25 October 2008

Neither Stranger Nor Native in the Nail Salon

These days, when I get my hair or nails done, or see women with toddlers or babies, I recall--oddly enough--an experience Jacobo Timerman described in Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

Timerman is an Argentinian Jewish writer who was imprisoned and later exiled for his criticism of the Peron regime, particulary its anti-Semitism. After years of incarceration and torture, he was stripped of his Argentinian citizenship and exiled to Israel.

Although he never denied his heritage, he was not a religious Jew. This meant that he went to shul on holidays, if ever, and that he never learned Hebrew--not even the prayers. So, when he was sent to Israel, he entered something that was the inverse of being an exile: He was in a country to which he felt, via his fellow Jews in Israel, an attachment if not a bond.

Nonetheless, it was difficult to make the transition to living there. Learning, in his late fifties, a language that bears no relation to the Spanish he had been speaking all of his life was no easy task. Nor was adjusting to the rhthyms and customs of his new/old (or old/new) country.

But it wasn't just a matter of dealing with logistics or relationships. The very light of the place itself was something to which he was not accustomed:

The balcony of my house in a suburb of Tel Aviv faces the Mediterranean. It is large, almost the size of a room, and my wife has filled it with flowers, plants and Max Ernst posters. Facing my balcony, the scarlet sun is sinking over a sea that's too blue for my eyes, which are accustomed to the southern Atlantic. It hasn't rained in Tel Aviv for nine months , and the ceremony of the sun blazing over the sea is repeated daily.

The first time I read that passage, at least twenty-five years ago, I cried. And I am now. Even in the translation I've quoted, it's possible to see how beautifully it was written. But, then, I felt somehow that Timerman, whose life has had almost nothing in common with mine, was describing not just my life, but my relationship to the world. Why I felt that way would not become clear to me until I first began living as Justine.

In some way I had always felt like an exile, no matter where I was or whom I was with. That is probably the reason why I have always identified with people who were displaced, for whatever reasons. Of all the stories in the Bible, the one that always resonated most for me was the exile of the Jews from Egypt and their wandering the desert for forty years. After that, no place where the Jews lived could ever be home: There was always the possiblity, at any moment, of being forced to leave. And they couldn't go home, so to speak.

And so it was with my gender identity. The body I inhabited always felt like a place of exile. So did locker-rooms and all of those other places where I had to congregate with males, particulary those sanctoned by their schools, workplaces and such. I could speak their language, at least after a fashion. And I knew how to dress, act and talk the part, if you will.

Now my body is turning into a version or variant of the one to which had been stored up in my spirit, my subconscious, or any other place I would visit, out of necessity, every chance I got. And I find myself in spheres to which I always belonged, at least in spirit: the ones in which women congregate. They include, of course, nail and hair salons.

I am still learning the unwritten codes of behaving and relating in those places. It seems more acceptable to talk with, and be talked to, by strangers than in most other arenae. You should also make eye contact, but not too much. People have always told me that I make a lot of eye contact; I've even spooked (unintentionally, of course) a few people with it. And more than a few people have told me that I have an "intense" or "intensive" look, although these days I hear things like "intensely sensitive."

The thing is, I've always looked at people, whether out of caution or curiosity. Even when I was living as Nick, women seemed to sense that I wasn't looking at them out of sexual impulses (at least, not most of the time, anyway). And I could compliment what they wore, or even the beauty of their eyes, and only rarely did anyone take it as anything more than that. Now, if you're a guy and you tell another guy that you like his tie, well, that's another story!

In places like nail salons and hair places, that sort of interaction almost seems mandatory, or at least expected. It may have something to do with the hair dressers and nail polishers (What do you call them, anyway?) themselves: They seem more communicative than the barbers I used to see--more like bartenders, really. And I think this sets a tone for those places.

It seems that even the light is different in those places than it is in the barbershops I used. Of course, some of that has to do with the decor: You are more likely to be swathed, at least psychologically, in shades of peach, pink, lavender(!), soft yellows or sepia than to be surrounded by the more industrial shades found in many barbershops. But more important, the light seems more diffuse yet more true (if not surgically accurate) than what one sees by in a barbershop. It's odd: The light seems softer in spite of the abundance of mirrors one finds in nail or hair salons, at least the ones I use.

It's not only that one finds more mirrors in these places: They always seem to be positioned in such a way that whoever's getting her hair or nails done next to, or across the aisle, from you is within reach, even though you can't move. I find myself having "conversations" through facial expressions and eye movements: something I don't recall experiencing in men's barber shops or any other male venue. I'm probably still not very good at it, but I enjoy it somehow: It's more or less the way I felt when I was first learning French and stumbling all over it.

One thing I must say, though, is that women who are complete strangers--some of whom surely know that I'm transgendered--have made me feel very welcome. I think in particular of Mimi, an Italian-American woman who's probably about ten years older than I am and is truly stylish rather than merely fashionable because she is who she is. (I think this is also the first time I've actually talked with someone named Mimi.) She is so warm and friendly that I don't think I could have not talked to her, even if I'd tried. Which, of course, I wouldn't have.

Perhaps I was not born to that world, as Mimi and the other women were. But, perhaps they sense that I am of it. I think now of what Isabelle used to say about my: that I was French a couer, at heart, because even though I am American and will never speak quite like a native, I was at ease with Frenchness as I was with my native culture--possibly more at ease, at least for a time in my life.

But still, I wonder: How is it possible to feel that you're exactly where you belong even though you're struggling to learn about it? Not that it's a bad position, it's just odd.

In other words, I love the world in which I'm living now. But I'm still getting used to it.