All in One Piece
words: Linden Crawford
images: Annie Flanagan
I stand in front of my mirror late into the night. I take off my shirt and undo my binder. I put my thumbs on my nipples and pull my skin upward, hook my fingers onto my shoulders, and turn from side to side, trying to make out my shape underneath. I wrap clear packing tape around my chest, as tight as I can. I squint a little so the lines soften. I'm trying to see how it would look.
I wake up tired. The roll of tape is empty, down to the cardboard. I don't know how many hours of sleep I've forgone in my reverie. What could I do with all those hours if my body looked the way I wanted it to? But then, why should I get to change it—a body I'm fortunate to have in the first place?
This is the loop I'm in. Around and around I go, exhausting myself, but afraid to cut myself free, to careen into the unknown.
I hear about a doctor in Miami who does top surgery. The best in the country, people say. I've been binding my chest for six years, ever since a friend in California, where I'm from, offered me his old binder after he got top surgery. I tried it on in his bathroom. I felt firm and impervious, a vast improvement from what I'd been wearing—my tightest sports-bra. I wore the binder every day, until it frayed at the seams, and then I bought my own from the website my friend had told me about. I bundled up all my bras and put them in the trash. I thought about top surgery, but it seemed like a distant luxury, and off-limits to someone like me. If my end goal wasn't to become a man, I thought, I didn't deserve to do it.
I moved to New Orleans in 2013, just shy of my 30th birthday. I had never lived outside California. Driving across the country, through states unknown to me, and where I was unknown, too, I felt the tendrils that had been holding me begin to lose their grip and slip away. Out here, I'm beyond their reach, and I allow myself to wander, and to want.
I daydream about going to the doctor in Miami. One day, in the back of the coffee shop where I work, I mention it my friend Mara while they wash the dishes. As if it is a casual thing to mention. Mara tells me they've thought of getting top surgery, too. “Let's go to Miami together!” I say. Mara twirls toward me, wielding the spray hose. “We can take our tops off and celebrate our last night,” they say. “Like bachelorettes.” We laugh, and I push back through the swinging doors, to the people waiting for coffee. “Can I help you?” I ask.
From the coffee shop, I get connected with a job bar-tending at a nice restaurant. I’m accorded more respect behind the bar, and the customers are eager for my attention. Sometimes men greet me as their brother or their man, only to apologize once they hear my voice, or get a closer look. I don't mind the mistake, but it hurts to lose the title, the assumption of a bond between us, some sort of equivalence.
I want to ask them: Are we not still kin?
One night, a man sits alone at my bar. He’s well-dressed, with dark-rimmed glasses and smooth, gray hair combed back from his forehead. He orders Irish whiskey and tells me he owns a barber shop down the street. The restaurant is new, and we've been instructed to be friendly to the neighborhood businesses. He asks my name, tells me I’m cute. I try to receive it gracefully, which is a little easier since I’m assuming he’s gay. Then he mentions his wife. “The problem with women,” he says, “is they always need to know everything, to be in on things. They can't just let something be.” I try to keep up the banter. “Why are you with one, then?” I ask him. He loves women, he declares, he surrounds himself with them. I move toward the far end of the bar, check in with other customers, make myself less available to him.
He orders another whiskey, a coldness edging into his voice. He tells me that women come into the shop sometimes wanting a haircut, and he refuses them. “It's a salon for men,” he says, working himself up. “It says so on the sign out front.” I wonder why he wants to share this with me, of all people, but I keep my face impassive. He likes me, I think. Maybe I can change his mind. “What if I came in?” I ask. “I would let you in,” he says. “You're cute.” Another whiskey. He goes on, I’m hardly listening, there’s some other type of people that are bothering him, that he really doesn't know what to do with, but I can't make out the word through his accent. Is it trendsetters? I don't know. I don't care. Then I catch the words “drug out in the street and shot,” and my mind races around, assembling all the errant pieces of our conversation. Transgenders is the word, I realize, and my face, my whole body grows hot with panic. I duck out from behind the bar and find someone to cover for me. I’m shaking, weak, emptied out. No spine, no muscle, no heart. He pierced a hole in me and I let him. I smiled, nodded, and held his hand while he drove in the stake.
