Chapter 4: Miriam
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The next morning, surprisingly, I did feel better. I guess my brain had elaborated everything while I was asleep, and somehow, some way, things didn’t seem so bleak any more. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was still quite worried about how I was going to go about things, but the feeling of impeding doom I had the previous night was gone. Mostly.

I was sleepy, though. I’d been woken up by mom calling me from downstairs, telling me that if I didn’t hurry up I would be late for class; the night before I hadn’t put my phone on charge (of course) so the battery had died overnight, so the alarm didn’t ring. I looked at the clock hanging over my door and I realised I only had about half an hour to change my clothes, wash up as best I could, have breakfast, and get to class. Which was fifteen minutes away from my house by bike, and forget going by car – no street parking was available.

“Mornin’, Xander!” my friend Roger greeted me when I walked into the classroom, just barely on time. (I managed not to flinch at that nickname; the night before it was probably everything that had piled up that had made me so sensitive to it, but I was feeling better that morning.) Then he took a good look at me and asked, “Are you alright? You look like death warmed over.”

It was true, I knew. I was a mess. I’d just barely managed to wash my face, slap some deodorant on, pick out some clothes, and hurry to class. I hadn’t even had time to brush my hair, which instead of hanging down straight was a tangled disaster.

“...Overslept,” I said, as an explanation.

Roger looked at me sceptically. “Did you have breakfast at least?” he asked. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you gotta have breakfast. Here,” he said, rooting around in his bag and pulling out a sandwich, “I was planning on eating this as a snack between classes, but you look like you need it more than I do.”

I thanked him, unwrapped the sandwich and bit down on it. Tuna and onions, with some mayo. Not what I would have usually picked, especially as a late breakfast, but it tasted like heaven that morning. Roger saw the expression on my face and patted me on the back. “See? Better.”

I liked Roger. We’d known each other since we were very young, but we'd been best friends since junior high, when I’d found he was the only person outside of my family I enjoyed hanging out with. We had more or less the same interests growing up, comic books, video games, and TV, so we naturally connected. Later, in high school, when I started doing sports, he decided to try it too, so as to not leave me alone with a bunch of people I didn’t know (his exact words). I was a bit jealous though, while I struggled to maintain my fitness, he seemed to be a natural, and even though he was a first-year he was already one of the stars of our college triathlon team.

“I missed you last night,” he said, as we waited for the professor (who was running a bit late, it seemed). “I mean, hanging out with the guys from the team is fine, but I wanted to drink with my best bud.”

“Sorry,” I apologised, swallowing a bite of the sandwich. “I had work.”

“I know, it’s just...” Roger said, then paused. “Well, I miss hanging out together. Like old times.”

“Yeah, me too,” I replied. “It’s been too long since we did something.”

Roger seemed to consider something. “Tell you what, are you free this afternoon? We could get coffee, and catch up.”

I thought about my schedule; my afternoon was completely clear, actually. We didn’t have any training planned with the team, and it was my day off from work so I didn’t even have any time limit. “Okay,” I nodded. “This afternoon is fine.”

“Great!” said Roger, a big smile forming on his face. “So how about we meet at CoffeePB at, like, four?”

CoffeePB was one the cafés on campus, close to the sports facilities; its usual patrons were those who did sports, obviously – its name, short for Personal Best, reflected that – but it also had a relaxed atmosphere, good for winding down after a few hours at the track, or even for studying if needs be.

“Sounds good.”

“Perfect. You know, I--” Roger started to say something else, but he was cut off when the professor entered the classroom and started the lesson. After first period we went our separate ways (we had different majors, I was in computer science, he was in civil engineering), so we didn’t get a chance to talk more. No matter, we would catch up that afternoon.

After lunch, as I was walking from the cafeteria towards the library to do some studying, I happened to pass in front of the counsellor's office. I’d walked down that same corridor probably a thousand times, it was a little-frequented hallway which housed some of the college staff’s offices, but I’d never really taken any notice of that specific door beyond a passing thought. Until that moment.

