If you’ve just tuned in, we have one humdinger of a field hockey game on our hands! Final seconds of the last game of the season between those two archrivals, the BCDS Hornets and the B&I Wolverettes. Score tied 4 to 4. Face off at midfield and . . . the Hornets have it! Chamberlain stick-handling, passes to O’Rourke on the wing. O’Rourke faking left, going right . . . she’s by one Wolverette, by another . . . and now she passes crossfield to Amigliato! Here comes Becky Amigliato down the sideline! Ten seconds left, nine seconds! In goal for the Wolverettes it’s Stephanides and—oh my, my, she doesn’t see Amigliato coming! What in the devil? . . . She’s looking at a leaf, folks! Callie Stephanides is admiring a gorgeous, fire-red autumn leaf, but what a time to do it! Here comes Amigliato. Five seconds! Four seconds! This is it, folks, the championship of the Middle School Junior Varsity season is on the line—but hold on . . . Stephanides hears footsteps. Now she looks up . . . and Amigliato takes a slap shot! Ooowhee, it’s a bullet! You can feel that one all the way up here in the booth. The ball’s heading straight for Stephanides’ head! She drops the leaf! She’s watching it . . . watching it . . . gosh, you hate to see this, folks . . .”
Is it true that right before death (by field hockey ball or otherwise) your life flashes before your eyes? Maybe not your whole life, but parts of it. As Becky Amigliato’s slap shot made for my face that fall day, the events of the last half year flickered in my possibly-soon-to-be-extinguished consciousness.
First of all, our Cadillac—by then the golden Fleetwood—wending its way the previous summer up the long driveway of the Baker & Inglis School for Girls. In the backseat, one very unhappy twelve-year-old, me, arriving under duress for an interview. “I don’t want to go to a girls’ school,” I’m complaining. “I’d rather be bused.”
And next another car picking me up, the following September, for my first day of seventh grade. Previously, I’d always walked to Trombley Elementary; but prep school has brought with it a host of changes: my new school uniform, for instance, crested and tartaned. Also: this carpool itself, a light green station wagon driven by a lady named Mrs. Drexel. Her hair is greasy, thinning. Above her upper lip, in an example of the foreshadowing I will learn to identify in the coming year’s English class, is a mustache.
And now the station wagon is driving along a few weeks later. I’m looking out the window while Mrs. Drexel’s cigarette uncoils a rope of smoke. We head into the heart of Grosse Pointe. We pass long, gated driveways, the kind that always fill my family with wonder and awe. But now Mrs. Drexel is turning up these drives. (It is my new classmates who live at the end of them.) We rumble past privet hedges and under topiary arches to arrive at secluded lakefront homes where girls wait with satchels, standing very straight. They wear the same uniform I do, but somehow it looks different on them, neater, more stylish. Occasionally there is also a well-coifed mother in the picture, clipping a rose from the garden.
And next it is two months later, near the end of the fall term, and the station wagon is climbing the hill to my no-longer-brand-new school. The car is full of girls. Mrs. Drexel is lighting another cigarette. She’s pulling up to the curb and getting ready to lay a curse on us. Shaking her head at the view—of the hilly, green campus, the lake in the distance—she says, “Youse girls better enjoy it now. Best time of life is when you’re young.” (At twelve, I hated her for saying that. I couldn’t imagine a worse thing to tell a kid. But maybe also, due to certain other changes that began that year, I suspected that the happy period of my childhood was coming to an end.)
What else came back to me, as the hockey ball zeroed in? Just about everything a field hockey ball could symbolize. Field hockey, that New England game, handed down fromold England, just like everything else in our school. The building with its long echoing hallways and churchy smell, its leaded windows, its Gothic gloom. The Latin primers the color of gruel. The afternoon teas. The curtsying of our tennis team. The tweediness of our faculty, and the curriculum itself, which began, Hellenically, Byronically, with Homer, and then skipped straight to Chaucer, moving on to Shakespeare, Donne, Swift, Wordsworth, Dickens, Tennyson, and E. M. Forster. Only connect.
