“Poof! You’re a Girl!” The Interval of Losstalgia and a Childhood Friend
“You and me are real people, operating in a real world. We are not figments of each other’s imagination. I am the architect of my own self, my own character and destiny.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme
This is a story that I never told to anyone in full before . . . about the I who was before I.
By the age of ten, as far as combating my increasingly agitated whirl of gender dysphoria, my rhetorical options were down to two: hide or lie.
I had already demonstrated prodigious talent for both.
Writing about that pre-transition girl who nonetheless existed, but rarely materialized, poses a very difficult challenge for the analysis of my trans subjectivity. Transgender personal stories vary tremendously — indeed, even the manner and timing in which dysphoria manifests is not systematic — and reducing stories to acronyms and abbreviations aborts upon conception. As we’ve seen, outdated shorthand like MtF does permit a certain brevity of explanation; however, any ounce of scrutiny applied in assessing where M ends and F begins reveals how cursory these symbolic contractions really are. When I write in a more theoretical mode, my own analysis tends to focus on t as the irreducible open-variable of transference and movement. This is the space of experience in which self-awareness — and self-action — of transgender actualization takes place. But this essay begins with intimate personal history.
So while I may write academic papers with exegetical approaches as to how the t is not really a space or time — but an interval, a self-perception of one’s own trans reality — my philosophy cannot be abstracted from my lived perceptions as a transsexual woman. Since I believe that subjectivity is fundamentally a process, and that we negotiate this process through the self-construction of identity, and that identity is itself a narrative — I look at trans as that which is beyond the static binary in describing the interval of transference in gender. In such a way, trans denotes a dialogical space of the intensely personal: we re-signify the absorbed gender prescriptions and prohibitions; we remodel the intense inclinations of a psychological awareness that rejects the fixed and polar. We know we are not who they say we are. In such instances, the emergence of the t interval in the rebellion of trans self-awareness and agency of are not dates or places, befores and afters, but a capacity — to assert imagination and action against encoding and suffocation.
Suffocation, yes. I don’t care much for the “born” as any particular thing — but my own private self-negotiation from a young age was deeply at odds with my physical embodiment and the accompanying social law. Internally, even as a very young child, I developed a set of archetypes as headcanon imagery to give shape to my amorphous dysphoria. A princess, a dungeon, an imprisonment. How else could I give picture to the ache of non-being that I felt and could not explain? That poor wee girl locked up in her cerebral tower of repression, denial, and hate. I was that girl. And she suffered so much in secret . . .
I’ve tried to explain the phenomenology of dysphoric corporeality this way: I don’t know if I was born in the wrong body; but I did feel the universe has conspired to curse me with exile inside a mirage. Mirages can be beguiling: from a distance, their apparitional state can seem solid and compelling. But the one inside the mirage knows she’s drinking sand, not tasting refreshing water. For me, boymode more or less involved an animated mirage constantly adjusting to accommodate peer pressure expectations.
Thus, when I think of what the t is meant to symbolize in psychiatric shorthand, we really mean the complex psychodrama of embracing a trans person’s gender variant reality. The t is a psychical will to become: the flashing transparency that arises from deep presencing of truth and displacements of the false, of undoing the mirage and committing to the intangible: the girl inside was my first article of faith in seeking the true fact.
The unspeakable girl. I wish I could hug her. The ache. The losstalgia. Nostalgia is the sentimental yearning for what never was; losstalgia is the unwieldily grief of the who wasn’t but should have been. In my efforts to break away from the falsity of the male facade, and the safety of satisfying authority that came from fulfilling that alien destiny. Losstalgia was both angel and demon. Demon, as an agent of lonely torture . . . for losstalgia feels like perpetually waking up in the aftermath of a dream in which a perfect day occurs, but the conscious mind can’t quite recall what that day entailed . . . and losstalgia, my angel, because its pain offered me a challenge: … what kind of boy is constantly thinking he’s a girl?
Well, a boy who’s not a boy. Obviously.
Not so obvious then. That was not an answer I was ready to concede. Yet losstalgia, earnest heart yanker, hummed at me with the random yearnings and urgings to let myself out of the psychological boy-dungeon of the lie that possessed my body. Losstalgia kept calling to me, warning me, inviting me — you’re alive, but not living.
No papier-mâché mask can cover this gap that is the girl who is not allowed to be.
