It’s no surprise that Luce’s theory of gender identity was popular in the early seventies. Back then, as my first barber put it, everybody wanted to go unisex. The consensus was that personality was primarily determined by environment, each child a blank slate to be written on. My own medical story was only a reflection of what was happening psychologically to everyone in those years. Women were becoming more like men and men were becoming more like women. For a little while during the seventies it seemed that sexual difference might pass away. But then another thing happened.
It was called evolutionary biology. Under its sway, the sexes were separated again, men into hunters and women into gatherers. Nurture no longer formed us; nature did. Impulses of hominids dating from 20,000B.C. were still controlling us. And so today on television and in magazines you get the current simplifications. Why can’t men communicate? (Because they had to be quiet on the hunt.) Why do women communicate so well? (Because they had to call out to one another where the fruits and berries were.) Why can men never find things around the house? (Because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey.) Why can women find things so easily? (Because in protecting the nest they were used to scanning a wide field.) Why can’t women parallel-park? (Because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability.) Why won’t men ask for directions? (Because asking for directions is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.) This is where we are today. Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again.
Therefore, it’s also no surprise that Dr. Luce’s theory had come under attack by the 1990s. The child was no longer a blank slate; every newborn had been inscribed by genetics and evolution. My life exists at the center of this debate. I am, in a sense, its solution. At first when I disappeared, Dr. Luce was desperate, feeling that he had lost his greatest find. But later, possibly realizing why I had run away, he came to the conclusion that I was not evidence in support of his theory but against it. He hoped I would stay quiet. He published his articles about me and prayed that I would never show up to refute them.
But it’s not as simple as that. I don’t fit into any of these theories. Not the evolutionary biologists’ and not Luce’s either. My psychological makeup doesn’t accord with the essentialism popular in the intersex movement, either. Unlike other so-called male pseudo-hermaphrodites who have been written about in the press, I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don’t feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body. In the twentieth century, genetics brought the Ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells. This new century we’ve just begun has found something different. Contrary to all expectations, the code underlying our being is woefully inadequate. Instead of the expected 200,000 genes, we have only 30,000. Not many more than a mouse.
And so a strange new possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
At any rate, in San Francisco in 1974, life was working hard to give me one.
There it is again: the chlorine smell. Under the nasally significant odor of the girl sitting astride his lap, distinct, even, from the buttery popcorn smell that still pervades the old movie seats, Mr. Go can detect the unmistakable scent of a swimming pool. In here? In Sixty-Niners? He sniffs. Flora, the girl on his lap, says, “Do you like my perfume?” But Mr. Go does not answer. Mr. Go has a way of ignoring the girls he pays to wiggle in his lap. What he likes best is to have one girl frog-kicking on top of him while he watches another girl dancing around the glittery firemen’s pole on the stage. Mr. Go is multitasking. But tonight he is unable to divide his attentions. The swimming pool smell is distracting him. It has done so for over a week. Turning his head, which is gently bobbing under Flora’s exertions, Mr. Go looks at the line forming before the velvet rope. The fifty or so theater seats here in the Show Room are almost entirely empty. In the blue light only a few men’s heads are visible, some alone facing the stage, a few like Mr. Go with a companion riding them: those peroxide equestriennes.
Behind the velvet rope rises a flight of stairs edged with blinking lights. To climb these stairs you must pay a separate admission of five dollars. Upon reaching the club’s second floor (Mr. Go has been told), your only option is to enter a booth, where it is then necessary to insert tokens, which you must buy downstairs for a quarter each. If you do all this, you will be afforded brief glimpses of something Mr. Go does not quite understand. Mr. Go’s English is more than adequate. He has lived in America for fifty-two years. But the sign advertising the attractions upstairs doesn’t make much sense to him. For that reason he is curious. The chlorine smell only makes him more so.
Despite the increased traffic going upstairs in recent weeks, Mr. Go has not yet gone himself. He has remained faithful to the first floor where, for the single admission price of ten dollars, he has a choice of activities. Mr. Go might, if he so desires, quit the Show Room and go into the Dark Room at the end of the hall. In the Dark Room there are flashlights with pinpoint beams. There are huddled men, wielding said flashlights. If you work your way in far enough, you will find a girl, or sometimes two, lying on a riser carpeted in foam rubber. Of course it is in some sense an act of faith to postulate the existence of an actual girl, or even two. You never see a complete girl in the Dark Room. You see only pieces. You see what your flashlight illuminates. A knee, for instance, or a nipple. Or, of particular interest to Mr. Go and his fellows, you see the source of life, the thing of things, purified as it were, without the clutter of a person attached.
