Two light dabs into the blue, one in the green, another in the white. Stroke.
Vary the pressure. Master the orientation.
“Don’t over-mix, Jay,” he said quietly to himself. The canvas was about halfway done, but there’s still a lot missing. He placed the palette down on a wooden stool, the same one that he had handcrafted in wood shop class back in high school. Looking back on the day he brought it home to show his dad, he remembered how thoroughly impressed he was.
“Outstanding craftsmanship, Jay! You’re missing one important thing, though.”
“What’s that,” he asked with genuine curiosity.
His dad pulled out his handy Swiss Army knife from his shirt pocket, flipped the stool over, and began making incisions underneath the seat. “There,” he said, proudly staring at the initials “B. H. and J. H.” he left in Jesse’s stool.
He smiled to himself as he stared at the stool, which had withstood the beatings of plenty moving vans and airplane rides. This was the life of an Army brat.
Jesse took a sip of bourbon and stared at his painting. “Almost there…”
He heard his phone ring from the kitchen counter, finished off his glass, and made his way over.
“I thought we agreed you wouldn’t call me on the weekends.”
“Sorry, Picasso, but this couldn’t wait,” the voice squealed into the phone.
Jesse sighed with a slight smirk. “Make it good.”
“I pushed your OvO code to Darryl. The team loved it. They decided not to outsource AND, not only that, they want you to lead the project.”
He was speechless for a few seconds, placed the phone down and put it on speaker. “That’s… that’s, uh… that’s fantastic, Mike. Thanks, man.”
“Well don’t sound so excited,” he responded sarcastically. “This is only a large opportunity given to someone who had slim chances.”
“No, believe me, I’m very, very grateful. I just… I’ll see you Monday.”
He hangs up the phone and pours himself another glass of the aged bourbon. The taste makes his face sour. Jesse stands emotionless for a few seconds. The muted expression evolves into a frown. His eyes well up as he lays his head on his marble countertop and begins to sob.
His weekday mornings went by routine routine: wake up, wash face, brush teeth, shower, brew coffee, get dressed, drink coffee, grab bagel, go. The bike ride to work was always smooth. It’s when he can focus on the one thing that truly matters: his art. The weather in Seattle is modest around this time, partly cloudy and light rainfall. The discount store poncho he bought two months ago still kept him dry in those light rainfalls.
At his desk, Jesse kept his head buried in his computer. His mission was the same as always: maintain minimal contact with coworkers. The less they knew about his life, and the less he knew about theirs, the better. Somehow Mike was the only one who didn’t really understand social cues. He was as obnoxious as he was optimistic. He and Jesse were two of four tech leads at the startup, Bellum. Jesse’s OvO code was in the works for months. He spent sleepless nights fine tuning the prototype for internal beta testing.
Leading this project was a big win for him, though he didn’t necessarily feel victorious. He wasn’t going to tell Mike about it either, no matter how obnoxious he was.
“There’s no aspect of this at which you should be so…” Mike paused to size Jesse up as he stood over him eating a granola bar. “Stale.”
“Honestly, Mike, I’m happy. I am. I just need to clear my head a bit before I take this project on.”
“OK… and how long is it gonna take to clear your head?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I do not know.”
“Well we gotta expedite this process, Jesse. The department needs the next segment of code in a week.” Mike stared at the granola bar. “You know what it is? It’s this tree hugger bird seed shit you like to eat. Let me treat you to some real lunch.”
“I don’t have enough fiber in my diet.”
“Fiber? Why are we talking about fiber?”
He began to repeat himself, then stopped abruptly and stared at Mike through narrowed eyes. “Is it happening again? Nice, Mike. Real nice.”
“Wait. Were we talking about something?”
Jesse moved to Seattle 3 years ago, upon landing the job at Bellum. His father passed away months prior due to heart failure. When Jesse met Mike, he also quickly found out he suffers from short-term memory loss due to a nearly-fatal kayaking accident. The rapids tipped him over and he suffered a terrible concussion. He woke up after a week not being able to tell anyone who he was. Though his memory had improved, there was still a long way to go. “Certain things just… I can remember them, but I can’t remember them,” he said. It was probably the one thing that tainted his optimistic streak.
“Let’s go, buddy.” He led Mike over to the water cooler and got him a drink, then recapped the last few minutes. As usual.
