“Yes ma’am,” I said, and winced instantly, with a furtive glance at the grocery clerk I was directing it to. Stout in the eyebrows, sure, and kind of a mustache, sure, but otherwise a doughy feminine model of a face, with no offense registered on it. I get this wrong a lot. To be fair, I always have. I grew up saying “Yes ma’am” to pretty much everybody and I’d have had to be in a heap of trouble in a formal situation to let fly with a Yes Sir. To my way of thinking, “Ma’am” is Yes’s last name.
It doesn’t always go over well. People can get prickly about their pronouns and they can’t be expected to know that I Ma’am universally. I always feel bad and embarrassed when I get corrected and it would be worth my while to work on eliminating the whole locution, but it runs deep. The worst one was the day I was facing a gang of mailboxes (don’t laugh, that is what they’re called) poking letters into them and someone came up behind me and asked, in a highish voice, if I was done with Apartment 503 yet. “No ma’am,” I sang out, and my new friend immediately said “Sir.” Which threw me into the usual jumbled panic syntax and I turned around to apologize, only to find I was face to face with a person completely covered in tattoo ink, including every side of his head. Jot this down. If you are an individual of the checker-headed persuasion, it would be more considerate not to spring yourself on someone from two feet away.
None of the words in my apology were in the right order to begin with, and after I turned around and caught sight of the man, it all just collapsed into unrelated syllables. I do not know if he enjoyed my discomfiture, because his checkerboard interfered with his expression. We ended up becoming friends, which is how I found out he wasn’t completely covered in tattoos after all–he was still missing half of one sleeve and the palms of his hands, I believe, plus his eyeballs, but I understand these omissions have now been rectified. Nothing has been left out, which you can see for yourself at his website, as long as you check the “over eighteen” box.
That was the worst episode, but we’re conditioned to feel bad when we get someone’s sex wrong. People feel strongly about it. I don’t, myself. Or, at least, I don’t think I would care if I got Sirred. I can’t remember it happening. No one ever thinks I’m a boy, even though I lack couth, fart audibly, and don’t clean up after myself.
One time when I was a little girl I pulled my hair back severely and said to my parents, Look, this is what I’d look like if I was a boy! There would be no reason to remember this episode except for how quiet it got afterward. Real quiet. My folks were quiet anyway but when they got that quiet it put a spotlight on the Thing That Must Not Be Said. Their sudden silence framed it like the city painting around a pothole. You can’t miss it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my father’s sister had declared herself a boy at a very young age and there was no precedent for such a thing in local society. Not in the early 1900s. It didn’t work out for him or anybody else in the family, not that that was Uncle Bill’s fault. I didn’t meet him until I was grown, and by that time he’d fended off the Ma’am thing by wearing a suit jacket, fedora, and wingtips from the boys’ department at all times. He had an unusually thick head of hair and his mustache wasn’t that great. I’m pretty sure I never ma’amed him. I would have felt awful. But it wouldn’t have been the worst thing that ever happened to him.
He deserved better. We all do, so don’t tell my friend from the mailbox that I call him Checkerhead. Or That Colored Boy.