Volume 29, Number 3


Danielle Eleanor

When I woke up, it was still dark outside, but already my hair was sticking to the sweat on my cheeks. It was mid-August, and our air conditioner was broken again. I rolled out of bed and took a cold shower, letting the water run over me until I could see the pinks and oranges of the sun begin to peek through the bathroom window.

I walked back to my bedroom, smiling at the sound of my parents snoring in sync, and pulled on shorts and a t-shirt. I pulled my brand new backpack out of my closet and began to fill it with clothes for the weekend. My mom bought me a new Jansport for college, telling me that it was just like the one she had when she was my age. I think the backpack was supposed to be an apology. I didn’t want to go to Rutgers. I wanted to go far away, and I had gotten into every school I’d applied to, but Rutgers offered me the most scholarship money. My parents said if I chose to go anywhere else, they wouldn’t put a cent toward helping me pay for school.

I ate a quick bowl of cereal and left a note on the counter for my parents to let them know I’d left for orientation early. I drove my dad’s truck the hour to Rutgers, parked and walked up to the welcome table, beginning to regret my early arrival.

An upperclassman crossed my last name off of a list and handed me a key to my dorm room for the weekend. I sat on one of the two twin-sized beds and read the weekend’s itinerary over and over, until I heard the door swing open.

“Hi, I’m Bri! You looked exhausted!”

I looked up. Bri stood in the doorway with a duffel bag in one hand and a pillow in the other, smiling so widely that her eyes crinkled. I should have been insulted by her comment, but she seemed way too happy to meet me for me to hold a grudge.

I stood up and held out my clammy hand. “I’m Claire.” I glanced at my shoes, wondering if the handshake was lame, but Bri didn’t seem to think so.

“Hey, you have a good handshake!” She might have been teasing me, but she looked me right in the eyes, so I thought she probably wasn’t.

The first day of orientation was packed with tours, presentations and meetings with advisors and upperclassmen, so Bri and I didn’t have a chance to talk much. We returned to our room around 10:00 PM, after an ice cream social run by the RAs who would oversee the freshman dorms in the fall. It had been a long day, and we both changed into our pajamas facing opposite walls and then fell into our beds.

But there was no air conditioning in the crappy freshman dorms we were placed in, so neither of us could sleep. Bri was noisy as she tossed and turned, until she finally flopped to face me and said, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too hot. Wanna go for a walk?”

We walked toward the sports fields. Without all the people rushing between activities like they had been during the day, campus felt especially silent. “So, um, do you like it here?” I said. I hoped I wouldn’t sound so awkward with every new person I met once school started.

“It’s nice—big though, much bigger than home. Where are you from?” Bri said.

We had reached a soccer field, and Bri stopped walking and sat on the white paint outlining the field. She looked up and patted the grass next to her. I sat and began to talk. Bri and I hardly slept that night, but the breeze outside was worth it. The next day we exchanged numbers before heading home. We kept in touch throughout freshman year, meeting each week to watch Modern Family on her TV or chugging gross coffee together in the library before exams.


“Claire! Red-hair Claire!” Bri sang my name as I opened the door to our apartment.

“I’m coming, Bri,” I said. I walked through the tight entrance to our room and turned the corner past the bathroom door. “Oh my gosh, she sent another one?”

Bri laughed. “I know, it’s like she thinks we’ll starve without her. Look at all this stuff.”

It was the beginning of October, and Bri’s mom had sent us the fourth care package of the semester. Bri’s family lived a few hours away, but she and I both only went home for holidays. My family never sent care packages.

Bri dumped the contents of the cardboard box next to her onto her striped bedspread. Several bags of chips, Chex mix, different kinds of candy and trail mix fell out. Bri had already taken out the packs of underwear and tampons that her mom always sent. They sat in a small pile under her handwritten note. I couldn’t see what the note said, but I could see the long line of x’s and o’s that her mom always signed with.

Bri tossed me a bag of peanut M&Ms. “Here, you get a head start. I’m gonna go call my mom and say thanks.”


“Shit!” I said, jumping back from the couch I had stubbed my toe on. “Bri, do you think there’s somewhere else we can move this couch?”

“You okay, Red-hair Claire?” Bri said, barely glancing up from her laptop screen. More than three years of friendship had given Bri plenty of time to get used to my clumsiness.

“Yeah, I’m fine. It really won’t fit anywhere else?”

