‘What to Call You’

New Work

By Casey Plett

When I lived in Portland, I met this tiny trans woman with razor-straight chestnut bangs and she told me a story.

There was a freeway overpass, she said, near the house where she grew up. Every afternoon as she came home from school, there was a woman standing on the sidewalk of the overpass with a young girl. The woman stood looking over the cars below and the girl sat on the sidewalk, leaning against the railing. Sometimes the girl had a Game Boy and sometimes she was reading and sometimes she did nothing.

My mother never let me talk to them, the tiny trans woman said. They always looked like they were in trouble. I saw them nearly every day. For a few years maybe. But one day they were just gone.

So many vanished and winked-out girls have been in my life, appearing for only days or months at a time. A few have died. Some are doing great and some aren’t. A lot are doing ok, I guess.

Facebook doesn’t help. Reminding you of lost presence. All these sad and joking girls sliding up and down my screen. Like I’ll ever be a real part of their lives again. If years ago, I could’ve known the way transsexual women would apparate in and out of my life—

Well. Not that such a thing years ago would’ve been comprehendable to me in any sense. Now would it.

This particular trans woman, the tiny one with the chestnut razor-bangs, at the party, she’d been nervous telling me this story, sucking on a beer in the kitchen; a friend had introduced us (waved her hands like butterflies and said, So you two!—yes and flitted away). She had on a black polka-dot dress and no makeup.

Later I Facebook-creeped her and found stunning pictures from her past. All eyeliner and black hair, dolled-up right on that line between girlfriend and pornstar. But that night this tiny woman looked like a middle-school wallflower. Someone out of a Judy Blume book. We talked till she had to leave with her ride and I never saw her again either. I think she lived in Eugene. I can’t remember her fucking name.

I parked at exactly 3:04 PM and already had a few inquiries. One asked to come right away.

Tina was at the front desk: Blonde, thirty-ish, square glasses, fingers on a workbook, an unobtrusive ball in her right cheek. She said hello, she said how was my—she hesitated—girlfriend?

Great, I said. Trying to get her to move in with me still! She’s getting money together.

She said, yikes must be cold up there.

They’re gonna have snow soon.

Tina shivered. September! And we think we have it bad!

Tina was a nice girl, effortlessly church-going, about to get married—an act which, at her age of thirty, was old enough to suggest a past around here.

When they let you get out of here?

Ten o’clock, said Tina, then looked down at some notes and back up for me. Sorry, she said shyly, I should get back to this, I’m teaching Sunday school tomorrow.

Late on it, huh? I said. Yeah I was always late for Sunday school too.

She laughed, then looked worried.

Just joking around.

Haha. Tina straightened her head and said: Sophie, I—we’re always happy to have you here, I hope you know that.

I smiled in a way I hoped was wistful.

You’re always good to me, I said. And I appreciate that. I really do. I’ll leave you now.

Tina looked satisfied. I think I’ve got a good lie going, my pretend girlfriend who lives up north. This being the halfway point on what would be a one-day drive for anyone else but for me—I clot easily, I explained the first time. I can only be in a car so many hours at a time. And there’s no other way to get there.

I don’t need to have this lie replete with all its distractions. Obviously every motel deals with hookers and they’ll either figure it out or they won’t. I know it’s silly and one day it’ll probably all bite me someday but there’s something deep in me that tells me this persona is one to sustain when I come touring through here.

I wonder about that sometimes. The joy in getting to try on different stories. I do like pretending to be a non-threatening weary dyke. Not that that passes for normal around here even in 2014, but people smell weirdo on me in some way or another. Between queerdo, transsexual and hooker, I figure it’s a green-light yellow-light red-light system. Respectively.

Straight people talk about using new names like it’s mysterious or other-worldly. Aliases. I used to worship that thought myself. When I was closeted my name used to hold an almost holy meaning, something I knew in every part of my young head but could barely say or hear. But then I got older and moved away and I found out it’s easy. At least with strangers. Sometimes it’s easy. When it is, you just tell them what to call you.

In my room I broke a Cialis and opened my computer for music.

My lips were cracking. I traced them with my finger. Should I try lipstick again? I always fucked it up as a kid. That was lifetimes ago though.

