In my contemporary dance class, a student mentions that she is interested in lines: following the length of a line with her body, breaking a line in half, curving a line inwards. She is young, possibly in her first year of university, with a small and lithe body, and she moves fluidly, evidence of her training in ballet. I am envious. I have never danced formally before. I signed up for the class as a means to inject movement into my life as a writer and graduate student, a life that I spend primarily in front of the laptop. The studio in which we dance is bright and spacious. After warm-up, the instructor performs the choreography of the lesson, while a music student from the university—sometimes a violinist, sometimes a pianist or drummer—plays along, and the class dutifully, if clumsily, follows. We dance across the studio floor in diagonals and laterals, jumping and twisting and striving for grace. Most students, like me, are timid and self-conscious. We trip, fumble, collide, apologize, burst into sheepish laughter. When the instructor asks for a volunteer to start off the floor work, we dawdle and look at our feet. The young ballerina raises her hand. As I watch her move across the floor, I feel a drip of jealousy in my throat. Her gestures are confident, easeful yet controlled. She trusts her body’s capacity to listen. While the rest of us barely manage to string the steps together or stay on beat, she styles and paints her choreography: an articulation of her wrist here, a willowy bend of her spine there, an elongation from her hip to the tip of her toe.
For the past year and a half, I have been researching incisions for top surgery. I have been asking surgeons about techniques, swoops, shapes, flat cuts, cuts that connect medially, cuts that wrap the body’s lateral wall. I have become an expert on the pectoral muscle, the shadow it casts on the chest. Sometimes, I dream of this muscle, the sinews that attach at the shoulder socket, the converging crescent of fibers. In mirrors, windows, the shiny surface of my refrigerator, I stare at my profile and cross my arms to cover my chest, mimicking the site of incision, imagining the space where nothing will exist.
In class, I am unaccustomed to the mirror, which stretches across the entire east wall of the studio. I have been an athlete all my life, honing my movements through mimicry and repetition. Rarely have I confronted the reality of my body in motion. My reflection is ungraceful. I am furrowed when I think. In sports, I was ambitious, perfectionistic, hungry to the point of ruin. I pushed myself into injuries of overuse: carpal tunnel, shin splints, piriformis syndrome. If I could not grasp something, I was furious with myself. Again, I would say. Again.
A few days after my first contemporary class, I sign up for a second dance class: contact improvisation. We meet in the same studio as contemporary, but in the afternoon instead of the morning. Instead of twenty students, there are four. Instead of one instructor, there are two. Before we arrive, the instructors sweep large grey curtains across the mirror. On the first day, we spend the time rolling on the floor, talking, moaning, laughing, and leaping. The next day, we nap and run in circles.
Each class, the instructors give us three minutes to arrive; each time, I lie down eagerly on the floor. I have scheduled a date for top surgery—May 26th, several months away—and I am fixated on working out and bulking up as much as I can. I always come to class stiff and sore, plagued with guilt that I am not as prepared or energetic as I ought to be. It is a relief to let the floor hold my weight. My muscles relax and my feet splay outwards. The seconds stretch. My limbs vibrate and twitch with exhaustion—pinpricks of sensation, tiny lamps of light and fire bursting up and down my body.
In early January, I tell my parents that I have started hormone replacement therapy. It is my first trip home to Vancouver after moving to Minneapolis for graduate school. I spend all winter break trying to find the perfect moment. If the conversation goes well, I will tell them about my decision for top surgery. On the second-to-last-day of my visit, I sit my parents down in the living room, where two beige couches are arranged in a ninety degree angle. The ceiling lights are dim. My father is slim and grey-haired in a woolen knitted vest, my mother quiet and nervous in a white turtleneck. They have known about my queerness for almost a decade, a span of time in which our relationship has shifted from fraught to more easeful. Mom and Dad, I begin. I have something to tell you. The words are familiar; I used the same phrase when I came out to them. They both sit up on the couch. They already know I am trans nonbinary, though I have emphasized the nonbinary aspect over the trans aspect because the former seems lighter to absorb—diet gender, of sorts. For the most part, my parents have perceived my transness—the clunky pronouns, the cropped hair, the boyish clothing—as a strange but mostly unthreatening thing. I take a deep breath and tell them that I have been on testosterone for a year. I murmur something about in-betweenness, about creating a space to fit myself. I explain the changes—facial masculinization, fat redistribution, lowered pitch, predisposition to acne—which, if we are honest with ourselves, have already swept across my body over the course of the year and become impossible to ignore. It feels like I am stating the obvious. How could my parents not be aware of my transition from the physical changes that have materialized on my skin, the search history scattered across my internet browsers, the wary glances I steal of myself in passing mirrors? When I finish, I look up. My mother is quivering. My father looks down at his hands, furrowing his brow. The air between us stills. All year I have taken great pains to hide my emerging transness from them, drawing on eyeliner, wearing tighter, more feminine clothing, erasing the angry dots on my face with concealer. The question of telling my parents about top surgery dries on my tongue. It occurs to me that, until now, my transness has not been so emphatic, biological, alarming. In choosing myself, I am disfiguring my parents’ image of me. Deforming the child they dreamed of together.
