My First Coffee
Frederick Lee Brooke
It’s not true what they say about growing up in the suburbs, or at least not in our family. My sister and I always told each other everything, even when it hurt. Sometimes, since we shared a room, we had the darkness between us to cushion the hurt. But the hurt would still sink down over you like a poisoned parachute, stinging every inch of your skin on a hot night.
‘You don’t wish you were me. You really don’t,’ my sister said across the dark that night in late July. She was fourteen, I was twelve. Her bed was somewhere across the ocean of darkness between us. ‘I’ve got a pimple on my forehead, and my period is coming. It sucks to be me.’
‘I don’t mean you, yourself,’ I said. It seemed like I was always searching for words, always, all the time. ‘I mean like you.’
‘Like me, you mean, older?’ Her voice across the darkness, trying to understand. I was wide awake. How I wished I could crawl into bed with her and whisper these words.
‘Not older,’ I said.
‘How then? What do you mean?’
‘Can I come over there?’
‘In my bed? No, silly. Boys don’t cuddle up with their sister.’
‘Gilda, I’m not a boy.’
There it was. The words hung in the darkness between us, uttered, unmistakable, unretrievable. I didn’t wish to retrieve them. I listened for my sister’s reaction, waiting for a sound, a breath, anything. She must have been holding her breath. She must have been going back over all the things I’d said in the past weeks, months, years, all the silly acts, all the trying on clothes, all the experiments with makeup.
Our parents, sometimes worried, sometimes amused, had noticed I was ‘effeminate’ but neither one seemed bothered. Neither parent ever took me aside for a private chat about my sexuality. Did they think I was too young to be aware I was different? Or was it that they didn’t care? Or did they simply feel that it was my sexuality, and therefore a thing that was so far beyond their control, it wasn’t worth talking about? In recent weeks my mind had gone around and around with all kinds of theories, never settling on one.
We shared a bedroom because the house was so small. Otherwise one of us would’ve had to sleep in the living room. That might have been possible, except that the living room doubled as our guest room, and was in use at least half the nights of the year.
There was our Grandmother Ruth, who was alone in her farmhouse in Iowa. She would stay for weeks at a time. And then there was Cookie, one of Daddy’s friends from the factory, whose wife would kick him out of the house at least once every two weeks. Cookie would camp out on our couch for two or three nights before making up to her again.
‘Robert, are you serious?’ my sister said.
That was what I loved about Gilda. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t scream. She didn’t run out of the bedroom in hysterics and wake our parents.
‘From now on, I want you to call me Roberta,’ I said. My skin felt like it had a new surface outside the tight skin I was accustomed to. Or else I was just blushing all over my body. That was possible too.
The air was so still, I could hear my sister breathing. ‘Roberta,’ she said then, trying it out.
‘I know it’s going to take some getting used to.’
‘It certainly is,’ she said. ‘Listen, come over here. I’ve got questions. I don’t feel like yelling the whole time.’
I didn’t need to be asked twice. Neither one of us was yelling, but I knew what she meant. I threw off my covers and headed across the space between us, feeling my way blindly. Suddenly my right toe bashed into something. I squealed in pain.
‘What the hell is your chair doing out in the middle?’
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I forgot to push it in.’
Feeling my way, I found the side of her bed. Gilda had already slid back toward the wall, making plenty of space for me. ‘Are you sure it’s okay?’ I said. I had on my red pyjamas, soft cotton summer pyjamas. She had on a nightie and also a pair of underwear. I couldn’t see her; I was just remembering what I knew she always put on.
‘If you’re really a girl, it’s no problem,’ she said.
I climbed in and lay down, and then I could feel her breathing in my face, and then we hugged. I got one arm down underneath and we had a nice hug in her bed. I pulled back first, and I got up on one elbow, supporting my head on my arm.
‘How do you know a thing like that?’ my sister said. ‘How can you be sure?’
‘I’ve felt it for a long time,’ I said.
‘What did you feel?’
I thought about what it really was. It wasn’t just that I liked her clothes. It wasn’t that I felt my own period coming once a month, the physical aching of it, the sluggishness, everything but the flow itself. It wasn’t that I felt more attracted to boys than to girls. The fact was I felt those crazy stirrings with both.
