Alone (With Me)Jessica Wadleigh
Editor’s Note: This essay includes references to suicide.
My apartment in Albany, NY, was the only place I’d looked at after quitting my job to pursue a master’s degree in international politics at the University of Albany. Tucked into the attic of a Victorian three-story, it was too big with three bedrooms for just one me, but the rent was low, and I was taken in by the built-in bookshelves in the living room, the abundant natural lighting, and the oddly charming septuagenarian landlord.
Shipments of women’s clothes, boxes and bags with Old Navy and Forever 21 logos addressed to Matthew Wadleigh, showed up on my new apartment’s doorstep within days of taking the keys. Living at home,
online purchases to fill my crossdressing wardrobe were almost always out of the question. I ran a website and was often sent products to review, and my parents helped me by opening them and shipping them off to my staff. It would have been difficult to explain why some packages could be opened and some couldn’t, so until I had my own place, I was relegated to either stealing garments from lost and found bins in campus laundry rooms or purchasing items in person.
When I was caught rummaging through lost and found bins, I learned this could easily be written off by explaining that you’re looking for your lost shirt. There weren’t many plausible excuses for purchasing women’s clothing when you present male. The Wal-Mart clerk passing the soon-to-be-mine Fruit of the Loom bra and panty set over the register’s lasers had to know why I was buying it. I preempted their assumptions by asking for gift receipts, explaining my purchases as “presents for my girlfriend,” but I’m sure now this only confirmed their suspicions.
Most of the time, clerks just nodded, obligingly provided gift receipts, and told me to have a nice day. But not always. One thrift store clerk held up a dress I was buying and asked another clerk to confirm the size. The clerk she asked, sorting clothes in the farthest corner from the registers, turned to look at her, at the dress, at me – and so did everyone else in the store. I hadn’t asked her about the sizing – the M on the tag was convincing
enough. If her goal was to embarrass me, she succeeded. Unable to dissolve my body into a puddle of goo, I avoided eye contact as I finished checking out and fled, never to return.
Dad kicked down my bedroom door.
I called my stepmom a bitch. Anticipating Dad taking exception to this, I took off running to my basement bedroom as soon as the swear was out of my mouth. I locked my door and cowered in the closet, bracing to be yanked out by the back of my neck and lined up for one of Dad’s viscous backhand slaps.
It took Dad two kicks with his size thirteen foot he constantly threatened to put up my ass before my door was obliterated, but the violence inflicted on my door must have sated him. He looked around for moment, snatched my Nintendo 64, and headed back upstairs. I stayed in the closet, cowering, face unstruck, for a few minutes longer.
I dragged my sacrificial door to the garage before snagging a couple of eye hooks from Dad’s tool room so I could hang an old comforter in the now empty jamb. It helped with drafts and blocked the light from the always-on fluorescent bulbs in the laundry room, but not much else. With this red and blue checkered blanket serving as my door, nosey parents or obsessed siblings or even the pest control guy who sprayed for silverfish could easily enter without warning. Under these conditions, speed was always of the essence when crossdressing.
The moment my friends walked out my front door after finishing helping me move-in, I found the box with all my girl clothes. I knew having more privacy would increase the frequency of my crossdressing. I dressed more often whenever my family was gone for an extended period and there was no reason to believe that it would be any different living alone other than I really wanted to believe it would be. When they were in Old Orchard Beach on family vacations, I was back at home, shaving my legs and taking grainy pictures of myself from the neck down in our bathroom mirror’s reflection. Almost on cue, before I’d finished unpacking the boxes of books and dishes and linens crowding my apartment’s living room, I was starfished on the carpet in a bra and panties, going to town on myself.
What was previously a weekly, begrudging acquiescence to a part of myself I was most afraid of became a daily affair. My girl clothes were now intermingled with my boy clothes in my closet and dresser drawers. Sprawled across the floor in August afternoon heat, I told myself that the novelty would wear off, but by November, and my crossdressing had only escalated. On those cold fall mornings, I did my best to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head asking me what it said about me if I was dressing not to quickly and shamefully jerk off, but to make breakfast.
Lacking real-life trans exposure, porn and daytime TV taught me everything I thought I knew about trans people. Mom and I loved watching Jerry Springer, both of us gleefully agape at the outlandish humanity streaming into our home on our 19” Panasonic television. The spectacle of shows like Springer provided the kind of people (us) watching shows like Springer with what they (we) were really after – seeing the realities of people worse off than they (we) were so they (we) could say “well, at least my life isn’t that bad.”
“Tranny Surprise” episodes were a Springer staple. The formula was always the same. The segment opens with a man sitting alone on stage. He opens up to Jerry and the live studio audience about his life, describing his relationship to his partner – how long they’ve been together, if they are married, if they have kids – before he confesses to cheating. Jerry then welcomes out his mistress and, almost always, an egregiously flamboyant trans woman struts across the stage to a resounding chorus of boos. The camera zooms in on the disgusted faces in the crowd, and in the wide shot you see that everyone is on their feet, jeering, hissing, and thumbs-downing.
