It was an unseasonably warm day in February, and I was walking through slushy sidewalks to the train station after work with three of my coworkers. Two of them were talking to each other about EBT.
“I mean, two-fifty a month — I’m not starving without it or anything, but that’s the difference between being able to, like, make the food I want to eat, and not being able to.”
“Right, like, I don’t have to be constantly doing math in my head.”
Sara was short and femme and had pink hair, Fern had been taking low-dose testosterone for six months, Rebecca had jet-black hair and bangs that hovered high and skeptical above her thin eyebrows. And then there was me, the only trans girl in the group, just sort of towering over them. We formed some piece of the inevitable scenery in the part of Brooklyn centered around Broadway and Myrtle, doubtlessly connected in some people’s minds with raising rents and the encroachment of cafés like the one we worked at, which in addition to overpriced coffee also sold a random assortment of books, dried flowers, crystals, tarot decks, incense, and so on.
When we got back to the apartment it was about eight and it was pitch dark outside. Rebecca reheated some leftovers and disappeared into her bedroom for the evening, flicking on the lamp that scattered pink light around her room before closing the door with her foot. I ate some crackers and arranged myself in front of my mirror. I heard the beginnings of some HBO show through the wall as I did my makeup, and then she found her headphones.
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It’s taken a year of living here, but I think I finally like my bedroom. It’s narrow — my queen-sized bed takes up most of it, and the only other piece of furniture is a small table with a big mirror with lights around the rim. I found it on the street a while ago — obviously, the lights didn’t work, which is why it was on the street, but those can be fixed with a soldering iron, a few trips to the hardware store, and some patience. I had one window, with bars over it, that gave a good view of the brick row houses with arched windows and beautiful tall stoops on Wyckoff Avenue. I had hung a translucent purple curtain over it, which fluttered a bit because I always kept the window open just a crack, even in the gross, wet winters. When I sat there, my face brilliantly illuminated, with the sounds of the street filtering up into my little, cell-like room, I felt calm and protected in the way a bird must feel in the ample knot of a great tree.
I took a little orange pill — Adderall XR, 20 mg — from the bottle I kept in the drawer of the vanity. I considered taking two, but it wasn’t going to be that kind of night. A visit to a meaningful ex, then a house party, no afters. I had to be at my best, but one was enough.
Then, clothes. I slid open the door to my closet, which was overflowing with stuff I got from sample sales and online. Clothes are my one serious vice. I couldn’t afford to buy any of this stuff new, obviously, and even buying it resale made dents in my bank account I struggled to justify to myself. But, you know, being trans, you have to put in a lot more effort to be taken seriously, or that was what I told myself. After some deliberation I chose an Eckhaus Latta top with an opalescent, sequined texture like fish scales, and some high-waisted black pants I had thrifted and tailored to add pleats around the hips. Over top of it, a green leather trench coat. This would turn heads, I thought, angling my body in my mirror, feeling slightly giddy as the amphetamines kicked in.
An hour later I was standing in front of a row house on Bedford, shivering. It had gotten colder and somehow damper, and it felt like the streets were being scooped out by wind. The door opened.
“Come in, come in,” Ambrose said before I could even see his face clearly. I followed him as he scampered up the steps.
The first time I met him was at a party uptown, back when neither of us had transitioned yet. He was wearing a white lace dress, and had his eyes closed and was spinning in circles around a stripper pole installed into the middle of a living room floor. I walked up to him and placed my hands on his shoulders, and he stopped, opened his eyes, and looked up at me.
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The eight months we dated were disastrous for both of us. We were both mentally ill and violently in denial about being trans. We wanted to preserve our sense of being normal, functional, heterosexual, pre professional; when that didn’t work out, we resorted to becoming codependent, talking about getting married, having bigger and bigger fights, clinging and clawing at each other like the proverbial drowning people. Finally, one night he stabbed me in the arm with a fountain pen and I had to get it removed in the ER. He went with me and apologized the whole time. When I got discharged at four in the morning, I finally just told him that I needed to not see him for a long time, and that he should lose my number. He sputtered and wailed on the street, his long red hair plastered to his face with snot. He said I love you I love you I love you over and over and it felt like he was stabbing me again. I walked away from him, feeling weightless, not sure how I was supposed to feel beyond that I was “making the right decision.”