At the start of class, the contact improvisation instructors lead us through warm-up. Because of the pandemic, we wear masks and do not engage in touch with others. Instead, our dance partner is the floor. Across the studio, we move through an exercise called skin-tissue-bone, which requires us to shift between three levels of touch. Skin-level is where we draw our body lightly across the floor. Tissue-level is the mild to medium pressure of touch, where we allow the floor to carry more of our mass. Bone-level is where we work in harmony with gravity’s force, thickening our weight, not only pressing against the floor but pushing.
Skin-dancing asks us to be curious and observational. I kneel on the floor and slide the palm of my hand across its surface, collecting grains of dirt and dust. I drag my hand until my skin squeaks. I find the place between movement and friction, between slide and stop. My skin becomes more sensitive, more attuned; I feel my synapses responding and firing. I am reminded that skin is a perpetually sensing organ, one whose sensations we register only if we listen. I clamber to my feet and try skin-dancing upright. I imagine I am dancing on a glass floor. I tiptoe, I vault, I spring.
In tissue-dancing, I let my weight down. I press down with the soles of my feet and activate the muscles in my legs: thigh, quad, calf, achilles. I feel the tendons in my ankles engaging. Tissue-dancing creates awareness in a different way, less delicate, less shivery. I am aware that if I do not pay attention, I will lose track of the passage from skin to tissue.
Bone-dancing is the heaviest of all. I concentrate on the body behind my skin: sinew, muscle, power. I stomp downwards. I lope heavily across the floor. I drop to my knees and press my fist into the ground, pushing through the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder joint, organizing my limbs to work my weight downwards, scaffolding my body.
I often fear that my mind is too linear, too right-brain dominant, to be able to excel at any creative task. Invention does not come easily to me, but hard work does. I am relentless, assessing and burnishing an object until it gleams. And yet, in dance, one cannot improve at improvisational movement. The point is always to cultivate the mindset of the beginner, a headspace that constantly refreshes itself. I have always found comfort in ascension and growth. I have actively tried to avoid a life where I am new.
A week after our conversation about testosterone, I tell my parents about my plans for top surgery. I am back in Minneapolis for school, so we agree to meet on Zoom. I open the waiting room and their faces fill the screen. They sit at the kitchen table, shoulder to shoulder, my father in a brown wool cardigan, my mother in the same white turtleneck. It is evening; in the dark windows of their backyard, trees move silently. My pulse quickens. Despite the fact that telling them about testosterone went well, I am aware that I’d initiated the conversation an entire year after I’d already started hormone replacement therapy. There was nothing they could do to prevent my decision. Sharing my top surgery with them is a much more vulnerable task, not only because I am including them in the decision prior to the event, but also because, at the end of the conversation, I need to ask for their care. I need to ask if they are willing to fly out from Vancouver and nurse me in the first two weeks of my recovery.
