The Queer and the Restless (A Queers of La Vista Novel)

The Queer and the Restless by Kris Ripper
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-437-4
eBook release: 
Oct 31, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-438-1
Print release: 
Oct 31, 2016
Word count: 
67,300
Page count: 
260
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Queers of La Vista universe.

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Ed Masiello has been on testosterone for a year, is working his dream job as a reporter, and is finally passing as a man (so long as you don’t ask his abuela). But the investigation of a murder case is starting to take over his life. Afraid he’s becoming obsessed, he goes to the local club to relax, and meets the flighty, whimsical Alisha.

Alisha is a free spirit who’s tossed aside ambition for travel and adventure. Her approach to life is a far cry from Ed’s, and while Ed has always assumed that meeting his goals would make him happy, Alisha is much more content than him—despite all the plans she can’t yet fulfill.

As their relationship heats up, so does the murder case. Alisha thinks Ed needs a break, but someone’s got to find this killer, and he wants to be there when it all goes down. Besides, taking off into the great unknown with Alisha is crazy. But opting for what’s safe is just another way of living in fear, and Ed vowed to stop living like that a long time ago.


This book can be read on its own, or enjoyed as the third book in the Queers of La Vista series.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

I sat in my chair on the day after the Fourth of July holiday, drinking coffee and staring at the wall. Since I didn’t have the energy to actually start writing, I switched the calendar over my desk to July: a picture of a massive cruise ship on a spectacularly blue sea with the words Find the destination of your heart in script below it.

It was one of those times when I really wished I had darts. One in the hull of the ship. One in the benevolently shining sun. The rest in that perfect ocean, taunting me with its blue depths.

Caspar, my desk-mate (and by “desk” I mean “table with delusions of grandeur”), snorted. “The fuck does that even mean?”

“No idea. My heart’s just fine where it is.”

“Ha. Funny, Masiello.”

It wasn’t meant to be funny. But oh well. Caspar was forty-five and didn’t give a fuck about anything. I knew this because he found a way to put DGAF in every email he sent me. Potter’s on the warpath. Too bad I DGAF. Alder is lurking, saw him in the coffee room. DGAF myself, but you might try to look enterprising. Which was stupid, because I actually worked. I didn’t have to look like I was working. You’d think he might know that after a year and a half sitting next to me, but no. Mostly because he didn’t give a fuck.

“Ed! How’s the blind cat story coming?”

Speaking of Potter. I rolled my chair out until I had a line of sight to my editor’s office doorway. “You mean, the blind cat that can sense when people are dying? Actually, it’s weirdly interesting. You’d think the cat wouldn’t be so popular, since it’s basically a death omen, but the residents all seem to relish the idea they might be next.”

Potter—who was tall and probably had been good-looking at some point in the past, before the long hours in a desk chair and weekends steeped in beer got the better of him—shook his head. “I want a nice story, Ed. Can you do that for me? No death, no dying, no clever euphemisms for death and dying. Give me twelve inches on the nice blind cat and the little old lady who brings it to visit the seniors. Okay?”

Sure. Take everything interesting out of this story completely.

“Got it.” Arguing wouldn’t get me anywhere. Plus, I could write twelve feel-good inches about the nice blind cat if I had to. I rolled back to my half of the table.

Caspar snickered. “‘Just write a nice story, Ed.’ What a fucking stooge.”

I packed up my notebooks. “I’m gonna go see what the blind cat’s up to.”

“Oh, I bet. Hey, if this gig doesn’t work out for you, maybe you can get a job ferrying handicapped pets around making old people happy.”

“No one uses ‘handicapped’ anymore,” I muttered, aggressively zipping my bag shut.

“I just did.” He laughed, this kind of guffaw he does when he’s bored and poking people for fun.

“That’s a great idea, Caspar. I’ll definitely take it into consideration.”

He was still laughing when I slipped out the back of the conference room, which had a fire door that wasn’t wired into the security system. I’d go see the blind cat. Maybe it would make me feel better about having landed the reporter job I’d always wanted only to discover that “general assignment” mostly meant “a bunch of crap that reporters who’ve been here longer don’t want to waste their time on.”

