© Feech -- all rights reserved
|with thanks to Channing and LoveBear
I had another one of those dreams last night.
This time, it was storming as if at sea, rough whitecaps all along the streets of my old neighborhood in the suburbs before my parents died. I had to sail to save someone, only because it wasn't really the sea I had to fly, and I flew by billowing out a white sail like from an old ship. It battered around in the wind but I managed to fly, until I came to a little white girl standing in circling shallow currents and dressed for church, with her red hair done up in ribbons; I touched down and told her we had to go.
The wind kept rising and everything was wet and the raindrops were huge. The street surfaces had so much water it made crashing sounds. The girl wouldn't move, and I had to try to lift her, to carry her to safety. But I couldn't do that and wrap the ship-sail around my hands to steer, so I ordered her to take hold of my hip so we could escape. But she just stood there.
I got really irritated then, and lectured her, and tried to take off and carry her at the same time.
Things get sort of fuzzy then, like I had a skip in the dream, they say that happens because there isn't really any filled in plot in a dream, just pictures that you string together if you remember it when you wake up. But I know I ended up in the glass-fronted lobby of our old church.
My mother was there, and some others, and they were damp from the rain but they were wearing their Sunday clothes. And my mother looked out at the cement that had rain pelting off of it and told me I had done something good or something bad, I can't remember which now that I'm awake.
I breathed hard and looked out at the storm, and I remembered just as I awoke that my mother always told me that I should make the most of my education, because in the years when they kidnapped people from the Gold Coast in what is now Ghana, and made them work here as slaves, they were allowed only "limited" education in religion. She said that was the biggest shame of all, because the African religions were so advanced and so beautiful, and they could bring so much to the Christians here. So I always remembered that.
I think she said something like that in the dream, then I woke up.
We all three got Martian Flu at once, for whatever reason, but I survived the first round. My parents had enrolled me in this school, St. Mark's. It has housing for the students, and I was set up for a room with the girls here and everything, so I went in with chin raised and uniform pressed and did my best to justify their choice. It was the last choice they could ever make concerning me.
I didn't know humans were so fragile. I wasn't aware that two of them, two powerful people, could be killed with a fever-induced coma that some random version of this Flu decided to visit upon them. At any rate, there they were, laid out in separate hospital beds, and I recovering in my own room most of the time but allowed to be taken in a wheelchair to see each of my parents when it was clear they weren't going to live anymore. And they didn't. And I went home.
The trustees that are in charge of my parents' money make sure that I get an allowance and nice things and some extra spending money for Christmas, but I don't see much of them personally. I'm supposed to talk to the teaching sisters on call as counselors when I need anything. It's worked okay, so far. But now things are strange... The whole school is different...
I should say that it's just me that's different, but it feels like everything else changed. Maybe I'm just trying to deal with it that way.
I wore my hair short, before I woke up from SCABS this past winter break. I survived the Flu but it got me another way. I'm back now with my hair as long as it was when I woke up, and it's brown and naturally straight. Not even a very dark brown. I still have brown eyes, but I don't feel like they're any part of the old me. The real me.
I have to room with the boys, and they changed everything around; I used to have a roommate but now I don't. Most Juniors who don't pay extra don't get to have a room to themselves. I think they probably doubled up a couple of Seniors so I'd have my own. It's easy to guess why they did it, but they didn't say outright to me, or haven't yet, anyway. I know it's because they don't want anyone to feel strange about rooming with me. Especially if they know I wasn't a boy last semester, or for the past two years at this high school, or for any of my life until this winter.
I'm allowed by the dress code to wear a low ponytail as long as the band is plain navy, black or brown. Girls can wear hair decorations. Boys can wear color in their ties. I'm having a hard time tying mine. I wonder if anyone's noticing that I'm gone, over in the girls' houses. I called a couple of them, but they didn't know what to say so I didn't make many more calls. One of the trustees of my parents' money came to me in the hospital and while he was there he touched the side of my face, and looked sympathetic, and that was nice. But I haven't really seen anyone else that I used to know.
I looked forward to all the girls coming back from their homes, to hearing them talking about what they got for Christmas and all that, but I'm not where they left me. I never talked much to many of the boys. So now I'm kind of nervous to go out and ask anyone to help me with this tie, being that I am a Junior and it'd look stupid. So I keep trying to get it right. I even look old for a Junior. I think I aged forward a little compared to how long my mind has been in any body. In another way I look young, though. Almost babyish. It's probably because my face shows how disoriented I feel inside. It's a thin face, and I look worried most of the time, like right now when I'm trying to work out how to make this tie lie straight. One of the trustees saw to it that I got the right clothes for the boys' uniform. He picked out blue ties with orange, yellow and kelly-green stripes. Also one grey tie for solemn occasions. I keep feeling strange that I'm not wearing tights under my khakis, like somehow I'm underdressed. The weirdest things keep bothering me.
I frown in the mirror at my pale face and see the blush rise before I feel it, and I get more frustrated with this whole thing...
There. Well, I don't know if that's right. But at least it's good as best I can tell.
I don't look dark-skinned even from a distance, and even if you squint. I've tried it, standing out in front of the shopping center downtown that I can walk to from here, backing way up in the parking lot and catching my reflection in the windows and squinting, but I don't look a thing like the person my parents enrolled in this school. I don't know where it all went. I don't understand this disease.
I don't look like a girl, either.
I can't wear my hair out of the ponytail, that's not allowed, but outside of class and assembly I can. This past week I tried braiding it, tight and neat as I could without any help. I've never been good at braiding my own hair, and anyway with how tall I was and my long ladylike neck that my mother admired, I looked good with my hair cut close to my head. I tried braiding this brown hair and leaving it in overnight, and combed it out in the morning to see if it would hold any shape at all. It got a little rippled, but not much. It didn't last long.
I smooth down the front of my shirt and make sure it's even all around, tucked into my khakis, make sure my blazer isn't folded into the back or anything awful like that. I guess I look about like anyone would expect someone from St. Mark's to look. I take up my planner and pencil case and hurry down to choir tryouts.
We have to try out each semester to find out if we're still in the same range within the choir, but now I don't know if I'll even get in.
I'm one of the first ones to the choir room. I don't get stopped much in the halls to talk to people.
The only other student in the room is wearing a small, modified version of a girl's shirt-collar, with the patch we all wear on our breast pockets embroidered very small on the left side. It's the only way I know that she's a student, and she must be a girl; I wouldn't know what to think she was doing here, otherwise.
"Hi." I kind of walk up to the dark-blue parrot sideways, but I try to face forward and look proper. She's got a long tail that lies flat against the back of her chair like a banner, like some of the birds in tropical resort advertisements. No one like this was mentioned in the rooming arrangements last semester. Unless she's another one who's changed over break, she's probably new. "Do you live on campus?"
The student tilts her head slowly. "No, I don't."
The parrot's voice when she replies is like small hammers tapping on something, with a deep tone behind that. It's actually kind of nice. It goes with the black and grey colors on her beak. Other than that she's bluer than the navy blazers we wear; glowing blue, and there's some yellow-orange around her eyes and the black beak.
I start out with what I hope is an easy, safe question around here: "What church do you go to?"
"I go to Wellspring Methodist, across town, when I go outside of school."
Ergh. I thought sure everyone here was Catholic. Me and my big mouth. "So, you're Methodist?"
"Not really. I just go with one of my guardians when he goes."
"So you're Catholic?"
"No, not that either." The bird-student is beginning to see my social distress and a little something like amusement comes into the black eyes. "I used to go to a Lutheran church, with my parents. But... I don't really know, I haven't decided what religion I am yet. One of my guardians wanted me to go to public high school, but I sort of wanted to come here."
Other students start coming in, until there's that time span when the doors don't fall shut between students. Then it slows to a trickle and then we're all here. Everyone looks different from before the vacation, but the same, too. We all kind of look around sideways at each other, and some people, some girls, are squeezing each other's hands and whispering whenever they get a chance, because we're all just returned from Christmas break. I swallow, and it aches a little. I start to try to see over heads and around backs to recognize any faces from my first two-and-a-half years here, but then I remember if I catch their eyes they won't know who I am. I'd have to go up to them and say it out loud, and I can hardly do what it takes just to sit in a chair next to the one the blue bird is perched on the back of. I lap my hands over each other on my planner and set my new-brown eyes straight at the podium where Sister Margaret will be.