Two years passed. We maintained sporadic contact as the two of us separately transitioned and moved to Brooklyn, aware of each other in the archipelago of queer friend groups that were offshoots of the same queer friend groups from when we were in school. Then, one day, he texted me.
I sorted through my feelings and decided that I wanted to see him. I had forgiven him by that point — I guess by then I thought about the things he did less as “ways he hurt me” and more like biographical data. Both of us had in all likelihood spent long hours processing the relationship, which I knew was formative for both of us, talking about it with friends and therapists and subsequent partners. Then, probably, we had started to think about it again, in a somewhat different light, once both of us made the difficult decision to transition.
I couldn’t tease him, or lie to him, or try to smooth over anything, the way I might have when I was younger. Those were the games college kids played; we had to be, at minimum, honest with each other now.
I looked up at his ass as he led me up the stairs to his apartment. It was the same ass, just in bigger pants. This reassured me.
His new apartment turned out to be completely empty except for a standing desk, a bike, a cat tree, and a precarious stack of books next to the standing desk, which just had his laptop and laptop charger on it. The light came down harsh and flat from the overhead lights. There weren’t even any boxes or anything. I heard him clatter around in the kitchen.
I sat on a patch of floor near the tall window on one side of the room. Through it, I could just make out the flickering lights of the Williamsburg Bridge from around a taller, newer building.
He came over to me with two negronis in wide, squat glasses. I indulged in checking him out. His face seemed to have gotten wider and more solid, and he had a little dusting of facial hair the same red as his buzz cut. His shoulders and arms had a new layer of dense, corded muscle, and when he pulled up the sleeve of his oversized striped shirt I traced the path of a vein up his forearm into his tricep with my eyes.
We had texted, so it wasn’t tense. I asked him why his apartment was so empty and he said nonchalantly that he was thinking about it as a sort of “spiritual project,” but also that his bookshelf, books, and table were at the apartment he used to share with Julie in Bed-Stuy. Julie had stopped responding to his texts. It sounded like he had explained this a lot of times before, and I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it.
After that was clarified, he asked me some very literal questions about my life. I told him:
1. That I live with Rebecca Travers and her girlfriend,
2. That yes, that means I see the quote-unquote “lesbian poets” around a lot, Rebecca being one of them,
3. That I work at that bookstore slash café where Rebecca was a manager. That yes, it’s an okay gig, one where, thank god, I was allowed to sit down while working a cash register and a computer with BookScan installed on it,
4. That I’m not seeing anyone, but mostly because I’m not trying, mostly because I feel like I’m in an “interim period” in my life. That transitioning made me warrier about the intentions of potential partners, and that yes, that’s kind of not ideal, but, like I said, interim period,
5. That yes, I know a lot more trans people now, definitely more than in school, but yeah, “queer community” is such a fucked concept, if you think about it, which I have.
In return, he told me:
1. After he broke up with Julie he started dating a cis man who made a lot of money and who was evidently a fetishist who was stringing him along,
2. This was obliquely related to Julie not giving him his furniture back — something about “boundaries,” about “disclosure,” about going to “get thrown around by some guy who smelled like dude sweat and cologne” (his words) and then getting in the same bed with his lesbian ex. Ambrose thought Julie “felt threatened” by him “exploring his sexuality” at all, despite the fact that he was always bisexual. This factors out to some kind of transphobia, apparently,
3. Julie was giving him the silent treatment, as were a host of her friends, presumably about his weird conduct after they broke up. He’d sort of been persona-non-grata’d in some dyke circles because of what happened there, which he said was “unfortunate,” but will “probably only last a few months,”
4. He had some work from home data-analyst job now. “Tech trans, you know,” he said. I did know, but I hadn’t met one. I just assumed they lived in, like, a different part of the city entirely or something, or had somehow managed to upload themselves to Twitter and Reddit. Also, that they were all girls. “Not all of us,” he said. “I’m trying to become the first male girlboss.” I could tell that he had rehearsed the joke or probably said it before.
During all of this catching-up we drank two negronis each, at one point relocating to the kitchen (also empty — one pair of dishes, no chairs) so he could make another round. After we had got the literal stuff out of the way, we were sort of at a loss. We lingered in the kitchen, him leaning against the countertop, me sitting on the windowsill next to a radiator. I sipped my third drink. I watched him staring at my breasts, which felt like the most sincere compliment he could give me.
