by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
1. On a morning early in the second month of the unprecedented time, I rise to the sound of the birds and pad to the kitchen in my slippers. The air smells of hot coffee. Snow blankets the roof just outside the window, the light glinting off it tracing swirls on the wall. I pour the coffee: roasty, familiar, constant. A few weeks ago, I would have carried the cup to my writing desk, there said a short prayer to the god of creation, pressed my pen to the page and tried to listen. But now I carry it back to my bedroom, where the curtains remain closed. I turn my bedside lamp on and open the novel on my nightstand. I will be in its world. Not this one.
2. My jawline has become covered in blond fuzz, and later, in front of the bathroom mirror, I see it backlit, the fuzz so pale it is visible only when struck by this light. I turn my head this way, then that, looking. The fuzz wasn’t there a month ago. So much has changed. When my agent sent me notes on the latest writing I’ve been doing, he included an instruction that I must search for mentions of my jawline. You mention the fuzz here, and here, and here, he says. He means: we get the point.
He means: the mentions are getting old. But I have lived all my decades with a smooth jawline; to me, none of this is old. I think of change constantly, and the way change implies progression, and now, looking left and looking right, I wonder what I am seeing, what the fuzz is a harbinger of. Will it grow longer? Will I grow a beard? Or will it stay like this, so pale as to be nearly invisible, prepubescent even as time goes forward and inscribes lines on my skin? The future is as unknown to me as the changed world outside my window, the present like a scratch in one of the records my father used to play.
3. At the start of the shelter orders, a lover texted me that Fuck it, while we are all staying at home they will grow in their soul patch. Shortly after we first met, and I told them I was on testosterone, they looked at me in envy. I can’t, my levels are already so high, I’ll look too much like a man, they said. I’m like you, I don’t want to pass. But you. Your body takes its time. You get to choose where you land.
4. This lover will come back up, so let’s give them a name. Let’s call them D.
5. When I wrote that I’d just met D, what I meant was that we had recognized something in each other on a dance floor, the floor almost empty, the music so loud as to hold all the space of the place, and our bodies had begun a silent communication, me moving this way and that, them coming closer and then further away. This was still, of course, in the before time. Disco lights looped the floor, some colored an ice blue. The beams cast like shadows had been shaped into snowflakes. Watching the swoop of the carved light, I imagined the sheets of colored polyethylene that had made it, that cool blue pressed to a burn like fire. The lights chased us and the music grew louder still, and I had grimaced, or D had grimaced. They said something, but I didn’t hear. I shook my head, and they came in close, their mouth suddenly fitted over the shell of my ear. Want to find some quiet? I felt the sound lap in my ear canal, warm. Then the cold slap of outside, the sudden grace of dark, the stars above us so still. They pulled from their pocket a key. The key fitted the lock of their office, which turned out to be across the street. They knew where the security cameras were. The unlocked closet.
Afterward, the two of us a little punchy, maybe with drink and maybe with flush, we laughed at the irony of finding ourselves in a closet. We who have located whole lives, whole selves, in the stepping out of closets. There was a small red light like in a darkroom and I remember using its dimness as cover to look at them, really look: the hair, dark enough to be inky, clipped short as bristles. The jaw, square yet soft. Their shoulders. Their breasts. They watched me look, the white of their eyes pink in the light, the mirrored black centers. Beads of sweat had formed on their upper lip. Tufts of hair greeted me from their armpits. Their sports bra, two sizes too small, had left angry raw marks across their soft chest. I looked at the hair under their arms and the scores left by the flattening and they looked at me and I knew what they were seeing in me, too. Silence stretched into something sinewy enough to hold us. For the first time I thought how alike were the words rapt and wrapped.
When they spoke, their voice scratched the edge of tears. “I didn’t know it would be so healing,” they said. “I’ve never been with someone else who … ”
I don’t think I let them finish, my mouth over theirs.
6. An incomplete list of things I have heard called queer about the pandemic: the surge in people making their own sourdough starter out of nothing more than flour and water and time. The rise in “masc for mask” jokes. Or: what does a lesbian bring to a second date? No, not a U-Haul, a Covid test. Or: U-Haul-ing as a responsible public health move. Cuffing season. Sex pods. The New York City Public Health Department recommending people “make it a little kinky” with glory holes. The rise in OnlyFans and findom, which is to say, the rise in sex work. Thirst traps. Sexting, phone sex, Zoom sex, FaceTime sex, sleeping with your roommates. Spending the holidays with chosen family.
