Gender Dysphoria in San Francisco
Cal hitches a ride with Bob Presto, an old radio announcer whose current, mysterious line of business seems to be lucrative. Presto questions Cal as they drive and sees through his disguise. Cal gets uncomfortable at several points, but decides to stay since they are going to the same place. Once they get to San Francisco, Presto asks Cal about his sexuality and tells him to get his story straight if he wants to convince anyone. He gives Cal advice and his number before Cal scampers away.
Back in New York, Milton and Tessie question Dr. Luce about why Callie might have run away and what was in her file. They return home to Michigan after a week. Milton papers police stations and his restaurants with photos of Callie's face. Tessie becomes restless, needing to take sleeping pills every night. Their friends comfort them, secretly whispering about why Callie might have run away. Tessie reflects that she was blind not to see the truth about Callie in her awkward walk, her large hands, and her low voice.
In San Francisco, Cal falls in with a group of teenage Deadheads - boys who have run away from home to follow the Grateful Dead on their tours, begging and selling drugs for money. They camp outside in the park, peeing in ditches and bathing in the fountain. Despite this new camaraderie, Cal begins feeling more and more depressed. One night, when most of the boys have gone to a Grateful Dead concert, a group of hobos attacks Cal and the camp, looking for drugs. When they see Cal's old school ID and look at his genitals, they begin to beat him up, calling him a freak. When Cal wakes up, he calls Bob Presto, asking for help.
In San Francisco, a man name Mr. Go visits a strip club called Sixty-Niners. He visits there often, usually watching women dance on stage while receiving a lap dance, but tonight his curiosity has gotten the better of him. Upstairs, for additional money, patrons can see the "Octopussy Garden," which boasts a mermaid, an eel, and "the god Hermaphroditus." Hermaphroditus is played by Cal, hired by Bob Presto to work at his strip club. Cal works with two girls there: Zora, a hermaphrodite with Androgen Insensitivity, and Carmen, a pre-op (meaning she has not yet undergone corrective surgery) male to female transgendered person. Cal moves in with Zora, who is very interested in intersexuality and what will become of that movement. A beautiful, leggy blonde, she educates Cal on the status of intersexual people across time and cultures. She is writing a book on hermaphrodites, and her support helps Cal come to terms with himself.
At Sixty-Niners, Cal’s performance involves slowly lowering himself into the water, titillating the viewers so that they put more coins into the slots. To do this often humiliating work, Cal usually gets high with Zora. Back at Zora's apartment, however, they refrain from substances. Zora is very serious about her book and she educates Cal despite her general hatred of men.
Back in Detroit, Milton and Tessie continue to worry about Cal, who has been missing for four months. They become closer than ever in their grief, until one day when Tessie realizes she cannot feel Cal's presence anymore. They begin drifting apart again, to the point that when Milton gets a ransom phone call about Cal, he doesn't tell Tessie.
Cal and Zora soon get tired of working at Sixty-Niners. One evening, when they are feeling particularly tired, the police raid the strip club. Realizing that Cal is underage, they cart him away to jail. There, he uses his one phone call to finally phone home. Chapter Eleven answers the phone and when Cal requests that he not tell their parents, he responds with the information that Milton has died in an accident.
At a gallery opening in Berlin, Cal sits gazing out at the city. Someone taps him on the shoulder - it's Julie, who gently mocks his cigars. He turns to face her and whispers to her, "Let me tell you why I didn't call you... There's something you should know about me."
Back in Detroit, Milton is making preparations to ransom Calliope. He waits for the call again. It comes, seeming to prove that the kidnapper has Calliope with him. On the arranged night, Milton leaves the house at four in the morning, taking his Cadillac down to an abandoned space near the Grand Trunk station. He puts the money down despite his misgivings. When he gets in the car, however, he realizes that he should have kept half of the money, to ensure Calliope's return. He gets out to retrieve the money and spots the ransomer - it is none other than Father Mike, his brother-in-law. Outraged, Milton begins to chase him in the car. As the two men engage in a heated car chase, Milton thinks he has outsmarted Father Mike. Too late, he realizes that Mike is planning to go to Canada. As they race through border control, Milton gets pulled over for aggressive driving. He ignores the policeman, flooring the pedal to speed towards Father Mike's car.
Suddenly the car in front of Mike’s stops, causing Mike to halt as well. Milton, going over seventy miles per hour, cannot stop in time and he plows into Mike's car, dying on impact. Cal imagines things differently, however. He imagines Milton seeing himself fly up, over the river, into the skyline of Detroit. He imagines Milton reflecting on his life, visiting all the places that meant something to him, and finally diving into the water as if he is still in the Navy. Cal tells the reader that, eventually, he and Tessie aren't too upset about Milton's death, because they see him as getting out early. Milton misses the destruction of the family business, the family’s resulting poverty, the nation's crises, September 11th 2001, and, most importantly, Milton misses seeing Cal as a boy. To Milton, Calliope will always be his little girl.
In the present, Cal has told Julie about his condition. She questions him, asking again whether she, as an Asian woman, is the last stop for him before males. Cal reassures her, telling her that he has always liked girls. She accepts his justification and his condition. Then she turns off the lights and they take off their clothes and jump into bed, "petrified, happy."
