By Carolyn Light Bell
“May the door…be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship.” –The Siddur for Reform Jewish Prayer, CCAR Press
If you understand who and what I am, it may bring you closer to believing in your heart that everyone, including you, dances up and down a scale of chromosomes that determine gender preference. On one end is Shirley Temple with ringlets; on the other is Rocky Balboa, boxing. In the middle, Prince. I’m a girl with a fierce heart who wants no surgery or hormones to be a man. With all the mishegoss swirling around about who goes in what bathrooms—forget about it.
I was born in Palm Springs, with a pink “baby girl” tag slapped on my incubator. My parents named me Entl. “E” for sensual, free, entertaining, enterprising, “N” for independent, “T” for impetuous, and testosterone. “L” for intellectual and easily in love. Cool, right?
Entl rhymes with Yentl, like Isaac Singer’s Yentl, who wasn’t allowed to study Torah, the girl Barbra Streisand made famous. My father, a Conservative rabbi and student of all things Jewish, had high hopes for me. I was born in 1990, after men started letting women study the sacred Torah. Too bad for Dad I never wanted to study Torah. Since I was their only child, I crushed his hopes when it came to female things. Concerned about my “proclivities,” he consulted his rabbi cronies. Since no one knew yet what my “practices” would be, I hadn’t yet committed an “abomination.” The rabbis agreed it would help if I married off early. They started a countrywide search for the right match. I wasn’t even a teenager. It was enough to make me want to bolt.
You can label me Millennial, since Millennials are “open-minded, liberal, self-expressive, upbeat, and overtly passionate about equality.” Millennial Entl, that’s me. Millennials also have a sense of entitlement, which means I feel entitled to be who I am. You can tell I look up stuff. The net is awesome, but it can’t tell me where I fit.
Father started worrying when I was born with “indeterminate gender.”
“Ruthie, talk to her. Give her some lessons on respectability and, well, you know, what girls are supposed to do, how they’re supposed to act with each other and with…you know.”
“Leonard, I’ll try, but our Entl isn’t like other girls. We have to help her, not judge her.” Mother decided it was her job to defend me against his not-so-subtle remarks.
“Am I judging her when I want her to grow up and be happy and have a family?”
“We don’t know what makes her happy. Family doesn’t always mean children, especially nowadays.”
“Nowadays schmowadays. It’s only natural.”
I grew up totally bored with dolls and makeup. Fran and Nan, the neighbor girls, asked me to come and trade doll clothes.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Why not?” said Fran and Nan together, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
“I don’t like dolls. I’d rather play outside.”
“We’ll take our dolls outside.”
“Go ahead without me.”
“Poophead!” Fran said.
“Girlypants!” I said.
“Freakazoid!” Nan said.
Fran and Nan always wanted to play inside, so I tried James and Anshel down the street, who were pitching balls back and forth. My pitching wasn’t great, and those guys took no prisoners. No dice.
I overheard Leonard and Ruthie talking late at night about my being unnatural. I covered my ears with a pillow. I thought about a lot of things but never about having a family. I thought about surgery, but then I read on the net that leftover scar tissue can take all the fun out of sex. I haven’t had any yet, but a girl can dream, right? Anyway, no biggie. On the outside, I have a huge clit and a couple of baby balls. Inside, I’m like all girl! Good to go! I get crushes on both boys and girls. Constantly. Think BOTH Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio.
Before my bat mitzvah, I hadn’t learned my haftorah. I hated Hebrew school and skipped it. My tutor quit. Father pleaded with me, “Why can’t you be like your cousin Leah, who stays up late to study Torah? Be a good girl. Study the Mishnah. God knows what’s right for you.”
“What you really mean is act more like a girl! You want to marry me off under the chuppah with some hairy beast from Hot Springs. You can call off your league of rabbis because I’m here to tell you I’m not going to procreate ten grandchildren. Not now. Not ever!”
I knew it was harsh, but I couldn’t take the pressure.
Shortly before my bat mitzvah, my father, the rabbi, keeled over from a massive heart attack. I never had a chance to really talk to him. I think he died on purpose to avoid seeing me make a fool of him in public. Or he died of heartbreak. Or maybe it was a God thing. Probably genetics. Anyway, it’s too late to take my comments back. Besides, I meant every word.
