Note about names and pronouns: Names have been changed in this story to protect privacy. Around the age of seventeen, Antwan changed her name and asked to be referred to as female. She has asked that we use male pronouns when referring to the times before then when she still identified as male.
Our foster son Antwan not only suffered from severe attention deficit disorder, but hyperactivity, post-traumatic stress, learning disorders, illiteracy, speech impairments, chronic institutionalization, and a unique family inheritance that Antwan liked to call “born to argue.” In Antwan’s case, attention deficit disorder could be traced to long before our involvement, so I felt safe in blaming his birth mother and her addictions rather than our drifting focus. Not that Antwan would allow our focus to drift for one millisecond when he was in the room. I estimate I’ve sat through close to two hundred baby drag shows since knowing this twelve-year-old queen.
Managing severe ADD meant every five minutes of Antwan’s day was scheduled and the schedule was printed and taped to walls in every room of the house. Institutionalization means that Antwan was incapable of initiating and completing the simplest of tasks without staff prompting. He could not brush his teeth without direction and supervision. He could not set the table, get dressed, or eat dinner without direction and supervision. In Antwan’s case, attention deficit disorder seemed to apply equally to his vast need of our attention and to his almost complete inability to focus his own. This combination would demand every ounce of energy the Lover and I possessed.
In the group home, Antwan and the other boys would work to contract. Behaviours were charted and if the kids managed to keep it together, they could earn a CD or a movie pass. Working to contract meant that as Antwan worked through his intensely structured day, he was able to approach his posted schedule and check off tasks completed with appropriate behaviours, eventually compiling enough check marks to earn the coveted contract item.
Antwan arrived in our home seven days before Halloween and that meant Antwan would be obsessed with Halloween day and night until it came to pass. In fact, he’d already been obsessed with it for the past four weeks. Antwan, who had craved dressing in women’s clothes his entire life, had only ever been given this one day a year in which he was allowed, with public indulgence, to express his gender. One day a year of release from the pressure cooker of social convention. All that tension.
Antwan’s obsession with Halloween gave us a bargaining point. Antwan would work to earn Halloween. And he would earn it piece by piece. Shoes. Stockings. Dress. Wig. But working to contract is dependent upon a certain amount of sustained attention. Halloween was still a week away. Seven days, with each day made up of one thousand, four hundred and forty minutes. Schedule that.
We were lucky enough to live in the Mission District of San Francisco where Antwan shared with the Latino community a love of glamorous, cheap extravagance—sequins, crepe, satins, and bows. At the Mission Thrift Store, Antwan and I found a size eighteen, light pink, heavy satin ball gown that likely came from a Mission High School graduation ceremony but could have just as easily been lifted directly from the pages of “Cinderella.” The dress bore a heavy full skirt, scoop neck, pearl buttons all the way down the back, and tiny pink satin bows sewn onto the shoulders. Attached to the dress with a safety pin was a pair of elbow-length white satin gloves. From the wig store just down the street, we bought a long, black, straight wig; from the dollar store, a diamond tiara; and from Payless Shoes, size twelve silver pumps.
Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, we worked our way through his first week at home. Every day the marathon began with waking him up with a cheerful “mom” smile. After much faking sleeping in order to maximize the attention he got from this interaction, Antwan dragged himself out of bed and headed for breakfast. If this routine went fairly well, which one could never predict, he got to use the red pen dangling on a string next to his behaviour chart in the kitchen and check off “getting up on time” and “eating breakfast appropriately.”
“I already got four check marks on breakfast!” he announced happily.
Then into the bathroom. The bathroom was complicated by the presence of a mirror, which engendered a private baby drag show with much posing and loud singing. Attention deficit disorder combined with large quantities of self-absorption made getting Antwan’s teeth brushed and face washed an Everest climb. Eight twenty-five a.m. Two more red checkmarks on the chart. This was turning out to be a very good morning. Leave for the train. Close to achieving the summit of the morning routine, the Lover and I imperceptibly relaxed. Antwan liked the train and we didn’t have to make him do anything while we were on it. Once we dropped him off at school, we were free until 2:45 in the afternoon when we got back on the train and went to pick him up.
On the fourth night after moving in and three days before Halloween, a fair number of messy little red check marks had accumulated on Antwan’s behaviour chart, earning him the pink Cinderella dress. He was still working on the gloves, the tiara, the wig, the pumps, and—very importantly—the event itself. Permission to participate would hang in the balance until the last possible minute and could be revoked at any time.
