“I don’t think this works.”
It was three days later, and I was standing in my sister’s room, in front of her full-length mirror; clothes were piled on her bed, and we were going through each outfit in turn, trying to find something that fit. Well, they all fit, we were about the same size, but every one I’d tried that day felt… Off, somehow. Either they didn’t fall on my frame quite right (Molly would’ve said “The shape is wrong”), or they showed off my wide shoulders (why on Earth did I ever think getting into swimming was a good idea?), or they didn’t flatter my figure. Not that I had any figure to speak of, of course, but Lena had said that given the right clothes, it was even possible for me to get a waist.
No such luck yet.
Right now I was wearing a two-piece outfit – light pink T-shirt, and white knee-length skirt. At Lena’s insistence I’d worn one of her old training bras and padded it with some socks, to give the illusion of a chest, but even that wasn’t helping: I looked… Well, I looked like a man in drag.
“Yeah, I can see that,” my sister said, shaking her head. “Alright Alyx, take those off, we’ll try something else.”
The name was new. I’d decided to take Miriam’s suggestion to heart regarding that: me and Lena had sat down earlier that morning and wrote out a list of variants on my birth name, and while I was trying clothes she was trying to call me by those names, going down the list, to find one that fit.
As I stripped down to my underwear I rolled the name over and over into my mind. Alyx. Alyx. Close enough to Alex, really. And it was a nice name. Powerful. Cool. In fact, where had I heard it before? I thought carefully about it…
“Okay, next,” I said.
Lena looked at me. “Next name, you mean?”
I nodded. “Yeah, it’s not a bad name but I’m not really feeling it. And I just realised, I can’t well name myself after a video game character, can I?”
My sister shrugged her shoulders, in a who says you can’t? gesture, but she dutifully crossed the name off the list.
“Okay, try this one next,” she said, fishing a blue one-piece dress out of the pile of clothes and handing it to me. I turned it over a few times, trying to find…
“Zipper in the back,” Lena supplied helpfully.
“Thanks,” I replied. “Why do they have to have a different way of holding your clothes together every time anyway?”
“Because it has to fit perfectly,” my sister answered. “No baggy clothes, no bulges, no stuff sticking out in random places. Everything has to be neat and proper.” She smiled. “Why do you think I always complain about the lack of pockets? Welcome to the wonderful world of women’s clothing, Sasha.”
“Sasha?” I asked, unzipping the dress and stepping into it. “Where did that one come from?”
“Uh… I don’t actually remember. Let me check,” she said, pulling out her phone and tapping it a few times. “Let’s see now… Aha: Sasha is a Russian diminutive form for Alexandra, looks like.”
“Huh. Neat.” Sasha. Sasha. Sa-sha. Sash-a? Hm. “Alright, this one’s a maybe. Next, and zip me up please,” I said, turning my back to her.
Lena checked the list. “Sorry, Alexa, you need to learn to do it yourself.”
I felt a shiver run down my back. “Absolutely not. If video game characters are off the table, weird talking thingamajigs are too, even more so.”
My sister laughed. “Yeah, though as much, but it was on the list. And before you protest, you need to learn to put on women’s clothes on your own. I won’t be there to help you get dressed every time.”
She was already talking as if I’d decided to transition, even though I wasn’t sure yet myself. I didn’t correct her, though; I just pouted, and started wriggling my arms behind my back, trying to reach the zipper. I managed to grab hold of it, but as I tried pulling it up the dress moved, making my efforts fruitless. After I tried a couple times Lena sighed, and moved to help me.
“Here, move your hair out of the way,” she said, brushing it aside so it fell on the front of the dress rather than the back. “Don’t want to get it stuck in the zipper. Now,” she took hold of my hands, guiding them, “pull down on the dress and up on the zipper, like this. Pull it up halfway, then reach over your shoulder, and pull it all the way up.”
After struggling a bit, I managed to zip up the dress. Sighing in relief, I smoothed the cloth with my hands and turned to face the mirror.
