My apartment during grad school had two bathrooms side by side. I never knew why, or which one to use. Both were fully functional. It was a lot to handle. How could I keep two bathrooms clean? Even one was a lot. All those toilets and tubs. The sparkling tile floors. I was too busy and too depressed. I spent nine hours a day in a library carrel, closed off from the world, hunched over printouts of Rancière articles and literary theory books. I smoked hand-rolled American Spirit cigarettes on breaks and ate chocolate chip cookies from the library café. I drank six cups of coffee a day. I took Klonopin. I took Prozac. I went home and drank wine. I drank beer. I hooked up with undergrads I met through gay sex apps. I watched 99 cent DVDs purchased from the shop around the corner from my building: Michael Bay movies, Spike Lee movies, all the Nightmare on Elm Streets. I thought about quitting every day.

Eventually, I closed off one of the bathrooms. I kept soap and towels in the one by the bedroom and pretended the other didn't exist. This was fine for a while. Nobody missed it. But then winter came, and I could no longer go outside to smoke. Most nights it was minus ten degrees out there. My building was non-smoking but the bathroom didn't count. With the window open and the door shut no one would smell it. And, so, the closed-off bathroom became my smoking room. I'd pour myself a glass of wine and roll several cigarettes, then shut myself in. Night after night, I clambered into the bathtub, cracked the little window, lit a cigarette, and sipped my wine. Some nights I opened Gmail on my phone. I pulled up an archived message, the same one every time. "Good News," the subject read. The sender was Elaine, the chair of my department. "I'm delighted to tell you," she'd written years earlier, "that our faculty committee has enthusiastically recommended your admission to the PhD program in English at the University of Chicago." The e-mail contained details about my stipend, my teaching requirements, the structure of my program. Warm compliments about my writing sample and research proposal. Contact information for faculty in my subfield. Assurances that the program would do everything in its power to prepare me for a successful academic career. That email was the best part of grad school by far. It had all gone downhill from there.

Getting a PhD in English is the wrong choice for many, and it was the wrong choice for me. To succeed you must have a passion for your field that far exceeds the limits of ordinary human desire. You must also be a masochist, a glutton for punishment, and a workaholic. You have to be healthy enough not to crack, but cracked enough to keep struggling in pursuit of a goal that will probably never materialize. Even then, with all these conditions met, you are unlikely to receive a tenure track job. It's a simple question of numbers. Hundreds of applicants from top-tier schools compete for every available position. There are so few openings that you may not even find one in your subfield the year that you graduate. Your school might hire you as an adjunct while you wait for a job to open. Or it might not. Some students from my program are still teaching at UChicago. Some of them went abroad for post-docs, to far-flung locales like Beijing and Seoul. My entering class consisted of ten students. Of those, two are assistant professors on the tenure line. Not the best odds, all things considered.

I knew from the beginning I wasn't going to make it. And I'm not being modest. I didn't care about the topics I was studying. I was confused about the field. I enjoyed getting to read lots of nineteenth century novels. But that was the least important part of the job. What was I going to say about these texts that fit into the contemporary critical discourse? I hated the contemporary critical discourse. I didn't "get" it. It was stupid. I changed my mind all the time. I was going to write about affect theory. Then prisons. Then Victorian sci-fi and utopias. Then crime fiction. In your third year you're supposed to narrow down your topic. You compile long lists of titles to read. You are then tested on the lists at the end of the year. This examination becomes the preliminary bibliography for your dissertation. I tinkered with my lists all year, adding and subtracting titles. I should have been reading three to four books a week. Instead, I did the opposite: one book every four weeks. I could feel my professors getting frustrated. In our meetings I had little to talk about. It was beginning to feel like I was wasting everyone's time.

But I couldn't quit. I still had my dream. Whether it was pride, shame, obstinance, or mere force of habit—whatever it was, I was stuck. Tethered, in the words of my instructor, Lauren Berlant, to "unachievable fantasies of the good life." Sometimes I wonder whether Lauren could have identified what she famously termed "cruel optimism" had she not herself been immersed in the particularly dire economy of the American thought industry. From her position she would have watched hundreds of bright, passionate young scholars attach themselves to impossible fantasies of the professorial dolce vita. And she would have seen those fantasies shatter again and again. Could that have informed her theory of cruel optimism? How could it not? It was a theory about reality not living up to fantasy. It certainly resonated for me. I wanted to be the movie version of an English professor, not a real one. I wanted the image, the fantasy, the blustery aesthetic. In reality, most professors spend the majority of their time alone, researching and writing. It's a lonely endeavor. Eventually, I realized that even if I finished the degree and got the job, it wouldn't have mattered. I would never be that magic professor. The dream I wanted was unachievable, the fantasy just that: a fantasy.

