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First & Last
By Jay Curtis
Her name was Hannah David. The plainest name in the whole world.
She was in several of my classes, and she was the one who got in trouble for talking. Hannah always had something to say. She was the one who had opinions about controversial topics, hot updates on all the gossip, and an impossible response to the private conversation whispered behind binders.
In a way, I admired her - I had a secret. I hated the sound of my voice, the soft look of my face, and the way my hair curled. I never expected my reflection in the mirror would be the end result of puberty, and sometimes when I caught that foreign face off the computer screen, I imagined the girl was simply on the other side of it, a separate being separately wondering the same about me.
In most situations, I felt uncomfortable. My shirt didn’t fit right, my voice squeaked too loudly, and others would simply talk around me, across the table, over my shoulders and never to me.
I liked being this passive creature. I could observe without compromising myself. This way, no one had to know my secret. They could simply assume.
No one could assume things about Hannah. She would actively go out of her way to prove something right or wrong or to be the case; true, she liked playing Devil’s Advocate, but I always suspected she couldn’t help herself. She enjoyed shocking those around her, and by the time we’d reached senior year, it was a compulsion.
Most people rolled their eyes at her. They’d learned her game, and they’d play along. But at the end of the day, everyone knew Hannah, with the plainest name in the whole world, was simply another face in the crowd.
I thought that’s why she did it.
We were at an assembly meeting, all of the seniors, and we—they, obviously, the popular students, the future leaders of America—had several items on the agenda, ranging from Prom duties and ticket sales to the new sign-out procedures for off-campus lunch.
I remembered distinctly: I was three rows behind her and eight rows to her left. You see, she had curly hair, too. Beautiful springy blond curls, and I knew, from watching my own every day, her own weren’t natural, despite how naturally they would bounce and sway with her every move.
It was this motion that caught my eye in that moment, and I swiveled my head to see Hannah launch herself out her seat.
“I’m not a girl!” Her whole voice rang out in the auditorium, stilling our classmates.
We all stared at her, and those of us on the stage, microphones in hand, were too stunned to react. But, Hannah wasn’t finished.
“I hereby make a motion to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.” She paused to flip her seat down and tested it with her foot before pushing herself into the air, head held high.
She surveyed the world around her, all those pairs of senior’s eyes impatiently waiting for her moment to pass. With one foot on the back of her chair and the other in the seat, she rested her fists on her hips and chewed her lips, slowly making eye contact with each of those around her.
“Our high school is one of the last few in our district not to have one.” She shakes her head in disapproval. “That means that we’re all cowering behind our masks, pretending to be someone we’re not. That’s not healthy. We need a space to explore ourselves, and within the proposed GSA, we’d be able to organize student events, meet with the alliances of other high schools, and make our voices be heard.”
A notion so simple, right? Hannah had spent her entire existence being heard. What did she understand of struggling to be listened to?
She pushed onward, motioning to a girl across the theater. “Molly, you’re bisexual. This would be the perfect group for you to finally have that validated.” Hannah pointed to two different girls next to each other in the row behind me. “Erika and Ally, you’ve been dating since like sophomore year, but did you know there are eight other lesbians in our school? Some of them are even here in this auditorium with us right now.
“Daniel,” she addressed one of the students on the stage. “How hard did you lobby to perform Buyer & Cellar? I know you worked extremely hard on it, too. You even used the monologue bit at the end for your Juilliard audition, right?”
Daniel nodded and lifted the microphone. “And, I nailed it.”
“Because, you’re a proud gay man!” Hannah screamed at him gleefully, grinning from ear to ear.
She threw her arms wide. “We are a diverse group of students already, but let’s explore it more!”
Daniel nudged the student president Michelle, standing on the stage next to him, and she spoke into her microphone.
“Hannah, I love your idea, and I agree this is an organization we should move forward with starting.” Michelle grinned. “Actually, I already have the packet. I think I might like girls and had been looking into the GSA.”
She hesitated. “One thing, though, Hannah.”
Hannah paused her fist pumps.
“I think it’s technically called Gender and Sexualities Alliance now, to be even more inclusive.”
Hannah waved her hands. “Fine. I just want to say thanks for listening. I was nervous about how this would go, but it looks like we’re all kinda on the same page.”
“Thank you, Hannah.” Michelle smiled and clapped, the rest of us joining in.
I watched Hannah as she clambered back down.
“One last thing.” She twirled around. “Um, I’m getting my boobs removed over spring break, and I want to be called Rand now.”
She plopped down in her seat, and Michelle cleared her throat to get back to business.
“I’m not a girl either.”
I felt my face go hot and flushed, and my hands were clenched in anxious fists.
So many eyes on me. Too many.
“Thanks,” I blurted out and hunkered back down in my chair.
Michelle nodded kindly. “Okay, thanks. Anyone else?”
I pulled my hood up over my head, embarrassed and shaking. Where did that nerve come from?
I snuck a glance out of the corner of my eye, and three rows up and eight seats over Rand was grinning at me, her pink lips smushed together in a way that made my stomach knot.
I walked to and from school. I didn’t drive. I mean, I had a license, but we only had one car and my mom needed it for work. I didn’t mind the walk. It cleared my head for homework and gave me creative room to work on my story. I was writing a book series—well, originally, it was intended to be a stand-alone book, but I fell in love with my characters and couldn’t help it. They had more story to tell than what I thought. Most of my walking to and from school was brainstorming and world-building, and with my earbuds in, everything else easily fell away.
After what happened in the assembly, I had been exposed, my secret no longer my own, and I escaped into my world to avoid the curious eyes in the hallway, doodled little blurbs in the margins of my notebooks, and acted out the scenes on the walk home, my lips moving through the characters’ lines.
I wasn’t making very much headway into the story, and largely, I felt my shortcoming came from the distraction of the day. There was something so…extraordinarily human about Hannah, now Rand. Something so pure yet driven, I feared I could never capture in a character. How could you express the headiness of her curls or pink-lipped smile? Plus, now, she went from Hannah to Rand, which was nowhere near as plain of a name. There was intrigue and mystery.
She was the kind of not-girl you wanted to sit in front of for hours and listen to her talk about…well, everything, and even then, you wouldn’t be able to understand the mystery of her. In fact, I firmly believed you could spend an eternity attempting to solve the riddle that was Rand and still unlock nothing.
Never in my life had I wanted to talk to someone so badly before. Now. When I’d blown my cover before the whole senior class, with nothing more to say than a “thanks”. I’d heard the rumors about me, but this would send them over the edge. I was the opposite of Rand. I knew nothing, and that fact, which had once calmed me and kept me happily in my corner of the world, now propelled me into the spotlight, discernment upon my head like a crown.
I trudged up my driveway, no further along in my story nor my processing of the day, and I had nothing to show for it either. Summarily, it was a failure of a day.
I tossed my keys on the counter, and the clamor of them startled my mother.
“Mom, you’re home?” I leaned against the kitchen sink, my heart racing.
“Yeah, my day was shorter than I thought.” She grinned at me, coming to me and planting a kiss on each cheek.
