I was born twice: once, as a baby girl, at 4.53 a.m. on a remarkably unpolluted Detroit day in 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in the offices of our family physician, Dr Arnold Philobosian, in 1976. Some of you more specialized readers may have come across me in Dr Peter Luce’s influential study, ‘Gender Identity Among Pseudohermaphrodites with 5 Alpha-reductase Deficiency’, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume seventy-three. Or maybe you’ve seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That’s me on page 578, arms akimbo, in unflattering light, standing next to the height chart with a black box covering my face.
My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Victoria Tatakis. My friends call me Cal or Callie. I’m not a biological freak. I’m a former cheerleader and varsity center, lifelong Henry James enthusiast, long-standing member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation and currently embattled tenor in the First Presbyterian Church choir. I’ve had my heart broken three times, twice by women. I’ve attempted to learn a variety of musical instruments without success. I love my mother, Sophie, mourn my father, Milton, and—unfortunately I have to stress this—have never felt anything other than human.
But now, just past twenty-nine, I feel one more birth coming on. It started a few months ago: my maleness, always iffy, became more so. Next I started getting oracular. I’ve begun hearing things through the plumbing, for instance. Presences are making themselves known to me, speaking in Greek and broken English. I’m not sure what it is. But after decades of ancestral silence suddenly I find myself in touch with departed great-aunts and uncles, with long-lost great-grandfathers, with unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, with all those things in one. And so before I transform again I want to get it down for good, this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time: how it bloomed a century-and-a-half ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped; how it was passed down through sixteen generations, gathering invisibly within the small, polluted pool until the first double-recessive appeared—not me but my precursor—whereupon Providence (in the guise of a massacre) sent the gene flying again, blown like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own midwestern womb. I’m sorry if I get a little purple sometimes. That’s genetic too. It’s not the style of choice in the Journal of Endocrinology. But it’ll have to do.
Three months before I was born, in the aftermath of one of our elaborate Sunday dinners, my grandmother Desdemona ordered my eldest brother to go get her silkworm box. Theo was coming out of our living room, examining a vacuum tube he’d just removed from our Admiral radio, when she collared him. Desdemona was standing in the kitchen doorway, blocking what by the sound of it was a great time going on inside. Behind her all the women in our extended family, from great-aunts to regular aunts right down to girl cousins, were in full voice, talking and laughing. At sixty-eight my grandmother’s body was pretty much designed to block doorways from view, and Theo went up on tiptoes to see over her hairnet. But Desdemona reached out and pinched his cheek, bringing him back to earth. While he rubbed his smarting face, she sketched a rectangle in the air and pointed at the ceiling. Then, through her ill-fitting dentures, she enunciated one of her all-purpose English words: ‘Go.’
Theo knew what to do. He ran up the formal front staircase, grabbed the stepladder from the closet and positioned it in the middle of the upstairs hallway. Climbing up, he took hold of a thin chain that hung down from the ceiling. With a creak, the trapdoor opened. He unfolded its three sections until they met the floor and then climbed up through the hole into the darkness where my grandparents lived. He moved beneath the twelve birdcages suspended from the rafters. He immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in my grandparents’ own particular aroma, a mixture of cinnamon, dust, luggage and exile. He negotiated his way past my grandfather’s ancient phonograph, his stack of unlabeled bouzouki records and, finally, bumping into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found my grandparents’ bed. He crawled underneath and searched for the heavy olive-wood box. When he found it, he crawled backwards, dragging the box out. Looking to see that no one was watching, not even the parakeets in their covered cages, he opened the lid. It was too dark to see much. An icy blueness glittered up at him, as though the box were filled with nothing but broken light bulbs. One of the birds squawked, making Theo jump. He closed the box and, risking no further investigation, carried it down the ladder and down the stairs to Desdemona.
She was still waiting in the doorway. She took the silkworm box out of his hands and turned back into the kitchen. At this point Theo was granted a view of the room, where everyone now fell silent, gripping each other, containing themselves. As Desdemona crossed the floor, the circle of women parted to reveal, right in the center of the linoleum, my mother. Sophie Tatakis was seated on one of our chrome-and-yellow-vinyl kitchen chairs with her legs apart. She was still wearing her church clothes. Under her dress was what appeared to be a beach ball. Desdemona handed the silkworm box to her daughter Lucille and opened the lid. She felt around in all the objects Theo hadn’t been able to see, and came up at last with a silver spoon. She tied a piece of string to the spoon’s handle. Then, stooping forward, she dangled the spoon over my mother’s swollen belly. And, by extension, over me.
