Chapter Two

Shortly after Carys and Jami had begun living together, Carys had decided to start kind of a support group for creative young people who didn't fit in or lacked family or other supporters. It was not strictly a queer group, though certainly many letters of the LBGTQQIA alphabet soup were represented.

The idea was to provide a safe space, in meetings and online, for the discussion of whatever people needed to discuss that might not be acceptable or understood elsewhere. The online community was moderated, and the group had two facilitators for its face-to-face meetings.

Sunday afternoon the group met in the downstairs living room. Mrs. Carmichael had volunteered use of the house when Carys had started the group and explained to her that they needed a private place to meet.

Carys had been at the front door, watching for people and letting them in, helping with coats and boots, and giving hugs. Now she closed the door and sat next to Zoe, the group's co-facilitator. (Zoe's given name was Sarah, but she said she didn't feel like a Sarah, and had willingly adopted 'Zoe' when her Browncoat fan friends had pinned the nickname on her.)

Zoe was a Family and Child Health major at State, and was also active with the Same Gender Loving Students of Color group on campus. Her experience had made her an obvious choice for co-facilitator.

"I think this is everyone we're going to get, Zoe," said Carys. "Shall we start?"

"Okay, folks," said Zoe, using her facilitator voice. "Everyone here tonight is a regular, but I'm still going to run through the rules. It's just a way to remind ourselves where we are and how to behave.

"This group is for discussion and support and gentle debate. Don't get hung up on right or wrong. There is no single correct view of art, life, sex, gender, religion or anything else.

"Listen. Hear what the other person is saying. Let them finish speaking. Realize that the same words may mean different things to different people.

"Talk about yourself and your own experiences. Engage in dialog, but don't challenge the validity of anyone's personal experience.

"Keep your comments brief and to the point, so everyone has a chance to speak.

"Don't generalize from your own experience and feelings to the experience and feelings of others. Let them speak for themselves.

"We're not here to judge anyone or anything. We get enough of that from other people.

"Finally, consider this group session to be a private conversation. Don't repeat elsewhere what is said here."

Today everyone was downcast. Zoe looked around the circle of people sitting on sofa, chairs and the floor. She explained what was known for certain about what had happened with Kathy, then suggested that they go around the circle, giving each person a chance to speak about their reaction, if they wished.

After that, Zoe opened it up to general discussion.

"Zoe? Are you okay here for a bit? I need to go up and check on Jami."

"Sure thing, Carys. But I thought you said Jami wanted some time alone?"

"She does, but I need to make sure she's okay."

"Carys? What's wrong with Jami?" asked Tam, whom Carys had met doing theater. She and Jami had been talking with Tam about maybe starting some kind of gender-bending theater troupe. The three of them got along very well together.

Carys bit her lip. "She's lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. When I said I was coming down, she just stared at me and smiled. She's been like this most of the day. She kind of freaked out yesterday when I took a walk, forgot my cell phone, and stayed out way too long. So I guess maybe it's my fault."

"Seems like kind of an extreme reaction. Has she ever been like this before?" asked James, a freshman psych major who had grown up in California.

"Well, yes. When we first met, and she was struggling with how to tell me about being intersex and about her body and how scared she was about us being together. She behaved this way sometimes, until we worked things through."

"Okay," said Tam, "so this is Jami worried and scared and lost in thought. What helped with that before?"

"I don't know. I mean, it was the start of our relationship. I kind of thought we wouldn't have this problem any more, that she knew she could always talk with me. And we do talk, but she's, I don't know, fragile I guess, in some ways. If I say the wrong thing, she gets all moody. And I don't always know what I've said that caused the problem."

"It would be good if she could come down and be with us," said Zoe. "We're all hurting right now."

"I know, but Jami grew up alone. She's always kept to herself, worked things out on her own. It's just not natural for her to seek a group of people to share with, I guess.

"Actually, I think I may know part of what's going on." Carys looked at Zoe, who nodded. They had decided to tell the group something about Kathy's last post. "The evening Kathy..." Carys closed her eyes and swallowed, "...died. I was at the computer, reading the group's community. Kathy had made a post that afternoon, but I hadn't come to it yet. Jami came home and interrupted me. She was upset about something and, well, we ended up in bed, cuddling."

Looking around the circle, Carys explained, "We mostly just cuddle in bed. That's because, well, we just do. Anyway, I'm worried that Jami may think that if she hadn't interrupted me, I would have read Kathy's post and been able to do something."

"But that's not so, is it?" said Zoe. "From what we know, Kathy must have gone out immediately. No one could have done anything."

"Right, I know, but it's still terrible to think that we were cuddling in bed while Kathy..." Carys put her head in her hands.

