The intake process begins with dismantling her personal space, one mantle at a time. Her shoes, left by the side of the road where the Go Team plucked her out of them. Her purse and satchel, her computer containing all of her artwork and her manifestos, thrown into a metal garbage can at a rest area on the highway, miles away. That purse, which she swung to and fro on the sidewalks to clear a path, like a southern grandma, now has food waste piled on it, and eventually will be chewed to shreds by raccoons. At some point the intake personnel fold her, like a folding chair that turns into an almost two-dimensional object, and they stuff her into a kennel, in spite of all her attempts to resist. Later she receives her first injection and loses any power to struggle, and some time after, control over her excretory functions. By the time they cut her clothes off, a layer of muck coats the backs of her thighs. They clean her and dress her in something that is not clothing, and they shave part of her head. At some point, Rachel glimpses a power drill, like a handyman’s, but she’s anesthetized and does not feel where it goes.
What does it mean to be a unique individual in an age when your fingerprints and retina scans have long since been stolen by Ecuadorian hackers?
Rachel has a whole library of ways to get through this, none of which works at all. She spent a couple years meditating, did a whole course on trauma and self-preservation, and had an elaborate theory about how to carve out a space in your mind that they cannot touch, whatever they are doing to you. She remembers the things she used to tell everyone else in the support group, in the Safe Space, about not being alone even when you have become isolated by outside circumstances. But in the end, Rachel’s only coping mechanism is dissociation, which arises from total animal panic. She’s not even Rachel anymore, she’s just a screaming blubbering mess, with a tiny kernel of her mind left, trapped a few feet above her body, in a process that is not at all like yogic flying.
Eventually, though, the intake is concluded, and Rachel is left staring up at a Styrofoam ceiling with a pattern of cracks that looks like a giant spider or an angry demon face descending toward her. She’s aware of being numb from extreme cold in addition to the other ways in which she is numb, and the air conditioner keeps blurting into life with an aggravated whine. A stereo system plays a CD by that white rock-rap artist who turned out to be an especially stupid racist. The staff keep walking past her and talking about her in the third person, while misrepresenting basic facts about her, such as her name and her personal pronoun. Occasionally they adjust something about her position or drug regimen without speaking to her or looking at her face. She does not quite have enough motor control to scream or make any sound other than a kind of low ululation. She realizes at some point that someone has made a tiny hole in the base of her skull, where she now feels a mild ache.
Before you feel too sorry for Rachel, however, you should be aware that she’s a person who holds a great many controversial views. For example, she once claimed to disapprove of hot chocolate, because she believes that chocolate is better at room temperature, or better yet as a component of ice cream or some other frozen dessert. In addition, Rachel considers ZZ Top an underappreciated music group, supports karaoke only in an alcohol-free environment, dislikes puppies, enjoys Brussels sprouts, and rides a bicycle with no helmet. She claims to prefer the Star Wars prequels to the Disney Star Wars films. Is Rachel a contrarian, a freethinker, or just kind of an asshole? If you could ask her, she would reply that opinions are a utility in and of themselves. That is, the holding of opinions is a worthwhile exercise per se, and the greater diversity of opinions in the world, the more robust our collective ability to argue.
The gender change looked more like landscaping: building embankments out of raw dirt, heaving big rocks to change the course of rivers, and uprooting plants stem by stem.
Also! Rachel once got a gas station attendant nearly fired for behavior that, a year or two later, she finally conceded might have been an honest misunderstanding. She’s the kind of person who sends food back for not being quite what she ordered—and on at least two occasions, she did this and then returned to that same restaurant a week or two later, as if she had been happy after all. Rachel is the kind of person who calls herself an artist, despite never having received a grant from a granting institution, or any kind of formal gallery show, and many people wouldn’t even consider her collages and relief maps of imaginary places to be proper art. You would probably call Rachel a Goth.
Besides dissociation—which is wearing off as the panic subsides—the one defense mechanism that remains for Rachel is carrying on an imaginary conversation with Dev, the person with whom she spoke every day for so long, and to whom she always imagined speaking, whenever they were apart. Dev’s voice in Rachel’s head would have been a refuge not long ago, but now all Rachel can imagine Dev saying is, Why did you leave me? Why, when I needed you most? Rachel does not have a good answer to that question, which is why she never tried to answer it when she had the chance.
Thinking about Dev, about lost chances, is too much. And at that moment, Rachel realizes she has enough muscle control to lift her head and look directly in front of her. There, standing at an observation window, she sees her childhood best friend, Jeffrey.
