When my father became my mother, gender reassignment in Appalachia
Image taken from Flickr user Marina Caprara
By Justin Burnell
A metallic silver and blue 280zx slinked over the road. Even at a crawl the car looked fast, as if any second it might disappear in a streak, but it didn’t and I turned away. I saw the big-belled wig through the windshield. In the dark cab, the face wore make-up. The body wore something soft, silky.
I pretended I didn’t see it.
“Who’s driving your dad’s car?” Mikey asked.
David looked over Mikey’s head and eyed me. He spat on a dry patch of dirt.
It was late summer and the sun was hot even at the end of the day. In the heat my stomach lurched. Acid churned up from my guts and into my throat. I shook my head to gain an extra second and the world spun the opposite way. It blurred like it must when someone falls from a great height and spins very fast.
I caught Mikey’s eyes and steadied myself.
“My mom,” I said.
“Oh?” David said.
“Really?” Mikey said.
“She’s back in town,” I lied. “I fucking hate her,” I said, my insides steel and cold as I spoke. They assumed I meant the woman who’d given birth to me, but I had not seen that woman in years.
Mikey and David nodded.
“Sorry, man,” David said.
Mikey said we should get the ball, and we dropped the subject.
As I walked home I passed under the sycamore tree. Up high hard green globes hung from their tethers. They always fell early in Knoxville. I kicked them across the street. They bounced over the road into the creek. We’d rocket them at each other hard enough that the collision left them busted and malformed on the ground. I picked one up and pitched it up at one still hanging in the mottled tree. I nailed it and the two orbs burst against each other, their furry insides mixing as the seeds floated down. I headed up the hill to my grandparents’ house.
My grandparents knew the person driving the car was my father, who had been living as a woman for six months. In a few days, she’d fly to Brussels—a place I couldn’t locate on a map, a place where surgeons could change a man into a woman. Sex Reassignment Surgery. I’d known about this procedure for four years and understood it for two.
We’d been living safely across town, but shortly after the beginning of sixth grade, we moved in with my grandparents. They agreed to watch me while my dad, now mom, was gone.
Mom. I repeated the word over and over in my head, training myself until I spoke it like any other word.
When it was just me and Dad, it was only me and Dad who knew how we lived. The bottom dresser drawer stored lacey lingerie, the one above that blouses. Dresses hung in the back of the closet. In the trunk at the foot of the bed were bras with silicone breast inserts.
At home we were ourselves. At home we said and felt what we wanted. At home we lived in safety. Outside, we were just another son and father, watching other faces for any hint that we acted otherwise.
Our world was a place where we wore jeans in the summer because Dad’s legs were shaved. I didn’t beg him to come in the swimming pool or run through the sprinkler. On Saturday mornings we wore big nightshirts and watched cartoons. I tucked my legs and arms inside so I was just a head poking out of a tent. Dad kept his down to his thighs to cover his frilly underwear. I knew how these things were secret, not how they were spoken.
For years we lived in this binary, and I kept it secret with Dad. When I left our home, those things lived in a dark part of my mind. At home we were ourselves. At home we said and felt what we wanted. At home we lived in safety. Outside, we were just another son and father, watching other faces for any hint that we acted otherwise.
When Dad started living as a woman, we were just another son and mother. But the new role wasn’t familiar. I didn’t look at her. I stared ahead and avoided eye contact. I fidgeted with my sleeves and clothes. Rigid, I squeaked out words like an actor terrified of looking at the camera. I dropped pronouns all together.
I rode along to her group therapy meetings. Afterward I stood while the attendees chatted before heading to their homes. An earlier rain still textured the parking lot pavement. The cars gleamed just a few feet away and we all huddled under the small overhead light hanging from the building’s awning. Mom smoked and so did most of the others. I kicked around on the asphalt testing for loose rocks. Most often, people said hello to me then went back to talking to Mom. But sometimes they praised me. They’d tell my mother that she was incredibly lucky to have such an understanding son who stuck by her. Not only stuck by her, but tagged along to her therapy meetings. I stood and nodded, scared I’d reveal something, that some tick would show how flimsy I really was. Each person who stood in that circle in Knoxville, Tennessee towered over me. My Mom risked her family, her friends, her career, and—this is no stretch to say even now—her safety to live in comfort, in the skin her marrow screamed for. It should have been easy to be proud of her at any moment, on any clock. But I couldn’t. When I left that world, I pushed away those thoughts and kindnesses because it was easier.
Running through yards with Mikey and David the word faggot floated freely from my mouth like a dandelion parachuter in the breeze. It punctuated our sentences and offered the same utility as fuck without the reprimand from adults. Sometimes in unusual moments of silence, one of us would say the word from nowhere just to feel it in our mouths and in the hollow of the ears.
