~ Prologue ~
To live is to slowly be born.
It would be a little too easy
If we could borrow ready-made souls
If I met an alien one day and could only recommend one sight that best captured the essence of humanity, I would say, “Go watch children playing in a playground, because there, you will see the intricacies of the human soul in its most tender and changing phase.” And if the alien came upon such a playground, it would witness the children in all their activities: the hordes clamoring around the soccer ball, obscured by dust and flinging sneaker-clad feet; strings of children on the wooden steps and plastic slides playing freeze-tag; a small colony over in the sand, drawing marks in the ground for their make-believe scenarios; and then there would be the lone child, perplexed and troubled, standing beside a tree. And in that child, the alien would behold the greatest evidence that the essence of humanity transcends these symbolic physical bodies, as the soul struggles to find rooting in this world.
Like a baby bird whose nest is blown down by the wind, the soul of a person is, at its inception, cut away from the grand spirit of the Earth and left to its own devices to find a way home. For some us, that task isn’t so very hard; for others, the path is scattered by the spiraling vortices so that each passing moment makes it harder to grasp the ground beneath.
I was never that child, standing alone, unable to understand where I belonged. But I watched and I listened and I hurt and I abetted one such person, whose story I will try my best to relate to you in the chapters that follow.
~ 1 ~
We were fraternal twins, the first in our family to be born on American soil. In the strong spirit of assimilation, I was named Irene and my brother was christened Andrew, and we were raised mostly by Mother while my father ascended the corporate ladder.
Like most siblings, we had our tussles and tribulations, but they were rare – in a way, too rare. I always got my way, and it actually started to feel bad after awhile. I kept egging him on to fight back, but he never wanted to. He would just slink away as always, never attached to his property or territory. The only time he was ever downright angry was when I accidentally kicked over his first attempt at gardening (a bowl of geraniums). I swear it was an accident, but boy, did that get his blood boiling.
In elementary school, he would often wander off by himself during recess, and even though I was in a different class, the teachers would ask me to go after him, since I was the one who knew best where he would be hiding. He liked the creek with the fish in it, chiefly, but when this was too muddy, he’d be over at the parking lot, looking for God knows what between the cracks of the asphalt.
All the teachers were very relieved when he finally stopped walking off unsupervised, but when he reached that stage, he instead wanted to play with me and my friends as we pretended to be a royal family in a romantic era. He was supposed to be the knight, I guess, but he never did very much that was knightly. When I was queen, I ordered him to fight valiantly for us and reclaim our lost crown. (The crown was a fluorescent cone appropriated by the other kids as a soccer goalpost.) I found him twenty minutes later back at the river, trying to feed a crumpled oak leaf to a minnow.
I used to go up to Mom and tell her that I thought Andrew was a little on the slow side, and really not a terrible lot of fun. He had no interest in buying clothes for himself and the only toys he ever looked at (but did not touch) were my dolls. He mostly went around trying to arrange rocks and leaves on the floor. I told him to go play with the other boys, especially when my girl friends started to think it was gross having cooties so close-by, but he never showed any interest in it.
“Why are you so weird?” I finally asked him one day. I wasn’t even sure at that point if he quite grasped the English language.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“What makes you happy? Besides the river.”
“Big sister makes me happy,” he said. I was taken aback. This wasn’t an age when I wanted to hear that. “Big sister is very lucky.”
“I’m not your big sister …,” I said. “We’re twins. That means we were born together,” I explained.
“But you decide everything,” he said.
“Because you don’t decide anything!” I retorted. “What do you want, then?”
“I want to be rescued.”
“Rescued? But that’s stupid – no one rescues a knight.”
“Then don’t make me the knight! Why don’t you be the knight?”
He seemed inordinately angry.
“Okay, I’ll be the knight and you can be the king.”
And so we played at this for awhile, and I did a fine job as the knight, not only reclaiming the crown but also winning a few mock jousting matches as well. Well, it wasn’t really jousting, more like haphazard jabs with various tree branches covered in lichens and moss. I posed triumphantly in my dust-encrusted striped cotton pants, and the king gazed at me in placid contentment.
I sat down on the half-rotted wooden logs surrounding the damp, odorous mulch.
“If the king has to be rescued so much, he’ll be overthrown,” I said.
“By who?” Andrew asked.
“By me, duh,” I said, flexing my juvenile biceps unconvincingly. “I’m much stronger than you.”
“I guess if it’s Irene, then it’s okay,” he said, leaving again with a fight.
I kicked dirt in his general direction. “You’re no fun. I wish I had a normal brother,” I thought out loud.
“Well, sorry,” he said.
~ 2 ~
Tears were still streaming down his cheeks after an hour, although he had quieted down to a whimper.
“Oh, don’t be such a wimp,” I said.
“What’s … wrong with being … a wimp?” he asked between sniffles. He rubbed his eyes on his sleeve, making them ever redder and puffier.
“It’s really disgusting for a boy to cry like this,” I said, just repeating what I’d heard many times from my parents. “And even more disgusting that you took my clothes like that. Ew!”
I snatched my dress out of his hands.
“I … just wanted to try it on …,” he said.
“I don’t go around trying to wear your clothes!” I replied curtly.
“But you get to wear whatever you want, anyway. It’s okay for girls.”
I looked at him with a confused expression. “What do you mean, it’d okay for girls?”
“You can wear dresses or pants or whatever, and it’s okay.”
“Well, no duh it’s okay,” I said, my patience wearing thin. I uncrossed my legs and let them stretch out across the fraying brown carpet. “You can’t wear a skirt in the winter – it’s too cold!”
“So how come I can’t wear a dress? If I could buy one myself, I wouldn’t have to wear yours.”
“It’s just sick! Boys don’t wear dresses!” I said indignantly.
“Because – because - … . They just don’t! Look, if you don’t stop crying, I’m going to tell Mom on you.”
“No, don’t!” he yelped desperately.
“Then stop crying!” I ordered, standing up and towering over him now.
“I’m not crying!”
I decided to keep it a secret from my parents, but the whole ordeal seemed so weird. I started to suspect that he was wearing my clothes when I wasn’t at home, so I decided to get a lock for my dresser. Over time, I grew more and more paranoid, and soon I would lock it every time I left the house. Eventually, Mom caught me opening the lock and began to interrogate.
“Irene, what is the meaning of this? Why are you locking your wardrobe?”
I answered, under my breath, “So no one takes my clothes.”
“What is that?” she asked.
“So no one takes my clothes,” I repeated.
“No one is going to come into this house and take your clothes. You are going to stop locking the wardrobe. It’s not normal.” She snatched the lock out of my hands, scratching my palm in the process.
“No!” I shouted. “Give it back!”
“You don’t need it! You are being paranoid!”
“No, I’m not!”
“Then who will take your clothes? No one is in this room except Andrew. Will Andrew take your clothes?”
“… No,” I said after a pause.
And so the subject was dropped for the time being, and none of my clothes went missing after I removed the lock. Still, I would ponder my brother’s unhealthy interest in my clothes.
At school one morning, I was sitting beside Frank, who was probably my only male friend left at the time. It was, after all, fourth grade, that age when it suddenly stops being okay to have friends of the other gender – to everyone but Andrew, I mean. He was best friends with Tricia, although I have no idea why she would want to be clumped with a dimwit like Andrew.
Anyhow, I asked Frank that day whether or not he’d ever tried wearing a dress.
“What?!” he cried emphatically. “What kind of pervert would do that?”
I nodded my head vigorously in agreement. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Boys don’t do that, right?”
“No way, no how,” he said with a grave grunt at the end.
I thought that Andrew would outgrow that weird phase, but then, one weekend, when I went over to Tricia’s house to pick Andrew up, I noticed that his backpack looked a bit bulkier than normal.
“Bye, Tricia!” I said, waving.
“Bye-bye, Irene and Andy,” she returned.
Once we had walked over to a part of the sidewalk beyond Tricia’s yard, though, I pulled Andrew into the thickets bordering the forest at the side of the road.
“What’s in your backpack?” I asked.
He didn’t answer and tried to walk back onto the sidewalk. I grasped his shoulder firmly; he tried to shrug my arm off but I tightened my grip like a boa constrictor around wriggling prey.
“It’s none of your business,” he said, without turning around.
I leapt forward and tried to open the zipper, instead tackling my brother, the two of us crumbling onto the saplings and shrubbery below. He kicked blindly behind, landing a foot or two on my stomach, but I had already tenaciously extracted the navy blue drawstring bag from his backpack, unbeknownst to him.
Satisfied, I stood up, loosening the knotted string and reaching into the mouth of the bag. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him looking at me from the ground, with the most pathetic, powerless eyes. He turned red and then redder as I plucked out a pink jersey dress, a silver necklace, and a peacock green ruffled skirt.
“Gross,” I remarked, stuffing them back into the sack and proceeding to backtrack over to Tricia’s place to give them back to their rightful owner. I wouldn’t put it past him to have stolen them while she wasn’t looking.
“Wait, Irene,” he said, but I took off sprinting, and there was no way his feeble legs could outrun me.
I pushed the doorbell three times, the bag still in my left hand. Tricia’s mom answered the door, but I saw Tricia’s little curly locks of platinum blonde hair in bobbing as she ran down the stairs.
Her mom stepped aside. Tricia blanched as she saw what I was holding. She grabbed my hand and dragged me upstairs into her room, slamming the door behind her.
“Why do you have that?” she asked as the doorbell rang twice.
I just glared.
“I asked you, why do you have that?!” She had a chubby face with rosy cheeks, but to my dismay, even she had more gumption and ferocity than my sissy brother.
“Did you give this to Andrew? Why would you give this to a boy? Are you trying to turn my brother into a girl?”
I heard the clamor of footsteps outside, growing louder until the door swung open.
“That,” Andrew said before panting, “Was supposed … to be a … surprise gift for you.”
“Oh, for me?” I asked. “So now you’re not just a sissy, you’re a liar? You’re gonna lie to your sister’s face?”
Tricia started to cry. But Andrew didn’t.
I sneered. “You both know I hate pink. Not even a stranger would pick such a bad gift for me. Only a sissy like you would want to wear strut around wearing this. Why are you so weak?”
“A knight might be stronger,” Andrew said, “But the weak king is still the ruler. Because the king is smart and kind.”
“You’re just a disgusting liar, not ‘smart and kind.’ You are so gross, you know what? I hate that you’re my brother! I could’ve had any boy in the world to be my brother but it just had to be you.”
He suddenly swooped in and snatched the bag out of my left hand, my guard down while I was consumed by the allure of spouting hateful words. He tossed the bag into the corner of the room and held Tricia, letting her sob into his t-shirt.
“It’s okay, it’s not your fault,” he said.
