Water Baby

This story was written as a creative piece of work to be added to a slush pile for my third year anthology class. It was chosen by a group from Deakin University to publish in their anthology entitled “Flow: Where the water flows, the story goes” as obviously, the overarching theme for the assessment was “Water”.   It received a 77.5% final mark as an individual piece (a distinction). 

Content warning: suicide

You were our only child. Mild and bright-eyed, you stared at us from your humidi-crib, six weeks premature but as alert as if you were full-term.  They warned us about learning disabilities, cognitive problems, and possible stunted growth. We never saw any of that in you. You shot up like a proverbial beanstalk, and no one could put food away like you. Your father and I used to wonder where it went – you were always so tall and skinny.

As a child you’d rescue birds that had fallen out of their nests, and if we’d let you, you’d have brought every stray animal home. Always dressed in baggy, shapeless clothing, no one could have guessed the truth – that you weren’t a tomboy at all.

I walk over to the wardrobe and stand in front of it, wracked with indecision. Finally, I pull out your favourite black, long-sleeved shirt.  The pants I choose are charcoal grey. I lay the clothes on the bed and turn towards the window. It’s stuffy in here, but then the window hasn’t been open for a while. I force myself to cross the room and change something about it for the first time in over a week. A slight breeze blows in, but not strong enough to disturb the papers on your desk or the dreamcatcher hanging from the bedpost. Still, I shiver.

The corkboard over the desk catches my eye. There you are, in a photo with friends at a school camp. Year 8, I think. You look distant; distracted. Your dark hair is much shorter in this photo than in some of the others, and of course you’re not smiling. We could never get you to smile for the cameras. If we’d known then what we know now… well, you can’t go back and change things, no matter how much you wish you could.

Another photo shows you in your element; swinging on a rope over the waterhole down the road from our house. You were always such a daredevil. We were forever warning you to be careful and to not just drop into the water – you never know what’s on the bottom. Growing up, you would launch yourself off the boulder and swing into the middle of the pond before letting go; creating an almighty splash that would spray your friends, who were sunbathing on the rocks. But you never joined them. Traditional girls’ bathers, along with getting a tan, were never really your thing.

***

You officially ‘came out’ to us when you were fourteen, in Year 9. You sat both of us down and laughed, nervously.

‘Now, don’t freak out,’ you said, ‘but I’ve got something to tell you.’

‘You’re gay?’ Your dad guessed.

‘Nope.’

‘You’re a Young Liberal?’

I sighed, and tried not to chuckle at your father’s irreverent, and often ill-timed sense of humour.

‘Ben, let her finish.’

You chewed your bottom lip, before deciding to just spit it out. ‘I … I think I was born in the wrong body.  I’m transgender. I should have been a boy.’

Your dad didn’t miss a beat.

‘Well, d’uh.’

I smiled, weakly. It wasn’t the huge bombshell you thought it would be, but it still hurt. It sounds ridiculous and irrational to me now, but back then it felt like a rejection of the shared genes we’d given you. I think I kept my pain fairly well-hidden, even after you told us that you intended to live as a male from that point on.

I hugged you, saying ‘you know that we support you one-hundred-percent in anything you decide to do.’

‘I know, Mum. Thank you,’ you’d said. I could hear the relief in your voice. ‘I love you, both of you.’

‘We love you, too, Ste …’ I stopped short. ‘Have you thought about what you want us to call you? It obviously can’t be Stella anymore.’

‘Steven,’ you decided. ‘That way, it’s not so different, is it?’

No, I thought. Not so different at all.

***

Back at the wardrobe, I run my hand across the row of jeans and shirts. Black, black, purple, red, black, grey and wow – a stray white shirt!  I remember this shirt. You wore it to your very first job interview, and you were so beset with nerves that you couldn’t do up the buttons. I had to help you. You didn’t get that job, but you did get the one at the local vintage music shop, For the Record, a couple of months later. They were a very progressive employer. They even allowed you to put your preferred name on your nametag. You loved that job.  I wish you could have stayed there, but life had other plans …

You came home from work one evening in a state, trembling, jaw-clenched and ashen-faced. When I asked you to help get ready for dinner, you dumped the cutlery in the middle of the table and made a show of slamming kitchen doors until I asked what was wrong.

‘It’s that douche Carl again,’ you replied. ‘He’s always so condescending. He never uses the proper pronouns, and refuses to call me Steve, or Steven!’

‘Stevie,’ I said, ‘talk to your bosses about it. That’s bullying, and it’s against the law. He needs to realise it’s not acceptable.’

‘I don’t want to dob…’ you started to say.

‘It’s not dobbing. If you want his behaviour to change, either tell him that what he’s doing is wrong, or go to your supervisor. You said they are really supportive, right?’