The guy texted: Here.

Room 15, I said.

An Air Force-looking guy, nervous.

Hello ma’am. He removed his ball cap.

Come in.

He sucked me hard till he lost interest. Then I fucked him and he came in seconds. Thank you, he said sheepishly. Then out the door.

Another guy wanted to come right away, which, Jesus. I already had two regulars, one at seven and one at nine. This new guy wanted an hour and he wanted to fuck me.

He showed up in ten minutes, came in five, then rolled over for a massage and was gone in twenty.

There were more inquiries but I was already tired and none of them seemed like sure things and the regulars were A+ reliable and I…I…I…eh.

I put my phone on vibrate and lay back on the bed and reached up to turn the air conditioning on and let it blow over me. I was already up a few hundred for the weekend. I let my body relax and sink into the bed.

Eventually I changed my clothes, put my hair in pigtails, and went outside and smoked a cigarette, sitting on the curb with the sun with the pavement hot under my sandals. The sun was wide and clear and a car door slammed a block away and there was the nulled crunch of gravel and then Tina walked by on her way to the laundry room, her hair sheets around her face. I waved but she didn’t see me. It was rare the girls poked their heads around the corner where my room was. The entrance around back where my clients came was hidden from the office.

It was a few weeks after Labour Day, one of the last hot days of fall. The cold was coming soon. It was hot today but already there’d been days I could feel it in the air sometimes. When a certain kind of wind blows down and in from the Arctic and you can smell the winter inside of it, the minus-twenty hidden in the cloak of a light breeze.

Back inside, I shouldered my bag and rolled my money in my fist, then stuck it in the glove box and walked up to the highway.

I can’t not eat heavy when I’m on the road. I’ve tried and I can’t. I walked past the Burger King and into the Cenex, bought a hot dog and covered it in mayo and ketchup, then a pack of cigarettes and a pint of whiskey.

Walking down the highway, a car slowed and two boys leaned out of the front and the back. How much! they yelled in unison.

I blinked. I wanted to laugh.

Are you serious? I said.

They were thrown off for a second. Then one of them threw a cup at me as hard as he could. It was a McDonald’s cup and it only had water so it didn’t really hurt or stain. They drove off.

Up the highway the cars were sparse and I went eating my hot dog, stopped at another fast food place and bought a pop. I didn’t turn off for the motel, I walked till I got to the interstate, in the direction of the sun, bright and orange and low in the sky. I walked up the grass beside the road making it rustle until I was on the overpass, on the other side of the cars, looking east. The sun was shooting light across town, hitting the river and Minnesota beyond it and the brown-green horizon-blended squares of darkening fields further on.

I popped the cap on the whiskey and dumped half of it into the pop. I leaned into the guardrail and the heavy blunt of the metal leaned into my stomach and my brain shut down for a minute until the whiskey took it over.

I walked down the ramp and west, out of town. I needed to walk—not for any fantasy of burning calories, but because I knew then my body would feel tired and therefore better. I’m saying I knew how to listen to my body.

Right away I was in the country. There isn’t really any thinning out around here. One block you’ll be in town and the next a field. My phone was beeping but I ignored it. The fields were yellow-white with canola and fuzz and I had guzzled the pop and soon I was drunk. Like drunk-drunk.

I turned south at a mile road and saw a sign to the Amtrak station. I walked along the rail line and by the train parking lot ran into some tallgrass—actual tallgrass, the kind of tallgrass mostly in preserves now. But there was some along the rails. It was sturdy and thick and so big. You wouldn’t even see me from the train station. There was a family unloading out of a minivan. The dad was swearing.

Back over the interstate, I took out my phone, skipped over the missed messages and calls, texted my mom: I was just in a pretty field. I miss you.

In five minutes she texted me back. Sophie! Well. It is certainly nice to hear from you! I do miss you too! How are you doing?!

A guy I’d coded “Z.BarebackMeatFace” called on the other phone. I ignored it and texted her: I’m great! Do I get to see u before Xmas?    

(I code by letters. “Z” means they’re idiots.)

Oh that would be nice, my mom said. Would u like me to come down? I could do it. If u don’t mind weekdays I could come down.


