Bex stared at me. She didn’t say anything. Didn’t return my smile with one of her own. She just stood there, her arms wrapped tightly against herself.
“Well, son?” her dad said, one hand clapping against her back. “Don’t just leave the young lady hanging. It’s rude.”
“Nice to meet you,” Bex finally said. She shook her head a couple of times, as if trying to banish some thought, and then pulled the chair out from in front of her to stiffly sit down. It hit me like a dagger right in the gut when I saw her lips twisting in a frown.
Well. That could have gone better.
I sat down as well, glancing over at Hannah, who shrugged ruefully. I guess this was what she was warning me about. I was kind of at a loss, too. What could I say, particularly with her dad there? If he caught on, or actually had reason to examine me more purposefully, it wouldn’t matter how much makeup I had on or what cute outfit I was wearing. I’d just have to play it cool and wait for my opportunity. And maybe do my best to feel out what exactly was going on.
“The food looks very good, Mr. Eccleston,” I said. I reached out towards the pan of casserole, but froze as Bex’s dad coughed.
“Would you like to say grace, son?”
My eyes shot over to Bex just in time to catch the flicker of pain flash across her face. I gritted my teeth and folded my hands in my lap.
As Bex mumbled through something starting with “Heavenly Father,” I couldn’t help but be distracted by her entirely earthly one. I just couldn’t get a read on the guy. He seemed utterly normal. Frustratingly dad-like, even. I sort of expected from what Mark had said about him being so religious, that he’d just be, like, a screaming bigot or something. The kind of guy you’d actually need to rescue someone from.
Bex finished saying grace and her dad passed me a plate with some rolls on it. How could I work up a good, proper hate for someone who gave me bread?
If only he was cartoonishly evil, like some kind of dragon or ogre keeping the princess locked in her tower. Then I could properly play the heroine: break in here, kick down Bex’s door, escape by running off into the sunset, hand in hand…
“Now there’s a smile from you,” Bex’s dad said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “You really should smile more often, you’re much prettier when you do.”
Okay, wait, no, I did hate him after all.
“And maybe grow your hair out,” he continued. “I don’t know what it is with girls these days and their short haircuts. It just makes you look like a boy.”
“Dad!” Hannah hissed.
“It’s true!” he said. “What do you think, son?”
Bex looked across the table at me. There was something like that old spark in her eyes again, just for a moment. I stared as her mouth twitched slightly and she said, “I think she’s very pretty already.”
On some level I dimly registered Bex’s dad and Hannah sharing a look, but I was kind of preoccupied by losing my shit. You can’t just say that to someone, Cerise! Oh my god! Especially not with that tiny smile, too. It was like I had been hit right in the heart by a laser-guided missile, and the splash damage of feelings was too much to handle. Critical damage, time to eject right out of this body.
Ugh. Get it together, Gwen! It took a supreme level of effort, but I wiped the dopey grin off my face.
“Thank you,” I said politely. That was the correct response, right? I wasn’t used to being complimented like that. Or at all, really.
But Bex was back to looking down at her plate of food, poking it listlessly with a fork.
Bex’s dad cleared his throat again. “So remind me, Gwen, how do you know Hannah?”
Some silence stretched out. I was staring at Bex, still a little preoccupied with what she had just said. But now she wouldn’t even look at me? Oh, shit.
“We’re in a class together,” Hannah said. “Some biology stuff, you know.”
“Ah, so she’s also in the med track?”
My slightly manic elation about Bex’s initial response had flipped to sudden concern. Was she just saying that to be nice? Had I responded strangely? Oh god, yeah, of course she couldn’t have actually meant it, why was I fooling myself? But I must have looked weird and shell shocked at her common, everyday politeness, and now she must think that I had read too much into it, and she’s regretting saying anything. Oh no.
“Nah, she’s studying… um. What was it?” Hannah said. She elbowed me slightly, then made a frustrated noise when I didn’t respond. “Oh right, herpetology. Isn’t that right?”
“Mm, yes,” I said, still distracted by trying to do the calculus of whether Bex actually thought I was pretty, or if she secretly hated everything about me and was just being nice. “Sexually transmitted diseases are serious,” I murmured absent-mindedly.
Hannah muffled a laugh.
“I thought herpetology was the study of reptiles,” Bex said softly.
That sort of snapped me back into the present. I mentally reran the last bit of conversation. Uh. Shit.
“Exactly,” I said, this time trying my best to project authority to save myself. “Snake syphilis, or ‘snyphilis,’ is no laughing matter. It’s done untold harm to the population of endangered Australian King Cobras.”
