A few months ago over spring break, my roommate went out of town on vacation and I found myself with the apartment to myself (and no classes to teach) for a solid week. I used this time to start work on a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time: Namely, a trans guy coming out and learning to live life as himself. Perhaps because this was a sort of written exorcism of my own feelings, I ended up writing the entire novel in that one week, a feat I have never before accomplished (and suspect I never will again).
Said novel, tentatively entitled Dreamers, follows a young trans guy coming out to friends and family in high school – while dealing with the fact that the ghost of his father has started appearing in his dreams. The book is still in the editing phase at present, but I thought I’d share a blurb and excerpt today, because (a) Pride Month, and (b) honestly, I’m pretty excited about this project and can’t wait until I can get it out there for people to read.
I should also mention that one of my biggest goals in writing this book was to give trans kids something to read that doesn’t focus on the inherent trauma of being trans. The main character, Leo, goes through his share of angst, but the story overall is positive and upbeat, meant to uplift rather than beat down. There’s nothing wrong with stories that explore the very real trauma that trans people often endure, but this isn’t one of those stories.
S’arright? S’arright. Now onto the book!
A YA novel by T.J. Baer
Coming out as a trans guy in high school is tough enough without the ghost of your dad haunting your dreams.
The week of Leo Dunn’s sixteenth birthday, he decides to finally start living as the boy that he is. But when his extended family shows up for an unexpected stay, Leo’s plans of coming out to his mom and sisters are thrown into a tailspin. To make matters even more complicated, the ghost of his dad keeps showing up in his dreams, promising he can teach Leo how to “dream walk.” Finding the courage to be himself at school and at home won’t be easy, but with the help of his Korean death metal-obsessed best friend and the soft-spoken new kid, Leo might just be able to find the strength to show the world—and his family—who he really is. And maybe he’ll learn a little something about dreaming along the way.
My dad taught me how to dream.
I’d always thought it was pretty simple—you know, fall asleep, dream about flying or falling or illogically losing your pants, wake up some time later with your mouth feeling weird and gummy—but one night he crept into my dreams like a burglar and showed me how it was done.
“The first step,” Dad said, towering over me in the dreamscape like he always had in real life, “is realizing you’re in a dream. Without that realization, the dream controls you instead of you controlling the dream.”
He waved his hand at our surroundings, and I looked around with a cold little knot of shame in my chest. The dream had frozen when my dad appeared, and the faces of my classmates were twisted in masks of derision and hatred, some of them laughing at me, some glaring or looking grossed out, all of them hating and judging. Mr. Raines’ kind face was lined with disappointment, and I could just glimpse my sisters peering through the classroom window from the bushes outside, fingers clutching the sill and their mouths wide with shock and disgust.
Dad looked from the hate-filled faces to me, and his expression softened. He was about to say something that would just fill me with even more shame, so I shoved down my angsty teen feelings and said, “What’s step two?”
Dad’s thick eyebrows furrowed, but he continued without comment. “The second step is to find the intention to change what you see. It’s about willpower, ___.”
I flinched but didn’t correct him. He had no way of knowing, and it seemed unfair to force a man who had died three years earlier to call me by a name he’d never known.
“You focus on what you want to happen, and then you make it happen. You believe it will, and then it does.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, and I noticed that he was looking a little faded around the edges, as if my dream was catching up with the idea that he was dead from a heart attack at age fifty-four and shouldn’t actually be here at all.
The old, tucked away grief bit at my throat again. “Dad, is this real? Are you really here?”
Dad smiled. He had light brown eyes like mine, and a manly growth of stubble on his square jaw that I would’ve killed to be able to imitate. He was wearing the shirt I always pictured him in, a faded gray Steelers sweatshirt, along with his most worn out pair of blue jeans with rips in the knees. I usually dreamed about sitting in the passenger seat of his rattly old pickup truck, breathing in a potent cocktail of leather and exhaust and aftershave, and in those dreams he drove us along sun-dappled country roads and sang along to American Pie and sometimes glanced over at me with a proud, sad smile.
This was different, though. This wasn’t a bleached out memory, this was something else. I could feel the realness of his presence, the solidity of his hand on my shoulder.
I blinked back the sudden sting of tears from my eyes. “I miss you,” I said. “Will I see you again?”
He vanished before he could answer, and I woke up.
