The protestors were out even though there weren’t any abortions that day, even though the sky had puckered against a sour wind and the drizzle had thickened to sheets. “GOD IS PUNISHING OMAHA!” they shouted at passing cars. There were three of them: two in early old age—a man and a woman—and a college-aged girl. The people they shouted at had their windows up due to the wind and rain, so it was doubtful anyone could hear them. We laughed at their futility, until we began to suspect that they were right. Local TV reported that the weather truly was concentrated within the city limits, our city that had just passed LB322, which made abortion legal until the end of the second trimester. The suburbs were only gray. Relatives near and far texted us to make sure we were all right, though I noted the absence of concern from my own parents. “I’m safe, if anyone cares,” I texted them. My mother sent a thumbs-up emoji. My father sent a gif of a cat taking shelter in an overturned cardboard box. They weren’t sure what to do with me, so they had begun avoiding language altogether.
Because of the tint of the windows, the protestors couldn’t see inside the Planned Parenthood where we were having our meeting. But if they could, they would have seen something like an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: chairs around a mucous-colored carpet, donuts and burnt coffee on a table in the back. That day there were just five of us at the meeting of the Nebraska Transgender Support Group, Omaha chapter, and maybe it was the electric charge of the storm or maybe it was just that we were a little tired of the normal subjects—our complicated family histories and questionable mental health and bodies between someplace and someplace else—but we were happy to be distracted by the protestors.
Sasha was the most excited about them. I’d known Sasha since kindergarten, since she was a furtive dark-haired boy with an elfin crescent of a smile so characteristic it might qualify as a pre-existing condition, and if there was one thing I knew she loved it was other peoples’ trouble.
Now she visored her hand to her forehead, pressed her face against the window and said, voice thick with anticipation, “They’re inside the Buffer Zone.”
She was right: the protestors had inched their way out of the rain and under the concrete awning.
“We could have them arrested,” Sasha continued.
“Come off it,” said Ellen, who had just left her wife and kids to become what she’d always wanted to be. “It’s awful outside. We should really invite them in.”
Our group leader, Tony, who was practical because he was responsible for us and far enough in his transition that he’d had the sentimentality ironed out of him, shook his head. “The office manager trusted me with the keys. I can’t tell him we let the damn protestors in.”
“So don’t tell him,” said Sasha, who had just switched her plan to arrest the protestors and now sided with Ellen for adventure’s sake.
I had an idea. Or more accurately, Testosterone had an idea. Testosterone told me to go talk to the protestors myself. Testosterone wanted me to impress Sasha, to get a little reckless, to change the way she thought she knew me. Before anyone could object, I got up and walked down a hallway lined with posters urging us to look for signs of domestic abuse and STDs, through a waiting room with darkened TV screens and stacks of old magazines and a counter enclosed by bullet proof glass, and to the outer door. The wind was so bad the door resisted opening, and when it did pellets of sharp water marbled my face.
All three of them jumped, and the college girl dropped her poster. Maybe they hadn’t known anyone was in the building after all.
“Oh!” the old woman said. The old man cleared his throat. The college girl said, “Who are you?”
Who was I? I could no longer take the question for granted, if I ever could. I was Eli Ledbetter, formerly Emily, 22 years old, a pale specimen belying hardy enough Midwestern descent, .5 mL of testosterone circulating semi-monthly through my veins, ready like we all are to start life anew. I said, “It’s getting pretty bad out here. Do you want to come in?”
They didn’t. Coming in, I supposed, would have meant admitting a kind of defeat. The old man moved out from under the awning as if to prove he didn’t need anything from me. A passing car sprayed him with water and he grimaced and spat but stayed where he was and again raised his sign overhead, and I went back to my group.
Sasha was talking about how her parents disowned her. Her legs twisted together on the metal chair, flower-covered Doc Martens hooked on the bottom rung.
“My father reached over the table and grabbed my hand. He saw my purple nails and turned to my mom and said, ‘The bitch isn’t lying.’”
Robin, who was trying to stay somewhere between a man and a woman, put a comforting hand on Sasha’s shoulder.
“I’d been telling the fucker,” Sasha said. “He just didn’t believe me, or he wouldn’t accept it, I guess. I don’t know why the nails were what did it.”
