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Something about my mom’s New Age music makes me want to stab myself in the eye. Although anatomically speaking, the ear might be a better area to stab if I’m serious about not having to listen to it anymore. The sound is coming from the living room and our house is so small there’s no escaping it.
I’m in my bedroom packing to the backdrop of a thrumming harp and the low hollow shriek of a bamboo flute. Underneath that there’s the shhhhht of the Vogue magazine sliding into my laptop case, and the snick of a Viva La Juicy perfume bottle hitting my straight-edge razor. It’s five days after high school graduation, I’m packing for my first parent-free road trip, and I can almost hear my old life and my new one clinking against each other.
I add a couple of button-down shirts and some girl jeans to the Space Camp duffel bag I’ve had since seventh grade.
I’m definitely going to need new luggage before I head off to college in August.
Mom comes in and hands me a tube of sunscreen.
“I have some.” I open my bag a little wider so she can see.
“That’s only SPF fifty,” she says. “This is seventy.”
I sigh and take the seventy.
“No skin cancer for you!” she says in a weird accent. I know it’s a reference to some comedy skit about soup or something, but I’m damned if I know what’s funny about it.
“Just want you to be safe,” she says in her normal voice. Her urge to protect me can be irritating, but just now I’m heading halfway across the country—San Jose to Chicago without her—and in this case her concern might be warranted.
I look at her and smile.
Her hair used to be straight like mine, but five years ago she had cancer, and after remission her hair grew back soft and wavy. She calls it the chemo curl.
Even with different hair, people say we look a lot alike. Same blue eyes, same noses, and now that I’m taking hormones, I swear our jawlines are becoming similar too.
It’s not that I want us to dress in matching outfits or anything, but when you’re transitioning, there are worse things than realizing you look like your mom. Especially if your mom is as beautiful as mine used to be.
“You’re wearing that?” she asks, indicating the thin white Power Puff Girls T-shirt I slept in last night. Earlier than expected results from hormones are in evidence. (Yay, breasts!)
I point to a thicker T-shirt and the light blue hoodie lying on my bed.
I’ve been taking hormones for seven months now, since November 22, the day I turned eighteen, and I’m kind of at an in-between-looking place at this point.
People who know me see what they expect to see, what they think they’ve seen all along. A sort of skinny guy with a shortish body and longish hair. But under a thin shirt it’s obvious that breasts are growing.
I’m friendly with a few kids from my art classes and theater, but I’m not tight with any of them, so my mom and my best friend Chunk are the only ones who (privately) use the right pronouns and call me by my new name (Jess). They’re also the only ones who know about my (I’m gonna go ahead and say it) new development.
I toss a pair of nondescript jeans on top of the thick T-shirt and hoodie mix on the bed. Mom nods, satisfied that I’m not putting myself in danger by flaunting my sexy lady body at a time when rigorous shaving is still necessary, and turns to leave. “Breakfast in five.”
The clock says 8:30.
“I need to finish packing so we can get on the road!”
“You’re in a hurry for someone who originally didn’t want to go,” she says over her shoulder.
I’m an expert at decoding my mom’s voice; her tone is singsongy, teasing, and not malicious at all.
“You’re right,” I agree.
I haven’t spoken to my dad in more than a year, since he’d refused to cosign a waiver that would have allowed me to get hormones before I was eighteen. The fact that it ultimately worked out okay in terms of timing—I was graduating high school identifying as a boy and starting college identifying as a girl—didn’t make me any less bitter about having my gender dysphoria dismissed as a phase.
Six weeks ago, when the invitation to his wedding showed up, my mom opened it. (“I wanted to see if it was what I thought it was, so we could talk about it” was her excuse for invading my privacy.)
I said no effing way am I going. In fact, before dropping the RSVP card in the mail, I practically scratched a hole in the paper over the box marked Regrets and then wrote the word no over it, just to make sure my father and his cow of a fiancée got my point.
I’m not going to your wedding and I’m not sorry.
Bizarrely enough, my mom thought I should go.
“Anger is a coal that burns only the person who holds it,” she told me.
She’s been a lunatic all my life in one way or another. Currently she’s a very peaceful and New Agey one. A year and a half ago she went to a retreat for cancer survivors and came back saying things like “In Spiritual Forgiveness, there are no victims. Everything is in Divine Order,” and “All is in accordance with our soul contracts.”
Pretty impressive for someone whose EX-HUSBAND IS MARRYING HER FORMER BEST FRIEND.
Except for the (to me) interminable year Jan lived with her boyfriend Roger, my mom’s best friend, single and childless, spent so much time at our house we called the guest room Jan’s Lair. She and I hung out a ton. She bought me a sketchbook for my eighth birthday and then made Saturday morning art lessons a tradition. She’d drive me up to Big Basin State Park, just so I could sketch the redwoods because they were my favorite things to draw.
That’s right. My father the transphobe is marrying a woman I called Aunt Jan for most of my life.
And my mother’s “Spiritual Acceptance” is taking some getting used to.
Because really, when you’ve settled into a groove of hating your father it’s nicer to have someone hating him right alongside you, you know?
In any case, it wasn’t Mom who convinced me to travel the two thousand miles to the wedding.
It was Chunk.
* * *
“Don’t forget you’ll need to clean the kitchen before you leave,” Mom calls from down the hall.
Some things are non-negotiable. My cleaning the kitchen after meals is one of them. According to her (recent) philosophy, when your kitchen is in the fêng shui health area of your house, tidiness is of the utmost importance.
“Then you’re going to have to change the music,” I call back, and turn to my closet. Next to a pair of skinny jeans, on the side of the closet I think of as the girl side, hangs the costume I designed for the character of Muzzy when our school did Thoroughly Modern Millie a couple of months ago.
The girl who played Muzzy and I happen to be a similar size. And it also happens that I designed a glorious garment that somehow fits me to a T.
Besides the Muzzy dress and the skinny jeans, there are only a couple of outfits on the girl side of the closet. Two shirts with intricate designs and flowy, floaty hems and sleeves, plus a pair of wide-legged yoga pants that I got at East West, my mom’s favorite hippie store.
I’ve only ever worn the shirts and yoga pants inside my house.
The clothes I wear in public are pretty gender-neutral: sweatshirts, boy jeans, a few button-down shirts, run-of-the-mill hoodies, paint-splattered Vans. So far, mine is a no-style style. It’s kind of boring, but designed to fly under the radar. Important at Kennedy High, but not anymore.
There’s no way the Muzzy dress will fly under any radar. It weighs a ton because the entire thing is covered in black sequins, except for the bodice, which is slashed across the front with silver bugle beads. The cut is long and narrow, with a slit up the side.
I’ve never shown my true self to the outside world, and yet this is what I plan to wear to my father’s wedding.
Because, really, nothing says “F U, Dad” like showing up in a dress, when he used to make you wear a Cub Scout uniform.
I take the sublime, sequined concoction off the hanger and gently roll it around a pair of black satin ballet flats. My hand fumbles with the zipper when I close the duffel bag.
Am I really going to do this?
* * *
During breakfast we have the wear-your-seat-belt-and-sunscreen-and-be-careful-of-strangers-and-check-in-once-a-day-unless-you-want-me-to-put-out-an-APB-on-you-and-I’m-very-proud-of-you-for-going conversation. Then Mom goes off to get dressed for work while I do the dishes.
Really, I don’t know how she’s going to survive the next week without having me around to be all concerned about.
I’ve just put soap in the dishwasher and closed the door when she comes back in wearing the nurse’s scrubs that have little yellow ducks sporting handlebar mustaches. She says the kids on the pediatric ward love them.
We made several sets of scrubs for her during our sewing-together phase. We’ve also had a gardening-together phase (which I hated), and a knitting-together phase. I drew the line when she wanted us to have a taking-dance-classes-together phase.
“What time is Chuck picking you up?” she asks.
“I told him I’d walk to his house and we’d leave from there.”
If I waited for Chunk to come get me, we might never get this show on the road. I love the guy, but he takes his own sweet time in doing just about everything.
“Grab your things. I’ll give you a ride,” she says, keys in hand.
I think about it for a second and shake my head.
“I have a little more stuff I need to do here.”
The truth is, I want to take the first few steps of this trip on my own, but I know if I try explaining that, it’ll sound like I’m making the whole thing overly momentous or something.
Once we leave San Jose, I feel like I’ll be free to be me, full time. Instead of he/his/him Jeremy Saunders, I’ll finally be she/hers/her Jessica Saunders. Jess for short.
“I’ll wait. I can be a bit late,” she says.
“No. Thank you, though.” I step in for a hug.
She holds on for a second longer than necessary and murmurs, “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.”
“I wish you’d let him know you’re coming.”
I step out of her hug. “My terms,” I remind her.
When I changed my mind about going, I didn’t get in touch with Dad and Jan to let them know. With the exception of the RSVP card, I haven’t broken my no-Jess-initiated-contact record in nearly two years.
