Gershom Mabaquiao

How to Master Shapeshifting

31. On one of the days when you have a client for retesting, ask him about his day. Stop yourself from cringing while he says, “You haven’t responded to my messages, baby.” He will brush his fingers over yours. Hold onto the lancet and fight the urge to stab him in the eye with it. Keep your professional smile, which he will misinterpret as an invitation. Thank him for coming over to get tested. Find your lips pressed against his all of a sudden. Feel all your past fears envelop you, feel your mind step back from your body, and then punch him in the gut with a strength you never knew you had as if a separate entity took you over.

3. That December, shave your head for the first time. Blame your hair loss for it, blame your depression which caused your hair loss. But the tipping point, really, is how undesirable you feel, especially as you get frustrated over the weight you can’t seem to lose around your waist.

32. Look at yourself again in the mirror, now without the curls that a lot of people admire about you, the very thing that defined you for the longest time. Tell people you wanted a change in pace, hence the shaved head. Realize later that maybe it was a form of self-sabotaging. The cycle will never stop, you think. You’ll have to change how you look in order to survive. There will be no rest.

27. On New Year’s Eve, he’ll call you. “They found out about us,” he will say. “I’m so sorry.” Ask him to come over. Tell him it’s okay. Ask yourself why you said that when you know it will never be okay. Make him feel comfortable that night. Receive a message from your parents, saying, “We need to talk.”

28. Over Messenger, your parents will say they accept you. And then follow it up with, “Now that your sin has come to light, it’s time for you to change.” Tell them there’s nothing wrong with you. Tell them you just loved someone who happens to be a guy. “If it’s that simple, then why did you choose to hide it from us all this time? You know in your heart that it’s a sin. Would a thief go out telling people, ‘I identify as a thief’? If it’s according to what God wants, you won’t feel embarrassed about telling people…what you are.” Feel your soul separate from your body. Feel your face change. Feel your hands turn into claws. Then breathe out and return to your human form. Nod your head in agreement without looking at the screen of your phone. Weeks later, block them on all your social media and move to a new place.

1. When you look in the mirror, you won’t recognize yourself. There will be a hundred different things wrong with your face. Rashes, burns, and other things you won’t be able to know even as you look them up online. You won’t know it, but that signals the onset of your incoming changes.

10. Find yourself feeling decaying, and degrading, as if the reflection in the mirror is not yours anymore. Consider that maybe, all this time, the detestable image you see is who you really are deep in your bile. It just rose to the surface again because you were unhappy. But because of your sins, you’ll let it slide, suck it up, and wipe moisturizer on your face. Who are you to complain?

2. Spend thousands of pesos on skin care products, and have yourself checked by a dermatologist over and over again. Burn money you don’t have. On your last appointment, one of them will tell you to have your blood checked. Later that day will be the first time in a long time that you’ll look at your reflection. Under all the beauty products, see a corpse try its best to smile.

5. Slowly, lose weight without even trying to. Lipodystrophy, explains your doctor. It’s a usual side effect of the medication you started taking. Notice how your face will slim down, your arms, too, and your chest. But your gut and thighs will retain a little bit of their bulge, like a bloating corpse. Or maybe you’re carrying something more sinister inside your gut. Keep wearing your old clothes, even if they’re oversized now. Even more people will notice you, but you won’t know if you like the attention.

5. Start hitting the gym. Switch up your wardrobe. He once liked you to be more feminine. Tell yourself you don’t want to be desired by people like him anymore.

29. Buy a new full-body mirror for your apartment. Set it up across your bed, even though it’s unlucky, according to Feng Shui. Because how else could you be more unlucky after everything that happened that year? Take off your shirt and inspect your naked frame for the first time in months. Stare at your entire body in the arch-shaped mirror and wonder whether the mirror has become a portal instead of a reflective surface. Try and fail to comprehend what you’re seeing. Grab your phone and message your best friend on Telegram: “Apparently, I don’t look as bad as I thought.”

23. Spend ten months in the gym, working out five-to-six days a week. See yourself swell, see the shift in your face shape. Clip your talons. Retract your fangs behind retainers. Feel awkward with your new body frame, which makes you feel as if there are lumps all over your body making it hard to find a proper sleeping position aside from on your back. Then swallow that feeling and take more shirtless photos. Because you’re desirable now. More desirable than you’ve ever been. Everyone will like how you look but yourself.

4. The following year, more people will start noticing you around campus. Keep walking. “It’s just a spotlight effect,” you’ll think, reminding yourself of what you learned in your Social Psychology class. But the gazes will keep you intrigued.

8. Meet a handsome guy on Tinder. The most handsome guy you’ve talked to in forever. You’ll be baffled by the attention, but eventually you’ll like it. It will make you feel better about yourself. It will also make you ask yourself, “Am I wearing a different face?”

24. Find power in your allure, like a creature using its fake beauty to entice men to come closer. Let them come close, but not close enough that they’d see the red stripes on your wrists and the white stripes on your legs. Thrive only in the attention, in the validation. That’s all that matters for now.

6. Meet more guys. Go on a date with some, hook up with most. Always keep the lights off, or else they will see how disproportionate your body really is.

7. Eventually, find a guy who will be so into you, he’ll want to be your boyfriend. He will be far from being handsome. Think, “So what? As if I’ll get anyone better.” Love him as hard as you can and do your best to never let him go.