"How was your day, sweetheart?”
I groaned and collapsed into her arms. “I can’t wait to go to college.”
She hummed and brushed the curls out of my face. “Wanna talk about it?”
“I have homework.” I begrudgingly shoved out of her comforting embrace and re-shouldered my backpack. “I was going to make dinner. Is that still fine?”
She smiled and cupped my face with her hands. “That sounds delightful. I have some work I can do in my study.”
I muttered something positively cliche and forced myself up the stairs to my bedroom.
I opened my laptop and flung my backpack onto my bed, hurling myself after it, face first into my pillows. I tried to imagine what my characters would say in this moment of failing self-pity, but even my muse refused to play along.
My laptop pinged with the receipt of a message, and I glanced up to see a Facebook chat bubble blinking.
I rolled off my bed and one-handedly groped the top of my desk for my laptop, nearly dropping it on my face. I set it before me on the carpet and frowned.
It was a message from Hannah. She hadn’t changed her name on Facebook yet?
It was a simple hi, and because I’d taken so long to reply, my phone vibrated in my pocket with a reminder of the message.
I clicked into the bubble window and stared at her message. She’d already seen I’d read it, so it was too late to turn back now—but I had no idea what to say. Hi? I respect what you did today? You gave me the courage, too?
It was all obvious and boring and terrible, and I hated everything my stupid brain thought of. So instead I lamely typed back “hey” and watched as the scrolling ellipses bubbled away in return. It cycled through endlessly, and I feared she was writing me a novel until her reply simply read, thanks for what you did.
My brow furrowed at my screen. What in the hell? Had she even been at the same assembly as me? What did she have to thank me for? I was the one who was a day late and a dollar short to the party and made a complete ass of myself.
I snorted and watched as she typed back, for speaking up like that, I thought I was going to be the only trans kid in school so it’s nice to know I’m not alone, you know?
Trans kid? Woah now. I only said I wasn’t a girl, which was true, but…trans? That has a whole…thing attached to it.
I grimaced and typed, yeah, totally, safety in numbers, to appease her, hoping she would lose interest.
Rand had other expectations.
Wanna hang out this weekend? She offered. I’ve only spoken with other trans kids online, so wouldn’t it be awesome for us to share our experiences with each other?
I squirmed uncomfortably on my carpet.
My main characters unhelpfully poofed into existence on each of my shoulders, whispering the pro’s and con’s of a tete-a-tete with Rand. On one hand, there would be my chance at peeking behind the mysterious curtain that was Rand, and on the other, Rand would be doing the same to me, what little mystery there was. I yearned to know how she realized she wasn’t a girl and what she wanted to be when she grew up, but at the same time, I didn’t have answers to those questions so how could I ask them?
On one hand, Rand was getting top surgery, and this interested me, but, on the other hand, what about me? I simply wanted to keep my head down and graduate and go to college and become a published author. Why did I have to try on new names and new clothes and different pronouns and different bodies? Sure, I despised everything about my current disposition, but that didn’t mean I had to change it. Even thinking about it alone was burdensome.
we could meet for coffee or hang out at my house or something, She continued. And we’ll have to find a teacher to sponsor us for GSA, so maybe we could brainstorm who our favorite it is or whatever
I pursed my lips, tucking my chin in the heel of my hand. My toes kicked together as I contemplated my response, and as usual, Rand still had words.
oohh! or we could go shopping! I’ll need clothes for after the surgery, and I want some new dresses
I cocked my head at this. wait, you’ll still wear dresses?
Sure! Dresses are amazing!
I shook my head. But you’re not a girl, and you won’t have boobs anymore, will they even fit?
She sent me a cry-laughing emoji, and my stomach knotted. Did I say something wrong?
You’re funny. She threw in another laughing emoji.
I didn’t understand what I’d said, but I relented to a meeting with Rand.
The coffee shop was across the street from the vintage clothing store Rand wanted to meet at, and I continuously glanced up from my laptop and through the fogged windows. I’d arrived at the coffee shop that morning, and we weren’t due to meet until the afternoon, but I needed the space for writing. I was behind my word schedule, and with my mom off on a short business trip, the coffee didn’t replenish itself as magically at my house as it did here.
I took a sip of the latte cupped in my hands, desperate to avoid screwing up the foam art, and my glasses fogged up. I sighed and pushed them up into my curls, perching my latte off to the side of my laptop at a safe distance. I’d spilled my fair share of liquids onto my computer, and my mother was over having to repair it. If I ruined my keyboard further or rendered the rest of the computer useless, it was on my head—and my money was keyed up for other expenses, like writing contest fees and paid membership dues.
My fingers skittered across the keys, the heel of my hand rudely hitting the trackpad intermittently, and overall, I felt pretty good about the plot points I was checking off. I knew some scenes needed some work, and I’d long ago turned the grammar and spell check off and dreaded the day it was time to reignite it.
I glanced at the clothing store again. Rand was searching for new dresses. If I’d just told the whole world I wasn’t a girl, I didn’t think my first fashion move would be to reinforce the femininity of my figure—except I did recently announce my gender confusion and had no fashion at all, so who was I to judge?
The biggest difference between myself and Rand, I’d decided, was not only did I know nothing, but I barely knew myself. And perhaps there was something there that, say, needed a therapist or some other journey of self-discovery, but I wasn’t sure that was a…thing I wanted to do.
On the other hand, if the thrift store had some suspenders, I wouldn’t be able to say no. I’m a sucker for century-old gangster looks, and nothing says “I’ve got the juice” like a pair of suspenders.
I was more interested in fashion than I wanted to admit, but again, I had a word count to hit and no time to waste.
The coffee shop’s door had a little bell on it, annoyingly, so any time someone entered, it would jingle-jangle welcomingly and jar me back into reality. I had my headphones in, of course, because I’m only slightly a masochist, which helped to push the bell into white noise land, but any excuse to procrastinate was good enough to force my eyes up and away from my laptop and back to the clothing store across the street.
I told myself I merely needed to give my eyes a break, for my health’s sake, but there’s only so much you can see through a fogged window before your muse simply stops imagining anything but taking a little trip across the street to the store.
A figure blocked my blurred vision, and I squinted, knocking my glasses back down.
Rand grinned down at me. “How excited are you?”
I cleared my throat nervously and sprang to my feet, offering my hand.
She eyed my hand with a quirked eyebrow and pushed it away, lurching up onto her tiptoes to sling her arms around me.
I froze, feeling her body pressed against mine.
“Hug me back, you idiot.” She whispered into my ear, and I did as I was told.
It was strange.
She was shorter than I had realized, and as she pulled away and rocked back onto her heels, I became uncomfortably aware of how large her curves were up against my own.
She motioned to my latte. “Is that with the coconut milk? I’ve always wanted to try.”
I nodded, and before I could say anything, she scooped up my drink to taste it, her pink lips sinking into the beautiful foam art, effortlessly obscuring the design. Perhaps, there was something to be said about my inability to express things and therefore my own need to preserve the fleeting wonders around me, but with Rand, there wasn’t the time.