Mr. Go might also venture into the Ball Room. In the Ball Room there are girls who long to slow-dance with Mr. Go. He doesn’t care for disco music, however, and at his age tires easily. It is too much effort to press the girls up against the padded walls of the Ball Room. Mr. Go much prefers to sit in the Show Room, in the stained Art Deco theater seats that originally belonged to a movie house in Oakland, now demolished.
Mr. Go is seventy-three years old. Every morning, to retain his virility, he drinks a tea containing rhinoceros horn. He also eats the gall bladders of bears when he can get them at the Chinese apothecary shop near his apartment. These aphrodisiacs appear to work. Mr. Go comes into Sixty-Niners nearly every night. He has a joke he likes to tell the girls who sit on his lap. “Mr. Go go for go-go.” That is the only time he laughs or smiles, when he tells them that joke.
If the club is not crowded—which it rarely is downstairs anymore—Flora will sometimes give Mr. Go her company for three or four songs. For a dollar she will ride him for one song, but she will sit through one or two more songs for free. This is one of Flora’s recommendations in Mr. Go’s mind. She is not young, Flora, but she has nice, clear skin. Mr. Go feels she is healthy.
Tonight, however, after only two songs, Flora slides off Mr. Go, grumbling. “I’m not a credit bureau, you know.” She stalks off. Mr. Go rises, adjusting his pants, and right then the swimming pool smell hits him again and his curiosity gets the better of him. He shuffles out of the Show Room and gazes up the stairs at the printed sign:
And now Mr. Go’s curiosity has gotten the better of him. He buys a ticket and a handful of tokens and waits in line with the others. When the bouncer lets him through, he climbs up the blinking stairs. The booths on the second floor have no numbers, only lights indicating whether they are occupied. He finds an empty one, closes the door behind him, and puts a token in the slot. Immediately, the screen slides away to reveal a porthole looking onto underwater depths. Music plays from a speaker in the roof and a deep voice begins narrating a story:
“Once upon a time in ancient Greece, there was an enchanted pool. This pool was sacred to Salmacis, the water nymph. And one day Hermaphroditus, a beautiful boy, went swimming there.” The voice continues, but Mr. Go is no longer paying attention. He is looking into the pool, which is blue and empty. He is wondering where the girls are. He is beginning to regret buying a ticket to Octopussy’s Garden. But just then the voice intones:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, behold the god Hermaphroditus! Half woman, half man!”
There is a splash from above. The water in the pool goes white, then pink. Only inches away on the other side of the porthole’s glass is a body, a living body. Mr. Go looks. He squints. He presses his face right up to the porthole. He has never seen anything like what he is seeing now. Not in all his years of visiting the Dark Room. He isn’t sure he likes what he sees. But the sight makes him feel strange, light-headed, weightless, and somehow younger. Suddenly the screen slides shut. Without hesitation Mr. Go drops another token in the slot.
San Francisco’s Sixty-Niners, Bob Presto’s club: it stood in North Beach, within view of the skyscrapers downtown. It was a neighborhood of Italian cafés, pizza restaurants, and topless bars. In North Beach you had the glitzy strip palaces like Carol Doda’s with her famous bust outlined on the marquee. Barkers on the sidewalks collared passersby: “Gentlemen! Come in and see the show! Just have a look. Doesn’t cost anything to have a look.” While the guy outside the next club was shouting, “Our girls are the best, right this way through the curtain!” And the next, “Live erotic show, gentlemen! Plus in our establishment you can watch the football game!” The barkers were all interesting guys, poets manqués, most of them, and spent their time off in City Lights Bookstore, leafing through New Directions paperbacks. They wore striped pants, loud ties, sideburns, goatees. They tended to resemble Tom Waits, or maybe it was the other way around. Like Mamet characters, they populated an America that had never existed, a kid’s idea of sharpies and hucksters and underworld life.
