McKenzie Caldwell

My therapist says that shaving my head in 2016 was me allowing myself to explore my gender, but I think it was just curiosity. Immediately before the shave, I would cover my hair with my hands and try to imagine what I would look like without hair.

This didn’t prepare me for actual baldness.

Nothing can really prepare one for baldness. They say that eyes are the windows to the soul, but I’d say the forehead is the real window; the hair is the curtains. Once my hair was gone, my forehead was all-encompassing. I felt naked. The scabs that I’d been picking at since eighth grade were an exhibition laid out on my blindingly white scalp. Acne formed a constellation across my brow.

But my scalp felt like velvet, the little baby hairs untainted. I refused to wear a hat, even though winter was still hanging on, so that I could pet it. I stopped picking at the scabs—for the most part—and for the first time in over five years, they began to heal.

It was wonderful until, that summer, a little girl fearfully asked her mother, “Is that a girl or a boy?”

Her mom tried not to look at me as she pulled her daughter out of the Wal-Mart bathroom.

It was just southern Ohio, I told myself. But the news was too full of people attacking women who looked “manly,” and Facebook was too full of debates on whether or not transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom that most fit their gender identity.

I left the bathroom quickly.

* * *

The next summer, the summer of 2017, I was rocking a man-bun and a deep undercut when a friend and I—drunk off the previous night’s wine and the vodka we’d poured into a half-empty bottle of Coke, lounging on the front porch of their house in Uniondale, New York—found our way to the subject of gender.

“You should look into ‘genderfluid,’” they said, taking a sip from the bottle.

“I’ve read a bit about it, and that’s pretty much what I think I am,” I said. “What’s the difference between nonbinary and genderfluid?”

“Nonbinary’s just a blanket term. I just use it because it’s easier than explaining. In a perfect world, I would be a trans woman, but I can’t come out to my parents. My brother knows, though,” they said. “It sucks because we have really good insurance, and it would cover hormones and surgery and everything.”

Fifteen minutes later, when we walked past a bush, stopping to literally smell its flowers, I asked, “Is it okay if I still call you dude?”

“Dude,” they slurred. “Everyone is dude.”

* * *

I pushed my hair back from my eyes and looked across the office at my gender therapist.

“Would you ever want a device that would allow you to pee standing up?”

“No,” I said.

“Would you be interested in starting testosterone?”

“No,” I said.

“Would you be interested in any cosmetic surgeries?”


“The surgery to create trans men’s penises is horrible,” she said. “It’s not a functioning penis. You would never climax or even feel pleasure or arousal. The surgery for trans women is much better. It’s, functionally, a vagina. They can get aroused and climax and feel pleasure.”

I’d much rather have that, I thought. A beat later, I remembered that I was biologically female and already had a vagina, though it wasn’t doing much down there except bleeding when I didn’t want it to.

“Would you be interested in having a penis?” she asked, tilting her clipboard toward her chest.

“No. I just don’t want boobs.”

“That’s called chest reconstruction. They can make your chest look more masculine… Or maybe you just want a flat chest.”

My hair slid over my right eye. “I just want a flat chest.”

When I told my dad that I was seeing the new therapist for “gender issues,” he texted back, “Do you think you have gender issues?” When I went home for spring break, the first thing he asked in the farm truck on the way to Wal-Mart was, “Can you explain what you mean by gender issues?”

I sighed. “I’m just having issues with my gender identity.”

We rode in silence until we were going down the hill with the billboard for Burger King, when he asked, “Do you think you’re gay?” There was a tinge of hope in his voice.

“That’s sexuality. I’m attracted to guys. I’m dating a guy. Gender’s a little different.”

“Well, I don’t know nothing about that then.”

“I don’t really want to talk to you about this—I told my therapist that.”


“I’m—” Tears immediately appear, bulging above the waterline of my lower eyelids. I fought not to brush them away. “I’m afraid you and Mom will hate me.”

“We don’t have to understand you to love you, McKenzie.”

