An Orange Grove after Dark

Header for story.

Like photographs she had seen, the recent rain had made the salt flats into a mirror, reflecting the mountains. Had she ever seen mountains? Like this? Not the glorified hills of Appalachia, but granite monoliths dedicated to the power of time and pressure. No. Never. The reflections looked close enough to touch.

"Greg," her friend called to her. "C’mon. You done pissing?"

"Yeah, yeah," she said. "Hold on."

For a moment she had forgotten her name was Greg. She looked like this all the time. By "this" she means like a man. She tucked her junk in, zipped up her jeans. Her urine had already soaked into the dirt.

But for a moment she had forgotten, like an ache that subsides for a moment, like the respite of normality between mania and depression. The metaphors were abundant and all wrong.

"C’mon. They’re not tits, they’re mountains. Want to make it to the border before nightfall."

The words made her tits ache. She turned and walked back to the truck and climbed in. Her friend, David, started up the truck and took off without a word. She stared at the mountains as they started down the highway.

"You ok, man?"

"Yeah. Just thinking."

David let off the clutch, shifted, and accelerated.

%%%

She dozed off. She didn’t wake up again until she felt the slow veering of the truck onto an exit ramp. It was well past nightfall. The little LED clock said 11:34.

"Hello. I figured we’d stop here. I need to sleep now."

"That’s cool."

They pulled into a dusty motel. "Sunset." Or "Sunrise." She didn’t really notice. There was an outdoor pool with no water surrounded by a low picket-fence. The gate to the pool was closed off with yellow tape. The "CAUTION" no longer black but faded to gray. The gate was tied closed with a chain, but not tight enough to prevent small thwacks in the occasional gust.

The sign under the hotel name and above the Color TV note said the room was $39.99 per night. Greg passed David a $20. "Thanks. I’ll check in."

David got out of the car. Greg rocked with the shocks as the car balanced out again without Dave’s weight.

Greg wasn’t a small girl herself; years of neglect had aged her; the closet didn’t help. She was fat; there was no way around that. She saw herself as fat. She worried about chairs and scale limits and so on.

She got out and looked down at the ground. She looked over her small tits at her stomach. They were sore. Another trans women told her that she could just press and hold them on the side and that would help. Subtle. Why did she keep them hidden? Why? There was nobody in her life that she cared about, really. Her ex had taken the kids and moved somewhere (occasionally she got a picture in an email). David was really the only person in her life.

She thought about telling him. At 50, single, and still in the closet, what would be the harm? David wouldn’t be in her life long. But she was comfortable. Comfortable was sometimes all the comfort she thought she should have.

David came back with keys—honest-to-god actual brass keys not a key card—and got in the truck. Greg got back in and without a word, he drove them around and parked in front of their room. Greg grabbed her only bag from the back of the (enclosed) truck. David took his and they entered the room.

It was odorless, as if the windows hadn’t been opened in months and all the scent had dried up. Maybe they hadn’t. The parking lot was barren, with more weeds poking through concrete than cars.

Greg laid down on the bed and kicked off her shoes. She didn’t take off her socks. If asked, she would say it was the floor, but real reason was that her toenails were painted a terrible shade of green. Knowing they were there and kind of pretty was part of how she got through the day.

But David didn’t ask. Instead: "TV?"

"Go ahead," she said. "I’m going to sleep."

"OK."

And she did. Some talk-show host smashed eggs on his head.

%%%

Greg woke in the middle of the night, her back aching. She looked over at David, who was snoring. It was almost cute. She thought about that, how her perception had changed in the past few months, since she started feeling the hormones. It’s not that she was attracted to him, but she didn’t think "cute" would be a word she used for the little regular snorts not terribly long ago.

This, of course, started her thinking about how she’s been like this for so long. It was part of her very essence. How she thought of herself. How she tried not to twitch when someone called her "Sir." How the swagger of men’s spaces made her feel alien and wrong. How women feared her. How some men were intimidated by her size, too. How her body, worn as it was into a canyon-sized groove, was not comfortable at all. How she just wanted to be herself.

