She pulled the knit beanie over her head and fingered the large smooth buttons of her threadbare pea coat into place. She knew that she should announce her leave or say goodbye to Max, but she didn’t have the energy, today; or any day for that matter.
The trek to the train was short, though when she finally swiped her MetroCard and was seated in the corner, the tip of her nose, and cheeks were flushed pink, and Zongidii felt the tingling of blood rushing to the bottoms of her feet. It stunk, thickly of bile and sex, and immediately, she knew that Tommy was on the train. She closed her legs tight and prayed that he wouldn’t acknowledge her. It’d been a long day at the bookstore and she’d been longing to crawl into bed since the moment she’d gotten up.
“‘Idii? You com’n visi’ me?” a voice slurred and she saw a ripped-up tennis shoe enter her peripheral as he sat next to her. Tommy rested a gnarled, grimy hand on her thigh and she felt her pulse quicken.
He was dressed in his filthy dark green coat, his greasy, mousy brown hair peeking out from under the edge of his grey cap. Tommy had dull blue eyes, and dirty-peach coloured skin that was weathered and leathery from years of too much drink, and too little self-care. He smelled sour, of body odor and the drugs that Z just knew were tucked into his pockets.
“I’m really not in the mood, Tommy,” she murmured miserably, hoping he was at least sober enough to get the message and just leave her be.
“How about a little help for your best guy?” He chuckled drunkenly, and she sighed internally, Tommy, while not rude, had never been all that perceptive, or subtle.
“What happened to the “help” I gave you the other day?” She asked him, as he laid his rank-smelling head on her shoulder.
“See, what had happened was, I was running an errand, and I saw Zeke…”
She got home just after 4:30, with twenty dollars less in her pocket, and a deep aching in her stomach. She hadn’t eaten since that morning, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She hung up her coat and toed off her boots. Unwinding her scarf from her neck and pulling her hat off, she grabbed the afghan off the back of her beat up sofa and curled up under it to go through her messages.
She noted the missed call from her mother with a sigh and knew that she hadn’t the heart to call back the woman who had yet to even call her a she. She wanted to be angry at her family for disrespecting her pronouns and her gender as an entirety, but she couldn’t because even though it made her feel like she’d been chained to an anchor and thrown into the ocean, she loved them. They were her family, and though they’d been angry at her development since she’d come to her realization all those years ago, they were all that she had and she couldn’t bring herself to cut them off, or even stand up for herself.
She burrowed deeper into the blankets and cried. Her vision blurred, and her body shook like the earthquake of her mind had finally taken over, because, in a way, it finally had. Her brain was packed tight, with things she shouldn’t think about, but were there all the time, and she couldn’t breathe anymore, because every breath was like a rich gulp from a flask full of things that she’d never deserve and she was so itchy and disgusting, trying to scratch her way out of her skin. Trying to think past the empty, heavy feelings, all the screwed up thoughts that plagued her. All she could offer was the frigid, weight inside her, and she knew, no one deserved the burden of her. It wasn’t like being sad. It was like being drowned, in everything that made her so sick to her stomach every time she looked in the mirror, and she couldn’t swim, and even if she’d been able to, she didn’t have the will to try anymore.
When she woke, she was vaguely aware of her stomach clenching and growling. She padded into the bathroom, and undressed quickly, avoiding looking down, avoiding what made her a freak, what kept her from being a real girl. It was hilariously revolting, how even opening an eye sometimes, could crush her from the inside.
Showers were the worst.
Ten minutes of self-revulsion and deep desire to scrape off her flesh, and start over. To be clean, to be pretty, to have breasts, and a gentle small frame, and real, actual curves. To be made aware of everything that she wanted but didn’t have.
She wasn’t skinny, she knew, but being fat would never be the same as being female. She stuffed herself into her clothes with a deep sigh, and her eyes leaked as her heart wobbled unsteadily.
Showers were the worst.
After a quick nibble off of a protein bar, and wrapping herself in all her layers, she pressed her headphones in and pulled her front door shut behind her. She didn’t let her eyes drift to her lonely neighbor trying to herd his dogs back into his apartment as she entered the elevator, and she ignored the man who lived above her, with his hands wandering the body of a busty brunette that looked nothing like the red-haired girl he’d brought back last night, or the blonde girl, with the love-bite speckled throat.
The cold air nipped her face upon opening the door out of the lobby, and briefly, she wondered why she hadn’t decided to go to school somewhere warmer in the winter. Troye Sivan was a good choice for this morning, she thought to herself, as she headed for the coffee shop a couple blocks from her building.
