Lynn stood in front of the open kitchen cabinet, talking to herself. “Hmmm. Black beans and rice. They like that. When was the last time I fed it to them?” As she tried to pull together a mental list of the meals she’d cooked recently, a loud, quick knock and a melodic “Hellooooo” interrupted and announced her sister Emmy’s arrival. Stephen leaped up from the kitchen stool and raced to the front door. “Auntie Emmy, Auntie Emmy!”
Lynn heard her sister’s voice. “Look what I have for you! Just a minute, just a minute. Let’s make sure this is OK with your mom first!”
She winced, hoping “this” was something that wouldn’t cause too much trouble. A decidedly single woman with no kids, Emmy’s judgment about what might be appropriate gifts for her five- and seven-year-old nephews could be, well, off. She wondered if Emmy had thought to bring something for Jason, too.
“Hi! How are things?” Em sang as she sauntered into the kitchen. “I was digging through the sale bin at the drug store, and I found this!” She held high a bottle of silvery blue nail polish, swinging it triumphantly between two fingers like a bell. “It made me think of Stephen! Wouldn’t it be fun to have your nails blue like this, Stevie?”
Stephen was hanging onto Emmy’s arm, trying to reach the polish.
“Yeah, yeah! Mommy, can I? Can I paint my nails blue?”
“Um. . . well, okay, but Auntie Emmy needs to do the painting.”
“Come on, come on Emmy, let’s go in the living room!”
“Do it at the table, please,” Lynn called as he hopped away, staying as close to Emmy as he possibly could without knocking her down. “Is it just for me? Do I have to share with Jason?”
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll want to share, sweetie, but I have something else in my bag for him, don’t worry.” Emmy patted the purse that matched her summer slides, her own carefully manicured nails gleaming as she gestured.
Lynn pulled garlic and an onion from the drawer and set them on the kitchen counter. Blue nail polish. Leave it to Emmy. Her younger sister was always so pulled together, so careful to make sure that her smooth, fine hair and caramel-colored skin were shown off to their best advantage. Since they were teens, Emmy’s first stop in any drugstore was the make-up counter. She made Lynn feel like a frumpy mama, in her uniform of jeans and over-sized t-shirts. Lynn sighed and took her time with the onions, mincing them finely. Funny how that nail polish was almost the same color as the blue in the dress her partner Pat and Stephen had come home with a couple of Saturdays ago.
It was pale blue chiffon, with a print of big, floppy flowers — lavender and robin’s egg blue – splashed all over it. The underskirt, the satin bodice, and a satin sash that tied in the back were all the same blue. The dress was sprinkled with silver glitter that left a sparkly trace on whatever touched the fabric.
Stephen had come skipping into the house to show it to her. “Look at what we bought, Mommy! Isn’t it pretty? I’m going to put it on!” He ran out of the kitchen and Lynn raised an eyebrow at Pat.
“What is he going to do with that?”
“Wear it,” Pat answered, leaning against the kitchen counter as she nibbled on bits of grated cheese.
“Don’t eat all of that, I need it for dinner.” To herself, Lynn said, “Wait for it, here it comes . . .
“Oh, great!” said Pat, chuckling. Oh grate.
Ignoring the familiar pun that invariably gave Pat such pleasure, Lynn answered, “Really, Pat. What’s he going to do with a flowered blue chiffon dress?”
“I am being real. He’s going to wear it.” Pat slouched back against the kitchen counter, watching Lynn work.
“Have you talked to him about where? Have you talked to him about what other kids’ll say if he wears it out of the house?” Lynn steadily and intently sprinkled cheese, salt and pepper onto pasta, as if she would find answers in the movement of her hands.
“You know, I haven’t. Not at all. We were in the vintage store, he saw the dress, he loved it and I bought it for him. I wasn’t going to ruin his fun.” Pat stiffened, crossed her arms over her chest. “Reminds me of those white suede bucks my mother never would buy me. All the boys had them, and I had to wear Mary Janes. No reason he has to go through that.” As Lynn watched resistance build in Pat’s hazel eyes, she noticed again how Pat held herself like a man, especially when she was angry. Shoulders back, stance wide, taking up as much space as her body needed. Pat wore her hair short, wore clothes that she called “comfortable” – jeans or khakis, plain shirts. She was often mistaken for a man, which annoyed her to no end. She had no patience for how people thought she “should” look.
