by Jude Harris
The waiting room was, once again, full of diabetics. Cal noticed a scowl from a jowly older man in a gut-stretched golf shirt lopped over his permanent-pressed slacks. Caught staring, the old man muttered something to his wife, who was small and stooped beneath a cloud of spider-silk hair – curled into herself from decades of apologizing. For what? For him, Cal guessed. Or to him? Both, Cal decided.
And then, inevitably, Cal spotted a very specific smile from the other side of the room. So many teeth and bright eyes and slightest tilt of the head that Cal had come to recognize as the wordless face of ally-ship, the “check please” of acceptance. This time, it came from a young woman trying to distract a toddler from thinking about needles with a stack of board books pulled from a ragged embroidered diaper bag.
She seems like a good mother. Cal thought, and adjusted their hoodie, suddenly conscious of their chest and the sensations within it. I should have mothered more… I should have mothered more… I should have mothered more.
And off Cal’s mind went, down the tornado of memory that any emotional at all seemed to elicit lately. A memory of that other waiting room, and the lost expressions the boys and Rebecca carried into therapy. The thought was too much, too sad and unresolved and suddenly, Cal found themself elsewhere: Their bachelor apartment. (Bachelorette apartment? Would any pronoun redeem it?). They saw the pine futon guest bed and the sad, small shelf of toys. They thought about the community theater version of Christmas before everyone else took a cross-country flight to the real celebration without them. They found themself alone again. They’d been alone that Christmas once in life, but thousands of times in their memories.
Cal had learned tools to weather these shifting waves of pain. They rushed to find a better thought, took a deep breath, held onto it. They wrote their name on the sign in sheet with a chewed-on Bic pen bound with masking tape to a dirty length of twine.
“Just have a seat sir, and we’ll call your name when we’re ready.” Sir? Seriously? Here? It’s been two years. But, fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. Back in the tornado, Cal flailed, grasping for the better thought. They instead found a deep breath. They blinked five slow blinks, counting them.
Beneath their form-concealing Walmart hoodie, they were overdressed for the doctor’s office. Cal swept a swath of bright red viscose dress beneath them and sat so as to put the old couple in their periphery and to face the mother. Now it was Cal’s turn to telegraph support as the toddler indulged in an unrestrained tantrum and the mother’s attempts to sooth him became more desperate.
They gave the mother a kind smile wrapped in the intention: You’re doing great. You’re doing great. You’re doing great.
“Mr. Shaw? Come on back.”
The endocrinologist had perfected the acceptance smile. She was young and kind and her hair had the most impeccable part Cal had ever seen. She seemed to enjoy her days spent in support of people’s glands. “How are you?”
“Good. I think? Am I good?” Cal’s eyes drifted to their chart, looking for numbers, hoping for a glimpse at where theirs fell within the tolerances of normal.
“But you’re still…”
Cal nodded. The endocrinologist looked to Cal’s chest, patient, but also tensing her face with an awareness of passing time and the many glands the day still held in store for her.
Cal removed their hoodie and there it was: a warm ball of flesh on their sternum, soft and hot, rounder than the small breasts it sat between. The ball of flesh pulsed, subtly, with the rhythm of Cal’s heart beat - like the tiny twitch of an eye.
“And the oncologist…”
“He isn’t concerned, apparently.”
“Good. That’s a beautiful dress.”
“Thank you. I actually…” That word. Actually. They scrambled for the better thought again, inhaling. “I have a date tonight.”
The endocrinologist became a person for a moment, with a layperson’s curiosity. Her eyebrows briefly leapt up before returning to polite neutrality. “And you were going to…” She gestured tactfully at her own chest, invoking Cal’s, “let it show?"
“Well, it’s just sort of what’s going on with my body lately.” Cal noticed the endocrinologist smiling, her face giving away an emotion Cal couldn’t place. “What is it?”
“You’re amazing. I really admire you.” And then the doctor was a doctor again. “I hope it’s a wonderful date.”
At the bottom level of the hospital parking lot, their car wedged between golf carts and a maintenance truck, Cal again removed their hoodie. They looked for the hundredth time at a Hinge profile, trying to combine four pictures, a few evocative one-liners and a week of messages into a vision of a person.
