The Quotable

Hearts for My Partner

Kevan read once that back patting during a hug was a subtle sign that the person wanted the hug to end. The more back patting, he’d read, the more uncomfortable the person was. Ever since then, he’d kept track during hugs. The moment he felt a tap on his back, he pushed out of it to let the person go.

He monitored it when he arrived at Sophie’s apartment, and she opened the door with Friday evening gusto. He hadn’t seen her in a few months – not since the synthetic hormones had caused a light dusting of stubble to appear on his previously soft face and he’d let his hair grow a little longer in the front to sweep unkempt over his gradually thickening brow. His voice had changed too, another octave above its former soprano. He spoke now in a cracked, upper-range tenor, like an adolescent boy.

“Kevan!” Sophie said his name with practiced enthusiasm, and put her arms around his waist to hug him.

Usually, Kevan thought, the man put his arms around the woman’s waist, and the woman put her arms around the man’s shoulders. It was standard gender hug protocol. But Sophie put her arms around him the way she used to do when they danced at the Pope Joan club. They hadn’t dated, exactly, but they’d danced together often, locked in their loose and rhythmic embrace, swaying to the gentle tune of sexual tension.

For a moment, Kevan enjoyed the warmth of the embrace. And then there it was. Two taps near the base of his spine. He pulled away, pushing his hair back from his forehead, and noticed Sophie’s girlfriend, Ella, at the table. Ella stood for a hug, and for this one, the back patting was immediate.

A skinny girl with a red pixie haircut sat next to Ella. Kevan hadn’t been expecting anyone else. He’d barely been out of his apartment lately. He still felt like a half-baked gingerbread man who needed another 20 minutes in the oven.

“This is Michelle,” Ella said brightly, and Kevan extended his hand. Michelle’s little hand rested in his slightly larger one, and they shook. She looked the same age as the rest of them – just out of college, life full of optimism and low pay checks. Her smile was uneasy but her eyes were honest.

“Michelle has a background in theatre,” Sophie said. “We told her your mom was on Broadway. You did some theatre too, didn’t you, Kevan? I couldn’t remember which plays. Maybe you can tell her.”

Kevan slid into the empty chair across from Michelle. Her blue eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled. Her teeth tugged expectantly at her bottom lip.

“Grease,” Kevan said quietly. “I think the last one I was in was Grease.”

“As one of the greaser guys?” Ella pressed, but Kevan didn’t answer, and the air went stale.

Sophie went to the kitchen and returned with an alcoholic lemonade for Kevan. It was chilly on his fingertips and made an automatic wet ring when he set it on the table. Sophie flopped in the seat across from Ella and shuffled a half deck of cards.

“Euchre, right?” Sophie said without looking at Kevan. “You and Michelle are going to be partners. Is that okay?”

Kevan looked quickly at Michelle. Her eyes were calm and blue, the same shade as a pencil crayon called “ultramarine” that he’d worn down to the nub when he was a kid.

“You’re good at this, right?” Michelle asked Kevan.

Kevan shrugged a little, then cleared his throat and took his first swig of the lemonade.

Ella answered for him. “He’s competitive. He’s a typical guy. My brother is like that. He can’t stand to lose.”

Kevan set the bottle back on the same ring of moisture. He wasn’t sure what he was like, but what Ella said didn’t seem true. He usually lost. He lost when they played Jeopardy on the Nintendo. He lost when the three of them played Scrabble, the little wooden letters like teeth as he repeatedly rearranged them, looking for clues.

He knew the type of man Ella meant, though. He’d seen them on the sidelines at football games, screaming until their heads seemed ready to burst. He’d seen them in pubs, chucking darts harder the closer they came to losing. Was that the kind of man Kevan was? Is that what he would be? He didn’t know yet, but he always searched for clues. So far, he only knew one adjective: transsexual.

Sophie dealt the cards and they slid across the polished tabletop. Ella lifted her hand each time and caught them neatly as if she anticipated each flick of Sophie’s wrist. Each card flicked at Kevan overshot, and he had to reach to collect it. He had an all-black hand of low clubs and spades. Sophie turned up a heart.

“Hearts for my partner,” Michelle said.

Kevan sighed. “Are you going alone?”

Michelle tapped her cards. “Nope,” she said. “But I can carry us.”

Each round, Ella and Sophie threw the cards at the center where they skidded and collided like curling rocks. Michelle laid each new heart neatly on top, taking one trick, then two, then three, then all of them.

Kevan had never really mastered shuffling. He always had to jam the cards, wiggling them back and forth until they slipped into one assimilated pile in his hands. When it was his turn to deal, he dropped three cards on the floor and had to bend low to fetch them.

