Two screams pierced Cindy's veil of sleep like shots of adrenaline into her heart. She sat up, head cocked, listening. They were not screams of fear or pain or weeping, but rather of laughing. The laughter had an undercurrent of mirth and joy. The laughter reminded her that this was Christmas morning and her twin daughters were downstairs, examining the packages, knowing full well that they were not to open any of them until after breakfast. But they were poking, prodding, and pondering what the boxes contained.
Cindy turned to wake her husband, but he was already gone. She loved him, but went to bed in tears almost every night. She shook off the feelings. She loved him. It was hard to remember, but that did not make her love any less true. She lived for him and for her children.
Long ago, he had told her he couldn't live with her if she expressed this part of herself. He married a woman, not a man, he told her, in one of those arguments years ago.
She got up, put her robe around herself and tied the belt tight. Slippers, too. She padded slowly out into the living room, and looked at the Christmas tree. On her left, a giant window framed the front yard she saw that it wasn't cold enough for snow. Rain fell hard. It was a wet, dreary Christmas.
From the other room she smelled...fresh bread? Bacon and eggs. He cooked well. She walked in the kitchen and they all sat and ate together. There was no prayer. This was a secular household, thank you very much.
The kids were busy talking about the gifts and the plate with the half-eaten cookies and carrots. She imagined that the evidence of Santa's arrival would be on their minds for another few years until Occam's Razor cut the head off supernatural reindeer and a fat, generous, immortal man.
The kids ate quickly. Their parents took no more time than necessary but didn't hurry, either. This was part of a lesson to teach the children how to delay gratification. This was a team effort, and so they agreed on most things. Even if she never did the dishes to his satisfaction.
But there was the one thing. There always is one thing. Her feelings about the "sex" selection box. He asked her to never speak of that to him. So she didn't. She did once; they still hadn't recovered a decade on. She did as he asked because she loved him more than anyone even, objectively, her children. Well, at least one of them, if she was being completely honest. There were probably a thousand reasons why her gender identity upset him and all were equally valid. For example, if she were really honest, she couldn't call herself "she". "He" was closer, but given her body, "he" didn't fit, either. So inertia kept "her" a her. This was supplemented by the ignorance she imposed on herself. It didn't matter. She called herself "she". She was distant from her body, so using that word that didn't quite fit didn't bother her terribly much.
She looked down at her chest. She once loathed her breasts, but now it was a bizarre indifference. People talked about weights on their backs. These were in front. As they have been for much of her memory. She wanted them off, yes, but the want had become a dull want until it spiked, which obsessions do occasionally. In those moments, she wanted them off and wanted muscles and hair and the smell. Fuck: the smell. The thought of it all made her horny and jealous all at once.
But she wouldn't let herself. Not even pretend. For him. Even when he wasn't there. Well, "let." Sometimes she would bind her breasts with ace bandages, put on one of his t-shirts, and stand in front of the mirror, looking. But it wasn't a matter of letting herself but of compulsion, an inescapable need.
She held her feelings down, but--and she should have known better that it would do this--her gender had grown into an obsession. She thought of gender while driving, at the dentist, at work. She thought about it as the kids opened their gifts. That was the thing about an obsession: obsessions invade most other thoughts. Obsessions rob experience and made memories dull, like looking out of a dirty window. At every free moment, her thoughts went to this thing. Such an obsession was irrational and she knew it, but knowing didn't help anything. In fact, knowing just made the whole thing far worse. She tried to figure out how she was wrong for herself. How could that be a thing? Well, those were the words she used when she had a chance to talk about it, but those words weren't quite right anyway.
The kids opened their gifts and then gave gifts to their parents. The father received a CD from a terrible band, which he was grateful for. She got a pair of cute knee high socks, which she couldn't wear properly on account of her large calves--a gift from the genetic gods and a slight stairmaster obsession. They were imperfect people, she understood. It didn't matter. Perfection was something for someone else.
They then exchanged their gifts to each other. They both liked gadgets, so they both got each other some kind of electronic device and they played with them for the rest of the morning before they had to go to his parent's house for supper. They ignored each other, though they loved each other. Oddly, when she did talk to her mother about such things, this was the most normal aspect of their relationship. They had been together so long. They loved each other, but from a metaphorical distance. Her obsession crowded into her and pushed her away from him, even as she hoped to be closer, hoped to bring him with her and to learn about what she felt. She realized this was all self-centered, that he had emotions, too. She felt guilty for how she felt; sometimes she would go days without eating, convinced that she was not even worthy of food.
When they got to his parent's house, Christmas proceeded as it usually did. Food, gifts from the extended family, and so on. Occasionally she thought about her gender. That one thing. Her boobs would get in the way or her bra would pull. But a few minutes later, something would distract her. Eventually, Cindy and her husband and their kids went home, opened their Christmas stockings stuffed with candy and small toys and notes from each other, and then put the children to bed.
And so they sat, like they often did, and played with whatever new things they themselves had gotten from friends and family and other folks. They didn't talk about anything of consequence. Just whatever gossip passed on through the family and their work places. Her Aunt Marianne was getting a divorce from whoever. He said, "Marianne had given up her idea that love happens once a lifetime, evidently." They laughed at her in a good natured kind of way.
It was almost time for bed. She got up, brushed her teeth, got in her pajamas. Just the end of another day. She sometimes thought of that Buddhist koan where Buddha says, "Before enlightenment, do laundry. After enlightenment, do laundry." Except she was nowhere near enlightenment.
He came to the bedroom just as she was burrowing herself under the covers. Before she started to think about that one thing.
"One more thing," he said. He held a single wrapped box in one hand.
"What is it?"
"It's for you. Open it," he said.
She looked at him, one eye up. "Sex toy?" A toy wouldn't be surprising or even un-fun. She liked to feel sexy and wanted, even still she had those desires.
"Knock that off. Open it. Before I change my mind and take it back."
She shook her head and rolled her eyes, sure it was some kind of kink implement. She took off the wrapping and opened the plain white box. Inside the wrapped box was a pile of tissue paper. Wrapped inside the tissue paper was a binder. Two of them. White and clean and new.
"John?" She said. "What is this?" Though she knew exactly what they were.
He had sat next to her, put his hand on her knee. "I hope they're sized right." Pause. "I know you can't help what goes on for you. Not what or who you are. And you might change it if you could. But I love you. And I don't want you to fight against it anymore. I'm sorry for being stubborn. I can see you hurting, and I want to help. I will not lie: I don't understand and I don't care for it. But I will try. I love you so much. I want to accept this and help you be happy. I can't watch you hurt any more." Pause. "It won't be easy for me, I know." He looked at her, his own eyes a little watery. "I'll need help from someone I love."
She started to cry, threw the box down and jumped on him and hugged him tight.
"I love you, John."
"I love you, too."