In honor of Pride Month, we are so happy to offer this story about a young transgender man by author Evelyn Deshane. This story was originally submitted for the Body Horror anthology, and we didn’t think it fit that theme, but we knew that it was an important story, and one we wanted to be able to tell the world. We have broken it into three parts, and one part will be offered each week of the month. Enjoy!Editor
It all started with a glass of milk. Jonas’s sister made their Pad Thai too spicy, thinking Jonas would like it better that way when he visited her in Toronto. Instead of insulting the food, he grabbed the two litre carton of milk from her fridge and poured a glass, gulping it down within seconds.
At two in the morning, the pain started. Dull, throbbing, aching pain–like the kind Jonas used to get once a month before the doctors started his regimented testosterone shots and his estrogen stopped flowing through his mis-matched body. This time, the pain was higher up, just under his lungs and diaphragm. Indigestion? Heart burn? Maybe I’m lactose intolerant. Jonas was almost satisfied with this answer until pain shot through him again. He rolled off Melody’s futon and wandered around her apartment in the dark until he was hugging her toilet. His stomach twisted with a shot of pain that wanted to leap out of his throat. But nothing came out of his mouth.
When Melody found him in the morning, she took him to St. Mike’s hospital on Bond St.
“You’re having gallstones,” the doctor explained. He was an Indian man with a dark mustache; his nametag read Vipin Sundeep. “We will put you on a waiting list to get your gallbladder removed. It’s the easiest way to stop the attacks.”
“Remove it entirely?” Jonas asked. “I feel fine now. Just give me whatever medication you gave me when I came in.”
“We didn’t give you anything. The attacks stop on their own. But anytime you have a food that reacts to your system–usually something fatty–the gallstones will start up again.”
The milk. Or was the Pad Thai the culprit?
“Can you really remove this and he’ll be fine?” Melody asked.
Doctor Sundeep nodded. “Oh, yes. The gallbladder is one of the body’s filters. Not always needed. Like tonsils or the appendix, any healthy human can live without it. In this case, with the sudden severity of the attack, I would highly recommend removal. But it’s up to you.”
“Fine,” Jonas said. “How long do I have to wait?”
Two weeks later, there was a cancellation at the hospital. Melody drove Jonas from Peterborough to Toronto, where he would have the surgery and recover in her apartment. Since transition, Jonas tried to only see Melody during the holidays or on her birthday; at this rate, he and Melody would be back to hanging out with one another every Friday night like they did in high school–only now, the talk about boys would have a considerably different tenor.
“How are you feeling?” Melody asked, glancing back at Jonas through the rear-view mirror.
“Have you been able to eat anything? I know you can’t right now because of surgery, but before then? Were you able to keep something down?”
Jonas shook his head. He’d already lost the ten pounds he’d gained when he first started testosterone. He wondered if he’d lose another pound or two because of the organ being removed, and even as he gained back whatever weight in his recovery period, he’d still be at a deficit.
“Well, soon enough. We can go out and celebrate. Eat all the fatty foods.”
“Sure,” Jonas said. “Sounds good.”
When they arrived, Melody signed a few papers at the front desk about after care instructions, while Jonas was wheeled inside the surgery room. As he was prepped, Jonas could have sworn he heard the beginnings of “Buddy Holly” by Weezer. He and Melody used to sing Weezer at full volume into hair brushes while they jumped up and down on the bed. They were always together like this–until the first years of university pulled them across the province. Melody got a degree and a good enough job in Toronto, while Jonas became Jonas. Awkward dinners ensued where people tripped over pronouns and birth names. Then Jonas grew a beard and stopped seeing their parents. And finally, the old life he had before disappeared.
“Are you ready, Jonas?” the anesthesiologist in yellow mask asked. “I’m going to need you to count backwards from ten.”
In a way, Jonas thought, my gallbladder has perfect timing. If this came out when I was nineteen, the wrong name would have been said. And the doctors would have double-Ds to push past. Jonas was convinced, as he went under, that everything was going to be okay.
Jonas woke to yellow balloons and white carnations; the sunlight cracking through slatted blinds and the squeak-squeak of nurses’ shoes. Jonas blinked and tried to move his arm full if IV tubes. He was inside a room filled with at least six other beds; the intake area after surgery. He remembered this room from his other hospital after his breasts had been removed. When he ran his fingers along the scars, now over two years old, he flinched at the touch. They still felt fresh, like they just happened. He tried to peer down his hospital gown at his torso, when a nurse came inside.
