Photo Credit: Zach
My first thought when Kelby walked in was he looks normal enough, and I immediately regretted it. Of course he looked—was—normal, and if he was going to live with us for the foreseeable future, I’d have to stop thinking of him as abnormal or weird or non-binary or anything besides Kelby.
Caleb set the suitcases by the door as Kelby, with his hunched shoulders and stormy features, stood there not resembling his perpetually sunny brother in the slightest.
“All right then, Kel, this is my girlfriend Simone. Simone, this is Kelby.”
I smiled and shook his hand and said how nice it was to finally meet him. Just the standard script, but I tried to sound like I meant it. Kelby said nothing, perhaps sensing my reticence, perhaps being an ungrateful brat. Caleb nudged him with an elbow, which only earned him a sharper nudge back.
“Your room is down that hall, first and only door to the right,” I said.
Kelby snapped up the suitcases.
“I’ll help you unpack,” said Caleb.
“No thanks,” said Kelby.
He stepped lighter than his posture would predict, like stomping was beneath his dignity, and disappeared into the guest room.
“Your family’s nice,” I said.
“He isn’t always like this.”
“So you’ve told me.” And told me and told me and told me. As ambivalent as he felt about his parents, Caleb had nothing but unconditional love for his mopey sibling. So when Kelby got tired of fighting his parents over pronouns, Caleb insisted he stay with us. Only after Kelby accepted did he think to ask me.
“He needs a safe place to stay,” he’d said.
“I thought he was supposed to be mad at you for saying gender-fluidity is a load of bull cookies.”
“That was years ago. I’ve been trying to make it up to him since then.”
“And it worked well enough that he agreed to live with us.”
He nodded, shuffling his big-booted feet against the strip of hardwood between the dining room and living room carpets. I opened my laptop.
“I’m not going to un-invite him,” I said. Caleb looked like he wanted to thank me, but I started typing. I hadn’t even opened a window yet, but I needed that conversation to end, so I put on my work face and faked it. When I actually worked instead of pretending to, I maintained social networking sites for several small-to-medium businesses, including the Book Worm, a bookstore in Hartford; Fluffy Friends, a toy store with outlets in New Britain, Southington, and Waterbury; and Angelo’s, a swanky New Haven restaurant. I liked working for Angelo’s best. Their Facebook page was a constant stream of scrumptious photos and recipes even Caleb couldn’t ruin. On Kelby’s first night with us, he made lasagna rolls.
“Lasagna’s his second-favorite food,” Caleb told me. “I’d make his first favorite, but then he’d know for sure I was trying to spoil him.”
“I take it that’s a bad thing?”
“It is according to Kelby.”
Sure enough, Kelby thanked his brother for dinner with a mildly suspicious dip in his brows, though that didn’t stop him from taking seconds. Caleb made valiant attempts to grab his attention as we ate.
“You know, Simone is fluent in Korean. Learning about other languages and cultures is kind of a hobby with you, isn’t it?”
“I prefer Scandinavian languages, but that’s cool.”
“That sounds interesting,” I lied. “How many languages do you know?”
“None real well.”
And that was that. Well, no one could say I didn’t try.
As a lifelong Connecticut resident, I always feel obligated to tell outsiders that I can count the number of white Christmases I’ve had on one finger. White Groundhog Days, however, are a semi-regular occurrence, and it was on one such February 2nd that Kelby marched into the kitchen, announced they had no definable gender today, and insisted we use they to refer to, well, them. I beat my inner Grammar Nazi into submission as Caleb and I nodded.
The snow had largely melted two days before Valentine’s Day. Last year, we celebrated by going to Gillette Castle, the stately home of a long-dead stage actor whose idea of fun was to put guests in one room and watch them puzzle over the door’s odd locks from upstairs via strategically placed mirrors. I knew Caleb was The One when he said he would have used such a set-up to keep the kids out of his hair.
Kelby didn’t count as a kid, at least not to us; they were a year into college and paid for a good chunk of it by working at a comic book store four days a week. They stayed in their room most of the time too, studying or texting or whatever it was they did. So when they emerged from their self-imposed solitude to make a sandwich, I figured I might as well give cordiality another shot.
