Bad boy, p.1
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Bad Boy

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  For the girl I was




  REN: Life is ineffably weird.

  Hello, Internet. My name is Ren. Despite what my reedy voice and apple-dumpling cheeks might tell you, I’m a boy. A lost boy in the big city, trying to find myself. If you’re watching this, maybe you’re trying to find yourself, too.

  Over the past year I’ve watched a thousand videos just like this one. Other guys talking to their laptops, isolated and afraid, launching their voices into the void like messages in bottles. We’re all stranded on the desert islands of ourselves, sending missive after missive and hoping someone will find us, and reply:

  Message received.

  [Jump cut.]

  Guess I’ll give you the basics. I’m nineteen. College sophomore. Gender studies major. Yep, the only boy in class. That’ll be fun later, with a beard. I live with my best friend and we both live with the ghost of myself. You can’t shake a haunting unless you face it, so in the interests of exorcism and YouTube view counts I’m documenting my transition.

  Today was my first day on testosterone.

  Here’s how it works: You go to a gender therapist and say, “I feel like I’ve been given a life sentence, and the prison cell is my own skin.” You tell them the bars make a double X pattern. The prison uniform is a pointlessly wide pelvis and unnecessary breast tissue atop your pecs. It’s designed to dehumanize you. Make you feel both trapped in and disconnected from yourself. The therapist will say, “How long have you identified as a man?” And even though you don’t really feel like a man inside, but more of a boy, scared and confused and alone, you’ll say, “My whole life.” Because you want testosterone more than anything. You need it. To survive.

  Then, with a bit of luck, they’ll sign a letter certifying you as genderfucked, and you’ll get T. The wonder drug. The problem-curing, life-fixing panacea.

  I’m kidding. Testosterone isn’t going to fix my issues. It’ll cause a hundred new ones. Male-pattern baldness, BO, acne. I’ve done my research. Being a man isn’t all six-pack abs and sultry stubble. Honestly, manhood is pretty fucking unsexy.

  But it’s the only thing I have left to try before I take a razor to my wrists.

  [Jump cut.]

  Some trans guys count their first day of T as their new birthday. So here I am, world. Your newest baby boy, born December 13. Sprung fully formed from my own forehead, Athena-style.

  I’m a mythology nerd, and there’s this myth that speaks to me, haunts me . . .

  This is, uh, kinda hard to talk about, actually. Maybe I—

  [Clears his throat.]

  My biggest issue with mythology is that it’s so steeped in rape. Most of the gods and kings were total shitlords who terrorized women. Other gods took pity and transformed those women into plants so they could escape sexual assault.

  Let that sink in. Better to be a fucking plant than a woman in ancient Greece.

  My relationship with mythology is cagey, but there’s this myth I’m obsessed with about a woman called Caenis. Like so many others, Caenis was raped by Poseidon. Afterward she asked to be changed into a man so she couldn’t be raped again. Apparently Poseidon drew the line at sodomy.

  So Caenis became Caeneus, a fearsome warrior. A man so strong he couldn’t be harmed by normal weapons. To defeat him, a crafty centaur buried him beneath a mountain of logs. He’s still there, tossing the trunks aside one by one, clawing his way out. Nothing can stop him. Nothing can hold him down. Someday he’ll be free.

  I’m Caeneus, if that wasn’t obvious.

  [Clears his throat.]

  My voice isn’t usually this hoarse. Two weeks ago, I put a belt around my neck and stepped off a chair in my closet. My best friend found me and performed CPR. No one knows how long I was deprived of oxygen. Not long enough for measurable brain damage, but long enough that I still don’t have sensation in my chest. Which is actually kind of nice. Lets me forget I have breasts.

  [Jump cut.]

  This is probably the thousandth trans-guy-taking-T video you’ve watched. You’re seeking answers, like me. Reassurance. Permission. You want to know if this is what you should do. If it’ll really make you happy, quiet that scream inside that no one else can hear.

  I don’t know.

  I’m not one hundred percent sure it’s right for me, either.

