Listen to this story
I think this story begins at a bar in Greenwich late last year, when New York was under a record freeze. I was meeting an old friendly African acquaintance I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. Some months before, he had messaged me on social media to say he might be in New York for Christmas and that we should meet if he came; to my surprise, in December, he contacted me again. He was visiting family in Long Island, the message declared, and suggested meeting up, ending with a grinning emoji. I knew, from old gossip with friends to whom he had sent flirtatious texts and DMs, that he seemed to enjoy casual hookups, but he had never shown any interest in me before, and I mused, on occasion, that my being trans had cloaked me with a kind of diaphanous sexual invisibility.
He had contacted just about every other woman in the circles of my old life before my move to Brooklyn— everyone but me, it seemed. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him, though I thought him sweet and funny, and because I was from the Commonwealth of Dominica, I always held a soft spot in my heart for other people from former British colonies in America who understood things Americans often did not — how we spelt words, having digestive biscuits at teatime, teatime in general, the colonial holdovers in many of our governments and institutions. I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood — no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano. Still, I wondered what it would be like if, absurdly, he asked to go back to my place. I was in a dating rut then, feeling lonely, vulnerable, and like I had little future with love due to who and what I was.
I hadn’t really thought we would have sex, but now that we were alone in the bar, he seemed to want it, seemed to exude a hunger that made me swallow more than usual. He had never been with a trans woman, but, he said, grinning in the chiaroscuro light like a hyena, that he wouldn’t mind trying something with me. He told lurid smiling tales about the pythonic dimensions supposedly concealed in his pants; one woman, he insisted, had to tell him to stop because he was simply too monstrous. It was silly, crass braggadocio, but I liked feeling his desire tug at me in the candlelight. When I descended the bar’s stairs into its bathroom, I almost expected him to follow me; if he had, I might have paused, grabbed him, and pulled him in, wrapping a leg around his waist and an arm around the crook of his brown neck.
He had no condoms, so we bought a box together at Target. In my apartment, he suddenly kissed me, eyes glazed. He unzipped his jeans. We undressed over to my room, which held the sad chaos of a shipwreck, hidden, thankfully, by the darkness. I had been with a variety of men, younger and older, and I could tell he seemed nervous. I couldn’t tell if he was shy with me or if such trepidation was his signature, but we continued on. He asked me, again, “how it worked” — how one might have sex with a trans woman. At the bar, I had explained my simple preferences — anal sex — but said it again. Right before anything happened, he told me to lie down with him. He couldn’t do it, he whispered; he didn’t think he could sleep with a trans woman. I stared. My self-loathing and loneliness returned in a swirl. I had been rejected, I realized.
As we lay on my bed in the dark, I started to cry but tried to hide it behind my robe, not wanting him to feel bad, even as I felt like shit. I still think you’re amazing, he said, and we could be friends, which only made my sense that I had been rejected for my body heavier. A sinuous fear had risen back up from the blue pools in me: that my body, by virtue of not being cisgender, was hideous, repulsive, lovable only in evanescent encounters. I had learnt to accept my body as a woman’s, yet the unceremonious rejection hit me hard.
I still walked him back to the subway near Barclays Center and waited to make sure he got on the train. My silence was a thick mist around me, like the dense, white rain-fog high in the Dominican mountains, where the primeval trees and ferns grow to half their normal height, and I knew he felt uncomfortable. Still, I hugged him before he left, texted to make sure he reached home safely, and even apologized for crying, because I have always been the kind of person who feels and desires to take away people’s pain even if it means I begin to sink, like a wood-girl from a lost ship, under the pelagic weight of their hurt.
I cried again at home, hating my body, myself. My body, too ugly, too unruly.
But this isn’t where the story begins. I don’t know how to tell it. I am still trying to find the where and when, though I feel the why all around me.
Stories begin when and where we least expect, like a volcano’s awakening.
My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next, stunted elfin woodland and lakes that perhaps once knew the world’s earliest reptiles the next, and then patches of sandy scrubland peppered with cacti and agaves and reclusive ethereal scorpions, beaches of nothing but the grey stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined whole. Her shifting landscapes, for many who know her, are beautiful.
I wonder about the body.
A body tectonic, geologic, at times, volcanic, voltaic, vulpine, vulgar, geologic in that it follows the logic of the earth, its ceaseless tumult.
I have learnt to embrace the kinky, difficult, tender black curls my mother told me for years represented “bad” hair and which, contrarily, friends often said represented “good” hair, even as they disavowed their own tighter curls. I have learnt to embrace the amorphousness of my ethnicity, whereby I am part-black yet am as often read by strangers as Latina or simply one of an indeterminate brownness. I embrace the expansive pansexuality I denied for most of my life.
Yet I do not always feel whole.
What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing, whenever you want it to be? What does it mean when your womanhood, ever in question, terra incognita, is itself in rolling, roiling tumult?
Simple things I cannot do without my body reasserting itself, without my heart beating like hummingbird wings: use a bathroom with slats on the door or slits between door and wall, lest someone look in; try on clothes in a changing room with the same slats; buy a swimsuit to wear at a public beach or pool; speak on the phone without first practicing my voice’s pitch, tone, and resonance, often in panic, and with multiple recordings to listen to; talk to a stranger who offers to buy me a drink because I am pretty, lest he learn what I am; use my Dominican passport, which contains both a name and gender that are not me and yet cannot be changed.
As a trans woman, I sometimes think I’ve experienced puberty twice. That a new life began at the genesis, opening chapter, of transitioning. You have a second virginity to lose, my best friend said with a grin after I came out.
The same body, it turns out, can lose its innocence twice, and more, even as it is also not the same body at all, just as we both are and are not our old photographs and mottling memories.
The body has no simple theology. We reinvent and realign our constellations as we wander; our old sailing stars will not do forever.
Transitioning has taught me that a body can encompass far more than we are usually taught, that there are many architectures of bodies a gender may possess. Some days, I stand, naked, in front a mirror and feel happy, understanding why someone might desire to hold a body like mine in the calm harbour of their arms; on other days, I tilt like a sailor who has not learnt the language of the waves, and feel, despite my self-acceptance, a sharp, funneling frustration.
Perhaps this afflictive uncertainty can be redefined. Uncertainty can ground us, sometimes. We need arrogance in one hand and doubt in the other; we fail ourselves, fall into too zealous a body theology, with too great an imbalance of either.
For a week after the rejection, I fell into a grey, Goethean gloom, the kind of funk everyone could sense with vague dread, like the aspirational dreams of volcanoes. I seemed like I could blow at any moment. This newest, in-the-middle-of-it-all rejection just seemed to confirm, at my emotional nadir, my deep fear of unlovability.
Then I realigned. My body simply is, I reminded myself; I need someone who accepts that. I was still, after years of transitioning, letting others define me, letting others start and end my story. The way to tell the narrative, instead, is by accepting its messiness and, from there, weaving the sail myself.
I rededicated my search, chanting that I had to learn to not just accept but respect myself, curves and voice and curls and all. I would stop thinking of magma and smoke and more, instead, of ocean.
Perhaps self-love means accepting our blue, blue as the colour that is as much depth as lightness, solitude-sadness as mirth, ocean as sky. Self-love means learning the shifting language of a body’s rules — and then when to accept them and when to break them, and finding, through both, the beauty in our landscapes, seascapes, dreamscapes, even our blue deserts.
Self-love is not giving up, even when your body breaks the rules we fear it breaking most.