When Adam met his father, he was selling something he didn’t really own. The white short-sleeved shirt and black tie Adam had picked up at a thrift store were enough for him to pass as a Jehovah’s Witness at the door to his father’s apartment complex. An old woman spotted the dark Bible in his hand – stolen from his hotel room that morning – and the Watchtower pamphlets under his arm, and acted precisely as he’d hoped.
‘There are some good people in here,’ she said as she let him inside, ‘but many more need help. Bless you.’
He thanked her profusely, but forgot to hand over the pamphlets for a religion he’d never practised. It didn’t matter, anyway. As soon as the woman let him inside, she shuffled out the front door of the apartment building, a buggy stuffed with empty shopping bags trailing behind her.
It was easy enough to find his father’s name on the tenant listing and mailbox, even if he hadn’t already memorised the address from the court paperwork. Laurence K. Mayfield – Apartment 409. The building was on Lancing Street, a dead end just outside Kingston’s downtown core. A grocery store, a cheque cashing place and a convenience store surrounded the building, along with a half-dozen Tim Hortons and fast food places. When Adam had fed the address into Google Earth two months ago, he’d agonised over the location. Would his dad go to Tim Hortons? The cheque cashing place? What would he buy at this grocery store? Would he still fill the cart with the same brands he’d coveted when Adam was younger?
Probably. Maybe. But the fact was that Adam didn’t know. His father had left Adam’s mother when he and his sister were still in grade school; Ashley had been seven and Adam was barely nine. He was also a girl, then. A daughter who hated being pulled back and forth by parents after a divorce three years earlier. When the custody battles had stopped altogether and Laurence disappeared, Adam had still felt pulled apart without knowing why.
‘It’s just us girls now,’ his mother had said, definitively announcing his father’s leave of absence. ‘Us against the world.’
Adam held his breath as he entered the elevator. His mother always meant well, but her erasure of his father from his life made everything to do with his gender that much more confusing. When he’d come out as a lesbian at fourteen – since ‘being gay’ was the only way to classify his mismatched feelings – his mother had been upset, but only because she didn’t want him to turn out like his father.
‘Treat women better than he did. That’s all I ask.’ She paused after saying this, lips pursed to the side. ‘Maybe have some grandkids for me, too.’
At nineteen, when Adam announced he was transitioning from female to male, and had already made appointments with doctors to obtain hormones, his mother had shifted from gradual tolerance to horror.
‘Just don’t call yourself Laurence. For the love of God, I can’t fucking stand that name.’
Adam had nearly forgotten that was what his dad’s name had been up until that moment. Ever since he left, he’d been a blacked-out, redacted item in their family history. Your father. My ex. The asshole. Always an epithet, never a name. When Adam had seen his father’s full name laid out in the insurance papers after his grandmother’s funeral – Laurence Kenneth Mayfield, sole beneficiary – he’d been shocked. His father. Alive. With a name and a history – and an address.
It had been nearly twenty years, but his father hadn’t existed in a static state. He’d been walking around Ontario, after a short period in Calgary and Saskatoon when he’d first fallen off the radar, and now he lived an hour away from Adam. The moment Adam had seen the address, he’d known he would end up here in this apartment building. There was no way he couldn’t have ended up here.
Adam walked out of the elevator and turned to the last apartment down the hall. He knocked and waited. Nothing. Another knock, another tense silence, before a crinkling of metal. Aluminium, like a beer can. Adam knew the sound from deep in his memories of childhood. He’d pushed the cans that his father had finished under his bed each morning, before his mother came back from her night nursing shift. At age five, he’d make coffee for his father and then run back to bed.
Always my little ninja, his father told Adam at night when he tucked him into bed. You’re going to grow up to be a superhero.
‘What?’ Laurence opened the door. His dark curly hair had turned grey with age. The lines around his mouth were thick, and his skin was like cracked leather. Sun-worn and age-beaten. This was Laurence K. Mayfield; an older person, but not necessarily his father anymore.
