The Velveteen Woman

Joy Ladin

 

Adapted from Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press in the spring of 2012.

Editor’s Note: Those of you who have followed Parnassus in recent years will surely be familiar with the fine contributions of Jay Ladin, such as his essay-reviews on Heather McHugh and the medieval Andalusian poet Shmuel HaNagid. You may also have noticed that our last issue included both an essay-review (on Yona Walhch) and a poem by one Joy Ladin, and have wondered about the relationship between these two writers, their names separated only by a vowel. They are, in fact, the same person. We ourselves learned of the change after writing to Jay—as we still knew him—to tug his sleeve about the Wallach piece, which was overdue. He apologized for the delay by explaining that his life had been in an uproar. Not, however, for any garden-variety reason: The cause of his turmoil was that he’d decided, after forty-odd years of living as a man (and many of those as a husband and father), to become a woman, and to call himself Joy. “Bet you’ve never gotten an excuse like that before,” he—or rather she—added, with typical wry humor; indeed we hadn’t. She also mentioned that she’d been working on a memoir about her transition. We asked to see it, and found it so riveting that we asked whether we might publish selections from it. Joy agreed, and the result is the piece below, cobbled together from passages in the first part of her memoir. It ends in early 2007. Since then, Joy has begun not only living full-time as a woman but teaching as one, Stern College (at Yeshiva University) having agreed to let her do so after placing her on leave for a year.

Every day I say a blessing in Hebrew over my medication: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who has kept us, preserved us, and brought us to this time.” That blessing is traditionally said at the beginnings of holidays, on the eating of new kinds of fruit, at any joyous occasion when Jews want to heighten their gratitude by becoming mindful of the singularity of the moment. It is not to be said over daily events, and, though the Torah doesn’t specify, surely not on the taking of medication, let alone the sort I take: progesterone and estrogen, those hormones that help define and regulate normal female bodies. I don’t have a normal female body. Born without the capacity to produce more than trace amounts of female hormones, my body overproduces testosterone, masculinizing my face, bones, muscle, hair, and skin. Thanks to my medication, those effects are diminishing, and for the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble…me.

I never thought I’d see myself in the mirror. I never thought I’d hold the means to become myself, taste it dissolving under my tongue. Every day this medication brings me slowly closer to being the person I’ve always wished to become and known myself to be. And so for me, every day is a singular occasion, every dosage a blessing. At a stage in life—middle age—when many of us are facing the facts of mortality, I’m experiencing rebirth, or at least a second adolescence. This perhaps is only fair, since I spent so much of my life as a ghost, haunting a body that didn’t feel like mine. Rather than embodying my identity, my body erased me. Now, every day, my body and I move closer toward belonging to each other. This transformation is more than physical. As my body learns to metabolize and distribute fat according to female rather than male patterns, the sophistications accumulated over forty-five years, the blasé attitudes, the taken-for-granted mechanics of daily life, have fallen away. Consumed by the insecurities of adolescence, I’m shy, awkward, always verging on the inappropriate, a maelstrom of feeling and need, fear and excitement. I’ve watched these processes as a parent, but I never guessed that one day I’d be watching myself learn to walk and talk again, say hello to grownups, order in restaurants, shop for clothes, make friends. All this is new to me—or rather, has become new again. Going to work, riding a subway, making a business call: Each experience has become an adventure, uncomfortable, unpredictable, brimming with emotion and discovery.

***

By now, thanks to media coverage, both sensitive and exploitative, most of us have sat through some version of Transsexuality 101. There’s a general sense that transsexuals are stuck in the wrong bodies (though how many of us aren’t?), that transsexuality is a physical disorder rather than a sexual perversion or mental illness, and that transsexuals receive medical treatment to enable them to “pass,” though most of the attention focuses on genital surgery (known as “sex reassignment surgery”) rather than the slower, more subtle, but, in terms of living in a new gender role, much more important hormonal treatments that reshape our faces and bodies. Admittedly, things are getting better: If you compare Felicity Huffman’s nuanced portrayal of a transsexual in Transamerica to Chris Sarandon’s patently ridiculous one in Dog Day Afternoon—Sarandon’s lover robs a bank to pay for Sarandon’s sex reassignment surgery—you get a very rough idea of how far we’ve come as a culture. But there’s still very little understanding of the excruciating, extraordinary transition from one gender to another.

That transition began for me the moment I realized I could no longer live as a man. Before I’d seen a single doctor or taken a single pill, I entered what is known as “early transition,” which, for male-to-female transsexuals, involves a long, painful process of removing aspects of the body that scream “male” and an even longer, though usually less painful, process of growth and shrinkage that yields a form that at least whispers “female.” The big-ticket items in terms of money and agony are electrolysis, the follicle-by-follicle elimination of the thousands of hairs on the typical male face (and often other body parts); facial feminization surgery, in which bones are broken and skin rearranged; and the “tracheal shave,” a euphemism for having your throat cut open and your Adam’s apple sliced down to size—at the risk, alas, of permanent damage to your vocal cords. Far gentler—and cheaper—is the feminization effected by estrogen, which suppresses testosterone production and fosters a second, female puberty. Much of early transition consists of taking pills and waiting, playing a belated version of the proto-pubescent game of checking the mirror daily, or even hourly, for signs of breast development, hip growth, and so on.

At some point, this waiting game gives way to what’s known as “the real-life test”: the transition to full-time life as a woman. To qualify for sex reassignment surgery, a transsexual must live for one year full-time in her new gender. That means coming out to all friends and family members you plan to stay in touch with, and either revealing your transsexuality at a current job or getting a new job as a woman. If there is anything left that could fall apart in your life, this is when it will happen—at the time you are most emotionally, socially, and financially vulnerable. It’s also the time when many transsexuals feel their lives have finally begun.

Where does this deep-seated conviction, or delusion, or obsession, or compulsion, or rampant impulse toward self-destruction I’ve tried all these definitions on in the mirrored dressing room of the soul—come from? Like most aspects of the relation between the brain and the higher functions of selfhood, transsexuals’ gender identity remains a mystery, with little empirical evidence available. However, a few facts can tentatively be asserted. Twin research seems to rule out a genetic basis for transsexuality, and other sibling studies suggest that family dynamics aren’t the cause either. The failure of every known form of therapy, from psychoanalysis to meditation to Clockwork Orange-style “treatments” in which children are shocked to induce aversion to opposite gender behaviors, has led most researchers to conclude that transsexuality isn’t a psychological problem, that the mismatch between gender identity and body is rooted in the structure of the brain. One rather gruesome study of dead male-to-female transsexuals offers preliminary confirmation of this hypothesis: The transsexuals’ brains turned out to resemble those of what we in the trans world call “genetic females.” Oddly enough, the gender of the brain is determined not by DNA alone but by the interaction between our genes and our mothers’ hormones. Studies of fetal development have led some researchers to espouse what has become my favorite theory: that transsexuality is a result of fetuses being exposed to the wrong hormones, or failing to be exposed to the right ones, so that their brains develop characteristics incongruent with the sex of their bodies.

