Hemaphros Get Free Tuition
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Action"
Originally featured on 01-28-2009
As part of our series "Bursting Into '09"

It began with an innocent game of X-is. As Holly Palavar explained to the jury, “You’ve all played it in junior high school. If you don’t remember, it’s where one person voices the word softly enough that nobody hears it, and anybody in earshot who hears that a word was spoken will doubt that they heard the word they think they heard. Then the next person whose turn it is will utter the word at a slightly higher volume, the third player louder than the second, and so on, until you’re all screaming it at the top of your lungs in rapid succession. The rule is, the game continues until an adult intervenes and silences it. It’s usually played on a school bus to pass the time, or in a movie theater during the previews. Some kids will get smart-alecky and say it through a cough, or disguise it by yelling a larger word that has those two syllables in it, like subpoenas or happiness. Trust me, you’ve all played it.

“And if you were really daring, you followed it with a high-stakes game of X-ina. Getting busted playing X-is might get you a detention at worst, but if someone hears you say the other word, it’s all over. Fucking double standards.

“Anyway, so as I was saying, that’s how it started. Our supervisor was out with the flu, we were bored, and you know that collective tickle of nostalgia that happens when a room full of overeducated people are bored, when you all get the same idea at once, both silly and ironic, and wholly irresistible. I don’t even know who started the game — it didn’t matter. We all did. I smiled so big I thought my face would fall off when I first heard the whisper. Then I realized, I hadn’t heard anybody say it out loud in probably ten years. Funny, when I was in grade school, Christmas was the big taboo. We got used to calling it X-mas and nobody cared. Hearing the uncensored scientific name for the centerpiece of male anatomy whispered by grown men wearing ties was wonderful, in a way.

“What was wonderful one moment became sad and depressing shortly thereafter. The game expired before it got any louder than conversational tones. We pretended that the fizzling out was due to boredom resurfacing, but we all knew the real reason it stopped.

“If it weren’t for what happened next, I wouldn’t be standing here addressing you, and you’d all be going about your normal lives this week. It was sort of, well, miraculous, and again, I couldn’t say who initiated it. The person who initiated it probably doesn’t know who initiated it. I'll even take the blame. It started in an email.

“On an average morning, we receive twenty to thirty emails addressed to the whole company. About half of them I delete without reading. I mean stupid stuff like ‘red Ford pickup in the lower parking lot, your lights are on,’ or ‘so-and-so will be out of the office from noon to three.’ The email I opened was from the IT director, warning us about a virus in a software upgrade that had just been approved. It didn’t apply to me. As I was about to move the email to my trash folder, I noticed something odd; some text in tiny font up in the left corner, so small I could barely make out the word. Five letters.

“That’s when I joined in the fun.”

A copy of an excerpt from a memo was presented to the court at 11:38AM. It read, “Notice to all shipping and receiving personnel: All inquiries regarding the new safeguard installation must be voiced directly to Henry Meese who has replaced Vick Rogers as project coordinator for the low volume sector.”

Holly Palavar was on trial for murder.

***

Gideon Harlow and Heather Miranda Foxwalker Harlow smiled at America from every grocery line, under a tabloid heading that read, “HOLLYWOOD’S MOST WATCHED COUPLE MAKE BRAVE CHOICE, YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT”.

They were the first husband and wife to volunteer. The result was Francis Godiva Harlow, an infant who was neither a baby boy nor a baby girl. The nightly news showed a high-definition photograph of the smiling Harlow family, over which the tax incentive was announced in scrolling text.

***

Kim Lace was vacuuming the kitchen floor when the phone rang. Principle Bradlowe was on the other line. Kim recognized the voice before it completed a syllable. She regretted that she knew the voice of her child’s school principle. A parent should never be so familiar with that voice as to identify it from the telephone.

Her back slid against the wall as her lungs deflated. She could hear Gordy — now twelve years old — singing along to the radio in Gordy’s room. She tried to imagine what Gordy might have done to give Principal Bradlowe cause to make this phone call to her at a quarter past Four in the afternoon. If she imagined correctly before Mr. Bradlowe described the event, then it could not give her pain to hear it — the thought would be an emergency inoculation, like soldiers in a helicopter racing to inject themselves with medicine before landing in the jungle…or like trembling mothers on the phone trying to anticipate the nature of the family meeting that would soon take place.