It is said: San Francisco is where young people go to retire. And though it would certainly add color to my story to present a descent into a seamy underworld, I can’t fail to mention that the North Beach Strip is only a few blocks long. The geography of San Francisco is too beautiful to allow seaminess to get much of a foothold, and so along with these barkers there were many tourists afoot, tourists carrying loaves of sourdough bread and Ghirardelli chocolates. In the daytime there were roller-skaters and hackey sack players in the parks. But at night things got a little seamy at last, and from 9P.M. to three in the morning the men streamed into Sixty-Niners.
Which was where, obviously enough, I was now working. Five nights a week, six hours a day, for the next four months—and, fortunately, never again—I made my living by exhibiting the peculiar way I am formed. The Clinic had prepared me for it, benumbing my sense of shame, and besides, I was desperate for money. Sixty-Niners also had a perfect venue for me. I worked with two other girls, so called: Carmen and Zora.
Presto was an exploiter, a porn dog, a sex pig, but I could have done worse. Without him I might never have found myself. After he had picked me up in the park, bruised and battered, Presto took me back to his apartment. His Namibian girlfriend, Wilhelmina, dressed my wounds. At some point I passed out again and they undressed me to put me in bed. It was then that Presto realized the extent of his windfall.
I drifted in and out of consciousness, catching bits of what they said to each other.
“I knew it. I knew it when I saw him at the steak house.”
“You didn’t know a thing, Bob. You thought he was a sex-change.”
“I knew he was a gold mine.”
And later, Wilhelmina: “How old is he?”
“He doesn’t look eighteen.”
“He says he is.”
“And you want to believe him, don’t you, Bob? You want him to work in the club.”
“He calledme . So I made him an offer.”
And later still: “Why don’t you call his parents, Bob?”
“The kid ran away from home. He doesn’t want to call his parents.”
Octopussy’s Garden predated me. Presto had come up with the idea six months earlier. Carmen and Zora had been working there from the beginning, as Ellie and Melanie respectively. But Presto was always on the lookout for ever-freakier performers and knew I’d give him an edge over his competitors on the Strip. There was nothing like me around.
The tank itself was not that large. Not much bigger than an above-ground swimming pool in someone’s backyard. Fifteen feet in length, maybe ten feet wide. We climbed down a ladder into the warm water. From the booths, you looked directly into the tank; it was impossible to see above the surface. So we could keep our heads out of the water, if we wanted, and talk to one another while we worked. As long as we submerged ourselves from the waist down the customers were content. “They don’t come here to see your pretty face,” was how Presto put it to me. All this made it much easier. I don’t think I could have performed in a regular peep show, face-to-face with the voyeurs. Their gaze would have sucked my soul out of me. But in the tank when I was underwater my eyes were closed. I undulated in the deep-sea silence. When I pressed myself against a porthole’s glass, I lifted my face up out of the water and so was unaware of the eyes studying my mollusk. How did I say it before? The surface of the sea is a mirror, reflecting divergent evolutionary paths. Up above, the creatures of air; down below, those of water. One planet, containing two worlds. The customers were the sea creatures; Zora, Carmen, and I remained essentially creatures of air. In her mermaid costume, Zora lay on the wet strip of outdoor carpeting, waiting to go on after me. Sometimes she held a joint to my lips so that I could smoke while I grabbed the rim of the pool. After my ten minutes were elapsed I clambered up onto the carpet and dried off. Over the sound system Bob Presto was saying, “Let’s hear it for Hermaphroditus, ladies and gentlemen! Only here at Octopussy’s Garden, where gender is always on a bender! I’m telling you, folks, we put the glam rock in the rock lobsters, we put the AC/DC in the mahi mahi . . .”
Beached on her side, Zora with blue eyes and golden hair asked me, “Am I zipped?”
“This tank is making me all congested. I’m always congested.”
“You want something from the bar?”
“Get me a Negroni, Cal. Thanks.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time for our next attraction here at Octopussy’s Garden. Yes, I see now that the boys from Steinhardt Aquarium are just bringing her in. Put those tokens in the boxes, ladies and gentlemen, this is something you won’t want to miss. May I have a drum roll, please? On second thought, make that asushi roll. ”
Zora’s music started. Her overture.
