"THE STORY OF ANGEL O"
Chimera: in Greek mythology, a fire-breathing monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail (Oxford Dictionary); a grotesque product of the imagination (vocabulary.com); a hope or dream that is extremely unlikely ever to come true (Cambridge Dictionary); a single animal or plant with genetically distinct cells from two different zygotes (Wikipedia).
The only logical place to begin my story is by telling you about the extremely unusual genetic makeup of my physical body. The medical profession call me a 46,XX/46,XY chimera.
Pretty impressive, no?
Now I know what you’re thinking. That’s sounds pretty weird, right? Well, you’re correct. It’s not only pretty weird, but also exceedingly rare. Statistically speaking, 46,XX/46,XY chimerism occurs so infrequently in humans there’s no published data about its prevalence; I’m pretty much a freak of nature.
That word, freak, has often been applied to me throughout my life. Early on I mostly applied it to myself. Later, as I became more open about sharing my story, other people have been more inclined to label me with it. That’s okay. People are generally afraid of what they don’t understand, and they need to protect themselves from feeling this fear by projecting it—often along with some anger—onto others . . . which usually means back onto me. These fearful and angry projections no longer have anywhere to land in me, however, so it’s not a problem.
Another term that applies to me is intersex. That’s the ‘I’ in LGBTIQA+. Yes, my physical body most definitely falls into this category, but intersex is such a complex and fraught area that so few people understand in any depth, so I tend to steer clear of using the word unless the situation specifically calls for it. ‘Q’ for queer most definitely applies to me, and these days I’m quite proud to use this epithet.
Newer terms that could also apply to me are non-binary, genderqueer, bigender, and gender-fluid. I do love that these ‘non-category’ categories now exist for those who identify with them, but if I’m completely honest, none of these terms really fit me that well either, so I tend to avoid using them too . . . although bigender is close.
The single word that describes me better than any other is one that’s much more old-fashioned, and significantly more laden with negative associations and prejudices: I’m a hermaphrodite.
There, I said it. It wasn’t so bad, really. I can still feel queasy in the stomach just thinking about that word. Actually saying it out loud, and in the process revealing what’s been my life’s most shameful secret, has historically been so friggin’ hard. These days, however, I’m discovering that speaking the truth—and not just the relative truth but the deepest truth, the truth all the way—is one of the keys to living a life of true happiness and fulfilment, and that not being completely honest will only ever result in more pain and suffering.
It's quite interesting to stop and reflect on the etymology of the word hermaphrodite. It is, of course, a portmanteau of the names of the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite.
Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, is known as the messenger of the gods as well as the divine trickster. He transports the souls of the dead to Hades, and is associated with science, language, travel, good luck, and fertility. Hermes is usually depicted wearing a winged cap and boots, and he often carries a caduceus staff. His Roman counterpart is Mercury; his Egyptian equivalent, Thoth.
Aphrodite is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Dione, but she’s also said to have risen fully formed from the sea on a giant scallop shell after Cronos castrated Uranus and tossed his severed genitals into the sea. Aphrodite is the goddess of beauty, desire, sex, and love, and she’s said to have possessed a magic girdle that compelled everyone to desire her. Her Roman equivalent is Venus; her Egyptian counterpart, Isis.
In the next chapter I’ll share with you a few details about how I came to be a 46,XX/46,XY chimera, and what exactly that means for someone as they grow up and live their life, but before I finish this initial exposé of my unusual genetic secret and my indeterminate sexual identity, I do want to be completely clear—for the sake of my fellow intersexes—and say that the vast majority of intersex individuals are not hermaphrodites like myself (as is sometimes portrayed in the popular press), and that they generally have entirely different causes for their sexual ambiguity; intersex is a heterogeneous group. I believe this is the main reason there’s so much misinformation and misunderstanding about what it means to be intersex: it’s complicated. Technical medical diagnoses—androgen insensitivity syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, 5-alpha reductase deficiency, Klinefelter Syndrome (47,XXY), 46,XX/46,XY chimerism, etc.—are often attached to us along with the intersex label, and this makes the whole landscape even more confusing for everyone involved.
Fundamentally, it’s not our choice to be intersex, it’s simply how our physical bodies developed. Usually, this aberrant development occurs in response to an inherited hormonal imbalance, a chromosomal abnormality, or both. It’s not anyone’s fault we’re intersex, we’re just intersex. I truly hope in the future that the rest of the world can accept that being intersex (or a hermaphrodite) is merely a normal variant of being human—like being tall, or blonde, or double-jointed, or Bulgarian, or a tall, blonde, double-jointed Bulgarian—and not judge or condemn us for being something that we didn’t even have a say in; we’re just ordinary human beings like everyone else.
From early childhood onwards, I experienced many momentary flashes of what I later discovered might best be called awakening. At the time that these experiences occurred I had no clue what they were or what they pointed to. Much later in life—having been directed to the spiritual path and having researched spiritual awakening to some degree—I discovered that these momentary flashes are also called satori moments. Within them I experienced a brief dropping of the veil of separation that’s inherent in egoic identification, and a moment of freedom from the painful identification with the sad story of me. Flashes of the ultimate nature of Reality also occurred in these moments . . . but they didn’t last. The first of these flashes of revelation that was associated with a lasting shift of identity away from my ego, and towards Being, occurred in my 40th year.
This first big wakeup call—the one that truly turned the focus of my attention away from the outside world, and which started the process of seeking to find my way out of the chronic state of sadness and depression I was caught in—came in 2003. As I write this it’s 2020, I’m 56 years old, and joy and peace are always here, even in the most sad and challenging of life circumstances. Joy, I’ve discovered, isn’t an emotional state that comes and goes, but an essential quality of my ever-present true nature.
The great good news is that this liberating discovery is fully available to everyone, including you, right now if you’re somehow mysteriously drawn to discover it in yourself. Just the fact that you’ve made it this far into this book is a sign that freedom may be calling you also . . .
II: THE ACCIDENT
“The Great Way is not difficult for those unattached to preferences. When neither desire nor hatred arises, all is clear and undisguised. Separate by the smallest amount, however, and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.”
— Seng-ts’an, 3rd Zen patriarch (529-613), from Hsin-Hsin Ming.
My personal story begins with two eggs and two sperm. Well, there are hundreds of millions of sperm, actually, but only two that count in the end.
My mama, Gabriella Louise Williams, has been wanting another child for some time. Papa, Hank Washington Williams, is happy with his two boys. Hank has never shared Gabriella’s passion for reproduction. In fact, his life had felt easier, and in many ways more enjoyable, before the arrival of the twins, which had ramped up his burden of responsibility exponentially. Truthfully, Hank pines for his carefree bachelor days when he could go drinking with his buddies whenever he wanted to. In those days when life became too stifling, Hank would hop on his now thoroughly rusted Harley and speed along winding backroads to clear his head and feel fully alive.
The night of my conception happens to be Hank and Gabriella’s sixth wedding anniversary. Unbeknownst to papa, mama stopped her birth control pills six weeks back. The party which mama pulls together at the last minute is a casual affair—just immediate family and a few close friends. Gabriella makes canapés; Hank buys some cheap sparkling wine for a toast; there’s some music and a little dancing. Overall, it’s nothing special, and everyone’s home and in bed before midnight despite it being Saturday night.
Gabriella doesn’t have to try too hard to persuade Hank to make love to her; it’s been a while.
Now each of mama’s ovaries have produced one plump, juicy follicle on its first full menstrual cycle free of the oppressive effects of the artificial estrogen that’s been coursing through Gabriella’s bloodstream for the past three years. Two ovaries, two follicles, two eggs, two ovulations.
Both of Gabriella’s ovulations occur on the same day—today: April 20th, 1963. In fact, both of Gabriella’s ovulations occur, rather miraculously, within moments of each other.
Each of mama’s two newly released ova bob peacefully along their respective fallopian tube as she stares at the peeling paint on the bedroom ceiling, jerking rhythmically in front of her slightly out-of-focus vision. Two bodies, casually intertwined, copulating. Two eggs, ripe and ready for the picking, bobbing.
As Hank’s body shudders and jerks, Gabriella grips his lower back firmly with her lithe thighs, pulling him deep inside her. Hank releases a stifled moan, “haaaa-haaaa-haaaahhhhhh!! He breathes heavily for a few moments, then rolls onto his side of the bed and is instantly asleep.
Just a matter of some minutes later . . . they come. Furiously wiggling their way up out of the darkness of mama’s uterus: millions upon millions of papa’s sperm. Each of Hank’s sperm is vibrating like an excited puppy vying for its master’s attention. Each sperm single-pointedly focused on its sole life purpose:
Find an egg, fertilize an egg.
Find an egg, fertilize an egg.
Be the quickest, be the strongest, and you might succeed.
Find an egg, fertilize an egg.
Find an egg, fertilize an egg.
Now many of papa’s hundreds of millions of sperm in the early hours of this Sunday morning in April—exactly half, to be entirely precise—carry within their bulging crowns an X chromosome. Each of these X chromosomes is accompanied by 22 other bundles of compacted DNA—the 22 so-called autosomes. For ease of reference we might call each of these sperm a 23,X sperm.
Each of papa’s hundreds of millions of 23,X sperm are searching for an egg—also coincidentally containing its own X chromosome as well as 22 autosomes (a 23,X egg, if you like)—with which to merge and form a human embryo, a 46,XX embryo, that will later go on to become a female human being . . . a girl.
Exactly all the remaining half of the hundreds of millions of papa’s sperm tonight carry within their bulging heads a Y chromosome (yes, 23,Y sperm; now you’re getting the hang of it). Each of these 23,Y sperm are also looking for an egg of their own to fertilize. This time, however, the aim is to create a 46,XY embryo, a male human being . . . a boy.
At the precise moment that the vanguard of papa’s sperm encounters mama’s eggs in their respective fallopian tubes, one 23,X sperm—let’s call her Susan, shall we?—and one 23,Y sperm—perhaps Phillip?—are in the lead. Susan and Philip each bump into one of mama’s ova. Susan and Phillip each burrow their way, with great gusto, through the zona pelucida of their respective egg. Susan and Phillip each release their genetic material into the interior of their chosen ovum, their heads exploding in unison; chromosomes ejected into the cytoplasm.
Their life’s purpose fulfilled, Susan and Philip now disappear with absolutely no fanfare to speak of. The other few hundred million of papa’s sperm, now denied entry into their eagerly sought-after oocytes, soon die also.
Gabriella lies on her back with her hips elevated on a pillow for more than an hour before finally rolling onto her side to sleep. Her two recently released eggs, now fertilized—you might call them zygotes, a 46,XX zygote and a 46,XY zygote, if you were inclined to—continue to bob peacefully down each of mama’s fallopian tubes. They pass amongst Hank’s dead and dying sperm, oblivious to their demoralizing sense of unfulfilled destiny.
The combined maternal and paternal DNA inside our two zygotes, having mysteriously been activated by the recent turn of conceptual events, now stimulates the latent protein making apparatus of the inner organelles of their respective zygote to switch into high gear; mRNA messengers start running busily around the cells giving orders:
Make this protein. Make that protein. Make more of this protein. Make more of that protein. Join this bit of protein to that bit of protein to make bigger bits of protein. Join this bigger bit to that bit, then join that bit to this bit. Make more protein . . . and so on, and so on.
Fast forward a few hours, and there’s enough of everything inside our two zygotes to replicate themselves. Mama and papa’s DNA now mysteriously instructs how this unimaginable process should take place, and before you can say, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat,” there are no longer two single-celled zygotes, but two pairs of cells, two doublets, each bobbing blissfully down one of mama’s fallopian tubes.
Fast forward a few days and our two conceptuses have arrived in the fundus of mama’s uterus. Here it is spacious, warm, and inviting. The fluid around them is nourishing, and over the course of the coming weeks becomes further supplemented with nutrients newly released through the wall of mama’s rapidly expanding uterus. This uterine growth, as well as the production and secretion of the extra nutrients, is being stimulated by the soaring levels of progesterone now coursing through Gabriella’s bloodstream. Progesterone that is being produced and released by the corpora lutea—the yellow bodies—that have formed on mama’s ovaries in the wake of their recent ovulations.
Next, quite unexpectedly, our two bundles of cells—our two morulae if you like, no longer simply pairs of cells but now numbering sixteen cells each, both having undergone three more cell divisions in the ensuing days—bump into one another.
Two morulae—a 46,XX morula and a 46,XY morula—become stuck to one another. And not just stuck to one another, but firmly stuck to one another.
Lacking entirely in articulated extremities, and completely devoid of the capacity to make any locomotive movements whatsoever, no attempt is made by our two clusters of cells to disentangle from one another. The resulting bundle of cells—numbering 32 cells in total, and which might best be called a 46,XX/46,XY morula—now floats off on a new trajectory through the fluid in the apex of mama’s womb, like the compound body formed when two meteors collide and fuse in the enormity of outer space, having a different mass, trajectory, and momentum to each of its component parts.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the bundle of cells that will later become me has lodged in a gland in the wall of mama’s uterus, stuck securely, and taken up residence there.
From 32 cells to 64, from 64 to 128, from 128 to 256; cell division and growth of the chimeric morula accelerates exponentially. The rapidly expanding bundle of cells soon starts to glow with life. My parental DNA continues to furiously instruct what should be done:
Make this. Make that. Move this here. Move that there. Make a hole here. Split this layer from that layer. Join this to that. Curve around here. Change that into this. Move this piece over here. Connect this piece with that piece. Expand that bit a little. Have this bit differentiate into that . . . and so on, and so on.
Just a few weeks more and I’ve developed a complex tubular arrangement, bulging at one end where my head and brain will later form. Curling around on myself, I start to develop another bulge in my center that will later become my chest and heart.
One embryo, later to become one fetus, then one neonate, one infant, one toddler, one child, and eventually . . . one adult. Me.
One body, one head, one brain, one nose, one mouth, one neck, one spine, one heart, one liver, one bladder, one anus.
Two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, two shoulders, two arms, two elbows, two hands, two lungs, two kidneys, two hips, two legs, two knees, two feet, two ovaries, two testicles.
Yes, two small, underdeveloped and ectopic ovaries, tucked high up in my pelvis quite near my kidneys, as well as two small, underdeveloped and undescended testes, stuck in their respective inguinal canals. Two small testicles that will never develop sufficiently to descend into my one small, contracted, empty scrotum.
One small penis . . . or is it one large clitoris? Who can say? I’m not sure, and the medical profession certainly has no idea.
One urethral opening, not at the tip of the appendage where it would be if it were truly a penis, but halfway along the underside of its tiny shaft. Two small labia majora—more like ridges than true flaps of skin—flanking my microphallus/megaclitoris, merging inferiorly into the aforementioned empty scrotum. One vestigial vagina. One small, underdeveloped and anteverted uterus.
All in all, quite ambiguous in the genitalia department.
All in all, perfectly formed in every other way . . .
III: THE ARRIVAL
"Inside your body is a priceless treasure, a gift from the eternally generous one. Look for that gift inside of you."
— Rumi (1207-1273)
I’m born in New Eden City—the Bronx, to be precise—in the good old U. S. of A. The month is January, the year, 1964. It’s a punishingly cold winter in New Eden this year, and the entire city is snow-bound for weeks after the record-breaking blizzard that rages the night I’m born.
Papa is the cook in a local Bronx diner, The Brisket Basket, where he’s known for making the best Cajun-style fried chicken you ever tasted. Hank’s recipe has been handed down through his family for generations having its roots in a period of indentured slavery in South Carolina before the Civil War. Hank’s great-great-great-grand mother, Violet Shaw, had been granted her freedom after the war, and, possessing both a beautiful voice and considerable acting talent, she’d moved to New Eden to try her hand on the stage. Five generations later, and the Shaw/Williams clan is yet to enjoy the prosperity that Violet had so enthusiastically aspired to.
Mama works as a nurse’s aide at the aged-care facility that’s next door to our apartment building on Co-Op City Blvd. The Mavis Burrell Home for the Infirm is one of those facilities that looks after old folk with dementia and other cruel degenerative conditions. Gabriella had been born into a middle-class Italian Catholic family in Pittsburgh, but she’d been raised by her mother and a string of stepfathers in Washington Heights after the di Loreto family had disowned grandma for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. I’m the last of mama’s three children, though she would gladly have had more if life had allowed it;. A diagnosis of endometrial cancer—caught early enough to save Gabriella’s life but not her uterus—putting an end to mama’s childbearing career soon after I came along.
My gestation is uneventful, and I’m blissfully held in the warm bath of mama’s amniotic fluid for the duration. Naturally I’m bumped and tossed around by Gabriella’s day-to-day activities throughout the pregnancy, but none of it penetrates the deeply blissful state of rest that I experience in the womb . . . until the onset of labor.
The firm, massaging pressure of mama’s uterine contractions are, perhaps surprisingly, quite pleasurable for me. I even find the confining pressure of being squeezed through the birth canal enjoyable in a painful sort of way. There’s one moment during my birth process, however, when I’m totally stuck and unable to move at all in any direction, that I first feel rage erupt in my little body. But both the stuckness and the rage pass quickly, and out I pop into the world . . . and into a state of pure bliss and ecstasy.
There it is, the origin of my future pleasure addiction: my own birth.
It’s an experienced midwife, Merlene Tucker, who assists mama with my delivery. Merlene is known by everyone who knows her to be calm and competent, and she rarely calls in medical assistance for her deliveries unless things are looking especially grim. Merlene takes one look at my genitals, however, and immediately calls for the doctor. Something isn’t right, she knows, but she can’t put her finger on what it is. In her 35 years of midwifery Merlene Tucker has never seen genitalia like mine before.
Dr. Henry Crenshaw—the neonatal pediatric registrar on call at Jacobi Medical Center Maternity on the evening of my birth—is still feeling bitter about having failed his ophthalmology fellowship exam for the sixth (and final) time the previous month. Henry had been looking forward to a quiet, prosperous life performing cataract surgery, prescribing glaucoma medication, lasering the occasional diabetic retina or failing macula, and retiring at fifty. Now, Henry Crenshaw is headed inexorably towards a life of low-paying, long shifts covering unwanted rotations at any hospital in the country that will have him.
Dr. Harry, as everyone at Jacobi knows him, adjusts his magnifying loupes into position on the end of his long, aquiline nose, arranges me on my back under the bright lights of the birthing suite’s crib, and leans forward to examine my genitals.
What on earth does she mean, ‘not sure if it’s a boy or a girl.’ Ridiculous!! Henry thinks to himself as he takes hold of my little legs and spreads them widely to better expose my genitals.
“Hmmm. Well. Yes. Hmmm. I see. Um. OK.” Dr. Harry adjusts his loupes, and scratches his head absent-mindedly. He’s unsure of what he’s seeing, and is entirely unable to connect the combination of bumps, crevices, protuberances, and orifices currently presented in front of him with anything that he’s seen either in his medical training, or in his many and varied intimate bedroom explorations.
The inquisitive faces and probing eyes of Hank, Gabriella, and Merlene scrutinize Dr. Harry’s face eagerly, hoping to find an answer there.
Well, I don’t know, thinks Harry. Does it really matter? My life’s so miserable; I’m such a failure. I don’t care about this hideous creature and its deformed genitals, or its pathetic parents. I wish they’d all go to hell and leave me in peace, God damn them!!
“It’s a boy,” Dr. Harry ejaculates suddenly, not willing to admit that he doesn’t have a clue what sex my body is, and thereby risking being accused of being a failure yet again. Harry Crenshaw is acutely aware that any further failure at this point in his life, no matter how small, risks dragging him into the emotional black hole that’s opening inside his besieged mind. The most likely outcome of falling into this black hole for Dr. Harry being a successful suicide; easy access to the brain-numbing and heart-stopping drugs on the anesthetic trolley in the adjacent operating suite enough to ensure that Henry Crenshaw’s final earthly endeavor would be a successful one.
Dr. Harry scrawls some rudimentary notes into Gabriella’s hospital file:
“Hooray!! It’s a boy!!” Merlene smiles and claps her hands together enthusiastically though perhaps a little too loudly, trying to dissipate the doubt and anxiety that hovers, like a sneaky fart, in the birthing suite after the doctor’s exit. Hank and Gabriella glance furtively at one another, hold each other’s gaze for a moment, then nod in unison and break out into beaming smiles. They hug one another, Merlene, and their new arrival, then Hank pronounces solemnly to anyone in earshot that I’m to be named, Angelo Washington Williams: honoring both my maternal and paternal grandfathers; mama cries softly.
Papa insists that mama and I are discharged from the hospital as soon as possible after my birth. Hank is keen to take up a new work position which he’d been offered just days earlier. Hank’s patience with the manager of The Brisket Basket has been wearing thin for some years now, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before he loses his temper and is drawn into physical violence with him . . . which will not end well for anyone, Hank is quite sure of that.
Hank Williams is to be the new personal chef for the recently arrived—and already infamous—Swami Primananda at his ashram in upstate New Eden. The Swami Primananda Ashram has recently been completed on a large swathe of follower-donated land that’s not far as the crow flies from the small hamlet of Woodstock; the location of the generation-defining concert that’ll take place there a little more than five years hence.
Papa likes to cook, and he’s very good at it, but more than cooking Hank Williams likes to smoke pot and drop acid. Through his network of drug-addicted friends, Hank had been introduced to the teachings of Swami Primananda in which he’d unexpectedly found hope in his financially sparse, and ontologically unfulfilling, existence. The possibility of living and working at the Swami’s ashram—and thereby having access to the purest liquid LSD he’s ever tried—is beyond exciting for Hank.
Gabriella is much less enthused by the prospect of living on the Swami Primananda Ashram, however. She faces the prospect of raising a newborn—not to mention caring for twin toddlers—without the assistance of her mother, two sisters, and close circle of girlfriends, all of whom live within walking distance of their North Bronx apartment. Gabriella has also had a premonitory dream in which she glimpsed losing Hank to the Swami and his ragtag band of tripping followers.
Not an altogether unpleasant prospect, Gabriella thinks absently to herself as she gazes out of the car window on the drive from New Eden to the ashram.
So, aged just three days old, I’m taken away from the big city and its easily accessible medical services, and I’m raised on an isolated commune where the closest thing to a doctor is ‘Nurse’ Busso.
Javier Busso—a failed medical student from Nairobi, Kenya—has been living on the ashram since arriving in America a few months earlier. Much like the Swami and Hank, Javier Busso enjoys his inner journeying—compliments not only of marijuana and LSD, but also of a surprisingly wide range of other entheogenic substances—and at this point Javier is more likely to prescribe magic mushrooms than penicillin for a case of strep throat. As a result, no medically qualified eyes look at my body from minutes after my birth until well into my teens.
I grow up believing that the small appendage between my legs is an inferior, second-rate penis, and I don’t consider it abnormal that I urinate from an opening situated on its underside, about halfway along its tiny shaft. I also don’t know that the small opening just below where my pee comes from—which I subsequently discover to be my vagina—is not a normal finding in a little boy.
Looking back, I do wonder what mama had thought about my genital anatomy—which she must have seen daily when changing my nappies, surely—but I can only assume she was too busy being traumatized by the authoritarian regime that existed at the ashram, and which she quickly found to be her worst nightmare, to even notice. Also, rather than being cared for solely by mama, according to the Swami’s philosophy I became a communal offspring—lovingly referred to as a flower—to be nursed and mothered by all the women of the ashram in turn. Gabriella Williams—now known to her fellow yogis by her new ashram name, Ahumdrum—is assigned the lowliest role, reserved for the staunchest non-believers, of Body Waste Controller, and she sees very little of me in the months that follow.
