In August of 2012, I entered a contest held by the Tumblr WriteWorld called the Album Challenge. The challenge was to write a novelette inspired by a music album within a month; I picked "Get Better" by Lemuria, and wrote a story about a girl who was living a double-life, on one side as a conservative student at a Catholic college and on the other as a gay punk-rock singer. As usual for stories I wrote more than a year ago, I don't want to re-read it because it's probably going to be painfully embarrassing. But, on the other hand, I put a lot of work into it, and it got buried deep in my Tumblr; the other copy was on my blog before I accidentally corrupted all the websites hosted on my ipage account.
I'm not going to put the same amount of work into the formatting as I did last time I posted it here, but I at least want it to be somewhere kind of find-able.
Trigger warning: implied sexual relationships, homophobia, self-destructive behavior, casual ableism.
I am rocking out. I’m high with the thrill of the stage, and it’s better than usual because it’s the second night in a row. Wednesday’s open mic, so we get up here every week. But the owner gave us a gig tonight.
Trevor is just behind me and to my left, playing guitar and singing. Alan is on drums, behind both of us and to my right. I’m called Kim, and I’m playing bass and singing lead. We call ourselves The Dealbreakers.
But I’m not just buzzing from the performance. I’m also damn-near making eye contact with a girl watching us from almost at the back. She comes every open mic night, usually reads poetry, and she came to see us. I’m singing to her. I wrote this song to her. It’s the last one in our set. And it ends,
I’ll let you buy me a drink, Damn it, if you’re lis’ning, girl, I swear I’ll let you buy me a drink.
And the last chord rings out and dies in the applause, and we bow, and we start breaking down our stuff just after the peak of the cheering so the next band can get set up. We pack up, and Alan leaves because he has work in the morning, and Trevor disappears into the crowd to flirt, and I find a spot at the bar with an open seat next to me, and I hope.
And then I hear a miraculous question: ”Can I buy you a drink?”
Yes, I think. Fuck yes. A thousand times yes. ”Yeah,” I say. She sits down next to me, she’s smiling, and her eyes are this kind of middle-gray that you might call blue, her hair is black, and short—like, she shaved it all off a month ago and her head is just kind of fuzzy because it’s growing back. She’s wearing a lot of black, and a lot of metal bits.
"What do you drink?" She says, and my face gets all hot and blushy because I realize that I’m just sitting here staring at her.
"Rum," I said. "—And coke."
"Alright," she says, kind of laughing. She gets the bartender’s attention and orders a rum and coke, and a Sam Adams.
"My name’s Jamie, by the way," she says.
"I know." Oh god she’s going to think I’m a stalker. "I see you a lot on Wednesdays. I love your poems. I’m Kim."
"I know," she says. "You know, I might be wrong, but it seemed like you were staring at me for that whole last song."
I scrutinize the bubbles rising out of my rum and coke.
"Can I tell you a secret?" She says. And I think I nod, and she says, "The poem I read last night was about you."
"Oh," I say. "I—" The poem she read last night was about music and flowers and really obviously actually about sex. "—I liked that poem."
"There are a couple other versions of it, actually," she says. "Do you want to come over and hear a few, some time?"
"That sounds awesome," I say, I’m halfway through saying yes when I realize that I can’t. "Not tonight. But I’d love to. Soon."
"Oh," she says. "Well, are you on Facebook?"
"No," I say. "I’m not, actually. Allan has a page for the band, but I don’t have my own account. Let me give you my phone number?"
She takes out her phone, and I tell her to open a new text, give her the number, she hits send. Seconds pass, then my phone buzzes. I look at the text, and it says “This is jamie :P”, and I show her my screen so she knows the right numbers came through.
We drink and talk until the crowd gets thin, and Jamie promises to call me, and leaves.
02. YESTERDAY’S LUNCH
I slink back to my dorm. It’s the middle of the night, so Heather is already asleep. I head straight for the bathroom, and turn on the shower. While it’s warming up, I look into the mirror, and Kim stares back out. I look at her blue hair with big, thick, messy curls, her narrow, rimless glasses, her purple vest with studs and spikes, her small necklace with a big, star-shaped pendant.
I start taking Kim off. I get out the duffle bag that I keep folded up under the sink, and I drop in the necklace and the bracelets, and the vest. I pull off the shoes and socks — even those go in the bag — and the pants. I look at the bra and panties I’m wearing, and realize that I need to buy separate underwear for Kim now, too. I take those off, then I pull the glasses case out of the side pocket, and put the thin, rimless glasses in and stash them with the rest of my disguise.
It’s harder to see now, but I get into the shower and start shampooing my hair. The blue chalk spills out of my hair and down my body, and flows like a stream of blue blood to the drain, leaving my blonde hair behind.
I get out and towel off, and put in my contacts, turning my eyes green and my vision clear, and now it’s me staring back out the mirror.
My name is Nina.
But my hair is still curly, so I take the straightening iron with the duffle bag into my bedroom, stash the bag in the back of my closet with the rest of my Kim clothes and very carefully try to straighten my hair while drunk without burning myself.
Then, I sleep.
My alarm clock starts shrieking Christian Rock at 6am and I very nearly hit the snooze button, but I don’t. I shut it off, so I can’t cheat myself and sleep through class. I brace myself, and throw the blankets off. In a feat of extraordinary willpower, I fight the cold by getting up and putting on clothes, instead of pulling the warm, fluffy blankets back over me.
I pick up the long silver chain with a small silver cross on the end, and slip it around my neck. Then I check my hair, then I get the straightening iron and fix the large chunks of curls that I missed. I contemplate how lucky I am that I remembered to unplug it.
