He smiled, shyly, and then came toward Evan, and although in the red light the scars on Evan’s chest were not visible, Billy found them and kissed them.
Geoffrey Chadsey, Cut-off, 2014. Watercolor pencil, crayon, spray paint on mylar, 68 x 42 in.
The pack was heavy. It pressed against Evan’s back and dug into his hips, the straps cutting into his shoulders. Billy slowed down to wait for him. They’d left Portland early this morning, driving toward the snow-capped mountains of western Washington. It was mid-July, when the rains finally stopped and the pale gray skies peeled back to bright blue. The landscape was a postcard of endless triangular trees with pointed tips. Douglas firs, western hemlocks. Red cedars dripping with moss. On the ground lay pinecones big as a man’s forearm. Fast-moving wild rivers spilled like melted turquoise into the dark heart of the green wilderness.
“First time I ever hooked up with a boy was on a camping trip,” Billy said. “Jason Miller. I was fifteen, he was a senior. God, he was hot. It was just the two of us. Other friends were supposed to go, but they backed out. Kind of like our situation.”
Billy grinned. He had small, straight teeth, with one pointy incisor. Was he flirting? Billy was always flirting. With everyone. He and Evan were friends, but not close—they went to the same parties, the same bars. When they first met a few months ago, Evan had to look away, Billy’s eyes too tender and intense, dog eyes. Now here they were. A mutual friend had invited them, then just yesterday called to say that he wasn’t going to be able to make it after all. Evan assumed the trip was cancelled, but Billy had texted him: I took off work, don’t make me go solo.
So now here Evan was with this man he often daydreamed about, following him into a forest. Billy walked ahead, and never stopped talking. Sometimes, he’d turn around to gesture, and then Evan would get to look at the front of him. Stocky, with a muscular chest and big chiseled tattooed arms, and a thick dark beard with hints of red. Lumberjack hipster faggot, Billy called himself. He looked like he was in his late thirties, but was only twenty-seven or twenty-eight.
With Evan, it was the opposite: he was ten years older, but his youthful eyes and smooth skin and the absence of any noticeable facial hair except for his thin wispy mustache made him look like he was in his early twenties. Some trans guys transformed into hairy mountain men after a few months, but Evan started on a low dose of testosterone, stopping and starting again over two years. It was weird, going through puberty in his mid-thirties. The deepening voice, the smattering of stubby hairs on his chin. Thickening of arms, thighs, neck. He was not short, like so many trans guys he knew, and his height helped—strangers often read him as male before he ever took his first shot of T.
“Whenever you need a break, just tell me,” Billy said. “Sometimes I get carried away.”
“I’m good.” This was Evan’s first backpacking trip. He felt strong and solid. The testosterone built up his muscles. His legs and arms grew tighter, harder.
They’d hiked two miles already. When he had to pee, Evan used a plastic apparatus that let him pee standing up, turning his back to Billy. Billy knew Evan was trans, but still, Evan felt shy pissing in front of him. Most of the guys he hung out with knew—Evan had told them or they’d heard it from someone. He had reached a place in his life where people couldn’t tell by looking at him, except for other trans guys—you know your own.
Billy stopped. “Do you hear that?”
Evan didn’t, and then he did. A low huffing sound, almost a hum. Then it stopped. Something crunched. Three short huffs.
“What is it?” Evan asked, fear tickling his throat. A bear? A psycho? They’d passed only a few people so far—a straight couple, an old hippie. When Evan had asked about crazy men in the woods, Billy had just laughed. He grew up around these parts and had been going camping since he was a kid.
Now Billy smiled—he knew what the sound was—and he reached over and curled his hand around the back of Evan’s neck. Evan felt his heart thud.
“Elk,” Billy said. “They must be real close, but they’re hiding. That’s the sound of them breathing. Listen.”
They stood next to each other. It was dark in the deep forest, but light trickled through the open spaces between trees and branches, onto the ferns, the pine-needle-covered ground. Evan had never seen elk before, not out in the wild. He wanted to take off the pack, to take off everything. To rest his head on Billy’s shoulder. But he stayed there, listening, with Billy’s hand on the back of his neck, hot fingertips touching his skin. The sounds went all through Evan. He imagined their hot musky breath, their wise eyes watching him and Billy.