The social awkwardness of having a female identity in a male body (or vice versa) is bad enough, but unfortunately for transsexuals, brains constantly map bodies, relating our internal sense of identity to our physical forms. For a transsexual, the failure of that mapping process, the brain’s constant discovery that the body (and the life) it expects isn’t there, creates what’s known as “gender dysphoria.” For me, gender dysphoria means radical disorientation, the feeling that I’ve disappeared or was never there, nausea toward my body and often toward life itself. It means that in every relationship, the person talking to me isn’t really talking to me—someone who has never existed—but to a construct, a pretense, a mask with nothing coherent behind it.

But dysphoria also means that anything I do that expresses or affirms my femaleness has a healing effect, since it helps me materialize, however briefly, out of the haze of non-existence. Of course I can never really be a woman. I can approximate the secondary sexual characteristics of femaleness, and for a quarter of my annual salary I can have a vagina surgically constructed, but I’ll never menstruate, let alone conceive, bear, or nurse a child. Many of the experiences that define the lives of “genetic females” I can only glimpse through books, movies, or friends, or by raising my daughters. No matter how successful my transition, I’ll always have quotation marks and qualifiers around my gender—I’ll always be a “constructed female,” or a “transwoman.” But though I can never be a woman in the way most women are, I can be—and have been accepted as a woman, flirted with as a woman, and once, in a car repair shop, cheated as a woman.

One of the string of unhelpful therapists I had in my twenties asked me if I’d ever read the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit. I hadn’t. “It’s about a toy who desperately wants to become real,” she said. It was the only trans-relevant insight she offered in two years of weekly sessions, but I was unable to recognize it as such until, two decades later, I began to transition, and realized that I’m a velveteen woman.

It’s a truism that all identities are constructs, but most of us except for the insufferably postmodern—feel that whatever identities we construct are based on, reflect, and express our “true selves.” For transitioning transsexuals, the construction of identity—even in its crudest hair-plucking, makeup-smearing forms—is an effort to prove that our true selves exist, that they really are true. When I speak, walk, sit, stand, eat, gesture, get into or out of a car, even sleep, I constantly evaluate the authenticity of my actions: Are they convincing? Are they real? These supremely self-conscious efforts to “act like a woman” seem like the opposite of authenticity, proof positive that I’m not and can never be real. Even the criteria I use for judging the “authenticity” of my behavior reflect our culture’s warped definition of femininity. Thus, for me, the behaviors that are most self-affirming, that create the potential for relationships in which I feel most “real,” are also deeply destabilizing. How do you practice being the person you’ve always believed yourself to be? How do you become real? That question reaches to the most intimate recesses of my being—to the very voice in my head, the voice in which I talk to myself, narrate my life, pray. That voice has always been male, and it’s an hourly struggle to change it to what I feel it’s supposed to be. But if even the voice of my self-awareness doesn’t reflect my true self, what will it take, and how long, to become the real me?

For the socially disadvantaged, “passing” usually means passing oneself off as somebody one isn’t. For transsexuals, it means convincing others to take us for who we really are. There isn’t an inch of my body that bears out my sense of who I am; my every cell is inscribed with a Y chromosome that betrays my sense—is it physical? psychological? metaphysical?—of femaleness. When I notice that I’m sitting the wrong way, or that my voice is too low, or that my congenital clumsiness has blown any pretension to feminine “grace,” it shakes me to the core. Like most transsexuals, I live in terror of being “clocked” or “read”—that is, perceived as a man dressing as a woman rather than as an actual woman. (In Transamerica, Bree—Huffman’s character—is reduced to tears and a payphone call to her therapist after being clocked in a diner by a child.) Being clocked can lead to public humiliation, arrest, firing, and physical assault. But what makes it, for me, a recurring nightmare isn’t so much the threat of repercussions as the way it shakes my self-image, my faith in the viability of my own existence.

I still haven’t read The Velveteen Rabbit, so I don’t know what happens to toys that want to become real. But I do know that among male-to-female transsexuals, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not over six feet tall, I don’t have enormous feet or huge bones or linebacker shoulders, my face doesn’t have Neanderthal-style occipital lobes—most of my body, as long as it’s well-covered, approximates female norms. While many transsexuals will always be betrayed by their bodies, I’m usually able to pass.

Once, while I was shooting the breeze with two other transwomen, both much further along in transition, the subject of recreational childhood self-mutilation came up—mutilation not for self-transformation but simply because feeling disconnected from your body means being disconnected from pain. I’d never realized other people did this kind of thing, and shyly mentioned hurling myself face first into pricker bushes for the amusement of neighborhood kids. R., one of the transwomen across from me, laughingly reminisced about doing stunts that she knew risked broken bones or death. J., a six-foot-four martial arts teacher and blacksmith with an extraordinary complexion and a lovely triangular face, held out her open palms. “I used to nail them to the ground,” she said. We could see the scars.

***

As long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to will my cells into a shape that I (and others) would recognize as female. Now that I’ve read the literature, my bizarre childhood efforts at achieving what doctors term “feminization” seem as stylized as bird calls. I’ve read innumerable accounts of outwardly male children engaging in what I thought were my personal pastimes: attempting to stuff their genitalia back into their bodies or yank them off, holding their breath until God turns them into girls, and so on.

Mostly, though, I spent my childhood trying to be what people expected me to be. I taught myself to be nice rather than good, accommodating rather than honest, male rather than female. In preschool, I literally ran after girls, desperate to find a way to join them, but when they giggled and screeched and ran away, claiming I was trying to kiss them, I pretended they were right—which elicited tolerant nods from the adults. By kindergarten I’d taught myself to turn away whenever I glimpsed anything—a doll, a dress, girls laughing with each other—that might crack the façade of maleness. By third grade my discipline was absolute: I’d learned, by means of a sort of self-imposed hysterical blindness, to notice nothing of the girl-world that was the constant object of my longings. I devoted myself to passing as a boy. Of course I was a strange boy, but I found ways to get by. In fifth grade, I called myself a pacifist so I wouldn’t have to fight, and got beaten up every day by a gang of kids who wanted to see if I’d stay a pacifist even when they were pummeling me. I figured out non-athletic ways to participate in team games being an announcer was my favorite—but as I got older I found that disconnection from the body is a plus in contact sports, since I didn’t care how much things hurt.

