In the second semester of his first year at the University, and as part of his twenty-third-tried strategy for becoming an actual person – that is, a person with aptitudes and features and something to say for himself, rather than a hole in the air – a young man with a nervous, unpleasant temperament and no particular attributes besides enrolled in a creative writing class, a popular one, titled ‘Reading and Writing the Modern Short Story’.

The professor of the class – and, as it turned out, the tutor of the young man’s workshop group – was a wide, hairy man conspicuous in the faculty as a several-times-published, somewhat-respected novelist. If the rest of the teachers in the faculty shared a formal authority, only this professor drew actual awe. He had been interviewed on television and radio, and his book-jacket photographs depicted him frowning into the camera with his arms crossed, a cigarette stashed between his knuckles. It was something in these photographs, which were also on the university’s website, that so attracted the young man: in them, the professor exhibited a kind of personal ballast, a strong inner gravity, that he badly wanted for himself.

On the first day of class, the young man saw the theatre that the professor engaged to this end – the heavy, self-important way he loped around, speaking steadily in his deep, sonorous voice and writing sudden declarations on the blackboard like ‘the moral content of fiction is truth.’ The young man was rather socially unpopular, having emerged from high school with few friends and having never known the amorous touch of a woman. This was something that he was getting pretty desperate for right about now, and though he had various objective aesthetic deficiencies – a weak chin, for example, and a high degree of facial neoteny – he credited his past failure in attaining it partly also to the solicitous, approval-seeking way he’d always had with teachers. It was a kind of success he’d understood, been good at. No longer, he decided. “If my slavery to authority has gotten me where I am now,” he reasoned to the imaginary Confessor who served as the hearer of all his schemes, “it’s time for a revolution.” Though the young man held no particular aesthetic philosophy, never having been much of a reader in the first place, he decided to write directly counter to the professor’s specifications; by defying the demands of such a vivid character, he believed he would project an even stronger one to the rest of the class.

This was why, when the professor announced in the first tutorial that the young man would present his story in the fourth week, he controlled himself. He did not agonize over his work, as the professor seemed to command. He waited until the night before to compose his story, a comic and frivolous piece, the first idea to come into his head.

In the story’s opening scene, an unnamed young woman is multitasking, chopping vegetables for her dinner while talking on the phone with a friend whose company she has come to resent. She’s tiring of the conversation, and as her friend begins to tell about a date she went on recently, on a whim, the young woman screams and announces with the characteristic detachment of the recently maimed that she has severed one of her fingers. She then hangs up.

At first, the young woman is delighted by her own ingenuity. Only slowly do the consequences of the prank dawn on her. The friend doesn’t appreciate jokes at her expense, and the young woman is new in town; it’s through this popular friend she has most of her connections, none of them established enough to stand without her endorsement. Re-dialling, hoping to apologize, the phone rings through to voicemail. She dials again, to the same result.

The young woman thinks. The friend, who lives nearby, is the type to get hysterical at the promise of blood. If she’s unreachable, it’s most likely because she’s already halfway across town, running to render aid. If her friend arrives, having spent all that sweat – having cried all those tears, just as likely – and finds all the young woman’s fingers intact, she’ll be socially ruined. Once spread, the story will be insurmountable. If she wants to retain any standing at all – the young woman computes – she has less than ten minutes to, actually, sever one of her own fingers.

This premise-setting takes up the first three hundred words of the story. The remaining one thousand two hundred are a clinical description of the act itself. The young woman primes the knife, decides which finger to cut off (left pinky), makes a first few hesitation wounds and then commits to it, cuts through flesh, braving the pain. To her dismay, she finds the knife is too blunt to cut through bone and not heavy enough to break it; this forces her to find by manual exploration the gap between two phalanges and, fighting unconsciousness, carve through the gristle to the other side. The story’s final image is the young woman sitting on the floor, staunching the ragged nub with a tea-towel, watching the door for her friend’s arrival.

In the next day’s class, the young man’s story was passed around. He watched the professor read the print-out, betraying no more of his opinion than a cough. The first wave of feedback, typically non-committal, was given by his classmates. Most of them thought it had pacing issues; some of them thought it was cruel. The young man pretended to care. His attention was on the professor, whose dispraise, and the young man’s own self-assurance in face of it, would establish the young man as a competing aesthetic authority – a dissenter, whose boldness could only draw interest. After all had been obliged to give their opinion, from across the room came the chair-creak, the prefatory sniffle, the percussive snaps of reading-glasses removed and folded up for re-pocketing in the shirt jacket. When the young man looked – as if in afterthought – the professor’s high-powered gaze was upon him.