When the sounds stopped, grew fainter, Billy let his hand drop, but he still stood so close to Evan, close enough to kiss him.
“We were lucky to hear that,” Billy said. “Come on, let’s go. Maybe they’ll stay with us.”
Back when he had changed his name but still not had top surgery or started T, when Evan was living in Durham, North Carolina, he used to troll for men on Craigslist. He wanted to be seen by them the way he was beginning to see himself. Evan still had breasts then and he wore a thick top layer of clothing: a binder and two tank tops and one or two t-shirts, and during sex he never took them off.
When the guy reached into the drawer of his nightstand, searching for a condom, Evan saw a black pistol. He could die here, he thought. Still, he didn’t leave.
One time he met up with an older guy at a Starbucks in the suburbs. Evan followed the pointy-nosed man back to his house, past dark fields. The man’s house was weirdly empty: a couch, a chair, a king-sized bed. White shag carpet. Nothing on the walls. He told Evan he didn’t even own silverware, only used plastic forks and spoons and paper plates, had never cooked a single meal at home. The man said, I thought you were a guy, and didn’t understand Evan’s gender, but he was excited, and, fortunately, he said little else and he had a big dick. Afterwards, he wanted to take Evan out for dinner.
Another guy, this one in his early twenties, lived in a condo that had clearly been decorated by his wife, all Pottery Barn style, the walls painted creams and sage; pictures of them on a beach. When the guy reached into the drawer of his nightstand, searching for a condom, Evan saw a black pistol. He could die here, he thought. Still, he didn’t leave. The guy wanted Evan to fuck him, so Evan used the thick blue cock with the raised veins and big head.
There were more. Most of the hookups didn’t feel dangerous. Just empty. Evan would slip outside himself and watch the sex happen, sometimes hating himself or hating them, but most of the time feeling nothing, just aching to be recognized.
Things were better in Portland. He was more confident, and it was easier to find gay men who had experience with trans guys or liked them or at least knew they existed. He didn’t use Craigslist anymore, but like most gay men relied on phone apps for the occasional hookup. Still, he didn’t have a lot of sex. It was different for his friends—exchanging pics of dick, quick blow jobs. No explanation, no educating.
Sometimes guys asked annoying questions about his anatomy or said offensive shit. There were those who just wanted to experiment. Sometimes they ignored what was between his legs; others were eager, too eager—the tranny chasers. Evan wondered if Billy saw him as the same as him, or if he saw him as not manly enough or gay enough, not enough.
His friends, his lovers, grew up navigating the world as boys growing into men. For Evan, it would always be different. Sometimes, it was a foreign world, this world of men, but most of the time it felt right, not something he could put into words but that his body understood in some deep, elemental way, a way his mind never would. The way it felt to sink his hands in soil and be reminded of his father’s garden. The hands, the body, remembered even what the heart could not.
Four miles in they came to a clear blue lake. Evan unhooked the straps and slid the pack off his shoulders. His damp t-shirt stuck to his back, and sweat trickled down his neck. He liked the way he smelled now—sharper, tangy, a male smell. New fuzzy hairs stood up on his arms.
Billy dumped his pack on the ground. “Bet there are trout in there,” he said.
In Portland, Billy was a queen dancing around to Beyoncé. Here, in the woods, he was someone else—stepping carefully around a yellow slug on the path, or flattening his palm against the bark of a giant tree like he could feel its heart pumping. Evan felt pulled toward both Billys—they both gave off the same electrical pulse.
“My dad and I used to go fishing a lot,” Billy said.
Evan thought of Billy fishing in a boat on a lake, or standing in a river flicking a line around. Evan’s father and brother used to go, father and son trips that didn’t include Evan. The last time he saw his parents, only old pictures of himself hung from the walls. Sister. Daughter.
“Let’s take a dip,” Billy said.
“How often do you get to do this?” Billy stripped off his sweaty t-shirt. Dark, thick hair blossomed across his chest, narrowing into a V that trailed under the waistband of his shorts. “Come on,” he said.
