“Gap Year”

Emily Zhou

October 9, 2023 
The following is the opening of a story from Emily Zhou's debut collection Girlfriends. Emily Zhou was born in Michigan and lives in New York City.

September 10

Article continues below


Yesterday I went to Elena’s house again. She asked me if I knew how you were doing, and I said no. Have you thought about calling her? Ever since she broke her leg, all she has is free time.

September 14

That probably wasn’t such a good way to start. You’re busy; it’s natural. And you live in, like — where do you live now? Far away from here. I see pictures on Instagram, and I get confused. There’s somehow both mountains and an ocean nearby. Or are you traveling a lot?

Article continues below

People here miss you, though, and everyone seems to think that I’m the best person to ask about how you’re doing, and I don’t really know. It’s been a while. Not too long, but long enough.

September 14 (later)

A month ago, someone you don’t talk to anymore told me about you. “If she decides that she doesn’t like you, there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You’ll never see her again.”

I was torn. Because, like, yeah, I’ve seen you do that; but also I couldn’t help but think that the difference between you and me is that I was still talking to him. This kind of annoying, emotionally congested French lit major. I had been listening to him reminisce aimlessly for nearly an hour as we chained cigs on a bridge by the river, wondering if this was important. You don’t even live here anymore

September 17

Article continues below

The freight train tracks cross the street next to the Food Co-Op. From the side yard, where I take my smoke breaks, I can see how they cut through Ypsilanti. The warehouses and old brick buildings look haphazardly placed next to it, at strange angles to the straight, flat, purposeful line the train cuts on its way to Detroit, and from there to everywhere else, probably.

I think I used to feel like my life was tending toward some final, unavoidable confrontation. Now I have no ambitions, no plans, nothing that needs to be resolved right away. This is a good place for that feeling. I bet you can imagine what it’s like here for me. You would be impatient with all of it, probably. The same parties, the same conversations recur over and over. People tend to outgrow it. Elena’s been talking a lot about grad school.

September 26

I often think of you when I walk home. Sometimes it feels like I’m always walking home, like that’s the only part I ever retain and the rest of it is the daydream.

When I get home, my room feels empty, even with me in it. I watch hazy evening light cast shadows in the shape of branches and leaves on the wall opposite my bed. I look around at my possessions. Necessities piled next to things I keep around to help me remember. Photographs pinned to the wall, some telling prints and posters. You can add or subtract, but you can’t be on your way anywhere.

Article continues below


October 1

I spent the summer after I turned twenty working at a Kroger in Grand Rapids, keeping my head down. All I remember from that time was that my day began, most of the time, with a long, sweaty bike ride on the shoulder of a four-lane road.

I was spending a lot of time nervously searching stuff about hormones on the internet. It’s funny how much I take it for granted now, because back then, the thought of having to ask a doctor, politely, for estrogen made me so anxious that it threatened to undo the whole thing. Elena suggested to me, over the phone, to wait until I got back to school to think about it.

September rolled around. My mom was slightly incredulous about the shabby mansion, carved into twenty-five little rooms, that I was moving into. People streamed in and out of the narrow front door carrying boxes and suitcases.

Article continues below

“This?” she said, looking across the gearbox at me. “Yeah,” I said.

She hugged me outside and then drove away once I got my two suitcases out of the backseat. Once she was gone, I spotted Elena sitting on the porch, wearing a bandana around her forehead and big sunglasses that covered half her face. When she saw me, she grinned and came down to hug me. I winced a little bit when she used my new name.

Inside, people came and went, putting their rooms together. Murals covered every surface of the walls, months-old flyers corroded on a poster board outside the cavernous kitchen, cardboard signs taped to the wall indicated chore assignments, whose stuff was whose, and how to keep the public spaces clean. The furniture was all secondhand. None of the chairs matched and there were marker drawings and deep scratches all over the long, wide kitchen table. There was, inexplicably, a church pew in the kitchen. Elena told me, after she finished helping me unpack, about the tradition of “hippie Christmas” — apparently, there was a lot of good stuff to be had in the weeks after graduation if one rooted around in the dumpsters behind the houses on Frat Row. Working kitchen appliances, textbooks in original plastic wrappers, houseplants still clinging to life, bags of drugs, mysterious curiosities. The people who spent the summer here would go in the middle of the night, stifling their laughter and shushing each other.

The co-ops were a kind of paradise for the sort of post-adolescent who needs to “figure themselves out” on a large, permissive canvas of potential. I was like that, obviously, but there were extremes I didn’t know were possible. Elena and I walked past the open doorway of a guy who had stripped the curtains from the windows and was in the process of painting everything, including the floorboards, solid white. Elena told him it looked like “a temple to the sun” and he didn’t get that she was making fun of him.

“Is he just gonna, like, sleep on the couch tonight?” Elena said later. She was sitting on my bed while I hung up posters on the eggplant-purple walls. “It’s gonna smell like paint for days.”

“I guess so.”

“God, I’m glad I’m living here this year,” she said, brushing a few purple-edged curls out of her face. “You’re gonna love it. It’s so much less straight here.”

She had been saying this since she helped me move in, in a sort of refrain. I didn’t respond because I was contemplating where to put my trans flag, a gift from my parents. It was . . . too big. I had to stretch my arms way out to hold it all the way open.

“Hey Elena, is this tacky?” I said, holding up the flag.

“What’s that?”

“The trans flag.”

“Oh,” she said, cocking her head to one side. “Yeah, I wouldn’t.”