In the studio, Jerry interrogates the couple, asking the trans girl – or shemale or tranny or drag queen or whatever the episode’s title tag calls her – about their relationship, pulling out any sordid details he can elicit. On our Panasonic, Mom and I see a split screen, with the man and his illicit paramour on the left side of the screen and the man’s jilted lover, who’s seething backstage, on the right. Jerry then announces the man’s partner has been listening to everything this whole time and before he even finishes welcoming her to the stage, she sprints out, ready to pounce on her usurper. As the crowd eggs them on, security rushes to break things up, but only after a wig pops off or some other fashion mishap occurs.
Jerry says, “We’ll be right back.”
Mom says, “What a freak.”
I say, “Definitely,” comforted knowing that, while I’m definitely weird, at least I’m not one of those people.
Dad was in the basement and heard me fucking through the blanket. I was twenty-two and I had a door three days later. I had just finished my undergraduate program near the top of my class, but I never did the other work – the internships and the networking and the extracurriculars – that my peers leveraged into shiny new careers, so my post-grad life was basically the same as my pre-grad life: I was living at home in my childhood bedroom, hiding that I dressed up like a girl from my family.
The biggest difference wasn’t that I had a degree; it was that I had a bedroom door. The friends I had grown up with had scattered or partnered off. I took a job as a copy editor at the hometown newspaper I’d written articles for in high school and most nights, I was either drinking heavily with my colleagues or I was alone, eating fast food, staying up too late jerking off, playing video games. I was happier in college and a restless year at home led me to the conclusion that if I went to graduate school, I’d be happy again.
If I were far enough away from my college experience to have any hindsight, I would have recognized the rose tint hueing my undergraduate memories and might have gone in a different direction. College was fun and exciting and challenging but also full of miseries and disappointments and shattered friendships. What I was craving when I sent out my grad school applications was the sense of purpose college imposed, the way the institution pointed me toward a destination, the way the structure of academia dictated the path I was on.
Out of the basement, into the attic, once again I was one near the top of my class and letting opportunities pass by. I had the recommendations I needed to be a graduate assistant. I could have taught undergraduate classes. I was encouraged to intern at the state assembly. But I didn’t. I spent most nights alone, getting stoned, huffing whippets, and dressing like a girl.
Writing this now, it’s easy to understand why I wasn’t doing the work I should have been. At the time, I saw four paths for my political science degree: joining the military, becoming a bureaucrat, serving as an elected official, or working as an academic. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Iranian nuclear program and had planned to join the Air Force after graduation to help prepare me for an intelligence career. I met the recruiters alone, and then with Dad, and then started an exercise program to get me fit for basic training.
When I told people my plan, they always asked me if I was ready to kill people and honestly, that part never bothered me. What really made me pause was knowing the military considered gender identity issues to be a disqualifying form of mental illness. During my senior year, I went on a study abroad experience in Thailand for four months and chose not to bring any of my girl clothes with me, figuring if I were 8,500 miles from my stash, maybe I’d stop. I lasted about a week before I snuck out of my dorm room one night to raid the laundry room. I found a still-damp thong drying on a clothes rack and, standing in a bathroom stall, climaxed before I had even pulled it up all the way. As I stared at the enlistment forms, I kept coming back to this scene and knew the only future for me in the military was dishonorable discharge.
The bureaucratic agencies involved with national security followed the military’s guidance. There was no way I would have passed their background checks. One glance at my browser history full of trans porn and crossdressing forum accounts and the jig would have been up. That closed the bureaucracy path, and since any decent opposition research would have unearthed the same secrets, the electoral politics path also felt closed.
While I might have found work with a non-governmental agency, working at a think-tank or as a lobbyist, it felt like academia was the only door that my degree would open for me. I loved being in the classroom, arguing about the merits of particular political theories, scrutinizing policy prescriptions, and envisioning alternative political economies. But after spending a half-decade with academics, I knew I didn’t want to be one.
As the destination of the degree I was mortgaging my financial future to earn came into focus, I kept telling my family on phone calls home how satisfied and engaged I was with school, unable to tell them I had made a terrible mistake because I didn’t know how to answer the questions that would inevitably follow without revealing my secret.
I don’t know what compelled me to wear a pair of hot pink boyshorts to class, but once the idea was in my head, it was impossible to ignore. This was the first time I ever wore women’s clothes outside of the house, around others. Nervous that someone might see them poking out or catch a glimpse of a panty line, I wore a pair of boxer briefs over them and tightened my belt an uncomfortable extra notch before leaving.
