I was an underage drinker. Before you lose your saintly view of me, let me explain. I’d just moved back to my dull city in Western Canada after traveling the South Pacific, South East Asia and Australia for a year. I’d spent months on end surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, freediving, learning words in new languages, tasting new foods, petting new animals, and meeting new people. Suddenly, I found myself in the same place I grew up, surrounded by noisy traffic, strip malls, grey skies and concrete buildings. I had nothing to do but go to school, work, maybe hit the mall or find somewhere to hang out with my friends.
Needless to say, I was bored. So, I discovered drinking. It wasn’t a daily thing, or even a weekly thing, but when I did get my hands on something alcoholic, I drank it like I was hobo in Death Valley with a hangover.
One early summer day, I was headed to the public pool with my best friend, C. With lofty plans to find a way to drink later that night, we rode the bus discussing who could buy our drinks. Being as we were both still only 16, we needed someone 19 or older to buy booze for us. Our other friend, Diana, had a brother who would do it from time to time, but Diana was only tolerable in small doses. If we asked her, we would have to spend time with her and be subject to several of her holier-than-thou, know-it-all lectures about the subtle genius of Jim Morrison’s metaphors or how if you slow down the speed at which you play Dark Side Of The Moon on vinyl, you can hear the Devil’s voice. As I said, small doses.
C and I both only had little brothers, so we had to ask a stranger. We decided we would approach someone at the pool.
On the other side of the changing rooms, sporting our tomboyish, functional one-piece bathing suits, we scanned the water for someone just a few years older than us, preferably a guy. Guys, as we’d already discovered, were much more likely to say yes to this sort of thing. Plus it was always nice for me, the hetero one of the two of us, to meet new guys being as I was all a-rage hormonally with boy craziness.
It took less than a minute before we spotted him. He was in the shallow end, with shoulder length Dave Grohl hair, wearing his swim trunks and a t-shirt, all alone. He looked to be about 19 or 20, and a little self-conscious. I have always had a soft spot for the underdog, and thought he looked sweet. We approached.
“You here alone?” I asked him, smiling.
“Yes. I know, weird, right?” His shaky voice was very feminine.
“I guess. I mean, lots of people come to swim laps on their own.”
“I suppose that’s true.” He tossed his head as a strand of wet hair fell in his eyes.
“I’m Courtney. This is C.” I held out my hand.
“Pamela.” He responded.
I paused. I must have looked confused, because he offered, “Yes, it is a girl’s name.”
“Your parents gave you a girl’s name?” I wasn’t understanding.
“No, they named me Pavel.” His voice was softer, now.
“Oh, so you just call yourself Pamela. I get it.” C. broke an awkward silence as I tried to understand.
“No, I am legally Pamela now. I am a woman.” It hit me. This guy – or rather, girl – was transitioning from male to female. I didn’t know the term transgendered back then, and didn’t know how to ask her. Luckily C, once again, broke the silence.
“Oh, a sex change? What’s that like?” She had no qualms about saying exactly what was on her mind. Ever.
“No, not a sex change.” Pamela’s face was awash with anxiety. I didn’t know what to say to make this more comfortable for her. I did my best.
“You might be surprised what C. and I don’t give a shit about.”
“What do you mean?”
“I dunno. Unless you’re a murderer, we’re gonna treat you the same way we treat everyone.”
“What I am freaks everyone out.” Pamela chuckled softly and looked down at her hands.
“Try us.” C. prompted.
She sighed and began picking her well-manicured fingernails.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s okay. You don’t have to tell us anything. It’s nice to meet you, regardless.”
She met my eyes, and wasted no time before saying, “No. No, I don’t mind. I just… I get a lot of abuse from people. You guys don’t seem that way at all.” She took a deep breath. “I’m a hermaphrodite.” She spat it out so fast, I barely caught it.
“A what?” C. asked.
“Hermaphrodite. You know…” Pamela’s eyes widened and she bobbed her head.
“What is that?” Sure, I could tell you Louis Riel’s birthdate, and exactly which year the Hudson’s Bay Company had been incorporated. I could list the Canadian PMs and capitals of each province and territory. I could explicitly describe exactly how beavers turned into hats, how to build an igloo and at least 17 different ways to prepare fresh-slaughtered seal out on the open tundra in 30 below. I could tell you all of this, but I’d be fucked if I could tell you what a hermaphrodite was. I’d long known my educators had no intention of preparing me for the real, current world.
“A hermaphrodite is someone who was born with both genders’ reproductive parts.”
“Woah, woah. Seriously? That’s possible?” C’s mouth gaped.
“See? I told you it freaks everyone out.” Pamela closed her eyes and turned her head.
“No, no. We’re not freaked out. I think C’s questions are out of fascination, not fear.”
“Yeah. Totally. I think that’s cool. If it’s true.” C was always a skeptic.
“Jesus Christ, if I could make it not true, tell me how.” Pamela looked up at C and immediately apologized. “Sorry. Sorry, if you’re Christian.”
C and I looked at each other and laughed. “Yeah… no.” I said, “Blaspheme away.”
Pamela’s laugh seemed relaxed this time. We talked to her more about how she had been brought up. She explained that she was raised a boy but identified more as a girl. She said she’d just recently began hormone therapy to become more feminine. Her life had been non-stop abuse, she explained. From doctors, friends, family and her church, which she left when she was 13. She was finally at a spot in her life where she felt she could handle the abuse enough to be who who she really was. She assured us, she would never, ever be rid of it.
We finally asked her the million dollar question: would she buy us booze? She said, “of course”.
“I’ll meet you on the other side. They won’t let me use the women’s change room.”
C. and I showered and dressed and headed out to the front foyer of the aquatic centre. As we waited for Pamela, we talked about how awkward it must be for her, identifying as a woman and having female reproductive bits and pieces, but still having to strip and shower and dress in front of men. It didn’t seem very fair, we agreed.
A few minutes later, Pamela emerged from the men’s changing room in all her delicate glory. She sported light coloured Jordache jeans that hugged her skinny legs. Her shoulder-length, brown hair was parted on the side and combed straight. She had hoop earrings on, a pink & white gingham blouse, jean jacket and rosey-pink pumps. The sunlight caught her sparkling, pink lip gloss, as I realized she looked better than the both of us combined in our cut-off jean shorts, chuck taylors, concert Ts and roughly pulled back pony tails.
“Wow. I feel underdressed.” I commented as she got closer.
She flipped her hair to the side and smiled, obviously filled with confidence. A confidence that had not been there in the pool, where she’d looked like a man. As we headed out and began walking to the cold beer and wine store, we got to chatting again. Pamela began to explain that she was in the process of becoming a registered nurse when we were interrupted.
“Fucking faggot! Girls, watch out, he probably has AIDS!” A man, looked to be about in his twenties yelled from across the street. C. and I were shocked. Our mouths fell open and C. began to charge.
“Come here and say that, you little bitch!” She yelled, pointing at her feet. The man scrambled in the opposite direction, obviously not ready for a physical altercation with a high school girl (sure she played on the football team, but she was still a high school girl).
“Guys! It’s okay. It happens all the time,” Pamela couldn’t bring herself to look up from her shoes. She began to pick her nails again.
“No. That is not fucking okay!” C was huffing and puffing after she ran back to us, her expression filled with adrenaline.
“It’s not okay.” I nodded in agreement.
“I know… I know.” Pamela barely whispered. She looked up at us and we could see her eyes were glassy. It may happen all the time, but it obviously still bothered her. Silence fell over us as we stood in the sun and fidgeted.
“So, if you have both a penis and a vagina, can you like, literally fuck yourself then?” Pamela and I both turned to face C.
Pamela stared at C., her mouth agape. I didn’t know what to think. Was this an appropriate question to ask? I thought. Suddenly, the slender woman bent over, slapped her knees and began to howl with laughter. She was roaring, and clutching her stomach. C. and I couldn’t help it, her laughing was infectious. We laughed along with her until our sides felt like they were splitting. After a series of deep sighs and relapses, we finally calmed down enough for Pamela to say,
“No. I cannot literally fuck myself. When was the last time you saw a penis, girl? Let’s go get fucking drunk.”