Today, at the invitation of a good friend, I pulled on my big boy pants and read an excerpt from a book I’m working on in front of a couple hundred people at the Trans Spectrum Conference at University of Missouri at St. Louis. It felt pretty good to air out some of what I’m doing even if it’s unfinished. So- I’ll air it out a little more. Here it is – a random part of a random chapter in what will be a book about a random trans man.
The shoulders of my suit jacket were too small by an inch, and the sleeves hugged my armpits. If I crowded my plate like I usually do, the cuffs of my dress shirt stuck out in a betrayal of the civilized and citified version of me I was trying to give to the book editors sprinkled around the table with me and the others from the bookstore. My knee bounced and I checked the cloth napkin on my lap every few seconds to be sure I wouldn’t have to lean out of my seat to pick it up if it fell. I was sure the suit jacket would pinch off the blood supply to my arms and head leaving me a gasping, purple puddle on the carpeted floor of the exclusive steak house that the executives from Simon & Schuster had selected, and my charade as a dignified small business owner visiting New York City on business would come to an excruciating end.
I kept thinking of my first office job – a call center in Mascoutah, IL where I took phone calls from smokers of Carlton cigarettes who had saved enough upcs to send off for a prize in the Carlton Collection. My job was to make sure the gift they selected from the Carlton Catalog got to them. For the first time in my life, I could sit down to work. I called my girlfriend that first week on the job to tell her I had to stay late, you know, for a business meeting. That job would eventually come to an end not long after I took a phone call from someone holding their finger over the hole in their neck spoke through a voice box to ask how their duffel bag could have gone missing.
The invitation to lunch wasn’t something you could turn down, and when I thought of Steak House, I thought of all you can eat buffets and buttery rolls. My brain still defaulted to the Ponderosa dessert bar with soft serve dispenser even though I knew to expect hushed and meticulous service while seated among confusing silverware.
It was a large table, and I was isolated at the end with stylish and important women flanking me, chatting amongst themselves about important books while I watched to see what size bite and at which interval I should eat.
“Did you grow up in St. Louis?” I looked past the olive oil decanter at the immaculately manicured hand holding the glass of water, no ice. When my eyes met hers, she smiled and said, “I’ve been there once, I think.”
“Oh, no.” I said. I brought the napkin to my mouth and crossed my ankles under my chair. I silently scolded myself for using the napkin before the end of the meal. Nobody else wiped their mouths between bites. “Uh, no.” I continued. “I grew up in a small town in Illinois.” The three women nearest me paused in their conversation and waited. I took a drink of my water.
“Effingham.” I said. “It’s in the middle of Illinois where two interstates and two railroad lines meet.” Heads tilted in polite but tired permission to go on. “So it’s a crossroads.” Sweat trickled down my side, and I knew there would be a lake of sweat marking the back of my shirt. I was grateful for the jacket. “Our high school mascot was a heart.” I continued. “There was even a costume.”
When I give directions to Effingham, I tell people to drive east from St. Louis until you can’t find good music on the radio or cell phone reception. Then you’re there. If I need to reference a visual clue, I used to use the intersections of interstates 57/70. Now I use the hulking metal cross next to I70 on the way into town. I chattered on, trying to fill in the silence.
“Effingham? That sounds like a curse word.” Manicure smiled.
“It is.” I said and leaned for the first time on the back of my chair. We can laugh at this, I thought. We relaxed into conversation about hometowns. Each of these women paused before taking the next small bite of salad and momentarily visited their own memories of home and escape.
“My family is all still there.” I had relaxed too much. Awl and thayr had slipped in where all and there was supposed to be. I stiffened and sat up straighter.
“Oh, so you don’t see them much anymore?” The woman next to me asked. I forced my gaze to meet hers. Her mascara was flawless. Each eyelash was perfectly formed and feathered. I looked in vain for the usual midday clump in the corner or slight smear beneath the eyelid, but I couldn’t find anything to connect her to the girls I watched practicing with Maybeline in the bathroom mirror in junior high. Just flawless beauty with a seductive whisper of empathy.
I pulled at my pant leg under the tablecloth, a reflexive tug to cover up my Hanes work socks with the stretched out heel bunched up over the back of my slip-on shoes. My partner Kris and fellow booksellers were engrossed in debates with their dining companions about the publishing industry and literature, relaxed and easy. They verbally danced around each other in a seemingly choreographed small talk quickstep while I could only manage an adolescent nod from the school dance punch bowl.
I wanted to be interesting. I wanted to keep the waning attention of these women sending half their salads back to be wrapped to go.
“It’s a complicated story.” I began. “I was poor. We were poor. There was no college dream or expectation.” It was so easy to slip into my familiar hero myth where I overcome an early childhood in a trailer on a dirt road to emerge as a college educated bookstore owner.
“And then there was the transition,” I said. “I transitioned from female to male when I was 30.” My attempt at a conversational waltz had become a hurried fireman’s carry to the finish line. “My son was 10 and my partner was 50, so I went through puberty and menopause at the same time – with them.”
The three women leaned closer in. They glanced at each other and subtly,-so subtly that I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t look for it every time I come out to someone- looked for the woman hidden away inside my male body.
I knew I had won back the room. I had told my story. I had condensed it down to its minor heroics and scandal and had caricaturized the mundane. We all agreed that I could never have survived there in that town, as if smallness is sinister and population multiplies intelligence.
But that’s only part of the story. It’s only the part that makes me look strong for running away. It’s not the part that calls me back there every month or so, sometimes less, to weedy backyards and broke down swing sets, empty streets and a full Wal-Mart, no-time-for-bullshit-stares and an extra paper plate in case you do show up.
And I keep showing up.
Alongside the oiled roads in the summertime, foxtails grow in the ditches between the road and the soybean fields. There are no cars, and the sound of an oiled bicycle chain rides with you next to that ditch and those foxtails, and the smell of a hog farm heats in the sun, and a bee sting on your ankle aches under a dirty sweat. There is the big sky and a lone tree waving from the field so far away you’re not sure you see it at all.
That tree, a beacon wrinkling in the waves of heat between you and it, calls you in and makes you set out across that field, uncertain if time stops at the edge of it. And you don’t know if it’s your future forming itself or your past folding back in on you, swallowing you whole under the swell. You just lay down your bicycle and start walking toward the tree.