Biking home, I see the sign: his name in big block letters, and then, in smaller type, For Men. I want to throw a brick through the window, spraypaint the glass so everyone knows what he said. But I don't. I keep riding, keep passing the sign every day, coming and going, and I do nothing but remember.
Mardi Gras comes early, and hardly a week into February, it’s already over. The calendar of empty days yawns before me. I fold up the yards of sparkly fabric, spool the lengths of sequin ribbon, zip it all into its suitcase, and put the suitcase back into my closet. I change my sheets, sweep the floors, and make breakfast. Before I’ve swallowed my last bite, I’m back at the sink, washing my dish. I need something to begin, something beyond the reach of my busy, tidying hands. I’ve spent so long trying not to want anything, trimming away my jagged edges, that now I find myself missing them. Without wanting, I’m completely inert.
A couple of weeks later, I wake up hungover—physically low but mentally high, above my normal walls—and I call the doctor's office in Miami. I ask about the process, the first steps. I set up a consultation. It can't hurt, I figure. When I hang up, I feel like my lungs are expanding to fill my whole body, like my feet might lift off the ground. I run through the house, out onto the front porch, looking for someone to tell.
I have to email pictures of my chest for the consultation. I stand in front of my computer’s camera, take one from the front and one from each side. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve photographed that part of my body, let alone showed it to someone. The consultation is brief. The doctor clears me to schedule surgery. His practiced, even tone assures me that what I am doing is perfectly acceptable.
One of my favorite writers, Karl Ove Knausgaard, says that shame is the disparity between how you view yourself and how others view you. When I tell my closest friends that I’m considering top surgery, they are not surprised, and they do not ask why. All they want to know is when. I'm not sure, I say, and start in on my growing list of concerns—how I'll pay for it, how I'll tell my parents, how I'll get the time off work. They listen but are not discouraged. They act as if it’s already happening, inevitable. In seeing me as I see myself, they help to close the gap, to bring me where I need to be.
Schedule top surgery floats from one to-do list to another for four months. I don’t know what I’m waiting for--all of my hesitations and doubts to disappear? At this point, the only thing stopping me is me. The doubts won’t go away. I have to just go with them. In June, I call the doctor and reserve a date in December, when business will be slow at work and my absence won't matter as much. This time, I text my friends in all caps. I have official news to share, and I want to share it. I am excited, undeniably excited, and for the rest of the day, I let myself bask in it.
I write a long letter to my family on lined paper. They've never heard of top surgery, so I have to define it for them. I look it up online for help with the wording: I am getting my chest reconstructed to be flatter and more male-appearing. It is the hardest sentence to write. I tell them I’m not becoming a man, but I’ve never felt connected to that part of my body, never felt that it was meant for me. I cross out words and then circle them again, try alternative phrasings in the margins.
I draw a parallel between my surgery and the one my brother got in high school, to correct pectus excavatum, or sunken chest, a trait we both inherited from my dad. My brother felt that the hole in his chest would prevent him from building muscle, from looking strong. The surgery involved breaking his sternum and inserting a metal rod to protect his heart and lungs while the bone healed. My parents paid for it out-of-pocket. I’m not asking for their money, though. I’m asking them to try to understand, to try to use the name I’ve chosen rather than the name they’ve given me. I’m asking them to try not to worry. You should be happy for me, I write, because this is a thing that will make me happy. I rewrite two clean copies--one for my parents, one for my brother--and seal them into envelopes, but I’m too scared to send them on their way.