Mostly she hated how she thought about it all the time.

She looked over at David again. She was on this trip to keep company and help him get settled. She would be flying back from Sacramento in a week or so. He paid for her ticket. She still felt kind of bad that she had slept so much.

David was moving to be near the kids. The ex- had taken them out here; some legal battle ensued and he lost. He already had gotten a contracting job working on some massive clusterfuck of software for state employees.

They had been friends since high school and now he was moving across the country and Greg had no idea what was going to happen. Would she tell him she was trans? That seemed too cliché. She hated cliché, especially when it was true.

As she watched him snore, getting ready to start a new life, she decided that he didn’t need to know on this trip. It might make this weird. She was out here for him, after all. To help him adjust. To help move shit into the new place. Help move new furniture in. This wasn’t about her. He also had to start work right away. So she would keep a secret. Because it wasn’t about her. Because it was comfortable.

She rolled back over and dozed. She dreamed of being at work, collecting paperwork and sorting it into pleasingly aligned files.

%%%

When she woke up her face was heavy and her breasts seemed more sore than usual but not terrible. She went to the bathroom, disrobed, and turned on the shower. After positioning the knob just so, she stepped into the shower stall.

The water ran over her and she held herself for a moment and examined her body. She examined her thinning upper body hair still sprouting just a little. She felt the weight of her breasts starting to fill the cups of her hands. She stood there feeling the water touch her all over. Once she realized her feet did not feel the rush of water over them, she opened her eyes and looked down: dirty water around her painted toes.

"Clog? Shit. Piece of shit."

She quickly found the bottle of cheap complementary shampoo and poured a bit on her hand then it went through her thinning hair. A long piece of the thinning brown stuff came out around a finger. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe it was just nature. She tried not to think about it, failed, and thought only about her hair until the she was out, dressed, and drinking a cup of coffee David had brewed. He made it with the in-room pot and complementary freeze-dried packets. And it wasn’t half-bad.

%%%

As irrational as she knew it was, Greg thought California was desert, Hollywood, or San Francisco. As they edged over and down out of the mountains it looked more like Wisconsin than she thought it would. Long wavelength hills made way to plains dotted with silos and cattle as the land flattened like a dying EKG. Which she thought was a rather melodramatic simile.

They didn’t talk much. After knowing each-other since high school how much more could there be to say?

Once, after Greg’s ex- left, David didn’t talk to her. Instead, David came over, sat down with her, watched some TV, and left. It was like this for a week before Greg finally asked David if he wanted to go out for pizza.

Maybe David didn’t know what friendship was, she thought. Then she decided it didn’t matter. Soon he would be on his own in this new job and she would be on a plane and, well, sometimes people didn’t see each-other again after that happened, no matter how close they might have been. It wouldn’t have been the first person she lost.

She sighed. He looked at her. Then turned back to the road. A particularly large bird flew over the field next to them. It and dove to the ground and picked up something that didn’t want to be picked up.

"Neat."

"Yeah."

%%%

David finally pulled into his new house’s driveway at about 10 AM. He had rented it over the Internet and somehow it ended up not being a scam when he came to sign paperwork two weeks ago.

Greg went from room to room with David. Greg noted a bit of mold on the roof of the main bathroom. David took a picture with his phone and sent it to the landlord. Then he nodded and they went to the master bath, which was fine. All the rest of the rooms were fine.

"We can start moving shit in, I guess. Once we do, I have to get a bed. You mind bunking with me tonight if I don’t find a deal? Or the couch?"

"No problem."

"Hey, man, I know…I just want to say thanks," David said. "I mean, you didn’t have to."

"It’s cool."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," she said. "Besides. You’re paying for a pizza. I’ll help anyone move for pizza."

