Like Mother

Crystal Odelle

                                                                                                                          Mom, it’s me.

                                                                                                                     I’m calling to ask:

A broken beer bottle waits at my guts. “I can’t go on,” says my first girlfriend. Her head is a red balloon. She’s going to kill me, then herself. Cancer stole her mother, and at fifteen, promises are cold stones.

Some days, I struggle to carry mine for the woman in the mirror—the daughter who mutilated a perfect son, Mom’s great loss.

Time can mean grace for survivors of sharp ends. Like, how one afternoon, god meant finding your eyes. I’m trying to say thank you for teaching me how to quit arching away from the glass, how to lean in.

What parts of me

cause you shame?

“Mrs. _ _ _ _ _ _ _?” the telemarketer chimes.

“Hi?” I squeak, a child on the house phone.

“Do you have a moment to speak?” The silence sparkles.

“Yes,” shatters it. My voice warms—Mom’s? “Who may I ask is calling?”

                                                                                                                    After one surgery,

                                                                                                                        what gender is 

                                                                                                                         the person I’ve


                                                                                                                             After three?

Kids say one of them fucked a dog. Julie and Angeline and “the school lesbian” Amber—by seventh grade, they’re queens of sex and drugs, of wrongdoing, our suburban fears or fantasies.

Past nine o’clock, the kids of lower Worth, Illinois, lack adult supervision, and a pack of boys and I roam alleyways, dodging puddles of mirror-like ice and half-frozen dog turds on a November night that summer winks and the moon hangs low enough to touch, to silver even us.

On the derelict community playground, we cross the girls, smoking and smooching high schoolers. We can’t run without a pounding. My brother, blessed with the face and charm of a child actor, tries diplomacy. Planted in the gravel beside the corkscrew slide, I grimace at kids on the tongue coming out single, suggestively paired, or in trains, pretzeled or upside-down, different. This, I decide, is fun. When my brother frenches Julie, I believe he’s a hero.

Julie can never be dated, the boys agree after. I dare ask why. “Slut,” they say, and my heart flickers. Decades before I can speak up for another unlovable slut—me—you haunt us. Your laughter fireflies through the hee-haw of swings, sneakers neon white, windbreaker unreal pink.

How brave. The children gather to smash you. You glow.

                                                                                                                             Would I 

                                                                                                                    love me more

                                                                                                                         if you did?

Dad calls, sobbing, alone in his garage. He misses me. He loves me.

“You’ll always be my son,” he insists.

“I’m your ….” Even I can’t say it.

“My baby,” he says.

Dad, are you my mother?

We’re learning.

As if my bio family didn’t ghost after my 13-page letter about why I could no longer bury being trans, our reunion slumps into old talking points. He’s put an F-150 engine into a boat to flip. Benny the dog, his recliner, and daytime TV remain his closest friends. “How are the girls?” he asks of my partners. One isn’t a woman, but he asks.

“I always lived how I wanted,” he interrupts, as if remembering why he’d phoned. “You could’ve been a doctor.” His highest praise recalls my Friday commitment to the role of patient and doctor, to hurt under sharps to heal. I hear him. He trusts me. The call won’t change our relationship, but maybe our story. I’ve inherited more than his strong hands.

Still, I worry. “In and out of the hospital” with undiagnosable illnesses, he holds no cure for his suffering and ravages ERs for pain pills. I understand wanting to feel less. Dad dodges my bid to video chat over the holidays, claiming he’ll visit instead—we’ll boat the lake, us and my chosen family, and he won’t tell Mom or my brother anything. I’ll be his secret. Will I be his daughter?

I don’t know what to say except, “How is she?” Mom cries every day, prays for me.

“The prayers are working,” I say.

Since the loss, most days I’m so light I’m flying.


                                                                                                                        the girl you



                                                                                                                    or monster—

                                                                                                                    what did you


While my family sleeps, we queer. It’s easy. You’re handsome, smart, sensitive—a babe. Not a gal or Just One of the Guys, your gender expands in proportion to the disgust of your loved ones. Your story of passing as a boy in the 1985 “American teen comedy” nurtures an affinity to shrink the void. Your “voyage of self-discovery” isn’t mine, but I’m with you. I meet you on HBO to pursue an adult education. Can you tell me—to what Hollywood ending?

Thirty years pass before your name rekindles my heart. The documentary Disclosure schools me about media misrepresentation of trans experience, yet I can’t accept your gender performance was playacting.

I find you online, Terri/Terry, and we reunite in an illegal stream. As a femme, you’re coolly boyish—a manner you exaggerate as a new kid at school for “research,” to prove that you can write a story as exploitative as any man and secure a journalism career.

I want to be wrong.