And so, when, on the fourth night after moving in and three days before Halloween, Antwan began to argue about cleaning his room, I fingered Halloween like a well-loved credit card, assuming it would buy me what I wanted. Dinner was half finished and I could see, just beyond Antwan’s shoulder, the clock on the wall read 6:30 p.m.
“I ain’t cleaning my room.”
Boom, boom, boom, he stomped out of the kitchen and up the stairs. I followed him up.
“Come on on, Ant, let’s just finish dinner and…”
Boom, boom, boom, he stomped down the stairs. I followed him back down to the kitchen.
“Ant, you need to calm down.”
He picked up a glass of water from the table, spun around, and flung it at me. Not the glass, just the water. It was sort of funny. But it wasn’t sort of funny because at the same time his mouth was shooting non-stop.
“You a fuckin’ bitch!”
The Lover stepped in.
“Look, Ant, let’s just finish dinner.”
“I ain’t eating no goddamn dinner!”
I climbed back upstairs to change my clothes. A few minutes later the Lover abandoned Antwan in the kitchen and came up to see what I was doing.
I was staring at the air.
Boom, boom, boom.
He arrived at the top of the stairs clutching a blue plastic pitcher. Before I could even stand up, he stepped into the living room, closed his eyes, and flung the water. Then he started jumping up and down on the spot.
Boom, boom, boom. Boom!
Antwan ran into the bathroom, tore into a new twenty-four-roll package of toilet paper, and came out wielding one in each hand. I decided it was time to pull the card.
“Antwan, if you want to go out for Halloween, you need to put that toilet paper down and…”
It doesn’t really hurt to be hit with a roll of toilet paper. It just sort of demoralizes you.
Antwan stomped down the stairs and we followed. As long as we were within a certain proximity, he was getting his need for attention met. This was a balancing act as leaving him alone he might do property damage, while following him encouraged the performance. Keeping him safe was the priority, yet Antwan would never really do anything that would cause the least amount of physical pain to himself. If I left him and went back upstairs he followed me, cursing, swearing and calling me names the whole time.
Overwhelmed, I ducked into our bedroom and closed the door.
Antwan threw open the door, which slammed into the wall, ran in, and jumped on the bed, all two hundred pounds of him. I lay there, inches from his great, oversized feet, while he jumped up and down, threatening to hurt me. Luckily for him we had twelve-foot ceilings or he’d probably have hit his head.
The clock beside the bed read 7:45 p.m. This had already been a long day. A very long week. I was stupefied with exhaustion and trembling with adrenalin. I wanted to grab Antwan, knock him down, and stuff a pillow down his throat.
“Ant, get off the bed.”
“Whassamatter? You scared?”
“Just get off the bed.”
“I gonna make you sorry, bitch.”
“Get off the bed.”
“Fuck you, Antwan. Fuck you!”
Holy cow. Staff never used that word. Staff always maintain a professional distance, used calm, neutral tones to remind the child that he is safe while providing a physical presence in order to help the child regain self-control.
Antwan ran to where the Lover had collapsed on the couch in the living room.
“SHE TOL’ ME FUCK YOU!”
My completely unprofessional defence had escalated him further. But at least it got him off the bed.
I went back downstairs to the kitchen, where I had decided to attempt to order my internal universe by doing the dishes. But Antwan was having none of it and he followed me down. I started clearing the table when I saw the bread knife next to the abandoned garlic toast. In the group home all sharp objects are locked away. But this was a real home.
I’m not very big. I used to think I was big because I grew up sharing a bedroom with a tiny older sister. In that context I felt sort of gangly and huge. But when I finally became cognizant of average body sizes in the world, I discovered that, in fact, I’m not very big.
Antwan was big.
Antwan hovered over me, hate in his eyes.
“What y’all gonna do wit’ the knife, bitch? Gonna cut me? That it? You wanna cut me? She gonna cut me! Come on bitch, y’all show me what you can do wit’ a knife. Come on!” He was dancing as he said this. “Oooo weee!”
I decided I needed to get the knife out of sight and myself out of the kitchen where other potentially life-threatening objects, such as the blender, glimmered in my peripheral vision.
I slipped the knife into a drawer and walked past Antwan and into my office. True to form, rather than going for the knife, he went for me, following me into the small room where I soon realized we were in even closer proximity. I decided to try reason again, just in case. He stood over me.
“Ant, you need to go to your room and calm down.”
“I ain’t fuckin’ goin’ nowhere!”
“You scared of me? That it? Come on. You scared?”
The Lover came in.
“She was gonna cut me!”
“She hadda knife!”