Up until this point Desdemona had a perfect record: twenty-three correct guesses. She’d known that Aunt Helen was going to be Aunt Helen. She’d predicted the sex of both my brothers and nearly all the Tatakis children except her own, it being bad luck for a mother to stare into the mysteries of her own womb. Fearlessly, however, she stared into my mother’s. After some initial hesitation, the spoon swung north to south, which meant that I would be a boy.
Splay-legged in the chair, my mother tried to smile. She didn’t want another boy. She had two boys already. She’d been so certain that I’d be a girl, in fact, that she’d only picked out a girl’s name for me—Calliope. But when my grandmother shouted in Greek, ‘A boy!’, the cry went around the room and out into the hall and across the hall into the living room where the men were arguing politics. And my mother, by hearing it repeated so many times, began to believe that it might be true.
As soon as the cry reached my father, however, he marched into the kitchen to tell his mother that, this time at least, her spoon was wrong. ‘And how you know so much?’ Desdemona asked him. To which he replied what any American of his generation would have: ‘It’s science, Ma.’
It was no surprise to anyone that Milt and Sophie were hoping for a girl. The sole reason they’d begun to discuss having another kid in the first place (initially just the two of them but then, our family being the hydra it was, the other ninety-eight mouths putting in their opinions) was with the hope of producing a daughter. Theo and Nick were, at that point, nine and five years old, respectively. They’d recently BB-gunned their first squirrel, hanging its corpse from the cherry tree in triumph. They hurled novelty-store rubber vomit across the table during family meals. In such a masculine household Sophie had begun to feel like the odd woman out and, extrapolating this trend, saw herself in five years’ time imprisoned in a world of hubcaps and hernias. My mother envisioned a daughter as a counter-insurgent: a fellow lover of lapdogs, a seconder of proposals to attend the Ice Capades. Her situation must have been like that of the last living member of a sect. She had wisdom to impart, about cosmetics, child-rearing, the proper way to steam facial pores, cooking, sewing, stain-removal. In the spring of 1959, when discussions of my fertilization got underway, my mother couldn’t foresee that women would soon be burning their brassieres by the thousand. Hers were padded, stiff, fire-retardant. As much as Sophie loved her sons, she knew there were certain things she’d never be able to share with them, things she could only share with a daughter.
My father wanted a daughter too. Driving to work in the mornings, he was visited at stoplights by the vision of a little girl who sat on the seat beside him, directing questions up at his patient, all-knowing ear. My prototype was only a vague conception, a pink doll. She would call him ‘Daddy’. She would dance with him at weddings, standing on his shoes. She would grow up and marry someone who could never replace him. So pleasant were these daydreams that my father, a man loaded with initiative, decided to see what he could do to turn his dream into reality.
Thus: for some time now, in the living room where the men discussed politics, they’d also been discussing the speed of sperm. My great-uncle Pete, the chiropractor, who’d read the Great Books twice, was looked upon as a medical authority. One Sunday, drinking Pepsi to help with his digestion (it got its name from pepsin, the digestive enzyme, he sagely told us), he conducted a seminar on the reproductive timetable. In his wine-dark suit showing a white sail of pocket handkerchief, Uncle Pete explained to the assembled restaurant owners, insurance salesmen and fur finishers that, under the microscope, sperm carrying male chromosomes had been observed to swim faster than those carrying female chromosomes. Peter Aristos didn’t lower his voice when he said the word ‘sperm’ but actually amplified it, there in our nicely painted living room, in accordance with his free-thinking ideals. Some men winced. Others grinned and elbowed each other. My father adopted the pose of his favorite piece of sculpture, The Thinker’, a miniature of which sat just across the room on his green desk blotter. Chin on fist, he calculated the import of what Uncle Pete was saying. Though the topic had been brought up in the open-forum atmosphere of those post-prandial Sundays, a time of reasoned debate and gentle burping, it was clear that, notwithstanding the impersonal tone of the discussion, the sperm they were talking about were my father’s. Uncle Pete made it clear: to have a girl baby, a couple should ‘have sexual congress twenty-four hours prior to ovulation’. That way the swift male sperm would rush in and die off. The female sperm, sluggish but more reliable, would arrive just as the egg drops.