Gordy’s voice was cracking. It was on certain vowel sounds that it always made that ugly noise, specifically on the drawn out baaaaaby’s in pop ballads. Those were Gordy’s favorite. Kim wished Gordy would take up an instrument, and get tired of singing.

“I hope I haven’t interrupted your dinner,” said Principal Bradlowe.

Kim sighed. “I appreciate you being polite and all, but it’s been a long day, so if you’d just-”

“I’ll get right to the meat of the matter, Miss Lace. I’m sorry to disturb you. Your —child- Gordy, um, has stricken up quite the friendship with a student by the name of Samuel Nemitts, as you probably know. Just in the past couple weeks, that is. Which is a wonderful sign of progress; Gordy always seemed rather solitary before.”

Kim closed her eyes. Her back pressed itself harder into the tiled wall, her skin searching for the air her lungs had expelled. She could already picture what had happened. Mr. Bradlowe did not need to say anything more.

“The bounds of what behavior is appropriate in a classroom and what behavior might be deemed deviant is a subjective…” Principal Bradlowe’s voice broke a little bit. “At their age, expressions of friendship can take many…”

“What did they do, kiss in the gymnasium?” Kim was not aware of the volume of her sarcasm until she heard Gordy’s voice crack for an instant. The instant was a little too long to be a natural crack; it almost sounded like a pause. Gordy went on singing. Kim buried her forehead in her palm and tried to stuff the rest of her face into the meat between her thumb and her wrist.

The silence on the other line served as a nod. “Any parent’s first reaction to that news would be, so what? A public kiss. Kids do that. Why would an innocent smooch come to the attention of the highest body of authority in the building? A homosexual act might raise a stir, but would hardly be grounds for discipline, and would not lie so far outside the bounds of, well…let’s just say the world is a different place than it was when you and I were growing up. The, um, variety of attitudes and dispositions- things that would have caused an uproar thirty years ago, kids today wouldn’t so much as flinch at- it’s- it’s quite astounding, really, for better or worse. But, when it comes to children — and, the truth is, no matter how far social consciousness evolves, kids are still kids and will always be kids — certain things just do not digest well. Specifically when it comes to…”

“Hermaphros. You can say it.” Kim’s eyes were open. She wondered if she sounded angry. Then she wondered if she was angry. Then she wondered who she was — or should be — angry at.

Gordy had gone silent. The singing had petered out at some point while Mr. Bradlowe was rambling.

Kim was enjoying her newfound speaking tone of emotionless cynicism. She enjoyed it because it made people react — especially if it was a man to whom she was speaking — and the reaction was always one of silence. The silence gave her more time to plan out her next words. Of course, it wasn’t as if she needed any more time to think of her response; she had seen this coming long, long before Mr. Badlowe, the teachers or any of those stupid men — including Tony, her husband — ever caught on. Caught on to what, that was? To the fact that Gordy, who technically had no sex, was a sexual being prone to the same desires and social longings as everybody else, albeit a little confused, perhaps? Caught on to the fact that Gordy was entering the realm of adolescence, when those hormones began to kick into gear, the age at which it is considered perfectly natural for children to explore these new strange, exciting and frightening aspects of their bodies? The fact that Gordy was not an alien?

The government had made promises. The government had promised hermaphro-bearing families that every major television network would air a competing series featuring a hermaphro as a main character — and always portrayed in a positive light, often as a superhero battling male and female villains — so as to afford the first batch of hermaphros to enter kindergarten as smooth a social integration as possible. Then, of course, there was the controversial motivator that the first five thousand hermaphros born were guaranteed free college tuition to an institution of their choice.

Then came the famous animated short film in which two middle-aged hermaphros are drinking beer in a dumpster and one says to the other, “Fuck free tuition. I want free beer forever. Free college education…nice to know that my parents traded in my cock for a brain. Other people go into the admissions office, drop their pants, and the admissions officers look at them and say, you got equipment between your legs, whatchu needin a scholarship for?” and then the other hermaphro shoves its crotch in the first one’s face.

The justification for hermaphro-promoting subsidies on a federal level? Sexual harassment lawsuits and the massive litigation involved with the so-called War Of The Sexes — the legal details of which Kim did not understand — was weakening the economy. It was unanimously agreed that, as stated in a New York Times article, “Our nation is not mature enough to handle the existence of two genders, and the only viable solution is to remove them both.” Despite the occasional impassioned speech made by angry parents in town meeting halls and collegiate idealists in lecture halls, the public did not object.

