The paloverde tree the boys and I liked best forked into a V shape, its narrow, green-barked trunk split against the sky. On afternoons when the Arizona sun beat down too hot to wander the desert surrounding Cactus Country RV Park, we climbed into the paloverde one at a time, our bodies filling its branches like fruits. Our tree was shady, with long leaf-stems good for plucking and absentmindedly skinning with our fingers, the dozens of tiny leaves fluttering to the ground until we held only a slender green straw.
“What should we do today?” Patrick asked. He yanked another stem from the branch, twirling it around his thumb. The straws were durable. Some of the Cactus Country girls wove them into lanyards and bracelets, but we boys preferred sticking them in our noses and one another’s ears, or chewing them into a pulp and spitting them back out.
“Don’t know yet,” I said, shrugging. With a pocketknife I carved my initials — a jagged ZB — into the trunk. On the branch below me, Brendon ripped down a fistful of leaves and pressed them against his upper lip like a green mustache. Some of the other boys giggled, plucking stems to make mustaches of their own. Monkey see, monkey do. From a distance the seven of us could have been brothers. We wore shaggy home haircuts, our stained T-shirts full of holes. Our fair cheeks were always sunburned, the backs of our hands chapped red from the dry air.
Though I’d never heard the word transgender — didn’t know to look it up in Dad’s tattered dictionary, as I had with other words like boy, man, male, sex, and change — under my short haircut and too-big shirts I knew my body was different from the other boys’. My chest, which was beginning to grow round in the wrong places, had to be hidden under a T-shirt no matter how hot or sweaty I became. Out in the desert I had to squat behind the cover of creosote bushes to pee. At home in my family’s Airstream I was my parents’ youngest daughter, but up in the paloverde I felt like one of the boys. We sat in our tree whole afternoons, each nestled into a different crook, talking, joking, and pulling pranks until dusk, when our moms called us in to our trailers.
During the winter in Cactus Country, campsites filled with seasonal residents locals called “snowbirds” — retirees who ventured to the Southwest to escape the cold northern weather and families chasing gainful employment across the country, often with their homeschooled children in tow. The parents worked as day laborers, independent contractors, schoolteachers, medical residents, tax consultants, and military personnel. One was even a prizefighter. To these families Tucson was merely a stopover, a bookmark in the longer story of their journey somewhere else.
In the months since my parents had moved the Airstream into Cactus Country, I’d grown used to life as the only child in the park. But now, in a matter of weeks, the group of boys had swelled to three, then five, then seven, all of us between the ages of eight and thirteen. Though physically I had little trouble keeping up with the pack on the playground, I still had a lot to learn about becoming the boy I knew myself to be: How to shake off a sore arm or a stinging jaw after swapping playful punches. How to tell the kinds of crude jokes that made the other boys laugh. How to blend in, to pass as one of them. Up in the paloverde I watched my new friends closely, imitating their mannerisms. I wanted to speak their native tongue. To attune my instincts to theirs.
The most important rite of boyhood, I learned, was the dare. Not simply to dare other boys, but to be the most daring. We took running leaps over sprawling cacti, pedaled our bikes down the steepest corner of the concrete monsoon drain, climbed into the bed of the garbage truck stationed at the back of the park. When the park staff got annoyed with us, which was often, we retreated into the desert to build elaborate forts under gnarled ironwood branches and hunt jackrabbits with improvised slingshots. We ran alongside fast-moving trains, screaming and throwing rocks at their boxcars, chasing them like frightened animals out of our domain.
The games we played fluctuated with the size of our group as families moved into and out of the park. Few kids stayed more than a month at a time, and only two lived in Cactus Country throughout the entire winter season: Brendon and his brother, Patrick. Brendon had a snaggletooth and brown eyes that lit up whenever he joked around. He was always pulling faces, crossing his eyes, tugging at his ears, hiking his shorts up to his belly button. I responded to his antics in kind. The two of us would set each other off, screaming with laughter until we gasped for air. Patrick was tall and blond, with big ears and lean, angular features. Though two years older and a lot more laid-back than Brendon, he could be counted on to join us in whatever game we’d devised.