16. Your ideal guy will be on Bumble. At six feet tall, he’ll be the tallest guy you’ve ever dated. Let yourself be swept up with his words, with his intense affection, with the way he compliments how you look like an angel. Become his boyfriend two weeks later.

9. Your boyfriend will find out you’re talking to someone else. He’ll say you were influenced by the other guy. He will refuse to acknowledge that you would do it to him. Apologize for what happened, promise it will never happen again. But don’t admit that it was you who led the other guy on. Your boyfriend will accept it, and you’ll do your best to make up for what happened as a sign of accountability and remorse. But keep wondering each night what might have happened if you ended things between the two of you instead and ran away with the other guy.

11. Wake up one day having a very strong feeling in your gut. It will take over you and make you want to vomit. But you’ll have to do it, so you do. And the next thing you know, you’ll find yourself scrolling through your boyfriend’s phone as fast as you can, because something doesn’t feel right. And you’ll confirm your suspicions multiple times throughout different social media platforms, finding incriminating evidence over and over and over.

18. Move in together, in hopes of making your relationship stronger, more binding. Three weeks later, find your boyfriend’s Facebook open on your laptop. You won’t mean to see it, but a chat box will pop up with a message: I miss you. It can be his friend, you think. But you’ll feel something inside you shift. Open their entire conversation and find out he’s been cheating on you for two weeks now. Confront him, see him cry, and choose to forgive him. But only because you know that if you break up with him at that moment, you’ll find yourself chasing after him later on. But let yourself change, let yourself turn into someone else. Let your horns out. Not all at once, but slowly, until you’ve vomited his bile out of your system, until the ashes stop you from connecting with him again.

15. Your ex will still try to win you back after you found out he cheated on you. Still talk to him, but let your words be sharper, your heart more distant. But keep talking to him, because who else will want you?

19. Panic as your ex-boyfriend sends you a picture of his test kit, with two red lines glaring like fresh wounds. Keep thinking: I did that. I did that. I did that. Let your life flash before your eyes—not the past, but your future, being tied to your abuser for the rest of your life. Decide to cut him off completely.

20. Months later, find out from a friend that your ex-boyfriend lied to you about something very important. When you sent him an HIV test kit, the results he showed you were past the 20-minute waiting time. What you saw was a false positive. Curse him. And curse all the men like him. For the first time, monsters will have a face in your mind which is not yours.

21. Install countless mirrors in your small apartment room. Tell people it’s because “I get depressed whenever I don’t see my reflection.” Laugh with them as they buy into your lie. Push the truth away, that when you see your reflection just at the corner of your eye, you don’t feel so alone.

30. Feel really good about your body again, without having to make it swell or deflate to fit what’s desirable. Decide you’ve looked your best in forever, even with the ink marks on your skin, your slightly bulging gut, and your face that looks more peaceful than it has ever looked.

14. Sometimes, things won’t work out, even when you feel your best self. And that’s okay. Stand in front of the mirror and force yourself to stare at yourself. Compliment yourself, said a self-help article you saw online. Try to think of something good about yourself. Before you’re able to utter the first compliment, find yourself not recognizing your own reflection. Instead, you’ll develop a headache. Sleep it off.

25.Talk to someone again. But never let yourself fall the same way as countless times before. He will be sensible, cute, and supportive, but not enough for you to show your true form. “I won’t be in love with him,” tell your friends. “We’re just talking.” Eat your words.

12. You’ll find someone who will be so into you, it will be hard to believe. Slowly learn how to trust in love again as he buys you iced coffee on your first date, tucks you in each night as you squeeze together in your single bed, and spend your free time laughing at dumb memes or motivating each other to study. In one of your consultations with a professor, she’ll mention (off the record) how she noticed how the two of you sat on opposite corners of the class. Throughout the semester, the two of you will gradually sit on different chairs, closer and closer, until she’ll find you sitting next to each other before the semester ends. You won’t recognize the person she’s talking about, but you’ll be happy you appear that way.

13. One day, this someone will turn into a lover—not quite a boyfriend, but not one of those guys you used to date just because and forget about a few weeks later. You’ll realize this during that one time when he asks you to trust him and you do. He will paint your nails, clean your brows, and put makeup on you. And as you transform in front of him, you’ll see his eyes glisten, then his pupils will turn so dark, you’ll see yourself in them, completely different from what you’re used to seeing. But beautiful. “So beautiful,” he will say. For the first time, you’ll believe the words.

26. “I never thought this was even possible,” tell him. “Yeah, me too,” he says as he runs his fingers through your hair. Melt into his chest. In response, you’ll feel something in him harden. He will cover it up with a pillow. “Sorry,” he says, hiding his face with his free hand. Pull the pillow away and get on top of him. Look into his eyes. “Do you want to do it?” ask him. “Not until you’re ready,” he will reply. Notice how his pupils dilate, the black center spreading to the lighter brown flecks of his irises. He sees you.

17. Grow out your hair, longer than you’ve ever let it. Say it’s because of the pandemic. Not a lot of barbers are in service. But really, it’s because you like it whenever your boyfriend says you look beautiful with long hair. Believe him, believe the fantasy. Mold yourself in that image. Use your lipodystrophy to make yourself lose even more weight. Receive the pink flowers he gives you and drip their colors into your eyes.

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Gershom Mabaquiao is a queer writer of fiction and nonfiction. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts from the University of the Philippines Los Baños. His works have been published in The Unconventional Courier, Inquirer Young Blood, Tint Journal, Circles Magazine, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He lives in Manila with his partner and their dog, Zuko.