The implementation plan? It was all a matter of dollars. A tax was imposed on maternity such that middle-class families could not reasonably afford a hospital birth (a delivery of a male or a female child), and a law was passed that made midwifery an illegal practice. Black-market midwifes held the same social position as drug dealers; they were known to charge about half of what the IRS collected per hospital birth.

On the other hand, those participating in the hermaphro program were enrolled in a complimentary lifelong family healthcare plan, and additionally received a government grant of eight months’ worth of their salary for maternity assistance.

How had things gotten to that point? Historically speaking? It was difficult to say. Professors of gender studies could rattle off answers on talk-shows, but Kim did not have a clue, really. Somewhere between the Women’s Lib movement and the Palavar Trial, people had forgotten how to get along. Divorce rates sky-rocketed. Men grew timid because women were challenging their positions of dominance. Women grew angry at men for all the reasons women have always been angry at men, plus a few new reasons. Nobody knew how they were supposed to act. Then a faction of men started preaching that people were much happier in the days of hunters and gatherers when everybody knew their roles. Then a faction of women asserted that those men ought to go fuck themselves. Then they started banning certain words from everyday speech, and that saved the legal system a bunch of money, but people still couldn’t figure out how to live with each other, so they had to go and ban gender itself. Or try to.

The government had also promised that hermaphros would be looked on as heroes.

Mr. Bradlowe’s silence gave Kim ample to time to think of a good response. Her response was, “Well then, I guess that makes Gordy a hermaphro-ditz.” Mr. Bradlowe was still silent. “You’ve never heard that term? You don’t get out much, do you, Principal Bradlowe? This will be good learning for you. There are three kinds of hermaphros.” She noticed that her voice lowered in volume every time she said the word heramphros. It was not something she had control over. “Now, I know anatomically, medically, there’s only one type. But we’re not talking anatomically, we’re talking in the playground, the classroom, where they live. A baby knows the difference between a X-is and an X-ina. Kids know boys and girls, and to kids, if you’re a kid, no matter how a doctor or a geneticist might label you, you’re either a boy or a girl. Hermaphros look androgynous, but one might have longer hair or more delicate features — every hermaphro looks, acts, a little bit more like one gender than they do the other. So, you can be a hermaphro-ditz, as my Gordy has just proven herself today, or a hermaphro-dick. There’s also such a thing as a hermaphro-dyke, as some of Gordy’s friends have been branded, and if you favor computer games and math puzzles over kicking a ball around and beating your chest, then you’ve earned the title of hermaphro-dork.”

Mr. Bradlowe chuckled. “I should chat with parents more often. I’m quite sheltered.”

“There’s more,” said Kim. “And to think, we’re the first generation to take part in this experiment. I wonder how creative the bullies will be in high school; we’ll be raising hermaphro-dope-fiends, hermaphro-dilettantes, hermaphro-derelicts-”

Kim’s throat jammed up. Gordy was standing in the doorway to the kitchen to Kim’s left. Kim did not know how much of the conversation Gordy had heard, but by Gordy’s posture — slumped in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt two sizes two big (and two generations outdated, which was the new style; the coolest kids in school wore Civil War uniforms, but only boys and girls were permitted to be that hip), head down, Gordy’s eyes fixed on Gordy’s knees, which were exposed through neatly symmetrical rips in Gordy’s jeans, soft brown curls ironed out into bangs that hung down in front of Gordy’s eyes — Kim knew that Gordy had heard words come out of her mouth that Gordy never expected.

She looked down at Gordy’s feet, as if- what did she expect to see, nail polish? Her eyes traveled up Gordy’s jeans, Gordy’s slim, defiantly bony figure, Gordy’s shoulders that were surprisingly broad for Gordy’s frame but never flexed to their full potential, searching for a hint of gender. She understood right then how kids had always looked at Gordy; it was difficult. She could not see Gordy’s face, so she looked at Gordy’s mouth. She would have been relieved to see Gordy wearing bright red lipstick, especially if it was smeared; that way she could walk Gordy into Gordy’s room and give Gordy a lesson on how to apply makeup properly, then they could have a bonding moment that would segue pleasantly into the talk they needed to have, which would end in a hug and unheard resolution music, the kind they cued in the old family sitcoms that used to air on TV.

Gordy’s lips were slightly chapped, and seemed to be curled into a fist between Gordy’s teeth. Gordy was definitely not wearing lipstick or lip-gloss.

“Listen, I got to go.” Kim hung up the phone and went to Gordy.

