I could hear Mom on the phone in the kitchen gleefully shrieking to her younger sister, my aunt Gail. I was in the garage, as always on the day after Thanksgiving, dragging out carton after carton of Christmas crap, helping Dad turn our house into a local tourist attraction and us, once again, into the laughingstock of Buxton, Massachusetts.
Dad handed me down another box from the highest shelf. “Sounds like Gail had the baby,” he said. “You guys finally got a cousin.”
“A little late for me to enjoy,” I said.
“I’m sure she’ll let you babysit sometime,” Dad said, grinning. He knows how I feel about that job. But then his eyes met mine and his smile faded a little, as if he’d just remembered something important. No doubt he had.
I was separating forty strands of lights into two piles—white and multicolored—when Mom came flying through the screen door, her eyes all watery and glistening. “It’s a boy!” she said. “A healthy baby boy!”
I dropped the lights I was holding and glared at her. Goddamn it, hadn’t she learned anything from me?
“Healthy,” Dad said quickly. “That’s the main thing.” Thank you, Dad. At least he was making an effort to understand.
“Of course it is,” Mom said, trying clumsily to plaster over her mistake. “That’s what I said. A healthy boy.”
A chill ran down my back, and I turned away from them, imagining in my head the conversation between Mom and Aunt Gail. I do that sometimes to keep my mind off reality.
GAIL: Oh Judy, I’m finally holding my own baby in my arms!
MOM: So, tell me the important stuff! Is it a boy or a girl?
GAIL: A boy! A beautiful boy!
MOM: That’s wonderful, Gail! A real boy!
GAIL: Do you have any advice for me, Judy? Since you always do everything perfectly, and I just struggle through life without a plan?
MOM: Glad you asked. You need to get yourself two more kids and a husband—so you’ll be just like me! Of course, if you couldn’t find a man before, having a squalling infant with a loaded diaper connected to your hip isn’t going to help much.
GAIL: Oh, Judy, you know how much I hate you when you’re right.
MOM: Well, don’t worry—I’m hardly ever right in my own house anymore.
Okay, my mother isn’t really that obnoxious to her sister. But when I imagine my little scenes in my head, I make people speak as if they weren’t afraid of what other people thought. What they would say if they were suddenly turned inside out and everybody knew all their secrets anyway, so lying was beside the point.
But I knew the first question Mom asked Gail was, Is it a boy or a girl? Because, for some reason, that is the first thing everybody wants to know the minute you’re born. Should we label it with pink or blue? Wouldn’t want anyone to mistake the gender of an infant! Why is that so important? It’s a baby! And why does it have to be a simple answer? One or the other? Not all of us fit so neatly into the category we get saddled with on Day One when the doctor glances down and makes a quick assessment of the available equipment. What’s the big rush, anyway?
“She’s naming him Michael. Michael Eli Katz. I’m so happy for her.” Mom brushed away a stray tear, and I wondered who it was for.
Everybody would have been happy for Aunt Gail whether her baby was a boy or a girl. I knew that. As long as it’s healthy—that’s what they always say about babies. Why don’t they say that when you’re older? I was perfectly healthy, but nobody was applauding it anymore.
Dad got off the ladder and gave Mom a hug. “And now you’re going to tell me you’re off to the hospital this minute, aren’t you?”
She smiled. “Sorry, Joe. I’m so anxious to see the baby. But I promise to help you set up the yard the rest of the weekend.”
“Go on,” he said. “The kids will help me.”
“Actually, Laura wants to come with me,” Mom said a little sheepishly, just as my younger sister slammed through the door, lips eggplant purple to match her thick eye shadow. Mom calls Laura’s adventures with makeup “experimentation.” I call them brainwashing by Maybelline.
“I’ve never been to a maternity ward before,” Laura said, twitching her shoulders with excitement. “I want to see all the babies lined up in those little beds.”
“Howling like Siamese cats,” I said wistfully. Laura gave me an evil look.
“Charlie’s staying here, though,” Mom said, as if Charlie were ever any help to anybody.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” I said. “I’ll help you.”
“Angie, you should come with us,” Laura said. “This is our first cousin.”
“If you want to go, Angela, it’s fine,” Dad said. “We’ll just work extra hard tomorrow.”
“Nah,” I said, “babies aren’t my thing. I’d rather get Rudolph to balance on the roof ridge, and you know how much fun that is. Tell Aunt Gail I said congratulations. I’ll be eager to see the kid once he can talk and tie his own shoes.” Was it wrong to enjoy annoying my sister so much?
