice. You find out you’re not alone. And so does everyone else. That’s how everything gets better. You share your secret, and I’ll do the rest. You share your secret, and you change the world. You tell your story. That is what we all must do.
After returning to Seattle, they saw her and loved her anyway, loved her more even. They had stuff that was weird about them too. It doesn’t answer the question, but it opens possibilities, and that’s even better, possibilities we never saw before, possibilities no one ever saw before. And it promises that when the time comes to decide, we’ve built someplace solid as ramparts from which to do it. Because you know what’s even better than happy endings? Happy middles. All the happy with none of the finality. All the happy with room enough to grow. What could be better than that?