“Yeah, I guess in sum, my life is pretty boring,” I said.
“Boring’s good,” he said, swiveling his head around as if just noticing the blankness of his apartment for the first time. “Boring means nothing’s going wrong.”
I raised my glass. It was almost irritating how comfortable I felt around him. It was like resuming the good parts of our relationship, as if nothing had happened, we had just traded genders and turned down the volume on the neuroticism. The physical distance between us felt good. I could plausibly keep him at exactly this length from me. He would be forever in the same room with me, but six feet apart. It was just as well that his life now seemed perfectly self-contained, finally stabilized. He had no room for me in it. Perhaps uncharacteristically, I was prepared for that, and I was happy for him.
~ ~ ~
Twenty minutes later we were in the train station and he was explaining the party we were going to for “maybe an hour.” He told me it would be “mostly Columbia people,” even though most of them had graduated by now and doubtlessly had jobs, lives, other contexts.
He sounded somehow less enthusiastic about it than I was. “We won’t have to stay for that long,” he said. “But it’ll be good to see everyone, you know?”
Since we both graduated, he had been hanging around all these people we both knew in college, but had recently started to seem unhappy about his newfound status of visible minority among them. It’s not like we were going to be the only emissaries from queer Brooklyn at this party, but, y’know, he used to be just another smart girl. Now, who knows?
That’s the thing about transitioning in your twenties, I guess; you start changing a lot right when everyone you used to know starts learning the fine art of staying put. I thought about saying this to him but thought better of it.
We got off the train in Queens. The blocks we walked through were strangely nonspecific in their character — low garages, row houses, and boxy office buildings interspersed with blank lots and suburban-looking New England houses. We finally arrived at an unassuming-looking three-story brick building on a long block of identical buildings. He texted someone to let us in.
The first thing you saw when going into that apartment was a large, beautiful circular mirror in a brass frame right next to the door. I watched my reflection as I let Ambrose take my coat off my bare shoulders. The mirror was so clean and polished it almost seemed to glow. Or maybe that was me glowing. Not to brag, but I looked really fucking good, and I was happy in a dumb unfeminist way to have a guy there to take my coat off at this fancy party.
Ambrose darted off, promising to get me a drink. I gradually came to understand that this apartment took up the entire first floor of the building and had the size and shape of a detached house in the suburbs. The different functions of an apartment weren’t all jammed on top of each other the way I was used to. The furniture was understated, and it all went together. Dub techno played from speakers on the floor. I automatically started comparing my taste to the taste of the hostesses. What would I have done differently, if I had this kind of money? This was usually a way I blunted my envy, but in this case it was hard to think of something I could improve on here. There was nothing yuppieish about it, nothing that suggested received ideas or clichés. I spent a while just standing in the entryway, swaying a bit as I carefully took in the scene.
The first people I saw, I knew pretty well, mostly from college. There were a few additions, partners and plus-ones. They had all mostly figured out how to turn their expensive degrees into careers that paid dividends in some way, be it money or clout or prestige. The guy in the brown shirt just got back from a year-long sojourn in Mexico, and the woman he was talking to was a semi-prominent cultural journalist who wrote about TikTok trends or something. There were a couple sad-faced people in the middle of law school or PhDs, and there were a few people who didn’t seem to do anything. I liked these people, despite myself. They bolstered my conviction that you can’t be all that interesting if you’re just another insider.
In the kitchen I ran into Yvette, one of the hostesses, an actually talented writer for whom this party was undoubtedly just a fun little distraction. She was leaning against the countertop, disinterestedly watching a guy in a white t-shirt doing a line of coke off a mirrored tray with a pewter frame. I walked up to her.
“Hey,” I said.
Her face lit up. “Veronica, hi,” she said, hugging me.
The music was loud, and I missed a lot of what she said to me at first. We had to shout to be heard.
“This place is so fucking cool,” I said. I proceeded to list off the virtues of the furniture, the decorations, the location, the music, the mirror by the front door, the appropriateness and good taste she had, her outfit.
“I feel like this is a good place to put down some roots,” she said, deflecting my compliments. “I love it out here. It finally feels like I have a home.”