"Welcome back, everyone!" Sister Margaret beams and steps to her podium, in her grey plaid skirt and the blouse with the gold and pearl collar-pin, looking us all over with a sort of pleased expectancy. I think she's already trying to figure out how best to put this group to use. There are a few other new students in the room besides the bird, and I look new, and her eyes pause over us for a few moments as she scans the chairs. "I'll call off names, to make sure no one's lost in the halls, and if you're not on here just raise your hand and let me know at the end. Most of you have been in the choir before."
I'm one of the first ones called, alphabetically.
I raise my hand. "Here."
The sister looks at me. She knows most of the students from before, and we know her. Still, she's not sure how best to do this.
"What do you go by?"
"I go by Judith."
Sister Margaret blinks, and her thin lips sort of pinch together, then she seems to feel awkward at her own response and nods, and goes on taking attendance. I look around for a moment, but there are too many eyes on me, all of a sudden. Everyone who didn't know about my SCABS before knows, now, and I feel sorry that I didn't call more of them, because they had to find out in choir tryouts when I can't even talk to them easily. I swallow repeatedly, trying to prepare my voice, such as it is, now.
I hear new names, and several familiar ones; the bird-student next to me answers to Jezalyn Milocevic. I feel her looking at me, too, but I can't look at her and I can't look at Sister Margaret anymore, so I explore my new hands. There's hardly any contrast between the skin on the outside of the nails and the skin underneath.
"Okay, first of all we'll sing as a group so I can walk around and get a feel for where your voices are at." She starts us off on some warm-ups, then conducts the refrain of "Be Not Afraid" and steps into the tiered seating area, to hear us from within the group. This makes me almost as nervous as singing in front of parents and visitors. She might decide not to keep me in the choir.
We stay seated for several refrains of the song, steadily demonstrating our ability to carry a tune in a group. Then Sister Margaret takes us separately into a practice room to demonstrate our ranges individually. We're supposed to warm up, but we can talk to each other quietly.
Leah, a girl from the house I used to live in, walks up to me with her small hands holding her black folder against the front of her skirt. She looks about as uncertain as I feel. We don't have any idea how to go about this. No one ever teaches you. "Judith?"
I cough. My throat is clear, but I feel like I'm drowning. "Hi-- Leah."
She smiles a little. "Hi. Gosh, are you okay?"
What am I supposed to say to that? There's way too much to talk about. I try to think how she means it; what is she really asking? I answer with, "Well, it was-- is-- it's hard, you know? But, I'm here, aren't I?" I try to smile about the same amount she did. It comes out kind of weak.
"Yeah, it's good to see you, I mean, I'm glad you're okay. Jen told me Sister Agatha had to call an ambulance for you over Christmas break. I didn't know what had happened to you."
I nod, feeling like it's rude of me to be here looking like this. "I called some of... I called some girls. But not many knew about it. Not many that didn't stay here for the break."
"Yeah. I suppose this isn't anything you can change."
My drowning goes on. The room might as well be filled to the ceiling in dark water. There's nothing I can say to really save this situation or make any difference. There's just no right answer to anything. "I guess not. I don't know. I guess I've just... I think I'm not able to."
Leah is quiet. Voices warm up, climbing scales, around us. That bird, Jezalyn, is still sitting on the chairback next to me and she must be listening, but she doesn't want to interrupt. "I just wanted to, you know, say hi," Leah says hesitantly.
"Thanks. Yeah, I mean, hi." My clothes feel stifling.
"Talk to us if you need anything. Any of us Bright Day house girls."
I'm supposed to talk to sisters on call as counselors, and now to girls from my old house, so many choices, no one to really talk to. I feel like I'm selfish and like I drew away from them when I did this, got SCABS like this. "Sure. Thanks, Leah."
"You really okay?"
"Sure. It's hard. But I'll be okay."
There's nothing else she can add to that, so she steps to the top vinyl-tiled tier and starts looking into the empty student cubbies, like she's looking for something.
I know I won't talk to her. It's not because I don't want to, either. I thought I was the same person inside and I'm not. This is all wrong. I wish I could room back with the girls and talk to them the way I used to, at night in our rooms when there's no need to cut off the chatter at ten o'clock because you're all the same sex and no one has to go back to anyone's separate house. We could never really have uninterrupted talks with the boys. Not in our houses on campus.
I can only talk to new people, now. If I've never known them from before, there's nothing so changed that it can't ever be recovered. I feel as though I'm going to cry, which of course I will not do in the choir room. I thought girls were supposed to be more emotional, but I guess that's not necessarily true.
"Judith, come on in, please?"
I get up and turn towards the practice room. I see Jezalyn, still looking at me, raise her blue head-feathers forward on her forehead and cheeks. It makes her look pleasant, like she's smiling. My lips turn up just slightly, then I head in to do the rest of my tryout.
"Mr. Asanti." The man teacher looks over his generic black glasses at me and lays his hands out on the papers on his desk. I'm not sure what I'm doing here. I think this is the man who oversees the house I live in now. I'm not sure, though. I thought I knew this school, but that was only one half of it. I only know where I'm going half the time because of helpful students and nameplates on doors. The only men teachers who spoke to me before had directly to do with my classes, not anything to do with housing.
He sighs. His hands rustle on the papers. "I'm not sure how to put this, because I don't want to imply that you have done anything wrong."
Well, that's good, I guess, anyway. But that comes close to sounding like I've done something that looks wrong. "Sir?"
"Sister... Well, some of the teaching sisters in fact, not just one, have mentioned to me during conversation that you are still going by the name of 'Judith'."
"Yes. I am."
His sigh is heavier this time. I think he knows what he wants to say. He's just trying to make it sound more sympathetic by taking a lot of time about doing it. "This concerns me."
I watch him as he rises from his upholstered, wheeled chair and comes around to one side of the desk. On the wall he's in front of now there's a wooden Crucifix of the kind that has enough depth to the cross to hold a holy-water vial in a sliding compartment inside. Sister Agatha has one of those on her wall, too. He takes a long time about coming up with the next words, finally continuing: "Your name could be easily adjusted to a more gender-appropriate version. This has nothing to do with who you are, and everything to do with your school and where you live. Imagine if you were in the girls' housing and had roommates who were not only changed from a male gender, but kept their male names. Wouldn't that... Well, it would make you uncomfortable, wouldn't it?"
I don't know where my reply comes from; maybe some part of me is managing to stay the same in all of this. "I don't know if it would, Sir. If it did, that wouldn't be the boy's problem. It'd be mine."
He stares at me during an uncomfortably long pause. Then, his eyes narrow behind their lenses. "The problem of many girls in a household becomes the problem of the one that caused it. The same goes for a boy, living with other boys, trying to maintain a peaceful household as we all must. Mr. Asanti, I can understand your desire to keep your original name. But, it is still your given name, and no one can take it away from you. For the sake of school interaction, I ask that you refrain from using the feminine version."
"Do you want to cause a problem?"
I shake my head. "My name isn't Jude. It's Judith. My parents wanted me to come here and I've lived here since they died. If the boys have any problem with me, tell me and I'll try to talk to them. I promise I will. No one has complained yet."
The teacher finally notices that I'm shaking. I don't think he wants a sobbing ex-girl on his hands, so he sits down again and waves a hand slowly at the door. "You're dismissed, Mr. Asanti. I trust you will employ good judgement as the semester progresses."
"I'll try my best, Sir." Teachers like to hear that. I turn away from him as soon as I can possibly twist up out of the chair, and stride fast out the door.
I raise my hand. "Some people say angels are androgynous. Are they?"
The sister looks at me sympathetically, knowing in a way why I'm asking, but that expression doesn't last very long and she stands straight and professional and explains, "Well, angels are often portrayed in art as being androgynous. But, although there are not Earthly relationships in Heaven, there do seem to be genders... The gender roles are not physical, but they are there. Now, we sometimes don't know how God's Kingdom works, specifically. But the gender of angels seems to have to do with their roles as protectors and messengers more than with physical form."
