Illustration by ALEX WILLIAMSON via THE NEW YORKER
My roommate fantasizes about torturing people. “What I really want to do,” he says, “is take someone, right, to an abandoned warehouse, and tie them up and leave them for a while, then come back and make them crawl over broken glass.” It is January, and he is sitting cross legged by my bed, speaking in a soft voice I have to strain to hear. His face is calm, even though he has just punched a hole in the wall. I envelope him in silence. “Uh huh,” I say.
“Anyway, I’ll let you go to bed,” he says, getting up. “It’s good talking to you, Samuel.” He gets up and closes the door. I stare at the wall and watch the lights from passing cars sway through the window panes like the frantic signal of a lighthouse. I am afraid. I fear the anger in this man.
I have disappeared. I am carrying a box along Broad Street, trying to hail a cab. The only certainty is I am going to live in a shelter for LGBT people in North Philly: LGBTQ Home for Hope. As I fled my apartment, I realized what was important to me. In my box is all my negatives, my cameras, a few clothes. I have lost all my documentation apart from my state ID. No social security card, no birth certificate. A bottle full of antipsychotics. Barely a month sober. In that moment I am without an address, all my possessions in a cardboard box, and I have only thought to bring my girl clothes.
When I reach the shelter, I saw an unmarked building with a bright blue door. Knocking, a woman opens the door and ushers me into an office. I plunk down my box and sit in a chair.
“What brings you here?” she says.
“My roommate told me he wants to torture people, and he punches holes in the walls, and he abuses the cats. I had to get out of there.”
A young woman named Elizabeth* comes in and helps me carry my box to a room up a dimly lit flight of stairs, then I am led into the dining area where dinner is going on. I watch the people eat. The room is lit by artificial light, with two folding tables and hard metal chairs. A group of people gather round the tables, mostly young women of color. The average age of most the people there seems to be mid-twenties. A young woman sits next to me, eating her chicken. She glances at me, searchingly, like I am a statue in a museum, and she is trying to capture me in all my splendor with a cheap camera. “Who are you into?” she says.
“Like gay, straight, what?”
“Oh, I’m bisexual,” I said. “I’m a trans man who cross dresses.”
“Oh, okay,” she says, and continues eating. It is quiet in the room. Everyone is focused on their food. The woman who helped me carry my box comes back in and asks me if I have any toiletries. I tell her no, and she gets me shampoo, soap, a toothbrush. She gives me a towel and tells me everyone has to take a shower once a day. As she leaves the room, I take off my clothes. They’re the only boy clothes I own. I get into the shower. Turning on the tap, I feel the scalding water. I turn on the cold, and the water is now freezing.
Back in my room, I notice a sleeping figure. It is a woman, snoring beneath the sheets of her bed. Getting under the covers, I lie in the bed but I cannot sleep. It occurs to me that the staff thinks I’m a trans woman, with my long hair and deep voice. Even in a suit, my femininity is apparent, and people struggle to determine what bathroom I belong to. As the night lengthens, I listen to the midnight sounds of North Philadelphia: Booming hip-hop car radios. Firecrackers exploding like gunfire. Children screaming. I cannot sleep.
It is 5:45 a.m., and there is a loud knock on the door. The sun has not risen, and the winter cold is seeping through the edges of the window. A booming voice screams out, “Morning meditation, you’ve got fifteen minutes!” and the voice moves on to the next room with the same message. My roommate shakily gets up, her tangled hair making me think of Medusa and the bitter glare of the scorned woman. “Hi, I’m Samuel,” I say. “I’m Mary,” she mutters. She makes her bed, and lumbers toward the door. Everyone is sleepily making their way down the stairs to the common room. Still blurry with sleep, I follow them and sit in a hard, metal chair. Everyone is in a circle, some wearing pajamas. The glare of the overhead fluorescent lights makes everyone look like someone out of a B? movie. A young woman with a notebook and pen says, “Welcome to morning meditation. Can we have a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer?”
Everyone begins to drone in a monotone dirge. “God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. God’s will not ours be done.” Some people say a murmured, “Amen.” One of the residents begins to read a text from an app on their phone. A bunch of platitudes about the God of our understanding, a stale and unfamiliar concept. When I got sober, after my one Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting, I came to the conclusion that the 12 Steps is a cult, and promptly found another means of achieving sobriety. The woman with the notebook says, “Feeling check.” Everyone begins to go around in a circle and says one word to describe how they were feeling. “Blessed,” “okay,” “good.” Most say, “Tired.”