“How long did it take you,” he asked, “to write this story?”

This question, with its implied awe, brought an involuntary excitement climbing into the young man’s mouth. He hadn’t expected praise; he hadn’t prepared for praise. Disciplining his face, controlling his voice, he murmured answer. “A couple hours.”

“A couple hours!” The professor pointed at the young man, scanning his eyes across the other students. “This boy’s proud of himself.”

The young man embarked on a protesting laugh. The other students looked at him with uncertainty.

The professor’s voice was cool. “This brand of narcissist always is,” he said. “A couple hours coasting on his dull cynicism, then an early, restful night.” Stained enamel flashed behind his beard. “This kind of story doesn’t even attain to badness, understand. Good writing, true writing, is reckless self-endangerment. This boy writes in self-defence. Well, we won’t have it. Will we?”

One at a time, the students realized that this was an actual audience-participation bit. The young man no longer knew what expression he should be going for.

“You’ll learn to spot these types,” the professor said, again pointing. “Can’t you hear him filing his nails over every page? See how he substitutes gore for the bloody work of introspection he’s finally unwilling to do? Notice, will you, how all is written with a scepticism that anyone other than the author is sentient – women least of all?” The professor bent sideways in his chair, put the few printed pages on the ground and slid them across the polished floor. They went about halfway. “Thank you for sharing, young man,” he said. “No feedback. Nicholson? Let’s have it.”

As the red-faced boy on the far end of the room stood, trembling, and began to hand out his pages, the young man processed the sentence that had been handed down on his life. ‘A couple hours’. His voice had leapt with naked pride. What distressed him most, what gripped jaw against upper skull until tears came beading, was not the insult itself, but the naked longing for praise – the utter lack of character – the professor had enticed, indulged, then trotted into the middle of the room to eviscerate. He looked around the circle. Everyone stared down at their laps, coughing, save a young woman on the far end of the room who gazed at him with naked empathy. He turned away. From his right came the next boy’s story. He clutched it in his hands, tried to focus his eyes. The first sentence, printed too-small in Calibri, read “Henry Thripplethorpe was a curious fellow.”

He handed the paper back, staggered to his feet, pulled his messenger bag onto his shoulder and fled. Lurching through the classroom door and down the stairs into the courtyard, he took corners at random, tried to put turns between himself and everyone in that room. His throat convulsed as if he were choking. Not enough air. As he hurried across a cloister, his vision darkened; he fell against a sandstone wall, heaving tearless sobs.

There were steps nearby, coming closer. He hid his face in his neck, but a tap on the shoulder forced him to look. It was worse than he feared. It was the girl from the class, her eyes as hatefully kind as before. She sat down against the wall with him and forged past his requests to be alone with platitudes and light dismissals. The young woman’s story had been read in the second week, about her grandfather, one of the first exhibitions of the professor’s kindness to helpless cases. The young man told her again he was alright.

She pouted. “You don’t seem alright. I’m gonna drop the class, this guy is bullshit. Wanna go to the bar?”

And gave her hand, not politely refusable.

He trudged there alongside her. It was after lunch, and the bar was empty; she made conversation with him, told him about her degree while he sipped the beer she’d bought him and stared at a chip in the paint on the skirting-board. He was angry at her for rescuing him. Her emotional hygiene irritated him, as did her repeated and, granted, probably-correct assertion that the professor had been wrong to speak to him like that. At a certain point, he deigned to look at her, who had kept talking patiently into his silence, and he became more angry, most angry, because the young woman was now evoking an even deeper treachery: her company was comforting him. She had begun to torture responses out of him, and as he spoke he realized that the young woman was soothing him, genuinely making him feel that, whatever had happened back there, there was a human community that didn’t run on its economy. He stared away again, but too late. An involuntary glissando to a feeling that – he suspected – was Actual Happiness began to rise in him.