I just don't know anymore. I could ask another sister down the hall and get a completely different answer, even though they're all of the same religion and I don't think any of this is in the Bible anyway. I don't even know why I'm asking, except that somehow it must be important that if God sends these spirits to watch over us then I want to have something in common with them. They can be better than us and all. I just don't want them to be aliens. "How did the Church decide to consider them male saints?"
"They appear with male names in the Bible, the four we recognize as saints. Their influence seems to be masculine, in that men were more respected than women in those times."
A girl raises her hand. She's wearing satin bows in her ponytail. I think I remember her name, Ginny, but I don't know her well. "I thought all angels were saints."
The teacher shakes her head, with a pleasant expression, glad that we're asking questions. "Anyone can be an angel, by virtue of living in Heaven. But to be a saint, meaning canonized by the Church, someone has to be involved with miraculous deeds-- think of miraculous healings at the graves of saints. Also, sainthood has to do with being able to intercede with God for those who pray to the saint. The saint is someone who has merit the rest of us don't, who can speak for us before God."
"You mean they put in a good word for us."
The sister nods to the student who just spoke. "That's right."
I speak up again. "The saints, the four angels who are saints, could they appear in either form? I mean, now that people might listen to women-- might, you know-- couldn't they appear in either form?"
The sister shrugs a little. "I suppose they could. That's not something that Church authorities seem to involve themselves much with."
I just nod. I didn't figure they would.
I put a blade in the flecked-grey plastic razor and brave my reflection again for another bout. The face in the mirror looks angry at me, knowing full well I'm going to probably slice him up somewhere during the course of this. And I don't care. He took away everything until all I've got left is this sad-eyed reflection that turns angry and bleeds red darker than his own skin. If it didn't hurt, I might be tempted to not be careful at all. But he is me.
Damn. Another nick.
I wander into the commons area in Dales Hall long before dinner break is over. I didn't want to stay chatting in the dining room after I finished eating. The food is the same, the tables and low but vaulted ceilings are the same, but at Bright Day house all the clamoring voices were different. I feel surrounded by people who will eventually kick me out for being in the wrong place, even though there's really nothing wrong with what I'm doing or the way I look. The boys call me Judith and they don't seem to mind. They don't give me too hard a time, but I think some of them told their parents about me because I got taken aside again by the a counselor as if some parent got nervous about Situations at this school. I just said something about certainly not wanting any trouble in the school, and then the next boy I saw I asked him if he minded calling me Judith. He shrugged and said, "No, whatever, man." Then he ran off to class. So if I don't stop them from calling me by my real name, and I don't encourage it either, I don't see how I can be a troublemaker either way.
Someone is playing some kind of music in the commons area, but I can't see to the furthest tables because the lights in half the room are dimmed. I wander closer to the sound, and it's just one instrument, as if someone is playing a single violin but keeping its volume at speaking level.
I still can't see anyone else here, until I come around the side of a pillar and see Jezalyn, perched on the curved back of a wooden chair in one of the matching sets throughout the room. Her beak is half open, and there's no instrument or recording device anywhere.
"Is that... you?" I ask, pointing at her rudely with the planner I'm holding in my left hand.
The violin stops. I'm almost sorry I said anything. It made the room seem full in a nice way. "Yes, it's me." Her voice is as I remember it from choir tryouts the other day. It seems like a deep voice shouldn't be feminine, but she reminds me of some speakers I've heard that people really admire; women with rich, almost rough voices. Like they could build with their voices. I doubt I could ever have had a voice like that, even in my old body.
"How do you... do that?"
She tilts her head from side to side. "I'm not sure. It took some practice to get the hang of it. I'm not sure whether real macaws can do it or not, but I can."
"You are a real macaw."
"You know... hatched ones."
I nod. "Your name's Jezalyn, isn't it?"
The blue head feathers fluff up a little bit around the yellow trim on her face. "Yes."
"That's a nice name."
"Thank you. I like yours. Judith."
"Did you get into the choir?"
She scratches at the top of her head with a claw, like it's some kind of bird expression, only I'm not sure what it means. I think she's smiling. "Yes. Did you?"
"Yes. I can hardly believe it, but I still got in."
"You have a marvelous voice."
I sit down carefully on a chair across from her. "Wow I-- don't think anyone's used the word 'marvelous' to describe my singing. Thanks."
She chuckles. "Really, your voice is good. Mine is only so-so."
"No! Ha. It's a really nice voice. Honest. Mine... Well, maybe I'm just not used to mine." I pick at some paper squiggles that stick out from the top of my planner notebook.
Maybe she does. Maybe she's one of a very few people in St. Mark's who could actually understand that. "Jezalyn?"
"Um... you said... you're not Catholic. But you wanted to come here. Why?"
"Well because..." the student shifts weight from one foot to the other on the back of the chair. "Public school has more-- you know, it's not so private. Obviously. I had a bad experience with SCABS and I don't want to be in a place where it feels like it could happen again. So one of my guardians, Gabe, said I could come here."
"Why didn't your-- the other guardian-- the one you mentioned in choir--" this is plenty awkward, isn't it. Maybe I shouldn't have asked anything in the first place-- "want you to come here? Why did he or she want you to go to a public school? Too expensive or something?"
"No, he... Well, Kent's not sure he wants anyone telling me to be a certain religion. He's not sure what religion to be either."
I feel my cheeks getting hot while we talk, like I'm blushing because the room is warm-- only it's not, it's cool in here, and I'm afraid she will begin to notice. I don't know whether she notices or not, but she focuses one black eye full on me and asks, "When I tell my guardians I met a new friend here, should I tell them I met a boy or a girl?"
That's easy, anyway. "A boy."
"Okay. I wanted to ask because--"
"Okay." She does that feather-smile thing again and makes a deep chirping sound.
I shrug. "I just want to be called by the name my parents gave me." I probably sound a little defensive.
"I can understand that."
I look at her. She can't look much like her parents. I draw in a deep breath. She said she met a 'friend'. Maybe that means something. Maybe we're enough alike and new enough to each other that I can talk to her. I've been doing it so far and she hasn't gotten angry or anything.
"Can you do electric guitar?"
Her blue feathers raise even further and they seem to change into different colors of blue, with little streaks of grey, because of the angle of light. "Sure. It just didn't seem like St. Mark's style stuff. I can do individual percussion, too."
"Really?" This is beyond cool.
Jezalyn does a little snatch of the guitar from the Jade Rings' "Roses in Mourning". It's one of the best, and strangest, things I've heard, just that bit of the instrumental parts taken out and sung at whim, here.
"That's good, I like that song," I tell her, pleasing her, since she didn't tell me ahead of time what it was. "Can you do percussion from Gargoyle Ledge? Um... 'Murder Holes'?"
"I can try... But, it'll just be snatches, I have to kind of jump back and forth to make it so you can recognize the song it's from."
"Go for it."
She can even do cymbals. It's weird, but so neat. I shiver a little, listening to it, because it shouldn't be possible coming from someone who was just talking like a human. I guess birds are just made differently.
"I think we'd better head to class," she says when she's done. "Are you walking by the gym?"
"You're right, we should. And, I can be, yeah. Want me to walk you?"
"Please. That'd be nice." She opens her wings, and I'm a little startled at the span. I also notice that every other long feather in her broad, pointed wings is missing. They're impressive, though. That same blue with downy shadings in the pits where they attach to her torso. She loosens her hold on the back of the chair and flaps strongly, so I feel the wind from it brush the hair on the back of my hand. Then she sort of clumps to the floor, but not very hard.
"Why are you missing some feathers? It... seems like it'd make it harder flying. Don't you get tired walking?"
"Sometimes. But I can have a student carry me from class to class if I need it." She chuckles. "I have kind of a long tail. I wouldn't want people to step on it and then feel awful. Anyway. Well, half my primaries are clipped on purpose so that I won't get carried off by wind too easily, if I go outside. I'm not too great a flier. I could get caught up and get lost or some other thing like that. This gives me just enough lift to get to the back of a chair." She raises her feathers in her smiling expression.