Just four months after my birth, Ahumdrum/Gabriella flees the Swami Primananda Ashram and returns to her family in the Bronx. In planning her escape, mama decides to cut her losses, taking the twins, Aaron and Frank—who are able to make the difficult scramble through the woods needed to bypass the ashram’s security—with her, but leaving me behind. Mama rationalizes that attempting to take me out of the ashram’s crèche risked alerting the authorities too soon, thus potentially thwarting her chances of escape, possibly forever.
Having been abandoned by my birth mother at just a few months of age, I grow up with no conscious memory of who she is, or even what she looks like.
Hank—now known on the ashram as Ramarama—thrives under the direct supervision of Swami Primananda himself, who takes papa under his wing and encourages him to create gourmet meals on a daily basis. Hank’s reward for his exceptional culinary talents is a weekly sojourn into the uncharted corners of his mind compliments of the Swami’s personal LSD supply. While these inner journeys seem to be rewarding for Hank in the moment, they are not a positive activity for the health of his long-term memory, which quickly dwindles away to nothing. All memories of Gabriella, Aaron, Frank, and little Angelo disappear from Ramarama’s mind forever, and any possibility of a meaningful future connection to my biological father slips away with them.
Life growing up on Swami Primananda Ashram is quite fun for me. I’m cared for by a bevy of energetic, sexually charged, nubile young women, many of whom breastfeed me on demand; a practice that continues well into my fifth year, by which time it has taken on a particularly erotic flavor, and I most definitely have my preferred breasts from which to suckle.
There it is, the next step in the development of my future pleasure addiction: breastfeeding.
There’s no shortage of other children to play with in the early years. Schooling is unstructured and haphazard, and rather than being centered around a curriculum or textbooks of any kind, lessons are generally taught spontaneously based on whatever is occurring in the ashram—or in Swami Primananda’s hyper-stimulated mind—at the time.
My natural predisposition from the youngest age is to be full of joy and wonder; I carry a perpetual sense of awe and excitement around with me, and I’m curious about everything. I also have a strong tendency to be mischievous, and at times down-right naughty. Although I do act out my mischievousness at times, fundamentally I’m a well-behaved infant and toddler. As a result, I’m rewarded for being good—praise, hugs, kisses, extra dessert, more breast time. Not that I’m good for such reasons alone. On a deeply unconscious level I’m aware, from earlier than my first memory, that something is missing or fundamentally damaged inside of me. This deep-seated sense of lack drives me increasingly to search for someone or something in the outside world to temporarily take the unpleasant feeling away by seeing me, loving me, or generally acknowledging that I exist. I discover quickly that the best way to get the love and approval I’m craving more and more is to be good . . . so I am.
Despite Hank and Gabriella having christened me Angelo, the Swami gives me his own name: Bhairani. Now as it turns out, Bhairani is quite a difficult name for a toddler to pronounce or even remember, and I, along with almost everyone at the ashram, tend to shorten it to Brainy; a name that sticks with me for the full five years I live on the ashram.
For reasons known only to Swami Primananda himself, from the youngest age I’m treated as something special, and I’m increasingly given personalized attention not afforded any of the other children . . . or indeed any of the other adults either, for that matter. This personalized attention takes the form of me being positioned on my own little cushion next to Swami during group meditation sessions and dharma discourses, a seat at the Swami’s table during some mealtimes, and alone time with Swami some evenings. Here I’m swaddled in a blanket and hugged firmly by his Holiness as he rocks me back and forth until I’m asleep.
The child molestation claims that abounded in the press after the siege were, I believe, grossly overstated; my ambiguous genitalia were never fondled or licked by Swami Primananda that I can ever recall.
My closest friend during this period is Gila, an energetic redhead with pale skin and a plethora of freckles. Gila and I absorb ourselves in games of our own creation for days at a time. Having no primary parental figures means it’s quite easy for us to take our own initiative when it comes to filling our time, especially as we grow older and are progressively given more freedom to do as we please.
Gila is four years my senior, though I’m clearly smarter than she is . . . even if I do say so myself. Gila most definitely has the edge when it comes to bravery, however. She’s always the first to jump off the high rock into the swimming hole of the river running along the southern border of the ashram property each spring; she’s always the first to sneak out of the children’s dormitory at night so she can lay on her back in the grass looking for satellites and shooting stars; Gila once caught a rattle snake with nothing but her bare hands; and Gila’s the first of us to realize that how we’re being raised on the ashram is quite against the law. Perhaps this is because she was already six years of age when she’d arrived at the ashram, and therefore had memories of what an outside life—a pre-ashram life—consisted of.
It’s Gila who scales the compound fence—installed after Ahumdrum’s escape—marches into nearby Woodstock, and informs the local authorities that children are being abused at the Swami Primananda Ashram.
I do occasionally wonder what became of Gila; I hope she’s happy. I suspect that wherever she is she’s being controversial, and bringing wrong doers to justice.
In the aftermath of the FBI raid on the Swami Primananda Ashram—which saw Swami as well as nine of his inner circle, including what remained of papa, shot dead after holing up in the ashram’s main temple for five days—I’m given over to Child Protective Services.
It takes some days for mama to hear about the shootings at the ashram as she has no interest in current affairs, and rarely reads a newspaper. At first Gabriella only vaguely hears the TV news announcement about the raid—complete with flashing lights, sirens, helicopters, gunshots, and blood-spattered corpses—as she sits numbly waiting to see the ENT surgeon who’d inserted grommets into the twins’ ears six months before. As the words and images finally penetrate Gabriella’s narcissistic bubble, however, her eyes widen, she gasps, and an unfamiliar wave of excitement flashes through her body as she realizes that she might actually be able to see her baby boy once more; by this time mama had realistically given up any hope of ever seeing me again.
Our reunion is awkward as I really don’t know this woman, although strangely she smells familiar, so I decide to give her a chance . . .
"When you teach a child that a bird is called a bird, the child will never see the bird again."
— J. Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
Six adults and nine children—ranging in age from six months to thirteen years—are gathered in the small, two-bedroom North Bronx apartment. It’s my fifth birthday, and mama’s throwing me a birthday party.
I haven’t been back from Swami Primananda’s ashram for very long—seven weeks and two days, to be entirely precise—so all of these people are still pretty much strangers to me. Grandma’s here helping mama with the catering, amongst other things. She’s got an axe to grind with son-in-law number two, Nigel, about his recent infidelities, and everyone knows it. The atmosphere is so tense, you could cut it with a knife.
My identical twin brothers, Aaron and Frank—now eight years old—are in heaven. The twins love having other people around to play with; it makes them even more excited and hyperactive than usual. Today there’s so many people gathered in the apartment that the twins are feeling like all their Christmases have come at once. I’ve never heard two human beings make so much noise . . . ever. Strangely, nobody seems inclined to inform them that, for the sanity of everyone else present, they need to be quieter.
Two of Gabriella’s three sisters, Marlise and Laura, are here with their husbands, Nigel and Frankie, along with all of their respective children, currently numbering six . . . although number seven is due any day now. Laura’s expecting her fourth, and she’s chuffed with herself; nothing agrees with Laura Radcliffe more than being pregnant.
It’s 4pm on Sunday afternoon, it’s the middle of January, and it's freezing out. The heat in the apartment is jigged up so high, however, that everyone’s feeling decidedly sleepy, especially after the huge meal mama has just served up for lunch. Those not feeling sleepy are feeling cranky, or ‘in their stuff’—deep-seated emotional patterns and traumas having been triggered left, right, and center by the general intensity of the family gathering in the crowded apartment. Nerves are frayed, and there’s a general sense of dis-ease in the air.
I scan the gathering from where I sit at the place of honor at the head of the dining table. Everyone else had left the table after lunch had officially finished about twenty minutes ago, and they’re now scattered around the apartment deeply engrossed in various activities. They all look completely miserable.
This is so weird. What’s wrong with everyone? Why is everyone so unhappy? I’ve never seen anything like it. Am I going crazy? Have I done something wrong? Is it my fault? Is it because they’ve all been forced to come here for my birthday that they’re all so miserable? Maybe it’s because there’s something wrong with me?
An unpleasant sinking feeling starts to develop in my belly. It’s a churning, nauseous feeling that I discover, much later in life, generally goes by the name, shame. This never happened at the ashram. What’s the matter with them all? What’s the matter with me?
At precisely this moment, however, a bubble of my natural effervescent joy erupts from deep inside of me, pushes the developing shame aside . . . for now . . . and I start to giggle. One of my naughty plans has popped into my head. I know, I’ll surprise everyone and dress up in my Mickey Mouse costume and perform for them. Yay, oh yay!! Dressing as Mickey has always been my favorite thing in the world to do, and at the ashram it was always a hit.
I close the door of the bedroom I’m now sharing with Aaron and Frank—I’m sleeping on the top of the bunk beds, which suits me fine, but the twins aren’t happy about having to share their space with a third wheel—and I feel excitement grow inside me as I put on the Mickey Mouse outfit yogini Amani had made for my third flowerday. The ears—round pieces of cardboard covered in black cotton fabric and attached to a loose cap—are bent and floppy. The tail—made from the same black cotton fabric, this time stuffed with crumpled newspaper—is long and lumpy, and attached to the rear of a pair of women’s black sports bloomers. A black t-shirt, black tights, short white cotton gloves, and fluffy yellow slippers finish the ensemble. I step back and survey the head-to-toe look in the mirror that’s attached to the back of the bedroom door. It’s less than perfect, for sure, but—objectively to a five-year-old, at least—it’s pretty funny.
My heart’s pounding in my chest as I open the bedroom door, ready to make my entrance. Cheering people up was one of the roles I’d naturally gravitated to on the ashram, and Swami Primananda had thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. I know I can make these miserable people laugh. I just know it!!
I step confidently into the middle of the living room floor and put my hands on my hips, looking around expectantly at the faces of the fourteen other bodies in the small apartment.
No one notices me.
I twirl around in a pirouette, my tail following lethargically behind me, thrust my white-gloved hands into the air above my head, and finish with a valiant, “Ta daaaaaah!!”
No one so much as flinches.
My arms fall to my sides despondently and I look from face to face, wondering again what on earth’s the matter with everyone.
Uncle Nigel’s in the kitchen pulling the last of his six-pack of beer from the fridge. He’s fuming silently after being given a serve by grandma. She’d made him promise never to see his sweetie-pie, Melissa, ever again. Damned meddling woman, thinks Nigel. You can’t tell Nigel Barnes what he can and can’t do; I’ll show you.
Aunty Marlise’s asleep on the sofa. She’d drunk two glasses of wine with lunch then promptly passed out. Marlise Barnes’ alcohol tolerance is low at the best of times. When this is combined with the exhaustion she’s feeling from dealing with a demanding six-month-old, an autistic ten-year-old, a pre-menstrual thirteen-year-old, and a philandering husband on a daily basis, however, two glasses had been more than enough to put Marlise into a coma for a few hours. Even sound asleep, though, Aunty Marlise looks sad.
Aunty Laura’s laying on her back on one corner of the living room rug rubbing her huge belly, smiling, and singing softly under her breath to her unborn child. I think to myself how child-like Aunty Laura is, and how astounding it is that she can look after herself, let alone four or five other humans as well.
Uncle Frankie’s standing in the hall studying the form guide in the weekend paper and trying to think of a plausible excuse for slipping out of the party early so he can lay a few bets with his bookie before he closes at six o’clock. Uncle Frankie always has a nervous look about him—as if he’s about to jump out of his skin, or jump out of an airplane at 12,000 feet—but for some reason today Frankie’s fear is so extreme it’s seeping out of his pores along with his sweat. Perhaps it’s because he lost all last week’s wages on a bad bet on Friday night and is yet to find the courage to own up about it to Laura.
Mama is in the kitchen whipping up more food, desperate to make sure everyone enjoys her brand of hospitality, and knowing on an unconscious level that grandma will judge her for not having provided enough food no matter how much she delivers.
Suddenly out of nowhere, grandma begins yelling loudly at Aaron and Frank, having finally reached the end of her tether: “Why don’t you boys just shut the fuck up for a few minutes, and give us all a little peace and quiet. Got in himmell, help us all!!” The conversation with Nigel hadn’t gone as well as she’d hoped, and with the prospect of the now inevitable divorce to manage, grandma’s feeling irritated. As a result, she’s spitting her anger out onto anyone and everyone who comes into her line of fire. “That Nigel Barnes is a no-good lying cheat. My Marlise’s too good for him; he has to go,” grandma mumbles under her breath, all the while eyeing Nigel acrimoniously from across the apartment.
Next, I try to attract the attention of each of the other children in turn. Alice,13, and Emily, 12, are in the bathroom braiding each other’s hair, and putting on mama’s makeup. They squeal with delight each time they look in the mirror, but anything outside of their own reflections holds no interest to them.
Hamilton, 10, and Dean, 8, are laying on the sofa in the living room reading comic books. They occasionally jump up and down when the story line takes an unexpected twist, but mostly they’re as still as statues, their faces stern masks of concentration. Both boys would rather be outside throwing or kicking a ball of some sort, but Aaron and Frank’s comic book collection has kept them well-enough entertained for most of the long, boring afternoon.
Gregory, 5, the asthmatic, is asleep on Gabriella’s bed in the master bedroom wheezing quietly to himself. Despite his obvious respiratory challenges, Gregory looks happy, which makes me smile.
Finally, I see little Grace. Currently only halfway through her first year of life, Grace is sitting unsteadily on her haunches under the middle of the dining room table. I hadn’t noticed her when I first came out of the bedroom dressed as Mickey, but now I see her clearly. Her big, bright, blue eyes are wide open, sparkling like sapphires, and staring straight at me. She opens her mouth and lets out an ecstatic gurgle, “Gargaaarhhhaaagh,” accompanied by a long, swinging stalactite of saliva. Grace bounces excitedly on her haunches, raises both arms above her head, then rolls gently onto her left side, unable to maintain her tenuous upright posture with the altered center of gravity inherent in the new arms-up attitude. As she lays on her side, Grace starts to gurgle ecstatically once more; everything’s so amusing.
“Oh Gracie, thank you so much. I love you little Gracie.”
There it is. Consciousness, awake and unselfconscious, looking back at me through little Grace’s eyes. She’s present and she sees me, unlike everyone else in the apartment this afternoon, who are all ‘somewhere else.’ Lost in their own worlds, lost in their own stories, lost in their own minds.
I go to Grace, lay down beside her on the dining room rug, and hug her for a long while. She reaches up and pulls on my Mickey Mouse ears, and I gaze into her laughing eyes, smiling all the while. Occasionally I tickle her belly and squeeze her nose or ear lobes; she’s enthralled by all of it.
Next, feeling a little better, I wander around the apartment looking from face to face searching for some trace of recognition, for some glimmer of awareness of my existence. Nothing. No one even sees me, except little Gracie. Why am I invisible to them? Do they all hate me, or are they all just in some sort of trance? It seems like they’re all only seeing a world of their own mental creation rather than the world as it is, but why is that? It’s not like that for Gracie or me. I see them. Little Gracie sees them. It wasn’t like that at the ashram. So what’s wrong with me that they don’t see me?
I start to feel a crushing heaviness in my chest, and a pall of sadness descends on me. I turn and trudge slowly back to the bedroom, closing the door behind me. Before I close it fully, I turn and take one final peek through the narrow crack at all the self-absorbed people. People who are apparently my family. People who supposedly love and care about me more than anyone else in the whole world. I feel a deep, painful wave of aloneness, and something which much later in life I will label despair but which in this moment is just a cluster of unpleasant sensations in my body.
I pull my Mickey Mouse ears off my head and throw them at the reflection that’s mocking me from the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. My body and lumpy tail slump, defeated, to the floor. Tears stream down my cheeks. Sobs start to make their way up from deep in my belly, erupting through my chest, and are finally released towards the ceiling with a long, silent, “Waaaaaaahahahahahah!!”
I get up, throw myself on Aaron’s bed, and howl into his pillow for a long time. When I come up for air there’s a wet patch in the middle of the pillow, so I turn it over to hide any evidence of my misery.
I climb up onto my own bed now and sit with my back against the wall, my head quite close to the ceiling in the pokey top-floor apartment. The crying has subsided for now, but my mind has become hyperactive. A barrage of questions beckon for my attention: What’s going on? Why do these people not see me? Aren’t they supposed to love me? Is this what it’s like to live in the big city? That you become totally self-centered? That you only see your own little version of the world and not the real thing? But it’s so painful to not be seen, to not be recognized. Is this what my life is going to be like from now on? Does everyone have this experience, or is it just me? There must be something terribly wrong with me.
I sit silently reflecting on these questions and more for some time, then a possible solution presents itself. “I know, I’ll just have to be better. I’ll just have to try harder,” I say out loud to no one. “I’ll just have to be smarter, more talented, more interesting, more special, more perfect. I’ll just have to try harder to be the best I can possibly be at everything, then people will see me and love me, won’t they? I know they will. That’s it, I just have to try harder to be more lovable.”
As the sense of impending doom that was arising in me a moment before now goes into hiding in the depths of my unconscious mind . . . for now . . . I leave the bedroom and wander around the apartment once more, stopping at each of the adults in turn. This time I wave my hands in front of their faces to try and attract their attention. A couple of the faces turn vaguely toward me, but their eyes are dead, unseeing, and they immediately turn back to whatever it is they’re absorbed in doing. The unpleasant body sensations of despair return.
But how can I convince them I’m lovable if they don’t even see me? Is this some sort of horrible nightmare I’m trapped in? Is it a test that I must pass to become a grown-up? Perhaps it’s all just a terrible dream?
Finally, I sit on the floor in the living room and watch in disbelieving horror. As I sit there trying to decide what to do, by trial-and-error I discover that If I close off something inside me, something in the vicinity of my heart, then all the pain, shame, loneliness, and despair that I’m feeling all through my body—and which feels unbearable—goes away.
Oh, I guess that’s what I have to do then, close off my heart. Makes sense, I suppose.
As I sit there trying out this new strategy, I discover that while the crushing pain and all the negative feelings in my body do indeed go away when I close my heart, so does all my joy, excitement, curiosity, and wonder. The feeling of joyful mischievousness and insatiable curiosity has always been with me. In fact, in some ways it feels like it is me. Now, with my heart closed, it drains out of my body, or rather, is no longer accessible as a part of my present-moment experience.
But where did all the good stuff go? Oh, what’s wrong with me? I must be damaged, or defective, or something. Ahhhhhhh!!
It seems to my struggling five-year-old mind that there’s a very important choice for me to make at this very important moment in my life:
It’s all too overwhelming so I curl up in a ball, put my thumb in my mouth, and close my eyes. I pray that the whole nightmare will go away, and that when I re-open my eyes I’ll be back in Swami Primananda’s lap, swaddled in a blanket, being rocked to sleep.
When I open my eyes sometime later the apartment is quiet, and it appears empty. Aaron and Frank are in our bedroom with the door closed. Mama’s out of sight in the kitchen, finishing washing up the dishes after all the guests had finally left. She comes through the doorway into the dining room, a cheery floral apron tied high-up under her breasts. Pink rubber gloves cover her calloused, hard-working hands. Using a disposable dish cloth, she wipes down the dining table, then walks into the living room where she fluffs and rearranges the pillows on the sofa.
Next, she stretches her arms above her head as she looks up at the ceiling, and lets out a long, weary sigh, “Aaaaarrrrrrhhhhhhhh.” One by one she pulls off the rubber gloves, placing them neatly on the arm of the sofa. She then reaches behind her back to undo the apron which she lifts over her head, folds neatly, and places on the arm of the sofa beside the rubber gloves. Finally, she turns, and sits down heavily on the sofa, allowing her body to be caught by the bulky beige three-seater, and gives herself permission to relax after what has turned out to be a very long, tiring day. Gabriella then stares unblinking at the small square of dark starless sky that is on display in the window directly above my head.
After about five minutes of this silent, motionless tableau, mama glances down and notices that I’m looking up at her. She flashes a mechanical smile, hauls herself up from her place of repose, walks stiffly across the living room and kneels beside me. Placing a hand gently on one of my shoulders, she says, “Wasn’t it a lovely party, Angelo? Did you enjoy yourself, sweetie?”
I recoil from her touch, back myself into the corner of the room, and start to scream at her as loudly as I can: “My name’s Brainy, not Angelo, and I hate you. I hate you. I hate all of you. Leave me alone. I want to go back to the ashram. I hate you!! . . .”
V: THE FIRST DEATH
“There is a land where no doubt nor sorrow have rule: where the terror of death is no more. There the woods of spring are a-bloom, and the fragrant scent ‘He is I’ is borne on the wind.”
— Kabir (1398-1519)
After the angry outburst on my fifth birthday, I become quiet and withdrawn, and make little effort to communicate with mama or the twins. It’s patently obvious to Gabriella that the formative years of our mother-son relationship have been lost, never to be recovered. She continues to provide for me well enough, but emotionally there’s a distance between us that lingers.
Adapting to the ‘normal’ school setting at my local elementary school—PS153: The Helen Keller School—in and of itself is a big enough challenge for me this year. I quickly discover that at school, unlike at the Swami Primananda Ashram, there are many rules that need to be followed: I mustn’t speak unless I’m first asked to do so; I need to ask permission to use the bathroom, and I’m not to pee in the playground; if a brilliant idea pops into my head I’m to stop and think about it before telling the rest of the world all about it; climbing and swinging from trees, roofs, door frames, window ledges, and other students is strongly discouraged; paper and exercise books are the only surfaces to be written or drawn upon, not desks, walls, floors, chairs, windows, cars, trees, teachers, or other students. My response to this new world of structure and limits is to become even more quiet and withdrawn.
My teachers remark amongst themselves on the heavy sense of melancholy they feel residing within me, and that they wish they could see more of the dwindling bursts of joy that do still occasionally erupt in me this first year, but which become rarer and rarer, and which eventually stop altogether.
The one exciting discovery I make during my first year of school—and which gives me some hope—is that for the first time in my life I have access to an unlimited supply of books to read. The only books allowed on the ashram were either written by Swami himself or had been read and personally approved of by his Holiness in the few years between his arriving in America and his untimely death. At the time of the raid, I’d read Biggles and Co. three times, Black Beautytwice, and was part way through my second reading of The Scarlet Letter. It was in the reading of these few literary classics that I’d developed the ability to lose myself completely in a good narrative. Now, I start using novels as a way of disappearing into a fantasy world of my own co-creation. Once ensconced in this inner fantasy world, I temporarily forget about how sad and lonely my new, constricted, life is. I also find that sometimes I can even access the joy fountain that still resides somewhere deep inside of me, and which is accessible when my mind is not busy telling its sad story about how miserable and alone I feel.
The other essential discovery I make during this first year of school is that if I engage fully in the schoolwork, and give it 100% of my focus and effort, I can achieve a certain level of praise and recognition from my teachers that feels warm and comforting, and which also temporarily takes away the pain of my new, limited existence; I become a conscientious student.
