By Sohrab Homi Fracis
Steven Miller is watching TV with his wife and kids when he realises he is becoming a woman.
It's the finale of one of the bachelor/bachelorette reality shows his wife Marla loves. A Kansas City Chiefs' cheerleader must select an "Average Joe" to be the love of her life. No pressure. After weeks of playing the field, it's down to a millionaire entrepreneur and a pretty-boy model, both of whom she likes the hell out of and only one of whom she must choose. Marla, who's an average Jane even to Steven who loves her, seems to identify with Melana, the gorgeous cheerleader, because their names sound alike. Names matter to Marla, who liked the alliterative sound of Marla Miller when he proposed 14 years ago.
An ad comes on. Several seconds in, he has no idea what the product is and contemplates a trip to the refrigerator for one of Marla's wine coolers. His palate has gone sweet on him. Turns out the commercial's for soda: Sierra Mist, "refreshingly shocking lemon-lime." For reasons at first unclear to him, a Scottish marching band tramps along, bagpipes wailing. The men are kilted in plaid, and one is missing. Moans of rapture emanate from the set. The camera tracks to a Babe Ruth look-alike doing a Marilyn Monroe, his kilt flaring over the updraft from a grate. Steven gets it: Sierra Mist goes with Scotch in a "refreshingly shocking" way. More like comically gross. Yet something stirs, disturbingly, in his chest and groin. He feels at his shirtfront. It's rounded. He looks down to the crotch of his pants. It's flat!
His hands drop to his sides, and he sneaks a look at his family. Marla, Danny, and Jan have their eyes on the ad, snickering. On screen, a boy viewing the pageant gapes at the orgasming Scot and says to his father, "That's just wrong, Dad." The man shields his son's eyes.
Danny, whose voice is breaking, takes a bite from the pizza he prefers to regular dinner. Until a year ago, it was chicken nuggets. "Dad, did you ever wear a kilt?"
"Talking with your mouth full, Danny boy," Steven says absently. His voice sounds a tone higher, and he wonders if they noticed. It's not as if he had the deepest voice in the first place. "No, but then I was never in a parade. Nothing wrong with tradition. I think in Scotland it's still pretty normal. I'm told your grandmother's grandmother said she missed them seeing kilts on men. She was just 19 when she sailed from Glasgow on the Caledonia."
"Did she wear pants?" Jan asks, giggling. She's seven and very aware that she's cute. People say she takes after Marla, but privately Steven thinks she has his features.
"Long knit stockings, your grandma says, and they checked her hair for nits at Ellis Island. But women wear pants. Your mom wears pants; you know that. And you both wear jeans." He adds lightly, "Why shouldn't men wear skirts?"
Marla looks at him with a funny smile. The kids are cracking up: "Dad wants to wear a skirt, dad wants to wear a skirt."
"Didn't know I married a cross-dresser, Stevie," Marla says. She's on the couch with Jan, at an angle to his recliner, but he can tell from the way her hand opens and shifts along the backrest that she's mildly aroused by the thought. It has been a while since they role-played before the kids came along, and even then they never thought of switching genders. Still, Marla's not averse to the girl-on-girl action in videos she laughs at how it turns the guys on.
"Didn't know, either," he says, maintaining the light tone. It feels important to keep that going. "But you girls have all the fun: short shorts, skirts, tight jeans, bikinis."
"Omigod. You're not serious, are you?" she says, laughing uncertainly, then puts up a hand as the commercial break ends. "Quiet, everyone. I want to see who Melana chooses."
Melana is definitely conflicted. Adam, the millionaire, is funny and makes her laugh, while Jason, the model, turns her on when they kiss. Adam is undoubtedly an average Joe when it comes to looks, a good-natured, beer-puffed bloke, but he does kiss well, and she feels tenderly toward him. Jason was waiting tables before making the show, but he plans to return to school, and she approves. Adam is macho in a jokey kind of way. At first, Jason had to reassure her he wasn't gay, but after making out with him, she isn't worried. Both are clearly infatuated with her and have convinced her of that. It's enough to give Solomon fits, let alone Melana.