She gulped down a mouthful and wriggled happily, grinning ear to ear. “Oh, that’s so creamy and delicious. I have to have one.”
With determination, she thrust my coffee into my hands and strode off to order her own.
Dumbfounded, I sank back into my seat, sipped at my assaulted latte, and stared at the blinking cursor in the middle of a dense paragraph, aggravated my muse lacked the attention span to have completed the damn sentence.
Rand bounced back to my table and flopped into the chair across from mine. “So, I want to get a couple dresses, but also some boy stuff. That way I’ll be prepared for either extreme, whenever I’m feeling it, you know?”
I shook my head. I did not know.
She rolled her eyes and giggled. “You crack me up. What are you looking for?”
I hesitated. “At the store?”
She laughed louder, and the barista called her new name, sliding a foamy latte across the counter. She bounded away to retrieve it.
I could not, for the life of me, understand her.
“So, I was imagining you.” She slid back into the chair delicately, licking at her foam mustache. “I think you would look incredible in, like, this classic look, with old wing-tipped dress shoes and a tie.”
I grinned involuntarily. Had I not pictured this version of me?
She noted the grin plastered on my stupid face and nodded. “Thought so.” She leaned forward and plucked at the tufts of rogue curls. “Would you want to keep these?"
I grabbed at her hand protectively. "I haven't decided."
She narrowed her eyes at me, and I mumbled the confession. "I hate my hair."
Rand leaned back in her chair, slinging her leg tightly over her knee, her toes swinging up and down through the air. "You could get it cut into a bob." She curled her forefinger around her chin in thought. "Shorter in the back, longer on the top to preserve a hint of those curls, maybe some shaved action along the neck."
Her voice wandered off as she scrutinized this visual overlay, and I sat there beneath her analytical gaze, sipping on my latte.
"Why'd you do it?" I blurted out.
She focused back on the real me again, pausing. She ducked her head and leaned forward to plant both feet back on the ground. "Same reason as you, I guess."
Rand locked eyes with me. "I was tired of people not knowing the truth.”
The vintage thrift shop was otherworldly.
The front doors had ornate hanging mirrors blocking the glass sections, and eclectic folding curtains, with bangles and knickknacks hanging from them, book-ended the entryway. Even in the rain, it glittered and sparkled and induced a hazy hallucinatory effect.
As I stepped through the doorway, I felt sucked out of the rain and into the dry haven, soothing nature sounds and old scratched records playing on a restored gramophone floating and mingling in the air like audible cobwebs to clear from your path. On my left were rows of overcrowded racks, hand-painted signs with approximate sizings on the ends, and on my right were an assortment of seating areas, trunks, worn wooden armoires without their doors -- all adorned with accessories. From jewelry, to hats, scarves and ascots, to ties and pocket squares, even shoes with their laces tied together and strung over wooden branches on a makeshift Christmas tree.
Beyond these two dichotomies was the cash register, and beyond that, changing rooms. The back of the store lacked no oddity either, with faded brushed gold trim and bubblegum pink wallpaper intermittently covered with old newspaper trimmings. The counter was littered with more accessories, and not a single item looked like it had ever spent time wrapped up in plastic or been in disuse. The charm was intangible.
Rand beamed at the girl working the register and scurried down the rows, hunting for her dresses.
A wool felt fedora, in its wide-brimmed glory, was perched upon the head of a mannequin, oddly slumped in one of the high-backed arm chairs. This item called to me. It was very Indiana Jones, very bold and masculine, and I instinctively felt drawn to it.
My hand hovering in the air, fingertips poised to snatch up the hat--and the mannequin moved.
I scrambled backwards, embarrassed and annoyed I hadn't noticed the man sitting in the chair, simply dozing off.
He chuckled up at me. "Didn't mean to startle you."
I shook my head. "I swear to God I wasn't trying to steal your hat."
He removed it, frowning as if he didn't recognize it. "This ol' thing?" He grinned. "No worries." He thrust it at me.
Go ahead, try it on. I was hoping it would provide me cover to steal a quick nap."
I stared at him. What?
He waved the fedora at me. "Here. Take it. I bet it looks great on you."
I tentatively accepted the hat from him and slowly settled it onto my head.
He nodded. "Oh, yeah, you have to buy it."
He was pointing, and I followed his finger to see a mirror behind me.
The reflection turned, wide brim of the hat obscuring the figure's face, except for a mischievous smile slowly overtaking the lips.
I tilted my head to each side. Something was off.
I pulled the elastic band from my wrist and fought to pull the curls into a ponytail at the nape of my neck.
Better. It still wasn't what I had hoped, but at this point, I wasn't sure if it was because I needed my hair shorter or my body less...of a thing. So I shoved the curls up into the top of the hat and nodded. Even better.
The man in the chair crowed with laughter and slapped his hand against his knee. "By golly, that's a hat fit for you, young man."
I started at this, spinning on my heel defensively. "What?"
He motioned to...well, all of me. "You aren't trying that hard to hide it, child."
I slumped shoulders, the hat's shadow falling over my face. "I can really pull this off?"
He hummed in thought and eventually leapt to his feet, motioning for me to look in the mirror once more. He guided my gaze gently with his fingertips.
"Imagine this." He whispered at my shoulder, a hint of Cajun drawl in his lilting voice. "Some dark jeans and a big belt buckle, tanned leather cowboy boots poking out of your jeans. You have a hand tucked into one of the pockets." At this he nudged my hand, and I did as told, fingers sliding into my pocket. "A collared shirt, with the top several buttons undone, and the color dirtied and smudged from its original bleached white. Maybe a pack of smokes in the pocket, or rolled into the short sleeves." He mimed my hand removing the cigarettes.
"But smoking kills." I whispered.
"Fine." He mimicked tossing the pack away. "No smokes, but if you get curious, don't start with the menthols."
I snorted with short laughter, and he clapped a hand on my back with ease.
"You work with your hands, and you're dirty with grease or dust, or the simple grime of hard labor." He imagined, his drawl husky in my ear. "And some day, you'll take over your dad's business, the best firstborn son he ever had."
I sniffed, wistful at the idea of being close to my dad, and shoved away from him.
I removed the hat, the magic of the moment scattering, and I handed it back to him. "Thanks."
He shook his head, palms up at me. "It was meant for you. Keep it."
Across the store, Rand called my name, and I thanked the man once again, his dark form blurring into the shadows of the store as I moved toward her.
"What do you think?" She beseeched, flipping between two dresses, one in each hand. "Earthy green or candy red? I can't decide between them."
I shook my head and crammed the hat back on, glancing one last time at the chair where the man had been.
When I looked back at her, another look had overtaken her entirely, and it made my heart stop in its tracks.
There, before me, with a green house dress pinned over her street clothes like a paper doll, Rand stared up at me with the most voluminous jade eyes I'd ever seen. Her cheeks soft and pink, her lips parted and caught between words, and her luscious blond curls spilling down her back, and she simply stared at me, mouth agape, enchanted by the cowboy-Indiana-Jones wannabe before her.
