The Woman Costume

Written by, Alexis Candelaria

Gisela Young hates parks, especially the one situated in the middle of her hometown. It has sprawling green grass, two playgrounds for children, lush cedar trees that provide ample shade, and even a public swimming pool in the center. But she hates parks, and when she happens to be in her hometown, which is a rare occasion on its own, she averts her eyes when she drives past and looks straight on.

She was seventeen years old when she began dating Ryan Crys, who was also seventeen. It was 1999, and social mores dictated monogamy for all high school relationships and there’s was no different. They held hands, he walked her to every class, and they made out on park benches. In 1999, the teen dating culture could be best characterized by the color beige. Boys called girls on the phone. Girls wore skirts and glittery make up on dates with the boys who called. Boys kissed first and girls only kissed back after the second date.

No one discussed power dynamics in relationships or how they could be unbalanced from the start.

They met in senior English class, he sat in the front of a row and she sat at the end; he was failing the course and she was passing; he didn’t care about college, while she dreamed of becoming a journalist. He had a dry charm, one she found odd but still captivating, and he often tried to make her laugh with self effacing jokes about how much of the literature went over his head. He called himself stupid but assured that he was okay with this. He didn’t care. That was the thing in the 90s, not caring. She listened to him, quietly realizing that he did care, in fact, he cared very much. But he was tired of feeling stupid and inadequate. In fact, he didn’t know how NOT to feel this way. She thought that perhaps he felt trapped, and she could relate to this when very few could.

Before they went on their first date, instead of obsessing over the precise application of make up, Gisela, instead struggled with her daily injection of Testosterone. She was nervous, having avoided dating in the past, and she couldn’t keep her hands from trembling. She called her mom to help, which she did. Gisela could’ve asked her mother for guidance-should she tell him? How should she tell him? Should she wait until she’s sure they are a serious couple? In 1999, there was very little information available to consume on the transgender experience, and everything Gisela found on the internet spoke to the disproportionate violence this group was often subject to. She’d read about the beatings, the murders, the brutality made her shiver and her heart pound. So she stopped reading about it on the internet. That left her parents and her doctors, both members of a generation that struggled to reconcile with the mere concept of being transgender. Gender dysmorphia, they called it.

But Gisela knew, she’d always known. And she was patient with others as they struggled to catch up.

Gisela Young left her hometown the minute she received her high school diploma and headed off to a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. She hates the weather and how people scoffed at her when she wore a jacket anytime it dipped under 60 degrees, but she was glad to put a country between she and her hometown. Even as an adult, now, a successful journalist working in Rhode Island, she only returns to visit her parents and on occasion, her siblings. She’s missed so many birthdays, Christmases, births of nieces and nephews, that over the years she’s become more of a stranger to her family. The more she thinks about it, she’s become more of a stranger to herself. When she first left for college she made a silent oath to herself: I am never coming back. And in some ways, Gisela Young hasn’t returned, she’s broken off parts of herself, replaced them with new, and there are some parts that having simply fallen apart, away from her self, like part of a cliff silently descending into the sea. Washing away, leaving a void, that will never be filled.

God, Gisela thought Ryan Crys was so handsome. He had a perfectly sculpted brow line and large brown eyes that seemed to kiss his perfect nose. His mouth was classically beautiful, symmetrical and delicate. As handsome as he was, he never dated anyone until he met Gisela. He had one other good friend at school and played on the basketball team. Over the years, details faded from importance, red flags went unnoticed by Gisela. She instead remembered the way he combed his black hair away from his face and leaned in while talking to her. Gisela couldn’t understand why Ryan Crys would want to date her. Years of hormone therapy gave her the feminine curves she desired, but she craved abundance and was disappointed when she cupped her own breast and they just barely filled her hands. There was nothing classically beautiful about her; her cheekbones couldn’t cut diamonds, her eyes weren’t in the shape of almonds, and her nose wasn’t narrow or upturned at any specific angle. When Gisela began to transition, people called her ugly and while in middle school she regularly fielded cruel questions from her classmates on whether she was a girl or a boy. They had no idea she was just in her chrysalis stage and would emerge in a few years to proudly declare that she was, indeed, a girl.

