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Table of Contents

Reverse Gender

  • Fiction by D.V. Glenn

Yell her name and thoughtlessly toss the workout duffle bag on the coffee table where junk mail and overdue bills are steepled and strewn across the surface. She will complain about the mess as she has done almost every day of this three-year marriage that relentlessly trembles toward the impasse of irreconcilable differences like the hand of a drunk man at 3:00 a.m. striving to fit the key in the lock, scratching and scarring the darkness that the niggardly porch light cannot dispel. Do not use the word “niggardly” because it is a transparent husk through which the dark seed in the middle glows with malevolence, threatening to burst into sudden ugly prominence and spread spiky suffocating leaves. Laugh dolefully, bitterly, because it would occur to no one else that for example the odious word “kike” would most assuredly never have been inserted like a poisonously beating heart into a legitimate synonym for parsimonious called “kikeardly” and been tolerated, neither that nor any other racial epithet. The mercury of hatred climbs in proportion to the degree of melanin in pigment. Let this thought whither before it blossoms into a wild garden of hopeless societal indictment.

Look at the duffle bag stuffed with comforting accoutrements of masculinity, jock strap in its humid fetal twist, keg-like container of Creatine, Nikes fashioned with NASA bulk and sophistication to crush and flatten gravity in the chunky threads of pounding soles, sweat-mooned T-shirt sleeveless to reveal thistle of armpits and accentuate biceps because there is nothing covering them. Consider removing the workout bag as the sort of small but significantly effortful “gesture of accommodation necessary to ensure the longevity of any healthy relationship” that the marriage counselor speaks of in the weekly Friday night sessions. Do not think of the snug small bear of dark allurement that surfaces from hibernation between the marriage counselor’s legs as she crosses them and the gray Anne Klein skirt slides higher to mold thighs voluptuously before her fingers fret the hemline down – a despicable observation given the context of the sessions. Consider therefore removing the workout bag but instantly erect a Tinker Toy architecture of rationalization, a tiny city where one segment of the citizenry begins to be almost robotically preoccupied with all the regulations and edicts imposed by another segment of the citizenry and is slowly stripped of independent action and thought. Leave the workout bag where it is and wander into the bedroom. Wonder briefly at the cheerless centrality that Tinker Toys occupied in a childhood spent avoiding other kids who scribbled streets in a territorial hopscotch with chalk of cruelty, a childhood spent sequestered in the bedroom to escape their taunts (“proper talkin’ sissy”), their always airborne fists. Brood on the probable fissures this may have left in the foundation of self image and take note of the black lacy maze of panties, bra, slip, sheer Haines nylons left on the bedspread. Fail to see how this is any different from the workout duffle bag on the coffee table. Sit on the doughy edge of the bed, hear the telephone on the dresser ring, do not answer it but listen as the machine engages with a modest beep: “You home? Guess not. Me and Tricia are gonna stop off at Acapulco’s for some salsa and chips, maybe a margarita.” Hear the beep once again, this time with something disconsolate and dimly ominous about it.

A mere year ago the invitation to join them was always extended, the last word heard in the message was “sweetheart” but that was then and now, now the absence of endearment and invitation nervously fingers some trigger of aloneness and regret, the barrel pointed straight at the chest like a mugger’s gun. As though struggling to lift some barbell straddling the heart, make an attempt, rendered feeble with the weight of something like emotional exhaustion, to remove obstacles and find the clean clear space below the causes and origins of so much spite and so many recriminations that press bones deeper into chest. Think, don’t feel. Dismiss the suspicion that the reasons for this growing estrangement are self-generated, a cataract of neglect that has been allowed to film the eyes, dulling the sight of her, or no, crushing the nugget that initially sparkled in her, the inner diamond compressed to a lump of coal. But mull over how it is impossible to see another person day after day and retain that freshness, the sparkle – just shrug, attribute it to human nature. Do not think, “What kind of man have I become?” Decide to take a shower – this may, or may not, be therapeutic.

