Robb’s Last Tape (Take Thirteen)

Barbie and Ken

A reading by the author:

I used to play with dolls when I was little. And they were always somebody else’s dolls because boys should not play with dolls. When mother or grandmother caught me in the act playing with them I was told, in a half-scornful, half-playful tone that made me cringe with shame, that my pee-pee would magically detach itself from my body. Imagine the dread of a boy child being told he would have to live with the stump of his dick for the rest of his life. When caught in the act I would make the dolls fight because that was what boys do. They make women fight over them.

To begin with, we didn’t have many toys to play with because my family thought of them as a waste of money. We were encouraged to do something else instead. Play with sticks and pretend they are horses. Play outside, for god’s sake, use your imagination. Take the cow for a walk if you have too much time on your hands. Pick some beans. Do your homework. And whenever we admonished our parents for their heartless refusal to buy cool new toys we were consoled and told that, in a distant past (one I have not, up to this day, managed to salvage from the wreck of my childhood memories), we had plenty of toys. We had been so lucky back then, mother would say, as opposed to other children who had had nothing. Allegedly, we even had this fantastic toy bus that had horses riding the wind on the top of it. Fucking horses on the roof of a toy bus. And I was drawn, as if by a magnet, to that image of the toy bus, and imagined how cool it must have been to have that bus to play with. Literally, we must have been the coolest kids on the block. To this day I do not know what color that toy bus was. I often think it was just a figment of my parents’ imagination. The toy they would have liked us to have but never got to actually buying it.

All of those toys got lost due to my parents’ negligence when we moved to grandparents’ house at the countryside. They were all on the moving truck when a thief decided to kidnap them and keep them for himself. The thief’s only ransom was, I believe, the innocent suffering of my brother and I. We were infuriated back then by the thief’s cunning and cruelty and imagined him to be the very incarnation of evil. Because of him, we had been cursed to make do without those toys. And we did our best. We scavenged for toys in the garbage dump behind our house. We played with discarded lighters from a local bar and marveled at the mechanism that made the fire burst and die out. We broke bear bottles by throwing them against the trees. We lit fires and threw pressurized spray tubes in the flames and watched them explode. One time we gathered around a burning plastic barrel and watched it collapse within itself as the fire melted the gray plastic. Then one of the kids pierced it with a tree branch and as the branch flexed it threw molten plastic on my face, around my mouth, leaving red burn marks. As I flew in terror from the still burning barrel I was more afraid of my mother than of the stinging pain. The marks lingered for a couple of days then disappeared.

We climbed trees and ate crab apples. We looked for my uncle’s porn magazines under his bed. My brother started smoking and did his best to mask the smell. We ran away from home to bathe in a nearby river because everybody was doing it. But mostly, I played with dolls. I loved the blonde hair they had and the chemical symmetry of their bodies, their plastic immobility, the limited number of movements their bodies could perform. They had breasts but no nipples and I was totally fine with that. The space between their legs so devoid of any gender signals as if whoever made them stubbornly refused to give them that, afraid that it might corrupt the minds of innocent children. Their septic bodies refused to cater to any kind of sexually charged gaze. Yet, back then, I believe, we were entirely conscious of that absence. At least I felt there was something missing but was too afraid to say it out loud. I was also aware of the missing nipples. I knew perfectly well that girls had nipples too. But despite that knowledge of the missing nipples and genitalia, we were somewhat content with the surface gender markings. The dolls taught us well that it was all about what was on the outside. Womanhood meant having long blonde hair, breasts that protruded only slightly through the diaphanous dresses they wore. Women wore bright colors, they had lipstick-red lips, they had ponytails, they had tea in the afternoon. It was all about their bearing as it was all a bottom-up approach: you put all these characteristics together and what you get in the end is a woman. The technique worked for men as well.

The dolls were not mine because it would have been a sacrilege to have them around the house. I dreaded my brother’s mockery, I feared my mother’s scornful tone. And so I befriended girls instead of boys. They did not laugh at my body, they did not tell me my head was like a giant pumpkin. They seemed to be okay with it. And they had dolls to play with. My best friend was a girl. She was a distant cousin of ours from the city who only came around to spend the summer with her grandparents, who were our neighbors. We played Sailor Moon together and built tents and made mud pies imagining we were making cheese. We watched Art Attack on a German TV channel and tried to use the tricks we were taught by the show’s presenter. And at times, when we were on the rope swing in the backyard, we realized (at least I did) how common our interests were. Sometimes I think that the people who saw us playing together must have imagined us getting married at one point. At other times, considering her parents’ blatant skepticism when they saw me stopping by to ask her out to play, I think those same people also feared that I wasn’t fit for the husband-job thing. I wasn’t, for, now, obvious reasons.

