In the darkness of my room—blinds closed, sitting at my desk, leaning forward, face lit blue by the computer screen, eyes forward, keys clicking, excited, yet nervous and unsure—I am a woman.
Her name is Mindy. Or I’m pretty sure it is—I still need to get to know her better. She’s fifty-five, has two adult children and knits her own potholders. She’s met the last decade with a weight gain, and sometimes she worries that she has become shapeless, but not nearly as much as she worries about being carbon-conscious. She buys Swiss chard from the farmers’ market once a week, and attends classes at Curves irregularly. She’s greying, but happily, with a loving and uncritical husband. His name is Roland. Between their timeshare in the Virgin Gorda and a permanent summer house in Martha’s Vineyard, one could say that her life has been comfortable.
I know. You were probably expecting a different kind of woman. Someone younger and more vivacious, with a cute noun for a name. Cherry, or Kitty. A showgirl type. The kind of girl that laughs loud and wears too much jewelry. The kind of girl that’s, well, really just a man in fishnets. I bet you were expecting me to confess that at nighttime, I don a boa and lipstick and sing Liza Minnelli. I bet you took me for a cross-dresser.
If you did, you’re not far off.
I don’t own a pair of women’s heels or skirts or stockings, and I don’t apply makeup to myself, and I don’t have an alter ego or a wig or a jazz number. And I don’t stand in front of a mirror. But I do tune out the world, and for a few hours, I abandon life and imagine what it would be like to confront the world as a female: what I’d think about preservatives in baby food, or how I’d feel about divorce, or bathing suits. I approach a series of scenarios with a woman’s brain, until the moment comes when I shut off the computer, stand up, put on my shoes and coat, and walk into the world as if nothing happened.
That is, I write female protagonists. It’s a process which requires me to dive into the lives of women, moment by moment. It’s never something I meant to do, but story after story, it’s something I find myself doing. Something I find myself unable to not do.
I’ve been writing women as long as I’ve been writing fiction. I wrote my first story when I was sixteen, a flash-fiction piece (though not a very good one) about an immigrant laundress who has a secret fascination with the work of Stephen Hawking. While kneeling in a pile clothes and listening to a radio program, something clicks, and she folds and unfolds a t-shirt as if it were the time-space net. Later I moved onto Monica and Hillary, two thirty-somethings who built a friendship of grieving their cats’ deaths, only to find they have little else to talk about. In the end Monica finds herself feigning sadness in order to fill the silences that fleck their conversations. Sure, I wrote male protagonists too, but I never thought of crossing the gender divide as anything of a feat. Out of all the absurdity of my characters, the fact that they were women was hardly the tenth weirdest thing. Besides, women are all around. What I lacked in chromosomal information, I could make up for in imagination.
And then there was another thing, something which I myself failed to notice for a long time. As fantastical and implausible as my women may have been, my male protagonists were ordinary and external. They functioned as great portals into understanding the world around them, but fell flat when it came to inner drama. On the other hand, my female protagonists almost existed in spite of the surrounding world. Their conflicts were mostly personal and subtle, complex networks of thoughts and attitudes independent of place and time. Perhaps that’s why they always turned out so hyperbolic; they paid little attention to the world that kept them in check.
In attempt to pinpoint what it is about women that keeps me writing them, I’m immediately caught up in what it is not: it is not a social statement. This isn’t about glorifying women, empowering women, mocking women, or searching for some fundamental essence of woman. For every strong-willed female character I have at least one who’s fragile—less by principle than happenstance—and rather than writing the maternal, sexual, womanly woman, I find myself compelled to write the bad mother, the unsympathetic wife, the content but uglying fifty-something. In some way, the women I write betray the idea of women. But not in a masculine way—just enough to convolute any recurring themes and to cloud the reasons I return to them. Maybe I subconsciously want to be a woman, but if I do, it would have to be very well concealed, and I’m hesitant to say that for more reasons than one. Simply put, I wouldn’t want to be any of my characters. I put them through hell. I drag them through the mud and I stick them in two-family houses and when I deem it necessary, I kill off some of their relatives. These are not women to envy: they’re women with gingivitis and bratty children.
And writing is more than simple embodiment. It’s a process that sits somewhere between impersonation and voyeurism, an exercise in brain-swapping coupled with the misplaced joy of making decisions inside a body so different from your own. But alongside such intimacy is a feeling of removal that propels it all—the feeling of playing God to passive figures. It’s this distance that makes the writing process so enjoyable, what grants me laughter in the face of my characters’ plights. It’s a process not unlike looking through both ends of binoculars at once—to be both near and far from someone, inside and out, both an agent and a spectator in the most impossible, self-indulgent of ways.
