The Year of Getting Better

“It’s the year of getting better,” her mother said as she walked into the room. It was Thora’s second hospital stay of the year. The first time was an accident, now it was on purpose.

“For pleasure,” her mother joked. This time was for The Surgery, the one that had become all the rage. Thora finally had a womb. She felt her puffy new face and the ocean of bandages below. Everything in one clean chop.

In the corner, Thora’s boyfriend Eli stared out the window at the spires of Manhattan. He was probably brooding about the medical debt she was racking up to The Company. He acted like it was his burden. Her mother was probably wondering when she’d get grandchildren. Her mother’s name was Lorna. She didn’t get along with Eli.

Almost everyone supported the world becoming one big Company-owned continent. It made sense at first. Now, goods traveled faster, in bright yellow packages with dancing electric mice logos. The US had collapsed under the gig economy until The Company bought a third of the government’s debt. They became the sole media-making conglomerate. The Company made certain cartoons required viewing. A squeaky mouse began to teach kids about amoebas, drugs, love, frog anatomy, and the Lascaux cave paintings. The Company sank the idea of love.

They idolized Andy Warhol and told kids he was a straight man who lived in Disneyland. Thora sounded like a crone when she tried to tell people he was a gay man. “He was not,” they said. “Not that we care.”

Further down the dystopian tunnel they started to care. It wasn’t a good time to be alive. Not that any time was. It was ahistorical to resent one’s position in time.

*

Lorna wanted Thora to date a nice cis boy. Eli hadn’t undergone the male equivalent of The Surgery. He didn’t want to be a dad. He preferred animals. His cat, the porcupine he fostered, videos of camels and bat pups.

“Incredible what they can do these days,” Lorna said, balancing a mint tea on her knee and smoking a cigarette.

“You can’t do that here,” Thora said.

“It’s fine, baby. No one’s here but us.”

“My lung.”

“Oh. Right.”

Thora’s first surgery of the year was for a pneumothorax. Her lung had spontaneously collapsed. Now, only a few months later, she was in pain again. It was difficult to keep up. She refused to look in a mirror.

Eli was the one who called it “The Surgery.” But it was. It was The Surgery. She was getting better. He was just pessimistic. Not that she blamed him. She’d made a trade. She had a new face, a pussy, and a womb now even if she couldn’t see them yet. Eli and her mother would have to wait as she cried out the poison chemicals. It would take time to adjust, to realize what she’d given up.

Eli stood up to find gummy worms and an energy drink. He wanted to give the two of them time to talk. Unfortunately, her mother only wanted to talk about her childhood while the TV illuminated tsunamis in Alaska, car bombs in Missouri, and a new Angel Disease cropping up in Ohio that caused patients to grow thorns.

“When you were young, your father always said the plagues would come for us,” Lorna began. “He thought we strayed too far from the original plan. Men and women and kids and all that. I don’t think he was right but it does make you think about all these Angel Diseases.”

That’s what the scientists called them. Cults capitalized on the language. Thora’s mother and father had even briefly joined one. Her father passed away from the fifth Angel Disease that went around. She no longer kept track of what number they were up to.

Eli re-entered the room, tearing off a surgical gown and guzzling his silly little beverage. “I don’t know why so many trans girls write about the apocalypse,” he said. “We’re here. It doesn’t feel very trans.”

“Shut up,” Thora said, digging her nails into her arms.

Her mother tried to light another cigarette and began talking about Thora’s high school years. Everyone assumed she was going to become a teacher. Young, gentle boys are always encouraged to be domestic but authorial. In high school she worked as a babysitter for an ESL program which later helped her land her first real job at an after-school program on the Upper West Side.

She worried people would find her existence offensive. They did. She failed to hold the pieces of her life far apart from each other. She walked children to and from school and got harassed by men who called her a pedophile on the subway. She was not cut out for such simple brutality, she told herself. Besides, she showed up to work with a hickey once and her boss nearly fired her.

