issue 48: May - June 2005 

 | author bio

Q&A by Stephanie DickinsonQ & A
Stephanie Dickinson

I sit in the back seat as Daddy races us down the Garden State Parkway in a Red Thunderbird. We both like red and he’s bought me a box of Charm suckers (red) the kind he ate when he was a kid. The red has purple in it and shimmers, getting redder and purpler the more you lick it. Like a lip that’s been kissed too much or a hickey on a stick. This is our Saturday adventure, and we’re heading to the beach at Sandy Hook. Daddy lives in Clinton Gardens, and Mommy and I on the Upper East Side. Every other weekend Mommy lets Daddy take me out. They’re friendlier now that they’re not married.
        Brad Boonshaft, a friend of Daddy’s, has stolen my seat—the passenger seat. Although I haven’t seen much of him except the back of his fuzzy hair and a cellphone for an ear. "Donnie, Donnie," Brad says breathlessly to the spaz he’s yammering with, "you should have seen this chick. Cellulite thighs. No, Donnie, that’s Debbie, pretty face but porky in the butt."
      "Daddy, do I have to listen to him?"
      "Brad, keep it down, will you."
      Although the phrase will you should be followed by a question mark, Daddy’s voice has a period at the end of it. He’s not wearing the Chalay blond wig he wore two weekends ago; the wig looks like a farmer’s cornfield that a tornado’s touched down in. Wig or not, I’m supposed to use the pronouns she and her when referring to my father. For the almost twelve years of my life I’ve called him Daddy. But he’s still going through the transformation. While we’re in the car I have my handsome six-foot-three father back. I tell Mommy I’m totally open to his decision. I tell my friends that Daddy is transgender, and they say "Cool." I don’t say "Cool." I refuse to say "Tampon Breath" or "Tard Jar" either. Mommy calls them empty phrases. They’re the equivalent of empty calories.
      I lean over the seat, sniffing. "Why do you have man cologne on today?"
      Daddy works as a bank examiner for the Department of the Treasury. His co-workers are slowly getting used to his changing from cologne to perfume. Besides, there are rules against sex discrimination.
      "Dalloway, when I drive I have to be macho. Boy, your nose don’t miss anything."
      Brad finishes with his conversation and is text messaging. I’m already wishing I’d brought a book.
      "Daddy, when you’re completely a woman will you stop driving?"
      He lets out a booming laugh that crinkles his blue eyes. "You’re the sharpest tack in the drawer, Dalloway," he says, glancing into the rearview and winking. "Twelve years old and a protégé."
      "I won’t be twelve for two weeks," I remind him, feeling the warmth of the wink.
      For Christmas, Daddy gives me tons of stuff wrapped in fuchsia and black paper with lavender ribbon. But the best gift is still his wink. Brad Boonshaft turns the radio to an AM station. That talent vacuum Madonna is singing Poppa Don’t Preach.
      "What kind of business are you in, Brad?" I ask, moving across the seat.
      Daddy chuckles, "Don’t be shy, Brad. Dalloway knows everything."
      "The ladies garment industry," Brad says. His curled lip tells me what he thinks of my skinny face. The kid is fugly.
      "Is Brad Boonshaft your real name?" I ask. "Or is it a porn star’s alias?"
      He sniffs, grabs for a Puffs. After he blows his nose, he pushes the Puffs out his window. I watch wind stretch the crumpled tissue into a long white feather.
      Daddy’s knuckles whiten on the wheel. "What the hell, Brad?" he shouts. "Can’t you read signs? NO LITTERING."
      "I don’t litter."
      "You didn’t just throw out a Kleenex?"
      "No, I did not," Brad says, smoothing his puffed-up hair that I can see inside of like an exploded dandelion.
      There’s a crease in Daddy’s forehead when he presses a button, putting a lock on all the windows. I can’t figure out the connection between my father and this goof. I lean over the seat fishing for information.
      "Brad, what kind of clothing do you sell? Designer?"
      He clears his throat: "Actually, I’m the sales manager at the very high-end Seventh Avenue boutique Tranny Fashions. We’re located in the penthouse along with the spa."
      Daddy lifts his blue eyes into the rearview. "Kim shops there, baby."
      So that’s the connection. I pick up my sucker, which I’d set on the arm-rest half-licked. Why Kim? Why not Tess or Andrea or Ophelia or Dalloway? Out of all the names on the planet why did he choose Kim for his woman name? A jeep passes us carrying a trio of girls, their yards of blond hair flying straight up. It roars down the off-ramp carrying its babe cargo. Daddy grins as if he were a normal man. He once told Mommy he still likes women, and that after the final operation they could be lesbians. Mommy started to cry. He was a beautiful man. Why would he choose to become a middle-aged woman?
      Then Daddy lowers his voice and tells Brad that his breasts are rumbling like newborn volcanoes. Things feel different under my T-shirt too. I press my forehead to the window. Haze like beer malt. Almost everything is interstate and the leftover spaces are junkyards or sewage pools of crème de menthe shit.
      "Look, Daddy. That’s sea oats."
      "Don’t you want to cheer it on? Living in spite of everything trying to kill it."
      "Dalloway, do not become a vegetarian like your mother. Meat is protein. That’s why apes became homo sapiens. Meat. Meat. Meat."

