Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019

Racing the Train

Was it weird we went?” says Becca, on our way back from the funeral.

“Weird to who?”

“Her grandmother called her her,” says Becca. “I mean, she called him Cat.”

“They call that a deadname,” I say knowledgeably. “In the trans community?”

“How do you know that?”

“From the internet.”

Off the highway, I’m already catching snatches of silver lake.

“What part of the internet?” says Becca a moment later.

“I don’t have any kids,” I say. “All I do is read the internet.”

“Well, not today,” she tells me. “Today you’re going to the lake.”

▴ ▴ ▴

Four nights earlier, Becca called to ask if I’d heard Cat Braverman had died. Her car had been hit by a train.

Cat Braverman was from Wolfville, Nova Scotia. You could hear it every time she tried to say about, just the way they say you can.

I said I had heard, and it was terrible.

“Did you know that she, well, that she became a guy?” said Becca.

I said I thought I’d heard that too.

I had not. What happened was, I’d watched it—watched her disappear from the internet and then reappear, years later, as Cam: a boy, finally, in whom boyishness was banal. Cam was the kind of guy who wore a hat, who liked sports, who probably wasn’t much of a reader. Qualities I could forgive in Cat, who was so obviously something more than herself. The sense of this had terrorized me, once.

From the internet, I’d learned that thinking about any of it this way was problematic. From Cat, I’d learned that we are not often in charge of how we think.

The funeral, Becca was saying, was right near our old summer camp. And hadn’t we been meaning to go on a trip for years? The fact of mortality seemed to justify the rest—two thirty-year-old women toasting s’mores and singing songs on a very expensive lake for no reason. Mostly, I think she wanted to get away from her kids.

“We should go,” she said.

“Should we?”

At any rate, we did.

▴ ▴ ▴

Becca and I reach the lake by seven o’clock. We pitch a tent and congratulate ourselves for remembering how. Becca has brought everything for s’mores, so we do s’mores, and she’s brought wine, so we do, in the end, do the singing. I think of how the sound will carry across the lake; I think of how people will wonder.

On the second bottle, I say: “Did I ever tell you Cat and I once raced a train?”

“You didn’t.”

Though actually it’d been a whole big group of us. It was a night sort of like this one: clean stars, smell of canned spaghetti and Noxzema. “That’s gay,” said everyone about everything in those days—except for me, because I was medium-fat and tried not to say anything at all. I still used Crest Kid’s toothpaste. I remember its exact smell—but then, I remember everything. The particular cold that comes from waking by a lake. The way Cat Braverman slouched while carrying a canoe. The tinny taped Taps every night they played before bed: from the lake, from the hills, from the sky—and how I used to think the way that made me feel was homesick.

“It was sort of a dare,” I say.

It wasn’t exactly a dare. Cat was doing it to impress a girl; I wasn’t brave enough to even wish that girl were me. The bravest I ever got was to catch her eye in a way that let her know I knew. Later I worried I’d made her feel accused. Much later I understood I hadn’t made her feel anything at all. In the moment, I looked away, and we screamed our way across the tracks.

“Don’t worry,” says Becca. “I’m sure that had nothing to do with what happened.”

▴ ▴ ▴

Becca passes out at nine thirty; she’s been up since five with the kids. I sit by the fire and finish the wine. The last time I was at this lake, I knew I wasn’t anyone—which meant that I could still be anyone, though that part hadn’t occurred to me yet. After a while, I wander down to the water, thinking theatrical thoughts.

The first time I spoke of Cat was in college, when I told a Sigma Nu pledge that once? I’d had a crush on a girl. I then blew him ecstatically.

In later years I’d venture the epilogue, that that girl was actually a boy: so unerring was my love of men, I seemed to say, that it ventured on the prophetic.

And later, years after the funeral and the lake, I’ll tell a friend about Cat while on a trip to Thailand. This will be the year after my divorce. We’re on our way to Chiang Mai; our train is very slow and probably not worth the racing. Earlier, I’d said something my friend thought homophobic; on the train, I weep. I tell him I am not homophobic—that I myself had once been in love with a girl!—many years ago, back when both of us were girls. My friend will say that this was not the point. He and I won’t speak at all for the rest of the ride, and not as much ever again.

Eventually, I’ll even tell Becca—this is the year after her divorce, much later, when her kids are finally, finally grown. We’re drinking martinis, as we often will be, in this era. “Did I ever tell you I had a crush on Cat?” I’ll say—as though I might have forgotten. She’ll suck the pimento from her olive and say, “Didn’t everyone?”

But the truest thing I’ll ever say was the night we raced the train. We’d beat it by a mile, but I was still shaking. Afterward, I crept down to the lake and whispered her name into the water. Cat, I said. I think I meant it as a question: I think I meant to make it one by asking. And that was all I said about it for a long, long time.

Leaning over the water the night of the funeral, there’s the impulse to say her name again. Certainly there are liabilities—political, potentially supernatural—though these are not what keep me quiet. Somebody could deserve to say this name. But I am the person who is here.

I squint across the nothing darkness—from the lake, to the hill, to the sky. I can’t see any of these things. I shut my eyes and imagine other things instead: trestle bridges and Appalachian trail. Mount Katahdin and Canadian border. And beyond that many wild northern places I know that I will never go.

Jennifer duBois is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. DuBois’s third novel, The Spectators, was published in spring 2019.