The kids settle down, and the show builds to when Melana must spell out her choice to each guy, in front of a jet waiting to take the winner to Cabo with her. Steven is a little in Adam's camp he has been on the show from episode one, while Jason and the other good-looking anti-Joes came on later as a plot twist. But by the time Melana gets to Adam, who's all hope and anticipation, the rest of the world knows it's the kiss-off. She has searched within herself, and it's the way Jason makes her feel in the pit of her stomach that tipped the balance in his favour.
Marla doesn't quite know what to make of it. "She's right, don't you think? Gotta go with your gut. But he's not an average Joe! Shouldn't they have renamed the show? That's misleading, to call a show 'Average Joe' and then set her up with a chiselled, GQ type instead. I mean, Jason's nice and dreamy, but..."
"Yeah," Steven says. "Poor Adam. Though a millionaire isn't exactly an average Joe either."
He's not really into it other things on his mind. The kids, too, are distracted: Danny by the private jet, while Jan is copying Melana's mannerisms. She thinks she's cheerleader material too, and football is big in Jacksonville.
Once they're in their bedrooms, Marla stops second-guessing the show and sheds her clothes for the night. Steven is nervous about shedding his; maybe it's time to confide.
"Marla," he ventures.
"Yeah, babe?" She's down to her bra and panties, and he can see the swell of her pudendum and the sideways bulge of her breasts. He's relieved to feel the familiar urge, even if it finds expression in his nipples and some crotch region not his penis. He can't tell if he still has one. He has heard of transgender women who chose to surgically remove theirs, and he's happy for them. To each his or her own. Dil in The Crying Game had famously kept hers, yet she'd broken Steven's heart. To him, the thought of not having his penis is alarming.
"You know how last week you said I needed a larger shirt size?"
She's in the bathroom now, brushing her teeth, and her words slosh around. "That's right, chubby. You must like my pasta." Then, clearly, his subliminal reminder kicks in. "Whoa, Stevie, were you serious about cross-dressing?"
There's the sound of hurried gargling, and her head pokes out of the doorway. The hair's a different shade of blond nowadays. Over the years, pores opened and her cheeks fell. The chin line now has a twin. But the eyes are still her, watery blue.
"Not really," he says, cautious, probing, "though what would you think if I was?"
"I wouldn't mind. Might be fun, so long as you don't go off the deep end with it. And not in front of the kids."
"Really? You'd be into it?"
"Well, once or twice, why not?" She giggles. There's the sound of running water, then it shuts off. "I kinda like the short shorts in classic basketball games. Guys wore these jogging shorts, right? And then only Richard Simmons wore them anymore."
"Mm." He considers this. What's happening to him seems different. It's not of his volition; it's just happening, and he wishes he knew why and what. He needs a look before he says too much. "Anyway, I've been wearing my roomier shirts and pants for a week now, so I think you were right."
"You have?" She's out, in her black nightie. It covers her love handles but not her increasingly fleshy thighs. He feels horny right away. "So what does the scale say?"
He crosses into the bathroom, swinging the door almost shut, then steps on the scale. "Um, up about seven pounds. One sixty -eight, still okay for my height." He was a skinny one-forty at five foot nine, when they'd met in community college. Now they teach Comp and Lit at the University of North Florida. "But it's weird at Dr. Barrett's last week for my allergies, they measured me at five-ten. That's an inch taller than usual."
"No way. Those nurses..."
"I don't know; their scale did read five-ten. Hey, remember that essay by Stephen Jay Gould in the Norton Guide To Writing? About a connection between animal size and gender?"
His fingers rush at the shirt buttons. All he'd registered, putting it on, was that he seemed flabbier every day. How was he to imagine anything else?
"Oh... You mean the one about the snail called something fornicata?" She giggles again, and it strikes him that she thinks this is verbal foreplay.
"Yeah, in Latin. The slipper limpet."
Then the shirt is off and he can't talk; words won't come out. Those are real breasts on his chest! He moves to the mirror. There they are: medium-sized, like Marla's original 33B, pert and pretty.
