I think about his XX all the time. It’s like a joke,
that we’ll start dreaming of men once we. My favorite
version is the one where we.
—Oliver Baez Bendorf, “T4T”
As a child, I wasn’t particularly interested in the idea of treasure. I suppose I didn’t believe back then that there was anything so marvelous to be found. Instead of pirates who spent their time searching, I thrilled to the story of Billy the Kid, who spent his on the run, hiding. Only years later, when my nieces and nephews fell under the spell of pirates, and under their parents’ direction I bought plastic boy pirates with green and blue parrots on their shoulders, and plastic girl pirates, their hats an anachronistic hot pink, their cutlasses shiny as jewelry, did I wonder what I’d been missing. The kids were so boisterous, so loud, so together as they brandished their swords. They understood instantly that treasure was what they sought. With fat black crayons, they dotted serpentine paths across a construction-paper map. Without ever being told, somehow without ever having been explicitly taught, they knew that x marked the treasure’s spot.
Not a single real pirate’s treasure map has ever been found, though. Treasure maps in general, yes: the oldest is the Copper Scroll, made of metal and thought to have been hammered thin and inscribed between 50 and 100 AD, before corroding in the Dead Sea. The Scroll lists sixty places where buried gold and silver might purportedly be found; two millennia later, none ever has been. The Scroll remains a tintype of hope, a facsimile of yearning. That the letter x could mark a destination appears to date not to maps, but to storytelling: a play by J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Even Captain Kidd, the man thought to be most responsible for the legends of buried treasure, was not a pirate himself but a pirate-hunter. He was executed amid rumors of vast buried treasures, never found. Of the maps he was said to leave behind, too, there is no trace.
Over the phone, a boy tells me now, his voice newly husky with hormones, that he wants to kiss me on the spot where each week I plunge a fine-gauge needle into my skin. A boy. We are both of us well past thirty in this story, me farther past than him, both well into becoming—but what is the word I should use? A man? It seems too settled, too definite, for either of us, we whose soft bodies are still changing from the cold pierce of those needles, the oily elixir we plunge slowly in, faintly gold where light catches the syringe. I listen to his words and imagine drawing a little x on the soft fat around my belly button, an inch to the left of it, to guide first the metal point and then his mouth. We use boy to name each other: dear boy, we say, good boy, sweet boy, offering shelter we never had. Fuck, boy. Offering joy. Testosterone brings the breakouts of puberty, flesh suddenly pockmarked as though with our own histories. Sometimes, too, it brings heat that crawls over me in a flush, as though a flash of a future I’ve turned away from.
Sitting at a writing desk where I can hear the waves, I think about how they are the heartbeat of both the moon and the ocean. The desk rests in a hut along the beach. The ocean, steps from my door. The world is thick in the pandemic that seems to crawl and swell, to recede in one place as it ravages another. Unable to concentrate— unable to do anything, really, except try to resist returning to the bedroom, where the boy is only as far as my phone and the testosterone vial glints where I have left it within sight on my dresser, a harbinger so longed-for I cannot bear to put it away—I read an essay collection about doom, Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory. In it, she cites writer-philosopher Timothy Morton: “For every object in the universe there is a genuinely future future that is radically unknowable.” Morton is talking about what he calls a “hyper object,” an object “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” An entity that is too big, and too slow in its becoming, for us to fully see or comprehend it.
The ocean, I think, is a kind of hyper object. And though I am sick of thinking about gender, maybe it is, too.
The other people who have taken refuge in this shore town misgender me constantly, and I find myself wanting to brandish my license like a sword—here it is, I imagine saying, legitimized by the state, and maybe you will acknowledge that more than you will acknowledge me. Under lamination, my identity is small enough to fit inside a single letter: x. In the book-length essay Trans Care, theorist and professor Hil Malatino points out that these constant misgenderings are not only the violence I feel them to be every time, but become part of the story of a trans person’s life, the narrative carried around with them. This means, I think, that constant social negation of the self becomes, paradoxically, part of the self. In each moment of their doing, the misgenderings become part of the immensity of the past, which is to say they become part of the present and the future. They stretch me beyond any static fact of existence. They become part of the hyper object of me.
Each day right now seems cast in an immensity I can’t quite see. At my desk, I stare at my computer screen and try to make a book that doesn’t exist yet, build a world that doesn’t exist yet. I watch the ocean and try to comprehend that whole skyscrapers could fit inside of it, that there are worlds underneath this one and above this one and—if reports on nano-universes are to be believed—within this one I’ll never know. Yesterday, walking along the beach before sunset, I saw a shell speckled with the remnants of tiger stripes, a chunk of it already missing, and wondered at the many layers of what, to me, was unknown: the type of shell, the animal it had harbored, that animal’s birth and death and becoming, what story the artifact was evidence of.