Gordy stood in the same spot, the base of Gordy’s spine grinding itself into the door hinge. Gordy’s right heel was planted and Gordy’s left foot was curled beside it like a shovel trying angrily to excavate something from beneath the floor. Kim had observed herself standing in the exact same manner many times when she was upset.

Gordy said nothing. Kim moved closer to Gordy. “I’m not mad at you,” she said.

Gordy said nothing.

“I- when I was- I know it’s not the same, but when I was your age-”

Gordy looked at Kim, Gordy’s eyes springing forward with violence. “You were never my age.” Gordy looked back down.

Kim wrapped a hand over Gordy’s shoulder which was delightfully masculine to the touch. “Your dad and I aren’t perfect, you know. Sometimes I wish I could do things he could do, and, it goes the other way too. You have something special; you can be whatever you want. You can play with G.I. Joe’s, or you can play with Barbie’s, and nobody will make fun of you for it. You can…kiss whoever you want.” She brushed Gordy’s hair away from Gordy’s eyes. “When you’re older, people will understand better. And they will envy you. It’ll just take them some time.”

“Dad said he squirted super-jelly out his cheese-cannon when he turned twelve. And I know what happened to you when you turned twelve. I’m twelve, what do I get to do?”

Kim walked Gordy to the table and sat down. “Sam’s parents…” She stopped herself. She wasn’t sure if Gordy knew as much as she knew on that subject, or if Sam even did. Sam was brought into the world by a black-market midwife, for which his parents spent the first two years of his life in prison. That made Sam more of an outcast than Gordy, or at least it would by the time he hit high school. Probably. Nobody really knew. Kids were funny.

Changing the subject, Kim told Gordy the story of the famous trial of Holly Palavar that occurred before Gordy was born. In the middle of her story, she looked up to see Tony standing on the other end of the kitchen, listening, with a torn expression.

Holly Palavar had admitted responsibility for making the word PENIS clearly visible to discerning eyes in a billboard advertisement for life insurance. A ten-car pileup had resulted. It was brought to the court’s attention that similar pranks in billboards all across the country — pranks not involving words related to genitalia — had resulted in no accidents. Holly Palavar now had her own popular talk-show on daytime television. Holly never spoke the words “penis” or “vagina” out loud again, even in prison.

***

The adult film industry planned ahead for the addition of a new category to the fetish market. It was predicted that a subculture of disaffected hermaphros from the suburbs, upon reaching the age of legal consent, would invent a variety of sexual acts vastly different from any existing traditions.

At present, Francis Godiva Harlow — the world’s oldest and most famous hermaphro — was in the sixth grade. Physicians and biologists had theories as to the development of vestigial sexual organs in maturing hermaphros, and to what degree they could be stimulated in the pursuit of pleasurable sensations. Many of of those theories had been published in periodicals and popular journals. The truth was, nobody knew what the libido of an average adult hermaphro would resemble. It was too early to tell.

To the general populace, with the exception of those few fringe cultures that always took fascination in the contemplation of crude and bizarre speculative matters having little relevance to the practicalities of their communities, the question of hermaphros' capability for lust went undiscussed. Even in those infamous academic movements that had stirred controversy in previous decades due to their eagerness to explore the sociological dynamics of unconventional forms of sexual expression, hermaphro eroticism inspired very little curiosity. It was a mute subject.

The public did not care to know how hermaphros might attempt to pleasure themselves (and, the afterthought nobody wanted to allow into their thoughts; how hermaphros might pleasure each other). The pornography industry was smarter than the public, so they planned ahead.

Hermphros, specifically of the demographic entering an institution wherein their gender-possessing peers are driven by the emergence of hormones, will undoubtedly share a collective feeling of being slighted. Having much lower testosterone levels, hermaphros will not be able to relate to the rush of emotions accompanying the newly-arrived-at social construction of dating, yet, still being possessed of the restless arrogance and energy akin to all teenagers of the species, a general emotion will be present:

Hermaphros, free college or no free college, will be largely pissed off.

A competitive spirit, pertaining to outdoor sports, has been noted in hermaphros at an early age. When sexual conquests begin to replace athletic accomplishment as the yardstick of social status, Hermaphros will put enormous pressure on themselves to discover — or, better yet, innovate — methods of manually expressing affection. Being a socially oppressed minority to begin with, their determination to outdo their fellow boys and girls in the realm of orgasm will be fueled by anger. The word 'rebellion' will still be reserved for regular people, but Hermaphros will make strides.

