Oliver suggests acupuncture and later I tell him therapy must be working because he only had to suggest it once. For 25 bucks, I get to lie on a massage chair for an hour at the community clinic downtown. An insider tip from the woman I made the appointment with on the phone means that at 8:15AM I am here all alone. Five flights up, I recline with needles in my forehead, feet and hands, listening to music that sounds alternately like a toilet running above me and rain. While resting, I turn my head towards the window and look out across the fire escape. Facing me is another brownstone with windows showing someone’s home. I find a kitchen with white cupboards and a blue bowl on a small table. Cereal, I decide. I spy the other bowl resting beside the sink. A strangely-shaped plant tilts into view from one corner of the window. Despite being more brown than green, it seems to only be going through adolescence and so I decide it represents hope. Beside the kitchen is a room with a piano and an overstuffed green couch. I spy The Wall Street Journal on the nearest arm.
A couple lives here, I decide, they’ve been together seven years this June. Two years ago they celebrated forever by adopting a striped kitten named Harvey who sleeps on their feet as they read newspapers on the couch. On Thursdays they do take-out. They still toss quarters to see who will bring the laundry to the cleaners three corners over. One of them plays the piano and sometimes, when the other man is alone, he hears the piano keys practicing songs by themselves. This means their home is never quiet. This is called companionship.
I turn my head back to face the ceiling. I try to swallow but end up gulping air back in instead and cough. “Oh, oh, oh,” the acupuncturist says, moving the beaded curtains aside and making them tinkle as he enters. His English name is James and after he shook my hand he told me it makes him sad that people here can’t pronounce his Chinese one. “Like the other me not alive,” he said, “Only real inside now.” I told him I understand.
Now he adjusts my arms and tells me, “Yes, pain, you. Circles no good. Energy go out, out!” He places the last needle in the soft spot of my left hand, between my thumb and index finger joints, and I am surprised I don’t feel any pain at all.
“Out, pain, out,” he says, patting my shoulder reassuringly, “You alone then. Good.” He adjusts the needle in my forehead just a bit, making it oddly twinge. “Pain leaving now. I say you.”
Instead of answering, I close my eyes. Softly, he leaves.
Hey, you say, aren’t we leaving now?
What? I ask.
I thought we were going to the party!
You stand in the doorway, bead curtains pulled to one side, your arm braced to hold them back. This is post-transition and muscles coat your arms casually. Our arm-wrestling competitions have become a thing of the past. You are wearing green suspenders over a white shirt and have a ridiculous top hat tucked under one arm.
It’s 1920s-themed! you say excitedly, c’mon!
A bit confused, I slide out of bed and stand up.
At John’s. In Williamsburg. If we hurry, we’ ll be there by ten. Here. You toss me a tube of red lipstick and start going through my dresses.
Sweetie, I don’t know, maybe I just want to relax tonight.
No, c’mon! It’s the party we’ve been waiting for. You know the 1920s is the only time I like to dress up for.
This, unfortunately, is true. I sigh and sit back down to watch you. It is strange that I have gotten used to your short hair. You have parted it to one side now, in a comb-over, I suppose, and, although you have gel in it, it is still a deep red. Your suspenders lie flat against your chest. Since top surgery eight months ago, I have become used to this as well. At night my head lies flat against you.
It wasn’t always like this.
On the day you realize you finally have enough money saved for the top surgery you’ve been talking about for years, I cry. You call and make an appointment with the doctor for the final clearance, staring at me while holding the phone with one hand and picking at candle wax on the table with the other.
Yes, you reply in response to a question, I had my gender marker changed in February. I’m legally male now.
I realize I’ve been ready for this step of your transition until you say you are taking this step of your transition. After you call, you come over to me on the couch. I am looking down at the small hole on one of the cushions, the one I may or may not have been making bigger by pulling at the thread every time I’m anxious. After sitting, you gently pull my hand away from the hole and push the piece of thread I just picked back into it.
There, there, you say, in half-joking comfort, and pull me towards your chest. After top surgery, you’ ll be closer to my heart, you know, you tell me with anticipatory satisfaction. Your heartbeats are confident and resounding, like drums in battle or feet marching on hard ground. I don’t respond for a minute, staring instead at the water stains on the wall beside the radiator. The scene looks like the carnage after a war, pools of barely-there blood next to vanquished oblong creatures reduced to broken outlines from the blasts. I try to determine what they’ve become. Water bugs, I decide.
Still looking at the wall, I suddenly burst out, But I’m going to miss your breasts! I imagine, not for the first time, what it will be like when all the sports bras in the laundry bin are mine. I feel guilty for this feeling, because I know it’s hard for you to hear, but I also know we understand each other’s transitions.
That’s okay, you say, and squeeze my hand.
Sometimes, though, I tell you I am jealous of your changes. I wouldn’t mind if the fat around my hips redistributed itself, too; one day I say, half-jokingly, that now I think I might want top surgery, too. Sometimes it would be pretty fucking liberating not to have breasts.