The other people in the support circle looked at one another. Tam moved to sit by Carys, hesitantly putting an arm around her. Carys leaned against Tam and rubbed her face.

"You going to be okay, Carys?" asked Zoe.

Carys looked at Zoe through bleary eyes. "I think so." She wiped her eyes on a sleeve of her sweatshirt, took a tissue from a box on the coffee table, blew her nose and smiled weakly. "This is too much dèjá vu. When Jami and I were first together, I'd end up bawling my eyes out in front of Jami's mom because of what Jami was going through, or what was happening to me at school."

"This is a support group, Carys," said Tam, who still had an arm around her.

"Yes, it is. I just wish Jami was down here instead of up there alone. I'm worried about her."

"I'm here now."

Everyone turned toward the voice. Jami was standing in the entrance to the living room. "I heard you talking, Carys."

Tam hastily stood up so Jami could sit with Carys. As they passed each other Jami gave Tam a brief hug and said, "Thanks," in a low voice. She sat next to Carys. "I'm okay. I'm just used to being alone when I'm upset. It's just the way I think."

"I'm sorry, Jami. I'm just afraid about you."

"Huh? Of what?"

"Of loosing you, Jami!"

"Oh. Carys, no. That can't happen. Just because I'm a moody introvert doesn't mean I'd ever do anything extreme."

Carys didn't speak, but threw her arms around Jami and buried her head in Jami's chest.

"I don't mean to interrupt..." said Mrs. Carmichael from the kitchen doorway. "I couldn't help but hear some of that. Maybe you all should take a break? Order pizza. Talk about something not quite so upsetting?"

Carys looked up. "Maybe you're right, Mrs. C. It won't do any good to just sit here and talk about it, over and over again." She looked around. "What do you think, folks?"

There were nods all around.

"Sounds like a plan, then. Will you join us?" said Carys to Mrs. Carmichael.

"Thank you," said Mrs. Carmichael. "I believe I will, if we can use the dining room. I'm old fashioned. I like to sit at a table when I eat."

The pizza order was figured out and called in. Zoe and Isaac helped insert an extra leaf in the dining room table and move chairs. Carys and Jami brought in plates and forks from the kitchen.

"Help yourselves to soda pop," said Mrs. Carmichael. "The girls know where everything is. Then come sit at the table so I can learn your names." She seated herself at the head of the table to wait.

Once everyone was seated, Mrs. Carmichael spoke. "Well, this is a nice, large group! Makes me feel like there's a family gathered around the table. You may call me Mrs. C, or Mary, if you like. My husband passed several years ago, so I live here alone, except for my renters.

"I know Jami and Carys, of course, and Zoe, who has been here several times, and Tam, a little bit. But I'd like for you to tell me your names, and whatever else you'd like to say. I'm not prying. You don't know me. I'm sure there are things you may not want to say. That's fine." She smiled and looked around the table.

No one spoke, so Carys nudged Tam to get things started.

"Oh, uh, I'm Tam. That's a nickname, because I like to wear hats. My legal name is Jennifer, which is what I would have been called if, well, if. I'm a student at State, studying philosophy. I live with my mom and three younger sisters. I grew up in East Lansing. I've gone through some changes, still not completely certain where I'll end up. Oh, I also do theater, which is how I met Carys and Jami."

"Thanks, Tam," said Zoe, slipping back into her facilitator role. "Isaac?"

Acting as if his mind was returning from some place far away, he pushed his glasses against his face and said, "I'm Isaac. Obviously. I take classes at Community. Work at the Wireless Cafe. I hope to be a writer, but that's not because I think I can make money doing it. I live with several other guys out where the rent is more affordable. I'm gay. Jewish. Not very observant. Go to Hillel sometimes. Problems with my family. Best not to go into that."

"Thank you, Isaac," said Zoe, softly, surprised he had volunteered so much. Must be the effect of having Mary at the table. This is more like a big family. I need to think about that. Zoe looked at the young woman sitting next to Isaac.

"I'm Kay. I'm . . . not sure, about anything. I'm an art major, but I haven't decided my focus. I guess I'm also that questioning young person you always hear about. I've had a boyfriend, I've had a girlfriend. I don't know what I'll have next and I don't see why that has to be anyone's business but my own."

"Thanks, Kay." Zoe looked at Emiko and raised an eyebrow.

"Emiko. I talk seldom," she said with a nod. "College student from Japan. Hokkaido. Happy to feel safe and welcome here, in group. My family maybe think me bad daughter." She frowned. "Love my parents, but do not look to past." She blushed. "I want girlfriend, I think."

"Emiko, thank you. James?"