• • •
Ask Jeffrey why he’s been working at Love and Dignity for Everyone for the past few years and he’ll say, first and foremost, student loans. Plus, in recent years, child support, and his mother’s ever-increasing medical bills. Life is crammed full of things that you have to pay for after the fact, and the word “plan” in “payment plan” is a cruel mockery because nobody ever really sets out to plunge into chronic debt. But also Jeffrey wants to believe in the mission of Love and Dignity for Everyone: to repair the world’s most broken people. Jeffrey often re-reads the mission statement on the wall of the employee lounge as he sips his morning Keurig so he can carry Mr. Randall’s words with him for the rest of the day. Society depends on mutual respect, Mr. Randall says. You respect yourself and therefore I respect you, and vice versa. When people won’t respect themselves, we have no choice but to intervene, or society unravels. Role-rejecting and aberrant behavior, ipso facto, is a sign of a lack of self-respect. Indeed, a cry for help. The logic always snaps back into airtight shape inside Jeffrey’s mind.
Of course Jeffrey recognizes Rachel the moment he sees her wheeled into the treatment room, even after all this time and so many changes, because he’s been Facebook-stalking her for years (usually after a couple of whiskey sours). He saw when she changed her name and her gender marker, and noticed when her hairstyle changed and when her face suddenly had a more feminine shape. There was the kitten she adopted that later ran away, and the thorny tattoo that says STAY ALIVE. Jeffrey read all her oversharing status updates about the pain of hair removal and the side effects of various pills. And then, of course, the crowning surgery. Jeffrey lived through this process vicariously, in real time, and saw no resemblance to a butterfly in a cocoon, or any other cute metaphor. The gender change looked more like landscaping: building embankments out of raw dirt, heaving big rocks to change the course of rivers, and uprooting plants stem by stem. Dirty bruising work. Why a person would feel the need to do this to themself, Jeffrey could never know.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into metaphysical flusterclucks about identity and the soul and what makes you you.
At first, Jeffrey pretends not to know the latest subject, or to have any feelings one way or the other, as the Accu-Probe goes into the back of her head. This is not the right moment to have a sudden conflict. Due to some recent personnel issues, Jeffrey is stuck wearing a project manager hat along with his engineer hat—which, sadly, is not a cool pinstriped train-engineer hat of the sort that he and Rachel used to fantasize about wearing for work when they were kids. As a project manager, he has to worry endlessly about weird details such as getting enough coolant into the cadaver storage area and making sure that Jamil has the green shakes that he says activate his brain. As a government–industry joint venture under Section 1774(b)(8) of the Mental Health Restoration Act (relating to the care and normalization of at-risk individuals), Love and Dignity for Everyone has to meet certain benchmarks of effectiveness, and must involve the community in a meaningful role. Jeffrey is trying to keep twenty fresh cadavers in transplant-ready condition, and clearing the decks for more live subjects, who are coming down the pike at an ever-snowballing rate. The situation resembles one of those poultry processing plants where they keep speeding up the conveyer belt until the person grappling with each chicken ends up losing a few fingers.
Jeffrey runs from the cadaver freezer to the observation room to the main conference room for another community engagement session, around and around, until his Fitbit applauds. Five different Slack channels flare at once with people wanting to ask Jeffrey process questions, and he’s lost count of all his unanswered DMs. Everyone agrees on the goal—returning healthy, well-adjusted individuals to society without any trace of dysphoria, dysmorphia, dystonia, or any other dys- words—but nobody can agree on the fine details, or how exactly to measure ideal outcomes beyond those statutory benchmarks. Who even is the person who comes out the other end of the Love and Dignity for Everyone process? What does it mean to be a unique individual, in an age when your fingerprints and retina scans have long since been stolen by Ecuadorian hackers? It’s all too easy to get sucked into metaphysical flusterclucks about identity and the soul and what makes you you.
This is not medicine. This is a human rights violation.
Jeffrey’s near-daily migraine is already in full flower by the time he sees Rachel wheeled in and he can’t bring himself to look. She’s looking at him. She’s looking right at him. Even with all the other changes, her eyes are the same, and he can’t just stand here. She’s putting him in an impossible position, at the worst moment.
Someone has programmed Slack so that when anyone types “alrighty then,” a borderline-obscene GIF of two girls wearing clown makeup appears. Jeffrey is the only person who ever types “alrighty then,” and he can’t train himself to stop doing it. And, of course, he hasn’t been able to figure out who programmed the GIF to appear.
Self-respect is the key to mutual respect. Jeffrey avoids making eye contact with that window or anyone beyond it. His head still feels too heavy with pain for a normal body to support, but also he’s increasingly aware of a core-deep anxiety shading into nausea.