I was feeling very close to repeating the unprofessional phrase I had used upstairs. It was this or get across the hall to the bathroom where, if I was quick, I could lock the door behind me, leaving Antwan on the other side. I rose and stepped toward the door. Antwan turned, reached out with both hands, and shoved me from behind. I lurched forward, grabbing the door frame to break my fall, and before I could even squeak, the Lover grabbed Antwan by the shoulders and spun him in a circle, and the next thing we knew Antwan was face down, the Lover sitting on his back, pinning his body and arms to the floor.
Holy cow. My Amazon warrior husband/wife was pretty damn fast.
Because I am a nice woman, I grabbed a pillow from the couch and shoved it under Antwan’s big head to cushion it from the cold floor. Then I sat down on his legs, back to back with the Lover, and held his ankles.
This particular restraint wasn’t in the training manual and Antwan knew it. His voice muffled by the pillow, he shouted, “You ain’t doin’ it right! You hurtin’ me! Let me up! You hurtin’ me!”
We didn’t let him up.
In intensive foster-parent training we were told that when you are holding an escalated child in a restraint, you watch and listen for the breath to slacken. Then once the breath had returned to normal, ask a few questions. Test for compliance. We waited. Five minutes. Five minutes that seemed like half an hour. Antwan’s voice changed from yelling to whining.
“Y’all don’t know nothin’ ’bout restraints. You ain’t doin’ it right.”
I started laughing. The Lover started laughing. Antwan started laughing. Was something funny or had we all, perhaps, gone mad? We let go of Antwan’s arms. I climbed up off his legs. Antwan rolled over onto his back and grinned. Shook his head.
“Y’all don’t know what the hell you doin’.”
Nope. On many levels.
Antwan agreed to finish his dinner—dinner? That was two lifetimes ago—and have his bath. We all stood up.
Nine p.m. Antwan sat at the table finishing his lasagna. He was truly enjoying the fact that I had said “fuck you” to him. He kept telling Lover, “She told me fuck you!” as though repeating my words gave him permission to swear. Then there was our hokey restraint. He grinned from ear to ear.
“Whoa, you got a hold o’ me and boom! I was down! Y’all don’t know nothin’ ’bout restraints! She sittin’ on me like a big ol’ wrestler. Y’all don’t know what you doing!”
He seemed to have no memory of roaming the house for over two hours abusing and threatening us or of having shoved me, and for the time being, neither did we. We were having some good laughs around the kitchen table. The Lover ate her dessert, I finished the dishes. Antwan was wrapped in his fuzzy pink bathrobe and slippers and ready to hop into a hot, sudsy bath.
This day was almost over.
Antwan loved the bath just as he loved the ocean or any body of water that would support his mass. Into the bath he would drag a mittful of Barbies and talk and sing at the top of his lungs, splashing and washing and braiding their hair in animated girl-doll dramas. By the time he was done, the bathroom was a total disaster, water everywhere, the drain choked with plastic hair, shampoo bottles near empty and tossed to the floor.
The Lover went to start the water. Antwan stood.
“I ain’t goin’ in no bath.”
Silence. Stillness. Okay. Soft tones.
“You love the bath.”
“I tol’ you. I ain’t goin.’”
His eyes distanced.
“Get the fuck away from me.”
At 10 p.m., Antwan was once again running up and down the stairs, knocking over chairs and relentlessly pursuing and swearing at us. We decided to call for support. I ducked into the Lover’s office. Where was the phone? I ran down to my office. Same. At some point when we weren’t looking, Antwan had pulled all the phones out of the jacks and hidden them. Although it seemed like a set-up for some awful murder, I was less afraid than thoroughly and absolutely exhausted. My body felt like a very thin sheet of metal responding with pain to every vibration, ready to snap or collapse if it had to be bent in half one more time.
While Antwan danced outside my office window, swearing and making faces and yelling at me, the Lover snuck out the back door and across to the neighbour’s house to call Sequoia Residential Group Home for support. Jake answered. Jake was tall and wiry and responsible for a lot of restraining in the group home. Antwan was afraid of Jake. Jake assured her he would be right there.
Jake got lost before he left Oakland, driving in circles just trying to find the freeway on-ramp. He finally found the on-ramp and successfully got himself headed east toward the Central Valley. Another forty-five minutes and he was turned around and heading for San Francisco. Despite Jake’s awesome reputation in the group home, he had never left Oakland before.
Meanwhile Antwan shed his bathrobe and started jumping up and down on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building in shorts and T-shirt and fuzzy pink slippers while the Lover sat on the concrete steps of the building reminding him in neutral tones that he could choose to go to his room and calm down.
