I woke up to the sound of the key turning in the lock, and the door opening.
“Theo? Theo, you in here?” came Darrell’s voice. “We’re coming in.”
I turned over in bed and blearily opened one eye. “Hwuh?” I mumbled. Blinking the sleep away, I saw Darrell enter the room, followed by Lena and Lexi, who visibly relaxed.
“Looks like he’s fine,” Darrell said. “Since he’s here, I’ll just go and leave you with him, I have stuff to do.”
Lexi nodded in response.
“Give me a call if you need anything else,” he said, leaving and closing the door behind him.
“Girls?” I asked in a sleepy voice; I suddenly realised my lips were parched. Then I yawned. “What are you doing here?”
“We’re checking in on you,” Lena replied. “Are you okay, Theo?”
“I’m fine,” I replied, grabbing the bottle of water I kept on my nightstand and taking a long swig from it. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, you haven’t replied to any of our messages since two days ago,” Lexi said. “You haven’t even read any of them. And you haven’t seen Patrick’s messages, either, we asked him.”
I frowned, and picked up my phone; I pressed one of the buttons to wake it up, but the screen remained dark – it had evidently died at some point.
“That’s weird,” I said. “I charged it on Christmas Eve, it shouldn’t be out of battery already.” I started rummaging in my nightstand’s drawer, looking for the charger.
Lena and Lexi exchanged a glance. “Theo…” Lena began.
“Yeah?” I replied, looking up at her.
She took a deep breath. “It’s two days after Christmas. It’s the twenty-seventh, in the afternoon.”
I frowned again. “It is? No, that can’t be right.”
Lena nodded, and sat beside me on the bed. “What have you been doing the past two days?”
My frown deepened. “I… I can’t remember,” I said. I was certain I’d been in my room the whole time, but I was really fuzzy on the details; it was as if I’d been sleepwalking. I thought back to the last thing I could clearly recall: I was sitting at my desk, checking on Reddit if I’d gotten any replies to the question I’d posted about the pills. Then someone suggested Lexi might be transgender, and then I…
I looked up at her. “Oh,” I said.
“Is that a good ‘Oh,’ or a bad one?” she asked with a smile.
I looked down at myself: I was wearing my pajamas. Apparently at some point during the last forty-eight hours I’d changed out of the dress – I had no idea where it had ended up.
“I…” I began, then paused. I sighed. “I don’t know. In fact, I—”
I was interrupted by a loud groaning sound, and I realised it was coming from my stomach.
“Theo, when was the last time you ate?” Lena asked.
“I had brunch at like eleven, on Christmas morning,” I replied.
She frowned. “It’s been more than two days since then,” she said. She stood up from my bed and pulled me up by the arm. “Come on, get dressed, we’re taking you to CoffeePB, you have to put something in your stomach.”
I nodded, and numbly walked to my closet – my tracksuit was draped over the back of my chair, but I decided it was better if I wore something nicer, maybe a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a sweater. Behind me, Lena and Lexi were talking to each other in hushed tones.
I opened my closet.
The dress was right there, neatly draped on a hanger.
Reflexively, I slammed shut the closet door again; Lena and Lexi looked up at the noise. “Something wrong?” Lexi asked.
“No, nothing,” I replied. I grabbed my tracksuit off the chair, and hurried to the bathroom to get changed in private; I took the time to brush out my hair – it was a tangled mess, a real bird’s nest – and brush my teeth. I also drank several long gulps of water from the tap: besides eating, apparently I’d also forgotten to drink during the last forty-eight hours, and I was really thirsty.
“Ready,” I said, leaving the bathroom and dropping my pajamas in a heap on my bed.
“Alright,” Lena replied. “Let’s go, then.”
I grabbed my coat and, escorted by the two girls, I made my way out of my room – locking the door behind me – and to the elevator; I briefly considered going down the stairs, but because of my fasting I felt a bit weak, and I didn’t want to risk stumbling and rolling all the way down to the ground floor.
When we left the dorm, I felt as if I’d stepped into an alien landscape: the sky was completely devoid of clouds – the storm had apparently passed while I was in a daze – but snow was still piled six feet high all around, except for the streets and sidewalks and footpaths, which had been cleared out, and looked like gorges carved by tireless rivers through a mountain range; the light of the setting sun painted everything in an eerie red-orange colour. It was as if the whole world was bleeding out.
As we walked the relatively short distance to CoffeePB, I kept thinking about what I was going to tell Lena and Lexi. They were obviously worried about me, but I didn’t know where even to begin explaining everything that had happened to me since the last time I’d seen them. How do you even tell someone you’re transgender? Or, rather, you think you might be? “Hey, girls, I think I’m a girl too?” Would that work? Or maybe something more sombre: “The one you knew as Theo has ceased to exist; now, there is only…”
Who? There was only who?
