She stood in line for what seemed an eternity, marveling at the little bottle of nail polish rolling back and forth between her thumb and index finger.
“What blessed soul invented the color neon peach?” she wondered to herself, shaking the bottle with a flippant wrist as she brought it to her chest, triple checking that the hue matched the neon peach piping of her color-blocked maxi. Girls like her often found it difficult to snag a sun dress that made it all the way down to the sandals. Usually her formidable height would have the trim of any supposed full-length garment cropping at her shins. This dress was a personal favorite, and this color, she deduced, was perfect for the circumstances.
“A lady in neon peach is a lady unafraid to go out into the sun,” she affirmed, placing the tiny bottle on the conveyor belt and watching it slide its way to the cashier. In fact, a little bit of sunlight was exactly what she needed, knowing full well she’d be spending the better part of the next two weeks indoors, on bed rest.
Back at the hotel, everything was already packed. Over-stuffed luggage hard enough to manage on arrival, let alone the question of a return trip, when she’d lack all strength to hoist a bag any heavier than her purse. But today was about preparation, about details, about neon peach, about making sure everything was just right in advance of the operation. She painted eight of her ten fingernails, leaving the index and middle of the right hand nude so the anesthesiologist could keep track of her vital signs without obstruction. The absence of color felt vulgar, as if she’d lost two acrylics, or was one of those Sharon Stone power dykes from the 90s who made it a point to leave their penetrative fingers bare for social provocation.
She had a small pile of necessities set aside to bring with her into the hospital; a gold necklace from her grandmother (actually, the necklace wasn’t from her grandmother at all, but the gold ring on it was. She had snuck into the jewelry cabinet the night of her grandma’s death and swiped it before her mother and aunt could decide which woman in the family it should go to. Back then, she wouldn’t have qualified, but now, after wearing it on the same chain every day of her transition, nobody questioned its rightful place around her neck). She also brought along a small bag of precious stones from a trip out to Palm Desert (where once she’d gone skinny dipping with porn stars!), a wand of sage, and a small vial of frankincense-and-myrrh scented oil.
Long ago She decided that the line between sacred and profane was nothing more than a social construction, a divisive code meant to keep sinners from sainthood. In her short but adventurous life she’d befriended diplomats and whores, junkies and lamas, debutantes and drag queens--and besides, as she loved to say to the well-groomed men behind designer fragrance counters-- “I just like to smell like the baby Jesus.”
She planned to use the scented oil to anoint her naked body tomorrow morning before the surgery, a private ritual of rebirth, a cleansing of the vessel, as it were. And the vessel was indeed deserving of a cleanse.
The night before had felt laden with pressure to make something of itself. Here she was in Thailand, her last night on the town as “lady boy.” Back home in the states she would joke about the process, about the liminal timeframe in which she had licence to yell things like “suck my tranny dick!” to people talking shit on the subway. She wasn’t one of those transwomen who hated her penis and tried to deny its existence. In fact, she spent a considerable amount of time learning how to love her male body, so every action of change affected upon it came from a place of self-fulfillment rather than shame. During the course of her transition she learned to embrace the idea of being a chick with a dick. She’d had more lovers in the past 12 months than in the six years that preceded them.
She felt the term “transgender” too palatable and politically correct, and preferred instead to lay claim to the more jarring title of Transexual. This was, after all, about sex. Not exclusively, of course, but then she had fought her whole life to be recognized as a sexual being, first as a gay boy, then a radical queer, and now a trans chick. Not a pride easily won, and she boasted the scars to prove it in a patchwork of tattoos that covered her now hormonally extra smooth skin. Her favorite ink was a line of old english script written backward across her chest so that it could be read in the mirror daily: Lie still on the day of pain and the day of joy will greet you.
She’d found the slogan printed on the back of a 99-cent knock-off Hello Kitty pencil set, along with other phrases lost in translation like, “friendship is love smiling face” and “hearts make song to sing beautiful.” The unexpected gravitas of that philosophical zen-bomb made it an almost instantaneous mantra for her transformation. She had been repeating it to herself for years in preparation for this event. But was she really ready to lie still? Was she even capable?
The trip here had been a challenge, a pilgrimage of sorts from the get go, and she had chosen to frame the journey with a series of spiritual tasks. The first week she spent in the woods, caring for abused elephants 3 times her age and 50 times her size. Waking up at 5am to chop banana trees, bathing and walking these temperamental giants, shoveling dung in 100 degree heat. She got so deep into the work of her body that gender became an afterthought, and that was the point. She wanted to come face to face with the ultimately unnecessary nature of this decision, the choice to give predominant value to physical form in a world so truly metaphysical.
Then to Bangkok, to enjoy the polar opposite: sun dresses and drag shows, kick boxing, strippers, and massages with happy endings. Why not let her body be touched? It would be months before her next orgasm, if postoperative sexual sensation were even in the cards.
