The Circle

Joey Castigan, holding the wet, tightly wrapped body of a black umbrella with one hand and brandishing its curved, wooden handle with the other, shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other a few steps outside the circle.

“Please,” said a younger man in reading glasses, extending the flat palm of his right hand to each of the three empty chairs, “take a seat.”

There were eleven of them, excluding Joey, sitting in an otherwise empty basketball gymnasium in a circle comprised of fourteen economy folding chairs. Each of them was looking at Joey with a mild, welcoming grimace. A man about Joey’s age managed a nod so faint it resembled more an involuntary twitch. The location of the circle on the court had an air of being purposefully off-center, its center being just inside the northeast three-point line.  The main gymnasium lights had been turned off, leaving only small track lights to reflect off the polished floor and suffuse throughout the room, creating a rather dim glow which gave Joey the impression that at any moment the janitor or some other member of the school staff might come by and ask them all to leave.

Joey chose one of two adjacent empty chairs and made his way over to it, his tennis shoes squeaking rain with each step. He approached the circle, turned sideways and slid his way between two of the men, dripping rainwater onto each of them and apologizing to them over his shoulder. Once he managed to squeeze into the ring he straightened himself up, walked to his chair and lay his umbrella underneath. He took off his coat, hung it along the back of the chair, and sat down. He motioned vaguely toward the man seated to his left. Sitting directly across from him was the man who had told him to sit down. On his right was an empty chair and sitting to the other side of it was a man wearing a crop top. All the hair on the back part of his head was shaved off. Joey stared at him for a few seconds then turned to face the general group, making eye contact with no one and wondering if he had stared at the man in the crop top for a moment too long.

“Welcome to the meeting,” said the same younger man in reading glasses. “My name is Louis.”

Joey smiled at him and held out his right hand to wave. “I’m Joey.”

“Do you wish to share with us tonight?”

“I think I’d rather just listen for now.”

“That’s completely fine.” Louis turned to the man in the crop top. “I believe Denis wanted to share with us tonight?”

Denis twitched softly at the mention of his name. He had been playing with his hands in his lap but now he put his hands on his knees and looked around at the circle of men. He appeared to be considering whether or not Louis had the right to say his name out loud.

“I suppose I’ll share,” he said after a moment. His voice was confident and expressive, each word chosen with care, enunicated with slow precision.

Joey looked at Denis then at the ground as Denis began to speak again. A few inches in front of Joey’s boots the three-point arc created a tangent with the semi-circle extending from the freethrow line.

“Well, I’m not sure where to start.”

“Okay,” said Louis. “How about you start with your child’s name?”

“Her name is June.”

“And how old is June?”

“4 months.”

“Congratulations,” said each man in unison except for Joey, who, startled by the sudden, transient increase in volume jumped a bit in his seat, looked around to see if anyone had seen him, then looked back down at the point where the two court lines converged into one, just a few inches in front of his feet.

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“Thank you,” said Denis. He reflected for a moment. “I’m not sure what to say about her. You know how we try not to say things that are obvious here, like how she is a blessing in our lives, or how we can’t remember life before her, or other sorts of platitudinal things. I guess I’m so used to using those platitudes to describe my feelings, despite coming to these meetings, that I don’t know what else to say about it.”

“Well,” said Louis, “you’re here because something is bothering you. Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Not really.”

“Okay,” said Louis, pressing on. “How is mom?”

“She’s good,” Denis nodded.

A few of the men began to murmur and quietly laugh between themselves. Joey, thinking this was rude, looked up to see who was making the noise. Every man in the circle, including Denis, was either smiling or laughing quietly to their neighbor, as if they had all just heard a clever joke. Joey immediately grinned, eagerly nodded his head then continued staring at the lines on the floor.

Denis continued. “I feel like we’ve covered that topic enough here.”

“Fair enough,” said Louis, who sounded like he was still smiling. “But that’s because it’s always worth talking about.”

“All I really have to say about June’s mom is we have our disagreements, our different points of view. I don’t know what it’s like to be her and she doesn’t know what it’s like to be me. We live together. We raise a kid together. It’s complicated. That’s that. There’s plenty of positive moments to make up for the negative ones. Some guys need to come here to let some steam off about their wives, and I respect that, I understand where that need comes from. It’s just not what I need from this time, if I’m going to be the one doing the talking.”

“So what is it you wanted to talk about tonight?”

“Well,” and now there was a particular strain in Denis’ voice as he spoke, a pitch denoting, perhaps, some great doubt, piercing the opening syllable of each word as it came out of his mouth, seemingly against his will: “I’ve been coming here for a few months now, and there were the months before I started coming here, after June was born, and all this time, and even before that, during the pregnancy, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my,” he put his hands over his face, exhaled deeply into his palms and quickly slid them to the sides of his neck so he could continue to speak, his fingers pulsing with blood and interlocking over the shaved part of the back of his head as he raised his head toward the ceiling and closed his eyes, “my gender identity.”

He had intended it to sound like a statement but it had the tone of a question. Joey looked up at Denis.

Denis looked like he had just officially sold his childhood home. He looked around at each of the men, spending about half a second before moving onto the next man in the circle until eventually making eye contact with Joey and back to his hands in his lap.