“Why don’t you and Michelle go to the store and get us more mix?” Sophie asked. Kevan and Michelle barely had time to make eye contact before Sophie pushed his shoulder. “Come on. You can get to know each other.”

He paused, heart pounding, but Michelle was already out of her chair. He was not the type of guy who would let a girl walk alone at night, he decided.

He zipped up his jacket as Michelle tied the laces on her boots. The door slammed behind them when they reached the hallway, and they walked to the elevator in silence.

Kevan shoved his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight, staring at the red down arrow above the elevator door. “It’s been cold lately.”

“It has been,” Michelle agreed. “It was warmer this time last year.”

“It was. It’s usually warmer this time of the year.” Then, after a long pause, “I like it better when it’s warmer.”

“Me too. My friend lives in New York and says it’s 15 degrees warmer there.”

Kevan made a little noise of disgusted envy. In this conversation, the verdict was clear: warmer was better.

In the mirrored wall of the elevator, Kevan could see Michelle’s lower half. The little swishing purple skirt. The dark leggings. Was he the type to stare at a girl’s legs in a mirror? Was he the type to stare under her skirt if he could?

“I think we’re being fixed up,” Michelle said.

“Yeah,” Kevan said. “Me too.”

He felt her peek at him, her ultramarine scrutiny working its way over his features. The weak jaw. The large, emotional brown eyes. He stood with his shoulders back, his slender arms dropped wide to his sides. In high school, the body builders had walked like that. Men with biceps that broadened their silhouettes. Men who unapologetically took up space.

“Does that bother you?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I think it’s funny.”

He felt her bristle from a foot away, and when the elevator doors opened, he let her exit first. They walked through the double-glass doors to darkened Erskine Avenue, where apartment buildings towered around them. Leaves still dripped from an earlier rain, and boisterous voices drifted from a balcony overhead. Kevan glanced up at the source of the sound. Four guys stood high above them, beers raised, the bright yellow glow of the apartment interior behind them. In that world, men and women mixed easily. Girls drank until they fell into the laps of guys, who held them with strong arms and kissed their way into effortless sex.

The convenience store was already visible, its tiny red sign glowing on the corner. Kevan cleared his throat as he walked, willing his chin forward and his steps broad. Michelle walked silently next to him, and sneaking a look at her, he wondered what sort of guys she dated. Were they artistic types with paint-smeared shirts and ironic fedoras? Did they have bands and steaming mugs of coffee and iPods full of jazz? Did their voices punch the air in the same howl of jocular camaraderie as the guys on the balcony? Kevan didn’t even know which of these he was yet, let alone which one she wanted him to be.

They stopped at Erskine and Mount Pleasant, where the red crosswalk symbol became a beckoning white hand. In Kevan’s peripheral vision, a yellow taxi zoomed up to the intersection, speeding through the crosswalk just as Michelle stepped off the curb and into its path.

Kevan lurched toward Michelle, grabbed her arm and yanked her back. She crashed into him and they stumbled back onto the sidewalk. Kevan squinted at the taxi, but it had already swerved into another lane, narrowly missing another pedestrian before it vanished into the darkness.

“Jesus,” Kevan said. “He almost hit you.”

Michelle stood frozen, hand on her heart as she regained her breath.

“That was so close,” she said. They made quick, panicked eye contact. “You saved me.”

“Me?” Kevan said. “No, I just….”

His sentence was clipped short by her arms around his shoulders. She pulled him close, her chest warm against his as he timidly wrapped his arms around her waist.

They stood for a long moment, her fingertips lightly scraping his shoulders. Kevan squinted at the cool evening breeze, watching the light change and cars resume their way down the street that glistened with leftover rain water.

Eventually, he let himself melt into the hug. His palms moved smoothly over her back. Her stilted breathing resounded in his ear. Her hands stayed stationery on his shoulders. He waited for the tap of impatience, but it didn’t come.

“I don’t mind,” he mumbled.


“Being fixed up.”

She parted with a smile and tucked her arm through his, letting him take the first step at the next crosswalk cue. He walked forward with her, looming like the great protector. Like the type of man who escorted a lady to the store.


Samantha Craggs is a writer, editor and freelance journalist who grew up in rural Norfolk County, part of southern Ontario’s illustrious tobacco belt. She lives in the Niagara region of Canada and was a finalist in the 2011 Toronto Star Short Story competition. In her spare time, she likes live music and road trips.

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The Quotable Issue 3 - Transformation