JULIAN DECIDED he needed to tell three people before it became real. Not that he doubted his feelings. There was no hesitation in his mind that he was male, even if his body sometimes disagreed. But there were some mornings, like at the beginning of high school, where he would wake up and feel as if nothing had changed—in the good way. He’d make it to the breakfast table with a smile on his face and sit down to toast and think everything was fine. His hair was just right, his Black Sabbath T-shirt fit snugly across his chest, and his jeans were clean from the wash. He looked good those mornings, and he was never afraid to look at himself in the mirror.
As he ate buttered toast and his father looked at the stock market, Julian believed himself to be his parents’ son. The pictures on the wall of his house were of a sister who had been sent away to live with a long-distance aunt. And Julian was just the golden child who remained. He got to stay behind and live at home, with all of his parents’ attention focused on him.
Everything, for a time in the early morning, would be right with the world. Today, the first of December, was one of those mornings.
“Julia, come on now. You’re going to be late,” Julian’s mother stated firmly. She placed a sandwich in his lunch bag and then raised her eyebrows when he didn’t respond.
Julian felt his cheeks turn red. He remembered, like an old scar on his body that still sometimes hurt, that his life was never quite as easy as he thought it was.
“All right, all right. Just give me a sec. I’m almost done.”
Julian lowered his eyes and watched as the butter congealed on his toast. He ate three more bites before he felt too sick to continue. His father soon finished his coffee and left his paper behind on the table. He smiled at Julian before heading back into the bedroom to finish getting ready for work. Alone in the kitchen, things felt right to Julian again. But he knew all too well that it would only be a matter of time before this peace was interrupted.
Three people? Julian thought with despair. How am I ever going to find three people to tell who understand while I’m still here?
Julian got up from the table and grabbed his bags. “Okay, Mom. I’m ready to go.”
One Year Ago
JULIAN HAD read a lot about transgender characters in novels before he realized he was part of that story too. Late one winter night when he was thirteen years old, he told his mother he needed to go out and grab some books from the library for a school project.
“Really?” she said. She raised her pale arm to her eyes to check her watch with a sigh. The hair she normally kept in a neat bun at the back of her head had already started to come out. The loose strands made her look as if she was a cheesy mad scientist from a movie and not the lab teaching assistant she normally was.
Julian’s mother, whose first name was Sarah, often spent late nights in the local university’s library or lab, finishing reports and gathering materials to complete her master’s degree before she could go on to her PhD. While most parents had a midlife crisis and bought cars, Sarah had gone back to school and decided to become the scientist she could never be when Julian was younger.
At least that’s what she told other people when she quit her corporate job two years ago.
“Yes, Mom. Just a small project. I already looked the book up online and know where it is in the stacks. So I’ll be in and out really quickly.”
Sarah leaned her nose down over Julian’s notebook and regarded the numbers there. Julian had learned a long time ago to hide his thoughts and feelings within books and then translate those books into the Dewey decimal system for the large library. His mother only knew the 500 and 600 sections well. Everything else around was a mystery to her. And so long as Julian was ready to go, she would be willing to hear him out.
“At least you’re prepared.” Sarah moved to the hallway to grab her coat. “That’s always one thing I could count on you for. Come now. Before the blizzard really hits us.”
INSIDE THE library Julian moved in between the dusty 800 and 700 stacks. This project was supposed to be an essay on sea horses for his biology class, which then led into an English class discussion about the way in which the animal-as-metaphor worked in Moby Dick. The assignments Julian had for middle school always sounded hard, but they weren’t that bad. The teachers talked a lot about preparing kids for high school as if it was a secret mission or boot camp. But Julian had seen his mother go through piles of research for her degree, and even that, once you got the hang of it, wasn’t difficult. Most of high school was about just doing the work and handing something in so the teachers could grade and do their jobs.
Nothing in school was really that hard for Julian, anyway. With no siblings and limited TV allowances (thanks to his mother’s ruling), he spent most of his time alone in his room, reading books he had pulled from his parents’ many shelves or the library at school. It was rare that he needed to go to the city’s library like this for specific books. If he couldn’t find what he needed at school or at home, he could always fall back on the excuse of needing a different citation for his project. His mother especially loved that excuse. Research, above all else, was supposed to be ethical as much as it was informative. Really, what Julian was looking for tonight felt personal, almost too much to share on his permanent record or punch card for the school library.
