An excerpt from
Old Music for New People
Zaxy stuffed the last of a hot dog into his mouth, then came skipping across the concourse, chewing with what I guess you’d call gusto, mixing in strange little hops and jumps along the way. As he approached us, he managed to swallow that last bite, then said, “He’s coming. He’s here!”
I clicked out of my e-book, pounded through the half cup of Dr. Pepper I had left, then stood up and slid my Kindle back into the cargo pocket of my shorts. We all followed Zaxy as he bounced back to the window.
“All right everyone,” said Daddy, “remember to be inclusive and supportive and whatever else makes sense.”
Our parents had not told us we were going to have a summer-long visitor until the night before that visitor arrived. We’d already been at our vacation house, Casa Cielo, a full two weeks. Once again, I’d gotten over my frustration about being taken away from summer softball competition. My older brother, Delmore, had found new ways to kind of be a jerk, and Zaxy had his sailing lessons. Already, Zaxy seemed happy enough as part of the mob of summer vacation kids that forms up there in Maine every year—a mob I’d once been a part of, and Del before me. Of course, for Zax it would be a much different experience. There is no one else in the world like my little brother Zachary Dean Scattergood.
And if you’re wondering, I think it’s okay being a girl trapped between two brothers. You learn a lot about boys that way. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. In fact, that summer I learned a lot about boys and girls—maybe more than your average fifteen year-old learns, but not exactly in the way you might think.
Passengers began coming through the red security doors.
“Will we recognize him?” I asked.
“Just look for the only male wearing pink shoes,” Del murmured, “and a purple bow tie.”
We watched as travelers entered the terminal waiting area in little groups, wheeling and lugging carry-on bags. It occurred to me that it was odd we’d all come for this pick up. Usually, Daddy chose just one of us to keep him company collecting visitors.
They kept popping out of the red doors—a mom and two little kids; a businessman; some touristy-looking couples with camera bags and cylindrical fishing rod carriers (these people were very loud, like they’d been drinking); a pretty young woman with surprisingly beautiful, somewhat frizzy hair, wearing a bit too much makeup; another woman, in her sixties, looking lost and confused. Maybe someone she’d expected wasn’t there for her.
A few more people straggled out in batches. Then nothing.
“Where is he?” said Zax.
Daddy checked his phone to see if he’d gotten a message from Uncle Edward. He looked up again at the doors and leaned on a railing. A few minutes later another family came out, and right behind them a woman pushing a little kid in a stroller. Maybe a minute after that, a man came hurrying through the red doors, then another man, more waddling than walking. Then nothing again. We just stood there.
“What’s happened to Robert?” Zaxy asked.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “Should I call Uncle Edward?” He stared at his phone like it might be magical.
Just then, the flight attendants came through the door. Mom stopped them and asked if there were any more passengers still coming off. They said nope, the only people left were the pilots and cleanup crew.
We were all a bit confused. We turned to head back to the main part of the building. The pretty young woman with frizzy hair and too much makeup leaned against the wall across from the waiting area.
She was rather tall and thin, and really quite beautiful in an interesting way, but I did not like that makeup. Her hair fell to her shoulders. Sunlight flashed in its brownish color, making it glint with a milky gold shine that even seemed to flick red a little. Something was up with her. For someone so attractive, she didn’t seem to be very comfortable with her body. Maybe her blouse and jacket didn’t quite fit. It was hard to tell.
She raised a hand and smiled. “Hey, Scattergood family.” Her voice was strained, like it didn’t know what to do with itself. “If you’re looking for Robert you’re not going to find him.”
“I’m sorry,” said Daddy, “do you know my nephew?”
She giggled and chuckled at the same time, then shook her head knowingly. I turned to look at Delmore. His mouth had dropped wide open. He seemed frozen in place. Mom had her eyes closed, pointing her face toward the ceiling, shaking her head back and forth.
“Did you travel with Robert?” Daddy asked.
She chuckled again, then pushed off from her lean against the wall and took the several steps across the waiting area to us. Sticking out her hand, she said, “My name is now Rita Gomez. I had the name Robert when my father put me on the red-eye last night in San Diego. But I turned into Rita after we left Pittsburgh just before they served coffee and tea. I hope you don’t mind.”
She still had her hand out for Daddy to shake. I noticed how long those fingers were. My father had now assumed the exact same expression as his oldest son, Delmore. Neither of them seemed able to move. They just stared at this person with slightly open mouths and buggy, unblinking eyes.
We could have dealt with this situation in many ways. I like to think we’re pretty good as a group when things get weird. Was this person really Robert? I got the implication if it was a practical joke. But it could also be a serious problem that we were going to have to deal with for a long, long summer. Still, Robert could have been kidnapped and this was an elaborate ruse to hide the fact that he was being held against his will. He was, after all, the child of a somewhat famous scientist.
I looked at this person as carefully as I could, trying not to be obvious. I couldn’t see any facial hair, but her hands really were oversized. And even though she was wearing women’s high-heeled shoes, those feet stuffed in were much larger than the shoes seemed to want.
Everything added up. I tried peering into her eyes. The makeup seemed as well applied as that on any girl’s face at Cliveden Friends School, where we all went. Could a boy really have accomplished that, even if it was overdone? I knew I couldn’t, and I was an actual girl—well, not in the way a lot of people think, but still.
