Zigzag Zeke

Zigzag Zeke

by Erin Halfelven

"Funny Name for a Girl"

Did you ever lose something then find it right where it should have been all the time, even though you know you had looked there first or maybe even several times? Have you ever first heard of a new celebrity in the morning and by the afternoon everyone else seems to have known about them for years? Do new words seem to appear on the lips of other people or words you know you've used before suddenly get blank stares from friends and co-workers?

Maybe you zigged when everyone else zagged.

I discovered zigzagging when we moved from Alta Loma to Los Angeles the summer I turned ten. The new house seemed small and the lot it sat on couldn't have been a quarter as big as the one where I'd lived all my life up until then. I missed our big house and the peach orchard in the backyard.

Mom and Dad had got divorced and had to sell the house to divvy up. The new house belonged to Grandpa, Dad's father, before his last stroke but I had seen it only once, before we moved in. Dirt-colored stucco covered the outside walls, with gray metal trim around the doors and windows. Inside, brown carpet in the living room and bedrooms, gray and turquoise tile in the kitchen and bathrooms, and mismatched butterscotch and avocado appliances identified the place as being twenty years out of style, and bad style at that. No dishwasher, no garbage disposal, no laundry room.

After the moving men left, Mom sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor and cried so I escaped into the sad little backyard. Instead of a peach orchard, Grandpa's backyard had one grapefruit tree and a mound of beavertail cactus growing against the back fence. Anthills, scraggly Bermuda grass, and occasional pieces of unidentifiable junk filled the emptiness.

Avoiding the ants, I found a cinder block to sit on and watched the red army carry off maggots from the body of a dead crow. I don't think I had ever felt lower. I didn't understand what had happened, why Mom and I had to live like this. Dad was Dr. Samson Ezekiel, an oral surgeon with a big and profitable practice in Ontario; he even consulted with the FBI on forensic dentistry and had written a textbook and two mystery novels.

"He could have given us the house," Mom always insisted. "He's punishing me for the divorce and he's punishing you for choosing to live with me." I didn't know the half of it, actually. Dad had hired a real swift lawyer and the divorce agreement had some pretty onerous clauses. Like the house belonged to a trust fund, not to Mom or me and Mom could live in it rent-free as long as she didn't take a job. The trust fund would also pay the insurance, utilities, taxes, school expenses and all until I turned twenty-six or graduated college with a Master's degree or better at which time, I would own the house. Little twists like that, and there were lots of them, made Mom feel terrible.

Right at that moment, I kind of hated my Dad. He'd had a fling, both he and Mom called it that, with one of his office staff. That caused a huge blow-up that ended in the divorce and Dad moving into an apartment with his mistress in Pomona. I hated Dad for abandoning us, for punishing Mom and for leaving me stuck in the middle. So I sat and watched insects dismantle the corpse of a carrion bird and thought the darkest thoughts a ten-year-old kid from the suburbs could think.

That's probably when I made the zigzag.

I got so mad I couldn't see straight. I felt dizzy for a moment then hot tears ran down my cheeks. I didn't want to cry and that made me even madder. I wiped away the tears with the back of my hand and when I opened my eyes, a boy I'd never seen before stood right in front of me, looking down at the dead bird.

"Huh," he said.

I just stared at him, wondering how long he'd been standing there.

"Are you crying about this dead crow?" he asked.

I shook my head, biting my lip to keep from crying again. I figured him to be a year or two older than me because he would have to be several inches taller. He had dark hair and tanned features with brown eyes and very white teeth. He squatted down to get a better look at the bird.

"Gross," he said.

"Yeah," I agreed.

"You just move in?"

"Uh huh."

"I'm Aaron. I live next door." He pointed west toward a pink stucco house probably just as old as Grandpa's.

"I'm Zeke," I said. A nickname from my family name, Ezekiel, but I preferred it to my first name.

"Huh," he said.

We stared at the ants and the crow.

"Maggots," he said. "Want me to carry it off to the garbage?"

It seemed an odd offer. "I don't know where the garbage is?" I said.