When the doorbell rings feel solar plexus contract in a wedge of anxiety and walk back through the living room slowly, each step a freefall as though from a high ledge crumbling into air. Jerk the door open and see no one. See no one. See nothing. No visitor, no solicitor, no arrogantly apologetic Dominos delivery boy trying to find the right apartment. Detect neither scent nor subtle displacement of air’s volume, which would leave the still shimmer of another human being’s recent departure. Calculate that this has been happening off and on for a month, and only when Paula is not here. The doorbell ringing. erking the door open. There is no sound of children running, no evidence of youngsters playing pranks. No flyers have been left on the welcome mat, no advertisements, no newspaper. Listen to the dreamy tinkling of wind chimes from somewhere, an airy confetti of toy-like tones. Whisper something that has no meaning, an expulsion of vowels and consonants, a phrase unstructured by syntax. Stand very still, as though being watched by eyes that are everywhere, nowhere. Say aloud, arms hanging impotently at sides, “Fuck you,” but say it softly, without conviction. Do not use the word “impotently” for obvious reasons, especially in conjunction with the word “fuck.” The ringing of the doorbell, then nothing. Take inventory of all the things that have failed to make an appearance over the course of this lifetime, the absence of the providence or luck that seems to lead others to the right place at the right time, no welcome embrace of life-altering events, no sequence of moments combining propitiously in the lottery of the random world … suddenly forget what has launched this spiral of thought. Remember again, like fingers snapping. Someone had been here, someone perhaps with a message to deliver, someone who would extend a box gift wrapped in vapor, a broken alarm clock, a withered branch. Someone who, if convinced to stay and stand and stare unblinkingly at this man holding open the door, would whisper hoarsely that the time has finally arrived or already passed, then turn and walk quickly away with lowered head. Wait, dear god, don’t go, what is it? Watch the figure retreat. Come back, please, no more of these fucking charades, all this useless mystery, say something, what’s the meaning of the broken alarm clock, the withered branch, the box gift wrapped in vapor? Silence like thick slices of bread and these thin thoughts sandwiched in the middle. Close the door now and follow the trail of heartbeats that had fallen like fairytale breadcrumbs back into the bedroom. Think, “What is all this business with bread?” so that laughter like butter can smooth the walk to the bedroom.

Begin to remove clothes, though with no intention of showering. Women stand before long mirrors and seem reconciled to the reflection. Paula, disrobing, always watches herself, wishing for less weight here, more there, reading the body dismissively as though it were a Sidney Sheldon novel, merciless in self-assessment but never questioning the echo of herself in the mirror. Try doing what she does. Naked now, gaze into the mirror. Biceps seem permanently flexed from weightlifting, the thighs from running seem a sturdy trellis for vines of vein. Stare at the pubic hair as though it were a dark corridor leading to a door a sane man would be afraid to open. Look at the valve-shaped penis, recall that Paula and her female friends laughingly refer to it – not this particular one but penises in general – as “package” or “unit.” Suppress opinions because isn’t self-image suspect and therefore unreliable? Realize that something is missing, some filament essential to irradiate understanding, this void now enjoining the hand to assume the shape of an examination table with the penis placed on it carefully like a sedated patient. Reflect on the pain that people inflict on themselves, especially young girls who burn forearms with cigarettes, slice thighs with razors, whittle themselves away with the stiletto of anorexia, and imagine the unit’s pain if skimmed forcefully with a scalpel. This is what Paula did to herself when she was younger, a troubled teenager living in Detroit, or so she had explained: Hurt yourself before others have the opportunity, savor the irony of the preemptive strike, because no self-respecting guy finds a serious challenge in further mutilating already damaged goods. She had said, Better to hurt yourself rather than to transfer that power to a stranger. She had said, Isn’t this at the root of the appeal of virginity for men? She had said, If it’s fair to say a woman is nothing but a parody of a man, something stripped by castration of an inalienable power, and you add the dynamic of race, then do you know what a black woman in America is? – A black woman in America is a just nigger without a dick. She had said …

The doorbell rings, followed by a soft melting thud, like a dome of ice cream slipping from cone to floor before it reaches the salivating mouth of a child.