Some days that word wasn’t enough.
A few days after Dad left for Brussels, David, Mikey, and I hung in the corner of Mikey’s backyard. The grass stood up green with new growth and through our shoes it felt plum as the long-threaded carpet in the expensive condos up the hill. Oak trees shaded us from the sun. We took turns leaning against the chain-link. Mikey jumped up and tapped the lowest branch of a tree. David snorted. He grabbed it and ripped off five or six pull-ups. He dropped down and grinned.
“We were shopping for school clothes in Kmart. I was waiting in line with Dad, and a couple lines over, there was this thing, like he-she thing just standing there,” David said.
“He-she?” Mikey asked.
“You know, like an it. Some fag in a dress.”
“Uh, what’d you do?” I asked.
“Nothing, man. I didn’t want to touch it,” David shook his head. “It’s fucking sick, though.”
I nodded gravely.
Mikey clutched his belly and bent over. “Ugh, seriously, it makes my stomach hurt,” he said. “Stop talking about it.”
“Yeah, my brother and his friends go gay bashing in the Old City,” David bragged.
“They just beat them up?” I asked.
David scrunched up his face. “Fuck yeah they do. They jump out of the truck and stomp’em before they even know what hit them,” He beamed. “My brother said when I get older I can go out with them.”
“Seriously, can we stop?” Mikey said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
“Yeah, just imagine what they do to each other’s butts,” I said, spitting on the ground next to me.
“Jesus,” David said. “Now I’m going to vomit.”
“Man, if one even got near me, I’d fucking go crazy on him,” Mikey said. He threw a few punches in the air. He spun around and kicked nothing.
“Don’t matter,” I said. “They’re all going to hell.”
They both nodded as if I’d reminded them of something greater.
In preparation for his transitioning and trip to Brussels, Dad came out to the family.
If he tried to ready me for this demolition, I don’t remember it. I’d only known a divided world. Any memory before was hazy and sepia. In this new world my grandmother cried for her failures in motherhood. My grandfather spit to rid the disgust from his mouth. Aunts and uncles waivered in and out of begrudged acceptance, asking how they were supposed to disconnect the name from the face they’d known their whole lives.
My grandfather would stand barrel-chested and shirtless in the kitchen with the phone to his ear. He’d hoist his two-liter Diet Coke to his mouth and gasp after a long swallow. Oh, God, and let me tell you what Steve is doing to himself, he’d say, spewing the words out across the neighborhood.
Afterward, I saw the sun still shined, and the trees stood surrounded by exploded seed balls. The landscape was the same but each step felt foreign and nauseating. The crisis was not that one world had replaced the others, but that all the others were gone.
Unmoored, I scrounged for identity. I listened to shock rock with eye-linered front men. Something in me vibrated when I saw them dressed and made up. I responded to the vibration like an animal, without thought. In school, away from family and long-known friends, I painted my nails and flashed them by drumming my fingers on the desk. One day in study hall, I asked a girl for eyeliner as she touched hers up. I asked her if it was hard to put on.
“Here,” I said. “Let me try.”
“You’re crazy,” she said, laughing. There were no gaps between her teeth. She handed the pencil to me.
Other kids asked if I worshipped the devil.
I cocked a smile.
When I got home from school, I used Mom’s nail polish remover and cold cream before heading out to see Mikey and David. This became a ritual.
But Mikey and David would see her.
Mom would come back from Brussels and the last ounces of Dad would be gone. She’d drive around the neighborhood in the same car. She’d use the same key to unlock the same door to my grandparents’ house. Mikey and David would ask and poke. They’d cough and choke calling her a queer, a he-she, an it. They couldn’t understand because they’d never lived with two identities. If and when they would ask why I wasn’t disgusted, how I could stand to be around him, what answer would I have? She was my Mom.
They’d cough and choke calling her a queer, a he-she, an it. They couldn’t understand because they’d never lived with two identities. If and when they would ask why I wasn’t disgusted, how I could stand to be around him, what answer would I have? She was my Mom.
So one day I didn’t take the make-up off. I crossed the creek where in years past Mikey and I sent GI Joes on secret missions. Sneaking up the earthy bank, the soldiers were always spotted. Under a hail of invisible bullets, they dove into the water for safety. Training stayed their panic.
Wide leaves arrayed the big sycamore. Seed globes hung on as the wind blew and shook the sun on the grass. Fall was a few weeks off but the cold winds were coming. I dabbed my eyelid. The eyeliner cracked when I squinted. I fought the itch and focused on Mikey’s house ahead.