Now, boys didn’t know I was trans, but they could tell I wasn’t one of them. That left me generally friendless. How could they tell? Like the scent of deviance perpetually upon me. Childhood informed me that the era of bullying was approaching. I’d already endured substantial teasing because of my one lazy eye and a shaking nystagmus in the other. By my double-digit years, classmates were already teasing me for my “turny eye” and drawing pictures of cyclopses that they’d tuck inside my desk, to be found during geography lesson. Crying was a daily occurrence, and withdrawal became my poise. I reasoned to myself, with determined reticence … if people were already so mean about my vision problem, which I couldn’t help … then they were sure to be much more mean if they discovered my secret … that I was girl. My public face had to be the crude accent of imitation boyhood, because by age ten “guilt” and “girlhood” became synonyms in my internalised fear.
And of course, trapped in her astral attic, the sequestered girl wailed in wait to be unlatched.
Around this time, about the age of ten, my mother took a position with the parents board that was responsible for revising policies at the co-ed school I attended. Their tasks probably revolved around such pressing topics as the untucking of shirts at recess, or the decaying paint on the bike racks; however, I know she found great friendships and post-Mass coffee klatches with the parish biddies. This really should have had no relevance to me, except for a particular day in which she went to tea at a friend’s house, with me dragged in tow. This struck me even then as unnecessary, but the peculiar astrology of dysphoria often invents circumstances for the interval.
So, my mum’s friend had a daughter exactly my age. An ‘A’ student, eldest child, and having something of the ‘calling’ about her look — like a postulant in preparation for her vows — her reputation as a potential saint had yet to be sullied. Given my own terrible performance in school — concentration was impossible and I’d already been written off as middle fodder — these two Catholic parents must have decided that K would be a good tutor for me.
Girls frightened me: I avoided them as much as I wished I were one. Whereas some trans girls instinctively go to the female line in queueing up for classes, I could only cast dreadfully hurt glances as I dutifully took my line with the blue shirted boys. Resistance was not just futile, but damnably imprudent. There was no chance. Still, my daydreams craved female friends, but playground rules — unspoken but understood, tacit but enforced — segregated us into different spaces just as did our plaid skirts or grey flannel trousers. Girls skipped rope, ate their lunches on the church steps, and laughed. Boys got to play football. (Actually, it’s shocking to think back on how girls were discouraged from playing sport now that I remember it.) I had no line to join. And the reading at morning Mass that day: “all my bones are out of joint” (Psalm 22:6, 14).
So the thought of spending a day with K was thrilling and terrifying to me. I was determined to seem disinterested, the staid glower that I reserved for family portraits … how I hated having my picture taken as a lad … and yet, despite willful resistance, a welling of opportunity … I could get to see a real, born, genetic, authentic, chromasomally intact GIRLS ROOM. The genuine article! And really I’d never seen one before, having only brothers. Yet so often in the diorama of my eyes-shut reality I had already constructed such a room of my own. To be in one for real. Oh, I was thrilled.
After our parents bid us the customary admonition to be good, myself and K went to her bedroom to play. Following her lead, I felt like a wide-eyed pilgrim sneaking a peak in the out-of-bounds art gallery at the Vatican. I laugh to think back on my urgency … If God had deprived me of my one desire — to be a girl — then I was the rebellious angel who would find my own Eden. Or so I imagined myself. I had to calm my nerves somehow.
Far from idealized girlhood, K arranged her female effects in a tidy but unspectacular way. The pink candy floss confections of tulle curtains and heart-shaped cutouts. But there were decidedly femme touches. Petal specks, artwork on walls. A plastic statue of St Thérèse — the cheap kind with the sticky-base normally put on the dashboards of lorries. Oh and more than one stuffed toy! (At that age, the rule was a boy could have one, more than one was, y’know, dodgy). As she gathered up crayons and paper — clearly she was in teacher mode — I took note of the creaked open closet. Three crisp school blouses on hangers in gleaming while with a heavy pleated skirt at the ready, ironed and orderly. Basic dresses. Colourful fabrics. I jerked my head away involuntarily. Get it together, I warned myself, don’t give in! Act like this is a strange foreign land who customs surprise and amuse.
K sweetly placed a clean stack of notebook paper, several picture books, and a children’s dictionary on her desk — demonstratively establishing our lesson for the day. Clearly debriefed, she seemed most intent on scoring some plenary indulgences by helping out the struggling student who everyone thought was odd and hopeless.
(And I was not good at reading. I couldn’t read well until my late teens. Whatever my literary pretensions, I have consistently scored average and below average on every standardized test throughout my first and second level education. My mental sky was always cloudy and utterly despondent, incapable of concentrating and disconnected from my daily routines. My imagination kept retreating into my portable fairy tale, in which I was a girl with my white dress and blue sashes, lyrics of song made into cloistered self-narration, leaving all of my unwanted boyshit above the rabbit hole.)
“Would you like a drink of lemonade?” K enquired, ever thoughtful. My exposed nerves must have been resonating. I took a sip, nodded, still not saying much. She with great thoughtfulness turned towards me.