• • •
Jeffrey and Rachel had a group, from the tail end of elementary school through to the first year of high school, called the Sock Society. They all lived in the same cul-de-sac, bounded by a canola field on one side and the big interstate on the other. The origins of the Sock Society’s name are lost to history, but may arise from the fact that Jeffrey’s mom never liked kids to wear shoes inside the house and Jeffrey’s house had the best game consoles and a 4K TV with surround sound. These kids wore out countless pairs of tires on their dirt bikes, conquered the extra DLC levels in Halls of Valor, and built snow forts that gleamed. They stayed up all night at sleepovers watching forbidden horror movies on an old laptop under a blanket while guzzling off-brand soda. They whispered, late at night, of their fantasies and barely-hinted-at anxieties, although there were some things Rachel would not share because she was not ready to speak of them and Jeffrey would not have been able to hear if she had. They repeated jokes they didn’t 100 percent understand, and kind of enjoyed the queasy awareness of being out of their depth. Later, the members of the Sock Society (which changed its ranks over time with the exception of the core members, Rachel and Jeffrey) became adept at stuffing gym socks with blasting caps and small incendiaries and fashioning the socks themselves into rudimentary fuses before placing them in lawn ornaments, small receptacles for gardening tools, and—in one incident that nobody discussed afterward—Mrs. Hooper’s scooter.
When Jeffrey’s mother was drunk, which was often, she would say she wished Rachel was her son, because Rachel was such a smart boy—quick on the uptake, so charming with the rapid-fire puns, handsome and respectful. Like Young Elvis. Instead of Jeffrey, who was honestly a little shit.
Jeffrey couldn’t wait to get over the wall of adolescence, into the garden of manhood. Every dusting of fuzz on his chin, every pungent whiff from his armpits seemed to him the starting gun. He became obsessed with finding porn via that old laptop, and he was an artist at coming up with fresh new search terms every time he and Rachel hung out. Rachel got used to innocent terms such as “cream pie” turning out to mean something gross and animalistic, in much the same way that a horror movie turned human bodies into slippery meat.
The intake process begins with dismantling her personal space, one mantle at a time.
Then one time Jeffrey pulled up some transsexual porn, because what the hell. Rachel found herself watching a slender Latina with a shy smile slowly peel out of a silk robe to step into a scene with a muscular bald man. The girl was wearing nothing but bright silver shoes and her body was all smooth angles and tapering limbs, and the one piece of evidence of her transgender status looked tiny, both inconsequential and of a piece with the rest of her femininity. She tiptoed across the frame like a ballerina. Like a cartoon deer.
Watching this, Rachel quivered, until Jeffrey thought she must be grossed out, but deep down Rachel was having a feeling of recognition. Like: that’s me. Like: I am possible.
Years later, in her twenties, Rachel had a group of girlfriends (some trans, some cis) and she started calling this feminist gang the Sock Society, because they made a big thing of wearing colorful socks with weird and sometimes profane patterns. Rachel mostly didn’t think about the fact that she had repurposed the Sock Society sobriquet for another group, except to tell herself that she was reclaiming an ugly part of her past. Rachel is someone who obsesses about random issues, but also claims to avoid introspection at all costs—in fact, she once proposed an art show called The Unexamined Life Is the Only Way to Have Fun.
• • •
Rachel has soiled herself again. A woman in avocado-colored scrubs snaps on blue gloves with theatrical weariness before sponging Rachel’s still-unfeeling body. The things I have to deal with, says the red-faced woman, whose name is Lucy. People like you always make people like me clean up after you, because you never think the rules apply to you, the same as literally everyone else. And then look where we end up, and I’m here cleaning your mess.
Rachel tries to protest that none of this is her doing, but her tongue is a slug that’s been bathed in salt.
There’s always some excuse, Lucy says as she scrubs. Life is not complicated, it’s actually very simple. Men are men, and women are women, and everyone has a role to play. It’s selfish to think that you can just force everyone else in the world to start carving out exceptions, just so you can play at being something you’re not. You will never understand what it really means to be female, the joy and the endless discomfort, because you were not born into it.
Rachel feels frozen solid. Ice crystals permeate her body, the way they would frozen dirt. This woman is touching between her legs, without looking her in the face. She cannot bear to breathe. She keeps trying to get Jeffrey’s attention, but he always looks away. As if he’d rather not witness what’s going to happen to her.
