Senior year, I moved into an old house paid for with the money my best friend made dealing. The unit was small, a single story, with package-taped windows and exposed pipe in the kitchen ceiling. The backyard looked out on a rift in the earth as long and deep as a canoe, wide enough to accommodate a body lying on its side. “The San Andreas!” our landlord explained, as if the cleft was a marble countertop or walk-in closet. When he handed us the lease agreement, Zoey warned him that a search of her social security number would pull up a man’s name—her deadname. He said, “That’s no problem! You’ll find this is a very accepting community.” He didn’t ask too many questions.
Zoey laid out on the front lawn after he left. “This house needs a name,” she said. “It’s got zero personality.” Her suggestions were fantasy nonsense: Narnia, Hobbiton, Hyrule, Earthsea. She almost settled on Candyland. “Fine with me,” I said, stepping toward the car.
“Wait.” She pressed an ear to the grass. “This house is a woman. Her name is Peaches.”
I nodded. From the trunk, I pulled out a trash bag full of everything I owned. The rest was lost in Fairfield with my dad, who had been going through one of his moods that summer. The one month of break we lived together, I would come home from Grindr hookups to find garbage emptied in the tub, Charmin unspooled around light fixtures. He watched as I cleaned, scowling at my long hair, until I returned one night to my stash of gaffs, thigh-highs, and chokers—a closet only a crossdresser would keep—spread across the kitchen table. He hit me once, landing on my throat by accident. Out of embarrassment, he hit me a second time in the stomach. I was still on the ground when he went into his room, but I didn’t stay down long enough to see what else he might pull. I walked until I hit the Denny’s on Pittman. Zoey was the friend I called. That spring, I’d told her my name was Claire, that I wanted to evolve from crossdresser into full-time girl, and her first instinct was to wrap me in her arms and scream, “Congratulations!” Followed by, “Don’t worry, dummy. We’ll get you through this.” The two of us were the “we.”
Zoey pulled up to the Denny’s an hour later, dressed for some rave in a cat tail and little else. She laughed at my tears, saying how just that morning she had packed all her old boy clothes for donation.
* * *
Our first month in Peaches, there was rain. The hillsides of Santa Cruz were reinvigorated by October showers, and this made us feel, you know, pastoral. Like two horse girls running wild. But a little more dehydrated.
When the thunder was too heavy to be romantic, Zoey covered the walls with watercolors she couldn’t remember painting. “The inspiration must strike when I’m on Ambien,” she said. There were three-tone rainbows done on graph paper, bordello scenes of fornicating broccolis, droopy and hairy breasts torn straight from our journals, each hung on two strips of Scotch tape. I told Zoey this made the place look like a bad tattoo parlor, but she didn’t mind. She had the bright idea to name each piece, as if they were children or real artworks. We invented our titles by rewriting the positive affirmations the LGBT Center dispersed on flyers around campus. Our first night playing, we drank kratom mixed with Diet Coke and replaced the word “trans” or “queerness” in these mantras with other psychiatric diagnoses in the DSM-5. We covered our art in expressions like:
Delusion is one of the many loveable qualities about me.
Premature ejaculation is not a burden.
Tourette’s is FUCKING beautiful!!
My dissociative soul trapped in a schizoid body.
We rarely played alone. The house was always full of bodies—students and strangers claiming to be friends of friends. I was shier than Zoey but liked the company. She would swing over to her manic side during the name game. She’d jump around in her underwear like it was a slumber party, the outline of her biology bouncing at everyone’s eye level. She’d sprint out of the living room, then return with plastic baggies full of powder, shouting, “I’ve found the medicine!” The gays who came over loved that kind of stunt. They emerged from under couch cushions and weighted blankets to say, “Oh bless you, Madame Doctor!”
Zoey was one of those women with a gravitational field effective only on homosexuals. I’d say she was a diva, but she lacked the requisite glamor. She had hairy armpits and a queeny baritone. She dressed in cropped flower-print dresses like a sleazier Manson girl.
