When I entered the bathroom, it became a holy space. During adolescence, despite no lock on the door, my parents tacitly provided me with a single hour of time to myself.
Kids who are given time will make the best use of it they can. Watch the clock, spend the exact amount of allotted time on their preferred activity. Some masturbate, or style their hair, apply makeup. Others bathe until they are pink and raw.
I chose to attack my leg with a kit of tools I kept in my room, hidden in a shoebox under the bed. The nail file, the toothpick, the needle-nose pliers I had spirited away from my father’s toolbox.
* * *
It began as grooming. I would pick the hairs out of my left thigh until it became smooth, feel the glide of my palm over unmarred skin. Shiver with a pleasurable charge at the sensation. The growth of my body hair, long and coarse, was by far the most upsetting discovery that puberty forced upon me. It was dark, curly hair, not-white hair, immigrant, Nigerian hair. Hair that grew thick and lustrous from the scalp, demanded to be treated chemically, plied with heat and product, beat and trim into socially acceptable styles.
But it grew in bent, sharp forms out of the body. It scratched and curved, would not be ignored.
After a couple sessions of plucking the hairs with tweezers, one by one, a great relief washed over me at the smoothness of my thighs. Then, days later, I found to my horror that they had returned, thicker than before. Worse, they were ingrown, unpleasant infected bumps under my brown skin. So I had to dig into my skin with the blunt tweezers, tear out roots, bleed. The divine smoothness, then, would not last.
Ineffective. I graduated to nail clippers.
In order to extract the hairs, I would have to break the skin. When the hair grew near the surface, this was a clean process. In time, they grew deeper. Now, I had to draw blood each time I removed hair. The follicles would scab over, but the hair continued to grow. So I would breach the scab and dig, ever lower, until at last I could remove the offending strand. I was going too deep, tearing too much. I would bleed, and the hair would be so short that the tweezers would slip. I would have to either pull for minutes at a time or commit myself to ripping the meat out with the hair.
It hurt. I liked the hurt.
* * *
My father, in an ill-informed attempt to enforce heterosexuality, would show me music videos. Starting around when I was fourteen, we would sit together in silence and watch VH1. Mostly R&B and a little hip-hop. Suggestive videos featuring scantily clad dancers and a firm narrative of male-female desire.
He was, like most Nigerians, staunchly conservative. He believed in corporal punishment. His only concessions to middle-class American expectations were to apply force infrequently and to use an open hand in lieu of a switch.
My father, as he sipped glasses of brandy, one after another, killing the bottle slowly with modest pours so my mother and I wouldn’t notice, would postulate on the taxonomy of the faggot. Never the homosexual, mind you. Faggot.
To him, it was a result of poor breeding and excess masculine libido while isolated from women. That’s why priests fucked young boys, the pedophile being the cousin of the faggot. The faggot, and the lady faggot as well, represented perversion and rape, predators in gender-inappropriate clothing. They were the apotheosis of American decadence, and he was very proud that he wasn’t raising one.
It is difficult to pin down exactly what about homosexuality my father disapproved of. On some level it was clear that he found the act of gay sex revolting, but it’s unclear if he found the acts themselves or the actors more offensive. My father is a meticulous groomer who does not own a pair of blue jeans.
One day we saw a TLC video for a song called “Hands Up.” It prominently featured several male strippers. To me, there was little difference between them and the women twerking on-screen a moment ago. I filed those men, with no intention, under the same category as the other dancers. There was a similar, albeit distinct, attraction to them. I had never seen a man in an explicitly sexualized manner, never had the idea that men could be an object of lust. But now I did, and that knowledge could not be lost. And what was worse was that I wanted to be like the women on screen so that men would want me.
My leg ached from where I had cut into it that afternoon.
I was not a woman, so this attraction would breach the narrative of male-female desire my father was attempting to nurture. Fearing the application of his open palm, I wisely decided not to remark upon these desires, nor to act upon any similar ones until after I became an adult.
