David stared at Mimi’s picture, taken at his bar mitzvah twenty-five years ago. She was his cousin, a second cousin, and she and her family had come out to Milwaukee from Brooklyn for the occasion. He remembered being smitten at the ceremony. She had dark silky hair and large brown eyes flecked with gold. Slender and tall, her face had an oval shape like a prized portrait, and her hair was tucked behind her small, well-articulated ears—carved as if from soap. Her throat had a long white curve, and she sat very still in the second row of the synagogue as he read from the Torah and led the congregation in blessings. At the end of giving his bar mitzvah speech, he’d thanked his parents for being so supportive and then thanked all his relatives and friends for coming. He looked at Mimi and said, “And thank you.” It was a bizarre and spontaneous moment for him in a life so far of calm, reasoned, and practiced application. Nevertheless, she just continued to stare unwaveringly at him on the bema. But he was a goner. It was his first experience of painful desire, a fervor that threatened to swallow his flesh. Nor did it hurt that he was just entering puberty, and Mimi, fifteen, was obviously there already.
She had hung back at the reception while he danced the box step with skinny and mostly undeveloped girls from his seventh-grade class, and Mimi’s remove and mystery gave her a kind of regal aloofness that only worked him into more of a frenzy. She had declined to dance with him, explaining, “I’m not a good partner. I like to lead.”
“That would be fine.”
“Thanks, but no.”
At one point, he saw her standing alone by the presents and went over to her. “Pick one,” he said.
“You can have one.”
She smiled at him, straight white teeth, free of braces. “You’re silly.”
“I’m serious.” He felt desperate to give her something.
“I can’t take your presents.”
“You are serious.”
And then her father, uncle Irv, had come up and congratulated David on his excellent reading of his haftorah, and that was the end of the exchange. He’d been ready to give up his newly gotten gains to her, the tower of gifts and gelt for becoming a man. My kingdom for your hand. I’ll marry you someday, he thought.
He’d seen her a couple times afterward, at a wedding and then an anniversary party for her parents where she wore a wool plaid cap, like a cabbie, and baggy corduroy pants, and seemed inappropriately dressed for the occasion. Still, he couldn’t deny that every time he saw her the same feelings flared up, though evidently not on Mimi’s part. Her eyes, almond shaped and impenetrable as to her own thoughts, remained curiously distant. And soon he lost touch with her.
Now he was driving to the Denver Hyatt. Mimi was coming in from New York for a social workers conference. David himself was a psychologist with a practice in Denver, which would give them something in common after all these years. All that was good. He had brought with him the picture of her at his bar mitzvah. Of course this was twenty-five years later, and she was now a he. Miles. Mimi had been gone for two years.
Miles told him he would be wearing a blue short-sleeve shirt and yellow tie and David had spotted him right away standing beside the fountain. He wouldn’t have thought for a moment Miles stood out from any other man, professionally attired and waiting to meet a lunch partner. With his dark cropped hair, he was shorter than David remembered him as Mimi—a taller girl but on the shorter end as a man. Above all he appeared neat. Well groomed, spotless nails, and with a firm handshake in place of a hug.
“My mother has been a lot better about it than my father,” Miles said when they sat down at lunch. He had ordered a steak to David’s Caesar salad and was taking sturdy bites. “Irv can’t really look me in the eye, but Mom asks me how I’m doing. She never says anything specific such as ‘How’s the hormone treatment going?’ or ‘Your voice is getting deeper,’ but she does remember to call me Miles, which my father won’t. He just avoids my name altogether. I think fathers have a harder time giving up their little girls. A mother just accepts her child regardless.”
David thought of his own daughter, Leah, twelve, and indeed he did have a problem imagining her transforming herself into Leon. He craved her daughterness.
“You just learn to live with people’s reactions—those who knew you when. Actually, I have more confusion with people I meet now. Do I tell them about the before? Or is the before no longer me? Will they feel tricked once they find out? Or worse. I had at least one person in my caseload who learned I’d undergone reassignment. This individual, who was a bit unstable anyway, threatened me.”
“What’d you do?”
“I forwarded a copy of the letter, which said some godawful things about making me back into a woman, to the police. I can’t say it didn’t shake me up. In any case, I have to consider every time how relevant it is to explain about my past. This may be the hardest part of gender reassignment—others.”
