As fall begins to exert its emptying onto Chicago, I become aware both that the cold is near and that I’ve barely had sex since moving to the city. These are linked because if I do not figure out how to have sex in this new city soon I will sleep alone all winter, everyone hiding inside and covered in blankets and sweaters. I find sex differently, depending on where I am. In Seattle, the best way to find someone to have sex with was to go to a basement where maybe a band had been playing or to this one punk bar with dicks on the walls. In New York, walking on the street between any two places seemed to work well, while in Berlin I just kept taking drugs when they were offered to me and then when someone suggested a different party, I went to that new party, and I had sex there. Chicago is different, though. I even have to actually quit smoking here, where my Virginia Slim Menthol 100s are fourteen dollars a pack, which is the same as in New York but also, actually, too much. No one here knows I used to wear different eye shadow, here where some people call me “T” instead of “Clutch,” an old name back again. Soon I’ll put on a long puffy coat and then even the people who recognize me won’t recognize me when I’m walking toward them.
The lingering warmth of fall means I’m more often in a light jacket over a dress or a button-down collar and skirt, my shape still available. I never really write poems but in Chicago sometimes I write a poem, I think because of all the transit. Being vulnerable to other people’s hands and voices twice a day makes me want to think about what is inside a moment, which poems are good at doing.
I am walking to the L to go
downtown to the Loop and
on seeing me some of the men
passing on Devon Street
become taken by the thought of
or maybe an image of penis
which they hadn’t been
thinking about before
(this happens also on the train
and then the walk from the train
although different men)
and perhaps it is their penis
and perhaps it is my penis
they really can’t distinguish
some of them can’t and just
as the owner of the penis is
mutable so too the turgidity
how or if the thought is sexy but
I don’t notice these men
I hadn’t thought of them
until right now as I am sitting
in my office and even if I try
I can’t recall how they look
their hands that were probably
near their knees or hips
or the cuts of their hair
more blood in their cheeks
and then later less blood again
I write poems in my office and I feel a lightness because I like my poems to be small moments to consider a thing and to have thought through it to let it go. You can claim your power, in a small moment like that, with a poem.
I have to make my own way, putting things aside and going ahead, picking other things back up. With winter fast approaching I open an OKCupid account and say that I will do the “36 Questions That Lead to Love” with any trans person who is interested, dinner on me. The thirty-six love questions became popular when the New York Times wrote about how asking and answering those questions could make strangers fall in love. You sit across from someone you don’t know, taking turns back and forth asking these increasingly vulnerable and personal questions, and when you’ve asked all of them you stare into each other’s eyes for three minutes without saying anything, and then, poof, you’re in love, motherfucker. The instructions don’t say how to make this work for anyone who isn’t sighted, so I’m not sure how much the staring is part of the connection or if it’s more something snazzy for show at the end. Lots of people actually do have healthy, long-lasting, and joyful relationships after doing these thirty-six love questions, which makes it seem like we’re all boring, horrible creatures who would get along fine if we just shared some information about our lives with one another, yet refuse to. If it works, though, it seems like a brilliant trick, like I will pull a cord and love will fall down onto me endlessly. I put up my profile and set a goal, that I will do this thirty times, and when I am in love with thirty people, I will have a horrible and wonderful party where I introduce all thirty to one another, and they will have nothing in common but their love for me. We will all then have gone through something we feel weird about and that we don’t totally understand—an experience only we will ever understand, deepening our love.
Weeks pass (I read Etel Adnan’s two-volume selected works, To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is, and, voraciously, a stack of comics) and then finally one person takes me up on the offer. Their name is Ryan and they are very beautiful and I talk to Jackson about how gorgeous their smile is in their profile picture. When our date comes I wear an olive-green fall jacket over a mustardy green romper. We sit down and we say the questions to each other. We say, “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” and “What do you value most in friendship?” and “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?” We sit on the outside patio of a cute little restaurant, and they are quite beautiful, and as it turns out we are of the same loosely accumulated trans social fabric of activists and artists. I put my blazer back on and we go to the park where we stare into each other’s eyes (their eyes are beautiful) and then decide we are not in love. A week later we have sex, and a couple of weeks after that I see them at an art gallery, but we can’t really talk because they have injured their tongue giving head the night before.
I do manage to scrape together some sex on Scruff, although I’m interested only in people with complicated genders, and everyone is so young. I prefer dates who are at least thirty years old, who are good conversationalists, and who are too busy to really hang out. I mainly, however, wonder at this new problem, where an active and healthy sex life disappears and I am in love with someone on the other side of the world. These are related only because they are happening at the same time, but happening at the same time is a relation anyway. It makes it feel as though my desire has been drawn away a bit. It also does not help that my few attempts at finding a date nondigitally fall flat. “Want to have a date sometime?” I say to several people, and none take me up on the offer. The critic who did not go on a second date with me even passes through the city to give a talk and does not go on a second date with me again; he invites me to meet up and then I go home and he goes somewhere else. I have occasional exceptions, falling into group sex with a bunch of rowdy, drunk trans girls, but mainly I find that sex is now elusive, in the past, and that while my body is no less mine than it has ever been, the conversation in which it is made explicit quiets to a monologue.
At the same time, my days become increasingly filled with professional activities: presenting ideas to a committee of strangers, attending a meeting followed by another meeting, giving a lecture. Each of these are instances in which I have to talk, and in which everyone else listens to me and looks at me. The way people react, I know that they are thinking about what they would call my gender and, in the way most people find gender and bodies to be irreducibly the same, that they are thinking also of my body, the small weight of my breasts maybe visible in a sweater. I know that when I am talking to a large group of people, in their heads are odd confusions about me, and that when I am talking one-on-one, there is sometimes a slight nervousness—the fear that they will say the wrong thing, and their language will reveal how they see me.
I am expected to come and to talk, to be inside of an institution, to hurry to the basement of a different building where I can find a bathroom, and then to walk into a room with cloth hanging on my shoulders, and with my powdered face with hair in it. It is as though the institutional architectures of buildings and policies are forcing me to talk about language, about pronouns and bathroom signs, which are not things that I care to talk about. And when I am made to talk about those things anyway, the ache of my bladder and the student harassed by faculty, that is when people turn away from me. No one tells me—we just all know—that my job is to say something that will bring us elsewhere, to a place everyone can be comfortable. No one tells me this but I can see their faces. I can see we are all scared by what we aren’t saying.
T Fleischmann is the author of Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through and Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay. A nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and contributing editor at Essay Daily, they have published critical and creative work in journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and others, as well as in the anthologies Bending Genre, How We Speak to One Another, Little Boxes, and Feminisms in Motion.
Used by permission from Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by T Fleischmann.