Midnight, and Aaron is sitting behind the wheel of our rented car. “So what’s this book we’re writing?” he asks. His voice is uninflected. We’re both exhausted from the day’s heat. The night sky is flat black. The car is parked in front of the guesthouse where I’m staying with my laptop computer, working on our collaborative book about his transsexual change.
“I don’t know,” I say.
He shifts impatiently. As far as I can tell, his part of the book is done. I hope to finish my part now, the mother’s part, seven years after his surgery.
Aaron says he hates everything he’s written. His voice is speeding up. He articulates very clearly.
“Who cares about this kind of book?” he asks me. “You don’t read books about breast cancer, right, Mom?” He’s talking fast now. He knows I’ve been well for 10 years.
“Transformation happens in all lives. We’ll tell about ours,” I say in a soothing voice.
“Okay,” he says. His shoulders relax a little as he leans back in the driver’s seat.
I lean forward in the passenger seat. “Okay,” I say. “But don’t expect me to provide any analysis of our experience. Analysis is beyond me.”
“You must want to analyze the experience, since the negative always implies the positive,” he says.
I reach underneath the seat, grab and open a fresh bottle of water. We could go into the cool guesthouse where I’m staying, rest on the beds underneath the ceiling fan, switch it on high. I could say we’re both tired, let’s talk tomorrow when we’re fresh. Instead I say, “Let’s begin with the garage sale today. You liked my story about the clothes.”
“Okay,” says Aaron.
Aaron and I look through the newspaper over breakfast and find neighborhood garage sales. It’s going to be a very hot day. The first house, in the back yard, has fabulous stuff. Aaron opens a bag and collects Swarovski crystal beads in amber and black, a broken necklace of dyed onyx beads with Mexican silver charms, and a designer skirt from the ‘70s in chrome-blue Thai silk. The belt loops on the skirt are made of metallic, crimson thread. Seven dollars for the lot. He’ll tear the silk on the bias, string it with vintage beads and charms to sell as treasure necklaces. Gorgeous. I find a dusty rack of clothes on the cracked, hot driveway. An Anne Klein bomber jacket in silk embroidery, lined with candlelight chiffon; a browned-butter cashmere jacket with a diagonal placket; a candlelight satin underskirt from the ‘50s.
“Hooh, boy!” I say. “Look at this slip.”
“Why is it a slip, not a skirt?” asks Aaron, who comes over to see.
I show him the elastic waistband stitched to the satin and the hoop attached at the hem ruffle. Exquisite.
“How did you wear it?” he asks, turning up the hem to see the fine stitches. He wants me to tell him a story about my clothes. Our book’s title, “What Becomes You,” is a riff on my mother’s fashion advice—to wear only what becomes you, not what style or circumstance dictates. He knows I’ll write down what we say.
I tell him about a pink lace overdress with scallops cut out to show the yellow satin ruffle, the gray tweed skirt with a tomato suede blouson jacket, the matching cloche hat in suede and tweed. Some favorite clothes in the ‘60s. Today Aaron and I are both wearing green shorts and white T-shirts. He has on canvas basketball shoes, one red, one blue, and I’m wearing tattered sandals. We’re about the same height, but his shoulders and torso are muscular, his chest flat, his waist slender, his hips flat … he’s very handsome. The driveway is very hot.
“How did you get these clothes?” he asks. “How did you feel wearing them?” Suddenly I know he’s working hard and in subversive ways. He wants my attention off him. He thinks the book will be better if I write about myself. I want to write about him, his extraordinary story. Still, such beautiful clothes. I try to answer.