Miss Baker and Miss Inglis had founded the school back in 1911, in the words of the charter, “to educate girls in the humanities and sciences and to cultivate in them a love of learning, a modest comportment, an amiable grace, and an interest in civic duty above all.” The two women had lived together on the far side of the campus in “The Cottage,” a shingled bower that occupied a place in school mythology akin to Lincoln’s log cabin in national legend. Fifth graders were given a tour every spring. They filed by the two single bedrooms (which fooled them maybe), the founders’ writing desks still laid with fountain pens and licorice drops, and the gramophone on which they’d listened to Sousa marches. Miss Baker’s and Miss Inglis’s ghosts haunted the school, along with actual busts and portraits. A statue in the courtyard showed the bespectacled educators in a fanciful, springtime mood, Miss Baker gesturing, Pope-like, to bless the air, while Miss Inglis (forever the bottom) turned to see what her colleague was bringing to her attention. Miss Inglis’s floppy hat obscured her plain features. In the work’s only avant-garde touch, a thick wire extended from Miss Baker’s head, at the top of which hovered the object of wonder: a hummingbird.
. . . All this was suggested by the spinning hockey ball. But there was something else, something more personal, that explained why I was its target. What was Calliope doing playing goalie? Why was she encumbered by mask and pads? Why was Coach Stork hollering at her to make the save?
To answer simply: I wasn’t very good at sports. Softball, basketball, tennis: I was hopeless in every one. Field hockey was even worse. I couldn’t get used to the funny little sticks or the nebulous, European strategies. Short on players, Coach Stork put me in goal and hoped for the best. It rarely happened. With a lack of team spirit, some Wolverettes maintained that I possessed no coordination whatsoever. Did this charge have merit? Is there any connection between my present desk job and a lack of physical grace? I’m not going to answer that. But in my defense I will say that none of my more athletic teammates ever inhabited such a problematic body. They didn’t have, as I did, two testicles squatting illegally in their inguinal canals. Unknown to me, those anarchists had taken up residence in my abdomen, and were even hooked up to the utilities. If I crossed my leg the wrong way or moved too quickly, a spasm shot across my groin. On the hockey field I often doubled over, my eyes tearing up, while Coach Stork swatted me on the rump. “It’s just acramp , Stephanides. Run it off.” (And now, as I moved to block the slap shot, just such a pain hit me. My insides twisted, erupting with a lava flow of pain. I bent forward, tripping on my goalie stick. And then I was tumbling, falling . . .)
But there’s still time to record a few other physical changes. At the beginning of seventh grade I got braces, a full set. Rubber bands now hooked my upper and lower palates together. My jaw felt springy, like a ventriloquist dummy’s. Every night before going to sleep I dutifully fit my medieval headgear on. But in the darkness, while my teeth were slowly coerced into straightness, the rest of my face had begun to give in to a stronger, genetic predisposition toward crookedness. To paraphrase Nietzsche, there are two types of Greek: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’d been born Apollonian, a sun-kissed girl with a face ringed with curls. But as I approached thirteen a Dionysian element stole over my features. My nose, at first delicately, then not so delicately, began to arch. My eyebrows, growing shaggier, arched, too. Something sinister, wily, literally “satyrical” entered my expression.
And so the last thing the hockey ball (coming closer now, unwilling to endure any more exposition)—the last thing the hockey ball symbolized was Time itself, the unstoppability of it, the way we’re chained to our bodies, which are chained to Time.
The hockey ball rocketed forward. It hit the side of my mask, which deflected it into the center of the net. We lost. The Hornets celebrated.
In disgrace, as usual, I returned to the gymnasium. Carrying my mask, I climbed out of the green bowl of the hockey field, which was like an outdoor theater. Taking small steps, I walked along the gravel path back to the school. In the distance, down the hill and across the road, lay Lake St. Clair, where my grandfather Jimmy Zizmo had faked his death. The lake still froze in winter, but bootleggers didn’t drive over it anymore. Lake St. Clair had lost its sinister glamour and, like everything else, had become suburban. Freighters still plied the shipping channel, but now you mostly saw pleasure boats, Chris-Crafts, Santanas, Flying Dutchmen, 470s. On sunny days the lake still managed to look blue. Most of the time, however, it was the color of cold pea soup.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was measuring my steps, trying to go as slowly as possible. I was looking at the gymnasium doors with an expression of wariness and anxiety.
