I Can't Explain, Everything Changed
The afternoon train pulled into the northern Chicago station. With an overstuffed backpack, a rolling suitcase, and bulging pockets, a young man stood just in front of the fading yellow line and awaited the opening of the doors. Ignoring the squeal as they opened, he stepped on. The train car was mostly empty, and he made his way for a corner seat. He held his luggage close and took up as little space as possible. Words from his father rang in his head: If you can make yourself look like nothing, people will pay you no mind. So far, the philosophy had worked. With a sigh, he pulled his crumpled acceptance letter from his pants pocket and read over his schedule again.
“Dear Jasper Wightman,” it read. “We are happy to inform you that you have been accepted into Edley Community College! With your impressive test scores, we know that you will find our academics engaging. There are many activities and sports offered here at Edley, meaning there is a little something for everyone, even you! The Queer Student Alliance looks forward to your membership. Attached to this letter is your class schedule, a campus map, a short summary of your dormitory roommate, and the proof needed to receive your dorm room key. Thank you for choosing Edley; we hope you never regret this choice! Sincerely, Bethany Richman, Dean of Admissions.”
His schedule consisted of Algebra III, English Grammar & Literature, and German I. This was the fifth time he’d read it that day, but the strange feeling in his stomach didn’t leave him. With a grimace, he folded the letter back up and shoved it right back into the pocket it had come from.
‘Community college, huh? Easier to navigate than some giant university, more affordable than some Ivy League, and you can at least knock out some of the repeat classes,’ Jasper thought to himself. ‘Plus you need the foreign language for acceptance to most other schools...But why do I feel so...Empty?’ Eyes idly following the paths of the clumped-up snowflakes falling outside, Jasper attempted to distract himself with counting. He reached a total of sixty-five snowflakes before he was forced back into his own body by his phone blaring. The embarrassing sound of cheesy 80s pop made his movements quick, and he was soon hissing into the microphone in a strained whisper. “Yes? Hello? Who is this?”
“Don’t you check your caller ID?” the person on the other end asked. The irritated sigh was answer enough, and they went on. “It’s your good pal Elio. Where the hell are you? I thought you said you’d be on campus by noon!”
“I said I was leaving for campus at noon.” Somewhat relaxing, Jasper let his shoulders drop and leaned back into the cushions. “But the train ride is only about twenty minutes. Edley’s just on the edge of Chicago, right?”
“You dirty liar.” Another sigh made Elio chuckle. “Yeah, it shouldn’t be that far from your parents’ place. Speaking of Jacqueline and Edward, they doing okay? You said they’d gotten a lot more tolerant and accepting in the past few months.”
“They’ve finally gotten all the closest relatives to stop calling me Gisella, so I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.” Watching the worn rubber toes of his shoes, Jasper tapped his foot. Elio had been the one to introduce him to the queer community, and they had been his guide through this whole transition journey. They were his closest friend.
“That news calls for celebration! I’ll buy you a round of espresso shots,” Elio cheered, though their loud voice crackled into static through the speaker. “Edley is gonna be good for you, Jasper. You’re gonna reinvent yourself into the man you’ve wanted to be since sophomore year; I can feel it. So just hurry up and get to campus!”
“Gee, love you too, you prick.” Jasper’s voice was light, even as the insult passed his lips, and he couldn’t help but laugh as Elio burst into cackles on the other end. “We’re going in a tunnel, so I’m gonna lose you. See you in fifteen!” Making sure to catch the goodbye, Jasper hung up and watched the lights of the tunnel as it consumed the train. Visibility significantly reduced, he squinted at the other people in his car. A young woman diagonal from him smiled warmly, and he couldn’t keep his own smile off of his face.
The train emerged from the dark to the same Chicago sky from the other side, but something about it seemed brighter...More cheery. Even with thick snowflakes sticking to the window, it looked more like spring than winter. Taking it as a good sign, Jasper clutched his belongings close and sat the rest of the ride out in peace.
The walk to Edley’s campus hadn’t been too long, but the air nipped at Jasper’s nose. Ducking through the thin throng of people on the streets, Jasper reached the gates and had to take a moment to catch his breath. Waiting with their back against a pillar was Elio, who sprang up like a slinky and ran to meet him.
“My little moppet!” they called, running as fast as they could on the ice. Extending his arms, Jasper caught Elio in a hug and laughed.
“Canary yellow hair?” he asked, lifting a piece in between his fingers with a quirked grin. Elio punched his arm lightly, and purposely messed up Jasper’s bedhead.
“At least I don’t look like Oscar the Grouch.” Feigning insult, Jasper clutched his heart and gasped. The act only lasted a couple seconds before they both couldn’t keep smiles off of their faces. “Alright, let’s get you checked in and all that jazz.” Tugging him along, Elio led Jasper towards the admissions office. It took barely five minutes, and they were in the office in a heartbeat. The Dean glanced up from her paperwork, regarding them both evenly before smiling warmly.
“Jasper Wightman? I’m Bethany Richman. You know your building and hall, yes? You’ll receive your dorm key from the Resident Assistant.” Turning to an open file drawer filled with manilla folders, she skimmed through them for a moment before pulling out the one with Jasper’s name on it. Holding it out, she nodded and said, “Here you go. You’re just in time for the semester!”
