Chapter 1—Friday

 

Julian, 4:00 p.m.

ON MY first day back to school after the incident, Sydney Harper, a junior from the right side of the tracks, cut me off in the hallway by the gym and got up in my face. “You didn’t really wanna die. My mother said it was just some kind of pathetic cry for help.” Having made her point, she spun around on her Ugg-booted nonheel and headed for the girls’ locker room.

Then in precalc, some guy I barely knew poked me hard in the back with a Sharpie marker, and I was the lucky recipient of another dose of compassion. “You just crave attention, don’t you, girly-boy?”

Maybe, on some level, they were both right.

But on that night in October when I decided my best move in life would be to wash down the last of the Extra Strength Tylenol in our medicine cabinet with a bottle of Citrus Cooler Gatorade, I knew I couldn’t lose, however it turned out. The alternative to my clever plan to get some attention, and maybe even a measure of help, was that I’d fall asleep and never wake up—which, in my opinion, served just fine as Plan B.

If nobody heard my “cry for help” and I checked out, we’d probably all be better off. No real harm done… except to Mama. But the freaking UPS man heard my “pathetic cry,” or more accurately saw my apparently lifeless torso hanging from the tree house in the side yard, and saved me.

“How was school today, Julian?”

And so here I am at my weekly ER-recommended therapy session, my fine ass planted on a beige couch in a beige room with beige curtains and a beige scatter rug, spilling my rainbow guts to Dr. Evelyn, the local shrink for disturbed transgender teens. As it turns out, there are a few other kids like me scattered randomly around Crestdale… born into the wrong damned body, and for that crime, tortured every day by family and “friends” and church people and popular girls and dudes we don’t know from Adam while we’re trying to learn advanced math.

“School sucked, as usual. On the bright side, it’s comforting to know some things can be depended on.” I tilt my “girly-boy” head and present Dr. E with my best “eat shit and die” grin.

She tosses her blonde cheerleader curls and laughs, even though I’m pretty sure she knows I’m not joking.

“Well, it did suck.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

“Okay… and remember, you asked. So, let’s see… I was late to first period because Mama forgot to wake me up, and to make matters worse, the city bus was running behind schedule. When I finally made it to school, I got harassed by the vice principal because I’m wearing leggings and my shirt doesn’t cover my stupid butt. Every single last boy in my PE class refused to be my partner, ’cause who wants to hold steady the dangling end of a ‘fag’s’ climbing rope?” I pause momentarily to examine a jagged fingernail. “According to the dudes in my gym class, only somebody who wants an STD. And since I left my makeup bag on my bed in the frenzied morning rush, I had no powder to do touch-ups, so my face is as greasy as Colonel Sanders’s crispiest chicken breast. Don’t you like the way the suckage of my day came full circle, right back to my late start?”

Dr. Evelyn nods. I respect that she isn’t glaring at me, or maybe rolling her eyes dramatically, because, shit, my eyes would be. Nope, the lady looks at me with no real expression I can make out, and bobs her head periodically, like anyone paid to be a good listener should. “And now, here you are.”

“Color me thrilled.” For the second time, I smile widely and then allow my eyeballs to explore the upper recesses of their sockets. Maybe Dr. Evelyn can keep her eyes from rolling, but I can’t.

“I strongly suggest you write your experiences in your Transition Journal, Julian.”

I have no problem with the world addressing me as Julian. In fact, I insist upon it, even with those like Dr. E, who know that, inside, I’m actually a girl. I want to be called Julian until the day I begin to live as one. I roll my eyes one more time. “Right.”

“Do you know what I think you need at this point?”

I shrug and then mumble, “No, but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”

“You need to join some clubs at school… maybe the Spanish Club or Amnesty International? The more kids who get to know you in a structured social setting where there are some rules and you feel safe, the better it will be. Because you really are a very likable person.”

“I’m already involved in more clubs than you can shake a stick at.” I stop bitching for a second as I picture preppy Dr. Evelyn shaking a stick, but it morphs into a tennis racket and the image loses its power. “And if Anna and Kandy aren’t also members, I sit in the corner alone.” Not to be argumentative, but this is fact. Chiseled in stone. And unlikely to change over the course of my high school career.