This was a feeling which, at the slightest interrogation, he might have unmasked as plain-and-simple pleasure. He had, in fact, felt Actual Happiness many times before: in high school, for example, when he was invited to a party with booze at it, and when his beautiful English teacher told him he read an excellent Hamlet. Every break from loneliness and humiliation presented itself to him as an existential epiphany, pointing a way forward – ‘to take an interest in other people’, et cetera – that he would forget as soon as the valued connection proved impossible to sustain. The young man was reflective about this. He knew the argument advanced above. Here, though, looking into the startling benevolence of the young woman opposite, he made the conscious decision to believe in it – especially as the young woman wasn’t so above him in social dignity; especially as, now, at the moment of his reflection, she was even stroking an exploratory finger across his forearm, tickling the finer hairs.

At the end of their second date, after a kiss which startled the young man, they took a tram back to the young woman’s sharehouse. The young man chose not to admit that she was taking his virginity. Her interest had boosted his self-esteem enough to make him realize he could do better; he had to preserve himself from getting attached, and if she knew she was deflowering him it might drive her to heights of manifest tenderness he knew he’d be no contest for.

He thus measured, in advance, the muted sensations that sex would arouse in a man who’d had it many times. Naked in front of her, he remained clothed in reserve—entering her, he steeled himself to sound only the least expressive cries of enjoyment. He adopted a faraway smile and did sums in his head.

What caught him off-guard once they began to have sex in earnest, however, was not a surplus of excitement – which he’d prepared for and might have handled – but the displeasure and depression he felt. The act quickly became aerobically exhausting. He felt numb from the waist down and thrusting there above her he felt ridiculous; he couldn’t pry his mind away from how the downward gravity on his face was probably presenting him, double-chinned and flushed. Trying to return to immediacy, he focused on the face of the young woman. She was emitting long, flat, rhythmic moans, but her eyes, on his, were squinting as if in confusion, and he realized he was making a sort of pained grimace. Trying to modify it – to re-adopt the assured smile from when they began – he found he couldn’t find his way back to it, nor to any expression suitable to lovemaking. As a last resort he doubled the speed of his thrusting to justify the duress on his face, but within seconds he felt a shooting pain in his legs that forced him to quit altogether.

The young woman asked if he was alright. He said nothing. Raising himself back on his toes, he soldiered on, and she once again began to moan. It was now only a matter of surviving until she came. Would she come from this? He could not ask her, and the loneliness of his position above her softened him below. He thrusted on but finally couldn’t even enter her, accordioning limp against her entrance.

“What’s going on?” the young woman asked.

He sat down on the edge of the bed. “This happens, sometimes,” was all he could think to say. From behind, she embraced him; he let himself be embraced.

The pair continued to date. He did, in fact, drop the creative writing course, as did she, but the young man held onto writing fiction – ‘as an outlet’, were the words to his Confessor, but the stories he produced tried for a sincerity not quite his own. Perspectives of starving migrants, transgender women dying from botched surgeries, housewives with husbands monotonous in their cruelty. He laboured especially over the trans woman story: in its final moments, as its protagonist died of a blood infection, she was comforted by the fact she was dying, at least, ‘as herself’. He sent the story to several student magazines, but none published it. Only the young woman seemed to appreciate his work. “Raw,” she called it. At such times, he outright disliked her.

The erectile dysfunction episode convinced the young man he needed to stay with her at least long enough to figure out what was wrong with him, how to fix it. But the sex never became more enjoyable: over the consequent months of their relationship it actually got worse, the act becoming so taxing he couldn’t even get hard without whole minutes of preliminary masturbation as the young woman stroked his chest in ever-more-stilted patterns. He wondered if his lie about his virginity wasn’t the cause. It was a secret kept too long to reveal now, but the young man wondered if he could cure himself by going home with another girl – or, pragmatically, hiring an escort – and telling her it was his first time. Perhaps what he’d missed was just this: the pitying benevolence of the ordinary woman, the smothered amusement of the professional. He would never follow up on this thought. Even after he’d devised a way to bring himself to climax with some regularity – he would close his eyes, as if in a transport of passion, and pretend he was masturbating – sex would end with him exhausted, sad, feeling as if something had been stolen from him. The time afterwards was his only comfort: that stretched moment in the paired tides of their soft breath when both lost their sexes, ages, names. For that moment alone, he half-prostituted himself to her.

But the young woman was more perceptive than she let on. The piston-stiffness that came into his body whenever they coupled couldn’t be ignored. Even when he took a passive position – when she’d had an un-tiring shift at the bookstore and agreed to ride him – his body was tense with barely-smothered unhappiness, like a cat that never settled no matter how you petted it. One night, with him having again milked an orgasm from himself, now unwinding beside her in that long, still silence, she turned to him and spoke.