* * *
Morning in our house was usually a cheerful sort of chaos, but the Monday before my sixteenth birthday was oddly calm. The only hint of mayhem was nine-year-old Eleanor flying down the stairs with ribbons streaming from her double ponytails, shouting about Maribel having stolen her shirt or her lunch or her pencil case or something. It was hard to tell, because her voice kept getting higher and higher until I couldn’t tell if there were even any words in it anymore. Mom popped a lid over the pancakes she’d just made and flashed me a wry smile as she went upstairs to take care of it.
Mom was like a purposeful, organized hurricane. She swept through our house putting out fires and mediating fights and tucking shoes into closets and books onto shelves. There was no question in anyone’s mind that the house would’ve crumbled or burned down long ago if she weren’t there keeping it upright and intact. She was an architect and a single parent and she approached both jobs with the same tidy, logical mind, but she was also warm and smart and funny and sometimes sat on the porch swing with her arms around her legs, staring out at the half-built treehouse Dad had never managed to finish.
While Mom was upstairs separating Eleanor’s property from Maribel’s person, Jasmine came jogging down the stairs and took the last few steps at a jump, hitting the kitchen floor at the base of the stairs like a gymnast, arms held high as if waiting for applause and adoration.
“Hey,” I said, shoveling another spoonful of cereal into my mouth. “Your shirt’s on backwards again.”
At fourteen, Jasmine was the oldest of my sisters, and despite her dyed blond hair, heavy makeup, and tight skirt and top, she was the one I’d always felt closest to. We’d been like twins for a long time despite our age difference, sharing clothes, wearing our hair the same way, speaking in sentence fragments that only we understood. Sometimes I missed that closeness, but I also knew that there was no way I could’ve continued living a lie.
Jasmine smirked as she grabbed the cereal box from in front of me and went to get a bowl. “Peasant,” she said with great dignity. “I told you, this is the style. What are you wearing?”
I glanced self-consciously down at myself. Truthfully, I’d been waiting for Mom to make a comment about my outfit all morning, but while I’d felt her eyes on my back as I made breakfast, she’d never actually said anything about it. I tugged at my oversized gray sweatshirt and let my gaze trace down to my sturdy blue jeans and red sneakers.
“It’s comfortable,” I said. I slouched my shoulders a little, in a way I’d been practicing in the mirror, and was pleased to see a flat expanse of shirt camouflaging my chest. “The first day of school’s bad enough without having to squeeze myself into some gross, tight-fitting—”
Jasmine arched an eyebrow at me and waved a manicured hand at her own snug blue top and skirt.
“Ahem,” I said. “Anyway, this is what makes me feel comfortable, so I’m wearing it. End of story.”
“All right,” Jasmine said with a roll of her eyes. “Whatever you say, ___.”
I edited out the word right after she said it, and I told myself that very soon I’d be brave enough to tell them. I’d tell them and they’d understand and it would all be okay. Of course it would.
Jasmine’s back was to me as she poured almond milk over her cereal, and I thought we were done talking, so I went back to frowning at the word jumble in the newspaper. But before I’d untangled SIEUIDGS, I heard Jasmine clear her throat.
“Hey,” she said in a casual tone that somehow wasn’t casual at all, “I heard Jackson calling you ‘Leo’ the other day. What’s that about?”
I froze, then realized I needed to play things cool but not quite that cool and forced a smile. “Oh, it’s just a nickname. I can’t even remember how it started. You know Jackson.”
“Huh,” Jasmine said. Her eyes were on my face, and she held them there a second too long before she turned and slid the cereal box into its Mom-ordained place in our impeccably organized cupboard. “I guess it just made me think about that one summer when we were little and you started asking everybody to call you ‘Sam.’ That was weird, right? Mom was so glad when you grew out of it. She was afraid she was going to have to ask the teachers at school to change your name on the attendance sheet or something.”
I flinched, maybe because the idea of me choosing a name for myself apparently seemed so crazy and silly to my family, or maybe because Mom had humored me and called me by the name I’d asked to be called but had also quietly wished I’d stop. Luckily Jasmine was focused on shoveling cereal into her mouth and didn’t notice.
I was still trying to figure out what to say—or if I even needed to say anything at all—when I heard Mom’s feet on the stairs and she swept back into the kitchen with her usual steady smile.
“Have twins, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.” She laughed and brushed her dark curls out of her eyes. “Well, at least that’s all sorted out for now with a minimum of hair-pulling and tantrums.” She ducked in to give Jasmine a good morning kiss on the cheek, then rubbed off the resulting smear of lipstick with her thumb. “You look nice. I know the first day of school doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it really is a great time to make a good impression.”