No! you say loudly in mock horror, your eyes wide. You reach out dramatically and hold onto my chest. You can’t take my best friends away!
Really, though, I know I am a woman the same way I know you are not. At night we make love like we always have, with you on top. In the morning you bind your 34Cs while I clasp my bra, and every two weeks you stab a needleful of T hard into your thigh. One Sunday night I sit on the bed and make you do a fake model show to track your changes.
Turn around now, I say, cranking Gloria Gaynor up loud, as you roll your eyes in the middle of the room, your shirt off. After you still haven’t moved, I warn, If you don’t start turning, I’m going to put on Olivia Newton John and make you sing “You’re The One That I Want” to me! Your face turns serious for a second and I know it has nothing to do with the song.
I hate the name Olivia, you say. I pause.
I don’t hate anything that used to be yours, I say slowly. I restart the song and change my tone. In fact, I love everything of yours. Especially those abs, look at them! And I would love your butt, if I could actually see it.
You roll your eyes again, smile, and finally turn around.
We are transitioning together, although your body is the only one that changes. My feelings are a wide spectrum of colors, thrown like abstract art against the wall. The truth is, I want you to change and still stay the same. It becomes easier when I start to call your transition your alignment instead. Alignment means that this change is simply you becoming more of who you’ve always been. Still, it is hard. I love it when we shower together, because now it is the only time I touch your breasts. Although my hands move quickly, I still get to lather up soap and hold them in my hands. They are lighter than mine, and fuller, although I hate to admit it. I no longer regard you as female, but I still love the feeling of our chests pressed together as we hug.
After your surgery, when I drained the tubes underneath your armpits because you weren’t allowed to lift your arms, as I gently spread thick salve over the raised skin of your stitches, we were pulled closer. It happened without words, in the days directly after, when you spent half the time groggy from painkillers, in the way I curled my body around yours at night, in the times I bit my tongue as you lay flat on your back at 3AM and muttered that in this position you could never fall asleep. We didn’t have sex for two weeks, at least not on record, because you weren’t supposed to make your heart beat too fast.
I feel like I’m old, you complain.
Sweetie, I reply, leaning over to check a tube, I thought this was about you being born again.
Now, eight months later, the scars underneath your nipples are pink, and almost red from the heat after you shower. I call them your half-moons, although sliver moons would be more accurate. In return, you call my breasts your full moons, and tell me how much you love them at least once a month.
Oli, we are on different cycles now, I say, sometimes wistfully.
Honey, you reply, taking my hand, I don’t have any cycles anymore. Testosterone has made your voice drop, and I imagine it descending a staircase, taking one footstep down your throat each month. I still don’t know where all this is leading, you know.
But apparently tonight is leading us to Williamsburg, because you are already dressed and have just picked out a blue dress and a white belt for me.
Do you have any pumps? you call out from inside our closet.
Pumps are for grandmas, I call back, the only pump we have is for you, and it definitely doesn’t go on your feet. You know what they say about shoe sizes though…
This is a trans joke and I hear you roll your eyes and smirk.
Found ‘em, you say, emerging from the closet. You hold up white strappy sandals that used to be yours.
Okay, beau, I say in acquiescence, holding out my hand. You pull me up and very epoch-inappropriately grab my ass. I am not used to you being so hyper. I realize that since you began your transition your happiness has been a staircase heading in the opposite direction of your voice. A slow but never-ending ascension so far.
This is the answer I give people when they ask what has changed the most about Olivia. Then I tell them that’s not your name.
30 minutes later, back on the fifth Floor, a small buzzer rings and James returns to check on me. He places one hand on my forehead and the other gently on my wrist. I am still so far away I don’t react at all.
“Alone now,” he says approvingly, patting my shoulders again. “Circles done. Now alone.” His accent is so thick that at first I hear “cycles” and “new.” Cycles done. New alone. Ain’t that the truth, I think, No choice there. This time I swallow successfully. He takes out my needles and I turn my head back towards the window before I stand. “Bye, Harvey,” I say to the brownstone. At the front desk we make an appointment for two weeks from Tuesday and I ask James why he became an acupuncturist. He tells me he came from China twenty years ago with his wife and children. He was a pediatrician in Fujian but didn’t have the money to redo his medical degree here completely. “No translation,” he says, pointing at the certificates on the wall behind him, “New life now. This one good, too.” I nod and say thank you.
Stepping out into the sun 10 minutes later, I think of the red glint of your hair in bright light, how vividly it contrasts with the pale of your face. A cab blares rap as it hangs a left, but I imagine I hear swing. Except for the 1920s, you still won’t dress up for anything. I remember suspenders flat against your chest and the day I laughed when I found your sports bras on my side of the bed, tied with ribbon and a bow. Now, although it is silly and daytime, I tilt my head upwards and search for the moon. I imagine I see it but cannot make out its shape. I contemplate its cycles. I think of how we change.