I wanted to post one last excerpt from The Surrender, since the official release is coming up on Thursday at the 2016 AWP Conference.
If you’re at AWP, you can find it at the Anomalous Press booth. Someone there will be happy to sell it to you.
Thereafter, order it from Small Press Distribution.
The excerpt below is from the third of the book’s three essays. If you’d like to read an excerpt from the first essay, go here. And, of course, the entirety of the second essay (which is how this whole thing began) is at The White Review.
In 2012 utterance became possible, and the next year was to unknot its form.
My hands removed a bottle from a cluttered bathroom drawer. It had been forgotten there for years, but now I had reclaimed it. On a fall evening I took it in hand and applied its contents to my toenails. I cannot say this was an act of my will. What I know of that moment is that my body produced this bottle, the process commenced upon my bared feet, an object carried my body forward. My role, if it can be called a role, was to cease blocking its desire. I relinquished my will and refused to contemplate the consequences. The miniature brush dripped with paint, and soon my toenails were held by clotted pearl coats. I could not help but smile at my poor work. Soon my fingernails too had their own clumsy strokes. I knew that in just hours I would be among friends, and there was no question of exiting the house with my nails in this state. It was simply not a prospect that could be entertained, under any circumstances imaginable. I removed the polish and left the house, and for the entire night I envied the paint my nails lacked. Past midnight I arrived back at home, and instead of falling asleep I began to repaint my nails. Prior to this day I had never in all my life aspired to polished nails. In all my time of wishing to be like a woman I had never imagined this prospect, and now I found it impossible that I should not paint them.
The next morning this polish was still on my fingers when I walked down the street to purchase coffee beans. I did not want this polish on my fingers. I did not want it there at all. With every step I trembled in dread that someone should see this, and I felt my hands swollen up to draw the gaze of all humanity. My spurious fingers pushed open the café door. I was in a minor panic. At any moment anyone in this small room might realize what I had done. Soon I would have to pay, and it was only with my hands that I could produce my card and pass it beyond the counter. My hands were transformed into emblems of humiliation.
I retained the polish throughout the whole of Sunday, and I likewise had it on me when I arrived at my office the following morning. For several hours I had the pleasure of staring down at the pearl
varnish as I typed. There was a new manner of femininity about me and I cherished it. By day’s end I was affirmed in the belief that I had accomplished a lofty goal, a matter of some stress undoubtedly, but now I had lived two entire days with these beautiful pearl nails. My satisfaction was so all-encompassing that on the following afternoon I acquired a bottle of blue paint, which I applied to myself that evening.
Never before had I seen a part of my body like these blue nails. They looked as though they were made of plastic, as though they were candy. I could smell their faint chemical aroma. I liked to feel their cool, slick surface upon my lips. It was difficult to believe they were of me. I gazed into my mirror reflection, and I knew right then that these blue-tinted tips did not belong at all. They were the only errors upon uniformly masculine flesh. Everything in my reflection pointed in one direction, and these tips pointed in the opposite. This incongruity made me freakish.
The next morning was my day off, and I shopped with my blue nails at the grocery. When I approached the counter where I would pay for my items, the cashier wasted no time in noticing my nails. She expressed admiration for the color I had chosen. That compliment, the first I had ever received from an unknown person, undid me because it made unambiguously clear that my nails were perceived. I was outside the boundaries of my home, and people in the world knew there was something afoot. People everywhere were seeing them. This had occurred for well over three days. These perceptions could only have been giving rise to thoughts inside of skulls. It was by no means clear what these thoughts were, what inferences they produced, what people then chose to believe about me. It was undeniable that these blue fingertips uttered things I would not say, things that I did not yet wish to believe and might well never wish to.
That evening I lay reading, and I fell asleep for perhaps half an hour. When I awoke my ankles and shins were inflamed. It was not so unlike the sensation of stretching one’s calves to the breaking point, except it was a deeper, encompassing pain of two hands twisting. I perceived it lengthening toward my stomach, and I could also feel it in my chest. My very heart beat with a syncopated cadence because my courage had smacked upon its limits. I knew precisely how this anxiety would be cured. I removed the paint and my body was freed from its strife. There could be no question that
this backward swerve was contrary to all I esteemed and expected in myself. It was false. It made me false and drove me toward an incorrect state of being. But not with all my might could I have forestalled this failure. I could only admit that my body was unable to sustain the truth I wished to force upon it. But this truth would not be so easily forsaken. No sooner had I removed the paint from my body than the bottle began again to exert its desire upon me. It exerted a most powerful force. Merely a glance at the blue polish from across the room fixed my gaze, and I would find myself picking this bottle up and twisting off its cap, only to thrust it back down in fear of what had almost transpired. I felt entirely that I wanted to give way to it, but always in the last moment I did not know how it could be done.
