“The water was dirty. He could see the grime washing off with every move of his hands over his dirty body; specks of blood flaked off into the water and opened old wounds that he didn’t know he had. His toes poked against the surface of the water, hair slicked back with shampoo. Months without relaxation, and he was tense.”
The water was dirty. He could see the grime washing off with every move of his hands over his dirty body; specks of blood flaked off into the water and opened old wounds that he didn’t know he had. His toes poked against the surface of the water, hair slicked back with shampoo. Months without relaxation, and he was tense. His long curls were matted and dirty, their once shiny brown now a dirty black from the soot and soil in the places he was sleeping. When you are on the streets, you don’t look for luxury.
There was something so odd about being in a stranger’s house, a stranger’s bed. But Haven House was filled with strangers, was it not? No one here had known him before this had happened, and that was completely fine by him. He closed his eyes. He needed to stop thinking. He needed to stop thinking about all this. His momma’s words swirled in his mind as he lathered his arms up to wash away the grime from the streets, and his green eyes glanced around the neat bathroom.
One: Talking about yourself in the third person makes things easier to handle. It’s like disassociation, this method, but it isn’t as intense. It can come and go as you please.
Two: Words never really mean anything. A promise is just air out of lungs. A promise can always be broken.
Three: He wasn’t worth her spit.
Four: The lord would save his soul if he would just stop calling himself a boy. He wasn’t a boy. He wasn’t a boy, he would never be a boy. Dreams like that aren’t meant to come true.
Take a deep breath. One more. Then another. Release. Wash the soap out of your hair and run your fingers over the bruises. Let the water drain from the tub and towel yourself off, watch as your skin slowly turns caramel again instead of the dirty brown. Stop referring to yourself in third person. You are here, you are safe, you are here.
I am here.
I step out onto the cold floor. My feet hit the linoleum and I stiffen as the hairs on my arms stand up. The towels are comforting as I wrap them around my form, and I remind myself that I am alive. I am a human being. All my life, I have been told to be a good girl. My momma, with her teeth rotten and yellowed, spoke in harsh tones. I was brought into this world as a mistake, an accident waiting to happen. The moment he touched her, she told me once, her entire body was ignited in a high that the pills had never given her. And as a result, I became a life. I became alive.
She isn’t here, though. She’s somewhere a few towns over, working for her pay in a diner and winking at customers as she pours their coffee. At night she’ll shack up with whomever decides to have her, and she’ll get extra pay, and she’ll use it to rot her teeth even more until they fall out of her head like her Daddy’s did and his Daddy’s before him. It’s a never-ending, spiral addiction at its finest. My momma belongs on a drug PSA.
When she goes to church, though, that doesn’t matter. She washes her hands in the baptism tub and all her sins are gone. She is a new being, a deity of pure blood again. Gramma always told me that the second my Momma was born, Gramma knew she was “inauspicious.” She was the only one of her children who never dreamt of growing up to be something monumental.
There were nine. Stacy said she wanted to be a princess; Gilbert, an astronaut; Bimmie, a movie star; Eugene, a singer; Clarice, the president; the twins, secret agents. Pangea said she was meant for stardom. Momma just said she wanted to grow up.
I put on the clothes they gave me for bed and tie my hair back with a borrowed scrunchie, my tan hands fumbling with the thick waves as I reach for the electric razor. One of the other kids knocks on the door and I clean up my mess before opening it for them. His eyes glance over me, razor in hand. I recognize him from the front office. Devin. He has a soft face and red hair that brushes over his skull softly — in a way that makes him look sweet — but I get the feeling there’s an edge inside him, that he did some regrettable things to stay alive on the streets. Then again, we all did. That’s how they found us.
He reaches his hand out for the razor, quirking a brow at me as his deep voice fills the stiff air between us. It takes me a moment to process his offer to give me a haircut. My suspicion about his character is proven when he tells me my long hair makes me look like a girl.
He’s invalidating my existence already, and I’ve only just met him.
He seems like what I imagine my father to be like.
I sit down on the floor and pull at his shirt to tell him to sit, and he obliges and plugs in the razor for me. “You’ll have to be still so that I don’t nick you,” he says.