Billy had little snaky hips, and as he walked toward the blue lake, ribbons of light twisted across the backs of his thighs. He wore jeans that had been cut off so short that the white linings of his pockets hung out like lolling tongues. He slid off his shorts and underwear. He had a cute little ass, tan, with soft dark hairs. When he turned, his dick was standing up a little. It was thick and cut. Evan flushed, felt a stirring in his own.
Billy said, “Here I go,” and he ran and dove in. When he came up, he was laughing, shaking off water, beads of lake clinging to his beard.
“You’re crazy,” Evan said.
Evan stripped off his own damp t-shirt and shorts, and removed his hiking boots and socks, and slipped his feet into a pair of old Vans. He’d always had tender feet, even as a kid.
The sun felt good on his bare skin. Evan liked the way he looked without a shirt, even if he was hairless. His chest was getting bigger. The scars fading to faint purple lines. With his underwear on, he walked in stiffly, like Frankenstein, up to his knees. He still couldn’t get used to the frigid water in the Northwest. “Jesus,” he said.
“Come on, don’t be such a princess.” Billy grabbed for Evan, and Evan pushed him back, trying to wrestle free but not really trying, and now he was in deeper, up to his chest. Then Billy came up behind him and put his arms around him, and Evan yelped at the cold but he didn’t pull away and neither did Billy. The trees were upside-down shadows reflected in the lake. How long did they stay like that? A minute? Seconds? When Billy let go, Evan stayed where he was, floating on his back. Looking up at the sky, the trees, the sun.
“Your lips are blue,” Billy said.
“I’m fucking freezing.”
“Come on, let’s dry off.”
Evan didn’t want to go, but Billy was swimming back to shore. The water lapped at Evan’s face. An electric green dragonfly landed on the top of his hand, then flew away.
After the sun dried them, they set up the tent under a stand of cedar trees. They’d each carried in two cans of IPA, and Billy put them in a net that he tied to a root that reached out into the lake. They gathered wood and kindling, and when the sky turned a bluish gray lifted by rays of pink, the mosquitoes started to attack. They slapped on repellent, changed into long sleeves. The trees on their side of the lake blended with the darkening sky. On the other side, the trees glowed red like they were on fire.
Billy built the fire. He was good at it; he’d had practice. Evan was not good at building fires. For a few years, Evan had been a girl scout. Girls weren’t taught to build fires. All they did was sell cookies, compete for badges, sing songs. They made God’s eyes out of two popsicle sticks and yarn.
Billy and Evan talked about men. Hookups, dates. Billy had ongoing dates, but didn’t love them. He’d only loved his ex Steven, he said. The fire popped, smoke blew in Evan’s eyes. Billy took a flask of whiskey out of his pack.
He waited. The quiet between them pulsed.
Billy did most of the talking. Sometimes reaching over to touch Evan on the leg. Evan was thinking about the tent they’d be sharing. He took a sip of whiskey, the burn in his throat better than anything he could say.
When Billy said he was tired, Evan didn’t know if this was a signal or not. They let the fire burn out, kicked the coals around until only orange embers flickered among the ash.
In the tent, they didn’t talk. Evan was nervous. Should he speak, should he kiss him? He waited. The quiet between them pulsed. Billy rustled around, twisted and turned. Evan scooted closer, and then they were looking at each other in the dark. Their faces so close, Evan could almost feel the bristles of Billy’s beard. Evan leaned closer, pressed his mouth against Billy’s. It softened, started to open, and then Billy pulled back.
“Evan, I just don’t think.” Billy’s voice flushed with kindness, letting him down gently. “It’s just, you know, it’s all new to me. I’ve never been with a trans guy. Like, I don’t know. Well, I’ve never been with a woman before.”
The word hurt. It thudded against the tent walls. Evan couldn’t breathe for a second. The pain came quickly, entered and expanded.
Billy tried to fix it. “I don’t mean you’re a woman. Sorry, that’s not what I meant.”
“It’s okay,” Evan said. But the word was an arrow inside him. Billy didn’t get him. He didn’t see him. “It’s cool. I know what you meant,” Evan said.