I had to stop myself from wrapping my arms around her. Come live with me, I wanted to say. Maybe I would work up the courage and say it later. Granted, my circumstances weren’t ideal. I lived in a crappy hovel off the University of Nebraska Omaha campus whose rent I could barely afford with my job at the textbook resale store. But maybe it would be enough for Sasha, who I wanted desperately to protect, mainly because protecting her would distract me from myself.
Tony lifted the coffee pot to examine the dregs. “My parents didn’t talk to me for years,” he said. “Then my dad had a heart attack and realized life was too short for that foolishness.”
Sasha started to say something, but Robin pointed at the window.
The old woman was knocking. She must have guessed at where we were, because it was clear she still couldn’t see in: her eyes didn’t register us.
“They caved!” Sasha said, and we grinned at each other like children who have just produced a small fire. I went back the way I’d just come to let them in.
Now I could see that they really had no choice but to shelter with us. The hail came down fast and dense and hurt when it hit. On the ground it sounded like knuckles popping. It wouldn’t have even been safe for them to walk to their cars.
Inside the waiting room, their plastic ponchos dripped on the carpet. It occurred to me that they’d dressed for the weather even though no one had predicted this storm, or any storm at all. They’d known not only that God would strike Omaha down, they’d known exactly how.
I took them down the hall past the STD posters. The old man was muttering that they needed to pray even before we reached the meeting room.
“Welcome,” Tony said, and there was no way anyone could think he meant it, but our guests didn’t acknowledge him or anyone else. “Sshhh, they’re praying the sin away,” Sasha said.
The protestors had joined hands and bowed their heads in the center of our circle of chairs. They had leaned their posters against the right wall. Because of the rain, the bloody fetus looked like it was crying. The effect, I had to admit, was powerful.
Woe to us, unhappy beings, if You, O Lord, has cast us into hell, for from that dungeon of eternal pain there is no deliverance. We love You above all things, O infinite God, and we are sincerely sorry for having offended You. Grant us the grace of holy perseverance. Have compassion on us, and, at the same time, on the suffering souls around us.
I knew bowing your head was supposed to signify humility, but to me it looked like they were all examining something on the center of the carpet, a stain or a trapdoor.
When the prayer was over they raised their heads and seemed to see where they really were for the first time, and the college girl asked, “What is this meeting, anyway?”
“Guess,” I said, to make Sasha snicker.
“Well…” she paused. “Are you homosexuals?”
It killed me, that word, so outdated and clinical, coming from someone my age.
“We’re all getting abortions,” Sasha said. “But we’re wayward. We’re not sure of our path. You might be able to talk us out of it.”
“Don’t rile them,” said Ellen. “She’s kidding,” she added to the protestors.
Tony, who couldn’t help but act the group leader even when he didn’t want to, appeared with three more folding chairs. We scooted so he could set them up next to a shelf of anatomically-correct vagina hand-puppets used in teaching demonstrations. But the anti-abortionists did not sit down. They looked like they thought we might have something they could catch. Like if they sat down they might soon find themselves performing a skit with the vagina puppets.
“Sit down,” Tony said, trying a command, but still the anti-abortionists did not sit down. They were figuring us out: the faint scruff on the faces of Sasha and Ellen, my short stature and regrettably still-high voice, Robin’s utter indeterminability. The old woman whispered something into the old man’s ear.
“You’re transsexuals!” he said, proud as a boy getting the right answer in a spelling bee.
“You shouldn’t have said it out loud,” the old woman said.
“Well I’ll be damned,” the old man said.
The college girl said, “Can you even get pregnant?”
A few years ago, when I was still a girl, I saw Metallica at the Civic Center downtown, and though I can well remember Lars Ulrich’s drumming ricocheting off the walls, it had nothing on this hail.
Omaha, our iPhones told us, had been designated a Phase One Flood Zone.
“We told them to prepare for the worst,” the old man said to the old woman, “but they didn’t listen.” The three of them were finally sitting, though stiffly, like they might have to leave at any time.
“Don’t act like you knew it was going to be this bad,” Sasha said. “Why would you have left your homes?”
“No offense, but you sound like a man,” the college girl said.
“No offense, but you’re so dumb even he doesn’t want to fuck you,” Sasha said, gesturing to the old man.
“Jesus,” Tony said under his breath.
