Unlike Some Boys
I often imagine my husband dying. It’s morbid, but it’s true. I worry that he’ll get sick or be killed in an accident. And after I’ve turned these obsidian events over and over in my mind, most often, the very next thing I think about is what black dress I’ll wear to his funeral.
Sometimes, when I’m naked in my apartment, I feel a light electric sensation on my skin and imagine it’s gender, searching for a foothold on my body. Finding few, it slides to the floor, where I press it beneath my bare feet.
When I was younger I was incredibly frugal. I lived in a garage, worked two or three days a week, and made things: plays, dances, poems. I used to think my life then had a sort of bohemian glamour, although now, looking back, I wonder. Certainly, there were many beautiful nights, warehouse dinner parties that stretched for hours, studio visits that turned into dancing that turned into morning. Looking back now, I can see how all of this was happening in a closed circuit. No one was watching us, and so these events ultimately remained closed off from glamour, which requires, above all else, a viewer.
During that period, I was working on a show inspired by the life of a seminal gay performance artist, known for filling his plays with casts of fabulous freaks. He’d pluck them from street corners, saunas, the backrooms of dirty Greenwich village bars. He’d put them on stage, where they could stand proudly, where the point was to stare at them.
It was spring and everything felt unstable with life. The director told us to pull together outfits that would turn us into one of these freaks, garish and glowing, mixing and matching signifiers. I wore a ruby crushed velvet maxi dress, an oversize moss-colored cardigan, and huge paste diamond clip-on earrings. My nails were painted slut red. I rolled up a strip of paper for a prop cigarette and gesticulated wildly, my limbs loose and my tongue looser. My voice was free to swing up and down through its full register, and I felt that electric feeling on my skin. I felt invincible. Feeling the hem of the dress float over the tops of my feet, I had an epiphany. All of this, the dress, the nail polish, the earrings, these were tools available to me outside of the white walls of the studio. I gasped.
The next day I let a burly man pierce both my ears with a needle that was much larger than I’d expected it to be.
Luxury was never something I allowed myself. I was raised in a plains city, where luxury, if it ever appeared, was so eroded by the constant wind that it was nearly unrecognizable. Extravagance had to be secreted away, disguised in ‘simplicity’ and ‘quality’. What I find most puzzling, in retrospect, is that people still enjoyed luxurious things, but the enjoyment of them was private. Now that I understand better the deep pleasure there is being seen and watched, I think, ‘Why would you even bother?”
My lips are stained and I’m on view in the museum, can feel the tourists’ vision catch on my face, stuck for a moment. I watch them puzzle. I stiffen, project power. I want this, though it terrifies me. I do not understand it, yet I want it. I am sure.
Recently, I described a dress I love to a friend. It was an expensive dress, the most I’ve ever paid for a piece of clothing. I described how I worship the designer, how I’d seen the collection on the runway, how I’d anxiously awaited its appearance in stores. I told him how I had visited this dress in the store several times, first just looking, eventually trying it on. I told him how, when I first saw it on my body, I audibly gasped, then began to laugh. I told him how I thought about the dress when I was moving through the world, imagined living with it. When I decided to buy it, I felt such a sweet rush, as if I was gambling but at a game I knew I was guaranteed to win.
When it arrived, I put it on, looked in the mirror again, and was met with the same uncontrollable happiness, a lightness I could feel in my joints. Later, talking to him, I described it as ‘body joy’, and said one of my great recent realizations was that this feeling was absolutely worth the money.
I realize now that perhaps I’d spent that much on a suit before, or at least had that much spent on a suit for me by someone else. But the number of dollars spent, in that context, doesn’t produce the same friction.
I love black dresses, find myself compelled towards them. Upon entering any thrift store, my first stop is always the dresses, hopefully sorted by color, where I begin pawing through the black garments, looking for something long, something draped, something to mask my shape, make it mutable.
Sometimes I rehearse for my own future griefs. I do it more since I’ve been married. I imagine losing my husband, or him losing me, imagine the feeling of living with his absence, our apartment off-balance, our dogs depressed. I imagine our dogs dying, our parents dying, our city disappearing in the white flash of a bomb, both of us made nothing in an instant. There’s a terror, to be sure, but there’s a pleasure on top of that, for it feels for a moment as if I’m living in the heightened register of poetry, which is, perhaps, another way of saying an enlargement of feeling to make room for death to come in.
On good mornings getting dressed feels like a sort of spell, one that transforms the empty ground ahead of me into a path I can walk on.
Magic is a language like any other. You start out less than adept, speaking blunt words, summoning blunt objects into being. As you continue, you learn to see and feel the useful edges of these objects, how you might sculpt or place these edges in order to make them more precise, more specific, more powerful. You apply these new knowledges, these new points of leverage, to get farther or to go deeper into the recursive space of the magic, where the articulation of itself opens up new landscapes to explore. You conjure a world and then enter it and learn from it how to pronounce more complicated spells. This continues.
For my thirtieth birthday my husband wants to buy me a dress. Of course, I want something black. My husband says that one condition of the gift is that he has to approve of the dress I pick, and that nothing black is going to meet his standards. He wants it to be pretty. I twist against this proclamation, part of me annoyed that it’s preventing me from having access to the austere black Miyake column dress, so wearable, that I saw in one downtown boutique. But another part of me likes the submission implied by this rule, that the dress must be something that pleases him. And because I like pleasing him, this gives me pleasure. I cannot see his obvious strategy, the way he is pushing me towards something I’m trying at all costs not to recognize.