"Don't you have any books to carry? Can I help you with anything?"
"That's okay, thanks. My instructors all keep my books for their classes with them, and I have other copies at home."
"Yeah. Okay, off to gym."
"You want to walk? Because I could carry you."
"Would you? If you really don't mind."
"I really don't mind. Er... How do I... How should I pick you up?"
Jezalyn walks in a sort of rolling gait with her talons clicking on the tile, over to the toes of my shoes and looks up at me. "If you like, you can just hold your forearm in front of me and I'll climb on. I have to take hold with my beak for a second, for balance. Is that all right?"
"That's fine." I can see why she warned me. That is a powerful-looking beak. I crouch down and hold my arm out for her, shaking a little and feeling my blush increase. I just hope she'll tell me if I do anything wrong.
The bird-girl climbs on. I can feel her beak through my blazer and shirt sleeve, but it's not uncomfortable at all. Her claws cling around my arm firmly and we go off to class.
We all stand for the prayer at the end of Chapel assembly, and I stare at my hands and try to figure out how they fit together. They seem so strange, it doesn't make any sense that they fold the same as before. The closing prayer ends and when the ones who were lagging verbally are done with their last syllables, we snatch up our stuff and clatter to the doors. The Freshman who was to my right in the pew clasps a Freshman English book to his chest and looks up at me through translucent tan glasses. He wrinkles up his nose like something just irritated him, like it seems a lot of the Freshmen do whether anything is bothering them or not.
"Hey, Judith," he says.
I look down at him. "What."
"Is that your real name?"
"Yeah." I frown a little, even though I don't mean to.
"I heard you singing during Chapel."
"Well, yeah." He was standing right next to me.
"You know what? Don't take this insulting or anything, you sound like those black gospel singers. Don't take this insulting or anything."
I stumble over someone else's heels in the hall. "Sorry," I say to the student in front of me. To the Freshman beside me I say, "Thanks."
"Yeah. Seeya." He wrinkles up his nose and scutters away into a room. I don't know whether to carry myself one notch higher after that, or not.
Visiting Jezalyn's apartment for the first time is kind of unnerving. I haven't met anyone else's parents outside of quick handshakes at St. Mark's for a long time. But she invited me and I really wanted to go. I'm just not used to visiting off campus and I'm sweating, which makes me more nervous. One of her guardians picks her up after school as usual and this time I'm standing there in my extra sweater and extra slacks, so I don't destroy my uniform by accident outside of school and have to spend my next allowance on new clothes.
"It's Kent," Jezalyn says to me happily from her place on my arm. She's wearing a little jacket that velcros under her wings, as protection for her chest from the chill weather. I tug at my collar. It doesn't feel chill enough, to me, out here.
The long, beige, oldish-looking car pulls up to the curb by the St. Mark's visitors' parking sign and I stand for a moment, not knowing whether to open the door and put Jez in the car or not. But a very tall man gets out from the driver's side and comes around to open our door for us.
The man smiles. I feel startled. I almost don't know how to smile back, but at the same time I really like him. I don't like my own face in the mirror, but someone who resembles me shows up and I just like him right away. I'm not even close to understanding any of this SCABS thing. He's got short hair, with little highlights in it of various greys and blonds and browns, and his eyes are lighter colored than mine, but he sure feels familiar.
"Hello," he says, holding out his left arm for Jez to climb onto. That's so he can shake right hands with me.
"Kent, this is Judith. Judith, Kent."
"Enchanted," Kent beams, and waves me smoothly into the car. He opens up the back door and puts Jez into some kind of plexiglass box, probably because she can't wear a seat belt. The cold seats smell familiar, like when I used to ride to church with my parents.
"What're you two up to this afternoon?" Kent asks pleasantly, glancing into the rearview mirror at Jezalyn.
"Um, nothing much, going to put on some music."
"We like some of the same kind of music," I mumble, trying not to sound shy.
Kent grins again. "Sounds good. When do you have to be back, Judith?"
"Well, we'll have to do dinner, then, and keep you out as long as you can stay. How's that sound?"
"All right." That's more than I'd hoped for, but that also means I'll be eating with people I don't know, and I'll have to hope I don't do anything stupid and screw up the first time I've really visited Jezalyn.
Jezalyn bobs pleasedly on her perch in the box. "Is Gabe coming?"
"No. He has to leave for rehearsal soon, but us three'll go out. Okay?"
Gabe is still at the apartment when we get there. I thought Kent was very tall. If I'm six foot or so, Kent's probably six-six. Now I have to come up with something that means "about seven feet tall" that doesn't mess up the comparison. I guess all I can think of is that Gabe's also pretty dang tall. I'm almost as tall as I used to be, but not quite. Although I guess I might grow some more yet.
"Hello," he huffs in a deep voice. It's easy not to stare, because my eyes are kind of drawn to every part of him at once. He must be a wildebeest-morph. He looks just like a wildebeest in clothes. He doesn't have the yellow eyes, though. His are grey. He looks like he's brushed his fur until it's ribbon-smooth. "This must be Judith."
"Yes." I step forward and offer my hand. He takes it. His is warm.
His ears flick backward and then forward again. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, as well." I can't think of anything else to say. Kent and Jezalyn close the door behind us and hang up coats, and Jez saves me by saying, "Judith and I are gonna listen to music, so maybe you could clear out of the living room."
Gabe rotates his ears to focus full on her, and something about his expression makes me feel a lot better. He's not completely stern. "Oh, it's just clear out, Gabe, is it? Find yourself another handsome man first semester at a new school and I'm just a throwaway. You really know how to make a guy feel special, Jez."
Jezalyn clicks her tongue to the top of the inside of her beak. "Please let us have the living room. Please? You have to go to rehearsal soon anyway, don't you, Mom?"
Kent chuckles softly and watches Gabe's involuntary shudder at that. "Not fair, Jez," Gabe grumbles.
"It is fair! She does it to me and you laugh at me!" Kent laughs out loud now, and I smile. I guess I can get along here all right.
"Well, I have to do whatever you say, now, Jezalyn Princess," Gabe says, going for his coat. He blows a little breath out his wide nostrils over the top of Jezalyn's head. "Have fun and be sure and drive Kent up a wall. I won't be here to do it until at least eleven tonight."
"Will do," Jez tells him amusedly, and the wildebeest kisses Kent on the forehead and leaves.
"All right, I'll get out of your way too, now," Kent offers. "Lemme know if you need anything."
"'Kay." Jezalyn trots over to the wooden frame of the kind of small entertainment center. Kent closes a door to another room behind him. In this room, besides the media center Jez is heading towards, there's a computer and a couple of chairs, a long davenport, and a large, heavy parrot cage on wheels. It contains a lot of colorful equipment: dishes, toys, perching areas. I guess that's probably Jezalyn's 'room'.
I nod towards the cage. "You like it in there?"
"I like it. It's secure." Jezalyn begins climbing the frame of the entertainment center. Guiding and pulling herself with her beak, she sets her talons on the top level and begins lifting and moving CD's that are scattered around on top of the player. "What should we have first?"
I'd like to hear her do some more music with her own voice, but it may be best to start out with the recordings and see if I'm not too shy to bring it up again later. Besides, maybe this will inspire her. "You said you have Shared-Space and Tiedown live?"
"Yeah. Coming right up."
I fold my arms together around myself and kind of stand near the front door, glancing around a bit, but then I have to watch Jezalyn put on a CD, just to see how she does it with that beak and those feet. She sees me watching and her eyes sparkle gently. "I haven't scratched one yet."
The macaw takes up one of the cases in her talon, not lifting it all the way, just standing it on end, and clicks it open with her beak. Then she opens her beak further, touching her dry pink-black tongue to the edge of the CD, and sinks the tip of her upper beak into the center of the case. She presses until the CD is loose, then lifts the whole thing with her beak spanning half of it, taps the player eject button with one toe, and settles the CD into place.
"Yeah... Wow, you're pretty good with your beak."
"Thanks. You're pretty good with your body, your voice. You know, you look good. You do a good job."