One day when I was eight, I noticed a women’s magazine—Good Housekeeping, I think—on my mother’s night table. Normally I averted my eyes from such things. But we transsexuals have a sixth sense for anything that might disentomb our buried selves, and something told me to pick up the magazine, to thumb through endless ads for tampons and bras until I reached the cover story: a mother’s account of coming to terms with the metamorphosis of her son into her daughter. It was, no doubt, a touching saga of pain and reconciliation, but what riveted me was the mere information—I was amazed to learn that others like me existed, and that there’s a name for us. This woman’s child had felt what I felt, and had found a way to do what I thought impossible: to become herself. I read surreptitiously, as fast as I could, heart pounding, terrified I’d be discovered by my parents. By the time I reached the end and slammed the magazine—had anyone heard?—back on my mother’s night table, I knew who I was and what I had to do: I was a transsexual, and there were hormones I’d take and an operation I’d undergo.

Though I was quite sure my mother wouldn’t embrace me like the woman in the story, I tried again and again to screw up the courage to explain to my parents, to ask them to help me become myself. But after days of silence turned into months, and months into years, I gave up.

Adolescence began to deform me. I dressed in the dark and avoided mirrors like a vampire, and for the same reason—I wasn’t there in the reflection. My hair grew wild in all directions—I couldn’t bear to cut it, like a boy, and I couldn’t permit myself to arrange it, like a girl. I refused to show any concern for my body, even to the point of not wearing a coat during the upstate New York winter; my body was a no man’s land, like those empty lots between buildings that fill up with garbage and snow. Though I never became an addict, I did more than the average amount of drugs. Hallucinogens were my favorites, because they dispelled the pain and fear that were always with me. Once, tripping on acid, my body relaxed into the forbidden postures that for me meant female, and for the first time I could remember I felt at home in myself. Of course I’d occasionally cross-dressed as a child—I’d go into the attic and try on clothes that my sister, three years my junior, had outgrown, jamming my flesh into the too-small garments. But my acid-inspired moment was different: I suddenly, briefly experienced myself as the girl I was beneath the skin that distorted and denied me.

The moment passed, and I lost myself again. Everyone is lonely, many of us achingly so, but I think there’s a special kind of loneliness for transsexuals. Strip away your skin and bone, the distinctive shiver of your vocal cords, the way you sit and smile and walk, every gesture, everything that expresses who you are. What you have left is a purely theoretical sliver of self-reference with no basis in flesh, no ability to act, no history to define it, that never had a birthday, never could be kissed, that existed wholly in the negative. But how could non-existence be so painful? How could absolute loneliness translate so directly into fear of being discovered? I still don’t know, but I do know that people learn to live with these conditions, as a kind of unvarying internal weather.

Sometimes the need to exist, to become a self like other selves, with a life and a body to live it, grew so overwhelming that I literally started clawing at my flesh, trying to rip it open, to get at the girl within. Some transkids follow such feelings all the way to knives. I just took more drugs, and told myself I was transcending my flesh.

All things considered, I was surprisingly functional. I went to college—a former women’s college (the choice was not accidental) where, ironically, my maleness gave me an affirmative-action edge in terms of admissions and financial aid. During orientation I met my future wife. We arranged for adjoining rooms as sophomores, and the next year began living together. One afternoon, after making love, I told her what I was. I didn’t know how to explain myself, and she responded with disbelief, bemusement, and indifference. But even though neither of us knew what to make of my condition, it didn’t go away. While we were moving into our first real apartment together, I found myself in the midst of the worst bout of gender dysphoria I’d ever experienced. I started shaving my legs, talked constantly about wanting to be a woman, and tried therapy with a transsexual psychiatrist who, unfortunately for both of us, was mentally ill. (In our second session, she offered to strip to show me how good a trans body could look.) My partner—we didn’t get married until after graduation—made it clear that she could accept my transsexual feelings, but not any outward expression of them. And so began a pattern that fitfully recurred throughout our twenties: I’d be consumed by dysphoria, seek professional help, and be confronted by my wife with a choice between being me and being loved. It was a horrible choice, but not a hard one, and with practice it got easier—almost as automatic as averting my eyes from girlthings as a child. I didn’t know what life as a woman would be like, but I knew I couldn’t bear to lose my wife’s love.

The last of this series of gender crises took place in the midst of another crisis: our make-or-break arguments about having a baby. I’d been against it for years. In addition to the usual male objections—we don’t have the money (we didn’t), the space (we didn’t), and so on—I had my own unspeakable reasons. I knew my wife’s pregnancy would confront me with gender realities I was desperate to avoid. Playing the male role in the drama of reproduction would seal my non-existence, make my capitulation to biology official. I was bitter that my wife wanted me to fulfill her life’s desire when she had denied me mine; overwhelmed by jealousy that it wouldn’t be my body swelling, giving birth, nursing; and afraid of passing my anguish on to our child. My wife and I fought, blamed each other, contemplated splitting up, just like a normal heterosexual couple about to take the plunge. But unlike your average male reproductive coward, I wasn’t only expressing my fears of having children but defending the possibility of becoming a woman.

One night we hosted a party for a friend who was dying of AIDS. He wasn’t strong enough to return to his home across the bay, so we put him up for the night. Sound carried in our apartment, and we could hear his muffled groans and labored breathing as we lay in the dark, talking over the evening, which had gone well. The rhythm of our pillowed intimacy merged with the harsher rhythm of his failing respiration. Simultaneously, as though by pre-arranged agreement, we turned from post-party chit-chat to the most serious talking we’d ever done. Life, we agreed, was what was important. Nothing else mattered. Not careers, not money, not the disappointments that always seemed to dog us. A truth broke through my jealousy, rage, and confusion: Our children needed to be born. As we made love to the rasp of our dying friend’s breath—slow love, sweet love, love we knew was intended to summon back into the world the life that was leaking out of him—I decided that my gender problems would be mine alone; no matter what I was going through, no one, I resolved, would ever know.

Over the next decade and a half, I tried to make good on my promise. I brought every technique of repression and suppression I could think of to bear on my own psyche. I ignored and ridiculed my dysphoria, told myself how ugly and clumsy and incapable a woman I would be. When the internet arrived, I cruised it late into the night, compulsively searching for stories of transformation through which I could live vicariously. I became the kind of male who haunts the outskirts of women’s lives. My office-mates complained freely to me about periods, boyfriends, and husbands. I couldn’t respond in kind, of course, but I listened with what they seemed to take as empathy, desperate for every scrap of the life I yearned for.

