Students file into the lecture hall, rustle their belongings and take their seats. Cultural Anthropology, in a classroom the size of a skating rink, with tiers of rows like an inverted wedding cake.
Dr. Laura Lewis sweeps in, slaps a pile of papers on the lectern and opens her roster. One student in a frayed baseball cap, cargo pants and thick black-rimmed glasses slouches down in the plastic seat. She listens to Dr. Lewis tick off the As, the Bs and the Cs with a growing sense of dread. The Es, the Fs, the Gs. Now.
“Greenberg, Belinda,” Dr. Lewis calls.
“Here,” says the student in the cargo pants. The sound of that name in such a public setting makes her feel dislocated, trapped.
After class, Dr. Lewis hears a knock on her office door.
“I just wanted to tell you,” Greenberg says, “I’d like to be called something different than what you have on your roll.” She has to do this with all of her professors. They usually think it’s her nickname: Belin. Or her middle name: Cecile. They usually don’t guess that it’s something entirely different, something that sets her apart from almost everyone else in the world. They usually don’t want to talk about it. Maybe they think the same thoughts that her mother does, that she would have been such a beautiful woman.
“Josh,” Belinda says.
* * *
A weedy teenage girl stands in front of her mirror and examines herself. It’s dark outside, an early fall evening in New Jersey. Ever since childhood, when she’d refused to wear dresses to temple, Belinda Greenberg has been uncomfortable in her female skin. Tonight, a dress is the only option. It’s a semi-formal. It’s high school.
In the mirror, her arms are white ribbons, her elfin face pale. The humidity weights her brown hair into a thick, straight mass. She can’t do a thing with it.
Belinda can’t remember the last time she wore a dress. She likes athletic clothes: T-shirts and baggy pants that hide her curves. The thin black material shows her waist, the pad of flesh on her hips. It feels odd, like a garment from some alien culture. All she can do is stand, she doesn’t know how to walk or sit.
She climbs into her mother’s hunter green Concord and heads over the Ben Navratil’s house. He doesn’t drive, so she does. It’s different with most other girls’ boyfriends, she knows. But she doesn’t mind. She cruises through the streets of Morris County, thirty minutes from New York City. Almost like a little piece of New York transplanted, so many people have moved here from there, like Belinda’s parents. Born and raised in Brooklyn, and now raising their kids in Morris County. There are worse places.
Ben, her boyfriend of one year, is waiting for her when she pulls up. He’s cute, really cute, with his hair cut short and styled with a little bit of product. He flashes his dark pink smile and folds his skinny frame into the car.
Belinda really likes him. She likes everything about him, from the square softness of his jaw (he still doesn’t shave) to the solid wings of his shoulders and his rail-thin hips. He’s the kind of boyfriend that’s only for certain things. He’s not really a school boyfriend – Belinda meets her best friend Sara Goldberg between classes, at the lockers and after school. He’s not the kind of boyfriend you sleep with – she’s just not interested. Ben is for dating, and semi-formals, and shopping.
Belinda picks out all of his clothes. When it comes to shopping, he’s clueless. Belinda walks through the racks and racks of clothes, fingers the materials, judges the colors and fabrics, the styles. He tries them on and she weighs, compares. Does that shirt show the flat contour of his chest? Does that pair of pants drape in that boyish, hipless way?
Tonight, on the way to the dance, she glances over at Ben. He’s so handsome, so masculine. And some feeling rises up inside, uncoils from deep down in her body, and it starts to eat at the edges of her oblivious adolescent heart.
* * *
Afternoon light spills into the gym. Young women skitter across the glossy floor, their steps soft, their foils glinting. The squeaks of fencing shoes and taps of blade on blade fill the room.
On break, Belinda and Laura Webb watch the pairs. Laura’s the team captain at James Madison University. She was Belinda’s high school captain, too. Laura knows Sara Goldberg, Ben Navratil, everyone from Morris Hills High School.
“Sara has a boyfriend now in college,” Belinda says. “Like, a really serious boyfriend.”
“Really? That’s interesting!” Laura sounds surprised. “Because I always thought that Sara was gay.”
“What?” Belinda says.
“I always thought Sara was a lesbian,” Laura says.