"I hope I do. I try. Thanks, Jezalyn."
"I mean it. I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it."
"Have a seat! Floor, couch, whatever. Let's see how long it takes Kent or the neighbors to complain about this."
I sit, sprawled on the davenport. Jezalyn cranks up the volume knob and we both begin to stare at the ceiling in a sort of almost-painful vibration induced high.
"This is cool," I say. It feels strange to talk at all with music that loud in my ears.
Jezalyn says something in reply, but I can't hear it. She climbs halfway down the entertainment center frame, away from where she could knock any CD's down by mistake, then spreads her wings and flaps across to the davenport to perch beside me.
I let the crashing volume get me into a zoned area of my brain where the most important thing is that someone else is listening to the same music, and not caring how loud it is, either. Sometimes I just like the noise of instrumental parts, no voices. This is good for that. A lot of heavy percussion. I and Jezalyn can be the only people, anywhere, because the only thing that matters is who's listening, not even who's playing. Sometimes I like a good long drum solo with no voices sneaking in to ruin it.
I admire voices. I just like to hear what I don't have to emulate, sometimes. Jezalyn can emulate drums. I wonder whether the instrumental parts sound like singing, to her. I don't ask her, though. I just listen and feel grateful that she invited me over.
I have the solo for "I Will Not Go Quietly," for the choir performance at an open Chapel assembly. Sister Margaret says she's been impressed with my work this winter, considering what I've been through physically.
I believe in my parents being able to listen, but I think a lot about the teaching sisters and Kent and Gabe, too. I'd like to impress them. I know they're here because Jezalyn is here, and it's her they admire of the members of the choir, but still I am selfish enough to think maybe they'll care how well I do. The same with the instructors; they're supposed to like us all equally. But one time or another I'd like to be doing well enough that they notice me in the group.
I know Sister Margaret is happy; she nods approval and her eyes are snapping excitedly at us as she conducts the group. Between numbers she'll whisper advice, but during she seems to be pretty pleased with how we're doing it. The visitors do a lot of smiling, but they do that anyway. I wonder how many parents will complain while they're here, about how this girl-boy named Judith is in their son's house and how they don't feel the boys should be exposed to such ambiguity. But the boys themselves don't seem to mind me. They just sort of let me exist around them and don't seem to care. Maybe it's just as well that I had to have the separate bedroom.
Somehow, no matter what I do, my voice just doesn't sound strong enough, to me. I'm told I sing with a fervor that comes out of nowhere and that I'm almost hard to sing with, sometimes, hard to follow, but easy to listen to... But it's all just because I can't do it strong enough, right enough, the same enough. Not the same as before. No one else has told me that I sound 'black', since that one Freshman did earlier in the semester. I remember him saying that so easily that I wonder why I even bother to make it mean so much; did he know what he was talking about, anyway? I try, I sing until I feel like insides of me are burning, my blood changing where I can't see it, but nothing changes when I'm done. I've just done a good job singing. And to know that, I have to hear it from other people.
Kent and Gabe do praise Jezalyn and I highly after the assembly. They're dressed up and Gabe looks comfortable in a suit but Kent isn't wearing one-- he's in a man's silk blouse and slacks and dress shoes. He tells me that he doesn't look good in suits and never did. He tells me I look good in mine, though, and that in a lot of ways I remind him of himself, if I don't mind his saying so. I tell him that doesn't bother me. And it doesn't. But at the same time I feel guilty, in the pit of my stomach where I was finally feeling open and clear because the butterflies were all gone from the detailed and hurried choir preparation. I don't mind being compared to Kent. And he's never been anything near resembling my ancestors in his life. I hate feeling guilty and feeling good at the same time. I can't get mad at him, this is no time and place to be upset for any other reason, so I probably confuse everyone by just sort of going blank.
"I like singing in the same choir with you, Judith," Jezalyn says quietly, to see if I'm upset about something to do with the assembly.
"That makes me proud to hear," I tell her, but inside I'm sinking. "I guess... I'd better go back to my house."
"Okay." She's clearly disappointed. There's a gathering and now she won't know whether I'll come back for any of it or not. I'm not sure, myself, so I don't know what to say.
"Want us to walk you there?" Gabe asks, I think probably to try to emphasize that I have visitors.
"No. No, thanks. Thanks so much for the compliments." I back away and head out the doors, only now because I did a solo there are a lot of people who stop me to talk to me. Some of them know my name on the program from my first two years here. I'm sure more recognize me than stop me, but only the ones who feel comfortable with my SCABS actually take me aside to say hello and tell me I did an excellent job and ask things like isn't Sister Margaret just a wonderful choir director and don't you just love working with her. And I nod, and everything, and back in the milling people still leaving their pews I can see Gabriel and Kent and somewhere Jez is perching on a pew, but I can't see her.
I roll up a program in my hand to stop some of the sweat, and shake a lot of hands, and hardly look anyone in the eye. Then I go back to the boys' house where I live.
Jezalyn walks back and forth across Kent's shoulders and upper back, scratching it for him. The three of us play Scrabble on their living room floor.
"Kent," Jez says conversationally, "tell Judith how it is you know you're a woman who loves women, in a man's body, when you love another woman-in-a-man's-body. He's too shy to ask and he wants to know."
I blush. Can I help it if I never knew anybody like this, and now with the way I've been changed I might have to figure out the same sorts of things about myself?
"I see a good word you could make, Kent," Jezalyn continues, peering over the man's thin shoulder at the tray of letters. "I see one and I'm not going to tell you."
"Oh, great, thanks so much. Ummm..." Kent adds to "bit" to make "bitch".
"Is that allowed?" I grin.
"It is now."
"Oh... Well then I see a few more words I could make."
"Hey! I didn't use it as a vulgar term. No purely vulgar terms allowed."
"Isn't that kind of arbitrary?"
"I set the rules. I'm older and wiser."
Jezalyn laughs. Kent growls, but he doesn't manage to sound very mean. "Judith, you wanted to know what Jezalyn just told me to tell you?"
I lower my cheek to my shoulder, not knowing what to say to that without sounding rude one way or another. It's one of those funny-but-not-funny things... You can ask someone about anything, except about being another sex inside, or loving the same sex... Then it's just never considered polite, but you can ask even a stranger about almost anything else. Kent takes that as a 'yes', and nods to me. "Took me awhile to figure it out. I didn't wonder for a long time, then I thought I was bisexual. I'd be attracted mostly to girls but to some men, too, only I didn't know that some men were actually women. But maybe that was the difference I was seeing in them. I don't know."
I add to "keep" to spell "keeper". Jezalyn makes a clicking sound as she continues to walk back and forth across Kent. "Exciting game," she notes. "You two are really going for the big scores here, aren't you."
"At least he has some vowels," Kent protests. "I don't see you offering any hints."
"Two against one wouldn't be fair, and I don't want to play alone."
"Well then don't complain about our game!"
Jezalyn fluffs up her nape-feathers in a sort of grin. "Okay. Go ahead, don't mind me, you'll never get out of the middle of the board, but that's okay."
Kent spells "feeler" with "feel" crossing "keep", apparently having drawn at least one vowel in his last turn. Jezalyn chuckles, and Kent turns his head partially to look warningly back at her.
"Gabe probably showed me who I am, in a way," Kent continues while I ponder my word options. "Knowing who he is kind of clarified it for me. Before that I never interacted much with girls or guys beyond 'accidentally' meeting up with them in halls at school. You know, kind of paying attention to the class schedules of cute girls."
I nod. "I have a whole word here, in my tray, but there's no way to use it, even if I use a letter from it on the board..."
"I still see a good word Kent could use," Jezalyn says maddeningly.
I end up spelling "bitchy" with Kent's "bitch" from before.
"That's borderline, there, Judith," Kent says lazily.
"You going to veto it?"
"Naw. You know someone else you could talk to, if you ever wanted to... I should give you Angelo Eagan's number. He's sustained similar effects from SCABS."
Jezalyn holds out one of her long wings, showing the clipped primaries. "My groomer."