Your loved ones are as transphobic and homophobic as I remember. You know better, half the time. Sandy, who loves you, might still if you claim the courage to love yourself—but your story is tired. On the night of the beachside prom, you bear your chest to the first guy who punches your bully. In tuxes, you kiss and adore his gawky face even after he explains you to the shocked crowd, “It’s OK, everybody. It’s all right. He has tits.” He can’t date you because you were lying.

Were you? Or under pressure, between yourself and him, did you choose the wrong guy?

Still, I want to be wrong.

Their world casts you into the ocean, literally throws you away. Nose bloody, tux wet shreds, you rise from the foamy tide. Kids laugh. Your chest is bare. You flip off he who says, “Where do you get off having tits?” You lose the guy and swagger home—and as you punch out the article about your experiences, I cry with you. Maybe you’ll never publish. Maybe Sandy won’t call.

There’s no return to normal, Terrance. There’s you, me, maybe us.

Alternate Ending: One bright afternoon outside the newsroom where you work, Rick isn’t waiting. I’m leaning against your convertible. I look good in a dress, you tell me. “Do you still feel the same way about me?” neither have to ask. Unlike your horny kid brother and his biker in leather chaps who throttle into the sunset, courtesy of movie magic, we refuse to exist in fantasy.

I invite you out dancing. You drive.

                                                                                                                               How thin

                                                                                                                    can my body be

                                                                                                                               yet exist?

                                                                                                                            How small

                                                                                                                   can my voice be

                                                                                                                            yet speak?

“Were you at the rec center past curfew when Julie kissed my brother?” I message an old friend, half fact checking, half measuring my recollection.

“Dusky? Pluski?” he writes, caught on her last name. “Definitely Polish. Rhymed with Slut-ski.”

I’m wholly assured of my portrayal when he adds, “You and Big D still not talking?”

Yes, better to call my brother about her—but I pushed him too hard to open up about his life, needing him to help bear the reality of my transness. To my coming out letter, I expected silence.

They still video game together, so the friend frames my brother’s objections: “What if I don’t like who [they] [are]?” I hear the catchphrase repeat: “Where do you get off having tits?”

“I’m still me,” I type—bewildered in a hallway of memories, unlocking doors of moonlight, walking through my feminine kinships to ask, “What kind of woman am I?” Until now, I haven’t been able to. For my self-preservation, I don’t send the lie to safeguard theirs.

I thank the friend for his concern, his care. What’s the gender of how my mom and brother love? How they grieve? Questions I don’t ask. He’s said too much. Any talk about my military brother’s life is a breach of personal security, invasion of privacy, my words an army, terrorism.

Sleepless, I reread my brother’s old messages. Phone held too close, my world is white glare, and I fear we are cursed—a family of storytellers. When we don’t know, we imagine a truth. I imagine his tale about a sibling he knows the name of, understands. Desperate for continuity, we craft the past. To bury his insistent deadnaming, I delete the thread. Am I writing another letter to them? To explain or to expand? Gender or me? I want to say a retelling can be a blessing. I want to say we are many stories.

                                                                                                                  How weird to hope

                                                                                                                           you’re happy,


                                                                                                                                 all I have

                                                                                                                                  of you is


I learn Mom writes fiction.

Mom reads A Wrinkle in Time, and I strain for the story in her voice, for her voice in the shapes of the words, for her words in the dream of the story. She teaches me how to tesseract: A string is held tight, the ends of time in each hand, past and present; or we join hands.

Mom reads craft books, enters short story contests, and reruns her favorite movie, American Dreamer. Like autofiction or fantasy, a “frustrated housewife” with two kids wins a writing contest to Paris where, thanks to amnesia, she saves the world by emulating a fictional spy, divorces her husband for a sensitive French guy, and becomes a best-selling novelist. Mom quotes along with hero Rebecca Ryan during the opening scene, an unveiling of her archenemy Count Reneleau disguised in drag: “I always get my man, even when he’s a woman.” The wig comes off. Rebecca is fantastic.

“I love you,” Dad says. Mom winces.

Mom writes the story of a young white woman who moves to rural Wisconsin with husband and child to escape city life—a cheap 3-acres near a state penitentiary, a circle of cleared woods, a mobile home, a promise. She feeds the kid, her novel, otherwise alone. The husband drives up weekends, can’t quit his Chicago job. By day, the woods reclaim the land, so she mows, swats, hacks, blisters, shovels. Sometimes, her husband can’t come home, a whiteout or overtime, and she cradles terror and freedom. At night, spirits dance in the mist erasing the tree line. The woman hangs evil eyes, like her Polish immigrant great aunt who spent her life alone. Saturdays, they’re exhausted, more to-dos, but she needs dinners out among human voices at the Woodbine Inn, to eat fried chicken enough to raise a mountain of clean bones. Ghosts tap the windowpanes. The kid cries, far off. A killer has escaped the penitentiary, local news says. She can’t write, isn’t safe. Maybe her parents were right about the suburbs? On her birthday, he gifts her a handgun. Why did she marry him? What her life could’ve been. One night, the killer breaks in. She calls her husband for help. “Almost home!” he shouts, and the window glass shatters. She shoots. The dead man is her husband. At last, she knows how to end her novel.