Christmas lights trimmed the rain gutter on the brick ranch house. His father had decided it was too much work to haul out the ladder and unbox the lights every year. Leave ‘em up and flip ‘em on in December. Unless the power was shut off. A Chevy Nova sat on a mowed-around rectangle of lawn. The ass-end sat high in the air, ready to growl into a race, but mostly it just sat there. Mikey and his dad planned to paint flames on the sides but never did more than the primer coat. My fingers traced one last racing stripe in the built up grit.
I walked by the porch where Mikey’s dad and my dad used to watch us run through the dim evening of summer. The two men sat smoking into the night until they were reduced to red cigarette points in the dark. We could play all night as long as those beacons stayed lit. The memory floated like a tracer in my vision, superimposed on this place. And it flickered. And flickered and flicked, like static from the power lines in the air.
From the gate, I heard Mikey and David talking. The gloss nail polish caught the fire-yellow sun. For a second the fingers on the gate looked like someone else’s. I walked toward the deck. It abutted an aboveground pool. David leaned against a wooden post. Mikey sat on the railing. One side of the pool dimpled in and exposed the insides. A couple feet of water sludgy with dead bugs and yard refuse stagnated under the algae stains. Last summer, we’d wrestled and pinned each other under water just like that.
I leapt on the deck. The boards creaked under my weight like wet rope dried in the August sun.
Mikey squinted from under his bowl cut.
“Howdy,” I said.
“Dude, did some girl paint your nails?”
“You like it?” I asked.
David scowled and picked at his cuticles. The back of his No Fear hat said, Second Place Is The First Loser. Mine had read, Wounds Heal, but I’d thrown it away at school. David pushed his chin toward me and gawked.
“What the fuck is on your face?” He asked.
“Oh, it’s eyeliner,” I said. I crossed my arms and leaned against the railing.
Mikey shook his head like he was trying to understand.
David spat white foam on the deck. He asked if I was a fucking fag or something.
“Only on the weekends,” I said, and I leaned on that rail.
David’s shoulders rose and slid back, “You’re a homo now? You suck dicks?”
“Only on the weekends.”
Only on the weekends.
My grin stretched until it hurt, but I said the words over and over.
“I always knew you were nasty,” David said. “You think you can be a faggot here?” He stepped forward.
I couldn’t find any other words. I chirped, “Only on the weekends,” again and my face grew hot. Panic curdled in my stomach and ran up my spine. It grasped my vocal cords and strung my voice until it cracked.
Mikey watched from the other rail. “Why are you doing this,” he asked.
David advanced. His hands impacted my chest at half-speed, but they knocked me back. His mouth twisted into a puckered sneer. He said he’d been waiting for this. The blacks of his eyes froze over with calm.
The second shove came stronger and faster. I staggered back and dove off the deck. David pitched his hat to Mikey, but Mikey let it fall at his feet.
I didn’t hear my words. I only felt my voice shaking, out of control. I might have called him a dumb hillbilly or a fucking redneck. I may have yelled I was a fag on the weekends. On the ground, weak and retreating, I yelled. Years ago David had boxed my ear until the drum ruptured. Now he stood above me and looked ready to cross the line.
Mikey told me to stop. “Get out of here before David beats your ass,” he said.
I scrambled up. “Go fuck each other,” I said. I shoved my middle finger in my mouth and sucked on it as I drew it out to show them.
And I ran. Without looking back. My heart, arms, and legs pumped. I didn’t bother with the gate. Fixated on what was behind me, I came up on the fence out of step. I jumped and fell over the top bar. I leapt up and saw that David hadn’t followed. I smoothed my palms against my jeans. On the way up the street, I paused to stomp sycamore balls, twisting my foot to grind them into oblivion.
She wouldn’t be here for a week, and even then she’d need time to heal. I wouldn’t talk to anyone about her, but when she got back, I’d be ready.
I swung the door open and bounded upstairs to the bathroom. From somewhere my grandfather said, Dammit. The water ran warm, and I cupped handfuls to my face. From under the sink, I took the nail polish remover and cold cream I’d stolen from Mom. I routed the black and purple from my nail beds. The cold cream soothed my face and calmed my hands. I smeared the heavy lines. Tired, I did a tired job and left shadow streaks under my eyes.
To my grandfather, I said sorry for slamming the door. In the kitchen, I glugged Coke from a two-liter bottle into a glass rimmed with acrylic holly wreaths. I slumped onto the couch in the sunroom. The glass under my chin, I let the Coke fizz pop on my face. The trees waved outside and the sun flickered over the lapping water in our aboveground pool. I clicked on the TV. I missed my mom. She wouldn’t be here for a week, and even then she’d need time to heal. I wouldn’t talk to anyone about her, but when she got back, I’d be ready.
Justin Burnell is from East Tennessee. Now he lives and writes in Harlem. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Gathering of Tribes, Room 220, and The New Guard Review.