With mama’s lowly income from The Mavis Burrell Home for the Infirm the only means of financial support for our family of four, there aren’t many extravagances to be had in these years. On weekends there’s the odd trip to Orchard Beach, or Bartow-Pell Mansion, or Jungle World at the Bronx Zoo. On special occasions—like birthdays, or holidays—mama might splurge and take us all to Jack in the Box, or to see a movie at Bay Plaza Cinemas. Mostly mama works, and the twins and I entertain ourselves.
For the twins tenth birthday, which falls during the school summer vacation in August, Uncle Frankie and Auntie Laura—along with Emily, Dean, Gregory, and little baby Hugh—invite mama, Aaron, Frank, and I to join them on a boating excursion on Uncle Frankie’s new cruiser. Frankie’s luck had turned the corner after January, and he’s in the middle of an extraordinarily long winning streak. None of us—not even Frankie himself—have even the slightest inkling that his winning streak ended just moments after he proudly pushed the cruiser away from the dock and we set off up Long Island Sound for the day; the sure-fire winner Frankie had placed his biggest bet to date on having fallen and broken its leg at the last hurdle in the second at Belmont Park. The twins’ tenth birthday outing turns out to be both the first and last boating adventure for Uncle Frankie and his precious cruiser.
It’s in the middle of the afternoon, as we’re all exploring Huckleberry Island in our own way, that mama first falls ill.
I’m uncharacteristically excited about the day’s outing as it’s to somewhere away from the city, and to somewhere completely new to me. I run the circumference of the small island twice in the first half hour after Uncle Frankie ran the cruiser up onto the pebbly beach. Part way round my third circuit I stop at the rotunda to tell mama about the crabs I’ve discovered hidden between rocks at the far end of the island.
I find mama sitting on one of the benches under the high-pitched roof of the picnic shelter. She’s bent forward, her head resting on her neatly folded raincoat which is placed squarely on the table in front of her. It looks like she’s taking a nap—as mama loves to do on her days off—but as I stand gazing at her, trying to decide whether crabs are a good enough reason to wake her, I notice that she’s shivering, and occasionally shaking more violently. I place my hand lightly on one of her shoulders and I’m shocked to feel the heat radiating from her body. I shake mama gently, then let out a cry as she falls sideways onto the bench, grazing her forehead on the edge of the picnic table as she falls. Gabriella lays unmoving on the bench where she’s fallen, clearly unaware of my presence or the world around us. Her eyes are open, but they’re glazed and unseeing.
“Mama, what’s the matter? Mama, wake up!! Mama!! Mama!!”
At the hospital less than an hour later, Gabriella’s body is burning up with a fever of 107, and her blood is full to overflowing with leukemia cells. After a full night and day of tests at the hospital, accompanied by much angst on the part of the family who’ve all gathered in the uncomfortable, overcrowded hospital waiting-room, a doctor informs us that mama has developed AML—acute myeloblastic leukemia—and that she needs to begin chemotherapy right away or she’ll be dead in a matter of days.
Mama, who’d always believed that it was right to place one’s faith in those with more knowledge than oneself when it came to medical matters, agrees unhesitatingly, and the chemo is commenced. It’s only later revealed to Gabriella that the leukemia itself had most likely been caused—or at least made more likely to develop—by the chemotherapy she’d received after her hysterectomy back in ‘66. Back then there’d been no evidence of extra-uterine spread of the endometrial carcinoma after her uterus had been removed and examined by the pathologists, but the doctors had advised Gabriella to undergo three rounds of adjuvant chemotherapy just to be sure that any stray cancer cells were killed off. She’d agreed unhesitatingly with the doctors on that occasion too.
The toxicity associated with the cocktail of drugs Gabriella needs to bring her aggressive case of leukemia under control is high. While she’d soldiered on valiantly through her earlier experience with chemotherapy, this time she’s completely knocked for six, with losing all her hair the least of her concerns. Symptomatically, severe ulceration of her mouth and throat—not to mention all her other mucous membranes—is the most painful side effect. Hematologically, the most troubling side effect of the chemo is the complete annihilation of virtually all of Gabriella’s few remaining normal blood cells—red, white, or otherwise. She spends weeks in an isolation room at Calvary Hospital to try and reduce the risk of contracting an infection she’s entirely unable to fight, and she receives transfusion after transfusion of red blood cells and platelets to try and maintain sufficient oxygen carrying and clotting capabilities of her blood to keep her organs functioning and her body alive.
Throughout the weeks that mama’s hospitalized the twins and I are shuffled off to live with grandma. It’s close enough to school that we can still walk each day, and we all take the bus to and from Calvary every few days to visit mama.
Grandma’s patience with the three of us wears thin very quickly, however, and within a matter of days she’s losing her temper at one or all of us on a daily basis A plethora of new house rules spring up to keep us in check—all written in bold, emphatic capitols on the chalkboard that’s next to the pantry—and life generally becomes strained and unpleasant for everyone involved:
While I continue to maintain my introverted predisposition throughout this challenging period, the general intensity of the cramped living situation at grandma’s causes my temper to be triggered and expressed on a regular basis. Aaron and Frank find it highly amusing when this happens, and they make it their personal mission to poke and prod me until I explode as often as they can . . . because it’s always me that gets into trouble.
Grandma’s horrified when she hears the range of expletives I’ve learned after just a few months at school, and she strikes my shins sharply with a wooden spoon whenever she’s in earshot of my swearing rampages.
Mama’s health never fully recovers after the first round of heavy chemo, and when the leukemia relapses before her blood counts have recovered enough to begin the second-round things aren’t looking good for her making it at all.
Luckily for Gabriella the hematology fellow working at Calvary Hospital in 1969 is involved in a clinical trial, at nearby Jacobi Medical Center, of a new class of chemotherapy drugs that are showing great promise in the leukemia treatment arena. Dr. Jerry Bock talks to mama and grandma about transferring her to Jacobi where she can be enrolled in the trial. Gabriella, now wary of all doctors’ recommendations, hesitates, but grandma, uncharacteristically warming to Dr. Bock and his nervous Jewish earnestness, convinces Gabriella to sign the consent form, and the new drug regime is commenced.
Mama’s blood work comes back just a week later showing dramatic improvement in all parameters for the first time since her diagnosis. Finally, there’s a glimmer of hope that she might survive this challenge to her health and well-being. Gabriella tolerates the new drug combination much more easily than she did the first—despite her weak state of health prior to commencing it—and she’s released from Jacobi three weeks later with a healthy glow and a big smile on her face. When the four of us return to the Co-Op City Blvd apartment later that day I haven’t been so happy since before the siege at the ashram. Mama is given another round of the new chemo combination six weeks later with equally positive results. Dr. Jerry and the team at Jacobi then propose to mama that she’s ready for ‘the cure.’
Bone marrow transplant is the buzz phrase on the lips of all hematologists and cancer specialists in the early ‘70s. While the number of successful cases in 1970 is still small, the medical profession is excited about the prospect of curing leukemia and lymphoma, instead of the usual depressing course of treatment-relapse-treatment-relapse, and eventually the inevitable slow, and often painful, death that’s been the norm until recently.
Dr. Bock refers mama to the newly formed Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Columbia University Medical Center. Here she’s prodded and poked, and every test known to man is performed on her and her blood. Gabriella’s three sisters are tested for their suitability as donors, and after a month the team delivers their verdict: Gabriella is a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant, and Auntie Marlise is to be her donor.
A family gathering is convened at grandma’s apartment the evening before mama’s hospital admission where the mood is somber; even the twins are uncharacteristically quiet. Plans are laid for a family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard in July, and mama is as excited as anyone at the prospect of swimming in the ocean once more.
Throughout this period of mama’s illness, with all the focus on her health and well-being, I feel not just unimportant and unseen, I feel so completely invisible it’s like I’m not even here. Most of the extended family still see me—and indeed treat me—as an outsider. It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that they too missed out on the development of any sort of family bond with me during the early formative years. It’s as if I’m a ghost, or at least an unwelcome intruder, in their lives. If I’d had any friends or any other place to go and live during this period I would have done so, but to just wander off into the big wide world without any plans doesn’t seem like a realistic alternative, so I keep to myself, and fantasize about a better life.
Someday someone will realize the terrible mistake they’ve made in giving me to this dysfunctional family, surely. Someday someone will come and claim me. Someday my savior will come.
I dream over and over that I’m taken to a wonderful new home that looks like a castle, where I have a huge room all to myself, where I have lots of toys to play with, and where there are adults who hug and kiss me all the time, and who tell me how much they love me. I’m in the wrong life, I just know I am. One day someone will realize their mistake and I’ll be rescued; I just know it!!
It’s expected that mama will be hospitalized for three to four weeks for the bone marrow transplant. This time the twins and I are shipped off to Auntie Margot’s house; grandma can’t face the prospect of more time alone with her three badly behaved grandsons.
Margot di Loreto lives a little to the north, in New Rochelle. I’ve only seen Auntie Margot twice in the eighteen months since my return from the ashram, but I like her more than any of my other relatives. She’s reclusive and quiet, and her passion is books. Margot is in her early fifties, and she’s never been married or had any children. She leads a simple life, and works a handful of hours each week at a local library to earn just enough money to pay her bills.
While Auntie Margot doesn’t put a long list of rules on her kitchen whiteboard, the twins and I know instinctively that we need to be well behaved while staying with her or else there’ll be consequences. Margot di Loreto exudes a kind of resentment of other humans—especially of children—that makes you shrink instinctively from her when you’re in her vicinity.
Life at Auntie Margot’s is a silent, dull affair for a six-year-old and his hyperactive nine-year-old twin brothers. The upside is that the twins no longer taunt me until I explode at them, and there’s ample opportunity for me to dive into my literary fantasy world for comfort and rest from my ever-deepening sense of sadness and isolation.
Living geographically further from school means that more time is spent commuting each day. When grandma takes us to visit mama in the hospital at Columbia on the weekends it takes us all day just to get there and back. Pleasingly, everything goes smoothly for mama, and she’s released from the hospital in just three weeks as planned. While there’d been palpable tension and fear amongst the adults prior to mama undergoing the experimental procedure, after her successful return from hospital I sense they’re all feeling much more hopeful, and life quickly relaxes back into its pre-cancer routine.
It’s just two weeks after her return home from Columbia, however, that mama takes a turn for the worse.
Gabriella is enjoying being at home and spending more time with her boys. The leukemia diagnosis—not to mention the grueling treatment that she’s endured over the past twelve months—has brought the possibility of death close enough for Gabriella to force her to stop and take stock of her life. Now knowing without a shadow of a doubt that death is inevitable, and that it could realistically happen at any time, it’s clear to mama that she needs to prioritize what’s most important to her, and spending more quality time with her children is at the top of her list.
After a few weeks of rest mama has enough energy to play some board games with us, and it’s in the middle of a particularly energized and controversial game of Monopoly—which Aaron is winning by a proverbial mile—that mama starts to feel dizzy. She excuses herself and goes to lie down. About a half hour later I go in to see how she is, and if she might like a cup of tea or some ice cream.
I find mama sitting on the edge of her bed. She’s agitated, picking at her clothing, and clearly confused. Wild eyes jerk towards me as I enter the room, but any recognition of who I am is clearly absent. Fear and paranoia are extruding through her eyes, and a cursory tactile check confirms mama is running a high fever once more. Frank calls grandma, and an ambulance is here in no time to take mama back to Jacobi.
At the hospital, there are a lot of concerned faces, but no one seems to know what’s happening to mama: “It’s such a new procedure we really don’t know all the possible side effects yet,” and, “She’s having some sort of reaction to the new bone marrow cells which is more pronounced than usual,” and, “The usual anti-rejection medications doesn’t seem to be working for Mrs. Williams.” I just know that mama’s sick . . . and she’s getting sicker by the hour.
The doctors and nurses insert tubes into mama’s veins, arteries, and orifices, and they pump various drugs and fluids into and out of her now limp body, but nothing seems to help. After a few days mama’s having trouble breathing and her blood pressure is dangerously low, so she’s transferred to the Intensive Care Unit where she’s sedated, intubated, and hooked up to a respirator. This seems to stabilize her condition long enough for the hematologists to start playing around with more drugs to fight the horrifying array of abnormal blood cells that are clogging up mama’s bloodstream.
Because of mama’s tenuous health predicament, grandma, the twins, and I are given a small room adjacent to the ICU in which to sleep. It’s in the early hours of the morning of mama’s first night in ICU that I wake and feel the urge to go and be with her.
I pull on my Mickey Mouse costume—which I now carry with me whenever I’m staying away from home . . . just in case—and sneak quietly out of the small sleeping cubicle, gently pulling the door closed behind me.
It’s 4am, and most of the lights in the ICU are off or dimmed down low. The sounds of medical devices carrying out their essential functions continue unabated, however, and they create a complex background tapestry of noise that fills the large open room. These sounds are penetrated here and there by the hushed voices of nursing staff doing their rounds, dispensing drugs, and performing their requisite tasks; the life of an ICU nightshift nurse is not a sedentary one.
Mama is in a private room on the left side of the unit, and when I poke my head through the door she’s alone. I slip quietly into the room and climb up onto the hard plastic visitor’s chair that’s positioned near the head of the bed. I sit quietly and stare directly at mama’s face for a long while.
For the first time since her arrival at the hospital almost a week before, mama looks peaceful—despite the tubes taped into both her mouth and nose—as if something has shifted internally for her. As I sit there staring at her face, I notice some questions starting to arise in me: Do I love this person? I’m told she gave birth to me so she must be my mother, but I’m not sure I feel anything for her. If she died, would I be sad? Well, perhaps a little.
The questions then start to take a different direction: What is love, anyway? Do I need someone else to feel it, or is it inside of me? I wonder if this awkward, gnawing feeling I can sense inside my chest now, and which is strangely familiar, is love and not something I need to push away? Perhaps I do love mama after all because the feeling is strong right now?
As I sit contemplating these essential questions, mama’s eyes suddenly flash open. Without moving her head—she’s paralyzed so it’s impossible anyway—she looks directly at me, her eyes somehow managing to smile brilliantly despite her bodily paralysis. I feel an intensification of the gnawing feeling in my chest, and it changes to more of a churning as it spreads down to my belly.
It’s impossible to say how long this wide-eyed interaction with mama lasts for as time seems to have, strangely, slowed down, and now comes to a complete standstill. Everything is silent and unmoving. Just mama’s eyes locked on mine. I can’t breathe; it feels indescribable.
Mama’s eyes slowly start to lose their focus, roll upwards in her head, and her eyelids sink shut once more. Time returns to normal now, and I feel a sudden intensification of energy in the little room, as if a thunderstorm might erupt above us at any moment. I look around to see what’s causing this strange phenomenon.
I hold my breath again, still not sure what’s happening, then mama’s heart rate monitor flat-lines and the alarm begins to sound.
Beep!! Beep!! Beep!! Code Blue!! Intensive Care Unit, bed one!! Code Blue!! Intensive Care Unit, bed one!! Beep!! Beep!! Beep!!
My gaze snaps back to mama’s face where I notice a subtle swirl of light—almost like a wisp of white smoke—starting to emerge from the crown of her head. It glows softly, pulsating, hovers there for a few seconds . . . then dissipates and is gone.
Two nurses rush into the room bringing with them a resuscitation trolley and a flurry of activity. Moments later, a doctor staggers in pulling one arm into the sleeve of a white coat while at the same time wiping sleep out of his eyes with the other sleeve. I back into a corner of the room where I sit very still as the drama unfolds above me. I know that mama’s already gone, but they seem intent on trying to bring her back.
As I crouch in my corner of the little ICU room and witness mama’s post-death scene unfolding, I notice that my whole body is covered in goosebumps, and that all the hair on my head is standing on end. A tingly, ecstatic wave that starts at the tips of my toes and moves all the way up to the top of my head, surges through my body now. For a few seconds it feels like the top of my head’s been blown off completely. It’s like an extreme version of the joy I’d known so intimately in my early childhood, but which I haven’t felt at all for more than a year now.
I start to laugh and cry simultaneously, and I can’t sit still any longer, so I get up and start jumping and dancing around the room. I’m filled with energy, filled with joy, filled with mama’s departing spirit.
Mama’s essence—this joyful, playful, ecstatic energy I’m feeling all through my body—is filling the little room. It’s light, bright, very alive, and very beautiful. It seeps into every fiber and cell of my being, and I feel love—or at least I think that’s what it is—start overflowing from somewhere deep inside of me. Love for mama, love for papa, love for the twins, love for grandma, love for Swami . . . and love for life. Love and gratitude for life, for this life, for my life.
Mama’s effervescent departing spirit quickly expands beyond the walls of the small ICU room, and the buzzing energy I’m feeling in my body starts to subside. I run out to the nurse’s station in the center of the ICU where I continue to careen around dancing, singing, and laughing. I feel vibrantly alive. I feel mama inside me, outside me, all around me, everywhere. It’s beautiful beyond words.
The experience of mama’s death transforms my life in a difficult-to-define but vitally important way. In the moment of her death, I know in the core of my being that the joy, bliss, ecstasy, and love that I’m feeling is the true, undeniable, essence of who I am, not the sad, angry, lonely, misunderstood little boy. I realize that I’d always known this but that I’d forgotten it somehow. I also realize that this knowledge can’t be forgotten or taken away from me ever again. Joy and bliss are present even when I’m sad, angry, or feeling alone, though I might not be consciously aware of it at the time.
I feel deep love and gratitude for mama, and for her precious parting gift . . .
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”
— Judy Garland (1922-1969)
The weeks after mama’s death are a blur.
I’m handed from Aunty Margot to Aunty Laura, from Aunty Laura to Aunty Marlise, from Aunty Marlise to grandma, and around again. It feels like I’m the parcel in a game of pass-the-parcel, and nobody wants to be left holding me when the music stops.
Mama’s funeral comes and goes with lots of black dresses and suits, and lots of tissues and tears. Everyone looks and acts sad, but I don’t feel any real emotion from any of them; it’s like they’re all faking it.
One day, about three weeks after the funeral, I’m taken on a long road trip by Aunty Laura and Uncle Frankie. We travel through parts of the city I’ve never seen before, and although the landscape is industrial and urban, I find it completely captivating. I’m discovering that my mind is becoming increasingly inquisitive about the outside world, and being stimulated by new places and new things is what I crave more than anything else.
After about an hour we pull up in front of a bland-looking two-story house—one that looks just like every other house on this very suburban street—where a middle-aged woman dressed in a frumpy knee-length navy dress is waiting to greet us. Her hair is unashamedly grey and pulled back into a tight bun. She’s wearing eyeglasses with an attached chain perched on the tip of her nose, and a stern expression on her face.
Uncle Frankie climbs out of the driver’s side of his prized eggshell-blue ’67 Buick—that he’d just managed to save in the recent asset-selloff—walks stiffly around the bonnet of the car, shakes hands with the woman in navy, and proceeds to speak with her for a few minutes. It appears that she knows Uncle Frankie, or at least she was expecting him. Frankie then turns and opens the rear passenger door and beckons me out onto the sidewalk. By this time Aunty Laura has fetched a large suitcase—that I later discover contains all my clothes and personal possessions—from the trunk, which she now places on the ground beside me.
Aunty Laura kneels in front of me and places a hand on each side of my head, then gently smooths my hair and cradles my face. I notice she’s crying as she pulls me gently towards her and kisses me tenderly on the forehead. She then climbs hurriedly back into the front passenger seat of the Buick, her face discretely averted. Uncle Frankie shakes my hand earnestly, his eyes focused somewhere behind me over my left shoulder, slips behind the wheel . . . and they’re gone.
“Hello young man. My name’s Imelda Sommerville. You can call me Miss Sommerville, understood? Now, what do you like to be called?” She leans towards me ominously, peering comically over the top of her reading glasses, and slowly extending her right hand.
“What’s going on? Why am I here? Who are you?”
“Oh, you poor creature. They didn’t even tell you, did they?”
Miss Sommerville grimaces, and, placing both hands on her lumbar spine, stands painfully upright once more. She looks intently at me for a few seconds, smiles faintly through pursed lips, then states formally, “Angelo Washington Williams, this is your new home. Its official name is The Mercy Home for Children, but we like to call ourselves MHC, for short. We’re an orphanage. Do you know what that is, dear?”
Apparently, none of my extended biological family care enough for me to want to raise me now that mama’s dead; I’m to be a ward of the state.
The Mercy Home for Children—in South Ozone Park, Queens—is a pleasant enough establishment, and I’m well treated here. I share a small bedroom with three other boys, and I share the orphanage with an average of 24 other children, ranging in age from three to fifteen.
Once again there’s a long list of rules I’m required to heed, which I do so obediently; it’s clear to me by now that following the rules generally results in life flowing more easily than rebelling against them. Meals at MHC are simple and repetitious, but I never go hungry. Children come and go, especially the younger ones, as hopeful adoptive parents drop by to survey what’s on offer. On these occasions we all line up silently and dutifully in the living room as we’re inspected by the eager young couples, before being dismissed to go back to our rooms with fallen heads and dashed hopes.
Sometimes I pray quietly to be the chosen one, other times I pray not to be chosen, depending on who’s doing the choosing. Most of the hopeful parents-to-be have their eyes on the little ones; apparently adopting a toddler is much more preferred than adopting an older child as there’s a lower likelihood of pre-existing damage.
It’s about two weeks after my arrival, and we’ve just finished the latest ‘viewing’ (as Miss Sommerville likes to call these line-ups) with a very friendly looking young couple whom I’d liked the look of very much. I’d smiled exuberantly, and done my very best to catch their attention, but my efforts had been to no avail.
“You know you shouldn’t get your hopes up, don’t you? You know you’ll never be picked. You know that don’t you?” Coco’s twelve, and she’s the tallest of the current residents at MHC. She stands a full head taller than me, but she’s not the oldest. That honor currently goes to Hendrick, who’s fourteen. Coco is the most mature looking, however; I’d thought she was much older than twelve when I’d first seen her.
“Why did you say that? That’s mean. How long have you been here, anyway?”
“Since I was younger than you, stupid. And it’s not mean, it’s just realistic. All these white-bread couples want little white babies, not black ones like us. You and I aren’t even on their radar. None of them even see me anymore; it’s humiliating.”
“I’m not black, I’m half black.”
“Same thing, stupid. This country’s racist, and that aint gonna change any time soon.”
I look at the floor as I start to feel the familiar nauseous, sinking feeling of shame opening in my belly. Tears well in my eyes as I turn and walk quickly towards the stairs that lead up to my room.
“Hey, stupid. What’s your name?”
I stop, sniff back the tears, spin around and puff out my chest, putting my hands on my hips. I look Coco defiantly in the eyes and say, “What difference does it make?”
“Because I like you, stupid,” she replies laconically. “I’m gonna call you Milk on account o’ the fact you look like milk chocolate, not dark chocolate like me. OK?”
“OK,” I can’t help but smile. “Cool.” I think I like her.
Coco becomes my best friend. We bond on our shared misfortunes of being orphans, being persons of color, and being unwanted. Coco, as the only girl at the orphanage currently menstruating, has her own room on the ground floor near the downstair bathroom. I start to spend most of my free time there. Some nights I sneak out of my room after Miss Sommerville has done her evening rounds and curl up in bed with Coco for most of the night.
I discover that Coco’s sensitive like me. She presents a rough, tough exterior—she calls it her armor—but fundamentally she’s shy, sensitive, innately creative, and she just wants to be loved more than anything else in the whole world. Little by little I start to open up to Coco, and over the next few weeks we tell each other all of our secrets. This is so liberating as I haven’t had anyone to talk openly with since the ashram, and back then I was happy, not miserable and lonely like I am now.
