ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018
After he gave birth at the hospital, they wrapped up the cocoon—the size of a loaf of bread, still damp from being inside him—and told Nathan to keep an eye on it, to give it fluids, that this happens sometimes, and they told him to not tell anyone. For the first 24 hours, he watched it from the corner of his bedroom. He lay it down inside a shoebox, unable to bring himself to put the cocoon in the crib. He swore he saw it twitch. He put his face close to the opaque carapace, thinking he could glimpse some fingers, or the struts that gave the wings their shape, but it was impossible to tell what was inside the murky soup. He thought the hospital had tricked him, that his baby was really out there in a barren woman’s arms, that when they saw his shape laid out on the table, the scars on his wrists, the longer scars on his chest, they decided he couldn’t be trusted with the fresh canvas of a new person, so they gave him this instead. And then another thought occurred to him, that this was the only thing that made sense coming out of his body: a nondescript brick, a game of wait-and-see.
* * *
In the five years since learning about Nathan’s desire to live as a man, Dot had seen her son in person three times, and each meeting was a cause to scan his body for changes, while Nathan squirmed uncomfortably. But Dot did not turn out to be the overly nosey mother the message boards had warned of, nor did she appear squeamish when he explained the process of his weekly injection to her over brunch; she observed him coolly, like a gardener monitoring the progress of a patch of summer squash—not a prize vegetable, but one that would freeze well for winter. As the only child of a single mother, Nathan had been relatively certain that Dot couldn’t afford to cut him off completely—he was her lifeline, and even though they weren’t close, she would need him later on; already her back throbbed during her rounds as a nurse in the ICU.
It was at their fourth meeting as mother and son that Nathan gathered the courage to tell Dot about his plans to become a parent. She sat expressionless as he ran out of breath explaining that he didn’t want to wait to find the right person, and even if he did, what if they didn’t have the same desire? He’d considered adoption, but when he discovered the extensive background check and social service interviews he’d have to go through, he knew the likelihood of his being approved to be a parent by the government was dim at best, given that most red nanny states wanted their families to parcel out mothers and fathers into different bodies.
“So you’ll have it yourself,” said Dot. Nathan flinched. He wished she hadn’t called his unborn child “it.” True, the baby was still a hypothetical, but she might have said “the baby” or “a child”, something more familiar with flesh. But he let it slide, thinking he was being oversensitive ever since the time his mother—flustered in the crush of traffic and without any cash—had called him “it” to the toll booth operator, in lieu of pronouns.
“Yes,” said Nathan. “I’ve still got all the parts. Once I start menstruating again it could be a matter of weeks.”
“Why would you want to be pregnant?”
“Have you been listening? I don’t want to exactly . . .”
The thought of pregnancy filled Nathan with an unnameable dread. He was going to do it because it was the only way. For his whole life he’d felt like the pressurized corks in one of those coffee tables compressed under smooth glass, and he wanted to be something, do something, explosive. Break the glass. But if he’d said this aloud, Dot would have asked why his first transformation wasn’t enough? And if he was going to be a mother, then why had he transformed at all? And then he wouldn’t be able to do anything except leave lunch hungry and full of adrenaline.
“Nobody likes being pregnant,” she said, leaning over and giving him a pat on his clasped hands. “You’ll endure it just like anybody else.”
Nathan understood this offering of tacit approval, and wanted to know if this meant he could ask her about her own pregnancy. What had worried her, what strange cravings did she develop, and did she satisfy them in bed or in the tub? But Dot snapped close her pocketbook, the waiter came with the signature copy, and the moment dissolved. She put on a tight-lipped smile as she tipped 10%, and in the waning minutes of their fourth meeting she collected her detritus from among the empty plates — phone, compact, credit card, purse — until she was a self-sufficient planet once more with her own center of gravity, no longer feeling the destabilizing pull of the man who used to be her daughter. As soon as they rose and walked from the patio table, a flock of tiny sparrows took it over, chattering softly as they hopped from chair-back to table top for the leftover crumbs of bruschette. They reminded Nathan of his mother’s birds who showed up daily at the feeder outside her kitchen window. Dot refilled the feeders every day, topping off the sunflower seeds and millet, and replacing the large metal discs that spun and kept the squirrels away. She kept the bags inside the garage where it smelled of musty seed and corn, inside of aluminum trash cans, and when he was younger Nathan would sneak out and sink his arm elbow-deep in the seed just to feel the softness, the way it sucked him in and held him.