One day the three of us stumbled upon an abandoned pair of jeans, an empty beer bottle, a faded Altoids tin, and a penny, all seemingly arranged as a collection on the desert sand. We quickly made up a story about how the items had gotten there, picturing a drunk man who’d been frightened out of his pants by a rattlesnake coiled on the trail. The man had thrown the penny to create a diversion, then taken off running, bare-assed, through the desert. We doubled over laughing as Brendon reenacted this scene, flailing his arms as he ran.
“But what about the mints?” I asked once I’d caught my breath.
“He was probably on his way to meet a lady when he saw the snake,” Patrick explained. “You gotta have fresh breath when you’re smooching ladies!” He clasped his hands and leaned his cheek against them, puckering his lips. Brendon and I howled even harder than before, and soon Patrick was laughing, too, all three of us melting a little in the heat and the pleasure of one another’s company.
In contrast to the warmth of Cactus Country’s long afternoons, school felt like plunging headfirst into a twilight universe where the story of my life was different from the one I thought I knew. There, kids called me poor and stupid and trash because I lived in a trailer, and he-she and pussy and faggot because my masculinity was more ambiguous than that of the other boys in my class. At school the desert — its stubby barrel cacti with needles curved like fishhooks, prickly pears whose spiny pads grew in confused bunches, agave plants with thick triangular leaves like green tongues — seemed impossibly far away.
Weekday mornings my family’s battered minivan wound through the surrounding Rita Ranch suburb of Tucson, cruising the immaculate streets, passing row after unending row of faux-adobe homes. Dad adjusted the neckline of his orange tank top. Hot air from the open window swept through his thick brown hair as we drove.
“Why would anyone want to live in such ugly houses?” he said, gesturing his tanned arm toward them. “They’re charmless. Absolutely devoid of personality.”
I nodded from the passenger’s seat, gripping my backpack against my chest as though bracing for impact. Dad and I had some version of this conversation whenever he took me to school. The Rita Ranch kids, my classmates, all lived in variations of the same earth-toned house with rounded clay roof tiles. According to Dad, kids who grew up in houses like those had no imagination, no vision, and no appreciation of life’s rich possibilities. They didn’t have the freedom to run wild in the desert the way the Cactus Country boys and I did. Dad said places like Rita Ranch stifled people’s innate creativity.
“If anything, Zo,” he said, raising one of his bushy eyebrows, “you should feel sorry for them.” Dad flashed his toothy grin, reaching over to give my knee a sharp squeeze.
I wished we could talk about something else. We never spoke of my short, bowl-style haircut or the way I glowed when men called me buddy or dude, terms of endearment Dad used for other boys but never with me. We didn’t talk about how I stared at the ground when he introduced me to friends and neighbors as his daughter, the bewilderment on their faces as they tried to reconcile this with the boy they saw standing in front of them. I didn’t have the words then to tell Dad how I felt or who I really was. But I wished life at home and at school could feel as natural as being out in the desert with the Cactus Country boys.
Most mornings on the drive through Rita Ranch, I thought wistfully about what Patrick and Brendon might be up to. I’d spent enough time at their motor home to know their homeschool days were shorter and more casual than mine: an excursion to one of Tucson’s historical sites or a few pages from a workbook. The brothers were a few grade levels behind me in their studies, but I never minded helping them count their loose change to buy popsicles at the Cactus Country store or reporting the park news aloud for them from the “What’s Happening?” bulletin board.
Once, as we whittled sticks in front of his motor home, Brendon asked what public school was like. He’d never been to one before. I told him about Pizza Fridays in the cafeteria and recess on the playground, leaving out all the tests and homework.
“Would you ever want to go to a real school, you think?” I asked.
Brendon shook his head. He shaved a long slice from his branch, smoothing the wood with his thumb.
“Why not?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Sounds like a lot of work.”
What Brendon said made sense. He had no grades, no bullies, and no real worries. A life without school sounded great. I knew Mom was too invested in my education to ever go for the idea, but the way Dad talked about the Rita Ranch kids gave me confidence that he might be swayed. That night I begged him to let me stay home like Brendon and Patrick. I would do all my schoolwork in the Airstream! I would be more imaginative and visionary — more appreciative of life’s rich possibilities! Dad’s eyebrows rose and fell in amusement as I spoke.
