Az Cosgrove

I am a 26 year old trans masculine and disabled person based near Newcastle, NSW. I am currently completing a Masters of Writing and Literature, and am also one of the ABC’s 2023 Regional Storyteller Scholars. I write both fiction and non-fiction, and am also enthusiastic about anything to do with being a dog dad, photography, fitness, and making cis people uncomfortable.

The Mirror World

The dim interior of the barbershop takes a long moment to precipitate as my eyes struggle to adjust to the abrupt change in light. I hear where I am before I see it: the raucous buzz of clippers, the occasional rumble of baritone voices.

“Name?” asks a voice. My vision begins to piece itself back together, pixels of light and colour resolving into finer detail like an image sluggishly loading. The centre loads first, and I see the wet flash of teeth, the curve of a polite smile—then there is a pause and a strange scratching sound. Gradually, the rest of the image sharpens, like the focus ring of a camera being slowly twisted. I see now that the man who’d spoken is messily scrawling my name on a chalkboard.

“You’re after Ryan,” he says, stepping back to the stony-faced man currently enthroned in front of the vanity. I nod and position my wheelchair into a vacant spot against the waiting room wall. I open Instagram and, not wanting to break the silence with the robotic voice of my screen reader, attempt to decode the images without the contextualising information of the captions, occasionally casting an overt glance in the direction of the barber and the man in the vanity chair, whom I assume to be Ryan. When I see the telltale flash of silver that indicates that the barber has retrieved a hand mirror to show him the back, I know he must almost be done. But just as the barber begins to unfasten the gown from around his neck, he raises a finger and asks, as if he’d forgotten, for a beard trim. I swallow a groan and glance at my support worker, who is perched delicately on the chair nearest the door.  I imagine I can hear the distant jingle of coins streaming past with every minute, like grains of sand disappearing down the funnel of an hourglass. For approximately the seventh time that hour, I silently give thanks that I don’t have to dig in my own pockets to pay her exorbitant fees, but the pulse of gratitude is quickly followed by one of guilt. I scour my brain for some useful tasks I could get her to help me with while we wait, but I don’t want to leave the radius of the barber and risk losing my precious place on the chalkboard.   

Nearly half an hour later, it’s finally my turn. The barber pulls one of the padded chairs out of the way and I wheel into the vacated spot.

“So, what’re we doing?” He asks, tucking a piece of paper towel into my collar. I snap on my brakes and take my glasses off. Instantly, my unaided vision causes the scene to blur and split in two, like a wet ink blot folded against a piece of paper.

“Uhh, pretty short on the back and sides—” I start to say, but my voice dies in my throat. Hidden by the black satin gown fastened around my neck, my wheelchair has vanished, and my face has been reduced to a handful of expressive brushstrokes. With a shiver of de ja vu, I recognise this man. He’d inhabited my imaginings during adolescence—he’d hovered like static just above my skin. I’d only ever known him by his silhouette. The details of his face had never been clear—alternatively resembling Cole Sprouse, Ryan Reynolds, or Chris Hemsworth—and his body was a confusing collage of the muscle-bound men that appeared, again and again, on the glossy covers of magazines, and shirtless on cinema screens, but every glimpse dissolved and I could never be sure that I’d really seen anything at all. As my body became ravaged by an oestrogen-fuelled puberty, he had begun to fade. It had been his face that had disappeared first: his headless torso remaining for just a split second longer, like the decapitated body of a snake writhing for a moment before falling still. And after my diagnosis and surgery, when I’d found my reflection radically amended to include the bulky silhouette of a wheelchair, he’d vanished entirely. Only, here he was, a handsome Frankenstein, miraculously imbued with the semblance of life by some arcane quality, some ancient magic crackling in the air of the barbershop. 

The moment flickers, light ricocheting in rainbow lines between two versions of reality—one shedding a slightly translucent twin, a ghostly double. I feel myself become disoriented, as if someone has spun me around and around by my shoulders: I could be here, in this twenty-six-year-old body, the clippers vibrating against my skull, or I could be thirteen again, miraculously transported to the other side of the glass window through which I’d gazed so longingly, the window belonging to the barbershop on the main street of the town I’d grown up in. Like this one, one wall of the shop had been made a window, exhibiting the scene within like a precious jewel in a display case. I remember workbenches studded with a glittering array of razors and scissors and combs; upturned faces daubed with a thick, creamy foam evocative of liquid marshmallows, and, when the sky was overcast, thick slabs of golden light spilling from the windows and stretching across the footpath. I imagined that the golden air inside the shop would be clean and sweet, like that on a mountain-top, a rarefied pocket of atmosphere superior to the slurry of the street outside. But at the same time, I knew that it could never survive the brutish intrusion of my touch—it could exist only behind the glass, like the tiny, perfect diorama inside a snow globe.

