The Cure for Lonely is a stunning, heartfelt novel that follows a young transgender man, Sam Gavin, as he leaves the small Kansas town where he has grown up and moves to San Francisco, in search of his own identity and a place to belong.
Jessica Thummel’s award-winning debut is a stunning portrait of one man’s struggle to break free of the bonds that life has bestowed and reach out for what is rightfully his.
It was 1989, and in the four years since my best friend Eddie died, his girlfriend Gwen had been shipped off to gay-reform camp (my fault, she’d say), I had finished nursing school, a heart attack had put my father in the ground, my younger sister Sally had lost her virginity, my mother had bought a sports car, and life had just whatevered along with the same boring people doing the same boring things until I started to think, hell, maybe Eddie had the right idea, putting the barrel of a gun up to his chin. I’d been itching to leave Lawrence for years, but who’s to say when I actually would’ve left if it weren’t for one day in June when I got fired just hours before Gwen came back into my life, quick as a twister and only a little less destructive.
No one from my family had lived outside of Kansas since the Gavin clan, a mix-breed of German-Irish immigrants, settled in the area around the same time Sherman was setting fire to the South. We were pioneers, my father liked to brag, rough-and-tough outlaws who hunkered down and held tight no matter what. Loyal, too, he’d argue, showing anyone who’d sit still his copy of a microslide of a newspaper he’d got from the archives at the Lawrence Public Library, the headline: Gavins Hiding Pa Bender? As if stowing a serial-killing innkeeper back in the frontier days was a source of family pride.
For twenty-one years, I had lived in that same spot as Rosie Gavin, an oval-faced wimpy-looking kid, wearing slacks most days, ties sometimes. I kept my haircut short like Rob Lowe and my nails bitten down to a nub. The year after my father died, I legally changed my name at the county courthouse, not really having a clear plan for what I would do next, what I could do really. I was only doing what felt right, and being called Rosie never had. Now there’s another slide in the archives, but this one my father would’ve kept secret. A listing on page seventeen, column four, before the obituaries and just past the classifieds in the June 17, 1988 issue: Rosie Samantha Gavin (June 21, 1966), daughter of Molly (1943- ) and Bruno Gavin (1937-1987) will hereby be recognized, by the state of Kansas, as Sam Ro Gavin as requested by the aforementioned.
My mother wouldn’t speak to me for weeks after I did it. She said it was stupid. Rosie was a family name, and Sam was a boy’s name. Why did I always want to confuse people? But it didn’t matter. Kansans were stubborn; half the people in Lawrence still called me Rosie, no matter how often I asked them to stop.
Anyway, the day I got fired, my shift started out with a troublesome new patient, or as we were supposed to call them, ‘resident’ who took it upon himself to act up the same afternoon a bigwig from corporate came down to check on us. The visit was unusual. People from corporate typically kept to their carpeted cubicles, avoiding the ammonia-and-oatmeal odor of the front lines. The new patient, Howard, had dementia, but he was tall and fat despite his old age, and he’d forgotten where he was when I went to help him into his wheelchair. The old man panicked when I touched him, and he up and socked me in the eye. Stung like hell. Started swelling almost immediately. Now, I’m not the type to hit a patient, no way, but I didn’t set him down gently in the chair, either – Christ, he was three hundred pounds; he couldn’t go down gently into anything – but just as his massive ass slammed down in the chair, the fucking thing collapsed around him like a cardboard box because it hadn’t been locked properly, and Howard started wailing, and, my stupid luck, the bigwig walked past the doorway at that precise moment and had enough sense to stop and investigate the commotion.
He fired me right then and there as Cara ran off to call an ambulance.
I spat on the tile and went out to my car. I thought about running over the sign for Spring Meadow Assisted Living on my way out, but what would that have done besides fuck up my front end? No, I thought, this was a good thing. It was providence. I knew I could find another job at another nursing home with similar malfunctions, but I was done with catering to old hags like Betty always shouting for her slippers, and Maynard with his perpetual foreskin infection. I wasn’t really sure what my other options were, but at least now I had the time in my schedule to find out.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I thought about how Eddie, in his most metaphysical marijuana funks, used to yap on and on about the probability of an infinite universe. He used it as an excuse to follow his own code of ethics: man, just do what you feel like; don’t wait for one of the other yous to get it right, he would say. And in that moment, making amends with Gwen, who I’d heard was back in town, seemed like the first reasonable and realistic thing to do.
I came to an empty four-way stop where I pulled a roach from the ashtray and touched it to the Zippo flame. I puffed on the joint while I drove a square around town and listened to Madness on the tape deck, and thought about exactly what I would say to her.
After a few songs, I stopped for a forty-ounce bottle of liquid courage, and I drove toward Gwen’s parents’ house. I parked a block away and finished the beer while watching a flock of starlings swirl like smoke in the sky. Finally, I decided to say:
Fuck what these people think. Run away with me, Gwen.
Gag. It was a dumb idea. The last time I’d seen her we were seniors in high school and she was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, naked beneath a towel, looking all shameful while her mother yelled through the door, I hear you two! But still, running away was something we’d done at least a dozen times before, back when Eddie and her and me would take off to Kansas City or Topeka or a party in Hays, just because (little use it was) it felt like escaping.
