by January Adams
Edited by Danny Lore
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
2675 words — Reading time: around 13 minutes
A week before Lauri declared an end to our friendship by throwing a cheesecake into the river, I found the Tessitura sitting in her closet. At the time, I had no idea what it was or what it was called. It just looked like a small roll of Scotch tape in a curved container, with thin, gold-trimmed red ribbon where the tape should be.
The roll was warm to the touch and buzzed faintly. I held it to my ear to make out the sound: a soft hum, blended with a rush of expectation and potential. I rolled out a short end of ribbon and cut it off on the serrated edge — the thin tab stuck to my thumb, almost melting into the flesh. I brushed the end of ribbon to the ground and slipped the Tessitura into my pocket. Whatever it was, it was curious, and it was speaking to me. Lauri probably wouldn’t even notice it was gone.
Lauri and I met on the subway almost six months earlier. The heat of the crowded car, filled with commuters packed shoulder to shoulder, heightened the smell of dust and sweat and metal. Her black backpack bit into my shoulder, and I glared at her out of the corner of my eye. When she caught my eye, she glared back. I got off before her.
The next day, it was the same place, the same backpack, the same shoulder. Again, I got off before her.
The third day, she got off at my stop.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” she said as she left the train just behind me. She punched me gently on the shoulder with a shrugging smile, and the light tap stung under three layers of clothing — the way vinegar stings, the way sugar stings when you eat too much too fast.
“Everyone knows you’re supposed to take your backpack off on the subway,” I said.
She introduced herself. We chatted for a few minutes and didn’t have much to talk about, so I left to go to work, and she left to go to the library. I figured that was it. Our trajectories had finally collided, and we were free to move on in peace.
The next day, in the same subway car, we locked eyes. She took off her backpack and dropped it to the floor with a thud.
“Want to go get coffee?” she asked.
On my first night with the Tessitura, without much thought, I slipped the roll of ribbon under my pillow before I went to bed. The next morning, a tiny strip of ribbon clung to the nail of my smallest toe. Still barely awake, I reached out, pulled it off, dropped it in the garbage.
Lauri had left two voicemails on my phone during the night. Texting was, according to her, too impersonal and dehumanizing.
“Look, I don’t apologize for what I said,” she said in the first. “I read that I should be apologizing less. But I don’t want you to be mad at me, so please just pick up a phone and call me.”
In the second, her voice sounded tired. “Alright, Sep. You know we can’t live without each other. Before we run into each other again, let’s figure out how to make this work.” I deleted both messages.
I had practiced the art of getting ready in the morning without looking in a mirror. You could live in a body that you didn’t belong in if you studiously avoided looking at it or acknowledging it. You could pretend that gender was something that governed other peoples’ lives and not yours. But I caught another piece of ribbon wrapped around a toe while getting dressed. I let it be and put the Tessitura in my pocket before leaving for work.
I didn’t run into Lauri on the subway that day. Hungry on my walk back home, too tired to cook, I stopped at Pizza Presto for a slice of green pepper and mushroom. I ate hurriedly in front of the door, barely tasting the oily cheese, trying not to notice the figure sitting in a high stool at the counter a few feet over.
I tried to open the door — it jammed, and for an instant I paused. I turned to face the patron sitting next to me, and they turned to face me. They looked a bit older than me — long black hair, black jacket over a tight turtleneck. They were chewing on something, a small, dark chip that they held close to their mouth. My shoulder stung in the place where, months ago, Lauri had left her mark.
They took a deep breath. “So. Guess it’s the two of us?”
“Guess so,” I said. Just like before, just like Lauri. Another person’s life suddenly wrapped up in mine. “I’m Sep.”
I gave a small wave. Dee waved back, hands gloved in white wool. They weren’t showing much exposed skin — only on their face, which was marked by thin lines and scratches. I wondered if they’d applied heavy foundation that was starting to crack.
“I guess I’ll be seeing you around,” I said.
“Guess so,” they said, as I pushed open the door.
I kept the Tessitura on my bedside table that night and woke up to find it under my pillow. My left foot was wrapped up in gold-trimmed red ribbon from the toes to midway up the ankle. It pulsed softly in time with my heartbeat, warm and tight against my skin but not quite constricting, the gold shining with a wicked glimmer. I stared at it for a moment and felt surprisingly light.