I don’t care, but what if a mom saw that?”

Thora turned red, knowing it was only going to get harder. Her co-workers, largely cis straight women, told her they never received comments like that despite showing up to work high or hungover. While she became fluent in mom-friendly lingo and demeanor — and even became employee of the year — she lived with constant fear in the panopticon.

Everyone at work debated whether or not they wanted to have kids. None of them asked Thora if she wanted kids. Could they still want one after having seen the process up close? The gross shit, their tantrums and fragility, the nightmare liars? But of course, there were also sweet angels like the one trans girl Thora taught. She would’ve done anything to protect that girl.

“You’re not still working at the after-school program are you?” her mother asked. “That would be hard to do while raising a kid.”

“No, I quit a while ago.”

“That’s for the best. When I had you I stopped working. Your father made enough money.” Her mother took a sip of tea and turned to Eli. “Do you make enough to support her?”

Thora was desperate for fruit. Apricots sounded absolutely heavenly. She wished Rose were still alive. Rose loved apricots.

*

One night, before The Company, before the womb was possible, Thora was tripping on acid with Rose, who wondered if she wanted to be a mother. Rose thought about “having it all.” She was asking the classic question: how much could a woman want before her desire becomes a yoke?

Rose said she thought Thora would be a good mother. They strolled to the park to stare at the trees and then took the train to Coney Island, watching the waves in the cool wind of September. Rose wandered off to get them cotton candy.

“You looked so serious staring at the waves,” Rose said.

After spitting pink clouds into the ocean, they took the train to a bookstore where Rose bought runes. She wanted to teach Thora how to be a witch. Lesbian shit. Thora saw a card that said: “Motherhood looks good on you.”

Rose had tried to get The Surgery as soon as it became available to the general public. Her surgeon fumbled it. She got some bizarre infection and died.

Thora gave a eulogy by the Atlantic.

*

Every morning her mother argued with the doctors.

“My daughter,” she emphasized.

“Is perfectly fine,” the nice man in a white coat said.

Her mother was not going to let what happened to Rose happen to her daughter. She almost told Thora it wasn’t worth the risk, but of course, breedability won out. Her mother wanted lineage. It was easier to pretend, to let others’ reasons drift in and out of her body.

Eli had started playing a game designed by The Company on his phone. A little yellow mouse ran around and stabbed other critters with a javelin. Attention diverted to the screen in his hand, his digital avatar grew more adventurous as Eli fell further into stoic daydreams and lost the web of conversation.

“If I play long enough, I could erase our debt.”

“You’d have to play for a hundred years,” Thora said.

He looked hurt. “I don’t know what else you want me to do, Thora. I’m incredibly

stressed out, I’m exhausted, and neither of us have any money coming in.”

Lorna returned from the cafeteria. “I bought donuts for me and Eli.”

Looking at her mother, Thora saw what she was becoming. She saw the life she so desperately wanted, in all its glory. And she did love her mom, she did.

And feared her, too.

*

Before the botched surgery, Rose took Thora to the hospital when her lung collapsed. She came to visit and gave Thora news of the outside world. A new Angel Disease had emerged, the third in two years. She told Rose what it was like inside the hospital, to be alone, to wonder why her parents wouldn’t visit, how scary it was to hear about people dying from steel halos growing out of their skulls.

“Just think, one day you’ll be in here for a good reason.”

“Yeah,” Thora said. She texted her mom to say she was doing okay — they were going to do a very routine procedure to repair her lung.

All the other trans girls Thora knew were separatists. She was the only one who kept dating men. Rose told her she was being stupid. Rose lived in an all-trans-girl compound. The girls walked around with their dicks swinging and their tits covered in hickies.

“He’s going to get tired of you.”

“And you wouldn’t?”

“Not as quickly.”

The more cynical the better. Rose drew Raidho as they sat in the glow of the hospital vending machine. Transformation.

