It ends on a street that disappears into darkness, a street that leads to nowhere. Weak lights strain to catch the image of her hunched shoulders as she hurries away across cracked pavement. The only sound is her harsh breathing and the muted slap of her sneakers behind her. She keeps her head down. She disappears.
But before it ends, she erases herself. She starts small, methodically removing pieces of herself that keep her tied to their memories. If she doesn’t get to keep herself, neither can they. She doesn’t have to be so careful since they never look at her much anyway, but she wants to be sure. One shoe, then the other—a distinctly masculine pair of cheap boots. A class t-shirt from grade school with ketchup stains dotting the white lettering. The framed high school portrait hidden behind piles of bills and paperwork on her father’s desk. Certificates of academic mediocrity and participation awards from sports she never wanted to join anyway. All of these things she carefully discards in the dumpster behind the elementary school two blocks down, tossed next to grease-stained pizza boxes and toy soldiers with broken limbs. All that’s left is her.
But before she erases herself, she’s beaten. It isn’t the first time, but it’s finally too much. She tells herself it will be the last time. Her father’s face is red, the tips of his ears and the fattest curves of his cheeks are nearly purple. The little beads of liquid catching on her mother’s lashes, she’s learned, are not the confused or sympathetic tears she thought they were—they’re angry. It hurts. She knows it’s a mistake to wear the earrings—cheap metal that turns the punctures in her earlobes green, but jingle prettily when she walks. She’d traded her standard, dull studs for the dangling charms that morning, fingers trembling as she slipped the rod through the still-tender skin. She’d held her head a little higher at school; smile a little more authentic, eyes just a little happier.
She knows she should take them out before she gets home, but then she sees her reflection in the glass panes of the front door and how the earrings frame her face and she feels beautiful. It’s been almost a year since she’s told them, and she’s tired of hiding. The tiny metal disks catch the light through her short hair as she walks through the living room, enough to make her father glance up from his paper.
“What are those?”
She keeps her eyes on the scuff ed toes of her sneakers, backpack hanging off one shoulder. She can hear the creak of couch springs, heavy footsteps against old wood, and an angry hiss of air slipping into the space between them as he takes a closer look.
She pulls her lips tight against her teeth, whispering, “Ella.”
The clap of his palm slapping her cheek sounds distant—she’s already miles away from the burning that spreads across her skin and the metallic taste of blood swallowed down with her pride. The barrage of words bounces off her deaf ears--disgrace, embarrassment, shame—and she’s already gone.
But before she’s beaten for the last time, she hears about what happened to Tommy. Tommy was in her history class—“was” because two weeks earlier he stopped coming altogether. She sees Mr. Rafael’s blank stare pass over the empty seat next to her before making a mark on his notepad without so much as a sigh. It’s normal. Sometimes Tommy skips class for days at a time and then asks her for her notes right before the test. When two weeks pass without change, she imagines dust beginning to settle on his seat—which is ridiculous because she knows other kids sit there, switching in and out of the classroom like cogs in a machine. But those people aren’t Tommy, and it seems she’s the only one wondering where he’s gone. It feels like she’s the only one who doesn’t feel right without him glancing over at her, rolling his green eyes when Mr. Rafael fumbles over the pronunciation of Ancient Greek cities and scrubbing his hands through his unruly black hair in annoyance with a muted laugh only she hears.
It isn’t until the nineteenth day that word whispers through the cafeteria and is shushed when the monitor whisks by, gossiped between the lunch ladies and hidden from the students with motherly smiles like they don’t already know. Tommy had escaped—deleted himself. No sign of him anywhere, not as far as his dumbfoundedly drunk father could tell.
“Sarah said Jerome said Mickey said she saw him outside of St. Francis’.”
“Last they saw of him. But Chris said he thought he saw him headed towards the Greyhound station.”
“Poor guy. But like... he was... gay, right? That’s why his dad beat him, right?”
