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Residencies are the best and worst when they cut you off from internet. This makes you more productive, sure, but it also prevents you from using the web for its main purpose, which as we all know is porn. It thus becomes inevitable that you (in this case, me) must find a suitable appendage attached to a warm and preferably fetching body with which to stab yourself for pleasure.

* * *

It’s only the first night but I must act fast since there are only eight of us. At dinner, I have my eye on Alfredo, a wing-tipped Argentinian who calls himself an “air artist,” which sounds hot, whatever it means. Over peach cobbler in a Georgia stone house surrounded by cabins and the river where Deliverance was shot, Alfredo claims to have never watched TV. I spot my opening.

“I can’t watch TV either,” I inform the table. “It’s just so much slower than reading.”

Alfredo nods with a scruffed chin. I smile; clueless men make the best prey. To bolster my point, I bring up the adaptation of the Quebecois literary sensation Salée Roonet’s Tête-à-têtes avec Confidantes, which has proven that modern bodice-rippers can be award-winning when peppered with français. “I don’t know how people justify watching ten hours of TV when they can just read the novel in one sitting.”

“Books do get drawn out for no good reason,” adds Savage from Atlanta, a painter whose knitted cardigan and blonde highlights read suburban mom. I imagine a peewee soccer game in her neighborhood where all the middle-aged women have names like Petty, Vicious, and Bossy.

“Good for her that she got her book made into a show,” Tom interjects. He’s a Mississippi food writer who clearly doesn’t worship in the church of Roonet.

“She’s not hurting for cash,” I reply. I’d read a Guardian interview where she talked about her enormous wealth impinging on her socialist values, which made me want to pull out my pubes one by one. My popularity, such as it is, is confined to literary circles eager to embrace a token trans woman, especially since I’m albino Filipino and therefore triply tokenable.

“I do like how self-aware Roonet is about her fame,” says Elma, a poet-xylophonist, in a husky alto with bell-like harmonics. “My wife and I listened to a podcast where she said, ‘When I sit in front of my computer, I wonder whether I can possibly write the next novel by Salée Roonet.’ I felt sorry for her.”

That’s how I find myself focusing on Elma for the first time. I usually ignore whoever my competition is for Most Oppressed Identity at any given residency, and she’s a lesbian from Sri Lanka.

“I also loved it when she said, ‘As long as there’s sexual tension, people will keep reading,’” Elma continues. Her oversized pupils are like Charlize Theron’s, Ronnie for short, my rescue pit bull mama back home. I sneak a crotch grab and catch myself with a lady semi. Alfredo who? I excuse myself and sneak out the main house’s back door. I hold Elma in mind while I use my phone light to rush up the gravel path to my cabin. Her AmStaff eyes, those pouty lips, the waves of dark hair that remind me of the sea at night. Shit. I get lyrical when I’m horny; it’s a blessing. I’ve scrawled my best lines with a hand down my pants.

I enter the cabin and get into bed. I pull down my tights and rub, still frustrated after all these years that my glans is now my clit, my shaft now my vaginal cavity, everything harder to reach, friction more challenging to achieve.

I turn over, kiss Elma’s imagined mouth, lose my hands in her thick hair, sniff the nape of her neck to find lavender essence mixed with Indian Ocean. My hands try to grasp her waist but can’t. How wide is her waist? How big are her tits? She has Ronnie’s eyes though — maybe her swollen udders on Elma’s body, the shallow curve of Ronnie’s waist on Elma’s waist, and yes, yes, but no, but wait, not Ronnie, no wait, don’t, stop; Charlize Theron, though, hottie warrior from Mad Max, firm, Elma-Ronnie-Charlize in desert armor after a long battle, exhausted, long legs waiting for a tongue between them, ah, oh, oh, oh…

I collapse face down, then flop to my back when I can’t breathe. The shadow of a wooden beam; moonlight behind wispy clouds. Am I a not-in-a-good-way perv? Am I a Bad Trans Woman™? A discredit to my community, a disgraced ambassador who besmirches my role as literary flag bearer? Will there be a tranny tribunal where my sins will be judged?

Calm down, I tell myself. Imagination can wander into murky territory, be it canine or Sapphic. I’ve never jerked off to a woman I’ve met in person, and I wouldn’t have done it if I weren’t here. It’s the residency’s fault.