"Sounds right; I can't really remember. So what did it do, again? Something wild, I know."
He starts to unbutton the jeans and finds his voice again. It's strained. "They stack up on one another, like a pyramid of shells. That's not the weird part, though." The zipper's down, and he's pushing at the jeans. They're tight. "A young limpet they're always male at the start settles on a rock and gets the stack started. Then, as it grows, and smaller males settle on top of it, it turns into a female! When the ones above grow larger, they become females too. The smaller ones on top stay male, but their penises are so long they can reach around other males to the females underneath."
"Woo-hoo!" she hoots. "Now I remember."
He's looking down at the front of his BVDs. It's alarmingly flat the front pocket would be flappy were the briefs not stretched at the hips. So much for once-upon-a-time long penises. He hasn't lost as much in percentage terms as the male slipper limpets, whose dicks, while they have them, are longer than their bodies. But that's scant consolation.
"You know, babe," she continues, chortling between words, "it's a good thing guys aren't like the limpets, considering how much I've been on top."
He's silent. Not only because he has been working her in the general direction and now that she's almost there he doesn't know what to say. But also, it's the moment of truth. Genitalia don't lie, and once he pulls down those BVDs, the bottom line will be there to see, either way.
"Sequential hermaphrodites," he finally says, procrastinating. "That's the term Gould used. And people can be hermaphrodites."
"Only from birth, I think." She sounds muffled, as if she has turned away. "I think the new term for hermaphrodite is intersex person."
He steels himself and shoves down the underwear. It's official he's a sequential intersex person. Gone, the big Miller. His curly brown hairs now adorn the unmistakable inverted McDonald's M. He's the new owner of a pristine vagina.
Numb, he sits to pee. It works as if he'd been doing it all his life. By the time he covers up with his loosest pajamas and emerges, Marla has slipped under the bedcovers. A wicked smile tells him she's horny. He goes around to his side and gets on top of the sheets. The table-lamp is best left on; switching it off would automatically signal snuggle-time.
"Did you actually shave for me, Stevo?" She reaches out to stroke his smooth cheek.
"Sort of." He'd shaved that morning, and there had barely been any stubble.
She smiles again. "You're so strange today. I like it."
He can't hope for a better segue. "Um, Marla... Fact is, I am kinda different."
"I know it!" she says. "It's all right, baby; I told you I don't mind. Trade your jammies for my nightie?"
He considers. Would that soften the shock or worsen it?
"It's not exactly that. There's something else going on, I don't know what."
"Stevie, what is it?" she asks, sobering visibly and sitting up. He must have lost the lighter tone. "Are you sick?"
"I'm not sure."
"Oh, honey, you should've told me. I forget to wash, too, after grading papers with those kids' germs all over them." She moves to hug him. He leans back from the hug, and she looks hurt. "It's okay, I'm not going to get it from you; I've been taking my Echinacea and drinking OJ. Do you have a temperature?"
She puts the back of her hand to his forehead the hand feels cold to him.
"You're feverish, babe," she says and hugs him close before he can stop her. She pulls up and stares at his chest like she can't believe what she just felt. Then she looks up at him, and he looks back. Her hands come around to his pajama shirtfront. And she shrieks, springing backward.
"Shh," he says, "the kids... I was trying to tell you."
"What in God's name was that, Steve?" she says through her teeth. She's shaking. "Is this one of your practical jokes?"
"I wish," he says morosely.
A picture is worth et cetera, so he pops the pajama shirt buttons and peels the flannel over a pair of pink nipples. Damn, he thinks, they look good.
"Oh God, oh God," Marla says, her hands at her mouth. "When did you do this? How could you do this to me?"
He buttons up hurriedly. "I didn't do anything. I'm trying to tell you, it just happened, I don't know how."
Her eyes waver, like she's trying to believe him. "Okay... 'Cause if... if you did, you can always change it back. At least I think you can. Oh God, I hope you can." She's back on that track again it's easier to deal with. "And then, whatever needs you have, you've just got to talk about it before you go off on your own and... and..."
