Essay by Erika Kleinman
My nephew was three and he was already saying he wanted to be a girl.
No interest in cars, soccer balls, or army guys. That’s when everyone started
worrying about it. I remember one particular time, when my brother was still alive.
He hadn’t been around much because he was in and out of jail at the time. This
was one of the times he was around a lot. He was pissed off because I had given
my nephew a bag with a Teletubby on it. It had all of them on it, but this was
right after the Jerry Falwell thing with him saying that Tinky Winky was gay. It
was so bizarre and paranoid, and it was all over the papers. Something about the
triangle on top of Tinky Winky’s head and the bag he carried around which
looked like a purse. My brother decided that “his son” would not have a
“purse,” and he took it away and threw it in the garbage.
Liam started crying like crazy, until he had to catch his breath in hiccups.
He kept saying, “I . . . want . . . my . . . purse” between sobs. I think everyone in
the family was angry with my brother, who kept saying, “I’m the dad, you guys.
I’m the one in charge of my son!” He wasn’t seeing it through Liam’s eyes. He
was just thinking about himself and what he wanted. I remember saying, “You are
being such a prick about this, Justin!” I remember this because you remember a
lot of the things you have said after someone has died. You replay them in your
mind, filtering them through whatever feeling you’re having at the time. Guilt
means I was wrong. Anger means he was wrong. I looked at my nephew, who
had fat tears rolling down his cheeks and was crying with no sound coming out.
“I see how sad you are,” I said, “I feel sad to see your sad tears.” I thought that
would help, but he started crying from the top again. “Oh, good going,” my
brother said, glad to share the blame.
When my nephew turned four, I took him to K-mart and told him to pick
out whatever he wanted for his birthday. “Anything? But my birthday was a
week ago!” He looked around, then back at me. “I can get anything?”
“Well, anything under twenty bucks.”
He stood looking at the toys in the girls’ section. He picked out one of
those crappy plastic make-up kits. “This,” he said. “I want this.” There were
two little eye shadows, blue and white, and a light pink lip gloss. A picture of a
smiling girl with shimmery lips on the package.
At first I was amused, then I thought about my brother. He would totally
bitch me out, I could just see it. I cleared my throat and smiled. “Are you sure
you want that? Did you see these?” I held his hand and led him to the other
aisle, the boys’ aisle. Trucks, Legos, and army guys as far as the eye could see.
“But I don’t like these,” he said, scowling. Then, accusingly: “You said I
could pick anything!”
“Okay, Liam, I’ll get it for you. I think it is a very nice toy. But if your
parents say we have to take it back, then we have to pick out something else,
okay? Your parents get to pick which toys you can have, okay?” I sensed that
a trash can awaited this purchase.
He smiled eagerly. “Okay!”
When we got home he showed my dad his new treasure. “Look, Gaga!
Erika bought me this!”
“Great,” my dad said, when Liam was out of earshot. “A do-it-yourself
fag kit.” I laughed; I couldn’t help myself.
“Yeah, and if you’re real nice, I’ll get you one, too.”
He shook his head. “Did you even think about what his dad would do?”
“I told Liam that we might have to take it back if his parents didn’t like it.”
My dad looked at me somberly.
He shook his head again.
“What? I didn’t pick it out for him.”
“Well, you probably didn’t do anything to talk him out of it.”
“Why the hell should I? There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Maybe not to you, but you wait to see what his dad says.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think I can deal with my little brother getting mad at
In the end, my brother never said anything about it. Liam still had the
makeup kit. I don’t know if Justin never knew anything about it or if that’s
when he started getting into meth and was kind of out of the picture. He was
gone a lot, and none of us knew how to hold him close. He was too hard to
be with, so when he was gone sometimes we were glad. Even when I got the
call that he was dying, total organ failure due to a drug interaction, part of me
was relieved. Not that he was gone, but that it was over. The drug abuse,
fighting with Liam’s mom, the anger that always hung around him.
