AFTER A BLACK MOON
By Eve Morton
Content Warnings: Dysphoria, violence, drug use, implied sex work, possible bigotry.
Potter was waiting for a Black Moon. So was I.
I met him in the mess hall of the recovery station, both of us leaving our half-finished breakfast trays on the turnstile. The workers eyed us both in disgust. We booked it to the med centre before the lingering gazes could get us down.
Potter, whose first name was Michael, hummed the entire time he was in line. He bounced on the balls of his white tennis shoes, his arms and legs seemingly too bony for the uniform we both wore. He was an addict, clearly. The med centre, his agitation, and the disgust in the workers’ eyes were easy enough to figure out. It was only when I got a look at his face straight-on and saw the pink lines around the patrician nose that I knew his fix was for sugar. Or ‘Big Sug’ as it was called on the street.
It’s not the sugar you’re thinking about. But Potter hummed the 1960s song by the Archies, now a century old, as if it was. He was agitated, stressed out with his need for the replicated cylinder he would inhale and feel better, but he found his situation funny.
I was still working on finding humour in my own.
‘Michael Potter,’ the nurse called behind a thick Plexiglas wall. Though her protection was hermetically sealed, she wore a mask.
‘Present!’ Potter said, pronouncing it as if it were French. ‘And accounted for.’
She didn’t smile. Didn’t matter that the mask was there. The mirth was absent in her grey-dead eyes. She didn’t even watch, like she should have, as Potter unscrewed the cap and inhaled the replicated Big Sug.
‘Thank you, milady.’ His pace slowed as he walked over to a bench. I stepped up before she could complete my name.
‘Hi.’ I extended my palm. I begged her, without hope, to not announce what I was taking.
‘Testosterone,’ she said with a furrowed brow. ‘Oh. One of us has to administer it.’
‘No, I got it. I know where to put it in.’
‘But it’s a needle. You could use it on someone else. Hold on.’ She pressed a button on her command centre, and a door to the med centre opened. Someone else in a nurse’s uniform, this one a man, came out. I let out a low breath between my teeth. I felt the air click between my front teeth, spaced out since I was twelve, and then the empty space where my bottom left incisor should have been. My balls were not the only thing I lost in the blast.
‘Over here.’ The nurse gestured to a room with a metal cage over the viewer. The padded room. One of many in the recovery ward. I wanted to shudder, to argue, to react in some way – but I just followed him. I wanted the testosterone in me about as much as Potter wanted his Big Sug. I could understand addiction, not because I was an addict. Not really. But the brain is an organ as much as the heart, and we can empathize through it when nothing else is there.
‘Lie down,’ the nurse said when I entered the room.
I tried to forget the indignity. These shots needed to go in through fleshy skin, but that could be the thigh – not always the ass cheek. Yet that was what so many doctors and nurses selected. When I was in the hospital, most of my legs were burned. I’d needed skin grafts, transfers, and lots of blood. The only space on me to shoot in the hormones was my ass. I’d looked away, on too much morphine to care. But I was healthy now, walking, ambling around with a slight limp. My balls were gone, but I could still urinate. My brain contained the same memories of masculinity: wet dreams at night, the first time I entered a woman, and then a man, during the war. Shaving, the scent of Old Spice (or knockoff brands they let you have in space), and the feel of my rougher skin. It was all there in my brain, except that when I was wholly healed, I could also feel those parts leaving. Fading. I hadn’t understood why until the doctor came in and shot me through with testosterone again.
Missing balls meant missing chemicals. And it meant that my head was not quite my head anymore. I was not quite the me who I knew myself to be.
‘Roll over,’ the nurse told me. I was only wearing boxers, too tight.
‘You don’t need to put it in my ass,’ I said. ‘The thigh works.’
He hesitated. Surely he was used to working with junkies. My voice was thin and urgent, like a junkie’s. But this wasn’t Big Sug or Snortin’ Sam or anything pedestrian from Earth. This was just testosterone. I’d seen some trans women and trans men in the recovery bay, and I’d known from the newspaper reports that they were the most prominent clients in the Black Moon program. Everyone needed a chance to start over. Everyone needed a new place to begin. If not in physical space, then at least in time. We all needed time to ourselves.
But I was not an addict, nor a trans person. I was barely a man without this drug.
‘Whatever,’ I finally said. I displayed my ass. I closed my eyes. I waited for my brain to come back online.
