part i - few words could open me, but you knew them all
David was angry. Furious and full of rage. He was always angry these days. Angry at the world, his parents, his teachers, the kids at school. He’d always quietly seethed about the unfairness of it all. But this summer he was angrier than he’d ever been.
He should’ve been at football practice, should have been halfway through the summer program he’d done these past few years, showing off and having fun with his teammates. But no, his mum had made him quit the team. She’d said it was no longer fitting for him to be running around with all those boys. Even though he was one of them, just a little different. She didn’t see it that way. She didn’t see him right at all.
He knew he was different and that those differences were going to get bigger as time went on. The thought made him ill, scared, and anxious. But more than anything it made him angry. Made him hate everyone and everything. It was all so unfair. Everything about his life felt unfair.
What really hurt though, was that the coach, Daniel, had agreed with her. David had thought he would have his back, seeing as he was the best player. But as they’d sat there in his little office, surrounded by trophies that David had won for the team, his mum listing all the reasons why he should cease playing, Daniel had just nodded along. David had foolishly expected him to fight for him and instead he’d agreed on several of his mum’s points and added a few of his own.
Daniel had said that it wasn’t fair to the other boys, that it would emasculate them, make them feel inferior, that they wouldn’t want to play with a girl. Which was such bullshit, they didn’t care, he didn’t think they did, they’d never said anything before. They didn’t even have to know the difference. If Daniel just treated him like he wanted to be treated, deserved to be treated, those problems were moot because the other boys wouldn’t know any different.
But football was over for him now because he was sure as shit not joining the girls' team like Daniel had suggested. He didn’t care how liberal the coach was supposed to be there. That wasn’t fair on him and it wasn’t fair on the girls of that team. He would be uncomfortable and they would be uncomfortable with him there. He got that. He wasn’t one of them. He may only be beginning to understand these feelings he’d had his whole life but he knew with absolute certainty that he wasn’t one of them.
So far Laura was the only one that got it. His godmother too but she was too far away to help him. He knew he was always welcome there and he loved her for that, but he wanted to feel welcome in his own home, understood by his own parents. Surely he deserved that.
Right now his mother thought it was a phase she could stamp out by aggressively denying his truth. His father thought it would go away if he ignored it for long enough. His teachers at school regarded him with anything from amused curiosity to open hostility. Never just the acceptance he wanted. The kids at school knew him only as that freak who wanted to be a real boy.
Only Laura and Emily had accepted it when he told them.
He’d told them first before his parents, he’d gone out to Emily’s house with Laura. He’d sat down and said to them that he was a boy, that he was serious about it, that his name was David and could they please try to see him that way. They had immediately, hadn’t questioned it. Laura understood, Emily had been confused but loved him regardless. Yes, it had taken some getting used to, but they’d both tried, stumbling over their words until his new name, new pronouns stuck and now they couldn’t refer to him in any other way. They wouldn’t see him any other way.
He loved them so much for that.
Laura was amazing, had pretty much gotten him through the past few months. Had argued with his parents countless times on his behalf. Had comforted him when everything was too much.
Recently she’d seen how frustrated he’d been milling about the house with nothing to do. That morning she’d finally had enough. She’d marched into his room and tossed his sports kit at him. There’d been no explanation, she’d just proceeded to drag him across town to some random community centre where no one knew who he was or his story. Then she’d signed him up for the youth boxing group that was hosted there.
She’d gone in there so confident, used his correct name and put him down as a boy, and was poised ready to stare down the trainer if he had any problem with him. David had been nervous and unsure, hated these situations. But the guy had just added the forms to the pile and waved him into the room. He'd set David up at a punching bag and told him to show him what he could do. He’d watched for a few minutes, correcting his stance and encouraging him. Then he’d told him to keep it up, told him he had to prove himself. David was ready to do that so he kept punching. It felt good.
Laura was still there, sitting in the corner, on her phone and ignoring him. But he knew she was there and that she had his back if anything were to happen.
The other boys were older and intimidating so he hadn’t dared to approach them. But nobody paid him any mind, nobody had turned and asked what he was doing there when he walked in. No one suspected a thing. They just left him in the corner beating up his bag.