The Thunderbird is gridlocked. I hold on to Daddy’s headrest and examine him in the sun. His lip without the mustache is weak as an earthworm. His sideburns removed by laser have left ghost patches. He’s been getting facials. His face looks pale and extraterrestrial. Climara patches make him thirsty, and he keeps a permanent quart of water beside him. I found his list:
             Forehead               $3,000
             Upper Lip              $5,000
             Trachea Shave       $3,000
             Rhinoplasty            $6,000
      "Who invented the first commercially successful steamship?" he shouts abruptly, feeling my eyes. He loves Q&A. We play it whenever we drive.
      "Thomas Edison," Brad sneers.
      "Robert Fulton," I volunteer.
      "Right on, Dalloway. How many passengers could a night boat hold?"
      "Six hundred."
      "Who told her that?" Brad scowls.
      Daddy ignores him. "Thomas Edison Light Company installed three hundred incandescent lamps on what boat?"
      "The Saratoga." Then it’s my turn to ask, "What year did the Saratoga get lamps?"
      Daddy squints into the rearview. "1880."
      "1888," I say. I've read the picture books on Phantom Steamboats of the Hudson.
      "See, Brad, Dalloway’s brilliant. She’s about to skip junior high and go straight to high school. She’s got great DNA."
      Daddy needs to believe he fathered a genius. I worry that I’ll be even skinnier and fuglier next to the fourteen-year-old kids.
      We park the Thunderbird next to the Sandy Hook Visitor’s Center. The lot is lumpy with sand that has gusted into dunes that look like camels with their humps blown away. Across the beach the gray ocean rides up onto the sand. Daddy pops the trunk. "Okay, kids, how about a walk to the haunted lighthouse?"
      I wear my new bathing suit under my T-shirt, a pink two-piece with real breast cups. "Daddy, you promised I’d get to swim."
      "You will, Dalloway, but I’m not letting you near that ocean full of hypodermic needles. We’re going to a beach house with a private Olympic-size pool."
      It’s the first I’ve heard of a beach house. I watch a fresh set of gray waves roll toward the shore. I don’t care if the waves are dirty. The sand is blown through with salty flowers. I kneel and pick one. I make a wish.
      "Come on," Daddy laughs, "the beach house is just a mile past the lighthouse."
      "I think I’d prefer driving there," Brad says, looking alarmed.
      "You have no choice."
      Daddy has brought his space blanket with metallic underside to collect sunrays. Then there’s the mini-ice chest and Brad’s sample case. "Think you can handle this, Dalloway?" Daddy hands me a windsock emblazoned with the word KIM and slogs ahead. Brad begrudgingly follows lugging his stupid suitcase. What if Brad is Kim’s boyfriend?
      When the salt grass closes behind us, Daddy takes off his windbreaker and T-shirt. He has on an orange one-piece lady’s bathing suit. It’s no big deal, I’ve seen him dressed before, it’s not a thong or a bikini, not an illness, not anything.
      "I’m taking you guys through the holly forest," he announces.
      There are flies everywhere. We’re marching through a fly forest. Mosquitoes dive bomb us.
      "See that fence, Brad? Dalloway, tell him what that is. "
      I press my lips together. Is that all I am to him? A pygmy fact-checker?
      "Spit it out, Dalloway."
      "A Nike-Hercules missile site."
      "It was abandoned in 1970."
      The fact didn’t taste good. I stare at the rusted electrified fence covered with birds, all shrieking and shitting.
      "And?" Daddy asks.
      "There's a good chance that some live missiles are buried back here."
      "That sucks major sword," Brad shrills. "Cripes, we could step on one of them."
      But instead of blowing up we come to a railroad track littered with thousands of dead monarch butterflies. Like pieces of silken tux sleeves. I ask Daddy for his windbreaker and he gives it to me and I fill one of its pockets with butterflies. I would like to live in a world of butterflies. Thousands of golden hairstreaks. A million fatal metalmarks. A billion cloudless sulfurs. I put on Daddy’s windbreaker and keep my hand in the butterfly pocket.