“Do you own this place?”
“Rachel and I co-own it. Ambrose said it was like a ‘Boston marriage’ kind of situation. We’re just best friends who are, like, soulmates.”
“That’s beautiful,” I said sincerely. “I haven’t seen you for a fucking year,” I added.
“We have to catch up some time,” she agreed, then she tapped me on my shoulder and darted off.
Ambrose finally caught up to me with a glass of wine.
“This place is, like, so nice,” he said.
“An actual glass for wine at a house party,” I agreed. I inclined my head to the back door and he nodded. I fished in the pockets of my pants and found my little weed pen. The Adderall was hitting a little too hard; I had been more manic than I had intended with Yvette. I needed to cool off.
It was raining a little, but there was an ample awning over the door to the backyard. To my mild surprise, there were two trans girls out there smoking cigarettes. Ambrose seemed to know them.
“Wow, all the trans people are all outside to smoke, how original,” one of them said.
“This is just like Metro,” the other said.
I tried to recognize them as transmuted versions of guys I knew from college. They were both super early in transition, like less than a year probably, and dressed in a way that they probably thought was “dykey” but was really just unflattering and semi-closeted. Whenever I saw girls like that I wanted to take them downtown and force them to max out their credit cards. There’s only so much you can do with clothes and hair and makeup, but some people aren’t even trying.
“Veronica, you know Tristan and Esmé,” Ambrose said.
I did, I remembered now. Huh, wouldn’t have guessed. “Hi,” I said. “You both look great.”
“I love your outfit,” Tristan cooed. She was looking at me like she wanted to eat me.
“Thanks,” I said. I heard my voice come out crisp and neat on the syllable. I took a big rip from my weed pen.
“Can I have a hit of that?” Esmé said.
“Sure.” I handed it to her.
“Okay, me next, and then I have to go inside,” Ambrose said. He hadn’t brought his jacket. “I’m freezing.”
Esmé took two indulgently lengthy pulls on the pen and then handed it to Ambrose, who took a dainty little sip and then handed it to Tristan.
When he was gone, Tristan and Esmé looked at each other and smirked. Tristan hit the pen again and then passed it to Esmé.
“Didn’t think I’d run into him here,” Esmé said.
“I’m shocked he didn’t call us dolls,” Tristan said.
“He loves that word,” Esmé agreed. “It helps him feel like he has a chance with us.”
“It really completes the picture,” Tristan said. “You know, with the way he dresses, and the voice.”
“The voice?” I said pointedly. I felt suddenly protective of him. They hadn’t given me back my weed pen yet for what I decided was too long.
“Yeah, you know,” Tristan said. “The like, Humphrey Bogart impression. It’s worse when he’s drunk. I find it especially funny because he sounds like a gay little Muppet, so it only sort of works.”
“It works on someone,” Tristan said. “Straight girls,” she added dismissively.
“I mean, like, hypothetically, if I were a trans guy,” Esmé said, “I would have so many different gender expressions to choose from. And that was the one he went with.”
“Oh my god. Are we being mean?” Tristan said.
“He’s an abusive shithead, I don’t care,” Esmé said.
“Yeah,” Tristan agreed. “How’ve you been, V?” Tristan said.
I reached out and snatched the weed pen from her hand as she was in the middle of making some stupid hand gesture with it, and then I went back inside without saying anything.
The word abusive had completed the picture for me — that was what justified the gross, transphobic way they felt empowered to talk about him. Was it possible they were thinking about me, that those girls believed they were saying all that on my behalf? I didn’t really know where that story had ended up in the endless game of telephone that the “trans community” played with other people’s lives.
The other possibility, that those girls knew something I didn’t, and that he had caused some hurt somewhere outside of the people in this room, was significantly worse. I didn’t think he was capable of physically harming someone; this would inevitably be something murkier. I suddenly remembered the crass way he had talked about his ex-girlfriend earlier that night. Was it that? Had he been hiding details, subtly shifting the emphasis around? If I asked him about it more pointedly, and I would have to, he would have some countervailing story that partially exonerated him. And it would be true, or at least a version of the truth. That was the worst part. If he hurt someone else in the way he hurt me, it would require time to sort through. God knows I had to sort through it. I’d have to weigh the evidence, and then I’d have to take sides, because queers always make you take sides.