‘Yeah,’ you sighed. ‘I don’t know… I’m just so sick of the stares! I always feel like people are talking behind my back!  Not at work so much, except for Carl – but everywhere else. I wish I could get the hormone treatment without having to go to court!  It’s bullshit! I hate the laws in this country!’ You kicked the bottom of the kitchen cabinet in frustration. The scuff mark is still visible. I won’t paint over it.

The situation at work came to a head when Carl deliberately mis-gendered you in front of a customer. Bristling with anger, you followed him back to the storeroom and confronted him. When he made a remark about not wanting to hit a girl, you lost it, and gave him your best left hook, breaking his nose. You were fired on the spot.

You didn’t want to hang around the house that day. You grabbed your rash shirt and board shorts and headed for the waterhole. It was one of the only places you felt you could let off steam. On that day, it had been raining; bucketing down. Not really waterhole weather.  I started to call out for you to be careful, but you’d already disappeared down the sodden gravel driveway.

I remember making your favorite that night – lasagna. It always takes a long time to prepare and cook, but I didn’t mind.  It felt like the only thing I could do.  I can’t make the laws change faster.  Truthfully, I was still getting over the fact that I gave birth to a little girl, and wound up with a teenage son. Personality-wise, you were the same: quiet, kind-hearted and generous. That much never changed.  But trying to explain the situation to family members who didn’t understand why you were Steven instead of Stella was… an experience.

Your Great-Aunt Rachel was the worst. She just could not get it through her head that you were a boy born in a girl’s body. She had the nerve to refer to it as a ‘lifestyle choice’, like you’d woken up one day and decided to switch genders for shits and giggles.

The lasagne was done before you were finished at the waterhole. I checked the time – it was almost seven, and had started to get dark. I switched off the oven and slammed the metal tray on the counter, tossing the oven mitts aside as my irritation grew.

Where are you? I thought. You know it’s a rule in this house that you get home before dark!

 I called to your father and asked him to walk down the road to let you know dinner was ready. He rose, begrudgingly, from his armchair and tugged on his work boots at the front door.

I went back to serving up the lasagne, fully expecting both my boys back home for dinner. But when half an hour passed without word, I forgot dinner and began frantically texting your father.

No answer.

When I finally heard the front door squeal on its hinges, I raced for the foyer.

He was alone.

‘So, where is he?’

He brushed past me heading for the lounge room, trailing mud through the house.

‘Bron, I … I think you’d better sit down.’ His expression was unreadable.

‘What? Why? Ben, you’re scaring me.’

‘Just sit down.’

At that moment, I think I knew. Don’t ask me how. A mother knows.

I barely heard his next few words. There was something about a rope; and then ‘too late’ and ‘gone.’ All I remember was a pain so visceral that I’d rather go through childbirth than suffer that again. I think I screamed. I know I passed out.

***

My brain still refuses to accept it, a week later, as I fold your shirt and pants and put them into a bag for the undertaker.  Stopping at the supermarket on the way back from the funeral home, I run into a group of kids you hung out with at school. They spot me and say hello, but their voices are subdued and they can’t make eye-contact.  I know they feel awkward around me and I wish I knew how to tell them they don’t have to be. Instead, I wrack my brain for an ice-breaker.

‘The funeral’s tomorrow, you know,’ I remind them. ‘I really hope you can make it.’

They nod and assure me that they will, but I don’t know. I have been in a daze since, and get home from shopping to find that I’ve bought four tubs of margarine and a packet of peppercorns, even though our grinder is broken.

I’ve been doing that a lot, spacing out. Most of the time I feel like I’m on autopilot, and then other times I know I’m in denial. I keep setting the table for three; keep calling for you to get up in the morning… and then I stop myself. Last night your dad didn’t come to bed. I think he was up all night, in his study.  He’s not a public crier. That’s why he’s the perfect person to do the eulogy tomorrow. I know you probably wanted me to say something but I can’t.  I just can’t. I’m sure you’d understand.  Of course you’d understand. You were the one person who understood me. And I like to believe that I understood you, too.

On TV and in the movies, it’s always raining when you bury someone you love. It’s become such a cliché that it’s considered a trope. But the morning of your funeral dawns bright and sunny. The sun is practically beating down on our heads as we leave the funeral parlor for the cemetery.  The sad, plodding melody of one of your favorite songs plays as the pallbearers load your casket into the back of the hearse.  I know I’m never going to be able to listen to that song again, but the words are so poignant, and so you.  When I finally ventured into your room after you died, I found a verse from the song tacked to your cork-board. Two lines stood out to me:

And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad

The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had

 Was it a suicide note? I guess we will never know.  You were always trying to make sense of a world that couldn’t accept you for who you were.

Rest in peace now, my darling; my Water Baby.

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