My father had trouble persuading my mother to go along with the scheme. Sophie Pappas had been a virgin when she married Milton Tatakis at the age of nineteen. Their long engagement, which coincided roughly with the Second World War, had been a chaste affair. My mother was proud of the way she’d managed to kindle and snuff my father’s flame simultaneously, keeping him at a low burn for the duration of a global cataclysm. This didn’t seem so difficult, however, seeing as she was in Detroit, while he was on a submarine chaser in the middle of the Pacific. For four long years Sophie lit candles at the Greek church for the safety of her fiancé, while he, Milton, gazed at her many photographs pinned over his bunk. He liked to pose Sophie in the manner of the movie magazines, standing sideways, one high heel raised on a step, an expanse of black stocking visible, her upper torso twisting toward the camera to offer a frontal view of her laughing, happy face. My mother looks surprisingly pliable in those shots, as though she liked nothing better than to have her man in uniform arrange her against the porches and lamp-posts of their humble neighborhood. My father called her ‘Rita’ after Rita Hayworth, but most of the similarity came from her hairstyle. Beneath her teased bangs, my mother’s face revealed itself as unremittingly Greek, the long nose, the dark deep-set eyes, the handsome, masculine chin. Those pictures always depressed me, not just the ones of my mother but of my other female relatives too, her sisters and cousins, all of them trying to look like Hollywood stars or, failing that, like all-American girls, and looking like neither.
She didn’t surrender until after Japan had. Then, from their wedding night onward (according to what Theo told my covered ears), my parents made love regularly and unashamedly whenever they were in the mood or Father Jim blessed them. When it came to having children, however, my mother had her own theory, less scientific and more spiritual. It was her belief that an embryo could sense the amount of love with which it had been created. For this reason, my father’s suggestion didn’t sit well with her. ‘I can’t just do it like clockwork, Milt,’ she said.
‘There’s no other way. Uncle Pete explained it to us.’
‘Is that what you men talk about in there? Honestly, Milt, my getting pregnant is no one else’s business but mine.’
‘You’ve got two kinds of sperm, see, the male sperm and the female. And the male sperms are faster.’
‘I don’t want to hear it.’
‘I thought you wanted a daughter.’
‘Well, this is how we can get one.’
Sophie didn’t buy the theory. For a number of reasons. The idea struck her as quackery, for one thing. Even though Uncle Pete could quote famous authors, what did he know about having babies? He’d never even been married. He lived alone in a bachelor apartment out in Birmingham. He ate his meals out. He hadn’t even had a girlfriend that my mother could remember. He spent all his time with his nose in a book. ‘Please,’ my mother said, ‘if you want to tell me how I can have a daughter, at least ask somebody who knows what’s what.’
Her other objection was on religious grounds. It didn’t seem right, in fact it seemed a piece of the grossest hubris, to tamper with something as mysterious and miraculous as the birth of a child. Sophie didn’t believe you could do it, and, if you could, she didn’t believe you should try. ‘Father Jim said it’s OK,’ my father answered. ‘We can time the thing any way we want.’ Then, authoritatively: ‘There’s nothing in the Bible against it.’ In response to this pretense of biblical scholarship, my mother squinted up her heavily mascara-ed eyes. Her deepest spiritual beliefs were in most cases pre-literate. They’d filtered into her as a child, from breathing the incense at church. Now, in her maturity, she based most of her decisions not on what Father Jim might say but on the far more reliable authority of what she knew to be true in her ‘heart of hearts’. The women in my family tend to be Delphic when it comes to religion. Just as the Oracle held her young face over intoxicating sulphur fumes, so my mother and grandmother held their faces over steaming pots of pilafi, coming up with answers to the questions of life and death. Sometimes these were mysterious and needed interpretation, as when Desdemona had said on arriving in America, ‘A hat never fits the same head twice.’ Sometimes they were clear and unmistakable, as in the kitchen that day when my mother said, ‘God decides what a baby is. Not us.’
