IT ISN’T UNTIL RALUCA announces her intention to change her name that her mother feels completely justified in her long-simmering worry. Derek is, as always, alternately pleased and intimidated by his daughter’s self-assurance. Being the kind of person who would always prefer too few choices to too many, who is happiest when someone else orders for him in restaurants and bars, he’s glad that Raluca hasn’t inherited his terminal indecisiveness.
So is Jo, in a way. She was about the same age when she started insisting that everyone call her (well, in print, anyway) Joe-with-an-“e.” Androgyny had seemed to her like the height of nonconformity then, so she’d lumbered around in her dad’s dress shirts and pants so big on her they had to be cinched high with a homemade belt strung together from ropes, creating ridiculous balloons of corduroy below. Joe had kept her hair short and lopsided and her attitude distinctly undelicate. She’d honed her voice to a PJ Harvey growl. She’d shouted along to the Replacements on “Dick and Jane.” She’d borrowed the rebellions of previous generations — the ultimate non-rebellion, but she’d been too young to really get irony — to toss over Jesus and boy Joe Meets Jessby Christine Robands for Bowie and Grace Jones. It hadn’t lasted, only about as long as her virginity.
But Raluca’s change, like most of her changes, is in a different direction: the girl now wants to be called Jessica. She’s never been charmed by having to sighingly spell her name to strangers, but the extent of Raluca’s dissatisfaction hasn’t been clear to Jo until now.
“What’s wrong with your name?”
Raluca shrugs. “It’s weird.”
“You think only things that are weird can be pretty,” counters Raluca, and Jo is surprised yet again at the things other people consider insults. She also feels a surge of pride at her daughter’s slouchy intelligence, but this is outweighed by irritation as Raluca continues “It doesn’t make sense. We’re not Romanian. It doesn’t make sense for me to have a Romanian name.”
“Exactly. It’s unique.”
“I don’t want to be unique,” Raluca says in exasperation. “Or if I do, I want to be unique for being gorgeous or something, not for a stupid name no one can pronounce and makes everyone who doesn’t know me assume I’m…I’m —”
“What?” Jo challenges, checking herself before she says anything else. She’s realized of course that calling your child racist isn’t an ideal parenting strategy, so she’s made an effort not to do it. Again.
“Just — something I’m not.” Raluca, too, is careful. Growing up in this household has taught her that words are landmines, words aren’t innocent, words expose the patriarchal, hetero-normative, classist and whatever else underpinnings of blah blah, she can’t remember the rest, no matter how many times she’s heard it.
“Look, it’s not a big deal, I just want to change my name. You know, be independent, claim my own identity, that kind of thing. You taught me to want that.
”Yes, Jo thinks with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance, Raluca’s smart. Or she’s just dextrous with words, which usually amounts to the same thing.
So Ralu— Jessica wins that half-hearted argument, although for awhile Jo avoids calling her by name, as teeth-gritting as it is to think that her daughter prefers those generically feminine, common-as-carbon syllables to the rollingly lovely Raluca.
“It’ll pass,” reassures Derek in bed that night, as they rehash the doings of the day.
Jo grumbles, “Of course it will, everything will. But why’d she have to pick such a boring name?”
“What’s boring to you is classic to her.”
Derek is always so utterly reasonable that sometimes Jo is infuriated. He’s been as serene as a fortune cookie throughout the skirmishes that preceded the name change: at four, Raluca’s toy store choice of a next-gen Suzy Homemaker doll (but branded differently, euphemistically, of course) instead of the unisex war crimes tribunal judge some fledgling socialist toymaker had spectacularly bankrupted over; at seven, Raluca’s insistence that her room be painted beige to cover the graphic art wallpaper Jo would have adored as a kid; at nine, Raluca’s tantrums over the compost bin and loose, unpackaged cereals and pollutant-free toiletries that she claimed made her hair and skin smell like hay; at twelve, Raluca’s boredom with the arguments that the coveted tank tops with “Juicy” across the chest and the jeans with “Jailbait” across the seat were, contrary to her friends’ opinions, decidedly not cool; at fourteen, Raluca’s decision to skip the planned trip to Tanzania, where she’d been born, in favour of a schoolmate’s invitation to Disney World. Well, that last one Derek had probably been relieved about.