The college girl sat there smarting. She looked as if she’d been slapped. She blushed and ran her hands over the tops of her sweatpants, refusing to meet our eyes. I felt sorry for her, unequipped as she was for Sasha.
“Let’s not treat His name that way,” the old man said, as if this were the worst offense.
Tony stood up. “Let’s start this over.” He’d made fresh coffee, which he poured into Styrofoam cups and handed to our guests, along with a plate of Hostess donuts hemorrhaging powdered sugar. The three looked at each other, maybe wondering whether the coffee was poisoned, and then as if they’d decided to go down together they bit into the donuts.
“So,” the old man said through a mouthful of sugar, “which one of you has had the surgery?”
“There’s not just one surgery,” Tony said, in the voice of someone who has sat at tables and on panels of talk shows explaining this very thing many times.
“You don’t have to have surgery to be transgender,” Robin added.
“We don’t know the politically correct terms,” the old woman said, and I heard Sasha snicker at the phrase “politically correct.” She was like a teenager sometimes, like my sister, if my sister were a lot taller and I was in love with her.
“They don’t care,” said the college girl to the old woman, but it was a gauntlet thrown down to us. “They don’t like us anyway.”
“Now now,” Ellen said.
“Admit it,” the college girl said, “you think we’re crazy. That’s why you put up Buffer Zones.”
“We want Buffer Zones so you don’t blow us up,” Sasha said.
“That one has an attitude,” the old man said, pointing to Sasha.
I got offended for her sake. “Why can’t you just let people do what they want? YOU don’t have to have an abortion.”
The college girl sat up straight. “Have you ever seen forceps disconnecting the leg of an unborn baby? Look on YouTube.” She looked off into the distance as she talked, as if at a podium. Her fellow servants of the Lord nodded, solemn.
“Do you really think you’re changing anyone’s mind out there?” Sasha asked.
“Everyone asks me that,” the old woman said, “as if that’s the most important thing.” She was untying the wet grocery bags so that now we could see her shoes: sensible brown things that could be worn to church, the kind of shoe my grandmother might call “pumps.”
“What’s the most important thing?” Tony said. He was impatient; he had been texting with his wife, and he wanted to go home. But the hail had only gotten worse.
Behind the old woman, next to the shelf of vagina puppets, was a set of hooks for coats, unoccupied since we’d all draped ours over our chairs. She put one damp bag on each hook, spreading it carefully so it would dry. I imagined her home, the knick-knacks she dusted but never really looked at, the cross above the mirror.
She stood a moment longer in front of her chair. “You’re wondering why I stand outside, day after day in whatever weather, my charley horse acting up, my lips chapped, my feet wet, sweat down my blouse? So when it comes time for me to give an account of myself I can say, I tried.”
“You’d probably be more effective at the policy level,” Sasha said.
“Let’s start over,” Tony said for the second time. “We’ve reached a Phase Two Flood Zone, so we’re going to be here a long time. We’re all going to have to learn how to get along.”
“If we run out of food and starve and have to eat someone, it should be Eli,” Sasha said, pinching my love handles. I pushed her hand away. She knew that extra flesh reminded me of my original child-bearing purpose, and it hurt me that she’d brought it up.
Once I started thinking about my hips it took me a while to stop, so I wasn’t the one who noticed the old man was gone. I think it was Ellen who noticed, or maybe Robin, but anyway, just like that he wasn’t in the meeting room. And we all looked at each other, except for the old woman and the college girl, who shared a private smile that was visible to everyone, and that’s how we all knew it was bad.
“Son of a bitch,” Tony said.
“Tell us what he’s doing,” Sasha said to the two remaining protestors. But they just smiled again, infuriatingly, and Tony was already up and out of the room. We all got up and followed him. We found the old man in the main office, rooting around in a filing cabinet, wire-rim glasses askew in concentration. When he saw us he started jamming papers into a tote bag. Everyone was yelling and cursing. Except Ellen, who was just saying with weary resignation, “They’ll never let us back, that’s for sure.”
“You were the one that wanted to let them in!” Tony said.
Ellen nodded, not disputing this, but Sasha said, “No, it was my fault. I got this,” and lunged for the old man. She managed to grab him around the waist and lodge a knee somewhere I think was meant to be the balls, but she just landed on his thigh and it didn’t make much of a difference. He shoved her aside and I went to comfort her, but she shoved me now, back toward the old man, hissing “Do something!”
