“42… 44… 46… 48. This is it,” my sister said, counting the street numbers on the plates on the front of houses.
“Okay, let me see if I can find a place to park,” I replied.
48 Mulberry Lane: that was the address chef Belletti had given me when I accepted her invitation. It was a Monday night, the restaurant was closed on Monday so it was the only day she wasn’t busy working; Lena and I had both come up with excuses as to why we wouldn’t be home for dinner that night – the same excuse, actually: I told our parents I would spend the evening over at the campus library, studying for an upcoming test with Roger; my sister said the same, only using one of her high school classmates as the “beard”. She’d locked her bike to a pole about half a mile from our house, and I’d picked her up in my car.
I pulled my Crown Vic off to the side a bit up the road, put it in park, and turned the engine off. And let out a deep sigh.
“You alright, Lexi?” Lena asked. “We can still go back home if you’re not comfortable, we’ll just say something has come up and we couldn’t make it.”
“No, I’m okay,” I said, smiling when she said my name. “I’m just a bit nervous, that’s all.”
“Okay,” my sister replied. “Then, shall we?”
“Yes,” I nodded, and we got out of the car and walked to the front door of the chef’s house. As we reached it I could hear voices from inside, chatting and laughing loudly; it seemed as if there was a party going on inside. I gulped, and rang the doorbell.
Footsteps approached, and the door opened. And we found ourselves staring at a pair of breasts.
“Ah, Alex. And you must be Lena! Welcome,” said chef’s Belletti voice.
Me and Lena looked towards where the voice had come from: up. The chef was wearing a dress and heels, the first time I’d seen her wear anything besides the practical non-slip-shoes-and-trousers combo she used in the restaurant’s kitchen; in flats she had ten inches on me already (and on Lena, since she was the same height as I was), so in her admittedly modest two-inch shoes chef Belletti was a full foot taller than the both of us.
I felt as if an amazon was looking down at me.
“Good evening, chef,” I managed to stammer out.
The chef noticed our nervousness, and let out a laugh. “Ah, do not be scared, I may look like this but I’m actually a cute little fluff bunny. Or so they tell me,” she said, with a wink. “And please, do stop with the formal stuff,” she continued. “You are not at work, so tonight I am not chef, I am Silvia.”
She paused. “But where are my manners? Come in, come in!” she exclaimed, ushering me and Lena into the house. Her behaviour was very much different from the no-nonsense persona she adopted while in the restaurant. Lena gave me a side glance, as if to ask is she always like this?, and I shook my head briefly.
“Dear! Darling! Come greet our guests!” Silvia called, as we stepped through the door and into a spacious living room. I could smell a nice meaty scent in the air, which was probably dinner. In the room there were two other people, sitting on a couch, but they rose and approached us when we entered.
“Here we are!” said the chef, stepping towards them. She put a hand on the shoulder of the first one – a woman, with short blonde hair and brown eyes, about five or six inches shorter than Silvia, and also wearing a dress.
“This is Skylar. She is my wife,” Silvia said, and gave her a brief peck on the cheek. “And this,” she said, turning to the other person, who was wearing a well-tailored suit that nicely conformed to their curves, but had a neatly-trimmed goatee dyed a dark blue, “This is Ash. They is my spouse also.”
I blinked. Wait, what?
Ash sighed. “They are, dear. We’ve been over this,” they said, a slight tinge of exasperation in their voice.
Silvia looked at them, with a hint of confusion in her eyes. “But it is the singular they, is it not?” she asked. “That would mean it uses single verbs.”
“You’d think so, but--” Ash began, but Skylar stepped over and put a hand on their shoulder to cut them off.
“Just give it up, Ash,” she said. She had a nice, melodious voice. “You know Silvia is new to English, it’s difficult for her to grab the most subtle nuances. She’ll get there eventually. Besides,” she glanced at me and Lena, “I don’t think this is the right time for a grammar lesson, is it now?”
“Alright, alright,” Ash said. “Spoilsport.” They smiled, and kissed Skylar lightly on the lips.
The chef cleared her throat. “If you two are quite done…” she said, looking over at her partners, who nodded, an impish expression on their faces. “Okay. Well then,” she gestured at me and my sister, “These are Alex and…”
She paused, and looked at me.
“I am sorry, Alex,” she said, “but I do not know which pronoun you prefer.”
The room fell silent. I felt everyone’s eyes on me.
“Ah…” I stammered, “Actually…”
I stopped, unsure of how to go on. Should I just come out and say it outright? There was no use dancing around the question, really, but… It would mean admitting it. Conceding. That I was trans, and not just imagining stuff.
