On the Brink of Something Big

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It is Thursday, October the third, two thousand and thirteen. I am lying awake in bed at almost four in the morning in the small bedroom of my host mom’s apartment in Alto Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina—a room whose femininely floral wallpaper was in just a couple of minutes going to be quite apt.

I’m not doing well.

Twenty-eight days have passed since my boyfriend told me he wanted to break up with me. This is the third or fourth night this week I’ve stayed up this late. He broke up with me on my parents’ wedding anniversary, and although my best friend on my study abroad program Alex took me to get a mani/pedi that Friday, and although I am in Argentina, and seeing and doing things I have never seen nor done—like working with transgender sex workers and dancing the tango queerly, for starters—and although I told him when we Skyped that Thursday that it must, in fact, be for the best, I miss him. I have started laying the plethora of my host mom’s pillows alongside me when I sleep just to remember what it felt like to have a human being breathing and wanting beside me, but even so, I am running out of things to hold onto.

Something else is nagging me too. I have recently started identifying as genderqueer but without really knowing what it meant (but knowing that the now two times I have done drag, something strange—a familiar and unknown force of some kind—drilled an iron pipeline straight down through my ribs into the thick of something deep, dark, and small, and I felt truly beautiful for the first time). This feeling has been more recently thrown into relief on account of my internship here with Capicüa, a local LGBT grassroots organization. They are buena gente, all of them, and have truly become a family for me while I am gone. About half the staff of Capicüa identifies as transgender, and not one of them has done all that “stuff” I have always associated with the term: hormones, surgeries, exaggeration, abjection. They are mysteriously happy, as they are, living and working and falling in love and screwing up and starting over, like anybody else, only living in a different gender of the one everybody told them to be when they were growing up.

* * *

At 8:43PM on Wednesday, October the 2nd, 2013 (just seven hours ago), I begin talking to a friend on GChat.

“oh i guess i should tell you something,” I type. “i’m kind of changing my name / not legally / but like / in my life”

“to what?” asks Scott.

“b.” I write, explaining how I preferred its androgynous vibe.

“b it is,” says Scott. I thank him.

“how are you feeling Genderwise?”

I tell him about recently referring to myself with gender-neutral pronouns and I write, “i’m feeling pretty terrified / every step i take in this direction is a terrifying one and i think about how much more comfortable is being [old name] and not shaving every other day as opposed to once a week like before”

He asks me how else these changes are manifesting themselves in my daily life.

“i’ve been going through my canon of poems that i’ve written / and slamming them to myself / when i’m alone / but in a higher octave / just to see how they change” I also tell him about my growing hair and how I am finding new things to do with it, and how I don’t really feel gender neutral like the pronouns I have tried but not really like a woman either, so until I figure this conundrum out a little more I don’t want to label it.  We leave it at that.

I couldn’t tell you what transpired over the course of the last seven hours, only that by four in the morning (and by now we have moved safely into Thursday, October the third), now, when I still hadn’t gone to bed, something inside me—the iron piping, perhaps—at long last collapses, and amidst the rushing substance now flooding throughout my frame that feels something like poison and everything like light, I say to myself,

“Well, that’s that.”

* * *

At about seven or eight in the evening on Tuesday, October the eighth, two thousand and thirteen, I board an overnight bus at the Estación Retiro headed for San Miguel de Tucumán, a city in the Northwest region of Argentina.  I am headed for the Salta and Jujuy provinces, a vast and diverse desert through which the Andes run.  For the following week I am to hike and write and travel and pray, spending each night in a different town as I work my way farther and farther up toward Paraguay.

As the bus pulls out from the station there is a terrifying sensation of finality about all of this—that this vehicle will take me far from who I have been, and what I have grown, that my life is beginning unstoppably again and I’m not entirely certain that I want it to.

When I awake on the bus in the morning (now Wednesday, October the ninth, two thousand and thirteen) it is already my twenty-first birthday.  I neither see anyone who I know nor have a single drink of liquor, but I do hike to the top of el Cerro de la Cruz overlooking little Tafí del Valle, the first town of many this week, and although I do not yet fully believe it, scream “¡SOY ELLAAAAAAAAAA!” and feel good.

Over the following days I am continually overcome with the immense, majestic beauty of it all. I wish that words could explain how——but instead I take four thousand photos in eight days. I have to keep these mountains with me, somehow.