“No way,” he finally said, grinning even while he shook his head. “Not a snowball’s chance in hell.” No matter what I said, no matter how many of his own words I used in my argument, Dad wouldn’t budge. I had to go to school.
“You’ll thank us for it one day,” he said, returning his attention to the book in his lap.
One clear winter afternoon, the boys and I gathered in the paloverde. Brendon sat in the crux of the V, a desirable spot, but also the lowest to the ground. Patrick and I, as the oldest, occupied the highest branches in each of the tree’s two trunks, while four other boys squeezed themselves into the lower ones. Seven sets of legs hung from the tree like fleshy branches, kicking idly in the air.
We’d just started talking about what game to play when Brendon let out a high-pitched shriek of terror, scrambling up until he sat on the same branch I did. The tree shook with our laughter. We thought Brendon was goofing around, trying to spook us, but no telltale grin appeared on his face. I followed his gaze to the ground beneath us.
“What the heck is that?” I cried, pointing.
We stared, transfixed, as a beetle larger than any I’d ever seen emerged from a small hole at the base of the tree. Its shiny black body was easily the span of a child’s open hand. Two thick antennae jutted sideways from its head. Large front pincers snapped open and shut. Six spindly legs gleamed in the sunlight. For a few seconds the beetle stood by the hole, twitching its antennae as though scanning the air for something. Then it turned and ambled slowly across the gravel toward the cactus garden. The boys and I exchanged glances from our perches in the tree. We had found our game.
A freckled boy in a black sports jersey leaped to the ground.
“You dare me?” he called up to us. We nodded, though we didn’t yet know what we were daring him to do. Carefully the boy crept up behind the slow-moving beetle, reached out a sneakered foot, and lightly tapped the insect, knocking it over. Most desert creatures have some kind of defense apparatus: stingers, fangs, pincers, horns. We braced ourselves to run if the beetle launched an attack. But it was clearly not as threatening as it looked. It lay sprawled on its side, legs flailing in the air until it finally regained its balance. The beetle took a second to orient itself before continuing on its course across the gravel, albeit a little faster than before.
Now we were all curious. One by one, we climbed down.
“What should we do with it?” one of the younger boys asked, brown eyes wide under the rim of his backwards ball cap. As though answering this question, Patrick picked up a sizable rock from the base of the paloverde tree, one that fit nicely in his palm.
“Dare me?” he asked. Without waiting for a reply, he threw the rock at the beetle, who flew up on impact as though hit by a mortar shell. The insect landed helplessly on its back, pedaling its legs wildly. Brendon and a redheaded boy made a game of kicking the beetle back and forth between them until it grabbed hold of Brendon’s shoelaces and clung. He screamed, trying to knock it loose. We laughed as the beetle soared through the air, landing some six feet away. The beetle was getting tired, its antennae twitching weakly. Its body was mutilated, cracks visible in its armored shell. Liquid seeped from its joints. Whoever came up with the coolest way to kill it, I knew, would be the winner.
“Wait here, guys,” I said. “Keep it right there.” I ran back to the Airstream, where Dad had gathered a pile of old cinder blocks and plywood with the intention of building a porch. I hauled up one of the blocks with two hands, holding it over my head as I staggered back to the playground. The boys saw me and hooted excitedly, hands over mouths.
“Do it, do it, do it,” they chanted, quietly at first, then louder, a rhythm of war beating in my ears. I stood over the helpless creature, its body darkened by my shadow. I raised the block as high as I could and, with all the force I could muster, drove it into the ground. The boys cheered, dancing around the cinder block in a flurry of ecstasy. I beat my chest and howled, radiating pride. The foe had been vanquished, and I felt like a king.
When I lifted the block again, the insect was unrecognizable, its body mangled, a white rice-pudding-like substance seeping from its abdomen — eggs, I realized, that would now never hatch. Then its limbs twitched. Impossibly, it was still alive. Staring down at the beetle, I felt a sudden pang of guilt and worried, too late, that it was suffering. What I had done was cruel, maybe even evil. In that moment I wanted to save the beetle, to shield it somehow from the damage we had already done. But the beetle was beyond saving. The other boys were still cheering me on, and if I stopped now, it would only show I wasn’t one of them. This violence was the price of boyhood, of belonging. So I held the regret in my throat like vomit as I hurled the cinder block back down onto the beetle. I stomped it with my bare foot, grinding the block into the insect’s body in defiance of my better, more benevolent instincts. I swallowed my guilt until it was dull and toothless, overtaken by adrenaline.