When ultrasound revealed that our second child was a girl, I decided that she would have the life I’d always wanted. A girl half made of me was coming into the world, and I told myself that would be enough. Yet when my wife went into labor—it was almost midnight—there I was, cruising the web, torturing myself with transformation fantasies. Slowly, reluctantly, I acknowledged that my regimen of self-abuse and self-indulgence wasn’t working. But the alternative remained unthinkable, until my gender dysphoria abruptly changed from a periodic problem into a constant crisis. My brain rejected my body, as though it were an incompatible transplanted organ. I was constantly nauseated, suffered diarrhea no matter what I ate (I lost thirty pounds in a matter of weeks), woke constantly during the night, and loathed the very feel of my skin.

As luck would have it, my illness peaked at the beginning of a much-needed sabbatical year. We’d recently moved into the first house we’d ever owned, and I was looking forward to a year of writing, parenting, and renewing a marriage frayed by years of commuting to a job two states away. It wasn’t to be. Any health crisis puts a tremendous strain on a relationship. Mine erased twenty-plus years of marriage. “Transsexuality,” my therapist told me, “is one of the two or three hardest things for a spouse to cope with in a partner. Right below child molestation.” Well, at least I was in good company.

The romantic partnerships of male-to-female transsexuals rarely survive transition. (Those of female-to-male transsexuals seem to fare better.) For obvious reasons, the number of heterosexual women who want their partners to become female is vanishingly small. Though I wanted my marriage to be one of the blessed exceptions, I knew it was unlikely—I doubt I’d stick around if my wife decided to become a man. For my wife, as for many partners of transsexuals, my transition represented the ultimate betrayal and rejection, a statement that I’d rather deform a perfectly good male body and face social ostracization than spend my life with her; she saw me as choosing self-mutilation over her, over the life we’d painstakingly built up, over the well-being of our children. And her feelings were compounded by isolation. There isn’t much support for transsexuals, and almost none for transsexuals’ partners. The literature, treatment protocols, and support systems, such as they are, focus on transsexuals’ needs and traumas. When partners are addressed at all, it tends to be in terms of how they can and should support the transition process. Non-supportive partners are portrayed as problems to be coped with rather than suffering individuals in their own right.

For myself, meanwhile, I saw no way out, and started planning my suicide. But killing yourself for the sake of your family is more complicated than it sounds. I wouldn’t be doing my family any favors by leaving them destitute, so I took out an additional life insurance policy. There was only one catch: The policy had a two-year no-suicide clause. If I killed myself too soon, my family wouldn’t get a cent.

I started counting down the weeks.

I shared my countdown with Annie, the first friend I came out to. She was living in Israel at the time. Though she’d never heard of transsexuality, she realized she was the thread by which I was hanging. She e-mailed me constantly, spoke to me daily on the phone, drove herself to the edge of a nervous breakdown in an effort to keep me going. As an Orthodox Jewish woman soon to be the mother of twins, she believed that family is a sacred trust, a visible manifestation of divine love. I assumed that she, of all people, would understand when I told her I needed to the for the sake of my family, to spare them the agony that would result from my expressing my true self. But as I explained, calmly, with inescapable logic, why I had to the rather than transition, she said words I’ll never forget: “People do this.” “People”—as though I were a person; “do”—as though becoming myself were something that could be done; “this”—as though she felt no disgust, no repulsion, no need to distance herself from what I was or what I needed to do.

Annie suggested—at the time it seemed like madness—that I find a therapist. In my first session, I begged my therapist to help me save my family. By the end of summer I was begging her to tell me how to reduce the intensity of the dysphoria, to slow down the process that was unmaking me from the inside out. “I feel like I’m dying,” I told her. “I feel life pouring out of me.” It was true. I’d lie immobilized, curled in a fetal ball around an invisible wound from which vitality seemed to be spilling like blood. “You are dying,” she said. “Your male persona is dying, as your new self is being born.” That should have sounded hopeful, but it didn’t.

My wife begged me to stop dying, to take pity on the four lives hers and those of the children—I was destroying. “How can you choose this mental illness over us?” she asked again and again. “I’m not choosing,” I repeated stupidly, as life poured out of me. To her, I was sacrificing our family for a pantyhosed version of a typical male midlife crisis, abdicating relationships and responsibilities to roar off on the Harley-Davidson of transsexuality toward a fluffy pink Shangri-La of self-centered gratification. We agreed on only one thing: The children mustn’t know. I tried to behave normally no matter how sick I felt. She tried to behave normally no matter how sick I made her. I played with the kids, cooked and cleaned, laid in stones for a patio area, mowed the lawn. I woke up early and stayed up late to work on the books that were supposed to be the focus of my sabbatical year. It doesn’t matter how I feel, I kept telling myself, praying that it—that I—would soon be over, one way or another.

There we were, my wife and I, clinging side by side to the crumbling edge of the transsexual precipice. “If you loved us, you wouldn’t destroy our lives.” “If you loved me, you wouldn’t make me choose between being myself and being loved.” “Our lives will end if you do this.” “My life will end if I don’t.”

One night, after the kids were asleep, I went down into the basement and committed my first visible act of becoming. It was fall. The basement was dark, cold, and cluttered—the perfect birth canal for a life that felt like pure loss. This is it, I told myself. I turned on the electric razor. Moments later, the beard and mustache that had blurred my face since adolescence were gone. The cheeks and lip beneath were pallid, unhealthy, the face in the mirror unfamiliar and disappointingly male. Some part of me had imagined that beneath my sparse beard a woman’s face was lurking—the face of the woman who, as in a fairy tale, would blaze forth once released from the curse that had smothered her in fur.

The man in the mirror looked lost and naked. He kept touching the strange smooth curve of his cheeks. Then, abruptly, he turned off the light and went back upstairs. It was done; something was over, someone was gone, but no one, it seemed, had taken his place.

“What’s in those?” my friend asks, her eyes swiveling toward me and then back to the road. “Birdseed,” I answer. “Birdseed in pantyhose.” We’re talking about my breasts. For a transgirl on a budget $0, in my case—birdseed in pantyhose is probably the best option for low-maintenance, relatively authentic-looking breasts. Hormone therapy won’t start in earnest till next month, and no one knows how long it will take before my body starts changing—or, for that matter, if it ever will change much at all. The two small bags are in the palm of my hand. Unlike most women, I can have breasts as large or small as I like, but I want to be realistic: The effects of estrogen on a middle-aged male body aren’t usually very dramatic. I could have different-sized breasts every day, if I chose. Somehow this is not a comfort to me.

