Eleana clings to her son’s masculinity. As though his little pee-pee were a sign from God, she fawns over her one-year-old boy. As though his little penis were the sole defining force in his life — and hers… as though his ability to behave as a “real boy” should, indicates her success as a mother… as though all the world would collapse if he didn’t climb up furniture and fall down the stairs and attack other children, Eleana clings for dear life to the idea of her son’s masculinity.
I wouldn’t care, if she didn’t live in the apartment above me. This 20-unit building was built in the 50’s, which means it’s flimsy, pre-fab, and the walls and ceilings are paper-thin. Each weekend, from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and weekday mornings before I go to work, I hear Eleana shrieking “Ryan!”, hear her footsteps galloping across the apartment, hear a thud and a cry, and I know Ryan has climbed onto her hope chest again and tried to fly.
When I bring dates home and we have sex, Eleana avoids my gaze for a week. She complained once about the noise, just after she’d moved in with her son. Before she knew what the source of the noise was, she showed up at my door, bright and early the morning after, asking what all the ruckus was about last night. “If you can’t keep it down after midnight,” she said, “I’ll have to complain to the super.”
My towel-clad date appeared behind me, on her way to the shower, and Eleana’s jaw dropped. She backed away warily, and hustled upstairs with a muttered reminder to keep the noise down, late at night. I started going to my dates’ places for my weekly release.
Then Ryan started to toddle. And explore. And jump. Eleana and her son started to get loud.
I responded with requests of my own — Keep it down, early in the morning. Stop yelling at the top of your lungs. Show a little consideration.
Whenever I confronted her, Eleana would just shrug. “Ryan’s just a boy”, she’d smile. “Boys are like that.”
“I was like that, too,” I said. “And I’m a girl. But I don’t remember the neighbors ever complaining about the noise.”
“Well, you know how boys are,” she quipped, crossing her arms and leaning against the doorway. Behind her, I saw Ryan crawling quickly to the edge of the couch. He climbed up, teetered, and fell to the floor, catching the edge of the coffee table with his head.
He wailed. Eleana turned and rushed to him. I left.
After two weeks of escalating noise from upstairs, I started bringing dates home again.
Lately, she hasn’t said much about the noise. Two years have passed since she moved in above me, and both of us are resigned to the racket each of us creates. She avoids my direct gaze when we pass on the walkway between our units and the laundry room, or when I step over her as she sits on the stairs outside my apartment door, watching Ryan tear up and down the walkway on his tricycle. But I can feel her eyes on my back, and I sense her watching me when I’m working on my car in front of the complex. Once, I turned and waved to her, but she pulled back behind the curtains of her balcony’s sliding glass doors, becoming more cautious in her study of me. So cautious, I rarely catch her staring anymore — but I catch her often enough to know she’s still watching.
I wonder what she must think of me, if she knows what I do with my lovers — and what they do to me — that makes us howl and shriek. I wonder if it gets her hot, listening to us. I wonder if she ever gets envious that I’m getting laid so well and so often… if she ever wonders if I’d do it for her… if she thinks of coming on to me so she can get a piece of the action. I wonder if she reaches down between her legs to ease her solitude, while I bury my face between my date’s thighs, and a moan escapes both our lips. Now and then, when she’s feeling bold or bored or her breath smells like vodka, she flirts openly with me, laughing, giggling, leaning close, brushing up against me, fluttering her eyelashes, touching my arm as she talks. But when I hold her gaze with a direct one of my own, she lowers her eyes and stops talking in mid-sentence. She backs away, puts up her guard, pulls at her dangling earring, tugs Ryan up the stairs to her apartment, and doesn’t came near me again for weeks. Something about her says she wants — maybe it shouts too loud for her to bear.
Maybe she drowns it out with Ryan. He shouts, too — loudly and often. And his bumps and scrapes with himself and other kids, echo through the whole complex. I suspect Eleana encourages Ryan’s destructive streak. She rarely tells him “No” with any insistence. She’s slow to punish his violent outbursts towards other kids, and she’s quick to excuse his habit of breaking their toys. Ryan’s father was killed in a head-on car collision only a month before the boy was born — an accident that took five lives, in all — and Eleana vocally regrets that her son doesn’t have a father figure. She also reminds herself and everyone around that her beloved late husband was a bruiser, too. Just like his son.
“He had his share of bar brawls,” she told me with pride, one Sunday afternoon as she sat on the steps outside my apartment door. That morning, Ryan sent one of the neighbor kids home with a bloody nose and a bent bike wheel.
“So have I,” I said, shrugging. “But when I was a kid, I never trashed other people’s private property.”
She pretended not to hear. She pulled at her earring and called for Ryan to come inside for a snack.
Ryan ran to his mother’s side, hungry for more sugar, and looked up at me with a questioning look. He’d taken to watching me closely, circling cautiously when I sat outside smoking, pretending not to show me his trucks and his trike, pretending not to show off. Ryan had deduced I was a guy, since he’d never seen evidence to the contrary, and I’d heard him ask his mom a couple of times, “Is that a boy or a girl?” Eleana had assured him each time that I was a girl, but he still didn’t seem to believe her. Now, as his mother watched with a measure of ill-concealed trepidation, he picked up his new cement truck and walked towards me, shy and hungry for approval. Eleana grabbed him by the wrist and took the truck from him, whispering something getting that snack now. His gaze fixed on the row of newly planted marigolds beneath my window sill, and he twisted free of her grasp, making a beeline to tear the flowers out by their roots.