There she was.
The girl I’d seen reflected in the changing room’s mirror earlier that week was standing right in front of me again, looking back at me. Mimicking every move I made.
She was me.
Or, better, I was her.
I stood there speechless for a few moments, just looking at my reflection. Like the previous time, I felt a sense of disbelief, mixed with euphoria, fill my mind. I was so out of it I just barely heard my sister speak, but couldn’t make out the words. I shook myself and turned to her.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I said I think it looks nice. What do you think, Lexi?” she said.
Another wave of euphoria, this time at the mention of a name which should have been completely foreign to me, but somehow felt really familiar. Warm. Cosy. “I…” I began to say, but then stopped, my eyes wide. I gulped.
Lena noticed my reaction. “...Lexi?” she repeated, then paused. “Is… Is that your name?”
I felt tears form in my eyes; tears of relief, and of happiness. I never would have thought simply being called by a name that felt right could feel like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Hesitantly, I nodded.
“Yes. Yes, I… I think it is,” I said. Then I turned and looked at my reflection again. “And the dress does look nice.”
I continued to stare, almost transfixed, at the girl in the mirror.
“I almost feel like this is the first time I’m really looking at myself.”
I only meant to think that, but the words just came out.
The tears started to roll down my cheeks. I felt Lena grab me and hug me from behind. I was grateful for her support. For her warmth. For her simply being there for me.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Anytime,” she replied. Then she spun me around, dried my tears with a tissue, and smiled. “Do you want to keep going, or shall we call it a day?”
I glanced at the clock. Three thirty PM. Mom and dad wouldn’t be home for at least three more hours, they’d left just after lunch to go visit our uncle who lived three towns over; they always took their sweet time, chatting about everything and catching up.
“I think we can try some more stuff?” I said. “I mean, we have time.”
“That we do,” Lena agreed, still smiling. “Come on, turn around and I’ll show you how to unzip this death trap.”
The following Friday I had my second appointment with Miriam; I’d sent her an e-mail, accepting her offer to meet again, and she’d set me up for a one-hour session at three PM. I told her everything that had happened since I’d talked to her the first time, and she smiled.
“It’s nice that you’re getting the support you need,” she said. “Everyone involved seems to be good people.”
“Yeah, looks like it,” I agreed.
“I’m actually impressed,” she continued. “You have your shit remarkably together for someone who’s going through so much.”
I thought I’d misheard her. “Excuse me, what?” I asked.
“What? I’m allowed to say a bad word once in a while, aren’t I?”
“No, I mean, the thing about me having my shit together.”
“Language, Lexi,” she admonished. “Or you’ll end up an old spinster like me.”
I just stared at her.
“Oh, don’t give me that look. I know you probably thought psychs were just a bunch of old people who would sit you down in an armchair and say deep, thoughtful words your way until you figured what was wrong with you. We’re not like that, at all. We’re allowed a bit of banter.” She paused. “Though I did sit you down in an armchair. Got me on that one.”
I smiled at her joke.
“And what I meant, is that usually when people are going through a crisis, it tends to take over their whole life, every aspect of it,” Miriam explained. “And, the first couple days aside, it doesn’t seem like your daily life has been affected much.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “It hasn’t, right? You haven’t been holding out on me?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said, squirming a bit under her gaze.
“Anyway,” I changed the subject, “What do you think about the chef’s offer? To put me into contact with someone who could… Talk with me? I’m still a bit unclear about that.”
“Okay,” the counsellor said, “First things first. Usually I tend to be mighty suspicious of ‘kind strangers’ offering to help someone out like that; there’s often a hidden intent behind it. However… I don’t really have an idea what that intent could be in this case.” She looked directly at me. “And from the way you described chef Belletti, from how she treated you, she seems to be a good person who is genuinely concerned.”