This was not the destination of my heart.

* * * * * * *

I texted Cameron on my way out of the assisted-living center, wiping wet hands on my pants. The blind cat was nice enough, but it shed like crazy, and even washing didn’t make me feel clean. Obviously the thing I ought to do now was go back to work and write my twelve inches. But I thought I’d take a chance that Cameron had a lunch movie on and could hang out for a few minutes.

The Rhein dominated the north side of Mooney Boulevard in downtown La Vista. Big florid arches and molding, scrollwork around the more modern theater signs, and a red carpet Cameron replaced every five years, just like his parents and grandparents and great-grandmother before him. The Rheingolds had opened the theater in 1936, and it’d been La Vista’s favorite movie theater since then, though it’d been steadily losing business since the Cinema 18 opened in the big shopping center out in the suburbs.

Today’s lunch movie was Jurassic Park, and I settled into the ticket booth with Cameron right around the time the T-Rex escaped its pen. I angled for a view of the tiny monitor that always ran the current movie as it played. “Not your usual lunch movie.”

“I have a soft spot for it. It was the first PG-13 movie I ever saw.” He stretched his legs in one direction and leaned over to reach for the minifridge in the other. “I was six.”

“Did it scare the hell out of you? I don’t think I saw it until I was older.”

“Yeah. I had dinosaur nightmares for months. But after that I wanted to be a paleontologist for a few years, so I guess it ends up being a good memory. I have carrots and hummus?”

“You don’t have to feed me, Cam.”

He pulled out the carrots and hummus, spreading an honest-to-god handkerchief on the counter between us. “Of course I do. You’re my guest.”

He was three years older than me, and he’d gone to the Catholic school instead of La Vista High, so we hadn’t met until I covered the premier he’d hosted for a local indie filmmaker. I’d liked him immediately. Cam was one of those guys that I had conflicted feelings about, one of the guys who’d confused the hell out of me when I was younger, and a lesbian: did I have a crush on him? But it hadn’t been a crush. I didn’t want to kiss Cameron; I wanted to be him.

Case in point: brown wool trousers, crisp white shirt with a club collar (that didn’t make him look like an English boarding school boy), embroidered vest in deep blue and burnt umber, and oxfords that looked both worn-in and cared-for.

Okay. I’ve been on testosterone for a little over a year, I actually feel all right in my clothes on most days, but I still kind of want to be Cameron.

He picked up a carrot. “Eat. Tell me what story you’re dodging today. Any time you’re not working in the middle of the day, I know it’s a good one.”

So I told him about the blind cat and its psychic powers. And how I wasn’t allowed to report on anything interesting about it.

“You’re saying the residents aren’t afraid of the cat?” He propped his long legs on the counter behind me.

“It’s more like they look forward to their turn. Cam, I watched it happen last week. The cat sort of . . . flirted with everyone, winding between their legs, scratching its head on their wheelchairs. And they all held their breath waiting to see what would happen next.”

“What happened next?”

“It—he—finally jumped up into the lap of this little old man, curled up, and fell asleep purring as the man petted him. The guy . . . looked so peaceful. Petting the cat, talking to it. There was this audible sigh among the other residents, but no one was disturbed. It was the strangest thing.”

“And the old man died?”

“I didn’t follow up. I guess I didn’t think about it. It seemed like a foregone conclusion.” I hadn’t seen the old man earlier today, but he could have just been in his room or something. That was bad reporting. If the old man lived—well, it didn’t erase the cat’s history of having selected out the people who were going to die, but it made it a little less compelling. “You’re right. Maybe he didn’t.”

“I’m not sure it matters.” Cameron crunched a carrot thoughtfully. “If the residents all believe the blind cat tells them when they’re going to die, the effect is still the same. That’s really interesting, Ed.”

“I know. But for the paper I’m writing a human-interest story about a nice little old lady and her blind cat, which she takes to the nursing home every day.”

“Wouldn’t a human-interest story about people reclaiming a fear of death and making it into something peaceful be a much more powerful story?”

“Exactly.”

He pushed the hummus toward me. “How’s everything else? Your parents still being difficult?”

