Getting out of my house should’ve been easy. Only my grandmom, Yai, was home and she was used to me sweeping through the house on my way to dance. She sat in the eating nook sipping a cup of tea with a bunch of theater brochures fanned out on the table in front of her. An old radio gave off the low buzz of an NPR talk program. I waved on my way in from school.
Up in my room, I changed into my party clothes and grabbed my duffel bag. I had spare out ts in case I changed my mind during the two hour drive about what to wear. I was giddy nervous because I hadn’t seen Tucker in a while and it was Valentine’s Day.
Since I’d met her four months ago, she’d been on my radar. When her life got torn apart last fall, we grew closer; she needed somebody to talk to who wasn’t at her school.
The more we talked, the more I liked her.
Liked her so much that I decided it would be worth the awkward conversations I had any time I tried to actually date a person. She was very cool on trans issues. I wanted that to mean it would be easy to talk about me too.
Lately Tucker had been sounding like she might be ready for dating. I so wanted that dating to be with me. But I couldn’t ask, too jumpy, so I said I’d come up for this party. The queer and trans student group at Freytag University was doing a big Valentine’s Day bash.
I’d skipped my last class of the day because I wanted to get to the university early and have dinner with my best friend Ella. When Ella had been outed as a trans girl, the administration put her in a two-room suite with no roommate. Tucker asked to move into the other half of the suite. They were in and out of each other’s room endlessly, so Ella would have the most recent intel about this maybe-dating situation with me and Tucker.
And I had to be early because Ella would want me to help pick her out t, which always took forever. Though, to be fair, choosing what I was wearing took forever too.
What do you wear to show that you’re interested and available, but maybe not exactly what the other person is expecting?
I picked orange. Nothing rhymes with it, right? So that’s got to say, “Expect the unexpected.”
Plus it gave my skin a warm, dark golden color that went well with not wearing makeup. I’d been skewing more into the boy territories of my genderfluid map. Tucker was lesbian. Maybe she wouldn’t even like how I looked anymore.
I almost went back upstairs to change my outfit. But I had spares in the bag. I’d be okay.
I dropped my duffel in the hall and turned into the kitchen to see if there was anything worth drinking in the fridge. On the way, I stole a peek at Yai’s theater brochures. She now had half the table covered with them and was writing dates and times on a legal pad—planning her spring 2014 theater season attendance.
Her teal sweater was a pretty casual style, but she had on earrings and a necklace like always. I’d caught her in a sweatshirt and earrings before—and they were nice earrings.
“Where are you going?” she asked, putting down her pencil.
“Freytag for that party, remember? I’m staying over.”
“Don’t you have class now?”
I ducked my head into the fridge instead of answering and heard her gravelly laugh. Yai is completely Thai and completely American and awesome.
Yai met Grandpa Bolden when he was serving in the US Military in Thailand decades ago. She swears that she fell in love the minute she saw him. He never pushed her to Americanize. No matter what people said to him, he made sure that Thai culture had as strong a place in their house as black culture. Their daughter, my mom, loved that about her childhood. Yai came to live with us when I was nine, after Grandpa Bolden died. I loved having her here. Nobody else combined her level of no-nonsense practicality with a fanatical love of the arts. She was the biggest nerd in my life, except for me.
When I was eleven, she started taking me to the theater. Every year she bought a season ticket to every tiny local theater—even the one in an old garage with a sketchy heating system. She went to every production at least once, and returned to the ones she loved best. She even came to every dance performance of mine. I could gaze out over an audience of queer, trans, nonbinary, genderfluid wildness and there in the middle would be a short, elderly Thai woman her white hair up in a bun.
“How are you doing in this class you’re missing?” Yai asked.
“Great, it’s Biology, Ella helps me.” I leaned against the counter between the kitchen and the eating nook and opened the orange juice. The corner of a theater program caught my eye and I pulled it out of the mail pile. “You missed one.”
“They sent me two.” She tapped the duplicate on the table in front of her.
I half-heard her answer because an attorney’s return address caught my eye. I moved the thin, nasty-looking envelope out from the bottom of the stack. It was addressed to my mom with her full name.
