Image by Khanya, The Designer
Winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2018 Life Writing Category
‘What’s that?’ The security guard at St Pancras gestures to the unidentified lump flagging up on the monitor.
‘I’m a transsexual. I wear a binder.’ He looks annoyed. I try again. It’s 5am and words are not coming easily. ‘It’s a binder. I’m a transsexual and I haven’t had surgery so it keeps me, um, flat.’ His face scrunches up with what I think is disdain.
‘It’s a Velcro vest.’ This is the explanation that finally satisfies him. He pats me down and it feels like he’s groping my chest far beyond the demands of station security, but I can’t be sure.
Wired on coffee and too cramped to sleep, I stare out of the train window watching the light change from early morning winter darkness, to dawn sunlight, to the eventual black of the tunnel. Entering the grey compound of the Calais’ border, with its razor wire fences, I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness — you can feel the violence inflicted on those seeking refuge, the hatred from which these fences bloom. Being over-zealously frisked now and again is really nothing compared to this.
I’m on my way to Ostend, a small Belgian city by the sea. I’m going there to write, away from the chaos of my life in London. I’d never heard of Ostend until a month ago, when a random Internet search for cheap places to stay in Europe threw it out as a suggestion. I figured that as it’s a small place, not notorious for stuff to do, I would have little to distract me. And I have always been hungry for the sea.
Ostend is cold and grey, but there are the bars and seagulls and harbour lights and the ocean, lifting the city. On the second day, I receive a message on Whatsapp: How’s the writing is going?
I want to throw my phone into the ocean.
I go to a bar where they play vintage soul and Marvin Gaye’s picture is on the wall looking over us. I learn he lived here for several years in the 80s, when trying to kick his coke habit and recover from depression. It’s where he wrote Sexual Healing. I didn’t come here to heal, didn’t think I needed to. I came here to be productive, I haven’t been. I leave the bar and head to the Christmas Market where I stand drinking Amoretto and rum, watching people in groups talking, feeling like a ghost.
I’ve been forgetting my own name a lot recently. I mean, not properly, but I’ll be thinking about myself in the third person and mentally go to say my old name and ‘she’ rather than ‘Len’ and ‘he’. It scares me. I fear early onset dementia. What if I forget I’m trans? I remember doing a reading once and a woman came up to me after to tell me about the work she was doing in dementia wards. She tells me she sees a lot of trans people who ‘forget they’ve transed’. In the flat I am renting I watch an entire series of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and so much porn.
How’s the writing going? I want to set fire to my phone.
On either side of the pier, sand dippers flock to the rocks in great numbers then jump off to perform an aerial ballet, so perfectly choreographed it would take flying human dancers a lifetime to reproduce. I take picture after picture with my phone. As I watch the birds, I think how the more I transition into male the more I am confronted with her, the person I used to be. It freaks me out. I want to run from these thoughts, push them away. Maybe my problem is I split things off too much. After all, we are one and the same person. The pictures all come out as brown blobs.
I find a hot gay trans porn star on Instagram through another hot gay trans porn star on Instagram. I watch videos of this guy fucking and being fucked by cis men. I can appreciate the beauty of these guys but it doesn’t do it for me. I only like really awful, heteronormative porn in which no one looks like they are having a good time and I am not represented. In my twenties, I would fuck anyone. The truth is I didn’t really want to about 90% of the time. I just wanted to be fun and pleasing. Really, I was sad. The times I did get off were usually with old men who groped me in dark rooms, never people I actually cared about. I liked being used by them, the sense of doing something illicit, of having something illicit done to me. I knew I wouldn’t have to see them again, or worry about their feelings, there was something so free in that, so hot. A cis guy eats out the trans guy, all the time looking bored. Another cis guy does it, gets really into it. I don’t get turned on, but I do feel validated. Who watches porn to feel validated?
How’s the writing going?
I mean it’s not, technically but it’s good to get some
Oh, well, still time to get
some done I guess!
I dream of throwing my phone out of the window, watching it hit the street below and shattering into a million pieces.
Before I was on testosterone, before the world saw me as male, most people called me ‘she’ all the time, no matter how much I asked them not to, but I knew who I was. I’ve never thought of myself as anything other than male for the last ten years. It was they who had the problem. Seems like now I’m doing their job for them — passing gives me the feeling I’m faking it. Passing is conditional on them not knowing I’m trans. If I tell them, they will stop seeing me as a man. It happens with some cis people I know now; even though I pass as male completely they cannot bare to call me ‘he’. They knew me before I passed, and all they can think of is my vagina.
What does the accidental mental uttering of my former name signify? Of ‘she’ not ‘he’? If I’m meant to be Len how could this be happening? Does it mean the me before is the real me, and I’ve been lying to myself? It’s all over the Internet now, even the papers members of my family read: we’re a cult, we’re liars, mentally ill. I mean, I am mentally ill, but who isn’t? What if we are a cult? What if Len is just an illusion because it’s easier to live as a man than a gender non-conforming woman? What if—
Returning to the pier I get a terrifying feeling of unreality, layers of myself unravelling, and I begin to think this trip was a mistake. Alone for a week with my neuroses, what was I thinking? Didn’t I know it would spiral? It’s happened before. The thoughts were a different shape but I recognise the feeling. It’s landed me in hospital, but I thought that was over a long time ago. I’d been feeling so much better.