Of course, I didn’t know then that it is never over. When someone dies,
your relationship with them continues. They show up on your dreamline,
driving brand new trucks, showing up for dinner, smiling with the sun on their
face, apologizing for hurting you, even looking at pictures of their own funeral.
In that dream, he kept checking his watch as I flipped through the pictures.
I said, “I wish you didn’t have to go.” And he stayed for a few minutes, just
because I said that.
About a year after Justin died, Liam was seven years old and we were
in Phoenix, visiting relatives. One night, Liam and I were out by the pool. I
was painting my nails. The color was Cotton Candy, although it was really
more of a dark pink pearl color. Liam was watching me. He was very quiet.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m running for President. Will you vote for me?” I smiled at him.
“I’m painting my nails, silly.”
He smiled. He kept watching. “Can you paint mine?”
“You want me to paint your nails?”
“Sure, I can paint them for you. But I want you to know that some
people think that nail polish is just for girls. I don’t agree with that, but some
people think so.”
“Also, something to think about is that tomorrow you’re going to be
meeting a lot of relatives that you haven’t met before, and some of them might
think that nail polish is just for girls. They might say something like, ‘Why are
you wearing nail polish? That’s for girls!’” I looked at him carefully. “Would
that hurt your feelings?”
He nodded. “Yes. But…I still want you to paint my nails.”
“You want me to do your toenails or your fingernails?”
He beamed. “Both!”
I was right; one of my asshole relatives did say something. It was the
manliest one of the bunch, with the fewest social skills. And he said it
practically verbatim. “Why do you have nail polish on? Nail polish is for
girls!” Liam folded his nails under his hands.
“My aunt painted them,” he said, then slid off of his chair and went into
the kitchen. I got up and followed him into the kitchen. I’d been carrying
around a trial-size bottle of fingernail polish remover and cotton balls just in
case he had a change of heart.
“Hey Liam,” I said as nonchalantly as possible, opening the fridge. “Do
you want a water?”
“Um, sure.” He avoided my eyes.
We opened our water bottles and each took a sip.
Quietly, I said, “If you don’t feel like wearing that nail polish anymore,
I have some fingernail polish remover in my purse.”
He looked at me. “Really?”
“Yeah, do you want me to take it off?”
“Yeah,” he said enthusiastically, “but can you only do this nail? Because
it got kinda messed up, so I need you to re-do it. Do you have any other
When my nephew was nine, I came to Seattle for the funeral of my
mom’s best friend, who had been like a second mother to me. She died of
a brain aneurysm, due to a vein cluster that she had likely been born with.
She used to make verbal mistakes we thought were endearing. We called
them Minnieisms. Once when she was with my mother in Chinatown, she
saw a wok in the window of a shop and said, “Oh look, a wong!” My mom
said, “You mean a wok.” Minnie shrugged and said, “Oh well, wong again!”
Little did we know that they were evidence of the spidery cluster in her brain,
which was simply waiting for the right moment to burst.
Because they were uncommonly close and had a friendship that had
spanned over thirty years, almost as long as my parents’ marriage, my mother
was devastated. Liam was, too; he had known Minnie his entire life. He and
my mother had both been in the hospital with Minnie when she was taken off
The day after she died, Liam called. “You’re coming here for the
funeral, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve already bought my plane ticket.”
Liam sounded tearful. “I am freaking out, Erika. Why do people have
“I have no idea.” I sighed, and Liam was quiet. We’d talked about it
before, when he was younger. How people’s bodies wear out, or get too
broken, or sick. But that wasn’t what he was asking now. “I wish I could
tell you that, but I don’t know.” The distance between us felt vast and
uncertain. “I just don’t know.”
The day after I arrived in Seattle for the funeral, Liam raided my suitcase
and came downstairs in my little black mules, carrying my makeup case, and
asked if I would dress him up like a girl.
“Right now?” I asked.
“Well,” I said, my eyes darting around the room, “let’s wait until later.
I want to make a sandwich. Do you want one?” I really thought he might
forget about it. So we watched American Idol clips on YouTube and talked
about Sanjaya and how bad he was but how we still kind of liked him. Then
we went to the craft store and bought a piggy bank that you can paint yourself.