First, a serious portrait, defiant and sexy: wild lucite earrings framing a face from a Vermeer painting. Second, a laughing smile in a blurry low-resolution photograph of an all-night diner, delighting about something over a shared plate of fries. Third, black and white, at a bar with a bearded man: both smiling to the camera and somehow glamorous, ripped from the pages of Interview – shimmering, silver, metallic. And, finally standing at the front of a protest at the brink of boiling over, her lips snarling at a cop in riot gear.
She was all of these things in her messages. She was principled. She was direct and vulnerable, flirtatious, funny and wise.
Who could you possibly be? Cal wondered. I cannot wait to meet you. This was the better thought.
Cal noticed their chest. The growth was shining, just a bit, the faint light of the salt lamp on their cobbled-together bedroom shrine with the dimmer at its weakest. A witchy night-light.
Lovely. Cal thought. It fucking glows now.
Traffic was light and Cal found themself at the bar twenty minutes early.
It was an old, oaky, once-fancy place that felt that night like someone’s grandmother’s den. Cal took comfort in the knick-knacks in need of dusting, red velvet seats in need of upholstering, and the dust-caked artificial ivy in need of being thrown away.
It was dim and Cal was aware that the growth was as bright as the chandelier bulbs. Was it larger, too? They inhaled deeply and tried to exhale the tightness in their chest. This is just what’s happening now.
They ordered a club soda and over-tipped, apologetic for existing. The bartender was short, moon-faced and shaggy. As soon as she spotted Cal’s chest her expression became an echo of the endocrinologist’s. Overwhelmed, with wet eyes, she beamed at Cal in a way that made Cal feel a bit too much like a cult leader. Cal tried to smile this away, but it only intensified the moment. They retreated to a booth with the club soda and tried to ignore the bartender and the temptation to retreat into their phone.
For seventeen minutes, Cal delighted in the better thought, the unknown pleasures of conversation with the mysterious stranger from Hinge. Then came a text about a sick cat and an emergency trip to the vet. Then came a promise to reschedule.
Of course. Contemplating their half-finished club soda, Cal decided to believe in this cat, this emergency and this promise. They prayed a silent prayer for the cat, for the mysterious stranger, and for their own always tight, always bruised heart.
And then came a text from Rebecca about a flakey babysitter. She had a date of her own. Could Cal help?
The boys climbed into Cal’s car, yawning and lopsided from the weight of their sleepover bags. “That’s a beautiful dress, Dad. You look amazing.”
“Yeah, who were you going to see?”
“I had plans with a friend, but she had an emergency.”
“What kind of emergency?”
“Her cat got sick, actually.”
“What kind of cat?”
“A gray cat. With black stripes. Maybe that’s a tabby? I don’t really know kinds of cats.”
Cal pulled pajamas onto the boys and brushed their teeth. The boys were punchy and tired, dragging their feet over the Cal’s tacky mish-mash of carpet, linoleum, and tile as they petitioned Cal for a last glass of water, a favorite stuffy from their backpack, a story. All of it in fits of laughter over a fart or an inside joke.
“Grapes, grapes, eat them sour grapes!”
“Bananas, bananas, eat them sour bananas!” And then cackles, loud enough to bother the neighbors. To Cal’s relief, no one pounded on the wall.
The boys could not make themselves comfortable on the futon and Cal was too tired to persuade them to sleep on it anyway. All three of them piled into a tangle of limbs in Cal’s bed. The boys fell asleep asking for stories of Cal getting into trouble when they were a boy.
Cal smelled their heads and thought about retreating to the futon for a better night’s rest, but didn’t dare to risk waking them. The growth glowed through Cal’s thin white t-shirt. The boys snored softly as the light grew brighter and brighter, eclipsing the salt lamp, eclipsing the light that leaked in from the street lamp outside.
Cal lay awake, their heart full and empty all at once. They felt the tornado of sadness gathering strength again, swirling in the shadows. The room brightened. The shadows grew smaller.
Jude Harris (she/they) is a trans femme writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles, CA. When she’s not writing, she produces documentaries, directs comedies, cooks for friends, laughs at her partner’s jokes and hugs her kids. Jude’s Instagram is @judehopeharris.