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How We Looked Together photo

It was how we looked together, our two angelic faces framed by the beautiful blue Chicago sky...

The first six months I took hormones I was frumpy and ridiculous looking. I didn’t know anything about makeup or styling and I made the horrible mistake of getting bangs right off the bat. I had a girlfriend, Vivica, a member of the sad puppydog underclass of trans lesbians who exist mainly online, in video game universes and message boards, watching children’s cartoons, smoking thousands of cigarettes and smushing out the butts on the windowsills. Our life together consisted of Pokémon cards, cats, turbo-sized Monster energy drinks, thousands of lunches and dinners together at Burger King. I would use my grad school stipend money to buy a few packs of non-menthol Newport 100s, a bottle of Jim Beam, an eighth of weed and a sack of those extra long, mayonnaise-laden 2-for-4 chicken sandwiches and cheeseburgers, and we would hang out in the basement of that one trans lady’s house, Greta I think her name was, playing around on the drumset and guitars and pretending it was band practice, until eventually all the other sad trans girl lesbians from around the neighborhood would begin to trickle in, and we would sit around getting drunk and high and shooting the shit, talking about how unfair everything was and how much we hated everybody, and wondering why our lives sucked so bad.

Then all at once I started commanding the attention of hot guys. Really hot guys. Like, fucking hot guys I mean. A hotter class of guy by far than I had ever attracted as a boy. Sculpted, dreamy, big-dicked guys who spent every waking hour of every day of their lives dreaming about or chasing after girls just like me. Hot guys would catcall me on the street, and try to talk to me at bus stops and train stations, many of them unaware I wasn’t even female. Grindr became a whole other country. I’d get dozens of messages a day from prospective hot guy suitors trying to entice me into their beds with professional-seeming erotic photographs displaying six-packs, chiseled biceps, smooth, godlike nine-inch dongs and virile, masculine butt cheeks, cheeks that promised hours of athletic, vigorous pumping, and delivered on that promise every time. It was too insane. It was glorious. I basked in it.

I realized that guys had to put a lot of effort into their personal appearance if they wanted to meet and spend time with the hottest trans girls, especially if they weren’t prepared to offer any financial compensation for the privilege. It was a totally different sexual economy than the one for gay guys, where almost anybody can find someone at a similar attractiveness level to hook up with, simply by heading to a bar or logging on to one of the apps. The scarcity factor among hot, non-lesbian trans girls leads to some incredibly fierce online competition among the (ostensibly heterosexual!) dudes who want to bang them. The Grindr bios of some of these men read like prospective backstage concert riders, with long lists of enticements available to sweeten the deal: things like “weed, food, Gray Goose on deck, 12 inches, will send Uber both ways.” I got marriage proposals, pimp proposals, offers of free housing, promises of trips to various American and international destinations. Free food delivery, free drinks, job offers, any drug you can imagine, dinners, lunches, résumé help, offers to photograph and paint me. The list was endless.

It’s hard to pinpoint whether I got hot first, and then started attracting hot guys, or if the hot guys could sense my own incipient hotness as it slowly began to awaken, causing me to become hotter as a response to all the newfound attention I was receiving. More likely than not it was a combination of both. In any case, I broke up with Vivica very soon into the first months of my hot girl summer.

“My feelings for you have changed,” I said, one afternoon before “band practice.”

“Yeah,” she replied, sucking on a Newport. “I figured they would.”

Adac was one of the first hot guys to hit me up on the apps, and he soon became a pivotal figure in me realizing and growing into my own emergent hotness.

“I need you next to me, mama, when I walk up in that club,” he said in his first message to me. “We’d look so good together, you on my arm. Everybody’s heads’ll turn when we walk through that door...”

How could I have refused him, with a hook like that?

Adac was young, only 21 when we met, and achingly beautiful. He had a mysterious, sexy backstory: something about his parents not wanting him anymore, or him running away from home after his parents had him institutionalized for some unspecified mental illness. He’d come to America as a teenager with an older gay couple who vacationed in Managua I guess, and then he’d become a citizen maybe, maybe by getting adopted by the older couple, or maybe not. I honestly don’t know which parts of the story were true or not, or if any of it was. The whole thing was all very vague and Tennessee Williams-y. When I met him he was living with another gay couple, Rocky and Johnny B, both military veterans who moved around a lot, constantly changing cities, running away from God knows what. One of them was always exercising on a stairmaster when I went over there, a beer in one hand and a joint in the other. He – Rocky or Johnny B, I can’t remember which – was always kind and welcoming when I visited, offering Tupperware containers filled with reheated frozen meat loaf and mashed potato dinners, and telling me about the books he was writing, which involved UFO abductions and conspiracy theories. Johnny B and Rocky tried to set Adac up with a job at the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Factory Store & Cafe in Bucktown, where one of their friends was the manager, but he’d gotten fired for tardiness or poor work ethic or something. Adac had no hustle whatsoever, no drive, few interests and even less interest in pursuing those that he had. He was attractive and charming enough to weave his way into the fabric of people’s lives and homes, and then he would just sit there, high or drunk or coming down or all three, watching cartoons or playing his video game or shivering under the covers and weeping.

