WINNER: A Trip to the City

The woman was singing a wailing song in the basement of my friend’s rowhouse apartment in Bed-Stuy, pulling me out of reverie at this musty house show.

A Trip to the City” is a spare, well-paced, and compelling portrait of bodies, ethereal-ness, the corporeal form, the way we as humans physically move through the world with both brains and flesh. Portrayed through the mundane activity of crashing on a friend's couch so you can go see a show in the city, its meditations on transness are also excellently done. What it is like to be dirt. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction either.

—Casey Plett

The woman was singing a wailing song in the basement of my friend’s rowhouse apartment in Bed-Stuy, pulling me out of reverie at this musty house show. Even though I lived so close, it was only my third time visiting New York City ever—not because I was disenchanted with the city, but more so because I was intimidated by it, by how expensive it was to get there in the first place, and then how expensive the socializing was, and how by the end of the weekend I’d spent over 40 dollars on my bus alone and almost 100 on food and transit, which I knew I just couldn’t afford. I told myself, if I ever was making so much money that the trip would be a cinch, I’d definitely go more, but when my paycheque came I put it all in savings anyway after I’d settled my rent and bills and got groceries.

I looked at those mercurial digits in my bank account, watching the number ebb and flow as I spent and saved it on transitioning expenses—laser hair removal, electrolysis, surgeries. I had no idea how expensive bras were, how expensive women’s clothes were in general compared to what I’d worn before. I was used to being resourceful and finding things that I could get for free or cheap, but when I tried to do this in thrift stores all the sizes felt like insoluble equations, transporting me back to staring blankly at a Scantron in Ms. Lawler’s class again. The dresses pulled my shoulders in tightly, trying to crush my chest, their waistlines a blade around my midriff. Eventually I’d get too flustered and embarrassed and go home and cry, resolving to try again next week.

The trip into the city had gone mostly smooth despite how anxious I was about it. I found my way onto the right train not far from the bus station, sitting in the rattling car with a perkiness and attentiveness to everything happening around me—the woman brushing dirt I could not see off her bright yellow rain boots, the elderly man across from me wearing a brown suede suit with his hair in an afro, reading a magazine article about the Oathkeepers out west, the kids who looked no older than 13 playing their brass instruments and dancing around the commuters. They were playing a rendition of some Kamasi Washington song I recognized.

I showed up to the show early, but it didn’t matter because I was there to see my friends anyway. Mostly we just stood around the kitchen drinking Peronis until it was time for their soundcheck. Kris was more of a mutual friend that I knew from playing a show together once, and she’d moved here soon after I met her a couple years ago. I went on a few dates with her friend and even though him and I didn’t keep dating, she was always nice to me, said she liked my paintings and the songs I sang. A familiar pang stung in my midsection when we hugged hello, a vivid awkwardness and over-awareness of my big body, as usual when I see people who knew me before hrt. Their bassist was probably in their 30s, a stoic looking leatherdyke drinking water instead of beer. I’d met them a few times as well and still they made me feel sweaty under my awkwardly-fitting velvet shirt.

It’s always been unclear to me how okay it is for me to talk about trans girl stuff in front of people—how it’s basically like doing another full-time job and there’s so much I would say, but talking about any of it, much less my now-extensive medical history, feels like over-sharing. And it occurred to me in this instance, a little shaky in front of this tall strong bassist, that I could make small talk about what’s been going on in my life lately—how I increased my progesterone dose lately and started taking the pills rectally, since that’s better for absorption than taking them orally, but I knew immediately after this initial line of thought that I shouldn’t say any of this, obviously, and then I realized the bassist’s gaze was making me sweat and that my tits were aching, which already felt a little uncomfortable in this now too-small velvet shirt, since the higher progesterone dose had made them grow a bit in the past months. I sipped my Peroni and avoided eye contact with them.

I didn’t know the lead singer. She carried herself sparingly, like she was trying to take up as little space as possible, or maybe she wasn’t trying at all, naturally ethereal and sort of formless in the tiny kitchen. Her frame and the clothing she wore made her appear our age—in her late 30s at the oldest—but her face and grey wavy hair and demeanour in general, and the way the other bandmates and guests looked at her, gave her the presence of an elder. She may have been in her 70s, for all I knew.