Snatch a towel hanging from the bathroom doorknob and wrap it around the waist, then run through the living room. Towel trailing in flap and float enhances the impression of gliding, moving ghostlike forward. Glide on, the balls of the feet skimming carpet. Jerk the door open. Feel without hearing the rake of wind as though gusting off a tumbleweed prairie far away. Refrain, restrain, suppress. Looking right and left see nothing, no one, then catch in the pinched periphery of the right eye a dark object, a shape. Command head to turn and drop. Allow vision to spear the tiny body of a bird, dead from impact against the living room window to the right and above the mailbox.

A box gift wrapped in vapor. A broken alarm clock. A withered branch. A dead baby bird.

She had said, Better to hurt yourself than to transfer that power to a stranger.

The messenger has departed, leaving silence and secrets and a counterfeit currency of stillness.

Recall gliding through the living room ghostlike.

Peer down the row of identical townhouses and notice that at the very end there is something happening. Squint to pull everything closer. Observe what appears to be a family of four people with expressionless faces standing over a stretcher as though they are suspended in an aquarium of gelled muted activity. Two paramedics lift the ends of the stretcher and bear it away so that the wheels, spinning helplessly in the air, grieve for contact with solid ground. Step out, around, careful to avoid the sparsely feathered baby bird lying in the center of the welcome mat, its new nest of forever thwarted flight. Stare at the body on the stretcher, tucked cylindrical in a sheet, the mummy sheet pulled over the head.

Try doing what she does and stand nude before the mirror. Do not ask where the towel is or at what point the towel became problematic in this respect. Where is the towel? Where is the box, the broken alarm clock, the withered branch? They are perhaps with the bird, in the bird. The location of the bird is most certainly known. Recall the words of the marriage counselor, “Embark on a journey of empathy, not a journey of refusals.” Postulate that knowledge of the unknowable, an alternate identity, might be achieved by an act as simple as that as the rearrangement of anatomical parts on an unremarkable flesh and blood mannequin. Conclude that the body, this body standing here that resembles a mannequin, is perhaps good fortune, a lesser omen, and might be a place to start, a point of departure and arrival both. Start with the obvious. It’s obvious now, isn’t it? Walk to the bed and sit on its doughy edge, picking up the black nylon stockings.

Think about the guys, why twice a week the chessboard-in-motion of the basketball game played at the YMCA should be so important, a ritual that bridges the gulf between boyhood and manhood and achieves quintessence not on the sweat-puddled court but in the locker room, where rough palms and rough wet towels slap a Morse code of dire camaraderie on muscular asses. Does the ritual have anything to do with the box, the clock, the branch? What would the guys think of what’s about to be done here in the bedroom? Men are natural explorers, venturing from the place they know to discover other places, while women embark on expeditions to arrive deeper into places they never left. Wonder which this is, how the guys, busy bouncing basketballs, would see it.

Reverse gender.

Try to remember the order, like seasons, in which Paula dresses – stockings first, then shoes, next slip and then panties and bra … something like a spring, summer, winter, fall of undergarments? – but fail to recapture the sequence of progression, experience instead a brief jumbled autumn of confusion. Improvise, try to imagine what would be natural. Take the spineless eel of the nylons and lay them as though on display across the palm of one hand. Mash one of the stockings into a bunch, point the toes and insert the right foot, begin to tug. When Paula does this the stocking is already compressed into something like a ball and then she neatly unrolls it up, nothing at all like this collapse of effervescence in the hands. Pull. Feel the hairs of the calf snip and snag at the fabric, read the biting alphabet of hairs as though scribbled beneath the black papery translucence of the stocking. The calf is a pregnancy of flesh, a pendant gourd around which the stocking with difficulty spills its stretch, but then it slides easily over the hard anger of the kneecap and begins to rise nicely around the football bulge of the lower thigh. Compare the thigh to the widening bell of a tuba, but hear the ascent of the nylon as a slurring flute. Do the same with the other leg and stand, the stockings tight and clinging desperately to skin like a raft that clings with all its might to waves as it splinters and sinks. Note with relief that there is no enjoyment other than that which attaches to a dry determination to see this complex pantomime through. Avoid as yet reflections that lurk in the mirror. As though watched by eyes that are everywhere, nowhere, look around the room.

