Cynical Hope

It had been a long year, and I was looking forward to a night to unwind, eat Thai food, drink Italian champagne, and get caught up my friend and muse, Abs. But during our mutual storytelling, our reverie come to an abrupt halt.

“. . . Could you not be so cynical?”

“That’s a little hard for me, Abs. That’s kind of my default.”

“Stop letting it be your default.” She took my hand in hers, her big eyes pleading. “I love you, Carolyn, my dear, but you have to give the world a chance. You don’t have to look at the world through such dour eyes. You don’t have to look at the world the way he did.” The ‘he’ she was referring to was my late father, chief cynic among cynics. In Abs’s mind’s eye, with the Old Man gone, I should have been in a much a freer state of mind. Yet I was still in a state of realignment.

Abs wasn’t having it. “You have to get out of your funk.”

“I am not in a funk. I’m trying to find a purpose, but my options are limited with the ways things are.”

“That’s just an excuse.”

“It’s not an excuse.”

Shaking her head. “That’s just your cynical mind talking again.”

“What am I supposed to do about it? Get high and sing Kumba-Fucking-Yah?”

My little outburst led to other outbursts, until finally, Abs challenged me. “We have to get that cynicism out of you. We need to go to a secluded spot out in the middle of the desert and you need to scream your head off.”

“Desert doesn’t really do it for me. What about a forest clearing?”

“Whatever. You need to release your inner demons, otherwise you’re never going to move beyond what that old asshole did to you—all the dreams and broken hearts that made you lose touch with the real you.” She took my hand again and a strand of my long curly hair. “You have transitioned into a beautiful, beautiful woman. I know you don’t see it right now, Carolyn, but you really have a beautiful soul. You have to let go. A scream will revitalize you.”

“That’s preposterous.”

“It will be liberating.”

“It will be idiotic.”

That was the wrong line to cross. “You don’t believe in this hippy shit, I get it, but you need to move on.” She gave me an assignment to write about how I would encapsulate the howl. “You’re a Beats fan. Make it shroud-ripping, like Kerouac or Ginsberg,” she said, taking off to her corner of the Truckee Meadows.

After Abs left, my first reaction was to keep drinking the Italian champagne, raise one finger and say, “Fuck her.” I love Abs, she’s my muse, my Stripper Poppins. Our discussion left me feeling as vulnerable as a child being scolded by their mother. Abs was on some spiritual and sexual enlightenment kick, while my life had been a kick in the ass.

That’s how I felt the next morning from the hangover I had after drinking another bottle and a half of Italian wine. A jackhammer of a headache compounded by a hair appointment where the loud hair dryers would only amplify the pain, there was a coffee run in my near future.

Standing in line at Starbucks, I thought back to the “assignment” Abs had given me. If only she had given me a moment to explain myself. Who the fuck am I kidding? She wouldn’t listen. She’d confuse it with something else. Damn it. Why did I have to tell her about Rae? Rae being the main character and narrator of Tahoe, the working title of an-anything-but-cynical novel I wrote as a wedding gift for a friend. A novel that, even as fragmented as it was, seemed to be garnering more attention than my other efforts.

If you remove the cynicism from your mind, you’ll be able to draft more elaborate works, starring a cavalcade of fun characters like your lovely Rae.” Abs’ words ping-ponged in my head.

Then an evil thought creeps up. She wouldn’t let me explain myself. Fine. I’ll just highjack the story with a few events of my cynical origin. But which ones?

Another voice in my head: You know which ones. You relive them every time you drive past that farm on Highway 395.

The unironic 1990s Spice Girls music, bubblegum-popping out from the Starbucks sound system, sent a chill down my spine.

In a new state, a new town, and a new RV park, I thought I had found allies that shared my predicament—poverty and queerdom. Over the summer, Aaron seemed to be someone I could confide in. Between presenting as a femme boi twink and androgynous, he taught me how to shift between genders merely by changing the part in my hair. He even helped me bind my chest.

“Ace bandages are a drag king’s little helper.”

“How would you know that, Ironing Board? You don’t have any tits.” That skeptical response came from another RV-dwelling ally, Luisa. She was an anarchistic, early-developing, tomboy Latina, living like a goth when she wasn’t in school, but as a cheerleader when she was. The type of girl who hung out with whoever she wanted, she just happened to prefer two gender-ambiguous queer kids. It didn’t hurt that she was bi, too. “You’re doing the world a disservice by locking those down, chica. Let your girls out to play,” she said, while rubbing my shoulder. A flirty act I found exciting but which got under Aaron’s skin. When he found Luisa and I half-naked and wrapped into one another inside the shed—our group’s little hangout—his shoulder became ice cold.

