The following is an excerpt from the new book Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir by Zoë Bossiere. This memoir of genderfluidity, class, masculinity, and the American Southwest set in an Arizona trailer park is available now through Abrams Press.

In the shade of the Cactus Country bathhouse, I lay against the cool brick path with my hands in the air, watching blood seep from my split knuckles. Tucson’s dry climate was hard on a body. By early afternoon, with the sun at its highest point in the sky, the playground’s metal monkey bars could sear blisters onto my fingers. The black rubber of the cracked tire swing felt like sitting on a campfire, burning angry welts on the backs of my legs. I scratched at my ashen arms until they stung red and raw, aching in an almost pleasant way. Since the boy’s family left, there had been no other children in the park to run or play or fight with. Nothing for me to do on long hot days like this but sweat it out in the shade until the sun went down.

I held a thin page of comics from a copy of the Arizona Daily Star over my head, the back of my skull grinding uncomfortably against the pavement as I read. After each strip, I glanced down from the paper and across the street, checking to see if Mom had come out of the Airstream to look for me yet. Our new home on wheels reminded me of an airplane, with interior storage compartments that folded up like overhead bins, cockpit-style bay windows at the front and back of its rounded ends, and an awning that stretched out from its side like a bird’s wing. Our neighbors often stopped on their walks to admire the Airstream, and in the days since we arrived in the park I’d overheard Dad answering the same questions again and again.

“It’s a 1978,” he would say, “an Excella 500, a thirty-one-footer.” These, I’d come to know, referenced the Airstream’s year and model and length— all essential statistics in the world of recreational vehicles. The neighbors would nod, murmuring appreciatively. We were the only family in the park who lived in an Airstream. I could tell Dad enjoyed talking about the trailer by the way he’d stand with his hands on his hips, grinning widely as he gestured to this or that feature. Sometimes the neighbors would ask what had brought us to the Southwest, and Dad would always say, “Oh, to get away from it all.”

In private, my parents had listed more specific reasons for the move, but I understood these only in abstract terms. Reston was too expensive. They were sick of suburbia. Of working too hard and too often for the privilege of living in a cramped apartment they didn’t even own. Dad had bought the Airstream from an online auction site the year before on an adventurous whim, and it happened to be located in Arizona. By the summer, my parents had gone from dreaming of the vacations we would one day take in the trailer to serious talk of living in it full time. Just a few months later, we’d shed most of our belongings and undertaken the journey westward.

I folded up the comic strips and placed them under my head like a pillow. Mom still hadn’t emerged from the Airstream. We were supposed to drive into town to buy a pair of shoes for the start of school the next day. I lifted my head to consider my bare feet. Cactus Country’s campsites weren’t paved, but covered in a thick layer of sharp white gravel. I loved the feeling of being barefoot, of the hot stones crunching under my callused toes. Tomorrow would be the first day in weeks I’d have to cover them.

I had never been the new kid at school before, least of all as a boy. In Virginia, I’d often fantasized about showing up to class with short hair, a daydream in which my friends and teachers would somehow understand that I’d actually been a boy all along. My new school in Tucson would be full of kids who’d never known me as a girl, and tomorrow would be my one chance to make the right impression. Thinking about it made my head feel hot, almost feverish, my stomach roiling the way it did when I played too long in the sun.

I felt a sudden, sharp prick on my earlobe and bolted up, swiping frantically. A red ant fell from my hair onto the pavement. I smashed its body with my palm, rubbing it hard into the brick. The Airstream’s tall, spring-loaded door creaked open, Mom’s tan, sandaled foot just visible underneath as she stepped out onto the gravel. She peeked around the door and waved me over, signaling the time had come for us to leave.

EARLY THE NEXT morning, Mom drove our battered minivan with the driver’s seat pushed up as close to the pedals as it would go, her long sun-bleached hair clipped into a messy bun. Our destination was situated deep in the heart of Rita Ranch, a sprawling suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Tucson, just a few miles north from Cactus Country. My insides swished uncomfortably with each turn in the road. I winced, steadying my backpack against my stomach.

