Quarantine has a lot of downsides. The crushing isolation, the unfathomable grief of mass death, the creeping feeling that we’re living through the literal apocalypse, the constant unconscious work of repressing all that so you can cross something meaningless off of your to-do list. But I have managed to find one silver lining: longer showers.
In the early days of quarantine, most of my time was booked up by either a Zoom call or the spontaneous crying that always followed a Zoom call. Showers provided a rare opportunity to stop panicking about all of the work I wasn’t doing, slow down, and take a moment to panic about something else.
On the 24th day of quarantine, I decided to take a shower in the middle of the day. I know it was daytime because I remember the sunlight disappearing as I closed my curtains. When I felt like being kind to myself, I would do the next part by the dim light leaking through the “blackout” cloth. This time, I did not feel like being kind to myself. I turned on all of the lamps in my room and took off all of my clothes. Then I stood in front of the mirror and stared.
I can’t remember how I reacted that time. Sometimes I would just stare at my body for a few moments and then move on. Sometimes I would flinch, but I always forced myself to look again. Sometimes I cried. I think I may have cried that time.
With that ritual out of the way, it was time to tweeze. Every week for the last decade, I’d removed the excess hair around my bushy brows, the random thick strays that pop up on my nose and chin, and, most importantly, the thicket of eye-catching baby hairs just above my upper lip. That day, for the first time in six weeks of hardly seeing anyone, I skipped the most crucial step and left my mustache alone. Then I took a very, very long shower.
Ten years earlier, I got onto the always-packed bus that took me home from school and stood in front of two girls who were traveling together. At some point, their conversation slowed and I could tell they were looking at me. I started to sweat under my uniform. I don’t think I was wearing headphones, but they must’ve assumed I couldn’t hear them because one of them asked the other aloud if she thought I was a girl or a boy. Then they started to argue about it. The one who thought I was a girl brought up my hair, but the other one said, “My brother has long hair too.” I could feel my heartbeat in my ears. The argument continued until the one who thought I was a boy wordlessly traced her finger across her upper lip in the shape of a handlebar mustache.
“I can hear you,” I said, so quickly it was embarrassing. “And I’m a girl.”
They feigned surprise so poorly that I instantly realized they’d known that I could hear them all along. Then the three of us rode in silence until I reached my stop and squeezed through the mass of human flesh to the door that was constantly asking people to move away. As soon as I got off the bus, I headed to the nearest pharmacy-slash-convenience-store chain and bought a pack of at-home wax strips. That night I waxed my upper lip for the first time. It hurt so bad I cried. The next day, every member of my family complimented me.
For the next ten years, I made sure to keep my upper lip hair to a minimum. At first, I waxed it every other week, but eventually I got tired of the pain and skin irritation and the acne I got from the oil I had to use to soothe the pain and skin irritation. I switched to tweezing, which hurt even more because it took so much longer. In those years, I came out (as bisexual), dated and broke up with my first girlfriend, dated and broke up with my first boyfriend, came out again (as a lesbian), and started exclusively wearing men’s clothes. In all that time, I kept ripping that hair out every other week.
Now, I imagine an alternate reality in which COVID-19 had never appeared and quarantine had never happened. Would I be typing something like this right now? Would I have hair on my face, or would it be smooth, red, and stinging? Would I know that I’m trans? Or would I still be pointing to that last vestige of my feminine presentation, that stretch of hairless skin above my upper lip, and screaming “I’m not one of them”?
The precious moments between the end of a Zoom call and the beginning of my tears were always devoted to my phone. As soon as a call ended, I would grab that hunk of glass and metal as if it were a floating door in a shipwreck and immediately open Twitter. Sometimes I searched for hashtags like #transmanthirstdae and scrolled through pictures of shirtless men and envied their scars. But often I would search for something easier for cis people to guess, like #translivesmatter, filter for the most recent tweets, and skim for people who used “transgender” as a noun, cis lesbians who proudly proclaimed their lack of interest in trans women, cis gay men who congratulated themselves for being satisfied with the body they were born with. Sometimes it was easy to find what I was looking for: At one point, all I needed to do was search for “J.K. Rowling.” I told myself I was looking for glimpses of my possible futures, but I lingered longest on the posts that told me that the path I longed for would certainly end in rejection or death. I can’t count the number of articles I read about recently murdered trans women and men, or the number of posts that implied that that’s what we deserve.
When I stripped down and stood in front of the mirror, the disembodied voices of my online enemies ricocheted through my mind. I asked myself if the pain I felt looking at my reflection was worse than the pain I would be setting myself up for if I told the truth. I demanded proof that I was dysphoric enough to require intervention. I forced myself to perform the pain that cis people expect to see before they deign to admit that we might be justified in seeking out lives that fulfill us. I wondered if I might be better off dead.
Week after week, I watched as my baby hairs grew in and obscured the masculine hairline I’d tried so hard to maintain in my pre-COVID life. I watched my body shrink as I lost track of how many months it’d been since I went to the gym. The short expanse of skin between my nose and upper lip became one of the few regions of my own body I could still control. If I’m being honest, I think I grew out my mustache to distract myself from the rest of my body. I learned to look myself in the eye until I could see myself for the person I knew I was instead of the person other people said I should be. Without surgery or hormones, I couldn’t do much about my body—but I could stop punishing my face and torturing my mind for not being sufficiently feminine. I couldn’t stop other people from expecting me to be someone I never was, but I could stop asking myself to play along.
And once I did, I realized that the people who mattered most to me never wanted me to suppress myself. My little brother — the fiercest ally I’ve ever met — texted me to ask if I’d rather be referred to by pronouns other than she/her. I didn’t reply. My girlfriend and my best friend — both queer women — asked me the same question in person. I got spooked and half-stepped, asking them to switch to they/them but forcing them to swear they wouldn’t use those pronouns for me in front of anyone else.
I took a shower a few hours ago. I didn’t look in the mirror beforehand because I didn’t want to. Afterward, I caught my own eye in the mirror as I stepped out of the shower and began to cry. I looked at my own face contorted with pain and told myself, “You can do this.” And then I smiled.
Few living Americans have seen a more trying time than this one. But if there’s anyone who knows how to look at a hopeless, joyless present and somehow imagine a bright and beautiful future, it’s us. All of us.