Then I walk out to the common area of the dorm, which I share with Heather, and no one else—a fact that has made my senior year staggeringly easier than previous years, when I had to use a shower in the gym to do my hair and keep Kim’s clothes packed into a locker.
"Good morning," Heather says. "Eggs?"
"Please," I say. I sit down at the table and lay my head down while she cooks.
"So, you know that kid I was telling you about in my Geology class? The one who doesn’t shower?"
"Yeah, what about him?"
"Yesterday, he asked why there aren’t more continents if we have so many tectonic plates."
"What does that even mean?"
"I don’t know. Mr. Sclater spent like five minutes trying to figure out what he was even asking. Eventually he just said he’d get back to it and started teaching again."
"I know, right?" She comes to the table with two plates of scrambled eggs, gets the ketchup out of the fridge, and sit down. I want to eat. They look so good. Heather combines ingredients and heat in a way that, to me, seems miraculous.
Heather dips her head and clasps her hands in front of her face. I do the same thing, practicing the reaching motion towards the fork in my head. ”Thank you God for this bountiful food, and for the opportunities you bless us with every day.”
"Amen," we both say, and in the next motion there’s a forkful of scrambled egg in my mouth.
"Where’d you volunteer last night?" Heather asks me.
I swallow, and then scoop up another mouthful, and after I finish that one, I say, “Phone banking for the governor’s re-election.”
"You were out really late," she says. "Were you waking people up?"
Um… ”Oh, no. I stayed late to help with organization stuff. Stapling phone lists, stuff like that.”
"That’s great! How’s the campaign going?"
"Great, I’m sure," I say. "God wouldn’t let a Democrat take over here."
"We can only hope," she said. "He works in mysterious ways."
The rest of the eggs don’t taste so great, and I feel kind of hungry and kind of nauseous when I leave for my 7am class.
I wait a whole day to call Kim. Well, not a whole day. Like, 15 hours. If you count for when I bought her first drink. I’m sitting on the side of my bed, with my laptop open next to me, just in case she wants to hear some of my poems or something. I select her name in my contacts and hit call.
It rings for a heartbreakingly long time, then it stops ringing.
"Hi," she says.
"Hi," I say. "Kim?"
"Yep," she says. "Hang on one second." Then I hear her say to someone else, "I need to take this."
She’s silent for like a dozen seconds, then says, “Okay, I can talk.”
"Nothing, just leaving a club meeting. I don’t want to flirt in front of a room full of people."
"Are we not going to flirt? I was looking forward to flirting."
"We can definitely flirt," I say. I’m grinning like an idiot. "Want to do it in person?"
"When did you have in mind?"
"You could come over now, if you wanted."
She’s quiet for a couple seconds. ”I can’t, right now. Are you free tonight?”
"I am very free tonight," I say.
"Well, then I’d love to see those poems."
We agree on 7 o’clock, and I give her instructions to get to my apartment. Then I persuade my roommates, Dave and Christina, to go out for dinner, and maybe get a hotel room. I ultimately resort to bribing them, but only the just-under-thirty bucks I have in my wallet.
Then I experience a sort of panic, which manifests in frantically cleaning the bathroom, then running around around to shove as much of my dirty clothes into a hamper as possible. I struggle to decide whether to take down my easel or leave it up and let Kim see what I paint. I decide to leave it up, even though it’s not finished and kind of creepy looking. But I take down the reference sketches pinned to the wall behind it, because they’re terrible beyond my capacity to explain.
At that point, it’s still only 5, and I can’t think of what to do so I make myself sit down and watch a two-part episode of Doctor Who, which eats up almost the remaining two hours.
Then I realize I haven’t showered. So I do that, frantically scrub down my whole body, get out and towel off, and hear knocking.
I panic again, and nearly run to answer the door in a towel. I don’t want to take forever getting dressed, though. I compromise, and just put on the pants and tank top I was wearing before then, and leave my overshirt and undergarments on the bathroom floor.
And I open the door—Kim looks beautiful. She’s wearing this cute screen-printed purple T-shirt with a picture of a ghost, and tight jeans, and her hair is all curly and blue, and her glasses are resting just a little bit down on her cute little nose and I realize I’m staring at her lips just as I realize she’s staring at my shirt, which is clinging to me because I’m still covered in water.
Then she looks back up at me, and says, “May I come in?”
"Please do," I say. She steps inside, and I close the door behind her.
"You look very pretty," I say.
"So do you," she says.
I start to try to protest, because obviously I look ridiculous and terrible, but she moves towards me and puts her arms around me and I feel her lips, and they feel so incredibly soft, and everywhere she touches, it feels like her hands and lips and arms are planting seeds that blossom into ecstatic energy inside me.
We never get around to reading any poetry that night.
"Hey," I dream. "Wake up."
Kim shakes me awake. ”Jamie.”
"What time is it?" I mumble. My eyes start to adjust and the red light of the clock display stops being painful and starts being numbers. Kim looks like she’s trying to apologize with her face.
"It’s like six," I say. "What are you doing?"
"I have to go," she says. "My roommate is kind of crazy, and if I’m not home when she wakes up, she’ll probably freak and call the cops or something. But I didn’t want to just ditch in the middle of the night. I wanted to say bye."
It’s so incredibly sweet that I don’t totally hate her for waking me up at 5:45am on a Saturday. ”Okay,” I say. ”Bye.”
She leans down, and kisses me goodbye.
