In my head, a knocking. The gaps between each knock were such that you could tell the knocker was pissed off. I was good at telling such things because I grew up in a house whose doorbell was always about to be fixed. But bodies are not houses and the only person inside mine was me, and so I sautéed onions, and set a phone reminder to hang up the washing as soon as it was done, and checked in on my friends who liked to be checked in on, and told my boyfriend I’d fuck him as soon as I’d finished reading this page. And you would think that all these verbs would knock the knocking (knocker?) away from the door of me, but it did not.
My boyfriend fell asleep as soon as he came. Not wanting to watch the cum dry to his leg hairs, I rolled over. I picked up my book, but the knocker was pushing the letters out of its words, its words off its pages; I dropped it on the carpet. I picked it up, then dropped it again — hard. I wanted it to wake my boyfriend up, but his breathing deepened; his body was doing all the miraculous REM healing whilst I — I was still being plagued by this mystery knocker.
I dashed to the bathroom, hoping, at last, to confront whoever it was. But in the mirror, I didn’t see the huge, hairy fist I’d half expected. I didn’t see any of the mothers of my childhood friends, their foreheads wrinkled and rain-damp. I didn't see Jim, my very first boyfriend, crying because he thought I’d stood him up. But I didn’t see a thirty-year-old woman, either. First, I saw the breasts: they’d been stuck on, clumsily, by a toddler, or someone who’d made them whilst also watching a tv show about a well-to-do family who become drug pushers. Or whilst cross-stitching. The face wasn’t mine, either; there was another face inside it. It wanted to get out and I wanted to help it, but when I lunged at the glass, it disappeared. There was a big red spot by my eyebrow; I squeezed it, but it wasn’t ready, and although I knew it wasn’t ready, I kept squeezing it, I thought it might coax the knocker out, but no; all that came was blood, and so much of it that the next morning my manager pulled me to one side and asked if everything was ok at home.
‘Yes,’ I said, and began to cry.
‘Your boyfriend seems very nice,’ she said, ‘but you never know.’
I couldn’t say about the knocker, nor about how I’d been desperate for them to leave, yet now that they had, I felt like the loneliest person in the world, a feeling I thought I’d left in the house with the broken bell.
My stomach ached. ‘I’m about to get my period.’
She sighed like she was disappointed that I was not, in fact, a victim of sexual violence, but only of the tragedy that was the body from which neither she nor anyone could save me. ‘Ok, umm, well, maybe take some codeine or something? I mean, I want to kill everyone for like ten days before mine, which has actually been for the last ten days, but you’d never have guessed, would you?’
‘Actually,’ I said, ‘when you pressed that slice of coffee cake into my hand after I said that I didn’t like coffee cake, and said, just try it, it’s delicious, not daring to admit that you just wanted me to stay late to finish that project you’d guilt-tripped me into working on, I felt like you did want kill me.’
She looked at her feet, then at me, then back at her feet. ‘Maybe you should see your doctor.’
I spent the rest of that day going over and over that moment, but I still couldn’t tell who’d said those words — me, or the knocker.
When I told my boyfriend about the conversation with my manager, he didn’t laugh, as I’d expected; he made a face which suggested that were he living in a universe maybe three permutations away from this one, he’d be crying. ‘You’ve really got to stop picking your spots. You probably wouldn’t have them anymore if you didn’t pick them.’
I didn’t tell him that I’d got way more since exiting my twenties; my body was trying, fruitlessly, to travel backwards in time.
We hadn’t bothered to buy any curtains, and, behind him, I saw my reflection in the darkened window, only it wasn’t mine. It was a boy’s. Jim’s? No. I hadn’t seen him before. I knew who he was though. Knock knock. I squinted. Again, he was gone.
‘I just hate the idea of people thinking I could hurt you.’
‘But she didn’t, that’s the point.’
‘But what if I did?’ He looked at his hands, which were huge; they could crush me if they wanted, which they didn’t, but still.
I laced my fingers between his. ‘You won’t.’
I lurched towards him.
He pulled away. ‘What?’
I thought I’d seen a girl flit across his face, but no, I was just tired and PMSing, he was the manniest man that ever did stomp across this earth. ‘Just saw a pimple I wanted to pick, is all.’
We both laughed.
The next morning, I woke with blood-soaked pjs but I saw the boy, there, in the blood, or maybe in my hurry to soak it out of the flannel, I’m not sure, but he was in me, I’d let him in, only I didn’t know when I’d opened the door. Or maybe he could make himself small enough to squeeze through letterboxes, or ears, or mouths; or maybe someone who wasn’t me had let him in, the way my mum used to let my friends in without telling me and then I’d come downstairs to find her talking at them, the way she used to talk at me, and I’d think, what, are they her kids now, but no; my mum now lived in a flat with an incredibly loud buzzer which was, more to the point, over two hundred miles away, and a person couldn’t have more than one other person living inside them, surely. I put on a skirt and tights but they felt wrong in the way my breasts felt wrong, so I kicked them off. I pulled on my boyfriend’s jeans. They were too big, but something about their too-bigness felt just right.