      Then Daddy drops the mini-ice bucket. "Dalloway, I’ve got pain." He clutches his chest. "Jesus, shooting pains." He could be having a heart attack from the hormones. It’s one of the risks.
      Brad peers over my shoulder. "Kim, is the pain in the middle of your chest?"
      "Any numbness in your extremities?"
      Daddy lifts his right, then his left leg. "No."
      "Shooting pains from your stomach?"
      "Yeah," he grunts from between clenched teeth. "I need a nurse."
      "You need a toilet." Brad straightens up. "It’s gas," he announces like an expert. "Before Tranny Fashions I was at The Lei Lei Boutique. The owner walked into the showroom holding a traditional Chinese satin with a crane pattern. It was beautiful. He fell over with the hanger in his hand. I kid you not, Kim, his heart blew, and by the time he hit the floor he was black as a Hefty bag."
      Daddy figures the nearest bathroom is at the lighthouse. He’s not sure about the exact route so he digs for the guidebook—30 Walks in New Jersey. He throws the book to me. "Dalloway, you’re the navigator."
      I find the "To the Lighthouse" section marked with a pink paperclip and read aloud: "In the lily marsh you'll hear the croaking of wood frogs. The sound is distinctly noticeable. It's been in the air since the beginning of your walk."
      "Right or left, Dalloway?"
      "You haven't heard the croaking before, but now that the roar of automobiles dies away . . ."
      "Right!" I shout. "Through the lily forest to where the trail meets the bridge."
      "Meet me there," Daddy yells. His bathing suit blazes as he runs into the thicket.
      The lily forest is really a swamp. The trail twists through a tangle of lily pads floating like Chinese takeoutwater chestnuts and snarling bean sprouts. Bees buzz above the lilies in a trance. My sneakers sink and when I pull them free, I have a wardrobe malfunction—the gray canvas oozes mud, even the shoelaces.
      Brad and I come to the slat bridge. On the other side stands the lighthouse, a white tower with an aqua Porta-john in plain view. Daddy must be inside; there’s the mini-cooler and space blanket outside the john. An old hippie emerges from the lighthouse with the longest grayest beard I’ve ever seen. He stomps over to the Porta-john, his potbelly getting there before the rest of him.
      "This is private property. Get the hell out of there," he barks, pounding on the door.
      I run across the bridge to protect my father. "According to 30 Walks in New Jersey this is public property."
      "Book's ten years old," the man claims, like he’s just finished reading it.
      I turn to the flysheet. "Actually, the copyright is 1997."
      "Way to go, Dalloway, you saved the day," Daddy hoots from inside the john.
      I feel a flush of pride. I’m glad to be carrying the KIM windsock. The old hippie slinks away. He must be making believe he’s a lightkeeper. No one these days turns the fog signals on. There are no more lighthouse keepers.
      Daddy comes out of the Porta-john and says, "Race you to the top, Dalloway!"
      And before Brad can even settle his behind onto his sample case, Daddy sprints inside the lighthouse. He’s taking the iron stairs two at a time before I reach the first step.
      "Are you still having a heart attack?" I call after him.
      "Not anymore," he yells down.
      I like the spooky spiraling steps. The lightkeepers’ specter eyes. Black clouds and storms from another century hang around the tower.
      "Daddy, I wish I could be a lightkeeper," I say when I make the top. I’d talk only to people the sea swept in. I wouldn’t have to walk by boys and wonder if they’re about to jeer "There’s a candidate for breast implants." I imagine the lantern rooms that used hundreds of candles in revolving chandeliers. I close my eyes and hear fog bells.
      "You are my lightkeeper," Daddy says, his hair blowing skyward.