"Listen, Marla." He can feel the heat take hold of his head and rack it. "You've got to trust me on this I had nothing to do with it! Who do you think you married?"
"That's what I want to know," she says, a bit sullen. Then the slightest gleam of curiosity creeps into her eyes. "Is it all the way? I mean..."
She peers uncertainly at the crotch of his pajamas, which is almost covered by the shirt.
"Yes, it is." He doesn't have it in him to elaborate.
"Oh no, Stevie," she cries, "I loved the big Miller so much!"
He grunts, not meeting her eyes. "More like lil' Milly now."
She puts a hand out to his arm, but keeps her distance otherwise. "I don't know what to say, it's so weird. Why do you think it happened?"
"I'm trying to figure that out. Remember I told you about my Uncle Rick who vanished when I was a kid, just sold his house and went away without a word to anyone? How he'd gotten so flabby up top, Mom and the others teased him about having boobs?"
"Yeah, wow," she says. She seems to be settling into some form of calm. "You think he was a... a sequential...?"
"I don't know, maybe," he says, suddenly tired. "It's the best I can come up with. I'll go see Barrett at the clinic tomorrow, though damned if I want to tell anyone else about this. Listen, I'm going to take some Tylenol and be back."
"All right," she says uncertainly. "Could you also check on the kids? I need to think a little. A lot."
He looks at her. Their policy on tackling the bigger problems is to do their thinking together, as a couple.
"You know I want to be there for you," she adds quickly, "but my mind is going like crazy. This isn't like you just had an urge to wear a skirt, you know?"
"I know," he says. "I'll check on them."
The Tylenol's taking its time kicking in when he opens Danny's door. The light is off, and Steven feels his way though the dark until his eyes adjust. It's a journey he's made before; he keeps his left arm out so his fingers guide him past the edge of the dresser. The bed's outlines appear. The slight figure beneath the sheet looks relaxed, its breathing regular. The head becomes visible, its delicate lines, the longish hair. Steven remembers when guys at community college and UF gave him a hard time for his '70s hair. But Marla liked it; she complained when he cut it once they started to teach. The thought gives him hope.
The light is off in Jan's room, but she calls out as he enters. He replies and gropes his way to her side. Her warm, small hand takes hold of his in the dark, and it's as if the Tylenol kicks in. Quick on its heels, pinpricks start at his eyes. He holds them back. Surely Jan will still love him.
"Dad," she says. "Do you think I can get on the Roar when I grow old?"
"You bet, sweetie," he says. The Roar is the Jaguars' cheerleading squad. "When you grow up, not old. But heck, why only cheer when you can play?"
They talk about it for a while. Then he squeezes her hand and leaves.
Marla has shut the light. Good idea. He makes his way to the bed. She's awake, he senses, too quiet. He positions himself neutrally, looking up, neither turned away nor toward her. Then he waits.
"Steve," she says.
"Swear you had nothing to do with this?"
"I swear it, Marla. You're bummed, I know, but how do you think I feel?"
"I don't know tell me."
He's silent. Fuck it. Thirteen anniversaries, and they might as well be strangers.
There's an upheaval on her side, and he can faintly see her tipping onto her elbow. "I didn't mean it like that," she says in her voice of capitulation. "I know it must be crazy for you, too. It's just I'm so confused."
She has put out her hand in the dark, a risky venture now. But it lands safely on his stomach, and the way it just sits there comforts him.
"Welcome to the club," he says.
"I was thinking: while we're figuring this out, why not..." She hesitates, then starts again. "I used to wonder what it's like for two women. I mean, we've seen videos and all, but..."
"Yeah," he says. She's horny again. It feels like acceptance. He has a flare of arousal himself: this is going to be different.
Her hand moves again, under the flannel and over his stomach. Her lips come down on his, plump and hot. The hand is still moving whoa! squeezing his breasts. Lightly at first, then hard. Automatically he reaches for hers, but his mind is on the new sensations. She has his nipple now, and it's standing up against the flannel.
