Carter hated her beard.
“I know trans guys who would kill for a beard like this,” Amrita said once, taking Carter’s jaw in her hands and kissing it. But the thought of the stubble prickling at Amrita’s lips smothered the pleasure of the kisses.
“They’re welcome to it,” Carter said.
Amrita grabbed her by the necktie and pulled her close, forehead to forehead, nose to nose. “You’re adorable.”
She loved Amrita, but she hated her beard.
She had hated it since junior high, when some of the meaner kids had called her Wolfman Jack because of it. Then in high school on the softball team, she was one of three Emilys, and they had to have nicknames to tell them apart. Emily Phillips was Lefty, because she was one, and Emily Zimmermann got to be Zimm. Carter wanted to be Carter―her last name. But Zimm knew her from junior high, and when she suggested Wolfman, Carter couldn’t do a thing about it. You don’t get to pick your own nickname.
Her mom pressed her to bleach the beard. “Do you want to be the Bearded Lady, Emily? Why don’t you let that pretty face shine?” But Carter wouldn’t do it, because she hated fussing over her appearance. Zimm and the other girls might sit around the locker room perfecting their makeup and hair, but not Carter. She cut her hair boy-short so all she had to do was run her fingers through it with a bit of gel and scoot off to the library, or down to Caffe Reggio in the Village, where she could peer over the top of a book at the girls from NYU.
But then her teammates gave her a jersey that read “Wolfman” on the back, and she knew she had to do something about the beard. She bought a face-bleaching kit at Duane Reade, and it was more embarrassing even than buying tampons. When she got home she shut herself up in the bathroom―she didn’t want her mom to know she had capitulated―and followed the instructions from the box, mixing clumpy powder into gleaming cream, smearing the stuff over her cheeks and chin and down to her neck. First it stung; then it itched. As it dried into cracked cakes on her skin, it stung and itched. She made herself sit still for fifteen minutes that seemed like a year before she scraped it off. And she followed the bleach with the greasy moisturizer that smelled like farts, fearing that if she didn’t, her skin would erupt in hot red blotches.
The bleach helped with the beard, but only up to a point. It was harder to see, but she knew it was there, roughing up her cheeks, and that was almost as bad as seeing it.
She eyed her dad’s electric shaver, a beat-up Remington older than she was. She watched him use it one day, studied the way he raised his chin and ran it over his neck and jaw. When his head tilted all the way back, he smiled at her with his eyes like she was a little kid, like there wasn’t anything weird about an almost-16-year-old girl perched on the closed toilet seat, watching her dad shaving.
When he was finished he tapped the shaver against the sink to knock the hairs out of it. He set it back in its case, lying open on the shelf above the sink, and ruffled Carter’s hair on his way out.
She was alone with the shaver, and she gazed at it like it was a holy relic. She reached for it and caressed its chrome body, still warm from her dad’s hand, like a living thing with a heartbeat inside of it.
People said that when you shaved, your hair grew back thicker and meaner. Carter knew it was true, because didn’t the stubble in her armpits rasp when she hadn’t shaved for a couple of days? She couldn’t have her face feeling like that. She couldn’t have a five o’clock shadow like her dad’s, as obvious as the dark-shaded ring around Fred Flintstone’s mouth. What would the girls on the team call her then?
She left the shaver in its case and tried not to look at it again. Instead, she kept up the miserable bleaching ritual, all through high school. And in college, once a week, with the first slivers of morning light, she crept into the dorm bathroom to smear the cream over the lower half of her face like a mummy’s bandage. She could not let anyone see her like that, with only the lurid red of her lips peeking through.
There was a senior in her dorm, Terry, who wore her wallet on a chain and greased her hair into a pompadour and walked with a swagger. Terry called her Scout, which was a much better name than Wolfman, and made Carter feel about three inches taller.
