Art by Huston Ripley
A few months before my bedroom wall collapsed from trailer-rot, avalanching asbestos and dead roaches, annexing my bedroom with the tense silence of the living room, I had a dream about kissing a boy. He was in the same bad middle school orchestra as me, violin to my viola, but he wasn’t what I thought a violin boy should be. I always thought a violin boy should have a soft wooly cardigan, but he came to school in his dad’s roadwork hand-me-downs, stiff with clay, cuffs roughly hemmed. One time he got sent home for wearing a tar-stained T-shirt with a flea-market airbrushed cartoon of a Seminole chief with a tomahawk chopping apart an alligator in a football helmet. His shoes always sucked.
I had gone to asleep afraid that night, my blanket tucked tight under the edges of my body. I’d been reading a book about vampires and thought I’d heard a voice from the living room whispering the name of the vampire lord in the story: Barlowe. When I woke up from the dream, I was no longer afraid of vampires, only angry with myself for dreaming about a boy. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be gay. That was a scary thought because it meant beatings and prayer circles if my family found out, but beatings and prayer circles were scary in a way I could handle. The real problem was that I felt like kissing a boy would attach me to something from which I wanted to escape. I didn’t want to like someone that was ostensibly like me, because I wasn’t ready for “like me” to be a thing that someone could be. If there was a “like me,” it meant my faith was misplaced, and that I already was who I was, and there would not be the great change still to come, which is the only thing that made the future seem possible. In the future, I thought, I will probably like people who are like me, and hopefully they will not be boys.
I looked at my wood-paneled wall, not knowing it would soon give up the ghost. I had tacked up this tiny magazine cutout of some punk girl alongside Billy and Kim and all the other sad alternative mystics I cut from the pages of Sassy. She wasn’t a celebrity. She was just some girl in the crowd of a photo taken at a Sonic Youth show. I looked at her for a while—her studded leather jacket, her heavy eyeliner, her eyebrow piercing—and then I took her image down from the wall. I wiggled out of bed, went to my desk, got out last year’s 7th grade yearbook, and taped her image over someone’s face.
—I know her, I said.
“At some point I became an adult. Probably the less said about it the better, but as a dyke, I am pathologically confessional.”
At some point I became an adult. Probably the less said about it the better, but as a dyke, I am pathologically confessional. It went something like this: I tried to finish high school but they weren’t having it, so I decided to go to work. I got out the phone book and circled the few things that seemed plausible: the community theater, an art gallery, that one book store in the mall. None of these panned out so my uncle dragged me with him to the phosphate mines.
After half a shift, they stuck me in an empty guard shack near a gate on the outskirts of the property. They told me “don’t let anyone drive through what ain’t got a badge” and then they forgot about me. I spent two years in the shack and not a single person ever came by. Some nights I would look at the darkness beyond the windows and imagine myself a lighthouse keeper in a sea that no one wanted to sail, like that awful kid in the Yukio Mishima book. In the previous volume of that series, before reincarnating as a lighthouse keeper, the kid had been a princess. That’s how close he was to being a princess—just one book away.
I started talking to DirtyBootz while I was working in the lighthouse. I met her on a forum for people who liked philosophy but who weren’t, like, into the school thing. We confessed to each other via all the known modalities: mp3 mixtapes, fan fiction in which Enjolras fought the revolution with radical queerness, discussions about what kind of dresses we thought Nietzsche wore.
At the end of the two years there was some kind of audit at the mine and they sent a guy around to inspect my shack. The next day I was fired. I assumed it was because they finally realized they’d been paying me to do nothing, but when I actually looked at the paperwork later that night, I saw that someone had taken a sharpie, crossed out the numerical code after “Reason for Termination” and written in “FAGGOTRY.”
By then, I’d saved up enough money to move. DirtyBootz told me she needed a roommate, and I bought a bus ticket the next day. She met me at the station in the middle of the night. She drove us to get pancakes in her old Volkswagen that smelled always of earth, and then she took me home.
The year after the wall came down was a bad year. I pushed my bed into the opposite corner of what had once been my bedroom, up against the wall that was furthest from the now-conjoined living room. But I had forgotten that wall was the roach wall, and within a few days, the seams and folds of my mattress were sticky with the secretions of queens gluing their egg sacs in place. We put the mattress in the burn pile out in the dog pen and I took to sleeping on the floor, lying with my feet on the cold metal of the air vents. I liked how this felt. It was February then. I made plans to ask for curtains for my birthday in November so I could hang them up where the wall used to be and have a bedroom again. But sometime in April, the floor of the kitchen gave way as well, the worm-eaten plywood tumbling away into the darkness underneath the trailer. My dad showed me how to walk around the edges of the hole when I wanted a glass of water, but soon spiders colonized the kitchen, and my mom said something had to change. One day when I came home from school, the trailer was gone, sold I think for scrap metal.