Since I spent the night with Jamie, we’ve been dating for almost two months. I snuck back into my dorm room that Saturday morning, and since then I’ve managed to stay over her place five times. I invited her to come to my band rehearsal, and we usually hang out after, because it’s hard to make time to change out of Nina and into Kim, so I have to negotiate around my existing schedule—Kim can’t show up to Nina’s classes.
We got a Saturday night show, and I want to go back to Jamie’s afterwards. So I told Heather I was going to spend the weekend up at my parents’ house.
I wrote a new verse to the “Buy me a drink” song. I’ve been practicing it in the shower, so I get Trevor and Alan aside when we’re setting up and tell them to vamp at the end of that song.
So when we’re at the end of our set, and Jamie’s right in the front, and I’m looking right at her, Alan hits a cymbal and Trevor keeps playing the background riff and I sing,
You bought me a drink, The best damn drink I’ve had, So stick around, girl, stick around, 'Cause tonight, your drink's on me.
All four of us are sitting around a table afterward, and I bought the first round and I’m paying for the second, just a little worried that I might be buying four people liquor all night.
And Jamie says, “We should go back to your place tonight.”
I feel my spine raise the alarm, activating tingling nerves everywhere, trying to raise up hair my species doesn’t have. ”No way,” I say. ”My roommate is way stuck up.”
"You’re so secretive," she says.
"I am not," I say.
"No, she’s right," says Trevor. "You totally are."
I look at Allan, trying to express a plea for mercy on my face. ”Yeah,” he says. ”You’re like a spy or something.”
"I am not! Ask me anything."
"What’s your roommate’s name?" Says Trevor.
Oh god “Heather.”
"What’s her last name?" He says.
Oh god I need to think of something quick umm “Williams.” Damn. I hope they don’t look that up.
"What’s your birthday?" Says Allan.
"That’s private," I say.
Allan grabs my purse and tosses it to Trevor. ”Here,” he says. ”Find her ID.”
"Hey!" I say. I try to reach across the table and get it from him but he just starts laughing and passes it to Jamie. I manage to grab it from her, but she’s already grinning and has my wallet out, which she tosses to Allan.
"This is not cool, guys," I say, trying to grab the wallet from Allan. He lets me get it from him, but he already got the ID out, and passed it to Trevor. Maybe he hasn’t gotten a good look yet. I lean over the table trying to grab it out of his hands, but he leans back and holds it out of reach while he reads it.
"This isn’t you!" He says, like it’s a huge joke.
"Yeah, whatever. Just give it back!"
"Look at this," he says, and hands it to Jamie. "It’s not her ID."
Jamie looks at it, and my guts turn to sludge in my chest.
"Yes it is," she says, but she’s not laughing along with the boys. "That’s totally her."
"No, it’s not."
"Yes it is. That’s your nose, your chin, your forehead. What is this?"
"It’s nothing," I say.
"Kim," she says, "Is that your real name?" She holds out the ID, pointing to the name. Nina Martin.
She’s not gripping it so hard anymore. Not playing keep-away, just holding it up in front of me.
So, I snatch it out of her hand. I shove it in a pocket, throw my purse over one shoulder and my bass bag over the other, and ditch.
I shower when I get home but I don’t bother straightening my hair. Then I collapse into bed. I slam the off button on my alarm when it goes off in the morning, and burrow back into my pillow, trying to subdue the ache in my lungs and heart by sheer force of will.
Heather knocks on my door. ”Nina,” she says. ”It’s time to get up.”
"I’m sleeping in," I shout.
"It’s Sunday," she says. "Come on. It’s time for Church."
"I’m not going," I respond.
"Nina, I don’t know what’s up with you lately, but you need to get dressed right now and come with me to Church because you need God’s help."
"Go away," I say. Then she gives up, I guess, or heads off to get the pastor to come and drag me out of bed.
After failing to go to sleep, I go into the kitchen and get all five remaining cokes, and bring them into my room. I also get the Doritos, and I call and order a pizza and more soda.
Then, sitting on my bed next to a stack of cokes and a bag of chips, with my phone a few feet in front of me, on the floor, I plug my bass guitar into my amp and pluck at the strings, listening to the resonating dischords I’m pouring into the air, in hopes that the notes will disrupt my ability to feel pain.
I want to call Jamie. I decide I will wait for her to call. Then I decide I will give her until noon before I call. Then I decide I will give her until the pizza gets here.
Maybe everything’s fine. Maybe she totally understands.
I rehearse and edit what I want to say in my head. That I had no choice. That I made a mistake. That my parents can’t know I’m gay. That I was afraid. That I’m sorry.
The pizza gets here, and I snatch it back to my room before the last dischord stops resonating in the air. I open the pizza box, then immediately slam it shut again, because looking at it and smelling it amplifies the nausea of not knowing what Jamie is doing or thinking.
I pick up my phone, and I hold out as long as possible, trying to give her every opportunity to call me first. I think I hold out for a whole three minutes, and then I dial manually in case she’s calling me that second.
It rings, and rings, and rings, and goes to voicemail. ”Hi, you’ve reached Jamie Pearl’s phone, I didn’t pick it up, because I refuse to be forced to be permanently available just because I carry my phone on me at all times. Leave a message after the beep.” Then there was a long, pre-recorded message from the cell phone company explaining how voicemail works. Then, the beep.
"Jamie, it’s Kim. I’m so sorry. I miss you. I feel horrible, I’m sorry for lying to you. Please, call me back. I can explain. Please."
After that, seconds later, I worked up the strength to end the call.
The rest of the day was kind of a blur. I know Heather came back, because we argued, loudly, and I told her to fuck off, and she told me I need Jesus, and I locked myself in my room and put on one of my Kim vests and felt like I was eight years late to be acting this angsty and didn’t give a fuck.