“Hey, got any plans for Valentine’s?”
“Study. Play Guitar Hero. Steal some of the super-expensive chocolates Caleb’s out buying for you right now.”
I gasped and smiled at once.
Kelby raised their eyebrows in a parody of surprise. “Was that a secret? Oops.” And if the words weren’t insincere enough, they smirked as they said them, but I laughed along anyway. I mean, c’mon. Chocolate.
“No, but seriously, no plans?” I said. “You’re adorable when you’re not angsting.”
“Yeah, well, no one is interested in having a girlfriend when they go to bed and a whatever when they wake up.”
They didn’t even have the courtesy to look upset about it. At least then I would have known how to react. No, they just smiled like we were talking about spring fashion. I tried to smile back in the vain hope it would banish the burning coal lodged in my chest.
The next day, Caleb bought a little whiteboard and hung it on the fridge.
“This’ll make it easy,” he said, holding out a purple marker. “Write your gender here so Simone and I don’t have to worry about screwing up.”
Kelby took the marker and wrote ‘Hello, I Am They’ on the board. It remained that way for most of the month. By the time ‘they’ got replaced by a lime green ‘she,’ the Grammar Nazi was black and blue. He’d get over it. Who listened to Nazis anyway?
Kelby sat on the couch, fiddling with his dark hair while reading a geography textbook. We never had to nag him (or her or them) about homework, and any time a presentation came up, he could spend hours practicing in front of the square mirror mounted on his bedroom wall. In short, surprisingly studious for a part-time brat. He didn’t even look up when I settled in the recliner beside him.
Work that day consisted of updating the Book Worm’s Twitter feed with news of St. Patrick’s Day savings on any book by or about the Irish. Someone asked if we’d be serving free Guinness. I didn’t dare respond, so my thoughts drifted over the coffee table (was Caleb allergic to coasters?), skimmed the couch (orange floral print seemed like a good idea at the time), and landed on Kelby. Kelby. Caleb and Kelby. Weird combination. I met their parents once, and they didn’t seem the type to go all matchy-matchy with baby names. But Kelby didn’t seem the type to give himself a name that honored his brother, so…
“Is Kelby your original name?”
“Why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t. I was just curious.”
He flipped the page in a manner that suggested I was fortunate he hadn’t flipped me the bird. Awkward, but it didn’t make the Book Worm’s Twitter feed any less stupid, so I grabbed a controller and settled in for some quality video game time.
“If you want quiet, you might want to leave. Mama needs some stress relief.”
I heard him close the book. I assumed he left until suddenly he was right there, watching over my shoulder.
“You want to play too?” I said. “It’s not hard.”
I handed him a controller and brought up the Create Character screen.
CHOOSE YOUR GENDER
“I thought you said this wasn’t hard.”
“Sorry, I never really thought about that before.”
“Well, I’m a dude today, so we’ll go with that.”
He named his character Medieval Starlight and dressed him in the most distracting outfits the game provided. I blamed his initial bout of beginner’s luck on the ridiculous reindeer pelt that wiggled its antlers every time the wearer scored a hit. I swore in Korean. Kelby covered a snort with a cough.
“I thought you said you only knew Scandinavian languages,” I said.
He chuckled and shrugged. It was the closest he’d ever come to an apology, but after pounding Medieval Starlight into the ground a few times, I felt more inclined to forgive.
Sun poured through the bedroom window in direct defiance of trusted proverbs (“April showers” my foot) and my plans to sleep past six o’clock. The glow of my muted cell phone didn’t help.
Caleb didn’t wake as I stretched far, far away from the cozy warm comfort of our bed to grab the cold, cold phone. I just missed a call, apparently. The number belonged to one of my bosses, Michelle, who ran Fluffy Friends with her sister. They were nice enough, but Michelle had to be living in her own private time zone to think anyone appreciated her predawn check-ins.
I left the bedroom, mentally cursing all the way, and hid in the bathroom. Michelle spent at least a minute thanking me for returning her call so promptly before launching into a list of toys she wanted me to plug. Lacking pen and paper, I wrote on the mirror with Kelby’s lipstick.
