That summer, the gender-neutral change room changed everything. The university, accused of being behind the times, finally put one in. For Professor Mulligan, it was amnesty enough to come around on purchasing a campus aquatics membership. It was a way to avoid the posturing, the testosterone, the groupthink of “bros” in the men’s room. Not to mention the mindless, aggressive music spewing from Bluetooth speakers in there these days. Also important: private stalls. You weren’t out in the open. You weren’t exposed.
The professor, a portly fellow, portlier in fact with each passing semester, didn’t undress in front of people. There was a vulnerability, a certain shame in being on display. That afternoon, in his stall, Mulligan loosened his tie, unclipped his suspenders, and unbuttoned his sweat-stained dress shirt, unleashing mayhem. To the tune of two bulging rolls of belly fat and a pair of droopy breasts, all of it topped with matted gray chest hair. This wasn’t who Mulligan was supposed to be — he felt out of place in his own body. Did he have regrets? Who didn’t?
“Professors of psychology don’t have any fewer demons running around inside than anyone else,” Mulligan was known to lecture. “We’re able to identify them, put names to them, that’s all.”
And he didn’t necessarily mean clinical names. Mulligan gave his demons people names. Harley, for example, was the part of Mulligan that ate too much, the part fixated on consumption, on overconsumption. The addict. As a child, it was food. As a teen, as an adult: cigarettes, alcohol, then opioids. Now, as a senior — after nicotine patches, Alcoholics Anonymous, and three stints in drug rehab — Harley was back to food. Harley, the gluttonous slob, was effective, though. Damage control was a tough racket, but Harley was a world-class trauma assassin, burying fear and insecurity beneath thick greasy mounds of fast food and potato chips. It sounded silly, but personifying internal psychological processes, caricaturizing them, somehow made it feel like there was a team within, somehow made Mulligan feel less alone. In a weird way, it helped him understand who he was.
Mulligan pulled on a black T-shirt because going out onto the pool deck topless was not an option. Imagine if one of his Gender and Development students saw him in such a state, half-naked, defenseless like that.
Swimmers in goggles and latex caps filled all eight lanes of the Olympic-sized pool. Their strokes varied, but all cut through the water expertly. One end to the other and back again. With purpose.
Mulligan turned to the therapeutic hot pool. It was empty. The sign there suggested consulting your doctor before entering. It warned that more than 10-15 minutes in the hot pool was potentially detrimental to your health, that prolonged “enjoyment” could cause disorientation.
The lifeguard, a muscular kid in a mesh tank top, watched Mulligan in a way that made Mulligan feel like he was doing something wrong. Was it the T-shirt? Were T-shirts not allowed? Mulligan raised his hand and the kid nodded at him like the two of them had known each other forever.
The first step into the scalding water immediately reminded Mulligan of the baths his mother ran for him as a young boy, how unbearably hot she always made them, how long it took for him to ease his way in, how impatient she was with the whole ordeal. This is a bath, she’d say. Baths are hot. This is how you get clean.
Mulligan took another step — down to knee depth — and stopped again. He stared out the window at a tree, a thin stick of a thing by the walkway to the parking lot. Scraggly branches and wilting leaves drooped in the sweltering heat. The twig-like tip flopped to the side — like it was giving up.
One more step and the water was all the way up Mulligan’s thighs, perilously close to his scrotum. He stood there for what seemed like hours, and he would have stood there a few hours more had a swimmer not gotten out of the main pool, peeled off his goggles and cap, and walked over to the hot pool behind Mulligan. Feeling the pressure to get out of the guy’s way, Mulligan took the final step — waist level — and his hands instinctively moved to his submerged crotch. It was futile protection — screen door on a submarine came to mind — but Mulligan’s hands stayed there. It was psychological.
The swimmer stepped all the way in and sat right down, waterline at his nipples. Just like that. Like it was nothing. Mulligan, XXL shirt stretched tight across his belly, took a deep breath — then a few more — working up the nerve to sit.