Somehow, I had a feeling that saying which pronouns I wanted out loud would made it real.
“Ah…” I said again. My breathing started getting heavier. My eyes darted around, as if looking for an escape route. I was almost ready to bolt.
And then I felt a hand on my arm. I turned around to look into Lena’s eyes; clearly she had realised my discomfort.
“Hey. Look at me,” she said, putting both hands on my shoulders, and staring even deeper into my eyes. “Good. Now, breathe.”
Almost unconsciously, I felt myself taking a deep breath. In and out.
Lena nodded. “Again.”
Another breath. In, out.
“It’s okay,” she said. “No one will judge you.”
I noticed she gave a lightning-quick side-glance at Silvia, Skylar and Ash. She was probably not a hundred percent sure herself, but she wasn’t about to say that, to avoid scaring me.
“Alright. You good?” Lena asked. I nodded, even though my legs still felt a bit unsteady, and turned to the trio. I took another deep breath.
“Feminine pronouns. She and her. If that’s okay.”
There. I’d said it.
The chef nodded, and turned back to her partners. She opened her mouth to speak, but I suddenly felt bold, for the first time in I don’t know how long.
“And,” I cut her off. Everyone looked at me again. I gulped.
“Actually I… I would prefer Lexi. As a name, I mean.”
Silvia paused, then smiled widely.
“First time?” Skylar asked. I nodded hesitantly, and she smiled and continued, “Yeah, it shows a bit. Don’t worry, kid, you’ll be fine.”
Silvia turned back to her partners. “Okay, third time is the charm? Is that how the saying goes?”
“Well then. These are Lexi, and her sister Lena,” the chef said. Then she paused, and turned to Lena. “Excuse me, it is sister, correct?”
“It is,” Lena confirmed.
“Good. Okay, introductions are out of the way,” Ash said. “Then, shall have dinner? Silvia made pot roast tonight, a rare occasion.”
It was a rare occasion that a chef cooked? I was puzzled. Ash saw the look on my face, and explained, “She does so much cooking at work, so usually me and Sky take care of the food here at home. But I guess she wanted to impress tonight?” they winked.
Me, Lena, Ash, and Skylar sat down at the dining table in the next room over, while Silvia hurried through a door to where I guess the kitchen was; she was back in short order carrying a pot, which she set in the centre of the table. As soon as she removed the lid, the scent I’d noticed while entering the house became even more intense. My mouth almost started watering as she served generous slices of meats and spoonfuls of gravy around the table: pot roast was already one of my favourite dishes, and I couldn’t wait to taste one made by a professional chef.
After she passed the potatoes around, Silvia sat down at the table too. She picked up a bottle, and asked, “Wine?”, while motioning to me and Lena.
“Sil, no,” said Skylar. “They can’t drink yet.”
The chef looked puzzled, and turned to me and Lena. “I am sorry, how old are you?”
“Nineteen,” I said, at the same time as my sister replied “Eighteen.”
Silvia turned back to Skylar. “See?” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Drinking age is eighteen.”
“In Italy, maybe,” Ash interjected. “Not here.”
“Well that is stupid,” the chef said, frowning. “What difference does it make anyway? A glass of wine has never hurt anyone.”
“Still—” Ash began, but I cut them off.
“Actually, thank you,” I said, “But I have to drive the way back, so I think I’ll just have water for tonight.
“And I’ve told our parents I would be studying with a friend, so it would be weird if I came home with booze on my breath,” Lena supplied.
“Alright,” Silvia conceded. “Well then, enjoy your meal!”
That was all the invitation I needed. We tucked into the dish, and it was really good; I’d never tasted anything even approaching that before.
“So, Lexi,” Skylar asked, between mouthfuls of meat and potatoes. “What can we do for you? There must be a reason Silvia invited you to dinner.”
I turned a puzzled gaze to the chef, who replied, “I have told them nothing, except we would have guests this evening. Your story is yours, you have to decide when to tell it, I can not do it for you.”
Thoughtful. I nodded. “Alright,” I said, and launched into a description of what had happened that night, when Molly dressed me up. I was used to telling the story, I’d already done it a few times, for Lena’s and Miriam’s benefit, so I didn’t mind repeating it.
“...And then the chef – sorry, Silvia,” I said, seeing her warning stare. “Silvia came into the changing room, and…” I paused. “Speaking of which, before I forget. Lana, can you give me your bag?”
“Oh, yes of course,” my sister said, handing it to me. I started rummaging inside, and found what I was looking for.