Of course a narrator in my position at the time (pre-fetal) can’t be entirely sure about any of this. And I have to admit that, in my experience, my parents weren’t exactly keen about discussing sex, their own or anyone else’s. I can only explain the scientific mania that overtook my father during that spring of 1959 as a symptom of the belief in progress that was infecting everyone at the time (everyone, that is, except Desdemona, who like an obstinate Vatican still refused to recognize the existence of Turkey or condone the diaphragm). Remember: Sputnik had been launched only two years earlier. Polio, which had kept my parents quarantined indoors during the winters of their childhood, had been conquered by the Salk vaccine. People had no idea that viruses were cleverer than human beings, and thought they’d soon be a thing of the past. In that optimistic, post-war America, which I caught the tail-end of, everybody was the master of her or his own destiny. I think my father got a little Promethean. I think he liked the idea of manipulating procreation. Anyway, with this overview in mind, with a rocket trail shimmering in the background, let me conjure my parents for you in the next scene that family history has brought down to me. This happened about two weeks after my father first broached the idea to my mother. In the interim they hadn’t spoken of it once. Then one day my father brought home a present.
It was spring, and the plants in our sun room were reviving. My mother had put my brothers to bed. It was nine o’clock, and dark out. My father had been working late. When his car came up the drive, his headlights pierced the window panes, lighting up the family photo on the mantel: mother, father, son, son.
My mother heard the engine quit and went to meet my father at the side door. He came in, smiling, hand behind his back, bouquet-style. After they kissed, he brought the hand out. In it was a jewelry box, gift-wrapped.
‘It’s not my birthday,’ Sophie said.
‘It’s not our anniversary.’
‘Go on. Open it.’
Sophie removed the wrapping without tearing it. She folded the paper, saving it in the pocket of her housedress. Then she lifted the lid off the box and looked at her present.
It was a thermometer.
‘Martinis,’ my father said.
He led her by the elbow to one of the matching love seats in our living room. At that time my mother hadn’t yet grown skeptical of the presents my father gave her. This was before she found another woman’s initials stitched into the lining of a supposedly new mink coat, or the faintly engraved tribute: to my little slice, from henry on the inside of a silver-anniversary ring. So she kept an open mind about the thermometer, which certainly didn’t look like your normal, run-of-the-mill thermometer, and she waited for an explanation, smiling. Before giving one, Milton went to the bar to make the drinks.
‘Is this real velvet in this case?’ my mother asked.
‘You bet,’ said my father, dropping ice into the cocktail shaker.
‘And it works? For real?’
‘Sure, it works. I wouldn’t give you a thermometer that didn’t work, would I?’ To punctuate this rhetorical question, Milton added two jiggers of gin and a thimbleful of vermouth to the shaker and shook.
‘But Milt,’ my mother ventured, still looking down at the thermometer, not ungratefully but mystified nonetheless, ‘why are you giving me a thermometer?’
A full, two-handed shake, shoulders rumba-ing back and forth, and then my father lifted the cocktail shaker, undid the cap and poured the first of two martinis. ‘We got any olives, hon?’
‘Should be some there from yesterday.’
‘Are these OK? Don’t they go bad?’
‘Not in a day.’
‘I thought you were supposed to keep olives in the refrigerator.’
‘I do keep them in the refrigerator,’ my mother said, looking away from the thermometer for the first time. ‘But, if I remember, you brought two friends home from work last night, unexpectedly. And I had to fix the drinks. And that’s when the olives came out of the refrigerator. And then I had to go make dinner. And while I was making dinner for you and your friends, I forgot to put the olives back.’
‘They smell fine,’ my father said quickly. ‘They’re perfect.’ To prove this, he ate one, rolling his eyes with pleasure, and then dropped one into each of the drinks.
When he brought hers over, my mother took a sip, closed her eyes and said, ‘This is going to go straight to my head.’ She put the thermometer into the glass like a swizzle stick. She stabbed the olive with it, brought it to her mouth and ate it.
‘Look close,’ said my father. ‘What’s different about this thermometer?’ He gave her a second. ‘Look on the side, at the markings. I had a helluva time finding one of these. Not because of the velvet. Because of how precise this thing is. Look. It reads the temperature down to a tenth of a degree.’ Eyebrows raised, he went on: ‘Not two tenths, like a normal thermometer, a tenth. Put it in your mouth.’ My mother obeyed. My father sipped his martini. She tried to sip hers too, through the unoccupied corner of her mouth, but he motioned her not to. After about a minute, he took the thermometer out of Sophie’s mouth and removed his glasses to study the markings. Then he announced: ‘Your temperature, right now, sitting on the living-room sofa, is ninety-eight-point-seven-and-a-half degrees. I’m estimating the half.’