One day, Publisher’s Weekly prints her name—“Finalist.” Mom stops writing.

                                                                                                                     You’ve written

                                                                                                                            me. How

                                                                                                                         would you


Mom folds a sheet of red construction paper, staples in loose-leaf, conjures a book. Page 1, she crayolas a peach man behind blue bars and says to me, “Draw what happens next.”

“I always get my man, even when he’s a woman,” she quotes during the climactic scene, the unveiling of her archenemy. The wig doesn’t come off. The hero is the fantasy.

She writes the story of a young white woman who moves to St. Louis with a man and dog to escape suburban life—a cheap 1-bedroom near a transgender clinic, a box of dumpster furniture, a transient home, a chance. She feeds the dog, her novel, otherwise alone. The man appears like bookends, fits her bio family. By day, a dream claims her body—so she scoffs, flexes, drinks, shouts, buries. Sometimes, the man can’t restrain her, a dance party or Pride, where she cradles terror and freedom. At night, trans kids on YouTube blur the gender binary. The woman wears evil eyes, like her Polish lesbian great great aunt who lived with a “best friend.” Saturdays, he’s exhausted, more to unpack, but the woman needs sex out among queer bodies from the dating apps, to lick salty flesh enough to quiet a mattress of clean bones. “Girl,” say her memories. The dog whines, underfoot. The woman googles the trans clinic, her search history says. She can’t write, too compartmentalized. Maybe her family was wrong about gender essentialism? On her birthday, he gifts her HRT. Why did she carry him? What her life could’ve been. That night, the woman breaks skin. She conjures her dream self, hopes. “Almost home!” her blood sings. To heal the shatteredness, she shoots. The dead man is her denial. At last, she knows how to end her novel.

“I’m of you,” I say. Mom winces.

Another day, Publisher’s Weekly prints our name. On the phone, Dad mentions Mom is writing again, and I imagine her fiction: With the help of her adoring son, retired mystery writer Jody Jocasta hunts suburban sociopath—a Silence of the Lambs-esque serial killer who writes phony suicide letters from the point of view of his female victims—an open-and-shut case until she learns how much the murderer adores his mother.

Mom writes stories I learn.

                                                                                                                       Am I dead

                                                                                                                      copy? You


                                                                                                               house style or

                                                                                                           authorial intent.


I’m calling myself a writer to a friend of a friend without stammering, a decade out of MFA.

“You hesitate to claim an identity marker until it’s recognized by others,” one partner observes.

Do you believe I’m that story, too?

I’m calling manhood heavy lifting. I’m calling womanhood reclamation. Nonbinary? Plain honest.

I’m calling me: “Heat from fire. Fire from heat,” listening for vocal resonance in the echo chamber of a hot shower, through steam and gasps, blue gibberish to sherbet tones, until “I want my voice to sound like this” becomes “I want my voice.” I’m calling gender a gag. I’m gagged.

I’m calling my doctor, all doctors who shave cartilage and saw bone, who laser and suture to salvage my parts, to reconceive my blood and breasts, to needle and zap me 100,000+ times.

Browser tab 1: Scott’s Cheap Flights to Columbia for a Wendler glottoplasty. Browser tab 2: Instagram #girlslikeus, 37 days post-op, a raspy Miami trans girl reads: “When the sunlight strikes / raindrops in the air, / they act like a prism / and form a rainbow. / The rainbow is / a division of white / light into many / beautiful colors.” Yes. Frankenstein’s Bride rises to plague mankind.

I’m calling natural woman an oxymoron—effort as gender, as is.

Salad again—and one survivor to another, I’m calling my eating aversion “calergies.” Apparently, I’m not enough and want to be less. “Blame it on the [pain],” dysmorphia or euphoria, all or nothing, every day, a shot at Realness™, transubstantiation, how a syringe of estrogen suspended in oil is the blood and body of Woman.

I’m calling out TERFs—or get out of my DMs. If femme is a patriarchal construct and I’m no sister, I rest in pieces. If medical transition is a Western pathologizing of transness, I’ll clean my plate.

I walk the byline until I’m calling my name an assigned grave at birth. Might someone soon mistake Mom & I if googling authors with the family name? Ours. A loose tooth I can’t spit or swallow. A frozen lake I dance across to hear the surface crack.

Thick bangs and bright, skeptical eyes, reborn babe in the mirror—I’m calling you to speak.

Can you hear me?

Mom, it’s me.