I take a deep breath. I say the same phrase: I have something to tell you. My parents sit up again. I open my mouth and the words rush out. Staring at my knees, I tell them that I have decided to pursue gender-affirming chest surgery. A double mastectomy with nipple grafts. The process will take two to three hours, I explain, during which I will go under general anesthesia. A surgeon will slice mirroring incisions on the lower edges of each of my pectoral muscles, then lift the skin of my chest and scrape out the flesh and fatty tissue with a scalpel. He will cut out my nipples, resize and reshape them, and plant them back onto my chest as twin grafts. Finally, he will sew the incisions shut, wrap my chest in bandages, and send me off to recover. I do not look up as I speak. I want to be calm but my voice wavers. I sweat and wring my hands as I tell them that I have been considering the surgery for years. In the past few months, I have tracked down a trans-friendly family doctor, attended consults with over fifteen surgeons, collected multiple letters of approval, attended blood test and check-up appointments, and made countless calls to my health insurance. Now, I am unable to look at my parents’ faces. I direct a forced smile to the bottom corner of my keyboard and hope that I am signaling competence and confidence. When I finish, I am trembling. My parents are silent. I look up. My father nudges his glasses up his nose, then lets out a short, loud laugh.
What? I ask. My father closes his mouth. What?
He waits, adjusts his glasses. This is okay, he says finally. This is fine.
What do you mean?
I thought you wanted to go all the way. He laughs again. This isn’t so bad.
Semi-relieved, I return his laugh, a short bark of my own. My mother releases a quick, nervous giggle. My father flashes a crooked grin. Suddenly we are all laughing on Zoom together, but for different reasons. I am laughing because I am thankful and confused. My father is laughing because he is relieved that my gender is, indeed, diet trans. My mother is laughing because she does not know what else to do. After the laughter peters out, it occurs to me that my father’s commentary was sweet but cutting. It was, in some ways, a thinly-veiled threat, defining the line between what my parents will and will not accept. I understand then that they accept my transness, but conditionally. Don’t push your luck, the subtext whispers. Don’t even think about transitioning any further. I swallow and smile.
By the end of the conversation, my parents have agreed to take care of me during my recovery period. They will fly to Minneapolis a week before May 26th, then accompany me to Florida, where my surgery will take place. I am heartened and grateful. It is excruciatingly rare among trans people to have parents so supportive that they are willing to involve themselves in an irreversible medical procedure. Still, I worry that my parents are overcompensating, that they are agreeing not because they want to, but because they think they ought to. As days pass in the aftermath of the conversation, I cannot shake a creeping feeling of unease.
In February, I walk across Minneapolis’ chain of lakes with a new friend named A. The day is bright, icy, dry. We walk to the edge of Cedar Lake, where the expanse of frozen water stretches out like a shining white disc. Cross-country skiers and young families scatter the surface. A and I walk toward a small bridge that arches over the canal between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. Shaded from the sun, the underpass is hushed and private. Cars rumble overhead. At our feet, the snow is thin and powdery, blanketing the surface like confectioners’ sugar. When we brush the snow aside, we can see all the way to the bottom of the lake. Deep below our feet, rotten leaves line the mud sediment, gathered from when the water was once fluid and mobile. In the middle section, wispy filament structures snake through the ice. I think of all the evolutions the water has undergone this winter season, contracting and expanding, freezing and refreezing, binding and unbinding. The filaments look like captured smoke, or like the process of evaporation suspended in time. A tells me that every year around April, all the lakes crack and splinter as they melt. The sounds are low and deep and old and distant. I am eager to experience this. Imagine all that mass, breaking apart for something new.
One week in contact improvisation, we watch a movie about the origins of the form. The 1972 film shows a class practising lifts and rolls, paired with a voiceover by Steve Paxton, the unofficial creator of contact improvisation. We watch the movie in a darkened classroom. In reels of black and white film, bodies fall on each other, throw themselves around, get carried aloft. I consider my passage from up to down, Paxton narrates. Sometimes a fall can be transferred into a roll. A grown 6’2” man flings himself into the air at a 5’4” woman. They crash, uneasy but stable. Everyone always lands safely, springing to their feet, sometimes on all fours like cats. I watch with my heart in my throat, wishing for their beauty, their bravery, their flight.