“The other kids just don’t know you well enough—if you’re friendly and reach out to them, they will respond to you.”

Yeah, they’ll respond to me with a punch in the nose. “Try telling that to 99.9 percent of Crestdale High School students, who think gender dysphoria is contagious.”

Dr. Evelyn continues as if I never said a word. “Your mother and the doctors at the Children’s Gender Center think you’ve made enough progress to start HRT. That’s going to mean big changes in your body. I think it will be best if you expand your social base before that happens.”

“Expand my social wha’?” I know what she means, but I still play dumb just because I can.

“You need to develop additional support systems. Maybe you should join a community action group of some sort that meets outside the school walls—a welcoming blend of teens and adults.”

“Or maybe not… maybe I’ll just live out my life in lonely isolation. ’Cause, Doc, clubs don’t mean friends.

It’s as if I never voiced my protest. “And I know just the group…. It’s a human rights activism organization, and will be a perfect fit for you.”

I roll my eyes again, wondering if Dr. Evelyn has me confused with someone who cares.

 

 

Julian, 4:45 p.m.

BEFORE I leave my counseling session, Dr. Evelyn calls me over to her desk and scribbles down an address on the back of her business card. “This is where the Rights for Every Human Organization gets together. There’s a meeting tonight at eight.” She holds out the card and looks at me sternly. “You want life to be fair to you, Julian? Then do something about it.”

I don’t laugh in her face, about which I’m proud. I snatch the card, and to make a long story short, I’m currently conjuring up an outfit with a free-spirited, human rights flair. So, apparently, I’m going.

When I go somewhere new, I tend to be more conservative in how I dress. In other words, I don’t drag out the feather boa and the glitter tube top and the stage makeup so I can make a shockingly femme grand entrance. But I don’t throw on gray sweatpants with food stains and a Bud Light T-shirt, either. My clothing tonight should suggest that I’m in touch with my feminine self, but not scream that I am my feminine self. I must walk a very fine line here.

For a little while longer.

 

 

Kale, 6:30 p.m.

“I NEED a cause.” SocialActivism.com sounds like as good a place to start as any, so I press Enter on my new Mac computer. Dad got it for me a couple months ago when he found out his nephew, Hughie, was stuck using the computer at the Crestdale Town Library to do all of his research projects for school. Since Hughie didn’t have a computer of his own, his cool uncle Sam offered him the PC I’d had since middle school and replaced mine with a Mac. No complaints. Win-win all around.

My brosin—by my definition, a person who is midpoint between an irritating brother and an annoying cousin—Hughie, looks over at me from where he’s sprawled, belly down, on the matching twin bed parallel to my own. Mom and Dad have been referring to it more and more lately as “Hughie’s bed” because he sleeps in it a lot. I still call it “the spare bed in my room.”

“You need a what?” he asks.

“All legit hippies have worthy causes. Take John Lennon. He was all about world peace. And Bob Dylan, who gave the protest song a whole new sound.” I glance at Hughie, who is gawking at me, mouth wide open. “Shut your mouth, Hughie—and then there’s Jerry Garcia, with his psychedelic optimism.” I bookmark the activism website I’m poring over, suddenly distracted by the realization that I need to put more Grateful Dead tunes on my iPhone.

“Even Charles Manson was a hippy with a cause,” Hughie says with a smugness I find maddening. “He called his purpose helter skelter.

Sometimes the kid shocks me. Just when I think he hasn’t got a clue, he comes out with something relevant. “Yeah… that’s what I’m talking about, dude.”

Hughie turns his attention back to his new/my old computer, on which he’s typing faster than I thought humanly possible. He’s one of the smartest kids in Crestdale High School’s junior class, but he sure doesn’t wear it well.

Geek alert, you know?

I keep my distance from him at school for obvious reasons. “I saw a sign at the coffee shop downtown for this local group called the Rights for Every Human Organization. It meets tonight in the Community House at eight o’clock. I’m going to ask Dad if I can use his car so I can go. I think I’m gonna find my cause there.”

“I thought your cause was ‘animals are friends, not food.’”

I get up off my bed and, tucking my T-shirt into my jeans, tell him, “I’m capable of multitasking.”

