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Meredith Talusan

Whenever you don’t want to be who you are, you call yourself Margaret Jefferson. And that’s who you are now, or who you are when you’re not yourself, walking into the conference room of an accounting firm in a random midtown Manhattan building for an open writers’ meetup in the fall of 2017. You are not a journalist whose beat is violence. You are not a journalist who has just finished a long feature on the murders of trans women of color, hundreds of them stretching back two decades to when someone bothered to start keeping track. You are not a journalist who is a trans woman of color yourself, even if you’re only half-Asian and no one can tell.

Because Margaret Jefferson, she’s just an aspiring fiction writer— presumed Caucasian, presumed straight and cis, presumed not to know what “cis” even means—who’s here to read from a story about what men and women are like, so a few of the dozen people in the room can assure her she’s on the right track. Whenever you’re in a panic about being trans, as you always are when you publish something about how the world treats trans women, you seek out places where people don’t know the truth about you, a place where you can just feel normal. This meetup has been the most reliable.

“This isn’t your first time—right, Margaret?” asks the balding accountant who runs the group.

“No, but I haven’t been in at least a year.” The last time was when you were covering the trial of a Black man who punched a Black trans woman in Harlem after he started flirting with her and then realized she was trans. She fell and hit her head on the pavement, but he kept punching her while she was on the ground. She went into a coma and died.

You survey the room and spy three open seats. You challenge yourself and sit next to the lone Black man.

“Welcome again,” he whispers when you sit down, though the two of you haven’t met before. You smile and his smile back gives you part of why you’re here: the anonymity of a white girl next door, a craving you feel guilty for indulging, especially in front of this man who can’t hide his blackness, not like your whitepassing cispassing.

You can’t help but picture the black of his skin as an eight in a ten- color spectrum of Crayola flesh tones. He’s Black in the close-cropped hair that reminds you of sandpaper, though you know not to say this out loud. He’s Black like the men on the street who taunted you back when you started dressing and who could have easily beaten or killed you. He’s Black like nearly all the men who’ve killed trans women in America, most of whom were their victims’ lovers.

Most of those women were Black too, you remind yourself. And poor, which you are by choice, but not the way those women were. You interviewed an expert about this, who told you that the perpetrators are Black not because they’re Black but because they’re poor people who live in cities, and those people are predominantly Black. They killed not because they’re Black but because poor people have much less access to the education that would allow them to be more tolerant of trans people. They killed not because they’re Black but because their lack of education crosses fatally with their access to trans women of color, who congregate in cities.

In other words, more poor white men would probably have killed trans women of color in rural America if any trans women of color were dumb enough to live there.

Also, this man isn’t Black the way those Black men looked when they taunted you. He wears metal-framed glasses on a peering, contemplative face, like he’s always wondering what’s going on. You spy the skin of his arms under a white button-down, the shape of his thighs in navy dress slacks that pull tight against his body, not in an unpleasant way, but in a way that makes you feel like their maker was imagining a customer with more contained proportions.

It’s your turn to read and your story’s a workplace comedy about a female project manager for an app, who’s trying to wrangle a group of men into doing what she wants. So she represents herself as different archetypes of women they respond to—mother, ingenue, vixen, domme—depending on the man and the situation. You don’t add “woman who used to be a man” to the list, even though that would be funny, the way it’s sometimes funny when male reporters respect your intuitions about statistics because they figure you used to be a man. But that kind of funny isn’t the kind of funny that belongs in Margaret Jefferson’s story.

You have seven minutes so you read the mother archetype scene from your phone, the project manager telling the chief engineer, “You’re such a good programmer” every time he manages to output ten lines of code before handing him a homemade cookie. Your zingers garner chuckles.

“It’s workplace story night,” the Black man says after you’re done. His name turns out to be Nate and he starts reading a story from a sheaf of paper about a Black employee at Google who keeps being late to work because the building’s Google-powered face identification system is unable to recognize him in a vast majority of lighting conditions and won’t let him in. That’s all you find out because of his limited time, but it’s a smart premise.

