I had to be the only girl on campus upset about having a suite to herself as a first-year student. I put one hand on the empty bed in the single room that shared a bathroom with mine. The room was untouched. Of the 10,000 students here, about 1,000 were new undergrads and slightly more than half of those were women and here I was, one in 500 in more ways than one. If admissions hadn’t mistyped my social security number, if I lived in a state where I could get my birth certificate changed, if I hadn’t had to show them the only part of my life that still said, “M,” there would be someone in this room adjoining mine.
The whole suite smelled of lemon-pine cleanser and cherry licorice over fresh paper; I went into my room and opened the window to see if it really opened. It slid open smoothly and I could peer out and see the lawn below. I’d never be able to complain about my accommodations now.
My residence hall was on a corner of the main quad but turned out toward the street a little so that you had to walk a half block from the front door to be on the quad proper. The entrance was close to the street where my dad had parked illegally, like a hundred other parents, so we could all carry my many boxes up from his truck.
The dorm room door swung open and hit the far wall with a crack and Dad staggered in carrying two boxes, followed by Mom who had my small suitcase in her hand.
“He insisted,” she said.
“You have to start it off right,” he said. He put the boxes on the desk and handed me a plush Galapagos tortoise from the top of the higher box. I set it on the bed by the pillow.
He winked and headed for the door. “No parking zone,” he said. That was true, but he also had a hard time being still when he was excited or agitated. He ran marathons and played racquet sports that I could never keep clear in my mind: what was the difference between racquetball and squash anyway? The most he’d been able to teach me was ping-pong. I liked yoga and long walks—the slower stuff where you weren’t in danger of having some mean projectile ricochet off a wall and smack you in the eye.
Mom wandered into the bathroom. “This is nice,” she called distractedly. I heard her open the door into the empty single room and grow silent.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I can set up a lab in there if I get bored.”
“I wondered what they were going to do,” she said from the other room. “Maybe she’s just late.”
“We’re already late,” I pointed out.
I had wanted to move in after my roommate was already settled so that I could tell what kind of person she was by her décor. Well, the décor certainly said a lot about something.
A girl stuck her head in from the side of the open doorway. Her looks put the “non” in nondescript: light brown hair, lighter tan complexion, and brown eyes.
“Hi, I’m Hayley, your RA, just checking to make sure you’re settling in.”
“Ella Ramsey,” I said.
I looked over my shoulder toward the bathroom to see if my mom had heard Hayley come in, but she was still in the other room. I didn’t know if you used first names when introducing parents to your RA She didn’t look more than a year older than me, so I thought it would be awkward to do the whole “Julia and Greg” thing—it’s not like I wanted her to call them that anyway.
“My mom’s in the other room,” I told her. “Do you know why it’s empty?” I figured I should get that out of the way as soon as possible.
“I never got a name for that room,” Hayley said brightly. “I called over to admissions and they said it was some kind of paperwork mix-up. I’m sure they’ll put someone in after a few weeks. That happened last year with overflow from the crowded dorms. We’re lucky, they just renovated this one two years ago.”
I mirrored the smile of her bland cheerfulness.
“El, what are these for?” my mom asked from behind me and then added a surprised, “Oh!” when she saw Hayley.
I turned around to see that Mom was standing in the bathroom doorway holding a box of tampons. At least my back was to Hayley as all the blood in my body made a burning rush for my cheeks.
“Mom, this is my RA, Hayley, and um, this is my mom,” I said, moving sideways away from both of them.
Mom looked around, shifted the box of tampons to her left hand and gamely held out her right for Hayley to shake. My heartbeat pounded in my ears. That wasn’t helping my ability to come up with the right answer to my mom’s question. Seriously, whose mom didn’t know what tampons were for? Had Hayley already figured out that the issue wasn’t the tampons—that it was me?
“Excuse me,” Dad called cheerfully from the hall and Hayley moved further into my room. Dad carried two boxes to the foot of the bed and set them down, then stretched his arms up until his back cracked.
“Just a few more loads,” he said. “Are you sure you brought enough?” Then he saw Mom’s awkward stance with the tampons and gave her a confused look.
“They’re Ella’s,” she said.
“Oh?” he turned his puzzled face toward me.
“Aren’t you in a no parking zone?” I asked Dad.
“I’ll help,” Mom said too eagerly and they both hurried out of the room, Mom still carrying the perplexing tampon box.