“Are you actually tucking your shirt in?”

“I want to make a good impression.”

“They are human rights activists. You are a human being—they’ll love you. They’ll probably even hug you.”

I ignore his sarcasm and dish out some of my own. “Aren’t you gonna wish me luck?” It feels good to throw a little shade back at him.

Hughie pushes a pillow under his chin. “You don’t need me to wish you luck in being accepted by a human rights group. After all, you walk upright, use tools to get food, participate in social networks, and claim to have a large brain.”

Sure in the knowledge that my brain is of a respectable size, I smirk as I walk out the doorway into the hall. “I’ll fill you in on what you missed in the morning.”

 

 

Kale, 8:00 p.m.

“WE GATHER tonight in the spirit of love and selflessness, and with the solemn hope that our efforts to serve the community will be sufficient to keep hope alive for those who struggle to obtain the rights inherent to all human beings.”

Thanks to plenty of less-than-friendly reminders at school, I know that in profile, I resemble a mushroom. All I can say is that it’s a dreadlocks thing.

Side note Dreadlocks 1A: Dreads are new to me as I only created them three months ago and I haven’t fully figured out how they work. To get them started, I followed the directions on wikiHow with the care I would give to brain surgery, if, of course, I was a brain surgeon and not a sixteen-year-old wannabe-hippie. To finish the dreads on the back of my head, I had to enlist Hughie’s help. Backcombing and twisting the long hair there was close to impossible for me to accomplish on my own, and I didn’t want the final result to appear messy or uneven. In any case, I just recently removed the elastics that held my dreads in place at the scalp and the tips. So I’m no longer a total dreadlocks newbie.

“Now let’s join hands and bond over our common concern—ridding the world of all forms of discrimination.” The woman leading the prayer—Judy, according to her name tag—is short and stocky with long, frizzy red hair tied back into a humongous ponytail and decorated with a large purple velvet bow. I’d call her style “pastel flowered polyester pantsuit” featuring the comfy-elastic-waistband, but nobody asked for my opinion.

And not that all this talk about human rights isn’t stimulating, but my mind returns to its previous track, because that’s who I am.

Side note Dreadlocks 1B: I’d researched the whole “creating dreadlocks process” quite thoroughly before I’d attempted it on my own shoulder-length blond hair, fearing that if I messed up, I’d be forced to shave the knots from my head, and who’s ever heard of a bald hippie? Over the past few months, I’ve learned dreads are not as carefree as one might think. They require time and attention, particularly because I don’t care to smell like a wet dog, which can happen if you try to create dreads in damp hair, or if you go to sleep on a wet dreaded head.

Wet Dreaded Head would be a spectacular name for an indie rock band. Or a scented candle. Just saying.

Side note Dreadlocks 1C: Then there’s special soap, baking soda scalp scrubs, oil and water spritzes (not vegetable oil, unless you like the idea of a rancid-smelling head, which I don’t), and the application of wax to consider. It seems to me that free-spirited hippies should have figured out a way to spend less time and effort on hair care.

“Since we have a new member present tonight, I think it would be beneficial to reintroduce ourselves and the personal goals and commitments that have drawn us to the Rights for Every Human Organization.” I’m gripping the sweaty palms of two complete strangers—a heavyset balding African American man and a young woman so tall I’d have to crane my neck to see her face. But I don’t. I just stare straight ahead, my hands completely engulfed in their larger, moister ones.

Side note Dreadlocks 2: Back to my resemblance to a mushroom…. The mushroom effect comes as a result of my basic need to see. Somehow, my stubborn dreads seem inclined to grow forward over my eyes, thus it is necessary to secure them in a ponytail on top of my head to get them out of my face. So picture this: my body is the pale slim stock of the fungi, my hair is the mushroom’s flaring whitish cap.

“I’ll start, Judy,” offers an old lady standing halfway across the circle from me. Her voice is stronger and sharper than her fragile body would suggest. “I’m Edna and I believe in the equality of all people, young and old. In my day I have seen many friends and relatives being treated with less dignity than they deserve as they age, and it is just—well, it’s just plain old wrong!” She’s become so emotional, her voice cracks. “Don’t get me going on this…. but after my dear Wilbur passed on, and after seeing how he suffered in a medical system that has no appreciation for the elderly, I joined REHO to work with others to end ageism.”