Lucy and a man in scrubs wheel in something gauzy and white, like a cloud on a gurney. They bustle around, unwrapping and cleaning and prepping, and they mutter numbers and codes to each other, like E-drop 2347, as if there are a lot of parameters to keep straight here. The sound of all that quiet professionalism soothes Rachel in spite of herself, like she’s at the dentist.
At some point they step away from the thing they’ve unwrapped and prepped, and Rachel turns her head just enough to see a dead man on a metal shelf.
How would you know if you were in danger? Rachel had said that was a dumb question because danger never left.
Her first thought is that he’s weirdly good looking, despite his slight decomposition. He has a snub nose and thin lips, a clipped jaw, good muscle definition, a cyanotic penis that flops against one thigh, and sandy pubic hair. Whatever (whoever) killed this man left his body in good condition, and he was roughly Rachel’s age. This man could have been a model or maybe a pro wrestler, and Rachel feels sad that he somehow died so early, with his best years ahead.
Rachel tries to scream. She feels Lucy and the other one connecting her to the dead man’s body and hears a rattling garbage-disposal sound. The dead man twitches, and meanwhile Rachel can’t struggle or make a sound. She feels weaker than before, and some part of her insists this must be because she lost an argument at some point. Back in the Safe Space, they had talked about all the friends of friends who had gone to ground, and the Internet rumors. How would you know if you were in danger? Rachel had said that was a dumb question because danger never left.
The dead man smiles: not a large rictus, like in a horror movie, but a tiny shift in his features, like a contented sleeper. His eyes haven’t moved or appeared to look at anything. Lucy clucks and adjusts a thing, and the kitchen-garbage noise grinds louder for a moment.
We’re going to get you sorted out, Lucy says to the dead man. You are going to be so happy. She turns and leans over Rachel to check something, and her breath smells like sour corn chips.
You are violating my civil rights by keeping me here, Rachel says. A sudden victory, except that then she hears herself and it’s wrong. Her voice comes out of the wrong mouth, is not even her own voice. The dead man has spoken, not her, and he didn’t say that thing about civil rights. Instead he said, Hey, excuse me, how long am I going to be kept here? As if this were a mild inconvenience keeping him from his business. The voice sounded rough, flinty, like a bad sore throat, but also commanding. The voice of a surgeon, or an airline pilot. You would stop whatever you were doing and listen, if you heard that voice.
Rachel lets out an involuntary cry of panic, which comes out of the dead man’s mouth as a low groan. She tries again to say, This is not medicine. This is a human rights violation. And it comes out of the dead man’s mouth as, I don’t mean to be a jerk. I just have things to do, you know. Sorry if I’m causing any trouble.
That’s quite all right, Mr. Billings, Lucy says. You’re making tremendous progress, and we’re so pleased. You’ll be released into the community soon, and the community will be so happy to see you.
The thought of ever trying to speak again fills Rachel with a whole ocean voyage’s worth of nausea, but she can’t even make herself retch.
• • •
Jeffrey has wondered for years, what if he could talk to his oldest friend, man to man, about the things that had happened when they were on the cusp of adolescence—not just the girl, but the whole deal. Mrs. Hooper’s scooter, even. And maybe, at last, he will. A lot depends on how well the process goes. Sometimes the cadaver gets almost all of the subject’s memories and personality, just with a better outlook on his or her proper gender. There is, however, a huge variability in bandwidth because we’re dealing with human beings and especially with weird neurological stuff that we barely understand. We’re trying to thread wet spaghetti through a grease trap, a dozen pieces at a time. Even with the proprietary cocktail, it’s hardly an exact science.
The engineer part of Jeffrey just wants to keep the machines from making whatever noise that was earlier, the awful grinding sound. But the project manager part of Jeffrey is obsessing about all of the extraneous factors outside his control. What if they get a surprise inspection from the Secretary, or even worse that Deputy Assistant Secretary, with the eye? Jeffrey is not supposed to be a front-facing part of this operation, but Mr. Randall says we all do things that are outside our comfort zones, and really, that’s the only way your comfort zone can ever expand. In addition, Jeffrey is late for another stakeholder meeting, with the woman from Mothers Raising Well-Adjusted Children and the three bald men from Grassroots Rising, who will tear Jeffrey a new orifice. There are still too many maladjusted individuals out there, in the world, trying to use public bathrooms and putting our children at risk. Some children, too, keep insisting that they aren’t boys or girls because they saw some ex-athlete prancing on television. Twenty cadavers in the freezer might as well be nothing in the face of all this. The three bald men will take turns spit-shouting, using words such as psychosexual, and Jeffrey has fantasized about sneaking bourbon into his coffee so he can drink whenever that word comes up. He’s pretty sure they don’t know what psychosexual even means, except that it’s psycho and it’s sexual. After a stakeholder meeting, Jeffrey always retreats to the single-stall men’s room to shout at his own schmutzy reflection. Fuck you, you fucking fuck fucker. Don’t tell me I’m not doing my job.
