Gender: Hiding the Evidence

When I went for the scan to see if my heart was up to snuff for chemo, I wore the Soviet camisole under a red flannel button-down shirt of L's. He brought me some button-down offerings before chemo. Luckily, I was able to put shirts on over my head only a few days after surgery. The day of the scan I didn't wear earrings because I thought I'd have to take them off in the scanner. I looked in the mirror and thought I looked androgynous. I don't think the thought occurred to me because I had only one breast. It didn't bother me so much to look androgynous but I wondered if people on the subway would wonder about my gender.

This is the abiding mystery: Why do we need to know someone's gender? I remember in the days of the hippies, how Middle Americans would say, in accusation: I can't tell if that's a boy or a girl! The question is, Why do you need to know? Unlike Nora Ephron, (In "A Few Words About Breasts," one of her earliest and best essays), I was never afraid I might turn into a boy if I did something boyish. But I had moments of insecurity. Once in high school a girl named B looked at my fingers and exclaimed: You have men's hands! because I had hair growing on them. Hair that I must have bleached at least once when I was bleaching the hair on my whole arms. We bleached and shaved, a way of lying about our bodies, Adrienne Rich was writing and thinking at the time, though in my teens I'd never heard of her. It was female to shave our legs and underarms, but still shaving was something we did so we wouldn't look manly.

I've been mistaken for a male three times that I can remember. Two were in Paris where I went my junior year of college in my attempt to escape a cloying college boyfriend. In France a person did have to know what gender another person was, out of politesse. You had to say, Mademoiselle, may I see your ticket? Or, Merci, monsieur. Or Oui, madame. The first time was when I was coming back to Paris from London on the ferry, in those pre-Chunnel days. I'd rolled my hair so it would be springy on the way there to visit my summer boyfriend who was spending his junior year abroad in England because he wanted the adventure, not because he was running away. I was tormented because I didn't have a good reason for being in France. Or Europe, or anywhere. He was unhappy that weekend because I wasn't fun. On the way back, my hair fell and and the ticket-taker on the ferry called me monsieur. When I arrived back in Paris it was Sunday night and I was so upset that I called--who else?--the American Embassy emergency number. Cancer Bitch has never been afraid to ask for help. I called a crisis hotline once in college while on a date to hear Muddy Waters. My problem, I told the counselor during intermission, was I wasn't getting into the music. In Paris, unbelievably, the embassy worker on duty invited me to her apartment. (I think I'm remembering this right.) She was very sympathetic. I was very hysterical. I must have gone home to the French widow I was boarding with, and soon I was in therapy with a Greek woman at an American cultural center. I remember being so desperate that once I showed up for the appointment and she said she had food poisoning from seafood but that she would stay for the hour if I really needed her to. Of course I needed her to. Later that year I was in therapy with a polyglot Jewish woman originally from Romania who had been living in Israel. I'm not sure what she was doing in Paris, but France in the mid-70s must have been more appealing than Israel at that time, with its Second World infrastructure and rampant inflation. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) We mostly spoke in French. At the Alliance Francaise I met a handsome Tunisian who'd been speaking French most of his life, thanks to colonialism. I remember how surprised I was that he didn't know the word "angoisse," anguish. That was a daily necessity for me.

The second time was also in France. I had bought a few items from a departing American, including her French typewriter and thick suspenders. Both were mistakes. The French keyboard, only slightly different from the American, ruined my typing forever. The suspenders made me look like a monsieur, at least in the eyes of one merchant. I remember standing at the counter helplessly.

The third time was a couple of years ago when L and I were on our way back from the state capital. We stopped at a vegetarian cafe in a college town half-way. I went in back toward the restrooms and ran into a guy and asked him where they were. He said, The men's is there... L says I don't look male. Maybe the guy was stoned. It confounded me more than bothered me. I mean, I was a married woman. So I had to be a girl!

In college I had a best friend freshman (as it was then called) year who was stocky with boxy shoulders and short hair. I remember she came back to the dorm in tears one afternoon because in Marshall Field's she'd asked where the bathroom was and had been directed to the men's. In college so much matters so much. She didn't have a boyfriend and I don't know if she'd ever had one. She did have a crush. She was haunted by her sister, who was a year younger, not so smart, and thin and sleek. My friend had bad skin and was very smart and ambitious. She'd already been published in Seventeen Magazine in high school. Now she's in broadcasting and is married with at least one child. I know this from the alumni magazine. She stopped speaking to me sophomore year when my ex-boyfriend went out with her and then dropped her to go out with me again. I tried for years to be friends with her again, maybe not friends in the clinging-to-one-another first-semester way, but friendly friends. No dice. She couldn't forgive me for being more desirable. (Hey, my last name's Bitch, it has to come out every now and then.)

Of course, she wouldn't have been traumatized if the ERA had passed and every bathroom was unisex.

Am I afraid that when I'm bald--whether I have a swirly tattoo or not--I'll look male? I don't think so. I'll be wearing earrings to clue in the general public. I've noticed that scarves and hats and turbans for chemo-heads bill themselves as feminine. The flowers and pastels remind me of unfashionable Easter hats. The bright prints and stripes seem doggedly determined to convince the buyer and the world that there's a girl underneath the fabric. A smiling girl, if you look at the pictures in the catalogues. But the world is going to look at you and figure out that you're undergoing chemo, because no one else wears those turbans, no matter what the ad copy says. The caps and scarves are supposed to cover up our loss, hide the evidence of our treatment. Give us privacy, perhaps. The bald head publicly declares: I had cancer and I'm not pretending that I'm not getting chemo. In other words, Death has brushed me.