After I dropped out of college, I worked at a diner near downtown Orlando that served breakfast all day. The diner was the last building in a strip mall, decorated in orange vinyl booths and tables with sugar packets stuffed under the legs. Every customer with perfect lipstick and a hard-lined face reminded me of Mom. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year.
Almost every Sunday, this married couple came in for blueberry pancakes and bacon. They always sat in my section, and always by the window so Bill could keep an eye on his dogs in the pick-up, and sometimes Bonnie had a black eye. I loved her in secret, the way I loved most things in those days. Bonnie was an ugly kind of pretty, six years my senior with exaggerated features and long, honey-colored hair. Every time I brought the check she smiled at me, one of her teeth chipped like the edge of a china teacup.
“Everything was wonderful,” she’d say. “Thank you.”
Bill would say nothing. He’d sit there, arm around her, his thumb rubbing absent circles on her shoulder. Like he was marking her.
Bonnie left the tip while Bill brought extra bacon out to the strays he had rescued. Bonnie loved to tell me about some pit he’d picked up off the highway or pulled out of a Publix dumpster. I hated Bill, and not just because he was Bonnie’s husband. I was pretty sure he’d given her the black eyes. I imagined Bonnie and me running away together all the time, especially at night when Mom wouldn’t answer my phone calls.
Then, one Sunday, Bonnie came alone. She had the pick-up, but no dogs. No Bill. I saw her sitting at her usual booth and walked over, pen tapping against my leg. When she saw me coming, she smiled and ran her tongue over the jagged edge of her chipped tooth.
“Blueberry pancakes?” I asked.
“How about waffles,” she said. “And whipped cream.”
I nodded, pen still working against my jeans. She looked bright-eyed and hungry. I thought, for a moment, that she’d killed Bill and dumped his body into a lake for the gators to handle. She held my eyes with her own. There was a kind of daring and difference in them that made my heart miss a beat.
I told her I’d put her order in right away and turned to greet my next table: two boys who looked about my age, fresh into college and adulthood. Bonnie’s eyes were still on me, but I didn’t let myself look over. I took the orders with me into the kitchen and asked one of the cooks to pile the whipped cream extra high on Bonnie’s order. They were all aware of my little crush. He snorted.
“Is that a yes or no?” I asked.
“It’s a yes,” he said. “Let me cook.”
Bonnie’s order slid across the warming line a few minutes later and I walked it out. When she saw me coming, she straightened upright and tucked some hair behind her ear. She had small ears, the flesh and cartilage never pierced. As I set the plate down, Bonnie touched my wrist and said thank you.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“Can you fix a sink?”
“Bill is out of town, and I have this damned leak I can’t seem to get fixed. Thought you might be able to help. I could pay, of course.”
She forked a mountain of whipped cream into her mouth and I said that yeah, I might be able to do something. At this point, I wasn’t sure there was a leak at all. I hoped there wasn’t. I didn’t know shit about sinks, but I was willing to pretend for the opportunity to be alone with her, even if the lies caught up with me.
I had to rush back to the kitchen for my other table’s order. The thinner of the two boys leaned forward.
“Sir, can I get some hot sauce?” He paused and looked at my breasts. “Or is it ma’am?”
His friend snorted around his fork. I grabbed the Tabasco from the counter and slid it across the table and didn’t let my face drop. I was used to interactions like this—getting called “it” to my face, a beer bottle thrown from a passing truck. After I hit puberty, I stayed thin, but my hips rounded and my breasts always felt too heavy. Oftentimes, I imagined myself without them. I cut my hair short, shopped in the men’s section. Sometimes, people didn’t know what I was. Sometimes, I didn’t either.
When I turned away, Bonnie watched me. There was whipped cream at the corner of her lip, and I imagined her fingers were sticky with syrup. I touched the skin of my wrist where her hand had been. She glanced at the table I’d given the Tabasco to and cut another section of waffle. I brought her the check earlier than I needed to, and we exchanged numbers.
She hadn’t been gone five minutes before I got a text with her address attached.
