Poetry & Prose

Call me your child

Art by Katie Rejito

My mother and father have known about my queerness for about a year now. 

I wrote a letter to my mom about a girl I was seeing at the time: her soft, lilac hair, auburn at the roots; the melodic breeze of her voice as she sang compliments in German to her runt of a tabby cat; that time we sat by an algae infested lake in Arlington Heights and, in an attempt to capture the ripples of the water, painted so many layers of cheap watercolor on multimedia paper that it warped under our brushes; the way that even a whisper of her name made my cheeks flush with the warmth of the sun on an early afternoon. 

The letter was the first mention I had ever made of liking women, despite secretly being in the gay dating scene for six years by that point. When my parents came to visit in March, my mom asked about the girl, but her questions felt thick in the air, suffocating me like the rotten, salty wind of a seaweed-infested beach in Northern California. “How is that person you wrote to me about? What did you do with them on your first date?” It was as if her mind let her skip over the troubling revelation of my sexuality. It smelled like denial and a twinge of hope that I’d only accidentally slipped an “s” in front of the “he” who had asked me out a month prior. I don’t know if she ever told my dad about the letter; he never mentioned it. 

My father noticed my switch in pronouns in the bio of my Instagram account. He posts regular photos of the meals he’s cooked, sketches of sailors’ knots, and birds in bold Sharpie on Post-it Notes and small paperback journals. He likes to tell me every time he sees I’ve posted something new. He pays attention, I guess. As we were waiting in the underground train station near my university, breathing in humid, sour air, my dad brought up the change I had made, curiously and gently asking what my friends call me. I said “they/them” and thought that would be the end of the conversation and a shift in my parents’ perception of me. 

Throughout the rest of my parents’ trip, they called me their daughter. “Aren’t we so lucky to have a daughter like you? She’s the best,” they would coo, and as appreciated as their praise made me feel, it also made me sick. The words coiled in my chest like secondhand smoke, coating the walls of my lungs with a raw sienna residue that caught my breath in its dust. My parents had flown across the country to see me; they cared about me. I knew I should be grateful for them—I was and still am—but a part of me grieves the relationship we could’ve had if I was a cisgender straight woman, if there were no barriers to their understanding of me. 

My mother loves jigsaw puzzles, my father not so much. As my mother leans over the dark dining table she’s cleared off to make room for her new obsession, my father watches a World War II movie on the couch 10 feet away. My mother puts pieces together starting at the edge before moving inward. When she talks to me, I feel she is trying to fill in the middle of my puzzle. She has the outside finished; she knows the facts. I am the product of her and my father, I am 5’7”, I am a student at a university 3,000 miles away from home, and I call her every Friday at 8:30 a.m. EST like clockwork. But she’s placed the remaining pieces upside down. The image is hidden, lying prostrate on the water-stained mahogany, impossible to construct in its current state. In the taupe cardboard backings, she sees the girl she raised. She sees the long black hair she used to cut in our gray-tiled bathroom and the dark shoulders with white stripes, tanned by the summer sun during swim meets. She hears muffled cries hidden in pillows after bad dreams and tip-toed footsteps on the carpet we tore up when I was 10. Concealed to her is the young adult who binds their chest because sometimes their body is too much, the student who doesn’t speak up in class due to a fear of being referred to in the wrong way, the half-baked person who’s gone by four different names over the course of a year because none of them felt quite right, the grown up child sitting in the corner, quietly waiting for their mother to turn over the pieces. My father still faces away, engrossed in his films.

11 months after their visit, I can count on my hands the number of times my parents have used my correct pronouns. Maybe it’s too difficult. Maybe I’m too difficult. They say it’s hard to change, but I’ve never found it all that taxing. It’s as simple as a substitution of words, a nickname of sorts that one learns over the course of practice and correction. But it takes care. It takes willingness.  

I don’t think they mourn their daughter, because they haven’t accepted that she’s gone yet. I know they love her, but I don’t know if they love me.