Authors: Imogen Binnie
Tags: #Lgbt, #Transgender, #tagged, #Fiction
This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in lower Manhattan. It is a terrible place. The owner is this very rich, very mean woman who is perpetually either absent or micromanaging. The managers under her have all been miserable under her for twenty or thirty (or forty or fifty) years, which means they are assholes to Maria and everybody else who works there under them. It’s kind of a famous old timey bookstore that’s been around forever.
She’s been working there for something like six years. People quit all the time, because not everybody can deal with the abuse that comes from this job. Maria, though, is so emotionally closed off and has so much trouble having any feelings at all that she’s like, well, it’s union, I’m making enough to afford my apartment, and I know how to get away with pretty much anything I want to get away with. I’m not leaving unless they fire me. But when she started working there, she was like, Hello, I’m a dude and my name is the same as the one that’s on my birth certificate. Then when she had been working there a year or two, she had this kind of intense and scary realization that for a really long time, as boring and clichéd as this is, but for as long as she could remember, she had felt all fucked up.
So she wrote about it. She laid it out and connected all these dots: the sometimes I want to wear dresses dot, the I am addicted to masturbation dot, the I feel like I have been punched in the stomach when I see an un-self-conscious pretty girl dot, the I cried a lot when I was little and don’t think I’ve cried at all since puberty dot. Lots of other dots. A constellation of dots. The oh man do I get more fucked up than I mean to, every time I start drinking dot. The I might hate sex dot. So she figured out that she was trans, told people she was changing her name, got on hormones, it was very difficult and rewarding and painful.
Whatever. It was a Very Special Episode.
The point is just, there are people at her job who remember when she was supposed to be a boy, who remember when she transitioned, and who might at any point tell any of the new people who come to work with her that she is trans, and then she has to do damage control because, remember, how is she supposed to know what weird ideas these people have about trans women?
Like, what if they are a liberal, and want to show how much compassion they have? ‘I have this trans friend’ instead of ‘Hey trans friend I like you, let’s have a three-dimensional human relationship.’
That’s what it’s like to be a trans woman: never being sure who knows you’re trans or what that knowledge would even mean to them. Being on unsure, weird social footing. And it’s not even like it matters if somebody knows you’re trans. Who cares. You just don’t want your hilarious, charming, complicated weirdo self to be erased by ideas people have in their heads that were made up by, like, hack TV writers, or even hackier Internet porn writers. It just sucks having to educate people. Sound familiar? Trans women have the same exact shit that everybody else in the world has who isn’t white, het, male, able-bodied or otherwise privileged. It’s not glamorous or mysterious. It’s boring.
Maria is totally exhausted by it and bored of it, and if you’re not, she is sorry. Terribly, appallingly, sarcastically, uselessly and pointlessly sorry.
Maria and Steph get brunch. It’s a Sunday morning and they definitely can’t afford brunch. Maria has been on hormones for four years but she still flinches at best and dissociates completely at worst if somebody touches her below the waist, and she still has to shave every morning. But still, what’s twenty dollars for vegan huevos rancheros and a mimosa?
Steph is in some kind of bad mood. She’s nervous about something or sad about something. Maria is trying as hard as she can to pay attention, but she’s tired. She can’t stay asleep at night. She wakes up grinding her teeth, or worrying about something totally productive like whether she’s really a straight girl who should be dating straight boys, or else she just wakes up because there’s a cat on her face, purring. Whatever. There are pictures of her from when she was five with bags under her eyes.
There’s a waiter on the other side of the restaurant. He’s not Maria and Steph’s waiter, but he looks familiar. Maria is trying to place him. The only place she might know him from is the bookstore, but it’s not clicking.
The tone of Steph’s voice changes and she tunes back in. I fucked up, she’s saying.
You fucked up, Maria asks back.
I did, Steph says. Do you remember Kieran?
Maria does remember Kieran. Often.
Yes, she says, I remember Kieran.
Remember is kind of a weird word, since he works at the bookstore and Maria sees him most days.
She takes a deep breath, like, I’m just gonna let this all out, and says, I fucked Kieran three nights ago in a broom closet at the gay center.
Three nights ago, Maria repeats.
Yeah, Steph says.
Maria still doesn’t feel anything except maybe little glint in the back of her head that’s like, hey, maybe you can break up over this. She doesn’t acknowledge it. Instead, she’s on autopilot. She can fake it. She’s trying to remember what that waiter bought. Was he in history? Art?