When I stepped out of the padded room, Potter was the only one around. The rest of the med cases had gone off to the day room or outside for a walk, though the atmosphere was hard on ravaged lungs. Potter leaned forward on his knees, a mysterious smile on his face. His nose was still pink from the years of Big Sug he surely had behind him. His nose would probably be that way for some time.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Christopher,’ I said. ‘Call me Jackson, though. I prefer surnames.’
‘I get it. That because you get called the other name first a lot? Even though we’re not supposed to do that anymore.’ Potter made a dismissive sigh. ‘I think it’s neat, having two names. I’d want to use them both.’
‘I only have the one.’
Potter tilted his head.
‘I’m not trans,’ I said. ‘Just a lot of bad luck in the war.’
‘Hey.’ Potter’s bright eyes beamed. He patted the seat next to him. ‘Come and sit. Join the club.’
And because there was nothing else to do, nothing until we could both leave and truly start over, that was what I did.
Potter had grown up in a slum on one of the early colonized planets. His mother hadn’t stuck around long, but her sister raised him. He never knew his father; his cousin Mick stole electronics and got them all in trouble with the police; all the typical stuff that happens to people who are forgotten. Big Sug was obvious in his story, yet it didn’t make an appearance until much further along in his life.
‘I was a disciplined kid,’ he said, laughing. ‘Hard to fathom, right?’
He ran a hand across his five o’clock shadow. I felt my own skin become rougher. The testosterone injection only came once every two weeks, but I needed it at about the nine-day mark. And it took one day to kick in. It never seemed like enough.
I was really envious, I understand now, as I listened to Potter speak. His voice was deep and low. My voice was too, and it would not change because vocal cords getting thicker in puberty was irreversible. Even if I didn’t have balls.
I nodded and encouraged him to continue. For a while, I pretended I was looking into a mirror.
The military came after high school. One teacher noticed his precision with the books, his penchant for design, and suggested he become an architect. Being a poor kid, though, it was not an option. ‘My mom had come back by then. I needed to not be around her. If I had known about the Black Moon system back then, maybe I could have started over sooner.’
‘It didn’t get introduced until you were about twenty-five, if I’m guessing your age correctly. You seem to be three years younger than me.’
‘Yeah, that’s about right. I’m a Pisces, you know. With a Pisces moon.’ He laughed. Anything related to the moon was hysterical to him. I wondered if it was a side effect of the replicated drug but didn’t ask.
So Potter had gone to the military. He was a good soldier. He was able to design some things there, too. Nothing too fancy, more like redesigning the hull’s furniture and maybe a couple safety houses on distant lands. Nothing too much or too important.
‘So what changed?’ I asked. He’d grown silent. A worker from the recovery program had been pacing the halls and was lingering by us. I figured this was the point that Big Sug had been introduced, and he didn’t want to be overheard.
‘You know,’ Potter said with a shrug. ‘What always happens? What happened to you?’
‘I was in a battle. Got burned real bad. Nothing to it.’
‘So they gave you morphine, stuff to take away the pain?’ When I nodded, he went on. ‘Same with me. I mean, we were in a battle. A lot of us got injured, and in the med bay, I got some good stuff. The pain went away. You know, it’s all warm like. It reminded me of the one time I went swimming. And then like zero gravity in space. But more warm, like I said. So swimming.’
I nodded. We were whispering as we talked now because that worker was still looking at us. We were not allowed to talk about drugs. But we were just talking about glory.
‘So you, your, you know,’ Potter said as he eyed my crotch. ‘In that battle?’
‘Yep. And you...’ I eyed his crotch in reciprocation. When I saw he was hard, I thought nothing of it. Only envy, once again.
‘I got better. But I still wanted to swim, you know?’
I was still looking at his erection through his clothing. He noticed and slid a hand over his cock, covering it with his palm. I had no idea if it was in shame, as a way to hide, or a way to keep it going. I didn’t have a chance to find out.
‘Hey,’ the worker finally said. ‘It’s almost lunch. You two better get going. You won’t get any meds until tomorrow.’
‘Two weeks,’ I corrected him. I stood and walked ahead but waited for Potter at the door to the cafeteria.
‘Two weeks!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘That’s a goddamn lifetime.’
‘I know,’ I said. Though it was impossible, I swore I heard my own voice crack.