“Coco. I’ve never told anyone this before, but sometimes I feel like I’m in the wrong body. When this happens, I feel like . . . I feel like I should be a girl. Is that crazy? Am I a freak?”
“Milk, honey. Sometimes I feel like I should be the daughter of a famous fashion designer living in a penthouse condo on Park Avenue, or Paris. No problem with me if you want to fantasize about being something you’re not. Go right ahead, I do it all the time. In fact, why don’t we make your fantasy come true . . . right now?” Coco turns and dives head-first into her closet.
I love how Coco dresses. It’s always cool, stylish, and completely unique. Coco’s discovered that scavenging for clothing outside second-hand clothing stores is a thing, and it’s her favorite hobby. She pulls open one of the big lower drawers or her wardrobe and starts rummaging around inside it. After a few seconds she gives a triumphant shout and stands up grasping a brightly colored floral dress in her raised hand.
“No, I can’t. No!! Don’t you dare make me put that on, Coco. No!!”
“Oh yes you can, my little Milk. Oh . . . yes . . . you . . . can!!”
I feel more excited than I remember feeling in a very long time as Coco pulls my t-shirt and shorts off and starts squeezing me into the elasticized tube frock. I squeal and object, but Coco shushes me, and continues fussing until she’s satisfied. Next, she pulls a hairpiece—golden curls attached to a black headband—out of another drawer, and places it deftly on my head. She then pulls a tube of lip gloss from her jeans pocket, smears some of it onto my lips, then steps back and claps her hands together smiling.
“Yes. Oh yes, my little Milk. You look gorgeous!!”
My heart’s racing as I slowly turn to look at myself in the mirror. Initially I don’t recognize myself, and look to either side of my reflection wondering where I am. Then I see myself . . . and I’m stopped in my tracks. An unfamiliar but pleasant tingling feeling starts to flood my body, arising from the depths of my groin. It’s a feeling that’s like joy, but which later in life I will label more accurately as happiness.
It’s like I’m seeing who I truly am for the first time in my life. What’s different? Well, for the first time I can ever remember there’s no sense of anything being kept out of my experience. I’m no longer suppressing a major part—the female part—of who I am. It’s disorienting . . . but tremendously exciting.
I smile tentatively, then a huge grin breaks out on my face which won’t go away. I start jumping up and down, laughing and squealing, and I hug Coco who’s laughing too, and beaming uncontrollably.
I attend the local elementary school—Jamaica PS 96—where I make a few friends my own age, mostly girls. During recess and lunch I team up with Donna, Harriet, and Janie, and we play elastics—an elaborate game that involves a twelve-foot loop of sewing elastic that’s stretched between two sets of legs while the other two perform various maneuvers with the elastic and their feet until they ‘muck up,’ then we switch roles.
It’s during this period that I start to realize how much more at ease I feel being around girls. This realization dawns on me slowly, like a tropical sunrise, but it lands very deeply. As I allow myself to become friends with these girls, I simultaneously allow the part of me that’s always felt like a girl—but which I’ve completely suppressed until now—to be allowed more and more into my experience. It feels like such a relief, like putting down a heavy load I’ve been carrying around my whole life.
One of the results of this new expression of my female side, however, is a feeling of being different, yet again, but this time I find myself feeling different not only from other boys, but different from everyone.
Where do I fit in? I’m not like normal boys. I’m not like normal girls. I don’t seem to be like anyone at all. Did someone make a mistake when they were making me? I feel like such a freak!! Perhaps it’d be best if I wasn’t here at all. Perhaps I should just die and go join mama, and papa, and Swami, wherever they are now. Is dying painful, I wonder? Where do you go when you die? Is it nice there? Would I fit in there? Would I be loved there? Is there anything there at all, or do you just stop being when you die and that’s it?
I play my part in the regular charade of viewings at the orphanage, but I no longer feel any excitement when the couples arrive for the inspections. On his sixteenth birthday, Hendrick is given a farewell party, and Coco’s officially the oldest at MHC. It’s during Hendrick’s party that I realize, suddenly and with a rapidly deepening sense of dread, that in a couple of years Coco will be taken away from me too. This makes me very sad, and I spend many nights curled up in her arms sobbing.
“Hey my little Milk, stop crying. I’m not going anywhere. Even if I’m not always here at MHC, which I won’t be, I’ll always be here for you. You know that don’t you? We’re family now, you and me. We’re all we’ve got, each other, right? Coco and Milk, family forever!!”
Neither Coco nor I ever imagined in our wildest dreams that I’d be the first of us to leave MHC.
My first summer at MHC is long, hot, and draining. With no air conditioning and so many bodies crowded into such a compact space, at times it’s completely stifling. Not surprisingly, over the years Coco has found a strategy for coping with this uncomfortable challenge also.
Coco’s room is adjacent to the rear door of the house. Over the year or so that Coco’s occupied this room she’s discovered that at precisely midnight on the first Tuesday of every month, Miss Sommerville sneaks out the rear door of the house, then returns at 5am sharp. Coco has no idea what Miss Sommerville gets up to during these five hours each month—we spend many long hours together making up various outrageous scenarios and laughing uproariously over them—but it’s during these five hours each month that Coco reclaims her own personal freedom. As there’s no secret at MHC that Coco isn’t privy to, she, of course, also knows the location of the emergency back door key.
We crouch silently on Coco’s bed, occasionally giggling in anticipation, waiting for Miss Sommerville’s August midnight departure. Right on time we hear her, creeping softly on stockinged feet through the kitchen, and we hold our breath; I’m so excited it’s hard not to fidget or make any noise.
I have my Mickey Mouse costume on, of course, and tonight Coco’s dressed up specially for the occasion as Cat Woman!!
We wait in silence for a further five minutes after Miss Sommerville’s departure, then I follow Coco out into the kitchen. She recovers the backdoor key from an old tin labelled with the fading words ‘Bicarbonate of Soda’ that’s positioned on a high shelf. I start to giggle uncontrollably and have to shove my fist into my mouth to muffle the sound; Coco unlocks the back door and we sneak out.
As we near the rear corner of the building Coco squeezes my hand to attract my attention. She puts a finger to her lips, acknowledging the importance of being silent as we navigate down the side of the house, through the side gate, and out onto the street.
As she turns onto the footpath in front of MHC Coco starts to run. I try to keep up with her, but her long strides carry her away. She crosses 123rd Street to the opposite footpath, then at the corner turns left onto Rockaway Blvd.
As I round the corner I bump into Coco, and I can’t keep quiet any longer; I let out a joyful squeal. Coco joins in, and we hold hands and skip together along the wide footpath, singing and laughing. It feels so incredible to be free, to be able to do as we please, and to have no one to answer to for five whole hours.
“Yaaaaayyyyyyyyyy!! Freedom!! Yes. Yes!! Yes!! Yeeeeeeesssssssssss!!”
We cross Rockaway, and head down 125th Street a few blocks, past the mosque, until we reach the raised concrete of Belt Parkway.
Belt Parkway is one of the main freeways that runs east-west along the southern side of Long Island. It’s a busy arterial road at all times of the day and night, and while just after midnight on a weekday it’s not bumper-to-bumper, I can hear a steady stream of traffic whizzing by somewhere above us.
Without hesitating, Coco scrambles up the rough concrete embankment, then turns her body sideways and slips through a narrow gap in the concrete soundproofing that separates the suburban streets from the busy highway. I race up after her, squeeze through the gap, and find myself standing in a sheltered nook beside the busy road.
The cars in the closer lanes are approaching from the left, but we’re currently unable to see them from where we are standing in the shadows. The cars coming from the right are further away, and mostly hidden from view by the high concrete road divider.
“What’s up, Coco. Why are we here? This is crazy!!”
“Well, Milk, this is one of the places I visit on my monthly freedom run. I can’t explain it, but I just love to stand there”—she points to a spot a few feet away that’s in the light by the side of the busy thoroughfare—“and be seen by people in the cars as they drive past. Most of them don’t even notice me, of course, but every now and then someone does. They usually smile, or wave, or honk their horn. I just love it when they see me. Is that pathetic?”
“No, it sounds thrilling, but isn’t it dangerous? I mean, what if the driver gets distracted and they have an accident or something. It doesn’t sound like a good idea at all, Coco.”
“Well, you don’t have to play, stupid. You can sit there and watch me. Or better still, why don’t you just run back to the orphanage and be boring like everyone else.” With this Coco turns and steps out of the shadows, into the bright streetlight, and into the line-of-sight of the oncoming vehicles.
I stare at her agog and am thrilled by her chutzpah. Coco is a vision. She’s wearing a skin-tight, black, faux-leather jump suit along with little cat ears, and she has makeup whiskers painted onto her cheeks. In this moment, her teen-girl figure appears all grown up, and she looks very womanly; her medium-sized breasts looking deceptively large under the tight control of the jumpsuit. She poses seductively, purses her lips, and points and waves her tail at the on-coming traffic. After about a minute a car honks its horn as it whizzes by.
Coco steps back into the shadows and laughs. She’s glowing, exhilarated.
“Wow!! That’s so crazy, Coco. I can’t believe you just did that.”
“Well, go ahead little Milk. It’s your turn.”
It’s in the spring of 1975 that Elliott and Irene Sutter come to MHC looking for a child to adopt.
The Sutters are a quiet Caucasian couple, both in their late 30s, who live in East Hampton. Their only son, Aiden, had died from Ewing’s sarcoma—a rare form of childhood bone cancer—a year before. Aiden would have been eleven years old now if he were alive, exactly my age.
As the Sutters speak privately with me in Miss Sommerville’s office, both Elliott and Irene are eager to point out that they’re not looking to replace Aiden. “We just want someone in our lives who we can cherish and shower our love and affection upon. Would you like that, Angelo?”
Irene Sutter is a part-time naturopath—the first ever to set up practice in East Hampton—who has an unnerving tendency to invade other people’s personal space. Consequently, complete strangers often feel that Irene is trying to seduce them. Irene’s unconscious seduction is generally not sexual in nature, however. It’s more that she just can’t help herself from wanting to make other people feel good about themselves; something she’s extremely adept at.
Elliott Sutter, a dentist, is tall and slim with facial features surprisingly like a Greek statue, despite his Scottish heritage. Elliott’s hair is prematurely greying, currently an elegant salt-and-pepper, and neatly combed into a ‘50s quiff. He has a nervous demeanor, but Elliot is also extremely kind, with a tendency to be overly considerate of the needs and feelings of others. This warmness doesn’t always play out in Elliott’s favor, however, and there have been many times in his life when people have taken advantage of Elliott because of it.
As I drive away from MHC with Elliott and Irene I’m feeling mixed emotions. A large part of me is overjoyed to have such nice, apparently kind, seemingly normal people as the Sutters show up and indicate that they want to adopt me. Another part of me is terrified of the unknown that awaits me in East Hampton and wants desperately to stay in Queens with Coco and Miss Sommerville.
“Now, Angelo,” Irene turns and leans over the front seat of the car to look me squarely in the eyes while she speaks, “you are the same age our Aiden was when he died, it’s true, but we don’t want you to think for one moment that we want you to replace him. We want you to be you, and we want to support you fully in being yourself. Just as you are. How does that sound?”
“I’m not sure Mr. and Mrs. Sutter. I’m sorry I’m not Aiden.”
“No, don’t be sorry, Angelo. You’re you, and we both want to love you for exactly who you are. OK?”
“OK. Thank you, I guess . . .”
VII: THE FIRST MUSICAL
“He who binds himself to joy, does the winged life destroy. But he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity's sun rise.”
— William Blake (1757-1827)
My new home in East Hampton is the most glamorous house I’ve ever seen, let alone been inside of. The sprawling, two-story, faux-neoclassical mansion has eight bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a library, a music room, a conservatorium, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and an archery range. A whole wing of the house is just for me; I can’t quite believe it. There’s a butler, a housemaid, two cooks, as well as two full-time handymen/gardeners. Everything is neat and formal, inside and out, with not a leaf, stone, portrait, statue, or obelisk out of place.
After a tour of the house and grounds, Irene takes me into my new closet—I have a walk-in-closet that’s bigger than the bedroom I shared with three other boys for five years at MHC—and shows me Aiden’s clothes . . . my clothes.
“He was the same height and build as you, Angelo, so everything should fit you perfectly. Why don’t you try a few things on and see what you think? If you don’t like them, we can go shopping tomorrow and buy you a whole new wardrobe; I love shopping, do you?”
“I’ve never been shopping, Mrs. Sutter.”
“Oh Angelo, why don’t you call me Irene? Would that be alright, dear?”
“Whatever you’d like, uh . . . Irene.”
Irene leaves me alone and I sit on the floor of the walk-in-closet trying to take it all in. Once again, my mind is divided. On one level I’m completely excited about this new and surprisingly positive turn in my life’s journey. It’s quite extraordinary how many of the details of my core fantasy are coming true right here in this very moment. It’s uncanny, like I’ve just been granted exactly what I’ve been praying for all these years.
On another level I see that I must be careful how I behave around Elliott and Irene, especially in the beginning, as it all feels just a bit creepy. It’s like I’ve been custom ordered to fit right into the hole left in their lives when Aiden died. Money, clearly, can’t bring back their dead son, but it can buy a replacement version thereof. While I know very little about psychology and the anatomy of grief, it’s doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Sutters are acting out their unacknowledged pain and grief to some degree, and that they’re now projecting much of their unresolved emotions about Aiden directly onto me. And that, potentially, could be a recipe for disaster.
As the weeks and months pass in East Hampton, and as I get to know Elliott and Irene better, I find myself relaxing and starting to enjoy the many benefits that this new phase of my life has to offer.
I learn that it was Irene’s parents who were wealthy. As an only child, she’d inherited their entire family fortune when they’d both died instantaneously in a head-on car crash a decade ago. I also learn that Irene and Elliott’s shared passion is human rights: “All human beings should be treated with dignity and respect, and have the same freedom and opportunities irrespective of race, gender, sexual preference, religious belief, socio-economic standing, age, or degree of physical or intellectual disability,” Elliott and Irene declare in perfect unison. This feels a bit creepy too—like some sort of robotic programming has been activated—but as they speak these words my heart opens a little more, and I allow myself to like the Sutters for who they appear to be: kind, good-hearted people.
I write to Coco weekly, and we speak on the phone occasionally. It’s coming up to her sixteenth birthday and she’s unsure what her future holds. Coco’s plan is to leave school and get a job. That way she can have some say in where she lives. I tell her that I’m feeling guilty about living in such luxurious surroundings, but she’s genuinely happy for me and tells me to “kick back and lap it all up, my little Milk.”
I arrange for Elliott to take me back to MHC for Coco’s birthday celebration. When we’re together, however, I feel that Coco has a wall up with me, and there’s nothing I can say or do to bring it down.
Something about the stability of my new home environment encourages me to apply myself more diligently at school, and everyone—myself included—is shocked at the outstanding academic record I quickly start to accrue. While I need some extra coaching in certain areas of my education that’ve been neglected until now, I soak it all up, and quickly become one of the top students in my school year. I’ve always known I was smart, but it’s nice to now have the opportunity to tap into my mind’s borderline-brilliant capabilities.
Over dinner one evening, a little more than a year after my arrival at East Hampton, Elliott clears his throat, looks briefly at Irene for confirmation, then states formally, “Angelo, we’ve decided that next year you’ll go to Brookhaven School for Boys. Brookhaven is my alma mater, and we believe it has the highest level of high school education on offer in the state. We both feel that you have the talent to really make something of your life, and we want to make sure that you have every opportunity to do so.”
“Oh yes, Angelo. Brookhaven’s such a wonderful school,” Irene adds, leaning in menacingly towards me. “I went to school just next door at St Helen’s of Bellport, and together with Brookhaven we put on the most wonderful musicals and had the most magical dances and balls each year; I just know you’ll love it there. Does that sound alright with you, dear?”
I hesitate momentarily, by now wary of anything that sounds too good to be true, but I can tell that the Sutters are making an extraordinarily generous offer, and that they sincerely have my best interests at heart.
“That sounds great. Thank you, Elliott. Thank you, Irene.”
When I arrive at Brookhaven I’m overwhelmed. All the boys are so smart and confident, and most of them come from wealthy and/or famous families. I try to stay positive, and I make sure that I’m always friendly and helpful, but inside I feel insecure and inadequate. I also find myself being envious of the self-confidence and privilege I see and feel all around me. There are a couple of colored boys in the student body, but overall Brookhaven is a uniformly white environment, and the feeling of being an outsider once again is very prevalent throughout my first weeks.
When Ken Abercrombie, one of the most popular boys in eighth grade, decides he wants me to be his study partner, however, everything changes. Suddenly I’m everyone’s new best friend, and for the first time since leaving the ashram I find myself being fully accepted, and even a part of the ‘in’ group.
I wonder at times when the other shoe will drop, and something bad will happen, but for now I find myself really enjoying Brookhaven. I’m learning so much from the amazing array of teachers here, and I set my sights on the future goal of going to college; something that’d not been even a remote possibility while I was living at MHC just a few years ago.
While I’ve always known that I possess some natural musical ability, and when I was living on the ashram I was a natural performer, I really haven’t had the opportunity to be involved in anything musical or theatrical since my early years. At Brookhaven I’m encouraged to explore my creative talents, so I take up the clarinet, and I join the school band and choir.
Choir is a new experience for me as I’ve never sung formally before. At present I’m a soprano. A few of the other eighth grade boys have already had their voices break with the onset of puberty, but I’m still waiting. It’s odd to see my fellow students sprouting facial hair, breaking out in zits, and shooting up in height like proverbial beanstalks all in a matter of weeks. As it happens the onset of my own puberty is just weeks away . . . but that’s a whole other story that deserves its own chapter.
Being a member of the school choir means I’m to be included in Brookhaven’s annual musical: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is to be my introduction to musical theatre. I'm given a place in the children’s chorus--sixteen sopranos who sing echoes of Joseph’s lyrics, and high ethereal “la-la-las” here and there like a choir of angels while Joseph agonizes over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on stage. As Irene had mentioned, for their annual musical Brookhaven teams up with its sister school, St Helen’s of Bellport, and most of the other members of the children’s chorus are St Helen’s girls.
I find the rehearsals and the lead up to opening night tedious; the children’s chorus doesn’t have much to do, and we spend long hours lying around essentially doing nothing—we hang out and gossip or play silly games; I mostly read. When the soloists are rehearsing, however, we’re shepherded out of the hall so as not to be a distraction. This means that up until the dress rehearsals I’ve only ever seen bits and pieces of the show, never the whole thing. Then I catch a stomach flu and miss both dress rehearsals, which means I’ve never seen the actors in costume or the stage with lighting prior to the opening night performance. No one’s concerned about me missing the dress rehearsals as I don’t have to move around during the show, and I know the music backwards.
Next thing . . . it’s opening night.
The Main Hall of Brookhaven Boys is quite grand, and features high-vaulted ceilings, lots of rich, deep-brown wood paneling on the ceiling and walls, and highly polished wooden floors. Plaques displaying the school Honor Roles in the fields of sporting and academic prowess hang on three walls of the hall, and the stage occupies the fourth.
The staging for Joseph is basic: a few static sets made by the woodwork department, crudely painted by the art department. I don’t get to see the sets because, as a member of the children's choir, I sit behind a sheer white curtain at the back of the stage, looking out. From where I sit—facing the conductor and the audience—I can see the back of the action on stage just a few feet in front of me, but more importantly I can also see the faces of the people sitting in the front rows of the audience.
The hall lights dim. The rumble of conversation quietens. Someone coughs, then another. The conductor lifts his baton, and the small student orchestra starts to play, a little off-key; they're nervous tonight.
After a short musical introduction, a spotlight comes on, downstage right. Standing in the spotlight is the Narrator—a sweet female senior from St Helen’s who possesses an angelic face, and, as I'm about to find out, a voice to match it.
She starts to sing. I gasp, it’s so beautiful:
“Some folks dream of the wonders they’ll do,
Before their time on this planet is through.
Some just don’t have anything planned.
They hide their hopes and their heads in the sand.
Now I don’t say who is wrong, who is right,
But if by chance you are here for the night,
Then all I need is hour or two
To tell the tale of a dreamer like you.”
I’m immediately transported to another dimension, to another realm, to Musical Theatre Land.
Musical Theatre Land, I discover in this moment, is the place into which one is invited to enter when one is watching a musical. In Musical Theatre Land life’s usual rules don’t apply. In Musical Theatre Land the real world doesn’t exist. In Musical Theatre Land you can be anyone you want to be, and you can do anything you want to do. Not everyone is willing to suspend their disbelief sufficiently to makes the leap, but I discover in this moment that I do, and I feel more exhilarated and alive than I ever remember feeling in my entire life.
As I watch the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers—complete with scandal, intrigue, romance, Elvis impersonators, nymphomaniac wives, and cowboy hoedowns—unfold before me, I’m drawn deeper and deeper into this fantasy world. I find myself wanting to be on stage with the actors. I want to be in the middle of the action, deeper in the fantasy, not on the periphery looking in. I desperately want to be Joseph more than anything that I can ever remember wanting in my thirteen years of life. I want to be the star, the hero, changing people's lives for the better through his courage, great deeds, and moral virtues.
At one point during the performance, I become acutely aware, possibly for the first time, of the presence of envy. It arises as the familiar nauseous, churning feeling in the pit of my stomach that I by now associate with shame, but now it’s also accompanied by intense thoughts about how everyone else has it better than I do, that everyone else is more talented, or smarter, or more attractive than me. The envy is quickly joined by its partner-in-crime, self-doubt: I'll never be good enough to do that, to be Joseph, to be the star. I'm just not talented or good-looking enough!!
Just as quickly as they arise, however, envy and self-doubt are squashed back down into my subconscious, and I’m drawn back into the colorful drama on stage. From my position hidden behind the sheer curtain at the back of the stage my attention moves between the story unfolding right in front of me, and the entranced faces of the people in the audience—parents, siblings, and friends of the cast. Faces that light up with excitement as the storyline and music elevates, then plunge into sadness and despair as the storyline takes an unexpected emotional nosedive. As the performance concludes, the faces are beaming and shouting encouragement to the performers on stage for a job well done. I sob uncontrollably.
What's wrong with me?
Joy—which I’d known intimately until my fifth year of life, but which had since progressively hidden itself away deep inside of me—is back; I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I babble like a lunatic to anyone who'll listen, and I run around backstage and through the darkened school corridors laughing and singing. I’m so excited; I hug everyone.
Thus, my lifelong love affair with musical theatre begins . . .
"I treat whoever I meet as an old friend. This gives me a genuine feeling of happiness. It is the practice of compassion."
— Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (1935- )
It’s just a little more than a year after moving in with the Sutters in East Hampton that I first start to feel changes in my physical body. These changes are at times somewhat pleasurable, and at other times outright painful and deeply disorienting.
The main new arrival is an intense energy that intermittently courses through my body. One minute I’m feeling relaxed and calm, the next I feel like my body’s burning up and I can’t sit still. At yet other times it feels like someone’s pulled the plug on my energy reserves entirely, and it’s like I don’t have enough strength to stand up or even keep my eyes open.
