"Is Heather crazy? You're lesbians. Why would you want to adopt a boy?" mom fumed. She waved her e-cigarette around as she spoke, occasionally spewing strawberry scented clouds.
The cafe was crowded, but the cold weather meant that she and I could have some privacy at the worn, splintering patio tables. My coffee finished steaming ten minutes ago but I clung to it for the dregs of warmth it offered.
"I think the point is that he doesn't think he's a boy. 'Born in the wrong body,' Heather said."
"She's a social worker," mother punctuated the words by stabbing the air with sickly sweet scent, "they'll say anything. They're used-car salesmen that have discovered a conscience. Boys will be boys, that's the expression right? If this one says he's not than at best he's confused, and at worst he's trouble. You don't need that for your first child. Trust me!"
I felt that one in my chest. I shot mother a hurt look, but she only offered an apologetic shrug. It's true we'd had some difficulties around Cheryl, but I'd hoped we'd moved beyond them.
"Heather says he's a good kid. He does well in school, does his chores, that kind of thing. He's had to deal with a lot, it'd be nice for him to find somewhere to settle."
"Yes, of course, but not with you."
The conversation from the cafe replayed itself in my mind again and again as I pulled the Kia into the group care home. Cheryl was quiet beside me, holding my hand and vibrating with energy. She was excited to meet Alex. Or, Alexa. I squeezed her hand as she went to open the passenger door, making her look at me. I didn't need to say anything. She knew I had my doubts.
"Baby..." Cheryl said softly, stroking my face with her free hand, "remember when we first came out? How people kept calling us 'special friends' or that grandma that cussed us out for holding hands on the bus?"
I nodded, frowning. It had been a tough few years until we'd moved to the West side of town. Moving in together stopped most of the "phase" talk and the area was a great place to make open-minded friends. Even so, there was still the occasional comment from our parents or unasked for opinions from strangers.
"Well this kid has to deal with that too. At thirteen. Alone. The least we can do is meet her."
Her. It was as natural to Cheryl as breathing. When I nodded, Cheryl took her hand away from my face and I missed its surety. We climbed out of the Kia onto crunching gravel and paused arm in arm to listen to the sounds of young people shouting from inside. I swallowed hard and let Cheryl drag me to the door, its decorated glass panel covered over in a grid of quarter inch rebar.
Heather opened the door before we could reconsider knocking. She looked exhausted but ushered us inside with a smile. Tea was offered and declined and then it was suddenly time.
The other kids of the house had been ushered into the living room and were shouting each other down over a highly competitive game of Mario Kart. Heather guided the adults away from the racket and into the kitchen where two big brown eyes waited for them at the table.
He was wearing a spaghetti strap tank top that showed dark purple bruising along his collar bone. Broad, heavy strokes defined his make up, painting his eyes blue and his lips pink. His hair was short, but clumsily so, sticking out at odd angles, lopped haphazardly.
Heather had told them about his last home and the foster mother that pinned him against a fridge and took scissors to what had once been shoulder-length hair. He was a smart kid, and reported the incident, which is what brought him here.
What got me in the end was the way he held himself. He looked uncomfortable just existing. The way he hunched, playing nervously with a bracelet at his wrist, biting his lip a little, was not the way a boy would sit. Something about the tilt of his head, or the roundness of his eyes was not male. I wasn't ready yet to say it was female, but 'not a boy' was suddenly easier to digest.
"Hi, you must be Alexa," Cheryl said, stepping forward with an outstretched hand. Alexa took it shyly and there was a flash of aqua as he returned his manicure to his lap.
Cheryl, Heather, and Alexa chatted while I mostly watched and listened. They talked about school, and friends, and music. Normal thirteen year old stuff. Alexa laughed, blushing when his voice cracked, her eyes blazing with self-loathing though no one else seemed to notice.
After an hour of talking, I could see that Cheryl had made up her mind. The set of her shoulders and the determined all-teeth smile was one I was familiar with. That smile was the impetus for our entire suite of unused dining room furniture. I thought of it as her 'winning smile' - but not in the usual sense.
I felt awful. Giving Cheryl what she wanted was one of my favourite things, but this would not be a time when her smile could win me. The decision was too big. My eyes caught on Alex's Adam's apple or his square jaw whenever I looked at him. They fought in my mind for a place among the girly camouflage, demanding notice.
"So you're a hairdresser?" I jumped as Alexa spoke to me for the first time. I hadn't been following the conversation, concentrating instead on how I would let Cheryl down gently and avoid the biggest fight of our relationship. His eyes were guarded, but hopeful. "Is there anything I can do about this mess?" Alexa gestured vaguely at her head.
This kid was good. He'd sensed where he was meeting the most resistance and was going for me head on. My chest ached to see that same smile, the furniture-shopping smile, on his face. I was too stunned to answer. It was shameful, but I just sat there, letting the silence become more awkward until Cheryl stepped in and moved the conversation ahead without me. As she shot me a sideways glare, I knew I'd be in trouble later.
When Heather stood to lead us away, Cheryl shot me the smile below a set of pleading eyes. There was an air of desperation clinging to her. She'd heard about the discussion at the cafe, and must have thought my mother had finally won. She wanted to help this kid so badly.
With a sigh I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the teddy-bear table cloth and pointing to Alexa's hair. I spoke some of my only words since arriving: "Pixie bobs are coming back in."