Eleana giggled and shook her head. “What can you do?” Murmuring baby talk, she coaxed the blossoms out of his hands, mewing “No, no, baby…” When he shoved a handful of dirt into his mouth, she carried him bodily upstairs, kicking and screaming and almost breaking loose.
Watching Ryan wreak havoc with the apartment complex, day after day, listening to Eleana sing his rambunctious praises to no end while she keeps him at a “safe” distance from me, I often think about my own childhood, wild and as full of trouble and broken bones and stitches as any boy’s. I think about the emergency room nurses who got to know me personally — especially the strapping head nurse my parents first mistook for a man. She never wore a dress like the other nurses, and she addressed my parents with such authority, they at first assumed she was a doctor. She and I hit it off well, and she never clucked her tongue at my injuries, like the other nurses did. She admired the number and the grandiosity of my scars. Her own hands and forearms were tracked with faint scar tissue, too, and over the course of my ER-punctuated childhood, she told me the story behind each one of them.
She made my parents uncomfortable. She put my mind at ease.
Watching Eleana’s grimy-faced little man of a son put his neighbors on the defensive, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be Ryan — to have that driving, aggressive, adventurous side of you encouraged and excused and praised at every turn… to encounter no objections that you’ve mussed your clothing, no complaints that you’ve created an unladylike mess in the basement with your tools and your makeshift chemistry set, no dismay that you’ve injured yourself again, no chagrin that you’re not being “a little lady”. I wonder what it would be like, to be expected to raise holy hell and terrorize girls and run shirtless through a mischievous day… To have that side of you recognized and approved of, even if it does cause others pain. Even if it doesn’t cooperate. To bask in the glow of approval of your conquests, not endure the discomfited silence of adults who secretly admire your bravissimo, yet can’t find permission or context in their view of male-or-female that allows them to express their admiration — or even recognize it. To automatically belong, rather than having to buck the system with every word, every deed, every look, every piece of clothing pulled on for comfort, not coquetting. To have the system fit itself to you, to have the world tailor itself to your inclinations, your whims, your tendencies, your outbursts, not the endless, relentless other way around. To have your parents not fidget and turn their faces away in embarrassment, but make light of your crimes, excuse your infractions, and have all society make love to your felonies in word and song and movie and book. I wonder what it would be like to have the daring, dangerous sides of you encouraged and accentuated by fawning women. To be clapped on the back by the men for just being who you are.
I wonder what it would be like, to be trained to fight the dragon, instead of being tied to a stake and expected to be its willing sacrifice.
I wonder what it would be like to be Ryan.
“He’s such a little man,” Eleana proclaims with glee. She’s right outside my living room window talking to the super-intendent’s wife, who stopped to admire Ryan on her way to the laundry room. “He climbs and jumps and gets into everything.” As I slide my window shut, Eleana says louder, “You can really tell he’s a boy.”
She tells her about his scaling the armoire earlier that day… how he almost pulled the entertainment center down on himself last weekend. She tells her about his new sneakers and sweatsuit and how cute everybody thinks he looks.
“Sometimes I wish I had a little girl, too,” she says in a confidential tone. “Somebody to dress up and primp with, someone to share outfits and secrets and fantasies about boys.”
The super’s wife murmurs sympa-thetically.
“But I wouldn’t trade my Ryan for anything or anybody,” she says, picking him up with a grunt. He whines and struggles in her arms until she has to let him down.
“Boys!” she sighs.
“He’s so sweet,” the super’s wife coos. “So handsome.”
“He just got his hair cut,” Eleana says, tousling his fiery carrot-top. “He looks just like his daddy.”
Outside my living room window, a small crowd is gathering. This weekend, my neighbors have out-of-town guests, and they stop to talk to Eleana and coo over Ryan as they all cross paths outside my apartment. “He’s beautiful,” they say. “Such a little man.” They have a young girl with them and make jokes about fixing her up with Ryan. “He’s a little gentleman!” they exclaim, admiring his sweatsuit and sneakers. They call him “Mr. Right” and promise the little girl that she’ll have a beautiful wedding someday, when she finds the perfect man. A man like Ryan is sure to be. “Ryan’s’ adorable,” they say, tousling his red curls. “Just look at him.”
“That’s right,” they tell the little girl. “Give Ryan a kiss.”
I snatch my keys from their hook beside the door and grab my leather jacket. They’re serving quarter drafts at the dyke bar downtown, and I need a good game of pool. As I step out the door, the cluster of matchmakers blocks the sidewalk between me and my car. I consider taking the long way around, then change my mind. I wade through their midst, unnoticed, unseen. Eleana is crouched beside her son, her arm tightly around him.
My date sits bolt upright in bed, exclaiming, “What the hell is that?”
I roll over and throw my arm around her waist. “Just the neighbor’s boy.”
Another crash thunders through the ceiling, and I hear Eleana hollering at the top of her voice. Footsteps pound across the apartment, a door slams, then silence. After a minute, I hear weeping coming from the back bedroom, and the sliding glass door upstairs glides open, then shut. It’s early for this — barely 6:30 on Monday morning. Still an hour remains before I have to get dressed for work.
Upstairs in Ryan’s room, I hear more crashes and thumps. The boy’s wails are more deliberate, with a spiteful edge in his voice. The sliding glass door upstairs opens and closes, and Eleana stomps to her son’s room. More thumps and yelling and wails at ambulance pitch.
We’re both silent, until the crescendo passes and only quiet crying can be heard.
“I’ll bet she wishes she had a girl,” says my date, turning to me and brushing the hair from my eyes. She tugs at my nightshirt and reaches under it to pinch my nipple.
“I’ll bet she does,” I breathe and lean into her kiss.