Every message she sent during my shift vibrated in the front pocket of my apron and sent a rush of blood to my crotch. I let Bonnie know that I’d stop by after I’d showered and changed. I didn’t want to make her wait, but I reeked of pancake batter, three types of condiments spilled on my pants.
I drove back to the room I rented, undressed in the bathroom, and stared at my body in the mirror. The red lines on my shoulders from my bra strap, the film of sweat on my breasts. How my body curved. How I knew I wasn’t a girl. When I was little, Mom bought me dresses in the styles she loved, and I cried every time she wrestled me into them. I felt like an impossibility. She gave me her vintage paper dolls that I let bleach forgotten in the Florida sun. She sat me down to watch Roman Holiday thinking I’d crush on Gregory Peck, too, but I only admired the hardness of his body and fell asleep thinking of Audrey Hepburn. I was not a girl, but there was one in me. Killing her seemed impossible. Instead, I battled with her. I became feral and angry. I sat with my legs spread and dared anyone to question my genitals. The skin around my eyes became darker, tougher.
When I tried to come out as gay at thirteen, so proud and sure, Mom calmly told me I was not. She was my mother, after all, wouldn’t she know if I was gay? I spent the next five years kissing girls in darkened rooms and watching my body grow in a way I didn’t want it to, breasts and curves, a softer jaw. After I turned eighteen, I tried again, this time in the car after picking up a pizza.
“You’re so beautiful,” Mom said. “I don’t understand.”
She told me that often. She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t date boys. She didn’t understand why I never wanted to wear shirts that showed off my figure. Our bodies were mirror images, our faces near identical. I had large breasts, heavy and obvious, like sandbags. Some days I wanted them gone entirely. I fantasized about popping them off. I could keep them in a box for the days I felt comfortable about them, or I could trade them in for smaller breasts that were easier to conceal. I didn’t know how to explain this to Mom. In the car, I kept my voice meek and my gaze on the pizza box. I had it in my lap and could feel the heat through my jeans.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I said.
“Say you’ll try harder to like boys.”
I had tried. Awkward, fumbling trying. Eyes open trying, staring at the pock-marked ceiling after two Coors Lights trying, and still I stopped whichever boy I’d decided would finally be the one and told him, Sorry, I have to go home. Holding the zipper of my jeans so tight my thumb smelled metallic after. To Mom I said, “I did try.”
“You didn’t,” Mom said. “You’re always going through phases and I’m tired of it. You’re doing this to yourself, and I won’t go along with it. Do you hear me? I won’t.”
She’d never spoken to me like that before. I ate dinner in my room with the door locked, unable to face her. The next morning, we argued again. Every conversation we had was tense. Somehow, I’d fooled myself into thinking she hadn’t spent all my life being willfully ignorant of me. The best thing to do was leave, which I did, a night she wasn’t home. I didn’t leave a note. I expected a call from her within the hour, because that was what mothers were supposed to do when their children disappeared—find them. Weeks passed, and my phone never rang. I got my job at the diner, kept waiting for her to slink through the door and beg me back home, or find her seated with a cup of coffee in the corner booth when I arrived to start my shift.
I showered and dressed myself in clothes Bonnie had never seen me in. The shameful urge to dress more like a girl threaded its way through my mind, to be desirable. I didn’t know, though, if Bonnie desired me. Her texts were casual but not suggestive. I put on jeans and a loose T-shirt so my breasts were less obvious, the curves of my body hidden away, then got into my car.
Bonnie lived a few blocks away from the diner in a one-story bungalow. Moss dripped from the oak trees surrounding the house. I knocked on the door with one foot behind me, ready to run. Anxiety told me this was a cruel joke, that Bill would open the door and pull me inside to beat me senseless. I heard a woman and her daughter arguing behind me on the sidewalk. The daughter looked about fourteen. They both had tight expressions, angry about something. I knew they’d make up later. Whatever they were bickering about, they’d hug and maybe do things Mom always wanted to do with me, like paint their nails beautiful colors. We used to when I was younger. She’d sit me down at the kitchen table and give me a manicure, soak my nails soft and lacquer them bright pink or deep red. Matching colors for us both. I’d always scratch the polish off within hours. Mom never said anything, but she’d inspect my nails in silence and somehow, that was worse. I watched them round the corner—mother and daughter bickering by the dwarf palmetto.
