Chest Pains

By Zach Ellis



I’m going to tell you a story about breasts. Tits. Boobs. Bosoms. Chesticles. Headlights. Hooters. Jugs. Knockers. Melons.


The first time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a fourteen-year-old girl. I was doing jumping jacks in our basement for exercise. He asked if he could join me. We faced one another, sweat pouring off my forehead. Journey was on the radio. We jumped at the same time, his middle-aged body facing mine. Steve Perry reminded me to not stop believin’ as I caught my father’s eyes, staring right at my tits. Just enough time for us to get out of sync. Just enough time for him to see me following his gaze. He walked away when the song was over. We never said anything about it.

The second time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a grown man.

When I began my gender transition twenty years later, we didn’t talk about it. My dad was a journalist. He wrote for National Geographic for over thirty years. The fact that he was Arabic secured him a lot of the Middle East stories. His job was to ask questions and do stories on interesting people. Strangers.

He never asked me why I decided to duct tape my breasts for two weeks. I didn’t tell him that a cute woman I had a crush on (who had been in a relationship with a transman) thought it was a huge turn-on. I didn’t tell him how the thought of a beautiful woman being turned on by my body gave me hope. How I repeatedly punched myself in the head before taking the duct tape off so the pain might not be so bad. I wanted to ask him just how much pain a man could endure, but I never did.

I didn’t tell him about my daily routine for getting dressed, when I stopped using the duct tape. How I would first flatten my breasts tightly by wearing two Ace bandages wrapped around my upper body. How I would put on a frog bra—a cross between a sports bra and corset—which kept everything tightly in place. Then two t-shirts so it appeared I had no breasts whatsoever. I couldn’t tell him how hard it was to breathe or how hot I was all the time. I owned four Ace bandages because two were always dripping with sweat at the end of the day. We didn’t talk about top surgery or testosterone. Instead, we talked about baseball and the nightly news. When I finally told him I was transitioning, he asked me two questions: “Is this a safe thing to do?” and “Are you sure?” When I answered yes to both, we stopped talking about it.

That he lived in his gated community in Florida while I was transitioning three thousand miles away made it easier for both of us. The fact that I was married and not alone must have made him feel better about the whole thing.

At the start of my transition, my wife and I heard about a conference in Seattle for transitioning and transitioned males. We decided to go. “This looks like a conference of Hobbits,” she said upon arrival. I couldn’t argue. A lot of us were short, hirsute, and pretty damn friendly.

We went to a few of the workshops. One was about testosterone usage and what to expect. Another was about the steps necessary to legally change one’s identity to male. It was hard for me to concentrate, because all I wanted to do was stare at the other trans guys.

The last workshop of the day was about chest surgery. I couldn’t imagine this as a realistic financial possibility, but our curiosity got the better of us and we went. We were greeted by a panel of topless men who introduced themselves by name and by surgeon: I’m Nick and I’m a Brownstein Boy. I’m James and I’m a Brownstein Boy. They all seemed to be Brownstein Boys. Michael Brownstein was apparently the go-to surgeon for chest surgery.

I stared at these men, trying to imagine them as women. I imagined them without the stubble and receding hairlines. I imagined them as girls desperate to be boys. I wondered if they, too, felt that wearing a dress was like someone pouring cement over you.

Some of them had relatively recent chest surgery. The scar—a dark red line an inch below the nipple—ran from armpit to armpit. If I squinted, the scar gave the appearance of a sculpted upper body. The men who had the surgery several years ago were the ones I really admired. The scars had faded; the chest hair covering any indication this man once had breasts.

When we returned home, I couldn’t stop thinking about those men. I wondered if one day I’d be at the conference saying, “I, too, am a Brownstein boy.” It was all I could think about. I began wrapping the Ace bandages tighter every day. I think I wanted my breasts to fall off.

When I finally got the courage to talk to my wife about chest surgery, she was hesitant. She said she had grown used to my breasts over the eight years we had been together. However, my breasts had not seen the light of day during much of that time. When you are keenly aware that you don’t feel like a woman, you don’t really want to let those girls out a whole lot. She told me she was going through a grieving process about my breasts. I didn’t know how to react. She always seemed to have a hard time letting go of things she wasn’t using anymore. The pasta maker, the rice cooker, the push mower. I didn’t really see my breasts as any different.