“He was supposed to drop the suit, the shitbag,” I grumbled.
Yai clicked her tongue. You were never supposed to disrespect your parents even if they were incredible shitbags.
I held the letter up to the light, trying to see inside. If Yai wasn’t watching me, I’d have slit it open. It looked like a single page, not a lot of writing. Probably a court date being moved or a request for information.
My dad had started this lawsuit against my mom and my doctor before I turned eighteen and somehow he was managing to drag it out, even though I was legally in charge of my own body now—and even though he had less than no right after everything he’d done.
He wanted me to be a boy. Or, failing that, a girl. Not a fantastical gender uid person. He thought it was malpractice or even abuse that my mom and my doctor didn’t force surgery on me.
He was the one who had forced surgery on me when I was four. Took me in for “masculinizing genital correction” while my mom and Yai were out of the country. Only Mom’s quick intervention kept me from being mutilated from dozens of unnecessary surgeries.
Could I counter-sue him? I should gure out which legal organization to call and ask.
“That’s not for you,” Yai said rmly. “Put it back. Go have fun with your friends.”
“I don’t want Mom to have to keep worrying about this. I’ll talk to him again.”
“It can wait a few days.”
I pushed the envelope back to the bottom of the pile and went to kiss Yai’s cheek. She patted my arm. Despite what she’d said, I knew the next two hours would be nothing but me obsessing over what to say to my dad.
I wished I could go back to obsessing about Tucker.
Getting up on a ladder to hang anything, no problem. But this much pink was killing my dyke credibility. At least we were doing the setup early enough that Nico wouldn’t see me like this. I had pink lights in one hand and pink streamers in the other, trying to pin the lights to the top of the ladder with my knee so I could wield the hammer.
“Cal, this is nuts,” I grumbled around the nail I was holding with my teeth.
“It’s beautiful,” he called up to me. “I’ll get the hearts.”
Cal had frosted his short blond hair pink. With his face red and sweaty from party prep, the hair made him look like a molding tomato. Despite being built like a football player, Cal had zero endurance.
“There’s no room for hearts,” I told him, wishing he’d sit down for a few minutes and give us both a break.
“Where’s your sense of romance?” he yelled cheerfully, heading back into the house.
Cal shared the bottom of a duplex with a roommate I’d seen twice last semester. The place was effectively Cal’s. And it was the heart of the campus queer and trans student group. We had a tiny resource center on the third oor of the student union, but Cal’s living room was so much more comfortable. Most of the meetings happened there, and all of the parties.
Like the party last Halloween, just after I’d broken up with Lindy and she…and things got bad. Too bad to think about.
I used to love this house, but now it creeped me out to be inside. I kept seeing Lindy on the back porch inviting me back to her apartment, her tall, skinny frame dressed as some famous painter. I saw Lindy moving through the people in the living room to wait for me out front. I could smell her inside the house. Impossible, I know. It made me choke. When people arrived for tonight’s party, they’d ll it up with new memories. I’d be okay. I had to be.
I pounded a nail through a streamer, looped the lights over the nail, moved along as far as I could reach, pounded in another. Climbed down the ladder, moved it a few feet, climbed up again. One nail, another nail, down, move, climb.
The motion calmed me. I liked the burn in my shoulder from the swing of the hammer. The cold air swirled up under my jacket and sweatshirt when I raised my arm and it felt delicious on my sweaty stomach.
Cal handed me a bunch of shimmery pink and red foil hearts on cardboard backing and I didn’t even complain. I nailed them at intervals with the streamers. Maybe I could t a second row of lights along the edge of the gutter. I found a package of picture hanging hooks in Cal’s junk drawer and went back up the ladder to see if they’d t the side of the gutter.
I heard Summer’s voice from down the sidewalk before I could make out the words. I was not looking forward to being at this party with her. She was one of the officers in our queer and trans group, angling to be its president next year when she was a senior. As far as I could tell, she wanted to run everything. She was stuffing her resume for law schools and internships.
She wouldn’t be happy until she was the first Latina U.S. president. I’d for sure vote for her, but socially we’d been oil and water since last semester. Over the winter break I wasn’t even sure I wanted to come back to this school. On top of things with Lindy, the teaching assistant in my Women and Gender Studies class did everything she could to make the class miserable for me. Turns out, Summer was dating her.