I nod, understanding. Before he turns it on, the tool emits a soft buzzing as he presses it against my skull, his other hand holding the back of my neck. I don’t like people touching me — but could I tell him that? He runs the razor over my head in a long streak, my hair falling onto my legs as he continues working to get my hair off.
“Damn.” He says, blowing off the razor. “You got that thick Indian hair, huh kid?” He asks, and I grit my teeth. It has always been this way. My thick hair, my Indian skin, my green eyes that Momma says my Pops gave me. She has blue eyes. They’re light and gentle, like a loving touch to the shoulder, and if you weren’t in her family you might even go as far as to say they looked kind.
He lets me go, and I don’t even realize until I reach up to touch my head and feel the fuzz. My head is now bare, the locks all over my legs and the floor beneath them. Devin grins like he’s about to catch his prey. His teeth are all crooked, and they remind me of the man who works with my Momma and always offers me free milkshakes, since Momma told him they are my favorite. They’ve been working together since I was six, and until I was nine, I never realized what the milkshakes meant. I stopped liking milkshakes that year. I stopped going to the diner. I started wanting braces to fix my crooked teeth. The trouble with trauma is that, to this day, my gut still turns when I see him.
They got married last spring.
Devin leaves. I am still sitting on the floor, glancing down at the pale blue tiles on the bottom edges of the tub. As I crawl up to sit on the edge of the bathtub, I feel like a child again. This happens often, the feeling of reducing myself back into a smaller, naive version of myself. Most people like to talk about being young and only having to worry about things like coloring inside the lines, but I never had that luxury. Most often, I was wondering who would be sleeping next to me at night. I stand up, dust myself off, walk to the next room to grab a broom, and sweep my thick hair up and into a dustpan to throw it away. In Japan, they like to say that cutting your hair off is a form of letting the past go. Like cutting the pain away, as if it were a dead limb. In a way, it is. What I feel is a lot like having a ghost limb. Except, maybe, it’s not your own arm, but someone else’s — with a constant hand around your neck.
As I make my way downstairs to the office, my feet pad along the floor. In the hallway, some of the doors are open; I see the other kids, straightening their rooms for the night. One girl, or I assume she’s a girl because of her fuzzy pajama pants, is putting her phone under her pillow and shutting off the lights. I leave the lights on, always, because there’s something vulnerable about being in the dark.
When I walk in, the woman at the desk starts talking to me. Her voice is softer than my momma’s constantly angry tone — it’s almost like the sound equivalent to melting butter. I really don’t understand half of what she’s saying, because I’m too focused on the way her lips curve upward in a sympathetic smile; one that I can tell she puts on for every kid here. She stands up, and I notice that she’s wearing a skirt. Her name tag says “Imogene”. Judging by her neck and her facial structure, she looks like an artist’s model. I remind myself to test her structure with my charcoals later, wondering if I’ll be able to swallow my anxiety long enough to ask for paper. I follow after her as she leads me to a closet and hands me a pair of sheets, a comforter, and other bedding. The hallway walls are a pale yellow color with white trim. The cleanliness of it comforts me in a way, and for that I’m thankful. Especially because I’ll have to meet my new roommate in just a moment. Imogene knocks on the door to one of the rooms on the lower end of the hall, and a tall boy (or at least he seems like a boy) opens it and stares me down before stepping out of the way.
She instructs me to make my bed and put away what I have in my bag, then tells the taller youth to show me to the clothes’ room for new garments, since mine are fairly dirty and torn. He nods, and holds a hand out to me. It’s much bigger than my own, swallowing my tan fingers beneath his pale palm. Once the bedding is made, he shows me to the closet, tells me his name is Wyatt, and waits for me at the door as I grab a few shirts and jeans.
As we go back to the room, my eyes already start darting around the room. In my head, I take notes about my surroundings, already figuring out how easy it would be to run away if things go bad. There’s one window between our two beds, above a nightstand that I assume is to be shared. On the nightstand is one lamp, with a dirty white shade and a silver base that reflects the shining overhead light. The walls are a pale basche and the bedding is a soft yellow that makes it seem almost unreal, like something out of a retro movie about teenage runaways. Wyatt has small metal structures. They look like they’re mostly made out of tin cans, scattered around surfaces in the room. Different types of flowers are made by bending the thin metal, others are small robots and things of the sort. I was just starting to think of what his fascination with them might be when he pulls out a wallet, shaking it in my direction.