"You're hot," she whispered.
I ducked my head, grinning stupidly, and shook my head. I caught her gaze under the brim of the hat. "The green dress."
She nodded, eyes never leaving mine. "I mean, A--"
I shushed her, plucking the candy red option from her other hand. "You should go try it on. I'll be in the men's section over there."
She grinned mysteriously, and for a moment, I feared I'd said something stupid again but merely watched her disappear behind the changing room curtains.
I hitched my thumbs through my belt loops, fully embodying the role-play, and sauntered over to the racks roughly in my size. Of course in the accessories free-for-all land, there had been suspenders and wing-tipped shoes-as-ornaments aplenty, but with this hat firmly becoming an appendage of my identity, I suspected the clean, smartly dressed man approach was not for me after all.
There were collared shirts galore, but none of them struck my fancy and all of them required silk pocket squares. Every time I pulled one from the rack, my nose turned up in disgust. This version of man simply wasn't mine.
I needed something more...down to earth, or modern, even hipster. I caught a glimpse of my figure in a mirror and allowed my imagination to fancy a beard. Yes. Bearded, dirty...and not in a collared shirt, of course!
I rushed to the proper row of clothing and sorted through it, several dark v-necks instantly jumping out at me as well as a few novelty tees, some sweaters, and pants.
I was having a hard time imaging what my hard labor was, perhaps woodworking, but whatever it may be, there was an earthiness grounded into this hazy vision.
I heard Rand calling me once more and looked up to see her, posing between the two curtain flaps, green house dress formidable.
"This is the one," she announced. She strode through the store, hips swaying to and fro, and it jarred my stupid brain to see someone so feminine and confident, yet not a girl, especially someone who had that look on their face as they approached me.
Rand stopped across from me, arms leaning on the rack of clothes. "You should try something on, too. We can be twins."
I held up the shirts in my hands. "I don't know."
She crumpled her brow in thought. "If you do the grey v-neck without the pattern, then you should go with the tan pants but roll up the edges. If you do a patterned shirt, it should be the light blue, and you'd want dark pants and probably some high-tops."
I stared at her blankly. "Which one?"
She motioned for me to shove my hair back up in the hat and nodded confidently. "The first look. Grab the pants behind you and leave the other shirts here, just in case."
I did as instructed and let myself be ushered off to the changing rooms. I couldn't mistake the heightened fluttering of my heart in my chest, and I eagerly stripped out of my clothes to don the new look. I took in the new stranger in the mirror and frowned. Something was still off.
Rand poked her head into the changing room. "What's wrong?"
I shook my head. "There's something off."
She grunted and disappeared again.
I tugged at the foreign hem, hoping it would adjust the way I wanted, and eventually Rand reappeared with a couple of bikini tops in hand.
"Trust me." She demanded, hiking my shirt up.
I allowed her to pull it over my head.
"Definitely don't do this all the time." She murmured into my skin as she tugged each top over my head and into place. "But, in a pinch, this should help with the dysphoria."
She studied me, like she had done in the coffee shop, and commanded me to smush what little chest I had into my armpits as much as I could. When she was happy with the result, she pushed the shirt back into my arms, and I wriggled into it, the hem falling into place.
"Trust me." Rand grinned up at me before spinning me to the mirror.
For the first time, the mirror didn't lie. My hands flew to my mouth. That guy in the mirror--it was a whole thing, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
I caught Rand staring at me in the reflection.
"You're really hot." She quirked an eyebrow at me.
My lips burst into a smile of their own, and I sheepishly ducked my head. "Rand..."
"I'm serious." She grabbed my chin and raised my eyes to her own. "I like this you, A--"
"That name." I withdrew immediately.
I glanced at her and regretted the suddenness of my actions. "Sorry, I...I hate that name."
"I get it." She shrugged in understanding. "We should get you a new one of those next."
I glanced back at myself in the mirror.
"You can wear that out of the store if you want." Rand hopped up on her tiptoes to rest her chin on my shoulder. "I think you should."
She smiled at me, softly this time, and I spun to watch her curtsy. She tugged at the brim of my hat, forcing my head down, and I erupted into laughter, swatting at her hands as she teased and danced around me.
Never in my life had I imagined such a private moment being shared so vulnerably, especially with Rand, the most extraordinary person in the world.
My mom knocked on my bedroom door.
I looked up from my laptop, laying in the middle of my floor. "Come in."
She poked her head in. "Am I interrupting?"
I shook my head and pushed myself up into a seated position.
She pointed at the bag from the thrift store. "Did you have fun with Hannah the other day?"
"Her name's Rand now." I gently reminded. "She's genderfluid."
My mom hummed in thought and sank into the carpet across from me. "What does that mean exactly?"
"It means sometimes she's a girl, and sometimes she's a boy, and sometimes she's both or neither or something in between." I studied my mother as her brow furrowed. "She's trans."
My mom nodded. "And, you're hanging out with her now?"
The question was prodding and assuming and so unabashedly direct.
I stared at my mother. I'd never had a boyfriend to gossip about or school drama with the girls to fess up about, and now, here in this moment, I was disappointing her in a whole new way.
I wanted to tell her how the simple thought of Rand made my heart melt. I wanted to crawl across the carpet and explain how I'd made such a fool of myself in front of the whole senior class and now everyone at school knew, waiting for me to make another announcement. But, there was nothing exciting or enthralling, or even inviting about me.
On the one hand, I still had my characters and my books to write, and I wanted to tell my mom I'd finally made headway on a big plot twist I'd been stuck on for months now. She always asked how my writing was going and when she could read it. She wanted to help after all, and even though it was impossible for her to offer an unbiased opinion, it was still feedback.
Next to Rand, however, nearly nothing else seemed to matter.
So, I sucked in a big breath and nodded.
"I think I'm trans, too."
My mom froze, shocked.
Words hung in the air between us.
"I want to become a boy," I confessed, my fists pressing into my knees anxiously. "I bought clothes today at the thrift store and am going to get my haircut with Rand next week, before she has her surgery."
My mom's face was unreadable, and that scared me. We'd had the most sacred, unbreakable, impossible against-all-odds bond, and now, what was to come of it? All because of the selfishness of my secret.
Who did I think I was?
When my mother spoke, her voice was quiet, and for the first time I could remember, she seemed uncertain. The strong pillar that is my mother weakened by my ego.
She softly stared at me expectantly.
I shook my head, apologetic and sympathetic for her cause.
"I understand that it took a lot of courage to tell me this," she continued in a whisper. "I thank you for being brave enough to share this important aspect to yourself. What can I do?"
I frowned. "Are you okay with this?"
"Sweetheart, I've known you your whole life." She smiled at me weakly. "I've had my ideas of you since before you were even born. But, it's not about what I think. This is who you are."
My stomach knotted darkly. "But, I'll never live up to-"
"Baby." She stopped me with her hand on my arm. "Whatever you're thinking, it can still happen. Anything is possible these days."