A few of them had even smiled at him. They didn’t seem hostile, they didn't see him as a girl, they just saw him as a kid, a boy younger than them. They probably thought he was annoying and little but he didn’t mind that. He knew teenagers were weird; he'd dealt with Laura enough.
The group itself didn’t seem to be anything proper, not a formal boxing group. He was too young to spar with the other boys. Tommy, the trainer, didn’t seem to know quite what to do with him. Didn’t seem up to much in the way of professional training. On the way there Laura had warned him that it might not be as organised as football had been, that it was not so much a class as a way for kids to let off steam. It was just something to stop them wandering the streets and getting into mischief. Warned him that the other kids might be from troubled backgrounds but not to judge them.
David didn’t mind the shabby room, the patched-up punching bags or the worn-out gloves. He didn’t care how dated or tired everything was. He wanted to be there. Boxing felt good and Tommy saw him correctly, or if he didn’t he hadn’t sent him away. David supposed to some he was a troubled boy so maybe he fit right in.
He kept punching, it felt so good to let out some of his rage. Even in the gloves his fists hurt but he continued to punch hard. He stayed angry, couldn’t help it. He imagined he was punching Daniel, his teachers, the other shithead kids at school. Punch after punch he imagined their faces. He hit harder and harder, lost himself in the rhythm of it.
“You’re not very good,” a soft voice piped up, distracting him for a second.
David scowled and turned to see a boy watching him with a grin on his face. He was easily a head shorter than David, had messy dark blonde hair with a ridiculously long fringe that covered half his face. David couldn’t even see his eyes properly. He looked like one of those puppies with the long fluffy fur. If he wasn’t so angry he would’ve smiled at him, he was harmless.
Despite the heat, the kid was wearing a heavy blue sweater twice his size, the sleeves pulled over his hands. David was only in a vest and he was already sweating. The odd boy had combined the excessive sweater with green shorts past his knees and bright orange sandals. He looked absolutely ridiculous. He also looked like a strong breeze would blow him over.
“I doubt you know anything about boxing,” David muttered. It came out meaner than he’d intended, he’d gotten himself wound up thinking about football and was filled with adrenaline and rage.
“Er yeah? I come to watch all the time, so shouldn’t the bag move more? You’re obviously just not very strong,” the boy said, pushing his stupid fringe out of his face to reveal blue eyes, filled with mischief.
He was just teasing David could tell, just trying to wind him up, there was no meanness behind his words but David was in a bad mood and he didn’t care for it. The kid was bothering him.
“Fuck off!” he hissed.
The boy blinked then, a little shocked, his smile fading a little as he bit his lip nervously. He glanced around obviously deciding whether or not to flee. But he seemed determined, didn’t run off, instead, he took a step closer.
“Just saying the other boys-”
David gave him a shove then, hardly anything, just enough to make him go away. To his horror the boy fell on his ass and just stared up at him, eyes wide and shining. He blinked up at David in shock, hurt and upset visible on his face.
David instantly felt bad, a heavy weight settling in his stomach as the guilt set in. He just stared down at the boy, no longer angry but ashamed. He was used to being pushed and shoved about, he knew he shouldn’t have done that. He really hadn’t meant to hurt him but he shouldn’t have pushed him in the first place.
He’d barely touched him but he felt awful. Because he wasn’t mean, as hard as he tried to fit in with the other boys at school he wasn’t mean. He really hoped the kid wasn't going to cry. Was he even a kid? David wasn’t sure, he seemed younger than him but he was just smaller that was all. David figured they might be a similar age. But David was bigger, taller, stronger, he shouldn’t have pushed him like that.
Before he could reach out to help the boy up a woman rushed up to them.
She pulled the boy, Matteo, up to his feet gently. This must have been his mother. She dusted Matteo off, checked him over, fussing and mothering him with care that David hadn't experienced in a while. When she was sure he was ok she turned to David, barely concealing her anger.
“You nasty little boy, why did you push him?”
“I just… he fell,” David said, glancing around for the coach, ready to be kicked out of this club for different reasons than he was for football.
It really seemed he didn’t fit in anywhere. Maybe he was the problem, he couldn’t get on with people, nobody seemed to get him.