This project, it’s a government–industry collaboration, we call it Love and Dignity for Everyone. You have no idea.
Self-respect is the key to mutual respect.
Rachel keeps looking straight at Jeffrey through the observation window, and she’s somehow kept control over her vision long after her speech centers went over. He keeps waiting for her to lose the eyes. Her gaze goes right into him, and his stomach gets the feeling that usually comes after two or three whiskey sours and no dinner.
More than ever, Jeffrey wishes the observation room had a one-way mirror instead of regular glass. Why would they skimp on that? What’s the point of having an observation room where you are also being observed at the same time? It defeats the entire purpose.
Jeffrey gets tired of hiding from his own window and skips out the side door. He climbs two stories of cement stairs to emerge in the executive wing, near the conference suite where he’s supposed to be meeting with the stakeholders right now. He finds an oaken door with that quote from Albert Einstein about imagination that everybody always has and knocks on it. After a few breaths, a deep voice tells Jeffrey to come in, and then he’s sitting opposite an older man with square shoulders and a perfect old-fashioned newscaster head.
Mr. Randall, Jeffrey says, I’m afraid I have a conflict with regards to the latest subject and I must ask to be recused.
Is that a fact? Mr. Randall furrows his entire face for a moment, then magically all the wrinkles disappear again. He smiles and shakes his head. I feel you, Jeffrey, I really do. That blows chunks. Unfortunately, as you know, we are short-staffed right now, and our work is of a nature that only a few people have the skills and moral virtue to complete it.
But, Jeffrey says. The new subject, he’s someone I grew up with, and there are certain. . . . I mean, I made promises when we were little, and it feels in some ways like I’m breaking those promises, even as I try my best to help him. I actually feel physically ill, like drunk in my stomach but sober in my brain, when I look at him.
Jeffrey, Mr. Randall says, Jeffrey, JEFFREY. Listen to me. Sit still and listen. Pull yourself together. We are the watchers on the battlements, at the edge of social collapse, like in that show with the ice zombies, where winter is always tomorrow. You know that show? They had an important message, that sometimes we have to put our own personal feelings aside for the greater good. Remember the fat kid? He had to learn to be a team player. I loved that show. So here we are, standing against the darkness that threatens to consume everything we admire. No time for divided hearts.
I know that we’re doing something important here, and that he’ll thank me later, Jeffrey says. It’s just hard right now.
If it were easy to do the right thing, Randall says, then everyone would do it.
• • •
Sherri was a transfer student in tenth grade who came right in and joined the Computer Club but also tried out for the volleyball team and the a cappella chorus. She had dark hair in tight braids and a wiry body that flexed in the moment before she leapt to spike the ball, making Rachel’s heart rise with her. Rachel sat courtside and watched Sherri practice while she was supposed to be doing sudden death sprints.
Jeffrey stared at Sherri, too: listened to her sing Janelle Monáe in a light contralto when she waited for the bus, and gazed at her across the room during Computer Club. He imagined going up to her and just introducing himself, but his heart was too weak. He could more easily imagine saying the dumbest thing, or actually fainting, than carrying on a smooth conversation with Sherri. He obsessed for ages, until he finally confessed to his friends (Rachel was long since out of the picture by this time), and they started goading him, actually physically shoving him, to speak to Sherri.
You’re doing very well. Really, you’re an exemplary subject. You should be so proud.
Jeffrey slid up to her and said his name, and something inane about music, and then Sherri just stared at him for a long time before saying, I gotta get the bus. Jeffrey watched her walk away, then turned to his watching friends and mimed a finger gun blowing his brains out.
A few days later, Sherri was playing hooky at that one bakery cafe in town that everyone said was run by lesbians or drug addicts or maybe just old hippies, nursing a chai latte, and she found herself sitting with Rachel, who was also ditching some activity. Neither of them wanted to talk to anyone, they’d come here to be alone. But Rachel felt hope rise up inside her at the proximity of her wildfire crush, and she finally hoisted her bag as if she might just leave the cafe. Mind if I sit with you a minute, she asked, and Sherri shrugged yes. So Rachel perched on the embroidered tasseled pillow on the bench next to Sherri and stared at her Algebra II book.
