A warm ringing wakes you, playing in your ears and on your eyes. You click the alarm off; your nails, from the other hand, scratch your rough face. Late. Again. Yawning, you slip out of bed. Swap out your plaid boxers for a new set. Slip into a new bra. Today you go with the lace. Let your hair out of its sleeping braid, long nails catching on coarser patches. You rummage around your floor’s clothing hills for a pair of jeans that has neither large holes nor stains. There’s an appropriate pair by the closet, tucked underneath argyle sweaters that don’t need to be out yet and your favorite black dress. You’re running out of time. You pick up a t-shirt on your way out your bedroom door, shake a hand through your hair to smooth out any sleep bumps, help it fall a little less disheveled.
Your roommate is downstairs, cooking breakfast, his voice lost in the sizzle. You squint at him, ask him to repeat himself.
“Breakfast. You want breakfast?”
Oh. Breakfast. You decide you have time for eggs and toast, maybe some sausage. Roommate puts a plate on the counter for you, a breakfast sandwich bleeding yolk over spiced meat. In case you decide you don’t have enough time.
“Good luck today,” he says. Because you need it.
Imagine veins pressing fingers spread against dermal tissue, wishing to be thin enough to exhale out through stomata. A breath, grown sharp, piercing conical through the skin, jutting thorn. Body, green and breathing, pressed up and forward, ejecting buds out of chests, as heads. Let go of red, skin tight, a sun-kissed blossom, lipstick ruby. Imagine it unfurl, wearing petals like a favorite skirt, legs unabashedly thorny. Even stamen isn’t afraid to dress a little feminine, to whisper gems into pistils. What name does a rose have? Call it bloody, call it Briar, call it barely birth and rebirth.
You barely catch the bus. You’re saved only by the mass exodus at your bus stop, leaving it semi-empty. You swipe your ID, slip it back into your wallet without looking. You take a reasonably comfortable seat, far enough away from other passengers without being avoidant. You put your backpack between your feet, keep a hand on its strap, a comfortable wide stance. Sighing, you run a hand over your stubble, wonder how long it’ll take to grow out the way you want it to. The bus lurches forward, you brace yourself, ground your feet.
It’s only six stops until your destination. At this time, the bus should be crowded to burst. At the next stop, there’s a flood of people filling up most of the empty seats. Your breathing increases, lungs aching against their rib cage. You feel your chest collapse, rearrange, harden out and slip into something a little more comfortable. Your nails run out, tumble off the edge, leave behind bit-to-the-quick brothers. Your hair falls out in clumps, no one notices, leave behind shiny, smooth bald. Ink presses up from your veins as you rub a hand over your new cue ball, new tattoos for newer skin. Your muscles stretch against your skin, fill your space with more command.
No one argues you for your space, no one tries to conquer your ground. At the next stop, no one gets off, more people get on. No one expects you to get smaller, to press yourself minuscule, to let someone else have your room. You wonder how this might change if you’d worn something looser, something with a little more flow. You know how much weight expression carries, a gravity-anti-gravity, attract, repel, suck into orbit, a cataclysm of clothes and facial features. You think how unfortunate it is, what little choice you have in an explosion this bright.
You rub your chin again, more beardless stubble now, count the seconds until the bus stops at the right spot.
Imagine a mountain that is not a mountain. Rather a sprite with an explosion in her belly, andesitic buildup. A perfect storm of rising magma and steam, pressure born from friction. Call tectonics nature, not nurture, even if the fissures were clawed with fingernails and trowels demanding to see into her core, to find out just how dormant a storm can be. Wipe the ash from your eyes, blink into the tephra, run from walking lava and his hurled igneous rock. Look how much a mountain can change, look how violent a person can be, look at what aggression can do when it’s aimed at magma. Pyroclastic flood, burn the pitchforks in the streets, sculpt the people in lava, dust them volcanic ash. Leave yourself a caldera, no longer a quiet mountain, no longer dormant soft. Relax. Collapse gentle into yourself. You did everything you could to avoid an eruption.
By the time the bus stops, you’re already way too late for your first class. You decide it won’t hurt you any more to ditch out for the rest, settle down for the next one. You duck into the bathroom, pick the cleanest stall, slide the lock behind you. It isn’t much longer until you feel your beard hiding back into your chin, retreating until your skin is glass. As if they were just waiting for the keratin, your nails stretch, millimeter lazy, until they round out at the tips of your fingers. You grab a scarf from your backpack, wrap it around your still bald head, a decorative shield. Your muscles soften, your skeleton shrinks into itself a little on every side. You’re drowning in your clothes: you feel small again. Luckily your shoes still fit and while your bra isn’t comfortably full, it isn’t stretched awkward across harsh muscles anymore.
