On the door, there’s an informational poster about the endocrine system. It’s got too-accurate depictions of various organs that glisten with an artist’s added sheen. The longer I look at it, the more I have to suppress the illogical urge to reach up and poke the side of my head where, deep in, my pituitary gland is apparently hiding. Imagining that little nugget pumping growth and shape and outward appearance throughout my body is an uncomfortable thought, so I try to swallow it, but there’s already a thick knot of anxiety resting there while I sit upon crinkling exam room paper. I can’t get anything past it, so all these thoughts just sit inside my head while I wait.
My fingers, tanned from long hours of helping my dad at the shop, twitch against my thigh. I don’t like it here, I think, fight-or-flight thickening in my limbs. My pituitary gland seems to agree with my rogue thoughts fueled by flashbacks of someone saying, just a pinch now, wiggle your toes, while I sat on paper just like this with ghosts lingering near my head; it spills fear, panic, and the anxiety of being harmed into my circulatory system. I nearly get up to walk right out of this Palm Springs doctor’s office to drive a half hour back home to Yucca Valley, but just then, the door opens.
A young, dark-skinned doctor with a male figure and thick beard walks in with another man, this one blond-haired and probably a nurse, at his side. The doctor sits down on the stool and lets it spin him closer towards me. The nurse throws an easy smile my way as he goes over to the standing computer in the corner. The doctor flips through the check-in sheet I filled out before lifting eyes the color of vanilla pods to meet mine.
He speaks with a deep voice, one that has the undercurrent of a hammer striking the earth for oil, “Hi, I’m Doctor Rhodes. That’s Nurse Rosen, but he wants everyone to call him Zach.”
The doctor leans towards me, stage-whispering, “I never do.”
In the corner, Zach barks a laugh and nods, “Yes, it’s quite annoying, as you well know, Stewart.”
Doctor Rhodes rolls his eyes and turns back to me, glancing down at my file again, “So, you’re here to talk about testosterone therapy?”
Struck by the ease with which he declares that earth-shattering concept, I mumble, hushed, chastened, “Yes.”
The doctor leans in just a bit further at my nervousness, lowering himself so he’s below me, looking up at me with soft, cookie-sweet eyes, “Alright, we can do that.”
When I was young, my grandmother used to tell me about the Bible. She told us psalms and gospel from it like they were bedtime stories. I remember many times sitting in her lap after a long day of playing with Hot Wheels and ignoring Barbie dolls. My brother Jack was asleep at my ankle and my sister Olive’s hair tickled my leg as her head rested on Grandma’s knee. When the Biblical parables scared me, I would look up at Grandma to catch sight of swirling, cobalt eyes that roamed over us with maternal love.
That gaze was so strong that looking into it was like staring into the sun on high desert July days: it would burn after-images into your rods and cones so that the faint impression of what you saw followed you around. It was in the kindness of Grandma’s eyes that I could most clearly recall how our own mom had gone out for milk one day with too many bags in the car and never come back. That wasn’t Grandma’s fault though, and it wasn’t what she was supposed to conjure for us when she came to help raise us, so I kept my gaze low.
Still, I couldn’t help but seek reassurance when she told us about the deepest, darkest crevices in the Bible where moral lessons reeked of something ancient, even alien. She liked the story of Noah for some reason, but it was always too macabre, too dark, too ham-fisted Old Testament God for me. She found some kind of value in the Flood and what it did. Maybe she, Mojave Desert born and bred and never left, liked in some way the idea of so much water.
When the cancer came, years later when I was too big to sit in her lap still, I wondered if she told that story again and again to prepare herself for the end.
“It’s the not knowing that terrifies me,” she said to me in the dark, lit by the white line of her own heartbeat on the screen.
Alone in the room with her and unsure, I grasped at what to possibly say, “Well, I can go ask them what’s next in your treatment plan—”
She shook her head, “No, I mean, I don’t know what’s going on inside of me or what’s going to be waiting. They always told me there would be someone on the other side when it was over. They said it would be Jesus, or God, or my husband. What do you think?”
I thought of Cain’s children drowning, I thought of a snake eating a desert mouse, I thought of drought. I thought too of the shimmering, damning knowledge I have inside of me that this is not all that I am. I told her, “I don’t know. Do you want there to be?”
“Yes,” she admitted heavily.
“Alright then,” I reassured her, my fingers rubbing soothing patterns into her wrinkled hand. “There will be.”
She scoffed, “Just like that?”
I smiled at her gently, a small repayment for all the love she stepped in to give, and said, “Yes, Grandma. Just like that.”
Her face parted like the sun peeking through long-awaited rainclouds as something like relief stabbed right at the heart of her. She squeezed my hand and, I like to think, believed.
