The young husband had some doubts about having a child, because he was unsure about their financial future. Although he wasn’t timid, he was cautious; but he loved his wife very much, and he wanted to please her, so he agreed. This relieved the young wife, because she didn’t want to stop contraception without telling him first, but she would have if necessary.
And so, soon when an egg from the woman’s left ovary was released and traveled down the Fallopian tube toward the uterus, one of forty million spermatozoa that the man ejaculated swam from the woman’s cervix up into the uterus and found the egg was making its way. By six the next morning the spermatozoa had met the egg and penetrated its thin membrane. The spermatozoa released all its chromosomes into the egg, including one “Y” chromosome, which paired with the egg’s “X” chromosome. The egg was now a male embryo!
The embryo divided into two cells by noon, and by dinner time the two cells had become four. Of course, the young woman had no idea what was happening, and wouldn’t for several weeks. But the little embryo later that very day reached the uterus, which had been made plush by the young woman’s hormones, and it attached itself.
It’s important to know that any number of things could go wrong now. The lining of the uterus might be too thin, and the embryo get flushed out without the woman noticing it the next time she got her period. Or the embryo might have died if one of the chromosomes wasn’t perfect. But this embryo was lucky in every way, and it stayed put.
As expected, one of the chromosomes in the embryo, from either the spermatozoa or the egg (we can’t be sure) carried instructions for how the brain would develop. The brain in the embryo grew normally, but the chromosome’s instructions made one area grow differently than that of most other embryos. And so as the brain grew, the section that determined which gender the male embryo would be attracted to after it was born grew bigger, and with different chemicals, than ninety percent of male embryos. Of course, the young woman wouldn’t know this for many years to come.
After a few months, the embryo grew into a baby, and when the baby was born, the woman and the husband were amazed at its beauty and perfection. They could not believe their luck, and had never been so happy.
Three years later, the young couple was still enraptured with their baby, which was now a beautiful blond boy.
One afternoon the boy was sitting on the floor of his mother’s bedroom playing with his toys. He liked to watch his mother get ready for his father’s arrival.
“What is that you’re putting behind your ears?” he asked his mother, who was sitting in front of a mirrored dresser.
“Perfume.” She looked at him in the mirror.
“Why?” he asked.
“To smell good,” she replied.
“So your father will smell something nice when he gets home.”
“Can I have some too?”
“No,” she replied, “This one is for women. Men wear different perfumes.”
“Because. Just like clothes are different for men and women, our perfumes are different.”
Later, when his father came home, the young boy sat on his father’s lap in front of the TV. The father liked the weight of his son’s body on his lap. Every month it seemed a little heavier, and it was a comfort and a sadness to him that his son was growing and would some day be too big to sit on his lap.
The boy leaned back against his father’s chest, and on his face he could feel his father’s heat through the shirt and smell his father’s deodorant. He put his arms around his father’s chest, bringing his face nearer to his father’s armpit. The father became conscious of not raising his arm enough to let the smell of his sweat repel the boy.
“Is that your perfume?” the boy asked.
The father smiled at the TV, although the boy couldn’t see it. “Yes. I guess.”
The boy stretched his neck up to get his nose close to his father’s ear.
“What are you doing?” his father asked.
“I don’t smell it where mommy puts her perfume,” the boy said.
His father laughed. “No. It’s a deodorant. It goes under the arm.”
The father hesitated, then said, “Because that’s where body odor is strongest, and you want to cover it up.”
“Because most people don’t like it.”
“I like it.”
The father hugged the boy and changed the channel on the TV from the news to a children’s show. He wanted to watch the news, but he didn’t want the boy to get bored and leave him. This was the best part of his day. He pulled the boy in closer and touched his nose to the corn silk hair, which smelled of honey and rain.
On the TV screen appeared a cartoon with blue dwarfs wearing floppy white caps. The little blue men were jumping up and down on a trampoline and the floppy caps unfurled into long cones with each descent. The little boy laughed every time.
The next day the mother was loading the clothes washer near the kitchen, and she dropped a few pieces on the floor. The boy picked one up. “What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s your father’s underwear. It’s just like yours, only it’s white and bigger.”
The boy held it up with two hands, and remembered the cartoon. He put the briefs on his head, but the waist was so much bigger than his head that it slipped down and covered his face. The smell struck him, surprised him with its newness, and he breathed it in.
“Silly boy,” his mother said, laughing. She slid the briefs off his head and put them in the washer.
“Why don’t you put it on your head so you see what it smells like too?” the little boy asked.
“It’s OK. I already know what it smells like.”
He followed her into the bathroom, where she put the laundry bag back in the clothes hamper, and he saw that it was where the clothes were kept that smelled and would go into the washer.
