The First First Day
by Travis Tyler Madden
Casey can hear the commotion long before they actually see the rainbow-colored march, and they wonder again if they should turn around and just go back home. They do, at least, stop in place, and, staring down the street, that’s when they see their first glimpse of the wave marching its way through the city. They hear the music and see the colors and, even from this distance, the smiling faces. And they think that, maybe for a moment, for however long this march lasts, they can feel like they are part of something more.
More than just someone with significantly fewer places to go on holidays now.
And yet the thought of this has petrified Casey.
Because how can the idea of home be so frightening?
Casey knows exactly how it can be, just as so many of the people marching in the parade undoubtedly know, their smiles and cheers hiding, in some cases, deep traumas. The skin is always different, but the bones of the experiences are the same, translatable in their own broad strokes: Casey sits their parents down and tells them their truth. They tell the two of them that, really, nothing has changed. Only that, instead of she, Casey is now a they.
Who they are on the outside has changed as well. They cut their hair when they figured it all out. Changed their clothes. That was what made it real, the outside matching the inside now. When it was on the outside, then it was a reality, not just a thought in their head. The person who was once considered a little tomboy was even more so now. Dresses had been largely abandoned—in favor of pants, which is never that much of a shock anymore—but so had most of the makeup, and so had the long hair. Or, at least, its length in parts. The back and right of their head was buzzed nearly to the scalp, but some length remained, swooping down to opaque their left eye, and it was a toss-up as to whether, on any given day, Casey would be wearing a shirt that was found in either the arbitrary section of men’s or women’s.
This new Casey, this fully-evolved Casey, this true Casey, they tell their parents that the relationship between parent and child, their relationship to one another, has not changed. The only thing that is different is that, now that Casey has been honest, they no longer feel like a can of soda shaken for their thirty years, like something about to explode. They are not bound by the constrains of a binary, of a he or a she, and they hope that is enough for them to understand.
Somehow, it is not.
In the moment, as Casey is pulling out their own guts in front of their parents—the people who are supposed to protect them, to love them—Casey knows they have made the smart move in not inviting their then-partner. It is a moment Casey feels like they will live in for as long as they live, something they will carry with them every single day of their life. Everywhere they go. The hope is that every day they will live in it a little less, even though they don’t feel like this now. Every day their load will become a little lighter, until it is not a giant duffle bag filled with rocks weighing them down, but merely a pebble at the bottom of their purse. They have been told, but do not yet believe, that this pebble will be something they will take out and look at every couple weeks. And then every few months. And then they will forget about entirely for huge swaths of time, until it becomes something they only ever remember they have when they’re switching purses for a season. And then when they are moving apartments. And then, so they’ve been told, one day, without knowing where, and without knowing how, they will lose it entirely.
But for now it is still that duffle bag filled with rocks. In trying to find someone else to help carry it, Casey has come here, to the pride march—it is not a parade, they know this now—flowing through the nation’s capitol. The march is another potential home for Casey, one that is frightening in a new and different way. They are almost there, almost at the cross-street, but finds that those last few steps are the hardest. Of course they are. Because those are the steps that always get harder, the steps in which you really have to commit. Turning around is always harder the closer you get to the finish line, because that hope is so close. You don’t want it to go away.
But finishing is also a frightening prospect, because it means a change.
And yet everyone marching makes it look so easy, don’t they? With their explosive makeup and their rainbow pom-poms, up on top of parade floats like they’re the happiest people in the world. Like they’ve been living these lives all their lives. But of course that can’t be the case. Every single one of them has been where Casey has, been exactly where they are right now; on the precipice, that final leap awaiting them.
Casey imagines themself forever in this alleyway, appearing to bystanders to be rooted, petrified, frozen by indecision, but in reality maintaining the double-edged safety that only solitude can provide. Perhaps over the years they will grow roots, become like one of those cement-locked trees that the artsy crowd comes to take pictures or do sketches of (How does it survive in there? the hipster crowd wonders). Casey wonders—certainly not for the first time, but for one of the last, though they do not know this now—if there has been some universal mix-up, if maybe they’re mistaken, if they can go back to the process of defining themselves based on the completely-arbitrary process of genitals. But even as they think it, they know deep down it’s impossible.
