THERE IS NO GENDER
by Joanna C. Valente
O drove around aimlessly in a turquoise Cadillac that Sunday. Later that night, O is reading the poems from his new book, the book that has his entrails spilled all over it, the book that he had to perform surgery on himself every night, taking out each organ and then flattening them out with black ink to see what each days. O no longer uses pronouns, but everyone still calls O a man. A he. A boy. Sometimes, a boi, but never a girl, a woman, a femme—or really, more preferably, a They. O pretends not to mind this as much, but O cares so much that it hurts. O’s friends say not to care so much, say what is being seen anyway, say no one is actually seen—but that doesn’t change how O feels. That doesn’t change how most of the people who say this to O never struggled with their identity. This doesn’t change how people think it’s just a political statement.
Earlier that day, O wore a dress—a black dress—outside for the first time, dipped silver nails and winged eyeliner that could make Cleopatra cry. O felt beautiful. Most of the men and women on 5th Avenue in Sunset Park just stared—but no one said anything. More people stared when O went to Park Slope, all the moms in strollers who pretend to not care—the men who work in finance offices they hate, resentful of the fact that O is doing what they want, that O doesn’t give enough of a fuck. That O can be themselves.
O picks Baby Girl up from her place in Greenpoint—a place she has little space but overpays because K doesn’t want to live somewhere else. Because there’s a few record stores and bars and restaurants and people in bands that K thinks are cool. The reading is in Bushwick, where it seems everyone lives these days as a way to feign a community that actually cares. Everyone at the reading will look the same. Everyone at the reading is lonely. Everyone at the reading doesn’t know how to talk to each other, how to stop being lonely. No one at the reading really likes each other. They just pretend to.
When the host reads O’s bio, she messes up and says he and instead of they, despite that O used a new bio—and doesn’t bother to apologize and correct herself. O sits there and smiles, pretending it’s not a big deal, pretending she didn’t mess up, pretending she’s not just like everyone else. O reads for 7 minutes, even though O was told to read for 10, because who wants to hear anyone read for 10 minutes straight? Everyone claps, people come up to O afterwards, say how brave O is for being so honest, so vulnerable, so upfront about everything. O thanks them quietly, the sparkles on their fingers glistening sheepishly like a tired sky. Everyone is too proud to admit when they’re wrong.
Baby Girl sips her cheap house wine, a few of the male poets come up to her asking if she’s a writer too—and when she declines, they stand like awkward gazelles. She explains she’s an artist, the artist who did the illustrations for O’s book and their interest reignites. She does this on purpose. She knows exactly what they want. It never ceases to amuse her. But it also never ceases to tire her.
One of the men at the bar is taking a selfie with another writer. They are both drunk. They loudly complain about the music in the background being too loud during the reading, about how there is no good food in the neighborhood. One of them was accused of raping a woman, but no one seems to care. He’s published too many books for people to stop caring about what he can do for them—and he knows this. O hates this.
There is a girl at the edge of the bar with long black hair down to her breasts, a white flower sticking out near her ear—she’s dressed in all black, looks like what O would assume Lilith looks like—the Lilith who was rejected by Adam, who takes people away from their beds and devours them. Her long black nails were so pointy, it looks like she eats men for dinner like air. O walks over to her and realizes how much smaller she is than she first appeared, her head barely coming up to their chest. It is unusual for O to start a conversation, but there is something about her that seems familiar—as if they’ve known each other as children, as if they got away with something bad years ago.
They don’t know each other, but she doesn’t seem to mind that O is talking to her. She seems relieved, as if she were hoping someone would come up to her, even though her worry seems rather silly—it’s obvious everyone wants to talk to her, but no one knows how. They talk for so long that O doesn’t realize they don’t know what her name is—or where’s she’s from—or where she lives—until she’s about to leave.
“Hey, let me give you my number, I’d love for you to send me more work, maybe meet up for a coffee if you’re game,” she says, so smoothly that it’s evident she’s used to this, used to attention. But she also seems lonely, as if it’s never the right kind of attention. She grabs O’s phone from the bar counter before O can say anything, not that O would stop her.
After a moment, she kisses O on the cheek, whispers something into O’s ear, and drops the phone into their lap. Then, she’s gone, her black dress swishing as if there is a breeze. O is so flustered from their heart beating so fast and yet so slowly that they have to steady themselves, regain consciousness. Her perfume still lingers, like a musky rose locked up in an Italian crypt for centuries. O looks down at the bright phone screen, sees the name Angie typed with a moon and skull emoji. O immediately texts her saying who it is, as if she would have forgotten by now. But O feels pretty forgettable, even in a black dress and long lashes and shimmering cheeks.
Baby Girl is still talking to the poet who she doesn’t want to be talking to but also didn’t want to interrupt O. The poet is mostly talking about himself and doesn’t notice when she checks her phone or checks the time. Baby Girl wants to like him but she doesn’t. At the other side of the room, there is a woman who looks like X, but isn’t X. When she looks back, it’s Z. Z is watching, eyes so focused on her, they look like a mannequins. And maybe it is a mannequin.
The uneasy feeling of claustrophobia suddenly sets in, as if she is an insect being dropped into a gelatinous substance, then into a jar for safe keeping. Baby Girl feels as if her body is no longer hers to control—her heart and skin tingle. She feels like she’s going to die, collapse right into the floor. Z puts his arms around her neck, and she can’t breathe. The poet doesn’t seem to nice. Baby Girl is trying to smile and nod like normal, trying not to gasp or scream out. Z tells her not to worry, that he won’t hurt her.
That’s what you all say, though, she thinks—and she knows Z can hear her. I really mean it, though, Z days. And Baby Girl knows this is a lie.
O comes over and they leave, walking to the turquoise Cadillac. They smoke in front of the car, their cigarettes resembling fire flies.
“You really liked that girl, didn’t you?” Baby Girl asks, flicking the ash into the gutter. Her eyes focus on O’s, softly like the way a mother’s would, the way O’s mother’s never have.
“I did, yeah. I guess it was that obvious?” O says, laughing, aware of how ridiculous it would sound if O said how Angie is their soul mate. That O already loves her.
“Yeah, but it’s okay. It’s cool to be transparent like that. I hate how people act like people are a game, you know?” Baby Girl says, then adds, “That guy I was talking to was so annoying. The worst. Just bragging about all the shit he reads and bullshit he writes. It’s all so fake. I hate it.”
“Everything okay with you and K?” O asks. O knows the answer. It’s never okay.
“The same. I don’t know. I know we should just break up, but it’s so hard for me. I don’t know why.”
“Because you care. Because you love a lot. And that’s what I love about you,” O says, pausing for a moment while dragging smoke, “But I love you and want you to be happy. You aren’t happy.”
“I know. But I’m afraid this is my best shot.”
“That’s bullshit. And you know it.”
“I know. I’m glad I have you to call me out on my bullshit,” Baby Girl says, laughing, looking out to the light turning red.
“You know it girl. I’ll always tell you when your eyeliner is wack. And honestly, right now, your eyeliner is wack. It’s all uneven. Did you not look into a mirror today?”
Baby Girl laughs harder, knowing O is kidding, but also that the eyeliner is something else, something true and honest and ugly. She wished everyone was like O. But no one else is, only O.
“Let’s never part, okay?” Baby Girl says, throwing away her cigarette, the flame having gone out already. It’s all just blackish grey ash.
About the Author:
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST and elsewhere.
Image: Adam via Flickr (cc).