Bri and I looked around our apartment, which we had decided to lease for senior year. The left arm of our second-hand couch stuck into the kitchen, almost blocking the fridge door, which accounted for my constantly swollen toes. We had been excited about leasing our own place together, but we had sorely overestimated its size. In addition to the problem with the couch, the bathroom door whacked the toilet bowl when you opened it, and our beds barely fit into each of our singles. I kept trying to remind myself that it was cozy and not too expensive—plus all the appliances worked—but it was taking some getting used to.

Over the summer, Bri and I had spent many hot afternoons scouring flea markets and Targets for apartment decorations and supplies. We cut coupons in our parents’ living rooms and hunted down the cheapest pots and pans we could find. We bought Halloween decorations for our non-existent foyer in August. We decided that choosing a pet-friendly apartment complex meant we absolutely had to have a cat, so we rescued our shared cat, Phillip, from the shelter. Phillip was a girl cat. Bri and I thought we were being really clever when we named her or else making some sort of a statement about gender and heteronormativity.

“I think that’s as good as it’s gonna get,” Bri said, glancing up at the couch. Then she sighed and fixated on whatever she was reading.

“What is that, stats?” I asked.

“No, I’m on Amazon.”

“Oh, are you finally getting that waffle maker? Do it Bri. We can have waffles and ice cream for breakfast—it’ll be great!” I walked over to where Bri was perched on the opposite arm of the couch. She slammed her laptop shut.

“Sorry. Uh, Christmas shopping.”

“It’s barely October, Bri,” I said.

Bri did not look up as she gathered her laptop and overstuffed backpack in her arms. “I’m gonna go do some homework in my room, okay?” She didn’t wait for my answer.

When classes started in September, Bri came home each day with piles of library books and stacks of articles warm from the printer and made a beeline for her bedroom. Once, an oversized package arrived and Bri rushed it straight to her room, mumbling something about books into her chest and closing her bedroom door behind her.

I thought maybe Bri had decided to apply to graduate school, so she was working extra hard to pull her grades up. Maybe she didn’t want to tell me yet because she was afraid she wouldn’t get in, or she didn’t want to jinx it. I never thought much beyond that, even though I knew that explanation didn’t quite make sense. I was too caught up in my own work and thinking about my plans after graduation.

I put a cup of Easy Mac in the microwave and opened my laptop at the kitchen counter, pulling up the articles I had to read for my Women & Gender Studies class. I had spent so much time studying for my Orgo exam that I had been neglecting all my other classes. I started reading from an article called What It Means to Be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System. “My daily experiences are a testament to the rigidity of gender in our society, to the real implications of ‘two and only two’ when it comes to sex and gender categories.…” The microwave beeped, and I mixed a packet of powdered cheese into my noodles, settling back into my seat at the counter for a long night of reading.


On Monday, I woke up to my 9:00 AM alarm and got dressed. Bri and I both had 10:00 AM classes in the same building, so we walked together. Usually, we would walk a couple of blocks out of our way to stop at Starbucks together. I’d order a Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Bri would grab a croissant to eat on the walk. She tore it apart and ate it in strips, offering me every other torn piece. She always walked into class with her sweatshirt covered in pastry flakes.

After finishing a bowl of Honey Nuts, I could still hear Bri’s alarm blaring through our paper-thin walls, so I decided to go check on her. I knocked on the door but there wasn’t a reply. Finally, I got worried, so I twisted the knob and eased the door open with my shoulder, peering around the doorjamb.

“Bri?” She didn’t answer. “Bri, it’s like 9:30. We have to go soon.”

My eyes began to adjust to the dark. I took a step inside, Phillip silently padding behind me, and lifted Bri’s blinds. She was wearing yesterday’s clothes and drooling inside an open paperback. Phillip leapt onto the desk where Bri’s head was resting and began pawing at her ponytail. I read the top line of the exposed page. “Transgender males who choose to use testosterone injections to transition…”

The strips of sunlight from between the blinds startled Bri awake. She shot upright, wiped her chin, and blinked a few times.


“Fuck. Did I miss class?”

I didn’t answer.

She stopped blinking and adjusted to the sunlight. She looked around slowly, and I followed her eyes. Next to her elbow sat a short stack of other paperbacks with titles visible down their spines: Becoming a Visible Man. Body Alchemy. Transgender Warriors. She looked down at the book that was her pillow and swiped at the drool puddle on the page. I tried to catch her eyes. Her fingers shook, but she looked resigned.

