by Sina Queyras
Issue Three: April 1, 2020
Michael’s eyebrows arched perfectly. I was sitting in the McDonald’s on 152nd with my brother, Jerry, the first time we met. He came in with Diane Foster, who looked the same as she did a year or so ago when she and I were best friends with Corinna. She was wearing baby blue cords and a baseball T-shirt with a ball cap on her head. Her hair was all short and shaggy at the front and long in the back. “Hey,” she said. “It’s Bruce Lee.”
I stared as blankly as I could. The last time I had seen Diane she was attempting to beat me in the school washroom.
“Corinna moved away,” she said, completing my thought. “Ah huh.” And Driver? I wanted to ask, but I bit my tongue: I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.
“Thought you moved too.”
It was true, I had moved. Now I was back. “Whatever.” I looked at Jerry and rolled my eyes.
“This is Michael,” she said, and he leaned forward, taking my hand and brushing his lips against it.
I glanced up at his face. “You like?” he said.
I stared, trying to resist a smile.
“Be seeing you,” Diane said, punching me firmly on the arm as they left. “No hard feelings, eh?”
I shrugged. She stuck a thumb up at Jerry. “Freaks,” Jerry said.
The next day Michael was waiting for me outside the fence at school where students smoked between classes. The school was still surrounded by forest then. Trails cut through in a number of directions.
“I like your jeans,” Michael said, waving his cigarette at me as if it were a paintbrush.
“Ya?” I was glad he had noticed. They were hand-me-downs from my sister, Therese, who had bought them in Paris. Not relaying that little piece of information heightened the pleasure of his comment. Therese lived in Vancouver now. On the corner of 12th and Oak. I was occasionally allowed to visit her. She was a photographer and had the wildest photographs on her walls.
“I’ve never seen anything like those around here.”
“Why the dress?”
I shrugged. I had begun wearing the dresses my mother bought me over the jeans that I preferred. I was letting my hair grow, I wore feather ear rings and black and blue eye shadow. I had not wanted to get my ears pierced or my hair permed, I had not wanted to wear the dresses, but rather than argue, I had begun to feel playful about it. I hiked the dress up and sat on the curb. “I really am a girl, too,” Michael said, sitting beside me.
“How do you know?” He bit his cigarette so that he could sweep his hair back off his shoulders with both hands. “I know.” As surprising as this statement was, I knew it was completely true. “I’ll have to have an operation. Of course, I have to get out of here alive first.”
“You have perfect eyebrows,” I said.
“I know.” He motioned with his fingers, plucking at his face. “Don’t you just hate body hair?”
I shrugged. It had never occurred to me that a person could become something else, let alone a whole other sex. The idea of him plucking his eyebrows made my stomach excited.
“Want a Gravol?”
“Sure. What does Guddy stand for?”
“Gudrun,” I said, snapping the Gravol in half. “Last one.” We both gulped it down dry.
Michael tucked his thumb under his front teeth and clicked his nail. “I like the name Gudrun. It’s otherworldly.”
I did not like it at all. It was not a name that helped me fade into the background.
“I could do yours if you like.” He raised his eyebrows as he said this. “It might help,” he said, as if reading my mind.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You look like Peter Frampton.”
“You look like Nadia Comaneci.”
“I know,” I said. Comaneci had just scored perfect at the Olympics. I didn’t see the resemblance but he wasn’t the first to say it. “Is that a good thing?”
“She’s flexible. Thin. Mysterious. But she’s a jock, you know, so likely not a good cocktail companion. You have had cocktails at Diane’s?”
I shook my head. “No, I have not.”
Diane Foster’s father was a lawyer. I had never met the daughter of a lawyer, or at least I had not known I had, let alone a lawyer. Corinna and I had never been invited to Diane’s and I wondered why now. Seeing Corinna, or Diane, or Driver, had been my biggest fear about coming back. I tensed every time I saw a black van. Now I was in Diane’s house, staring at a photo of her father on the wall. He wore black robes. “Jacob works a lot,” Diane said, “so you probably won’t meet him, and if you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t because he talks non-stop, but hey, he pays the bills and keeps my wits sharp.” They lived behind the McDonald’s in a flat, square house that Diane described as modernist.
She opened a cabinet and pulled out a decanter. “Whiskey?”
“Neat,” Michael said.
I disliked hearing people call their parents by their first name. My sister Therese did it with my mother, for instance, and my aunts.
Diane stuck her fingers in two heavy glasses and lifted them onto the counter. She poured the whiskey as if it were apple juice. Michael took his glass and sipped. Diane raised hers and knocked her head back. I did the same.
She flicked the stereo system on. The arm lifted itself smoothly to the lip of the vinyl and dropped with only the slightest bit of feedback. A gravelly voice scratched to life hitting us from all four corners of the room and suddenly everything was pop tarts. Diane spun herself around, and Michael, his flared jeans, his full, red lips, moved with surprising agility across to her.