As winter turns, I agree to a series of Zoom calls to answer my parents’ follow-up questions about my surgery. I watch their faces closely on the screen, poring over every flicker of expression. A familiar dynamic has emerged. My father has become the spokesperson. It has always been this way since I came out. When I placed books by Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, and Jenny Zhang on his nightstand, he read them all. He vaguely understands gender-neutral pronouns and has the ability to ask questions about my friends, my community, my romantic life. My mother has always been quieter, harder to read, more reluctant to fumble through the language of my queerness. I have never known if her reluctance stems from fear of making a mistake or something more sinister. On Zoom, as she attempts to compose her face while my father says the kind, neutral, dutiful statements of accepting me, I can sense something roiling underneath her exterior. It’s your choice to do what you want with your body, he says. We give you our support. My mother jerks her head up and down in agreement. Her face is drawn and pale. I am lucky. I am so, so lucky. My parents do not reject me. My parents do not revile me. My parents are willing to fly across the country to help me revise my body. But I want more. I want their acceptance to be complete, muscular, bright; I want glee and wonder and faith and pride. I feel as though I am stuck between two ends, caught in a gradient between privilege and greed, at once unmoored and trapped.
A week after we watch the film, one instructor drags out a portable whiteboard from a corner of the studio and the other uncaps a blue marker. Twenty symbols fill the board, each consisting of several arrows or circles arranged in different combinations: touch, confluence, divergence, contrast, influence. The symbols are called glyphs, the instructors tell us, developed in 1972 by choreographer Nancy Stark Smith as a means to annotate the different connections occurring between dancers during improvisational movement.
I am mesmerized. The symbols, which initially seemed arbitrary and nonsensical, now shiver with meaning. I stare at attraction, at the two parallel arrows pointing toward each other, separated by a small white space, as well as repulsion, at the two parallel arrows pointing away. I recall an earlier moment in class in which I found myself dancing toward a student named C, inexplicably pulled toward him. He’d been moving across the studio with his back turned to me, exploring a series of small drops by contracting and releasing his knees, when he looked over his shoulder and caught my eye. I perked up. I’d been dancing on my own as well, spreading and expanding my limbs. The moment we made eye contact, a sudden energy tightened in the space between our bodies. I took a step forward; so did C. I took another; so did he. Approaching tentatively but curiously, we drew toward each other as though linked by some invisible, tensile chain. We gathered our limbs and funneled the heat of our individual dances toward each other, advancing as close as we could without touching. Then, as quickly as the energy appeared, it dropped away. As I sprung to a different corner of the studio, I felt a peculiar thrill run down my spine: my desire for and diffidence to C’s body had been utterly, wonderfully neutral. My attraction to him, how it flicked from enthusiasm to disinterest, was not tinged by sex or guilt or expectation. Instead, C and I had simply felt the air between us activate. We tuned in to each other’s bodies, and built between us a field of touch without touch, hyperattentive and humming.
On another Zoom call, I explain the procedure again to my parents: the dual incisions, the stages of recovery, the various post-op restrictions. By now it is the third or fourth time I have outlined the process to them. My father nods impatiently; my mother, on the other hand, asks me to repeat my answers. I suspect that she cannot absorb her new reality. In two months, I will be removing a part of my body that she created with her own. I worry that the repetition of the surgery facts has become numbing, so I shift our focus and tell my parents about the preparations I am undertaking, that I have pored over supply lists and cross-referenced meal plans, installed a bidet on my toilet, built a low shelf for my microwave and brought it down from above my fridge. I tell them about the items gathering in my closet—a bed wedge pillow, an arm extender device, a 6-foot phone charger, various supplements and vitamins. Mid-conversation, my mother interrupts. I want to ask you something. Her forehead is furrowed. I have new questions. I agree, surprised and excited about the possibility of movement. But as she starts to talk, I realize that her questions are barbed. Ostensibly, the questions carry concern, but beneath their guise of health and well-being, I can feel her opposition. Why does your choice have to be so permanent? Why isn’t it enough to bind or wear sports bras? Have you thought about what you would do if you regretted it? Why do you have to do this to yourself?
After the skin-tissue-bone exercise, the class gets up and moves through all three layers, dancing skin-tissue-bone simultaneously. We leap, we roll, we flit, we stumble and stomp. I wriggle, I pace, I stalk, I spin and spiral. It’s free, it’s freeing, it’s breath, it’s breathless, and soon I am sweating and panting, my body displacing air, the exhaustion in my legs alchemized into motion. My weight transfers from left to right, from up to down. I sculpt and whirl and crack and twist. As we work improvisationally, moving from skin to tissue to bone and back, the instructors tell us to pay attention to the space between certainty and uncertainty, to the space between impulses. They call this space the gap—the micro-moment of not knowing what is next. The gap is the temporary absence of referent, they explain, the split second of nothingness between instinct.
