Valentijn Hoogenkamp – Antiboy
I COME FROM a long line of liars. My great-grandmother lied about not being Jewish when she moved to Zaandam from Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, in 1939. My grandmother lied to the man she was married to on Aruba about returning one day, when she fled to the Netherlands with her baby. She left her other child behind, a four-year-old daughter who would later become my mother. My father lied, the time I asked him whether he and my mother loved each other and he said they didn’t, they were more like friends, but that was a lie too because it’s impossible for me to see his life as anything other than one big attempt to win my mother’s affections. My sister Toni, when she claimed that I was the only child to feel emotions and that she didn’t.
They are close to me when I wake up from the operation. But it’s Pier and Charlotte sitting next to my bed, along with Mum. No, she isn’t here, if I ever see her again I’ll beat her to death with an emerald. The first time I came round, there was a woman on the other side of the curtain screaming that they’d scraped her baby out of her, and my chest was numb. My mouth hung open, dribble collected in my cheek. Tubes ran right and left from my armpits to two plastic bottles filled with red liquid. I cautiously flapped my arms but barely lifted from the ground.
‘I’m awake,’ I mumbled. […]
I don’t believe there’s a mysterious person inside me waiting to be discovered. At the same time, ever since the diagnoses a no, I don’t want to just survive, something wants to reveal itself has been increasing in volume. Nevertheless, there is still a spark of fear that I’ve made this all up, because I make up characters all day long, I write down their childhood memories, their favourite colours, first relationships, their accent when they talk, how many toilets there were in the house they grew up in and whether they had to queue to use them. I’ve already invented so many people that my own memories are as vague as fantasies.
I feel the most like myself when I bend down to pick up fallen matches and put them back in a box into which they no longer seem to fit since being dropped.
‘Are you going to tell people?’ Slimane asks.
‘Just Pier to start with,’ I say. ‘He’s always talking about waters enlightened with simplicity and expressing life’s space in all its totality.’
‘Poetry, he quotes a lot of poetry. And he’s my best friend after all.’
Slimane gets up to straighten his back and I get up too, taking it as a signal that we’re leaving. He wraps his arms around me and smells of the same curl cream. I almost kiss his neck.
The floor is still covered with discarded clothing and torn-open bin bags. I cling onto Slimane’s hug, dance around with it elatedly, until I accidentally stand on a plastic pearl necklace, releasing the pearls all over the place. I mustn’t lose the clarity with which this all flows over me. Phone in hand, I let myself fall back onto the bed. Pier is away for a month for a writing assignment. Next week I’m going to visit him because he says he’s wasting away in the back of beyond where his residency is located. It’s cold there, he’s bought new tiger print slippers. I miss his little dancing feet, but not his socks lying around. I could wait until I see him again, but I haven’t felt this cheerful in a long time. First I tell Pier in my head. He’s very enthusiastic, comparing me to still waters. I may not be a girl, but I can be a place in which the sky is reflected.
Reassured, I call the real Pier. We talk about his book, his slippers, the haunted basement in the house he’s staying in and the spaghetti he’s eating for the fourth day in a row because he cooked too much. There’s no logical moment in which to casually drop my news and I almost let it sink away again. We have to be brave and not only tell our exes. So I say it, I say I might be non-binary. Silence at the other end.
‘What do you think about that?’
Again he starts talking about his tiger print slippers and his cold feet and I keep asking questions so that the conversation doesn’t stall. Is it Spaghetti Bolognese? Yes, with minced meat. How many pages has he written today? Seven, me too, I say, about a bodybuilder who flexes his muscles and wears a pink tank top and… The memory of the mirror is still fading like a dream forgotten upon awakening.
‘Would you please say something about it?’ I ask.
‘I’m not angry with you,’ he says and hangs up.
I AM A MONSTER beneath my skin my love has glasses but can’t see this which is why I picked him I sneak along the city’s walls the babies cry in their cribs I make a claw in my mitten my love praises my skin so soft in the dark withdrawn teeth when I suck I am a monster I hide my face because nobody is looking in the bus next to me a creature of light with red hair freshly washed red hair I want that too the shower avoids me droplets fall next to me I am a monster hide my eyes the screeching of bald birds bald birds too big for my head beaks pecking into my eyes outside you can’t kiss me your tongue is a worm in the tram with an arm so close that I smell another monster smaller ugly with a belly but that doesn’t make me more or less of a monster just a different monster I scratch open my scales under them hard skin I grow bigger every year never better never more or less monster once you are a monster it no longer matters whether you are more or less of a monster.
