ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018
from Incomplete Short Stories and Essays
#76, 77, 78, 83
A small story about a trans girl who goes to the courthouse to change her name. Her fears and uncertainty increasing as she goes up each flight of stairs. And, the farther she goes, the more she gets lost, and the more specific directions she has to ask for at the front desk on the first floor, where she must return each time. The farther up she goes, the more empty the halls are, the more bare and unadorned the walls. Finally, at the highest floor (she has lost count of the floors, and there are no signs) she finds a small office with no door on the hinges—but when she steps through the threshold the light is warm and dim, there’s music, the clerk is a trans woman. Other trans women are there, in part to be witnesses to the others’ document filings, in part because they’ve made the office into their own space. It happens in a blur: the protagonist signs her papers, turns them over to the clerk who shreds them immediately, has her info updated on the computer, and gets her check. The state encourages certainty, knowing her name is worth something, but the question is implicit: will there ever be an end to their databases and control? As the trans girl is about to leave she turns and asks a question, anything, so that she won’t have to part from them yet.
Do you ever look up your dead name? Sometimes I do it. I google my dead name, and each time it happens I experience a strong sense of relief, even joy, at seeing that this name has indeed remained dead, at least online. There’s nothing new happening in the life of Dead Name; Dead Name exists tenuously, vanishingly in the past. Eventually—as the old websites fall into disrepair, as they’re wiped from the memory of search engines and servers—Dead Name will disappear entirely. And then my name (my actual, chosen name) will be the only one there to represent me. And if I keep writing enough, my name will be attached to all mentions of me and my life; confirmation that I was the same person all along—when I was born, when I went to school, and when I was able to determine my own life.
Feeling too close to my own history. Realizing that I’ve been reciting it to myself a lot lately, but maybe this is a habit other trans women share—we’re so used to our identities and realities being denied and laughed at that we develop this habit as a defense mechanism. Telling ourselves over and over: this is the series of specific memories or feelings or events that proves I am really trans.
It’s never enough, though. Maybe it's just something that’s common to victims of abuse—the abuser tries to break your sense of reality, sanity, confidence, or stability and this habit of reciting back to yourself the truths you hold dear comes about as a lifesaving response. It happens without even thinking about it. In the end the repetition has the opposite effect on me. I’ve gone over these memories and feelings so much that they’ve become too well-worn; the telling has cut away at the edges of these stories of me. Streamlined by repetition, the details at the margins are smoothed away in favor of broader, starker, more solid reference points. I’m no longer sure if a particular childhood memory is true or if it is based on a dream. Although—and this is the key—I really don’t think distinguishing between actual events/memories and dreams should matter now. Because either way the longing that’s behind the memory or dream is the same and it’s enough to make everything clear.
These questions about gender and authenticity and belonging have always been a part of me, even if I didn’t or couldn’t act on them or accept them in the slightest. And I know that this questioning is one of the things that binds me to the fates of other trans women. Which is deeply comforting—that these doubts are normal, that they make me who I am rather than unravel me.
By dawn they are on the streets. Like revelers on their appointed day of merrymaking and free movement, the people dance their way down the tree-lined blocks.
There are no cars on the roads where the people walk. City motorists have learned better from the previous week.
May 1st arrived as usual with its sanctioned marches, long speeches, brick-shattered windows, and street closures, but, though the sun drowned in red and rose again like it always had, the spirit of the day did not fade.
On the second of May, they took to the streets again. A little less gravely and perhaps more confidently this time around, as if they’d begun to understand all that could be accomplished with a little noise and a sense of easiness and ownership over the city where they’d labored. They took more ground, closed more roads, reached even the suburbs with the festival atmosphere and refusal to work.
By the fifth day they’d returned to the workplace, many of them, but now on different terms. They showed up to see their friends, to take food, borrow something needed at home, to stand around for a few hours if for no other reason than that it was hard to shake the habit of showing up for a shift. But the idea of working for the sake of not losing their position? It was hardly a concern when no one in the city was in a hurry to take over that spot.
The city’s carefully calibrated logistics systems had begun to fray by that time. Trucks hadn’t been getting in all week, not with the roads blocked for miles by the spontaneous parades of marchers with their loose accompaniments of brass ensembles, speakers held in sweating arms intertwined with cables, and all manner of drums. Not enough buses running. Not enough roads or cars moving for businesses to open up shop. Time itself had taken a hit—unless they looked at a calendar, most would have been hard-pressed to say how long it had been since it all started.