In sports, every movement has purpose. Of course, improvisation and creativity are inherent in how an athlete moves down a field, revises and shifts direction, or fakes out a defender, but a larger goal of competition always overshadows these movements. Improvisational dance, on the other hand, is movement for the sake of movement—movement research. But what is research if not the continuous act of looking, a series of questions followed by more questions? And so, when the instructors ask us not to shrink from the gap but to cultivate it, to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty, to see what we can learn inside that strange, shimmering interval of newness, I balk. I want to turn away.
Back when I lived in Vancouver, I spent hours walking by the ocean. I miss the fog, the salt, the trees bent at acute angles, the sheets of rain blown in the wind like curtains, the ocean spray dissolving on my cheek. No matter the weather or the intensity of precipitation, I could always see the line of the horizon, the meeting point between water and sky. It comforted me. Sometimes the horizon was smudged behind miles and miles of rain, but on a clear, bright day, it was right there, a sharp blue cut in the sky. It was like I could reach for it, stretch across all that distance, and gash my hand open.
In March, the contact improvisation class finally begins touch. We start slowly; in the first exercise, we pair up and touch our palms together, and push into each other’s hands to feel our partner’s weight and strength. Next, we change the modulation of strength so that one person presses forwards while the other allows themself to be pushed backwards. We move up and down the studio like this, by turns insistent and yielding. The instructors tell us to push fifty percent and yield fifty percent. We do not know if these ratios mean that we should push half of the time across the studio, or push with half-strength. It is delightful to try both options. My partner tests her strength against me, and I trial different ways to effort out my resistance. Next we try eighty and twenty percent, then one hundred and zero. As we progress into new exercises and arrangements, our bodies become looser and more creative. Soon, we dive and twirl across each other, hit the floor together, spin and roll and drag out our limbs. Sometimes we find ourselves in accidental sexual positions, grappling and humping. The motions look ugly, but my body feels good. The sensations are deeply erotic and deeply platonic. After over two years of living alone in the pandemic, any kind of physical contact is foreign to me. For three hours each week, I carry and am carried. I lift and am lifted. I enter the class exhausted and I leave having been touched everywhere.
One week on Zoom, my mother asks me to explain my transness to her. At first, I hesitate, but soon realize that this conversation might be the only way to bring her to a better understanding of me. As I start, I realize that I have only discussed my gender with other trans and queer people, who accept and celebrate the languagelessness and fluidity of our identities. I have never articulated my transness in layman’s terms. I try to finesse my explanation, but find myself falling into clichés and the clunky language of biology. I was assigned female at birth, I try, but I don’t feel like a girl. It’s not good enough. I feel most comfortable between “man” and “woman.” Gender is a sliding scale. Eventually, language fails me. All I can say is that it feels right. My mother asks: But how do you know? I tell her that I don’t, that I just sense my transness in my body, in the way I walk, the way clothes fit my frame, and most of all in the way I encounter others. I know I am not capturing the nuances of my gender. Sometimes I worry my transness is too relational. I often wonder if I might not be trans if the world wasn’t so cis. But these juxtapositions live inside me, and I do not need to share them with her. I have always felt my way to my transness through the dark. I am out with lanterns, looking for myself, Emily Dickinson once wrote in a letter to a friend, attempting to describe how it felt to leave her home and search for a new one.
The convenience of storing small items in a sports bra: house keys, credit cards, earplugs, cash. Having a shelf against which to press large loads of books and boxes. Sometimes, how drops of sweat gleam against the breastbone. Beads of water dripping off the nipple in the shower. The sensation of teeth grabbing the nipple, clamping down, a lover twisting an apple stem. The utility of owning stress-relieving balls that can be felt both in the application and absorption of touch. Playing with them, pinching and kneading them before making a big phone call. The sound they make—flapjacks against skin. Absently gripping them when no one is watching.
Trying to pull off a sports bra after a workout. Trying to put one on after a shower. Drooping pouches of flesh. Binders in the brimming heat of summer. Bruised ribs, quaking shoulders, shortness of breath, chronic pain. Turning away from the T-shirt aisle in clothing stores and wincing. Disproportion. Dissatisfaction. Detestation. Hours in front of the mirror. Hours away from the mirror. The curve of a bound chest: too much and not enough.
