“The first hint I had was when we would fashion Barbie clothes out of the remnants in my mother’s sewing basket. Did your mother have a sewing basket? Do mothers even sew anymore? My mother had a remanent basket and Daniel and I would go in it, especially on rainy days. We’d hold up pieces of things and ask, ‘Can we use this?’ Can we use that?’ And she would nod or snatch something out of our hands. The stuff she let us use we would make into clothes for our Barbies–my Barbies. Daniel didn’t have Barbies. We would make these clothes and his would always come out looking like clothes. What I made looked like left over material on a Barbie, but Daniel could take a rag and make it look like a dress from Mattel.” Elsalane finally paused and we both breathed. She used the breath to take a sip of coffee.
I used the breath to try to figure out where this was going. I had met Elsalane about a year ago in the same coffee shop we were sitting in. It was one of the places that offer free WiFi and I had been in there to check my emails. The place was crowded on that night and I had chosen her circle of chairs over a noisy circle of bitch and knit mothers. A quick look at her hair and I had decided she was biracial and the darker half of her heritage would not mind a black woman sitting next to her. She was a curly haired, heavy hipped girl who I decided on second appraisal was a red Latina; ginger hair, ruddy skin, large features. A tote on the small table near her had been seeping children’s worksheets but she had been reading a Bible and I thought she was too deeply involved in it to take much notice of me. She had nodded and smiled and that would have been that if I hadn’t felt so guilty over invading her personal space that I asked, “What book are you reading?” It was on then. She closed her Bible on the book of Micah and I never got my laptop open. We had sat and talked for almost two hours, enjoying the conversation so heartily that some of the knitting mothers were looking at us with envy.
She turned out to be some of the things I initially thought she was: young, single, a fellow teacher, a new Christian. Jewish; she had quickly clarified her Hebrew heritage. Her willingness to talk had me daring to ask how her family took her turn to Jesus. That had propelled our talk even further. We had teaching in common, we had what my ex referred to as ‘weight management’ issues in common, and we had relationship issues in common (even if I never used a pronoun when I shared my failed romance stories with her). Over coffee, we got pretty close that first evening. We had ended the time with an exchange of lesson plans, diet tips, prayer requests and email addresses. And a hug.
As I drove away that first evening, I had felt a little guilty about that prayer request thing. I do pray. I do know the Bible. I do believe in God. Yet, I knew if I were ever to take her up on her invitation to visit her church–as progressive as she thought it was– I would be stoned. Still, I figured I would probably never see this woman again.
About a week later she emailed me to tell me that I was still in her prayers. I dug out the requests she had given me and reminded myself to include them in mine.
Good thing I did. We started seeing each other maybe ever two weeks, maybe every three. I would rush in for a cup of coffee and she would be there, usually with her Bible. My rush would become a linger. It was pleasant to have these intimate but vague conversation with someone I barely knew. It felt safe. I guess it was like going to a therapist. She seemed to show up when I most needed to hear something she would say. I guess I was the same God’s mouthpiece for her. Mostly we encouraged each other in matters of the classroom and the heart; where to find plus sizes bargains.
Tonight I went in and she was seated in the far corner reading a book I had read. I had detoured to say hello and then taken my large cafe mocha over. We talked about the book. We talked about school frustrations. We talked about what the rainy weather was doing to our similar hair. We talked about the new man she hoped was in her life. And out of no where she said, “I’m having this thing with my brother.” And then started telling me about Barbies. I had a tingle of alertness, thought I knew where she was going with it all, and wondered how I was going to respond when she started quoting Leviticus. I thought I was prepared for what she was going to reveal about her brother but I wasn’t.
“I always knew that Daniel was…different. Still I just didn’t know what to do when he made his announcement,” she said, setting her paper coffee cup on the table between us.
“A gay brother coming out can–”
“If only,” she interjected and rolled her agate brown eyes heavenward. “Daniel likes women.”
Denial is here with us, I thought. I opened my mouth to apologize for my assumption.
“Though…” She tilted her head to the side as if considering something that had just occurred to her. She chuckled softly, reaching over to hit my knee. “Though in a way I guess you could say that he is gay. Or going to be gay.” She laughed after taking in my puzzlement. She scooted closer and leaned in. “See, Daniel is having a sex change operation. And he’s living with the woman he’s going to marry. So, I guess you could say that my brother is a lesbian.” Her soft chuckle became a bark of near hysterical enlightenment.
A man hitting the keys of his laptop looked at us with annoyance. A couple playing chess at a nearby table, glanced our way.
I sat back just slightly stunned. “Can you do that?” I asked. I was perplexed. Not too much by the mixture but by the legality of it all. It seemed too complex to fit under the idea of marriage even to someone like me who had witnessed some varieties of coupling.
She nodded vigorously as she tried to choke down her mirth. “I…I…I guess you can since Daniel’s doing it.”
“How…” I sat back trying to find a word. “How…extraordinary.” I finally declared.
And we both laughed; she wiping at tears in the corners of her eyes.
The typing man near us made a dramatic scene when he stood and moved some distance away. He had to make two trips; one for his laptop, one for the notebook he was typing from. He huffed as he passed each time. And he glared at us.
Elsalane did not notice him. She fanned at the red in her face and grimaced. “My mother is ready to sit shiva over it. And my father–I told you how unfazed by us my father is–he barely wanted to stay in the same room with Daniel, I mean Diana.”
“Diana and not Barbie?” I said perhaps a little too viscously.
She laughed again. Wiped her eyes again. “Mom would have been happier if he was just gay,” She said softly.
I nodded with understanding. It reminded me of one of the stories I dreaded every time I had to force my third graders to read it. The word ‘cock’ was in the title. It always caused quite a stir of whispers and twitters with the children, especially my worldly boys. It was about a man who was unhappy with his demanding wife, his noisy children and his small house. He went to his rabbi and the rabbi asked him if he had chickens. Of course everyone in the village had chickens. The rabbi told him to move his rooster into the house. The man did as he was told, and went back to the rabbi to complain that that had done nothing. Over subsequent visits the rabbi has the man move in his cow and then his donkey. Predictably, this made things worse. When the man returned to complain the fifth time, the rabbi told him to put all his livestock back in the yard. The man did and his small, noisy house was suddenly quiet and quaint. The man never complained again. I was thinking that to this ordinary family this extraordinary event was like the barnyard had moved into their lives.
“Oh, if only he was gay. We could deal with that. We sort of have always dealt with it. You know? The Barbies and the…well, we never talked about it out loud but it was sort of there. You know? And then he moved in with Yolanda or she moved in with him a couple of years ago and we all were…well confused, you know? But relieved. And now…if only he was just gay.” Elsalane said wistfully.
I saw nothing really wrong with Daniel becoming Diane. And Diane loving Yolanda. It was a little round about, I suppose, but I, of all people, could understand the feeling of rightness that righted your whole world when you dared to love who you truly loved. And holding a woman did feel right to me. That was what my body responded, too. I might find it different if I had to relate to that body with a penis. It would not feel right to me. And obviously Daniel/Diane felt the same way some where at the core of his being. I smiled because the thought gave me warm flush of hope. Perhaps enough Daniels/Dianes and the world would start to question its hatred of people like me. Maybe it was possible for people to start thinking, “Hey, maybe there’s more to this than just a sinful choice. Maybe God did make them, too. And if God created them that way, then God intended them to be that way.” I smiled in a blissful, peaceful, no judging world for a moment.
Elsalane sat back with a little smile, too. She waved her coffee cup at me. “Of course, he’s going to hell regardless. But don’t you think it’s better to be Daniel in hell than Diana who used to be Daniel?”