Dogs howled from inside, and I heard Bonnie’s voice hushing them. When she opened the door, a few pits rushed out. They circled me, sniffing. I didn’t mind, not with Bonnie standing there. She had on the same clothes she’d worn at the diner, but her hair was pinned back. She looked like another person outside of the harsh lights of the diner, more relaxed. I felt ugly, out of place in so many ways.
“I’m glad you came,” she said.
I walked in still nervous. Bonnie’s thumb rubbed absently at her shoulder, where Bill’s own thumb always pressed to her skin. I didn’t know if I should ask about the sink. In her own environment, Bonnie seemed impossible to read. She saw my darting eyes and smiled.
“Bill’s out of town,” she said, as if I’d forgotten from earlier.
I nodded and lowered my gaze. “Which sink is leaking?”
The dogs were still circling me, four in all, though two had lost interest now. Bonnie stepped toward me and the hardwood moaned under her feet. She looked at my clothes.
“That’s a men’s shirt,” she said. “What are you hiding under there?”
I peeled my eyes off the hardwood. Bonnie’s expression was curious, lacked the disgust I was expecting.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I said that a lot, lately. I don’t know.
Bonnie tilted her head to the right. She looked at me like I was some exotic little animal she’d found and was not quite sure what to do with. She didn’t understand, but I got the feeling that she wasn’t looking to and didn’t mind either way. Her lack of wanting to understand felt like compassion to me.
“Well, whatever you are, whatever you’re hiding, I like you.”
“I like you too,” I said.
She touched the bare skin of my neck. Her skin was soft and a little cool. I knew for sure then that there was no sink, and definitely no Bill around.
“Of course, everyone’s hiding something, aren’t they?” she said.
I shrugged. Bonnie kissed me, and I sighed into her. We stepped as one toward the bedroom. The dogs were quiet, kept their distance. I could feel Bonnie’s ribs through her T-shirt, prominent enough that I felt like I could thread my fingers through and hold onto them. Bonnie laughed into my mouth when I pretended to try and led us to the bed. I undressed on top of her, shirt and bra tossed over the edge of the mattress. She cupped my breasts with cool, sure hands.
“These are nice,” she said.
I hunched inward, shoulders rolling.
“I don’t like them,” I said.
Bonnie was the first one I admitted that to. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I felt like we were similar in a certain way, stuck with something we didn’t want.
“No?” Bonnie said. “What about this?”
She slid her hands down toward my crotch. I told her that was more than fine, and she grinned.
“You’re such an odd little thing,” she said, fingers slipping in, and for once, I was proud to be so.
After that, whenever Bill left town for work, I’d live at Bonnie’s for a few days, naked and laughing. Bonnie liked to chain smoke cigarettes after sex. She’d sit on the floor next to the open window to let the smoke filter out and listen to me talk nonsense. I was always chatty after sex. I told her about how I didn’t talk to my family, how once I’d stolen money from the diner when I couldn’t afford rent, to which Bonnie simply raised her brows and lit another cigarette, said to me that we all did things to survive. I told her lots of other stuff I probably shouldn’t have said, like how sometimes I cried myself to sleep or couldn’t see myself in my own future, tangled up in her yellow sheets. Whenever I realized I’d been talking too long and hushed up, Bonnie would say, “You can keep talking. I like listening to you.”
I imagined her leaving Bill. I imagined us together in our own apartment, eating breakfast together for a change, Bonnie’s chipped tooth puncturing the skin of a blueberry. I told no one about our affair, because there was no one I could tell. Sometimes it occurred to me that if the worst happened, if Bill came home and discovered us, nobody would know where to find me. No one would come looking. Bonnie didn’t even bother to take her wedding ring off when we got together. I didn’t mind. I was myself with her in a way I had never been able to experience before.
One day, she told me she’d gotten me something. She rolled from the bed and dug into her purse by the dresser. There was a bruise on her ribs I hadn’t put there.
“Think fast,” she said, and threw a roll of Ace bandage at me.
I caught it and fingered the fabric, tested the stretch and pull of it. I let the bandage unravel into my bare lap. I asked her what the hell it was for. She laughed and said, “For you. For your tits.”
