Ambiguity

0.

My mother always wanted a boy. I’m not supposed to be an only child, but there are enough complications with my birth and first year that once I survive, my parents decide to quit while they’re ahead. Besides, my mom gets her wish.

“I’m so glad you’re a boy!” she exclaims at random in my childhood, as I play with toy cars or study dinosaur books or watch Mr. Rogers. “I wouldn’t have known what to do with a girl.”

The truth is this: I think I was supposed to be a girl. My mother willed me, in utero, to change.

*     *     *

4.

There’s a story I don’t remember directly, one that I only know through my parents’ retelling. I am four years old, in Sunday School, and we are preparing for the Christmas pageant. It’s the same Christmas pageant held all over America, but this one happens to be in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, at an Episcopalian church, in the early 1980s. The pastor is dividing up roles between the children: Mary, Joseph, the Archangel Gabriel. Finally, he turns to the youngest among us.

“The boys will be shepherds and the girls will be angels.”

I must feel a pang of disappointment. My hand shoots up. “Can I be an angel?”

“You’re a boy, so you will be a shepherd.”

I start to cry but manage to hold it together. I can imagine dreading the scratchy fake beard, the dull brown wool. “I have always associated Christmas with angels,” I say, at least according to the pastor’s later testimony. “Can I please be an angel?”

He ponders, shrugs, looks at the Sunday School teacher. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anything. If you really want to be an angel with the girls, you can be an angel.”

I vaguely recall the costume: shiny white, hand-sewn by my mother, the flat cardboard wings rising up from my scrawny shoulder blades. A tinsel halo suspended on wire above my head. Perfect.

Neither the shepherds nor angels fully accept my decision. The boys feel abandoned and the girls encroached upon. I have made everyone just a little less comfortable. But as we line up to walk on stage, my shimmery cloak rustling around me, I feel a sense of vindicated purpose. I am where I belong.

*     *     *

5.

My mother and I are at a bank, a post office, a grocery store checkout line. My hair is shaggy blonde, stretching down my nape in subtle waves. The woman behind the counter, and it is always a woman, compliments my mother.

“What a beautiful girl you have!”

“Boy,” she corrects. “He’s a boy.”

The clerk over-apologizes, sometimes trying to explain, hurried, flushed.

I feel embarrassed, but I don’t know why.

*     *     *

7.

I am a second-grader in Washington, DC and sit the way I feel most comfortable in my desk, with my legs crossed closely, knee over knee, thighs flush and pressed together. A boy in a nearby desk notices and points and interrupts class. “Ew, he’s sitting like a girl!”

I look down, uncomprehending. Some of the kids reflexively laugh. I feel a hot blush, mixed misunderstanding and shame, welling up from my throat. The teacher addresses me sternly: “Storey, uncross your legs.”

I comply. But by the end of the day, my legs have found their way back to this comfortable position beneath the desk. The teacher notices and redirects me. Sighing, she adds, “I’m going to have to bring this up with your parents.”

The next week, we have a meeting in the school library: me, my father, my teacher. “Storey’s choice of how he crosses his legs has become a distraction,” she explains to my father.

“I’m only sitting like the founding fathers,” I retort.

Neither of them understands this outburst. But my father and I have spent hours in the Smithsonian, absorbing colonial history, portraits of long-dead men in white wigs, high stockings, buckled shoes.

Despite herself, my teacher’s curiosity is piqued. “Which founding fathers exactly?” she demands.

“The signers of the Declaration of Independence. They all sat like me. I’ll show you.”

I jump off the tiny seat and run for a hefty historical tome on a low nearby shelf. Hauling it back to the table, I flip through the pages. “Here,” I declare, finding John Trumbull’s iconic painting of the event. “See?”

A bevy of recognizable faces, including Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, are standing at a darkly draped table, brimming with papers. Behind the table sits a regal John Hancock, legs crossed as I had been sitting the week before. On the other side of the room, in a long row on the left side of the painting, several more signers sit similarly, knee over knee.

The teacher shakes her head, says nothing. Even my father is surprised to see this evidence. “They were boys,” I press. “The most famous boys in the country!”

“Be that as it may,” my teacher responds ponderously, “It’s still better in this class if you cross your legs like a boy.”

“How is that?” I ask, genuinely unsure.

She pushes her chair back from the short table and crosses her right outer ankle over her left knee, making a figure four of her legs. “Like this,” she indicates. “This would be more appropriate from now on.”