The precarious economics of academia trickled down to the bottom, where I was. It filled me like dark lightning. It sucked the air from my lungs and made me stupid. I lost the ability to read more times than I can count. Some days I'd spend hours on a single paragraph. I'd look at it over and over, trying to make sense of the words on the page. I'd sound them out until they turned into nothing. I almost never raised my hand in class. It was only a matter of time before someone caught on. Students were expected to speak in fully-formed paragraphs laden with rich analytical synthesis, textual analysis and argument. I felt less and less able to complete these basic tasks. My mind was turning to mush. Prozac didn't help. The school shrink upped my dose to 60 milligrams a day, the highest you're allowed to take. The pills were huge. They scorched my stomach in the mornings if I took them without eating. Some days it hurt so bad I'd lie on the couch for hours, moaning in pain, unable to move.

"That's not one of the side effects of Prozac," the shrink said. She advised me to keep taking the pills as prescribed. Instead, I gave them up cold turkey. For weeks after, little jolts of electricity shocked my brain. It was the worst when I was walking. I'd get a zap with every footfall. Zap, zap, zap. The zaps only strengthened my resolve to quit. If this was what the pills did when I tried to stop taking them, what had they done when they were actually in my blood? In my brain? Maybe the "side effects" would have been tolerable if the drug had helped my symptoms. But it didn't. And they weren't. The whole thing felt like a scam.

In my downtime I began to ferment vegetables. I enjoyed this very much. After the library I'd chew a Klonopin, crack open a beer and get to work. I chopped cabbages, peeled cloves of garlic, mixed saltwater brines, dropped handfuls of green beans and asparagus into jars. I sprinkled peppercorns in with the carrots. I watched my garlic turn blue as it pickled. I polished off beer after beer. Some nights I took Ubers north to Boystown and puked in the bathrooms of bars. I ordered mixed drinks and blacked out. Sometimes I brought guys home from up north. I don't remember many of them. I ran out of room for my pickles in the kitchen. I began to put the jars in the smoking room instead. I lined them up on the floor by the bathtub. I placed some on the windowsill to admire while I smoked. I didn't put any near the toilet, just in case, even though I never used it. This was no longer a bathroom. It was my inner sanctum. The place I could go to forget reality. Where every fantasy could be real. A place where matter changed states. Where vegetables broke down into pickles, and sticks of tobacco became magical, soothing smoke.

In the pickle room my fantasy of becoming a professor melted away, and a new fantasy emerged to replace it. I needed something big. Something bold. I needed everything to change. I wanted to run away from myself. To become a new person. To break myself down and put the pieces back together in a completely different order. I knew there was a way to do this. I'd seen it done before. It was a frightening prospect in many ways. It meant opening myself to a level of vulnerability I'd never before admitted. It meant becoming something that people I loved might not understand, or might hate. It meant changing my body in ways I wasn't even certain yet I wanted. In the end, it was simply a matter of making the call. Of seeing the right doctor, and obtaining the right medicine. I built myself up for months, and then I did it. I made the call. I saw the doctor. I took the plunge. I got the juice. And so it came to pass that standing in that bathtub, surrounded by pickle jars and cigarette ash, wine-drunk and woozy on Klonopin, I began the strange, wonderful, terrifying business of becoming a woman.

I'd thought about transition before at various points. After college, I spent six months at a queer commune in rural Tennessee. Most of the people who lived there were trans. I thought they were so cool. They were living life outside society's strictures. They were making up their own rules. Coloring outside the lines. They taught me how to garden and bake bread and cook gumbo for a crowd. I learned to make hot sauce and chop wood and build a fire. It was the first time I felt like I truly belonged. I was awkward in high school and college. I had friends, but there was always distance between us. I also felt weird among conventional gay people. I'd moved to New York for school in search of community. I didn't find it there. But on the commune, it was different. These were my people. Most of them had also lived in cities, and had, like me, found them lacking. The community was self-selecting in this way. It served as a sanctuary for people like us from all across the country. People who fit in nowhere. I felt like I'd finally found my home.

But I was a man. That set me apart. Sure, I was a weird man. Effeminate, squirrelly, lesbianish. But a man is a man, and that's what I was. Or was I?