No one was in a hurry to put a name to it, but there was a sense of a transformation beginning to take place. A transitional period that pulled toward its final form as the people tired of walking their bodies, pushing their wheelchairs, ferrying vehicles bearing those in particular need across the city in search of a place to eat and sit in cold air. Yet they were unwilling to let the reverie vanish so quickly.
The people, therefore, created for themselves a parallel city alongside that which had been imposed on them by business associations, police patrols routes, and city council decree. Whatever they wanted now was possible. If one had a refrigerated truck full of food idling in front of their building and a friend across the street had access to a commercial kitchen, the two could open the barbecue joint they’d always dreamed of and serve food in the park along with all the mothers and fathers who brought brimming pots and sizzling pans, aided by a torrent of adolescent sous chefs, out from sweltering apartments and into the light of their neighbor’s welcoming smiles. No one had ever seen so many kids running around, scrawling on walls and windows, building shelter from the sun while their aunties and grandmas clucked at them to get on with it.
The people were acutely aware that none of it had ever belonged to them. That what they’d had in front of them all their lives, whether aisles of food or clothes, the command of a classroom, or heavy machinery that could tear through pavement like it was soft cheese, was only theirs for as long as they tended to or labored at it for someone else. The apartments they lived in and even the houses their families had long owned in those tight-knit enclaves of last resort were permanently on loan—they could always have been taken away by a single change of the rules.
Another mark of the transformation was the sudden absence of the police. They’d given up after the first few days of reverie when—utterly overwhelmed and already looking enviously, traitorously, upon the liberated atmosphere of the streets—it became clear that there would be no reinforcements arriving to relieve them from highways which no longer connected the city to the outside.
So folded the cops. What were they, after all, once the tear gas had run out?
Since the start, all they’d ever thought to do for the people was break their marches and send them off en masse to be processed and jailed, and now they had not the numbers nor sufficient control of the roadways to accomplish either task.
Now we are here, on the cusp of the morning of the seventh day.
The streets are bustling, the passage of people palpably loud. A confluence of voices heading out to the parks and plazas to see what the day might bring vibrates on the walls of the buildings up and down the block.
But it isn’t the revelers that wake Alma. She sits on the bed, her posture softening as a dream unfolds. She is dressed for the day, and the lamp in her room shines less brightly as daylight filters in through her window.
It is six in the morning when her door begins tapping to itself. Alma stirs. Her eyes part. But she does not yet move. She cannot move, she soon discovers. Though she is awake and pulling along one sluggish thought after another, her body refuses to respond. She is numb. Her fingers, her legs, her eyes will not move.
It’s sleep paralysis, Alma tells herself. Nothing to worry about. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier. Because the instant she tries to take a deep breath she becomes aware of her breathing. How strained each breath feels, and all the more so now that she senses the presence standing there, just behind the door: someone or something.
The tapping continues. Her body’s distance holds. If she does not will each pocket of air into and out of her lungs she just might collapse, the creeping tendrils of anxiety inform her. The entire world seems to loom over her, pressing in on all sides with its shadows and shards of light.
Finally, the handful of neurons awake and kicking around in her head work themselves around two single words for a brief, endless moment until they break from her lips.
“The fuck?” she says, a little louder than she’d intended.
The door opens and it’s the two of them. Sam and Geena, grey-haired, vaguely maternal even as they grin with conspiracy. They’re about to drag her into another of their ridiculous adventures, and it’s the last thing Alma needs after the sleepless night behind her long day still ahead.
She will not say it, but she’s worried. Alma’s been worrying about this day ever since her girlfriend flew out, and, a year later, every fear has returned with full force. She’s hardly noticed the transformation of the city. Whether it will be the same for them again, whether the three weeks they spent together eating their way across the city and sleeping together every night will continue where they left off, whether all they’ve written in their messages, every pleasure left to be experienced, every dream of them sharing their lives together, will come true, and, plainly speaking, whether they will fuck again, until sore and completely spent, as they’d both written, both ached after those twelve months with an intensity vibrators could hardly abate, or feel distance, coldness, something unknown when they are face to face at the airport this evening. That is what has kept her awake.
Now, in spite of every worry, she smiles at the two women—so much more her adopted lesbian mothers now than mere roommates found online—and brightens her tone so that the question has the feeling of a joke shared between them: “By all means, go ahead. I mean, before I spend the next twelve hours dragging my ass across the river, over the hills, and past the suburbs to the airport to pick up my girlfriend: what fuck can I help you with?”
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