Suitably agog, my mother took the thermometer back, shaking her head and letting her mouth fall open. Milton said, ‘Your body temperature’s changing all the time, Soph. You may not notice it, but it does. You’re in constant flux, temperature-wise. Say, for instance,’ a little cough, ‘you happen to be ovulating. Then your temperature goes up. Six tenths of a degree, in most case scenarios. Now,’ my father went on, gaining steam, not noticing that his wife was no longer smiling, ‘if we were to implement the system we talked about the other day—just for instance, say—what you’d do is, first, establish your normal base temperature. It might not be ninety-eight-point-six. Everybody’s a little different. That’s something I learned from Uncle Pete. Anyway once you’ve established your normal base temperature, then you look for that six-tenth-degree rise. And that’s when, if we were to go through with this, we’d know to, you know, hypothetically, mix the cocktail.’ Handing the thermometer back to my mother, my father raised his glass in a toast.
My mother didn’t join him. Instead she put the thermometer, still wet, back into the box, closed it and pushed it across the coffee table.
‘OK,’ he said, ‘fine. Suit yourself. We may get another boy. Number three. But if that’s the way you want it, that’s the way it’ll be.’
‘I’m not so sure we’re going to have anything at the moment,’ replied my mother. And they finished their drinks in silence.
While I (as impatiently as a non-being can) hovered in limbo. Not even a gleam in my father’s eye yet (he was staring gloomily into his glass). Now my mother gets up from the inaptly named love seat. She heads for the stairway, holding a hand to her forehead, and the likelihood of my ever coming to be seems more and more remote. Then my father gets up to make his rounds, turning out lights, locking doors. Then, as he climbs the stairway, there’s hope for me again. The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am. Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection. My conception was still weeks away, but already my parents had begun their slow collision into each other. In our upstairs hallway, the Acropolis night light is burning, a gift from Uncle Yiannis who owns a souvenir store. My mother is at her vanity when my father enters the bedroom. With two fingers she rubs Noxema into her face, wiping it off with a tissue. My father only had to say an affectionate word, and she would’ve forgiven him. Not me but somebody like me might have been made that night. An infinite number of possible selves crowded the threshold, me among them but with no guaranteed ticket, the hours moving slowly, the planets in heaven circling at their usual pace, weather coming into it too, because my mother was afraid of thunderstorms and would’ve cuddled against my father had it rained that night. But no, clear skies held out, as did my parents’ stubbornness. The bedroom light went out. They stayed on their own sides of the bed. At last, from my mother, ‘Night.’ And from my father, ‘See you in the morning.’ The moments that led up to me fell into place as though decreed. Which is why, I guess, I think about them so much.
The following Sunday my mother took Desdemona and my brothers to church. My father never went, having become an apostate at the age of thirteen over the outrageous price of votive candles. Likewise Desdemona’s husband, my papou Stavros, preferred to spend his Sundays (as well as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, not to mention the occasional Friday afternoon) at the casino on Belle Isle where he played the roulette wheel. So, during the two-and-a-half-hour service, with my brothers playing paper, scissors, rock on one side, and Desdemona crossing herself more or less continually on the other, my mother had some time to think. Overhead, way way up past the incense and the lights, the Christ Pantocrator arched over the cathedral’s dome. In terms of sheer arresting size, the Christ Pantocrator had an effect akin to a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And that’s not even to mention the added theological or emotional weight the figure conveyed. Our Christ Pantocrator was curved like the dome of heaven, or like space itself. Unlike the suffering, earthbound Christs depicted at eye-level on the church walls (like Santa Clauses at Christmas, one on every corner ringing the same sad bell), our Christ Pantocrator was clearly transcendent, all-powerful, heaven-bestriding. He was reaching down to the apostles done in mosaic above the altar—but also, by extension, reaching down to Sophie—to present the four rolled-up sheepskins of the gospels. My mother’s face, looking up for guidance, was lit by oil lamps hanging out of nowhere, their long chains disappearing into the smoke they gave off. Two six-foot candles flamed on either side of the pulpit, and all twelve tiers of the central chandelier blazed. ‘I don’t know what to do about this thermometer business,’ Sophie said silently to the grave, water-stained face above. ‘On the one hand, it seems sacrilegious. On the other hand, what’s so bad about a husband and wife trying to have a daughter if they love each other? Between you and me I don’t think it’ll work anyway. Milt’s always got some crazy idea. Like the time he tried to raise those chinchillas and they all got out and about a year later we found one in the basement practically starved to death. But I want a daughter. I really do.’ So, in my imagination, did my mother pray that day, and—uncap your yellow highlighter—I need to point out that her anxiety about the thermometer was already well established and was, therefore, already growing into the guilt that would later stand between us when I accused Sophie of believing that my condition was a divine punishment.