“By the way,” she said, one ruined tube of lipstick and a barely-legible mirror later, “I saw some of your more recent Tweets, the ones plugging the computer games we just got in?”
“I know Twitter is hardly a bastion of good grammar, but you keep using ‘fun for all ages and genders,’ and that always looks awkward since there’s many ages and only two genders.”
“Actually, some people identify as a third gender or as being both male and female, others shuttle between two or more genders, and still others don’t have any gender at all. I didn’t want to exclude them, so I went with ‘all genders.'”
“Plus it’s easier to fit in the character limit than ‘fun for boys and girls of all ages.'”
“Oh, okay. Keep up the good work, Simone.”
Yeesh. Did I ever sound like that?
I felt a little less like boss-punching by the time I joined Caleb and Kelby at breakfast. Kelby wore a plain button-up, jeans, and a face full of make-up. The whiteboard read ‘Tell HER About It.’
“Hey, babe. Hey, Kelby.”
“Hey,” they chorused. They could have been the new Queen with harmonies like that.
Kelby cocked her head. “You okay? You’re making an owl face.”
“Does that mean I’m cute? Owls are cute.”
“You are cute, though,” Caleb said.
“—it means you’re annoyed. Owls always look like someone drank all the orange juice and put the carton back in the fridge.”
“Did Caleb do that again?” I said.
“It wasn’t empty!”
“Yeah, you left like a whole teaspoon,” said Kelby.
I left them to bicker in favor of retrieving much-needed coffee. Out the window, two squirrels chased each other across a roof. I superimposed Caleb and Kelby’s squabbling over the scurrying squirrels, biting my lip so as not to interrupt the comedy routine behind me, and forgot all about Michelle until Kelby discovered her poor lipstick.
“You are not going out dressed like that!”
“I’m not five years old! You don’t get to dress me anymore!”
“Obviously I should! Is this what Mom and Dad let you wear?”
“Why do you think I’m wearing it now?”
Kelby stormed into the living room wearing a metallic black skirt and a ruby top. Nothing looked too tight or too skimpy, but Caleb must have seen it through Big Brother Vision and I knew better than to interfere in a sibling fight for any reason short of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Which, by the way? Never happen in Connecticut.
“Get back here and change!”
“You’re just embarrassed that your brother wants to go out in a dress!”
Whatever it wasn’t, Caleb couldn’t say it before Kelby snatched a clam-shaped clutch off the armchair and slammed the door. That didn’t deter Caleb from yelling, “I bought you that clutch!”
“No wonder it’s so ugly!”
I finally let myself laugh, which made Caleb mope like a puppy too short to reach a burger on the counter. He spent a full hour that way, slouching over the couch until he was almost on the floor, pouting at the television, checking the clock every thirty seconds. I was supposed to blog about the wonders of Angelo’s liquid nitrogen chocolate bars, but after the fourth sigh, concentration finally slipped from my grasp.
“Would you rather she didn’t have a social life?”I said.
“No.” His tone suggested a walrus-sized ‘but’ would be forthcoming if I waited long enough. I typed one whole sentence before it came. “I just wish she’d show half as much interest in spending time with us as she does alone or with her friends.”
“Did you want to spend every night with your family when you were in college?”
“Not every night, but I didn’t run away at the mere mention of a night with them, either.”
He returned to sulking and I returned to work. Those chocolate bars wouldn’t sell themselves. Okay, yes they would, but my boss didn’t pay me to state the obvious.
Around eleven, Kelby came back sober, dressed and smiling. I went to bed, but Caleb stayed up to hear every detail he could drag from his beaming sister.
Caleb reached for the scarlet tie draped across his pillow. I smirked into the mirror. He wore a dress shirt and slacks every day, but it never seemed to suit him. He should have been a construction worker or a sailor instead of an accountant. A very handsome accountant, but still.