From then on, Mother has tried to make it better for me by keeping the “door open wide” to accepting who I am and loving me unconditionally. She doesn’t want to lose me too.
I made up my own word for myself since “tomboy” doesn’t ring true. Tom is a boy’s name and “boy” repeats a gender preference for boys. Birl fits better.
When I was a high school sophomore, I played football. I refused to use the boys’ locker room or bathroom and told everyone I was a birl. Since girls weren’t allowed on the team—only trans kids—I quit. What’s the point? Some people get pissed off when they don’t know what to call me. It’s easier to squeeze me into a single box marked girl or boy, like they did in the hospital incubators.
Things I like to do might be divvied up into traditional girl and boy things.
Girl things: Baking sweets—anything with dark chocolate—like triple chocolate cake, brownies made with bittersweet baker’s squares, devil’s food cake. I’m addicted. Sewing on buttons, filling four round holes with bulky thread. Sliding the needle up and down—fastening things that would otherwise be unfastened. Kneading and braiding dough, shaping it.
Boy things: Bumping up hard against people, as in physical contact. Dancing to the crazy beat of my heart. Letting my emotions show, all except sadness. Operating giant machines, feeling the earth crumble inside a claw, punching a hole through a roof. Riding my Harley Street 500 through the desert.
“You don’t have to do it all, Entl. Your job is to enjoy the things you do.” Mother says that to make me feel good. but she can’t fight my battles when she’s working at the Council resale shop, Nu for You. It used to bug me when I’d come home with bruises or a broken nose when some coward called me “dyke” and I’d punched him out and she’d be nowhere in sight. She was trying to keep the two of us afloat financially and had no extra time. I’d have to pour peroxide all over my open wounds and by the time Mother came home, I was already scabbing over, toughing it out.
On Shabbos, after a long workweek, sometimes Ma joins me to make challah. She prepares the ingredients. I knead the dough, scrunching it between my fists up and over, over and down, braiding three strands up, down, under, and over one another. Ma pours sesame seeds all the hell over it and places it tenderly in the oven. I open the oven every ten minutes, watching the dough rise, full and puffy as a woman’s soft breasts.
Palm Springs, my so-called home, is not your average place. A lot of homos live here. Most of them are trans, gay, or lesbian. I’m on the cusp of all categories. I’ve tried it all on. I’ve also tried dating from online sites (none of which seemed to fit), hanging out in weird bars, walking around, checking things out.
Gisette, a tarot card reader, nailed it. “Your Thunderbird card is your future. In order to embrace yourself, you must follow a spiritual path of self-awareness.”
Wow, I thought. Awesome. I’m all over that embracing-self stuff.
One too-quiet Shabbos dinner, shortly after the tarot reading, when it was just me and Ma, I was telling her stupid stories I thought would make her laugh because she got lonesome for Dad on Shabbos. Laughing is my favorite thing to do. She excused herself to go to the bathroom, but I knew she was stuffing her mouth with a towel so I wouldn’t hear her crying.
I’m often the loudest and only laugher at movies. I can usually find something funny. All this laughing, BTW, is drug and alcohol-free since I’ve ambled down that habit road already. When kids in my school first bullied me, calling me homo and queer, I’d go home and get high one way or another. Getting high was always followed by getting low, real low. So I gave it up. I’ve found ways to laugh and have fun. Dancing. Eating dark chocolate. Riding my 500. Feeling the wind rushing through my hair until it gets so tangled I can’t see in front of me.
When she came out from the bathroom, Ma said, “Never mind, Entl, go outside. I’ll do dishes.” I donned my heaviest hiking boots, rode my 500 to the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains, parked it, dug my heels into exposed rock, and mounted the steepest incline, toward climax forest. I pondered Gisette’s advice and realized I’m pretty self-aware; it’s the rest of the world that’s wanting.
I pounded my pipes down to the Living Desert, saw the leopards and giraffes behind fences, cried, went home, and called Rudee, my BFF. When she arrived, I was hiding behind a bush, and pounced on her back. She didn’t think it was as funny, but agreed to stay and listen to old Fifties tunes like “Come Softly” and “All the Way.” We told lies and laughed until our guts ached.