“That’s really funny,” Belinda says. She thinks about Sara’s long curly hair, about her own boyish style in high school. “That’s really interesting, between me and Sara that you would think Sara - ” She stops herself, but finishes the sentence silently: was gay and I wasn’t. Instantly, her mind leaps to another conclusion. Belinda broods for the rest of practice. She can’t concentrate. The thought keeps running through her mind: Oh, man, she thinks I’m gay, she thinks I’m gay.
Belinda rushes to the locker room after practice. When Laura appears amid the yellow lockers and purple carpet, Belinda says, “I just want to clear this up! I think I said something that confused you. Um, just so you know for the record, I’m totally straight, I just want you to know that.”
Laura just looks at her. She laughs. “I’m not,” she says.
They go out dancing at Club 216 in Charlottesville, Belinda’s first time at a gay club. She doesn’t have her glasses on. The lights and fog mingle into a smoky blur.
The fast song ends and a slow one starts. Before Belinda can escape, Laura says, “Belinda, wanna dance with me?”
“Oh, geez, I don’t know,” Belinda says.
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Laura says. She grabs Belinda, who keeps her hands clenched together behind Laura’s back and her head up. As the song goes on, Belinda feels more and more comfortable. She flattens her hands on Laura’s back. She lets her head press against Laura’s, and their thighs touch. It’s the most fantastic thing she’s felt in a long time.
In the car on the way back to Harrisonburg, Laura says, “I like you.”
Belinda stays quiet, looks out the window. The lights of the dashboard reflect in the transparent glass. It’s too dark to see anything but her own reflection. She’s been wishing for a long time that someone would like her. Every time she fixes her necklace or goes over railroad tracks, she wishes for it.
Back at the dorm, Belinda’s hands shake. She thinks about how good she felt with Laura’s arms around her. Before she gets out of the car, she says, “It’s not every day your wishes come true.”
* * *
The year passes in a storm of moods. Pieces of Belinda crack, and shift, and move painfully inside her. She cries for no reason, she lashes out in anger.
“What’s wrong?” Laura asks.
“I don’t know what it is,” Belinda says. She just knows something’s not right.
She thinks about Ben, about sex with a man. Before Belinda, Laura had a serious boyfriend; they’d slept together. Belinda asks her about him, about what it was like. She tells Laura she’s thinking about Ben, about male bodies, about how masculinity works in this tangle of naked limbs and slick skin and unprecedented excitement.
As spring approaches, her moods get worse and worse. Against her will, Belinda turns jealous and mean, and Laura leaves her.
Ben comes to visit. It’s March in Virginia. The fields are greening up. Belinda picks out a tux for Ben, just like she always used to do. It has four buttons and a small lapel. Friday they go to a formal, Saturday out dancing in Charlottesville. They get back to Belinda’s room late. Ben’s wearing a dark, tight shirt and his hair is squared off, cut sharply against his head.
She’s been thinking about this. Neither one of them turn the lights on. He smells like sweat and smoke from the club. Belinda feels so awful, she misses Laura, so she kisses him. He kisses her back, pushes her down on the bed. Belinda can’t see him. But she can feel his mouth, how it’s changed over the past two years, the bristle of stubble around it. She hates the feeling. She can smell his cheap athletic cologne. He bears down on her.
Oh, man, this is so messed up, she thinks. She starts to cry, and he can’t see that she’s crying because it’s too dark. He kisses her and moves his body against hers. She lies there under him and cries. She wondered about it, and now she knows. She will never like this, not with Ben, not with any guy. She’s obsessed with something she doesn’t want. It doesn’t make any sense.
* * *
There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar levels in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Alas, then she is drowned?
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears.
Summer in London. Belinda is Laertes in Hamlet, a school program at The Globe. Her costume is a gray T-shirt with the letters ARMY written in black, Doc Martens, cargo shorts. Laertes is a mercenary, a soldier type. An opportunity. Belinda’s never had the chance to play this kind of role before. It’s effortless to step into a male part. She doesn’t even have to think about it. It fits. She already feels less female, more neutral. Her hair is short, she wears unisex clothes every day: a sports bra to flatten her chest, a polo shirt, men’s baggy shorts, a frayed baseball cap. Anonymous, in a city of millions, Belinda starts to disappear. Pieces of the girl fall away, and the person who’s left plays Laertes, whose sister drowned.