White tank tops. Gazing down at the torso and seeing nothing. Showering flatly, whatever that means. A lover’s finger running down the body in one long, leveled line, from the edge of the clavicle to the hip bone, along the new, small, thin nipple. Stepping out of the house without needing to wear a binder or a bra. Squaring the shoulders and pushing out the chest. The warm, flat hand of sunlight on the sternum. Reprogramming oneself not to adjust or recede.
Body modification: the phrase sounds bizarre and disjointed, like a character adjustment one might select from a drop down menu. It feels cosmetic and futuristic, pathological and clinical, like I need to update something about myself in order to feel correct. But isn’t that the case? That I am seeking some sort of change? That I am searching for release, unburdening? Still, release implies that something is constraining me, and I do not feel suffocated. At least, not all the time. What I feel is tired. Could exhaustion be enough? Could choosing ease be enough?
My surgery is in a week and a half. Outside, songbirds and cardinals announce the arrival of spring, buds emerge in small, hard green nubs, and the land grows fat and alive and thick. My parents are to arrive in Minneapolis in a matter of days. All my supplies are stacked and sorted, my final medical tests completed. There is only waiting to do. I am not well. At night, I shiver and tremble, worrying that I will not wake up from the procedure, or, if I will, that my body will be reorganized and utterly alien to me. Each night the same nightmare visits me over and over again, and each time I wake up in a cold sweat. My doctor increases my antidepressants. My professors excuse my coursework. Much as I have resisted my mother’s questions, they haunt me. I have wanted top surgery for years, and now I am not so sure. How do I know I want this? How could I alter myself so irrevocably? If I get the surgery, what else will I want to see through? What if I don’t know when to stop? And most terrifying of all: if I have never felt comfortable in my body, how could I possibly know when I’ll have arrived at ease? How will I know when I’ll have landed?
The first day I gave myself permission to want top surgery was five years ago, on a walk with a friend named S along Lynn River on the North Shore of Vancouver. We stopped at a small walkway overlooking the river and watched the water foaming and churning and rushing past the boulders. S was a week away from their surgery. I wondered how they were feeling, if they were anxious or certain or both. They were silent for a long while, their hands in their pockets, their shoulders slightly hunched. I resent the fact that I need this, they said finally. I stared at the river, at the roiling water and the white clumps of foam, and felt my knees buckle a little. We looked over and flashed each other a quick smile. Until that moment, I had never considered my anger. I only understood my transness as something I inconvenienced people with. I feared so acutely that I was a burden to others that I felt only gratitude for those who treated my gender as real. I had never given myself the opportunity to feel my own pain. Certainly, systemic transphobia is to blame, but no one discusses how being trans can be bothersome, even irritating, for trans people ourselves. I can’t go to the public washroom when I need to. I can’t go to a show and not flinch when the announcer says “Ladies and Gentlemen!” I can’t pass a mirror without feeling some stab of dysphoria. Standing on the bridge and learning of S’s resentment, I felt relieved. Lighter.
But now, lying awake in bed, days out from my own surgery, I worry that my entry point into top surgery is anger. In cutting off a part of my body I have carried for years, am I choosing happiness or am I reducing my suffering? Am I reaching for something, or am I only running away?
Of transness, Yanyi writes, I grew towards not what I was eliminating, but what I dreamed for. I grew toward not what I had but what I didn’t know. I love that last phrase because it subverts my expectations of the sentence, which I’d think would end with “what I wanted.” What I want is a common refrain among trans narratives—that we know our desire for gender and just have to acquire it. But perhaps my transness, like Yanyi, is not about a final goal so much as the movement toward the unknown, where each step will bring me at once closer to and further from my own making.
In my recurring nightmare, it is an hour before the surgery. I sit in the surgeon’s office in a pale blue gown, surrounded by fluorescent light and white walls. There are no windows. The surgeon is waiting in the hall, about to enter, when my mother barges through the door, shouting. I do not recall her words, only that she is aggressive and cruel and disgusted by me. We argue. We yell. We scream. Get the fuck out, I finally shout. It is satisfying and visceral to say the word, pulling back and collecting venom with the f, spitting it out with the k.
