1. My Aunt Kris’s grave marker vanishes into overgrown Texas bluegrass, losing the war with time and space among the rows and rows of taller, wider, prominent markers. Her name lies on the ground as if dropped and never picked up. At least in my imagination. I have never visited my aunt’s grave in Llano East Cemetery, next to my grandmother and grandfather in a field only visited during funerals. Does anyone other than our family remember her? My father is her closest living relative, and I don’t think he stops to think about her for a minute unless someone asks. Unless I ask. Everyone who knew her will disappear and soon her story will too, lost in the static, a remnant radiation out in space.
2. My body wants to kill me. And my mind. Sometimes it feels like a horror movie. The most intimate relationship we ever will have is with our bodies and our minds. Maybe my relationship is abusive.
3. Surface tension—tendency of a liquid to form a surface due to the attraction of molecules, the surface pushing up and breaking as the pastor pulls my 11-year-old body up from the blue-basined baptismal pool, reborn and elevated above a congregation of strangers and my aunt Kris—up front and alone in a black and white polka dot dress, the only time I’ve ever seen her wear a dress—and in this unreflective pool of blue I can feel the residue of every person reborn running down my face drip drip drip and clinging the white dress-like baptismal robe to my body, transparent and broadcasting my body and underneath and my only wish in that moment is for God or someone to switch my body with someone not fat and tall and taking up so much space.
4. My father—a smaller man than my 6’3” four-hundred-pound frame, bald except for a wrap-around of brown hair barely hanging on in the aging greyness—still masculine with long curly body hair tufting out of his clothes and beer gut long ago traded up for a whiskey gut—hands me a glass of scotch and settles on the couch across from me. I am thirty-five and still think I’m a man. People will tell me we have the same voice, and I don’t know why but I hate it. His cigarette smoke spirals up into the fan of his covered porch and thickens the air. The nicotine sticks to him; I smell the smoke when I get too close. The smoke sticks to me too, and I want more, but I’ve quit. I ask him to tell me about Kris, his sister, anything he could remember. I don’t remember much, he says.
5. When she lived, my aunt had an open wound on her leg. She never wore shorts; she never wore dresses. Except once.
6. I have no memory of loving my body, of being able to see myself in a mirror. I’ve been fat since I was six years old, and I used to think I just hated my body for being unruly and boundless. But when I look back, I have no image, no thoughts of me as a physical being. When I dreamed, I dreamt of just a mind without physical form.
At age 39 I’ll receive a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria. The LCSW who diagnoses me will remark about the overwhelming evidence of my described experiences.
7. Thick crimson pours, gunpowder smell tickles, taste of metal like water rising above.
This is how I experience suicidal ideation: sensually yet without a physical form.
8. The skin on my aunt’s hand cracks, irritated and red; a scar crosses what used to be her index knuckle; the finger is a missing puzzle piece, long lost to the biohazardous medical waste bin of history. The scarred skin covering her knuckle becomes the empty space between her middle finger and thumb. Her hand always looks smaller than I think it will.
9. I practiced looking myself in the eye with mirrors because I read looking people in the eye is how one establishes connection. At twenty-five I still could not look people in the eye and I hated looking at the reflection in the mirror. I didn’t know about the dysphoria making it more difficult to look, didn’t know why I felt something was wrong with me. On days when I had the money, I took a single room at the Boulder Hostel and used those mirrors. The room had a single window looking through foliage out onto 12th street and the frat houses that dotted The Hill. A single fluorescent light buzzed overhead and illuminated the walls painted bright white and carelessly, at some places only one coat of paint with gray streaks showing through. A streak of paint crossed the right side of the mirror in my room. Have you ever noticed when a substance adheres directly onto a mirror, you can still see the reflection of the substance as if it’s floating? Sometimes I felt like my eyes were like that, floating on top but not actually on the surface. I didn’t take anything in, just reflected.
10. Inhale tar and nicotine, pave my 13-year-old lungs with a black stickiness, inhibiting my ability to breathe, my heart pounding (or am I just imagining from years of anti-smoking ads); Lightheadedness, dizziness, lifting of a weight, I fool myself into thinking the cigarette calms me. The glowing ember hides in burnt remnants of grey ash I flick to the ground.
11. Dipole-dipole interaction—the reason my wet robes and clothes stick to my skin creating an outline of me but not me and making it difficult to take them off in the back room of the church, alone, after waiting for everyone else to leave; I hate undressing in front of people, hate my weight, hate my body. The cold of water on my skin in the air conditioning causes my hair to raise and goosebumps to form. I hate my body hair on my arms, the peach fuzz forming on my legs. I picture my aunt in the pew up front: wavy black hair cut close like a boy’s, round face almost entirely unlike my father’s—pale red splotchy skin, hand with a missing index finger held close across the middle, but unable to see her dress—the only way I can picture her is pants and a shirt or her nurse’s scrubs.
