NONFICTION July 8, 2022

Cabrillo National Monument, 2019

All the crabs look up at my puffy red face, clack their claws together as they flee into the rocks. I sit in my usual spot, the overhang by the natural stone arch — at low tide, a full oval, now half submerged. I can see the green flecks of their shells shine underwater, the sparring pods they form beneath the surface. This time it is the right side of my face that is swollen, by the chin. It stings still, and I imagine that sting is electricity, still trapped between the layers of my skin, but I know it is only the death bursts of hair cells. 

The electrolysis tech says I shouldn’t get too much sun, that if I burn the puffy skin it will scar, but I can’t bring myself to care. I paid her eighty dollars yesterday to hurt me, stick a needle beneath my skin, and shock the hair out of my face. It’s been four weeks out of maybe forty — so much face still to go. 

I don’t care, I tell the crabs, and the tourists look nervously my way. One of them, a woman in a black sports bra, is annoyed. She expected tide pools here but checked the wrong year’s tide chart somehow. I’ve seen an octopus here, starfish, a pair of deep red sea slugs, but at high tide, there are only ever crabs.

Tomorrow I will drive to LA to meet a friend at a concert, and a boy will start hitting on me while I wait for her to show up. He will be sort of cute — in the way sad, punk boys are — and smell like cigarettes. Here, he will say. Look at this, and show me a photo on his phone where he is playing guitar in a dress. The dress will be ugly, long, and boxy with frilled sleeves and green polka dots. We all wore them, he will say, it was like a joke. I will wonder if he thinks this will impress me for some reason, or if he can’t tell that I’m trans. I will regret tucking just a little, think of the dresses I used to wear “as a joke” before I was honest with myself. I elbowed a boy just like this one in the face last year in a Cleveland mosh pit. I think he liked it. I will smile at this one instead. I will be bored with him, look for my friend again. Do you listen to black metal? he will ask me and I will look at him and I will guess his favorite band and I will tell him that they are pretentious. It will feel good when he leaves. 

A fighter jet splits the air above. They sound like a scream when they fly this low, but you get used to it in San Diego. There’s an Air Force base here. Park services made a deal with them so you can drive through a narrow passage surrounded by barbed wire to get to the end of the peninsula. The planes are everywhere though. They fly low over my apartment most days. The helicopters with twin rotors in their wings fly past my job. Sometimes I can see the guns, dark metal tucked along either side of the nose. I can ignore them now, most of the time, like the other things that were new to me here, the pelicans, the orange flowers shaped like raptor heads, the ICE sensors above the highway that scan the semi-trucks for people. 

I used to wake up every time a jet flew overhead, hold my breath until it was gone. I had understood in the abstract before moving here that the United States was a nation built on war, but I had not understood how easy it would be for a jet to shoot someone below, how wide the deadly shadow below it might spread. I moved my bed away from the window in my room but made sure not to tell anyone. No one here seemed to notice they were there. I started sleeping better after a couple of months.

My friend L is out on the street somewhere. I wanted to let her stay with me, but my roommates insisted we had no space for her. I haven’t spoken to her since, unsure of what I would tell her. She told me she used to be a librarian. She told me she used to work with kids. She sang to me, one day in the park, all the songs in Moana. I’ve stopped going to her neighborhood, except for my electrolysis. It’s not my fault, I want to tell myself, but I know it sort of is, that if I had fought harder she might still have somewhere to sleep. I touch my face, the blood rises to the surface of the skin. It aches, and I know that the touch will leave a bruise. I just need to feel the skin there smooth, to catch a glimpse of something like a future. The crabs are fighting below me, circling each other, claws high in the air.

At my job on Friday, I was asked to torture a rat. My boss wants to know where it is in the brain that a rat first becomes depressed. My job is to do the parts of finding out that make his grad students squeamish. There is a machine I helped build that electrocutes their feet. The secret to making it work is not only in how many times you shock them, or how hard, but that the shocks are unpredictable. A rat that knows a shock is coming will leave with its mind intact, but when the shocks can come at any time, it will never stop expecting them. We test this in a tall tube of water — see how long they will try to swim before they just give up, tiny hands suspended just below the surface. I save their brains for later, pump their bodies full of fixant. It’s a brutal process — I can’t stop the pump until their blood drains out entirely. They’re anaesthetized, but they still twitch as they die, their muscles pulled taut slowly by the chemical within.

I wonder how many more times I will sit here at Point Loma, in front of the stone arch. The pass I bought is good for a year, but it’s hard to say how many Saturdays I still have left in me. It’s easy here, suspended above the ocean, to imagine how I might disappear. 

I decide to walk along the cliffs for a while, watch the pelicans dive for fish. Low, red shrubs rise up from the sand, hiding darting sparrows and lizards from the sun. They seem unaware of the water below, small and secure in their personal desert. The cliffs below them are slowly wearing away. The water and wind have carved beautiful winding ridges into the stone, pitted like the hive of a large drunken wasp. I don’t know why I’m worried. The lizards will be fine.

