I’m walking down a nighttime city street with Hope Winters, a celebrity politician and one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in person. I’m carrying a bag of pornographic magazines in my left hand. And, of course, I’m all sweaty from both the weather and the literal gunfight I just evaded a couple hours ago.
All of this is just… perfectly me. It’s the most quintessentially Morgan moment, a showcase of why I can’t have nice things.
But still, Hope Winters is real cool, so I’m glad for this.
“Where should we go?” I ask. “Do you have anywhere in mind?”
“I’m sick of parties, and I don’t feel like drinking,” Hope says in a vaguely whining tone. “Why don’t we just find a restaurant and chat?”
Meeting a near stranger on the street and taking them to a late dinner, okay. That’ll be my second of the evening. “Sounds good to me, if there’s anything open this late. What time is it, anyway?”
“Don’t you have a cellular? Or a watch?”
“Yeah, but… I was too lazy to check…” I take out my cellular and… Oh, crap, it’s eleven thirty already. The exhaustion sets in even more just looking at that number.
“Just want to hit the hay?” Hope asks.
“No, no,” I say. “Remember the first time we met, at that party at Peach Towers? You wanted to leave with me, and I couldn’t go.”
“I don’t particularly remember, but okay,” she says.
“Well, I don’t want to pass you up this time. That’d just be dishonorable.”
“Oh, you tease.”
“I’m only barely teasing.” If I had use of both my hands right now, I’d put them both behind my neck.
“Okay then, let’s go to Jared Black,” she says. “It’s just up ahead, about four blocks from here.”
Jared… What? “What?”
“Jared Black, the restaurant. The only five-star vegan restaurant in the city.”
“Oh, that one.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. I am too poor to go to any restaurant with a star rating.
We make our walk, and Hope lowers her head as we pass a larger group of adults having late-night fun. She really doesn’t want to be recognized by anyone, that’s for sure.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“My father knocked up my mother, and then my mother threatened to go public with their affair unless he married her,” she answers flatly.
“Uhh… Out and about, I mean. Why are you here on the streets tonight? You seem, uh, uncomfortable.”
“You’re right about that,” she says. “I hate being a politician. Being recognized. Sometimes I just want to live like a normal human being, you know?”
“That makes sense. You can avoid the paparazzi, so there aren’t a bunch of photos suddenly implying that you and I are having a thing.” I stop for a second and correct myself before I get too embarrassed. “Not that we are having a thing. I hardly know you.”
“And yet, I sort of feel… I don’t know. We’ve only met twice, and I’m way more at ease than anywhere else. Morgan Harding, you’re an interesting guy.”
“Not a guy.”
“…Oh. Wait, really?”
Hope stares at me and gives me that classic “You’re not a cis person, and I’m reevaluating your body all of a sudden” kind of once-over. I’d like to say I’m used to it by now, but I’m really not. Probably won’t ever be.
“I’m nonbinary,” I helpfully inform her. “Not a man, not a woman. I’m just me.”
“So… you wear suits and dresses whenever you want?” she asks.
It’s going to be another one of those conversations. I feel a distinct urge to cut my losses and run away, but for some reason I actually answer her.
“Uh, it’s not really about the clothes, but yeah. I present however I want. But I usually go for the masculine side of things, mostly because if someone sees me in a skirt, they automatically assume I’m a girl no matter what else about me. One drop of girly-girly and it’s all over. Can’t even paint my damn nails.”
Hope smiles. “Sounds like it sucks.”
“Well, it gives me an excuse to be lazy,” I say. “I don’t put my appearance at the top of my priorities, and I probably never will. But that doesn’t affect anything; I’m still nonbinary no matter what.” I pause for a second and realize what we’re talking about. “You… you got me to talk about my gender identity. Damn, Hope. Nobody in the world gets me to open up about that so quickly. I loathe these conversations.”
“Something about you, Hope,” I say. “You’re an interesting girl.”
She bows her head and mumbles something.
“Eh?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you later,” she says. “We’re almost to Jared Black.”
Just a few minutes later, and we’re in the restaurant. Hope’s thin disguise stays on except when she gets us VIP seats without having to wait an hour. We’re led through a dark, barely lit restaurant, up a floor and all the way to the back of the room, where one tiny table and two uncomfortable chairs await us. Slow jazz plays over the speakers, but all anyone can hear over the hum and chatter is the rhythmic bass line.