Kris and the bassist were almost two minutes into the song before she started singing, a low crooning coming out of her earnest face pleading to something in front of her that we could not see. It looked like she was coaxing a small bird into flight, vibrating the stone of this shitty damp basement floor to stir a current under its frail body. Then she started rocking, her face convulsing very subtly, and the soft low voice became a cry that surely could have splintered the rafters, but miraculously didn’t. There were people milling about in the back and on the stairs sipping PBRs and carrying on with their conversations, but I didn’t understand how, how were they not stricken by this, too, but they were obliterated from my conscious mind by her next sounds, a simple and quiet part that sounded the way porcelain felt. Her body was still. Kris and the other musicians looked like they were guests of hers onstage, aides who had pledged to complete spells alongside her.

Their set was brief and she gave a curt nod and a glazed-over glance upon the audience, most of whom were back to their drinks or milling outside for cigarettes. I missed the chance to catch Kris before she left—I wanted to ask her who this woman was and how they met, but I got caught in a conversation with this guy named Evan who went to the New School and was telling me about his best friend who was schizophrenic. He was smoking Newports and I could feel my fingers itching, remembering how much I missed menthols while also restlessly looking for a way to excuse myself from the conversation to catch Kris.

‘when we were fifteen she told me that she had been feeling bugs under her skin for a while—like worms and beetles and shit. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew well enough not to tell an adult, I could see how scared she was in the first place’
mmhm. I nodded distractedly.

‘and then last year I ran into her coming back from work and she looked totally ... normal? Sorry if that’s fucked up to say, but I thought she’d be in a facility or something, I don’t know.’
He’s looking at me waiting for a reaction, building this story to some sort of point or climax. I can’t tell if he just wants an ear to hang onto or if this is his version of hitting on me. He offers me a cigarette and I force myself to say no thank you, feeling the dissonance inside me as I smell his smoke settling into my jacket.

‘get this, she tells me that she still feels the bugs inside her, but that it’s a really common condition for people like her—it’s called like ... parasite-osis? or formification? I thought she said fornication, ha ha...’
I finally relent and hold my hand out for a cigarette, sighing in relief as I drag, relaxing to hear the rest of his story.

‘she says that she talked to tons of other people that had this, too, and she doesn’t think that it’s a hallucination. She thinks their bodies have some sort of memory, or future-memory, experiencing time as nonlinear and how the body isn’t a discreet, static thing, but is something permeating ... Like, I mean she thinks their bodies are either remembering ... or foreknowing, what it is like to be dirt.’
He paused for emphatic effect.
‘isn’t that crazy!!??’

I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but it really was and my interest was piqued. Or maybe it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction or admit that I was interested in his story, but that I didn’t want to encourage him into a longer conversation that I couldn’t extract myself from. Either way, I felt like a dick excusing myself to go get another drink, musing over his words while I weaved through the crowd filling up for the next set.

While the band was playing some surprisingly loud prog-rock song below me, I preened in the mirror in their disgusting bathroom, splashing water on my face. I looked so different than I did even a year ago. Sometimes I wondered if I had crossed the threshold of self-awareness into unadulterated vanity. I spent so much time in front of mirrors and trying on different outfits recently. Could someone be trans without being so acutely self-aware of their body to the point of self-obsession? These past three years had made me gluttonous, gorging on this newfound feeling of joy and excitement in how my body looked and felt. Could I be what I am without constantly checking and re-checking what I look like? It felt like I look different each time anyway. Surveilling my body had become so deeply engrained in me that I enforce it autonomously, with an iron will and a cruel eye these days.

I sigh again and check my mascara before stepping back outside into the kitchen, but there is no audience to admire me. My phone tells me it’s almost one, so I make my way out into the night, down a few blocks to my other friend’s place, where they’ve kindly made a sofa bed for me with a towel on the armrest. I collapse and sleep dreamlessly until a train horn wakes me in the early morning.

About the author

Marianne Agnes is an artist and reformed pastor’s daughter originally from Tennessee, now based in Philadelphia. Her writing often involves themes of transsexuality, ecology, and the divine. She loves to walk in the woods and rock in her rocking chair.