“Irene i-is such a b-b-b-bully!” she shouted between bawls. It didn’t take a genius to realize that I was going to get into a lot of trouble if Tricia’s mom decided to come up and assess the situation. But before I could say anything, Andrew replied, “Shh, shh, no, my sister isn’t a bully. She wants to protect me and you from bullies in school. Because if people find out I wore your dress, we would both get beaten up.”
I gagged, the fuel for my rage abruptly cut off. Why was he lying for my sake now?
“R-really?” Tricia asked.
“Of course. She’s my sister, so she’s always looking out for me,” Andrew said, reassuring her.
Liar, liar, liar, I thought to myself. I was a bully through and through – I had pushed down my brother, stolen his belongings, and mocked him for it.
There was a knock on the door.
“What’s going on in there?” Tricia’s mom asked.
“Nothing,” said Andrew. “Nothing,” repeated Tricia.
“Alright, well, don’t make too much of a racket then; I have to make a phone call to the bank now,” Tricia’s mom said.
I stood there stiffly as the footsteps faded into the distance.
“Sorry,” I muttered half-heartedly, walking over to the corner of the room and picking up the bag. “Let’s go.”
Andrew and I exited the room; he looked back but I nudged him onwards. Tricia just knelt there, silently.
We retrieved his backpack from the forest floor on the way back and returned home. Dad was still at work, and Mom was out since her car wasn’t in the driveway.
“Give me your muddy clothes. I’ll wash them,” were the first words out of my mouth in fifteen minutes.
He shed his clothes and handed them to me. I climbed onto a stool to throw them into the washer, randomly dumping in some detergent and starting the cycle with completely the wrong temperature. Destroying the evidence was for my own sake – I’d be grounded if my parents found out I’d shoved Andrew into the mud.
But despite my selfish streak, when he emerged from the shower wrapped in a towel, I handed him the navy blue bag, simply nodding.
“You look stupid,” I said after he’d pulled on the pink dress.
“You just watch. One day, you’ll wish you were as pretty as me,” he replied. I didn’t believe him, but I let him keep that stupid dress on until Mom came home. Maybe, I thought to myself, there really were other ways to be strong than being able to beat people up.
~ 3 ~
Growing up is losing some illusions
in order to acquire others
In sixth grade, I really got into making bead bracelets. Although it was a distraction from homework, my mother encouraged me to try new patterns and would often take me to craft stores to see what new beads there were. Despite her usual nagging and impatient personality, there would be days when she would soften, and I thought that her softer personality must have been her true one – and perhaps the only one she had when she met Father. A parent is always pretending to be stricter and more rigid than he or she really is, just because that’s the culture of parenthood. After all, how could it be that I was getting better grades than Mom did in school (I asked Dad to tell me how she did, after Mom refused) and yet I was still a slacker?
So I learned to sort of go my own way, and when Mom realized that what she said did little to change what I ended up doing, she started showing her soft side to me more and more often. In many ways, I was the more independent one, between Andrew and me. I noticed that when I went out with Mom, he would sort of linger at the window, thinking maybe that I couldn’t see him, just gazing out, wistfully. I think he wanted Mother’s attention, but instead she only doted on me.
At night sometimes, Andrew would come over to my room and ask if he could play with my beads, too. I was at first reluctant, telling him he’d mess things up, but eventually I gave in when I realized the situation was exactly the opposite: he was so meticulous and creative that his very first bracelet far exceeded anything I had made before. I became frustrated and envious of his talent, but as soon as he saw me becoming a bit flushed and careless, he actually reached out and held my hand steady.
“It’s nothing really special. Would you like me to tell you how I made it?”
He was surprisingly open and patient, despite my maltreatment. I practiced under his guidance, and eventually he grew very sleepy from correcting me and helping with the difficult looping.
“I think I’m going to go to sleep, Sis,” he said, yawning with his hand over his mouth.
He stood up and went over to the bathroom.
Determined to outdo his design, I stayed up late, working far longer than I ever had before. I soon entered a sort of twilight zone, half-awake and half-asleep, dropping or undoing as many beads as I strung. And then I heard footsteps in the hallway – fast ones. I went over to Andrew’s room, and the door was ajar. He wasn’t in bed.
I tip-toed over to the bathroom and pushed the door open, and we both screamed. He was crying. His boxers were soiled and in his hands were wads of tissue papers covered in a slimy white fluid. I gagged.
“Get out!” he screamed, tears streaming down his face. “Get out! Get out!” After I was in the hallway and the door was shut, I heard him whispering to himself, “I hate this,” over and over again.
I ended up instant messenging my cousin in California (my only friend who would still be up), because I had no idea what I had just seen, and I thought that he had wet the bed in a very strange way.
“Uh Irene,” my cousin said over the internet, “He probably had a wet dream. It’s normal for boys his age. Haven’t you had health class yet?”
“No,” I replied. “That’s next year. So what’s a wet dream?”
The longer the conversation ran, the more embarrassed I got, and the more I wondered why the heck my cousin would know so much.
“Ahhh, stop it!” I typed eventually. “That’s so gross.”
“Well, I think it’s kind of cool. My boyfriend says they feel really good. It’s way better than what girls get.” My cousin was definitely light-years ahead of me! She already had a boyfriend, too?
“Eh? What do girls get, then?” I asked.
There was no new text on the other end for a minute, and then: “You don’t know?!”
Of course, it was only a few weeks before I had my first period. Thank God Andrew didn’t find me in the bathroom when that happened, or he might have had a tragically young death.
Andrew started getting bullied at school. I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. I think the first time I actually witnessed it, though, was when he was working on a bracelet in class. A boy nearby spotted it, and whispered, “What are you doing? That’s so gay!”
My brother just ignored the kid. But bullies always want attention, so after class, my brother was intercepted in the hallway, the bracelet poking out slightly from one of his backpack pockets. The classmate from earlier grabbed it out and started to run. My brother dashed after him, and I dashed after Andrew.
We whizzed by the rows of lockers, dodging the throngs of other students congregating in the margins of the hallway, but Andrew soon grew winded and fell behind. I maintained the chase, out the emergency exit and halfway around the courtyard until I finally caught the kid by the neck of his t-shirt and caused him to stumble and trip as he desperately flung the bracelet as far as he could into the flower garden.
“Damn!” he spat, grabbing his right ankle with both his hands.
I gingerly retrieved the bracelet from between the daffodils and stuffed it in my pants pocket before returning to the downed boy. I towered over him, placing the heel of my right foot menacingly over his sprained ankle, my shadow completely consuming his curled-up form.
“You’ll leave my brother alone now from now on, right?” I said.
I withdrew my heel and helped him up, but he shoved me away.
“Keep your hands off me, you butch-ass whore,” he seethed. “I guess being gay runs in the family.”
He limped clumsily away. I casually kicked his right ankle, sending him swiftly to the floor again.
After wasting fifteen minutes in the principal’s office, reducing my punishment from in-school suspension to two lunchtime detentions, I strolled back over to where Andrew was waiting.
“Hey, I got your thing back,” I said, pulling the bracelet out of my pocket and handing it to him.
“I’m sorry I got you in trouble,” he said.
“Whatever, it’s just detention,” I replied. “But try to hide these things at school. I can’t cover your ass forever.”
“I know,” he said, hanging his head. “By the way, sis, he called me gay. What does that mean?”
I stared at Andrew incredulously. “You’re kidding, right?”
He shook his head.
“It’s when a boy likes boys, instead of liking girls.”
“What’s that got to do with liking beads?”
“Well, boys who like boys can sometimes be kind of girly. And liking beads is girly,” I said. This was rapidly becoming embarrassing and exasperating at the same time.
“Is that bad?” he asked.
“Well, when people say that things are gay, they don’t usually mean it in a good way,” I explained. “They mean it like when I used to call you a sissy. It doesn’t really mean that you like boys.”
He looked at the floor, his bangs falling over his eyes like weeping willow branches. I didn’t say another word to him that afternoon, realizing with a shudder that maybe he actually was gay. And I had no idea how to feel about that.
In spite of my advice to stay out of trouble, just one week later, Andrew came home an hour late with a bloody nose and scraped-up knees and elbows.
“What the hell happened to you now?” I said, climbing onto the stool to grab the bottle of disinfectant from the medicine cabinet.
“I fell in the parking lot,” he said.
“No, I meant, what actually happened to you?” I said, more firmly.
“Nothing, I fell in the parking lot.”
I knocked him lightly under the chin. “Look at me and tell me the truth.” A stream of blood dribbled from his lips onto the back of my hand.
He wiped the blood off his face with a tissue and said, “That kid came after me again. He shouted, ‘Your butch sister isn’t here to protect your sorry ass now!’ And then he just started hitting me as hard as he could, shouting about some ‘gay flowers’ I had drawn as part of my winning school mascot entry.”
“Did you fight back?” I asked.
“N-no, I didn’t want to get in trouble.”
I shot him a dirty look, spraying the disinfectant on the torn skin on his knees. He tensed up and winced in pain.
“There are times when you can be cute. This isn’t one of them.”
He retorted, “If you hadn’t beat him up the first time, he wouldn’t have come after me again!”
“Wait, now you’re blaming this on me?” I shot back. “He’s trying to test your boundaries. If I just let him get away with it, he’d come back even worse on both of us. Maybe you’re fine with walking away with your tail between your legs, but I sure am not.”
“This is about me, not you! Mind your own business, Irene. You don’t understand me at all. Actually, sometimes you’re worse than Mom and Dad.”
I threw the first aid kit onto the table in front of him. “Fine, you take care of yourself from now on, I won’t butt in anymore.” I stomped down the hallway and up the stairs.
“Wait,” he called.
“What.” I stood there stiffly, my hands clenched.
“I didn’t mean what I just said.”
I turned around. “Except you did.”
He started to tear up again. “No, I really didn’t. I know you care about me … I’m just so ashamed that you always have to protect me because I can’t take care of myself.”
“Then grow some balls,” I advised scruffly.
“I don’t want any,” he said, catching me off-guard.
“What? It’s an expression. Like, ‘be a man.’ ‘Take a stand.’ ‘Follow your gut,’” I said, rattling off every synonymous idiom I knew.
“No, Irene, I’ve been trying to work up the courage to tell you this for a long time, so please listen,” he said.
“Oh God, what now?” I said with a groan.
“Irene, I want to be a girl. I mean, I am a girl. Just in a boy’s body. I don’t want to ‘be a man.’ I don’t want my balls.”
I glared at him, and he visibly shrinked away. “I … already knew that much. You’re the girliest person in the world. You’re girlier than me, you’re girlier than Mom, and you’re girlier than Tricia.”
“You already knew?” he echoed tentatively.
“It takes a special kind of sissy to go through that much trouble to get girls’ clothes to play dress-up in. So, why are you telling me this now? Don’t tell me you want to start dressing up at school or something crazy like that.”