* * *
“So what do you do?” Belinda types. She’s back from London, August in New Jersey, waiting for school to start up again. She’s Instant Messaging a stranger who contacted her about a mutual acquaintance at James Madison.
“I work for Youth Resource, an online place for queer kids to come out. It’s kind of fun, I get to look at pictures and read stories by gay and tranny youth all day long.”
Tranny, Belinda thinks. Tranny. “What’s tranny?” she types.
“Yeah, there’s female bodied people that will pack with socks or dildos or whatever.”
Belinda pauses. It’s online. She thinks, I don’t know who you are and I’m just going to tell you. “I do that sometimes,” she types.
The Instant Messenger stranger sends Belinda to Johnathan Scott Arrowsmith’s website.
He looks like a boy. He’s changed his name legally. Next to the pictures, John has written: “I’m a 19 year old F to M.” Female to male. Belinda scours the site. She can’t believe how cute he is, that he’s living as a boy full time. I could look like … I could do that, I want to do that, she thinks. Female to male. F to M.
She sends him an email, and signs it with a male name: “Bailey.”
John writes back: “Hey, nice to meet you, I’m guessing you’re F to M since you signed your email Bailey and the name on the email says Belinda.”
“Yeah,” Belinda writes. “I should change that.” She’s seized with excitement. She’s on the edge of something huge.
* * *
Belinda changes her name to Josh that fall. She asks her mom, Pearl Greenberg, to name her, and Pearl thinks about how some people graduate from college, get married, get a job. She thinks, Not everyone follows the yellow brick road. She chooses Joshua. Along with the name change, everything changes. Pronouns change. She is he.
He takes Bastian for his middle name, after the boy in The Neverending Story, the one who bridges two worlds. He takes Cole for his last name: Joshua Bastian Cole.
John Arrowsmith comes to pick him up from James Madison in the winter of 2000. They drive up to Boston to visit Michael, another F to M. They’ve all met through John’s website, but this will be the first time in person.
Josh and John wait for Michael in the kitchen of a wooden three-story in Jamaica Plain. It’s somebody’s girlfriend’s house, a friend of a friend. They’ve both learned some tricks. The way you sit matters. Take up as much room as possible. Your prosthetic matters. John’s cost four hundred dollars. “Worth every penny,” he says. The way you talk matters. Don’t end a sentence on an upswing. Gender is performance, after all.
They can both pass until they talk. Their voices give them away, so high and light-sounding coming out of a grown boy’s body.
“Hello,” comes a voice from the doorway. It sounds low, rough, growly.
Josh turns to look.
Michael walks in. His dark brown hair crowns his face in soft, wavy sweeps. He looks young, but his neck is thick and he walks like a man. He wears a huge, bulky winter coat and his shoulders hunch forward with a shrug. Michael saunters over to the refrigerator and opens the door. He pulls out a can and pops it. With his whole hand covering the top of the can, he drinks.
This is what medical transition looks like.
Hello, that sound echoes in Josh’s mind. Hello. Low-pitched, distinctly male. It sounds like everything he’s ever wanted.
* * *
Dear Dr. Ferguson:
This letter is to inform you that Joshua Bastian Cole is being referred to you after having met the Harry Benjamin Society criteria for hormonal gender reassignment. Mr. Cole is a female to male transsexual who is diagnosed with gender identity disorder. Mr. Cole has been in my care since January of 2001 and had made a well-informed choice to pursue hormonal reassignment at this time. He is aware of the issues involved, including that this will terminate his reproductive future. Mr. Cole has made considerable progress through his work in individual psychotherapy. Initially he was viewed as being moderately depressed, but as time has gone on and he has begun to transition into a full-time male role, his depressive symptoms have resolved nicely. He has legally changed his name and is working on psychosocial and career issues in his counseling. I would also note that Mr. Cole has the benefit of a supportive family system.
Michael Tancyus, Social Worker, Harrisonburg.