*

In an effort to produce more heterosexuals, The Company began funding comprehensive sex changes. Breedable women were beloved women. This left little room for trans fags and lesbians but they worked hard to pass the het test. Pee in a cup, jack off to the right kind of porn in front of a clinician. Luckily it was easy for Thora; she was straight.

Eli and Thora tried to wait out the rocky recovery with small talk. But it hung above them with butterfly wings and peach-colored mobiles. He did not want a child. He couldn’t afford anything he promised he’d pay for, much less something he didn’t want. Thora wasn’t sure she could afford it either, but felt it coming like an inevitable, cerulean task.

They joked about wanting to visit Disneyland. It’d been bought out by The Company and divided into parks based on the stages of economic theory. They tried to mask that with cute little characters — mice of different varieties. The electric mouse that Eli liked so much, a pink mouse with fairy wings that Thora joked she would get a tattoo of — they all symbolized some sort of participation in use-value.

To save up for this imagined trip, Thora started fixing other girls’ bikes. Rose teased her it was a short drop to being a gold-star lesbian.

“First you’ll fix a girl’s bike, then you’ll fix her sink and then…”

“As hot as that is, I’m not nearly as handy as Eli.”

“I don’t believe that.”

It was half true.

Rose only met Eli twice before she died. Both times they all got drunk together. The second time Rose had tried to kiss Thora in the bathroom.

Eli was handier with some things than others. He was tired. He shouldered phantom responsibility and let the weight split him. She didn’t need to go to Disneyland with him, even if she thought it would be like being broken open in front of everyone, like rose petals flying. She wanted a public romance. Maybe that’s why trans girls liked the apocalypse. It was the only setting where it made sense for trans girls to fall in love forever. It didn’t have to last that long.

*

“Your mom’s a little kooky,” Eli said, fluffing Thora’s stale hospital pillow. He could tell when Thora was drifting.

“I tried to warn you,” she said, sipping the electric-blue drink everyone told her would make her feel better.

“I just wasn’t expecting it. She’s like…weird.”

Eli didn’t look up from his game. If she were a different girl she would’ve smashed his phone against the wall. Or dropped it out the window. Or sold it online for coffee money. But he loved her and she loved him even if they couldn’t always make sense of the edges.

“She’s been in and out of cults her whole life,” Thora said.

“Was she in one when you were growing up?”

“No. Well. Just the church.”

“Do you consider that a cult?”

It wasn’t like the people at her church were deranged — if anything they were far too normal. A lot of them bought stock in The Company when it first became available. They thought The Company would reinstate serious moral values. When the electric mouse started teaching about the Lascaux cave paintings and disavowing gay men, they were ecstatic. But even then the churchgoers hadn’t brought out any Kool-Aid or advocated for a Second Coming. It was all brick-and-mortar, meat-and-potatoes spirituality. Until her mother started flirting with other

denominations. Cult Mommy.

Eli scooted his chair closer to her bed. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

“When we go home I’m going to set up a little canopy above our bed. And I’ll string up those plastic glow-in-the-dark stars you’re always going on about.”

“I’d like that,” she said quietly.

*

The surgeries would sink her if she wasn’t careful. Eli was only tied to her monetarily in the sense that they shared rent and food. Overall, his grumbling about money was for show. She didn’t ask him for surgery money. She was still paying off the first one even after asking for money online. The Company subsidized The Surgery but not enough; Thora had four credit cards. One of the cards was covered in blue mice wielding tacky lavender swords.

The night she got home from her lung surgery, after spending almost a month in the hospital, she sat in the tub and cried until Rose came over. Rose crawled into the tub alongside her and held Thora against her chest as she sobbed.

“It’s okay, baby. It’s okay.”

It was as okay as it would ever get. They didn’t say anything the rest of the night. Rose made mint tea and they watched the cartoon about the electric mice they’d both seen a hundred times. The comfort of numb repetition. She sat on the couch feeling her lungs contract and expand. They told her it could happen again. She would never be immune.