Maybe if she hadn’t been so focussed on trying to come up with a good excuse for not being around, or seeing her friends, she might’ve observed how the sky blushed, with teeny golden threads sewn into it here and there, and that the indie movie theater that she and Charlie both loved, was finally premiering the movie that they’d been so excited for months before. But she didn’t notice these things, as she pushed open the door, deciding that the best thing to say was that she’d been busy, swamped with classes and work.
She raised a hand to Irma and Teddy, who were seated in a booth in the back, and turned to go order. A steaming paper cup of tea pressed into her hand a minute later, she sat down next to Irma, who welcomed her with a sad smile and a hug. She hated when Irma pitied her, and she knew it wasn’t Irma’s fault. Being so empathetic and spending seven hours a day with five-year-olds, made her so soft-hearted, it was just in her nature. So Z tried not to comment too much as Irma fussed over her.
“How are you ‘Idii? We’ve missed you so much. You look so thin, are you eating?”
She snorted internally. Her? Look thin? Impossible.
“M’fine, Irmie,” she muttered, trying to sink as far into her sweater as possible.
“Why haven’t you called? How are your classes? Is work okay? Are they being nice to you? Has anyone said anything? You’d tell me if someone said something, right? Also! I-”
“Irma, let her breathe,” Teddy chimed in, laughing, low and rolling like tides. “She just got here, and you’re already trying to mother her to death.” His amber eyes glittered with mirth, and suddenly, she was so happy to have come.
“She could do with some mothering,” Charlie interrupted, and as happy as Z was to see her friend, she knew that Charlie was far more skeptical than her sister and Teddy, and would most likely call her out on her facade. “Not calling for days, forgetting to feed herself, working herself to near death, going everywhere by herself without protection,” she shook her head, long curls trembling.
“You know, we could get you a taser,” Irma turned to Z with a hand, as though she were weighing the option.
“I don’t need one,” Z promised, she continued on, lying through her teeth, “And I feed myself plenty. I’ve just been really busy lately, it’s called work-study.”
Charlie scoffed, and Irma’s brow creased in concern anyway. Zongidii fidgeted her sweaty hands. She studied the smooth Formica tabletop, and silently pleaded for either sister to stop pressing anything further.
“So how is your class?” She asked Irma, trying to change the topic. Thankfully, Irma, bless her heart was infatuated with her kindergarten class and took the bait.
“Oh, they’re magnificent! They’re so smart, picking up addition concepts so quickly,” she beamed. “You wouldn’t believe all that they know only being five.”
Charlie turned to give her sister her attention, as she continued on. Z looked up, and caught Teddy’s eye, he winked, and she felt her face flush.
Teddy was lovely. Nearly 6’2 with soft, pastel turquoise hair that stuck up all head. She looked back and he’d scrunched up his face, freckles crinkling as he gave her a gummy smile.
He made her feel like she could be warm inside. His kind words, and and golden eyes that burned her when he stared because he was so full of light.
“Are we interrupting something?” Irma cut in with a knowing smile at Z. She turned her face down and muttered a ‘no’.
“We should party tonight,” Charlie thought allowed. “We should celebrate.”
“What are we celebrating?” Teddy took a sip of coffee.
“The manifestation of the hermit,” she gestured to Z, who looked down. “It’s been weeks since we’ve all been together, we could do with a frolic. A few drinks, play cards, dance a little. No one but Teddy has work tomorrow and it’d be fun.”
“That sounds great,” Irma giggled.
“I’m game,’Idii?” Teddy cast a look at her.
“I dunno,” she mumbled, “I have an essay to finish, and another paper I have to start, and-”
Her essay wasn’t due for a week, the paper wasn’t due for two. She knew she should make plans with her friends. She knew she should have wanted to go. She knew that a few months ago, she might’ve wanted to go, but right now, all she wanted was to go home, eat a bowl of Ramen and fall asleep on the couch to The Golden Girls.
“We haven’t hung out in months. We miss you.”
The replies were instant.
She loved her friends, truly, but it was exhausting enough to socialize for an hour, and she couldn’t imagine having to keep this up for the night.
Because I’m a horrible person. How could anyone avoid their friends for months, and still not want to talk to them? I miss you too but I can barely get out of bed. Because I don’t want to ruin your guys’ time, and if I go it’s all that I’ll do.
“I- um- okay, I’ll come,” she found herself saying.“It’ll be fun.”
The cheers they emitted stung her eyes, and she was filled with self-loathing as she regretted agreeing.