“Here it is,” I said, pulling out the crystal-studded hairpin the chef had put in my hair that night. “Sorry, I kinda forgot to return it. After everything that happened, it slipped my mind. And you’d even said… What was it? Pyetrow…”
“Pietro Giovanni,” said the chef, smiling, and taking the pin from me. “It means that when you lend something, you expect it to be returned undamaged,” she explained for Lena’s benefit.
“Right. And then…” I continued.
When I’d finished my tale everyone at the table was looking at me, sadness in their eyes.
“Oh, you poor thing,” Skylar commiserated me, shaking her head. “That’s really a terrible way of hatching, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
“Excuse me?” Lena asked.
“Ah… That means, to realise your gender isn’t what you thought it was,” Ash supplied. “It’s a metaphor, you see. It’s like you’re a chick, in an egg, protected from the outside, but then the eggshell breaks and you have to come out, without knowing what will happen or what you’ll find there.”
“I see,” I said, nodding.
“And you,” Skylar said accusingly, punching Silvia’s arm lightly. “What the hell, Sil? Why did you play along? You really should know better than to do something like that, especially given our history.”
“I am sorry,” Silvia said. She did look contrite.
“What?” I asked, looking between them. “What history?”
Skylar looked at me, an impish smirk forming on her lips.
“Well, you see,” she said. “Twenty years ago or so, when I was in college, I went abroad to study for a few semesters in Italy. To pass the time, I joined the drama club, and I met Silvia, who was in her last year and part of the stage crew. A costumer, to be precise.”
Skylar paused, took a sip of wine. “Well it so happened that we didn’t have enough actors for all female roles and we didn’t know what to do, but then Silvia said I would make a good Lady Macbeth and put me in a costume. That was my egg-hatching moment, though it wasn’t quite as dramatic as yours. It was more subdued. But I still suffered quite a bit, because I had it forced on me before realising myself.”
“No, wait, hold on,” I said.
“Yes?” Skylar replied, looking at me over her wine glass.
“Just, I mean…” I continued, then paused. I was trying to gather my thoughts. “I’m sorry, but, egg-hatching moment?”
I looked at her in disbelief. “You… You’re transgender?”
“Of course I am. What, you hadn’t noticed?”
“No, I hadn’t,” I said. “I mean, you don’t… You look…” I gestured at her.
“I look cis, right?” she said, smiling. “Two decades of hormones will do that to a girl. I haven’t been clocked for, oh, I think six or seven years now?”
I was floored. Someone who had been male… Outwardly male, I mean… For twenty years or more, could look like that? Skylar was very pretty. Not a stunner like Silvia, but beautiful in her own way.
“But your voice?” I sounded like I was almost protesting. “You don’t sound anything like a man!”
“That’s the whole idea,” Ash said. “Sky here is a classically-trained singer and vocal coach. Her voice was one of the things she most wanted to change, so she really went all-in on it.”
“Of course, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows,” Skylar continued. “My family rejected me outright when I came out to them, so I ended up moving back to Italy and into Silvia’s flat. We had to work an endless string of dead-end jobs to support ourselves, until she somehow managed to land a job as a sous-chef, and moved up from there. But at least, we’ve been together all the way.” She smiled, reached over, and squeezed Silvia’s hand. They smiled at each other.
“As for me,” Ash said, “I met the two of them like five years ago in a club, and we kind of hit it off. I moved in with them shortly after that.”
They shook their head. “And then a year or so ago my mother got sick and I had to move back to be with her, and these two dum-dums insisted on dropping their whole lives in Italy and move here with me.” A rueful smile dawned on their lips. “I still don’t know what I did to deserve them.”
“The point here is, Lexi,” Silvia said, turning to me. “I wanted you to meet Sky and Ash, because I wanted to make a point.”
I looked at her. “And that is?” I asked.
“It does get better. Things may seem hard sometime. Things may be hard sometime.”
She smiled at me.
“But eventually, things will get better. So do not lose faith.”
“And,” Ash added, “If you need help, you can count on us. Regarding anything.”
“For example, if you want to try to use the female uniform and your real name at work, you can,” Silvia said. “No one will object. I will make sure of that.” Her words were a bit ominous, but then again she was head chef and owner of the restaurant.
“And you can come to me if you need some pointers with your voice,” Skylar continued. She turned to Lena and asked, “You don’t mind if we borrow your sister for a while, do you?”
Lena paused, thinking for a bit. Then she smiled, and said: “Pietro Giovanni.”
We all laughed.
And at that moment, the future seemed to be a bit brighter.