Testosterone Rules

Third Place, the 12th annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

Ballroom dancing class last night with R. Guess whose idea?

I had this image: the music, a me who was not me, someone more agile, someone who could arrange her limbs at will.

R. humored me. A roomful of older couples, sequined and shining. Spinning like they'd star in the next Viagra commercial. The music! So sexy, but I couldn't do what it wanted. Kept bungling the turns.

The instructor: sinewy, pelvis permanently tucked under. Knobby feet; body like an old tool. She watched us, arms folded. Frowning.

She offered to demonstrate. Took R.'s hand, spun and swung. Spooling out, then winding up tight, skin and shoulder pressed to R.'s button-down shirt. Sheen of sweat across her chest. Ribs raising the thin fuchsia of her leotard. To me, she said: "See how I'm letting him lead?"

"I think so," I said. But I didn't see. How do you see an absence, an allowance? How do you see what is soft?

R. gave me a look then, a smirk. I knew what it meant. It meant, He?

She's used to it.

"Try again," said the instructor, releasing R. and gesturing for us to take hands.

R. took my hands. I tried to let her lead.

end story

Buying the paper.

Waiting for the change, staring at the cover of Muscle & Fitness (or was it Men's Health?), which proclaimed in broad yellow letters: Testosterone Rules! Unable to read the phrase without the intonation – in my head – of a clot of thick-necked fraternity boys. Muscles that could split the skin. Those u's, deep and moist in their throats.

Sweet chink of coins as they fall into the cup of my palm. Smell of dirty metal.

end story

Meeting R. in the coffee shop. She's already there, books spread out in front of her, concentrating. The shock of seeing her: blank face, pale eyes. Narrow hips.

People always stare at her. I know why. She looks – unfinished.

end story

So cold already. Rain. Little tantrums of snow. R.'s dorm room horribly dry and hot. I sit on her bed, gulp cold wet air from the cracked window.

She shivers. Both of us restless, irritable from the early dark. I tell her I'm going to leave so she can study.

She wants to walk me to my car. I get angry when she worries like this, which she does a lot. You should see the way men look at you, she says. Does she see the way they look at her?

Her every movement says no. Her will says no.

Her every movement says yes.

end story

Walking to my car. Angry at R. for worrying, for making me worry. Wary of the shadows. Of the people on the opposite side of the street. Walking faster.

Reaching my car, checking underneath it, and, even though it is locked, checking behind the seats.

Key in the ignition. Frigid air from the vents.

end story

On the phone, Thanksgiving plans with my mother. R. and I won't drive out until Thursday. Mom's never met R., and I feel like I owe her some kind of warning.

"Mom," I say. "About R. – she –"

"She's not having second thoughts about coming, is she?"

"No – it's just –" How do I say this? "I don't want you to be surprised, when –"

"Sweetie, what is it?"

"It's just she's – kind of – androgynous?"

"I don't understand. I don't understand what you're telling me."

end story

We've only been dating since summer. Met at graduation. I saw her on the lawn, found a friend to introduce us. June sun. Spectacular.

But – yes – I feel like I betray her sometimes. The times I wish she were not so in-between. Not so startling.

It's my fear.

I think it's my fear.

end story

Finding excuses, lately, not to accompany her to public restrooms. Women stand by paper towel dispensers and yell at her. Actually yell. This is the LADIES' ROOM, they proclaim. Indignant.

A couple of weeks ago this happened. Again, I mean. R. pulled off her shirt to show the woman her bra. The woman was uncomfortable. She looked away and hurried into a stall. I was uncomfortable. I busied myself with the hand dryer.

Later, when I asked about it, she shrugged. "I'm used to it," she said.

She asked if it bothered me.

I lied.

end story

Certain things I am not allowed to see.

Certain things, I am not allowed to touch.

end story

So Thanksgiving. Horrible traffic heading out of Boston. An hour just crossing the bridge. R. inscrutable, though she must be nervous. Pies on the back seat, covered with tinfoil.

Pecan, pumpkin, pumpkin. They slide when I turn onto our street.