“Only after his mom died. At least that’s what I’ve heard.”
“But he was still a weird dude.” “Hey, don’t say that. He ran away—kid’s probably dead by now. Don’t say that.”
“Yeah, I guess. Poor guy.”
She stares hard down at her sandwich. Peanut butter sticks to the roof of her mouth and she thinks absently that she doesn’t really feel that bad for Tommy. She’s jealous.
But before she hears about what happened to Tommy, she’s humiliated.
She feels like she’s going to be sick, staring blankly at the history textbook lying open in front of her. The words swim blearily in the salty water stinging the backs of her eyes. The hands of the alarm clock sitting on her bedside table tick incessantly, taunting her, reminding her. This time yesterday--
She tries to forget how her father’s face had screwed up in disbelief, but the memory plays like a movie clip on repeat with her mother’s nervous laugh of “you don’t mean it, sweetie, it’s just a phase” as its warped background music. She can still feel her cold, trembling hands twisting nervously in her hoodie, eyes squeezed shut because she can’t stand to see the way their faces solidify into permanent scowls as she insists, No, I’m being serious. It’s not a phase. I know it.
She presses her face into the paper and wishes she could disappear.
“Michael,” her father had said, his voice tight enough she feared it would snap if she breathed. “You will not—you can’t—don’t be selfish. I can’t tell everyone my son is—is—” She hadn’t had to look up to know his face had flushed scarlet from the receding roots of his hairline down to his protruding second chin. “No. That’s not—no. It’s not natural, and you know it. Don’t ever—don’t ever say that again.”
The steady drip of hot tears onto the page drums quietly in the stiff silence of the room, just barely off-beat with the ticking clock.
But before she’s humiliated, she tells them.
“Ella.” She stares down at the ratty carpet between her feet. “I want to be called Ella.”
The silence that settles around the living room creeps into her lungs and suffocates her. By the time her mother chokes out a tremulous laugh and her father exhales incredulously, she wishes she could suck the words back into her mouth and swallow them down, safe where they can’t be heard anymore.
But before she tells them, she’s scared.
One in seven. One in seven. One in seven.
What if they don’t believe her? Her eyes narrow at the strange reflection glaring back at her from the bathroom mirror—its close-cropped hair and thick eyebrows and frustratingly curveless body. It’s not who she is. Some strange, ugly creature that tilts its head when she does, frowns when she does, mocking her even with the synchronized expansion and contraction of her ribcage.
Her knuckles whiten over the corners of the sink, a sudden dizziness passing through her body. What if they hate her? What if they abandon her?
One in seven. One in seven. One in seven.
But before she’s scared, she tries to talk herself out of it.
It’s her fifteenth birthday and her parents are smiling for the first time in what seems like years. It’s a tired kind of smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes, balanced on the corners of their mouths like the slightest disruption will send them tumbling down to shatter on the floor. She knows it’s been difficult for them—she hasn’t quite become the athlete her father wanted or the scholar her mother prayed for, and she doesn’t have as many friends as they’d encouraged her to have. Measured next to their expectations, she amounts to less than half—a crumpled pile of uncomfortable grins and cleats only worn once and tests with red marks slashing apart each page.
Her father squeezes her shoulder firmly, nodding shortly with a stiff grin. The bags under his eyes are purple and heavy, and she can see wisps of gray beginning to climb through his hair. “Happy birthday,” he says gruffly—and the affection underneath the bristled surface should make her feel better, but it only makes her stomach sink a little when she thinks about telling them.
Her mother hugs her tightly, and she feels like if she hugs back she might snap the frail woman in half. She hears a happy birthday, Mikey from somewhere near her collarbone, right over top of where her heart is slowly collapsing in on itself.
She can’t do this to them. She can’t drop this weight on them when they’re already carrying so much for her. It’ll break them.
If they love you, it’ll be okay, a weak voice protests somewhere in the back of her head, but she quickly smothers it with a wan smile towards her expectant parents.