I turn on my reading lamp and grab my Paris Hilton journal. The truth is that I desperately need residencies to maintain my literary reputation. A steady supply of sexual romps with clueless men lets me keep writing, but they’re tougher to arrange since I published my first collection and became Googleable. The great thing about residencies is that I can seduce men before they can look me up. Seeing them at dinner after I’ve slept with them allows me to take notes about their behavior — the eye shifting and the awkward gestures — that I use as specific, telling details in my stories.

Elma has introduced a new wrinkle, however. I blame it on the T, which I blame on the fact that I transitioned in the early aughts when keeping your junk wasn’t yet a thing. I ran off to Thailand as one does and returned with a safer if much more unwieldy genital infrastructure. Yet this also meant that my body produces zero natural testosterone, which bit me in the ass twenty years later when my doctor noticed signs of early osteoporosis and put me on a low-dose T regimen.

I was watching a straight bait video three months after starting injections. It’s my favorite porn subgenre, a blindfolded bro making out with a girl, only for another dude to take her place when it’s time for her to give him a blow job. This scenario floats all my boats — making fun of a clueless cishet while feeding my nostalgia for my halcyon days as a trashy twink. Except: when the dirty blonde in the video exited the frame, I found myself imagining my hand in a jar of Vaseline, which I first rubbed on the poor girl’s dry lips before I plunged my slippery fingers inside her manicured muff.

Though shocked!, shocked!, at this sudden shift in persuasion, I decided that pussy fantasies were a worthwhile tradeoff for avoiding brittle bones. The problem is that I can’t seem to fantasize about women without, ugh, thinking about their inner life, and what they want out of the experience of being with me. This is why my thing for women can only happen in fantasyland, because an IRL lesbo affair could ruin my marriage. I am not Elizabeth Gilbert. My story will not be Eat, Pray, Love Pussy.

And yes, everyone’s surprised that I’m married, but who else would take care of Ronnie in my absence if not for Joseph? It’s a miracle that someone was willing to put up with the a lotness of me: a high-maintenance high femme with a coddled man’s ego.

So that’s it then. I will avoid the real Elma. But this shouldn’t keep me from fondling myself while I fondle the Elma in my mind. I put away my pen and journal, turn off the light, then get back on my stomach and rub my clit like I’m starting a fire.

* * *

I put on my fake lashes and Gucci combat boots for the bonding hike the next afternoon. I’ve blown off many such activities in the past, but it’s a chance to see Elma again amid the bulbous mountains and half-naked trees of rural Georgia in March. I get to the meeting spot and everyone is there except for Savage, who has once again defied my expectations. Alfredo’s fingers twinkle at the sight of me, but my eyes no longer rest on him. At long last, I have a good look at Elma’s lower half. She’s in a color block sweater and high-waisted jeans, but I spot a swath of brown skin when she stretches her arms. I pull my black-and-white-striped tights to expose my belly button, a substitute for the hole I wish to lay bare before her.

This flirting by midriff soon ceases, however, when the staff member leading the hike walks us to the head of a trail pointing up a steep slope. I have made a grave miscalculation. Elma’s lesbionic legs have trained for such forays into the wilderness, while the most challenging climb I’ve tackled has been level seven on the elliptical. I’m forced to hang back while Elma stomps ahead.

“We can bring up the rear,” says a spiky-haired performance artist named Lor whom I’ve so far avoided. I refuse to be clocked until I’m good and ready; another trans person always risks putting the kibosh on my dramatic reveal. Lor’s squinty eyes squint even more.

“You look familiar,” they say.

Apart from my cult reputation, I am also the face of the trans makeup brand Floooide and a model for Trananarama Jeans. As well, I am often seen in the Instagram accounts of trans and trans-courting-for-social-justice-points celebrities. While I wish to remain unidentified, I’m also aghast that Lor doesn’t recognize me. My most authentic self is Convoluted Paradox.

“It might just be another albino,” I reply, and the implicit accusation elicits the precise look of contrition I wished to extract from Lor, which seems to throw them off my transgender scent.

Speaking of scents, I’m compelled to find out whether Elma’s real smell matches my imaginings. I see her hair bouncing up and down near the head of the pack like a perky rodent. I envision the hike as a literal human drag race, me clawing my way from the back and taking down everyone ahead of me along the way. I leave Lor behind and reach the next resident, then the next, making a bit of small talk with each so my goal wouldn’t be too obvious. My thighs are burning like I’ve been doing it doggie-style. When I finally find myself behind Elma, the trail takes a bend and we begin to head back down.