I glanced over at Bex’s dad, who raised an eyebrow. I think he bought it.
“You know,” he said lightly, as if sharing a fun fact, “Biblically speaking, the snake represents deception and evil. The serpent in the garden of Eden, if you will.”
I pursed my lips. “Yet it’s also a creature that God created, right? Seems strange for God to make something, call it good, and then turn around and have it be intrinsically evil.”
He gave me a considering look, but still had a smile on his face. “Well, that’s true. It’s more of a metaphor. I suppose it’s not the snake that’s evil, but the decision by Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
I set my fork down, looking over at him. Bex and Hannah kept looking back and forth between the two of us as if they were spectators at a tennis match.
“Then in fact, you could say that the real sin is the desire to sit in God’s place, right? To be the one who perfectly knows what’s good and evil and be able to cast judgment on others because of that.”
His smile only deepened. “Sure. That’s God’s role alone, but that’s why he gave us his word too. And the Bible’s quite clear on the important things, no matter how much modern man tries to twist the scriptures. You know, calling evil good and good evil, to paraphrase Isaiah.”
Right, I wanted to say. The important things, like needing to performatively say a prayer before every meal, but not being willing to accept your daughter for who she is. To prefer to see her suffering in misery under your own narrow conception of truth, rather than help her to flourish and shine as a positive force in the world.
Bitterness coursed through my veins at the thought. I don’t know how a stupid discussion of snakes had led to talking about deeper issues, and I didn’t exactly think that Bex’s dad realized what I had implicitly been trying to say, but I think both of our meanings were actually pretty clear. And what a lack of imagination someone must have, to only be able to think of a God as a cruel judge imposing arbitrary rules, not a loving creator who wanted happiness for their creation.
That’s what I wanted to say in response. But I also realized now just how pointless this was. I wasn’t going to be able to figure out a perfect angle or counterargument that he’d accept and internalize, even if we were talking about things directly and not in this weird roundabout way. He’d had years to build a perfect little wall around his tiny world, and even if I could conclusively demonstrate the hypocrisy involved, there’d always be one more way to escape, one more justification in place.
I think I understood now. He was a bigot, alright, but not like he was just some troll taking pride in flaunting their edgy opposition to a modern societal consensus. Worse than that. He had enmeshed himself in such a complete, constructed mental world that he could believe himself always in the right. Where he was the oppressed victim of an intolerant society that had grown beyond the constraints of his exclusionary black and white morality. And his fake world expected others to not just accept his beliefs, but show deference to them. Like the fact that he based his shitty opinions in religion gave him the right to force other people to legitimize them, and for him to turn around and shame them for their own supposed intolerance if they weren’t willing.
Alright, I might have veered off course at this point. Or at least into making certain assumptions about him that reflected more of my own relationship with certain members of my family than whatever the strange circumspect conversation we were actually having. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was sort of okay underneath the vaguely slimy religiosity.
I took a breath. “Sorry, I’m a bit defensive about reptiles.” I needed to redirect the conversation away from here before I said something that I shouldn’t. So I looked over at Bex and smiled. “What is it that you study?”
“Um.” Bex’s eyes drifted over to her father, whose smile dropped away.
“About that,” Bex’s dad said. “We’ve decided that it’s best if he takes an indefinite break from college.”
“What?” Hannah and I said almost simultaneously.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done around the church -- some yardwork, minor repairs here and there. Maybe help out in the office, too? That seems like the kind of positive environment he needs right now. And he’d get to spend more time with his old man! Isn’t that right, son?”
“Yes, sir.” Bex’s voice was practically inaudible. She stared down at her lap, completely expressionless.
And it clicked together into my mind. I wasn’t wrong, after all. That was exactly who Bex’s dad was, a narrow-minded small man only concerned with God as a way to police the order of his tiny toxic universe. He hid it well behind a veneer of reasonableness, but seeing him for who he was underneath only made me despise him more.
And that realization reinforced my desire to get Bex away from him.
Hannah was still gaping. “But you— They—” She paused, clearly trying to think of some counterargument. “Shouldn’t the, uh, ‘man of the house’ have a real career to be able to provide for their family? You always said education was important for that.”
“It is. But I’m worried about the bad influences out there.” Bex’s father frowned at Hannah. “You’ve always been particularly hard-headed, and so I have some manner of trust in you to resist that kind of thing, but your brother is… sensitive. I really think it’s for the best that he be in a place that’s less confusing, surrounded by people who put God first in their lives.”