These new physical sensations are accompanied by wildly fluctuating emotions—anger, anxiety, excitement, boredom, sadness, panic, rage, self-hatred—bang, bang, bang, one after the other. There’s no logical or circumstantial reason for these emotions to be arising, they just do. As a result, I find myself having to deal with a rapidly changing inner experience in which it’s challenging just to be myself. From the outside, it looks a little bit like I’m going crazy.
I have no idea why these sensations and emotions are happening to me. Overall, I’m feeling happier and more settled than I’ve felt in years, so the wildly fluctuating moods are a mystery. Some days there are headaches too, but when I tell Elliott about them. he waves it off and says, “It’s just a little stress, son. You’re probably grinding your teeth in your sleep; nothing to worry about. I’ll make a splint for you to wear at night and the headaches will be gone in no time.”
Pretty soon the changes that are happening in my body take a new direction, and I start to notice that the most disturbing changes aren’t happening in my physical body or emotions anymore, but in my mind. I notice that I’m starting to think about sex. I notice that I’m starting to think about sex a lot.
These sexual thoughts arise unbidden and have such tremendous force that when present I find it virtually impossible to think about anything else. The principal object of my sexual thoughts and desires is . . . Ken Abercrombie. When I realize this, I’m shocked and mortified. Fear arises around being found out, ridiculed, and ostracized by my school peers. I start having recurrent nightmares in which I’m being beaten up by the other boys, dragged out of school, and I die alone in a ditch by the side of a deserted road. The images are horrifyingly vivid and clear, so I keep my new, socially unacceptable secret well and truly to myself. Another layer of shame—this time around apparently being a homosexual—is added to my already overburdened psyche.
In the privacy of my bedroom, however, I start to explore with great curiosity this new sexual energy that’s coursing through my body; I’m completely enthralled. I quickly map out my erogenous zones—penis, perineum, anus, nipples, mouth. I discover that stimulating as many of these sensitive areas of my body as I can at the same time heightens the pleasurable sensations, and the pursuit of sexual pleasure becomes an obsession.
It doesn’t take me long to discover that if a certain combination of erogenous zones are stimulated simultaneously, this can trigger a deeper opening to the full force of my sexual energy, and I’m introduced to the literally mind-blowing experience of orgasm: le petit mort, the little death.
In the little death of orgasm, I discover, in addition to the ecstatic pleasure I feel in my physical body, there’s a moment of no thought, a moment of no mind. This absence of thoughts includes thoughts about my past, so in the ecstatic moment of orgasm there are no thoughts about my sad, lonely life. This somehow seems to make space for a flash of something truly incredible and mysterious to occur. I don’t understand it, but I become obsessed with it none-the-less.
After a period of exploring my budding sexual nature and the pleasure I experience when masturbating, it occurs to me that the incredibly pleasurable moment that accompanies an orgasm, combined with the not-surprising desire to re-experience this perfect moment of pure pleasure repeatedly, is the origin of my rapidly developing addiction.
There it is, the next phase of the development of my addiction to pleasure: puberty and the discovery of masturbation.
Now, I’ve already given you a detailed description of the incident that occurred with Ken Abercrombie in the boys’ locker room at Brookhaven in 1978 when I told you Ken’s story, so I don’t feel the need to dredge through that physically and emotionally painful experience yet again. But I would like to add here that at the time that it occurred, the sexual chemistry between Ken and I had been building for more than six months. My attraction to Ken was extreme at times but I’d kept it completely suppressed and given him no indication of what was going on inside of me. I could sense, however, that Ken was feeling the same attraction, though in his case it was repressed because he was repulsed by the very thought of it. Ken’s sexual attraction to me—which in reality was his sexual attraction to the yet-to-be revealed female half of me—wasn’t something he could control consciously; it was happening on a much more primal level . . .
“So, boys, what do you propose that I do about this outrage?” Principal Johnson is red in the face and his hands are shaking uncontrollably. “Do you know what will happen if the press get wind of this? I don’t even want to think about it.” He sits down heavily in the high-backed leather chair behind his expansive desk, rubs his face vigorously with his sausage-like fingers, then leans his elbows on the desk and buries his face in his palms, groaning.
“My life will be ruined before it’s even started if anyone finds out about this,” Ken says quietly to no one in particular. “My whole life will be for nothing.” Ken is ghostly pale, and clearly terrified. All his ambitious plans have, for the first time, come crashing down, and Ken is not coping with the possibility of such profound failure at all well.
“Principal Johnson, I’ll leave. I won’t tell anybody what happened. No one will ever know anything about it. Right now, though, I think I need to go to a hospital; I’m still bleeding, and I don’t feel so good.”
Teddy Johnson drives me to the East Hampton Urgent Care Center himself where Irene is waiting to meet us. It’s the first of many days of hospital visits, medical assessments, and waiting in doctors’ offices. I’m referred from one doctor to the next. No one’s quite sure what’s wrong with me, and no one can piece together the conflicting evidence that’s being uncovered with each successive examination and test.
I’m referred to Nassau University Medical Center for a CT scan after which I’m referred to yet another doctor—a gynecologist—who tells me that I have a vagina, a uterus, and ovaries, and the reason I’m bleeding is because I’m menstruating.
This makes no sense to anyone, so my blood is sent for chromosome testing, and finally the mystery starts to become clear. I have two populations of cells in my body. Half of my cells contain two X chromosomes, and half of my cells contain an X and a Y chromosome. The doctors can’t explain how it happened—and none of them have ever seen it before—but it appears that I’m half male and half female. I’m a 46,XX/46,XY chimera . . . a true hermaphrodite.
For the next few weeks, I’m mostly in shock. What started out looking like it was going to be a really great year for me, 1978 is now turning into yet another nightmare in the string of nightmares that is my life.
I’ve been taken away from the idyllic paradise of my early childhood; my biological father has been shot dead by the FBI; my birth mother has died of leukemia; I’ve been rejected by the remainder of my biological family and sent to an orphanage; I’ve been expelled from Brookhaven School for Boys under humiliating circumstances; I’ve started menstruating, despite believing myself to be a boy; and now I’m being told that I’m a hermaphrodite. Familiar painful thoughts and emotions start to resurface in me once more—being different, being damaged, being unlovable, being a freak, being an abomination—and shame and self-loathing settle in as the background of my emotional milieu once more. I withdraw from contact with the outside world, and I find that it’s virtually impossible to speak to anyone.
Mostly I think about how miserable I am, and I ask the universe daily why I’m being so thoroughly punished. What have I done to deserve such a shitty life? I think I’m a good person. I’m nicer than most people I know, and I never do anything malicious or hurtful to others. So why am I being punished, over and over?
Irene and Elliott Sutter do their best to maintain a sunny veneer around me, though I sense some growing concerns about my presence in their lives. They now send me to the local East Hampton high school where I keep as low a profile as possible. I channel all of the sexual energy—both male and female—that’s coursing through my fourteen-year-old body into being the best I can possibly be at my schoolwork, and I forget, as much as I can, that I have a body at all.
I deny that I have a penis (or is it a clitoris?) or any desire to use it. I put out of my mind the fact that I have a vagina, a uterus, and ovaries. I wear compression vests to flatten my budding breasts. I do my best to suppress any thoughts about what this discovery means about me and my future, and I get on with being scholastically brilliant.
Dealing with the monthly reminder of my monstrous secret, however, takes great strength of will, and during the days leading up to my period—as well as the first two or three days after its onset—I’m literally unable to face the world.
Irene and Elliott Sutter are, I discover, infrequent attenders of the East Hampton Anglican Church. I make this discovery only after I’ve been living with them for some months, however, as their annual commitment to church is exactly two visits per year: Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve.
This year, Easter Sunday happens to fall on one of my pre-menstrual days. I realize this on waking, and at breakfast I announce to Irene and Elliott, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to come to church with you today; I’m not feeling well.”
“What? What’s the matter with you? You look fine to me. Are you just making this up, Angelo? Tell the truth now. I know you don’t enjoy going to church, but it’s very important for Elliott and I that you come with us. It’s only twice a year; it’s what we do here.”
“It’s my period, Irene. It’s due soon, and I really can’t face the world today.”
Irene’s facial expression looks much like she’s just bitten into a lemon as she turns her head away, her lips tightly pursed.
“Angelo, you’re not hearing Irene. She wants you to come to church with us today. You’re not being asked . . . you’re being told.”
“But Elliott, I really don’t feel up to it. Really, really, truly. Please don’t make me go. Please. Please!!” I start sobbing, and hang my head, then push my chair roughly back from the table and storm off to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
A few minutes later Irene knocks firmly on the bedroom door and immediately enters without waiting for a reply. I look up at her and scowl.
“Come now Angelo, up you get. Chop, chop!! We’re not joking here you know; this is deadly serious. You’ll be dressed and in the car in ten minutes or there’ll be consequences.”
Irene exits the room, slamming the door loudly behind her. She immediately re-opens the door, and popping her head through says curtly, “and don’t you ever slam this door, ever again!!” Bang!!
I reluctantly drag myself out of bed and pull on my church clothes. I can’t believe they’re being so cruel to me; I just hate them sometimes. They can be so controlling, especially her. And they keep hanging this entitlement thing over my head, like I owe them so much.
In the car I’m fuming. It’s all so bloody hypocritical. They’re blackmailing me into going to church where everyone’s preaching about love and acceptance, kindness to one’s fellow man, treating one’s neighbor as oneself, then out in the world they’re all being selfish, racist, and down-right cruel to their neighbors, especially to anyone who’s different than them. It’s all bullshit!!
As Elliott slows the car to take the corner into the church parking lot, I pull the door handle, push the door open with my feet, and jump out of the still-moving car and roll along the bitumen. Elliott slams on the brakes and a piercing squeal fills the air. All the 40 or so parishioners currently standing on the steps outside the East Hampton Anglican Church turn and stare at us.
I spring to me feet and start running. I jump over fences and sprint down back alleys. I hear Irene shouting, and Elliott gunning the car to try and catch me, but I easily outpace them. Having lost the Sutters, I walk all day without any destination. When it gets dark, I find a warm, cozy spot behind a pizza shop, and make myself a bed out of cardboard boxes. I want to run away and leave Irene and Elliott Sutter to their stiff, mediocre lives, but I don’t have any money, or anywhere to go.
The following morning, I sneak back into the house, stop briefly in the breakfast room and make a perfunctory apology, then hide in my room for two days and nights. The incident is never mentioned again.
Shut up in my room on my pre-menstrual days I take solace in the two remaining joys that I have in my arsenal: my Mickey Mouse costume—a new, teenage-sized version having recently made for me by Connie, our housemaid—and masturbation. But even Mickey has changed for me recently. Whereas previously being dressed as Mickey Mouse inspired joy in me no matter where I was or who I was with, now the only way of feeling anything close to positivity when dressed as Mickey is for me to be seen by another person dressed as such, and to see them light up as they recognize me and smile.
On some of my pre-menstrual days I dress as Mickey and hang out in the kitchen with Fran and Paula, but after a few months they stop noticing me, and the heaviness descends on me once more. During the summer months I try spending time dressed as Mickey in the garden, engaging Gunther and Didier in casual conversation. This experiment is even less successful as neither of them seems to even know who Mickey Mouse is, and they care even less that I’m dressed as him.
Wandering despondently along the boundary of the estate one day—the side that borders onto Main Street—I find a small hole in the hedge and, holding my ears in place on my head with one hand, I push my way through until I’m standing by the side of the busy road. As a black Range Rover passes by me, about ten feet away, the woman sitting in the passenger seat glances across and sees me. Her mouth gapes open in shock, then she smiles as she swivels her head round to get a better look at me as the car drives by. Finally, she waves at me as the Range Rover disappears around the next bend in the road. The experience brings a twinge of excitement into my body, along with snippets of memories of my monthly early morning forays to the Belt Parkway in Queens with Coco.
Another car passes, and this time I step forward and wave. Another shocked look, this time from the solitary driver, followed by a smile and a quick wave. I stand closer to the road now and wave confidently at each car as it passes by. After about ten cars have passed, and I’m starting to feel quite euphoric, the face in the next car scowls at me. The driver slams on the brakes, swerves onto the curb, and screeches to a halt just meters away.
Irene leaps out of the driver’s side of the Mercedes SUV, runs towards me, and grabs me roughly by the arm. “You stupid boy”—Irene stops momentarily, glances from my chest to my groin and back again—“or whatever you are. What are you doing? People will see you; how humiliating. Get in the car this instant.”
I’m shocked by Irene’s anger. What on earth’s the matter with me waving at people and making them smile? I really don’t understand Irene’s horror at this innocent activity; the mystery of the complicated web of social status and image in this exclusive community well beyond the scope of my current life experience or comprehension.
When we arrive home a minute later, Irene is furious; I’ve never seen her like this before. In fact, she’s inconsolable. She silently escorts me to my room, fuming all the while, and locks the door from the outside.
About 30 minutes later Elliott arrives home in a flurry, and I’m summonsed to the library. Irene is red in the face, while Elliott is deathly pale. He gestures for me to sit, and they both pace the room, folding and unfolding their arms, huffing, and shaking their heads.
“Angelo, we can’t tolerate this kind of behavior anymore; it’s just not acceptable,” Irene starts. “What were you trying to do, anyway? Make fun of us? Hurt us? After all we’ve done for you?” Irene clutches the string of pearls she’s wearing, then sinks witheringly into an armchair by the fireplace, swooning.
“I’m sorry Angelo, but this is the last straw. We just can’t believe you’d do this to us, after all we’ve done for you. Irene’s been sick with worry since the Brookhaven and Easter incidents; she can’t take any more. We want you to pack your things, right now, and Henry will drive you back to the orphanage.” Elliott’s voice trails off to nothing as he reaches for the whisky decanter, holding his handkerchief to his face to try and smother his emotions as they attempt to tumble out after his words.
“What, right now?”
“Yes, Angelo, right this very minute. Go on and be quick about it. I don’t want to have to come and find you. Be in the car in fifteen minutes. Please!!” Irene’s shaking so violently it looks like she might be about to have a stroke or a seizure.
Irene and Elliott Sutter of East Hampton, already rocked out of their comfortable, insular, suburban bubble by the sex scandal at Brookhaven, by my shameful secret of being a hermaphrodite, and by the public humiliation I’d caused them in front of their pious church parish at Easter, prove themselves in the final analysis to be hypocrites after all as they now unceremoniously ship me back to The Mercy Home for Children in Queens. It seems that sexual oddities, flagrant atheists, and exhibitionistic Disney characters are not included in the Sutters’ “equal rights for all” life philosophy after all . . .
IX: THE FIRST MESSAGE
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
— Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
“Kathmandu,” I blurt out suddenly, and rather louder than I’d intended.
The travel agent jumps in her seat, startled. She’d been gazing distractedly out the window and tapping her pen impatiently on the desk blotter as I’d hesitated; I suspect was daydreaming of tropical islands, cocktails decorated with fruit and tiny umbrellas, and bronzed natives in loincloths rubbing coconut oil into her back and shoulders.
The more I’d stared at the list of destinations displayed in large print on the wall above her head, the more the words had pulsated and morphed into clusters of symbols that meant nothing to me. It was like I was having a stroke, and the part of my brain that formed letters into words, or rather the part that connected words to retained pieces of information—geography, climate, history, culture, religion—had gone offline.
I’d stepped into the travel agency on a whim, urged by an unseen force, as I walked back to the subway from a first-year physics lecture that’d covered the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Riveting!! As I have no plans to travel, I’m a little surprised to find myself standing here attempting to decide where I’m going to travel to, and when I’m going to do it.
London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Bombay, Bangkok, Tokyo, Sydney, Bora Bora, Rio de Janeiro, Cancun. All these exotic destinations hold appeal to me for differing reasons; I’m gripped by an unfamiliar excitement as so many possible future adventures hover invitingly before me.
It’s true, I am unhappy in the first year of a four-year engineering degree that I’d commenced six months ago at my state guardian’s urging. I’ve been awarded a scholarship by the Long Island City Public Works Department which covers my course fees and costs, as well as providing me with a small allowance throughout the four years of the degree at La Guardia Community College. At the completion of the degree, I’m required to work for the LIC PWD for a minimum of four years as compensation.
It’s also true that my closest friend in the engineering course, Leanne, and I had recently fantasized about taking off traveling spur-of-the-moment and abandoning our degrees together. Admittedly, we’d been under the influence of an excess of cheap red wine at the time and going ahead with the flight-of-fancy idea hasn’t crossed my mind in a sober state until today. Now, unexpectedly, I’m going to Nepal.
Two weeks later, a hastily purchased backpack—stuffed with some clothes, a couple of books, and a pack of anti-malarial tablets I don’t know if I need or not—slung over one shoulder, I approach the Customs and Immigration checkpoint at Kathmandu airport.
When I was sixteen I’d travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with my high school band to play some concerts as part of a cross-border cultural exchange program. On that trip, all the travel details had been handled by our responsible adults. This is my first solo expedition outside America. Having turned nineteen earlier in the year, in my mind I’m an adult. In reality, however, I’m just a shy, naïve kid who’s led a sheltered life growing up in suburban Queens in the '70s and early ‘80s. Truthfully, I’m still a child, and one who’s had minimal exposure to the outside world, its politics, its religions, and its dangers.
Two uniformed men step in front of me. I assume, incorrectly, that they’re Nepalese customs or immigration officials. They indicate in unison—their perfectly synchronized machine guns moving like a well-choreographed dance routine—that I should precede them to an unmarked door to my left. As all my fellow passengers who’d been on the flight from Hong Kong are walking straight ahead and out the main doors of the airport, I’m a little concerned by this turn of events. An unpleasant churning sensation starts up in my chest. My mind looks for a word to label the feeling. Apprehension, perhaps? No, it’s definitely fear.
I notice that the two uniformed men are short for adult males. In fact, they’re both significantly shorter than I am. At this point my mind randomly drags up and presents me with a fact from a 1973 reading of Volume 15 of the World Book Encyclopedia, entry on Nepal: “The people of Nepal are generally short in stature due to the elevation at which they live.” At this moment my mind is unable to make the connection between residential altitude and physical stature, so I make a mental note to myself: Research relationship between height and residential altitude when return to New Eden.
The room we enter is a tiny cube no greater than six feet in any dimension. There’s no furniture, and there are no windows. A single bare lightbulb is in the center of the ceiling, brilliantly illuminating the peeling white paint that lines the small space. The word ‘cell’ flashes momentarily across my mind but is quickly swept aside by a larger wave of naïveté.
At the prompting of my new acquaintances, I drop my backpack to the floor and stand before them smiling, trying my best to look simultaneously harmless and helpful. The machine gun waving starts again, this time up and down, pointing from my neck down to my feet. The churning sensation in my chest spreads to my belly, groin, and throat, as its intensity ramps up to a writhing. Now, clearly, it’s terror.
Unfamiliar foreign-sounding words—frankly it sounds more like grunting than speaking—accompany the gun waving this time; I frown. After a minute or so of charades, I ascertain that this combination of gun waving and grunting amounts to instructions that I should remove my clothing.
Oh, my goodness. That’s unexpected. “Really? All of it?” I ask the uniformed men softly. Puzzled expressions in response of no assistance.
As I undress, my mind becomes busy desperately trying to reconcile the conflicting emotions of the thrill and sexual excitement of being naked in a confined space with two handsome military types with guns, versus the shame and terror of being naked in a confined space with two handsome military types with guns.
The next round of gun waving and grunting takes me a little longer to decipher. I already have hold of my ambiguous genitalia with my left hand—my right hand coyly trying to hide my now moderate-sized breasts—when it started so, in fact, I was halfway there already.
“What, lift up my pee-pee . . . and . . . and what . . . spread my legs?” How humiliating.
I take a step to widen my stance and gaze up at the ceiling, suddenly fascinated by the branching pattern of small cracks that I can almost touch quite close above my head.
More grunting and gun waving. “Now turn around, and bend over . . . OK . . . and . . . and . . . and what . . . and spread my butt cheeks?” This takes me significantly longer to decipher. Me, bending forward, turning around from time to time and looking up at the two Nepalese soldiers who are still waving their machine guns at me, wondering if I’m doing what they’ve asked me to do, completely mortified.
Them, bending forward, staring alternately at my exposed anus and the comical looks on each other’s faces, chuckling occasionally, and wondering what they should ask me to do next.
Oh, the shame!! Oh, the thrill!! Oh, the erection!!
I spend a little over a week in Kathmandu acclimatizing to the altitude and to the culture. This is a Buddhist country, I learn. This terminology is foreign to me. Since leaving Swami Primananda’s ashram before I turned five, I’d grown up in spiritually impoverished homes in parts of New Eden City not known for their religious enthusiasm. I’d then actively rejected the stark Anglican religion imposed on me in East Hampton by the Sutters due to the perceived hypocrisy between what I was hearing being preached in church, and what I was seeing being practiced in the world around me. Now, at nineteen, I suppose I’m an atheist, but I'm hedging my bets and standing with both feet firmly in the agnostic camp so as not to appear too radical. To feel the life and energy of a culture that identifies as Buddhist—or any religion for that matter—is entirely new to me.
I quickly find that I like the Nepalese people. They’re open, friendly, and very helpful. I feel I can trust them, which, given the emotional trauma I’ve just suffered at the hands of the Nepalese armed forces, is a welcome relief.
I visit several Buddhist temples through the week, and for the first time in my life I’m exposed to meditation. Something about it fascinates me, but as I have no frame of reference to relate it to the deeper significance of it goes overlooked . . . for about twenty more years.
A hair-raising eight-hour bus ride to Pokhara is the next stage of my journey. To be perfectly frank, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. When I’d arrived in Nepal a week before I had no further plans; getting to Kathmandu was all I’d managed to organize before hurriedly leaving Queens amid cries of protest from my legal guardian and the La Guardia Community College Engineering Department. It feels like I’m following my nose, sniffing out a scent of some kind, but I’ve no idea what’s at the end of the path. If I think about this, it’s scary. If I don’t think about this, it’s exciting.
Westerners I meet and speak with in Kathmandu are quite often coming from or going to a town in the west of Nepal named, Pokhara. Apparently Pokhara is a popular base for trekking into the Himalayas.
Oh, that sounds like a fun thing to do. Trekking. Yes, I think I’ll go trekking in the Himalayas.
Two days later, a trekking permit and a survey map of the Annapurna Region in my backpack, I set out.
Am I unprepared? Absolutely!!
Do I know I’m unprepared? Absolutely no friggin’ idea!!
Trekking the foothills of the Himalayas is quite easy if you’re young and/or fit; luckily, I’m both. The tracks are well established trails that link local villages. This region is reasonably well populated, with villages being separated by no more than a few hours walk. The signposts and my map prove to be generally unreliable, but my uncannily good innate sense of direction kicks in, and with the fish tailed Machapuchare peak visible from just about everywhere in the region, I manage to find my way without too much difficulty.
What’s my destination? I’m still not sure. Perhaps someone I meet on the trail will tell me where I should go?
The Jomsom Trail is a foot track that runs roughly north south, and which connects Western Nepal to Tibet via a high pass through the main body of the Himalaya Mountain range. Close to Pokhara it’s relatively busy, with many local Nepalese—often accompanied by mule trains—journeying and transporting goods between parts of this vast mountainous wilderness. Higher in the Himalayas the Jomsom Trail is much less frequently trodden, and significantly more hazardous.