The bandage felt very different to me all at once.
“Is it safe?” I asked.
“I should think so.” Bonnie came back to bed and pulled a bit of Ace bandage across my chest. “Men do it, don’t they? Trans men.”
I nodded, though, really, I didn’t know. I’d only seen a trans man once, during a school trip to New Smyrna at fifteen. I stared at him on the beach, at his fading scars from where his breasts had been, the hair testing its boundaries on his chest and stomach. When he saw me staring, he smiled. He knew. I wanted to be like him, and in other ways I didn’t. I wanted androgynous hips and a flatter chest, shorter hair and taller legs. I didn’t want a deeper voice or facial hair. I wanted to exist without a boundary, let the edges of me fade out until I was seeping into everything all at once.
Bonnie bound my breasts in the sunlight of her bathroom. Constricting them hurt. The breast tissue didn’t want to press in. But with each pass Bonnie made, I saw them become smaller, and that made the pain bearable. When she was finished, I turned profile and smoothed my hands down my chest. There was still a bump, still proof of my breasts’ existence, I just didn’t mind as much. They were smaller now, and I could love them. I wondered what Mom would think, seeing me like this. If she saw me happy, I thought, she might be happy for me.
Bonnie came up behind me and swam her hands up under my arms to squeeze my breasts. The pain was sharp, but I still laughed.
“You look handsome,” she said.
I pulled my T-shirt on to test out the look. With the shirt on, my breasts were practically nonexistent, a reverse puberty. Right then, I was still Mom’s little tomboy, back when it was cute that I liked to wear boys’ clothes. Back when it was okay because I was going through a phase.
I wished Bonnie and I could go out together. I wanted to walk with her down the street, hold her hand and kiss her under a mossy oak. Sometimes I forgot she was married even with the ring on and little reminders of Bill around the house, his cologne on the back of the toilet. Then I’d serve them at the diner and remember. What we had was secret, for now. Any time I mentioned us going out, Bonnie always shut me down.
“This is just how it is for us,” she’d say.
With my breasts bound, I felt braver. I told her again that I wanted us to go out together for real, get dinner somewhere. We had been sleeping together for two months and hadn’t left the house once. Bonnie reached for her cigarettes on the bathroom counter. She held one unlit between her lips, then pulled it away.
“I wish you wouldn’t push me like that,” she said.
The cigarette was placed back in the pack.
“Sorry,” I said. “I just want to be with you.”
“Baby, you are with me.” Bonnie slid our fingers together, hers yellowed. “Now come back to bed.”
She walked out with her cigarettes in hand. I stayed in the bathroom for another few minutes and watched myself in the mirror. My chest was flat. My lungs felt heavier and my nipples hurt. But this was my body, I thought, how it should have been. At least for now.
The first time I bound my breasts on my own, I served at the diner. I felt confident, powerful, as if I’d been fitted into a new body. I smiled at people, and they smiled back. I danced between tables near the prep line with the short order cooks. I even held the door open for my last table as they left, a couple and their baby, stroller bumping onto the sidewalk. I heard the bells on the door of the antique store two shops down being pushed open. Mom walked out carrying a brown paper bag. She paused on the sidewalk to dig her car keys from her purse, and I saw a terrifying opportunity. I thought about making her see me like this, different but still the same. I also thought about ducking back inside the diner. Mom didn’t know where I worked. I had the time to hide. I took a step forward, hands still on the door of the diner, and in that moment, Mom looked up in my direction. In the next, she stepped off the sidewalk toward her car. As if she hadn’t seen me at all. Or she had and hadn’t recognized me. I couldn’t figure which was worse. I watched her pull out of the parking lot in no hurry at all.
I went to Bonnie’s later that day with Mom still on my mind. I examined myself in Bonnie’s bathroom mirror and tried to catch if I looked that much different. Happier, maybe, which was not an emotion I typically assigned myself. But I had someone now who didn’t mind the way I was, and I was lucky to have that. Someone who in certain ways understood. Bonnie didn’t ask me to take the Ace bandage off during sex. I thought she might, because the bandage wasn’t particularly flattering, but she said nothing when I took my shirt off, as if it wasn’t there at all. She kept her hands on my waist, or elsewhere. Never where I felt reminded of what was there.
