“What I told you about myself has nothing whatsoever to do with being gay or closeted. I’ve always liked girls. I liked girls when Iwas a girl.”
“I wouldn’t be some kind of last stop for you?”
“More like a first stop.”
Julie laughed. She still had not made a decision. I waited. Then at last she said, “All right.”
“All right?” I asked.
“Allright ,” I said.
So we left the museum and went back to my apartment. We had another drink; we slow-danced in the living room. And then I led Julie into the bedroom, where I hadn’t led anyone in quite a long time.
She switched off the lights.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you turning off the lights because of you or because of me?”
“Because of me.”
“Because I’m a shy, modest Oriental lady. Just don’t expect me to bathe you.”
“Not unless you do a Zorba dance.”
“Where did I put that bouzouki of mine, anyway?” I was trying to keep up the banter. I was also taking off my clothes. So was Julie. It was like jumping into cold water. You had to do it without thinking too much. We got under the covers and held each other, petrified, happy.
“I might be your last stop, too,” I said, clinging to her. “Did you ever think of that?”
And Julie Kikuchi answered, “It crossed my mind.”
Chapter Eleven flew to San Francisco to collect me from jail. My mother had to sign a letter requesting that the police release me into my brother’s custody. A trial date would be set in the near future but, as a juvenile and first-time offender, I was likely to receive only probation. (The offense came off my record, never interfering with my subsequent job prospects at the State Department. Not that I concerned myself with these details at the time. I was too stunned, sick with grief poisons, and wanted to go home.)
When I came out into the outer police station, my brother was sitting alone on a long wooden bench. He looked up at me with no expression, blinking. That was Chapter Eleven’s way. Everything went on in him internally. Inside his braincase sensations were being reviewed, evaluated, before any official reaction was given. I was used to this, of course. What is more natural than the tics and habits of one’s close relatives? Years ago, Chapter Eleven had made me pull down my underpants so that he could look at me. Now his eyes were raised but no less riveted. He was taking in my deforested head. He was getting a load of the funereal suit. It was a lucky thing that my brother had taken as much LSD as he had. Chapter Eleven had gone in early for mind expansion. He contemplated the veil of Maya, the existence of various planes of being. For a personality thus prepared, it was somewhat easier to deal with your sister becoming your brother. There have been hermaphrodites like me since the world began. But as I came out from my holding pen it was possible that no generation other than my brother’s was as well disposed to accept me. Still, it was not nothing to witness me so changed. Chapter Eleven’s eyes widened.
We hadn’t seen each other for over a year. Chapter Eleven had changed, too. His hair was shorter. It had receded farther. His friend’s girlfriend had given him a home perm. Chapter Eleven’s previously lank hair was now leonine in back, while the front retreated. He didn’t look like John Lennon anymore. Gone were his faded bell-bottoms, his granny glasses. Now he wore brown hip-huggers. His wide-lapel shirt shimmered under the fluorescent lights. The sixties have never really come to an end. They’re still going on right now in Goa. But by 1975 the sixties had finally ended for my brother.
At any other time, we would have lingered over these details. But we didn’t have the luxury for that. I came across the room. Chapter Eleven stood up and then we were hugging, swaying. “Dad’s dead,” my brother repeated in my ear. “He’s dead.”
I asked him what had happened and he told me. Milton had charged through customs. Father Mike had also been on the bridge. He was now in the hospital. Milton’s old briefcase had been found in the wreckage of the Gremlin, full of money. Father Mike had confessed everything to the police, the kidnapping ruse, the ransom.
When this had sunk in, I asked, “How’s Mom?”
“She’s all right. She’s holding up. She’s pissed at Milt.”
“For going out there. For not telling her. She’s glad you’re coming home. That’s what she’s focusing on. You coming back for the funeral. So that’s good.”