It came with its own paint. It was ridiculously expensive. “After we pay for it,
we won’t have any money to put in it,” Liam said.
I laughed. “Money comes and goes—art is forever.” I handed him the
bag to carry home.
We did it pink with purple polka dots. Then we used the rest of the
paint for these plastic horses he had scored the week before at a garage sale.
It was very hilarious and took quite a long time. He kept writing “poop” on
the horses, and I kept trying to cover up the word with intricate designs. An
eagle with its wings spread wide, a cheerful snake, a pirate ship.
“So,” he said, after we had painted the final horse, “can you dress me
up like a girl now?”
“You want me to?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You said you would.”
So we did. I tried to be lighthearted about it, but I was a little worried
about how my mom would take it. She just wasn’t in the right mood to deal
with this kind of thing. Whatever, she’s a grownup, I thought to myself.
“Which colors do you want?” I asked him, pointing to the eye shadows.
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Well you have blue eyes, so maybe this dark brown one. It would
“No, that one’s ugly!”
“Okay, so which one?”
“I like that one.” He pointed to the light purple eye shadow with
“Nice choice,” I said. He selected a pink lip gloss and insisted on using
blush, even though I told him that no one wears blush anymore. “Now for
the finishing touch—the mascara.” He smiled.
As I was applying his mascara, I asked him a question. “So do you
always want to dress like a girl, or only right now?”
He thought for a minute. “I pretty much always do.”
“So you kinda wish you were a girl? Or you just like to dress up like
“I wish I were one.” He was looking in the mirror. He smiled, the little
dimple showing in his chin. “I guess,” he said, “that I like being a boy, but I
wish I could be both.”
“I had a girlfriend once who is a boy now.”
He looked at me with a blank expression. “What do you mean?”
“Well, she was a girl, but she always felt like she should be a boy, her
whole life. So now she’s a boy. He’s a boy.”
“You can do that?” The eye shadow really did look pretty good. He
had his dad’s long eyelashes.
“Yeah, you can.”
“Do you have to change your name?”
“Well, you probably would, if you did it, but the person I’m talking
about—Alex—didn’t have to, because it’s a girl name and a boy name.”
“But I like my name.” He looked genuinely sad about it.
“You don’t have to change it if you don’t want to. You can keep it.
You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
He smiled at me conspiratorially. “Let’s go show Grandma.”
“Okay, but let me go introduce you first, okay? It will be like
American Idol. I’ll be Ryan Seacrest. I’ll come get you when it’s time.”
I went downstairs to my mom’s room. She was standing by the bed,
folding laundry. “Liam’s dressed like a girl right now. He’ll be downstairs
She gave me a suspicious look. “Why does he only want to do that
kind of stuff when you’re here?” She had obviously been crying.
“I don’t know! Maybe because I don’t really give a shit, whereas
everyone else is all freaked out by it.” Which was kind of a half-lie. When
I had helped Liam put on my black dress upstairs, I felt a wave of dread. He
was built like my brother, very tall for his age and bulky, with big shoulders
and arms. That was part of it, but he also looked at me with such wide-eyed
innocence and joy that I immediately regretted agreeing to help him. How
can such a sweet and tender heart as Liam’s survive in a world like this? I
imagined a thousand angry people berating him, threatening him, coming at
him like the mob from Frankenstein.
“Well,” my mom said grudgingly, “I guess when I see him I have to act
like it’s no big deal.”
“Okay, well. Do your best. I know it’s hard.”
Just then, Liam came downstairs. I guess he couldn’t wait. He beamed
at my mother and giggled.
“Hi, Liam,” she said quietly.
“Look at me!” he said, twirling around. The dress didn’t really twirl
much, but boy, he sure gave it his all. I couldn’t help laughing along with him,
he looked so gleeful. “I want to watch The Ice Princess while I wear this,”
he said excitedly.
“Okay,” said my mom. She sounded so tired. “I have to go to the
“I’ll go show Gaga!”
