Cy, a genderqueer young adult, addresses us.
They might be doing their hair or getting ready for the day.
They might be soaking wet, fresh out of the pool or shower.
They speak with familiarity and comfort.
Seventh grade was a big year for me.
It began when my Nana, who lived across town, started getting leg cramps in the middle of the night. She’d roll over and wake up screaming. It scared my Papa so they moved in with my mom and me. They took my bedroom and I slept on the pull-out couch. Nights, Papa whispered ‘hey champ’ from the doorway and I escorted him to the bathroom for his midnight leak.
The time came when Mom couldn’t tend to Nana and Papa and me all at once, so she hauled us to Activity Day at the JCC. We walked down the bannered aisle and at the end was Swim Coach Sydney, sat at her folding table, palms laid flat, tapping and tapping her red acrylic nails, which sprung out like shrimp tails from the end of each finger.
We hear the click-click-click of tapping nails.
A shiver of pleasure runs through Cy.
I would have done anything to spend time with Sydney and her talons.
Including, I guess, join swim team.
Nana and Papa chose a class called Exploring World Cultures Through Dance – movement would be good for Nana’s leg, and they craved the intimacy of touch once more. Her pain had relegated him to the tiniest sliver of bed and Papa needed a way to inch closer.
Every week thereafter, my mom dropped us off at the JCC, Nana and Papa went to dance, I went to swim practice, then she’d pick us all up and drive home.
Nothing in the world made me hungrier than those swim practices. There was a full body exhaustion that lifted me out of the pool and moved me like a jellyfish – no brain, just a baglike form, pushed down the halls as if by a current.
In the rec room, rich with the smell of chlorine, I’d eye the vending machines while we waited for pickup.
I begged Nana and Papa for quarters. Papa obliged. I liked to get Bugles because those—
Cy rips open a bag of Bugles.
You can put on the ends of your fingers and pretend you have the most delicate hands.
Cy places one Bugle at the end of each finger.
Anyway, week after week, Nana, Papa, and I would sit in the rec room and they would tell me about their classes:
Cy imitates Nana and Papa:
Hungarian Folk Dancing
And I would tell them about swim:
When you’re doing butterfly, you want to raise your chest.
Coach Sydney believes in proper stroke form, so she’ll have us get out of the pool and she’ll tap the girls’ sternums and say “this wants to be curved upward like sirens on the bows of ships.”
God, I wanted her to touch my chest like that.
God, I wanted to be the nail and the chest all at once.
Instead, I asked Papa for quarters and put the Bugles on my fingers, then munched them off one by one.
And then one day, we reached the last bag of Bugles in the machine. And I put in seventy-five cents. And the bag didn’t budge.
And I crouched down and I reached through the vent to try and wrestle the corn chips out.
And Nana and Papa freaked out
They were all:
CY YOU’RE GONNA LOSE A HAND!!!!!
And something, a little drop that was already inside me, grew into a puddle, then a creek, an undulating river of desire.
God, I wanted my hand cut off.
Gooooood, I wanted to lose my hand so bad.
The swim team boys shaved their bodies—the fast boys shaved their bodies—to reduce drag. I had just begun sprouting hair on my knuckles, and I’d shave them because I didn’t have to look at my face that often but I had to see my hands all the time.
I had a friend on the swim team, Jeremy, who was really into transplant videos.
On YouTube, if you watch Dr. Pimple Popper, autoplay will go from pimple popper videos to cyst draining videos and then eventually it’ll serve you a full face transplant, where, if the face is fresh enough, they can connect all the nerves and you can get a new face – someone else’s face – where your face once was.
On this channel, there’s a short documentary about a man with two left hands. He lost his hand in a carpentry accident and the only fresh hands they had were left.
If you do the math, the documentary said, statistically, men lose their hands more than women because they tend to be in the carpentry and metallurgy and construction industries and take risks at higher rates.
But if more men lose their hands than women
But there’s an equal number of braindead men and women in the hospital
Then some men would have to get women’s hands
So that’s something I thought about a lot.
I thought, if I could get my hand mangled by the vending machine in the rec room of the JCC of Mid-Westchester, I might get a woman’s hand instead.
So week after week I would shove my hand into the machine and Nana and Papa would yell, Cy NOOOOOOOOO.
I watched the two of them partner on the most intimate exercises in the rec room: Papa’s hand on Nana’s brow, pulling to lengthen her neck, Nana’s thumbs pushing into Papa’s thighs, her head between his legs. Every week I was reminded the fragility of their bodies as they creaked through
Hungarian Folk Dancing
I watched Papa’s arthritic hands curl around the quarters he gave me.
They were in pain, I could see. How could I be so ungrateful of my swimmer’s body, my swimmer’s hands, when they worked so well? I found myself ashamed by the recklessness of my desire.
And it would be a really long time until I sat in a doctor’s office and they asked me about selfharm and I said no no nothing like that.
And it would be longer before I realized, yeah, something like that.
There was something like that.
So it was a difficult time
With me, experiencing something foreign and shameful, and Nana and Papa, human bumper lanes to keep me safe from the machine’s violent maw, and us all, staring out the window of the rec room of the JCC of Mid-Westchester, waiting to be taken home.
And one evening, while we were in our routine, a slight man passed through the rec room on his way to the chapel.
He was frum, in a yami and peyes, he walked with great posture and his head held high.
And from his long black sleeve came a flash of red and I saw that it was my swim coach. Sydney.
And it took me a few weeks to work up the courage to ask her about what I’d seen. I idolized
Sydney and I didn’t want to upset her.
But after a while I couldn’t take not knowing and I asked, was that you?
And she said, when I swim, I’ll be a woman.
And when we need a minyan, I’ll be a man.
And I said, that’s allowed????
And she said, it’s called being fluid.
Because we were swimmers.
Fluid as in
the water skimming off a hairless leg
As in Nana and Papa rehearsing a turn
As in floating in the womb, as in the river of desire inside me.
That week, the true miracle happened. Baruch HaShem, someone rolled a dolly into the rec room, opened up the vending machine, and restocked it all. I sat on the bench with a sense of clarity blooming all around me while Nana and Papa, in the background, swayed and swayed.
All of us floating, and fluid, and on our way home.
Playwright of tender absurdism: creating worlds that reflect the cruel & chaotic nature of our own, and characters who must rely on each other for connection and support to survive them. elisewien.com