conversations with my electrologist

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She told me about her husband once. He teaches at a high school nearby: three sections of marketing and two sections of computer science, a standard section and an AP section. He has a degree in engineering from an institution that generally qualifies you to make big money doing that, but chose to be a high school teacher instead. The CS teacher at my high school did something similar and I remember it made me like him. The marketing came later, I imagine. She tells me that their students go to some regional marketing competition for high school students. My guess is that he’s been talking about it at home. High school teachers do a lot of logistical work for events like this that you generally forget about; that having been said, I forgot if my high school CS teacher took us to any competitions. He seemed to have a sort of high-minded John Dewey vibe about education, even if he was probably pretty socially conservative and said something kind of weird and ambiguous about abortion that one time. This regional competition, anyway, is a big deal, of the kind that not just any high school marketing class qualifies for it. He has one student who qualified for the national version of this thing, and so recently her husband flew to Portland or somewhere to accompany this fourteen-year-old marketing prodigy. I try to picture the inner life of a marketing prodigy and I can’t. I didn’t tell her that I don’t really know what marketing is or how one could compete in it, I just made what I hoped were impressed-sounding noises while trying not to move my face too much.

She has this tendency to ask me questions right as she inserts a needle in my face. It could be worse. It would drive me crazy if she were silent during our sessions, so I’m grateful for her skill in filling up space, even if some of the questions are basically “do you have anything fun planned for this weekend?” She’s a short, serious, steady-handed woman who’s probably older than my mother. I wonder if she has any ideas about what a 22-year-old trans girl gets herself up to in her free time. I’ve thought about asking her how someone gets to be an electrolysis technician, because, like, who even knows about electrolysis if you’re not trans, but I figure the answer is more banal than I can imagine. There are schools for cosmetology, I’m pretty sure. It’s really boring, usually. What I get up to, I mean. Just like, sitting in a room with a book, for the most part. Sometimes she fills in my answers for me if I take too long on her questions: she asked me a while ago whether I liked Pete Buttigieg, and when I didn’t say anything she said “he seems inexperienced.” I murmured in agreement. She asked who I like in between pokes and I told her I liked Sanders. She said “of course, you’re young.” I mentioned universal healthcare and she said something about how needed that is. So that’s all right.

What I am doing here is usually classified as a “cosmetic” procedure, much like a good deal of gender confirmation healthcare, so I feel as though even if some kind of European healthcare system got implemented here (unlikely as that now is) it wouldn’t cover this, and it probably wouldn’t cover GRS and FFS, either. She told me once in passing that she does “pre-op” clients in addition to those of us who, like me, simply want our facial hair removed. I forgot the context that this came up in — was it intended to show her understanding how brutal this process can be, even if it’s going really well? A sort of I get it, I know, kind of gesture. Anyway, that particular subset of the electrologist’s craft is probably a situation in which the cosmetic undertones of the process totally vanish. This is a very low-key kind of surgery, more or less. That having been said I haven’t run into another trans girl at this office. I do see a lot of slightly haggard-looking cis women in their 40s leaving. They usually don’t make eye contact with me. I wonder about them.

A particularly uncharitable part of me thinks I couldn’t imagine being born with a cis body and still needing this sort of thing, especially when I reach an age when I expect to be unbeautiful anyway. I mean, I also usually assume that I’ll pass by then, which to me means being beautiful in an undisciplined way. I worry about this impulse, which is basically another kind of internalized misogyny. I don’t want to position trans healthcare — which is, maybe to an extent, more or less cosmetic in that it is often mostly visual or at least mostly about signification — as somehow more fundamental, more deserving of care on a metaphysical level than the normal amount of self-loathing that women in general are socialized into. Like everyone else, I want to be pretty. Maybe I’m not helping my case.

Anyway, it’s weird having someone in such close proximity to your dysphoria, almost reaching out to touch it. I certainly don’t let anyone else near my unshaved face. I feel as though there’s something unspoken between us, something unspeakable in the context where it’s being dealt with. If I actually voiced the terms of this exchange the procedure itself would become impossibly awkward, and so all this banality is a shield of sorts. That’s probably why I’ve been lying to her.

I don’t feel good about this, but it started simply enough. I started by telling her that I’m an English major to avoid explaining, like, my whole deal, the wayward way I’ve made through college, but pretty soon it ballooned into a Whole Thing, a kind of fictional version of myself. I realized pretty quick that I would have had ample time to explain to her my whole deal if I wanted to. She would understand. She’s a good listener, despite having to think about the efficient removal of the hair from my face.

Instead, I am facing the realization that any lie that I tell to my technician requires a lot of backstory. I thought I was writing a short fiction about myself and it turns out that it’s more of a serial. Every week I detail more and more of the life of a woman who shares my name and some of my story but almost no details. It’s like autofiction. I’ve filled in most of the details by this point: the high school she went to, what she cared about in high school, the kind of music she listens to, her sexual orientation, what kind of relationship she has with her parents. This is character creation of a kind that I never do when I’m writing my short stories. I should use this Emily in a story sometime: she has the advantage of being plausible (because she’s me) but she’s perfect.