My phone rang at about 4pm, and I nearly jumped on it, but it wasn’t Jamie. It was some girl from one of my classes, asking if I took good notes. We arranged to let her study mine for some days she was going to miss.
Hours later, the sun was going down when Jamie called.
"Jamie," I said when I picked up the phone. "Hi."
"Hi," she said. "What do I call you?"
My insides melted a little more. ”Call me Kim.”
"Okay, Kim. You said you could explain. Let’s hear it."
I had somehow managed to not be ready for this. ”Okay,” I said. ”My parents are Evangelical Christians. So is my roommate, and they think I am, too. They don’t know I’m gay, or that I’m in a band, or pretty much anything. And I hated it so much, when I was like eighteen, I made up another version of me, called Kim.
"Kim was allowed to be honest about who she was, and what she liked. I play bass without hiding it, but Kim is the me who can be in a band, because Christian rock makes me kind of sick.
"When I came to college, I worked hard to keep these versions of myself separate. So I met friends who know me as Kim, and friend-like people who know me as Nina. But you have to believe me, Kim is the real me. Nina’s the fake one."
The pause that follows is extraordinary. I actually hit the bottom of how awful my guts could make me feel, and just flatline in agonizing terror and anticipation.
"You’re not who I thought you were, Nina."
"Please don’t call me that," I say, nearly whispering.
"It’s your name. And I thought you were a strong, independent person, and the truth is way off from that. You’re not honest with yourself."
I was wrong. My guts can go lower. I force out the only sentence I can make work. ”Will I see you again?”
"I don’t know. I’m going away for a while. Don’t call me while I’m gone, Okay?"
"Okay," I choke.
06. LENGTH AWAY
I call Liz, right after I hang up with Kim.
"Hey dude, what’s up?"
"Is it alright if I come over?"
"Yeah, definitely! I didn’t know you were in town."
"I’m not," I said.
"I’ll tell you when I get there. See you tomorrow."
"Alright, I’ll clear space on the couch."
The piece I’m working on right now is a painting of a bunch of dead birds falling out of the sky, with a plane overhead and a highway below. It’s about global warming and pollution. So I feel like shit for driving across New York in my fifteen-miles-to-a-gallon shitbox. Worse, because the trip’s going to cost me like 100 bucks, so I’ll have to lean on my roommates for this month’s rent. And, I stop at every gas station on the way to buy soda and/or piss.
I cycle through the albums on my mp3 player the whole trip, changing about halfway through each one because the happy ones make me nauseous, the dark ones make me furious, and turning the music off makes me want to scream.
When I finally make it off the big, long, almost-highway roads, I nearly crash twice because I spent fifteen hours going between 40 and 60 mph. But I make it to Liz’s house alive at 4pm on Monday.
She’s not home.
I call her cell phone, and she picks up in less than one ring. ”Hey, Jamie. Are you at my house already?”
"Yep," I say.
"I’m at work. I get out at five, so I’ll be there in like an hour. But there’s a key wedged in a loose board on the door frame, near the bottom on the right. Do you see it?"
"Yeah," I say, and I bend down and pry it out. "Got it."
"Good. Go inside, make yourself comfortable, and I’ll see you when I get home."
I go in, walk into the living room, and sit down on the couch.
I’m back in my car with Kim, and it’s the middle of the night and I’m happy. She’s smiling. She says perfect things. We’re together and everything’s fine.
"Jamie," someone says, and I try to stay asleep but Liz is in front of me and I’m on a couch in Massachusetts.
I try to say hi but it comes out as “Hnnh.”
"Did you drive all night?"
"Hnn," I nod.
"I’ll make tea."
She gets up and walks into the kitchen, and I sit up, and I start to notice that all the light is electric. It’s dark out.
"Liz?" I say.
"How long was I asleep?"
"Since I got home. It’s nine now, so probably about five hours."
"Why didn’t you wake me up?"
"Because you were asleep," she says.
I look down into the floor and steady myself on the couch, so I can sit up without falling over. ”Liz?”
"Can I stay here for a few days?"
"Of course, dear."
I sit and wait, and think about the dream I was having, then feel sick and try to stop thinking about it.
Liz comes back in with the tea. ”Here you are,” she says, and sets a mug down in front of me.
"You’re acting very motherly," I say.
"I know, it’s fun. It’s like role playing. I’ve been cleaning and everything."
"I know, right?" She smiles. "But my dad’s gone for like a month, so I figured I’d mess with him and have the place clean when he gets back."
I take a sip of my tea. It’s very sweet. There must be like four spoonfuls of sugar.
"So, what’s up?"
"Uhm, you know that girl I was telling you about?"
"Kim, right? Did you guys break up?"
"I think so," I say.
"What does that mean? What happened?"
I tell her the story. About how secretive she was, about the ID at the bar, about the phone call afterward.
"Have you heard from her at all since then?" Says Liz.
"No," I say. "I told her not to call me."
"And how do you feel?"
"Shitty," I say. "The multiple identity thing is, like, weapons-grade dysfunction. But I miss her, so much. I already miss her."
"You want my opinion?"
I smirk against the weight of my emotion and say, “I drove fifteen hours for it.”
"If she’s keeping that up, you can’t stay with her. You can’t have a relationship with someone who’s locking you out of half of their life."
"That’s pretty much the opposite of what I wanted you to say."
"And?" She says.
"And you’re right. I know. Can we eat ice cream and watch movies now?"
"Yes. I want to show you this movie I’ve been obsessed with for like weeks now, it’s called Persepolis."