I tell him that when I was a teenager, these clothes helped cover the space I felt inside. I’d learned that I was a girl and should plan to marry a man of substance and have his children. I could help by dressing well. Like Aaron, I was handsome and earned the clothes by runway modeling. I wore the samples to appear negotiable, of value and substance. My generous parents bought at discount. And so I wore the peau de soie two-piece in navy with my big hair balanced above a thin neck, where the keyhole closure fastened at the throat with a soft bow. The skirt was molded high above the waist and fastened with a tiny zipper, thin and long like a scar. Who was I? Who knew? Such beautiful clothes. And the shoes! Black velvet dance slippers with rhinestone clasps at the instep. Kid flats in gold and another pair in silver gilt for dates with short boys. The small heels in layered wood attached to soft leather in camel, and the crisp spectator pumps in navy and white. Delisos. Capezzios.
“That’s enough,” I tell Aaron.
He shrugs, pays for his purchases. I leave the clothes behind.
The next day we move, a vacation from our work on the book. We go to the beach.
It’s a cool and rainy evening after a day with Aaron driving, negotiating the scenic but winding back roads. Dawn, Aaron’s friend, sleeps on the back seat. She’s carsick. Last year they celebrated 10 years of friendship at the Sylvia Beach Hotel at Nye Beach on the Pacific. This year they’ve reserved rooms for us all. When we arrive, we unpack, eat dinner, and talk. Then Aaron and I put on our parkas, take a walk near the ocean. It’s dark and chilly, but the sand feels warm. Two boys are running around, placing sparklers in a semicircle. Then they light them all at once. One jumps into the sparkly circle, and the other takes his picture, a tiny flash.
“Hey, nice fire,” Aaron calls out to a group sitting around flames in a circle of stones. They call back for us to join them—two youngsters, one a teenager, and their parents from Arizona.
The dad says, “These kids just up and moved out here two months ago!” The folks have traveled from Arizona to Oregon in a trailer to bring them their stuff. Aaron talks to the kids. I fall into place beside Ed, the dad.
I can hear Aaron saying, “If you’ve got insomnia because of the cloudy weather, try a light box.” They’re telling the stories about leaving home, new places, adjustments. Aaron says, “We moved to L.A., lived there for three years, and then I was done. We moved here.”
Over the sound of their voices, Ed tells me that he collects cash registers and he’s a school counselor back home. He asks, “How could our kids just up and go?” Alcohol on his breath. I shrug my shoulders. They just do. The mom across the fire smiles at me. We discover that we both have little granddaughters, another generation. Then Aaron and I get up, walk away into the mist, call back, “Goodbye, goodbye.” At the hotel, we hug each other hard. I rub my cheek against his rough beard, and then we return to our chilly, damp and salty rooms.
Dawn and Aaron are sitting at breakfast as I join them in the communal dining room. They hold hands, rub each others necks, look into each other’s eyes. Aaron will leave soon to go back to school, in California. Dawn will stay behind in their apartment. What shall we do today?
We walk the estuary with a tour group and our affable guide of retirement age. Aaron, a biologist, adds information, answers questions. I take photos of him picking up all available wildlife, naming each, standing in the middle of a crowd of interested kids. He’s wearing a black baseball cap. We leave the group, drive to the bay, eat lunch—Aaron’s first Dungeness crab, which he orders in black-bean sauce and enjoys hugely. Then we shop—jewelry, glass floats, wood sculptures. So much to buy, and we don’t. We all eat ice cream. Later, dinner. Dawn goes off to bed.
Aaron and I walk again, this time through the small town. I’m quiet, so glad to listen. We haven’t been together for six months. His conversation is fluent, elegant. I know that he’s leaving his job as director of a program in art and theater for homeless kids. He’s decided to study physical theater. After two years of trying, he’s been admitted to a famous school, with a scholarship. A big risk. He talks nonstop about his plans for a theater/dance company when he finishes his studying. One project, in choreography, will use the vocabulary of movement from Parkinson’s—his father’s disease—and muscular-dystrophy patients. Another is to make a safe place where multicultural homeless youth will meet with macho gym guys to develop performance projects for urban theaters, community centers and college campuses. He hopes to attract national talent for a board of directors; he has good contacts. His voice is low and steady. He walks fast, with his hands in his jacket pockets. Right now he doesn’t know what else he wants. He’s worried about leaving Dawn. They both get migraines, stomachaches, need expensive medicine from the drugstore. Maybe their separation will be good.