I’d been hearing that command in my head all my life. Usually I was too fuzzy with fear to heed it. I told myself this time would be different. I went for the chest, my skull connecting with the hard muscle under his flannel shirt. He was much stronger than typical for his age, and I wondered as he pushed me into the wall if he’d trained for this. As he elbowed through the office door with the bag of papers, he chuckled. “Nice try, buddy.” I knew that word. Men used it with me often, now. Sometimes they intended it to be friendly, but it always meant the same thing: You’ll never be like me.
“All the important files are probably digitized anyway, right?” Ellen said.
We could do nothing but follow the old man past the waiting room and the foyer. He paused for a moment before opening the door, and we saw what he was going to do.
When he opened the door a wall of water came at us. Really the only way you could describe it would be in Biblical terms. Noah, maybe, but most likely Moses, hands halving a solid curtain of sea. Into this the old man shook the contents of his tote bag free.
We watched the parking lot current carrying them away.
“Well congratu-fucking-lations,” Tony said. We were all damp just from standing in the doorway.
The old man turned to look at us for the first time. His eyes were glistening. “You were God’s messengers. You gave me the opportunity. And you expect me to pass it up?”
I felt a hand on my shoulder: Sasha’s. “The other two are gone,” she whispered. We separated ourselves from the crowd by the door.
Sasha’s theory was that the old man’s grand gesture was meant to distract us from whatever the other two were doing. While Tony was threatening to call the police and the old man was saying, Go ahead, see if they come out in this, Sasha and I checked the examining room doors. The ones I opened were all locked, and there was no sign of the other two protestors.
Sasha beckoned me over. She’d found a sonogram room door that was open. Was it a fluke? It had to have been, because when we turned on the light and looked around no one was there.
The room took on dimensions before us: the table where the pregnant woman was supposed to lie—firm yet pliant, in a neutered tan—a chair on wheels and a table with a computer and a supply closet.
“God forbid they should have some color in here,” Sasha said. “But then we’d have to doubt the medical integrity of their services.”
“There’s that pink and orange painting on the wall,” I said. “Abstract curves. So womanly.”
Sasha put her hands on my hips. “Can’t you give me some of yours?”
The hips, again. This time I didn’t care, because at the touch of her hand I saw only white, and when my vision cleared again I realized what I should have known all this time, since she was a little boy who sawed her graham crackers into weapons and I was a little girl sitting there always in awe of her.
“Come live with me,” I said.
“I’ve seen your apartment. You can either open the oven or the fridge, but not both at the same time.”
“What kind of overachiever needs to open both the fridge and the oven at the same time?”
“You’re sweet,” she said. “But I’ve already committed to my friend’s couch.”
Outside the dull roar of the storm crescendoed, like the ocean Omaha had never seen.
“I think they’re right,” I said. “I think we caused this.”
“The storm?” She laughed and backed away from me to sit on the edge of the examining table.
“Think about it. When have we had weather like this?”
“Maybe it’s not just the abortion legislation. I’ve fucked up so much. We all have.”
“You’re saying we brought this on ourselves.”
I shrugged. Sasha laughed. And then, Dear God, she kissed me.
I’d kissed one boy and two girls in my lifetime, and she tasted like neither of them. She tasted only like something I’d been waiting for. And because her tongue was so insistent I did what I wanted to do, which was to climb onto the sonogram table on top of her. It wobbled a little, under the unaccustomed weight of two people. I pressed my forehead against hers and kissed her again and listened for the rushing water against the window and felt so safe. I took Sasha’s head in my hands and cradled her hairline, which had been scooting quietly forward in the last few months, and I kissed her again and she made a little noise and then I heard another noise, but this one was different, and I ignored it without much effort but then I heard it again. Someone was clearing their throat. This someone was not Sasha.
I looked at Sasha. She looked back at me. I jumped down off the table. If I’d been a man born man, I would have zipped my fly.
I walked toward the sound, which had come from the closet. I pushed at the closet door and something stopped it from opening completely, and that something was the old woman.
She was bent into a huddle to fit under a shelf of latex glove boxes.