* * *
Soon my life revolved around removing the hair and skin from the leg, cleansing the leg with burning antiseptic, hiding the leg. Making excuses for the leg.
In time, the original purpose of the ritual was subsumed into the doing of the thing itself. I had a whole system involving a nail file, rubbing alcohol, the clippers, and various other bits of metal. I didn’t know why I would spend an hour or more removing the hairs from my leg, blood pooling on the surface to be staunched with alcohol and toilet paper. I only knew that I must do it. This is the nature of addiction: whatever the substance was meant to alleviate is replaced, utterly, by the substance itself. Self-harm is strange among addictions, much like how gambling is strange, in that it is an action taken and not a substance consumed. However, the mechanism of addiction is much the same.
I would often question my own motives during this ritual. At first I believed it was a simple wish to rid myself of the hairs on my leg. But then, why did I not shave?
* * *
When I was about twelve and the leg was still intact, my mother called me into the living room. She held an old Polaroid camera.
“Take off your clothes,” she said. “I want you to see what you look like.”
I obeyed. I removed my polo shirt, as I was only allowed to wear collared shirts, and my khaki pants, as I was not allowed to wear jeans. The socks went too. I stood in the room in nothing but underwear. At that time I wore white briefs bought in bulk from Walmart. The offending hairs had already begun to come through, stiff and uncomfortable upon my legs.
“Stand still,” she said. The camera flashed, and the motor whined and spat out a single floppy picture.
It flashed again. The camera cheerfully produced another photo.
“Turn to the side.”
“Now your back.”
“Okay. You can put your clothes back on.”
We waited together at the kitchen table for the photos to develop: white giving way to faint, washed out browns and yellows, the black of my hair coming in first. It was early fall, but the chill came in faster that year. The linoleum chill came through my socks.
“OK,” she said. The photos were arranged in front of me.
She did not have to tell me what to look for. The brownness of my skin and darkness of my lustrous, unkempt hair was considered a boon. It was the shape of my body that offended. I was, to be blunt, disgusting. My flesh lacked the tightness expected of adolescent boys and was padded with fat. It fell in bulbous lumps where my pectoral muscles should have been, hung in rolls over the band of my underwear, bunched beneath the elastic of the leg holes. My proportions were strange—too much leg and not enough torso. And my posture was bad, hunched and crooked, accentuating the lumpiness of my frame.
“Do you see?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“You are fat. I do not know what to do about it. But you should lose some weight.”
I saw something else that she did not. Upon viewing the shots, it was clear to me that I was not, and never had been, a boy at all.
That night, alone and fresh out of the shower, I examined the hairs upon my left thigh. The largest one stood out, an offending stalk in a meadow of fuzz. I found tweezers in the cabinet, squeezed the hair by the root. Grasped, pulled.
* * *
As I dug ever deeper, the time for recovery grew longer. Until at last, my leg did not heal at all.
I tore off larger pieces of skin, cutting with the nail clippers then pulling them off with the tweezers. For the deepest hairs, I would dig with the pliers.
The various smaller bumps, the open sores that used to be hair follicles, they began to converge. What was once a constellation became a galaxy, a vast swatch of broken skin, ever bleeding. I cleansed the area with soap and doused it with alcohol, the pain eliciting screams I released into hand towels gripped between my teeth.
At first I used large Band-Aids to cover it up, but they wouldn’t stick. So I faked an ankle injury following an odious sporting event, then convinced my mother to purchase an elastic bandage. I fastened various pads out of gauze I stole from her medicine cabinet, before finally resorting to ripping up my old T-shirts to staunch the leaks.
Every day, I continued to remove the bandage and inspect the leg for new hairs. Wherever I found them, I attacked. The pain was now so constant that I did not notice the fresh hurt from each stab. More and more of my allotted hour was taken up by this, forcing me to spend less time showering than I would have liked. My parents and friends remarked unfavorably upon the smell. I found it distinctly masculine.