I pass another group of tourists on the trail. One of them, a child, is crying, an urchin spine sticking out of her hand. It reminds me of the head of a pencil, black graphite peeking from her wound.

Before the concert, I will go to see one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. A man in the parking lot will put his hand on my thigh, and I will do my best to forget this. There will be a line out the door to get into the museum, another to see the room itself. We will each be allowed 45 seconds in the room, the curator will explain, and we will each go in alone. 

I will be unsure once the door of the room closes behind me if I should put my phone away or use my 45 seconds to take as many pictures as I can, look for details in them later. I will watch the infinite copies of me, each standing in a neat, mirrored cubicle. Glass orbs lit in yellows and blues will hang carefully from the mirrored ceiling, will create, when reflected, something just between a city skyline and a burst of stars. I will take comfort in the knowledge that Kusama calls her art a self-obliteration. I will imagine the walls that must have lined her room at the institution, what it might be like to make the art that saves you. I will walk up to the furthest wall, stare into the empty space behind me, and then the mirrored door will open and my seconds will be up.

It’s sunny today, about 75 degrees. It’s always sunny here, always about 75 degrees. It’s the one thing I can’t get used to. I keep a red leaf a friend in Ohio mailed me pinned to the door of my closet, a reminder that elsewhere time is passing. There was one week the first month I lived here, the tail end of July, where it rained for three days. For a week the hills were suddenly green, overrun with yellow flowers. In the six months since, it’s all been brown again, interrupted only by the occasional red of clay. I’m told it may not rain again this year. 

The pelicans form groups of five, swoop above me in low V’s. I can’t help but see the fighter planes again, diving to fill their beaks with scaly bombs. The ocean is beautiful against the cliffs, clear water empty of microbial life. 

I realize as I head back to my car that I am sunburned. I feel it on my shoulders first, a slow, throbbing heat. I have the sudden urge to apologize. I’m sorry, I say to a crab. He stands still against the rocks, pretends I have not seen him. I’m sorry, I say to him again. The crab imagines me diving toward him, imagines me swallowing him whole. He would do his best, he thinks, to catch onto my tongue with his claw. He would brace his legs against my throat and crawl out through my teeth. The crab stands still, imagines his survival. I cover the swollen side of my face with one hand, pretend it’s not too late to stop the reddened skin from scarring.

I can’t drive home without passing Sea World. The sun is setting, and I drive fast on Sea World Drive, the signature neon fin towering over the open water, the last hold of the city skyline on the Pacific. It’s a bumpy road, but everyone goes 70 anyway. I hate it here, the rotting orcas hidden behind each neon bulb, how fast I have to drive to see nothing but the fluorescent blur. I hate this city, the bleached grass and endless highways, the fighter jets and stucco, the things I look away from, and the things I do not do. My friend, L, is out on the street somewhere, in another neighborhood, and I do not want to go home.

I get dinner alone at a Thai restaurant I like. They mostly do delivery — it’s always quiet at night. The owners do not ask me about my face, though I know my jaw is beginning to scab over. They sit me below a statue of a golden elephant, a table in a corner. There are only two other customers, a couple arguing quietly by the window. I order my food, eat slowly, and read. I’ve been trying, this year, to love poetry before I understand it.

I both / believe and can’t.
says Lia Purpura.
I sit for a while / and feel things collapse / or go on, I can’t tell.

The couple glances over at me. We’re in public, one of them says. The other stops talking but continues to glare across the table. A few minutes later, they leave. We’re closing soon, the owner says. I apologize, pack up my food, and soon I am alone again.

I sit in my car for a long time, watch the yellow lights above the storefronts flicker. I wonder idly if I should try to kill myself again. It’s been about six months since my last attempt, just before I moved out here. It feels a little short. Not tonight, anyway, I remind myself. I’m busy tomorrow. My car idles on four-dollar California gas. When I am ready, I will back out of this spot. When I am ready, I will merge onto the highway. I know when I am ready, I will let myself leave.

My apartment is dark when I get back, my roommates already asleep. I sit for a while on the unswept kitchen floor, rest the back of my head against the fridge with my notebook in my lap. “Action,” I write, “is the inverse of guilt” and immediately feel terrible. I stop writing, listen to a jet fly overhead. I’d sleep here tonight, cool tile against my legs, but my roommates would find me in the morning. Tomorrow, maybe, I’ll go looking for L. Tomorrow, I imagine, I will set a fire outside the gates of the Air Force base, all the planes and their guns exchanged for flames that can no longer kill anyone, and maybe the park will burn, all the crabs and lizards scampering into the sea, but it will all be worth it. Tomorrow, I imagine, I’ll be better than afraid. I run my hand across my face and feel the skin begin to peel.

Jenny Fried is a writer living in Virginia. Her work has appeared previously in Strange Horizons, Wigleaf, Heavy Feather Review, and other magazines. Find her online at