[Trigger warning: ableist slurs, abuse, abusive relationships, addiction, cissexism, death, degendering, depression, dysfunctional relationships, mental illness, suicide / suicidal ideation, surgery]
What came before (with similar warnings):
The night before our flight out, I was opening the drawers of the bathroom I used to share with my brother, looking for some minutia that I’d forgotten to pack into my toiletries. Nail clippers, probably. I rummaged around without much thought. I opened the bottom drawer, the one that belonged to me when I lived there.
On top of the forgotten makeup and nail polish and body wash was my favorite chest binder.
I froze and stared. How long ago had it been there? I hadn’t even realized it was missing.
I heard my mother’s voice: You wear tight bras so it doesn’t look like you have breasts.
Had I left it here months ago? Had they found it, puzzled out what it was, and tucked it into the drawer?
I carried it back into the bedroom where I was staying, and stuffed it deep into a bag I wasn’t taking with me on the plane.
After passing hardly noticed through customs, we met my brother, waiting for us at the arrivals gate. He leaned over the barrier to hug my mother, my father. Not me.
We caught a taxi. He paid no more or less attention to me than usual. I started wondering if coming out to him had been a dream, a wishful thought.
He and I carefully, nonchalantly arranged for us to take one hotel room, my parents the other. And that night–and every night we were there, in fact–we talked.
He told me things about our family I’d never known or noticed. How my mother’s father never really got along with our dad. How our grandparents had never really forgiven Dad for taking their daughter to the other side of the country when they got married, following his job, staying for nearly two decades, having their children there.
They “never really forgave” him for more things than one, I guess.
The first two days were all right.
We went to the beach. My parents didn’t exactly look at my unshaven legs and my bathing suit, but they didn’t exactly not look. Nobody said anything, at least.
My mother was, as usual, testy. She snapped at my father just like always. My brother’s acerbic wit got a little too sharp at times, drawing blood, and he took a few digs at me too.
But it was all right.
I stopped taking the emergency anxiety med that had helped me hang on while my parents railed at me. I felt calm and steady. Level. I slept well.
There were a few tense moments here and there. I bought Holly a present, and hemmed and hawed about whether to get one for one of their parents, or both, or neither, and my parents helped me navigate it, asking me a few questions about them in the process. I went to pick one out for Lily too, but there I was in front of my parents and I was suddenly silent, trying to pick out a present for someone who has my heart in their palm, to whom I would entrust my life, to whom I would like to entrust my future–and someone whose mere existence they’re entirely unaware of.
“It’s, uh, for Kate,” I told their expectant faces. My platonic friend Kate. I looked down quickly at the present I’d picked out for Lily, carefully chosen for having a color I thought would go nicely with her hair, and I felt full of shame.
As we went to bed on the second day, I wondered aloud to my brother which extended family members I would lose over dating women.
As I drifted off to sleep, it suddenly occurred to me that when my parents and the rest of their generation had passed away, all my cousins and I could negotiate our own relationships with each other without oversight, pressure, or coercion.
And I felt a rush of relief about how much easier things would be then.
And I felt horrible.
On the third day it all fell apart.
I could tell as soon as we met for breakfast that my mother had descended into one of her moods.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked carefully.
She tossed her head a little, sighed, and snapped, “I’m depressed.”
“Oh!” I said back, maybe a little sharply.
don’t take the bait don’t take the bait don’t take the bait
And I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
We ended up separated by a rainstorm, my mother and brother on the beach, my father and I in the hotel. Everyone was staying where they were, waiting out the rain under cover.
“Is it raining?” the concierge asked brightly when I got up to the counter to buy some stamps. “We haven’t had rain in so long.”
My dad and my brother texted back and forth, trying to figure out what to do next.
Mom doesn’t want to be with anyone right now, my brother said from under an umbrella at the beach. Anyone except for him, I guessed, which was the usual. She never minds being with him.
As it turned out, they were talking. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly about me.
My brother told my mom she was being stupid about the way she was handling all this.
My mom cried.
She talked about her family. She talked about her brother, which was a shock, as she’s said his name only once or twice in the past six, seven years. They’re estranged. When my grandparents got sick, my mother was nearby to help sort out their treatment, their care, and eventually, their funerals and their estate. (Meanwhile, I made the most dizzying of my descents into mental illness, then got outed to my parents about having a girlfriend, which didn’t help anybody much.) My uncle, halfway across the country, visited little over these hard years. As my mother waded through their parents’ affairs without much help, legal or otherwise, my uncle started to complain about how long it was taking for him to get his share of things. Eventually, my mother and her brother stopped talking. I haven’t seen my cousins in nearly ten years; one of them was only two or three years old the last time they visited. We’ve missed his entire childhood, and now we’re missing his adolescence.
I knew this. We knew this, my brother and I both–and though we have little to go on other than her side of the story, it seems to be an accurate version of what happened. What we didn’t know was that my mom has sent her brother birthday and Christmas cards every year since. No reply.