I didn’t know what to do next. My Women & Gender Studies class had taught me the difference between sex, which was physical, and gender, which I thought of as mental, but I had never had a reason to think of those concepts as part of my real life. I had never met a transgender person, and I realized that learning definitions in class had done nothing to prepare me for a moment like this. Suddenly, I was mad at my professor for assigning me so many useless readings.

“I’m sorry.”

“What?” Bri asked.

“Um, I mean, I’m sorry I woke you up.” That wasn’t what I was really apologizing for, but I couldn’t put exact words to what I really meant. I’m sorry for invading your privacy. I’m sorry for barging in. I’m sorry your brain doesn’t match your body, and I’m sorry that I’ll never understand what that feels like. “Do you wanna, um, talk about it?” I said.

Bri was quiet for a while. “No.” She stood up, walked into the bathroom, and began to brush her teeth. I stayed where I was.

Bri walked back in. She looked me in the eyes now, but her hands still shook and she hadn’t noticed the toothpaste foam clinging to her bottom lip. I stood and swiped it off with my thumb like I would on any other day. I think my hands were shaking too.

Bri picked up her backpack and asked, “You coming?” So I followed her on our usual route to class, not understanding how that could be it. I debated what to say for so long that we reached the front door of our building before I had actually said anything.

“See you after class? Claire?”

“Yeah. I’ll see you at home.”

I had a small English class on Mondays with only twelve other students. When my professor asked me my thoughts on Beloved, which I had already read twice in different classes, I clammed up.

“Are you feeling all right, Claire?” he asked.

I nodded, keeping my eyes on the blank page of my notebook, and my professor avoided addressing me for the rest of our three-hour class meeting.

Bri and I struggled through small talk and macaroni at the kitchen table that night. We went to bed early because there was nothing else to do. I stared at the twirling blades of my fan in the dark for what felt like hours, but was probably only ten minutes, and then I heard Bri’s heavy sobs start on the other side of my wall. I could hear them the next night too, and the night after that. That was the worst part of it all, the listening, but for days I couldn’t get over my fear of saying the wrong thing. Finally, on Thursday night, I wrapped my comforter around my shoulders and shuffled to Bri’s room. I didn’t knock. I doubted she’d be able to hear me over her own crying anyway.

“Bri? Bri, I’m here. It’s okay.”

Her back was to me, facing the wall, and her body was curled in a way that made her look smaller than I had ever seen her look before. I didn’t think about what I was doing. I just crossed the room in three steps, got into bed and curled behind her. The sobs got louder, so I slowly, lightly laid my arm across her side. I felt her ribcage heave up and down and began to worry.

The sobs changed to gasps, and I realized she was trying to speak. I waited, tracing my fingers up and down the seam of Bri’s faded blue t-shirt, pausing at the big hole under the armpit. She refused to throw the thing out. And then, finally: “It’s real now.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s real now because you know. It’s not just mine anymore.”

She was right, and there was nothing I could do about that. I couldn’t give her secret back. I couldn’t unknow it.

Neither of us said anything else, but the sobs slowed to sniffling, then eventually stopped altogether, and finally my arm rose and fell in a steady rhythm along Bri’s waist. She was asleep.

I went to Bri’s room each night after that, at first waiting for the crying to start, hoping it wouldn’t but knowing that it would. Then, it became a routine. I’d finish my homework on the couch, or we’d watch TV together while Phillip slept on my lap, and then we’d both go to her bed.

I began swiping books from Bri’s desk and reading them myself. Some of them had dog-eared pages, so I paid special attention to what Bri had marked as important. I read about coming out, transitioning, the shots and the surgeries. I would pick one book at a time, then swap it for a new one in the morning while Bri was getting ready in the bathroom. She must have noticed, but she never said anything.

One night right before Thanksgiving, we were lying in bed and Bri rolled over to face me. “I’d like my name to be Ben.”

This was the first unwavering sentence I heard Bri say about her gender. And so “she” became “he,” and “Bri” became “Ben.” It was easier after that. I felt like we took forever to get that far—almost two months—but once Ben told me his name, the days felt lighter. I used Ben’s name as often as I could because it made him smile wider than I had ever seen him smile before. I knew that the times when Ben and I were alone in our tiny home were the only times he got that validation, and I took pride in being the one to make him feel safe.

Our days became, for the most part, a little more normal. We came back from Thanksgiving weekend and started to really focus on classes, preparing for upcoming exams and writing final papers. We started cooking more of our own dinners, and on a couple of nights we baked because Christmas was coming, and it made the whole apartment smell like vanilla. We lit peppermint candles and assembled a three-foot tall Christmas tree made out of red and green tinsel. The apartment felt like home.

