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Cyrus Grace Dunham on a Year Without a Name

Two summers ago, I went to a beach in Northern California that’s famous for sea glass. I lay in the sun until the tide touched my shoes, then crawled around on my knees, combing for the luminous green pieces. I didn’t look up until I bumped into an older woman who was filling a leather pouch with shards.

“I like the green ones, too,” she said. “They’re real neon.” She told me they were from nineteenth-century Vaseline bottles that glowed if you put them under black light. She explained where all the colors came from. Amber from aromatherapy bottles. White from milk bottles. Red was very rare, and so were black and turquoise. Her favorite color—the hardest to find—was amethyst. She told me that her name was Venus, and I told her that my name was Grace.

“That’s my son’s name,” she said. “I know, it’s a little weird.” Venus disappeared down the beach, and I walked to a cliff with the goal of sitting still for an hour. I wanted to keep my eyes closed, to home in on sensations—which I rarely did. That afternoon, it was even harder than usual to focus, and I wondered if my encounter with Venus was a sign, if she was a messenger shooting arrows of meaning into my life, signalling something about the future. I knew it was a stupid thought, more of a wish than anything else.

My mom had me when she was forty-two. She tried hard to have me. On a green piece of paper, my parents made a list of all the names they might give me. My mom liked Esther, my dad liked Kay. They agreed on Grace, which was an idea, not something you could touch.

As a child learning to write my own name, I copied my father’s signature, which starts with the letter “C.” I liked to draw “G”s walking across the page, their tongues getting smaller and smaller until they became “C”s, just like his.

When I was five, I figured out how to spell the words I held in my mouth. I wrote them down until they filled up an entire page: I’m gross I’m gross I’m gross I’m gross. I’m sick I’m sick I’m sick I’m sick. I’m a boy I’m a boy I’m a boy I’m a boy. Then I ripped up the paper and threw it in the toilet.

Back then, I knew how to stay in character as a girl. Polite, curious, the right mix of self-assured and humble. When puberty hit, I became obsessed with mirrors. I checked my reflection—four times, eight times, twelve times—to make sure that I hadn’t lost control of my performance.

Twenty years later, my girlhood was dissolving, with no clear alternative in place. I felt less embodied than ever, less able to gather myself into one person. And yet the idea of “transitioning”—changing my name, starting hormones, getting surgery—sucked me into a thought circuit with no end and no exit.

What did I really want? I wanted thicker skin and better boundaries. I wanted bigger hands. I wanted a flat chest and a new car. I wanted to pull my shirt over my head by the collar, the way men in movies did. I wanted to feel like myself. I wanted to be concrete—a thing you could touch.

I hesitated to call this collection of desires “dysphoria,” that catchall term for the pain of having a body that doesn’t align with one’s self-image, however aspirational that image may be. My unease was far-reaching and difficult to explain—even to myself. I felt like vapor trapped in a container. A windowless room with no doors, a single dangling light that never turned off. I tried out one metaphor after another, then wondered if the pain was just an excuse, an explanation that could pull all my disparate memories into a coherent narrative—a coherent gender. And, anyway, if I admitted I was dysphoric, I’d have to decide whether to do something about it, to decide if my pain was real or imagined, if the problem was gender or me.

A few months after I met Venus on the beach, I deleted all my social-media accounts. I didn’t want to exist outside my body. My limbs, my breasts, my genitals—these were unwieldy enough. I couldn’t manage a digital projection, too. And I didn’t want to see my name anywhere. It unmoored me and made me dizzy. I wanted to be nameless, nothing. The opposite of known.

The less I wanted a name, the more compulsively I named everything I saw. Caterpillar. Bird. Knife. Shit. Cunt. Tree. I lay in my bed and imagined myself as every other thing in the universe, so diffuse and infinite as to be indiscernible—unnameable. Every morning, I walked up the hill from my house to a scrubby field slated for development, where a rope swing hung from a black-walnut tree. Leaning against the tree trunk, I practiced filling up my body with air. Air into my toes, into the arches of my feet, into my shins. Into my bladder, into my anus, into my ribs, even into my breasts.

The more of my body I felt, the less like Grace I felt. She drifted away, an idea or a dream, dislodged from somewhere within me. Had she ever existed at all? I imagined her far out at sea, on the other side of a swell, a white spot bobbing in the water. I told myself there was no bringing her back.

Each day, I imagined myself with the name of a different man. Samuel, my mother’s father, an orthodontist who used to let me play with the tools in his office. He had three last names in the course of his life, each less Jewish-sounding than the last. Simon, the first two syllables of Samuel’s original last name. Edward, my father’s brother, a lawyer who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Civil War history. Michael, the archangel, and also the teacher who’d taught me about white holes, the opposite of black holes, where disappeared matter emerges into another dimension.