“You can’t avoid me forever,” Lauri said in her voicemail.
“We’ll see,” I mumbled as I deleted it.
I saw Dee in the Pizza Presto again after work. The sun had already set, casting the roadside snowdrifts in a cold blue. I ordered two slices, and they ordered one, and we picked up a root beer each. We sat at the bar by the window, in adjacent stools, watching grimy slush seep through the streets as cars rushed past.
We didn’t speak much, which was to be expected. When I first spent time with Lauri, it was the same. Just because you’re bound together with someone doesn’t mean you’ve become best friends. You get comfortable listening to each other’s silences until you’re friendly enough to make conversation.
Dee finished their pizza quickly, then played with the thin disc in their hands, the one they had been chewing on the day before. They went ungloved this time — the skin of their fingers was scratched and marked like their face. Not cakey makeup, I realized. More like paint in old artwork, cracked after years of wear.
“What’s yours like?” they said, catching me staring. Without much thought, I pulled the Tessitura out of my pocket and offered it to Dee.
They stared at it for a moment through narrow eyes, bringing their face close but not quite touching it.
“Tessitura,” they said. “That’s what it’s called, I think. It’s a bit hard to hear.”
I thought of the hum I’d heard when I had first found the object, wordless but urgent.
“What does it mean?”
Dee shrugged. “I think that’s up to you.”
I took the roll back and ripped off a small tab of ribbon, pressed it into my palm. Salt and body heat kept it firmly stuck.
“You’ve seen a lot of these before?”
“A few. Two other people I’ve been connected to before you. One of them had one like ours.” They tapped the small disc against the counter. It made a sharp click.
“Well, it sure would help to know more,” I said. “If there’s anything you—”
“Has it changed you yet?”
I wiggled the toes on my left foot.
“A little, I think. I’m not sure.”
Dee smiled, and their oil-paint skin cracked a bit.
“Well, you’ll be sure soon.”
I stared out the window. The fluorescent lights above us buzzed.
“It’s weird,” I said. “You know, I’ve never been totally comfortable with….” I gestured vaguely at myself. “This. Body stuff. And I always felt like if I couldn’t change completely, if I couldn’t be remade from nothing, there wouldn’t be any point. And now it finally feels like I can do that. It’s staring me in the face. But….” Something deep and fundamental echoed inside me, some base fear of being altered or consumed. I tried not to show it.
“Well, you don’t have to start over from nothing.” Dee ran the dark chip in their hand along one of the paint-line cracks in their cheek. “For the longest time, I felt that too. But I started small with this thing. It helped me change in little ways. And if I’m a bit happier, even if I’m not some perfect me — that’s a win, right?”
They crumpled up their paper plate and tossed it in the garbage. “But, you know. It’s up to you.”
That night when I returned home, I found the small piece of ribbon still stuck to my palm. I stared at it for a moment, then placed it in my mouth. It dissolved quickly on my tongue like a breath strip, exploding into a dozen flavours of sweetness: strawberry, honey, syrupy chocolate. I tore off another piece and held it in my mouth as long as I could bear.
The days that followed stuck to a similar pattern. Wake up. Trace the progress of the ribbon, delete Lauri’s voicemails. Go to work. Meet Dee in Pizza Presto, sip at root beers, maybe share a plate of garlic bread.
I stuck a piece from the Tessitura on my tongue nearly every night and savoured each drop of rich sweetness. Ribbon wound up both legs now to just below my knees and started to cover my arms at the elbow. The warm pressure was impossible to ignore. My whole body pulsed in time with my heartbeat.
It was too much, and it was all I needed. It felt so nice to want something like I wanted this. I laughed with the rush of flavour and energy — I was an acid storm in progress. I was something ready to become.
A week had passed, and I convinced myself that I might never run into Lauri again. Maybe she and I had disconnected when I became tied to Dee. Maybe some cosmic force agreed with me that being connected to two different people sounded unfairly exhausting.
The next morning, on the way to work, I felt her black backpack bite into my shoulder. We got off at the same stop.