A woman, in fact.

When Gisela was in college and doing her senior thesis on domestic abuse, she’d come across a line in an interview from a man convicted of assaulting his wife, on numerous occasions and showed no remorse about the pain he inflicted on her over the years of abuse. He said he knew he could do anything he wanted to her. When the interviewer asked when he realized this, the man responded with saying, that the moment he saw his wife, he knew. I could see it in her face, from across the room, he said. He could see it in her face. Maybe that’s what Ryan saw in Gisela-this vulnerability, this unnamed pain. Maybe she too was carrying it around with her, and it was like a beacon to some.

It was in the Spring of 2000, when Gisela found herself in one of those fast fashion boutiques, where the items are haphazardly placed on plastic mannequins without heads, just a torso and legs. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for but she swiftly pushed aside a number of spandex tops and polyester tube tops until she found it: A perfectly pink top cut low and featured delicate peonies. She’d never worn anything cut so low, but she could feel an ineffable pressure mounting inside of her. It was taking up space inside of her body and weighing her down and if she could reach inside to pull it out, it would be in the shape of a mountainous boulder, edges sharp with spite. What did it mean to be a teenage girl? Did it mean tube tops and Jean dresses? The woman costume, she called it. Was this the archetype for which she should emulate? Every cue in her world seemed to confirm this, from the models in the magazines, the characters in the books she read, and in the movies she watched. If this is what it meant to be a teenage girl, she’d wear the spandex tops and spaghetti straps, she’d show her belly button and draw attention to her breasts. And then the pressure would melt away.

She wore the pink peony top to school and Ryan asked her if she wanted to go to the park after school. She blushed, they’d only ever gone to the park to make out. There’s was an exceptionally virginal relationship; they held hands and made out after school and Gisela thought they both seemed content, satisfied with this. Ryan dictated the pace of the relationship and he didn’t express overt sexual longing or desires. This was partially because Ryan didn’t express much at all. Seventeen year old Gisela didn’t think he was unkind, but she did quickly realize he was reticent. Communication wasn’t his strength and he wasn’t interested in fixing it. In the Spring of 2000, Ryan Crys was still failing Senior English.

When her father passed away five years ago, Gisela felt as though she were being stabbed by a million tiny pins as she landed at LAX. She knew those pins well, they were fear, even if it existed as a physical manifestation outside her body, she still knew it was fear. Tiny pinpricks of fear assailed her every time she came home. She knew she should feel sadness, and indeed she was rocked by the loss of her father. But there was an eerie disconnection between how she thought she should feel and how she actually felt. The sadness existed in her head, the fear lived on her skin, but inside she was hollow and numb, like a deep well. Throw a stone and you may not hear it hit the bottom. The funeral was near the park and it was unavoidable-she’d have to look at it. She’d have to remember everything. Even as her younger sister embraced her and thanked her for making it, Gisela could only feel the million tiny pins in her skin. She knew, she should be grieving the loss of her father, just like everyone else around her. Her mother was a mess and her siblings huddled around her, embracing her, kissing her cheek, while Gisela sat numb. The tiny pinpricks had vanished and she was left sitting empty. She watched everyone grieve, and cry, and say things like He’s in a Better Place, and she sat there in the pew of the church wondering when it was her time to feel anything. Pinpricks aside, Gisela had stopped feeling emotion long ago, she couldn’t be sure when but she knew it was a gradual loss. Looking up at the large crucifix, she silently prayed to feel. Just to feel.