I half-expected Kelby to barge in and make the snarky comments I withheld, but they had finally given into their parents’ request for a visit while Caleb and I went out for an anniversary dinner at Angelo’s. I tried not to mention the dinner around Kelby. It made them shut down, and asking why just drove them into an hour-long sulk. I remembered their comments at Valentine’s Day and kept my excitement to myself.
“Hey, help me with this, would you?” I waved my hand at the necklace that downright refused to fasten. His fingers brushed warmly against my skin as he did the clasp, promising a night of fond reminiscing and quiet laughter and then the front door slammed.
I froze for only a moment, but it was enough for Caleb to beat me out of the room. By the time I joined him, Kelby was storming by us, eyes glistening and left cheek burning red. Their only response to our concerned inquiries was the slam of their bedroom door and the intermittent sound of sobbing.
Caleb and I reheated last night’s macaroni and ate in the living room, just in case Kelby wanted to talk.
The sound of my fork scraping up eggs may as well have been the climax of an action movie. Caleb cast frequent, furtive glances at the bathroom door; Kelby had emerged from their room an hour earlier only to vanish into the bathroom and turn on the shower before any greetings could be shared. They’d been in there for forty-five minutes when Caleb finally gave up and left for work without brushing his teeth or a word to his sibling. I promised to text if something happened.
Two minutes later, in a puff of steam, Kelby crept from the bathroom. Their cheek had faded from red to purple.
“Morning,” I said.
“Hi.” They poured a glass of orange juice and took their usual place at the far end of the bar. They drank slowly while quizzing me on the weather and my job and the latest soccer scores. They didn’t say anything about the previous evening. I didn’t ask.
When I finished my own meal I told Kelby to leave the dishes.
“No, I got it,” they said, the only sign they knew of Caleb’s and my spoiled evening.
I texted Caleb of Kelby’s emergence.
How do they look? he texted back.
They LOOK fine…
Caleb must have gotten Kelby talking at some point because a week later, he whispered to me that Kelby had asked their parents to use the correct pronouns. They received angry resistance and ultimately a slap for their efforts.
He asked me not to tell Kelby that I knew.
“I don’t think they wanted me to tell you, but I figured you deserved it after what happened.”
We never talked about it again, and I certainly never mentioned it to Kelby. The bruise vanished under concealer and rouge along with any lingering hurt. I crushed the temptation to hug them and let them beat me at gender-clueless video games.
Slate clouds spat at us, though thankfully not enough to interfere with Caleb’s pre-birthday balcony barbecue. My job was to bring in the raw meats and vegetables from the kitchen and dump dirty plates in the sink. Caleb and Kelby’s job was to bicker over how well-done to make the burgers. Siblings were stupid, and so was my ‘let siblings fight in peace’ philosophy.
“Guys, you’re not gonna share the same burger. Just make one the way Caleb likes it, one the way Kelby likes it, and one the way I like it, which is nonexistent because I prefer hot dogs, which I do not see on this grill. Ahem.”
“But he likes to burn his and the smell ruins everything else,” said Kelby.
“It’s my party and I’ll burn burgers if I want to,” said Caleb. Kelby huffed an “Argh, fine” but he smiled as he said it. Caleb made a show of opening the packet of hot dogs and placing them on the grill one by one. I stuck my tongue out and disposed of the hot dog packaging.
Fight resolved. Score one for me.
I slammed my laptop shut. No more overly peppy tweeting about self-wetting baby dolls today!
Abandoning the laptop on the bed, I went to retrieve Kelby for our weekly video game mini-marathon. I almost felt guilty about planning to stay indoors on such a bright day, but we couldn’t possibly play video games outside. The TV was too heavy for us to drag all the way down to the courtyard.
Kelby’s room contained lacrosse gear, fat books, apples both natural and technical, several Beanie Babies and a stylish black coat, but absolutely no Kelby. Huh. I knew she came home on time…
Before worry could set in, Kelby returned, holding a few envelopes and a bagged newspaper.
“The old guy across the hall said he’s going to visit his grandkids for a week,” she said. “He asked me to pick up his mail while he’s away.”
George Kozlowski. He’d lived in this building since before Caleb and I moved in, and he’d probably still be there after we moved out. He seemed nice enough.
