The sun was inching down towards the horizon, bathing concrete in sweet orange light, warming the skatepark before the chill of night descended. A group of kids were hanging out, the wheels of their boards clacking and grinding. In the middle of their graffiti-covered heaven, a girl was cuddled up against her boyfriend’s side, his arm drawn across her shoulders. They were an unmoving, peaceful pair amid the joyous laughter and raucous teenage excitement of their friends.
The boy wore shorts and an oversized t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, his arms lean with newly developing muscles, body lengthening and developing as he approached the cusp of adulthood. His brown, shaggy hair was pulled back into a loose bun, chestnut waves framing his narrow face. His girlfriend idly toyed with strands of it, tucking an errant curl behind one ear. He smiled at her, pressed a kiss to her cheek.
It had been a very long time since the first sting of a needle below Ray’s skin, the days when he would tug bandages across his chest in a desperate attempt to suffocate his body into manifesting his more masculine truth. Now, the stiff fabric of a binder was the only kind that touched his body. More often that not, he just got his girlfriend to by sports bras for him, if he wore anything at all. He’d come to value breathing a great deal more than he had in his youth– and, most crucially, he could breathe now.
He was grounded in the present. He knew who he was, and he was at peace. His upper lip was fuzzy with the beginnings of a moustache, his jaw peppered with wisps of hair that would eventually thicken into a beard. He could feel the comforting weight of his girlfriend’s head on his shoulder, smell the faint fragrance of her rosy perfume, laced with musky remnants of the cigarette they’d shared in secret. He could hear the thud and squeal of a passing train, the revving of car engines from a nearby road, the occasional honk of a horn when someone lost their patience. The tapping of rope against cement as a bunch of younger kids played skipping games, their parents watching dutifully from a distance. Voices carried on the wind, the honest and uncomplicated laughter of good friends, sweetened by the absolute faith Ray had in their understanding of him.
He was a guy.
And everybody in his life knew it.
“It’s gonna get dark soon,” his girlfriend told him, snuggled so comfortably against his side that he knew she was mentioning it half-heartedly, “We should head back to your grandma’s house if we’re gonna be in time for dinner.”
He made a noncommittal noise, resting his chin on the top of her head.
“Dolly won’t mind if we’re late.”
“Yeah,” Ray murmured, huffing out a quiet laugh, “She likes it when I’m a bit of a smartass. Enjoys knowing it’s in our blood.”
“Your mom will be pissed, though.”
He couldn’t argue with that. He sighed, patting her on the shoulder, standing with a slight wobble. His legs had gone numb from how long they’d been sitting still. He offered Ava a hand up, tugging her to her feet. She immediately started to adjust her clothing, shoulders slumping in an automatic slouch, face ducked forward and obscured by a curtain of black hair.
Ray, without even speaking, stepped close to her and pressed a kiss to her mouth, heels lifting off the ground as he did so. Ava was a head or so taller than him, and terribly self-conscious about it. They’d met at a support group for trans youth, which meant his inverse experiences of dysphoria made him innately able to understand her discomfort.
He pulled her close, palm against the small of her back, arms winding around her in a warm hug.
“You don’t need to hide, baby,” he murmured, “You’re so beautiful.”
Her cheeks warmed, and she gave a small shake of her head, still automatically refusing compliments when he offered them.
“Hey,” he murmured, their noses brushing, “C’mon, you know I mean it. You’re so lovely.”
He really did mean it, too. She had smooth, dark skin, and deep brown eyes that could hypnotise Ray like no other. In simple blue jeans and a deep green shirt, she was the most magnificent person in this damn skatepark, and in the whole city as far as Ray was concerned. He liked it when she took off her wig, loved the sight of her without any makeup.
“Okay, shit,” she said, whispering the words against his mouth, “You win, okay.”
She kissed him quickly, embarrassed and brimming with warmth. “You damn sap.”
They started to walk away, hands entwined. Ray's friends cheered and applauded, making kissing noises and cooing. Ray flipped them off without looking back, a huge smile on his face, and his friends laughed louder in reaction. Life was good.
Ava and Ray went up to Ray's old room in his grandmother's house, their feet thudding up the creaking stairs. He started unpacking the spare clothes he'd brought in his backpack, moving in the space with an ease that never really left a person's childhood home. It was a warm, wooded nook in the corner of a two-story apartment, endearingly shabby in ways that Ava loved. The bedroom was little more than a bed, a window, and a rack of clothes, alongside a tiny bathroom with exposed brick and unpainted tiles.
Ava tried to imagine a smaller, younger version of Ray in this bedroom, and couldn't quite do it. She'd seen pictures of Ray before he started to change, and he was an entirely different person; the disconnect was as stark as the divide between herself and photographs of the small, frightened boy who had haunted her mirror for so very long.
Mulling this over, Ava lay on Ray's old bed, the thin mattress dipping beneath her weight. Ray pulled off his shirt, discarding it on the floor before tugging off his shorts. He didn't even hesitate before letting her see his chest, which made her heart swell with pride. He then put on his binder, squirming into it, wrenching it down over his ribcage, shifting his chest tissue until it was satisfactorily flat.
"I've noticed you always bind around your family," Ava observed gently, "Why is that?"
Ray shrugged, flapping his flannel shirt to straighten out the creases somewhat. "I dunno. They knew me before, so it's kinda, like..."
He sighed, trying to figure out the best way to explain himself. He continued to dress, and Ava let him contemplate this in silence, returning the patience he'd gifted her so many times.