%%%

The bed was a queen. Bought new and still in a compressed square, they were able to get it into the house with little difficulty. They put it in his bedroom and broke the air-tight seal and watched the mattress bloom like a flower.

The same could not be said about the couch, which they found off Craigslist. They had to turn it at a 45 degree angle and take the door off the hinges and the feet off the couch and position it just so. But after a while, they sat on the legless couch in the middle of the living room and tried to take a minute to relax.

"Beer?"

"When did you get beer?" she asked.

"I had a cooler in the truck."

"Okay."

David got up, disappeared, and then reappeared with a bottle, which he tossed gently to her. She pulled out a knife and popped the top.

"So, now what?"

"Well, shit, man. It’s 7:30. Already. Where the fuck did the time go?"

She looked at all the boxes. "We did get a lot done. Truck is empty and we got a couch and a bed."

"Yeah. I know. It was a good day. Just quick."

They sat around for a moment, sipping beers from back east. David wouldn’t have these again for a while. There was some apple-flavored one that Greg liked and David knew it. Bought it for her. Thought ahead to bring it across the country.

Another pause.

"So, that pizza?"

"I have no idea where around here."

"Silly boy," she said. "Look it up. That’s what the Internet is for."

"And porn."

"And porn, David."

%%%

The next day, Sunday, David bought some more furniture and the place started to resemble a home. Monday David would have to start work. Greg had 1 day in town alone before she had to fly back home, flying out redeye Tuesday.

"Still need a TV."

Greg shrugged.

"Sure, you do that but I know you would get one," he said. "So, if you want to drive me to work, I have orientation for like 10 hours tomorrow. I won’t be home until late. So you can borrow the truck."

"Okay."

"Cool. Your phone have GPS?"

"Yeah," she looked at him like he was an alien.

"You just didn’t get one of those until a couple years ago. I didn’t know if you were still on the flip phone model."

Greg rolled her eyes at this.

"I told you I just had to set boundaries for work."

"Uh-huh."

A little while later, after Twittering on her phone, Greg fell asleep on the couch. David watched some TV on his phone before eventually going off to sleep in his new bed.

%%%

She woke up suddenly and felt the urge rising in her chest. She ran/stumbled into the bathroom and threw up mostly in the toilet, getting only a splash on the floor.

"Fuck."

She wiped up the mess with toilet paper, flushed, rinsed out her mouth with water, and then went back to the couch. When she finally fell back asleep with the acid taste in her mouth, she dreamed about her father.

%%%

Her father didn’t know a lot of things. When he called his teenage son ugly, he did not know Greg was his teenage daughter.

He had no idea he had pushed too much dope into his veins until after he put the needle into his arm and pushed the plunger in. He had no idea he was going to die, just wanted to turn down the pain so he could sleep until the migraine passed. Heroin was the way he could sleep on those the nights when he felt the explosions in his head, the nights when the roaring was deafening and his ears felt like they would pop but they wouldn’t—he kind of hoped it would because it might help. The noise in his head would never end, no matter what, no matter the yoga, no matter the crystals, no matter the pot, no matter the aspirin, no matter the vodka, no matter the oxycodone (heroin, really), no matter anything. Even the heroin only took the edge and made the pain smooth instead of pointy and painful.

She found in him the morning, already cold, a little blood on the ground from when he fell, already dead, onto a heater vent.

She dreamed that he was always away, on one of his business trips that took him all over the country.

Before he died, when she didn’t know she was a she, her father took her with. They were lost and the map was out of date. They ended up on some dusty dirt road, navigating by dead reckoning. They may have been in Georgia or some other state down south where the bugs were heavy like rain and the humidity hung in the air like some over-wrought cliché uttered aloud at a writer’s workshop. She remembered.

The lesson Greg learned that day is sometimes you learn your gauge is broken by running out of gas on a country road just after dark, where there was no light and the moon was still under the horizon. After that happened and swears were uttered. Her father had started walking down the road to a distant farm house. He told him (her) to stay with the car; he would be back in a little bit.

