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Learn To Live Without Shadows

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His mom always told him not to put his feet up on the car dash. His dad didn’t care. Technically, Marco was with his mom, but he was alone in the car, so no one could stop him. He kicked his heels gently up and down, his sneakers scuffing the windows sometimes, when they could reach.

Marco sighed and peered between his red Chuck Taylors at the front of Jake’s house. It wasn’t too different from his own house; they lived just down the street. He’d been there at least a million times. But this time, when his mom asked him if he wanted to go in or stay in the car, he said he’d wait for her. Now he couldn’t stop staring at the window to Jean’s office and wonder what they were saying behind the curtains. He probably didn’t want to know. He kinda knew. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to hear it. Not from someone who was basically his second mom.

Forcing himself to look away, he glanced over at the book his mom had left shoved between her seat and the center console. He gripped a corner and pulled it out. The Left Hand of Darkness. It was way thicker than any book he’d ever made it all the way through. There was no way he’d be able to focus on reading, but it was all he had in the car to keep himself from imagining the conversation the moms were having. The back cover said it was about aliens. Marco liked aliens.

Just as he was cracking the book open, a sharp tap on the window made him jump and sit up straight. He couldn’t hear him, but he could definitely see Jake snickering at him behind his hand from the other side of the car door.

Marco cranked the handle to roll the window down.

“What’s the situation in the trenches?” Marco asked. He sounded cool, aloof, like he totally didn’t care and could totally joke about what was happening in there.

Jake shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rolled back on his heels. “Well. Eva told me to go to my room.”

“And?”

“And I did, then I waited like five minutes, then I snuck downstairs and listened at the crack in the door.” Jake looked proud of himself. He wasn’t exactly great at the whole sneaky thing. Marco had been handling that since they were in like, preschool. Maybe Marco was kinda proud of him too.

Jake raised his eyebrows and leaned down like he was going to whisper a secret. Nervously, Marco leaned back a little, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. “Your mom is yelling like, a lot .”

Marco sucked in a quick breath. She used to yell all the time. He’d have thought it was normal a couple years ago. But she had started doing yoga and stuff. At this point, it’d been so long since she completely lost her cool, things must have gotten really bad with Jean. He opened the book to a random page and pretended he’d been reading it all along. He wasn’t upset. He was fine. His chest felt tight and his throat was burning, but it was fine.

“Hey,” Jake said. He reached down and touched Marco’s shoulder. Marco felt the heat spread up from his throat to his face and he pulled away.

Instead of backing off, Jake reached through the window, pulled up the knob to unlock the car, and got in next to Marco. They barely fit in one seat together anymore; Marco was shoved up against the console and Jake was hanging halfway out. It didn’t really matter, because Jake’s arms were around Marco and he was giving him a really tight hug. The heat spread all the way up to Marco’s eyes and he grit his teeth against the feeling. He super wasn’t about to cry. No way.

“My mom’s known you since we were, like, babies,” Jake said. Marco buried his face in Jake’s shoulder and Jake patted his newly short hair. “She doesn’t get it now, but it’s super obvious once you explained it. And it’s not that big a deal.”

“It’s a really big fucking deal, Jake,” Marco mumbled into Jake’s dumb Lakers jersey that looked really bad on him, especially in the summer when he didn’t have to layer anything under it. Jake had really grown, too. Before school let out, Marco and Jake could both have worn that jersey as a dress, and now it fit Jake like a normal baggy shirt. He still didn’t look cool in it though.

“You owe me a dollar for every time you said ‘fuck’ while I was gone.”

Marco looked up over Jake’s shoulder to see his mom. She was smiling, but it wasn’t her usual crooked grin or her offhand smirk. It was the forced smile she used when someone told a bad joke or said something dumb about politics. It didn’t make Marco feel better.

“Back atcha’,” Marco muttered. “Bet you owe me more.”

He shoved Jake away with his elbow, and Jake stood up next to Eva. He was taller than her now. Weird. Eva must have thought so too, because she looked up at Jake like that was totally unreasonable.

“Are you and my mom still friends?” Jake asked, sincerely concerned.

Eva rubbed her hand up and down Jake’s back and settled her hand on his shoulder. “Jean and I have been friends since we put you two in the same daycare and decided you were gonna get married when you grew up.”

Marco wrinkled his nose. “That joke is even dumber if we’re both boys, Mom.”