“Well,” Andrew answered, twiddling his fingers.
“Oh, no way. No way in hell,” I warned. “I definitely won’t be there to help you when you get beat up to a pulp. You’d be asking for it.”
“Well, no. Not here, anyway. But maybe if I get a clean start. Like go to another school or something,” he said.
“Fat chance of that happening,” I replied dryly.
~ 4 ~
Be who you are and say what you feel
Because those who mind don’t matter
And those who matter don’t mind
The summer after seventh grade, fortune swung Andrew’s way, and he got his golden opportunity: our family had to move to neighboring state of Maryland. I remember when he came into my room that afternoon, after Dad had finally broken the news that he was transferring jobs. Quietly, Andrew locked the door behind him as he always had, and then he sat down on the cushioned blue chair in the corner.
“Irene,” he said in that whispery, indeterminate voice. “We’re moving.”
“Yeah,” I said, as emotionlessly as possible. I had cried all last night after I overheard Mom and Dad talking about it – the thought of being so far removed from my friends all of a sudden was unbearable.
“Irene, I think I’m going to do it.”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m going to try to become me.” He looked up at me, his large, beautiful eyes steady and bright, even in the shadows.
Something fractured in me at that moment. “So you’re happy about it? Because now you can play dress-up at school? Well, great! I hope you have a fucking good time of that!” I shouted. My brother recoiled. I immediately regretted what I said, but I was too overwhelmed to try to take them back.
“So that’s what you really think about it? That I’m just dressing up like it’s Halloween or something? I should have known that you would never understand. Of course I’m not happy that we’re leaving home behind!”
He left the room quietly, and I just sat there in my chair, twirling my pencil over and over and over until it finally dropped to the floor, eraser-first, rolling down the tiles until it collided against the wastebasket.
Andrew and I refused to talk to each other for almost a week after that. I did notice him snooping around a bit more than usual, but otherwise nothing was out of the ordinary. It was that Saturday, though, that took me by surprise. I had just come back from the library and was taking off my shoes at the front steps when I saw Andrew standing firmly in front of Mother who was now shorter than him. He looked strikingly like her, I realized, with the same rounded eyes and delicate nose, long fingers and legs.
For a few moments, both of them were still. And then the silence broke: they began shouting at the same time, words barely coherent. I rushed forward to break them up.
“What are you doing?!” I cried.
My mother turned to me. “Irene, can you believe what this boy is saying to me? He says he want to go to new school as girl! Where did he get that idea?!”
I rolled my eyes. “Mom, he’s been telling you that he’s a girl for a whole year now.”
“No, that is just a sickness. He reads too many comics and watches too many bad American movies. They are a bad influence,” replied my mother with a snarl.
I expected Andrew to back down or burst into tears like he used to whenever this happened. But there was only a glistening sheen over his peripherally bloodshot eyes. “I don’t care what you think anymore,” he said, trying to hold his voice even when it was on the verge of breaking. “I would rather die and burn in Hell as the girl I am, than live as the boy I am not.”
“Why are you not appreciating everything I do for you? Everything is so easy for you, but you are still not happy.”
Andrew turned around and left, climbing the stairs in his usual muted fashion. In all his troubled youth, I had never seen him once make a ruckus storming up the stairs. In a way, I think Mother knew, too, that he was an elegant being.
I held Mother in my arms as she began to cry. She was not the type who could tolerate things turning out unexpectedly, especially when she had invested so much time into it.
“Mom, Andrew doesn’t hate you, and he isn’t spiting you. He just needs to be who he is.” After a pause, I added in a mutter, “Or who she is.”
“Why isn’t he more like you?” my mother asked.
“You are happy with the natural way of things!” she said.
“You mean, I’m happy being a girl? I guess so. But it’s not like you’ve always approved of what I do, either. You tried to stop me from dating Louis, you wouldn’t let me dye my hair, you told me it was shameful to wear pants at my hips instead of my waist. But I did that all anyway.”
“But that is different,” said Mom. “Those are things in fashion. People accept you more that way, so I was just too old-fashioned. But how can anyone accept Andrew as a girl, if he is a boy?”
“Somebody will,” I said confidently.
“That is not even my child anymore.”
She looked down at the floor.
“No, you’re wrong about that.” I grasped her hands tightly. “He is still the same person. He is good at schoolwork, and likes art, and likes running, and likes going to the beach. Nothing about that is going to change.”
My mother shook her head. “This is too much. I will go upstairs and take a nap. Do not bother me.”
She wrested her fingers free of my grasp and left me there, alone in the kitchen, wondering if we could ever have a full family again.
Over that summer, Andrew only rarely went outside. He steadfastedly refused to go to the barber’s, his hair growing steadily longer until it reached his shoulders. He worked meticulously on tearing away the roots of any facial hair and shaving his legs, to the point where I almost felt self-conscious about my own fine hairs below my nose.
After the confrontation, Andrew began talking to me again, and in exchange for hand-made earrings and bracelets that I could give to my friends as goodbye gifts, I bought him new clothes and undergarments when I visited the mall. I had long since given up any hope of having a normal brother, and decided to make the best of what I was given. In fact, I actually began to have fun with his strange hobbies, now suddenly having a tall and slender “sister” who I could dress however I pleased. We would look over the store catalogs together while wearing matching pajamas, giggling and swooning and cringing in unison as we expertedly sifted through the trends and flops.
One morning in late August, I was sleeping in after a late movie night marathon at my neighbor Jill’s house when all of a sudden my door swung open with a squeal.
“Hey Irene, I wanted to talk.”
“Is it really that urgent,” I grumbled, half-opening my eyelids to see him crouched right beside my bed. He was wearing the lavender babydoll tee I had bought him the other day, with criss-crossing strings adorning the sides of the sleeves, over an indigo denim skirt.
“Eh, you’re dressed already? What for?”
“Oh, just felt like it,” he replied.
I sat up. “Alright alright, what is it you wanted to talk about?”
“I need a new name,” he said firmly. “Andrew isn’t a girl’s name.”
“So it isn’t,” I said. “Why don’t you just call yourself Irene.” I plopped back down onto the pillow.
“No, stupid, that’s your name!” he retorted.
I giggled. “That’s why it’s the best name ever. We’re twins, to boot. That would really fuck with people’s minds, wouldn’t it?”
“Look,” he said coquettishly. “I said I wanted to be a girl, not you.”
I smacked him upside the head with the pillow. “Every girl should want to be me,” I said smugly.
“What, with their pajama pants sliding off their butt?” he remarked.
I looked down at myself and quickly fixed my clothes. “Geez, you’re a monster!” I cried. “Fine, seriously, just pick whatever name you like. There’s a ton of female names out there.”
“But I want a good one!”
“Shouldn’t it be close to the one you have now, though? Since the school enrollment forms will still have ‘Andrew’ on them. You need it to be kind of believable. Something that still shortens to Andy.”
“I guess ‘Andy’ isn’t too bad a nickname to have.”
I continued, “But the only name I can think of that’s remotely close is ‘Andromeda.’” In hindsight, there were more conventional names like “Andrea,” but at the time, I just blurted out whatever popped first into my head.
“Andromeda? Like the galaxy?”
“The galaxy is named after the constellation, which is named after a mythical Greek princess,” I said, explaining to the extent of my knowledge.
“But doesn’t ‘Andro’ mean man?”
“By itself, yes, but the whole name means something more like the ruler of men. Which of course is what every woman ends up having to be!”
There was laughter, and then a smile.
“Alright then, it’s decided. From now on, I’ll be called Andromeda!” She giggled. “It’s such a funny name, but I like it. It has a smart sound to it.”
She brushed her hair behind her ears in a delicate sweep. If it weren’t for her emerging Adam’s apple and a subtlety in her chin, I would never have believed that she was biologically male underneath.
“Say, Irene, what do you think about getting my ears pierced? I’ve always wanted to try wearing my own earrings.”
“Sure, why not?” I said. “I could probably do it for you, or you could try to find someone professional to do it.”
“Should I trust you?” she asked.
“Oh, come on now! I’ve done it for my friends before!” I climbed out of bed and started digging through my drawers for a needle.
“Um, Sis, save yourself the trouble,” Andromeda said, stealing away to her room for a moment and returning with a fully-fledged case of sewing supplies. “Here, this one should work.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I always hated sewing … .”
We pulled out the needle and lit a match to sterilize it.
“Don’t worry, I’m not squeamish,” my “sister” reassured me. She held a cold wet towel to her ears until they numbed slightly. I gently wiped down the needle and her ear, taking a few seconds to carefully position myself at a good angle and mentally mark where I was aiming for. And then, gently, I eased the needle in and through. There was a tiny drip of blood, but I quickly patted it up with a tissue.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Eh, a little,” she said, dismissively. “Not as much as when you bit my ear when we were younger, or when you pushed me into the mud in the forest.”
“Oh, don’t bring that up,” I said. “Anyway, we have to leave that there for a few minutes. Let’s go ahead and do the other side.”
And so that evening, at the dinner table, we sat there, side by side, our ears adorned with matching silver earrings. We formed a cascading, shimmering triumvirate: the chandelier, my sister, and me.
“Mom and Dad, please welcome to our family my twin sister, Andromeda.”
There was silence. Mother looked away at the window. Father sat there, deep in thought, his eyes distant as if his glasses obscured a thousand miles.
~ 5 ~
“Andromeda, come on! We’re going to be late!” I shouted.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be down in just a sec. Sheesh, you’re starting to sound like Mom!” she replied from upstairs.
A few seconds later, she dashed down the stairs, keychains on her backpack clanging like cowbells.
“Were putting on make-up or something?” I asked.
“No, no!” she replied. “I’m too young to go to school in make-up. And even if I were, I’m pretty fast at it now, because I’ve been practiced.”
“Oh, were you playing computer games again?”
“Man, that’s fucked up! You took all this trouble to make yourself into a fine girl, just to go become a computer game-playing nerd?”
“Hey, I can have whatever hobbies I want!” she said, her voice a bit more sing-songy than usual, although still a little off. Only hormones could fix the damage of puberty, I thought to myself. “My gender isn’t the result of my interests, after all.”
We dashed out the door, slipping on our sneakers and heading down the sidewalk. “But if your hobbies weren’t the reason why you became a girl, what was it?”
“I can’t explain that!” she exclaimed. “How should I know? It’s just a feeling. Like, I’m just a girl, that’s just how it is. The same reason you’re a girl! You were a girl before you started liking what you like, and what you like has never made you stop being a girl. It’s the same for me. I was a girl before I liked or didn’t like doing certain things, and being told I was a boy didn’t stop me from being a girl.”
“I guess,” I said. “But still, if boys sometimes wore skirts and make-up and that was normal and okay, would you still want to be a girl?”