Rose got up and made popcorn. Thora rummaged through the cabinet for valerian root. The doctor hadn’t given her enough pain meds to use for sleep. They were running low on everything. She met Eli at the Value Plus Company Drug Store two weeks later. He was looking for lube and she clocked him.

“I’m Eli,” he said. “Do you currently have an ugly trans guy or are applications open?”

“My name’s Thora,” she said, eyeing the candy aisle. “What do you mean?”

“Every hot trans girl has an ugly trans guy boyfriend.”

No one she dated had ever called her a “hot girl.”

They spent that summer wandering the rot of Central Park and fucking in the Rambles. Sometimes he stole her peaches from the market by the docks. He would show up grinning and ask which hand she wanted.

That was the Eli she needed. The one who took her to dinner and strung up twinkle lights. But she had to admit, he was not the kind of man who would make a good father. Their straight shelter in the apocalypse was fragile. Passing meant she could walk around without the fear. When she used to walk around with Rose she always felt angular shards in her lung, worried someone would clock them.

*

Thora let her mom talk to the doctors. The inane questions Thora needed to ask were funneled through a haze of polite chitchat.

“Will her vagina be self-lubricating?” (Thora knew the answer to that one, of course.)

“Will she have to take any special probiotics?” (She had already researched the best probiotics for neo-vaginas.)

“Will she have to dilate forever?” (This one she didn’t really want her mother to ask.)

“For her face…how long until it…?” (Until it what? Thora wanted to ask.)

“How long until she could have a child?” (The womb was the biggest source of stress. It carried the greatest risk of complications.)

“Could he impregnate her?” (Eli would never get her pregnant. She already tried telling her mother this.)

A fly buzzed near the bathroom. Eli was still playing that stupid game, cursing loudly every few minutes. The pain made it hard to stay conscious. All the pain meds were going to patients with Angel Diseases. She had to make do with what they gave her no matter how many times she rang the bell.

Her body felt like fog. She wondered if Rose had ever felt like that. A girl was less a body of water than a gradual evaporation.

“Are you alright, honey? How do you feel?”

Bad. She felt raw. She knew her mother was going to start asking about grandchildren soon. She knew Eli was going to leave her. She knew she wanted to raise a kid and read The Giving Tree with funny voices and tell her child she thought Shel Silverstein was hot.

Her father read her stories when she was young. He got really into it, making Sherlock Holmes sound like a clueless cuckold. Her mother never listened, she was always in the bathroom fussing with something.

“I feel fine,” Thora said. “I’m just a little thirsty.”

“Alright sweetie. Eli, why don’t you go get our girl some cream soda?”

Eli got up, shot her mom a poisonous look, and stumbled out of the icy hospital room. When he opened the door she could hear a monitor crash and screaming. Another Angel Disease victim flew by on a stretcher, someone growing thorns all over their body.

*

Before Thora could start estrogen she was asked if she wanted to freeze her sperm. Her response was immediate. No. It was one of the few times in her life someone asked her directly if she wanted kids — perhaps the only time someone asked her if she wanted biological ones. The message was clear: infertility should haunt her, she should want the magical trans uterus. She should do anything for The Company-approved womb since she could afford it. Sort of. She could put it on credit and pay it off for the rest of her life. She wondered if motherhood had to be expected of you in order for you to develop any feelings around it.

She thought about all the MILFs out there. All the times she told someone to fuck her like a woman, to make her afraid of getting pregnant, to all the men she confessed she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a mother but she wanted to have an abortion.

Now motherhood was something people could expect of her.

*

Raspberry sunset pooled against Eli’s legs. She wanted him to come closer so she could touch him. She wanted to curl up next to a body. Desperation only made people angrier; they knew you weren’t internalizing anything they said. Thora wasn’t sure what caused his newest mood shift — sometimes he needed a piss-party afternoon. Involuntarily she smiled. He snapped.