“Look, there’s another one!” a boy shouted.
On a Sunday morning Dad asked for my help loading the van with window-washing supplies. A few months after our move to Cactus Country, he’d found steady work washing storefront windows around Tucson. Sometimes I came along to help him. I loved the long drives through town, scrubbing the insides of windows clean, writing out receipts for our clients, the satisfying soreness in my arms at the end of the day, and the pride I felt in helping earn money for our family. But most of all I relished doing manly work as part of what I saw as a father-son team.
We methodically packed blue rags and extendable metal poles into the trunk, filling jugs with water from our campsite spigot. With each step I grew more excited about the day ahead.
“So, what part of town are we hitting?” I asked.
“I’m taking Patrick to finish up some jobs on the East Side,” Dad said. Usually he took Patrick along only when I had school. He always bought Patrick something in exchange for his help: lunch at a fast-food restaurant, a new book. I saw these small tokens of appreciation as evidence that he thought Patrick was a better helper than I was. That maybe Dad would have preferred a real son like him over a daughter who just looked like one.
I tried to mask the disappointment on my face as I folded a pile of rags, smoothing the stack with my hand. “Why?” I asked, careful not to look Dad in the eye.
“It’s good for a kid like Patrick to get out sometimes,” he said. “He’s the only teenage boy in the park, and he needs an older guy to look up to. You wouldn’t understand.”
This statement made my chest feel tight. I didn’t like when Dad assumed I wouldn’t understand something, especially if that something had to do with my gender.
We went into the Airstream for breakfast. “I still don’t get why you’re taking him instead of me,” I grumbled, pushing scrambled eggs around my plate. “It’s not fair.”
Dad stuck his head out the open trailer door, glancing around to make sure no one would overhear us. He sat down and turned to me with the air of someone with a secret to impart.
“I’m helping him learn to read,” Dad said, his voice hushed. He explained the gist of the operation: He would write a list of words and give them to Patrick to study in advance. While they washed windows, Patrick would spell them out loud. Then he’d practice writing the words in sentences as Dad drove them to the next job.
“Patrick can’t know I told you any of this,” he concluded. “He would be mortified.”
“Why don’t his parents teach him to read?” I asked.
Dad squinted down at the table and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “But try to understand: Patrick needs this. He’s thirteen years old and can’t read a menu, for Christ’s sake. Imagine for a second what that would be like. Think about how you would feel.”
I tried, but any sympathy I might have had for Patrick was eclipsed by the sense that Dad cared more about the boy across the park than the one sitting right in front of him. Even with my short hair and skinned knees, my sun-beaten face and callused feet, I knew Dad didn’t really think of me as a boy. I carried this knowledge inside me, certain I must be a disappointment to him. Dad had always seemed proudest when he could see himself in me, and I tried to emulate him in my work ethic. If I washed the windows well, Dad would be proud of me. If he were proud of me, I could be proud of myself.
“OK, but can’t I just tag along?” I asked. We stood in front of the van’s open back hatch now, mixing window-cleaning solution into spray bottles. “I could sit in the backseat. I won’t bother you guys, I promise!”
Dad sighed, massaging his forehead between his thick thumb and pointer finger. “If I asked Patrick to spell a word with you in the car,” he said, “he’d never trust me again. All the work we’ve been doing would be for nothing.”
“Don’t be selfish,” he said sharply, slamming the trunk shut.
I wanted to talk to Dad about the distance between the way he saw me — as a tough girl, a tomboy — and the way I wanted to be seen. To tell him the body I had didn’t match what I knew in my heart to be true. To say I was his son.
But I knew better than to press his temper. Instead I smiled when Patrick showed up at the Airstream carrying a notebook. I told Dad to work hard, that I’d see him later. Waving as they drove away, I swallowed my hurt, which settled hard in the pit of my stomach until it digested into something like anger.
That day Brendon and I spent the afternoon hunting paloverde beetles.
In time the boys and I learned how to summon the beetles on command, and thinking of new ways to kill them became one of our favorite pastimes. We poured water from a campsite spigot down the beetles’ holes to flush them out, then ambushed them with the sharp edges of rocks, skewered them alive with sticks, burned their appendages with lighters.
