Everyone who matters to Jessica noticed her coming into the pub, except for me. I didn’t notice their noticing until she was already sitting next to me.
Now I see why she drew their attention. Her face is red and flustered. It seems to be struggling to contain a more gnarled, knotted face beneath. The sleeves of her new hoodie—a baggy green hoodie—are stretched taut, past her hands and balled into her fists. She’s biting on her upper lip.
Everyone who matters to Jessica is silenced by her tears, and so they casually ignore her; giving her her independence; giving her the space to sit with herself on the stool at the counter in our local. I’m sitting next to her, so I don’t want to ignore her. She needs space, freedom, but not to be ignored. Despite this I feel like I’m hanging; suspended; in another world where we don’t exist, where I can’t reach out to her, or if I could I would never close the distance.
I don’t know what to say to someone upset. There’s a gagging where my mind connects to my thoughts; a gagging as though someone has placed a plastic bag between my words and my lungs. I join everyone’s silence.
Aaron, the barman, our friend, moves behind the bar to in front of us. He flashes a haphazard smile at the people sitting at the other end of the counter. The people he flashes a smile at seem small and distant but still lean towards us; a whole presence waiting on us.
Jessica’s arms are folded across her chest, covering a sports logo. She’s almost hugging herself. She could be on her couch, in her home, after finishing an upsetting film. She hasn’t noticed Aaron standing in front of us. I think she’s trying not to acknowledge him, or trying not to acknowledge herself before him.
Maybe she has noticed, because now she looks at him, then past him, then past me to the board where the beers are listed in chalk. I can feel her looking past me because I still don’t know what to say. I feel like I want to say something, but all I can think of is the word, ‘I.’ It’s as though I want, but there’s nothing beyond the want, or a reason to find the want. If there is a want for me—somewhere—a reason, it’s as vast as the city outside us; the city we come to this bar to escape from. Now the city isn’t outside. There’s nothing to escape. The world doesn’t exist. We’re all sitting in silence. I want to hold her. For her, and so me, for everyone to feel OK.
Aaron speaks up and asks, “A beer?” Jessica sniffs. “Or something stronger?” he continues. “We’ve got in more of that Game of Thrones whisk—”
“Tap seven,” she says. She sniffs again. She rubs her finger beneath her nose. She rubs her hand against her forehead. She looks up at me. The plastic bag is not only caught on my lungs but is wrapped around my head now. I still can’t speak. She returns to hugging herself, tugging the fresh green hoodie around her. I breathe. The plastic bag is like a film over the night with her a beacon shining against it; making us all vague and indiscernible; reflecting off our artificial surface.
Aaron walks the eight feet to the other end of the bar, to tap seven, and begins to pour. Everyone sitting there, the people who know Jessica, look at Aaron. Their eyes widen, questioning, apprehensive, pleading with him. If they looked at me it would be the same.
Stu coughs, a stuttering cough, then asks about the Game of Thrones whiskeys.
“The Baratheon one is decent,” Aaron says. “Jessica tried it when it came in a week ago.” As he says her name his eyes dart towards where we sit. Now the bar breathes. The film on the night has begun to decay, or maybe bubble and boil. Its hold is somehow thinner.
“What did he think?” Stu asks.
Jessica doesn’t move. “She,” she says.
At almost the exact same time as looks fly between us—the people outside ourselves—Stu corrects himself. “‘She!’ Sorry, yeah. Sorry! What did you think of it, Jess?” he says, as though blessing himself.
“It was good, better than the others I tried.” She looks down the bar, taking us all in, taking Stu in. She smiles. “It was definitely the best of them.” She carefully rubs a knuckle from her bent finger beneath her eye. “You should definitely try it.”
Aaron finishes her beer and places it in front of her. “Your Christmas pint,” he says. “On the house.”
The film around everything has mostly dissipated. I think it was Jessica’s smile that did it. She smiled though upset.
“I thought you were going out west for the holidays, back home? Did something happen?” I ask her.
“Yeah,” she says. She tugs at her hoodie as though she’s swamped.
“Fucking family,” I say.
She laughs. There’s a crackling to her laugh.
“When did you get back?”
“I came straight from the bus.” She stands. “A bus with no toilet. Excuse me.” She doesn’t move. She’s biting on her lip again. I place my hand on her shoulder. “What’s the point in going home to change?” she says. She laughs as she rolls her eyes. She turns and rushes towards the bathroom. My hand falls away from her as she leaves.
The presence of people at the other end of the bar are looking at me as I turn to them. “What’s wrong? What happened?” Alex asks.
“Family. She didn’t say.”
“A lot of families would find it hard to accept,” Greg says. “Transphobia’s virulent. Especially with parents.”
“No treatment but time,” Aaron says. “And care.”
There’s a few nods from the bar.
“Is that it?” I ask.
Stu looks as though he’s about to speak but stops himself, and everyone turns away as I feel Jessica push in next to me. I turn to her as she lifts her drink. Her hands are shaking.
“What happened?” I ask. “Did one of your family say something? Your father? He’s always been an arse.”
“No. No-one said anything,” she says.
“If you want to talk about it,” I say.
“They gave me this hoodie.” She pulls on it, thumb and index finger pinching it away. It snaps back towards her chest, settling to the same looseness it had just seconds before. “It was beneath the Christmas tree. There was a note suggesting I wear it for the day.” She gasps in air as she speaks; gulping on the words as if they would flow and form into an ocean, drowning her, drowning us all if she didn’t somehow swallow them.
“It looks comfortable,” I say.
“It’s a male hoodie,” she says. She’s smiling, but her eyes are watering.
“You pull it off.”
“It’s what it represents.”
I nod. I don’t understand what it represents, then suddenly I do. I put my arm around her, then hug her.
“Thanks,” she says. She smiles and rubs her eyes again.
I look at her, straight on, really focusing. I try to see a man. I don’t. I don’t see the shape of a man, I don’t see a man’s face. I think of the ‘Thanks’ she just said. It’s not a man’s voice. It’s deep, gravelly like a radio DJ’s, but it’s not a male voice. It’s Jessica’s. It’s hers. All she is is hers. I tell her this.
She sniffs and smiles, and rubs at her eyes, first her left eye, then her right. I notice she’s not wearing mascara, any makeup, and for some reason I can hear the sound of her finger on skin; the sound of a tear being rubbed away in a silent pub.
I’m looking at her, a little awed, until I notice she’s smiling at Aaron. He’s placed two amber-coloured shots in front of us, holding a third in his hand. He winks at us. “Merry fucking Christmas!” he says. He downs the rum. The bar’s chaos seems to wash in around us.
“I thought it would be hard,” I say.
“What?” she asks. She lifts her glass. The surrounding press of people is beginning to jostle us again.
“Adjusting to you. Seeing you as a woman when I’ve known you as a man for years. It’s not. You are—” The plastic bag catches in my throat, halting me.
“I am,” she says. She knocks back the shot.