Once, I dreamed that I had a son named Sheldon, and my grief tore a hole in the fabric of the world.
In my dream I walked through the halls of an elementary school, and I went into the office. Everything was gray and blocky, but somehow not oppressive. I was certain, then, that it was the elementary school in my old hometown, and that I was both myself and also not myself.
I asked for Sheldon.
"Ms. Harp is here," someone said, and then there he was. He was blond, maybe five or six, with a round face like my sister's. He smiled toothily up at me.
I took his hand. "Come on, honey," I said. "Let's go."
And then I woke up. Janet snored softly next to me.
I touched the space on my body where my womb would have been, if I'd been born with one, and ached.
It was a mistake to tell Janet.
"So you had a dream," she said, crunching her toast. She ate it plain, no butter. "So what?"
She was wearing that muscle shirt that made me melt, and her short hair was a mess from sleep. Janet was athletic, butch and pint-sized, and she wore her queerness like a pair of brass knuckles. I was lucky to have her.
"I don't know," I said. "It just seemed so real."
"I dreamed I was a hockey player," Janet said, popping the last piece of toast into her mouth. "But I ain't one."
"I know." I stabbed at my breakfast, not feeling all that hungry. "Never mind."
She came over and kissed the top of my head. "Sorry, babe. I know it bugs you sometimes." She put her dishes in the sink. "You aren't gonna start asking about sperm donors or anything, right? Did you freeze yours?"
"No," I said. "And no. I didn't." There'd really been no point. When I had my surgery I'd been in the middle of the divorce with Liz. Kids were out of the question.
"Cool. You gonna be okay?"
"All right. I gotta hit the shower. See you at the game tonight!" She headed off to the shower, humming happily to herself. She usually took half an hour in there, so I'd be long gone by the time she came out. I poked at my scrambled eggs again, then tossed them out.
I went through my day in a fog. People at work asked me if I was all right, and I just shook my head mutely. Sure. Fine, just a little haunted.
I didn't go directly home that night. Instead, I drove the half hour north to Elm Hill, and parked outside the elementary school. Class was long over, and the playground was mostly empty.
I shut the car off and got out. There was a hint of fall in the air, though the leaves hadn't turned yet. I walked through the playground, passing by my own ghosts on the steps, by the wall, and on the baseball field. A wide, flat rock, smaller than I remembered, was out by the fence. I sat down and thought about Sheldon.
This was silly. It was just a dream. I'd had dreams about motherhood before. Pregnancy, babies, those dreams came with the hormones. Everybody had them, or said they did.
So why wouldn't this one let me go?
I sighed. Somewhere across the playground, a father with two daughters was watching me. I waved at him, and he turned away. Dads don't like me.
Impulsively, I rummaged in my purse and found the little reporter's notebook I kept handy. I'm not a reporter, I work in layout and design for the magazine, but somewhere along the line I'd picked up a few of their habits.
I pulled a pen out of my purse and started to write.
My hand shook. What was I doing? This was stupid. There was no Sheldon.
But my traitor hand kept writing.
I hope you're doing okay. I hope you had a nice day. I used to play on this rock when I was little, like you. I hope you have a lot of friends, and that you're happy.
I couldn't bring myself to sign it 'Mom.'
My phone chimed, and I pulled it out. There were two texts there. One was from Janet, wondering where I was. Guilty—I'd forgotten her game—I texted her back that I'd be there in about half an hour.
The other was from a strange combination of letters and numbers, with no name attached.
Hey I can take Sheldon Friday txt me back -D
Angry, I texted back—
Not funny, Janet
—and put the phone away. I folded the paper up and thought about chucking it. Then I folded it again and stuck it in a little crack in the rock.
Maybe somehow it would find its way to him, wherever he was, and he'd leave me alone.
Janet was a little peeved that I'd missed the start of the game. She took softball seriously, and the fall league was special in some way that I'd tried my best not to understand. But I got there in time for the fourth inning, which meant I got to see her steal third base, so it wasn't a total loss.
"Where were you?" she asked as we downed beer and pizza with the team after.
"Just got held up," I said. "At work. You know how it is."
"They exploit you," she said, pointing at me with the business end of a slice of pizza. "You shouldn't let them do that. It's cause you're trans—" I winced. Tell the whole pizza joint, why don't you? "—that they think they can take advantage, cause you're desperate for work. You shouldn't take it."