Casey hears commotion behind them. Somehow, they think, the march has surrounded them, boxed them in, and they think it’s appropriate, is grateful for it. Frozen in indecision, the universe has made a choice for them. Or reinforced the choice they have already made (or, at the very least, wanted to make), swallowing them up down its rainbow-colored gullet, proving once and for all what they have long suspected; that they cannot go back to the way things once were. They can never go back.
Casey turns around and sees a small group of people headed towards them. Well, more in their direction than towards them. They are very clearly headed for the march, as they can tell by the bright colors, the backpacks, the handmade signs under their arms. There are a handful of them, half a dozen, and they’re dancing and singing, led by an Amazonian woman with long, dark hair Lady Godiva-ing off her head, over her shoulders, down to her waist. For a moment the woman’s back is to Casey, distracted by her group’s awful-but-enthusiastic rendition of “Yellow Brick Road,” and then as she turns to watch her feet, she stops just before she slams into the immobile Casey.
“Oh, shit, sorry!” the Amazonian laughs, catching her breath, lifting her hand to her chest. Her voice is husky, and reminds Casey of the Lauren Bacall movies they used to watch with their grandmother (this sudden memory makes Casey wonder what their grandmother would have thought of them and this revelation, had she been alive. Perhaps it is better Casey never got a chance to tell her). The tall woman takes half a step, like she’s going to move around Casey, and then her eyes narrow, now that she has one foot back in everyone else’s world.
“Howdy,” she catches her breath. “Are you going to the march?” She towers over Casey, would have already been above six feet even if she wasn’t wearing combat boots, the only bit of black in her entire attire. A rainbow headband attempts to keep her wild, curly hair out of her face, and a tanktop with a unicorn graphic on its front shows off surprisingly muscular arms, arms that look like they could have won any arm-wrestling contest. The top button of her jean-shorts appears to have long-since popped off, but the combined effort of a purple shoestring belt and her wide hips keep the denim from falling down. Her blue eyeshadow matches the denim, the mane of the unicorn, and the blue in her headband. She is intimidating, though Casey knows this has nothing to do with the woman herself, and is entirely because Casey is, at least at the moment, feeling very insecure. They feel shrunken before the glorious creature that lifts a hand to push some of that escaped hair out of her face.
Casey looks over their shoulder, like they’re realizing for the first time that a commotion is actually there. They look back to the group.
The tall woman asks, “Are you meeting somebody?”
Casey tries to find their voice, but for some reason—who are they kidding, they know the reason—it isn’t there. They can only shake their head. They feel as if they are growing smaller by the moment, folding into themselves, maybe until they become nothing, too small to see, wondering if that is a viable alternative to this.
The Amazonian woman smiles, and Casey sees an understanding in her eyes. She has seen this before, Casey knows. Maybe it is her height, maybe it is her confidence, maybe it is her beauty. Maybe it is all of it next to what Casey feels like is their own shrunken form, like a crumb left in the bottom of the oven, but Casey creates a story inside their mind, the internal headcanon that this tall woman, this beauty, was born like this, at her most evolved, though they know it can’t be true. Yet, it seems as if she erupted from the void fully-formed, completely confident, as a leader for these half-dozen others to follow. For Casey to follow. Casey does not know if is a romance they feel—although this woman is certainly beautiful—but it is at least an attraction of a sort.
The tall woman asks, “What’s your name?”
Casey is still so glitched that they don’t say anything. They cannot remember what words are. The tall woman’s friendly smile flickers—just for a moment—and Casey wonders if what they feel is indeed romance, or at least the initial pings of it, because they think they do not want to disappoint this graceful beauty, imagines them held in those strong arms.