But in the spring of 2000, she told herself not to feel, not to think as Ryan slipped his hand under her blouse that afternoon in the park. Without warning, he sat her down on a cold bench and exposed her, pulling down the peony top. She told herself it was okay, he’d be done with whatever he was doing soon and he’d be happy with her. This must be what power feels like. Gisela thought, I must be powerful now because after this. Ryan will be different, sure. And he’ll talk more and stop allowing hours long of silence to pass over them on the phone. Maybe he’ll introduce her to his parents or his friends and maybe he’ll want to know about her. There was so much to know. Did he know she wanted to be a journalist? That’s all she’d ever wanted in life. She could tell him about her book collection or her affinity for Broadway musicals. The ukulele she taught herself to play only to be able to play En Vie en Rose. She could tell him all these things. And eventually, one day, after they’ve told each other everything, she’d tell him the one thing she hides from everyone. She’ll tell him why members of family calls her a freak. She won’t provide too much detail, because it’ll scare him off, but he’ll get the gist. He’ll know about the fall out and family schism and how she often feels as though she is still being punished to this day.

She’d quickly realized who actually wielded the power in their relationship when he stopped asking if she wanted to go to the park, and instead took her there. Just thinking about his hands on her, made her recoil in shame. This wasn’t supposed to happen, she wanted to claim power, not relinquish more of it. It didn’t matter that she wore a pink peony top, at least she was mostly sure of that, she didn’t want to feel this unrelenting shame when she thought about the secret things they did in the park after school. Ryan never said a word about why he was doing this or if she was comfortable, and if anything, his silence grew bolder. Ryan didn’t stop at her blouse, and the first time he put his fingers inside of her, she wondered if her vagina felt different to him. Her nascent body, with its secrets that she was still learning, sometimes terrified her. Sometimes she wanted him to stop, Ryan lacked finesse and was too blunt with his fingers. He never stopped and Gisela would learn later on in life that they never do.

Spring passed and Ryan graduated from high school, having earned a D in senior English and barely satisfying enough credits for his diploma. Summer came and went, and Gisela started her junior year with Ryan as her boyfriend. Now an adult, Ryan enrolled himself in community college but dropped out after a semester. Those conversations that Gisela hoped for, the connection she longed for, never came. Ryan allowed the silence to grow, and fester.

The silence that Ryan shrouded himself in served to protect, she thought, and inadvertently frustrate him. Gisela believed he wanted to communicate, he wanted to connect with those around him, especially her. But it was as though there was a fail switch that activated whenever he tried. His face would darken and instead, he’d say nothing at all, in spite of himself. She believed this even after the first time he hit her. He slapped her so hard, she heard ringing in her ears for days. Gisela offered to help him get his grade up in their English class, which they needed to graduate. Ryan was failing and refused to read the novel, The Great Gatsby, the final novel of the year. Gisela tried to explain that the story wasn’t really about Gatsby, it was about Tom and how he was in love with him. Ryan shook his head and said it was boring and stupid. Gisela said off handedly that it didn’t matter what he thought of the book, he had no choice but to read it.

That’s all it took.

The first time.

Gisela doesn’t wonder where Ryan is now. She knows he got married shortly after they broke up during her freshman year in college. He married a girl right out of high school, barely eighteen. He has children of his own and lives somewhere in Missouri or Louisiana. Gisela doesn’t believe he ever thinks of her, because over the years, she’s realized that Ryan Crys never thinks about anything. He’s never second guessed or reevaluated anything he’s ever done in his entire life. When he was a child, his mother would defend him when he bit other children. She never made him apologize for anything in his life. His father, though, seeing the type of man his son was becoming, never laid off the belt-even when Ryans mother begged him to. In Ryan’s world view, his ethos if you will: What’s done is done.