Later I wonder if the day is worth saving. The modernistic house is built on three tiers that fall toward the ocean. A waterfall runs over geometric stone levels. BMWs alongside Porsches crowd the driveway. I want to go home.
      "Wow," Brad whistles. "Who lives here?"
      "You'll see," Daddy says.
      "I don’t like it here," I spout.
      "Dalloway, give it a chance." Daddy takes my hand and leads me down a set of cedar stairs toward the pool. If I like his hand taking mine, wrist against wrist, why do I feel like crying? The water in the kidney-shaped pool is Windex-blue and chaise lounges fan around it like spots in a peacock’s tail. There’s zero tolerance for kids here. Everyone seems to be Daddy’s age. A redhead in a FEMS Maid Service hat rouses herself to peer at us through the upper beige of her two-tone sunglasses. In the next lounger a man half her size reddens with freckles.
      "Hello, we’re here," Daddy calls out, but the only person who seems interested is a woman in a turquoise bikini who raises herself up from the lounger.
      "We've all been waiting," she gushes. "Olé. Olé."
      I hang back.
      "Come on, Dalloway, be nice." Daddy squats and pulls me down so we’re eye to eye. "Baby, this is Dr. Bonnie Peeler. She wrote the transgender definition for the DES Manual. She’s a pioneer in her field."
      "I don’t care. She’s not much of a milkshake."
      "Not nice, Dalloway. I want to show you off to her."
      The Dr. Peeler woman uncurls herself and her drink from the lounger. "You must have champagne!" She holds out her glass as she waltzes toward us. Inside the glass is a blackberry giving the bubbles a purple gleam. "Kim, help yourself to the house if you want to freshen up. And, Brad, go ahead and display Tranny Fashions. Olé!"
      When she laughs I can see her tonsils.
      "This is my daughter. She’s just been promoted from sixth to ninth grade."
      Why did he have to mention the promotion? Why did he have to use the word just? Which means a minute ago when the letter came months ago.
      "Olé!" Dr. Peeler says, raising her glass.
      The three of them leave me by the pool and disappear into the beach house. Scuffing mud from my sneakers, I stare into the water. A woman dozes on the top step of the shallow end, a mask of blue pouches over her face. Her head might be a jellyfish. A caterer carries a tray of toothpick-speared cheese blocks to a table where tri-color pasta salad, lump crab, and mango have already arrived. I keep holding the KIM windsock and trying to smile.
      "Is that ginger ale?" I ask when a different caterer passes with a tray of plastic goblets filled with pale yellow.
      "It’s champagne. Would you like a glass?" he smirks.
      I drop the windsock, taking a goblet in each hand. He shrugs, not his business. The pale yellow tastes like spoiled apples, but I like how it fizzes. After I guzzle both glasses and nothing happens, I slip off a sneaker nudging it into the pool. At least some piece of me is going swimming.
      I stand perfectly still. The woman in a FEM's Maid Service hat is waving for champagne, the dinky man swaggers to the buffet table. They can’t see me. The only person who’s ever seen me is Daddy, and today he’s not noticing. He hasn’t mentioned the inches I’ve added to my height. In the old days he’d take me on real estate runs up and down the Jersey Shore. Whenever he saw something interesting we’d stop and he’d take a picture. I was his perspective. He has albums of an almost peopleless universesnapshots of stone walls, arched windows, doorways, fireplaces, and iceblock glass dividers, and I’m standing in all of them. Dalloway, four-feet-five inches tall, Dalloway, five feet. Although as a bank examiner he doesn’t handle anything but interest rate schedules, Daddy knows his way around outlet boxes. He taught me the difference between a hot wire and a mounting hole. Together we installed track lighting in my room.
      I’m shifting from side to side, my bladder is full. Daddy will probably be back soon to show me where the bathroom is, but I can’t wait much longer. Then I see Brad exiting the sun porch in his swim trunks. I kick my other sneaker into the pool and run up the redwood steps. I slide the glass door open and I’m in a room with a skylight. The beautiful room leads into another beautiful room. Why not take the stairway? Aren’t bathrooms usually upstairs? When I get to the top I find myself in a corridor. Photographs decorate the walls, pictures of men in lipstick, men without eyebrows, men with gold hair. There’s a man with butterfly wings attached to his shoulder blades. Daddy told Mommy that cross-dressing is a celebration of the chaos principle. She rolled her eyes. For an activist and whole-earth catalogue subscriber, he was sorry to discover that she was an exclusionist. Weren’t transgender people worthy of the same respect as whales?