“I can only imagine,” David said. He searched Miles’ face, with its thin shadow of hirsute, to see if he had any inkling of what David had once secretly thought about him as a her. He’d been riveted by Mimi, by her elusive sylph beauty, her slender jaw and sinuous lips that reminded him of graceful Arabic script. He could still see a delicate handsomeness in the man now.
“And how about you?” Miles asked him. “Did you bring pictures of your family?”
“I did,” said David, and took out the leather folio and showed him photographs of his wife, Rose, and of Leah.
“You have a gorgeous family,” Miles said.
“We’ve been trying to have another child,” David told him. He had no idea why he’d admitted this to Miles. They rarely told anyone. After so much time the pursuit no longer felt new or promising. And they were thankful for just having Leah when he knew many couples who weren’t even that lucky. Though he knew, too, that Rose felt more frustrated than he. For him, Leah’s large and sometimes histrionic personality more than filled the house. She was enough. Just as he had always chosen to believe that he, an only child too, was enough for his parents. But Rose had spoken of the joys of a large family, having four sisters herself, and lately the subject, as she turned thirty-eight like him, had become a line signifying their places on opposite sides of a stubborn marker. More than once he’d indicated he’d like to have a vasectomy and be done with it. “It,” of course, was the pressure of making a baby, which had lately morphed into the pressure of performance.
“I’d like to have a family someday,” Miles said. “That was the hardest part of my decision. Bye bye to my reproductive organs.” “I can only imagine.” David realized he’d uttered these words twice now and must have sounded like a dazed observer at a side-show. He should have been less unsettled by Miles’ bluntness—what had happened to his professional training after all? He’d worked with gay men and women, even transvestites, though not someone who’d undergone a sex change. Yet he felt a personal reaction to everything that was being said. As if he were channeling the family’s regrets.
“I’d be glad to adopt, if I met the right woman. Of course, that’s a problem in itself.” Miles smiled broadly. “I mean, am I a straight man now who dates heterosexual women, or a man, formerly a woman, who still likes lesbians? And would any of them have me?”
“You had a partner before?”
“Helena.” Miles bent his linen napkin into a frown that drooped from his mouth. “End of a five year relationship.”
“You must have wanted to do this very badly.” “What you’re really asking is do I have any regrets?” David smiled. “You’re a good therapist, I can see.”
“I am, more than I get paid for. But to answer your question, well, let me put it this way. I’d look in my closet at the pantyhose I was supposed to put on for corporate America before I became a social worker and it would make my skin crawl. I never felt comfortable in women’s clothes or a woman’s skin. And frankly, I’d always wanted a penis. Now I have one. Would you like to see it?”
“Pardon?” David said, flushing.
Miles reached out to touch David’s hand. “I’m only fooling with you, cousin. Consider it transgender schtick.”
But was he? After lunch, Miles suggested they go for a swim. The hotel had an indoor lap pool. “I love to swim,” Miles informed David. “That’s the one sport I used to do competitively. Why don’t you join me?”
“I don’t have a suit.”
“I always bring an extra.” They were standing in the atrium of the hotel under the vast open glass panels, surrounded by a mauve forest of sofas, chairs, and wall hangings. “Unless you have to get back right away.”
“No,” said David, because he didn’t want to seem… What? Rude? Uptight about swimming with a transsexual? “Sure, let’s do it.”
They went up to Miles’ room, discussing the conference on the way. Miles’ presentation tomorrow was part of a panel called “Living with your (non) transgender Parents.” His own experience with his parents’ semi-denial was not atypical, he said. “I can certainly understand,” he admitted. “How would you feel about your child becoming a different gender in the middle of her life? For one, you’re asking parents to give up any illusions about carrying on the family name in a genetically natural way. It’s one thing not to have children; it’s quite another to willfully, as in my case, undermine the very capacity to do so. No wonder so few doctors will do the operation. They’re asked to perform an irrevocable procedure that is based entirely on a state of mind, something they’re supposed to believe in called gender dysphoria, that either removes the sex organs or constructs entirely sterile ones. I mean, I have a respectable penis, thanks to the wonders of phalloplasty, but heaven help it to squirt out a single sperm. I sympathize, I do, with my parents, with the doctors… With everyone. Do you want to change in the bathroom?” Miles asked, starting to get undressed. He threw David a suit.
