Thunder and Herbs
The written words of Jenny Hackett
Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 5: States of Confusion
It takes about fifteen minutes for Daniel to decide that maybe dancing isn’t as easy as magic and aliens. Barring the odd hiccup, magic’s come to them fairly naturally: it’s mostly a matter of following instincts, and magic tends to know what you’re trying to do. Dancing, one the other hand, requires being in touch with your body to a degree Daniel’s never been particularly comfortable with; generally, they prefer to keep their own corporeality at a careful distance. Compared to their uninspired shuffling, Michelle’s wild antics are practically ballet. She’s certainly graceful in the way she accepts their apologies for her trampled toes.
Growing tired of the rhythmic humiliation, Daniel shuffles dejectedly off the dance floor. The eyes of the other dancers seem to burn into their skull; they’re aware that it’s entirely possible that they’re imagining it, but all the same they definitely need to go give their reflection a good stare. They head off in the direction of the toilets.
The corridor that leads to the toilets is a dark-looking passageway situated on the left-hand side of the club’s main room. As Daniel goes in, there’s a girl coming out who looks kind of familiar. She’s wearing a short purple pleated skirt along with a black T-shirt bearing the word “GIRL” in capital letters made from holographic foil. Her shoes are the most adorable Daniel’s ever seen, a pair of deep purple (some might say “plum”) kitten heels — not that they’d admit to knowing what “kitten heels” actually are — and she walks like she was born in them. Pangs of envy flash through Daniel’s stomach, making them feel vaguely nauseated.
It takes a moment of looking at this strangely-familiar girl’s face before Daniel realises who it is: it’s the hooded boy from the queue, the one they spoke to about the photographer. His get-up now is a far cry from the pointedly nondescript outfit he was wearing earlier, but the hair and face are clearly the same person, give or take a little makeup. Presumably these clothes are what he was keeping in the bag. Daniel has to admit he doesn’t look half-bad as a girl and the realisation deepens and intensifies their already unpleasant envy, building on top of the embarrassment from before. Why can’t they look like that?
They’re really starting to regret being here.
Daniel enters the gents’ toilets quickly, finding them much cleaner than they expected; the night is still young though, and they suspect this state of cleanliness will not last for long. There are two cubicles in the room positioned along the far wall, opposite an entrance that consists of double doors with a glittery-pink veneer. A trough-style urinal sits on the left-hand wall, water whooshing from the automatic flushes, and the right-hand wall bears a trio of plastic-looking sinks with a single push-operated tap and soap dispenser each. Nobody seems to be in here right now, so Daniel takes the opportunity to stand at the middle sink and stare at the mirror, free from scrutiny.
It’s not until now that Daniel notices the sore redness of their eyes and the wetness of their cheeks. They’re crying, and they didn’t even notice. They wet their hands with the tap and use their damp fingers to wipe their eyes, trying their best to hide their distress before somebody inevitably walks in. It’s pretty hard to do this in a rush — eyes like to take their time in calming their puffiness — but they manage to look vaguely presentable by the time Michelle enters the room.
“Are you allowed to be in here?” they ask her in a confused tone.
She’s got an expression that they can’t quite read. Is it concerned? Humorous?
“Um, it’s a unisex toilet?” she replies.
Daniel looks sceptically at the trough-urinal. “It is?” They’re pretty sure the sign just had the one symbol on it.
After a pause, Michelle admits: “Sorry, was meant to be a joke. I guess it wasn’t that funny, though.” Another pause. “I was worried about you.”
“Worried about what?”
“Um, you?” she says, as though it were totally obvious. To be fair, it probably is. “You ran off for, like, no apparent reason?”
Yeah, Daniel admits to themself, that’s probably cause for concern. “Oh, yeah,” they say. “Sorry.”
Both of the teenagers stand in silence, both seemingly lost for words. The atmosphere hangs heavy with unspoken emotion. Michelle’s the first to speak.
“You know,” she says slowly, carefully, “I really owe you for coming with me tonight. I… I don’t think I could’ve come on my own.” She smiles, weakly. “So, thanks.”
Daniel has no idea what to say to that, so they say nothing.
“Do you want to leave?” she asks.
They kind of do. But they can’t leave; that would mean abandoning their best friend, and they could never do that. They continue to say nothing, the silence only broken by the trickling of water in various bits of plumbing.
After about a minute, Michelle asks: “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Okay,” says Daniel, “but not here.”
A toilet’s a poor venue for heartfelt conversation after all, so the pair head to what’s presumably meant to be an outdoor smoking area, a sort of enclosed outside space with a handful of wooden benches. Few of the people there are actually smoking, though. It’s mostly full of people seeking refuge from the noise of the club and a reasonably quiet space for flirting, banter and the occasional serious conversation. Perhaps there are more smokers on other nights when the crowd’s a bit older. The benches are a bit damp; there must have been a bit of rain while Daniel and Michelle were inside.
Michelle goes to sit on a bench, leaving space for Daniel to sit beside her. She’s apparently not bothered by the dampness. Daniel spends a couple of seconds weighing up the pros and cons of sitting on a wet seat before deciding to sit as well.
Daniel’s not feeling very enthusiastic about the upcoming conversation, so rather than start talking they opt to let their attention drift around the space, gathering snippets of conversation from all over. A couple of 18-year-old (ish) guys in the corner are flirting over their professed lack of gag-reflexes; three girls are exchanging gossip on one of the benches nearer the entrance; a boy of about 16 is playing with one of those awkward metal puzzles; an effeminate guy asks his boyfriend (maybe?) for a cigarette. Daniel takes all of this in and lets it wash over them in a vain attempt not to exist.
Unfortunately, Michelle has other ideas.
“Daniel?” she says, breaking their lack-of-concentration. “You have to say something, yeah?”
Daniel nods — she’s right, after all — and goes to speak with enough haste to deny themself any chance to think.
“What if I was a girl?” they say.
Going by the stunned silence, it seems Michelle wasn’t exactly expecting them to say that. But then, who would?
“I mean,” they continue, “…what if I could be?”
“Um,” says Michelle, clearly taking care over what to say. “Do… do you want to be?”
Now it’s Daniel’s turn to be surprised: they really didn’t expect Michelle to take them this seriously. Abstractly they think it’s a good thing, but the logic does little to calm their frazzled nerves. They shift uncomfortably in their seat and watch for eavesdroppers.
After almost a minute, they reply. In a half-whisper, they say: “Maybe.”
Fuck. Just admitting that much cements in their mind how much of a freak they are. Michelle’s going to hate them for sure.
“I see,” she says, adopting the same careful tone from before. “I was wondering if it was something like that.”
“I mean,” she continues, “I figured you weren’t gay, I’ve seen you look at girls. I thought maybe bi, but this makes more sense, really.” She’s still speaking carefully but her tone’s creeping toward a sort of matter-of-fact-ness that underscores how obvious this must be to her. She’s so fucking clever that it hurts, sometimes.
“How long?” is all Daniel can say in response.
“I dunno,” says Michelle, “a year?”
“You… you didn’t say anything.”
“Well… I didn’t want to freak you out, yeah?” she says, as though it’s Daniel’s feelings that matter here. “I figured you had to work it out yourself, or something.”
A few seconds pass before Daniel responds; they spend them staring at the ground, feeling kind of spaced out.
“So… that means you’re not freaked out by it,” they say.
Michelle pauses for a moment. “Remember when I got grounded for two months?”
Daniel nods: they remember all too well. It was one of the loneliest times of their life. They know Michelle’s parents can be strict, but two months seems excessive even for them. They’d never found out exactly what she’d been grounded over, though.
“Well,” Michelle begins, her usual matter-of-fact-ness only just veiling angst, “it started when I got a book out from the library. I forget what it was called. The Biology of Sexuality, or something like that.” She clears her throat. “I knew I was gay already, but I got curious about, like, what does it mean to be gay. You know: why are humans sometimes gay when it doesn’t seem to have any kind of, like… reproductive benefit, I guess.”
Michelle shifts slightly, stretching her legs a little. She sniffs.
“Anyway,” she continues, “This book had a section about sex.” She coughs. “Er, I mean, as in gender, not as in sex sex. It talked about how male and female bodies and brains differ, and how that’s determined by genetics and hormones and stuff.”
“Like, XX and XY?” Daniel asks.
“Well, yeah,” she replies, “But you also get XXYs and XYYs and double-Ys and… you get the idea. And sometimes people are XY but develop like girls. Anyway, there was this case study, about this guy. Only…”
“Yeah?” Daniel’s getting wrapped up in the story.
“Well, they tried to circumcise him when he was a baby. But they botched it, damaged the penis beyond repair.”
Daniel winces reflexively, images of pain flashing through their head. They may not want that part of them but the image of it getting damaged still makes them somewhat uneasy.
Michelle continues: “So, the parents, right, they raised him like a girl. Only… it didn’t stick.”
“Didn’t… stick?” Daniel echoes.
“Well,” she says, “It turns out that there’s more to sex than genitals. It’s in the brain, too. And he had a boy’s brain.”
“Wait,” says Daniel. “So you think I have a girl’s brain?”
“Maybe?” Michelle says, shrugging. “Who knows. Point is, this stuff is way more complicated than people think.”
Daniel knows “complicated” pretty well; they think back to their meeting with Garl, and even further, to nights of reading stuff online they probably shouldn’t’ve. It’s definitely… complicated.
“So, um,” they ask, “what does this have to do with getting grounded?” They’re aware that this is a bit avoidant of them, to dodge the hard emotions like that, but they also genuinely want to know.
“Oh! Right, duh,” she says, putting palm to face in an exaggerated show of forgetfulness. “Mum found the book. She thought I was reading, like, dirty stories from it or whatever.” She sighs. “Not that there were any. Not that I wanted to read any.” She drops her voice to a murmur. “Okay, maybe I did, but…”
Daniel can’t help but chuckle at that, slightly.
“But she didn’t listen,” Michelle finishes. She pauses, perhaps readjusting her mental state. “Anyway, yeah. I’m not freaked out.”
There’s something in those words “I’m not freaked out” that breaks the tension of the moment, and the whole weight of the conversation hits Daniel at once, leaving them speechless and broken. Michelle puts an arm around their shoulders. It’s an uncharacteristically warm gesture from her but a welcome one nonetheless, and Daniel rests their head on her arm, tears welling up in their eyes. Not for the first time this night, they start to cry.
Michelle’s arm stays precisely where it is, a steady anchor for a soul adrift.