Andromeda thought to herself for a little bit, and then answered, “I think so. I think I would. I mean, I’m only wearing skirts every day now because, you know, my thing could get in the way of wearing girl pants. If I get that changed, I’d probably dress kind of like you. But still, you’re right, maybe if it were okay for me to like jewelry and sewing and cooking, I’d care a bit less. There’s still one thing, though … .”
We were nearly at the front gates of the school now, panting a bit from the running.
“And what’s that?”
“Well, there’s something you can do, but I can’t.”
I pondered for a moment on that. With a jolt of realization, I answered with a smile, “Ohhhh, you can have my fucking periods. Free. In fact, I’ll pay you to have my periods for me!”
“Not that!” she cried. “I meant the result of the whole process. Having a baby. Breastfeeding. You know.”
“I guess. Hell, that’s no part of my life right now and I don’t know if I ever want it to be!”
“Too bad you can’t give that to me, then,” Andromeda said wistfully. “I … want that more than graduating from school or getting a job. Not that I don’t want a job or to graduate, but … .”
“Yeah, yeah, well, you can think about that later,” I said.
She nodded as we moved into the shadow of the dark green metal awning.
We turned out to have the same homeroom in eighth grade at our new junior high school, although the rest of our schedules were different. Because we were arranged by alphabetical order, I ended up right behind her, and only as we sat down did I realize that the frilly blue lace choker that adorned her neck for practical reasons had, on the back, our two names written in silver ink, side by side. As the homeroom instructor, Mr. Fiebelts, began to read out the roll call, I saw Andromeda visibly tense a little, her thin fingers clasped together like lovers in a gust of wind.
When he got to her name, he hesitated a bit, and she looked up at him, although from my vantage point, I could hardly see her expression.
“I … I think there must be a mistake here.”
“My name should be Andromeda on the attendance sheet, but maybe because I often write it as Andy, they got confused?”
I heard whispers nearby, to the effect of how cool that name was. I smiled inwardly, proud that I had chosen that name for her.
“Ah, yes, I can see that happening.”
“My father was a physics major in college, so you can blame him for my unusual … appellation,” she said smoothly. She was surprisingly proficient at lying, and our classmates seemed to buy that explanation.
“Alright, and next would be Irene. Are you two related?”
“We’re twins,” I said, “but not identical.”
And so we had passed the first hurdle. But Andromeda knew as well as I did that there would not be a day without risk of the secret coming unraveled. I prayed that she would be strong enough to manage the aftershocks if it did.
~ 6 ~
It was pretty shocking, the changes the overcame her. I guess I’d never seen Andromeda so … in her element before. She had always been so quiet, so unassuming, so reticent. But now she spoke naturally and excitedly and started participating in school activities from Model UN to JV field hockey to lunchtime math competitions.
“Andy,” I said one day as we left for a morning jog in October of our last year in middle school, “It’s really nice to, you know, see you happy now.”
She turned her head to me, long hair flapping up and down in a pony-tail, and grinned widely, flashing her porcelain teeth. “Yeah, and I’m not even a wimp anymore!”
It was true. As feminine and saccharine as she was, she was also stronger-willed and more confident than she had been as a boy. Her body flowed radiantly with her soul.
“Do you think you’re going to go any further with this?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
We passed by rows of maturing corn and pumpkin patches, the fields sighing with the breeze.
“You know, having operations or hormones or shit like that.” I had read about those things on the internet. It all seemed so scary and foreign – and disgusting, too. I gagged when I saw some of the pictures, but I kept on reading because I wanted to know what Andromeda might be thinking about.
“Maybe later,” she said. “That costs money. And it’s pretty permanent.” Her voice didn’t seem heavy at all. “And,” she said more softly, “Mom and Dad have to say okay for everything before I turn eighteen.”
“But what if someone sees you naked now?”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Irene! We’re only thirteen now!”
She was young, that was true. But whereas I was just about done growing, she was starting to really shoot up, and it made her look just that much more mature. That had its ups, but at the same time, it probably meant she would be getting into relationships sooner than me.
“Do you like boys or girls, anyway?” I asked impulsively.
“Uhhhh …,” she said, stammering a little and fingering her bangs nervously. “Uhm. I’m not really sure. … I guess I like whoever’s a good match for me? Someone fun and accepting and kind. Why does it matter if it’s a guy or a girl?”
“Well, if it’s a girl, you could still have kids,” I offered.
“That’s only if I don’t change,” she said, frowning for the first time today. “As long as this thing stays here, I’m going to become more and more masculine. I’m not sure I can deal with that.” She shuddered and took a deep breath. “I wonder if I have to keep altering myself and moving for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll stay with you if you do,” I said, and she smiled in return.
~ 7 ~
Towards the end of eighth grade, I felt Andromeda drifting away from me, a little. I guess you expect that to happen at some point, but with all the effort I put into trying to understand her, it hurt a little. She got involved in the school musical and started coming home later and later, and even besides that, our personalities had sorted us into different groups of friends.
I really wondered sometimes if my sister was really a girl, or just role-playing a caricature of one. While I outgrew playing house and dressing up dolls and making clover-flower crowns after kindergarten, she still seemed infatuated with the trappings of a stale and perhaps even Victorian maiden’s upbringing. It even got to the point where I shoved a laundry basket into her hands filled with all my skirts and dresses that I outgrew (she being the slimmer one); I haven’t replaced them since.
She wore lace and ribbon-trimmed dresses like I wore hoodies and boyfriend-cut jeans. The truth is, I hardly batted an eyelash at it anymore, but for others who more recently made her acquaintance, she was treated almost like a member of some third gender or something. And that might be partially due to the fact that she practically exuded her gender. A naturally-born boy or girl doesn’t often think about being a boy or a girl – he or she just acts like one (or not).
“How many times do you go to the bathroom a day?” Andromeda asked me one time, out of the blue.
“I dunno, four or five?” I offered. “I don’t count.”
“Yeah, you don’t ‘cause it’s a no-brainer for you. I know exactly how many times I’ve gone, because every time I stand there in front of the blue man and the pink woman, I have to make a decision: I have to choose which one to enter. It’s like a test of courage for me. And every time I go into the ladies’ room, I check the lock on the stall three times before I take off my clothes, afraid I’ll get caught.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure how you do it. I’ve gone to the boys’ room once before because the line for the girls’ was too long, and that was just horrific.”
Andromeda laughed. “I think that’s different. The boy’s room is just disgusting when the pee gets everywhere, but the guys don’t really care as much if a girl is in there. Not the way girls would freak out about a guy roaming the stalls.”
“I guess so,” I replied, though thinking to myself that I wouldn’t much care if all bathrooms suddenly became unisex. “So do you talk to other trans people about stuff like this? Blow off a little of the stress?” I realized how little I knew about who she hung out with these days.
“Online, sometimes,” she said. “I haven’t worked up the courage to seek out others in at school. It’s funny, but I’m most worried that I won’t fit in.”
“Won’t fit in?” I repeated.
“Yeah, like I won’t be hardcore enough for them or whatever. Like they might expect me to join some counterculture, or push for surgery right away, or start smoking cigarettes, or something. And if someone I know commits suicide because of this, I’m not sure what kind of effect that would have on my mind.”
“Are you sure you’re not stereotyping your own kind?” I asked.
“Well, that’s probably part of it. But we’re also all living and coping with fear in our own way. Fear of being bullied or attacked or rejected. And that creates such an intense desire to be accepted somewhere, to be included. I’m not ashamed of being a girl who was born with a boy’s body, but I don’t want that to be my identifying trait, and I’m afraid that if I start affiliating myself more and more with people in the same predicament, that will come to define me, and I will slowly become the stereotype.”
“You can’t just run away from the issues, though, or nothing’s ever gonna change, right? If everyone just looks out for themselves and tries to live as a ‘normal boy’ or ‘normal girl,’ then that fear is never going to go away.”
“That’s not fair,” she said. “Don’t accuse me of being a coward. I know I’m saying selfish things, but I’m not trying to betray the next generation of transgendered kids. I’m just not there yet. I’m too fragile.”
“Sorry, that came out wrong,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she replied. And she got up and went on her way. It was the longest conversation we’d had for two weeks. I wanted to spend more time with her, but I also wondered if I sometimes did more harm than good. She was, as she even admitted, fragile – she carried herself well and spoke in a composed way, but it felt like the ground beneath her could crumble at any moment.
I spent a lot of time writing in my journal, which provided the notes for the account I’m retelling here, trying to understand my sister and her predicament, and make up for all the things I did to her when I was younger. I guess I was growing up, too, in my own way.
Andromeda and I didn’t even share a room anymore, but sometimes I would walk by her room, door ajar but no one in, and peek inside. I half-expected there to be “My Little Pony” posters on the wall and barbies lined up on the dresser and a chest of make-up next to the mirror. But it wasn’t like that. There was a scattering of papers on the desk and a sleek polished-metal desk lamp; the dresser had a photo of the two of us on it, leaning against her first ever trophy this year, from a math competition or something (I wouldn’t know – algebra II was my kryptonite). Her quilt, which she had sewn in home ec last year, was a subdued interplay of lily-orange and goldenrod, rustic and tasteful. It reminded me that she was not just a character but a person, and the same person I knew all along. She was just making up for lost time.
~ 8 ~
“Irene, this is Nate,” she said happily one day after school. For a moment, I thought they were already lovers or something, but Andromeda quickly nullified that thought. “He’s on the math team with me, even though I don’t really go to club meetings much anymore ‘cause varsity takes up so much time. We’re such dorks!”
“Oh, hey … I’m Irene. I’m her sister.” Nate blushed a little bit and shook my hand awkwardly, half-touching and half kind of floating there. Not really my type – I hoped that he wasn’t hesitant because he liked me or anything like that.
“You two actually look pretty different,” he remarked, without betraying which of us he thought looked better.
“Well, that’s because we’re fraternal twins, not identical,” I explained.
Andromeda chimed in, “Sororal, you mean.” She winked. She probably just learned the word and wanted to show off.
“Yeah, yeah. He gets the point,” I said. “Anyway, are you guys up to anything now?”
“Oh, no, he’s waiting for the bus, like you. I have to go to hockey practice today, sorry! I’ll catch you later!” Andromeda ran off towards the locker room.
Nate just sort of stood there for awhile. Although he had somewhat nerdy-looking glasses on, his spiked hair conveyed a certain coolness.
“Ahem.” I cleared my throat to break the silence.
“Yeah?” he asked, looking at me by moving his eyes rather than his head. Definitely trying to be cool. He was about an inch taller than me, but slightly shorter, as far as I could tell, than Andromeda.
“So what’s up with you and Andromeda? What do you think of her?”
“Oh,” he said shakily. “What, did she ask you to ask me?”
I laughed. “I don’t doubt she would … but no, she hasn’t. I’m just curious. Or nosy. I like a little bit of gossip.” I looked at him and saw some hesitation. “If you don’t wanna tell me, that’s fine.”