‘I don’t know. I just feel like deep down somewhere inside me there’s a woman crouched and waiting to stand up, not a man,’ I finally said.
I listened to her breathing, and she listened to mine. Even at this distance, it was so dark I couldn’t see my sister’s eyes. I lay on my side with my hands together in front of my chest, like a prayer-girl.
‘Yeah, but what about that thing between your legs?’ she said. As if throwing obstacles in my way.
‘You mean my penis and testicles?’
‘It’s wrong for me,’ I said. I tried to think of words that would help her understand. Words that would help me. ‘Remember when they delivered that stupid armchair nobody ever sits on in the living room? Daddy ordered a reclining chair. There was a mixup with the order. I should’ve gotten what you have.’
‘It’s not gross. It’s just what I feel.’
‘So you’re going to have an operation?’
With this question she pushed me to the boundary of my own reflections. At age twelve I could not imagine having some surgeon reconstruct my genitals. Nobody was taking a scalpel to me. I also couldn’t imagine our family being able to afford it.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
I knew what she meant. How could you be a woman going around with a fully functioning schlong in your briefs?
‘I haven’t got that figured out yet, okay?’ My heart was hammering so hard I couldn’t lie still. I was sure she heard it.
Her hand stroked my uncovered arm. ‘It’s okay, Roberta. I’ll always be your sister. I’ll always be there for you.’
I kissed her on the cheek, careful not to touch her in any other way.
‘Let’s go in the kitchen,’ my sister said.
‘Why?’ I was already crawling out.
We tiptoed out of our bedroom and went around the corner into the living room, and from there into the kitchen. We closed the door. We blinked in the bright kitchen light. My sister looked so cute in her nightie. She smiled at me. I saw myself in the reflection of the black oven, a tomboy in red pyjamas, six inches shorter.
‘Whew, I really need a cup of coffee,’ my sister said. She was pressing buttons on the new coffee machine, filling a container with water, hooking things up. ‘Your news shook me up, you know. There’s nothing like coffee to calm the nerves.’
I pointed at the clock. ‘At one in the morning?’
The aroma of fresh ground coffee infused the kitchen within seconds. Once she had prepared her cup, my sister made me lean over and sniff.
‘You know, Mom’s going to hit the roof,’ she said after one sip. ‘Dad’ll be fine. Mom, I don’t know.’ She shook her head.
‘You think I should tell them now? Tomorrow?’
‘No. Sit on it for a month or two. Or longer. You and I can talk about it whenever you want. It’s going to be a hard thing for them. It’s going to be hard for you. Wait till you’re a little older.’
‘But I’m sure.’
‘I know you are. But you’re twelve. They’ll be more likely to take you seriously if you’re my age.’
I couldn’t argue with that. My sister’s coffee smelled so heavenly. She sipped it, and she saw me wanting some. Without a word, she went to the machine and prepared another cup. While she worked, I was thinking about what she said. How everything was going to be so hard. What was hard was telling someone, but now I’d told Gilda. Gilda knew. I realized I’d felt so alone, but I wasn’t alone anymore. I couldn’t focus on hard things when I was feeling on top of the world.
She put two sugar cubes in my coffee, and poured milk in it, and handed it to me with the spoon. I stirred and sniffed for the next minute or two, enjoying the strong smell of fresh coffee, and the color, and the swirls in which I thought I could see my reflection. Gilda was watching me. When it had cooled down, I carefully put the cup to my lips, blew some more, and took a sip.
For the first time that night, my sister laughed. She must’ve seen something in my face. She laughed so loudly I thought our parents would wake up.
The bitterness shocked me
Bio: Fred is the author of the widely-acclaimed Annie Ogden mystery series, which includes Doing Max Vinyl, Zombie Candy, and Collateral Damage. ‘My First Coffee’ explores an episode in the early life of the character Roberta, from Fred’s second book, Zombie Candy.
Fred is now working on his new series, The Drone Wars. Find out more about Fred and his books at http://frederickleebrooke.com/ or preview and purchase his books here: http://www.amazon.com/Frederick-Lee-Brooke/e/B004YLCHV6/