Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
“Wait,” he says, and I am wondering if Asher, or any boy, ever, has ever said these words before.
“Wait?” I say.
“Let’s do this the right way,” he says.
“This isn’t the right way?” I ask. I think of those wildcats in my mother’s video, and the sounds they made.
“Our first time should be somewhere…we don’t have to whisper.”
I feel like I’m surfing on an ocean of feelings: disappointment, but also relief. Because in addition to being psyched I’m also more than a little afraid. “Tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll find a place. We’ll make it a night to remember.”
I want to tell him that I’m going to remember
We kiss for a long time, and then he grabs his now-empty backpack, goes to the window, and steps out onto the roof.
“Good night, Juliet,” he says.
“Good night, sweet prince.”
And just like that he climbs down the tree and into the night. I go to the bed and pick up the flowers he gave me. I bury my face in the blossoms.
IT WAS A
little more than three months after what I’d started calling the Valentine’s Day Massacre, two weeks after I’d played the impossible Schubert sonata, two weeks after I’d successfully risen from the dead.
Two weeks after I’d realized that even though I’d done all this, I was still trapped.
Mom and I walked down the long stairs that led to the Point Reyes Lighthouse—more than three hundred steps down the rocky cliff. Mom went first, carrying a picnic basket. She was wearing her Park Service uniform, complete with the Smokey the Bear hat. I was wearing a long black skirt and a black tank top.
The stairs were lined on either side by a short hurricane fence. It was there to protect the fragile, dry landscape, but it also protected people like me, who, if the fencing were not there, would be sorely tempted to take off over the cliffs and plunge into the cruel, seething water below.
I hadn’t wanted to go. Mom had said she had a surprise for me. I told her I didn’t want any more surprises. She’d said
, I have to show you something
. Then she’d added,
It had taken about forty-five minutes to get there. On the way, we’d pulled over to look at the sea lions, hundreds of them all splayed out on the beach below like giant blobs of jelly. I’d been surprised by the smell of the sea lions, too, how strong it was, a thick stink of brine and fish and sand. Some people don’t know the difference between sea lions and elephant seals. They’re both pinnipeds, but sea lions are really, really, really huge. They walk on their flippers, unlike seals, which wriggle on their bellies.
Eight months earlier, I’d stood there with Jonah and he’d kissed me for the first time. It was before Sorel told everyone.
We got to the visitors’ center at four o’clock. There, a ranger named Rudy waved at Mom. “This must be your daughter,” he said.
“Rudy, this is Lily,” said Mom, and Rudy winked at her. Just then I noticed the sign at the top of the stairs that said:
Lighthouse closes at 4 p.m.
“The sign says it’s closed,” I told her.
“I know what the sign says,” said Mom.
The lighthouse was a small tower with a red roof and a glass dome. Next to it was an equipment cottage—like a little white barn that also had a red roof. We walked into the lighthouse and passed through its lower chamber, filled with displays on the light’s history. We climbed the stairs to the next level, where they keep the original clockworks and a Fresnel lens. “Just a little further,” said Mom, and we spiraled up a tiny set of metal stairs to the top of the tower, even though there was a sign that said
The top of the lighthouse tower had round glass walls and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. On the floor was a checkered tablecloth and a candle. I realized that whatever this was, Mom had been planning it for a long time.
“Have a seat,” she said. It was a small space, not much bigger than the tablecloth itself. We were bathed in light, surrounded by the sound of crashing waves and the cries of seagulls. Mom lit the
candle, then opened her picnic basket and took out two plastic wineglasses.
“When I was a little girl, my mother had a ritual,” she said. “Every year on my birthday, she took me into New York City and we had lunch at the Waldorf. We wore matching dresses. We had our hair done. We got mani-pedis.”
