Passing By

Jessi Wilson

I walk across the wooden floor of the living room one winter afternoon, in red plaid boxers and pink fuzzy slippers to collect the local newspaper from my doorstep. The house I am staying in has belonged to my family, the Lancaster’s, for generations. I am only staying here to prepare the place for purchase. My father recently passed away and left the place to my mother. But, she had chosen, contrary to my father’s wishes, to leave the house to any demise I would mete out upon it and gone to live with her sister.

I moved out at the age of fifteen. And had not spoken to my father since then. It was hard work. I had some friends, but I had to get a job. My mother, secretly mailed me money whenever she could spare it. Even though I greatly appreciated her assistance, the most wonderful part about these packages was that each one came with a colorfully costumed teddy bear. Somehow, I had finished high school and gone on to fashion school. Fifteen years after moving out of my father’s house, I find myself back again, reliving the same dilemma in a new way. I want to resist tradition. I want to sell this house. But no one will buy it.

The place is two stories of rigid furniture that require correct posture just to look at. The house has remained much the same way for generations. The childhood bedroom is still decorated with fuzzy teddy bears. The parental bed chamber with roses and brambles. The glowing yellow kitchen. The hardwood floor and ancient dragon-foot furniture in the sitting room. All preserved as tradition dictates.

Don’t get me wrong. The place is not a mansion. It is two stories, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a leaky roof, that for some reason or another has simply remained in the ownership of my family. Call it tradition, if you like. But, the place exists to perpetuate the existence of mundane, ordinary life. That’s why I had to leave. I have only been here a few weeks and I have already begun to fall into a daily ritual.

However, an interesting incident occurred a few days ago. Upon entering my father’s study, the first time I had actually done so since being here, I was confronted by an ancestral photograph glaring down at me from the study wall. I tried to ignore the presence of my great-great grandfather’s photo, but I began to imagine that the eyes followed my every movement about the room. As I went through my father’s papers, mostly old loans and receipts of purchase, I became very paranoid. Finally, I decided I would not be oppressed by my ancestor’s assumptions any longer. I went out and removed a piece of clothing from my luggage. I put it on and returned to the room wearing a long, green flowered skirt. I spent the day lounging about the study in the skirt in full view of the photograph. After that incident, I never felt self-conscious in my father’s study again. Sure, it still exuded an aura of ancestral superiority, but I had forced some sort of mutual acceptance with the spirits of tradition residing within.

The other day, I was rummaging around in my old room, and I found a paper I wrote in my first year of high school for a beginning level English class. My teacher’s name was Mr. Barton. The assignment required us to write about a particularly memorable moment in our relatively short lives. I chose one and wrote on it. Except it wasn’t that simple. It never is. My choice was an incident that occurred between my father and I, when I was six. An incident that had reoccurred in the form of fears and dreams through the rest of my youth.

I found the paper beneath a stack of comic books at the back of my closet. The corners were curled up as if it had been subjected to many readings, though it was only three double-spaced pages of adolescent typing.

***

Dannie Lancaster

March 29, 1991

Being The Princess

Before age six, my world revolved solely around my mom. Dad was gone a lot. So, Mom taught me how to play. But, one day, Dad was left to watch me while Mom went shopping. And, he made a horrible discovery, which changed my life from that point on.

Among the playtime activities that I learned from Mom was teddy-bear-dress-up-time. We would dress up my large collection of teddy bears in a wide variety of costumes. Weddings, dinner parties, and beach visits were among the events that my teddy bears attended in their costumes. Each event took days to plan. Mom had studied to be a seamstress in her youth. But, since my birth had been a surprise to my parents, she had given that up. She would spend days making the costumes for our little events. I would be close by, watching Nickelodeon, while she worked.

I remember Mom telling me once that teddy-bear-dress-up time was a secret between me and her.

“You can keep a secret, can’t you, Dannie,” she had asked me as she messed up my short brown hair. I did not understand why she asked this, but I grinned up at this woman who was my idol.

After awhile, Mom had created quite a collection of costumed teddies including, a Native American maiden, a Japanese woman, and a princess. Of course, there were others, some more boyish, like a firefighter teddy, but the princess was my favorite. I can’t say why, but I loved to finger the pink, lacy gown and diamond tiara. I would imagine myself caught up in the whirl and glitter of dancing. Mom would laugh as she caught me curtsying like Cinderella for Prince Charming. She used to say that I did a perfect imitation of a lady.

Also, the princess costume happened to be on a very large teddy bear. One about the size of a six year old. One day, Mom left a weary Dad to watch me, while she rushed off to get dinner from the store. I snuck off in the middle of Matlock and smuggled the costume into my bedroom. So badly did I want to be the princess, that I tore the costume off the teddy and dressed myself in it. From tiara, to blonde wig, to frilly pink dress, I looked the part. For one final touch, I scurried down the hall to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, barefoot, because the princess lacked a pair of suitable dancing slippers. Once there, I stole into her make-up box and generously applied rouge and lipstick. I twirled in front of Mom’s full length mirror. I began to see other, finely dressed, twirling forms filling the room. Then, the bedroom became a ballroom, and the bed was a platform on which I danced all night with Prince Charming.