It would be selfish and wrong to back out of plans that they’d made, and that was how she found herself, standing at the door of Irma’s and Charlie’s apartment, a bag of candy hanging off of her wrist, and a bottle of Absolut wedged under the other arm.
“Z’s here!” Charlie opened the door and excitedly waved her in. Her chocolate curls framed her caramel, heart-shaped face, eyes glazed like she’d already been drinking, and she was barefoot.
The living room was decorated with orange fairy lights, casting a tangerine glow over everything. The pretty Persian rug had been rolled to one side of the room, exposing the wooden floor, and the speakers in the corner, throbbed as they blared David Bowie’s “China Doll”.
The kitchen light was on, and Irma stood at the counter, pouring something into a red plastic cup, as Teddy sat on said counter, talking vibrantly, hands moving. The sight made her smile and she knocked on the wall before entering, leaning in the archway.
Irma squealed, dancing from foot to foot excitedly, and relieved her of her purchases.
“Vodka, and candy? How kind you are to us,” she pinched Z’s cheek and rounded back.
“Come get your drink, Charles,” she called out into the dimmed space, where Charlie was currently whipping her head and bouncing to the music.
She pivoted and sashayed her way into the kitchen, grabbing the plastic cup from Irma, and taking a sip.
“It tastes like peppermint,” she told her.
“Schnapps,” her sister responded, “What do you want, ‘Idii?”
She shrugged a shoulder in counter, “Anything is fine. I don’t really care.” She said quietly.
“Yay! I love making surprise drinks,” she grinned happily, and grabbed Teddy’s hand, using it to twirl herself.
She made Z cover her eyes, and turn away while she worked. Z could hear her opening and closing bottles, and the rattle of ice hitting a solo cup. Nothing had been too bad so far, and she hoped it would stay this lowkey the entire time because anything further would be too much.
“Okay here,” a cup was pushed into her hand and she took a sip, swallowing past the burn. It was strong. The heavy bitterness of the vodka edged with grape juice and something fizzy. It didn’t matter because she’d be drunk soon enough, and far more pleasant perhaps.
She was pressed into the couch, watching her friends spin and jive through song after song. Irma put her arms up and swayed, twisting in her flowy, soft blue dress. Charlie’s body swung itself back and forth, her torso moving like she could fly out of her yellow tank top if she truly wanted to. Her denim painted hips rolled to the beat, and her hair and lipstick were mussed prettily.
Teddy moved like he was possessed by a greater power. The lights caught his hair, making it gleam from teal to orange and back again. His lanky body hopped and throttled like he was trapped inside of himself. His head bobbed and his hair was tousled as he threw his head back, and she swore he was glowing when he noticed her and quirked his lips.
He beckoned her forward and she cursed herself for automatically wanting to curl in.
She mouthed a no and shook her head when he persisted. The sisters were in their own worlds, Charlie too caught in the music, and Irma too sloshed to see straight. Teddy moved forward, and took her hand, pulling her to her feet despite her attempts to throw all of her weight into the couch. She was dragged nearer the speakers and felt herself flush again as he danced in front of her looking at her expectantly. She shook her head once more and felt her resolve crack unsteadily at his pout.
He tightened his hand on hers and spun her. The alcohol, combatted the feelings of doubt as her curls were swept into her face and she nearly laughed. The liquor was burning pleasingly in her belly and her body felt loose and light. She giggled drunkenly and put her arm out for Teddy to do it again. She breathed in exhilaration as she was whirled around once more., and turned her face upward to take in all of the lights.
“Dance, ‘Idii!” Irma shouted to her from where she moving by herself on the edge.
Z ran a hand through her hair and began to swivel her hips, moving her feet, and laughing. She wound her wrists, pushing her hips up and feeling her body pulse with the song.
I hate the headlines and the weather
I'm nineteen and I'm on fire
But when we're dancing I'm alright
It's just another graceless night
It was a beautiful song, with a good strong beat, and a sweet voice, with leaden, dramatic harmony. It was filled with the words of someone who sounded like she had tried so hard to be happy and instead found things that could make the heaviness leave, if only for a little while. So Z listened because she knew, and she could feel it.
All of the things we're taking
'Cause we are young and we're ashamed
Send us to perfect places
She pushed herself harder to the music and threw herself into the sentiments it was pulling from her. She was unaware of her vision going hazy and didn’t realize that she was crying until Teddy was gripping her shoulders, and the music had stopped.