We’re in my friend’s car, starting our weekly commute from our homes in western Massachusetts to our jobs in New York City. My hours in this car are among the few that I can dress as myself each week, and my need to materialize before my own eyes has become so great that I willingly endure the humiliation of constructing my femininity in front of her. Not that she makes me feel bad about it; she keeps her eyes on the road. My transformation is brief, awkward, and unsatisfying. At this point there isn’t much about me that looks female—I’m hairy, muscular, with short messy hair. Though clean-shaven, my face is always shadowy with stubble, and my body hasn’t been visibly changed by five months of progesterone treatments. My entire female identity can be—and is—stuffed in my computer bag. I take off the sweater that concealed my blouse from my family and clip on my earrings, then put on a cheap watch I bought in San Francisco when I first went out as a woman.

Unlike most people, I remember the exact moment I first saw the light of day. I was at a literature conference, and had a hotel room to myself. The moment I woke up, I began preparing myself to go out. This was the day I’d waited for all my life, and now that it had come, time had slowed to a green velour crawl. I found myself ironing my hand-me-down linen jacket in nothing but my panties. I started to put on my makeup when I realized that I should get my sweater on first. Slowly, slowly, the foundation evened my stubbly complexion to a mask-like beige. I blushed my cheeks uncertainly, trying to remember the proper relation between color and bone, and then the theory of eye shadow—does the medium tone or the light tone go on the lid? I was sure that perfect eye makeup was the only thing standing between me and immediate detection as an imposter. I straightened my skirt, brushed and rebrushed my hair. I couldn’t stop staring at the mirror. My reflection kept shifting, slipping from male to female, horrifying to ordinary. Every now and then I just looked tired and old. Sometimes I seemed to be smiling.

It took a long time to open the door and step out into the world. There was a woman outside, with a cart of cleaning supplies. I smiled nervously at her and fluttered to the elevator in shoes that had already begun to torment my feet. The lobby was crowded and dark, which was exactly the way I wanted it. I excused my way through tourists clotting the hotel entrance and stepped onto the pavement of a new world. It was a clear, bright San Francisco day, the sky a depthless, non-committal blue. I’d done it. I was out. I was free. I felt happier than I’d ever imagined, and calmer too. I felt as though mummifying bandages had been cut away, leaving my skin, vulnerable but grateful, exposed to the unfamiliar air. It wasn’t a dream after an hour of walking, my shoes hurt so much I thought I’d have to crawl back to the hotel—but something had finally come true.

That was only a few weeks before this ride, but it feels like years have gone by. Not that being myself has lost its luster—far from it. But since the moment the bandages fell away, I’ve learned that I’ll have to keep wrapping them back around me. In my pre-transition fantasies, metamorphosis was a one-time, permanent affair. I never imagined this kind of back-and-forth existence.

I apply foundation over my five-o’clock shadow, add powder to set it, and slowly—the car keeps bouncing—outline my lips in red. No eye makeup this time. I’ll be wiping my face off in a couple of hours, when we arrive. Now it’s time to put on my breasts. I slip one birdseed bag into each cup of my sports bra, then adjust them according to my rather hazy notions of how breasts should hang. Not that it matters: It’s dark, and my friend’s eyes are glued to the road rather than my chest.

The moment I finish putting on my makeup, I feel better. I exist in a way I didn’t a moment before. When my friend glances at me, despite my intense self-consciousness, I feel she’s seeing something, someone, who looks like me. Not very much like me, perhaps. A sketch, a rough draft, a work-in-progress. But unlike the male façade that has always been taken for me, this blurred attempt at womanhood reflects the person I feel myself to be.

As I sit in the car, I find myself trying to decide whether to cross my legs despite the cramped space. My leg-crossing and -uncrossing (I must have done it five times in the past five minutes) is a symptom of the kind of self-conscious construction of identity most girls go through during adolescence. After a lifetime of avoiding giving myself away, I’m painstakingly practicing riffs your average girl has down pat by her late teens: the tones of voice, gestures, body language, clothing styles, and so on that make up an idiom of femininity. Such idioms are individualized, but not individual, composed of elements culled from social mores, magazine ads, family traditions, ancient archetypes, and TV reruns. In my case, I’m following tips in first-person accounts of M-to-F transition (according to one, the more you swing your arms when you walk, the more feminine you’ll seem—as long as your elbows stay close to your body), and am constantly trying to memorize real-life examples of femininity to add to my behavioral vocabulary. I’ve already discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that some women’s gender expression makes me drool with envy while others’ leaves me cold. It turns out that I don’t want to be just any woman, I want to be me, and that means trying out a variety of behaviors until I develop the idiom that best incarnates my inchoate femininity.

One of my students, on hearing that I was writing poems that incorporate passages from CosmoGirl, told me her favorite women’s-magazine headline: “Five Hundred Unique Ways to Express the Real You.” To her, this was comic. But my study of women’s magazines suggests that many women feel that femininity is a tricky business, one requiring skills and artifices they’ll never fully master. Clothing, hair style, relationships, sexual techniques, cooking, parenting, body weight and shape—according to the magazines, women should worry about their performance in all these areas, and they do. For my genetic female friends, such messages are demeaning, but I find them hopeful, even uplifting. If being a woman is something that every woman strives toward without ever quite getting there, well, maybe I can be one after all.

No matter how much I want to—and it would be hard to overstate how much I want to—I can’t ask my friend how I look. The problem with going through adolescence in my forties is that none of my friends is going through it with me. Grown women have little interest in talking about, say, breast development (or lack thereof); they either got over or learned to live with such insecurities decades ago.

“Is my voice OK?” I ask.

“Your voice is fine. You sound the way you always sound when you’re you.”

It isn’t much in the way of self-image-nourishing feedback, but I know it’s all I’m going to get, and so I hermeneutically milk it for all it’s worth. Was that boredom in her voice? Irritation? Perhaps the slight edge that signals someone trying to politely conceal a negative opinion? Is her boredom a testament to my mastery of the difficult (for those with male voice boxes and vocal habits) art of speaking like a woman? Or, since I work daily on my voice, is “You sound the way you always sound” a criticism, a chastening erasure of the idea that I’m making progress? What good are those voice exercises, if they don’t produce noticeable improvement?