Back in 1975, Chapter Eleven picks up Cal at the police station and brings him home to Detroit. At first a little perplexed to see how his younger sister has become his brother, Chapter Eleven becomes welcoming and non-judgmental, probably from years of "mind-expanding" drugs and culture. As they re-enter Detroit, Cal makes them drive through its downtown, past the wreckage of buildings, through disintegrating Greektown, down through "blighted East Side," and past their old home in Indian Village. Cal realizes, seeing a pimp’s scowling reaction to him, that by becoming a man he has also become the Man.
Fortified by nostalgia, Cal returns home and finds Tessie, shocked by grief at her husband's death and by confusion at Cal's transformation. As the two of them hug, however, things somewhat return to normal, and everyone realizes that they can move on from this. As they stand in the house talking about funeral plans, Desdemona calls on the intercom. Tessie explains that Desdemona has gotten a lot worse and that she has trouble remembering things, including the fact of Milton's death. Cal volunteers to bring Desdemona her Epsom salts, and he makes his way to the guesthouse. Desdemona doesn't recognize him at first, and confuses him for Lefty. When Cal begins to bathe Desdemona's feet, however, she instantly recognizes him and asks with confusion what happened.
As Cal cryptically explains, Desdemona reflects back on stories from her village, of girls who became boys in their teenage years. She begins to weep, babbling about the impropriety of relations marrying and how scared she was each time a child was born. Cal asks her what she is implying, and Desdemona admits that not only was Lefty her third cousin, he was also her brother. Just then, Tessie calls on the intercom, telling Cal to get dressed for the funeral. Cal tells her that he doesn't want to go because he's afraid that his new appearance will distract from Milton. He stays with Desdemona, who apologizes for her indiscretion. While Tessie and Chapter Eleven go to the funeral, Cal stays behind to guard the house from spirits, following an old Greek tradition. As he stands there, he contemplates Middlesex as a house - designed for the new beings, the new world - and thinks about what he will do next.
In these last few sections, the reader finally gets an understanding of Cal's struggle with gender identity. Freed from upper-middle-class conservatism and sheltering, Cal begins to experience all those who live on the edge of society, a place he will soon learn to call home. Part of this discovery involves grappling with the word that caused him to run away in the first place: "monster." In San Francisco, Cal experiences both extraordinarily negative experiences (being beaten up in the park by the other homeless men and called a "freak") and very positive, self-affirming experiences (his stay with Zora, who helps him come to terms with his condition). A sort of Chekov's gun for Middlesex, Cal's "hybridity" finally comes to the literal forefront as he explores his place as a hermaphrodite. Previously shielded from everyone, Cal's genitalia is now on display for the whole world to see. In this cathartic, literal self-expression, Cal finds healing for years of discomfort and shame.
The setting for these chapters is not a coincidence. San Francisco has long been known as a bastion for free spirits and liberal activism. For Cal, the shielding presence of fog is a crucial element of San Francisco' s atmosphere. This fog protects illicit and unusual activities from prying eyes, making it a safe place for drug addicts, homosexuals, hermaphrodites, and anyone else who wants to hide. As a seaport on the edge of California, San Francisco is a city of cultural hybridity, where white Americans, sailors, Asians, and Central and South Americans can intermingle, creating a new race of their own. Eugenides hints at this diversity through Mr. Go, an Asian businessman who frequents Sixty-Niners, and Carmen, a fiery Latina with whom Cal works. It is appropriate that Cal must escape to a city of hybrids to come to terms with his own hybridity. San Francisco seems built on reversing standards and morals. The club where Cal works, Sixty-Niners, is named after a sexual position in which one partner literally lies upside down. In this topsy-turvy, hidden world, Cal can finally make himself right-side up, as long as he redefines what his "right-side" is.
Although Cal's hybridity is eventually accepted by himself and his family, many literary critics have commented that the ending of Middlesex is problematic. According to them, Eugenides presents Cal's only chance at happiness as fitting himself into a male heterosexual framework. In some ways they are right - Cal works hard to pass off exclusively as a male, working out to expand his muscles and buying traditional men's items like suits and cigars as a sort of "armor." When he does slip back into his "female" self, he feels embarrassed and ashamed. Cal struggles to maintain relationships because he is not comfortable presenting himself to women. Cal also "gets the girl" at the end of the novel, following a traditional heteronormative narrative cliche. Nonetheless, this critical reading is too narrow to do Middlesex justice.
In Middlesex, gender is always complicated, and Cal doesn't abandon his female self in favor of a postured male self. Cal mentions that he often feels himself performing his female ticks (which admittedly embarrass him) and sliding into his old, "feminine" ways when interacting with his mother. Like the daughter Tessie always wanted, Cal remembers to call her on Sundays, goes out to hair appointments with her, and will be there to take care of her in her old age. When Cal first returns to Detroit after San Francisco, he realizes while driving through the slums that the black men who used to call to him as a pretty white girl now scowl sullenly at him, seeing him only as "the Man." It is this reductive outlook that Cal and Eugenides condemn, this simplistic assumption of identity from superficial factors. Cal is no more "the Man" than the little girl he used to be was “the Man.” He has reclaimed the monstrous and has, in his own way, embraced the "hermaphrodite" within him.
With this revelation, Middlesex comes metaphorically full circle. It begins with Cal's birth as a girl in Detroit and ends with his rebirth into his family home as a man. The present contains echoes of the past - Milton risking (and losing) his life for his property (the ransom money and the Zebra Room), the mulberry tree growing outside of Cal's window, and the funeral without a visible body (Jimmy Zizmo's and Milton's). In these cycles, Cal and Eugenides communicate the importance of the past to the present, suggesting that one cannot tell a story without telling the stories behind it.