“Ladies and gentlemen, since time immemorial mariners have told stories of seeing incredible creatures, half woman, half fish, swimming in the seas. We here at Sixty-Niners did not give credence to such stories. But a tuna fisherman of our acquaintance brought us an amazing catch the other day. And now we know those stories are true. Ladies and gentlemen,” crooned Bob Presto, “does . . . anyone . . . smell . . .fish ?”
At that cue, Zora in her rubber suit with the flashing green sequin scales would tumble into the tank. The suit came up to her waist and left her chest and shoulders bare. Into the aquatic light Zora streamed, opening her eyes underwater as I did not, smiling at the men and women in the booths, her long blond hair flowing behind her like seaweed, tiny air bubbles beading her breasts like pearls, as she kicked her glittering emerald fish tail. She performed no lewdness. Zora’s beauty was so great that everyone was content merely to look at her, the white skin, the beautiful breasts, the taut belly with its winking navel, the magnificent curve of her swaying backside where flesh merged with scales. She swam with her arms at her sides, voluptuously fluctuating. Her face was serene, her eyes a light Caribbean blue. Downstairs a constant disco beat throbbed, but up here in Octopussy’s Garden the music was ethereal, a kind of melodious bubbling itself.
Viewed from a certain angle, there was a kind of artistry to it. Sixty-Niners was a smut pavilion, but up in the Garden the atmosphere was exotic rather than raunchy. It was the sexual equivalent of Trader Vic’s. Viewers got to see strange things, uncommon bodies, but much of the appeal was the transport involved. Looking through their portholes, the customers were watching real bodies do the things bodies sometimes did in dreams. There were male customers, married heterosexual men, who sometimes dreamed of making love to women who possessed penises, not male penises, but thin, tapering feminized stalks, like the stamens of flowers, clitorises that had elongated tremendously from abundant desire. There were gay customers who dreamed of boys who were almost female, smooth-skinned, hairless. There were lesbian customers who dreamed of women with penises, not male penises but womanly erections, possessing a sensitivity and aliveness no dildo ever had. There is no way to tell what percentage of the population dreams such dreams of sexual transmogrification. But they came to our underwater garden every night and filled the booths to watch us.
After Melanie the Mermaid came Ellie and Her Electrifying Eel. This eel was not at first apparent. What splashed down through the aquamarine depths appeared to be a slender Hawaiian girl, clad in a bikini of water lilies. As she swam, her top came off and she remained a girl. But when she stood on her head, in graceful water ballet, pulling her bikini bottom to her knees—ah, then it was the eel’s moment to shock. For there it was on the slender girl’s body, there it was where it should not have been, a thin brown ill-tempered-looking eel, an endangered species, and as Ellie rubbed against the glass the eel grew longer and longer; it stared at the customers with its cyclopean eye; and they looked back at her breasts, her slim waist, they looked back and forth from Ellie to eel, from eel to Ellie, and were electrified by the wedding of opposites.
Carmen was a pre-op, male-to-female transsexual. She was from the Bronx. Small, delicately boned, she was fastidious about eyeliner and lipstick. She was always dieting. She stayed away from beer, fearing a belly. I thought she overdid the femme routine. There was entirely too much hip swaying and hair flipping in Carmen’s airspace. She had a pretty naiad’s face, a girl on the surface with a boy holding his breath just beneath. Sometimes the hormones she took made her skin break out. Her doctor (the much-in-demand Dr. Mel of San Bruno) had to constantly adjust her dosage. The only features that gave Carmen away were her voice, which remained husky despite the estrogen and progestin, and her hands. But the men never noticed that. And they wanted Carmen to be impure. That was the whole turn-on, really.
Her story followed the traditional lines better than mine. From an early age Carmen had felt that she had been born into the wrong body. In the dressing room one day, she told me in her South Bronx voice: “I was like, yo! Who put this dick on me? I never asked for no dick.” It was still there, however, for the time being. It was what the men came to see. Zora, given to analytical thought, felt that Carmen’s admirers were motivated by latent homosexuality. But Carmen resisted this notion. “My boyfriends are all straight. They want awoman .”
“Obviously not,” said Zora.
“Soon as I save my money I’m having my bottom done. Then we’ll see. I’ll be more of a woman than you, Z.”