"Is it a good movie for when you’re sad?"
"It’s based on a graphic novel."
"Okay. And ice cream?"
"I picked up cookie dough and mint chocolate chip on the way home from work."
"Dibs on the mint," I say.
"All of it?"
The Nina ritual every day, putting in my contacts, straightening my hair, has become nauseating. It feels like I’m burning the Kim out of me.
Trevor keeps calling. He texts, and leaves messages. Asking if I’m okay, where I’ve been, what’s going on. His messages have these little barbs in them. Stuff like “You could have told us.” I force myself to remember that he doesn’t mean for it to hurt when he says that, and instead of answering and snapping at him, I offer him the mercy of not calling back.
Allan sent one email:
Look, this is all really fucked up. But if you want to talk about it, we’re your friends. Let us help.
Heather started out knocking on my door for a half an hour in the morning, but now she just slams her knuckles into it once or twice and says “Get up.” I wait until she’s left before leaving my room, and slink along to my classes, where I don’t pay attention.
There’s no ‘volunteering.’ No club meetings. Other than for class and food, I don’t leave my dorm. I hide: surf the web, re-read comics, watch YouTube videos of college bands, and practice playing and singing. I do that part loud, and when Heather is home, and only stop when she yells. It’s like a game, until on Thursday night she uses her Student ID to force the lock on my bedroom door.
At first, she’s just a pillar of rage in a white blouse, but that front breaks apart to make room for confusion when she sees me hanging my head down, with my glasses on, wearing seven brightly colored bracelets and a big star pendant around my neck.
I don’t know what I want to yell at her, so I just look up and glare.
The rage comes back together. ”What is wrong with you? What are you doing? What are you wearing?”
I don’t want to answer any of those questions, so I just keep glaring.
"God save you, is that a pentagram on your neck?" I can literally see the condescending mask of concern arrange itself on her face, like little Jesus-bots under her skin are pushing her muscles into the right configuration. But they can’t quite do it. Her eyes still look like hate. "You’re going down a path that leads to Hell, and I won’t allow it." She steps forward and grabs me by the wrist.
"Hey! What the fuck are you doing?"
"I’m taking you to the pastor. I don’t know what’s happening to you, but I know you need God to fix it."
"I’m not going anywhere with you!"
"You’re coming with me, or so help me I will lock you in this dorm and bring the whole congregation here."
I am very sure that she is serious. ”Fine,” I say. ”Let go.”
She looks me hard in the eye, then lets my wrist go.
I get my phone and wallet, and I see Heather looking at my bass. So I put them into the front pocket on its bag, then I put the bass in and start zipping it up.
"You don’t need that," she says.
"I’m bringing it. I feel safer with it."
"No," she says.
I don’t move yet. Heather is standing over me, tapping her foot, and I think carefully about how I can keep it safe.
"Fine," I say, and take some things out of the case and put them in my purse, then I lean the bag on the threshold of my bedroom door. "Let’s go."
She leads out into the hallway, and I step out behind her, and I drop my purse in the door’s path.
Heather starts to turn around, because it made noise, and I’m thinking “Yeah, I’m really going to do this,” while I’m already lunging towards her. I hit her on her shoulder with most of my weight, and she falls down. I’m sure she yells something, but I’m scrambling back into the room. I get the case, and start running back out, and she doesn’t try to stop me—she thinks she does, because she’s holding my purse hostage. I think I stop long enough that she knows I know what she’s doing. Then I keep running down the hall.
In a parking lot down the block, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost her. So I take my cell phone out of my guitar bag, and finally call Trevor back.
"Kim? What’s going on?"
"Hey, um. Sorry I took so long to get back to you. Can I crash at your place for a bit? It’s kind of an emergency."
Trevor tells me that, as a condition for staying, I have to tell him what’s going on. So when I get there, I catch him up to speed.
"That’s kinda cool," he says.
"See? That’s what I thought. I’m like a spy."
"It’s still pretty crazy, though."
"I know." I hold up my guitar case. "Do you mind if I play?"
"Go ahead." He gets his guitar off the stand, and we play quietly together until we know what to say.
"So," he says, "What are you going to do now?"
"I don’t know. Is Allan pissed at me?"
"No, we’re both just worried. Though, he doesn’t know the story yet."
"I hope we don’t break up over this. I don’t want to lose you guys, too."
"Mhm." He looks sort of just above me for a couple seconds. "How do you turn your hair back and forth?"
"Chalk pastel. It’s like the perfect temporary hair dye. But all that stuff’s back at my apartment."
"Kim," he says, "Do you want to keep being… whatever your other name is?"
"Yeah. Do you want to be Nina, or Kim?"
"Kim. Obviously. But, I mean, I’m not. Nina’s who I really am. Kim’s just a disguise."
"Well, that’s just obviously not true. Nina wouldn’t have shoved her roommate into the floor to save her bass."
"You don’t know that," I say, and Trevor laughs. I smile, too, a little bit.
"So," he says, "You’re having a good day for rash decisions. I think you should go for the full set."
"What are you suggesting?"
"I’m suggesting that I take you out for a bottle of blue hair dye, and you make the better choice about which version of you to be."
I have a choice, at least. I assemble the pros and cons in my head. I can go back to the dorm. Submit myself to Heather, to the church, to my parents and Jesus. And I definitely lose Jamie, and the band, and risk getting sent off to a Pray Away the Gay camp.
Or, I can go to Hot Topic with Trevor and dye my hair for real. I confess my identity and estrange my parents and school friends and roommate, and I maybe have to sleep on Trevor’s couch for the rest of the semester, and I don’t know what I do when winter comes and I have to go home.
