“Deaf as a Post/Tough as Nails”
When I was a kid growing up hallucinatory and deaf (deaf then being the catch all word for any kind of severe hearing impairment) I both loved and loathed all fuss made over me.
I was a tomboy but my coke bottle glasses and the walkman sized hearing aid that banged between my two budding breasts like a third one seemed like beacons, signals to whatever wider world that deigned to notice that I was a girl — and not only was I a girl I was a little crippled one.
As a little crippled girl I was expected to act that part. But what part was that? Pattie Duke in Miracle Worker? I wouldn’t have minded that in the least. She got to run around like crazy and break and shatter things in her furies and there was nothing more appealing than her homo erotic attachment to Ann Bancroft. So boy I was willing to try that role.
But no one else was willing to buy me in it. I could speak. I could see three feet in front of my face so I could read lips. If I kept my mouth shut (while undergoing the therapy to keep my speech from sounding lak thsis) I could pass. I just didn’t have enough cripple capitol to get away with the furthest extremes of uncivil behavior. I was expected to behave. No, more than that, I was expected to somehow be a little angel — as in half dead before my time. Like the crippled girl in Heidi — sickly, listless and wan, missing something she’d never have, never know the joys of, perpetually wasting away from her envy of the put together human being she should have been i.e., Shirley Temple, that perfect child gold mine of talent and cute who was always there at her elbow nagging her to get up lazybones and walk.
Even as a child it amazed me that Shirley Temple (and by implication all perfect, cute, precocious children everywhere) could be so prescient, to intuitive, so right in her every impulse. Especially towards children who were more like me — the sad sacks with defective parts and no discernable reason for being. If only I could be passive and just listen to reason, listen to Shirley. I’d be able to get right up out of my chair and be cured. So said Shirley to her little crippled friend whose name of course eludes me but wasn’t I impressed when after all those urgings she finally did stand up, did take those miraculous tottering steps forward. It was all just a matter of will. Of wanting. Of belief. So said my Grandmother’s pastor when he laid his hand on my head and commanded me to be made whole again.
I wanted to be whole. I willed myself to hear again to be normal. I knew that unless I was whole I could never hope to play a role as heroic as Shirley Special Fucking Temple. My role would always be the victim, the poor hapless sap who was constantly being saved from the consequences of her own frowny disposition.
You’d think the hallucinations with their whispering voices and sudden liftings through the air would have put me on a little more equal footing, made me seem like a seer, something really special to be heeded and feared. And it’s true that for a little while there my family (coming from a long history of quasi lunatic psychics) thought maybe something more powerful was afoot when I told them I could leave my body and fly. But modern medicine stripped that illusion away. The truth was something I’d known all along — I was just a kid who couldn’t hear, could barely see and the mysteries visited upon me weren’t profound revelations at all, just simple terrors.
I was such a mass of fear and imperfection I could hardly bear to lift my head up to the sky.
Is it any wonder I started to cross dress?
I’d wake up from a nightmare, a vision, my own troubled mind. Everyone else in the house would be asleep. I’d put on my hearing aids and glasses my jeans and the army shirt of my dad’s I’d fliched from the laundry room; I’d take the tie of his I’d stolen long ago out from under the mattress where I kept it hidden, slip it around my neck then steal through the living room, taking my mother’s lighter, her cigarettes, and open the side door that led to the carport.
Somewhere out there was danger and romance. And I was going to find it.
As a man I could do that, see. Open the door to the uncertain dark, go out in it and stand under a starry sky, stare down my destiny, my terrible fate.
And yeah, I knew the truth of that too: that I was just a little girl playing dress up late at night. But so what? I was being released from my body into a kind of fiction. And isn’t that in essence what it meant to be a man? To be released from your body into a kind of fiction? And if that were true, why couldn’t those stars be mine as much as anyone’s? Why couldn’t I become the hero of my own story?