“Thanks,” she hears herself say. “Love you guys.”
The words fighting to escape recede for a few more days. She’ll think about it later.
But before she tries to talk herself out of it, she reads the newspaper.
‘Youth homeless rates rising,’ the headline whispers, tucked in the bottom corner of page B-3 because the front page is too busy screaming about the high school football team’s victory last night. ‘One in seven young people between the ages 10 and 17 will run away at some point.’
But no one wants to hear that, not when the talented young quarterback—the handsome boy who sits behind her in chemistry with a 3.7 GPA and a politician smile—is candidate for a full ride scholarship to some prestigious university she’s never heard talked about in the local paper. No one wants to hear that ‘as many as 20 to 40 percent of homeless youths are more likely to exchange sex for food, clothing and shelter.’
She tosses the newspaper into the recycle bin with a grimace. She doesn’t want to hear it, either.
But before she reads the newspaper, she’s still called “he.”
But before—when she’s still called “he”—she wonders.
She wonders why she keeps shifting uncomfortably in her skin like it doesn’t fit quite right, too tight in some places and too loose in others. She wonders why she fidgets when her teachers neatly divide the classroom into “boys and girls.” But she remembers what her mom said, and fights the hesitation until it’s habit to go straight to where she’s supposed to, mark the little bubble on standardized tests that she’s always been told to mark without a second thought.
It takes her years to realize that she was never wrong.
But before she wonders, her mom laughs at her. She probably wouldn’t remember that moment, but her mother laughs so loudly she fl inches backwards and smacks her cheek on the corner of the oven. Her mother doesn’t laugh then, her face twisting into an expression of worry and dabbing exaggeratedly at the small cut whose scar will outlast her smile by years. A reminder. Her mother laughs at her.
“Momma, I’m a girl!”
Her mother laughs, wiping the sloppily smudged lipstick off of her lips with a shake of her head. Then, pressing a soft kiss to the Band-Aid pasted over her cheek.
“Don’t be silly, Michael.”
But before her mom laughs at her—years before she wonders and before she’s scared and humiliated and before she learns that one in seven and before she’s beaten and before she erases herself and before she even thinks to fight for a she—she’s happy.
“My boy-friends and my girl-friends,” Mrs. Paige says to her kindergarten class, “This is Mr. Zahler. He’s going to talk to you about being a firefighter.”
Hi, Mr. Zahler choruses around her, but her jaw is dropped open, awestruck by the heavy gear and the beaming smile on her father’s face. It doesn’t even look like him. Something warm bubbles up in her chest and her cheeks are flushed with pride. She turns to the boy next to her—his black hair unruly and falling into green eyes wide with wonder—and she puff s out her chest.
“That’s my dad.”
She barely listens to what her father says—something about wearing pounds and pounds of gear and the importance of the fireproof coats and helmets and the funny voice that comes out of the mask and makes all of her classmates laugh. Her attention is fixated on his smile, big and genuine and, sometimes, she thinks it’s directed at her. It’s infectious, and she feels the corners of her mouth twitch upwards cautiously.
Happy. She is happy.
“Who wants to be a firefighter now?” he booms, and her classmates scramble to their feet to be the first to try on the heavy helmet or the soot-covered coat or the thick rubber boots that come up far past their knees. The green-eyed boy remains sitting next to her, though, shifting awkwardly until her father catches a glance.
He crouches in front of the boy, offering the oxygen mask that no one else got to wear. “It’s your lucky day, Tommy. Want to try this on?”
Tommy glances at her nervously, sucking his lower lip into his mouth before shaking his head shyly.
Tommy shakes his head again. “I don’t wanna be a firefighter,” he says softly, looking down, his cheeks turning a little pink in shame. “Sorry, Mr. Zahler.”
“That’s okay.” Her father smiles gently, but he’s not looking at Tommy. “You can be whatever you want to be.”