“Do you enjoy having sex with me?” she asked.

The young man had no answer. In truth, he hadn’t thought the young woman capable of such insight. He pretended to be asleep, expecting her to dismiss it. She did not. Helplessly, he counted in his head: if she went the next fifteen seconds still inclined toward him, or prodded him further, he’d tell her the truth.

At the count of eight, she said, instead, “I love you.”

So she knew he wasn’t asleep. Or anyway would know it now, the way his back spasmed in fright. He reeled about for some way to suspend this test. ‘Love’ was a word so alien to how he thought of her that he couldn’t formulate a dishonest response, far less an honest one. “I really need time to think,” was what he came up with. Remembering the other question, “I do enjoy having sex with you.”

She began to cry.

“Those are separate things,” he said. “I mean, no. No—”

The embarrassed terror that lurched through him then made him realize he was afraid of losing her. That, at least, was information. But love was different. To return it falsely wouldn’t just be unethical; it would be committing to something he couldn’t take back. “I need time,” he said, hoping she wouldn’t insist. She didn’t. They rolled apart and fell asleep, mutually unhappy.

As they continued to see one another, the young woman didn’t repeat her confession verbally, but insisted upon it in everything she did. At every moment she held her flushed face close to his, engaged in such a mugging performance of adoration as to make maintaining an erection almost impossible. The young man was angry with himself. The young woman was someone who – gently laying aside all fancies, now – he could stay beside long-term, if he could only find a way inside the feelings for her that were only logical for him to command. Eventually, he decided that if he spoke the thing he wanted to feel, he may thus be brought to feel it. One night, he got drunk before he came to hers. They had sex, and it was as awful as ever, but as he winced toward climax above her, he cried the words she wanted from him.

The young woman gave an answering cry of delight and pulled him down to her. He stopped thrusting, lay limp in her arms. Taking it for his twinned savour of the moment, she was surprised when her kisses came away salty. The young man had begun to cry.

He rolled away. She followed as if stapled to him. She rubbed his shoulders and asked him what was wrong. He was being comforted; that was definitely what the young woman thought she was doing to him. He said it was nothing, and yet still she kissed the spots on his back, ran her hands through his hair – whispered again and again, “what’s wrong?”.

“I’m just tired,” he said. “Please.”

“Stop running away from me,” she said, kissing and kissing. Her kisses came to his face, now targeting his tears with intention. A spider of many joints was closing itself around him; its shadow swam across his eyes. No, he didn’t love her. She was the one good item in his life, and he couldn’t love her. Some requisite gland in him was forever stopped-up.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Please leave me alone.”

“I’m staying right here,” she said, kissing and kissing and kissing and looming darker and darker.

It was a mysterious thing, how it happened. The words escaped before the thought of them.

“I’m transgender,” the young man yelped.

The young woman redoubled her kisses, then, falling in tripped rhythms, she slowed. She stopped.


He repeated it, the absurdity. “I’m a trans woman.” She’d heard it this time. The numbing face, all words falling away from sense, and no denying what he said, no way but forwards. “You were right,” he said. “I couldn’t enjoy sex with you. It’s been that way with all my partners.”

So the narrative constructed itself, fast. It wasn’t lying, exactly; it didn’t feel like lying. The words continued in their stream unbidden, as if assembling themselves from the air. She pressed herself close against his back, listening. Her warmth entered him, and as he elaborated this new version of himself – who had always seen himself a woman but had never, until recently, been able to articulate it, who could only, Jesus Fucking Christ, get through sex by imagining himself as her – he felt in her silent reception of his garbled speech the quality he’d always needed in her. The love he’d required of himself, too, began to twist and bloom in his chest. Nothing to do but chase it.

He invented wholecloth. Treacherous feelings in childhood playing dress-ups, adult experiments with crossdressing abandoned in shame. His envy for female sisterhood; the exile he’d always felt from his own body. He was realistically inarticulate. The longer he spoke, the less he knew if what he was saying might actually be the truth. He’d begun speaking involuntarily, to buy her silence; he’d continued speaking to justify having begun. He ended, then, stunned into submission, brought to silence himself by the odd catharsis his words had brought him. He’d invented it all. Why did he feel unburdened, as if he’d revealed his soul – that word which had always seemed precious, and now only appropriate? He turned to her. Her eyes were already on his.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”

His throat kicked with fear. “You’re straight,” he whispered.