I ate a carrot, thinking about that one. Cameron, being Cameron, didn’t fill the silence with words. He ate a carrot too, without fiddling with his phone or shuffling papers.

“They’re okay. As long as I avoid my dad, things are all right. I try to go see Abuela before he gets home.”

“And your mom? Tell me she’s at least getting your name right.”

I shrugged. “She tries to avoid calling me anything. Kind of the bitch about Spanish, you know? All those gendered nouns. So now she just doesn’t address me at all.” I didn’t tell him that sometimes, in the middle of the night, I tried to manufacture my mother’s voice calling me mijo, that I’d done it so many times I could almost make it real: my boy, my son.

“I guess it’ll take time.” His voice was low and even.

If I were attracted to men, I think there could be something between us. I think Cameron wouldn’t balk at the fact that my dick doesn’t look like other guys’ dicks, or that once I take my binder off I have breasts again. He’s gay, but he’s seen me as a man since the first time I introduced myself, and when I went on T he was one of the only people I told. We weren’t that close at the time, but I’d just needed to tell someone, and I’d been at the theater interviewing him about a fund-raiser he was doing for the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. (An assignment dropped on me because who else would bother covering the story? Potter had as good as said, “Go interface with your people and give me ten inches about local business owners supporting the youth.”)

Cam was still looking at me. “If you need anything, let me know.”

“Sure.” I grabbed another carrot. “I should go back to work.”

He checked the monitor showing Jurassic Park. “Did I tell you about my Cary Grant series?”

“No. What’re you doing?”

“Well. You know about my love for Cary Grant.”

“You have a love for Cary Grant?”

“Ed. Mr. Grant and I go back a long time.” He flashed a playful smile.

“I had no idea, though it makes sense. You are very Cary Grant.”

“Why thank you. In any case, I’m holding a Cary Grant film series in the fall. Starting in October, running through December. Spend Saturday night with Cary Grant! Then snacks and fruit juice after, something like that.”

“Really? That sounds great. I’ll totally come.”

“I’m hoping to generate some, ah, habit-forming behavior. Follow up with movies of the same era, at the same time. We always play It’s a Wonderful Life near Christmas, which is right after the end of the series. Really, I’m trying to . . . engage, I guess.”

I raised my eyebrows. “That’s . . . good.”

“It sounds awful. Part of me is dreading it. But I think if I want the Rhein to stay important to people, I have to do more than hide here in the booth. I’m the only Rheingold who hides in the booth, Ed.”

He was the only Rheingold still breathing, but I took his point; both of his parents had known me on sight when I was a kid because I’d scraped money together to go to the movies whenever I could. “It was always good, walking up to the window when your folks were selling tickets. It meant something that they knew my name and the kinds of movies I liked.”

He nodded. “That’s exactly it. And it’s the thing we have that the big theaters don’t have. I don’t know why it took me so long to see it, though I guess I was . . . hoping it wouldn’t come to that.”

“Is the Rhein in financial trouble?”

“Nothing I can’t think of at least a dozen ways to turn around. Just gotta make myself do it. So I’m starting with Cary Grant, but I’m trying to seed the audience with people I know, so when I’m attempting to make small talk I won’t feel quite so ridiculous.”

“You can make small talk, Cameron.”

“It is not my strength, like it was Mom and Dad’s. But I’ll try.” He reached for the lid to the hummus and packed it and the carrots away.

That was probably my cue. I waited until he stood, tugging his vest down as he did so—two sharp tugs on both sides, effortless masculinity and grace.

“Thanks for letting me crash your lunch,” I said.

“Anytime. Good luck with your blind cat story.”

“Thanks.”

I drove back to work thinking about the ways I was different than my parents expected, thinking about the ways Cameron was probably different than his parents expected. I looked at him and saw my quirky friend, who wore clothes eclectically, who never seemed to lack for confidence. How much of that was something he did intentionally, the way Cary Grant had changed his mannerisms and his accent to be who he wanted to be? How much of any of us was real, versus what we projected for the benefit of other people?

The blind cat would probably know the answers to all these questions. If it weren’t a cat.