Transitioning is like playing chess against yourself. You constantly second-guess your own moves. You have no choice: Your life depends on recognizing the weaknesses in your own presentation. “How do you know you pass?” my wife sometimes asks. It’s a fair question. Passing can be difficult, but the theory is simple. Whenever we see a human being, we instantly, and usually unconsciously, assess their gender according to culturally-defined checklists for male and female appearance. Some items on the checklist, like breasts or a beard, are more or less definitive. Others strongly predispose our judgment one way or the other, like being tall, or wearing certain colors or fabrics. Once we read a person as male or female, we usually won’t change that judgment unless confronted by strong counter-evidence.

I discovered the staying power of gender judgments when a friend who knows I’m trans but had never seen me as a woman twice failed to recognize me at close range, unconsciously discounting the possibility that someone she read as a woman might be me. People who have only known me as a male have, over the past couple of years, been confronted with more and more feminine indicators, but none, to my knowledge, has questioned the stability of my gender, though strangers sometimes “Ma’am” me when I’m dressed as a man.

Gender is part of the process of constant negotiation through which our social identities are established and maintained. For most people, the gender aspect of this negotiation is largely unconscious. For transsexuals, nothing about gender is unconscious. At this point in transition, when my womanhood fits in a bag, I’m excruciatingly aware that my identity is a function of others’ responses to my presentation. When others accept me as a woman, I become a woman. When I’m on my own, my gender—and thus my sense of existence or non-existence—depends on how I interpret the sphinx-like gaze of strangers.

To control those gazes, trans people make use of gender-determination algorithms, minimizing features that clash with our gender of choice and emphasizing those that reinforce it. But no matter how expert we become at this game—and when your life depends on something, you get very good very fast—we can’t conduct follow-up surveys. (“Excuse me, do you think you’re talking to a man, a woman, or a man dressed as a woman?”) Unless someone addresses me with a female honorific like “Miss” or “Ma’am,” most of what I take as proof of having passed in a given situation consists of what the other person didn’t do. People who don’t stare, smirk, jeer, scream, or beat me up when I enter a ladies’ room have presumably accepted me as female. I’ve failed to be stared at, smirked at, jeered at, screamed at, or beaten up not just in New York and San Francisco but in Philadelphia, in Waikiki (albeit not in swimwear), in Westchester strip malls, at rest stops in Connecticut, and on Peter Pan buses. Dressed as a woman, I’ve ordered in restaurants, given poetry readings, attended Friday night worship services, paid parking garage attendants, asked policemen for directions, made small talk with cab drivers, landed a cat-sitting job, and attracted the amorous attentions of a mentally deficient gentleman. I’ve been ma’am-ed by telemarketers, hotel clerks, auto repairmen, and homeless men and women, to name only a few of my inadvertent authenticators. I’ve chatted woman-to-woman with strangers on lines and in restrooms, and had a long subway conversation about prenatal nutrition with a very pregnant Texan lady—”Those baby clothes are so cu-ute,” I cooed, or hope I cooed. I’ve changed from male to female on streets, in cars, in the bathroom of a moving bus. In one calendar day, I shifted between male and female five times without raising a single eyebrow on either side of the gender divide.

Only once, to the best of my knowledge, have I been read as anything other than female. Oddly enough, it happened in the dark, at a distance, and in tolerant Greenwich Village, after an evening spent in a long skirt and sweater at the Village Temple. There, under the blazing lights of Reform Judaism, among people who saw me walk and heard me sing and had every opportunity to inspect my makeup, no one paid me the slightest attention. But as I neared the apartment where I was staying, a man who seemed to be drunk but was clearly a keen observer of human nature called out from twenty feet behind me, “Miss? Excuse me—are you a man or a woman? Come back, honey, it doesn’t matter to me…” It matters to me, I thought, swallowing a sob. I was shaken for days.

There’s only one gaze under which I regularly fail to pass, and that’s my own. I have no fixed self-image; I look different, radically different, every time I look in the mirror: sometimes old, sometimes young, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes familiar, sometimes like an utter stranger. During one identity meltdown, I called a friend and begged her to come to my office to tell me whether I looked passably male. She found me sobbing behind a locked door. I’d become so lost on the gender spectrum that I couldn’t tell anymore which side of the line I was on. “I know you will have complicated feelings about this,” she said gently, “but you do look like a man.”

Despite my anxieties, once I’m dressed I start to relax in the cramped dark safety of my friend’s car. We talk for the next three hours without pause, laughing, sometimes crying, exchanging intimacies—since I’ve come out to her, there are few topics beyond the pale. This is another, deeper form of becoming. Though I tried to be the best version of a man I could manage, the fact that I never felt I was being me always gave me an out, a moral escape clause, a way of deferring ultimate judgment on my actions. To the extent that I now exist, that loophole has closed: It’s time to be the best woman, the best person, I can be. These conversations are the proving ground for this new self. How open, honest, compassionate, generous, and above all present will I be? Now that the veil has been ripped away, who exactly is the person that I want everyone to see? Someone who jokes less and laughs more, who talks with hair-raising directness, who seems incapable of social distance. Someone grateful, vulnerable, desperate, lonely, much too old yet barely born.

At this rate of intimacies per hour, the trip from Massachusetts to New York goes by quickly. But now comes the hard part: I must unmake the self I’ve just cobbled together. While my friend idles at the curb and keeps talking, deliberately, about other things, I remove my earrings and watch, then wipe ruthlessly at my makeup until my face comes off. My breasts are the last to go. I hesitate a little before my painless ten-second mastectomy, not because I’m enamored of the feel of birdseed in nylon against my chest, but because, when I look down, the swell of my chest finally corresponds to my brain’s map of me. Neither my brain nor my body is really fooled by this artifice, but removing the little bags of birdseed still feels like an act of self-mutilation. My deflated blouse looks like the aftermath of. . .well, being.

When I pull my baggy fleece over my head and look in the mirror, the face I see is that of the man I never really recognize. He looks hard, and sad, and angry. “I’m finished,” I tell my friend. My voice has flattened into male monotone again. I’m “doing drab,” as it’s known in the M-to-F world: the masculine, joie de vivre-destroying yang to the liberating yin of drag. I don’t do drag, so I call it erasing myself, or, in lighter moments, turning back into a pumpkin. The ball is over, midnight has struck, and as the magic fades, it turns out I wasn’t Cinderella at all. I was the coach she rode in on.