She smelled the citrus in the air when the breeze would come in gentle out of the west. Not long after he had left, the moon came up fast, full, and fat. It lit up the world. She realized they had run out of gas on a road that ran next to an orange grove. The scent was the oranges. She didn’t know it was mostly the processing plant on site that squeezed the oranges into the concentrate and shipped it off to another plant for recombobulation into orange juice.

She was hungry. She walked out to the grove and looked up. Just out of reach, over her head, was an orange: so round and perfect. She dreamed of this a lot. Sometimes she would reach for it over and over again, jumping for it. Climbing the trees for it. Eventually giving up and heading back to the car.

In the dream he would never come back. She was always left in the orange grove. The moon would set and true darkness would settle over the land, with the only light a wisp of the Milky Way in the sky.

%%%

After she dropped off David, she wondered what to do. After breakfast, she found a little thrift store. She stopped in a thrift store and poked around at the women’s section while some of the workers were busy putting things away.

She tried not to think about what she was doing and mostly succeeded in not freaking herself out. She found a cute dress that she bought for 4 dollars without thinking. It might fit if she altered it just so on account of her stomach. Back in the truck, she looked at it and contemplated putting it on and then decided not to. Instead she went to a department store.

It was empty, mostly. The elderly and mothers idled about, examining tags and looking for sales. A couple teenagers that probably should have been in school were idling in the electronics section. After the thrift store, she felt nervous, so she avoided the make-up and the women’s clothing and ended up in the candy aisle.

She tried to ignore the deep itch in her chest.

The store looked like one back home, piles of food. She wondered what it would be like for a really devastatingly poor person to be there, like those starving children in the commercials.

She walked off.

It’s not that she felt drawn to the women’s clothes, but she passed by that section more than once in her wandering. She thought about why she worked so hard to get even the rising inflection on "Ma’am?" Was it the comfort for being seen as the woman she knew she was? She had no idea.

She didn’t understand those trans women who were happy to be out as trans. She had to admit a certain appeal to "fuck you," but she was not hard like that. Maybe she would be. Were other women like her always that way or were they made hard by harassment and hate and rapes and beatings and laws and bullies and threats and murders.

Five years ago, at her first Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil, holding her candle, she couldn’t feel anger, just a deep sadness. And year after year, as the hundreds of names, ages, and method of execution were read off, she never felt angry. She sometimes felt like a fake because she wasn’t like the others there, strong. She knew better than to call it brave: it was survival; nobody calls an eagle brave for flying, for diving from the sky and eating a rodent.

She knew she hadn’t see many trans women at their most vulnerable. She only saw it once, just on the street, while she was in boy mode. She saw another trans woman walk past her, crying. She wanted to reach out and hug her, to offer solace, but she felt like she couldn’t, her own presentation kept her from helping others. She would be a creep, probably. This made her feel more alone than it maybe should have, she thought.

She wandered back the candy section and hated herself as she picked up a package of chocolate bars, individually wrapped. It was a large bag of snack-sized bars usually reserved for candy bowls. She hated herself as she paid for them. She hated herself as she walked to the truck. She hated herself as she ate all of them. She hated herself as she threw away the evidence in the parking-lot garbage can. Hated herself as her stomach gurgled its displeasure, as she knew it would.

So she went to pick up David and waited in the parking lot.

She looked took out her phone and scrolled through some social media account. She had a pseudonym, of course. She kept it private. She scrolled through and looked at all the things she would never be. She almost cried but the truck got too warm just sitting there in the sun and she dozed off.

%%%

"Hey, wake up!" David yelled. "Greg."

"What oh?"

"Dude, you were passed out. You been here long?"

"Oh, maybe a half-hour. Just tired. Your couch is fine to sit on but..."

David looked at him.

"Oh, yeah."

Greg unlocked the doors and got out and got in again on the passenger side.

"What did you do?"