I spent the afternoon and evening setting up my room. When I came downstairs, the living room was lit up by a purple, rotating light and my housemates were drinking beers on the couch. I sat in a wicker armchair near them and quietly rolled a joint on a hardback copy of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science that someone had left on a coffee-table. By the time I was done there were more people. After someone started playing music from a Bluetooth speaker, I got up and drifted through the other rooms down to the kitchen, then out onto the porch, and then back to where I had started. People kept arriving.

In my first year of college, I realized, I had accumulated a lot of acquaintances but no one I could talk to for more than ten seconds in an environment like this. I’d say hi, and within a moment I would realize that we had exhausted our possible conversation. The groupings that formed on the porch and in the kitchen were opaque. People had formed new alliances over the summer, people were newly dating or broken up, people tried on new personality traits. Elena could parse it, I think. I would catch a glimpse of her laughing in circles full of boys or touching the bare, tattooed arms of girls, a light touch that was an extension of listening to whatever they were saying.

I ended up on the porch, where people were smoking and there was a lessened expectation for conversation. The purple light from the living room fanned out of the front windows in regular pulses. I stared out into the blue darkness of the yard, a hazy orange streetlight glow hovering at the end of it.

This is so stupid, I thought. And then, I need to think. When will I have time to think?

People filtered away, and eventually the only person left was a girl wearing a pastel pink hoodie and some complicated-looking skirt, puffing on the end of a cigarette and looking vacantly out into space. That was you.

“Hey,” you said as I approached.

“Hey,” I said back.

“Is that a joint?” you asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Are you trans?” you said.

“Yeah,” I managed.

“Cool, me too. I’m Genevieve. Can I have some of your weed?”

“Yeah, could I have one of your cigs?”

You pushed the pink hood off your head and shook out a tangle of brownish hair with a bit of pink at the ends. I noticed that there was, like, a lot of glitter on your face. Maybe too much. It made your face look pale and fragile. In every other respect you looked like a teenager, awkward and ill-at-ease in your own body, hunching over, shifting your weight a lot.

Music from the house filtered through the quickening dusk. We passed the joint quickly back and forth. We found out that we lived within two blocks of each other and that we were both English majors. Then some guys came out of the house with beer, and someone you knew pulled you away. I ended up saying hi to someone I had classes with last year.

He struggled to remember me. “Oh, we were in — what was it?”

“Chaucer,” I said.

“Oh, riiiiight,” he said.

I just nodded. Then he had some question about me — how was your summer, what are you taking this term, blah blah blah — and as I answered automatically I zoned out and my ambient thoughts started playing on loop, like a screensaver: Does this guy know I’m trans? Is he treating me differently? Talking to me as an equal or talking down to me? Is he enlightened, chauvinistic, what difference does that make? Do I ever really get treated like a woman or just like some other third thing halfway between a wimpy guy and a null pointer? Is there any way to tell about any of this? Then, in counterpoint, the self-aware layer: He doesn’t care that you’re trans, you care that you’re trans; you’re staring at your shoes all the time expecting everyone else to be staring too.

I realized that I was too stoned for this conversation and should probably go upstairs, but I wanted to talk to you again. Unsure how to escape, I stared into the face of the Chaucer guy as he talked about Sartre or Heidegger or northern Michigan or his girlfriend’s parents or which co-ops throw good parties or snowboarding or whatever else passed for conversation in the rich suburb of Detroit that he was probably from. I kept wondering what I would say to you next, but at some point I looked up and you were gone.

October 3

When classes started, Elena and I resumed a version of the routine we had in the dorms — after dinner, we would sit in the armchairs in the living room or go to the library until our eyes hurt from the fluorescent ceiling lights.

“Do you know someone named Genevieve?” I said to her one day as we were walking back at one in the morning.

“Yeah, doesn’t she live at Vail House?” she said. “You’re both trans,” she added.

“Yeah, her,” I said. “I think I have a crush on her.”

“Oh. Hmm. Good luck with that,” she said.

“What does that mean?”

She seemed to think. “Someone told me that she’s actively not dating right now,” she said. “Also, maybe she’s straight.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “It’s just a crush. I don’t know if I’m going to do anything about it.”

“Mm,” Elena said, sounding unconvinced and uninterested.

Elena always had crushes for good reasons, usually on a close female friend whose intelligence or worldliness she admired and envied. She seemed to think that a crush was a humiliating downgrade from friendship, and out of a sense of respect she would try to stifle her feelings in a way that really just fermented the crush in silent, tortured yearning.

Sometimes it would fade, but other times she would end up confessing recursively complicated feelings in a teary rush after some late night of drinking and long conversations. Sometimes her feverish desires were returned and would have to be painfully brought down to a normal level, and sometimes friendships were broken off or left ragged, and she’d cry bitterly about it and move on.

Asking her for advice seemed impossible because she lived in a world where women constructed grand narratives out of their lives, and I didn’t. I figured at some point, if transitioning worked like everyone on the internet said it did, my life would resemble Elena’s more. At the moment, though, people always seemed to glance off me like drops of water.

This was a different sort of crush, my first as a woman. It felt important in a way that seems funny in retrospect. I found myself half-expecting you everywhere. I would be standing in the kitchen making coffee, and I’d hear someone shuffling down the stairs and find myself hoping it was you, with some improbable reason for being at my house at seven in the morning. But then what? Oh, yeah, we met. Bye. It was never you, though.


From “Gap Year” by Emily Zhou from Girlfriends. Used with permission of the publisher, LittlePuss Press. Copyright © 2023 by Emily Zhou. 

More Story
Lit Hub Weekly: October 2-6, 2023 “Just why The Kite Runner has become so popular isn’t entirely clear to me… but there is a universality to this...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.