It was now, when the game was over for everyone else, that it began for me. While my teammates were catching their breath, I was psyching myself up. I had to act with grace, with swift, athletic timing. I had to shout from the sidelines of my being, “Heads up, Stephanides!” I had to be coach, star player, and cheerleader all in one.
For despite the Dionysian revelry that had broken out in my body (in my throbbing teeth, in the wild abandon of my nose), not everything about me had changed. A year and a half after Carol Horning came to school with brand-new breasts, I was still without any. The brassiere I’d finally wheedled out of Tessie was still, like the higher physics, of only theoretical use. No breasts. No period, either. All through sixth grade I’d waited and then through the summer afterward. Now I was in seventh grade and still I was waiting. There were hopeful signs. From time to time my nipples became sore. Gingerly touching them, I felt a pebble beneath the pink, tender flesh. I always thought that this was the start of something. I thought I was budding. But time after time the swelling and soreness went away, and nothing came of it.
Of all the things I had to get used to at my new school, the most difficult, therefore, was the locker room. Even now with the season over, Coach Stork was standing by the door, barking. “Okay, ladies, hit the showers! Come on. Hustle up!” She saw me coming and managed to smile. “Good effort,” she said, handing me a towel.
Hierarchies exist everywhere, but especially in locker rooms. The swampiness, the nudity bring back original conditions. Let me perform a quick taxonomy of our locker room. Nearest the showers were the Charm Bracelets. As I passed by, I glanced down the steamy corridor to see them performing their serious, womanly movements. One Charm Bracelet was bending forward, wrapping a towel around her wet hair. She snapped upright, twisting it into a turban. Next to her another Bracelet was staring into space with empty blue eyes as she anointed herself with moisturizer. Still another Bracelet lifted a water bottle to her lips, exposing the long column of her neck. Not wanting to stare, I looked away, but I could still hear the sound they made getting dressed. Above the hiss of shower heads and the slap of feet on tiles, a high, thin tinkling reached my ears, a sound almost like the tapping of champagne flutes before a toast. What was it? Can’t you guess? From the slender wrists of these girls, tiny silver charms were chiming together. It was the ringing of tiny tennis rackets against tiny snow skis, of miniature Eiffel Towers against half-inch ballerinas on point. It was the sound of Tiffany frogs and whales chiming together; of puppies tinkling against cats, of seals with balls on their noses hitting monkeys with hand organs, of wedges of cheese ringing against clowns’ faces, of strawberries singing with inkwells, of valentine hearts striking the bells around the necks of Swiss cows. In the midst of all this soft chiming, one girl held out her wrist to her friends, like a lady recommending a perfume. Her father had just returned from a business trip, bringing her back this latest present.
The Charm Bracelets: they were the rulers of my new school. They’d been going to Baker & Inglis since kindergarten. Since pre-kindergarten! They lived near the water and had grown up, like all Grosse Pointers, pretending that our shallow lake was no lake at all but actually the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. Yes, that was the secret wish of the Charm Bracelets and their parents, to be not Midwesterners but Easterners, to affect their dress and lockjaw speech, to summer in Martha’s Vineyard, to say “back East” instead of “out East,” as though their time in Michigan represented only a brief sojourn away from home.
What can I say about my well-bred, small-nosed, trust-funded schoolmates? Descended from hardworking, thrifty industrialists (there were two girls in my class who had the same last names as American car makers), did they show aptitudes for math or science? Did they display mechanical ingenuity? Or a commitment to the Protestant work ethic? In a word: no. There is no evidence against genetic determinism more persuasive than the children of the rich. The Charm Bracelets didn’t study. They never raised their hands in class. They sat in the back, slumping, and went home each day carrying the prop of a notebook. (But maybe the Charm Bracelets understood more about life than I did. From an early age they knew what little value the world placed in books, and so didn’t waste their time with them. Whereas I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar. The only trust fund I have is this story, and unlike a prudent Wasp, I’m dipping into principal, spending it all . . .)