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Joey suddenly felt a wave of guilt rise through him. Here he was, not even ten minutes into his first meeting, surrounded by people he did not know, witnessing this moment. He looked around at the rest of the men to see how they were responding. Each of them was looking at Denis intently, patiently. If several of the men were squinting at or scrutinizing him it was only in an effort, it seemed, to demonstrate thoughtfulness and support. Joey decided the best thing he could do in this situation was to emulate the rest of the men so he looked back to Denis, who was now hunched over and staring at the gymnasium floor, fingers clenched around his thick, brown hair. The twelve men sat like this, in silence, for about three minutes before Denis picked his head up and continued to speak.

“My gender identity,” he said again, this time with more resolve.

“What do you mean by that, exactly?” So deep was Joey’s concentration on Denis, Louis’ question blended in with the gymnasium’s ambient hum to become almost inaudible. But Denis had clearly heard him.

“I mean, I’m a mom,” and now Denis was laughing to himself. “I’m a mother, and nobody knows.” His words were picking up speed. “It’s the most heartbreaking thing, you know. For most of my adult life dreaming of being this totally great mom. It would be the thing that finally gave me focus. Routine and deep love and focus. But in reality this whole thing has been total fucking chaos from the start, when Becky got pregnant. Most of the time, all I feel is resentment. Resentment!” Denis offered a look of disgust. “Resentment is the grounding force in my life, it’s what I’m always circling back to, because the dream is still here. And it’s the dream. That’s why I can’t focus on anything. All I do is dream this dream. And it’s never going to fucking happen. It’s never going to stop.” Denis shoved his hands in his face and bent over and started to cry.

There was an empty chair between Joey and Denis so, despite his instinct to pat Denis on the back, Joey chose to keep his hands in his lap and his eyes focused on Denis. He had the urge to move over to the empty seat but did not want to draw attention away from Denis. Sitting on the other side of Denis was an older fellow hiding behind thin spectacles and a grey mustache with his arms crossed over his chest. He, too, seemed to be considering what to do with his hands.

“It’s funny to have been coming here for months and the first thing I really say is that I’m a mom,” said Denis, who was now wiping tears from his cheeks, staring into a space a few feet in front of him and silently laughing to himself.

“What do you mean when you say you’re a mom?”

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Denis thought for a few seconds. “It means I was taking care of Junie for a couple hours the other day while her mother took care of some things at work, and I ran out of milk over an hour before Becky was supposed to get home. Junie must have been going through a growth spurt or something, because she was really putting it down, this day in particular. Junie started crying. I changed her diaper, I tried to put her down for a nap, I checked all the things, but it was clear she just wanted to eat. But Becky wasn’t going to be home for another forty-five minutes. The fact, the bioligical fact that I can’t produce food for my own child…” He gazed toward the bleachers.

“So,” Louis began tentatively as he searched for the right question.

“You could say I’m a transgender woman.”

“Okay,” said Louis, finding footing. “That’s okay.”

“You could say I wish I was the one breastfeeding. You could say I wish I gave birth to Junie.”

“Do you mean you––”

“I need to go, I just decided.” Denis put his hands on his knees and sat up straight. “Yeah, I’m gonna go.” He stood up.

“Wait, Denis,” Louis insisted.

“No, I’m fine. I’m really fine. I just need to go. I feel like I came to the wrong place.” He grabbed the raincoat from the back of his chair. “You all have a good night.”

“Okay,” said Louis resignedly. “Have a good night, Denis.”

“Good night,” said Denis. He squeezed between his chair and the older fellow’s next to him, walked to the gymnasium exit and disappeared into the hallway.

Joey watched Denis leave until he was out of sight down the dark hallway. He turned back to the ground then closed his eyes until he could no longer hear shoes squeaking down the hallway. Then he looked at the rest of the group. There was a sense of confoundment here; noone knew how to proceed. They sat quietly until the man who had been sitting next to Denis made a slight, muffled noise. Joey turned to look at him and saw that he was bobbing up and down in his seat in a half-hearted attempt to suppress laughter.

Louis evidently had heard him, too. “What’s so funny, Rick?”

Rick sat up and smiled. “That was just kind of surreal. You don’t think that was funny?”

Louis sighed. “I’m not sure what to think. I’ve never heard someone go on like that before.”

The man sitting to the left of Joey spoke up. “Well, I think he might have been right to leave. Not that I think he’s not allowed here, per se. But I’m not sure what good we could do for him.”

“Well,” said Louis, “I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think there is space for him here. Not that I think he’ll ever come back. But I’d like to think we could be open to different ideas.”

“To an extent, maybe,” said the man next to Joey. “But he’s talking about how he’s some sort of mom type or something.”

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“However you may interpret that, though,” said Louis, “he is still the bioligical father to a child. There is space for him here. I think we can all agree on that. Now,” he ruffled through some papers in his lap until he reached a certain page. “I was going to ask Luke if he wanted to talk tonight, but since he’s not here I’m just going to open up the floor to whoever.” He paused briefly, looking around at the group. “So who wants to start us off?”

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