  I just know something has to change. I have to change.

  People make ugly choices to stay sane inside prison. When your body is the cell, it feels like your only freedom is to die. But that’s bullshit. There’s another way out. A safe way. See a fucking therapist, okay? Don’t be like me, don’t wait till it nearly kills you. I spent years hurting myself, cautiously, shallowly, trying to resist that final deep cut into a vein.

  I hurt myself to remember: I am this body. As much as I hate it, it’s me.

  I have to serve my time here. Make peace with it.

  If I don’t, if I can’t—

  [Jump cut.]

  But I am. I’m taking back control.

  No more self-harm. Now there’s a silver bullet of testosterone in my bloodstream, and I didn’t even have to beg a god. Thanks, Obamacare.

  So this is it. The girl part dies. A little boy wakes up, confused and alone. Irrevocable changes are happening inside his cells and he’s stuck on the island of himself, sailing messages out into the wide blue nothing.

  This is what they say:

  Somebody, please listen.

  My name is Ren. I’m one day old. I’m a lost little boy.

  Please find me.



  I stood on a balcony overlooking Chicago, the city lit up like a circuit board: gold wires snaking through the night, heat thickening the air into violet gel. Summer was all pulse and shimmer, a billion ones and zeroes manically flipping on and off.

  A beautiful night for mayhem.

  To my left was the devil herself: Blythe McKinley, inked Aussie bombshell, glitter and cigarette ash spangling her wild blond mane like dirty stars. Her scarlet strap dress showed off sleeve tats. Being near Blythe felt like hovering in the eye of a tornado. Where she went, roofs came off, lives were uprooted. Shit flipped.

  On my right, her seraphic opposite: Ellis Carraway, androgynous redhead, very much a sir till she opened her mouth. Ellis was shy and sweet, blossoming only when she could nerd out over something. She ID’d as genderfluid: sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes something else. Tonight she was all boy in a skinny tie and tweed blazer and Chucks.

  Not only were they my angel and devil, they were also each other’s exes. Right now the exes were arguing about men who played video games.

  “Explain to me, Professor,” Blythe said, inscribing the air with her cigarette, “the fact that ninety percent of our targets are hard-core gamers.”

  Ellis took an anxious hit off her vaping pen. They even smoked in good and evil ways. “Where do you get ninety percent?”


  “You made it up.”

  “All statistics are made-up.”

  “Correlation does not imply causation, Blythe. Otherwise I’d be the biggest misogynist ever.”

  “Yet nearly every sexist troll loves his bloody video games. Explain that.”

  Ellis ruffled her short hair. “I’m not the psychiatrist. Ask Armin.”

  Her voice dipped into bitte
rness. An entire novel’s worth of resentment hung in the air between us.

  No, literally. The novel is called Black Iris. Laney wrote it.

  We’ll meet her in a sec.

  Blythe reached past me and brushed Ellis’s hand. “Just taking the piss, little bird.”

  The touch lingered a moment, then they jerked away simultaneously.

  “Come on, kids,” I said, circling their shoulders. “I’m getting too much oxygen out here. I’ve almost forgotten the smell of Axe body spray.”

  Blythe cocked an eyebrow. “Is that not what you’re wearing, mate? Just standing near you raises my blood alcohol level.”

  “Shots fired. Actually, Ellis is wearing that delightful fragrance.”

  “You guys suck,” Ellis said. Then, softer, “And it’s not Axe. It’s Ralph Lauren.”

  Blythe spun away from me and seized her, laughing. “Come dance, you beautiful boy.”

  “I can’t dance. You know that. Ren, help.”

  “On your own, stud.”

  They swept into the crowd inside the club. Before they vanished I caught the flash of Ellis’s engagement ring, coiled silver capped with lapis. So much condensed into something so small: a history, a promise, a future. You could take it off and on, switch fates like shirts. For a second it caught a curl of light and then was gone, breaking into bright pixels as the disco ball whirled overhead, scattering into the sea of grinding skin, sweat, want.