My mother at the door. Big smile, kisses for me, a two-handed shake for R. My mother, she's trying. Where's Dad?

Downstairs, watching TV.

end story

Snapping the ends off green beans. Chopping celery for the stuffing. Food smells. The windows fogged up from all the cooking; the ocean, blurred, beyond.

My older sister Julie arrives with six bottles of wine and her fiancé, Guy. Why would I make this up? He's a prick. A French prick, though, and my sister's a Francophile. Introductions. To my surprise, no snide comments or obviously disapproving looks from either party.

More guests, mostly my parents' friends. My mom's boss, seeing us, jokes that they've all been waiting for me to finally bring a boyfriend home for Thanksgiving. R. steps forward. I'm Rachel, she says, extending her hand, the only one who doesn't look embarrassed.

After that, every time new people arrive, my mother jumps in. She hastens. She says: and this is Audrey's friend Rachel.

Smiles, nods. Shaking of hands.

end story

The meal.

end story

Everyone in the living room in a stupor. Julie and Guy on the couch, draped over each other. My father, gearing up for an argument. Tilting his glass of whiskey, the ice tinkling. Clearing his throat. Getting up from his chair to put a log on the fire.

I tell my mother we'll be back, beckon to Rachel to follow me. Tell her to get her coat.

end story

Apologizing in the car; asking Rachel if she's uncomfortable. She says no. Asking if she ever wished she were a man, so she wouldn't have to do this, the presumption, the correction. Surprised and not surprised when she says yes.

Parking behind the bar in town. Asking if she's thought about it, about changing.

Yes.

Turning off the engine. Thinking of what makes men men and how I don't want her full of that.

Sitting in the car for a moment more, both of us knowing now is not the time. To talk about it. To think about it. Taking her hand and squeezing it.

Getting out.

end story

The bartender, as we walk in: "Auddy! For Chrissakes!"

Me: "Hey, Mike."

"How are ya, girl? How's Thanksgiving?"

I shrug, smile. Introduce the two: new life, meet old life.

"Nice to meet you," says Mike to Rachel, shaking her hand, smiling. A real smile. I think.

Me to Rachel: "He's been serving me since I was, like, twelve."

"Watch it, you," warns Mike, holding a finger to his lips. "Not a word of that to anybody, ya hear?" Then, to both of us: "Eggnog's on the house tonight."

We order beers.

The bar starts to fill up. Mostly men, come to watch the game away from their wives, from their families. Or just alone. They stand at the bar, waiting for their drinks. Sidelong glances at us. Then they take the brown bottles in their hands and go away.

Mike asks me how school's going. He's embarrassed when I tell him I've graduated, says he can't believe I didn't tell him. "I woulda bought you a drink for that," he says.

I tell him I'm sorry.

"So you're a regular old working stiff now, huh?"

Conversation like that.

Then, something happening behind us. A knot; a rising pitch. I look at Rachel, try to see whether she has noticed it, too. If she has, I can't tell. She watches the game until she sees me looking at her. A flicker in her face as she registers my distress, and then her smile, breaking, reassuring.

Dark outside, though it's barely five. The muscles in my back tighten. I try to pick out words but can't. Then calm. But a hardness in the air. As casually as possible, I cast a glance over my shoulder.

A table of men, none of them speaking. Empty bottles, cigarettes smoking in ashtrays. Nothing, really. No reason for this, my feeling. I turn back around, think about touching Rachel. Putting a hand on her shoulder, on her thigh.

Wish I could.

end story

Fight.

end story

Not us but them. Two of the men at the table. Who knows what over. Sound of chairs tipping over and bottles crashing to the floor.

Mike yelling.

Mike coming out from behind the bar, escorting one man out as he kicks, twisting, as he spasms with rage. They push through the door together, Mike and the man. Curses hang in the air, curling, dissolving like smoke.

The other man stands, brushes himself off. Quiet. Cheers from the television.

My heart pounds like a trapped thing. Rachel takes a long sip of her drink. Hands shaking; she'd been ready.

Now I see: she is always ready.

The trick is to turn your fear into something else. Not to let it ruin you. Ruin the people you love.

end story

This is the trick. end story

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