Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Other Familbea*

[This essay was commissioned by Victory Gardens Theater for their inaugural College Night for the world premiere of the play Samsara by Lauren Yee.]

Among other words, and after a long and gradual process, I finally came to describe myself as “transgender” on Thursday, October third, two thousand and thirteen, at about four in the morning, in the bedroom that I occupied in my host mother’s apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In the morning I wrote the first draft of a cheeky and heartfelt blog post titled “Letter to Everyone, or: Because Coming Out Was Just So Much Fun The First Time,” and sent it to five of my closest friends.

By Saturday, October nineteenth, two thousand and thirteen, I had published what was by that point the third draft of the letter on my study abroad blog, and there have been over one thousand hits on the post since then.

I had not really known anyone with me in Buenos Aires for longer than two and a half months.

“Wasn’t it hard,” many people asked me later, “coming out so far from home?”

“I needed the distance,” I always replied, “to get some perspective.”

I told my parents over Skype.  They are good parents, and although I was nervous to tell them because how could you not be, I did not expect them to take the news badly.  They did not. My mother had actually, as she later and frequently informed me, suspected it for some time.

When they two months later arrived in Buenos Aires, my brother and I were just returning from a trip we had taken to Ushuaia, and took a taxi from the airport to the apartment they were renting.  I could see them waiting on the other side of the front glass door in the vestibule with tile floors that had yellowed with age.  The strangest part was being able to see them through that glass and for the couple of seconds it took us to open the door, not being immediately able to throw myself into the arms in which I had grown up and loved—those few, awkward seconds compounded a century in my chest, and when finally at the tick of a new year the door opened, I hugged them, and they held me, closely.

* * *

A lot has happened since then.  We went home, I changed all of my legal documents to Bea Cordelia, and also to female, although that isn’t how I identify, but legal documents don’t have boxes for how I identify, I had a lot of sex with a lot of strangers because a large part of me still thought I was worth nothing, I clenched my jaw when a lot of strangers—other ones, presumably—looked at me funny or said cruel things as I walked or biked or existed by, I considered the prospect of suicide.

“If you ever need anything,” my mom said always, “you can always talk to us.”

“I know,” I replied always, “but that I will not always do.”

And it was true—my relationship to her and to my dad and to everyone, really, had changed, by virtue of me having done so myself.  See, when you publicly embrace a part of yourself that you before had always hated and hid, and that thing is called “transgender,” there are a couple of things that happen:

  1. It is as if your exposed and stripped-bare flesh is up for others’ knives and worse, their eyes, always.
  2. You feel the most beautiful when you do not feel the most ugly.  The former might happen anywhere, such as the first time it does, in a pizzeria, of all places, still in Buenos Aires, when a trans man tells you you are linda, and although you don’t quite believe him or even find him attractive, you consider going home with him right then and there.  The latter, that ugliness, rears itself with frequency, a natural consequence of having your exposed and stripped-bare flesh up for others’ knives and worse, their eyes, always, which also leads to
  3. With this now largely increased chance of dying by violence, and still yet needing to go on living, you become bold out of necessity (has anyone ever before backpacked alone through the Alps with a passport ostensibly dissimilar to their body? has anyone ever before allowed themselves to fall in love with this now largely decreased chance of ever being loved in return, even only if briefly, even if just for the dark duration of the night when finally we sweated into each other like the waterfalls at Iguazú, the mist cascading upward into the light?)
My parents cannot understand these things.  Or rather, I write about these things, like now, for you, and share it with them, and they read, or listen, like now, for you, and empathize, a lot, but empathy is not understanding, is not I hear the things that you are saying and remember the times when also I felt those things, is not because we share the same blood, and class, and race, and religion, and many of the same memories, and television references, I could also have warned you that one day you would feel those things, is a family in that moment not.

* * *

My other family is scattered, and not mostly just throughout Michigan, like this one.  No, my other family lives in Buenos Aires, and Berlin, they were born in Madrid, they have since moved to New York, they once flew to Thailand just to have surgery.  Many have tried to die, and some of them succeeded.