Almost two decades later, the barbershop is still there—but the parallelograms of honeyed light have vanished, and in the window, I see only the hard glare of sunlight and the topmost quarter of my waist-high reflection. I also see what has, of course, always been there, but that I had before failed to notice: two thick concrete steps at the entrance, their unforgiving silhouette casting a hard shadow like a hole punched in the earth. Of course, the part I did get right is the candy cane pole. It’s slightly faded, the red now more pink, but it’s still there—twirling cheerfully above the door.

The stripes of the barber’s pole are thought to be emblematic of the practice of bloodletting commonly performed by “barber-surgeons” prior to the 18th century. Barbers also pulled teeth and performed minor surgeries. 

More euphemistically, one may consider the stripes as signifying metamorphosis: a constantly turning engine taking in, from one direction, bodies calloused and imperfect, and spitting them out, from the other, polished and cleaned. It was the job of the barber to distinguish between what was to be preserved and what was to be trimmed away. It was, and remains, his job to define the average man, what Adolphe Quetlet termed l’homme moyen, and if he did his job well, he might uncover the exquisite core, the David waiting to be unearthed from within his tomb of marble. Only, what fell around his feet was not ribbons of stone, but loose hair, congealed blood, rotten teeth.

My legs are beginning to ache, and for once I welcome the pain. It pulls me back into the present, into this body that I now recognise as my own. The past that had never been begins to fade, like a polaroid developing in reverse. It does not disappear, but I know it is not real. It is the false twin, the hollow duplicate, the shimmering mirage that will remain forever fixed on the horizon.

We lapse into silence as the barber begins to work. When I hear him take a breath in preparation to speak, I grit my teeth, expecting the usual demand that I explain the scars clearly visible through my shortly buzzed hair, my wheelchair and my slurred voice, but he only says: “Try and hold your head still.” 

“Sorry.” I mumble, blushing furiously.

I’m impressed by his restraint, but still know that I will not return. I’d sworn off barbershops after the emergence of a disturbing pattern of experiences, exemplified by one barber trying to physically lift me out of my chair despite my repeated protests (such incidents seemed to occur much less frequently in mixed-gender salons). I had only made an exception because my regular place had been blocked off by recent flooding, and I’d already made a booking with my support worker.

As the barber works, parts of his body creep into my square of clear vision, like photographs taken at maximum zoom. I realise that he is much younger than I’d initially thought—an assumption no doubt caused by the long, bushy beard reaching halfway down his chest, a wiry mass strongly evocative of frayed rope. The beard is a sure sign of a pair of testicles generously ejaculating testosterone into his blood. Despite his skinny jeans and the shoes that my parents would call trendy, the guy looks like a bushranger who has travelled through time. I wonder if, when he’s getting ready in the morning—maybe brushing his beard, maybe coating it with a tiny blob of obscenely expensive wax called Adventure or some shitif he is aware that his beard will leave behind a gory trail, like a bristly paintbrush dipped in crimson. 

Within six months of starting testosterone, hairs began to sprout above my lip: a soft, blonde down that my wavering vision had no chance of bringing into focus. I knew they were there only by touch: when I first ran my finger against the skin and felt the slight cushioning of fuzz my breath caught in my chest, as if I’d spotted a butterfly perched an inch from my hand and knew that to breathe would doubtlessly scare it away. Soon came the sheer sensory pleasure of shaving: sweeping gentle waveforms of creamy foam across my cheeks, pulling it away again in neat stripes, each pass of the razor like that of a sculptor’s chisel. Then the unbelievable ecstasy of a hand rubbed over a stubbled jaw: more a vibration than a sound, like a cat purring. 

But almost four years later, my facial hair had plateaued at a wispy little moustache above my upper lip, and I had become thoroughly accustomed to these phenomenological pleasures. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw not the vague smudge above my upper lip, not the sparse peppering of darker hairs across my cheeks and chin, but the great swathes of pink skin, the obscene nudity of my jaw, the lewdly exposed plumpness of my lips. I saw the diminutive warrior I had been allotted for my champion:  a soft-featured boy who looked barely to have scraped puberty.  

For a couple of months, I tried to bolster my epithelial productivity by smearing my face each night with a foul-smelling liquid marketed to treat male-pattern baldness. The active ingredient was minoxidil, and it came in a bottle with a little dropper. The instructions directed you to apply it to the scalp, but an alternative use was to smack it onto your cheeks and chin like aftershave.

