There were drains hanging from my chest when I made the first phone call. Not even two days before, I was under the knife, having a surgeon — an artist — remake my chest. These are scars that you will never see.
“Hey,” I say softly into the phone. “I think you should come over. I’ll explain when you get here.”
When I hang up, I straighten my spine and I slap myself across the cheek. Our friends are coming over, and I remind myself that I can’t crumble, not now. I’ve never had to disclose that someone is dying, to shatter the world as they knew it with a single sentence. I guess because I was the one that was usually on the brink of death.
This was not the thunder I wanted stolen from me.
There’s a knock on my door, and the words are falling out of my mouth before I can think of how to say them. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper. “Cris isn’t going to make it.” We hold onto each other for dear life, the drains pressed between us, filling with my blood.
The color is already gone from my face; I’m waiting now to see your ghost.
You are difficult to contain. A neuroscientist, a poet, a drag queen, a teacher — queerness, for you, was simply your way of being in the world, the shimmer held in every cell in your body.
“They” as a pronoun was the most natural thing in the world, because I can’t imagine how “she” or “he” could hold everything that you are, that you were. They, as in, “I hold the contradictions and make them beautiful.” They, as in, “I wear my trauma as drag and spin it into gold.”
I never understood how anyone could look at you and not see “they,” or hear the mirth in your laughter and not believe it to be sheer magic or mischief, or look at your delicate hands and assign you any essence other than “everything.”
Everything, the totality.
You were the scientist who loved astrology. You were the poet who could seamlessly reference Grey’s Anatomy without missing a beat. You toiled in a lab with mice by day and wore eight-inch heels and glitter on a stage at night.
You moved between worlds, always chasing something — the secrets you found studying zebrafish, the catharsis in lip-synching pop songs in gay bars — and I fear that neither one was enough.
You could find the wisdom in a Kelly Clarkson song and in the DNA of a jellyfish. I remember thinking, I’ll follow this queen to the ends of the earth.
If only you had let me.
Your memorial is organized by email. This is, I think, the first time I really understood what it meant to die as a millennial. You’re just a few months shy of your 30th birthday, but if I think about that for too long, I want to set the whole world on fire.
It was foreshadowing, I realize, when you told me how your novel was going to end, just a few weeks before you died. How the characters, realizing the world is irredeemable, decide to burn it to the ground so something new can grow in its place.
You lit the metaphorical match in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, and I still don’t know if it was a smoke signal or a death wish. I’m not sure if you knew, either.
My whole world burns down with it. Your remains nourish the ground underneath me. Grief is a brutal and unforgiving teacher, offering lessons I never asked for. Your tombstone is a mirror reflecting back all the ways my story could’ve ended just like yours.
Your mother makes me promise that I won’t end my life like you did.
I have to grow in your place now, become something new.
You used to tell me that no one understood trauma quite like we did, like it was a language that we spoke fluently, sometimes morbidly and always earnestly. In that way, I’ll never stop hearing your voice.
Your graduate advisor responds to the email about your memorial. Gently, I remind him of your pronouns.
I think back to all the conversations we had about what it was like to be a transgender scientist — struggling to be seen, carefully measuring how much of yourself you could be and how much you had to hide.
Sometimes, over coffee, you’d admit to me, “I’m so tired.” The resignation in your eyes was like the dimming of a thousand stars at once.
Your advisor snaps back so harshly that the wind is knocked out of me. “That’s the side you knew, but Cris, the young man I knew, had many sides,” your advisor lectures.
How can you call it “sides” when you never asked to be deconstructed? When it’s the world splitting you apart, never allowing you to be whole in the first place?
How could he speak of you as though everything you were in life — all the magic that moved through you — was simply too inconvenient to acknowledge? How can you take a prism and demand one color?
I’m trying to find the words to explain to him how painful misgendering is, but my rage is boiling over — not just at him, but at a world that was never good enough for you, determined to take the beauty of your queerness and grind it to dust underneath a heavy heel.
I tell the professor that he should be ashamed. He calls me a “hectoring, self-absorbed, pompous twit.”
The aftertaste of the same poison that killed you is sitting on my tongue. The taste is familiar, metallic, and cold. I remember the anguish of being invisible, how it eroded your spirit, how it clipped your wings into pieces that neither of us could stitch back together.
Without wings, there was nothing to break your fall.
When a transgender person commits suicide, it’s almost always murder in slow motion.
When you cut a flower at the stem, no one is surprised when it wilts. When your petals fell, I tried to hold onto them as long as I could. The world might know you now as a statistic, but I knew you as you breathed and bloomed.
The morning memorial begins with a passionate plea about pronouns from a trans femme you knew, and I’m silently grateful for her courage. But I’m left trembling when I realize that you never lived to see the day when your life didn’t require a disclaimer — instead, your death now required one, too.
The professor gives the closing remarks. He stumbles over his words.
When he misgenders you, he tries to correct himself, stuttering. The pain in the room is palpable, a living reenactment of the pain you held in your last breath.
When he refers to you as a son, your mother — in a moment more powerful than my words can hold — adamantly corrects him.
“My child,” she says.
Her child who, after being flown to New York for a final time, would be turned over to ash. “I blew glitter over their body just before they were cremated,” your mother tells me.
And this is how you left us, anointed by the shimmering breath of your mother.
It was one final gesture to remind you that, while the world may not have seen you, we still did.
If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
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