‘Um. Hello.’ Adam gathered his composure and forced a smile. He held the Bible out like a shield. ‘I was wondering if I could interest you in…’
Laurence groaned. The door slammed. Adam stared at the peephole, straining to see through it, though it was impossible. He slid the Bible under his arm, some of the Watchtower pamphlets falling by the wayside. He should have known better. He’d never once had any faith to sell.
Adam harboured no illusions about his father. Or at least, he didn’t think so. He knew that his parents had married as soon as they found out his mother was pregnant with Adam. Six months later, Adam was born and christened with the girl-name that would follow him like a shadow. Ashley, his younger sister, would follow two years later. His father never had the temperament for being married, in spite of being good with kids. That was one fact Adam was sure of: his father had loved the two of them and genuinely enjoyed being with them. He wasn’t the type of father who went to school recitals or to parent-teacher conferences, but he took them to amusement parks and movies. He bought them both candy and shiny barrettes for their hair. He took them on trips to the liquor store to fuel his addiction, sure, but he told them it was a secret mission.
‘You two have to stay in the car. Sara, you’re in charge.’
‘Got it,’ Adam would say and mimic holding a gun with his fingers.
‘Now be sure to count while I’m gone. Like that Mission Impossible movie we saw on TV. Right? Count to 300. That is how much time I have to get in and out.’
‘Got it.’ But if Adam reached 400 or 500, long past the numbers he could count to, it never seemed to matter. His father was a secret agent and needed leniency on this important mission. And he always came back, so they were always safe.
When his father became violent, it fuelled another part of the fantasy. He’d punch walls and break vases in an effort not to hit their mother, in order to practise his combat skills. He’d say horrible things – but those were secret code words for missions. And when his father disappeared to Alberta, it was part of his new mission, even more important and secretive than the last. Postcards came, all written in black letters and with limited information. Staying in character, trying not to be caught. Then nothing came. And it was obvious by that time that he’d simply gone underground to keep everyone safe.
Adam was fourteen when the cards stopped. By then, he had bigger things to contend with.
In spite of the secret spy fantasies, Adam was sure that he knew his father. Laurence K. Mayfield might not embrace Adam when they met again, but he would at least stay around long enough to say Adam’s new name. That was all he wanted, he’d decided. His father might not accept him as a son; he might not even recognise him since the testosterone and twenty years had significantly changed his appearance; but his father would say his name. Adam. From the Hebrew for man. All he wanted was that, and he wasn’t going to leave Kingston until he got it.
Adam nursed a coffee in the Denny’s diner at the halfway point between his hotel and his father’s apartment complex. He took a booth at the back in full view of the entrance and exit. He kept a notebook with him filled with half-remembered traces of his father and the time they’d shared together, followed up with the stuff he’d gleaned about Laurence K. Mayfield from the internet and insurance papers. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought to Google his father before his grandmother’s death, but he’d needed that push; that moment when his past overlapped with his present, complete with a full name from his father.
There wasn’t much online about Laurence Kenneth Mayfield, though, if Adam was honest. A couple of articles and newsletters from the jobs he’d worked in the past and some fluff pieces where someone had quoted his construction company for a paper. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. No social media of any kind. At first, he’d been utterly devastated without any way to connect, but Adam soon remembered that – of course – spies had to cover their tracks.
If Adam wanted to find his father, he’d have to physically find him. So he gathered his intel and made duplicate copies of the insurance papers from his grandmother’s policy. He found his father’s location on Google Maps and took a week off work. And now he had a hotel room and would simply wait. One disguise hadn’t worked, but he’d find another and try again.
Each time someone stepped into the diner, Adam glanced up. A man with grey hair just like his father’s sat down, but it was not his dad. He glanced out the large windows and noticed a van like his father’s – but it was the wrong make and model. He flipped through some of his notes, got a refill on his coffee, and glanced up only to find Brick entering the Denny’s.
‘Shit.’ Adam closed his notebook and tried to stuff it inside his too-big leather jacket.
