Creosote and Mezcal

Editor’s Note: Content warning for suicidal ideation.


A week before my doctoral defense, my best friend, Sam, and I decided to down the bottle of pinot noir we had been saving for graduation. As I lounged across the orange sectional in my apartment, the smoke of my cigarette equilibrated against the eighty-degree summer evening air wafting through the windows. The voice of Julia Cumming echoed a refrain through the turntable’s speakers,

You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be

As the lyrics reverberated through the thick air, I began to zone out; the stucco ceiling transmuted into constellations, then nebula. I’d nearly forgotten I wasn’t alone when Sam’s voice broke through the haze, “Did you ever grow a denial beard?” Sam had contorted her body into a U shape between a section of the couch and the ottoman, her legs draped across mine.

“Huh?” I turned my head to face her. She was swirling the last dregs of wine in her glass.

“A denial beard. Remember that subreddit you showed me?” I nodded. About a month ago I had sent Sam a post I uploaded to a transgender before-and-after subreddit. The posts there were celebrations of how far people had come in their transitions. By sharing my own timeline, I had hoped to capture a little of that feeling, but seeing the juxtaposition of my current self with the shaggy-haired high school boy, all I could think about was how Whipping Girl the whole thing felt—as though his presence undermined my gender somehow. “Well, I was looking through a lot of the posts, and fuck, everyone looks like a totally different person, before and after. But the ones that are most striking all had a denial beard.”

“This is gross, Sam,” I waved my hand in her general direction—a playing attempt to slap her without actually hitting her. I smiled. This was jokes.

“You’re so fucking voyeuristic,” I imagined Sam scrolling her finger down page after page of juxtaposed before and after, ogling the unbelievability of the transformations, trying to find the “before” face peaking through the “after.” Her upvoting those pictures that captured a flawless cis beauty. She was being supportive. Harmless in the way well-meaning cis friends are—a good ally. This was fine.

“I didn’t mean it like that, just that you were saying you didn’t really feel like you had made all that much progress? Maybe because you never had the denial beard?” I rolled my eyes before taking a drag on my cigarette. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am that Sam doesn’t take my faux-offense too seriously. Sometimes I wonder if her aloofness belies an actual inability—or unwillingness—to take it seriously, “Anyway, I was mostly thinking about how the ‘before’ photos, they don’t even really look alive. You see it in the eyes. The ‘after’ eyes always look so full of life, like really happy. The smile never reaches the ‘before’ eyes.”

This was a trite observation—the past portrayed as a ghost, the shell of ersatz masculinity, the striking transformation, “living their truth”—each beat a reiterated trope pulled from a “very special” episode of Oprah. But who was I to shit on Sam’s semi-drunk philosophizing? I have had the same thoughts before. They are tantalizing, to be sure, but I was increasingly questioning the narrative they weave, “I don’t even know what my relationship to that guy is anymore, you know? Like, what’s my responsibility to him?”

Not long ago, I looked up my childhood home on Google maps. It’s been nearly ten years since my parents moved away; everything that stayed has changed. I see the cars of strangers in the driveway. On street-view, I could see the Mexican elder in our—in their—front yard. As a child, that tree was massive, a veritable fortress. My past self… he used to push the limits of how high he could climb until he discovered what became his favorite spot in the canopy. There was a thick floor of branches just strong enough to support his weight, and a tall skinny branch stretched skyward that he could lean on for support as he looked out from the top of the tree, surveying the world far outside his neighborhood. Now, the pixelated image of that tree looks tiny, its canopy grayed and withered with age. I scrolled out farther to see the whole of his neighborhood. Barely visible were the meandering remnants of walking paths lined with cacti and creosote. As a child, they seemed a desert labyrinth. He used to ride his bike at top speed through the trails, tempting fate and narrowly avoiding collision with the razor spines of prickly pears, ocotillos, and barrel cacti. Now, viewed from the omniscient eye of Google, they were little more than a small, ashen crossword bisecting the block. I wonder where the awesome majesty of these features from his childhood went. Their skeletons are still visible today, but my memory of them is smoke on the surface of those images. I think back to the child I was; is he somewhere in that map, too? What of the girl I could have been—where is she in that landscape?

“I wonder where the awesome majesty of these features from his childhood went. Their skeletons are still visible today, but my memory of them is smoke on the surface of those images. I think back to the child I was; is he somewhere in that map, too? What of the girl I could have been—where is she in that landscape?”

I trace Stern Drive to University, and up to El Paseo, following the streets to my old high school. The building had metastasized across the road via a skybridge. The sleek glass facades of the expansion provided a jarring contrast to the dirt-encrusted, faded appearance of the brickwork on the original building. Somewhere in those old halls, pictures of my past self are hanging in dusty frames, his smudged finger prints are lightly visible through the dirt and sun-bleached paint of the mural behind the art wing, and his name—my dead-name—is etched in gold on award plaques in the science and math wings. Few of my old teachers still work there—although the ghost of my former self haunts every corner of the old building, scarcely any remain who would recognize him. None would know the woman I’ve become—or the girl I would have been.

***

There was a half hour before my parents would be home. The donations for the church yard sale were in a black trash bag by the garage door. I downed a shot of mezcal for courage. Untying the bag, I swiftly rummaged through the pile of discarded clothes—pale blue jeans, my father’s old flannel, NPR t-shirts, dresses encrusted in a vomit of cheap plastic beads—until I found the black A-line dress. How many times had I snuck through my sister’s closet to “borrow” this very dress, only to return it hours later, ashamed? As I pulled the smooth cotton of the dress out of the bag, I remembered my mother’s mischievous smile as she asked me—in front of the entire family—why she had found the dress in my closet. I had blushed. Mumbled. Then the world had shattered. Now, one final time, I took the dress. My dress.