“You can’t just do this, Dad.”
He shrugged. “He agrees with me. Don’t you, son?”
Bex was pale, her hand slightly shaky as she put down her fork. She wouldn’t meet any of our eyes. She just inclined her head in a faint nod and—
I abruptly stood up, pushing my chair back with a screech. Everyone at the table stared at me.
“I need to use the bathroom,” I announced. And literally scream, I wanted to add, but I managed to refrain.
Bex’s dad gestured toward the hall, faint confusion on his face. “Second door on the right.”
I stalked off, trying to keep my breathing regular. When I found the bathroom, I barely kept myself from slamming the door shut behind me.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
I mean, I should have assumed that, right? Bex’s dad pulling her out of school felt well within the bounds of the shitty behavior that I had been worried about from the very beginning. Yet something about seeing it all spelled out, and particularly about having it be contextualized as helping her… It just made me sick to my stomach.
If he was going to isolate her like this, then this really was my only chance, wasn’t it? It’d only be harder to talk with her, as he’d be watching to make sure she didn’t come into contact with ‘bad influences’ like Mark. And Bex was just going along with everything her father said. I didn’t understand it.
Well, I guess I logically did. He was her family. And he had decades to indoctrinate her into his own worldview. Even if she knew that what he wanted for her was wrong - which I desperately hoped to be the case - even if she could see the bigotry on display here, it was a familiar, accepted shittiness. He had dragged her into his own particular conception of the way the universe was structured. It’d be hard for anyone to escape that gravitational pull. Good recontextualized as evil, and evil as good, alright. With the bonus of anyone who disagreed implicitly labeled as malicious and corrupt -- or at the best, foolishly misguided.
I was sick to my stomach at the thought. Literally. The thought of eating any more fucking transphobic chicken casserole made me want to hurl.
Again it felt like maybe I was catastrophizing, reading too much into stilted conversations over a single meal. But I knew all this. I had experience with it. There was a reason I hadn’t talked to my mother in years. And that was without any of the heavy stuff to do with being trans that Bex had to deal with. That was just the slow, crushing reality of never being able to live up to certain expectations about how I should live my life. That had been enough to seriously fuck me up.
I had to choke back a bitter laugh. If she could see me now, wearing makeup, wearing this skirt… She’d really go nuclear, huh? And I didn’t even think I would mind. I knew at this point that our relationship had deteriorated so much that I had given up on any hope for being able to be a person she would love. I was powered by spite now, and any excuse to stick a finger in her eye is one I’d gladly take.
But Cerise… Bex was too nice, wasn’t she? I could see it so clearly -- her desperation to make things right, to suffer and sacrifice and change everything about who she was in order to make other people happy. She had told me as much very early on. She had said directly that she envied others for their ability to be selfish. In my eyes it was all so clear now: who she was, what that actually meant. I don’t know if I would ever know someone as effortlessly, genuinely kind.
And I loved her for it.
There, I said it. I loved her -- in sort of a hopeless, astonished way, too. I was a trash person, looking at someone truly and deeply good and wondering what that could ever be like. Wanting somehow to grasp it for myself, even if I knew I could never actually be the person she already was. I loved her for her kindness and yet I also cursed it, because that’s what kept her here in this situation. She was trapped by someone else taking advantage of her heart and using that against her, keeping her in chains of her own making.
So then what should I do? How do I get her out? Do I embrace my own shittiness? Could I be selfish for her? If she was too kind to tell her dad to fuck off on her own behalf, would she do so for my sake? It seemed like such a desperate option, and one that I felt queasy about too. Why would she pick my happiness over his? He was family, after all. But if that was my only option...
I just wished I had any confidence in myself, any understanding of who I was that I could be proud of, rather than disgusted. But inside and out, I knew exactly how ugly I was. That wasn’t something I could just change. I had to make the best of it, to play the shitty hand I was dealt. …And probably stop talking to myself in the bathroom before everyone got worried about how long I had disappeared for.
I washed my hands in the sink, still trying to fight my way out of the negative feedback loop in my head about who I was and how much Bex deserved better. I wasn’t wrong on those things, but I also knew that I was the one here for her right now. I had to put aside my complicated feelings and focus on her wellbeing. Whatever it took to get her out. No matter what lengths I’d have to stoop to. No matter who I’d have to force myself to be.
And then I looked up.
As usual for a bathroom, there was a mirror over the sink.
Where I saw myself face to face for the first time tonight.