So she keeps her cousins close, she said, because they’re all she has left of family. Her parents are gone; her brother won’t speak to her. She has her three cousins.
It’s her cousin’s child getting married in a few weeks–the cousin who married into a very conservative Christian family. She doesn’t agree with their beliefs and thinks they’re crazy, she said, but they’re family and she doesn’t want to lose them. She doesn’t know what to tell them about me while we’re there for the wedding. I’m dating Holly now, she said, but if we break up and have another relationship, she can’t trust me to tell her about it, and then suddenly the family will be asking her, “I thought [Samson] was seeing a girl, and now [they're] talking about some guy?”
“If they say anything,” my brother said, “tell them they should just ask [Samson] about it.”
(“And that’s exactly what she should say,” I told my brother as he recounted this story later. “Thank you. A lot.”)
But, my mom said, I’m her family too. And she feels she should be able to speak with confidence and knowledge about what’s going on in my life, and she can’t, because I don’t tell her things, and she doesn’t understand what little she does know. She has no problem with who I am or whom I love or how I dress–she just wants to have a relationship with me.
She talked about going prom dress shopping with me in high school. She said she had enjoyed it so much, as a mother-daughter thing we were doing together. It breaks her heart now to think that I might’ve been miserable the entire time.
“She hasn’t said any of that to me,” I said to my brother, taken aback. “She doesn’t talk like that to me. She tells me she doesn’t understand me, but doesn’t want to, and doesn’t accept me, and never will.”
“Yeah,” said my brother, shrugging one shoulder. “She gets defensive.”
I got lost in thought for a long time. Was this typical of abusers, that they tell everyone else a sob story for sympathy? Was my mom actually serious about accepting me and wanting to hear more from me, and she just didn’t feel like she could tell me that openly?
Eventually I forgot where I was going in the first place, and wandered onto a familiar route, the way one sometimes leaves for the grocery store and accidentally drives to work instead. Except I hadn’t been this way in a while.
It’s a gradually descending route, and it works the inverse of the way it should: as you descend, there is less and less oxygen. Your mind starts to get fuzzy. Your vision starts to fade. Your hearing is, as usual, the last to go–but before it does, you start to hear things.
She wants to have a relationship with you. It could work.
Gradually the path starts to turn, becomes a downward spiral.
You will lose her when she finds out what she doesn’t know yet.
Steps. Steps down. Steps worn smooth from years of footsoles.
You could leave your partners. Both of them. There will be others. Build a different future. There is no other way.
The still air is completely stagnant now. Your vision is nearly gone. You cannot see the void below you.
It doesn’t reach up for you this time. You are coming to it, slowly, steadily. It is content to wait. Your feet meet the last step and you can feel the sweet terrifying horror of being near it, like an addiction as it calls you back, like the instant before you give in to a compulsion, like the last moment before release.
It turns its face up to yours the way a lover does, to whisper, to kiss.
Or you could die. That would end it.
I opened my eyes. Dully, wearily, I recognized where I was.
I made it a few steps back up toward the surface before I was too exhausted to go on, and sat down where I was.
The rest of the day played out in failed conversations. My father and I, sitting together alone on a ferry, talked about his mother’s failing health, her unwillingness to have her mental health addressed, the stigma that surrounded it more heavily when she was growing up. The conversation turned to stigma, to remaining quiet to avoid it, and–no please don’t take that segue–then to me–damnit. A bit of concern-trolling about me losing my job because of my appearance and relationship, how I need to hide things, that sort of thing. I reassured him, at least about my job–and about how I hadn’t meant to have so many hard conversations right before vacation.
“Well, live and learn,” he said gently. “It’s just a lot for us to take in. We thought you were going to grow up and get married, you know?”
My mom’s mood lightened a little as the day went on. She mostly stayed near my brother. I tried to start a conversation with her while my brother and father set up the camera for a family picture.
“I’m sorry I put so much stress on this vacation,” I said softly. “And I’m sorry I put so much stress on you.”
“Well I don’t really see that changing,” she said sharply–and then the timer was ticking, and we had to turn toward the camera and smile as my brother and father dashed into the frame.
In the picture, we are standing next to each other. I am leaning slightly towards her. She is leaning as far away from me as possible, her head on my brother’s shoulder.
That night my brother asked more in-depth about pronouns, trans* rights, and identity. It… didn’t go very well.
I don’t understand about the ‘they’ pronouns. I think of pronouns as matching a person’s sex, not how they feel.
What rights that most people have do trans* people not have?
What does the trans* community think about surgery?
I just can’t accept biological sex as a social construct.
If someone’s gender marker doesn’t match their appearance, their employer can just get over it.
You’ll always be my sister.
Before we left, my mother told me to come say goodbye to the view in their hotel room.
I stepped out onto the balcony and closed the door behind me, looking out over the beautiful clear water, the lush flowers everywhere, the carefully manicured hotel grounds.