Brick’s dark hair was tied back into a loose ponytail. She wore a jean jacket over a pink V-neck top. As soon as she spotted Adam, her dark brows narrowed and her lips pursed. She sat down across from him without being invited.
‘I wasn’t hiding.’
Adam shrugged. Brick stared. ‘What do you want me to say, Brick?’
‘I want you to tell me why you called in a leave of absence at the school and then disappeared for three days without answering your phone. And then I want to know if you treat all your friends this way.’
‘Only the childhood ones,’ he said, smiling sharply. When a waitress came by and plopped down more coffee, Adam didn’t fight it. Brick was here to stay, and he might as well explain the whole endeavour to her. Even if it felt foolish.
Brick’s real name was Alexandra Brigitte, the only girl out of five children. Her family had been his next-door neighbours all throughout high school, long after Adam’s father had split. When Adam became Adam, she was the only one of his childhood and teenage friends from Brampton who actually seemed to understand the change. She didn’t set limits like his mother, or forget his pronouns and new name like so many colleagues. She merely listened with a thin expression, asked a handful of technical questions, and then moved on. New story, but same life. I got it. Neat. And I can understand hating your name like hell.
Adam hoped she’d get this mission stuff with his father just as easily. Instead she knocked back more coffee than he thought was humanly possible and ordered a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
‘It’s two in the afternoon,’ he said. ‘Not exactly breakfast time.’
‘But I’ve been driving all day to try and find you. And what a shock, you’re in Kingston. Not just any place in Kingston, but this dump.’
Adam didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t cleared his father’s name or address from his Google search history, and he hadn’t bothered to bring his laptop. Brick had argued her way into his apartment, insisting that he could be in danger and flashing her government-issued badge – even though she was only an admin worker. Once inside, she’d scoured his internet trail and only had to check three parking lots before his beat-up rusty Mazda was visible.
‘I think you’re a better spy than me,’ he said.
‘Oh, shut up about spies. About this long-lost fantasy. He’s just your dad. And it’s more like he’s a sperm donor.’
‘It’s not that callous.’
‘He abandoned your mother.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Sometimes it is, though.’
When all Adam did was sigh, Brick rolled her eyes. ‘Okay, I get it. I really do. The heart always yearns for reconciliation and finding a father is the shit that American literature was built on.’ Forlornly, she quoted a few lines from On the Road. ‘But we’re in Canada, Adam. And we’re in Kingston. The only thing that I can see happening here is you being disappointed.’
‘I don’t want much,’ Adam said after a moment. ‘He doesn’t even have to know I’m his kid. I mean, he already hasn’t recognised me once.’
‘And if you keep pushing it, something is going to sound odd to him. Something is going to sink into place.’
Adam’s heart thudded in his chest. He wondered if his father really would be able to see past the years of testosterone and mastectomy and recognise Adam as Sara in some way. He wondered if Laurence could, without even talking to him, understand that Adam was Adam, and that in this new reality, he was his son.
‘You should have just gone to your grandmother’s funeral,’ Brick said. ‘Why didn’t you again?’
‘Because my mom sucks at telling people I’m trans now. I still get birthday cards every so often addressed to my old name. And besides, I had to grade exams.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Brick’s eyes narrowed. She’d asked the question not because she was curious, but because she wanted Adam to say it aloud. He was trans. Transgender. And his family didn’t all know. Coming out to them wasn’t as simple as a family reunion and a group hug. It could be violence and misunderstanding, or even – at its most banal – pure awkwardness that sunk too deep into his bones.
‘You didn’t even go to the funeral,’ she went on. ‘I get cutting out toxic people, especially those who don’t love you as you are. But then you do this nonsense. You could have seen him there, but you didn’t want to go. I still think that was the right decision.’
‘Me too, honestly.’
‘So why bother with all of this now? I suppose I really just don’t understand that. You made a good decision. So why go back?’