I hoist my enormous duffel over one shoulder, the computer bag in which I carry the accessories I call my self over the other, and thank my friend as best I can, given the tears that are throttling my already overburdened voice. We both know there’s nothing she can do for me. We won’t speak again for three days, till our return trip. For the rest of today, I’ll teach as a man, then hurry downtown to unisex bathrooms from which I’ll emerge as my current approximation of womanhood, then wander the streets trying to gauge whether the lack of interest I arouse is indeed a sign of the consolidation of my identity. I’ll feel lonely and homeless for a while, then return to the hostel I stay in when teaching in New York and unmake myself again. If it’s one of the bad nights, I’ll double over in the shower, pounding the flesh that’s mine but isn’t me. If it’s one of the worst nights—these are ever more frequent—I’ll be unable to stop sobbing and fantasizing about what those silly pink razors women use could do in terms of slicing skin.

No razors tonight, but it takes a long time to lift myself off the floor and towel myself dry, and longer still to get my hands to stop shaking long enough to unlock the door of my room. I stretch out stiffly in the dark, listening to the breathing of men on either side of me, my fists clenched and my nails, which have gotten quite long, digging into my palms in a way I wish would cause pain, realizing can it be called realization, when it happens so often?—that I’m impossible, that there’s no “I.”

Sometimes I miss the numbness of those peaceful decades of nonexistence, the sad but serene state of dissociation from which I could wistfully, benevolently gaze at the lives of the people—the real people around me. Sometimes my friends ask me whether I’m making a mistake. I’m not going back, I tell them, anger—toward what? toward whom?—blazing homicidally within me. I’ll die first, I tell them. Meaning: I’ll kill this flesh I’m stuck in before I go back to pretending it’s me.

***

So there I was, howling on hands and knees on the terracotta tiles of my globetrotting friend’s kitchen floor, wondering how hard it would be to unlock the floor-to-ceiling windows of her ninth-story penthouse. I lifted my head from the tile on which I’d been banging it and brushed enough tears from my eyes to see the little iron railing outside the windows. A balcony. That meant the windows were designed to be opened. I could open them and throw myself out. Nine stories should be enough.

I could feel myself falling already. I’d waited so long to let go.

I never much wanted to live. No, that’s not quite right. I never wanted to live as the male I was, and I never wanted the male I was to live. As a child, I was always hoping aches and illnesses would blossom into something terminal. Alongside the usual boyhood longing for bicycles and my somewhat less usual longing for Barbies, I yearned, in a childish way, for death. Death, I thought, would solve all my problems. Sometimes it seemed to be coming close. A bad reaction to a new measles vaccine landed me in the hospital for a few feverish weeks. Laying the ground for what I hoped would be a heroic demise, I joked through every pill and poke and needle jab—and, to my disappointment, got better. Stomach aches, sore throats, fatigue—they were all so fleeting, it was hard to even hope for tragedy. Once I passed out at a county fair, but it turned out to be mere dehydration. When I was nine or ten, though, things looked up. I began to suffer from headaches so severe I had to leave school early most afternoons. I’d get dizzy, my head would throb, the blackboard would pulse suddenly closer and just as suddenly slide away.

Nowadays I’d ascribe such symptoms to gender dysphoria, but I don’t remember thinking about gender at the time. Back then, my heart quickened at the thought that life was becoming unlivable. My hopes for a tragically early exit received a boost when my pediatrician referred me for an electro-encephalogram—which meant, I decided, that I might have a brain tumor. Of all the childhood deaths I’d heard of, that seemed the most fitting, because death would grow out of the same tissue from which the strangely twisted person I was had been formed. As they hooked the contacts up to my skull, I prepared myself for the wonderfully ghastly news. The technician, I imagined, looked worried; no doubt he could tell I had a tumor just from the shape of my skull. The pens tracing the electrical activity in my brain scratched and whispered like the fingertips of death.

The electro-encephalogram was completely normal.

Only twice did I try to take matters into my own hands. The first time I was six. I was trailing a gang of older kids who lived on my block. We ran through yards and houses, starting and stopping according to rules I couldn’t fathom. The frantic parade paused in someone’s mother’s laundry room. A bottle of Clorox sat on a washing machine. “Would you die if you drank that?” I asked the oldest kid. “Sure,” he said, and, following a signal I hadn’t noticed, raced off with the others. I was alone. I stretched up on tiptoes toward the Clorox bottle and unscrewed the cap. The smell was awful. That startled me. How could death smell so bad? I hesitated for a moment, then put the bottle to my lips. A sour, stinging taste flooded my mouth. Tb my shame, I put the bottle down.

My other attempt was equally revealing of my terminal lack of the courage that enabled children I heard about on the news to hang or shoot or stab themselves. It was a pitch-black, snowy afternoon. I came home from school, put on my coat and gloves, and headed out among the drifts. I didn’t know where I was going at first, and then I did. I lay down in a hollow between drifts and tried to relax. I’d decided to lie there until I fell asleep and froze to death. It seemed easy enough. I was certainly tired. But it takes a long time to freeze to death in a coat and boots and gloves. I hadn’t realized how uncomfortable, how boring dying would be. How lonely when no one came for me.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I was no pint-sized Lady Lazarus, practicing suicide as a form of self-expression. For most of my childhood, I was mildly, not violently and certainly not effectively, inclined to die. The idea of dying excited me; the idea of living didn’t.

As a teenager, apart from the occasional here-I-am-crossing-abridge-maybe-I-should-jump sort of impulse, I rarely thought about suicide. By the time I got to college, my suicidal longings had subsided into a nagging feeling of failure—I’d neglected to do something important. The urge to kill myself surfaced most frequently in the temper tantrums with which I responded to anyone pointing out I was less than perfect. It never occurred to me that there might be anything wrong with responding to criticism—almost always well-founded—by saying to myself, and occasionally to my criticizer, “If that’s true about me, I really just need to die.” Feeling suicidal came more naturally than taking responsibility for my behavior. Fortunately for both of us, my future wife had no patience for any of this—which, I realized years later, was one of the qualities that drew me to her. She wasn’t taken in by me—which meant that I couldn’t continue to be taken in by myself. As long as I was with her, I wouldn’t kill myself simply because dying was easier than acting like a grownup. If I was going to kill myself, I wanted to do so heroically, to relieve the pain of others and not just escape my own.

There’s no direct connection between transsexuality and suicide. You don’t have to be suicidal to be a transsexual, and you certainly don’t have to be trans to want to kill yourself. But as my friend R. warned me, transition is like filleting yourself: As you turn your former self inside out, making visible to the world your most deeply guarded secrets, every contradiction and vulnerability is exposed. I knew that my longing to die was related to my longing to escape my male body, so it shouldn’t have surprised me that as my fantasies of transformation crystallized into the need to transition, I found it almost impossible to separate my craving for life from my craving for death. The closer I got to life, to becoming a person who could feel alive, the closer I came to death. I thought about dying for weeks at a time, nearly as often as I thought about gender. Like some mangy old teddy bear, the craving to die kept me company, whispering to me in the dark when no one else was there.