“Now,” he continues, “you can’t be disappointed that she’s normal. I mean, I know you are,” and here he talks over Jo’s reflexive protest, “but you can’t be. Unless she’s, I don’t know, killed someone, you can’t be disappointed. You should be grateful.”
Of course he’s right — he usually is — but this too sparks irritation.
“I can be disappointed — not in her, but that she’s not what I…”
“What you expected?” supplies Derek. “What you molded?” Half-joking, a quarter-not, he continues, “She’s our daughter, not your failed exercise in social engineering.”
“That’s not fair. All parents try to raise their kids responsibly.”
“Yeah, and all kids rebel against what their parents represent. That’s older than the Bible.”
“So that’s all this is, then? God, it’s so maddening to realize we’re just clichés: you know, midlife crisis, right on schedule. Teen angst, just as predicted. Even this?”
Derek, unbothered, shrugs. “Anyway, 14-year-olds aren’t reaching for uniqueness. Being a cliché is probably a major achievement about now.”
As she turns over, away from him, he adds, “I mean, as long as it’s the right one.”Jo thinks that in most ways she’s a good mother, one who loves her daughter with an intensity that sometimes borders on blinding. And for the most part she’s a good partner. Her patience and care as a girlfriend are actually — love and mathematics, that idiotic coupling — inversely related to the intensity of her feelings for Derek. She guiltily attempts to compensate through housework and sex for the growing gaps between those moments of utterly spontaneous, utterly overwhelming adoration that once came so frequently.
Derek, however, has grown into domesticity the way babies grow into childhood: so uncomplainingly as to appear unaware of the transition. He complained during their time in Herzegovina, of course, and through each of their stays in Dar es Salaam, but now, in their large apartment in their large (but not too large) city in their large English-speaking country, he seems most fully himself.
Really, Jo thinks, it has more to do with their daughter than their location. Raluca has been the best possible prescription against drugs, group sex, socialist organizing or anything else Derek disapproves of. She’s a steadying influence on her parents’ relationship, a partner in (not) crime to her father. She makes Jo feel her own failures as a partner more keenly.
More and more, then, and in the most natural of ways, the family spends time in pairs. Derek and Jessica — Jessy? — Jess sounds the most reassuringly unisex — Derek and Jess go skating, Jess and Jo try new restaurants, Jo and Derek visit eccentric museums. Their conversations change shape. Multiple house-hold languages develop. Jo and Derek — but not Jess, who seems the most mature of all — feel vaguely hurt at the others’ in-jokes and private dialects. They’re ridiculous, these tiny tensions. They always are.
Though it brings him a crawling guilt, in many ways it’s becoming easier for Derek to spend time with Jessica than with Jo. There’s no (well, little) self-censorship with is daughter: no care to avoid gendered words, no sighing self-correction of “Africa” to a more specific term. These are little rebellions it’s taken him a decade plus to realize he’s missed.
He would, of course, have been bored by a Jessica-ish personality 15 or 20 years earlier. Now, though, when Jo seems as disgusted by comfort as ever, as irritatingly restless in thought though not deed as she’s always been, Jessica is just really nice to be around.
Grateful as he is, even beyond usual paternal love, he want to do things for her. When Jessica and Jo start sparring over the guestlist for Jessica’s upcoming birthday party, he — as usual, increasingly — steps in.
“It’s her party,” he argues reasonably.
“She should be allowed to invite who she wants.”“So if she wanted to invite a posse of neo-Nazis, that would be okay?”
Daughter and father roll their eyes simultaneously. Father complains, “We’ve been over this. You can’t always throw Nazis into a conversation just to win the argument.”
Jo grimaces in acknowledgment. “Look, Jess, I know we can’t monitor your friends, and I wouldn’t want to. But you have to consider Monty’s feelings. He’s been your friend for years, so of course he’ll be hurt if he isn’t invited.”
“He hasn’t been my friend,” grumbles the girl. “Your friend, more like.”
Jo ignores this. “You can’t be so selfish—”
“You can’t keep calling me that! Just because we’re not dirt poor doesn’t make everything we do selfish. God, you probably would be happier if we were poor.”Jessica times this last sentence so that her stormy exit from the room coincides with “poor.”