      Farther down the hall a door is part-way open. Must be the bathroom. Before I know it I’m inside a spacious room with shampooing sink, manicure table, and hair driers. Like Misa’s Beauty Salon where Mommy takes me to get our haircuts. It takes me a second to recognize Daddy lying on a massage table, a sheet covering his bottom. He looks like a gigantic baked cookie. Dr. Peeler has a lab coat over her bikini and sits on a chair with wheels. She’s peering at his back through a magnifying mirror. "Mmmm," she says, like she’s eating cheese cake. Behind the massage table is a box with dials and gauges.
      "Hi," I say, "what are you guys doing?"
      "Dalloway, come on in. Dr. Peeler’s not only a shrink but she performs electrolysis in a pinch. We’re doing a little clean-up."
      "I’m wearing a backless dress tonight, honey."
      "Tonight! We’re not going to be here tonight?"
      "Just for a little while, sweetheart. There’s going to be a band."
      "What kind of a band?"
      "A dinner dance band."
      Daddy wears a light pink lipstick and beige foundation. I wish Mommy could come for me only she doesn’t have a car. Parking is too expensive. Dr. Peeler gives me one of her smiles, and then talks about re-entering one of Daddy’s hair follicles.
      "You mean you pull out his hairs?"
      "We burn them out one by one. Sometimes more than once."
      This is why his skin looks like Braille. Dr. Peeler is taking Daddy away. How soon before he doesn’t even come for me on weekends? Dr. Peeler tells me that Kim is the most intelligent being she’s ever met. I wish I could say you’ve made it this far as a man, Daddy, can’t you make it the rest of the way? But I don’t.
      "Where’s the bathroom?" I ask.
      Dr. Peeler croons, "Sweetie, in the middle of this hall to your right." Then she sniffs. "Dalloway, are you drinking?"
      "I had some champagne."
      "You’ll need to eat something. Do you like chicken fingers?"
      "They’re okay."
      "How about Buffalo wings?"
      "Dalloway loves Buffalo wings in blue cheese dip." Daddy winks at Dr. Peeler.
      If I ever liked wings, I’ll hate them forever now. I try to deny what I saw. His eye involuntarily twitched, he had a lash in it. He never winked at Mommy; he saved it just for me. Winking was reserved for Dalloway.
      "Dalloway, why don’t you eat some chicken fingers poolside," Dr. Peeler coaxes. "You kids love those."
      Stuff your stupid chicken fingers, I’m no kid. If Daddy had plans, he should have cancelled our day. He can keep his winking.
      I back out through the doorway.
      "Isn’t she a smart kid?" I hear Daddy say. "She was raised on OMNI and Science Digest. We humans are still in Stage Zero. Stage Four we're immortal. But we’ve got to do something quick or we're going to become extinct."
      Dr. Peeler asks, "How so extinct?"
      "An asteroid's heading for us right now. Eight miles wide. The one that took out the dinosaurs was six miles long. If we exploded the thing, all vegetation would die."
      I stop and take a last look at them. Dr. Peeler gets up to push her pen needle into Daddy’s shoulder. When she does I scurry over and kick her chair into the manicure table. Hundreds of fingernail polishes clatter to the floor. I imagine a red river of Red Surreal, Sanguino, Misto Argento, Sensuale, Vampirina, running like different shades of fire.
      "Get a grip, Dalloway," Daddy snaps, but there is something besides anger in his voice. Maybe it’s fear.
      I can’t feel my feet. They’re being dragged into the floor. I start to laugh. I’ve heard it all before. Nuclear winter. Eternal dark.
 I find the bathroom and lock the door. It feels like an island. Everything floats. The bathtub is a pedestal, the sink too. Everywhere I turn there’s a mirror, hand mirrors, two-way mirrors, mirrors on accordion hinges. You can’t miss the brown-haired girl.
      I open the medicine cabinet. Ointments, deodorant, tweezers, prescription bottles. I read the labels. Pills with tragic Greek namesAtivan, Ultram, Xanax. Mommy sometimes takes Xanax when it gets to be too much. I unscrew the lid and look at the violet-colored wafers. I shake out two and fill the water glass.
      I sit on the toilet for a long time. The drops pinging against the side of the bowl turn into a waterfall, and then go back to gentle spring rain. I chew one of the purple pills. Like a Flintstone multiple vitamin. It tastes bitter and salty. When I tell my friends that I took a Xanax they’ll be impressed. I chew another one. Two is a perfect number, two is twins. Pill crumbs stick to my tongue like the stuffing in Oreos. A terrycloth robe hangs from a hook on the door. I put it on over my windbreaker and swimsuit. I like the way I disappear. When I kneel on the carpet it feels like I’m sinking. It’s nice here in the warm grass.