Stephen came flouncing into the kitchen. He stopped in front of Lynn and whirled around. “Look Mommy, look Mama. See what the skirt does?” He pirouetted, his chocolate brown body surrounded by a blur of floating blue chiffon, the muscles in his back rippling as he held out his arms to spin, one satin blue bodice strap sliding down a shoulder.
“Yeah, sweetie, it’s beautiful,” Lynn managed. And off he went.
A grin softened Pat’s face as she watched him dance away. “See? He loves it. If he wants a dress, he should have one.” And Pat had just strolled on out of the kitchen. As if there was no issue at all.
As the late afternoon sun filtered through the leaves of the oak tree and into the kitchen windows, Lynn pushed away thoughts of the blue dress and swept the chopped onions into the pan of heating oil. She stirred while Aunt Emmy’s cheerful patter with Stephen played like background music. She glanced down at the recipe scribbled on the stained note card, and headed for the spice cabinet. Ground cumin and coriander joined the chopped garlic in its small bowl. She measured rice, tried to remember if she had a small can of tomatoes in the pantry. She moved smoothly to the rhythm of the list of small tasks, comfortable in the familiarity of something she’d done thousands of times.
Blue nails. The first time Emmy had painted Stephen’s nails, it had been a fire engine red. It was a couple of years ago, when Stevie was three. He’d been fascinated with the paint on the tips of his Aunt Emmy’s fingers. As he and Emmy played Miss Mary Mack in the living room, he kept stopping Emmy’s hands, holding them still, and sliding the tip of his finger along the smooth red enamel. He turned Emmy’s hands over, looked at her pale palms, then turned them back, gazing intently at the bright red against the caramel brown of Emmy’s skin. He held his own dark brown hand next to hers.
“My friend Maddie has pink nails, Mommy. Can I have mine red like Auntie Emmy’s? Can I? Then we’ll match!”
“Sure, Stevie, I’ll bring the polish over tomorrow morning. We’ll paint them before we go over to your brother’s game. Is that OK, Lynn?” Em turned to her.
“Yeah, that sounds like fun!” The other kids at his preschool, boys and girls, had been into painted nails lately. It was going around the school like a flu bug, every other day a new kid showing up with colored fingernails. Lynn had joined the other parents in joking about the kids’ color choices, felt, too, the satisfaction of being the kind of parents who could be open to their children’s whims.
The next afternoon, Lynn sat in her chair on the outfield grass with the other baseball parents while Stephen’s big brother Jason played a scrimmage game. It was a mixed group of families, black and white, hanging out at the field to watch their kids. Even though Jason was part of a two-mom family – an interracial couple, at that – Lynn felt comfortable with the other parents of the kids on their son’s team. They seemed to take Jason and his family in stride. This baseball thing was so important to him. It gave him a group of friends, somewhere he could shine, be one of the guys, despite his family. He cared about that so much. It came to Lynn then that Jason and Stephen were different in that way. She could already see that Stephen moved around and between conventions, without even realizing what he was doing. His teachers at the preschool marveled at how easily he shifted from one group of friends to another, playing just as happily with the girls as with the boys, enjoying dress-up as much as monster tag.
She watched Pat chase Stephen across the grass in the game of airplane, Stephen’s arms wide, hands outstretched, flying. Pat grabbed him by the waist and swung him up into the air just before he ran across a blanket where a woman sat feeding her baby a bottle. “Excuse us!” Pat smiled. “He’s a little wired this afternoon.”
“Isn’t that a boy?” the woman glared at Pat. “Don’t you know better than to paint a boy’s fingernails?”
Pat paused, and stared back silently. Then she casually hoisted Stephen up to her shoulders and walked off. “Stevie, let’s go see what Auntie Emmy’s up to. I think she’s going to the snack bar. Wanna go with her?”
“Yeah!” Stephen didn’t seem to have noticed the disapproval – he ran off. Pat sat down hard in the chair next to Lynn’s. “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“Who is that woman? What does she care about Stephen’s fingers?”
“I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her. Must be a parent from the other team. And you know why she cares.”
“Well, I wish she’d keep her mouth shut. He’s my son, not hers.”
“I bet that’s a bigger issue for her than the color of his nails. A white dyke with a black son. You probably just confirmed her worst fears,” Lynn laughed.
“Yeah, well you need to talk to your people. Open up their minds a bit,” Pat grinned.
“She needs her mind opened up a whole lot more than any talking with me would do. Hey, look, Jason’s up at bat.”