Z.BarebackMeatFace called again. I hung up with my other hand.

As nice as it would be to have you home up in MB! she texted. But I understand it’s not so easy for you. Maybe in a couple weeks I could drive down there?

Do you want me to come up there for family Xmas? I said. I almost didn’t send it then I did.

Well I’m sure we could figure out something for you and I to do! she said. Meatface called one more time and I hung up on him again.

Back in the room my phone went off with an unknown number an hour before Regular Number One was due. On impulse I answered and he sounded real. Ok if you come quick, I said.

He was short with ash-blonde hippie hair and a Misfits T-shirt and he started when I opened the door.

Hi­­—hi. He looked scared and I said Hello. I smiled warmly. Come in. Sit down. He didn’t sit. He said hi, how’s your—how’s your night going?

It’s alright, I said. I sat down and patted the bed. He didn’t move. Are you ok? I said. Are you nervous? He rubbed his head. Oh no no, I’m chill, I—yeah I’m fine. He sat down but in the chair, not the bed.

Great, I said. Nervous case. Nervous, nervous nervous case. Can we settle up business quick then—? I said. And then we can just relax—? Ok, he said. And for a second he seemed calm, and he came over to the bed and touched my shoulder, ran his fingers down my arm, I put my fingers in his ash-blonde hair.

Can I ask you a rude question?

I tilted my head. I get a lot of rude questions.

He didn’t laugh. He still looked like he’d seen a ghost. Some guys are like that. They all say it’s their first time so often I forget that must actually be true for some of them.

Then he said: Are you a guy? And I was like: Ah. So he doesn’t know how to fucking read an ad. I laughed.

I should have cleared it up right then, I know. But instead I heard myself say, No, honey. No. And you’re not the first person to ask me that. But I’m a woman, I said. His eyes eased slightly. Really? I took his hands and put them on my breasts. Really. He squeezed like he was testing dough. I breathed in sharp. He smiled. I took his hand and kissed his finger, sucked it lightly, just past the first knuckle. Then I put my hands on his sides and lifted his Misfits shirt and kissed his stomach. Are you comfortable now? I said, kissing him. We can settle up business? (Where did you think this would end up, Sophie? I thought to myself later.)

The guy smiled and reached for his pocket. But I could tell. He was just trying. Then he said: I don’t know—I’m sorry! He spun around and paced the room. I’m­­­—fuuuuck! I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m all messed up… he said. I’m just being paranoid. I like, I had a girl in Vegas do this once. She like. It turned out she was a guy, and she robbed me, and duped me, and—I’m sorry. I feel like an asshole. I’m being an asshole! I know. You seem like a nice person.

I stared at him for a long time.

Well, I eventually said, in my most tired, patient, aunt-like voice, I’m not a guy but you clearly have an issue here, so I don’t want you to do this if you’re feeling unsure. This was obviously a lie and I didn’t give a fuck about him but smarter instincts were taking over.

He was frozen. Look, I said, in the same voice. Why don’t you just give me twenty dollars and I’ll let you go without making a fuss. And then you can call me later if you change your mind.

Yeah yeah yeah, he said hurriedly. I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t stiff you, I’m not like that. Here. Here.

He gave me the twenty. Bye, he said. I dunno. If you come to my work I’ll give you some free pizza.

Thanks, I said sarcastically.

Then before I could snatch it back from my mouth: I’m sorry.

Unlike when this had happened in my personal life, this time the dude didn’t even get proof.

Well. Proof.

I sat there on the bed in my lingerie, looking at the wall and the blank TV.

The first regular came right on time at seven, the other right at nine. Boring, nice guys, middle-aged dads both. Easy to be around. They liked throatfucking but what guy doesn’t.

I have a theory that boys just think they want to come in your mouth. Really it’s probably more fun to come on a girl’s face. Not just the porn wired into every man’s head, I just would think the contact with lips and skin is more of a sensual feeling. You know? Everyone says I give great head but I think it’s just that. I mean, this stuff is rarely complicated.

After starting a bath, I counted up everything for the weekend between here and Fargo. I’d done good. I have one regular back in Chrysalis and sometimes these trips are risky for money but this trip was really good. I stuck all the money in a secret pocket in my suitcase; my phone was going nuts so I turned it to Do Not Disturb and let it charge out of sight, then got into my bath and soaked my aching junk.