Until two days before, I was sure I knew who I was. I was John Duncan Theodore Alan Parker the Sixth, even though I greatly disliked that name. Theo for short. I was a completely normal first-year college boy who really liked sports, triathlon in particular, and who trained religiously almost every day – as well as studying every available moment, because I knew I wasn’t the sharpest person around so I needed to do my best to keep my grades up. In my free time, I liked cooking, watching movies (a recent addition, thanks to Patrick), and playing role-playing games with my friends.
That was a pretty apt description of the person I was. Of the person I thought I was, anyway. Take Theo away, and what was left?
That word sprung by itself into my brain, unbidden; no matter how much I tried to shoo it away, it settled in, and made my mind its own home.
Ugh, alright. Fine. Maybe I was Allie. Which was short for Allison, probably – it sounded much more like a nickname than a proper name, and I’d had experience with that sort of stuff before anyway: Theodore to Theo, for instance. There were lots of people who preferred to be called by nicknames rather than by their proper names. So once I changed my name, I could just ask everybody--
Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. Hold it. Stop right there. Pump the brakes.
Why was I already thinking about changing my name? As if I’d decided to transition? There was no need for me to transition. I was transgender, okay – maybe – but that didn’t mean I had to go through with… Everything. All the things I’d read about transition. Surgery, in particular, sounded really scary. And what about…
Lexi’s voice broke through my thoughts: “Theo?”
I blinked, surprised. I realised we were standing outside CoffeePB. When had we gotten there?
“Yes?” I squeaked out.
“Are you okay?” Lena asked, concern evident on her face.
“I’m fine!” I exclaimed. My voice was maybe a bit shrill. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, we’ve been standing out here for about five minutes, trying to get your attention, but you seemed to be lost in your own world,” she said.
“It’s been five minutes since we got here? Really?”
She nodded in response.
Great, I’d probably dissociated again – that was another term I’d stumbled upon during my readings, and I thought that was probably what had happened to me. Faced with the truth, my brain had simply chosen to… Escape, go off on its own, so long, sucker, and leave me to deal with everything.
I sighed deeply. “Actually, no,” I said. “I’m not alright. But,” I held up a hand to stave off any questions, “I’m mostly okay. Not good, not terrible. I just have…” I gulped. “I have something I need to get off my chest. Will you listen to me?”
“Of course,” Lexi said, as she and Lena nodded. “We’re here for you.”
“Great,” I said. “So let’s go in and find a table and talk.”
My stomach chose that moment to growl, really loudly.
“After I’ve gotten something to eat,” I added. My friends laughed, pushed the door open, and in we went.
There were just two people inside CoffeePB, two waiters: no one else seemed to be around, and I silently admired their valiant effort in keeping the café open on a Sunday, in the late afternoon, on the twenty-seventh of December, with six feet of snow piled outside. That took dedication. (Or maybe they’d just drawn the short straw when it came to deciding the turns for the end-of-year holidays.)
Lena, Lexi, and I sat down at our favourite table – near the window, where I would usually be able to see the athletic track, now buried under the snow – and placed our orders; it didn’t take long at all for our food and drinks to arrive, and I was soon staring down an everything bagel, which had been sliced in half and toasted, and filled with salmon, cream cheese, and chives. And just off to the side of the plate sat a large mug, filled to the brim with steaming hot chocolate, topped with whipped cream and marshmallows: the waiters had drawn a smiling kitty cat on top of it with cocoa powder.
I gulped. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until just that moment. I picked up my bagel and literally tore through it with my teeth, like a lioness tearing through an antelope’s carcass. I was only halfway done when I realised it wouldn’t be nearly enough, so I signalled the waiter to bring me another one.
After about twenty minutes, three bagels, and two mugs of hot chocolate, I settled down in my chair, crossing my arms in front of me, my belly full and a satisfied smile on my lips. That was one thing done with.
I sighed. “So.”
“So,” Lexi replied.
“So,” I nodded.
There was a moment of silence.
“You said you wanted to talk about something?” Lena said. Then she smirked. “Or was it just a trick to get us to buy you dinner?”
“No, it’s just… I don’t know where to begin.”
“Take your time,” she answered, still smiling.
I took my time. I thought about what I was about to say. I thought about whether to say anything at all. This was a big step, a big risk I would be taking: what if they reacted badly? What if they rejected me outright? But then again, Lexi and Lena were really nice girls. I’d known them for only about three months, but we’d become fast friends; and I didn’t think they would reject me, at the very least – I was pretty certain Lexi was transgender herself, and Lena was her sister so she must have known.
No, Lena and Lexi were good. They would not reject a queer person coming out to them.
I took a deep breath, and looked directly at them.
“I think I might be a girl.”
Those words came out easier than I thought they would. Still, they seemed to hang around, to remain suspended above the small table we were sitting around, flashing in red and blue neon light.