I am disconnected from my body. What the fuck have I done? I burn my tongue with coffee, can’t wait till it cools to drink it, need to stay occupied. This time it’s windy on the pier and the sea is rough. The sand dippers have abandoned their perches and high waves crash on either side. Water from the splash back hits me. I keep my legs bent to root myself, focus on some graffiti at the end. Keep moving forward until the foot high writing becomes legible: RIP LIL PEEP. I take a picture and post it to Instagram along with everything else I’ve seen and my own face. I feel the stubble on my chin, the hairs I’ve come to love. What if I’ve ruined myself? What if my face was better before? I practically crawl back to the beach.
I watch the first episode of Blue Planet II again, the one with the trans fish. The Asian Sheepshead Wrasse is so ugly and weird-looking, it’s beautiful. It’s FtM, like me, except more violent, and I’m obsessed with it. My friend and I have this joke about the fish and its toxic masculinity. Whether it’s wringing its fins over its newfound male privilege, whether it gets called out by the other fish for taking up too much space in the ocean. I wonder if the fish lives stealth or if the whole school knows it’s trans, if its parents refuse to acknowledge its change of gender, if it sometimes gets plagued by imposter syndrome, worries it’s living a lie, sometimes feels lesser to fish that were born male. Probably not, it’s a fish. But it makes me feel less alone.
My parents call. They’ve just come back from Mexico and have forgotten I’m in Belgium. ‘This will be costing you a fortune,’ I tell my mum, but it’s not like we ever talk for more than five minutes. When the time comes for the phone to be passed to my dad, I feel like he’s talking in code. ‘Things are very strange’, ‘People are very strange’, ‘I used to think I knew everything but it’s amazing how little I know.’ We’ve never talk about it. Too excruciating, for me as much as for them, maybe even more. I have no idea how they feel. In my infrequent visits home I just turn up with an altered face and a deeper voice. Dad tells me one of the only words he can remember in Spanish is ‘Embarazada’ which means pregnant.
‘Well, that’s very useful,’ I reply, deadpan.
‘Well, it’s only useful if you’re female.’ A silence passes between us. ‘I won’t go there.’
When I asked for testosterone, I wasn’t sure, though I did not let on at the clinic. Two years later, when I was finally actually prescribed the stuff, I still wasn’t sure. Again, I did not let on. Unlike every other massive, life-changing decision, they want you to be 100% sure about this. Is there such a thing as 100% sure? I stopped and started many times, particularly in the first year, fearing I would become estranged from myself. I had a moment about a year in when I looked in the mirror and first saw a face like a ‘normal dude’ staring back at me and it scared the shit out of me.
It’s funny though, people think the medical gatekeepers are there to save us from doing something we regret. I probably would have taken T a lot later, maybe even held off taking it forever, had I not had to wait two years to get it. The thought of declining it then deciding that in a year it was definitely what I wanted to do, only to wait another two years to be prescribed it was really more than my impulsive nature could bear, so I thought, fuck it. Life is short. And the times I went off it, when I started being read as a woman again, I couldn’t cope. Should it matter how a bunch of strangers see you? Since starting T I’ve been learning to play the violin. I play it badly, but that’s beside the point. I think about the point of tension on the bow, on the strings, what a delicate balancing act it all is. I am trying to make a clumsy metaphor for my experience of transition, the points of tension in my body, in my brain, between myself and others. I love the sense of masculinity testosterone has given me, even with the increased grumpiness and the fact that I sometimes feel about 30% stupider. I can’t really say why I’ve been struggling lately, or why it dissipates. It’s like waves. I mean I’m sure they know the reason waves rise and fall, but I’m just happy to watch them. By the sea, near the public art that looks like giant orange shopping bags, is a statue of a depressed sailor boy, head bowed, contemplating his demons and it makes me happy, I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit. I go down to the beach for a final time. Feel invisible again, walking the beach alone, watching dogs and waves. I step into a patch of sand where a spot of sunlight lands through the clouds, momentarily warm. I have always been hungry for the sea. There’s something about the swell of the waves and the smell of salt, something so vast, coursing with colour and strange, undiscovered life. Potential.
Whilst transcribing these fragments of diary, I read Chase Joynt and Mike Holboom’s memoir-in-correspondence You Only Live Twice, in which Chase describes his experience of transition. In this strange and beautiful archive of friendship, Chase at one point interrogates the idea that trans narratives should be about reaching some perfect end goal, when one is —to use a bullshit phrase— ‘complete’:
‘What if it was not a requirement of public transition to be satisfied or excited? What if the only reliable narrative reprieve is one where the endpoint continually shifts and changes?’
What if you dive in and never reach a destination? Just float. What is absolute fulfillment if not some kind of death? I’m back in London now in my cramped bedroom that still looks and smells like a teenage boy’s even though I’m in my mid-thirties, about to go to work, where I am stealth: something I never thought I’d be, but I can’t be bothered explaining myself anymore. I know so many of my siblings do not have this luxury. I slather testosterone gel on my shoulders and thighs, hide from my housemate because I’m still too groggy-eyed and sleepy to have a conversation. I hear the noises of London with its cars and helicopters and sirens, but the sea feels like it’s just outside my window.
Len Lukowski is a writer and performer living in South East London. His work has been published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Cardiff Review, Live Canon, The Ofi Press and LossLit. He came 3rd in the 2018 York Literature Festival / YorkMix poetry competition. He is a former Flight 1000 Associate at Spread the Word. He has played in lots of bands and likes queer punk, dogs and violins.