I stared at her. Who did I think she was? "You're incredible."
"No, mijo." Her face relaxed into a smile, and she pulled me into an embrace. "You are."
I laid there in my mom's arms for a long while, my characters and my homework forgotten. I melted into her like I used to when I was young. I laid there, and I rested, and I remembered, as always, it would always be me and my mother against the world.
My father had forsaken his opportunity long ago. I yearned, of course, to be able to have his influence in my life, positive and encouraging and uplifting and everything fundamental in a father, but I had already accepted the alternative. It was something more collective than my failing attempt to hide my true nature, my father being the selfish human that he was, and something far less secretive. Almost as if his selfishness was something socially expected and therefore the standard, whereas mine was rudely abnormal and dangerous.
My father and I couldn't be more different, yet here I was, the firstborn son he never had, blanketed in a comforting embrace from my mother. I wanted to be strong and push away and wipe my tears on my sleeve and mask my emotions, like what my father would instruct, squeezing my shoulder in a masculine display of strength. I wanted to embody that toxicity, lean into it wholeheartedly, I did--but hearing the steady beat of my mother's heart, something so resilient and impossibly unbreakable, lured me down from the edge of the high dive over that acrid pool. How easy and stereotypical and blasé to grow that face of pretend stoicism like a beard. How mind-numbingly futile.
No, I should want to be strong, like my mother's heart, for my mother, the most amazing spirit in the whole world. How effortlessly she had switched to mijo instead of mija, and how unquestioning she had been. Who did I think I was, having a mother as divine as mine? Who was she?
Rand wasn't alone. Unlike me, she had four siblings, all younger than she was. Her house was a different kind of chaos, sounds I'd never been aware of before harmonized and clamored throughout the living spaces like the audio was another physical creature within the walls.
Perhaps, in another life, I had had siblings of my own. Would I have been the oldest, like Rand?
As I watched the intensity in her sister's face, I suspected I would've preferred to be the youngest.
She chewed her lip thoughtfully, occasionally blowing on my nails. Her brow crunched adorably in a way I'd seen Rand's do multiple times by now.
Rand's little sister Amanda huffed up at me. "Are you sure you like this color?"
I shrugged. Amanda, the most intelligent eight year old I'd met, albeit I had known very few of them, had a YouTube channel she tended to. At eight. Amanda, you see, was obsessed with nail art, and like any good salesman, could convince a polar bear it needed ice. She was so masterfully persuasive in weaseling her way into your heart. Thus, my nails became this week's demo for her channel. She was recording her process now -- and I did mean process.
Amanda blew on my nails again and addressed her webcam. "The delicate nails really make it more difficult to get this swirl just right, but I think the thumb might be big enough of a canvas for us to work with."
Rand rolled her eyes. "Amanda, can't you do this later? We've got a haircut to get to, and you're wasting his time with this."
"I honestly don't mind." I interjected, butterflies in my stomach at the word "his."
Rand was the first person to say that one little word without making it...into a thing, and I couldn't deny the somersaults within my rib cage at her audacity. But it felt so...right.
Rand snorted. "Yeah, well, she can literally do your nails any other time you're here, but right now, we're in a hurry!"
"Fine!" Amanda screeched. "Ruin my art, why don’t you!"
With a stomp of her foot and the true disposition of an eight year old, Amanda stormed out of the room, whipping her webcam off the floor, without bothering to clean up her nail accessories.
Rand shook her head, chuckling lightly. "Drama queen, that one."
I smiled up at her as she nonchalantly slouched off the side of her bed, big eyes boring into mine. "I kinda like it."
"Only because you don't have any siblings of your own." She gently poked my nose with her forefinger.
I swatted at her and grinned. "Have you found the perfect hairstyle for me yet?"
She groaned and rolled over, disappearing over the edge of the bed, and I sat patiently on the carpet, listening to her rummage through her backpack.
"I found this magazine at the grocery store today and thought you might like it," she grunted, swinging back around.
She thrust it into my lap, and I took in the cover. It was some men's magazine, but this particular issue was dedicated to the hot new looks for the summer.
"I dog-eared the pages I think you'd like." She ruffled my curls good-naturedly. "But you can check 'em out in the car on the way over. Can't be late!"
She vaulted from her bed and dragged me up to my feet with an unexpectedly strong grip. I followed her to her mom's minivan and obediently buckled myself into the passenger seat.
The vibrancy of the house radiated off of Rand as she continued to talk, so many ideas falling out of her mouth, childlike excitement in her eagerness to share them with me.
I watched her pink lips as they moved and nodded when I needed to and asked questions in the right place. I wondered if she knew how attractive she was.
Sure, she had to have had boys tripping over themselves in the hallway, but what about girls? Especially now, she wasn't a girl to them. Who else saw what I did?
Who else could?
Rand chattered animatedly, one hand always circling through the air, as the other steered us through traffic. She was a natural at everything she did and a master of everything she touched. There was an air of command about her, untouchable to me, and sometimes, when the afternoon sun glinted through the windshield, I could see it in the starburst glare encompassing her.
Of course, she was explaining her new hairdo style choices, but ultimately, it didn’t concern me. I couldn't imagine myself without the curls, and while the idea of not having them anymore was uncomfortably foreign, I wanted them gone. I'd packed my new thrift store outfit in a bag, stuffed under Rand's bed back at her house, for me to try on once I had the proper hair, and Rand kept hinting at some present she'd bought me. What it was, I couldn't glean from her, naturally a master of secrets when it suited her, so instead of letting my mind run wild with ideas, I directed her attention to her surgery.
It was tomorrow after all. She was nervous, I could tell. I didn't blame her. I was nowhere near as busty as she and abhorred mine altogether, but she had come to know hers well and had grown comfortable. She knew how to dress herself as a woman with breasts and hadn't known anything else. Without that social conditioning, what else was she expected to know? She was nervous simply because she'd never not had them, wanted them gone, couldn't believe it was finally happening, and had stopped being able to envision herself as flat-chested for fear the dream might collapse, the bubble burst.
How could I blame her? I mean, my curls could grow back, but a total removal? And she was sure of it, undoubtedly. But it's more permanent than a tattoo, more final than scarring, forever a reminder of what her body had been to her once.
Rand pushed me into the barber chair at the salon and flipped through the pages demandingly, and I watched her hand down the decision, the judge that she was. How lucky I was to have such blind trust in her, but I couldn't help it. Her certainty was heady, and I rode her confidence like waves.
I watched as Rand swiveled my chair around, her large eyes on mine, reassuring me I was going to love it, and I relaxed back against the faux leather, the large vinyl apron swirling around me. I had been positioned so I couldn't see, but I thought I liked it better that way--like when I'd seen myself with the old Indiana Jones hat for the first time. It never gave that reflection a chance.
My chin tilted down as the sound of the electric razor hummed at my ears. I would want my own chest to be completely flat one day, but with as small as they were now, doubling up on the sports bras was adequate. An idea blossomed in my mind.
"I think I need to start working out."
