A student, once, wrote a story for introductory fiction workshop that ended as a young woman danced slowly with a girl described as beautiful in a shimmering dress that revealed a body that “seemed to be budding as they embraced at the song’s last note.” The student, two weeks before, had come to class with her head shaved, and now it was thickly stubbled in a way that suggested “manly.” She wore a tank top, jeans, and boots. The workshop’s eight other young women insisted the story needed “more struggle” because all agreed the beautiful girl was a boy in transition.
While they spoke, I examined the writer’s bare, muscular arms and shoulders, the contrast of her soft face to her prickly hair. Mostly, I evaluated how she looked down as if she’d noticed how scuffed her boots were and regretted not polishing them before class. For twenty minutes, as if their mouths were shuttered and locked, none of the six male students spoke. It felt, finally, that they were shaming that student with silence, and I needed to say something positive, but measured, to keep her from screaming. I spoke what amounted to a personal letter, trying to be nuanced about “more struggle,” suggesting, at last, to write past the ending, a workshop standby, to see if there might be something more to discover. I allowed the male silence to pass unexamined.
She proofread that draft spotless, but left every detail unchanged. One morning, in December, she came to my office to say she was leaving school after final exams, that she was transferring to a college in another state to live with her friend whose hand she grasped and lifted like a referee. She was euphoric. The young man wore khaki pants and a loose sweater shadowed, but visible underneath his unbuttoned black trench coat. She said, “I want you to meet Candace,” and though I offered “Hello, glad to meet you,” the young man did not speak, waiting like a beautiful child beside a talkative mother. What came to mind, just then, was “seemed to be budding” and yet I did not flush with shame.
That was twenty-four years ago, in another century that’s vanished in ways besides the passage of time. The young woman was the same age as my daughter who now has two daughters of her own who have posed for prom photos in glittering dresses that flatter their teenage bodies beside boys who are attractive in ordinary ways. Where I still live, an effeminate high school boy, after being bullied for years, has martyred himself by stepping in front of a speeding truck. There have been vigils on campus in his name. Students holding multi-colored donated candles tell personal stories that are reported in the local newspaper like the ones related during breast cancer month. The dead boy’s name is always mentioned, how he walked several miles to reach the busy highway, the location and the way he chose to die repeated. Those newer histories are always accompanied by photographs of the survivors or the relatives and friends of those who died after struggles both long and short.
Latest collection of essays The Darkness Call won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose (Pleiades Press, 2018). A new essay, “After the Three-Moon Era, appears in Best American Essays 2020.