The Amazonian woman smiles and reaches into her backpack, pulls out a sealed water bottle. “I’m Isobel,” she says, offering the drink. “She/her/hers.”
Somewhere, a part of Casey remembers manners, reaches out and takes the beverage. It is a vestigial reflex that makes them check the seal, and then wonders what new reflex will develop, now that they are no longer entirely she.
Isobel smiles and says, “Smart girl,” readjusting her backpack. “You got a name, smart girl?”
Casey works the frog out of their mouth and finally introduces themself, finally speaks, rust flaking off their windpipe.
“Casey,” she says, “And…not a girl. I mean…I’m…”
“Ah,” Isobel reaches up with an index finger and touches her own nose. Got it. “They/their/theirs?”
“Yes,” Casey says. “They/their/theirs.” For a moment it sounds strange in their mouth, unreal, like it’s the first time they’ve ever said it. But there is something about speaking it here, aloud, in front of this woman, in such close proximity to the march, that makes it solidify in the air in front of them, and suddenly become more real than it has been in some time. They remember that part of greeting someone new is to shake their hand, to smile and nod, and as they do this, it feels like they are shaking more of the rust off themself. Like the Tin Man. Isobel’s hand is warm, her grip strong, and Casey can see the muscles bunching in her forearm, her bicep.
Casey says, “And, I’m not here—I mean, yes, I’m here alone. I’m just here by myself. I…” They take a deep breath and in that moment find the strength to steady themself, to slow their wavering voice. “I haven’t actually been to one of these before.”
“Well, first of all, hello, Casey,” Isobel says. “Secondly, don’t you worry. We can stick with you if you’d like. Fair warning, it is very overwhelming at first, but we’re pros.”
Behind her, the rest of the rainbow-colored group nods and smiles.
Isobel holds up a finger. “There is only one super important thing we need to know.” She pauses for effect. “Tell me you know the words to ‘Yellow Brick Road.’”
Casey says, “Yes. Yes, I do,” before they can stop themself, before whatever little gnarled version that drives their decision-making can backpedal, head back to the shitty apartment they rented at the last minute because they no longer felt like themself at their parents’ home, and bury themself under blankets until the end of time. Or at least until the end of the march.
But what then, they wonder. What about the day after, the days after? What about the weeks and months after? In this alternate timeline, Casey does this. They turn around. They go home. They ignores the truth they feel about themself, passes it off as a passing fancy. A phase. She—because they have reverted to a she again—tells her parents she made a mistake, that she was simply confused. And they believe her because the thought of a them is more than they have ever known. To the two of them, it is not real. In this alternate world, Casey squashes this part of herself in order to come back—not home, but to the house her parents own. Because it is not really home, not anymore, and it never really will be again. And she dies. Not immediately, but by degrees, her true self buried deep inside her until it no longer exists, a candle slowly deprived of oxygen.
But this does not come to pass.
What actually happens, what comes to a full and glorious fruition, is the first of many first days of the rest of Casey’s life. Isobel shouts “Then we’re off!” She grabs Casey’s hand in hers. And with Isobel pulling and Casey stepping, the cement sidewalk cracks and ruptures as they are uprooted.
Travis Tyler Madden (they/their/theirs) is a graduate of Towson University’s Professional Writing graduate program. They have been published by Writer’s Digest as the Grand Prize Winner of their 12th Annual Popular Fiction Awards, the Baltimore County Public Library as the winner their 2016 Toast Among Ghosts Story Contest, Ligeia Magazine, Alternating Current, Paragon Press and Castabout Literature. Madden has been asked to read their work at the Baltimore Book Festival, was the recipient of the Annual Good Contrivance Fellowship, and received a Silver Honorable Mention from Galaxy Press magazine. They currently work as a full-time writer for Hunt A Killer, and have pieces forthcoming in Alternating Current, and as episodes of The Long Hallway podcast. They can be found on Twitter @ttmaddenwrites