That night, I slept in the backseat of my dad’s 1986 Buick Le Sabre station wagon. My clothes were in a trash bag in the hatchback and my books were—I was told—being held in a box at my cousin’s house until things turned around. Which wouldn’t be long, my dad reminded me from the front seat where he and my mother sat upright under thin powder blue sheets.
—That old revival preacher come to town. She said I was fixin to be a rich man.
My mom snorted.
—Yeah, then you give her all our money. So you poorer than you ever was.
—Wasn’t my money. Not til I give it away.
My mom pointed at me.
—Where’s he supposed to take a shower?
—He can go a day without. Won’t hurt nothin’.
—It’s fine, I said. —I don’t like to shower anyway.
Living with DirtyBootz for about six months was long enough for transformations to take place. At first we set up my bedroom, the first of my own I’d had since the days of living in the Buick. A few weeks later we moved all my stuff into her bedroom, making it our bedroom. The plan was to turn the extra room into an art studio but before we could even save up for the drafting table, we moved things back the way they were.
I knew I was lucky that this part of it didn’t seem to bother her much—lucky that we could still live together, lucky that she still loved me in a way—but I could tell the money thing was bothering her more and more. I hadn’t worked since the mines and she had to spot me a little on the rent.
Then one summer morning I woke up to the fan blowing dust across my bed and watched the shape of my thin cotton sheet gently simmer on top of me, animated by the almost imperceptible layer of air between us. The quality of the light, the shadows on the undulating cotton, the sound of the fan: they were all somehow tied to a kind of unrecoverable memory. I got out of bed eagerly, unlike most days, with a conviction to get some shit done.
—You are beautiful but you are not enough.
I said this to the scraps of black gauze and unicorn glitter I’d turned into curtains. Sun streamed through, filtered but somehow undiminished.
—A real queen exercises complete autonomy over her environment. I’m tired of getting woken up at like, 10 AM.
I directed my next words to my stuffed koala, Archibald.
—She does not allow the random movements of celestial bodies to impede her work, to dictate her rise and fall. This is the rhythm of ants, who have not yet figured out how to attain mastery over life. She must shatter the diurnal cycles to which she has been constrained by, like, work and stuff. Light is basically a cheat code. Only those who can dance in darkness are real queens. I think that’s Nietzsche.
I believed in these words completely, as if a gnosis had been delivered to me in my sleep, and I knew that if I could only do this thing, that if I could somehow block all sunlight from entering my bedroom, I would be able to attain my true form.
My first thought was to tape a bunch of aluminum foil up over the windows. This, I thought, would not only prevent the sun from getting inside my bedchamber, but it would also reflect the light away from me completely, which seemed even more desirable. I was methodical about it, using a long ruler and an X-Acto knife, artifacts from our planned art room, to cut out the precisely measured rectangles of foil. The end result looked as if I’d replaced my window with a mirror too dull to reflect anything precisely. I loved it.
About ten minutes later, I got a text from our landlord:
ARE YOU FUCKING JOKING? TAKE THAT SHIT DOWN IT LOOKS LIKE A METH LAB
I registered my extreme displeasure on Twitter and then peeled the sheets of foil away slowly, so that if the landlord were watching from outside, it might strike his heart how he had insisted on destroying something beautiful.
—All right, then, Archibald. We must strike the mortal blow.
I got ready to leave the house but as I swung the strap of my purse over my head, I got stuck in one of my loops. My hand scraped against the rough hair of my face and I remembered who I was. And then the routines broke down: in order to leave the house, I had to shave. But if I committed myself to staring into a mirror that long, I would no longer have the energy to leave the house. One of the interesting things about the confluence of punk ethics and trans identity is living out the tension between your desire to come across as totally effortless and authentic and your desire to have the world not be a total fucking cock to you.
But I really didn’t want to falter in my desire to block out the sun, so I put my hair up in a claw, curls spraying in every direction, and shrugged into an old hoodie with the kangaroo pouch half torn off.