I hadn’t seen her in so long, not because I didn’t want to, but because we were both too stubborn or proud to call first. Though seeing as her fiancé Bobby was no longer a factor, or so I’d heard, I saw my opportunity to finally swoop in and tell her how I felt.
I pulled the car up a block, got out, and strutted up the sidewalk, hoping she was watching from the window, that she might be excited by the sight of me and come running out, squealing I’ve missed you! I prayed her mother wouldn’t answer.
I looked down at the doormat – Unless you can walk on water, wipe your feet here – and realized I was numb-faced drunk. I rang the doorbell, heard footsteps approach, and watched the peephole go black before the latch unlocked. Gwen’s mother, Joan, opened the door and pushed her makeup-slathered face up close to the screen.
‘Roooosieeeee,’ she said. It was a tense sound, as if someone had a gun to the back of her head.
I considered correcting her about my name, but I knew she’d probably just shut the door.
‘I’m here to get Sally,’ I said. My sister had been best friends with Rachel, Gwen’s sister, since middle school.
‘Sally’s not here.’ She focused on the bruise starting to appear around my eye, compliments of my demented assailant, as if waiting for an explanation, and I decided to give her one.
‘She didn’t tell you, did she?’
‘Tell me what?’
I paused. ‘Yeah, that makes sense. She probably didn’t want the attention. Tough kid, Sally.’
Joan looked suspicious. ‘What is it?’
I gave her a lie I assumed might be tragic enough to get invited into the house, or, at the very least, get Gwen’s attention if Joan mentioned it later, maybe over dinner, all of them sitting around the table. ‘I’m sick,’ I said. ‘I got dizzy yesterday, fell, and hit the corner of the kitchen counter.’
Joan narrowed her eyes, studying, searching for hollowness in my face or weight loss anywhere, anything that might indicate I was terminal, but she didn’t invite me in; she only stood there while the smell of their house, still the soft mix of spices and lacquered wood, drifted out through the thin slit in the door.
She turned her head and hollered out, ‘Rachel! Rachel, come here.’ A second passed, and a layer of sweat started to bead up over my body just as Gwen’s sister came into view. She gave me a weak smile but didn’t speak until Joan asked her if she knew anything about me being sick, and Rachel shook her head and said she hadn’t heard. I could feel my heart pumping up in my throat.
‘Nothing? Sally didn’t say a thing?’ Joan asked, and Rachel shrugged. ‘That’s hard to believe. Such a talkative girl.’
‘I don’t remember,’ she groaned in that petulant-teenager tone.
Joan turned back to me. ‘Well, Rosie Gavin, we’ll pray for your speedy recovery.’ She smiled like she’d done all she could and shut the door.
Halfway to the car, I looked up at the second-floor window where the curtains were pulled open and someone sat in the darkened window staring down at me. It was hard to make out more than the silhouette until the person leaned forward and her face emerged from the shadows and suddenly I felt long and gangly and awkward as I moved across the grass. I raised my hand to wave. Gwen raised hers too, slow, controlled, like she had a question. I put mine up to my ear like ‘call me.’
She didn’t call. I waited. Watched Unsolved Mysteries and Night Court with Sally, ate leftover tuna salad, and thought about gassing up the car and driving somewhere like Oregon, to that gloomy town where the kids from The Goonies lived. I wanted grey skies too. I wanted a treasure hunt.
My mother came home from work around eight still wearing her apron from the grocery store. ‘Idiots,’ she said to neither of us. ‘Spend all day trying to be civil to a bunch of idiots, and now Larry’ – she sighed – ‘he has the flu so I have to go cover his ten to ten. He’d only scheduled himself. Who’s that stupid?’ She scratched her fat arm with an acrylic nail and looked over at me. ‘What the fuck happened to your eye?’
‘Bird flew in my car,’ I said. I couldn’t tell her I’d lost my job. Ever since my father died, she’d been laying the guilt on full-spread, and she’d probably ask for more rent instead of giving me a break.
She narrowed her eyes like she didn’t buy it. ‘You need more iron. That bruise looks anemic.’
‘In what aisle of Dillons did you get your medical license?’
Sally, who was curled on the corner of the couch pretending to read some giant book while she waited for her boyfriend Paul to come over with a bottle of Seagram’s 7, shifted uncomfortably. She’d never been any good with confrontation, and it annoyed the hell out of our mother.
‘Take off that goddamn sweatshirt, Sally, and stop touching the A/C. I’m not made of dollar bills.’
Without a word, Sally got up and turned the dial on the thermostat.
‘It’s because she’s getting fat,’ I said. ‘I know you ate all my doughnuts, Sally; I saw you.’
Sally gave me a nasty look, and I shot her a smile, and she flipped me the bird.
‘Asshole,’ she said.
My mother lit a cigarette and changed the channel on the TV without asking. She sat down next to me, smelling like the canned air in the grocery store: sour potato skins and butchered meat, dried milk with a touch of cinnamon gum.
I got up and went to my room to spark a joint. I blew the smoke out the open window and turned on my tape player at low volume and while Freddy Mercury belted that we, he and I, were such champions, I lifted and lowered a set of twenty-pound weights until my biceps felt like splintered wood.