I stopped and looked at the door. The plaque read Miriam Sanders, counsellor, and below that was a simple sheet of paper, taped to the door, with Please knock hand-written on it.

I hesitated. The door seemed friendly, almost inviting, but I knew what lay beyond the threshold; once I stepped into the room, there would be no going back. I would be forced to confront my feelings, whether I wanted it or not. Should I really do it? I had a good life. Why would I risk it all?

But on the other hand, the previous night had felt strange. It had felt right. Being dressed up, and just walking around, working in the restaurant, as a girl, with no one paying me any heed whatsoever. Until my stupid brain got in the way, at least, and caused my breakdown. But still, there was something there, I was sure of it. And Lena seemed to think so, too. She had told me as much the previous night.

Coming to a decision, I steadied myself, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. “Come in!” came a voice from the other side; I pushed down the handle, and in I went.

Beyond the door was a completely normal office; desk, two chairs in front of it and one behind. The only thing out of place were two armchairs, arranged facing each other, in the far corner of the room.

A woman was sitting in the chair behind the desk. Middle aged, she had close-cropped hair – almost a buzz-cut, in fact – dyed platinum blonde; she was wearing a jumpsuit, and a big pair of glasses framed her eyes. She was leaning forward on the desk, elbows propped on it, her hands beneath her chin.

“Hello,” she said, smiling. “May I help you?”

“I, uh...” I began, then froze. What should I say? Should I just begin with making small talk? Should I come out and say it outright?

The counsellor saw me hesitate. “It’s alright, take all the time you need,” she said, still smiling.

“I...” I repeated, then steadied myself. “I’ve been having some thoughts recently. I would like to talk to someone about them.”

She nodded. “Alright. Please take a seat, I’ll be right with you.” She waved her hand in the general direction of the armchairs sitting in the corner.

I stared at her. “What, right now?” I was expecting having to make an appointment, and coming back a week or so later.

“No time like the present. My schedule is free today. Or you can come back, if you prefer.”

I thought about it. Coming back sounded really inviting; but on the other hand, there was a good chance I would chicken out, so it was better to get this over with. Without a word, I sat down in one of the armchairs.

“Good,” the counsellor said. Then she typed for a minute or so on her laptop, closed it, got up, and sat opposite to me, notepad in hand.

“Okay, first things first. Student ID, please,” she said, extending her hand towards me, palm up.

“Ah, yes,” I said. I searched my wallet for the ID, and handed it to her.

“Alexander Hamilton?” she said, her eyebrows rising.

I cringed at hearing my full name. “Yeah, as it turns out, my parents were history buffs. But they couldn’t have predicted the musical.” I’d been the butt of many a joke in the last few years, ever since Lin-Manuel Miranda had first taken the stage as my namesake.

“Okay.” She noted down my name and student number on her notepad, then looked back up at me. “And what would you like me to call you? Alexander? Though admittedly it’s a mouthful, isn’t it. Or maybe Alex? Or Xander? Or something else?”

“Alex is fine.”

The counsellor nodded. “Good. Nice to meet you, Alex, I’m Miriam, the school counsellor. But I think you’d already gathered that,” she said. “Before we begin, let me reassure you: nothing you say here will leave this room without your permission. So you can speak freely, I will tell no one about anything you say.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

She leaned back in her armchair and put her hands together in front of her chest, fingers intertwined. “Now, what can I do for you today?”

I considered my words carefully. “I’ve been… Thinking,” I said. “About… About gender stuff.”

“I see,” Miriam said, and she made a note in her pad. “And how long have you been thinking about this?”

“Just yesterday and today,” I replied. “But I think there was something there, even before. My sister seems to think so, at least, and looking back she’s probably right.” I sighed. “Something happened yesterday evening while I was at work, that forced me to confront this… This.”

“Mmhmm. Okay. And what happened yesterday?”