She thought back to the candy. "Just kind of drove a bit. Seems like a nice city here."

"Yeah. Not far from the ocean."

"Cool."

"Lots of chicks."

Greg smiled at her friend and shook her head a little.

They went home. They ate dinner. David didn’t really talk about work. Greg didn’t talk about her day. Greg had to get up early to get to the airport. David had exhausted himself.

They went to bed not long after food, each setting the alarm for 3 AM. As David showered, Greg packed her new dress. After that she felt like she might be able to relax, so she lay down and slept.

%%%

The next morning, David dropped Greg at the terminal. Under the watchful eye of the TSA agent making sure to keep the road clear, David gave Greg a hug and thanked her again for coming out. Pleasantries were exchanged. But David had to go. There was a 2 minute limit; the man in the orange vest reminded them. Then again. Then he drove off.

And then she was alone.

%%%

Ahead of schedule, Greg put her bag on the x-ray conveyor and watched as it was taken through the system. A bored looking TSA agent sat behind a computer screen. She walked through the metal detector, entered the other inspection device she couldn’t recall the name of, and then headed over the bench where everyone was putting their shoes back on. She heard a small amount of laughter from behind her and she looked over at a woman in a frumpy outfit sobbing quietly, struggling with her own shoes.

The woman—there was no way for Greg not to notice—was transgender, too. Like she was. And yet not: because she was living her life while Greg was still…doing whatever she did. Being comfortable?

Greg hated that she clocked the other woman. She hated that she noticed. It felt like betrayal.

The laughter behind her had a touch of malice. There were words like "he/she" and "tranny" used.

Greg sighed.

She got her shoes on and tied them. The other woman was finishing and Greg noticed she was wearing makeup and probably could pass if—but she pushed that away in her own mind. That wasn’t her place.

But what was her place?

She remembered the one lady she didn’t help. How she thought about her so much. Would this be another?

The woman was standing up, her face in a half-hurt and half-angry and all tired expression. But she was starting to calm down and looked ready to move on.

Greg got up and walked up to her.

"Excuse me?" Greg said, her normal tenor voice vibrating throughout her chest.

The woman: "What?"

Greg looked at her, met her eyes. They were green edging into blue. Greg tried to smile, was half-afraid that it looked creepy, so she wiped it off her face.

Then she said it, in a perfect pitched voice honed by months and years of practice in the car, a microcassette recorder hidden in the glove-box: "I’m sorry, hon. My name is Shannon. Are you OK? Do you need some help?"

The woman took a moment to process, "Hi. Shannon. I’m Valerie. Thank you, but I think I’m OK."

"Nice to meet you, Valerie. I’ve got a little time; I don’t know where you’re coming from or where you’re going, but I wanted to get a coffee. If you would like one, we could talk until either of us has to go. Or I could give you a hug. Or we can just move on. I don’t want to be creepy."

Valerie looked at Shannon for a moment, "Coffee. Coffee. Yeah. Okay. I can do that."

"Good. I like your purse," Shannon said. They walked through the concourse, making their way around crowds and kiosks and through free-trade shops and eventually stood in line, talking about destinations and crowds and how come the cinnamon roll place smelled so good. Valerie was leaving first, so they sat in the terminal until Valerie’s plane was boarding.

They hugged before Valarie left.

"Thank you."

"I had to. I couldn’t let another crying woman down."

"You should tell him," she told Shannon.

"I know."

"You’ll look me up?"

"I will." And that was true.

"If you Facebook me, better be as you."

Shannon smiled. "You’re right."

"It’s hard, but it’s worth it."

"I know."

"I thought you were supposed to be helping me? You approached me."

They laughed.

"Thank you," Valerie said. "I hope to hear from you soon."

%%%

When she got home, she didn’t feel like it, but she had promised.

She sat at her computer. She sent a friend request to Valerie. Then she felt a vibration through the desk: her phone. Incoming Call: David. She reached to answer.