No one at the dinner table had any idea Ty was burning. It started that morning, a tenseness in their shoulders and an aching in their chest, as if their sternum was going to snap from trying to hold the two sides of his body together. They felt the need to inhale deeply, hoping some oxygen would help calm things down, but nothing seemed effective and they didn’t want to draw attention to their discomfort. They knew what the feeling was, and they knew it had really started before morning, in the twilight zone between waking and dreaming.
It was the same burning feeling Ty got when he had a secret or was expending all their energy trying to maintain a long-woven lie. He looked at Colleen, her hair grown out in locks past her shoulders, her evenly applied foundation and pop of purple eyeshadow to match her nail polish. She was engaged in spirited conversation with Lunah, a non-binary woman who sported a well-manicured fade, dramatic triangular shades, and neon sports bras under her artificial-leather motorcycle jacket. Ty tried to follow along but couldn’t keep their mind from wandering back to their nightmare, plus the two were talking way over his head—both were STEM majors fluent in astronomical jargon—and he was just too tired to reach that high.
Ty kept from letting out a sigh, “I’m gonna get some more food, anyone else want anything?”
He didn’t expect an answer, so was relieved that Colleen and Lunah were too caught up in their dialogue to give one.
Unfortunately, moving Lunah in with her most recent partner had taken longer than predicted, leaving them all sweaty and yearning for A/C after carrying/dollying mislabeled recycled boxes, plastic bins, and individual fragile items just “short five minutes down the block.” (He’d dropped one of her 12 constellation-themed mugs, but hoped Lunah wouldn’t notice long enough for him to find a replacement). They ended up eating a late dinner, so the hall was comfortably populated such that no more than two people waited at a given food station.
Ty sauntered over to the soda machine, where a person was filling their 64 ounce coffee flask with something steaming and caffeinated. Ty glanced over at his friend’s table, in a back corner where they could see all the exits. He was glad Colleen was there, she knew how to entertain the company she chose and was able to get Lunah’s mind off the fact that her paramore had yet to show up. (“I’m telling you, unless Effie has been abducted by aliens, they are so dead when they get here,” Lunah swore). Everyone had been hoping to meet the special someone who had managed to get past the first-dates stage with their no-BS overcommitted friend, which was part of the reason Ty had agreed to help them move, if he was being honest.
Sorelle, who had left for the restroom a little while ago, probably had similar motivations. Xe had trouble remembering people until xe had a face-to-face meeting with them, and until now Lunah’s lover had been completely elusive. All Ty, Sorelle, and Colleen, knew was that Effie was preeeetty rich, the child of the infamous-among-social-justice-activists famous-among-fiscal-conservatives Akeyahs. (Lunah was constantly telling them about the inappropriately expensive gifts she had to decline, which was cute at first, but quickly grew stale. “High key though,” Sorelle made sure to interject, “just accept them and give whatever you don’t want to me.”
Ty liked Sorelle, xe was known for speaking the truth, though xe claimed it had less to do with a conscious commitment to honesty and more to do with a lack of filter. Ty, on the other hand, was the type of person—guy?—to keep things close to their chest, letting secrets build until they held him hostage for the price of freedom. He was the type of guy to layer those secrets with lies and pay counterfeit money for the secret’s ransom, hoping it would let him go. When there was a misunderstanding in his favour, he didn’t correct people. He fed his wrongdoings to the Secrets, letting them bulk up on shame, guilt, and irresponsibility. He—
“Good Lord Tyra, looks like I found you at just the right time,” Sorelle said, interrupting Ty’s internal monologue. “You were starting to get that Hamlet’s soliloquy kinda look.”
Ty blinked, refocusing on his surroundings. He appreciated the direct address, if only because it got him out of his head.
“A cis dude.”
“A CIS DUDE!”
“How do you know they were cis, or a dude for that matter?”
“Oh, come on, don’t give me that,” Sorelle answered. “It’s my intuition, plus the fact that it smelled like shit.”
“Well… what’s a bathroom supposed to smell like?”
“They left the toilet seat up and not once did I hear the faucet run!” Sorelle finished in a case-closed manner, skimming Ty’s expression for an indication that xir’s humorous social commentary had been correctly interpreted.
Ty shrugged, giving a weak smile as the burning intensified.
“Okay, someone’s not feeling well. What’s up?” Sorelle asked,
“Mmkay,” Sorelle sounded unpersuaded, but changed the topic anyway, “What’s the goal here—you’ve been standing by the soda machine like you’re waiting for a miracle.”
“Oh, um,” Ty hadn’t noticed or really cared that the person using the café machine had finished ages ago. They were just trying to find ways to be alone without completely ditching the group. “I was just going to get some, um, coffee.”
“Coffee?” Sorelle scoffed, moving to the side as someone on the softball team walked gingerly by balancing a plate of salad and a bowl of meat, “What happened to ‘coffee is a drug I don’t want to get addicted to,’ Ms. Sobriety?”
“Um, oh, I have an exam tomorrow and need to cram,” Ty lied.
Sorelle cocked an unconvinced brow (it was the beginning of the semester), watching Ty follow through on their lie, filling their cup with the dark liquid before making way to the dessert stand.
“Yes! I’m telling you, Sandra and her team do it up for Moving Day. They know parents will be helping their children relocate and decide to stay for a meal. Want to make a good impression, y’know?”
“Mm hmm,” Ty agreed, having already piled a bowl with the scalding Prized Peach Parade (Chef Sandra loved coming up with creative titles for her dishes), a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a cloud-mountain of whipped wonder so gratuitous it managed to pierce the Colleen-Lunah conversation bubble when it arrived at the table.