“That’s it! They’re dry now.”
Lynn stepped into the dining room carrying a stack of plates and flatware for the table. Stephen was sitting still, staring deeply and intently at his hands flat on the table, fingers spread wide, nails metallic blue.
“See, Mommy, don’t they look great!” Emmy’s voice was a sparkly as the polish. “Need help with the table?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Lynn handed the plates and flatware to Emmy. This stuff had seemed harmless at first, but the older Stephen got, the more it irked her. She didn’t know how Emmy and Pat could be so sanguine about it. The thought of her baby boy being the brunt of “sissy” and “faggot” jibes made her stomach turn. How could they be okay with just sending him out into that, with no preparation, no defenses?
“Mommy, you know what? This is the same color as my dress. I’m going to put it on.” He dashed into the playroom.
“Emmy, I don’t know about this.” Lynn took advantage of his absence. “He’s five. He’s in kindergarten. You know how kids are. The bigger kids’ll light into him for wearing nail polish.”
Emmy raised an eyebrow in surprise as she set the table. “So, take it off Sunday night, before his bath. What’s the big deal? He’s just having fun with it.”
Then Stephen was back, in full regalia. Not only had he put on his dress, he was wearing a pair of black patent high-heeled slides he’d found at a yard sale for fifty cents. He pranced into the dining room, camping it up the whole way.
“Look at me. I’m beeeeee-you-ti-fulllllll! Mommy, can I wear this to school tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s not a school day, Stevie.” Lynn glared an “I told you so” over his head at Em. “Anyway, honey, I don’t think you want to wear that to school.”
“Why?” The delight slowly left his face. She could see that he was thinking hard, trying to understand. “Cause it’s girl clothes?”
“Well . . . yeah.”
“Mama Pat says I can wear girl clothes if I want to.” He twisted back and forth to make the skirt sashay, satisfied that he’d found an answer for her.
“You know, she’s right, it’s OK to wear them at home. But sometimes other kids don’t think it’s OK. If you wear them to school, they might tease you.” Ugh. Stay in the closet, kid, she was telling him, stay in the closet. But what was she supposed to do?
He stood still for a moment, fingering the skirt of his dress, his eyes intent on the silver sparkles. When he looked up at her, his face was closed, masked by an expression she couldn’t decipher. His eyes brightened when another answer came to him. “Can we think about it?” He’d picked up one of her favorite stalling tactics, handed down from her mother.
“Yeah, baby, we can think about it. Let’s get dinner on the table, and we’ll talk about it later.”
“Stevie, time to get ready for tae kwon do!” She shouted up the stairs the next morning. “Okaaaay!” he hollered back down. The subject of the dress hadn’t come up yet. She hoped she would have a chance to talk more with Pat before it did. She really needed to think this through before he pulled her into it.
Jason was in the kitchen, finishing up his breakfast. “Mom, is Stephen gonna wear that nail polish all the time?”
“I don’t know, honey. He really likes it, doesn’t he?”
“Well, he can’t wear it to school, you know. I know he’s into all this girly stuff, but if he wears that to school, the other kids’ll tease him.” He was hunched over his bowl of cereal, talking to her casually, as if he was reminding her of something they both knew.
“You didn’t tease him, did you, Jason?”
“No, no!” he protested. “I know it’s OK if he wants to wear girl stuff. Mama Pat says it all the time. I don’t tease him about it. And it’s OK if girls want to do boy stuff, like play sports and do math. Well, sports and math isn’t boys’ stuff. But you know what I’m saying. . . . The kids at school don’t know that, though. They’ll tease him.” This time, he wasn’t casual at all, but said the last part slowly and carefully, searching her face to make sure she understood.
“I know, buddy. I’m going to talk with him about it.”
Pat stuck her head into the kitchen door. “Jas, you’re going to be late for practice. Clear your dishes and finish getting ready.”
“OK, OK.” He trotted to sink, and back past her on the way out the door. “Bye mom! See ya!”
Well, Lynn thought, at least Stephen’s safe with his big brother.
“Wait a minute, I want to talk to you before you leave.” Her voice drew Pat back into the kitchen.
“Pat, did you see Stephen’s nails? Emmy painted them.”
“Yeah, I saw. That’s Stephen! I bet he’s got something he wants to wear that’ll match.” Pat’s eyes twinkled over a small grin that disappeared suddenly. “Is that what you want to talk about? His nails?”