She stops. "Stevie, I should have asked, is this okay with you? Am I being insensitive, coming on at a time like this?"
"Hell no," he gasps, "don't remind me. Come on all you want."
"Okay," she says, and one hand begins to work down his pants. "I'm so turned on, it's weird."
He can hear her breathe as she encounters the newest pussy in the house. Then all other senses are lost in the touch of her fingers, as she does to him what he's seen her do to herself and has learned to do to her. She slides down his belly, and her lips and tongue join the fingers at work. His thighs spread, juices squirt, and it's only his recollection of the Sierra Mist commercial that keeps him from emitting noises.
All of a sudden, she's scrambling off him, and he hears her rummaging in the dresser drawers. Then she's between his thighs again, using his emissions to wet what he knows is her favourite dildo. It's pink. And long. She spreads him, probes with its head, and inserts it. Holy mother of... It pushes his walls apart inch by inch, and as she begins to thrust, two thoughts go through his mind. Was that a hymen? And: this is what it's like to be fucked.
Three weeks later, the sex is still good he doesn't want to think of it as great. Marla has purchased a strap-on, who knows where, and is developing quite the repertoire of moves with it. She gives it to him to try, but it's not the same. The dynamics feel old, forced, a pale imitation.
Other things are not so good. Once Dr Barrett gets past an understandable belief that Steven has had surgery, the GP is intrigued but baffled. He makes noises about reading up on it, and schedules Steven for diagnostics at the Baptist Medical Center, all of which turn up normal. For a woman. Then he refers him to an endocrinologist on the south side, Dr Sanchez, who is equally baffled but eager to start him on hormone therapy and chronicle the case.
She's not the only one Marla is taking notes. She feels that with life material like this, maybe she can revive her aspiration to be a stand-up comedian. Stand-up routines are often about spouses' quirks, and Steven has gone way past quirky. One evening after an episode of "The Last Comic Standing," he sees this one-liner on her notepad: "My husband and I practice the rhythm method he fucks me after I ovulate, and I fuck him after he ovulates." He's relieved on one count; it's not the greatest joke. It's not even true: the scans at Baptist show that he has ovaries and a womb, but for some reason he hasn't yet menstruated maybe they've started the hormones just in time. And she's missing the point; they don't need contraception anymore. On the other hand, the quip is troubling in that it seems to confirm what he thinks during sex that she's fucking him for having changed on her.
Danny doesn't know. He's past the age for hugs, and his mind's on other things like girls. He and his buddies have started hanging around girls in class and the Kensington neighborhood. Some of them wear baggy pants so loose that they slide down their shorts, puddle around their shins. The girls come by as much as the guys, now, to ask for Danny. If they notice that his dad seems to have filled out like them and adopted a roomier line of wear, they don't mention it. Little Jan's into hugs from daddy, of course, and at first Steven sees a quizzical look cross her face. But for all she knows, fathers are probably supposed to change like that, so she hugs and kisses him all the more. He was right about her; she's still his sweetheart.
What exactly he is, he's not so sure. A kind of human slipper limpet. He assigns Gould's essay to his Comp 1 class at UNF. In the men's rooms, he goes straight for the cubicles. When students or colleagues say he sounds different, he tells them he's stuffed up from allergies. It's true. No one asks about his new look. Prepping for class, he reads that the basic, original gender is the egg-carrying female. The male evolved later, to spread the genes more efficiently via hordes of tiny, low-maintenance sperm. He pauses over a piece of trivia: the egg of the leopard gecko develops into either the female or the male, depending on whether it's incubated at 77 degrees or 98. In humans, it's the balance of hormones that does it more estrogen results in two X chromosomes. His heart lurches. Dr. Sanchez has started him on testosterone shots, but surely his chromosomes were established thirty-eight years ago in his mother's womb?
Speaking of, he needs to call his mum in Memphis and ask if she ever heard from Uncle Rick after his final visit when Steven was six. But he's not ready to tell her she now has a daughter. As it is, she gets an annual call from his father, whom she has never forgiven for leaving but who calls anyway, driven by guilt. Steven came to terms with their split when in his teens, and could probably let his father in on his new status. But his mother who, maybe symbolically, has reverted to her maiden name, Dunn would be even more upset if he didn't tell her first.
