Chapter 10: Ash
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The following evening was Saturday, the day of Roger’s birthday party.

He had asked the whole triathlon team, and some of his other friends from university, to meet at a club just outside town; I decided to go there by bike since it was less than a half hour’s ride from my house, and this way I wouldn’t have trouble finding somewhere to park – and also to avoid getting breathalysed on the way back. Not that I planned to drink alcohol that evening, but with college parties you never know.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry: the whole group was carded upon entering the club, and those who were of drinking age had their left hand stamped with the club’s logo. When I asked I was told that the official policy of the club was that when ordering drinks one had to show their hand to the bartender – no stamp, no booze. I thought it was an ingenious way to solve the “how do we tell if someone is old enough to drink” problem.

Roger had reserved a whole room at the back of the club specifically for the party, and with good reason: our group was about two dozen strong, about two thirds from the triathlon club (including all the seniors) and one third from Roger’s classes; about half were girls, and I knew most of the people there.

And greatly disliked some of them.

The seniors from the triathlon team, for instance. They formed a close-knit clique, and looked down on everyone they considered to be beneath them; this of course included all the juniors, the sophomores, and especially the freshmen such as me and Roger – Roger because he excelled at sports and was seen as an upstart trying to make the seniors look bad, and me for the opposite reason, because according to them I wasn’t good enough to be part of the team. Of course the feeling was mutual, at least on my part; and probably Roger’s, too, but he was always the type to invite someone he didn’t really like to a party to avoid having to make a scene (which in this case would mean explaining why he’d invited everyone from the team except from the seniors).

The leader of the senior clique was a guy named Charlie. He was the one I most disliked: he was the stereotypical jock, and was always ready to insult anyone and everyone, usually with homophobic slurs. He’d been called on his words and behaviour many times, but since he was the star of the triathlon team he was basically untouchable. Ah well, it was no big deal, we just had to bear it for a few months more: graduation was coming up, so he and his cronies would be gone before long, and all the juniors seemed like cool people.

As we made our way towards the back room I took a look around the club; it was late afternoon so it wasn’t that busy yet, and the music was playing at a low enough volume to allow for normal conversation. I’d never been one to go clubbing, but this one seemed nice enough.

As I was looking around, I spotted one of the bartenders, and almost did a double-take: it was Ash.

I’d seen them a few times since the dinner, when I went to their and Skylar and Silvia’s house for vocal lessons, but we hadn’t really talked that much; for instance, I had no idea what they did as a job – guess I’d just found out. As the group was filing through the door to the back room our eyes met, and they gave me a nod of recognition, which I reciprocated. Roger noticed that, and quietly asked me, “Friend of yours?”

“Just someone I’ve met a couple times,” I replied. I wasn’t about to go into details – not with everyone around us who could overhear our conversation.

Roger understood. “Okay,” he replied, nodding in acknowledgement.

The back room had been furnished with a few couches, some chairs, and a table in the middle, on which an array of snacks and other food had been laid out; as for drinks, there were all sorts of sodas and other non-alcoholic drinks and a stack of dixie cups on one of a series of small side tables scattered through the room, and Roger told us that if anyone wanted some booze they would have to order it from the bartenders, telling them they were with the birthday party, so they would put it on the tab. (Of course this implied that only those who were of drinking age could order, because of the stamp they’d gotten on entering the club.)

Then the party got underway. I’d never been one to enjoy mingling with lots of other people, but I did my best to be sociable, trying to chat and joke and generally while the evening away. Surprisingly, I found I liked getting in a group and just chatting with the other freshmen on the team: I’d never really tried to get to know any of them before that evening (except Roger, of course, but he was my childhood friend), but I found that we had many points in common, and we chatted about all sorts of things (but mainly sports).

After a while I excused myself and took a quick trip out to the main room of the club to go and say hello to Ash; I found them still behind the bar, mixing drinks. They weren’t wearing their usual suit, but rather jeans and a close-fitting t-shirt, that still did nothing to hide their physique; they smiled as they saw me approach.

“Oh hey, hello there! How are you doing...?” they said, then paused, and looked at me significantly.

I understood what they meant, and sighed. “Alex,” I said. I disliked having to use my old name with someone who knew the real me, but I still had to be careful: if anyone who wasn’t in the know heard someone call me Lexi, it might lead to some uncomfortable questions. For the same reason, I wasn’t using my female voice, but I’d reverted to my old, male one.