Passing by their lockers in seventh grade, I wasn’t aware of all this yet. I look back now (as Dr. Luce urged me to do) to see exactly what twelve-year-old Calliope was feeling, watching the Charm Bracelets undress in steamy light. Was there a shiver of arousal in her? Did flesh respond beneath goalie pads? I try to remember, but what comes back is only a bundle of emotions: envy, certainly, but also disdain. Inferiority and superiority at once. Above all, there was panic.
In front of me girls were entering and exiting the showers. The flashes of nakedness were like shouts going off. A year or so earlier these same girls had been porcelain figurines, gingerly dipping their toes into the disinfectant basin at the public pool. Now they were magnificent creatures. Moving through the humid air, I felt like a snorkeler. On I came, kicking my heavy, padded legs and gaping through the goalie mask at the fantastic underwater life all around me. Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates’ legs. They came in all colors, black, brown, electric yellow, vivid red. Higher up, their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving in the current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute. The shy, plump girls were like sea lions, lurking in the depths.
The surface of the sea is a mirror, reflecting divergent evolutionary paths. Up above, the creatures of air; down below, those of water. One planet, containing two worlds. My classmates were as unastonished by their extravagant traits as a blowfish is by its quills. They seemed to be a different species. It was as if they had scent glands or marsupial pouches, adaptations for fecundity, for procreating in the wild, which had nothing to do with skinny, hairless, domesticated me. I hurried by, desolate, my ears ringing with the noise of the place.
Beyond the Charm Bracelets I passed next into the area of the Kilt Pins. The most populous phylum in our locker room, the Kilt Pins took up three rows of lockers. There they were, fat and skinny, pale and freckled, clumsily putting on socks or pulling up unbecoming underwear. They were like the devices that held our tartans together, unremarkable, dull, but necessary in their way. I don’t remember any of their names.
Past the Charm Bracelets, through the Kilt Pins, deeper into the locker room, Calliope limped. Back to where the tiles were cracked and the plaster yellowing, under the flickering light fixtures, by the drinking fountain with the prehistoric piece of gum in the drain, I hurried to where I belonged, to my niche of the local habitat.
I wasn’t alone that year in having my circumstances altered. The specter of busing had started other parents looking into private schools. Baker & Inglis, with an impressive physical plant but a small endowment, wasn’t averse to increasing enrollment. And so, in the autumn of 1972, we had arrived (the steam thins out this far from the showers and I can see my old friends clearly): Reetika Churaswami, with her enormous yellow eyes and sparrow’s waist; and Joanne Maria Barbara Peracchio, with her corrected clubfoot and (it must be admitted) John Birch Society affiliation; Norma Abdow, whose father had gone away on the Haj and never come back; Tina Kubek, who was Czech by blood; and Linda Ramirez, half Spanish, half Filipina, who was standing still, waiting for her glasses to unfog. “Ethnic” girls we were called, but then who wasn’t, when you got right down to it? Weren’t the Charm Bracelets every bit as ethnic? Weren’t they as full of strange rituals and food? Of tribal speech? They said “bogue” for repulsive and “queer” for weird. They ate tiny, crustless sandwiches on white bread—cucumber sandwiches, mayonnaise, and something called “watercress.” Until we came to Baker & Inglis my friends and I had always felt completely American. But now the Bracelets’ upturned noses suggested that there was another America to which we could never gain admittance. All of a sudden America wasn’t about hamburgers and hot rods anymore. It was about theMayflower and Plymouth Rock. It was about something that had happened for two minutes four hundred years ago, instead of everything that had happened since. Instead of everything that was happening now!