Feel, don’t think.

Suddenly remember how many years ago Uncle Elroy came every Saturday afternoon to the house when the family lived in Milwaukee, offering advice and instruction in self defense, an ex-middleweight boxer on the amateur circuit who was the masculine fulfillment of Mother’s hint of broad shoulders and sturdy musculature, a promising talent until battles with alcohol took the place of opponents in the ring. Uncle Elroy, wearing the long Navy pea coat he always wore even as the smoldering viscera of August summer squeezed a last cramp of sweat from the body. See again the first thing Uncle Elroy does when he enters the house, which is to find the Tinker Toy boy hiding in the bedroom and sweep back the wings of the unbuttoned coat, thrust his gigantic stomach into the boy’s face, and with his great sculptured fists beat upon the booze-bloated keg of his own abdomen in illustration, bidding with baritone bark the child to similarly strike it. This right here and now for your pummeling pleasure is those other kids out there waiting for you, he says, those other little black heathen bastards. Mother watches, uncertain as to the validity of the wisdom being transmitted. Bounce, bounce the stomach closer to face. They call you punk, do they not? I’m told they call you a proper-talking sissy. Bounce, bounce the stomach closer to face. Flash of pint bottle like a fang from an inner pocket of the coat. Because you know the difference between a noun and an adjective, you have to TAKE THEIR SHIT?! But the Tinker Toy boy loved Uncle Elroy too much to assault the stomach and never did as he was exhorted. Look now into the corner of the room. Mightn’t Uncle Elroy be over there, hiding behind the curtains? Reason that if theologians are right and death is but a passing over, then there must be dead who do not pass over, for reasons the living will never understand, and that those who do not are here, because where else could they go if they don’t pass over? Decide to stage a belated exhibition for Uncle Elroy, who must always have been secretly disappointed that the boy’s fist refused to pummel the keg-like belly. Curling upper torso into a defensive crouch, begin to shuffle, tensing in and out of tentative rhythms. Weave and bob, swiveling from the waist to dodge the blows of the opponent: the box gift wrapped in vapor, the broken alarm clock, the withered branch, the dead baby bird, the man on the stretcher. Cry out with heathen glee and throw punches hard, feinting and dancing backward, slicing with jabbing arcs, sweat skipping down the face like water beading on a hot tilted skillet. Coast with a tic-tac-toe of flurried footwork back to the ropes and lean into them, unable to evade the enemy’s furious barrage. Anticipating the terminal blow that will catapult consciousness beyond the barrier of the head, cover up, tuck elbows in and hide. Catch a glimpse of Uncle Elroy, who has seen enough, and who buttons his coat, waves sadly goodbye. Realize that once again a failure has taken place, a diversion has been allowed to wedge itself between intention and accomplishment, and return to the matter at hand before it’s too late and the mind burrows back into its molehill.

Pull the stockings up, out of their forlorn droop below knees. Step into the slip and feel the elastic band stretch stubbornly to accommodate this larger waist, sense the tissue of static-cling in a weak force-field about the thighs and think about searching for the can she keeps in the kitchen pantry to spray the airy electricity away, then decide against it. Take the bra and do what she does, fastening the four hooks through the eyelets first, then slipping the entire apparatus over the head and maneuver arms through the loops. Make shrugging adjustments and pat. The cups of the bra are twin badges of deficient volume, flattened against the chest like kites against sky. Do the job right if it is to be done at all. There is toilet paper in the adjacent bathroom, get balls of it and stuff the cups. There is a donut of white medical adhesive tape on the edge of the sink. Go get it and return, sitting on the doughy edge of the bed. When the penis, the unit, is firmly taped to the thigh, the legs crossed, study the mirror and muse that in a certain negligent light the effect of the reflection might be that of a handsome, solidly built woman. Is it distressing that the reflection in the mirror suggests a person who might have been a better looking woman than man? Don’t answer that question. On the dresser is a small lavender make up bag, rimmed with beads meant to resemble pearls. Paula has never been given pearls as a gift and now it’s surely too late. Carefully apply lipstick, of a brand purporting to be for “women of color,” the phallic rise of the dark red tip protruding ironically as the tube is twisted, then find deeper in the bag a tiny brush with a powdery tip and a dime-thin case which when opened reveals a rainbow palate of small squares, tiny television screens tuned each to a different pastel frequency. Use the diazepam-blue and brush it on eyelids, smearing it in with the finger’s tip. This association brings to mind her bottle of Valium in the medicine cabinet, find it quickly and read the label “one every four hours for anxiety” then place one of the aqua tablets on the tongue and chew.

