She Wants It
Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy
Copyright © 2018 Jill SolowayISBN: 978-1-101-90474-9
All rights reserved.
Are You Sitting Down?
Before the phone call, it was an ordinary Sunday. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my youngest son, Felix. It was one of those bleary-eyed mornings when you wonder when you will ever be able to sleep until ten again.
The answer, by the way, is never. Okay fine, when they’re eight they can get themselves up, pour their own cereal, watch cartoons on their own, and you can sleep. Except you can’t, because you’re half-awake in a shame spiral about what a shitty mom you are because you’re letting your kid watch so much TV. Again.
Getting old is this: you have a kid or two, and now you never sleep, you only ever get an imitation of sleep, something sleep-like, and this ages you. That’s why people who live in nursing homes have thin hair and sad eyes instead of thick hair and bright eyes like the young people who get enough sleep. This lack of sleep will leave you with a depleted immune system, and when your kid goes to preschool they will bring home a million diseases and you will get sick, and then you will keep getting sick. Then one day you will realize that you have been sick for six weeks and then six months, and that the feeling that used to feel like a “light cold” is now just what it feels like to be alive. This will keep happening until you are old, actually old, and then you will die.
Even though my son Felix was only three years old on this particular Sunday morning, I knew the age that kids turn self-sufficient because I have an older son named Isaac who was in high school. When Isaac was twelve, I’d been silly enough to do it all over again, to get married and then pregnant and jump back into this utter foolishness. At the tender age of Oh Hell No, I’d reset the clock to zero and had a baby at a time when some rural folk become grammaws. It was on this morning, when I was really feeling my grammaw age, that Felix had come schluffling into our room at the crack of dawn. I poked at Bruce, begging.
Hun? Hun? Hun?
I got to bed late last night, honey; can it be your turn this morning?
You get to bed late every night, honey, but okay, fine, I’M UP I’M UP I’M UP here we go--wait, don’t turn on that light--it hurts Mommy’s eyes--yes, I’ve got blankie and husky dog--
Felix and I went downstairs. I put on Dora and hid under a blanket and tried to sleep. But my brain was already buzzbuzzbuzz so we went to the kitchen, and I did what I’d learned years before with Isaac to pass the hours between five and eight a.m., when time moves at one-quarter speed: I poured a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and we rolled calls on speakerphone. I started on the East Coast because the hour would be only vaguely ungodly there.
I expected my sister, Faith, to be up. Faith has a daughter, and sometimes over double FaceTime and double cereal we let the kids have at it while we flatten into a joyful, unconscious state of being. When Faith and I are in the same room--or even the same Skype window--we are in heaven, instantly freed of obligations. Our jaws unhinge and all filters lift; we stop watching closely and recording slights like we do with the rest of the world. We go back to our original sister selves--that is, one-half of the perfect circle of love we invented together when we were kids.
In our childhood home, Faith and I were the only happy couple in sight. Our parents zoomed off into their own tunnels of distraction. My mom’s tunnel was the civil rights movement and my dad’s tunnel was a melancholy one: he was a workaholic anesthesiologist who later became a workaholic psychiatrist. This gave Faith and me plenty of time to lie on the floor on our tummies, doodling on our parents’ vinyl copies of the cast recordings of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and improvising inappropriate songs on the piano. We invented worlds and sometimes plays that we shared with other kids, but mostly we were the protagonists, Faith and Jill Superstar, and we were happy, laughing and in love with each other. Our two puzzle pieces made up one complete person. While our parents slept back to back with miles between them, Faith and I spooned sweatily for ten hours a night. There was a moment when our mom moved us into separate rooms (at our request), but on night two, Faith raced down the hallway and back to my bed.
When Faith and I got bored with each other inside the house, which was almost never, we ventured outside to organize the neighborhood children into semi-professional, wildly successful theatrical productions. Faith and I and a gaggle of other kids in dirty fur-lined-hooded jackets mounted our own version of The Wizard of Oz with tickets for five cents for the neighbors and pizza parties afterward that felt like East Village nights out, except we were eight.
Faith and I had a short, year-long rough patch during high school when she was a band nerd and I was into lip gloss, but soon after we snapped back into best-friend formation and shared a mind. After college we moved into an apartment on the Gold Coast in Chicago with our best friend, Robin. It was a two-bedroom so we let Robin have the single room and Faith and I shared. Yes, as adults we still enjoyed sharing a bedroom. At least we had two single beds.
During that time in Chicago we dated each other pretty much exclusively. We would go to the sets at Second City, which were after-show free improv sessions where our community was all of the soon-to-be-famous men.
We started a theater company and put on plays with our gangs of compatriot creatives. It was just like when we were little, except that People magazine would write about us occasionally. The taste of fame pulled us west, and in our early twenties, we moved to L.A. and broke into show business as the Soloway Sisters.
One day, Faith fell in love with someone other than me; she came out as a lesbian and declared her love to a woman named Harlie. I stayed a straightbian and tilted toward artsiness and weed. Faith escaped to Boston where she became a teacher, anti-bullying expert, and folk music heroine. We longed for each other mightily but somehow understood that our love was too strong to allow for either one of us to have real relationships with anyone else, and that it was probably best that we live in separate cities. We still shared a conjoined psycho-spiritual system, where we found ourselves changing in tandem ways throughout our life.
But on this particular Sunday morning, Faith wasn’t answering the phone. Felix and I tried Grandma next, but she must have been out and about. She still lives in Chicago and wakes up to write as early as four-thirty or five. My mom has published a number of books and has a blog presence, as well as a knack for going through my social media feeds trolling for her own fans. if you like jill soloway, you’ll love elaine soloway! is written on an imaginary sandwich board my mother wears around town. As annoying as it is to hear a woman who just turned eighty announcing her number of “likes” when we’re waiting in line to see a movie, I believe that it is her unstoppable need for attention synthesized into an astonishingly propulsive ambition that is my greatest inheritance.