“The fucking closet,” Sasha said. “We didn’t check it.”
The old woman had ruined everything I wanted, but seeing her all curled up deflated my anger.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “When I heard you coming in, I hid.”
“You might have said something,” Sasha said.
I helped the woman to her feet. Her legs shook a little from being bent for so long. I guided her to the chair with wheels the doctors used.
“You jimmied the lock, didn’t you?” Sasha said.
It was clear the old woman was happy someone had noticed. “John taught us to use a credit card,” she said, and we didn’t have to ask to understand she meant the old man.
Sasha swung her legs over to sit sidesaddle on the sonogram table. “I hope you got all the information you wanted. Did you figure out where to plant the bomb?”
The old woman stretched each cramped leg in front of her, pantyhose folding like batter on her knees. “You think you’re so rebellious. Because you’re changing genders, defying your parents. You’re so young, still. You don’t know the half of life.”
Sasha was still embarrassed at having been found out. And when she was embarrassed, she got mean. “What’s your story? Couldn’t have any kids? Couldn’t find anyone to give them to you?”
“Had one. Died.”
“SIDS. The marriage didn’t survive, either.”
I gave Sasha a look like, I hope you’re happy, and patted the old woman on the back. She seemed so insubstantial, like I might accidentally knock her to the floor.
The old woman sat up in the chair. I could see she was feeling emboldened. “I don’t see what’s so controversial about what we do. Why they call us crazy. What’s so crazy about defending the lives of innocent beings?”
Sasha rolled her eyes. “Planned Parenthood doesn’t want to kill babies. It’s about the woman’s right to choose.”
“Why are people so obsessed with choice? You don’t always get a choice. If I have a baby, I should take care of it. Life is made of limits.”
We struggled for a coherent response to this philosophy. I wasn’t sure if the water I heard against the sides of the building was pounding rain or actual waves, crashing against the brick and vinyl.
The old woman sighed. “What am I saying? I’m talking limits to people who don’t know them. God assigns you a sex and you say, That’s not enough for me.”
For that one I had a response. “If God wanted me to keep my breasts, why would He make the technology to be able to cut them off?” Why would He make so much joy possible, I thought but did not add, if it wasn’t supposed to be accessed? Why would He allow the soft fabric of my T-shirt to hang forthright on my chest and swell a little at the slope of my belly, like it always should? Was it not God’s own miracle that I’d been born at a time when this was possible?
“Not everything on Earth is put there by God,” the old woman said, and then the power went out.
There was a shriek from somewhere else in the building, probably the college girl. I felt for Sasha and in the dark my hand hit something and yes it was her hand, also finding its dumb blind way to mine. We clasped palms there, in the darkened sonogram room, while the water pounded against the walls as if it wanted to be part of the secret.
“Ada!” the old man yelled out from somewhere else in the building. “Ada!”
“Is that you?” I whispered to the old woman.
We felt instead of saw her nodding.
“Don’t answer him,” Sasha said. “You’re safe here with us.”
I felt this, too: that somehow the old man posed a threat to her, even if ideologically speaking they were on the same side.
“I was supposed to be doing inventory,” Ada said. “There’s a group that collects floor plans and catalogs of equipment for all Planned Parenthoods in the country. While John caused mayhem I was supposed to unlock all the rooms and take notes, but I only got to one other one before you came in.”
There was a note of defiance in her voice, like she thought we had underestimated her, which we clearly had.
I squeezed Sasha’s hand harder. “Are you still going to do it?” I realized I didn’t know anymore whether to try to stop her.
We waited for a long moment, the seconds magnified by the close dark. Ada began to cry. It was awkward to hear an old woman cry, especially one with the muted snuffling of someone who’d known for a long time her grief didn’t matter.
I would have rather that Ada had things under control. I would have rather she stay strong in her convictions, however wrong they might be, and then I would have liked her to teach us how to open doors with a credit card.
“I never got one,” she said. “They’re dying every day…” She muttered something else, but I couldn’t discern its contours from the muffled dim.
I caught the slight reflection of my face in the sonogram screen. In mirrors, now, I always looked both more familiar and more strange.
“I wish I could have a baby,” Sasha said, breaking the ceremonial hush.
“Really?” The thought was alarming.
“Think about it Eli. I could grow something inside of me.”
