Tree Frogs of North America and Their Relation to Us by Michelle Cheever
When I come home, I see that my girlfriend has opened my mail. On the kitchen table, there is a black and white photograph of me and, in it, I am naked. The photographer had such skill, such focus, that you can see the goosebumps on my breasts and on the half moon of visible ass. In the picture, I twist toward the photographer telling him not to take my picture. The window beside my bed is wide open and November prickles my skin. It’s like looking into a mirror, or a particularly still pond, or whatever.
Beside the photo is a check for two hundred dollars and a note that says,
Thanks for letting me crash with you in Tulsa. This picture won the Gestep so I’m sharing some of the earnings.
Half a year ago, I moved back to my hometown after a breakup with Alma. I got a small house and kept a rotation of old high school friends, including Harold, as visitors. Around Thanksgiving, Harold was passing through Tulsa but didn’t want to stay with his parents, so I offered him my dilapidated couch. That night, hours passed without any sleep for me, so I went to my living room. Harold was asleep, the length of him too much for the couch, his boney feet hanging off one end and his hands as big as catcher’s mitts dangling off the other. I found it strangely charming. Then, wincing, I thought of Alma halfway across the country, the girlish features of her face diminishing into shadow and her androgyny melding into something more concrete.
I knelt beside Harold and kissed his face. He didn’t understand at first, but when I said it was okay, that I wanted to, he laughed and said he used to have a crush on me. Sex with men always made me think of handshakes and this time was no exception.
In the morning, he walked into my room with his Nikon. Harold took pictures back in high school too, mostly of his own feet or friends practicing guitar in overdecorated family rooms. Without asking, he snapped a few shots of me stretched out before I could protest. He kissed the top of my head and said he had to go to Thanksgiving dinner. Three months later, in a fit of missing, I moved back in with Alma.
I hear that the shower is on. Probably Alma’s way of making me sweat it out in the kitchen. I’m surprised she didn’t find out that I let this Harold character stay with me months ago; she sees me more clearly than I see myself.
Here’s the thing about Alma. She’s becoming Anastasius, which I’ve told him is still pretty femmy, and he said he’d sock me one if I weren’t so cute. She found his new name in a baby name book. It means one who shall rise again, which is exactly what she wants to do. She wants the erasure of body and the birth of a history he wrote himself. She wants to be the phoenix that rises from ashes, but what we have now are only ashes: the pain of breasts bound to flat U’s, red facial hair growing in patches, a voice that breaks and cracks when it used to lilt. She’s found a doctor who gives her a hormone shot to stab into his thigh once a month. In July, Anastasius will have an operation to remove Alma’s breasts.
In our bedroom, I play dead. I do this often. Alma is a night baker and I am a research assistant at river conservation, so we pass through each other’s weeks like ships sharing the same harbor. When he comes home at 8am, smelling of bread and wanting to fuck me, I feign six feet under sleep. She is he when we make love now and I never know where I can put my hands.
She comes into the room wrapped in a towel and encrusted with jewely beads of water. My heart lurches; I’ve always found her both handsome and beautiful.
“I know you’re not asleep,” he says. “I can see your eyes open.”
I stop breathing. Tree frogs in northern countries can freeze themselves into suspended animation during winter and then thaw back to life when spring breaks. Their heart actually stops beating, but they are still alive or will be alive again soon. How wonderful it must be to skip whole seasons of change, wake up unharmed to lilac bushes and allergies.
She wants to know who Harold is, why he’s giving money, and why he saw me naked.
“Harold is a friend,” I say. “I helped him with a photography assignment.”
“Stephie. I’m not mad,” Alma says. “We weren’t together. I just really don’t understand why you would sleep with a man after all our issues.”
“Maybe I was trying to prepare myself.”
“That’s bullshit. I don’t think you’re being fair at all.”
It’s complicated, I know, but they’ve finally learned my sick blend of tequila and 7Up at Lesbian Nite at the local dive and I’d like to keep it that way. It all took so long to figure out.
He sits down beside me on the bed and I wrap my arms around his waist.
“I have my doubts about doing this, too,” he says quietly. “I can go back to being a girl anytime—it won’t kill me. It’s only hard sometimes.”
“Looking like a boy but not being one?” I ask, and she nods.
And I know that it is. I know the glares she gets when entering either bathroom, the confused looks I catch when walking behind her, and the casual cruelty of drunk strangers. Her lovely voice and name, Alma, trip people up, causing them to reconfigure him into her in their mind. Sometimes I can see the switch happen in their brains, how it frightens them.
It is difficult to distinguish a male tree frog from a female tree frog; it cannot be determined by outward appearance. You have to jimmy the frog’s tiny mouth open and look down its throat. If the frog is a male, there will be a dark patch of skin from the friction croaking causes. All this, if you even care to know what gender your tree frog is, and, really, who does?
Being both Alma and Anastasius is a nationless place, a scary place. He wants to declare allegiance to something that makes sense, is tried and true. He wants the stranger’s first guess to be the last one. We’ve had a lot of conversations like this and it’s clear that I am changing just as much as him. He would love me even if I froze myself. And I know he would eternally await the springtime, while here I am, reeling my love back on a fishing line.
It’s true that I’m a coward. I frequently dream of a great escape. I see myself in the violet crush of late night, on a train, on a boat, in my ramshackle putt-putt car. It doesn’t matter which because it’s all a dream and I won’t leave you, not really. You see, I love you without conditions, exceptions, or rules. I wish it weren’t so. I love you like a parent loves a child: regardless of everything that happens. I love you as if I’ve created you, while I watch you create yourself.
Michelle Cheever is an Emerson College graduate with a BFA in Writing, Literature & Publishing, as well as a minor in Women and Gender Studies. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, InDigest, PANK, Seventeen Magazine, and Thought Catalog. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and has recently published a book of stories, You’ll Miss Me But That’s Good, with Wilde Press. She currently lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.