“Clearly he doesn’t know you as well as we do,” I said.
“Please. What am I gonna do, steal his AARP magazine?”
“Hey, they’ve got interesting articles.”
George came home on Labor Day. Kelby gave him an hour to settle in before gathering the bagful of junk mail and newspapers that had accumulated in his absence. She returned with a smile like summer vacation.
“He said I look just like his granddaughter,” she said, and she glowed for the rest of the day.
Kelby and I sat by the front door on barstools borrowed from the kitchen. At the sound of small running footsteps, I put on my top hat and Kelby brushed imaginary dust from his long dark dress. Yes, his. After initially resisting the Halloween spirit, he made a last-second decision to dress as Elphaba, even though he had written ‘HEre’s Kelby’ on the board that morning.
“Are you trying to make my head explode?” Caleb joked.
“It’s Halloween,” Kelby said, laughing and stealing the last strip of bacon off my plate. “You’re supposed to dress as something you’re not.”
Me, I dressed as Willy Wonka because then no one would look at me funny if I snuck a chocolate here and there (“I’m getting into character!”). Caleb just threw on a trench coat and called himself the Highlander, the lazy bum.
Caleb watched Ghostbusters while Kelby and I slowly gave away our bowl of Snickers, Almond Joys, and Hershey’s. We’d planned on giving Reese’s as well, but between the three of us, they hadn’t survived the weekend.
A knock at the door. On the other side stood Sara Hardy the pink pony from two floors down. We gushed over her cheap generic costume and gave her an extra candy for being so cute. We did that for everyone who wasn’t a six-foot teenager with a pillow case, but Sara and Sara’s Mom didn’t have to know that.
Ghostbusters ended and Caleb kissed the top of my head before disappearing into our room for the night. Kelby and I manned our posts for another half-hour. A parent or two gave Kelby odd looks, but as far as the little sci-fi villains, princesses, jack-o-lanterns and bumblebees were concerned, anyone who answered the door with candy on Halloween was fine by them.
After moving straight from my parents’ house to the apartment with Caleb (and later Kelby), being home alone still felt weird. Kelby had stayed late at school to work on a group project about the Hiroshima bombing or something equally cheerful. Caleb had gone to pick up new light bulbs to replace the dead one in the bathroom. The silence bounced around my ear canals until I popped in my earphones and turned on my Get Your Butt to Work playlist. It worked until Caleb returned, wrapping his arms around my shoulders.
“Take a ticket and don’t cut in line, sir.”
“There’s a line?”
“Yes, and this Facebook post is at the front of it. Then my email, then Scarlett Johansson, then you. No, wait. Email, Scarlett Johansson, everyone from Queen, then you.”
Caleb settled his chin on my head as I tried to think of tolerable autumn-related puns to plug Angelo’s seasonal dishes. ‘You’ll FALL for our black bean soup!’ ‘Don’t LEAF without trying our cranberry apple salad!’
“Are you trying to stimulate people’s appetites or kill them?”
“And who are you? Shakespeare?” I said, deleting the (admittedly terrible) wordplay. “Like you could do better.”
“For your information, I have a spectacular idea.”
“And it is?”
“Let’s go out. It’s been a while since we did anything.”
“Yeah.” Five months, to be exact. I missed couple time. “We could go antiquing. Because we obviously don’t have enough junk lying around.”
Caleb laughed and agreed and out we went, the wind stinging my ears with a hundred needles as we tread the familiar path to the antiques shop five blocks away. The cramped, cluttered shelves smelled of old cloth and good wood. We squeezed past ornate dining chairs we didn’t need to examine nineteenth-century jewelry boxes we didn’t want, all to the ticking of a grandfather clock that had stood in that same corner for three years now. I looked and hmmed and sneezed and critiqued but mostly I held Caleb’s hand, basking in the tranquility.
I returned from mailing Christmas cards to find the apartment looking and smelling like the world’s sloppiest bakery. Caleb and Kelby loved Christmas more than you’d expect from people who vigorously toed the line of atheism. We hadn’t even cleared the Thanksgiving dishes when Caleb cranked up the Christmas songs. Kelby dug The Muppet Christmas Carol out of his closet and we watched it that same night, snuggled under the poinsettia-covered quilt Mom bought us several Christmases ago. Sadly, that gusto failed to manifest itself as non-mutant gingerbread men.