 

Chapter Two

After work, I went by to see my abuela. Not just because I was avoiding my roommates, though avoiding my roommates was always a good idea. There was nothing really wrong with them. And I thought I passed enough so they hadn’t twigged to me being trans yet, but my policy of avoidance had worked pretty well so far, so I went with it.

And I love Abuela. She’s the only person I miss. She’s definitely the only reason I ever visit the house.

Abuela is my mother’s mother. My dad is completely estranged from his huge Italian-American family because of some fight he had with his parents when he was in college. They’ve tried to reconcile over the years, but he’s too much of a pigheaded jerk. Once, when my mother told him she thought it would be more healthy if he maintained a connection to them, he told her that he’d sworn he would never speak to them again and he never will.

The last time he spoke to me he said I could be his daughter or I could be dead to him. I couldn’t be his daughter, so that didn’t leave a lot of other options. He never got home before six, though, so I had a little time to visit before I had to get out.

Abuela is always glad to see me. Even if she misgenders me like crazy.

“Here’s my flaca, come to see me!” She kissed me on my cheeks. “Why don’t you ever eat? I looked up that thing you do, eating only plants, and it’s not healthy!”

“Beans and rice are plants, Abuelita.”

She made a kind of growling sound. “I looked it up on your mother’s computer. Being vegan.” The way my abuela pronounced vegan made it sound a lot closer to bacon than vegan.

“It’s a plant-based diet, and there’s a lot of evidence to support it. And anyway, it makes me feel better, so it doesn’t really matter.” I sat down on the coffee table in front of her chair. “How’s your day been?”

“Es bueno. You know. But you tell me about your exciting day, mija.”

It’s hard to describe how it feels when someone you love more than life calls you “my girl” when you aren’t. When I was a kid, Abuela used to come in at night and brush her hands through my hair over and over again until I fell asleep. This is like she’s brushing her hands through my hair but there are needles on her fingertips; I want it to feel so good, but it hurts, too. The kind of pain that never lets me forget how much it hurts.

I told her about the blind cat who could tell when someone was about to die.

“And you met this gato?”

“I saw it sleep on someone’s lap, this old man. But he might not have died.”

“Animals can sense things. They know things.”

“I know, Abuelita.”

She patted my hand. “Do you want to hear about the ladies?”

“Definitely.”

Abuela has a group of “ladies,” this mixture of white and black and Latina women she plays bridge with down at La Vista Rec. They’re basically a running telenovela that I tune in to every time I visit Abuela.

I never stopped looking at the clock.

My mother got home before I was able to escape, greeting me with a kiss on the head and a slightly wary expression. If I stayed too long, it would cause problems between my parents, but I thought she liked seeing me. The way I liked seeing her, probably, some tentative combination of love and distrust.

“I gotta go, Abuelita,” I said as Mom unpacked groceries in the kitchen.

“All right, flaca.”

Being misgendered in front of my mother felt a little extra ugly to me, a little humiliating. When it was Abuela and I alone, I could still pretend to be her granddaughter. But in front of Mom it felt more like giving in, or maybe like me being who I am was the phase they said it was.

But I don’t correct Abuela, so I bit down on my cheek and excused myself.

I went home, successfully got into my room without being seen, and ate a cold dinner of cashews, salsa, and black beans rolled in cabbage leaves. It was actually pretty good, so I wrote it down on my list of meals to make again. Trying to quit meat and cheese after growing up in a Mexican-Italian home was almost impossible, but the absence of all those heavy foods made me feel better about myself, as if that weight in my guts was particularly female and leaving it behind meant more than just dietary change. None of which actually made sense, but it worked for me, so I let the weird associations slide.

Today had a blind cat. I wondered what tomorrow would bring me.

 

Chapter Three

I hadn’t paid much attention to the story, the way you don’t when a story is awful, but not too awful. A twenty-one-year-old boy died on his birthday. Beaten to death and left at the waterfront down beyond where people usually went. A woman taking a jog on a Monday morning with her dog had found the body. She’d thought it was a pile of garbage at first, until she’d noticed the shoes, still on feet.