Terry and some other seniors made a plan to borrow a van and drive to a pro-choice rally in Philadelphia, and when Terry asked her to come along, Carter floated for the rest of the week. The morning of the rally she put on a plaid flannel shirt Terry had given her, and a pair of Doc Martens that Terry had told her where to buy, and all day she kept looking down at herself, smoothing the ends of the shirt and smiling at those fat yellow Doc Martens stitches on the shoes.
Then Terry introduced her to a girl named Sarah―a woman, really, because Sarah was a junior at Penn and probably already twenty years old.
“She wanted to meet you, Scout,” Terry said, chucking Carter on the shoulder.
“Scout?” Sarah asked. She wore a long denim skirt and earrings like stars that had snared in the wild red curls of her hair and been yanked right out of the sky.
Carter’s cheeks warmed. “You can call me Carter.”
They went with Sarah and her friends to a dance club that was too much noise and strobe and sweaty men in the kind of t-shirts Terry called wife-beaters. Carter could not understand why Sarah’s friends had chosen this place until they went downstairs, to a room where the music was muted to a thumping bass that put ripples in Carter’s drink, and where there were no men at all.
Carter had heard of bars like this but had never really believed in them. They were mythical places, like Avalon.
Sarah pulled her into a close and swaying dance that didn’t match the muffled beat. Her hair smelled like honey shampoo and the city grime of the day. Carter searched for and found the curves of Sarah’s body through her chunky knit sweater. And though Carter had wanted to do it more times than she could remember, Sarah was the first girl she ever actually kissed.
The first woman.
Sarah put her hands on Carter’s face, and Carter’s guts squirmed at the thought of those rough bleached hairs rasping Sarah’s palms. She jerked her chin away from the touch.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah’s hands dropped to Carter’s shoulders and caressed them like they were the broadest shoulders in the world.
Carter still held her tight around the waist. “Ticklish.”
Sarah’s lips, flushed with kissing, curled into a smile that buckled Carter’s knees. “Poor baby.”
The next time she was alone in the dorm bathroom Carter parked at the mirror and examined the beard until her eyeballs ached from turning around in her head trying to see under her own chin. The hairs were as long as the hairs on her arms, but coarser, and the bleach left them a sickly pale color lighter than her skin; in a black-and-white close-up of her jaw they would have shown bright as streaks of chalk on a slate.
She had spent the night after the rally in Sarah’s room, learning how to answer longings that had baffled her for years. Going down on Sarah was terrifying and perfect, like throwing herself off a cliff and discovering that she had learned to fly in a previous life. She wrapped her arms around Sarah’s thighs and held tight and didn’t want to stop, not even after Sarah shuddered and squirmed in her grasp and batted at her forehead.
“I’m sorry I didn’t shave down there today,” Sarah said, when Carter propped herself on an elbow and plucked at a wiry hair that clung to end of her tongue. “I didn’t plan on this.”
“Are you kidding?” Carter said. “You’re gorgeous.”
But when Sarah pushed Carter back onto the bed and straddled her, Carter stopped her kissing her neck, even though the kisses sent lightning bolts straight down to melt between Carter’s legs.
“I know,” Sarah said, laughing and moving lower. “Ticklish.”
Carter went to see Sarah whenever she could. Sarah smelled like spice and desire, and she seemed to sparkle, throwing drops of colored light in every direction. Next to Sarah, a flannel shirt seemed coarse and dull, like a blanket that might smother Sarah’s sparks. So Carter spent nearly all the money from her library job on crisp cotton shirts and a necktie that she had to learn how to knot properly. When she stood at the mirror, she liked the way her boots made her feet look strong and rooted, the way her jeans hugged her hips. She liked her broad leather belt with its heavy buckle, and she liked the necktie pulling everything together. She even liked her hair, and practiced gelling the cowlicks into it just right so it didn’t look like she’d practiced.
But there was always that beard.
Sarah took her into a shop with papered-up windows, where the light inside was pink and soft and the place smelled of incense and floral lotion.
Carter rocked back on her heels. “What are we doing here?”