They say teachers have eyes in the back of their head, but K had a spectacled gaze that went right into my soul. Despite everything, my vigilance vanished. I liked her. She was nice.
What was so forbidden about being a girl? I wondered, looking around again. Her room was absolutely ordinary: budget furniture, a second floor window that faced the back garden, bedspread as smooth as a mirror. My claustrophobia relaxed, I inhaled. There was nothing different. No mystical scent of roses or essence of womanhood, Nothing so essential or esoteric. As the room became real, so was the girl, me, standing within it.
K popped open one of the picture books. “Will we practice our reading?” she asked. I liked K. She smiled broadly, revealing a mouth full of braces. Her hands were smooth, the fingers ending in soft arcs as she pointed from word to word as I recited nursery rhymes along side of her. We read out loud, her slowing the pace to catch up to my stammers. Bears and breakfasts and little girls lost …
"What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice And everything nice . . .
My lips pursed the syllables, but my mind was already away. Sad. Aching.
Sugar, spice. Pink, soft. Male, female. Not-Aoife, Aoife. Why, God???
What are little boys made of? Snips and snails And puppy-dogs' tails,
And my throat locked shut in a dry heave. I did not want to be made of snails and tails. I was not of such substance. I wanted to be made of sugar and spice. You are so mean, God!!!
sugar and spice . . . that one phrase . . . which is how a terrified trans girl, grasping at a narrative to make herself known, finds in a rhyme the grief of losstalgia. I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I was made of what could never be known or seen.
“What’s wrong?” she said, completely abandoning her teacher’s authority and handing me a tissue.
“I wish I were made of sugar and spice,” I told her.
Then something happened that I’ve never forgotten, that I write about for the first time this day.
“You’re a girl,” she said, not asking.
“I wish I were,” I replied.
She tapped me on the head with her red crayon that she’d used to guide me over the printed word. “POOF! You’re a girl! You are a girl!”
Obviously, when we talk about the realities of gender and sex differentiation, psychological inklings and enchanted wax in “Brick Red” does not a transition make. But something else was achieved in that interval, that sharing . . . an interstices between dream and reality, mind and matter … she saw me. And I saw myself being seen. I was myself because of someone else. There was no turning back, and for the first time I let my shame evaporate.
Towels, in my experience, had made for very poor imitations of skirts and dresses. So when she offered to let me borrow a dress, because that’s what a girl could wear, well my heart almost exploded with expectation. Although terrified that our lesson might be invaded by toxic adult judgment, the opportunity to amass real experience with which to populate my mental portfolio of myself-as-a-girl was enrapturing.
Inside her closet, to allow for the privacy of changing, I started to slide on the basic sundress she lent me. At first, I tried this yellow garment over my trousers and shirt like they were some kind of vestigial armour of my male persona, or perhaps a fear that an emergency quick change would be needed. But I hated how my worsted jeans looked under the pretty hemline, and the puffed smocking of the sleeve and bodice — typical of 80s catalogue fashion for girls — didn’t fit right. So I took off my boy apparel, dropped all of that unwanted affliction, and with it the hated male persona. K’s pretty things fit perfectly and my body immediately was touched with true relief.
But this was horrible misdeed. Like farting in a church. Gross, unholy, blasphemous. I was a girl, but only K could see it? I had to catch myself from collapsing into the dark carpet. Shame might have swallowed me up at the very moment I was clutching ground I stood on to get out of the gelatinous quicksand of guilt. This is wrong. This is a sin. You will get caught. Why is it wrong? Why is it a sin? Why did God make me this way? I don’t care if I get caught!
Sunlight cracked through the open slats of the closet. Three streaks of yellow light fell upon the bust of my dress. My dress. Me. I did not have to become anything. I already had been.
“Are you ready, Emily?” K called out to me. Looking at my feet, I crossed the literal threshold of a light plywood closet door.
The tears came when I saw myself standing there in her yellow frock. But I didn’t turn around.
“Emily?” she asked again, with no scannable cruelty in how she said my name. “Emily. Everything is happy! You’re a girl! Come on, Emily! Let’s play.” My interval, my antidote to losstalgia. My best friend.
A thick red crayon smear had blotted out the boys are made of … lines in the picture book.
Later that day, commenting on my glow, she asked to draw a picture of me — Emily, in a yellow triangle signifying the girlhood, my hair augmented with extra coloured strokes. Me. She saw me, my sharer.
But I no longer have that portrait: fearing my mother would find the art as evidence of my crime, I tore K’s gift to me up in fitful bits that I swallowed in my own boy bedroom that night.
K accepted me, but would anyone else?