Trigger warning: Transphobia and mention of suicidal ideation
A lot can happen in a year.
For example: Around this time last December I spent a good ten minutes trekking through rows of sleek polyester suits and shiny Oxford shoes at Men's Wearhouse, searching for a Christmas gift for my younger brother, Justin. Today, I'm trudging endlessly through Macy's, fingering floral blouses and nylon bras and yoga pants, trying to find something for my younger sister, Dawn. They're the same person, Justin and Dawn.
We discovered that last month at our parent's house. As Dad was hunched over the Thanksgiving turkey, lancing the white meat with the precision of a surgeon, he suggested we go around the room and say what we were thankful for. He nodded to the cornucopia of food on the dining table and gave his usual answer—indoor plumbing—and Mom gave hers—friends, family, and red wine. No sooner had I declared my thanks for the football game playing on the TV than Justin looked at each of us—first Dad, then Mom, then me—and said, slowly, "I'm thankful that we live in a country where I don't have to hide who I am. Where I can be my true self." He paused before saying, "And I'd like you all to know that this isn't my true self. My true self is a woman: Dawn."
All at once it felt like the air left the room, like we were adrift in outer space, some far-faraway galaxy, anywhere but in that moment.
Dad stopped, his carving knife lodged in the heart of the turkey like an accusation, and looked at my brother as though his statement might simply have been a late April Fools' joke. Mom drew her glass of red wine closer, took a drink. From my spot on the couch I could feel Justin's eyes on me, pleading, but I turned and stared at the TV, watching as one of the quarterbacks threw an incomplete pass. We didn't say a word.
My brother cleared his throat. "I started transitioning a few weeks ago," he whispered, barely audible over the sports commentary. When we remained silent, Justin excused himself to his old bedroom, locked the door, and stayed there for the rest of the night, even after it was time for me to drive him home. I left without him. Even now I'm unsure how he got back to his apartment the next day, though I suspect our father had nothing to do with it.
Like I said, a lot can happen.
Dawn wants clothes for Christmas. Not a Nerf gun like Justin wanted when he was eight, or a PS3 when he was twelve, or the autographed Tom Brady football he begged for when he was seventeen and the high school quarterback. Clothes.
Hence the hour and a half we've spent browsing in Macy's.
"Thanks again for doing this, Richard," Dawn says, for the sixth time. Like I have any more experience than she does at this kind of thing. Like I'm any help at all. She grabs a black cocktail dress off the shelf, twists it from side to side, presses it against her body. The silhouette of her budding breasts, courtesy of her hormone therapy, pokes through the material.
Turning the other way, I tell her, "Yeah, it's no problem." It's what I've told her the other five times. But that's not really what I want to say, and maybe my sister knows that. Maybe she knows the reason I accompanied her here is because I feel guilty about what happened last month. Maybe she even knows what Dad said in the kitchen when she went to her room and wouldn't come out.
By way of distraction, I run my hand over a sign advertising a BOGO sale. "You know," I say, "it kind of defeats the purpose of a Christmas present if you already know what I'm going to get you."
Dawn shakes her head. "Oh, you don't have to get me anything. We'll say you coming here was my present. Deal?" She's still holding the dress to her body. "How does this one look?"
I offer a noncommittal grunt that hopefully sounds like assent, then look away.
Outside, the parking lot is filling with snow. It was clear when we pulled in, and I thought maybe we would've been done by now and beat it, but it's coming down in flashing red-and-green flakes. I'm tempted to tell Dawn that we have to go, that I'm no good driving in the snow, which isn't a lie, but I know how selfish that sounds. So I step away for a bit and browse the men's section.
The store is decked out in holiday spirit, everything red and white and green. A mix of peppermint and gingerbread permeates the air. Music streams from a set of speakers I can't see, pop songs full of bells and finger snapping. The mannequins are dressed in ugly Christmas sweaters with images of reindeer and cheesy taglines. One of them says "Yule Miss Me When I'm Gone," which I disagree with, and prove that by walking away from it.