“Just be yourself,” Mom advised. “First days are always hard, but you’ll win the other kids over in time. You’ve always known how to work a room.” I nodded mechanically, too queasy to ask what room she meant. We pulled up to a colorful building towering like a beacon among waves of look-alike houses. The sign out front read: cottonwood elementary. Mom honked as I crossed into the schoolyard. Dozens of kids clustered around the playground, screaming as they chased each other over the blacktop, their excitement manifesting low in the pit of my stomach like dread. I turned around too late to watch Mom drive away.

A group of boys my age huddled on the basketball court, openly staring in my direction. I ran a hand through my hair and fixed my gaze on a weed growing between two slabs of sidewalk, trying to pretend I didn’t notice or care. One of the boys, the shortest, broke from the group to approach me.

“Hey,” he called. I looked up. The boy had soft brown eyes, his pudgy cheeks dusted with freckles. He hesitated, fiddling with the collar of his shirt.

“Um, so the guys over there, they—they wanna know if you’re a boy or a girl.” I glanced over his shoulder to the boys leering at us from across the playground. On its face, this might have been a fair question. Since my new haircut, Mom had often remarked that I was “too pretty” to be a boy, with my long eyelashes and slender, almost delicate features. Though all my life I’d seemed masculine for a girl, I hadn’t yet perfected the more ineffable qualities of boyhood—the right way to move my body, or take up space in a room, or intonate my voice. Returning the boy’s steady gaze, I knew his friends wouldn’t be satisfied no matter what answer I gave. They’d already decided I wasn’t one of them, daring me now to prove them wrong.

“What kind of stupid question is that?” I spat. “Go tell your homo friends to leave me alone.” He shrugged, running back to relay my message as the morning bell rang out in the schoolyard. The boys from the basketball court called out to me as they passed, puckering their lips in mock affection, eliciting laughter from other kids waiting to enter their classrooms.

“Look at his backpack,” the smaller boy shouted excitedly, pointing to the teal bag slung over my shoulder. I tightened my grip on its straps, eyes trained on the pavement.

“That’s a girl’s backpack!” the boys jeered. “He’s a girl!”

My cheeks grew hot. I tried to ignore them, but to my dismay, the whole group lined up outside of the classroom I’d been assigned. I marched to the back of the line, hoping to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. But the rumors were already spreading. Eyes glanced not-so-furtively back at me, giggles erupting from huddled bodies.

He-she, I heard the voices whisper. The new kid is a he-she.

AS FAR BACK as I could remember, I’d played a secret game in the bathroom mirror of our Reston apartment. In my reflection, I saw the same kid I’d always been. Skinny arms, round face, green eyes, little brown dot on my left cheek. Straight dirty blond hair that came down just past my ears—the same hairstyle I’d had roughly since preschool.

In front of the mirror, I pulled my hair back into a loose bun, as I’d done countless times before. From this angle, I looked like a different person. One who lived the life I’d always wanted. I smiled at him, imagining the hair he held behind his head were gone. This version of me was much more handsome. He was tough and confident. He was happy. I liked the paradox of this game. How I didn’t recognize the boy in the mirror, yet felt closer to him than I’d ever felt to the girl staring back at me when I let my bunched-up hair fall back down around my shoulders.

In the months after he bought the Airstream, Dad filled my imagination with fantastic visions about everything our move to Arizona would entail. Our new home in the Southwest would be the beginning of a real adventure where, he said, I would have the chance to reinvent myself into whoever I wanted to be. He promised me a dog, and brought home a small, wild-haired animal who would accompany us on the journey into our new lives. We named her Tucson after the place we were headed, and in the weeks leading up to the move, I spent a lot of time in front of the bathroom mirror, thinking hard about the person I wanted to become.

The day before we left Virginia, I asked for a new haircut over breakfast. Dad couldn’t understand why I wanted any less hair than I already had.

“But your hair is short,” he insisted, taking a sip of his tea.

“You said I could reinvent myself,” I reminded him. “This is who I want to be.”

Dad shrugged. A haircut was a small price to pay for an easier cross-country move. Later that afternoon, I sat in a pumped-up vinyl chair and asked the hairdresser to trim my hair short “like a boy’s,” demonstrating what I wanted with the mirror trick. She met my eyes, skepticism spreading across her slight face.