Suffice it to say that, in seventh grade, Calliope found herself aligned with, taken in by, nurtured and befriended by the year’s newcomers. As I opened my locker, my friends said nothing about my porous goaltending. Instead Reetika kindly turned the subject to an upcoming math test. Joanne Maria Barbara Peracchio slowly peeled off a knee sock. Correctional surgery had left her right ankle as thin as a broomstick. The sight of it always made me feel better about myself. Norma Abdow opened her locker, looked in, and shouted, “Gross!” I stalled, unlacing my pads. On either side, my friends, with quick, shivery movements, stripped off their clothes. They wrapped themselves in towels. “You guys?” Linda Ramirez asked. “Can I borrow some shampoo?” “Only if you’re my lunch peon tomorrow.” “No way!” “Then no shampoo.” “Okay, okay.” “Okay, what?” “Okay, Your Highness.”
I waited until they left before I undressed. First I took off my knee socks. I reached under my athletic tunic and pulled down my shorts. After tying a bath towel around my waist, I unbuttoned the shoulder straps of my tunic and pulled it over my head. This left me with the towel and my jersey on. Now came the tricky part. The brassiere I had was size 30 AA. It had a tiny rosette between the cups and a label that read “Young Miss by Olga.” (Tessie had urged me to get an old-fashioned training bra, but I wanted something that looked like what my friends had, and preferably padded.) I now fastened this item around my waist, clasps in front, and then rotated it into position. At that point, one sleeve at a time, I pulled my arms inside my jersey so that it sat on my shoulders like a cloak. Working inside it, I slid the bra up my torso until I could slip my arms through the armholes. When that was accomplished, I put my kilt on under my towel, removed my jersey, put on my blouse, and tossed the towel away. I wasn’t naked for a second.
The only witness to my cunning was our school mascot. On the wall behind me a faded felt banner proclaimed: “1955 State Field Hockey Champions.” Below this, striking her customary insouciant pose, was the B&I Wolverette. With her beady eyes, sharp teeth, and tapering snout, she stood leaning on her hockey stick, right foot crossed over left ankle. She wore a blue tunic with a red sash. A red ribbon sat between her furry ears. It was difficult to tell if she was smiling or snarling. There was something of the Yale bulldog’s tenacity in our Wolverette, but there was elegance, too. The Wolverette didn’t just play to win. She played to keep her figure.
At the nearby drinking fountain, I pressed one finger over the hole, making the water squirt high in the air. I put my head into this stream. Coach Stork always touched our hair before letting us leave, making sure it was wet.
The year I was packed off to private school, Chapter Eleven went off to college. Although he was safe from the long arm of Judge Roth, other arms had been reaching for him. One hot day the previous July, as I was passing down our upstairs hall, I heard a strange voice emanating from Chapter Eleven’s bedroom. The voice was a man’s and he was reading numbers and dates. “February fourth,” the voice said, “thirty-two. February fifth—three hundred and twenty-one. February sixth . . .” The accordion door wasn’t latched, so I peeked in.
My brother was lying on his bed, wrapped in an old afghan Tessie had crocheted for him. His head extended from one end—eyes glazed—and his white legs from the other. Across the room his stereo amplifier was on, the radio needle jumping.
That spring, Chapter Eleven had received two letters, one from the University of Michigan informing him of his acceptance and the other from the U.S. government informing him of his eligibility for the draft. Since then my apolitical brother had been taking an unusual interest in current events. Every night, he watched the news with Milton, tracking military developments and paying close attention to the guarded statements of Henry Kissinger at the Paris peace talks. “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac,” Kissinger famously said, and it must have been true: because Chapter Eleven was glued to the set night after night, following the machinations of diplomacy. At the same time, Milton was pricked by the strange desire of parents, and especially of fathers, to see their children repeat their own sufferings. “Might do you some good being in the service,” he said. To which Chapter Eleven replied, “I’ll go to Canada.” “You will not. If they call you up, you’ll serve your country just like I did.” And then Tessie: “Don’t worry. The whole thing’ll be over before they can get you.”
In the summer of ’72, however, as I watched my number-stunned brother, the war was still officially on. Nixon’s Christmas bombings were still awaiting their holiday season. Kissinger was still shuttling between Paris and Washington to maintain his sex appeal. In actuality, the Paris Peace Accords would be signed the following January and the last American troops would pull out of Vietnam in March. But as I peeked in at my brother’s inert body, no one knew that yet. I was aware only of what a strange thing it was to be male. Society discriminated against women, no question. But what about the discrimination of being sent to war? Which sex was really thought to be expendable? I felt a sympathy and protectiveness for my brother I’d never felt before. I thought of Chapter Eleven in an army uniform, squatting in the jungle. I imagined him wounded on a stretcher, and I started to cry. The voice on the radio droned on: “February twenty-first—one hundred and forty-one. February twenty-second—seventy-four. February twenty-third—two hundred and six.”
I waited until March 20, Chapter Eleven’s birthday. When the voice announced his draft number—it was two hundred and ninety, he would never go to war—I burst into his room. Chapter Eleven leapt out of bed. We looked at each other and—almost unheard of between us—we hugged.
The next fall, my brother left not for Canada but for Ann Arbor. Once again, as when Chapter Eleven’s egg had dropped, I was left alone. Alone at home to note my father’s growing anger at the nightly news, his frustration at the “half-assed” way the Americans were waging the war (napalm notwithstanding) and his increasing sympathy for President Nixon. Alone, also, to detect a feeling of uselessness that began to plague my mother. With Chapter Eleven out of the house and me growing up, Tessie found herself with too much time on her hands. She began to fill her days with classes at the War Memorial Community Center. She learned decoupage. She wove plant hangers. Our house began to fill up with her craft projects. There were painted baskets and beaded curtains, paperweights with various objects suspended in them, dried flowers, colored grains and beans. She went antiquing and hung an old washboard on the wall. She took yoga, too.
It was the combination of Milton’s disgust at the antiwar movement and Tessie’s sense of uselessness that led them to begin reading the entire one-hundred-and-fifteen-volume set of the Great Books series. Uncle Pete had been touting these books for a long time, not to mention quoting from them liberally to score points in Sunday debates. And now, with so much learning in the air—Chapter Eleven majoring in engineering, I myself taking first-year Latin with Miss Silber, who wore sunglasses in class—Milton and Tessie decided it was time to round out their education. The Great Books arrived in ten boxes stamped with their contents. Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates in one; Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Virgil in another. As we shelved the books in the built-in stacks on Middlesex, we read the names, many familiar (Shakespeare), others not (Boethius). Canon-bashing wasn’t in vogue yet, and besides, the Great Books began with names not unlike our own (Thucydides), so we felt included. “Here’s a good one,” said Milton, holding up Milton. The only thing that disappointed him was that the series didn’t contain a book by Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, that evening after dinner, Milton began reading aloud to Tessie.
They went chronologically, starting with volume one and working their way toward one hundred and fifteen. While I did my homework in the kitchen I heard Milton’s resonant, drill-like voice saying, “Socrates: ‘There seem to be two causes of the deterioration of the arts.’ Adeimantus: ‘What are they?’ Socrates: ‘Wealth, I said, and poverty.’ ” When the Plato got to be hard going, Milton suggested skipping ahead to Machiavelli. After a few days of that, Tessie asked for Thomas Hardy, but an hour later Milton put the book down, unimpressed. “Too many heaths,” he complained. “Heath this and heath that.” Then they readThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, which they enjoyed, and then they gave the project up.
I bring up my parents’ failed assault on the Great Books for a reason. Throughout my formative years, the set remained on our library shelves, weighty and regal-looking with its gold spines. Even back then the Great Books were working on me, silently urging me to pursue the most futile human dream of all, the dream of writing a book worthy of joining their number, a one hundred and sixteenth Great Book with another long Greek name on the cover: Stephanides. That was when I was young and full of grand dreams. Now I’ve given up any hope of lasting fame or literary perfection. I don’t care if I write a great book anymore, but just one which, whatever its flaws, will leave a record of my impossible life.