“I know you think it’s stupid but I’m trying to provide for you.”

“This is a way to do that?”

Thora meant it sincerely but it came across like an insult. Like she knew better.

“I’m sorry,” Thora said, not entirely sure why she was saying sorry this time. “I just wish you were more present.”

“I can’t be present when we’re falling apart financially. My mom isn’t coming to take care of us.”

“My mom’s going to leave soon. And then I’ll be back at square one. She’s not rich.”

“She’s not rich but she talks to you. My mom and I haven’t spoken in years. Your mom could help. She could do something if you asked her to but you’re too weak to ask.”

“Shut up. It’s not like that,” she said.

“Then what is it like, babe?”

The AC kicked on.

“I’ll ask her if that’s what you want,” Thora said. She didn’t think about the time as a kid when her mom, Sister Lorna then, came home from prayer service with a “holy adornment.” Thora didn't think about the time Sister Lorna took her to the cult meeting and made her child stand in the middle of the congregation to face judgment. She didn’t think about the time her father explained what demons were by saying, “The thing that’s inside you.”

“No, it's fine. Just read your runes,” Eli spat. “I’m sure they’ll say the apocalypse can be averted. They’ll say it’s fine; we just need to love each other.”

Thora watched him leave, clutching his phone tightly by his side. She tried to imagine him in the hospital courtyard, trying to hum one of his favorite punk songs. It was good for him to have a break.

She realized she was dry heaving. Her face felt hot even though she knew in reality there was no way she could be feeling anything other than pain. She was crying, the kind that made her body fight gravity. Her hands wouldn’t move, wouldn’t wipe the water trapped in her face bandages. It was summer. It was supposed to be a happy time. If she could, she would call Rose and cry into the speaker, but Rose would’ve just said, “I told you so.”

Humid light sifted through the window. Flies continued to collect on the sill. If everything went well, she would only stay in the hospital for four more days.

When her mom came in, she tried to stop the flow of tears. She was mildly successful, turning the flood into a noiseless trickle, but it wouldn’t stop completely.

“Honey,” her mom said, setting down her mint tea and pulling up a chair. “Is it the pain?”

Thora nodded.

“Okay sweetie. Okay. Okay, okay, it’s okay.”

Her mom set her hand on Thora’s, the two intertwining tightly.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come last time, but this time I’m here, sweetpea. I’m here.”

She nodded through the tears. They were getting bigger again. Louder. She was gasping.

“It’s never going to stop. It’s never going to stop.”

“Oh baby.”

They fumbled like this for a few minutes until her mother held up her hand with an idea.

“Why don’t you read my fortune. With your little runes. Did you bring them?”

“You — hate — them —”

“Will you read my fortune?”

The culty side of her mom was winning out.

Thora nodded through the tears and inched closer to the side of the bed. She fumbled with the menagerie on her bedside table. Pudding cups, decaying lilacs, books, an old issue of Vogue, and her little bag of runes carved into beans. Her mom smiled. She needed someone to hold her even if trust felt like a wobbly tune. It was better just to let it happen.

“I’ll do a three-rune spread.”

Thora took a deep breath and searched the bag for a more certain future. Before she took anything out of the bag, though, Lorna grabbed her hand.

“Do you really want kids? Is that why you’re doing this?”

She realized something about living on two sides of a thicket. In fact, she realized the thicket was less of a concrete divide than a small, porous stream.

“If someone else really wanted one,” Thora said, fiddling with the bag.

It would be different, she thought. It would be so different.

She wished someone wanted her to want one.

Headshot of Grace Byron

Grace Byron is a writer from the Midwest based in Queens. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, Bookforum, The Nation, LARB, Lux, frieze, Joyland, and The Baffler among other outlets. Find her @emotrophywife. She is currently at work on a novel about conversion therapy.

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