“Your mom doesn’t know what tampons are for?” Hayley asked when they were well gone.
“She’s an anthropologist,” I said, as if that answered everything.
Hayley’s eyebrows pinched together.
“She’s into all that crazy natural stuff, like menstrual sponges,” I told her. That was total bull. Mom used tampons like everyone else I knew. But nothing worked quite like the phrase “menstrual sponges” to shut down a conversation.
“Oh ew, nasty,” Hayley said.
“I know, right?”
I felt like a jerk for taking the easy way out, but I hardly knew this girl. Explaining that my mom was surprised to find tampons on the top of my bathroom-supplies box because I don’t get a period was a lot more complicated to get into with strangers. Hayley seemed like the chatty type who would want to know why not, and then I’d have to talk about being born a girl without some of the girl parts, like the period-getting parts and the I’m-putting-female-on-your-birth-certificate parts, and for all I knew she’d share that information with the other girls on the floor. Not how I wanted to start college. Not at all.
“Um, well, I’m down at the end of the hall if you need anything,” Hayley said and hurried out of the room before I could bring up anything else from the menstrual-practices-from-around-the-world handbook.
I went into the bathroom and quickly looked at the top of the open box to make sure there wasn’t anything else visible that was shockingly normal. Mom came in while I was hanging up my towels and put her arm around me in apology. I leaned into her and rested my cheek on her shoulder. I might have a smidge more growth left in me, but I’ll probably always be the shortest member of my family. Amy got Dad’s lanky height and I got Mom’s delicate bone structure. I totally lucked out in that deal because Amy hates heels and I can wear them without towering over all the guys around me. I got Mom’s blond hair too and Dad’s green eyes, so really it was like the genetic dice were loaded in my favor for almost everything.
“What did you tell her?” she asked.
“That you use a menstrual sponge,” I said.
Mom laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“I just got them so my roommate wouldn’t wonder, you know, why I didn’t have any. But I figured in a pinch I could use them to make tiny Molotov cocktails.”
“I don’t think you’d get enough oxygen in the mouth of the bottle for that to work, the cotton is bundled too tightly,” Dad said from the other side of the open doorway to my room. He was smiling, but his eyes had tight lines around them.
“I guess I’m not starting a revolution this year,” I told him and sighed. “You want to come look around the building with me? It’s supposed to be sustainable, but they don’t have solar panels or wastewater processing or anything.”
“Frauds!” Dad exclaimed and tilted into motion again. Mom followed him.
I looked into the empty room again. The bed was just a mattress on a frame and the desk and dresser were completely bare. It wasn’t a paperwork mix-up. Because I was born in Ohio, I couldn’t change the sex listed on my birth certificate. I was mentally, emotionally, physically and hormonally female, but anyone who looked at my birth certificate would see, “M” for “male.” At least my driver’s license accurately described me as female.
The birth certificate thing wouldn’t have been an issue except that my social security number got messed up in the system and the university admin office called over the summer and told me I had to bring my birth certificate to get it corrected. That caused more questions than it resolved.
I joined Mom and Dad in the hall, locked my room, and picked a direction for wandering. We discovered the common room together, and the little gym facility, and the laundry room in the basement with the soda machine and a crazy recycling sorting and compost waste station. Crazy because for years in Columbus we’d had single-sort recycling and I was pretty sure even worms didn’t want to eat half of the crap that students would dump into the compost bins—not that I’m dissing the worms.
Then they wanted to stand around on the curb doing the tearful parent goodbye, even though I was probably going to hop the bus home by the weekend. I understood it was part of the ritual. Amy said that when they dropped her off, Mom alternated between crying and listing the various coming-of-age rituals of a number of South American indigenous peoples. At least I didn’t get that.
Mom cried and I cried and Dad cleared his throat a bunch and then we all hugged and suddenly I found myself standing on the side of a street all by myself for the first time in my life. The only person I knew for about a hundred miles in any direction was the buff-colored Hayley.
Shyness crawled over me like a thousand small, non-poisonous spiders: too uncomfortable to stand still for, but not actually dangerous. I hurried back to my room. I’d grown up and lived in the same suburban community my whole life. I went to high school with kids I’d been in first grade with—and they went through a lot with me and had my back for most of it. I didn’t perceive, until that moment of walking quickly back to Washington Hall, how alone I was going to be in a place where no one knew me.
