This summer I am thrilled to get some feedback on my novel-in-progress at Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers Workshop. I sent them the first twenty-five pages of the manuscript about four gender non-conforming people from different moments in time. It’s non-genre, it’s not a humor book, and it’s not a memoir. It’s a stretch for me, and an exciting project, but then again, I came up with it in my own head, so hopefully I’d have some interest in my own damn work. I should also add that it needs a ton of work — in this first draft I was messing around with point-of-view and tense, trying to figure out where the tone of the book intersected with the narration. But here’s the first chapter, in case anyone is interested:
Alex, Baltimore, 2004
Enough moisture collects at my temples that it streaks down the sides of my face, but I can’t stop running or break form to wipe my head. I tell myself that tomorrow I’ll remember my bandana. Now I’m four miles from home and have one more to go before it’s time to turn around. The sun has hit that angry angle after daybreak and I squint to block it out even a little. I’ve probably got about 90 minutes left before my shift at the pier. For the sake of predictability I take the same route six days a week: out the back door of my crappy apartment at the edge of a mostly empty commercial district, past sloping colonial-era pavers and a junkyard, down toward the revitalized harbor, then back again. As far and as fast as I can run, and even though it’s always quiet behind me when I turn around, I always have the sense I’m being chased.
Nobody can find out I wasn’t born male.
To keep my secret, I stay as thin as I can. Hence the hellacious running routine. Jogging hates me, and the feeling is mutual.
I grab the key to the back door from where I stashed it—this week it’s under a small planter because last week an alley cat overturned and busted the birdhouse that was its old hideout. Standing in my kitchen waiting for me is Leroy, a pit bull mix I found wandering around a 20-foot pile of garbage last year when the city sanitation was on strike. As usual he shows his excitement to see me by panting and drooling and wagging his entire rear end. It would be great if he could run with me, but one of his legs was so mangled when I found him that the vet had to amputate it. Leroy doesn’t seem to care or notice.
“Hey buddy, want some breakfast?” I already know the answer. He puts his one front paw on my foot and rolls his head to the side, creating a single line of saliva waterfall to the linoleum.
After filling his dish I crank the faucet handle to the shower and unwrap the bandage I’ve tightened around my chest, leaving a mountain range of red and white strips on my skin from the pressure of binding everything down. I step into the shower and make the water as hot as I can stand it. The pipes rattle behind the light blue tiles that look like they were grafted to the wall 50 years ago. Water spits out at me and I stand underneath, letting it calm down my tired muscles. At some point I’ll look like a boiled lobster, and at that point I’ll be done trying to feel clean.
My soapy hands find my abdomen and feel around on their own, as if I’m not in charge of them.
It’s only a matter of time before my pregnancy begins to show.
Eve, Pittsburgh, 2000
She sipped the coffee without enthusiasm. It was a necessary evil to combat fatigue from working three jobs, but it tasted like shit.
“Morning, hon,” said Burke, the carpenter who was her first customer nearly every day. Eve glanced at the grease-covered clock, high on the wall over the service counter. 6:45, right on time for Burke. His red-lidded eyes were evidence that his partying had lasted longer than usual last night. She gave him a fleeting smile.
She smoothed the wrinkles on her half-apron while she waited for him to nod. Burke heaved his large frame onto a stool and without words waited for her to get cooking. His construction boots didn’t have a scratch on them.
She cracked three eggs onto the grill, and they slid over a few inches, almost levitating above the boiling butter. Four slices of bacon, pulled from their warming tray, moved by Eve with a flick of the spatula onto a warmer section of the cooking surface so they’d re-crisp. In one fluid move she dropped a fresh English muffin into the toaster.
Burke loved watching her work, and he preferred to be alone while she made him his meal. She certainly was good motivation to get up this early. Her uniform was a size too small, which showed off her firm ass. He’d never worked up the courage to ask her out, and frankly, he wasn’t sure what he’d tell his buddies if they ever saw him out with a chocolate she-man.
Eve felt his eyes burning into her. She was practiced at pretending not to notice, but some days, like today, when she was especially weary, it was harder to forgive.
Flip the eggs for over easy, sprinkle the salt and pepper, slip it all onto a plate with a wedge of orange, she finished up his order and passed the dish to him, then refilled his coffee. He asked if she’d poured from his special pot.
“Of course, honey,” she said with a smile.
He had no idea she regularly added her own urine to his special pot.
Diamond, Washington, DC, 1998
The first punch felt like getting whacked by a stocking full of thistle; instead of one solid point of impact it was a hundred needles of pain, arguing amongst themselves about which pin pricks should get attention first from Diamond’s nervous system, which was of course capable of feeling it all in perfect synchronicity. Ze might not have been expecting the assault before it happened, but now synapses were exploding with ideas about potential and immediate strategies for response. Hit back. Run. Scream.
Screaming was a great option, and not incompatible with other options. The sound Diamond made was loud, urgent, and seemed to come from far away. Ze was certainly used to feeling outside hir own body, but this was a new kind of disconnect.