Then the summer came and Gisela was slated to start her freshman year in college. This was the summer Ryan made her bleed and bruise. Even as she pushed away him away, squirmed beneath him, he refused to stop. She remembers coming home with blood that refused to stop streaming, as though it too were punishing her, and hiding it from her family. Her insides felt bruised and she could still feel his hands, fingers, clawing at her- his mouth searching for her. She wasn’t sure how’d she gotten here and why she still wore the woman costume for him-why she did anything for him when she felt so powerless afterwards. She was about to turn eighteen but a large part of her believed she was lucky Ryan was her boyfriend. No one else out there would want her, especially once they found out about her. A part of her was afraid to tell Ryan, she’d read stories of boyfriends murdering their girlfriends once they revealed to them that they were transgender. The courts ruled recently that a transgender under victim was actively deceiving her partner and thus, her killer’s sentenced was reduced. Oh, how that reflected the zeitgeist’s grim view on her own humanity. So! It didn’t matter that she bled, she could never escape it, as hard as she tried to hide it. No matter how thin she got or how low cut her tops were, the fear seeped through her, like an unforgiving stain.

Gisela Young opens her laptop in her office and starts checking her email. It’s mostly reminders for articles she’s working on, stories she’s putting together. It’s been over twenty years since she’s worn the woman costume and in that time, she’s defined, for herself, how she wants to present herself to the world. Turns out, she’s more of a slacks and silk blouse kind of woman. Yes, it’s been over twenty years since she last saw Ryan, that December in the park when she finally broke up with him. She didn’t want to feel afraid anymore. She didn’t have an epiphany and suddenly realize Ryan was abusive, no, that wouldn’t come for at least a decade. She’d come home for winter break and when she said she couldn’t be with him anymore, handed back his promise ring box and all, he looked away from her. She’d just turned 19 and she decided to tell him; she had nothing left to lose. She spoke slowly, softly, about how she was born Gabriel Young, an eight pound, seven ounce baby boy but for as long as she could remember, she was a girl. She detailed all of the therapy and eventually surgery she had growing up. She’d chosen the name Gisela after her grandmother. Ryan remain silent, inscrutably stoic. Then, he looked sad for just a minute, she saw his redolent eyes drop and dim, his mouth turn mirthless, and his entire body sloped, as though it had absorbed the weight of a mountainous boulder with spiteful, hateful edges.

When he looked back at her, the sadness had vanished, and fury flashed in his eyes before he punched her once in the face and once on the side of the head. She heard the punch before she felt it; loud. He didn’t say a word. He gathered up the ring and walked away from her. Gisela anticipated tears but they never came, instead she felt cold. It was cold out. Christmas was around the corner.

Gisela Young sips her coffee in her office and begins writing: When you don’t have people to turn to, you turn to stories. Her email notification beeps and she turns it off so she can keep writing. The silence is comforting and allows her thoughts to flow unbidden through her. She will write until the light fades outside and everyone has long gone home.

This May be in Your Inbox

Written by, Alexis Candelaria

This may be sitting in your inbox and you may remember me. In 2005, we had a January interim class together in college and started seeing each other. In June 2005, I was seventeen weeks pregnant when I had an abortion; you got me pregnant, I was barely twenty years old, a junior in college. You were twenty five, too old to be a senior and still living in the dorms.

I learned I was pregnant shortly after we stopped seeing each other and was immediately grappled with indecision, even if the only reasonable one available to me at that time was abortion, the prospect was terrifying. Paralyzing to point that it took me nearly four months to book the appointment. How does one ask for an abortion? How does one tell a disembodied voice over the phone that sure, you were twenty years old but no, you weren’t sure if your parents insurance covered the procedure and no, you hadn’t talked to anyone about this and no, you weren’t interested in talking to anyone now. And yes, you were coming in alone.

I couldn’t tell you then, we’d barely known each other. And, more importantly, we weren’t speaking because you’d stop returning my calls after that one night. You see, after that night, I was a tight coil of confusion as images from that night flickered dimly before me. Dull glimpses that evaporated too quickly, but re-emerged whenever I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. The acerbic, unclean smell could summon shuttered, stilted ghostly celluloid images for a heartbeat but never give me enough information, no solace, no understanding. No peace.