It wouldn’t be hard to work back home, I thought, suddenly. Maybe even easier, up there—even if the city was rough, it was at least legal in Canada.

As a kid I dreamed of moving to the country, away from the city that seemed to make my mom so endlessly and unmoveably sad. My aunt and uncle used to live right next to my grandparents, who in turn lived a road down from their parents, in a small town out of every Miriam Toews novel and Manitoba postcard. My dreams of gentler smaller living were like something from Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. One of the reasons I came to Chrysalis, living on the outskirts of a little liberal-outpost college town an hour off any interstate. I like being out here now, and I liked being closer to home. Some people think it’s insane, I suppose, for a transsexual to move to anywhere on the American plains. But no place is perfect and most people pretend they understand that but they don’t. I never minded the cold. I mean, it’s not hard to get warm.

I missed my mom.

When I first transitioned, everything was so alternately horrifying and hopeful. I believed that with time, and effort on my part (be it surgeries, my voice, societal progress, whatever), every human would eventually see and treat me like a woman. I believed I would adjust to being treated like a woman. I believed the dignity I’d always wanted for my body would show up, someday.

This woman in New York once said, “You can divide girls up between the ones who were called faggot and the ones who weren’t.” Well I was called a faggot a bunch and I still always believed with patience that one day I would be loved how I’d once been loved.

My phone went off with Z.Bareback.Meatface again. And then within five minutes, again. It’s like refreshing Facebook for these fuckers, a friend of mine used to say.

By the time I went back outside, in jeans and a hoodie, the sun had set hours ago. It was a clear night, clear like I hadn’t seen in a while, the sky a planetarium-expanse of dots and black. Rare even for the country, let alone a town. For once, I left the whiskey in the room. I lit a smoke and walked back up to the highway, to the Cenex and loaded up one, two, then three hot dogs and a giant tower cup of Mountain Dew.

I walked back eating when I saw, so clearly, coming up the walk, a young trans girl.

It was obvious she passed—at least most of the time, at least, I guessed, around here. (To those who didn’t know her, I thought darkly.) She was young-young—eighteen, maybe. She had big glasses, a white sweatshirt with grey and black lines, and a simple, very short black cotton dress—American Apparel circa 2008, that kind of thing.

Wonder what they thought of her around here. Not that I’d really have any standing to know.

I never saw trans girls in Winnipeg, growing up, ever. And then I saw a few in Portland, and met a bunch more in New York, and for a while some girls in Chrysalis too—though only one girl’s left there I know now. And now I’m getting old. Yes. Old. Whatever. Age is different for trans people. Age is talked about differently. Not just how long you might live, and not just what kind of age, but what can be expected from you. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how many good-life benchmarks cis people have for age but they don’t apply to us, I swear they don’t. As the girl got nearer I smiled and said: Hello! and she stared through me and walked on.

I turned to look at her go—then realized how, in turn, that must have looked.

I hate that. I’ve always hated it. I always will.

The breeze was making my hoodie flap. I zipped it up with my bag of food and pop and went back up toward the interstate, up the overpass.

I got jolty when I heard sirens, and stood up nervous when a man went by on the pass, but otherwise I stood up there sipping my drink eating my meal with my skin chilled to the rails beside the sidewalk, the wind sweeping over the ground and up the concrete and through my body. And I could see everything, the lights of town and the river. Across from it the beginning of Minnesota. Behind me on the other side leading into the state was the train station, a few more streets, the old highway, and dark. And my clients and Tina, somewhere, I had to imagine, winding their way into homes, me a blip in and out of their real lives. Dots of farms or towers or barns stretched on for miles, in an ocean of unlight, to the point I couldn’t tell which were houses or stars.

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Casey Plett

Casey Plett wrote the short-story collection A Safe Girl To Love and has been published in The Walrus, The New York Times ArtsBeat, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Plenitude, Rookie and others. She is currently co-editing a forthcoming anthology of speculative fiction by trans writers with Cat Fitzpatrick. She is from the Canadian Prairies and the Pacific Northwest.