“You know I bought cookies like three days ago, right?”
“That was the problem,” said Kelby. “We knew, so we ate them.”
Figures. Still, it was hard to argue with the scent of ginger and molasses and the sound of two very similar laughs warming the kitchen. I shed my coat and purse and leaned against the counter. The cookies looked even uglier up close. Biting their heads off would be a pleasure.
“We were thinking of giving some to our parents, but they’re a little too deformed, I think,” said Caleb.
Kelby pressed a decorative button into a cookie with unusual force. Uh-oh.
“I don’t want to go home for Christmas,” he said.
“Come on now,” Caleb said. “You agreed. We spent Thanksgiving here, so now we go home for Christmas.”
“I changed my mind. You’re supposed to have fun at Christmas, not get yelled at for ignoring anyone who uses the wrong pronoun.”
Caleb’s jaw twitched. I dug my fingers into my arm. Let it go, babe. You know you and Kelby will never agree about this. Don’t fight about it right before the holidays.
He exhaled through his nose and said, “You haven’t seen them since summer.”
Another twitch. Please don’t do this, guys.
“I don’t think one day is too much to ask,” Caleb said.
“It is when it’s Christmas.”
“That was just to get out of seeing them at Thanksgiving!”
“Time out!” I said. Their boiling glares flattened into a simmer. “Now look, I know Kelby agreed, but maybe he could go home for Christmas Eve instead and then come spend Christmas with me or his friends.”
Kelby instantly brightened, turning to Caleb for approval.
Caleb threw a glob of green frosting onto a one-legged gingerbread man and smeared it around with a spoon. “Christmas Eve,” Caleb said. Serious. Confirming.
“You try to weasel your way out of this one and I withhold your presents.”
Kelby laughed and nodded. The tension melted like snow on a sunny day. I smiled around a bite of deformed, lumpy gingerbread.
“Oh hey, we finished decorating the living room,” Kelby said. “Wanna see?”
I followed Caleb while Kelby skipped ahead, turning off the living room lights so the Christmas lights twinkled in the sudden darkness. The lights were strung from the fan in the middle of the ceiling, looping outward and framing that stupid grandfather clock we bought just to wipe the resigned pout from the shop owner’s face. Red and green garlands draped over bookshelves, and the small tree boasted ornaments shaped like snowflakes and superheroes and silver stars. Beneath the tree sat a modest assortment of ceramic houses nestled among white blankets, with tiny figurines spread about to bring the little town to life. Cheap plastic snowflakes shone like sun-warmed crystal.
“Wow, this is great! It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”
“‘Fairytale of New York,’ maybe,” said Kelby.
Caleb slapped him upside the head and offered to make hot chocolate.
Not being idiots, Kelby and I accepted and waited among the lights, looking around with wide eyes. Kelby turned on the radio at some point. Moments later, I reveled in the warmth of my drink and my family’s love as the first verse of a loosely familiar carol… wait.
“‘The Night Santa Went Crazy‘? Really?” I said, even as Caleb frowned at the incongruous violence wafting from his innocent stereo.
“It’s one of the only holiday songs I like,” Kelby said with a shrug.
“Guess I shouldn’t have gotten you that Michael Bublé Christmas album then.”
Kelby looked at me, expression wavering between suspicious perplexity and murderous intent. I managed to hold the poker face for three seconds before a giggle slipped free, and Kelby deflated with relief. Caleb took the opportunity to change stations, settling on Johnny Mathis. Kelby rolled his eyes but didn’t change it back, instead reaching for the steaming snowman mug on the coffee table. We all squished into the couch, cocoa in hand, and bickered over the music until sundown.
Eileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories have previously appeared in The Potomac Review, Toasted Cheese and Helix Magazine. Her first novel, Jury’s Greatest Hits, will be available on the Kindle in December 2014. Email: piedpiper59[at]ymail.com