The summer heat sets in, and my friends and I escape to Wolf River, my favorite swimming spot, every chance we get. I climb the rope swing, and Annie photographs me high above the river. I keep talking about making a fundraising video, since my first payment to the doctor is due soon, but I don’t own a camera, and I haven’t figured out what to say. Annie offers to help me make the video, and we return to the river again and again, trying to catch the best light. Annie asks me why I want to get top surgery and records my answer. It's hard to explain. I try several times, several different ways. Thankfully, Annie is a great editor. I’m terrified to release the video into the world, but it helps that I like it, that I’m proud of it. I labor for another couple of hours over a ten-sentence email announcing the whole thing, then I take a deep breath, one last look off my safe ledge, and press send: free fall.
My friends, even those I haven't seen in years, are quick to contribute. Many of them thank me—for sharing my story, for including them. They have caught me from my fall, and I am carried along by their words.
Finally, I work up the strength to put the two letters in the mail, a full month after writing them. My family will be the last to know.
I wait to hear back, trying to calculate when the letters arrived, and how much time has passed since. My back and neck ache, my spine feels taut to the point of snapping. I get two short, unsigned emails from my mom. I have no problem with your top surgery, she writes, However you feel most comfortable. She forwards along another email from my uncle, announcing he is going back to college in his seventies to study classical languages. To me, she adds, Be who you are.
When she calls, I'm standing on the bathroom sink, painting the wall a bluish-green. Her voice is high, chipper. She's mainly concerned about logistics, she says. Will it affect my muscles? my mammary glands? I'm not sure, I say. She asks me whether I plan to have children, a subject we have never discussed. I put down my paintbrush and go out on the porch to sit down. She pauses, then says she’s a little hurt that I waited so long to tell them. She's flattered that I give them so much consideration, she says, but they don’t hold “that kind of power” over me anymore. “We're in the background now,” she says. “We’ll support you in whatever you do.”
I take what she says to heart. For several days, I feel embarrassed by my three-page letter, my careful justification, my pleas for understanding.
I don’t hear anything from my dad or my brother, so I shore up my reserves and call them individually. My dad is unusually gentle, tentative. “I’ve always thought your body was perfect,” he says, though he’s never told me anything of the sort. He understands not feeling feminine, but to him the surgery seems “brutalizing.” My brother approaches the issue intellectually, as if he wants to understand a hypothetical person’s motivations more than my actual ones. He doesn’t mention his own chest reconstruction. He compares top surgery to excessive tattoos, wondering if such people are simply attracted to extremes, or to thumbing their noses at the mainstream. Would people do this type of thing if they were born into a culture that did not stigmatize difference? I don’t know, I tell him. It’s impossible to imagine, impossible to tease out which desires arose organically inside of me and which are responses to the world I grew up in. All I know is how I feel in my body.
My mom calls again. This time her voice is smaller, far inside of herself. Her questions are simple, but they cut to the quick. I find it impossible to answer in anything but equally basic terms. No, I never really wanted breasts. There is silence on both ends. She’s having feelings of loss, she says.
I get a long and garbled email from her, with a numbered list of concerns. What if the doctor makes a mistake? Does he have malpractice insurance? How will it affect my hormonal cycles? Why not postpone it and save up rather than trying to fundraise? In the last item, she asks again about having children. I want to stop reading, but I can’t. She says she’s disappointed with the timing I've chosen, that I won't be home for the holidays. She reminds me of relatives who have died, of lives that have begun. I feel guilty and self-involved. My resolve shrinks and fades. My plan for December seems immaterial again, a shimmer of heat rising off a long road. I could return the donations, lose my five-hundred-dollar deposit. My legs are tired on every stair at work, the ice buckets surprisingly heavy. Every time I turn my head, pain radiates through my neck and back.
One month before surgery, my biggest payment is due, and my friends have donated enough to cover it. At six thousand dollars, it's the most money that has ever passed through my hands. I try four different credit cards and call my bank before I get it through. Guilt comes in waves: I'll never be able to repay what I've been given.