Small teahouses are scattered along the trail for both foreign hikers and local Nepalese to eat at and sleep in. Oh great, there are teahouses to eat at and sleep in, that’s a relief, I think vaguely to myself as the sun starts to go down on my first day on the trail. The food at the teahouses is cheap and hearty: rice, dhal, spinach. It’s plain and not particularly spicy this far north, but it’s good energy food, which is important given the amount of strenuous walking I’m doing.
Along the trail I meet other western trekkers, some solo, some in pairs, a few in small groups. Some of the hikers have Sherpa guides, and the more affluent looking also have porters carrying their luggage. Generally, these trekkers are well-seasoned travelers. They prove to be great sources of wisdom with respect to practical matters around travelling, world politics, and—of increasing import to me—with respect to matters of the spiritual dimension.
Here’s another first for me: vibrant young people talking enthusiastically about God. Well, generally they’re using words other than God—Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu, Brahman, Kali, Buddha—but there’s no doubt that’s what they’re talking about. They speak in ways that sound positive and exciting. As they do so I start to feel a new sensation, an exhilarating tingling feeling, running all through my body.
"Spirituality? Is that what you keep saying? And what did you say you were again? Sannyasin?”
Further mental note to self: Look up Spirituality and Sannyasin when return to New Eden.
Three days later, I wearily drag myself up the last few rough-cut stone steps and stand on the cliff edge at the summit of Poon Hill.
Despite its self-deprecating name, Poon Hill stands at an elevation of a touch over 10,000 feet. Arriving at the summit of Poon Hill this afternoon the view of the surrounding mountains is completely obscured by heavy mist and cloud. The full majesty of the Annapurna Massif—as seen from this well-known viewing point—is yet to be revealed to me.
As I stand there, waves of goosebumps start to course up and down my body. I don’t know what’s going on . . . but I feel great!! Is it because I just made it to the top of the mountain that I feel like this, or could there be another explanation? Maybe someone spiked my water at the last tea house? Whatever it is, it feels good.
I yell loudly, wave my arms above my head like wind vanes in a gale, and jump up and down like a maniac, “Yeeeeeeehhhaaaaaaa!!” I would never have imagined in a million years that a state of euphoria would be a symptom of altitude sickness. Mine, luckily, is mild. At least that’s what my trekking companion of the day, Gerard—or was it Gerald?—tells me as he shares his seemingly endless knowledge with me later that night around the large communal fire; the center of life at the Poon Hill Lodge.
I sleep soundly in the lodge overnight. This lodge is a popular destination with westerners, and there are thirty or so bodies sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor of a big, open, dormitory-style room. Coughing, huffing, jostling, and moaning fill the space around me all through the night.
At around 5am my body jerks, and I’m instantly awake. I’m cold, stiff, and sore. I groan softly, and gently start moving my wrists and ankles in circles, waking up my body. I notice that the kitchen light is on, which for me in this moment means hot water. Excellent. I’ll get up before everyone else and be the first to receive my bucket of hot water to wash with today; I’m not going to miss out again like I did yesterday.
Outside the lodge on the cliff edge are two ‘shower cubicles.’ Hessian sacks reaching to mid-chest height cover three sides of rough wooden frames. The fourth side of the cubicle is open towards the east . . . towards the Annapurna Mountain Range. As I step into my cubicle and start to undress, the sky in front of me is just starting to lighten. Despite there being minimal wind this morning, it’s absolutely freezing. Now naked, I shiver uncontrollably. I hug myself and rub my hands up and down my body briskly, then run on the spot for a minute trying to warm myself up.
With my back to the open side of the washing cubicle, I lather soap on my washcloth and start to systematically wash my body. The steaming hot water feels wonderful on my skin, and I moan with the pleasure of it. I laugh as I think of Leanne back in Queens, digesting facts about stresses and strains, forces and levers, concrete and steel. At this moment, the distant world of an engineering student in New Eden seems like another life that happened to someone else.
As I go to wash my back I swivel around instinctively and . . . I’m stopped dead in my tracks. My awkward body posture and gaping facial expression are frozen in that moment like a deformed, flesh-colored marble statue.
Opposite where I’m taking my morning ablutions, the sun is just starting to rise on the eastern horizon. A thick uninterrupted layer of cloud lies just below where I stand, and which at this moment is obscuring the direct rays of the rising sun. The clouds themselves, however, are starting to glow a deep, rich shade of pink. The clouds stretch from horizon to horizon, and their texture is like fluffy cotton candy lit from below.
Protruding through this layer of shimmering, iridescent-pink fairy floss are twenty or so perfectly formed snow-capped mountain peaks that are arranged roughly in a circle; my location being the final pillar of this awe-inspiring gathering—the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Next, angelic voices all around me start singing, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah." Well, that’s how I remember it now, but maybe I added that bit later.
My body is bent and unmoving. A soapy washcloth is in my hand. A steaming bucket of hot water is beneath me, mist swirling into the air around my legs. I’m naked except for a modest covering of soapsuds. A circle of 20,000+ foot snow-capped mountain peaks are all around me. Then, an unfamiliar voice announces, quite matter-of-factly and appearing to arise inside my head (or perhaps just a little bit behind me and to my left):
“Become a doctor.”
Just three words.
I blink a few times, frown, and look around me, surprised.
"Um, are you talking to me?" I say out loud, to no one in particular.
“Ah, is . . . is . . . is that why I’m here?”
Next thing I’m weeping, and weeping, and weeping. Tears stream down my face, and waves of goosebumps, now familiar, course up and down my body.
“Tis a beautiful mornin’, is it not?” a loud voice booms into my right ear.
Irish, my mind responds automatically. Dense curls of brown chest hair greet my peripheral vision as I look to my right. Looking higher I see a grinning mouth full of crooked teeth, and a face full of joy.
“Gerard”—or is it Gerald?—"Hi. How are you?"
Gerard points, superfluously, towards the astonishing vista that’s unfolded in front of the bathing cubicles. "Niiiiiiiiicccce!!”
I pan slowly back to my left and take in the awe-inspiring view once more. The sun is now well above the eastern horizon and the layer of cloud, the snow-capped mountains sparkling in the direct rays of the sun. My body is stiff and frozen. The bucket of water beneath me is icy cold. I notice that the tingling I’d experienced when talking about spirituality with my fellow travelers on the trail is back again. This time, however, it’s merged with the goosebumps, and my whole body is feeling exceedingly pleasurable. It feels like a combination of pure excitement and pure terror. Every cell in my body—despite the intense cold—feels vibrantly alive like they’ve never felt before.
OK. Right then. Let’s do this . .
X: LE GRAND MORT
"When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives."
— Joseph Campbell (1904–1987)
I receive a full scholarship to study medicine at Wichita State University in Kansas. It’s a new scholarship program—Gifted Students of Color in Need (can you believe it’s called that!!)—that’s awarded to me in 1983, and which comes courtesy of a legacy donation recently left to the medical faculty by a wealthy African American couple. Esther and Edwin Hancock had both been physicians in Wichita their whole lives and they’d had no children of their own. As I’m half black, I have no independent financial means to speak of, and I score 153 on the statutory IQ test, I come in at the head of the queue for the inaugural scholarship.
The new and relatively optimistic worldview I have about life after my trip to Nepal is reflected in my time at medical school. I really do love to study and learn new things, and learning everything there is to know about the human body and how it functions is completely fascinating to me. I can’t quite believe that I was almost trapped in a life of boredom and drudgery as an engineer; a field I see now that I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever.
I love medical school even more when we start meeting with patients, and the challenge of uncovering clinical signs and symptoms and making diagnoses is presented. This requires a very specific combination of both extensive book-knowledge as well as intuitive humanistic skills. I quickly find that I bring both in equal measure—this could be the first real positive I’ve discovered about being a hermaphrodite—and I excel at the bedside. Surprisingly, I also find that I like my fellow medical students, who, overall, are enthusiastic and non-judgmental compared to the majority of humans I’ve encountered in my life to this point.
I’m still coming to terms with what it means to be a hermaphrodite. Mostly I keep this secret deeply buried, and give it as little thought as possible. That way I’m just Angelo Williams, a regular—and surprisingly popular—‘male’ medical student from New Eden. From time to time, however, I find I must give some attention to my suppressed female side as the force with which she now wants to make herself known is, quite simply, undeniable.
I’ve started calling my female half, Angel. When Angel demands some airtime—usually in the lead up to my period—I lock the door of my college dormitory room for an hour or two, pull out the slowly growing bag of makeup, wigs, eye lashes, corsets, stockings, dresses, and high heels that have become an integral part of the transformation involved, and I spend some time allowing my feminine side to be expressed. At present, my mind—or rather I should say, Angelo’s mind—still judges everything to do with Angel as bad, ugly, and wrong, but fully denying her just doesn’t work. She always manages to leak out somehow, and I’ve discovered that life flows much more easily if Angel is given some voluntary expression now and then.
What’s also becoming clear to me as this surreptitious exploration of Angel unfolds is that it’s in Angel that my creativity lies. Slowly I start acknowledging to myself that it’s exciting to allow this creative energy to be expressed, and I find myself being pleasantly surprised how Angel’s creative expression looks and sounds. Interestingly, I also discover that it’s in Angel that the full force of my sexual desire resides.
I—Angel—have both an artistic eye and a discriminating ear. Bit by bit I start to re-enliven my suppressed childhood passion for music and musical theatre. I purchase a small keyboard and start playing and singing in the privacy of my dorm room after I’ve transformed into Angel. It’s in this exploration that I start to find that in Angel I have a different voice. A voice not so different in tone or pitch, but a voice that speaks and sings without hesitation or doubt, and without the need to hide or be small. This voice, I discover, is also inexorably drawn to clearly speak the truth, rather than a candy-coated or dumbed-down version thereof.
The other important discovery I make through this investigation is that when I’m Angel, I feel confident and powerful, there’s an absence of self-doubt, and the shame and self-hatred I feel about myself and my body when I’m Angelo is completely absent.
As my medical training progresses it becomes clear that I’m drawn to becoming a surgeon. Through the latter years of my medical degree I choose rotations in many of the surgical subspecialties to get a taste of each of them. The day I first enter a neurosurgical operating theatre, however, is the day that I know I’ve found my calling.
I discover that the intensity of the focus and extreme concentration required in these life-and-death procedures, which demand laser-like precision, brings with it a heightened sense of aliveness, as well as the temporary cessation of the sad story of me.
It’s in the middle of a long and technically difficult temporal lobe glioma resection, in which I’m the primary assistant working with the professor, that it occurs to me that the temporary cessation of the sad story of me that occurs when I’m operating in the neurosurgical theatre is very much like the momentary cessation of the story that occurs when I have an orgasm . . . except that it’s for a much more sustained period of time. I laugh softly under my breath, being careful to avoid any movement of the instruments I’m holding and which are currently keeping the patient’s healthy brain out of the operative field, and I decide to start calling my neurosurgical theatre time: le grand mort, the big death.
“Oops, there goes 1967,” states the professor in a droll tone. “Keep those retractors still, doctor. You’re here to do a job, not daydream about your girlfriend’s titties.”
While I’m in the neurosurgical theatre, I find, there’s no more ‘poor me’ for hours at a time; it’s such a deeply nourishing relief. The only thing that exists in each moment is drilling the burr hole, sawing the skull, incising the dura, retracting the brain, clipping the aneurysm, draining the subdural hematoma, excising the meningioma, resecting the glioblastoma, implanting the ventriculo-peritoneal shunt or deep-brain stimulator, dissecting the tumor from the spinal cord, decompressing the lumbar nerve root.
The neurosurgical operating theatre becomes my happy place, my place of rest from my life’s worries, and it excites and thrills me like nothing else in my life.
My first job after graduating from medical school is as an intern at Oklahoma State University Medical Center in Tulsa. I need to complete at least two years as a junior hospital doctor before I can officially join the neurosurgical training program. My first rotation of the year is in the Emergency Department.
It’s 7am on my first day, and I sheepishly poke my head into the ED, my body jittery with nervous excitement. As the doors slide closed behind me an alarm starts to sound:
Beep!! Beep!! Beep!! Code Blue!! Emergency Department, bay sixteen!! Code Blue!! Emergency Department, bay sixteen!! Beep!! Beep!! Beep!!
The large open room of the Emergency Department of Oklahoma State University Medical Center has curtained cubicles around its perimeter, surrounding the nurse’s station which is in the center of the space. This morning more than half of the cubicles are vacant, and many of the patients in the occupied cubicles are sleeping, though a few look up at me nervously as I gaze quickly around the room, looking for the source of the disturbance.
To my left a head appears through a crack in a drawn curtain, and a nurse, seeing me wearing a white coat and with a stethoscope hanging around my neck, calls out to me, “Doctor, over here. Quickly!!”
I look around, wondering who she’s talking to, then realize in shock that she’s speaking to me. I freeze, unable to move or speak. The nurse pops her head through the curtain again and calls out, more emphatically this time, “Well, what are you waiting for? Get to it!! Can’t you see there’s someone dying over here!!”
I snap out of my frozen trance, take a deep breath, and spring into action, putting my recently finished medical training to real practical use for the first time.
Inside the drawn curtain it’s an intense flurry of activity. The nurse who’d called me over is busy hanging and connecting bags of IV fluids and preparing and injecting various drugs into the patient’s IV line. In between these tasks she applies the round ECG dots to the patient’s chest and arms, attaches leads to the dots, and initializes the ECG monitor.
Another nurse is standing at the head of the bed rhythmically squeezing a plastic ball attached to the unconscious patient’s mouth by a tube, manually inflating his lungs. She looks nervous, and I sense that this might be her first Code Blue experience also.
The night resident doctor—a pretty, small-statured, south Asian woman—is engulfed in an oversized pale-blue paper surgical gown, a mask covering her mouth and nose, a clear visor covering her eyes, and a loose pale blue surgical hat covering her voluminous dark hair. She’s in the process of attempting to insert a thick plastic tube into a small incision she’s made between the patient’s ribs, just below his armpit. The patient, I note quickly, is a young man who’s lying on his left side. He’s covered in scratches and dried blood, and pieces of his clothing are scattered around the cubicle, having been cut off his body when he arrived in the ED a few minutes before. The man is unmoving, and clearly unconscious.
“Doctor. Thank God. Traumatic hemopneumothorax. Patient fell 30 feet onto concrete. Probable closed head injury. Pupils are mid-dilated but reactive. I’m having trouble getting the chest tube in with all this blood, and now he’s in v-fib. Grab the paddles and shock him.”
I stare at her in disbelief. You want me to do what? “Sorry?”
“The defib, over there. Charge to 200 and shock him. What’s the matter with you? We’ve loaded him with epi, and I’ve just ordered a push of lidocaine.” She turns her attention back to the river of blood that’s now flowing freely through the incision she’s just enlarged with her scalpel, and attempts once more to thrust the large-bore tube inside the man’s chest.
I gag, almost throwing up in my mouth, then suddenly jump into action.
“Charging to 200. Ready. Clear!!”
The night resident and two nurses stand back from their tasks for a moment as I lay the paddles on gel pads on the man’s chest, and press the buttons on the end of the paddles. His body jerks violently, then falls back heavily onto the gurney.
“Still in v-fib. Charging to 300. Ready. Clear!!”
“He’s been out for more than 30 minutes; he’ll be acidotic. Push some bicarb,” shouts my colleague as the ECG trace continues to show a wiggly line that isn’t good news for the patient’s future wellbeing. She then makes another attempt to insert the chest tube, this time kneeling on the edge of the hospital bed and putting all her body weight into the effort, and . . . pop, in it goes. A fountain of pressurized blood explodes from the end of the tube, hitting the ceiling above us and showering us with spots of the young man’s crimson gold. It’s a dark red color indicating, to those tuned in to such subtleties, that our patient’s blood is significantly lacking in oxygen.
“Bicarb on board,” says the nurse in charge of drug administration.
“He’s in v-flutter now. Up your ventilation rate,” I say to the frightened nurse at the head of the bed. “Charging to 400. Ready. Clear!!”
This time the ECG trace transforms into the desired regular peaked pattern, indicating the young man’s heart is now back in a rhythm compatible with sustaining life.
“Sinus rhythm. Nice work everyone. Marcie, come and take over here and sew this tube in place. Hannah, keep bagging him and let’s get a ventilator over here; he needs more oxygen, or he’ll be permanently brain damaged. You, what’s your name?”
“Me? Angelo. Angelo Williams.”
“Well, Dr. Williams. We need a cardiothoracic consult, stat. We might need to crack his chest. I suspect a traumatic mediastinal aortic rupture. While you’re at it, prep radiology for an emergency head and chest CT.”
I stare at her, frozen and unable to move again.
“What are you waiting for? Go!!”
I turn and make my way out of the cubicle and towards the phone at the nearby nurse’s station. Before I’ve traversed the ten feet to the desk, however, the alarm sounds again:
Beep!! Beep!! Beep!! Code Blue!! Emergency Department, bay thirteen!! Code Blue!! Emergency Department, bay thirteen!! Beep!! Beep!! Beep!!
I stop and look to my left. Adjacent to where the drama I’ve just left is unfolding behind drawn curtains, the terrified face of a young woman greets me. She’s standing beside an obese older woman who appears to be sleeping.
“Doctor. It’s my mother. She just stopped breathing. I think she’s dying. I pushed the red button; I didn’t know what else to do. Help us. Please, help us!!”
I stare at her in disbelief. What do I do now? My mind is reeling, and I feel completely out of control and unable to act on either the emergency I’ve just stepped away from, or this new cry for help.
The sliding doors of the Emergency Department open once more and another day-one intern walks sheepishly through, fear blatantly undisguised on her face. I smile faintly . . . and suddenly I’m back.
“Doctor. Yes you. Call cardiothoracics for an urgent consult in sixteen. Get radiology ready for an emergency head and chest CT—query ruptured thoracic aorta; query closed head injury. Then join me in thirteen.”
The intern stares at me in disbelief, frozen in terror.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get to it!! Can’t you see there are people dying over here?”
Both patients I help manage that morning die. A young man with a ruptured aorta and a fractured skull, destined to die no matter what treatment was given him, and an elderly woman who’s diseased and enlarged heart was no longer able to pump enough blood around her body to keep it alive. It was a baptism of fire.
The intensity required to work as a doctor in the medical system is, in some ways, never again below the level that I experienced on that first morning. Circumstantially there are highs and lows, more intense and less intense moments, but the readiness to be available for the next emergency is always needed. What becomes clear to me through the years that follow is that there’s very little time or energy available to put towards my own personal issues—especially the issues around my gender and identity—so my unexamined and unhealed emotional problems are put on the back burner . . . for about twenty more years.
I have an apparent talent for the technical skill required to become a neurosurgeon, and when this is combined with my steady hands and agreeable nature, I find myself rising quickly through the ranks of the profession. A two-year stint as senior neurosurgical registrar at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore looks good on my CV, and when a Junior Staff Neurosurgeon position becomes available at Jersey City Medical Center in 1994, I jump at the opportunity. My goal has always been to return to New Eden at some point, which, despite many painful childhood memories being associated with it, I’ve always considered home. Working in Jersey City means I can live in Manhattan and easily commute to and from work there each day.
I rent a cozy apartment in Greenwich Village where I finally start to find community, and even the occasional opportunity for Angel to go out in public. As the ‘90s progress I reflect that my professional life is turning out significantly better than I could possibly have imagined when I was a traumatized fourteen-year-old being abandoned at The Mercy Home for Children for the second time in my short life.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for my inner life, which is becoming progressively more conflicted, and where a plethora of important emotional issues are yet to be addressed . . .
XI: LOST IN DESIRE
"Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies."
— Aristotle (384BC- 327BC)
I imagine by now that you’re curious about how my sex life’s going, given the anatomical challenges I have in that arena. Truthfully, the issues around sex and intimate relationships are the most challenging of my life, and it’s safe to say that there’s been a whole lot of shame involved every step of the way.
From the initial onset of my interest in sex as puberty hit when I was twelve, I’ve always been attracted to males, never to females. I guess that makes me—Angelo—homosexual, and me—Angel—heterosexual, right? It’s not until I’m attending in medical school in Wichita, however, that I first experience the arising of the urge to actually try and meet someone to have sex with. As a part of this urge, I find myself becoming increasingly motivated to make myself more attractive to possible sexual partners. Prior to this time—following the trauma of my first sexual encounter with Ken Abercrombie at Brookhaven when I was fourteen—there was just no way that I was ever going to go there again; celibacy seemed to be the only viable option.
It’s me—Angelo—who takes charge of my physical body during this period. I’d found second year physiology lectures about muscle and exercise physiology most enlightening. How muscle fibers hypertrophy if resistance exercise is performed on a regular basis and one supplies the body with sufficient fuel and nutrients to help the muscles grow appropriately. When I combine this information with my observation that men who regularly go to the gym and lift weights develop an aesthetically pleasing physique, the result is I become mildly obsessed with working out. All this, of course, is just my way of compensating for the shame and self-hatred that I continue to harbor around the appearance of my physical body, and most particularly around the appearance of my ambiguous genitalia.
I—Angel—am not overly impressed with Angelo’s gym obsession. “How am I supposed to look feminine and attractive when I’ve got all these bulging muscles?” But at this point in my life, I—Angelo—am still in the driver’s seat most of the time, so Angel’s protests generally go unheeded.
In my first couple of years at university I do have the opportunity to have sex with a couple of guys who are clearly interested in having sex with me, but I always sabotage the possibility of it as the actuality of it approaches. This usually leads to even longer and deeper periods of self-loathing . . . for both of us.
By now you might be starting to get the impression that, given my mental state at this point in my life, not to mention the frankly schizophrenic way of being I’m currently experiencing life as, having sex with another person has a pretty low probability of ever occurring, at least not unless something in my psyche changes drastically. The desire’s there, absolutely. In fact, it’s full-blown. But following through on the desire fails to actualize, time and time again.
What does start to develop in the place of a real sex life during this period is a very elaborate fantasy version thereof. When I see a guy who I find particularly attractive, he becomes the focus of my attention for a time, and I create an imaginary life together with him. This generally involves physically stalking the guy from a distance, and I discover I get a sort of high out of just being in his physical proximity. Embarrassingly, this results in some humiliating public confrontations which force me to take my fantasy obsessions even more underground and internalized.
It’s during my second year of medical school in Wichita that I start taking occasional weekend trips to nearby Kansas City. Here I spend evenings drinking in gay bars or attending small gay-friendly parties that are scheduled there a few times a year.
Mostly it’s me—Angelo—that goes to the gay bars, especially the leather bar where the men are rougher and more masculine. I quickly discover, however, that hanging out in these bars only makes me sadder and lonelier because I know that I won’t actually be going home with anyone; fear of the shameful disclosure that naturally follows removing my clothing still too challenging to be met at this point.
When it comes to the parties, however, it’s me—Angel—who takes the lead. It’s easy for me to make an appearance at a gay dance party because everyone naturally assumes I’m a drag queen. When my body becomes more muscular, I make jokes about being possessed by an inner bodybuilder demon and call it muscle drag.
It’s on my 21st birthday, in January of 1985—which I’m celebrating by attending Jason and Brianna’s 10th annual Mid-Winter Costume Ball in Kansas City—that I’m first introduced to MDMA . . . ecstasy.
There must be five hundred people here: it’s very exciting. And so many people have dressed up for the occasion. Happy birthday to me!!