She asks, You fucked him three nights ago, but you came home and didn’t let on at all for three nights, and you even fucked me this morning without a second thought?
Look, Steph says, but she doesn’t say anything else.
Then Maria’s brain goes into full shutdown in this way where she’s still there, still watching, wishing there were something to say, but really all she can think is, okay, whatever. Maybe Irish history? She thinks, maybe I need to leave. But she can’t leave, you can’t just bail on your girlfriend in the middle of brunch. She’s kind of wishing she were on her bike, about to be hit by a bus, swerving heroically out of the way at the last second. She knows, though, that she’s supposed to be thinking about Kieran and Steph in a broom closet.
A broom closet, she says.
Are you okay, Steph asks. You’re just being quiet, you’re not even making a face.
Maria’s brain is shut down because she knows that there are things she’s supposed to be thinking and feeling: betrayal, anger, sadness—but it’s like she’s just watching herself, thinking, hey, you stupid boy-looking girl, why aren’t you having any feelings?
It’s a familiar sense of removal that has bothered the hell out of every partner she’s ever had. I’m sorry, she always thinks, I learned to police myself pretty fiercely when I was a tiny little baby, internalizing social norms and trying to keep myself safe from them at the same time. I’m pretty astute with the keeping myself safe.
Steph is staring at Maria, Maria is staring at her plate, Steph takes a sip from her mimosa, Maria sips from her own, and then Maria is tearing up, which is new. It’s about self-pity, though, not about caring about Steph cheating. She could give a fuck who her girlfriend fucks. It’s herself she’s sad about. Mopey ol’ lonely Maria, the little kid with the bags under her eyes, the lonesome romantic bike fucker, the girl who likes books better than people. It’s an easy automatic go-to to characterize things as boring but it is boring to have the same exact things come up whenever anything comes up: poor me. If she were a goth she’d tell you about how broken she is, but since she’s an indie-punk
book snob, like, here we are.
A tear drips down her nose and then that’s it. She wipes her eye near the tear duct, where there isn’t any eyeliner, and asks, Okay, so what do we do?
What do you mean, Steph says.
I mean, you boned Kieran, Maria says, enjoying Steph’s flinch.
Yeah, Steph says.
Well, do you want to date Kieran? Do you want to be with me? Do we work this out between us?
You’re so weird, Steph mutters loudly enough that Maria is probably supposed to hear it.
I’m so weird?
You’re so weird! she says again, louder. Are you upset? I know, oh, you don’t have access to your feelings, you’re all shut down, if you were a goth you’d say you’re broken—I know you, Maria, but it still freaks me out, the way you deal with things.
So you’re mad at me, Maria asks.
I am mad at you! I’m sorry I fucked Kieran but it would be nice if I could get a response to that. It would be nice if I felt like you cared at all.
Cool, Maria says, You fucked Kieran and you’re mad at me about it.
She lines up five black beans in a row on her fork and puts them in her mouth. That waiter was definitely in Irish history. He’s sitting at a table across the restaurant, folding forks and knives into paper napkins.
Steph is crying and Maria is eating. Calm.
Twenty minutes later Steph has probably left but Maria doesn’t know because she’s gone. She’s on her bike. The guy from the Bouncing Souls wrote a song to his bike, and she’s singing it to herself, ‘I’ll sing this song to my bike, and everything else that I like.’
Brooklyn in the fall is another one of her favorite things. Maybe she’s already decided that she and Steph are over so she’s feeling all free and exhilarated. Or maybe it’s just that she’s on her bike and it’s cold enough to wear a scarf and gloves but not cold enough that you have to wear a heavy coat and a big stupid hat. Either way, she’s kind of excited. Brooklyn is gorgeous. Maria is in love with it. When Steph’s busy, sometimes she just rides around the whole borough, which is bigger than San Francisco, and explores. There is a zoo, there is a park, there is so much pizza, there is Rocketship in Cobble Hill, there are like four bars where they give you a free pizza with your beer. There are trees and babies and crumbling buildings and there are people.