* * *
As a woman, he’d been loud, boisterous, brash (sometimes obnoxiously so), the class clown and the goofball on teams and at sleepovers. But as a man, he was considered reserved, bookish, almost too private and buttoned-up. Nathan didn’t feel he’d changed much going from one to the other, only that the yardstick had moved. What Nathan had had to do in order to have a child of his own was arrest metamorphosis, press rewind for a short while, as long as it took to start bleeding again. Then it was relatively straightforward, like any other pregnancy, only as soon as the baby was out of him he’d be back on testosterone.
But now he was shaken by how quickly it had all happened. He’d stockpiled vials of the viscous liquid, clear and slow to move around the tiny bottle, in his medicine cabinet next to a syringe, a carrot on a stick comforting just with its presence, just knowing that he had the option and he didn’t have to go back through the rigamarole of therapists and letters and gee doc I really have felt like a man my whole life, when really he didn’t know, who really knew? It had relieved him then, but now he scanned the list of foreign-sounding compounds, the only thing he’d ever injected into his body—albeit weekly—and he wondered. He hated wondering. But it was hard not to look at the cocoon on the other side of the room and keep out thoughts of Officer Ripley.
* * *
Dot felt a lump in her breast while she was taking a shower. It was small and hard, but felt like the silicone model they’d practiced on in nursing school with the tiny bean lodged inside. The rest of the afternoon she watched the birds, thinking about several things at once: how inside her son there grew a child, and inside her, a tumor; about how many times she’d changed IVs and administered meds to terminally ill patients, how several of the lucky ones had said to her after their miraculous recoveries that they appreciated her bedside manner—not plucky, not saccharine, but seeing the situation for what it is and treating them with a kind of noble gravity. This attitude had seeped into her character without her ever really noticing, she decided, and furthermore, it was completely useless to her now as patient, as limb of the family tree waiting to be lopped off.
She called Nathan, and he answered with a ‘what’s up, Dot?’. She could hear him doing something, soft thumping as if he was kneading bread, the phone cradled in the soft part of his neck that she remembered even after years of lost contact, and now his skin there was covered with coarse and patchy sideburns. Instead of telling him about the cancer, she asked about his day, and Nathan—who was feeling special because he was usually the one who dialed the phone and asked his mother questions about her health, her job, the weather—launched into the story of his most recent checkup, telling Dot all in a rush what he’d learned.
“Hello? Are you there?” He said.
“Oh, yes. Sorry, I’m driving. What did you say?”
“It’s a girl.” Nathan paused for a beat, then let out a laugh. “Isn’t that funny? I mean, I’m so excited, but it’s like a bad joke.”
Dot’s favorite cardinal landed on the feeder with a flash of scarlet. It began to surgically pick out the largest sunflower seeds and crack open the hulls with its beak, gobbling the soft meat inside, discarding the black shells in a flurry of precise movement.
She heard herself ask, “What if I came to stay with you for a little while?”
Silence. The kneading sound stopped. She pictured him wiping flour off on the front of an apron, white streaks left behind as he adjusted to her suggestion.
“Just to help out,” she added, almost wishing she could take it back. “You won’t be working in the bakery right up until you go into labor. You’ll need help.”
“I have friends, Dot. They’ve been really helpful so far.”