It was a little hard to imagine Mom getting a mani-pedi, but I just nodded. “Sounds like fun,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Mom said. “I
it. Even when I was seven years old, I hated it. I always hated dresses. I hated people messing with my hair. I hated the Waldorf. Most of all, I hated the fact that this was what Mom thought I wanted, that she was so clueless. It was like being reminded, year after year, that she had no idea who I was.”
She had my attention now.
“The year I turned sixteen I told her I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Mom was heartbroken. She said something like
But you love going to the Waldorf!
I had to tell her,
No, what I love is camping in subzero temperatures and tracking brown bear. What I love is fishing for brook trout in the spring when the ice is first melting in the streams. What I love is standing up to my ass in a swamp so I can watch a snapping turtle lay its eggs.
She took it hard. I should have told her years before that, but I guess up until then I hadn’t realized that the whole time, the only reason I was doing it was because I knew it was so important to her.”
She poured some white wine into the glasses, and then raised hers. “We’re here,” she said, “because I want to propose a toast.”
“Okay,” I said, although it was pretty unusual for her to be serving me wine. “What are we toasting?”
“We are toasting my daughter,” she said. “Who at last I think I understand.”
We clinked plastic glasses, and I sipped the wine. It was sweet.
“What is it you understand?” I asked her.
“I’ve been talking to Dr. Powers,” she said. “Do you know who she is?”
Of course I knew who Monica Powers was. She ran one of the best transgender medical clinics in the country, in San Francisco.
I went very still, afraid to hope. “What have you been talking to Dr. Powers about?”
“About you,” she said. “About surgery.”
My mouth fell open. “There’s an age limit. You have to be eighteen.”
“Dr. Powers accepts clients as young as seventeen, if they’ve been on hormone blockers and been living successfully as themselves in the world. Which you have.”
I thought about my suicide attempt, and in what possible universe this counted as
living successfully in the world
“You said—you said that surgery was the bridge you couldn’t cross. That you’d help me with the hormone blockers, and getting me on estrogen—but that surgery was too—”
“I think the word I used was
” She put her wineglass down. “I was wrong.” She looked out the windows of the lighthouse at the blue ocean. “I’ve spent my whole life studying nature, educating people about it as well as protecting it. I guess that’s what I thought I was doing—protecting you from making a mistake, and trying to educate you about the world. But all this time, I had everything backward. The person I was trying to protect wasn’t you, it was me.”
“Mom,” I said. “You’ve done everything for me—”
“Everything except really see you,” said Mom, and there were tears hovering in her eyes, and the fact that she was going to cry
while wearing her ranger uniform
made it even worse. “It’s like my mother taking me to the Waldorf.”
“What are you saying?”
“If you want to have the surgery, you should have the surgery, and have it
. If we get on Dr. Powers’s wait list, you can be treated this fall. You take next year off from school, recover from surgery, and finish eleventh grade at home. I was talking to a friend of mine who works for the Forest Service, in the White Mountains. They have three retirements coming up. If I can pass the Forest Service exam, I can land one of those jobs. And you can really begin living your life.”
The crashing of waves and the crying of gulls was coming from outside, but I could feel the shudder under my own ribs. From her picnic basket Mom pulled a Hope Cake, a recipe she made for me sometimes when she wanted to lift my spirits. On the top, in icing script, was written
And underneath this:
It’s a Girl.
I swallowed hard. “Mom,” I said. “I have one question.”
“What is it?”
“Where are the White Mountains?”
IN THE MOVIES,
sex just happens. With one arm, everything is recklessly swept off of a kitchen table; or the man just hoists the woman aboard in some swiftly moving freight elevator; or they collapse on a giant bed in a room filled with flickering candles. But if you’re Asher and me, it can’t just
. It takes planning, and strategy, and cunning. Asher wants it to happen in a place where we don’t have to worry about being discovered, by our moms, or by strangers, or by anyone else. But he also wants it to be somewhere special. Our first time shouldn’t be in the back of the Jeep, or on a blanket in the woods, or—God forbid—anywhere near those buzzing beehives of his mother’s. It can’t be in our bedrooms because Ava or Olivia might walk in, and it can’t be outside where anyone could see us, and it can’t be anywhere on the campus at school because the only thing worse than our parents walking in would be our teachers. Or Maya. Or Dirk.