"No," I said. "It's fine."
"Damn it, Sarah," said Janet. "You gotta stick up for yourself! You never do. You just let Liz roll away with your house and car and money, and you let your boss get all kinds of unpaid labor out of you. You need to grow a spine."
And I let you boss me around, too, I thought, eating a slice of pizza. So what?
"You didn't have to send me that text," I said.
"What, I just wanted to know where you were!" she said.
"No, the other one. The Sheldon one? That was mean."
She blinked. "I never sent you anything about Sheldon. Who's Sheldon?"
That night I dreamed about driving around the streets of my hometown. The town was different in that way familiar things change in dreams, but I still knew it was Elm Hill.
I took a turn and pulled into the parking lot of a condo complex. "Home, home," sang a little voice in the seat next to me. I looked over and there was Sheldon, smiling up at me. I got out of the car and walked around to his side, my heels clicking on the pavement. I opened the door and helped him out.
I glanced in the window, and saw reflected back a face that was and wasn't mine.
I woke up, the feel of Sheldon's cold little hand in mine burned into my memory.
My mother was no help at all.
"Your sister's pregnant," she announced when I called her over lunch.
"Again?" I asked. Patty seemed to get pregnant with alarming regularity. This would be her fourth.
"So she says. I hope it's a summer baby. They could name her June. Such a pretty name. I wanted to name you June, if you'd been a girl."
I'm a girl now, I thought, but didn't say. "The baby would be born earlier than that, right? It's only September."
"Well, you never know. And think what an interesting story that would be! 'This is my daughter June, she was born in May!' Wouldn't that be an interesting story?"
"Sure. How's Dad?" I asked, quickly changing the subject.
"Same as ever," she grumped, launching into a long story about how he was out with his golf buddies all the time and never home. Not that she wanted him home, of course.
I almost told her about Sheldon. But what would I have said?
Instead, I listened as she told me about Dad, passed judgment on the sorry state of my career, and questioned whether Janet was right for me. I made the appropriate noises at the appropriate times, and excused myself to go back to work when the time came.
That evening I found myself pulled back to the parking lot of the elementary school in Elm Hill, looking out over the playground and thinking wistfully of what might have been. Maybe I should find a therapist, I thought. Maybe I should get help.
I got out of the car and strolled across the field, trying not to look guilty. I didn't see the dad from yesterday. I sat myself back down on the rock, and sighed. The piece of paper was still wedged into that crack.
This is ridiculous, I thought. Why was I even here?
I was lucky. I knew I was. I had a home, a cute girlfriend, and a job. I didn't get abuse on the streets. I wasn't young anymore and I was never pretty, but so what?
Why did I want what I could never, ever have so badly?
Suddenly furious, I ripped the paper out of the wedge in the rock. I was about to tear it to shreds when I noticed that the paper was a soft blue color. My notebook only had white lined.
Curious, I opened it up. There, in a child's blocky script, was written:
I like beinG on the Rock. I make Believe its a SPACE SHIP.
My mommy is nice and a DIKe and is coming to pick me up soon. Do you like Dinosars?
My hands began to shake. This had to be some trick. I turned the paper over, looking for signs, but there was only the name of the paper company on the back. "Bloomfield Paper—Made in the R.N.E." was stamped next to a little pine tree flag. There was no other mark, nothing to indicate where this had come from.
I got out my pen and paper again, and wrote another note.
I like space ships, and I like dinosaurs. I'm very glad your mommy is nice. I hope you had a nice day today, too.
I couldn't think of anything else to say. Before I lost my nerve I wedged the note back into the rock, and left quickly.
I went back to the rock the next day, and sure enough, there was another blue paper stuck in the crack. This time it was a crude picture of a dinosaur, signed by Sheldon.
For Sara, it read, spelling my name wrong.
I smiled, touched, and tried not to think about what a creep I was being to somebody's poor kid. I tucked the drawing into my purse.
Just then my phone rang, and I almost jumped out of my skin. I checked my phone; it was that same combination of letters and numbers as the text from yesterday had been. AC67843V-D.
Hesitantly, I answered it.
"H . . . hello?"