One might assume this is welcome news, but I was born without depth perception, which makes going downhill a hazardous prospect. Everyone else continues to chatter while we descend through loose dirt and brown leaves, but I can only focus on Elma’s footsteps, unexpected heaven since watching her feet fuses my lust with my desire for survival, especially when we reach a part of the descent that borders a huge drop. My eyes remain fixed on Elma’s shoes rather than what I am certain are graceful calves and an even more graceful rump between whose cheeks I am sure I would want to bury my face.

But no, just Elma’s feet. I wonder if she also spent much of her childhood barefoot, on an island surrounded by ocean, if she too had once been presumed an innocent village child, the likes of whom appear in ads for UNICEF. Those Westerners who sent funds to assuage their guilt were unaware of our gorgeous perversities, which only unfurled themselves once we arrived on their shores.

“Sorry, Matilda, I didn’t see you there,” Elma calls out with her husky bell of a voice. She stops to let me catch up. “Can you believe we’re here?”

For a moment, the part of me that wonders over my life asserts itself, before I swallow it down and reply, “Where else would we be?”

Elma parts her lips and grins sideways. “Is it too cliché to say home?”

“My stories are my home.”

“I can’t wait to hear your work at Saturday Share,” she says, before she starts walking again. After a few steps, she turns and tilts her head, an invitation to join her.

“I’m leaving this weekend,” she says.

I believe it was Georges Bataille who argued that sex is a kind of death, which is why the French word for orgasm is “petite mort.” There is no sexual thrill in poor vision, so what the hell, I start walking next to her on the side nearest the drop. If I were to die, it would be in a spectacular manner that would be worthy of a New York Times obituary.

She asks me about my day and I hear myself making sounds but don’t register their meaning. I can only focus on the smell of her. Lavender, sure, but also the vinegar that repulsed me in women until I smelled it in myself. I do not smell ocean in Elma, however, maybe because she, like me, is decades away from island life. But I bet the scent is still there in the crook of her neck, in those wrinkles that don’t show themselves until one works a day in the fields and the grime collects, the odor of earth and sea that will never go away no matter how much you wash. I turn my head to be closer to her neck, which is when I trip and fall sideways.

* * *

I arrive at Elma’s cabin in crutches and boot the next evening for Saturday Share. I only have a bad sprain and friction burns on both hands from grabbing onto a sapling. For a trans woman, I have a surprising instinct for self-preservation.

“Are you okay?” she asks when she opens the barn door. We haven’t seen each other since I went to the emergency room. I wave the other residents off when they stand to help me, while also making sure to wince every time I take a step. I take the divan Alfredo offers, if only to imagine myself as Estelle in No Exit, my crutches clacking to the ground while I spread my body across the fainting couch.

“I’m managing,” I say for sympathy points, but in truth, I have never been so prolific. While I waited for X-rays, I drafted my near-death experience on my phone. This new process will be a great talking point on my next press tour.

Everyone is here except for Savage, whom I idolize more every time she misses a required activity. Lor goes first with a piece called “The Giant Peter,” a rubber penis attached to their waist, so huge it touches the ground. They dance with the member while declaiming in Russian, the only sounds I recognize being “Ukraine,” “Putin,” and “Petersburg.” It’s hilarious to watch them struggle with the extra-large appendage; if only the whole “penis is war is patriarchy” thing weren’t so overdone.

The composer Gudda performs something called “Noratorio,” where he sings “No” over and over in the same pitch for much longer than necessary. Alfredo comes up and gestures like he’s showing us a painting even though there’s nothing there, which is apparently what he means by air art. We take a break before Tom reads a pedantic essay about food in the South and slavery, yadda yadda yadda.

Then Elma stands behind her xylophone with two sticks in each hand and plays a complex melody while reciting poetry in a language I don’t understand. Her tiny hands manage melodies that sound like both rings and booms. There are also invisible muscles performing nimble movements in her throat. I hear snatches of words I’ve left behind on my island like hari, “ruler,” and sana, “hope.” Yes, Elma, ruler of my hopes with your tiny hands, allow me to worship you. Yes, Elma, please use your strong fingers to enter my cavity until you’re inside me up to your wrist, even your elbow. I’ve seen trans women weep over not having a hole that could bring a child into the world, but I have not understood them until now, as tears stream down my face because my canal is too tight for Elma’s fist.