But the weird thing is, five minutes later, I do start to miss that tacky sweater. Or at least the thought of it, because it's something that Justin would've worn proudly to a movie date or to football practice. And he would've pulled it off too. I know it. He had that kind of magnetism that lulled people like a hypnotist.
Across the lobby, Dawn peruses the bra section. She's holding one in each hand, squeezing them gingerly. But from where I'm standing, the whole scene looks off. My sister has only started to transition, and though her body is bending to the will of the hormones, though her facial hair is thinner than it's been in years and her baritone voice has elevated to a tenor and the muscle mass gained from years of football practice is deflating the way I've read it's supposed to, I worry that she doesn't look enough like a woman. I worry what other people think of her.
And maybe I worry what I think of her too.
It's weird to say that you want to be like your little brother when you grow up, but that's the way it was for me. Though I'm two years older than Justin, I couldn't help but admire him. Where his body was thin and taut, mine was doughy and ungainly. I came to every one of his football games, and maybe I thought that if I watched him enough, if I copied his every move later in the dark recesses of my bedroom, I could will my body to be more like his.
It was at one of his football games that I had my first kiss. His name was Bryan. He was in my calculus class.
When Bryan came over, I was sitting on the bleachers, waiting for Justin to emerge from the locker room so we could head home. At the time, I couldn't admit to myself what I know now, the type of person I turned out to be, the type of people I turned out to love. All I knew back then was the sound of Justin's voice, calm at first but then panic-stricken, calling my name over and over again from the middle of the football field, as Bryan and I hid under the bleachers and ran our hands over each other.
I've never told anyone this story, not after Justin had called Dad to pick him up and the next day my father asked me where I'd been, how I could've neglected my brother. Not even when I said nothing and he laid his hands on me.
I never told anyone, because I wanted, just once, to have more power than my brother.
It's Dawn who finds me standing by a display of novelty T-Shirts. "I'm done," she says, now carrying a shopping basket congested with clothes—evening wear, underwear, swimwear, you name it. At the top of the stack is the black cocktail dress.
"Hey, you've gotta see this Rudolph shirt," "I say, trying my best not to look at her stockpile. "It says 'Yeah, but can Pinocchio do this?'"
Dawn offers me the same noncommittal grunt of assent I gave her earlier. Not even the hint of a grin.
Justin would've loved it.
I try not to be offended as we make our way to the checkout line. Dawn taps her foot in time to the Mariah Carey song that's playing, mouths the lyrics "All I Want For Christmas."
The cashier, a teenager with a minefield of acne and a crooked name tag that reads "Caleb," rings up Dawn's clothes. He whistles when he's halfway through the pile. "Wow. You're gonna make some lady very lucky with all these," he says, and scans a silk nightgown.
A jolt passes through my body. I take a step back, wondering if it's too late to disguise myself as an onlooker, someone who just happened to be passing by this impending trainwreck.
Dawn looks at the cashier, her face unreadable. The debit card in her hand trembles. "They're for me," she whispers.
"Come again, sir?" Caleb asks, apparently too preoccupied with scanning Dawn's dresses to pay attention.
She's louder this time, my sister. "I said they're for me. The clothes are mine. I'm the lucky lady." Her voice cracks on the last word.
The cashier pauses. It's like a tableau, seeing him standing there behind the register like one of the store's mannequins, one hand on a cocktail dress and one limply gripping the scanner. For a brief moment I'm reminded of our father at the dining table, his hand on the knife inside of the turkey, his face looking like he was the one getting cut open. Caleb tilts his head up to meet Dawn's gaze, stopping briefly at her chest. A look of realization crosses his face. His eyes widen.
Then they drop and crinkle under the weight of a smile.
"Right on," he says, and there's no malice in his voice, no reproach, only respect. "My bad, I wasn't thinking. Sorry about that. I hope you enjoy the clothes, ma'am," he tells my sister, and then he's back to scanning.
I watch as my sister's shoulders relax and the muscles in her arm vanish. A small smile takes the place of the grimace she had a few seconds ago, a little victory. And just like that, the trainwreck is averted.