“You sure about this?” she asked. I nodded. She looked to Dad, who also nodded, and began the work of snipping my previous identity away. As strands of my hair fell onto the checkered tile, I closed my eyes, envisioning the boy who would get up from the chair. He’d brush some of the errant hair from his shoulders and go boldly into his new life, shedding the girl he used to be like an old skin, the way I’d once seen a lizard do. I couldn’t wait to meet him.

“All done,” the hairdresser said. My eyes shot up to the mirror. I turned my head to the left, then the right, frowning at my reflection. “Something wrong?” she asked. The transformation did not appear to be a success. I still looked like me, more or less, just a few inches shorter on the sides, a cool draft on the back of my neck. That was new.

“See?” Dad said back in the van. “You just don’t look like a boy.”

I crossed my arms in the passenger seat, trying hard not to betray my disappointment.

BACK AT SCHOOL, the whispering seemed to shadow me wherever I went—to the pencil sharpener, to the water fountain, out onto the playground. I wandered the schoolyard aimlessly, keenly aware of the many curious eyes following me around the blacktop. The boys from earlier that morning played a game of half-court basketball. One boy in a purple jersey dribbled the ball expertly between his legs. He was taller than most of the kids in our class, with frosted curls pressed up against the edges of his hairline from sweat. In my mind, he became “Curly.” He must have noticed me watching the game, because the next time Curly had the ball, he threw it to me.

“Shoot, man!” he called. I caught the ball, my heart catching in my throat along with it. Before now, I’d only played basketball in gym class. But Curly had given me a second chance, a gift, and I was determined not to blow it. The other boys stopped playing to watch. I bounced the ball against the blacktop a couple times, took a shot from the free throw line, missed.

“Nice throw,” they taunted. But Curly ran to catch up with the ball, tossed it to me again. He leaned over with his hands on his knees. My face burned, and it had nothing to do with the afternoon heat. I lined up the shot, took a breath, and threw the ball into the air with a little jump at the end, the way I imagined a real basketball player might. The ball bounced off the backboard, didn’t even graze the rim. Curly shook his head.

“Man, why you wearing Shaqs if you can’t shoot?” he said. I looked down at my shoes, stupidly, as though noticing them for the first time. White with red soles, SHAQ stitched onto the tongues, a silhouette of a man leaping into an impressive dunk shot on the sides. I’d picked them out at a discount store the day before with Mom. I chose the shoes because they fit me, and because I liked the story they told about the kind of boy I was. For a brief moment, Curly had looked at them and seen the potential for athleticism, agility, strength. But no shoe could hide the fact that I didn’t know how to play basketball. No shoe would allow me to pass, to perform, to live up to other boys’ expectations about who I should be. Curly and his friends laughed, returning to a game I was not invited to play. I retreated to the bench, staring down at my warped reflection in the metal clasps of my new shoes.

ON OUR LAST day in Virginia, Dad parked the van in front of what looked like a sporting goods store.

“Just need to run one more errand before we go,” he said. A man with a blond handlebar mustache in a beige scouting uniform nodded as we stepped into the store, the rush of cool air conditioning like a fog over the damp humidity sticking to our skin.

Before us were aisles of patches adorned with bobcats, tigers, wolves, and bears. Neckerchiefs and merit badges. Baseball caps and socks to match. I leafed through a glossy handbook while Dad asked the man behind the counter about uniforms. He needed one the right size for a nine-year-old boy with the stature of a child about five, he said. The uniform was a goodbye present for Wade, a friend of mine from the neighborhood.

Wade was a quiet kid, and so small that people often mistook him for a kindergartener. His mother had recently separated from his father, an alcoholic prone to unpredictable rages. Wade didn’t seem to care much for the great outdoors, but his mom had signed him up for Cub Scouts hoping he might benefit from the influence of what she called “some good men, for a change.” Dad, who had a soft spot for boys with absent fathers, had offered to buy his scouting uniform.

The mustached man patiently answered Dad’s questions about scout dens and packs and codes. He brought out a navy uniform with a matching blue belt, neckerchief, and Bear Cub cap, all the perfect size for Wade.

“Your son in the Scouts?” the man asked, nodding toward me. Dad turned to look, his eyebrows arched in surprise as I pulled the cap I’d been trying on from my head, hiding it behind my back. I’d been imagining how I would look as a scout. How I’d earn badges that Mom would iron onto my uniform, and ascend the ranks from Webelo to Eagle Scout. According to the Cub Scouts handbook I’d been perusing, that’s what I’d be now, at eleven years old: a Webelo. Whatever that meant. Dad shook his head.