I never took any of the benzos or general anesthetics my best friend offered. I was too self-conscious about the way the boys eyed me, Zoey’s waif. I’d yet to start hormones and their expressions reminded me of my dad, although no one had the energy to touch me. After the medicine was served, you could watch as all personality drained from their faces. You could ask if anyone in the room had a name and be met with silence until a low whisper rose from the couch to say, “Yeah, I think so.”
* * *
It was during one of these parties that I found a stranger acting weird in our bathroom. He gawked at Let Dyslexic Kids Play Sports, a Crayola sketch of two Pokémon smoking cigarettes in bed. He was attractive, with a faraway, sad boy affect, as if the accidents of the next few years would determine whether he became a talented poet or hopeless acid head.
“You guys make these,” he paused, “cartoons?”
“No one knows. They appear at random, usually in the refrigerator.” I said this straight-faced, like I hadn’t walked in on Zoey the night before ass-naked and half-asleep, painting yet another self-portrait.
The stranger turned my way. “My friends call me Rachi,” he said. “I didn’t take whatever they’re on.”
I introduced myself with the boy name I no longer wished to go by. I didn’t look like a Claire and wanted to avoid weird questions.
“Don’t start thinking that picture is serious,” I said. “It’s only crayon.”
Rachi didn’t laugh. He looked me over as I spoke, pausing on my mouth. I could feel him sizing the parts of me up to see if they came out as greater than or equal to his standard. Males—we usually don’t talk about this—but we get wet too, and in that moment, I felt the edge of me run slick.
Rachi asked if I could show him my favorite sketches. I said I could.
Zoey stared from the couch as I escorted my new friend around Peaches, her expression superior and disgusted as a supermodel’s. The five buyers Rachi came with were cuddled around her, legs braided. They looked at one another as Zoey explained how the medicine they took helped her realize she was a woman. “Mother Earth came out of the sky and told me,” she said. The boys turned toward the ceiling, irises tweaking within sockets.
“Your roommate is wild,” Rachi whispered.
I gave him a hard look. He was grinning, bottom lip sticking out like it wanted to be bitten. He must have noticed me staring because he fumbled a phone out of his front pocket.
“My girlfriend asked if I could pick up some molly for her formal,” he said.
I nodded. “Cool.”
Later, when I was going down on Rachi in my room, he lifted my head and said I was the first boy he’d ever been with. He was sorry for coming across as nervous. I said I didn’t mind, that his nerves were kinda cute. I didn’t correct his assumption that I was a boy, nor did we talk about his relationship. We only held each other’s gazes at close distance. That’s one of the coolest things about intimacy, suddenly being able to look at someone from centimeters away. Maybe three minutes passed like this, maybe twenty.
He kissed me once on the forehead. A second time on the hand that wasn’t holding him. For a moment I thought he might cry. But he just smiled.
* * *
Rachi slept over five nights the following two weeks. I frequented handicap restrooms, inviting him over through photos I took in soap-scummed mirrors. These images cut off at my upper lip, so the human this body belonged to felt mysterious even to me. From my mind emerged byzantine positions in which he might ruin me. I texted so often that Rachi said we had to switch to Snapchat.
Zoey got curious about the houseguest. We were seated outside a dining hall we’d snuck into for lunch when she asked what was up with the boyfriend.
“It’s not like we’re dating,” I said. “I’m pretty sure he has a girlfriend.”
“So he’s straight?”
“No, he’s gay. I mean, look at me.”
“I am.” Zoey patted the bottom of a Newport pack. “So the cissie’s into boys. Where does that leave you?”
“Yeah right,” she said. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s homos. That boy is one. He’s too emotional to not be, unless he’s pretransition like you.” She waved a menthol in front of her face like sage. “The way I see it, the universe is giving you a choice. You can either keep fucking around with these pretty little boys or accept the woman you are. You know a man can’t keep a girl from her destiny.”
“Did you get that from a campus affirmation?”
“Hell yeah, I got it from an affirmation. I got it from the LGBT Center, sure, and my mama, and Hilary Rodham fucking Clinton. All girls know that letting some guy shape the person you are is lame.”
I said something about the rules being different for cis girls.
Zoey passed the menthol. “Why don’t you just tell him you’re a girl? That way you’ll know if he’s game.” When I exhaled, I promised to tell Rachi the next time he slept over.
