Job Objective: To secure employment in which I can reasonably work as myself while a) using my true strengths and abilities, b) enjoying access to sufficient healthcare, c) supporting and feeding my family without the need for the Department of Family and Children Services, and d) refraining from harming myself or others.
Part One: The Motherfucker Knocked Me Up
Home Health Worker Savannah, GA 2003
She’s naked in the shower and I’m here because heat gives her seizures. Seizures in the shower can lead to drowning, so even though she can wash her own tits, I sit on the toilet and keep her company in case.
Of all my clients, she’s one of the few I’ve gotten close to. She’s in recovery, so we can talk about Narcotics Anonymous and stuff, even though I haven’t been back since I was fifteen. She thinks I belong back in the program, I’m sure.
We also talk about the married man she claims she isn’t dating. Besides me and her dad, who is mostly an ass, Drake is the only other person who comes out here to see her. She lives alone in this trailer with her cat—and let me tell you, she loves her damn cat. God, himself, would have to let this beast chew on his head in the pretense of affectionate grooming lest he incur the wrath of Marla. Last week, I drove her and Sweetie to the vet to get the foul thing fixed because she’d been yowling and rubbing her ass on my leg with a specific kind of need.
So Marla is in the shower and she suddenly says, “I don’t think I’d want a man or a lesbian caring for me. Or a bisexual.” I stiffen on the toilet when she says this because I’m definitely the latter and potentially the former, but we won’t even touch that one right now. I actually hear this kind of thing a lot from clients; they feel like they need to announce how much they hate gays to me.
“When you first came here, I thought you were a SCAD student,” she says next, which is sort of a local euphemism for one of those artsy faggots fucking up our town. “But then I found out that you go to Armstrong and that you’re dating Don.” Both of these are true: Armstrong is a local school and Don is a man, neither of which excludes me from the bisexual category, but we both fail to point that out.
She turns off the shower and pushes back the curtain, standing naked with her hair straggling down her face as water pours down the drain. I stand up to help her out of the bathtub; her epilepsy is caused by cerebral palsy, so although she can walk she is unsteady and sometimes falls. I hold her wrist in my palm and she lays her forearm across mine, tucking her elbow between my arm and my tits. With my other arm, I reach around her side, not touching her but ready in case she stumbles. In this semblance of an embrace, familiar now to us both, she leans her weight on me and steps onto the bathroom rug. I back up so she can reach the towel rack.
“You know, if you were bisexual, I think I’d be okay with you caring for me.” She looks me right in the eyes as she says this, head sideways and shaking slightly as she rubs at her hair with a pink towel.
I consider telling her. But telling her risks the agency finding out, and then what would I do? So I smile, say nothing.
She pulls on her usual pink nightgown, eschewing underwear. I sit in the armchair so the cat can chew on my head. She walks in with a towel around her head and sits on her old brown velour couch, smiling at me as she lights herself a cigarette. Sweetie propels herself with a mew to the back of my chair, fangs at the ready.
“You act just like Drake when you’re upset,” she says, smiling indulgently like my mother does at my stepfather when he’s being a prick. “I can always tell, but I know you won’t say a damn thing about it.” Marla pulls her knees up and slightly apart, presses the soles of her bare feet to the couch, toes coyly arranged. This, of course, hikes up the hem of her pink nightgown, baring her twat in a frame of pink ruffles. Nonchalantly, she exhales smoke; the Velcro-tongue of the cat roots through my hair in search of flesh.
“So, how’s Don?” she says, and shifts her ass a little.
Vector/College Student/Bookstore Hack Savannah, GA 2003
There isn’t really a nice way to put this: the motherfucker knocked me up.
The smell of his breath makes me vomit. At this point, that doesn’t say much. Pregnancy makes the world smell noxious: a quickening as well as recoil. I think, though, that my body in particular rejects the smell of Don; he’s the one who did this, after all.
My job now, I’m told, is to grow a healthy baby. That’s easy: I did that for two months and didn’t even know it. Despite the rum and cigarettes, the little fucker survived. Of course this is after I’d finally gotten my ass into a real university.
But now, who knows. Who knows anything? Nights I lie palm to gut over the perilous little being inside. A survivor, for sure: an embryonic trickster secreted in internal waters, swilling liquor and breathing fire to be—to be born.
Don begged me to abort: literally knees to the carpet, tears tracking down his cheeks as he looked up at my widening ass with terrified blue eyes, fist in fist with his knuckles going white. But the lady at Planned Parenthood reminded me it’s my body, my decision. My body, my decision. So I told Don: It’s my body, my decision. You can walk if you need to. I sort of wish he had.