Lynn could see the surprise in her face, hear it in her voice. She stood up and walked over to the window, looking out instead of at Pat, searching the lines of the old oak tree in the yard, interrogating the jumble of unkempt bushes she hadn’t gotten around to pruning.
“I’m not feeling good about this nail polish stuff. You know Stephen wants to wear his polish and that dress to school on Monday?” She turned to face Pat. “I tried to warn him he’d get teased. I don’t think he understands.”
Pat answered slowly, speaking carefully, caught off guard and not sure what to expect. “Well, what if he does get teased? He’ll figure out how to handle it. Anyway, he hasn’t had trouble with it before. Neither have you.”
“He’s older now, Pat. He’s in elementary school, not preschool. That’s when the teasing starts.” She felt her anger begin to build, her gaze hardening to keep it in check. “He’s a black kid in a lesbian household, and I don’t think wearing nail polish or a dress to school is going to help him one bit.”
“But, Lynn, how does it help him if it’s his moms who tell him he’s got something to hide? I don’t want to do that to him. It’s who he is.” Pat’s voice was quiet, calm, firm.
Lynn sighed in frustration. “Pat, I don’t think it’s fair to just let him walk into that. He hasn’t really made a choice if he doesn’t understand what he’s choosing, right? Shouldn’t we talk to him about what could happen?”
“You know, I’m not so sure we should. But how about we talk about it tonight? I have to get Jason to practice.” She dropped a light quick kiss on Lynn’s lips, and was gone.
At tae kwon do class, Lynn sat with the other parents, watching Master Johnson lead the kids through drills. He was a handsome man, tall, with long dreadlocks, as strong and limber as you’d expect a sixth degree black belt to be. Lynn had been talking with another preschool mom once, and mentioned where Stephen was taking martial arts. “With Max Johnson?” the other mom had asked. “Oh, I hear he’s fine!” Lynn smiled as she remembered. Stephen loved Master Johnson – when he’d decided to lock his own hair, he told her he wanted it “long, just like Mr. Johnson’s.”
“Attention!” Master Johnson’s voice rang across the dojo, and the two straight lines of boys and girls snapped to attention, military style.
“Chimbe!” he called, and the kids, in unison, took one step to the side to spread their legs wide, raising their arms in front of them, bear hug style, with clenched fists.
“Low knife hand chop. Right hand. One!” He stood back watching them move, correcting stances and hand positions here and there.
“Stephen!” he called. “It’s a knife hand chop. Flatten your hand, don’t keep your fist closed.” As he moved on to correct the next kid, Lynn watched Stephen do the maneuver again without opening his hand. He was moving half-heartedly, like he didn’t want to be there. What was he doing? He should know this drill – he’d done it enough. Then she realized. He was keeping his fist closed to hide the nail polish.
Master Johnson stepped over to him again and stood in front of him.
“Stephen. Flat hand. Like this.” He reached out and took Stephen’s extended right fist, and said, “Flatten your hand. Fingers outstretched.”
Stephen obeyed, slowly, but with his palm up. Master Johnson said, “No, palm down,” turned Stephen’s hand over, and stopped as he saw the fingernails. Lynn held her breath.
“What’s this? Blue nails?” A snicker rose from somewhere in the dojo. Master Johnson looked up sternly, his eyes sweeping the room, demanding silence. Then he looked back at Stephen’s hand as he adjusted it. “Great color. Now keep that hand flat, and your fingers stiff. It’s like you’re making a knife with your hand. Do it again. Good, Stephen, good.”
Stephen kept his hands open, and Lynn let her breath out. She knew there was a reason she loved this teacher. A few minutes later, Master Johnson caught her eye and winked, and she mouthed, “Thank you.”
Later on during the drive home, Stephen was quiet. Tired? Lynn wondered. “How’d you like class today, Stephen?”
“Okay.” It didn’t sound like he wanted to talk, so she let the silence ride.
Then she heard an odd clicking sound. “Stephen, what are you doing back there?”
“Taking my nail polish off.” All at once she recognized the sound, remembering it from her girlhood: he was scraping at the polish, trying to chip it off of his nails.
“Honey, we can take it off when we get home. I have some nail polish remover.”
“Okay. Hey, mom?”
“I’m not gonna wear my dress to school.”
“Okay, honey.” She kept on driving, listening to the sound of him chipping the polish off his nails and feeling the blue haze of resignation fill the silence between them.