* * *
You know how it is. A week passed and I didn’t tell Rachi.
Then a week next-timed into November, and at that point, Zoey’s subconscious kicked in to take matters into her own hands. One afternoon, Rachi found a pair of lace panties tucked at the foot of my bed. A few days later, it was tights cased around my lube. Chokers stuffed into socks. Lipstick on my dresser. When I confronted Zoey about the problem (who else could it be but her?), she shrugged. “I’m not doing it on purpose. You know how Ambien inspires me.”
That night, Rachi pulled a string of push-up bras out from a pillowcase, each hooked together in a loop.
“Is there a harem I don’t know about?” he said, laughing.
I grabbed the trio from him, spun it around teasingly. “I think that’s from an art project Zoey’s working on,” I lied. “Anyway, we aren’t exclusive, so I’ll keep any harems I want.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Rachi said, fiddling with my hair. “But I should tell you, my girlfriend and I haven’t slept together since we met.” He leaned forward, his mouth working me open until his breath moved through me.
When we made love, the ease I felt with Rachi’s body approached the beauty I met slipping a skirt around my hips when no one was looking. I don’t pretend to understand desire. On all my fingers and toes, I could count the number of men I had slept with. They had names like SuitandDom68 and BhadBhad_Jockstrap. None had ever wanted to see me twice. Maybe three had asked me questions about myself or shown concern about the person I might become. With Rachi, I learned the kind of random shit that takes time to notice, like the way he tiptoed around my room when it was cold, or how he thought everyone needed to poop first thing in the morning. When the quiet presented itself for me to come out, he filled the space with stories from his life. He was an English major whose love for language started when he was 6, after being diagnosed with severe dyslexia and overcoming the disorder through intensive tutoring. For proof, he showed me an archived episode of PBS’s Reading Rockets titled “Rewiring the Brain.” The clip showed a young Rachi sealed in a white room, wires attached to his head as researchers scanned his brain for abnormality.
“How’d you fix yourself?” I asked.
Rachi scratched his cheek. “For two years they had me read these exercises in a back office with a tutor. The stories were terrible and nonsensical, designed mainly to trip me up. ‘The dog ate chips with dip by the pool and den.’ Except I read, ‘The god ate chips with pid by the pool and ned.’ The tutor they made me work with got fed up after three months. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, he drilled me. ‘Don’t you see?’ he’d say. ‘It’s dog, not god. Dip, not pid. And don’t you know what a den is? You don’t? It doesn’t matter. Read it again.’ We’d repeat the sentence until I got it right ten times. I broke down once a week, crying and confused about what I was supposed to see.”
On the screen, I watched Rachi’s father describe his son’s newfound happiness now that he could read as well as other kids. “My dad never would have shuttled me to all those appointments,” I said.
Rachi tapped my forehead.
“That’s a shame, because I’m picking up on some alien frequencies here. They’re telling me,” he prodded my temple, “that you’re a nerd.” I arced my mouth up, bit down on his fingers. He pulled me close, laughing at his joke.
* * *
In December, about two months into Rachi’s infidelity, I finally told him. It started with Rachi rolling over in bed to ask, “Don’t you know how pretty you are?”
“Only from certain angles,” I said.
I could feel the cool tip of his leftover erection against my thigh. We were in the same position we always slept in, my head against his neck. I had an overwhelming sense of wanting to laugh or cry, which in the moment I mistook for love.
“Do you know about me?” I asked.
Rachi leaned back and stared, like he was checking who had just spoken. He nodded.
“The girl part,” I said. “That I want to transition.”
Rachi looked to make sure the door was closed. “Zoey told me the morning after we met. I stepped out to go to the bathroom and there she was, eyes closed, surrounded by all those boys on the couch. ‘Did you Venmo your forty dollars?’ she said, pointing my way. ‘Don’t sneak out now, mooch.’ I thought she was awake, and told her that I’d consumed no drugs, only spent the night with you.”
He imitated Zoey’s dissociated falsetto, the voice she used while high. “‘You slept with Claire?’ she mumbled. I had to ask who Claire was. The night before, I’d said you were the first guy I’d ever been with. I felt . . .” He stopped to think.
