Toshiya Kamei is a fiction writer working in English and Spanish. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as New World Writing, Revista Korad, and SmokeLong en Español.
On her third birthday, I got my youngest daughter a toy space soldier. It was a male action figure in a mech suit. The helmet slid back to reveal a solemn face. Fifteen years later, I still cringe at my blunder. It may sound like a lame excuse, but I’d been swamped with work since my recent promotion. I traveled a lot and worked long hours. Back then, Sayuri had primary responsibility for child rearing. She’d acquiesced to be a stay-at-home mom while studying for her bar exam.
One afternoon, Sayuri took our eldest daughter Yukari to the dentist, and I was home alone with Kaoru. The space soldier lay on the floor, discarded. Kaoru played with a girly doll that belonged to Yukari.
“You don’t like the soldier?” I asked.
“No, Daddy.” Kaoru shook her head and held the doll tighter in her arms. Tears brimmed in her eyes. Then it hit me how dense I had been. I gave her a hug and mumbled an apology. A mixture of love and shame flooded me. I promised I’d do better.
When Kaoru was born, I thought we had a boy. However, as soon as she learned to talk, she told us she was a girl. I thought we’d play catch and shoot hoops when she grew up. That was how my dad and I had bonded. Boy was I wrong. Sometimes life throws a slider. Or a knuckleball.
Initially, we were confused. Both my daughters kept their hair long. Kaoru wanted to wear her sister’s clothes. For a while, I thought Kaoru copied Yukari as, only one year apart in age, they grew up together.
Just as any parents would, we let her be. She was as happy as any child can be. Until she turned eleven.
“Daddy, I don’t want to be a boy,” Kaoru cried, tears in her voice. Her face screwed into a frown and she began to sob. I hugged her, feeling helpless that I was unable to do anything else. That was a wake-up call. She didn’t want to be a boy. That was the last thing she wanted to be. She’d confided in me in a lighthearted manner before, but that time it dawned on me that she was serious. Our family doctor said we were all born with a mix of male and female characteristics and put Kaoru on puberty blockers.
Even so, we didn’t run out to the shopping mall right away and buy girls’ clothes. Kaoru still wore Yukari’s hand-me-downs. Our first trip to the clothing store took place a few weeks later when I got laid off.
Thank goodness, science has made the transition as easy as legally changing one’s name. Lucky for us, her unisex name spared us the paperwork. Treatment is more commonplace and accessible than ever before. Nowadays many parents use gender-neutral pronouns for their kids until they define themselves, typically around age seven. Some kids don’t conform to any gender. Others take longer to determine their identity. Quite a few are gender fluid.
Around that time a severe recession struck the global economy, and I was one of the first ones laid off. By then, Sayuri had passed her bar and joined a law firm where she eventually became a junior partner. By default, I became a stay-at-home dad. The ties between Kaoru and me grew stronger. I was able to bear witness to every milestone in her childhood. I don’t think a parent should favor one child over another, but Kaoru was and still is, my favorite.
“Let’s go shopping.”
“Is Mom coming?”
“No. Just you and me. Your mom’s busy.” I fibbed. Sayuri was still conflicted about Kaoru’s transition. She wasn’t good at hiding her emotions.
When we reached the girl’s section, Kaoru’s face lit up.
Hazy autumn days have arrived, and the trees in our backyard have changed color. Thanksgiving is around the corner.
One afternoon, the phone rings. The ringtone tells me it’s Kaoru.
“Hey, baby. How are your classes going?”
“Great.” Her voice sounds bouncy. “I was on the dean’s list again.”
Joy bubbles up inside me. “Attagirl! Oh, I’m so proud of you, Kaoru. What about your sister? Should I even ask?”
“Oh, Dad.” I can’t see Kaoru, but I can imagine her rolling her eyes. “You know how she is. She’s getting by.” We knew this would happen someday, but it’s hard not having both girls around the house. Being an empty nester isn’t much fun.
“So are you coming home for Thanksgiving?”
“Sure.” Kaoru pauses. “Dad. I’ve met somebody. Don’t tell Mom yet. She’ll freak out.”
“Oh, I’m so happy for you.” I try to keep my cool. My baby is all grown up. No wonder my beard has turned grey. “What are they like?”
“Her name is Sakura. You’ll like her.”
“I’m sure I will. I’m looking forward to meeting her.”
Later in the evening, Yukari phones me to tell me she won’t join us for Thanksgiving this year. She says her boyfriend has invited her to his parents’ home.
A few days later, I pace around the living room like a caged animal while I wait for Kaoru and her girlfriend. Sayuri has gone out to get us some cranberry juice. I check the turkey every few minutes. The aroma whets my appetite.