‘I want…’ Adam stopped speaking as soon as the diner door opened. His father stepped inside. He was more put-together than earlier in the day, his dark curls pulled back and tamped down under a hat. Clean shaven. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into his pants with a large belt. Adam knew the exact type of shirt he wore, since he was sure he’d bought one like it for himself when he first started to transition. He’d worn the same clothing as him, like sons do, without even knowing it.
Brick noticed Adam’s stare and casually turned around. She took in his father with an appraising glance, but soon turned back.
‘That’s him,’ Adam said.
‘I should. Should I?’ Adam fumbled for words.
Brick stared at him disdainfully. ‘I think it’s very clear that you’re going to do whatever you want, Adam. And I suppose I’ll see you at home whenever you’re ready.’
Brick stood up to leave. Adam clasped her hand. A moment passed between them, like the one they’d experienced at fourteen and fifteen. A spark of electricity and desire, soon faded by circumstances. Brick and Adam were never together in high school because Adam was still sorting out gender and why even coming out as gay didn’t reduce the raw gnawing sensation inside of him. Even when he’d realised what he wanted to do, surgery stood in the way. He’d never wanted to be intimate with anyone until the doctor’s visits were all over. And now, only four months after the mastectomy, when maybe nothing had to be in the way, he’d conjured up long-dead dreams about his dad. Brick had always been there, waiting for him. But he was always finding something else to do.
‘I’ll talk to you later.’ She pulled her hand away. As she left, Adam watched his father check her out. He scanned Brick’s back and ass, then watched as she fixed her hair outside. He soon turned back to his coffee at the front counter and flirted with the waitress.
Adam’s heart fluttered. It was uncanny to watch someone like himself do the exact things he wanted to do. When his father caught his gaze across the diner, he fell back into his notes, planning, preparing.
By Saturday, he had his father’s schedule down pat. Laurence often woke late in the afternoon and would have breakfast either at the Denny’s or at the Tim Hortons around the corner from his place. Then he’d either buy cigarettes, cash his cheques or go to the liquor store. Friday night, though, he’d deviated to the bar down by the college campus, so that was where Adam spent his time on Saturday, hoping his dad would come by for the evening.
Then he would buy him a beer. Or walk up and sit next to him at the bar. Or he would ask his father for some contracting advice, since Adam realised that most of the mail or cheques his father received were from lumber yards or freelance construction places. Either way, Adam would introduce himself and maybe they’d have a conversation. His father would say his name aloud and that would be that. Adam would be able to hear the sound of his father’s approval from those two syllables alone. Then he could get back into his beat-up car and go home, back to his normal life with exams and students and a testosterone shot every two weeks. Brick would still be mad at him, but she would get over it. They had too much history between them to let this mission tear them apart.
Adam worked over the scenario in his mind at least a dozen times. He nursed one beer at the bar in the hope that it would give him courage and allow him to blend in. He’d gone out to a thrift store in Kingston after tracking his dad to the bank, and had bought up a bunch more shirts like his. He’d even found a leather jacket, one that fit him better in the shoulders than his current one, and brought that into the bar with him. He didn’t know when he’d wear this clothing again – not in a high school classroom or for the PhD classes he was taking – but they could linger at the back of his closet, remnants of another life he could had lived. And maybe when he was fifty-nine like his father, he could merge into that life seamlessly as well.
When his father came into the bar, he seemed to notice Adam right away. His jaw stiffened and his face leered at him. Adam turned away. He counted to ten before glancing behind him to see if anyone else was drawing his father’s wrath. No. It was him, and only him, who Laurence seemed to fixate on. Adam raised his eyes to meet his father’s gaze, hoping for some kind of answer in the stare. He merely took off his baseball cap, flattened his curls back, and then went searching for a lighter at the other end of the bar, speaking loudly enough that Adam could hear the gruff and angry tone to his voice. He took out a pack of cigarettes, the unlit one between his lips, as he headed out again.
There was a stiff urgency in the way his father’s limbs had moved which made Adam rise from his spot. He could go outside and smoke – he’d purchased the same type of cigarettes his dad had on Friday, following him inside afterwards and asking the clerk – and maybe the two of them could talk there. It seemed like a perfect alteration to the perfect plan.