Sometimes, in your hubris, you say fuck it: maybe you can circle back around somehow, and instead of putting in the soul-crushing effort to maintain the contract of passing with the public—which is not guaranteed to be successful anyway—you can put in such minimal effort that you pass over the zone of misrecognition entirely, and people will still think of you as your real self, just like, an impossibly schlubby and likely-hungover version of yourself. Which I was fine with.
—It’s art-heaux, Archibald. I probably look art-heaux, ya know? Like, it’s fine. It’s probably fine!
It scares me how fast you can start to tolerate conditions of life that bleed everything out of you on the daily, how fast they become routine.
My family ended up living in the station wagon for about two years. Eventually we parked it in a vacant lot in a trailer park out on the outskirts of town, one where the owner was never around much and where we could go basically unnoticed for a good long while. My mom talked to "the neighbors" and they agreed to let us use their water hose for a little bit every day. She would fill up an old water jug from the hose and make sun tea, letting it brew on the hood of the car.
One morning I saw her filling up a plastic storage tub with the hose and I wondered what she was up to. That evening in the car, we ate some ranch-flavored Bugles corn chips, and she said:
—Well that water ought to be hot. You go take a bath now.
—I don’t want to take a bath. It’s stupid.
—Well you got to take a bath because I’m not having no school board come and tell me I don’t know how to do right by you.
—I don’t think anyone really pays attention.
—You got to do it.
—Why do I got to do it?
—Because they’ll call you sewer-face if you don’t. Do you want to be called sewer-face?
I went and wrapped a towel around myself and took my clothes off beneath it, dropping them to the grass and kicking them far away from me. There was a beetle floating motionless on the surface of the water and I scooped her up and tossed her somewhere in the direction of my clothes and I lowered myself into the storage tub. The water was slightly warm from sitting in the sun all day, but I still shivered. I tried to sink low enough so that the water covered my breasts but I was already too tall.
I sat there in the water and thought about the violin boy. It was stupid to call him that still because our parents had pawned our instruments last year and neither of us was in the orchestra anymore. I didn’t see him all summer and when he finally turned up again at the start of ninth grade, he was wearing a shirt that fit him. It had the White Zombie logo. I told him I loved that band. The bassist is really cute, I said. He said thanks. He said I’m buying my own clothes now cuz I got a job at the grocery store. You should come by sometime, he said. Sometimes we smoke weed in the back of the store on break, he said. Sometimes Carlin throws bottles at the possums that come out of the woods, he said. The water around me slowly turned grey. It must be doing something, I thought.
After about an hour I got out of the tub, picked my shirt up from the grass, shook the ants out of it, and went back to the car. My parents were already asleep and the sun was setting. I was really tired of lying awake in the backseat by myself for hours every night, so I took a clothes hanger, bent it around the luggage rack of the station wagon, and made a hook from which I could dangle a hurricane lamp just outside of the rear window. We had one left over from when Charlie came through a few years earlier. It still had a good bit of oil in it, and I figured I could read my library books by it.
When you talk of doom, what can you do but say what happened? That’s how I first read The Brothers Karamazov.
“One of the interesting things about the confluence of punk ethics and trans identity is living out the tension between your desire to come across as totally effortless and authentic and your desire to have the world not be a total fucking cock to you.”
I’m standing in line at the Dollar General, holding two plastic-wrapped panes of vinyl-backed blackout drapes. There’s a huge silver sticker on the front of each package that reads: PERFECT FOR THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT. I am thinking things that Nietzsche would not have thought. I am willing my body to become smaller and smaller, to occupy less space than it does. I am pretending to look at those long lighters that you use for candles. I am pretending to be just your regular busted-ass hungover woman buying opaque black curtains and looking at long-handled candle lighters. I want to put up my hood and hide my face, but I can’t, because that doesn’t seem like a thing a regular busted-ass hungover woman does, or at least not the one I am pretending to be. When I get to the front of the line, the cashier rings up the curtains and calls me ma’am, and I’m wondering is he fooled or is he just being polite, and it’s hard to think that it matters because I’ve already ruined myself long before he ever got to me, already doomed myself by thinking of this in terms of “fooling” anyone.
I’m walking home. I’m not here. I’m somewhere in those first couple of months. We are having coffee one morning at the little orange table she’d found by the dumpster.
—We should decoupage this table when we make our studio, I say.
—We should decoupage everything. Everything should wear a beautiful shell.
—We should have a dress form. I think I want to make dresses.
—We can put a mannequin head on it. We can give it a Nietzsche mustache!
—Oh my god!