I didn’t like Summer’s politics and I did not trust her.
“…let’s say I accept that ‘they’ is a singular pronoun,” Summer’s words clarified as she got closer. “Do you say ‘how are they?’ or ‘how is they?’”
She had to be talking to Tesh, who’d come out as nonbinary over the winter break and started using they/them pronouns. Sure enough, I heard Tesh’s voice answering her, “Good question. Technically the second one’s correct but the first one sounds better.”
“You get how this could feel made up to me, right?” Summer asked
“People make up language all the time, bae,” Tesh told her.
Summer laughed. “Point taken, but if all the girls turn nonbinary or into trans men, who’s left to date?”
“So it’s over? You’re single again?” Tesh asked.
I held very still on the ladder and turned my head to watch. Neither Summer nor Tesh had seen me. The ladder stood at the corner of the house, halfway behind a tall pine tree. They were coming from campus, which put the tree between me and them.
Through the branches, I saw Tesh first, wearing a long, black coat and carrying two grocery bags. Summer had one hand wrapped around Tesh’s arm at the elbow and the other holding a heavy bag over her shoulder.
Best friends for the last two years, why they’d never hooked up I didn’t understand. They clearly adored each other. Now that Tesh wore drab, masculine clothing, the two of them would be a super cute couple. Summer’s bright colors made them seem more solid together, and Tesh’s short blue hair emphasized Summer’s thick, dark, shoulder-length curls.
Too bad Tesh already had a girlfriend or this could be Summer’s moment. They looked happy, heads bent toward each other, chatting and walking in the crisp late afternoon sun.
“Oh yeah, she’s not coming back,” Summer said. “We’re done. I’m glad. She was a lot of work and I’m so busy this year. The LSAT is freaking me out.”
“You’ll slay it,” Tesh told her. “And you’ll find someone perfect. Give it time.”
They turned onto the walk leading up to Cal’s. Halfway along it, Summer tugged on Tesh’s arm so they stopped walking. Tesh turned toward her.
Oh God, Summer was going to take her moment anyway. She stared at Tesh with that super intense I’m-going-to-kiss- you-now expression.
Could I scurry down the ladder and run behind the house without them seeing me? It was a creaky ladder. If I didn’t stay still as a stone, they’d hear me. From where they were standing now, the tree barely covered me. Maybe if I stayed frozen, they’d never realize I was here.
Tesh looked as frozen as I was. Summer grabbed the front of Tesh’s jacket, tugged, and leaned up. Their lips met.
I held my breath. How would Tesh deal with this? Short kiss and push Summer away? Or…
Tesh pressed into the kiss. All three grocery bags hit the ground. Tesh embraced Summer, while Summer’s hands went up around Tesh’s face and hair.
That was so much. It had been obvious Summer was smitten with Tesh. Summer was pretty easy to read. Tesh wasn’t. But damn, that kiss was super clear. They were trying to memorize each other. It wasn’t any sloppy making out. Their lips moved together, communicating everything they couldn’t say out loud.
They pulled apart, both gasping, hands still on each other.
“I can’t,” Tesh whispered. The cool breeze carried the quiet words to me. My hand was freezing to the gutter. My face was freezing in shock.
“Please,” Summer said, the word more plaintive than anything I’d ever heard from her. She would beg for Tesh if she had to.
I so didn’t want to be here for that.
Tesh kissed her, pulled away, said again, “I can’t. Not now, just not now.”
Picking up one of the bags, Tesh ran into the house. Summer watched Tesh go, mouth open, hands limp at her sides. She was crying. She moved to one of the grocery bags, picked it up and set it down again. Turned back toward the house and then spun halfway back, eyes focusing on me.
Her tear-streaked face went from soft grief to rigid fury. I held up my hands.
“Do you have to be in the middle of fucking everything?” Summer yelled at me.
I went down the ladder carefully, shaking with the effort of having stayed frozen so long and the impact of Summer’s anger.
“This isn’t about you,” she yelled.