As soon as Adam stepped outside, somebody shoved him to the other side of the wall. He blinked and saw stars. Panic set deep in his bones like ice water.
Whoever had shoved him against the side door let him drop. Adam righted himself, but lost his pack of cigarettes in the struggle. He scrambled to grab them from the ground, but someone else intercepted the pack. Adam stood up to find himself facing a guy in biker gear with a large pot belly; next to the biker stood Adam’s father.
‘Sorry, kid,’ the biker said. ‘Didn’t realise I’d struck ya. You’re young. Look too young to be in this place.’
Adam barely spoke above a whisper. ‘No, no. I’m thirty.’
‘Huh. Well, then, you should watch where you’re going. You’re an adult now.’ The biker exchanged a look with Adam’s father, who nodded.
Adam’s panic returned, but ebbed as soon as the biker tossed him back his cigarettes and, mumbling another curse, walked into the bar. Adam turned to face his father, who was staring at him. He tilted his head to the side, as if trying to place the face. Adam’s heart raced, his conversation with Brick coming back to him.
Recognise me. Know who I am. He thought of the gun-fingered salute he’d given his father as a kid to let him know the spy mission was on. He counted the seconds of their silence, nearly reaching three hundred.
‘You’re that Jehovah’s Witness.’
Adam’s heart sunk, but he nodded. ‘Yeah. Something like that.’
‘Faith lost so soon?’ His grin turned into a sinister sneer. ‘Or am I so worth saving?’
‘Look,’ Adam said, but was unsure of where he was going with the rest of the sentence. Look, just say my name and I can leave. Look, I’m your son but you don’t have a son. Look, I’m a kid from another woman, one you forgot about and who never came to collect child support. The last idea seemed to be the best. He didn’t have time to say it.
‘What’s your name, kid?’
‘Adam…?’ His father waited, his brows raised and gaze open. Adam couldn’t even think about what to say next, because all he’d wanted had come true. His father had said his name. The syllables had been sounded. This was it. He could go home now.
‘Adam,’ his father said again. ‘You got a last name? A real one. I’ll know.’
‘Smith,’ Adam said, then flinched. His father’s gaze bore into him like he was lying. Which he was. But if he said his last name was Mayfield, then the entire ruse was up. ‘Brigitte.’
‘Adam Brigitte,’ his father said, considering the name. He repeated it three times as if committing it to memory. His gaze landed hard on Adam, his dark eyes filled with some unspoken emotion. ‘Well, okay then, Adam Brigitte. I know what’s going on.’
‘Oh yeah. You’re not as suave as you think. And you should know one thing.’
Adam waited for the hug. The reunion of his dreams. Instead his father punched him squarely in the stomach. Adam folded in two. He held his gut as if his insides were going to fall through his fingers, his back flattened against the outside wall of the bar. His father took a step closer to him, his mouth right by Adam’s ear.
‘Tell the insurance company to back off. The old lady died fair and square. Her money is mine. No more investigating. You got it?’
When Adam didn’t nod – he barely breathed – his father’s grip on his arm turned lethal. ‘You got it?’
Adam nodded. He breathed again. Pain flowed through his body – fierce, blinding pain that radiated out from the place where he’d been struck and into his memory. His father had hit him. The one thing he could say his dad had never done to their family was now gone.
‘Good, good. Glad we had this talk, Adam.’ His father stood, fixed his baseball cap and went back into the bar.
‘Adam.’ Brick’s voice was alert, tense. She could always hear the slightest emotion in his voice, the smallest drop of a semitone. When his voice had changed due to the testosterone, she was the only one who could sync up with what change was a side effect and what was an emotional breakdown. ‘What happened? Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine.’ He examined his body in the hotel mirror as he spoke into his cell phone. No bruise, but his body was inflamed and red. Hot to the touch with embarrassment and shame. ‘My car is not fine, though. Tyres slashed.’