Sarah pulled her by the hand, smiling. She led Carter to a display wall hung with leather straps and belts alive with buckles and studs. On a shelf beneath them stood a proud phalanx of soldiers, in a rainbow of latex colors and a terrifying array of flesh tones like an obscene Benetton ad.
Carter felt her ears bursting into flames. She had never seen a dildo in real life, but now that she faced an army of them, they were unmistakable.
“Don’t you want to try it out?” Sarah said, stroking a purple one. As Sarah’s fingertip glided over the bulb at its end, Carter felt a jolt, as though the finger were tracing its swirls on her.
There was that smile that liquified Carter inside, and then she did want to try it. But the image of it in her mind, one of those studded belts strapped around her naked ass and that weird purple thing bouncing in front of her, made her blush even harder. She knew the bleached hairs on her face were standing out bright against her flushed skin like worms wriggling on a hot rock. She almost wished she had never met Sarah.
“You cutie pie,” Sarah said, squeezing her hand. “It will be fun.”
A trim woman with a pierced lip and hair dyed an unnaturally deep black helped them fit one of the harnesses.
“Are you an athlete?” the woman said, her hands on Carter’s waist. “You have such strong hips.”
“Softball,” Carter croaked. Any moment now, she was sure, her head would rocket off her body on a screaming tail of flame.
Sarah and the jet-haired woman exchanged semaphore with their eyelashes.
Two days later, after softball practice, Carter stood in the shower and turned her face up into water that was not quite too hot to bear. She had struck out twice and flubbed a grounder at third base that she would have picked clean ninety-nine times out of a hundred, because she couldn’t stop her mind from going over that night with Sarah.
The strange weight of the purple thing―“your cock,” Sarah had called it―tugged at her groin like it still hung there in its leather harness. Using it had been awkward, at first, because she didn’t know how to move her hips the right way. But Sarah was patient and coaxing, and guided Carter by hands clutching her hips. And after a while, they fell into a strong rhythm together, and Sarah wrapped her arms around Carter’s neck and arched her back and cried out in a way Carter had never even imagined.
Carter had liked it.
In the shop, surveying the alien forest of dildos, she hadn’t thought she would. It was a tacked-on thing, artificial, not a part of her. But it became a part of her, almost so that her own nerves extended into it. Almost so that she could still feel it, now, in the shower.
She ran a hand down her groin, where the water cascaded through her pubic hair. She was aware that the thing was no longer there, but at the same time she didn’t feel like anything was missing.
She moved her hands to her neck and ran them up over the rough hairs of her beard. What kind of woman wears a cock and grows a beard?
The pink Venus razor that she used to shave her armpits caught her eye where it lay, glistening and seductive, across the aluminum soap dish bolted to the shower tiles. She took it up and turned it over in her hand. It went blurry as the water pelted her hair and sheeted down her face, but its rubberized grip remained solid and real in her fingers.
She raised her chin. She brought the razor head near her neck, hovering just close enough to graze the tips of the hairs, and pantomimed the upward sweeping motion she had once watched her dad perform with his Remington.
It wouldn’t be that hard to do.
The faces of the rotten kids from junior high swam before her, dark with the twisted glee of cruelty. Wolfman Jack! Bearded Lady!
Carter flung the razor back into the soap dish. It bounced out and clattered to the floor, its head popping off its plastic body and skittering across the tiles like a water bug. She yanked the faucet closed and glared at the razor’s head like a defeated enemy until she felt foolish. She snatched up the pieces of the razor and took them back to her room.
A few days later, as she showered for another date with Sarah, the razor beckoned to her again from its sultan’s throne beside the bar of soap. The fluorescent light gleamed from its triple blades and seemed to ring, like the shimmer and shhinng! of a samurai blade drawn from its scabbard.
She took up the soap and spun it into a creamy lather that she smeared over her cheeks and jaw. Then, before she could talk herself out of it, the Venus was in her hand and its samurai blades were gliding up her neck and over her chin.
