“Clarice Hayes, have you finished your iodine?”
Mom pointed to the two empty pitcher-sized cups and nodded.
“We’re ready for your scans.”
The waiting room was half-empty, hosting women wearing hats. Mom’s hat was black with fake diamonds lining the sides. Her “out-hat,” she would call it. On the chair across from us sat a woman holding her crying daughter’s hand. There was tension in the room, and I could tell that everyone had their own sob-story.
Mom stood on her wobbly legs.
“Have fun while they stick me into a tube!” Her irony didn’t make a way into my sense of humor. Though she wanted me to, I didn’t laugh. Cancer isn’t funny.
There’s a feeling I get in the pit of my stomach every time Mom walks away. I know I’m not her guardian angel, but I can’t ever leave her alone. I never know which words of mine will be the last she’ll hear. And though she tells me not to gray over her, I know how her health is: she is dying.
I turn my head, eyes twitching in the process. There are many posters around the room, boasting of Southeast Women’s Hospital’s cancer survival rates. It was supposed to be uplifting. I found it inauthentic. As boredom finally hit me, I stood up and made my way down to the cafeteria, in which I would indulge in my favorite pastime: people-watching. Today wasn’t much different than any other day at the hospital. There are people of all different colors and sizes; some are doctors, some are nurses, some patients, and some people like me whose connection was through a loved one.
Two minutes pass me by, and by the time it’s 12:38, I spot a boy I recognized from school purchasing a chocolate-chip cookie at the register. Ian was his name. He was a year older than me, a sophomore, and soaked in his flamboyant personality. Every now and then I look at him and wonder how he mustered up the strength to come out to the world. It’s not an easy matter to go over. I should know; I’m closeted. But I’m not gay. No, I’m struggling with something much different.
I ask myself again about Ian, wondering how he got so much acceptance from his family and peers right off the bat. But then again, I don’t know that. I wondered if someday I would get that same acceptance and support. Right now, I have Dylan, and she’s more supportive than anyone could ask for, but something tells me, though, that being transgender is much harder than being gay.
Finding my way back to the waiting room was a familiar road to take; I’ve only missed one of Mom’s scans. Like I said, I have to be careful, because I know one day she’s going to walk away and I’ll never see her again. The waiting room door was open, and when Mom saw me, her red lips curled up into a smile.
“Payne!” The name hurts my head, but it’s nice to hear her voice. “You’re back!” after briefly hugging her, I sit down in the now less than half-empty waiting room. The smell of latex engulfed my nose, but at this point, I was used to it and probably everyone else was, too. The crying girl (who was no longer crying) sat next to me and smiled briefly.
“There’s a support group for kids with parents who have cancer,” she said. “You should check it out.” Her brow stifled. “It won’t save your mom, but it can bring you close to people who know what you’re going through.” Her smile rested upon her face a while before I could respond.
“Thanks,” she handed me a slip of paper with information. When she wasn’t looking, I threw it away. The last thing I need is a bunch of kids like me in my life.
The car ride home was refreshing. For a while, now, I’ve been thinking that my whole life would be an uphill battle. It mostly was, but right now, it was just Mom and I in her car listening to our favorite rappers. She tapped her steering wheel and moved her head to the beat of the drum. I wasn’t sure if that made it easier or harder to let her go, but I did know that after she died, I would be okay. Everything was going to be okay.
“Mom, can I ask you something?” Mom turned down the music and looked at me with a grin.
“Of course,” looking down, I frown.
“Why doesn’t Keith ever come to your scans?”
Mom’s smile faded, creating a bitterness in the small space.
“Keith is busy with work. Someone has to provide for our family. I’m too sick to work, you know.” It hurt me to have her bring it up. It really did. And I wondered if Keith felt the same. Mom looked at me and said, “Payne, can I ask you something?”
“Yeah,” I said, worrying about what she was wondering about.
“You…” her voice paused as she continued driving on the highway. “You like boys, right?” And as it usually was, Mom’s tone was sweet, but I still could tell that she was trying hard to not cry. She always wanted a daughter. And my wife would be the closest thing to that… unless I told her what I was hiding.
“Yeah… but I’m not gay.”
Mom looked at me and nodded. “I know. You’re not bi, either.”
She was starting to confuse me. Did she know my secret? Was this how she was going to remember me? I’m not sure if she’s okay with trans people and I’m not sure if she’d be okay with having a trans kid, or daughter, or whatever I was, but I knew that she knew something that I didn’t know she knew.
“What are you getting at?”
“I was trying to get at this: I’ve seen the photos on your phone of you wearing Dylan’s dresses. Are you out to her?” Mom really started to scare me. My secret was out. What if she told Keith? Keith would actually kill me. He’s the one who pays me a dollar for every inch I cut off of my hair. He’s the one who tries to get me to be friends with more boys, the one who is toxic in his own fragile masculinity. And I don’t know how Mom happened to fall in love with such a horrible person, if she actually did. And I doubt she did. We were in a bad place. No money. We couldn’t pay our bills. We were in poverty. And then Keith came and saved the day with his house and his air-conditioning and his electric blankets. Her love for him was about money, and he was totally blind to it. Better for him not to know.
“Payne,” Mom said. “Do you want me to call you by a different name?”
And in that moment, Mom pulled over and stopped her car. She saw the tear roll down my cheek, and I knew that this was real because of the heat my face was enduring.
“Jolene,” I said. “Call me Jolene.”