Mara, who is now my next-door neighbor, gets an insurance check for a car accident a while back. On our shared porch, they tell me they could use it to pay outright for top surgery. “Come with me!” I say. The next time I see them, they have a date, five days after mine. We agree to drive to Miami together and take care of each other.
My best friend, Mira Jean, calls from San Francisco to ask if I want them to fly out to Miami for my recovery. “It's up to you,” I say, not wanting them to go to such an expense on my behalf. They persist: they want to hear me say it. I haven’t thought much about the recovery, but I try to imagine it. “It would be nice to have you there,” I say. They buy their airplane ticket that night.
My mom understands now that my surgery is happening. She asks about my plans, about how I’m feeling, as she would before any other trip. Talking with her about it makes it more real than ever. It doesn’t seem right that I won’t see her again beforehand, that the next time I see her, I will already be different. We've never discussed her coming to Miami--I assumed it’s something she wouldn’t want to see, but I wonder how she feels about missing it. We decide that I should come home for a visit in January, and knowing I’ll see her so soon after my surgery helps me to understand that before and after are not so far apart. They will not divide me in two.
On the way to Miami, we stop at a freshwater spring along our route. It's December, and we're the only people there. It's sunny, though, and the water stays the same temperature year-round. I jump in, my last time swimming in this body, while Mara walks up and down the dock, around the perimeter of the spring, peering into the water.
I meet the doctor the day before my surgery. His office is next to a Waffle House, in a strip mall outside Fort Lauderdale. The windows are blotted out with white plastic. I ring a doorbell to be let in.
“Let’s go to the mirror,” he says, once I change into my gown. He traces the curve of muscle starting at my armpit, points out where my nipples will be, shows me where he'll make the cuts and which skin will be removed. It is the first time, especially in a medical setting, that someone sees my body the way I see it, wants to help me achieve my own ideal rather than his. He touches my chest as he would any part of the body—the arm, the shoulder, the back. Flesh is flesh; its only meaning is that which we give it.
On the last night before my surgery, we stay with a friend in Coral Gables and go out to dinner on the Miracle Mile, a long row of high-end stores and trees strung with white Christmas lights. Mara and I are wearing our silk, animal-print shirts for the occasion. We blend into the shadows of the banyan trees on the glistening street. In this city that is itself at the margins, we do not garner a second look. Our invisibility is both comforting and unsettling: if no one knows what we’re doing, are we really doing it?
After dinner, we drive along the coast, looking for a place to burn our binders. We keep running into dead ends, locked gates, and private security patrols. We give up when we notice a house with its own private canal for its own private yacht. Perhaps this isn't the place for our little ceremony. We head back to our lodgings and pack up for the early-morning drive to the hospital.
My mom calls to wish me luck. I can tell she’s nervous, but she’s cheerful, and cheering. I choke up when we're saying goodnight, and we say I love you back and forth one too many times. I take my last shower, my last drink of water before my midnight fast begins. This is how I will be, this is the same me that will go in, go under. Nothing stands between us now.
I am in my gown, lying on a bed with wheels. The doctor appears. Only his eyes are visible between his breathing mask and blue bonnet. He draws lines on my chest where he will make the cuts, and then he leaves.
Across the way, I recognize a fellow top-surgery patient, waiting to be taken back to the surgery room. Their mom sits by their bedside. She looks nervous, but she musters a smile and squeezes their hand. The back of my throat tightens. I hold back tears until the nurse comes and wheels them away.
Mara and Annie are allowed to come sit with me a while. I tell them about the other patient and the mom, but mostly, we don’t know what to talk about. “You’re so calm,” they say, incredulous. It’s true: I’ve come a long way, and I’ve arrived.
My friends are sent back to the lobby again, and I wait, listening to the beeping machines, the coughs and sighs of the other patients. Saline drips down a tube and into my vein. Only now do I realize how much I have wanted this.