They saw each other at that cafe every few days, or sometimes just once a week, and they just started sitting together on purpose, without talking to each other much. After a couple months of this, Sherri looked at the time on her phone and said, My mom’s out of town. I’ll buy you dinner. Rachel kept her shriek of joy on the inside and just nodded.
At dinner—a family pasta place nearby—Sherri looked down at her colorful paper napkin and whispered: I think I don’t like boys. I mean, to date, or whatever. I don’t hate boys or anything, just not interested that way. You understand.
Rachel stared at Sherri, even after she looked up, so they were making eye contact. In just as low a whisper, Rachel replied: I’m pretty sure I’m not a boy.
This was the first time Rachel ever said the name Rachel aloud, at least with regard to herself.
Sherri didn’t laugh or get up or run away. She just stared back, then nodded. She reached onto the red checkerboard vinyl tablecloth with an open palm, for Rachel to insert her palm into if she so chose.
The first time Jeffrey saw Rachel and Sherri holding hands, he looked at them like his soul had come out in bruises.
• • •
We won’t keep you here too long, Mr. Billings, the male attendant says, glancing at Rachel but mostly looking at the mouth that had spoken. You’re doing very well. Really, you’re an exemplary subject. You should be so proud.
There are so many things that Rachel wants to say. Like: Please just let me go, I have a life. I have an art show coming up in a coffee shop, I can’t miss it. You don’t have the right. I deserve to live my own life. I have people who used to love me. I’ll give you everything I own. I won’t press charges if you don’t sue. This is no kind of therapy. On and on. But she can’t trust that corpse voice. She hyperventilates and gags on her own spit. So sore she’s hamstrung.
Every time her eyes get washed out, she’s terrified this is it, her last sight. She knows from what Lucy and the other one have said that if her vision switches over to the dead man’s, that’s the final stage and she’s gone.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a boy.
The man is still talking. We have a form signed by your primary care physician, Dr. Wallace, stating that this treatment is both urgent and medically indicated, as well as an assessment by our in-house psychologist, Dr. Yukizawa. He holds up two pieces of paper, with the looping scrawls of two different doctors that she’s never even heard of. She’s been seeing Dr. Cummings for years, since before her transition. She makes a huge effort to shake her head, and is shocked by how weak she feels.
You are so fortunate to be one of the first to receive this treatment, the man says. Early indications are that subjects experience a profound improvement across seven different measures of quality of life and social integration. Their OGATH scores are generally high, especially in the red levels. Rejection is basically unheard of. You won’t believe how good you’ll feel once you’re over the adjustment period, he says. If the research goes well, the potential benefits to society are limited only by the cadaver pipeline.
Rachel’s upcoming art show, in a tiny coffee shop, is called Against Curation. There’s a lengthy manifesto, which Rachel planned to print out and mount onto foam or cardboard, claiming that the act of curating is inimical to art or artistry. The only person who can create a proper context for a given piece of art is the artist herself, and arranging someone else’s art is an act of violence. Bear in mind that the history of museums is intrinsically tied up with imperialism and colonialism, and the curatorial gaze is historically white and male. But even the most enlightened postcolonial curator is a pirate. Anthologies, mix tapes, it’s all the same. Rachel had a long response prepared, in case anybody accused her of just being annoyed that no real gallery would display her work.
Rachel can’t help noting the irony of writing a tirade about the curator’s bloody scalpel, only to end up with a hole in her literal head.
When the man has left her alone, Rachel begins screaming Jeffrey’s name in the dead man’s voice. Just the name, nothing that the corpse could twist. She still can’t bear to hear that deep timbre, the sick damaged throat, speaking for her. But she can feel her life essence slipping away. Every time she looks over at the dead man, he has more color in his skin and his arms and legs are moving, like a restless sleeper. His face even looks, in some hard-to-define way, more like Rachel’s.
Jeffrey! The words come out in a hoarse growl. Jeffrey! Come here!
Rachel wants to believe she’s already defeated this trap, because she has lived her life without a single codicil, and whatever they do, they can’t retroactively change the person she has been for her entire adulthood. But that doesn’t feel like enough. She wants the kind of victory where she gets to actually walk out of here.
• • •
Jeffrey feels a horrible twist in his neck. This is all unfair, because he already informed Mr. Randall of his conflict and yet he’s still here, having to behave professionally while the subject is putting him in the dead center of attention.
Seriously, the subject will not stop bellowing his name, even with a throat that’s basically raw membrane at this point. You’re not supposed to initiate communication with the subject without submitting an Interlocution Permission form through the proper channels. But the subject is putting him into an impossible position.