I’d wanted to let him back into my life because I had been very fond of him at one point. Then again, I had dumped him when I realized that his good intentions, his love, his admiration hadn’t prevented him from being a fountain of problems for me. Maybe I should have just stuck to that.
I took a lengthy, contemplative rip off the pen in the kitchen. I should have just gone out to the backyard again and asked those dorks what the fuck was up, but I was sure I would hear it from someone else. It was probably inevitable, actually.
A guy in the kitchen tried to engage me in conversation and I ducked to a quieter part of the room. I discreetly checked my bank account and decided I couldn’t get away with calling a car. I wondered how long I’d have to wait on the windy M train platform to get home, how much longer I’d have to wait if I stayed for another hour.
Fuck it, I thought, looking around at this room full of people suffering from an overabundance of options. I got what I needed out of this. I found the table with the liquor bottles and took a shot of bourbon, and then I made a lap toward the door.
I wanted to think about anything else. In the entryway, a woman and a man were halfway out the door with cigarettes in their mouths. The woman got my attention because I didn’t recognize her at all. She was wearing an outfit that should have made no sense but was actually sort of perfect. Her dress was made out of pale orange satin, and over top of it was another dress that was like a loose net that hung at an asymmetrical angle. Her boots were leather and went up to her knees. She pulled on the perfect coat over this ensemble. Unlike mine, hers actually looked warm enough for the weather.
Just at first glance, she was the most interesting person I had seen all night. I put my coat and shoes on and followed them out the door.
“Hey there,” she said as I opened the door. It was fully raining now, and the two of them were crowded under the awning.
“Shit, can I bum a cigarette?” I said. I was slurring my words a little bit. When did I become such a lightweight?
“Of course you can,” the girl said, reaching a hand into her purse. She went on talking to the man, who I also didn’t recognize. “Here. So, yeah, after term ends I’m flying out, but the surgery doesn’t happen for another couple weeks. It’s nice that I was able to get someone in the Bay Area, I guess, you know, right by my parents’ place in SF. And I told myself that I’d do another dissertation chapter in that time, ‘cause I’m gonna be, you know, recovering for the next month after that. I have it all planned out, I have all the sources arranged. It’s just a matter of putting words on paper.”
Surgery. Oh, got it. If her face hadn’t given her away, her voice would have. You could tell that it was a distinct choice on her part to keep the tenor and male resonance, but make the most of it nevertheless. Silky and bright and utterly distinctive.
“I feel that,” the guy said. “I mean, not in the sense where I’m getting my face peeled back in two months. The putting words on paper part.”
“Yeah? How’s the novel coming along?”
Something about how the guy talked about FFS irritated me. The way he emphasized the word peeled. I wanted to shove him, or say something cutting and appropriate.
“Are you going to Dr. Thomas?” I blurted out. That was the wrong thing to say, but I could recover from that.
“Wow, clocked,” she said, blowing a cloud of smoke directly at me. “Yes, I am.”
“I had a consult with him last year. I’m on his waitlist,” I lied.
“Nice. I mean, half the girls I know went to him,” she said. “He’s got a good reputation.”
“On that note, shouldn’t you be not smoking?” the guy next to her said.
“Ugh! I have another month before I need to stop. I’m tapering off.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh. Arabelle. Bella.”
Arabelle. Jesus Christ.
“Veronica,” I said.
“I’m Dustin,” said the guy.
“Congrats on the surgery,” I said.
That was wrong too. “Congrats.” As if it was a raise or something. There’s no formal etiquette for this stuff, but you always know when you mess it up.
“Thank you,” Arabelle said in a way that evinced zero gratitude.
She was looking at me with an amused smirk on her face that made me inwardly flinch a little. It was thrilling to meet someone else who seemed genuinely indifferent to the polite atmosphere of solidarity “we” are supposed to have, but I did wish she made an effort to talk to me. We probably weren’t that different, although as I looked her up and down again I realized that she was wearing like, at minimum, fifteen hundred dollars worth of clothes while talking about writing a dissertation.
I sensed an opening in the way Dustin was looking at me. He was scanning me up and down. I decided to play a little dirty:
“One thing about Thomas is that he gives all the girls the same nose,” I said casually.