Thereafter, the little boy would go to the clothes hamper to find his father’s underwear and put it on his head. He would wear the underwear hat while he played with his toys on the living room floor until his mother saw and gently removed it. After a few days, his mother asked, “Why do you like to wear daddy’s underwear on your head? Why not yours or mine?”
“Because I like how it looks.”
And so when the little boy wore underwear on his head the mother and father laughed before they took it away. The little boy didn’t cry when they did this because he was making his parents laugh, and he knew he could go back to the hamper at any time.
But it happened that the mother had to go to the hospital for surgery because early cancer cells were growing in her uterus and they had to be removed. Because she was going to be in the hospital a long time, and the father had to go to work, the grandmother, who was the mother’s mother, came to stay with them to take care of the little boy.
The grandmother was thin and had gray hair piled on top of her head. When she spoke, her teeth were yellow. When she arrived at the house and saw the little boy, she patted him on the head without smiling or kissing him and said, “Now, you won’t be much trouble for your old grandma, will you, lad?” The little boy didn’t always understand what she said because she spoke differently than his mother and father.
“Why are your teeth yellow and all crooked?” the little boy asked the first night at the dinner table. She had made a pot of boiled beef and potatoes the little boy didn’t like.
The grandmother stopped eating and looked at him.
“Son,” the father said, “you shouldn’t say things like that.”
“But why aren’t they white and straight like ours?” he persisted.
The grandmother got up and went into the kitchen. She came back to the table with a bar of soap. “You see this?” she asked the little boy. “We’ll use it to wash out your mouth if you keep on saying nasty things.”
The father was not happy that the grandmother was threatening his son, but said nothing, because he needed her help taking care of the boy. Still, he gave the grandmother a disapproving look.
The little boy was not used to threats of harm or punishment, and he whimpered.
The father got up, even though he hadn’t finished his dinner, and stood by the boy, putting a hand on his back. The boy cried louder. “It’s OK, son,” the father said. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
The grandmother dropped her fork on the plate with a loud clang, and said, “That child is too coddled. He needs to learn some manners.”
“He’s three years old,” the father said, and took the boy out of the dining room. From then on the father and the boy had dinner in the living room, watching TV, while the grandmother ate in the dining room, reading a book.
“What is that on your head?” the grandmother asked the little boy the next afternoon before the father got home.
“It’s my hat,” he said. “I wear it every day.”
When the grandmother realized it was the father’s briefs, she rushed to the boy and snatched them off his head. She did this with such force that the little boy’s head was knocked sideways and he fell.
The grandmother ignored the boy’s crying. “If I see you do that again, I’ll lock you in a dark closet. Do you understand?”
The little boy was still on the floor, crying, and didn’t answer. The grandmother grabbed him by the arms and pulled him up to standing. She got her face close to his and said, “Did you hear me?”
The boy almost choked on her breath, because it smelled to him like garbage when it has been left too long in the kitchen. He nodded, still crying, and went to his room.
“That boy is a ninny,” the grandmother said when the father came home and she told him what had happened. She did not think she was being too strict: she wanted her daughter’s son, who was her own flesh and blood, after all, to grow up strong and normal and not bring shame to the family. She had never heard of a little boy wearing his father’s underwear on his head, even for a minute, and could not abide it.
The father did not argue, and did not explain that he and the mother were aware of the boy’s habit and didn’t think it did any harm. He grew sad that he was forced to accept her behavior, and became even sadder when he remembered what the mother’s doctors had said that morning: she would be in the hospital another two weeks.
The little boy was sad every day now, afraid of the grandmother. He didn’t even play with his toys in the living room while his father watched TV.
“Mommy will be home soon,” his father told him. “Then everything will be back to normal.”
“When?” he asked.
“Soon,” the father said. “Two weeks.”
But this meant nothing to the little boy. He understood today, and knew tomorrow came after you went to sleep, but he didn’t know what anything beyond that was. It might as well be forever until he would see his mother again.
At last the two weeks passed, and the mother came home, and the grandmother left.
After a day or so the mother noticed that the little boy was not as happy and playful as he had been. She noticed that he didn’t put the underwear on his head any more.
“I just don’t want to do it again,” he said when his mother asked him. “It reminds me of grandma and her yellow teeth.”
But what the boy didn’t say, because he was not even aware of it, was that now every time he touched anything other than his toys, he looked at his parents to see if they were going to be angry with him.
That night, after the boy was asleep, the mother asked the father what had happened with the underwear hat and the grandmother, and the father told her and wept, because he thought he had been weak in not defending his son against the old woman. The mother put her arms around him and said that he had done the best he could, given the situation. As they hugged in silence, they each resolved different things: the father that he would mold his son into someone who would not be at risk for ostracism, and the mother that she would not thwart her son in any way, so long as he did no harm. Their boy would live happily ever after.