"Pop quiz," he announces in class, to groans. "On 'Sex and Size.'"
He sits at the desk, after distributing the quiz, and looks around at the bowed young heads. These were his kids even before he had Danny and Jan. Each new semester he'd felt like big brother at first, then surrogate dad of a hundred teenagers. He looked eagerly for faces that had followed him up from freshman Comp into Intro to Lit. The first time twins were on the roster, they became his twins. That Rashaan and Akili happened to be identical was just the frosting when they razzed him because he messed up and called the one by the other's name, there was something easy and intimate about it. They were a favorite topic with Marla at home; he made a big deal of it when, in their very first year, they made the UNF Ospreys. He went to the Arena to watch and, after the games, to josh them about missed baskets. When neither of them was drafted by the NBA, he took it personally.
Heads are lifted now, eyes on him, hands idle. He looks at his watch and sounds the one-minute warning. An invisible stream from the air duct plays around his nose, triggering his allergies, until he shifts his chair. As the minute expires, some students are still scratching away, so he waits until the second hand goes around again and their pens are laid down. Then he collects the quiz and backs up against the desk to review it.
"That is such a weird essay," Linda Quinn says from a back row, inspiring a general murmur.
"I'll give you that," he says. "But in what way, exactly?"
She looks around and giggles; her braces catch the panel light. "All of those things changing sex."
He joins the sympathy chuckle. "So not so long ago we thought the genders are cast in concrete. What does paleontologist Gould say does nature intend that?"
"Not always." It's Jason Zamito, to the left, one of the surfer dudes, a sun-streaked blond in flip-flops. "There's all these snails 'n fish 'n plants that cross over as they get bigger."
"That's right, in two ways. Protandry male first. And protogyny female first." Sounds of relief and dismay over the relevant question. He moves on to the next. "What's Gould's thesis? Which way's more common and why?" Several hands go up, one of them attached to a flirty brunette who always takes a seat right in front of him. "Valerie?"
]"Um, I wasn't sure, but male first? 'Cause females are usually larger 'cause eggs need to be larger than sperm and need more protection?"
"Good job," he says, and she rewards him with a smile. "Yes: excepting mammals, nature favors the larger female. Anyone wonder why even we, when we hit puberty, the girls are taller?"
There's a chorus of Ohhhs, and Jason says to Valerie, "But then the guys get bigger because we had to hunt 'n' fight and get you to date us."
"Haha," she says. "Dr Miller, don't you think women were always smarter than men? That's how we got them to do things for us."
"No way," Jason says. "You couldn't survive without us, so we took pity on you. Right, Steven?" He's too cool to say Dr Miller.
Steven waits for the ripple of snickers to die, then says, "Well, guys, I'll tell you what." He loves how usage has transformed the word guys into universal address. "Three hundred million years ago, before there were chromosomes, there were autosomes think A for asexual or androgynous. Go back far enough and there was no battle of the sexes...because there were no sexes." He has their attention. "And the world goes around. The male chromosome, the Y? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Jason, but it's in a state of decay. It's the one that may not survive. Look ahead far enough oh, about ten million years and the Y may be gone."
"Relax." He's grinning now. "That's many more millions than we've been around as a species."
They quiet down, and Andre Martin speaks into the silence. "You saying there won't be men anymore, just women?"
"Not necessarily," Steven says. "There are male rodents who come by their masculinity without the Y chromosome... no one knows how. So I wouldn't worry too much about it." Ironically phrased he's extremely worried. "Now let's talk about thesis as a principle of selection and arrangement."
After class, Valerie hangs around, exuding femininity, to ask questions they both know are less than urgent. In the past, he has twirled his wedding band to send a signal, but she stays persistent, even now. It's a mystery. He's reflexively attracted to her, her tight young curves, her unlined face, the way she looks up to him, the flattering attention to his every word. He has seen other Valeries come and go, learned to squelch the physical attraction by noting the different planet on which they live. But now he has a new, unexpectedly vexing recognition: it's not just the thought of Marla or his ethics, anymore, that would keep him from taking advantage of Valerie it's also the fact that he can't. Not in the way she'd expect.