Miriam leaned back in her armchair. “Besides,” she continued, “You’re an adult. And as I said, you seem to have your shit together. So I would say to trust your own judgement. As long as you have your wits about you – and have someone to back you up, she did mention you could bring Lena along too, right? – you should be okay.”
I nodded. “Alright.”
“Great,” she replied, then looked at her watch. “If there isn’t anything else you want to talk about, I’d say we can stop here for today, we’re almost at the hour mark.”
“No, it’s okay. There’s nothing else, for now.”
“Good. Then, two Fridays for now, same time?” she asked.
I pulled out my phone and checked the calendar; I had nothing else to do on that day, so I agreed. I said goodbye to her, and stepped out in the corridor.
And let out a deep sigh as soon as the door closed.
I had, in fact, been holding out on her; there had been a big change in my life – I had stopped going to triathlon training. The last time I went had been almost two weeks earlier, before I had my realisation.
I’d almost ran out of excuses though. You can say you’re feeling unwell, that you’re too tired, that you have to study only so many times, before someone started to wonder. Someone like--
“Hey, Xander, wait up!”
He’d spotted me as I was crossing the grounds, heading towards where I’d parked my bike. I hadn’t seen him outside of class since the afternoon we had coffee together, and we hadn’t had time to chat during class, either. And now he was heading right for me, at a light jog, a smile on his face.
“Dude, hi! What’s up?” he said as soon as he reached me. “Are you okay? I haven’t seen you at training for a while.”
“Sorry, man,” I replied, forcing a smile on my face. “I’ve been…”
I paused. I’d been what? What could I say? Sick? Tired? That would only bring about more worries and more questions on his part. Trying to figure out how to deal with gender-related feelings brought about by years of repressing part of my identity without completely exploding my life? Yeah, as if I could tell him that.
“I’ve been busy,” I said.
“Studying?” he said, giving me a sceptical look.
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. Studying.”
Roger just looked at me for a few seconds, then sighed. “Alright. Okay. Good. You know,” he put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed me briefly, “It’s just that I get… Worried. You seem okay whenever I spot you in class, and then coach tells us you couldn’t make it to training.”
“Sorry about that,” I replied lamely. Though I enjoyed the moment of physical contact – Roger had always been a very touchy-feely kind of person, and we’d exchanged plenty of hugs while we were growing up together; to be honest, I missed that a bit.
“You know you can always come talk to me about anything, right?” He said. “We’re best buds.”
The aren’t we? was left unsaid, but I could almost hear it hanging in the air between us.
“Yeah, I know, thanks,” I said.
“Oh, by the way, since we’re here,” Roger continued, suddenly full of enthusiasm, “Wanna come to my birthday party?”
I blinked. “Isn’t your birthday in like… Six weeks?” Being his childhood friend, I of course remembered when Roger’s birthday was.
“Yeah, it is, but I’m going to throw a big party!” he replied. “First birthday in college, dude! You only turn nineteen once!”
“Alright, alright, I get it,” I said, barely suppressing a smile at seeing him this pumped up. “I’ll be there.”
“Great! Then, I’ll text you the details!” he said. “Sorry, gotta go now, I said I would go out for drinks with the guys from the team.” He paused. “Wanna come with?”
“Nah, I’m good. See ya!”
“See ya, dude!” he said, and he walked away. I always liked talking with Roger; he always seemed able to lift my spirits, just by being there.
I walked to my bicycle, and then I remember I had to do something before going home. I pulled out my phone and dialled.
“Ristorante La Vigna,” came the reply. “How may I help you?”
“Hi, this is Alex, Alex Hamilton.”
“Who?” I recognised the voice, it was Stefan; apparently they’d had him man the phone that afternoon.
I sighed. I hated having to do this. But after all, I hadn’t told anyone at the restaurant to call me Alex, except the chef and Molly. And I’d told no one about Lexi.
“It’s Xander, Stef,” I said.
“Oh, hi Xander! What’s up?”
“Nothing much. Can I speak to the chef, please?”