I got sick of that after a few hours and started fake-yawning. She took the hint and left when I started sewing buttons on my mailbag-style pouch. I sewed two huge orange buttons on the flap, using red and purple thread, creating a wild sunset of color. When my life starts leaking out, it’s time to fasten something together again.
I needed loops to keep the flap down, so I turned it over to Mother, who’s really good at sewing. Man, you can give her anything torn, and she’ll fix it, except birliness. No one can fix that. God knows she’s tried in a million ways, including taking me to style shows at ritzy hotels.
Other things I can’t fix—my long, dark red, unruly, thick-as-hemp hair, which I keep tied up in leather during the day, but at night, let hang down my back. I’m tall and rangy-looking, enough to intimidate a lot of guys when I come on strong. I have little raspberry breasts and glasses. I like my clothes hanging loose since confinement is one of my main phobias. I swagger when I walk in my own kind of dance, not on purpose, but because my hips naturally like to move and sway.
Oh, yes, I mostly wear army green with something red to bring out the passion inside.
Sometimes at night I sneak out and walk to the freeway, staring down the blackness until lights make bright stripes racing down the road. I think about a lot of things, like why God made me different. I wonder if there is something I am supposed to be doing to fit in. I wonder if I’ll ever get out of Palm Springs so I can find out.
One of my dreams has been to own a big truck like a deep green or cranberry red Peterbilt with loads of style, a strong grille, and long streams of running lights, surging past. Truckers sit high in their cabs, with facial hair and bulging biceps. There I am, one sole night creature, standing close to the edge of the road. Once or twice a week, one of the drivers sends out a long air horn blast loud enough to wrinkle my socks.
At fourteen, I dipped deep into the trucker world. I wanted to check it out, try it on. I followed my ambition down the road to the local gas-em-up truck stop, complete with a string of showers in the back and glossy, porno paperbacks on a twirling rack in front.
I frequented a lunch booth in a corner, ordering Cokes and chocolate doughnuts. I went there for days, drew the visor cap with buttons I’d sewn all over it low across my forehead, my hair tucked way up inside. I wore my usual heavy boots, army pants, and black leather jacket with a lot of rivets. Guys were bent over their coffee, hash browns, and burgers. I hung out after school pretending to do homework, but I was really studying my Trucker Talk manual. I listened to them jawing until the dinner hour so Mother wouldn’t get suspicious.
One afternoon, this guy looked up over his mug at me and winked. He was thinking about how he could trap me behind the diner. After all, I was a stupid kid, alone, waiting to be had. I’d show him. I’d prove he couldn’t get the upper hand.
So I winked back. He grinned at me, grabbed his mug of coffee, and slid on right next to me in the red, fake-leather booth. Before I could object, he squeezed my thigh really hard and said, “I don’t know what you are, you with the rusty hair, but I’ve been watchin’ you. You’re welcome to hitch up in my rig anytime, and be my seat cover. I’ve got a great-lookin’ Pete parked in back.” He kept his eyes on me as he took a big slurp of black coffee.
“Hey! Hands off!” I scrunched his hand hard with both of mine. “What do you think I am, anyway? I like trucks, not truckers…”
“Sorry, little sister,” he said. “What are you doing here all alone?”
I took a deep breath and decided his eyes were honest. “If you want to know, I want to see a Peterbilt close up. What’s your ride?” I smiled at him and watched him raise and lower his eyebrows in a kind of comic dance, confused. He thought I was gonna say something else.
“Hey, don’t let’s pretend. You wanna hang out here in this nowhere town for the rest of your little life?” He eyed my Trucker Talk book. “I’d be happy to show you the big road in my large car that’ll give you a triple-digit ride all the way from bean town south to the Big A.”
I almost burst out laughing. “First of all, mister, don’t go making assumptions. I’m sure your better half wouldn’t want you picking up strange brats in truck stops. I’d like to see your Peterbilt, not your old wrinkled genitalia. I have a cell phone in my back pocket hooked into the local precinct and plenty of bear-buddies who would be only too happy to drag your ass into the slammer for child molestation if you get stupid.” Where did that come from? I thought to myself.
“Hey, hey, little evil one, if you know bears, it’s only right you should come along with me and shake the bushes ahead of my convoy. You could be mighty useful. Let’s blow this choke and puke and have us some fun.”
