The Folklore Project
Maybe She Was
By Jacob Melvin
“She wasn’t born a woman.”
That was the reply to my 3-year-old daughter who asked why everyone was staring. We were eating at the food court of a dying mall in Birmingham, Alabama. My family, in typical fashion, ordered meals from three different restaurants. I tried to focus on the pizza in front of me, grease penetrating thin paper. My wife wore the baby (another girl) on her hip and picked through starch and carbs in her stir fry like an archeologist. My daughter, who recently watched a television special on farm animals, made a nose ring out of a French fry and kept whispering “hey” across the booth. I’d look up, say “that’s a bunch of bull,” and she’d laugh so fully that I ignored the smashed fry residue blanketing her side of the table.
We would’ve gone on like this for a while, and my wife would’ve tolerated it because this was as close to having a son as I’d ever get. However, there was a commotion near the Häagen-Dazs. A teenage boy apparently accepted a dare from his friends, who then chanted his name as he walked past us. He wore a black hoodie with blue stripes and a matching flat-bill hat that somehow stayed in place above the gelled black hair that stuck out like grill-brush bristles. It seemed as if everyone stopped to watch the aggressive stalking toward unclear prey; clinking forks and coughing grandpas froze in anticipation.
I’d recently seen a prank on television where a young man strolled down a suburban sidewalk, dropped an empty suitcase to the ground, and immediately ran away. One person noticed and ran in the opposite direction, which created a chain reaction of dozens of people zigzagging through yards and side streets. While they attempted to escape the menacing bag or the mob mentality that arose from unknown terror, the perpetrator stood behind a nearby shrub with his brother and filmed. Frenzies were easy, especially in public places.
“Daddy, what is he doing?” Even my daughter felt the room turn as the boy continued on his seemingly arduous path. He was a tightrope walker, occasionally dodging distraction or obstacle, but on a certain trajectory. His friends laughed and narrated from their booth, awaiting the moment when he’d back out of the task they’d given. He didn’t, although he did stop abruptly. We waited for the payoff, the climax. He pivoted to face us, raised his phone, and took a selfie.
Suddenly, his shoulders fell forward as if he’d been hit from behind. Maybe it was clumsiness, or maybe he was pushed. The phone fell to the floor, but he scooped it up and smirked. As he jogged off, gesturing to his gleeful friends that they had to pay up, the subject of his picture emerged from behind.
“Did you see that?” My wife’s outrage was genuine. We were liberal in the ways that mattered, preaching love and acceptance to our onerous children. Yet we were also Southern, meaning we were often too polite to share our virtues aloud.
“He took it just to make fun of her.”
My daughter looked at me, eyebrows uneven. “Why?”
“Well,” I said, but trailed off. It felt too complicated. “She wasn’t born a woman.”
That was good enough for her, somehow. She was normally torturous with her inquisitions. “Okay.”
Across the food court, the woman remained at a table for two. There was only one chair. Perhaps she’d moved the other before sitting down. Leg room was needed. Her knees rested underneath the tabletop in the same way that our baby’s legs sometimes pressed against a high-chair tray. Baby legs. I thought about how quickly my daughters grew, and how people could be judgmental based on hand-me-down wear and tear. We were constantly cycling through shoes. Perhaps that’s why I became fixated on the woman’s feet, which looked too big for her high heels. She seemed to spill out of them. I thought about the way my mother finally put her wedding ring in a drawer and forced herself into her high school jeans. She stood in the doorway of her bedroom with the zipper undone and wept for two hours. The idea was there, but it wasn’t a fit.
I squeezed my wife’s hand three times. It was our way of saying I love you, or I feel you, or this experience isn’t lost on me. “Looks like this is her first time in public.”
She bit her bottom lip and squeezed back. “The mall takes guts.”
In that moment I felt an urge to rise. “I want to tell her that.”
It wasn’t like me to interfere with life’s arc, yet I found myself walking the teenager’s course to her table. Most people in the mall had phones, laptops, or company to keep them occupied. Yet she only observed her own white-knuckled hands gripping the plastic tray in front of her. I approached quietly, hoping my presence would necessitate eye contact, but she continued staring downward.
“Excuse me,” I said, surprising myself. Was I uninviting? It sounded more like an apology than a call to attention.
Shaking her head quickly, it seemed as if I’d woken her from a daydream. When she looked up, she reached for her coarse bangs, almost tracing their place in the symmetrical line above her eyebrows. “Yes?”
I looked at her, looked down, and then found her again. Eye contact always seemed hard to hold with lovers and strangers alike, but maybe I picked the wrong moment to look away. Maybe I was worried about something. “I just wanted to say that you’re brave.” I glanced at my wife, my comfort zone, who was smiling some 30 feet away. “I just wanted to say that you’re beautiful.”
“Yeah?” She kept her squinting eyes on me, expressionless. If I could see her forehead through the golden broom of bangs, I’d guess there was a wrinkle. It felt like a study; a game of chicken or a search for truth. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said, finally smiling. I realized that I’d been holding my breath while awaiting her reply. “Because you are.”
“Well,” she said, opening her hands. The insides were smooth and shiny. “You want to fuck me?”
I don’t know if I said anything. What I do know is that I laughed. It wasn’t a real laugh, but it was something that resembled a laugh. Maybe it was a shriek. I jerked my body around unnaturally. Then, I walked over to my family, smiled, and abruptly sat down. “Are we ready to go?”
“Sure.” My wife juggled the diaper bag and the baby while I occupied myself by cleaning our other daughter’s face. “But aren’t you going to tell me what she said?”
I thought about it. Maybe she said stop being a fraud, or stop working through your own bravery with me as a test subject. Maybe she asked who really needed the validation. “She said thanks.”
Within five minutes we were shopping again, and within an hour we headed home. My wife was pleased with my gesture, my support. Somewhere deep down, she felt she’d chosen a decent man. Still, I couldn’t forget the expression of the woman in the food court. I thought about the conversation and my reaction. I relived her words. That could’ve been her way of expressing gratitude, and who gets to judge how someone shows appreciation? Even if it wasn’t gratitude, what exactly did I think I deserved? Why should I have been thanked? I was the one interrupting a life, just like the teenager did before. I was the one who put myself in the middle of someone else’s day, and then retreated when I didn’t get the response I felt I was owed. Nothing was owed. I wanted to make a statement about being OK with the idea that she wasn’t born a woman, and I was wrong.
Because maybe she was.