Then Aaron remembers a secret story from his childhood, something that involved me, something he’s never told me he knows. He’s going to tell this story no matter what I do. I zip up my jacket. The streets are damp and empty, few lights anywhere, and everywhere the sound of the ocean.
Aaron remembers when our family was on the way to visit my old college roommate, Libby. Aaron was still Sarah, and she was probably 12. The tension among the adults in the car was so great that Sarah refused to get out of the car until someone told her what was going on. When we reached a big house in the woods on a pond, the adults and the other kids jumped out, raced around. Sarah waited in the back seat. After a while, Libby came out of her house, opened the back door of the car, and suggested Sarah come with her for a walk through the woods. They walked on fallen pine needles, a soft path over gravel. Then Libby took Sarah’s hand and told her that, if things had been different, Libby would have been Sarah’s father.
I am astonished, and breathless. I wonder if this dialogue is exactly right. The story is so crazy. Aaron and I, walking on the sandy tarmac of the parking lot next to the Pacific Ocean, are walking faster now, through wind. I ask Aaron what he said. Aaron said, “You wouldn’t have been my father, because I wouldn’t have been born.”
What do I think? I think that this little person, Sarah, was my young daughter. What could she have thought? She sounded angry. Certainly she knew that two women didn’t give birth to a child. Not then. Apparently Sarah also knew that Libby was drunk. Sure enough, she fell in a hole and twisted her ankle. She had to lean on Sarah as she limped from the woods. Sarah decided to come into the house, since she knew the secret.
I ask Aaron why he hasn’t told me this story before. Silence. We walk on, come to the hotel, hug, and separate for the night. I’ve concealed my distress, but later I have flaming dreams. Why didn’t I know this story? Where was I? In the house, tending the others. I didn’t worry about Sarah. She was so much a tomboy we thought she might be lesbian, like Libby. We were wrong. She was a boy.
The summer after my freshman year of college, shortly after Aaron’s father and I married, Libby drove to Newport, R.I., with her sisters to wait tables at a grand hotel. We followed, slept on the floor of her room or on the beach, wore swimsuits all summer, walked and drove the winding road along the ocean to see the grand houses of the very rich. Libby, very tall, very thin, very blond, beautiful and brilliant. My best friend. Who, at our wedding, had been a maid of honor in a frilly dress of embroidered organdy. Who came to live with us after the honeymoon. She and I both 18. Best friends.
I wake after a fitful night, finish eating breakfast alone, and wander into the library at the top of the hotel. This place is an old beach house where pictures of authors and copies of their books are backdrop for guests as they read and write, drink hot tea or coffee. The ocean whispers out the windows. Aaron has gone off to chase a dream. He wants to rent a horse to ride on the beach. When he was a child, we sent him to a horse camp where neighbor kids—Mary Zimmerman, now a Tony-winning playwright, and her sister Annie, now mother of triplets, who lives in Paris—went each summer. Aaron hated camp. He came home, refused to go back. But he was Sarah then. Now he wants to ride the beach. Dawn and Aaron both seemed in good spirits as we started our day, but they left breakfast early as I was talking about Aaron’s brother, a composer of New Music. The guests were talking about the Ernest Bloch festival this weekend, apparently a showcase for New Music. Bloch had a summer home here.
Later in the day, the distance between Aaron and me is palpable, then permeable, then dissolves. We sit in adjacent desk chairs on the high, narrow balcony that opens from the library over the beach. High tide. Midnight. Dawn has gone to bed. The ocean is loud; the air, saturated with salt water. Below us, fires flare on the sand, shine on faces. We watch. Aaron is wrapped in a blanket from the library couch. I hold my hands tightly in my sleeves in order not to pat his hair, rub his shoulders, touch his cheek, reach for his hand.