We did get married. My brother performed the ceremony on a summer evening under a cherry tree. We had picked flowers and we had a white gown made out of curtains, and, for some unclear reason, when the ceremony was over I was so ashamed of myself, as if I had trampled over some sort of sacred ground that was off-limits to us children. I was a boy and she was a girl and in this dichotomy the future is always easily foreseeable. All stories ended in that way, with the happily-ever-after that comes with marriage, and there was nothing we could do about it but play our parts. Yet, as time went on I failed to develop any kind of sexual interest either in her or the girls I played with. While the other guys in my alleged group of friends started talking about the pubic hair of girls (for some sick reason, always better when “parted in the middle”), I stuck to my dolls and books. I simply thought that my time would come at one point, and I would wake up one morning unable to think of anything else except the pubic hair of girls, always best when parted in the middle. (I almost laugh as I write this and it’s the kind of laughter that nestles in my chest whenever I hear bullshit. This is all true.)

To drown my post-marital shame I put the gown-wannabe over my head and pretended I was the bride, fooling around. That was not the only time I pretended to be a woman. When I was alone and had nothing else to do I used to go through my mother’s wardrobe and put on her dresses and high heels. I would look at myself in the mirror, sing and laugh, walk in my mother’s shoes, put my hands on my hips the way women did in movies. I put lipstick on because that was the only thing my mother had in terms of make-up. I put all those elements together and for a moment I was a woman, catering to the male gaze in my own childish ways. I imagined myself on stage until at one point, in high-school, I literally was on a stage, blinded by stage lights, wearing women’s clothes. It was a play, of course, but perhaps, deep in the well of my solitude, there was a moment when the boy who was my husband on stage seemed to me more than the empty shell of memorized lines. (He was very cute, by the way, and he was a dancer.) I can still hear the burst of laughter coming from the audience when I entered the stage wearing this huge dress, all glittery and lace, and volume. My voice sounded so removed and distant when it came out through the speakers. But I knew my part well. Put all those elements together, and you’re a woman.

After the show, the girl who had applied the make-up told me, as innocently as she could, that she had forgotten the make-up remover. I washed my face as best as I could but the eyeliner and the powders she had applied were all waterproof and so I had to ride the bus back home with clear traces on my face. I noticed the stares people were giving me but for some reason I chose to ignore them. I was not going to have my big night ruined by them. I floated, crossed my legs while sitting, and dreamily watched the moving world through the windows of the bus. You’re wearing make-up, a man told me later that night, and the words seemed to freeze on the spot, as if the asymmetry of my appearance (a boy wearing make-up) took too much space in his head and he needed to cease all motor functions. I felt powerful. Not because of the make-up, but rather because I had had the courage to get on stage like that. Or perhaps I’m saying this last bit simply because I was ashamed of it, or because I’m still ashamed of it. Boys don’t play with dolls. Boys don’t wear make-up. And when I look at the photo that was taken backstage before the show (me wearing that huge nineteenth-century dress, standing next to my high-school English teacher) I still feel the uncomfortable giddiness triggered by the laughter in the audience. Perhaps that is how acts of courage feel like. You tell me.

In another show, in a different setting and on a different stage, I wore a wig that fell off in the middle of an important scene (when I was confronting the man who was supposed to strangle me in my sickbed). The make-up was minimal but the role fit like a glove, or rather unlike my wig. I was a damsel in distress and there were only two men in the play, both of them helpless and useless. One of them was my absent husband, who was most likely having extramarital sex (I don’t blame him, I was a chubby high-school kid wearing make-up after all), while the other one was my supposed killer. I shot the latter in the end, with a gun I held hidden in the folds of my bathrobe. Imagine the kind of treatment the husband must have gotten upon his return. [wink]

Then I got married again. Somewhere off stage that is, because the play began only where the happily-ever-after started, the honeymoon. Yet, this time I had to play the loving husband and, well, it didn’t go that well, as you can imagine. In the play I was supposed to be this womanizer whose ex-girlfriends showed up at the cabin in the woods where the honeymoon was supposed to happen. Then a woman in labor showed up (the baby was not mine, go figure) and another man, and then some other people I cannot recall right now and it all ended with a big party (and me ironing shirts while Frank Sinatra’s Love and Marriage was playing in the background). It was a comedy, but even in a comedy I could not play the part of the loving husband. I had no attraction towards my wife and I guess that is why marriages fail to work. I tried putting the elements together but the loving husband failed to materialize. I faked it till the end but the faking was transparent, so much so that after the show, when we were given feedback by the jury one of them told me I looked gay. (He even made the voice and the hand thing that were supposed to be the kind of gestures a gay guy makes.) I felt ashamed of myself. Put a failed loving husband together and what you get is a gay man.

