On Needles

Spencer Williams


The nice white lady calls my name, and I toe into her office with my ears on fire, because I’m there to receive bad news that I hope will be good news, and my body—chronically proactive and over-achieving—jump-starts the rage spiral I had programmed for approximately one hour after this meeting. The office is cubically compact and orderly, the magazines on the coffee table fanned out with intimidating, mathematical precision. The air inside is like cold therapy, like the bothered tone in your mother’s voice when she suggests you should try and book some sessions.

The nice white lady motions me over to the designated crying couch, and I wince because the color of the couch is periwinkle, a color so patronizing I nearly pivot-turn and sashay my problems out of the room. Pastels have always reeked of new-money nurseries and gender-reveal cakes, not cushions made for rambling trauma screeds about sex cults or children of divorce. With my musical theater days behind me, I collapse into the cushion with a dramatic thud and fling my tote onto the immaculate carpeting.

The nice white lady is all teeth, and I search for her gums when she smiles, finding nothing but wet shine and trapped arugula. What brings you here today? Such a loaded question. Her teeth gleam violently like tiny solar panels. Without raising a hand to my face, I tell her. Or rather I ask her. Ask her if there is anything that can be done while I’m still on break from school or if my healthcare can travel back with me, around my neck, up my ass, literally anywhere. But the space between my asking and her answer is a bleak stretch of gray, one I’m well acquainted with, and by the time her first words catapult into my ear, my whole body sparks with grief.

I have experience with waiting. For example, it took half my life to know I was branded incorrectly when they pulled me from my birth mother like science fiction ooze. This is what I tell the new friends I make when the inevitable press conference is held concerning me, my body, the word “transgender,” and why I keep referring to my dick as a “dussy.” I field questions regarding, though not limited to, how far I’m willing to go, how far I’ve gone, if I’ve seen Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black, and when I knew I “wanted to be” a woman[1]. Amidst the never-waning throng of cis curiosity, I, the trans person, am positioned as oracle, the all-seeing, all-knowing Sauron eye of gender discourse, gender variance, genderfucking, gender theory, gender see, gender spot, and gender run. I have become familiar, intimately so, with the dull apparatus of the cis imagination, a sometimes humorous, always limited hellscape; it’s a never-ending Q&A where everyone has a “well-meaning” question to avoid asking the real question tucked between my legs.

What the movies get wrong about me is this: whenever I touch a soft fabric, I do not immediately burst into tears. As much as The Danish Girl would have you believe this to be true, I do not consider my gender an occupation. Rather I regard my gender as one might a mosquito lodged inside the ear: an acute distraction, one that often keeps me from partaking in the dance of public life. The constant incorrectness of my gender’s buzzing is a song that only I can hear, and it is neither bop nor banger.

The nice white lady has a name, and it is Debra. Debra creases the folds of her skirt as she speaks, knuckles kneading into the cloth. She is a nervous, apologetic baker punishing dough, and is absolutely not to blame for the gate that separates us, even though in the moment I feel she might be. If anything, the gate is what she represents.

When Debra tells me I can’t start hormone treatments until I undergo a months-long psychiatric evaluation in California, I want to puke on all her pleasant colors. I want to disparage the space we sit in until it smells of fresh kill and fever. I want to do anything else except weep atop her periwinkle crying couch.

Despite the finished blood work, I remain at a standstill with myself. The test I took in the lobby met me at my most truthful, which was a mistake. When the iPad questionnaire asked me if I had ever considered suicide before, I fingered an enthusiastic “yes,” thinking it would serve my case to let the hospital know the urgency of the matter at hand, even though the rope was years ago, in high school, and lives now in my memory bank as nothing more than dirty water beneath a flaming bridge. The hospital and Debra disagreed.

“They’re going to want to speak with you about that,” she says. I roll my eyes because of course they do.

If my gender dysphoria had to choose a theme song, it would be an expired, leather-daddy, industrial-club hit from the late nineties, speckled with random German phrases and overcooked nostalgia for the heydays of peak gay Berlin[2]. My dysphoria reverberates harshly, bludgeons me with metallic drops, sweats me out of my skin, and spits into my mouth like a dirty, dirty master. My body fucks itself over and over as I float above it, and I see a version of me handcuffed to the bedposts, blindfolded and ball-gagged. My body cracks like a whip. My body stuffs glitter into every hole, and I float above the mess. I float above it all.

And then it changes. It is no longer the club pulsing like one giant organ, and I am no longer clogged with sparkle and shine. Some days, I take to the mirror and pick straggly hairs compulsively until the blood comes. Some days, this ritual takes hours.