12. In 2014, Margaret Price developed the crip politics theory of bodymind, “because mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other—that is, because they tend to act as one, even though they are conventionally understood as two,” from reading trauma studies. Am I my bodymind, or do I merely inhabit it?
13. What’s my brain chemistry? I wonder, and search online for answers.
For depression and anxiety, I take Paroxetine Hydrochloride—I always wonder in medications, why HCl? What does an acid do to the medicine?—which is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, or SSRI. SSRIs increase the level of serotonin in my brain by blocking absorption—that is, my bodymind exhausts its serotonin supply faster than it can produce. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter contributing to feelings of well-being and can contribute to the regulation of appetite.
(Regulation of appetite, that’s interesting.)
I still struggle with suicidal ideation. It becomes worse when I go off my meds.
14. My father, smoking on the couch across from me with his scotch, tells me Kris married briefly, before I was born. No one ever told me this. He doesn’t remember anything about him, except he derisively describes him as a mama’s boy and blames their divorce on his inability to leave his mother’s side. He remembers so little of his sister’s life I can’t help but wonder if this is true. I resolve to find out what I can about Kris before her story disappears entirely. I begin with her obituary from 1999 which tells me the year she was born (my father couldn’t remember) and I begin searching for marriage records in counties near Amarillo (since she lived there the entire time I knew her) and after only a few days of looking I find her marriage to a man named Brian and I search for him and there’s no current record of him in the area but there is his father’s obituary which leads me to his mother who lives in Arizona and I wonder if he lives in Arizona so I search his name and I find his son and I send his son an email hoping he can put me in touch with his father and I wait.
15. My aunt Kris lost her finger from a bee sting when I was six (I think six). At least that’s the story I’m told. Infection spread through her finger because she refused to treat the sting. My father claims she did this out of stubbornness—can stubbornness be genetic?—but I’ve known plenty of stubborn people, many of them in our family, and I can’t imagine any of us losing a finger out of sheer denial mentality. Eventually she had to go to the hospital and they took her finger but left a scar.
(How long did I put off a diabetes test? How long was I in denial of my transness?)
16. My father raised me Baptist. I spent Sundays in Sunday School learning if I accepted Jesus into my heart I would be saved, I would not die but live eternally in the Kingdom of Heaven. I learned if I did not accept Jesus, if I was not saved, then I would be damned to hellfire and brimstone, torture, and the absence of all love (God). I learned the purest love was not the love of another person, but God. All other loves were pale shadows of God’s love. This made sense to me at the time.
Kris killed herself when I was fifteen, a sophomore in high school living in Arizona, a separate universe from her. Any faith I’d been holding onto slipped away.
17. On days when I didn’t have the money, I would use any mirror I could find: public restroom mirrors, decorative mirrors, the reflection in a pane of glass. Anything that might teach me. I became obsessed.
18. Inky sticky black. White spots spread, infesting my imaginary lungs with alveoli plague destroying my ability to breathe. The white spots consume everything in their path, starving.
Inhale lead, methanol, toluene—I paint my lungs black with ghosts, like death, like nothingness.
19. I was away at college for a lot of that time and then busy with my own life. We didn’t have much of a relationship. Is there anything specific you want to know? my father asks. I say, I remember her being sick, am I remembering that right? He says, no, you’re right. We never knew what was wrong with her. I remember she had an open wound on her leg.
20. Type-2 Diabetes affects how the body processes glucose. For most people, the pancreas secretes insulin, which allows sugar to enter cells, lowering the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, causing the pancreas to slow the output of insulin. My cells have become resistant to insulin, which prevents the absorption of glucose, because I need more insulin than my pancreas can produce.
Risk factors for Type-2 Diabetes include weight, age, and family history. My father has diabetes. My grandfather had diabetes until he died of cancer. My weight puts me in a risk zone. My family history means inevitable.
When my doctor tells me I have diabetes, I’m not surprised. I’m anxious. I want a cigarette.
Of all the people I come out to as transgender, the only person surprised is me.
21. According to my father, my aunt Kris traveled all over Texas visiting various specialists and found no answers. At least that’s the story. The only solid information he has is that the wound would not heal on the inside of her leg, between her quadriceps and her hamstrings. She cleaned the hole daily because her body would not close it.
Common diseases or conditions that affect the healing of wounds: diabetes, cancer, AIDS. The wound stays open in my mind, a missing puzzle piece among missing puzzle pieces. A mystery like a sore in my mouth I can’t stop tonguing.
22. I want a cigarette. Or my body does. My mind tells me I will feel better after. The tick of a clock counts down every single second tick tock tick tock louder than the lawnmower outside my window, making me itch and scratch and shift in my seat until I’m ready to scream. Who can I trust if not my own thoughts—if not myself?