The very fact of a pandemic.
The impossibility of imagining a future.
7. Futurity, noun: yes, alright, future time, the sense that there will be a future. The very thing we are all trying to hold onto, as we wait for it to arrive. The projected shape that future makes. The shadow (or light?) it casts over the present.
But also: futurity, noun: a race for two-year-old horses, into which they are entered before they are born.
8. As a metaphor for gender, maybe that’s a little obvious. But also: futurities offer some of the richest prizes in horse racing.
9. From the windows of my study, I can see the largest hospital in Maine. By law the ambulances must turn off their sirens this close, and so periodically when I look up from my desk now, two months into the at-home time, I see silent flashing lights. After a few days of this constant screaming silent alarm, and of the helicopters that land on the hospital roof at all hours, their thrum so loud as to consume me in the beat of metal wings, I write a prayer with a blue Sharpie onto a purple index card and thumbtack it to the wall between the two windows, right in my line of sight: May they be safe. May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they live with ease.
10. When we learn that men are dying at an exponentially higher rate than women from this virus, a friend asks me if I’ll keep taking testosterone. I mutter something about how, well, I’m not going to go off a drug without medical advice, and my doctor has other things on her mind right now.
That answer, I know, is bullshit. One of the purported benefits of the daily gel I use, versus a weekly shot, is that its progress is slow, and each day I must choose to apply it, must reaffirm my choice of who I am, of who I am transforming to visibly be. I could choose no.
What I really mean, but don’t say, is that men have shorter life expectancies, more heart attacks, higher rates of dementia, and that I already knew all that. The trade-off did occur to me.
But I do ask the doctor if I will lose my hair.
That’s what Rogaine’s for, she says. It’s not a reason not to live your life.
Obviously, I want to live my life. I’d just like to live it with hair.
11. Here is how, researchers say, we slot one another into genders with a glance: the shape of the hairline, the shape of the eye socket, the ratio of hip to waist, the shape of the jawline, the shape of the chest. Clothing, hair length, manner of standing. Where fat is distributed. Quickness to smile.
You Can Tell by the Nose: the title of a 1995 study.
We look for patterns. We look for what we know how to see.
And I get that with the bodily factors, I’m talking about sex, not gender. But what I am really speaking of is how people perceive. The slotting, the conflation, that happens the instant they perceive.
That instant’s what I keep thinking about. Just an instant—but in it, a whole narrative (my life) unfurls.
12. Imagine the horse’s owner perusing the pages of racing magazines, loading websites late at night in an office tucked in beside the tack room in a stable, the smell of sweat and dirt thick over the printouts of lineages that litter the desk. Perhaps there is a cup of coffee beside them. Perhaps a pregnant mare whinnies from down a long line of stalls, pacing before settling into her bed of hay. The owner sips from the coffee, clicks the mouse to scroll down the page, searches the list of the races in several years’ time. (You have pictured the owner either male or female; which? Doesn’t matter, the owner is not the one we care about here, but—which?)
Shadows pool around the blue light of the laptop. At the foal’s birth, and then regularly thereafter, there will be fees to pay for each race in anticipation of when the horse will be ready. There must be a budget, calendars to be planned, a choice of projections in which to invest, the mapping out of finances and a life.
13. Imagine, too, that equine fetus, long limbs folded beneath it, not yet ready to run; tiny hooves still soft and shredded, not yet hardened by the pounding of movement; how now it rests and grows curled in the warm wet womb for eleven months. The owner clicks and sips and allots money and decides which racing ovals will inscribe its future path, where bets will be placed, where its hardened hooves will someday run. I have a twin brother. We had a triplet sister, a sister in chromosomes at least. She would die too young for any of us to know anything about her, so here is what little we knew; the blue eyes of a baby, tiny like us and like us premature, girl.
One of each, and me.
Two girls and a boy! the announcement.
At eight, I became aware I wasn’t a girl.