“Check it out.” He pulled the heavy drapes around himself like a robe. I was dazzled, not by him, or not only by him, but by the yard: there was a pool—not a plastic, above ground pool in the manner of the suburbs, but a deep, cement pool, a barbecue, lounge chairs, a table with heavy wooden chairs, raised beds filled with shrubs and trees. A light glowed in the depths of the pool. Red leaves floated across the top.
“Caps?” Diane lit a joint and passed it to me. “Or truth or dare?”
“Truth or dare! Truth or dare!” Michael curled his shoulders in to make his flat chest appear bigger than it was, and smiled in a way that made me want to kiss him. “And don’t you dare ask me what size tits I want!”
“You can’t order tits,” Diane said.
“Of course you can! It’s all about hormones,” Michael said. “It’s all about how much you take. That’s all that separates me from you, little sisters.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s all,” Diane said. “You ever piss standing up?”
“Never!” Michael said.
“Not you. Guddy, you ever piss standing up?” I felt my face burn right to the tips of my ears. “Ha, thought so.”
I wasn’t about to share anything I hadn’t yet articulated yet for myself, with Diane Foster.
“It would be great to have a dick, wouldn’t it?”
“Have away,” Michael said. “Maybe they can fit it on you. I mean why waste a perfectly good penis?”
I loved Michael, his mouth and hair, the way he moved, I loved the room, the gold glass swag lamps, the black crushed-velvet sofa—but maybe not as much as the pool itself with its hips and board at the opposite end. If I had a pool of my own, I would never again be sad, I thought. I walked past them, out through the sliding glass doors, took three steps to the edge of the pool and it rose up, a leafy, warm coat, to embrace me.
My jeans clamped tightly to my skin. The water folded me in, crisp as new sheets, rocking down and down. Sounds muffled and deflected above: I could make out Diane and Michael above, laughing, the scruff of shoe on cement, the scrape of a chair, their heads refracted like diamonds. I spun myself around. If I just held on, I thought, I might grow gills, my body might adapt to the demands of the water. Didn’t we always adapt? Why not just hold my breath? Force myself to transform? Why not just push beyond the greenish light, beyond the expected?
Suddenly there was a splash and Michael was swimming toward me in his underwear, his hair flowing around his thin shoulders. He swam so fast that our foreheads knocked, bubbles escaped from his irrepressible smile, his hand locked around my wrist but I grabbed with the other one and he slipped both hands under my armpits. He kicked off the pool bottom and we both rose to the surface, to the cool, West Coast air, to the purple light of dusk, to the music, to Diane.
“Jesus, what a drama queen,” she said. “It’s bloody October and the heater’s busted. How is that fun?”
But it was fun. Everything about being at Diane’s was fun. I felt my body in a way I had never done before. I felt vivid and alive. I wanted things in this space, with these two, things I wasn’t sure how to describe.
While my clothes spun around in the dryer, I sat in one of Diane’s T Shirts, wrapped in a blanket, on her bed. I scanned the room, which seemed entirely without a hint of her character. Nothing on the walls or on the dresser.
Diane lifted her shirt and put Michael’s hand on one of her breasts. Her skin was pale, pale white. She was chubby. She had what my mother might call baby fat. “That do anything for you?”
“You mean other than make me envious?”
Diane put his other hand on the other breast.
“No offence,” said Michael, “but I’ll do a much better job of being a woman than either of you.”
Diane dropped her shirt: “Doesn’t it ever get stiff?”
Michael made a flopping motion with his hand.
“Interesting,” Diane said. “What if we went down on you?”
“Gross.” Both Michael and I said this at the same time.
“You can buy a detachable dick,” he said, “if you’re curious. It’s a lot easier for women. Can you imagine me attaching a pussy? Tits maybe, but a pussy?”
Diane took a final puff of the dead joint and then swallowed it. “What about you? You like being a girl?”
“Of course,” I said. This was an outright lie, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I had a choice.
“Why? What’s great about being physically limited, sartorially hemmed in, culturally maligned, sexually always on the receiving end, financially undervalued…”
“Oh, ya, poor Diane, stuck with her tits and her pussy. Wa wa wa.”
“Anyway, Guddy,” Diane leaned over Michael, pushed me back on the pillow and kissed me, “you’re my kind of girl.”
Diane slid one hand under my shirt and pinched my breast, the other hand slid down my stomach. I twisted myself away. “You’re both sick,” I said. But what I really wanted was Diane’s hands, or maybe Michael’s hands, to be more, not less, forceful. And maybe all of this at once. I went into the bathroom, trying to figure out what to do with the burning sensation in my groin.