“Well …,” he said. “She’s a really fascinating girl. Kind of makes you want to look after her, I guess. I don’t know what it is about her. She just moves around as if she were made of lead crystal.”
“I guess she does kind of have that shimmering aura. Too easy to treat like a prize or to take advantage of, if you ask me.”
Nate cocked an eyebrow. “Well, I definitely don’t get those vibes from you.”
“Thanks, Nate, thanks,” I replied. “So, you’re fascinated by her … but do you have the hots for her, that’s more to the point.”
“I guess I like her … but she seems almost unattainable for someone like me.”
“Well, I wonder,” I said, more as a thought out loud than a real reply. My bus pulled up into the circle, so I gave a salute as a goodbye without turning around and proceeded to board. I didn’t want anyone to be with Andromeda right now, not at this crucial time of trying to adjust to a new gender and such an exhaustive masquerade. Without any ill-intentions, Andromeda was deceiving the entire school, and no one likes to be deceived. And yet, at least a little corner of my heart was not frozen over with rational dispassion – if Andromeda liked him in return, then maybe I’d concede to help out a little. It wouldn’t be bad for her to experience love and caring from someone who was more of a clean slate, someone who would only know her for who she was now – the girl she wanted to be.
When Andy finally returned from practice, a bit sweaty but wearing a decent girls’ deodorant, I intercepted her. She was leaning her stick against the garage wall and brushing some of the dirt off of her socks and teal-colored skirt.
“Andromeda, I wanted to ask you something before Mom and Dad got back.”
“Yeah? Not too long – I feel as filthy as a sewer rat right now.”
“You look like one, too,” I said. She smacked me lightly with her Nalgene bottle, which was surprisingly hard. “Anyway, I was wondering if you liked Nate or anything.”
“What, did he ask you to ask me?”
I laughed at the parallels to the conversation I had just concluded with Nate.
“Nah, why would he?”
“Okay … well … yes, I do. Kinda like him. I mean, he’s a sweet guy. He’s sort of the type that takes initiative, which I’m always so grateful for because I’m not that good at it myself.”
“You like being cared for, don’t you, Andromeda.”
She blushed a little through the dirt.
“Kind of like being treated like a crystal sculpture in a glass case?” I added.
“What kind of comparison is that?!” she cried. She twiddled her fingers a little before crouching down modestly to remove her shoes. “But I kinda like it. A crystal. Yeah, I’m a crystal and you’re a diamond. You’re pretty, too, but anyone who tries to break you will get cut first.”
“I suppose they would,” I said. “Alright, you can go ahead and take a shower. I’m going to be doing the laundry tonight, so just set all your clothes in the basket.”
“Alright, Sis, thanks,” she said, and she disappeared up the stairs. A minute later, the neutral splashing of the shower began behind the closed door.
The next day, I decided to try something. Even if Andromeda liked having me in the background, I felt that I owed her a favor.
“Andromeda,” I said to her in homeroom, “What do you think of having a group study session at our house?”
“Eh? A group study session? I can’t remember the last time anyone besides us visited our home. Are you sure it’s not too messy?”
“We’d only have to clean the family room and kitchen, anyway,” I reasoned.
“I guess so. But why all of a sudden? Don’t we usually study just fine alone?”
“But it’s more fun in groups!” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“I guess so …,” she said, but her voice was equivocal at best.
“Okay, that’s great! I’ll gather some people then.”
“Who were you thinking of?” my sister asked, folding up the sleeves of her blouse because the heaters in the school were simply on too strong. Even I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, but I had neglected to wear anything decent under my sweater today.
“Hmm, I think I could invite Meredith, Jordan, and Nate, what do you think?”
“Hmm, that sounds decent. They’re all smart people, at least.”
I nodded and through the day, I mentioned the idea and a tentative time to those selected guests. Fortunately, all three agreed to participate. We were on for Saturday, and I casually told Mom about it, adding that it was already set and there was no way to cancel it. I swear, the expression of panic on her face was priceless.
Andromeda and I did most of the cleaning in the end, which turned out well. I had never seen our floor and sofas so nicely arranged and primped. By the time our guests arrived in the mid-afternoon, I had laid out some crackers and fruits and Andromeda had brewed some fresh dragon-pearl tea and set the gold-rimmed teacups and saucers.
“Wow, is this for us?!” cried Jordan.
“Make yourselves at home,” Andromeda said, bowing slightly. She really knew how to play a good host. Me, I had to stop myself from crossing my legs or leaving them on the table. She had even convinced me to clip my hair back so that our matching earrings would be more visible in the lighting of the chandelier. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
She went to the kitchen and hung up the apron she’d been wearing as we tended to the kitchen earlier today. Once she returned, we cracked open the books and started quizzing each other on American history, sometimes tangentially going down side-stories and giving needless commentary. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, but of course, that was not my particular intention.
About two hours in, I stood up and yawned, stretching my fingers against each other.
“Hey, you guys, I’m going to head out and get some groceries and we can make something for dinner. It’s right around the corner so I don’t think it’s worth it to take the car, but maybe Meredith and Jordan, could you help me bring stuff back?”
Jordan understood right away and got out of his chair. Meredith looked confused, but Jordan gave her a sharp double-poke in the side and made a discreet gesture that I could barely see, and only because I was on the same side of the table as them.
“We’ll be back in an hour or so!” I said, and the three of us left. As I passed by the front windows on the lawn, I shot a quick wink back to Andromeda, who may or may not have seen me.
“Hmm, so now the question is,” began Jordan as we turned the corner onto the wide avenue towards the shopping plaza, “Are you trying to set Andromeda up with Nathan, or are you trying to set yourself up with me?”
Meredith glared at him. “Hey, I’m still here!”
“You’re taken,” reminded Jordan. “I guess us local folk just weren’t good enough for you, that you have to be long-distancing someone in California!”
“Oh, please,” said Meredith. “So, uh, where are we actually going for the next hour?”
“Huh? No, I really do need to get the groceries,” I said matter-of-factly.
Jordan looked at me and faux-shivered. “So you set up your sister and got yourself free manual labor? I really didn’t know you were quite that calculating.”
“No, no, I did no such calculation. Who needs math when you’ve got a woman’s intuition!”
We were all smiling, but I guess I did have that side to me after all.
By the time we got back, the sun was already setting. When the sun is like that, big and red and hazy, lingering there like a pimple in the sky, I use it to navigate my way. Very, very long ago, humans also looked upon the sun and used it to get around. But I wondered, did any man back then want to be a woman, or a woman want to be a man?
On the front lawn, bathed in the diffuse sunlight, Andromeda leaned against Nate’s shoulder, her eyes closed. Nate waved to us, his shoulders jostling just enough to rouse Andromeda from her nap. She opened her eyes lazily and then waved as well.
“What took you so long!” shouted Nate, the two of them standing up.
“Oh, the check-out line was really long,” I answered.
We re-entered the house and sorted out the groceries, and I saw out of the corner of my eye Andromeda’s fingers tentatively poking at the back of Nate’s hand, and then the two slipping into one another naturally.
~ 9 ~
After all our guests had left, I paid my sister a visit in her room.
“Hey, Andy,” I said, sitting down at the side of her bed.
She was sitting at her desk, scribbling something that I couldn’t see.
“Yeah, sis?” she asked, standing up and joining me.
“We’re going to be in high school after this summer,” I remarked.
She laughed. “What, you want to make a big and shocking high school debut?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m just a little worried.”
“About me, right?” she said, tugging at the tiered ruffles in her skirt nervously.
“Yeah, you’re going to be fourteen next week. You know, that means ….”
She cut me off, grabbing my hand. “I’m going to be that much closer to finishing puberty. I know. You know I know.” She gestured at her crotch, as tastefully as she could. “Believe me, I know. It kills me, because there’s a way to stop it. I just have to block the testosterone coming out from my balls. But the doctors think we’re kids, and that we can’t be smart enough to understand what that means.”
“So you’re just going to wait?” I asked. “You’re going to become a man soon. I’m already becoming a woman.” I jostled my breasts for emphasis. She jostled her padded counterparts and we laughed, recalling how we added onto it every few weeks to keep pace.
“No, holding hands with Nate today made me realize that I can’t wait any longer. We’re going to have to bring it up with Mom and Dad. Before my voice drops and I can no longer hide away my facial hair.”
“Hoo boy,” I said. “The shit’s gonna hit the fan.”
“I’m pretty sure the fan’s been covered in several layers of fecal matter for the last few years.”
“All thanks to your persistent effort,” I said. She giggled. We were still kids. But I liked to think that with the circumstances the way they were, we were coping as well as any adults would.
“Ouch!” Andy cried from the bathroom.
“What’s going on in there?” I asked from the hallway.
“Plucking my bushy eyebrows, what else?” she replied. “I think pulling out a tooth is less painful, and at least you only have to do that once in your life.”
“Dad’s going to be back soon, you know. We can wait until tomorrow.”
“No! We’re going to settle this today,” she said firmly.
She emerged from the bathroom, wrapped up in a towel, her eyebrows decidedly reduced but a little red from the irritation.
“I’ll be ready in a second,” she said, disappearing into her room. I stared down the hallway, the metallic lines in the wallpaper cascading into the distance, towards the vanishing point far away. I could almost hear the monotone blaring of a low horn in the pregnant silence. Andromeda reappeared wearing a stern black-and-white dress with a tightly-woven silver chain cinching the waist, her long auburn-dyed hair providing the only relief of color.
When Dad came home, Andy opened the door to let him in. Patiently, she moved his briefcase to the office while he took off his shoes and coat. And then in the kitchen, she looked at him straight in the eye, and asked the question.
I was watching from the foot of the stairs, leaning on the scroll of the wooden banister.
I could recall the old arguments they had years ago. And Dad would be towering over Andromeda, my sister crying and cowering. But now she was taller than him – by two whole inches when they both didn’t wear shoes – and her tear-free eyes shone directly onto his glasses. I felt that he would be wise not to remove them.
His shoulders were severe and square as always, accentuated by the stiff shoulders of the blazer that he hadn’t shed. Both dressed only in black and white, they resembled two chess pieces jockeying for the upper hand on the chessboard.
The volume of the exchange increased over time until they were both shouting.
“I can’t stay in the dark forever,” she said. “All I’m asking is that you let me talk to the medical experts at the clinic and understand what my options are.”
“I will not let them corrupt you, and cut into you and inject weird drugs into you! You are my son, and there’s nothing wrong with your body. You are a healthy boy and you can become a healthy, successful man.”
“Man, man, man! I’m not a man!” retorted Andromeda. “You always said I was weak and cowardly before. You said I was bullied because I was too afraid to man up and stand up to other peple. Well, this might be too hard for you to wrap your mind around, but only after I became the girl I wanted to be, could I now stand here and face you ‘like a man.’”
