I meet Madeline for the first time sitting across from my mother’s boyfriend, Matt, on a blustery day in March. The windows are shuttered tight against the powerful Midwest wind; the room in which we sit dark and cluttered. My mother perches at Matt’s side, rubbing his arm reassuringly. My sister kneels at my feet, her pale face bent up towards the two expectantly.
“There’s something Matt needs to tell you, girls.” My mother’s voice is always soft, something I assume she has gained from so many hours of meditation.
My sister licks her chapped lips, turns abruptly to Matt. “Yes? A surprise?”
I shake my head. Look down at my hands, folded awkwardly into my lap. I realize I am sitting like a concerned mother and instantly throw my hands up and away. They land on the armrests, my fingers splayed unnaturally wide.
“Okay, just tell us,” I exclaim, finding myself suddenly exasperated. Secrets. Not my forte.
Matt glances at my mother, receives the slightest of nods. Smiling self-consciously, he turns back to my sister and me.
He holds his hand out towards me and says, “Hello, I’m Madeline.”
My mother tells me she cannot do it. She cannot date a woman – she just wasn’t wired that way. She tells me that my theory of universal innate bisexuality is wrong, says she is the exception. Though she was in love with Matt, she is not, cannot, be in love with Madeline.
“Friends. That’s what we will be. Very, very good friends. And I’m going to help her, be by her side throughout the entire transition. She needs us right now. Especially because her children won’t accept her, not when they find out.”
Her lips are pressed together firmly. She’s trying to convince herself that this can work. Friends. They can be friends.
I think to myself, My theory is not wrong.
A mere week later, she’s changed her mind.
“Madeline and I will be staying together after all. It will be difficult and I can’t promise anything about the future. But I do love her. She is the same person as Matt. And I fell in love with Matt two years ago.”
I reach out to hug my mother, pat her on the head much as I do my dog.
“This doesn’t mean your theory is right, Liz,” she says to me. The corners of her mouth twitch, a chuckle escapes.
How odd. One day you’re dating a man, completely oblivious to any secret inclination he might harbor of being a female. And then, suddenly you find yourself at the local H&M with him, now a blossoming, though still closeted, her, in search of the ideal pencil skirt.
I take my mother and Madeline shopping, give them the ultimate experience. I find myself thrilled at the prospect of helping Matt develop into Madeline. We sift through racks together eagerly; I pile blouses, jeans, dresses up on her arm. I instruct her on the rules of dress as we go, worried she might fall into a fashion faux pas if I’m not there to guide her.
At the counter, the dreadlocked clerk shows us her pointy white incisors. “These are some great picks. I’m sure they’ll look awesome on her,” she says to the blushing Matt, not realizing it is Madeline she is addressing.
“Would you like them gift-wrapped?” she asks.
Jerk of the head from Madeline. We are silent as we leave the monstrously white store.
For the first couple of months, Madeline won’t go out dressed up, terrified that someone will recognize her and word will get out that he is actually a she. So instead, my mother and Madeline stay in most nights, holed up in the living room watching old episodes of West Wing. Sometimes I bring them ice cream from our favorite gourmet shop. Sometimes I sit with them and play endless rounds of Bubbleshooter on my laptop. Mostly, though, I just watch.
New books start appearing around the house. Books with names like Transgender 101 stamped across their glossy covers. My mother and Madeline read these books thoroughly and quickly – for them it’s almost like an addiction. It’s a race to see who can consume the most information the fastest. Because, in a situation like this, it seems one can never know enough.
My mother learns to share the bathroom mirror with Madeline.
I teach Madeline how to apply concealer, foundation, mascara, eyeliner, blush, all the little powders and potions she’s always dreamed of using. I teach her to curl her eyelashes without crimping them and how to paint her nails evenly.
The first time I pluck her eyebrows, she squeals in pain.
“Fuck!” It sounds odd coming out of her mouth in her newly developed voice. “Is this necessary?”
I level my gaze with hers, smirk. “You want to be a lady, don’t you?”
She nods sheepishly and balls her hands up into tight fists, appearing to prepare herself for the inevitable pain of womanhood.
“Baby,” I mumble, zoning in on a particularly thick eyebrow hair. Point, trap, yank.
Madeline discovers there is a place for girls like her.
Every Wednesday night, she traipses out to the local gay bar for “Ladies’ Night Out”. She dresses herself carefully on these nights, often enlisting my help in selecting her outfit. She puts her makeup on slowly, paying the utmost attention to detail, spending hours in front of the mirror. On Wednesday nights from five to ten, Madeline gets to live.
One night in August, she takes my sister and me with her.
My mother, who has already been a few times before, introduces us to all the ladies. There is a woman who runs a radio show dedicated to transgender people in the Kansas City area. She demands I take her shopping sometime, insists that we must be friends. Another woman, well into her sixties, is clad in a leather bustier top and a mini skirt. Her face is heavily made up, fake lashes bat up and down furiously as she speaks. Her voice is gravelly and she smells distinctly of stale cigarette smoke.
I decide to go back every week.
In late October, my mother drives up to my grandmother’s nursing home. Over pulpy cafeteria food, surrounded by the gray faces of the disintegrating elderly, my mother tells my grandmother about Madeline.
“I know you may not understand. Really, how could you? The world in which you grew up is so different from the world we know today. And today, society still doesn’t understand. Society still stares and whispers. But I thought you should know.” My mother finishes her speech and leans back in her metal folding chair.
My grandmother takes a deep breath, closes her eyes momentarily. When she opens them she settles them on my mother’s face, scrutinizes her.
Then, “I’m not comfortable with Madeline coming with you to visit me. Nor Matt. Neither is welcome here.”
My mother blinks three times in rapid succession. She takes a deep breath and pushes back from the table decisively. She leaves the nursing home with deep creases in her brow.
When I return home for Thanksgiving break, we go out for dinner as a family. Madeline gets to wear a sweater dress and heels while she dines on campanelle pasta at a restaurant populated by more than just a handful of unobtrusive humans. She gets to reapply her lipstick in the Ladies’ Room mirror, gets to blot at it with a square of perfumed tissue paper. She gets to giggle girlishly and flutter her freshly manicured hands in the air.
No one stares. There are no eyes following us for the entirety of the meal. There is no gaping, no whispering. Madeline gets to exist as any other female out with her family.
As we leave the restaurant, tucking ourselves back into heavy, multi-layered winter coats, she grabs my mother’s hand and squeezes it.
Mary (Liz) Wiens is an English and creative writing student at the University of Iowa. Writing is her passion and she hopes someday, someone will want to read the words she strings together.