The next day was no different from the last, except slightly. Jesse spent all night working on his painting when he should’ve been working on his code. It was due soon.
At work, he’d cursed himself. Darryl, Bellum’s CEO & Founder, wanted to know Jesse’s plans for OvO, a program Jesse conceptualized to aide those with vision problems who relied heavily on technology in their daily lives.
Darryl was a very stoic individual. Jesse had been around the world and Darryl was the first black man he had ever met who dedicated himself to J. Crew button up shirts, khaki slacks and boat shoes (L.L. Bean boots if it were ever cold out.) He grew up in northern Pennsylvania and went to predominantly white schools all of his life. He found comedians like Dane Cook and Anthony Jeselnik “hilarious”, and Dave Chappelle and Michael Che “uncomfortable”. A rotation of conservative podcasts were always on in his office, from Rush Limbaugh to Benson and Harf.
Not much was known about his private life, but based on the fact he wore a gold cross on his neck, one can assume he was a devout Christian. Jesse had a… thing… with religious extremists, and all people who credit their irrational mannerisms to a being they couldn’t see for that matter. But as long as Darryl kept it professional, there’d be no need to take it to H.R.
“The talented Jesse Hill. Excited about this new program, I must say,” said Darryl. He came to see Jesse’s coding progress for OvO.
“It’s coming together. Thanks for approving.”
“Absolutely. Show me what you got.”
“There are a few bugs in the software. Trying to get around that,” Jesse said through indifferent lips. “Just gotta restructure the code base.”
Darryl leaned forward and looked closer at Jesse’s screen–Jesse had a thing about personal space. He stroked his five o’clock shadow in deep thought. “I think this has the potential to be great, Jesse. I do.” Darryl veils his concern rather well, except Jesse was even better at seeing through it. “The program seems a little… bulky, though.”
“Just a tiny bit. Not to worry, I do have a suggestion!”
“Of course you do, prick,” Jesse thought. Instead, he looked up at his boss with a half smile and said, “I’d love to hear it.”
“What if we gut the base?”
Jesse was stunned for a second. He paused and thought carefully about his response. “Gutting the code base means cutting off SQL. That changes a lot.”
“Well, everything. The functionality, the programming, the direction. Open Vision Optimization is intended to revolutionize how the visually impaired interact with technology. Gutting the base code is like… scratching a cornea, or cutting an Achilles tendon.”
“Or, it’s an open opportunity to really revolutionize, which is what this company is about,” Darryl shot back. Jesse had quickly confirmed that he had no clue what he was even speaking about.
There were two others in the room: Mike, and a software engineer named Tuck. They both communicated with their eyes in the midst of this awkward moment.
“We can still be revolutionary with this application. We just need this to interact with a database. I thought you liked where this was going.”
“I said it had potential,” Darryl replied calmly yet assertively. It was a tone that said “tread lightly” or “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. Jesse had much more he wanted to say, but he kept it professional.
“With all due respect, Darryl, OvO is a service many around the world can use. It needs layers. Otherwise we’d have simple-minded, one-dimensional functions.”
They stared at each other for an intense four seconds. Darryl slipped both hands into the pockets of his perfectly creased pants and walked out.
That afternoon Mike had pressured him into happy hour. Jesse figured it was to “decompress” after an intense day, which he also figured would give Mike an excuse to be his regular, obnoxious self, but Mike was also treating. So he decided to suck it up and go.
“Gin and tonic for me, and whatever my forlorn friend over here is having,” Mike said jokingly, patting Jesse on the shoulder.
“I’ll take a Jim Beam. Neat please.”
As the bartender went off to mix their drinks, Jesse turned to Mike. “Was I being too much?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, combative. Was I too combative? Did I step out of line with Darryl?”
“No, man. Absolutely not,” he replied. “Darryl’s just… dare I say it, a micromanaging religious extremist. He just keeps calm for rapport, except everyone sees right through it.”
The bartender returns and hands their drinks over.
“It’s like… why bother inviting me to lead a project you want to lead yourself? I spent so much time on the prototype alone,” he reflected as he downed the bourbon, followed by making the sour face.