Not garbage. A man. Steven Costello. Just home from his third year at UC Santa Barbara. His parents said he’d gone out for his birthday, but not with friends, or at least, none that they knew of. They had no idea where he’d planned to go, but he liked movies, so they assumed he’d gone to a movie.

If he’d been younger, I probably would have paid more attention. If he’d been tortured or sexually assaulted. If he’d been a more obscure race, maybe, and not a nondescript brown-haired white boy. If he’d been found anywhere other than the waterfront, a mostly foul stretch of the Bay that hits La Vista on the far side of the freeway in a tangle of weeds and trash and stinking debris from nearby cities. But I’d skimmed the story, felt a momentary pang at the prevalence of such crimes, and forgotten it. The Times-Record ran the story on Thursday, June 23. I started paying attention on Friday, July 8.

I was in the kitchen at work, getting my third cup of coffee. Someone had been doing the Chronicle crossword at the counter, so I added to it, only getting one clue while the coffee finished brewing. (One good thing about my job: free coffee all day long, as much as you want to make.) I did all right through Wednesday’s and Thursday’s crosswords, but the weekend puzzles were more challenging, so as I stood there trying to find any clue to the answer, I also did a lot of random glancing around, like inspiration would just show up on the bulletin board, or the refrigerator.

The bulletin board. Someone—probably Amie Arry, who wrote a lot of our “big” stories—had started pinning murder articles to the bulletin board. Even though Steven Costello wasn’t interesting enough for an Amie Arry byline, he still had been murdered, so he was on the top of the stack.

Steven Costello, whose face from his UCSB ID card smiled at me from just below the headline. I’d seen him before. I would have sworn it. I’d seen that smile. I had no idea where, and he was way too young to be someone I’d gone to school with, but damn it, I knew his face.

I read the article while I stood there. And when the coffee was done, I unpinned the article and took it with me back to my desk.

Died on his birthday. No suspects. No leads. I could read between the lines. Kid didn’t have a lot of local contacts, and had recently come home from college. His parents were the last people known to have seen him, but they didn’t know where he’d gone to celebrate his birthday, and they had no idea who he’d gone there with.

I picked up the office phone that sat in the middle of the table between me and Caspar and dialed the extension of Joe Rodriguez, who’d written the article. Since I didn’t really want Caspar to hear my probably stupid questions, I asked Joe if he had a minute to talk.

Joe, being one of the older guys, had an actual office he shared with a constantly rotating cast of staff. Right now the other desk was taken by a woman named Star, who spent the day with her headphones on, “editing” the Times-Record’s social media accounts. She seemed nice enough, as much as I could tell from someone who only communicated via 140-character email requests for 140-character articles.

“Eddie! What’s going on, man?” Joe shoved a stack of notebooks off a chair and gestured me to sit.

“Not much. Yesterday I reported on a blind cat who can sense when people are dying.”

He laughed. “I heard about that. Tim Potter was all up your ass. All he wants is a story that makes people feel good, damn it, but you always have to make it dark.”

“I wasn’t! The whole point of it— Never mind. I’m not here about the damn blind cat.”

“What’re you here about? How can I counsel you, young Padawan?”

I put the Costello article on his desk, carefully moving a picture of a kid in a karategi. “What’s the story with Steven Costello?”

He picked it up, but I could tell by his eyes that he wasn’t really reading it. “Yeah, that was a bummer. Lady’s out for a jog, finds the body, calls the cops. At first they thought someone put him there figuring he’d be pulled out to the water, though he was a little above the high-tide mark. But the more they looked around, you know, he was killed right there. Beaten all to shit, Ed. Kid’s face looked nothing like this.”

“You saw the body?”

“I saw the photos. He was a fuckin’ piece of meat.” Joe put the article back down and smoothed over Costello’s face. “If he was a girl, maybe it was some kind of hookup that went wrong. If he’d been raped, you know, maybe it was that. But this was just a kid out at the waterfront, killed in the middle of the damn night.”

“Drugs?”