Ada’s breath rattled as she spoke. “When Gabriel came to Mary. When he said, you have found favor with God.”
“What is she talking about?” Sasha said.
“The virgin birth.” My family hadn’t been to Mass in years, but some things stuck.
“You think I’d be a terrible mom, but actually I’d be great,” Sasha continued.
I thought about this: Sasha as a great mom. Then I wondered if I ever wanted to be a father, before I realized I had no idea how to be a man.
“Who’s touching me?” Sasha said from the dark.
Damning my phone’s waning charge, I turned on its flashlight again. Ada was running the sonogram wand over Sasha’s belly like some kind of diviner.
“You said you wished you could have a baby…” Ada said.
“Go along with it,” I whispered.
Sasha shrugged. “Do I have to put my feet through the stirrups?”
Ada nodded. She was going for maximal realism. But Sasha’s Docs wouldn’t fit into the loops, no matter how much I extended them, so she just stuck the tops of her shoes through. Ada continued with the wand. Her face was so close to Sasha’s belly now she must have been hearing some kind of pulse, even if it was just the afterimage of the storm outside.
“Lift up your shirt,” I whispered.
“Eli,” Sasha said, and I couldn’t tell whether my name sounded strange and beautiful because it was new or because she was saying it, “you can’t say things like that now.”
Could I not? The boundaries of my new world were always shifting. Ada paused to look at the sonogram machine as if wondering whether to turn it on for real, and Sasha raised her shirt anyway.
My phone’s flashlight illuminated the trail of dark hair on her belly. Estrogen was making her skin softer and her hair less coarse, but she was still saving money to “zap the rest away,” as she put it. I couldn’t look at the trail for long; I didn’t trust my voice not to quiver.
“Doctor, tell me what you see,” Sasha said. She was getting into it. “I’ve never had a child before. Even though I’m not prepared to keep this one, I want it to be healthy. I want it to go to a good home.”
Ada made a small exclamation, like Oh, or Ah, but she didn’t say anything, even though she was supposed to be the doctor in this scenario. Instead she peered at the dark sonogram screen like something really was revealing itself to her there. If you spent your life imagining nascent beings failing to reach their potential, I supposed it wasn’t too much to imagine a fetus onto a black screen.
I tried to play the part of the doctor myself, to keep things going. “I see…a spinal cord? Look at those cute little bumps!”
Ada brushed away my attempt. “No no no.” She pointed to the screen with an ever so slightly quivering forefinger, and I trained my phone’s light on it so we all could see whatever it was she wanted us to see. “There’s the chorionic sac.” She traced the outlines of a fetal shape onto the faint dust of the monitor. “There you can see the arms and legs beginning to emerge. There’s the baby’s pelvis, and the umbilical cord with the placenta. We don’t know the sex yet…”
She looked significantly our way.
“And fortunately, the chromosomal abnormality test has come up negative.”
“That’s a relief,” Sasha said.
“And look!” The light wasn’t showing Ada’s eyes, but I could tell from her voice that they were brightening. “The heartbeat is showing up on the screen! It’s a strong 100 beats per minute, which means the pregnancy is definitely viable. Congratulations.” She had a little hitch to her voice.
“It’ll be yours, so congratulate yourself,” Sasha said to me. I put my hand over hers and for a heart throttling moment I didn’t know whether I was the father or the doctor, the man or the woman, the child or the adult or all of these or none. I could see it on the screen, the grainy pixilations of new life. The yolk in the egg sac so fragile, trembling like a leaf in the wind.
Sasha sat up. “It all looks grey to me.”
It occurred to me that, even with Sasha there, in the ways that mattered I was alone. I’d decided to become a man on my own, and I would have to decide what that meant on my own. It felt lonely, and like growing up. Like the only person who could show the future to me was me.
We heard voices calling for us; they’d figured out, finally, that we weren’t nearby. In the hush that followed the question marks of our names we looked at each other and smiled. Nobody answered. They’d find us eventually, and it wasn’t like we didn’t have time. After all, it was still raining, and we still couldn’t go home.
Clarence Harlan Orsi is a graduate of the PhD program in writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose essays and fiction have appeared in publications including The Believer, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and n+1. He is an Associate Professor of English at Cecil College in northern Maryland and lives in Baltimore.