In Which Two Understands
“So, c’mon, you’ve got to have questions,” Steff said as we headed back towards Harlowe, my hand in Two’s. Steff was walking a little apart from us… or she seemed to be. Maybe it was just the fact that I was holding hands with Two that made it feel that way. I hoped so. “Honestly, knowing your rather… sheltered… background, I was surprised you hadn’t asked a bunch already. I guess, in retrospect, that should have been a clue.”
“I don’t want to be rude,” I said, which was true… although, also I didn’t know where or how to begin formulating them. Steff has a penis. The very statement was about a hundred questions in and of itself.
“Ask,” Steff said.
“You’re not… um, I mean, you don’t also have…” I blushed, trying to figure out how to phrase my question.
“Just a penis,” Steff said.
“Okay,” I said. “But… you are a girl?”
“My whole life,” Steff said. “On the inside, anyway.”
“Like… a transsexual,” I said. “If that’s not an insult.”
I honestly wasn’t sure if it was or not. As a kid, that’s the kind of word… the kind of concept… you only really encounter in bad sketch comedy, and you’re never quite sure if it’s a bad joke or not. Then, you sort of half-catch half of a news story or something, and get the first inkling that maybe it’s a real thing.
At least, that’s how it had been for me.
“Like a transsexual,” Steff said. “Though I haven’t defined myself that way for years. When I have to put myself in a nutshell for somebody, I use the broader umbrella terms like ‘gender queer’ or ‘transgendered’… though to some people, that connotes the same thing as a pre-morphic transsexual. Really, though, I’m just me… people can define categories that I fall into, but I don’t adjust course to land inside any of them. I’m just Steff.” She giggled. “On my admissions form, I actually made a box beside ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ that said ‘Steff’ and checked that… they ended up putting me with the boys, which actually suits me. I could make a big stink about it and probably get assigned to the girls’ side, but as things stand I get to be with Viktor. Living on the girls’ side would make some kind of a point, maybe, but rooming with my lover makes a point about how silly segregating the sexes is, anyway.”
“I guess,” I said. “When did you first realize you were a girl?”
“When did you?” Steff retorted. “The real question is when did I first realize there was something odd or ‘off’ about that… that would have been when I was around four. Maybe a little younger, I don’t really know. I’ve got some fairly vivid memories from that time, but there’s not a lot of context around them… you’re not really aware of the calendar at that age, you know?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I walked in on my mom, going to the bathroom,” Steff said. “It couldn’t have been the first time… I mean, she never closed the door all the way, so she could keep an eye or at least an ear on me, and so I could find her. My folks were together-ish at that point, but most of the time it was still just the two of us. This time, though… this time I noticed. Maybe it was just that I was old enough to notice, or maybe it was the fact that she’d just wiped and was half-rising when I came in… but I looked at her, and I saw.”
I said nothing, letting Steff tell the story in her own way, at her own pace. I didn’t really know how to react, anyway… I didn’t seem to have any reaction inside of me at the moment. Steff was a girl. Steff has a penis. The two thoughts were hopelessly tangled up with each other, yet obviously disconnected.
“‘What’s that?’ I asked, or some words I had to that effect,” Steff went on. “‘That’s my …,’ she told me. ‘It’s what girls have instead of a penis.’” I watched Steff mouth a non-specific sound for the name of the part. She gave a queasy-sounding laugh before she went on. “I don’t know what she actually said, ‘vagina’ or ‘hoo-hoo’ or what. I blocked it out, in my mind, in my memory… the name and the actual appearance of the thing. I didn’t want to know, you see? As I grew older, when it became impossible to pretend that girls didn’t have something different and I started learning the names for it, I still pictured something that was just like a penis, even if it wasn’t one. I managed to hold on to that all through sex ed class, right up until the first time I had sex with a girl. That was… an interesting experience… but that’s getting a little ahead.”
“So, even though you blocked part of it out, that’s when you knew something was wrong?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation on topic. It was interesting, and I felt like I needed to know it… almost as much as I didn’t need to know about what Steff might have done with her penis and other girls.
“Yeah, I’d been aware that there were boys and there were girls, and there were mommies and daddies… but I had thought those were just things you could grow up to be, like a farmer or a healer or a ballerina. Does that make any kind of sense?”
“I guess,” I said. I supposed it must have, to a four-year-old mind.
“And, of course, when you’re a kid, a farmer is a man and a ballerina is a woman, just like daddies are men and mommies are women… and all the TV shows and books they give you when you’re a kid, they tell you that girls grow up to be women and boys grow up to be men, but they also tell you that you can grow up to be whatever you want… so, I figured you got to choose. Right up until that moment, I had known I was going to grow up to be a woman like my mommy, even if people kept calling me a boy… but that was the moment that all changed… boys had penises, and girls had something else. I had some really fucked-up dreams after that. “
“You remember dreams from when you were four?” I asked, surprised.