‘Oh, God. What the fuck happened?’
‘Nothing,’ Adam said. He sighed. The biker had done that. He knew it for a fact. Proving it was one thing, and trying to explaining it to Brick another. ‘It’s… complicated. My dad thinks I’m stalking him.’
‘Well, to be honest…’
‘I know, I know. I was. But he thinks I’m from the insurance company that paid out his mother’s life insurance. Like he’s being investigated for her death or some kind of fraud.’
The silence between them was filled with probing wonder. His father had known he was being stalked – but had thought it was for a completely different reason. Long before Adam even knew he was trans, he’d known that people interpreted events in their lives based on a story they had playing in their own heads. If his father thought he was being investigated, maybe it was because he believed he was guilty. And if he believed he was guilty, then maybe he had done something to cause his mother’s death for the payout.
But who really knew? Adam would never get the answers because he’d been chased out of town. And he’d never bring up what he’d found out during this mission, because to admit to the discovery meant that he’d come here looking for something else that he hadn’t exactly found. It was easier to believe his own story about his life – that his dad was still a hero spy gone astray and that he was a trans person facing adversity – than to make those stories overlap anymore.
‘Oh, Adam. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay… but… shit.’ Adam’s voice broke. His lungs felt too tight as he cried. ‘I thought I knew him.’
‘You did. You just knew a different version of him.’
‘I don’t think so. I think I knew the real him all along. The fights, the alcohol. It was all the same thing. It was all the same life but from a different angle. And he was always violent. And maybe we’re all like this in some way.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Maybe we’re all hiding a secret past. Maybe we’re all violent in our own way.’
Brick laughed. ‘I don’t think so. You’re not.’
Adam wasn’t so sure. He thought of the way he’d cut people out of his life if they didn’t understand his gender. He thought of the countless relationships ended before the first word because they couldn’t get past his genitals. Then he thought of his body, cut open so parts of him could be removed, in order to make his life history make sense again. Wasn’t he always playing this spy game, a double life over and over again? Or was that yet another deceptive trope that people used to make him seem violent while they held him down and punched him out?
‘Did he say your name?’ Brick asked after a while. ‘Did you at least get that?’
‘Yeah, he did. Right before he clocked me.’
‘Ouch.’ Brick was silent until she broke the tension with a laugh. Quiet at first, but a few stuffed-down chuckles quickly became audible laughter.
‘I’m sorry. Oh, God. I’m so bad at this.’ She kept laughing, longer and louder. Adam grew frustrated, then intoxicated with her joy.
‘Just tell me. What’s going on?’
‘Your name… it’s a real knockout.’ She laughed even more. And in spite of himself, Adam was laughing too. Wasn’t that what he’d wanted? To be remembered so profoundly he’d be knocked off his feet? To be heard in a voice that he thought was his own; to be accepted by family and by a father he’d lost?
Brick’s laughter kept going. And going. It was like when they were kids and first getting high. She’d fixate on one item and then never let it go. But instead of making her quiet and pensive, her obsessions bred laughter.
‘I miss you, Brick.’
‘Well, fuck you, Adam,’ Brick said, still laughing. ‘There’s absolutely nothing of me to miss. I’ve always been right fucking here. And you’ve been out there.’
‘I know. And I’d come to you now, but my tyres are slashed.’
‘Fine. I’ll be right there.’ She hung up, the laughter never really dying.
An hour and a half later, Brick was at the hotel. She assessed the damage to his car and his shirtless body. When her fingers traced the edges of his mastectomy scar, the spark between them returned. She was not his father. She was not even aware of all the stories about secret lives he’d kept hidden away inside his head, in his notebook, or at the back of his closet. She couldn’t possibly know everything about him, and he about her.
But they were old friends. And she’d said his name long before anyone else.
‘Oh, Adam.’ She ran her fingers from his chest to his chin. When they kissed, it was easy and simple.
Afterwards, they would get into her car and drive away. And in the morning, they would start new lives again, like spies.
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