- This Is How It Always Is
Summer session used to be quiet but had been revving up the last few years. There were fewer minor injuries perhaps, but what came in was often a disaster. Rosie was prepared then for a circus. But nothing like the one she got.
The GSW came in unconscious and pale, intubated, blood everywhere, and swollen as hell. From the gurney as she was rushed inside, she did not look to Rosie like a gunshot victim. She looked like she’d been hit by a bus. Rosie listened hurriedly to her chest, shone a penlight in each eye, scanned her quickly to see where all the blood was coming from. It was coming from everywhere. Her clothes were sodden with it, but when they peeled them back to find the patient below, Rosie was initially relieved to find that the gunshot wound was small. The bullet had entered the left shoulder and exited cleanly. So where was all the blood coming from? Then she took in contusions, puncture wounds, visibly broken bones. And a penis.
For an instant, everything went still, and everyone took a step back from the table, hands raised, like they’d uncovered a bomb. Everyone’s first thought was that it must have been the EMT’s first day or that some idiot in campus security had interrupted a theme party of some sort and failed to realize this guy was in costume. But Rosie saw it right away, not only why this patient-with-a-penis had been taken to be female but also what had happened to her, why she was here. Someone opened the door and shouted out into the hallway, “Jane Doe’s a John Doe.” In that blink of a heartbeat while everyone in the room reordered what they knew and then got right back to work, Rosie saw the whole thing.
She saw Jane Doe at home getting ready for the fraternity party, her first maybe, putting on her sequined top, trying a few different skirts until she found the right one, the one tight enough to be feminine but loose enough to hide her secret, practicing in the heels (heels she loved more than it seemed like shoes should be loved, heels which, despite being a size 12 extra wide, still looked like real women’s shoes), getting the hair and the makeup exactly right (not garish, just natural, but with a little extra to hide the whiskers), looking at her terrified self in the mirror, reminding herself that most students at a party would be too drunk to look closely and plus it would be dark, that no one knew her here, she could start over, she could be anyone she wanted.
Rosie saw Jane teeter into the party. It was outside on the lawn behind the fraternity house and in full swing by the time she got there. Jane stood in the doorway to the backyard and took a deep breath: beer, potato chips, watermelon, sweat, her own perfume, her own fear. Vomit, or maybe she was just imagining that. She stepped onto the lawn and turned her ankle over. Shit. She’d been a college student for fifteen minutes, and already she’d blown her cover and would have to spend the semester on crutches besides. She was an idiot to think she could go out in heels.
But then, a miracle. A hand, tender, on the soft skin under her upper arm, thumb rubbing gentle circles.
“You okay?” He was, of course he was, blond, not dirty blond like the boys back home in Pennsylvania, blond like glowing, like an angel. Or maybe just like a Wisconsinite—what did she know? And, also like a glowing Wisconsinite angel, he was beautiful.
“Um … yeah?”
“I told those guys they had to clean up the yard before people came over.” The angel bent to pick up what she’d tripped over. Jane was so happy it hadn’t been the heels, it didn’t strike her as at all weird there was a package of once frozen waffles lying in the grass. “Breakfast.” The angel grinned sheepishly. “Now with lawn care.”
She laughed—spontaneously and like a girl—and it felt like the first time she had ever laughed, like she was a three-month-old laughing for the very first time. And his face lit up when she did like he understood the wonder of it perfectly. He left one hand where it was on her arm but held the other out for her to—she reminded herself urgently—grasp, not shake. “Chad,” he said.
“Jane,” said Jane Doe.
“Let me guess,” said Chad. “You’re one of those overeager, too-smart-for-your-own-good freshman girls who think they can get a head start on college by taking summer classes, like, the minute they graduate from high school.”
“Good. I love girls like that.”
“Yeah. I like my ladies smart.”
“And hey, I get it. Couldn’t wait to get out of your lame parents’ house, away from your lame high school friends, out of your lame hometown?”
She nodded. He did get it.
“Well, welcome to college. Let’s get you a beer.”
He did. He got her a slice of watermelon and a beer. Then another. And one after that. She assumed he was the gatekeeper, that he’d go back to the door or drift away to talk to people he knew or flirt with other girls he didn’t, but he stuck by her side all evening. “This is my friend Jane,” he’d say to everyone they met, and she wondered if this was what life would be like from now on. Maybe all these years it had been just this simple: put on a dress, introduce yourself as Jane, and suddenly you matched, you fit, you had fun, you felt right instead of awkward, you were the truth instead of a lie. Her real life had arrived finally, and here she was at its very start, peering over the edge. It was worth it, maybe, all the pain that came before if it brought her to this wondrous place.
Jane was happy to stand next to Chad, his hand on the small of her back protectively, while he introduced her as “my friend Jane” all night or forever if he wanted. But eventually, she noticed the yard was almost empty. A few people lingered, laughing too loudly or kissing on a lawn chair, but mostly they were alone. She sat down on the back steps—she still loved the heels, but they were not comfortable—and he sat down next to her.