“Shut up!” He gave her an expression that looked like fear, which was funny to Diamond. Hir screaming should frighten him? Diamond was the one with the bruises and lacerations. His stupid jacket, fresh out of a 1980s music video with patches of red leather and too many zippers, looked ridiculous. She responded by laughing.
Ze hunched up the brick wall in the alley, moving from one shoulder blade to the other. Turned out ze was the same height as the attacker. The dumb punk raised his arms again, in defense, as if he hadn’t begun this altercation himself.
Diamond’s ribs were on fire; with each breath they ignited again. Ze pulled hir arms forward in an attempt to protect the painful parts of hir torso. A clot of blood sat at the back of hir tongue. Ze spit it into the young man’s face, without thinking about the consequences of such an action.
He lunged into Diamond, pressing hir into the wall and slamming his fists into whatever flesh he could find. Then he grabbed for hir wallet and took off running down the alley, skittering around the corner into the weak light from the street lamps. Diamond slumped back down to the ground, holding hir freshest wounds.
The stage door across the alley opened, and the club manager saw her star performer crumpled in the storm drain runoff.
“Diamond, what the hell?” Lou’s fat arms scooped hir up and she urged Diamond to lean on her.
“I guess when someone wants your wallet, you should just give it to them,” ze said. Diamond probed a wound in hir mouth with her tongue. “I think I swallowed a tooth.”
“Holy shit, Di.” Lou glanced around to make sure they were alone. “Come on inside.”
“Ow. Not so rough, boss.”
“Poor baby. Let’s take a look at you in the light.” They passed each step to the door gingerly. “I really wish this neighborhood would gentrify already.”
Diamond frowned, hir costume for the drag show ripped and mangled, hir face swollen all along hir right jawline. “Gentrification bad,” said Diamond.
If Diamond was making jokes, ze was okay, Louise figured.
Terry, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1980
The wind picks up and I can’t shut my eyes fast enough before the dirt has infested me. I’m sure I’ll scratch my cornea like I did five years ago. Yanking my hat down lower to deflect the dust storm from my face, I look like a real cowboy, at least from a distance. Cream-toned straw, woven tightly, it’s held in shape by a thin leather strap I dyed myself some summer in my childhood.
By the time I cross the field and pound up the front steps to our house, my boots are caked in any light brown dust that couldn’t hold onto being part of a larger dirt clod. This was once fertile, dark soil, and now it seems like a dream that we farmed thick crops here, mostly sorghum. The sunflowers were my favorite, long rows of joyous yellow, but it’s been nearly forever since they’ve graced our land. They used to make the whitewashed walls of the house glow.
I walk up to the house still expecting to see Sally Jessup’s fresh milk on the stoop, but of course she hasn’t had a milking cow for six years.
Not much farming goes on out here anymore. Two of the oldest farming families in town sold off their land for pennies per acre, just to get out of the business altogether. Father is wondering if he should do the same, but he doesn’t dare breathe a word of it to Ma because she would have his hide. This is her grandfather’s land, and she could leave here like she could leave her body behind on a walk into town. But maybe the place is a ghost already.
I stamp my feet onto the sagging porch boards and pull open the screen door, waiting for my eyes to adjust from the bright morning outside. My sister Helen is standing at the threshold of the kitchen in the back of the house. She twirls the end of the green belt that cinches her flowery house dress tight across her small waist. While I scratch my head wondering if I knew she’d be visiting today, a sinking feeling moves into my stomach—her cheeks are wet with tears. I walk forward quietly, but the bang of the screen door behind me makes my family turn around to look at me. Their faces look collapsed. I walk up to my parents, my sister, and my brother-in-law, Charles, who leans against the far counter, running his fingers over his ridiculous moustache.
“Terry,” says my father, his voice sounding as dry as the dirt out back, “Helen is sick.” A pause. “Cancer.” Direct talk for a quiet man.
Helen mumbles that she only has a few months to live and then she bursts into tears, cupping her hands over her face. Ma squashes her in a hug, doing her best not to add her own crying.
I come into the room and hug my sister, wondering if I can feel for signs of cancer in Helen’s body. We are twins, but our closeness has never been about a genetic bond. I’m the mutant, and Helen is the good girl. I should be the one with cells in revolt.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, and then I want to take it back. I just made it real.
Helen slips her arms under mine, still crying into my shoulder.
Finally we pull apart. I look at her face that looks so like mine, but better in all of her features.
“So you fight it. We’re here for you, Butter Bear.”
“Honey Bear,” she says to me, “the doctors, the doctors found it too late.”
“Come on. Maybe you need better doctors.”
Charles pipes up. He’s worn some fresh wrinkles into his forehead since the last time I’ve seen him. Which I guess is not surprising.
“Terry, we went to Kansas City, to a cancer clinic, one of the best in the country.”
Every breath feels like acid in my lungs.