“I wanna know what happens next,” you whisper when he’s done.

“Here,” he says, handing you the copy from which he’s just read. You imagine smelling where his fingers touched the paper. “My email’s on the first page. Send me your story.”

You like that he looks away before you nod.

Margaret Jefferson even has her own email account. She has an Instagram too, where she posts selfies that correspond to how you would imagine yourself to be if you were just any old white girl, not a trans halfie or really more like third-eighthie, because it’s just your grandfather who’s fully Filipino while your grandmother is proud to be half-Spanish. There’s you eating a donut, eyes half-closed in pleasure and maybe undetectable ancestry. There’s you pointing to the Statue of Liberty, the sun warming your natural chestnut highlights. There’s you just fine with not having done much in life except to be an “aspiring writer with a day job,” according to your Instagram bio.

“Project manager,” you email Nate when he asks what you do for work after you send him your story, which is what you were before you became a journalist full-time. You ask him what he does, and he replies, “Programmer for Google.” This makes you smile. You continue reading his story and find out the Black man starts getting negative evaluations when he keeps being late and sometimes misses work altogether, so he starts coming into the office an hour early just to make sure he can be at his desk on time. But the security system is rigged so that even if human beings like his co-workers recognize him, he still can’t get into the building until the system signs off because he sets off a loud alarm. The company has promised to fix the problem, but it’s been four months since he started and they haven’t yet. He starts bringing a heavy, high- powered lamp with him so he can light himself in a way the system recognizes, which works most of the time but not all the time.

In the end, you find out the reason he’s been hired: to fix a face identification algorithm that fails to recognize significant numbers of Black people.

“It’s a great story,” you write him.

“Too bad I can’t publish it,” he replies. “My bosses would fuck me up.”

“I can’t publish mine either,” you say, hoping it will bring the two of you closer. You allow him to assume that your private fantasies are private for the same reasons, but the reason you don’t want to publish as Margaret Jefferson, even as a pseudonym, is because if you do, someone will eventually figure out that Margaret Jefferson and Margaret Talusan are the same person.

You start a story called “Jane Is Really Karen” about a white woman human-rights attorney who’s oblivious to her privilege even while she’s handling asylum cases. In the first scene, she yells at a Black valet in her building for not delivering her car on time so she can get to a hearing to keep Sudanese refugees in the United States. It should be obvious to Nate that it’s written for him, and it’s obvious to you that he started a story for you about a Black woman who cornrows her white friend’s hair.

You continue working on these stories and read snippets in the group over the next few weeks. You exchange numbers but don’t text and you’re not sure why. Because maybe you don’t want to be responsible for starting. Because maybe he doesn’t either.

You read the ending of your story five weeks later, in which the valet who continues to be mistreated tells the woman he’s actually one of the refugees she had once helped keep in America, but now he wonders whether the loss of his dignity is worth having left his homeland. The woman complains over his rude behavior and tries to get him fired, but a video of her rant goes viral and she’s the one who loses her job. Nate reads his ending, where a Black woman at the white woman’s retail job chastises her for wearing cornrows, and her Black friend comes in to defend their friendship. The people in the room clap; two good stories completed at the meetup. Afterward, the accountant asks if you all want to go to a bar and he says yes, so you do too.

The bar is called Dennis, one of those lame after-work spots for straight people who are desperate to be hip, full of translucent glass tables with rounded corners. But this is absolutely Margaret Jefferson’s kind of place. Nate asks what you want to drink and you say Midori Sour because there’s something inhuman you like about the bright green color of the melon liqueur. It’s also sweet, so you don’t notice how much your third one is affecting you until ten o’clock rolls around and a DJ starts spinning a glorified Top 40 playlist and the beats sound muffled in your ears like you’re underwater. You miss drag bars and leather nights at the gay club. You wonder why a part of you still wants to be just straight and cis and white, when what you really want is to puke out your desire to be normal for good.