“Why resist,” Diane yelled after me, “you know you love it.”
“Don’t you think there’s something unjust about where we are born? Who we are born to?” We were walking down 152nd. “I mean look at this shit hole.”
“We’re born, that’s lucky enough,” Diane said. “We survive this and anything’s possible.”
It was easy for Diane to say. Michael, on the other hand, was not going home again, could not go home again. I had seen his house. One of those moss-covered Surrey ranchers with claw marks on the windows and broken-down cars in the driveway. But it wasn’t just home that was inhospitable.
A car honked at us, as if to accentuate this point and Michael turned and took a deep bow. “I’m ahead of my time,” he said, “I’ll be a queen in a few years and you will come and see my show and applaud my gorgeous breasts.” He was making light, but just last week we’d had to dodge two men who wanted to hassle him, and he had also had a run in with Driver.
“And how will you pay for your operation?” Diane wanted to know.
“You will come to my show and pay lots of money. Or,” he said, sticking his finger in his mouth, if all else fails.
“What? How else do you think it’s going to happen?”
“You could think optimistically. You could take school seriously, do well for a start,” Diane said, “have a career.”
Michael laughed. “There’s no career for me, even if I ‘do well’ in school. Not in this body.”
This seemed confusing and also right—and terrifying.
“Anyhow, maybe I like sucking cocks.”
“Maybe you do, or maybe you’ve never sucked one in your life, asshole.”
“Why do you think my Daddy and I are so intimate?”
“Oh, god, do you have to talk like that?”
“It isn’t funny,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” Michael countered. “It’s hilarious.”
“Don’t you think it’s ironic that you’ll have to suck cocks to pay for having yours cut off?” Diane said.
“Ironic. Poetic. Whatever it takes.”
Their frankness shocked me. A black van turned the corner and we both jumped.
“I’ve got to get out of Surrey,” Michael said.
“What makes you think anywhere else is different?” Diane said.
“Because David Bowie exists. Because Elton John is out there. Obviously, there’s somewhere better than this.”
We left school at morning break the next day and escorted Michael into the city. We had lunch at a diner that he had heard about. It was true there were a lot of men who had a vibe similar to Michael. Diane poured rum into our cokes from a flask she carried. Michael and I were already high on Gravol. The waiter batted his eyelashes at Michael and touched his ass when we got up to leave.
On the street outside the diner, while waiting for Diane to pay, two men walked around Michael, turning back simultaneously to look again and whistle. “You see?” he said, “This is where I need to be.”
My sister Therese had a series of photographs of men in drag that she had taken in a club downtown. My mother said they were scandalous. I had not quite understood what they were until this moment. I was tempted to call her, but she would know I wasn’t in school. Then suddenly Diane was racing past us. “Run,” she yelled, and we did, not stopping until we were well away from the diner.
“Why do you do that,” Michael said. “Not pay for things? You always have money.”
“It’s a thrill, isn’t it?”
“I think having money is a thrill.”
“I think getting away with things is a thrill,” Diane said, “and besides I always have money because I’m smart with money.”
We were walking toward English Bay. Diane’s cutting out on the bill at the diner put a damper on the day. It reminded me, too, of our time with Corinna. I had assumed it was Corinna who had dragged us into so much trouble over the brief period of time we had been friends. Now I wasn’t sure.
“Don’t you just want to dive in?” Michael said.
“No,” Diane said, “a heated pool is too cold for me, never mind the ocean.”
“I mean to your life? Your real life.”
“This is my life.” Diane did appear to have an ability to be happy wherever she was, but I knew what Michael meant. I had felt it too; moments where it seemed anything might be possible for me, and for a “me” that I was currently not able to fully access; moments when time seemed to slow, or thinking maybe slowed, or seemed transparent, as if there was another world right inside this one. I wasn’t sure how to describe my thoughts, which made me reluctant to try, but occasionally I recognized a self that was currently far away, but also very present in me, and just for that brief second, I could see that there may be a place I could fit in.
We wandered down Denman and up Robson Street, eating potato chips and KitKats until our feet began to ache. “I have to head back,” I said. There was an express bus on Granville.
“I don’t want to go back,” Michael said. The long line of reasons he might feel this way was apparent to us all.
“Well, now I am truly out of money,” Diane said, “and since you don’t want me to steal…”
“I could do a few blowjobs and we could rent a room for the night,” Michael offered.
“Gross,” I said.
“Resourceful,” Michael said. I was aware of the groups of young people around us. I had heard of someone being knifed here while waiting for the bus and once Jerry and I had gotten into a fight after two boys tried to steal his wallet. Granville mall was like a portal into a world people like Michael and me seemed destined for.
“My mother will have a fit,” I said. “We need to get back.”
“You don’t think your mother gives blow jobs?” Diane said.