In November, I told my partner at the time that I didn’t want to be called Grace anymore.

The name came to me one morning, sitting in front of my house before my roommates had woken up. I remembered the piece of green paper, framed and hung on the wall of my childhood bedroom. A column for the girls’ names: Betty, Myrna, Georgia, Esther, Jane, and a dozen more. Grace, with a circle around it. In the boy column, just one name: Cyrus. I said it slowly. I pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth to whistle the first syllable, pushed my lips out for the soft “r,” let my mouth curl around the “us.” Then I wrote it down on a sheet of paper from one of my yellow legal pads. In cursive, then in all caps. Then in block letters. Over breakfast, I slid the yellow paper across the table to my partner, face down.

“Don’t say it out loud,” I told them.

They didn’t look up, just scribbled, then slid the paper back to me. They’d written an acrostic with “Grace” and “Cyrus” intersecting at the “r,” an uneven cross. I folded up the drawing and put it in my jacket pocket. I didn’t tell anyone else.

A few days later, my partner called me Cyrus during sex. It was dark, and I was on top of them, their arms wrapped around the back of my neck. It was the kind of sex that made me feel like a man, which we’d been having more of lately. They said the name—it wasn’t my name, not yet—and I came. The next night, they said it again. Cyrus.

“Shut up,” I said, without thinking. I squeezed my eyes shut and rolled over onto my back. Afterward, I apologized. I knew it wasn’t fair to be so curt. It wasn’t anger toward them that I felt; it was my own shame. The humiliation of longing to be something you’re not.

I taped the name to the wall inside my closet, so I’d have to look at it whenever I changed clothes. Sometimes I admired the shapes of the letters; sometimes I averted my eyes. Cyrus remained a stranger whose ways I was trying to understand. How would he wear his hair? Would he be on time? Would he be a vegetarian? Would he buy steak at the grocery store and cook it alone? Would he meditate? Would he have sex with strangers and tell no one it had happened? Would he have sex with men? Would he wear sneakers? Would he value success? Would he keep his word? Would he lift weights? Would he go running whenever he wanted, even in the dark, even when it was raining? What truth did the name contain? Was Cyrus inside of me already, or had I invented him?

I told a few more close friends about Cyrus, mostly in texts or e-mails. It was too scary to say it out loud. But the name spread. Soon I was running into people who called me Cy, even though I’d never asked them to. Quickly, it seemed irreversible. The new name rang with guilt for abandoning the old one. Each time I was addressed as Cyrus, I felt like I was betraying Grace, taking her away from everyone who had ever loved her.

When people asked me what I wanted to be called, I froze. “Either is fine,” I’d say. Or, “Whichever you prefer.” I sounded casual, but both names became reminders of all my uncertainty and fear. I asked my partner to call me nothing for a while.

I hesitated to explain why I’d chosen the name—to admit that it was, in some way, a name that belonged to my parents. It suggested loyalty; wasn’t I supposed to be looking for differentiation? But seeing “Cyrus” written in my mother’s looping script comforted me, as if he had always been there, waiting in an adjacent dimension.

I didn’t tell my parents about Cyrus. When we spoke on the phone, they called me Grace. I feared what I would be taking away from them—a daughter.

I still grew dizzy when I thought about changing my body, through hormones or surgery. I was too full of doubt, even just about my name. When friends of mine changed their names, it seemed clear that it was a matter of survival. Their birth names had simply stopped being livable. I held myself to harsher standards: I ought to be able to redefine myself without a new word, a titular fresh start. Why wasn’t I strong enough to be Grace? Did I hate myself? Did I hate my family? Part of me believed that a new name could shepherd me into a new existence; another part ridiculed myself for being so naïve.

When I introduced myself to people, I tried to swallow my words. If someone asked my name, I pretended that I couldn’t hear them. If they asked again, I said whatever came to mind first. I’d tell one person I was Cyrus, then turn to another and say I was Grace. I said “Grace” in a higher pitch. I was considerate, charming—whatever would make the people around me comfortable. Cyrus was quiet. Sometimes he went hours without speaking at all.

In late November, it was still warm enough to sit outside on the balcony at night. I wore shorts, no shirt, put my legs up on the railing. If I didn’t look down, I could summon the sensation of flatness where my chest was. If I couldn’t ignore my breasts, I pushed the extra flesh toward the center of my torso, or to the sides, or over my ribs. I pretended it was butter that I was spreading thin.

