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For a long time, I closed my eyes when I undressed and kept my eyes closed until bra straps secured my shoulders and underwear covered my vulva. I did this for years: revolted against my carnal condition, experienced a spontaneous embarrassment at seeing my swollen breasts. I shaved irregularly, wore no makeup, and preferred sports bras that flattened my chest. It wasn’t meant to be a political statement. I wanted to render my femininity invisible, pretend it wasn’t there, tell myself that it wasn’t something I had to maintain. The only time I renounced my body with intention, I took clippers to my scalp and watched my sixteen-inch hair fall to the ground. I was sick of being told how beautiful it was. As though it were the only feature that gave me worth. But even if I experienced bouts of nausea when confronted with my distending body, I always understood myself to be a girl. I was, for reasons I didn’t understand, attached to my womanhood.
And then I met Charlie, who proved to me that this nausea was false, misinformed. I had two memories juxtaposed as tokens of this lesson: his tongue, knotted, plunging, resuscitating my numb body, and a box of Plan B in my hand the next day because someone who was not a boy had gotten me pregnant.
We met at the lakeside in September. The sky was in its polychromatic in-between state, waiting for dusk to settle. I found myself in the Midwest once again, this time as a fellow studying under a classical composer with a small cohort of musicians. Someone planned a small gathering so we could meet each other. I arrived alone and saw him sitting on the dock. I offered him one of my beers. He complimented my MIT shirt.
A couple of girls grabbed the rope swing and jumped in, head first, feet first, plunging far below the surface. Their bodies turned into green algae when they descended. He saw me watching the water. He told me that the lake had special properties. That it could turn people into sirens if they were ready. If their body was willing to undergo the transformation.
I waited for the girls to resurface. Looked to see if they were transformed, disfigured, if their legs had turned to sea serpents. When they came up for air, they remained human.
I undressed and climbed down the dock’s ladder into the lake. He followed, much less comfortable in the water, but more at ease with his exposed body. I learned he’d been living in the area for a year already as an instrument repair technician, and that he’d been sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend over the summer. The two of them had spent a weekend together after the breakup, and when they got drunk, Charlie blacked out and woke up the next morning naked. They had agreed not to have sex. His boyfriend shrugged it off.
“Everyone assumes sex is easy for male-bodied people,” he told me. “They assume orgasms are easy. I haven’t been comfortable with penetrative sex for a while.”
I treaded water not two feet from him, not sure what to say, or how he had told me something so private so easily. I felt I ought to return the favor, to tell him a secret of my own to show that I trust him. But when I opened my mouth, I looked like a fish out of water, my mouth made a stupid “O” face, my lips opened and closed wordlessly as I tried to find a story. For a moment I thought the water on his lashes were tears.
Somehow, he invited me to his home. The wood floors were full of nicks and scrapes. He owned barely any furniture, but guitars cluttered a corner of the living room. I walked over to see their splintered necks, broken strings, peeling finishes, lifted bridges. And then, farther from the wall, the finished instruments. He took care in fixing each damaged body, and the new strings and frets marked his completed projects. I held one, traced the lines in the wood, and the secret came to me: I told him that I had never wanted the burden of being feminine. He admitted it was a label that would suit him better, that he often woke up wishing for new anatomy, that being a woman meant he could wear skirts and dresses and no one would question it.
I nodded, but could not fathom how he could be jealous of my sex, how he could desire to emulate its feminine characteristics when it was all I had ever tried to escape. He asked me to swim to the center with him one day, when he was ready, to see if the lake would give him the transformation he so wanted.
“Everyone experiences gender dysphoria, whether they’re cis or trans,” he told me. “But I think this could really help me.”
I agreed. We cooked pasta for dinner. When plated, the chunky tomato sauce stuck out between the penne like the exposed organs of a body in surgery. At the end of the night, he played “September Song” for me on the upright.
By the middle of December, most of the lake had frozen over and a foot of snow covered the ground. A harvest moon stained the clouds, warped the dark basilica sky with a jarring red hue. With Charlie next to me, the two of us protected by four layers of clothing, I marveled at how still the air was, how the pale paralysis of winter rendered the trees entirely alone. I leaped onto the bank, relished the fact that I could run across the ice and slide five feet without breaking the surface, and said that for the lake to survive this winter it had to cannibalize its surface. He nodded in agreement like I said something important.
“I should be seeing a therapist. I should have started a long time ago.”
I turned to him standing three feet above me, his hands in his pockets, his long hair falling over his shoulders, and hesitated before asking why.
“I thought it was my changing relationship with my father, or my possible breast cancer, or the fact that my career was about to change dramatically when in fact it was none of those.”
“What was it then?”
“The fact that I suffer from depression. Things have never been wonderful and I don’t think they ever will be.”
“It’s hard to accept that you’re depressed because the label feels so permanent.”
“Like your gender.”
“If I have a gender, it’s not attached to my sex. Do you see me as a boy? Fundamentally?”
I considered his desire for femininity. At that moment, under the crimson sky, I thought it could only be his own naivety, the perverted myth of womanhood, that made him feel like anything other than a boy. So I told him: “If I were to sleep with you, I would assume your gender.”
He shook his head. “That’s not my relationship with my body.”
I did not have the maturity to understand the weight of that night. If I could do it again, I would have spoken differently. I would have told him . . . or perhaps it had to happen that way. Perhaps I could not have possibly understood sooner.
It was at a show of his that I first saw it. I ordered a beer and made my way to the side of the room, where I stood with my back against the wall. I still didn’t know many people in town besides Charlie. When he went on, he took center stage with his guitar, holding the neck tenderly, smiling bashfully at the audience, swinging his body in an awkward, girlish manner. When he addressed the crowd, he did so in his raw, quiet way. And I knew then that his hopeless honesty had never been reserved especially for me, but was a way of being that permeated all his relationships. And almost imperceptibly, I saw what he had been trying to tell me for nearly half a year. I saw it in his languid movements on stage, in each tender note he plucked from the strings.
I was terrible with words, always trying to pack numerous strands of thought into condensed space, but I pulled him aside after the set and stammered that I had been wrong and that it was not fair that he was referred to in the masculine gender. That even if I was attached to my womanhood, and not my femininity, I could see him and love him as a feminine being.
“And beyond that, beyond all of that and anything to do with me, the presence of ‘he’ when speaking of you reveals an absence.”
Charlie squeezed my hand and drew short, ragged breaths. For a moment we were outside in a foot of snow again as everything around us muted, stilled.
I sat on their bed — two twin mattresses pushed together on the floor. Coffee mugs and sheet music cluttered their desk, and their guitar leaned against the bare wall.I wanted to kiss them, but it was they who kissed me. Their mouth open, their tongue plunged down, labored, restored, their tongue was my tongue. I thought of something I had always known but never vocalized: I’ve only ever been taught how to love men.
Yet their touch commanded my attention. I inhaled sharply when they grabbed the side of my stomach between their thumb and forefinger. It was not a question of simple desire or passion; rather, I was prompted by necessity to kiss them. I had to reproduce their kiss, whose meaning I did not understand, but which caught me in the form of need. We kissed in order to breathe life into each other, it became necessary in order to live. Their body, long, thin, gaunt, olive-black, became indiscernible traits, at once feminine and masculine. My body trembled in fear and from the effort.
Some women can churn children into this world like butter. That day, it was me. Next time, maybe, it could be them.
Brianna Di Monda
Brianna Di Monda is a Contributing Editor at Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in Worms Magazine, Flaunt Magazine, and The Summerset Review, among others. She was nominated for the 2021 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.