Her parents look at each other helplessly before Derek says reluctantly, “She does kind of have a point about Monty, you know.”
“Come on, he was always the kid you’d have rather had. I mean, awkward and creative and gay? Do you really think Jessica can’t sense how surprised you are that she turned out so popular and, and — not boring, but…conventional? She’s a bright kid.”
“Yeah, she is.”
“She’s all the best parts of you,” Jo continues, “and no part, good or bad, of me.”
“That’s not true.”
The words, as so often, trip over themselves on their way off Derek’s tongue. He feels so inadequate at this essential emotional business of reassurance. Jo, meanwhile, is bad at receiving reassurance, considering any weakness in a woman to be womanly weakness, and therefore detestable. Every indication is that their daughter will remain utterly uninterested in gender or any other kind of politics. This brings Derek some relief.
But no matter what Jo thinks, she and Jessica do have slightly overlapping personalities. One of the most attractive of Jo’s traits, her doggedness in standing her ground, is clearly a part of Jessica as well. It’s immature, yes, and more inward-facing than Jo’s severe middle-class guilt ever would have allowed, but fascinating to watch develop. He can’t articulate it to Jo (god-damn English), but he’s fascinated in general by the way some bits of his woman have colonized his girl. He wonders if this kind of thing ever confuses other people.
Jo is careful in the next few months not to over-parent. This means retreating further into the background of family life, so that she won’t protest at, say, the way Jessica’s circle of friends has somehow narrowed to wealthy Jewish and Protestant girls. What would she be able to say about something like that, anyway? It’s better to love indulgently and without comment, and to concentrate on keeping up her campaigns now that she’s over-seas, now that she’s been sidelined from the administration of her daughter’s life.
So now that all that’s left is for her to observe, Jo notices for the first time how much lighter Derek seems when he and Jess are the only people animating a room. It’s unclear what’s more painfully cute, Jess’s girlish delight in his jokes and stories — the ones Jo’s heard so often that it’s hard to remember, sometimes, if they’re hers or Derek’s — or Derek’s delight in Jess’s delight. In these moments, he looks the way he did in the early days of their relationship.
God, she’s inadequate, Jo thinks.
Hmm, things are quieter, Derek thinks
.It makes Jo less selfish in certain ways, that eternal paradox of do-gooders practicing altruism on a large scale but not at home (except of course for that one major sacrifice: agreeing to give birth). Take porn. Jo increasingly says nothing as the links Derek clicks on (or is it just her imagination?) increasingly contain the words “teenage” or “barely legal.” This must be a milestone in any over-long-term relationship, she imagines: the point where you and your partner are screwing to images of girls far closer to your child’s age than your own. She’s aroused by Derek’s arousal, but it leaves a strange taste.
It isn’t just the physical trappings of youth; she knows Derek well enough to be confident in his basic triumph over superficiality. Maybe it’s whatever had made Jason enter her room at night, back when she’d started menstruating, just to watch her sleep. He hadn’t been a pedophile, really; looking back, it seems like he’d just been excited by adolescence. But those overeager girls on film…
“Stop pscyhoanalyzing me,” Derek says abruptly as they lie placidly, post-coitally in bed.
“I wasn’t saying anything.”
“You don’t have to. I can see you studying me.”
Jo laughs it off. “What, like a painting? That should be flattering.”
“Not like a painting. Like a…a chart.”
“I do that, don’t I,” Jo ruminates. “It’s one of the many bad practices of mine Jess doesn’t seem to have taken up.”
Derek, not understanding why the conversation has taken this direction, mumbles vaguely in response.Yes, Jo torments herself by thinking, Jess is a much better approximation of Derek’s current ideal girl than she is. And it is “girl,” but not “girl” in the tee-hee-thirty-something-in-pigtails sense. A real girl, someone for whom the desire to protect might be inextricable from other kinds of desire…
In Zanzibar the following month, a preteen girl Jo sees selling tomatoes almost daily approaches her to ask, using one of the few English words she knows, to be “sponsored.” The girl is frightened by the intensity with which the woman stares at her.
Christine Ro writes fiction (mainly sci-fi) and non-fiction (mainly social justice-related) in London, UK. Christinero.com