“Ben,” I said one night. I was washing a cookie sheet in the sink while Ben ate little Santa sugar cookies off a paper plate. “Ben, Ben, Ben.” I wanted to see him smile.

“Red-hair Claire? Do you think you can help me with something?”

I nodded, and Ben rose and walked to his room. He reached into his underwear drawer and pulled out a rolled up Ace bandage.

“Ben, no. You know what a bad idea that is. You’ll hurt your ribs. You won’t be able to breathe.”

The thought of Ben hurting made my own chest ache. I looked him up and down. He wore loose, straight leg jeans that were probably from the men’s department and a plain black crewneck t-shirt. He bought men’s t-shirts for cheap in packs. Most of his clothes came from Target now because it was close to campus and reasonably priced, but all his clothes from before were still in his room for when he saw his family. I liked his new clothes and the way his jeans fell sometimes when he reached for the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet. I liked the dimples at the base of his back. He had long since given up the little bit of makeup he used to wear. and he tied his hair back into a bun behind his head every day. I realized I was staring and dropped my eyes to my hands.

Ben sighed. “I know. But Claire, I hate them. I hate them so much.” Ben’s cell phone rang, and I saw the word “MOM” light up on the screen. Ben silenced the phone, and when it finished ringing, I saw that he had five missed calls from his mom.

“Wait, Ben, I have an idea.”

I walked back to my room and pulled out a couple of sports bras.

“I read about this online a while back. You can buy binders that are made for trans men, but they can be kind of expensive sometimes, and if you don’t have one, this will work to hold you over. Put one on forwards and one on backwards.”

I turned around while Ben changed. I don’t know why I even bothered. We still slept together every night, and that felt more intimate than seeing Ben’s body, somehow, since this body wasn’t the one he wanted anyway.

“Okay, I’m done now.”

I spun around and looked at Ben in his black t-shirt. It laid much flatter down his front. He could pass, maybe, in a crowd of strangers. He could be just another guy. I smiled.

“It’s good, Ben. You look really great.”

He smiled too. “You think so? Thanks. This was a really good idea.”

My face felt hot. I started to turn away so he wouldn’t see.

“Wait, Claire. Thank you. You’ve been really great about all this stuff.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“Yes, it is,” he said. “You just switched over with my name like it was no problem, and you hardly ever messed it up, even in the beginning. And I know you read all those books. I think you know more stuff than me now.”

I realized that that was probably true. I had made my way through Ben’s dog-eared books and moved onto the ones that still had stiff spines. I was a fast reader, I guess, but it was more than that. I wanted to know everything I could know so I could help. I didn’t mess up Ben’s name because I was still the only person who knew, so I had to do everything right.


“I don’t want to go home for Christmas,” Ben said.

“Why, Ben?”

He smiled, but only for a split second. “I know it’s only a week. I’ll be back after New Year’s when my family goes back to work and school, but that’s a whole week that I can’t be Ben.”

“Oh. I didn’t think of that. You can text me whenever you want, though, or call. I’ll remind you, Ben.”

“Mm. Claire, will you lie with me?”

Ben climbed into bed, still in his clothes, and I laid down to face him, our eyes even and only a couple of inches apart. When he spoke, his breath was hot on my lips.

“I can’t tell them. Ever, probably. Or maybe once I live on my own after graduation? My family I mean. It’ll have to be a secret forever. I’m too scared. And like, what do people like me do about dating? And marriage? And having kids? Am I allowed to adopt kids? Am I gonna have to start my resumé from scratch? ’Cause everything that says Bri is worthless if I change my name, right? And what if I do take testosterone or get surgery, and I’m a really ugly man? That could happen. I mean, I’ve read all those books, but I’ve never met anyone like me.”

The questions just kept coming. I offered the best answers I could, but Ben got angrier and angrier each time he thought he reached a solution for something because it all boiled down to coming out. He couldn’t start hormones unless he came out to his family, and that wasn’t an option in his mind.

“But they love you, Ben. They love you more than anything in the world. Look at all those care packages they send and the notes your mom mails,” I said.

“That’s the point, Claire!” Ben was talking a little too loudly. “They love me so much, and they are good to me. They have done everything right. They don’t deserve this.”


“Look, they love their daughter. What if they don’t love having a son, though? Or what if they try to love me, and they try to accept me, but in the end they just can’t handle it? I don’t want to hurt them or lose them.”