“I’ve never stopped thinking about them, is why,” she said. “The main one I remember, my family’s healer and the old, witchy village midwife came to our house and told my mother they’d made a mistake. I was supposed to be a girl. They’d screwed up my birth, but it was okay because they could fix it. Then, the healer took my penis off… by putting a screwdriver in the slot in the front and loosening it.” Steff gave a weird giggle. “It split cleanly into four little round slices, like a carrot, and they just fell off.”
“You’re making this up, aren’t you?” I asked, though I didn’t really think she was. It was just too weird… too weird to be believed, by such a wide margin that nobody would have bothered to make it up. Of course, everything still felt out of joint. Steff has a penis.
“No,” Steff said. “That’s how it happened, in my dreams. Also, the floor of our house was made out of glass bottles. Like, the floor had been ripped up, and beneath it there were all these four-packs so we were walking on the tops of the bottles, instead of on a floor? I don’t think that actually meant anything. Just a random dream thing.”
“You dreamed about a healer taking your thing off… with a screwdriver,” I said. In the face of this particular detail, a bottle floor didn’t faze me in the slightest.
“I was four,” Steff said. “It made a kind of sense at the time… screwdrivers are for fixing things, you know?”
I nodded. I did kind of understand that. The logic of a toddler.
“I don’t tell a lot of people that story,” Steff said. “I used to think it would help people understand me better, but I realized pretty quickly that most people are just looking for a cause, a simple explanation to explain what went wrong. They just assume that seeing my mom naked as a child warped me… as if everybody’s mom didn’t go to the bathroom in front of them when they were a toddler. They completely miss the point that I was already ‘warped’, that’s just what gave me the context to understand it.”
“You’re not warped,” I said.
“Thanks,” Steff said. “I don’t think I am, either… but most people, even if they don’t have a problem with me… or enough of one to make an issue of it… need to figure out a way to fit me into their world. Boys have penises, girls have ‘…’… so if I’m a girl with a penis, something has clearly gone Terribly Awry. They have to figure out what that is, before their minds can begin to process me. Of course, they end up sorting me as ‘boy with issues’ rather than ‘girl with penis.’”
“You’re not a boy,” I said, a little doubtfully. I was sure Steff was a girl. I was less sure that she wasn’t a boy. I mean, penis… you know?
“Physically, I am,” she said. “Legally… you know, like on paper… I am. In all the ways that matter, I’m not.”
“What other ways are there?” I asked, not arguing… just confused.
“Do you think I’m a boy?” she asked.
“No!” I said, and surprised myself by meaning it. Well, I’d made my mind up in a hurry.
“So there’s at least one other way, obviously,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t bother to fight with anybody who wants to call me a boy, or use ‘he’ and ‘him’… by the criteria they’re using, I am. It isn’t worth my time to totally rewrite somebody’s dictionary, you know? I am what I am… who I am… no matter what anybody else thinks.”
“When you say you’re physically a boy…” I began. “I mean, you do have breasts, right?”
“Do you like them?” she asked with a laugh. “They came with the bra.”
“So, physically… under your clothes…” I said, fully aware that we’d already gone over this point, but still not quite grasping it.
“Completely male,” she said. “A very delicate, girly male… by human standards, anyway. It’s a little harder for me to present myself as female among elves. I tell you, if it’s not hard enough to adjust to a non-standard gender identity in human society, it’s even harder when you’re shuffling between two different societies. Elven culture has no problem with it… they don’t define gender the same way humans do, and other forms of sexual intercourse are actually preferred over what humans consider ‘normal’ sex… elves call that ‘earthly’ sex, and only do it for procreation. You know… like, once every several centuries?”
“I’d heard something like that,” I said. “I didn’t know how true it was, or if it was just a stereotype… a myth to explain the elven birth rate. The ‘official’ version I heard from teachers was that elves just didn’t have sex at all very often.”
“Properly puritanical sex, anyway,” Steff said. “Try telling an elven woman… or man… to ‘lie back and think of the Mother Isles.’”
“So, things were better, in that way, when you were living with your father?”
“I was getting to that,” she said. “Like I said, elves have a broader concept of gender than humans do… but… well, you ever watch those stupid so-called comedy shows where there’s the transsexual character and it’s a big, fat, ugly man with a five P.M. shadow or even a whole moustache, wearing a dress?”
“That’s what I look like, to elves,” she said. “Sometimes I forget how easily I can be taken for female among humans… well, like when we met… because I spent half my childhood being ridiculed for being so fucking manly. For a human, I’m too feminine to be a man… for an elf, I’m way too masculine to be anything else.”
“You don’t seem to mind talking about this,” I said. When I thought about my own childhood, and how reluctant I was to share details about it, Steff’s attitude towards hers was almost as surprising to me as any other revelation she’d made.
I mean, I understood that she wasn’t ashamed of who she was… and I didn’t think she had any real reason to be… but wasn’t she embarrassed by what she’d gone through? I would have been… I would have done anything to bury it and leave it behind.
“I really don’t have a problem with it,” she said. “I mean, I used to… and every once in a while I still get a flash of anger or despair or something over some of it, but not very often. Mostly, I’m pretty well-adjusted.”
“So… are you going to get yourself morphed?” I asked.
“Well, you know, when I was younger, I thought I would for sure,” Steff said. “I mean, to the extent that there was any information available to me, I thought that just followed… boys had wands and girls had chalices, so if I was going to be a girl, something needed to be done.”
“But… you changed your mind?” I guessed.
“I like my cock,” she said. “I used to feel ashamed for enjoying it, every time I fucked somebody. I was confused, because I thought I had to be confused… either in liking to fuck, or thinking I was a girl. I figured they had to be exclusive, you know?”
I was not entirely able to wrap my mind around the idea that the two weren’t exclusive, though. The idea was going to take some getting used to. Still, I nodded… I was doing that a lot, it seemed. It didn’t require a lot of thought, and it was easy and it was safe.
Steff was my friend… even if I didn’t understand, it didn’t take much for me to sit there and listen until I did. It didn’t cost me anything, or hurt me. I probably would have put up with a lot more than that, to keep a friend.
“It was Viktor who really convinced me to embrace everything that I am,” she said. “I mean, physically and mentally… and spiritually, too, I guess, if you want to believe that horseshit. It’s a pretty standard line in the transgendered community to talk about male and female souls, but I’m not sure I believe souls have either sex or gender.”
“Either sex or gender?” I echoed. “Don’t they mean the same thing?”
“No,” Steff said. “Sex is physical, gender’s mental… or to put it another way, one’s between your legs, and the other’s between your ears. Obviously, that kind of distinction shouldn’t even apply to a soul, but that doesn’t stop people on the transgender tapestries from arguing whether it’s more appropriate to talk about your soul’s gender or soul’s sex. I actually used to know one old crank who insisted the soul had both, like the body… I think that was her way of trying to reconcile people like me.”
“What do you mean, like you?” I asked. “Wasn’t she… ‘people like you’?”
“She was a full transsexual, in the traditional sense,” Steff said. “Male sex, female gender, and fully committed to reconciling that discrepancy. She couldn’t understand somebody not wanting to be ‘whole’… if you’re seeking sex reassignment magic, one of the common questions they ask you during the mental healing phase is supposed to be, if you could take a potion that would ‘cure’ you of being transsexual, make your gender identity match your body, would you take it? I honestly don’t know if this is true, because I never went that far in the process… but supposedly, the answer you need to give to get permission to go ahead is yes.”
“Meaning… you drink the potion and Girl-Steff goes away?” I asked, thinking I must have misunderstood.
“Leaving All-Imperial Boy Steffain behind,” Steff said, nodding. “I never got that, either… to me, it sounds like suicide. You drink a potion, and something that makes you you dies… and then somebody else steps into your place. It always seemed to me like even if you wanted a matching exterior, it would be better to go through life mismatched than redoing your inside to match the outside. I mean, if you knew deep down inside that you were supposed to be a girl… wasn’t it better to stay a girl deep down inside?”
“That makes sense,” I said, and really to my surprise, it did. I had no problem picturing Steff after having been transformed to have female parts… I hadn’t been picturing those specifically but I’d been thinking of her as having them all along, anyway. I just couldn’t imagine Steff as a boy… really a boy, inside and out.
“Trying to explain that sentiment on certain transsexual support tapestries is a good way to get fireballed,” Steff said. “You’re supposed to want so badly to be normal that you’d do anything… it’s apparently only acceptable to go to the extreme of altering your body to match your personal identity because it’s harder to alter your identity.”
“Is it really that drastic to change your body?” I asked. “I mean, there’s spells…”
“Yeah, but you know that most transformation spells do wear off… and you can’t just enchant them into an item, because according to the DMG-III, sex-swapping enchantments are still considered to be a form of curse,” Steff said. “Which eliminates the quickest, easiest, and most painless way of fixing it. I mean, when I was a teenager, if I could have just bought a belt that would have made me fully, physically female, I would have done it in a heartbeat just to avoid the shit I got.” She sighed. “Of course, considering that I’ve since decided my basement doesn’t actually need to be refinished, that might have been a mistake… but there’s the other upside: magic items can be removed. A permanent transformation spell is almost as expensive to take off as it was to put on.”
“What if you wanted to go back and forth?” I asked, thinking that no matter how happy she was in general with her physical state, an idea like that would have to appeal to Steff.