Rachi pressed his forehead to mine, his breath refilling me. “I don’t know if I only like boys,” he said. “I’m still figuring my shit out, same as you.”
“And when my body changes?”
He laughed. “Who knows? You’ll still have a dick.”
He pushed me down and moved toward my crotch, casting a sincere grin my way before hooking an arm under my thigh. In his eyes was a sort of rehearsed reverence, like a child on a prayer card, and I realized this must have been the reaction he planned in his mind since that first morning. Our moment of confession, acceptance, connection. When the blanket slipped down, he said, “Hey there, little lady,” and I laughed so hard I didn’t realize I got hard.
* * *
In the morning, I ate fistfuls of cereal in the kitchen, waiting to break the news to Zoey. After a few minutes, I realized she was gone.
“You need new friends,” Rachi said, grabbing his backpack. “That girl is a mess.”
“Shouldn’t you be breaking up with a girlfriend right now?”
“Don’t be like that,” he said, kissing me before leaving.
Zoey got back to Peaches at 4 p.m., still tripping. I don’t know why I was surprised, maybe I’d expected the betrayal to be discussed with some level of seriousness. She might’ve been seeing things at class, or out communing with the goddess herself.
“The brain is a wet organ,” she announced, lying on the couch. It was that late-day hour where the walls of Peaches turned sticky from ancient grease stains. Everyone from the night before had left, and the next night’s guests had yet to arrive. I waited for her to start smoking before I spoke.
“You know the guy I’ve been seeing?” I didn’t trust her to know his name. “He found out about me.”
“Really?” She didn’t look up, but that might have been the drugs. “Did he end things?”
“Not gay,” I said. “At least, not sure.”
“Oh,” she said slowly. “Congratulations.”
Would there be a point in telling Zoey she was the reason Rachi knew? You might think so—and believe me, I considered confrontation—but Zoey was the closest thing I had to family. She began crawling across the couch, like I knew she would, taking care not to ash on the fabric. When she pressed her face to mine, her hair smelled like wet earth. Like dank basements and old laundry. When she smiled, I thought we might kiss, and I felt my blood condense.
“You’ll still live with me after you fall in love, right?” she asked. “We make sure neither has to be alone.”
“Of course I’ll stay,” I said. It was the same thrum of intimacy. Two faces at close distance. “He still hasn’t seen me as a girl. Christ, I don’t have anything to wear for him tonight.”
“That’s not a problem,” Zoey said, reanimating. “We’re sisters. I’m the big and you’re the little. You’re supposed to steal from my closet.”
* * *
By the time Rachi got back, Zoey and her favorite queens had started partying.
“Just like our first night,” he said, scanning the living room. Poignant chords of longing played from speakers. Zoey held court. When he laid on my bed, he said he hadn’t seen his girlfriend yet but texted her saying they needed to talk.
“Thank you,” I said. He spread out as I dropped my boy pants and peeled off my shirt. I told him to close his eyes. He put both hands over his face. I could see that he was excited.
Zoey and I had spent the afternoon imagining the femininity I wanted to perform. My girl clothing had previously been confined to the pieces I snuck from thrift stores and the few lingerie sets men on Grindr and Craigslist gifted me. Now, it was limited to Zoey’s closet. On her racks I had found lolitas, flowerchilds, businesswomen, dominatrixes.
“I’m so excited I might cry,” Rachi said, his voice a little forced.
I’d wanted a style not yet named. Expansive. In the dark of my room, I slipped on two tube socks, then a pleated skirt with Zoey’s cat tail pinned to the back. I struggled, but managed to hook a bra on. I wore a turtleneck with a pink blazer over. I tucked my hair behind my ears. I placed a plastic flower crown over my head.
I turned the lamp on. I walked to where Rachi lay so our knees kissed. I almost said, “This is me,” but the thought was so cheesy I blushed.
“You can open your eyes,” I said.
He exhaled, then looked. I thought it was a trick of the light when his expression wasn’t clear. The lamp was behind me, and I cast a shadow over him. After a moment, he sat up, smiling.