They say when you have enough trauma, it sometimes becomes hard to form new memories. The brain gets trained to think that any new information will be bad for you, and it becomes reluctant to put things down in ink. One thing that has stuck is how, as she leans across the table, the shape of her disappears altogether in the drape of the flannel she wears to bed and during the mornings, and how her kisses over coffee are warm almost to burning and taste like almonds. The rest of it is gone, usually.
Soon I will be back in my room, back to the soil of the home I must carry with me, back to darkness.
One day when I got home from school, I saw my mother sitting on the tailgate of the car, cramming the handle of a flyswatter into the recesses of a bright pink cast molded to her foot.
—Son, this dadgum thing is about to drive me crazy.
—I went over to Leslie to tell her thank ya, you know, for everything, and I commenced to walkin up her stairs and before I knowed it I was flat of my back and she was hollerin somebody call an ambulance her foot her foot. And I told her no I don’t need no ambulance I got enough trouble as is. But she told me, Bobbie your foot is already swolled, and they couldn’t find your daddy nowhere as he was off gallavantin so I let em take me.
—Are you okay?
—Well I may as well be, son.
There’s this part in The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, the good religious son who joins the priesthood, goes to visit this girl, Lise, who he’s started some kind of intense relationship with. And she basically tells him, you’re a bitch. You think an intensity of feeling is enough for a human being but it’s not enough for anybody but you. Real people need more. And then she gives him a letter to take to his brother, who she wants to get with in his stead, and he says yeah I’ll deliver it to him. After he leaves, Lise deliberately smashes her fingers in the frame of the door and thinks, basically, no, in fact it’s I who am the bitch.
I woke up that night to a bizarre scraping sound. I fumbled around in the backseat for something to light my hurricane lamp and then realized the lamp wasn’t even there. It was sitting on the ground about ten feet away from the car. In its glow I saw my mom sitting on an upside down bucket while my father sawed the cast off of her foot with a tree saw.
—You be careful now, she said.
—You just hush up. I done told you you orta leave this on anyway.
—Well. Someone’s got to work.
“I was delirious with the possibilities of living out of phase with the edicts of time, of waking and sleeping on the basis of nothing but indolent desire, and of not answering the calls of a debased nature.”
I hung up the new blackout curtains beneath the cuter gauzy curtains, tacking the edges against the wall and binding the gap in the center together with a couple of pins. It worked really well. I couldn’t see a fucking thing. I was delirious with the possibilities of living out of phase with the edicts of time, of waking and sleeping on the basis of nothing but indolent desire, and of not answering the calls of a debased nature. Like, at some point I’d probably be evicted and DirtyBootz with me—but until then!
I lit a Bath & Body Works Limited Edition Banana Milkshake candle, vowing to reward myself for creating the possibility of pure sloth with a day that would unite possibility and practicum. The delirium kept me moving long enough to sweep and dust my room, to throw away the less aesthetic forms of trash that had accumulated. Driven by inspiration, I withdrew every thick blanket, quilt, and comforter I could find from my closet, stacking all seven of them on top of my mattress, reserving my sherpa blanket—its blue velveteen like the lining of a coffin—for the topmost layer. The result was a lush, two-foot-thick super-mattress that wrapped around me as I sank into it, holding me like cradling arms.
I took my journal from my bedside table, squinted in the darkness for a while, and clicked on my Himalayan salt lamp. I resolved to spend the entire next day lying in bed and watching a curated stream of gay vampire movies. The Hunger, I wrote. Daughters of Darkness. Halfway through The Lost Boys, I drifted off to sleep, blissfully unaware of the passage of the daystar.
Sometimes I walked to the Wal-Mart down the road from the trailer park in order to have air conditioning. One afternoon as I was wandering through the liminal conjunction of year-end holidays, past motion-sensing grim reapers and past life-size witch standees one aisle over from inflatable Rudolphs, I came across the aisle of summer’s detritus, an Araby of baubles emblazoned with yellow discount badges plastered one over the other, prices creeping lower and lower as a final temptation before the incinerator. I found a kite printed with the image of Jean Grey from the X-Men. I knew her and loved her. A psychic, red-haired, trusted second to the power of the throne. A girl. The kite had been discounted from 7 to 5 to 3 to 1 dollar and I had enough quarters to buy it, so I did.
