Lambertville High sat at the bottom of a hill, dozens of beat-up trucks and station wagons clustered near the entrance. Small pockets of students hovered near the front door, the boys conspicuously slouched and the girls straight-backed and high-chinned, all radiating as much transparent disinterest in one another as possible.
That was the kind of scenario that got girls like me killed. I had done the research. I knew how often things like that happened.
I had barely slept the night before. I gave up trying at five and drank a chocolate- flavoured nutritional shake with my medicine: two two-milligram estradiol tablets, which were tiny and blue and tasted like chalk, to feminize my appearance and stand in for the testosterone my body could no longer make, and one ten-milligram Lexapro tablet, which was round and white and waxy, to help me stay calm.
I kept my eyes straight ahead and walked through the double doors, hoping the concealer I wore over the faded, yellowish remnants of my black eye did its job. Inside, the floor was an alternating pattern of green, brown and gold-flecked white tiles. Fluorescent lights buzzed angrily, but for all their fury, the halls were dimly lit. Display cases lined the walls, shelf after shelf of trophies for cheerleading, marching band, baseball, and especially football, with records reaching back far enough that half the team photos were sepia-toned.
The red classroom doors bore faded-looking numbers, and I followed them to 118, the homeroom marked on my schedule.
More than a dozen students sat in groups of three or four, talking so loudly I could hear them in the hall. The room fell quiet as I entered. The girls looked at me and then away again quickly, but a few guys stared for a second longer, their expressions unreadable.
As I moved to find a seat, one face was still turned my way: a tall, lean boy with dark, sharp eyes and wavy black hair. Our eyes caught, and I felt a lurch in my stomach. He sat with another boy, this one tall and bulky with short light hair and a nose that looked like it had been broken before, a half-lidded, sarcastic expression pointed at me. The sarcastic-looking one said something I couldn’t make out, and a crimson blush spread across his friend’s cheeks.
My heart screamed that they knew, that the one with those piercing eyes was attracted to me for a moment and his friend was making fun of him for it. That was the kind of scenario that got girls like me killed. I had done the research. I knew how often things like that happened. I felt the scar over my ear and remembered that even now that I’d had my surgery, even now that nothing but some legal papers could reveal my past, I was never really safe.
I looked down at my lap and tried to will myself out of existence.
The cafeteria and the auditorium were the same room. The tables were circular, each seating at most five or six people, and half of the seating was on the stage itself. The higher position was clearly reserved for juniors and seniors.
I sat at an empty table on the stage and opened up Sandman, a comic book my friend Virginia had recommended, and pulled out the vegetable sushi rolls I had prepared the night before. After a few minutes, I marked my place and ducked to put the book away – and looked up to find the black-haired boy from homeroom sitting across from me.
“Hi,” he said. He wasn’t as tall or bulky as his friend, but the muscles in his arms were lean, and he moved with a relaxed grace. “Mind if I sit here?”
“Yes,” I said, realizing too late that I was being rude. “I’m fine, I mean.”
I narrowed my eyes. What did he mean, a girl like me? My fears from earlier returned in a rush.
“My friend Parker thinks so,” he replied.
“Excuse me?” I said, nearly choking on a glob of wasabi. “Sorry,” I coughed, before taking a sip of water. “Spicy.”
“Where’d you get sushi in Lambertville?” he asked, pointing to what was left of my lunch.
“I made it,” I said, nervously fiddling with my chopsticks.
“Wow,” he said. “I didn’t know you could just…make sushi.”
“It’s not that hard,” I lied, remembering the countless nights I had spent at my mom’s kitchen table, trying to get the rice to stick together. When the stress of transitioning had become too much, my doctors insisted I take some time off. The year at home had seemed fun at first, like an extended summer break, but eventually boredom kicked in. I had started to feel like I was just standing still, like life was passing me by outside and I would be forever trapped in our house with nowhere to go and no one to talk to. I had to occupy myself somehow.
He looked surprised. “Most families around here think a fancy meal is getting Italian instead of Tex-Mex. And I’m Grant, if you were wondering.”
“Okay,” I said. The back of my neck tingled. “I’m Amanda.”
“Sorry for choking you with my lame pun, Amanda,” he said. “I meant it as a compliment, but that kind of thing must be pretty old at this point.”
“Why would you say that?”
“A girl like you?”
I narrowed my eyes. What did he mean, a girl like me? My fears from earlier returned in a rush. “Are you messing with me?”
“You’re just fishing for more compliments now,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “Fine, whatever. Did you see the dude with the nose situation who sat by me in homeroom?” I nodded slowly and swallowed. “That’s my friend Parker. He wants to ask you out, but he’s a big chickenshit, so here I am asking for your number for him.”
“You want my number?” I put my hands in my lap. Blood pounded in my temples. People who looked like Grant had never spoken to me without secretly planning to hurt me. For so many years I’d been on the wrong side of too many jokes, too many pranks, too many confrontations. I’d been knocked down a hundred times in a hundred different ways. “For your friend.”
“Yup,” he said.
“My dad’s, um, really strict,” I said. I thought of the look on his face at the diner when the old man had offered to lend him a rifle to use on my suitors. It wasn’t entirely a lie. He furrowed his brow and leaned forward on his elbows. For some reason, I felt compelled to go on. “It’s complicated…I’m complicated.” I pursed my lips tight and felt my nostrils flare. I was saying too much.
“Okay,” Grant said easily, leaning back in his chair. A moment of taut silence followed as those charcoal eyes flickered over my face. In them I saw curiosity, but not menace. I wondered if a boy like him could ever understand what it was like to be me. To know what it was like to view high school as something you needed to survive. Because that was all it was to me, a series of days to get through, boxes on a calendar to be crossed off. I had come to Lambertville with a plan: I would keep my head down and keep quiet. I would graduate. I would go to college as far from the South as I could. I would live.
“For the record –” Grant rubbed the back of his neck – “I told Parker this would go better if he came by himself. But he’s my buddy, you know? So I had to try. He’s a horse’s ass, though, and you probably think I am too now. ”
“I don’t,” I said. I started to put my things away and realized my hands were shaking. I believed he was earnest, or at least I wanted to, but my fear had been carved into me over years and years, and it wasn’t going to be reasoned with or ignored. “It would have gone the same way if he’d come himself. I – I just can’t.”
A look crossed Grant’s face I couldn’t quite read. He slipped his hands in his pockets and stood. “Well, it was very nice meeting you, Amanda.”
“You too,” I said. My cheeks felt warm.
Grant gave me a small wave and walked away. He stopped after a few steps and turned.
“What book is that?” he said, nodding to the table.
“Sandman,” I said, putting a hand over it protectively. “It’s a comic book.”
“Is it good?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Cool,” Grant said, waving again and turning to leave. My hands stopped shaking and my breathing slowed, but for some reason I was afraid to consider, my heart wouldn’t stop racing in my chest.