14th Avenue heading east. Warm evening wind on a face freshly shaved. Usual ambling gait supplanted with pace, purpose, and an inability to deviate from direction. Sent by something. Comprehension of what’s being done not fully present but still doing it nonetheless. Blocks and blocks and street corners and crosswalks. Strip mall parking lot on the corner of Broad Street. Automatic door and the sterile fluorescent lights allowing me to see but not know what I search for among the shelves. A girl at the makeup counter. Can I help you find anything? No I’m fine thanks. No one pays me any mind, just another latenight shopper in the Shoppers but the collective multiplicity of the city’s eyes leering through walls of nearby character homes a century old and newly built vinyl-sided infills arrives on my skin like a sunburn. All watching. An acute understanding of the city’s smallness. In plain sight of four hundred thousand eyes. I pull a lipstick from the shelf and make a mark between metacarpals. Put it back and repeat with another. Another. This one. Hold it like a secret. Move among the mass of makeup products and search for something else destined for me. A few more small selections: mascara, an eyeliner pencil, a small table mirror. Legato slur of paying the cashier and walking home broken by the mirror’s staccato stare alone in my room. Alone yet a reflected face unfamiliar, uncanny. Familiar spirit conjured from darkness within. Finally unafraid to show her face. Recognition that the reverse light I’ve seen reflected in innumerable instances has been exactly that. Inverse, inaccurate. That I’ve never seen myself. I still don’t, only a peripheral glimpse: of potential, of hope, of becoming, of future.
My partner is taking me shopping. New clothes to make me feel . We’re at a vintage shop downtown in the building where she works. It’s a small room with a few racks and a room divider marking a change area. We slide clothes hangers left to right. No. No. This is cute. Ehhh I don’t know. No. No. No. What about this? Too small. No. No. No. No. I like this. Take it off the rack. A pleated skirt in slate and lavender plaid. Hang it over my forearm and continue searching. I gather a few things and step behind the room divider. Untie my army surplus boots. The only shoes I own that have a minimal impact on how ridiculous my outfit looks. (Turns out most stores don’t carry women’s shoes in a 14 and I save cramming my foot into my only pair of heels that are three sizes too small for special occasions only.) Kick them off and slip off my skirt and my shirt. See myself in the mirror. My frame pale and gaunt. An assemblage of angles held together in a thin sack of skin. Ribs jutting out, threatening to tear me open from the inside and spill me out onto the floor at any moment if I move too quickly or turn the wrong way. A wilting balloon filled with razor blades and insecurities, covered in hair from collarbone to toenails. My body stripped of all illusions. What’s the use in buying new clothes when their potential is tethered to their being worn. What use are they while they lie on the floor and I’m forced to confront myself. In clothes I might (this word is doing a lot here) look like a woman, but am I still one when I get undressed? Sigh and grab something to try on. A long skirt, slim and scarlet. Despite tucking myself between my legs and holding it there with tights too small and a pair of leggings on top of that, the skirt’s topography is a bloody prairie plain with a single hill rising between the borders of my thighs. Few things exist which are as elegantly feminine as a dick bulge in a tight skirt.
We leave and head to the drugstore to continue buying my way into being a girl. (New clothes. Makeup. Razor blades. Body wax. Chemical creams. Electrolysis. Laser hair removal. Hormones. Speech pathologists. Counsellors. Doctors. Psychiatrists. Endocrinologists. Cryopreservation. Surgeons. Racketeers.) We grab some things and head home to wax my body. Wishing I could just skin myself instead. Start anew. She butters hot wax on my legs, sticks the paper on. Three, two, one: rip. Repeat. The living room soon covered in a thousand strips of paper and enough hair to make a wig. We run out of wax halfway through my second leg and move on to burning off the rest with chemicals and an abrasive sponge. Pump some in my hand. A putrid scent like burning hair. I cover the remainder of my body in it. A series of timers to save me from my better judgment – leaving it on long enough to burn my skin right off, to peel off my flesh like a rack of well-roasted ribs. Falling off the bone with the gentlest touch. The first timer goes off and I step in the shower. Only a minute to scrub my leg before I have to move on to my chest and then another two before I move on again. It mostly works. My chest proves too much. Pockets of survivors cling to my ribs, my nipples, my sternum, my navel. I grab a razor and refuse to take prisoners. Rinse off again in the shower after. Despite covering myself in lotion from toes to shoulders my endeavours are undone the next day. Razor burn and ingrown hairs laugh at my best efforts. Every pore an angry red mound marking the graves of fallen follicles. Lest we forget. As if I could forget. My body’s retaliation for circumventing rules, for not following protocols. Hours of work undone by an hour hand’s double circumnavigation of a clockface. Never enough to do and be done. Always doing and redoing and doing again infinitely. I can’t keep up. It’s too much. The whole world moving under my feet and I’m running just to stay in place, to not fall behind and fade into the forgotten distance but I can’t keep up it’s too much I can’t keep up I can’t keep up it’s too much I can’t keep up.