"Hey, June," a man's bored-sounding voice said. "I can't take Sheldon on Friday after all. Sorry."
"I'm sorry," I said, trying and failing to keep the quavering out of my voice. "I'm not June."
"What?" The voice on the other end sounded very confused. "Oh. Huh. Wrong number, I guess. You sure you're . . . you sound just like her. Weird."
"I'm Sarah," I said.
"And you're on your own phone?"
"Huh. Well, if you see June tell her David can't pick up Sheldon Friday."
The line went dead, leaving me shivering in the bright sunny afternoon.
That night I couldn't sleep. I lay in bed, listening to Janet snore, turning it all over in my mind.
At last I got up and paced, restless and weary at the same time.
I fixed myself a cup of tea and sat in the living room, surrounded by books, stacks of DVDs, my old board games and framed prints of the brassy 40s pin-up girls Janet was obsessed with. The place felt like us, and calmed me down a little.
I took the picture and the note Sheldon had sent me out of my purse, unfolded them, and smoothed them out on the coffee table in front of me.
"Hey," Janet said. I jumped, knocking my tea onto the floor.
"I'm sorry!" I said, leaping up.
"Didn't mean to scare you," she said, smiling sleepily. "I'll get some paper towels."
I sat back down, trembling. Janet returned and mopped up the tea on the floor. "I'm sorry," was all I could think of to say.
"Eh, that floor's tough. I've spilled way worse on it." Janet sat next to me and noticed the drawing and the note. She picked them up and looked them over. "What're these?"
"Nothing," I said too quickly. "Just some old things I found."
Janet looked like she wanted to say something, but swallowed it. "Come back to bed," she said eventually, and padded off back toward the bedroom.
I put the picture and the note away, and followed.
I finally fell asleep about 3 AM.
This time I dreamed I was at a café, talking with my mother. Except she wasn't exactly my mother: she had longer, grayer hair, and was thinner and better dressed than my mother usually was.
"And I found it in his backpack," I was saying, in a voice that wasn't quite mine. "I thought he had a girlfriend or something. But doesn't this look like an adult's writing?"
She pushed a piece of paper across the table at my mother. I was somehow not surprised to see the note I'd written to Sheldon sitting there.
My mother picked it up and frowned that distinctive thoughtfully disapproving frown. "There's no teacher there named Sarah?"
"None," I confirmed. "He says he just finds it in the rock."
"You should ask the principal to look into it," my mother said. "Or tell your deadbeat ex. Wasn't he supposed to take Sheldon today?"
"He was," I sighed. "Then he backed out without telling me. He swears now that he did tell me, but I don't know."
"Does this have to do with that Janet woman?"
"Ma, I told you, I don't know any Janets."
"She seemed awfully friendly. Little Xs and Os in her text." My mother narrowed her eyes in that way she had when she knew something was up. "June, you're hiding something. Is it true, what David said? That you're a . . . you know?"
My mommy is nice and a DIKe, Sheldon had written. What had this David person been telling him?
I drummed my fingers on the counter, stalling, but just then Sheldon came back from wherever he'd been, and we talked about nothing else besides him until I woke up.
"Didn't sleep at all?" said Janet, taking in my bleary expression that morning.
"Some," I said, cradling my cup of coffee with my trembling hands. Thank goodness it was Saturday. "I had more dreams."
Janet sat, not looking at me. "Sarah? If you were in some kind of trouble, or if something was really wrong, you'd tell me, right?"
"I'm not in trouble," I said quickly. "At least, I don't think so."
"But you can't sleep," she pressed, still not looking at me. "You've been home late. You had those notes from a kid last night. And . . . you look like you got hit by a truck this morning." She visibly braced herself, then gave me one of her very serious looks. "What's going on?"
I thought about coming up with some half-assed excuse. I thought about saying nothing again and pretending it was all fine. I thought about being reassuring and hiding my pain like I always did.
But I was so tired and heartsick that I told her everything.
When I was done, Janet just sat there for a few minutes. "Wow," she said at last.
"What do you think this all means?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said, feeling utterly helpless.
"I'd say it's just bad dreams, but, what? You think the drawing and the note mean it's real somehow? Sarah. . . ."
"I know, I know," I said, miserable. I felt more exposed sitting there at the table than I ever did when I took off my clothes. "I'm sure there's explanations. But the phone calls, the way June had my letters to Sheldon in my dream . . ."