I wake up bent over, bandages cinched tight around me, as rigid as a cast. I can't draw a full breath, can't straighten my spine. My chest is searing, the pressure of the bandages compounding the pain. I try to shrink away from them, but I can't; there is nowhere to go. I send my attention away—anywhere but my chest.
As the pain subsides, my mind creeps back in, picturing what's underneath the bandages, which will remain in place, undisturbed, for a full week. Each day brings a new terror: I've ripped a scar open by laughing or coughing, the drain tube has detached itself, my nipples are inside out. I say my fears out loud. My friends listen and tell me everything will be fine. I don't believe them. The itching is constant, unslakable. I count the hours until I get the bandages off and announce it several times a day.
Mira Jean arrives from San Francisco with the Sunday paper and the new Zadie Smith novel for me, and a vacation outfit for them: one of those long T-shirts with a tan, hourglass, bikini-clad body painted on the front and back. We’re staying in a condo in a sprawling resort complex laid out along a golf course at the farthest edge of human development. On the other side of the freeway, the Everglades stretch westward. We sit at the pool and I read and doze and watch my friends swim. With my lumpy button-up shirt, the drain tubes peeking out the bottom, and my rigid, shuffling walk, I am Frankenstein in a man-made paradise. In the evening, I sit on the balcony with Mira Jean while they smoke, sit in the bath while they scrub my back and chest and wash my hair.
They cook me dinner, and I ask if I can help, maybe just chop some vegetables, but they refuse. We work on the crossword together, and I scratch at a spot on my side, where the bandages have rubbed so much that a blister has formed. Mira Jean offers to take care of it, but I shrug them off, hunched over the crossword clues. They get up, anyway, and return with an alcohol wipe and a Bandaid. Cool relief spreads through me, a gift I didn’t ask for and wouldn’t have given myself.
I'm five days ahead of Mara in the process, and I try to prepare them, tell them what to expect. While Mara is in surgery, we sneak into their hotel room and hang a string of lights and a disco ball above their bed before driving to the hospital to pick them up. They've woken up too early from the anesthesia, their eyelid is inexplicably irritated, and I can tell by their small, faraway voice that they are in more pain than I was. I don't know what to tell them about this part, so I hold their hand and wait as long as they need to before the walk to the car.
Back at the hotel, I accompany Mara out onto the tiny balcony. We sit with very straight backs and look out across the suburbs, trying to find the ocean. I put my hands on their shoulders, so bent from the bandages, and try to massage the tightness away.
At the doctor's office for the second and last time, I take off my shirt and sit in the exam chair. He pulls off the tape and begins to unwrap the long bandage. I’m trembling. Every turn brings a fresh flood of relief. The air I've been missing for seven days rushes into my lungs. Then the bandage is off, and there I am underneath it, smooth and rounded off. It's official: I did it. It's done.
“Want to take a look in the mirror?” the doctor asks. I slide off the chair—movement is much easier now—and cross the room. I see myself, all in one piece, with no parts to skip over. Mira Jean, Annie, and the doctor look in the mirror with me, watching as I come into alignment before them.
I have to stay wrapped up in an Ace bandage, twenty-four hours a day, for two more weeks after the post-op appointment. Every time I think it's over, the finish line moves a step farther away. I tire easily. I retire early. I cannot accommodate any additional, unnecessary discomfort.
Mira Jean is packing their suitcase to return home, and I want to go sit by them and say thank you, but I'm too tired to get out of bed. Instead, I say I love you from my pillow and fall asleep.
In the morning, I find a note from Mira Jean, thanking me for letting them come, for letting them in. Seeing you carving this path for yourself, they write, has given me permission to do the same. It is a revelation to consider my including them as an honor conferred, rather than a favor asked, a favor owed.
On the drive back to New Orleans, we spend our last night in a cabin at a state park. Mara and I are both more mobile now, and we hang the string of lights on the deck and place candles on the back porch stairs. I light charcoal briquets and grill sausages, each task a sudden privilege. After dinner, I transfer the coals to the firepit and add a few logs. Once it gets going, Mara and I go inside to find our binders. Suddenly obsolete, they have gone unused for the first time since we purchased them.