I saw Rand clap her hands out of the corner of my eye, and she nodded vigorously.
"Yes, let's build up some muscle!" She slapped her arm, flexing it. "With the right protein intake and schedule, who'll need testosterone!"
I snorted. "I can't look like a pre-teen boy forever."
She giggled, and the barber told me to raise my chin. I caught Rand's eyes with my own.
"You're going to be stupid hot one day."
Her mouth pinched into a crooked grin, and I couldn't identify the look in her eyes. If I wasn't mistaken, I would say she was seeing me for the man I was going to be. The barber swung me back around to face the mirror once they were done, and for the first time, my heart hammering in my chest. I could clearly see him, too.
When I was growing up, I wanted nothing more in the world than a pet. For the longest time, it was an elephant, Dumbo my source of inspiration there, and I think it took the disappointment until my seventh birthday before I finally understood the backyard was no place for a pet elephant. Now, of course, elephants deserve more than domestic captivity under the giant dogwood trees, but that was loss of innocence.
Once I'd come to terms with my pachyderm love interest, I moved on to something a little more manageable, like reptiles. My mom was firmly against snakes as a whole, distrusting of them as a species, which I always thought unfair, but she ended up allowing me to have some turtles. They were relaxed and mostly spent their time sunbathing, and they always seemed to like it when I would lift them out of their terrarium to roam around my bedroom.
Of course, I would talk to them, too.
"Charles and Noreen," I would whisper to them, my chin on my hands, my eyes level with their own. "You don't mind that I hate my body, right? You don't even know what gender is."
Their heads would bob in agreement, and I would feed them their vegetables and watch them munch.
"What would you think if I told you I wanted a different body? Could I move into one of your shells until my real home came along?"
And, I would imagine them shaking their heads miserably. "No, you dolt, that's hermit crabs. We molt parts of our shells away and it grows with us."
I would hum and bob my head in reply. "Yes, of course, how foolish I am. Maybe one day I'll shed the parts that don't fit anymore and continue growing."
Charles and Noreen, my turtle council, in all their infinite wisdom, would munch their vegetables and scramble over the carpet and bob their heads and tan in their terrarium--and they always accepted me for who I was.
I felt the same, standing as I did now, before the wall of stuffed animals in the gift shop. A dark green, friendly-looking turtle stared up at me motionless, a stark contrast to my once-living Elders, but the look in his eyes was the same. He was perfect.
I scrounged up the change from my pocket and meandered back down the hospital hall.
Rand was still passed out in her bed. She, I had learned, was insanely sensitive to anesthesia medicines, and I wasn't sure she had been aware of this before now either.
Her mother peered up at me over the top of her glasses, pausing in her book reading. "Find anything good?"
"Just this." I waved the stuffed turtle.
She smiled at me kindly. "She'll love it."
I retook my seat beside her and slid down a bit, slouching with my knees wide.
She knocked her book against my knee gently. "Thank you again for coming along. I know it means a lot to her."
I studied Rand in her unnaturally quiet state. How curious to see her face so soft and tender, her pink lips slightly parted in deep slumber, her big eyes closed.
I ran my hand through my hair, startled by the shortness of it and let my fingers scratch at the buzzed stubble at the back of my neck.
Rand's mom chuckled. "Takes some getting used to, doesn't it?"
I nodded and mumbled something incoherent. Rand's mother was like my mom except more tired, if that was possible. I assumed the addition of children exhausted her.
"So, have you found your name yet?"
I slid my gaze to the turtle in my hands, praying for his wisdom to come. "Rand says it's like trying on clothes. You'll know it's the right one when you hear it."
Her mother grinned. "I wonder how she heard 'Rand' then? It's such an uncommon name."
I shrugged. "Maybe she liked it because it made her feel invincible."
I glanced up to see her mother sizing me up out of the sides of her eyes, and my cheeks flushed, feeling foolish for having let my own mind speak in place of the turtle's.
Rand rolled her head over, her face sluggish and hazy, and she grimaced, fingers tenderly reaching for her chest.
"Hi, baby." Her mother cooed, leaning forward to catch her hand. "How you feeling?"
She groaned something deep and shook her head. "Right now? I'm just riding this wave."
Her mother chuckled. "Well, the doctor prescribed you some Vicodin for when you come down, so let me know if you feel any pain."
"Oh, the pain's there." She grinned sloppily. "But, it's like...It's like over there." She pointed to the end of her bed and giggled, an uncomfortable sound like her mouth was full of soup or melting ice cubes.
Rand locked shaky eyes with me. "You're here!"
I grinned and nodded. "Of course."
She held out her arms. "You're the best."
I presented her with the turtle. "I got you a little recovery buddy. This is Charles, and he wants to know all about you."
I couldn't help my smile as Rand grasped the stuffed toy with both hands and gave him the biggest hug. She had no hesitation in making introductions and whispered furiously to the turtle.
Rand's mother chuckled again and patted my knee. "You know her well."
Perfectly timed, the doctor poked his head in for a word with her, and I watched her move to the other side of the curtain.
I glanced back at Rand, murmuring and drooling. Fighting her anesthetic high and spilling her secrets to her new turtle guide. Her cheeks were pink from the sleep, eyes still a little blurry, but she was Rand all right. She still possessed all the mysteries in the world, and when she threw her head back to laugh at her own private joke, the room vibrated with her spirit.
I disagreed with Rand's mother. I did not know her well but only well enough to share a bit of myself with her. For where there should be questions of how and why, I simply accepted and attempted to give her a glimpse of my own spirit. Maybe all Rand truly needed was the kind of love that I had to give her. Maybe, I did know her well.
Rand had seventeen prom-posals in the two weeks after spring break, guys, girls, and the every color in between. It was impressive, and by the middle of the first week, it almost seemed like an unspoken challenge of who could out-ask her next. There were light-up signs and musical numbers and even balloons--balloon guy got detention because there were a lot of them and most ended up in the rafters in the gymnasium. Balloon guy also asked three other people at the same time. One bird and a thousand balloons?
I didn't understand the appeal of exceeding expectations, so I failed. What if the appeal was that there weren't any expectations? Those who were already going together knew it, and everyone else knew it, too. Sure, there were a few surprises, but they were still in the same social groups. Nothing unpredictable.
Rand walked home with me now. She had discovered the solace and comfort of my house and seemed to relish the quiet. I liked how much she liked it, how new it was to her for simple reasons.
Today, I was enlisted in carrying her gifts home.
She grinned up at me, the sun glaring off her Ray Bans, and I hugged the teddy bears and pride flag and snacks to my chest.
She plucked a chicken nugget from the oddest of bouquets I'd ever seen and studied it happily. "It's like never-ending Hanukkah."
She bit half of it and waggled the other half like bait at my mouth. "Open up!"
I did as instructed and chewed on the cold chicken. My tongue prickled and danced at what I could only assume to be a sprinkle of MSG in the meat, and my stomach growled at me for more.
"I don't know why all these people keep asking me out." She laughed, half nervous and half incredulous, and as I watched her skip around me, avoiding my eyes. I frowned.