14. One of the first known people to use testosterone to alter his body was British twenty-four-year-old Michael Dillon in 1939. He’d sought the treatment nominally for his menstrual periods but already wore the clothing of a man. Before Dillon, men had grafted slices of chimpanzee testicles to their own; they had attached snippets taken from the genitals of goats; they had had the tubes that carried sperm from the testicles blocked, in the hopes that stopping its movement would create a surplus of vigor. Even William Butler Yeats underwent that surgery, hoping to keep up with a younger lover. Freud, too, and he demanded the doctor not disclose that until death.
Dillon simply took pills. In writer Pagan Kennedy’s account of his transformation, it is one-way and absolute and the hormone is what achieves and legitimizes it, upholding the sanctity of the binary. Of Dillon before he was Michael, Kennedy writes, She became the first woman on record to take the drug with the intention of changing her sex.
A sentence elapses, only a sentence.
As soon as Dillon could look entirely male, he became invisible.
15. My writing seems to come out these days like my thoughts do: in snippets, disconnected, seized up. The thoughts don’t—can’t—adhere. I try to make a narrative line but only these dots appear.
Even D and I don’t see each other anymore. I am alone in my apartment, no one to witness me or me them.
We are all social distancing from one another.
16. We need a sense of what you want your body to look like, my agent writes. You tell us what feels wrong, what you want to change, but you don’t tell us what you want to change to.
He is asking me to imagine what comes after.
17. Levels of testosterone for those assigned female at birth generally stop at 60 or 70 nanograms per deciliter of blood. Levels for those assigned male at birth generally begin at 270 or 280 or 300.
Note the vastness of the unnamed middle.
When I began taking testosterone, my own levels fell very clearly on one side of the divide. Now I am caught in that middle, a sentence without knowledge of its end.
18. At times I try to imagine what I want this country to look like, when all this is over. I try to imagine us taking care of one another. I try to imagine my relatives and neighbors not reacting to the virus as though it is political.
I try to imagine 343,593 (today’s count; tomorrow it will be higher) people not dead, so many of them Black and brown, and so many of them economically marginalized. While I’m at it I try to imagine Black men and women not killed by the police; immigrants not hunted at the border; a nation not founded on genocide; the erasure of the violences that make this place.
19. And okay I try to imagine what I want to look like, but I grew up in the same damn binary everyone else did. The same damn America.
20. The truth is, I don’t know how to answer my agent.
It is easier for me to say what I don’t want. Harder to say what I do.
21. Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain, writes José Esteban Muñoz.
22. There was a year, once, when I pricked myself 144 times with needles. I had known that my body could not cradle a baby (historically a mark of womanhood, but my body has always been made to fail that part), that to do so might endanger my life. I had assumed that there would be some future solution to this—maybe a partner would carry, or maybe science would catch up. (A bit of regression to how I soothed myself to sleep when I was a child: no need to be afraid of death, for science would surely solve it before I grew old. My belief in science more potent than that in magic, any dream, any god.)
But I had aged, and the future had arrived, and there was no solution beyond pulling forth what was inside this body, my body, and so I went to doctors and had a probe inserted in myself and saw my own insides on the screen and the nascent beginnings of the material that would go into making another person. Every morning, and every night, I drew clear liquid into a syringe and injected it into the ring of fat around my belly button, moving the needle clockwise to a new site, mimicking the march of time. My abdomen puffed. I grew nauseated, which seemed only fair—if my child would come into the world without me ever having morning sickness, shouldn’t I be paying that debt forward now.
23. After each shot, I ate a cracker spread with the cheapest caviar, the kind you can get at the supermarket for six dollars a jar. I had begun the ritual as a joke, a need to find joy and inject levity into the process. A need to disrupt how medicalized the whole thing was, how sterile, all those foreign objects I used to break my skin. We were trying to coax my body into such a high estrogen level it would release more eggs than the usual monthly one; I would, therefore, eat tiny eggs. Rhyming action: a move familiar to any writer.
But what began as a joke was soon overcome by sensation: the smoothness of the hard little eggs between my palate and tongue, the salty pop as intense as the sea. The joke became a prayer. The taste as much a benediction as tears.
24. The drug I injected myself with arrived by manila envelope from Israel, ordered off a spare website with a sketchy, straightforward name: 1800IVFMeds. In the United States, my dose might have cost me a thousand dollars every two days. From the website, more than a week could be had for that amount. The drug was precious, befitting its fairytale origins: synthesized now, but once distilled from the urine of elderly cloistered Italian nuns. At their age, they had too much of the hormone needed to be pregnant. How infertility works: too much, not too little. That too-muchness could be harvested, the wealth spread.
