This is about cisgender people, and men, and the person I love the most, and myself, and how they’re all going to hurt me. They’re going to hurt me so bad that I might confuse my life with a nightmare sometimes. This is about the first time I ever did mushrooms, and it’s about how being trans* affects everything, even bullshit bourgeoise attempts at pharmacological liberation.
We drove out to the mountains for my first trip, because Bobby and Willow insisted that nature was the only appropriate place to eat mushrooms. It’s the middle of February though, and we’re out in the woods for less than an hour before the cold drives Willow and I shivering back to the car while stout, stoic Bobby quietly accompanies us. He loans Willow his jacket and she immediately disappears inside it. He doesn’t feel the cold, or if he does he won’t ever show it.
The drugs had already started their work on Willow before we started walking, and the exertion metabolizes them faster. She stumbles frequently, and looks at me like she hasn’t seen me before, and apologizes to the stones when she scuffs her feet on them. I fall into the trap of the newbie, imagining myself immune to the experience, with little more to look forward to than a slightly different kind of being stoned, when my stomach turns and the forest ripples around me. Willow turns to me, her face glowing like a pagan sun.
“Do you see it?”
One time, in kindergarten, I went to the bathroom and regarded my genitals. They seemed hollow, like a rubber prosthesis, and I killed time while my little bladder evacuated by searching for the seam where the doctor had sewn this strange business over my vagina. This occupied my thoughts for a little while, well into recess, and then someone asked if I wanted to pretend to be Power Rangers. It’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Decades later I will trot out this memory like a show pony and present it to therapists and dubious peers in an effort to prove the validity of my own lived experience, leaving out the part where I was distracted by pop culture. So far none of them have related the moment they knew they weren’t trans, so I still feel I have the edge in these exchanges.
The dashboard of Bobby’s Subaru is turning into a spider’s face, but that’s okay because the spider seems pretty chill. Like it’s doing an impression of Marmaduke. I look over slowly, to ask Bobby why he would buy a car made out of spiders, but his big hound dog gaze is locked on the steering wheel like love at first sight. Whatever he’s seeing I don’t want to interrupt it.
Willow leans past us, points out the windshield and asks if we see Them. I follow her finger and watch as the mushrooms show me the Appalachian mountains the way Van Gogh would have seen them, all flowing colors and rivers of infinite fractal motion. Bobby and Willow insist they see faces in the trees, but atheism is coded too deep in me. If there are faces out there they know I’m not worth the time.
A rough morning is blossoming into a wonderful afternoon. The car’s heaters have chased away the sudden cold snap. Warmth and laughter fill my chest. Willow laughs with me, and I notice for the first time that when she really laughs, in that way that almost feels like a crying jag, her voice catches and sounds like a velociraptor. It reminds me of an old friend from Boston. I tell Willow this, and that the reminder makes me happy because my friend was very nice sometimes.
“You know,” Willow says, “I think that’s the first positive thing you ever said about her.”
Our time together didn’t end well.
“I’d never thought of her as a full person before,” Willow continues. “She was always just the cliche of the tragic tranny.”
I am looking in the passenger mirror when she says this. The last two words slide into my already stuttering forebrain. The woman in the mirror melts and shifts, her brow thickening, her jaw jutting out, her cheeks darkening. My throat catches, and I start weeping.
I am dressed as Thomas, now. The only times I get to be Meredith are when I travel the ether. I sit on one end of a ratty old sofa, my hands clasped in my lap, while Dan sits on the other end. We watch America’s Got Talent in almost total silence. His wife is at work.
Donny was the first person I ever had sex with. Or should I say he was the first person to have sex with me? I hadn’t really wanted it but I’d wanted to want it, and I hadn’t felt like saying no, and I’d climaxed anyway, and he’d violated my already-fragile trust in a way I wouldn’t discover until after. Complicated has always been easier than tragic, for me. That was nearly a decade before, though, and it never stopped me from coming over whenever he asked. Even when puberty dug in its claws, twisting me into a hairy, broad-shouldered monster, and he stopped wanting me unless he was drunk or couldn’t find somebody better, I came over. I even came to his wedding.