An unfamiliar rust-colored pickup pulls up in our driveway. The door pops open, and a girl with orange hair appears. I walk up to greet them.
“Daddy, this is Sakura.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr Nishikawa.” She extends her prosthetic hand. I wipe my hand on my pants before shaking her hand.
“Call me Satoru.”
I usher the girls inside. Once they’re seated next to each other on the couch, their legs and knees touching, I bring them glasses.
“Is red wine okay?” I ask before pouring them each a glassful. They exchange glances as if to say they’re relieved. With a glass in my hand, I sit in a lazy chair.
While we idle away in chitchat, Sayuri comes back and sits next to me. The four of us nibble on snacks while the turkey cooks.
“What do you study, Sakura?” I ask while reaching for more crackers.
“Biology. Same as her.” Sakura glances at Kaoru, and Kaoru beams.
“It must be easy for you,” Sayuri says. “Being a cyborg and all.”
“Honey.” I frown. I recall old anti-cyborg sentiments. When our daughters were younger, many parents complained that cyborg kids messed up the grading curve. They said it wasn’t fair for their kids because cyborgs allegedly had perfect grades and test scores. I don’t take stock in such silly notions.
As family tradition dictates, we watch football after dinner. Gongs ring and the crowd surges. The smoke machine blows out clouds of white smoke. Led by a player carrying the team flag, the visiting team makes an entrance, speeding through a bright-colored inflatable tunnel. The home team follows. Under helmets and shoulder pads, most players have prosthetic body parts. Bionic limbs, eyes, and other organs. Those cyborgs sport bodies with enhanced capabilities.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Sayuri mumbles. “How can you maintain a level playing field?”
“What do you mean, Mom?” Kaoru raises her voice slightly. Sakura gently places her hand on Kaoru’s arm.
“You know what I mean.” Sayuri lifts a brow. “Some have advantages over others.”
“Honey.” I shoot Sayuri a warning look. “What’s gotten into you?” I turn to Sakura. “Please excuse my wife. She means no harm.”
“No worries. No offence taken.” Sakura shrugs and exchanges a look with Kaoru.
I glance at Kaoru and see pain and anger in her eyes. I smile to reassure her. She smiles back.
“Are you sure—are you sure?” Sayuri glances toward Sakura. Something flashes in Sayuri’s eyes. Worry? Fear? “Your life will be so much harder.”
“It’s my life, Mom.” Kaoru places her hand over Sakura’s, where it rests in her lap. “I’m happy with my life. If you aren’t, that’s not my problem.”
An awkward silence fills the room.
“We’re going to bed.” Kaoru gets up, and Sakura follows suit. Kaoru kisses my cheek. “Goodnight, Dad. I love you.”
“Show her your sister’s room,” Sayuri says. Kaoru looks at me and rolls her eyes.
Sayuri follows me into the dimly lit kitchen. I glance over at the pile of dirty dishes cluttering the sink. “Let’s leave cleaning up until tomorrow,” I say.
Sayuri nods silently, and she looks at me in alarm.
“What’s wrong, honey?” The fluorescent tube above us buzzes and flickers.
“Our daughter has brought home a robot!”
“Calm down. They can hear you.” I shush her. “Sakura’s not a robot. She’s a cyborg. You know the difference, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.” Sayuri shakes her head. “How can you stay calm? Do you think she’s serious?”
“Yes, honey. Why are you upset?”
“You knew about this, didn’t you?” Sayuri shoots me an accusatory look. “You always do. You two ambushed me again.”
“We’re happy for her, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know. She thinks I hate her.” Despair fills her voice. “She’s so much closer to you than to me. I don’t know where things went wrong between us.”
I keep quiet. She must know she’s wrong. I know she’ll come around. Deep down in her heart, she must know cyborgs are just like us. They’re human, at least partially.
“It feels like I’m losing her again. You’re wonderful for accepting her as she is. But it wasn’t easy for me.”
“I don’t think there was any choice.” I reach out and brush a stray strand of hair from her cheek. “Because we love her. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters. The least we can do is to have her back.”
“When I learned we had a daughter instead of a son, I grieved.” Sayuri looks down at her hands. “We lost a son.”
“But we have a daughter, honey.” I smile. “We have two beautiful daughters.” I pull Sayuri closer to me and look into her eyes.
She dabs at her eyes with a self-conscious smile. I flip off the light switch, and the soft blue glow of the nightlight shines from a wall socket. With my hand pressed to the small of her back, I lead her out of the kitchen and down to Kaoru’s room.