Jasmine gave me a significant look that I did my best to ignore. “Thanks, Mom,” she said. “That’s what I’m aiming for. Making an impression.”
“She said a good impression,” I muttered into my tea cup, and Jasmine shot me a dirty look over one shapely shoulder.
“Anyway,” Jasmine said, turning appealing, long-lashed dark eyes on our mother, “do you think you could give me a lift to school this morning? I wouldn’t ask, but I do want to make a good impression, and I’m just picturing these white shoes on that grimy bus floor…”
Mom gave her a pained smile. “Honey, I’d love to, but you know I have that big meeting this morning.”
Jasmine sighed. “I guess I can always bleach them when I get home.”
Mom shot me a pleading look, and I breathed a sigh of my own.
“Look, do you want to ride with Jackson and me?” I asked Jasmine, trying not to sound as if any maternal manipulation had motivated the offer. “There’s room in the backseat, and except for a few gum wrappers, it’s probably way cleaner than the bus.”
Jasmine looked from Mom’s innocent face to my pinched one and apparently decided the value of the favor was worth ignoring how it had come about. “Yes, thank you! That’d be awesome! I’ll go get my stuff. Don’t leave without me!”
She took one last bite of cereal and dashed upstairs in a wash of blond hair and flowery scent, and I sighed again and slouched deeper in my chair. Mom squeezed my shoulder and gave me one of her patented I’m proud of you smiles.
“Thank you for doing that,” she said. “I know it’s got to be weird having your sister along when you’re trying to spend quality time with your boyfriend, but it means a lot to her.”
I was warmed by the thanks and then bristled at the word “boyfriend.”
“Mom, I told you, Jackson and I are just friends.”
“Sure, sure.” Mom’s smile was secretive and knowing as she left a red lipstick print on her A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE REVOLUTION coffee cup. “Whatever you say. Speaking of, will your special friend be coming to your birthday party?”
Special friend. I somehow managed to keep my voice level as I said, “No, because you said it was going to be a family gathering and a ‘formal occasion,’ and I figured that both of those things excluded Jackson.”
“Probably true,” Mom said. “But if you wanted to invite him… I mean, if there was any particular reason why you would want him to be there to celebrate this very special day with you…”
“Fine, fine. Just keep it in mind.”
I held back the words for an impressive count of five, then exploded, “Anyway, I don’t see why we have to have a big fancy party just because it’s my birthday. We never have before.”
“You’ve never turned sixteen before,” Mom said calmly. Calm was her best weapon against emotional children and emotional clients, and she’d been using it effectively against both for years. “It’s an important milestone, and our family wants to be there for it. And if they’re going to go to all the trouble of flying here from halfway across the country, the least we can do is give them a nice party.”
“I thought the party was supposed to be for me.”
She looked at me like I’d completely missed the point, then squinted at my face and leaned closer.
I ducked back self-consciously. “What?”
“We’ll have to schedule you for a lip wax before the party,” she said. “It’s getting a little furry up there. I’d say we should blame your father’s genes for that, but I think we both know that’s a lie.” Before I could reply, she glanced at her watch and hurriedly tucked her coffee mug into the top rack of the dishwasher. “I’d better get going. Tell the twins to eat their pancakes before they get cold, tell Eliza her summer reading list is on the counter, and don’t forget to lock the door when you leave. And make sure you and Jasmine wear your seatbelts!”
“We will,” I said tiredly as the hurricane grabbed her briefcase from the counter and swept out into the hall and toward the front door.
“Bye, girls!” she shouted. “I love you! Have a great day at school!”
There was a chorus of muffled replies from upstairs, but the goodbyes and ‘love you’s stuck in my throat, not because I didn’t want to say them, but because Mom’s words had been directed at “girls” and I wasn’t one.
In the end, I gave a strangled, “Bye, love you!” and listened to the door slam shut and my mother’s heels pound a quick rhythm across the porch. Her car started in the driveway, and I sank my head down into my arms until all I could smell was the clean, comforting scent of my freshly laundered sweatshirt and the men’s deodorant I’d put on that morning. I thought about the blue sequined dress hanging in my closet, pushed to the very back but lying in wait for me like a predator, and I felt a rush of determination that momentarily drowned out the utter certainty that I was about to ruin my life.
“All right, Leo,” I mumbled into my arms. “You can do this. You can absolutely do this.”
I wasn’t so sure that I could, but I also couldn’t spend my whole life hiding in the arms of my sweatshirt. I got up, rinsed out my bowl, and got ready for the day that was going to change everything.