“Fine with me,” replied Zora. “I don’t want to be anything in particular.”
Zora had Androgen Insensitivity. Her body was immune to male hormones. Though XY like me, she had developed along female lines. But Zora had done it far better than I had. Aside from being blond, she was shapely and full-lipped. Her prominent cheekbones divided her face in Arctic planes. When Zora spoke you were aware of the skin stretching over these cheekbones and hollowing out between her jaws, the tight mask it made, banshee-like, with her blue eyes piercing through above. And then there was her figure, the milkmaid breasts, the swim champ stomach, the legs of a sprinter or a Martha Graham dancer. Even unclothed, Zora appeared to be all woman. There was no visible sign that she possessed neither womb nor ovaries. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome created the perfect woman, Zora told me. A number of top fashion models had it. “How many chicks are six two, skinny, but with big boobs? Not many. That’s normal for someone like me.”
Beautiful or not, Zora didn’t want to be a woman. She preferred to identify herself as a hermaphrodite. She was the first one I met. The first person like me. Even back in 1974 she was using the term “intersexual,” which was rare then. Stonewall was only five years in the past. The Gay Rights Movement was under way. It was paving a path for all the identity struggles that followed, including ours. The Intersex Society of North America wouldn’t be founded until 1993, however. So I think of Zora Khyber as an early pioneer, a sort of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. Writ large, that wilderness was America, even the globe itself, but more specifically it was the redwood bungalow Zora lived in in Noe Valley and where I was now living, too. After Bob Presto had satisfied himself on the details of my manufacture, he had called Zora and arranged for me to stay with her. Zora took in strays like me. It was part of her calling. The fog of San Francisco provided cover for hermaphrodites, too. It’s no surprise that ISNA was founded in San Francisco and not somewhere else. Zora was part of all this at a very disorganized time. Before movements emerge there are centers of energy, and Zora was one of these. Mainly, her politics consisted of studying and writing. And, during the months I lived with her, in educating me, in bringing me out of what she saw as my great midwestern darkness.
“You don’t have to work for Bob if you don’t want,” she told me. “I’m going to quit soon anyway. This is just temporary.”
“I need the money. They stole all my money.”
“What about your parents?”
“I don’t want to ask them,” I said. I looked down and admitted, “I can’t call them.”
“What happened, Cal? If you don’t mind me asking. What are you doing here?”
“They took me to this doctor in New York. He wanted me to have an operation.”
“So you ran away.”
“Consider yourself lucky. I didn’t know until I was twenty.”
All this happened on my first day in Zora’s house. I hadn’t started working at the club yet. My bruises had to heal first. I wasn’t surprised to be where I was. When you travel like I did, vague about destination and with an open-ended itinerary, a holy-seeming openness takes over your character. It’s the reason the first philosophers were peripatetic. Christ, too. I see myself that first day, sitting cross-legged on a batik floor pillow, drinking green tea out of a fired raku cup, and looking up at Zora with my big, hopeful, curious, attentive eyes. With my hair short, my eyes looked even bigger now, more than ever the eyes of someone in a Byzantine icon, one of those figures ascending the ladder to heaven, upward-gazing, while his fellows fall to the fiery demons below. After all my troubles, wasn’t it my right to expect some reward in the form of knowledge or revelation? In Zora’s rice-screen house, with misty light coming in at the windows, I was like a blank canvas waiting to be filled with what she told me.
“There have been hermaphrodites around forever, Cal. Forever. Plato said that the original human being was a hermaphrodite. Did you know that? The original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated. That’s why everybody’s always searching for their other half. Except for us. We’ve got both halves already.”
I didn’t say anything about the Object.
“Okay, in some cultures we’re considered freaks,” she went on. But in others it’s just the opposite. The Navajo have a category of person they call a berdache. What a berdache is, basically, is someone who adopts a gender other than their biological one. Remember, Cal. Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. The Navajo understand this. If a person wants to switch her gender, they let her. And they don’t denigrate that person—they honor her. The berdaches are the shamans of the tribe. They’re the healers, the great weavers, the artists.”