We were scheduled to take the red-eye out that night. The funeral was the next morning. Chapter Eleven had been dealing with the bureaucratic side of things, getting the death certificates and placing the obituaries. He asked me nothing about my time in San Francisco or at Sixty-Niners. Only when we were on the plane and Chapter Eleven had had a few beers did he allude to my condition. “So, I guess I can’t call you Callie anymore.”
“Call me whatever you want.”
“How about ‘bro’?”
“Fine with me.”
He was quiet, blinking. There was the usual lag time while he thought. “I never heard much about what happened out there at that clinic. I was up in Marquette. I wasn’t talking to Mom and Dad that much.”
“I ran away.”
“They were going to cut me up.”
I could feel him staring at me, with that outer glaze that concealed considerable mental activity. “It’s a little bit weird for me,” he said.
“It’s weird for me, too.”
A moment later he let out a laugh. “Hah! Weird! Pretty fucking weird.”
I was shaking my head in comic despair. “You can say that again. Bro.”
Confronted with the impossible, there was no option but to treat it as normal. We didn’t have an upper register, so to speak, but only the middle range of our shared experience and ways of behaving, of joking around. But it got us through.
“One good thing about this gene I have, though,” I said.
“I’ll never go bald.”
“You have to have DHT to go bald.”
“Huh,” said Chapter Eleven, feeling his scalp. “I guess I’m a little heavy on the DHT. I guess I’m what they’d call DHT-rich.”
We reached Detroit a little after six in the morning. The smashed-up Eldorado had been towed to a police yard. Waiting in the airport parking lot was our mother’s car, the “Florida Special.” The lemon-colored Cadillac was all we had left of Milton. It was already beginning to take on the attributes of a relic. The driver’s seat was sunken from the weight of his body. You could see the impression of Milton’s cloven backside in the leather upholstery. Tessie filled this hollow with throw pillows in order to see over the steering wheel. Chapter Eleven had tossed the pillows into the backseat.
In the unseasonal car, with its powerful air-conditioning switched off and sunroof closed, we started for home. We passed the giant Uniroyal tire and the thready woods of Inkster.
“What time’s the funeral?” I asked.
It was just getting light. The sun was rising from wherever it rose, behind the distant factories maybe, or over the blind river. The growing light was like a leakage or flood, seeping into the ground.
“Go through downtown,” I told my brother.
“It’ll take too long.”
“We’ve got time. I want to see it.”
Chapter Eleven obliged me. We took I-94 past River Rouge and Olympia Stadium and then curled in toward the river on the Lodge Freeway and entered the city from the north.
Grow up in Detroit and you understand the way of all things. Early on, you are put on close relations with entropy. As we rose out of the highway trough, we could see the condemned houses, many burned, as well as the stark beauty of all the vacant lots, gray and frozen. Once-elegant apartment buildings stood next to scrapyards, and where there had been furriers and movie palaces there were now blood banks and methadone clinics and Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission. Returning to Detroit from bright climes usually depressed me. But now I welcomed it. The blight eased the pain of my father’s death, making it seem like a general state of affairs. At least the city didn’t mock my grief by being sparkling or winsome.
Downtown looked the same, only emptier. You couldn’t knock down the skyscrapers when the tenants left; so instead boards went over the windows and doors, and the great shells of commerce were put in cold storage. On the riverfront the Renaissance Center was being built, inaugurating a renaissance that has never arrived. “Let’s go through Greektown,” I said. Again my brother humored me. Soon we came down the block of restaurants and souvenir stores. Amid the ethnic kitsch, there were still a few authentic coffee houses, patronized by old men in their seventies and eighties. Some were already up this morning, drinking coffee, playing backgammon, and reading the Greek newspapers. When these old men died, the coffee houses would suffer and finally close. Little by little, the restaurants on the block would suffer, too, their awnings getting ripped, the big yellow lightbulbs on the Laikon marquee burning out, the Greek bakery on the corner being taken over by South Yemenis from Dearborn. But all that hadn’t happened yet. On Monroe Street, we passed the Grecian Gardens, where we had held Lefty’smakaria .
