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Nov 2003 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

The Space Between Us
By Jarek Steele

My dad used to open both sides of the bread bag. He would risk ruining the entire loaf of bread to eat the heels first. Chaos clung to him. This, along with his prominent chin, was passed to every child of his — not the whole bread thing, but the chaos part. Chaos follows all of my siblings, and has propelled me into more social margins than I care to admit. Even browsing through hundreds of old family pictures I can see his face behind piles of shredded Christmas paper, mouth smiling, eyes uncertain whether what was in front of him was in the least bit real. Especially me. Of course, that's conjecture. All I know is what I felt, and I knew even then, as a sleepy five-year-old eying my new inflatable Incredible Hulk muscles and Big Wheel in those pictures, I was no girl.

At night I would feverishly pray to my parents' Southern Baptist God to make me wake up a boy. When the morning came and I looked under my pink-and-yellow flowered sheets (it was the '70s) only to find myself exactly as I had been the night before, I was angry. I pretended my bike with the sissy bar was a Harley with a backrest. I begged for a football uniform for Christmas only to be told, "Those are for boys." "Footloose" came out in 1984 — I was 11. I wanted to be Kevin Bacon. I even bought a knit tie with my birthday money and wore it to school after hours in my room trying to figure out how to tie it. When puberty came I was mortified. I started wearing trench coats and baggy shirts to hide my body. I grew my hair out into a Black Sabbath-worthy rat's nest and played the bass in a really bad band. I was questioned when I went into the women's room. I fought boys in school. I saved my money from cleaning rooms at the Effingham Days Inn and bought a motorcycle. I stayed high for most of my high school career. My whole body railed against its existence. I knew I wasn't as I seemed.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" My father was sitting on the end of the couch. Legs crossed, crossword puzzle book in hand, looking at me slouching in the doorway of the one-bedroom apartment we shared after my parents' divorce. I was fifteen. "I don't know. Maybe I'll work in a factory or something. Maybe even Merz Sheet Metal like you." He put down the crossword puzzle and sighed. Dad rarely yelled, and when he did, it was just before punctuating it with his fist through the wall, then hours of tears of regret. This time he just yelled. "Well, you could work in the office or something, right? You don't really mean a man's job." As I grew up, lots of my female friends got jobs in factories or landscaping or even white-collar "men's" careers like law. My dad didn't bat an eye at them. It was me he had the problem with. My revelation that I would be something that resembled him sparked his fury.

He watched me, his second-youngest daughter grow into a young…man, knowing full well the metamorphosis happening in front of him, never believing what he was seeing. He blamed it on himself and distrusted his mind. He was a product of his time and his place in the world: Effingham, Illinois, where time passes slowly through cornfields and stops at the edge of town.

Dad started losing his lifelong battle with depression around the time I decided to try, in a last-ditch effort, to live in my body. I got pregnant, then married to a man I really loved, then became suicidal. Dad didn't stick around to see the divorce, the custody battle, the intense relationship with a woman I really loved, my betrayal of her, or the years that followed in vertigo.

In the end, his mind did betray him. Histories and names were lost. When I went to visit him just before he died he looked me straight in the eye and called me by my sister's name, JoAnna. I answered. After all, we both loved her more than each other, and it was easier to talk about her and through her. We both knew I wasn't his daughter, and neither of us had the words for what I really was.

Now, eight years later, I'm growing whiskers. I look in the mirror and see him. I started taking testosterone a little over a year ago, to make my body real to me and to save my life. Some day soon, I'll have enough money to have chest reconstruction. I'll be able to mow my lawn in an oily wife-beater tank top and embarrass my partner. For the first time in my life I am excited about my life and my body.

I might be a little queer around the edges, my son might still call me "mom" privately, my driver's license may still say "female." But I always have been a man in my definition of it. Our lives and bodies are just what we make of them. Chaos embraces me, loves me like I'm its bastard child, owns me in whatever shape I'm in. It crept through generations and compelled my father to be the man he was, then settled in my bones to create the person who's writing this — a man who waits patiently for the loaf to disappear so I can have both heels, but has risked my whole family to live on both sides of the gender divide. I'm a man who lives his life in a charmed body.

Jarek Steele will read from his poetry on Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. at City Museum.

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