“Z, what’s wrong? What happened?” He seemed to have sobered up a bit, and though his eyes were still glazed over, they were filled with unease and confusion. She stared at him blankly for a moment, before realization hit her, and she filled with shame. She felt her eyes sting again and shook her head, her whole body cringing because she’d messed up.
Look what you did, her head spat. You ruined their time. Like I said you would. You don’t belong here. LEAVE. Go on, so they can be happy without the burden of you on them.
“It’s fine, I’m fine. Sorry,” she muttered. The good feeling that’d been ignited in her stomach was gone. Now all she felt was the emptiness and the shame that she’d started with.
“Stop doing that!” Charlie grit her teeth.
“Charlie,” Irma warned.
“No, it needs to be said!” she shouted, advancing on Z. “It’s so stupid and pathetic when you do that! When you pretend you’re okay, and nothing’s wrong! Do you have any idea how- how infuriating that is? We’re not stupid, we notice you disappearing for weeks at a time, and forgetting to eat and shower like a normal person. I know you stay home all the time. You hide from everything, including us. So stop. Stop, because it’s almost laughable how angry you make me when you pull that crap, and if it’s really that bad, why don’t you go-”
“Charlie!” This time it was Teddy who snapped.
Teddy who never got angry. Teddy who helped people cross the street, and volunteered all the time. Who never raised his voice, and got so upset when he saw someone who was upset. Teddy who was red, with his jaw and fists clenched, and a vein on his temple exposed.
“You don’t everything, you don’t know where she goes or what goes on while we’re not around! You’re making her upset-”
“Teddy you’re scaring her, stop it,” Irma cried, running to Z’s side, where her mocha complexion had turned red and blotchy from the stress and weeping, and she shook.
“Z-” he started toward her and she backed away, panicked. She grappled for the handle and wrenched the door open. Tearing down the hallway and out the main door. Snow fell around her and she scrubbed at her face, and ran down the sidewalk, eyes searching for the train entrance.
Get out! Go! Go! You ruin everything! Her brain was screaming as she frantically searched her pockets for her MetroCard, before swiping it.
The lobby of her building was quiet, but still lit when she shuffled in. The dirty wall-lamp flickered against the horrendously orange walls, and she sighed. She’d sobered up a considerable amount on the walk home, and her head was starting to hurt, from crying or alcohol she wasn’t completely sure.
She pressed the button for the elevator and leaned against the wall.
Not only had she ruined their get-together, she’d made Charlie mad, and she’d pitted her friends against each other.
When the door slid open, she was greeted by the man above her. He was alone, to her surprise, and when she when entered, his eyes followed her as she pressed the button for the third floor. When she stood back, he didn’t move. The doors closed, and she let her head fall back against the cool metal.
“Y’know, I’ve never heard you speak,” he said. “I bet you got a real nice voice.”
She said nothing.
“You’re real pretty,” he told her, and she finally allowed herself a look at him.
His sandy hair was tousled, and his hands were shaking. He had a black wife-beater, grey sweatpants, and only dirty socks on. He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t Teddy and she scolded herself as this thought crossed her mind.
“I bet you’re real pretty all over.” His voice had dropped and he sounded like he was talking more to himself than to her. Their eyes met, hers chocolate and shiny from crying, his pale blue and bloodshot, and it occurred to her that he was probably on something.
“I’m Jason,” he said, putting a hand out.
She didn’t move.
“You are?” he moved closer.
She said nothing.
“You don’t want to talk? Fine.”
He grabbed her wrist and she let out a startled sound, trying to squirm away.
“But I know what you are,” he whispered in her ear, and she panicked, trying to scramble away. “You’re one of those trannies. Those people, who pretend to be girls. You’re disgusting.” He shoved her down and she hit the metal panel, her head slamming the rail.
She went numb for a moment before all of the pain came hurtling to the back of her head. The shock stung her eyes and they watered as she pulled herself to her feet. A hand to the back of her head, as she urged the door shut, trying to get home before he could decide that she deserved worse. She wasn’t bleeding but her head was pounding far worse than it had been when she’d gotten home, and she was so tired.
Her apartment was dark, the shadows being cast from the glowing moon. When the door closed, she didn’t bother taking her shoes off, walking into the bathroom. There was no point anymore. She flicked the light on, standing, trying not to talk herself about what she was about to do.
“It’s fine,” she whispered to herself, vision cloudy, “it’s alright, it wo- it won’t fall apart.”
She grabbed the pill bottles and took a deep breath. They felt lighter than she’d expected, teeny white buttons in her hand, small yet able to kill her. Another deep breath and she tried to swallow past the lump in her throat.
