Posting From a Secret PostOp Bedside
SHORT FICTION: FIRST PLACE
I wanted to write a story about a mother who accepts her transgender child but who still has to protect her child from potential rejection by other family members. My story is specifically about a Korean-American mother, but I hope that my attempt to capture the moment-to-moment nature of trying to keep webs of family love alive will seem familiar to everyone.
You finally get the kid on the phone. He’s at college. You need to hear his voice, to know he’s happy. You need to know that giving permission is the right thing. You talk for three minutes. It’s enough. He’s never been a phone talker. You wrap up when he says, I’m excited. Thank you. I love you and Dad so much.
You hang up and breathe out. You know it’s right. Now your body just needs to catch up.
You’ve always believed knowledge is the way through fear.
You approach the day like you’re reviewing for a huge exam. You go online to reread all the articles. The first time, they took your breath away. Now, your breath holds steady. Your jaw loosens.
The scientist’s dispassion envelops you, and you feel crisp and competent. You realize these websites are where your kid has lived for years, finding hope. Others like him.
There are so many pictures. Everyone shares them to help others. Pictures of Befores and Afters. Of scars, yes, but more strikingly, of smiles, of showing off in sharp suits and board shorts.
Your sister is panicked. She keeps sending emails even though you stopped opening them a while ago because reading them summoned the twitch under your left eye. They contain articles warning of regret. She is a mother too. She identifies with mothers who hear their child say This is who I am and are afraid. That’s not who you are: you identify as the mother of a child who has chosen to be reborn. How can you argue with your kid wanting, finally, to live?
Your best friend gives you a fresh angle. What she says makes your shoulders relax: He’s having something removed that is making him sick, like a tumor.
Your neck gains length. Your spine untwists. Your friend’s way of looking at it feels like the sun streaming into your core.
This is not like when you were a tomboy. You used to wear men’s boxers as shorts. You sewed up the fly, but your parents still thought it was outrageous. You wore them with baggy T-shirts, black Chucks, and chopped hair. Your mother winced whenever she looked at you.
You’re so pretty, she’d say. Such a waste!
Your father grabbed you by the roots of your hair in a fit of temper one day and shook you so hard you thought your neck might snap.
What the hell is this? he yelled. Do you even know what you look like?
Jessica is going by his Korean name now, you tell them on Skype.
Oh, Joon-hee wants to use her Korean name? Cool. Cool.
Your parents both give a thumbs up.
Yes. He’s Jun now, you say.
Your father’s face changes. You wonder if he’s going to call out your pronoun switch. You can tell he’s absorbing it. That’s what you want. The truth all at once would be blinding. It was for you. You need to let the light seep in a bit at a time, like sunrise through a crack in the curtains.
Your mother says, How he spell? J-o-o-n?
She sounds so cheerful. She loves the idea of her grandchild going by a Korean name. Your mother’s pronoun switch is just her usual pronoun confusion. Keeping he/him and she/ her straight has always been impossible for her, the pitfall of English that she can never avoid. You stopped correcting her years ago. Your bratty teenage need to school her yielded to an older daughter’s need to feel like a good daughter. Besides, who were you to correct anyone when you could barely string two sentences together in Korean?
Actually, you say, It’s Jun like the month. But no e.
J-U-N, your mother says. Ok. Cool. More artistic.
I’ll tell Jun you like it, you say. You smile. Your mother beams back. Your father manages a smile that’s a little stiff, but that’s not unusual.
It’s going to be fine. Manage the message. Bit by bit. It’s all going to be fine.
We’re taking him to Florida for his birthday, you say before hanging up. We’ll put photos on our Story.
The kid is 21!
Meet Jun, everyone!
Love Jun’s new look. #shorthair #nevergoback
Before the day of the top surgery, you take group selfies in your street clothes and post a bunch. Mom, Dad, and Jun, shoulders mantled in each other’s arms. The selfies are at the beach, and the sea breeze tosses your long hair to add just the right touch. You look extra carefree. Jun, who cut his waist-length hair this year, looks drop-dead gorgeous and so happy. He checks the photo before you post and up-votes it.
Do you feel bad lying to your parents?
It’s not a lie, you say. We’re celebrating.
He does that smile-smirk thing.
Positive comments and emojis pour in. Your mother’s reactions are among the most heart-filled and enthused. Good looking!!! Heart eyes, heart eyes, heart eyes!!!