My closest friend on the commune was a woman named Bobbie Jean. She lived in a barn near the back of the land. She'd renovated part of the barn herself and turned it into a bedroom. The creek snaked past her little corner. It was peaceful there. Quiet. Separate from the action and the drama of the rest of the land. She had a little barn cat named Trampy who would come in and out of her room through a cat door. I loved it back there. I hung out with Bobbie Jean a lot during my first visit to the land. We'd have cocktails after dinner. We talked about books and boys. We were both Libras. When we went to the neighboring radical faerie compound for their annual spring festival, Bobbie Jean protected me from all the horny solstice fags. For a minute there, we were tight.

One night I opened my heart to her.

"I think I might be trans," I said. "I don't know, I just never really felt like much of a man. I never put it into words before. I didn't know it was something you could do until I got here."

Bobbie Jean nodded solemnly. She'd seen it all before.

"Well," she said in her thick East Texas drawl. "We'll just have to get you on some hormones."

My heart skipped a beat. It was a thrilling prospect. But it scared me too. It scared me so much that I tabled the thought for years. It would pop into my head from time to time, but I could never drum up the courage to take the first step. Not until Chicago. Until grad school, and the pickle room. I was drunk when I decided. I thought that made sense. I thought I had to lower my inhibitions to let my true self speak. I was drunk, too, when I came out to my parents. I rolled a few cigarettes in preparation for the call. I drank half a bottle of wine and refilled my glass to the brim. I stood in the pickle room and lit up a smoke. Then I dialed home.

"Mom," I said. "There's always been something different about me. I always knew what it was, ever since I was little. I was too ashamed to say it. But I'm not ashamed anymore."

I explained how I was going to start taking hormones. I'd already filled the prescriptions. Injectable estrogen once every two weeks, and twice-daily spironolactone pills to block my natural testosterone. I said I had no plans as of yet to change my name, that I wasn't even sure I would. I had no idea if I would go all the way to woman, or just be non-binary. I'm pretty sure I mentioned Caitlyn Jenner.

From the beginning my mother interpreted my decision as a form of self-mutilation.

"But why would you want to kill Mathias?" she asked, using my birth name.

It's natural for parents and families to feel a sense of loss when someone they love begins transition. I can now confirm as well that the same is true for detransition. When, two years later, I chopped off all my hair and ceased taking hormones, my friend Joy was inconsolable.

"But I don't see you as a man," she wailed through her tears. "I see you as a woman."

When Joy reacted this way, I understood for the first time what my mother had gone through. At the time I thought it was stupid. I was doing what I had to do to become the person I was meant to be. By the time I changed my name to Mabel and started wearing women's clothes I was sick to death of hearing about it.

"Mom," I said. "I didn't kill anyone. I'm the same exact person. I'm just...wearing my hair different, wearing different clothes. I'm the same person. It's no big deal."

I thought of the scene in Sally Potter's Orlando where Tilda Swinton switches genders. For the first half of the movie Orlando is a man. Then, one day, for no reason at all, she wakes up female. The camera captures a close-up of Swinton's face as she gazes at her new anatomy in the mirror. Her long red hair cascades down her shoulders. A ray of golden sunlight shines through the window. Orlando turns to the camera, addressing the viewer.

"Same person," she says. "No difference at all. Just a different sex!"

I told myself I was Orlando. The same person as before. I tried to explain it to my mother but she didn't understand. Probably because it was a crock of shit. I wasn't trying to be the same person at all. I wanted to be someone completely different. I was lying to my mother. I was lying to myself. I thought my true self had been hidden. Sleeping. It took booze and pills to wake her up. But Mabel wasn't my true self at all. Mabel, I would come to find, was just another fantasy. Unattainable and precarious, like my dream of being a professor. In the end, for me, the reality of Mabel turned out to be even more dangerous than the reality of academia. The wine-benzo stupor I settled into each night was child's play compared with the chaos that was to come.

I thought I was unhappy as a man. Turns out I was just unhappy. Becoming a woman didn't take the unhappiness away. At best it just gave me new objects on which to focus my dissatisfaction. It sharpened my rage against society and the straight world. It gave me a whole slew of new things to be upset about. Now people could misgender me. They could refer to me by the wrong name and pronouns. If you create a system of morality where everyone else is always wrong, you'll never not be mad. If you tether your very sense of self to the idea that people have to agree with you in order to respect you, you'll always feel disrespected. Regardless of the truth or falsity of your ideas, this is not a good place to put yourself if you want to find happiness. Some people transition to match their bodies to how they feel inside. I was not one of those people. My mother was right. I wanted to kill the person I'd always been and replace him with someone else. And that's exactly what I tried to do over the next two years.

The spirit I invited into my body through transition was a contract killer. Mabel Frost, desperado. I loaded the gun and pressed it to Mabel's palm. She wrapped her fingers around the grip, aimed the barrel at my head and, laughing, pulled the trigger.