Then he sat. Nerve endings across his body — a hundred thousand of them — under siege from the intense heat, sent a hundred thousand distress signals to whatever part of his central nervous system was in charge of pain management. There was a rush of blood to his head, a pleasant tightening around his brain — reminiscent of a warm opiate buzz. Then a sort of weightlessness, a drifting of consciousness, an altered state: Mulligan overload. He turned to the sign on the wall: No person having a communicable disease or open sores shall enter the pool. Suddenly drained, Mulligan’s eyes rolled back in his head.
Communicable disease. Mulligan’s mother had died of pneumonia. All that time she spent in the hospital. Weeks. But it felt longer than that. Like years. He stayed with her, all night, every night, at her bedside. Those nights were long. Time had a torturous way of stretching out. The sound of his mother struggling for breath, the crackling of her windpipe, it was unbearable. All Mulligan could do was sit there. Watch his mother wither, sink into the bed. And through all of it, he never worked up the nerve to talk to her, to really talk to her, to explain to her who he really was. Morbid maybe, but his secret would have been safe; it would have died with her. Instead, she died and there was an entire part of her only son she never knew.
Mulligan opened his eyes.
The water in the pool was still very hot, but he’d at least gotten over the shock. He’d acclimatized. He’d get out soon — more than 10 to 15 minutes was potentially detrimental — but for now he enjoyed it.
Another lifeguard, a young woman in a canvas fishing hat, whistle in mouth, flutter board under arm, patrolled the deck. She paced with self-assuredness. Comfortable in her own body. Reminded Mulligan of Pauline, a student in Gender and Development. He admired Pauline. She was sure of herself. She knew who she was.
Mulligan was in the hot pool alone. The guy, the swimmer who’d peeled off his goggles and cap, gotten into the hot pool with Mulligan, was gone. The waterline was at the guy’s nipples. The waterline was at Mulligan’s nipples. And everything underwater moved on its own. His shirt rippled with the current of filtered water shooting out of jets. His liver-spotted arms floated and bobbed, a dissociation of the limbs, a disconnect between movement and conscious thought. Mulligan was an expert on dissociation: authored a textbook, had personal experience, invented a character to represent the part of him responsible for disconnecting from thoughts and feelings, the part that spearheaded efforts to check out mentally when Mulligan was triggered. This was Spencer, the scrawny trembling twerp who always had an escape plan, who always had the white flag cocked and ready. Spencer, second in command in Trauma Suppression, dealt with what Harley couldn’t bury beneath food. Mulligan was open about his internal cast of characters — his team — in class.
“You’re allowed to make a little light,” he was known to lecture. “Take this stuff too seriously and you’ll cripple yourself under the weight of it.”
What Mulligan wished he’d have been open about was his identity. He wished he’d never kept it a secret in the first place. Pauline, the young woman in Gender and Development, wasn’t afraid to open up about her identity. She came to see Mulligan during his office hours, went right into it, told him everything. Pauline had been born Paul. But even as a child — for as long as she could remember — she knew that wasn’t who she was. She knew she was a girl, a young woman. And she told people about it. Without hesitation. It would have been safe for Mulligan to reciprocate, to open up to Pauline about his own identity, but he couldn’t work up the nerve. Instead she left Mulligan’s office and Mulligan envied her from a distance.
Soaking in the hot water made Mulligan feel healthy: blood flowing, pores sweating out toxins. He pictured little particles — nicotine remnants, lingering alcohol and opioid debris — exiting his body, his inner custodian, Dana, the unappreciated diligent worker, toiling away, deciding what stayed and what went. This was a bath. This was how you got clean. And 10 to 15 minutes wasn’t going to do it: Mulligan had 10, 15, 30, 60 years of damage to undo. Maybe he’d just stay. Maybe he’d soak for as long as it took. He’d already been here a while. Look how dark it was getting. Look how chilly: students pinching coats shut, hurrying to the parking lot. Look at that tree by the walkway, its branches stripped clean of leaves. Look how it stood firm in the whipping wind. Mulligan sank down, shoulders in the water, happy to be in out of the cold, and breathed easy.