Jesse never really liked bourbon. It was something that reminded him a lot of his dad. In his old life, Jesse would admire the way his dad sat in his favorite arm chair with a glass of Jim Beam, neat, and read the paper. He gave Jesse his first taste of it on his fifteenth birthday to “put some hair on your chest”. They’d do this while silently accompany one another on Sunday afternoons right before the game.
His dad was not only a war hero, but an everyday hero as well, and he wanted to be just like him.
“Besides, Darryl clearly knows nothing beyond basic level coding. I bet he can’t even do commands in HTML. How the fuck did he become the CEO of a successful startup?”
“Money,” replied Mike. “Dude has had access his whole life. He comes from a family of doctors and lawyers and politicians. Not to mention he’s republican. Wealth gives people like Darryl authority.”
“What exactly did he say to you when he was interested OvO?”
“I’d tell you, but I can’t remember.” They share a laugh. It was in this moment that Jesse wasn’t annoyed by Mike. He began to loosen up after their third round, and although he didn’t anticipate it, the more Jesse drank, the more he became an open book. He shared the deep history of his late father, Lieutenant General Byron Joseph Hill, having to move constantly as a kid, and how he didn’t know much about his mother due to her abandoning the family. He even shared his love for arts and crafts, how it started off as an exercise he’d picked up in anger management as a kid and blossomed into a passion over time.
“Been here 31 years and I don’t understand the world too well. I barely understand my own, but that’s why I paint. I try to make a window into my own world, my thoughts, my joys, my pains,” he paused to sip from his glass. “My trauma.”
“Shit. You’re deep as fuck,” Mike stared down into his glass and took a deep breath before finishing it off. He ordered their last round. “Maybe this art shit is your saving grace, you know? If Darryl keeps this stick up his ass you could always become the next Picasso.”
“Yeah, well, till that day comes I enjoy my solitude. Besides, this new one is…” he stopped.
“I mean you’ve gotten pretty personal tonight. I feel like I know you more within the last half hour than I have the last few years. What’s it about?”
Jesse hesitated. Through his drunken thoughts he’d questioned if the meaning behind his painting was ever anyone else’s business. He became warm with bubbling rage, but briefly. Jesse had to remind himself that Mike wasn’t the enemy, his past was. If there was anything he’d learned in anger management growing up, it was that confrontation can lead to reconciliation. Maybe saying it aloud was the first step.
“It’s called ‘Playgrounds In Geneva’. My mom left my dad when I was 10. I remember the fight they had before she stormed out. She wanted a life of her own and felt like she was living in my dad’s shadow. He literally begged for her to stay and work things out for my sake. Funny thing is she didn’t seem too concerned with me. The next thing I knew they were filing for divorce and she moved back to Birmingham, where she grew up. We spent half of the summer that year in Switzerland. My dad had some buddies in the armed forces there and did some bureaucratic work. I remembered trying to befriend their kids but not having much luck. I had to dress up real fancy all the time. Representing my dad and the US, I guess. We’d go to the neighborhood playground–which looked like a death trap, straight out of a horror movie. I mean, by no modern standard should it have been deemed safe for children but there it was: a jungle gym that was ten feet tall, steel slides that could choke you out if your clothes got snagged in the loose bolts, swings sure to launch you across the park, seesaws with exposed splinters. I’d be by myself while the rest of them either watched from afar or ignored me. On one of our last days there, I decided I was going to dress myself and try to enjoy the playground. I swiped clothes from the son of one of my dad’s friends–we were about the same size so it worked. I wore this short set of his. It had rocket ships all over it, and I stepped proudly onto the playground, finally feeling like myself. Except I forgot to take out the pink ribbon in my hair.”
Jesse stopped and looked at Mike, who seemed as confused as he’d expected. At this point, he figured he might as well finish.
“It was another one of those days where I was alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. I was happy being me, the way I felt on the inside. Things were going well until I felt something hit me. Some kid thought it’d be fun to throw a pebble, soon others joined in. I could still feel the stinging. I tried to hide but they kept following me, chanting very mean things. One lucky bastard got me in the eye, then the other. The last thing I remember was being blocked off before I got a swift kick in the gut.”
His eyes were full with tears. “I woke up in the hospital, barely able to see. Both my eyes were swollen shut. Had some broken ribs, scratches and bruises and a broken ankle. My dad was the one who saved me. He heard the chants from down the block. That’s how loud they roared. I remember he was sitting right next to me in the hospital, asking if I was okay. I don’t know why but I felt the need to tell him right then and there. That I felt like I was born in the wrong body.”