"...They had to work to forget this... image of me as a girl, right? And so many people I meet, they never have to get past that. I guess being around my family makes me dysphoric. A bit." Ray's forehead creased with a frown as he paused to button up his flannel. "Being close to them is being close to, like... who I used to be. Y'know?"
"Yeah," Ava nodded, eyes softened by her smile, "Yeah, I do."
"You feel the same way?"
"Around my cousins and extended family, yeah. If I'm ever gonna tape tuck, I'll do it around them."
Ray zipped up his jeans, frown deepening. "You said you weren't doing that anymore. We got you those special panties."
"I don't do it often. I stay safe, babe. I promise."
Her boyfriend reluctantly accepted that, straightening his collar. She figured they'd talk about it more later. She nagged him whenever he even considered wrapping his chest with bandages, and he returned the favour. It was pretty healthy, all things considered. Sometimes they needed a stern reminder when dangerous solutions seemed appealing.
Ray held out his arms, gesturing to his outfit. "What d'you think?"
She smirked. "Oh, so sexy, baby. Flannel really gets me going."
"Aw, piss off."
"Love you, too."
"You look great, Raymond."
"Yeah, yeah. Raymond. Make me sound like an old man."
Dinner went just fine. Dolly and Frances were as unchanged as ever, bickering about superficial crap, trading affectionate barbs, offering unsolicited advice to anybody that would listen. They had gotten married a year ago at Frances' insistence, contrary to Dolly's disdain for the broadly heterosexual institution of marriage, and they were all very aware how secretly thrilled Dolly had been with the ceremony.
She'd also learned a lot. Moved on from the politics of her day. Met with transgender and transsexual men, most of whom had grey beards and faces just as weathered as her own. Somewhere along the line, her grudging acceptance had evolved into an active desire to advocate for people like her grandson.
Thank fuck, too. Because Ray wouldn't have let them meet his girlfriend otherwise.
After dinner, the dishes were cleaned and put away. Frances and Ava were having an enthusiastic chat, and Ray left them to it. He went out onto the balcony to sit and think.
A change had rolled in. The first few drops of rain were distinct as piano notes, the balcony underfoot darkened by splotches of moisture as the heavens opened. Ray, dry beneath the overhead roof, watched as the darkened city began to be bathed by the turning of seasons. The sound of rain had always soothed him.
The door out onto the balcony slid open.
"You mind if I sit?"
Ray offered his mother a smile. "Sure."
She took a seat beside him, folding her hands carefully in her lap. Ray looked out over the city. They sat in silence for a while.
"Your hair always looked so good long, when you were a kid," Maggie told him, "It's nice that you've grown it out again."
Ray nodded silently. He didn't like the way his mother did that. Casually bringing up things that were similar to his pre-transition years, talking about the way life used to be. As if he would ever be the same again. She was accepting, he would freely admit that, but he had set fire to the past, erased any kind of femaleness that the world had foisted upon him. She still remembered it fondly. He had been forced to have long hair as a kid, forced to be a girl; the only reason he could have long hair now was because of his stubble, his deep voice, and his obviously male stature. He'd cut his hair in a fit of fury and sadness because he'd hated what it represented. The hair he had now was a guy's hair. So, petty as he would admit to being, he hated the comparison.
But he couldn't blame her for it.
"Ava seems like a lovely young woman," Maggie continued, trying to coax conversation out of him, "You two look really happy together."
"We are," Ray replied, an unbidden smile tugging at his lips, "She's the most beautiful girl I know."
Maggie considered that for a short moment. "And the stuff we... talked about, have you decided...?"
Ray chuckled. "I decided years ago. But yeah. I am gonna get my top surgery as soon as I can. I've saved up enough money. After that I'll be having a hysterectomy, when I have the cash."
"We have more than enough money, you don't have to do that. My only concern is..."
Ray sighed loudly. They'd been over this, more than once.
"You know I support you, honey, I just want you to be sure-"
"I am sure."
His words left no room for argument, voice resolute and determined. An awkward silence fell between them, and they both took the opportunity to gaze out into the distance, listening to the rain.
"I know you're concerned," he clarified softly, "I know you want what's best for me. Which is why I need you to understand that I have no doubts. I've been to therapy. I've been diagnosed. I've lived as a guy long enough to know it's right for me. I'm not a kid anymore. I'm not full of anger and fear like I used to be. I can be objective. I just want to stop binding. I want to be a normal man."
"I know, honey, I..."
"Then stop asking." Ray turned his head and smiled at his frazzled mother, who always tried her best and could never be faulted on that front. There was no malice in his voice. Just exhaustion. "Please, stop asking. We've talked about it so much already. Let's just have a good night."
Maggie nodded. She watched her son for a while, then took his hand.
"I'm so proud of you," she said, holding his palm tightly.
That night, Ava and Ray curled up on his old bed, squashed onto the single mattress but comfortable nonetheless. Ava's arms were wrapped snugly around her boyfriend, his back pressed up against her chest. He leaned back into her warmth, the softness of her budding breasts beneath her sleeping shirt, the fullness of her thighs against the back of his legs. He was full of food and drifting off into sleep. Safe.
"Hey," Ray murmured, voice heavy and tired, "You have a good time tonight?"
"Mm," Ava hummed in reply, "It was nice. They're nice."
"Are you okay?"
In the darkness, Ray smiled. He tilted his head to the side so that he could kiss his girlfriend, their lips meeting in a quick but meaningful peck.
"Yeah. Yeah, I am."