It was no surprise when fall classes arrived, we became frenemies in different cliques. He was assimilated into marching band, track, school politics, and becoming the lead cheerleader’s gay BFF. As for me, not so much. I fell into computers, A/V, theater and choir, when I wasn’t spending time in detention for fighting off wealthy and connected bullies calling me faggot. Being considered a troublemaker made me an outcast to the outcasts, except for Luisa. Though amongst the other cheerleaders and goths, I was too weird for either. In all honesty, I am sure her interest in me was purely carnal. Made ever more apparent one Wednesday night at her fifth wheel while getting ready to go out.

“From you, I get the best of both worlds.” A phrase she thought was a compliment.

In my confusion, all I could mutter was, “Thanks.”

Rubbing my freshly unbound chest, she said, “Don’t be sullen, knockers. Who else is going to help you do your makeup?”

“I know how to do makeup.”

“Yeah, like a white girl.”

Looking down at myself, I said, “I am white.”

“You’re white-ish.”


“No white girl has hair that naturally curly.”

“I doubt that.”

“Believe what you want.” She took the end of a long lock and shook it in my face, and said, “Besides, you need to learn variety, sissy.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

Pondering, she blurted out, “What ’bout RuPaul?”

“She’s a drag queen.”


“I don’t really see myself as a drag queen, more like a cover girl.”

“Like the makeup or the song?”

My face turned red. I said, “A little bit of the former and the latter.”

A purple lipsticked grin crept across her face. Planting a playful kiss, she said, “That’s my girl.”

With my mind at ease, we continued dressing in mesh and leather clothing beyond our years. We went out with her older sister and a few of her friends.

An improvised club- and pub-crawl devolved into casino-hopping, and we eventually found ourselves Coyote Ugly dancing at the Western bar inside of the Flamingo Hilton.

Drinking, drugs, and a night of a whole lot more. On a school night, no less. Troublemakers be troublemakers.


The world comes into focus through a pounding underage hangover. Burning light poured in through a slit in the Venetian blinds. A Doc Marten to the face was only adding to my pain, until I got a glimpse at my surroundings. Headache or no, waking wrapped up in Luisa and another guest didn’t seem like bad way to start the day (or skip it). At least until my eyes focused on the Luisa’s alarm clock, the red numbers flashing: 6:15 AM.

“Holy shit. Luisa? Luisa? Wake up,” I said, shaking her shoulder.

Moaning with a smile on her face, she said, “Morning, sweet cheeks.”

“We’re going to be late for school.”


“So? Aren’t you worried about getting in trouble?”

“Who gives enough of a rat’s ass if we’re there on time or not?” She had a point: it wasn’t like we were honors students.

Yet my irrational fear of being late, thanks to a lifetime of being yelled at, reared its ugly head. I untangled myself and reached for the nearest pair of black denim jeans and a shirt. I didn’t notice the shirt was a crop top. A Cheshire cat grin spread across Luisa’s face.

“What? What is it? Do I still have makeup on my face?”

“No, babe, just admiring the view.”

“What view?”

Luisa chuckled.

“What is it?”

“You’ve got a Mexican woman’s butt,” she said, falling over laughing.

“Now you’re mocking me for that?”

Trying to contain herself, she said, “You’re wearing my jeans and her shirt, chica.” She points to the comatose TA next to her.

Looking down, I said, “Shit, I wondered why these clothes actually fit.” I made a dash to locate my male clothes. Easier said than done amongst piles of discarded, dark clothing.

“You don’t have time to find your stuff. Take what you have on and go with it for the day.”

“Including the underwear?” I said, flashing the bra strap from the shirt collar.

“At least you’ll have support,” she said, giving in to a fit of giggles.

I wanted to get back at her, but after another glimpse at the clock, I knew I didn’t have time. I’d have to race across the RV park, make my father breakfast, grab my backpack, toss on a long-sleeve shirt and my jacket, then race to the bus stop. Changing clothes to change genders wasn’t an option, and the long sleeve shirt and jacket would provide only so much coverage.

With seconds to spare, I made it to the bus stop, accompanying my frenemy and the other trailer-park kids, sans Luisa. On the bus, I took a seat next to Aaron, who ignored me via his Walkman. The bus reached its last stop and the fallout stepped aboard, engulfing me in a hydrogen blast.

Enter the Predator: Jerrod, a bully who preyed upon the tired, weak, and outcast alike. Seeing my chest jutting out, he couldn’t resist. He was relentless—nothing could stop him, save for the snapping of his right hand and fingers. He reached over his bus seat, going in for a grope as he said, “I need to get me some of that—”

SNAP! CRACKLE! POP! went his bones like Rice Crispies.

“My hand! You fucking faggot, bitch! You broke my fucking hand!”

“Go fu—” I didn’t finish the phoneme. A flurry of left crosses sent my face into the window, splintering the plated glass. Blood trickled down from a cut. The world went black.


