I woke up late one sunday as the morning light punctured my eyelids.
Forcing myself out of bed, I found the house cold and empty. The temperature must have dropped quite a bit overnight and my family had most likely left earlier that morning for church.
I felt hollow and hungry. The fridge was next to bare, holding only a few leftover pieces of fried chicken and some cheese with its own mini ecosystem of mold.
So I grabbed my coat and a wad of bills and set off for Wagner’s Sandwiches.
It was one of those creepy days where the sun was out, the sky was clear, and it was cold enough to crack stone.
I’ve always hated days like that. They just feel so unnatural.
I went through a few blocks of nice residential areas, then over an old concrete bridge with train tracks at the bottom. Beyond that was the tidy little strip mall that contained Wagner’s Sandwiches.
Inside, I saw that Wagner’s had gone through some kind of renovation. They’d cleared out the square tables and barf colored carpet and flickering yellow-tinged lights. Now everything was bright and round and white and red.
I almost walked right back out into the frozen suburbs when I saw who was behind the counter.
She must have hated how her name tag still said Rebecca. Maybe Wagner’s hired her before her transition and just refused to print different name tags. Or maybe they just don’t support transgenders.
I really didn’t want to come face to face with her again, but at the same time I really wanted a sandwich. So I swallowed my pride and advanced down the chrome tiles.
“Hi,” I said, my voice cracking with fear. I’d always had been sort of intimidated by her when she called herself a girl. Her masculine attire and haircut didn’t help matters, nor did the fact that she actually had a legitimate reason to beat me up now. “Could I have a turkey sandwich?”
“Sure,” she said without eye contact.
Watching her trudge off to the kitchen, I realized that she really did look like a guy now.
Her voice couldn’t have been anything but feminine, though.
“That’ll be five thirty nine,” she said when she returned, food in hand.
I pulled out a few scraggly bills and handed them over without a word.
“Thanks for your business,” she said, laboring over the words a little. Probably she’d be in trouble with the management if she didn’t offer that mindless little comment, but apparently she wasn’t too big on thanking me for anything.
“No problem, Jacob,” I said.
She smiled at me. Not broadly, but enough for it count. It took me a few minutes to put my finger on why. Then I realized what I had called her.
In that moment the angry haze that seems to clog high school hallways dissipated a little. I hadn’t meant to pay her that kind of respect, it had just sort of slipped out, but I wasn’t in a hurry to take it back. I never realized it before, but somewhere in the back of my mind I felt more guilty than angry about what had happened. Accidental atonement didn’t seem like that bad a deal.
“So, how have you been doing?” she asked. I guess, now that we were friends, she figured awkward small talk came with the territory.
“Fine, I guess,” I said.
“Are you still dating Monica?” This seemed more like an accusation than a question.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know?”
“We haven’t seen each other for a few months, so I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter though, does it?”
She (or, let’s be honest here, he) just gave an ambiguous grunt and gave me my sandwich.
At the time I was a little offended that he didn’t even dignify me with a response. In retrospect, I actually got off pretty easy.
Because it really did matter to him. I had the luxury of selective memory. The privilege to throw away all the drama and anger away whenever I decided it wasn’t worth dwelling on anymore.
He didn’t get that.
I sat down to eat the sandwich and, after awhile, caught him staring at me. I instinctively wanted to pick up my meal and eat it somewhere else, but I figured it was best not to.
When I had finished I threw away my garbage and made my way for the door.
“Bye,” said Jacob before I had left.
“Good luck,” I said.
I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it felt like the right thing to say.
The sun was still out. The air was still frozen. The world was still annoyingly dissonant.
But I felt better.
Things had been boring behind the counter of Wagner’s Sandwiches. Sunday mornings are always the slowest time of this week. As I’d found out the hard way a few months ago, this town is too religious for its own good.
And then that stuck-up little asshole William showed up.
When his eyes met mine he looked scared in a way that might have made me feel sorry for him, had I not been his object of fear.
I assumed he’d walk right back out the door once he saw me. But, to my surprise, he approached the counter.
“Hi,” he said. He stood further away from me than customers usually do, no doubt keeping his distance to avoid catching gender nonconformity. “Could I have a turkey sandwich?”
“Sure,” I said before retreating to the kitchen.
The seating area of the restaurant might have undergone a transformation, but the kitchen was the same as ever with its harsh florescent lights above and industrial fridges lining the walls. I’d spent a lot of time there back when I was known to the world as Rebecca. I’d felt so sad then, so torn up by inner conflict, but the kitchen had always had some strange kind of intrinsic comfort. Probably because it was the only place I could be left alone.
Even now that I’d done right by myself, the cold kitchen still held that nestling glow of a welcome exile.
I framed his sandwich with the efficient grace you get from doing some mindless task a few thousand times. First came the bread, then turkey, then mayo, then pickles. After some deliberation, I decided against giving it a quick spit before slapping on the last slice of bread. There was no doubt he’d complain to the management and I’d lose my much-needed source of income. I’d already been under fire by the management for my campaign to change my name tag, and they wouldn’t smile on a second incident.
I entertained the thought that William might not deserve spit in his sandwich anyway. After all, he’d never been hurtful himself. His girlfriend, Monica, though, she’d been the worst of the lot. She’d said things that belong in anti-bullying PSAs or poorly written teenage dramas. Things that real people don’t say. Or shouldn’t, at any rate.
And William was always there for her. He’d knelt by her side and wiped up the blood the one time I did the only thing any rational person would do in that situation. Then he’d let her cry in his arms and echoed every single one of her pathetic sentiments.
He was waiting for me when I came out of the kitchen, his dainty little frame leaning up against the back wall.
“That’ll be five thirty nine,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice neutral.
He pulled out a few well used bills.
“Thanks for your business,” I said without a whole lot of gratitude.
“No problem, Jacob.”
I had to play that mindless little scrap of conversation over in my head five or six times to make sure I’d heard it right. Yes, yes, he’d really called me by my name. My real name.
I like to think he’d meant it as an apology, although probably it had just slipped out on accident. It didn’t really matter though. He’d done something half decent to me. And for someone who’s been trodden on the way I have, sometimes half decent is enough.
“So, how have you been doing?” I asked. I’m not totally sure why I kept on talking to him, it just seemed natural.
“Fine, I guess.” His voice was tinged with confusion.
"Are you still dating Monica?” I figured I might as well get to the meat of it.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“We haven’t seen each other in a few months, so I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter though, does it?”
It doesn’t really matter, though, does it?
It does, you asshole!
Still, I’m not sure if I can blame him.
He ate his ate his food quickly enough. Maybe he was just super hungry, maybe he really wanted to leave.
As he moved towards the exit he placed his empty dish in the tray above the trashcan and threw his wadded napkin into it. I realized, watching his girlishly thin legs strut out the door, that that was really the heart of the matter. That he could afford to throw away his sour memories and casual relationships. To him, it was all just stupid high school drama. Maybe he’d try to see things from my perspective when he looked back on this years from now, but that’s the best he could do: to try. He’d never have to deal with the waste, he’d never have to go through life with a mismatched body and mind. But the least he could do was try.
"Bye,” I said as he was about to leave.
“Good luck,” he said in response.
I watched him vanish into the distance through the newly-installed plate glass window. He was walking on that ugly concrete bridge over the railroad tracks. There was a noisy, slow moving, incredibly long train covered with angry bright graffiti passing beneath. And then another little parallel came to me. Our history together wasn’t water under a bridge, it was more like that train. It was substantial, it was ugly, but given time maybe it will pass.