content warning: animal death, non-consensual intimacy
Martin is smoking on the bed with his elbow buried into his thigh and head turned away from me. I wonder if the stiffness in my body reminds him of the raccoon he ran over yesterday. Rigid. Cold. Attractive, manly qualities. I feel visceral nausea about the incident seeping out from his body, leaking from his pores like steam from a pipe. I try to make myself smaller, but the consequence is that he becomes larger than life.
I get up to leave. Martin doesn’t say goodbye. I grab my bike and disappear.
Walking my bike home, I spot one of the neighborhood strays with its nose buried into the ground. I cross the street to give it space, gravitating towards the sidewalk. A round, dark body squirms free from its jaw, darting away under a building. I feel my chest tighten once I realize what the dog was preoccupied with. A rat the size of a football somehow manages to squeeze between a closed gate and into safety. Finally realizing its prey was lost, the stray miserably scratched the ground in defeat. I turn the corner and ignore the rest of the scene, feeling my gut fume with something vile, and my throat burn as I reach for the keys in my pocket.
The two of us, Martin and I, are taking the train to Boston visit friends. It’s a lousy excuse to escape the grey of our college town, but I accept the invitation like a golden ticket to the chocolate factory. Pathetic as it sounds, I barely know anything about Martin’s friend group. As someone with almost no social life, I feel honored, if not morbidly entertained, by the thought that Martin would introduce me to his strangers.
By the time we arrive it’s almost sunset. We call a ride to his friend’s place while I fidget with my coat’s strings, wondering how local wildlife keeps in the mayhem of densely populated cities. The sad corner of town we’re dropped off in feels too familiar. You can spot Christmas lights draping off the roof like ornamental rat tails. I wonder how many pests each year are attracted to the colorful artificial lights, either to end up wrangled in some festive deathtrap or to succumb to frostbite.
Minutes later we’re inside, warmer than we were outside, but not by much. The walls are plastered with a sickly yellow. A single wreath welcomes us into the living room, where Martin’s friends are getting their fill of generic brew for men in their early-twenties.
When I excuse myself, Martin follows me into the bathroom. It’s roughly the size of a walk-in closet, and I don’t hesitate telling him to piss off before he puts his arm around me. I know it’s meant as a loving gesture, but it makes me feel worse than the boozy stink floating wild in the air.
“It’ll be good,” he tells me. “You’re such a stuck-up, you know that? Letting loose is what it’s all about. You don’t need to drink.”
“No,” I repeat, “I don’t.”
He slides his hand up my shirt. I close my eyes as his fingers ghost over my chest scars. They’re faded but still sensitive when pressed down on—it feels like reliving a long-lost memory of what used to be there. Behind my eyelids, I see bright colors, Christmas lights reflected on windows. It was Christmas when I had top-surgery, but no matter how hard I try to remember it, it’s all a blur of northeastern snow and arid blue mornings.
Martin’s breath is thick on my throat. I’m not sure if I like it. I think about the giant rat I saw in the park yesterday. I think about how possums play dead when they’re frightened. I wonder about all the different ways I’ve learned to play dead, and whether or not this shield of testosterone injected into my body really repels any of that fear off.
“You’re like a real guy, y’know,” Martin teases me. “It’s really a shame that –”
“Don’t finish that sentence,” I warn him. “You’ll regret it.”
“Okay, but it’s true,” he insists. “You came here to have a good time. And they don’t know about you, so why even care?”
“I don’t care. I just hate crowds.” Not only that, I hate hot bodies lingering over my own, hate having Martin get all up in my personal space. Not that I mind. I don't mind, I tell myself, knowing that I’m lying. But I don’t enjoy having to worry about not hearing my own voice in my head, either. It’s like someone constantly ringing a cowbell in your ears despite telling them to stop a dozen times. That’s what it’s like sleeping with a boy like Martin.
I let him kiss me. It’s quick and unloving. When we’re done, I open the door again, and we slide out into the party. The room is red with a hardwood floor—a thin veil of lighting tints everything a wasted pink. For a moment, I’m wary of the entire party. One of Martin’s friends whisks him away. He says he’ll just be a moment. It seems as if his entire life is made up of these little moments.
It’ll be a moment.
Just a minute.
I’ll be back soon.
But in my case, the moment is perpetually on hold, like my life is a video game, and someone is holding down the pause button. I awkwardly fix myself by the staircase like a lamp and dully watch the party unfold. Bodies bump and bounce against each other without dancing. They want to speak but have no one way of hearing a stranger’s words.
When threatened, possums stiffen their bodies and stop their breathing momentarily. They are not the only animal with this behavior, yet it has become one of their most easily identifiable traits. With pointed, enlarged snouts and black beady eyes, there’s little to appreciate about what most people consider pests. My mind spoons as I watch the party in front of me un-nest like a never-ending series of matryoshka dolls. My stomach squeaks. I am very bad at playing dead in a tireless crowd.
There’s this misconception that when a person transitions, their transition magically skips them to the next chapter of life without any of the messy in-betweens. I call this the über-trans myth. When I started injecting hormones, Martin constantly made jokes about how strong I’d be, how manly my face would be, how much hair I’d grow. That I’d be just like a real guy, but better. Only about a fraction of those things actually occurred. But I can’t blame him for wanting to encourage me. It’s hard not to look at a broken thing and not imagine how you can fix it, become its savior.
In this scenario being über-trans means epitomizing the gender you’re aspiring to become. It doesn’t assume that, actually, you’ve always been born that gender and nothing other than surface-level changes are happening. When you become a man’s man, according to Martin when he’s smoking pot in his one-bedroom apartment, you actually become better than a plain man.