Almost an hour and a half after we had called for help, Jake careened down our quiet street, screeched to a halt outside the building, and leapt out of the car. Antwan took one look at Jake and bolted for the house. Jake raced after him, collared him, and moved him to his bedroom.
In group home work, reputation is everything, and Jake had a fierce reputation. We had spent five hours trying to convince Antwan to go to his room and in two minutes Jake had him there. Antwan cursed Jake but stayed right where Jake put him. Jake decided he should stay awhile to make sure Antwan wound down and went to sleep. Outside Antwan’s door we listened to him as he chirped and squealed.
“Like a chicken,” said Jake. “Every night, that boy be locked in the quiet room ’til dawn. Chirpin’ like a chicken.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder. For Antwan, some unknown or known trigger, a flick of the head, a sneer, the revving of an internal engine to the point of screaming, and in seconds the atmosphere was charged like a war, only Antwan was in control now, the chaos erupting from his own body and throat. His eyes went blank, he wasn’t seeing our faces, any reason, any point in stopping: the surge of trauma ripped through his body, transforming like gold under white heat into power sweet as sugar, sweet as crack cocaine.
Antwan was in his room. Chirping. Antwan was contained.
We stumbled down to the kitchen and collapsed into chairs. Jake pulled a fistful of papers out of his back pocket.
“Y’all got insurance?”
I thought he must be concerned about Antwan wrecking our house. Or us.
“You wanna see my brochure?”
Jake laid open a four-fold colour brochure. Life was merely entertaining before. Now it had entered the realm of the absurd.
“It’s my side business. You know. Workin’ in the group home just barely pays my bills. We cover theft, fire, breakage.”
I wondered if it covered water and toilet paper damage. I wonder if it covered acts of slavery, neglect, and abuse. Acts of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Contras. The CIA. The president. God.
We pulled Antwan’s mint chocolate chip ice cream out of the freezer, served up three bowls, and perused Jake’s brochure.
“Y’all can combine house and automobile. How many cars you got? There’s ten percent discount you got more than one vehicle.”
It was now one in the morning. Jake and I crept up the stairs and listened outside Antwan’s door. Silence.
“I figure he’s out for the night.”
We walked Jake out to his car. I was a little worried about Jake finding his way back to Oakland, but he was not revealing any lack of confidence. He climbed in and waved, and the tires squealed as he pulled away. Our neighbour Rosa poked her dishevelled head out the window of her apartment, asking in sleepy Spanish if we were okay. We nodded and smiled. We had five hours to recover before Antwan must be roused for school.
The next morning as I packed Antwan’s lunch I found the phones, both of them, stuffed inside his fuzzy monkey backpack.
Antwan didn’t lose Halloween. We couldn’t bear the thought of having to come up with another carrot to drag him through his routines, and the support staff from Sequoia agreed. Working to contract was a matter of accumulating points for positive behaviour. If every time Antwan had a negative behaviour we obliterated half of the little red check marks, he’d never get anywhere.
Usually when Antwan dressed up in women’s clothes he darkened the entire house with curtains, sheets, and towels: whatever he could find to cover the windows and remain unseen. Tonight he understood that he could emerge from the darkness of the house into the darkness of the streets. He got serious all of a sudden. Coming out.
We started out crossing the street to our gay neighbours. Antwan, hiding his face in all his hair, lifted his skirts and ran. The neighbour boys were generous to a fault with Antwan and lavished a gorgeous pink feather boa upon him. We then caught a cab up to the Castro to another friend’s house for a pre-festival visit. Antwan was lovely in all his pink satin and feathers, practically angelic, especially for the short time he remained intimidated. But he was quickly overcoming his initial shyness and as we disembarked from the cab and approached our friend’s house, he turned toward the street, lifted his skirt, flashed his legs, and threw out his thumb to a passing car.
Antwan was demure and managed his anxiety and ADD for about ten minutes at our friend’s house before he started needing attention.
“Look at my hair!”
“Yeah. It looks great, Ant.”
“Look at my hair!”
“Mmm hmm. Yeah.”
“Look at my hair!”
We’d selected a clean and sober all-ages dance down in the Castro as our Halloween event. This way Antwan could be surrounded by all of the recreational spectacle without all of the recreational drugs. As we left our friend’s quiet neighbourhood above Castro and approached the festival, we began to encounter the culture. Fat queens in outrageous frocks, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in full beards, hard muscle, leather boys in nothing but harnesses and studded jock straps.