Dad stared at her. They were only a foot apart now.
“I’m not that little kid anymore. Forcing me to go back to being a boy isn’t going to work. In fact, it will only multiply the chances that I will kill myself – that’s a scientific finding. With me dead, you still won’t have a son, and you’ll only have one daughter.”
“Don’t threaten me, Andrew,” Dad said, drawing out the given name. “You just keep pushing and pushing, not thinking about anybody else. You’re still a kid, and if you go and do all these things to poison and chop up your body, you’ll regret it very soon. Your mom and I let you play all this dress-up, right? We let you go around school telling everyone you’re a girl and that you have a new name. Do you know how much that kills us, every day we have to see you like that? But we told ourselves it’s for your own happiness. Because we don’t want you to kill yourself. You go to these doctors that want to experiment with being God, then we might really lose you for good.”
Andromeda didn’t respond right away. She straightened out her dress and took a deep breath, without retreating her feet from their toe-to-toe scrimmage line with Dad’s.
“I know what you’ve done for my sake,” she admitted. “But it’ll all be for nothing if we just let things go on the way they are now.”
“Why does your body have to change for you to be happy? Your mom and I are used to your personality by now. Football players can become dancers. Men have become nurses. I have not told you once in the last two years that you have to ‘man up.’”
Andromeda shook her head. “I know all that already. It’s not that simple. There are girly boys, and gay boys, and there are people like me … who are girls. We’re not all the same.”
“Kids were not this complicated when I was growing up,” said Dad, looking perplexed and lost in the modern landscape of self-identity.
Andy shook her head again. I think she realized that shouting was going to get nowhere, because she quickly lowered her voice to barely over a whisper: “No, kids have always been complicated. But now they know better than to just bottle it up inside. Come with me to talk with the doctors. I promise I won’t do anything foolish. And you know that they can’t do anything without your permission, because I’m still a minor.” She moved sweetly and gently but still didn’t step backwards, anticipating that he might swoop in and seize upon any signs of retreat.
“I’ll talk to your mother about this,” was all Dad said.
But two months later, he did finally drive into the city to have her evaluated and start formal therapy, with Mom boycotting at home and snapping at me as a scapegoat. Even I wasn’t convinced this was going to turn out for the best, but Andromeda leapt into higher spirits than she’d ever been in before. She was already a girl in love, and now a girl in love who had her first taste of independence.
~ 10 ~
“Hey, hey, Meredith and Irene, look at what Nate got me! Isn’t it so cute?” she said, squirming with delight. It was a bracelet of tumbled and polished amethyst, not particularly stunning but also not distasteful.
“What are you waiting for? Put it on!” said Meredith.
My sister gladly obliged and clasped the bracelet deftly around her wrist, where it fit snugly with not a smidgen of slack to spare.
“It looks kind of regal,” I said. “Not bad for a first gift.”
Andromeda smiled, her eyelids lowering a bit, showing off the subtle gleam of her cérise pink eyeliner which complemented the amethyst nicely.
“Yeah, I wonder about what I should get him, though. Guys are so hard to shop for, ‘cause they always pretend to not want anything.”
Seeing Andromeda deal with mundane matters, I’d keep thinking she was just an average girl with average worries – but then I’d remember how she dealt with life issues magnitudes more serious with that same calm, rational mindset.
“Just ask his friends,” I said, shrugging.
“I like to think that I’m his friend, too!” she said, laughing.
“Too late,” I said. “You’re his girlfriend now. He’s never gonna be honest with you again in his life.”
Andy kicked me lightly in the shin. “He did mention wanting to get a webcam the other day so we could video-chat at night. Since there’s no way he’s coming over to our house alone on a regular basis. It’s taking all of Mom and Dad’s self-control to look the other way when I walk by dressed like this, and if they found out I was dating a boy, they’d completely lose it.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t have a webcam built into his computer or anything?”
“It’s an old desktop. Plus, I could get one of those creepy ones that tracks your face and stuff.”
“Why’s that creepy?” I asked.
“It’s like this eyeball following you! Think of those paintings in TV shows.”
“Nope, not scary,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re not scared of horror movies at all. Congratulations,” Andy said, rolling her eyes.
“Uh, back up, your parents are upset you’re dressed like what?” asked Meredith. She’d been silent for so long, I had completely forgotten that she was there. And judging by Andromeda’s very, very wide eyes, she’d forgotten, too.
“Uh, you know, they’re traditional and stuff. They think Daisy Dukes are for sluts. Or something,” she said with an awkward chortle that sounded half like a burp.
“But you’re not wearing shorts. You’re wearing a knee-length skirt and a sweatshirt. And you make it sound like your parents want you to go lesbo or something, if you dating a boy is so shocking to them.”
“No, no, they just don’t want us dating anybody. Not til college,” I interjected.
Meredith shot us a skeptical look. “You two are definitely covering something up.”
I looked at Andromeda to try to read her verdict on whether to tell or not. “We’ll tell you later, just not while we’re at school, okay? It’s got to be a secret between us,” said my sister.
“Oh alright,” Meredith conceded. “Well, anyway, when do you want to give Nate a gift?” she asked, returning to the original topic.
“Our two-month anniversary, I guess,” Andromeda said. “That’s in a week.”
“Oh, you have plenty of time,” Meredith said. “Can you just order it online?”
Andromeda shook her head. “No, I don’t have a credit card and my mom won’t let me use hers.”
“My brother could drive you to the mall if your parents can’t find out about this,” Meredith offered. “As long as you have cash from your allowance or something.”
“Sure, that’d be awesome,” Andy replied.
That weekend, after Meredith and her brother had picked up my sister to go to Meredith’s house and work on a group English I project – that is, to go to the mall and pick up a gift for Nate – my mom knocked on my ajar door.
“Irene, can we talk?”
“Yeah,” I said.
She just stood there in the doorway. The wrinkles on her face were starting to show.
“You and Andy … are in high school now. Do you think he will outgrow this weird phase?”
“By ‘weird phase,’ you mean, thinking she’s a girl? I don’t think so.” I scratched my back idly with my right hand. We’d had this conversation so many times already.
“Doctors are not trying to help convince him to be normal again,” she lamented.
“That’s not their job. They’re not trying to convince her of anything.”
“Why do we pay them then?” my mother asked. “If they’re not treating the disease.”
“Mom, when are you going to stop calling it a disease? Can’t you see that she’s perfectly fine and happy now?”
She had a crestfallen look on her weary face. “We let our son wear a dress every day. We will lose our only son soon …. He will have no grandchildren.”
“Having two daughters isn’t so bad, either,” I said.
“But it’s not natural! I gave birth to one son, one daughter.”
“Regardless of whether she’s your son or daughter, she’s still very intelligent, and she’s going to be successful in life.”
“Successful? A boy wearing a dress? He will work in a dirty bar with drugs and prostitutes and perverts. He has no future! ”
“Mom, Andromeda’s been trying to convince you to let her start hormone treatments so that she can be as close to a normal woman as possible, instead of a weird creature stuck somewhere in between. I guarantee that working in a place of … ill repute … is the last thing she wants.”
“There is no choice! That kind of people is only accepted with other weirdos. Why did he give up the chance to be a normal father to be a fake woman with no way to make child?”
I sighed. “You used to say that Andy watched read too many comics and watched too many weird movies. I think maybe it’s you who’s watched too many movies. Most transgendered people are just normal members contributing to society. Just how Italian Americans are generally not in the mafia and Japanese people are generally not ninja or samurai.
“And so what if he can’t have kids? Lots of people don’t have kids these days – you wouldn’t be able to stop me if I decided I didn’t to have children, either.”
My mom frowned. I sensed that this was going nowhere. “Whatever, Mom, I need to work on my homework. Talk about this Andy – there’s no point in trying to convincing me.”
She walked away.
Andromeda came home just before dinner.
“Shit, I thought I was gonna be late!” she exclaimed when she passed by my room.
“Somehow, I don’t think you being late to dinner is top on Mom and Dad’s list of worries about you.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said.
“Did you get the webcam?”
“Yeah, it should suffice. I still have to wrap it though,” she said, entering her room and shutting the door quietly. “By the way, I told Meredith about my cross-dressing and stuff at the mall.”
“Did she freak out?” I asked.
“Actually, she was fascinated by it, and said everything up til now made so much more sense, like how I never wear leggings or skinny jeans, and why my growth spurt was so late and so huge. I made her swear that she wouldn’t tell anyone else, though.”
“Well, that’s good isn’t it? That the first person you’ve told outside of our family took it pretty well.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I guess it’s nice to have another ally.”
“Come down for dinner!” my mom shouted from downstairs.
“Okay, coming!” I called back. “Hey Andy, we gotta go down.”
“Yeah, yeah,” my sister said, re-emerging from her room in an oversized t-shirt and mesh shorts.
“You still look like a girl,” I remarked.
“Huh?” she asked, letting down her ponytail. Her perfectly-moisturized, voluminous hair reached all the way past her shoulderblades now, without a single split end.
“Nevermind,” I replied.
Dinner was a tense affair. I piled heaps of meat over my rice as usual, while Andromeda carefully arranged several broccoli florets and carrots on the side of her bowl before taking a few morsels of chicken. I mused at how my parents were never angry with me anymore, even though I was so sloppy, just because of their singleminded crusade against Andromeda. She’d developed impeccable table manners and an intense aversion to confrontation, but it wasn’t enough.
“Did you finish the English project?” my dad asked. Mom’s presence was like a fading apparition; her eyes drifted unfocused at the clock on the far wall.
“Yes, it’s done,” Andromeda said, rolling a broccoli stem over the rice. What she said was actually true – there was a group project, but she’d finished it two days ago in anticipation of this shopping trip. “We’ll present it on Monday.”
“Good,” he said. And the rest of dinner was a dreadful silence punctuated by the clattering of chopsticks and spoons. No mention of her upcoming therapy session on Tuesday.
We were drifting apart. Our parents must have known this, but they were too stubborn to try to stem the tide. Maybe it was a game of chicken for them – but somehow, I sensed it was a losing proposition on their end, since if they relented, they’d lose Andrew, and if they won out, it would be Andromeda hurtling over the cliff – perhaps even literally, if she made good on that promise of going to Hell as a woman that she made years ago.
I wanted a functional family again, but as I curled up under my covers for the night, I tried to prepare myself for a future without my parents … or without my sister. And for all my displays of machismo, I was deathly afraid of both coming true.
~ 11 ~
The pure and simple truth
is rarely pure
and never simple.
Our fifteenth birthday had come and gone. It was hard to believe that two years could have passed since we moved – since Andromeda started living as a girl. But we had to believe it, because it was so carefully documented in her medical history. Because these milestones and thresholds meant so much to the adults, who would only make decisions based on prescribed charts and guidebooks.
