By Kevin Myers,2014-11-04 20:22
20 views 0


Jeffrey Eugenides

-Book One

-The Silver Spoon


    -An Immodest Proposal-The Silk Road

    Book Two

    -Henry Ford’s English-Language Melting Pot


    -Marriage On Ice


    -Clarinet Serenade-News of the World-Ex Ovo Omnia

    Book Three

    -Home Movies



    -The Mediterranean Diet-The Wolverette

    -Waxing Lyrical

    -The Obscure Object-Tiresias in Love

    -Flesh and Blood

    -The Gun on the WallBook Four

    -The Oracular Vulva-Looking Myself up in Webster’s

    -Go West, Young Man-Gender Dysphoria in San Francisco



    -The Last Stop

    -Author's Note


    by Jeffrey Eugenides

    ???For Yama, who comes from a different gene pool entirely


Book One

    The Silver Spoon

    ???I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in Augustof 1974. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce’s study, “GenderIdentity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,” published in the Journal of Pediatric

     in 1975. Or maybe you’ve seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadlyEndocrinology

    outdated Genetics and Heredity.

     That’s me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering myeyes.

    ???My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’slicense (from the Federal Republic of Germany) records my first name simply as Cal. I’m aformer field hockey goalie, long-standing member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rareattendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy, and, for most of my adult life, an employee of theU.S. State Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I’ve beenridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched bythe March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing whatI was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming poolturned me into myth; I’ve left my body in order to occupy others—and all this happened beforeI turned sixteen.

    ???But now, at the age of forty-one, I feel another birth coming on. After decades of neglect,I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and –uncles, long-lost grandfathers, unknownfifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And sobefore it’s too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single genethrough time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how itbloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleatedand the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisiblywithin the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of amassacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, whereit drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of mymother’s own midwestern womb.

    ???Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too. ???Three months before I wasborn, in the aftermath of one of our elaborate Sunday dinners, my grandmother DesdemonaStephanides ordered my brother to get her silkworm box. Chapter Eleven had been heading towardthe kitchen for a second helping of rice pudding when she blocked his way. At fifty-seven, withher short, squat figure and intimidating hairnet, my grandmother was perfectly designed forblocking people’s paths. Behind her in the kitchen, the day’s large female contingent hadcongregated, laughing and whispering. Intrigued, Chapter Eleven leaned sideways to see what wasgoing on, but Desdemona reached out and firmly pinched his cheek. Having regained hisattention, she sketched a rectangle in the air and pointed at the ceiling. Then, through herill-fitting dentures, she said, “Go for yia yia , dolly mou


    ???Chapter Eleven knew what to do. He ran across the hall into the living room. On all fours hescrambled up the formal staircase to the second floor. He raced past the bedrooms along theupstairs corridor. At the far end was a nearly invisible door, wallpapered over like theentrance to a secret passageway. Chapter Eleven located the tiny doorknob level with his headand, using all his strength, pulled it open. Another set of stairs lay behind it. For a longmoment my brother stared hesitantly into the darkness above, before climbing, very slowly now,up to the attic where my grandparents lived.

    ???In sneakers he passed beneath the twelve damply newspapered birdcages suspended from therafters. With a brave face he immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in mygrandparents’ own particular aroma, a mixture of mothballs and hashish. He negotiated his waypast my grandfather’s book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records. Finally, bumping

    into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found mygrandparents’ bed and, under it, the silkworm box.

    ???Carved from olivewood, a little bigger than a shoe box, it had a tin lid perforated by tinyairholes and inset with the icon of an unrecognizable saint. The saint’s face had been rubbedoff, but the fingers of his right hand were raised to bless a short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree. After gazing awhile at this vivid botanical presence, ChapterEleven pulled the box from under the bed and opened it. Inside were the two wedding crowns madefrom rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumblingblack ribbon. He poked one of the braids with his index finger. Just then a parakeet squawked,making my brother jump, and he closed the box, tucked it under his arm, and carried itdownstairs to Desdemona.

    ???She was still waiting in the doorway. Taking the silkworm box out of his hands, she turnedback into the kitchen. At this point Chapter Eleven was granted a view of the room, where allthe women now fell silent. They moved aside to let Desdemona pass and there, in the middle ofthe linoleum, was my mother. Tessie Stephanides was leaning back in a kitchen chair, pinnedbeneath the immense, drum-tight globe of her pregnant belly. She had a happy, helplessexpression on her face, which was flushed and hot. Desdemona set the silkworm box on thekitchen table and opened the lid. She reached under the wedding crowns and the hair braids tocome up with something Chapter Eleven hadn’t seen: a silver spoon. She tied a piece of stringto the spoon’s handle. Then, stooping forward, she dangled the spoon over my mother’s swollenbelly. And, by extension, over me.