* * *
In September of 2001, J. Bastian Cole starts testosterone. He uses Testoderm patches, and sees little effect. He switches from the patch to shots of testosterone on February 28, 2002. The change begins.
By March, a few dark hairs have sprouted on his upper lip. By April, his voice sounds like that of a raspy female, or a boy on the cusp of puberty. By June, it’s deepened to a mellow tenor. His muscles have grown. When he makes a bicep his arm is thick and meaty.
On July 17, Josh shaves for the first time. White light slants in through the bathroom blinds. The shaving cream comes out of the can as a gel, then lathers when he rubs his hands together. He slathers far too much of the cream on his face. It’s a thick white layer, and he slides the blade through it, afraid to press down on the skin. He skims the extra cream off, then presses. When he rinses his face, all the hair is gone, even the invisible peach fuzz he had as a girl. He starts to shave once a week.
In August, a trail of hair grows from his navel down the middle of his stomach. Thin black hairs sprout around his nipples. A white fuzz creeps over the backs of his hands, fingers and toes. In September, he discovers a new patch of hair on his lower back.
In October, after 219 days of injections, Josh’s voice drops again, to a low tenor. He keeps his dosage of testosterone the same but increases the frequency of the shots from once to twice a month. By November he’s grown the baby version of a goatee. In February of 2003, he counts 51 chin hairs, 23 sideburn hairs on one side, 24 on the other, and one chest hair.
Josh takes pictures of his face, his body, compares them to the beginning. His nose has changed shape. The layer of fat underneath his face has melted away. His cheeks are thin and lean. His body has thickened, the fat redistributed from female places to male places, from hips to stomach. The testosterone dries up his tear ducts. He doesn’t cry at songs or movies anymore. The gloss of moisture that veils the eyes, the momentary prick of physical sadness, is gone. Therefore I forbid my tears.
* * *
J. Bastian Cole lives his life as a boy. Very few people can tell he was ever anything else, but it happens occasionally. He still crosses his legs at the knee. He talks with his hands. He even ends his sentences with an upswing, sometimes. It’s a conscious choice.
But at work, in the public places where it matters, there are moments when he knows he’s really crossed over, where the world’s perception of him synchronizes with his perception of himself. He works at the mall, at Walden Books and Old Navy. The customers come into the store, they catch sight of him, they call him “sir.” There’s a huge difference between “sir” and “ma’am.” Huge. The difference between Josh and Belinda.
His coworkers talk about Audrey Hepburn.
“I used to look like Audrey Hepburn,” Josh says. “Someone told me I looked like her at the prom.”
“What?” says the new girl. Niki. Her olive face wrinkles up in confusion.
Josh pulls out his wallet and opens it to a tiny photograph. “That’s me in high school,” he says.
“You were a girl in high school?” Niki says.
“I was a girl until now. And I still kind of am.”
Josh won’t become legally male. He won’t have top surgery, or testicular implants. The last step in his transition will be a hysterectomy. It will eliminate most of the estrogen in his system now. His voice will deepen even more. He’ll grow a goatee and thick, glossy sideburns. His hair will thin. Within the next year, his body will be finished. He can’t remember ever being any other way.
* * *
Every morning, Josh wakes up and sets his clear, diamond thin glasses on his nose. He shuffles across the pine floor of his apartment and checks the computer for any messages. He goes to his closet that’s full of boot-cut pants, button-downs, white undershirts. He dresses with care, with pleasure.
That girl … Belinda … Josh thinks about her sometimes. He keeps pictures of her on his walls, pictures of her smiling, with her long, silk-chestnut hair and a handsome boy on her arm. She’s like his twin sister. He likes having her around to remind him of how far he’s come.
He misses some things about her, the thinness of her arms, her smallness. That girl has fallen into pieces and there’s nothing left of her.
Cole pauses in front of the mirror and stares at his boy’s face, his sideburns, the new confidence that brims in his eyes, the light of recognition that finally kindles there. It’s been a long time coming.
He thinks of Laertes, who killed his prince and was killed by him. Of his sister Ophelia, gone mad and drowned in the stream, crowned with garlands of nettles and daisies. Laertes, loyal and traitorous. Ophelia, sane and mad. Murdered by the gaps that separated them from themselves, by the inability to bridge opposites. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.