This was not exactly true. Nathan had a few friends, but some were strung out along the internet, popping up infrequently like buoys on a fishing line, and others were around but eternally busy. He didn’t hold this against them; most, like himself, came from poor models of family in the first place. They remembered birthdays, brought vegan dishes to potlucks, arranged vigils, but they also forgot to pay bills for months in a row, rarely did laundry, and were bad at forgiveness. What if something went wrong and they no longer cared for him? And the biggest reason of all was that he hadn’t told them about the baby, in case something went wrong or he changed his mind and had to explain himself. He preferred their ignorance to sympathy. True, Dot had wavered at times. It had only been a few months since they started talking regularly again. Maybe this would be good for them.
“Alright,” he said. “You can stay.”
* * *
One sympathetic nurse who helped deliver him of the cocoon left Nathan a voicemail with the address of an old converted mill, a hulking brick honeycomb that sat on the riverbank spewing art and grant writers. At the support group, all anyone could talk about was molting, but no one knew when or if it would happen.
“At night, it makes a clicking noise that sounds like a katydid.”
“My husband hasn’t come home for longer than twenty minutes at a time. I don’t know where he sleeps.”
“I heard that in Indonesia, we’re considered prophets. And then, after it molts, they kill us and predict the future by which way our blood runs down the hill.”
Nathan understood that if there were parents like him in other countries they were likely just as freaked out as he was. It had been a lonely pregnancy. Maybe that was it, he thought as he drove away from the mill, maybe the lack of people in his life deprived that developing bundle of cells of any other templates, and so it was left to mold and shape the leftover pieces of Nathan into a hunk of unformed clay. What was it they said in physics class years ago?
“Energy can be neither created nor destroyed.”
The sound of his own voice surprised him—he had not spoken out loud in the cocoon’s presence. Perhaps it would crack open, reveal its interior like a sacred artifact responding to the secret password. He looked for movement in the rearview mirror. Nothing.
A feeling of defiance took hold of him. Why shouldn’t he carry this cocoon around like any other baby? He turned into the grocery store parking lot, unbuckled the cocoon from the car seat and strode purposefully inside. The cocoon couldn’t be placed in the baby seat of the shopping cart—it had no legs to anchor it and flopped over sadly—so Nathan cradled it in one arm and pushed the cart through the aisles with the other. He marveled at how nervous he’d been during his pregnancy about just this sort of mundane activity, how he would look: a man holding a baby on his hip, how everyone would assume the child held just his genes and not the memory of being inside him. Now that old fear was gone completely, for it was clear to him that people would either run away in horror or have their suspicions confirmed that he was related to such monstrosity.
* * *
She brought little more than a spare set of sheets, an alarm clock, and an overnight bag, but Nathan was happy to see Dot when she walked up the front steps of his building. He pretended not to notice later as she remade the futon with hospital corners.
She came with him uninvited to Dr. K’s. Nathan loved his doctor. She kept her hair short and stylishly asymmetrical, and her arms were covered in artfully placed tattoos. She had never once made an assumption about him, even asking what pronouns he preferred despite his facial hair and flat chest, which he found quaint and almost Puritan in her resistance to seeing what was right in front of her.
With Dot present, the atmosphere changed. To his surprise, his mother took charge of the appointment, asking questions like he wasn’t even there about hormone levels and how they might affect the baby and what supplements he should be taking, whether the same vitamins she needed when she was pregnant with him were necessary here, too.
“Well, of course, she should be taking a regular course of prenatal vitamins—I mean he. He should.”
It was the first time Dr. K had ever misgendered him, and it brought a crushing silence down on the room. Having Dot there changed the way she saw him. He felt like the dress which exploded the internet several years ago when people fought over what color to call it, shifting slightly to look like something else under different conditions, odd lighting. He was always poorly lit. Dr. K fell a little in Nathan’s esteem—not too far, you couldn’t be trans and hate everyone who called you by the wrong name or you’d have no one—but enough. Mostly he was angry at Dot for wrestling the appointment away from him, for taking away the time allotted to the study of his body.
After Dr. K rushed to depart and they gathered their coats, Nathan felt Dot watching him.