Or, I transfer to some other school, make two new sets of friends, and cross my fingers that Heather doesn’t think to send my parents an email, if she hasn’t already.
"Yeah," I say. "Let’s go."
"Awesome. I’ll call Allan."
We make kind of a thing of it. Allan and Trevor hang out in Trevor’s living room while I use his shower, and I watch the spirals of blue dye runoff spilling down the drain.
Trevor also bought me a bathrobe, when he realized that I wasn’t going to have anything to wear out of the shower. It’s blue, nearly matches the shade of dye. It’s all very dramatic. I might wear it on stage some time.
My hair frizzes out because I used too much shampoo—I didn’t want to leave dye residue. But I scrubbed it as hard as I can and the blue didn’t come off, and seeing my hair like that when I get out of the shower feels good.
I put on my glasses and the bathrobe, and I focus on breathing while I watch myself in the mirror for a minute. Then I open the door and walk down the hall into the living room.
"It looks good," says Trevor.
"Yeah, you look weird blonde," says Allan. "I’m glad your head is back to normal now."
"Thanks," I say.
"Now," says Trevor, "for phase Two of Operation: Reclaim Kim’s Life."
"What does that mean?" I say.
"It means we take Allan’s car and go to your dorm with you so you’ve got backup to gather up your stuff."
First I start to think it to myself, then I say out loud: “I have awesome friends. Thank you, guys.”
Heather storms out when I get there, after seeing that there are two tall, scary looking dudes with me—tall meaning over 5’5”, and scary meaning they wear black T-shirts with writing on them.
I head to my dorm room and start gathering up stuff. Allan helps me pack, and Trevor waits in the living area to watch for any attempt to interfere.
"Hey," says Trevor, "I think wassername is trying to interfere."
"What’s going on?" I say. Allan and I come out of my room—Trevor tells me to hang back, and has Allan look out the door.
"It looks like Heather got everyone on the floor to line up outside," says Allan.
"What a fucking creep," says Trevor.
"No," I say. "It’s fine. I have to see all these people in class, anyway. Why shouldn’t they play a role in my exile?"
I turn back to the bedroom and shut the door before Allan comes in.
"You okay?" He says.
"Yep, just give me a minute."
I pull out the spiky purple vest, my tight patched up jeans, my converse, and one of the Kim-style bras I bought when I started seeing Jamie. If they want a show, fuck em. They got it.
"You wear that on stage, we’ll probably get a record deal," says Trevor when I come out.
"I’m ready," I say, and I put on my headphones, plugged into my phone. Allan leads, I’m in the middle, and Trevor follows behind me, and whatever my floormates are muttering or shouting on my way out, I don’t hear a fucking word.
09. GET SOME SLEEP
It’s 11pm when I hit the road, and I’m leaving with a bottle of caffeine pills and a gallon of water, so I’ll definitely need to stop to piss, but I won’t have to stop at every gas station.
Liz hugs me goodbye, and I get in my car and drive west. It’s lucky I’m going that way because the sun’s coming up for the whole last hour of my drive and driving away from it doesn’t hurt my eyes like driving into it would and the caffeine has me buzzing, but I’m not really alert.
I practice my lines in my head for the last chunk of highway. I want to talk. In person. Not to Kim. I want to talk to you like you are at school.
When I get close, I pull into a parking lot to make the call.
"Hello?" She says, like she’s terrified I’m going to punch her through the phone—which, I guess, I’m about to.
"Listen: I want to talk to you. In person, and I don’t want you to come in the disguise. I want to talk to you in your normal-girl outfit and have a conversation with the real you."
It’s quiet for a second, then she says, “I can’t.”
So she’s the one who gets the punch in. Fine. ”God, you’re such a coward. I don’t want to hear from you again if you won’t even face—”
"Wait, no, I mean literally," she says. "I can’t. I didn’t take any of those clothes when I left the dorm, and my new hair dye is permanent."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I’m staying with Trevor. I don’t feel safe around my roommate, being out of the closet. If you want to talk, I want that too. You can come here, if you want. But I only have my Kim-clothes now, so it’s them or naked."
"Fine," I say.
She’s sitting on the porch when I get there, and when I get out of my car she says, “How’re you doing?”
"Alright," I say, like a fucking reflex. She’s not smiling, though, and that’s not fun. She looks like she’s watching me sharpen an axe. The smell of fresh morning air and weeds around Trevor’s lawn work their way in through my breath as I walk up the path to the deck, and they start untangling some of the knots in my intestines. I wonder if she picked the deck on purpose for that, and some new knots tie up when I think it. Those ones don’t untangle, even if I explain to myself that I’m the one who showed up at 7 in the morning, and there are people sleeping inside.
I sit down on one of the lawn chairs on the deck, and she sits down across from me, leaving about three feet of thick personal space between our knees.
I stare at her, not meeting her eye. I focus on her arms, the way they’re wrapped around her middle, or her legs, tight together and crossed at the ankles, her skin exposed to the cold morning, and her hair, bluer than it’s ever been before and for once not stiff and chalky. ”You know I’ve got blue stains on all my pillows, right?”
"Yeah," she says. "It won’t happen again. I swear." She starts to almost smile, and I open up to a little more eye contact. We’re still ice-skating around each other’s gaze, though.
"Do you want to come inside?" She says.
And something in the way she says it, it makes me feel like she’s saying, just come inside, and everything will be better. Coming inside means this is all over. We’ll go inside, and snuggle, and fall asleep together, and how can we possibly break up after that? I want that to happen. But I’m not ready for it. I don’t know if that’s what I want. I just wish she didn’t say that. I wish she just wanted to stay outside on the porch and talk, for a long time, and not rush back in. To stay out in the cold until we knew where we both wanted to be.