I wasn’t the only one! Listening to Zora, that was mainly what hit home with me. I knew right then that I had to stay in San Francisco for a while. Fate or luck had brought me here and I had to take from it what I needed. It didn’t matter what I might be compelled to do to make money. I just wanted to stay with Zora, to learn from her, and to be less alone in the world. I was already stepping through the charmed door of those druggy, celebratory, youthful days. By that first afternoon the soreness in my ribs was already lessening. Even the air seemed on fire, subtly aflame with energy as it does when you are young, when the synapses are firing wildly and death is far away.
Zora was writing a book. She claimed it was going to be published by a small press in Berkeley. She showed me the publisher’s catalogue. The selections were eclectic, books on Buddhism, on the mystery cult of Mithras, even a strange book (a hybrid itself) mixing genetics, cellular biology, and Hindu mysticism. What Zora was working on would certainly have fit this list. But I was never clear how actual her publishing plans were. In the years since, I’ve looked out for Zora’s book, which was calledThe Sacred Hermaphrodite. I’ve never found it. If she never finished it, it wasn’t a question of ability. I read most of the book myself. At my age then, I wasn’t much of a judge of literary or academic quality, but Zora’s learning was real. She had gone into her subject and had much of it by heart. Her bookshelves were full of anthropology texts and works by French structuralists and deconstructionists. She wrote nearly every day. She spread her papers and books out on her desk and took notes and typed.
“I’ve got one question,” I asked Zora one day. “Why did you ever tell anybody?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at you. No one would ever know.”
“I want people to know, Cal.”
Zora folded her long legs under herself. With her fairy’s eyes, paisley-shaped, blue and glacial looking into mine, she said, “Because we’re what’s next.”
“Once upon a time in ancient Greece, there was an enchanted pool. This pool was sacred to Salmacis, the water nymph. And one day Hermaphroditus, a beautiful boy, went swimming there.”
Here I lowered my feet into the pool. I lolled them back and forth as the narration continued. “Salmacis looked upon the handsome boy and her lust was kindled. She swam nearer to get a closer look.” Now I began to lower my own body into the water inch by inch: shin, knees, thighs. If I paced it the way Presto had instructed me, the peepholes slid shut at this point. Some customers left, but many dropped more tokens into the slots. The screens lifted from the portholes.
“The water nymph tried to control herself. But the boy’s beauty was too much for her. Looking was not enough. Salmacis swam nearer and nearer. And then, overpowered by desire, she caught the boy from behind, wrapping her arms around him.” I began to kick my legs, churning up water so that it was hard for the customers to see. “Hermaphroditus struggled to free himself from the tenacious grip of the water nymph, ladies and gentlemen. But Salmacis was too strong. So unbridled was her lust that the two became one. Their bodies fused, male into female, female into male. Behold the god Hermaphroditus!” At which point I plunged into the pool entire, all of me exposed.
And the peepholes slid shut.
No one ever left a booth at this point. Everyone extended his or her membership to the Garden. Underwater I could hear the tokens clinking into the change boxes. It reminded me of being at home, submerging my head under bathwater and hearing the pinging in the pipes. I tried to think of things like that. It made everything seem far away. I pretended I was in the bathtub on Middlesex. Meanwhile faces filled the portholes, gazing with amazement, curiosity, disgust, desire.
We were always stoned for work. That was a prerequisite. As we got into our costumes Zora and I would fire up a joint to start the night. Zora brought a thermos of Averna and ice, which I drank like Kool-Aid. What you aimed for was a state of half oblivion, a private party mood. This made the men less real, less noticeable. If it hadn’t been for Zora I don’t know what I would have done. Our little bungalow in the mist and trees, neatly surrounded by low-lying California ground cover, the tiny koi pond full of petstore goldfish, the outdoor Buddhist shrine made of blue granite—it was a refuge for me, a halfway house where I stayed, getting ready to go back into the world. My life during those months was as divided as my body. Nights we spent at Sixty-Niners, waiting around the tank, bored, high, giggling, unhappy. But you got used to that. You learned to medicate yourself against it and put it out of your mind.