“Are we having amakaria for Dad?” I asked.
“Yeah. The whole deal.”
“Where? At the Grecian Gardens?”
Chapter Eleven laughed. “You kidding? Nobody wanted to come down here.”
“I like it here,” I said. “I love Detroit.”
“Yeah? Well, welcome home.”
He had turned back onto Jefferson for the long miles through the blighted East Side. A wig shop. Vanity Dancing, the old club, now for rent. A used-record store with a hand-painted sign showing people grooving amid an explosion of musical notes. The old dime stores and sweet shops were closed, Kresge’s, Woolworth’s, Sanders Ice Cream. It was cold out. Not many people were on the streets. On one corner a man stood impervious, cutting a fine figure against the winter sky. His leather coat reached to his ankles. Space funk goggles wrapped around his dignified, long-jawed head, on top of which sat, or sailed really, the Spanish galleon of a velvet maroon hat. Not part of my suburban world, this figure; therefore exotic. But nevertheless familiar, and suggestive of the peculiar creative energies of my hometown. I was glad to see him anyway. I couldn’t take my eyes away.
When I was little, street-corner dudes like that would sometimes lower their shades to wink, keen on getting a rise out of the white girl in the backseat passing by. But now the dude gave me a different look altogether. He didn’t lower his sunglasses, but his mouth, his flared nostrils, and the tilt of his head communicated defiance and even hate. That was when I realized a shocking thing. I couldn’t become a man without becoming The Man. Even if I didn’t want to.
I made Chapter Eleven go through Indian Village, passing our old house. I wanted to take a nostalgia bath to calm my nerves before seeing my mother. The streets were still full of trees, bare in winter, so that we could see all the way to the frozen river. I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair cut, and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered. What really mattered in life, what gave it weight, was death. Seen this way, my bodily metamorphosis was a small event. Only the pimp might have been interested.
Soon we reached Grosse Pointe. The naked elms reached across our street from both sides, touching fingertips, and snow lay crusted in the flower beds before the warm, hibernatory houses. My body was reacting to the sight of home. Happy sparks were shooting off inside me. It was a canine feeling, full of eager love, and dumb to tragedy. Here was my home, Middlesex. Up there in that window, on the tiled window seat, I used to read for hours, eating mulberries off the tree outside.
The driveway hadn’t been shoveled. Nobody had had time to think about that. Chapter Eleven took the driveway a little fast and we bounced in our seats, the tailpipe hitting. After we got out of the car, he opened the trunk and began carrying my suitcase to the house. But halfway there he stopped. “Hey, bro,” he said. “You can carry this yourself.” He was smiling with mischief. You could see he was enjoying the paradigm shift. He was taking my metamorphosis as a brain teaser, like the ones in the back of his sci-fi magazines.
“Let’s not get carried away,” I answered. “Feel free to carry my luggage anytime.”
“Catch!” shouted Chapter Eleven, and hefted the suitcase. I caught it, staggering back. Right then the door of the house opened and my mother, in house slippers, stepped out into the frost-powdery air.
Tessie Stephanides, who in a different lifetime when space travel was new had decided to go along with her husband and create a girl by devious means, now saw before her, in the snowy driveway, the fruit of that scheme. Not a daughter at all anymore but, at least by looks, a son. She was tired and heartsick and had no energy to deal with this new event. It was not acceptable that I was now living as a male person. Tessie didn’t think it should be up to me. She had given birth to me and nursed me and brought me up. She had known me before I knew myself and now she had no say in the matter. Life started out one thing and then suddenly turned a corner and became something else. Tessie didn’t know how this had happened. Though she could still see Calliope in my face, each feature seemed changed, thickened, and there were whiskers on my chin and above my upper lip. There was a criminal aspect to my appearance, in Tessie’s eyes. She couldn’t help herself thinking that my arrival was part of some settling of accounts, that Milton had been punished and that her punishment was just beginning. For all these reasons she stood still, red-eyed, in the doorway.
