In the early weeks of our daughter's gender transition, I experience a series of “Ah Ha!” moments. In each instance, I immediately stop whatever I'm doing and rush to her for confirmation. A few days after Alice reveals herself as HERself, I call home from work and blurt out,
“Ohmygod! The skinny jeans!”
“What?” she asks, not like she's particularly interested, but more like she hasn't even bothered to pause Hitman and is continuing to play Xbox 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 more 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.”
“Well I've got people to make sure we don't kill over here, but it just hit me that the skinny jeans were probably one of those signs I missed.”
“Ok, well ...”
“Love you mom. Bye.” and she's gone.
The next day, on the way to school, I catch her checking her reflection in the rear-view mirror and suddenly remember how she inexplicably butchered her eyebrows a couple of months ago.
“Ah Ha! The Spock brows!!”
Embarrassment shadows her face and then she smirks.
“Yeah, um, we're gonna have to find a good plucker 'cause yours aren't much better.”
I take the swipe. I've earned it. When we thought she was merely channeling her inner Vulcan, we teased her mercilessly. And her assessment of my own plucking prowess is totally fair. In fact there are all kinds of girlie-girl things I've never mastered. I glance at her again as she rifled through the glove-box.
“I'm so sorry that we teased you. If we'd known...”
She plucks a pair of fake Dior sunglasses out of the glove-box and waves them in front of me.
“You never wear these.”
“Yeah, Mary gave them to me, but they kinda swallow my whole face.”
“Can I have 'em?” She shoves them on and I can't help but notice how nicely they cover the sparse eyebrows which are still struggling to grow back in.
“We'll get Grandma Kay to help with the brows. She's always so 'put together' that I bet she's a good plucker.”
Alice has rolled down the window and turned the radio up so Gwen Stefani's “Wonderful Life” can spill out into the streets. Still, I hear her chuckle and whisper under her breath, “plucker”.
That night, just as I'm drifting off, Jay sits straight up in bed.
“The dref” he says and I swear there's a little flashing light-bulb hanging over his head.
I sit up too, earning grumbles from the dog who was tucked in the crook of my arm.
“ohmygod,” I whisper, and then call out into the darkened hall, “Alice? You still awake?”
Moments later, she shuffles into the bedroom decked out in a pair of flannel pajamas with little pink sheep that she must have stolen from my dresser drawer.
“Do you remember that skirty wrap you made out of a sheet when you were ten and swore was going to be all the rage in the fashion world someday?”
She tips her head to one side and leans against the dresser.
“The dref, yep. Don't think I can remember how to drape it anymore tho'.”
“That was it.” Jay says and somehow with this bit of confirmation, he's finished, so he lays back down and pulls the blankets up to his nose.
“It was like a sari, I think.” I whisper.
“Is this another one of those things that you JUST figured out?” Alice asks.
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
“Ok, well I'm going to bed.”
“Good night. Don't let the bed bugs bite.”
“You too.” and she shuffles back to her room.
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 peaks that illuminate wide swaths of curious and sometimes infuriating behavior.
Some of my light-bulb moments over-reach, like when I “Ah Ha!” her love of Hedwig's “Wig In A Box”.
“NOT a girlie thing,” she corrects me, “that's just a kickass song.” and she dances off down the hall singing at the top of her lungs:
“Shag, bi-level, bob
Dorothy Hammil do,
Sausage curls, chicken wings
It's all because of you...”
“Nothin' girlie about THAT.” I mutter to the 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 forward momentum built up by the time I notice the vacuum cleaner inconveniently loitering just outside her bedroom door and I rush headlong into it, tumbling through the doorway as I shout.
“Ohmygod, Marvin K Redpost is a girl!”
For a moment there is silence, as I fumble with the vacuum hose and right myself. When I look up, I realize that Alice is not the only person in the room. Standing a couple of feet from where I crash-laded is her friend Brittney, whose perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression is doubly so today. But what's most striking at this moment is that instead of the basic uniform of rock t-shirt and ratty jeans, Brit is decked out in Alice's white oxford shirt and black slacks, both of which are slightly too short for the lanky limbs poking through them.
Both Alice and Brit are standing stock-still, clearly surprised by my graceless arrival but also in that zone of children who've been caught doing things children don't do when grown-ups are around. I think back to Brit's mother on my doorstep after the pharmaceuticals incident, and my questioning of Brit's gender well before I knew that Alice was Alice.
“Just thought I should pass along my boy clothes to someone who would use them.” Alice says, reaching out a hand to help me up.
I'm still staring at Brit, who's looking over my shoulder from an escape route.
“You look incredibly...” and I almost don't say it, “...handsome.”
The smile which follows is so worth the chance taken.
“Yeah?” Brit asks, turning towards the mirror above the dresser to examine the well-dressed boy staring back.
Alice gives Brit a shove with her shoulder to make room so she can apply a fresh coat of bubble gum pink lip-gloss. She talks 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.”
“My mom's cataloging fifteen years of gender-bending in one week.” She says, rolling her eyes.
Brit 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, the one about the girl who dressed up as a boy to fight in the Civil War.” Alice says, rubbing her lips together and then leaning forward to make a kiss-print on the mirror.
“The Secret Soldier?” Brit 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 Brit leaves, Alice comes into the kitchen where I'm chopping vegetables for Pasta Fagoli. She grabs a peeled carrot and chomps on it.
“Brit'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 Brit 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 didn't have a good answer then and I don't now. Perhaps we simply see what we expect to see and write off anything that doesn't fit into the little boxes we put people into. Or perhaps she learned to mask and over-correct, to hide so well that by the time those distinctions mattered, I could not see her until she tore down the wall. I wish I'd known sooner. I wish I could have done so much more, but when she returned to us from behind that wall at fifteen she brought along the baggage of one who has learned to cope by anesthetizing, distracting, and self-harming. If we'd been better, if we'd known sooner, there's no telling how far she could have flown.
[Note: The final year of my daughter's life was a revelation and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I tell her story in bits and pieces as part of my own therapy, but also to let others who may travel some piece of the same path; You are not alone. This piece and previous diaries about Alice are cross-posted at Laurustina.com.]
UPDATE: Thank you all for reading and responding. You can't know how much it means to have others travel this journey with me and come to know Alice even in this small way.