Zach is about to turn 9. He still wants me to make him a cake from the Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book, but I think this will be the last year. I’ve made the caterpillar, the train, the owl, and the hedgehog ice cream cake (the best of them all – mash four litres of ice cream, freeze in a bowl, tip out, stick in chocolate sticks for spines, squirt ice magic over half a sponge roll for a nose, two smarties for eyes and it’s done), and have been waiting for one of the kids to pick Robert the Robot for years. I give him the book to take to one of his other houses so he can take his time deciding. Half an hour later he sends me a picture of Robert.
Robert. Chunky bright blue cakebot with liquorice allsorts and life savers for decorations, sitting up on a silver cake tray (I always cover a bread board with aluminium foil), giant feet made from cake oblongs rolled in hundreds and thousands pointing at the sky. I’ve been very clear about wanting to make Robert, and I think that Zach picked this cake for me.
But an hour after he sends me this picture I am heading back to hospital again, because I have an antibiotic-resistant kidney infection and even though I’ve already had one lot of IV antibiotics (the only antibiotics that will work), my doctor is sending me back for more. I have a headache that ratchets across my forehead and down the sides of my face. I squint in the light. Back and leg pain from kidneys not processing toxins. A vagueness that frightens (I can’t find words for simple things like taxi, medication, phone charger, email). I can barely text to let my loved ones know where I’m going.
The First Visit
On the way to the hospital I think: what questions will I be asked that I won’t want to answer?
On the way to the hospital I think: will they believe me or will they think I’m drug seeking?
On the way to the hospital I think: are my clothes ok? Should I have worn something that makes me look more conservative, less different?
On the way to the hospital I think: how many of us need to think about things like this when we’re on our way to the hospital? I’m reminded of my grandmother making sure my sister and I had on clean underwear when we visited the doctor, just in case. Just in case what?
When I get there they still have all my old details on file and everything needs to be changed: name, gender, address, next of kin, allergies. They print up a wristband for me with my old name. I hand it back. They print up a wristband with my new name but is has both an M and an F on it.
"Is there any reason why there’s both an M and an F?" I ask the triage nurse, through the screaming fluorescents. She gets a red pen, circles the M, and scribbles out the F. That doesn’t feel right either.
The nurse can’t find a vein. She says it’s because of my tattoos (your lovely artwork).
"You just have to be different, don’t you?" she says with a smile. She means no harm. She says this four more times over the two hospital visits and each time it feels a little bit worse.
You call me with tears in your eyes because you live in Sydney and you can’t push yourself through a glass-fronted phone to get to me. I can barely speak.
In Between Visits
In between visits people I don’t know very well do kind things after a Facebook post. They bring bread and fruit. Milk. Coffee.
In between visits a mate who works in the same office as my girlfriend comes over to keep me company and tells me he loved reading about the posters on the office door being pulled down and then put back up again. Then he tells me there are only two out of the eleven posters left, but that the Head of Department has put up a notice advising people that taking the posters down will not be tolerated, and is breaching university policy related to staff and student contact. He tells me he printed off two yeses inside pink triangles on black backgrounds, in the hope that this symbol is harder to throw away than rainbows.
In between visits I sleep and take pain killers. I think about queer kin, about how good we are at looking after each other (most of the time). About how glad I am that Zach and Benji are learning that love goes past blood, and knows how to treasure friends as much as partners.
I lie on the brown couch because going to bed in the daytime reminds me too much of those five years when I couldn’t get out of bed. Depression like lead in the veins. Talking myself out of drinking bleach. Asking my partner to hide the knives before she went to work.
I lie on the brown couch and watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 9 again; remember breastfeeding Zach through Seasons 1 and 2. I watch a 25 minute make up tutorial by Sasha Velour on YouTube and am in awe of her steady hand, the divinity in her lips, the way she highlights her forehead so that when the light hits that part of her face she looks like she’s been grazed by stars.
The Second Visit
On the second visit, the wristband has my correct name, but still the M and the F. I ask again if there’s a reason. The receptionist tries to fix it but can’t. The computer won’t let her, she says. On the third try there is just an M printed next to my name and date of birth. Later, at home, I show the wristband to a friend, and tell her the story, and realise that the receptionist has placed the tiniest, neatest little square of white-out over the F. I wonder what it means, to have scribbled or whited-out the F; why I would feel better with it not being printed at all? I feel again that I have betrayed all women by being trans (this doesn’t stop—it comes and goes, and depends on what I read, who I stand next to, what words come out of the mouths of people in my vicinity).