“If you touch this, or look through my things without my permission, shit will hit the fan. My side,” he pauses, draws a line with the toe of his sneaker. “Your side.” He gestures to my side of the room, then sits on his bed and starts stripping to get ready for bed. I quietly crawl into my bed.
“If possible, I’d like to leave the lamp on for the night. I’ll get something to replace it soon, but for right now I want it on if it doesn’t bother you,” I quietly request with my eyes trained on my nails. He nods, stands up to turn the lamp on, then shuts the bright overhead light off. The lamp is dim, but gives off just enough light for me to see if anyone walks into the door. Perfect.
There’s always been something about a dark room that made me nervous. The vulnerability of it, perhaps. That’s why the alleyways I slept in were comforting, in a way; there was always light. Trusting that whoever you’re sleeping with isn’t going to decide to strangle you in the middle of the night, or something just as awful. It’s never been easy on me; I’ve never dealt well with roommates. My trust is always tested by the second day.
Regardless, Wyatt seems decent so far. He doesn’t seem too alarming, though it’s a bit surprising that the facility leaders are actually allowing me to sleep in the same room as someone who is, more than likely, biologically male. It hadn’t really occurred to me that my gender identity would be respected, even in a place like this. Even after the light is off and the lamp dims in the night, it takes me a while to go to sleep.
When the morning comes, it’s easy to pry myself from the bedsheets and convince my tired brain to let me calm down for a few seconds. My legs dangle over the mattress and I take a few deep breaths, looking at Wyatt still fast asleep on his bed. And then standing up, I make my way to the bathroom and brush my teeth with one of the unopened toothbrushes from the large container on the counter. I turn the water on in the bath tub and pick at the scabs on my arms, looking at my frail form and my freshly exposed features. I debate whether or not I should just leave now and save everyone the trouble of actually getting to know me. I’ve always thought like this; my brain is constantly poised for fight or flight. It’s tiring, at times, to be as on edge as I am.
I step into the bath, letting the warm water pool around my legs and slowly up to my stomach. There has always been something about questioning my existence while taking a bath that I find fitting. So, thinking about how life has been for the past few months, I start to come to a conclusion.
It’s like being a tadpole. In the large pond we all call life, there are frogs and fishes and so many things that are capable of eating you alive. And in order to stay alive long enough, to grow into a frog and make your way up the food chain, you first have to figure out how to maneuver your way around the pond without getting swallowed by so many bigger species. And once you finally do make your way up, you don’t have a choice but to prey on those smaller than you to survive. And I don’t want to do that, but it’s the only way to stay in the pond.
Sometimes I think maybe I should just give up now and save myself the trouble. Drowning is always a possibility, like a flashing emergency exit in the back of my skull telling me that if I REALLY need to leave, it’s always there. Drowning victims can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds, and once you’re sinking, you only have a matter of minutes to get yourself to the top again before everything dies and your light goes out for good.
The tub isn’t large enough to submerge my entire form without my nose poking through the surface of the water, so I rule out that option. I would rather stay alive than have to live with the embarrassment of getting caught in the middle of an attempt to drown myself in the bathtub of a youth home for troubled queer kids.
Nonetheless, I can feel the large hands of gravity pulling me down to the Hell my momma always talked about. It’s a soothing thought, eternal nonexistence, but I can’t entertain the thought for too long. If living is wishing to survive then I’m doing something incredibly wrong, because my chest continues to pulse and it doesn’t feel like a heart is actually there, even though I know it is. There’s a wasp nest in my head, and they constantly fling themselves against my skull, hoping that eventually they’ll break through. It won’t go away, making me second-guess my decision to live. The wasps want me to die more than I want myself to die. I feel, most of the time, like my head is a totally different city than my body. Thinking of myself as something inanimate makes it easier to handle things that are plaguing me.