In Bangkok she happened upon two dingy bars that touched her soul. The first was one of many that lined the Patpong Night Market boasting a menu of services performed by skilled ladies of the night. The list of anatomical feats included (but were not limited to) blowing out a candle, opening a bottle, using chopsticks, peeling a banana, shooting darts, and of course the ever popular ping pong ball trick. The night she wandered into Magic Pussy, she found herself a solo patron awaiting a private show. It was impressive to say the least, and though the ladies of the bar began their demonstrations with an ennui that was nearly painful, her shock, enthusiasm, laughter, and applause brought a seemingly rare levity to the otherwise dank and heavy nightclub.
After the cycle of vaginal antics had completed, she invited the girls to join her for a drink, and offered to show them a trick of her own. Pulling her left breast from her dress, she massaged it until a stream of fluid shot from her nipple across the table. The girls screamed and clapped wildly. They promised her, “When you get pussy, you come back here and we teach you ping pong.” It was a deal. Something to look forward to, she thought. And to be accepted by them as a peer became for her a kind of sacred validation.
The next bar, Tawan, claimed an exclusive dedication to the appreciation of Thai Muscle Men. They also had a show, more of a pageant really, that involved tableaus of buff Thai dudes in power play, sporting sparse and tacky costumes in the likes of Greek Gods, Roman Warriors, Leather Dungeon Masters... The fliers she had seen along Patpong Market looked like all sorts of camp; and sexual exploitation, she believed, shouldn’t be confined to just one sex.
Unfortunately the muscle man show had ended only moments before she arrived at the bar. As if by chance or fate or fortune, she found herself alone again, surrounded by the sexworkers of Bangkok, only this time they were all dreamboat hunks in leather bikini bottoms with numbered medallions hanging from their hips.
Outside, on the street corner in front of 7-11, four of the Tawan Muscle Men sat drinking whiskey sodas. She started walking back to her hotel when the guys yelled out and invited her to hang around. They drank in the midnight heat, and talked in broken English late into the night, about her upcoming operation, about who liked girls and who liked boys and who slept with either for money. They bought her street-fried squid, and casually placed their muscly arms around her body, vindicating her curves.
When the second whiskey bottle had reached its end, one of the muscle men (who only moments before had whipped out his phone to show her pictures of his girlfriend and daughter) suggested that they take the party back to her room. She contemplated the ethics, the morality, the safety, the cost, the sheer limitations of her own physical capacity, and then she said yes.
The clinic van came to pick her up at 10am. She had slept no more than an hour, and even after showering, the smells they left upon her lingered in an intoxicating blend of sweat and cheap cologne. Her body felt sore, but righteous. Claimed. She had been ravished and revered, given the decadent farewell of a departing queen.
The clinic itself sat near the Eastern Gulf, and after checking in and being ushered through blood tests, xrays, and a physical examination, She was given the night off to relax. Tomorrow she would come to the hospital in a state of in-between, then wake up on the other side of a once inaccessible divide. The day of pain was soon approaching, but the joyful promise of wholeness and completion was to be hers if only she could only withstand it. She ran her painted nails over her chest again, reciting her mantra once more: Lie still on the day of pain and the day of joy will greet you.
That afternoon, after doing her nails and packing her talismans, she took a taxi to the coast. She wanted to walk along the shoreline at sunset. Something in her heart craved one last look at natural beauty. But the sea she found was brown and full of filth. Plastic bags and bottle caps washed ashore with the ruptured corpses of bloated fish. And she watched children play in the waves, families swimming in what might as well have been sewage; laughter and music carrying over the sounds of the water as a tide of waterlogged trash washed upon the sand.
In a small storefront along the sidewalk, an older woman sat in a plastic chair next to a sign offering Thai massage. She turned her back on the polluted gulf and approached the woman, who warmly gestured for her to lay her exhausted body on a dusty floor-bound mattress. The old woman bowed before her and placed her hands on her thighs, gently beginning to ease the muscle off of the bone. And as she lay there, still, her mind flooded with images of these last days and nights: Elephants at sunrise, monks chanting on the riverside, strippers and kickboxers lit by neon, four strong naked bodies pressing up to and inside her in an avalanche of musk and adoration.
She turned her head to the side and let her eyelids flutter open. The harsh Thai sun had dropped behind the ocean, and the sky above the murky waters was painted just for her. She looked out onto the radiant horizon, a brilliant neon peach, and in the warm, familiar glow she saw the face of every lover she’d ever known. Effortlessly, she began to weep, as much for them as for the trash in the ocean; this broken world, manhandled like her body.
The old woman pressed deeper into the crevices of her hips, and she cried for the planet now, for those who would never know love, or a clear sky, or blue water, their own bodies, for the impossibility of redressing our wrongs against each other, and the Earth. And then, laying beneath the salty trails of her tears, the silent old woman still kneading into her flesh, she struggled to breathe in the possibility of renewal. Lie still on the day of pain and the day of joy will greet you.