On the second visit Zach sends me the picture of Robert and I have a minor anxiety attack thinking about how I’m going to get the robot to stay sitting up on the aluminium foil covered bread board, and whether I should assemble him at my ex’s house because otherwise how am I going to get him to Zach’s party without Robert collapsing into a blue butter icing heap?
On the second visit a doctor comes to see me and during our chat she waves both hands over my pelvic area and says,
"So, what have you had done?"
My girlfriend, who has stayed with me and given me her shirt to lay over my eyes asks why she needs to know.
"Just top surgery," I say, ever the placator. My girlfriend speaks again, strong and direct.
"Why do you need to know? Because that’s the wrong way to ask that question." The doctor tells us it’s because the infection is related to the urinary system, then she surprises us both and says,
"As soon as I heard those words coming out of my mouth I knew they were wrong. How can I say it better?" It’s a small relief to hear, through the headache and back pain and nausea, and I ask if the hospital has provided any staff training for working with trans and gender diverse people. No. The answer is no.
This is hospital for me. Questions that hurt. Being told I’m insisting on being a little bit different. Being placed in the drug-seeking category (because tattoos, piercings, mental health, gender identity) and then being parked and ignored (at the same hospital two years earlier I nearly died after a polycystic ovary twisted around on its stem, went necrotic, and bled into my pelvic cavity over the course of 13 hours while I lay vomiting in a hospital bed and the doctors told me they just didn’t know what to do with me).
Recovery is slow and I don’t have the energy to make butter icing. Instead I buy ready made vanilla icing and blue food colouring. The icing is too heavy for the cake, which crumbles itself off into the thick blue. I add hot water to the icing and try dropping one of his feet into the bowl and turning it over and over with a fork. He nearly loses half a foot that way. I pull the bits of foot out and press them against the bottom of his legs until they semi stick. The icing is the same colour as horseshoe crab blood. Robert is collapsing. I take skewers and push them down through his head, along his legs, across his hips. Robert is collapsing. I break three skewers in half and shove them into his back. I text my girlfriend to come now, before he falls apart completely.
On the drive to my ex’s house, my girlfriend driving quickly and gently, I try to keep him upright. The icing is still wet and about half way there his head starts splitting along the skewer line. I pull the thin stick out and grab the glob of smartie-eyed, musk-stick-mouthed cake and hold it there. I hold the skewer against Robert’s back and his held-together head, and he leans into it. Then his feet start to tip. So much weight on his cake skin. His raspberry liquorice nose falls out of the middle of his face just as we arrive.
Zach is in the lounge room of one of his three houses with 5 friends who have come for a sleepover party. I put Robert on the coffee table, move his back rest, and he falls gently backwards. Zach laughs. We make jokes about Robert not feeling so well.
“He’s an apocalypse Robot,” says Zach, while he pushes the number 9 candle into Robert’s chocolate guts. The candle is lit. We sing happy birthday (I haven’t worked out how to use my voice yet, where to pitch it, and I crack on the “…birthday dear Zach”). I manage to get a single photo of Zach where he’s not anxious about arranging his face for the camera, and remember birthing him, meeting him, saying hello baby, hello in the bloody aftermath of birth. I tell him that when we were laying skin to skin after he was born and he was having his first feed he weed on me. He looks at me over the collapsed brown and horseshoe crab blue cake while his friends talk about who will get the musk stick mouth.
The kids eat Robert’s feet, legs, torso and head. By the time they are finished their tongues and fingers are blue, and Robert is gone.
I get better slowly. I write from the brown couch. The fatigue and pain don’t stop, but the volume incrementally turns down. I go to see Blade Runner 2049 with friends and it seems astonishingly bad. Your phone calls are less worried. The one antibiotic that can kill my kidney infection works. I write from the brown couch.
Quinn Eades is a trans and queer researcher, writer, and award-winning poet who lectures at La Trobe University. He is the author of all the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body, and Rallying, and is currently working on a book-length collection of fragments written from the transitioning body, titled Transpositions.