Music drifted up the hillside from parties in other people’s back yards. I slept with the door to the porch open at night, so I could hear the sounds filling the neighborhood. It calmed me down to feel like the Earth was one big room; it kept me from drowning in my panic. For a long time, I’d pushed the panic down by drinking or by refusing to be alone or by sprinting until my lungs and throat burned. Alcohol slowed my heart and let me sleep until terror woke me up in the morning, the thumping in my chest that meant I had to begin another day.

Lately, I’d vowed to try staying in my body instead of seeking ways to escape it. Counting my breaths, my steps, my body parts. Scalp, one. Ear, two. Ear, three. Brow, four. A friend told me that every time I felt the urge to slip outside myself I should look for the color red. Let it fill you up, they said. Let it hold you down.

As it turned out, red was always there. Lines of red neon light out my bedroom window, highways drawn out into the valleys. Red bougainvillea petals on Future Street, on Isabel Street, in all the tight alleys in the neighborhood. The red frame around the picture hanging above my bed, a distorted photo of my torso. The blood under my fingernails when I picked my head. My red denim jacket. Red lights on the horizon all the time.

The objects of my desire seemed smaller and more mundane than ever before. I fantasized about walking down the hill in my neighborhood in a T-shirt, with a flat chest and nothing binding my breasts, the wind flowing between the fabric and my skin. I fantasized about sleeping on my stomach, without breasts between me and the mattress. I fantasized about driving in a convertible like the teen-age boys in tank tops I remembered from my childhood.

I started having dreams about walking behind my childhood self. Sometimes I held Grace’s hand while she led me around. Her small hand fit perfectly in mine. Sometimes I lay on my back while she read to me from a picture book and stroked my hair. She wobbled through words, asking me the meaning of unfamiliar ones. I walked around with her on my back, her arms gripping my neck, her legs gripping my waist.

In February, I drove up to Oakland with my two best friends for a consultation for a bilateral mastectomy, or top surgery. My partner wanted to come, but I said I needed to go without them. My own feelings about the surgery were too convoluted—a lust for something wordless and new. They told me they understood. Our relationship was open; still, I wondered if it could withstand the newness I was looking for.

The night before my appointment, at a party, I introduced myself to someone I’d never met before. “My name’s Cyrus,” I said, without faltering.

We left the party and walked around Lake Merritt. We kissed leaning against a railing, next to a drained-out part of the lake caked in goose shit. She was the first person I’d kissed who knew me only as Cyrus. Without thinking, I told a story in which someone addressed me as Grace. As soon as the name left my mouth, I tensed up as if I’d been caught in a lie, as if I were one more in a long line of men travelling to new cities, conning strangers with false names.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just changed my name. I’m still getting used to it.” She nodded like this was normal and kissed me goodbye.

The next morning, I wrote her a message: “Hey, it’s Cyrus. Last night was fun.”

“I thought your name was Tyrex,” she wrote back.

I borrowed a friend’s car and drove to the consultation, stopping at the beach along the way, because that seemed like the kind of thing I ought to do, alone, en route to becoming myself. I took off my socks and my glasses and put them inside one of my boots. I stepped ankle-deep into the frigid water, my jeans rolled up, my coat still on, then lay in the sun and tried to concentrate on my breasts, scanning for nostalgia, fear of loss, attachment. What I felt was desire: I wanted them gone. Was wanting enough? I needed the surgery, but I was always trying to make the need disappear. Did getting rid of my breasts to become more masculine mean that I was accepting the very conventions of gender I felt trapped by?

The surgeon’s office was in a strip mall in the suburbs, across the parking lot from a Starbucks. I sat in the waiting room with a girl who looked fourteen or fifteen. She was there with her mother. I told myself not to scrutinize her gender, not to look for proof that she had undergone transformation, but my eyes travelled to the parts of her body that would reveal the truth—whatever that meant. The size of her hands, the width of her neck. This was a gender-confirmation surgeon, after all. Why would a fourteen-year-old girl in ballet flats and lip gloss, the kind of girl I would have fantasized about as a teen-ager, be waiting for an appointment?

The consultation was brief, maybe ten minutes. The doctor, handsome and charismatic, a chest tattoo peeking over the top of his shirt collar, had me undress from the waist up. My breasts were white lumps. They pulled my attention away from everything else.

“Beautiful,” the surgeon said, as he traced his finger along the underside of the left one. “I can already see the definition of your pectoral muscle.”

“Is that good?” I asked.

“Yes. We’ll make the incision along that line.” He smiled, took a step back. “Very good. You’re an excellent candidate.”

Candidate. As if I’d been selected, as if I might win. My parents didn’t know I was in Oakland, or that I was seeing a surgeon, but I had an overwhelming urge to call them and tell them what I’d accomplished. “Mom. Dad. I’m an excellent candidate.”