The life which, as I shelved books, was finally revealing itself. Because here is Calliope, opening another carton. Here she is taking out number forty-five (Locke, Rousseau). Here she is reaching up, without resorting to tiptoes, to put it on the top shelf. And here is Tessie, looking up and saying, “I think you’re growing, Cal.”
It turned out to be an understatement. Beginning in January of seventh grade and continuing into the following August, my previously frozen body underwent a growth spurt of uncommon proportions and unforeseeable consequences. Though at home I was still kept on the Mediterranean Diet, the food at my new school—chicken pot pies, Tater Tots, cubed Jell-O—canceled out its fountain-of-youth effects and, in all ways but one, I began to grow up. I sprouted with the velocity of the mung beans we studied in Earth Science. Learning about photosynthesis, we kept one tray in the dark and one in the light, and measured them every day with metric rulers. Like a mung bean my body stretched up toward the great grow lamp in the sky, and my case was even more significant because I continued to grow in the dark. At night, my joints ached. I had trouble sleeping. I wrapped my legs in heating pads, smiling through the pain. Because along with my new height, something else was finally happening. Hair was beginning to appear in the required places. Every night, after locking my bedroom door, I angled my desk lamp just so and began to count the hairs. One week there were three; the next, six; two weeks later, seventeen. In a grand mood one day I ran a comb through them. “About time,” I said, and even that was different: my voice was beginning to change.
It didn’t do so overnight. I don’t remember any cracking. Instead my voice began a slow descent that continued for the next couple of years. The earsplitting quality it had had—which I used as a weapon against my brother—disappeared. Hitting the “free” in the national anthem was a thing of the past. My mother kept thinking that I had a cold. Sales ladies looked past me for the woman who had asked for help. It was a not unbewitching sound, a mix of flute and bassoon, my consonants slightly slurred, a rush and breathiness to most of my pronouncements. And there were the signs only a linguist could pick up, middle-class elisions, grace notes passed down from Greek into midwestern twang, the heritage from my grandparents and parents that lived on in me like everything else.
I grew tall. My voice matured. But nothing seemed unnatural. My slight build, my thin waist, the smallness of my head, hands, and feet raised no questions in anybody’s mind. Many genetic males raised as girls don’t blend in so easily. From an early age they look different, move differently, they can’t find shoes or gloves that fit. Other kids call them tomboys or worse: ape-women, gorillas. My skinniness disguised me. The early seventies were a good time to be flat-chested. Androgyny was in. My rickety height and foal’s legs gave me the posture of a fashion model. My clothes weren’t right, my face wasn’t right, but my angularity was. I had that saluki look. Plus, for whatever reason—my dreamy temperament, my bookishness—I fit right in.
Still, it wasn’t uncommon for certain innocent, excitable girls to respond to my presence in ways they weren’t aware of. I’m thinking of Lily Parker, who used to lie down on the lobby couches and rest her head in my lap, looking up and saying, “You have the most perfect chin.” Or of June James, who used to pull my hair over her own head, so that we could share it like a tent. My body might have released pheromones that affected my schoolmates. How else to explain the way my friends tugged on me, leaned on me? At this early stage, before my male secondary characteristics had manifested themselves, before there were whispers about me in the halls and girls thought twice about laying their heads in my lap—in seventh grade, when my hair was glossy instead of frizzy, my cheeks still smooth, my muscles undeveloped, and yet, invisibly but unmistakably, I began to exude some kind of masculinity, in the way I tossed up and caught my eraser, for instance, or in the way I dive-bombed people’s desserts with my spoon, in the intensity of my knit brow or my eagerness to debate anyone on anything in class; when I was a changeling, before I changed, I was quite popular at my new school.
But this stage was brief. Soon my headgear lost its nighttime war against the forces of crookedness. Apollo gave in to Dionysius. Beauty may always be a little bit freakish, but the year I turned thirteen I was becoming freakier than ever.
Consider the yearbook. In the field hockey team photo, taken in the fall, I am on one knee in the front row. With my homeroom in the spring, I am stooping in the back. My face is shadowed with self-consciousness. (Over the years my perpetually perplexed expression would drive photographers to distraction. It ruined class photos and Christmas cards until, in the most widely published pictures of me, the problem was finally solved by blocking out my face altogether.)
