Many things in life are to be considered fixed and forever. When presented with this statement, the realists think of death, the romantics think of love, and those who spend their evenings lying on the grass and staring up into the universe think of time and space.
If you were to ask my mother about what lasts forever, she would think of something entirely different. Your question would remind her of a particular day, nineteen years ago, when a baby was handed to her. ‘A healthy baby boy,’ the doctor said as the screaming ball of warmth and wet was rested gently on her lap.
That’s the sort of thing you hear and think it’s never going to change. You know that one day your son’s going to walk on his own, one day he’ll move out of your house and one day he’ll die, but at least he’ll always be your son, right?
I don’t blame the doctor – he looked down at my splotchy body and all the signs were there. But he was wrong.
A month ago I sat my mother down. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you something important,’ I said. I told her the doctor was wrong that day, all those years ago. I told her that I’m not a boy, after all.
I wanted to give her reasons and evidence, I wanted to tell her what and why and how, but I couldn’t find the words. So I simply said ‘I’m not a boy,’ and that was all I could manage.
My mother gave me the silent treatment for six days, only ceasing this immature and painful response for five minutes approximately 34 hours after my announcement to say ‘I don’t understand’ before bursting into tears.
I innocently wandered into the storm on the seventh day. When I contemplated my mother’s many possible reactions to my announcement, my mind rested on feelings of sadness and disappointment; I never expected the rage that I encountered.
‘I don’t appreciate you springing this on me like this, Nathaniel,’ she said. Her voice, after so many days of not hearing it, was loud and harsh. ‘It’s not fair. What am I going to tell the neighbours? Our friends?’
The question surprised me. I took a moment to think. ‘The truth,’ I eventually replied. ‘And please stop calling me Nathaniel.’
‘Nathaniel is the name I gave to you after I spent hours in pain giving birth to you, so I will call you Nathaniel,’ she spat.
‘You know I’ve always hated it,’ I replied quietly. It’s like when somebody introduces themselves and their name doesn’t seem to match their face; I never felt like that name belonged to me.
She yelled at me for a solid hour as I walked from room to room, attempting to escape her tyranny. Part of me wished she would go back to pretending I wasn’t there. I tried to reason with myself, to help myself endure the onslaught of angry words – ‘Maybe moving from silence to anger is a step towards acceptance?’ – but these thoughts did little to comfort me.
Eventually, exasperated and exhausted, I grabbed my car keys. ‘I’m going to stay with Dad,’ I said as I walked out the door. I was sure my mother stood and watched me from the doorway, but I didn’t turn to check – I didn’t want to see whatever was in her eyes, be it rage or heartbreak.
I drove to Dad’s. With every blur of tree and house I passed, my panic grew. I’d never intended on having this conversation with him so soon after talking to my mother. What if he responded just as poorly? Where would I go then?
I assessed my options. I contemplated not telling him at all. But I knew I couldn’t show up at his house unannounced and not provide an explanation.
He seemed pleased to see me when I arrived at his door. His pleasure quickly slipped into concern. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘Not really,’ was all I could manage before I burst into tears.
He took me into the house, sat me down at the dining table and poured me a cup of tea. That was always his solution when I was upset and he didn’t know why, even when I was a kid. My mother used to get mad at him for it because he always gave me caffeine instead of the herbal stuff. ‘Herbal tea tastes like shit though,’ Dad used to say. ‘I’m not going to give him that.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I told my mother something,’ I said, ‘and she didn’t take it well.’
‘She never takes anything well,’ he responded bitterly, sitting down beside me with his own cup of tea cradled in his large, worn hands.
‘So I came here,’ I finished. I shied away from the next sentence that I knew I would have to speak aloud.
‘What did you tell her? Is something wrong? Are you okay?’ he asked. His genuine concern soothed me after days of my mother’s bitterness. I found courage in his desire to always challenge my mother to the title of ‘favourite parent’, hoping this would be enough to ensure he reacted well to my announcement.
‘Well,’ I started, ‘I told her that I’m not male.’
He looked at me in silence for a moment, contemplating my words. The pause lasted too long and I worried that I’d just initiated another silent treatment, but then he said, ‘What does that mean?’
‘It means I don’t feel a man. It doesn’t feel right.’
‘So does that mean you feel like a woman?’ he asked. His words were slow as he carefully attempted to string together sentences that might shed light on an alien concept. At least he wasn’t shouting.
‘I’m still working that out,’ I replied.
‘Okay,’ he said, processing the information. ‘But, if you are definitely not male and you’re not sure if you’re female, what are you?’
‘At the moment I consider myself gender-neutral,’ I replied.
‘Meaning you aren’t any gender?’
‘Or I’m somewhere in between. Unaligned.’
‘Like Switzerland,’ he said. He smiled.
‘Well I wouldn’t want to get involved in the war between men and women,’ I replied, relieved.
‘That’s fair enough. That war ended badly for me,’ he said, reminiscing on his and my mother’s messy divorce. He thought some more. ‘Yes,’ he concluded, ‘you really want to stay as clear of that war as physically possible, son.’
His face contorted at the final word. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘This is going to take some getting used to. What do I call you now?’
‘Just Nat is fine,’ I replied.
‘Nice to meet you, just Nat.’