Being kicked out of football because he wasn't enough of a boy was awful, but being kicked out of boxing for hurting this boy didn't sit right with him either. He was angry, yes, but picking on kids smaller than himself made him just as bad as the bullies at school. It didn’t make him a big man or prove anything. David was kind, he wanted to be kind, he just didn’t know how to show that without people thinking he was a girl.
Matteo was staring at him now, smiling slightly as he scrutinised him. Then he winked.
“I lost my balance mama,” he insisted, looking up at her. “He was just practising, but I fell over.” He grinned at David, not at all upset that he’d knocked him to the floor.
Matteo’s mother frowned at him for another moment then turned to Matteo. “I’ve told you to stay away while they’re fighting in here, these boys are trouble Matteo,” she said, giving David a dirty look.
David had never been seen as trouble before but he’d take it over the way most adults saw him.
But really all he wanted to be seen as was David. He wasn't trouble, he just wanted a quiet life where people accepted him and let him be himself.
“Yes mama,” Matteo said sweetly, letting her fuss over him then pull him away.
What a little mama’s boy he was. He shouldn’t have even been in there with the older boys, he was too little. He could’ve annoyed one of them and then they could’ve punched him. Matteo was very lucky that David was so patient, that he had a good handle on his temper. Ok, he may have pushed him but he would never have punched him. If Matteo had wound up one of the other boys, David would have had to intervene, stop him from getting beaten up.
He looked around and saw a couple of the boys grinning at Matteo as he passed them. Matteo even waved at a couple. David watched him go sadly, realising the other boys liked Matteo, that he could’ve chosen to hang out with any of them. But he’d chosen to approach David and he’d shoved him away. Yeah, he’d been annoying but still, deep down all David wanted was a friend.
Matteo turned and waved at him before exiting the room, hand in hand with his mum. David rolled his eyes and went back to punching the bag. He wondered if he'd see him again if he came next week. He hoped so.
“He say something to you?” Laura asked, coming over to check on him. She hadn’t intervened, clearly didn’t think much of Matteo as a threat.
“You pushed him over?”
“I didn’t mean to, he was annoying but… I didn’t mean to push him like that,” David said sheepishly.
“Try to stick to punching the bag dumbass,” she said, giving him a gentle shove. Unlike Matteo, he held his ground.
He just stuck his tongue out and went back to the bag.
Later that evening when they finally got home David went straight to his room to avoid his mum. It had taken well over an hour to get back and that combined with the exercise had left him exhausted. He really appreciated Laura doing that for him, although she’d already made it clear that next time she was just dropping him off.
Still, he knew she’d stay if he asked. She hated to admit it but she loved him, he knew she did. He had no idea why she found him so annoying, he thought he was a delightful little brother. And he didn’t smell like she’d complained about on the bus, she was just rude and dramatic.
It had been a weird but good day. He was exhausted, his arms were aching and it felt good, he felt so strong. He felt like one of the boys.
When Laura had finally told him what they were going to be doing, he’d been ready to be disappointed. He was ready for her to argue to no avail just to get the trainer to let him box. He was ready to be sent away again. To have to ride back on the bus with Laura, trying not to cry.
But that hadn’t happened. The trainer, Tommy, was a middle-aged guy who was just trying his best. He had no idea what he was doing but definitely tried. He’d scanned the form Laura handed him and glanced at David with an encouraging smile. He seemed to see David correctly or at least wasn't going to say anything. Patted him on the back when he’d left and told him he would see him next week.
If David was honest the class itself was a bit of a letdown, hadn’t really been a class at all. Not organised or professional like the football club. But to David what mattered was that he’d been treated correctly, considered the same as all the other boys, so to him it had been a win. He'd been able to let off some steam, let out some of his anger and come back as tired and achy as he did from football.
He felt so good.
He'd wanted to avoid his mum before she could shatter that slight high he was feeling but, of course, he had no such luck.
He managed about five minutes of peace before he heard her calling him from downstairs. He ignored her. She was calling him the wrong name anyway. Eventually, he heard her marching up the stairs and braced himself for more of her crap.
David wondered what it would be this time. His clothes? His hair? His attitude? His refusal to answer to a name that hurt him?
It was always something with her.
He hadn't expected her to get this straight away. He'd expected confusion, expected her to be upset but he'd never expected this aggressive level of denial. She saw it as a personal failing. That she’d failed him as a mother. It was nothing to do with that but she wouldn’t take the time to understand him.
