Cancer Bitch Turns a Corner & Runs Into a Wall

Tonight I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, You are cute. I think I have just passed the awkward Sluggo stage and am now a boyish woman in a shorter-than-crew cut. I even have most of my eyebrows back. I am surprised that in all this time, no one's thought I was male. I did have girly-feminine designs atop my scalp and I usually wear two earrings, not the lone little hoop that often signifies Cool Male Who Dares to Pierce One Ear. But approached from the left, I am flat-chested. Then again, I do have a female voice. Today at Whole Foods, for example, I stopped at the Customer Service desk to ask about organic whey protein and the woman at the counter referred to me as a woman. Which I am, of course. But if she could tell, how come other people couldn't tell I was female a few times when I was in my full-tressed glory? My head could have also signified a different identity; last month I met a young person who asked me if anyone thought I was gay because of my short/non-existent hair. I told this young person that only at the Whole Foods I might have been eyed a few times by women, but probably because it's right next to a new LGBT community center.

I choose my words carefully here. I met this young person and I was dying to know this person's gender-- I, who was all prepared to have people ask me whether I was male or female, and to respond tartly: Why does it matter? Yes, I wanted to know whether this short, slight person-- with about 1/8-inch-long hair under a cap, body swallowed by a baggy long-sleeved white shirt tucked into loose pants--was male or female. Why? Why is it so disconcerting not to know? Why couldn't I just have a conversation with a Person? Years ago, a friend and his then-wife returned from seven months in Provincetown. I remember the erstwhile-wife saying she'd been taken aback by all the gay men in P-town. This is what she said bothered her: She was used to speaking to men in a certain way (flirtily, I guess?), and being noticed by men in a certain way, and these men (in stores, for example) were responding differently (or maybe she said not responding). This surprised me. I didn't think I expected as much as she did from men in casual encounters. But I'm not very flirty. Sometimes, though, I feel my eyes widen when I'm speaking to a man who's in possession of stereotypically male expertise--mostly having to do with appliances and automobiles. I guess I sink into the O, what do I know? housewifey mode. I am stereotypically female when it comes to home repairs and hardware, and I'm not proud of this dumbness. But I come by it honestly. My mother didn't change ceiling light bulbs, and as for my father--changing light bulbs was the extent of household expertise. That and killing cockroaches. L changes the difficult high light bulbs because when I use the extender thing I break the bulbs. I kill silverfish and roaches myself. I let spiders out. The other day at the dentist's I noticed a spider, and he caught it in a cup and I let it out on a planter on Michigan Avenue.

But I am moving away from the uncomfortable subject of the young person of uncertain gender.
I introduced myself by name just so s/he would be forced to do the same. Wilily, this young person answered with a name that was neither male nor female. In fact, it wasn't a regular name. Later in conversation I found out that the person was a pre-op tranny, born a girl, identifying as male. And only 18. OK, that explained everything, I was no longer uneasy. I solved the mystery. But there's still the mystery of why I was uneasy in the first place, why I needed the answer to the question: What are you?

And I know that we classify people, and that we want to know the gender of the baby in the passing stroller, and even the dog walking by on the leash. And I know that I want to ask, Where are you from? each time I hear an accent. But why? Because we have certain ideas about what constitutes male and female, and male and female characteristics, and what it means if the person speaking to us is from Poland or Germany (Ossie or Wessie?) and I know I bring certain assumptions if I know my interlocutor is Jewish.

I won't answer this now because I can't. I will only say that in the summer of 1992 I was in Krakow and I was looking for the building where a Jewish girls' boarding school had been housed before the war. It was now a school for the deaf. There was a caretaker couple that was not hearing-impaired, but they didn't speak English and I don't speak Polish. We made do in pidgin German, and using gestures and drawings. I managed to understand that the granddaughter of a former student had visited, and that the couple was going to let me in and look around. School was out for the summer. They asked me, Was sind Sie? What are you? American, I answered disingenuously. I knew that wasn't what they were asking. But I wouldn't tell them I was Jewish. Why? Because I didn't want them to know. Or to know for certain.

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