A micro-expression seemed to take his point, but she smiled. “Guess not.”

It was too facile, and for a moment he didn’t believe her. She was behaving, blinking, now kissing him, too much like a woman being strip-searched for candour. And yet she had no reason to be dishonest. So it was sealed. She took his wrists and tried to climb over on top of him, but he rose and drove her down onto the sheets, a new hot acid running through every limb. He fucked her, their hearts racing chest-to-chest; for the first time, he meant it.

He awoke the next morning alone in her bed. The young woman was gone; the coffee grinder whirring downstairs gave the explanation. Memories of the previous night circled in a widening compass; a slow-mounting panic prickled his chest. The worst lies he’d ever told, and said while crying, tearing at his face in a perfect image of anguished confession. Outside him now, they had the status of achieved truth. In her eyes – or in the eyes she would teach herself to have – his body was now a woman’s. He heard her greeting her housemate. She’d be coming back soon. If he’d lied, then what was he really?

He floundered, eyeless, through categories providing no orientation. The gender of her room surrounded him: the floral bedspread, the sun-startled walls full of tacked-up sketches, the sticker-slogans on her wardrobe door. Each was a legible outline that oppressed his own, pressed him deeper into shapelessness. He was falling between atoms. Panting with fear, gripping her sheets, he tried to calm himself down. Why had he chosen this as his lie? What if he’d been moved to tell it because – it wasn’t a lie at all? If sex had been so revolting to him for so long, beyond remedy, what other explanation could there be? He wasn’t asexual; he masturbated. He wasn’t gay, he had that much self-insight. And if he’d felt, since birth, a fog that wound through his mind and separated himself from himself – if he’d been, at every moment, met with a distinct sensation he had been fed a placebo where everyone around him had been given the real thing – then why shouldn’t it be this that had made him miserable?

The door creaked open. The young woman handed him his coffee and asked, stumblingly, if he’d begun his transition already. He admitted he hadn’t: it hadn’t felt real, he said, until he’d told her.

“Is that something you’d want to do?”

What would it mean for him to say ‘no’? He took a swallow of coffee and said the appropriate word.

They moved in together. Unworried by how little the young man seemed to know about the identity he’d so dramatically claimed, the young woman researched gender clinicians, support groups and resources, the most flattering clothes for the young man’s frame. She lent to him out of her own closet, did him up in eyeliner and lipstick. The young man learned the plenitude of his advantages: his band size was miniscule, his shoulders were narrow even for his stature and his midface ratio was outright miraculous. It didn’t feel right just yet, but he was patient with himself. He began on estrogen, awaiting either a rush of wellbeing that would deliver him from his malaise, or actual dysphoria to confirm he was acting in madness. Instead—over months, watching changes and pretending happiness for the sake of the young woman—he felt nothing budge inside him at all. His hips expanded. His skin softened. He grew tender buds under his nipples, then breasts. Passing each successive point of no return, he felt nothing, not even fear.

Still, he committed. He became proficient at makeup; he trained his voice; he plucked his eyebrows and cut his hair into bangs. The process was more time-consuming than difficult, and soon he passed without effort, at which point he came out publicly. His friends were supportive. His parents were not, but their scandal was his relief: their disgust assured him that he now differed from himself, truly and irreversibly. When he spoke to his Confessor, he took the voice of the sated seeker. “At first,” he said, “I wasn’t sure. But when I saw myself for the first time as a girl, I realized that I couldn’t imagine—living as a man—any future at all.

But transition did nothing for his sex life with the young woman. He found he enjoyed it no more than as a man, and now she, too, seemed to share his preference for cuddling. Losing the ability to ejaculate, he gained the ability to fake his orgasms, which most nights he exploited. He became eligible for sexual reassignment surgery, covered by the software company he’d graduated to work for—if it was free, he reasoned, he had no excuse not to undergo it. The young woman encouraged him, but with the surgery done she rejected his physical overtures altogether.

Finally – after a considerate amount of time – the young woman confessed she wasn’t attracted to him anymore. The decision to break up was mutual.

Only with her final wave from the moving-truck did he realize he hadn’t felt anything compelling for her in years. The extent of his sadness was that he no longer knew what to do in the evenings. Restlessly, dilating himself to schedule, he began to write again – without editing, without real intention. Occasionally, he looked back on the stories he’d written in college. The finger-severing story was preserved in a far folder of his Dropbox; he dredged it up and scrolled through it in embarrassment. Now he understood what the professor had responded to.