Four Months Later

Inside the Douglas County Courthouse, I was forced to relive that morning from a witness stand. Jerrod the Predator, now Jerrod the defendant, was in his best suit and designer glasses money could buy, looking quizzically, free of guilt. I was anything but poised. I was in another ill-fitting, button-up, long-sleeve shirt. I had borrowed a blazer from Luisa—no male jacket would close over my chest. A Rush Limbaugh tie, which my father tied in a Windsor knot, completed the ensemble. Underneath, my slacks covered dark tights and feminine undergarments, and a panty liner in case I pissed myself. Nervously, I kept tugging at my collar and tie. To an outside observer, it looked as though I was on trial, not Jerrod. Like a crafty John Grisham novel attorney, that was the strategy his defense employed, insisting I take the stand.

“So, Mister Lawrence, you would have us believe that you were defending yourself from my client’s . . . advances?”

“Uh, yes . . . yes, sir,” I said, stuttering in a barely audible whisper.

“Speak up, Mister Lawrence.”

Fighting back nerves, I squeaked out, “Y-yes, sir.”

“And your best defense against such advances was to, as you said in your statement, ‘twist his fingers back on his hand, breaking it,’ end quote?” He dropped the files on the podium for dramatic effect. “Instead of breaking my client’s fingers, did it occur to you to just say ‘no’ or ‘don’t touch me’? Did you think of anything that wouldn’t have jeopardized my client’s football scholarship?”

Panicking inside, I stared at the floor. I was on the verge of tears. The defense attorney wouldn’t relent. “Answer the question, Mister Lawrence!”

I looked to the judge, pleading. I was barking up the wrong tree. The judge, brother of the conservative then-governor, harbored ill-will for anyone who lived outside the Christian, white, cishet norms of small-town society. The judge had my number the second I walked into the court. Choosing between an all-American athlete or a pasty, pale, bosomy faggot with a pathetic ponytail was redundant. For the judge, there was no choice.

“Answer the question, Mister Lawrence. And need I remind you that you are under oath?”

I blanched at that.

Growing impatient, the judge growled, “We’re waiting, Mister Lawrence.”

Now I really was about to piss myself. I turned to the assistant district attorney. She had to be on my side. Right? Wrong. She wanted little to do with me. The attractive Aryan woman wore a cross around her neck as big as Superman’s S. She mouthed to me, “Answer him.”

Closing my eyes tightly, I uttered, “He was reaching out for my chest. There wasn’t time—”

Cutting me off, the defense attorney pretended not to hear me: “What was that?”

Through my shame, I said, “He was reaching out for my chest. There wasn’t enough time to say or do anything else.”

“My client was reaching out for your chest?” He chuckled to himself. “And why would my client reach out for your chest? I’m sure the rest of the court is curious to find out.”

No objection from the district attorney.

Tears formed in my eyes. “Because he said he wanted to ‘get some.’”

“Get some of what? What did he want to ‘get some’ of, Mister Lawrence?”

I let out a barely audible whisper.

The defense attorney chided me: “We can’t hear you, Mister Lawrence. You need to speak louder—and remember, you’re under oath.”

Exploding through tears, I shouted, “My chest, my chest, my chest, you fucking asshole!”

With a grin, the defense attorney said, “No further questions for the witness, your honor.”

Glaring at me, the judge said, “The witness is excused from the bench.”

I staggered out of the witness box, crying, then out of the courtroom. I couldn’t sit through more of that circus. The verdict was obvious. From the aid of pricey lawyers and a homophobic, conservative judge, Jerrod the Predator only had to pick up trash along the highway for the summer. It didn’t affect his football scholarship to Denver that fall.

Meanwhile, I became a pariah amongst the student body. Not a day went by that my that locker didn’t have the word “faggot” graffitied on it. I lost count of how often the local parents screamed at me, “How dare you challenge a promising young man’s future?” Or my favorite: “Go back to Commi-fornia and run with all the other queers.”

My time with Luisa ended abruptly. To keep a scholarship, her escape from Nevada, we stopped (openly) hanging out. We tried to do it in secret, like driving up to Reno or Tahoe from time to time, but it got too risky for her, so we stopped. As a consolation prize, before she left, she sent me a handmade dress—a patchwork of denim in different colors.

From there, I was alone. The next few years, I lived in a self-imposed isolation, closeted away from the outside world and its judgment. My relationships were few and far between, friendships becoming null for a while. I wound up going to clubs incognito, either in girl mode or androgynous mode. In college, I was a shadow. A few fleeting loves here and there. I used fake names and fake backgrounds whenever possible.

Once I started transitioning, I was faced with the backlash of those isolated years.

Back in the present, I sat in a salon chair as a beautician blow-dried and styled my long red hair, like I was any woman in any salon. By the time it was all said and done, I had several handwritten pages of past indignities.

Not quite the rebellion I had in mind, nor the revelation I hoped it would be. For all I knew, it could easily be ignored. Reliving those moments, I felt as vulnerable as I did when they happened. I hoped Abs would see it the same way. I hoped I wouldn’t have to scream my head off. I hoped for a more accepting future—if not from the world, at least from me. All a cynic can do is hope.