All those thoughts don’t fit very well into words, and I’m not angry at her for this but I’m angry that I have to try to defend wanting to talk about it and I’m not even sure if that’s what I’d be defending, and I feel like I’m going to start shouting no matter what I say, so I say,
"No. I’m going home. We’ll talk later."
I stand up, and she says, “Oh.” And, “Okay.” And she watches me as I walk back down the weedy path and get in my car, and I watch her in my mirror all the way down the street to the turn, and if she went inside it wasn’t until after I was out of sight.
10. HAWAIIAN T-SHIRT
I suppose it follows from rejecting God that I don’t get to count on miracles. I guess I still get poetic justice, though, because I ran away from Jamie without explaining, then didn’t hear from her for a week. Now she runs away from me for no reason, and I get nothing from her.
This week, though, is a bigger fountain of angst than that. This week, I get to go to school with blue hair.
It’s not like nobody recognizes me. A lot of people have heard the rumors by now, and all but one of my teachers see me often enough that they know what I actually look like, not just what my hair and shirts look like. Still, I make a habit of slinking towards the back of the room and taking quiet notes. I raise my hand a lot less.
A lot of people keep insisting that it’s a joke, waiting for me to deliver the punchline. Some of my school friends get mad at me when I refuse to let them in on it. It doesn’t help that I’m not bothering to try to explain. I’ve heard the things these people say when they don’t think anyone gay is in the room, and I don’t want them to feel welcome in my life, going forward.
Some people don’t notice. One kid in Lit2 comes up to me when I’m packing up after class and asks me “where I was for the first half of the semester.” Him, I tell a little bit of truth. That I was the blonde who sat up front.
"Are you single?" He says.
"No," I say.
The blossoming free time that emerges when I don’t have to spend hours every day building up alibis, sneaking around, and transitioning from one identity to another, provides a huge amount of new room for self-pity. I end up getting even less done than I did when I had no time to do it.
I find out that Trevor and Allan don’t hang out as much as I thought. They really only end up in the same place for band practice. Trevor has these three friends he gets high with roughly every other night.
I hang out with Allan less, because I’m not living with him, but it seems like he doesn’t really hang out with anyone. I ask him about it, one night.
"I have friends," he says. "I just don’t hang out with them, much."
"And you’re okay with that?"
"I’d like to hang out with people more. But I don’t call them, I wait for them to call me. And if they can’t be bothered, I’m not going to hold that against them. I don’t hate being alone."
I’m drinking, but he’s just sort of staring at his beer.
"What about you?" He says. "Who do you hang out with, apart from us?"
"Nobody," I say. "Especially not now. But I don’t have friends outside the band, and Jamie. What I had was a bunch of people I occasionally talked to so people didn’t start to ask questions about where I was all the time."
"That doesn’t sound very healthy," he says.
"Yeah, I’m beginning to think I may not have made very good life decisions."
He laughs, and he drinks. ”You’re doing better than a lot of people,” he says.
"You think so?" I say.
"No," he says. "You’re pretty damn fucked up. But I believe in redemption. And there’s good in you, I can feel it."
"You make me sound like Darth Vader," I say.
"You’re on the dark side now," he says.
"I think the dark side was who I was before," I say. "Not that this is the light side, or anything. But you know what I used to tell my dorm mate I was doing when I had practice or shows?"
"I’d say I was volunteering with campaigns to protect traditional marriage," I say.
"Is that what you’d say when you were out fucking your girlfriend?"
"I think I owe a serious karmic debt to the LGBT movement."
"What about to your girlfriend?"
"I’ve been thinking about that a lot."
"Apart from the slow, long process of earning back her trust, which I can only do if she decides to give me the chance, the only thing I can imagine doing is saying sorry."
"Didn’t you do that already?"
"Yeah. But, I mean, more." I finish my drink. "I think I have to say it a lot more."
I have a newfound respect and contempt for the power of context. Glasses and whisps of culrly blue hair in my face annihilate my ability to focus on the content of my classes. Instead, I fill my notebooks with lyrics. I feel more like myself, sure. I feel exposed.
I also feel like it would be an unacceptable betrayal of Kim’s principles to waste time paying attention to Nina’s classes. I’m vaguely aware that I’m going to need to get over that. But for now, there is a better use for the time, and composing lyrics looks quite a lot like taking notes.
I don’t want to spend too much time haunting Trevor’s place, I feel like I’m imposing enough already. So I spend time in the school library, sitting in a corner in the stacks or, occasionally, at one of the desks, editing and re-editing and re-editing a set of lyrics. I spend every waking moment I can spare analyzing my pain, and writing it down, and finding the verse that deals with that pain and hammering the complexity and subtlety and perspective this moment offers into its structure, so the sounds of each word crackle with pain.
King Context cackles while I Cower, cringing, crushed. Queen Quotidian Quiet cries Cringing, countered, quelled.
"It sounds silly," says Allan. He’s sitting in Trevor’s living room, reading the notebook page. Trevor is leaning over his shoulder.
"You’re not reading it right," I say.
"I think he is," says Trevor. "This is ridiculous. Why don’t you write something more like your other songs?"
"My other songs aren’t DEEP enough," I say. "This is more important than them."
Trevor says, “Kim, these lyrics sound like you’re trying to confuse your audience. Jamie’s not going to take it seriously if it sounds like you’re hiding behind the song.”
"Yeah," says Allan. "I’m not actually sure what you’re getting at in this song."
