He sits across the table of the food court with me, in the body of an 18-year-old girl, frail, light-skinned, shoulders slumped in a way that disguises the fact that he was briefly in the military. An almost cartoonishly large pair of Aviators cover his girlish face, the same pair he immediately donned when we hit the road from Maine to Pittsburgh all those months ago. His sandy-blonde hair is pulled back in a deceptively intricate bun, his winter coat slung over the seat behind him to reveal a navy blue polo shirt that does tellingly little for his figure.
I don't let myself think of this person, Tyler Blake, as a "she" or "her" even though that's how the world sees him, and likely the words that the readers of this blog would like to think of him. Just because he lacks a penis or a stubbly face or an I.D. card that bears his original name does not mean I have the right to call him by anything but the words he has specifically asked me to. Besides, as soon as he talks, it becomes impossible to think of him as anything but the person inside.
"You know what we call grilled chicken breast in Alabama?" he says, picking with plastic cutlery at the Ceasar wrap he has unfolded onto a tray rather than attempt to stuff directly into his face, "A side dish."
I smirk. I'm eating pasta salad, trying to curb the inevitable winter pounds. Size and weight are an inevitable, if uncomfortable, topic we always discuss. This is because he inherited this bony ghost of a physique, proceeded to immediately put about twenty pounds on it, then felt incredibly guilty when "none" of the clothes in Lauren's dresser fit anymore. This is an exaggeration, but a lot of the nicest items are patently Size 0's.
I've fared better, fluctuating less, thanks to being on my feet every night at the bar and doing Yoga until recently (looking for a new studio currently.)
"I've warned her she isn't coming back to the same body she left," he sighs, "I don't want it to shock her or trigger something bad in her."
"You're doing your best," I assure him.
He glances up from the table to my eyeline, and he knows I notice his eyes briefly pausing at my breasts before completing the route. At first I thought it was amusing, then I wondered why they still seemed so appealing to him when he had a pair of his own to worry about. Surely, I thought, he knows enough about what it's like to be objectified. "Sure," he told me, "But it's like if I have a Smart car and you've got a Corvette. Nothing wrong with peeking in the neighbor's garage if she leaves the door open."
I told him not to sell himself short, especially since I know he secretly takes pride in his appearance as Lauren. But I guess yeah, Corvettes are pretty great if you're not responsible for the upkeep. The fantasy is preferable to the reality. On some level, Tyler senses that. To a lot of girls, Lauren is the Corvette.
"It used to frustrate me," Ty confessed about objectification, "Boys thinking they liked me without really knowing anything about me. Wanting to be my best friend on the off chance..." (The off-chance of what he does not specify.) "Mark, Phil, other guys. Now it's just, like, a fact."
"You handle it better than I do," I told him.
That got a laugh. His cheeks are flush with a bright, self-effacing smile as he giggles and assures me "I doubt very much I handle ennathang better'n you." He lapses into his natural southern accent from time to time. Neither of us has mastered the local Pittsburgh dialect, but he has found a comfortably neutral fake "northern" voice. I've never told him out loud how adorable I find his laugh as Lauren, I get to hear it pretty rarely. It's very musical, feminine, and oddly natural considering the man inside. But he was a contradiction from the moment I met him.
I say it'll be nice for all this to be done soon. He shrugs. "Still got a lotta shit to wade through to get there."
I ask a bit about school and he shrugs, giving noncommittal, disinterested answers. He mentions spring break: "Lauren usually spends it with her dad down in Tampa, so that's where I'll be." He gets this faraway look that the shades don't mask. "Thought I was done with the south, but after this winter I'm itchin' to get some sun."
I specifically do not ask if he's heard from the man in his body, but mentioning the south brings it to my mind. The lack of certainty in that regard is a sore point for him. He's told me not to worry about it, but I do.
"I need a new swimsuit," he says, "Since I went and made Lauren's obsolete."
Numerically, the amount of weight and size Tyler has gained as Lauren is perfectly manageable, but when your wardrobe is tight tops and jeans and leggings, every inch, lump and fold makes the difference. And yeah, a new swimsuit is probably in order.
"You got money for that?"
"I got some money," he says as if there's some wicked secret he's not telling me.
We go and shop a while. I pretend not to notice when Tyler gets distracted by outfits, jewelry, purses. He says he likes that men can carry bags around now, as if that should affect whether he uses one. He favours bags worn over the shoulder across the chest, although it causes him to fiddle with the strap underneath his breasts.
He picks a modest blue bikini, rolling his eyes as the total reaches $90 for only two garments but paying with a bank card anyway. I look for myself, but as I don't need anything, I don't buy. I'm trying to save because I suspect I will need it later. I wonder about his bank account, but it's none of my business.
"That reminds me, I need some new bras," he says, as casually as anything. "Let's go to that store I like."
"Can you believe you're the type of person who has opinions about bras?"
"I always had opinions about bras," he smiles, "They've just changed."
After twenty minutes of shopping, another couple hundred or so dropped, I tell him I think we should both write more on the blog. People want to hear from us, and once we're back to normal - I inadvertently pause after that word because we both know it could not be the case - we might just disappear back into our lives. He answers back that it's simply not interesting. I disagree, and I tell him I find it a nice exercise, especially when I am not pouring my heart out and confessing my sins. He says that's up to me but the life of a high school girl is really not as exciting as TV makes it seem, and he writes plenty when there's something to write about. I remind him that just us being us is interesting enough.
A couple of college guys pass us going the other direction. I can see their heads swiveling. I try to ignore it but Tyler stops in his tracks, stares directly at them, catching them mid-glance, folds his arms under his chest and shoots them this glance, as if daring them to approach. I die of embarrassment, and have absolutely no idea what either of us would have said or done had they returned.
I text Wade to let him know that I'll be home soon, then drop Tyler off at home. In the car I get the feeling there's something he wants to tell me, but he just won't come out with it. I get this feeling from him often. He's become one of my closest friends in the world, but he's still a mystery to me.