“You make me feel like myself,” I told her, sat in a wet spot on her sheets.
Bonnie watched me from her usual spot on the floor. Smoke plumed from her mouth and out the open window.
“What’s that like?” she asked.
“Just me,” I said. “I don’t know. Does that make sense? Not hiding.”
She nodded. The humidity that punched in from the open window and the smell of cigarettes were a thing I associated with sex now. I could hear one of the dogs sniffing around outside the bedroom door, nails clacking against the hardwood.
“Why did you marry Bill?” I asked.
He was not a topic we ever broached. I was the one who shared too much after sex, not her. But I felt a certain boldness, sat there in my nakedness with my breasts wrapped down to near nothing. Bonnie took a long drag from her cigarette, eyes hooded.
“I was in a bad situation,” she said. “He got me out.”
Her own family, maybe, or another relationship. That wasn’t truly why I’d asked. I stared at the skin around her eyes, not bruised anymore. It would be again soon, I thought.
“Are you in a bad situation now?”
“No,” Bonnie said. “And I don’t appreciate being asked that.”
My confidence wilted. “I was just wondering if you’re all right.”
Bonnie snuffed her cigarette out on the windowsill and walked to me. A few curls of cigarette ash lay nestled in her pubic hair. She put her hand on my jaw. The skin of her palm was hot.
“Baby,” she said. “I make myself all right. You’ll get along a lot better in the world if you do that for yourself too.”
Bonnie didn’t speak about Bill again, and I didn’t ask. We simply existed inside the space we’d created. I showered in her bathroom after sex and collected my hair carefully out of the drain to dump elsewhere. The routine had become natural to me. Then Bonnie stopped answering my texts. We’d never texted every day, but enough that I knew something was up after two days. That Sunday at the diner, I watched out the windows for Bill’s pick-up or the barking of dogs. They didn’t show. I finished my shift shaky and nervous. Had Bill found out? Was he holding Bonnie hostage in their home, or had he done worse? He was supposed to be out of town, but maybe he hadn’t gone after all.
I leaned against the brick of the building after I got off, my apron dangling by my feet. There was an odd pain in my ribs, a phantom pressure that wouldn’t go away. I pressed my fingers against the binding of the Ace bandage and took a slower breath. Deep breathing had become an issue recently when I wore the binder, which was often. I ignored it. I loved the way I felt too much to let myself worry.
I drove back to my rented room with no word from Bonnie. If Bill had figured something out, it was best I didn’t go anywhere near her house. For a few hours, I sat with my phone in my lap and waited. Then breathing became more difficult again. In the bathroom, I undid the Ace bandage slowly and let it drop to the floor. My breasts and back were marked with deep red lines, slightly discolored. I touched the skin of my breasts and it felt tender, the way my wrist had when I’d broken it as a preteen. The pain from earlier came back, sharper. I whimpered and doubled over. Every breath I took stabbed into my lungs. I swore into the stale air of the house—even that hurt.
I eased my shirt back on and texted Bonnie again. No answer. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to tell. My elderly housemate was already in bed, and I couldn’t call Mom. This, she would never understand. But Bonnie already knew. She seemed to understand the things about me I couldn’t name yet. I walked like Frankenstein’s monster to my car, no movement above the waist, and considered going to the hospital. But as I curved my body into the car I knew. I was going to Bonnie’s house anyway, Bill or no Bill.
The pick-up was in the driveway, but only one light was on. Instead of going to the front door, I tiptoed to the side of the house to the bedroom window. The bushes scratched at my bare legs. I couldn’t take a deep breath to ready myself for what might come, just tapped my knuckles against the glass and waited. After a moment, the light in the bedroom came on. When the blinds went up, I saw Bonnie’s face. She looked angry. She pushed the window open.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asked.
“Is Bill home?”
“No, but that doesn’t give you any right to come here.”
I had my arms wrapped around myself as if I was cold. The pain was constant now.
“You wouldn’t answer my texts,” I said.