In between the shelves, he found the first book on sea horses. He had been reading Wikipedia online (a source the teachers had actually blocked from his middle school) when he realized that male sea horses were the ones to keep the babies. As he kept reading, he found that certain types of fish—for example parrotfish and clownfish—changed their gender when their family structures were threatened. Using his scientific analysis, Julian realized the Disney movie Finding Nemo should have had Marlin turn into Nemo’s mother in the film after his mother was killed. But Disney was one for creative license, Julian knew. They had let the stepsisters in Cinderella keep their feet intact, even if that really wasn’t how it was in the original Grimm story.
All of this searching for underwater life had led Julian to the fiction section online. He had followed the never-ending morass of names and identifications on Wikipedia, and went from clownfish and parrotfish in biology to a novel called Parrotfish. When he read the write-up for the book, he discovered it was about a transgender boy who uses the fish to explain to his lab partner how he has always felt like a boy—even if no one else thought he was one. Julian had stopped reading after that in shock.
Transgender? he had repeated in his head. What did that even mean? It didn’t take too much longer online to put the pieces together. He had known what drag queens were from listening in when his parents watched Will & Grace too loudly. And he had seen what butch lesbians looked like on the same show. But he had thought, as far as gender spectrum went, those two were the end. Maybe tomboy could be added in there every so often, but even that word made Julian uncomfortable. He had been called “tomboy” for years during middle school, sometimes as an insult and sometimes as a description of his clothing. But now at high school, the tomboy names had stopped. He was called “young lady” by his teachers and principal or “miss” by substitute teachers. It didn’t make sense anymore, but he had never really realized why.
Everything has a why, Julian told himself, thinking of his mother’s research. It’s just a matter of finding out how too. Though his skin had felt scorching hot to the touch, he continued to read online more about the word transgender. All that he came away with were the series of numbers he had written down in his notebook and a burning need to go to the library right now, even though a blizzard was starting outside.
As Julian walked down the YA section in the library, he could see Parrotfish’s spine before he touched it. Once the book was in his hand, the heavy feeling returned to his skin. The how and the why, he thought, are getting closer and closer to being solved.
Sarah hadn’t raised her voice, but inside the library on a Thursday night in winter, close to closing, her call for him was much too loud. Before he could really think about it, Julian tucked Parrotfish into his book bag along with all the other science books he had grabbed for class.
“I’m right here, Mom. I’m not far.”
“I know,” Sarah said, furrowing her brow slightly. “But we have to go now. You have everything you need?”
Julian nodded, not trusting his voice.
“Good. I’ll go clean off the car. You can check out without me?”
Julian felt relief bloom inside of him. If his mother didn’t see the actual book, she would merely assume that Parrotfish was just a book about parrotfish when she saw the receipt. It would be next to marine biology texts—a mere item in a series of several. This was perfect. Finally his night was going right.
As Julian waited in the small line, he dug his joint family card up from his pocket and looked down at his name next to his mom’s and dad’s. Julia as a name had always felt wrong to him, but he had never really known why. Now maybe he did know. He flipped the card over in his palm, closing his eyes as he worked through several different names he had always liked. Jack? Jason? Bobby? He shook his head. The woman ahead of him was getting at least ten small romance novels, so he still had more time to think. Daniel? Chris? He flipped the card over in his hand. He placed his thumb over the last section of Julia—then he realized how simple it could be. Just another n would completely change his name from something he hated to something he could stand. Something he could even grow to like.
Julian, Julian, Julian, he had repeated in his head. Yeah. He’d nodded. Yeah, I like that a lot.
“Good evening!” the woman at the counter greeted. “A lot of books here.”
“I have a project.” Julian felt his skin blush red with recognition as the book was passed over the scanner. He waited to be questioned about it further, to be interrogated like a criminal about something he had done deep down inside of him.
“Here you are, Julia Gibson,” the librarian said. Anna was written on her nametag. She smiled at Julian, probably recognizing him from years ago or from his mother’s constant visits. The library staff had always stayed consistent, and when Julian’s dad was a major donor to its funding and worked on the town council, it was good for the librarian to know specific customers.
“Thank you, Anna,” he said slowly. He held the books in his arms and loitered. No one was behind him, so he didn’t feel the constant pressure to be out. He could see his mother’s car through the glass doors, and she wasn’t even close to finished with clearing it off. Anna stood from her stool suddenly and gestured toward the plastic shopping bags at the end of the counter.
“You’ll probably want some. Your book bag can only carry so much! You’ll definitely be prepared for your project, I’d say. Are you thinking of becoming—”
“No,” Julian cut her off. “No, not at all. Just a stupid assignment. It’s boring, really. I don’t like it.”
Anna blinked a few times before smiling again. She took a seat as Julian put the books in the bag.
“Too bad,” she remarked. “I hear marine biology is a budding field.”