Jennie became Jake when he was four years old, but the psychologist tells us the first thing to understand is he’s always been a boy. It’s true that when we tried to put him in little dresses, from the age of one or two he always screamed and cried. It’s true too that since I’ve been buying him boxers instead of panties, keeping his hair short, he’s happier. These seem to me like such small things but the psychologist says that to Jake they are magnificent. And when I call him in from playing—when I call him Jake—he glows.
Because we have two other boys people ask us were we trying for a girl. It’s a rude question but all the ruder because yes, we were. At the ultrasound my husband and I both teared up. I sewed those little dresses myself when I was pregnant, resting the flowered fabric on my belly, sitting so far back in the old brown chair my husband had to yank me out. The boys were two and four then, and so loud, but even with their hollering we were serene, dreaming of our girl to come.
My husband is a quiet man. Our first two devils put him off. They take after my side: athletic, strong sharp chins. Our oldest has trouble regulating the volume of his voice. He’s always asking obvious questions too loud in quiet movies. Complaining about restaurant food in earshot of the chef. It embarrasses my husband even more than me. He blushes, hisses for the kid to shut his mouth. Meanwhile our middle boy is off the wall. Can’t stay still for thirty seconds. Putting him to sleep I have to pat his back over an hour. Round and round and round, soothing him still.
We named the baby Jennie for my husband’s mother, who died eight days before I met him. It was March in the park, now fifteen years ago. A warm day that cooled as the sun sank. I was underdressed, tossing a Frisbee with friends. He was lying on the grass alone, pretending not to watch me. A book lay open on his chest unread. I let my skirt fly up for him to see. When my friends left I sat down beside him. He told me about his mother dying. He was afraid that would be too much. It wasn’t too much for me.
I often wonder how it would have been had I met him when he wasn’t weak with grief. According to his siblings I would not have liked his mom. The elder Jennie was a hypochondriac. Always played the victim. I don’t have much patience for women like that. But you can’t argue with a dead mother, not to her favorite boy. He wanted to name our baby after her. How could I refuse?
When our new Jennie was born I could tell he loved her in a different way from how he loved our other two. Different from how he loved me. He lay beside her while she slept. Bought her little toys. I’d come into the kitchen and he’d have set her on the counter in her little bouncing seat. I’d stand in the doorway and listen to him sing to her. I was a little jealous, I’ll admit. He never treated me with that kind of tenderness. He treats me like a guidance counselor, to be frank.
Jennie became Jake over years of moments. Some have been transcendent. I’ve watched my child become himself before my eyes. I’ve admired his poise and grit. I’ve wished I knew myself as well at thirty as he did at four. Other moments have been ugly. Jake’s the youngest, and he’s small. He takes after my husband: slim shoulders, sweet red mouth. I’ve tried to raise his older brothers well, but they’re cruel boys. They seem to feel boyhood is a finite resource, and now that Jake is taking his share there’s less to go around. They call him unrepeatable names. Pummel him hard in the dirt out back. Press pillows over his little face until I worry he’ll suffocate. Fights after lights-out have become a nightly ritual.
Not that we’re blameless. Despite the violence we were relieved when we realized the three of them could share a room. We redecorated Jennie’s old bedroom. It’s a TV room now. I like to say when Jake transitioned, his room transitioned too.
We were in there the other night watching a nature program when we heard the boys’ nightly shrieking. It was my husband’s turn to break up the brawl. He got up grumbling, leaving me to consider the flamboyant glory of the hummingbird. How beauty is so valuable in male birds, so relatively irrelevant in human men. How that seems unfair somehow. To be frank I was a little stoned. The bird flapped, a slow motion sunset. Minutes went by without a peep from down the hall. At last I lumbered up and went to check on them.
My husband was standing over Jake, poised to bring a pillow down upon his wincing child. Jake was kneeling on the bed, face contorted, streaming silent tears. My husband’s expression was a fearsome, vindictive grimace, something like grief, something like rage. The older two were standing in the corner, watching with electrified anticipation.
I rushed in and got between my husband and my youngest boy. I rushed Jake out of the room and held him tight. He tried to break free. Let go of me! he yelled. My husband stumbled out as if waking from a dream. He muttered that I was overreacting, but he didn’t meet my eyes. When Jake’s thin arms lashed out at him through mine, my husband turned away. Let me go! my Jake insisted. Let me fight him! I want to fight! His tears wet my sleeves. He bit me—hard—but I held him harder. He is still small enough to hold.
Rachel Lyon’s short stories have appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, and Saint Ann’s Review, among other publications; her first novel, Self-Portrait with Boy, is forthcoming with Scribner in February 2018. Rachel teaches for Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, and the Ditmas Writers Workshop, and is a cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit. Visit her at www.rachellyon.work.