"Yo. I guess I'm questioning, too. Big gamer. Would like to do game design. I play with gender sometimes, when I game. Life is basically a game, or a stage, as the theater folk would say. Why stay the same all the time?"

"And that leaves you, Sandy."

"After all the humans? That's fitting. I am an outcast among outcasts, hoping to transcend my body. Of course I do not believe that anatomy is destiny. I'm here mainly because of Crystal, who's not here tonight. Crystal goes to Kathy's school and she knew Kathy pretty well." Sandy looked like she was thinking about adding something, but simply said, "She decided she didn't want to talk about it tonight, but I figured I'd come to hear what people were saying."

"Thanks, Sandy," said Zoe. Looking at Mrs. Carmichael, she added, "You've probably noticed Crystal here before. She's, what would you say, Sandy? Fond of black leather and silver, with an attitude?"

Sandy smiled. "Yes. But she's very nice to me." Sandy closed her eyes. "She has the creamiest mocha skin." Sandy realized what she was saying and opened her eyes, looking startled, but no one laughed at her. "We make music together. What I mean is we're a couple. I love her. I hope we can figure out some way to stay together."

"Well, I hope so, dear," said Mrs. Carmichael. "You'll work things out. It's what people are meant to do, love one another."

"Only if you love someone on the approved list," grumbled Isaac.

"There are those who don't approve," agreed Mrs. Carmichael, "and I once was one of those. After coming to know Carys and Jami, I've changed my mind about many things. If I can change my mind, at my age, others can too. Don't give up hope."

"Hope? Why should I have hope?" said Isaac. "Millions of my people have been murdered for being different, but they turn around and don't tolerate me. I wonder sometimes if there's any meaning at all in this big mess called life." He shook his head.

"Organic life?" said Sandy, "Who needs it."

"Oh, now. I've loved, and I've lost," said Mrs. Carmichael. "I would not choose to give up the good times to save not having the bad ones."

"Too bad Kathy didn't get to have any of the good ones," said Kay, starting to sniffle.

"Now, now, now. I didn't mean to upset anyone!"

"It's okay, Mary," said Zoe. "We're all upset. There's no way to talk about much of anything without coming back to that. Not now."

"I know someone who does counseling in the schools," said Mrs. Carmichael. "I know him because of Erin, my niece. Jami and Carys know about her. My niece is intersex. I can say that out loud now, thanks to Jami being mad at me once and calling me on my intolerance. Well, as I was saying, I know someone who is a counselor. Dennis is his name. I think he'd be willing to come talk with your group. Help with what you're going through, if you'd like?"

"A counselor," said Carys, "that might be a good idea." She looked at Zoe.

"I think that would be a good thing for this group," nodded Zoe. "Having a counselor visit us is easier than for an individual to take the large step of seeking counseling. I'm biased because of my field of study, but I think that too few people do ask for help with getting through hard times."

"Maybe he can help us figure out what we can do," added Carys.

"Do?" asked Mrs. Carmichael.

"To keep this from happening again. This group is good, but we all know there are plenty of young people like Kathy who don't dare get involved with anything obviously different, let alone queer, while they still have to live at home. Isn't there any way to help those kids?"

"That's a tall order, it is," said Mrs. Carmichael. "Maybe more than you should try to take on?"

"If Kathy had been allowed to come to this support group," said Carys, "she would probably be alive to be sitting with us at this table right now."

"Well now, that might be so. That might be so. I'll contact Dennis. I'll let you know, Carys." She frowned in thought, then brightened when the doorbell rang. "That will be the pizza!"

From then on everyone was careful to keep the talk around the table to neutral subjects. Mrs. C. helped by asking questions about movies and television shows.

When the last slice of pizza was eaten, Carys looked at the clock, then said, "Let's wrap it up for tonight, folks. Zoe or I will be in touch about our next meeting, but assume the usual time and place. Would some of you guys bag the boxes and take them out to the trash? Pickup is tomorrow."

James and Emiko made a pile of boxes. Jami brought them a trash bag. "I'll take this out with me," said James, heading for the entrance hall with the bag. Emiko and Kay followed.

"Carys? Sorry, but I have to rush back to campus for a residence hall meeting," said Zoe. "I'll be in touch."

Only Tam was left with Jami and Carys as the others pulled on boots and put on coats. "I can stay and help wash dishes," said Tam.

"We should clean up this mess," agreed Jami. "You go sit down, Mary. We'll have everything ship shape and Bristol fashion in a few minutes."

"Tam! Grab the other end of the table," said Carys. "Pull!" Jami took the extra leaf out and set it in the closet as Tam and Carys pushed the table back together.

"Okay," said Tam, "kitchen detail. I come from a largish family, so this is not unfamiliar to me. How about if I wash and you two dry and put away, since I have no idea where anything goes?"