And then the future future: the way a geologic sense of time will ground that shell down to sand, but only long after I myself am rot, then dust.
Around the same time as the calls with the boy and the daily walks along the ocean, I became interested in a video game called Everything. If, like me, you are not a video game person and have not heard of Everything, let me explain. Everything is about, simply, everything. The voiceover tells you that everything perceives itself as an I: the ant and the seedling and the bear you see as pixels on the screen perceive themselves as I’s, just as you, the person with the controller, also do. The boy had introduced me to it, mentioning it over the phone one night when I was too tired to speak and wanted only to hear his voice, to learn more about him. To bridge the gap between he and I. I suppose you have realized that he and I are both trans. Which means that for anything to form between us, we constantly had to ask each other for language, the right language with which to name everything. He had to tell me he liked to be referred to as a boy rather than a man, and I had to tell him that I also prefer boy and yet—like him—do not see myself as male. To give him exactly the words with which to say how he might like to touch me, which is to say, to give him the words with which he might then understand how to see me.
In the naming, I conjured myself into being. This everything-up-for- grabs-ness of language is a condition of transness, and because the pandemic that stilled everything had also reduced us to only words (reduced I have trouble with here, also only)—with him to a greater extent, even, than with other lovers—I had to name things.
“We lack the privilege of an uncomplicated I,” Malatino writes in Trans Care, addressing this community of which I am a part. Then they add, in parentheses, as though as an afterthought: “(and the ability to conjure oneself into an I is always a product of privilege, to be sure.)” I suspect Malatino means that to be an I requires privilege in our capitalist, individual-loving (but only certain individuals) society, because to be an I is imbued with creation-power, speech-power, agency-power. It means to act and be recognized as acting. But I read their words, too, with emphasis on what narratives are available for that conjuring: privilege to be a cohesive I, to not be composed of fragments.
In the game, you begin as a speck of dust, or maybe of light. “Is this the beginning?” the voiceover asks. “What am I, how did I get here?” But there is no answer, because you have become the light in the iris of a bear, or an antelope, or a sheep. The graphics are primitive (in a world of everything, everything must be rendered), and so, with your antelope limbs stretched out, and the landscape having appeared around you, you roll. “We’ve been waiting for you a long time,” says a tree, as you pass. Perhaps you will ascend to become a herd, to see yourself as one of the many. Perhaps you will descend to become a blade of grass but perceive yourself, from your vantage point, as only one of a few. It begins to rain. A stone says, “These rainy afternoons make me nostalgic. I haven’t seen my children in a long time.” The voiceover tells you, “It’s incredible you made it through. You are a part of everything.” The stone says, “I’m ready to die.” Another says, “I’m real, right? I’ve seen other rocks and they look like me. Maybe slightly less real, though.”
There are no rights or wrongs in the game—the mountain will tell you this—and no set path or goal, though there are constant decisions. Will you stay one elephant? Will you become a herd? Over time, you discover that huts dot the horizon, indications of human inhabitants. Over time, then, there are graves. You become a bee, then a swarm. Then a microbe. You become Saturn. You become that rock. Because I am, as mentioned, not a video game person, I didn’t have a console, and so all I could do was watch gameplay videos other people had put online. Which meant I was, in a literal sense, giving over control of Everything (everything), my experience of my I mediated by the choices of another.
The idea that everything is a simulation, that we are perhaps living in our own hi-fi version of Everything—referred to as the simulation hypothesis—breaks my brain. A few months ago, I read a physicist state in The New York Times that the simulation hypothesis, far from being far-fetched, is simply the most plausible explanation for this universe in which we live. For days afterward I went about my life like I might only be a few lines of code within it. The most plausible? This, which had previously seemed to me the wildest, and certainly the trippiest, of scenarios?
Wild or plausible, I can’t decide whether I find the idea of living in a simulation boring or expansive. The argument for boring: Given simulation—given every option—why this limited world? Why only this one mortal life, to be one thing, to live one path, to (for most of us) be only one gender, one set of options? How utterly disappointing.