Why nuns? Because the nuns had (presumably) not had sex, because they had (presumably) never seen their body reflected back in the body of another, because (presumably) there was no chance they could be pregnant.
25. Only writing this do I realize that my gay self would have been as safe a bet as those Italian nuns.
26. One morning in the middle of the year of injections, I went to the doctor for a monitoring appointment. I did this a couple of times a week each cycle and had long since asked to insert the probe myself. A small bit of agency claimed. On the screen, black fuzz resolved itself into the shape of the follicles inside me, the spaces growing larger to shelter eggs.
That afternoon, for a class I was taking, I went to a laboratory as sterile and white as the exam room I’d left. There, five dead bodies were laid out on slabs: two men, three women. I put on a plastic butcher’s apron and clear plastic goggles and nitrile gloves, and my partner handed me a scalpel and pointed. I brought the blade to the body’s fallopian tube.
That’s not quite right. I don’t want to say the body. Not doing something as intimate as slicing her up.
But there, there, you see the problem again. Her. I know nothing of this person, only the shape of their body; from this I have deduced a pattern. I have no other word to choose. I don’t know who she was beyond the mark of those ovaries.
With my scalpel I split them open, pale pink and the size of green cocktail olives. I saw the tiny hard eggs within. Larger than a pinprick, a pencil point, the period of a sentence.
Futures that had never been.
27. The drug worked; my body released eggs. Never many, but enough. These were injected with sperm, grown for several days, and then frozen. The cycle repeated once, twice, three times again.
28. Still I waited. That fertilization had happened was no proof life could ever take root. It seemed likely I would be told it was all for naught, that the child I had wanted since I was a child was not possible. It seemed impossible that I would get anything I wanted that much, as though the act of wanting made it impossible.
Does everyone carry such felt knowledge of doom inside them, such belief in the impossibility of a future? Or only those of us born into bodies that cast us into a narrative that doesn’t fit.
As though having the audacity to want, and to act on that want, would itself be a trick, the coin proffered by a magician that vanishes with the opening of the hand that ought to reveal it.
29. So I remember the whoosh in my chest when, over the phone at the end of the year, I was finally told that some—five—of the embryos were viable. How in that instant, a path opened to a door that opened to a future.
30. Maybe I only ever write about the problem of how to believe in the future.
31. I was ready to hang up then; I remember that, too. I was awash in glee, as though all at once the blood of my body had been rinsed in relief. The sensation was overwhelming, light-flooded, alive. I wanted to get off the phone, away from the doctor’s voice and just feel.
32. But she kept on. Of the five, there’s, she said, and told me the sex of the embryos. How many this kind. How many that.
A clear favorite. Not even odds. Not at all.
33. The child in my daydreams acquired a gender.
—. When I emerged from the restaurant where I’d taken the call, there was a child standing on the street, gripping a mother’s hand. The mother—irrelevant to me, never what I would be.
But that child. Short blond hair, striped shirt, a smudge on its cheek. It appeared to be of the gender that matched the sex I had just been told my someday-child would likely be, and I remember how closely I observed it. I remember the feel of a daydream arranging itself, as though it were straightening its shirt hem, spitting into its palm, patting down its hair.
—. And sure, I do my best to note in my daydreams now that a child’s gender is not known just because their chromosomes are. Of that, I myself am proof. And really, even those chromosomes may turn out to be more complex as each embryo grows more than the 70 to 100 cells it has now. I know enough about sexology to know that the simplicity we’ve been bottle-fed is a lie, always has been a lie, that there are far more than two options and they are not as set as we might imagine. I do my best to imagine a doctor informing me of complexity. I do my best to imagine a child coming to me the way I eventually did to my parents. I do my best to imagine them speaking a truth about who they are, and it not being the truth I expected. Or—conversely, the queer version of the unimaginable future—I do my best to think that perhaps they will be the most gender-conforming kid around, and I’ll have to wrap my mind around that.
I do my best to hold space for every possibility.
—. But I still can’t imagine child without imagining gender.