At coffee hour after mass Sophie left my brothers by the cookie table while she went to compliment the priest on his sermon. She never failed to compliment the priest on his sermon. He happened to be her brother-in-law. She found Father Jim surrounded by a pack of widows offering him home-baked koulouri and bathing in his beatific essence. This essence consisted primarily in Father Jim’s perfect contentment at being only five foot four. ‘Hello, Sophie,’ he said sweetly when she came up and, before she could even respond, declined any more koulouri with a wave of his hand. ‘Excuse me, ladies,’ he said, and led Sophie away. At the other end of the room, he folded his hands and inclined his head, asking in a delicate, confidential voice, ‘So, Sophie, how are things at home?’ But my mother didn’t take the bait. She didn’t ask about the legality of plotting a baby’s gender. She rebelled at all these people knowing about what she and Milton did in the privacy of their own bedroom. Certain aspects of that activity she didn’t even want Milton himself to know and so she was strict about lights. My mother was dressed that day (I’m taking an educated guess) in her cream-colored dress with the scalloped hem that resembled a theater curtain. Two strands of imitation pearls hung around her neck, amid the gold brooches, the lapis lazuli pins, the rather immense Orthodox cross, also gold. Over all this, a short yellow jacket hung, matching her handbag. Just then, however, she turned abruptly away. (This part I have no doubt about.) During the years it was my privilege to observe my mother’s startling personal radar, a beacon which issued not from her third eye but a little lower down, from the horizontal wrinkle at the bridge of her nose, I came to take for granted Sophie’s ability to find a lost shoe under the couch, or to shut windows five minutes before it rained, or to know what any of us was thinking by merely looking into our eyes. Now, in the church basement, without seeing more than that Theo and Nick were standing on either side of a pretty little girl in a green jumper, my mother already foresaw the oncoming catastrophe enough to cry out, ‘Watch, watch!’ . . . five seconds before Nick, trying to pull the girl’s hair ribbon, succeeded in knocking over the coffee urn. The lid went rattling across the floor. Coffee grounds spilt out. Hot coffee too. As my mother rushed across the basement, she saw coffee splash against the green jumper, and the girl’s eyes open wide. Her mouth opened too, but no sound came out. With a gesture as swift as her premonition, my mother gathered the girl up and, fixing Nick with a furious eyebrow, swept into the ladies room.
The girl, whose name no one remembers, didn’t belong to any of the regular parishioners. She wasn’t even Greek. She appeared at church that one day and was never seen again. Nobody remembers who her parents were. The girl seems to have existed for the sole purpose of changing my mother’s mind and, seeing as I like being alive, I thank her. My mother took her into a toilet stall, lifting her on top of a lowered seat. The jumper had two shoulder straps which buttoned in back. Letting the jumper fall away, my mother pulled the girl out. Her T-shirt steamed a little, like meat from a lobster claw. Underneath, her damp skin was mottled like a lobster’s too. She stood very still as my mother pressed cool paper towels over her chest. ‘Are you OK, honey? Did you get burned?’
‘He’s very clumsy, that boy,’ the girl said.
‘I think we got you out of these clothes just in time. Where’s your mother?’
The girl shrugged. Sophie told her to wait right there while she rinsed out the jumper. At the sink, she heard the girl begin singing to herself, alone in the stall, standing on top of the toilet. Sophie held the jumper under the faucet, listening. After a while the girl abruptly stopped. ‘It doesn’t take that long to rinse out a dress,’ she said informatively.