A hundred and fifty-five days before my surgery, I wrote a succinct e-mail to my parents. For years, they’d watched me in pain—watched me trying to get rid of that pain. But I’d shared little with them. They didn’t know I’d picked a new name or decided to start hormones, and I still hadn’t told them that I was getting surgery. “I am trans,” I wrote to them. “Not intellectually, or partially, or aesthetically.”

My confession implied that my identity was simple and fixed. That I had been born in the wrong body. The truth was something harder to explain: some days, I felt like a man. On other days—called “ma’am” and “she” and “Grace”—my feelings of manhood seemed like a child’s fantasy, as delusional as thinking I was a bird or a car.

The day after I wrote the e-mail, I heard back from my father. “Thank you,” he said. “We understand.” My mother texted me soon after. “Good morning sunshine,” she said. “Or should I say, good morning sonshine.”

Son. The word made me nauseous, filled me with shame. I had known that the definitiveness of my announcement would make my parents listen. But I wished I could have written more, could have let them into my confusion without making them doubt my conviction. I had made the choice to sacrifice nuance for legibility.

My surgery took place at the beginning of July, four months earlier than expected. A slot opened up after a last-minute cancellation. My friends had planned to take care of me after the procedure, but I felt too guilty asking them to take off work or change their plans in time for the new date. I asked my parents instead, even though the idea of being in my family’s care filled me with fear: I didn’t want to be reminded of my childhood—my girlhood. Still, they came. I couldn’t wait another four months.

We stayed in an Airbnb with a picket fence. There were framed family photos all over the house: a white family of four in pastel clothes. Parents, two daughters. I stayed in one of the children’s rooms, in a twin bed with a monogrammed pillow. On the day of the procedure, my father woke me up at 8 A.M. “Morning, girlie,” he said, and I couldn’t bring myself to correct him.

The drive to the hospital was eight minutes. I turned on the radio, and thought about asking him to turn around. I wasn’t wearing a binder that morning. I reached my hands under my shirt and squeezed my breasts.

In the operating room, the nurses laid me down on a crucifix-shaped table: arms outstretched, legs spread. One friend who had already been through top surgery had warned me it would feel sacrificial. I scanned the room for red as they started to pump fentanyl through the I.V. But everything was white or gray plastic. I lifted my head. The doctor asked what was wrong. I was about to say, “Can you get me something red?” when I saw, in the lower right-hand corner of my eye, five letters—F-O-C-U-S—in bright-red font across the bottom of the door.

“Why’s it say that?” I asked the nurse.

“So we focus.”

My spine got warm. I liquefied.

I woke up to someone saying “Cyrus.”

“You’re in recovery, Cyrus. You did great. You’re all done.”

I was shivering a little.

“Can you call me Grace?” I said.

“Cyrus” was the name on my fluorescent-green hospital bracelet, but Grace was right under the surface. Vulnerable, wrapped up tight.

“You’re in recovery, Grace.” I smiled and cried, asked where my parents were. My voice sounded soft and high, a voice I knew from a long time ago, waking up groggy in the morning to my mother’s knock on the door.

A few weeks before surgery, I asked a writer I admired how they know when a book is finished. They responded with a question: “When did you believe your name was Cyrus?”

The answer was never, or sometimes, or not yet, or not fully. Conviction comes in bursts, as does fraudulence. Sometimes I say “Cyrus” out loud and there’s a click of alignment. But Cyrus is also tentative, a liberating gesture that I always fear will be taken from me when I’m yanked back to reality by the “truth.” That I’m a girl, and a daughter, and that to claim anything else is to lie. That I’m consigned to being a liar forever.

The week before my surgery, my friend sent me an e-mail with no subject line. It contained a Bible passage about the Tower of Babel, which Earth’s people built after travelling west to escape a great deluge:

Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.

The people wished to be known by God, to reach up to the heavens and become stars. God did not approve of this hunger for recognition. And so he flung the tower’s inhabitants across the world. Before, everyone had spoken a common language; from then on, they could not understand one another. This was called the confusion of tongues.

In this story, the will to make a name for oneself is full of ego, deserving of punishment. Some people still believe this: that the will to rename oneself is naïve at best, grandiose at worst. That naming oneself is akin to playing God. But what is the alternative? To let other people play God? To accept the constraints of a given name, as if acceptance is always humble?

Any name can be destroyed, can destroy itself. I know myself only insofar as I know that I will always surprise myself, that “I” will collapse and be scrambled whenever I think my own structure is sound. Cyrus is a sign, and he may not last. And, still, I am him now. I need to be him now. I choose to move toward something like manhood—a concept in which my belief flickers—because, for reasons I still do not know, it makes me feel closer to Earth, to everyone and everything else in the dust. ♦

ViaNewYorker