Max sat at the edge of the building looking out at the afternoon sun. It wasn’t late, not really. But the afternoon sun’s golden glow painted the city in a very definitive way. He was trying not to overthink things, but he had the distinct feeling he was about to do something that would change things, to a certain extent. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for things to change.
Other than me being here now, you mean? Penny interjected. I’m sure you’re overthinking this, they said. There was an amused smile in their voice. It’s just a phone call. She won’t bite. She won’t be mad. From what I’ve seen, worst case scenario, she’ll tell you she can’t help you. And then you can still go on your not-date Friday. Max was sure he heard Penny chuckle.
“I have no idea what you’re implying,” Max joked, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was looking at his phone, loosely held in his hands. There was a certain, small temptation in the back of his head, that told him that if he dropped his phone, he couldn’t call Victoria and that nothing would change and that everything would be fine forever.
Are they fine? Penny asked, concerned. It was always a little disconcerting when Penny went from sassy to caring. It troubled Max for two reasons. The first one was obvious. Having someone quickly change from what felt like a positive to a negative -- or at least neutral -- attitude was always a little jarring. It was the same feeling he had when he had to give someone bad news. Like you were responsible for ruining someone’s day. The second was a little more personal. Max disliked the fact that Penny was worried about him. He wasn’t doing that badly, all things considered. He didn’t deserve someone to be worried about him, he felt. Bull-, Penny interjected, and I say this with the utmost respect and empathy here, -shit.
“Language,” Max mumbled, but he couldn’t help himself from smiling. He wasn’t fine. He knew that. Penny knew it. But he had no reason not to be fine, did he? He was just a miserable little --
I don’t know how yet, but one of these days I’m gonna smack you upside the head if you keep doing that.
Max sighed. It was so easy to tear himself down. Self-deprecating had started off as a joke, something that would let him make jokes without them being at anyone else’s expense. He didn’t know if they’d come easy because he’d believed them, or the other way around. Was his hatred of mirrors the chicken or the egg?
You’re definitely not a chicken, Penny said wisely, and Max smiled again. Penny being in his head had given him a lot of reasons to smile lately and he was more than a little grateful for that. It was nice to have one of the voices in his head not be screaming angrily at him. Encouragement was rare to him. He’d found it easier and easier to hurt himself just by thinking, and the voice, the mean one, had told him it was so easy for him to hate himself because there were just so many reasons for him to hate himself.
I don’t know, Penny said. I’ve been in here for a day now, and I’ve seen a lot of who you are. Don’t hate you yet. I think your core test sample might be biased. Or unreliable.
They weren’t wrong, Max considered. He hadn’t liked the person in the mirror in years. He didn’t remember what it was like to actually like himself as a person. He had no idea how other people did it. The voice in his head, the one that didn’t sound like a sassy younger sister that was somehow also an eldritch mother with sharp teeth, told him that other people didn’t hate themselves because they were good people who weren’t eminently hateable. He felt Penny make a sound in his head, like a tiny scream.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll drop it.” He held up his phone demonstratively to underline his point, and unlocked it. Then he stared at the screen for a few seconds. A few seconds stretched into minutes, until he felt Penny every so slightly nudge him, as if giving him a mental push in the back. He couldn’t put this off, not indefinitely. Well, he could, the little voice insisted.
Are you going to?
“No,” Max said, and pressed the dial button. He had hoped that, dramatically, Victoria would pick up immediately. Not that he’d know what to say, but rather to ensure he wouldn’t have the time to rethink his decision. But instead, the dial tone rang over several times and Max started to panic ever so slightly. It got to the point of him taking the phone away from his ear and holding his finger over the big red disconnect button. Just as he was about to press it, he heard a tinny voice coming from the microphone.
“Hello?” Victoria asked.
“Hey, this is Victoria, right?” He knew it was, he recognized her voice, but Max was pleasantly surprised that she hadn’t given him the wrong number on purpose. It hadn’t happened often before, but only because he had never been in the habit of asking women for their number. It was easy not to get rejected by people if you did it yourself beforehand.
“Ye-ah,” Victoria said, uncertainly. “Max? Is everything alright? I thought… We weren’t supposed to meet up until Friday…” The echo of her voice hung in the dead air for a moment, and he realized that there were a lot of reasons he could be calling her in that moment, from where she was sitting. A lot of them painted Max in a less-than-favourable light. He cleared his throat awkwardly.
“Yeah, I know. Look, I’m sorry for calling so soon, but I don’t -- I’ve got -- I’m not sure --” He took a deep breath. He was getting nowhere fast, stuttering like this. He knew it would be easier to talk about this in person, but if he was her, he knew he wouldn’t be comfortable meeting up without a word. “After we talked, I’ve had some stuff stuck in my head, and I had a few questions, if you’re willing,” he said.
Heh, Penny said. Stuck in your head. Max rolled his eyes and cracked a smile at Penumbra’s interjection. It was hard not to be amused by their sass. You’re welcome, they said, and there was the slight implication of Penny making a little bow.
“What kind of questions, Max?” Victoria’s voice was softer. Max got the distinct feeling she was a step ahead of him, and it was both a little frustrating, that he was so easy to read, and a little comforting. It made asking things a lot easier. But he didn’t like the fact that he was an open book the way he was.
“Just… I talked to a friend recently. The possibility… the chance of being someone else was brought up… I just wanted to get your feelings on it,” he said.
“Why m-- Hm. What do you mean, someone else?” Victoria asked, demanding a little more clarification. Max knew he wasn’t going to get out of this with just vagaries, and while he wanted to hang up and pretend this call had never happened, he was committed now.