Antwan slowed down. The bravado he had displayed further up the hill vanished and he became convinced that everyone was staring at him. And perhaps they were, sensing that this was no regular queen but a boy the size of a man, enveloped in a pink satin fantasy of Cinderella innocence. Antwan stopped. He stared at the sidewalk, hiding behind all his fake hair, his fake shoes glued to the pavement.
We had been working toward this event for weeks. We had spent the entire day witnessing the trying-on of outfits. We had spent entire other days shopping for outfits and accessories. We had negotiated our way through numerous behaviours, contracts, fuck-ups and redemptions for this one night. We were fifty feet from the entrance to the dance and Antwan wouldn’t budge.
Antwan, I feared, would be far happier to go home and watch the entire event mediated by the television because Antwan preferred to dwell in the anticipation of events rather then the reality of them. And why not? When reality’s grim outline did nothing but instill fear, pain, and loss, who wouldn’t prefer life on TV?
“Come on, Ant. We’ll just stay for an hour.”
Eyes on pavement.
“Ant, look up. Come on. Let’s go.” Silence. Nothing.
I thought about dancing. I thought about entering the rhythm and the pulse of the music until I lost my mind, until I was no longer trapped by the sternly regimented life I had with Antwan, by this new role I had been thrust into as the evil stepmother. What a relief that would be, if only for a few hours. I thought about Antwan running out as the clock struck midnight and tripping on the stairs and losing a size twelve wide ten-dollar Payless high heel and some prince finding it and walking door to door through the Mission neighbourhood searching. And if I were the evil stepmother then I would hide Antwan in the bathroom and push myself—for I had no other daughters—upon the young man’s affections. And if the story bears out, then my despicable intentions would be discovered and Antwan would win after all. Sweet cherub-like Cinderella would triumph, sweep out of our house, and marry the prince and live happily ever after—in some middle-income neighbourhood like Bernal Heights—and I would scrape the Halloween makeup off my face and make a large bowl of heavily buttered popcorn and plug a movie into the TV and lie down on the couch as though Antwan had never come to live with us in the first place. His schedules and behaviour charts would flap, disused and fading, hanging from the wall by a single tack. I would stretch out on the couch as though I had never been fool enough to answer that ad from the Sequoia Center but instead the one about the puppies, the real puppies, and a small dog with a wagging tail whose greatest crime would be wetting the rug in our absence, or perhaps in its excitement to see us return home, would sneak up and plant a big wet kiss on my ear and I would haul her up onto the couch and once she stopped wiggling I’d hold her small brown body wrapped in mine and feed her popcorn absent-mindedly while I watched the opening credits for an intelligent, foreign drama with subtitles, while the puppy focused like a chess player on the next piece of popcorn about to be delivered. And life would be simple. Wiggly, happy and simple.
But it’s not.
It’s two hundred pounds of self-conscious flesh in a dress standing on the corner of Castro and Nineteenth Street staring at ten very long dirty toes hanging out over the ends of two very small, ugly silver shoes. And no heel would get caught on the concrete step in the rush to ending and no handsome Latino prince would come searching and singing. No one would rescue him. No one would rescue me.
We caught a cab home. Antwan lay on the couch, taking up the entire length of it. He was still in full makeup, still wearing his long black wig, his huge body sunk within a pile of pink satin. Ten long toes were now freed from the two ugly shoes left behind, one after the other, on the stairs. He lay supine, just like that first night I observed him in the group home, only instead of clutching Barbie he was now clutching the remote control, news coverage of the Castro Halloween party blaring from the TV. With his other hand he dipped into a big bowl of buttered popcorn, shoved it by the fistful into his painted mouth, then reached down and smeared the excess grease and lipstick all over the upholstery.
Nicola Harwood is a writer and a theatre and interdisciplinary artist. Her projects are often concerned with the hidden histories of places, peoples, women, and queers. Her writing ranges from tragic to comic with her favourite bits veering at breakneck speed between the two. She has won a few awards and appeared in various literary journals, and her performance and installation projects have been produced in various cities in Canada, Europe, and the USA. Current projects include a production of her play Buffalo Girls (2016–17) with Frank Theatre of Vancouver and Temple of Our Madness (2015–2020), a series of interactive installations about women, animals and girls. Recent projects include High Muck-a-Muck: Playing Chinese, a web-based collaborative poetry project (highmuckamuck.ca); KHAOS, the libretto for a new opera; and Salmon Row and Letters from Lithuania, both site-specific plays commissioned by Mortal Coil Performance Society. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s two children and their dog and teaches creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.