In 7th grade religion class, I watch a cabal of popular boys turn red while laughing into their shirt sleeves. Slouching behind their desks at the back of the room, each boy slips his hand down his pants, yanks it out abruptly, and then slaps one of his friends with his warmed fingers. We’re watching a movie, and the teacher is at her desk grading papers, distracted. The film’s narrator explains when, according to the Catholic Church, it’s appropriate for a married couple to have sex: to express their Christ-sanctioned love for each other, to create a child and to comfort each other in times of grief. That last one bewilders me. I look around the room to see if anyone else is confused. But by now few people are paying attention to what’s onscreen. The boys in the back are getting louder and more rambunctious.
Word spreads fast the next day. The boys admit to plucking their newly sprouted pubic hair and flicking it at each other, blowing strands into the air like eyelashes. Everyone is generally grossed out, but the boys’ reputation sustains little damage.
When I express my disgust, a different boy says, “I bet you don’t even have pubes yet. I bet you still have a baby dick.”
I blush and walk away. He’s right. I am just shy of twelve years old. I have checked dozens of times, but still I am as smooth and hairless as newborn. Dismayed, I am sure that puberty will never come for me.
Later that year, my mother schedules an appointment with my pediatrician. After school, she drives us past a strip of gas stations and chain restaurants to the doctor’s office. The receptionist ushers us to the back. The white paper sheet crinkles as I climb onto the padded exam table. My gray uniform slacks are still smooth, the creases down the center of each leg straight and sharp. But my white polo shirt, wrinkled and food-stained, hasn’t fared so well. I untucked it as soon as the final bell rang. I hate wearing white; unforgiving, it reveals the bloated contours of my overweight body. It’s bad enough being one of the few brown kids in a mostly white private school. My size only makes me a bigger target for ridicule.
The doctor finally enters the room. My mother explains why we’re here.
“Would you please remove your shirt?” the doctor says to me.
Reluctantly, I obey. As I slump forward, my smallish breasts sag and rest on my belly.
“See?” My mother says. “It’s not like a boy’s chest.”
The doctor feels me up, checking for abnormal growths. Finding nothing, he advises both my mother and me to wait.
“Give it time,” he says. “He’ll probably grow out of it.”
I wait. I graduate from junior high and suffer through a few years of high school. I see more doctors. They declare me crazy and put me on a wide array of prescription drugs. I lose the capacity to feel strong emotions, but gain even more weight. My breasts get pointier and more pronounced. I think constantly about how much better I would feel if I were a girl, with my long hair and feminine curves.
In the secluded driveway of a close friend’s house, I hang out with my goth clique. We smoke Virginia Slims, play chess and drink Coca-Cola. One of my friends pulls out an expensive camera from her backpack. She says she has a brilliant idea.
“Take off your shirt.”
“No,” I say.
“At least lift it up a little.”
I feel blank, bored. Ridicule and shame me: it doesn’t matter anymore. I comply, rolling the hem of my black tee up past my belly and to my chin. The sun is high and I’m sweating. My friend positions me by a rosebush. She tells me to cup my breasts in my hands. The others giggle as she aims her camera at my chest, careful to crop my face out of the shot. She tells me her plan. She wants to show the pictures to her classmates. She wants to see if they can tell if I’m a guy or girl. I shrug. We go to different schools; there’s no chance anyone would recognize me.
“Give me a cigarette,” I tell her when she’s done. Through the fog of psych meds clouding my head, I finally start to feel something.
I check that all the stalls are empty before I lock the bathroom door. Alone, with my back to the graffiti-stained mirror, I pull at my skirt’s elastic waist and let the garment fall to the floor. I kick off my Doc Martens and put on a pair of black jeans. I turn around and face my reflection, watching as I ball up my skirt and stuff it into my army surplus bag. My thick glasses magnify the horror show of my self-inflicted makeup. I suck at liquid eyeliner. But I don’t bother to wash it off. Though my parents disapprove, they let it slide. They need to give some room for their teenage son to experiment.
I return to the smoke-filled pool hall. The punks gather around one of the booths by the front counter, fiddling with rolling papers and a drum of loose tobacco. The shy weirdos hide in the arcade, playing endless rounds of Ms. Pac-Man and House of the Dead. Only the normal-looking kids are actually interested in playing pool. Jock dudes with polo shirts and too many muscles call their shots and aim their cue sticks. Their girlfriends sit on stools, feigning interest. The goths, my people, wait by the stairwell. One of them gives me a ride home. At my house, I cross the lawn and dig in my bag for my keys. My father opens the door before I reach the front step.
“Were you wearing a skirt tonight?” he says.
“I’m wearing pants,” I say.
“I know you were wearing a skirt.”
“Were you spying on me?”
“We haven’t even left the house,” my mother calls from the kitchen. Suddenly I realize I’m in the foyer. I don’t remember coming inside. The door is closed. I’m trapped. I cradle my bag, holding my secrets to my chest—women’s clothing, half a pack of Parliament Lights, shitty poetry about death and sadness.
“Seriously,” I say. “Who told you?”
My parents don’t reveal the name of their informant. That’s beside the point, they say. Worried and angry, they tell me that people will think I’m gay or a girl. I am 15 years old. There are a million things my mother and father will never understand. I can’t help it that my bosom isn’t manly; that my limp wrists aren’t an affect; that even though I fantasize about girls, I don’t think kissing guys is so bad, especially if their faces are soft and feminine. I can’t say that I’m gay or a girl; neither label rings true for me. I don’t have a name for what I am. Without the right words, I don’t know how to explain what I feel or desire. I only know the truth.