Even fully covered, I felt exposed as I creaked down the stairs of my apartment. I’d taken to walking to school in the early fall when the days were still long and crisp but not cold, but November brought early sunsets and dreary weather, so I drove to campus that night. I left the radio off for some reason and rode in silence.
UAlbany’s downtown campus is a small scattering of brick buildings along Washington Park. I was early and decided to walk through the park. Before I moved, I’d been told that gay men climbed into the trees to fool around here during the day and that if I walked through the park after dark, I’d be shot. It was six and the sun was setting and, not sure what to expect, I moved briskly and kept my head down.
There were only three other students in the class. We sat in a horseshoe around the professor, and that night we were debating the theory of political realism. I couldn’t focus and, in such a small group, my distraction was noticed. I remember stretching and yawning a lot so everyone would think I was tired and not that I was wearing women’s underwear. At break, I went to the bathroom and took off my boyshorts, burying them in one of my cargo pant pockets under a wad of toilet paper.
I was unbelievably horny by the time I got home. Even short lived, I was amped from the thrill of dressing publicly and getting away with it. I celebrated by filling my turquoise bathtub and stepping into the warm water. I ran my shaving razor over my chest and legs. My body hair clumped into black lily pads on the water’s surface. I rinsed off the hair that clung to my skin under the shower head before galloping to my bedroom.
Hangers dragged along the wooden pole running horizontally across my closet as I deliberated an outfit. The pink boy shorts were a given. I’d picked up a short-sleeved white button down and a size-too-small black pencil skirt while I was studying abroad in Thailand – the university’s women’s uniform – and decided that these, plus a black bra and bright red lipstick, created the exact slutty look I wanted. Last came my wig, dirty blonde, straight, with blunt cut bangs.
My bedroom, at the front of the building, had a window with a built-in bench beneath it. Even though I was on the third floor, I turned off the lights before sitting down, afraid that someone might see me. Sitting with my legs crossed the way only women are supposed to cross their legs, I slid open the window. A frigid breeze made a valiant effort to discourage me from enjoying my perch, but it was no match for the apartment’s hardworking cast iron radiator.
I shielded my Bic’s flame from the wind and lit a joint. Between long drags, the joint burnt down as my fingers traced over my body, tickling the V of skin exposed by my shirt’s undone top buttons before finding the straps and cups of my bra. I rubbed the soft skin of my calves together as I stretched across the bench. The trunk of a passing car rattled in sync with the bass pumping out of its booming subwoofer as puffy clouds of my smoke and respiration, illuminated by orange streetlight, floated into the darkness.
I leaned out the window and watched the car disappear past the movie theater and ice cream shop and out of sight as it continued south on Delaware Ave. In the streetlight, I could see a ring of red lipstick on the joint. I twirled it between my fingers and admired it, imagining leaving the joint intermingled with all the others in the ashtray, evidence of my secret out in the open. If any friends came over and asked about it, I would say Mom came down and smoked a joint with me.
Seeing something permanently altered by my crossdressing, even something so inconsequential as a joint’s roach, made me smile. I pressed my lips to the back of my hand, hoping to see my lip print like you see in cartoons. It wasn’t there. Me and the joint and the tube of lipstick skipped to the bathroom mirror to make it happen.
The reflection that met me in the mirror – my reflection, though I didn’t want to own it – was hard to see. What I didn’t know was called dysphoria, an incongruous feeling of disconnect between what I wanted to see and what I actually saw, washed over me. Back on my bench, for a moment I’d stepped out of myself and set down all the fear and contempt and disgust I carried. In front of the mirror, those feelings all came back, and I was crushed under the tremendous weight of my suspended disbelief.
I twisted the sink’s knobs, cupped handfuls of water, and vigorously scrubbed my lips, trying to remove any trace of the shade. It didn’t work. I grabbed a wad of toilet paper and frantically blotted my lips over and over, the red on the white tissue darkening with each press. Sobbing, tears and snot soaked into my thick red beard as I dragged my body back to my bedroom. I picked up the polo shirt I’d worn to class from the floor and blew my nose onto it before collapsing onto my bed, face down into my pillows, and threw my flattened, matted wig to the floor.
Maybe this wasn’t the first time I thought about killing myself. I doubt it was. Suicide is a weird thing; once you really consider doing it, even one time, your brain proposes it as a solution with regularity. But this was definitely the first time I made any effort to do it. I thought about my belt, still threaded through the loops of my cargo pants. I got out of bed, drew the belt taut to test its strength, and pinched it in the door frame. I stepped into the noose I created, but I was too tall, the door frame too short, and I knew as soon as it started working, instinct would kick in and my body would save me by simply standing up.
I thought about the stash of pills Mom kept for herself, just in case life got too hard or she lived to be too old, but I didn’t have any pills. I thought about the knife set my ex-girlfriend’s parents had bought me, but I wasn’t suffering enough to overcome the fear of carving into my veins. I thought about plugging up my car’s tailpipe, gassing myself, but worried some Good Samaritan might save me.