She rinsed the razor in the shower stream and repeated the motion. It was like fucking Sarah, awkward and artificial at first but with a little practice she quickly got the rhythm of it, got the angles just right. She slid her fingers up and down her face to find any rough spots, and made sure to glide the razor over them again.
She liked the way it made her feel, active and in control and doing something.
Out of the shower, with a towel wrapped around her waist, she reached across the sink and squeaked a face-sized window onto the steam-fogged mirror. Her face looked back at her, flushed and alive like she’d never seen it, without the weird halo of wriggling pale hair, without the dark shadow of a beard overdue for bleaching.
When Sarah kissed her neck that night, Carter shivered and groaned and held Sarah hard against her.
“Not ticklish?” Sarah said against her jaw.
Shaving was a deal with the devil. The hairs grew back as coarse and dark as iron filings, and even if scientifically they were no thicker than they had been before, the stubble stood up straight and rough and felt worse to touch than the bleached long hairs had felt. And it left a dirty-looking shadow across her lip and over her chin and down her neck. Bearded lady.
She had to shave every day, and the thought of getting caught at it was worse than getting caught bleaching. At first she did it only in the cloister of the shower stall. But it was easier to shave at the sink, where she could monitor herself in the mirror, turning her face this way and that, flattening her nose out of the way with her thumb, perfecting every curve and crease. To shave at the sink, though, she had to have the bathroom to herself. And that meant getting up very early, or staying up very late.
It went that way for years. Sarah faded from her life, other women arrived and made their own exits, and Carter kept to her ritual, always orchestrating carefully so that teammates and roommates and girlfriends―especially girlfriends―would never know. Even when she finished library school and got a job and lived alone, she still had to push down a swell of shame when she stood at the mirror and lathered up her face, still felt a little sick when she rinsed the razor in the sink and watched the black ants of shaved stubble march in swirling formation down the porcelain basin.
Because what kind of woman shaved her face?
Dr. Slavsky asked her about it, during a physical that should have been annual but never was. While her fingers prodded under Carter’s jaw for whatever it was she thought she might find there, she said, “You have a lot of facial hair.”
Dr. Slavsky’s plump, matronly breast was planted in Carter’s face. Carter closed her eyes.
“You shave, it looks like?”
“Yes,” Carter said. She sensed the retreat of Dr. Slavsky’s breast and opened her eyes. Dr. Slavsky regarded her with pursed lips. Carter liked Dr. Slavsky. She was middle-aged and Russian and there was no nonsense with her.
“Are your periods regular?”
“Yes,” Carter said. “You could set your watch by them.”
“A little painful sometimes. I bleed like a stuck pig.”
A ripple passed across Dr. Slavsky’s face, not all the way to a smile; a tiny acknowledgment, with a trace of affection. “I’ll send you to lab for endocrine panel. There might be something out of whack with your hormones. Have you heard of PCOS?”
“Polycystic ovary syndrome. It could be causing the facial hair. You shouldn’t shave, it’s no good for your skin. I’ll refer you to dermatologist who can do electrolysis or laser treatment.”
“Something out of whack with my hormones?” There was another question rolled up in that one, the question Carter really wanted to ask, but she didn’t know how to unravel it, even for Dr. Slavsky.
But the tests didn’t show anything, and the dermatologist wasn’t covered by insurance, which was just as well, because Carter wasn’t sure how she felt about zapping the follicles right out of her skin.
So she went on shaving the damned beard.
She met Amrita in Starbucks, when she tripped like an idiot and spilled coffee all over Amrita’s shoes. Amrita said it was a fitting end to a stunningly shitty day, and Carter, mortified, scrambled to the floor to sop up the mess with a wad of paper napkins. But when she looked up, Amrita was smiling at her, and her eyes seemed to know Carter already.
Carter got to her feet, clutching the filthy napkins, and asked her out on the spot.
One morning, Carter woke early in Amrita’s bed and padded into the bathroom to pee. When she had washed her hands and face and crawled back into bed, Amrita pulled her close and nuzzled her sleepily.
“Someone got up early to shave.”
“I didn’t,” Carter said. “I just washed my face.”