When we were growing up, my mom was the press aide for Mayor Jane Byrne and the director of communications for the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. Our dining room table was never a dining room table; it was always a desk with stacks of cute mod wire inboxes, meticulously organized stationery, and a red IBM Selectric typewriter. Its click-clacking was the hot beating heart of our house. My mom was the editor of a newsletter for our neighborhood. Our neighborhood was a developer’s dream about integration, a New Town called South Commons. New Towns were planned cities meant to redistribute people of color from crowded inner cities and white people from the suburbs into one midcentury modern utopian life. Revolution was everywhere, the ERA and the Black Panthers, Jewish folks and black folks linking arms.
My mom’s newsletter was called the Commons Commentary. She stitched it together with her tiny hands and rubber cement that you could roll into little brown balls while you watched her work. With rub-on transfer sheets of letters that you burnished onto the page, she described our world to itself. Once a week, Faith and I dragged a red wagon filled with her newsletters and went door-to-door. In it was a brilliant little comedic column she wrote called “Adam’s Rib,” which was a cross between Erma Bombeck and Joan Didion.
My mom had evolved over the years into a pretty tough-ass little grandma. She even has a tattoo. Like any good Jewish mom, it’s of her kids’ names. Sadly, the biker heart on her bicep that says Faith across the top and Jill across the bottom often gets her mistaken for a Faith Hill superfan.
Since Elaine was already out and about, we were left with Grandpa. He was usually home at that hour, not exactly the “getting out” type. Grandpa Harry also lived in Chicago and was saddled with a pervasive melancholy not uncommon among Jewish men of his generation. The kind of guy who, if it started to lightly drizzle outside, would raise both arms to the sky like Tevye and cry out, “Why me?!”
Growing up, I’d had a hard time understanding my dad, and a harder time getting along with him. When Faith and I were kids, he was either hiding out, depressed, or working. We spent most of our lives swerving out of his lane to let him pass. I remember his long working hours, getting home grumpy, the drawn curtains, the Don’t wake your father, the Oh shit, I think you woke your father, rages followed by tearful apologies.
After Faith and I left home, he and my mom got divorced. She let him go, and it was easy enough for us to let him go too, because this is what we had always done. Faith and I got chosen for Mom’s team, supplying all of her lovey-dovey needs. Our dad skipped his turn to pick.
When they were married, my mom never said, “Honey, you seem wildly depressed and in a bubble.” She never said, “Hey, babe, come out of your room and be with us.” She just gathered up me and my sister and put on Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda and Phyllis and made popcorn.
Over the years, Dad and I were mostly distant but had recently had found our way into an easygoing détente of benign weather talk. It was in that spirit that Felix and I dialed. I put the phone on speaker, like I always do. Felix ate his cereal, and my dad, the six-foot-tall Jewish bear, said, “Hi, Jilly,” just like he always did.
We talked for a few minutes, and then I asked how his weekend went. My dad said he had gone to a holiday party, and I asked, “Whose party?”
He said, “Do you really want to know?”
And I said, “Of course.”
And he said: “Jilly? Are you sitting down?”
I realized that if I needed to be sitting down that I should probably turn off speakerphone so Felix wouldn’t hear. Both of my parents could be counted on to casually blurt out a report of a shotgun-to-the-head death of someone on the news, a local kidnapping or Amber Alert, or the description of a bowel movement. “Kids in the room!” I have to say.
“Are you sitting down?” means something fucked up is coming.
I looked at Felix, snatched the phone off the table, clicked off the speaker, and held it to my ear.
“Jilly?” my dad said. “I’m coming out to you. I’m trans.”
His voice was gentle. Wait, did I hear that right? My chest opened then caved. Rocket launch, then fast hollow quiet.
“Um, Dad, I love you, um, could ya--could ya--hold on one second?” I marshaled Felix to the TV room, put on Dinosaur Train, raced back to the kitchen table, and sat down, face-palming and sweating as I took in everything.
My dad started by telling me about a group called Chi Chapter that he’d been part of for years, a support group that sometimes had conferences. I googled it as we spoke, maybe the Internet could help me understand. I encountered a website with strong Angelfire vibes, Victor/Victoria clip art graphics, and descriptions of daylong boat events called FantaSea. I looked for sense in the images. Looked for signs of my father there.
He told me about a Hyatt in the Chicago suburbs where the girls (what girls?) would get rooms, change into femme clothes, then head to the restaurant for Caesar salads and Chardonnay. All of these people did this in secret, most were married and straight, and I wasn’t really getting it. Married and straight men dressing up? He gabbed on excitedly while I dropped in and out, listening and googling and spinning. There was a nice woman at Nordstrom, he said, who had been helping him pick outfits for years. Nordstrom? Did I remember him going to Nordstrom? But now he was on to another story, this one about his friend Kim, who had ended up in jail, charged with prostitution, just for driving home from an event dressed en femme. Jail?
That morning I thought my dad was telling me about his odd hobby, but now I know that he was introducing me to a woman who had been living in our house my entire childhood. I had the wrong pronouns then and have only some of the right pronouns now but will use the wrong ones so you can see how wrong I had it.
I had been so in the dark that I thought my dad was joking.
Even though my brain was trying to jump out of my skull through the back of my neck, I knew to listen and be present, to speak with reassuring words: “I hope you know that I love you forever unconditionally, and I will always love you.”
There was also some part of me that knew I would be making this into something. The feeling was undeniable. Not simply that this could be a movie or a show or a something, but that it would be a movie or a show or a something. An artistic knowing cracked through everything that had come before. This was part of my story, and I was going to tell it.