Gaga would have to fend for himself; I hadn’t had a chance to give him
a heads up. While Liam left to find my dad, I stayed in the bedroom with
my mom. I looked at her. She slowly sank to the bed and buried her face in
“Are you okay?”
“No.” She looked like one of the dolls in a Japanese dramatic play.
She was perfectly still. “No, I’m not.”
I felt squirmy inside. We don’t display emotions easily in my family.
When my brother died, we called and listened to each other breathe on the
phone. We took turns talking each other out of grieving. I show my
emotions out of rebellion. My mother shows hers out of pure exhaustion.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“It was just so terrible, seeing him twirl around in that dress.” She was
on the verge of tears. “It was so sad.”
I fidgeted impatiently. “I get that you’re sad, but why is it so sad to
“Because, Erika. Just because.”
“Yeah, but why should it be sad? I mean, I know that some people
might treat him differently because of it. Believe me; I was thinking about it
myself. But he’ll also have a lot of support. There are other people out
there going through the same thing.”
“I’m talking about his life. I don’t want him to have a hard life.”
“Of course you don’t. I can understand that. But who says he’ll have
a hard life? Look at Justin. He didn’t wear women’s clothes, but his life was
hard because he was always so angry, even when he was Liam’s age. At
least Liam doesn’t have that going on.”
She sighed. “I just wish you wouldn’t encourage him. It’s not that I
think it’s wrong, it’s just that other people do.”
“Yeah, they do, some of them. And he may get the message that it’s
not okay for him to dress like a girl. But he’s not going to get that message
“Come on, Mom, we’re Unitarians! We’re supposed to be competing
to show everyone else how free-thinking we are. So far I’m totally winning.”
“Look,” she said. “I just really want to be alone right now.”
She buried her face in her hands again. I looked at the top of her head,
feeling at a loss. “I guess I should go start the movie. Come join us later if
you feel like it.”
“I will. I just need a few minutes.”
I went out into the living room where my dad greeted me with a look that
said, “Thanks a lot. Thanks a whole shitload.”
“Hey, Pops,” I said. “Want to watch The Ice Princess?”
He sighed, then shrugged. “Sure. Why not?” He looked on as Liam
worked on his twirl. “Nice dress,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Liam.
The next day, in the car on the way back from Olive Garden with my
parents, Liam told me that he wanted to get his own dress. Apparently my
dress didn’t cut it. He wanted a purple dress instead. “Like, velvet or
something like that. And high heels! Yours are too flat,” he said with disdain.
“Oh, so my shoes aren’t good enough for you now?”
“We can go to the thrift store and get that stuff if you want,” my dad
I froze, staring at the back of my dad’s head. Did he really just say that?
I turned to Liam.
Sounding desperate, Liam revealed that he had blown all of his allowance
money on Pokémon cards and couldn’t afford to buy anything, even at a thrift
“I’ll buy,” my dad said casually.
Whoa. Liam and I looked at each other in the back seat, and I was
reminded of the kind of communication that happened between my brother and
me. Like, can you believe this?
My mom played it cool. Had they talked about this beforehand? I
wondered how that conversation would go: “As long as he’s going to be a
transvestite, we should make sure he knows how to find a good bargain!” or
“Let’s buy him shoes before they have to be custom-made for his big man feet.”
No. They couldn’t have talked about it beforehand. It just wasn’t possible.
Liam and I went to the shoe section first. He tried on some red pumps
which he thought were okay, but they looked a little dated. “Like old lady
shoes,” he said. We were definitely attracting a little attention from people,
but it was the suburbs. The attention was just the occasional sidelong glance,
and if you looked directly at them, they would look away. It was like looking
at a hologram. One lady in her forties was glancing at us and pursing her lips.
When I smiled at her broadly, she started humming and walked away. A man
in a golf cap who was looking at belts nearby eyed us nervously. Or maybe
he was envious, who could tell? Maybe he secretly longed to find the right
pair of shiny black stilettos, or business-casual brown leather pumps.