We ate almost all our meals together for the next month. Nothing changed in the day-to-day since everything was utterly regimented at the recovery centre, but during long talks and even some walks through the harsh atmosphere, I got to know Potter. I didn’t even see his pink nose anymore. I began to relish his agitated two-step pattern on the dusty tile floor every day before he got his treatment.
We were, in the language of the program, just trying to recover what self we had. ‘And then,’ Potter would proclaim in a dramatic fashion after his inhalation, ‘we can begin our Black Moon plan!’
‘Whenever that may be,’ I’d often echo.
‘Yes,’ he’d repeat. ‘Whenever that may be.’
In spite of qualifying for the program well in advance of being sent to the recovery facility, we both had no idea when our turn would come. There had been interview after interview, application after application, and background checks galore to get us here. I could not imagine more steps. But each time one of us – sometimes we’d go alone, sometimes we’d go in pairs – asked about our Black Moon plan at the front desk, we were told we still needed to recover.
‘Only when we can see a viable return on investment do we give you your Black Moon reboot,’ the front desk woman said behind Plexiglas.
‘Return on investment?’ I asked. ‘We’re human beings, not commodities.’
‘Yes. But you’re asking for time to recharge and have another life. A second chance. We have to make sure you can integrate back into the world again. Especially since you were once kicked out.’
I wanted to argue that I was not kicked out. I merely fell out. After recovering from my war wounds, I didn’t want to live without a dick. Petty, I know. There is so much more to gender and identity and all that other fun stuff. Trust me, I know and was told several times by several different people. They’re right, I’m wrong, etc. But it was still too hard to live without something that I had known all my life. Even if I could adjust to the scars, the body changes, and the dreams of phantom dicks at night, my brain was still longing for what it knew. I was losing my memory, my sense of self, without testosterone running through me.
So I tried to end it. A couple times. They were, as you might say, cries for help.
They were, as I saw, no different from Potter’s penchant for Big Sug. After he’d been caught in the military with the drug, he’d been discharged. He’d been a street person for a while, blacking out regularly and waking up in different locations, sometimes different planets. His nose had become pink then. That only happened in the advanced stage of the illness.
‘Before then, it had just been fairy dust for the fairies,’ he told me one day. ‘I didn’t mind that, really. Who cared if I was a fairy? It wasn’t like it was a lie. And I did those things, you know, so I could get the drugs. I did it enough that it didn’t matter. But the nose… when it was pink, I knew it was bad.’
I nodded, understanding it all. ‘That’s like day ten out of the fourteen before I can get my next injection.’
‘You can do a lot of desperate things in those four days.’
‘I know.’ I changed the subject. ‘So, how did you get to the program here?’
Potter got a distant look in his eye. Now he changed the subject. We went for a walk instead, no longer wanting to bond over words. We played a game in the dayroom. Then it was time to get in line again, both of us, so we could get our meds.
‘Jackson, Christopher,’ the woman called. I walked up, and she pretended not to recognize me. She studied my chart and then let out a breath. ‘Oh, it’s topical now.’
‘Yes. You can administer it yourself. But you’ll have to come back every day now.’
I didn’t answer. I was too excited as she slid a soft packet of blue gel to me. I ripped it open and put it on the soft skin and faint, dark hair of my arm. It tingled. It hit my bloodstream. I felt it go through me, eventually reaching my brain, and washing me in what I always wanted, what I had known was me straight through.
‘How is it?’ Potter asked, eyeing the packs and my sudden elation.
‘You’re right,’ I told him. ‘It is like swimming.’
Getting our meds together day in and day out made us grow stronger. So did watching those who had arrived for the recovery program with us leave without us, and others who had come after us too. We seemed to be the only ones still stuck in the in-between place, still being dictated to as recovery patients when, for the first time in a long time, I had begun to feel better.
When I was called into a meeting, alone, three days after I began my topical treatment, I panicked. I thought they were taking it away. I thought I was going to be called an addict and never get what I wanted, what I needed, ever again. Life with Potter had simply become too good, so of course, it was going to end.
I was sort of right.
‘You’re going home,’ the doctor told me. She sat behind a large oak desk with an even larger smile.
‘Well, you’ll start your official Black Moon period. You will have thirty-two months to live your new life without your prior life expectations catching up to you. Of course, that clock has technically already started – since our patients here do not need to attend to their worldly issues while in recovery – but the time stamp will officially start once you leave these doors. After that Black Moon period passes, you will get jury duty notices again. Among other such technical details.’