We go to my favorite store. I touch everything. I’m looking for the dress that will feel worthy of this gift, which comes at a period in my life when I’m actively grappling, maybe for the first time, with how uncomfortable it makes me to receive love. We walk through floor after floor, searching, but nothing sticks. I try on several dresses, and although I like some of them, none of them give me that rush of immediate joy, a feeling in my body like I’m a field of grass after heavy rain, full of an excess that will rush out at the slightest touch. None of these dresses make me that overfull, so we leave them hanging in the fitting room, waiting for their attendants to return them to their proper place.
I wonder if my mind is working against me. If, denied its usual path of submergence and avoidance of receiving love, it has merely opened up a trapdoor I never knew was there and is now performing a series of actions out of my sight. I look and look for a dress, but nothing feels right. The neck isn’t as high as I’d like, the flowers are too floral, the cut is somehow femme in the wrong way. I oscillate between feeling as if I’m being thorough, methodical, responding to this gift, so clearly thought out, with an equal effort and diligence, and feeling as if I’m refusing the many instances of pleasure available to me, right at my fingertips, hanging off my shoulders, as a way of refusing the sentiment behind the gift. Perhaps I’m reverting to my old habits. I believe myself unworthy and so conspire, wittingly and unwittingly, to make the world confirm that belief.
I still feel uncomfortable spending time thinking about clothes, jewels, perfumes. As I’ve been shopping over the past few days, I’ve walked through mists that seem to cover the radius of a block or two, and inside these clouds I despair at what a shallow person I’ve become. I think about what else I could be focusing on, spending money on, obsessing over. But then I step out of the shadow of a building, cross the street into the sun, and something about the warmth dispels the self-criticism. I’m left with a clear view of the mystery all this seems to orbit around: my body and my mind want to meet in a certain configuration, want to move through the world wearing a specific set of armor. I know that this search for a dress is actually a search for the suit of armor that will best grant me access to the type of daily joy I seek, that I have inklings of being possible. And I know that when I see my armor, in a window display or hanging on a rack, flanked by other sets of armor perfect for other people, inside my armor will be a form that grants me access to a new set of rooms and halls within my life. I can hear the party happening inside them already. I don’t feel late, or rushed. I just feel ready.
There’s a small voice in my head that speaks up whenever I whisper to myself, lips unmoving, the word genderqueer. It says, from far away, “Haven’t you gotten enough already?”
But what could be enough? At the heart of that word there’s a blankness that gathers its own momentum, feeding back on itself. Rules fall away, structures you think govern you are revealed to be two-dimensional sets, left out to rot in the warm California air. And beyond them? Blue. Space and stillness. Flowers blooming. And further still, a bleaching. Bones in the desert. The desert slowly covering them with the tenderness of a father putting his first child to bed.
There is a click. I get too stoned on accident and on the train ride to Washington my husband texts to ask if he can tell his best friend that I’m identifying as trans*. Actually, he asks if he can tell her that I am trans*, and in the train tunnel, which feels overlaid with time, I blanch internally. It spooks me. I spook myself, maybe. To hear the process I’ve been going through named so casually and so explicitly is like a jolt, like a knot, long worked at, suddenly giving way and dissolving into a sag of string.
I spend the journey alternating between experiencing my past sliding off me, checking twitter to read the latest on the newest US bombings of Syria, and wishing I’d bought Cheetos when I had the chance. I feel not allowed to be trans*, or to use that term, or to ask other people to go through the work of caring about it. But I think really what I feel unable to do is ask them to go through the work of caring about me.
I think of the power I feel, as the train rockets forward into the future. I text back that I can feel how I’m travelling forward into summer, the couple hundred miles of difference between New York and D.C. putting me in a different climate. I feel like I’m being fast-forwarded.
I’m not a man, and I don’t want to be a woman, exactly. I don’t feel dysphoria in my body, but my body is working towards something, and trans* is a label that suddenly makes sense of what’s been happening just beneath my awareness.
All the bits of foreshadowing of this moment step to the front of the stage in my mind where I sometimes go to try to perceive myself, and the lineup doesn’t just include events from the past year. It includes almost-forgotten moments from my childhood, moments when the prevailing social attitudes taught me that what felt natural was not allowed. I sit facing that stage in my mind. The light is dim but growing brighter, and as it comes up I attempt to see all of these moments as both individual and part of a whole.
I feel like crying, but I am too stoned to understand what kind of crying to do, so I just sit, feeling the almost imperceptible rumble of distance disappearing beneath and behind me.
I’m not different, but the things that rest upon me are. The things I feel passing over the landscape of my body as I walk through the world have changed. They’re more shapeless, draped. They’re accompanied by low flute tones. They like moonlight, and every kind of flower, and the movement of fabric in wind.
I wear black dresses whenever I can. Now I understand how mourning is a process shot through with celebration. Someone or something is gone. They have taken on a new form, one unencumbered by the old burdens of the body. Weeping marks this change. We see ourselves crying before we move forward into the chain of days. At the end of this chain a transformation waits for all of us.
How lovely we look as we walk.
Iris McCloughan is a transfemme writer and artist living and working in Brooklyn. They were the winner of the 2018 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from the American Poetry Review. They are the author of the chapbook No Harbor (2014, L + S Press) and their poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, juked, Gertrude, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and decomP, among others. Learn more at irismccloughan.com.