“Hello there. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just… I feel like I’m scarred all over. And inside? Is that normal?”
“I’ll adjust your pain meds. Lie down, okay? Your family will be here soon.”
“My sister,” Jonas corrected, but the nurse didn’t hear. She shuffled across the room to a woman with dark hair on one of the far beds. Her hand was over her side. Possibly kidney or liver issues? Jonas couldn’t remember anatomy, his head was so fuzzy. His body felt numb, then very warm, as the pain meds from his IV kicked in again.
“I need more milk,” Jonas heard the woman across the room say before he slipped into a dream. “That’s the only way to feed this.”
“Do you need me to get anything for you?” Melody asked.
“No. I’m fine. Go to work, please. You’ve already taken too many days off.”
“You’re my brother,” Melody said. No flustering, no flinching. She said brother like it was natural. “I want to take care of you when you’re sick like this.”
“I’m just stitched up and on pain meds. Really, I’ve been through worse.”
Melody shot Jonas a perplexed look. “Who took care of you before this?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you… you know.” Melody gestured towards her chest awkwardly. “You don’t have breasts anymore. I know testosterone gave you a beard–that’s easy enough to explain. But I doubt it took away your boobs that easily.”
Jonas sighed, winching at the question. He made the pain seem like it was from his gallbladder surgery. “No one took care of me then.”
“What do you mean ‘no one’?”
“I mean no actual person. I took a cab to the doctor, then tipped really well when the cabby came back and helped me into my apartment. I’m still shocked no one stole anything because my door was definitely unlocked and I was on too many pain meds to notice.”
“And after that?”
“I had one friend come by because we were both TAs. We graded papers together and she made me soup. Is that what you wanted to hear? I wasn’t alone, Melody. Not entirely. I don’t think anyone is. We apparently have so much bacteria on our skin, anyway, how could we be alone?”
Melody sighed. She reached into her purse and scanned her phone. “Well, if you need me, call me. I’m leaving my work number, okay? I’ll be back at midnight tonight. Shift work. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine, really.” Jonas pulled the blankets up to his neck on the futon. The TV in Melody’s place was muted; Jonas’s gaze was drawn to the brightly coloured wheel on The Price is Right.
“Just like when we were kids, huh?” Melody said, gesturing to the TV.
“When one of us was sick, the other would also pretend to be sick so we could both stay home and watch TV. Usually it was you who was ill, then I’d fake it so I could be alongside you.”
“Yeah. You were always sick as a kid. Don’t you remember?”
Jonas shook his head. The only times he remembered being sick were the flu he got six months ago from one of his students, and now with his gallbladder.
“Well, doesn’t matter because I can’t play hooky anyway. See you tonight, okay?”
Jonas said goodbye and watched the rest of the show on mute. He tried to run through his life backwards, from the moment he went under and heard “Buddy Holly” to his earliest memory. He fell asleep instead.
Jonas woke to another stabbing pain in his right side. When he coughed, it felt as if his stitches were being pulled out of his body one by one. He grabbed the frame of the futon to push himself up, then reached out for Melody’s apartment walls to guide him to the bathroom. He knocked down a framed photo of Melody and her boyfriend, then another photo of Melody with a black dog that surely had to be dead by now given how young Melody looked. In the same dog photo was another girl next to Melody; small framed with light coloured hair and a gap tooth.
Me? Jonas wondered. No, not me. I don’t remember any of this.
The pain was excruciating by the time Jonas got to the bathroom. Sweat flecked his brow. His flushed skin still looked pale somehow under the bathroom lights. He found his meds and took two without water before the ache migrated to his navel. He took off his shirt to study his swollen torso in the bathroom mirror. Red stitches from his gallbladder surgery were fine; none of them leaked or burst open. The pain came from under his navel, then up towards his chest, near his heart.
His nipples ached. His nipples weren’t even functional anymore; after the mastectomy, they had been grafted back on his skin again, so he could blend in at the beach. As if Jonas was really the beach-going type. But the thought was nice.
“Fuck,” Jonas cried out when another wave rolled through him. His chest was tearing open. He was sure of it. When he ran a finger under his right nipple, it was like touching the skin of a ripe fruit. He bruised. He oozed. What he thought was puss pooled in his palm.
“What the…?” Jonas realized the puss was actually milk. Milk from his nipples that shouldn’t even work.
Hey Mel, Jonas texted. I think I need some help.
Evelyn Deshane’s creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Visit evedeshane.wordpress.com for more.About the Author