The story was ethically ugly. He’d written it for humour, but there was something malevolent about how laboriously he laid out the processes of the young woman as she did something that no actual human would do; she had no possible interior, a mere chess-piece of narrative. Had he chosen her to be a woman because he’d known, even then somehow, that he was a woman? Or had he written a woman – as, he half-remembered, the professor had half-implied – because he thought of women as vacant of consciousness, therefore suited to puppeteering toward improbable ends? And what kind of woman was he, anyway? He looked up from his Macbook. Mascara-tubes and nail polish bottles were debris across his desk; girly succulents and never-lit scented candles overwhelmed his room like the elaborations of a bad liar. He went before his wardrobe mirror and looked at himself: standing there in the wrap dress she’d left him, wearing the excess of mascara that gave him a perpetual look of mild surprise, he saw nothing but a caricature.

He took the dress by the hem, pulled it up over his stomach and, through his underwear, fingered the outline of his neovagina. Now he could go further with his self-interrogation, he thought. He could stick fingers in, look right up himself. Shine a torch. A bitter sac of laughter burst in his gut. The long, painful puberty, all this drilling and re-modelling and better living through chemistry – the girl’s smell on the sheets he no longer had to earn – all this, an explanation for his tears. To her, to himself, he’d needed to peel off a layer, to expose something that would justify what he was. What if his gender – his name, his parents, his dick – had only been a less endangering sacrifice, an easier confession? Than what? He rifled through his closet, finding an old pair of jeans and a boy’s T-shirt. He put them on and checked his reflection again. No good. He looked as absurd in a man’s clothes as he did in a woman’s; the mirror passed him back in one piece either way. He took off everything, posed for himself nude, pretended he still had a penis tucked behind his thighs. No difference. Was he just meant to keep choosing at random, picking paths to the opposite of himself? Until what? An identity kill-screen atop which could stand naked and face God, finally real?

He was twenty-nine, now. He decided to write something saleable at all costs. Finding queer literature in a sudden vogue, he began to write a cycle of stories depicting moments in the lives of trans women. In one, a still-closeted trans girl presents a creative writing class with a searingly personal story – about being sexually assaulted – with a female victim-narrator. The professor harshly criticizes the story, focusing his commentary on the female narrator’s ‘lack of sentience’. The closeted trans woman takes this as an annulment of her possible womanhood, and at the end of the story her third-person pronoun switches, mournfully, to ‘he’. This was the story that finally got him publication in a nationally notable literary magazine, and, through the not-insignificant influence of a friend of his father’s – who, now separated from his mother, had reconciled with the young man – he found publication for the rest of the cycle with a mid-range publishing house.

They threw him a launch party at a local bookstore. The attendance was meagre: mostly fellow writers, all a little wired with jealousy. He overheard someone call him, in a ducked voice, a ‘token’ for the publisher – the far greater injustice of his selection made the young man smile as he signed their books with his unpractised signature. As the attendees drifted, then slowly split, the young man spotted the creative writing professor – he’d heard now-head of the faculty – pacing among the bookcases, plucking at spines and casting a few looks in the direction of the table. When the last straggler left, he approached.

The professor’s ambience had changed since they last met. He now had upon him the ill-groomed, brown-shadowed look of the recent divorcee. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I clocked you.” He’d recognized the young man from the event picture, he meant. The bookshop was closing. The professor asked him off for a drink. The young man, a little unsteady on his event heels, went with him out into the night.

They took a booth in the corner of a bar, where the professor ordered both of them margaritas. “And all this from one story,” the professor said. “Congrats.”

“Did you read it?”

“Not yet.” He affected a Dracula leer. “I’m told it’s got a cruel creative writing teacher.”

At this the young man literally shrugged, something he’d never done as a male. “Inspired-by, maybe.”

“You were a cowardly boy.”

“A cowardly girl,” the young man said. “I was a cowardly girl.”

The professor licked salt from the rim of his glass. “Sure.”

The young man asked if he still gave critiques like that. The professor ran his fingers through his greying beard, said the times wouldn’t allow it now. “The cheek of these kids, though. Some of the things they call me. Sometimes I wish.”

“Being honest, I was wondering if you needed tutors.”