Not that silence on my part ever stopped my dad from trying to get in touch with me, but I delete all his e-mails without reading them, and on the top shelf of my closet there’re a bunch of letters and cards from him I’ve never read.
“They don’t get to think they can just summon me.”
“Jess, that’s not what…,” my mom starts to say.
“It’s the only way I’m going.”
And if I end up chickening out, no one but Chunk will be any the wiser.
* * *
When she finally leaves for work, I go into my room and grab the unopened mail from my dad, plus the card with the location and time of the ceremony on it. I shove it all into my laptop case next to my computer and Vogue.
Even now, almost six weeks after deciding to do this, I don’t have an actual plan for what I’m going to say, or even at what point during the wedding or reception I’m going to show up.
There’s one thing I do know, though. If my dad says one assholic thing to me, my nonplan plan involves throwing every single envelope in his face and walking out.
I glance around my room to make sure I have everything. It’s kind of hard to tell in the cramped chaos of my futon, my desk, my drafting table, and the easel sitting on a rumpled cloth tarp that’s stiff with paint. Every surface is littered with X-Acto knives, sable brushes of varying thicknesses, vine charcoal, chalk, pigments, and various objets trouvés—the odds and ends I’ve collected to use in collages: scraps of newspaper, old postcards, and even dryer lint that has an interesting indigo color shot through with a gold thread. When my mom complains, I point to the hand-lettered sign on the huge bulletin board running the length of one wall: A CREATIVE MESS IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN A TIDY IDLENESS.
My gaze rests on the album of photos from my art school application—my portfolio. Between its padded gray covers are the scanned pictures of thirteen mixed-media self-portraits. (The fact that my work mainly consists of paintings of me really says something, huh?)
I’m still experimenting, finding my way as an artist, but the one thing my pieces all have in common is that each one was inspired by a specific memory. And every painting in my portfolio strongly features a particular color, so when viewed all together there’s a whole rainbow thing going on.
My private joke with me.
The letter of acceptance from Stern used adjectives like remarkable, gifted, raw, and evocative to describe my art.
Six months later those words still give me warm goose bumps.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’ll be sitting around showing my portfolio to Dad and Jan, but I grab the album anyway. On the drafting table underneath it there’s a photo of a piece inspired by a day I spent with Chunk not too long ago. The work is too recent to have been in my art school application, but it’s one of my favorites. I tuck the picture loosely inside the front cover and slide the whole thing into my backpack.
It just fits.
* * *
Image: Ocean painted over roller coaster line drawing.
Portrait of the artist in the front car. The artist’s expression—mouth open, eyes wide—is one of simultaneous terror and delight. Tiny dresses, red foil alternating with blue, line the border.
Acrylic, black ink on paper, foil
On Senior Beach Day, Kennedy High traditionally packs the graduating class into buses and sends them to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for a day of fun in the sun, hoping to stave off a true senior ditch day. The school reserves volleyball courts and provides wristbands for the rides. The ocean provides all the water you can swim in.
Not that there was even the most remote possibility of me or Chunk taking a dip.
He’s a big guy. He wears huge tent-like shirts, and sometimes I notice him tugging the material away from his body.
It’s a gesture familiar to me. Even wearing a sports bra underneath a heavy T-shirt and hoodie, when I was around people from school I hunched my shoulders to keep the material loose and off my frame.
Neither of us was willing to show the outline of our bodies to the world.
Chunk and I were convinced that ride maintenance was taken care of by toothless crack addicts, so we ditched the boardwalk with its smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes for the ocean scent of salt and tar. We walked along the shoreline, occasionally stopping to let the frigid waters of the Pacific break over our feet.
I do not love amusement parks, I do not love volleyball, I do not love the great outdoors, and I definitely do not love being surrounded by girls who were born with girl parts lolling around the beach in their bikinis.
I do, however, love hanging with Chunk.
Gulls shrieked in the distance, and we stopped to watch some boogie boarders. It had been two days since I’d received the wedding invitation, and I was ranting (again) about my dickhead dad, and his cow of a fiancée, Jan.
“I’m sure he doesn’t even really want me there … He probably just invited me because it would look bad if he didn’t invite his only offspring. I can’t believe my mom thought I should go.”
Chunk had been listening patiently like a friend is supposed to do, but then he disagreed with me, which a friend is not supposed to do.
“I think you should go,” he said, foamy surf swirling around our ankles. “My mom says…”
“I know what your mom says,” I snapped.