“I’m a nurse, for christ’s sake. It’s my job to know about these things,” she finally said.
“The nurses I’ve met don’t know the first thing about this stuff,” he said. “Most of the doctors don’t, either.”
“You know. Trans stuff. Testosterone. Breastfeeding as a man, etc.” Dot clicked her retractable pen and pocketed it, along with the tiny Moleskine she’d been using to take notes.
“Yeah, well they’re a bunch of ignorant bitches.”
She went outside to smoke. Nathan pretended to have insurance forms to deal with at outtake so she wouldn’t see him cry.
* * *
The city slept while Nathan worked alone in the dark, measuring flour, forming croissants, and scooping batter into greased tins for blueberry muffins. These dark mornings were a luxury. He hid the cocoon in a mixing bowl beneath his workstation, swaddled in a nest of dish towels, and as the baristas trickled in bleary-eyed no one gave him a second glance.
Nathan was careful not to make friends at work, but eventually his close friends had discovered he was pregnant, and a week after he failed to pepper his social media with pictures of a newborn they tentatively asked what happened to the baby. He didn’t know what to say, so he just said nothing and let them come to their own conclusions. A few cards showed up in the mail, one attached to a bottle of champagne from the friend who was a little too happy not to lose another comrade to parenthood. But Nathan was disappointed in the show of sympathy. Although he had never experienced one, he thought such a loss should be accompanied by more triage, more care and concern than his friends displayed. He stopped going to Ruby’s queer yoga class, stopped returning calls from Hen, and stood Emilio up at book group three weeks in a row. It was like he was fading away from those who hadn’t suffered a similar loss, who couldn’t understand, except he couldn’t understand either, because although the cocoon was strange and bewildering, he’d gotten used to its presence, and no longer thought of it as a kind of loss. Its constant weight in his messenger bag was a comfort to him, and he’d taken to cooking dinner with it propped against the microwave. Occasionally he’d say the name of the ingredients he was using in its general direction, but he’d stopped waiting for any reaction. Meanwhile, he grew to resent his friends more and more for not reaching out, while they relegated Nathan to the growing pile of the unreachable.
* * *
Dot woke up on a Wednesday alone in the apartment and took the bus downtown where she had scheduled a biopsy at the hospital. She wasn’t sure what to expect, since she only ever cared for patients after the diagnosis. They had her lie down on the table and position her torso so that her breast showed through on the other side. They took a long time and many needles to make sure her entire breast was without feeling, and then they brought out a larger needle to take a sample of her tissue. She imagined them taking a core sample as if she were a very old sequoia. She knew, of course, that it would be a few weeks before the biopsy results would come back. She knew that at that point Nathan would be 25 weeks, the point at which she’d had her first miscarriage, and she didn’t want to worry him if this turned out to be benign. So instead she lay alone on the table and imagined herself a tree, stately and quiet in an old growth forest, unperturbed by the long metal tube being inserted into her soft cambium.
After, because they hadn’t needed to put her to sleep completely, she walked out into the smothering humidity. The anesthesia made it feel like there was a hole in her body, like the old Looney Tunes Nathan would watch when they were both much younger. He would laugh uproariously when the coyote misfired the cannonball into his own middle. She walked slowly past the brick buildings in the historic district of the unfamiliar city Nathan had long called home. To the unaware, her gait looked like a tourist’s stroll, but really she watched every uneven cobblestone as an opportunity for disaster. She dreaded boarding the bus—it was close to rush hour and the seats would likely all be taken, the aisles crowded; she wasn’t old enough yet for people to give her their seat, and she loathed the idea of sitting where a man had just been who thought it chivalrous to give up his seat to a woman. She called Nathan.
“What’s up, Dot?” He sounded happy. She hated what she had to tell him.
“I’m downtown—I don’t know, I’m not feeling so good. I was at the hospital.”
“What? Why? Are you okay?”
