The customer pulls away the thin changing room curtain and emerges with her bright blue, almost neon, bra exposed. She asks me why the faded denim jacket won’t close across her chest, but I am no longer there. I am in the red scrape of razor burn on my neck and chin, the too-deep almost-butch cadence of my voice, the not-quite flattened bulge between my legs. This woman, who is asking my opinion on an overpriced jacket stitched by displaced women in some factory posed as charity in Tennessee, bares her chest, perhaps assuming that I am like her. In the racing anxious catastrophes that I invent on the spot, I feel exposed. I’m reminded of the usual accusations thrown at women like me—deceiver, voyeur, pervert—and of the trans woman in LA who became the center of that week’s violent rhetoric for daring to go to a women’s spa, and the many sloppy memes of beer-gutted, balding cis men declaring their womanhood while they piss in front of horrified mothers and daughters.

When I took this job at a local boutique, I told myself it was because I needed cash to fill in the gaping holes of my adjunct salary. But I’m here, really here, because here is where I get to be a girl among girls. I lie by omission in hiring interviews and small talk introductions with my coworkers. I fabricate stories about why I’ve yet to pierce my ears or why I keep mistaking a clutch for a crossbody. I blush when a coworker tells me that I look too young and hot to be in my late 20s. I scheme with the other girl on day shift about ways she could ask out the cute guy who works at the artisanal olive oil shop across the street. I continue to play cis, even through my manager telling me about the “he-she” she partied with in Brooklyn back in the 80s, and through the many knowing glances I share with the other trans girls who wander through our doors.

Going stealth five times a week to play “normal girl” becomes my favorite game, but I spoil it all in the final hours of a late November shift when the other girl behind the counter tells me about coming out to her boyfriend as bi, and I’m momentarily coaxed out of hiding by the promise of queer friendship. She takes it well, says the right things, but it’s less than a week before she drops her first accidental he. She corrects herself immediately and later apologizes to me in private, but it’s too late—the game has been ruined. Once the shadow of a man is noticed, my womanhood is granted an asterisk, the extended hands of sisterhood only offered out of social obligation or infantilizing pity. But through some cruel irony, I understand other women’s nervousness.

Now, I too can no longer walk the streets at night without turning my car keys into claws. Now, I also catch the too-obvious stares from husbands and fathers over the flash of my thigh or exposed stomach as I pass. Now, I know my body is quite literally up for grabs, my tits and ass toys for men to paw at. In time, their roving hands and eyes, their shouted demands and catcalls, wear you down and transform you into prey, an animal with her ears always perked for the first sounds of male footsteps in the underbrush.

Now, I cannot stop searching for that same instinctual discomfort in my best friend as we sit toe-touching-close through a late-night movie, or in the eyes of the other women writers in the support group that I joined just a few weeks into my MFA. I would like to say that the rhetoric of British TERFs and red state legislators passes through me without seeping into the grooves of my brain, but that’s not true. I know when I cross the gendered barriers that carve up our lives, it doesn’t matter to them if I’m a sheep, or a wolf wearing her pelt. For too many, after the first hint of prickling black fur, a wolf is all they will see.

Nic Anstett, a writer from Baltimore, MD, loves the bizarre, spectacular, and queer. She is a graduate from the University of Oregon’s MFA program and has attended workshops through the Clarion Foundation, Lambda Literary, and Tin House, where she was a 2021 scholar. Her fiction can be found in publications such as One Story, Witness Magazine, Passages North, and Lightspeed Magazine and has been nominated for anthologies like the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Nic has also written essays and articles for Autostraddle and She is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.

Artwork by Kah Yangni