I stood and watched a man in a blue suit stare into the window of a shop that only sold popsicles. He stared for a long time. He kept staring and I said, “Do it, man. Get yourself a popsicle.” But he couldn’t hear me. I was all the way over here leaning against the brick wall on the other side of Bleecker Street and the wind ripped and sent a newspaper slapping into me. I laughed, kicked it away.

The man in the blue suit changed his stance and peered closer. His breath fogging the window. It was such a cold day. I was shivering. Part of my problem with shivering was that I didn’t own a coat anymore. I’d gotten too fat for my coat three years before, maybe four years before and I refused to buy another coat. That coat was supposed to last the rest of my life. That had been the deal.

Maybe I’d change my life or something.

For the kids reading this, coming of age in the 90s wasn’t for the faint of heart. It was like the 70s but with pushup bras instead of no bras. Nobody watched their language – twelve-year-olds might as well have been twenty-one. Families were broken; “dysfunctional,” we called them. Dads were disappointing, dads were nonexistent, dads took us aside and told us our mothers were crazy. Moms were over it; moms did their best; we blamed our moms for not protecting us from our dads, from the world. Tanya Marquardt grew up in Vancouver; I grew up in Ohio; you grew up in Oklahoma; New York, Kentucky, Oregon, Texas; it’s all the same pain with a different accent. Teen angst, abuse, abandonment. In Stray, Tanya tells the story of an angry young woman just discovering that her voice is a rebel yell. She hit the road at sixteen against a soundtrack of weird industrial noise bands like Skinny Puppy, and found that a BDSM dungeon can sometimes be a better option than home bitter home. Managing to stay in high school despite it all, with Stray and her work in the theater, Tanya Marquardt has turned trauma into art.

 

You famously talk in your sleep. Can you talk about the process of recording yourself and the most surprising thing you learned? 

Alongside the book, I’ve been working on a performance piece called Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, which is about my experience as a lifelong sleeptalker. In 2015, I started recording my sleeping self on my iPhone and discovered that I have an entirely different ‘person’ that rolls around in my head. She has her own desires; she talks to herself, to me, to people I don’t recognize, and to the people that are sleeping next to me. And when I listen to the recordings, this sleeping self sounds like a younger version of me, a cup ½ full little creature walking around in my brain when I am unconscious. Sometimes she talks like a child, other times she seems to have some kind of mysterious, poetic knowledge.

37 year old me checked in with my past selves, and these are the questions they asked me. 

This is 28. Do we ever stop sleeping with people who treat us badly?

Oh babe, you are in the wasteland right now! It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? I hate to tell you this, but we don’t really learn how to say no to bad sex until we’re in our early 30s. It’s one of the terrible by-products of having lacked any comprehensive education about desire and intimacy. We were taught all the mechanics of reproduction and birth control (not that it always worked – hi 25 and 26!) but not a lot about how to have actual conversations about what we wanted from sex. Couple that with the general self loathing that women are socialised into from girlhood and it’s just really fucking hard to figure out how to tell a dude he sucks (and not in the right way).

I hear that. Why do so many of them have such filthy bedrooms?

So, obvious question, but what’s up with the dragonflies? Why dragonflies?

Well, I’m not traditionally religious, so after my mom’s death, it was very hard to see any way to connect with her. There was just this incredible feeling of goneness. But dragonflies, maybe because of their surprisingly short life span once they transform into gorgeous, iridescent flying creatures, were what appeared to me. It got pretty intense right after she died—so many dragonflies. Because I’m such a hardcore realist, it was hard for me to accept these “visits” from my mom at first, but grief cracks you open in a whole new way. I now understand there’s something out there much bigger than us, and that you simply have to be receptive, porous, and open, and you will receive.

Mother’s Day

One of my favorite things to do in Vietnam was shop at the fabric market. Even though I could barely thread a needle, I felt a great connection to my mother when I was surrounded by fabric. I could spend hours fingering through bolts of brightly printed cotton and rich, jeweled-toned silk, trying to imagine how it would look as a dress or a skirt. I loved to hunt for just the right buttons and zippers and “notions” like my mother and I used to do at Hartmann’s in Arlington.