We killed the beetles because we were angry. Because it was hot. Because we were bad. Because there was nothing else to do. Because we lived in trailers. Because the kids at school called us trash. Because our parents weren’t around to stop us. Because we weren’t enough for anyone. Because we didn’t like the faces we saw when we looked in the mirror. Because we lacked control over our lives. Because we had the power to decide which beetles would live and which would die. Because killing the beetles made us feel strong, if only for a little while.
I didn’t like to think about what we were doing because, along with perfecting our techniques, we’d also learned the beetles were gentle giants. They had pincers and wings but didn’t put them to use. No matter how we brutalized them, they never retaliated, never flew away. If I thought about that too hard, the now-familiar guilt would bubble back up inside me and threaten to spill over, to drown the stoic, masculine exterior I had cultivated as one of the Cactus Country boys.
Occasionally park staff would try to intervene. Maybe they sympathized with the beetles, or maybe they were just tired of seeing body parts strewn on the sidewalk. After a stern reprimand the carnage might stop for a day or two, but we’d always come back to it. Each night I came home to the Airstream dusty, wounded, and utterly exhausted. I had thrown myself headlong into boyhood, and my body ached from the impact.
That spring the once-dull desert cacti bloomed to life in bursts of vibrant color, their flowers almost too bright to look at. Mom shook me awake early one morning to watch a crown of orange-red bulbs unfolding one by one on a barrel cactus. Their petals opened at sunrise and closed again at dusk. The arrival of spring meant the snowbirds would soon be flying north. Every afternoon I counted more empty campsites than the day before. Our group of boys dwindled until we were just three. Before long it was time for Brendon and Patrick’s family to travel home, too.
On the morning of their departure I hugged them goodbye. Their motor home pulled away from its campsite and onto the road. Brendon sat in the bay window, waving. I waved back. As the motor home picked up speed, I began to chase it. My bare feet smacked against the asphalt, stinging. I followed my friends through Cactus Country and out of the park until I couldn’t keep up anymore. My lungs burned as I watched the motor home travel to the end of the long road and turn left out of my sight, maybe forever. This perennial loss was the nature of living year-round in Cactus Country. Every friendship, no matter how close, was temporary.
With the motor home gone, I hung my head and began the long, slow walk back to the paloverde tree. I was the only child left to climb it. Sitting in the crux of its two trunks, I spread dirt around with my bare feet, sniffing back tears. I would not cry, though I wanted to. Boys did not cry, even when no one was around to see them do it.
A slow prickle crept across the bottom of my foot. I leaped up, pulling both knees to my chest. A paloverde beetle poked its head out from the hole my heel had been covering. Anger welled up in me, fierce and hot. I raised my foot, ready to strike, but stopped short. The beetle wasn’t far enough outside its hole for me to get a clear shot. I watched with a furrowed brow, waiting as the insect climbed out slowly, one gangly leg at a time, its body gleaming in the morning sunlight. I’d never noticed how pretty the beetles’ armor was — a rich, almost reddish brown. My anger was dissipating, the old guilt taking its place. This time I let it wash over me. It wasn’t the beetle’s fault it had scared me. It wasn’t the beetle’s fault I was angry or sad. I put my foot down again, a more benevolent king, a gentler kind of boy.
Hanging from the trunk of the paloverde tree, I swung my hand down in front of the beetle. The insect tested its weight against my skin with its front legs, then gingerly climbed onto my palm. I raised the beetle up and held it in my cupped hands. Its pincers looked even more menacing up close, but it didn’t try to pinch my fingers. I knew it wouldn’t. Considering the creature in my hand, I thought maybe we weren’t so different. I couldn’t imagine then what my future would hold, or how to reconcile the girl Dad saw in me with the boy I knew myself to be. But if I had to stay in Cactus Country while the other boys left, maybe that meant I belonged here, like this beetle did, in our desert kingdom.
The insect ambled slowly to the tips of my outstretched fingers, antennae waving over the air. In seconds the beetle opened its great wings, launching itself from my hands and into the bright expanse of the sky, startling me. I’d never seen a paloverde beetle take flight before. I watched it go, waiting to see where it would land.