Eva threw her head back and laughed, looking more like herself. “Right. Jake, keep working on Jean. She’ll come around.” Jake snapped to attention and saluted her. She grinned, and this time it was genuine. “Good boy. We’re gonna head out.” She paused, then continued. “Thanks for being such a good friend, kid.”

“Duh, he’s still the same person,” Jake said. “My mom’s being so dumb. See you later, Marco.”

The boys waved to each other and Eva peeled out of the Berensons’ driveway, her tires squealing. She went in the opposite direction of their house. Marco didn’t know where she was going, and he didn’t really care. Now that it was just him and his mom, he couldn’t keep the tears in. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen him sobbing uncontrollably when she found him in the bathroom sitting in a pile of hair with scissors still in his hand.

At least she pretended not to notice. She just kept driving with the windows down and the radio up until Marco was just sniffling. Eventually, he reached forward and turned the volume down.

“Jean doesn’t believe me. Why do you get it but she doesn’t?” he sniffed.

Eva tightened her grip on the steering wheel and looked down at him, totally ignoring the road. After a second she looked up and swerved back into her lane.

“Maybe because I know how complicated life can be,” she said. She looked thoughtful. “People like you and me? We’re playing life on a harder difficulty setting. That just makes us better at the game, once we get through the tough levels. I love Jean, but she’s playing on easy.”

“You don’t think it’s stupid that I’m like this, do you?”

“You’re not stupid,” she said quickly. “You’re my son; obviously you’re brilliant. And I guess Peter probably contributed some.”

Marco looked down at his mom’s book, still in his lap. She called him her “son,” and that made him feel choked up again. “Why do you believe me, though? I just said I’m a boy and you like, flipped a switch. Dad’s trying, but I can tell he thinks we’re insane.”

Eva frowned. “You know what’s really insane? Gender.”

Eva slammed the brakes so she wouldn’t blow a stop sign and Marco pitched forward into the seat belt. The Left Hand of Darkness slipped out of his lap and into the floorboard. She started driving and talking again at the same time, using one hand to accentuate what she was saying, like her own made-up sign language.

“For some people, gender isn’t even a thing. It’s not a question, not even a blip on the radar. A body’s just a body. But even if gender is just some dumb, made-up thing, if it were possible to try out different bodies… I think most people would inherently know which body felt more right. And that feeling can be very important to them.”

Marco furrowed his brows. He didn’t completely follow, but that seemed right. His parents had only been calling him Marco for two days and he still felt the difference every time. “Is it important to you?”

Eva glanced at him again, then abruptly laid on her horn for a few seconds because she’d almost run into the person stopped in front of of her. Marco winced.

“It is,” she answered, after passing the SUV illegally. “I know I’m more comfortable in a woman’s body. And I know it’s hard to have to live as the wrong gender day after day.”

Marco was usually skeptical when people said things like “I know how you feel,” but something about the way his mom sounded so sure made him believe her. He sighed. “I wish it was that easy for Dad to understand.”

Mijo , I’m gonna be honest, you’ve been more like yourself the last couple days than you’ve been in the last few years . This is so much easier to fix than if there was something actually wrong with you. When he sees that, he’ll get it. He’ll just be relieved we don’t have to worry so much anymore.”

Marco’s voice caught in his throat. “You guys were worried?”

“You’re a fun, sweet, thoughtful person. But you’ve been so moody and depressed. We thought it was our fault, but it went on even after your dad and I worked things out. Of course we worried.”

The cogs were working in Marco’s head. His mom was being unbelievably understanding. They were both super vulnerable. Maybe a little guilt added into the mix would milk even more out of this situation. He still needed an all-new wardrobe before he started middle school next month. “You’ve been so busy lately that I thought maybe you hadn’t even noticed.”

“My job is important, but it’s not more important than getting you what you need. I can’t do my job and worry about you at the same time,” she said. “I know I work a lot. But it doesn’t mean I don’t love you more than anything on Earth.” With a wry grin on her face, she added, “After all, you’re just like me.”

Marco snorted and shook his head. He watched the town thin out around them. His mom signalled that she was turning off onto the 101.

“Where are we even going?” he asked, finally.

“L.A.,” she said. “You did okay for an eleven-year-old amateur, but we need to fix that hair.”

He thought the conversation was over. He picked up the book from the floor, ready to at least try to read it if he was going to be locked in a car with his mom’s crazy driving and not even a GameBoy to keep him occupied.

“You know, Jake is wrong,” Eva said quietly. She stared straight ahead at the road, for once.

“What?”

“You don’t have to be the same person. You’re my son. You can be anyone you want to be.”