How could she not know why? How was she so oblivious to how amazing a creature she was?
She tugged at her binder and threw her hair up into a messy ponytail. "I mean, I get that I'm like the best genderfluid person ever at this school, but c'mon! This is getting out of hand."
She tilted her chin up at me, freckles poking out from under her sunglasses. "Maybe they all took bets and it's some kinda game to them all."
"That's a little pessimistic for you, isn't it?" I motioned for another chicken nugget.
She acquiesced with a giggle. "Yeah, you must be rubbing off on me."
I rolled my eyes as we walked up my driveway. I scrambled for my keys and eventually had her retrieve them from my backpack. As we barged into the empty house, Rand tossed her bouquet of fast food onto the counter and demanded I put her things anywhere. I chose, of course, to place the teddy bears with the others, the snacks in her backpack, and the pride flag on my wall. She'd already gotten several pride flags and was running out of things to do with them, so she let me collect them instead. I didn't think she noticed I kept returning the snacks to her backpack, but when she'd find me between classes, she always had a new bag in hand, crinkling away for the munchies.
Rand collapsed onto my bed with a dramatic sigh and stared up at my ceiling.
"I think it's all bullshit, you know."
I cocked an eyebrow at her, stepping back down from my desk chair to admire my handiwork at pinning up the flag. "What are you talking about?"
"All these fakers asking me to Prom." She flipped her chin as if I'd missed something huge and flicked the sunglasses up into her blond locks. "It's all bullshit."
"I don't follow." I perched myself at her feet.
"Well, you know they only did it because I've been making such a splash. I mean, do you remember this happening last year?"
I shook my head.
"Yeah, because it's bullshit." She sighed again and shot up to a seated position."You know what?"
I watched her, knowing full well she would tell me.
"I don't want to go with any of them anyway." She tapped my arm. "Because we're going together, right?"
I stilled under her hand.
"Oh, don't give me that face." She threw up her hands and fell back into my pillows. "You're the only person in my life that I can be my true self with, and you're my favorite person."
I narrowed my eyes at her. "Do you want to go to Prom with me?"
"God, yes!" She covered her face in exacerbation. "I swear you're purposefully dense!"
I chuckled at this. "Maybe." I picked at non-existent fluff on her leggings. "It's nice of you to say those things."
Rand peeked at me with one eye between her fingers. "What, that you're my favorite?"
I nodded and poked at her feet. She squirmed with an adorable giggle but settled them into my lap, and I settled against my foot board, her feet in my hands.
"Well, it's true," she murmured.
She stared intensely at my ceiling. All I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears, and my heart hammered against my rib cage.
I slowly moved my thumbs in circles to calm my breath and give my mind something tangible to focus on.
"I really like you." She whispered. "So much, I do, A--"
I shushed her soothingly, and she backpedaled. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Jesus, what's wrong with me, you'd think I'd get it--"
"Rand." I interrupted mildly. "I hushed you because you don't have to explain yourself to me."
She frowned at me, puzzled.
"I'll go to Prom with you." I continued, massaging the heel of my hand into the ball of her foot to ignore the hurricane of butterflies alive in my stomach. "I like you, too."
She beamed at me. "I think you might be the most interesting person I've ever met."
She could have been telling the truth when she confessed this, but only because she could never meet her own beautiful self. She would never understand how lovely and surprising her mind was, how she made me want to be the best man I could be. Or how she was the balloons to lift me from my seat and into the rafters. Rand would never know how her kaleidoscope spirit made me feel so alive.
My schedule was tight. There wasn't very much time left before Prom, and I had several workout routines to complete and weight lifting goals to achieve. My upper body muscles hadn't strengthened dramatically, no, but I needed to squeeze into the tux Rand had picked out for me.
For the first time in the history of our school, they were to crown a Senior Ruler and Junior Ruler, in place of King and Queen. The GSA had been busy and so time consuming my characters often felt neglected.
I let them air their grievances with me as I ran on the treadmill or counted my reps in the back corner of the gym. It provided the ample cover for talking to myself, as I acted out new scenes or puzzled over interpersonal details between my characters. Some of them had secrets of their own to lay on me, and I feared it would mean reworking the first book a little too much. But at the end of the day, I'd rather my characters live out their lives naturally without me squeezing them into boxes. Who was I to judge?
As I counted my reps and listened to my characters squabble, I watched Rand across the way, bouncing along on the treadmill, every muscle taut and every move controlled. Her hair was up in a tiny bun on top of her head, wispy escapees haloing her, and even as sweat poured down her face, her cheeks red and blowing out with excess air in concentration, she was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen.
Watching her run felt like I was reading her personal diary without permission. She looked so at peace, so elevated from her humanity, yet within her element, and as she bounced along with her thick thighs as strong as ever, it was obvious she was reveling in her post-op healing.
How was I not the luckiest in the universe?
I smiled to myself and, at the beep of the timer on my phone, happily let my knees sink to the mat.
Across the gym, Rand slowed to a halt and transitioned to her cool down.
She met my eyes and waved at me, grin on her red face. I returned the wave and scooped up all the weights I had been using. As I made my way across the gym, I saw two larger figures hone in on Rand, and I quickened my pace to hopefully intercept them. But, they were faster, and as Rand hopped off the treadmill, wiping at her face with her hand towel, the two of them corralled her in.
"Lose something?" One of them leered down at her, leaning casually against the treadmill.
She frowned up at him. "Excuse me?"
"You heard what he said, freak." The other cracked his gloved knuckles with practiced ease.
"Hey, you ready?" I stepped between them. "It's time to go."
"Oh, hi, there." The first one smiled creepily at me. "I didn't realize it was dyke night at the gym."
"I'm sure you didn't." Rand glowered at him, fire in her eyes. "Guess you need some glasses for the fine print."
His grin disappeared at her sharp words. "I'd watch what you're saying, little girl."
"We run the gym around here." The second lug stepped his barrel chest into her.
"Come on," I told her. "They don't know what they're doing."
"I don't think you know what we're doing." The first one placed his meaty hand on my shoulder, and I instantly shrugged him off.
"Don't touch me," I bellowed. "This gym is not a place for you and your bullying, so I suggest you either tone it down or get out."
The second one snorted with gross laughter. "You and what army, you fucking tranny piece of ass?"
Rand bristled in the midst of them. "Shut up." She commanded darkly, fists clenched.
"You aren't welcome here." The first meathead spat down at her. He met my gaze, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "So, I suggest you either suck my dick or get out."
The sickening crunch of his nose breaking exploded against my fist, blood spray splattering across the second lug's cheek.
Rand gasped, hands covering her mouth in shock, and I stood there a moment, staring him down. The second one wiped at the blood on his face, panic overtaking his features, and the first guy folded forward, moaning at the pain.
"You don't run shit!" I hissed at the poor excuse of a man, crumpled at my feet. "This isn't your gym, malditos pendejos!"
I hovered over him, glaring daggers at his henchman. "Stay away from us, understand?"