A few days after that, she died. We cremated her. My father put her in an urn made of crushed sandstone and illustrated with black swirls curling down from its lid that he cradled in mechanic’s hands scrubbed clean for the occasion. Later that day, our family climbed to the top of a hill deep in the Mojave that Grandma loved the view from.
As we scrambled to the summit, my father explained in a shuddered voice that this was the same urn which once held his father. My siblings and I gave our dad a wide berth. It was October, so the light was softer, cooler; it filled the empty space next to him, making it clear that it was exactly the size of a wife or some other lover he could lean on. We, my siblings and I, exchanged looks, but in our same-colored river mud brown eyes there were only hardened memories of an absence, a mother needed and not there. We couldn’t give anything that would fill that hole to him. And, unlike ours, Dad’s eyes are deep blue like the sea I last saw glimmering up at me from hospital white linen. We can’t give him that color either; no one alive could anymore.
The sand shifted beneath our boots; the wind howled lowly. We caught sight of bajadas, remnants of remembered rain, that carved tear tracks into the earth down from rugged mountains. My brother took the urn from my father’s hands, my sister helped him turn it over, and I recited whatever I could recall of Grandma’s sermons. My father cried with his knuckle bitten between his teeth. His face was a grimace, his grief was a banking flame, bright enough to rival the blanket of orange the dying sun spread over the clouds as twilight rushed in.
My grandmother withdrew into the wind, her ashes soon to meld with the sand beneath our feet. Once I could find no more pious affirmations to send her off with, I quieted and bowed my head in deference. With eyes cast down, I watched there, at the foot of the hill, a bee and butterfly play hide-and-go-seek before bed in the yellow blooms of a blue palo verde that only lived because the bajada brought water to it when the rain came.
Dad lifted his gaze high, to the coming stars, and cried.
I only knew about bajadas because Grandma had told me. She taught us about the desert itself because those stories were her birthright too, even more so than anything Christian.
“And it’s yours,” she would say, “because my mother was Mojave with rich skin the color of watered clay and eyes that were always laughing. She’d tell me about our people, and the desert, and how there is a mythos woven into this land. It’s a story that speaks of the great spirit’s little brother whose name was Mastamho, and how he scraped river mud into mountains, and how he taught the Mojave, the children of the mountain Awi Kwa Ame and of the river, everything. He was the one who taught them the power of dreaming.”
She would smack dry lips and trace her fingertips down our eyebrows, lulling us to sleep, “Like how Noah dreamed of the Ark and then made it, what gifts you are given in your dreams come from creation, and when you carry them back to the waking world, you can do magnificent things.”
Once, Olive had sleepily mumbled, “So all I have to do is dream something and it will happen?”
Grandma had laughed lightly and said, “No, child, you dream it and you can make it happen.”
Then, we all fell asleep in the bed we shared as kids, and I had a dream that was so real I could feel it with all my senses. It was less lucid and more ethereal; I remember opening the screen door to our backyard where we tended creosote bushes and prickly pear cacti. To my left, a kiddie pool sat empty of water except for one stubborn, moldy corner that rested in the shade which birds sometimes settled down to bathe in. Overhead, sparks of light were sprinkled across a throbbing, shifting darkness. Sediment sucked at my shoes, the ground calling me in.
In the desert, certain things only come alive at night. During the day, it’s all Joshua trees persevering in the drought and rocks baking in the sun, but at moonrise, the silence of the landscape surges with quiet roars. In my dream, something inside me thundered back at the conjured landscape that felt and looked and was so much like home.
I leaned down to pick up a handful of sand and let it slip between my fingers. Particles of quartz stuck to the palm of my hand like water droplets clinging to skin. I was reminded suddenly of how the desert was once a great ocean. It had changed into its near complete opposite, but there was beauty and life in its new form; snakes that hid under rocks, cougars that walked the paths laid by geology, and creosote bushes just like the ones my family cared for that had lived for millennia.
When I realized this, the hand I had stuck into the earth became roots. I was now a creosote bush, given a crown of flowers adorned with the scent of rain. I was soft yellow with knotted twig vertebrae. I was forever yet terminal, yoked to this body, but I was safe there. I had changed, but I held within me a constancy of being, an omni-present self-surety that was capable of creating clones which would refract my genes across the centuries.
The bushes which I was now a part of swayed in the wind tumbling down from the mountains; they whispered a name I could not say but could feel. I shut my eyes (or maybe it was my leaves) to breathe it in, and when I opened them again, it was morning the next day.
The gift had been given.
When I turn twenty-three, six years after we came down from the hill in the high desert, I have a women’s health check-up in Palm Springs. Grandma had told Olive and I bare things about womanly facts of life, but she was of a generation that put too much stock in silence, so she let some things go unsaid. Sitting on that table with the nurse practitioner pleading for me to relax, telling me this is what women are and have to do, I wish she had explained more.