He had never shared this story with anyone before. Granted, Jesse had never been this drunk with anyone before. “I was born Jessica Lucille Hill,” he continued. “Named after my maternal grandmother and great grandmother. I hated that name, so in elementary school I made sure everyone called me Jesse. Then, it became more than just my name. Everything about me felt so… incorrect. My father was confused at first. I mean, we both were. But I was so young, and he just fell right into being the support system I needed. He was there for every consultation, every operation, every breakdown, every recovery.”
He felt scared and vulnerable, but unpacking that moment brought him a sense of relief. He looked over at Mike who was surprisingly flustered and wiped away tears. “…And your mom? Did you ever see her or talk her again?”
Jesse shook his head in disappointment. “Luckily my father was granted full custody. He said we’d be just fine, the two of us. And he stood by that. I owe him everything. She didn’t care for me as her daughter so she definitely wouldn’t care for me as her son.”
“Dude. I had no idea. I’m so sorry this all happened to you,” he tried to provide as much comfort as he could. “Listen. This is all new to me. I’ve never met someone who’s….”
“Trans, Mike. I’m trans.”
“Listen, I know I kind of dropped a bomb here. I’m sorry, man. I’ve been having a rough week and the drinks and…”
“Hey. Stop. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been this shell of a human being. I’ve always known there would be more to you, and I’m glad you were comfortable enough to share with me. I got your back.”
They embraced each other for what felt like a long time. Jesse checked his watch and decided he’d had enough to drink and headed home.
He sat at his computer and opened the encrypted file for OvO with every intention of gutting the code base, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Jesse’s original plan would be going against Darryl’s wishes, but it would be going along with his own experience and intuition. Time had gone by before he realized he hadn’t typed a single thing. He closed the file and shut his computer down.
He began to drag his tired feet across the polished wood flooring from his home office to his bathroom, but the unfinished painting in his living room caught his eye on the way there. He walked over and turned on the lamp that hovered above it. The warm lighting made the perfect contrast to the Seattle city backdrop from his floor-to-ceiling windows beyond the painting. Jesse pondered the details he had translated from his mind to the canvas, and the blank spaces he had left to fill in, then pulled up his stool and grabbed his palette. He took a deep breath.
“Let’s finish this.”
Three dabs in the white. One in the green. Blend carefully.
Hard strokes on the black. Keep your lines clean. Focus on detail.
It wasn’t until the first beam of the morning sun met his pupils that Jesse realized he had been up all night. It didn’t matter, though. His work was complete. He was satisfied. The alarm clock from his bedroom blared. He sleepily went through his morning routine: wash face, brush teeth, shower, brew coffee, get dressed, drink coffee, grab bagel, go.
He waved at Mike on his way in with a smile.
“Someone’s glowing this morning,” he exclaimed while looking pleasantly surprised.
Jesse responded with a wink before sitting by his computer. Now that he’d finished his painting, he can channel his focus on OvO. All components of the first wave were exactly the way he had planned it to be. Though extremely ambitious, and honestly rebellious, Jesse was content with his prototype. He saved the file on his desktop, laptop and external hard drive, then placed a copy onto a flash drive and put it in a manila envelope marked ‘For Darryl: CONFIDENTIAL’. Just then, Mike walked over to him with two coffees and placed one on his desk.
“Hey Mike! How are you man?” he asked politely.
“Besides a little headache, I’m pretty good! How are YOU, though? You look like a very happy zombie. Did you sleep?”
Jesse chuckled. “Listen, the bags are worth it. I can’t thank you enough for last night. That talk was what I really needed. For the first time in my life I felt like I had some sort of purpose. I didn’t feel like… a coded program. I took all of that and I finished ‘Playgrounds’! It’s a masterpiece, man! We should really hang out more–I mean, if that’s OK with you, of course. I feel like I’m seeing through brand new eyes, you know? Isn’t it great?”
Mike stared blankly, chuckled nervously, then tilted his head in confusion. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I’m a little lost. ‘Playgrounds’? What talk? What happened last night?”
Jesse’s gleeful smile began to fade.