Despite her grief, she could see how important this was to me. We took out a second mortgage on the house. We traveled to San Francisco, where Dr. Brownstein was located. My wife loved San Francisco and decided to look at this as a vacation. While I was recovering in the hotel room, she would go sightseeing.

The day of my surgery, I awoke early. I had said goodbye to my breasts years ago. I was ready. Eager. I stood on the balcony of our hotel room and threw the Ace bandages over the edge. The one and only time I littered.

Dr. Brownstein met us at the hospital with a purple Sharpie in his hand. “I’m just going to draw some lines here. And here.” The tickle of the pen tip would be the last time I’d ever feel sensation in my nipples. My wife squeezed my hand as I was wheeled out of the room on the gurney. Her face was devoid of expression. I had been hoping for some sort of heartfelt bon voyage from her, as if I were on a luxury liner ready to sail for the first time.

When I awoke from the surgery, I was drugged, giddy, and lighter. Gone were the extra pounds attached to my chest. My nipples had been removed and regrafted onto my skin, now covered with bandages.

I wore the new pajamas I had bought specifically for my recovery. One size smaller than I used to wear. Men’s pajamas. From the men’s department. Striped, blue, manly. I stared at myself in the mirror and did a striptease with what I imagined was a sexy pout. I buttoned and unbuttoned the pajama top, revealing my bandaged chest.

Around twilight my wife returned, smiling. Then she saw my drains, my meds, and my bandages. The drains were little containers designed to hold the draining fluids from my chest. They had to be changed and reattached every day. “I can’t do that,” she said. I can’t say that I blamed her.

I asked about the things she saw in the city. She told me what the ride to Coit Tower was like. I told her about the ache in my nipples. She described the people she saw while eating lunch in Japantown. I summarized my marathon episodes of Judge Judy.

When the day came for Dr. Brownstein to remove the bandages, I was disappointed to see that my chest was not miraculously sculpted. My nipples were dark purple and I felt achy. This disappointment was outweighed by relief. I felt, finally, physically complete. My wife seemed sad, but hopeful. I think we both naively believed if I were finally comfortable in my own body, we could be truly happy in our marriage.

I had lost more than a few lesbian friends when I began my transition. The idea that I would voluntarily remove the most female parts of my body was further proof for them that I was trading in my tits for male privilege. My remaining friends, as excited as they were for me, were not interested in hearing about my surgery.

I wanted to tell them how it felt for me to get dressed in the morning and put on one shirt instead of two. I wanted to tell them that fabric felt like heaven next to my skin. I was aching to share my victory of walking back into the Social Security Administration building (where a month prior I had been told to return when I was “done”) in order to present the letter from Dr. Brownstein declaring my status male. I wanted them to know how it felt for me to look in the mirror after a shower and see a flat chest and feel like I finally recognized the person looking back at me.

When I saw my dad for the first time after my transition, he was in the hospital recovering from bypass surgery. My sister had warned me about making the trip to see him. “Seeing you like this,” she had said. “It might be bad for his heart.” When I walked into my father’s hospital room, my stepmother was sitting next to him. I looked at him and he looked at me and we melted. We held each other and cried. He was vulnerable, soft and open; so unlike the stoic Arab man I knew him to be. “You look so much like your dad,” my stepmother whispered to me. There was no gender, no angst, no silence. There was love and hand-holding and hugs and tears. Two men crying together—seeing each other clearly for the first time.

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Zach Ellis lives in Portland, OR and writes creative nonfiction. He has been published in Rad Dad, Nailed, and The Gravity of the Thing. He travelled from Portland to Glasgow, Scotland to read one of his poems at the LGBT In Our Words Festival. His makes a living as a bookseller.

One response to “Chest Pains”

  1. Steve Tourte says:

    Beautiful essay! I’m glad that I took the time to read this today, and I hope all is well with you. Thank you for writing this!

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