Edith from upstairs was recording another podcast. The whole building knew it, because she taped neon pink notes to everyone’s door with the time and date repeated in her loopy-sexy handwriting, asking for quiet. The show had a dumb name that I could never remember. It took an hour, at least. During that arbitrary hour, which always seemed to come at the least convenient time of day, Edith camped out in the laundry room with her headphones on and did her show.
Katz and I, who split the shitty, low-ceilinged studio in the basement, could hear every word. This time it was a Sunday night, seven p.m., which was usually my prime time for last minute laundry. I paced across my half of the apartment while Edith’s voice ululated through the heating duct. Her laugh was high and artificial. She sounded like one of the water birds that crowded the riverfront, shitting on the railings of the historic paddle boats.
“Chill,” Katz commanded. She passed me a bowl.
This did not change at all the speed of time for me. I nudged my laundry pile closer to the door, leaned on the wall. My head was right under the duct. Edith came through loud and clear.
She kept saying the word trans, that one was easy to make out. I looked at Katz.
“What do you think she’s saying?”
Katz shrugged. “She’s saying trans.”
“But do you think she’s saying good things?”
Katz, who was trans, looked up from her Gameboy. “Whatever she says, it’s not going to be less than an hour. Cool your jets.”
“I wonder who she’s talking to.”
“She. You assume you know.”
Katz was about to stop going by Richie when I met her. Richie was the name on the lease for the basement apartment. We connected through a Facebook group for friends living with friends. Housing was almost impossible to find, especially if you were out. I’d just started a new job and had no money, and the Craigslist rental section made me feel like I was taking a guided tour of my own funeral. Katz offered a private section of the huge basement room for four hundred-fifty dollars, plus half of internet and utilities. Queer friendly, 420 friendly. The building was a block off Broadway, close to the bus lines. We met in person for the first time at the Peet’s Coffee on 15th. Katz got there first.
“I’m transitioning,” she said. “I am a she.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“Have you ever lived with a trans person?”
I looked down, ashamed. I had not. I had never even kissed a girl. I knew that my lack of experience made me deficient, like, as a feminist. “I don’t have a problem,” I muttered.
“I need a roommate so that I can afford the transition.”
Katz scoffed. Her disdain made her beautiful to me. Her teeth were gappy in the front, and her lips parted over them in an impeccable, punk sneer. “That’s for rich bitches,” she said. “I just want my body to get out of its own way.”
She didn’t ask me about my pronouns or preferences, or make any comment about my perceived level of allyship and queerness. My sister had come out last year: it would have been awkward to chime in and say, me too. So I stayed the way I was. Maybe Katz thought that my appearance spoke for itself: she saw me as an ally, and I didn’t try to claim a bigger space than that. We lived together just fine. Every time I paid rent, I patted myself on the back for helping Katz get a little closer to personal integration.
After that initial meeting, Katz never mentioned her identity again, and it was apparent that the role I fantasized about—confidante, trans ally, best friend, hand-holder, gender demystifier—wasn’t mine to play. Katz wanted to play video games, smoke weed, and leave for work on time. She was so normal. I thought I had a highly tuned sensitivity to identity and gender, but Katz threw me off. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant, trans-ness, and I was primed ideologically to be protective of Katz in every way. But Katz, it seemed, didn’t need protecting. Katz was fine. I was the weirdo.
“Have you ever met Edith in person?” I asked Katz.
“I’m on Level Nine.”
I fidgeted, went into the tiny kitchen area. A two-burner stove, Katz’s butcher-block, and a utility sink where someone used to clean their paintbrushes, you could tell by the dry splotches of house colors on the porcelain. I started heating the water for tea, enough for two. Edith was still going. Being a little stoned was the worst on podcast days, because I felt like I was caught in an infinite loop of Edith’s voice and that she’d probably just go on talking forever and ever, and my laundry would pile up and stink and I wouldn’t have anything to wear to work if I left the apartment at all and Katz would move up, Mario World after Mario World, and only I would be frozen in time, waiting for the water to boil, waiting for silence. I stared into the pot—we didn’t have a kettle—and watched the tiny bubbles start to form, like pearls, on the stainless steel.
“You want tea, Katz?” I asked. Just to hear someone else’s voice. Someone other than Edith.
“Level Nine, Dana.”
If I served Katz her tea, was I conforming to gender roles? Had Katz ever had male privilege, and did she retain any of it as she transitioned? In my heart, I was jealous of her. She had the power to decide her gender expression, and as she changed she stayed fluid in a way that I wasn’t. On top of that, she didn’t have to explain herself or process anything with me. I was non-essential to her transition, and aside from my monthly rent payments, I didn’t feel that I fit into her story at all.
“What if she wanted to talk to you? Would you do it?”
Katz put the Gameboy down and took the mug of tea from me. “Who?”
“Edith. Trans, trans, trans.”
“Why would I?” She stared at me. Her eyes were an uncanny, milky green. Katz was perpetually single, another thing I didn’t understand about her. She got prettier every day.
I shrugged. “I’m stoned. I don’t know.”
“I am the trans Lorax, I speak for the trees?”