‘What are you doing?’ He looked exceedingly sorry for himself, as if waking up was qualitatively harder for him than for anyone else.
‘Nothing.’ As soon as I let go of the waistband, the jeans dropped to my ankles.
‘You look hilarious.’
‘Thanks.’ My hairs prickled as I pulled the tights back on.
‘Much better,’ he said, staring at the boobs which were no longer mine, just as I/the boy, was sure that Rick’s pecks were really his.
‘You look … gay,’ was the first thing Rick said when I cut my hair shorter than his.
‘Well, I am bi.’
I’d told him this many times, but he made the face he made when he’d thought he was about to win a board game, but, owing to some last minute trick of fate, lost. ‘Oh yes.’
‘I think … I need to explore it.’
‘You mean you want to break up?’
We’d been together since we were eighteen; imagining my life without him was like imagining my body without a head. ‘No.’
He exhaled. ‘OK.’
‘You can explore, too.’
‘I’m not attracted to guys.’
‘I mean, with girls.’
‘Oh.’ He made a face I’d never seen before. ‘OK.’
There was so much to say that I said nothing. Then he asked if I wanted to watch an episode of Mad Men. I nodded.
Three episodes later, I’d just about fallen asleep, when he shimmied over to my side of the bed and squeezed my boob. I didn’t want to fuck, but I knew that if I communicated this, he’d think it was because of what we’d sort of discussed before, so I rolled over and made the sort of noises I’d make if I did want to. Then I closed my eyes and imagined the sorts of things I usually imagined to make me cum: things involving women. That night, however, it didn’t work. So, for the first time in all the time we’d been together, I faked it.
‘Wow, that seemed like a really big one,’ he said, kissing my back.
‘Yeah,’ I lied, fixing my eye on a sock that had been on the floor for so long, its icing of dust was thicker than it was.
‘Mind if I try from behind?’
I didn’t like it from behind but I said, sure. He slid out, then back into me, squeezing my buttocks. It hurt, but not in a bad way. I closed my eyes.
You’re a boy.
I opened my eyes. The voice was neither mine nor Rick’s, but if we were the only people in the room, whose was it? I supposed it was the boy’s, but it didn’t sound like him, quite. I closed my eyes.
Just two boys fucking.
Now, I was wet. I was a boy being fucked by a boy and as I/he was about to cum, Rick did.
‘That felt even better than usual,’ he said.
I hoped the voice might interject, telling me what to feel, or, at least, say. But it didn’t, and so I just nodded, fighting the sudden compulsion to lick the dust off that sock.
At work, the first person to see my hair was the new receptionist, who called me Sir. I smiled. She blushed. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I mean, erm, madame.’ I wanted to tell her not to worry; that whilst I disliked the word ‘sir’ almost as much as the word ‘madame,’ her mistake felt somehow right. But of course, you can’t go around saying things like that, especially not at work, and then my manager walked in. I could tell, from her face, that she hated it. ‘It’s very, um, short,’ she said, eventually.
Other things people said about my hair: ‘cute’ and ‘what will you do with your hairbands’ and ‘short,’ and when I joked that they probably meant I looked like a lesbian, they said 'no, no no no, certainly not', as if that would be truly terrible. In supermarkets, I got IDed twice as often. I got a few more 'sirs', a few suspicious stares in public toilets; in other places, I got stares that tried to hide their suspiciousness under a frenetic looking away-then-towards. Once, some teenagers chased me across a park, demanding to know if I was a boy or a girl. ‘I’m not being rude,’ said what looked like a boy. ‘I just want to know.’ I should’ve thanked him for daring to ask what no one else did, not even myself. Instead, I said it was none of his business, then stalked off.
I was a woman, but the boy, having spent so long hidden under layers of stretchy nylon and badly-applied eyeshadow, was still a teenager. Now unleashed, he was doing a lot of teenage boy things, like not talking to people if he didn’t feel like talking to them, eating whatever he wanted, not doing things if he didn’t feel like doing them, even if he was being paid to do them, and drugs. He/I/we did a lot of drugs. I did them with mostly straight women, in clubs, whilst Rick was either playing video games with his friends, or asleep. Every now and then, I’d lock eyes across the dance floor with a woman. She’d smile at the me that was neither man nor woman, girl nor boy, but some combination of the above for which there was no word. Sometimes we’d dance, occasionally, we’d kiss, and when we did, I’d feel, for a moment, that I was spinning off the gender axis, but mostly she’d start chewing her lips and grinning at some boy in a sweaty white t-shirt, and I’d remember we were just really, really high.
Rick, however, only saw the girl. He saw the weight that the boy’s food habits had put on my hips and bum and boobs and said: ‘hot.’ The tighter, the more girlish clothes I wore, the more often he said it. When I wore loose, boyish clothes, he didn’t look at me, let alone touch me, and even if he did, he was only touching the girl parts of me, which weren’t really mine. But when people asked how our open relationship was going, I said awesome; I said, he’s so sweet, so supportive, but the looks on people’s faces told me I was losing my womanly ability to make everyone feel like everything was alright.