I quickly stripped, tearing off my over-sized AC/DC shirt and tripping as I kicked-pulled my baggy jeans over my converse. I shook out my mane of red and pink hair as the dress slipped comfortably over my shoulders. Lucky fit. It would not last. Grabbing my bag, I slipped out through the garage, the summer evening embracing me. The Organ Mountains ignited fuchsia and vermillion on the horizon. I could feel the world quake with the beat of my heart, blood burning my ears and cheeks.

But the world did not end. I wound up in the back room of Milagro Coffee, downing cup after cup of Ethiopian drip. Neither the barista nor the customers gave me a second glance. Everything changed. Nothing changed. From my seat I could see—through the café and across the street—three of the traffic lights at the nearby intersection: red in all directions, reflected and refracted in the windows, the glass pastry display, the picture frames along the walls. At some point I must have wandered back home. My parents would see me, and an endless series of uncomfortable conversations would begin. I don’t recall how long I stayed in the café, drinking dollar refills of drip coffee. How long I held onto that moment of normalcy, watching the red lights in the windows. In my memory, the lights never changed.

And when the night’s coming up
You start to wonder
What he’s going through now
But it doesn’t matter

I have long struggled with how to best give an account of myself. Should I try to incorporate that gangly high school boy into my narrative? He was so integral to my childhood and adolescence; however, at that time, the frame that was him was so foreign and incongruous to how I understood myself, and this feeling of discontinuity has only become more pronounced as I left him behind. I began imagining alternate histories, and somehow these fictitious stories feel more real and lived-in than anything captured in the dusty yearbooks and home videos archived in my parents’ home. These stories have become vital to me; they crystalized my past into something more intelligible—at least to me. But the question remained: Which narrative was more a lie? Unmoored and hollow, any account of myself I craft feels absent of anything concrete.

You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be

I silently sang along with the last lines of the song, allowing the lyrics to echo through my mind as the record slid into the gentle hiss of static between tracks. I could tell that, to Sam, the music was white noise; however, to me the song’s refrain had become something like a mantra, subtly pulling me into the moment. Between the warmth of our bodies and the cooling night pressing from outside, my apartment was simultaneously hot and cold—goosepimples formed down my arms as sweat slipped between my shoulder blades and down my lower back. Petrichor from an approaching storm mingled with the fading ghosts of our cigarettes—creosote and mezcal.

“Hey, are you okay?” Sam reached out her hand and lightly, almost imperceptibly, touched my arm. She knew about my anxiety and the depression, but there were things I had never told Sam: throughout most of my twenties I assumed I would not live to see thirty. Somewhere online, flittering from one social media site to another, there is a statistic suggesting trans women have a life expectancy of about thirty. It seems a coincidence that I, unaware of any such sword of Damocles, would subconsciously settle on that age to kill myself. I even had a cocktail of drugs, lethal doses calculated and strategically exceeded. But my thirtieth birthday passed. The drugs found themselves discarded—some thrown away, others hidden away for future attempts. Then thirty-one came, and the suicide date just kept getting pushed back—to my passing my preliminary exams, so I could graduate posthumously—to my defense and the achievement of the last goal I still had. D-day is next week. I no longer wanted to actively kill myself, but I did not particularly want to be alive, either. Like the girl I would have been, the suicide slipped through my fingers like smoke.

“Sure, of course,” my mind was a constricting spiral, “It’s just…” I paused, unsure of how to best continue, grasping for words that could explain everything, but reveal nothing. “I’ve had all these goals on a checklist, and I’m about to check the last box. And nothing is like I imagined—this isn’t who or where I thought I’d be. Fuck, I half didn’t think I’d make it to this point, you know? And now? I can’t really imagine anything after next week—it’s a blank.”

Sam squinted her eyes at me, but whether she was trying to discern how full of shit I was or simply see through the haze of smoke, I could not tell, “But, you’re basically done? You can do pretty much whatever. Move on to bigger, better things – Oh the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss, and all that cliché graduation junk. You can be whoever you want.” She paused to down her glass of wine, and through the strain of her last gulp she asked, “What do you want to be?”

“Fuck, I dunno. When I pictured who I wanted to become, I only ever had these static images—like, I objectified my would-be/could-be self into a series of composites.”

“The witty punk-rock Riot Grrrl?” One side of Sam’s mouth curled up into a knowing smile.

“Right,” a genuine laugh escaped me, “Like a Joan Jett-Didion.”

“I always saw you as more of a Hayley Williams–Dorothy Parker combo. But what makes you think you aren’t already that person?”

The mantra came echoing back, “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.” Objectively, nothing had been resolved, but something almost imperceptible had shifted. There was space, now, in this moment—a breath.

The storm broke overhead and rain misted through the window screens. The chill of the evening air began to win out over the smoky fug of my apartment. I stared back at the stucco ceiling, trying to reconnect the ridges and bumps back into constellations. My eyes simultaneously saw conflicting patterns—a series of redundancies repurposed for separate images, one layered over another, no two mutually exclusive. The record on the turntable had stopped, and the only sounds were the rattling of the rain and the distant rumble of lightning, tearing the sky. The moment stretched and folded into itself. It was enough.


Tegan Horan is a postdoctoral scholar studying reproductive biology. She lives in Washington with her two cats.

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