  Welcome to Umbra: our home away from home, our glitter-flecked shadowland.

  Who are we?

  Like Laney says: you’ll know us by the trail of our vengeance.

  We call the top floor of Umbra the Aerie because up here it feels like you can fly. Music light as helium, a tinge of sugar in the crystal droplets beading on warm skin. A happy haze of prescription drugs and sexual experimentation. Blame Laney. This is basically her queertopia.

  Speak of the minidevil. A voice near my elbow said, “Hey, bad boy.”

  “Hey yourself, bad girl.”

  Delaney Keating was five foot one of sheer ruthlessness. I’ll be damned if I ever meet someone with as many issues—or as much badassery—per square inch. Bangs slanted across her Kewpie doll face like a feral crow’s wing, above ingénue-blue eyes and the kind of heart-melting freckles you don’t expect on diabolical masterminds. Laney was our boss, our dark queen. Like Dr. Evil as envisioned by Precious Moments.

  “What’s up?” I said. “You have that femme fatale look.”

  She didn’t smile, but her eyes gave a schemey sparkle. “This is my resting bitch face.”

  “You’re going to ruin someone’s life tonight, aren’t you?”

  “Someone who deserves it.”

  My heart kicked into high gear. There was one person who deserved the full bore of my wrath, and Laney knew how badly I wanted to deliver it. “Who?”

  “Not him. But he’s bad enough.”

  It was a he, always. Like Blythe said, our targets tended to have certain things in common. Social isolation. Anger issues. Misogyny.


  “I’ll brief you at the meeting,” Laney said, staring off at a blur of blond and ginger. “Midnight. Be there.”

  “Actually, I can’t. I haven’t vlogged in ages. I really have to put something up tonight.”

  “Can it wait?”

  “Time goes faster on the Internet. If I disappear for a day everyone thinks I’m dead.” I shrugged. “Besides, I need the money. If I’m late on rent, Ingrid’ll toss my shit on the street.”

  She wouldn’t. But things were fragile between me and my ex-BFF, and I intended to keep them from outright shattering.

  “This job pays,” Laney said.

  I frowned.

  “It pays well. In cash, and in satisfaction.”

  “Lane, I can’t—”

  She leaned closer, her voice dry ice. “I know how the work makes you feel. It’s the same for me. Catharsis. It’s something physical, animal. You need this. We both do. And we need each other to make it happen.”

  Despite the humid air, I shivered.

  She was right.

  “Midnight,” she said.


  “Tell the others. And stay sharp. I need everyone on their A game.” The blue of her eyes flared like a gas flame. “This is going to be big.”

  When she was gone I slipped into the crowd, into the glove of shared body heat, brushing up against pretty boys with coquettish eyelashes and dashing girls with chiseled jaws. I sought that physicality Laney spoke of. Friction between skin, biochemical sparks. The thrill of touch. A guy kept bumping into me, and we danced. Still strange, the feel of my thick arms around a man more slender than me. He pressed his ass to my hips and I went hard.

  I pulled away. He winked.

  Once the new owner took over Umbra, everything changed. Frats and sororities phased out; Pride paraded in. Journalists came knocking. I was spokesman by default—Blythe didn’t possess a social filter, and Laney’s camera presence was like Wednesday Addams on downers—but I made a perfect poster boy for Umbra 2.0: Mr. Transgender Tipping Point himself, handsome, popular, palatable. Word got around. Umbra was now the destination for LGBT kids in the city. A safe space. A second home.

  Our new owner, Armin Farhoudi, made sure of that.

  I found him at the bar with Blythe. Armin looked like a model who got lost on his way to a GQ shoot: tall and lithely muscled, wearing a bespoke suit and wing tips, his brown hair streaked with tendrils of sunset red. That dusky complexion gave him natural eye shadow. I used to fantasize about his stubble while I peered into my bathroom mirror and painted fake facial hair with a mascara wand. Armin was my ideal male. He made masculinity seem effortless, graceful. Beautiful.