When I was late for work three days in a row, my boss gave me another Talk. ‘I know this isn’t Sampson and Delila but erm you have sort of changed since you cut your hair. You’re making lots of mistakes, and if people point it out, you don’t seem to care, and the other day, when I started to tell you how intermittent fasting was really sharpening up my thoughts, you just walked away, and Mandy said you did the same thing about her holiday, it’s rude, and it’s bad for morale, and you didn’t even apologise for not meeting your last deadline … It’s like you don’t want to be here.’
I tried to remember what it was she was paying me for; I failed. ‘I don’t.’
‘I quit.’ I was smiling. The boy was smiling. Only when we saw Rick’s face that evening, over dinner, did we stop. ‘But what will you do for money? What about the mortgage?’
You are a woman.
He was right. I pushed my plate away. ‘You’re right.’
You are still a woman. With a man. With a mortgage. With a mortgage you share with a man.
‘Don’t you want that?’ He nodded at my plate.
I shook my head.
‘Please don’t start that again.’
‘The not-eating. You’ve been so much better with it since you, you know…’
‘I know,’ I said. I remembered how, when my body had looked and acted more like a boy’s body — flat-chested; periodless — it hadn’t felt like one; nor had it felt like a girl’s, and certainly not like a woman’s; it felt like nothing, because I’d starved the part that dictated the opening and the closing of the doors through which my genders came and went, starved it to something like death. ‘I’m just a bit stressed.’ I forced down some more pasta.
I spent my remaining time at work applying for other jobs, composing not-too-desperate-sounding freelance requests, and looking forward to whatever combination of boy and girl would emerge from whatever combination of powders, techno and sweat I imbibed that weekend.
Only, it didn’t work anymore. The music was great, the drugs were great, but I felt … I felt like I’d queued and queued for a water slide only to find, in place of the slide, a hole. It was too deep to see to the bottom and yet I knew there was something terrible there. I wanted to turn back but there was no back to turn to, only sweaty, gurning people, so I jumped.
I landed in the voice of a woman. She grabbed me by the waist, then spun me around. I tripped over a foot, though I couldn’t tell if it was mine or hers. She laughed. Then she whispered something in my ear. Too loud to hear what she said, but I smiled and nodded as if I had. We danced and kissed and she slid her hands up under my shirt and then the music stopped and the lights came on and she said, 'this doesn’t have to be over because the music is over, do you want to come back to mine?'
I stamped the ground. It was solid. Had her voice tugged me back up to the top of the hole, or had our dancing been a long, slow falling, and this, the bottom? I nodded.
Just as I was lying on her mattress, about to cum — the knocking.
Fuck’s sake, I said, or maybe it was the boy, who is it and what do you want?
Her tongue was all over my clit and my clit was a clit was a cock and — oh — wow — I pushed her head away. ‘Thanks.’
‘Already?’ She wiped her mouth. ‘Like a boy.’
‘Don’t be. My girlfriend takes so long, I sometimes invent new words to amuse myself.’
‘You’ve got a girlfriend?’
She ran her finger from my belly button to my hip, and it didn’t look like a boy’s, it didn’t look like a girl’s, and what it did or didn’t look like had nothing to do with how much fat it did or didn’t have; it just was. ‘We’re open.’
‘So are me and my boyfriend.’
She screamed. ‘No way have you got a boyfriend.’ She spat out the word like she wanted it inside her for as little time as possible — exactly how I’d always wanted to say it. ‘Shit. Sorry. It’s just you’re so —'
We talked for a few more hours, at the end of which time she began to annoy me, and when we swapped numbers on her doorstep a few hours later, I knew that we both knew that we were only doing so to avoid admitting that we didn’t want to see each other again.
When I got home, Rick was shooting CGI zombies. I didn’t realise I was standing in front of the screen until he shouted at me. ‘I’ve been stuck on that level for ages.’
‘What do you want?’
I didn't know that in eight months’ time, I’d sit where he was now sitting, telling my newish girlfriend — who wasn’t really a girlfriend because they were nonbinary but there is no good word for nonbinary friend — that I didn’t know why it had taken me so long to work out that I wanted to break up; but I knew that the ‘you’ to whom he was speaking could never be me.
‘What do I want? What do I want?’
In my head, a knocking. Come in, I said, please, come in, and tell me something profound. But the voice that said, eggs, said, sausages, said, hash browns, sounded exactly the way my voice would sound had it been up all night talking to strangers and snorting drugs.
‘Brunch,’ I said.
‘Sure.’ He glanced at the screen. ‘But can I just have one more game?’
Then I chopped mushrooms and he carried on killing creatures that were already dead.
Clare Fisher is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (Influx Press, 2018). They live in Leeds, where they teach creative writing and study for a phd which looks at queer theory, experimental writing and failure. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in The London Magazine, Lithub, ClavMag and Gertrude Press.