I wish that grandma’s breast cancer diagnosis didn’t lurking in that room, and I wish I wasn’t fully aware of how all this is an intrusion, a blight upon my insides. They reach in, just a pinch, we’ll go slow, but then it isn’t, and they don’t, and I know they think it is and that they do, but this is a horrifying, heaping reminder that I am not in control, that I have no choice, that I do not own any part of this feminine-facing body (no, not any of it, especially not when it feels alien and betrayer to me as I cast out for some anchor and can only find the dim memory of bushes rustling at night). I can’t wait for it to be over; I bolt out the door with hormones screeching through my veins the second they release me. I buckle into my beat-to-hell ‘77 two-door Maverick that rolls back on hills when I gear shift and push the speed limit the whole way home.
As I make my way back, I see faded signs for towns that I know don’t exist anymore and I pass many more brand-new cars that look fit to burst from luggage. Even though (or perhaps because) I’m still shaking from adrenaline and cortisol, I can’t help but notice the difference.
There are ghost towns along Route 66 and other highways that are way past their use. The houses crumble in on themselves and the gas prices are twenty— forty— fifty years out of date. Highway 62 splits the desert like an earthquake line, forming new geography around its road signs. Everything rests on the strike-slip faults of the national parks. Tourists come and go; they um-and-ah at the vistas and the kitschy decorations in rented Airstream trailers that become ovens at midday. They come to look at the blooms on cholla cactus and, when the spines from the jumping heads of the cacti get stuck in their skin or socks, scream, “Good fucking God!”
This isn’t where they’re from. They don’t feel how the temperature changes from winter to summer, how the reptiles make pacts of their own with us so we can live in the same space, or how the desert folds in on itself to protect its few oases. These are secrets that they come to visit but do not live with. When I race past their tinted car windows, all I can really see in my mind’s eye is myself a toddler, butt sat on the floor of Dad’s shop, the wrench from a baby’s handyman set clutched in hand, the incessant whirs and clangs of mechanic’s work in my ear as I watched a Gila monster slowly drag its belly across the sand just past the open garage door. The memory pricks like a cholla spine the whole way home.
I pass by the Buddhist temple down the street from the Taco Bell, turn left at that one rock that looks like a giant-ass seashell, and there it is: home sweet home, complete with a corrugated metal roof and an unassuming grey color scheme. I find an empty house, which is hardly a surprise nowadays since Olive has gone to school and Jack into the Air Force and only I have stayed behind to help Dad with the shop that he spends too many hours in. I go outside to the patio next to the kiddie pool that we still haven’t gotten around to cleaning. We don’t have any chairs, so I sit on the bare brick; I can feel it trying to burn right through my jeans.
I talk to the desert at blistering midday, to the ghost of my grandmother in a scorpion’s pincers as it ambles past me ten feet away, “What if I —and hear me out now— what if I wasn’t like this?”
The scorpion clicks its claws. Something like the sound of my grandmother’s considering hum muddles through the whipping wind. I feel like that Gila monster, heavy and throated. I am cold-blooded, sensitive to the environment around me but adapted to survive. I’d rather not eat geckos or molt, but I have to admit that, like them, I can feel my habitat eroding. How could I not, when I sense how the drought around me grows unceasingly? It is nursed by climate change and by my own sheer terror at what the consequences be if I give in to what my heart whispers at the dead of night when the desert comes alive. Would I lose family or sanity? Would I even recognize myself if I healed a wound that’s been deepening since I sat in my grandmother’s lap and learned about Old Testament God? Would the desert forgive me for this dream?
When I look up, tears secreting down from the lip of my eyelid, I come upon a blue brilliance that is blinding in its own way. It feels impossibly magnificent, even unreal, because it’s almost like the ocean is on top of the world, in the atmosphere, not down here. That all I had to do to find water, to find an answer, was to change how I look.
It’s easier said than done, but so is turning dry into wet and fear into love, which is the lot of everyone who makes a home in the desert. It’s not easy to care for prickly pear or make peace with a rattlesnake. These are not natural, so they must be attempted, bargained for. Sometimes, we lose. Sometimes, my father can’t make ends meet so we have to beg the bank for more time. Sometimes, my sister recedes inside of herself, the maw of depression yawning open at the back of her head. Sometimes, my brother doesn’t know where to put his anger, so he bleeds it into the world, grinding his pain into the dirt. Sometimes, I can’t stand how I look in the mirror or standing in line at Starbucks. Sometimes, my skin itself feels like it is made of katydids trying to crawl away. Sometimes, it’s like my curves are seething pounds of flesh waiting to be exacted from me. Sometimes, I can’t hear the shimmer inside of me that sounds like rain and is so confident that this not all that I am. Sometimes, I can’t hear anything except the rattle of that snake’s tail, the acid rush of weapon-of-last-resort Gila venom, and the stinging tang that always accompanies self-hatred.