On Friday, October, the eleventh, two thousand and thirteen, I go hiking through a rough section of a dried-up riverbed, crawling into rock-crannies and emerging anew atop them. I find four waterfalls along the way, finally submerging myself in the fourth. I think that maybe this is God baptizing me as the new person I am now becoming.

En la tarde del próximo día—sábado, octubre el duodécimo, dos mil trece, he avanzado al pueblito Purmamarca. Me pruebo una blusa en una tienda, y cuando la trabajadora me avisa que sea para mujer, le digo “No, tengo amigas…” La compro. Eventualmente, contrato a un conductor, Alfons, para llevarme a las Salinas Grandes, un campo inmenso de sal donde antes había un mar.

Vamos en su coche. Duran noventa minutos para llegar, y él maneja por una rutita enrollando unas montañas más grandes en que he estado en mi vida. En un momento, pasamos a través de unas nubes y luego, por encima de ellas. La vista es increíble. Cuando bajamos en la dirección de las Salinas, el sol ya ha empezado a bajar también. Y de repente las veo. Comprenden la más bonita cosa que alguna vez he visto. Un escalofrío me pasa e imagino cómo tenía que parecer hace milenios, y cuando lo imagino, una canción comienza a tocar en mi cabeza, una que canté en mi campamento clerical como niña. Interpreto esto como señal que el Dios me está bautizando realmente, o más profundamente, esta vez. El viento es fuerte en las Salinas, y sólo me quedo por quince minutos, pero relleno mis bolsillos con pedazos de sal, y agradezco a Dios por su Creación.

On the fifth day of the trip (October the thirteenth, two thousand and thirteen—a Sunday, fittingly), I arrive at the farthest north point in my expedition in the tiny town of Iruya, population 1,070, but that on this day holds many more for an enormous and annual religious festival. Blue tarp tents fill the valley with those who have come, some grilling meats in the middle of the path, others dancing in bright costumes and masks. People look at me strangely the whole day, and not only for the uncommon color of my skin in this region of Argentina.  My transfemininity already seeps outward like a glow I cannot control, and so I go hiking alone.

The topography is at times steep, and always stony. The trail sometimes winds thin around the mountain. I know that it is stupid for me to be out here by myself, having told no one I was coming, but I also know that I cannot continue with this excuse for a lifetime, nor even with this last incredible week. I climb higher and higher.

By now I have grown weary of this impossible revelation: if my life is to change in a self-actualizing evolution, then why am I still so unhappy?  I know logically that I must be trans, of course, but emotionally, I still cannot believe it. The substance that has now circulated through the entirety of my veins and arteries and made itself a home in my body still feels everything like light, but still something like poison as well.  I feel sick constantly, scared of all that surely awaits me.  I think about how deeply discontented I have always been living as the wrong person, and I think about how much easier that was.  There is no one around, now, just me, the mountain, the Lord, and the wondering what would happen if I were to fall and no one came to look for me, if life stopped here, on the brink on something big and never stepping over.

And as I reach the top of a hill (the mountain still stretching far above me), the lingering unease dissipates with the swooping alight of another revelation, one that explains the years of chasing after men for all the wrong reasons; for trying to vomit when the food and fear of Something was all too much; for trying to make myself into many things, none of which I ever was, nor could be, and hating myself when I couldn’t; for being small; for being wrong; for being that which is not; for not being; for needing to stop—I stop.

Training my body to compress and quell my transgender identity for twenty-one-years-minus-six-days has disastrously ruined any semblance of self-worth I might have otherwise enjoyed.  But as I stand here, in the sun, beneath the bluest of skies that ever I have seen, I finally see that I have blamed this familiar and unknown force for so very much in my life when really, all she wanted to do was to be.  To Bea.

When I come down the mountain I revise the letter one last time, scratching out entire paragraphs and adding entire new ones.  I will keep those three heavily edited papers forever.

I finish my empanadas, my bottle of Malbec.  I look out over little Iruya at night—not so well lit now, still noisy from the religious revelers, protected above by a glittering dome of all the stars you never see in Chicago.  I go to bed.

Tomorrow I will begin my slow return southeast, toward Buenos Aires.  Toward real life, toward coming out.  Toward a life that did not end on a mountain, but rather began.  No longer on the brink.

I am already living in the something big.

Article by Bea Sullivan-Knoff