A transgender boy, Zissel, wants to be a girl, acts like a girl, dresses like a girl when he can, “spent most of his time with girls and enjoyed their ways and their games.” Singer details the agonies of the transgender soul: Zissel “suffered anxiety and all kinds of doubts. He already was convinced that to be a male was unworthy and that the signs of manhood were a disgrace.” His family finds him a bride. Meanwhile he falls in love with a boy, Ezriel, who is also headed for marriage. Both marriages fail: Zissel writes Ezriel that his marriage “caused him heartache and shame.” Finally Ezriel steals his wife’s dowry and jewels, dresses as a woman, and flees from town to meet Ezriel at a hotel, where they spend a night before moving and setting up house in Lublin, where they lived several years. When the money ran out Ezriel set up shop but got no customers. Zissel became a bath successful attendant, and the household’s only support. Ezriel gets fat and depressed, again an aspect of the life of a repressed gay man but not fully explored here. Singer’s focus is on Zissel, who develops affection for a 17-year-old virgin about to be married, a woman, and eventually falls in love with her, to her consternation. Zissel and Ezriel fight, come to blows. One night when Zissel and Reizl, the girl, who by then is married, are alone at the bathhouse, he rapes her. They drown. The secret is out. When townsmen find out, they rush Ezriel’s home and bludgeon him to death: just like a stoning by the Taliban.
Zissel’s desire for a woman is never explained and seems more like a device than a natural development though nothing says a transgender person can’t be bisexual: the story is about the fluidity of sex, not its dogmas–and the dogmas triggered as a consequence of the fluidity of sex, when uncovered. The title of the story is perfectly revealing: two boys, two natures, two love stories, two fates, and so on. (He wrote another story called “Two” later in his career.) This was written before transgender was a common word. The word is never used, nor are transsexual, gay, homosexual: part of the purity and truth of of the story is its avoidance of these trap-words that ultimately mean as little as racial or ethnic denominators.
The ending is moving, a hope:
The New Yorker, December 20, 1976