Child support, alimony, the things in my life I’d left behind. Yeah, okay. I could handle that. I just wanted to get out of here. ‘Am I going alone?’
‘For now,’ she said. She seemed to sense I was hinting at Potter. She changed the subject. ‘But we need to decide what sort of life you’d like to lead.’
‘Oh. Well. What are my options? I know I can’t exactly be military anymore, but I don’t mind military services. A desk job.’ I shrugged. ‘Certainly better than waiting around here.’
‘Sure. Occupation is no problem, and we have your current skill set. But what would you like your name to be?’
‘Yes. I’ve been told you prefer to go by your surname. We can change your first if you’d like. Have it better match your new personality.’
‘I... I’m afraid I don’t know exactly what you mean. Is it recommended I change my name?’ When she was quiet, I added, ‘I still feel like the same person. You know, more or less.’
‘Well, that’s good. I know not every trans person does—’
‘I’m not trans,’ I interrupted her. ‘I just had an accident.’
‘Right. Of course.’ She looked at her files. She looked back at me. I wished she would have been as bold as Potter was sometimes and just looked for my penis, hanging there, without anything else to support it. ‘Well, you could transition if you wish. Maybe it will be easier.’
‘Easier than what? I have testosterone treatment. I can get that on the outside, correct?’
‘Then I see no problem.’
She narrowed her gaze. I had a feeling I was arguing away my freedom, but I didn’t care. She tapped a pen against my file, made a note, and then spoke. ‘There is a vast community of people who could support you, too, when you go back to your life. I’m afraid I should have started this meeting that way. It is highly recommended patients who are discharged have a community, a family to return to.’
‘I have a wife and a daughter. We’re divorced, and she lives in a different area, but—’
‘That’s good. Blood family is always good. But they know the before-you. What about the current you? You need to find somewhere to belong and fit in where you can utilize all that you’ve learned here. Or else we worry that your previous behaviour will return, and—’
‘You will get a bad return on investment?’ I asked. She did not respond. I thought of the dumb classes they sometimes made us attend here, about job skills and budgeting. Basic stuff I already knew, and that Potter knew too, but not everyone did. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. ‘Don’t worry, I have learned a lot here. And if I mess up on the outside, I won’t give this place a bad review. It’s my fault, you know, if I waste this second chance.’
‘Yes, it will be. But we still want to give you the best advantage. That’s the only reason I mentioned names.’
‘I just want to go home.’
‘Where is home again?’
I was quiet a long time. I thought of my old apartment but knew it would be long since rented out to someone else. ‘I just want to go.’
‘We will see. It’s in the works.’ She closed my file. I extended my hand to shake hers, and – only after looking at my palm with trepidation – she returned the shake. Her skin was cold.
I found Potter in the dayroom. He was playing cards with a new arrival. His eyes brightened when he saw me. ‘Hey, you. What’s going on?’
‘I might be going home soon,’ I said. He tried to clap me on the back in joy. I stepped away. ‘But I don’t know.’
Potter’s face seemed to crack in that moment. A flash of disappointment. Something passed between us that I could not name or identify. Shame? Malice? Or something more like kinship lost? He took a step back from me as well.
‘Want to play?’ Potter suggested seconds later, no trace of our former conversations in his voice. ‘Martha’s really good. Pretty sure she was a loan shark back in the day.’
‘Shh.’ Martha smiled. She had a pink nose, too.
‘I’m okay,’ I said. ‘I think I’m going to bed.’
I left two days later. I did not say goodbye to Potter. We both had breakfast with Martha in the cafeteria and then all stood in line to get our meds. I had told Potter I was leaving that morning over eggs, but he’d changed the topic. He moved kinetically, as always, dancing his dopamine dance until he could right the world again. He was first in line. Then Martha. Then me.
After I rubbed in the testosterone, I noticed Dr Flannigan, the woman I’d spoken to about community, in the doorway. She held a package for me, plus the keys to the attendant vehicle – my ride out of here. I nodded to her but went immediately to Potter.
‘I’m going,’ I said.
He smiled at me. Put a hand on my cheek. And then kissed me on the mouth. It was a rush, a sudden change between us. But it was also obvious, natural. It wasn’t even romance, I don’t think. It was just the way he wanted to say goodbye. His nose brushed mine, and when I pulled away, I expected it to be pink. I tried to see my reflection on the Plexiglas window for the med centre, on a metal doorknob, but there was nothing.