I do my best the rest of my time at the school but fail frequently. Mostly, I try to sit with my feet planted squarely on the ground, willing them to hold in place, however uncomfortable.

*     *     *

I’m not even sure I want long hair, but I viscerally despise the experience of feeling the scissors near my scalp, the loss of my locks, the wet scratchy strands clinging to my face on the way to the floor.

*     *     *

11.

I fight every haircut. My mother cuts my hair into the shape of a bowl every couple of months and I scream and kick and threaten to run away. I’m not even sure I want long hair, but I viscerally despise the experience of feeling the scissors near my scalp, the loss of my locks, the wet scratchy strands clinging to my face on the way to the floor.

Exasperated, she spends the money to take me to a barber, but I scream uncontrollably in the black leather chair. I nearly punch the guy. My hair winds up uneven and yet shorter than normal. We agree to an uneasy truce, wherein she won’t subject me again to a professional, but I will cooperate better with our bimonthly ritual.

I break the truce repeatedly.

*     *     *

14.

One weekend at a friend’s house, a group of male friends and I start talking about haircuts. A kid at school got a new one and it was horrible and one of the guys is considering shaving his head. Hair is discussed as the enemy, the foil, more exasperating to deal with than toothbrushing or other rote chores.

“I wish I could make it so it would never grow again,” one declares.

“It’s so liberating to shave your head and just not have to deal with it,” another agrees.

I’m uncharacteristically silent during this exchange. When most of them have left the room to get a snack, I turn to one of my closer friends confidentially. “I’d like to grow my hair long someday.”

He blinks. “Really? Like how long? Yours is already on the long side.”

I tap the top of my shoulder experimentally. His eyebrows raise further.

I shake my head quickly. “I dunno. Maybe not. It was just an idea.”

*     *     *

Despite my conviction that it is illogical, I conclude that I am irreparably straight.

*     *     *

15.

I have always been attracted to girls, can remember embarrassing overt crushes from early grade school. Now I am grasping that I simply never considered the alternative. The topic of homosexuality arises in brief discussions, whispered rumors. Have you heard about this teacher or that friend of a friend?

I realize, quite suddenly, that being bisexual makes much more sense than being straight.

I feel so unmasculine, so foreign to the expectations of my gender, my voice remains higher than most and my frame skinny to the point of raising questions about eating disorders. I don’t want to be a woman, but I don’t feel like a man. So, if I feel so alienated from gender, why should it be such a determining factor in who I would like? I can’t imagine making any woman who likes men happy. Wouldn’t we all be better off just liking everyone?

I test my theory. I try to become attracted to my best friend. We have frequent sleepovers, often sharing a bed. We hug more often than most guys our age, our banter is light and playful. I imagine this will be easy.

I picture us in romantic situations, try to flirt with him, look for an opportunity. But over months, I can’t manage it. Every time I think about making a move, I am overwhelmed with disinterest. I can’t picture where things would go, am more horrified than excited by every answer I can imagine. I cannot infuse the slightest physical interest into my deepest, closest friendship.

Despite my conviction that it is illogical, I conclude that I am irreparably straight.

*     *     *

16.

Bullies at school routinely call me “fag” and “gay boy.” In the face of this rhetoric, I cry often. I am not particularly concerned that they mean to insult me, but very worried that word will get out, that no girls will consider me as an option.

Months later, my fears are allayed as I have one, then another relationship with girls. The name-calling persists. I realize that reality is no defense against perception.

*     *     *

17.

I put my foot down on haircuts, refusing them all. I am a year from living on my own and can make my own decisions, I insist. Weary of a decade of fights, my mother finally concedes. My hair reaches out, splaying behind my ears like wings at first, then dropping down to my shoulders and beyond.

There is an intermediate phase, right around shaggy shoulder-length, when I notice more women noticing me than ever before. A friend of a friend, confessing her crush, says she thinks I should be in shampoo commercials. Women well out of my league say yes when I’m expecting no.

But I’m not asking for sex. They are. I’ve always been reticent to make the first move, preferring to talk and be very sure of everyone’s feelings before taking another step. Now they are asking for something which I don’t feel comfortable giving. I want an emotional commitment, probably marriage, before giving my all. After one night explaining this to the most beautiful girl I’ve dated, her half-undressed in my backseat, she stares right back at me.

“I understand. But you’re the one guy in the world who I wish didn’t feel that way.”