She tags along as he navigates the cafι quadrangle, weaving between outdoor tables and lissome, sun-bared legs. Everywhere, young people sit by each other, buzzing with sex. He remembers when Marla and he first sat on the stone benches at Kent Campus, heads together, generating visions so tangible that for years they came true. Between the old love song, 'Danny Boy', and Marla's affinity for rhyme, the kids' names and genders were decided long before they were physically conceived.
He gives Valerie the slip at the UNF bookstore. Then he walks up to the department and drops in on Marla. She's at her office desk, prepping for her afternoon Lit class, and looks more surprised than glad. Lately they only see each other at home. She has on a new blue top over a black skirt and has lost a little weight. She looks younger, more stylish, less the average Jane.
"Hey," she says.
"Hey. Thought I'd drop by for a minute."
"Yeah?" She looks almost like he'd caught her at something. His eyes search for her comedy notebook, but it's the bulky Bedford Introduction to Literature on the desk.
"You're not using the Norton for Comp, are you?"
"No, I'm trying the Short Takes. Why?"
She's clearly not going to invite him onto the second chair, so he pulls the door shut but stays on his feet. "Remember, aside from the slipper limpet, Gould talks about this plant, the jack-in-the-pulpit?"
"Sort of. I never quite got how the gender thing applied to plants."
"Well, yeah, most are simultaneously male and female, androgynous if you will stamens and pistils in their flowers. Funny how 'pistil' sounds like it's the penis, when it's the other way around." Her eyes shift, and for an instant he's distracted. "Anyway, some plants' flowers, like the jack-in-the-pulpit's, have just the one or the other. In other words, they're either male or female at any given time."
"You know, Steven," she sounds suddenly tired "I'm really not in the mood for botany, biology, whatever. And I've got to finish reading up before lunch."
"I know." He makes a token move toward the door. "Just one thing, then I'll go: when the jack when Jack grows past a certain height, he turns into Jill. Old news, right? But guess what? When Jill is trimmed or grazed on or deprived of sunlight and becomes shorter as a result, she turns into Jack again!"
"Oh." Marla's eyebrows, still the original blond, are up.
"So this sequential thing, it's reversible."
"Babe..." Her voice and face have gentled. "I hate to break this to you, but how do you propose to be grazed on or trimmed? Or are you planning to get less sun?"
"I don't know how, Marla," he says, his throat tightening. "But that's par for the course. We don't know how I grew taller in the first place. Like remember how I had a fever at the time? If I catch the chills instead, lower my body temperature " He catches the look on her face. "Okay, I know. That's just an example. My point is who knows? All these testosterone shots at the clinic. So far so good: no period, no nothing. Can you see my facial hair? I almost need to shave."
He pauses for confirmation, but the best she can manage is an uncertain nod.
"So there you are," he says. He needs to sound confident, not desperate. "Speaking of the shots, I'm due soon. Want to come along?"
She hesitates. "Maybe another time, when I don't have class. But let me know your height when they measure you."
Her eyes meet his directly, with only a hint of cloud. He drops his, understanding.
For a moment, he sees nothing but desk; the wood grain has these crazy patterns. One day, when he was six, his Uncle Rick came over for dinner at their Memphis ranch house. They never saw him again. Steven's mother rarely speaks of a later day when her husband left, but she swears her brother, new breasts and all, had a kind of dignity that final night. He ate steadily, with his head down, putting away her stew and turnovers. Twice he mentioned their Grandma Kathryn, how she'd set out on that long voyage from Glasgow so young. At the door, he shook his brother-in-law's hand and hugged his sister. Then he lifted Steven above their heads and held him there, close to the ceiling, before setting him down.
Marla is already turning away, back to her text.
"I'll do that," he says. His voice comes out quiet, almost resigned.
And he leaves to be measured.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020