This dysphoria, this rapacious disalignment, announces itself loudest these days when I fall in love. When we (this girl I liked who wasn’t just a fling, this boy I knew who just moved to town) settle in enough, there is always the rocking desperation that shouts, I am not as you see me, but could you love me anyway. Staring into someone I loved’s eyes, I breathe out a confession into the night, I cannot see myself ever giving you this (stomach small and puckered with rolls but flat and always so), but could you love me anyway. I am haunted by darkening, withdrawing eyes; I cry out again and again for an informational poster on what to do when someone rejects me, but I go back to the well of companionship to drink again, again, because I am flawed but could you love me anyway— I would love you in return like desert shrubs love the rain and jackrabbits the few greens they can find.
And always, always, I slink back home, my heart dragging on the ground, to watch Star Trek reruns with my dad before bed. He smiles easily at me, his minted-Dad brand of affection so simple and quiet that I nearly miss the considerate way that he doesn’t comment on my buzzed short hair or the many genders I try to date. But then I remember: his is a generation of silence, and this is not always a curse. Sometimes, this is just the way he makes his bargain with the world, how he expresses his acceptance.
In the shop, day in, day out, he hands me a wrench with an unceasing confidence as we work arm-deep in a salt-flat-crusted engine. At home, he makes stew that’s as close to Grandma’s as he can get it. He calls to check in on my siblings; he asks after my brother’s duties, my sister’s classes. He knows that I steal his old shirts to wear, so he has started leaving them outside my bedroom door with little fanfare. The quiet that envelops these moments is not a condemnation or an ending; I have nothing to fear. This is simply how he loves me. Staring up into the ocean-sky, I feel like I can see this more clearly than ever.
This, what I am, what I’ll be, what I’ve been, it doesn’t have to damn me to hell and back. I’ve long cut my teeth on what the end of the world means. For God’s sake, I live down the road from Death Valley. I know what that looks like. I’d like to imagine, staring into my bathroom mirror in private, and walking around out there in the world, that I am a beginning, that I am what I want to look like.
So, I settle something with myself. I come to an accord, hugging my knees to my chest, butt burning from sun-superheated brick. I make a bargain worthy of Jehovah in Noah’s visions of the Flood: I go to find the river I need as Mastamho said I should, and I try to follow the gift given in my dreams. I’m going to bind my chest, I’m going to cure my wounds, I’m going to drink water and change my name and become my dream.
I tell this to the scorpion. It waddles away on many legs, totally unaware of the sea-change going on inside my head. That’s fine, I say to myself, I know what I’m going to do.
“There, that’s fine,” Nurse Zach says as he draws some blood from my arm. He presses a scrap of gauze to my sandy skin in a way that is forceful but strangely loving. Beneath my shirt, my binder is also pressed tight to my chest, pulling close with every breath; its overlaid presence keys me into the moment and keeps me from slipping back into memories better left alone. Here and now, Zach carefully rests my hand over the gauze so I can apply pressure while he fetches a band-aid.
Doctor Rosen claps his hands together, “Alright! So, you’re clear on all the side-effects of T-therapy, both good and possibly bad.”
He nods his head at the collection of pamphlets sitting in my lap and then continues on, spinning from foot to foot on the stool, “Of course, if anything starts happening that you don’t like or didn’t expect, then let us know as soon as possible so we can adjust accordingly. Many patients report acne, as well as bouts of hair growth or hair loss. There will also likely be emotional shifts that you aren’t used to. All of this is normal but worth noting.”
Here, he stops twisting around and pauses, looking considerate. Then, he startles out of that and snaps his fingers at me. He speaks like he’s stumbled onto a revelatory metaphor, “It’s like your body is going through a second puberty; the first one was a tidal wave of change that your body had to deal with, so this one is going to be much the same. Things will transform in ways that even I can’t predict.”
I smile wide at Doctor Rosen’s words, more comfortable in this room than I have been for the entire appointment. He has no idea that he just hit the nail on its head for me, so he quirks his head at my brightened look, bushy eyebrows furrowing.
“Good,” I reply resolutely, hoping that my conviction will reassure Doctor Rosen about my sanity in spite of the out-of-nowhere turnabout.
“That’s very good,” I repeat more quietly, still affixed with a slight grin. I cast my eyes down to watch my fingers worry the edge of the band-aid at my elbow.
Doctor Rosen lets out a pleased harrumph before rising to walk to the door. Zach follows him before he turns back to me where I sit on hospital white paper linen, and asks, kindly and quietly, “Should I put a new name into our records?”
I look up at them, the doctor and the nurse, and am struck by how their eyes hold just a touch of ocean-sky.
My grin widens, and my mouth opens to fill the desert with sound.