I don’t know what it was about him, that made him so alluring, so addictive. He was bad, yes, but it was more than that: more that he made bad look so beautiful. There was an innocence behind all the chaos. A sweet little kid hidden inside the madness. That’s the thing about bad boys: their appeal lies in that suspended adolescence. That Peter Pan shit. That interplay between nihilism and naivete. He had all these grandiose plans. He talked me up, praised my singing, my talent, my face. He said I could be famous if I wanted. He said we’d fuck up the world together, and it was so easy to believe him, especially with him sliding tabs of acid under my tongue, stuffing joints in my mouth, putting powders under my nose and shooting poisons into my veins. It was us against the world. It was never growing up.

This is so fun, I remember thinking. I’m like Oliver Twist and he’s the Artful Dodger. I was reading a lot of Dickens at the time for my comprehensive exams (which I kept putting off and never actually ended up taking – oops). Setting aside the fact that Oliver is a pure, perfectly Christlike specimen of sinless orphanhood, whereas I was a bipolar, weed-addled, newly transsexual, alcoholic fuck-up who’d stopped showing up to work meetings and classes while still accepting the $7000 checks my university’s humanities division continued to lob in my direction quarter after quarter, the analogy wasn’t bad. The Artful Dodger introduces Oliver to a life of crime, the teeming underbelly of thieves, whores and urchins lurking on society’s fringes. Adac was like that for me. He opened my eyes to this new world, its beauties and horrors, introducing me to countless poor souls struggling through life on the street – many from necessity, sure, but others, like me, like a surprising number of people we met, maybe even like Adac himself – out of some psychological or spiritual need to break free from something, something we couldn’t quite place or name, but which we were all of us caught in nonetheless. Sometimes it’s when we struggle the hardest that we find ourselves least able to break free from the mysterious forces holding us back. Sometimes the prison we’re locked in is the one we create for ourselves, a ruthless quicksand spun from chaotic thoughts, boundless hunger, that endless yearning for something beyond, something more, something different...just something. Anything. Anything at all.

The thing that’s unrealistic about Oliver Twist is that Oliver never really breaks bad. Sure, there’s the scene where he kicks the crap out of that douche nozzle Noah Claypole after he insults Oliver’s dead mother, but let’s be real: Mother Theresa herself would have socked that little prick. In a more realistic story, Oliver would have started picking pockets for Fagin, pimping out little girls like Nancy, and smoking crack with the Artful Dodger like seven pages into the book. Then the rest of the story would have been Oliver and the Artful Dodger getting high and fucking, then trying to outsmart and out-hustle one another. One of them would have become the other’s pimp, and one of them would have OD’d or been murdered. They would have taken so many drugs that they began to share each another’s psychotic delusions. They would have thought the lizard people were chasing them, and gotten on a bus to Tennessee without telling anyone where they went. One of them would have alienated all her friends and terrified her family. One of them wouldn’t have been able to stay out of jail. One of them would have detransitioned and gone to live in a mental hospital. One of them would have disappeared without a trace. They both would have gotten AIDS, passing toxic fluids back and forth between each other, each one daring the other to take that bigger hit, swallow that extra pill, snort that other line, hook up with that next sketchy trick. Pushing each other harder, deeper, further over the edge, until they reach one of two inevitable conclusions: the freedom that comes with surrender, or death.

Dickens liked happy endings, though, and blameless protagonists. I can’t say I’m the latter, and I can’t promise any Victorian outcomes. I’ve been trying to find out what happened to Adac, but haven’t had much luck so far. Our mutuals haven’t heard from him. His profiles went dead all at once two years ago, in 2019. He was always afraid of being trapped, of dying alone. There are versions of this story I’ve told where that happens definitively, times when it’s easier for me to picture him dead, for the simple fact of the closure it would bring. But the truth is I don’t know. Would it be better for him if he were alive or dead? Would he be happier one way or the other? All I can say is I hope that he’s free. I hope he’s not still struggling. I hope he’s not in too much pain.

“Stand up straight,” he told me. “Walk with confidence.”

We were walking to Northerly Isle together from downtown Chicago. People stopped in their tracks and stared. You go out past the museum there, and it’s like you’re in another world. There’s beautiful flowering trees, gorgeous acres of green meadow. I remember a blue sky, fluffy white clouds. My stupid bangs had grown out, and I’d finally managed to produce a reasonably smoldering smoky eye. Still, I looked down at my feet, unable to meet the eyes of the inquisitive pedestrians who passed us, who I now realize didn’t wish us any harm, but were just overwhelmed, unused to seeing so much beauty anywhere, let alone in two crazy kids walking side by side in the grass.

Adac grabbed my phone and stuck his arm around my shoulder. He snapped a selfie of us, then turned the phone around.

“Bitch, look at yourself,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”

And standing there next to him, I saw that I was.