"Oh..." Maybe there are more people like me than I realized. Maybe not many can tell, looking at me-- if I changed my name, how many people would know? I look at the board and the game we have going does seem kind of meager. "Sure, I mean, yeah I'd like his number... I don't know how to just call someone up and ask about that stuff, though."
"That's okay, at least you'll know you're not the only one."
"Right... Your turn."
"I know. If you saw what I have in this tray, you'd give me some of your letters in sheer pity."
"I doubt it. I'm too selfish and ruthless for that."
"Fine. I guess I'm stuck making 'keepers' out of 'keeper'."
"I still see a good one you could do," Jezalyn reminds him.
"Still? Judith hasn't snagged the space yet? Gawm, I hate having you looking at my letters when I'm losing at this."
"But you like the back-scratching."
"Yes." Kent stirs around in the letters that are still in the box, acting like he wants to turn them over. "I like the back-scratching."
Suddenly I miss my parents. It doesn't seem so far away, this semester. It's as if they died when I shifted. But I don't say anything. I just don't know what there is to say. I pluralize "feeler" with my next turn, and I don't mind when Jez laughs at us, again. She has a pleasant laugh.
Jezalyn perches on the edge of the fountain that's turned off for winter, wearing her jacket that velcros under her wings and covers her chest. I lean back with my palms and seat on the fountainside and look up.
Jez leans over the side, in towards the dry concrete, and nudges flecks of granite set in the fountain, scraping them idly with her beak. "What are you thinking of, Judith?"
I'm thinking of how pointless I am. All this my ancestors and parents went through, all it took to get me here, and now it's all pointless, because of me. I feel like the last one left alive and like I've failed. Maybe it's a hopelessness that's just from February and slow times of year and stuff; maybe it'll pass. I'd like to get up some morning and not hate what I see when I open my eyes. It'll probably pass. That's what I'm thinking of.
"Want to see what I used to look like?" Maybe Jez of all people would actually appreciate it.
"Sure." She leans up towards me interestedly, seeing me take out my wallet. I flip it open to my photo from Sophomore year. I'm not smiling in it; I probably look a little stuck-up. But it's better than this year's will be.
Jezalyn makes a churring sound. "You were gorgeous! I mean-- you look good now, too, you know. You really are good-looking."
I smile a little awkwardly. It'd have been nice to have met her when I was still me. "You must have looked nice, too."
"I was too fat and I had pimples. I really did."
"Naw, I'll bet you were pretty."
"Thanks for saying so, but I wasn't!"
I wonder how many races and minds and prides are obscured behind all these shapes people are in because of SCABS. It makes nationalities seem sort of passe, but still it matters to me where my ancestors came from. Only now it's hard for me to approach other African-Americans, because I'd have to explain why I have anything in common with them and why I want to talk to them about where they originated.
I had thought I might go into cultural studies. Now I have no idea what to do. I might still do it. Make up a way to ask people, people who look like other species and other races than what they started out as: What made you who you are? What are you proud of that no one can see?
I almost ask Jezalyn what happened to her parents, but I don't. I fold up my wallet and put it back in my pocket.
Jez begins quietly imitating an electric guitar, to the melody line of "Tall Skies." I smile a little. This always makes me do that, when the recognition of the tune clicks in my brain. "That's neat," I say. She stops long enough to thank me, then keeps on until my watch alarm goes off for dinner; we can barely hear the bell from out by the fountain.
"Want me to carry you to your dining room, Jez?"
I've gotten so I'm sort of the particular person who carries Jezalyn most places. It makes me feel singled out for something important, anyway. My blazer is unbuttoned in front and lifts up over my shirt in back, from the wind and my fast pace across the cement towards one of the girls' dining rooms. That's one thing; it's easier to run in khakis than it is in a skirt. But just because I can do something doesn't mean I have to be happy about it.
I sit among Gabe, Kent and Jezalyn on their long sofa and look at my slacks. There aren't any wrinkles to smooth out so I just sit there. I feel comfortable sitting like this, and I wish I could show it, but I don't know how to. Gabe is thumbing through a telephone directory looking for the perfect place to eat.
Jezalyn leans into Kent, rubbing the side of her head against his hip. He slowly ruffles her nape-feathers.
I think of something at least somewhat emotionally involved to say. "Are your parents living, Kent?" They already know what happened to mine. I've been good about talking about it without overreacting in front of anyone, but maybe it's masochistic to bring up anything close to the topic on my own. It's all I can think of that sounds like I really care what goes on in their lives, though.
He nods, sort of moving his glance off to one side like he's not sure how to look at me, either.
"They are, yeah."
I'm not sure whether to say anything else to that or not. Gabe snorts at the telephone directory.
"Your parents," Kent says, pointing to Gabe, as if the blue-brindled man said something specific, "your parents, they're frightening. Especially the Reverend."
"The Reverend is the Reverend Carter, Gabriel's father," Jezalyn explains to me.
"He's amazing," Kent emphasizes.
Gabe hruffs noncommitally. "Yeah, he's all right."
"Are you kidding?" Kent rubs Jez's feathers with a little more emphasis, talking with his hands while he's still touching her. "There's a hole where my parents were supposed to go, you know, and he just walks in and dumps in all this dangerous level of affection like he's trying to kill me by overfeeding. You're used to it, so you don't know. Try not having anyone act like that around you for most of your life and then get hugged by your dad."
"What do you mean, Kent, about your mom and dad and Gabe's dad?" I inquire, hoping it's an intimate enough question but not too intimate.
"Oh, I... I just don't see them much, they pretty much left me alone."
He looks at me, finally. "All alone. Just alone."
I get frightened. "I have heard of people dying from that. Children can die from that." Somehow I'm afraid he might still die from it, even though he's here and he's already said that Gabe and Jezalyn and Gabe's people fill in the spaces.
Kent nods. "I know. Don't worry. There was a housekeeper, saved my life. Told me I was a good kid."
I try to keep my face straight and dignified, but I think of empty houses and it's difficult. "Some people... Some people just die when they're alone. I learned about it in a film at school that I was watching in the library. It said people need to be with someone. It said they could just die because they'd rather not do anything else."
"Don't worry about it, now," Gabe says, "None of us is alone. What about Chinese..?"
"It's all right, Gabe's right. You're not alone, Judith. We just had Chinese last night, Gabriel." Kent pats my shoulder. I can't explain to him that I don't even feel worried about me. Jezalyn grinds her beak in that comfortable way, but I think she's trying to make me feel better.
All I can think is that one of these people might drift off into the other room or something and leave before we can say anything to them. Maybe they all will, and I'll be the only one left. And I won't go into the other room at all because there won't be anything I can say. I know it doesn't make any difference worrying, and it doesn't make any sense to be worrying about it now, but I feel like I almost want to worry. Like I want to feel the unease.
"The housekeeper wouldn't have been Thai, by any chance, would they?" Gabe asks casually, to draw attention away from my anxiety.
Kent grins. "Yes, she was. Is. She went back to Thailand with her family, but not until I graduated. Her son Bobby told me that she said... that my parents were fools."
"They are," snorts Gabe. "Threw away about the cuddliest, sweetest kid in the country. I can't say I have much respect for them, Kent."
"Yeah. Well." It's hard to tell whether Kent is uncomfortable with that or not. "Well, yeah, she's Thai. And she went with me when I had my learner's permit and had to have a licensed driver in the car to learn how to drive. She--"
Gabe snorts again, this time pleasantly. He certainly has a repertoire of many emotions in the antelope voice. "Thai food I guessed must have come from other than your parents, but I wouldn't have known the driving did." He turns to me. "Kent loves Thai food and driving."
I nod. I smile a little. "I know. I've been out with him and Jez, so I know."
"I like singing, too," Kent adds, not necessarily in a defensive way; maybe he's sad thinking about the housekeeper. "I could do that by myself."
"I love singing, too," I say.
"I know you do," Kent tells me immediately. "You have a fine voice, too, Judith. You are a wonderful singer."
Gabe speaks. "Well, I think I got one thing from my dad, and that's the propensity for lecturing..."
"And being good at it," Kent adds to Gabe's words.
"Well, as that may be. But yeah, he's certainly quite a speaker."