A server comes by and drops us off some water and menus, and we soak in the atmosphere of a midnight meal. The other people in this restaurant are mostly couples. Absorbed in each other’s presences, basking in the darkness and the air conditioned building, with the dim LED candles in the center of each table glowing as the hearts of everyone here.
Except for Hope and me, I guess.
“What do you want to order?” she asks, looking at the menu and squinting to see with the lights mostly out.
“Something light,” I say. “I’m paranoid about acid reflux.”
“Oh, live a little. Let’s order nacho fries.”
“At a fancy restaurant, we’re going to order nacho fries.”
She sighs. “Oh, they don’t have any.”
“This IS a vegan restaurant, after all,” I say. “And vegan cheese is nasty.”
“I’m not even a vegan,” she says. “I guess I’ll just get the tofurkey sandwich.”
“Me too, unless it’s super greasy.”
We get the waiter and take our order, but by the looks of it, they’re a lot busier than expected tonight. Looks like we weren’t the only owls fluttering out in this Hotlanta nightscape. Might be thirty minutes before we get our sandwiches, he tells us.
As soon as the waiter’s gone, we look at each other.
“Bail?” she asks.
“Bail,” I answer.
And we get up and leave the restaurant without even canceling our order.
“Jared Black sucks. Let’s go somewhere better,” Hope says. “Like… that kebab truck.”
There’s an auto-conbini parked at the curb in front of Jared Black, where a middle aged Turkish guy and a robot work away peacefully making kebabs and that cool ice cream thing. Even in the middle of the night, they’re still active and still selling to all us owls.
“This is exactly the kind of greasy food I declared to myself I would avoid,” I say, “but I can’t ignore my destiny. I’m a simple kid. I see a kebab truck, I buy a kebab.”
Mmmm… A bunch of meat wrapped up in some lovely bread and adorned with all number of veggies. I know I just described every sandwich ever, but this one is just special.
Hope and I continue down the street while we chow down on our kebabs, and eventually we find a little empty parklet to sit down at.
Just sitting here in the night, half an hour’s walk from home, with this person I hardly know but somehow know quite well.
She looks at me through her sunglasses, through that hat that barely conceals her trademark platinum blonde hair. Quite possibly the next Mayor of Atlanta, and I’m eating a late-night snack with her on a park bench. Peaceful, quiet, and utterly surreal.
“I love this life,” Hope says, basically mirroring my own thoughts. “Just two random people hanging out. No politics, no bullshit.”
“It must get annoying.”
“Annoying?” Hope snaps. “How about the worst damn way to waste a life? You spend two out of every four years campaigning or preparing to campaign, and then you spend the other two years trying desperately to build up some hollow accomplishments to tout for your next campaign. I watched my father wither away from years of fundraisers and backroom deals. Now they’re asking me to do the same exact thing.”
“You don’t want to be mayor?” I ask.
“Hell no. The New Hope Party pushed me into it because Everything with Epstein was so toxic that I’m the only one who can save them from the Labors or the SiPubs winning.”
“Just because you’re young and you’re beautiful and your Dad was city councilor a few decades back?”
“Thank you for that compliment,” she says. “I’m not as young as I look.”
“…Eh, really? You’re like what, twenty-five or something?”
“Oh, wow. I thought we were… the same age.”
“Wait, how old are you?”
“Oh my God, you’re still a kid,” she giggles. “What is it really, twenty-three?”
She bursts out laughing. “I had no idea you were so young!”
“I’m way older in spirit! All I do is reminisce about the TV shows and comics I liked as a kid, so I’m at least forty-five mentally!”
She calms down a little bit and finishes her kebab. “Yeah, so I’m being turned into the next mayor just so the people in the party can sweep all their corruption under the rug. With Epstein gone, they have to cover up all the stuff he let us get away with, and act like he was never really on our side anyway. It’s craven and awful.”
“But… you’re still doing it?”
“Yeah, I am,” she says with a lopsided smile. “I guess I don’t really know what else to do in life but this. It’s what I was raised to be.”
“You have my vote,” I say.
“Well, it’s Ranked Choice Vote, so everyone has my vote when you really think of it. Just make sure to put me last.”
“Second-to-last, just above the Values Party,” I correct. “Even you’re better than the guys who want to literally criminalize my existence. Probably put me in jail for using the wrong bathroom or whatever.”