In the daytime Zora and I were always straight. She had one hundred and eighteen pages of her book written. These were typed on the thinnest onionskin paper I had ever seen. The manuscript was therefore perishable. You had to be careful in handling it. Zora made me sit at the kitchen table while she brought it out like a librarian with a Shakespeare folio. Otherwise, Zora didn’t treat me like a kid. She let me keep my own hours. She asked me to help with the rent. We spent most days padding around the house in our kimonos. Z. had a stern expression when she was working. I sat out on the deck and read books from her shelves, Kate Chopin, Jane Bowles, and the poetry of Gary Snyder. Though we looked nothing alike, Zora was always emphatic about our solidarity. We were up against the same prejudices and misunderstandings. I was gladdened by this, but I never felt sisterly around Zora. Not completely. I was always aware of her figure under the robe. I went around averting my eyes and trying not to stare. On the street people took me for a boy. Zora turned heads. Men whistled at her. She didn’t like men, however. Only lesbians.
She had a dark side. She drank to extremes and sometimes acted ugly. She raged against football, male bonding, babies, breeders, politicians, and men in general. There was a violence in Zora at such times that set me on edge. She had been the high school beauty. She had submitted to caresses that had done nothing for her and to sessions of painful lovemaking. Like many beauties, Zora had attracted the worst guys. The varsity stooges. The herpetic section leaders. It was no surprise that she held a low opinion of men. Me she exempted. She thought I was okay. Not a real man at all. Which I felt was pretty much right.
Hermaphroditus’s parents were Hermes and Aphrodite. Ovid doesn’t tell us how they felt after their child went missing. As for my own parents, they still kept the telephone nearby at all times, refusing to leave the house together. But now they were scared to answer the phone, fearing bad news. Ignorance seemed preferable to grief. Whenever the phone rang, they paused before answering it. They waited until the third or fourth peal.
Their agony was harmonious. During the months I was missing, Milton and Tessie experienced the same spikes of panic, the same mad hopes, the same sleeplessness. It had been years since their emotional life had been so in sync and this had the result of bringing back the times when they first fell in love.
They began to make love with a frequency they hadn’t known for years. If Chapter Eleven was out, they didn’t wait to go upstairs but used whatever room they happened to be in. They tried the red leather couch in the den; they spread out on the bluebirds and red berries of the living room sofa; and a few times they even lay down on the heavy-duty kitchen carpeting, which had a pattern of bricks. The only place they didn’t use was the basement because there was no telephone there. Their lovemaking was not passionate but slow and elegiac, carried out to the magisterial rhythms of suffering. They were not young anymore; their bodies were no longer beautiful. Tessie sometimes wept afterward. Milton kept his eyes squeezed shut. Their exertions resulted in no flowering of sensation, no release, or only seldom.
Then one day, three months after I was gone, the signals coming over my mother’s spiritual umbilical cord stopped. Tessie was lying in bed when the faint purring or tingling in her navel ceased. She sat up. She put her hand to her belly.
“I can’t feel her anymore!” Tessie cried.
“The cord’s cut! Somebody cut the cord!”
Milton tried to reason with Tessie, but it was no use. From that moment, my mother became convinced that something terrible had happened to me.
And so: into the harmony of their suffering entered discord. While Milton fought to keep up a positive attitude, Tessie increasingly gave in to despair. They began to quarrel. Every now and then Milton’s optimism would sway my mother and she would become cheerful for a day or two. She would tell herself that, after all, they didn’t know anything definite. But such moods were temporary. When she was alone Tessie tried to feel something coming in over the umbilical cord, but there was nothing, not even a sign of distress.
I had been missing four months by this time. It was now January 1975. My fifteenth birthday had passed without my being found. On a Sunday morning while Tessie was at church, praying for my return, the phone rang. Milton answered.
At first there was no response. Milton could hear music in the background, a radio playing in another room maybe. Then a muffled voice spoke.
“I bet you miss your daughter, Milton.”
“Who is this?”
“A daughter is a special thing.”
“Who is this?” Milton demanded again, and the line went dead.
He didn’t tell Tessie about the call. He suspected it was a crank. Or a disgruntled employee. The economy was in recession in 1975 and Milton had been forced to close a few franchises. The following Sunday, however, the phone rang again. This time Milton answered on the first ring.
“Good morning, Milton. I have a question for you this morning. Would you like to know the question, Milton?”
“You tell me who this is or I’m hanging up.”
“I doubt you’ll do that, Milton. I’m the only chance you have to get your daughter back.”
Milton did a characteristic thing right then. He swallowed, squared his shoulders, and with a small nod prepared himself to meet whatever was coming.