He did. He hadn’t prepared himself after all. Not for the forthrightness of Miles’ remarks. If anything, he thought he’d have to draw Miles out, as he would a struggling client, a gentle questioning to establish trust. But Miles was a runaway train—I have a respectable penis. Had David ever said anything like this to anyone? And how big was Miles’ penis anyway?
In the bathroom, David held up the suit, small, but he could fit into it. At least it wasn’t a Speedo.
“You okay in there?” Miles asked.
“Fine,” said David.
David pulled at the crotch of the tan nylon trunks. “Just great.” When he opened the door, Miles was standing there in the hotel’s white bathrobe cinched tight and with flip flops.
“Not bad,” Miles remarked, eyeing David’s suit. It was almost as if his cousin had been expecting this moment.
Miles, as he’d hinted, proved to be an excellent swimmer. David watched him glide effortlessly back and forth in the pool, making smooth flip turns at the wall and then shooting forward with submerged musculature into the next lap, silent as an eel. Meanwhile, David stood in the water’s deep end supporting himself with his elbows on the ledge. Rose, a strong swimmer herself, had tried to encourage him to go with her to the community pool. He agreed that he needed exercise and too often got stuck in his head, the profession’s occupational hazard, and that he should follow his own advice to clients to get out there and stir up some endorphins.
“Want to sit in the hot tub?” Miles called to him from across the pool. They were the only ones in the pool. They’d come down on the elevator and passed through a throng of conferees registering for the conference. David had followed Miles assuming he knew the best way to the fitness center, but now he wondered if there hadn’t been a more direct—and private—route. In the popularized argot of the profession, he would have considered his cousin’s behavior—the eagerness to change clothes in the openness of the hotel room, the strolling through the lobby, the offer to view his respectable penis—an exhibitory overcompensation for his fears of being insufficiently masculine. the catch was that overcompensation or not, it was making David feel like the lesser man.
“Sure,” said David, and boosted himself out of the water. The trunks clung to his thighs. It was odd… He almost felt as if he were thirteen again, wearing this small suit, self-conscious about his changing body. Except presently his body was changing against his will—or lack thereof—into a sedentary salute to middle age. Miles, by comparison, showed all the signs of rejuvenation, if not outright youth.
In the hot tub, he got a good look at Miles’ chest, which had just a little extra padding, as if filled with a layer of down, but not so much that you’d think I’m staring at a former woman’s chest. He could see no signs of scars. The nipples appeared a bit asymmetrical and larger than they might (although compared to what? he had to ask himself). In a moment of strange elevator intimacy, David had confessed on the way down to the pool that he’d had a crush on him—on Mimi, that is. He hadn’t gone into the extent of it via his hormone-erupting, thirteen-year-old psyche at a religious rite of passage overseen by a God in whom he’d stop believing. Or that he’d mentally unzipped her pink dress and never dreamed he’d have to unzip her skin to find the real person. He’d simply said, “I had a pretty good crush on you as a teenager.” And Miles, standing up straight and thoughtful in his terrycloth hotel robe with its Hyatt insignia and his navy blue knee-length swim trunks, as if he were a boxer having a centering moment before he entered the ring, turned to him and said, “Admiration accepted. And returned.”
Miles caught him staring and smiled. David quickly turned away, embarrassed by his curiosity and gawking. “Enjoying yourself?” Miles asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh. I am,” said David. He had to keep flattening down his ballooning trunks.
“Is something troubling you?”
“No,” he said, though he knew from his own experience with clients that he’d responded too quickly to be credible.
Miles extended one leg—hairy, David noted—and tapped his big toe against David’s chest. “Sure?”
“Well, we’re struggling a bit right now. Rose and I. But it’s nothing serious.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“I think it’s about the direction of our lives.”
“Sounds like a traffic problem.”
David laughed. “In a way. Rose would like another child, as I said.”
“Actually you said you both wanted a child. Is that not accurate?”
“She more than I. I think she believes this is the way to move forward. I’m not so sure.”
“You’ve been married, what? Fifteen years?”
“So that’s a lot of time together. I envy you. It’s an investment worth guarding.”