I invented a girlfriend when it seemed like I didn’t have anything else to talk about. I was deciding whether to be straight or gay and figured in the end that I don’t really know how to assume a straight woman’s subjectivity (this is a problem with my fiction sometimes, too). I used the name of a former on-again-off-again, embellished on some of the details. Like me, my fictional partner is a writer. I’m trying to get as far as I can get into electrolysis before deciding whether to make her trans or cis. If she’s trans there might be more questions.

It was a good idea to tell her I was a writer, because it led her to tell me about her son. He’s not not a writer. He lives in LA and is in that nebulous director-scriptwriter-producer space that people with film degrees take up initially. He did — commercials I think? I forgot the details. She tells me he would be having more success in Hollywood if he was a better writer. I’m not sure how to evaluate that statement, so I respond with platitudes about how important writing is, how everyone needs to do it in some form or another. I mention emails. Everyone sends emails, right? I don’t mention to her that I’m terrible at writing emails.

Speaking of straight women, it turns out that my electrologist, who has been doing this for twenty years or something, knows a lot of the trans women in the area, especially older trans girls whose goal is to be stealth, people for whom woman is the operative word rather than trans. I made a mental note to ask her more about this, but I’m never sure how to broach the subject. I do get stories, though. She once did facial and pre-op electrolysis for someone who then went on to marry a man. This husband, after nearly a decade of marriage to a trans woman, decided to transition, much to the chagrin of his wife, who “is only attracted to men.” I told her that I might turn that anecdote into a short story. She laughed and said it probably would make a good one.

I like to think that the woman who was married to an egg didn’t tell him she was trans, and only found out when he came out himself. Now that would be a good story. But, no, I’m embellishing again. When I related that anecdote to my mom, by the way, she told me that that trans woman probably “needs heterosexuality to feel normal.” As in, she would have trouble seeing herself as a woman if she didn’t have heterosexuality to hold onto, if that makes sense? I mean, like, how are you married to someone for ten years and your reaction to them coming out as trans is that they don’t fit some largely abstract category? I’ve heard of ostensibly straight girls who “realized” they were bisexual when their partners come out. Like Nicole in Nevada, probably, if we got to see how that whole thing with James ended up shaking out. I kind of wish we saw more of her, to be honest. Like: we get to see her reading Andrea Dworkin but we don’t find out how she reacts to a partner coming out? Although I suppose that disappointment is part of what makes the last third of the book hurt so much. It’s a structural disappointment. The narrative just abruptly stops when it’s clear that nothing is going to change.

I recommended that novel to my electrologist once. She asked me if there are any novels written about trans people and I told her (honestly) that it was my favorite of what I had read so far. I hope she doesn’t read it. I feel like it would only confuse her, what with all those weird passages about autogynephilia and kink. It was really intended for trans readers and uniquely sympathetic cis readers. I should have recommended If I Was Your Girl or something like that instead.

The last session I had before the shelter-in-place order took effect in March, she told me that my “pain tolerance is improving.” I said thank you. The first few times I was surprised at the pain — occasionally indicating that I needed a moment to recover — and now I’m bored about it. It’s a lot like giving yourself an estrogen injection: the first couple times it’s scary in an exciting way, like a secret, dangerous gift you’re giving yourself. After that, it’s just the physical fact of sticking a needle in your thigh every week. I’ve been keeping the used syringes in a delicate crystal liquor glass on the shelf above my desk, seven so far. If I want to keep going, I’ll probably have to get another glass. Clearly, I hadn’t considered getting this far. I still don’t really like thinking about the future in terms of my transition, to be honest. If I think about anything beyond the moment I’m in, the afternoons of staring into a ring light while getting poked start to pile up, not to mention the cost of this whole thing that I am doing to myself, and I start to feel a little deranged. One time I asked her how long she thinks I’ll take to be completely clear, and she told me that she usually gives an estimate of twelve to eighteen months. Looked at one way, this means that probably before very much else happens to me, I will not have to shave my face. I am twenty-two. I will hypothetically be somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-four.

As much of a passion as I have for narrative, I am coming to terms with how prosaic transition really is, when you come right down to it: that I am going to be spending a lot of time and money to get a bunch of medical procedures done that might, potentially, ameliorate a feeling of alienation I don’t know what it’s like to live without. On its own, stripped down to the basic facts of the thing, maybe transition isn’t really very interesting material.

There’s still something exciting about all of this, of course, even now. It’s not like I regret anything, exactly. I don’t see myself as tragic or compromised or anything like that. I’m certainly not trying to reclaim anything. Actually, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say or if I’m trying to tie everything in this essay to some thesis. An instructor told me once that ambivalence is what makes me a good thinker, but the truth is that I don’t try for ambivalence, it just seems to be where I always end up. I suppose that like anything else, I could try to change that, or I could work with it. Maybe those two options are really the same thing.

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