Before he came out, she thought he was a tomboy and she didn't much care, encouraged it even. She let him run wild, just smiled fondly when he came in covered in mud. Bought him a skateboard when he asked and cleaned his cuts when he fell, made him get up and try again instead of sulking. He’d gotten pretty good too. She'd had no problems with it. It was even her that encouraged him into football, to run around and just have fun. Never even questioned that he’d joined the boys' team. She let him be who he wanted to be and for years that was enough.
But it wasn’t enough anymore and the moment he'd explained it to her, told her he was a boy it was like he'd offended her. Or she saw it as a mistake that she’d made somehow. The thing was he didn’t think she had a problem with the concept in general, just didn’t want it for her child. Which was such a fucking hypocrisy.
Now she did everything she could to try and remind him he was a girl, where she'd never bothered before. Never once had he worn a dress and that had been fine by her. But now she was buying him all these clothes he just couldn't wear. Like she thought if he was exposed to girly things long enough he would see what he was missing. She thought she’d encouraged him into this, thought she could encourage him right back out of it.
She opened the door without knocking and barged into his room as usual. David could barely remember how easy their relationship used to be. He did though, he loved her and he missed her so much. It hurt him so badly that she was treating him this way. They'd been so close once, he wanted it back.
He didn’t even look at her, just continued to lay on his bed staring up at the ceiling. He'd flopped onto the bed the moment he'd gotten home and hadn't moved. In part because he was ignoring her but also just because he was sore and tired. His whole body ached now, worse than football and he hadn’t even pushed himself that hard.
"I’ve been shouting for you,” she said, frustrated that he was ignoring her.
David just shrugged and tried not to wince at the pain in his arms. He knew what it meant though, the dull ache meant he was building muscle. That made him smile to himself. His mum approached the bed and stood over him, arms folded.
“Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Maybe use my name and I’ll answer you,” David said.
“Don’t start that again, you can't just change your name on a whim,” she said tiredly.
He didn’t know why she was sounding so put upon, surely it would just be easier to accept his name rather than keep up this argument because he wasn’t letting it go. She would have to back down eventually.
"It's not a whim," David argued, even though it was pointless. "What do you want?" he asked, not even wanting to get into the argument about his name. Again.
"Look your hair is getting very messy, I’m going to the salon next week so I'm going to book both of us in, ok?" she asked.
What the hell did she want now, a mummy daughter bonding day? That was not happening, he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
She was right though, his hair was getting messy. But it was because he just wanted it short. It was one thing that never used to bother him, the hair. It was always bigger than it was long and he'd always thought that was cool as a kid. But he wanted it cut short now like the other boys and he knew he wasn't going to get that. So he’d let it grow wild and untamed.
"No," he said.
"I want to cut it off, I'm not styling it or making it pretty, I want it short," he insisted.
"But it's so beautiful darling. I know it’s gotten messy so we’ll tidy it up, make it hang nicely around your face. We could do braids, you would look so pretty," she said.
The thing was David got it, what she was doing. She thought she was helping him. Because she wouldn't listen to him when he explained, because she wouldn't read the information he’d given her. She just thought there was something wrong with him. She thought because she'd let him be a tomboy he'd gotten confused. And now she was just trying to do everything she could to remind him he was a girl. She wasn't even trying to be mean, she really thought one day he’d look back on all this and see it as a kindness. It hurt so much. She was so fucking stubborn and it was hurting him.
"I don’t want to be pretty and it’s my hair," David muttered.
"No! No! Leave me alone! I hate you!"
He couldn’t take it anymore, he’d had such a good day and he wasn’t going to let her ruin it for him. He felt the anger rising, letting it all out earlier meant nothing as soon as he was back. All his rage was back in full force. He was so frustrated with this, so done.
She looked shocked, so he got up and shoved her out of the room before she could say anything else. He just wanted to be alone. He was always alone. It was the only way he could be.
The thing was he didn't actually hate her, he loved her a lot, but he wasn't her daughter and he never could be. He just wished she'd accept that.
“I’m trying here darling,” she said through the door, “one day when you've gotten over this boy phase you’ll thank me for being sensible."
David just threw himself onto the bed and screamed into his pillow.