Your husband leaves the day after the surgery. He has to pick up Jane, Jun’s sister, who will be done with tennis camp. Before he goes, he stocks the fridge, fills all the prescriptions. He also tips the building’s concierge and valet generously, in the hope they’ll be there just in case there’s an emergency. Because there will be a post-op patient. Because your child’s body will be held together with dissolvable sutures and gauze.
During, you think about joy. You remember the multiple scenes of pre-op joy in the surgeon’s waiting room. You close your eyes and that’s what you focus on—the images of joy that were all around you—as you wait for Jun to come out of surgery. A young man cuddling with his girlfriend. Older parents (maybe grandparents?) and their son leaving the clinic all smiles, arms linked. A mother handing over a credit card to make the final payment while her son beams. Everyone elated thinking about the After.
Your parents weren’t there to see this, so you know it is your job to convey this energy in all of your interactions with them going forward. They won’t understand unless they see the end result is joy. Or maybe they will never understand—they probably won’t—but they can console themselves if they see that the end result is joy. In the end, it’s not about them anyway.
You exhale. Every out breath is a prayer.
Celebrating the 21-year-old in Florida!
You singsong for the camera. You’ve picked a fun filter with music and animation. It almost looks like the two of you are at a bar where music is blaring and people milling. You raise a frosty glass. A gin and tonic, extra gin. He holds a frosty glass of ice water with a sprig of mint and a slice of lemon. It looks like a cocktail. He can’t raise his arm so you instinctively bend so you can clink glasses as you say Happy Birthday!
Smile. Cut. Post.
Haha, he says, from his sofa with the big wedge pillow. He has to stay sitting up for a few days.
What, you ask.
Grandpa sent a funny text, he says. He reads it: Happy 21st birthday to my first and handsomest grandchild. I love you!
Proud of you, Jun, sir!
You hide your surprise and just say, That’s so sweet!
Clearing his drains is old-hat by day two. You drag all the blood and fluids down into the vial by pinching the tubes. You apply counter tension with a firm pinch with the fingers of your left hand so the action doesn’t tug at his incisions. You unscrew the vials and pour the contents into the sink.
He can’t move his arms for several days, so you need to help with the toilet. It’s embarrassing for him, but it’s fine. It’s still your job to be reassuring. Forever Mom.
You wash his hair while he stands, head bowed, at the kitchen sink.
The pull-out nozzle makes it easy.
The follow-up visit goes well. He gets unbandaged and loves what he sees in the mirror. That stunned happiness on his face is beating inside you too. You realize this is what it’s like to be aware of your own birth.
The night before you leave for the airport, you ask if he’ll be okay alone for 30 minutes. You want to take a swim. Go, he insists. He’ll be fine. He’s going to shower.
What if he falls? What if he makes a sudden move and tears the healing skin? What if ? What if ?
You tell him you’ll go after he’s showered. Go, he insists. He’s got it, he says, annoyed now. He seems strong and steady. You decide to go before worst-case thoughts creep in and change your mind.
You pull your swimsuit out of the drawer and suddenly notice the size on the tag. It’s not yours. It’s the suit that used to belong to him. It’s the exact same color (black) and style (one-piece), but it’s one size bigger. He had fuller breasts than you. You put the slightly loose suit on and throw on your cover-up and flip-flops.
You’re the only one at the pool. You pull your cover-up over your head and kick off your flip-flops. You don’t even test the water. You’ve moved past the land of circumspection and it’s a relief. It’s done. You just dive in, and the water is warm. Under the water, you look around, open your mouth, and shout. Long and loud, you shout. Bubbles churn until there’s nothing left. You break the surface and breathe hard as the water rolls off your face. You tread water and lift your arms. Your heart is clean.
Jules Chung (she/her) writes poetry and fiction. She is the daughter of Korean immigrants. She writes about gender, family, and middle-class joy and malaise. A 2021 Finalist for the Pleiades Kinder-Crump Prize and the One Story Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship, Jules has been published in Catapult, Jellyfish Review, Hanok Review, Armstrong Literary, Lumiere Review, Quince Magazine, and the Public Menace poetry anthology The World We Want Is Us. Jules lives in New Jersey and is working on a novel and a collection of stories. She can be found on Twitter @andthewordwas, Instagram @glorifyandenjoy, and at juleschungwriting.com.