06 September 2008

Boy to Man, Man to Woman, Woman to Man, Woman to Woman

Hanna brought us buckets and buckets of rain today. At times, you could just barely see ahead of you because the rain was so dense. But it wasn't as windy as the forecasters expected; it seems that, as miserable as the weather has been here, the storm actually dissipated most of its power after leaving Haiti.

This afternoon, during a seeming lull in the rain, I took a walk down the couple of blocks to the bridge that connects this neighborhood with Roosevelt Island. That bridge looks like two birds some kids built with their Erector sets (I had one of those when I was a kid: The irony is almost too thick!) and painted by whoever painted the Golden Gate Bridge, after they got misanthropic and drunk in their old age (or drunk on the misanthropy of their old age). Therein lies the charm of the structure.

That, and the fact that it spans the so-called East River. I say so-called because it's really an inlet of the ocean. Why does that matter? Well, sometimes, when you cross over the bridge, the water under you seems to be running south (downtown to us New Yorkers) toward the Brooklyn Bridge, the tip of Manhattan and the Upper New York Bay. But, at other times, it's surging in the opposite direction: toward the Triboro Bridge, the Bronx and Long Island Sound. In other words, it's not a river current, it's a tide from the ocean.

Anyway, one of the things I like about the bridge is that, well, it's a part of this place. And it connects this place to Roosevelt Island, which might well be the oddest part of New York. One can't walk, pedal or drive to Manhattan from it, although it's just as close to the island as my neighborhood in Queens is. And the people who live there are not like other New Yorkers. In fact, most of them are not New Yorkers at all, literally and spiritually. Many work for the UN or other international organizations and come from just about every country you can think of. But they are different from other immigrants because they neither live in enclaves with people who share their native culture (as immigrants do in other parts of the city) nor are assimilated as New Yorkers. They are possibly, at once, the most urbane and the most xenophobic of all New York City residents.

Anyway, I sometimes go there on Saturday mornings for the farmer's market. However, I woke up late today, and by the time I got there this afternoon, it was gone. Or maybe they didn't hold it today. But at least the post office, which stays open until 4 pm on Saturdays, was available. So I went in to mail a package.

It's a bit like a small-town post office: The employees seem to know everyone on the island. They also know, or at least recognize me, for I've gone there a number of times. They're among the friendlier postal employees I've encountered.

Today Mora, born in this city of Puerto Rican parents, helped me. It was a slow day, so we chatted a bit as she weighed and stamped my package. As so often happens in conversations, one topic led to another and she was telling me about the physical abuse she suffered from her first husband.

"How are you doing now?"

"Better. That was a long time ago. But it took a long time for me to do anything about it. "

"You felt guilty?"

She nodded. "He said he loved me. I thought that's how he expressed his love. But it got really bad..."

"Until you realized that someone who loves you wouldn't do anything like that."

Another nod. "That's what my friends, my mother, my therapist told me. But it took me a long time to pay attention."

"Well, you did, and here you are."

"I cried a lot."

"That's how we work through those things."

Her eyes lit up. "Yeah! Men just hold things in until they explode. Or they tell you everything's OK until they beat you. We let it out."

"We don't have a choice, really."

She looked at me, seeming to agree without knowing why. Or perhaps she knew exactly why, or didn't need to know why--or simply to explain, which many people, particularly in the academic world, confuse with understanding. We both knew exactly what she was talking about, even though I came to that knowledge in a way that was probably very different from hers.

It seems that the longer I live as a woman--and now, the closer I come to my surgery--the more I find myself in unsolicited sessions like the one I had today. Before my transition, a few women told me of abuse, rape or other forms of violence from the men or boys in their lives. Two girlfriends--including my last--related stories of incest. Four others, of rape. And all except one told me they'd been beaten or otherwise abused by men or boys they knew before me.

Even as angry as I was in those days, they told me their stories--or something of them, anyway. And a few other women related such experiences to me. I don't know whether they would've told anyone who was in my place or they simply saw me as a male who could, at least to some degree, empathise. Actually, I was relating to their anger through my own, and turning those experiences into yet more rationale for my rage.

But now I seem to have more of these conversations, and somehow I feel as the women who tell me such stories are relating them to me as a peer. I guess I first noticed this when, just days apart, Sonia, Millie and my mother rued, to one degree or another, the lives they've led. Sonia said the two things that disappointed her were her marriage and daughter; Millie said she married a good man but wouldn't do it again; Mom says she might get married but she would definitely still have kids, though fewer of them (She had four.) at a later age than she did.

Of course, they all know about my transition. But I don't think Mora does. And I'm not sure about the other women whose stories I've heard. Whatever they know or think, I do feel for them, and can understand how they feel. Whatever the pain, we experience--and respond to--it in similar ways now, I think.

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