When it’s my turn to share, I do not read the draft of “Sexual Tension” on my phone. Instead, I begin to recall my upbringing in a distant Philippine province.

“They called me sun child, brown inside but white outside, just as I was a girl inside, but outside I was a boy.”

I describe our bamboo hut and dirt floors on which I squatted, helping the women cook and clean until my father ordered me to fish and climb trees with boys. But I burned in the sun when I tried to fish and fell from so high up a coconut tree that I broke a rib — Elma gasps after I say this — and so was allowed to do chores with the women again.

“My abnormalities kept me apart from others,” I continue, “but they made me who I am.” I tell them that once I got to America, I armored myself with glamour and wit to keep the bullies at bay and protect me from my true emotions, which I am only now discovering because our group is so special. I glance toward Elma so that she can read what I really mean, which is that she is special.

By the time I finish, I find that I have touched even me. Everyone says how wonderful I am, and I find myself not only responding that all of them are also wonderful, but meaning it. Then, I tell the others that I’m tired from my injuries and will nap for a moment. I turn toward the wall and close my eyes, intending to fake sleep until everyone else is gone, so I can catch Elma alone.

* * *

The next thing I know, the cabin is dark and I feel a subtle weight on my shoulders and back. I twist to find the outline of Elma’s head, her mess of loose curls like ocean waves.

“Sorry to wake you,” she says. Her hands touch my shoulders when she rests the blanket there. “I didn’t want you to get cold.”

I notice moonlight from the windows and my mind clears. Now that my conquest is within sight, I become unsure if I want to win her. I turn my back to face the wall, unable to allow the danger of being too close, but my body shifts forward to make room for Elma, my limbs expressing what my mind cannot.

To my surprise, Elma accepts my invitation, and soon her body is flush against my back, exerting no energy except warmth. Maybe this cuddle is a stalemate of sorts. When I shift around to find myself staring into her canine eyes, I forget who’s supposed to be conquering who.

“I have a wife,” she says.

“May I just smell your neck?”

She touches that place where her pulse is strongest, and the sight of her hand undoes my control. My nose pushes away her fingers and remains there while I keep my mouth closed, too aware of its role as the gateway organ for human love. Sure enough, there is still ocean in the lines of Elma’s neck, and I keep my lips sealed when I venture downward to the crook of her breasts under her thin top. My breathing shallows while my nose probes her crevices — those vinegar pits, that earthen belly button, those lower lips whose most complex odor is the true smell of home.

* * *

Date: May 8, 2023; 11:49 pm

From: Matilda (
To: Elma (
Subject: Residency Story

Hi Elma.

I’ve wanted to email for a while but you know how it is. Can you believe it’s been more than a year since residency? We didn’t really get to talk before you left. I’ll confess that I was just pretending to be asleep, but you already know that.

I’m going to stop pussyfooting (lol) and tell you the more pressing reason for this message, which is that I’m about to publish a story based on our residency and I want to make sure you’re okay with it. It’s called “Sexual Tension.” I’ve never checked with anyone before publishing a story before, but I can’t help thinking about how your wife might read it and put things together. That I was worried about this is the reason why it was really the best idea that things only went as far as they did, which was far enough. If I could keep myself from being with you then maybe I can keep myself from being with a woman ever, because their (your? our?) softer flesh has the frustrating effect of softening my heart (barf).

Attached is a draft. I’ve fictionalized as much as I can while trying to keep the spirit of what happened between us intact. Let me know what you think. Guernica is publishing the story in three weeks (sorry, I’m a procrastinator!) so hope to hear back from you soon.


Date: May 8, 2023; 11:50 pm
From: Elma (
To: Matilda (
Subject: Away: Re: Residency Story

thank you so much for your message. i am at a residency for six weeks and will not be checking email until may 22. in the meantime, my wife Sima is monitoring my account and will inform me of any urgent requests. <3 elma

Meredith Talusan

Meredith Talusan (she/they) received a Creative Capital Award and MacDowell Fellowship for fiction in 2023; her stories appear or are forthcoming in Guernica, the Kenyon Review, the Boston Review, Epoch, The Rumpus, Grand, Catapult, and BLR. Her debut memoir, Fairest, was a 2020 Lambda Literary Award finalist and named a best book of the year by multiple venues. She has contributed to ten other books and written articles for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and WIRED, among many outlets.