He merely stared at me, glass-eyed, in disbelief.
Rand tugged on my arm, and I stumbled after her, back to the changing rooms.
"That was insane!" She whispered through gritted teeth at me.
I sank onto the bench, staring at my hand, knuckles busted and bloody. Where did that come from?
"Hey, you okay?"
I glanced up to see Rand, bag slung over her shoulder, keys in hand, ready to go.
"I want to get outta here," she admitted softly, kneeling before me.
"Was that okay?"
She took my hands in hers and gently pressed her soft pink lips to my bruising knuckles. "You were amazing."
"But, I hit him." I searched her eyes for any hint that I had done her wrong. "Are you all right?"
She smiled tenderly. "As long as I have you, I will always be all right."
I slid my calloused hands around her jaw, cupping her beautiful red cheeks, and, as I drew her near, her breath hitching in the electric space between us, my eyes slowly closed, imagining nothing but her soft lips against mine--and we kissed, her lips melting without hurrying into my own, our noses and lips aligning like the stars in the night sky.
It was the most wonderful kiss in the whole world.
I fiddled with the pin of the boutonniere in my hand. The ivory carnation was so delicate, and I feared I would damage it trying to attach it to Rand's jumpsuit. She kept instructing how to slide the pin between the layers of fabric and the green wrapping but to no avail, and after sticking myself in each of my palms, I was on the verge of giving up.
Rand sighed lightly, tapping my nose with a sort of secret fondness, and I felt my cheeks warm, my stomach knotting. "Here, let me."
She patiently guided my fingers through the motions, the flower in place once and for all, and turned to her mother expectantly. "Now, your turn."
My own mother clapped her hands in wistful delight as Rand skillfully pinned my boutonniere in the lapel of my tuxedo effortlessly. "Ay, mijo, que precioso!"
I grinned in embarrassment. "Mom."
Rand patted my cheek proudly. "No, you're adorable."
Her mother motioned for a picture, and Rand spun in my arms without warning, me flustered in trying to grasp this amazing creature.
"You two are going to steal the crowns tonight." Rand's mother sniffed joyfully, tears in her eyes.
Rand rolled her eyes. "No, it's Senior and Junior Rulers now!"
"But, you'll still get it." I nuzzled my nose into her neck.
She grinned at me in unadulterated surprise and pleasantly drew me in for a kiss.
"Oy vey, child!" Rand's mother feigned dismay at the display and gestured wildly for more photos. "We are not done here!"
My mom chuckled and threw her arms around the both of us. "I'm so proud of you two. I wish you a night full of fun."
Rand's mother chimed in with well wishes, and Rand cut them both off.
"All right, we gotta go! We can't be late!"
I escorted her to her car and opened the door for her. She shook her head at me, but I only chuckled and climbed in beside her.
We watched our mothers wave us goodbye as we left, and the whole way there, Rand was uncharacteristically quiet.
I didn't mind the comfortable space between us and squeezed her hand gently, her fingers laced with mine.
"You know what makes you the most amazing person I've ever met?"
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"You." She shook my hand for emphasis. "You're this incredible person in my life, and I feel like the luckiest human alive."
"Don't be ridiculous," I snorted. "You have no idea how much I love you, do you?"
She snuck a glance from the road to me, her lips puckered in a crooked grin. "You love me?"
"Undeniably." I leaned my head against the headrest. "You are the most important person I've ever met."
"I'll never have the time to explain all the ways how wrong you are." She grinned.
I watched her eyes sparkle in the night, and that was it. We had arrived.
It was a curious thing, then, climbing out the car with her, and I was struck by the oddest of thoughts: I did love her, with every fiber in my being, and rattling in every bone and blood cell was the simple truth: I would do anything for Rand. The not-girl mysterious, unlocked not by a series of questions but by an undoing so passionate and pure as my love, was the real solution to her riddle. For how can you truly know a person without loving them?
The thought was sudden and strongly overpowering.
"I think I found my name," I whispered in the night, palming her slim hand with my own.
Rand gasped and stopped me with a hand at my chest. "What? When? That's amazing!"
I drew her in, whisking her into a twirl and slow dance. "I think it was always there, but wasn't certain, until right now."
She smiled, so proudly and so softly, and it made my whole being ache with love for her.
"There you are, tranny slut."
Rand was ripped from my arms and tossed aside like a rag doll.
I stumbled backward and into a thick chest.
The first man from the gym, eyes black from the broken nose, raised his chin at me. "You think you're hot shit, huh? Slinging fists like that?"
I didn't have to look to know I was trapped against the second man. Beyond them, I could hear Rand screaming--my name, for help.
"I don't want to fight you." I kept my hands low and my voice even. "There's still time for you to walk away."
"No way, faggot." I could smell the whiskey-soaked breath of the lug behind me.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "I get that you're angry. We don't have to go to that gym."
"Good." The first one spat, his thick saliva hot on my cheek. "Beg. Beg like the scared little whore that you are."
I met his eyes. "I'm sorry I hit you. I was wrong."
He shrugged. "All the same."
His large hand hooked into my jaw, and I toppled to the asphalt.
I lost count of the blows. The kicks to my back, my kidneys, my stomach, my head. My ribs cracked, and bones crunched, and my body threatened to pass out under their unrelenting barrage, and right when I thought I couldn't bear it anymore, they stopped.
I choked and coughed and spluttered. Blood was everywhere, hot and sticky, but I couldn't see a thing, my ears trying to place the muffled howling as my own disembodied voice.
But, it wasn't. It was Rand's.
No. I felt the pavement beneath me and found my orientation, forcing an eye open. There. Across the parking lot. Screaming her head off as if expecting to combust any moment into pure flames.
There were others, rushing from the building, but they would be too late.
So, I steadied myself against the bumper of a car and found my footing, shaking and convulsing, my vision fading in and out of black. It was only a few short strides, I psyched myself up. Just a few quick lunges and you're there. You can do this. You can do anything.
I sucked in a painful breath, my side splitting open at the broken ribs, and launched myself.
With my one good eye, I watched the emotions kaleidoscope across Rand's face, shock at me being on my feet, relief at that same fact, realization of something behind me, terror quickly eclipsed by horror.
She shrieked a banshee's rage, arms outstretched, and the gun shot pierced my side.
I landed back on the asphalt, at Rand's feet, and never before had I disappointed myself so, failing to perform this one simple task for her.
Rand crawled toward me, tears and snot streaming down her cheeks, murmuring incoherently word after word, and she lifted my head into her lap, fervently brushing my hair from my face and rocking back and forth. I could feel her shaking beneath me and feared she'd been shot, too.
I shushed her as soothingly as I could muster, and at the wheezing sound escaping my lips, that look on her face, I surmised I wasn't being very reassuring.
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God." She rocked. "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry. Oh my God, A--"
I groaned terribly. "Joshua."
She paused searching my face for meaning, and I repeated myself, fearing my speech was too slurred.
"My name...is Joshua."
At last my name, spoken and final and perfect, was hers, too.
Now, I was me.