    ???Up until now Desdemona had had a perfect record: twenty-three correct guesses. She’d knownthat Tessie was going to be Tessie. She’d predicted the sex of my brother and of all thebabies of her friends at church. The only children whose genders she hadn’t divined were herown, because it was bad luck for a mother to plumb the mysteries of her own womb. Fearlessly,however, she plumbed my mother’s. After some initial hesitation, the spoon swung north tosouth, which meant that I was going to be a boy.

    ???Splay-legged in the chair, my mother tried to smile. She didn’t want a boy. She had onealready. In fact, she was so certain I was going to be a girl that she’d picked out only onename for me: Calliope. But when my grandmother shouted in Greek, “A boy!” the cry went aroundthe room, and out into the hall, and across the hall into the living room where the men werearguing politics. And my mother, hearing it repeated so many times, began to believe it mightbe true.

    ???As soon as the cry reached my father, however, he marched into the kitchen to tell hismother that, this time at least, her spoon was wrong. “And how you know so much?” Desdemonaasked him. To which he replied what many Americans of his generation would have: ???“It’s science, Ma.”

    ???Ever since they had decided to have another child—the diner was doing well and ChapterEleven was long out of diapers—Milton and Tessie had been in agreement that they wanted adaughter. Chapter Eleven had just turned five years old. He’d recently found a dead bird inthe yard, bringing it into the house to show his mother. He liked shooting things, hammeringthings, smashing things, and wrestling with his father. In such a masculine household, Tessiehad begun to feel like the odd woman out and saw herself in ten years’ time imprisoned in aworld of hubcaps and hernias. My mother pictured a daughter as a counterinsurgent: a fellowlover of lapdogs, a seconder of proposals to attend the Ice Capades. In the spring of 1959,when discussions of my fertilization got under way, my mother couldn’t foresee that womenwould soon be burning their brassieres by the thousand. Hers were padded, stiff, fire-retardant. As much as Tessie loved her son, she knew there were certain things she’d be ableto share only with a daughter. ???On his morning drive to work, my father had been seeingvisions of an irresistibly sweet, dark-eyed little girl. She sat on the seat beside him—mostlyduring stoplights—directing questions at his patient, all-knowing ear. “What do you call thatthing, Daddy?” “That? That’s the Cadillac seal.” “What’s the Cadillac seal?” “Well, along time ago, there was a French explorer named Cadillac, and he was the one who discoveredDetroit. And that seal was his family seal, from France.” “What’s France?” “France is a

    country in Europe.” “What’s Europe?” “It’s a continent, which is like a great big piece

    kukla of land, way, way bigger than a country. But Cadillacs don’t come from Europe anymore, . They come from right here in the good old U.S.A.” The light turned green and he drove on.But my prototype lingered. She was there at the next light and the next. So pleasant was hercompany that my father, a man loaded with initiative, decided to see what he could do to turnhis vision into reality.

    ???Thus: for some time now, in the living room where the men discussed politics, they had alsobeen discussing the velocity of sperm. Peter Tatakis, “Uncle Pete,” as we called him, was aleading member of the debating society that formed every week on our black love seats. Alifelong bachelor, he had no family in America and so had become attached to ours. Every Sundayhe arrived in his wine-dark Buick, a tall, prune-faced, sad-seeming man with an incongruouslyvital head of wavy hair. He was not interested in children. A proponent of the Great Booksseries—which he had read twice—Uncle Pete was engaged with serious thought and Italian opera.He had a passion, in history, for Edward Gibbon, and, in literature, for the journals of Madamede Staël. He liked to quote that witty lady’s opinion on the German language, which held thatGerman wasn’t good for conversation because you had to wait to the end of the sentence for theverb, and so couldn’t interrupt. Uncle Pete had wanted to become a doctor, but the“catastrophe” had ended that dream. In the United States, he’d put himself through two yearsof chiropractic school, and now ran a small office in Birmingham with a human skeleton he wasstill paying for in installments. In those days, chiropractors had a somewhat dubiousreputation. People didn’t come to Uncle Pete to free up their kundalini. He cracked necks,straightened spines, and made custom arch supports out of foam rubber. Still, he was theclosest thing to a doctor we had in the house on those Sunday afternoons. As a young man he’dhad half his stomach surgically removed, and now after dinner always drank a Pepsi-Cola to helpdigest his meal. The soft drink had been named for the digestive enzyme pepsin, he sagely toldus, and so was suited to the task. ???It was this kind of knowledge that led my father to trustwhat Uncle Pete said when it came to the reproductive timetable. His head on a throw pillow,his shoes off, Madama Butterfly softly playing on my parents’ stereo, Uncle Pete explainedthat, under the microscope, sperm carrying male chromosomes had been observed to swim fasterthan those carrying female chromosomes. This assertion generated immediate merriment among therestaurant owners and fur finishers assembled in our living room. My father, however, adoptedthe pose of his favorite piece of sculpture, The Thinker