That following morning it was four days since I had first appeared with my tinted nails. As I prepared for the office, the bottle and its contents scarcely left my mind. It could not be done but I must do it. But I could not do it. I must. I stared and agitated, and in the end it was not done. I agitated for three more days before I again managed to give way to that bottle of blue polish. Three days of turmoil until I at last confronted the question. Why deny your self what your body clearly wants? Why should this need go unfulfilled? I did not know what the consequences of this submission would be, I did not at all feel capable of admitting what I knew to be my truth. It might again crush me. But that force exerted by the bottle of blue nail polish was itself a truth. And too, the satisfaction I felt when I looked down upon my smooth, blue fingertips. I could not tell myself why these truths were mine, these truths that were not a priori truths, and nor were susceptible to empirical justification. They were truths that rested wholly on feelings that I knew could only be given way to. This was a crucial thing. If I did not give way to them they would never leave. Never. In all of 30 years they had never left my side. They had only proliferated, and they were among the most durable facts about myself imaginable. They had been with me longer than almost any other component of what I took to be my identity, and they were purely undeniable. I had often been instructed that undeniable desires are not approved foundations for truths. They are whimsies, weaknesses that prey upon the hysterics. The true man learns to subjugate them. I had judged such teachings to be false, repressive doctrines, and I had demonstrated to myself that an unflagging desire is not whimsy, surrendering to it is not weakness. I knew this. I had warred against myself in order to believe this. I was convinced that this was absolutely true, and so I did not know why I could not stop acting as though my convictions were absurd, as though I were wearing absurdity upon my fingers. The conventions that had been beaten into me were powerful. These conventions had forced me to take my own body and with great effort and perseverance fit it squarely into its place in the world. It had taken me years to do as these conventions required, and now I was in the process of taking it all back, of making my body absurd. I was not at all prepared to withstand this displacement.
In that season I felt my inner self a young woman who fights for the self-possession to cast off falsehoods.
During those fall months there were a few calm moments when I felt powerful in the knowledge that my acts were a defiance, and this misbegotten courage helped me to exist despite my irrepressible sense of absurdity. It was of some good, but I did not want to exist as a defiance. I did not paint my nails out of a desire to defy convention, and I had no interest in impressing others with my transgression. To the contrary, I did it for the most natural reason I could imagine, to submit to truths that I knew should not be denied.
As I cast about for my balance, I would at times be thrown small lifelines. I believe that my discomfort was quite plain for those who would see it, and I do not hesitate to profess that what compliments I received were offered from a sense of complicity. It is clear enough to me that people everywhere feel at odds with what they are forced to reveal to the world. Perhaps those who offered me these few words will never know the essential role they played in allowing me to believe I was not, in fact, absurd. That, simply, I had a right to exist.
What most instilled in me the capacity to seize this truth was a thing I read by a musician I had listened to since college. This man, whom I had always imagined to be an epitome of success and desirability, and whom I had never imagined could feel unable to walk into any room to which he felt entitled, had been made to feel an outcast in his very home. In his own luxurious apartment tower, to which he had won admittance by his unquestionable hard work and brilliance, this man had felt an intruder. He could do nothing to change this. He understood that no action he might ever commit would prevent such a situation arising again. He was helpless. He wrote with a mature outrage about realizing the fact of his helplessness, and he wanted others to know what it was to feel this peculiar species of exposure. When I read his words I understood that I was a coward. It had always been my option to hide my difference, and for many years I had chosen deception over truth. There were people in this world who could not hide. In fact, nothing they ever did would let them. There was simply no possible way for these people to experience the option granted to me by birth. This bitter fact was a truth they could only confront for themselves. I was not like these people. It was my choice to hide, and I did. I had purposely educated myself in the methods of this deception. I had done my very best to forget that there was ever a truth I fought to hide from the world.
The discomfort I found so intolerable that I would rather hide myself away than live in truth was a thing that many people simply had to accept.
But now I had reached a juncture where I had the possibility of ceasing to hide. By some turn of events it was now my choice to pursue truth. In merely contemplating whether I might pursue truth over falseness I was experiencing a great privilege that I had not even recognized as such. I had no right to such a privilege. I had no right even to my cowardice. I must force myself to pursue truth. I must cease deceiving the world as to what I was. I would experience life on those terms, no matter what they might bring. This meant eradicating what prevented me from revealing myself to the world. It meant admitting this intolerable discomfort. It meant being willing to experience forms of emotion that I had purposely avoided with all my might. These false and petty limits I would surpass, in order to see what my true limits were and to know why they existed.