"June?" Suddenly Janet was alert. "Who's June?"
"Sheldon's mother." I shook my head, reaching for an explanation that made sense. "I . . . I think she's me, or who I could have been. June is what my mother would have named me, if I'd been born a girl."
Janet pulled out her phone and paged through it, brow creased.
"I'm sorry," I said, trying to hold back the tears. "I know this is weird! I just want to have a quiet morning. I shouldn't have said anything."
She handed me the phone. "I sent you a text the other day," she said. "I got this back."
I'm not Sarah, who is this? My name is June.
I just stared at it for a moment, shocked. Then I pulled out my own phone and showed her the text from "D," who I now suspected was David.
"I've never seen phone numbers like that," said Janet. "But they're similar to one another."
I started piecing it together in my mind. "Where were you when you got that text, Janet?"
"A contract up in Elm Hill," said Janet slowly. "Why?"
"That's where I was when I got the text, and the call," I said excitedly. "That's where the school is!"
"But look, it gets even better," said Janet, taking back the phone and poking the screen. "I got another one a few minutes later."
Please don't tell, but I think I'm gay. I have to tell someone.
"Oh my God," I said.
"I thought it was someone pranking me at that point," said Janet as I digested the text, agog. "Like Lisa. She does shit like this, and she knows how to do stuff with phones." She tapped the phone thoughtfully. "But now . . . Jesus. Sarah, is this real?"
"It is," I said firmly. "It has to be."
"What's going on?" Janet asked. "Why do you have such a connection with this Sheldon? I mean, he's not your kid, right?"
"No, not exactly. But June . . . She's got my mother, the name I would have had."
"She's you," said Janet. "Or who you would have been, if . . ."
"Yeah. If." I said, and an entire world was contained in that world.
"So what do we do about it?" Janet asked.
It was a good question. Our parallel lives were crashing together, I was driving myself nuts from lack of sleep, and all I wanted was everything she had.
This couldn't go on.
"I want to try to talk to them," I said.
I spent the whole weekend a wreck, trying not to think about the plan . I had more disjointed dreams about Sheldon and June, enough to know that June was talking with a therapist but couldn't bring herself to say what she needed to say, and Sheldon was going through a serious dinosaur phase. I stayed far away from Elm Hill until Monday, though, when I drove up in the early morning to deliver a final note.
I got the answer Monday afternoon. They'd be there.
That night I dreamed about June, who was sitting up alone, looking at the notes I'd sent Sheldon, drinking.
Tuesday afternoon came at last. Janet drove us up to Elm Hill; we didn't say anything the whole way. When we got to the school, I had to sit for long moment, just staring out at the playground.
A light rain had begun to fall, and there were no other children that day. Probably for the best.
At last I steeled myself and got out of the car.
"You're sure they'll show?" Janet asked dubiously.
I nodded, clutching Sheldon's note in my pocket. He'd said they would come. I believed him.
"This is a bad idea," said Janet, staring dubiously out at the damp playground. "You want to go home? We should go home. I can make dinner. You like my dinners."
"No," I said firmly. "I'm going. You can stay here if you want."
Janet was speechless for a moment. I never stood up to her. But then she got out of the car. "Right behind you," she said, giving me a little smile.
Together, we marched across the damp grass to the rock.
"So what happens now?" Janet said, crossing her arms and shifting from side to side.
I was about to answer that I didn't know when sunlight streamed in from somewhere just to my left. I jumped back, and shielded my eyes.
The first form I saw was Sheldon's. He stood there, holding his grandmother's hand. She looked shocked as she saw us. She was so like my mother that the lack of recognition in her eyes was awful.
And there . . . holding Sheldon's other hand. She was shorter than me by a good six inches, and she had the narrow shoulders and face of my sisters. But she looked a little like me, too. We had the same eyes, the same mouth, the same hair.
"June," I whispered.
"Are you Sarah?" June said. I nodded. I didn't trust myself to speak.
"Sarah!" said Sheldon. He waved.
"Hi Sheldon," I said, voice catching.
June hesitantly reached out a hand toward me, then drew it away again. "Are you . . . me?"
I nodded again.
"How? I don't understand. You don't look like me."
"No. I was born a boy."