Two weeks later. A humid June, 1959: my parents playing doubles at the Grosse Pointe Country Club. My father, in tennis whites, looks as swarthy as Poncho Gonzales. My mother hits the ball gingerly, protecting her hairdo. Tonight, after the match, my parents are dining with their hosts, Bob and Gerri McKinnon, in the club’s stately dining room. Now, on the court, my father grunts, mis-hitting a return. ‘Good show!’ he shouts, for the hundredth time. McKinnon prepares to serve another. He dips his knees, at the same time tossing the ball into the air. The ball rises over the court, over McKinnon’s sandy hair. It rises beyond the golf course, above the trees. At the net, Gerri waits, smiling. Her blonde hair is held back in a pink elastic. The ball descends, McKinnon rising, his racket, lazily dropped over one shoulder, ascending as his arm straightens out. With the easy form he learned at boarding school, perfected in college and has maintained into middle age, he whacks the ball over the net, into the service square, past my father’s feet. My father lays his racket down on the court and applauds.
On this day in June my father is about to close a deal with Bob McKinnon’s bank. Only a few details remain to be ironed out. After the match, in the locker room, Bob will order drinks. They’ll sit in their towels, watching golf on the old television on top of the lockers. Around them, naked, soft-bellied executives will extract one of six combs from the Barbisol and carefully part their hair. They’ll talk, they’ll sip. ‘No sense rushing upstairs just to wait for the girls,’ Bob’ll say. Over his Manhattan, which he doesn’t like but orders from the black, bow-tied waiter because Bob does, my father will move in for the kill. ‘Some game today, Bob! You were really firing in those serves! I wish you’d give me a lesson. Now, about that Southland deal, I was just going over some of the numbers . . . ’
Behind the court, the sun is falling. The sky is turning pink. There is a pink dot on my mother’s hair where hairspray reflects the sunlight. Near the court surface, clay dust blurs everyone’s shins, but up above, in the clear late afternoon light, their faces appear distinct, happy, still young. In immaculate socks Bob McKinnon serves out the last game. At the net Gerri smiles, holding her racket like a weapon. One more serve, the sun falling, the sprinkler system kicking on across the immensity of green golf course, and then it’ll be time for drinks, for dinner, possibly the suggestion, from Bob, that he’ll put Milt and Sophie up for membership. The running around is almost over, and the filet mignon is on the way. But then suddenly my mother calls out, ‘Just a minute!’ She goes to the bench at the side of the court. She rifles through her bag.
‘That a new racket, Bob?’ my father asks.
‘No, Milt, same one as always.’
‘You’re really firing them in!’ My father checks to see what the hell my mother is doing. She’s still bending over the bench. ‘Come on, Soph! One more point!’ Then to the McKinnons: ‘She’s just trying to rattle you.’
Now my mother comes back on to the court. But she has something in her mouth, nothing in her hand. ‘Sophie, your racket,’ my father says, a little impatient.
‘Mil,’ my mother mutters, barely opening her mouth, ‘I’m up two tense.’
‘My tempacha. Two tense.’ She pauses. ‘I tinkis time.’
She’s talking funny because she has the thermometer in her mouth. This is the first my father has heard of it. She didn’t tell him she’d decided to go along.
‘Now?’ he says. ‘Jesus, Sophie, are you sure?’
‘No, I’m not sure,’ she says, taking the thermometer out and checking it again, squinting in the failing light. ‘I don’t understand this stuff, Milt. You told me to watch for any rise in my temperature, and I’m telling you I’m up two tenths of a degree. And it’s been thirteen days since my last you-know-what.’
‘Forty-love,’ Bob calls out. He pantomimes a serve. My father looks over the net, at Bob, at the other courts beyond, at the golf course beyond that. He also sees, rising over the country club, in a little golden dream balloon, the little girl of his morning commute. ‘Your match, Bob, Gerri,’ he calls out. ‘Sophie just reminded me. We’ve got a little family obligation. Nothing serious. We promised the kids we’d take them to a movie.’
At home, half-clad in tennis whites, they accomplish the act. A child’s natural decorum makes me refrain from imagining the scene in too much detail. Only this: when they’re done, as if hammering in the final nail, my father says, ‘That should do it.’ It turns out, he’s right. In July Sophie learns that she’s pregnant, and the waiting begins.