Dr. Georgia Kefala was all about me “repairing the relationship” with my dad.
Another wave crashed, and Chunk kept talking like he didn’t hear me. “Besides, don’t you want to show him who you are?”
“Black Hole,” I practically shouted, which is code for leave it alone.
I turned away and stalked up the beach, leaving Chunk just standing in the water.
When Black Hole is invoked, we agree to drop whatever it is we’ve been talking about. If the other person brings up the dreaded subject that Black Hole has been called on, the person who called it gets to punch the offender in the arm.
Still, calling Black Hole didn’t stop the words Don’t you want to show him who you are? from echoing in my ear.
I pictured myself standing at the back of the church in a long red dress and kitten heels, and when the minister asked if anyone had any objections, I’d part my perfectly made-up lips to say “I do.” There’d be shock on my dad’s face, and murmurs of “Who’s that girl?” I imagined him starting down the aisle to tell this young woman off for disrupting the wedding, but then he’d get closer and recognize me. That’d show him who I am, all right.
I’d just reached the softer, harder-to-stalk-through sand when Chunk came up behind me, throwing a strong arm around my shoulder. I almost fell but he steadied me, turning me around so we were again facing the expansive hue of sky and water.
“Dude, lighten up.” He gave my shoulders a little shake.
You’d think Chunk calling me dude would bother me, but he called everyone dude. Even his fellow mathletes, which always struck me as a kind of funny juxtaposition.
He always talked to guys and girls in the same gender-blind way.
“That there is some fine H2O. The sun is shining, narwhals are out there somewhere, breeding, making little sea unicorns, and we’ll be free of Kennedy soon. What more do you want?” he asked, but gave me no time to speak. “Don’t answer that. This day is perfection.”
“The word was perfection,” he said, indicating a game of synonyms. Clearly he’d hoped to distract me.
“Flawless,” I said.
“Peerless,” he said.
I thought for a second. “Unequaled.”
He came back with “Matchless.”
“You win,” I told him, and presented my upper arm. He punched it, which is what the winner gets to do.
Chunk almost always wins when we play this game. He made it up, and I think he secretly designed it to try to make me smarter or something. Not that I’m complaining, since I credit my excellent verbal SAT score to it.
Chunk himself was one of only a few hundred people in the US to get a perfect score of 2400. He’s the smartest guy I know, valedictorian, headed off to Stanford in the fall.
“Of course I won,” he said, stepping away from me. He’d never been shy about how smart he was, either. Neither of us is a terribly popular person. “Just one more thing.”
The ocean breeze cooled my shoulder where his arm had been.
“About the wedding,” he said. “Think road trip.”
And he leaned way back so I couldn’t slug him.
He broke the code of Black Hole, but I was so surprised by the words road trip, I didn’t even try.
“As in you and me? Driving to Chicago together?”
“Sure.” He grinned. “Imagine the adventure! Ratty motels, junk food, awesome playlists, bizarro roadside attractions!”
“Who are you and what have you done with my friend?” I demanded.
He looked away. “I have an inexplicable hankering to see these great United States.”
I saw long days of driving, the open road stretching out in front of us, like some final frontier. We’d play trivia games, and Truth, and Spot the Out-of-State License Plates.
And then there was the opportunity to demonstrate to my dad the effect seven months of hormone therapy had had so far.
A wave crashed over the head of a guy with a silvery blue boogie board, and I flashed on another image of me showing up to my dad’s wedding, only this time in a dress the color of that board. I pictured the shock of recognition on Dad’s face … I’d show him a phase.
But then I faltered. Would the other guests know anything about me? What would I say to Jan? Would I pass as a girl? And if not, would it be unsafe to drive across the country?
The boogie boarder popped up behind the wave, and I looked over at Chunk. He was staring intently out at the horizon. I thought about milk shakes in diners and nights in kitschy motels. Hanging out and watching bad TV, just the two of us.
“We’d take Betty the Car?” I asked.
“Unless you have a car of your own you’ve been keeping a secret all this time.” His lips curved in a half smile, and his cheek dimple deepened.
I tried to sound cool. “It would be kind of a last hurrah before I go to New York and you go off to Stanford…”
“Right?” Chunk pulled out his phone and checked the calendar. “And we have exactly five and a half weeks to teach you to drive stick.”
“Who am I to deny my friend the opportunity to see these great United States?” I asked the ocean.
As if that was the only reason I was agreeing to go.
Text copyright © 2016 Kristin Elizabeth Clark