An officer escorts my sister from the backroom of the police station. I sit on a bench near the front office where I paid the bail for an arrest made on grounds of public intoxication. The cop gives Maura information about the hearing she will attend later in the month, and makes her sign off on some paperwork before releasing her. When she sees me, her expression becomes a smiling grimace. She looks older, thinner than I from when I last saw her three years ago at Mom’s funeral. Maybe it’s the jeans. Or the stringy hair that frames her pale face and blue, red-rimmed eyes. Their tired, bemused gaze searches me.
“Thanks for this,” Maura says.
“Happy to help out, kiddo.”
I wonder what my voice must sound like to her ears. Deeper, with a baritone’s edge. This is the first time she’s seen me since I began the hormone therapy, though I’ve kept her updated through emails on the status of the physical end of my transition—the testosterone shots and double mastectomy. Levi is the only name I answer to these days. Her responses are seldom, and indifferent at best. Now Maura’s stare roams over the contours of my body, the little pot belly that was fat once distributed around my hips, the flat torso, and rests upon my shaven head and thick sideburns.
“I tried calling my friend Jackie. It was just her with me at the bar. She won’t pick up her phone,” she says. Her voice is broken and hoarse, like she’s smoked through a pack of cigars.
“We broke up.”
I bob my head in the most apologetic way possible, though that much seems to fall in line with everything else I know about my sister—she’s never been able to keep a partner, let alone a job, for longer than a few months. Despite the long stretches of silence between us, when we reconnect, her story is always the same. She’s quick to call me up for a hand out, and even quicker to disappear when things start looking stable. I know it’s been rough for her since Mom passed, which is why, perhaps, I never turn my sister away. She’s my only family.
“I’m sorry about everything. It’s all one big misunderstanding,” she says.
“Must’ve been one hell of misunderstanding to get locked up over,” I say. She’d woken me out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night. And it’s not exactly a short car ride from Provincetown to Boston.
“I drank too much and got into an argument with this asshole outside the bar. A cop broke us up and wanted to make his quota for the night. I never meant to get you involved,” she says.
“But you did,” I say.
Antipathy flickers in her eyes and moves into the way her lip curls up, revealing the tips of her crooked teeth. I’ll be damned if I wasn’t last on her list of emergency contacts.
“You didn’t have to come out,” she says.
“So what was I supposed to do? Let you sit in jail?”
She swallows hard; the chords in her neck strain like Dad’s when he’s angry, skirting the edge of a blowup. “Listen, I’m sorry, ok? But you know, I really appreciate everything that you’ve done for me tonight. If you could just give me a ride back to my place, I promise I won’t bother you again. I’d call a cab but I left my bag in the bar and lost everything. I mean, you don’t have to worry about me reimbursing you for the bail. I’ll mail you a check first thing Monday morning. Maybe you could even call me a cab. I know you’ve got a long ride back home. I’ll pay you back.”
She stares ahead at something beyond the wide fat windows of the station’s entrance, her face pinched together tight, as she did that day of the funeral, playing liaison between I and my father, who refused to speak to me. Maura’s strength is greater than my own; she cared for our mother when the lymphoma became terminal and the hospital sent her home. In these ways my sister is owed.
“You don’t have to pay me back,” I say.
We leave for the parking lot. Maura follows at safe distance and remains silent while I lead her to my red Honda Civic. In the space between us a tree-shaped air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror. Its cherry scent has long expired. My sister gives me her address and I feed it into the GPS before pulling the car out of the lot. The world outside my window becomes moving ribbons of shadow punctured by the occasional streetlight comet.
“Why don’t we get something to eat? You must be hungry. There must be a Denny’s around here,” I say.
“No, I got sick earlier. I don’t think I could keep anything down,” Maura says.
“Maybe some coffee then?”
“Please just take me home, Sarah.”
A beat of awkward silence before Maura realizes her mistake. We stop at a red light and when I turn to her, she cuts her eyes to me and shakes her head slow.
“Levi. I’m sorry, Levi. Please just take me home,” she says.
Bubbles of resentment fill the back of my throat; maybe if either one of us had made more of an effort to be in one another’s lives, she’d know better. The light turns green, and I get the car moving. The breeze cuts past us at all angles, snakes around my neck and ears.
“Dad bought a new trailer in Maine,” she says.
“He’s in Maine now?”
“Yeah. Just outside of Augusta. He sold the old house and everything.”
Until I left home at sixteen, Dad and I were always fighting, sometimes with our fists. Mom wanted to send me to the McLean psychiatric hospital for treatment. The alleged illness: gender dysphoria.
