He rushed into the kitchen “Look at me! Look at me! I brought these for you.” Handing over a bundle of freshly picked sweetpeas he looked up at me shining that irresistible buckshot grin with the gaps where the tooth fairy had been. He giggled that ethereal giggle with its effervescent sound of cheery pop; as if gumballs and stardust were bubbling up and sparkling together in the dome of a snowglobe. The ability to make such gleeful tones seems to slip from our mouths with the last baby tooth…
He laughed some more cracking himself up and turned around in place until I noticed he had entwined half a dozen stems into his long, wavy, auburn hair. His tawny brown face was framed in little flowers. He was Puck and Pan and Springtime and Nature – at that moment I was sure the sunlight followed his every step. He was utterly and completely Happy and Free. I smiled back at him and said “You look like you grew straight out of the ground and bloomed!”
“ I did, I did” he replied “and I can live outside all summer long!” He twirled around one more time and ran to show his mother and uncle in the next room.
I heard his mother’s warm, high laugh and knew that Jake was still twirling and bubbling. Then his uncle, Terry, spoke with a slow deadpan of disbelief as if Jake’s ankles were being circled by a viper, “Whoa, Jake, no, man, what do have in your hair? Grace, get that stuff out of his hair!”
“Noooo!” Jake protested a little afraid. “Whyyyy? I like them, nooo don’t take them. Oww!”
“Jake, I’m not trying to be mean.” Terry tried to explain. “It’s just that boys don’t wear flowers in their hair.”
“What do you mean! I like them!”
Jake was truly confounded, the faint sound of injustice and desperation in his voice that you usually hear when trying to explain to a child that it’s more humane to put an injured pet “to sleep.”
“Well, Jake, only girls wear flowers in their hair.”
Jake was feeling defiant now as if he didn’t want some dumb girl robbing him of his right to wear flowers.
“Jake it’s just not done.” Terry was losing his composure. The flowers really bothered him. “Well, you wouldn’t want people to think you were, you know, ‘Gay’.”
I didn’t have to see the look on Grace’s face. I could feel the heat of her eyes boring into her brother’s forehead, the ridge of her brows rising up, casting a shadow across the room.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay – we’ve told you about that but you wouldn’t want someone to think you’re gay if you’re not!”
Oh my dear Terry, you can’t back pedal fast enough to escape from here. Luke Skywalker already slipped the rocket into that gopher hole and it is barreling toward the center of the Death Star destined to explode. Grace almost whispered in a voice cold as the moon, “He’s SEVEN.”
Jake came trundling back through the kitchen head down, hastening to flee, back out across the yard, to the lot, up the slope to his favorite far corner in the high grass. The sober expression was out of place. A strange brew of bewilderment and shame had robbed the color from his mouth, his eyes so heavy with the weight of ages he barely lifted them to meet mine. Was I the enemy? He couldn’t be sure. I was a woman and I had rewarded his transgender behavior with smiles.
Terry could be heard for some minutes after rationalizing in defense – “If he acts like a fag he’s gonna get beat up! The long hair was bad enough but flowers?! Do you want him to get beat up?”
One week later a freshly shorn Jake proudly bounded across the linoleum to present his all-boy self to me and spun in place to show off his new ‘do’. Terry had been teasing him for months to cut his long hair but his mother held firm wanting Jake to choose for himself. He ran his hand triumphantly over the two-inch tufts. No errant sweetpea would ever take root and tangle itself there. Jake then explained to me how he liked this length (or lack there of) much better and bragged about how he was already getting more approving looks from the (also seven-year-old) girls.
The rains have passed and the sweetpeas are blooming again amid the long grass. An eight-year-old boy plays in the lot and brings in dirty knees and sticks and cockle burrs stuck in his hair, but no armloads of wildflowers are brought to his mother or to me. He strikes the ground and every item on it with a stake he pulled from a rotting fence. The cats are afraid and dash before him. There is a mound of dirt piled in the corner of the lot and he makes exploding sounds with his mouth, throwing the annihilated plastic soldiers into the air. This is the spring that his uncle has decided to teach him how to play baseball and they have taken their places twenty feet apart in the vacant lot.
“When can I pitch!?” Jake whines, frustrated.
“You can’t pitch until you learn how to catch and throw.” His uncle calmly exhorts.
He’s bought new mitts and baseballs for the occasion. After a few minutes of back-and-forth Jake is showing an aptitude and after screwing up his cheeks with concentration he begins to hurl the ball with ease. Right on cue our neighbor approaches beaming with approval “lookin’ good there Jake!” and the uncle turns with raised eyebrows and a knowing grin.
“Had to make sure he didn’t throw like a girl!”
God forbid. I’m tempted to treat him to the accuracy of my aim. But just as Terry was turning his head, Jake, being in possession of the ball took his opportunity to aim for the breadbasket, cranked his little elbow back, put all of his eight-year-old muscles behind it and hit his distracted uncle square in the nuts.
“I’ll make you throw like a girl!” he retorts with mock indignation.
The startled target grabs his pants and yells “OW! DAMN!”
Serves him right. Jake collapses with laughter, jubilant, rolling in the iceplant and pointing at his uncle, enviably unconcerned with the bright green iceplant stains he is grinding into his cotton clothes.
I thank the Powers-That-Be that I may keep, in the catacombs of my memory, the picture of a seven-year-old boy unabashed and grinning, backlit by the yellow-gold of afternoon sun, glorious with purple flowers twisted in his long hair. I have seen what Freedom looks like. I know where it lives. It is a place where Beauty is Truth and grows wild immune to judgement. Where sweetpeas are neither masculine nor feminine they are just flowers, purple and white and altogether lovely, beckoning to us in the breeze, waving their delicate blossoms to simply be enjoyed in the vacant lot of eternal springtime.
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