I saw my parents every day for the past seven days. I’ve only been relieved of their West Coast presence for a few hours and here I am, in a cafe, blogging about them. I’m hoping break out of my shell shocked state, do what I do best after an intense and disturbing experience: write about it.
But sometimes numbers are worth a 1,000 words. So let’s start there. I spent a total of 32 hours with my parents. Think about that. When was the last time you spent 32 hours with your parents? And I’m talking hours of direct contact. Like sitting across a breakfast, lunch, or dinner table or being crammed in a car. I don’t mean the hours we all spent asleep in the same hotel room. I think 32 hours is a lot of time, a challenge, a test of humility and compassion, and I believe I deserve the Purple Heart for being such a damn good kid.
We only had one major fight, which happened around day six, after three days in Napa and two hours in a Lexus hardtop convertible. We borrowed the car from a relative, because how could we refuse the offer of such a fancy schmancy car. And I sat in the backseat meant for luggage, not people, because how could I ask a 61 year old, a woman who squeezed me, a grapefruit of a baby, through her pea-sized hole to sit in a seat so flawed in its ergonomics as to cause permanent deformity.
My mother is an ant-like woman with the mouth of a gorilla. When she is angry, unlike my father who whistles and steams like a teapot left on the stove too long, my mom turns into bullet-riddled grizzly bear. Beastly howls mingle with flailing arms as she claws and scrapes in her terror fueled frenzy. But that was how the fight ended, with her swipes and raging non sequiturs. It began with her asking me if I had any normal friends, normal as defined as white, heterosexual, and with no visible tattoos or piercings. But in truth, it began the second I greeted the both of them.
It should be no surprise that the subtext of my life for the past year became the subtext of my parents’ visit. Yet it was a surprise because I didn’t think I looked much different since the last time I saw them. My hair is no shorter and my clothing is not new and my legs don’t have any more hair. My breasts are perhaps more noticeably flattened, partially because of lost weight, and I can only hope that my gestures and mannerisms evoke manly connotations (studly with a hint of fag), but I doubt even this would be new. Something has changed though. I am getting older, but I am carded for alcohol more often than ever, almost 100% of the time (including private parties). It seems that the more I embrace feeling like a boy, the brighter my boyish aura glows. Or maybe binding my breasts just makes that much of a difference.
“Did you have an operation?” my father asked me only minutes after hello. I said no, mumbling something oblique, not asking what he meant, but wondering if he knew the difference between top surgery and a breast reduction. Always desiring the route of less information, my dad is the kind of guy who considers queer acceptance referring to my girlfriend as my “friend,” and so he didn’t press the subject of my chest.
My mother, on the other hand, expresses a curiosity so entitled in its nosiness that I knew there would be more questions about my gender presentation. I have made it a habit to grant her a few moments of judgmental interrogation as part of my child duties. My mother has made it a habit to ask build-up questions, perhaps an attempt to control herself, only to erupt during what she perceives as the last moment of our “bonding” time. On our trip to Napa, her build-up questions involved the method with which I flatten my chest, and I showed her my three-quarter length tank top.
She followed up her inquiry while the two of us were dangling our feet into the whirlpool, where I sat on the edge in my boy swim trunks and tight sports bra, the same outfit I’ve worn for the past several years when I decide that swimming is worth the discomfort of revealing that I have breasts. Even before my mom asked the question, I was off in my own reverie, wondering, hoping, dreaming it might be my last time in that awful sports bra. Someday soon, I could be topless in just my shorts, and I preemptively immersed myself in the elation and relief.
“How come you don’t wear a bathing suit?” she asked.
“I am wearing a bathing suit. It’s a boy’s bathing suit.”
“Do you want to be a boy?”
I don’t always answer this question the same way. But even if my mother and I had a shared vocabulary that included words like genderqueer, gender fluid, trans-masculine, even if she could see gender as a spectrum, or as Russian nesting dolls, or as a galaxy, as more contemporary theorists theorize, the answer is still complicated. But as someone who recommends skipping the “bisexual” middle ground on the way to “gay” with the option to recant if the mood so strikes, I chose the more honest of the two answers. “Yes,” I said.
I did throw her a few bones of explanation. I said that when I looked in the mirror, I expected to see a man’s body. She said that when she looked in the mirror she expected to see herself, although she wanted to look less wrinkly, with smaller thighs. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I just don’t.” She said all this with the annoyed tone of a diabetic restaurant customer who just received the wrong meal after waiting for over an hour.
I know all too well my explanations, metaphors, and analogies are not explanatory enough for even the most open-minded of people. But my mother has this bad habit of trying to put herself in other people’s shoes, even if they are four sizes too big. Then she’ll be clomping around with her huge clown feet, screaming that the damn shoes don’t fit, as if anyone asked her to try them on. Over a decade ago, when I told her I had a girlfriend, her response was that she liked her friend, Margaret, but she couldn’t, just couldn’t understand wanting to kiss Margaret. (I couldn’t understand wanting to kiss Margaret either.)
“Are you the boy in a gay relationship?” my mother asked.
“I’m a boy, but not the boy,” I said, choosing not to elaborate on the fact that this sometimes makes the relationship not very gay at all.
I told her there are other people like me out there. I thought about the word transgender. Then I closed the door on the conversation.
Aside from a few awkward and difficult moments, including the one big fight about whether I had normal friends, my parents’ trip had all the outward signs of success. But even when the going is good with parents, I still find it challenging. It is only in the past few years that I’ve become continuously aware of my parents’ mortality, either because they are visually aging, or because the my mom’s fears force her to constantly remind me that she’s going to die soon (and that I won’t have to take on her debt). Personally, I think my mom could kick the Grim Reaper’s ass; she’ll probably be the only elderly woman I’ll ever get to meet with a six-pack of abs. I may hate my mom’s hard-headedness, but I admire her hard body, and there is something tragically endearing about someone as lovable as granite rock.
My favorite part of the time with my parents was watching them in the pool. My dad was once a swimmer (it’s the only sport he’s better at than my mother), and he can still hold his breath for long periods of time. They play this game in which my mom climbs onto his back underwater so that the two of them resemble mating turtles. Then he propels them through the water for as long and as far as he can. Maybe I like watching because my mom is is ridiculously enthusiastic about what appears to be an unadventurous, mundane ride. Or maybe it’s one of the few images I have that shows my parents are capable of a happiness independent of me and my life.
It’s a pleasant thought, but not entirely true. My mother may be more forthright but my father has quite an impact. He is a lawyer and he reserves his most powerful comments for the end, for his closing argument. I’ve often wondered if he plans it this way, if he is aware of the obviousness of his intentions to sway me.
It was the very last night of their visit, after dinner, after my dad had paid the bill. He leaned over to me and said, “I hope this is just a phase. I want my little girl back.”
Looking into his eyes, I could see his heart splintering, and so I didn’t crack it over my knee. “I’m not so little anymore,” I said.
I hugged them goodbye, went outside, and punched the wall. I wonder when I’ll stop feeling like I owe my parents my life just because they created my life. I wonder when they’ll stop asking me to repay.