So I called and I texted and when I saw you on campus, you looked right through me before looking straight away. You always smelled of cigarette smoke and cheap bar soap, that I swear I could smell it even if you were across the street, across the campus. The haunting scent of a night where bruises bloomed on my body and unfamiliar voices crowded inside my head.

The decision not to tell you was solidified when one day, early into the pregnancy, I was going up the stairs to Founders hall thinking what it would be like to tell you and whether you’d be angry or simply dismissive, and down the stairs you came, with a pretty brunette hanging on your every word. She was petite and spoke with a twang I could hear even as she laughed. A chill I would only understand later, ran through me as I passed the young brunette with wide generous brown eyes. I should warn her. I should tell her. I should tell her about the pills and bruises and all of the alcohol and how I knew it tasted strange but doubted my own assessment and kept drinking it. I should warn her, pull her into my confidence to spare her the horror of making that call, of booking that appointment.

But I didn’t. I remember the barrage of facts that stood like sentries in my mind: I went to the party willingly. I purposely chose the semi sheer top that gathered at my waist and wore the tight jeans that fell just below my belly button. I accepted his drink and flirted with him until well after midnight, one am.

People would call me culpable. The police would question my story and I’d have to admit that I couldn’t remember what happened after that drink. I’d only learn years later, it is set up like that by design. Nothing is there to protect you, only question and eventually tear you down. It hates you. It wants to see you doubt yourself, your story, your pain. It hates you. They hate you.

I couldn’t warn her. I wasn’t sure, completely sure, what I’d warn her about.

So, I kept walking. Maybe I am culpable.

I knew then, without a shred of uncertainty, I was in this alone. I’m thirty seven years old now and I still think about the day, when my friend drove me to the planned parenthood and I sat alone and quiet until my name was called. It was a two day procedure and it was inescapably painful. I didn’t know it would feel like I was being pried open by an invisible force so intent on screaming pain into me, punishing me for being so weak, so naive, so incredibly stupid. Some women offered me water and to help me out to my car. There’s a kindness born out of collective suffering. When I got home, I felt lashed with taut, hot pain all night long. It grabbed hold of me and refused to let me go, to let me breathe, it refused to let me say I’m sorry. I wanted to implore into its ears, I’m just so incredibly sorry.

When I arrived back the next day, I was put under and when I came to, I was alone again, in a room of other women, who also looked totally and completely alone. There is no sisterhood on day two, we are encased in a silo of shame and unbidden trauma that is impenetrable; within a course of forty eight hours we’d become the unknowable pariahs of an unjust, unrelenting patriarchal society, carrying around an unforgivable secret, the mark of a woman who made the loneliest decision.

You know, there was a moment, on day one, when the doctor doing the sonogram asked me if I wanted to keep the baby. I baulked-baby? I never thought of it as a baby. It was a night I vaguely remember, where I drank beer from red plastic cups and I politely turned down a handful of pills but woke up anyway in your bed with bruises on my arms and a sore rib. I was angry the doctor called it a baby, they should’ve called it what it was, even if I didn’t have the courage to. Say it. You have to say it to make it real, to let them know. Let the word roil from your bowels and deafen the world with its arrival. You must make them know.

You should know this all really happened. No, no, not in a I Think this happened or I’m pretty sure this happened. This happened exactly as you’ve read it. This is probably sitting in your inbox, unread. Tick, tick, tick.

It’s not my responsibility to extrapolate meaning, if any, from this for you. I’ve relinquished responsibility from you long ago.

Lastly, the experience wasn’t one dimensional, even if you were absent from it, it’s your experience too, on a very visceral level, it’s your story too. It’s a part of you, too.

This is five years in the making, summoning the courage to stand alongside my wounded, scarred and angry sisters to demand justice after so many years of being buried in the cold, silent ground with our secrets. Generation after generation, too many to number now.