And what if I survived? When I woke up in the hospital, I’d be confronted with all the questions I was trying to avoid by killing myself. Worse, I could live and be all fucked up with paralysis or brain damage or failing organs while still struggling with everything else.
I fell back onto my bed and into all the questions I worked so hard to avoid.
Why does it matter what you look like if this is actually just a fetish?
What does it say about who you really are if you do this every day?
Didn’t you sleep in girl’s clothes last night?
Are you sure you’re not a tranny?
What will you do if you are?
What would Mom say?
Where will you live?
Where would you work?
Who the fuck would love you?
Why the fuck would anyone love you?
Without answers, I screamed into my pillows, wishing they would suffocate me.
When I finally calmed down, I flopped heavily onto my computer chair and searched for nearby Methodist churches. I’d been baptized Methodist when I was young, but except for weddings, funerals, and touristing, I hadn’t been inside a church in a decade. I suppose there was an appeal to surrendering myself to a higher power – Jesus saves, so they say. Maybe I longed to return to the period of my life church represented, the early years before puberty when life wasn’t as complicated. Two days later, I put on my Sunday best and drove to the gray stone church on Lark Street.
The huge wooden doors on the front of the building, designed to facilitate the passage of hundreds during a more religious period, were locked. A hand-written sign directed parishioners to enter the narthex through the side doors. When I got there, I hesitated, feeling out of place and stupid. I walked around the block. It was cold and I was stalling. With service starting soon, I mustered up the courage to pull the door open.
It was cloudy that day, but bright, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the cavernous interior’s dim lighting. I grabbed a hanger from a nearby coat rack and hung my jacket, deliberately keeping my back to the two curious ushers conspicuously eyeballing me, the young newcomer in their midst. As I approached them, I felt overwhelmed and had to hold back my tears. I offered a forced smile and no eye contact as I entered the main sanctuary.
It was easy to find a pew all to myself. The congregation that had once filled and justified the existence of this massive structure had shrunk to fewer than fifteen people and I was the youngest person by at least twenty, if not thirty, years. The Reverend took his place at the ambo and tested the mic with a tap of his finger. He introduced himself, welcomed familiar faces and newcomers (politely using the plural even though it was quite clear I was the only one he was referring to) for joining him and God that morning. He shared church news and events before launching into his sermon.
It was as if he knew I was coming and why and had tailored the sermon to me. Though it’s been too long to remember many of the specifics, and I was too inside of myself at the time to retain much of it anyway, the theme was self-love and being the person God made us to be. The Reverend said our obligation in life was not to question or worry about the path He laid out for us, but merely to walk it. Bible verses punctuated the Reverend's points. We sang familiar hymns and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
What I do clearly remember the Reverend saying was this: that we are as He made us, and that our only obligation to Him is to stay true to ourselves.
This was when I started to cry. If this was true, I was fucked, here and for eternity.
I blotted my eyes with the arm of my sweater, crying silently so as not to attract attention. I’d heard the Reverend, but I wasn’t ready to listen. Against his advice, when we prayed, I begged God as I had a hundred times before to fix me, to make me normal, to free me, hoping that here, maybe, I might be heard.
When the sermon ended, I felt even worse.
When I got home, I changed into my black yoga pants, which I’d told the Target cashier were a gift for my girlfriend, and a glittery t-shirt I told the cashier at McCarran International Airport was a souvenir for a different girlfriend.
Ahead of me was an afternoon buried in political science textbooks. I made a turkey sandwich, and with my lunch and a can of Coca Cola in hand, walked back to the living room. The cuffs of the baggy yoga pants lapped against my razor burnt legs as I strode down the hallway. The New York Giants were playing that afternoon, so I set my food on the coffee table, turned on the TV at a low volume, and cracked the can open.
I grabbed a pipe and a paperclip and as I scraped out the pipe’s bowl, got caught up with the game. The Giants were playing against their division rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, and even though it was only the first quarter, we were losing badly. Big Blue called a timeout and the screen went black while the game transitioned into a commercial break. In the TV’s glare, I saw me, me in my yoga pants and glittery top, dumping the ashes onto a week’s worth of roaches littering my ashtray.
I looked down. The red ring of lipstick dulled as the ashes sprinkled over it. I shook the ashtray like a gold panner until I couldn’t see it at all.
Jessica Wadleigh writes creative non-fiction from her adopted home, Portland, Ore. She is the author of over a dozen zines, including her most recent titles, “Alone (With You)” and “Grandma Story.” In addition to writing about gender, sexuality, and her body's inability to digest cheeses, she is also Doer of Things at zines + things, a literary zine collective publishing tender, atmospheric works..
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.