 “I better not grow a beard!” My partner had cried once, when I’d kissed her after forgetting that I’d applied minoxidil a few hours previously. 

 Judging from my own experiences, the likelihood of that eventuality was low. The alleged benefits of minoxidil in stimulating facial hair growth have mostly been established by anecdotal evidence. The most notable exception came in 2016, when a study out of Thailand showed that 3% minoxidil significantly enhanced beard growth in 48 men when compared to a placebo.

The authors of this study, which was written as a letter to the editor of The Journal of Dermatology, were unambiguous when justifying their research: ‘beard enhancement’ they wrote, ‘improves masculine and attractive appearance, signalling dominance, strength and self-confidence’. I am ashamed to admit that my own motivations for pursuing the treatment were not much different—while I felt nothing but overjoyed by the sensations unlocked to me in the first-person, under the scalding gaze of others, I wished for more facial hair. No one would question Ned Kelly or insist to Abraham Lincoln that he was making a mistake. I could do with all the dominance, strength, and self-confidence I could get. But much to my disappointment, no miraculous proliferation of the follicles on my jawline could be discerned, and after a few months, it seemed pointless to continue the expensive and unpleasant regime. 

For my birthday that year, my partner gifted me a sleek black electric razor that didn’t require me to stand over the sink to rinse the blade after each stroke. I began to shave from my wheelchair, the mirror reflecting the empty space above my head. I shaved better by feel, anyway: with my eyes closed, tracing my fingers over the Braille of a holy text I’d almost forgotten. 

When I came out as trans to my family, my father responded by collecting dozens of scientific papers about transgender biology. He quietly deposited these as PDFs saved in a shared computer folder labelled Papers. I am certain that this campaign was fundamentally well-intentioned—in those dense columns of text, my father was attempting to express his acceptance, or at least his openness to acceptance. He was trying to tell me, to show me, that the transgender experience, at least of the rigidly binary variety, had biological veracity. I remember one such study, which claimed that functional MRI (fMRI) data revealed similar brain activity in transgender individuals and cisgender members of their “aspired gender”. When I read it, each sentence seemed to trail off in an ominous ellipsis. The “objective” delineation of how a transgender brain could work silently brought into existence it’s negative. Between each declaration of data was the shadow of its absence, the obscenity of its inversion. I instantly wondered if such patterns would be evident in my brain: if the enigmatic secrets within my skull would reflect what I felt as the truth?  

The opportunity to see inside my own skull came when I was twenty-one. Only, I did not see the painterly brushstrokes of the fMRI study, but the glowing silhouette of a tumour. It was likely benign but had begun to press on my optic nerve, hence the double vision that had sent me to the emergency room. If it wasn’t removed as soon as possible, it would doubtlessly cause what the doctors called “significant issues” (translation: blindness and death). The good news was that surgery alone should be curative, and I was very low risk for any complications. The most likely scenario was just a few days of nausea and the inevitable discomfort of a surgical wound. I would only need to stay in the hospital for a couple of days before I was back to normal. 

As one glance at me will reveal, the most likely scenario failed to arrive. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have recognised the cloying incense of statistical premonition, the prayer-like chanting of averages and norms, and prepared myself for the worst. To move, to breathe, to reveal oneself as a living human being rather than a statue, was to fall, to tumble down the steep slope of the bell curve. 

Without the orientating pole of the normal, my entire prognosis became uncertain. Would I walk again? Would my vision correct itself? The doctors could only shrug. I was lost, a lonely data point adrift in the negative space beyond statistical expectation. 

“How’s that?” The barber asks, and I answer in an octave lower than my normal voice. 

“That’s great. Cheers, mate.” He unfastens the cape and I wheel to the register—the cheerful ding of my card against the machine sounding like something from a video game—and then I leave. 

Outside, it seems unbelievable that I have escaped. It seems absurd that I am alive, that this queer, trans, disabled body is permitted to exist in the same world where candy cane poles still decorate the street.

I think of the barbershop on the main street of my childhood town. The image I see is two-dimensional, flattened like a photograph. I imagine I see a version of me: a man who is handsome in an overwrought kind of way, with darkly stubbled cheeks and two thickly muscled legs sticking out from below his satin gown. His eyes did not follow mine, did not regard me with familiar tenderness or the bubbling heat of loathing or, in fact, anything at all. They are the painted-on eyes of a doll—hollow, lifeless. His form flickers, and through his skin, I can see the faded vinyl of the barbershop chair, the pale-yellow light. He begins to fade. I know that he will not disappear entirely, but I will become used to seeing him as he is: blurred, slightly translucent, and totally unimportant.