"The Reverend's like that even when you just talk to him," Jezalyn offers. She stretches her beak-joints and looks at me hopefully, wanting me to cheer up. "Walks up and starts speaking to you. Only he always reaches out with his arms, too, like he's going to wrap you up in what he's saying."
"It's a habit I could stand to get into," Gabe muses.
"Well, he's got presence, that's for sure," Kent agrees.
I look at the floor. I stand up onto it and head for the restroom, but so they'll know why I'm going I have to explain, "I used to have a dad like that." Then I just leave, quickly. I shut the bathroom door and lock it and try to cry, but I'm too collected and can't. I just shake a lot.
They don't come after me. I'm not very pleasant company, ever. I just always don't know what to do with myself. I should never have brought up the topic of parents. I just don't know how to go about any of this. Even with practice and months going by it's so hard to learn how to do any of this.
I don't look in the mirror. That's the last thing I need. Finally there's a tap, low down, at the door, and I know it's Jezalyn knocking with her beak. "We're going to get ready to go out now, you ready? You all right, Judith?"
I hold my face tight in my hands for a second, then swipe a brush through my hair once or twice and stand up and straighten my shirt. "Yeah. I'm fine."
I step out, careful not to step on Jezalyn. "Jez, I'm sorry about that. Do they think I'm stupid now?"
"Of course not. Pick me up?"
I lean down and she climbs onto my arm. For a moment she acts like she's off-balance, like she has to nudge her beak into my chest to steady herself, but then I don't think that's what she's really doing. I'd hug her, but I don't know if she likes her wings touched without good warning. The feeling of being nuzzled a little is nice, though.
"You sure you feel like going out, Judith?"
"Of course. Anything's better than St. Mark's food."
She looks up at me, still leaning in a little. "You don't need anything else, anymore time? To talk about anything? Your parents..."
I shrug. "It's okay."
She shakes her head and makes a small clicking sound. "I thought you'd be upset, you know, after you left the room like that... Are you sure, Judith? You just never seem to get upset. And I would. Get upset, I mean. Anyone would."
"I get upset."
That doesn't really leave it open for more discussion on her part. I look at her and wonder where it goes, sometimes, when I was just clutching at my face like it should come off in my hands, and now I'm composed and I'm telling the truth when I say I'm ready to go out. I think I am, anyway.
Jezalyn slides her beak across the top of my hand, but then smiles with her eyes and feathers. "Well, if you're sure, then we're set to go. If you're sure."
"I just don't see how you're so calm all the time."
I nod. "So, shall we?"
"Yes." Jez holds my arm evenly in her black feet. I touch the side of her cheek, once, then we head out.
I wake up remembering that I had a dream and wishing that I hadn't. This one didn't have my mother in it. Instead, girlfriends from past school years stood with me on a platform, a wide gangplank sloped up towards a glittering ship that was white-sailed and lanterned against the black sky. Strangers were there too, all colors and in many kinds of clothing and jewelry and hairstyles. Beside me stood Leah, shiny black Oriental hair done up in curls as if she'd just been to a hairdresser's.
I was in the form I've woken up in, this lanky male white thing. My hair spread light and brown over my shoulders, and I held one thumb upside-down to my lips and nibbled the nail fretfully. I haven't done that since I changed.
No one seemed to mind or notice my sex or my color. We were going onto the ship, that much was plain. There was no place to back off into, the only way was forward onto the ship on the night-mirrored waves. I was anxious, we were all anxious, because we wanted to be brave but there was no choice but to walk onto that ship and make the trip 'they' wanted us to make. There was a name of a leader, but it can't be right, now that I'm awake; it was the name of an African leader, and I don't see how he could be the leader of the slavers. Although I guess whoever could make money, sold.
Leah leaned close to me and said, "Well, I have one plan. We have to just refuse to get off. When they land the boat, we have to refuse to get off."
"They'll kill us all," I said, but I felt like I was withholding something.
"We'll all refuse to leave the ship."
"No," I told her, biting my thumbnail. "We can't resist. If we do, we won't end up later on in America."
The dream didn't go on long after that. There was nowhere for it to go. There's nowhere for me to go, either. I'm lying here spread out in my plain-white school bed, sweaty from sleep, and I don't want to get up because all day I'll be remembering what I said in that dream. I'll go through the motions, but there's not really anything else that's as important as this.
Maybe my mother can't even recognize me in this shape. If she could, she would probably be ashamed of me. No wonder she wasn't there.
I pick up the flecked-grey plastic razor and hold it to my cheek. The boy's face in the mirror is already wincing reproachfully at me. He knows he's going to bleed all over that sorry new face of his before I'm done.
I grit my teeth. Supper was the same. Limp vegetables and linen-colored breads and 'tortillas', neon yellow lemon bars and about a hundred pairs of slacks and shoes sliding and kicking in and out of benches and chairs, going to and from the supper line and back and making a lot of noise about it, too. Not one girl in the whole house. I'm not anyone's daughter anymore.
I clench my fingers around the razor handle and feel a sickness below my ribs, about Jezalyn... I'm not anyone's...
Wherever it all went, wherever I put it when I wasn't using it... Maybe these places don't have the depth or strength I thought they did. Wherever it is in me or around me. It should be easiest to set it aside, always has been. Reacting is harder work, I thought. But it's happening now before I can set it away.
"You ruin everything!" I shout it at myself, but I don't even flinch. I look furious. "Fuck you!"
She has to have lost someone, or she wouldn't be with Kent and Gabe. She said she had a bad experience with SCABS, practically left the question wide open for me the first day we met, and, "You never said anything!" I sneer at my reflection. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I am ashamed of myself. Idiot. Coward. Just because I don't want to hear about hurtful things that happened to someone I like. Just because I don't... I grumble things even I can't understand. Sure they all have to listen to your life story, have to run out of the room when they say something about themselves, never once, never once "Why-- aren't-- you-- CRYing?" I threaten my reflected, reddened face with the razor, but he doesn't do anything. No tears, nothing. If he can't cry, fine. He'll bleed. Think you can't cry, huh? Fine. Fine then.
Sure, spend the whole winter break crying like there's no tomorrow well then I'll give you what you want. There is no tomorrow. We already wasted the whole stupid past.
I pry my right hand off of the plastic razor with the fingers of my left hand, let the thing drop pitifully into the sink, slide open the medicine cabinet and shine out a replacement razor and flick the casing off. I can see what I'm doing, but I am apparently too stupid to stop myself. That's okay. Pale, pale skin like this... Ghostly things, they work together. Wan, empty-eyed undead with blood trickling from them because it's the only color they can find, anywhere.
That's not true, says someone else, who isn't quite so upset about supper and Christmas. They have color, too. You wouldn't bleed if your heart wasn't beating.
"What the fuck kind of sense is that supposed to make?" There's only a little pressure required to make a cut, I should know. I do it to my face often enough. "What am I trying to do, swear long enough and loud enough someone will come in here to tell me to behave, and force me to put the damn--"
Call someone. Call Sister Margaret or Mr. Traynor.
I'll make the cuts long. That way it'll work better.
Anyone can be an angel. Not everyone-- is that true what some people say about suicide? I almost pause. I wasn't moving anyway, I notice. So holding still doesn't put the action any further away.
I hate the light in my room. I try to think-- to think-- where does this shade have some color? The blade glints, but I don't even move it; it glints on its own. Like somebody lit it and left it burning. There must be other people in this house. I'm not doing anything to talk to them. I haven't done anything at all.
"Shut up!" I yell at myself, even though I haven't said anything. I cringe at my shrieking tone.
"Hold still. Just hold still."
I hold still. If I move to slice my skin, I'll start shaking and I won't be able to do it right. This is just great. I'm in the middle of ending this and I can't move a muscle.
I have got to be the worst betrayal, just in what I am. I touch the metal to my wrist.
That works. I drop it-- it is painfully cold.
I back into the phone and touch the buttons with the back of my hand, watching that blade as if it's going to float into me and finish the thing itself. I speak, shakily, as soon as connection is made and before there are any voices.
"It's me... I need to talk to somebody..."
"Judith, hi." It's Kent. I don't ask for Jezalyn. I just start talking.
