Heroism and Embroidered Chairs

the mouse that roared's picture

Fiction absolute. That’s what he called it, reading Tom Wolfe in English class that day. Fiction absolute. As I was reading I wanted to underline it, but I’d forgotten my pencil. Everyone has their own worldview that places their group—or groups—in the best light. Sure—Democrats and Republicans, military and civilians, jocks and nerds, gays and straights—they all do put themselves in the brightest spotlight. Sure, I think. Even our language reflects it. When was the last time a man was a nurse? Gender roles. The last time a lawyer talked in plain English? Eschew obfuscation—but who’s talking.

My best friend’s father is an antiseptic inventor. Because he knows the genus and species of all 5,692,535,897 germs in a fingertip of kitchen counter, he washes his hands every twenty-two minutes. If he has cut himself in the last month, he wears latex gloves to folk dances. My best friend, who, being on immune suppressants, has many more risks to take than his father, has only half internalized his lectures. He’ll say,
“But—you know—”
“What?” I ask.
“The faucets are so unclean!” Oh, wait, I’m not sounding like Dad, am I?”
“No. No, of course not.” I see the image of translucent white rubber stretching over precision-drill hands, and his worried eyebrows. Who would ever cover them up?

It is lunch. My cousin and I have not talked for a while. We sit down at the shiny wood table on the machine-embroidered chairs. Behind Lisa all the city brushes by a big picture window. The sky is milk.
The waiter comes and goes, so quiet I can hardly hear him come up. Every five minutes almost. I’ll just have to ask her and let him hear some of it. It’s all twisting up like a sweaty doodle, fierce elaboration and ignorance, wrinkled and folded in my stomach.
“I don’t know what to do. I think I’m questioning my gender.”
“Oh yeah?” Her face is a milk-smooth line.
“Yeah. Like—I think I’m a boy sometimes. A lot. I keep on thinking about it. It’s confusing, though. I mean, what is gender anyway? A stereotype, a physicality? What else is there? What creates the desire to… Once... I went bathing suit shopping. It was awful! The saleslady was all neat and middle aged and I had holey pants and when she showed me a bikini I thought—have you ever thought this?—‘but I’m a boy.’”
“Yeah, that’s happened to me before.”
“What should I do? I don’t think I can take it much longer.
“Well, the conclusion I came to was that I wasn’t really a guy. I just wanted to be.”
“Wanted to?”
“Wanted to find a home. If my problem was I was trans, I could come out, I’d know what I want. All my other problems would be caused by that. They’d all have a good explanation.”
How horrible, how isolating, for high school to make you feel you had the wrong gender. I remember thinking that once. Maybe she makes sense.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Marietta.”
But… But… maybe I’m not always you. Maybe we’re not always this close. But I’m thinking this now.

“I think they’d just fire him if he’d done something really bad.” Kate continued her third rant over the green back of the bus seat. “They wouldn’t put a teacher on leave otherwise.”
Her mouth turned down in a determined way and her glasses glinted behind wide eyes and raised, convinced eyebrows.
“Well, I just think there are worse injustices in the world.” Do you know what it’s like to be a sexual minority, Kate? To be gay, bi, trans? To walk down the halls and hear this lacy, looping, Victorian name, this name that ties you up in pink and delicacy, delicacy, just a quiet, gentle girl. A deep girl. A girl who will be fine in college, because in college there will be so many others like her. You don’t know. Kate panics over tests. She can’t.
“Of course there are worse injustices in the world! There are always worse injustices.” Kit looks at her lap, sighs, looks up again in a ¾ facial profile. “I intend to pursue it though.”
That mouth again. Those eyes. She goes back to her drawing, and I stare out the window. The first time for a while we haven’t talked on the bus home. When you’ve felt this isolated and unsupported every day, Kate, when there is nowhere, nowhere to turn, when even the lesbian school wouldn’t accept you for who you are, then you’ll get a taste. You’ll know what lostness is, what helplessness.
It’s Kate’s stop. As she gets up, I catch myself staring above her, in ¾ profile, with a long-suffering, tragic gaze. Damn. Who’s being the hero now? Who really does need a cause to hang on to, a group to be in? Maybe it is all crap, anyway. Maybe it’s all crap like Laura said.
“Bye,” she says, miserabler-than-usual in her voice.
“Have a nice weekend,” I smile. The nice girl, too. Always the nice girl.

At home, I stare out my window at the same woods, the same smoothed stones I’ve seen for sixteen years. If I to co-ed school… But—God! I don’t care about its non-discrimination, God, if I go there, I’ll never get out of here. I’ll see the same woods fifteen minutes away. The sky will always be milky-white and the trees will always be short of grasping sky. If I don’t take off my latex gloves of Marietta, I’ll never take the risks that let me live.