Waypoint Transition


On the precipice of my new life, I have started to wear bras. Not just because I want to, but because I should. My boobs are growing. My jeans feel tighter because my bony butt is finally getting some fat on it. I have to wear my hair back so it doesn’t fall in my eyes. I am one week away from having my Adam’s apple reduced. My other features, never too genetically one-sided (don’t ask the plastic surgeon to confirm that) are getting softer, which is all I need. For now. I don’t want to change my face—my bone structure—too much. My kiddos know it. Down to the bone.

I get an email from a recruiter at a national laboratory. A veteran helping veterans. I submitted resumes to his lab once, twice, maybe a few times, looking for jobs in the place my wife and kids and I moved to be closer to extended family. Closer to extended family . . . but really because I am transitioning, and my wife thought we needed the emotional support. Emotional support that we never had any guarantee of getting. I’m unsure if I moved my family or if my wife moved us. Maybe it was a joint decision, if those really exist. Our kids would have their cousins, and their uncles could be male role models while Dad was becoming something else—someone never quite the same, but never quite different. Another issue for another time, to be discussed behind my back with sideways glances over ice-cold Coronas with lime at backyard barbecues, or on car rides home from said barbecues. Kids plugged into South Korean-made Netflix shows on iPads, blue headphones for Carter and pink for Tinsley, while Mom and Dad discuss what I am or what they think I’m trying to become. Or what I used to be. The person this veteran-recruiter-of-veterans thinks I am.



The veteran is kindhearted. He wants to help me. I am unable to resist the temptation of an opportunity to work for the government again, in service to my country. I am brainwashed to think it is the only secure thing for me, for my family. Have to earn that pension. I was halfway there and some, but who I am got in the way. Maybe I could have it all. The pension and my identity. So I accept his invitation for a phone call. It lasts much longer than the scheduled 30 minutes, despite the fact he has another scheduled immediately after. He is older, wiser, and far more male than me, with a deeper voice, in this world where unwavering definitions beget masculinity. He reminds me of my old bosses, war-heroes. I am supposed to worship the things he says. He’s made it. Checked all the boxes.

He adores my resume, my MBA, and my experience in defense technology. Says there are many options for someone “like me” at the national laboratory, working on things—“meaningful things”—things important to national security. But he really means someone “with my background.” If he saw me, my image, a meager representation of who I am on the inside, it would shatter the notion that someone “like me” could work with someone “like him.”

He dangles the benefits. The life of service, the importance of the work. We went to the same U.S. service academy, and though he graduated ten years ahead of me, our experiences were likely identical. Ten years is not much for an institution built on tradition. We were both college athletes. We both worked in special operations after being commissioned as officers. But, if he was like the men that I served with, his drive—his path—was his masculinity indulging itself with war, brotherhood, duty, draped in Stars and Stripes. My path was using masculinity to suppress my femininity, my identity that was screaming to get out. I violently suppressed her for long enough that, for a time, she neared death, maintaining only the faintest heartbeat deep down inside of me that I only dared listen to in rare moments of refuge from the millions of things I distracted myself with. And most of the time, in fact all of the time, I told her to finish herself off, to die and never come back, turning my mind back towards another oppressive distraction, another attempt to iterate machismo.

The pressure swells. I want to please the recruiter. To serve him. I want to tell him, “Yes, absolutely, sign me up,” in the same way I did for so many years. It’s not unfair to say I have thought about shoving her back in. Cutting my hair and removing my piercings and cleaning myself up, foregoing future plans. “At your service, Uncle Sam! Whatever you need!” And no longer having to have my facial hair removed via electrolysis, painful hour-long sessions every week during which my electrologist, who borderline doubles as my therapist and one of few—and I mean very few—individuals I consider a friend, zaps one at a time the root of each microscopical coarse hair on my little chinny chin chin. Not having to take all these pills and write all these letters trying to explain myself to people who probably will not ever fully understand and answering my mom’s questions and having to take on her own irrational worries that I will now get breast cancer and how could I be “choosing” to do this to myself? No, it’s not unfair to say I have thought about shoving her back in.