In the morning, it hurt to put the pack on. Evan’s shoulders and neck ached, his legs felt heavy and tired. Another day of this. Carrying all this shit on his back. He was ready to go.
Billy tried to make today the same as yesterday, telling stories, talking, flirting, but Evan felt removed, here but not here. Lonely. Even when they walked out into a dreamy field of blue and purple lupine, Evan couldn’t get excited. “Man, look at this,” Billy said. He started to put his arm around Evan, like a friend, but not just a friend—there was more, the sparks still flying off Billy—and Evan stiffened. Billy stopped. He looked apologetic, crossed his arms over his chest.
They set up their camp by the Lewis River. It tumbled by them, a big, bold, noisy river, too cold and fast for swimming. When the darkness dropped around them, they sat by the fire and talked, a replay of the last night. Except it wasn’t. Billy seemed nervous and extra talkative, and Evan sometimes felt him watching him. But Evan couldn’t put himself out there again. The smoke from the fire burned his eyes.
Billy was telling stories about his father. “Hunting, fishing, I knew how to do all that shit,” he said. “But it was never good enough for my dad.” He took another drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You know how he died?”
Evan shook his head. They were sitting next to each other on a log, a felled tree. Not close enough to kiss, but still, the same log.
The light from the flames lit up Billy’s face. “He killed himself. It happened when I was twenty. I’d already left home.”
“Shit, I’m sorry, Billy.”
Billy hunched forward, his elbows on his knees. “You always think, why didn’t I call him back?” He picked up a stick, poked the fire. “Anyway.”
Evan didn’t know what to do. Should he put his arm around him, rub his shoulders? He wondered how his father did it, but did not ask. He thought of his own father, who he believed was dying a slow, sad death in front of the TV, FOX news always on, his mind and soul burned up by fear, anger, righteousness.
It was the quietest Billy had been since they’d started the hike. Both of them staring at the crackling fire. They polished off the whiskey. The fire died down, and Billy did not feed it.
“You and your dad close?” he asked.
Evan shook his head. “Not anymore.”
He felt Billy’s eyes on him. The quiet grew around them and pressed them together. Evan was afraid to say anything more.
Then he felt Billy’s fingers land under his chin, turning Evan’s face toward him. Evan held as still as an owl. Billy was looking at Evan, those dog eyes, and then he leaned in and they were kissing. Billy tasted like whiskey, and his tongue was wild and greedy, his mouth pushing hard, then soft, against Evan’s. He grabbed Evan’s hips and they tugged at each others clothes, and when Billy took off his shirt, Evan pressed his face into Billy’s furry chest, smelled his ripe sweat and tasted the wilderness. He felt the hard curve of Billy’s cock through his pants.
Billy stood up and took Evan’s hand. Inside the tent, he switched his headlamp to the red filter and hooked it from the ceiling’s mesh pocket.
“I want to see you,” he said.
Evan didn’t hide. There was no chest armor to worry about. He wanted Billy to see him; he wanted to know what Billy wanted. He tugged off his underwear, let Billy look, to see what he had, a cock or not. His trans friends called their parts different things. Evan knew what he looked like, and most of the time, he liked his body, his long torso and narrow hips, flat chest. It was hard to find the right words, his body moving across borders, expanding beyond the limits of language.
Evan watched Billy’s face. Looking for what—repulsion, disgust, hesitance? But there was none of that. Billy’s dark eyes glistened with want. He smiled, shyly, and then came toward Evan, and although in the red light the scars on Evan’s chest were not visible, Billy found them and kissed them.
There wasn’t much room to maneuver, but Evan lowered his head and took Billy’s cock in his mouth and looked up and saw Billy’s face. That look of desire and nakedness and haunted joy. His dick tasted like a campfire and a lake and cedar trees. As Evan moved up and down, he felt himself get hard and wet. He rose up to kiss Billy, he wanted Billy everywhere.
The smell of the tent wasn’t anything Evan had grown up with.