We agreed to meet at her place that evening. I headed over after work, wondering for a moment what Dee would think if I didn’t show up at Pizza Presto. On the walk up to Lauri’s apartment, I stopped at a small bakery. I had a sweet tooth now, since tasting the ribbon. I ordered a slice of lemon berry cheesecake for the two of us to share.
Lauri’s one-bedroom was messier than I remembered, with clothing draped over the sunken couch and old dishes piled up in the sink. Lauri fished around for two glasses, washed them out, and handed me one filled with tap water. She wore heart-patterned leggings and a plain grey hoodie. Her eyes were covered in a glaze of restless fatigue. I dropped the cheesecake on the counter — she smiled at it for a moment.
“Oh… thanks so much. Can I get you something else? Coffee? Beer?”
“I’m fine.” I slurped at the water glass. We stood together in the too-cramped kitchen for a while. It was nice, filling up space without much to say. It reminded me of older times.
“What’s going on, Sep? Why didn’t you call?”
“Well, you did say you weren’t going to apologize.”
“For telling me to get over this whole gender business? For telling me that this body — which has never felt like mine — is as good as it’s going to get?” I took a sip of water.
“That’s not what I said. I told you—”
“Not in so many words.”
“—to be kind to yourself.” She tapped her fingers on the countertop.
“Look, let’s not do this right now,” I said. “I was upset, whatever. It’s different now. There’s someone else, just like when you and I first met. And I think that means—”
“What do you mean, someone else?” Lauri crossed her arms. “It doesn’t matter who else. It’s the two of us. We’re connected.”
I stared out the window over Lauri’s balcony, looked past the railing to the river below. “I think that’s over. Something brought us together, and that was good. Now something can bring us apart. It’s natural.”
“Sep, stop it!” She raised her voice, then let it go with a raggedy breath.
The Tessitura burned memory into my pocket, and I tried not to acknowledge it, tried not to show that I’d taken it from her. The ribbon tensed around my arms, then eased.
“And this is about that freaky contraption you took from me?” Lauri pressed. “That’s what’s doing this?”
She walked over to the couch and took a heavy seat. I sat down next to her.
“Where did you find it?” I asked.
“It was my mom’s.” She brushed the leaves of a spider plant out of her face. “She didn’t like to talk about it. It belonged to someone she used to know, a long time ago.”
Her eyes were red and watery and looked so tired. The scent of expired incense hung in the air. “Fuck it. I don’t care what it is. I worked on this, Sep. On us. We came together by chance, and we made the most of it. I put time into this, and—”
“And things change. It happens.”
Sunlight streamed in through the window. I turned the Tessitura over in my pocket as Lauri stared into her water glass.
She stood up quickly. “Will you even miss me?”
“Yes. Of course.” A sharp lance of regret hit me as I realized I was telling the truth. I gripped the Tessitura in my clenched fist. I let my heart rate match its beating rhythm.
Lauri walked over to the counter and stared at the cheesecake in its plastic container.
“If this is the end for you, then fine,” she said. “Good luck, Sep. If I see you again — if I see you every day until we both drop dead — then I’ll ignore you.”
She pulled the slice of cheesecake out of the container before tossing it over the balcony. It made such a tiny, perfect splash when it hit the water. I walked all the way home and barely felt the cold.
I still spend evenings with Dee at the Pizza Presto. We talk openly about the Tessitura and their own little treasure — the Crettatura, they called it. We talk about the ways we’ve changed, and what transition and transformation mean to us. We still drink root beer. Sometimes they hold their hand over mine. Their cracked skin is rough, their touch gently excoriating. It’s still not familiar, but I’m slowly learning.
And I still see Lauri. I still feel the pressure of her backpack on the subway every few days. She ignores me, just like she promised, and the loss feels a little duller every time. I hope she meets someone else on the subway. I hope the sugars in that lemon berry cheesecake will dissolve and feed whatever grows at the bottom of the river.
The ribbon is in my blood and my lungs now, warm and sweet. I can feel it wrapping around my heart, giving new rhythm to my pulse, pumping out a new kind of skin and blood. I’ve started looking in the mirror. I see someone recreated in a different shape, and I see opportunity. I don’t know what I’ll see tomorrow. I’m finally excited to find out.