—. And what is a dream if not a narrative?
—. And what is narrative if not constant foreclosure, this instead of that?
—. What is the future if not the thing that replaces all other possible worlds?
34. Nine months into the pandemic—the gestation of a body—I decide to switch from the testosterone gel to the shot. The gel is inconvenient, sticky. Often it runs in rivulets down my shoulders. And I no longer need to make this decision daily, if ever I did. I know it is the right one. But also, I am getting impatient.
So one afternoon I sit in my study, alone in front of the computer. On the screen, my doctor appears, from an ivory office where she also is alone. Yes, she says, it’s likely my body will respond to the shot more quickly. The term she uses is masculinize.
35. I may pass as a man someday, but I will know in my gut that I had to convince myself that I was allowed to have that passing, writes Cyrus Grace Dunham. And maybe I will always wonder if that passing is just a trick, a lie.
36. And I do want to change, but I don’t want to pass. Not as a woman, not as a man. I go back so often to that moment with D on the dance floor, when our bodies recognized each other. When, in the closet, we looked and we saw. “I’ve never been with someone else who … ”
I kissed them then because I wanted to kiss them but also because what they were saying, what they meant, was so true I couldn’t bear to hear it said. I knew what they meant because I felt it, too.
Someone else who. Someone else who exists in the in-between. Someone else who, with my body, could make them feel seen in theirs.
37. What did we see, that lay beyond sight?
38. D wasn’t quite right, those months ago, when they envied me for getting to choose where I land on a gender spectrum. The effects of testosterone are cumulative. For as long as I use it I will—to use the doctor’s parlance—masculinize myself. Were I to stop entirely, some effects would remain: the thickened vocal cords and thereby (still only slightly) deepened voice; the spread of bodily hair that has now overtaken my legs; the enlarged clitoris, called bottom growth. Others would recede: the increased libido, the increased tendency toward muscle. To take a smaller dose, as I do, is just to bring on these effects more slowly. Whatever time has felt like during this pandemic, there is no actual way to stand still.
39. Except, perhaps, for the embryos. They exist in a suspended state, frozen at negative 321 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which biological progression pauses.
I like that neat countdown, three-two-one.
40. I suppose I like the way numbers imply order.
41. After all: narrative is order.
42. After all: don’t we live always anticipating the next step.
43. For a while, the embryos were kept mere miles from where I lived; passing by them on the highway, I would lift my left hand off the wheel to wave at the gray building, as nondescript as any warehouse. But I moved, and that warehouse was expensive, and now they are hundreds of miles away in a town, in a county, in a state I’ve never seen.
44. I think of them often. I try to visit the future.
45. I had decided I would do the first shot the evening of my birthday. Why not begin a new year with this becoming. And a practical reason: I had been warned that the hormone would likely hit all at once, twelve hours or so later, and so to do it earlier in the day might disrupt my sleep with desire. I have grown accustomed to these wakenings; to say I don’t mind them would be an understatement. What a gift, how amazing, how alive, in the midst of a time of stalemate to ceaselessly want. Still: the need for rest.
46. When I finally did the shot that evening, it was—no way around this—no big deal. I pulled the liquid into the syringe, less than a centimeter’s worth. I twisted off the needle and replaced it with a finer one. It is not hard for me to find fat, for in this way, too, pandemic time has been working its way on my body. Most days this new curviness, gendered as it feels, is hard for me. But it makes injection easier. I pressed the needle’s point against my skin and winced at the bit of pain. Inhaled, pushed. The 145th shot toward a future I want.
47. I suspect I had more pain than this once. I suspect I had less certainty.
48. The future is not yet here. Last week marked one year since the night on the dance floor. Nine months have passed since we all began staying home. When I pulled on my winter coat yesterday morning, I was startled to discover a bottle of hand sanitizer already in it, the mark of time’s loop. Oh yes: we have been here awhile. Oh yes: for a while, here we will stay.
49. When I pass the small mirror I keep by the door, I see my reflection: a little more of that blond fuzz on my jawline. My skin texture a little coarser. To me my nose looks the same, but who sees change when they watch for it every day.
50. And I wonder each time if it is ever possible to break free from time. If and when and how the future becomes the now.
Published on September 2, 2021
First published in Harvard Review 57.
First published in Harvard Review 57.