The maturity level of the residents stagnated around thirteen years old. Among the trans girls there was a vicious competition for who looked the most “authentic.” I gathered that most of the people there had been to prison, either for violent offenses or for sex work. I had already been told the entire history of people’s lives by multiple people who were drawn to my innocent Dorian Gray face and calm demeanor. I had been born with a big red target that proclaimed, “Tell me everything,” but in here I learned more than I wanted about the depths humanity could sink to. Little boys being raped by multiple family members and given HIV. Five year old little girls gang banged by relatives. I heard multiple accounts of these women nearly being murdered by tricks. Blood spattered walls, hands gripped round throats, the muzzles of guns pressed to bare skin. I was a witness to human degeneracy. I would go to class and discuss Kant’s categorical imperative, then come back at the end of the day and listen to a transsexual woman testify to the beatings she received in a male prison.
“Okay, can someone close us out?” Once again, the Serenity Prayer is said. After the prayer, she says, “Chores, then breakfast.” People begin to bring in buckets, mops, brooms, and begin to clean the house. I wander back into my room to sleep. It is six in the morning, and it is still dark. After lying in a half-awake stupor, I hear a voice shout, “Breakfast!” Wandering downstairs, I am given a plate with eggs and what looked like a hot dog. I had become a vegetarian after witnessing my sociopathic roommate abusing the cats in the apartment, and I balk at the meat. Taking a fork, I eat the soggy eggs and the hot dog. I am grateful for the meal.
When I’m finished, the woman who had given me the soap grabs me and takes me to her room. “I got you shoes,” she said. “How much do you think you owe me?” I stare at her mutely, thinking. “Um, ten dollars?” I say. “Okay,” she says. I take out my wallet and give her ten dollars. She pockets the money quickly, as if she fears it’d float away like a feather. “Give me your debit card,” she said, “I’ll get you a lock for your locker and some tokens.” She is so commanding, and the staff had presented her as an authority figure, someone who held power. I hand over my debit card and present her with my pin. She pockets it again quickly, and walks off. After 20 minutes, she comes back with my lock and tokens. She stares at me quietly, as if she were trying to fit together the pieces of a puzzle. “You’ve got a lot of money in your account,” she says. “Yeah,” I say, “I applied for a lot of scholarships.” My 3.7 GPA had earned me an easy ticket to free money.
“You’ve got to pay rent,” she says.
“What?” I said. “I thought this was a shelter.”
“You’ve got to pay rent,” she says again. “It’s four hundred and ten dollars.” She grabs me and drags me downstairs. A woman is waiting. “You got to pay rent,” she says too. I stare at her, trying to piece together what is happening.
“But isn’t this a shelter?” I say again. The woman shakes her head.
“This is a treatment facility,” she says. “You pay rent.”
“Okay,” I say, grabbing my wallet. “I need to get to an ATM.” The woman nods, and leads me out the door to her car. I am driven to an ATM at the corner store. Putting in my card, I enter in my pin and punch in the amount I wanted to withdraw. My card is declined. Walking back toward the car, I tell the woman what had happened, and she drives me to another bank. And another bank. Over and over, my card is declined.
As we, drive back to the house I figure out what happened. The woman who got me soap and locks and said I had to pay rent used my debit card to steal my savings. I tell the woman in charge what happened and she grows silent. “Don’t give your debit card to anyone in here again,” she says. “I’ll deal with this.” That night, I am informed that the woman who stole my money has been expelled from the facility. I sleep with my wallet in my pocket every night from then on.
I have had to hand over all my medication. It all goes into a plastic Tupperware container in a filing cabinet with my name labeled on it in purple scotch tape and sharpie. Taking my mug of water, I open my bottle of antipsychotics and shake out a pill. A staff member murmurs to another woman in the room, “Can you hand me her book?”
“It’s he, actually,” I say.
“You’re a man?”
“Yes, I’m a trans man.”
“Then why do you dress like a girl?”