Rachel can’t help noting the irony of writing a tirade about the curator’s bloody scalpel, only to end up with a hole in her literal head.
Jeffrey, she keeps shouting. And then: Jeffrey, talk to me!
People are lobbing questions in Slack, and of course Jeffrey types the wrong thing and the softcore clown porn comes up. Ha ha, I fell for it again, he types. There’s a problem with one of the latest cadavers, a cause-of-death question, and Mr. Randall says the Deputy Assistant Secretary might be in town later.
Jeffrey’s mother was a Nobel Prize winner for her work with people who had lost the ability to distinguish between weapons and musical instruments, a condition that frequently leads to maiming or worse. Jeffrey’s earliest memories involve his mother flying off to serve as an expert witness in the trials of murderers who claimed they had thought their assault rifles were banjos, or mandolins. Many of these people were faking it, but Jeffrey’s mom was usually hired by the defense, not the prosecution. Every time she returned from one of these trips, she would fling her Nobel medal out her bathroom window, and then stay up half the night searching the bushes for it, becoming increasingly drunk. One morning, Jeffrey found her passed out below her bedroom window and believed for a moment that she had fallen two stories to her death. This was, she explained to him later, a different sort of misunderstanding than mistaking a gun for a guitar: a reverse-Oedipal misapprehension. These days Jeffrey’s mom requires assistance to dress, to shower, and to transit from her bed to a chair and back, and nobody can get Medicare, Medicaid, or any secondary insurance to pay for this. To save money, Jeffrey has moved back in with his mother, which means he gets to hear her ask at least once a week what happened to Rachel, who was such a nice boy.
Jeffrey can’t find his headphones to drown out his name, which the cadaver is shouting so loud that foam comes out of one corner of his mouth. Frances and another engineer both complain on Slack about the noise, which they can hear from down the hall. OMG creepy, Frances types. Make it stop make it stop
I can’t, Jeffrey types back. I can’t ok. I don’t have the right paperwork.
Maybe tomorrow, Rachel will wake up fully inhabiting her male body. She’ll look down at her strong forearms, threaded with veins, and she’ll smile and thank Jeffrey. Maybe she’ll nod at him, by way of a tiny salute, and say, You did it, buddy. You brought me back.
But right now, the cadaver keeps shouting, and Jeffrey realizes he’s covering his ears with his fists and is doubled over.
Rachel apparently decides that Jeffrey’s name alone isn’t working. The cadaver pauses and then blurts, I would really love to hang with you. Hey! I appreciate everything you’ve done to set things right. JEFFREY! You really shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble for me.
Somehow, these statements have an edge, like Jeffrey can easily hear the intended meaning. He looks up and sees Rachel’s eyes, spraying tears like a damn lawn sprinkler.
Jeffrey, the corpse says, I saw Sherri. She told me the truth about you.
She’s probably just making things up. Sherri never knew anything for sure, or at least couldn’t prove anything. And yet, just the mention of her name is enough to make Jeffrey straighten up and walk to the door of the observation room, even with no signed Interlocution Permission form. Jeffrey makes himself stride up to the two nearly naked bodies and stop at the one on the left, the one with the ugly tattoo and the drooling silent mouth.
I don’t want to hurt you, Jeffrey says. I never wanted to hurt you, even when we were kids and you got weird on me. My mom still asks about you.
Hey pal, you’ve never been a better friend to me than you are right now, the cadaver says. But on the left, the eyes are red and wet and full of violence.
What did Sherri say? Stop playing games and tell me, Jeffrey says. When did you see her? What did she say?
But Rachel has stopped trying to make the other body talk and is just staring up, letting her eyes speak for her.
Most of our relationships are upheld not by love, or obligation, or gratitude, but by mutually assured destruction.
Listen, Jeffrey says to the tattooed body. This is already over, the process is too advanced. I could disconnect all of the machines, unplug the tap from your occipital lobe and everything, and the cadaver would continue drawing your remaining life energy. The link between you is already stable. This project, it’s a government–industry collaboration, we call it Love and Dignity for Everyone. You have no idea. But you, you’re going to be so handsome. You always used to wish you could look like this guy, remember? I’m actually kind of jealous of you.
Rachel just thrashes against her restraints harder than ever.
Here, I’ll show you, Jeffrey says at last. He reaches behind Rachel’s obsolete head and unplugs the tap, along with the other wires. See? he says. No difference. That body is already more you than you. It’s already done.