I have no idea what to do. Analysis out of the question. But my grown son Aaron, who was my daughter Sarah, has control of his own life now. His resolve is strong and his powers of analysis are keen. He says that he will try to live in a way that anticipates and avoids future regret. He will treat Dawn and his other friends with love and respect and try to avoid bitterness and accusation. He’ll use lessons from his work with homeless kids, who have learned to live in the extra-large sweatshirts they call hoodies, their only reliable homes.
By now, many hours later, in the top-floor library, people still read or doze in easy chairs in front of an ocean at low tide. The room is damp and salty, quiet. The lights are low and flicker. On the balcony with Aaron, I drink coffee with cream, listen, speak. We will leave the Sylvia Beach Hotel in the morning. When we get back to the city, I will have only a few more days before flying home. Already the distance between Aaron’s life and my life is increasing. For nine months I will not see him as I work on this book. I feel my limits even as I push to extend them to this young man beside me, my son.
Then we all eat breakfast. Before we pack, we walk Nye Beach one last time, to explore crevices in the rock we’ve seen filling and emptying from the balconies outside our windows. Anemone in tide pools are both green and beige, their tentacles drifting among the snails. Dawn gives everything we see a name. We laugh and run. In the car we decide to take the scenic road back, make side excursions to Cape Meares to climb to the lighthouse tower, explore more tide pools. We take pictures, eat, talk, tell jokes. Then we stop at Siletz Bay, where Aaron goes missing.
For an hour and a half, Dawn and I look for him in the water where the seals sleep on the rocks, and on the sidewalks around the bay. The ocean pounds. Last night in the hotel library, I met a woman writing a book. She’d survived the attack of a serial murderer to testify at his trial. An editor, I was careful to pay attention to her book proposal, not her life—but, of course, I was scared both by the danger she’d survived and the madness of the serial murderer, who had been a professional pilot with a wife and kids. He’d traveled, so that his crimes were impossible for the police to connect. And now Aaron is missing, who, for his entire life, since he began walking at 18 months, has disappeared at regular intervals—at playgrounds and shopping centers, in airports, bus stations and train stations. He always reappears in short order. But now I’m thinking that a transsexual man can attract violence anywhere. Even here, at an Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge, where someone in a yellow chrome kayak is paddling so close to the seals that they slither away in a group, faster than you imagine huge mammals can move. Foolish man. Aaron is wildlife, like the seals. He is not safe from a crazy man in a yellow kayak.
An hour and a half later, Dawn shouts, “There’s Aaron,” and sure enough, the little tough guy, as his kids call him, is walking toward us, sopping jeans rolled to the knees, carrying his sneakers and socks, grinning. His face is deeply tanned. His high forehead is shining.
“I’ve had an adventure,” he shouts.
At the dock where you can rent kayaks, Aaron met a man with a small child, returning a boat. “You’ve got a free 20 minutes left,” said the man, handing Aaron a paddle, pushing him off into the water. Aaron paddled to the seal island, expecting to see us scanning the horizon. He didn’t see us, but we and the seals saw him in the borrowed yellow chrome kayak.
I walk away, buy an ice cream, sit in the sun to eat and calm down. I have been so afraid. I mean my silence to be a gift to him. He has been so happy. I think about the insane, maternal privilege that has kept me secure in a world that holds our children safe so long as we practice rituals: wear warm clothes in cold weather; tell me where you are at all times; don’t cross streets alone or without looking; never talk to strangers, and refuse all rides; be home by dark, and sleep in your own, clean bed, wearing your super-hero pajamas. In this fabricated world, kids always have enough to eat and clean water to drink. Their bodies are covered with clothes that become them and announce their identity. They will never lie down to sleep in their extra-large hoodies on the streets of cities.
Aaron is in the third decade of a life I grew inside my body. I sit on the sand, look out to sea, watch the steady, huge, gray rocks on the island in the bay. The largest rock on the island raises its head, turns into a bull elephant seal before my eyes. Aaron has seen this transformation from the yellow kayak. He is waiting to tell me the story. I walk back to the car and get ready to listen.