29 Union Leaders Can't Be Wrong
By Genevieve Valentine
18 June 2007
The doctor gives him an orange as soon as he wakes up.
"Careful," the doctor says, curling someone's fingers around the waxy skin. "It takes a little getting used to. Can you feel this?"
Stephen realizes he can feel the orange, it's too ripe, but it's still someone else's hand.
"Take your time," says the doctor, pressing his thumb against Stephen's new wrist to find the pulse. "Just do whatever you can."
Stephen squeezes the orange, tries to imagine the fingers are his fingers.
"This is normal," the doctor says, and, "Give yourself time, it's key," and, "The hospital psychiatrist will be speaking to you about some support groups."
"What about Marlene?"
"She's speaking with one of our counselors," the doctor says. "Full transplant is usually something of a shock to the loved one, at first."
"How long until I can see her?"
"That's up to her," the doctor says. "Can you squeeze the orange for me?"
As long as he doesn't look, it's fine.
For two days he gets used to walking, yawning, holding a fork.
Modern Love has an FT fireman. The guy works out way too much to be a fireman, and he can't act. No wonder the poor volunteers downtown can't get laid, Stephen thinks.
"It's like—it's like a part of me will always wish I had died," the fireman says, and the music swells.
A nurse knocks, asks if he's ready to see Marlene.
When the door closes behind Marlene, she's still trying to blink back tears like he doesn't know that trick after seven years.
She winces at his voice, smoothes it over. "Stephen. Hi."
After a long time he says, "How bad is it?"
She shakes her head. Her hands are gripping her purse, the knuckles white.
"Got a Golden Plus in there?"
After a moment she says, "You have asthma. You shouldn't smoke any more."
He didn't know people still got asthma.
She cries a little more, reaches out her hand to him and stops herself, and when Callahan comes in without knocking Marlene looks at her gratefully and leaves.
He must really be ugly, Stephen thinks. First time Marlene's ever been grateful to Callahan.
Callahan stops at the foot of his bed, hands in her pockets. Somewhere behind her, the door closes.
"Something's different," Callahan says, and he laughs.
He knows it's a different laugh now, but she doesn't say anything.
Callahan makes a nurse bring in a mirror, and when he gets a look at the new body he doesn't know what to do.
"I'm not ugly, anyway," he says after a while.
"Speak for yourself."
He's not, though; no better and no worse. He looks like someone he would know. He touches his cheeks, runs his finger down the bridge of his new nose.
When he cries Callahan stares at the cabinets until he's got hold of himself.
"I have asthma," he says after a while.
"Yeah, they told us. There wasn't time to find a healthier donor. You get it treated for a while. Pills or something."
She shrugs at the cabinets. "You died."
While he's still in bed the Chief comes by with the tech guys from the 41st, and they take his new fingerprints and retinals and ask him the questions on his IDV list. He forgot about that thing (it was three years ago and he thought it was a stupid test and made Callahan write most of his questions), but it's still him, so all the answers are right.
His signature is wobbly. The doctor tells him he'll get used to the new fingers.
The Chief shakes his hand. "It's a victory for the unions," he says, "you should be very proud."
They put the new ident chip under his skin, and when he grips the orange he can see the little square outline against the bones of his wrist.
The brass makes the guys at the precinct go to LOFT meetings; Stephen only finds out when Callahan calls him after the first one.
"We're not supposed to tell you," she says.
He pushes hospital food around on the plate, thinks about the guys at the precinct sitting through a day of sensitivity training. "How'd it go?"
There's a pause that tells him everything.
"They showed us clips of Modern Love. Have you seen that fireman?"
He laughs, because he doesn't know what else to do.
After he's had a week with the trauma counselor, Marlene takes him home from the hospital, and they manage to have a conversation before Stephen realizes it's because she's looking at the road and not at him.
How did I die? he'd asked the doctor, and the doctor had said, That's the least of your worries now.
She's put fresh sheets in the guest room, a stack of towels on the chair, like she does for all their visitors.
"I'm sorry," she says, rearranges the towels.
He understands. It's weird for him to see himself in the mirror. He can't imagine looking at him.
After she showers, he goes into the bathroom while the mirror's still fogged. He washes his face six times, trying to memorize the new planes of his skull.
The shower still smells like her soap.