He shrugged. “That’s what the cops are going with, unofficially. He wanted to celebrate his twenty-first with some refreshments of the illegal chemical variety, so he tracked down someone he knew could get it for him, arranged to meet. Maybe he didn’t have the money. Maybe he had too much money. Bad things go down, he gets beat. But he had twenty-five bucks sitting in his wallet. No fingerprints to make it look like anyone even went through it. What the fuck drug dealer kills a grown man and doesn’t take his cash?”

“None,” I said. “That makes no sense.”

“Yeah, and I’ll tell you something else.” He smoothed over the kid’s face again. “I talked to the mother, asked her if there was anything else she could tell me about her son, you know? ‘Straight-A student gets beat to death,’ that kind of thing. And she just . . .” Joe paused. “I don’t know, man. She didn’t say anything, really, but it felt like there was stuff she wasn’t saying specifically—stuff she could be telling me but didn’t want to. So maybe it was drugs. Maybe our clean-cut college boy had a problem. But he grew up here and his parents couldn’t name a single friend they thought he might be out with. That’s a little weird, right?”

“Well, I grew up here, and my parents probably couldn’t, either. But yeah, that’s strange. He’s pretty young for them to know nothing about his life.”

“Yeah, look, everyone grieves differently, but if you talked to my mama a week after I was killed, when I was missing for two whole days, she’d be accusing every kid who ever spit on me or tripped me in line for hot lunch, you know? And Mrs. Costello was just . . . quiet.” He shook his head and handed me the article back. “Dead ends. Cops had nothing to go on. Sorry, kid. Why’re you asking about all that, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” I hesitated, not sure if I should mention how familiar Costello’s face was. “I have it in my head that I’ve seen him somewhere before, but I might be making that up.”

“You should think about it. And call up— Fuck, I forget his name. Green, I think. Detective Green was the guy on that case. Call Green if you think of anything.”

“Sure. Thanks, Joe.”

“No problem. You got any more blind cats to write about?”

I withheld my sigh. “I have a church bingo game that’s donating money to the homeless, and a sweater drive down at the rec center. You want to trade for whatever you’re working on?”

He laughed. “Fuck no. I did my time writing shit like that. You’ll live.”

“Thanks again, Joe.”

“Don’t mention it.”

I went back to my desk, but I didn’t put the Costello article back on the bulletin board. I stared at it a little longer, then started to google.

* * * * * * *

Before I got this job, I’d thought every story I covered would be a labor of love, at least in some sense. Sure, some might be boring, but I loved digging out details, and writing facts in a way that made them not only readable, but inspiring.

If you’d told me I could force myself through inches of words that I didn’t care about, that I could write entire articles without hardly learning the facts of them, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t think I could be that jaded about reporting. By the time I finished the bingo article (both the online version, which was little more than bullet points, and the print version), I wanted to write my younger, more dewy-eyed self a letter. Dear self, on some days you will be so bored at work you’ll become obsessed with the murder of a poor kid just to keep yourself awake. I’m sorry. Love, your future self.

It had been a surprisingly tough week, though part of that was having Monday off. Even working four days felt long when you had three days off before them. (I hadn’t done any big Fourth of July things, either. I’d spent that time reading the newish Sarah Vowell book and trying new vegan recipes, most of which had been terrible.) But whatever the reason, by Friday night I was in need of some light entertainment, so I headed out to Club Fred’s.

Fred’s is the queer club in La Vista. It’s basically the anchor of queer nightlife, and rules one corner of Steerage, which is an L-shaped alley that runs between Mooney and Water Street. The other side of Steerage plays host to a dive bar called Bayside Saloon that might have been straight twenty years ago, but was now, at the least, “lifestyle optional” if not outright queer.

I don’t go to the Bayside much. Not really my crowd. Club Fred’s is all about music, and camp, and seeing everyone you’ve ever had sex with all in one place. Which sounds more gruesome than it actually is; if you really want a place where everyone knows your name, in La Vista, that place is Club Fred’s.

I got myself a beer and started wandering around, chatting with different people, different groups. I passed a poster proclaiming next Friday “F*ck G*nd*r Night,” which would be entertaining. When I was done with my beer I hit the dance floor, and immediately found Zane Jaffe (whose dancing was . . . unique).

“Baby!” she shouted over the music. “It’s been too long, tell me everything that’s happened since I saw you last!”