The two girls held my gaze for a few seconds, then Lena slowly nodded. “Alright,” she said.
“Why do you think you might be a girl?” Lexi asked.
“Well, there’s this,” I replied, gesturing at my painted nails. “And this.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “Normal boys don’t go and paint their nails and get an androgynous haircut the first chance they get after getting out of their house, do they?”
She shrugged. “Some do. But go on.”
“Then, there was the dress. You remember the dress, right?”
“Right,” she nodded. Then she turned to Lena and explained: “A bit before Christmas, we went to the mall to buy your present.”
“Which is lovely, by the way,” Lena said with a smile. “Thank you.”
I felt my cheeks redden a bit. “You’re welcome,” I replied, smiling back.
“While we were there,” Lexi went on, “I saw her looking at a dress, looking real close, almost as if she wanted to try it on. But in the end she didn’t.” She looked at me. “You alright there?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, hiding my face with my hands. “Give me a sec.”
Hearing Lexi refer to me by feminine pronouns had only deepened my blush: I was sure I was red as a lobster, and my eyes stung a little bit. Oh god, is this what feeling good about yourself is like?
I took another deep breath. “Then, on Christmas, I read a post on Reddit, where someone said Lexi is probably transgender, and--”
“No, hold on,” Lexi said. “You read what on Reddit?”
“Oh. Um,” I said, realising I should probably explain. “When we were on the shopping trip you accidentally dropped your pills, remember?” She slowly nodded, and I continued: “Well I was worried and I wondered what those were for, so I put up a post describing them and asking if someone knew, and that was the answer.” Lena and Lexi gave me a capital-L Look. “Sorry,” I added, plaintively.
They continued staring at me, then Lena said, “We’ll need to have a conversation about privacy and boundaries, but this is not the time. Go on.”
I nodded, with a grimace. “That answer led me to look up what transgender actually means – I honestly had no idea before that – and then I fell into a rabbit hole of looking up various other terms and their meaning, which led me to figure out I was probably… Yeah.” I gulped. “Then I tried on the dress, and that sealed the deal, made me realise it completely. I don’t know what exactly happened after that, I guess I dissociated, I can’t remember anything else until you found me today.”
“You tried on the dress?” Lena asked. When I nodded, she continued, “That dress. The one you told me about, the one you’d seen at the clothing store at the mall?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I replied.
“So you’d gone back and bought it,” Lexi said.
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “Pat gave it to me.”
Lena blinked. “Pat?”
I nodded again. “He texted me on Christmas morning, said he had a present for me, that it was hidden in his closet. And that was the dress. I guess he bought it that very day, when we were at the mall, you remember how he went back into the store after we’d left, Lexi, right?”
Lexi nodded, but Lena had a weird expression on her face.
“I’m going to fucking murder him,” she said.
“Sis,” Lexi said, putting a hand on her arm.
“Don’t you sis me, Lexi, you know how I am about these things,” Lena snapped. “You don’t make someone dress up, especially someone who is in a vulnerable position.” She gestured at me. “What the hell, she dissociated and was out of it for two days! What would have happened if we didn’t come check on her? I’d talked about it with Patrick, even. Oh, I’m absolutely going to give him an earful.”
“I’m sorry, you’d talked about it with Pat?” I asked.
She turned from her sister to me. “Uh… Yes,” she admitted.
“So… You knew? Even before I did?” My tone of voice had a tinge of accusation in it.
She looked away from my eyes. “We… Suspected,” she replied.
“And what made you suspect?”
“Well, I mean… There was that time when you got a fever, and Patrick and I took care of you. From how you talked, from how you behaved, I could just tell, as could Pat.”
I felt a chill run down my spine. “What did I say, exactly?”
Lena blinked. “You don’t remember?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, shaking my head. “Just bits and pieces, nothing coherent. My brain was completely shot that day.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, you asked that we refer to you as a girl. You were very insistent about that.”
“You did,” she nodded. “But as I said, once you’d recovered, we decided not to press the issue. We decided you would figure it out yourself in due time.” She smiled. “And you did, didn’t you?”
I smiled back. “I guess I did. I mean, I have lots of stuff left to figure out, still.”
“And we’ll help you in that,” Lexi said. She was smiling, too.
There was a pause, and then she continued: “So, our friend is a girl. Cool. And does this girl have a name?”
I gulped. “She does, actually. I’m Allison Parker. Allie.”
“Allie, then,” Lena said. She was absolutely beaming, and I felt tears start to run down my cheeks when she said my name. My real name.
“Ah, come here, you,” Lena said, getting up from her chair and walking over to me; she clamped me in a hug – a really tight hug, squeezing me close to her.
“Don’t worry, Allie,” Lexi said. “Things are going to be just fine.”