I don’t want to think about those people.
We drive on, unspeaking. Soon I reach the apartment complex and pull up alongside the curb.
“You going to be ok now?” I say.
“Yeah.” Maura rakes a hand through her hair, pushing it backs behind her ears and opens the car door. Before leaving, she turns to me smiling, her eyes bright.
“Thank you, Levi,” she says.
I’ll wait just until she’s inside before driving off. Maura reaches the front door and rings the buzzer a few times, then inspects beneath a pot of geraniums on the front step. She rises slow, massaging her forehead and makes an expression like she’s about to cry. I roll down my window.
“Everything alright?” I say.
Maura shakes her head and returns inside the car.
“My friend Alice usually hides the key outside,” she says.
“What about the landlord? I’m sure he or she must have a spare.”
“It’s not my apartment.”
“You mean you don’t have a place to stay?”
“I do. My friend was letting me crash after I broke up with Tom.”
“You’ve certainly got some dependable friends.”
“Thanks for noticing.”
“You could stay with me.”
Maura is quick to shake her head. “I wouldn’t want to impose,” she says.
“It’s no imposition. Seriously,” I say.
She sighs, and I put the car into drive.
“It’s just for a few nights. Just until I get back on my feet,” Maura reminds me as I bring her an oversized t-shirt to sleep in. We stand together in the bedroom of my studio apartment back in Provincetown.
“We can talk about it in the morning,” I say.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to take the couch? I really don’t mind.”
“Maura, get some sleep already.”
I spare her any potential indecency and strip down to my boxers in the living room before stretching out against the sofa. I rub a hand along the coat of fine dark hair on my tight, flat chest. I think of how alone I was during the mastectomies; I’d hired an aide to escort me back home from the hospital because I was too loopy from the anesthesia to walk on my own. From the bedroom, the bed creaks as Maura settles herself in. After a moment, I hear her soft, muffled crying. The walls in my apartment are too thin. I squeeze my eyes shut, but I can’t help but listen.
I wake early the next morning and prepare myself for another day of teaching at the studio. Maura is already up, so I invite her along, suggesting how she might have fun trying her hand at blowing glass.
“It will take your mind off things,” I say, and this much seems to interest her.
The studio is a short walk from my apartment along Commercial Street. Inside, it’s hot. We keep the furnaces roaring day and night in order to make glass. I stand around one of the ovens with my students. Maura smirks at us, and especially at me in my big black goggles and gloves that reach my elbows. A look only a mad scientist could appreciate. Four other student glassblowers wear tinted glasses and hold blowpipes. I maneuver my long metal pipe into the molten glass from the roaring furnace, and, withdrawing the blowpipe, I show them how the glass sticks to the end of the tube like honey.
“Now the trick to working with glass is to relax and keep it moving,” I say. “Move like you’re dancing with it, without losing focus on what’s the next task, so there’s no time lost in stalling and having to reheat the glass again. Once it hits the air, the glass hardens fast.”
I roll the pipe up and down in my hands, smoothing the liquid end into a ball with a pair of pliers. Then I turn the blowpipe around in my hands in one fluid gesture. I set the pipe down on a nearby workbench, cooling the glass with a handful of wet newspaper, and begin shaping it with wooden blocks. Then I sprinkle a blue flourlike material onto the surface of the bench, and roll the glass ball into the substance, coating it with powder.
“We’re going to need to reheat it in order for the powder to melt, gives it some color,” I says, and nod at the middle furnace. I turn to Maura, offering the blowpipe. “You want to try?”
“Sure, why not?” Maura says gamely, like it’s some kind of a challenge I’ve bestowed upon her, and not an invitation to share in a piece of what I love.
One of the students hands her a pair of work gloves and a plastic mask. Maura inserts the pipe into the gloryhole, before removing it and rolling it up and down as I’ve done. A certain rhythm is required, an inherent sense of grace that she lacks. Then it happens so fast. She fumbles with the pipe, allowing the heated end to touch the exposed part of her wrist. I hear the flesh sizzle, before she screams and drops the blowpipe to the ground.
Back at my apartment, I settle Maura into the screened-in porch I share with other residents, and press an ice pack against her arm.
“You don’t smoke at all?” she says. It’s the second time she’s asked.
“Absolutely not,” I say.
“I only smoke when I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“What’s on your mind?”
She sits again and fingers the ice pack, which has already lost its solidity.
“I don’t know how I get myself into the situations I do. It’s not like I don’t try to work hard or make better decisions. Shit always falls apart on me. And now I don’t even have a home to go home to,” she says.
