The first son: Father, I want to make you proud. Father, I want to be like you. Father, I want to surpass you.
I am not your son.
Maybe I should imagine it: my mother in the hospital bed, waiting for the contractions to get more violent, for the pain of her imminent child to overwhelm her like her first. That labor took thirty-two hours, with so much exhaustion and pain that she barely remembered it. In a room nearby, her nineteen-month-old sits with her mother and husband. A girl. Her husband goes off to get a bite to eat in the cafeteria, and then—
Forty-five minutes later, a son is born.
Her husband calls up their Sufi master in England, like he had when their first child was born. The question was the same: What should we name him? What should we name him? The last time, her husband had spelled out their daughter’s name in different ways and asked the nurses to pronounce them for him until he found the right one.
Name him after the physician Avicenna, said their Sufi master. Sim yeh noon aleph. Seena.
With the little one beside him, her husband reaches to take his firstborn son. Perhaps, the first of many more. A son. A healthy baby boy. He squirms and doesn’t cry and the doctors don’t think it’s unusual. Her husband beams and imagines the future his son will have: teaching him the art of ninjitsu and how to fence, building bookshelves and a gazebo. He himself was his father’s only son, and if this was to be his, he would make him a proper Jamnia.
But the boy wouldn’t latch on to the teat, wouldn’t suckle properly. Their little girl was more than willing to take his share. The mother laughed it away and looked down at the baby. She wanted to call her brother and share the news, hear her father’s laugh when she told him of his first grandson.
Her husband would go to work, and she’d be at home with the baby and her toddler—her bright young girl who laughed and made up stories with the objects they had lying around. They had moved into the Khaniqah, the Sufi Centre, the house with the Big Blue Sign, across the street from the apartment she had been brought to after marriage. Her in-laws were back in Iran, and what a blessing that was.
Her daughter would turn the bear-shaped honeypot away from them, its eyes on the wall, and say, Ghu? Where? She was pretending to be the bear, wondering where everybody had gone. Her daughter with dark curls and thick eyebrows had only been eighteen months old and full of noise and words and laughter.
And her son was remarkably silent in her arms.
He wouldn’t suckle. He wouldn’t cry. The mother tried to play with him but he’d squirm away. She threw a blanket over both of their faces and forced him to look at her. It worked with her daughter. It didn’t with him. His gaze drifted away every time.
When he began to walk, he ran. He moved from one edge of the hall to the other. He vibrated noises in his throat and lifted his fingers to the edge of his vision to twist and turn. Her daughter would laugh and proclaim that she wanted to be her mother when she grew up, that she was going to marry her, and that was the end of that. Her son grew lost in her world, but found in his own.
The pediatrician was concerned. The mother marched to a neurologist, and she and her husband waited with their no-longer-baby-boy in tow. He was three. He was three and barely babbling, compared to his sister who, at three, would talk to anyone she could find.
They were beautiful children. People stopped her in the street to tell her so: your children are beautiful. Dark eyes, thick hair, both of them looking older than they were. When she weaned her daughter off of milk, she did her son, too. Her daughter was more affronted than he was.
When the news came, she wasn’t sure how she was going to survive. She turned inwards, staring at the silent boy, a label suddenly explaining why he wasn’t like her firstborn. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? He looked back up at her, but didn’t meet her eyes. Autism? Autism? What does this mean?
She retreated again, crying, devastated, wondering how she was going to raise this little boy when he was so different. Her husband felt at arm’s length, and her daughter was too young to provide real comfort. She wanted to collapse and tie her own heart in so many knots that the pressure would make it burst. Perhaps that pain would distract her from this one. She prayed and prayed and wondered when it would end.
Then one day, soon after, she woke up and made a decision.
Her son would have a good life. She would do everything she could to ensure it. She would go back to school, learn all she could of this mysterious autism, learn how to work with him and how she could help him. It was not a death sentence. She would not sink into despair. She would not let it tear her and her family apart. Her son was different. Fine. But he was her son, and he would have the highest quality of life she could give him. Back to school, where she’d learn how to be a fighter for her son, not knowing she had been a fighter her whole life, and for more than just him.