"I'm sorry... to call... I can't, I mean, I had to... Can somebody come get me?"
"Sure," Kent says cheerfully. I hear shuffling going on in the background, and then he turns off the sound on his end for a second, but he's still connected... He turns it back on and speaks again: "We'll just stay on the phone while Gabe comes over and gets you. Then in about fifteen minutes you go wait in the entry hall for him, okay?"
Kent knows better than to let me off the phone until then. I don't sound very steady. Plus, I didn't ask for Jezalyn, so he knows I'm not just calling to talk, and wouldn't be even if I sounded all right. "I'd get Jezalyn, but she's in the shower right now. I was just watching some recorded sketch comedy from the seventies. I don't know if you've ever seen..." He just keeps on talking. All kinds of mundane things. That razor blade is still glinting at me like it might fling itself into my hand of its own volition.
"Kent... I want to... there's a... I was trying to use a razor blade and I..."
"You all right?" He means have I cut myself.
"I haven't done anything. It's just-- I didn't do anything."
"Gabe'll be there shortly, why don't you just spend the night with us, we can call the school once you're here and let them know you won't be back tonight. How's that sound?" He chuckles. "You should see this sketch. You and Jezalyn can settle in on the couch later and watch it."
"Okay..." I'm starting to feel a little relieved. If Kent knows that blade is there, it won't be so likely to strike.
"It's all right, Judith," Kent says in a gentler tone than he's been using. "Have you eaten or drunk anything we should know about?"
"No. Just... I didn't do anything. Kent?"
"You've said I'm a lot like you. Did you ever try it?" I hope that's not an insulting question.
He takes awhile to answer. "No... but that doesn't mean anything. I mean, it just never really occurred to me. I didn't get that-- this isn't the right word, maybe, but-- 'creative' with it...
"One time I was alone, before I had Martian Flu, I was probably twelve or something, and I'd been drinking various alcohols from my parents' bar... I usually just drank whatever they had around, and if they noticed they didn't say anything. I'd do this when it was night and the housekeeper had gone to her own home and I felt like being quiet... I went into the medicine cabinet and thought about taking some medicine for an upset stomach and a headache, both of which I had and I probably didn't even relate it to the drinking at all. I thought about the pills for awhile and then I closed the cupboard and went upstairs and went to bed. And I woke up feeling awful but I didn't take anything until the middle of the next day. I didn't know then that it could kill me. I thought about it later, when I learned that in school, that mixing any sorts of drugs and alcohol can kill you, and I thought, if I had happened to take some pills for a headache I could have died and wouldn't have ever known what I had done. But I didn't do it."
I look at the medicine cabinet in my own room and don't say anything. I wish he didn't have to stay on the phone and tell me these things. It's my own fault for never asking about what matters in the first place.
I clear my throat. "Yeah."
"All right, no worries. You're a good kid, Judith. You have talent coming out the ears, and you're pleasant company. Remember that."
I don't know what to say to that, but I'll remember it, as he says. And he keeps on talking. Once in awhile he makes me answer him, so I do.
I start glancing at my watch, and finally it's been fifteen minutes and Gabe should be downstairs.
Gabe's eyes are set in such a way that he can look at me and drive at the same time. Something about his look is cold, and I know he has about a hundred reasons to be angry with me, but I didn't know he knew about any of them. It hasn't taken him long to figure out why I called, not any longer than it took Kent.
"Jezalyn will be glad to have you over," Gabe tells me as he drives. "I don't think she's enjoyed herself as much with any other people she's met in this city."
I hunker down into my side of the seat and feel rotten. He's making me think about what it would mean if I did it, and I don't exactly need it rubbed in. But, then again, maybe he's right. I shouldn't forget what they say about how selfish it is and all that. But still, he has to make me feel all rotten about Jezalyn... I frown out my window at the brown night-- it's brown and slushy, February-style, and I shove my hands into my pockets and try not to think about cold.
"I wouldn't have done it," I whisper, defensively.
"Hrmph. Judith, maybe you don't know this, but Jezalyn didn't talk to anyone for months after she came to live with us. Not anyone. Do you know what that means?"
My throat tightens. I didn't know any of that, but of course I wouldn't, because I never asked. The thought of Jezalyn speechless doesn't seem real. I reply quietly and harshly, "I wouldn't have. Anyway I don't see..."
"Yeah, well, I hope you start to. She considers you one of her best friends and I don't care to see anything like that happen to her. I really don't care to."
"Please don't be angry."
"I'm not supposed to be angry? Were you going to stop me from being angry if you did it? She doesn't enjoy anyone like she enjoys you. I'm supposed to ignore the possibility-- that you could have done it?"
"No." I shake my head, and it aches. He's not even scaring me. I just feel relieved to be going to their apartment, and somehow all churned up inside. I feel more worthless now that I didn't do it, in a way. But if he didn't want me here, he wouldn't be angry. I feel ripped apart, like I have to hold still to stay together because there are lines where I'll separate if I move. It's no use apologizing for taking up their time. It doesn't matter whether I would have done it or not, because I came close either way and that's frightening. I think I've frightened Gabe. I know I've frightened him.
His voice rumbles, and I feel it vibrate the places where I could break. The car becomes more comfortable as we drive. I glance at Gabriel and shudder when his eyes flash under a streetlamp, before we've passed into another block of darkness. "So help me, Judith, so--" he slams a thinly furred hand on the steering wheel.
I cringe further against my side's door.
"I think you can tell I'm a little upset."
He snorts, and licks his dark black-blue lip with his tongue, and his eyes turn from angry to worried and back again. "So are you going to refrain from trying this in the future?"
I nod, shakily.
He growls, a sound I know comes from him because there isn't any weather tonight for thunder. His hands grip the steering wheel dangerously for a moment, then he says, "There is no way we would have expected this, not on our own. I'm glad you called."
My hands tighten around my ribcage and I hunch further down. "... so am I."
Under the next lamp, Gabe's fur and horns glisten, but his eyes don't flash so sharply. Several more turns and we're at their apartment, pulling into the alley that leads to a parking lot in back.
"Here." He means to stay where I am. I do, rubbing at my eyes to clear them even though I haven't been crying. I feel like I should have been, but I'm too empty. Gabe comes around to my side of the car and offers me a hand. I take it, and he takes up almost all the weight of lifting me from the seat and into the damp, chill parking lot. He puts an arm around my shoulder. I don't take any steps towards the building. All I've thought of that I could say to Jezalyn has fled my mind.
"Take me inside," I say helplessly.
"Go on inside. No one's stopping you."
I look up at him. He's back to a neutral expression, but I imagine I see some warmth there. "Well?" He asks.
I lean just far enough off balance that he'll put both arms around me and hold on, and he does so. He runs a hand repeatedly over my shoulder, until I stand up away from him again. Teachers don't hug you. I don't think they're even supposed to. Maybe they would if I asked; I don't know.
I nod. I may as well apologize to her now and get it over with. I don't know whether to apologize to my parents or not. "She really didn't talk? Not say anything?"
He nods, breathing out harshly, not quite a snort, more an agreement breath. "That surprises you."
"Well, she sings, and instruments and stuff... you know..."
"Yes, I know."
"I used to be someone who fit my name. My parents wanted to take the name of who they came from. I'm supposed to be an Asanti, and look at me. I'm just... I'm not..."
"Well, I've never seen anyone like you, not exactly like you."
I think about that. I shiver and wrap my arms around myself again. Still, I take a step away from the car.
"Maybe... What do you mean by that?"
"Who's to say? Maybe this is what you become. You remember them, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
"See, then, this is what you become. You're not the same as someone who wasn't Asanti, Judith. This isn't about everyone turning into something identical to everyone else."
He's right, so right it's painful. I have the same disease as Jezalyn and I could never make the sounds and music she can. "Kent said I have talent coming out the ears."
Gabriel laughs. It's startling after his low-voiced sternness, but puts me more at ease in a moment. "He said that, did he? Well, he's probably right. You're an unusual kid. We like you."
"I mean that as a compliment."
I nod. "Okay." I reach out with one hand so I won't have to walk inside alone.
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