It was only a few minutes, though it seemed like hours to my childish imagination, before my father came looking for me. He must have followed the high pitched giggles, to his bedroom. There, he discovered his six year old son, dancing in a pink princess’ gown.

I’m sure I twirled on in the ball gown for a few moments before I was tossed over my father’s knee and spanked. Tears of confusion streamed down my cheeks and dripped onto the cream colored carpet, darkening into a small puddle, as my father screamed words that my innocent five year old ears could not understand.

This moment stands out strongly in the history of my childhood, because I never fully got over my father’s uncontrolled anger. After this event, Dad attempted to teach me “how to be a man.” He took Saturdays off to go fishing or teach me sports, like football and baseball. But, I could never fully believe that he cared. I always felt more comfortable in the presence of Mom and her gentle ways, cooking in the kitchen, sewing, and knitting.

Nowadays, instead of fine tuning an old Mustang, like the other boys, I knit colorful scarves and hats in secrecy. All I want to know is why I can’t be more like Mom? What is so wrong with it? What is the difference between skirts and pants?

***

The day my English class received their papers back, Mr. Barton asked me to see him after school. As I walked down the quickly emptying hallway, I watched groups of friends escorting each other to their favorite after school activities. A group of girls with their arms linked passed me. One girl leaned close to her friend, their blue and green skirts commingling as they pressed close, to whisper in her ear. Then, they skipped off merrily, giggling about some amusing secret. Down a side hallway, I caught a glimpse of a pair of rigid masculine backs, retreating. A bubble of distance between them that could only be gapped by a rude comment or a hurtful joke.

Upon entering Mr. Barton’s room, I noticed that he was not alone. My father sat in a student desk near the front. He is a bulky man, a little under average height, but very broad shouldered. He keeps his dark hair short and stubby. That day, he wore his favorite jeans, with the hole across the thigh, and a flannel with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. As I stepped into the doorway, I halted. My eyes traveled from my father, who sat watching a pair of blue jays playing outside the window, to my teacher, a man who I had trusted to be understanding. Mr. Barton, a lanky, tall man with a mustache, rose to greet me. My father continued to stare nonchalantly out the window, but I noticed a slight tightening of his jaw muscles.

“What,” I said, “is going on here?”

“Dannie, I decided to call a parent-teacher, and well, student conference,” Mr. Barton replied. “Won’t you please take a seat?”

An emotion comprised of many separate emotions welled up inside of me, as Mr. Barton reached around me to shut the door. Betrayal was a big one. I felt tears forming on the edge of my vision. How could that bastard call my father into this?

Suddenly, my father burst from his seat.

“Son, you have to understand, I made a mistake.” He began, taking a step in my direction. “Beating you like that, well, it was really just a spanking,” at this he glanced at Mr. Barton, who simply waved his hand for him to continue. “So, I went overboard. And I’m sorry.”

An apology. Perhaps, Mr. Barton was right to call my father here. Perhaps I should have spoken with my father a long time ago. I glanced at my teacher, who was standing back a little, hands in his pockets. He gave me a slight nod. I glanced back to my father, who had paused, apparently to gather steam for the rest of his argument.

“But, you have to understand, it was for a good reason.” At this, I tensed. I had taken a few steps in the direction of my father, considering a hug of apologetic acceptance. But, I suddenly sensed an invisible force radiating outward from him. I could go no closer. What did he mean by “a good reason?”

“You need to be a man, son. That’s the way the world works. Women are soft. Men are tough. Women wear dresses. Men wear pants.” I noticed how his face was losing color quickly, fading to a pale white. Mr. Barton was leaning against the blackboard, looking down at his feet, and nodding to himself. I took this as silent approval. Two adults against one teenager are not fair odds. My father was still talking, “you need to pick up some more masculine hobbies . . .

“What is your problem?” I cut him off. He looked at me, out of breath, for a moment.

“Son, do you like girls?” My father asked. I could not believe what I had heard. Mr. Barton kept his head down and hands in his pockets, but I could suddenly feel his eyes watching me. Fine, let them think what they wanted. I looked up from the tiled floor of the classroom and glared at my father.

“And what if I said no?” If it was possible, my father’s skin seemed to turn a shade paler.

***

I lay for several hours on my back staring at the blue-marble painted ceiling of my father’s former study, reliving this experience, feeling the same anger, tears, and betrayal rising up like vomit in my throat. I remembered how I had coldly stared at my father after his tirade. Standing in a room that emblemized all the values America teaches its children, I told my father, and the rest of patriarchal society “to go to hell.” Whatever implications that has towards my sex life is none of their concern.

***

The same day that this high school incident occurred was the day I moved out of my father’s house. My mother tried to persuade me from leaving. I steadily ignored her pleas as I packed everything I could fit into my luggage.