“Then you’re a freaky fetishist and not a person with a real gender issue,” Steff said. “Or so some claim. I don’t know. Some of my friends in the coalition tell me that the transgendered community isn’t all like that, and that there’s more visibility and support for gender queer and ‘non-morph’ transsexuals these days… but I like to think I’m past the point of needing the support of a collective identity. I’m in the coalition to give support to others of any orientation or identity, not to get it for myself.”
“A lot of what you’re saying makes sense…” I said, carefully.
“But you still don’t get it?” Steff guessed, with a little laugh. “It’s a lot to take in, if you’ve gone your whole life thinking of things one way.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “This is a very surreal conversation for me, honestly… I know you’re a girl, and that’s probably the only thing I’m sure of… but I’m not sure how it’s possible. I mean, you can talk about sex and gender… but… your body is male.”
“Right,” Steff said.
“But… that’s you,” I said. “Isn’t it? I mean, it’s like saying your body is elven but you’re not.”
“Or saying your body’s infernal but you’re not,” Steff said.
“Right!” I agreed, though Steff gave a little shake of her head.
“Think about it this way,” she said. “Do you have a toothbrush?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, blushing… for reasons that probably made no sense to Steff, which may have been why she didn’t comment on it.
“Are you a toothbrush?” Steff asked.
“Um… no,” I said, really confused now.
“So, ‘having’ and ‘being’ are separate things?” Steff asked. “Totally separate? Possessing something doesn’t mean that you are that thing?”
“Obviously,” I said.
“So, we have physical bodies,” Steff said. “But that doesn’t mean we are those bodies.”
I saw what she was saying, but it didn’t seem to quite add up for me.
“I think that’s a little different than the toothbrush example,” I said.
“How?” Steff asked.
“You can pick up a new toothbrush at the store,” I said. “But you’re born with your body.”
“Right,” Steff agreed. “So, clearly, if anything, the toothbrush defines who you are to a far greater extent than the body.”
“How does that follow?” I asked.
“Because you picked the toothbrush out,” Steff said. “Assuming you didn’t just grab one off the shelf, I mean… but to use a different example, don’t the clothes I choose to wear reflect who I am to a greater extent than the body I was given at birth?”
“I guess,” I said. I shook my head. We’d just reached the front door of the lobby which connected to Harlowe. It felt like we’d been talking for hours, and I felt like my head was crammed with new and strange information… but I also felt like I hadn’t really learned anything. Steff was a girl. Steff had a penis. I understood both of those facts… but I didn’t. “I don’t know… I guess I’ll have to get used to the idea of… well, to several ideas. Two, do you get any of this?”
“Steff is a girl,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I mean… do you really understand it?”
“Steff is a girl,” she repeated. “I thought you were mistaken when you told me that, but I was mistaken.”
“I guess,” I said. We passed the little indoor convenience store, with its tiny selection of overpriced, mostly pre-prepared foodstuffs. “Do you need anything for tonight, Two?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, with the little hitch in her voice that told me she was thinking when she answered. I wondered if she would always be so transparent in that way… it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me to think that other people might judge her for it. I knew Two wasn’t the least bit stupid, just as I knew Steff was a girl… her mind was a little simpler than another person’s in some regards, but that wasn’t the same thing as being simple-minded.
Steff led the way into Harlowe, but stopped and held the stairwell door open and ushered us in ahead of her.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said, blushing a little. I don’t really think this was what she was doing, but my mind was starting to assimilate its new knowledge and wanted to associate this behavior with “being a gentleman.” Was I going to start scrutinizing everything Steff did, thinking of it in terms of “girl behavior” and “boy behavior?” I didn’t want to, but I wasn’t sure I could avoid it.
“I just want to be behind you on the way up,” she said with a lascivious grin. “Watch that cute boy butt bounce.”
“My butt doesn’t bounce,” I said, blushing harder.
“Not much,” Steff admitted. “Just enough to be interesting. The gods are in the details, you know.”
“I don’t think the gods had all that much to do with my butt,” I said pointedly.
“Oh, trust me, honey,” Steff said. “There is definitely a divinity which shaped your end.”
She talked about my butt all the way up the stairs… not in graphic enough terms for me to feel justified in objecting on the basis of Two’s presence, but enough to get me flustered.
Okay, enough to get me hot.
So much that I almost opened the door at the top landing without looking at it… and would have missed the poster if Two hadn’t tugged on my hand and said, “Look, Mack.”
I raised my head and unsquinted my eyes. On the door was an oversized paper, with a hand-drawn picture that was unmistakably me… but a me that had solid black eyes, horns, a halo of fire, curving fangs and a serpent tongue. Underneath it were the words “Mackensy Blaze: One hell of a student senator?”