The binders flare up instantly, the flames unnaturally bright. We should be giving speeches, I think, but we are both quiet, staring into the fire. I'm nervous, I tell Mara. I feel like I should grab my binder back out again, in case I need it sometime. “I know,” Mara says, and we laugh at ourselves, at the fact that we won't need them anymore.
We get back to New Orleans a few nights before the new year. My friends hug me longer than normal, and they stand with me in the bathroom while I change my bandages. I turn 33, and we eat king crab legs and pecan pie. Though the celebration is subdued, I will never forget the gift I’ve received this year.
Making dinner the night before I leave for California, I step away from the stove for a moment--the Ace bandage has slipped down a bit and I need to re-wrap it. Then I count backwards and realize I’ve hit the two-week mark. I reach up under my sweatshirt, tear off the Velcro, and unravel the whole thing, letting it pool around my ankles on the tile floor. I’d planned on wearing it to the airport, for some residual sense of vulnerability, but now I decide against it. It’s stretched out, and its job is done. I throw the Ace bandage away and get on the plane just me, nothing tight under my T-shirt. My clothes look empty there now, the whole area recessed because of my chest hole. I’d grown used to the binder, the way it flattened me out; now I’ll have to get used to my real shape.
At baggage claim, I see my mom coming in through the sliding doors, framed and backlit in the rectangle of bright mid-day sky. She takes one glance down at my chest, tells me I look good, and gives me a real hug, not afraid to squeeze me tight. Without my asking, she lifts my bag off the carousel and carries it to the car.
On the way home, we hit a traffic jam where the highway begins its windy ascent through the Santa Cruz Mountains. We try to take a detour through the town of Los Gatos but, after a few blocks, we come to a stop behind another line of cars on a residential street. There is no movement besides people getting out of line to turn around. We listen to Zadie Smith on the radio, a special program for the anniversary of the MLK assassination, and get take-out from a restaurant. We sit in the car in Los Gatos for two hours, longer than the whole drive normally takes. “Well,” my mom says, “there's no one I'd rather be stuck with than you.”
That night, alone in the downstairs bedroom with the full-length mirrors, I can see what I look like. For the first time, my chest looks good to me. Even with the fading bruises, the puckered, lumpy scars, the new, hardly pink nipples, it's better than it's ever been.
I get in bed. My parents are sleeping directly above me, and I imagine how it must strike them--especially my dad, who grew up with little money: what a giant sum I’ve spent to remove a bit of flesh, to make my chest more like his. They never ask to see it, and I never offer to show them. I’m ashamed that something that makes me happy could bring them pain, that something I celebrate with others I keep hidden from them. My mom does try to call me by my new name, especially in writing or in voicemails, when she has a moment to think about it. My dad acknowledges it only to say that he prefers my old name. So far, it hasn’t crossed my brother’s lips. There is, for all of us, room to grow.
I fly east to meet Annie in DC for the Women's March. It's been barely a month since my surgery, and I can’t hold a sign, raise a fist, run, or be jostled in a crowd, but marching—showing up—is the only response that feels right after a long, impossible series of wrongs. The narrow streets near the capitol mall are so full that it’s hard to see the ground. I didn’t get the memo about the pink knitted caps, and I’m frustrated that the color, along with the female reproductive organ, are the dominant motif.
I feel alienated, apart, and aware of many others who might be here if we'd chosen differently. People pose for pictures together and congratulate each other on clever signs. A photo-shopped image of Trump and Putin kissing is a big hit, as well as some jabs about small hands, all of which feel counterproductive in a march against discrimination.