I let my hair grow still longer and the uncanny interest in me, slowly, recedes proportionally.

*     *     *

18.

I am sitting on the couch of my friend’s New York apartment, watching TV with him and some of his college roommates. The last roommate bursts out from his room, late to the party. He stops short, literally skidding on the worn wood floor.

“Shit, Storey, I forgot,” he says.

“What?” I ask, turning.

“Your hair! I only saw you from behind. You almost sent me into chick-mode.”

*     *     *

19.

My hair is to my high back, untouched by scissors for two full years. I catch a glance in the mirror and feel I can recognize myself for the first time.

“There you are,” I say to my reflection. “You’ve been hiding the whole time.”

It’s similar to what my favorite band’s lead singer, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, later says about his artificial dreadlocks in a magazine interview. But this year, he and his band release This Desert Life and I grow obsessed with a particular track.

Its title is “I Wish I Was a Girl.”

*     *     *

20.

A good female friend of mine (we dated for a while and now periodically assuage our mutual loneliness with late-night hook-ups) is visited at our college by her best male friend from high school. On the spur of the moment, he suggests we all road-trip down to Connecticut to visit another friend of theirs. It’s cold, the verge of a snowstorm, and we are excited as we speed across the series of interstates to the Atlantic coast.

When we get there, the girl is surprised and swept up. I learn by watching them that she’s loved the guy for years. But they’ve apparently been star-crossed, unable to align their timing. We head out to a diner, then a late-night walk on the edge of a wood as the snow starts to fall. All four of us are in love with the night in a different way and I admire the guy’s romantic sensibility, his sureness of risk.

My college friend keeps me apprised of the aftermath. Her friend in Connecticut broke up with her boyfriend. She started dating the guy. They were in love, committed, everything finally perfect. But then, the guy started having feelings. Feelings that he wasn’t a man, wanted to be a woman. That he was still in love with her, would always be drawn to women, but he wanted to start taking hormones and, perhaps, preparing for a surgery.

I am intrigued, fascinated. The line, “lesbian trapped in a man’s body,” emerges and it rings true to me, feels like a resonant home. And yet, I cannot help but wonder what will become of the relationship. Is the young woman ready for such a journey, to realign her own orientation?

In the end, she is not. Heartbroken, the guy transitions without her, finds another woman to try to love. She is not happy.

*     *     *

22.

I am engaged to be married. We move in together, into a tiny studio apartment in Berkeley with a frightened cat. I am finally having sex. I now have regular access to women’s clothing, if I want to go there. She dares me once to put on an outfit of hers and I do, and she snaps pictures and I feel uncomfortable. Not like I’ve done something wrong, but more like I’m afraid of being found out. I steer clear of her drawers for years.

*     *     *

27.

My wife and I discuss having children. I say, not for the first time, how much I would adore being pregnant. The notion of growing another life inside your body, nurturing it into existence, feeling it respond and gain awareness inside you. There is no more thrilling sensation I can imagine in human experience. It makes me sad, often, that this future possibility will be denied me.

I hungrily eye pseudo-scientific stories about pregnant men, about what might be possible through future innovations in biology. They are never quite what they seem, but I cling to the hope.

“If you feel all that,” my wife sighs, “I really wish we could trade.”

*     *     *

30.

My wife cheats on me and demands a divorce, suddenly and unexpectedly. I consider shaving my head in response to the trauma, a primal urge to scar my appearance to reflect my interior feelings. But I can’t bear to become someone I find even less attractive.

“Is that all this has ever been?” I wonder. “A way to be attracted to myself, to find myself appealing in reflection?” I don’t quite feel dysphoric, though sometimes I forget I’m a man.

I play Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder,” making myself dance with the verve I used to feel. “With love, with patience, and with faith, she’ll make her way.” I am sure she is singing about me.

*     *     *

31.

I am a debate coach at Rutgers University. My hair ranges from just past my shoulder to the small of my back. I get a trim every couple of years.

The campus is lined with rows of fraternity houses, spray-painted banners over bronze Greek letters on high arches above dirty cup-strewn porches. In the early evenings, their denizens gather above their short steps like wolves, hungrily ogling the women who wander by.

As I pass, heading to practice or home from my office, they call out to me. “Yeah, baby, come here!” “Shake that ass, honey!” Or the high searing whistle of an untamed construction site.