She wouldn’t leave a note. There was no proper way to apologize for all that she’d done. All the distress and anger she caused. She lifted the pills to her mouth and crumbled when she noticed Teddy.
“I’m sorry,” he told her earnestly, “I- just- don’t.”
“Teddy,” she whimpered pathetically.
“You almost just- you were going to- I’m-” his eyes were shining, and his voice hitched, and his face crumpled as he began to cry.
She dropped her hands and pressed her face into his chest as he pulled her to him. They sank to the ground, her spooned into his front.
“I’m sorry, Teddy, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t- I can’t- I hate myself, and I’m so messed up, and I don’t mean to hurt you, but I can’t have you hate me, and if you knew, how awful I am, how bad it gets and I can’t get out of bed, you would. I’m so broken and so freaking ugly. I get so stuck in my head, and I’m not even a real girl. I just thought if I could-” her tears soaked his shirt, and he squeezed her closer. He strained for the pill bottle, chucking away from them.
“-if I could do it, I could stop screwing everything up. I don’t mean to be too much, I was trying to fix it.”
“You- you can’t ‘Idii. It’s hard, it’s so hard, but I love you- please, I love you so much, and I can’t ” he told her helplessly.
“I couldn’t. I just wanted to stop hurting everyone, I wanted to fix it, and I can’t and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Teddy,” she trembled.
“I was trying to fix it,” she kept sobbing. “It’s my fault.”
The guilt was tightly packed inside him as he wept into her hair.
“They hate me. And I deserve it, but I don’t want them to.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know.”
It was about a week before Teddy could convince her to tell Irma and Charlie, and when she did, Irma broke down, pulling Z into her side. Charlie sat rigid, and left the room, slamming the door behind her. She returned a few moments later with tears running down her face, and wrapped her arms around her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t listen to you. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you, I don’t want anything to ever happen to you. You matter so much to me,” she murmured, kissing her forehead, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she whispered back.
It was another few weeks before they could get her into therapy. When she did, she was careful not to talk too much at her sessions. It was alright though, Erica, that was her name, was patient and assured Zongidii to talk when she was ready. About two months in, when Z finally did begin to open up, Erica was able to help her realize her stressors, prescribe her medications, and refer her to a gender therapist, who promised that she could start hormone treatment soon.
This wasn’t to say there were still bad days, days where she drowned in her own mind, and could barely stand to breathe, and the dysphoria gave her the urge to tear her skin off, but through these, she had her friends; Irma would stop by with things she’d baked, or books she thought that Z might like, Charlie would visit to study with her for exams, and take her shopping for clothes that suited her, but she especially appreciated Teddy, who was there every time she felt like she was suffocating in her skin. Teddy, who called every day to make sure that she was alright. Teddy who took time to come and get her when she needed to get out of the house and out of her head.
It was nice to go outside, to be able to look and observe things. It was hard to believe that she’d missed so much, and when the guilt choked her, Teddy was there for that too.
When they did decide to pursue a relationship, he was patient, asking her what she was comfortable with, what her boundaries were, and assuring her that nothing anyone said, could ever make him doubt how he felt, or love her less.
It was a particularly bad day when she boarded the train one night. She’d spilled coffee on the shirt Charlie had taken her to get the week before, a guy in her human development class had muttered slurs about her under his breath when she’d corrected him on a biased opinion, and she was late to meet Teddy. Tommy noticed her sitting by herself and moved to sit next to her.
“S’not a good time, Tommy,” she muttered wearily.
“You don’ ‘ave to talk, but ’m gonna talk to ‘ou ‘cause you needa’ hear it righ’ now,” he told her.
So she sat, and he told her a story, about a man who sold the world for the man he loved, and she put her head on his shoulder, closed her eyes and listened. When he finished, she turned to him.
“Tommy, you know I’ve got a boy’s body, right? She turned to him, and when he nodded, she pressed further. “So why do you call me a girl?”
“Y’know I can’t pay you ba’ so why you give me money all’a time?” He asked back. “We do wha’ people need us ‘a do. You nee’ it. And you are a girl. Bodies don’ make us who ‘e are, ‘Idii.”
She pushed her face into his off-putting coat and cried. A crooked hand rubbed her head.
“Thanks, Tommy,” she murmured into his side.
And when she met Teddy later that evening, she told him the story, of a girl who would’ve sold the world for the boy she loved, because he’d known her even when she’d forgotten who she was.