By six weeks, I have eyes and ears. By seven, nostrils, even lips. My genitals begin to form. Fetal hormones, taking chromosomal cues, inhibit this structure, promote that. My twenty-three paired chromosomes have linked up and crossed over, spinning their own roulette wheel, as Stavros puts his hand to my mother’s belly and says, ‘Lucky three!’ Arrayed in their regiments, my genes carry out their orders. All except two, a pair of miscreants, or revolutionaries—depending on your view—hiding out on chromosome number five. Together, they siphon off an enzyme which stops the production of a certain hormone which complicates my life.
In the living room the men have stopped talking about politics and instead lay bets as to whether Milt’s new kid will be a boy or a girl. My father is confident. Twenty-four hours after the deed was done, my mother’s body temperature rose another four tenths, confirming the moment of ovulation. The male sperm had given up by then, exhausted. The female sperm, like tortoises, win the race. At the time of that last reading, my mother was fresh from a hot bath, but Milton insisted there was no connection. (At which point Sophie handed him the thermometer and told him she never wanted to see it again.)
All this leads up to the day Desdemona dangled a utensil over my mother’s belly. The sonogram didn’t exist at the time; the spoon was the next best thing. Desdemona crouched. The kitchen grew silent. The older women bit their lower lips. The American girls giggled and pinched themselves in order to stop. It was amazing how mystifying a spoon could be. For the first minute it didn’t move at all. Desdemona didn’t have the steadiest hand and at one point told Lucille to hold her wrist. The spoon twirled; I kicked; my mother cried out. And then, slowly, moved by a wind no one felt, in that unearthly Ouija-board way, the silver spoon began to move, to swing, at first in a small circle, but each orbit growing more elliptical until it flattened out completely into a straight line pointing from oven to banquette. North to south, in other words. Desdemona cried, ‘Koros!’ And the room erupted with shouts of ‘koros, koros’.
That night, my father said, ‘Twenty-three in a row means she’s bound for a fall. This time, she’s wrong. Trust me.’
‘I don’t mind if it’s a boy,’ my mother said. ‘I really don’t. As long as he’s healthy, ten fingers, ten toes, that’s all I ask.’
‘What’s this “it”? That’s my daughter you’re talking about. That’s my little Calliope.’
‘I hope so, Milt. But either way, I’ll be happy.’
Then my mother bled. She thought she was having a miscarriage. My father came home one day to find her sprawled on the couch, weeping. To comfort her, he said, ‘Don’t worry. We can have another one.’
‘I don’t want another one!’ my mother said. ‘I want this one!’
It turned out not to be serious. In fact, my mother took encouragement from the bleeding once it had stopped. Aunt Mathilda said that if a pregnancy differed from those before, it meant that you were carrying a baby of a different sex. My father, who condemned Desdemona’s superstitions, supported this one.
On 8 March 1960 I was born. In the waiting room, supplied only with pink-ribboned cigars, my father shouted: ‘Bingo!’ I was a girl. Nineteen inches long. Seven pounds, four ounces. My discharge weight was three ounces less than my birth weight, a loss which is maybe normal, or indicative of the trauma of entering the world, or both.
One other thing happened at 4:53 a.m., however, and it wasn’t good. My grandfather Stavros suffered the first of his thirteen strokes. Awakened by my parents rushing off to the hospital, he’d gotten out of bed and gone downstairs to make himself a cup of coffee. An hour later, Desdemona found him lying stricken on the kitchen floor. His mental faculties remained intact but that morning, as I let out my first cry at Detroit Women’s Hospital, Stavros lost the ability to speak. According to Desdemona, who’s a fairly unreliable witness, Stavros collapsed right after overturning his coffee cup to read his fortune in the grounds. She saved the saucer, her first clue, maintaining later that the muddy swirl predicted everything.
The following Sunday Uncle Pete wouldn’t accept any congratulations. There was no magic involved. ‘Besides,’ he joked, ‘Milt did all the work.’ Desdemona took the news a little hard. Her American-born son had been proven right and, with this fresh defeat, the old country, in which she still tried to live despite being five thousand miles and thirty-eight years away, receded one more notch. My arrival marked the end of her baby-guessing, and though the silkworm box reappeared now and then, the spoon was no longer among its treasures.
I was extracted, spanked and hosed off, in that order. They wrapped me in a blanket and put me on display among six other infants, four boys, two girls, all of them, unlike me, correctly tagged. This can’t be true but I remember it: sparks slowly filling a dark screen.
Someone had switched on my eyes.
‘The Speed of Sperm’ is taken from Jeffrey Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex.
Photograph © James St John