We lived two hours away, in Columbus, and Mom taught at Ohio State University. She wanted me there, but I was going to have to make my way in the real world one of these days and I wanted to get started. Two hours seemed like a good compromise: it wasn’t so close to home that I’d be tempted to run home for dinner on a whim, but it was an easy bus ride home for a weekend. I had no doubt that Mom was going to keep my room just the way I’d left it, though she should really turn it into a home gym.
Also, Freytag University gave me a pretty good scholarship. My sister Amy was three years into her university term and I’d overheard Mom and Dad talking about taking out a second mortgage to pay for my college. I wouldn’t do that to them; they’d already spent the cost of a good college education on me for the doctors and the hormones and the surgery. Mom said I shouldn’t have to worry about that at eighteen, but I did.
This wasn’t the best school ever and it was so far out in the middle of nowhere that the campus dorms were the highest buildings as far as you could see, but it had a shockingly good Women’s & Gender Studies department and even though I wanted to major in biology, I figured it had to mean there would be a kind of accepting vibe here.
If you’d asked me yesterday, I’d have told you I was good at making friends. But in the past I always had friends around me, so making more friends felt natural; when you were part of something, it was easy to invite others to join in.
I went into my room and closed the door and locked it. Then I went through the bathroom to the empty room and made sure that door was locked. I sat on the bed and curled my knees into my chest and just let the shy-scared-spidery feeling happen for a while. When it started to fade away, I got up and unpacked.
My clothes didn’t all fit into my closet, so I borrowed space from my nonexistent roommate. I also hogged both sinks in the joint bathroom just because I could, not because I have that much bathroom stuff. I hung a poster in my room, the one of the Doradus-30 nebula that always reminds me how big the universe is, and then I went and hung my Evolution of Life poster in the other room. It was too bare in there otherwise.
Dinnertime came but I wasn’t really hungry because I’d eaten with Mom and Dad a few hours before. I decided I should really get a mini-fridge for the room and maybe a hotpot or something. I set up my laptop and started looking at things I could buy for the room, and then checked out my class schedule and the various orientation events I was supposed to attend. At least it would be a busy next few days.
Just in case I had too much downtime and wasn’t so good at this making friends on my own thing, I also looked at the university clubs. They were mostly really boring stuff about farming or cheerleading or ineffective social change, but one caught my eye: Real-world Gaming at FU.
There was contact information for a student named Johnny Han, so I sent him an email letting him know I was interested in joining. Hopefully by Real-world Gaming they meant something easy and not too geeky. I couldn’t really pull off live-action role-playing without laughing and I was in no shape for parkour, but I played a lot of other games in high school.
I didn’t miss high school. Not exactly. But I missed…something. Friends? I texted Nico: Call?
My phone rang two seconds later and I grinned. I’d been #3 on Nico’s speed dial for the past four years.
“How’s the middle of nowhere?” Nico asked.
“Shockingly well-populated. I haven’t seen a single cow on campus yet.”
“Crap, girl, why did you not come to school with me? I’m so bored.”
“You’ve been there three days,” I pointed out. Not like it mattered, Nico could get bored in ten minutes absent the right stimulation. That’s what happened when you were the kid of an engineer and an astronomer. If Nico couldn’t take something apart and put it back together again or fit it into the grand scheme of the cosmos, it was boring. Nico had bought me the Doradus-30 poster and told me that, like me, it was an “extremely luminous non-stellar object.” We’d been sort of dating at the time and I hadn’t been inclined to complain about th e “object” part of that compliment.
“So bored,” Nico repeated. “It’s like a production plant of human beings out here and Mom won’t stop checking on me.”
“I’ve got an extra room if you want to drive out here for a few days.”
“Anyone hot enough to drive out for? Other than you, of course.”
I laughed. “I’ll keep you posted. Don’t tell me there’s no one at OSU, you have ten times the options I do out here.”
Nico laughed with me and, into the pause after the sound, I added, “I miss you.”
“Miss you too, baby girl. Gotta run.”
I said bye and clicked off and then just stared at my phone for a minute. Was Nico right? Should I have gone to OSU? Furthermore, if there was someone hot out here, what would I even do about it? I’d barely managed to date Nico, let alone a total stranger.
By the time she got back to campus, Tucker was starving. Trust Lindy to invite her over for a movie and only have popcorn and beer even though it was dinnertime. The Student Union’s restaurant didn’t close until ten, so she swung by to pick up something. With luck her roommate would be asleep when she got back and she wouldn’t have to hear another story about the greatest high school production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the history of ever.