I’d always assumed that I would abort. How the fuck could I, fuck-up-drop-out-failed-stripper-twice-homeless me—ever raise a kid? And I’ve been such a slut for so long with spotty protection and nary a ripening that I’d come to believe I was barren.
I have this shit job at the SCAD bookstore, selling art supplies to fresh-faced art students. My shame as a local is complete: I am bearing the offspring of a SCAD graduate, and now I work for them.
The thing is, I don’t think I can abort. The thought of being strapped to a table with my legs spread and some stranger rooting around inside me with mysterious contraptions makes me more nauseous than Don’s breath.
I think I would, if I could, but maybe not. Palm to gut I lie at night, almost loving this tough little parasite—a survivor, like me. So much would change. But I’m not afraid of change: it carries me. To new and new and newborn; I could do it, maybe, I could do it, nurture and sustain. Sometimes I am touched, palm over new life surviving even in a gut as twisted as mine. I forget to be afraid of dark, of death. Don sleeps and new life comes to be.
Part Two: Laid and Laid Off
At-Home Single Mother To-Be Atlanta, GA 2004
I wore a dress for my 21st birthday, a black one. I still looked six months pregnant, my tits filling an enormous F cup. For my 21st, I draped a scarf over them; a scarf I don’t like, but I needed something. They leaked constantly, so I stuffed absorbent pads into my hideous ivory nursing bra; it’s the only one I could find to support tits so large they could reasonably suffocate someone. For my 21st birthday: a black dress, a scarf I don’t like, suffocation-sized tits, sour milk pads, a babysitter, and an overnight date with Don.
This is motherhood.
In the sleep-dep dream of raising new life, rich and deep and thoroughly exhausted, I count diapers full of shit, wash perpetual piles of laundry, sing a screaming baby to sleep while breast milk sours on my thighs. Like an amoeba, she split from gut and body, a slow drift separation rife with uncertainty; she screams, struggles to wrap lips and tongue around my swollen nipple, already stiff and spilling milk. And I know now: simple personal realizations that I must own if I wish to truly show her how to freely and fiercely be in the world.
But I’m all clammed up, guts secreting nacreous secrets that lift, harden, and roll smoothly iridescent behind tight dry lips like a pearl in the damp beneath my tongue. Nights I pull them from between my teeth, examine closely, string them together one by one to admire: a necklace of moments; epiphanies; tensile, silver lustrin threads spun from heart valves. One pearl: the subtle sparkle of morning sun through sink water on her skin. Another: the golden spiral eloquence of a single tendril of her hair. I’m moved to tears, even as I’m picking cradle cap from her scalp with chewed-up nails. And other pearls: new knowledge, explosive truths that, once revealed, would blow this mishap house of cards to hell.
Such as nacreous truth number one: while I may be fond of dick, I’d generally prefer it be detachable, and frequently my own. Meaning: this bi-thing cloaked in straightness doesn’t cut it for me. I have got to lose the straight man, however much I love him. I am queer.
Or try nacreous truth number two: as wildly unlikely as this seems, even to me, I think that I may be a guy. I know that I was a boy. As a child, I never questioned, although I accepted tomboy. Then one day in 7th grade at the Statesboro movie theater, Michael J asked me, Why do you always wear boy clothes? And so consciously and deliberately at the age of twelve, I put on girl every morning because it seemed as impossible and improbable to me as to anyone else that I may, in fact or fantasy, cerebrally or hormonally or in sanity, be a guy.
This pearl grows, as I work it in my mouth. Sometimes I want nothing more than to spew. I sit holding a month-old child and wonder if could split myself—live two lives each as secret and as false as the other.
The night I turned 21, he fucked me from the back in a hotel room downtown, milk spraying from my tits as they swung heavy between stiff arms. I felt fat and sick of everything. We got drunk a little before, more afterwards. There was some comfort in his body and his company, but space grows wider between us—space his arms and cock can’t breach. The pearls thicken and work feverishly beneath my tongue. We walked, scarf trailing, downtown on slick, wet cobblestones that reflected long streaks of city light, oddly empty. A guard let us walk through a closed bank, apparently host to a brief art gallery. Overhead, enormous bronze statues of naked women flung bent knees, stiff scarves, irregularly long arms frozen in dance above us. In their shadows, I slipped his hand in mine and chose to love him: a friend at least, across expanding distance.