“Do you ever want to be a guy again?” Max asked. There was a silence on the other side of the line. He was worried for a moment that he’d offended her. It was a hard question to ask a trans person, he knew. It was one of the reasons he couldn’t ask his friends. An outsider’s perspective, he’d figured, would be more honest, less biased.
“I don’t, Max. I’m trying to figure out why you’re asking this. I’ve got an idea, but… where are you going with this?” she asked.
Max took a deep breath. Moment of truth. “Is it normal for someone to want to be a… different gender sometimes? To want to be a girl?” he asked. He heard her breath catch on the other end of the line. He didn’t know if she got caught on a laugh or if she’d gasped dramatically.
“I -- thank goodness. Yes, Max, it’s entirely normal.” Victoria’s soft voice was soothing, and Max smiled in relief, but not for long. Victoria continued. “All girls feel that way,” Victoria said.
That does make more sense.
“What did your friend say that made you so… introspective?” Victoria asked. Max wasn’t sure what to say. He was trying to find a way to explain things without telling her about the alien symbiote in his head.
“Penny sort of… showed me the option, I guess.”
“Well, she’s very perceptive,” Victoria said, and he could hear a small smile.
“They,” Max corrected softly. “And yeah, it’s like they look inside my head.”
Heheheh, Penny said.
“Do you want to meet up somewhere? I think I’d rather have this conversation in person,” Victoria said, and Max sighed in relief. He was glad she was the one to suggest them meeting. He was uncomfortable doing all of this over the phone. Then, as if there was a second woman (or woman-adjacent, in Penny’s case) in his life who could read his mind, Victoria sighed softly. “It’s not easy coming out over the phone. The coffee shop?” He was about to nod and say yes, when his brain stumbled over her words like they were a loose brick in the pavement of his thoughts. Coming out?
“Uh,” Max said, distracted. “Sure. I mean yes. That would be good. Thanks. Uh. Thank you.”
“Look, this isn’t a date. This is just coffee between friends,” Victoria said with a tone that would be easily read as reproachful if Max wanted to, or if his garbage brain wanted to, which it most definitely did. Victoria was clearly not having it, though. “Our date is on Friday,” she said with a little smirk in her voice. Max smiled back.
“Agreed. I’ll see you there,” he said, and got up. They said a quick goodbye. She was in the neighborhood, so he didn’t have all that much time to make his way down the fire escape again and across the street, especially if he wanted to get changed, but he just about managed. Looking in the mirror, there was a small pang in his chest, knowing she wasn’t really interested in him when he looked like this, and he couldn’t blame her. But this wasn’t a date, he reminded himself. He turned the mirror to the wall again, earning him a small ‘aww’ from Penny.
He crossed the road in that little half-jog he did to avoid being a bother to traffic, and saw Victoria arriving at around the same moment. She smiled at him, her hand on her shoulder bag’s strap. He waved softly, and got a little wave back in return. They went into the shop without saying much, which still smelled and sounded the same it had the first time they’d met. They sat down at a table in the corner from where it was hard to see the register and the people working. It was hard to see anyone from there, and Max liked it that way.
“So… Max,” Victoria said, the first to break the silence, looking at him. There was a distinct lack of a cup, but Max felt like they had more important things to think and talk about right now than coffee. This was a set, nothing more. “You chose that name, right?”
He nodded. “My old one felt wrong. My friends helped me pick out a new one.” Victoria smiled again, and clasped her hands together in front of her, seemingly thinking things over in her head.
“Yeah. Just curious.” She paused for a moment. “Where do you want to start, Max? I know it’s hard to talk about this stuff, so if you want me to say something, I can…”
“No,” Max said, shaking his head. “I’m just… trying to get my head straight. I’ve had a lot to think about.” Victoria’s nodding encouraged him. She could clearly empathize. “I guess what I’m asking is… how did you… what would make someone…”
“A woman?” Victoria asked. Max nodded, and he felt a lump in his throat. He didn’t understand why this was so hard to talk about. To think about. Penny was mostly quiet here, too, and he wondered briefly if everything was okay.
I’m here, Max. I just feel like this is your conversation to have. But I’m here, if you need me. That was more of a comfort than he thought it was going to be, and he felt a little warmer. He couldn’t tell if that was because of Penny or just because of feeling better.
“It was something I felt at a young age, if I’m honest. Not everyone does, of course. But there was a… wrongness,” she said. “About me. About the world. Like… like they said in that one movie. Like a splinter in my mind, something I couldn’t ignore. It had been threatening to swallow me whole until I realized I hated existing because I was trying to exist as someone else. I knew that even when I was little.”
“So… you knew your whole life?” Max asked, a little deflated.
Victoria nodded. “Not everyone does. The first sign that you might be a woman is wanting to be one.”
“What’s the next one?” Max asked.
Victoria cocked her head. “Before I answer that, I have a small question in return, sort of leaning into what you asked me last Friday.” Max nodded, urging her to continue. “You sounded hopeful there. Max… do you want to be trans?”
He blinked a few times, and realized that the answer was coming at him with all the speed, mass and subtlety of a freight train. He nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Can I ask why?”
His voice caught in his throat and it took him clearing it a few times, and a few small coughs, until he managed to speak without croaking. “I -- if I’m trans,” he said ever so softly, “I get to be a woman, right? I’m allowed?”
Victoria sighed, and reached across the table to take Max’s hand. “You already are, if you want to be.”
Max cried. Tears ran down their face.