Cheese breadsticks or hummus wrap? That was the real question. The garlic cheese breadsticks were loaded with butter and salt, making them taste like savory heaven, and they had the added benefit of making her highly avoidable until she’d brushed her teeth, just in case her roommate was still awake.
The Student Union was doing a booming business as new and returning students met and caught up on their summer activities. The whole place reminded her of a coral reef: schools of colorful students swarmed around the tables. Here and there were individuals, but most of them already seemed to be moving in packs.
Toward the back of the wide seating area was the huge table that the LGBTQIA students had commandeered last year as their go-to meeting spot. A few students sat there now and as she tried to identify them, the biggest guy at the table spotted her in line and waved. That would be Cal, who was built like a two-door refrigerator and who dressed as stereotypically gay as possible while looking like a football player. She grinned and raised a hand in his direction.
The line moved up a step. There was probably garlic in the hummus too and it would be better for her.
A word seared across her awareness and pulled her right out of her thinking with a jolt of anger. One of the girls behind her just ended a sentence with: “tranny.” The offense of it put a bitter taste on Tucker’s tongue and she turned her head sideways to hear better.
“I wouldn’t either,” another girl said. “Isn’t the administration thinking at all? Any of us could end up in a bathroom with that person. Did you see his name?”
Tucker ground her back molars together. The fingers of her right hand curled into a fist. Using a male pronoun for a trans woman was so rude.
“I tried, but I was so surprised and the memo was just there for a minute,” the first girl said.
“What did it say?”
“Just something about an MTF transsexual student and the dorms and a private bathroom. MTF, that’s male to female, I looked it up.”
Tucker’s skin turned cold as she realized what must have happened. A trans girl had applied to live in the dorms and this little jerk in line behind her saw some notation about giving that girl her own bathroom because, of course, the freaked out, straight, cisgender world couldn’t deal with the idea that one of their precious girls might accidentally walk into a women’s room with another woman who, once upon a time, didn’t have exactly the same body parts they all assumed they had.
She was afraid for this girl she’d never met, and so proud of her, even though her friends Claire and Emily would tell her that was a stupid reaction. Why be proud of someone who simply lived her life the way she had to? But it wasn’t the transition that made her proud, it was the fact that this girl insisted on her right to be treated the same as any woman.
She could almost make out the reflections of the three girls behind her in the glass covering the hot food serving area. The details were lost, but she could see the shapes of their faces and hairstyles.
“What if he’s one of our roommates? What does yours look like?” the girl with the skinny face and big hair asked.
“Oh it can’t be mine,” said round face, big hair. “She came back from the shower and changed in the room.”
Their ignorance made Tucker want to spit. She almost hoped that roommate was the trans girl except for the danger she would be in from this weasel.
“I still just can’t believe they let a transsexual in the dorms,” said the girl with the mean face. “What if he’s just there to peep at girls?”
That was it.
Tucker spun on her heel and glared at them. For a second she was too angry to speak and all the words she had to confront them with fell short of what she wanted to say. The words that did come out of her mouth surprised her, “Do you have something to say to my face?”
They all leaned back away from her as far as they could get without bumping into the people behind them in line. Like synchronized robots, their heads moved in unison; their eyes went down the front of her body, pausing at her breasts and then her crotch, before coming back up.
“It’s not nice to eavesdrop,” said Mean Face.
Tucker crossed her arms and stood up as tall as she was. This had the effect of hiding her rather large chest and showing that she was just two inches short of six feet.
“Do you want to repeat your nasty speculation to my face,” she said. “I’m not here because I give a fuck about any of you. I’m here for an education like anyone else.”
“You’re not a tranny,” Round Face said.
“The term is ‘trans woman’ or just ‘woman,’” Tucker said. “And you don’t know shit about what I am. You think you can pick a trans woman out in a crowd, well you can’t. We look just like you.”
They paused and took in that information and Tucker saw their eyes get impossibly harder and more distant than they’d already been. Never mind that she wasn’t really a trans woman. The fact of the matter was that somewhere on this campus was a girl who just wanted a normal life and didn’t deserve this hunt for her. If they believed Tucker was their target, at least they’d stop looking.
She’d come out as a lesbian in high school and stared down plenty of bigots; how different could this be?