“What’s the nose?” Dustin said.
“You’ve seen it,” I said confidently. “Real Housewives, you know. A little button with a ski jump. No one is born with a nose like that.”
“I haven’t noticed,” Arabelle said coolly.
“Sure,” I said. I had to maintain plausible deniability. “I mean, I only notice it on trans women. It’s a tell, sort of. Too perfect. On you, though — ” I paused conspicuously “ — it could work.”
Her smirk stayed fixed in place but her eyebrows raised a little bit.
“Oh, yeah, I know what you’re talking about,” Dustin said. “‘Too perfect’ is a good way of putting it. The like, Long Island housewife look.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“I sort of feel like it’s really normal for rich women in New York to get FFS,” Dustin said. “Cis women, I mean.”
“There’s a difference between cosmetic surgery for cis people and facial reconstructive surgery for trans women,” Arabelle said coldly.
She was repeating slogans she had seen on Instagram, which meant I was winning. I decided to ignore her.
“I’m from Chicago and we call it North Shore face,” I said, directing the comment at Dustin. “The FFS surgeon there, I don’t even remember his name, I didn’t consider him for a second; he’s infamous for routinely making his trans patients look like that. It’s the same thing.”
“It’s always, y’know, at risk of sounding insensitive, the white ethnics who do it,” Dustin said. “Like the Italians and Eastern Europeans. Like, they don’t fit into conventional beauty standards either.”
“Right,” I agreed. I turned to Arabelle finally. “I don’t buy that it’s facial reconstruction. You just have to say that it’s medically necessary for insurance reasons. And, like, you’re gonna get a nose job, right?”
“I mean, to be clear, I think getting a nose job is cool,” Dustin said. “I would get one.”
I had cracked her confidence a little bit. She was looking out into the rainy night, fidgeting with a scrunchie, fidgeting with the zipper on her perfect jacket. She reached up to tie her hair back. She had beautiful hair, long and straight down with a thousand shades of brown and gold in it.
“I don’t appreciate the way you’re talking to me,” she finally said.
Dustin looked up at me with a facial expression I recognized from childhood — the amused gaze of the spectator. I noted that Arabelle didn’t direct any of her anger at him.
Now that she had her hair up, and because the topic was her face, I willed myself to look at her with the eyes of a surgeon.
“Once you get surgery,” I said, keeping my voice even, “you’ll be able to wear your hair in a ponytail like that more often.”
“Excuse me?” she said.
“The brow ridge, you know,” I said casually, tossing my cigarette butt into the sidewalk. “You won’t have to worry about it.”
“Alright. I’m going inside,” Arabelle said.
“Cool, I’ll see you in there,” I said.
She wasn’t going to give me the satisfaction of untying her hair in front of me, but I was sure she’d do it once she was inside. I wondered if she was gonna run into those Discord transbians. I asked Dustin for another cigarette.
Before he could acknowledge anything about that exchange, I asked him about his novel. It sounded completely conventional and sort of dull. I moved closer to him, and we were both leaning on the railing, side by side, our arms touching.
Eventually, Ambrose opened the door. I had sort of expected to see him.
“Hey V, how’s it going?” he said.
“Pretty good,” I said. “This is Dustin.”
“I know Dustin,” he said.
Of course he did.
“Are you trying to leave soon?” Ambrose said.
Dustin placed his hand on my lower back, underneath the scaly top. I didn’t disallow the gesture.
“Not really,” I said. I leaned into Dustin in a totally unsubtle way. “I’m having a good time catching up with people. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Ambrose said, looking at the front door with what could have been mild panic. “I guess I’ll stay here for longer. I just wanted to check in with you.”
“You do that,” I said.
“This party sucks,” I said, when Ambrose was gone.
“Yeah,” Dustin said. “Do you wanna, uh, walk with me a bit? I live just near here.”
“Me too,” I lied, even though at that point I was pretty certain I didn’t need any pretense. “I’ll walk with you.”
We walked back to his place on the straightest path. The rain got more insistent and then turned into sleet. At one point, I put my arm around his waist, like I would for a woman, and felt him shrink into me. For the first time in weeks, I got a little turned on.
Excerpt from Zhou’s forthcoming book of short stories, Girlfriends.