“Oh yeah.” Hope stirs quietly for a second on the park bench. We both take this moment of quiet to take in a few deep breaths, that rare moment in a really good conversation when neither one of us has to pay any attention to the other.
The air’s getting crisper. A little bit less humid, and a whole lot more bearable.
“What’s it like, being transgender?” Hope asks suddenly. “I feel like before… I wasn’t asking the right questions. I’m sorry about that. Clothes aren’t important. But you are.”
“It’s… Huh. I used to always have a little mini-speech prepared about this, when I first came out to everyone. But… I forgot it. Give me a second, sorry.”
She giggles. “Take your time. Actually, let’s keep walking if we’re done with our kebabs. Just walk until we find a place to stop.”
We do that.
And I try desperately to remember that little speech I used to give people who asked me about myself. It’s been a long, long time since I stopped giving a shit about telling people who I am. Now, though, Hope’s got me all changed.
“Okay, so, being transgender is, like, the world’s shittiest prank. Like, you’re born one certain way, and raised that same way. For ninety-five percent of the world, that’s just fine. That’s how it is. But for the genetic lottery losers, you just start going through life with this little halo above your head that’s so bright it hurts your vision. Only you can see it, but it never goes away. You try not to stare too long in the mirror because it’s always bugging you. Your hair and your hips and your shoulders are all just wrong. People talk about you and there’s this weird unexplainable dissonance every time you hear your name.
“Like, transgender people are just normal people but with a little bit of extra annoyance added in there. You’ve got that halo above your head that you really want to get off, because it’s shining in your face and you really want to just see everything clearly. Does this metaphor track? I don’t know, but too late. Different people can get their halo off in different ways. They can take hormones, or get surgery, or dress differently, or do none of that. It all depends on the person and what works for them.
“But the main thing is, eventually, if it works, you’re gonna have that halo off, and suddenly the world just appears like it’s supposed to. And then you realize, holy shit, this is how the rest of the world lives. It’s not like transitioning cures you from depression and anxiety and narcolepsy and whatever else might get you, but it finally removes that shitty, pointless handicap that’s been holding you back all this time. It lets you be the you that nobody else could see.
“Does this… make any sense at all?” I’m finally finished with what might be the lamest explanation about being transgender ever put to words.
Hope nods a little bit, like she’s trying to process all of this. “But, uh, what about you in particular, I mean?”
“Oh, you meant what’s it like, for ME.” I laugh nervously. “I don’t usually talk about this stuff with anyone anymore. Sorry.”
“Is it okay? If it’s not, that’s fine.”
“No, no! Don’t worry about it.” I look up into the air and see a couple stars bright enough to poke through the light pollution, and for some reason a smile breaks out on my face. “Honestly, my story isn’t anything special. I was born and raised and lived in a middle class home. Gender never came up at home or school or nothing. My family was pretty up on this kind of stuff; my older sister’s been out as gay since we were real little, and my parents were really supportive. But I don’t know, I guess the other part of it just never came up.
“It started hurting me a lot though. I went through a lot of really painful emotional stuff in middle school. Ran away from home, even. But all teens are blobs of hormonal messes, you know? So it was really hard to figure out the real cause. When I finally did, it was like a bomb going off. The puzzle pieces all came together and I didn’t even know there was a puzzle to begin with.
“I realized I was nonbinary, and it changed my whole life. The person I always was on the inside, finally reflected on the outside. Not a guy, not a girl, just Morgan Giles Harding. I didn’t even know the words for it, but I always knew, and now I felt this euphoria about showing the real me to the world. Even if… a good chunk of people are real jerks about it. Or creeps.”
“Huh, cool,” Hope says unthinkingly.
“Basically, I just feel… perfectly normal. When I was a kid and a teen, I felt sort of broken, with that halo over my head blinding me. But the moment I figured it all out, it was like my whole life cleared up. And my acne, too, because I had pretty bad acne in middle school, but then it all went away when I was like 15. Probably just a coincidence, but it felt symbolic at the time. Now I’m an everyday average adult who just happens to have an X on their ID card.”
…Also, just a few years after transitioning my gender, I got involved in a big accident that led to me becoming a cybernetically enhanced human and an accidental superhero, and that changed me even more. But I will refrain from telling Hope about that part.
We walk for a while without much in the way of conversation. I feel kind of glad about letting all that out, but I’m not sure how Hope feels about it at all.