    , a miniature of which sat across the room on the telephone table. Though the topic had beenbrought up in the open-forum atmosphere of those postprandial Sundays, it was clear that,notwithstanding the impersonal tone of the discussion, the sperm they were talking about was myfather’s. Uncle Pete made it clear: to have a girl baby, a couple should “have sexualcongress twenty-four hours prior to ovulation.” That way, the swift male sperm would rush inand die off. The female sperm, sluggish but more reliable, would arrive just as the eggdropped.

    ???My father had trouble persuading my mother to go along with the scheme. Tessie Zizmo hadbeen a virgin when she married Milton Stephanides at the age of twenty-two. Their engagement,which coincided with the Second World War, had been a chaste affair. My mother was proud of theway she’d managed to simultaneously kindle and snuff my father’s flame, keeping him at a lowburn for the duration of a global cataclysm. This hadn’t been all that difficult, however,since she was in Detroit and Milton was in Annapolis at the U.S. Naval Academy. For more than ayear Tessie lit candles at the Greek church for her fiancé, while Milton gazed at herphotographs pinned over his bunk. He liked to pose Tessie in the manner of the movie magazines,standing sideways, one high heel raised on a step, an expanse of black stocking visible. Mymother looks surprisingly pliable in those old snapshots, as though she liked nothing betterthan to have her man in uniform arrange her against the porches and lampposts of their humbleneighborhood.

    ???She didn’t surrender until after Japan had. Then, from their wedding night onward(according to what my brother told my covered ears), my parents made love regularly andenjoyably. When it came to having children, however, my mother had her own ideas. It was her

    belief that an embryo could sense the amount of love with which it had been created. For thisreason, my father’s suggestion didn’t sit well with her.

    ???“What do you think this is, Milt, the Olympics?”

    ???“We were just speaking theoretically,” said my father.

    ???“What does Uncle Pete know about having babies?” ???“He read this particular article in Scientific American

    ,” Milton said. And to bolster his case: “He’s a subscriber.”

    ???“Listen, if my back went out, I’d go to Uncle Pete. If I had flat feet like you do, I’dgo. But that’s it.”

    ???“This has all been verified. Under the microscope. The male sperms are faster.” ???“I bet they’re stupider, too.”

    ???“Go on. Malign the male sperms all you want. Feel free. We don’t want a male sperm. Whatwe want is a good old, slow, reliable female sperm.”

    ???“Even if it’s true, it’s still ridiculous. I can’t just do it like clockwork, Milt.” ???“It’ll be harder on me than you.”

    ???“I don’t want to hear it.”

    ???“I thought you wanted a daughter.”

    ???“I do.”

    ???“Well,” said my father, “this is how we can get one.”

    ???Tessie laughed the suggestion off. But behind her sarcasm was a serious moral reservation.To tamper with something as mysterious and miraculous as the birth of a child was an act ofhubris. In the first place, Tessie didn’t believe you could do it. Even if you could, shedidn’t believe you should try. ???Of course, a narrator in my position (prefetal at the time)can’t be entirely sure about any of this. I can only explain the scientific mania thatovertook my father during that spring of ’59 as a symptom of the belief in progress that wasinfecting everyone back then. Remember, Sputnik

     had been launched only two years earlier. Polio, which had kept my parents quarantined indoorsduring the summers of their childhood, had been conquered by the Salk vaccine. People had noidea that viruses were cleverer than human beings, and thought they’d soon be a thing of thepast. In that optimistic, postwar America, which I caught the tail end of, everybody was themaster of his own destiny, so it only followed that my father would try to be the master ofhis.

    ???A few days after he had broached his plan to Tessie, Milton came home one evening with apresent. It was a jewelry box tied with a ribbon.