"Isn’t it obvious?" I say.
"No," says Trevor. "It’s not."
I get ready to start explaining. And it’s right there, this big, heavy explanation, like it’s hanging behind a membrane in my skull, and if I can just get through it will all come pouring out. But it isn’t coming. I can’t find the first words. There’s no knife to pierce the membrane and I’m just left pawing against a soft bulge of wet anxiety.
"Hey," says Trevor, "You’re good at this. You’ve written a bunch of songs before that hang your feelings up on a wall for the audience to poke. How did it work then?"
"I don’t know," I say, because it feels like that instruction manual, too, is up behind the membrane somewhere.
I’m feeling around inside my mind for something to think, something to say that doesn’t sound like whimpering, and what starts to drip out is: You didn’t care.
I didn’t have to care before, about whether anyone was listening, about what people thought. I didn’t even have to care about whether Jamie liked my music, because if she didn’t she just wouldn’t show up, and the song didn’t have to be about anybody in particular.
I didn’t have to care, so I didn’t hold anything back. I wanted all the consequences that could come from my songs.
But that’s not what I was thinking when I wrote this one. I was writing a song I was going to have to stand up to. My friends from school might recognize me, people I know would know I was singing it. And I had to tell the truth, about who I am, about what I’ve done.
"I’ve never written a song before where applause at the end wasn’t good enough," I say.
"Well, I wouldn’t try too hard," says Allan. "It’s not helping."
"Thanks, Trevor," I say, and he hangs up. I put down my cell phone, and stare at the canvas in front of me while I think about my choices. Kim’s playing tonight, and she’s written a song for me. She knows I know, so it’s up to me whether to come.
I’d have to be there in like an hour. Sooner, if I want to read a poem, so I decide I don’t want to read a poem. I imagine Kim hanging over her instrument on a stool, asking Trevor, “Is she coming?”
"She’ll come," I imagine him saying, and I’m annoyed at him that he’s being presumptuous in my fantasy. It would be so easy to not go. I just have to not show up. What could they say about that? Kim hasn’t shown up for half her life.
Doors open and close in my hands while I think to myself, what could she possibly say that would make a difference? I’m sorry? I’m dropping out of school? Come meet my parents?
The rhythm of my footfalls match the rhythm I’m imagining. Some minor key that will open the reservoirs of pity that she thinks I keep held up for just this kind of occasion. I imagine my emotional response in terms of the visible cloud of frozen breath that drifts in another rhythm out of my mouth.
The warmth of body heat and sudden presence of discernible smells breaks my train of thought as I walk into the bar. Suddenly, I can’t keep the river of anger flowing and I’m left alone and scared. I get a vodka tonic at the bar, as quickly as possible, and I try to find somewhere I can hide without crawling under the table of one of the booths.
When Kim takes the stage with Trevor and Allan, I’ve been swirling the ice around in the bottom of my empty glass for an amount of time I didn’t keep track of.
She starts by playing a series of dischords that lean achingly close to musical sounds, until they break through into a bass line, upon which Allan and Trevor start playing. Then, she starts singing.
I’ve been so rotten
That the rotten floor I walked on
And I fell through.
I’ve been so rotten
That the rotten walls that hid me
And splintered you.
And I’m pretty sure that
You’ve been cold before,
And found some warmth behind my door,
And it was an awful,
Rotten thing to do
To only hold you
And never warn you
My house was so rotten
That if I protected you
That it would hurt you
Splinter and rot you
And if I had ever
Been this cold before,
I’d beg for warmth behind your door,
So now I’m rebuilding,
Leave the rotten wood behind
And start anew,
I’m starting new,
And if you’ll forgive me,
I don’t want to build alone
And without you,
If I don’t have to.
Because I have never
Been this cold before,
I think I need a brand new door,
And if you think you
Could ever understand
Then I could use your pair of hands
'Cause I feel so rotten.
All three of them halt exactly on that last word. And they pack up, and get off stage, and when they’re done, Kim walks over to the bar and sits.
I summon up all of my courage to stand up and walk over. But it doesn’t work, and I stay sitting. So I shut my eyes, and force the decision. I stand up, and open my eyes, and carry my empty drink and walk to the bar.
When I get close, I see she’s sitting with a drink and her cell phone in front of her. She’s staring at the cell phone so hard that she doesn’t notice when I sit down next to her.
"Hi," I say.
She sort of rubs her head on her shoulder before looking up at me. She was trying to rub the tears off her eyes, but it’s really obvious she’s been crying, and sort of still is.
"Hey," she says.
"Do you want to talk?"
"Yes," she says. Then she starts saying, "I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m completely and totally sorry and—" the words after that sound so much like sobs that I don’t know what they are.
"Hey," I say. And she stops, and looks up at me. I put my hand over hers. "Stop saying sorry."
She sniffs and tries to gather her thoughts. I can tell. While she’s busy, I get the bartender’s attention and order another vodka tonic for me, and a rum and coke for her. I think she doesn’t want to talk while anyone else is paying attention, because she waits patiently for the drinks, and when the bartender is serving someone else, she says, “Do you forgive me?”
"Not yet," I say. "But I think I will."
She looks into her drink like there’s a really sad movie playing on the ice. ”Okay,” she says.
"Look," I say. "I don’t want to be your whole life, and I don’t want to be with you just to be your support structure while you figure things out."
"That’s not what I want," she says.
"I know," I say. "I don’t think it’s what you want. If it turns out we’re wrong, I’m gone."
"But you’ll stay for now?" She says.
"Yeah," I say. "I’ll stay for now."