Countdown

For as long as he could remember, J thought of himself in terms of “he,” “him,” and “his.”

Each Sunday morning dressing for church, he reached for his sturdy oxfords, while his sister begged to wear her patent leather tap shoes. Holding firm to the household’s rudder, their mother approved of J’s choice of footwear, if not his choice of address. He wanted everyone to call him Joey or Joe, not Josie, or (shudder) Josephine.

Each year, his first day of school featured the same routine. The teacher got to the Ns, called out “Nelson, Josephine Marie,” and the rest of the class chanted, “That ain’t right. Her name is Joey!” The teacher would wrinkle her nose, take her red pencil, and write down “Josie” on the roll sheet.

J’s classmates knew exactly how to push his buttons. By not correcting the teacher, by letting the dreaded “z” sound slip in to “Joey”, they would gently tease him to bring him back in line. But no one dared to pronounce the full three-syllable version of his given name. “J” was easiest for everyone, anyway.

And when it came time to play house at recess, or stage a melodrama in the cornfields near their cul-de-sac, J was more than happy to take the role of leading man. He always dressed appropriately for it. In the early 80s, children of both genders resembled that cheeky, dungaree-wearing, red-haired girl in the famous Lego ad. This was just as true in Ames, Iowa, where some boys even had long hair.

J’s participation in the daily theatrical gathering was crucial. The other boys were nowhere to be found. They were probably pulling the wings off ladybugs, or burning ants in the sun with a magnifying glass. J, on the other hand, was content to hang out with the girls and learn the etiquette of manhood.

He wiped his shoes on the welcome mat, washed his hands before dinner, complimented their beautiful hair and the delicious meal they had prepared. Or, better yet, he pretended to take them out to dinner after a hard day’s work for everyone. He held their hands and listened when they had a story to tell.

***

When J turned 35, he paid cash for the top surgery he’d been saving up for since college. Student loans paid off, money socked away in a 401K, he lived in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco. Soon he would turn his attention to home ownership, and add more each month to his down payment fund. But this procedure was an all-important milestone. It justified the recent change of gender on his driver’s license, made it all the more visible to the outside world.

Not everyone agreed. His friends expressed mixed feelings about his transition over drinks at the Lex. They claimed top surgery would give him all the privilege they lacked. That he was heading down the easy route if he started to “pass”. Some of these women had also complained that he “smelled different” once he started taking testosterone. But, hardest of all, was when his girlfriend cried bitterly, admitted that she loved his breasts and said she would miss them.

What to do? Octobers were so hot! That one perfect week each year, when the Blue Angels sliced the skies above the financial district, it felt especially confining to bind his chest each morning. He hated having to wear all those layers when what he wanted most of all was to feel the sun on his skin — and not just in his shady private back yard, or under the redwoods at Harbin Hot Springs.

Even though some of his more opinionated friends criticized him for wanting to pass, he felt that this was a different sort of privilege: to be invisible, for once. He always felt like he was wearing the wrong thing, looked wrong in the clothes he wanted to wear, and just wanted everyone to fucking mind their own business.

As the anesthesiologist led him through the countdown from one hundred, J got to ninety-six, and fell asleep happy.