“Alex,” Ash nodded. “So you’re here for the party?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “A friend of mine turned nineteen this week, and he decided to throw a big party. You know, first birthday in college, dude!, that kind of stuff.”

Ash gave a brief chuckle. “Yeah, I know. It’s been a few years, but I’ve been there. Enjoying the night?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” I said. “Didn’t think I would, I never liked being thrown in a noisy room with lots of people, but tonight is fine. Maybe it’s because I know most of them.”

“Yeah, could be,” they replied, then gave a glance to the rest of the bar: there were a few people waiting for drinks. “Excuse me for a sec,” they said, and moved to serve them; I looked at them as they went. I hoped one day to be able to be so open about my identity as they were.

I shook myself, though, when I noticed who were the people waiting to be served: it was Charlie, and his clique of seniors.

“Hello!” Ash said, cheerfully. “What can I get ya?”

Charlie gave them a look, up and down. I could see his eyes narrow, but he didn’t say anything except, “Jaegerbombs.”

“Sure thing!” was the reply. “For you all?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, so five Jaegerbombs, coming right up.” Ash paused. “Can y’all show me your hands real quick?”

Charlie sneered. “What for?”

“Official club policy, I’m afraid. Only those with a stamp can get alcohol,” Ash explained.

Charlie gave Ash a long, hard stare, but then flipped his hand up and showed them the stamp; his cronies followed suit.

“Great! I’ll be right back with your drinks,” Ash said, and turned their back to them. I could see the group break into chuckles, pointing at Ash, and making faces. I greatly disliked that, and I’m certain Ash heard them. On their part, they were nothing but professional, quickly lining up five glasses, filling them up with an energy drink, and preparing the shot on top of the glass themselves.

“Five Jaegerbombs, here ya go,” they said, still smiling despite how the clique was treating them. “Y’all with the birthday party, right?”

“Yeah,” Charlie said, as he dropped his shot into the big glass.

“Right then, I’ll put those on the tab. Have a nice evening!”

Charlie frowned again, but he and his friends picked up their drinks and headed back to the back room, still chuckling and joking among themselves. Ash took a couple moments to tidy up the stuff they’d used to make the drinks, and then joined me again at the counter.

“How can you stand that?” I asked, point-blank. “Those jerks were clearly disrespecting you.”

Ash sighed. “Alex, there’s really nothing I can do about it. They’re customers,” they said, putting a clear stress on that word. “Unless they insult me outright, to my face, I can’t get them thrown out. It would be bad for business.”

They gave me a sad smile. “Besides, I’m used to it. It’s part and parcel of… Well…” They gestured at themselves. “This. Visibility has its cost.”

I just looked at them. “I still don’t think it’s right.”

“It’s not,” Ash conceded, “But what are you gonna do? Until society changes and becomes more accepting, that’s where we’re at.”

A brief moment of silence hung between us, then Ash perked up again. “Now, can I get ya something to drink?”

“Nah,” I replied, shaking my head and showing them my hand. “No stamp here, I’m afraid. Still not old enough.”

“Oh, yeah. I remember. The wine,” they said, smiling.

“Right,” I nodded.

“Well, I can do non-alcoholic cocktails too, if you want,” they said. “What will it be? Something fruity maybe?”

I considered it. “Yeah, let’s go with that,” I replied.

“Coming right up!”

In short order, Ash was back with a tall glass full of a pink, sweet-smelling concoction. I took a sip: it tasted like mint and strawberries. “This is really good,” I said.

“Glad you like it!” Ash smiled. “Anything else I can get ya?”

“No, I guess I better get back to the party, they’re probably wondering where I ended up,” I replied.

“Alright. See you next time!” they said.

Carrying my drink I made my way back to the back room; when I got there I saw that Roger was chatting with a girl, but he excused himself when he spotted me, and made his way over to me.

“Where were you?” he asked. “I was starting to get worried.”

“Sorry, I was just chatting a bit with my friend,” I replied, and Roger nodded. “How are things back here?” I asked.

“Nothing much,” he said, “Things are going fine. Except for those jerks over there,” he nodded over to Charlie and his group, who had taken over a couch near the back wall and were talking and chatting loudly among themselves. “I don’t know why I bothered inviting them.”

“Because you’re a good person,” I said, and squeezed his shoulder. He smiled at me.

As we made our way back to the freshmen’s group, we passed by Charlie’s posse, and I manage to catch his words.

“...Here of all places,” he said. “It’s a dump. They even got a tranny at the bar.”

I stopped dead in my tracks.