    ???“What’s this for?” Tessie asked suspiciously.

    ???“What do you mean, what is it for?”

    ???“It’s not my birthday. It’s not our anniversary. So why are you giving me a present?” ???“Do I have to have a reason to give you a present? Go on. Open it.”

    ???Tessie crumpled up one corner of her mouth, unconvinced. But it was difficult to hold ajewelry box in your hand without opening it. So finally she slipped off the ribbon and snappedthe box open.

    ???Inside, on black velvet, was a thermometer.

    ???“A thermometer,” said my mother.

    ???“That’s not just any thermometer,” said Milton. “I had to go to three differentpharmacies to find one of these.”

    ???“A luxury model, huh?” ???“That’s right,” said Milton. “That’s what you call a basalthermometer. It reads the temperature down to a tenth of a degree.

    ” He raised his eyebrows. “Normal thermometers only read every two tenths. This one does itevery tenth. Try it out. Put it in your mouth.”

    ???“I don’t have a fever,” said Tessie.

    ???“This isn’t about a fever. You use it to find out what your base temperature is. It’smore accurate and precise than a regular fever-type thermometer.”

    ???“Next time bring me a necklace.” ???But Milton persisted: “Your body temperature’schanging all the time, Tess. You may not notice, but it is. You’re in constant flux,

    temperature-wise. Say, for instance”—a little cough—“you happen to be ovulating. Then yourtemperature goes up. Six tenths of a degree, in most case scenarios. Now,” my father went on,gaining steam, not noticing that his wife was frowning, “if we were to implement the system we

    first , establish yourtalked about the other day—just for instance, say—what you’d do is,

     base temperature. It might not be ninety-eight point six. Everybody’s a little different.That’s another thing I learned from Uncle Pete. Anyway, once you established your base


     then you’d look for that six-tenths-degree rise. And that’s when, if we were to go throughwith this, that’s when we’d know to, you know, mix the cocktail.”

    ???My mother said nothing. She only put the thermometer into the box, closed it, and handed itback to her husband.

    ???“Okay,” he said. “Fine. Suit yourself. We may get another boy. Number two. If that’s theway you want it, that’s the way it’ll be.”

    ???“I’m not so sure we’re going to have anything at the moment,” replied my mother. ???Meanwhile, in the greenroom to the world, I waited. Not even a gleam in my father’s eye yet(he was staring gloomily at the thermometer case in his lap). Now my mother gets up from theso-called love seat. She heads for the stairway, holding a hand to her forehead, and thelikelihood of my ever coming to be seems more and more remote. Now my father gets up to makehis rounds, turning out lights, locking doors. As he climbs the stairway, there’s hope for meagain. The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am.Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection. My conception was still weeks away,but already my parents had begun their slow collision into each other. In our upstairs hallway,the Acropolis nightlight is burning, a gift from Jackie Halas, who owns a souvenir shop. Mymother is at her vanity when my father enters the bedroom. With two fingers she rubs Noxzemainto her face, wiping it off with a tissue. My father had only to say an affectionate word andshe would have forgiven him. Not me but somebody like me might have been made that night. Aninfinite number of possible selves crowded the threshold, me among them but with no guaranteedticket, the hours moving slowly, the planets in the heavens circling at their usual pace,weather coming into it, too, because my mother was afraid of thunderstorms and would havecuddled against my father had it rained that night. But, no, clear skies held out, as did myparents’ stubbornness. The bedroom light went out. They stayed on their own sides of the bed.At last, from my mother, “Night.” And from my father, “See you in the morning.” The momentsthat led up to me fell into place as though decreed. Which, I guess, is why I think about themso much.

    ???The following Sunday, my mother took Desdemona and my brother to church. My father neverwent along, having become an apostate at the age of eight over the exorbitant price of votivecandles. Likewise, my grandfather preferred to spend his mornings working on a modern Greektranslation of the “restored” poems of Sappho. For the next seven years, despite repeatedstrokes, my grandfather worked at a small desk, piecing together the legendary fragments into alarger mosaic, adding a stanza here, a coda there, soldering an anapest or an iamb. In theevenings he played his bordello music and smoked a hookah pipe.