Her husband, the engineer working as a research scientist, the man who had started college at 16 and received his PhD at 23, was laid off soon after.
There are pictures of me in dresses at six-seven-eight years old and wearing dog prints, denim, velvet. Did I choose these? I don’t remember ever being attracted to skirts and blouses. When I was twelve, I wore a pair of shorts that my mother had given me. They were bright red and a size ten.
When I was eleven, in sixth grade, my school shut down. Truthfully, it was less dramatic than that: a Montessori combining first through eighth grades in a single classroom, the enrollment numbers trickled down until there were only ten of us in the class. I was the only one in my grade. I worked through my coursework with the only eighth grader and my principal. After that year, the school changed its focus to early childhood.
One day, wearing jeans, thighs pressed against the bottom of my chair, my principal told me I wasn’t feminine. I wonder if that was the day I’d been playing with a classmate’s gecko, fascinated at stories of how its tail could snap off; or maybe that was around the time we were reading Pygmalion, and Eliza Doolittle was strutting around in her cockney glory. And the audio rewinds: he laughs to himself and says, Of course you’re not feminine.
Beauty is pain, I told my eighth grade friend a few weeks (months?) later, stroking my freshly waxed legs. It was the first time I’d done anything to them. I don’t remember if my mother had taken the butter knife towards me, or if I had asked her to do it. There were long patches on the backs of my legs where she’d missed. I pretended to ignore them.
I now associate jeans with not being feminine, pants with not being feminine; me with not being feminine. I stroke my unwaxed legs and say again, beauty is pain. Beauty is pain.
During the fourth grade musical, for which I was one of the two starring roles, I wore makeup for the first time. Bright red lipstick and blush. I looked clownish, but I thought that’s what I was supposed to look like—that’s what it meant to wear makeup. In that moment, I was a grown woman. Right?
When I was nine, my closest friend told me that I needed to start wearing a bra. I remember laughing, color going to my face—except I never blush. By the time I was eleven, I must have been wearing one. I remember walking to the bathroom and seeing my underwear covered in blood, and knowing that it—whatever it was—had finally happened. Surely by then, my breasts were growing in. I don’t remember my mother ever warning me about these inevitables, but I don’t remember being surprised when I finally began to bleed. Or when I finally donned the sports bra. I was in high school when I learned about a training bra, the tools normal girls used in their transitions.
Feminine. Feminine. You’re not feminine. Shave your arms when you’re ten or eleven to feel the smoothness of your skin. Have your mother wax your legs. When you’re twelve, have her wax your face, too. That makes you feminine. It’s in the New Year when you do it, after winter break and weeks of silence. Don’t forget how your friend grabbed your chin and turned your cheeks this way and that, gaping, how he said it made a difference. Remember rubbing your face, the acne or ingrown hair or whatever it was, and that grateful flood of relief when your friend says she understands, says that waxing causes bumps on the skin. That makes you feminine.
Shape your eyebrows when you’re seventeen, initiated by the memories of teasing before high school. Look at your prom pictures, where you’re standing in the dress you had to order online because Macy’s and Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor didn’t have anything that fit; look at the way you shagged your hair and had your face cleaned, and how your date smiled next to you. You weren’t expecting to go—you’re not one for big dresses and events. Thank goodness he’s gay, and loves you.
Tell the boy you lost your virginity to that you are haunted by these words from so long ago: you’re not feminine. Tell him that when the man who said those words died from cancer years later, you didn’t feel anything at all. Wonder in the quiet of the night, in the moment and years later, if that man was going to try to touch you, rape you, try to teach you how to feel feminine. It didn’t happen—at least, you don’t remember anything of the sort, but you do remember your fear. Or perhaps it was curiosity, wondering if a man’s touch was the key that finally opened that gate to womanhood.