At first, I find it unnerving, reminiscent of the high school bullies, traveling in packs, preying on the weak. But after the first catcalls, I consider how horrified they might be to learn that I’m actually male. So, I turn once, flirtatiously, deepening my voice as I do so. “Hello, boys.”

They scatter on the porch, falling over each other and waving me off in disgusted chagrin. “No, man, we’re sorry.” “Not you!” “We thought!” “Oh, God, no!”

I smile as I exaggeratedly wiggle away, feeling powerful and victorious.

*     *     *

32.

I have been announced the winner of the debate league’s Distinguished Service Award, along with another frequent judge and coach. The league’s amateur press outlet wishes to interview us, take a picture together.

Because it’s a collegiate league and runs on alcohol and embarrassment, someone randomly suggests that we both wear skirts for the picture. The other winner is also a gentle man but blanches at this request, looking to me to agree it’s absurd.

Instead, my eyes glimmer at the thought and I dare him to accept as well. “I’m down,” I say breathlessly. “C’mon, man, it’ll be fun.”

We change in adjacent stalls in the men’s room, him regretting the choice the whole time, asking me to reconsider. But I am pressing myself down into the fitted pencil skirt carefully, feeling a heightened sense of awareness, almost tingly.

He winces in the picture. I smile broadly. Considered too scandalous and strange, the picture is never used.

*     *     *

33.

A debater on my team paints his nails, responds flatly when his male teammates ask him why. I realize that I’ve never once wished to paint my nails, nor wear perfume, nor wear makeup. Then again, I’m not fond of women wearing perfume or makeup either. I encouraged my wife not to use them, starting small fights on occasion. I’ve never had an interest in altering my body: no tattoos, piercings, or adornments of any kind beyond a wedding ring when applicable. I’m not even circumcised.

I sigh, knowing I don’t fit in any camp.

*     *     *

34.

I take a quiz online that promises to tell me if I’m a man or a woman. After several probing and sometimes frivolous questions, it spits out its result. 78% Female. I chuckle ruefully, shaking my head. This is one of the most masculine readings I’ve ever received from such a quiz.

*     *     *

35.

Approaching our table for the first time, from behind my girlfriend and I, our waitress singsongs, “Welcome, ladies!” She hands off menus, makes eye contact with me, and winces. “I’m so sorry, sir; I meant, well, you know, with the hair, I—”

I wave her off, jovial. “Please. Don’t worry about it. Happens all the time.”

“I know but I shouldn’t assume and I’m so sorry, but it is really long but—”

“Don’t mention it.”

She mentions it, repeatedly, throughout the night.

*     *     *

38.

I’m out to lunch at a café with a good friend from college and his wife. We haven’t seen each other in person since my second wedding. He gallivants all over the globe, doing political work, the work of liberation.

In passing, the issue of transgender rights arises.

“It’s fascinating to see how much progress has been made in such a short time,” he exhales, exuding passion and focus.

I concur. “It’s like gay marriage. I remember sitting in my boss’ office in San Francisco the day after Prop 8 passed. And I told her not to worry, it would be legal in all fifty states within a decade. And she snort-laughed. And I turned out too pessimistic by two years.”

“Just amazing.” And a cloud passes between us, a thought hitting him for maybe the first time. “You know, you’ve always felt uncertain about your gender, not really identified as super masculine. Do you ever consider…” He trails off, leaving me to fill in the blank.

I laugh. “Oh, I’m too old to make any changes now.”

“Huh. But do you think, if it had been a different era? If you’d been born, say, twenty years later? Or forty?”

I cock my head to the rafters. It’s something I’ve never considered until this moment. I don’t feel the familiar embarrassment, the hints of rosy shame. I’m contemplative, unsure, but at home with being unsure. “I think. It might have been different. I might be a woman now. But I’m okay with not being one. You know? I’ve never been much for physical alteration, after all.

“I can’t say that I’m sad about it, it’s not like a lost love or a deep regret. Mostly, I’m glad that the expectations seem to be falling away. That you don’t have to conform to a standard. That men can cry as much as I do. That women can be powerful, be angry. That I don’t have to explain myself so much.”

“Besides,” he jokes, characteristically lightening my mood. “You wouldn’t have had to change your name!”

It’s true. I was named seven months before I was born. I would have had the same name either way.

Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. In the past year, his nonfiction has appeared in a dozen literary journals, including Pleiades: Literature in Context, Mud Season Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Barely South Review, and North Dakota Quarterly. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid (bluepyramid.org).