“You’re really a guy? Or are you turning into a guy? I don’t get it. I can’t even tell what you are,” said Mean Face.
“You’re full of shit,” Tucker said. “You can tell that I’m a woman and it just freaks you out that I was born with a male body.”
“No way,” Skinny Face said.
Tucker leaned in and bunched the muscles in her shoulders in a way that she hoped looked sufficiently masculine to them.
“She is kind of big,” Round Face said under her breath to the others. “And look at how square her jaw is and those big hands.”
The line was moving forward again and Tucker had to take a few steps backward toward the registers to keep pace with it. The three girls let a wider gap open between her and them.
“You stay away from us,” Mean Face said.
“You couldn’t pay me to get near you,” Tucker said and stepped out of line.
She crossed the room unsteadily because she was shaking from her shoulders to her knees. The LGBTQIA student table was on their feet by the time she reached them, having seen in her face that something was wrong. At this point in the year, the population of the table only amounted to three people: the hulking Cal; stocky, bronze Summer; and shy, peach-faced Tesh.
“What was that?” asked Summer with a scowl. She was by far the shortest and loudest member of their group.
“They were saying shit about trans people,” Tucker told her. “I got so pissed I kind of came out to them.”
“Like anyone doesn’t know you’re a lesbian just by looking at you,” Summer told her. She waved a hand at Tucker’s thick, bleached Mohawk, worn T-shirt, baggy men’s jeans and boots.
“As trans,” Tucker said.
“You are?” asked Tesh as she ran a hand through her short hair, making her face look even more pixie-like as tufts of hair stood up in light brown wisps.
“No, but I think maybe I should just be out as if I were. Will you guys cover for me if anyone asks and tell them that I am a transsexual woman?”
Tesh and Summer had been the female core of the LGBTQIA students since Tucker met them last winter. For months she screwed up their names because Tesh’s deep blue eyes reminded Tucker of a summer sky and Summer’s disposition was anything but sunny. She learned to keep them clear by associating Summer’s temper with the heat of a scorching July day and linking the softness of Tesh’s full name, Stesha, with her quiet demeanor.
“That’s crazy,” Summer said. “What’s Lindy going to say when everyone thinks she’s dating a transsexual?”
“She better not fucking care,” Tucker said.
She sat down at the table and put her head in her hands. Tesh rubbed her back lightly. It drove her crazy that she lived in a world with this level of ignorance.
When she came out as a lesbian, it surprised no one in her family. Her mother didn’t have the energy to protest. The fact that one of her daughters was attracted to women was so much less important than the fact that it made Tucker willing to try her hand at fixing things around the house, and that she wouldn’t be coming home someday with an accidental pregnancy.
Tucker found it harder to get support for herself wanting to pursue a career in Women’s & Gender Studies than it was to get support as a lesbian. In her family it didn’t matter who you went to bed with: what mattered was your ability to make money and your spouse’s ability to stick around and do the same. Tucker had been trying to talk herself into a practical career, not that she’d found anything that interested her, until she met Claire and Emily, and read Emily’s book, and then she really wanted to study Gender Studies.
Claire and her girlfriend Emily were good friends of hers now, even though they mostly corresponded online and had only met in person twice. They’d taught her almost everything she knew about what it meant to be transsexual or transgender.
The smell of garlic wove through her folded arms and got her to lift her head. Cal pushed a plate of cheese bread in front of her.
“You’ve got to keep your strength up,” he said.
Although the school’s LGBTQIA group had held an orientation (or sexual orientation) session last week, Tucker already knew most of the group from Lindy, whom she’d been dating since January. Tucker was from one of the small towns near the university, so she came to the U for films, plays and other events when she could get away. She’d met Lindy at the screening of Before Stonewall and they’d started dating a week later. That relationship, plus the utter lack of any extra money for college, had been the deciding factor in Tucker’s choice to come to Freytag.
Now in her junior year, Lindy lived off campus, but she and Tucker had come to enough meetings of the campus group last spring that Tucker knew them all and they knew her. Around the core group of Cal, Summer, Tesh and Lindy were about thirty other students who showed up to parties and movie nights and sometimes brought friends. Tonight, Tucker was glad it was just the four of them.
“What you did was really brave,” Tesh said. “Though I can’t say I’ve heard of a lot of people coming out as what they’re not.”
“Maybe more of them should,” Tucker said.
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