Alex stared out a big east window of the Trinity Community Recreation Centre. The clouds were an incredible grey-blue and Alex imagined that they were a school of enormous fish crammed gill to gill and passing over some sunken, post-apocalypse Toronto or a tiny model of this city as it is today sinking slowly past the thin layer of ocean through which the sun’s light remains visible. One of the men playing ping-pong behind Alex roared as the ball bounced off the wall behind the man and took shorter and shorter hops back to where he stood waiting for it. Another bolt of bright blue electricity found its jagged way to the tip of the CN Tower. Standing nearby, dripping, was a short, thick guy wearing a T-shirt with fluffy white emoji clouds spitting yellow, stylized lightning bolts. In his right hand he had small bag of dog shit and a thin black leash roping him to a shivering Italian greyhound frantically lifting one tiny foot then another in some sort of spastic panic dance. The dog nearly fell over when the thunder banged and rumbled through the community centre.
Alex sat down on a bench and pulled a cell phone from a back pocket, ran a hand through drying, bleached then dyed grey hair.
No texts from River.
Under the tree where River and Alex were supposed to be meeting, under the tree where Alex and River first kissed publicly, proudly, under that tree right then in the pouring rain and thundering electrical storm a sloppy cis couple staggered and swayed and swigged from the same can of beer, first him, then her, she chucking the can into the wet grass, then each of them clawing at each other’s asses and necks and pressing rain-soaked bodies and mouths together, she nibbling on an ear and running her hand through his soaking hair.
Alex looked at the tiny screen of the cell phone, unlocked it and typed to River, “Is everything ok?” because Alex had already asked, “Where are you?” twice. Alex feared that River was moving on, that River’s name might be a metaphor, River might have chosen the name as fucking metaphor. I am a river. I am river, quintessentially.
Isn’t there enough movement in our lives? Alex asked once after Alex and River had fucked for, like, only the second time in Alex’s bedroom, for only the second time with Alex’s face pressed into the pillow and River with their new cock stretching—transforming—Alex’s anus for only the second time, and River had seemed bored, had said, when confronted, I’m just turned on by new things.
New name. Shifting identity. An arsenal of dicks, most of them good enough, each one fine with Alex—though River always carried more than one, sometimes three or four in a dirty, light-blue JanSport—but not one dick so much the same as another to sate River’s need for something else, for choice, for movement.
Alex had had enough of change.
Alex kept binders and sports bras after the point that they smelled too much, to the point they were torn and ineffective.
Alex still lived at home with parents who used old gender pronouns because so much of Alex’s odyssey required maintaining balance on the tossing deck of their gender identity, required sailing from port to port as Alex tried to get home and Alex was looking for shipmates. For real, Alex’s parents were a crusty crew, but they were reliable, had been sailing with Alex from the outset, and there really was no one who could replace them, no matter that they didn’t respect the captain’s authority. The captain’s navigational decisions. The captain’s complex self.
So Alex lived a lie with them and River liked the lie to a point—having to use Alex’s old pronouns, fake at being cis, or sort of cis—because it was a shift. But River wanted to shake Alex’s parents up, too, and would speak too loud about Alex’s “real” or “true” self or sometimes “selves” in Alex’s—Alex’s parents’—basement rec room, which still housed Barbies, a coral castle, a neon Corvette with the streaks of black paint over the pink on the trunk—little Alex had only gotten that far when Alex’s mother had caught Alex and cried and cried and cried.
River didn’t understand because River’s parents had fully embraced their son when that’s what River wanted to be, had given him money for binders and cocks, had bought him the butchest jeans and an array of plaid shirts and toasted their new son with the new name. Alex thought the acceptance had been all too much for River, so he had to move on, had to ditch the simple, new pronoun and become gender-fluid to push those accepting, lovely parents to their breaking point because all the other people in River’s support group were suffering, had parents way less cool and open and further along, so River, Alex thought, was exploring the borders of what River’s parents could understand and accept. Alex knew that this was an ungenerous and, well, phobic perspective, knew it even before Alex shared the idea, tried to cut River with it, probably, as they lay in the dirt in the woods in High Park after Alex had disappointed—upset—River by saying no to River cracking one of those cocks out of that dirty JanSport and fucking Alex in the swaying, diffuse discs of summer sun the canopy couldn’t catch. River had a different reading about change and about constant revolution and about the culture’s and the individual’s inability to think past language and popular paradigms and River sounded smart, which was hot and Alex felt chastened—schooled—and angry because of the shame Alex felt River wanted Alex to feel.