Michael laughed at that, but it was yet another idea I had never entertained and, frankly, did not want to.
My mother would soar for days, then plummet, which meant late nights and crying; visits to the doctor for Valium; afternoons at her sister Charice’s who, it was plain to see, could hardly tolerate my mother. My brother Jerry and I tended to share this duty instinctively. It wasn’t something I could change so I managed it. As soon as I could, I headed over to Diane’s.
Lately, Diane had been urging Michael to show her how to give a blowjob. She was not letting up.
Michael looked at her indignantly. “This is harassment,” he said, “and not the fun kind.”
Diane laughed. “Come on, we’re just curious, and besides, I think I can make it hard.” She said this with an air of theatricality that seemed unusual, even for her. “Come on,” she pulled on his belt.
“Really,” Michael pushed her away and got up to retrieve his cigarettes. “Back off.”
Diane bounced off the couch and disappeared down the hall.
“Bitch,” Michael said.
I looked at him sympathetically. They had been spending a lot of time together. Michael had practically moved in.
“Hey kids,” Diane yelled. “Come look what I have.”
“Oh please,” Michael’s eyebrows rose and fell.
We both trailed down the hall after her.
Like hers, Diane’s father’s room was brown and non-descript with a length of mirrored closets. From a drawer inside the closet Diane tossed magazines at us. Hustler, Playboy. “This one is stupid, this one,” she handed me one open to a page with two women: “this one is for you.”
I had never seen anything like it. Two women, one with her hand on the other woman’s breast, her head between her legs.
“Those aren’t real,” Michael said, pointing to the breasts.
“How can you tell?” I asked, eager to know, but Diane came over with another magazine, this one with a photo of a man about to enter a woman from behind. “What about this?”
“It just doesn’t do it for me,” Michael said, “but maybe if it was to me.”
“Oh good,” Diane said, grabbing his wrists. She appeared to have a length of rope in her hand which she wrapped around Michael’s wrists.
“What are you doing?”
“Grab his feet.” She pulled a knot tight around his wrists.
“Jesus, Diane,” I said.
“Just grab his feet,” she said. “We’re going to have some fun.”
“This is not fun,” Michael said, kicking my hands away.
“Sure, it is,” Diane said, pushing him back on the bed. “You’re going to teach us how to give a blow job”. She tied his wrists to her father’s headboard. “And I’m going to make you like getting one.”
“No thank you,” Michael said.
“Would you prefer Guddy do it?”
Michael looked at me. “If I had to choose, but no.”
“I’m not doing that,” I said.
“Guddy,” Diane responded. “Don’t be a pussy.”
I stood there. Stupidly. “It’s settled then,” Diane said, shimmying down Michael, settling on his knees, “I’ll do it.” She unbuttoned his shirt, exposing his thin chest.
“Come on, Guddy, untie me,” Michael said.
“Stay where you are,” Diane said, undoing his belt buckle and unzipping his pants.
“Diane, this isn’t right,” I said.
“Ah hah,” she said, her hand on his penis. I hoped he would piss in her face, but he closed his eyes and bent his head back. Diane laughed, and I thought that would be the end of it, but no, she bent down toward him.
“Diane, don’t,” I said, pulling at her. She turned, the back of her hand landing on my jaw. I was stunned for a minute. I felt all the sparkle extinguish. The night, the space, everything sucked inward, my body rising up over the bed and away.
Michael was sitting alone at McDonald’s when Jerry and I came in a few days later. We had not spoken since the scene at Diane’s. There had been an air of finality about it, though. My second, unspoken break-up with Diane. Michael looked up, caught my eye and turned away again. He had not been at school. I wondered where he had been sleeping. Jerry glanced at Michael too, and didn’t say anything.
I was going into the city on the weekend to visit my sister Therese and I intended on broaching this subject with her somehow. I was thinking about this as Jerry and I waited in line and when I caught sight of Driver’s van. I turned around and there he was, so big he blocked out the entire set of seats where Michael sat. I saw myself leap at Driver, wrapping myself around him. He was huge, with stubby little arms that flailed around trying to grab me. He shook himself. I kept digging. He was always around. In everyone’s face. And he, or others like him, always would be. I pounded his face with my fist as he moved backward, bumping into the condiment counter and then tripping over a seat before finally dislodging me. I came to my senses with a thump. Had I done that? Was this real? Move, I told myself. Move. I got up and ran out, calling after Michael, but he was already far ahead, almost to 104th. Then he stopped abruptly and raising a hand, leaned into the eastbound traffic. A small yellow sports car pulled over. I could see who she really was then, who she had always been: tall, composed, commanding, moving through all of this. Without looking back at me she opened the door and slid in.
Sina Queyras is the author of ten books, most recently, My Ariel (Coach House 2017).