“I’m just feminine,” I say, the prepared answer I have etched onto my tongue like a blooming stigmata. Though I am pegged as gay within five seconds of meeting me, it is not that, it is not simply that. There is something about being a man in women’s clothes that makes me feel powerful, authentic, an invincible vulnerability. While others see me as a sissy, I see myself as overflowing with the seeming diametrical opposites. Incongruous, I feel aligned. Each application of lipstick is an unpeeling of the mask had been wearing my entire life, of the man I had sought to craft from pre-war European literature, from the scientists who graced my parents living room from my dad’s university.
“If you want to be a man, then why do you still dress like a girl?”
“What’s wrong with girls?” I say. “I like girls.”
In the common area people are having breakfast. There is a resident I have been observing—a tall transsexual woman named Kristy, a professed Buddhist who spoke in a loud, strident voice, like she was on a podium before Congress. She held a position of power in the house, managing the chaos with her iron will. I would come to learn she had spent ten years in solitary confinement for defending herself on the street, had spent most of her life smoking crack, had stabbed and stolen and sold her body to survive. Now she was a vegetarian who spoke passionately about her second chance.
From the moment I entered the facility, I had formed a respect for her. She had no illusions about the place or the people she was living with. She was working hard at an older age to carve out a life for herself, with a deep sense of purpose. She worked hard at her position, though even in my first few days there I could tell it wound her up like a toy doll with no one to play with her. The petty theft, the vicious verbal tear downs. it all swarmed round her desperate positivity. As the staff kept saying, “If you don’t like the way this place is run, then leave.” This seemed to me to be most of the people there, and yet they didn’t leave. They didn’t do their five minute chore, they stole toilet paper, and they had no intention of getting sober. I saw all this.
I couldn’t begin to imagine ten years of solitary confinement.
My roommate, the middle-aged transsexual woman, saw how lost I was in this place. No matter how many times I corrected people, explained myself, I was still called a girl. In a therapy group, when I introduced myself and my pronouns in my tennis skirt, there was an uproar. “If you’re a man, then why do you dress like a girl?” multiple people said. Whipping my long blond hair out of my eyes, I said calmly, “Because I’m a crossdresser.”
“What, but you were born female?”
“Yeah, and I’m a crossdresser.”
“But wait, then why do you still dress like a girl?”
“Wait, I see an Adam’s apple, are you male?”
“I’m a trans man, and I’m a crossdresser, it’s simple.” The entire room burst out laughing, the facilitator among them. Surrounded by grinning faces, I sat still. I was transported back to middle school, when I was forced to pay for my sin of loving books by having a group of jeering boys throw rocks at my head. I smile meekly, watching them laugh. I laughed along with everyone else and eventually the conversation moved on.
“You look like a boy to me,” my roommate tells me every night. “You’re a pretty boy.” I knew I didn’t look like a boy to these people. My hair was past my shoulders, bleach blond and beautiful. I wore tight black dresses and a fur winter coat. I had a collection of very attractive pantyhose. When I left my apartment, I grabbed all my girl clothes and was content to leave my boy clothes behind. If I had access to a mirror, I would be applying the layers and layers of makeup I was accustomed to wearing. I wore matte purple lipstick and mascara instead. At school people stared at me and professors got confused about what pronouns I went by. On the street I was hit on by men assuming I was a trans woman. I got called “Blondie.” And in the house where I lived I was laughed at on a regular basis.
“Did you become a man to avoid male attention?” a staff member asks me. I stare at her dumbly, the tears streaming down my cheeks as I confess the humiliations I have to endure. “No,” I say. “I’ve known I was a man since I was a toddler.”
I have a new roommate, an elderly transsexual woman with about much warmth as a dentist’s waiting room. Let’s call her Joyce. She soon earns a reputation in the house for being a terror with her cruel tongue. I have had to learn the difference between when Joyce is talking to me and when she is talking to herself. She is up on all the house’s gossip, and one night after I have returned home from class she tells me, “Kristy stabbed someone last night.” Kristy, the strident transsexual woman who ran this house with an iron will, had stabbed a man in the face and been turned out to live her old life on the street. The police were not called because the man she stabbed had a warrant out for his arrest.