Mulligan had breathed easy when he finished AA. He wasn’t a model member. He went through with it, said all the right things, but never took any of it seriously. Everything about it: the patronizing tone, the Jesus stuff, the sheep who ate up the Jesus stuff, the general embarrassment of being there, being one of those people. Mulligan thought of himself as the rogue member, the outsider, the one who was above it, who didn’t need it. He got sober, though — his inability to identify with group members who’d lost jobs and gone to jail minimized his own problem. And showing up, going through the motions, participating when prodded was somehow enough.
The three boys across from Mulligan in the hot pool were drinking. They sipped from cans of All Nighter, an energy drink the university had banned from campus ages ago. Mulligan looked at the lifeguard, a scrawny kid in a ball cap, to see if these boys and their drinks were going to get the boot. The lifeguard, meek and nervous-looking, watched the hot pool from afar. He saw what was going on. Didn’t have the stomach to do anything about it. Like Spencer, Mulligan’s inner escape artist, his coward extraordinaire. The boys drank their sugar-loaded drinks, their testosterone fuel, and raged about the difficulty of their commerce courses: taxation this, inventory accounting that.
Making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” was Step Four. They had circle time in AA. Talked about their feelings. Mulligan made up a bunch of stuff about having a family, being divorced, drinking because he lost custody of the kids. What else was he going to do? Spill his secret? Expose what Harley and Spencer had spent a lifetime supressing and avoiding? To that room of real-life Harleys and Spencers? Because those were the people who were going to understand what it was like to live a lie? Okay, maybe they were exactly the people to understand. The point was: the AA gang — generously tattooed, excessively pierced — wasn’t the gang Mulligan wanted on his side, the first to know that he felt like an alien in his own body, that this god they were all so fond of screwed up with Mulligan at birth, that Mulligan, crippled under the weight of everything, never worked up the courage to live his life the way he was supposed to. Maybe Mulligan should have told them though. Times were changing. Kids nowadays knew who they were and they were coming right out with it, addressing gender dysphoria like it was nothing. Like goddamned heroes.
This was the best Mulligan felt in a long time. Just needed a good long soak to loosen him up. His shirt seemed to be loosening up. This was what it felt like to be in shape: your shirt wasn’t stretched tight, you had some breathing room. It was dark outside and Mulligan could make out his reflection in the window. And — weird — he didn’t hate what he saw. He almost looked young. Almost looked clean.
Every so often, new people appeared. And, just like that, they were gone. Some would push the button to start the jets. The jet at Mulligan’s lower back numbed the base of his spine.
Lifeguards came and went. Alternating watches. Rotating shifts. Periodically sampling the water, testing chlorine levels. It was a constant fight with the pH, a delicate balance. They all knew him by name: Professor Mulligan, The Soaking Man.
Nights would be the hardest. When distractions disappeared. When you were alone with your thoughts. When time had a torturous way of stretching out.
Then there was the winter. It would come with a vengeance. Blizzards, squalls — storms of people’s lifetimes. There would be a tree outside, a thick beast of a thing by the walkway to the parking lot. Snow would pile on its sturdy branches but they’d hold the weight. Those branches were in it together: units with roles, cogs in the machine, contributing to the whole. A team. Forging an identity.
Mulligan sank down, water at his chin, a vantage point that made it look like the water level had risen, like the tide had changed. His shirt rippled with the underwater current. Mesmerizing how it moved on its own. Reminded Mulligan of how he often felt: passive, affected, lacking any say in the matter. It certainly summed up suffering through puberty: having no control over the way his body transformed itself. It was during puberty that his mother stopped letting him into the women’s change room at the public pool. You’re too old for that, she said. They’ll think you’re a pervert. So then it was the men’s room. Where grown men undressed in the open. Where everything hung out. The overwhelming wrongness of that.
Mulligan fixed on his rippling shirt, letting the current happen to it. Felt nice that the shirt was loose on him, that he was swimming in it. Felt nice to be young, to be healthy. Felt invigorating. And he wasn’t going to take it for granted this time.
Soon spring would come. That tree would bud again. And — even if just a little, even if imperceptibly — it would be stronger than it was before. After enough time it would grow taller than the building. Out of its shadow. Cast a shadow of its own. Because showing up, going through the motions, was somehow enough.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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