Then, two unrelated things happened:
1. I figured out that I was mostly probably almost certainly gay. And over time, I realized that, as much as I might love Ariel or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I didn’t see any gay characters in any of those books, no one who was going through the same things I was. In fact, in some novels — like those embarrassing Xanth things — I recall authors mocking queerness and effeminacy. That was a turn-off.
2. I went to college, which was pretty much the nail in the coffin. I don’t care how much you enjoy reading, being saddled with weekly, 300-page death marches through Victorian novels, metaphysical poetry, and experimental Modernist literature is enough to knock that enjoyment smack out of you.
It took me years to re-learn how to read for pleasure. And in the meantime, I discovered the joy of writing. I mean, faced with the option of plowing through the works of über-schmuck Ezra Pound or hammering out my own stuff, the choice became obvious.
Please note: I have no illusions about my writing abilities. My talents are marginal. If I have one thing going for me, though, it’s that I’ve made writing a daily habit. (I know I don’t post here nearly as often as I used to, but that’s because I’m banging out a thousand words or so every morning for other folks.)
Ultimately, that discipline led to a book: The French Quarter Drinking Companion. It’s not the Next Great American Novel, but it was fun to write, and it taught me a bit about today’s publishing industry. And what I learned was this: don’t write fiction. Or rather, don’t write fiction and expect to see a profit. Just write it for yourself.
So, I did. And I do. And what I’ve been tinkering with on and off over the past few months is a story that I would’ve enjoyed as a young adult reader. It combines:
1. Something I read plenty of as a kid: science fiction/horror in the Lovecraft vein, particularly works like Notebook Found in a Deserted House; and,
2. Another thing that I could never quite find during those days: the story of someone like me, a gay teen growing up in tiny-town Mississippi.
And because I’m realistic about the grim prospects for a book like that, I’ve been posting it one chapter at a time on Movellas. If people read it, great. If they don’t, no loss. Either way, at least I don’t have to beg a publisher to book me on morning talk shows to discuss it.
If you’re interested, you can skim the first four chapters here. Or, if clicking isn’t your thing, I’ve posted chapter two below.
Also note: I’m not sold on the title, Birthmark, Or How My Grandmother Taught Me To Love Myself And Save The World. It’s a little funny, and it’s a little apt, but man, it’s a mouthful.
Also also note: It’s appropriate that I’m posting this story about grappling with gender/sexual identity today, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Learn more about that here.
* * * * *
When I was six, I turned to mama and told her flat-out, “I want to be a girl”. We were stuck at a stop light that had just turned red, but she kept her eyes focused on the road.
At least I think she did, but she might’ve cut me a look. It was hard to tell, since mama always wore some kind of sunglasses out in public. Still does, so far as I know. That day, she had on a fancy turquoise-colored pair with lots of little curlicues and sparkly bits that looked out of place, considering the squat, rusty station wagon we were in. I nearly stared a hole right through those things trying to make her answer me. (I was always trying to control people with my mind. Thanks to a glut of Disney specials, I was 100% positive that I had psychic powers just waiting to be unlocked. It was only a matter of time.)
Mama opened her mouth, then shut it. Opened and shut. Nothing came out. Years later, I saw a woman drown in a movie, and I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve seen that expression before”. I decided to try again.
“So, when do I get to be a girl?”
You know what’s weird? I remember that particular moment just as clear as day, but for the life of me, I don’t recall what made me ask. I know that I’d seen The Wizard of Oz on TV, though, and I really liked that Dorothy Gayle. She was cute and adventurous, plus she had good hair and a great voice. Maybe I wanted to be Dorothy. Heck, who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes? Except her, of course.
The traffic light turned green, but neither of us noticed. Mama continued gazing straight ahead while I kept right on burning a hole in the side of her head, hoping she’d eventually give in.
A customized van behind us honked twice, jarring mama back to attention. “All right, then, all right,” she said in a conversational tone to the other driver, who had about a snowball’s chance in hell of hearing mama over the clatter coming from our wagon’s diesel engine. “I’m sorry to keep you from getting to the church on time,” she muttered, glancing into the rear view mirror. Even back then, before I’d learned to tie my shoes or write in cursive, I knew she was ducking my question.
Mama kept the chatter going, mumbling at the woman behind her. “Lord-a-mercy, you got a gosh darned bee in your bonnet, don’t you? Come on by, then. Come on.” Mama pulled over and waved her hand out the window, encouraging the van to pass us by. “Go on, now. Wouldn’t want to cut into your prayin’ time. Must have some extra repentin’ to do tonight.”
It was Wednesday, which meant an evening church service to many people in town. Luckily for me, mama had her fourth kid less than a year ago, and neither she nor daddy were of a mind to wrangle us all into church clothes, much less make the whole family presentable for a congregation full of judgy Baptists — Southern Baptists at that. For us, Wednesdays were less about hymns and more about homework, Hamburger Helper, and, if we were lucky, a Charlie Brown special on CBS.
“Did you get all your books you’re gonna need to study tonight?” Mama had gotten in the habit of asking me this, since she claimed I had a tendency to forget things.
“Yes, ma’am”, I said, resigned to the fact that she just wasn’t going to answer my question.
“Well, good. Last thing I need today is to have to deal with that janitor. Man gives me the willies.” Mama put on a big show of shivering in her seat, unwilling to let me forget the one time — one time, mind you — that she’d had to run back to school after hours and bang on Mr. Shoemake’s window so he could let me into my classroom. From the way he smiled at mama that night, I’m pretty sure he liked her, which made mama flustered. But I noticed that she didn’t cover up her chest with her hand like she sometimes did when our pastor leered at her on the way out of Sunday church service.
“What’re you studying in class now?”
“I dunno. Sentences and stuff.” If she wasn’t planning to answer my questions, I wasn’t about to answer hers either. I zipped my mouth tight and pulled my knees to my chest, propping the heels of my dingy white Keds on the naugahyde lip of the front seat. (Yes, the front seat. Mama knew good and well that I was too young to be up front, but she made me sit there beside her because she couldn’t stand being alone. Of course, she never admitted that — she just said that driving around with me and my brothers in the back made her feel like a taxi driver.)
“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do. I’m tryin’ to carry on a conversation, and you just go right on and close your mouth like a snapping turtle. Don’t act all surprised if I remember that when it comes time to fix your dessert.”
Mama tapped the brakes. She was pretty easygoing on the whole, but she simply couldn’t abide backtalk. “Don’t you ‘hmph’ me, child,” she threatened. “I may have a bad case of hayfever, but I can just as easily pull this car over and pick me a switch.”
She had said the magic word. I responded quick as a wink: “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Mama gave me the side-eye and sped up again. We zoomed past the park, the grocery store, the house where my best friend, Rob, lived with his mom and stepdad. Mama didn’t speak to me again until we’d pulled into the driveway and she’d turned the car off. I guess we were even.
“Reach in the box yonder and grab me my case.” I jiggled the lid to the glove compartment ‘till it dropped open, then handed her a small clamshell box covered in aquamarine leatherette. She pulled off her glasses and put them away, slamming the compartment door so hard that the noise set our dogs, Millie and Sam, to barking, though they were clean inside the house and old enough to know better.
“All right, grab my purse from the floorboard and come get washed up. I’m gonna wash these here snap beans, and then you wanna help mama make some Jello?”
And like that, any disagreement we’d had was over.