I came home from a magnificent trip to California to find out a friend of mine is dying from cancer. She’s got the kind that’s going to take her out in a matter of weeks. This is what happens when you’re alive. Back in April, another dear, old friend of mine dropped his body for his next great adventure. My life, on the other hand, is a near embarrassment of living riches. Always, when this happens, I look out from my windshield and remark querulously that this doesn’t appear to be the ideal system, this extravagance and dying. “It’s this sort of nonsense that’ll make me a nihilist before I drop!” I say, wagging all kinds of fingers.
Part of it is being a recovering addict: I’m around a lot more death and dying than your average, non-alcoholic joe. My partner’s seen me through six and counting in eighteen months or less, six more than D’s ever witnessed pre-me. The people just drop. (It’s smoking as does it sober, more than not. So you there, dinosaur with the ciggie-butt: stab that stick OUT.) On the road to Ojai, where we will laze at the Blue Iguana Inn, decompressing from the raucous, over-stimulating Los Angeles - the arrival at which we witnessed the brutal highway fiberglass punch of one car into another, then another, parts peeling off and flying directly in front of us before we tremously rode off, shaken and dazed – I consider the story of our high school teacher, Mr. A.
Mr. A, a very engaged educator and young man himself in 1975, took his class on an ambitious camping trek over the summer. Benny, whose blond mop resembled Shaggy’s from Scooby-doo was a lanky, gawky, likeable teenage boy who fell off a cliff during the hike. At this point in the story, I often remember seeing a turtle that fell from a height (Or had he been dropped by a wicked classmate? Alas, my childhood is filled with children and torture and some memories I’ve concealed in a narrative haze). His shell was fractured like a gruesome mosaic, with the white flesh you’re never supposed to see between cracks limned with thin blood.
Mr. A clambered down the cliff somehow. I imagine his heart pounding wildly and his body filled with that sickening silver of adrenalin; I imagine the surreal color and stillness wrapped perhaps in tunnel vision as he picked his way over boulder and dirt. He sent some boys back and he stayed with Benny and watched him die. When we returned to school that fall, all the kids said, “Mr. A isn’t the same since Benny.” It changed him utterly.
I haven’t been with someone as they died, yet. But the deaths of others - a few in particular - have changed me utterly. My own death continues to absorb me, but those of us dying to some gender we’ve inhabited to lease another die in a way I imagine is more insect than human. Bear Bergman remarked that the quantity of butterfly analogies he waded through after soliciting submissions for his anthology of gender writers was, well, overwhelming in an underwhelming kind of way. I am inspired to recall the Monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to Texas, a season during which one is non-consensually co-opted in the slaughter of clouds of Monarchs, simply by driving to work. There’s something ridiculous, sad and exhilarating about driving one’s Honda hatchback through a butterfly storm, one wing of each left glued to the windshield to taunt and chasten the driver’s murderous vehicle. This meander aside, there is something compelling about the caterpillar/pupa/butterfly metaphor, however hackneyed. The trouble with trans is we don’t actually get a pupal stage, unless moving to another city and changing your name can be considered pupal.
My chrysalis is the internest, the interwebs. Here I can hide covered and golden, hanging from my hindquarters in your doorway – you can’t see me here encased, but I dangle the promise of my realized future before you. When and if you see me emerge I’ll be post-surgical, bearded, unrecognizable from the soft and wriggly Samantha. I tried to kill that being many times – so many times I now have nothing but sorrow and shame for the way I abused her – but she had to surrender everything before she would go. In my more Italianate moments I feel like a queered Pieta, a hairy engorged mother cradling the body of her broken daughter-son. Some of us – not all – must clamber down that cliff to cradle our own pre-transitioning form and watch it pass. Others of us – not all – absorb the pre-trans body as nourishment for the new, and turn our own selves inside out like the surgeon does the penis to the vagina. Me? I’m just a sock puppet for my own, and hopefully the heavens’, amusement.
I do not believe this life-death cycle to be the best system. I would arm-wrestle God for a chance to change it, but I had rotator cuff surgery in January and besides, God would play by some rules I’m not privy to thus just pissing me off and destroying my bursa. Like It always does. My own life, however fraught with the illness and death of others, is also packed with the sort of love a barista bestows her espresso grounds; I can anticipate the smoothest of brews and the most savory top-notes. I may be (always) grieving – it does seem like a rather perpetual state – but I’m also consistently surrounded by love. Look at Benny - he lay at the bottom of a cliff with his hand held by a man who whispered, “I love you, hang on” in those final minutes. I have dropped off so many cliffs I stopped counting, but you have always been there at the bottom, whispering in my ear. Your whispering turns to soft gusts, until like paper I float from side-to-side falling down the next precipice, the soft breaths folding paper to origami, until I am a winged thing, floating out into the freeway, watching coyote and cactus. I hope I don’t meet a Honda is all.
I read that every breath we take has a bit of spider leg in it – that’s how many spiders have risen and fallen on this planet. I believe that every inhale also holds a bit of me and a bit of you, too. I don’t always like it and I certainly don’t understand it, but isn’t it wonderful? You, living and dead, are my sigh of relief.