"I'll show you," he said. He stood up and found a scrap of lumber, probably a shake blown off the roof, to scoop up the dead crow and maggots along with a lot of ants. He headed toward the back corner of the yard where I saw a chain link gate in the beaver tail. I followed him out into the alley and watched him dump the little corpse into a trash can in a whole iron rack of trash cans, none of which had lids.

"There," he said, smiling at me.

I smiled back. "Thanks," I said.

"That's my back gate there," he said, pointing to the gate only a little way down the alley, on the other side of the rack of cans.

I nodded.

"You going to go to school at Emory?"

"I guess?" I said. "Monday."

He nodded. "What grade you in?"

"Fifth," I said.

He smiled. "Me, too. I've got Mrs. Lopez home room, we just started last week, so you haven't missed much. Try to get her, she's nice." He couldn't be that much older than me then, I decided. Just big for his age, maybe.

We wandered back into my yard and he toed a dessicated grapefruit a few times, dribbling it like a soccer ball. With a sudden kick, he sent it through the gate we'd left open into the alley. "Go-o-oal!" he shouted and I laughed.

"Zeke's your last name, huh? Old Man Zeke was your grandpa?" he asked.

I nodded again. "Ezekiel, really."

"I thought," he said. "Zeke's kind of a funny name for a girl. What's your first name? I bet it's something pretty."

I stared at him. "I'm not a girl," I told him.

He grinned. "Sure you are. You play like you're a boy? You on Little League?"

"I'm a boy!" I said.

He frowned. "Okay."

But I could tell he wasn't convinced. I stared at him some more, glared at him really.

"I didn't mean to make you mad," he said.

"What made you think..." I started, just as puzzled as angry, really.

"Well," he said. "Your jeans have pink thread in the seams and --uh-- hearts on the back pockets. And your earrings?" He grinned. "The little gold pussycats are cute."

I almost hurt myself looking down at my jeans and clapping my hands to my ears at the same time. My jeans did have pink stitching --and my sneakers had pink laces -- and I had something in my earlobes.

"And the ponytail, of course," he added.

My face twisted up and amazingly, I started crying. "I duwanna be a girl," I wailed. "My parents got divorced and now I've turned into a girl!" It seemed incredibly unfair.

I don't know what Aaron thought of that outburst but he sort of reached for me, looking concerned. I dodged past him and, still crying, ran for the house. I could feel my ponytail bobbing against my neck.

* * *

Now, it's my theory that a person zigzags, crosses from one parallel life to another during times of emotion or distress. It probably happens a lot, but if the changes are small, mostly we don't notice. But there's got to be more to it than that or all of us would notice changes building up or big ones would happen more easily. There's got to be some stability in the timelines or we wouldn't have parallel worlds, we'd just have chaos.

I'm probably not smart enough to understand a real explanation but now I call my theory quantum reality, after the better known quantum mechanics to which it is probably related, somehow. Hey, it's a better name than zigzagitiness. My idea is that reality can change only in certain small increments, like the steps on a staircase or maybe like the separate bubbles in soap foam. If two worlds have nearly the same energy, then it's easier to change between them.

I think a lot of the time, we're changing between a small group of worlds that are all so similar that we don't really notice. It's only when it happens that a nearby world with a larger difference has energies that cancel each other out so we can zigzag into a world where the changes are really significant. I'm probably babbling but it makes a kind of sense.

Somehow, I, the consciousness that is me, had crossed from one world into another one -- presumably close by, with similar energies, whatever that means -- another world that was much the same as my own world but one in which I was born a girl instead of a boy. But I didn't know that at the time.

* * *

When I ran inside, crying, Mom turned from where she was unpacking kitchen stuff and sort of grabbed me. We held each other and both cried for a bit. "Oh, baby," Mom said. "We're okay, we'll be okay, it's going to be okay."

I'd already checked the front of my jeans. Even though they did have a front fly, they just didn't fit like boy jeans and they didn't fit like they had a boy inside them. I'd been on my way to the bathroom to check when Mom grabbed me.

"It's not going to be okay," I blubbered on her shoulder. "I think I'm a girl!"

She laughed softly. "Well, that's a switch," she said. She pushed me a bit back from her and smiled at me.

"Huh?" I said.