The professor gave an appraising look. “They’d like you better than they like me. Obviously. But no vacancies, no.”

Before the young man could find a junction to excuse himself, the professor ordered two more margaritas and dragged him into a discussion of his latest novel, which he’d been writing on-and-off for a decade and was now proofing. It was about a man holidaying on a Greek island who, trying to reconcile himself to his wife’s recently-discovered infidelity, has an affair of his own with a local woman. “It’s a novel about empathy,” he said. “And language. And sex.” He spoke of how, in the infancy of his writerhood, he’d kept sex carefully apart from his work – thought it too easy to embarrass oneself. Now he realized there was no helping it; Freud was right. “All good literature,” he said, “is wet through, dripping, soaked with sex.” He started fingering the lampshade at their table. “Do you mind a question, maybe a little direct?”


“I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

“What is it?” The young man’s eyes were dry and itchy. He didn’t love trans questions, and he’d wanted to leave half an hour ago.

The professor smiled sheepishly. “Well,” he said. “What’s the biggest cock you’ve ever taken?”

There was an interval that the young man lived and blinked a few seconds in before the rough denim of the professor’s jeans forced forward and rode his stocking up and down, grinding the nylon into his skin. There it was. Disbelief gave way to disgust at his own blindness. The night had been narrowing toward this moment all along – how had he not seen it coming?

The professor’s eyebrows inched higher on his forehead. The young man said nothing. He left his leg out on offer like a foreign object and looked out across the bar at the happy people near him. Graduating private-schoolers unwrapped their third bottle of champagne. Two trans women, one tall and one taller – there were so many of them, nowadays – were holding hands across a table, their shy smiles aglow, as waiters and waitresses walked by merged with the rhythm of their service. Ladders were opening in his stockings, and nobody was coming to stop it. Any of it. Bile sizzled at the bottom of his throat. It was his choice alone.

The professor was, indeed, a recent divorcee. The redbrick unit they took a cab to was perfunctory, shabby and cold. They were in the bedroom quickly: the professor pulled off the young man’s blouse, his skirt and stockings, with what felt like a rehearsed violence. Shivering, nude, to instruction, the young man knelt and closed his eyes.

A thumb moved its nail’s-edge across his cheek. It paused at his philtrum, then tilted to push its pad against his lips. The young man parted them, letting the salty, crude mass enter, push in along his tongue towards the back of his throat.

“Let’s see how deep you can take it.”

The mass stole forth to jostle his gag reflex; involuntarily, the young man’s jaw closed, gently bit the joint of thumb and palm. The professor growled, retreated, wiped the saliva on the young man’s cheek.

“No teeth,” he said. “That’ll do. Let’s try again.” Leather dragged loud against metal. A zipper disengaged.

Later, the young man told his Confessor about the event. “He was revolting,” the young man said. “An obvious chaser. I told you about how he’d been talking to me all night. And now he says—”

The dew on his lips, the fluted, gristly mass pushing its weight onto his tongue. No teeth. He closed his eyes. The professor was pushing his head down to the root. He felt the mass jostle the back of his throat, but he didn’t jerk away. The professor’s rough hand caressed his tit.

“I don’t want it where they snipped you,” he panted, with a voice that was grinning. “You got that boy-cunt clean for me?”

The steady hand on his occiput told him the question was rhetorical; the cock continued moving, sleeving and unsleeving itself between the young man’s lips. His mind was smeary. He didn’t think anything of what the professor had just said to him; he was entering a foreign place, of foreign laws and colour.

Didn’t I tell you what he said to me?” he later said to his Confessor. “Didn’t I tell you? Boy-cunt, he said!

No teeth, he thought. It was a good rule, a sensible one. He’d heard that in purely physical terms, a man could bite through his fingers as easily as one could a carrot. What a felicitous design it was, then, that the integrity of one’s body was such an overpowering drive. That to push oneself through self-mutilation took such staggering motive, unimpeachable certainty of no other way to continue. But even then – even with one’s foot caught in the proverbial bear-trap – one needed distance. A fox would gnaw through its own leg to escape; that was animal instincts. But a man needed mechanical advantage, an assistance of steel. No man would ever bite himself free.

The cock mashed past his gag reflex over and over. He burped and the professor slapped him. He didn’t feel it. He felt his heart trudging in his chest. He knew what had to be done: it was only the doing, now.

He bit down until there was nothing inside his head but light.

Only then was she certain.

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