Somewhere below me and to the left, someone else was crying on their balcony. It sounded like a child, mostly because I do not hear adults ever cry like this unless they think they are utterly alone. I had cried my heart out on my Lily’s chest a few days before I left, and even then I didn’t sound like this. It was heavy, inconsolable sobbing, the kind that leaves you gasping for air between in broken squeaks. The crying got louder and more desperate as I stood looking out over the kind of beauty I’d only seen in pictures before now.
Eventually it was too much for me, and I turned and went back inside.
When we left the hotel, the housekeepers were cleaning our floor. We said goodbye to them and they wished us safe travels.
Their eyes lingered on me a little. Suddenly I realized what they must be seeing, what everyone must see, when our family is together.
My mom in front, my brother close behind, my father a little further behind them carrying the heaviest of the bags.
And then me, several paces behind, unable to keep up with my bad joints. Lugging two bags at once. Walking with my head down. The only one with red hair. And today, with tears in my eyes too.
We hurried through security at the airport. We let my brother go ahead of us in hopes he’d get through security faster; his flight was just a few minutes before ours.
I hugged him tightly and said, barely audibly, “Thank you.” He didn’t respond.
There were flurries of activity at each checkpoint, separated by long stretches of time in tense lines. There were no full-body scanners here, just old metal detectors. I watched, feeling frozen, as people got patted down. I wondered aloud if they’d pat everybody down. My mother shrugged dismissively.
I set off the metal detector and an agent patted me down. (I warned the agent about my ankle braces before she got there, but she still jumped visibly when she felt them.) She didn’t touch me in a way that made my body feel gendered, though. I recomposed myself as best I could, putting my belt and jewelry back on, stuffing things back into my carry-on. And I picked up my shoes. I wear hiking boots to stabilize my joints, and my braces catch on them, and I have to pull on them hard and loop the laces through the last metal stays before I tie them. I can’t really do it without sitting down and taking my time.
My parents didn’t look back. I ran after them with my shoes in my hand, braces clacking against tile as I struggled up the stairs.
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
We caught up with my brother and said goodbye one more time. I let tears well up in my eyes because that was the only way I could tell him anything about how I felt, in front of our parents. I hugged him tight. He rushed onto his flight and I was alone with my mom and dad.
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
Mom snapped at us, the center of everything as my dad whirled around grabbing us a few sandwiches and drinks. Noisy. Busy. Boarding time was almost up. What sandwich do you want? Just pick something. Do you want a drink? What do you want? Hurry. We have to hurry. We don’t have time for this. I was whimpering softly and trying not to flap and everyone had apparently forgotten that I really needed to go the bathroom before the flight.
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
I reached for the handle of the set of carry-ons and offered to pull it. I put my hand next to my mom’s on the handle. She didn’t respond, and after a few seconds I flinched away, anticipating anger (I can pull it! I’m not decrepit! Just go. Go faster) and at the same time, she let go of the handle too, figuring I had it. The suitcases crashed down on the back of her heel, and she yelped my legal name in anger and pain.
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
two flights of stairs down to the tarmac but at least I had my shoes on now
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
a loudspeaker going off directly over my head and I was unable to move and looking around in confusion
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
“Row 21–A, B, and C,” my dad said, and our seats were all together and I would be sitting with my parents
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry
Into the airplane lavatory and I let out one sob, but that was all, because my eyes couldn’t be red when I went back to our seats.
My mom took the window seat. She always does. My dad took the middle seat but then offered it to me so I could see the view better. I said no at first, but then agreed, and sat beside my mom. She would say a lot of things about me, but I wouldn’t let her say I avoided her.
We were together on the next flight too. I wanted to write about everything that had happened, but there they were with me, so I picked a book in a language they don’t read and settled into it.
We had dinner. We had coffee. We got an update on my grandmother, recovering from surgery and out of the ICU. We went to bed. Nobody tried to have any uncomfortable conversations with me.
I asked my mom if she wanted to get lunch the next day before I left. All three of us went together. Nobody said anything.
I said goodbye to my Mom and she left on an errand. She cracked a joke before she left, said she loved me. She said goodbye to me by my childhood nickname as she went out the door, and that was how I knew everything was OK.
My father started looking for a document about my car–inherited from my grandfather and still legally owned by my mother–in the safe. As he went through, he pulled out my papers. My birth certificate. My Social card. My immunizations records. (Everything except my passport, which I had always kept close after they threatened to confiscate it to keep me from seeing my boyfriend in Canada.)
While we were there, he pulled out his will and my mother’s. Showed me all the papers, numbers, and instructions left there for me in the event of their death. Talked me through how life insurance works. How a will is executed.
I felt sick thinking about my parents passing away, about arranging their funerals, about my father, here in front of me, dead someday. I thought about how relieved I had felt the other night, and how shocked and horrified I felt now, and felt like maybe I’d recovered my humanity.
Then my dad taught me the combination to the lock on the safe. He told me I was free to take any of my papers. He told me I was an adult and could do as I pleased.
I walked out to my car with my first load of bags, without struggling my shoes onto my feet. The click of my braces on the pavement said
home free home free home free