It feels like 95 degrees in the shade. We’re standing in line at the municipal pool. The mom in front of us has three kids and a tattoo on her cleavage that says “Ivan” or “Juan,” I can’t tell which. My hand moves reflexively toward the “Katy” on my own arm. Before I can solve the mystery of Ivan/Juan, the woman moves on. Now it’s our turn to pay the pasty teen behind the concrete counter.
Once inside, we walk past dilapidated metal bleachers and spread our towels under a giant oak tree. By this time in the summer, we know where to sit to avoid fire ants. This is our Sunday afternoon family ritual: I swim laps while Katy takes our six-year-old son, Waylon, to the recreational side of the pool to play with his neon orange Nerf football.
I always feel like I’m getting away with something.
Why should I get to exercise in peace while my spouse does solo parenting duty? But, despite my qualms, I’m mostly superfluous to their fun. Childhood nearsightedness has left me with a permanent fear of flying objects. Katy, on the other hand, is the child of a football coach. She’s serious about passing on her athletic heritage. Waylon can already send the football soaring in a slow, perfect spiral. Each week she expands his vocabulary to include moves like “stiff arm” and “stripping the ball.”
I try to keep an eye on them from the lap lane. They’re usually easy to spot, because Katy makes dramatic, splashy dives for the ball and then stages elaborate fumbles so that Waylon, his head bobbing a few inches above the water line, can intercept. Before each pass, she feints in seven different directions, her face a cartoon of shifting intentions.
Lots of parents use the pool as cheap day care. A fun, involved parent in the water is like an underwater kid magnet. It’s not unusual to look up and see Katy running for the ball with two or three random kids clinging to her broad back, trying in vain to tackle her.
On this particular Sunday, I was just getting used to the rhythm of my breath in the water when a flash in the shallow end caught my eye. I had to stop, mid-lap, and remove my goggles for a better look.
All her life, before and after chest surgery, Katy has worn a t-shirt in the pool. In the water, the shirt gets loose and heavy, which makes it difficult to swim. Out of the water, the shirt gets cold and clingy, which makes it difficult to relax.
Now, some four years after her surgery, Katy had decided to take off her shirt. The flash was the blinding whiteness of her heretofore unexposed skin. It created a high-contrast canvas for the tattoo across her chest, an image of Siva Shakti, the father-mother deity who represents the transcendence of dualities.
When I saw her bare chest from across the pool, I felt a surge of happiness. I hoped she was feeling comfortable, physically and emotionally.
But, of course, taking off her shirt created a whole new set of conundrums. Once she had revealed her man-chest, she was de facto male at the pool. As a genderqueer dyke, she’s used to funny looks and even belligerent bathroom confrontations, but now the women’s changing room felt completely off-limits. And this isn’t some swanky pool with a gender-neutral “family” restroom. She started changing in the car, even on days when she still wore her shirt in the water.
Last Sunday, the t-shirt was on. A sociable four-year-old named Dylan was watching Katy and Waylon play. Katy was throwing Waylon really high in the air. He shrieked with joy on the ascent and cried “again, Mommy, again,” each time he came up for air.
Before long, Dylan sidled over and asked Katy to throw her up in the air too. Katy sent her to ask her mother, who was reading in the shade. Mom gave the thumbs up, doubtless relieved that someone else was entertaining her child.
Once Dylan had been tossed in the air a few times, Waylon got jealous and wanted to play catch instead. Dylan was too tiny to handle the football, so she turned her attention to the puzzle of Katy’s gender.
“You look like a boy,” she said, smiling.
“Yep,” Katy said, smiling back at her.
“You look like a boy because of your hair…and because you have so many tattoos.”
“Yeah, I do,” Katy answered, still smiling.
“Mommy, Mommy, throw it to me,” Waylon shouted. Katy threw it to him.
When I swam up and Waylon started calling me “Mom” too, Dylan looked like her head was going to explode. Still, she couldn’t tear herself away. She kept swimming to the side and then swimming back and asking to be tossed in the air again. I checked to see if her mother was alarmed that she had attached herself like a barnacle to a tattooed and gender ambiguous personage, but mom appeared to be completely absorbed in her book.
Finally, after several rounds of “just one more time” in the air, it was time for us to leave. We said goodbye to Dylan and told her maybe we’d see her next weekend. Katy and Waylon headed to the car to change. I went to the women’s changing room to rinse my hair in the shower.
Dylan followed me in, her mother close on her heels.
“I just want to see if she’s a boy or a girl!” she shouted.
My immediate thought was thank god Katy’s in the car. This is the kind of scene she dreads. My next thought was what’s going to happen now? I was fascinated that Katy’s illegibility had rendered me illegible as well.
Dylan’s mother, looking mortified, scooped her up just as she reached the showers.
“Oh, she has nail polish, she’s a girl,” Dylan concluded.
I had to smile that my 34A bust is apparently not the most salient aspect of my gender presentation.
Later, I would realize the extent to which privilege was shielding me from fear and shame. I sometimes feel a bit queer in the changing room, but, as a gender-conforming cis woman, I still feel a sense of unconscious entitlement.
Perhaps because I felt safe, and because the whole interaction seemed curious rather than hostile, I wasn’t quite ready to be read. As Dylan’s mother dragged her reluctantly away, I couldn’t help troubling the waters one more time.
“Boys can wear nail polish too!” I said, in my friendliest singsong voice.