“That it is,” said David. And then thought how strange to be talking with his cousin in a hot tub about the intimacy of his marriage, his cousin who had just told him he had a respectable penis, and with whom, ironically, he felt completely honest in a way he rarely enjoyed these days. “I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Miles said. “I’m a poster boy for what comes next. And you want to know something? It’s always a work in progress. Somehow the definitiveness of next, despite my certainty of its permanence each time, still eludes me.”
They went upstairs to change, and again David used the bathroom, while Miles dressed in the less private confines of the room. David looked at his shriveled penis in the mirror, always to be counted on after swimming, but especially in a tight suit. He stretched the appendage, but it quickly retracted into its accordion mode like the face of a preternaturally wrinkled Chinese Shar-Pei dog.
“All right if I just rinse off in here?” David called through the door.
“Go ahead. I’ll do the same after you finish.”
He saw Miles’ travel kit on the back of the tub once he opened the shower curtain. He knew all about confidentiality. What could be more important in his profession? You went to jail, after all, to protect a client’s privacy. Or told yourself you would, if it ever came to that. Yet, he couldn’t stop himself from looking in the bag and picking up the prescription bottles. Lexapro, Trazodone, Ativan, Paxil… the whole gamut of depression and anxiety treatments. it didn’t surprise him. What did was the sudden pang of tenderness he felt for Miles and his vulnerabilities. He could recall when he’d first seen Mimi, and she looked so alone, maybe the loneliest and prettiest girl he had ever seen, a deadly combination for someone like him who was keen on others’ wounds and on his way to becoming a psychologist, the seed watered.
“You need anything, just take it out of my toiletry bag,” Miles said, and David drew his hand away quickly, as if Miles could see him. “I mean, deodorant or something.”
“Want to shower together?” “Huh?”
“David, David,” said Miles. “Just kidding.”
“Oh, yeah,” David said. “Transgender schtick. Right.”
He showered and dressed, and after Miles did the same they went down in the elevator. He was already planning what he would say to his parents who’d want to know how the visit with Mimi went, wondering if he would tell them the truth. He still couldn’t believe uncle Irv hadn’t told them about Miles. Oh, yes, he could. Repression could be a formidable force. He’d once had a client who, in trying to convey the degree of denial in her family, explained that when she was fifteen she’d had a miscarriage, literally in front of her parents. They’d all been sitting on the sofa in the living room watching TV. Four months pregnant and wearing baggy shirts to conceal what she’d been starting to show, his client, faint and weak, had gushed out a bloody clot. She’d run to the bathroom, but there was no mistaking what happened— the back of her shorts soaked, the blood right in front of her mother and father. They’d said nothing. She’d quietly cleaned up “the mess,” and that was the last ever spoken about it.
So it was no wonder Miles was still invisible and Mimi would live on in the family memory until the generation died out. David still had the sense that he was on a mission, a counteragent to the family secrecy. And Miles seemed grateful. He’d thanked him profusely for taking the time to meet.
“Of course,” said David. “I want to keep in touch.”
Miles tilted his head. “I’d like that.”
When he got home, the lights were off inside. Rose had left him a note that Leah was at a sleepover and that she herself had gone upstairs to think—code for napping. His wife adored naps. Whereas such naps led to insomnia for him, Rose could wake up from a luxurious repose, stretch happily, murmur indolently, and be asleep four hours later without interference. Disturb me, the note said.
He went into the bedroom. The sound machine whirred away. They’d gotten hooked on white noise, operant conditioning: as soon as the machine went on, they both became sleepy and reported to their dream quarters. It all seemed like such normalcy now after seeing Miles.
He lay down and curled up against her, and she pushed back into him. He felt the warmth of her buttocks through the thin fabric of her nightgown. He pressed his lips to the soft nape of her neck and then kissed her shoulder, biting her lightly until she said “Mmm.” Then she turned around and faced him. “What was it like?”
“Your father called. He wanted to know how it was seeing Mimi. If she’s married yet or has, as he put it, a beau. He doesn’t have a clue, does he?”
“No,” said David, “And I’m not sure I’m going to tell him. If Miles’ own father wants to keep it a secret, why should I say anything to my parents? It’s unlikely they’ll ever see Miles again, and everyone will go to their graves—this older generation— content with the perceived status quo.”