It was a joke, but her stare was hard, glassy.
“I just worry that Edith is putting the wrong ideas out there. You know?”
“No, you’re worried that you won’t have time to do your laundry.”
I was first to look away. She was right. The dryer was the worst, and only warmed my clothes into a soggy, humid bolus. I wanted Katz to be on my team, two against Edith, but instead I felt small and alone. The Gameboy got more of Katz’s attention than I did. We slept in the same room, our respective beds at opposite corners shielded by paper screens and our bookshelves. Yet, I never felt like I could win Katz over. I wanted her to see how good I was for her, what an amazing support person, so woke, the best advocate. One of the girls. I wanted her to see me, the identity that I held so close to my chest.
“I should just switch days,” I said, lamely. “That would take the drama out of it.”
“Edith and I used to date,” Katz said. She picked up the Gameboy. “She’s fine on the trans thing.”
In a world where I wasn’t kind of stoned and constrained by my fetishistic relationship to time and space, I could walk right into that laundry room and start my wash, if I wanted to. I had my roll of quarters for the machines. Katz had taken Edith’s note off the front of our door and stuck it on the inside. The pink paper kept catching my eye.
“You went out with Edith?”
“Yeah, for about a year.”
I didn’t ask, Why didn’t you tell me? Why should Katz tell me anything? I felt my face get hot.
“When did you break up?”
“Right before you moved in. She lived here, actually. This is her couch.”
We were sitting on Edith’s couch. The nubby velvet, bald in places, was the color of a melting orange snow cone. I shifted my weight off its arm. Maybe they’d fucked on this couch. In the four months I’d lived with Katz, making those monthly payments into her transitional hormone fund, it hadn’t really occurred to me to think about her sex life.
“Why didn’t she take it with her?”
“It didn’t fit upstairs. She’s a minimalist, anyway. She’s all about giving things up.”
I wondered what Katz saw in her, if Katz was still hung up on her ex, if Edith was a regular girl or a trans girl, if Edith was prettier than me. “Do you listen to the podcast?”
Katz snorted. “Same as you. Every week, broadcast live from the laundry room.”
I didn’t wait this time. I backed into the laundry room with my arms full of dirty clothes, quarters in my pocket, and dumped the whole load on the floor in front of the washing machine without even looking in the direction of Edith’s omnipresent, piercing voice. I pulled the washer’s metal door open, stuffed in my clothes without sorting them, and slammed it shut again. I loaded each quarter like a bullet in a gun.
I kept my soap on the communal shelf over the machines, even though someone constantly used it, the bottle way lighter than it should have been. The plastic door over the soap trap clattered shut. Edith’s voice did not waver. She carried on as though I wasn’t even there. Clunk, ka-chunk. The water started. Would this be just white noise on her recording? What was the other person saying, the other half of her interview? I put both hands on the cold metal lid of the washer and leaned against it. I closed my eyes. It was a twenty-five-minute cycle. With my stomach full of bile, I started to hum a song I didn’t know.
“Didn’t you get my note?”
I turned and looked down at the source of the voice. At Edith, the person known as Edith, sitting cross-legged on the laundry room floor with her huge recording headphones pushed down around her neck. She was lanky, the way Katz was, long and angular, and her hair was a mass of brilliant, naturally red curls, shaved on one side. Her eyebrows were drawn on with purple pencil, and a silver stud dotted her upper lip. She looked like a bitch.
“It’s a work night,” I said.
“I wasn’t finished.”
“Okay,” I said. “Well.”
When I came back to switch my clothes into the dryer, she was gone. No note, though I’d kind of expected one, or maybe the wet laundry dumped vindictively on the floor. But she left no sign. Her microphone and the soft meditation cushion seat she used were cleared out. The only sound was someone upstairs, flushing a toilet, and the counter on the washing machine ticking itself down from the spin cycle. I shoved in my quarters. The dryer’s white noise ate up the sound around me, pressed against my ears, turned everything into cotton that turned over and over. Chewing.
Before work, I sat in my clean clothes in the coffee shop where I’d met Katz the first time. There was time to sit for a minute, before the bus. I was surrounded by couples who hadn’t gotten tired of each other yet. Their voices were bird chatter nonsense that kept catching my ear.
A woman impersonated a mutual friend, “a graduate from the Milwaukee School of Art and Design,” while her boyfriend sniggered. A man described throwing a glass of water into a freezing night, and how the liquid was solid before it hit the ground. The only other alone person there, a woman in a hand-knitted hat, ate what I assumed was kale from a takeout box that said “kale” on it in black magic marker. They were all talking about the housing crisis. Five people to a place, new spaces for subletters, a house that burned and killed someone who was in a hastily constructed money trap under the stairs. The rising rents. But they were all couples who worked. I drank my coffee and thought that all I had was Katz, and Katz’s goodwill, which was not feeling especially reliable. Monday, drinking coffee the consistency of apple juice.