23. In a motel room in Amarillo, Texas, waiting for her funeral, my father tells me how she died. I sit on starched white sheets, rumpling them with my weight and ruining someone’s hard work. He takes a seat at the table next to the bed, a round table too small for anything useful, but too small to ignore. I don’t look at him but at my reflection in the blank TV screen. He doesn’t tell me how specifically. I always imagine her with one of my grandfather’s guns in front of a mirror, but in reality, I think pills. I feel like I understand her.
24. I never understood the appeal of heaven. I pretended, played along, as I did with so much. Go along to get along, I imagine someone told me once. Heaven would reject me because something never felt right. Questions I couldn’t put into words tormented me. I fantasized about hell and read passages about the devil.
25. My aunt Kris and I sit in the pew, damp clinging to my hair from the pool like an intrusive thought. We listen to the homily; the words evaporate from my mind before reaching any understanding. Some parishioners speak in tongues. Kris encourages me to worship in my own way. Only speak in tongues if the Holy Spirit moves you. What does it mean if the Holy Spirit doesn’t move me?
26. What’s it like to die? To stop being. Gone in a moment, carried away on the wind. Does it hurt? Is it like slipping into a never-ending dreamless sleep? Does the final moment extend to infinity, the final thought continuing forever, ever-expanding in an ever-expanding universe destined to be lost in static, the remnant radiation from the big bang?
27. Brian emails me about a week after I emailed his son, almost twenty years after my aunt killed herself. He would love to talk to me about Kris, their marriage, and what happened before I existed. He wants to talk on the phone, but that’s too much for me right now. He has a hard time writing and I have a hard time processing spoken language, especially over bad cell phone connections. We settle on him sending me audio transcripts his wife prepares for me. (They are quite lovely people and make me feel like part of the family despite never meeting. I don’t tell them I’m not religious, but I think it eventually becomes obvious, because they are religious, like Kris).
28. When my aunt Kris was in her early 20s, she attempted suicide and stayed in the hospital for about six months. This was after an earlier suicide attempt Brian knew nothing about until after their divorce. Once they separated, she told him of a repressed memory of sexual abuse, a memory which a doctor at the hospital helped her recover. He never tells me who abused her. When I read Brian’s words, I immediately feel a new connection to Kris, despite my skepticism of recovered memories. I wish I had been able to talk to her about my own abuse.
I wish I had been able to come out to her.
29. Five to six years before I’m thirty-five and asking him about Kris, my father handed me a cigarette and we lit up. We tell ourselves we are making a choice. I’m going to choose the way I go, he said, and I agreed. As if anyone chooses how they go. We gave in to the chemical demands, telling us we needed the black, the ash, the fire.
30. When I stayed at the Boulder Hostel, rooms wouldn’t be ready until 5pm. Sometimes I would drive to a coffee shop or somewhere I could spend the whole day on the internet without spending a bunch of money and look at my reflection, searching for what other people had but I was missing. Other times I would walk down the Hill to the shops nearby where I couldn’t afford anything, looking people in the eye as I passed. I remember buildings, a stone brick porch with wood trim and a wooden post fence. A dirty white wooden and red house I felt could fall apart at any minute with white columns on the porch holding up the upper level. I remember the sun shining through the trees, some deciduous and dead, some coniferous and green. But with faces I only saw a kind of static. I’ve searched my memory for hours hoping I could bring just one face out, one face that I would remember after all the time I spent looking. But I have nothing. I remember no faces, only my looking. As if their faces were replaced by my effort to look them in the eyes.
31. My aunt Kris saw something in herself and decided on the fastest exit. She chose how she went.
32. Sometimes I pray reincarnation is real. I pray to anyone who will listen I come back as a cis woman, come back not fat, come back without depression. Did Kris pray the same thing? She always dressed like a boy, wore her hair like a boy. As long as I knew her. Brian described her as a tomboy. I send him an email and ask if she ever talked about wanting to be a boy. No response.
Am I making Kris a mirror? Projecting my issues and identity on to her—always trying to look myself in the eye—to feel less alone? Is the mystery of my aunt Kris a stand-in for the mysteries of myself?
33. We don’t choose how we die.
34. Becoming a father myself changed little about my own intrusive thoughts, depression, dysphoria. I still miss my aunt. I hope I don’t pass on whatever we struggle with to my son.
35. Her grave marker, a small wound in the grass declaring a wound in my body, my mind, my soul, disappearing but never healing, the ground never the same. A body will always be down there. A puzzle with a missing piece on her leg, in her mind, in her soul. Perhaps she gave me that piece of her soul before she left. Made me the guardian of her wound so I will remember her and that’s how we stay alive by distributing pieces of our souls, our wounds, until we have no more to continue, an unending puzzle.