Then, finally, Hope nods to herself and smiles softly. “I knew it.”
“The reason we hit it off so well,” she says. “We’re one in the same, but you had a better ending out of it.”
“Wait…” I take a look at Hope and blink a few times in realization.
“I guess I’ve still got that halo shining above my head,” Hope says. “Can you see it?”
“I might be transgender too, Morgan.”
“That’s… that’s awesome. How sure are you?”
“I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I’m a guy, or maybe I’m nonbinary, or maybe I’m delusional. Right now I’m not dealing with any of that. No way in hell with the election so close. But after listening to you, I think…”
“Probably. Maybe. There’s always been a part of me that’s kind of wanted it, but I’ve never really realized it until recently. And now that I’m a thirty-eight year old woman and campaigning for the most important office in the Western Hemisphere, I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything about it. It might not be worth it.”
I shrug. “I’ll bet it is, but you’re the only one who’s allowed to say that for sure.”
“Mhm.” Hope folds her arms together. “Right now, I’m just going to keep ignoring it, I figure. But I’m really glad I ran into you tonight.”
“Same for me. I haven’t talked about this stuff in… Ages, really. I’m glad it helped. Even though it sure doesn’t feel like I said anything special.”
“You did, you did.” Hope stops walking suddenly, and waits for me to stop as well and circle back around to her. “Say, Morgan, why were YOU out so late?”
I’m not telling her about the investigation and the firefight I ran through, and absolutely not about the male escort, so all I say was, “I felt a little frustrated, so I needed to get out of the house.”
“And that brown paper bag?”
The… brown paper bag. The one I’ve been carrying this whole time, and been desperately hoping the entire time that she wouldn’t bring up. And now she’s done it.
“Oh, this is just, well.”
Her eyes narrow and she puts on a smirk. “What’s in the bag?”
“What’s in the fuckin’ bag?”
“Nothing!” I shout erratically. “Nothing incriminating at all!”
Hope breaks up in laughter.
“…” My face is completely red again. But I’m never showing her this damn bag.
“So you’re real frustrated after all,” she says. “No worries about that.”
“Nope, no worries because there’s nothing special going on here.”
“Morgan, want to head to your place and have sex?”
The air stops dead around me.
I keep looking at Hope, waiting for the giggles to begin. But she’s not doing it. No teasing here.
“Of course,” she says. “I mean, you’re not really my type, and you’re a bit on the young side, but I thought we might as well. You look like you could use a lay.”
“I-I, well, you’re not exactly my type, either,” I say. “And I sort of have… Well, I theoretically have someone already.”
“It’s complicated. We’re not together, but—“
“Okay, you’re not together. So then we can have sex, no guilt about it. If that’s what you want. Has to be your place, since mine has too much security.”
I genuinely have to stop and think about this for a second before I reply. I’m utterly dumbstruck by this out-of-nowhere proposition.
After everything I’ve been through today…
And Hope is indeed one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, even if she might not feel comfortable in her body…
“No thank you,” I answer. “I’m not good with one-night-stands and that type of thing. You’re cool, and we had a lot of fun tonight, but I’d rather take it slow and see how it works.”
She shakes her head one time, right-to-left. “One-time offer.”
“No rain check?”
“I’m running for Mayor of Atlanta. I’ll probably never even see you again.”
I raise my shoulders. “Still no. I’m not ready for casual sex right now. Even if my libido is sky-high…”
“Well, that’s alright with me. We already got kebabs, and that counts for something, doesn’t it?”
“It absolutely does,” I say.
“It’s about two thirty in the morning now,” she says. “We ought to split, if we’re not going home together.”
“Yep. Nice meeting you, Hope Winters,” I say. “If you ever need to talk about gender or anything like that, you know who to call.”
“If the fates divine it, maybe we’ll meet again, Morgan Harding.”
“I sure hope so.”
And then we part ways, probably for the last time. Well, I’ll see her on the news every day for the next three months until the election, but she’ll sure never see me.
And I’m kind of fine with that.
My frustrations are lessened. Well, most of them. You know, all but the one that I just passed up. I know you’re probably lambasting me right now for my idiocy, but I couldn’t do it. Sorry! Morgan fails you yet again.
Now it’s time to go home and probably be thrust into more stupid adventures tomorrow. But at least tonight was pretty peaceful.
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