Andromeda was handling it all quite well, given the pervasive attitude that she was guilty of making up this whole “wanting-to-be-a-girl thing” until she had exhaustively proven herself innocent. She would joke about staying up late at night reading Immanuel Kant, trying to convince herself that she wasn’t crazy by absorbing and agreeing with rationalist philosophy. Because if she weren’t crazy, why did she have to see a therapist so often like someone who was suicidal or psychopathic?
“Ireeeeeene,” she’d always groan after coming home from the mental health clinic, her eyes unfocused and hazy. “Real boobs! That’s all I ever wanted! Boobs, boobs, boobs! Just two of them! And no dick. Is that too much for a girl to ask for?”
And I would just pinch her. “Keep it together. You let things slip once, and they’re gonna decide you’re a nutcase and lock you up instead.”
I’m sorry that I can’t convey the full details of the more pivotal conversation – the one where Andy finally convinced Mom and Dad to let her start hormone-blocking therapy. It was over by the time I had come home, and Andromeda was flopped on her bed, completely spent. Her eyes were encircled by red speckles from vessels she’d burst while crying, and initially I couldn’t tell whether she’d won or lost.
“Andromeda,” I said, prodding her limp body.
“What do you need, Irene? I’m kinda busy here … staring at the wall.”
“Oh, the pitiful existence of the teenage girl,” I waxed. “Woe is me.”
She threw a stuffed dragon at me, the wings planting onto my face, its ass landing square on my nose. “Don’t you have anything better to do than bother me all the time?”
“I thought you liked being rescued. I’m here to rescue you from hours of lying her pathetically.”
“Mom said yes, you know,” Andromeda said softly, her voice muffled by the pillow.
“Well, what did you expe- wait, what?!” I exclaimed boisterously, covering my mouth when I realized just how loudly that came out.
She nodded, sitting up. “I told her it was just a temporary hold, that I’d still be fertile if I decided it wasn’t worth it during the ‘trial period.’”
“But you’ve been on a trial period for the last three years.”
“For my whole life,” she corrected. ”You’ve been okay with it for three years. But it’s okay, it’s just a waiting game now, right?”
“That’s crazy though, you’re going to be in puberty-stasis until you’re eighteen?”
“Yeah. Spindly jailbait, pretty much,” she said, laughing. “Meanwhile, you’ll be all voluptuous and womanly.”
“But then you’ll get a fucking boob job deus ex machina,” I said.
“I’ll pinky promise that I won’t make my boobs any bigger than yours, big sister,” she said, and we actually did pinky swear on that.
“So, you got what you wanted from Mom. Why were you moping around on your bed like that?” I asked.
She stood up and twirled around. “What if this turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory? What if I’m actually not ready for this, and by the time I figure it out, I’ve lost Mom, Dad, and you?”
“Don’t say foolish things like that,” I said. “This is what you want after all, isn’t it?”
She brushed her long bangs to the side so that I could make complete eye contact. “Yes.”
“There’s no chance that you’ll ever be fertile as a woman, not with today’s technology,” I reminded her. “It’s only going to be a superficial change. That’s going to take every shred of your endurance and stubbornness to get through, and most of your wallet.”
She shook her head, her bangs falling back over her eyes. Even with the boyish jaw and hints of facial hair that she’d have to get waxed or lasered, the natural resonance of her motions with her ever more female appearance felt aesthetically soothing, in a way that her male form would never have been, even if she left it untouched.
“It’s not just skin deep,” she said. “Imagine if you couldn’t smile.”
“I don’t really get it,” I said.
“A smile is just a motion of the lips and the skin around them, and the eyebrows a little, right? But you’d agree that not being able to smile would feel really strange and bad.”
“It’s like that. If my body is unable to express my soul, then it’s just like not being able to smile. I don’t want to have to fight against my body, or ignore my body, or hide it. I want the voice that comes out when I sing to be the one I hear in my head. I want the sensations when my chest presses against someone I’m hugging to be the ones I feel in my head.”
I still felt like playing devil’s advocate. “Well, I wish my nose were a little smaller. That’s the face I imagine in my head. And I wish I were a soprano and not an alto. You think it wouldn’t just be vanity to have those fixed if I could, just because I am a girl and would be remaining a girl?”
“It’d be vanity,” she said without hesitation. “And I’m vain, too. If wanting to recreate myself, wanting to paint over this art canvas I was given, is vain.
“A person can look in the mirror one day, and decide that they need new accessories, or new clothes, or new cosmetics. Or they could want new tattoos, or they might want to lose weight, even. And I think that’s okay. They don’t think the image they convey jives with the spirit inside.”
She paused to swallow and cross her legs, her right floor slipper sliding off her foot to reveal her pedicured toenails.
“But the most non-intrusive things – jewelry, clothes, make-up – those are really about others setting their eyes on you. The new tattoo, that’s not just for someone else to see, that’s also for you to see and to remember – it’s a part of you and it symbolizes something you want to carry with you for the rest of your life. Your weight, your body composition, that’s getting even deeper. Sure, it’s nice to be slim for your wedding dress so you can snap a couple photos, but it’s about feeling confident inside, being able to move like you want to, being able to participate in the things you want to. And deepest of all are your very organs. Every one has a purpose. An organ that’s there and shouldn’t be there, you don’t want. We instictively want to get rid of tumors that suck out the nutrients from your blood and release hormones that change the way we feel and act. We cut them out and kill them.”
“And you think that ‘extra organ’ down there is like cancer?” I asked, pointing at her groin.
“I’d be a self-absorbed fool if didn’t know the difference,” she said. “But for what it does to me, I know for sure it doesn’t belong.”
“Who knows, maybe Nate likes his girls specially equipped,” I joked. Andromeda groaned.
“He loves me, the girl. I want to be a whole girl for him. Not just a female soul speaking to him from out of a boy’s body.”
“He loves you, the person,” I corrected.
She twirled a locket of hair around her index finger. “Yeah, yeah, that’s cute of you to say. But suppose you met a really awesome, attractive guy. And then you met his sister, who had exactly the same personality, exactly the same memories. Let’s pretend like that’s possible, okay? So no, ‘well, the girl is slightly different, because she had a period and isn’t quite as physically strong.’ Who would you consider going out with?”
“I get it,” I said. “Assuming I’m straight, I’d ask out the guy and befriend the girl.”
“Right, and so now you’re dating the guy, and you decide it’s time to make a little love. You’re taking off his pants, and then, woah, he has a vagina. Weird, right?” she said, her large eyes open wide and eyebrows raised, her hands gesturing emphatically. “Weird enough you just might think, well, maybe I’ll just be friends with this ‘guy,’ just like I am with his sister, since they’re pretty much the same thing, right?”
“Maybe,” I said. “I really don’t know. I’ve never thought about that happening before. I have no idea how I’d react.”
“I can assure you Nate’s never thought about it before, either.” She bit her lip lightly. “But,” she began, pausing halfway. She uncrossed her legs and kicked them out alternatingly, resting her hands on her thighs. “But, I’ll probably force him to think about it soon.”
I just looked at her wordlessly, watching her feet trace arcs in the air.
~ 12 ~
As fortune would have it, Andromeda and Nathaniel’s one-year anniversary landed on the week when Mom and Dad had to travel overseas for one of our cousin’s weddings, and we had to be left alone at home for the first time since we weren’t allowed to miss that much school.
And boy, did Andromeda make it obvious. The very same afternoon they departed, she biked to the grocery store and brought back two heaping bags of groceries.
“Mom left meals for us in the fridge, did you forget already?” I asked when she heaved the bags off the bike baskets onto the wooden kitchen floor, creating a loud thud.
“Well, I want to cook something for Nate.”
“Nice of you to let me know that he’s coming over,” I said dryly.
“Ack! I totally forgot!” she exclaimed. “Well, you know now,” she said sheepishly.
“That I do,” I replied. “So, should I go over to Meredith’s house for the next three days?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. You can join us for dinner, as long as you’re okay with my cooking. I’m not as good as Mom yet.”
I got up to help her move the groceries into the freezer and fridge. “I’ll take you up on that for today, but I’ll be at school late for the next two days anyway so we’re probably just going to order pizza there.”
“How are you gonna get home, then?” Andy asked, placing a bag of squash into a clear pull-out drawer.
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t want you getting in trouble driving the car to pick me up when you still only have a permit.”
“Alright,” she said. “Give me a call if you can’t get a ride though. Oh, and don’t put that cabbage away; I need it for tonight.”
I set the head of cabbage on the countertop. “What are you making?”
“Dumplings,” she said.
“Yum!” I responded.
The dinner table was completely different. I could breathe easily, the color and aroma of the food enwrapping me instead of being trapped in a cage of icy hearts.
“This is amazing, Andy!” exclaimed Nate, who had shed his glasses because of the steam.
Andromeda beamed, walking over with the last plate of dumplings, Mom’s apron still tied over her silken pearlescent top and slouchy shorts.
“You can stop staring at my sister and start eating,” I deadpanned. Needless to say, he ignored me, and Andy seemed to relish being an irresistable vixen.
After dinner, I’d had enough of their goofy, adoring smiles and let them prance up to her room for some private time while I crashed on the couch. There would be plenty of opportunities to play with boys, but having a spacious living room and large HDTV all to yourself was a rare luxury that I knew I’d miss once we went off to college.
I came home the following day to see the dinner dishes and frying pans piled into the sink already. Andromeda had cooked dinner for Nate again, that lucky bastard. There was still a lingering scent of sesame oil and steamed rice in the air, but there was no trace of the two of them. I shrugged and supposed that they were over in her room, making out or something.
As I walked past Andromeda’s door, though, I could hear them talking, and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.
“Nate,” she said, gulping a little.
The bed creaked a little.
“You … are you thinking of … doing it?”
“Well, sometimes,” he answered.
“I don’t want to do it unless you’re really serious about this.”
A part of me wanted to freeze time and pull them back. I didn’t want my sister to become an adult so quickly, but things were really hurtling forward.
“I’m serious,” he said.
“Well, I don’t think that we can really be serious until … you know something about me.”
“A deep, dark secret?”
“I guess you could put it that way,” she said. Her voice was becoming fainter, not out of fear of being overheard, but out of fear of being heard at all, of hearing herself say those words.
“Well, I’m ready for anything,” he said. There was a sort of impatience in his voice, that typical adolescent feeling of getting the difficult parts over with quickly, since consequences could always be deferred.
“Nate, I … I wasn’t born a girl.”
There was absolute silence. I could only imagine the intensity of their forms. Him, staring at her. Her, staring at the floor. Her, turning to him. Him, turning away. Like light and shadow, one always hidden opposite the other, even though one created the other, even though one could not exist without the other.