And it’s not just a question of
it’s also a question of
. Asher has asked me about birth control, and I told him the truth—that I’m not on the pill, although I didn’t tell him why. He said he’d get condoms, and I almost wanted to tell him that I can’t get pregnant and not to bother—but then I thought about STDs and realized that, no matter how special what we have is, this is definitely not Asher Fields’s first trip to the candy store.
I haven’t told Asher that it’s my first time. I wonder if he knows.
I wonder if him knowing that it’s my first time makes a difference to him.
I wonder what it will feel like.
I wonder, most of all, whether he’s going to be able to tell.
Dr. Powers had told me that when all was said and done, “even your doctor won’t know the difference unless she looks very, very carefully.” The few times I’ve gotten out a mirror and checked out
it seems like that’s true. Also, I’m pretty sure Asher’s not going to be doing an
. For all I know, everything’s going to be under blankets, and maybe we’ll have the lights out? I’d like that, I admit, just so I don’t have to worry about all of this. But another part of me thinks,
Dammit, when do I get to stop hiding?
to see Asher’s face. I
to see his body. I want to see
People think that being trans is about sex. I suppose for some, it is. But for me, sex was the last thing I was thinking about. I want to be alive and I want to be joyful and I want to be on fire, I want to be so human it makes the ice in my water glass melt. So, sure: I love sex—or at least the idea of it—and I want to experience every last sensation I can ever feel. But none of that was ever what was driving me to become myself. For me, being trans was always more about the heart than any other organ. If I were, like, some disembodied spirit, a ghost that blew around on the wind, I would still be female. If I were a head in a jar, I would still be female. If I were just a piece of forgotten music played at night on a viola da gamba, I would still be female. All along, the only thing I ever wanted was for the thing I felt in my heart to find its home in the body in which it ought to have been nestled from the beginning.
So it’s ironic that, now that I finally have all of that, having sex with the boy that I love turns out to be so complicated. I guess sex is
complicated. But only for me does giving myself up completely to someone else threaten to resurrect the person I used to be.
To tell you the truth, what I’m afraid of isn’t that Asher’s going to be able to tell anything by looking at me. No, what I’m afraid of is that he’s going to be able to tell because of how I act.
I don’t actually know
to be with a man.
The only thing that makes me less nervous about all of this is that every woman, the first time she sleeps with a man, doesn’t know, either.
Maybe, against all odds, my biggest problem is that—I’m normal?
Everybody is always still trying to learn, day after painful day, how to be themselves.
I can’t wait.
ASHER SAID WE
were going to have sex the day after he snuck into my room, but on Sunday he texted me and said he needed more time to figure it all out, and so by the time I finally get the text that says
CAN I GET YOU NOW
it’s a week later, Saturday afternoon, and between the equal portions of fear and excitement I’ve been feeling, this week has taken about nine thousand years to go by.
But there is the honk in the driveway, and I am floating down the stairs like I have wings. Mom is up on Bald Mountain tracking wildcats again, so I am spared having to explain where I’m going.
We go to Asher’s house, and after he parks in the barn he takes me to the fields behind the house, just along the edge, where it meets the thick forest filled with naked maples and the birches with their papery white bark. We walk hand in hand to the base of an old tree. There’s a rope ladder hanging down, and high above our heads is the base of an elaborate, if slightly decayed, tree house. The rope ladder leads to a trapdoor in the middle of the floor.
“I’m going to go up first,” says Asher. “I’ll tell you when to come.”
He kisses me, and then he ascends the ladder. At the top he puts one hand on the trapdoor and swings it open. A moment later, he disappears into the dark above me.
In the distance I can see Olivia’s beehives, arrayed in a semicircle. I think of all those fluttering wings.