That’s when Rachel leans forward, in her old body, and head-butts Jeffrey, before grabbing for his key ring with the utility knife on it. She somehow gets the knife open with one hand while he’s clutching his nose, and slashes a bloody canyon across Jeffrey’s stomach. He falls, clutching at his own slippery flesh, and watches her saw through her straps and land on unsteady feet. She lifts Jeffrey’s lanyard, smearing blood on his shirt as it goes.
• • •
When Rachel was in college, she heard a story about a business professor named Lou, who dated two different women and strung them both along. Laurie was a lecturer in women’s studies, while Susie worked in the bookstore co-op despite having a PhD in comp lit. After the women found out Lou was dating both of them, things got ugly. Laurie stole Susie’s identity, signing her up for a stack of international phone cards and a subscription to the Dirndl of the Month Club, while Susie tried to crash Laurie’s truck and cold-cocked Laurie as she walked out of a seminar on intersectional feminism. In the end, the two women looked at each other, over the slightly dented truck and Laurie’s bloody lip and Susie’s stack of junk mail. Laurie just spat blood and said, Listen. I won’t press charges, if you don’t sue. Susie thought for a moment, then stuck out her hand and said, Deal. The two women never spoke to each other, or Lou, ever again.
Rachel has always thought this incident exposed the roots of the social contract: most of our relationships are upheld not by love, or obligation, or gratitude, but by mutually assured destruction. Most of the people in Rachel’s life who could have given her shit for being transgender were differently bodied, non-neurotypical, or some other thing that also required some acceptance from her. Mote, beam, and so on.
For some reason, Rachel can’t stop thinking about the social contract and mutually assured destruction as she hobbles down the hallway of Love and Dignity for Everyone with a corpse following close behind. Every time she pauses to turn around and see if the dead man is catching up, he gains a little ground. So she forces herself to keep running with weak legs, even as she keeps hearing his hoarse breath right behind her. True power, Rachel thinks, is being able to destroy others with no consequences to yourself.
She’s reached the end of a corridor, and she’s trying not to think about Jeffrey’s blood on the knife in her hand. He’ll be fine, he’s in a facility. She remembers Sherri in the computer lab, staring at the pictures on the Internet: her hair wet from the shower, one hand reaching for a towel. Sherri sobbing but then tamping it down as she looked at the screen. Sherri telling Rachel at lunch, I’m leaving this school. I can’t stay. There’s a heavy door with an RFID reader, and Jeffrey’s card causes it to click twice before finally bleeping. Rachel’s legs wobble and spasm, and the breath of the dead man behind her grows louder. Then she pushes through the door and runs up the square roundabout of stairs. Behind her, she hears Lucy the nurse shout at her to come back, because she’s still convalescing, this is a delicate time.
Rachel feels a little more of her strength fade every time the dead man’s hand lurches forward. Something irreplaceable leaves her. She pushes open the dense metal door marked EXIT and nearly faints with sudden day-blindness.
The woods around Love and Dignity for Everyone are dense with moss and underbrush, and Rachel’s bare feet keep sliding off tree roots. I can’t stop, Rachel pleads with herself, I can’t stop or my whole life was for nothing. Who even was I, if I let this happen to me. The nearly naked dead man crashes through branches that Rachel has ducked under. She throws the knife and hears a satisfying grunt, but he doesn’t even pause. Rachel knows that anybody who sees both her and the cadaver will choose to help the cadaver. There’s no way to explain her situation in the dead man’s voice. She vows to stay off roads and avoid talking to people. This is her life now.
Up ahead, she sees a fast-running stream, and she wonders how the corpse will take to water. The stream looks like the one she and Jeffrey used to play in, when they would catch crayfish hiding under rocks. The crayfish looked just like tiny lobsters, and they would twist around trying to pinch you as you gripped their midsections. Rachel sloshes in the water and doesn’t hear the man’s breath in her ear for a moment. Up ahead, the current leads to a steep waterfall that’s so white in the noon sunlight, it appears to stand still. She remembers staring into a bucket full of crayfish, debating whether to boil them alive or let them all go. And all at once, she has a vivid memory of herself and Jeffrey both holding the full bucket and turning it sideways, until all the crayfish sloshed back into the river. The crayfish fled for their lives, their eyes seeming to protrude with alarm, and Rachel held onto an empty bucket with Jeffrey, feeling an inexplicable sense of relief. We are such wusses, Jeffrey said, and they both laughed. She remembers the sight of the last crayfish rushing out of view—as if this time, maybe the trick would work, and nobody would think to look under this particular rock. She reaches the waterfall, seizes a breath, and jumps with both feet at once.
If you like what you read, consider supporting Boston Review by purchasing a copy of Global Dystopias.