My therapist urged me to take anti-depressants, but those I tried exacerbated rather than relieved my suicidal impulses. One conjured a voice in my head that suggested, with inarguable logic, that I kill myself as soon as possible to spare myself and others the tedium of my existence. Another made every step, every breath, every sight and sound feel leaden, as though life had become a kind of gravity dragging me down toward death. A third kept me awake all night with an almost irresistible urge to cut myself open. I began to find the search for an anti-depressant more depressing than being suicidal.

But as weeks of longing for death stretched into months, I reached a sort of détente, perhaps even an equilibrium. No matter how much I wanted to die, I knew that, for the time being, I would not make a conscious decision to end my life. That was depressing. Suicide was the closest thing I had to hope, my guarantee that no matter how much my existence hurt me or my family, I could always pull the plug. But though I’d renounced what you might call rationality-assisted suicide, I still clung to the prospect that I might, on the spur of some particularly excruciating moment, irrationally take my life.

And now that moment seemed to have arrived. There I was on my friend’s floor, with the clear blue sky of death a few yards away. The sounds coming out of me were neither male nor female; they weren’t even human, but long, trailing animal howls that ended in gurgles, mewlings, whimpers, and a thin keening whine, like a starving kitten. I had snot all over my face, and I sputtered as I dug my ragged, badly polished nails into my stomach, trying to drive them deep enough to rupture the bubble that was me.

Oddly enough, even after months of planning my suicide, I never expected to find myself in this condition. I’d come to New York for refuge. At home, I had little opportunity to “become myself”—i.e., to put on any of the hand-me-down skirts, blouses, and dresses I’d stuffed into a corner of an unused room of our basement. Besides, I’d come too far for surreptitious cross-dressing—an activity I’d only rarely engaged in—to experience it as anything other than demeaning, as though I were indulging in a shameful fetish. My stay in New York would give me whole days, rather than just stolen hours, to be myself.

The penthouse my friend had lent me was three floors of unfussy luxury. I had no responsibilities, no one to think about but myself, nothing to accomplish but rest and recuperation. For once there was no back and forth, no anguished oscillation between female and male, me and not-me. I lay down as myself and rose up as myself. I dressed at leisure, choosing among clothes that had been hung on hangers rather than stuffed in a bag. I put on makeup in a private bathroom, with no one banging on the door, and did my voice exercises in private, where no one could hear me. It was a glimpse of the future I was supposed to be transitioning toward, a few days of the unified selfhood most people take for granted.

I’d never done this before—left my family for no purpose other than to take care of myself. But then I never really took care of myself. During my three-day teaching stints in New York, I sat at my desk from morning to night, leaving only to teach classes and use the bathroom. I kept food at my desk so that I wouldn’t have to spend money or time on eating. At home, I woke at five or earlier to write before getting the kids up and off to school; I wrote on and off during the day, between household chores and school pickups, as the baby’s naps allowed, and late at night after everyone was in bed. I had no hobbies, no friends. When I finished one writing project, I immediately started another. “I have to get early tenure,” I told anyone who questioned this “lifestyle.” It was true. We couldn’t afford many years of living on an assistant professor’s salary, not with the thousands that commuting cost me. But though it took me a long time to realize it, there was another clock whose ticking drove me to work day and night: the buried clock of gender dysphoria. At first my workaholism was an unconscious anesthetic, a way of smothering dysphoria under a seamless blanket of work and family. Later, when the dysphoria could no longer be smothered, it became a race to secure my family’s livelihood before I could no longer function as a man.

In theory, my three-day sojourn in New York would give me both a much-needed rest and a break from my dysphoria. It would, I was sure, be a good time. But on the second day I came down with the flu. I’d been sick more or less continuously for eighteen months, but that had all been dysphoria; in fact, for the previous decade or two I’d been amazingly resistant to illnesses that didn’t originate in the mismatch between my brain and body. I’d become expert at functioning despite extreme dysphoria, but suddenly I was too sick to relax, too sick to stroll, too tired and nauseated to do anything but doze in a twisted heap of covers. Instead of solidifying my flickering sense of self, I was lying alone, surrounded by someone else’s life. Tb distract myself, I started to watch, on DVD, Ma Vie En Rose, a Belgian film about a little transgirl who comes out to her suburban family. This was a mistake. Here was a version of the girl I should have been, the one who was too brave, honest, and strong not to be herself. At the age when I was training myself to look away from dolls, this girl was donning party dresses for family barbecues and openly practicing makeup techniques. I couldn’t risk becoming someone my family would despise; she couldn’t risk becoming someone she would despise. In a few minutes of digitized celluloid, she displayed more courage and integrity than I had in a lifetime. When the transgirl’s mother and father, whose easy, affectionate intimacy reminded me of the relationship I’d once enjoyed with my wife, started screaming at each other that their marriage had been a mistake, the borders between Ma Vie and my life collapsed. There they were, the abject cowardice of my childhood self and the destruction wrought by my belated attempt to get beyond it. The truth was as clear as the movie’s subtitles: You’ve failed your family. My children needed an intact home, and I couldn’t stand to be anything my wife could stand the sight of. They needed me to stay male, and I couldn’t.

For decades I’d told myself that my constant sense of failure was the result of living the wrong life, that there was, or at least could be, a real me for whom failure would be an occasional occurrence rather than a mode of existence. But this was the other life; I was the real me.

I shut off the DVD player. My stomach lurched and my head spun as I struggled to sit up. Soon my children would know what I was, what I’d done to our family. It would be a relief to them if I didn’t come home. I lurched past the bathroom toward the narrow counter that demarcated the kitchen area. I was screaming now, battering my ribs and stomach with my fists. I fell to my knees and began banging my head against the floor. How could I have let myself live? If I’d died decades ago, when I was supposed to, none of this would ever have happened. Suicide was my obligation as a parent.

I dug my nails deep into my skin. The stabs of pain cleared my head a little. I didn’t need to get to the windows. All I needed to do was stand up, open a kitchen drawer, grab something sharp, and drive it into my stomach.

I realized that I’d stopped howling. I was tired, dead tired. I imagined my cell phone ringing a few feet away from my dead body. My children would call and I wouldn’t answer.

I never made a decision. I found myself crawling toward the bedroom, curling in a fetal ball around my cell phone and speed-dialing every friend I had.

No one was there.

I curled tighter. I was crying again, but very softly.

The phone rang. Someone had gotten my message. All I had to do was unclench my fists, and answer.

 

 

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Masthead

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