“what’s he look like? Like the photograph still?” He had shown her the picture of Mimi at fifteen and explained his adolescent crush. She’d had similar sentiments for one of her boy cousins, but nothing had happened there either… well, nothing, except a game of strip poker. Rose won, cousin lost, end of story. As much as she remembered at least. It was her first sight, given her family of four sisters, of a penis, which had a dampening effect on her crush: her cousin’s angelic face came with one of those?
“I can still see her in him.” He thought of the way Miles canted his head as they were saying goodbye—much the way Mimi had looked at him when he was thirteen and sent his heart then, and another organ, soaring, as if she wanted to study David from a cockeyed angle and to look pretty while doing it.
“You smell like chlorine.”
“We went swimming. I guess I didn’t get it all out of my hair.”
“You went swimming? With Miles?” “And I showered in his room afterward.”
“Oh, my.” She was unbuckling his belt as she said this, her hand slipping under the band of his underwear. He remembered standing in front of Miles’ bathroom mirror, examining himself and his manhood, trying to decipher what it meant that Mimi had once been the object of his earliest masturbatory fantasies when he was thirteen. And those weren’t the only ones. In the related category of his rescue fantasies, he’d saved her from burning buildings, muggings, sexual maraudings, and, ironically, considering Miles’ prowess as a swimmer, drowning. Her eternal gratitude was his dying reward. Breathless, sacrificing himself, he’d come. Le Petit Mort, as the French called orgasm, so willing with their philosophical fatalism to commingle sex and death at any opportunity.
Had he always wanted to save people?
“Ohh,” Rose cried.
“You all right?”
“Yes, yes, go… don’t stop.” He’d thrust into her hard, skipping their usual foreplay, bunching her nightgown up around her neck, and with his fingers splayed across her chest, pinning her down. Her cries echoed through the empty house. So rarely did they have it all to themselves. He heard his own moans, too, reverberating in his throat, his breath coming faster, his desire swift, heedless and unstoppable, and then Rose slapped him across the face, the resounding bite of her hand stinging his flesh, and he came instantly.
He rolled off her. They lay there next to each other, spent and looking up at the ceiling. He was reluctant to speak, and Rose’s breathing filled the silence. Finally, he asked, “Why’d you do that?”
“You said his name.”
She had never slapped him during sex or any other time. It was so unlike her. So unrestrained. He’d burst forth at the touch, but now he couldn’t tell if the slap had been simultaneous or if his coming had preceded it. “I think you imagined that,” David said. “Just because we’d been talking about him.”
“I didn’t. You called his name. It bothered me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about him.” Or was he? Was he thinking that he hadn’t told Rose about Miles’ bragging about his new penis or about the sudden kiss on David’s cheek that took him completely by surprise as they were saying goodbye and how he couldn’t get over how soft it was, Mimi’s kiss, as if Miles purposely had turned himself into her for a moment just to confuse him.
David propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Rose, her flushed face and chest, her still erect nipples, her eyes a green bemused cloud. “Well, whether I did or not, I’m sorry.”
“Me too. Did I hurt you?”
“No. I was just… surprised.”
She kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to his cheek. “I wanted your attention. On me.”
The phone rang. He got up to answer it because it might be Leah. One day, when she was older, he wouldn’t feel the need to jump for the phone every time, but now he imagined terrible scenarios in the span of milliseconds. It was a hang up, a Denver number on the caller ID, and he wondered for a moment if it might be Miles.
When he came back to bed, Rose was lying on her back with her knees pressed against her chest. The doctor had told them this position didn’t help. If she was going to get pregnant, if they were going to have another child after trying all these years, the little fellas would swim up in her regardless and do their job, the doctor said. But Rose did it out of habit or superstition and David allowed her the practice without comment. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” Rose said now, speaking into her knees, “If after seeing Miles, it finally did happen?”
David lay down beside her and placed his hand on her flat belly after she unfurled herself. He felt the warmth there, felt something stirring, felt, he was sure, a magnificent and mysterious transformation taking place. And he felt, too, Miles’ faint lips against his cheek, the same cheek that Rose had slapped, as if to startle a new life into being, neither him nor her but faceless creation.
*This story was published in: Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz, Autumn House Press. Copyright © 2013 by Steven Schwartz.