“Beauty in the Breakdown”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

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Rory got in late from hanging out with Fabiana, found the suite dark except for the flickering light of the television in the common room: cartoons, like always. He spied the top of a head sticking up over the back sofa cushion, a scatter of empty candy wrappers on the table.

“Hey, Max,” he said softly as he approached. “You awake?”

He froze as he rounded the sofa. The person sitting there in a tank top and shorts, slack-faced, eyes half-lidded, with a half-drunk bottle of vodka nestled in the crook of their arm wasn’t Max.

It was Jules.

“What the,” said Rory, as Jules’s head slumped to the side, and bloodshot eyes rolled up toward him. “What are you doing?”

Jules surveyed him blearily, swung his head forward once more. “Don’t judge me.”

“I’m not. I’m just…worried.”

Jules grunted. “Same thing.”

“No, it’s not.” Rory realized he could see the vanishingly slight forms of breasts through Jules’s tank top. “Did something happen?”

Jules was silent a moment. Then, “What do you see when you look at me?” he mumbled.

Rory hesitated. Sank down on the accent chair facing the couch. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“A freak?”

“Jesus Christ. No.”

“Dyke? Attention whore?”

“Jules, what the fuck.”

“A waste of a pretty girl?” Jules’s head finally swiveled back toward him. He regarded Rory with an unfocused gaze, raised one eyebrow as if challenging him to deny it. After a beat, turned his eyes back to the TV. “Everyone fuckin’ adored me when I was nice to look at and smiled politely like a good girl.”

“Dude. You never smiled politely.”

This seemed to almost get a smile.

“People are stupid,” Rory went on, with a sudden venom. “They all should die.”

“Your solution to everything.” Jules sounded tired.

“What can I say. I’m sick of assholes shitting up the planet for the rest of us. Come on, tell me what happened. Did somebody fucking say something to you?”

Jules didn’t answer. He took a clumsy pull from his vodka, almost spilled it on himself. “It’s nothing. It’s stupid. Just assholes being stupid, and me stupid letting it get to me.”

“What”—Rory leaned forward in his chair—“happened?”

Jules looked at him. “Vandalized my office,” he mumbled finally, averting his eyes. “Painted shit like ‘traitor’ and—and—and t-‘tranny’ on my walls.” His lower lip quivered. Then, he gritted his teeth. “And they fucked up important stuff I was using for the research on Max. What kind of fucking dumbshit am I, leaving stuff like that out there on my desk where anyone could get to it? I forget to lock up one time…goddammit.” His knuckles whitened on the bottle. He took another gulp. “Sure as fuck won’t make the same mistake again.”

Rory saw red. Felt that familiar droning in his skull. “Do you know who did it?”

“I have an idea. Inbred fucks ever bothered to read my paper, they’d know I can analyze their DNA from their piss.”

Rory leveled a stare at him. “I can make this go away for you.”

“Put a definitive end to transphobia, chauvinism, fascist politics, and toxic masculinity? Nooope, I-don’t think you can.”

“Baby steps,” Rory replied, with an unhappy smile. “A few sniveling shitstains at a time.”

“Absolutely fucking not. Something happens to them, it’ll just be more fodder for the conspiracy theorists. Besides, I don’t want you going around hexing people left and right.”

“Why not? Someone needs to exterminate the scum on this planet.”

“You use execration too much, you start coming unhinged. Or so they say.”

Rory stared daggers at the rug. “What if they don’t stop?”

“I’m successful and openly transgender, Rory. They’re not going to stop. It’s just a fact of life. I wanted to be seen by other people; this is what I get.”

“I hope you don’t honestly think this is in any way your fault.”

“Of course I don’t. I’m just being realistic about what I can expect.”

Rory exhaled hard through his nose. “I don’t know how you can just live with this.”

“The only alternatives are crawling back under my rock or offing myself, that’s how. Fuck. I wish I hadn’t told you.” Jules stood up, tottered on his feet, plopped back down. A little vodka sloshed out of the bottle.

“Let me help you to bed.” Rory got up, pried the bottle gently from Jules’s grasp. Pulled his old friend’s arm around his shoulders, eased him to his feet.

“Hey, where you go all the time, Ror?” mumbled Jules, as they started clumsily together down the hallway.

“Band practice.”

“Fuck you fuckin’ lie to me. I know you left your band. I looked at your guys’ MySpace. You got replaced a week ago by middle-aged dude named Jimmy.”

“Why have you been looking at our MySpace?”

“Stop deflecting. And stop lying to me. Where do you go?”

Rory sighed through his nose, steered Jules into his bedroom. “Just out. Hanging with a friend.” He bent forward, rolled Jules gently onto the bed. “Are you cold? You want your covers?”

Jules lay there on his back staring at Rory, head propped against his pillow, chin almost touching his collarbone. “You know, Rory…what you did to me eighth year…”

Rory froze.

“It was fucked up.” Jules’s gaze drifted away. “In itself, you know. It fucked me up pretty good. But that actually wasn’t the worst part.”

“What was the worst part?” Rory didn’t want to hear it.

He needed to.

“The worst part was…” Jules’s voice wobbled. “…I lost my stupid best friend. And…I know I acted like I didn’t, but…I needed you then. I really…”

He trailed off. Stared dully at the ceiling.

For a long time, Rory just stood there.

At last, he sank to his knees, rested his chin on the edge of the mattress. “Let me fight for you.”

“I was tough enough to pull through on my own in the end. I’m actually glad I got to learn that about myself. But…” A tear leaked down the side of Jules’s face. His voice fell to a hoarse whisper. “It was hell.”

“Let me punish the people who did that to your office.”

“No.”

Rory’s skull throbbed. “Why not?”

Jules closed his eyes. “I don’t want you like that.”

“You don’t want me at all. At least let me help.”

Jules didn’t respond. His chest rose and fell evenly, once, then again.

Rory stood up, passed a hand roughly over his face. Reached down and picked up the edges of Jules’s comforter, rolled them over the alchemist to form a cocoon.

Left the room, shutting the door behind him. Slipped into Max’s room next-door. She was curled up beneath the covers, snoring gently.

Rory bent down, placed a kiss on her temple. She made a little feline sound, stretched her arms up toward him, eyes still closed.

“Not now.” He kissed her lips. “But I’ll be back later.”

“Mmrph.” She frowned, rolled over, buried her face in her pillow.

Rory slipped out of the hotel, headed for the bus stop; checked his phone repeatedly on the ride out of town till he finally got service.

Thumbed a text to Fabiana:

one of the ones we’ve been watching – i’m ready.

fuk yessssss \m/, came her reply.

i need to borrow some of your stuff, he added. might feel like getting dressed up for the occasion.

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER FORTY
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
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