So, I’m something of a mental drag queen. As a nineteen-year old kid, this is hard to face. I can’t help that I like spending hours dreaming up such wild, caricaturized, tempestuous females, but I do. And I live for the moments when I can hold pages and pages of records of their fictional journeys. It’s the stuff of daydreams: what I think about when I’m by myself or talking to a person less interesting than the lady in my head. It’s not a choice, not a phase, and not the kind of thing I readily admit. But if I ever want to be a serious writer, I have to. I have to hope that someday, a slurry of anonymous readers will have tickets to my mental drag show. That’s the dream and the fear and the anxiety. So word by word, plotline by plotline, in spite of myself, because of myself, I out myself.
My mother and I have a small tradition that every time I finish writing a story, I print out a copy and stick it to the refrigerator for her to find. I tend to finish stories late at night, so I by the time a draft is done she’s already sleeping. Usually after that I retreat back to my bedroom and sit, imagining (impossibly) that she has found the story at once and has now begun to read it. The thought makes me sink onto my bed and squeeze my eyes shut and curl into a ball, as if I’ve been caught sneaking out of the house in my sister’s yoga pants. Because that’s exactly how it feels: like I willingly left Polaroids of myself onstage at a drag convention in a wig and a bra and turquoise eyeliner and left it on my mother’s pillow to find. Evidence of the twisted burlesque that has been playing in her son’s mind for the last month and a half. The performance she missed while sleeping. And now that it’s the next morning and I wake up with smudges of makeup on my face and only vague recollection what happened, I feel a sense of shame and regret that sends me crawling back to my mother for approval.
With some self-prompting, I build the strength to descend the stairs and eat a meal. The microwave is about all the home-cooking I feel up for, so I fix myself a bowl of oatmeal. It’s effortless, in a nurturing way, and it doesn’t ask questions. I eat it with almond milk, which is in the fridge, and when I open the door I notice my story has been swiped from the magnet which held it. There’s no note in its place. There never is. I stick my bowl of milky oats in the microwave and hope.
As I watch my breakfast rotate and bubble, I hear footsteps from the hallway. Little scuds of slippers on hardwood. She’s wearing a worn Club Med sweatshirt and no bra, which gives me the feeling she wasn’t expecting to see me up so early. That, and she’s holding the draft I left her.
“I read your story,” she says.
“Oh. Thanks.” (I’m about to ask how she liked it, but I reconsider.)
“It’s hard to believe that you wrote this.”
“Thanks?” I raise my eyebrow.
“You have a very good sense of women. I don’t know where you get that from.”
I shrug and rubbing my eyes, half-expecting to find black makeup on the side of my finger.
Just then the microwave beeps at me. I open the door to find my oatmeal has overflowed over the sides of the bowl, leaving drips too hot to touch on the sides, and a gooey ring on the in the microwave. I take a paper towel and clean it off, hoping to end the conversation with my slowly-waking mother. But she continues.
“Maybe it’s because I raised you on my own.”
“Maybe it’s because most of your friends were girls in high school.”
I wince. I grab the cooling, oat-covered cup and place it on the counter. I feel embarrassed for myself. She’s right, but I always hoped this detail would escape her notice.
She laughs. “Maybe it’s because you used to play with Barbies in the bathtub with your sister.”
At this point, I’m mortified. This is how I’ve made her understand my childhood: that boy who did freakishly girly things from a young age. I might as well have shopped at Limited Too and wore butterfly clips in my hair—it wouldn’t have made a difference. I look to the paper towel full of oatmeal spillover for a response, for advice. It offers none.
“I doubt it,” I say, as if it’s completely absurd to reach into memories that far in the past. But maybe, by then, it was already too late.
Here’s something I’m reluctant to share about myself. There’s a home video of myself as a toddler—no more than eighteen months—walking down the main hallway of my house wearing my mother’s black clogs. It was not a happy moment. I would stick my little feet into her shoes, and as soon as I was convinced I was wearing them, I’d take a step, only to walk right out of the shoes and cry. I did this again and again and again, determined to walk the hallway in my mother’s shoes, but just as I was about to take that satisfying step and hear that alluring click of heel on hardwood, my foot would slip out, and I’d sob, only to try again. It was my childish, Sisyphean drag-story: the joy of realizing my young ambition to be a real, walking woman, and the cold reminder of my foot on the floor that I would constantly live on the brink.
My mother videotapes me for about ten minutes, until eventually I get red-faced, give up, and walk away from the shoes, never again to try them on. Though quite a few years passed between abandoning the clogs and first picking up a pen, the beginning of one stemmed from the end of another. I learned early that no matter how well I made myself up as a woman, I could never find the authenticity I craved. I could dress in drag and glue on fake eyelashes, but it wouldn’t teach me anything except what it felt like to have fabric press against my more sensitive parts and plastic stuck to my eyelids. So instead, I retreated to my mind, a less tedious, but infinitely more possible space. There, if I thought hard enough, I could be any sort of person I liked, gender notwithstanding. No one could tell me I had no business in the life of a soon-to-retire suburban housewife, and more excitingly, I document it all for public eyes. It was easy and cheap and hypothetical. So day after day, I face the blank page on my computer monitor, and I fill it with the sounds of heels, clicking as they walk along the hallway.