"Oh?" Her eyes widened. "Oh!" Her eyes fell on Janet. "And you . . . ?"
"Janet," my girlfriend said. "Hey."
"And you're with . . . her?"
Janet took my hand. I squeezed it, grateful
"Awful," said June's mother.
"Hush," said June shakily.
"Now what?" Janet asked softly.
"Now we resolve things," I said firmly. I understood it now, the way that June looked at Janet. The text she'd sent: I have to tell someone. We both had something the other one wanted. June had Sheldon, and everything he represented.
And I . . . I had Janet.
I looked, really looked, at Sheldon, and I felt an ache so bad that I began to cry. Janet put an arm around me, and pulled me close.
I straightened. "June?"
June looked at me, fear plain on her face.
"She'll be okay," I said, nodding at her glowering mother. "You can tell her. I told her about me, a few years ago, and she wasn't thrilled. But . . . we dealt with it and moved on. You have to, to be happy."
June shook her head furiously. "You don't understand."
"I do," I insisted, amazed at how calm I suddenly felt. "Better than anyone. You and me . . . everybody pushes us around. But we're made of iron underneath. There's a part of us that won't bend."
June looked at me and I saw how helpless she must have felt. I remembered feeling like that . . . just before I changed my life forever.
"I did it," I said. Behind June and Sheldon was blue sky and bright sun. "You can, too."
June turned to her mother. "I'm gay, Mom," she said softly. "I am. I am."
June's mother huffed miserably. "I figured that out, genius. So what? See if I care. You're still my daughter."
Chills ran down my spine. So what? my mother had said, all those years ago. See if I care. You're still my child.
June gave her mother a long, hard hug, then turned to me. She seemed to be standing straighter.
"Iron," I said.
"Nice job," said Janet, trying to be charitable.
June laughed. She had this perfect voice; she was so beautiful in all the ways I wasn't. And she had Sheldon. My heart cracked a little more.
"I don't suppose there's one of you in my world?" she said to Janet.
"Can't hurt to check around," said Janet. She pulled me close, possessive. "But I'm taken."
The sunlight began to dim, and June, Sheldon and June's mother started fading.
"Sarah," said June. She looked more ghostly now. "If you want a baby . . . have one."
"I can't," I said. "I don't even know if that's what I want."
"It is," said June, her voice the whisper of wind through the trees. "If you're anything like me."
And then they vanished completely, leaving us alone in the rain.
Janet rubbed my back as we drove home. "You okay?" she asked.
I nodded. "I think so."
"Is it over?"
"Yes," I said, and I was certain. "She got what she wanted."
"You didn't, though," said Janet nervously.
"I . . . think I did, though," I said. "Somewhere in there I stopped wanting to be her. She has Sheldon, she's short and pretty, but she doesn't have you. And I like having you."
We drove on as the rain started coming down harder. I turned the wipers up to maximum.
"We can talk it over, if you want?" Janet said hesitantly. "The, uh, baby thing."
I couldn't say anything for a moment. "Really?"
"Really," said Janet. "I mean, I don't hate the idea. I just hated the idea of having to, you know? And being pregnant. . . ." She made a face. "I guess I can do it."
"You don't have to," I said quickly.
"Yeah, but we can't exactly adopt," she said. "We're a weird couple on a number of fronts."
"I know. But I'd rather have you than a baby."
Janet laughed, eyes bright. "That kind of talk makes me wish you had banked sperm. I'd bear your children right now."
"Maybe I can scrape out an old gym sock," I said. She laughed again. I loved that sound. I loved how easy we were with one another.
Janet snuggled against my arm. I was shocked; she almost never did that, even when I wasn't driving through a rainstorm.
"I'm glad you're you, too, you know," said Janet. "I didn't like June. Too many lingering straight girl hang-ups, you know?"
"Thanks, I think," I said.
"What I'm saying is . . . let's just take it a little at a time. We've got time, right? We can have time." She groaned in frustration. "I'm saying that wrong."
I slipped an arm around her. "I know what you mean," I said as we drove south through the rain and back to our lives. "I know just what you mean."
One time I dreamed I had a son named Sheldon. I could never have any sons of my own, or daughters. But I did have Janet, and better, I had myself. I wasn't like June. I was like me.
It was enough, and then some.