“Hi, Mom,” I said. “I’m home.”
I went forward to meet her. I set down my suitcase, and when I looked up again, Tessie’s face had altered. She had been preparing for this moment for months. Now her faint eyebrows lifted, the corners of her mouth rose, crinkling the wan cheeks. Her expression was that of a mother watching a doctor remove bandages from a severely burned child. An optimistic, dishonest, bedside face. Still, it told me all I needed to know. Tessie was going to try to accept things. She felt crushed by what had happened to me but she was going to endure it for my sake.
We embraced. Tall as I was, I laid my head on my mother’s shoulder, and she stroked my hair while I sobbed.
“Why?” she kept crying softly, shaking her head. “Why?” I thought she was talking about Milton. But then she clarified: “Why did you run away, honey?”
“I had to.”
“Don’t you think it would have been easier just to stay the way you were?”
I lifted my face and looked into my mother’s eyes. And I told her: “This is the way I was.”
You will want to know: How did we get used to things? What happened to our memories? Did Calliope have to die in order to make room for Cal? To all these questions I offer the same truism: it’s amazing what you can get used to. After I returned from San Francisco and started living as a male, my family found that, contrary to popular opinion, gender was not all that important. My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood. In most ways I remained the person I’d always been. Even now, though I live as a man, I remain in essential ways Tessie’s daughter. I’m still the one who remembers to call her every Sunday. I’m the one she recounts her growing list of ailments to. Like any good daughter, I’ll be the one to nurse her in her old age. We still discuss what’s wrong with men; we still, on visits back home, have our hair done together. Bowing to the changing times, the Golden Fleece now cuts men’s hair as well as women’s. (And I’ve finally let dear old Sophie give me that short haircut she always wanted.)
But all that came later. Right then, we were in a hurry. It was almost ten. The limousine from the funeral parlor would be arriving in thirty-five minutes. “You better get cleaned up,” Tessie said to me. The funeral did what funerals are supposed to do: it gave us no time to dwell on our feelings. Hooking her arm in mine, Tessie led me into the house. Middlesex, too, was in mourning. The mirror in the den was covered by a black cloth. There were black streamers on the sliding doors. All the old immigrant touches. Aside from that, the house seemed unnaturally still and dim. As always, the enormous windows brought the outdoors in, so that it was winter in the living room; snow lay all around us.
“I guess you can wear that suit,” Chapter Eleven said to me. “It looks pretty appropriate.”
“I doubt you even have a suit.”
“I don’t. I didn’t go to a stuck-up private school. Where did you get that thing, anyway? It smells.”
“At least it’s a suit.”
While my brother and I teased each other, Tessie watched closely. She was picking up the cue from my brother that this thing that had happened to me might be handled lightly. She wasn’t sure she could do this herself, but she was watching how the younger generation pulled it off.
Suddenly there was a strange noise, like an eagle’s cry. The intercom on the living room wall crackled. A voice shrieked, “Yoo-hoo! Tessie honey!”
The immigrant touches, of course, weren’t around the house because of Tessie. The person shrieking over the intercom was none other than Desdemona.
Patient reader, you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother. You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away. But that was intentional. I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative because, to be honest, in the dramatic years of my transformation, she slipped out of my attention most of the time. For the last five years she had remained bedridden in the guest house. During my time at Baker & Inglis, while I was falling in love with the Object, I had remained aware of my grandmother only in the vaguest of ways. I saw Tessie preparing her meals and carrying trays out to the guest house. Every evening I saw my father make a dutiful visit to her perpetual sickroom with its hot-water bottles and pharmaceutical supplies. At those times Milton spoke to his mother in Greek, with increasing difficulty. During the war Desdemona had failed to teach her son to write Greek. Now in her old age she recognized with horror that he was forgetting how to speak it as well. Occasionally, I brought Desdemona’s food trays out and for a few minutes would reacquaint myself with her time-capsule life. The framed photograph of her burial plot still stood on her bedside table for reassurance.