Roger had probably heard Charlie too, because he put a hand on my shoulder, and pushed me on, whispering “Don’t” in my ear as he did so.

“Like, have you seen his face?” Charlie laughed. “A blue beard. Blue! And he was wearing make-up, even!” His words elicited a laugh from his cronies.

I don’t know what came over me; probably it had been the affirming experiences I’d had over the past weeks, which made me more sensitive to injustice. Or maybe I was simply tired of bigots running their mouth. In either case, it didn’t really matter.

I stopped once again, and turned back towards the group.

“Oh, cut it out, will you?” I said, loudly.

Everyone in the room stopped talking, and turned to look at me. Charlie had a look of disbelief on his face.

“What was that?” he asked.

“We’re having a good time, and you’re ruining it by blathering bigotry with your big fat mouth,” I continued. I glanced at Roger, and saw that he was looking at me wide-eyed, but I was committed. “Not everyone is a backwards-brained hick like you,” I went on. “If you want to spout that nonsense, kindly do it somewhere else.”

The room was dead silent, save for the club’s music, which filtered through the door and quietly pulsed in the background. Charlie reciprocated my stare, then drained his glass, set it squarely down on the table, and stood up.

“What? Ya wanna go, punk?” he said, looking at me. “This ain’t even your party, what makes you think--”

“Yeah, but it’s my party,” Roger interrupted him. “And I happen to agree. You’re no longer welcome here. Leave.”

Charlie paused, looking from me to Roger and back again. “What the hell?” he said, finally. “You gonna kick me out over a fucking tranny?”

Roger shrugged. “Apparently I am,” he replied. “I’m not going to say it a third time. Leave, or I’ll call security and have you thrown out.”

Charlie stared at us for a few moments, then turned and picked up his jacket, and pulled it on as he headed for the door, his cronies trailing behind him like a pack of dogs.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” he muttered. “All of this because of someone you don’t even know.”

He paused next to me as he was passing me, and looked down on me. “What is it even to you? What, are you a tranny too?”

He was so close to me, and I was so wound up by the argument, that my brain kicked into full fight-or-flight mode, and dumbly, it chose fight.

“So what if I am?”

The words had left my mouth before I even realised I was speaking them. What an idiot you are, Lexi, I thought.

Charlie seemed startled; for the first time that evening, he was at a loss for words. I hesitated for a second, but what the hell, I’d already said it. Might as well double down.

“What, you got a problem with it? Too bad. I don’t care,” I told Charlie. “Fuck off.”

Charlie looked from me to Roger back to me and back to Roger. He clearly didn’t know what to say. Roger was the one who spoke next.

“You heard her,” he said. “Get lost.”

Charlie hesitated for a moment longer, then muttered “Fucking hell,” turned on his heel, and left.

I slowly exhaled. I hadn’t realised my muscles had been tensed up, as if readying for a fight. I felt Roger’s hand squeeze my shoulder; I turned around to look at him. I sighed.

“That was really dumb, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Roger nodded. “But you did well.”

I suddenly realised the room was still silent. I glanced around; everyone was looking at us.

And the full weight of what I’d done hit me.

I’d just come out. In front of about two dozen people. Some of whom I didn’t even know.

Nice. Good job, Lexi. A+.

I ran my eyes over the crowd. My mouth opened, then closed again. I didn’t know what to say. Should I just explain...

“Well that was cool!” said one of the juniors from the triathlon team – Simon, I think it was? I wasn’t sure, I hadn’t really talked to him before. “I’d always wanted to give that jerk a piece of my mind, but could never manage to. Did you two plan it in advance, or did you improvise?”

I stared at him. Roger, standing beside me, said “Uh, what?”

“I mean,” Simon continued, “Pretending one of you is trans to shut him up? That was a masterstroke.”

Wait.

What?

Luckily for me, Roger was much quicker than I was on the uptake. “It was, wasn’t it?” he replied. “We hadn’t really planned it out, it just kinda happened.”

“...Yeah!” I added. “We were getting tired of him running his mouth, but this thing came together on its own, no planning.” I pretend-frowned. “Though I probably shouldn’t have said I was trans when I actually am not.”

“Nah, it’s all good,” Simon said, waving his hand dismissively. “My cousin’s non-binary, and I think they would’ve approved. Though of course I can’t know for sure.”

“Thanks,” I said, smiling.

And just like that, it was over. Everyone stopped staring at me, and the party resumed.

But still, that was a real close call. Which made me realise I really needed to come out to everyone I cared about, before I was accidentally outed.

Which meant I needed to talk with my parents.

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