By Emily Chang
Art by Julija Vizbaras
TW: disordered eating, transphobia
Isn’t it time for something new?
You think you can’t let yourself spring free
But you can
Something primal thrums within you
Words tug at your synapses, skimming the tips of your tongue
Not scalded like black bitter coffee
Soured into the languor of August afternoons,
But something feather-light and fizzing
I lay staring at the faint outlines of my band poster splayed across the ceiling, thinking about the day that seemed now like some prophetic dream. My friends and I had been trying to paint, mixing scorched tangerines with bottle greens on makeshift cardboard palettes. I felt ill, like I was slipping into some warped underwater version of the house, and could barely register that I was starting to jab the poor tufts of my brush into the canvas. Frenzied, frustrated, I nearly smothered my face into the freshly ridged paint.
I stumbled into the bathroom, hovered over the toilet bowl, sank to my knees then down on my back. Hugged my bent knees then let my head rest on the soft rug as I grasped at the icy linoleum. I had recently gotten a hideous haircut and had been attempting to disguise it in wings twisted into place by a claw clip. As I rocked my head back and forth, my short shock of hair pried loose. In the dimming light I stared at my hands, now the shrunken flimsy hands of one who has not ventured beyond the womb.
You feel the ooze, the cleave of flesh
You feel yourself impossibly small
Fetal claws, darkened veins
You can track yourself back
To an ultrasound swimming pool
The sun has risen in my new feverish nightmare, my friends are incoherent, and the house is now unbearably warm. The rooms are discordant, clashing together the worst possible parts of a stranger’s home: hostile and lonesome. In a flushed desperation I beg to be taken outside, anywhere. The girl twin is the only one who is currently capable of driving, and she gently leads me to the car. We drive to the botanical garden, where families mill around and a rising high school senior is getting her photograph taken amidst the trees and manmade waterfall.
“I’m thirsty, I’m so thirsty,” I bleat, my face feeling like a tomato parched in the heat. The water fountain is dry, and the girl twin murmurs that she’ll go buy some water, she’ll be right back. The half hour feels like an entire afternoon. I am helpless, I am stranded and abandoned and I lay back on the shaded stone floor, withdrawing into a corner. The girl twin returns, hands me a plastic Arrowhead water bottle, clear and cool. The refreshing green pervading the treetops is now faintly tipped with gold. The girl twin sits down beside me and blinks and I see that her lashes, the corners of her face, have a pearly glow, too vivid to be a trick of the light.
Remember longing for the sensation of a burnished gold maple leaf
Honeyed as it glides to ripple and rest in a clear cold pool
Remember the pale violet
The dragonfruit pinks
Flickers of neon cyan
In the brow of the girl who sits with you as you lie back
We’re in a pizza parlor, MOD SuperFast, where clubs at my old high school have held fundraisers and I had a birthday party when I was seventeen. Beaming faces of children line the walls, baby's breath and loose teeth, photo collages of my school and the football team, all bathed in a somber red-brick glow. The usual panic of deciding what crust, sauce, and toppings I want has glazed over as the line flows forward. If I don’t like what pizza I choose in a myriad moment, how was I supposed to know it was a poor decision beforehand? I must continue to resist the urge to stand paralyzed as conflations of thoughts surge and tangle within my being.
Suddenly I recall chilly dark evenings, legs dangling over a big wooden chair, steaming bowls of rice and soup that my parents placed before me. All I had to do was eat thoroughly and not make a mess.
Pizza was a treat to savor, to sink my teeth into crust brimming with good things. I feel a pang as I realize I will never enjoy pizza the same way as after a grubby day of play when food was simply there to nourish, how there was no pervading guilty pleasure attached to anything greasy or sweet.
I yearn for that simplicity, but maybe that state of mind isn’t as far away as it seems. For as I pick up a slice of my oddly topped pizza, oozing with chickpeas and roasted broccoli and bursting with red sauce, the wonder and awe and amusement of eating something tasty returns like the prospect of exploring a landscape’s beauty.
Remember the reds
Remember the fermenting
The walls that breathed, spores and Swiss cheese
And the pesto swamp as you ate volcano crusts bubbly in a garlicked boil
Remember all the bubbles in the tea canister like honeycomb
Like spools of gumdrop pearls ever-multiplying
The child the muppets the school
The smiling faces, wan mockery of what you thought this life would be when you were three!
We finish our pizza and drive away, returning to the dimness of the twins' house. I stand transfixed by the arrays of childhood portraits, before the boy twin transitioned. Before their once-radical older brother proceeded to meet and marry a nun, to antagonize and refuse to acknowledge that one of his siblings was a sister no longer. The twins have not seen their brother in years. And yet there he is in adolescence cheekily grinning up on the wall, alongside younger versions of my friends with teeth clad in braces and hair so long they resemble oversized wigs.
We don’t talk anymore, not after he wouldn’t gender me correctly, the boy twin remarked softly to me months afterwards. Maybe he forgot that I transitioned. Better he forget than refuse to acknowledge the change.
Now I think back to the pizza parlor, to the porous qualities of the dough with every sauce and beverage its own sprawling microcosm, its own deep mysterious sea. Why did his brother think gender should be constrained into separate measuring cups, nutritional categories, when it has to encapsulate the vivid ever-changing recipes of billions of developing human beings?
The twins’ brightly colored fringe cuts that they don today are a stark departure from the curtain-like hair in their photographs. Their hair is reminiscent of the twins’ art projects displayed in every spare corner of the wall, their families tenderly crayoned in smiling stick figures and flower blooms.
Remember the pooled hands
Parents stringing lights and beads and photographs
Finger paint and jagged letters
Parents trying their best to preserve the murmurs
Of raising a three who fractured
The absurdity of how his hair hangs long and limp
A little girl giggle and a corduroy dress
Lined across the walls are sisters
Before one of them cut his plait
Their faces dim, flaked and dry against the plaster
Ill-applied paint, loose coatings of dead skin
That once glowed from a mother’s touch
Hold fast to your suburban adolescence
Before you relinquish it
The boy twin recounts how a few short months ago their mother had lamented his dead name in a moment of resentment.
She was upset that I never apologized for ‘taking her away from me.’ For all this time since I transitioned, she had seemed cool with it. Even if she definitely seemed surprised to suddenly have a queer person as part of her family, she’s from Hong Kong and hadn’t interacted with many of us before. I won’t apologize, though, not for a change so important to myself.
Where does a mother’s love go if she reserves it in stone for a little girl and that girl ceases to exist?
Smeared on the walls are the dashed dreams of a mother
Grayed photographs of the land she misses most
As she looks forth at the new life she has released into a world unfamiliar
Plastered everywhere is the pearly haze of reminiscing your womb
The child in me is no longer dormant — she moves as I move, I can feel her. But today has gone on too long, and it is time for us both to rest, as one.
Tuck that little girl in
Under the wings of a mother
Rest certain in the beat of your own heart
Before turning forward to all the world has to offer
Belly full of warmth and good things
Drape her silken cover across her shoulder
Tuck a ragged sliver of her hair back behind her ear
Wipe away her pearled up tears
Iridescent, flecked into every sun-dapple and shadowed corner
Knowing that her sourdough pout will be baked away someday