“Sweety, I’m sure it’s not as bad as that.” She sat on my bed, holding my favorite teddy bear, Zoinks, running her seamstresses thumb across the stitching of his t-shirt. “Where will you go? You’re only sixteen. You can’t hideout at your friend’s house forever.” Suddenly, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“I will do what I have to so that I never have to face being told who I’m supposed to be again.” At this, she sighed at stared at the floor.

“I know how you feel.” She was looking at the teddy bear, but I knew the words were directed at me. She had never been able to fulfill her dream of being a seamstress. I stared at her. She looked like another kid the way she sat slumped, swinging her legs back and forth, on the side of the bed.

“Mom, why don’t you come with me.” She glanced up at me. A look of cold clarity passed into her usually dreamy blue eyes.

“I love your father. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it has to be.” A chill of sadness ran down my spine. “But, I won’t try to make you understand that. I want you to do what you have to do.” She stood up and laid Zoinks on the top of my stuffed suitcase. Then, she stood on her tiptoes to kiss me on the forehead and left the room.

***

As I finally reached the door to retrieve the newspaper from my doorstep, a tear of appreciation for my mother’s understanding welled up inside me. Then, I opened the door and caught a cold gust of winter wind full on. Goosebumps ran down my legs. Standing there in my plaid boxers and pink fuzzy slippers, I unfurled the newspaper and saw what I had expected to see. On the front page of the local newspaper, the Tattler, was a picture of a man in a long, flowered-green skirt standing in front of the Campbell’s soup display in the supermarket. Above the picture it read “Here’s Something You Don’t See Every Day.”

***

I make it a habit to break tradition whenever I can. The day after the incident with the photo of my great-great grandfather, I had felt so empowered that I had gone to the supermarket in my skirt. It is a very comfortable skirt that caresses your legs as you walk.

It was about one in the morning. I pulled my silver colored car into the dingy gray parking lot of our local Shop-N-Save. This was not the first time I had worn a skirt in public. But, it was the first time I had done it in a small town. I was only a little nervous.

I got out and strode up to the automatic sliding doors, my skirt swishing beautifully as I walked. As I was going in a middle aged women with a six year old boy was coming out. She frowned than pulled her staring son after her. Encounter number one.

Passing into the vegetable section of the store, I noticed a young couple browsing through the tomatoes. The young man had blonde spikey hair. He was the first to notice me. I stood selecting some fresh apples from the fruit display, while they whispered about me. Encounter number two.

A few minutes later, I entered the main aisles of the store. Several men were bustling about putting away boxes and cans. Tonight must be the night they get their shipment. How lucky for me.

I almost ran into one of the dollies being pushed by a young man as I rounded a corner.

“Excuse me.” I said, pulling in my skirt so I could slip by. His eyes went wide, but he didn’t say anything to his buddies, until I was well down the aisle. Still, he said it loud enough for me to over hear.

“Did you see that dude. He’s wearing a skirt.” Someone else mumbled something, while I selected a box of Honey Bunches of Oats from the shelf. “No, it’s not pink, it’s green. I don’t know. You go ask him.” The first guy replied to the mumbler.

Suddenly, from around the corner came a big bowling ball of a man. I am only five foot ten and a one hundred and sixty pounds. He must have weighed at least three hundred. I thought he must have stepped right out of a football game. He took a few steps down the aisle and shouted.

“Hey, is that part of a bet?” I feigned ignorance.

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you wearing that skirt as part of a bet?” The guy really had no manners. He stood there staring at me, waiting for me to reply, as this was not just an idle question to him. I glanced down, smoothing the green folds the way I had seen girls do.

“No.” His eyes watched me waiting for something more. But, when I only stood there, maybe a little coyly, like a girl would have done, he took a step closer. “I think you had better leave the store.”

“Whatever do you mean.” I replied, batting my eyelashes a bit. His face turned red, and he glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone else was around. His buddy had disappeared. I knew what he was thinking. I had seen his type before.

He swung hard, aiming for my face. But, I was ready for him. Self defense classes do come in handy some times, I thought, as I slipped the taser from the clip concealed beneath my skirt on my hip. Suddenly, he was clutching his arm and laying on the ground.

“Look, whatever you think I am, I’m not. So, please for the sake of everyone, learn to be a little more polite.” He gave me an appraising look. Apparently, not many people put this guy on the ground. But, he simply got up and walked away without a word. Encounter number three.

One of these three people groups must have spoken to someone, because I was half way through the store, staring at the Campbell’s soup display, when a girl in blue jeans and a ponytail popped around a corner, flashed my picture and disappeared. That’s never a good sign when they disappear. It means they are most definitely going to say things that are based on unfounded assumption. I hate it when newspapers do that.

***

Sure enough, the whole story was about the migration of homosexuals to the Midwest. The small town fear that freaks from the big city were going to come in and ruin their children. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to let them call me a freak from the big city. I was hand grown right here in this city. Someone should let them know that they were the ones ruining their children.

“Why not?” I asked my cup of orange juice sitting on the coffee table. Of course, it did not reply, but I glanced around the old fashioned living room suddenly considering the possibilities.

I picked up the phone and dialed.

“Hello? Jacques? Do you know a good redecorator? I’m moving in.”