“Okay,” he said, “I’m listening.”
And the caller hung up.
“Once upon a time in ancient Greece, there was an enchanted pool . . .” I could do it in my sleep now. Iwas asleep, considering our backstage festivities, the flowing Averna, the tranquilizing smoke. Halloween had come and gone. Thanksgiving, too, and then Christmas. On New Year’s, Bob Presto threw a big party. Zora and I drank champagne. When it was time for my act, I plunged into the pool. I was high, drunk, and so that night did something I didn’t normally do. I opened my eyes underwater. I saw the faces looking back at me and I saw that they were not appalled. I had fun in the tank that night. It was all beneficial in some way. It wastherapeutic . Inside Hermaphroditus old tensions were roiling, trying to work themselves out. Traumas of the locker room were being released. Shame over having a body unlike other bodies was passing away. The monster feeling was fading. And along with shame and self-loathing another hurt was healing. Hermaphroditus was beginning to forget about the Obscure Object.
In my last weeks in San Francisco I read everything Zora gave me, trying to educate myself. I learned what varieties we hermaphrodites came in. I read about hyperadrenocorticism and feminizing testes and something called cryptorchidism, which applied to me. I read about Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, where an extra X chromosome renders a person tall, eunuchoid, and temperamentally unpleasant. I was more interested in historical than medical material. From Zora’s manuscript I became acquainted with the hijras of India, thekwolu-aatmwols of the Sambia in Papua New Guinea, and theguevedoche of the Dominican Republic. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, writing in Germany in 1860, spoke ofdas dritte Geschlecht, the third gender. He called himself a Uranist and believed that he had a female soul in a male body. Many cultures on earth operated not with two genders but with three. And the third was always special, exalted, endowed with mystical gifts.
One cold drizzly night I gave it a try. Zora was out. It was a Sunday and we were off work. I sat in a half-lotus position on the floor and closed my eyes. Concentrating, prayerful, I waited for my soul to leave my body. I tried to fall into a trance state or become an animal. I did my best, but nothing happened. As far as special powers went, I didn’t seem to have any. A Tiresias I wasn’t.
All of which brings me to a Friday night in late January. It was after midnight. Carmen was in the tank, doing her Esther Williams. Zora and I were in the dressing room, maintaining traditions (thermos, cannabis). In the mermaid suit, Z. was none too mobile and stretched out across the couch, a Piscean odalisque. Her tail hung over the arm bolsters, dripping. She wore a T-shirt over her top. It had Emily Dickinson on it.
Sounds from the tank were piped into the dressing room. Bob Presto was giving his spiel: “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for a truly electrifying experience?”
Zora and I mouthed along with the next line: “Are you ready for some high voltage?”
“I’ve had enough of this place,” said Zora. “I really have.”
“Should we quit?”
“What would we do instead?”
There was a splash in the tank. “But where is Ellie’s eel today? It seems to be hiding, ladies and gentlemen. Could it be extinct? Maybe a fisherman caught it. That’s right, ladies and gentleman, maybe Ellie’s eel is for sale out on Fisherman’s Wharf.”
“Bob thinks he’s a witty person,” said Zora.
“Banish such worries, ladies and gentlemen. Ellie wouldn’t let us down. Here it is, folks. Have a look at Ellie’s electric eel!”
A strange noise came over the speaker. A door banging. Bob Presto shouted: “Hey, what the hell? You’re not allowed in here.”
And then the sound system went dead.
Eight years earlier, policemen had raided a blind pig on Twelfth Street in Detroit. Now, at the start of 1975, they raided Sixty-Niners. The action provoked no riot. The patrons quickly emptied the booths, fanning out into the street and hurrying off. We were led downstairs and lined up with the other girls.
“Well, hello there,” said the officer when he came to me. “And how old might you be?”
From the police station I was allowed one call. And so I finally broke down, gave in, and did it: I called home.
My brother answered. “It’s me,” I said. “Cal.” Before Chapter Eleven had time to respond, it all rushed out of me. I told him where I was and what had happened. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad,” I said.
“I can’t,” said Chapter Eleven. “I can’t tell Dad.” And then in an interrogative tone that showed he could hardly believe it himself, my brother told me that there had been an accident and that Milton was dead.