* * *

On one of my last days in Berlin last summer, where I had been for six weeks conducting research and with which I had quickly become enamored, I went to a fundraiser party for a trans man’s top surgery.  I didn’t know the fellow in question, but I went with a new and close friend—another trans man, Martín, from Madrid, who was still thirty-nine, and excessively cute, but taken, and on whose bed I nevertheless for a couple nights slept in my restless bed-surfing around the city (before I knew of his girlfriend I had in a panic requested advice from a friend back home on what to do with a clitoris in the event that he still had one and also that we would get that far).

We biked to the location.  It was a Friday night, I think, September twelfth, two thousand and fourteen, and we arrived around eleven.  The place was located just north of a bunch of clubs along the Spree—that fairly commercial, popular district between Freidrichshain and Neukölln, and one that immediately fell away into silence when we turned left down a dark alley.  We chained our bikes to a chain-link fence and approached the massive wooden gate that guarded the celebration.  It was pay what you can, and since I was low on flow in the last few days before my return home to Chicago, Martín helped me out.  We went inside.

The party took place inside a deceptively large and fabulously painted trailer that was sitting in the backyard of something, but somehow I never really saw what.  There was a separate building—a house? a shack?—whose singular bathroom we All used for peeing, regardless of anything.  The weather wore warmly on that night, and many people sat smoking outside on lawn chairs and wooden benches, beneath trees decoratively adorned with colored, lovely lights.  Nothing existed in the world beyond this backyard.

Inside the trailer, over a hundred variously identified and presenting queer and trans people got drunk and danced, reveling in one man’s chest that soon would be no more.  Our two hosts for the evening—dressed in matching dinosaur onesies—held a raffle for an odd collection of objects in between performances of poetry, dancing, and striptease.  Other volunteers worked the cash bar, and a potluck of food people had brought offered itself to anyone who wanted it.  Eventually, several DJs took over for the night, and with that we grew raucous, embracing a full-fledged debauchery.  The temperature in the trailer rose proportionally to our joy and abandon.  Most people started to shed their clothing, dancing in their underwear if even that.  The trans guy hosting the party walked around topless selling tequila shots, letting people lick salt off his terminal breasts.  Happiness abounded.

I wanted to hook up with one of the dinosaur hosts: he had a lean and hairy body, firm and alluring as he gyrated to the music.  I myself had taken off my top, now gyrating in a bra and skirt.  At any college or house party back home, or at any club back in Buenos Aires, leaving alone would have felt like losing the battle, like one more night of sleeping alone and impossibly worthless, but when the sexy dinosaur host didn’t give me any vibes back I just kept dancing with the rest of my family as the beat bumped on, sweating into each other like the waterfalls at Iguazú, the mist cascading upward into the light.

When at last I biked home, I did so happily, and at a reasonable hour (Martín would sleep until four the following day and vomit considerably).  It was the first time, I think, and still the only, that I truly experienced what all those early years the Knoffs at Stone House somewhere in Michigan had always failed to produce: an actual family reunion.

* * *

In June I will graduate from college.  Having always lived in Chicago (the last four years, albeit, in Evanston, which does not count, but is still much too close), I would like to move.  Maybe out West, maybe out East.  Somewhere by the water would be nice.  And somewhere too, where my family already waits for me, bending and thumping into the infinite night, decoratively adorned with a colored, lovely light—the kind that blots out the rest, the kind that your parents gave you before they eventually could not, the kind that feels like coming home.

* * *

On Tuesday, September sixteenth, two thousand and fourteen, my mom turned fifty-three years old, and picked up the daughter she never expected to have from O’Hare International Airport, and took her out to lunch.  They had Italian, and my mom listened to the daughter she never expected to have ramble exhaustedly on about the Italian she had only a couple weeks ago had in Italy itself, and although there was still a document or two to change to Bea Cordelia, and also to female, and although in just a couple of hours a woman would say horrible things to her loudly, at a crosswalk, and although Worth was still an elusive (but less so) door she could in a century never fully open, my mom loved her, comprehensively, even in the places she could not comprehend.

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