We held on to the red shoes in case we couldn’t find anything else. He
tried on a few black pairs, but they were either too narrow or not high enough.
One dark blue pair with rhinestone buckles was way too high. “You really
shouldn’t wear heels that high for your first pair,” I said. “It takes practice.”
“But I like these,” he pleaded. I gave him a look. “Oh, fine,” he said.
We looked around a little more and then I spotted them—a pair of
purple high-heeled shoes that were just his size. “Oh my god, Liam,” I said.
“Look.” I held them up.
“Let me try them,” he said, grinning. He held on to my shoulder as he
put the first shoe on. It was like he was Cinderella herself. Those suckers fit
perfectly. He walked around the store wearing them. I could feel people
staring at us, and I wanted to tell all of them to go screw themselves, but I
was so happy we found the shoes. My dad was sitting on a stool reading a
gardening book. Liam stopped in front of him. “Hey Gaga, what do you
My dad looked down at the shoes and nodded jerkily. “Fine, yeah.”
He cleared his throat and looked around.
Liam looked at me. “Well, we freaked out Gaga. Let’s go find
Grandma!” Click click click click. Oddly, I felt proud. My mom was
standing next to the VHS movies. She looked glumly at Liam’s feet. She
gave that sad weak smile again. “Good,” she said. “Are those the ones
“Yeah,” said Liam, “but I need to get a dress, too. Come on, Erika,
We were off to the dress section.
“Do you want a formal dress or an everyday dress?”
“I think an everyday dress.” He looked around. “Do you feel
“Actually, no. People staring has never been a problem for me. I see
it as their problem, not mine. How ’bout you?”
“Well, I feel a little embarrassed. But I’m still having fun!”
“I’m glad, because I’m having fun, too.”
He found the perfect dress. It was a dark purple mid-length with two
different types of material—a velvet top and rayon for the skirt. On the way
home, Liam kept opening the bag to look at the shoes, as though they might
disappear on the way home.
Once we were home, Liam wanted to wear his shoes outside.
Specifically, he wanted to go show his best friend Maya who lived next door.
My mom shook her head, agitated. “You can’t wear those shoes outside.”
When he asked her why, she said it was because they would get dirty
and then he would not be allowed to wear them inside anymore.
“But. . . .”
“No, Liam,” my mom said. “You can’t do it, I’m sorry.” Because she
is normally a very fair and logical person, this was strange to watch.
“But wait,” he said, with his sweet voice.
“It’s not up for discussion, Liam. You won’t be able to wear them
inside if you wear them outside. I don’t want them getting my floors dirty.”
“But Grandma, listen to me.”
“What?” she said, a little out of breath.
“They’re already used, so they’re already dirty. So doesn’t that mean
I can only wear them outside?”
She looked a little lost. “No. I don’t want you to wear them outside. I
just . . . I don’t want you to wear them outside.” Her eyes had a slightly
varnished look. Her lips were tight, like they get when she’s reaching a limit,
one that as a child, I painstakingly avoided. Something my brother never
learned to do.
“But why not?” The innocence in his voice really was heartbreaking.
“Because, Liam,” my mom said, gaining strength, “I don’t think people
are used to seeing a boy walking around in purple high-heeled shoes!”
There is a time in a child’s life when he says something that makes you
realize that he is no longer just a child. It’s a moment when you realize that the
child has power, and it is not power that you are somehow giving to him. It is
a moment that shows you what has ended and what is to come. This was one
of those moments.
Liam shrugged, then looked at us. “Well,” he said, “if people aren’t used
to boys walking around in purple shoes, maybe I should have bought the red
A brief silence, as my mom and I stared at Liam. Then, my mother and I
turned to each other and laughed loud and long. Liam smiled, and looked down
shyly at his shoes. We watched him as he got up, walked to the front door, and
Erika Kleinman lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and daughter. Her
most recent work was published in the anthology Learning To Love You More
by performance artist Miranda July. Kleinman currently attends The University
of Texas, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in speech-language
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 4, Number 2
Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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