Three weeks into my daughter's gender transition, we make our first public appearance as a family. In retrospect, this momentous event should have occurred at a more auspicious venue than the local Red Lobster, but there is no handbook for parenting the transgender teen (none that I could find anyway) and so we stumbled head-on into Grandma Kay's Birthday Dinner blazing a path few would choose to follow.
“Doesn't she know we don't eat seafood?” Alice asks from the back seat, where the dark cloud of a teenage funk has settled over her head.
“It's her birthday, not yours.” I remind her, as I follow Jay's Ford into the crowded Red Lobster parking lot. Jay is the kind of man who will completely rearrange his plans if he can't find a good parking space inside a minute, so I leave the first few spaces I see open, and head for the back corner of the lot.
“I bet they'll have a chicken sandwich.” Max pipes up from the passenger seat, ever helpful despite the fact that he hasn't looked up from his Game Boy for the entire ride. I get out of the car and scan the lot for Jay's truck. Max takes his time finishing up his game Alice tries the “I'll just wait out here” routine.
“You will get out of the car and come into the restaurant,” I say through clenched teeth, “and you will NOT ruin your grandmother's 15th birthday.” I slam my car door to punctuate the order.
Every once in a while, curiosity kills the brat in Alice, and luckily, this is one of those moments. She crawls out of the car and comes over to where I'm smoking quickly and discreetly.
“Grandma Kay is a leap-year baby which means her actual birthday only comes around every four years.”
“Did she get a party those other three years?” Alice asks.
“I don't know. You'll have to ask her.”
“Can I have a drag?” She motions towards my cigarette.
“Your grandmother is twenty feet away,” I say, motioning over her shoulder, “What do you think the answer is?”
I know she's nervous. We're all nervous. This is the first time Grandma Kay will see Alice in person since her announcement and subsequent transformation. Jay's brother Unkie D. filled her in on the details two weeks ago and both Jay and I have talked with her about it since then. Still, seeing her rough-and-tumble grandson in a hot pink sweater, lavender eyeshadow and little China Doll slippers is bound to be a bit of a shock.
They're approaching even now, as Max finally emerges from the car. I link my arm through Alice's in hopes of preventing her escape and start towards them. I can't help but notice the swell of people hanging around the entrance of the restaurant. Jay has seen them too and we waste ten minutes discussing whether or not we should go somewhere else, In the end though I insist that if Kay wants Red Lobster she is damn well getting Red Lobster. Unkie D. goes to get us on the wait list and we make our way slowly to the entrance.
Within twenty minutes, we make it through the front door and stake out the alcove near the lobster tank, huddled in a circle like a team whispering formations. In the garish light, surrounded by dusty nets and an overwhelming amount of seaside kitsch, my mother-in-law has her first real opportunity to examine Alice. Unfortunately, so does everyone waiting alongside us. When Kay compliments Alice's new sweater, the man behind Jay snorts loudly. Jay shifts his weight and his fingers curl into his palms. I instinctively move between them and give my husband a look that says “Ignore it.”
Max breaks the tension, shoving out of line unexpectedly and rushing after a passing waitress. He returns moments later, waving a job application. By this point, Unkie D. and Alice are deep in a conversation about a Japanese comic (Ranma ½ for the Anime freaks in the crowd) and Grandma Kay is watching them with a curious smile on her face.
I do not know my mother-in-law particularly well at this point. The bulk of our time together over the years has consisted of hurried holiday visits. She has always been kind, if a bit floaty, and like any true Southern lady, she never sets foot outside the house without being “put together”. I on the other hand, live in sweatpants and believe that eyeliner and cherry chapstick constitutes a made-up face. After Alice's death, she will come to live with us for two years and we will finally actually bond, over brilliant books, odd independent films and seriously scrumptious soups, but on this day I can only guess at what she's thinking and hope that we can navigate this evening with a minimum of awkwardness and emotional outbursts.
Finally, we're seated at a long table in the center of the restaurant. Jay's Mom is at one end and I'm at the other. Jau and Unkie D. sit nearest their mum while Max and Alice flank me. Every nearby table is full and the whole restaurant is a bustle of activity. Max, Alice and I settle on the Parmesan-crusted chicken alfredo while Jay, Kay and Unkie D. indulge their lobster cravings by ordering the whole shebang. A basket of cheddar biscuits is delivered and we pass them around.
“Jor...Alice, your makeup looks nice.” Kay says, stumbling over Jordan (her birth name) but arriving at Alice. In her nervousness, she says this louder than intended. Alice doesn't answer, but shoots dagger-eyes at her grandmother. I elbow her indiscreetly.
“Thank you” she says through gritted teeth.
I smile weakly at my Mother-In-Law in hopes that she understands how much I appreciate her attempt.
“I have to pee” Alice whispers.
“What?” Grandma Kay leans in from the head of the table.