I texted DirtyBootz:
HELP MY FUCKIN BACK OH GOD I CANT MOVE
I had woken up flat on my back in the dense nest of velveteen, and I felt a twinge the instant I tried to sit up. Arcing jolts of electrical pain spread across my lower back and down my legs. I flailed like an insect until I was able to heave myself over onto my side and reach my phone. I sighed when I heard DirtyBootz coming down the hallway. Her silhouette appeared at the door of my bedroom.
—What the fuck happened? Where are you even?
She flipped the light switch back and forth uselessly.
—Why is it so dark in here?
At length she helped me into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. I fell against her, crying.
—I put too many blankets on the bed. It was too soft. It fucked up my back somehow.
—But why? This is . . . so many blankets.
I was sobbing now.
—My body. It’s always betraying me.
—I’m sorry, darling.
—I should be able to tolerate any degree of luxury!
Woods—really just dense undeveloped thickets of pines and palmetto bushes—abut everything in my town. One Sunday morning before my father can rally us to the revival tent, I slip away from the back seat of the car and take off into the woods with the Jean Grey kite. I keep walking until I come out the other side, a cleared but similarly undeveloped extension of the trailer park. It’s a field of open grass, future lots indicated by wooden stakes and by neon pink cord stretched between them. A plywood sign announces the future arrival of “Rainbow Creek, a J. Everett & Sons Community.”
The wind is picking up. It’s that brief patch of cool between November and February that I look forward to every year. It never gets cold in Florida, but I wish that it did, and sometimes I dress like it does in an attempt to manifest it. I dug a flannel shirt out of my trash bag in the back of the station wagon that morning but after sweating my way through the woods, I took it off and tied it around my waist, like the girl at the Sonic Youth show.
I unspool the line of the kite and the wind catches it and begins pulling hard. Jean Grey doesn’t have the power of flight, but she’s somehow flying anyway. I think maybe Rogue, who can steal the powers of others around her, might have the ability of transmission as well, might perhaps have taken this power from someone boring and unworthy, like Archangel, who probably wears stupid wooly cardigans, and conferred it upon Jean Grey. Probably by kissing? I let out more line and the kite rises higher and higher and when I look back at my hands, I see that the line has run out. It hadn’t been tied to the handle of the kite and now the wind carries her away across the lot and smashes her into the earth on the other side of a culvert at the rear of the field. I run after her, stepping carefully over the taut pink lines dividing up the lots, the boundaries of future families. When I come to the culvert, I see that it is full to the brim from late summer rains, forming a river of filth ten feet across. The water is brown, full of trash—six pack rings thrown away by denizens of the park or people boating on the chain of lakes that feed into here, feed everywhere, the rings uncut and just waiting to murder some duck—and full too of shit, swept into the culvert from a nearby cow pasture that hasn’t been bought up yet. Across the river is the kite, caught in a palmetto bush, plastic bones shattered, tail waving back and forth, calling me somewhere I can’t yet go.
DirtyBootz took me to the urgent care and paid the bill without saying anything about it. When they told me a Dr. Stephen would see me shortly, she slipped away and asked them if I could be seen by a woman instead. She came back and held my hand. I stared at the floor, slumped in pain, while she flipped through Anaï Nin’s diary with her free hand.
—I promise I’ll pay you back for this.
—I’m gonna try and find a job.
They gave me a bunch of muscle relaxers and an injection of Vicodin. I was still in incredible pain, unable to stand up straight or bend at the waist, but I gradually achieved a warm and comfortable remove, as if my body had just learned how to accept the pain as normal and carry on in spite of it, no longer really caring about it. I’m pretty sure I threw someone the peace sign on my way out. She drove me back to our home and helped me back into my bed, yanking several of the blankets off first.
—Feeling any better?
I watched her brush the hair back from out of my face as I floated gently above my body, a smoky translucent wraith.
—Look at her, I said.
—Did you know she was supposed to be born a girl?
—Come on. You should get some sleep.
—No. It’s different. Her mom always used to tell her how the doctors from the very first sonogram assured her she was going to have a girl. But I knowed better, her mom used to tell her. They all told me you was a girl, but I knowed different. And when you was born, I was right. That’s what her mom used to tell her.
My friend looked for the right thing to say. I knew she was going to tell me that it didn’t matter, or that I should be happy because this validated me somehow, that the doctors were right all along.
—But her mom used to tell her something else, too. She told her about how she wasn’t supposed to live at all. How she was born with the cord around her neck, blue and cold, and how she was dead for several minutes before they brought her back. She was born dead.
My friend pulled the blankets up to my neck.
—What is she now, I asked.