It’s a busy afternoon at the adult toy store where he works, and I watch him guide nervous women through buying their first vibrators or fun-fur-lined handcuffs. Would they open up to him about their sex lives if he didn’t look like a sweet-faced, short-haired, cute-punk/dandy girl, if they didn’t think he was just that?
I still slip up sometimes when I talk about Kurt, using “her” and “she” instead of “his” and “him.” He’s been “Kurt” since I met him in high school.
It’s a shopping trip to a vintage store. “You’re liminal,” I tell him, as he picks through a clothing rack. “An intermediate position between states. Not just between genders, but constantly about to become something.”
“Heh. Now with extra limin,” he jokes, and picks out a suede blazer. “Here. If this fits, women will be on you like dogs on a stewbone.”
It does fit. The sales clerk blushes and giggles as the short, round-faced dandy in a houndstooth jacket and waistcoat flirts with her, until she gives another ten per cent off.
Though some of his family still uses “her”, they all call him Kurt. He won’t tell me the name he was born with, the one still on his birth certificate next to “SEX: F.” I only asked once, seeing how much the question ticked him off.
It’s a night out at the clubs, and I watch him, an inveterate flirt, chat up straight girls. They don’t quite know what to make of him when he holds a door open for a lady, then compliments her on how well her choice of top, skirt and belt flatters her body shape, but they’re charmed nonetheless. If his medications didn’t make his libido unpredictable, he’d be racking up phone numbers and email addresses every day. Even though he’s twenty-five now, and wants to start transitioning, his other medical conditions prevent him from taking testosterone or having top surgery. He’s already locked in one struggle with his body. He doesn’t need to open another front.
It’s open night at the bathhouse. In our circles, its only a matter of time until we see each other naked. We end up using the gang showers at the same time. The soapy water slides down the elaborate Kabbalah tree of life tattoo that covers most of his back, down his broad, rounded hips, down firm thighs and well-defined calves, pooling around small feet on the tile floor. He’s been working on that tattoo since he was legal (actually, a little before), adding new features every few months. Will he keep adding more symbols, more connections, more layers, or will he one day say it’s finished?
Kurt turns around, rose-red nipples bracketed by the imprints of the athletic bandage that bound his breasts down. “Did I drop the soap or something?” he asks, nodding at my groin with an impish raised eyebrow.
I try to laugh it off, fumbling for my towel. There’s nothing to hide behind here.
“I promised I’d meet Shar and Trace in the sling room. See ya.” He saunters off, white towel wrapped around his perky butt.
On the other side of the room, Sami is also showering, six-feet-six-inches of long hair and bony joints, her body dotted with transdermal oestrogen patches. Privately, I’m thankful for being comfortable with the body I have, pale and paunchy and nearsighted as it may be.
When we hug, which Kurt does often, being very tactile, I can feel small breasts against my chest, a jog bra strap stretched across his back under my hand, my arms around a narrow rib cage. Women feel one way, men another. It’s more than hormones and exercise and body hair and bone structure, it’s a way of touching. I read somewhere that female babies are still picked up more and held longer than male babies on average, no matter how determined their parents are to avoid different treatment by gender. That kind of response could sink deep into the brain. Even gay men, I’ve noticed, are only rarely as open, as welcoming to touch, as women are, even with each other.
It’s karaoke night, and what the woman on stage is doing to No Doubt’s “Underneath it all” should be reported to Amnesty International.
Kurt comes in late, and I almost don’t recognize him. Ratty sneakers, not polished Italian boots. Metal band t-shirt instead of paisley button-down. Heavy plaid workshirt, not a pinstripe maroon blazer. Instead of a derby, a mesh-back trucker’s cap, worn backwards without irony, just to complete the cliché.
“You look like crap,” I say.
“I’m in drab.” He orders a beer from the passing server, without the slightest flirtation, so I know he’s off his game. “The secret Illuminati of trans-men told me there’s only one doctor in the city who will approve me. He expects me to look like I grew up in a trailer park, make crystal meth in the basement and have done about six months in jail.”
Kurt recounts being grilled about his lifestyle until his beer arrives. “Guy’s a complete asshole. Still, it worked. I’m on T.” Grinning, he lifts up his sleeve and shows a row of six bumps, each the size of a grain of rice, under his skin.
I imagine dark blue ink spreading through raw silk.
“Cheers!” He raises the bottle to the ceiling.
I look into his shining eyes, and force myself to smile back. “Congratulations. Cheers.” My glass clinks against his, but our fingers don’t touch. I try to say goodbye to somebody who was never quite here to begin with.