    ???In 1959, Assumption Greek Orthodox Church was located on Charlevoix. It was there that Iwould be baptized less than a year later and would be brought up in the Orthodox faith.Assumption, with its revolving chief priests, each sent to us via the Patriarchate inConstantinople, each arriving in the full beard of his authority, the embroidered vestments ofhis sanctity, but each wearying after a time—six months was the rule—because of thesquabbling of the congregation, the personal attacks on the way he sang, the constant need toshush the parishioners who treated the church like the bleachers at Tiger Stadium, and,finally, the effort of delivering a sermon each week twice, first in Greek and then again inEnglish. Assumption, with its spirited coffee hours, its bad foundation and roof leaks, itsstrenuous ethnic festivals, its catechism classes where our heritage was briefly kept alive inus before being allowed to die in the great diaspora. Tessie and company advanced down thecentral aisle, past the sand-filled trays of votive candles. Above, as big as a float in theMacy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, was the Christ Pantocrator. He curved across the dome like

    space itself. Unlike the suffering, earthbound Christs depicted at eye level on the churchwalls, our Christ Pantocrator was clearly transcendent, all-powerful, heaven-bestriding. He wasreaching down to the apostles above the altar to present the four rolled-up sheepskins of theGospels. And my mother, who tried all her life to believe in God without ever quite succeeding,looked up at him for guidance.

    ???The Christ Pantocrator’s eyes flickered in the dim light. They seemed to suck Tessieupward. Through the swirling incense, the Savior’s eyes glowed like televisions flashingscenes of recent events…

    ???First there was Desdemona the week before, giving advice to her daughter-in-law. “Why youwant more children, Tessie?” she had asked with studied nonchalance. Bending to look in theoven, hiding the alarm on her face (an alarm that would go unexplained for another sixteenyears), Desdemona waved the idea away. “More children, more trouble?…”

    ???Next there was Dr. Philobosian, our elderly family physician. With ancient diplomas behindhim, the old doctor gave his verdict. “Nonsense. Male sperm swim faster? Listen. The firstperson who saw sperm under a microscope was Leeuwenhoek. Do you know what they looked like tohim? Like worms?…”

    ???And then Desdemona was back, taking a different angle: “God decides what baby is. Notyou?…”

    ???These scenes ran through my mother’s mind during the interminable Sunday service. Thecongregation stood and sat. In the front pew, my cousins, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, andCleopatra, fidgeted. Father Mike emerged from behind the icon screen and swung his censer. Mymother tried to pray, but it was no use. She barely survived until coffee hour. ???From the tender age of twelve, my mother had been unable to start her day without the aid ofat least two cups of immoderately strong, tar-black, unsweetened coffee, a taste for which shehad picked up from the tugboat captains and zooty bachelors who filled the boardinghouse whereshe had grown up. As a high school girl, standing five foot one inch tall, she had sat next toauto workers at the corner diner, having coffee before her first class. While they scanned theracing forms, Tessie finished her civics homework. Now, in the church basement, she toldChapter Eleven to run off and play with the other children while she got a cup of coffee torestore herself.

    ???She was on her second cup when a soft, womanly voice sighed in her ear. “Good morning,Tessie.” It was her brother-in-law, Father Michael Antoniou.

    ???“Hi, Father Mike. Beautiful service today,” Tessie said, and immediately regretted it.Father Mike was the assistant priest at Assumption. When the last priest had left, haranguedback to Athens after a mere three months, the family had hoped that Father Mike might bepromoted. But in the end another new, foreign-born priest, Father Gregorios, had been given thepost. Aunt Zo, who never missed a chance to lament her marriage, had said at dinner in hercomedienne’s voice, “My husband. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride.” ???By complimenting the service, Tessie hadn’t intended to compliment Father Greg. Thesituation was made still more delicate by the fact that, years ago, Tessie and Michael Antoniouhad been engaged to be married. Now she was married to Milton and Father Mike was married toMilton’s sister. Tessie had come down to clear her head and have her coffee and already theday was getting out of hand.

    ???Father Mike didn’t appear to notice the slight, however. He stood smiling, his eyes gentleabove the roaring waterfall of his beard. A sweet-natured man, Father Mike was popular withchurch widows. They liked to crowd around him, offering him cookies and bathing in his beatificessence. Part of this essence came from Father Mike’s perfect contentment at being only fivefoot four. His shortness had a charitable aspect to it, as though he had given away his height.He seemed to have forgiven Tessie for breaking off their engagement years ago, but it wasalways there in the air between them, like the talcum powder that sometimes puffed out of hisclerical collar.

    ???Smiling, carefully holding his coffee cup and saucer, Father Mike asked,”So, Tessie, howare things at home?”

    ???My mother knew, of course, that as a weekly Sunday guest at our house, Father Mike was fully

Report this document

For any questions or suggestions please email