Or—what any creative knows—are the constraints what give the form its sweetness and possibility? I have a writer friend who teaches classes composed entirely of limits—write a story as a sentence, write a story as a paragraph, write but every line is repetition, or begins where the last one ends and ends where the last began. Maybe trans acts only have the capacity to feel as radical and generative as they do because they exist against a gendered norm. At my writing desk I am surrounded by history books, by centuries stacked next to me that spill over to litter my floor, and in every book there are trans people and in every book they are called wrong and immoral, they are called monster, from the Latin monstro, a word that reveals, labels, condemns. In every century they lay bare the culture around them, its limits and its fears, its dreams and its hatreds. The minute gayness became acceptable we got bank floats at Pride. When the pandemic struck and my world narrowed, all of a sudden—because of who my dearest community is, where I live—the only people I saw regularly and maskless and from within six feet were like me, also trans, and I assumed that my gender would feel more expansive, more exploding with possibility. Instead, it seemed to leak out of me. I walked through days made of ether.
Gabbert theorizes that there must not be a higher simulating intelligence, no god in control, no vast design, because given absolute power, and no limits, it would surely have destroyed itself by now. Aren’t we ourselves evidence of that—our intelligence the very thing that has spawned global warming, climate destruction and despair, genocide. Given absolute power it would not heed limits, and therefore would expand into explosion/implosion.
And isn’t—sorry—gender evidence of that, I admit I thought as I read. I admit a certain sympathy for the hand-wringing of the conservative class, the worries that if we do away with gendered norms, we might do away with gender entirely. I admit a certain sympathy for the cringe at the forty-gender online menu pull-down, even as I believe absolutely in its need. I admit to wanting not to invent new language, but to make my life within the words already on offer, only demanding that they adapt to admit those once excluded. I admit, in other words, to wanting things to be simpler.
One of my favorite books in college, a book that blew my young mind, was the famed sociologist Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Thought, a key tenet of which is that all religions are built of several main building blocks. We have the same originating stuff for everything; the difference is in the combination. Every religion has its idea of the sacred and its concomitant idea of the profane. Every religion has its idea of community and its concomitant outsider. Reading Durkheim for the first time, I suppose I thrilled to what seemed to me to be true: that we are all made of the same stuff, the same set of questions.
But in 1898, fourteen years before the publication of the book that so impacted me, Durkheim also wrote, “That mystery with which, whether rightly or wrongly, we love to cloak the woman, that unknown quantity that each sex has for the others, and which creates . . . all sort of ideas and practices which have become one of the refreshing diversions of existence is, however, difficult to maintain if men and women mix their lives too completely.” Equality between the sexes would become a sign for him of a backwards, primitive culture. Critics have pointed out that even at the time of his writing, others were acknowledging homosexuality. Read in this light, his insistence on set strata comes across as itself a backwards-facing wish. A plea.
I don’t need to wonder what he would think of the boy or of me, of the way we each meld ourselves into one body. That much is clear. But I do wonder if perhaps this is part of why I never became and could never be a true academic, though I am a professor at a college: I may like the past, may want to work within the terms it offers, but fuck if it doesn’t always fail me.
I think often of that line from the hackneyed poets that nothing is new, everything very old, we are all stardust—or I thought such a line was poetics but looking it up, I learn that it is in fact true. We are made of stars that exploded and, in their exploding, released the elements that make up everything. Nearly every element in our bodies was originally made in a star, passed through that star, came from that star. (Typing now, my keyboard lights up with the suggestion of a star emoji, poised perfectly on the tray and not there a moment ago, conjured by some line of code deeply invisible to me and that, because I am mortal and know I will not wish to spend any of this limited allotment of time learning code, I will never understand. The computer itself, the metals within it: stardust.) Everything old is new again, but maybe it would be more relevant to say that everything new contains what was once old. To piece such scraps together, the memoirist and literary critic Jenn Shapland writes, in her melding of the personal and historical My Life in Carson McCullers, “You have to read like a queer person, like someone who knows what it’s like to be closeted, and who knows how to look for reflections of your own experience in even the most unlikely places.” Malatino writes, “A common feature of trans arts of cultivating resilience has to do with turning to the historical record for proof of life, for evidence that trans lives are livable because they’ve been lived.” I read them both and I understand my obsession with these scraps, with what lies just beyond the hard edges of building blocks, the penumbras cast by otherwise straightforward lines of text in the historical record. I am looking for the x, for what existed but could not be named, and I am finding it in everything.
When I whisper into the phone to the boy what to call me, the language with which to name me, and my utterances are encoded in symbols I’ll never understand and carried on waves I’ll never understand but travel on the currency of those who would lay down a network for us, I name our bodies in a language that was never meant for us, claiming them back from a science that was never meant for us. I remember the jolt of recognition when I first realized I could use the word cock for my body, that it could be mine and why couldn’t it just mean the body parts I have? Why did I need language that was meant as a placeholder for the unknown, when every word is only a sign that means something beyond itself ? Why should I have to choose only the meanings already made?
Yesterday, sitting at my desk and listening to the waves crash, I read about a fish that changes sex and how, no one knows. Not just one kind of fish does this. Somewhere between twenty and five hundred fish species do, the exact number itself another unknown. In the species I read about, the bluehead wrasse, when the dominant male in a group dies (or is removed by the researcher, the great god making every decision, making everything), the largest female spontaneously changes sex. No one knows what the signals are that arrange this, or how the social signal (his absence) gets converted into a biological one (her then his body), but quickly the fish becomes male, and able to impregnate the other fish. I learn from Brontez Purnell’s novel 100 Boyfriends that the same happens with marijuana plants, that the female plant drops balls, basically, and starts impregnating all the other plants around it. I think of how it’s only in the queer community that people use breed sexually, I want to breed you, the impossibility making it hot. The first time I saw the phrase in print I jerked back as though it could only be whispered, as though rendered so plainly it would dissolve. Reading Peter Boag’s book on the forgotten queer frontier, Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past, I learn of Bert Martin, originally named Bertha when he was born in 1879, considered a girl and raised as such and examined by doctors and declared as such—until he fathered three children.
When I first read about Martin I thought of an Ursula Le Guin novel, of course, art snaking back onto history, and the way the couples in The Left Hand of Darkness switch sex based on how they feel, and whoever feels the most receptive to carrying a baby at that time becomes the one to do so. Le Guin met her husband on a boat and married him that same year. They had three children. She was raised “as irreligious as a jackrabbit,” she once said, and I have always wondered how her dismissal of those basic building blocks connects to this novel she made from her mind, to what she chose to conjure. Did she wish Charles had carried the children? Did he wish? Back when I used to sleep with cis men, we never really traded roles; there was so much assumed between us, so many paths already laid down, and I confess that all these years later I have no idea how cishet people do relationships, beyond the popular depiction, which is mostly dreck and makes it sound like no one ever trades off roles for anything.
So where did Le Guin’s ideas come from? Her longing? Was she queer? Did she know the feel of two similar bodies coming together, that sameness somehow expands difference, makes nothing assumed and therefore everything possible? How a body can be a kind of doubling, just as a window both reflects and becomes a portal to what’s beyond, just as the boy helps me see my own gender, too, in every shading and difference and path I might someday choose? And if I had read Le Guin’s work earlier would I have understood myself earlier, instead of reading it only a decade ago, and then only because a past lover liked it, never suspecting then that lover would be the one I’d first come out to as trans, but so turned on by recognition, by the idea of a life not statically fixed, not constrained by all my secrets, that even though the world conjured was fiction all I could do while reading was touch myself until I came and understand that when I cried out it was with exultation, maybe grief, maybe sight? The same way, maybe, that I would feel years later, when a date came out to me as genderqueer, and I had never before heard the word, the word I instantly knew was mine, but I sat in my chair aswirl and overwhelmed, unable to name the everythingness of my emotions, almost angry to be given a name for the everythingness of me.
The double x of our chromosomes is what yokes the boy and me together in the view of so much of this world—but also the x on my license and on so many paper forms, the x that always holds space for unknowing, for becoming. I like the idea of the letter, itself a bounded symbol, knowable, made up of agreed-upon lines, the same in both the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets, but a sign capacious enough to hold so much unknown and unknowable. I like that interplay. I have come to like that I must choose the words for my body, even if I sometimes wish I didn’t have to; that I choose them knowing they may evolve; that I must write the language of my life and in it hold space for all that can’t (yet) be said.
“I’m a maximalist,” the boy who wants to kiss the x spot on my skin tells me, and he is maximal, too, in the way he says it again and again. What he means is he reveres sensation. What he means is he wants to swim in the overspill, the unsayable, the meaning that exceeds the sign. He wants to rejoice in the run-off. What he means is that he wants me.
Still, I admit that I sometimes get tired. I get tired of remaking the world. I get tired of how, as soon as I step outside my apartment, I am subject to the endless sorting of others. I want a name for my gender, a name that will make it knowable and cognizable, so I can stop having to endlessly correct and explain. But I also want more than can be captured and bound.
So when I tell the boy yes, when I say yes to his excess, what I mean is that I want to learn to trust bounty. I want to trust that treasure exists and it is already here, only waiting to be said yes to. I mean I want everything.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2017), which received a Lambda Literary Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Grand Prix des Lectrices ELLE, the Prix des libraires du Quebec 2020, and the Prix France Inter-JDD. It was translated into eleven languages and is in development with HBO. They have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Eccles Centre at the British Library, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the Maine Arts Commission. A portion of their second book, Both and Neither (forthcoming from Doubleday), was chosen for The Best American Essays 2020. (updated 4/2022)