"Definitely a plan," said Jami. "Let's make it happen."

They made quick work of the clean up. Jami turned out the lights in the dining room and kitchen, and let Mrs. C. know they were done. The three of them turned out lights in the living room on their way to the front door.

"So, I guess I'll see you guys at the next meeting?" said Tam, as they reached the front hall.

"You want to come up for a bit and talk about the gender theater troupe idea?" said Carys.

"I don't know. Are you sure you two don't want to be alone?"

Jami and Carys looked at each other. "If you don't mind," said Carys, "I wouldn't mind having some company. But how about we do something totally other than talk about gender or sexuality?"

"Game? Movie?" asked Jami.

"Do you have anything other than gloomy science fiction movies in which the world is an even more horrific place than it is now?" asked Tam.

"Those are Jami's idea of fun, but it's not all we have. Let's see, no gender or sexuality. Good versus evil, with, I assume, good winning?" asked Carys.

"That would be nice for a change," agreed Tam.

"Then the obvious choice would be . . . the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie!" said Jami, to head off what she knew would be Carys's choice of an old Sherlock Holmes movie.

"Radical!"

"Awesome!"

"Bodacious!"

Carys checked that the front door was locked, then followed the other two upstairs.

"We use the desk computer as the DVD player," said Jami, "so we all have to sit or lie on the bed. But I need to use the bathroom first."

"Would you like something to drink, Tam?" asked Carys. "We have some Vernor's in bottles in the fridge. That would work well on the bed."

"Fine with me. I need to use the bathroom after Jami, though."

"Me, too. Then we'll get comfortable and start. Let me see if the bed is as much of a mess as I think it is. Yep. Come on, Tam, help me straighten this out."

Once everyone had used the bathroom and had a bottle of ginger ale, Jami found the DVD and loaded it in the computer. "Okay, we are ready. Take your places on the bed and we'll begin. We don't have a remote, so I'll just start the movie and join you."

Jami turned on the reading light on the headboard, turned out the ceiling light, started the movie, adjusted the sound and climbed on the bed. Tam was on one side, with Jami in the middle. They pulled the quilt up over themselves for warmth and leaned against the pile of pillows.

* * *

Deedlebeep. Deedlebeep.

"What? Oh, my gosh. Did we all fall asleep? Whose cell?"

"Mine," said Tam, digging into her pocket. "Hello? Oh, Mom. What time is it? It is? Oh, I'm sorry. I was watching an old Turtle movie with Jami and Carys, and we all fell asleep. It's been a rough weekend, you know. Just a sec."

Tam moved a hand over her face to scrub away the sleep. "It's two ayem. The buses have stopped running. I guess she'll have to come and get me."

"Don't be silly, Tam. You can stay here," said Carys.

"But..."

"If it's two ayem, we've all been asleep about three hours already," said Jami, "why not make it the night?"

"You can leave in the morning, Tam. The buses start again at what, six? No problem getting to your first class. You can have breakfast with us," said Carys.

"That would work, if it's okay?"

Jami and Carys both nodded.

"Mom? I'm just going to stay here, then, okay? I'll take the bus to campus for my first class, then go home and get the rest of my books and go back to campus. Yes, it'll be fine. Of course they know all about me; they're my best friends. I'll be fine. See you tomorrow. Love you. Bye." Tam closed the phone.

"Is it just your mom at home, Tam?" asked Carys.

"Yeah. My dad left. Walked out on us, when I was eight."

"Wow, I'm sorry," said Jami.

"I may have been part of the reason."

"What do you mean?" asked Carys.

"I was not exactly a normal child. I have three sisters. I was, I was supposed to be, the, uh..."

"Like your father?"

"Yeah. And I am, in a lot of ways. But not gender."

"How does your mom feel about that?" asked Jami.

"About him walking out on her and leaving her with four young children? What do you think?"

"Does she believe it's partly your fault?"

"No," said Tam, "I'm sure of that. If he used me as an excuse, that's what it was, his excuse. Not my fault."

"Your Mom sounds okay," said Carys, wistfully.

"She is. My sisters, too. They've only been supportive of me, even when they don't understand." Tam paused. "You guys do know all about me, right? You sure you want to spend the night with a..."

Carys clapped her hand over Tam's mouth.

"This is a no gender and no sexuality zone," said Jami. "You are Tam. I am Jami. This is Carys. We are humans. We are sleepy. That is all that matters."

"Mrmphh."

"Tam agrees to our terms," said Carys, removing her hand.

Tam giggled. "I am so lucky to know people like you two!"

Jami reached up, turned out the light, and snuggled back under the quilt between Carys and Tam. "Sleepy. Cuddles. Mmmmm. Good night."