Special Education Paraprofessional Hinesville, GA 2005
Every day, I come to work in discount boxers under women’s clothing.
The women’s clothing I actually sort of enjoy: overdone, outlandish, twirly tweed skirts with big vomit-colored brooches and fake plastic flowers affixed to the matching lapel jacket. I am a caricature of myself, or the self I’m pretending to be.
I wear the boxers to remind me that something has changed. Something I never thought would change. Something I didn’t know could change. I saw Boys Don’t Cry like most everyone else in the trans guy community, and it sent me back in the closet more thoroughly than even Glen or Glenda could. Rape and murder has a way of doing that.
So I work as a woman. At home, I am a guy. A trans guy.
Home now is my mother’s garage. Between Don and me, it’s debatable who left who first. But he did help paint the garage more cheerful colors, turning it into sort of an efficiency/kid’s playroom. The kid walks, talks, and sings now. She insists that she’s a dinosaur.
I work with an older woman, Ms. Adera. For most of her life, she’s been at home, raising children and, later, a grandchild. Now her grandchild is entering kindergarten, and she’s returned to work. We’re both paraprofessionals, teaching remedial reading in an elementary school. I share everything with her, everything but those pearls that are starting to taste more like broken glass. She’d be a friend, if I weren’t what I am.
I know not to tell her, or anyone that I’m trans. I hear how they talk. This is small town, deep South, mostly military families. I keep much to myself, boxers damp against my skin. I can’t cut my hair any shorter than it is. They’d know, somehow. Maybe they already do. There is a woman here who wears men’s clothes and uses a male nickname; she won’t make eye contact with me because she knows, and she knows that I know. She makes sure to extra-loudly proclaim her sexual affinity for men. I don’t. I just wear these ridiculous skirts and pretend not to hear the shit they talk about us both.
There’s a kid here, too. He’s a young male child who grows his nails long, wears his sister’s clothes. He came to school in a dress on Halloween, and everybody flipped. The teachers ran from room to room, shouting and laughing about it. The principal said the boy looked too comfortable in a dress. They confronted his mom.
I said nothing, sitting miserably in blue seahorse boxers under a twirly tweed skirt. Ms. Adera asked me if something was wrong, but I just shook my head.
Assistant Early Education Teacher, Two Year Old Room Savannah, GA 2008
Noontime, I sweep the floor, and then go from child to child in the dim of naptime to rub their backs. I rub in smooth slow circles, their shoulder bones like little wings beneath my hand. They breathe slowly, deeply, eyelashes dropping like feathers on flushed fat cheeks. I breathe deep and slow with them, fingers loose over the small ridges of their spines.
“Uh oh,” the lead teacher once said to me, grinning as one of the little girls tried to curl up sleepily in my lap. “Your little girl will be jealous.”
When they are awake, of course, it seems surreal to have ever agreed to be a responsible adult in a small room with twelve two-year-olds. They shit themselves and scream, shred books, break things, pound on each other, cry, dash around the room roaring in football helmets and pink sparkly tutus, thwacking each other with soft foam blocks. Most often I am greeted with a little shriek of NO! in response to a Hi, and one child, in particular, is intent on proving that she does not need to do anything I ask of her, nor will she ever like me. Her heart is as tough and sharp as her little chin, framed in soft brown ringlets. I alternate between admiration and an obstinate, ill-driven desire to prove my power over her. The two year olds are rubbing off on me, it seems.
It was this girl who asked me why my name was Jax. The whole class perked up at this; I’d been working there for only a few weeks, and we hadn’t had a chance to hash out this particular issue yet. I'd long since left the skirts behind, and now wore my hair as short as my boss allowed. Between the male clothes, the male name, and the conspicuously female voice, I anticipated questions.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” she asked.
I was ready for this one. “What do you think?”
“A boy!” some in the class shouted.
“A girl,” countered the others.
The instigator of all this leaned in and stretched up to closely examine my face. “No,” she said. “A girl.”
“A girl!” a chorus of girls agreed.
Then the child’s face was still and serious as she further studied me. “A boy. You’re a boy.”
“Why do you think that?” I said. I’d decided when I took the job that the best route was to talk about their ideas of gender, rather than the specifics of my own.
But they’d moved on. The little girl loudly announced to the lead teacher that from now on her name was Brad and she was a boy. The lead teacher immediately launched into an age-appropriate explanation as to why people can’t change their genders, but the little girl had already torn off her shirt and stolen someone’s truck.