Bonnie eased down to her knees and rested her arm over the sill of the window.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
Even though the words registered right away, I said nothing. I couldn’t believe she’d let that man put a baby in her. I finally found my voice enough to tell her that I’d meet her at the front of the house.
Bonnie scoffed as though I’d suggested something ludicrous, then after a moment of hesitation she climbed out the window and onto the mulch. The bushes shook. She was taller than me by a few inches. She seemed even taller now.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“The only thing I can do,” she said. “I can’t get an abortion. I just can’t.”
“You’re breaking up with me,” I said. “For Bill.”
Bonnie ran her tongue over her bottom lip. “He’s my husband.”
The sun hadn’t even begun to set, and we must have looked silly to anyone passing by, standing on the side of a house in the bushes. The full weight of what Bonnie was saying really hit me. I felt two types of pain now, and an anger that telegraphed from my cheeks to my kneecaps. I put my hand to my side without thinking, face pinched.
“What’s wrong?” Bonnie asked.
Even though she’d said she was pregnant, I told myself there was still hope for us. I would take her to the clinic for an abortion. Hold her hand while she bled into the toilet. I wanted her guilt. I had to keep her. I became possessed by the sudden thought that no one else would ever love me as I was: a person in-between. Not a boy or a girl. And if I were stuck in that in betweenness, I was going to disappear entirely.
“I think I’m really hurt,” I said. “That Ace bandage you gave me shrunk or something, I don’t know.”
Bonnie pushed my hand out of the way and lifted my shirt up. Her breath became a hiss. Even the brush of her knuckles against my skin was painful.
“Can I come inside?” I asked.
“No,” she said, and let go of my shirt.
She stepped back. The anger radiating in my kneecaps became the only thing I could feel.
“You said it was safe.”
“I’m not your mama. You made your own decisions.”
Bonnie mentioning Mom, after I’d told her so many things about her and our relationship, seemed unreasonably cruel. It loosened my throat.
“And your decision is to stay with a man who beats you,” I said.
Bonnie’s jaw squared and her lips thinned. I’d never seen her so mad before.
“You don’t know anything about that,” she said. “You don’t know a thing about marriage.”
“I know enough not to beat my wife.” I swallowed. “What is he going to do to your baby?”
“You get gone,” she said, “or I’ll tell the diner you stole from them. Get you fired.”
Her whole body had gone tight, reared up like a cornered animal. I could see into her open mouth, her tongue pressed against her chipped tooth.
“You can’t do that,” I said, my voice gone very small.
“You don’t know the things I can do,” Bonnie said. “You don’t know me at all.”
She pulled her gaze away and tugged a few leaves off the bush at her window. Her eyes were wet. I said her name. She shook her head.
“I need you to get gone,” she said.
She wouldn’t look at me. As she climbed inside, I said her name again. I asked her not to do this, to please not do this.
“Everything doesn’t always go the way we want it to,” Bonnie said, then she shut the window.
I didn’t move. I stood in her yard, afraid to do anything. My chest burned. I’d forgotten about the pain, for a moment. There was nothing to distract me from it now.
I drove myself to the ER because I didn’t know what else to do. I had no insurance, but the pain was so terrible at that point, I was willing to pay any price. The anxiety of what damage I might have done left my legs numb. Holding my foot on the gas pedal felt near impossible. I started to wonder if I’d broken a rib, punctured a lung. If I died, how would the doctors explain that to Mom? Would they even know how?
At the next red light, I grabbed my cellphone and dialed Mom’s number. She didn’t pick up. Voicemail did. There was her voice, for the first time in too long, asking me to leave a message.
“Mom,” I said. “. . . Mom, I’m on my way to the ER at Orlando Regional. I need you to meet me there. I’m hurt.”
Despite everything, I thought about texting Bonnie to tell her I was on my way to the ER. I fantasized about her coming to see me and deciding to leave Bill after all. Telling me she wouldn’t leave me alone like my mom. Beyond sex, my entire relationship with Bonnie was fantasy. The light changed, and I tossed my phone onto the passenger’s seat.
Bruising was what the doctor told me a few hours later. Bruised ribs and a small hairline fracture. I was laid out in a hospital bed on mild painkillers, embarrassed and young and hurt for other reasons.