I nod and my fountain of dreadlocks bobs on and off my forehead. Her cause is worthy.

“I’m Billy,” says the man whose sweaty palm I’m joined with on the right. “I believe we can never rest when it comes to the inhumanity of racism. ’Cause the very minute we think the struggle for equality is over, it’ll again rear its ugly head, and let me tell you, I know it.” His voice is deep and a little bit musical, and it bounces off the walls of the basement room. “Let me tell you….”

He’s right. Again, I nod in heartfelt agreement.

“Just because somebody looks different from other people doesn’t mean he or she deserves fewer rights than others.” This sentiment comes from the tall woman grasping my left hand.

I want to applaud, but I fight the urge, as I’d be forced to extricate my hands from the clenching grips of Billy and the tall lady, which may not be perceived as neighborly. I’m sure, however, I’ve come to the right place to find my purpose.

“I’m a Muslim woman, and as such, I wear the hijab, but I’m also a person and a citizen and… and one day I got tired of being treated like I was less than human—like I was some sort of evil being—and I joined REHO to help make a change in this perception.”

Next, a semi-old dude describes his son’s struggle for human rights as a person with Down Syndrome and finally, a lady the same age as Mom blabs a bunch of stuff about how there’s major sexism at her office.

Again, I stifle an urge to clap because these are all excellent reasons to be here. And then everybody in the circle is looking at me. Apparently it’s my turn to state my lofty reasons for joining the Rights for Every Human Organization and I know very well that my reason—every self-respecting hippie needs a legit cause—isn’t legitimate at all. I look around into the compassionate eyes of the REHO members and try like hell to come up with something that sounds progressive and benevolent, yet is also remotely truthful.

“I… uh… my reason for joining… is like…,” I begin, my palm sweat blending with Billy’s and the tall girl’s. And this is when I’m saved by the bell, or at a minimum, everyone is distracted from my dumbstruck state. I watch as all the eyes that were fixed on me shift toward the stairs. I feel compelled to turn my head too, to learn what has caused this ass-saving diversion. I see a small, dark-haired person posing on the bottom step, hip jutted out and arms forming question marks in the air.

He glances around, yawns like he’s bored, and says, “Please tell me this is the human rights group, ’cause I’ve been all over the upstairs of this godforsaken place, and the only other creatures I came across were dust bunnies.” His pompous voice brings out goose bumps on my chest, which is unexpected.

Where the rest of the group has gravitated to the bottom of the stairs, I remain in the vacated circle but twist my neck so I don’t miss anything. The entrance of this new person makes me feel strangely crappy about my reasons for coming here tonight. I’m starting to wish Hughie were standing beside me; maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone. And I’m also starting to wish for that hug Hughie incorrectly predicted I’d receive.

“Welcome to the Rights for Every Human Organization. We call it REHO,” Judy says as she approaches our newest member. I wonder if she’ll repeat the welcoming prayer-thing she said in the beginning of the meeting. I’m not really up for that.

“Yeah, right. Thanks,” the dark-haired kid replies, and then he sighs really loud.

“I’m REHO’s leader, Judy, and… well, why don’t you say hello to Kale, tonight’s other new member, while we fetch the pillows for the meeting.” She drags the new member over to me.

We take each other in as the rest of the group feverishly grabs pillows from a large closet in the back of the room and arranges them on the floor. They’re humming with the happy buzz of increased membership.

“I’m Kale Oswald,” I finally say, and reach out to offer my hand.

My hand is grasped exactly as my grandmother would, making it impossible to shake. “Julian Mendez.” And the way he says his name makes me think he’s daring me to make fun of it. “Charmed.”

There’s something about this kid that puts all of my senses on high alert. Maybe it’s that he’s very prissy, and even though it kind of works for him, I still want to get as far away from his girliness as possible.