“Really? You feel so nice and smooth.”
“I shaved last night before I picked you up.” Carter wrapped an arm around Amrita, who nestled into the space beneath her clavicle, resting her cheek on Carter’s breast. “How did you know?”
“How did I know what?” Amrita’s eyes were closed, her lips gently smiling.
“That I shave.”
“Silly.” And then she was asleep.
But she asked Carter about it later, after they had dozed for a while and fixed coffee and taken it back to bed in oversized mugs.
“What does it matter if you shave?” She eyed Carter across her coffee mug.
“It isn’t normal for a woman to shave.”
“You don’t mind when I shave my legs.”
“That’s different,” Carter said. “Women are supposed to shave their legs.”
“But you don’t shave yours.”
Carter’s cock, the one Amrita liked, lay on the floor where she had discarded it, tangled up in its harness and resting like a silicone snake in the grass on the green undershirt she had worn the night before. It was short and thick and curved, in a hideous hot pink that had made Carter skeptical when they bought it together. “I don’t plan to spend much time looking at it,” Amrita had said.
Amrita set down her coffee cup, then took Carter’s from her hands and set it down too. “What’s eating you, love?”
“My friend Terry, from college. Terry is a guy now.” She hadn’t known she was thinking about it until Amrita asked. She had found out a few days before, when she met some friends for drinks at a dive in the East Village.
“Terry’s made it official,” one of them said. “Living as a man now, one hundred percent.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” another added. “No butch was ever as butch as Terry.”
Amrita arranged Carter’s limbs until there was a perfect Amrita-shaped space for her to lie in, draped between Carter’s legs and across her belly with her head between Carter’s breasts. Carter slid her fingertips along the cuffs and piercings that rimmed Amrita’s ear.
“Amrita, do you think I might be a trans man?”
“Do you think so?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re the only one who possibly can know,” Amrita said.
“Would you still like me if I were?”
“I love you.” She kissed Carter’s breast. “But whether I say yes or no, you are who you are.”
Carter regarded the hot-pink cock again. It lay inert and ridiculous. She didn’t wear that thing because she wanted to be a man. She wore it because Amrita liked it, and she liked pleasing Amrita. It was fun, but it wasn’t essential. She didn’t miss it when she took it off.
But there were the shirts and jackets she wore, the neckties that Amrita liked to stroke and cling to when Carter was kissing her. Do the clothes make the man?
Tying a half-Windsor primed Carter to interface with the world.
“I wanted to be just like Terry,” Carter said.
“And now your butch idol is a man.”
“What does that mean for me?”
“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” Amrita said. “Shaving doesn’t make you a man, you know.”
“Maybe you should talk to him.”
“Him.” Carter tried it on. It didn’t sound wrong. “He lives in Portland, or something.” It was a lame excuse, and she braced herself for Amrita to say so.
But Amrita only ran a hand down Carter’s cheek, over her jaw and down along her throat.
Carter moved in with Amrita, and her new walk to work took her past a store called The Perfect Shave. She eyed it as she went by each day as though it might shake itself loose from the concrete and come after her.
She studied the shop’s window display the way one studies an enemy. The cordless descendants of her father’s old Remington reclined in velvet-lined cases, and polished razors beckoned from their stands, horn-handled, steel-handled, ebony-handled. There were lush shaving brushes too, with shimmering hairs that faded along their lengths from black to gray to white and looked as soft as dandelion tufts.
She stopped short before the shop one day, as though it had grabbed her by the collar and spun her around for a fight. Had any woman ever gone into that store? Straight women would, she supposed, to buy gifts for their boyfriends and husbands. But would any woman like Carter, to shop for herself?
She went in.
There was only one person inside, a slim man behind the counter with a pompadour that reminded her of Terry. He thumbed ostentatiously through an underwear catalog, ignoring Carter until she tapped on the glass counter. He dragged his gaze away from the catalog with a put-upon air.
“Can I help you with something?”
“I’d like to buy a shaving kit.”