My mother vanishes and the door slams behind her. Suddenly I am in a wheelchair, and the surgeon is carting me through the hospital. I cannot see his face, but I can feel his presence behind me, his hands grasping the handles. I am relieved to leave the office, but feel a tinge of sorrow. I think about calling for my mother but do not.
We exit the hospital and come out onto a large outdoor platform overlooking a jungle. The sky is dusky; the sun has set and the air is cool. The jungle stretches out to the horizon, green and thick and lush, an endless swathe of vines and trees. I feel the surgeon’s hands lift from the handles behind me and disappear. The jungle is beautiful to look over, visceral and vulnerable and startling, and somehow I know that this will be the last time I will see it from this height. Somehow I know that I will be inside the jungle next time, sticky with humidity and sweat, stepping over roots and ferns, the sun cutting gems of light through the trees, throwing jewels onto the ground.
I sit in the wheelchair and watch the sky drain of color. Eventually, a strain of anticipation builds inside me, a tingling jumpiness radiating up my arms and into my chest. An image of a dark red flower appears somewhere, a tropical plant of some kind, unfurling in the long, dark night. The surgeon reappears and wheels me to the far side of the platform, where an elevator floats a short distance away. Far below our feet, the jungle hums and mutters. A bright orange button hovers next to the elevator doors. The surgeon vanishes again, disappearing into the dark or into the past or the future. I stare at the button, at the flickering orange light. I want to call for my mother but cannot.
REVISION IN WHICH I WRITE MY OWN ENDING
I want to call for my mother but cannot. I face the elevator, staring down the humming twin metal doors, the line of pale light cleaving the middle. I stand and press the button. The elevator doors open with a cool release of air and a sigh. It judders downwards and opens to a sterile hallway filled with dull yellow light. Goosebumps prickle across my skin. Nurses and doctors rush by.
I step forward. The hallway is neither wide nor narrow. I turn left. I pass more doctors. I turn again. On the floor, a series of fluorescent blue arrows point to an operating room at the end of the hallway. I walk toward the room. I push through the double doors. The room is empty. The surgeon’s tools are arranged on a stand-up tray next to the cot upon which I will lie and be cut open. On the walls, scrubs hang on hooks, along with other blades and sharpened tools. My mother is sitting on a white plastic chair in the corner. She looks up.
We say nothing to each other. She watches as I hoist myself onto the operating table, naked but for the crinkling blue paper gown. I lie on my back and face upwards. Exposed pipes and electric wiring snake across the ceiling. The doors open and a crew of nurses enters silently. They change into their scrubs, check their tools, adjust their hair nets. The surgeon is not far from the doors. My mother walks over. Her face hovers over mine.
Is there a gaze more complicated than that between a mother and child? The years of worry lining my mother’s forehead, the way time has sagged the delicate skin around her eyes. Her sparse eyebrows and dark nervous eyes. She made me, created me, carried me, gave me everything I needed, and when she birthed me, she lost a part of herself. She has been losing me in increments ever since. And now this. She reaches for my hand as the anesthesiologist plugs a needle into my skin and tells me to count down from eight. Her eyes do not betray fear nor confidence. We say nothing to each other, but we understand. We understand. We understand.
I have always thought that my vision would fade to black like it does in films, but as eight flickers into seven, then six, then five, the light gets brighter, like someone is turning up the glare of a screen. My mother stands there, holding my hand silently. We look at each other as the white comes in, clear and bright and dissolving.
After five minutes of dancing, the instructors tell us to lie down. I drop to the ground, mirroring the very first posture of the class. I am panting and my skin is damp with sweat. I imagine blood fizzling through the highways of my limbs, my cells brightening with oxygen. Liquid arrows shoot up and down my legs. Here it is. A body, alive.
K Ho is a writer and photographer from Vancouver BC, unceded Coast Salish territories. Their lyric essay “Dispatches” won The Fiddlehead’s 2021 Creative Nonfiction Contest, and their work has appeared in Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing, PRISM Magazine, THEM lit, the Canadian National Arts Centre, and elsewhere. They are a 2018 VONA/Voices Fellow, and an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Minnesota. They currently live in Minneapolis, MN, Dakota territory.