“You don’t have to worry about that part right now. I said you could stay with me as long as you want. Maybe even go back to college. I know how hard it was for you to finish that time when Mom got sick,” I say.
Maura cuts her eyes to me and snorts. “What do you know? You weren’t even there.”
“No, I wasn’t there. But not because I didn’t want to be. They didn’t want me around.”
“That’s not all true. It wasn’t for Mom anyways.”
“We can’t changed what’s happened. This is your life.”
An uneasy look crosses Maura’s face, and she rises again.
“I need to take a walk somewhere. I don’t want to think anymore. Do you want to go to the beach or something?”
I nod, then begin to smile. It’s late afternoon now, a good time for trekking over the long, sloping mounds of sand with the midday sun far behind us.
“I bet you’ll love the dunes,” I say.
Here’s the portion of Provincetown that I love best: the long, desert-like stretch of beach that makes up for a significant chunk of its coast. We hike the uneven ridges slow, though it won’t be long now before we reach the ocean. Maura keeps a steady pace with me. She’s dressed in a pair of my sneakers and a baseball cap.
“How long have we been going now?” she asks, her voice just shy of panting.
I check my wristwatch. “Thirty-seven minutes, to be exact.”
“It feels like we’re climbing up an endless wall of sand.”
“You get used to it for a while, then it becomes addictive. I usually hike the dunes once or twice a month though because of my teaching schedule. It’s amazing how much I’m anchored to this place. This is my oumfo,” I say.
“What is that?”
“Oumfo is your spiritual home. It’s this town, its breaches, the people, the very air of this place.”
“You’re lucky. I’ve never felt at home anywhere.”
We reach the top of a dune, and from here, it is possible to see far across the land, to witness the earth, sewn together in patches of grass and sand. The sky is blue lace agate. Cranberry bogs dot the landscape in uneven squares of bright crimson. Their colors change with the seasons; in spring, pink-white flowers will blossom and give way to red-orange fruit. A gray dune shack nearby overlooks the shimmering Atlantic on the horizon. The planks that hold it together look frail enough to be smashed apart by the wind.
“So what’s it like officially being a dude now?” Maura says. This question, and the sudden, relaxed way in which it’s delivered, stuns me, though I can’t help but smile.
“Well, I’m still me. It’s not like I met some tranny godmother who waved a magic wand and made me this perfect him. I just feel more comfortable in my skin now. But I’m still the same person as I was before,” I say.
My sister nods, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on behind those large sunglasses she wears.
“You did good in there today,” I say.
“In your studio? You can’t be serious.”
Maura shakes her head, smiling. “I made a fool of myself.”
“No way. Everyone has it rough at first.”
“Well, consider that my first and last time,” she says, and begins her descent over our final dune. Before us lies Herring Cove, a narrow, often vacant beach covered in stones and seashells. The rocks make small tidal pools. The beach is divided up among the gay men, lesbians and straight couples at the farthest point. Trans folk are welcome, of course, but there isn’t enough of us to make up our own section. I usually find myself among the lesbians–a legion of women, many with children, and some gals swimming with dogs. It’s always strange when they see me, those that don’t know me. I look too much like a straight man. I am a strange bird to them, one who has been blown off course from the others, and stranded in odd waters.
“I was hoping that you might be open to trying it again sometime,” I say.
“Why?” Maura says.
“I’ve been looking for someone to help out around the studio. Retail, customer assistance, maybe even helping out cleaning up the shop at the end of the day.”
“I don’t think I could do that.”
Shells crunch beneath our boots. They are bivalves mostly, hinged together or broken apart, dirty gray pieces threaded with violet. My sister picks up one, and it’s reflected twice in her sunglass lenses.
“I’m asking you to let me help you,” I say.
We’ve reached the sea. The Atlantic spreads out far before us. At my feet, I notice a heron, half-buried in the sand. One of its wings is frozen upright, pointing towards the sun. I imagine its miscalculated approach; the bird intending for water, but diving headfirst into the sand instead. The remains of his existence wait only for the slow patience of the tides, their salvation found deep underfoot. Heat rises up from my neck, and I become aware of the weight of my t-shirt, the way it conceals me. I remove it fast, then my boots, and walk barefoot into the water. Gentle, icy waves lap around my ankles. A breeze carrying the promise of rain kisses the long horizontal scars on my chest. When I turn, I see that Maura is also removing her shoes. She smiles at me as she enters the ocean.
Olivia Kate Cerrone’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide variety of literary journals, including New South, The Portland Review, The Dos Passos Review, JewishFiction.net, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Word Riot, and Italian Americana.