It was not the only time I felt ashamed of myself. Once, during a trip in high-school a guy on the bus told me I acted like a girl. You are so girly, he told me and his companions laughed. I only wished to make myself small and disappear from the face of the earth. On another occasion, and in a period in which I had become enamored with Duncan James (the hunk from the English boyband Blue), a classmate loudly commented in front of the whole class on my habit of staring at pictures of him. You like those boys, don’t you, they’re very good-looking, he scorned me. I went all red in the face and told him to leave me alone. I told him they sang beautifully, because in situations like these that was my only exit. Pretend you love the art behind the beautiful face, pretend you admire the work, never the person. Pretend, pretend, pretend. It’s so easy, do it like I do it and before you know it you’ll be a real man. This is what you do: you scratch your balls, you put your hands in your pockets like this, you place your feet like this, firmly into the ground as if the ground beneath your feet belongs to you.

There’s a tiny recorder in your head, taking all of this in, and the words wrap around you the way a rubber band wraps around your finger until it goes blue.

A boy doesn’t talk like that. A boy doesn’t walk like that. A boy shouldn’t like flowers. A boy doesn’t hold his hands like that. Why can’t you just like girls? Have you at least tried it? As if liking girls is just a matter of how you like them. Tall, short, blondes, brunettes, spicy, sweet, take your pick, just don’t stray outside the chalk lines or the lines in the sand. I felt as if I was in one of those video games where there is only one exit and the other doors are closed; as if somewhere along the game I had not made that one thing which would open the door to the next level. I had not collected all the diamonds and the coins and I was stuck there, thinking of restarting the game. Or just quitting the game and be done with it. Because what happens when you are told that you are off, that your body does not correspond with your bearing, is akin to being told that you do not deserve your body, that you’re wasting it in view of something that only goes on in your mind, and is therefore wrong, crazy, sinful, stubborn, a vice, damaging.

Other men should make you sick. Their smell should be repulsive. The very thought of it. You’re in the army now.

Start recording, you’re told. And you listen. Because you want to belong, to be a part of something, to have friends, to be liked. Until your mind becomes a catalogue of gestures and postures. Keep the tone of your voice in check, lower the pitch, baby, let your manliness sing in the ears of your interlocutors, make the world shudder with sexual anticipation at the sound of your voice. Make women wet with your gait. Push your chest forward, spread your legs when you’re on the bus, and when you become impatient with something show them that you are impatient by shaking your feet. Puff, show your jealousy, show them who you are. And somewhere deep within your guts a part of yourself is slowly starving akin to a worker on hunger strike.

This circus training goes a very long way. You become aware of it even in the circles of people who are supposed to understand this, who are supposed to fight alongside you. A couple of days ago, I was asked, rather nonchalantly, by a guy on a dating app, whether I am manly. He’s manly too, he says, but, don’t get him wrong, he has nothing against effeminate guys, in fact, he has a lot of effeminate gay friends (does that ring a bell?). He can’t stand being seen with effeminate guys because that would be akin to wearing yourself on your sleeve and there’s a world of wrongness behind that. He doesn’t exactly say that but that’s exactly what he’s saying. I don’t really understand him, but maybe I do. Maybe I want to tell him that his preference for manly men (whatever that means) is simply a cover-up for the fact that he is uncomfortable with his own homosexuality. There are only so many ways in which a man can wear his make-up. I don’t tell him this, because he’s cute, because I’ve fucked up for so many times that I don’t want to do it again, because he likes my profile. Because, because, because. Because I’m not usually a magnet for guys as cute as him.

He is not alone in this. There’s a long stream of guys who advertise their manliness either by flexing their biceps or by saying it out loud. Manly guy for manly guys. I’m just a simple guy. I’m just a normal guy looking for other normal guys, which is secret code for straight-acting/straight-looking guys, therefore not gay, because being gay is unruly, it’s the drawing a child makes, the one in which people’s heads are too big. I want to tell them, honey baby, you like dick, and no straight-act you put on is going to change that. But I say nothing because sometimes I’m afraid of dying alone. I make brownies instead.

For once, just let it go.

I am feminine, though at times I take pride with myself when other people tell me that they would have never thought I was gay. I hide well, I want to tell them but I don’t. I might move my hands a certain way, with the elegance one rarely sees in other men. I have feminine traits. My doctor once told me I have feminine hips. And no matter what I do, no matter how much I work out, no matter how much muscle mass I put on, there are certain things I cannot change. I have my mother’s face, which at times resembles that of porcelain dolls. As I write this I feel the urge to tone it down and add “but not that much” every time I say I am feminine. And perhaps that is the problem. Perhaps the problem is with all these adjectives.

These are my hands. I can only move them this way. This is the way I speak. These are my hips. This is my face.

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