He starts fidgeting. I look away from the show to find him rubbing himself through his jeans. I pretend not to notice.
“Being married and bi sucks,” he says. “You’ve got needs that your partner just can’t satisfy.”
I could satisfy them though, right? I think. Because I’m a man, right? The thought is like a punch in the stomach, but I learned not to flinch a long time ago.
He keeps rubbing. I agree that that seems rough and focus on Howie as he says something criminally unfunny. Donny eventually stops rubbing himself. I wonder if he feels ashamed, but he married a woman with an erotic furry tattoo on her back who wore a backless dress on her wedding night, so who knows if he’s even capable of shame.
The next act on the show is a troupe of dancers who are clearly male-bodied, but might as easily be drag queens as trans women. I dig my fingers into my thighs. He makes a crack about the ‘men’ on stage, and I suggest that they might consider themselves women.
“Not until they get the surgery,” he says. “If it’s got a dick, it’s still a man.”
I say nothing. I leave when his wife gets home, and I never speak to him again.
My trip is threatening to turn bad. I want to talk about death, and I can’t help but imagine people I see as corpses waiting to be unborn. Willow knows I shouldn’t indulge it, but I can’t let it go.
“I don’t just want the dark stuff,” I say, rubbing my cheek against the cold curve of the car window. “I also want the sun, and these colors, and…like, to touch a baby.”
“You want a baby?” Willow says, in a whisper.
“Of course I do.”
I rub my stomach absent-mindedly. We both look at my midsection and, for a moment, share a vision of my stomach and breasts swelling. We see a child growing in the womb I won’t ever have. We blink and it’s gone, and the tears come again.
There is more snow in Kevin’s yard than I saw in two decades in Tennessee. I trudge through the stuff, my legs going numb, toward a door I’ve never seen before. I knock, and wait, and melting snow seeps through my waterproof boots, and finally a tired-looking man in his late 30s answers in a bathrobe and a day’s beard growth.
I nod and adjust my bag, trying to ease the ache in my shoulder.
“Come inside,” he says.
“Thanks.” I cross the border and immediately tense up as the sour, bachelor smell of Kevin’s condo hits me. I put my bag down in the hall and take off my boots while he watches.
“You really don’t mind me staying?” I say. “Just until my friend and I find an apartment.”
“Ben said you’re cool.” He shrugs and wipes his nose. “Besides, it’s been too quiet since my girlfriend left.” He gestures up a narrow stair and walks off. “Your room’s up there. There’s an air mattress in the closet.”
I hop up the stairs and find myself on a partial loft looking out over the condo’s living room. The man is directly below, sprawled
out on his couch, turning the tv’s volume back up.
“Thanks again!” I say, leaning out and over him. He looks up and half-smiles. I hesitate before continuing. “You might…I wanted to give you a heads-up, you might see me wearing some weird stuff. Like, women’s clothes, and stuff. I’m transgender? And I moved up here so I could-”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, yawning. “I’m in the fetish scene too.”
We make it home somehow. One minute we’re on the mountain, and then I’m running around my building’s parking lot licking trees and being glad I’m not a dog, and then, somehow, I’m in bed with Willow and we’re taking our clothes off. Most of what happens next I learn from her later. Bobby comes to check on us, or stare at us, or try to join us. I don’t know. I can’t look at him. His beard scares me, and his heavy eyes, and everything male about him terrifies me.
The trip finally turns bad. Willow wants to have sex but I keep finding a penis where my vagina should be, and I know if I go inside her I’ll be gone forever. Each time she kisses me I shove her away, telling her not to eat me. I kick and push and moan. I grab her face and hold it inches from mine, and her beautiful, beautiful face becomes a mirror. I know the mirror is a liar, though, because I could never be gorgeous and normal like this image. Willow leaves me alone on the bed. I will feel very guilty later, but for now I come completely unmoored.
I chew my lip as my inbox loads. Have my editors responded yet? I picture them, in their Manhattan stylishness, laughing and rolling their eyes as they read my message out loud for the entire office.
“What a freak!” they must be saying.
