When I return home at night, I’m careful not to kiss my wife. It’s by mutual agreement. It was a routine we had before COVID, when all we had to worry about was MRSA, C-diff, and any human fluids that might get on my scrubs. In lieu of kisses, I strip my clothes off in the laundry room and walk naked through our apartment to the shower. Even our dog knows he will have to wait to be petted.
The shower is when I return to myself. As a trans healthcare provider, I leave half myself in the parking lot when I go to work at the hospital. I’m supposed to be calm and professional, so good at my job that they keep me around in spite of what I am.
But at home I get to be me. I use body wash called Dragon’s Roar. It comes in a giant orange bottle and has a studly knight on the front wearing chain-mail with the sleeves cut off. It’s the kind of oppressively masculine scent high school boys prefer, and that I always wanted to smell like when I was a teenager.
It’s terrible. My dog won’t sit next to me after I get out of the shower, and my wife, Sam, gives me that fixed smile that says, “I know you are going through something, so I’ll put up with this.”
I am going through something. Testosterone is rearranging my body. The fat from my thighs has migrated to my stomach. I’m growing the beginnings of a mustache. I’ve started smelling like a rutting deer. When my wife wears her black racer-back running shirt, I want to stamp my hooves and scratch my antlers against a tree.
I also sweat constantly. The patients I work with think this is hilarious, especially the way it makes my paper mask cling to my cheeks. They are freezing all the time, wrapped in hospital blankets up to their necks and tucked around their feet, the temperature in the rooms turned up to Oklahoma scorch while sweat collects on my forehead and drips down between my glasses.
“Why is your skin so red?” Deloris asks me. Her face has a blank look even when she’s joking—blunted affect, I will call it in my documentation. Her Parkinson’s has stripped away the movement of her face, hollowed out the muscles around her eyes, and made it look like she’s wearing a skin-colored mask.
“It just is.”
She holds up her arm next to mine and says, “See! Red!” And then laughs, a husking sound.
Today is the day for her to practice showering, and I’ve turned on the heater in the rehabilitation shower in preparation.
A few days ago, I shaved my face. Not because I’m growing a beard yet, but the downy hair on my cheeks makes me look soft and feminine. I noticed an errant eyebrow hair and shaved straight up from the bridge of my nose without thinking. Now my eyebrows are spaced far apart, like I’m perpetually surprised.
Deloris thinks that’s hilarious, too. I’ve stenciled them on with a thick black pencil, but as soon as we start her shower, they melt right off. She holds a trembling finger up to my face and points at the black smudges.
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, rolling my eyes for effect. “Yuck it up.”
Deloris doesn’t use Dragon’s Roar body wash. She uses the stuff they give away at the hospital that smells faintly of aloe and gladiolas. Her hands are too weak to open the bottle, so I do it for her and pour the green goo onto a washcloth. I remind her to lift her breasts and wash gently under them, where the skin has turned a chapped pink, and between her legs and her bottom, raw from so much sitting.
When I give her the hand-held showerhead, she sprays my shoe and cackles again.
“Your shoes are wet,” she says, crowing in delight.
I hop and lift one leg up, playing it up while she laughs.
A couple of months ago, I could not get my testosterone because of issues with our health insurance and had to go without for three weeks. One night, Sam cuddled up close to me and stuck her nose in my armpit.
“I want to tell you something,” she murmured, breath against my skin. “But I don’t want you to hate me.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You smell like you used to,” she said. “Like you did when we first got together.” She hid her face and quietly cried. “I miss it.”
I rested my cheek against her messy brown waves, always untamed because she washes her hair with Bronner’s mint body wash and doesn’t use conditioner. Bits of grey are winding their way through, coarser than the soft brown strands. She married someone different. Ten years younger, no back pain or crunchy knees, and with the sweet, milky smell of estrogen.
“Do you want me to stop taking it?” I said. Because, Lord help me, I would give up everything for her.
“No,” she said, lifting her head so I can tell she’s serious. “I like your new smell, too. It’s just…”
I guided her head back to my chest and resumed stroking her hair. “It’s okay,” I said. “I understand.”
After she finishes rinsing, Deloris stands, and I have to step in front of her and put a hand on her waist to steady her. Her right hip is broken, and she forgets that she can’t put full weight on her leg. Even the pain doesn’t seem to register for her. She’d wobble down the hallway naked and never notice a problem.
“What am I going to do all day with half an eyebrow?” I ask, drawing her attention back to me and helping her sit back down.
She takes a moment, but then laughs and points again at my face. The steam has long since fogged up my glasses, and I’ve pushed them up into my curls.
I can see that she’s thinking about standing again, so I drop to my knees and towel off her feet. “Can you dry your hips?”
She nods and pats her left thigh with the thin, white hospital towels. They are the fabric equivalent of one ply toilet paper. The stuff that reminds you that you are sick, in a hospital, alone.
My mask is now soaked on both sides – inside from perspiration and outside from steam. It sticks to my lips so closely I look like a puppet. I think about making a joke about this, pretending to be a duck or something else stupid just to get Deloris to laugh, but she is still absently drying her right thigh over and over again. She’s shivering now that the water is off.
“Dry your arms,” I suggest. She looks surprised, like she had forgotten I was there.
Deloris dries her arm now, the same spot, pat, pat, pat. She’s tired and fading, and I know she won’t be able to learn anything more today.
“Let’s sing our song,” I say as I take over.
She moves her head to the rhythm before she remembers the words.
“Oh, when the saints,” she sings. “Go marching in. Oh, when the saints go marching in. Oh, I’m dah dah dah.” She always forgets this part, and looks at me, head cocked to the side and watching while I keep singing. She joins in on the last line, “when the saints go marching in.”
I finish helping her dry and slather barrier cream below her breasts and at the crease of her stomach and thigh. She needs my help with her shirt because the fabric clings to her still damp back. The buttons are too difficult for her shaking hands, but she manages one and I finish the rest. When I get her yellow no-slip socks on, thread her briefs and pants over her legs and fasten the gait belt around her middle, she stands and I hold her with one arm, dry her bottom, and help her pull up her pants.
By the time she’s dressed and back in her bed, the sweat on my face has soaked my sideburns and burned the thin pink skin on both of my eyes.
“You’re a good girl,” she says to me, patting my hand in the same distant way she dried her thigh.
I ask her if she wants her door closed and leave the room staggering from the blow. I’m a woman to her. I’m a woman to all my patients. And to anyone in Muskogee, Oklahoma, who might see a transgender man and want to do something about it.
I go home and follow the routine of immediately taking a shower and washing my scrubs. When I’m clothed and out of the bathroom, my hair still dripping wet, I kiss my wife and join her at the dinner table. Sam has been sneaking vegetables into my meals because she loves me and doesn’t want me to have a heart attack.
She tells me about her day, and the calls she had to make for work, and how our dog barked at that one pug he hates. I tell her about the podcast I listened to on my way home and the new adaptive equipment I ordered for our therapy room. I tell her about Deloris, a little, leaving out the bit about being “a good girl,” omitting the subtle humiliations that pepper my day. None of that is new, and it’s a story that tires me to tell.
After dinner, we watch a TV show together, something that we can both ignore while she reads, and I paint. By the morning, the smell of Dragon’s Roar will have faded, and I’ll be ready to go to work, unscented.
Andi Brown is a trans writer and artist. His most recent publications include stories for the Tulsa Review and Months to Years, and he was recently awarded a MVICW Pandemic-Writers Conference Grant. Andi lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he works as an occupational therapist. You can find out more about him by visiting andibwrites.com