“How do I look?” I asked.
“Like a girl,” he said.
I slipped my jacket off. I moved my knee between his thighs and pressed down gently.
“You really do look pretty,” he said.
I took my top off then struggled with the bra.
“Is this alright?” I asked.
Rachi considered me carefully. I pulled the straps over my head, knocking off the crown. There were red indentations where the underwire had cut in, the outline it made suggesting where two breasts should be. He pressed his thumb to my right nipple and turned it clockwise. I pictured him flicking it, kissing it, burying his face there. I exhaled slowly, and he spread his fingers out, arcing his palm back to cup the void my future chest might fill.
Then he dropped his arm.
When I pressed my knee down, I felt nothing.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Maybe I’m just anxious,” he added.
He opened his mouth, but caught the next thought before it could become sound. “It’s fine,” I said, and he understood this not as an invitation to say whatever was on his mind, but to look a little less penitent. Whatever he’d almost admitted, it seemed like it was directed to some other, future lover. “This was the moment I realized I was gay,” I imagined, the weight of who he was collapsing down on him.
Rachi sat up after I collected my clothes off the floor. “We can still sleep,” he said. I dropped the skirt, the lacey underwear Zoey had given me, as he glared at the ceiling. I curled myself into his neck and felt itchy until he rolled away.
* * *
I wasn’t awake when Rachi got out of bed. I opened my eyes as he was putting his clothes on. He didn’t look at me, and when he tiptoed to the door, he kept his head down.
I waited what felt like five minutes before wandering into the living room. A part of me believed he’d only gone out to smoke, but when I looked out the window, there was nothing.
I found Zoey passed out on the couch, mouth open. I laid my head in her lap. She wasn’t snoring, but from the back of her throat came an occasional grunt. Her chest rose and a syllable came out. Almost a huff, except the intonation sounded like she’d meant to say, “Huh?”
“He just left,” I said.
She stayed quiet, long enough for me to assume she was actually asleep. When I looked around the room, I saw that at some point the boys she’d partied with had covered their faces in makeup. The colors must have been bright and warm, but in the dark they looked black and blue as bruises. One of the gays let out a long, guttural snore, and Zoey jerked once, twice. Both times, the same muffled sound came out of her. “Huh.” “Huh.” I thought she might be choking, but after sitting up, I saw her mouth had curled into a grin.
She raised a hand, limply gay. She flicked it as if to say, “Good riddance.”
* * *
I started recreationally dissociating again. Then I stopped. An appointment was set with a campus psychiatrist during finals week. We met in her broom cupboard office, with a purple-spined DSM-5 on the shelf, and I did not talk about Rachi when she asked me to explain how I knew I was a girl. The hormones did help my mood. I cried at everything, but that was because everything assumed a familiar and childlike simplicity. Things were things again. A cleft was a cleft, not a metaphor.
Christmas morning, I called my dad from Peaches to inform him that my name was Claire.
He said, “Did you take my car keys? I can’t find my keys. Did you sell them?”
Zoey sat with me through the four-minute call. “Merry fucking Christmas!” she shouted as I hung up. She’d been saying that all week, along with “Christ has risen!” and “You’re pretty when you cry.” She was unpacking from a solstice festival she’d attended in eastern Oregon. The event had charged her with renewal, like quartz, the extra seconds of darkness discombobulating the festival goers’ relationships with time until they were convinced their highs would float on through the new year.
“If he could see you now, he’d call you Claire,” she said.
She scratched circles in my back. We hadn’t talked about Rachi. I didn’t want to.
In thirteen weeks, I would run into him spread out on the campus quad, his thighs exposed in tiny shorts, the pale insides absorbing the sun. A group of Zoey’s buyers would be lazing around him, their casual body language communicating a knowledge of his sexual orientation. One boy would twiddle Rachi’s ear to examine a new piercing. After a moment, he would see me, and I would wave.
But that night in the living room, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of running into him. I was thinking about Zoey.
“Look at us,” she said. “Getting you through this.”
“It’s a merry fucking Christmas,” I said.
“Merry fucking night terrors,” she countered. It wasn’t that good, but we wrote it on a watercolor anyway.