The porno industry will be waiting for them, and when the welcome mat is thrown down, it will provide them with a niche so new and unusual and unpredictable and so exclusively their own, its revenue will be unprecedented.

A generation of heterosexual men who had hitherto assumed themselves of a macho disposition will become invariably aroused by popular images of what will be termed Hermaphrotica, and will now have to ask themselves what these proclivities say about their sexuality. There will be no clear answer.

***

The skin on Gordy’s legs was starting to look as though it was three times its normal thickness and devoid of any color. Still, Gordy did not get up from the bathtub. The water had long since grown cold.

In gym class, they were playing baseball. When Gordy got up to bat, Sam watched Gordy intently. It was the first thing that had ever bothered Gordy about Sam. Gordy did not like to be watched intently.

Mom and Dad knew Gordy was in the bathroom, and had been there for probably an hour or so, and they knew to leave Gordy in peace. Sitting with Gordy’s hands folded under Gordy’s knees, hugging Gordy’s thighs in tightly, Gordy flexed Gordy’s buttocks until it was impossible to shiver.

Despite what Sam told Gordy on the school bus, Gordy was pretty sure Gordy had the wrong idea. If there was even a way to do it right.

“Are you mad at me?” Sam had asked quietly while chewing gum.

Gordy had wished Gordy had had some gum. “I suck at baseball. Why do you always stare at me?”

“It’s the way you hold the bat,” Sam had said.

Gordy had snapped and said “I don’t care about baseball, I don’t want to be good at baseball.”

“No, I mean…it’s not just baseball. The way you hold the bat- I don’t mean about baseball, I just mean the way you hold the bat. It makes people think…”

Gordy had been genuinely confused, and Gordy lacked an ability to be irritated and confused at the same time — confusion required too much energy. “What do you mean?”

Sam had made his voice even softer. “It’s different when you have a weenie. The way you hold stuff, it makes people think…you know.”

Sam had then proceeded in a hushed whisper to tell Gordy about the things boys could do with their weenies. Gordy had to at least try.

After an hour in the tub, Gordy’s hand still refused to venture to within slapping distance of the region of flesh where Gordy’s hips became Gordy’s torso. Every time Gordy’s fingers got close, something flexed in Gordy’s throat and behind Gordy’s eyes; there was no point in trying to masturbate if Gordy was only going to make Gordy’s-self cry.

It was probably different for girls. Perhaps if Gordy befriended a girl — Belinda maybe, or Patricia — Gordy could glean a different kind of knowledge that would make Gordy exempt from scrutiny of Gordy’s grip on a baseball bat. Whatever it was Gordy was missing out on, Sam was no help.

Gordy jumped, splashed water to the floor — a loud knock at the door. Only Dad knocked at doors that way. What the hell? Dad never-

The knock came again, equally loud. “Gordy.”

Gordy wondered if Gordy’s voice would ever sound like that.

***

“Leave him alone,” Kim said, hooking her arm through Tony’s and trying to yank him away from the bathroom.

Tony looked at Kim incredulously.

“What?”

Tony motioned his head toward the closed door. “Did you hear what you just said?”

Kim thought for a moment and then clasped a hand over her mouth.

“Don’t do that. I’m so sick of that. I did the same thing yesterday — we all slip. G’s used to it. Got to have thick skin to be a kid these days, there’s plenty name-calling to go around. I wish you’d stop acting like-” Tony raised his voice, directing it through the closed door and into the bathtub. “Gordy! Mom just called you a he, did you hear that? I think that means mom owes you an ice cream sundae, doesn’t it? Why don’t you come on out?”

Kim tried to shush her husband, swatting at his forearm with her other hand. “No,” she whispered, “ice cream sundae is for a her-slip. A he-slip means pizza. Honey, I don’t want Gordy eating pizza ton-”

Gordy was standing in the doorway dripping on the carpet, wrapped in a towel. Gordy had a way of creeping up on Kim. In such instances, there was generally not a smile on Gordy’s face.

Kim blushed. “Guess you heard that. No pepperoni tonight, though. You can have mushrooms if you-”

Both Kim and Tony jumped back. The towel accidentally fell to the floor when Gordy bellowed the song that came from deep inside his legs and pushed itself out through his vocal chords, wrenching his mouth open to its limits. “PEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENNNNIIIIIIIISSSSS!!!!!!!”

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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