Cry into your hands as the boy holds you, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t know what to say. Cling to these words as they go through your head. Did everything begin then? Things must have trickled through before. How often did you wear skirts? Did you even like dresses? But you knew that after that year, you sat with your legs wide and grabbed loose clothes off the shelf. Was there any other reason before? You don’t remember grabbing makeup off your mom’s counter and trying it on; you don’t remember feeling connected to the other girls in your summer day camp, only that you were different from them. You remember kissing girls on the cheek when you were in the playground in moments of affection and feeling it was wrong, begging them not to tell anyone. Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know why I did.
Listen as your best friend tells you that you’ve always wanted to be a boy. She’s known you for nearly a decade. The next summer, tell your mom, as she drops you off in the parking lot, that you’re not sure you always feel like a woman. You’re twenty-two and trying to connect with her, hoping this will help.
Wonder where it all began, wanting to be a woman and your lack of understanding how. Remember hating being called a lady or lady-like. Feel that hunger clench deep inside of you: starving to be one of them, clawing at your face and arms and legs and stomach to blend in with the others. These are women. This is what it means to be a woman. This is not what you are.
You’re not feminine, Naseem. And he laughs at me, sitting across from him wearing jeans and a shirt, and in that moment, I believe him. And I believe him in the next, too. And twelve years later, it seems that I am still repeating those words to myself, and still finding the truth in them.
We’re walking back to the car from Starbucks. I’m carrying a cloth bag with the alphabet on it, each letter accompanied by a cartoon sketch of a Shakespearian character. In it is a notebook, my laptop, notes on whom to network with and how to do it. Beside me, my father carries his own laptop, looking fairly content with the three-hour session.
I’m nearly twenty-four years old, and my father has come to the realization that, about to graduate from a master’s program, I am in need of a job. Ignoring the work I was already doing on that front, unable to comprehend my new and serious relationship with a man he’s never met (well, unable to comprehend what it would mean for me to be in a relationship at all), he turns to the only outlet he understands: work, job hunting, job security. If there’s something my dad knows it’s how to hop from one job to another. He hasn’t stayed at a company for more than a handful of years. Dad, you’re past fifty, I tell him. You should have been at a company for twenty years by now.
Ah, but the result is that I have a lot of experience, he says. He’s right, in some ways. His resume is a long, impressive list of expertise. I know this because he has me go through it as we edit my own. This is very good, he tells me, as though he’s surprised that I’ve been able to create it on my own. Isn’t that something? Clearly we’ll ignore the jobs I’ve already held.
He means well. His behavior is controlling, it’s overbearing, but he means well. At this point, I am annoyed with him, but not furious. He has yet to deeply insult me and my partner. At this point, I haven’t yet decided I wouldn’t speak to him for many weeks. At this point, he is a frustration, a time-suck, but not a point of contention.
We walk down the sidewalk, his car near my apartment—soon-to-be-former apartment, which also worries him. You should be moving home. You should come back with us. Look what these last two years of living in an apartment have done to your finances. Or, to his credit, my lack thereof.
But it’s my own fault: I am the one with the poor spending habits. How do I shake it into him that I don’t buy clothes like other girls, that I’ve even bought fewer books over the last few months, that the video game was a mistake? But eating out is my weakness, and I can’t find the words to tell him that years of an eating disorder has conditioned me to eat when I feel hungry, or am willing to, no matter the price. It’s a fool’s answer.
But finances—finances—that’s where this is going. And he says, since I just spent $300 on a suit (so much for not buying clothes) for both the wedding and for interviews, he wants to see how it looks, wants to know if I am capable of dressing professionally. He has twenty years of expertise to share.
Dad, it’s a man’s suit.
The look on his face could have been disbelief, but it seemed emptier than that. Why did you buy a man’s suit?
Because I feel more comfortable in it. Because I hate dresses and skirts. I don’t tell him that they make me want to tear off my skin, that the last two times I wore a dress, I didn’t last more than twenty minutes in either of them. That I wear pencil skirts to interviews because my pants are either one or two sizes too big, and belts don’t help. I don’t tell him that I look in the mirror dressed as a girl and hate myself, and look in the mirror dressed as me and smile.