"Well, usually, you're doing your darndest to convince people you ought to have been a boy. Are you going to have the kids here call you 'Zeke,' too?" She took a dish towel from a box and dried my tears with it and then hers. "Or is my little tomboy going to try to grow up?"

I just stared at her. Then I turned and ran for the bathroom.

* * *

I wonder how many people who have zigzagged without knowing it end up locked up somewhere. Personally, I thought I had gone crazy and my trip to the bathroom did nothing to convince me otherwise.

First I looked at myself in the mirror. My face didn't look much different, maybe my chin was rounder. My hair was a good bit longer, though this was the seventies when boys and girls often wore their hair in similar styles. But boys didn't hold their ponytails back with red plastic clips shaped like cats. And I had little gold earrings with smiling kitty faces.

My long, powder blue t-shirt had a butterfly pattern on the chest and fuchsia cuffs and collar. I didn't know the color was called fuchsia then, I thought of it as dark pink. My jeans had the aforementioned pink, or rather fuchsia, stitches with little embroidered hearts on the pockets front and back. I pulled them down to see pale green cotton girl's panties with more kittens on them.

"I must like cats," I muttered. Well, we'd had various cats and dogs while I grew up but recently, Dad had taken Archie, our chocolate lab with him and Bobo, our twelve year old white cat had died in the winter. Somehow, I suspected that the girl me I had become liked cats well enough that there might be one around. Maybe the litterbox in the corner of the bathroom clued me in.

I pulled down the panties and looked. Not much to see. That I had not known: girls can't see their own private places without using a mirror. I didn't have a hand mirror handy but the long mirror on the back of the bathroom door showed me that yes, indeed, I was a girl. I knew what a girl looked like there from sneaking peeks at my dad's Playboy magazines--except there wasn't a little strip of hair down there.

I burst into tears again, sitting on the toilet seat with my jeans and panties down around my knees. "I duwanna be a girl," I whimpered. "Girls do icky stuff like play with dolls and stupid stuff like giggle and cry all the time."

Yeah, I could definitely see how lots of people who zigzag and don't know what happened could end up locked in the loony bin.

I kept sneaking looks in the mirror and crying but pretty soon I heard, between my sobs, a scratching at the door. I pulled up my panties and jeans and opened the door a bit to see. Sure enough, there were two tiny kittens looking up at me, one gray with white feet and one marmalade tabby. The little gray immediately pounced on my shoe while the tabby looked up at me and miaowed politely.

I made a strangled noise, either a sob or a giggle and scooped up the little orange one to cuddle against my cheek and get tears in its very soft fur.

Mom came around the corner of the hall just then, carrying a shallow water dish and a small bowl filled with kitten kibbles. "I thought we'd put Groucho and Harpo in your bathroom while we unpack, rather than leave them in their cage," she said.

The kittens had already discovered the litterbox and were exploring it. Pretty soon, they would figure out what it was for. "Are they both boys?" I asked, trying to look at the crotch of little Harpo and figure that out.

"I don't know," Mom said. "We'll ask the vet when we take them for their shots. Your father named them but they're young enough to change their names."

"If Daddy named them, we will change their names," I said, still angry at my dad. And even more so since it seemed to me he must be at fault for my turning into a girl. That didn't make sense but it didn't have to. And besides, Harpo was almost certainly a girl, though it's really hard to tell with kittens.

I put the little ball of fluff down where it immediately pounced on its littermate. They rolled over and around my shoes while I hiccoughed, their kitten absurdity making me smile in spite of myself.

Mom smiled, too, retrieved a towel from one of the bathroom boxes and wiped my face. "We can't cry all day, honey," she said. "Do you think you can unpack the boxes in your room by yourself? Your Aunt Bev is coming over in a couple of hours to help us out." Mom's younger sister was 19 and a sophomore living in a dorm at UCLA. She'd catch a bus to get here and we'd take her back later or she'd stay the night on the couch. Gammaw and Gampaw Norton lived in Oildale, about 100 miles north of L.A.

"Okay," I said. I felt curious about what my packed away things would turn out to be. In fact, I dreaded finding out I had been a girl all my life and just thought I'd been a boy. Having your parents get divorced can be pretty traumatic and I was about half-convinced I'd gone out of my mind.