“C’mon everyone,” the accountant says. “Let’s get on the dance floor.”

He gives Nate a special look like he can dance because he’s Black and Rihanna’s singing, “This is what you came for.” Nate looks over to you sitting across from him like he’s passing a baton. You shrug and say, “I’m not really a dancer,” even though that’s not true, but you figure there’s no way Margaret Jefferson would be a dancer. Where would she have learned? Cheerleading camp? Besides, you figure it’ll be fun to see how Nate would lead you rather than you leading yourself.

So Nate takes you by the hand to the small square of vinyl floor in front of the DJ, under some colored lights that flash but don’t move. You’re wearing what you thought was professional writer attire when you left the house, just black jeans and a button-down, but you forgot your top ends high and your jeans are cut low, so your pierced belly button shows when you raise your arms to imitate him.

“That’s a surprise,” Nate yells above the music, lowering his arm to brush your piercing and the skin around it with his knuckle. It feels like he’s a superhero who’s emitted an electric charge.

“Britney did it,” you reply with a grin. He brushes your stomach again, then settles his hand on your hip bone. Will he notice that you’re too narrow, the shoulders under your shirt too wide? Will he laugh at you when he figures that out? You shiver and recoil.

“Are you scared of me?” he whispers in your ear.

“Just nervous,” you reply. “I—”

“—have never danced this close to a Black man before?”

You nod because that’s one thing that’s true. “Not that I haven’t wanted to.”

“Don’t worry. I get it,” he says and rests his other hand on your other hip.

It’s a lot easier after that, so easy you don’t have to think much when it’s a few drinks and dances later and he leads you to the exit where an Uber awaits, and there’s hardly any traffic when you cross the bridge to Brooklyn, get in a metal-clad elevator, enter an apartment with blond floors, a bedroom with a view of twinkling lights and water. You’ve forgotten you’re not Margaret Jefferson until he sets you down on his sleigh bed and unbuttons you, and you tremble but he doesn’t notice because his tongue is on your nipple, and you’re thankful the room is dark because that body part expresses real things about you in the light, its brownness and your quarter-sized areolas. But you’re gratified you didn’t get implants because his tongue feels good there, the new roughness of his stubble, so good that you run your hand through his hair and find an ache to stab him inside you.

You sneak your fingers down to see that your wet matches your want, since the two don’t always go together for women like you, women who are not really Margaret Jefferson. You pull at his henley, then the waistband of his slacks when he slides up to kiss you, and you wish the hair on all men’s faces could be this rough, like he’s removing all traces of you from your own skin. You get the shirt off him and he kneels to unzip himself while you unbutton your jeans. His cock is a silhouette until you touch it, and you’re relieved that it’s proportioned in a way you can welcome. A statistic flashes in your mind, the high percentage of straight Black men who are HIV-positive, but he’s not like other Black men. He’s a Google programmer. He lives in a loft in an elevator building that faces the water. You scold yourself before you pull him toward you, inside you, smell the difference of him, and wonder if he can smell the difference of you before you begin to forget because he’s a great mover, his rhythm strong like he wants you more than you’ve been wanted before. You don’t have to wonder about the pitch of your moans because you can hear yourself, your uh-huhs and ahhhs and oh- my-Gods, ardent and constant as worship, faster and faster until his one low grunt makes a ball inside you that shoots out your mouth in noises you’ve never made until now, screech-howls you’ll remember on your deathbed.

Afterward, his arm is above his head and you sniff his buried sweat, then try to expunge a map of Africa from your mind.

He turns and notices a light scar at the bottom of your chin; he touches it with his finger and asks you what happened. You’re tempted to tell him about falling from a mango tree when you were eight during one of your summer trips to the Philippines, but you’re not ready to tell him you’re not white, nor do you feel like being called a “tomboy” and having to make up details about your youth, details that never happened. So instead you say, “Some accident when I was a kid. I don’t really remember.”