“It’s only been a couple weeks!”

“Yeah, like I said, too long!” She tugged me closer, putting her hands on my shoulders and leaning in to speak in my ear. “How’s it, Ed?”

“It’s good.” Now that she wasn’t throwing her limbs everywhere, we could settle into a fun little grind. I liked Zane a lot, at least in part because we’d never dated, so she was one of the only lesbians I knew who didn’t make me feel like I had to explain my transition to her.

I wanted to ask her about the Costello kid, but that hardly seemed like dance-floor conversation. “How’re you?”

“I’m not fucking pregnant. Christ, Ed, it’s beginning to fucking wear on me. Doesn’t matter. Maybe this cycle it’ll work, right?”

“Right! That’s a good attitude to take.” I’d gone to her two “conception parties,” but she’d stopped throwing them. “Sorry I can’t help you out, Zane!” I leaned back enough so I could adjust my crotch.

She laughed. “Oh baby, if only you could! I would totally mate with your genes!”

No joke, that was a really cool compliment. “Aw, thanks.”

“Hey, you gotta talk to Jaq tonight, okay? She’s got a student she wants to pick your brain about.”

“Okay. Is she here?”

“Not yet, she’s off with her girlfriend! Have you met Hannah?”

I shook my head.

“Oh, just wait until you do. I’m gonna go eat something disgusting, babe. See you later!”

She did some kind of wild shuffle in the direction of the bar, grinning when I turned back. Zane was hilarious. She’d also added a streak of pink to her purple hair since the last time I saw her, and while pink and purple might look little girlish on a lot of people, on Zane it just looked fierce.

After ten years of coming to Club Fred’s, I felt pretty comfortable dancing by myself, or with whoever was around me. In the early days—when I was poor Steven Costello’s age—I’d only gone to Fred’s if I had a date or very close friends with me, so I would never have that moment of feeling by myself in a crowd.

Then again, these days I know so many people the difference is a little moot.

I registered the hand grabbing mine even before I registered the words.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey, Alisha.” It was easy to smile at Alisha. Alisha was full of smiles.

She moved in close against me, and I had a momentary flash of feeling revealed. Could she tell I had a binder on? But she’d known me for years—obviously I didn’t have to hide that I wasn’t born with a Y chromosome.

And anyway, Alisha didn’t look the least deterred, whether she could feel the binder or not. “Looking good, Ed. Dance with me?”

“Sure.”

Hell yes, I’d dance with her. I put my hands on her waist, and this wasn’t quite the playful dancing I’d done with Zane; Alisha kept looking into my eyes and I kept looking back, far too long to be casual.

Her eyes were blue. Dark in the club, but I bet if we were outside they’d be bright, like the sky.

Dating had been the hardest part of transitioning for me. I dreamed sometimes about moving somewhere totally new, where I didn’t know anyone, where no one knew me. Where no one remembered me awkwardly attempting to embrace being a “tomboy” as a kid (I always hated that word), or butch as a teenager, or transmasculine in my twenties before I let myself admit that I couldn’t keep pretending the voice in my head that knew I was a man would go away. It was scary. Really scary.

And that was before I started telling people.

I still dated, but it was tricky. My old group of friends were gay in a binary sense, and a lot of them still had trouble understanding the difference between me now and me then, that even if I look pretty much the same on the outside, I’m not. And I’m probably more paranoid than makes sense; I always think the second I meet someone new, they’ll talk to someone else and that maybe after that they won’t want to date me because I’m trans, or they won’t want to date me because I’m not trans enough, because I only started T a year ago, because my dick’s not that big or my breasts are too big.

Alisha and I had been acquaintances a long time, but we’d never run in the same circles that much. She certainly knew I was trans, and whatever she was seeing, it was working for her.

“I’m glad you’re here tonight,” she said into my ear. I could barely hear her over the almost-intolerably loud beat pounding through the speakers.

“Me too. I mean, I’m glad you’re here.”

She grinned, little dimples in her cheeks making me flush. “I had to come out. Got this feeling something was gonna happen tonight that I needed to be here for.”

