I sprang from the brackish water between Treasure Island and San Francisco. During the cold swim through the dark, bits of plastic bound together into fins that turned to legs, ripped-bag-gills fused into lungs, and I became.
I spent my first night on a marshy bank in the body of a woman with the mind of a newborn. The East Cut was all concrete and synthetic light, with no room for wilderness. How did the buildings stretch so high? I stood on shaking legs and reached my arms up, but my waterlogged fingers couldn’t scrape the sky like them.
The next day I wandered, learning about hills and streets and people and clothes. Men grinned at me with teeth in all shades from white to golden cream to black. The women shielded their faces as if I was a bright light hurting their eyes.
“Offending their projected sense of morality,” Dick explained. He wrapped me in his long leather coat and took me to the top of a hill where they valued naked women.
At night the bright signs lit up. I rushed beneath them, cowered into myself, afraid the magic suspending them might fail.
Another girl—We’re always girls here, never women—invited me to her apartment in the Tenderloin where she taught me to keep my head down and mind my own business. The loitering addicts, mumbling and shuffling, didn’t seem tender.
“What are they addicted to?” I asked the girl.
She shrugged and jiggled her key in a large lock. “If you believe the news, they’re addicted to addiction.”
I didn’t see how that would be possible, but their eyes spiraled in on themselves, creating a hollowness where her nonsensical answer almost seemed right.
Her apartment had dim lights and a dank smell.
“Cat piss,” she explained.
The girl took a pill. I curled up on her cat-piss-couch. Its large cushions swallowed me until I was no bigger than a piece of lint on the worn fabric.
The next day the girl was too addicted to remember bringing me home. She put me out on the street again, shrinking in her oversized sweats.
The crowds of people tossed me like ocean waves. I let myself turn to seaweed — an insignificant wisp floating within their mass. They knocked me against buildings and pushed me to the edge of curbs.
Bodies squished against me on a bus, attacking me with ripe armpits and flower-soaked breasts. The scents invaded my nostrils and dispersed in me until I was nothing more than body odor covered by strips of perfume.
The bus wound through the streets. It carried me up and down hills and around corners where new people and new buildings appeared. It stopped near the ocean where the driver ordered me off in a voice larger than my lungs or mouth or mind could manage.
So off I went. Off the bus, off the street, off the city.
I traveled to the desert, where buildings were low to the ground and far apart. The trees were short, the crowds thin. People liked to take up space. Girls were allowed to grow into women.
“You want to dance? Spread your arms wide and reach up to the moon. Let your body float on the howls of the coyote.” This was one of the women I stayed with. She had short hair and leathery skin. Her bones were small, and yet she took up five times as much space as me.
She taught me how to stand with my legs wide. I mimicked her motion as she reached up to tease the dry mesquite pods. At first I had to jump to touch the lowest branches, but with time my spine elongated and I grew. Taller. Stronger.
Her partner—Because life is more fun with partners—taught me how to ride a bike. When I pedalled slow and shy, she laughed with the roar of sudden rains in summer and urged me to pedal harder and lean into turns. I gained a weightless confidence that allowed me to soar over the desert pavement.
But a woman doesn’t forget where she came from. I filled the space between desert sunsets with a longing for my salty home. I took flight on a dust devil, spun up away from the mesquite and succulents, and didn’t touch back down until I felt the chill of summer fog.
Head up, shoulders back, I moved with the crowd, demanding my space. It couldn’t be the same place. The concrete felt softer beneath my calloused feet. The signs that had loomed over me became tiny bits of cheap plastic that barely caught my attention.
I hardened into a seashell with enough weight to sink into one place. When people pushed me, I scraped the endless concrete of the wide sidewalks and left tiny marks, carving my name on the giant city. The eyes of strangers no longer cut my sandstorm-roughened skin.
The city that had seemed hard and closed opened like an oyster, a soft muscle pulsing at its heart. My memory of its shine was more delicate than the slimy meat of its reality. I slurped the delicacy into my giant mouth, grinned, and walked on.
Koji A. Dae is a queer American writer living in Bulgaria with her husband and two kids. She writes speculative fiction and poetry that focuses on mental health, family and non-traditional relationships. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld and Zooscape, among others. She fuels her writing with blues retreats, alternative-living festivals, and as much time in nature as possible.