His voice over the phone makes me want to talk about our alma mater’s upcoming football season, to mansplain to one another why our triple-option offense matches up well against this team or that. I imagine us sharing sea-stories from deployments to the Middle East or memories of loved ones lost and how the corporate cronies will never actually understand what the term “profit and loss” means to someone in the military. I do my best to refrain, knowing that the more I talk the more he will have me, the more pressure I will feel to push her back in, dysphoria raging.



Afterward, I send the recruiter an email to thank him for his time and willingness to help. I sign my name in the way it is written on my resume—the name I have taken on since a few months into my transition. The feminine form of my name. He probably thought it was a typo at first. Actually, I know he did, because he did not use it when he first emailed me to set up the phone call. He used the male form. Never mind the “prefer not to disclose” selection I made for my gender in the application module, where the choice was either that or my legal gender, my assigned-at-birth gender, which is to say, my sex assignment. I should have put my preferred pronouns in the signature line of my first reply to the recruiter, saying sure let’s have a phone call. But I fear that would have meant no phone call at all, a “Sorry, change of plans.”

There’s no way he connected the dots, nor did he inquire about my name’s spelling. Certainly he was not suspicious of the sound of my voice. I like my voice; it’s not something that makes me uncomfortable like other parts of present-me. At one point he even used the term “hard-charging guy,” which I had a hard time not receiving as a compliment, although it caked on layers of guilt for not telling him who I really was. I never said I was a guy. But I never said I wasn’t. I never said, “I think you mean hard-charging gal.”

I finish my thank you note by thanking him specifically for his service to our country, wishing him a happy upcoming Memorial Day, all the while hoping maybe to never hear from him again because I don’t want to be sucked back into my old repressed life or hold out hope that I can have it all. Or drag out the guilt of non-transparency and the confusion over the murky necessity to disclose one’s gender identity.



Later that day, I am driving through my “new” town, trying to forget the phone call. Feeling off for taking it in the first place. My “new” town is not new, it is one town over from where I grew up. Like me, it’s never quite the same, but never quite different. I don’t know the streets like I did as a kid, even after months of being here. I drive to a gas station not far from my house to fill up and frustratingly have to use the navigation app on my phone to remember the best way to get to the freeway. I don’t want to use my phone’s navigation. It reminds me too much of the way I used to live, always seeking turn-by-turn directions from someone else, from a machine. I want to drive on instinct. I want to know more of what it is like to feel lost and not always have someone there to tell me how to find my way. Or, to tell me my way.

The recruiter responds to my thank you note. Says Memorial Day is especially meaningful to him because he lost his brother in combat in the War in Afghanistan. Not just that he lost his brother, though, but that he and his brother were deployed at the same time when his brother was killed, and he escorted his brother home, draped in the red, white, and blue. The ultimate loss, the ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate “Why couldn’t it have been me?” moment when you have to be the one to look in Mom and Dad’s eyes to say without speaking, “Yes this is really happening, and he died for meaningful causes and doing something he loved.”

I am shaken. I don’t know how to respond other than “Thank you for sharing that with me,” a pathetic attempt to recognize what he went through. I don’t tell him that I too have lost loved ones in similar ways, because none were truly blood. It’s not the same, and it takes away from the loss to pretend like it is, I think. But hearing the story is enough to suck me back in again, to think about those loved ones lost. Not blood brothers, but brothers nonetheless. Sisters. I lost myself in that world, in a far less-costly sense. The world I must turn my back to, despite the forces pulling parts of me—or parts of someone “like me”—back in.



Rumpus original art by Emily Jean Alexander

Jo Unruh is a writer, parent, educator, and former Navy special operations officer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Saint Mary's College of California. More from this author →