If Milton missed having a beautiful daughter, I never knew it. At weddings he still asked me to dance, regardless of how ridiculous we looked together. “Come on,kukla ,” he’d say, “let’s cut the rug,” and we’d be off, the squat, plump father leading with confident, old-fashioned, fox-trot steps, and the awkward praying mantis of a daughter trying to follow along. My parents’ love for me didn’t diminish with my looks. I think it’s fair to say, however, that as my appearance changed in those years a species of sadness infiltrated my parents’ love. They worried that I wouldn’t attract boys, that I would be a wallflower, like Aunt Zo. Sometimes when we were dancing, Milton squared his shoulders and looked around the floor, as if daring anyone to make a crack.
My response to all this growing was to grow my hair. Unlike the rest of me, which seemed bent on doing whatever it wanted, my hair remained under my control. And so like Desdemona after her disastrous YWCA makeover, I refused to let anyone cut it. All through seventh grade and into eighth I pursued my goal. While college students marched against the war, Calliope protested against hair clippers. While bombs were secretly dropped on Cambodia, Callie did what she could to keep her own secrets. By the spring of 1973, the war was officially over. President Nixon would be out of office in August of the next year. Rock music was giving way to disco. Across the nation, hairstyles were changing. But Calliope’s head, like a midwesterner who always got the fashions late, still thought it was the sixties.
My hair! My unbelievably abundant, thirteen-year-old hair! Has there ever existed a head of hair like mine at thirteen? Did any girl ever summon as many Roto-Rooter men out of their trucks? Monthly, weekly, semiweekly, the drains in our house clogged. “Jesus Christ,” Milton complained, writing out yet another check, “you’re worse than those goddamn tree roots.” Hair like a ball of tumbleweed, blowing through the rooms of Middlesex. Hair like a black tornado wheeling across an amateur newsreel. Hair so vast it seemed to possess its own weather systems, because my dry split ends crackled with static electricity whereas closer in, near my scalp, the atmosphere grew warm and moist like a rain forest. Desdemona’s hair was long and silky, but I’d gotten Jimmy Zizmo’s spikier variety. Pomade would never subdue it. First ladies would never buy it. It was hair that could turn the Medusa to stone, hair snakier than all the snake pits in a minotaur movie.
My family suffered. My hair turned up in every corner, every drawer, everymeal . Even in the rice puddings Tessie made, covering each little bowl with wax paper before putting it away in the fridge—even into these prophylactically secure desserts my hair found its way! Jet black hairs wound themselves around bars of soap. They lay pressed like flower stems between the pages of books. They turned up in eyeglass cases, birthday cards, once—I swear—inside an egg Tessie had just cracked. The next-door neighbor’s cat coughed up a hairball one day and the hair was not the cat’s. “That’s so gross!” Becky Turnbull shouted. “I’m calling the SPCA!” In vain Milton tried to get me to wear one of the paper hats his employees had to wear by law. Tessie, as though I were still six, took a hairbrush to me.
“Be still.” More brushing, tugging. My head jerking with every stroke. “Short hair’s the style now anyway, Callie.”
“Are you finished?”
A few final, frustrated strokes. Then, plaintively: “At least tie it back. Keep it out of your face.”
What could I tell her? That that was the whole point of having long hair? To keep itin my face? Maybe I didn’t look like Dorothy Hamill. Maybe I was even starting to bear a strong resemblance to our weeping willow trees. But there were virtues to my hair. It covered tinsel teeth. It covered satyrical nose. It hid blemishes and, best of all, it hid me. Cut my hair? Never! I was still growing it out. My dream was to someday live inside it.
Imagine me then at unlucky thirteen as I entered the eighth grade. Five feet ten inches tall, weighing one hundred and thirty-one pounds. Black hair hanging like drapes on either side of my nose. People knocking on the air in front of my face and calling out, “Anybody in there?”