Wednesday evening. Load in gear to the bar? venue? restaurant? place which doesn’t know what it is, what it’s trying to be. Pile the amp, guitars, and effects into a corner beside the stage and wait for the rest of the band to arrive. Order a drink and read a children’s book on a barstool for a course on adaptation. Think of questions from class. How things are reworked to fit another form. What is kept. What is cut. What is repurposed and how, why. A handful of people trickle in. Friends, strangers, bandmates. The show starts. A brief introduction from the frontman. Hello we’re thanks for coming out. The drummer counts us in. One song down. Light applause: thank you. Begin the second: midway through the first verse the guitar amplifier stops projecting sound. Check that the amp still has power. Strum the open strings and move the guitar’s volume knob. Nothing. Kneel to the effect pedals at my feet and try to discern the break in the signal chain. Frantically rattle cables in their jacks. Is it this. This. This. This. This. This. Still nothing. Stand up and stomp haphazardly on the mess of wires and knobs and metal boxes and switches. Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you. More nothing. The band is through the second chorus. Eyes are burning stage lights this bar can’t afford and doesn’t have. Something needs to happen. Simplify. Cut out the problem. Remove what’s unnecessary. Unplug my guitar and grab the cable going directly to the amplifier. A buzz and then the familiar shriek of microphonic feedback. Finally something. Jump in on the last three bars of the song. Finish the rest of the set without any effects but it doesn’t matter because no one notices and no one cares. This specifics of what it sounds like matter less than that the parts are played at all.
So much of my everyday feels like I’m on stage and have forgotten the song and the amp’s not working and the band has stopped and there’s silence on stage and everyone is just staring, waiting. Pitiful performances. Not knowing what to do but having to do something. A set that falls apart nowhere in particular but nowhere near home. Tuesday night in Sault St. Marie. A Monday in Kamloops. The poignant embarrassment of everyone watching you crumble into nothing. Or the added humiliation of absent witnesses. Nights spent staving off questions of what compels me to do this in order to fall asleep on a stranger’s floor so I can wake up the following day and repeat the process because even the disasters on stage are at least authentic and it doesn’t matter that it’s a performance, a show, a spectacle; it’s at least an honest one even if it’s different from how I ordinarily act in the interstitials of every day because how I ordinarily act requires more acting than being on stage and releasing all hesitations and inhibitions which prevent me from performing authentically, and it’s these moments I feel real and that no one else is here except the bartender and the other band doesn’t matter at all because this is it. All there is. Everything else secondary. That no one likes it or no one’s even listening at all is inconsequential because I still want this. Like wearing this dress today. The first day leaving the house in a dress that couldn’t be characterized as really just a large T-shirt. A dress that draws attention to what it is. Think of the faces today at school. Everyone staring. Sooted foreheads in the hallways turn in my direction. Giving up my existence as a man for Lent. To cleanse. To prepare. For the resurrection. For salvation. Remember this morning, pulling the dress over my head. Somehow managing to not tear it apart getting it over my shoulders. The top tightly hugs my chest; the bottom flowers outwards, providing the illusion of a waist. Listen at my door for the sound of roommates upstairs: silence. Open my bedroom door and exit. See myself in the mirror at the end of the hallway. Find something I can say definitively. I like this; I want this. I don’t know who I am but I’m at least endeavouring to find out. Not necessarily knowing who I want to be but knowing who I don’t want to be. Finding identity through negation. To say not this, not this, not this, not this, which is all that can be said of anything. I want to be different from who I am, from who I was. And looking in the mirror, this is different. Resisting determinations one way or the other. Have I just lost my mind? Do I really want to be a woman? Is that something I can even be? Accepting the unknown for itself by surrendering to uncertainty and admitting the real’s mutability and incertitude. Trying to parse the difference between self-resignation and self-acceptance. That previous conditions might not have been necessary or conclusive or definitive. Consider the alternative: forget all of this, go back to how I was. Somehow more impossible than becoming someone I’ve yet to imagine. Because I know I can’t live like that anymore. Because I know I wasn’t really living. All my attempted alleviations. Routine. Exercise. Eating well. Socializing. Substance abuse. Counselling sessions. Prescriptions from the psychiatrist. Escitalopram. Wellbutrin. Seroquel. Is it this. Is it this. Is it this. And now finally something.
This essay was the runner-up in the creative non-fiction category of our tenth annual Writing in the Margins contest, judged by Larissa Lai. It was also the winner of the Best of Regina award. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Regina Public Interest Research Group (RPIRG) for this year’s contest.