He looked her up and down, judgment practically coming out of his ears, before his head settled into a skeptical tilt.
“Don’t tell me it’s for your boyfriend.”
Her own honesty surprised her, and it seemed to jostle the pompadoured salesman, who tossed aside the underwear catalog and began taking razors from the display case and setting them on a velvet pad for her to examine.
She hefted a burnished steel razor that was uncomfortably cold and inelegant, and a two-tone wooden one with a buttery finish that felt like it might slip from her hands. After inspecting several others, she chose one with a handle of turned teak, inset with a knurled steel ring for a solid grip, and added a matching brush. Pompadour let her smell all the creams he had in stock, and she selected a sandalwood-scented cream that she thought Amrita would like.
While he rang up her purchases―$275 in all, which was ridiculous because she hated shaving―he studied her from underneath his crown of hair, eyes narrowed, and she browsed a display of aftershave lotions and tried to pretend she didn’t know he was staring.
At last he slid the credit card slip across the counter for her to sign. “May I ask―are you―”
She looked him in the eye. “Am I what?”
“Nothing.” His fingers flitted in dismissal. “Never mind.”
She showed the treasures to Amrita when she got home. Amrita looked them over thoughtfully, stroking the razor handle, sniffing the cream.
“Very nice,” she said. “Why don’t you give them a spin?”
So Carter took a scalding hot shower that made her cheeks steamy and soft, pulled on a pair of pajama pants, and arranged the new shaving things on the bathroom counter.
She opened the tub of cream, and it smelled spicy and warm. If Amrita’s skin smelled like that she would want to lick it. The brush had a satisfying heft and its handle fit into her palm like it belonged there. She swept the dry bristles across her neck, enjoying their breathy prickle.
“Genuine badger,” Pompadour had said in the store, and she had laughed.
“I wouldn’t settle for imitation badger.”
She daubed the shaving cream on her skin with the brush, tentatively at first, and then with growing confidence. The lather felt fantastically silky on her cheeks, like nuzzling Amrita’s breasts through her favorite satin nightgown.
The bathroom door clicked open and Amrita was behind her, slipping her hands around Carter’s waist. She rested her chin on Carter’s shoulder and their eyes met in the mirror.
“You’re going to get shaving cream in your hair,” Carter said. Amrita’s hands on her bare waist felt good and she wanted to turn around and kiss her, but how could she with her face all lathered up in shaving cream?
“How do you like the new stuff?”
Carter held up the lathered brush. “I’m just getting started.”
Amrita stood there, smiling, her breasts a distracting swell against Carter’s back.
“Amrita, would you―please?”
Amrita gave her another squeeze, then released her. “Can’t I stay and watch?”
“I’ve never let anyone see me do this.”
“Am I anyone, then?”
Sometimes Amrita would barge into the bathroom while Carter was brushing her teeth, sit herself down on the toilet, and pee right there in front of her. Carter didn’t even like to use a public restroom with someone in the next stall.
“All right,” Carter said, and lifted the razor to her face. It was beautifully heavy and smooth, like a fine fountain pen, the weight balanced perfectly so it felt precise in her fingers. She ran the blade up her neck and over her chin and its glide was so velvety that she wasn’t sure at first that it was touching. But she followed it with her fingertips and felt only the skin beneath her jaw, smoother and softer than it had ever been.
She took another stroke up her neck, then rinsed the razor in the sink and took another. All the while, Amrita watched her. When Carter was done, she set down the razor, rinsed the remnants of the shaving cream from her face, and gave herself a long look in the mirror. Her shoulders were strong, and her bare breasts hung shapely and peaked. Her face was pink and shining and clear, without the slightest shadow of stubble.
Nothing but Carter, a woman with a freshly shaved beard.
Amrita came close beside her and wrapped her arm around Carter’s waist, resting her hand on the flare of Carter’s hip.
“Do you like it?” Carter said.
“You know what?” Carter put a hand to her chin and stroked the beard that wasn’t there. “I think I do.”