“Help me out here,” the doctor said. “How did you do this?”
I swallowed, lip tucked into my teeth.
“Binding my breasts,” I said.
He looked down at them, briefly. Then back up to me.
“Why were you doing that? Do they cause you pain?”
Yes, I wanted to say. In every way possible.
“I just wanted to try.”
He didn’t understand. He nodded and pretended to check something on my chart, cleared his throat twice.
“It’s not uncommon for women with larger breasts to experience back pain,” he said. “If you’ve been bothered by that, I’d recommend talking with your regular physician about options.”
When he left the room, I placed my hands over my breasts. I could really feel them now. They were screaming at me. I wondered if I would ever be able to bind again. Instead of listening to Bonnie, I should have researched how to bind properly. There were a lot of things Bonnie said that I shouldn’t have listened to. I tried to imagine her as a mother. I imagined her breastfeeding during late nights, exhausted and craving a cigarette. I imagined her hiding bruises from her child. It wasn’t difficult to envision at all, and that was where Bonnie and I split as people. She could be whatever shape she needed to be, for as long as she needed.
I listened to the quiet sounds from outside my room—sneaker shuffling, phones clicking back onto their cradles. I heard the tight snap of rubber gloves, then a woman’s voice. She sounded worried. Someone came close to my room. The door eased open, and there, shadowed by the light in the hall, was Mom.
She sat in the chair by my bed, purse clutched in her lap. She looked at me like I was someone she hadn’t met before, as if she had to be cautious when speaking. I waited for her to say something, anything. Finally, she said, “Tell me what happened.”
I wanted to tell her everything. I wanted to tell her about Bonnie, about my diner job, about trying so hard to make my breasts disappear that I’d hurt myself. I couldn’t get my mouth to work. I didn’t know how to act around Mom now. Part of me wanted to be held by her, cradled and hushed in my delicate state. We didn’t have that anymore. I wasn’t sure what we had.
“Honey, what happened?” Mom said again.
“You’re going to get mad at me,” I said.
“Did someone hurt you?”
I opened my gown. Mom looked, brows crumpling, she looked for longer than I thought she would. I closed my gown.
Mom shifted in her chair and pulled ChapStick from her purse, uncapped it, and then recapped it and threw the tube back in her bag without ever applying any. We both had the same habit of nervous fidgeting. We’d do anything with our hands, touch anything, like maybe we could transfer the nervousness to something else.
“You did that to yourself?” Mom asked. “Why?”
I laughed once, shortly, then winced at the pain that followed.
Mom tucked hair behind her ear, wearing the diamond studs a boyfriend had given her one Christmas. She and I had the same ears. The slightest display of emotion and they throbbed red.
“Are you . . . are you transsexual?” she asked. “A transgender?”
“I’m just me,” I said.
Mom stood and grabbed my hand. She wore a lot of metal bracelets, and they clapped together as she gripped me tight.
“You are,” she said.
She squeezed my hand, then let go as she sat back down.
She looked tired. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to understand. She didn’t need to. I wanted her to take my hand again, but the pain meds wouldn’t let me keep my eyes open.
I woke a few hours later, and my breasts were still there. Mom was not, but I could smell her perfume lingering in the air mixed in with the antiseptic of the hospital. I sat up tenderly to wait for her return. Ten minutes later, she hadn’t come back. I stood and began to dress. The process was slow, and painful. My breasts felt especially heavy, held by nothing. I buttoned my top between shallow breaths. Then I walked into the hallway and found the night nurse behind the desk, dutifully ignoring me. I asked her if she knew where the woman who’d been in my room before had gone. I said she was my mom.
“She left,” the nurse said. “A little over an hour ago.”
She was wrong, I thought. She had mistaken someone else for Mom. I went back to my room where she should have been and flicked the lights on. My phone, almost drained of its battery, had no messages. Tucked into the folds of my hospital blanket was the corner of a white envelope. I pulled it free and saw my name written on the back in Mom’s handwriting. Inside were seven hundred dollar bills. No note. I tucked the envelope into my back pocket. I got gone.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen