Unclench

Prelude: The bathroom, January, 2015

My partner and I smoke in the bathroom during the winter. There are tricks to keeping the stale scent under control, but after a few weeks, we stop blowing smoke through the dryer filter and don’t care whether the shower is on or not, and the towel is only haphazardly stuffed along the crack at the bottom of the door, and we’ll light a candle if we find one that doesn’t make us simultaneously nauseated and nostalgic. Now the once-white paint is stained tar-yellow and the mirror on the medicine cabinet is covered in a hazy film that we will scrub off when we remove the pervasive scents of bad habits hiding in the forgotten corners of our home.

For now, though, we smoke in the bathroom because the weather still reaches single digits some nights, and we let each cigarette make its mark without worrying about the consequences. I sit on the plush brown bathmat, fresh-brewed coffee in hand and the toilet-ashtray to my right. The edge of the bathtub is reimagined as a high-backed chair holding me up as I lean back, still partially asleep, and pull the first drag.

Physicists can’t decide whether the universe is expanding or collapsing, shrinking or growing. I believe that people are afraid of stagnancy, and so we try to quantify the changes in our world in language we can understand, in theories that can be tested and proven. There is no room for gut instinct here; a Grand Unified Theory still lurks out of sight, waiting to be discovered. I’m not a physicist, but I see the way that our bodies are celestial, comprised of the empty space between electron moons orbiting nucleic planets along every micrometer of our skin. In this sense, the human body is comprised of molecules that once fueled the stars that died before we were ever an imagined species.

In my reverie, I ignore the harsh florescent bathroom light flickering angrily as my cigarette burns down and ash threatens to fall into my coffee. The cheap toilet paper we bought last month is shedding small particles again, and the new roll sits, precariously balanced on top of the toilet paper stand. My partner gets frustrated when I don’t change the empty roll, and I get frustrated when he steals my lighter, so I don’t change the roll and he steals my lighter because we are both stubborn, and it becomes a source of banter for people who have exhausted substantial arguments and know one another’s eccentricities a little too well. While I sit, I play with the cotton dust from the disintegrating toilet paper that coats the floor like a fine dusting of fake snow.

The fragility of life makes me desperate, and I want to scream, running into the woods, naked, just to say that I did. Like so many others, I want a witness to my life, an external affirmation that I existed and I mattered. But everything dies eventually: our writings and our witnesses, our songs and our stories disintegrate and disappear. Words stand no chance when even stars succumb to the demands of time, and the atoms that once hung suspended in the sky now find themselves bound to the gravity of human bodies.

It is six AM, and I am contemplating molecules, perplexed by the particles of off-brand toilet paper sticking to my fingers. To compare the fragments of human lives to the stars is a macrocosmic perspective, but it’s a useful juxtaposition against the expectations of this society: gender, sexuality, monogamy, politics, the policing of bodies, beliefs, behaviors. I transgress each expectation and walk along razor-thin edges of different worlds, trying to balance without cutting my feet. I want to be seen and show my life in its varying complexities, knowing that when I die, the world I have created for myself will lose its relevancy and begin to unravel. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter; in these quiet moments, early in the morning, I find sanctuary in this stale bathroom that smells like yesterday’s mistakes and this morning’s resurgence. It is in these moments that I cannot live with the shame that is born from silence.

 

Will you walk with me? Walk with me past the shambled, boarded-up buildings where the homeless seek refuge from the wind, where junkies disappear from judgment, avoiding the forced withdrawal from a temporary redemption found in a needle prick and a tourniquet. Walk with me through the dark, glistening streets where the working women warily watch us pass and wait until we are out of sight before the skirts hike up and sultry eyes tempt tired businessmen who try to forget their wives and exorcise their desires for fifty bucks an hour. Walk with me until we lose track of time and find that the parts of life we try so hard to ignore are the moments that bring us alive. Walk with me while we watch the world unpeeling like a molded orange, bathed in the nauseating scent of decay, the soft texture of rotting flesh bringing out the recklessness in us and we will run, howling through the streets at midnight, hopelessness clawing from our lungs like the bloodlust of wolves hunting in the darkness. Stay with me until we escape the beautiful falseness of this dying city, until we reach the edge of the woods just beyond the horizon and collapse, panting, breathless, giddy in our freedom because adrenaline is the cure for apathy, and the grit between our teeth reminds us that we are still alive.

 

Catalyst: The Campground, September, 2014

The campground sprawls, light and airy, the gentle hills lined with paths and the rambling woods creating a perimeter of privacy. Although most of the camp is open space, there are several lines of cabins on either end, and I pitch my tent behind the lettered buildings arranged in a horseshoe by the tennis courts. The air buzzes, electric with potential, each moment full of possibility as people walk through camp, laughing, starting conversations with strangers and sipping coffee.

This place is a sanctuary, but the heart of the space is these people wandering, laughing, talking: the women who throw their shoulders back, bare-breasted in ferocious beauty, the men who walk with quiet certainty and caring eyes, some wearing outrageous outfits, some wearing nothing at all. Intermingled with the men and women wandering through the camp, I find other people like me, people with too many gender characteristics dueling for dominance, flaunting exquisitely complex bodies with pride.

I lose count of the people who stop to tell me I am beautiful, tantalizing, intriguing, and I blush, unaccustomed to this affirmation. This body I have cultivated with hours of tattoo ink and countless injections of testosterone is something I disguise in my daily life, masking my breasts with a visible goatee and hoping that no one around me has taken a Trans 101 class. Here, surrounded by these people, I am empowered, and I shed my fear with my clothes and walk through camp in sturdy boots, unashamed and marveling at the way the sun caresses my chest like warm fingertips trailing over my clavicle.

Conservation is the fundamental property of physics. We cannot create energy, nor can we destroy it; the most we can do is manipulate what already exists. It is from conservation that the energy that once fueled the burning stars now fuels the metabolic processes of the human body. Every body of mass stores energy, and the shift from stillness to movement is simply a visual shift from potential to kinetic. A star can only burn as long as the stored energy of the molecules will allow; once the energy is gone, the reactions cease and the star dies. By living, we build up energy and, in interacting with other, we run the risk of catalyzing movement. The oceans of our bodies are warmed by the heat, and heat is just a quantifiable measure of energy. Heat is movement, reaction, and our bodies are made to keep changing, growing, mending. We were made from the stars, and stars are not built for stagnancy.

Conservation forces balance: what goes in must come back out. My last day at camp finds me wandering, anxious, on edge; I feel separated from my body, as though I am hovering with the rainclouds some distance away and watching myself trying to interact, clunky and uncertain and searching for the storm. When I run into the pretty boy I had nicknamed Suspender Guy, his weariness mirrors mine, and the How are you?‘s are not merely perfunctory; we are both seeking authenticity in the midst of our exhaustion. The silent shrugs and heavy sighs take the place of words-I am not ok-and we open our arms to embrace. Our skin touches and catalyzes the conservation laws, shifting the energy from potential to kinetic and yearning toward balance.

I slowly come back into my body, keenly aware of the ache in my shoulders and the chill of the air across my skin, taste the rain that drips from the end of my hair onto my lips, smell the damp, petrichor earth and his scent, heady and rich and natural. Like a lightning rod, designed to channel and hold the electric current, his tiredness courses through my body and drains into the earth, grounding us both in the midst of the rainstorm.

 

Are you still with me? I want to show you what is real, and I struggle to define what makes an experience real. Whether you see what I am trying to show doesn’t negate the reality of the experience. Whether we are pulled into wormholes or running through forests, we are escaping together and suspending judgment of what is real or possible. This is my life, a desperate search to see and be seen, however that comes to manifest. A hug can transcend the threshold of skin and touch the fragile spirit of a person. Sex can reach beneath the barriers of vulnerability and grasp at the heart of a friend.

 

Catharsis: Los Angeles, October, 2014

I am underwhelmed by the skyscrapers and the sprawling mass of this city; like a true east-coaster, I miss New York and DC, the dangerous alleyways and self-destructive havens that lend themselves well to escape. I look out the hotel window, sixteen floors above the ground, and see a city, like any other city, a blank slate of sidewalks, a stranger with whom I have no connection. I am out of place, too grungy and too poor to be in a hotel like this, one with fountains in the lobby and bathrobes in the bedrooms, but the conference paid for the room, and it is my only sanctuary in this city.

If there is any benefit to being unconventionally gendered, it is in the silence that echoes around this room. It’s a logistical nightmare to assign me a roommate, and most often, everyone is spared the headache and I am given a room to myself. It allows a certain level of freedom: I can walk around after a shower, naked, while I pick up various pieces of clothing and try to decide how I want to present myself today. I can watch the transformation occur with each article of clothing donned, the whole of myself slowly shielded by button up shirts tucked into ironed chinos and dress coats covering tattooed arms. The benefit is also the drawback: I am only myself behind closed doors. But today, when I am done, I will pick up the phone and call an old friend, the kind of friend for whom we have served as witnesses to the intricacies of one another’s lives and found the paths we walk are often parallel. Today, I will offer them a place to stay for the night if they make the two hour drive from San Diego to see me and, in me, perhaps find a piece of themself they have left behind.

The event horizon is the threshold boundary of a black hole. Once crossed, it is physically impossible to escape the gravitational pull at the heart of the fallen star. It is the point of no return, marking the line where no amount of light or energy can escape. The beauty of black holes is the mystery of the unknown. Perhaps there are wormholes, channels to other dimensions of space or time, parallel universes where we can catch a glimpse of who we may have become, who we may yet still become. Beyond the event horizon, though, we run the risk of destruction, pressed into ourselves, compacted and crushed under immense pressure. Wormholes are the mechanisms of self-preservation, an outlet for survival when the pressure of the fallen star becomes more than the body can bear.

When Shane arrived, I mapped the familiar contours of their face with my eyes: somewhere between butch and boy in their blue button down and loose-fit jeans, they stood on the street corner, at once charming and guarded. I felt a familiar desire creeping up from the pit of my gut, the desire to hold the tenacity of their heart in gentle hands and warm it with my breath, to reach beneath their skin and swim through the aortic valves that protected that often-bruised heart. Eleven years of friendship brought them here, a few blocks from the extravagant hotel, just a short walk to my unshared hotel room. I wrap my arm around their shoulder, and their hand cradles my hip. We catch sideways glances and they are trapped behind their eyes, a chameleon caught in a strange environment, at once exotic and invisible. We are not dissimilar, Shane and I.

Inside the room, the tension builds, a juxtaposition of comfort and vulnerability. We touch the way old friends touch, familiar and comfortable, leaning against one another with ease. We touch the way that people touch when they know the tender scars that map the soul of another person, and caress them carefully. We have both been broken. Reaching forward with desire trembling, we forge our way through slimy intestines and caustic stomachs, leaving tendrils of skin cells like breadcrumbs to the heart. I dive into the softness of their skin with fingernails scraping and coaxing their nerves to feel again. We bring the broken shards of selves to bed and hide them in the sheets; we pick them up, piece by piece, as we rediscover our capacity for passion. Exhaustion hits when the dawn breaks open sunbeams, and we radiate light from within as we sprawl, satiated and whole, across the tangled hotel sheets and remember that our bodies are made of stardust.

 

When we part ways, what will you remember? That we are dying or that we are constantly reborn? We choose to see the world that mirrors our own experiences. In the heart of the woods or the depth of the city, we constantly rediscover our capacity to be surprised, if only because the world continues to unfold itself anew. The brokenness is tangible, the desperate struggle to feel alive in midst of the mundane is contagious. Stardust is bound by gravity, and the yearning we feel when we stare into the night is echoed in the inexplicable pull we feel toward one another. We are not so dissimilar, you and I; we are just stardust taking different forms and finding wormholes to withstand the pressure of our own event horizons.

 

Postscript: The bathroom, January, 2015

I’m lighting a second cigarette on the bathroom floor. The first had hung haphazardly between my fingers, slowly tilting until the pressure relaxed enough for it to fall, half-smoked, into the toilet. I am lost in thoughts of molecules, and my body feels heavy, pulled to the floor with a force much stronger than usual. Unclench, I beg, but I can’t. I am coiling the molecules of my skin around the stardust in my gut and soaking in the calm of six AM. The faucet drips a steady rhythm, and I close my eyes, focus on the sound of the water hitting the basin of the white, porcelain sink.

In the winter, my partner and I smoke in the bathroom. We pretend it is because the temperature outside is unbearable, but when the temperature rises, we still find ourselves seeking refuge in these four dingy walls and the scent of yesterday’s cigarettes. In a moment, I will stand up, take a shower, get dressed, surround myself with textbooks and delve into the pages of homework I have ignored the past few days. I will become the person I need to be in order to survive here: male, or at least male enough that no one looks twice; studious, or at least studious enough to make up for the times that I don’t look male enough; non-sexual, or at least non-sexual enough to not be a threat when I accidentally flirt with the guy in my eleven o’clock class; quiet, or at least quiet enough that these small inconsistencies never get a chance to slip past my lips in casual conversation. In a moment, I will reenter this slice of the world in the ways I know how, and there is a stifling hopelessness in that future, crushing me under the pressure to fit into these tiny boxes just beyond the event horizon. So I will wait a moment while I finish my cigarette on this dingy bathroom floor, choosing to revel in the wake of stardust pulsing inside my gut.

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