Caleb makes small talk as he goes through the rest of the clothes, asking Dawn about her holiday plans. He speaks now like a friend, a confidante, someone who understands what makes her tick. And he's still smiling when he bags the last of the clothes and tells her how to insert her debit card into the machine and asks if she wants to make a donation to the less fortunate.
Which she does.
"Merry Christmas," Caleb says when the transaction is finished and we're gathering the shopping bags. This, even though the sign on his desk says "Happy Holidays" in big, bold, secular lettering. But that doesn't stop Dawn from smiling and saying "Merry Christmas" right back.
The snow in the parking lot crunches under our shoes. It's really coming down now, burying our footprints as soon as we make them. The wind rattles Dawn's bags but she holds onto them like lifelines.
In the car, Dawn places her bags gently in the back seat as though they're children. She even slides the seatbelt over them, just to be safe. The door is hanging open and snow lands in the interior, but I don't mention that.
When she's ready, Dawn takes up the passenger seat. She's got one bag on her lap that wouldn't fit in her game of Car Tetris, and her black cocktail dress peeks out the top of it.
She stares through the windshield at the beginnings of a white Christmas. "Thanks again for—"
"You don't have to keep thanking me," I interrupt, sticking my key in the ignition. "Seriously."
"Okay." Dawn shivers and rubs her hands over her arms. Her teeth sound like ice hitting the bottom of a glass. It occurs to me how cold it is, how cold things have been, so I start the car and let the heated seats work their magic.
A question comes to me as we're pulling out of the lot, one that I've been thinking about for the past month.
"The name," I say. "Out of all the names you could've picked, why'd you choose Dawn?"
For the first time, her grip on the bag slackens. She's still staring straight ahead, but her eyes are a little different in the December glow. Wistful, maybe.
She says, "You know something? I never really enjoyed football."
"What? You never told me," I say.
"Well, I'm sure there's things you don't tell me."
My foot eases off the gas a little. "Like what?" I say, trying to keep my tone even.
Dawn shrugs, continues: "But Dad kept pushing me to do it. It didn't matter that there were other things I liked, other things in school that I was better at. He wanted me to play like he did. And I didn't want to disappoint him."
I'm dragging the car along the road at a snail's pace. The snow buffets the windows.
"And I knew, even back then, I knew that I wasn't comfortable with who I was. Not just the football stuff, but everything. I always felt like I was trying to be something I wasn't."
The car behind us honks. It takes me a second to realize the light is green, has been for some time perhaps.
"I was thinking about doing something to just stop it all, you know," Dawn says. "I knew I wouldn't go through with it, but it got pretty bad some days. And I saw a quote once, during one of those bad days, that said 'Things are always darkest before the dawn.' It sounds stupid, I know, but it gave me some hope. That's all I needed back then. Just something to tell me that everything would be okay someday."
I look over to Dawn, expecting more, but her eyes are closed and her breathing is steady. I know she's not asleep, but she's clearly done talking.
And it's at that moment that I decide not to tell her about what our father said in the kitchen last month. How we stood side by side at the sink, him washing dishes and me drying them. How he glanced over his shoulder, making sure Justin wasn't there listening, and sighed.
"I give up," he'd said. "I don't know where I went wrong with your brother. It was bad enough when he quit football on a full scholarship, but now he thinks he's a woman. God, give me a fuckin' break. Can you believe that?"
Then he rinsed his hands under the scalding water and clapped me on the shoulder.
"At least I still have you," he said, looking me straight in the eye. "You're the good one. Always were, I'm tellin' you."
And I knew then that I couldn't tell him my own truth—couldn't tell him I was gay.
Up ahead now, further down the road, there's a patch of light on the horizon, a break in the snow, the calm after the storm. I drive toward it slowly, knowing that we'll make it home eventually.
In the seat beside me, Dawn holds her bag to her chest. Her eyes are still closed. She's running her fingers along the dress on top of the pile like it's made of gold. And it might not be a varsity jersey, but it's making her smile right now just the same.