Home > Count the Ways(4)

Count the Ways(4)
Author: Joyce Maynard


That was a long time ago now. Her child had accomplished what he’d set out to do. If you hadn’t known him before, there would have seemed nothing out of the ordinary about the appearance of the man who stood there beneath a homemade arbor of grapevines, hair slicked back, wearing a suit and tie and a pair of lace-up oxfords, a sprig of lilac pinned to his pocket. Kissing the bride.

If you had told Eleanor this would be part of her family’s story—the child she had thought of as her daughter, who had sent her a letter to say that he was actually her son—she might have imagined this as their family’s central challenge. But Al getting to become the person he always wanted to be turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened.

Eleanor had thought it would be strange, seeing Al for the first time—Al, a man. But it wasn’t. When she pulled up that morning, he was standing on the porch in his wedding suit, with the bride’s two brothers along with Toby and Elijah—Cam’s son from his second marriage. The five of them were fixing each other’s boutonnieres.

As much as Al had changed since she’d said goodbye to him that day at the airport, she recognized him instantly—his eyes, his hands, that dark hair with the familiar cowlick, now tamed with hair product.

But he was different, too, in ways that had nothing to do with the assignment of gender. The child who used to be Alison was never quick to smile. The young man Eleanor encountered on the porch now—her son Al—looked happier than she could ever remember. There was a lightness to him. He was actually laughing at something one of the future brothers-in-law had said.

“It’s good to see you,” Eleanor told him. The blandest words. Had they ever meant more than they did now?

Eleanor put her arms around him. He did not resist her embrace, as he might have done once. For a few years there he had been angry at everyone, himself included, no doubt. Angry at the world.


She should have recognized sooner that Alison had never felt she was born in the right body. She told no one when she got her period, though when Eleanor saw Alison’s underpants, hand-washed, hung to dry in her closet, she had put her arms around her daughter and asked, “Why didn’t you let me know?” When Ali’s breasts developed, she told Eleanor she wanted to chop them off.

Back in those days hardly anyone ever talked about things like that. You didn’t consider the possibility that there might be another way for a person like Ali to make her way through life, and if you did elect to do something about it (the hormones, the surgery), that would have seemed like the worst thing you could imagine your child going through.

Now here he was, Eleanor’s son Al, on his wedding day. Strong, handsome, happy.

“I want you to meet Teresa’s brothers,” he said, his hand on her shoulder.

“Mateo, Oscar. This is my mom.”


From where she stood, holding Louise near the back of the assembled guests, Eleanor had met the eyes of Teresa’s mother, Claudia—born in Mexico, raised in Texas, a woman who, years before, would have gone shopping with her daughter for a quinceañera dress. Forty years married, Claudia had told her earlier. Hers, a church wedding. Catholic.

“All that matters is love,” she had said to Eleanor, when the two of them met before the service. “Our daughter is happy. ¿Qué más necesitamos? What more do we need?” For her, the only issue about the match between her daughter and Eleanor’s son had been their refusal of a church wedding, but once they’d gotten a priest to give his blessing she’d gotten over it.

It was possible that Miguel and Claudia remained unaware of Al’s early history. What mattered to them was who these two adult children were now, not who they had been. When a person has been born in Michoacán, and lives now in a Dallas suburb, she knows all about letting go of the past. Making her peace with it, at least.

Eleanor studied the faces of the other guests, as many as she could see from where she stood. There was the Seattle crowd, Al’s programmer friends from his start-up, all unknown to her. The Mexican American contingent. But there were others she recognized—from school potlucks long ago, nights at the softball field, playground fundraisers, drop-offs and pickups at each other’s houses, times the children got together to play. They all just looked a lot older, but then so did Eleanor.

None of them had escaped large sorrows. A child in and out of rehab over the last ten years. A child dead by suicide. A son who lost a leg in Iraq. Scanning the assembled guests, Eleanor’s thoughts went to the friend who, if she were still alive, would have taken her for pre-wedding pedicures, and to her old neighbor Walt, who’d quietly loved her all those years—dead now for a dozen years. So many of those her age were no longer married to the wives and the husbands of their youth. Eleanor and the man with whom she’d raised three children among them.


It was never difficult to locate Cam in any crowd, given his height and his hair, which had retained its color, though now there were strands of gray among the red. If this event had taken place a couple of years earlier, the woman who’d replaced Eleanor as his wife would be seated next to him, but she was gone.

Maybe because he’d been busy setting things up, they had not spoken to each other yet, but now Cam turned his head, which allowed Eleanor to see his face for the first time in many years. It was deeply lined, but still handsome, though he was thinner than she’d ever known him to be. Gaunt, even. Cam had always been a lean person, but as a young man he had a certain heft to his body. Now his face was so drawn you could almost see the actual bones of his skull under the skin. When she caught sight of him he was staring off in the distance, his expression impenetrable.

It was a familiar image to Eleanor: Cam, with his attention someplace else. If the occasion inspired in him some memory of a day, long ago, when it had been himself and Eleanor standing in this field looking into each other’s eyes, swearing their love for all time (neither one of them able to imagine the day their hearts would not beat faster in the presence of the other), nothing on his face betrayed it.

Cam had never been a man inclined to consider the past. When a person left, she was gone. When an event was over, it might as well never have happened.


They’d met at a craft fair in Vermont when Cam was just getting started with his woodworking.

“Cam,” he said, when she’d stopped to inspect a bowl, running her finger over the smooth interior. It took Eleanor a moment to understand he was speaking to her.

“I thought you’d never stop at my table.”

He looked like an illustration out of an old book of Greek mythology she’d owned as a child, with that flowing red mane. His lanky presence was something she often registered (this was later) even before he walked into the room, ducking his head slightly as he passed through the doorway—a habit acquired from long experience of the many times he had hit his head on some low-hung New England lintel. He exuded utter self-assurance and a quality whose implications for her own life she would only understand later—a kind of coolness she never came close to possessing. Worries that consumed Eleanor rolled off his back, or seemed to. He didn’t hold on to things the way she did. He had an easier time than most letting go of things, and people, though she didn’t know that part yet.

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