The Internet tells me injection by needle works faster than the pill. I am not moving fast enough for this to be true. I am watching the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as ex-heroin-addict-turned-author Cheryl Strayed, and I’m thinking only about the needle, even when I try to bring myself back to the moment where Reese empties her colossal backpack of non-essentials in the middle of the Pacific Coast Trail. Here is what I manage to catch: in a bloodied fit of desperation, Reese screams down the shoulder of a mountain and punts a boot into the valley’s mouth below. She hoists her backpack’s new weight upon her shoulders and treks forward with the airy lightness of a daydream.

The lesson prescribed by the scene—doubling as a reminder to never underestimate the power of a good Reese Witherspoon performance—is seemingly this: do away with your burdens disguised as necessities. Leave your haunts for the wolves and snakes. Put your faith in something other than the flimsy promise of a needle.

Debra refunds my co-pay because she remembers I’m a student and doesn’t want to see my bank account drained from this expense of non-action. She apologizes, offers her condolence but no loophole. “Get a new couch,” I want to say, but don’t. I had asked my father to pick me up from the hospital. My father and I do not discuss the subject of daughters, but he agrees to drive me to and from the appointment. I am back from school, and the last time we saw each other, I sat him down with my mother in a Cold Stone Creamery to feed them the plot twist—I was a woman this whole time. Now, we do not speak on the insufficiency of his language; it makes no difference either way. At school, I received instead his penchant for the sentimental: family photos taken at random at Thanksgiving, complicated angles, and his histories of old friends too old for me to know but who remember me just the same. I read the “I love you” text he sent me in response to the flight itinerary I sent him, and strained to hear the frequency of its pulse. The sound almost lifted me from my body like a quiet death. In the car, that death lingers as all deaths do. I love my father, but he’s never met me before. This is the wound we share custody over, marked black with distance.

I get into the spiral almost immediately and feel nothing close to remorse when I am through. In a harsh, frantic tone, I relay the failures of the Medicare system, argue how it effectively disenfranchises trans people by forcing them into stagnation, and how condescending it is to be told I can’t become who I already am without outsourced permission. I spit each word with venom, taste their sour on the backs of my teeth. My father stares straight ahead, unsure of how to appease this wrath. It’s a trap; there is no response that could make me feel less animal[3]. He stutters, mumbling something about how all the hospitals care about is money, which is why their policies are so strict. It takes all my self-control not to scream.

At the start of 2017, I speak into a molding spot of wall in Iowa City and promise my veins a needle before January comes again. My apartment—a two-person fester of black spots and peeling woodwork—shivers at this declaration. I press my face against a fading cluster of paint chips and inhale.

That old apartment contains the function of a house: hot water, stove, toilet, electricity, roof, shower. The apartment is temporary, and the mold is fact. I sleep soundly in my toxic breathing tank. I learn to put my faith in powers far away from management or maintenance—they’ve never responded to my e-mails. For a year, I’m unsure of the clogging in my lungs. Unsure if the clogging exists, for one. What I’m sure of is this: in my promise to the body, a lie is blistering. “The needle will come this year,” I pledge, “and time will warp my body into something desirable.”

I have no heroin addiction to kick, Reese. On the television screen, you sidestep a diamondback by straying from the trail. I sidestep progress by keeping still because there’s a mirror in every room trying to paralyze me in its frame. Time after time, I feel motion sickness when I step and catch a glimpse of my frame in any random piece of reflecting glass. It is my body, yes, but I am not home. Rather, I move through my skin like a virus. I scream, “Body, evict me!” and receive my own echo as response.

I don’t know what to call this flesh which is mine which is not mine. House or home? Is house merely structural? I leave and enter it. Take the apartment I used to call house—to what extent could I have referred to it as home? After months of inquiry, I finally ascertain the difference and become it: the home, a body I can’t altogether leave behind. Forced into the day, I try to leave the home but find that I have not left.[4]

I stare at my father in the front seat as though he is written in a language I can’t read. We stop by an ice cream store to grab a pint for my mother, who is devoted to her nightly coffee ice cream and espresso routine, and I continue railing against the health care system, pale in the face, and exasperated by my seemingly endless reserves of fury. My father drops me off at the curb in front of the house, hands me the ice cream pint, and laughs. Says, “Maybe this will help you cool down.”