I’d stumbled across the Mid-Winter Costume Ball last year—my first real party in Kansas City—but I’d realized too late that it was an opportunity to really go to town and dress up. This year I’ve gone the whole nine yards, and I’m wearing a brand new hot-pink, baby-doll dress with diamante spaghetti straps. I have on my best blonde wig which is styled up very elegantly. I’m wearing multiple strings of pearls as well as a new pair of diamond drop-earrings, long pink satin gloves, and a pair of six-inch stilettos that are covered in pink glitter. I feel special, and I can honestly say that for the first time in my life that I look pretty . . . despite my bulging deltoids and biceps.
I stand at the edge of the first-floor balcony looking out over the crowded dance floor below. The event’s being held in an old theatre that’s had the seats removed from the downstairs stalls area for dancing, but which still has the seats in place upstairs in the mezzanine. The music is loud and high energy. I’m not familiar with most of it, but occasionally a tune comes on that I recognize, and I feel the urge to move my body a little. I’m not really interested in dancing, however; that’s just one more thing that I think I’m not very good at and which makes me feel self-conscious. I’m here to people-watch.
I love being an anonymous voyeur at an event like this. There are clearly many gay men and women present. Some bisexuals too, I presume, though I’m starting to see that identifying as bisexual is clearly more of an inner attitude, with less outer signs or trappings. I imagine there are also a few transgenders here but I’m not 100% sure about that either. There’s a lot of queers . . . whatever that means. There’s leather, Lycra, bondage gear, high fashion, fur suits, the odd tutu, and even a few people wearing nothing at all. Anything goes, and I feel fully at home. It’s so liberating that the label freak no longer applies only to me but to virtually everyone around me. At this point in my life, I’m still unaware of the existence of the small sub-population into which I would later be included—intersex—so at the moment it’s just LGBTQ, and it feels good to be allowing myself to fully be queer without any negative judgments.
A short, stocky woman wearing a psychedelic jumpsuit, a pink punk wig, sunglasses with disturbing holographic eyes visible in each lens, platform sandals, and a Hello Kitty backpack, sucking a Chupa Chups, bounces up to me and declares, “Oh, my God. Your dress is the same color as my ‘eckys.’ Here, take a look.” With this she pulls a small metal box out of a secret hidden pocket in the front of her psychedelic jumpsuit and carefully shimmies off the lid. I lean forward and peer inside.
Sure enough, there nestled inside the little pill box are six small round tablets that are the exact same shade of pink as my baby-doll dress. “Well look at that, you’re right,” I reply matter-of-factly.
“Well, go on then. You must have one. They’re the same color as your dress, for cryin’ out loud. It’s pre-destiny.” At this the woman plucks one of the pink pills from its resting place and, without hesitating, thrusts it and her fingers deep inside my mouth.
I gag as her fingers hit my uvula, then swallow automatically before I can even get out my first protestation. “Ggghhmm. Arrgghhgghh. Noooooo!! I don’t do drugs!!”
“What!?! Haaaaaa, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!! You don’t do drugs? How funny are you? What are you doing here then, sweetheart? You must be the only one here tonight who’s not high. What’s your deal?”
“What do you mean? Is everyone here really on drugs?”
“That’s what it’s all about, love. MDMA. Ecstasy. Connection. You can give it back if you like; ungrateful bitch.”
“Too late. I appear to have swallowed it. What was it, by the way?
“A Pink Panda. Purest bloody MDMA you’ll ever try, sweetheart. You’ll be high as a kite for six hours, guaranteed. Have you ever had an E before?”
“I most certainly have not. What’s going to happen to me?”
“Oh baby, you’re in for the ride of your life; strap yourself in. Woohoo!!”
With this, the psychedelic jumpsuit bounces off in search of her next victim, and I sit down in the front row of theatre seats to take stock of what’s just happened.
I’ve just swallowed an ecstasy tablet. What should I do? Go and stick my fingers down my throat in the bathroom and vomit it up? Or maybe I should just see what happens? It can’t be that dangerous, can it? They used it in couples therapy until just a few years ago, I think.
About two hours later I bump into psychedelic jumpsuit once more. I’m now on the main dance floor where the music is louder, so it’s hard to hear.
“Hey pink baby-doll. How’s it going?”
“Oh, my God. Thank you so much. I love you. Can I kiss you?”
“You’re not my type, sweetheart. I’m not into chicks with dicks.”
“You’d be surprised!! Actually, what you just said, that’s pretty funny. In fact, you know what I just realized? I think I’m everyone’s type. Haaaaa, ha, ha, ha!! Oh, my God. I feel amazing. Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Georgie. What’s yours?”
“Enjoy, Angel babe. See ya later.”
Psychedelic jumpsuit ping-pongs her way through the crowded dancefloor, and I continue to dance like I’ve never danced before. My body feels incredible, like pure electricity, pure vitality, is flowing through my veins. I feel happy. I feel confident. I feel free. I never knew it was possible to feel this good. Ecstasy, I decide, is my new best friend. I have no trace of self-doubt, and I have no concern about how I look. I just feel great without needing anything—including recognition or love—from anyone. Everybody around me looks beautiful, and they’re all smiling at me. I smile back and laugh almost continually. I hug people for no reason, and they hug me back.
I try to kiss a handsome boy that I’ve been dancing with for a few minutes, but he playfully pushes me away, then pulls me closer and whispers/shouts into my ear, “After you take the makeup off, I’m all yours.”
“Oh, really?” I’m shocked . . . but excited. No one’s ever said anything like this to me before. In my altered state, I immediately jump to one of my happy-ever-after fantasies.
I’m suddenly flooded with waves of goosebumps that course up and down my body uncontrollably; it feels incredibly pleasurable. Later I come to know this phenomenon as peaking, but in this moment, I attribute it to the knowledge that someone actually wantss me. For the first time in my life, somebody desires me. Me!! For the first time in my life, I feel loved.
I—Angelo—now take back control of the situation and make a beeline for the nearest bathroom. It’s the ladies, but as I’m dressed as a lady, I figure that at this point I can use it without any fear or guilt. This is not my usual experience in life, however, where bathroom choice can be accompanied by significant angst.
I stop in front of the mirror and look at myself. I’m beautiful; it’s incredible. My makeup’s a little smudged, and my wig’s askew and somewhat disheveled, but it doesn’t matter. I’m gorgeous.
“How is that possible? How did I get to be so beautiful?” I ask my reflection.
I’m not yet used to this effect of ecstasy. The effect that turns off the voice of the judge, the superego, the harsh critic in my head that’s been my constant companion since I was a young child. In this moment, for the first time I can ever remember, it’s not telling me what a horrific, worthless piece of trash I am. It’s unbelievable.
“You’re gorgeous, darlin’. Truly ya are,” a random woman dressed only in yards of knotted red rope says to me in a broad Texan accent as she washes her hands and re-applies rope-matching lipstick.”
“I know, right? I’m totally gorgeous. Who knew?”
“How’s ya night?”
“It’s my 21st birthday, and I’m having an absolutely fucking fabulous time. Thanks for asking. Best night of my life. You?”
“Off ma’ tits. Lovin’ the music. You goin’ to the after-party at Tank?”
“There’s an after-party? Oh, my God. I’ve died and gone to heaven. What time is it anyway?”
“Almost five, I reckon.”
“No!! It can’t be!! But I only got here a little while ago. What happened to the time? There’s only three hours to go; I don’t want this to ever end.”
“What, you an ecky virgin or somethin’? Forget about the time and party, love. Who says it has to end, anyway?” Then she’s gone.
I look in the mirror again and smile wryly as I realize that I have nothing to take off my makeup with, and no ‘boy’ clothes to put on.
“Oh well, I guess I won’t get to kiss the cutey-pie after all.”
When the music stops and the lights come up, I can’t believe it’s over. I want to keep dancing, and singing, and laughing; I want this feeling to go on forever.
I follow the crowd out onto the street, completely forgetting my coat at the coat-check, where it’s icy cold, and the pre-dawn sky is ominous. Strangely, I’m oblivious to the cold, and I wander along the street feeling joy and gratitude for just being alive. I can’t quite believe how beautiful Kansas City is at 8am on a Sunday morning in the middle of January!!
Luckily, I’m staying at a Motel 6 that’s just a few blocks from the theatre. As I collect my key from reception, however, I’m greeted with suspicious and judgmental sidelong glances. It’s such a stark contrast from the openness and loving connection I’ve had with five hundred strangers all through the night, but it doesn’t touch my positive mood.
Closing the door to my motel room my body’s buzzing and full of energy. I can’t believe how up-beat and energized I feel after having just danced all night without any sleep. I go to the bathroom and look for my makeup remover. As I glance down, I notice the word TANK written in hot-pink lipstick on the inside of my right forearm.
“Wow, will you look at that. Some part of my mind was conscious enough last night to write that because it knew I wouldn’t remember where that darned after-party was being held. What a clever thing you are, mind. Thank you.” I look intently at myself in the mirror, and say sincerely to my reflection, “I love you, mind!!”
I remove my makeup and shower, and I—Angelo—get dressed to go out again. I feel rising excitement at the prospect of kissing the boy I’d flirted with on the dancefloor. “I really hope he’s at the after-party. That would totally make my day. Actually, it would totally make my year, my life.”
As I walk the mile or so to the dock area—where the industrial-themed club is located—the sky’s a little clearer, but it’s still icy cold out. I pass by a church where people are exiting, and I stop and stare at them. They all look bored and miserable. As I stand watching them my heart feels like its swelling open, and I have the urge to run over and wrap them all up in my arms and give them a big group hug. Luckily, common sense prevails, and I continue walking.
The after-party is well and truly pumping when I arrive. In fact, the club’s full to overflowing. I’m surprised they let me in at all, but everyone’s so friendly, and I immediately feel completely welcome. The crowd has a higher percentage of gay men than the ball, with only the occasional woman—or at least I think they’re women—present. Most of the men have their shirts off and are dancing intimately with one another, both on the dancefloor and off. I feel a wave of self-doubt start to surface, and I look around for a familiar face. The effect of the MDMA is definitely wearing off now, and suddenly I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of a precipice, about to plummet into a familiar abyss of shame and self-loathing.
“Hey, is that you? I’d recognize those biceps anywhere.” The cutey-pie from the ball is suddenly before me and I’ve been thrown a lifeline. “Well, are you going to kiss me now?”
“Yes. Oh, yes!!”
I’m carried away by another wave of bliss and ecstasy now, this time in the arms of a hot Nebraskan economist who’s currently living and studying for a master’s degree in Dallas; details I discover many hours later. The people around us fade into a blur of bodies and colored lights as we enter our own private bubble, and time slows to a sensual pulse of just us two, mouth-to-mouth.
Apart from kissing me, the Nebraskan seems intent on rubbing my chest and playing with my nipples. He peels my t-shirt over my head and tucks it into his own back pocket. This act makes me gasp as it feels like he’s claimed possession of me; it’s thrilling.
I’m happy to have my nipples played with as they’re extremely sensitive. They’re my number one erogenous zone, actually; unusual for a boy perhaps, but not for this hermaphrodite. The effect today, however, is more stimulating than I ever remember previously—another positive effect of the MDMA, I quickly realize. The economist leans forward and starts sucking on my right nipple which instantly transports me into a higher orbit of ecstasy. Oh…my…goodness!!
A superficial part of my mind momentarily remembers that there are people all around us. This part of me presents me with the thought that I should be ashamed by this public display of intimacy, but that thought, I realize quickly, is somehow no longer a part of the me that I currently am, but a part of the me that I formerly was . . . the pre-MDMA Angelo. I let the thought go and relax into fully enjoying the sensations in the moment. We merge into the sea of bodies that are writhing all around us, like giant kelp on an underwater dancefloor.
“Hey, you want a tab?”
“A tab. LSD. You know, acid.”
“No, I don’t know.”
I hesitate, looking the Nebraskan directly in the eye, then throw caution to the wind and decide to let this ride take me all the way to the terminal station, having absolutely no idea what that might look like. “OK, why the heck not!!”
About an hour later, the LSD starting to alter my reality in a most amusing and mind-expanding way, my friend—I still don’t know his name, but that really doesn’t seem to matter in this moment—suggests we go to the back room.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know what a back room is either. Where’re you from, Kansas?”
“No, I’m from New Eden, but this is all new to me.”
The hot Nebraskan, holding my hand firmly, now jostles his way to the rear of the club, through a heavy black plastic curtain, and into a completely dark space beyond. The music’s muffled here, but I can hear groaning sounds all around us. It’s impossible to say how many bodies are in the black space because there’s no light at all, but it’s jammed to the rafters, and clearly no one’s spectating.
The kissing and chest fondling starts up once more—I assume it’s the Nebraskan—and soon a hand goes down the front of my jeans. I pull back instinctively and grab the hand, halting its downward progress. The hand is slowly retracted but quickly finds its way down the rear of my jeans instead. This feels acceptable for now, so I allow the exploration to proceed.
“Oh great, you’re a bottom. That’s perfect,” a voice whispers in my ear, its lingual companion lingering moistly, gently nuzzling my external ear canal for a few seconds before leaving and making its way back to my mouth.
I know that my asshole is sensitive to the touch from years of experimentation when masturbating, so I enjoy the stimulation of this area by my partner. I’m a little surprised when his finger slides all the way inside my anus, but it feels exceedingly pleasurable, so I allow it to continue.
Being in total darkness now I realize just how much I’m being affected by the LSD. Eyes open or eyes closed doesn’t much matter; the extraordinary kaleidoscopic light show of visual imagery is both mesmerizing and distracting. In fact, it’s so distracting I find it hard to pay attention to what’s happening to me physically. It’s only sometime later that I realize my jeans are around my ankles and the Nebraskan’s cock—at least I assume it’s the Nebraskan’s—is starting to make its way up my ass.
“Here, take a snort of poppers. I know, you’ve never done that before either, right? Just trust me and . . . inhale really deep.”
I take a long sniff of the pungent aroma emanating from the small bottle that’s being held under my right nostril, and all of a sudden my world is rocketed to yet another realm of altered reality, and to another level of intensity . . . of everything. I lose all sense of boundaries now, and I have no idea where my body finishes and another’s starts. It’s all just sensation—exceedingly pleasurable sensation, I might add—rolling over and through me, around and inside me, again and again, like waves rolling onto a wild ocean beach in a storm. “Aaaaaarrrrrrhhhhhhhh!!!”
There they are, the final nails in the coffin of my developing pleasure addiction: recreational drugs and sex.
I’ve worked nights as a waiter in an Italian restaurant to make some cash during my first two years in Wichita. Now, I realize, I need to make more money if I’m going to attend more of these dance parties. I learn there are similar parties every other weekend somewhere in the country . . . and I want to attend all of them.
I apply for a position with the American Red Cross in Wichita. It’s a night role, five nights per week, where I finish processing the blood products donated that day, then sleep in the building and dispense red cells, whole blood, fresh frozen plasma, bags of platelets, and bottles of factor X to hospitals and clinics around the city as they’re needed urgently overnight. The job pays well, and I usually sleep most of the night without being disturbed. It’s a great environment to get all my medical school study out of the way without any distractions during the week so I have my weekends free to explore my blossoming dance party obsession.
The extra cash I earn allows me to take a weekend trip to St Louis in March, to New Orleans for Gay Pride in June, to Atlanta for Hotlanta in August, to Houston in November for no reason other than I’d heard that the boys there were sexy, and even a long weekend in May of the following year to Chicago for IML—International Mister Leather.
I’m on the circuit, and there’s no looking back after that first Pink Panda in Kansas City on my 21st birthday . . .
XII: THE SECOND DEATH
“There’s a growing number of humans alive today whose consciousness is sufficiently evolved not to need any more suffering before the realization of enlightenment. You may be one of them.”
— Eckhart Tolle (1948– )
It’s during an immunology lecture in the fall of 1985 that I first hear about a new medical conundrum: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS. Apparently, it’s mostly gay men and hemophiliacs who are being affected by it, and, disturbingly, previously healthy young men and even children are dying from it. Research is just starting to connect the dots, but the data is still sketchy. The scientists are fairly sure it’s caused by a virus—HTLV-III—and there’s now a test available to look for antibodies to the virus, but so far there’s no effective treatment and no vaccine.
I discuss this with some of the men I meet at the circuit parties, but no one’s worried. “It’s just a thing that’ll pass. It’s only happening in LA, San Fran, and New Eden. No need to worry about it; I’m fine. Shall we fuck?”
Late in 1987 I come down with what seems to be a bad flu; I feel terrible. I continue to study, work, and sleep overnight at the Red Cross, but my fever’s so high one night I can’t concentrate, and I make some mistakes sending out blood products. Management is not at all impressed, and they tell me to take time off until I’ve fully recovered.
Four days into the illness I start to develop a deep aching pain in both my feet. Within 24 hours the pain has crept up to my knees, and I’m having trouble walking as I can’t seem to grip the ground with my toes. Another two days and the pain is all the way up to my belly button, and I’m completely bed bound as I can’t stand up without falling over, having lost the strength in my legs completely. My roommate brings me food and drink, I pee into a bottle, and I drag myself into the bathroom when I need to use the toilet.
I’m scared as I have no idea what’s happening to me. On scouring my medical texts, it sounds like I might have polio. But how could I have polio? My polio vaccinations are fully up to date. How could that be? A doctor makes a home visit and suggests I should be admitted to the hospital for tests as he has no idea what’s going on either. But I’m too ashamed to turn up at the hospital—where my mentors and medical student peers will be working—in this clearly disabled and humiliating condition; I decide to soldier through it on my own.
The following day the pain in my feet has gone, and I can stand up without falling over. The pain and weakness continue their incessant pilgrimage up my body, however, and for four days I lose most of the strength in my arms and hands. Pleasingly, by this time I’ve regained full use of my legs, so I can move myself independently around the apartment again.
For a few days I experience the worst headaches I’ve ever had—it’s like my head’s literally being squeezed in a vice—and I lose the ability to move my facial muscles. As a result I can’t speak properly, and I can only eat or drink thick liquid through a straw or else the food just falls out of my mouth. One more week and my body is finally pain free, and all my muscles have returned to their previous level of function.
What was it that caused this bizarre illness, this transient, painful, ascending paralysis? I have no clue. I won’t find that out until two years later when my blood is tested during a routine health screening prior to me taking out income protection insurance now that I’m a fully qualified doctor: I’m HIV-positive.
I can’t even begin to describe the shame that accompanies this discovery. All the shame I’ve experienced in my life to date—which is a lot—pales into insignificance with this new revelation. I’ve contracted the gay plague. So much self-loathing arises in me I withdraw completely from the world, and in a similar way to when I discovered my hermaphroditism, I find it virtually impossible to speak to anyone for weeks.
Am I afraid I’ll die? Yes, but that hardly matters. In fact, death feels like it will be such a relief . . . from life. Relief from my crappy life. To know that I’ll be dead from AIDS in a few years without having to go through the mess and drama of killing myself takes the pressure off me somehow. It’s not something I admit freely to others—or even to myself most of the time—but there’s a strong force inside me that would clearly rather not be here. Some deep innate death wish, which I discover the following year during a psychiatry rotation that Sigmund Freud had talked about extensively, and which he’d named, thanatos.
If I’m truthful about it, the urge to not live has been with me from the youngest age. Early on it would mostly manifest as withdrawal from the world, a somber melancholic mood, and frequent fantasy thoughts about how good it would be to be someone else. More recently, actual thoughts of suicide have started to pop into my mind more often, and if I’m honest they’re never completely unwelcome, even laced with a tinge of excitement at times.
Maybe it’s this same subconscious death wish that caused me to become infected by the human immunodeficiency virus in the first place? Impossible to say, but there is a small but significant part of me that’s happy to have received the diagnosis. That part of me that feels I deserve to be a victim of the gay plague. That very familiar core part of me that feels entirely worthless and unlovable.
A medication called AZT has just been approved by the FDA, but it sounds ghastly. It seems that as many men are dying from side effects of the medication as from the disease itself. No, I make the decision that I’ll keep soldiering on as if nothing’s wrong, continue my career as a doctor—and hopefully a neurosurgeon, if it’s even possible for me to make it that far—go to as many circuit parties as I can, then die in a couple of years when the time inevitably comes. That’s my plan.
I’m 25 years old . . .
"The fulfilment of life is alive and awake inside you. All that is needed is to turn your attention toward it and recognize it as your own self."
One of the first patients I treat in my new role as Junior Staff Neurosurgeon at Jersey City Medical Center is a young woman named Yantra Srinivasan. Yantra had over-enthusiastically celebrated her 21st birthday with friends at a bar in Irvington, after which she’d attempted to drive home down the freeway to Hoboken with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.
Yantra’s car was a complete write-off, neatly wrapped like tissue paper around a light pole some fifty feet up a freeway embankment. Yantra’s late ‘70s Datsun 180B was well and truly from the pre-airbag era, but luckily Yantra had had enough sense to buckle her seatbelt before setting out for home, and this had literally saved her life. The force and angle at which Yantra’s head had struck the car door frame, however, was enough to fracture her left parietal bone, rupturing her middle meningeal artery in the process. A rapidly developing extradural hematoma had resulted, with subsequent compression of Yantra’s brain.
The situation had become critical soon after Yantra’s arrival at JCMC Emergency Department, lapsing into unconsciousness as her brainstem was squeezed down through her foramen magnum by the rapidly expanding hematoma; extreme pressure on the respiratory center in her medulla causing Yantra to go into respiratory arrest, with panic ensuing as the life-or-death situation unfolded.
I happen to be upstairs in the operating suite on my first trauma on-call night when Yantra codes. She’s rushed up to theatre and I drill burr holes into her skull to drain the blood and relieve the pressure on her brain. The surgery takes place just in the nick of time, and she makes a full recovery. Before discharging her from the hospital a few weeks later, however, I suggest to Yantra that she might like to look at attending AA, which she does.
Yantra remains sober to this day, and she still sends me a Christmas card every year thanking me for being in the right place at the right time, for saving her life, and for being her guardian angel.
Later in the year I move from Greenwich Village to an apartment building on Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side. I’ve discovered I love this funky, grungy, eclectic neighborhood more than the Village because it’s quieter, and the people tend to be humbler and more down-to-earth.
The apartment building, typical for this neighborhood, has four floors. Mrs. Lola Chu—my new landlord—lives on the second floor, and her elderly non-English-speaking parents live on the first floor. I move into the recently vacated third-floor apartment.
The occupant of the below-street-level ground floor apartment at the time, John Buchanan, is a reclusive banker. In almost seven years I share less than a dozen words with him. The delightful Bernard McCall and his gorgeous son Adam move into this apartment in 2002, which is a great relief for the rest of us.
I find it so sweet to be fully accepted for who I am by the little band at Eldridge Street. Some days it’s Dr. Angelo Williams they meet on the steps of the building on his way to work at the hospital. Other times it’s Angel on her way out to a party or club in the evening. One day we all sit down together and have a frank discussion about me and my unusual genetic make-up. Bernard is totally fascinated, and immediately goes away to research everything he can find out about human chimerism and hermaphroditism. Mrs. Chu wants to know if I’m being supported in my rights to be a hermaphrodite and an intersex individual, and wonders if there’s any cause that she can champion for me. They’re all so open, generous, and supportive about it, and their unconditional acceptance of the aspects of myself that I’ve been ashamed of my whole life is very healing for me. I love them all dearly and would do anything for them; they truly are my chosen family—my chamily—now.