The psychiatrist at the hospital told him about this other guy—Roger Barron, he was forty, he fell off his motorcycle, and Stephen can feel the dent in the skull where it struck the pavement and shattered, there's a plate there now, and he sat up all night and thought about the doctor telling Barron's mother that their son was dead, that she might see him next week on the street and he'd still be dead, and he called Callahan to get pictures of Barron's family so if someone ever saw him and burst into tears he would know who they were.
He and Marlene sift through brochures that the counselors gave them. They get sick of the graphics of people holding hands on beaches with captions like FIND YOUR OLD INTIMACY ALL OVER AGAIN, and eventually they pick Full Transplants, Full Donors, because the people in the brochure looked a little less enthusiastic.
The group leader is a fat woman with curly black hair and a pink sweater a size too tight, and when they come in she shakes their hands and looks at each of them keenly, as if she can divine which one of them is in the borrowed body.
"It's me," he says, and the woman says, "Well, of course," ushers them to their seats.
They all repeat some bullshit about affirming the soul and thinking of the body as a vessel, and Stephen begins to wonder if he should have picked a brochure with happier people on it.
"Let's hear from the first-timers," the leader says.
"This is my first FT," Stephen says, wonders why no one's laughing before he realizes Callahan isn't here.
The woman ignores it and looks at Marlene. "What are you feeling right now?"
Marlene says, "Lost. Alone. I mean, I know it's him, but I can't. I can't see him as him. I don't know how."
"That's why we're here," says the fat woman. "I want you to look at him right now and tell him what you've just told us, and then we'll all talk about ways you could work towards a better relationship."
Marlene glances at him. "I want to stop missing you," she says, drops her gaze.
Stephen keeps looking at Marlene, willing her to find him.
Work is a relief. Dead people don't give a shit what you used to look like.
Callahan has coffee on his desk when he walks in.
"About fucking time," she says, hands him the file she's reading. "Who did it?"
He sets an orange on the desk. "I just got here."
"What, the new body can't read?"
He laughs, opens the folder, starts looking for a motive.
The guys take him to lunch, and he thinks about asking Callahan, but the guys have always been a little weird about her. Today they wouldn't even look at her, and it's not like they won't see each other in half an hour anyway.
Lunch is the cart on the corner ("Thought we'd go high-class," Johnson says, claps him on the back, and everyone laughs too loudly), and he gets three hot dogs. He's not that hungry, but someone else is paying.
"So what happened?" he asks between bites of hot dog. "I mean, I died, but how?"
The guys look at each other, and Johnson starts yelling at the hot dog guy about how much mustard is "a little," and Stephen doesn't bring it up again.
Marlene leaves a message on his phone, and she cries through the first half, and he wonders why until he remembers his old voice is still on his phone ident.
He calls, squeezes the orange in his hand in time with the rings.
"You okay?" he asks when she picks up.
There's a pause as she places his voice. "Yes. I just. It took me by surprise."
"I know, babe," he says, is glad he can't see her flinching. "So what's going on?"
"I can't make the group tonight," she says. "Bonnie's invited me over."
"Sure," he says. "Tell her hi. We'll go next week. See you soon."
She's supposed to say, "Not if I see you first."
He has the dead phone to his ear when Callahan sits down, donut in her mouth and a coffee in each hand.
He hangs up and reaches for a coffee.
"Fuck you," she says, lifts it out of his way. "This is mine. You went out with the boys' club." She bottoms-up one of the cups, huge gulps.
"This body is addicted to caffeine. The coffee's medical."
"Then you'd better fill that up before you get a headache," she says, throws the empty at him.
He catches it. "Want to go to a support group?"
"Hello again, Stephen, welcome," the fat woman greets them, hugs all around.
Callahan gives her a shit-eating grin, takes Stephen's arm like they're at winter formal.
There aren't as many couples here tonight; a few union guys who keep shifting in their seats, a lanky girl in the corner who's smoking a Golden Plus. Stephen can smell it across the room. He misses smoking. As soon as his asthma is cured he's starting.
They take the circle, and while they recite the thing about the vessel the girl holds the cigarette an inch from her mouth and takes drags between responses. No one asks her to put it out.
"Thomas, did you want to start us off tonight?"
The girl holds up her hand, ashes behind her. "No."
"You must have some great stories."
The girl raises an eyebrow. "Just the one."
Callahan laughs, and the girl winks at her.
The fat woman casts about for another victim. "Stephen, how are things at home?"
"Holy shit," says Callahan, "you ask that in public?"
Stephen says, "We're doing better, I think. I keep wanting to know more about—about this body. I wish I knew how all this happened."
Callahan crosses her arms, looks at him.