There are, paradoxically, too many of us to march, and the website says it’s cancelled. Somehow we run into Annie's friend Sofie and her family, and we walk the route together, anyway. When the sun drops behind the buildings, we adjourn to a bar to eat and warm up. There are two couches along the far wall, each occupied by one girl, scrolling on her iPhone screen. “They’re reserved,” the girls tell us, hardly looking up. “Our friends are coming.” We squeeze onto a narrow ledge and eat quickly, our plates perched on our knees. Sofie’s older sister, a photographer who has been working the event since six in the morning, joins us. The couches are still empty, the girls still on their phones. We stand and offer a place on the ledge to Sofie’s sister, so she can get off her feet. Finally, the rest of the girls' group arrives. They are all white, our age or younger. They carry signs from a pre-printed series that I recognize from the march.
The bar fills in. The music and the crowd get louder. It’s starting to seem like any other night, and we decide to leave before the transformation is complete. Justin Bieber’s voice comes over the speakers as we make our way out: Is it too late now to say sorry? We squeeze past two girls wearing headbands with cat-ears, bouncing and singing along. In keeping with the pussy theme of the day, they substitute meows for the syllables.
Annie and I drive down the coast back to New Orleans. We camp at a state park south of Savannah, on a twisted-ribbon of a river that leads to Cumberland Island, a place I’ve always wanted to go. After dinner, we leave the campfire to walk to the riverbank and look for the moon. It's almost full, big and yellow as it rises over the water.
In the morning, Annie photographs me in the tent, shirtless, eyes still puffy from sleep. Annie asks if they can post it on Instagram. Instinctively, I hesitate, but then I remember the offending objects have been removed. I shrug, nod. I don’t have Instagram, so for me it’s out of sight, out of mind. Annie’s photo-collective reposts the picture, but by the next day, the image is gone. Instagram has removed it. My first “legally” bare-chested portrait is like a blip on the radar, flashing into existence and then out again.
Instagram sends a form email about the removal, referring us to the “Community Guidelines.” I study the document and write Instagram a letter asking them to identify which guideline I’ve violated, and to consider what community they are representing.
We get an email back within a few days. The removal was a mistake, it says. They have a department that reviews pictures that are flagged for removal, but the sheer volume of postings means that even if they get it “right” ninety-nine percent of the time, the number of errors is still appreciable. The letter is explanatory rather than apologetic--basically, accidents happen. First, they erase me, then they amend the record, erase the erasure.
Summer sets in, and the public pool near my house opens up again. I want to go, but I’m nervous about swimming topless. I got in trouble there last year for wearing a tank top. This is what I wear for a swimsuit, I told them. “No street clothes,” they said. “Do you have anything else?” I held up my black binder. “I have a sports-bra thing,” I said. I changed behind a towel and got back in, but stayed away the rest of the summer. What if they remember me--covered up one year and bare-chested the next?
This time, when I sign in, I leave the gender column blank, so it can’t be used against me. My friend and I put our towels down along the fence, and then walk back toward the shallow end, where the outdoor shower is located. I keep my tank top on as I rinse off, not wanting to call attention to my chest, not wanting to expose it near the children. Then I walk back to the deep end, slip out of the tank top, and jump in as fast as I can. My chest is bare, in public, for the first time in my life. I stay in the deep end, keep my body submerged. I avoid eye contact with the lifeguards, and try not to speak around them, so they won’t hear my voice. Resting on the side for a moment, I tell my friend I'm worried I'll get in trouble. “For what?” she asks. “For not having a top,” I say. “I've never seen that happen,” she says. “I mean, what can they say?” I don't know, but I still feel worried.
A man swimming laps pauses next to us on the wall. He pulls his goggles off, and I recognize him, a regular at the coffee shop who I always enjoyed. He smiles and says hello. He remembers my name and the bit I've told him about myself. I ask after his kids, his work. Does he notice there are no straps on my shoulders? Can he see my chest through the water? If he does, there’s no sign of surprise on his face, only his good-natured smile. We say goodbye and he continues with his laps. I get out, dry off quickly, and put my tank top back on, and my friend and I walk home.