“I said I’m only interested in trucks, not in you. I’m no lot lizard. I happen to like beautiful machines.”
“That makes two of us. Anybody listening would think you grew up inside of a pigtail.”
“Let’s get on with it. I’ve always wanted to sit in a Pete.”
He laughed so hard he spewed his coffee on the table. “No kidding?” He stuck out his thick hand. “Name’s Al. You’re a tough one to size up. Sure, kid, I’ll show you around. You had me fooled. I took you for a commercial company.”
“Wrong, right? How do I know your name’s really Al?”
He sat there grinning at me for a minute or two. He wasn’t half bad-looking, but I wasn’t clear about my gender preference. I knew one thing—he was way too old for me. He pulled a dirty brown wallet out of the breast pocket of his fraying jacket and showed me his license.
“I sure wish you was my kid. I’d be proud as all mother-fuckin’ hell.” The word mother-fuckin’ used in the same sentence as kid got to me. Swearing about kids was goddamned ugly. Everything about me, including my upbringing, was in the way.
Looking at his license, I was surprised to see Al was born in ’85, five years before me. He came from Amarillo, Texas (the big A), his name was Alan Peter Swanson, and he was 5’9”, brown hair, blue eyes, weighing in at 165. His hair was gray at the edges and he smelled okay even after being cooped up in a truck.
“C’mon, kid.” He got up and, despite my doubts, I followed him out to the parking lot, boots kicking up gravel.
I followed several paces behind, but my pace picked up when, spread out before me, was a classic 579 Peterbilt. Cherry red and clean. Totally streamlined with exhaust pipes on either side, magnificent mud flaps, integrated headlights, four-paneled front grille, roof fairing, sun visors, sleek toolbox steps, immaculate fuel tanks along the side, pod-mounted lights, and air horns that set my whole body into vibration. What a chassis!
“How do you like her?” Alan Peter said.
“Crazy in love with her! Wish she were mine.”
“Wanna go for a spin?”
I examined his face. You can tell a lot about people if you know what to look for. He didn’t blink. I’d always wanted to ride in a Peterbilt. But, I was alone in a big world without protection and I’m not talking condoms. I was still a virgin. I mean I felt loose, unattached… My life. My world. My choices.
Something in me kept saying, Do it! It could be your only chance to check out the freeway past Palm Springs. Before I knew it, I watched one of my big leather boots step up on the running board and then the next one pull up right behind it. My heart skipped several beats. Will I suffer heart failure right here and now like Dad? I swung around and plunked down on the leather seat. There I was, in that gorgeous beast with old Al. I was thinking about Father’s rabbi cronies. Al was male and I was female. Running off with him would be a davka. I was both turned on and terrified.
As Al was messing around with who-knows-what in the truck’s rear end, I was having a serious argument with myself. How did I get into this? This could be the end of my virginity. Once Al turns on the ignition and takes off with me, I might just as soon kiss my independence good-bye. I haven’t even graduated high school, for God’s sake. Mother will freak out. Father will roll out of his grave and come to haunt me.
Without warning, my whole body stiffened up and my knees started to clatter. I was actually praying. Dear God. I know I’m not your ordinary kid, but you made me this way, and if you take care of me, I’ll keep trying to be the best birl I can. I’ll make you proud. Deal?
I inhaled the machinery, the grease, the cigarettes, the road dust. Tears sprang to my eyes, and before Al could swing in beside me, I threw on my pack and clambered out, hearing something rip. It took the idea of driving off in a Peterbilt with Alan Peter Swanson to find God. After all, I was the child of a rabbi. I’d been crazy in love with a pipe dream, two exhaust pipes to be specific. Trucking is a bastion of American machismo and I’m no trucker chick, just a Palm Springs birl.
“Goodbye, Al. Thanks anyway. See ya!” I shouted over my shoulder, loping across the dark stretch of road toward home.
In the midst of my escape, one of my pouch buttons and part of a strap ripped off on Al’s seat belt buckle. I sewed on the button and Mother fixed the strap. I’m still a kid with a mother who accepts me, challah to braid, and the sass to shimmer down my own scale of chromosomes.
Copyright Light Bell 2016