Hartmann’s was primarily a clothing store, but there was a room in back with big metal cabinets full of Simplicity patterns. My mother and I would often settle in, searching first for the right pattern, then selecting the perfect fabric from the ninety- nine-cent table. To this day, there’s nothing more comforting or more hopeful to me than the sound of cloth cut fresh off the bolt: the soft thud as it’s laid upon the table, the crisp metallic opening of the scissors, the definitive chop into the fabric, and finally the last soft pats of cloth as it’s folded into quarters.

Long Beach, California.

Out on the ocean on a small boat that can only hold twelve of us, we put my grandmother’s ashes in the ocean.

Speakers on the boat play music.

Cat Stevens, “Don’t Be Shy”.

It’s strange to see my grandmother in this new form.

She’s scattered.

And there are flower petals that float around her.

And the waves created by the boat spread the petals farther and farther away but there are some petals that cling to the ash.

And then Tom Jones sings “She’s a Lady”.

And my grandfather almost falls out of the boat and when he regains his balance he says, “We almost had a double feature.”

And then a few hours later, my parents and my sister and Ashleigh drive me from Long Beach to Los Angeles so that I can be interviewed by a man named Brad who interviews writers in a nice garage.

I’m going to talk about a book of poems I wrote a year ago when I was suicidal and heartbroken.

I’m fine now, but no one is fine forever, so I’ll be sad again.

I’ll be suicidal again.

And then I’ll be happy again.

And one day I’ll die.

And maybe I’ll be happy when I die.

Or maybe I’ll be sad.

But either way, I’ll die.

I won’t live forever.

And then I’ll be dead.

And that’s okay.

I saw my mother for her birthday. I was with my aunt, her sister, and we worriedly drove to her care facility because the on-site nurse had called saying that my mother has been complaining about her mouth and doesn’t look good and Mom refuses to get medical attention.

I was driving, talking to my aunt about what we might say, how best to handle my mother’s fears about dentists, their scrapers, their metal hooks, their drills. My mother doesn’t want to go to the dentist because she doesn’t want false teeth. But she never brushes.

If she is suffering from an infection in her mouth, my aunt says, the infection can get into her bloodstream and kill her. I do not say, “Good, this is what she wants; to die,” but I think my aunt and I are both choosing not to say it out loud. I think about how if my mother was a dog, I could have said goodbye to her years ago, the vets agreeing she was in pain, ready to go, and that this was for the best.

Maybe if I talk about how pain meds numb you completely, how you don’t even feel the tooth being pulled, maybe she’ll believe me and go.

Instead of interviewing myself, I thought it might be fitting for my vanished twin to conduct this interview. Take it away, vanished twin.

Leah Dieterich’s Vanished Twin: Let’s pretend this is an audio interview and I need to check the levels. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Leah Dieterich: You just wanna talk obsessively about food, don’t you? I guess old habits die hard. Well, you’ll be happy to know that I am trying to have big breakfasts so I don’t starve myself all day and then gorge on a shit-load of food right before bed like I used to do in college. I’m old now. I try to finish dinner by 7pm at the latest. I have the most fucked-up dreams if I eat or drink alcohol too late at night. This is what it is to have a body which ages, which is something you don’t have to deal with, I guess! This morning I had steel-cut oatmeal with ghee, Maldon sea salt, raw walnuts and half a banana sliced on. top. I gave the other half to my daughter who (at this point—though her tastes and practices shift rapidly) only like to eat bananas if she can peel and hold it. She loves oatmeal too, only the steel-cut variety, and she eats it with her hands. It’s incredible.

 

How do you describe the book Vanishing Twins to people? What’s your elevator pitch?

Depending on the person, I might say that it is about my hypothesis that I was supposed to have been born a twin but that my twin vanished in utero and I’ve been trying to find this twin in various relationships throughout my life.

The facts are as they are. They are in black and white; they can’t be changed. As a baby, I lived with my mother and father in Sunrise, a suburban city just east of Fort Lauderdale. The romance of the city’s name is not lost on me.

When it happened, blue and white Hanukkah lights were strung in windows all around our neighborhood and plastic Santas on sleighs sat on the roofs. It was December, 1978. While I was toddling around the family home in diapers, my father, Paul, died in circumstances that can best be described as tragic: he took his own life.