Cool down. The words barely make it through my father’s lips before I attack his vehicle, leaving the door hanging off like a broken jaw. As I make my way towards the house, I do not dare to turn around and watch him unhook his seatbelt, trudge out of the vehicle, walk around its perimeter, and shut the casualty closed.

There’s something that must be said for the ugly that enters when the anger is at its wildest and most unmentionable. Perhaps masochistically, I bury myself deep into the source so I cannot leave.[5] The tears are acidic, indent my cheeks into paths. In all directions, my body scatters like water when skipped. In the privacy of midnight, I step into the bathroom and undress. The bathroom has gone through many renovations over the years. The showerhead’s spine has grown inches taller, the neck like a sunflower above my dome. The toilet lid is blinding white with marble sheen, replacing the wooden plank from the year before. What I mean is, the changes are noticeable. I look toward the mirror and disagree. My stubble is back. My dussy is a hanging branch between my thighs, caught inside a wicked, curling thrush.

The hormone needle is forever. By this I mean that once it enters, it must continue to reenter for the rest of my life. The needle I crave exists, somewhere, and someone else is using it to handle their business beneath the yellowed glow above the toilet, tracing their thigh for a blue vein the size of a river on a print map. I can feel it there, if I squeeze my body tight enough. The needle exists, sure, but not for me. Not yet. Each night, I smear off the steam seeped into the mirror, glimpse my face, the bumpy geography of my chin, the budding hairs like treetops downed and downed again.

It has become an obsession, my hungry quest to acquire the needle. With each passing year, I begin to see more and more needles wherever I look. Once, my shower drain gargled up digested leftovers from the previous tenants and made a makeshift swamp of the bathroom floor. The maintenance man, no younger than sixty-five, plunged his brave, ungloved fist into the murky shit water and wrestled free a clogging nest of black hair. When I think of the admirable nonchalance with which the underpaid maintenance man tossed the cruel, dripping tangle into the wastebasket, I remember the cheap pen hooked to his shirt pocket, the trail of dark blue ink shooting straight down the transparent stomach towards the tip, like medicine stored in a syringe. Like a thin, blue stream of blood traveling south beneath the skin.

Before I leave to go back to school, my father tells me that he’s contacting the HMO provider of the health care plan we have to see if he can file an application to help outsource the hormone process closer to where I am located. He says, “I’m proud of you, son,” and I do not correct him.[6]

The night before I leave for school again, I attempt sleep in my childhood bed, which I have grown too tall for. I have no option but to fold beneath the sheet, fetal and aching. The body becomes a presence I can’t shake, an uncomfortable, phantom weight. I look up to see the fake moon and stars of my youth still glued to their eternal spots on the ceiling. Like counting sheep, I say my body’s name—the one no one else will say—again and again and again until I drift.


1 Let me get back to you. Yes, I’ve seen her, and yes, she’s great, though I still didn’t come out till I was twenty, which proves I’m a master at comedic timing, as I was old enough to articulate the severe dysphoria that plagued me, but I wasn’t old enough to buy four margaritas to effectively loosen myself from its effects.

2 My hunger to connect my dysphoria to a tangible source is a byproduct of my dysphoria having no tangibility at all—it is not me, standing naked in the mirror with one hand on my heart and one on my dick. The disconnect is an abstracted force, a hazy ritual of theres and not-theres, like walking through a blizzard with sunglasses on.

3 The feeling is one untethered from control. I check the rearview to see if I’m still present. I am, but my face is not what my face is. I begin to think of roadkill, of beasts heaved out from their husks, gruesome and unrecognizable. Has a doe ever smashed someone’s headlights without having passed through the windshield too? Has a doe’s body ever ceased movement after the eyes of the vehicle hooked deep into her flesh? I imagine a brutal, telekinetic shove. If not turning knives out from the glass, then a smear in the road. The doe, careened on her side like a ghost ship near the woods. Organs leaking in a pile from the stomach. Steam rising from the bright, cavernous red. The shattered headlights illuminating the yellow lines, the black pool widening into lake.

4 When I returned to my parents’ house, I stole every photo of myself as a child and teenager from my mother’s albums and made copies. In Photoshop, I turned dozens of mes into ink blots. “There,” I said. “That’s better.”

5 Sometimes, it’s like this: a cavern, long and snaking with no entrance, no space for light to break in. I sit with my dysphoria in the dark and occasionally feel my way for a slit to breathe from. Sometimes the slit is all there is, but my mouth won’t fit around the curve. Sometimes, there is nothing for me to do but gasp.

6 The call turned out to be futile, but the fact that the call took place is, for the time being, enough.