I start going to physical therapy for my back and neck pain. Even though it’s been bothering me for a year, my problem seems minuscule compared to the other patients, who are mostly older and look to be recovering from major injuries or trauma. I tell my therapist I’m a bartender, and I often get a stiff neck after work. She asks about the pain, how often, how much, and types into a laptop. I feel like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, taking up time someone else needs more than I do. “I have to tell you,” she says. “I mean this in a loving way, but you have terrible posture.” I tell her I’ve always had it, and it’s gotten worse recently, in the stress of finishing grad school. I don’t go into the deeper history, the beginning of the story, about my too-broad shoulders, my flat, misshapen chest. I don’t tell her that I couldn’t stand up straight and proud, because I wasn’t. Letting my shoulders huddle in around me helped me take up less space, and drew less attention to all the ways I was failing as a girl.
The therapist notices the ends of my scars peeking out from under my tank top. “Are these from a surgery?” she asks. I feel caught out. I take a breath and tell her I had top surgery, wondering if she’s heard of it. She doesn't skip a beat, going right into her experience with post-mastectomy patients, explaining how the surgery has likely been contributing to my muscle tightness. I return each week to work on my strength and range of motion. She massages my scars, takes my head in her hands and gently stretches my spine. What I thought would be treatment for a work-related injury has turned out to be the beginning of a longer process of unlearning, shrugging off a weight I've been carrying around for too long.
The last weekend of the summer is Southern Decadence, a gay festival endemic to New Orleans that has been happening some forty years. Annie and I are going to a friend’s drag performance and then a dance party. I wear a sheer black mesh shirt that is completely see-through: if there is any right time to bare my chest, it’s tonight. On the way to the performance, we stop for food at a 24-hour Mediterranean place in the business district. It's a bit of a shock to be dressed like this in the regular world, under fluorescent lighting, ordering shawarma.
The man at the counter keeps glancing down at my chest and back up. I hold my gaze. I let him look. I know it's confusing. I give him a chance to consider: what is man, what is woman. It's not like I hold the answer, but at least I fit in there, somewhere. As I hand him my payment, he asks if I've been here before. “Yes,” I say. The coffee shop where I used to work is right down the street. “Welcome back,” he says.
During Mardi Gras, I go to a party at a friend's house. They've cleared the furniture out of their living room, and it is packed with familiar faces. We watch a series of performances by queer artists, capped off by a stunning drag rendition of Celine Dion's “It's All Coming Back to Me Now.” During one of the song's many climaxes, the straps of the performer's dress fall loose, exposing her bare chest. She leaves the straps down for the remainder of the performance, until she exits stage left into a bedroom, slamming the door behind her. We scream and pound the floor with our feet.
A DJ starts up, and the energy is carried straight into our dancing. The small room heats up fast, and the windows steam up against the cool night. Emboldened by the performances and feeling safe among friends, I'm moved to take my own shirt off. I ask the friends I'm dancing with if it's okay with them, and they nod easily, looking at me as if they're not sure why I even asked. I pull my shirt off and tuck it into my back pocket. The room is dark, and I close my eyes, try to lose myself in the new sensation. But I'm worried that my assumption of this comfort may have detracted from someone else's, because I've been there, too—had to accommodate myself to a guy with his shirt off, circumscribe my own presence so he could be carefree. I keep scanning the faces around me to see if they register alarm or disturbance. Only a few seem to notice. I last for few songs, then put my shirt back on and go out on the deck for some air.
Back home again, before bed, I stretch. I prop one arm against the wall and twist my body around until my arms are parallel, straight back like butterfly wings. I imagine one long muscle running from fingertip to fingertip, my whole wingspan pulled taut like a rubber band.
When I release, I can see the change in the mirror: my shoulders are back and spread wide, my arms are long and lank, and my chest is open, like a fresh canvas stretched over a frame.