The father sat at the table with his hands over his mouth. He had forgotten how to speak for the moment. He’d asked the few people he could ask, and they’d said to start by saying that everything is okay. Children like to hear that things are going to be okay. They told him to remember that children think of the parent as God.
He asked his son to sit down. The son was small and able. He got the milk jug from the refrigerator. He stood on a chair to get the cereal from the cabinet. The father watched all this and wondered where he’d learned to do these things. He asked his son to come to the table and eat. He said they needed to talk. He said, But it’s okay.
The son nodded without looking back. He stared out of the window over the sink. He poured rainbow cereal into a bowl and poured milk on top of it. He put the jug away and left the box on the counter.
Please, finish up. Sit with me, the father said. The boy held the bowl with both hands and walked over. The milk and cereal sloshed and he stopped and waited for them to calm down. He’d practiced this maneuver many times as he walked to the living room to watch TV.
The father and his son never ate breakfast together, and they were at work or school for lunch. Dinner was shared in the car from a bag or from a box in front of the TV. The father thought about this and then thought he had never asked much from his son.
The table was small and round and not unique. The chairs matched another table from another house. The boy had been 9 then. He was 11 now and felt like an alien.
The boy moved without advice or instruction, the father thought. When he asked questions, there weren’t answers. Do you think we forget being in our mothers’ bellies because it is so scary? With no way out? How was a father supposed to answer that, the father thought. It was about his mother running off. That’s why the boy asked things like that. He’d say, Some people trick other people just so they can hurt them. He’d say, your mother doesn’t know what she’s missing. The father would hug the son and wish he knew a better way to be.
The boy sat on his chair and took a spoon of cereal. He looked up at the father. The father turned as if there were a noise. The boy ate and watched. Do you want some Trix, he asked.
No, thanks though, the father said. He wished the boy weren’t eating. It was like he wasn’t listening. But the boy didn’t know it was time to listen, he thought.
I’ve talked to some important people about this, the father said. One of them said to tell you as soon as possible. The other said I should wait until you’re older, but they both agreed there wouldn’t be any trouble. They said the courts don’t look too fondly on mothers who run out on their sons. So you don’t have to worry about that, the father said. He put his hands on the table. He laid them splayed out. He was being straight here. You’ll always be with me. No one can keep you from me.
The boy nodded and ate more cereal. The father could tell he wasn’t making much headway. Do you want to stop eating for a minute while I talk, he said.
The son put the spoon down and stared at the cereal.
You haven’t done anything wrong, the father said. I’m sorry you should eat. My growing boy needs his cereal.
But the boy let the spoon alone.
I don’t know how to put this. I know you’re a smart boy. It’s about me. And has nothing to do with you or anything you did. It’s just a change.
The son looked up, and the father thought, I’m losing him here. For a second the father wished his son would have to do something so hard one day, so he’d know what it was like. Then the father felt bad.
So you know that boys like girls, right? And that sometimes boys like boys and girls like girls? And there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s just how it is.
The boy nodded. The father had no reason to, but he assumed his son knew these things. This would make the talk easier on both of them.
Well sometimes, instead, a boy wants girls so much, he likes the way girls are so much, that he wants to be a girl.
The boy stared ahead as if there wasn’t a father sitting across the table.
Well. So, I guess. The father tried again. Well one night your mother decided she wanted to play dress-up. You know like you dress-up for Halloween? It was just like that. But your mother dressed me up like her. She put makeup on me and put one of her dresses on me. I didn’t think it would fit, but it did. I know, it probably sounds silly. The father laughed and gave his son a moment to laugh. But he didn’t.
It was so silly, but it wasn’t. It turned out that I liked it. We did it a few more times and I liked it more every time. When I thought about it, I realized I felt better when we were doing that than any other time. So, now I want to do that all the time. Okay?
Do what? the son asked.
The father set his jaw. He wondered if his son was even listening. It might be better if he weren’t. He could do all this another time and say, Remember, I told you before.
It won’t happen right now, but in a few years, the father said. I want to be a woman all the time. I’ll love you just the same, but I’ll be your mother instead of your father. Do you understand?
The boy didn’t say anything.
This isn’t about you. You didn’t do anything. I told you that already. This is about me. And don’t worry, like I told you, we’ve got some time.
They sat together at the small table. The son watched his father and watched the cereal as it broke down. The bright balls had soaked up most of the milk and turned pallid and fleshy, coming apart at the edges, losing form.
So are you okay, the father asked. What do you think? I’m sorry, the father said. Things are going to be okay. His mouth moved and he chewed on the nothing that was in there.
Justin Burnell is from Appalachian Tennessee by way of New Orleans. Currently, he writes fiction and non-fiction interchangeably in Harlem. He is the Fiction Editor for the New Orleans Review.