“No you don’t. Every fucking thing is about you. You don’t get this too. You don’t get to swoop in here and…everything I have you take it and twist it.”
She spun and walked away, stride heavy with rage.
What was she talking about? I hadn’t taken anything of hers. I guess if she thought that Lindy getting expelled had pushed her own girlfriend to leave school, maybe she could justify being pissed at me. But that was messed up.
I needed a hot shower and soup and to tell my roommate Ella all about this because holy crap.
I carried the two grocery bags from the front walk into the kitchen. Tesh was putting the first bag’s contents into the fridge.
“Tucker?” “Found these on the walk,” I said. “Did you see Summer?”
“Heading back toward school. Did something happen?”
Tesh touched their lips, turned in the direction of the school. “I made a mistake.”
I burned to ask: which one? Kissing Summer or not kissing her more? Instead I said, “I’ve got to change for the party, you okay here?”
Tesh nodded and put more pop into the fridge. I about ran back to campus.
On the two-hour drive from Columbus up to Freytag, I rehearsed different ways to talk to my dad about dropping the lawsuit. Threaten to countersue? Maybe. Offer him a bribe? If I could ever figure out what he wanted, short of turning me into a man.
Dinner with Ella didn’t help. I wanted her to tell me about Tucker, but Ella was all aflutter about her boyfriend—it being Valentine’s Day. I offered advice about boys, about friends, about sex. But it felt like we were on different planets and I was shouting across the vacuum of space. We didn’t sync up until we were back in her room.
“Help me pick what to wear,” she said, standing in front of her closet.
“He’ll like you in anything,” I told her. “He’s smitten.”
But before long I was trying on things from her closet while she checked out how bad she looked in my orange shirt. She stuck her tongue out at her reflection, yanked the shirt off and slipped her sweater back on. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t catch the shirt when Ella threw it back at me.
“That makes your skin look like three-day-old rice porridge,” I said. “Or, wait, like a zombie. I’ll bring it up for Halloween.”
Hands on hips, she demanded, “Put on a pastel, I dare you.”
“I am much too fabulous for pastels, babygirl.”
Friends since early high school—we’d dated on and off for two years—we didn’t look like we belonged together. Short, delicate Ella looked very high-society white girl and hid her nerd tendencies well. Her closet was full of sweaters. Even my everyday clothes had the feel of costume to them. Plus I was a blend on so many levels. Average for a guy, tall for a girl. I appeared light-skinned next to my mom and medium brown next to my dad. I owed and danced through the fixed identities around me.
Ella went back to her closet, tucking strands of straight blond hair behind her ear. She said, “I have a dress you might like, if you’re in a dress mood. My sister says it’s too small for her. But it’s too big on me.”
I was not in a dress mood. But I wanted to keep playing with Ella. She’d had a tough first semester at college while I was down in Columbus partying with the astrophysics geeks and my theater friends.
She’d come up here already half-outed. Rumors were flying about there being a trans girl on campus. In the dorms— shocking! No one was inclined to believe the trans girl was Ella. After all, she’s five-foot-five. And everybody knows what trans people look like, right?
They were much more willing to believe that tall, thick- shouldered Tucker was trans. She’s not, but we don’t hold that against her. We don’t hold anything against her because she’s fourteen kinds of hot. Not only physically, but smart in this mellow, thoughtful way, calming and deep.
Brave, ridiculous Tucker came out as a trans woman to protect my Ella. She was not ready to get beat up over it, but she was. And she got so wrecked by what came after that she still didn’t see how messed up she was.
“Hand over the dress,” I told Ella. “Let’s see.”
I pulled off my chest binder and paused. I didn’t have a bra with me. I didn’t usually need both a binder and a bra on the same night. The dress was thick enough to wear braless and cut with a sporty, high neckline. I slipped into it.
“That works,” Ella said, like she’d expected the opposite.
The mirror showed an athletic girl ready to hit the tennis courts. The dress was a good blue for me, bold and electric with gray side panels. But it was profoundly not my style. I’d grown my hair out a few inches since fall and compensated by dressing more masculine. In this dress I went most of the way to full girlie girl.
“If I ever go through a Serena Williams stage…” I said. “You’d need to bulk up your arms, you’re too skinny.”