As a skinny kid I played that role of man seriously, privately. As an adult woman suddenly that role became imaginatively impossible for me to play.
Part of playing the male role for me was playing tough. Not the kind of tough that had anything to do with real, unpretty survival with which I was familiar. But the kind of tough predicated on being slick, distanced, cool. Tough as just another fashion tool reserved for the perfect. The handsome James Dean-y looking boys who were allowed to look wounded because there’s nothing more fuckable looking than a tough looking boy with a soft swollen mouth.
But that kind of tough couldn’t work for me. No matter how I strapped myself down, I’d become too round, too soft, too hippy, too womanly. It was impossible for me to make that leap from plumply pillowly to achingly angular even in my own shameless imagination.
Besides, I’d been doing some thinking. And I didn’t know if I much admired my own tough boy stance anymore. It began to strike me as just another way of hating who I really was. Why was I so afraid of needing? Why was I so afraid of being vulnerable? I mean besides the very real fear of being whacked on the head and robbed blind because I couldn’t hear a mugger swaggering up behind me.
I began to examine the implications of my own ability to cross dress. And when I did I started playing the role for laughs.
This is how I’d frame it:
I’ve always wanted to be or at least look a lot tougher than I really am. Because it’s still a vicious world out there. And I’m deaf. And I’m queer. And I’m a woman. Iieeee! What is your only defense in a case like that? Eyeliner. I love eyeliner. It lets me change my look. (I STARTED MARKING OUT A BEARD ON MY FACE WITH THE EYELINER) See, I’m one of these people, I wake up in the morning the sun is shining, the birds are all a tweet and all I can think is, “Please great nature, don’t eat me up today.” Part of my
problem is that I’m a woman who smiles a lot. And there are people out there who think that when I smile and say hello I’m really smiling and saying,”Hello, there. Why don’t you beat me black and blue and rape me sixty times.” So it’s no wonder I want to tough guys things up. (I USED MASCARA TO FILL IN THE OUTLINE OF THE FIVE OCLOCK STUBBLE) Grrrr. But I’d rather look a friendly kind of tough. This is kind of gross. (I SHOVED TISSUE PAPER UP MY NOSE). A little blush. (I DUSTED MY NOSE WITH PINK BLUSH) What else? Oh something to hide the voluptuous curves of my body because whatever else they may be boobs are not tough. (I PUT ON A TRENCHCOAT) A little spit to dull the sheen of my hair. Nah, something to hide it altogether. (PUT ON A SLOUCH HAT) Now to take up a disgusting habit that will turn some people who are still on off. (I TOOK OUT A CIGARETTE) And voila. You’ve crossed over a line. And on this side of the line it is an entirely different dark
night of the soul. On this side of the line it’s always. . .
(I WHIPPED AROUND AND THEN TURNED BACK AROUND IN THE PERSONA OF A TOUGH GUY DETECTIVE)
4:25 am. The city they call “The city” is sleeping like a baby. A baby shark. And sharks don’t sleep. Neither do I. Call me Jake. Call me the next time you’re in trouble. Trouble’s my business. I’m Jake Ratchett, Short Detective.
(THE REST OF THE ESSAY WAS DELIVERED WHILE STILL IN COSTUME AS JAKE RATCHETT, SHORT DETECTIVE. BUT OF COURSE THE VOICE IN WHICH IS WAS DELIVERED WAS MY OWN)
Framing the tough male role comically like that, made me realize that if the inappropriate, the imperfect thing can embody the desired, the “perfect” essence so amusingly yet so absolutely then the joke is turned upon itself, then the implications of that turnabout are both funny and humbling. All those absolutes that intimidated me as a woman and a child, all those heroic reasons for being, those grand undertakings, all those ambitious posturings for power that one seems to take on when one takes on male garb
— suddenly all of that is reduced to a kind of ridiculousness. And that reality which so often intimidates us, is exposed as just another fiction. Ours for the rewriting.