Ben talked, and I felt his breath on my face and saw his eyes open wide when he got especially worked up about something and I began to feel helpless. I wanted to stay in this apartment forever and share this too-small bed in this too-small room and order Chinese takeout whenever we wanted. I wanted student loan payments and graduation and real life to feel far away again, and I wanted just saying “Ben” to be enough. This apartment felt like our whole world, and it hurt to remember that it wasn’t. Just saying “Ben” could not provide him all the safety he needed.

I kissed him hard. When I pulled back, we stared at each other for a second, and then we were kissing again. I was acutely aware of the way I touched him. I planted my hand square in the middle of his chest, at its flattest part. I avoided Ben’s waist and breasts, and I let him climb on top of me and hold himself up as we kissed. I dug my fingers into the muscles of his upper back. I wanted Ben to feel like a man.


I was surprised that the front door wasn’t locked. I usually beat Ben home from class on Wednesday nights. “Ben? Are you home yet?” I called as I turned my key and pushed open the door. “Ben?” I knocked my knee into the arm of the couch. “Fuck.”

I heard Phillip meowing from behind the bathroom door. “Phillip, what’s wrong?”

I pushed the bathroom door open until I couldn’t anymore. It didn’t hit the toilet bowl like it usually did. It hit Ben. He was sitting on the tile floor, staring at his bloody hand lying shredded in his lap. Splintered glass glittered across the floor like the remnants of a car crash. Slices of my own eye blinked back at me from the tiles. Ben had punched the mirror. In the corner of the tiny bathroom lay a balled up pair of white boxer briefs with a penny-colored stain at the center.

“I got it early this month,” Ben said to his hand. “I wasn’t ready for it.”

Phillip nuzzled against Ben’s hand. Blood clung to her whiskers. Ben barely moved. I knelt to the cold floor, feeling bits of glass prick my knees. I looked down and watched as blood began to seep through in one spot and stain my jeans in a small circle. Ben’s mouth was a straight line, and his eyes were blank. And then, for a split second, I understood exactly what Ben was feeling. Nothing. I knew because I was feeling it too.

Then, just as suddenly, it was over. The blood on my knee was sticky and warm, and at the center of the spot was a sharp pain. I had to fix this. I stood up.

“Ben, we have to go to the hospital. You need stitches.”

“No, Claire. My parents can’t know. I’d need their insurance cards.”

“Ben, you’re bleeding everywhere. You’re bleeding on Phillip, look.”

Phillip looked up at me and tilted her head at the sound of her name. The soft, white spots on her cheeks were matted and pink. I began to cry. The tears came slowly at first, one at a time, as I picked Phillip up and plopped her in the sink, using a washcloth to wash her cheeks. She liked being held more than any other cat I’d ever met, but she usually didn’t tolerate water. Today, she stayed still.

I looked up at the remains of the mirror above the sink. A web of cracks spread from around the hole in the middle all the way to the mirror’s frame. My face was fragmented, indistinguishable in places.

My lungs felt like they were collapsing in on themselves. I tried calculating what we would lose out of our deposit on the apartment, but the numbers weren’t a good enough distraction. I was breathing in gasps, clutching the perimeter of the sink for support. The tears fell faster now.

“Claire, maybe you can just use tweezers to help me get the glass out? We don’t have to go to the hospital, right?”

I spun around, my broken face streaked with makeup, eyes red and tears still coming fast.

Ben looked at my bloody knee.

“Claire, I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry, Claire.”

I opened the cabinet under the sink and pulled out my makeup bag, slammed the cabinet doors shut. I took out my tweezers and rubbed them with alcohol swabs from a first-aid kit that Ben’s mom sent us in a care package once. Then I sat down on the closed toilet seat and held my palm out. Ben sat on the floor in front of me as I began to lift splinters of glass out, one by one. The crying stopped as I focused. Remove splinter, drop splinter in sink, wipe bloody hand with washcloth, repeat. I noticed that at least two fingers were probably broken.

“You know what, Ben? There’s no way that this is going to heal before Christmas anyway. I’m going to have to clean it and wrap it, but it’ll definitely scar. We can still go to the hospital if you want stitches.”

The realization punched Ben in the stomach. There were few lies that could cover an injury like this. His parents were going to notice, and they were going to want to know why. I began to cry again. I couldn’t make it all go away. Saying “Ben” over and over would never be enough. Ben wanted the world to know he was a man, and I was just one person.

I took a deep breath and leaned down to kiss him on the forehead. “One way or another, Ben, they’ll notice your hand. Something’s gotta give.”