  Until I learned what he had done. Then he was just another man, no god.

  We nodded at each other.

  “The Little Wolf sent me,” I said. “Meeting tonight.”

  Blythe’s eyes gleamed. “Finally. I’m going stir-crazy.”

  “You’re always stir-crazy.”

  “I’m just plain crazy.”

  Armin’s mouth tightened. “Don’t say that.”

  “Let me own it. It doesn’t shame me.”

  “Nothing shames you. That’s not the point.” Armin rotated the watch on his wrist, some sleek tungsten thing. “You romanticize mental illness, Blythe. Make it sound glamorous.”

  “I romanticize everything. I’m a bloody poet.” That gleam in her eyes had become a hundred razor points. “And you medicalize everything because you’re a bloody doctor.”

  “I’m not a doctor. I’m barely even a DJ anymore.”

  “A better doctor than a DJ.”

  “Did you just call me a bad DJ?”

  “Didn’t you just tell me not to romanticize rubbish?”

  They both laughed. These two made an Olympic sport of insulting each other. Like Ellis, Armin was one of Blythe’s exes. There was no one in our circle she hadn’t hooked up with. Except me.

  Third base notwithstanding.

  “Laney says to stay sharp,” I said. “Whatever she’s planning, it’s big.”

  “ ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce,’ ” Blythe said.

  Armin sighed. “Please do not start quoting poetry.”

  “Is my pretentiousness showing?”

  “At least it’s not Plath.”

  “Oh, don’t you bloody start—”

  “Where’s Ellis?” I interrupted.

  Their good humor dropped. Blythe glanced at Armin, then said, “Fucked if I know. Try the toilet.”

  “That Aussie lyricism. Swoon.”

  She smirked, but there was an edge to it.

  Once upon a time Blythe had cheated on Armin with Ellis. Still a sore spot. But it had set off the chain reaction that brought us all together, our motley crew with its fetish for justice porn. We hurt those who hurt others. Trolled harder, hit back rougher. Made them regret every shitty little hateful moment of their shitty litt
le hateful lives. Bad begot good, somehow. If you can call cold-blooded vengeance good.

  For us, it’s not really about justice. There’s no justice in a world like this.

  It’s about trolling the trolls.

  I waded through the crowd, pausing when people recognized me and asked for a hug or pic. You’re Ren from YouTube, right? I love your vlog. You’re so hot/inspiring/brave. As if I were born there, online. Which I guess, in a way, I was. My boyhood was a thousand nights spent bathing in the blue glow of my laptop, watching other trans boys raise themselves into men. My stepfathers had names like Chase, Skylar, Ty. A hundred Aidens. (Seriously, what is with trans guys named Aiden?) We’re self-made men. We’re each other’s fathers, and our mother is the Internet.

  As I moved through the wash of cool light and hot shadow, I instinctively scanned the male faces around me. My brain caught false flags—a certain angle of smirk, a boldly drawn brow—and I’d stare a man down, my heart thrashing.

  It was never him. In five years it hadn’t been him.

  But I’d never stop looking.

  In the unisex bathroom Ellis stood gazing into the mirror, spooling a bang around one finger over and over till it snagged, and she jumped. Professor Carraway, a million light-years off in thought. She was the designated nerd of our little clique, always with a gadget or game controller in hand, more herself online than with real live people. We’d met in Gender in Modern Society freshman year of college. I sat beside her because she was cute. She explained with exquisite politeness that she liked girls. It was the first time I got rejected for being a boy, and it felt fucking awesome.

  “How you holding up, old sport?” I said, smoothing my hair.


  “Crowd getting to you?”

  “Not the crowd. Just certain people in it.”

  Armin, obviously. “The Wolf’s calling a meeting tonight.”

  Ellis stared into the mirror as if it led to Narnia.

  “Space cadet.”

  “Sorry. I’ll be there.”

  I touched her shoulder. “Go call her.”

  “I don’t—”

  “You do. And Vada misses you, too. Promise.”

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