Tragedy begets change, sometimes reinvention. My mother and I left Florida for England when I was 9 and she remarried when I was 11. A few years later, I was legally adopted by her new husband, Steve, who raised me as his own. While I love my stepfather deeply, the biology of paternity is a halachic matter when you are planning a Jewish wedding, as I was, a couple of years ago. In the process of preparing to marry in the faith, I had to dig into some family history.

Men are so hot right now. Just look at the options; wherever you go, there they are, and the books about them abound. Adding to the essential essay collections that deconstruct what men are and what to do with them— Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, The War on Men by Suzanne Venker, The End of Men by Hanna Rosin, and Are Men Necessary by good old Maureen Dowd – comes a single essay called I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya, which examines her own varied experiences with gender identity. Men as bullies, lovers, friends, strangers and selves (but pointedly, not fathers). I’m Afraid of Men reads as part memoir, part polemic, part double dare to the reader to take a look in the mirror. It should be required reading on college campuses.

Vivek is always at work on multiple creative projects, which include running her own press to promote the work of fellow queer writers of color who happen to live in Canada, and her own aptly named poetry collection, even this page is white. As a recording artist she has shared the stage with Tegan and Sara and been remixed by Peaches. Her series of self-portraits (made with collaborator Karen Castillo), recreates vintage photographs of her beautiful mother, and were made as Vivek was in the process of transitioning. “Trisha” has been on view at the Ace Hotel this summer in NYC, and is moving to the Portland Art Museum this fall. You can order the book on Amazon or here.

Nothing bad has ever happened to me but it will and I have that to look forward to.

Bad things have happened to Ashleigh but those things are not my things to tell.

It’s Friday and I pick her up from work and we drive to Weldon because Ashleigh wants to get me out of the house and there’s a trail in Weldon.

It’s called the Canal Trail and we can walk on it.

We park the car and we walk on the trail.

I’m wearing shorts and Ashleigh is wearing shorts and there are these little black insects and I think they are biting me.

“Those are called no see ums,” Ashleigh says.

They keep biting us and we keep walking.

We sit on a bench and look at a pond or a lake or I don’t know what it is.

Some small body of water.

Behind us, two men meet on the trail and discuss things that we don’t care about, and then they are gone and it’s just us and the water and the no see ums.

We look at the water and then we’ve had enough and we’re hungry so we get back on the trail and head back toward the parking lot.

We see an old condom wrapper embedded in the dirt.

A long time ago someone had sex out here in the woods.

It’s hard to tell what day it is.

Wednesday feels like Monday.

Monday feels like Thursday.

I drive Ashleigh to work.

I take Ashleigh to work.

I drop off Ashleigh at work.

It’s a two-lane road.

The speed limit seems to change every half mile.

It’s 35 and then it’s 55 and then it’s 25 and then it’s back to 55.

I drive about 70 the whole way there.

I still don’t have a job.

And Jay Leno collects cars.

He has about 150 of them.

I know this because I listened to an interview with him yesterday.

I don’t even like Jay Leno.

But I have a lot of free time.

Before I drop off Ashleigh at her office I tell her that I’m going to go on an adventure today.

I say, “I’m going to Greenville, North Carolina today.”

I say, “I’ll eat some good food.”

She says, “Good. Go to B’s Barbecue. That’s the spot. But get there early because once they run out of the hog, that’s it.”

I think she worries about me.

So, you’re trans. Don’t you think the obvious first question is: When did you know you were a boy? Did you always feel “born in the wrong body”? And, while we’re at it, was your family cool with your transition? And how wild is it to know what it’s like to be BOTH genders?

I don’t think that any of these are obvious first questions, no. 

Wait–but you write about being trans. Don’t you?

Sort of! Did you read Amateur?

I did. 

What would you say it’s about?

Here’s the start of the story and it’s a good story and this one is true.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from North Carolina and we met on the internet because she went on a book tour with my friend Bud Smith and Bud told her some stories about me and then Bud told me some stories about her.

We exchanged numbers and texted and talked on the phone and I told her to listen to the song ‘House Cat’ by Mark Kozelek and she sent me a video of a hooting owl.

And then she sent me a postcard.