When Billy ducked down between Evan’s legs, his wiry beard scratched against the insides of his thighs. Evan looked at the strange red light, the top of Billy’s head, the shadows twisting on the tent walls. The zipper from a sleeping bag was digging into his calf. Evan was on the verge of coming, and he pushed Billy’s mouth away and pulled him up, Billy heavy on top of him, crushing him in the best way. There were condoms somewhere, but Evan didn’t want to stop to look for them. He leaned back as well as he could in the tent, bringing Billy with him, and they fumbled around until they could arrange their limbs in the right places, and then Billy, on top of him, was inside him, and the tent was shrinking or they were growing.
“Is this okay?” Billy asked.
Evan told him it was good, and dug his hands into Billy’s back, felt the knobs of his spine, the taut muscles along his shoulders, and he heard his own hard breaths mixed with Billy’s huffs, like the elk, Evan was an animal with slick, smoky skin, and Billy was too, grunts and growls, all fur and bones and forest. The cords of Billy’s neck stretched and his face opened up with something like love but it wasn’t that, Evan knew, and Evan, lifting his hips, couldn’t get close enough, and when he came, he held on to Billy as hard as he could and then let him go. Billy pulled out, still hard, his face scrunched like he was in pain, and he moaned and his cum shot on Evan’s stomach.
They stretched out next to each other. Evan, satisfied and wanting more, wanting all of Billy. His hand lazily circling Billy’s chest, his fingers lightly running along his softening dick.
“Fuck,” Billy said. “That was good. That was…” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about what I said yesterday, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” Evan said.
Words didn’t matter, words were nothing. They unzipped their sleeping bags and slithered into them like animal skins. The smell of the tent wasn’t anything Evan had grown up with. He was far from home. The noise of the river. Billy breathing. Wild things, in the dark. The warmth from their bodies fanned out against the crisp cold. They left the rainfly off so they could see the sky. Evan looked up at the stars.
Strange sounds woke Evan. He blinked in the graying light. Billy was curled up, his face turned away. Evan unzipped the tent, peeked out, but all he could see were silhouetted trees. He climbed out, shivering. He didn’t know what he was looking for.
The early morning light sharpened the sky. He drew his eyes away from the towering trees and back down to the silvery-blue river, following the sounds, and then he saw them. There were three, all standing on his side of the water. They were the size of goats, with long, thin legs and mule-shaped heads and honey-gold fur. The noise was coming from them—loud, frightened cries. Then Evan saw the other one. This one was immense: an enormous buffalo body, with blond fur on its rump and a dark face. It waded into the wide river, and watching it go, the three smaller ones yelped, and Evan realized they were babies. At first he could not move or look away. It was like something holy, seeing this.
“Billy. Billy!” Evan hissed his name.
Billy stumbled out of the tent, wide-eyed. “What’s wrong?”
“Fuck,” Billy said. “I thought something was wrong.”
But then he saw them and the look on his face melted into something soft and open, like last night. One of the calves started to follow the mother across, but the current was too strong. It swept the calf up, and the mother elk, now standing on the other side of the river, watched it float past her. Then the calf either swam or the current pushed it onto the bank. It jumped over rocks, ran to its mother. The other two, left behind, bleated wildly. One went forward. The same thing happened. It was snatched up, only its head rising above the river. Still bleating, the baby elk spun around, and somehow scrambled against the force of the current until it found itself standing on the other side.
Evan felt Billy beside him. “I can’t believe we’re seeing this,” Billy said, and he put his arm around Evan.
Now there was just the third one, the loudest one, the smallest one, scared and hesitant and alone on this side.
Finally, the calf, confused, took a step. Another, another. The river surged. The water came up to the calf’s belly, and then its limbs were swept under. The calf jerked its head around, terrified, making that helpless cry, sliding downstream. It would drown or it wouldn’t. Evan’s hands were cramped into fists. Billy was next to him. It cried once more and lifted its thin legs toward land, trying to reach its family, and Evan felt Billy’s breath on his neck.
Carter Sickels is the author of the novel The Evening Hour, a finalist for the 2013 Oregon Book Award, and the editor of Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity. He is the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, a project grant from Oregon’s Regional Arts & Culture Council, and an NEA Fellowship to the Hambidge Center for the Arts. He teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at Eastern Oregon University and West Virginia Wesleyan College.