 I don’t know how long I’ve been kneeling when my teeth start to chatter. The temperature of the carpet is dropping, and the robe feels like snow. I’m almost too frozen to stand up, and I have to claw my way out of the terrycloth. I take the pill bottle with me into the hall. I open more doors. Bedroom. Bathroom. Bedroom. A shaft of icy sun hits my face from the skylight. My shoulder bumps into the wall. I bounce back and forth. I think I’d like to have wings growing from my back like that man in the photograph, the one with gold hair.
      My hand is far away. I dig into the pocket for the Xanax bottle that keeps sliding away. Two of the purple pills didn’t do anything. I put another one on my tongue. The sconce lamps look warm, and I‘m shivering. Then I know where all the cold is coming from—my hands. They are causing the rest of me to freeze. I climb onto a tabletop, but that’s not true, because I leap and abracadabra I’m standing on it. I reach into the scone and cup the bulb, but I’m disappointed. The light is an egg of ice. I have to warm the light, keep holding on with all my might. How do stars collapse? 400 million light years away two black holes are moving toward each other. When they merge they will warp the fabric of space. Nothing can escape, not even light; they will drag stars into them. I remember the last outing Daddy took me on when he still lived with us, the water lilies at the botanical gardens. They floated across the water; each stalk had six petals. Daddy explained how the root detaches and sinks itself in new mud at the bottom of the pond. He pointed out the Giant Water Lily, the Night Lilies that bloomed nocturnally. Although I was a big girl, Daddy held me up so I could see. In the wild these lilies attract bats and snakes. His arms were strong, and I knew I’d always be safe.
      There’s a smell in my nostrils that reminds me of the odor in Dr. Peeler’s electrolysis room. Like burning skin. If Daddy’s right an asteroid is heading for us. Before that happens I want the butterflies to come back to life. I take a monarch out of my pocket, its wings are folded, but she still has both of them. I cup her in my palm and hold her to the bulb. Maybe the butterfly will think it’s the sun.

© Stephanie Dickinson 2005

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author bio

Stephanie DickinsonStephanie Dickinson has lived in Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana and now New York. Her poetry and fiction appear in Cream City Review, Green Mountain Review, Chelsea, Mudfish, Ontario Review, Nimrod, Willow Springs, Calyx, Iron Horse Review, The MacGuffin, among others. Along with Rob Cook, she publishes and edits the new literary journal Skidrow Penthouse. Her Half Girl won the Hackney Award (Birmingham-Southern) for best unpublished novel. It will be published in a limited edition by Spuyten Duvyil.

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issue 48: May - June 2005 

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