Tessie went to the intercom. “Yes,yia yia ,” she said. “Did you need something?”
“My feet they are terrible today. Did you get the Epsom salts?”
“Yes. I’ll bring them to you.”
“Why God no letyia yia die, Tessie? Everybody’s dead! Everybody butyia yia !Yia yia she is too old to live now. And what does God do? Nothing.”
“Are you finished with your breakfast?”
“Yes, thank you, honey. But the prunes they were not good ones today.”
“Those are the same prunes you always have.”
“Something maybe it happen to them. Get a new box, please, Tessie. The Sunkist.”
“Okay, honeymou . Thank you, honey.”
My mother silenced the intercom and turned back to me. “Yia yia’s not doing so good anymore. Her mind’s going. Since you’ve been away she’s really gone downhill. We told her about Milt.” Tessie faltered, near tears. “About what happened.Yia yia couldn’t stop crying. I thought she was going to die right then and there. And then a few hours later she asked me where Milt was. She forgot the entire thing. Maybe it’s better that way.”
“Is she going to the funeral?”
“She can barely walk. Mrs. Papanikolas is coming to watch her. She doesn’t know where she is half the time.” Tessie smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Who would have thought she would outlive Milt?” She teared up again and forced the tears back.
“Can I go and see her?”
“You want to?”
Tessie looked apprehensive. “What will you tell her?”
“What should I tell her?”
For another few seconds my mother was silent, thinking. Then she shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever you say she won’t remember. Take this out to her. She wants to soak her feet.”
Carrying the Epsom salts and a piece of the baklava wrapped in cellophane, I came out of the house and walked along the portico past the courtyard and bathhouse to the guesthouse behind. The door was unlocked. I opened it and stepped in. The only light in the room came from the television, which was turned up extremely loud. Facing me when I entered was the old portrait of Patriarch Athenagoras that Desdemona had saved from the yard sale years ago. In a birdcage by the window, a green parakeet, the last surviving member of my grandparents’ former aviary, was moving back and forth on its balsa wood perch. Other familiar objects and furnishings were still in evidence, Lefty’s rebetika records, the brass coffee table, and, of course, the silkworm box, sitting in the middle of the engraved circular top. The box was now so stuffed with mementos it wouldn’t shut. Inside were snapshots, old letters, precious buttons, worry beads. Somewhere below all that, I knew, were two long braids of hair, tied with crumbling black ribbons, and a wedding crown made of ship’s rope. I wanted to look at these things, but as I stepped farther into the room my attention was diverted by the grand spectacle on the bed.
Desdemona was propped up, regally, against a beige corduroy cushion known as a husband. The arms of this cushion encircled her. Protruding from the elastic pocket on the outside of one arm was an aspirator, along with two or three pill bottles. Desdemona was in a pale white nightgown, the bedcovers pulled up to her waist, and in her lap sat one of her Turkish atrocity fans. None of this was surprising. It was what Desdemona had done with her hair that shocked me. On hearing about Milton’s death, she had removed her hairnet, tearing at the masses of hair that tumbled down. Her hair was completely gray but still very fine and, in the light coming from the television, it appeared to be almost blond. The hair fell over her shoulders and spread out over her body like the hair of Botticelli’s Venus. The face framed by this astonishing cascade, however, was not that of a beautiful young woman but that of an old widow with a square head and dried-out mouth. In the unmoving air of the room and the smell of medicine and skin salves I could feel the weight of the time she had spent in this bed waiting and hoping to die. I’m not sure, with a grandmother like mine, if you can ever become a true American in the sense of believing that life is about the pursuit of happiness. The lesson of Desdemona’s suffering and rejection of life insisted that old age would not continue the manifold pleasures of youth but would instead be a long trial that slowly robbed life of even its smallest, simplest joys. Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the thing that lets us say goodbye.