There’s this whole thing now where rich young white people like Maria colonize Brooklyn history because in these messed-up, post-modern times everybody is desperate for something real, and what’s realer than the Dodgers and New York Judaism and, like, rap music. The problem is that, when they say ‘real people,’ what they mean is people who aren’t burdened with ironic senses of humor, college educations that help them put up an analytical barrier between themselves and the actual world, and the pressure of living with the reality that they all grew up middle class, chose a broke-ass bohemian life, and now have to deal with the fact that they can’t afford the comforts they grew up used to. So they’re colonizing those normal people’s neighborhoods, colonizing their experiences. It’s pretty gross. Maria’s aware that she’s implicated.
Also, hip-hop is from the Bronx.
You can think about that stuff, or not, while you’re dodging buses next to Prospect Park, or nervously cutting through Bed-Stuy, or scoffing at the stupid rich kids in Williamsburg as you stop, chain up your bike, and pay five dollars for a soy latté at a totally independent little coffee shop you just stumbled into.
It’s Sunday so Maria has to work. Brunch happened and even though she’s got all this seniority, she still doesn’t get weekends off. She’s off Wednesday and Thursday. On Sunday there really aren’t any grownups around, though, so there’s a lot of drinking on the clock. Maria feels good about this. She likes drinking, even though she doesn’t drink as much as she used to when she was a fucked-up mess of a teenager.
She rides over the Williamsburg Bridge, which is never going to be boring, no matter how jaded she gets. You can see everything in Manhattan. Your legs hurt. There are always pedestrians in the way, and when you get to the bottom it’s an opportunity to bust unsafely into traffic, cut between vans and cabs, almost get squashed to death, jump a curb and ride up Third Avenue. Bike messengers probably don’t exist anymore now that we have the Internet, but Maria is convinced she would make a good one. She thinks about it a lot.
She chains her bike to a parking meter, punches her card (which is a magnet thing, not a punch-card at all), and drops her giant messenger bag and denim jacket in the employee break room. Her jacket is a work of art. There’s a Kids in the Hall skit where Satan gives a stoner the ability to grow weed out of his head in exchange for his perfect denim jacket: that’s the kind of denim jacket Maria has. Satan would kill for her jacket. Here are its patches: The Bouncing Souls, White Zombie, the word fuck, a little girl holding giant scissors (on plaid), Hello My Name Is DYKE, and, the coup de grace, the whole back is the cover of the first Poison album. It’s not even ironic. Poison rules.
The bookstore only got air conditioning a few years ago, a year or two after she started working here which means half the time when she walks in she’s expecting to be pushed back out by a wave of muggy humidity and stink. It was that strong—people used to walk inside in the summer, feel the hot, gross air, turn around and leave. The vibe is still pretty much the same, even if the air itself isn’t.
Maria has a specific job, but it’s boring, and anyway, she doesn’t really do it. Once you’ve been at a job for a minute, you figure out what you’re doing; once you’ve been there for a few minutes, you master it and can do the minimum necessary without really thinking about it; this is the first time she’s been at a job for this long, and she’s finding out that she’s pushing at the bare minimum, trying to find out where, exactly, lazy ends and We’re writing you up begins.
She says hi to a couple people and walks out the side door. She wants a bagel.
When they got together, Maria and Steph were cute as hell. Their relationship started with like two months of Punk Rock Christmas in New York, but honestly, at this point Maria can’t even remember it very well. They liked each other a lot. Steph showed Maria about kinky sex; Maria showed Steph about vegetarian cooking. A weird maybe breakup over vegan brunch this morning has Maria going over this in her mind, and reminiscing will always lead to reminiscing hard. On her way to the bagel store Maria is thinking about being a teenager in Pennsylvania.
Firstly, she was supposed to be a boy. She hadn’t figured out yet that she wasn’t one. She knew something was weird, she had long stringy terrible hair that she wouldn’t let anybody cut, the insinuation of an eating disorder, which she certainly wasn’t classifying as an eating disorder yet. As far as she could tell, she was a mostly straight boy who just didn’t want to eat sometimes with a bottomless belly for drugs. Or at least, an interest in drugs, if not an aptitude. She liked taking drugs, but she wasn’t any good at it. She threw up a lot. People in New York take ecstasy or coke in big faux-squalid converted lofts, a dozen stops out on the L or M trains, but where she grew up, they took drugs on the nights they went camping, out in the fields of friends’ families’ farms. They used to take heroin, too, do lines of it, but nobody in New York seems to. Maybe heroin is kind of nineties. She still misses it though. As far as Maria is concerned, snorting heroin and then lying face down on the floor for forty-five minutes is like the definition of awesome teenage irresponsibility.