This is not where I’d wanted to be when I set out. I looked around, accidentally making eye-contact with the kale-eating woman. It was seven-thirty in the morning. I made it to the bus on time but fumbled with my coffee cup while getting out my phone to show my fare. The plastic lid popped off and I felt the liquid soak through my clean shirt, a hot necklace. There wasn’t time to go back, get off, get a new one. I rode one stop and pulled the request cord. I walked the extra six blocks back to the apartment with my arms crossed over my chest as though I was cold, even though this was spring, warm enough for a skirt without tights.
I felt that the door was already unlocked, the pins didn’t click back when I turned the key, and the latch, when I pushed on the metal plate, wasn’t all the way fastened either. I’d never come home in the middle of Katz’s workday. Maybe she’d left it open on a trip upstairs to check the mail or something, a small domestic chore I didn’t get to deduce because, as I leaned into the room, my free hand already fumbling with the buttons on my stained shirt, I saw the patch of fur between Katz’s legs, a dark sunflower partially obscured by the fingers of Edith, white as worms, which led to Edith’s pale arm and her naked breasts, the barbell in her nipple that glinted like the stud in her lip and, as she perceived me, peeled back in a sneer or a smile, I couldn’t tell and maybe I wasn’t meant to, because Katz lifted her head from its gorgeous repose against the cushions of the sofa that I’d always suspected was a site of Edith’s pleasure, and Katz looked me dead in the eye and said, “Dana, what the fuck?”
She did not close her legs. I froze, trying to fixate my eyes on the exposed pipes lining the ceiling. “I need to change,” I said. I couldn’t make myself say I was sorry. I scuttled to my corner of the studio, its open floor plan suddenly too open, and hid behind the bookcase I used as a privacy screen. I stripped off my stained shirt and dropped it, and then stood there shivering, staring at the folded pile of clothes in the milkcrate I used as a dresser. I couldn’t force myself to choose one; I couldn’t think about colors, or even time, which slithered past me, making me later and later for work. Every one of my senses was trained on the entwined forms of Katz and Edith, listening for the subtle movements of their bodies, their murmurs and whispers, the sofa’s creak as they slowly uncoupled. Then, a breath, and the door closing. The shirt I selected was blue, with Western style flowers embroidered on the collar. I went back into the living room. My heart trembled in my chest.
Katz, zipped up in her usual place, sat with her feet up on the coffee table and the Gameboy on her lap. Her long fingers tapped the buttons.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Level Ten, Dana.”
“We don’t have to talk about it.”
She looked up at me as I hesitated by the door. I was late, really late now, and I felt it in the sweat that was starting to pool under my arms. I should have called in, to let them know, but now I was truly behind schedule and I could lose my job, I could lose my place to live, and worst of all, I could lose Katz, who was so beautiful to me that my eyes stung when I looked at her, whose mouth was moving and saying words I didn’t understand, as though she was another species entirely, a creature more graceful and poignant than I would ever be and not at all human. I felt small and sweaty and jealous.
“The rent’s going up this month,” she said. “We got a letter.”
“I think it’s worth it,” I said.
She shrugged. It wasn’t that simple now, and we both knew it. The Gameboy chirped, and she switched it off without saving the level. She’d have to start over from the beginning now.
“You’re easier to live with when you’re not here,” she said. “That was part of our deal, right? That you would have your life and I would have mine. Separate.”
“You want me to be invisible.”
My voice cracked, but she nodded, and kept nodding. My throat closed.
“I don’t really want to talk about it anymore,” she said.
I had no words.
“You can go now. Please don’t come home until after six. You’re paying for my space, right? Not my time. This is just until I can finish transitioning.”
I had fifty-five dollars in my bank account. I had maybe no job. I lived on tea and discount canned food, eggs, fun-sized candy bars from the reception desk at work. I licked my lips.
“I can do that,” I said.
Katz smiled at me, for probably the second time ever. “It means a lot,” she said. “Your support. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
By the time I got to work, I had my excuse all figured out, but it didn’t matter, because there was a fire in the building next door and the whole block was evacuated. My coworkers were standing across the street in a huddle, gossiping, watching Emergency Services hose down the smoking wreck, breaking every window.
“Dana! I’m so glad you’re here,” said the receptionist, taking my arm. “Where were you?”
“In the back,” I lied.
“Now I can check you off my safety list. I was so worried. I thought you were still inside.” She turned to the rest of the group. “Dana’s here,” she announced.
“It’s so good to see you,” said one of the other reps. “You ready to work late today?”
“Every day,” I said. “If I lived here, I’d be home by now.”
That made them laugh, and I knew I was safe. I stepped into their circle and stood there like everyone else, hands in my pockets, listening to their jokes and half-remembered reports. If I kept quiet and let their words filter past me, it wasn’t that different from the radio, or Edith’s half of her weekly podcast interview, a voice in another room, speaking a language I couldn’t seem to learn or understand no matter how hard or how hopefully I pressed my ear to the vent’s metal grill. On the other side was everything I wished I knew. I heard, and waited for the meaning to follow.
Claire Rudy Foster is the author of I've Never Done This Before.
Gem Blackthorn is QMT's Sex Columnist, and the author/curator of Lust Thrust Thursdays. Send her your submissions and questions at sexsexsex [at] queenmobs.com