By now, the water has tinted my skin pinker than its normal brown hue, and I realize that I’ve probably spent the last thirty minutes thinking about something that isn’t any more than a headache. Someone is banging on the door telling me to get out so that they can get a shower, so I open the drain and watch as the water swirls out before standing up and drying off, tugging on my clothes and leaving the bathroom with a muttered apology.
I’ve only been diagnosed with a hand full of disorders, but none of them relate to being transgender. They all just happen to be side effects of my childhood, and I don’t see my gender, my desire to peel off these breasts and stuff my pants, as a side effect. It’s more like a fate that waited to come to me. When I start down the hall, I see a man in a suit, and it seems like the entire weight of the world is pressing against my back telling me to run because men in suits never come just to shake your hand and tell you good job. It always means something serious. I rush off to my room, put my things in the laundry bin, and pick at the scabs on my face as I look in the mirror. This has become religion for me, messing with my face every morning, trying to pick off the imperfections.
My train of thought is interrupted when a woman walks in and tells me the psychiatrist is here to do a mental evaluation in order to make sure I’m a “fit” for the home. She assures me that it isn’t going to be my job to pay for the expenses and then ushers me out of the room, down the hall to where the man is standing with a clipboard in hand and pencils sticking out of his jacket pocket. I find myself starting to draw away.
His blazer is navy blue, and the shirt underneath is white with diagonal stripes that match his blazer and pants that are a light khaki. It’s unsettling how professional he looks, how rich he seems just by his fancy haircut and his outfit. Like he could come to this place dressed casually, or at least more casual than this, but he would rather not because he has fancy suits to spare. He shakes my hand, and it’s then that I notice his frame is much larger than mine. When his palm swallows mine, he gives me a smile that plainly reads “I’m only here to get paid so that I can keep buying these ridiculously expensive outfits, and I can already tell you’re fucked up” before holding the door to a small office open for me. I run over a list in my head, trying to reassure myself that it’s not going to end too badly. It can’t.
I’m standing at the edge of the doorway when I hear the front door to the house slam and two women trying to sternly usher someone out. I look over to see what the commotion is all about, when an adult from the other room comes over and tries to hurry me into the office, giving the doctor a concerned look as she places a gentle hand on my shoulder. And that’s when I hear it. The Spanish cursing, her words sharp enough to cut through an artery, and I freeze as my momma comes into my view, her hollowed out cheekbones just as sharp as ever. If I had to guess, she and my stepfather got high right before they came. For now, though, my brain is stuck in panic mode. She figured out where I was and traveled all the way here. As she comes through the doorway, her husband is beside her, holding her hand tight, and she’s screaming at the top of her lungs, mostly directed at a nurse who’s trying to hold her back. From what I can tell, it looks like Imogene.
Momma is busy looking at the nurses but as she glances over to target another with her screeching yells, her eyes fix on me. I can tell she notices my freshly shaved head, and that she’s raging inside because of it. She knows better than to act angry towards me when I’m surrounded by professionals, though. She knows they have the authority to keep me out of her grip for good, and then what would she do? So she uses a softer tone, trying to let them know that all she wants is to get her little girl back. Trying to sound like a half decent mother:
And that’s when it all snapped. That’s when I couldn’t take any more, and the voices in my head were all screaming, and I just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and there weren’t any tears. I couldn’t help it, I had to stop myself, I had to pause and make a new list, because that’s all I could do to stop myself from screaming at her. The tone of my own voice in my head, threatening to spill from my lips, was so threatening that I scared even myself.
So I take a deep breath. I call myself down from the ledge of a psychotic episode, and I speak.
“It’s Michael.” The proclamation of my new name is the last thing out of my mouth before I walk into the psychiatrist’s office. I watch the doctor lock the door behind us, while my momma keeps screaming as they drag her out of the house. But I know I can do this, I know I can tell him what’s wrong, and I know I can be honest. The last thing I hear is her promise that she’ll come back to get me, to make sure I know how much I’ve hurt our family and our “good name.” But if I know anything in this world, it’s that words never really mean anything.
A promise is just air out of lungs.