I study Julian’s clothes, trying to make sense of who he is—purple and black plaid flannel shirt, wide open at the neck with a black velvet collar peeking out from beneath, tight black stretchy pants, and combat boots. There are some Goth girls at school who dress like this. When I note a shadow of black eyeliner underneath his dark eyes I give myself the “he’s Goth” nod, but when I see the gloss on his lips, I know there’s more to the story than “totally emo.” A drip of sweat trickles from my hairline into my right eye socket.

What is it about this kid that’s messing with my mind?

I’m scared that I wasn’t saved by the bell, after all, and that Julian’s gonna ask me why I’m here at the Rights for Every Human Organization, and the lie I tell will fall flat… and I’ll be exposed, like a black spider on white tile.

“So, Kale, you say you’re a champion of human rights, hmm?” It’s clear to me that Julian detects my discomfort. When he steps up close, his voice emits from directly beneath my left ear. “That means you’re here to protect my human rights, even if it takes you to a place you never figured you’d go—not even in your wildest, but most certainly unoriginal, dreams.”

His breath tickles my neck—or maybe I just imagine it—and I shiver. “Yeah… that’s why I came here tonight.” My urge is to add “dude” to the end of my sentence, but I don’t want to make an assumption.

“Really.” It isn’t a question or a statement. It’s just a word. But the way he says it is sharp enough to cut glass.

I nod for the zillionth time tonight, and about ten thousand prickles of dread pop up in my armpits, which might sound strange, but I hear it’s a common response to stress.

“Really.” He says it again in exactly the same way, then steps in front of me so we’re standing face-to-face. I don’t want to look him in the eye. I’m not sure why I feel this way, because I’ve got balls. So I force myself to be a man and drag my gaze up his body from the badass combat boots, to the tights, to the oversized purple plaid flannel shirt that would make even a lumberjack look like he’s going dancing. And finally I focus on the important stuff: long, dark hair, freshly brushed and falling over his shoulders, even darker eyes that lift a little bit at the corners, and an “I dare you to mess with me” smirk on shiny red lips.

His lips… well, they’re moving again, but I don’t have a clue what he’s saying because I’m too busy staring.

At. His. Lips.

Are hippie dudes supposed to get captivated by other dudes’ lips?

Because this is a first for me, and not just in my brief life as a hippie. I’ve never been one to suffer with debilitating crushes on movie stars or pop singers or the high school’s most popular girls. And here I am totally caught up in the lips of a dude I don’t even know. Weird.

“Kale.” He says my name in the same way he said “really”—it’s like a word-weapon. Sharp and deadly. And I like the way it sounds, which defines messed-up. I want him to say it again. I don’t think this is a hippie thing at all. It feels like…. Oh, never mind. Not gonna go there.

After a final glare, Julian turns and scans the hodgepodge of pillows on the floor before us. He instantly identifies the vibrant purple cushion in the very center of the room—the prince’s cushion, I guess—as his, and he walks slowly to it, crosses his legs, and sinks to the floor. After I finish drooling at the way he struts, I find my own pillow and less gracefully drop my ass onto it.

Once we’re all seated around the little prince, Judy dims the lights and says, “Tonight, friends, we have the joyful addition of two human beings who have been drawn to our group in their search to make this world a fair and equitable place for all. You’ve met Kale, and now please say hello to Julian.”

The crowd minus me—I’m still obsessing over his lips—murmurs its greeting. “Hell-ooo, Ju-li-an.”

“T-tell us th-the reasons you are h-h-here p-please,” urges the guy named Tom, who stutters unless he’s singing—which he confided just before the start of the meeting is what had caused him to be a subject of discrimination and cruelty when he was in high school, except in chorus.

Julian lifts his chin and glares at the group around him.

“I’ve been told there’s nothing about any one of us that makes us less than anybody else, because we’ve got these things called rights—and we’re due them because we’re people.” Julian’s gaze scans his spellbound audience, but he focuses in on me, maybe because I’m the only one in the group who’s close to his age. “I’m here because I want to change the world for people who are LGBTQ.” We’re staring at each other now—it’s like the most intense staring contest I’ve ever… lost. Yeah, I look away first.

I think he’s daring me to tease him for being gay. Because he’s most likely gay, based on his stated reason for joining REHO.

I find myself hoping Julian’s a fan of mushrooms.