I slowly drew a breath through my teeth. “I’m just dealing with stuff right now. I don’t like having boobs. Lately, it’s been bothering me when people call me ‘she.’ A few of my close friends call me ‘they,’ which is another pronoun you can use. Gender neutral. I don’t feel like a ‘McKenzie’ anymore. I just go by M now.”

“You don’t even use your name anymore?”

He sounded devastated. I felt as though I was slipping like a lens over his eyes, seeing the still-lifes of me as a kid: the one of the baby in the pink dress, grin smeared across her face, toothless except for a few white teeth beginning to poke through the pink gums; the one with the ten-year-old, her arms wrapped around a bouquet of squirming kittens, baring her teeth up at the her mother just in time for a picture; all ten million of the prom pictures: a girl, the glasses missing, posed with various dates and friends, standing alone and trying to cram her body into a pose that a beautiful woman might do. I only saw a glimmer of myself in the prom picture from sophomore year, where I was smiling and lifting the dress to show a toddler the gold, platform heels on my feet. The dress seemed too gaudy, too wrong; the long hair: foreign.

“It’s uncomfortable. It’s been this way since I was little.”

“But we have pictures of you in dresses. You used to do your hair up.”

Slowly, I said, “I can still wear dresses. They’re just not the most comfortable things.”

The truck bumped over the gravel of someone’s driveway, into the grass. There was a giant puddle looming in front of us. “Watch out for that area. It looks pretty sodden,” I said. “I’ve even gone so far as looking up what Anthem’s policies are on double mastectomies.”

“Don’t do that,” he gasped. A second later: “That’s awful permanent.”

I stared at the puddle.

“Your mom and I will love you no matter what,” he said, “but we won’t support that or let you put that on the insurance. We will pray, though, that you can get through this without hurting your body.”

I stared at the door handle.

“Before you were born—when your mom was very pregnant with you—I was having problems with my heart. It was palpitating. And everyone could see it on my face. So one day, my boss brought me into his office and said, ‘Tim, I know you’re scared right now. You’re about to become a father, and I know that’s scary, but you have to breathe. Just put it out of your mind and focus on the moment. Everything’s going to be okay.’ I was trying to be everything, trying to measure up to everything—and it was getting to me. But once he said that, I just let go, and it got better. Maybe that’s what you need to do.”

I stared at my reflection in the side mirror.

* * *

The next day, doing jumping jacks, naked, in front of the vanity from my grandmother’s house, I watched my breasts for a few seconds then sighed.

We’d been roommates by chance and chromosomes for nearly a decade. I’d shoved them into push-up bras, let guys maul them, placed my hands over them and pressed them down, trying to imagine what it would be like without them.

I doubt that’s enough to prepare for life without them.

* * *

When my boyfriend broke up with me later that night, I remembered that he said, “You’re a human being,” twice: once when I first told him that I was seeing a gender therapist for “gender issues,” and he smiled at me, rubbed his nose against mine before delivering his line; and once over Facebook Messenger when he told me he felt like he was recoiling because of my genderfluidity, that it was too much, that he just wasn’t attracted to men, that he knew what he wanted. That last part killed me: the implication that he didn’t want me because I mentioned that I want my breasts removed, a barb.

I collapsed onto the bed and attempted to smother myself with the pillow, made weird sounds into the pillow, tried a little harder to asphyxiate. Against the pillowcase, I mouthed, “Why can’t I just be normal?”

Later, I unscrunched myself and sat up, tried to read Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” to get in a better breakup mood. My eyes refused to leave the part where he writes, “How adept we were at fumbling, how perfectly mistimed our timing, how utterly we confused energy with ecstasy.”

I tried to get mad, texted a nonbinary friend because I wanted someone to tell me that he was the problem, not me. They offered both to beat him up and to cheer me on while I beat him up.

“I’m a pacifist,” I texted back. “It just bothers me that our relationship was held together by boobs. They’re not even adhesive.”

If the idea of removing my breasts was like shaving my head, if people thought of the two in similar ways—maybe if breasts were capable of growing back, then I would be able to remind my father that they’re just boobs: they’d grow back in no time.

I thought back to the little girl in the bathroom years ago. Maybe I’m just owning my assigned pronoun, dude: