"What's wrong?" I said.
It seemed to take her a long time to put it into words, as if she were trying to find the courage to say something she had never spoken out loud before in her life. "I don't want to be who I am," she said finally, in a hoarse, desperate voice.
Amazingly, I understood what this felt like. I'd had this feeling lots of times, when I was younger. "Okay," I said. "So who do you want to be?"
"I want to be someone" she said. "Who writes poems."
The words hung in the air between us. I blew some air through my cheeks, and felt bad for her. There'd been a lot of progress in the field of psychology over the years, but so far as I knew there was still no cure for poetry. I don't know. Ritalin, maybe.
"Have you ," I said. "You know. Tried to write poems?"
"No," she said. The tears spilled over her lashes again and rolled down her face. "Because I don't know how. Because I'm not the kind of person who writes them."
"Maybe you could change. You could be that kind of person. If you wrote some. Why don't you try?"
She stopped crying and looked at me suspiciously. "My poems would suck," she said with an air of clairvoyance.
"Probably at first. Then you'll write some more, maybe you'll get better."
"You think?" she said.
I nodded cautiously.
"And then" she said. "I'll be somebody else?"
I wasn't sure what to tell her. To be honest I was less interested in helping Brandy than I was in getting out of the ladies room. At the same time, I didn't want to lie to her. It seemed likely to me that she was clinging to a false hope, the idea that writing poems would make her into somebody else. What seemed more likely was that, when all was said and done, she'd still be herself, except that now she'd own a rhyming dictionary.
But what the hell. I didn't know Brandy's future any more than I knew my own. Encouraging her seemed just as likely to be an act of kindness as of cruelty.
"Why don't you write," I said, "and see who you are afterward?"
Brandy took this in. "Okay," she said hopefully. "Okay." She looked at me hungrily. "And thenif I wrote a poem good enoughmaybe you'd reconsider?"
"You know," she said, softly brushing her fingertips against my shoulder. "Maybe we could be girlfriends, you and me? And if I ask you to kiss me, next time you won't act like I have leprosy and junk?"
I sighed. I don't underestimate the power of literature. But that would have to be one hell of a poem.
"Good luck," I said, by way of answer, and then left the stall. She didn't follow me. Out in the bar, I could hear the sound of Big Head Chester tuning his guitar. "You coming?"
"I'll be along," said Brandy. "I'm going to start working on my poem right now!"
"Good for you," I said, and washed my hands at the sink. "That's great."
"Hey Jenny," she said. "Do you ever wish you were a man?"
"A man?" I said, stunned. I looked at myself in the mirror. "Not really."
"I do," said her voice, from the stall. "Sometimes."
I dried my hands with brown paper towels.
"What do you think it'd be like?" said Brandy.
I told her the truth. "I don't know, Brandy," I said. "Kind of like being a woman," I said. "Only less so."
I returned to the foyer of the old hotel with my head spinning. On the walls around me were framed photographs of John Wayne, Jesus Christ, and Elvis. It reminded me of something, but I wasn't quite sure what. Out in the ballroom Big Head Chester was noodling around with the opening riff of "Paint It Black," the Stones tune. I heard the crack of the cue ball as a guy named Freebird made the break over on the pool table. The nine ball fell into the side pocket.
Excerpted from I'm Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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