“No, not in the Scouts,” he said.

“Well, that’s a shame!” the man said, ringing up the uniform. “The Scouts is good for a boy his age. All my sons were scouts.”

Dad nodded, appearing to mull it over.

“You like to go camping, son?” the man called out. I did like to go camping. I liked to climb trees and go exploring in the woods behind my apartment complex. The year before, my family had left Reston for the summer, living in a short school bus Dad had converted into a motorhome, complete with a working kitchen and foldout beds. We’d traveled around the continental United States in that bus, visiting every family friend and relative my parents could think of, touring every major national park, and sleeping in what felt like every Walmart parking lot in America. At the time, the trip had been more vacation than new way of life, but I liked to look back and reimagine the experience as a small taste of the sweet freedom Dad had promised would be ours every day in Arizona.

“I love camping,” I said, inching closer to the counter, the Webelos cap still in my hands.

“He loves it!” the man echoed. “Come on, now. Buy the hat today, go home and think it over. This kid would make a great scout!” I beamed at him. The man had all the pitch of a practiced salesman. Dad sighed, half-smiling at me in a what-can-you-do kind of way. He tossed the cap onto the counter with Wade’s uniform and promised the man he would. Think about it, that is.

AFTER MY FIRST day of school in Tucson, I sat down again on the brick pavement outside the Cactus Country bathhouse, this time on the other side of the building to catch the late afternoon shade. I’d shrugged when Mom and Dad came to pick me up from Cottonwood.

“Good,” I’d said in response to all their questions. “Good. Everything was good.”

I’d unceremoniously tossed my light blue backpack and Shaq shoes into the Airstream, eager to cast off the things that had betrayed me. Tomorrow I would carry my books in one of Dad’s old packs and practice shooting baskets in the abandoned hoop at the back of the park. But for now, I watched the fire ants drag stray potato chips from under a nearby picnic table into a crack between the bricks and replayed every wrong thing I’d said and done at school that day.

The other boys in my class didn’t see me as one of them. I was too weak, too sensitive, too feminine. Over the course of a single day I’d established a reputation that, I knew, would take the rest of the year to live down. It wasn’t enough to look like a boy; I needed to learn how to act like one, too. I thought back to our last day in Virginia, when Dad and I set out from the Scout Shop.

“That man thought I was a boy,” I’d said, grinning up from the van’s passenger seat as I thumbed through Wade’s Cub Scout handbook. The humidity seeped in through the open windows, warm air rushing in with such force I had to hold the rim of my new Webelos cap with one hand to keep it from flying away.

“He did,” Dad said, then paused. “Probably because you were so interested in the hat.” I rolled my eyes. The hat had nothing to do with it. Despite what I or my parents or anyone thought about my new haircut, the man in the Scout Shop proved to me that I had become the boy only I saw in the mirror. That now, other people could see him, too.

“Maybe, once we get to Tucson,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “I could join the Boy Scouts for real.” Dad shook his head, eyes still fixed on the road.

“There’s no way that would work,” he said. “You’re not a boy.”

“Please, Dad,” I begged. “Can’t we just say I’m a boy? No one would have to know.” Dad flexed his grip on the steering wheel and sighed.

“I could never keep that story straight,” he said, glancing over at me. “Besides, what’s wrong with the Girl Scouts?”

I frowned, not sure how to explain that I didn’t want to sell cookies, or wear that prim green vest-and-beret combo. How to say what I really longed for was the great outdoors, the camaraderie and adventure the Boy Scout handbook promised. I wanted to be a Boy Scout. But so much more than that, I wanted to be a boy. To slide with ease into the world people like Dad and the man at the Scout Shop and all the boys I knew seemed to inhabit without a second thought. But I couldn’t begin to say any of this out loud. We sat in silence, dank wind from the van’s open windows whistling between us.

Dad reached over, patted my leg, looked me in the eye. Said, “I wish you could be one, too.”

Excerpt from the new book Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir by Zoë Bossiere published by Abrams Press ©2024. Reprinted with permission.

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