Slowly, cautiously, over the next few hours I gradually opened myself up to Miriam, telling her what had happened, how I’d reacted, and my thoughts about it all. Even what I’d been thinking the previous evening in the car, about how I had probably been using sports as an escape route, to find my place in the world, to fill the hole that was inside me. To avoid having to think about it.

In the end, I found myself leaning forward in my armchair, elbows propped on my knees, looking up at Miriam, as I asked: “So, what do you think?”

Miriam looked away from her notes – she’d filled a couple pages of her pad – and looked me in the eyes. “I don’t know,” she said.

“You… Don’t know?” I repeated.

“Yes, Alex. I’m sorry.”

“I… I was hoping you could tell me what’s wrong with me,” I said, my voice trembling. “Like, if I really am… Really am...” I swallowed the lump in my throat, “Transgender, I mean. Or if I’m just… Sick, or something.”

Miriam’s gaze hardened. She sat up in her armchair, and set her notepad across her legs. “Okay, first of all: you are not sick. Being trans – if you are trans – is not an illness. It’s not something that needs to be cured. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. And it’s not wrong either, despite what some people say. Neither is being gender non-conforming, for that matter.” She saw my puzzled stare, and explained, “That’s what you call cis – that is, non-trans – people who don’t conform to society’s standards of their gender, like a boy who is happy to be a boy but likes to wear skirts now and then.”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Second… No one can tell you whether you’re trans or not. I’m sorry, Alex,” she said, cutting me off when she saw me open my mouth to protest, “But that’s just how it is. There’s no test for it, no evaluation. What matters is what you feel in here.” She placed her hand upon her chest, and I understood.

“So what should I do?” I asked.

“Feel around. Explore your identity. Try different things. Again, I’m sorry, but this is something you have to figure out on your own.” Then she smiled, and said, “Why don’t you ask Lena for her help?”

“Lena? What do you mean?”

“Well, from what you’ve said, she seems to have a good head on her shoulders. She could help you figure things out, maybe help you try on some of her clothes, try to call you by a different name. In private, I mean. You don’t need to brave the world just yet.”

I nodded. Yeah. Maybe I could do that.

“You have a nice sister, Alex,” Miriam said. “Lean on her a bit. As for me,” she continued, “I’ll always be here if you want to talk. How does the Friday after next sound like?”

“For what?” I said, dumbly.

“For our next appointment. We’re going to follow up on this, I’m not letting you off the hook this easily.” She winked. “Of course, next time let’s make it an hour rather than three like today. I understand you had to get all of this off your chest, so it’s okay, but I have other work to do.”

I stared at her. Three hours? I’d completely lost track of time. I looked at my watch.

A quarter to five. Shit.

I quickly got up from the armchair. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I only just now realised what time it is, I had to meet a friend at four. I’ll get back to you about the next appointment.”

Miriam nodded. “You do that. My e-mail address is in the faculty directory in the college website.”

I nodded back at her. “Thank you, thank you so much. I promise I’ll get back to you, but I really gotta go now.”

With that, I all but ran out of the room, found the first door to the outside, and launched myself at a full sprint towards CoffeePB.

I got there a couple minutes before five; I didn’t expect Roger to still be there, but he was in fact standing beside the front door, clearly waiting for me.

“Dude, what the hell?” he asked, as he saw me approach. “Where were you?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, panting and struggling to catch my breath. I’m sure I broke my personal mile record getting there. “I… I just lost track of time.”

“I’d say, you’re more than an hour late! And your phone is off, too! What were you doing?”

I hesitated. I clearly couldn’t tell him I’d been in the counsellor’s office, talking about whether I was transgender with her. Or could I? Roger was my oldest friend, he of all people… No, better not to rock the boat for the time being. “Studying,” I said instead.

“Studying,” Roger repeated. “Xander, we don’t have any exams for a while now, you don’t need to study so hard you forget about your best friend just yet.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

He waved his hand dismissively, and smiled at me. “It’s fine. Come on, let’s go get that coffee.”