My roommate, Joyce, and I are beginning to have conversations which did not involve her talking to herself. “I have fourteen years sober,” she tells me. “I just stopped. You can’t make anyone stop, you can’t help them. You have to decide to do that for yourself.” This resonated with my own story of sobriety. One day, I looked at myself in the mirror, and realized if I didn’t do something I was going to die alone. Searching for intimacy, sleeping alone. Just wanting someone to hold me but fearing touch, not even wanting to be kissed on the mouth, searching for punishment. Masturbating twenty times a night, slipping into sexual fantasies in the middle of lecture, forcing myself to pay attention. Wanting an orgasm so bad I would shake. Pursuing the emptiness of the afterglow. I hated myself.
I found a nonreligious meeting run by a therapist for addicts of all stripes and held on for dear life. But I never surrendered. I simply wanted to like myself, and to be loved. That was the entirety of my sobriety program. I cut off all ties with my abusive friends and determined I would learn to like being alone. I never said the Serenity Prayer with these people.
“I’ll never let anything happen to you in here,” Joyce tells me one night when a fistfight breaks out. “You’re getting an education, you’ll be fine. I’ll look after you. I won’t let these people hurt you.” Our room is a safe space in the house for me. Every night we talk before going to sleep. She had come to this house seeking safety after suffering attacks in her neighborhood. Instead she has been driven into a house where violence made the air sick, fearing for her safety again. We both feel it. I am one hundred and sixteen pounds and partially sighted. I could easily be overpowered. She is sixty two years old, having lost most of her strength to disability. All the staff are residents, former drug addicts, with barely any clean time among them, all women. They cannot keep us safe. We were forced to develop our survival strategies, just like everyone else there.
One night, after coming home from working on a poem, I am told I will have to switch rooms. I burst into tears, begging the staff to not move me. Distraught, I run to my room, lay on my bed, and sob for the whole house to hear. But I have control over nothing in this house. It is built for people with no skills to survive, who have to be taught everything. Forced to pack up my few possessions, I am moved to the trans women floor and given a young trans woman roommate, a bubbly girl who keeps to her computer during the day. Cowering in my bed that night, I cry. I do not sleep for days.
After a few weeks, I begin to have nightly talks with my new roommate. We learn we came from similar families, internalizing the abuse and turning it into compassion. We have retained our innocence, our love. She had left home after her parents learned she had went on hormones. Shattered, she lives a delicate life, her health ruined by mental illness. She knows how weakened she is, trapped in this place, fearing for her future. She had gone to Temple on a full scholarship. She had devoted herself to computer programming, hoping to find a solution to her life through technology. Every night we have deep conversations about our lives, and every night I fear she will either take her own life or simply give up and succumb to her psychosomatic distress. Aware I am a man with a deep attraction to women, I am forced to watch her change, this young girl. Slowly, I begin to develop feelings for her, her sweet, songbird voice. I learn she has recently been raped in the last house she was living, and fearing she will learn of my attraction I begin to ask the staff to move me to the men’s floor. Women have always held a sacred place in my heart. Though I fear to live with brutal masculinity, I fear more the safety of this girl from myself.
The day comes when I am moved to the men’s floor. When she learns of this, she is stricken. “Did you tell them you didn’t want to move?” she pleads. I can’t bear to tell her the truth, and told her I did. We hug tightly, and I know she will miss me terribly. Packing up my possessions, I move into my new room. It is a small room, and my bed is a mattress on the floor squeezed into a corner. I lay on my bed and cry, feeling so very small and weak. All these men are bigger than me, stronger than me. I have heard stories of these men stabbing people and robbing them. I meet my new roommate, and learn he has just gotten out of prison for assault. When he learns I am trans the usual questions come out, the skepticism. “If you’re feminine, isn’t that redundant?” he says. I shrug.
“What are you doing here?” he says. I tell him. “Why are you here if you’re scared?”
I have no answer. “You have savings,” he says. “You should move out. You’re smart. You’ll be fine. You have money.” I have already made the decision to move out, but these words strike me. “If you’re going to be different,” he says, “you should be the best at it. If you know who you are, then that’s all that matters.”