Yes, Gabe gave me these jeans. Yes, I borrowed his shirt, too, but this is my tank top underneath. I just like these loose button-downs. Actually, I’m bigger than he is, but I love the way this cotton feels. The way it boxes my frame and squares my shoulders. I slide on a vest to hide my chest and stomach, I love that my curves flatten in these pants. Guy jeans have real-sized pockets. I don’t wear underwire anymore. I almost bought a binder, but I like the ambiguity of the almost-sports bras.
Dad, it’s a man’s suit.
You know, Naseem, and he’s not looking at me when he says this, elegance doesn’t have a gender. But there is something to be said for male elegance and female elegance. It’s different.
I keep my lips still, knowing that raising the contradiction would do nothing. His years of Sit like a lady are echoing in my memory. But this is more comfortable, I always said. What does it mean, sit like a lady? With my legs together?
I feel more comfortable in guy clothes. And I don’t know how to say the next words. I’m… I’m not trans… But I’m non-binary, I think and don’t say. But I’m gender non-conforming. But I don’t identify as a woman.
I know you’re not, he hastens to assure me, as if somehow being trans is a hushed worry in the back of his mind. But, now that you’ve grown up, it is time to let some of these things go.
And I hear the words he doesn’t say echoing in my head: now that you’ve grown up, you can stop playing the little boy. Now that you’ve grown up, I won’t ask you to help me build the bookshelf, or mow the lawn, or show you how to pin someone’s arm back. Don’t bother to watch me as I fix a pipe or the ceiling. You can help your mother in the kitchen, and clean the house. Have you thought about joining her to garden?
In the business world, people have expectations. He is looking at the street, the car, the keys, anything but the expression on my face, which begins to turn blank.
Why does it matter if I’m, wearing men’s clothing if I look professional?
People can tell.
And it confuses me still. But why does it matter as long as I look professional?
People expect things.
I’m mostly silent as he takes me grocery shopping, eating the food he buys me, mostly just to do something with my hands and mouth, something that excuses me from talking. Something that doesn’t remind me that I’m wearing boy’s clothes and have a man’s suit that I’ll be wearing to officiate a wedding. That suit looked better and more natural on me than any formal clothing I’d worn in a while.
You’re not feminine. You’re not feminine, you whose name means gentle breeze.
A week later, I sit on my bed, sobbing after a furious argument. I listen to my dad trash love and my relationship to the man I want to spend my life with. Telling him, in so many words, that he’s got his head in the clouds. My words were brushed aside. I’m not here to argue semantics with you.
I’m a writer, Dad. Words are important to me. If you’re saying that forging your own way, separate from your parents, is the first step into “manhood,” then I’m going to argue that it’s “personhood.” Words are important to me.
My mother, coming up to join me in my room, defends him, tells me that I know what he means. No, he didn’t use the right words. You can’t assume meaning without the proper language. That’s why we have words. That’s why we have oral and written language.
She sits on my bed. I shove her away twice, when she reaches out to hold me. Why did you buy a man’s suit?
Why does it matter if it’s a man’s or woman’s if I’m dressed professionally? She can’t answer this question, either. It fits me well. I just have to get the ends of the pants hemmed. If I look good in it, why does it matter? None of this would have happened if I were a boy, Mom.
That’s ridiculous. It has nothing to do with that. Her voice is confident, but mine is hard.
He would trust that I know what I’m doing. He would believe that he gave me the necessary tools, that you two raised me well. I could wear a man’s suit and it would be fine.
Well, you’re not a man.
Well maybe I should have been!
And she looks at me for a moment, and shrugs. Yes, maybe you should have been.
NASEEM JAMNIA’s goal is to balance her two passions: writing and science. This often means she’s writing while waiting for her lab rats to finish their tasks. Her Channillo essay series is called “Fine Lines and Ambiguities,” where she writes about gender, growing up in a religious household in Chicago, and other issues. Her story, “Letter To My Former Self,” was chosen for the Mental Health America of Illinois’ “Manifesting Healthy Futures” project, an exhibit of literary and visual artists exploring mental health and wellness. (@jamsternazzy)