Laura smacked me on the shoulder. “Angie, you suck!” She generally found me exasperating, and I generally didn’t care.
“Angela doesn’t have to come along if she doesn’t want to,” Mom said, pointedly not looking at me. Disappointing her had become my fulltime job.
“By the way, I’ve decided on my new name,” I said. “So you can stop calling me Angela.”
Laura huffed in disgust. “You aren’t really doing that, are you?”
“I said I was. Didn’t you believe me?”
“You can’t just change your name overnight!”
“Sure I can. People do it all the time.”
“So, what are we supposed to call you now?” Mom asked impatiently, the car keys jingling in her hand.
“Grady.” I liked the way it sounded when I said it out loud. Yeah, it was good.
“‘Grady’? What kind of a name is that?” Laura wanted to know. “Is that even a boy’s name?”
“It’s a name that could belong to either gender,” I said. “Also, I like the gray part of it—you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle.”
“Grady,” Mom said quietly, her eyes sweeping my newly short haircut.
“Nice name,” Dad said as he climbed back up the ladder. He’d been amazingly calm about my recent declaration, but he didn’t seem to want to discuss it much.
“It’s a stupid name,” Laura said. “What if we all decided to go and change our names? What if I decided I’d rather be called Cinderella or something?”
I shrugged. “Then I’d call you Cinderella.”
“Or, what if I changed it to Madonna? Or, or . . . Corned Beef Sandwich!”
Mom gave her a push toward the driveway. “Let’s get going now. We can talk about this later.”
“Bye now, Corned Beef!” I called. It looked to me as if Mom was having a hard time keeping a little smile off her face. I always could make her laugh.
I watched them slide into the car and pull away. No doubt they were complaining about me before they were out of the driveway.
LAURA: God, it was bad enough when Angie thought she was a lesbian. Now she wants us to call her by that dumb name. Why can’t she just act like a girl?
MOM: [heavy sigh] Your sister never did act like a girl.
LAURA: And that horrible haircut she gave herself—ugh. It looks like somebody ran over her with a lawn mower. I’m so embarrassed when people find out she’s my sister.
MOM: I always loved the name Angela. It was my first choice for a girl.
LAURA: [grumbling] You should have given it to me. It’s better than Laura.
MOM: Another satisfied customer.
LAURA: You know, Mira’s cousin is a lesbian, and she still wears makeup and dresses like a regular person. She’s pretty, too!
MOM: [eyes glued to the road] Angela isn’t a lesbian anymore, or so she says. She could still be pretty, though, if she’d wear decent clothing instead of those secondhand leftovers from the Goodwill.
LAURA: Are you kidding? Ma, Angie looks like Woody Allen dressed as a hobbit.
MOM: Oh, Laura, that’s not fair. Angela is taller than Woody Allen.
I guess I don’t really look like Woody Allen, especially since I got my contacts. But what do I look like? Kind of skinny. Kind of tall. Brown hair, shaved at the neck, floppy in the front. I look like everybody and nobody. Am I invisible? Probably not, because people sometimes stare. But I don’t trust the mirror for this kind of information. Girl? Boy? The mirror can’t even tell me that.
Why can’t I act like a girl? I used to ask myself that question all the time. When the swimming teacher said, “Boys in this line; girls in the other,” why did I want so badly to stand with those rowdy, pushy boys, even though my nonexistent six-year-old boobettes were already hidden behind shiny pink fabric, making it clear which line I was supposed to stand in? I wondered, even then, why I couldn’t be a boy if I wanted to. I wasn’t unhappy exactly; I was just puzzled. Why did everybody think I was a girl? And after that: Why was it such a big freaking deal what I looked like or acted like? I looked like myself. I acted like myself. But everybody wanted me to fit into a category, so I let them call me a tomboy, though I knew that only girls were tomboys, and I was not a girl. By high school I said I was a lesbian, because it seemed closer to the truth than giving everyone hope that someday I’d turn into a regular hairdo-and-high-heels female. I was just getting us all ready for the truth. I was crawling toward the truth on my hands and knees.
I came out once, but that was just a rehearsal—now it was time for the real thing. Because I was tired of lying. And the truth was, inside the body of this strange, never-quite-right girl hid the soul of a typical, average, ordinary boy.
Excerpted from Parrotfish
by Ellen Wittlinger
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provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
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