“It’s even manlier that you only fuck guys,” he told me. A huge ring of smoke slithers out his mouth. He passes the mouthpiece to me. I inhale, close my eyes, and pretend I’m on a big shiny dragon and not here. I cannot comprehend the logic that brought him to that conclusion, but I can try if I smoke.
“You’re like, the übermensch,” he laughed.
“You do know Nietzsche thinks I’m an abomination, right?”
Martin’s mouth goes slack—he’s tired of talking. He rolls his neck and turns towards me.
“You’re one of a kind,” he tells me. “You really aren’t like any other dude I’ve met. You’re so special in your own way.”
“Like?” I feel as if I’m an arrow darting all over a roadmap, not exactly sure where this is going. But I already know this route. I know this script like the back of my own hand.
“You have a pussy. It’s the best of both worlds.”
I cringe. I know he doesn’t mean it. But it’s also the verbal equivalent of a burning steel spike through my chest. I take a deep breath and consider leaving for the night. I could crash on a friend’s couch.
“That’s a shitty thing to say,” I admit. “I hope you know that.”
Martin waved his hand. “You know what I mean.”
We found a dead rat under the sink today. I got on my knees and reached through the filthy cupboard doors and winced as I touched its soft wet body. When I finally grabbed its tail, I slid it quickly into a paper bag. It had enough weight to make a small noise as it hit the bottom, which made my stomach churn. It was a fat rat. The fur was a dirty brown, with small scrawny pink fingers that vaguely resembled my own. I tried not to open the bag again, but I couldn’t resist. Squinting, I re-examined every part of the vermin before I finally sent it to its resting place: the trash. I had no idea where it came from, but I began imagining an infinite spiral of rodents secretly collaborating with each other in our walls. Every knotted tail, every pair of beady black eyes, completely silent and stiff as if they had never lived before.
In the rat-dreams, at first, the rat is happily eating. The frost bites my little pink nose and my chapped pink hands. I use them to shove the food in my maw like a raccoon. Under all this fur I'm ready to break out, like a butterfly from its cocoon, all skin and meat curling away like an orange peel. It doesn't occur to me until later that the rat is me, a furry pest scraping for garbage in a harsh winter. My twitching feet gather the strength to lift myself up on my hind legs, walk away, find somewhere warmer and drier to sleep. The winter is long, and the night is short and sweet.
I unlock my bicycle at three in the morning, making sure not to wake Martin as I roll it down the hallway back home. My body itches with the thin shaking of a thousand little hairs on my limbs. Waiting for something to come roaring down the street to devour me whole, I’m perpetually becoming a piece of roadkill in Martin’s eyes. I don’t think it’s fair. As I lock the door behind me and set my bike on the sidewalk, I look over at the green square dumpster everyone in the apartment complex uses. Trash doesn’t get picked up until Sunday, so the wet rat carcass will continue sitting there for a while.
When I roll myself over to it, the stench sucker-punches me—torn-open black trash bags, soiled pieces of food, broken glass and beer bottles. I don’t question the impulse I’m about to act on. I use a flashlight to spot the paper bag out from the other piles of trash, glad that I’m able to snatch it up so easily. If this was a dream, I would’ve fallen and been eaten whole. It’s too easy to fall in. I’d be a filthy as the rest of them, the dozen or so other rats coming in the night to mourn their dead.
The bag is heavier in my hands. I open it knowing what to expect: the fuzzy blanket of maggots, bulging eyes, limp wrists, and sodden tail. The body has already begun to decompose, not even having been out for a day. I hold my breath, clench the bag in my fist, squeezing the body, gently, and toss it back into the black mouth.
I have no clue where to ride. My handlebars feel sweaty and disgusting after touching the rat’s dead body, but I clench them anyways hoping to focus on the street ahead. As I start pedaling, I catch a shiny glimpse from the corner of my eye. A scrawny possum is hobbling through the open parking lot, dragging its fat leathery tail behind like a rolling carpet. Goosebumps attack my skin. The knot in my throat chokes me, and I’m massively disappointed in myself—I was going to escape, run away, disappear into the night. But this strange animal gives pause to stare me down, and I realize I’ll never be like them, never be naturally nocturnal. I’d never be roadkill-bound. My hands and feet are not clawing. My skin is not clumps of grey fur I kiss to lick my wounds. My eyes aren’t void black things that shrivel up in the sunlight. I wipe the sweat on my jeans, and feel my pulse, realize that I’m only meat and bones, torn-open and sewn back together to make a new person. Acknowledging my fakeness is my first step to living it, living through this body.
“Where did you go?” Martin asks me, rolling over my way. I finish washing my hands and flip the bathroom light off. I shake my head, tell him nowhere in particular. That I just needed fresh air.
“Well, that’s interesting,” he says. “I’ve been thinking it’s starting to smell like wet dog in here.”
I laugh awkwardly and silently feel like shedding my skin, becoming the rat, feverishly crawling into a hole to die.
“Did you plan on going somewhere?”
“Nowhere, I’m going nowhere,” I tell him, in a manner of forfeit, because it is the truth. But the punchline hurts, winds the breath out of my chest, a stab in the back.
My skin crawls as I sit beside Martin. I let him wrap his arm around me. He’s clueless as to where I’ve been, where I’m going, who I’m set to be. His body isn’t mine, and never will be, but I close my eyes and imagine myself crawling away and disappearing forever into the very bottom of the earth.