We closed the door after making sure the kittens had found the water and food then Mom gave me a quick squeeze and headed back to her work in the kitchen and I went into the smaller bedroom, right next to the bathroom.

The room held a bed, a chest of drawers, a chair and a dresser along with a dozen or so boxes of various sizes, some stacked in the closet and others against the free wall. A few things, like a rather girly-looking lamp, a pink plastic trash can, and some clothes on hangers lay on the bed.

The clothes on hangers were all girl clothes; church and party stuff mostly, I decided. My good clothes, apparently. I looked them over, wondering vaguely why, if Mom called me her little tomboy, I owned so many dresses and skirts. I didn't know anything about girl's clothes but these looked very nice. I found myself considering what I would look like in them. Like a younger version of my Aunt Bev when she dressed for a date, I suspected.

The thought disturbed me but the image I really saw in my mind was more disturbing: my old male self decked out in girl's clothes. I almost started crying again.

Another box held a photo of me with Gammaw and Grampaw Norton on their lawn in front of their funny old house with the wide wooden porches. I knew the photo, taken only last year, but in this version of it, I had braids with ribbons in them and I wore a brown dress with red leggings. The gap in my front teeth was the same, though, and Gammaw and Gampaw had exactly the expressions I remembered. "I'm still their favorite grandchild," I said aloud. Of course, I had also been their only grandchild and probably still was.

I cried a little more then set the picture on my little dresser. The picture that ought to have gone on the other end of the dresser should have been of an old fighter plane, a photo I'd taken myself at the Ontario Air Show. But in its place, I found one of a galloping red horse, its golden mane flying. I had no idea where it had come from but looking at it disturbed me in a way I could not name. It had the same sort of excitement the jet picture had but with a different flavor.

I didn't know what to do with the cosmetics I found; I guess they were cosmetics but maybe not real ones. Do girls play with toy cosmetics, I wondered. I dumped them and the little bottles of smellum, all, in one of the drawers of the dresser.

"I must really be a girl," I said to myself, too soft for anyone else to hear. "I've gone out of my mind and think I've been a boy but it can't be true." I hung the good clothes all at one end of the closet, careful to get all the hangers turned the same way. Okay, I did that when I was a boy, too.

I decided right then not to tell anyone what had happened, that I had somehow turned into a girl or rather thought I had been a boy. Who would have believed the one and if they did believe the other, well, Mom didn't need more trouble on top of the divorce. I'd just have to get used to being a girl, I decided.

After all, from the evidence in the boxes of girl's clothes, dolls, jewelry, horse figurines and other girly stuff I put away -- despite the occasional baseball mitt, Little League uniform or toy airplane -- I'd been a girl all my life.

How hard could it be? I threw myself across the unmade bed

"Jessica!" I heard Mom call. "Jessie! Bev is here!"

"Jessica?" I wondered. "Who's Jessica?"

* * *

Of course, it's obvious that I was Jessica. It took me more than a moment to realize it, though. There must have been five Jessicas in my old class before we moved. No wonder I had everyone call me Zeke, even if Zeke made a funny name for a girl. Jessica was no better than my old name, Gregory, I decided. Worse really because it was a girl's name.

But then, I would probably have to get used to being a girl, I realized. Lying there, I had myself almost half-convinced that I'd never been a boy named Gregory; just a crazy, unhappy girl named Jessica. Sighing, I left my bedroom and went out to meet my aunt. "Jessica," I muttered, rolling my eyes.

Beverly Norton, my aunt, was a younger, thinner, taller version of my mom. Both had ashy, brown hair and bright hazel eyes. My hair is darker, like my dad's, but I've got the same eyes. Bev had a bit of a tan and mom had a dusting of freckles across her nose. When I walked in, they were clinched in a hug. For some reason, I just dashed over and joined the hug.

We all three bounced up and down a little and shed a few tears. I actually felt happy for a moment even though we all were crying. Being a girl is just weird.

* * *

So the three of us worked on getting the house all arranged for living in. Bev said her boyfriend is coming by with a truck and a couple of guys to help him, bringing a washer and dryer to put on the slab under the carport. And we all had fun, we really did.

Maybe being a girl named Zeke isn't going to be so bad.

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