Ella opened her mouth to say more, but there was a tap on the inside door of her suite and Tucker called, “Are you in there?”
Before I could ask her to wait, Ella opened the door. I grabbed the top item from the pile of clothes on the bed and held it to my chest, even though it was small and lace-edged. I was not ready for Tucker to see my chest. Or me without most of my usual, armoring, fabulous clothing on. Or me in a dress.
“Can I borrow your hot pot?” Tucker asked Ella, and then, seeing me. “Oh hey, hi.”
“Hey,” I echoed, unable to keep a ridiculous grin off my face.
Every time I saw Tucker she looked more excellent than the last. Her whole wardrobe was faded jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts that were fraying at the edges. There was something magical about a tall girl with big shoulders where you could see the contours of her skin through the threadbare T-shirt she was wearing.
Plus Mohawk, did I mention? Bleached and starched up in a soft wave above the shaved sides of her scalp.
Her blue-eyed gaze traveled down my body, paused at the line of the skirt, blinked and leapt up to meet my eyes with a question. I couldn’t tell what the question was. Could be: wow, you like dresses? Could be: are you really a girl? Could be: do you honestly play tennis?
I held the cloth against my chest tighter realizing as I did that it was one of Ella’s camisoles. I could not have been more in
the girl spotlight. I wanted to run. Dance away from the blinding cultural certainty of these clothes. I wanted to tell Tucker: I’m not this, I’m not.
But she was grinning—at me or at the image of girl she’d superimposed on me?
I knew that expression on her face. I’d seen it on too many people. It was: oh good, I figured you out. She saw the curve of breasts in this dress, around the edges of the lacy camisole that didn’t cover me. She assumed it meant everything it did not.
She was going to ask me out now, tonight, thinking she knew, thinking we were all okay and I could perform genderfluid all I wanted now that she knew I was a girl. It was an inverted kind of naked: exposed as something I was not. I watched myself being erased.
We’d talked about gender, that I was nonbinary, didn’t see myself as either male or female, or rather as a lot of both and more. But she didn’t know the whole backstory on that. She didn’t know that the physical details of me weren’t binary either, weren’t what most people think of as male or female.
I hadn’t found a way to tell her. I mean, I didn’t know when or how. If we never tried to date, never kissed, never seemed like there would be more, was there any reason to tell her? Awkward enough to say “I like you” out loud pre-kissing, but the whole thing: “I like you, now can we talk about my genitals?”
And now so much harder because she thought she knew me. Complex fear. Not the simple physical animal panic of my skin wanting to preserve itself. I’ve had that; I know what that fear is.
This fear was rooted in the nauseous anxiety that after months of getting to know her, seeing her vulnerable, seeing her messed up insides, I could show Tucker who I am and still have her freak out.
Ella broke the silence between us by saying, “We’re trying on costumes for next Halloween. Nico’s thinking about going as Serena Williams and I was going to go zombie.”
Bless her, she knew how inside-out I felt. She was trying to let Tucker know that I was in another costume.
“Walking Dead is so last year,” I managed to say, even though my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
“You’re not wearing that to the party tonight?” Tucker asked.
“Nico’s eschewing dresses until yo can perfect the guy-in-a- dress look,” Ella said and I wanted to hug her. She picked up her hot pot and handed it to Tucker with a pointed stare at the door.
Tucker paused on the threshold. “But I wanted to tell you about Summer…can I talk to you later?”
Ella nodded and made a shooing gesture. Brow furrowed, but smiling, Tucker went back into her room.
“You okay?” Ella asked me as I stripped out of the dress in a hot second.
“How can I help?”
“You did.” I jerked on the chest binder and tugged it comfortingly into place, back to at-chested. Then undershirt, bright orange shirt, skinny jeans, guy boots.
“Do you have any non-white girl hair products?” I asked.
“There’s a gel that might be yours in the second drawer down. It ended up in the bathroom box and I gured one day you’d have a hair emergency in my room.”
“You’re an angel. An obnoxious, smirky angel, but I’ll take it.”
It wasn’t the right gel, but it got my hair to settle closer to my scalp, a smidge more masculine. Antidote to the dress.