My older brother and my father were now breathing through their noses in a funny way. They looked ridiculous—like they’d been punched or something. Mom continued gazing all over the place except at this person standing right in front of us. I was really worried the wrong thing was going to come out of someone’s mouth.
Finally, I just stepped in front of Daddy, looked up at this person who was definitely a lot taller than me, and took her hand to shake. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Ivy. You’re freaking us out.”
The hand I held had long bones and weird young muscles. I wanted to let go and jump away. But that would have been mean, and quite stupid. I go to a Quaker Friends school, I kept thinking. I’m trained for this kind of thing.
“Hi Ivy,” she said, with a big happy smile. “I remember you. I’m Rita.”
“But you were Robert when we were little, right?”
“Well,” she said as she let go of my hand and hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder. “I was kind of Robert back that one time you visited. I didn’t want to be. I know you all thought I was weird. I thought I was weird, too. And couldn’t ever stop feeling sad. But, well . . .”
She gave a great shrug—kind of happy, a bit embarrassed maybe, relieved, goofy, and a whole lot more. “. . . I also knew I was a girl all the way back then.”
“But you’re a guy.” This was Del coming to life.
“Not right now.”
“Really? So you’ve . . . you’ve . . .”
She laughed. It was so relaxed and calm, that laugh. I wanted to hug her. There was something about this kid. I felt like I’d known her all my life. It was an odd sensation.
“No. I haven’t been altered, if that’s what you mean. It’s called gender reassignment surgery. But what’s under these clothes is not who I am. It never was.”
Daddy, too, was coming to life, but not in a good way. “Excuse me . . . Robert.”
“It’s not Robert, Scat,” said Mom. “It’s Rita, right?”
Our cousin nodded patiently.
Mom stepped right into it all and just enveloped this completely beautiful girl in her arms. “We are so happy to see you, again . . . Rita.”
She pulled her head back and held our cousin by the shoulders, then just stared at her. It was one of Mom’s hard smiles, the kind where she was saying to life: “Nope. Not gonna freak me out. It’s weird, but that doesn’t matter. Because everything’s weird.”
Mom was pretty good at that kind of smile. You learn it as a weapon if you live in Cliveden. Also, of course, she was married to our father. It wasn’t a fake smile like she might give to one of the moms in town who annoyed her. It was more the hard smile she might give a nice babysitter who spilled milk on the couch, or our housekeeper Kayeesha when she showed up late. Mom probably uses that smile a lot at the hospital where she’s an eye surgeon and teaches laser techniques to medical students. Everything’s a thousand times more intense at Jefferson University Hospital than the suburban Cliveden social scene.
“So you’ve gone and done something a bit big here,” Mom said, still smiling and holding this girl by the shoulders. She was shaking her head back and forth a little more vigorously than she probably intended.
“Excuse me,” Daddy said from behind her. He had his phone out. “Do your parents know about this?”
Mom dropped her hands and turned around. “Scat . . .”
“No, Rikely,” Daddy said. “Seriously. Eddie would have told me . . .”
Rita laughed carefully, then looked at me and said, “Well, actually Eddie knows my intentions are to change, but he didn’t know I was going to just jump in with both feet today. My mom, too. I didn’t know it would happen myself until I was somewhere over Kansas at five o’clock in the morning.”
“You just did this?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did. I got to Pittsburgh and had a three-hour layover. Time to think, you know? I bought this dress and top, some skinny jeans and a few other blouses, these shoes. Aren’t they nice?”
I looked down and didn’t find them nice. They were dark blue high-heeled things to match her dress.
She was still talking. “And then, well, the makeup I had with me. I’ve been practicing that for the last two years. It’s all—”
“I’m calling your father,” said Daddy.
“Oh, please, Uncle Scat, no,” Rita said. “Not yet. I need—”
Zaxy interrupted, “Are you Robert?”
“Um . . .”
“It’s Robert all right,” Del said quietly.
“But Robert’s supposed to be a boy.”
“Well . . .” Rita looked down at our little brother.
“Do you like SpongeBob?”
“Of course . . .”
“Are you sure?”
Zaxy’s confusion got Daddy silently more upset, which kind of set Mom off in her strong “defender of children” mode.
“Scat, stop! Now, Zachary, we will discuss all of this in the car. Rita . . .” she stared again into that face. “Rita, you’re coming with us. We had planned for a Robert-type person, but that’s all changed now, obviously. You’re coming with us regardless, and of course you’re staying the summer like we planned. You are part of this family now.”
Mom squinted at Daddy. “And we will not call Edward Scattergood, because Rita is now our responsibility, not his or Samantha’s. We’re going down to luggage. Delmore, please take Rita’s carry-on. Scat, put your phone away.” She placed her hand on his wrist. “Please, Scat!” Then she looked me right in the eyes. “And Ivy . . . well, Ivy . . .” I thought she was going to burst into tears.
Daddy trailed behind as we headed for the escalator. He’d put his phone away and was shaking his head and mumbling to himself. That’s when the summer of 2013 really began. Right there, with Daddy following us and my cousin and brothers leading the way to get her luggage.