I got up closer, my lips almost brushing her ear. “That sounds mysterious. Has it happened yet, or are you still waiting?”

“I’m not waiting anymore.” She stepped back, dancing for a moment by herself, long hair down her back, arms upraised, her entire body undulating to the beat. Still looking at me. Still smiling.

I flushed hotter. I couldn’t help it.

Alisha laughed and returned to my arms, running her hands down my sides. “I like the way you look at me. Makes me feel beautiful.”

“You are. You are beautiful.” I kissed her, because she was pressed against me and it seemed like the thing to do.

“This is why I came out here tonight,” she murmured.

“You came out here to kiss me?”

“To be kissed by you. There’s a difference.”

Her hands guided me loosely until both of us were moving together. I touched her hair, her shoulders, her arms, sheathed in sheer black sleeves that were loose at her wrists.

It was still fun, with a thin vein of something serious running through it. We danced, laughing at each other, kissing a little more, but never too much. Her hands on my body didn’t make me feel exposed. I may have made her feel beautiful, but she made me feel something else, something precious. Dancing with Alisha made me feel handsome, like a boy out with a beautiful girl.

My chest went tight, so I forced myself to stop thinking and just enjoy this moment, this dance.

I wanted it to go on forever, but eventually, sweaty and disheveled, we kissed again and she leaned in.

“I have to go. I hate my job, but I kind of have to be at it in like six hours.”

“Sorry.” I wasn’t sure if I was apologizing for her job, or how late it was, or what.

“Are you kidding? This is the best night I’ve had in months! I knew coming here was a good idea.” She grinned. “See you around, Ed. Are you coming to F*ck G*nd*r next week?”

“Definitely. Are you?”

“For sure. This is my favorite so far, I think. Mostly because Fredi used those little asterisks in it.”

Of course that would be her favorite part. The asterisks. “I’ll be interested to see how everyone fucks gender. You should go home and get some sleep, Alisha. I’ll see you next week.”

“You better believe it. Good night, handsome.” She kissed me on the cheek and turned, melting into the crowd while I stood there, staring after her, thinking about the word “handsome” and how fucking powerful it was. It was my goal, my desire, an almost tangible mountain I’d set myself to climb.

Five foot seven inches tall, hair long enough on top to gel, seriously restrictive binders to hold my D-cup breasts in so they didn’t screw up all of my shirts. When I looked in the mirror I saw all the ways I’d never measure up. My facial hair was still practically nonexistent, even after a year on testosterone. I’d never be taller. I was lifting weights a little, but I was far from strong, and nowhere near buff.

I had no idea what Alisha saw when she looked at me. Except that tonight she’d seen someone who was handsome.

I hung out for a while longer, opting for a soda instead of another beer, which the bartender, Tom, comped me. Sometimes I could find Cameron at Club Fred’s reading a book, but not tonight. I laughed and talked and drank my soda, all of it with this thin sheen of detachment, trying to understand how people saw me, how they saw each other, how much of it was performance. Some people, like Fredi, Club Fred’s ferocious owner, seemed to be entirely honest, as if she’d be as gruff and loud in her own home as she was at the bar. Some people, like Zane, definitely had a “public” persona.

If Steven Costello were here, what would I see? A secretive, overwhelmed straight boy? A depressed twenty-one-year-old hiding in drugs? Something else?

I finally went home, grateful for the quiet, grateful that no one in my house was having a party. Most of them were probably still out, though the kettle was warm when I heated it for tea, so clearly someone was up. I made my tea in peace and took it back to my room.

Alisha. Dimples. Her hands, unhesitating on my sides.

I drank my tea, took a shower, and crawled into bed. Where I may or may not have jerked off to the memory of Alisha’s hands and her eyes never leaving mine.

from Booklist

[A] sweetly unusual and unusually touching tale with a favored combination: two very different people come together in tenderness and kindness as well as in graphically described sexual passion.

from Kirkus

An interesting murder plot in a carefully constructed setting.

from Publishers Weekly

Ripper beautifully illustrates the challenges and very real dangers that trans people and their partners face, but love is the focus of the story, adding a vital note of hope to balance the fear and sorrow.