* * *
He didn’t like the way I ran, my father. It was clumsy and almost like skipping, unmistakably feminine.
After a piss-poor performance at soccer practice, he drove me to a different park. He pulled a ball out of the trunk.
“You run like a—” and then he stopped short. The word caught in his throat, so implausible was it to him that I was anything but a strong, virile young man. He couldn’t see me growing my hair, the lasers, the pain of breast buds, dresses, tights, sensible heels. He couldn’t see me.
I dribbled the ball up and down the field, lungs burning, feet refusing to behave, the very image of unmasculine incompetence. Blood ran down my leg from the bandages and a purple-edged blackening spread from under the edges, across what should have been healthy flesh. Fatigue set in as I ran back and forth, egged on by his bellowing commands, wanting just to rest.
At last I collapsed on the grass.
“Get up.” He stood over me, monolithic.
But I couldn’t. I was done, and it was over. The leg burned, in more ways than one.
“Get up, you lazy bum.”
I pulled myself to my knees. “Stop it. Please.”
He buried the toe of his loafer in my gut. I bowled over with pain.
“Get up, you wimp. You sissy.”
I dragged myself to my feet. He passed me the ball. As I moved to half-heartedly dribble, his own leg shot out, taking out my shin, bending my ankle the wrong way.
“Stop crying. Walk it off. You don’t want them to think you’re a faggot, right? Then don’t act like one.”
* * *
When I got home, I bit down on a leather belt while sitting in the bathroom. Crying in hatred, I brought the nail file down into the most festering part of the wound. Over, and over, and over again.
“What are you doing in there?” my mother called through the bathroom door.
I had allowed my hour to elapse. In a panic, I rewrapped my leg with an old bandage. Somehow this caused a new, searing pain I was not accustomed to and I yelped.
“Just a minute,” I responded through chewed leather.
The tools were lying on the counter, caked in blood. I ran the sink and began to scrub it off as best I could, without any success.
“I’m coming in,” she said. “You spend too much time in there.”
“No.” I threw the half-cleaned tools into the box and began pulling the leg of my sweatpants over the sloppy bandage.
The door opened, and I made eye contact with my mother. Her face was a vision of fury. But then she looked at the open box on the counter and my poorly wrapped leg, and her face began to take on another, worse character.
Without asking my consent, she moved forward and seized the bandage. I protested as loudly as I could, but she ignored me, pulling the wrap off with increasing speed. When she saw what was underneath, her mouth opened and let out a strangled noise I will never forget.
The wound was no longer red and angry. It had begun to take on other colors—blue and black and rotten yellow. Dark blood and pus alike leaked out and ran, gently, down to my knee, as lines of putrefaction channeled outward. It was less a wound and more a crater, exposing layers of dead meat, down to something too pale and too hard. How it functioned, I did not know. I do not remember a smell, but it looked as if there was one.
I began to cry. She admonished me, asking questions. What was it? How had this happened? Why did I mutilate myself like this?
There was no way for me to explain. I had never heard of depression, or anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder, and certainly not gender dysphoria. I wasn’t even aware of the term “self-harm.” So, I just repeated the only thing I could think of, over and over.
“Don’t tell Dad. Don’t tell Dad. Please, don’t tell Dad.”
Hear more readings from “Act/Break”
Alexandrine J. Ogundimu is a Nigerian American, suicidally depressed, transgender garbage fire from Indiana. She lives in Seattle and works for a housing nonprofit. She cares a lot about equality and diversity and using our own voices, but mostly is waiting for the day she can loot Tiffany’s with a pack of feral drag queens. She received an MFA in Fiction at NYU, where her drinking problem blossomed into a full-fledged alcohol and drug addiction (which is now in remission, thank God). Her fiction can be found in Five:2:One, Flapperhouse, and Exposition Review.