“You okay, Tyra?” Colleen asked, her downglance flashing a second of shimmering purple eyeshadow in their direction.
Ty had intentionally stuffed their face with a spoonful of the Parade when he saw Colleen glance his way, preferring to burn their tongue than to come up with a response.
“She doesn’t want to talk about it,” Sorelle chimed in.
“Well, I really think she should because she’s been acting weird all evening, like, more spacey than usual,” Lunah said, lowering her shades to look right at Ty, “Don’t think I didn’t notice you dropped my Ursa Minor earlier—were you going to say something, Tyra?”
Ty swallowed, the sweet cold of the ice cream burning the back of their throat. “Sorry, I didn’t want to ruin the mood.”
Lunah rolled her eyes, “Well, tip from the Book of Basic Decency, letting mistakes fester always makes things worse. Just come clean when you’ve realized you tripped up.”
It wasn’t the same intensity of heat they’d felt last night, waiting in line at the fiery mouth of hell, but it sure was reminiscent of it. They took a deep breath, “It’s sort of a long story.”
“Well, Effie still isn’t here, so I’m game for a story,” Lunah and the others agreed.
“Okay… but it’s sort of weird. Promise you won’t ask any questions. I don’t feel like I have any answers,” Ty began.
“You’ve been thinking about those dreams again, haven’t you? I told you they’re probably just some internalized transphobic bullshit.” Lunah was clearly peeved.
“Let the girl speak! You did ask her what was going on, didn’t you?” Sorelle pointed out.
“Xe’s got a point,” Colleen added.
“So, I had a weird dream last night. I’ve actually been having them for a while now. I was being escorted through Hell, Inferno style, and at the end, the escort said this was my future if I didn’t stop living a lie. I went through every lie I could think of, and with each admission, one of the flames whipped me, and the temperature decreased. When I got to the end of my list, my escort said ‘You know there is one more thing, Ty. You’ve been lying this whole time, and it’s time to set you free, unless you want this to be your future.’ I knew what the demon was getting at… I could sense it in his stare, in his tone of voice.
“‘You are a man,’ the demon finished—” (Lunah shook her head, and Colleen expressed her “sorry you had that, it sounds nightmarish.”)
“—My blood pressure skyrocketed. ‘But I don’t want to be one!’ I protested, and the furnaces of hell roared back in response, turning up the heat and causing the infernal tour to restart.
“My heart was pounding, my blood pressure felt like it was through the roof, and my torso ached. I remember thinking I could end up dead if things kept going on like this.
“I exercised, drank some tea, did some deep breathing, but nothing caused the burning to go away. I thought spending time with you all would distract me, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Even though the whole being a man thing was extremely coerced, I can’t stop shaking the feeling that maybe there was something true about the dream? It wasn’t the first one I’d had of that nature, and my stress levels were steadily increasing.
“So I began to make changes. First, just in how I thought about myself. I used he/him pronouns and went by my nickname. I wasn’t sure what to call myself for a while, because wearing stuff like this”—they gestured to the lace-lined zebra print camisole under their denim shirt—“was and is still a reliable way to make things better. I started wondering if I was a gender-nonconforming guy, and the thought made the burning decrease a little more, the tension in my body let up.
“But it’s weird. I haven’t felt like I’ve had a gender in a long time, and when I have, it hasn’t been the one I was assigned at birth.
“I’m not sure how long this will last, and I know you all have worked hard to learn new pronouns and stuff for me, so I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure, but I know that if I don’t tell you where I’m at, I’ll feel like I’m lying to you all.”
Sorelle put xir arm around Ty. “Hey, gender is fluid, and fluidity can be hard. Things change. Labels can be clarifying, but they are also just approximations of a complex human experience.”
“Yeah,” Colleen said. “I identify as a woman for simplicity’s sake, but ideally I’d forego labeling my gender altogether.”
“There’s a reason I call myself a non-binary woman, and not just one or the other—it’s because I’m both,” Lunah said, “But I didn’t always know that, and people don’t always get it. You just have to do what is best for you. We aren’t friends with you because of your gender; we’re friends with you because we like Tyra, or Ty, or whatever you want us to call you.”
“And we are the last group of people to make a big deal out of changing pronouns or names. I mean, look at us,” Sorelle pitched in, eliciting a couple of laughs. “We’ve all been there, and some of us might end up there again, who knows. Whenever things change, feel free to update us, and we’ll make the switch no problem.”
“Colleen’s right, though we do appreciate you letting us in,” Sorelle offered, giving Ty a light squeeze. “Even if Lunah did sort of strong-arm you into it.”
“Sorry about that, I was mainly just mad about the mug, and the fact Effie—” Lunah beamed suddenly, as their phone vibrated, “Effie just texted! They’re on their way!”
“Were they abducted by aliens?” Colleen joked, wiggling her fingers conspiratorially.
“They didn’t say, which means they’re probably trying to come up with a shitty excuse for oversleeping or losing track of time,” Lunah scoffed, then turned back to Ty. “How should I introduce you?”
“Ty is good for now, and he/him or they/them works,” Ty was surprised at how fast he was able to answer that question, as if it were an answer that had been formulated for days.
“The man knows what he wants!” Colleen exclaimed.
Even though there was something about Colleen’s exclamation that didn’t sit quite right with him, Ty also felt the first waves of relief. The burning began to subside, replaced instead with a nervous excitement befitting the occasion.
They could see the disgruntled joy on Lunah’s face when her phone buzzed again, the way Colleen teased Lunah about being madly in love. He could feel the warmth of Sorelle, who was close enough for him to smell xir cocoa butter shampoo. Ty became aware of the boisterous softball players just a few tables away from them. He hadn’t felt this grateful in a long while.