Abortion Clinic Health Worker Atlanta, GA 2009
We work together: Laura explains the procedure, smiling, guides the patient to lifting and spreading while sufficiently supplying the straps. The anesthesiologist slips a needle into a vein: the patient falls asleep. The doctor lifts a sterile instrument, gleaming in fluorescent light, and inserts it (in the slim face of steel we are all reflected: mercurial, distorted, pulled across the surface as it moves). The woman on the table jumps.
Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturday afternoons, we flip a switch. Suck, gurgle, aspirate. Saturday mornings, it’s more complicated—tug-tug, pull, twist, and scrape until we’ve gently emptied a womb. Something hotly contested in name and meaning dies, if it wasn’t dead already. Through a steel window, we pass the small body packaged in paper or glass. We lift the patient as if she is nothing, still bleeding, jaw slack in sleep, her head swaying gently on the rolling gurney. You stay to scrub the blood from the wall.
One room over, the sink is full. There’s a fucking eye clogging the drain!, Keeley says, and passes instruments wet with what looks like semen or milk to me through another window. She counts phalanges, sorts a spinal cord, ear, and elbow from a puzzle of parts. Nothing can be left inside the woman who now shivers in a recovery bed, shifting as she stares with a headless animal cracker in her fist.
A nurse comes in, paints the bottom of a baby foot with ink, and presses it to an index card. The patient has requested this—to remember six months of internal stirrings she could not sustain. A footprint in ink: proof of passing what flashed through steel windows while she slept.
In the third room, I wrap instruments in birthday packages of blue paper and slip them into a hot mouth of steel and steam for cleansing. The door of the autoclave pops like a snapping clavicle when I seal it shut. Across the window, plastic crackles; a nurse double packages the necessary kill in sealed red bags. Later, someone will take it with many others to burn to ash. For now, she stores it in a box marked hazardous in red block letters.
There is no smell on earth like this barrage of body and materials: cardboard, latex, steel, steam, blood, shit, pungent chemicals specially formulated to dissolve organic matter—all sharp like splinters to the nose. Burning paper, coffee grounds, clean bleached cotton linen. And the bodies: secret interstitial spaces split, cavities within cavities lined with tissue torn open to the world for the first time, torn to reveal fresh fluids and pockets of gas releasing a pungent first breath never drawn. This death smells sharp and new; the pathology room air tastes like a belly full of yeast rising on only three hours of sleep. This smell clings to us, our skin, our hair; we eat with it, laugh with it, wear it in our teeth as we smile.
We leave when it’s dark, unfamiliar to each other outside of our scrubs. None of us has died today, and the purple and black ribbons pinned to our shirts are light in their reminder that this is not inconsequential. The hill we walk down is steep, pocked with shadow in street light. A guard sees us safely to our cars. I drive slowly, chain smoking contraband menthols as the road unravels to home. When I open the door, my daughter rushes to hug me; I am unprepared for the brush of her cheek on mine, her quick and insistent pulse. She wishes me to hold a rock she found, but my palm is full of a woman’s tears.
Hack Photographer Atlanta, GA 2009
I never told Brad that I worked in abortion—an abortion worker and a school photographer? Sometimes I still see and smell the clinic, the blood on linoleum, women on white sheets crying as they cling to my hand, which is unsettling, since my job is to lure small children into beatific smiles.
Before they laid me off, I’d been solidly sick for about two weeks—head buzzing, eardrum stretched taut, dizzy and dumb headed. I called Brad and told him I was sick. Just bring the equipment, he said, someone will meet you at the school to set up and shoot for you.
So I did. And each day no one ever came. Just me, and a whole school-full of kids and faculty dressed to have their photographs taken.
Wheezing, snarling, dizzy, and greenish, I told kid after to kid to Look this way! Tilt your head, now—a little more, just a tiny bit. Excellent! Now look this way again! Scoot forward, great! Beautiful, perfect smile—smile—got it! Beautiful, thanks so much!
They whispered about me in their lines, giggling over my disheveled hair, my Grinch-like pallor, my obvious gender ambiguity.
“Now look this way,” I said. “Smile!”
“Are you a girl or a boy?”
I glared, eyes swollen, and said again, “Smile!”
“I think you’re a boy.”
“Good for you. Now, smile.”
My eardrum finally burst. I screamed, pounded the wall, punched a damp twisted pillow as it slowly, steadily tore. I spent hours in the indigent emergency room, and then days in line at the indigent hospital’s ENT satellite.
At night now, when I lay sweat-stuck to my pillow on my right ear, I hear pips, pops, boops, beeps, and an insistent maddening ringing as my brain amuses itself in the absence of sound.
When I turn to my left ear, I hear crickets. Rolling, clean, reassuring as a heartbeat, cricket song drowns out the tinnitus as night shadows move familiarly over white walls, a slight breeze stirring the slender branches of a tree outside.
They finally laid me off in early October. I joined a long line of people in worn coats and lopsided hats; the line stretched erratically around the parking lot of a derelict strip mall. We steamed the store fronts of abandoned buildings with our anxious exhalations. Slowly we wore a shuffling path through used tissues, muddy cellophane wrappers, cracked Styrofoam cups with dirty brown rings. Dead grass, still frosted, poked wearily upwards through cracked concrete. A torn plastic bag blew across the grimy asphalt like something alive but wounded. Whispering occasionally, mostly silent, we waited together in the six a.m. chill of deepening fall for unemployment.
Unemployed WriterTownsend, GA 2010
We moved again, my child and I, back to my mother's house. This time to the boatshed instead of the garage, and this time, I painted without Don.
There is no possibility for work down here. My body has become a minefield of gendered contradictions: small hands, square jaw, shaved head, high voice. I bind my breasts, wear men's clothing, and even took hormones for some months back when I worked at the clinic. Still, cashiers wrinkle their foreheads when they look at me. They pause carefully before words. “Hello...Sir? Have a great day...Ma’am?” One guy switched back and forth- “Ma’am, no Sir…sorry, Sir, I mean Ma’am!” He blushed furiously and shoved my stuff in a snapping bag, and finally said, “Oooooh, whatever!”
With no employment, the full fear of that bitter pearl beneath my tongue so many years ago has now become realized. I listen to the lonely ringing in my ear: a warning, an alarm. I can be hurt in body and in mind; I can die this way.I watch my child run a stick along the chain-link fence of my mother's yard. She is so much older now, slender and fast with hair the color of a turning leaf, and I think of how much we risk when we live in the margins.
Today, I write. Sometimes it is published, sometimes I’m even paid. In a few months, I will take a train to Los Angeles for a writing fellowship. Every time I think of it, the buzzing in my ear gets louder, like cicadas in alarm. Could it be this simple? To finally accept the truths and talents of your life? And then to hold on to them so goddamned hard that your nails crack, your fingers ache?
Then heart-scarred but back strong from labor, lifted, light like bird-bone wings, you take a leap, and another, and another, and between the dips and levitations, the rush of take-off, free-fall, and cross-winds, a new faith begins to feel a bit like…flying?
Or like a stone falling in a perfect, simple arc—sure and free—into water.
TT Jax is a parent, partner, mixed-media artist, and writer currently living in the Pacific Northwest by way of 28 years in the deep South. He blogs about parenting, homelessness, unemployment, killer bacon cheese dogs, and a host of other trying topics at www.ttjax.com.
Q: No doubt our readers will be struck by the undeniable energy and brutal honesty within this essay. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised with how easy it was to maintain an emotional distance. Although the essay covers some pretty intense events that I at one time lived, I now have enough emotional distance that I could enjoy the lyric and crafting of the piece, rather than the emotional purging and hangover that comes from writing about things that I feel closer to.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I actually received was from my ceramics 101 instructor. He was this crazy, Catholic-raised Southern guy who made, exactly, the kind of art that made me clap my hands and pee myself a little. I shocked the hell out of him, but he loved me for it. He told me to follow my bliss, wherever it led me, to stay true to what thrilled me. I made a life-sized toilet on wheels for his class; the toilet bowl had a bloody tampon and ceramic feces in it, and the tank was full of porn. On top was a plastic flower altar to a fiber optic Virgin Mary, and the whole thing was looped by a heavy chain. He didn’t really know what to say. He was actually a pretty conservative guy, but he recognized that I worked from my center, my gut. To this day I try to write the same way.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Tennessee Williams, Anna Joy Springer, and Stephen Beachy. To name a few.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Oh, definitely the cave. I’m sitting at my desk right now. It’s actually more of an altar than a desk; I have gathered around me all the little bits of things—my grandmother’s glasses, an egg my child painted for me, a Star Wars figure, a small brass pig—that represent the bliss that I try to work from. I have candles, incense burners, old love letters, the whole nine yards. My work is exploratory, rather than escapist. I prefer to delve more deeply into what I’ve known than to create all new worlds, and my cave reflects this.