“He was already ugly and fat, but a tranny to boot? How tragic.”
“A talentless hick and a pervert!”
“He can’t even write convincing female characters!”
“Is this a good enough excuse to cancel his contract?”
The screen finishes loading and there it is, at the top of my messages. My mouse hovers over the title, I’m not sure for how long. Finally, bracing like a woman before a firing squad, I click it.
“It’s cute you didn’t think we suspected,” they wrote.
“We absolutely support you.”
“We love your writing.”
I take a few minutes to cry before I notice the attachment at the bottom. An image pops up. It’s a book cover, MY book cover, and, “Meredith Lee” is printed across the top. The tears keep coming.
I have lost myself. Space, time and memory blend and fracture. I dip into the void and pull back up, obsessing with angles, curves, and echoes. One coherent thought stays in the foreground: that I must find the correct reality.
I crawl up from the darkness and look down. My eyes graze the obscenity between my legs. I shut down. Wake up. See a day’s hair growth on my hand. Shut down. Wake up. Feel a patch of stubble on my chin. Shut down.
The actresses are about to come out. The audience rutsles. Willow and our friend Amy discuss what they know about the Vagina Monologues while I think back to the last production I saw, before I was living even part time as a woman. An interesting piece of trivia comes to me.
“I think they did an all-trans woman production of this a while back,” I whisper to Willow.
She frowns. “I’m not sure how I feel about that,” she says. “The show’s about growing up without male privilege and the difficulties of being female-bodied, isn’t it?”
I swallow and try to sink into my chair. A moment before I’d felt like a woman among women, invisible through belonging rather than erasure for once. The feeling evaporates, and I see myself from outside, and I remember how belonging and normalcy are for other people.
“Are you mad at me?” Willow says. I don’t know how to tell her what I feel in this moment, so I tell her I’m only a little hurt instead.
It feels real when I wake up, but I still have a male body. It must be another dream. I shakily walk over to a bookshelf and pick a book at random — Orlando, funnily enough. The pages remain the same no matter how many times I look away and back again, almost like I’m awake. I must be dreaming though, if only because it would be too unfair for this to be my real body again.
Willow’s voice drifts into the bedroom, and Bobby’s answers. I shuffle toward the living room without putting on panties as a final test. I would never go bottomless in front of anyone but Willow in real life, so if nothing stops me from doing it now I must be dreaming.
It turns out I’m not dreaming, and I absolutely would go bottomless.
Willow sits me on the bed and tells me to close my eyes. She clumsily pulls something from the closet and spends a moment rummaging through one of her drawers. Her daughter Vanessa — our daughter more and more each day — bounces excitedly behind me.
“Can I look yet?”
“Y-yes,” Willow says. She is shaking so much that she could power our entire building. I move to comfort her, but she directs my attention to an oil painting leaning against the wall.
The painting is a mermaid reclining on a rock in the middle of the ocean. Her upper-half is a little chubby — fluffy, Willow calls it — with pale, pillow breasts sagging the tiniest bit. She has a little bit of an underbite, which only serves to make her smile a little lopsided and sarcastic. her long, black hair falls over one eye, but the other is large and brown and full of laughter.
“This is how I see you, Mermaid,” Willow says.
I look at the painting’s left hand and see a gold band around her ring finger. Willow sees me look and pulls a white box from behind her back, almost dropping it because of her tremors. She looks at me, eyes painfully wide. She is paralyzed by her anxiety.
“Do you need to ask me something?” I say, a smile and a blush spreading across my face.
“Do…do you want…?” Willow squeaks.
“Yes,” I say, and the three of us fall into a desperate, crushing, bonfire of a hug.
“Our Mermaid!” Vanessa squeals.
“I was hoping your trip wouldn’t be as gender-centric as it was,” Willow says, opening another berry smoothie.
“Me too,” I say, trying to decide if I want to eat anything. My stomach is tying itself in knots at the thought of how mean I was to her on the bed.
“Did you learn anything, at least?”
I unwrap a cheese stick and shrug. We watch the snow fall for a few minutes, before deciding to play Super Mario World while we’re still tripping a little bit.
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