“I’ll be taking him around the campus,” Elio said, and Bethany nodded. Giving his thanks, Jasper shook her hand before he was tugged back out. “Damn! Edsall Building!” Elio exclaimed as they peeked at Jasper’s file. “That’s the center of all queer culture on campus! And Boisse Hall, no less. You are one lucky duck, my good man.”
“Who’s the RA?” Jasper asked as they slipped under the bare boughs of a few large trees. “Are they someone spectacular or something?”
“The RA of Boisse is none other than Sylvia Johnson, the most badass woman in Chicago, save for Michelle Obama and my moms. Named after the two baddest bitches of the early trans activism movement, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and channeling the modern greatness of Laverne Cox.” The shine in Elio’s eyes looked like stars, and Jasper smiled. He hadn’t seen them get this excited over another person in a very long time.
“She sounds amazing.” Elio nodded enthusiastically, a giant grin on their face.
“I love her. And you will too.” Suddenly dropping Jasper’s arm from their grasp, they pointed at a building. “That one, with the Monet mural on the side!” Gesturing rapidly for him to follow, Elio began sprinting despite the slickness of the sidewalk. Doing the best he could without letting go of his luggage, Jasper trailed behind. When he reached the doors, Elio was bouncing up and down waiting for him. “Forgot about the bags; sorry friend.” Patting Jasper’s head as he stooped to regain his breath, Elio pouted, though more at theirself than anyone. “Most of your stuff was sent down before you, right?”
“Yeah. My parents wanted to send it all two weeks in advance due to paranoia; I somehow got them down to a week. Whoever I’m with has probably been frustrated by the boxes.” Standing tall, Jasper nodded to the doors and stepped past Elio, pushing one open and walking into the commons. Awaiting him were two intimidatingly beautiful women. The first to step forward had jet black hair piled into a bun and large, round glasses.
“Jasper Wightman?” she asked with a gentle smile. He nodded and stepped towards her, hand outstretched. “I’m Edsall’s proctor, Lu Mulan.” They shook hands, and he felt his defenses begin to slip. Then the other woman stepped forward, with a mass of lavender and baby blue kinky curls and a toothy smile.
“And I’m Sylvia Johnson, your hall RA.” She held her arms open in an invitation for a hug, and Jasper felt his heart swell. Gladly accepting the offer, he hugged her without a second thought. As they stepped away from each other, he handed her his file and she pressed a key into his palm in return. “Your dorm mate’s off campus right now, but he should be back soon.” Turning to Elio, she playfully punched their arm and laughed. “Nice to see the bumblebee of the campus.” Cheeks heating up, they looked away from Sylvia with a shy smile.
“Would you like to get situated?” Mulan asked, drawing Jasper’s attention. He nodded gratefully, and she led him towards the stairs. “This is my first year as proctor; I’m really depending on my RAs to help keep things running smoothly.”
“The building isn’t an exploded heap.” Laughing a bit to herself, Mulan nodded. “I think it’ll all be fine.” The walls were covered in murals, some original and some copies. As he traced the spirals of a rendition of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jasper asked, “So what are you doing? Like, as a major or career.”
“I’m saving up to go into medicine and science, particularly genetic engineering,” Mulan answered, glancing back at him as she did. “I’ve got a paying internship at the hospital near campus, and the school actually pays me for being proctor as well. I want to go to Harvard or Stanford, though, so I’ve got a lot of saving to do.”
“Oh, the Ivy Leagues.” Gaze dropping to his feet, Jasper fell into stride with Mulan. Within moments they were stepping onto the landing of his floor. Looking up, he was met with sunny yellow walls covered in sloppily painted daisies and various other plants.
“Welcome to Boisse Hall.” With wide eyes, he took in the details. “People don’t expect much from Edley, due to the sudden stigma surrounding community colleges, but...Well, I think it’s safe to say that the culture of this campus is much stronger than that of any Ivy League.” Nodding distractedly, Jasper stepped further in. The air smelled faintly of something sweet, and he felt his stomach twist up a bit from hunger. Forcing himself to look away, he read the tag on his key. ‘Room 314.’ Glancing back at Mulan, he practically asked for permission to go off on his own. Having already seen this a few times before, she nodded and watched him take off with a smile.
He hesitated at his door, key clutched tightly in his shaky hands. Taking a deep breath, he unlocked it and pushed it open. The room past it was monochrome, though colour had sneaked its way in. The bed nearest the door was made, and by the other sat his boxes, neatly stacked. Stepping in, he spotted a note on top.
“You arrive today, huh?” it read. “I might be out when you get here. My name is Atticus; I’m your roommate. I didn’t want to decorate until you turned up, so when I get back, we can wreak havoc on the room, alright?” Setting his suitcase near the boxes and gently tossing his backpack and coat onto his bare bed, Jasper looked around.
‘This is my place in the world,’ he thought. ‘At least, for now.’ With a smile, he left and locked the door behind him. Rejoining Mulan, they returned to the commons. ‘And I’m perfectly fine with it.’