Nathan was across town, naked on the phone. It would have taken him ages to get to her. He called her a Lyft and soon a Toyota Camry was on its way to retrieve his sick mother.
He was hooking up. They’d just finished having a kind of sex that Nathan found he really, truly enjoyed. His swelling belly hid the straps and buckles of the harness where it attached the dildo to his pelvis as he thrust over the man, an acquaintance who probably just thought Nathan had put on a little weight. It didn’t bother Nathan, the baby (he still thought it was a baby) rocking in his womb with each motion, a small beating-heart caught between two men—not conception, which was clinical and cold in the doctor’s office, but the first tryst since insemination, which Nathan thought must hold some kind of significance in the child’s origins. He imagined the scenes of her conception out of order, like film cut up and scattered on the floor, and she a Russian nesting doll in order of alternating genders: mother, boy, girl, father, mother, something else, and on and on.
Soon Dot was climbing into the front seat next to the driver, a butch woman who looked to Dot like she might have been the kind of person Nathan would befriend. In her delirium, Dot mistook the Lyft driver for a friend of Nathan’s, not realizing that regular people didn’t drive around with large phones and digital maps glued to the dashboard and a meter ticking away the miles. She thought she’d underestimated the breadth of people Nathan had to call on. Instead of making her feel reassured, this was destabilizing. The kid would have plenty of people to turn to, more than she had ever had, certainly more than Nathan did as the solo-kid of a single mom. She saw now that he didn’t need her at all. Dot did not say thank you as she exited the car and climbed the steps into Nathan’s apartment.
* * *
The cancer spread, like cancers do. Dot had bad genes, or they’d lived too many years next to the municipal incinerator when Nathan was in grade school, or she’d just ignored it too long while tending to her pregnant son. So many impossibilities that it made little sense to her to dwell on just one. Really, the doctors thought it had started in her pancreas, which was what had sealed her fate. Being a nurse, Dot hated doctors, and she didn’t want to spend her last days in a nursing home. But Nathan didn’t have the resources to care for her in his apartment, and so they found themselves in a yellow room scrubbed clean with bleach, Nathan as round as a basketball in his 35th week, and Dot jaundiced to match the paint on the walls, struggling to breathe under the scratchy polyester blankets.
If she could have spoken to him without becoming winded, she would have said something like “You know I don’t need to understand everything in order to be supportive. I don’t need to be one of those PFLAG moms who basks in the peachy glow of gay skin, thinking she looks better for it. I can love you and not understand you, and that should be enough.” She wasn’t much for rehearsing speeches that would never get said, but there wasn’t much else to do but wait, and that drove her crazy.
After, when Dot was dead and the cocoon started shedding, he wondered why the magic waited. Why did it pick and choose the moments to show up? Why not visit them with an inconceivable cure, or intrude on the deathbed with a sign—a bird or a butterfly, maybe—of the natural fabric that stretched between them both, albeit so transparent it was easy to forget it was there? In books, the characters just accepted the magical things that happened to them, but Nathan raged; why this monstrosity, why now, why not her, why not before when we were miserable and sad and didn’t know what to say for years and years? Perhaps magic was like a fruit, he thought, that ripened on the vine of suffering until it was so heavy with rot and stink that it fell to the ground.
But he was grateful that Dot didn’t have to see what her child had borne. He imagined her disappointment in the hospital as she held the swaddled mass, how she’d glance at Nathan, affirmed in her belief that he did everything slightly wrong. But what if she didn’t? What if she’d looked at the cocoon, splitting open now, papery layers like birch bark falling to the floor in a slow rain, with excitement instead of Nathan’s open-faced fear? What if she could have pointed at it and said to him see, let’s watch, let’s see what’s at the end of all this, even though it’s probably just another beginning.
Callum Angus is a trans and queer writer who has received fellowships from Lambda Literary and Signal Fire Foundation for the Arts. His work has appeared in Catapult, The Common, The Offing, BuzzFeed, The Normal School, them, The Millions, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. More of his work can be found at calangus.com.
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