A balding man in his thirties shakes his head. "No, man, you don't. I found my body's parents, like, I just wanted to figure out why I was so fucking unhappy, and he slapped me and she screamed a lot about how I was the devil sent to torture her or something. I mean, that's a fucked-up family. No wonder the guy shot himself."
"Yeah," Stephen says, "but he donated his whole body. That's a really selfless thing. For Roger, too. I mean, that's a good deed."
"Most people only have one good deed in them," says Thomas, chews on her long hair, and no one has anything to say to that.
After the group, Thomas comes up to them, and Stephen looks at her breasts and gives up trying to be cool.
"Didn't they have the right body?"
Thomas takes a drag. "Dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, A pair of tits."
Thomas brings Stephen home with her, tells Callahan she's not invited.
"Too many women," Thomas says, "sorry," steers Stephen towards her sleek blue car.
Callahan follows them. "You're not a woman," she says casually, "you're a boy with stolen tits."
Thomas drops into the car, starts the engine with a roar.
Stephen crosses to the passenger side, and Callahan follows him, stands on the other side of the open door, stares him down.
Stephen drops his eyes, watches Thomas tugging at her shirt.
"Have a good night, Callahan," he says.
Callahan says, "Stephen, don't do this."
When he meets her eyes, she's looking at him the way she always has, like nothing is different, like he's still himself.
He wishes he knew her secret, because he's lost himself.
"I don't know what else to do," he says, closes the car door.
He watches her in the rearview mirror until they turn a corner and she's lost to sight.
Thomas makes a plate of sandwiches.
"I'm a terrible cook," she says, "good for nothing," and crushes thyme in her hands.
Stephen looks around and wonders how Thomas lives with so many mirrors.
"You're married?" she asks when they're eating.
Stephen nods. "Marlene."
"It won't last," Thomas says. "The FTs all end up with each other. It's such a fucking meat market at these support groups, it's a joke."
He imagines her naked, ashing over the edge of the bed. "Is that what you were doing there?"
Thomas shrugs, picks something dark and green out of her sandwich. "After the first rush of genderplants they stopped doing them, so the stupid saps who offed themselves after that ended up still same-gender and usually ugly to boot. Some of them have rich parents, though, so they get whatever they need, and if it's a dick Janey wants it's a dick she gets."
The idea throws him, and he wishes Callahan was here. "How?"
Thomas shrugs. "I slit my wrists," she says. "Keeps the blood in the brain longer. You can shoot yourself as long as you hit something vital they can't repair in time. Some assholes suffocated, and then even when they got another body they were fucking morons. Like, think ahead."
Thomas drops the sandwich, leans back in her chair to pull out her cigarettes.
"So I drop in. Never know when you'll see an old friend," she says, lifts her bangs, blows smoke into her sandwich.
"You need some new friends."
She looks at him. "I'm making some."
Marlene's in the kitchen when he gets home. He reaches for a dish towel and starts drying dishes, and she hands them to him carefully, one by one, the same dishes as always.
After a minute he asks, "How was Bonnie? Still after Charles?"
A tiny pause. "Of course."
"Still using pie?"
"She's up to cupcakes now. Says they're more personal."
They smile back and forth.
She's taped Modern Love, and they watch the couple who's trying to have a baby and the couple who is about to lose out on their dream house, and the FT firefighter runs into an ex-girlfriend. When he explains who he is, the girl makes faces and says something that's drowned out by the laugh track.
The girl looks like Thomas, Stephen thinks.
"'Lene, can I kiss you?"
She keeps her eyes closed, which he thinks is fair enough.
Callahan changes in the men's locker room. She says it's because the boys could use a thrill; Stephen knows she just hates to be left out.
When he comes in she's shouting at Johnson.
" —none of your fucking business!" she yells, and absently Stephen checks that her gun hand is empty.
"Of course you'd say that," someone shouts from the can.
"I'm his partner," she says, "and I hear any of this bullshit again and I'll break your wrists."
She sees him and stops short, has to place him a second, and when she walks past him he can feel a hollow where they used to be partners.
He goes to his locker and drops his gym bag in it, pulls out an orange.
"Was that about the size of my new dick or something?" he asks the room.
Nobody answers, and the orange must be too small, because when he grips it his fingernails sink through the skin.
At their desk he says, "Listen, if there's anything—"
"I've got you," Callahan says, and it's true.
"Okay." He sits on his side, flips through a list of alibis, is glad she's on his side.