He asks where you grew up and you tell him Southern California. He grew up in a North Carolina suburb, where he was one of the few Black kids in his school.

“That must have been hard,” you say.

“Not too hard,” he replies, then reconsiders. “Okay, hard.”

The pressure to be an athlete because he’s Black and has a body. The obsession with robots, not telling people he’s Black on user groups and chat rooms, the shock on people’s faces when he meets them in person, the last time he meets them in person. Being told it’ll get better and sometimes it feels like it does, but not enough. Not enough in school. Not enough at work. Not enough on the street. Hope that rage over senseless death the past few years can lead to a world that feels enough, before he turns into a senseless death himself.

“I hope my children will have a lot less of that,” he says. And you understand that on the surface of his words is the hope for a better world for Black people, but you’re convinced that under the skin, he likes Margaret Jefferson because he figures lighter children will mean lighter lives.

Those two words, “my children,” are the reason you sneak out in the middle of the night.

“I had fun,” he texts the next day. “Where did you go?”

“Early day at work. See you next week.”

You come back to the meetup and try to keep it professional. You sit far from him, but not so far that it looks like something bad has happened between you. There are smirks in the room from those who saw the two of you leave the bar together the week before. You ignore them and read the start of a new story about a woman who enjoys keeping things light. He reads something about a man who refuses to code switch from Ebonics.

“What’s up?” he asks you in the elevator on your way out.

You walk around the block with him and say that even though you enjoyed yourself a lot, you can’t do anything serious right now and you can’t picture sleeping with him again without things getting complicated.

“Complicated as in—?”

“No, not like that,” you reply. “Not like that at all.” I love that you’re Black, you add to yourself, though you know you can’t say that out loud. You just don’t love that he assumes he’ll have kids because now, when you’re together, you don’t love that you’re trans even more.

The two of you agree to be friends, though you already know you’ll be friends in a never-meet-up-again kind of way, friends in the strict confines of this writing group, which you won’t feel like going to in a couple of months after your existential panic subsides. In the meantime, he can be a presence in your life each week who you can never touch or have too much to drink around. You can just spend part of that hour and a half, while other people are reading stories you’re not interested in, memorizing what he looks like—measure the minuscule variations in the length of his stubble and imagine those hairs against your skin, touch yourself to the fantasy of him as soon as you get home, the fantasy of his seed sprouting inside you because of your light.

Three weeks later, you forget to put your phone on silent before bed and hear the ping of several texts in the middle of the night. You think it might be your editor but instead it’s Nate, screenshots of two similar pictures from your two different Instagram accounts along with a separate text that just says, “WTF???”

You stiffen from shock; no fist or knife, just dark and blank—nothing.

A shudder and you’re alive again, a thinking, writing thing. He found the only images from your two profiles taken on the same day in the same light.

“That’s my professional account,” you text back. “Jefferson’s my mom’s name. I separate my public and private lives.”

“BECAUSE YOU’RE A TRANNY,” he texts. “I didn’t peg you for a guy who uses slurs.”

“I didn’t peg you for a lying bitch.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Fuck you, motherfucker.”

An inner wall threatens to crush you, and you push with everything you have to hold yourself up. You cut and paste this entire exchange in an email to yourself and start writing a story about a Black man and a trans woman who looks white but isn’t. You will do this until morning so that by the time you get in bed, you’ll be too tired to cry. You wish the Black man were just himself in this story of yours, a man who got mad at you when he found out you’re trans, instead of a Black man who stands in for other Black men, a Black man who for some might represent all of Black manhood. You wish he could just be himself and that he wouldn’t continue to condition you to be more afraid of Black men than other men. You wish you could just be a trans woman to him instead of a trans woman who stands in for all the conniving, deceitful trans women he will come to picture in his mind so that for him and others like him, being a trans woman becomes synonymous with being a liar.

He sends more angry messages, so you block his number. You block him on email and Instagram. You show his picture to security at work, just in case, then wish you hadn’t. You don’t go back to the meetup. You go on with your life.