But also turned on.
Until River tried to eat Alex out. Actually, Alex nearly let River do it—despite the fact that Alex’s body would menstruate soon—but Alex didn’t let River do it because no matter how dirty River talked, no matter how into it River said they were, no matter how into it Alex thought they might be, Alex still wasn’t comfortable with their pussy.
Then River told Alex that the boundaries Alex drew around Alex’s queerness were the wrong boundaries, that maybe Alex was simply F to M and not non-binary enough or genderqueer enough or “whatever you are saying that you are this week,” enough.
Alex walked northeast alone, trying and get out of High Park as quick as possible. Later, once they’d made up and River had leaned Alex over the counter in the Alex’s parents en suite bathroom and fucked Alex’s ass, River said that they took their JanSport down to the lake and even walked around for a while looking for someone to eat out, but that no one looked half as good to them as Alex, except one hot femme with Serena Williams thighs.
The cis couple was rolling around in the wet grass now and Alex was feeling so dejected and abandoned and misunderstood that they cursed the stubborn persistent shape of the tree, the unlikelihood of lighting crackling down and splitting that old oak—or was it maple?—so one of the massive branches would drop and press the cis couple into each other in one pulpy, boneless mess. As if responding to Alex’s fantasy, lightning sounded and burst into some building nearer than the CN Tower, but unseen over Alex’s horizon.
Alex’s phone buzzed.
Alex moved so fast that the nervous Italian Greyhound crashed into her owner’s ankles and he said some name—it sounded like Casey—cursing the nervous dog. Alex smiled to themself.
Sorry, the text read, I couldn’t find my phone. Just leaving now. Should we forget it?
Alex looked out at the guy and girl under the tree, muddy now and covered in grass bits, but the guy’s hand between their bodies, the girl’s legs cocked up. Was she biting his shoulder?
No. Come, Alex texted.
Alex looked up and the guy with the dog was watching them. He smiled. It was gentle, inviting. Alex smiled back. Nodded. Turned back to the phone.
Bring your bag of dicks, Alex wrote. It was a question, almost. Are we going to fuck? Are we breaking up? Alex texted a question mark and waited, listening to the monotonous, conflicting rhythms of the multiple ping-pong games, drifting into memories of playing ping-pong at Alex’s grandparents house with Alex’s aunt and mother, remembering the joy of playing, remembering Mom’s skill, thinking about the hours Alex spent playing with Mom and the hours Alex’s mother and aunt must have played as children, considering the simplicity of the game and limited variability, considering how peaceful and safe and pleasing the repetition was.
The phone buzzed.
River had texted, Always, with an emoji of a hand, index finger pointing to the left.
The couple under the tree were sitting up now, soaking wet, the girl laughing, the guy laughing with her. The girl reached into her backpack and pulled out two tall cans. She handed one to the guy and they toasted each other or the rain or orgasm and they laughed again.
Alex wondered how many people were watching or had watched this couple make out, how many people had not said anything about it because it was two straight people having sex in a park.
All at once, Alex understood something. Alex wanted to use—thought that probably River would be thrilled to let Alex to use—one of River’s cocks to fuck River however and wherever River wanted to be fucked. Like, wherever as in anywhere location-wise and body-wise. Even from behind under the tree, even if it meant being seen and being seen as deviant, monstrous, some violation. Even if it meant being arrested by cops who could probably beat a couple of queer kids with total impunity.
No, Alex thought. No. I am not that tough or radical or whatever.
Alex wondered, even, if they would have the courage to tell River what they had fantasized about, that they wanted to wear one of the cocks.
Alex looked at the phone. Would texting it be the way? Type it now while Alex maybe had the courage instead of letting the thought, the hope, get swallowed up by the army of butterflies that gathered in Alex’s guts when River was around in body or in thought?
Alex ran their hand through their hair and looked out at the rain and waited for the next burst of lightning.
Toronto, ON-Duncan, BC, July 2016
Emoji sequence: Sammie Urquhart
Story: Lee Sheppard