The guest bed has lumps, and eventually he gives up on sleep and looks up Thomas in the ID.
The precinct's Internal Database has a lot of pictures of FTs (mostly cops and firefighters to begin with, worst use of union dues he's ever seen).
He finds Thomas right away, biting her lip for the camera, wearing a shirt thin enough that he can see her nipples through the fabric.
It would be easier to start over, he thinks before he can stop himself. This body's betraying him. This body wants her.
How did this happen to him?
There's a lot of bullshit from the brass about FT, about how important it is for cops and firefighters to get a second chance as a reward for bravery in the field, about the union riots and the 29 Unions Transplant Priority Legislation. The anti-TPL testimonials are from kids who were shot and scientists whose work is unfinished. One headline screams 'FIGHTING FIRE WITH PHIRE' about Dr. James Phire, who's dying without finishing his work and can't get an FT. He spends two pages yelling at some guy from Ladder 14 who got FTed out of his body when he was burned to death at a scene.
"My vaccine could save millions," he says near the end of the article. "He saved only himself."
There's an article in a soft-touch magazine about how man has finally cheated death, and Stephen gives up reading that, because he cheated death but Roger clearly didn't, so.
He needs to talk, just to hear a voice that isn't his new one.
Callahan's awake, of course. In ten years she's never been asleep when he called.
"Either fuck Thomas or go to bed," she says when she picks up.
He doesn't answer, and for a long time she stays on the line and he listens to her breathing because it's something he knows.
"How did I die?" he asks.
The line goes dead.
The precinct is empty this time of night, he thinks. No one in the file room.
Callahan reached for her gun before the suspect had fully drawn, but the suspect was faster. More practice.
Stephen jumped in front of her just as the suspect's gun went off, but when Stephen fell she didn't look at him, never took her eyes off the suspect. The gun stayed rock-steady in her hands.
When the suspect aimed again his gun clicked empty.
She shot anyway.
She could have taken the shot before; it's written on her face as she pulls the trigger, as the bullet slices clean through the guy's head. She was ready before. She could have shot in time.
Stephen knows she's behind him, he can feel her in the doorway without looking, and there's the pause she uses with the guys at the intake desk when she's waiting for them to look her in the eye and promise her something.
He sits back in the chair, keeps his eyes on the playback, tries not to throw up.
"I didn't know what else to do," she says.
On the screen she drops to the ground and presses the heels of both hands against his wound. She mouths something to him over and over, but the quality's a little grainy and he can't tell what she said.
She forgot to drop the gun, and on the playback the butt digs into his sternum when she rocks forward, her wrists sinking into the hole in his chest.
He touches his ribs like there will be a mark.
After a minute of watching the loop he turns around to ask her what she said, but she's already gone.
He must have bad hearing now. He knows when she leaves a room; he knows her footsteps.
He feels hollowed out, still breathing through a gaping wound. The doctors have wasted their time.
Thomas keeps enough liquor in her house even for him, and after five or six drinks he can think about it without getting sick.
"Why did I do that?" he asks.
He tries to remember, but all he knows is what the camera saw. Whatever he felt is gone.
Thomas drinks from the bottle, and it leaves a ring of lip gloss on the rim as she pours him another. "I wouldn't worry about it," she says. "We only have one good deed in us."
She drives him home with one hand on the wheel and one hand on his knee. He leans back in his seat, imagines Callahan watching him in the rearview mirror, keeping tabs on her mistake.
"You're up early," says Marlene when she comes out of the bedroom. Her robe is knotted closed. "Everything all right?"
He shrugs, thinks about Marlene in the hospital being grateful to Callahan, about Callahan bringing him a mirror when no one else wanted him to see what had happened. "Just have a lot on my mind."
She cleans up the morning paper, stacking and restacking the paper until it's a perfect rectangle. Never looks up.
She picks up the phone on the first ring, looks disappointed that it's not for her.
Callahan must have done it as soon as she got back from the precinct, after he wouldn't look at her. The bullet went through the brain from forehead to spinal cord. Nothing to salvage.
There's a DNT order on the bed, but it's unnecessary. She was a steady shot.
Marlene stands on one side of him at the funeral, Thomas on the other, and when Stephen follows Thomas to the blue car Marlene doesn't look surprised.
Thomas has a mirror above her bed, and Stephen looks at his face in the pinkish dark, sees Callahan dropping to her knees and covering his wound with her hands, trying to stop the blood, telling him something he'll never hear.
He makes a fist around the open air, the ropes of his muscle and bone.