Your body pulls down against your bones, tired. You could use some caffeine. Careful, you swing your bag back on your back. It weighs down on your shoulders more than before. As if you needed more to carry.
You stop moving for a minute, listen to the world outside the stall. It’s quiet: No zipping, no tinkling, no rustling of clothes. Safe, it seems. You click back the stall lock, slip out, walk toward the exit. The bathroom door opens just as you reach it. You look up to him, the man holding it, as if you weren’t coming out of a foreign space, smile, bob a sugary thank you, walk past as if you know what you’re doing. You imagine your backpack is a buffer, reflecting his cocked eyebrow and cold questions. At least his fists were holstered. At least you looked a little more polar.
Imagine a caterpillar, gorged green, leaf full of potential. It spins gentle, wraps itself in silk. Imagine change so delicate it happens behind closed doors – an intimate destruction dubbed rebuild. To create wings, it digests its own flesh, mashes itself to soup, leaving behind only imaginal discs written with flight. Imagine new life built from the melted bones of an old body. Renewed. Try building wings from ooze – it’s impossible to have enough faith in destroying foundations, in fluid change surfacing from under your skin, to believe you could make peace with the wind, call her sister. Call chrysalis baptism. Call destruction bone-building. Try to forget that it takes devouring yourself to turn into something people think is worth watching, worth pinning to corkboard, worth holding in their hand like breath. So take your wings, beat thin veins like a prayer, slip through their fingers like the exhale you are, leaving behind only a dusting of your small scales, a shiny print saying yes, I was here.
It’s a little brisk outside, enough that you wish you had a jacket, or a body with a little more mass, an extra kick in the metabolism. It makes the coffee all the more enticing. Your favorite coffee shop is halfway across campus, but you have time now. A look at your cell phone says you have another forty minutes before your next class starts. Funny, how time can slip through your fingers or bunch into handfuls with the smallest decisions. You suppose lots of things must be like that.
As you walk, what curves you have thin out, pressing your hips into pencils, leaving only buds on your chest, the hint of breasts. Your head itches. You reach up to scratch it to find hair rustling against your scarf, perhaps an inch or two long. Your clothes drape loosely on your body, drowning out any curve remaining in a wash of extra fabric. Feeling a little uncomfortable, you duck into the nearest building, find a private enough corner to unsnap your bra, maneuver it out from under your shirt, stuff it in your backpack. At this point, it’s more of a nuisance than anything. You take the scarf from your head, use it to cinch your jeans a little more snug around your temperamental waist, tie a discrete knot. A little more adequately dressed, you heft your backpack, breathe, and step back out.
Tired, still. More even. You might as well install a portable feed, something to keep your veins saturated with caffeine at all times. This reminds you that you haven’t eaten much today, just that sandwich this morning. With all the growth spurts, you could use some calories.
Just three more minutes worth of walking and your jeans are already loosening around your hips, the awkward jiggle in your chest mostly hidden by your oversized clothes. You wish there was just one day when your body might know who it was. But at least there’s always coffee and croissants and attractive baristas to talk to. At the coffee shop, your stomach grumbles. It points you at the croissants, the donuts, the already-prepared turkey sandwiches. You promise to get one of each if it will just be quiet. On top of that, you order coffee, black, the tallest size. Enough to keep you going.
“Is that going to be all for you, sir?”
You look up from your wallet. You imagine your eyes must be a little doey, too open to be read boy, because the barista’s have gone wide, darting from your face to your hair to your frame to your chest. The barista stutters, words tripping on his lips, managing a weak, “Sorry, ma’am.”
Sighing, you hand over some cash, save the shaking coffee from his hands. It’s ok. It’s easy to get confused sometimes. Just don’t make such a big deal out of it. Apologize, correct yourself, move on.
As the barista gathers your haul, you remind yourself that you will never be a regular, here or elsewhere. No one will remember your favorite drink order, your usual, even your name.
How could they, when your face changes, when theirs slips into limbo when you don’t quite fit right, when sometimes your body knocks itself out of scale? If only you needn’t be measured by more than the letters Sharpied into your coffee cup, the only constant marker of who you can be.
Imagine a seed, spit from the mouth of distaste, bury itself in volcanic ash, a convenient chrysalis. Watch it grow, a gorged green stem risen from fissures, pressing upward like reaching hands unfurling fists into blossoms. A rose bud eruption, tephra bloomed exoskeleton, a caterpillar realizing it has wings. Call it birth and rebirth, call it nature and nurture, call it self-devoured metamorphosis. If you can believe in anything, believe that you, like shivering wings grown from igneous petals, are changeable, a viscous moth reminding everyone else to find flexible in their unbending mouths.
Face Hammond is from Salt Lake City, Utah and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University. Their work has been published in ellipsis…, Scribendi, and The Fem Literary Magazine.