You aren't necessarily tremendously comfortable showing your emotions when you're a man my age. Is just not how you were brought up, and when you've spent most of your life working on conduction or on boats or just otherwise with other men raised the same way, you don't so much keep everything bottled up as you try not to do anything that throws you off the even keel, or at least that was my experience. You might think that spending a year as a woman would disabuse me of that, but it sometimes pushed me the other way, like most emotions were fake things you did to fit in, with the only ones that were real the unease of sharing an apartment with the person who should be in your place or the fear that you would screw everything up.
I don't know that it hurt me any, in general, most of the time, but it left me utterly unprepared for the roller coaster that was Elaine getting on her bike as Mckenzie every night to ride to the Inn, staying up until three in the morning to get the test message that she was still eleven years old, and both feeling sad for her and grateful to have another day with her. I think it was somewhat the same for her, because she would bike back to my apartment in the morning, get changed into one of the business's t-shirts we had made in her size, and set off with me for wherever the truck was to set up that day.
Folks would look at us and talk about how the little girl helping her dad was cute, and she'd smile in a way that was maybe a little knowing but maybe not, and she didn't roll her eyes the way either her 11-year-old classmates or a young woman amused by the irony would be. She just said thank you, collected their money, and commented on how this racket was pretty good for the tip jar when everyone was gone. Then she'd get out the laptop, search for places we'd been mentioned on social media, and drill me on liking, re-tweeting, updating the location, and how to update the truck's website like it was two years ago and she was going to make sure I didn't stumble in her high heels during a job interview.
It's been a weird couple years for both of us. Her, mostly, over the past year, especially once school started. She'd spent the previous year pretending she wasn't a kid, no matter how many times she fell asleep on the couch or got a look as she looked at the menu in a restaurant, but once the state said I was looking after her, and she had a schedule to keep, she fell into it. Oh, teachers praised how incredibly organized she was for a fifth-grader, and what a quick reader she was, but at first they said she seemed antisocial. Only to be expected, given that she was abandoned by her parents and forced to start over in a new town, but it was something they were watching.
Then she stopped just short of giving a bloody nose to some boy who didn't expect the quiet redhead to take such umbrage to him taunting the class's one black kid about him not being able to swim or some such. She was horrified when she got home, because it didn't matter whether he was bigger or that he thought she was ten, she'd almost hit a kid. But the next day, for all the kids who have "psycho girl" a hard time, there were a few who admired her, and soon they were sitting with her at lunch, asking to hang out after school (jealous that I almost always said yes and not knowing we had a code word for when she needed me to say no), wondering where she'd learned hip-hop dance and starting to do it together. It was weird having ten- and eleven-year-olds as friends, she said, but she also kind of enjoyed knowing where she stood all the time.
And while you might think having a kid who is basically a small adult makes for easy parenting, you still have to change your life, and not just because social workers are looking over your shoulder every once in a while. There's got to be food in the house, so the grocery store becomes a routine rather than a place you stop when something runs out. When plans fall apart, you've got to be there to pick her up. You've got to make a show of doing things she can do herself. Heck, you don't just bring her the doctor and dentist, but you figure out how to have better insurance because she'll be in trouble if you get sick. It sounds like a hassle, but it feels pretty good, believe it or not.
So when the phone's runtime jolted me awake at 2:48am, I felt an initial bit of sadness when I got the text saying "ME AGAIN! !!", but smiled when I saw the selfie of her with a big grin, her child's t-shirt held in front of her in a full-size version. Then she said she was going to get some sleep and met me at the truck later.
She wasn't wearing the t-shirt when she did, but a nice blue sundress. "Looks like Daryl left you something nice to wear."
"Oh, please! I've been shopping. You boys tried your hardest, but none of you really had my taste. I mean, c'mon--" she lifted a foot clad in a sandal that had obviously fake stones on the leather strap that ran from her toes to her ankle. "-- none of you ever went for anything this sparkly!"
I laughed. "I guess we didn't. Looks good on you, though."
"Thank you." She did a little half bow and then saw my gaze lingering. "You aren't gonna come on to me, are you? Because aside from how it's going to take more than a few hours for me to not be grossed out by guys thinking of me as sexy, or how three of the four men living my life decided that they just HAD to take my vagina out for a spin - assuming you didn't do anything in a supply closet you didn't tell me about--"
"No! I'm just looking at you all put together for the first time. I've seen all this in the mirror and on Max, J.T., and Daryl, and I've gotten to know you pretty well, but this is just, you know, right."
She hugged me then, burying her face into my chest. "You have no idea how good it is to hear you say that. After a couple years, you wonder if you're just not that person any more, especially when you hear about all the others that don't go back the first chance they get..." She wiped her nose and pulled back. "You make a pretty good dad, you know."
"Nah, I just showed up when you needed someone to show up."
"Which puts you ahead of a lot of fathers. As does telling a girl they can get through something when she really needs to hear that."
I shrugged. "You got a dad for that."
"I do, and I think I'd really like to see him. And Mom. And even Whitney, though she's got a ton to answer for!"
We laughed, and I told her I would be quite happy with just being her friend from then on. She said she'd like that, kissed me on the cheek, and then offered to get me dinner, but I told her to go see her family and friends and wouldn't take no for an answer.
* * *
Of course, that's not the end, as I got home this evening to find "Mackenzie Mahoney" sitting on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, asking what was for dinner. I said I wasn't rightly sure, but some introductions were probably in order first.
She shrugged. "Fine. I'm Mackenzie. I used to be Krystle Kamen, but the n---- in my life got knocked up and now he all about bein' a mom. Ain't gonna live my life as him or any man - don't get me wrong, it's got its perks, but it ain't for me - so I figure this is the freshest start I can get. We cool?"
"Sure, although your teachers won't be if you show up at school dropping the n-word and using that grammar. Elaine--"
"Let's get one thing straight - just because we're both black females underneath this skin don't mean we're the same. You and I, we're both starting over, and I don't care what kind of Mackenzie Elaine was - this is my life now."
You could tell this was going to be different already. When I showed up in Elaine's life, she took charge, but it made sense. When she showed up in mine, we knew we were going to be partners. This seemed different, like Krystle wants my help but certainly doesn't want me to be her father.
"Look, we're going to have to work together on this, and part of that means you've got to trust me on some things. You show up to middle school talking like that, they're going to wonder what happened over the summer. Maybe the state figures I was the problem and places you with someone who won't believe who you are and take it into consideration. Do you want that?"
She stared at me for a second, sizing me up. "You a bit more ready for me than I thought from how nice Elaine said you were, ain't ya? Fine, I'll talk like a little white girl, at least around other people. How's this? 'Can we have pasketti for supper, daddy, pweeeeeease?'"
I can't say I'm sure I agree with being ready for her - it's really just starting to hit me now that this thing I signed up for to help Elaine for a year potentially has another seven until "Mackenzie" graduates high school. I'll be collecting Social Security by then, and who knows what else could change?
I don't mind helping - Krystle has kind of gotten a raw deal herself, after all - but I'm not sure what a gal like that trying to be pre-teen is going to be like as a roommate compared to Elaine just hiding out.