‘…aesthetically undesirable,’ the plastic surgeon says.
Where are you, Anti? In a windowless consulting room. The doctor with silver hair once won a reality tv show, both the audience prize and the jury prize for the best reconstruction surgery. He explains which implants I might get if I have my own breasts removed. Since the diagnosis, my breasts have been screened every year. Strange hands almost tear them from my body and press them as flat as possible between two Xray plates. A month later, the test results, still clear, nothing to be seen. But the day after the results, the malignant growth can start again and only be visible a year later on the next scan. I have just told the doctor I would rather have a flat chest.
‘… for a young woman like yourself the belly fat option would leave a big scar and you’ll want to look good in a bikini.’
Didn’t I just say I don’t want implants? The conversation is recorded on my mobile phone. As I play it back to understand it better, I sketch the timeline on an envelope. After four minutes, the surgeon, in his pleasantly low voice, calls a chest without breast reconstruction ‘aesthetically undesirable’. After twenty minutes, I am sitting topless on his examination table and he lifts my breast with one hand and drops it again, says I have beautiful breasts and not to go for a single size smaller.
As a child, the only trans women I knew of were on Jerry Springer’s talk show. They were there because their fiancés didn’t know they were trans and they had come to confess. Disgust from the fiancées and the audience. My sympathy was always with the woman being shouted at. They were still the same person, were those men blind? In my child’s mind, all trans people really wanted to have surgery. I thought that if you were afraid of doctors you couldn’t be trans.
‘My father-in-law is a cardiologist,’ I say, ‘and he has a heart himself too, but you don’t have breasts.’
The doctor finds this amusing. ‘Women always think that, but they only know their own breasts. I’ve seen a lot more over the years.’
Still you will never know what it feels like to always have to be confronted with their existence. Cover them, protect them or bare them some more. When mine first appeared I spent the first year forgetting I had them, until a boy in my class intervened, saying I was no longer Fanny Flat-chest and really should start wearing a bra.
‘They don’t really feel like a part of me…’ During the recording you hear my voice get higher; I almost understand what I mean and am hoping for assistance. The doctor’s silence, after his previous smooth answers. Finally he says that in his experience, women who don’t get implants, have a harder time psychologically after the operation. He shrugs off all my questions about risks, leakage, waking up at night and no longer knowing what cold weight hangs form your chest, negligible risks that barely ever occur.
Stay with it, Antiboy, focus and ask clear questions. But the conversation is full of invisible young women frolicking between us in their bikinis. By now we are talking about breasts like hairstyles, that not every hairstyle suits everyone. So I ask for photos of operations he has performed. He clicks open a slideshow showing a pared breast, the skin hanging down over the ribs like a red flap and the fatty tissue visible. He quickly puts his hand over half the screen and clicks through, past bruises and contusions. Only after many pictures is he able to he show me a pair of breasts that look like tennis balls under a sheet. I look at them and try to want them, to want them like those other women do. I’ve come here with a high risk factor for cancer and the doctor’s idea of consolation is to keep telling me I won’t be ugly afterwards.
If only I could interrupt him, say, ‘Put on all your clothes at once. Pants and vest, shirt, tie, belt and trousers, long socks, jacket, big winter coat or better still, a down-filled ski jacket, a scarf and a fur hat and jump in the water. If everything fills with water and pulls you down, if you tread water until you can barely keep going, then you’ll know how heavy my body is. I can tell you love your white coat, even if there’s a little coffee stain on the collar, you love to walk along the corridor surrounded by junior doctors. If I were to force you to walk along the corridor in a scruffy tracksuit, or skinny jeans, or, and neither of us can imagine this, a flowery dress, if you had to operate in a flowery dress, wouldn’t you explain to each patient, every pair of eyes, ‘This isn’t who I am’?
But given he is going to add his signature in the form of scars on my chest, I don’t say anything and just stare fixatedly at the coffee stain on his collar. Until he explains that if I really insist on being flat, it will be such a simple operation that he will not perform it. He is over-qualified. I have to make a new appointment with another plastic surgeon and explain all over again that I don’t want implants that I can’t take off when I go to bed.
Translated by Michele Hutchison