Anxiety.

All that is needed now is a wig but there is no wig. Open the closet door and find a pair of black high heels, force toes into the tapered cavity of the shoes. At least five inches of heel overhang the edge so it is not possible to tie the trailing straps. Walk now. Experience how with every step she takes, even without the excess counterweight of heels, she must struggle to maintain equilibrium.

Uncle Elroy has returned and is hiding behind the curtains, watching from the corner of the room.

The doorbell rings.

The baby bird in its new nest of death.

The impulse to glide ghostlike across the living room and jerk the door open is an almost palpable magnetism. The messenger of everything unresolved has returned and this time, this time would not flee if the door was jerked open. The heart begins to hurry in the chest, unloading beats like gravel from a dump trunk. Hurry with the heart. Finish this.

Think what the guys, ceasing to bounce basketballs, mouths agape, might say if they saw this, their lips wet with scald of invective, the word fag like chewed matter between the teeth, although they know there is not a gay bone in this body. One of the guys is Middle Eastern, one is Asian, one is Jewish, one black, friends of all colors and cultures, Americans all. Speculate why it is that the black community in particular seems to despise gay black males. Come to no conclusion regarding this observation … or rather, come to myriad conclusions – same thing. Continue walking, even though one ankle and then the other seems to snap free of the socket, rolling painfully before reconnecting.

She had said, Better to hurt yourself rather than to transfer that power to a stranger.

The doorbell rings. If that ringing were weather it would be thunder followed by lightning.

Continue walking to and fro before the mirror. Try to let hips loosen, imitate of the motion of water left in the wake of a sailboat, think of sails filling their aprons with air, of glaciers in their drifting ballet, of wheels turning within wheels, of a seismograph needle measuring an earthquake that curves gently, of children turning in bed as they dream of pink smoke, of red wine pouring lushly from a bottle. Think sinuously and let the thoughts extend down strange avenues of realization: that perhaps this should have been done years ago, that it should be mandatory, at least once, to dress little boys like this for purposes that have nothing to do with the sexual, but perhaps as a preparation for ringing doorbells, a broader rite of passage. Conjecture that if the bedroom door of the Tinker Toy boy had been jerked open to reveal him wearing Mother’s bathroom he would have been whipped (for the punitive blows of the belt were not called “spankings” back then and “time outs” had not yet been invented) by Father, with Mother watching, uncertain as to the validity of the wisdom transmitted by belts. And words, begin to dwell on words as well, the difference between nouns and adjectives, the encyclopedia of words hurled as adjectival substitute for the noun woman – bitch, slut, whore, tramp, ho, cunt, pussy, and so on, so forth, so on. Listen to Uncle Elroy remind you that the doorbell is ringing insistently now and that the messenger must be confronted, that these clothes must be taken off, take off the shoes, the stockings, the slip, the bra, quickly smear make up off with the back of the hand. Do not think about finding the towel, there is no time for that, and barely time to tear the tape off the unit and glide ghostlike through the living room, when the tape is ripped free blood seeps from the outraged head of the unit, but ignore this and jerk the door open. Jerk the door open on the final ring.

See.

Look out from a face that suddenly feels exposed and vulnerable without make up. The purpose of make up, beyond the ornamental, is obvious now, isn’t it?

See Paula. She is always misplacing her keys. She is holding the baby bird in the towel that was left on the welcome mat. It is not clear whether she is resigned or is grieving for the bird because her eyes are screened behind stylish sunglasses. She is about to take those sunglasses off.

Do, or with whatever words are left, say something.

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