‘Take care of yourself,’ Potter told me. ‘I’ll see you when I see you.’
I left with Dr Flannigan. The kiss was still hot on my mouth. I expected her to ask about it. But she just gave me my new military assignment, my new apartment keys and gestured to the package where there was a list of military groups I could join for my community outreach.
‘If you do want a change,’ she said, just before it was time for me to get into the vehicle.
‘I know where to go,’ I completed for her.
I looked down at the watch they had given me with my takeaway package. It had the date, time, and location for the new planet I was heading to, but in the small corner was also a countdown of when my Black Moon period would be over and all of my real life, the one that I’d left behind, would come rushing back.
The thirty-two months passed. I moved on with my life. Made a couple really good friends in my military office, started seeing a woman at the bridge club I’d ended up joining. She was about ten years older than me but never had kids, so I felt as if we were the same age. She moved in with me just as the countdown on my watch ran out.
I actually relished paying my first alimony check in years. Then my wife got married, and that stopped. My kid graduated high school. She stayed for a weekend and met Jenny. They got along. Some bad debts also caught up with me, but I’d been saving like my care package recommended, and I made them go away.
I even got called to jury duty nine months in. I figured that was the extent of what I’d need to attend to. Jenny and I got married. She got pregnant, though she was in her early forties, and we celebrated a new life in our small little world. The child was not mine biologically, of course. But from an anonymous donor. And it would be mine in spirit.
Jenny was six months when I saw Potter again. He was standing on a street corner just outside Jenny’s prenatal clinic. I was going to meet her for lunch, and we were going to talk about what colour to paint the baby’s room. Gender aside, we were both leaning towards a soft maroon, almost orange-pink colour because that was the way the sky sometimes looked in the morning when we both got up for work.
But when I saw Potter again, his nose still pink, I lost all thrill at paint samples. I lost all thrill for the life I had now, the community I had now, where everyone knew I had missing pieces, but everyone pretended it didn’t matter. Where everyone pretended that the strange period in the recovery centre was obsolete. Non-existent.
‘Hey,’ Potter said when he noticed me. His eyes trailed up and down my body. ‘How are you doing?’
‘Good.’ I shifted on the sidewalk. ‘I’m married.’
‘Good for you.’
‘And having a baby soon,’ I added.
‘They can do that tech now?’
‘Old tech,’ I said. He nodded. He understood. And it felt good to be understood in that way again, to not be entirely forgotten.
Potter’s gaze flickered to behind me. I noticed a man in a black car, sleek, and clearly strolling around for business. For people like Potter. I couldn’t tell, nor did I truly want to, if this was a deal for Big Sug or for sex. Or both. Or something else harder. His body had gotten thinner, and his hair was limp as if it needed a wash. I wanted to tell him to come to my apartment and shower. I wanted to kiss him again.
But when he met my gaze, I looked away.
‘It’s hard,’ he said. It was simple but understandable.
‘Did you not find a community?’ I asked, though it felt feeble.
‘This is a community, in a way,’ he said. The car behind him honked his horn. He let out a sigh. ‘I guess the Black Moons only work for some. Luck of the draw, you know. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay.’
I said nothing else. I looked at the clinic even as he walked by me. I heard the car door slam and then drive away. I felt the chill of the space between our bodies and wished that we had done something more. I wished we had been released at the same time, so we could have had one another.
But then again, I supposed we still would have had to face one another like this – as broken men trying to wedge parts of ourselves that no longer fit back into a world that was only kind enough to give us one start over, but nothing else, not even instructions on how to deal with the time that still passed when everyone told us we were not ready. But we had been ready, at least, for each other. Even with a second start together, that time we lost in recovery would always catch up to us, like he had caught up to me.
I supposed this was neither good nor bad. It was just as the Black Moons always were: a period of time when there were more new moons in a season, and as such, it was a chance to start again without people seeing the worst parts of us, even those we desperately wanted them to.
‘Hi,’ Jenny said when she saw me. She came out of the clinic, the wind tousling her long hair. ‘Are you okay? You look—’
‘I’m fine. I just want to go home,’ I said, even though I wasn’t sure where that was.
Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. Her latest book is The Serenity Nearby, released in 2022 by Sapphire Books. Find more info on authormorton.wordpress.com.