“Nothing” Alice murmurs.
“I just couldn't hear you Jor...Alice.”
“I said I HAVE TO PEE!” Alice shouts.
Anyone not already stealing sideways glances at us is staring now. The sideways glancing people are mysteriously suddenly super-interested in the food on their plates.
“Then let's go.” I growl, dropping my biscuit onto the plate and grabbing Alice's arm.
As I'm dragging her towards the ladies' room, I flash on a memory of being in the aisle of some store, grabbing her in much the same way and having her scream “WHY ARE YOU PINCHING ME?”. She was maybe seven at the time, but damn if she didn't know how to get at me even then.
As mad as I am at Alice though, the moment we set foot in the Red Lobster Ladies' Room I'm on alert. There are two women at the sink, one of whom doesn't look up and another who clocks us in the mirror, immediately stops washing up and leaves. Alice steps into an open stall and I plant myself next to the paper towel dispenser. A woman in a bright purple muumuu steps out of the stall next to Alice's and sets about washing her hands.
While I wait, I think back to a evening at a blues club with William Carlos early in his transition, how I stood guard just outside the Men's Room, ready to storm in and cause holy hell should the need arise. That night made me aware of the fact that there is perhaps no more vulnerable public space for trans people than the restroom. And as William Carlos ventured in with trepidation, I was mentally writing the headline for the next morning's paper: mild-mannered middle-aged woman mops Men's Room floor with Moe's Alley patron.
Now, waiting for Alice, I'm composing a new headline, but I don't get much past Maniac Mother makes chum of … before Alice exits the stall. She steps to the open sink between the two ladies and at first, all seems well. Then the woman in purple turns, looks her up and down, turns off the faucet and whips a towel from the dispenser.
“Honestly” she mutters, as she tosses the wad into the bin. Then she turns back to Alice and asks, “You really think this is appropriate?”
I step forward, just enough that she has to look me in the eye before opening the bathroom door.
“I think it's none of your damn business.” I growl, or try to growl anyway. Her lip curls up into a snarl as she shoves past me.
Before I can even process what just happened, the second woman pats Alice's arm and says, “Don't worry honey. When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
The confrontation in the Ladies' Room does nothing to improve Alice's mood, but by the time we return to the table, our food has arrived and she eats quietly. Mid-way through the meal, she leans over and whispers something to Unkie D. who then leans over and whispers something to Grandma Kay who then turns halfway around in her chair to shoot a dirty look at the woman from the bathroom. The rest of dinner goes off without a hitch and we lumber out of the restaurant with full bellies and relatively warm hearts.
“Did you see Grandma Kay mad-dog that the big purple woman?” Max asks on the ride home.
“Yeah.” Alice laughs, That was cool.”
“She had that comin' and then some.” I mutter, a little surprised at how fiercely defensive I still feel about the confrontation in the Ladies Room.
Months later, Alice and I bring one of her friends along on a trip to San Francisco. It becomes clear halfway through the trip that this newly-transitioning woman is terrified of using public restrooms. She won't go at the clinic, or anywhere in The Castro District, and despite the desperation of her bladder by hour six, she refuses yet again at the Subway sandwich shop in the sleepy commuter town of Tracy.
Clearly she has no business settling for the men's room, presenting as she is with full make-up, long hair and a flowery blouse. But neither can we persuade her that the single-stall Ladies Room will be safe. She is convinced that someone will confront her and call the police who will take one look at her driver's license and charge her with lewd and lascivious behavior.
We argue over this for a full ten minutes in the parking lot of the strip mall in Tracy, both Alice and I promising to accompany and protect her from such things. She is in tears by the time Alice jumps out of the car, stomps into the deli and walks straight into the ladies room.
When she returns, I implore her friend once more to come inside with me, but she won't budge. We drive the rest of the way home in near silence and the woman flees from the car to the safety of her own bathroom without so much as a goodbye.
Alice simply didn't understand that fear. She knew her rights and she wasn't going to let anyone stop her from exercising them. As far as she was concerned, the worst thing that could happen was that some woman in a purple muumuu would disapprove and she was accustomed to disapproval. The world was going to have to make a space for her whether it wanted to or not.
We're pulling into the driveway after the Red Lobster incident, when Alice asks, “Is Grandma Kay always going to call me that? Jor-Alice?”
“It's gonna take some time for her to get it right, kiddo.” I tell her.
“Makes your name sound like a boner pill.” Max laughs, tumbling out the passenger door.
“Not helping!” I call after him.
“Ciallis? Jor-Alice. Oh god, I'm a boner pill.” Alice crawls out of the car and sighs heavily.
“Come on,” I throw an arm over her shoulder, “You conquered the Ladies Room tonight. The world is your oyster.”
“Eww, more seafood.”
[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 (sometimes out of order) 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.]