I think of the months spent here. Learning to manipulate the staff, pretending to be meek so hurting me would be an act of cruelty even these people would not stoop to. Having to suppress my femininity for fear of being taken advantage of, but nevertheless still tormented. The constant dread. I had come here for refuge and instead had to learn to survive. Though in my home I faced violence, no one in my family was capable of stabbing me. The father who had tried to rape me had been so absent from my life that this was the only act of raising me he had ever performed. My mother had wanted to give me a happy childhood and had tried her best, but ultimately her wounded heart and the abuse she suffered from my father brought out the violence in her. Though my father had no attachment to me, I began to realize my mother did care for me, though she had no idea how to. Though I had feared her rage growing up, I knew she was old now, and soon she would die, and I didn’t want to harbor hatred toward her. Though she never should have had children, when I was born she had such hopes for me.
I am sitting beneath a tree in Washington Square Park, the bees mingling in my dress. I have been sitting there for the past two hours, watching the summer sun bend across the grass, listening to the shouts of children as they play in the fountain. It is as if I am viewing the world through glass. One violent stumble, and the glass will shatter—and everything will disappear. I have been living in the facility for four months. I have just turned twenty-seven years old. A woman and her dog pass me by as I sit rigidly beneath the tree. The dog, shambling through the grass, begins to walk toward me. I do not move, allowing the bees to crawl through my skin. “Don’t bother her,” the woman says to the dog, gripping the leash. The words echo dully through my mind.
Narcissus is dead, and I am a ghost wandering the world with only my name. No parents, no home. In the place where I live I have been called a girl and mocked from the day I moved in. The carefully plastered on veneer of certainty in my maleness was eroding, slipping between my fingers with each application of lipstick. I can remember being eight years old, watching the children play in my elementary school, realizing I wasn’t a girl but would never be like the other boys. Playing Barbie’s with my girlfriends and feeling ashamed of enjoying it so much. The hallucinatory experience of staring at myself in the mirror on prom night in my hot pink dress, liking what I was wearing, but realizing something was missing, something didn’t feel right. Dissolving into tears in the middle of class when a poem moved me. Learning the meaning of the word “transsexual,” realizing that was me, but how? Coming out and being told I could never be a man because I didn’t act like one. Begging. Hating my body so much I wanted to mutilate it, being told I had internalized misogyny, that my bipolar disorder had made me delusional. My manhood was a delusion, I didn’t act like a man. Searching for proof but always ending up in the same place—that being called “he” made me feel happy, that I couldn’t explain it, and that I was terrified. I longed for the days when I could dress up in my mother’s clothes and not feel ashamed.
My medication is locked away in the filing cabinet. The sharpest thing I own is a pair of nail scissors, which I cut myself with in desperation but which will not murder me. I cannot be the one to deal the final blow. I need someone else to do it. I know if I move I’ll walk toward Vine Street and end it because I have ceased to exist. I can see right through my hands. They clutch nothing, not even the warm summer air. I am surrounded by light, but soon the sun will set and I will have to go back to this place. I cannot go back to this place. My skin feels cold, the bees surround me but I am not frightened of their sting. I possess nothing. I have ceased to write. My tongue has been burned, I cannot even say my name. I speak only when spoken to. I go to therapy and weep in front of a man who will never understand. No one has ever understood. I take an antipsychotic twice a day to attach myself to a reality where I do not exist.
I have disappeared.
My entire life all I ever wanted was to feel right. The moment I took my first testosterone injection I left the fantasy world I had created for myself and entered a world that did not want me. I took an antipsychotic twice a day to live in a reality where I was constantly being humiliated. The psychotic breaks I suffered suddenly seemed preferable. I had emerged from my one suicide attempt determined to love myself, and instead I am given the message that I should be ashamed of myself, that I’m a freak, that I make no sense and therefore need to be told who I am, like a dog. I have suffered my entire life for other people’s sins and kept my kind heart. The shallowness of the world hits me, the weakness of people. Why do I need to die because I make the world uncomfortable? The sun is getting lower. I get up. I have been sitting beneath this tree for three hours. I wipe the dirt off my dress and begin to walk toward the 23 bus stop. In that moment, I make the decision to find a place to live.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Samuel Archer is a freelance short story writer and poet from Los Angeles, California. His work has appeared in LitroNY, BlazeVOX, Phawker.com, and Offcourse. He attends Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He currently lives in (and wander around in) Philadelphia with his camera. His work has been exhibited at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and the William Way LGBT Center. He has also lived in Bristol, England.
*All names have been changed to protect the innocent