D. Vaisius – Keith
“How long have you known?” That’s one of the questions I get a lot. Maybe someone else would answer it the same. I don’t. I have a different answer every time.
“I knew the day I turned sixteen.” I say this time. Rhode looks at me, and then she looks over to Suri who asked. Suri is taking in my answer. “Yeah?” Rhode asks blankly.
“Yeah.” I return equally as blank.
“Oh.” She says. This is one of the ways that Rhode and I talk. It’s either like this or it’s hardly words because we can’t stop laughing. Rhode was the second person purposely to call me Keith. She did it loudly. She yelled ‘Bye Keith!’ I almost knocked my heels as they do in musicals.
Now, Suri is done processing. “How did you know?” She asks next. Sometimes I am up for this. I am okay with dragging out my history. But today I don’t want to talk about it. I flash Rhode a partial expression of frustration. She picks it up.
“You know what, I’m sure Keith would love to tell you all about it but I’m gonna have to drag him off.” Rhode gives Suri a marginally condescending grin before taking me by the shoulders and steering me out the door of the Adult Education Centre.
“Really?” I say. “That was laying it on a little thick. She’s going to hate you.” Rhode laughs.
“She can hate me.” We push the doors open and make our way into the Sun. This is a beautiful day, a good day. It’s been months since the first day. Months since I opened my eyes and thought today is the day. They call me Keith now. They accept this. In the distancing sun of October, I squint and listen to Rhode start a rant about something we learned in psychology. I smile.
“Why do you always tell them something different?” She asks, looking at me sideways. I shrug.
“I’m not sure. Maybe I’m sick of it. Besides what does it matter how long I’ve known? I’m here now.”
I was never the first when it came to Keith becoming Keith. I wasn’t the first to know. I wasn’t the first to say Keith. But I was always there. I was tired that morning, the morning that Keith decided to tell us all at the center. I was confused at first but I caught on fast and then I stayed still and thought about it. I kept saying Keith repeatedly in my head. I was trying hard not to let my stupefied self-show. I hadn’t expected it. I sat on a table outside the biology classroom and put my head on my backpack. My brains turned to jelly. Keith stayed with me there. He sat across from me looking slightly pensive. I watched him. Keith, I thought, You’re Keith now. I couldn’t explain how I felt. I didn’t try. I smiled in a tired worn out way so that he would know that it was alright. We would walk home after biology. It was okay. I was okay.
We all know about them here. They met in biology. Keith in the front row and Rhode at the back. It didn’t take them long to start walking home together. Keith was always trying to take top of the class from Rhode. He never managed it. The smile was the same from all of us. I think we all saw something special in those two. In the morning when all I wanted was to not have my eyes open I would lay my head down on my table. I was in the middle row, between them. I would listen to them laugh as they tossed a highlighter back and forth above me. Today, it was a snowball.
“Don’t lift your head Suri that could end badly.” Keith had said. I hadn’t made any move. Rhode had brought the snowball to class. It melted in a coffee cup on her desk all the way through the morning.
I’m sitting reading on the couch in the center. I’ve been reading for near an hour and my book has caught me. Keith sticks his head over my shoulder.
“Whatcha reading?” He asks. I jump about a foot in the air. I can’t help it. Keith has his hands on the table. He’s laughing so hard his cheeks are turning red. I put my head on my hands and joined in on the laughter.
“Don’t do that to me!” I say. Keith can’t catch his breath. Finally, he stops laughing long enough to say.
“Is this going to affect our friendship?” I shake my head.
“Not even a little?” He raises his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. I shake my head again, I’m still laughing. My heartbeat is slowing down. I look at Keith. He’s still so new to me. We are still getting used to each other. I already know that I want it to go a little further than this. I want these habits we build to stick our lives together like glue. I start to think of us like a tag team. Like something special. We laugh too much. We disrupt a bit but I can see the bemusement in the eyes of the other students at the centre. They find it a tad annoying. Still they seem happy. I feel like they find our idiosyncratic nonsense charming in a distant ‘they’re cute’ kind of way. It makes me smile even though I hardly have time to notice because I’m noticing Keith. I am always noticing Keith. I can’t help it.
I’ve always been able to feel Rhode’s eyes. They bore into the back of my head, right through Suri’s skull to get to me. She glares when we have to take notes from the board and my head is in the middle of the last sentence. I can feel her squinting in irritation. It makes me grin at my own notes. She’s been keeping it back but finally today I hear her voice from the back like a whip.
“Keith! Down in front!” I chuckle and duck my head.
On the walk home, we talk about arguing for the sake of arguing. Rhode says that being five years old is the best thing. I agree with her. Being five is clearly the greatest of all. Our conversation ends how it always does with us yelling our last comments as our way splits. “See you on Monday.” Rhode calls. I grin and wave back to her. We are the strong ones, the ones that walk to school daily through the never-ending cold of the winter. She called me happy-go-lucky today. It was a good day. I need good days; I am on the lookout for them. Rhode insures a smile for both of us.
Rhode looked cold and shaken the morning Keith came out. She looked like her world had been picked up and dropped back down; she wasn’t exactly sure what to do with herself. I think we were all a bit turned about but Rhode seemed spun. We all held our breath. Would she? Or wouldn’t she? They laughed. They smiled. We all breathed again. Nothing was to be shattered. Rhode fell asleep in the back of class, her fingers tangled in her Mohawk. Keith hardly spoke, taking notes with his usual diligence. It was all the same. How do we end up invested in something we aren’t a part of? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we only pretend and the rest of the time, we have simply forgotten. Or perhaps there is something warm about seeing a connection even if it isn’t yours. It can make you lonely or it can make you remember someone you love.
How do you change someone in your mind? How do you change their name and their gender? It’s not just a transition for them, not just for Keith. I’m going through it too. I’m transitioning. I’m learning to say Keith. I’m learning to say he. I am trying to change the way that I think. The way I perceive. I notice Keith and I hold my breath. I say Keith. In my head. I let the air out of my lungs. I say ‘Keith.’ aloud. I stare at a picture of a ‘transman’ who has made headlines. I take the picture in. All I see is a man. I don’t see anything else. I try to work out what is so different. I try to explain to myself why this man is a man to me and why Keith is a question mark. I can’t. It doesn’t make sense. I look at the picture and think very hard about how this man is not a biological man. I have learned to separate gender from sex. I still struggle to separate what I’ve taken to be true to what I’ve been told is true. I struggle to transition Keith in my head. I put down the picture. I close my eyes. It will come in time.
I swing my legs out under the bridge. Rhode is sitting next to me. She’s been singing at the top of her lungs. I’ve been poking her in the ribs to make her mess up. She made it through a third of Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Her tone mocking, hopelessness her eyes bright, voice trembling. Finally, she quit and poked me back. Now we sit in silence. I look down at the water that moves below. Rhode looks straight out over the creek.
“What does it mean to feel like a Keith?” She asks. This isn’t a question I’ve heard. I turn my head to look at her. I think about her words.
“Do you feel like a woman?” I return. Rhode nods. “What does it mean to feel like a Rhode?” I ask her. She looks at me. Our eyes meet and we just watch each other for a moment.
“Right,” she starts. “It means that when I hear the word it feels right all the way down to my core.” I smile.
“That’s what it means to feel like a Keith.” I say slowly. “It feels right. Every shape and form” Rhode nods, she looks solemn but I think she understands.
“How long have you known?” Rhode has heard so many people ask me this but I’ve never heard her ask me.
“In my head and in my heart.” I say following her gaze out to the world beyond us.
“I have known forever.”
- D. Vaisius