I dodged away from the doorway and retired to my room, leaving the door ajar. I heard footsteps pounding down the stairwell, the front door creaking open and slamming shut. After that was silence – no second entrance into the fugue; no one giving chase.
Instead, the shadow of a girl diffused into my room through the crack I left open.
“Sis … Irene … .” She rubbed the tears dripping from her eyes, smudging her mascara across her cheeks.
I stood up and walked over to her, standing on my tip-toes as I drew her into my bosom, cradling her head with my arms, her soft hair collapsing like a squeezed pillow. She sobbed onto my sweatshirt, turning it from ash gray to the gray of a stormy sea.
“I-Irene, Irene,” she stammered. “What d-did I do w-w-w-w-,” she began.
I held her tightly. “Shhhhhh.”
“What did I do wrong, Irene? All I wanted … all I wanted … all I wanted was someone who would … accept me for who I was. And praise me and tell me he liked what I did and what I made. Just someone who would tell me that my cooking tasted good, that he appreciated that I waited for him, that he wanted to go and take me someplace I’d never been, to go watch the stars. And on my birthday, tell me that I brought a smile to his face every day and that he wanted to be with me forever and ever.”
“Shh, shh,” I repeated.
She shook her head and buried it deeper into my bosom, her hair getting kinked into all sorts of strange angles.
“I don’t think I needed that much. Just someone who believed in me … no, just with me would be enough. A person who believed with me! That a person can be whoever he or she wants to be, whoever he or she is and needs to be!”
I dragged my palm against her hair, stroking it over and over.
“It’ll turn out alright. I know you felt like you were soulmates, but sometimes even people who are destined to be together have to be together in a different way than you expect.”
She looked up at me, which itself reminded me that she was crumpled on the floor because it was so odd to see my taller sister raising her head that way, her irises pressed up against the top of her widened eyes, long bangs veiling her like a crinoline shower-curtain.
“In a different way than I expect?”
“Give it time, and he might come around to seeing things your way. And even if he doesn’t, the time you guys spent togther will stay in your memories, and one day those memories will symbolize something – something but I don’t know what. So in a way you’ll be together, whether you like it or not.”
She pinched me, crinkling her face and stifling a laugh and a sniffle at the same. “Don’t sound like you’re so wise! You’ve never even gone out with a boy for more than a month.”
I smiled. “That’s more like the Andromeda I know.”
“I’ll get past this, I promise,” she said.
And for the most part, things turned out alright. Nate apologized two days later, but said he wanted to take a break from dating, because he felt like he couldn’t reconcile romantic feelings with someone biologically male. They agreed to remain “friends,” but Andromeda’s feelings of betrayal aborted any attempts they made at small talk or hanging out.
Andromeda took a day off from school to take the train out and bury her memories somewhere secret, and when she came back, she was smiling again. For the next few days, she dressed in shockingly disjunct outfits, as if to flaunt that she didn’t have to answer to anyone else’s tastes but hers. Her hair was usually up in an off-center lazy upsweep, and her gaze had a hint of sarcasm. But behind her brash, independent streak, I could sense an insecurity and fear.
I thought back to when she had told me that every little decision in her life was like a philosophical meditation. It must have been like that now.
~ 13 ~
“Irene! Irene! Irene!” Meredith was shouting at the top of her lungs into the school library, where I happened to be researching an English project on perspectives of immigrant authors. I looked down from my second floor seat and saw her standing near the entrance, trying to push through a crowd of other students in line to check out books.
I ran down the stairs and joined her just as she was shoved back into the hallway.
“Meredith, what’s the matter?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be at field hockey practice?” She swallowed forcefully to restore her voice.
“It’s about Andromeda.”
“What about her?”
Meredith grabbed my hand. “Irene, she’s gone. She ran away and no one can find her.”
I knew that her breakup with Nate was still on her mind, but I never thought that it would drive her to run away from school because of it. Hadn’t I just calmed her down a few days ago, tried so hard to cheer her up every day? What did I do wrong, that she would try to escape instead of coming to me?
“I … I didn’t think she’d come to this. We have to find her. Where did she go?”
“Irene, there’s some-“ Jessica began, but I cut her off, grabbing her by the shoulder. She recoiled in fright.
“No, where is she now?! Which direction did she run in?”
“Into the forest, towards the west.”
I took off sprinting, but Meredith quickly caught up to me.
“Irene, I need to-“
We need to find her before anything happens to her. She’s really sensitive and I’m not sure what
she’s pent up inside of her since her breakup.”
Meredith ran in front of me and cut me off. I braked to a halt, colliding with her chest; she grabbed me tightly and held me still, holding her index finger to her lips to hush me.
“Irene, it’s not about breaking up. At least, not directly.”
I stared at her with eyes simmering in that way when they are on the cusp between boiling to a searing stare or collapsing into fallow tears. “Then, what was it?”
“They found out her secret, in the locker room. Someone overheard someone who overheard someone else, you know how it goes. I swear it wasn’t me – my best guess is that one of Nate’s confidantes let it slip. When it came down to it, they asked her to strip off her bra and panties and she wouldn’t and then they grabbed her and tore it all off.”
I tore myself free of Meredith’s grip, sprinting forward into the forest. Every second of uncertainty was impregnated with the pangs and thrusts of fate that came closer and closer to taking my sister away from me. I tripped and fell multiple times along the way, but sudden and uncoordinated bursts of tension and energy propelled me forward through the thickets of sassafras and young oaks. The sun was bright enough to see fairly far, although the thick trunks of old trees forced me to pause every so often to shout and then wait silently for any signs of movement or response. After a few minutes, I came upon a shallow cliff, after which the land rapidly declined, and at the edge, maybe twenty yards away, I saw Andromeda, in only her lingerie, though even now her form was still convincingly female aside from the bulge in her panties.
She saw me, but I didn’t know what to say. Words flowed into my head but none of them wanted to be spoken. I ended up evading all dramatic flair and uttered what I thought would be the most Irene-like thing to say at this moment:
“Idiot, you can’t kill yourself by jumping onto a bed of leaves seven feet down.”
Andromeda just shook her head slowly, and then walked over to where I was. With an oblique nod of the head, she beckoned that we leave the place. Her bare feet were filthy and cut with light perforations here and there, but she walked as if nothing were hurting.
She ended up arranging to finish off the rest of high school via correspondence, only joining the others for standardized exams. And although she still managed to become valedictorian, she declined to speak at graduation, or indeed to even attend. I was invited to speak on her behalf, but what words could bring her back? Her reticent form beside me every day and every night was only a painful reminder of what had been lost.
And then one summer day after we had graduated from high school, she just left, taking the car we provisionally shared. In the note she wrote to me, tucked under my pillow and wrapped in the scarf she used to wear, she explained that she needed to take account of her own life, so that at long last there would be no one else to blame for her shortcomings and disappointments.
In the end, I was the one who matriculated to a famous university, but she was the one I envied. She could be a nomad now, a traveler, a musician, who knows what.
~ Epilogue ~
There is a knock on the door. When will people learn to use the doorbell?
I uncross my legs that were resting on my desk and slip off my reading glasses. There is a soft pitter-patter from the cold November rains outside, the raindrops only visible under the warm orange glow of the sodium streetlights outside. I set down my beat-up paperback upside-down and walk to the front door of my apartment to see who it is. From behind the nailed-on drapes, I see a silhouette outside holding a jet-black umbrella. I open the door.
Due to the risk of overdramatization, I must disclaim that the shiver down my spine could have as easily been from the chilly gust of water-impregnated air as from the sight. But to see my sister there in the flesh was still a strange shock.
I quickly invited her in and had her leave the umbrella by the door.
“Andromeda, I …,” I began, but she flashed a disarming smile and I stopped speaking. Her long, damp hair was unbound and unruly; her dark gray knee-length coat exuded an elegant warmth. She hung the coat up on my wooden coat-tree and shed her boots, emerging like a butterfly from its coccoon, her slender figure clad in a soft cream-colored turtleneck and slim glazed jeans the rich blue of the midnight sky. She had transformed yet again.
“Don’t worry, I’m still me,” she said, her voice noticeably higher and gentler.
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “It’s just not fair that you get to be so much more beautiful than me – I didn’t believe you ten years ago when you swore you’d surpass me.”
“I have to be beautiful,” she said with a sigh. “People say it’s what’s inside that counts, and I believe that, but if what’s outside doesn’t match what’s inside, they assume that what’s outside is right.”
“Yeah, that’s true…,” I said. “… I guess.”
We sat at the plastic kitchen table for a few minutes in silence. And then Andromeda smacked me on the back of my head.
“Oh come on!” she cried. “It’s only been two and a half years, and I still wrote you in the meantime. Or is it because you don’t like my new voice?”
“Oh, that’s not it,” I muttered.
“The Irene I know wouldn’t say that! She’d be like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’” She laughed but I didn’t.
“I’m allowed to change sometimes, too,” I said. “It’s not always about you, just because you’ve had such a tumultuous life.”
She nodded. “I know that. That’s why I came here, to be with you again. Even before we were born, we were in the womb together, so it’s hard to be away for too long.” I sniffled a little and turned my head, too proud to let her see me softening. I felt her warm arms wrap around me.
“So are you here to stay, then?”
“Well, I’m moving back into town next week,” she announced cheerfully. “I was able to transfer my job, and my as-of-last-week fiancé is –“
“Fiancé?!” I exclaimed. “Oh, my God! But did you … tell him?”
Andromeda nodded. “He said that it’s no different than if I were a natural-born woman who was infertile, and it’d be as wrong to leave me because of this as it would be to leave me if I simply couldn’t conceive. And he also said that there are enough children born into this world in need of parents that our ‘manifest destiny’ isn’t to ensure the continuation of the human species by making more children but to ensure the continuation of the human civilization by taking care and loving the ones we already have.” Her eyes positively glittered. “He’s so f-ing cool!”
I rolled my eyes and laughed. “Meanwhile, all I meet are jerks and idiots.”
“Maybe I should introduce you to my fiancé’s brother.”
I looked at her suspiciously. “He didn’t happen to start out as your fiancé’s sister, did he?”
Andromeda giggled and shook her head. “No, no, that’d be way too much coincidence. But he’s pretty cool – I think you’d at least hit it off as friends.”
I looked into her deep brown eyes which were still the same as always, even if so much else had changed. “I guess you really are back, aren’t you,” I said.
“You know, Irene, the way I think about it is like this: The human soul is abruptly cut off from the spirit of the Earth when it’s born. It’s like a bird whose nest was blown away in the wind. And then through life, you keep wandering around, trying to figure out who you are, and one day, you look in the mirror and in your diary and out at your friends and see who you’ve become, and you realize you’ve finally found your nest again. All that work, just to find your way home, just to become yourself. And it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.”
~ October 24, 2012 ~