The other wonderful relationship that blossoms for me now is with little Adam. Adam’s just four years old when he and Bernard move into the building, and he’s a bundle of pure joy: blond curls, blue eyes, mischievous smile, boundless energy. Oh, how he makes my heart melt in a way that it’s never melted before.
I’m 38 years old when I meet ‘my boys,’ as I like to call Bernard and Adam. I’d put myself through intensive fertility testing just a few years before when the urge for me—Angel—to become a mother to my own child had arisen strongly. I’d consulted with one of the most highly regarded IVF specialists in the city, and she’d managed to harvest several viable eggs from my small ovaries . . . after receiving huge doses of stimulating hormones. The eggs were fertilized with donor sperm, but as the embryos grew in the test-tube, they’d all died, one by one.
We tried on several occasions, with various sperm donors, but to no avail. On the last attempt I convinced Dr. Gallo to fertilize my eggs with my own sperm—I know, potentially a monstrous decision for sure, but I felt it was worth a shot—and the result was two healthy, viable embryos. Implantation into my small, anatomically aberrant uterus, however, just didn’t take. As I couldn’t come to grips with the concept of using a surrogate, I finally made the pragmatic decision to give up on the whole endeavor.
It’s with Adam, however, that I’m now finally able to express my mothering instinct. With Bernard’s permission, I spend most of my free time with Adam, and he starts sleeping over in my apartment a couple of nights each week. Given that Adam believes his mother died in childbirth, for me to be able to offer myself to be the mother he never had feels so delicious; I can’t get enough of it.
These joyful moments I spend with young Adam, however, are not indicative of my general state of wellbeing throughout this period. Perhaps it was the heavy doses of fertility drugs I’d received for a few years that were the culprit, or perhaps it was a brain chemistry imbalance I’d inherited and was unaware of, or perhaps it was just the fact that all my childhood traumas and unexamined emotional issues finally caught up with me, but shortly after Bernard and Adam arrived at Eldridge Street, so did my depression . . .
XIV: THE SECOND MESSAGE
“Being empty of desire is happiness.”
— Papaji (1910-1997)
I wonder what time is it? 4.17am. Oh, my God, I’ve only been walking for a quarter of an hour. How funny is that? It felt like at least 45 minutes. I wonder if it’s going to take me the full two hours that the guidebook said it would? It doesn’t feel like it. Maybe I should’ve stayed in bed longer. I’m feeling really tired, actually. I could have done with a bit more sleep; an extra half hour might have made all the difference. Although . . . maybe not. I always wake up before my alarm when I have to get up early. How does that work? What part of your brain stays alert and knows what time it is, even when you’re asleep? I wonder if anyone’s ever done research into that? What was that? Oh, just an owl. I wonder if there are any dangerous animals awake at 4am in this part of the world? I don’t suppose so. Australia doesn’t really have any dangerous mammals, except maybe dingoes, but I don’t think there are dingoes around here. And all those nasty reptiles, spiders, and insects I’ve heard so much about would have to be sound asleep now, surely? Do spiders and insects sleep? Come to think of it lots of spiders are nocturnal, aren’t they? Ooh, I hope I don’t run into a spider’s web, or accidentally stumble into a funnel web spider’s burrow. They sound nasty. It’s colder than I was expecting. I wish I’d put on another layer of clothing, although the path’s getting steeper and I’m starting to sweat. Pretty soon I’ll be taking clothing off, and then I’d just have more to carry, which would be a pain. No, I think I wore just the right amount. Although, if I do twist my ankle badly, or break a leg—which is not unlikely given all these sharp rocks and tree roots that I really can’t see because it’s so bloody dark—and I spend days lying in a ditch waiting from someone to come and rescue me, I’d probably freeze to death. Then I’d wish that I’d worn another layer of clothing . . . or brought a space blanket. But it probably wouldn’t make any difference and I’d die anyway. Speaking of which, I better have some water. You must stay hydrated when you’re hiking. I believe that dehydration can creep up on you. How long have I been walking for? Oh, it’s only been 25 minutes. Not likely to be dehydrated yet, I suppose. Maybe I should’ve brought more water. Two liters won’t keep me alive very long if I’m in a ditch with a broken leg. How much water does your body need to stay alive when you’re not exercising? Was it one liter per day, or two? I can’t remember. I'm sure I learnt that in a physiology lecture back in Wichita, but I just can’t remember what it was now. What’s wrong with my memory? Why can’t I remember things? I wonder if I’m developing some sort of early-onset dementia. What time is it now, I wonder? 4.32am. Wow!! Time goes slowly when you’re not doing anything except climbing a mountain in the dark, doesn’t it? Must be something about the darkness affecting your sense of time, or direction, or something. I wonder if they’ve done studies on that?
Mount Warning is not far from Byron Bay, on the north coast of New South Wales in Australia. Its present-day peak was the central core, and all that now remains, of a massive shield volcano that last erupted around 23 million years ago. When seen from the east—from the coast—the contour of Mount Warning resembles the profile of a sleeping giant laying on its back, its large nose and prominent chin pointing straight up at the sky. The steep granitic peak is visible for miles around, and it’s famous as the first point of mainland Australia to receive the rays of the rising sun each morning.
Mount Warning, and the area surrounding it, is of cultural and spiritual significance to the Bundjalung aboriginal people; Mount Warning’s Bundjalung name is Wollumbin. In Aboriginal legend, Wollumbin is described either as a giant bird who was speared by a warrior, or as the mountain warrior himself. Wollumbin and its surrounds represent the masculine energetic polarity; the land closer to the coast—adjacent to the township of Byron Bay—is associated with the feminine for the Bundjalung people and is said to have been their birthing grounds.
On this particular morning—May 9th, 2003—I’m climbing Mount Warning prior to dawn to be at the peak when the sun rises. I’m currently unaware of the local indigenous people’s standing request to not climb Wollumbin; had I known this at the time I would most definitely have respected their wishes.
Captain James Cook gave Mount Warning its English name when he sailed up the East Coast of Australia in 1770 as part of his first circumnavigation of the globe. Cook had used Mount Warning as a navigation mark, and named it as a warning to future ships of hazardous reefs off the nearby coast. I’m climbing Mount Warning prior to sunrise today because I’ve heard from a number of separate sources that it's something I absolutely must do at some point in my life; an urban legend passed around backpacker hostels worldwide for years. I’d first heard about it almost twenty years ago whilst staying at a Youth Hostel in Taos, New Mexico.
I’ve taken a month off work at Jersey City Medical, and I’ve come to Australia to be as far from my normal life as I can possibly be. I guess I’m hoping to find inspiration, or at least some temporary relief from the existential angst that’s taken up residence inside me. I don’t know what, but in coming to Australia I guess I’m looking for something. Some form of guidance, or a sign, perhaps?
Oh, my God, why didn’t someone tell me I should bring a flashlight—a torch, as they say here in Australia—with me. I’m so stupid. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that the climb would be this difficult and that I’d get stuck on a rock ledge in the dark. I'm so stupid. I should have researched this before setting out. You’re such an idiot!! I really need to think about these things more before rushing off unprepared. Actually, that’s a recurring pattern in my life, isn’t it? Rushing off unprepared into the unknown. I really need to look at that. And what’s with these chains? Nobody said anything about chains. I mean, the first hour and a half of the climb was relatively easy going, just a few steep slippery spots here and there, but this is almost vertical. I guess if the sun were up it’d be manageable, but right now there’s no sign of the sun . . . and no moon either for that matter. I can’t even see my hand when I hold it six inches from my face. This overhanging rock above me is way too scary to climb over without being able to see where I’m going, and I’m certainly not going to go down again; it’s way too steep and slippery. What am I going to do? Aaaaargh!! Breathe!! I guess I just have to wait here until the sun comes up. But how long will that be? I think it was supposed to be at around 6.30, but it’ll start to get light a bit before then, surely? And it’s . . . 5.25 now. So, in about . . . 45 minutes. Oh, God!! Really? I have to hang onto this chain on this tiny ledge for 45 more minutes? Bloody hell!! No way!! Oh, my God, I’m such a twit. Oh . . . wait . . . I think I hear something. Yes. Yes!!
“Over here!! Help!! Help me!! Over here!!”
Oh yay. Yay!! And they have a flashlight. Oh yes, thank you. Thank you!!
“Hello. Hello. Hi. How are you? My name’s Angelo. How’s it goin’, mate?” I try putting on my best Aussie accent, but it doesn’t sound convincing.
“What’s up, man? You climbing up here without a torch, man? That’s dumb as, man. Ya gonna break something, get yourself killed if you’re not careful, man.”
“I know, I feel really stupid. I’m sorry to be a nuisance, but would it be OK if I tagged along after you fellows?”
“Sure, man. Be my guest. It’s a free country, man. I’m Grant; this’s Nev.”
I arrive at the summit of Mount Warning with muddied knees and wounded pride about fifteen minutes before the sun is due to rise above the eastern horizon. At some point the sun does rise above the eastern horizon but I’m unable to see it do so due to the heavy blanket of cloud that completely obscures any view in all directions. This morning the peak of Wollumbin is completely shrouded in its own personal halo of cloud, like a localized meteorological party-pooper; the association of Wollumbin with the moniker ‘cloud-catcher’ clearly evident this morning.
I eat a dry muesli bar—the only food I’ve brought with me on the climb—in sullen silence as I sit, shivering, near my dozen or so fellow climbers in the swirling mist. I then head back down to the car, and to a hot shower and warm bed at my B&B in Tyagarah: a jumbled collection of houses adjacent to the coast just north of Byron Bay.
Emotionally this is not a good time for me. It feels like my life is falling apart. I’ve been slipping progressively more deeply into depression over the past six months, and the anti-depressant medication I’ve recently been prescribed is doing nothing to lift it. I’m now finding my work—which I’ve genuinely loved until the past year—to be incredibly stressful, and it’s getting me down. If something doesn’t change soon I may just ‘off’ myself and be done with it all. Done with all the sadness, done with all the angst and misery, done with all the emotional pain and turmoil.
When I stop and think about it, however, I’m surprised that I’m now almost 40 years old and that I’m still alive. I mean, I was supposed to be dead from AIDS more than a decade ago. But newer medication and my somehow resilient physical body and immune system have put death via this means on hold for now. In recent months I’ve started to realize, with mounting dread, that I might have to perform the physical act of ending my life after all.
Life feels joyless, pointless, meaningless. I keep hoping that a black hole will magically open underneath me so I can jump in it and disappear off the face of the earth without a trace. Poof!! Gone. That way there’d be no messy suicide for my friends and family to have to deal with. A life full of shame shouldn’t be followed by a death full of shame, I keep hearing my mind say to itself. No, when I end my life, I want it to be cleaner and more controlled than most of the methods of suicide I’m currently aware of.
Geez, I can be such a control freak sometimes. Injecting myself with a lethal substance seems the least painful option. But what if it doesn’t work and I’m incapacitated in some way? Jumping off a cliff into the ocean? Possibly. Seems like a good m.o. in terms of body disposal, but the pain of being crushed on rocks and/or drowning? No, not that. Being eaten by a shark would be worse, though. Now that I think about it, there are lots of worse ways to die.
Anyway, enough of that dreary subject and back to the more uplifting part of this story.
As I lay my already aching body down on the bed at the guesthouse, I glance at the clock on the bedside table—9.15am—and I notice a book sitting beside it. The book isn’t mine, and I’m positive it wasn’t there when I’d left earlier that morning. I wonder if Matthew or Marion—the owners of the B&B—have put it there for me? No, I find out later, they’ve never seen the book either.
I reach over and pick it up. The word Buddhism is in the title, but that’s the only word I remember now. The text on the rear dustcover tells me that the book had been written by a HIV-positive man, and it described how discovering Buddhism changed his life for the better.
Interesting. I’ve been wanting to investigate Buddhism for a while now. How synchronistic is that?
As I open the front cover of the book, blinding light radiates from its pages, temporarily dazzling me. I instinctively put a hand up to shield my eyes, and squint at this most unexpected of occurrences; my mind is shocked, and temporarily unable to make sense of what’s happening. Then, a now familiar voice inside my head speaks plainly and clearly, five words this time:
“You’re going the wrong way.”
“Oh . . . really?”
“What does that mean?”
The light that was radiating from the book—real or imagined, I’m not sure—fades. I lay the book on the bed beside me, lay myself back onto the bed, and stare at the ceiling.
What does that mean: You’re going the wrong way?
As I lay there gazing at the ceiling, my attention—the focus of my awareness, if you like—turns itself around and looks inside for the first time. It doesn’t feel like I’m actively doing this, it just seems to happen by itself. There, in a flash, I discover that what I’ve been frantically searching for my whole life—love, recognition, acceptance, meaning, happiness, fulfilment—is not to be found where I’ve been looking for it . . . in the outside world. I see that these things are all waiting for me—and have always been waiting for me—deep inside my own self. I see that I only needed to turn my attention away from the external world and to look inside myself to discover them.
This profound and transformative moment, that occurred on the morning that I’d climbed Wollumbin for sunrise, marked the beginning of a journey into myself where I’ve discovered—and continue to discover ever more deeply—the love that is unconditional and endless, the peace that is the very nature of the quiet mind, and the effervescent joy of my own essential nature that I’d known as a child. Joy that had vanished entirely as my pursuit of objects of desire in the outside world had taken the full focus of my attention.
I’m not sure what part climbing Mount Warning in the dark that morning played, but I’m grateful for it none-the-less . . .
“Pleasure or pain are only aspects of the mind. Our essential nature is happiness. Happiness is inherent in everyone, and is not due to external causes.”
— Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950)
From the time of the revelation of my chimerism/hermaphroditism when I was fourteen, until well into my early forties, my two selves—Angelo and Angel—always had quite separate personalities, groups of friends, and lives. With my very few closest friends— Bernard, Adam, Mrs. Chu, and William—there was overlap, but otherwise they were kept almost entirely separate.
I always imagined that most of Dr. Angelo Williams’ medical colleagues and patients wouldn’t have taken kindly to the news that on weekends he put on makeup, high heels and a frock, and frequented gay bars. Similarly, I also imagined that many of Angel’s eccentric, creative, politically correct, and liberal-minded acquaintances might not have understood why she was so firmly yet quietly ensconced in the conservative, male-dominated, and frankly narrow-minded establishment of the western medical system throughout the week, and not being more vocal about the rights of LGBTIQA+ individuals, who were continuing to be let down and overlooked by this archaic system on a regular basis.
Over the years I never considered this separation to be negative or problematic, it was more of a survival strategy. It also never felt to me like I was lying when not revealing the other half of myself to people, it just felt natural, and, more than anything, practical. What can I say? I have two distinctly different life energies inside of me. In fact, I’ve always felt Angelo and Angel to be two separate human beings who just happen to occupy the same physical body.
The simple truth is that I’m twins. Imagine, if you will, Siamese twins who aren’t just partially joined together—hip, shoulder, back, or even head-to-head—but fully joined together. Two people, one body. What a fucking miracle/mess is that?
I did experiment with using non-binary pronouns—we/us, they/them—from time to time over the years, but they never really felt accurate as in my experience I was always either Angelo or Angel, but never both at the same time. Not fully, at least.
Having recently turned forty, however, something bigger is starting to call for my attention, and I intuit that its full discovery will require a much more complete integration of my current dualistic life experience. This impending integration is the origin of the name that I’m now adopting and using more and more: Angel O.
“Was that the doorbell?” I ask, tilting my head to one side and screwing up my eyes a little, as if this might somehow sharpen my sense of hearing.
“I’m not sure,” Mrs. Chu replies. “I didn’t hear anything, but the music’s pretty loud; God I love Freddie Mercury. Let me go check, then I’ll serve dinner; it’s almost ready, and this chicken is going to be delicious!!”
I must tell Lola to have someone come and look at that doorbell down on the street. It works intermittently but it’s not reliable. Might just be a loose wire; this building is in a pretty poor state of repair considering it’s less than a hundred years old.
The apartment building on Eldridge Street is one of the ‘New Law’ tenements built in the 1920s. It’s significantly nicer than the low-quality slums that’d been built in the Lower East Side prior to that time, most of which are long gone, but it has its structural problems.
Lola comes sprinting back into the kitchen, her face a mask of horror. “That was Tony from across the street. There’s smoke coming from your apartment windows!!”
“No, can’t be,” I reply matter-of-factly, unwilling to take in the disturbing news.
“Angel O, I’m not kidding. The fire brigade’s on its way!!”
“Christ!! No!! Really!?!”
The main focus of my attention at present is the intense spiritual search that’s been catalyzed by the cryptic message I’d received in Australia three years prior; compliments of a pre-dawn climb up a mountain and an illuminating book on Buddhism.
Six months of Jungian analysis has opened my mind to a wide panorama of issues on the psychological level, and I’m pursuing these—mostly through my own insatiable devouring of Carl Jung’s extensive opus of work, but also by seeking professional psychological help from time to time. On some level I already know, however, that the answers I’m seeking aren’t to be found in a psychiatrist’s office.
I’m quickly working my way through Adyar—the spiritual bookstore on Avenue B in the East Village—section by section. Jung had talked about mystic and channel, Edgar Cayce, and I’d read about his life with great interest. This led me to Kabbalah, the esoteric branch of Judaism, which inevitably resulted in my purchasing a pack of Tarot cards, the symbolism of which I’m endlessly fascinated by. Through an image on a Tarot card—a winged heart, the Sufi symbol of Divine Love—Sufism, the mystical arm of Islam, called for my attention. Through it I connected to the ecstatic poetry of Rumi as well as to the beauty and profundity of the whirling dervishes. The dervishes pointed me to George Gurdjieff’s work, which my mind found completely intriguing for a brief period. Esoteric Christianity was a quick detour after Gurdjieff thanks to a Johannite priest friend of mine, but—mostly due to negative associations around Christianity compliments of the Sutters of East Hampton—I wasn't yet ready to let Jesus into my heart . . . that would happen a few years later. After a chance encounter at a party with a tantrika from LA, tantra had been my entry point into the Hindu scriptures, but the sheer volume of information and the confusing maze of its numerous paths had overwhelmed me, so I’d put it aside for possible further research at a later date.
The unifying thread of my search throughout this three-year period has been the various branches of Buddhism. A deep part of me knows that whatever it was that the historical man known as Prince Gautama had discovered is also what I’m looking for. At this point in time—mid-2006—however, I’m still looking for a Buddhist text that’ll give my mind the answers it’s searching for.
What is this intense ache and longing in my heart? What is this ‘Truth’ that all the books I’m reading are talking about? What did the Buddha mean when he said, “the self doesn’t exist?”
With each new day and with each new book my list of questions grows longer; I’m yet to start finding satisfactory answers.
I spring off the stool I’m sitting on in Mrs. Chu’s kitchen, sprint through the living room, out the already open front door of the apartment, and take the stairs up to my apartment three at a time. My heart’s thumping in my chest and my head is tense and full of images of the horrifying possibilities I’m about to discover. As I take the final few steps up to the third-floor landing, I’m suddenly plunged into darkness and instantaneously disoriented.
What the heck? Why can’t I see?
As I take my next in-breath, however, I inhale thick, black, toxic smoke into my lungs, and I begin coughing violently, doubling over as I do so. At this moment I’m standing on the third to last step of the main stairwell that leads up to the third-floor landing and my apartment. As I cough and my body doubles forward, my head comes down to level with the landing itself. Here my line of sight enters the nine-inch clear zone between the floor of the landing and the undulating, menacing, smoke cloud that’s filling the upper recesses of the stairwell and my apartment.
I gaze, wide-eyed, to my left and take in the roiling heat haze: deep orange and fiery red, fringed with glowing embers that are adherent to the visible parts of the wooden skirting boards and door frames. I can see through the doorway of my apartment—the door having disintegrated some time ago—where everything appears to be being consumed exuberantly by the fire. I note there are no flames at this moment, just intense heat, smoke, and the menacingly glowing embers. My mind quickly presents me with its logical analysis that all the available oxygen has been used up . . . for now.
I descend a few steps, squat down so that my eyes are at landing level, and quickly try to assess the disaster that’s unfolding before me. My mind is whirling furiously. The primary question it’s seeking an answer to—and which it keeps coming back to, over and over, despite more pressing issues—is, how did the fire start?
It’s the end of August which in New Eden means the hottest part of summer. This evening it’s perhaps 80F—not hot by many standards, but warm enough for me to have turned on the portable air-conditioning unit in my bedroom two hours earlier. But how could that have caused a fire? It's only two months old, it's the latest model, and it was supposed to be extremely safe and efficient . . . and it wasn't cheap. Maybe an electrical short in the dodgy wiring of the building?
Suddenly, all these thoughts are smashed into insignificance as the four skylights in the ceiling of the stairwell explode, one after the other.
My eyeballs attempt to pop out of their sockets as my eyelids widen to take in the ball of flame that’s suddenly burst into existence—above me and off to my right some thirty feet or so—with the first broken skylight; oxygen flooding in and feeding the simmering beast with its heady fuel.
The second skylight explodes. The flames grow larger and closer, but now, strangely, time starts to slow down, and the writhing ball of flame slows with it. The slow-motion ball of flame slithering towards me now looks very much like a massive, many-fiery-snake-headed Medusa.
With each shattered skylight, the monster grows in size and intensity, incrementally expanding to fill my vision and the now dazzlingly illuminated hallway and stairwell.
The fourth and final skylight is directly above my head. A clamor of thoughts forces their way back into my conscious awareness, and, with the writhing wall of flame only feet away, my mind gives the command to my body to, Duck and cover!!
I crunch my body into a tight ball. My back and shoulders are just below the level of the landing as the flames approach me. The final skylight explodes.
Most of the glass is blown outwards but a small smattering of fragments land on my back and on the stairs beside me. The wall of flame jumps toward me, then slowly oozes its way over top of me, and starts to crawl, painfully slowly, millimeter by millimeter, down the outside of the stairwell where I’m crouching, terrified.
The fire has now engulfed me; I'm completely surrounded by flame. My mind is overwhelmed as it continues to whirl chaotically. Time is flowing like cold molasses, then . . . it stops altogether.
What’s different about this silence than the relative quiet I’ve enjoyed when camping under the stars on a still, clear, summer night is that it’s my own mind that’s silent, not the environment around me.
My mind is completely silent, and completely still. There are no thoughts, and there’s not a trace of movement in my mind. There’s the awareness of the absence of thoughts, but there are no thoughts.
I notice now that the material world seems to have disappeared also. There’s no staircase, no fire, no apartment building, no body, no Angel O. There’s nothing. Literally no thing.
From deep within this experience of total mental quietude, my awareness looks out. All that I perceive is light. Everything is light. Clear white light. I use the words ‘clear’ and ‘white,’ but really, it's just light, and it has no color. There is then a noticing that this light is the awareness that is observing the light, i.e., it’s observing itself.
There’s no separation between the awareness of the light and the light.
There’s no separation between me, who I am, and the light.
I am the light.
I am the awareness.
There’s now a noticing that deeper than the light, deeper than the awareness, perfusing it, co-existent and co-emergent with it, is a deep sense of peace. I feel this peace rather than see it. I sense it in my body somehow, despite not really being aware of having a physical body in this moment. The peace is everywhere, in everything, and I now discover that this peace is the very substance and ultimate nature of everything . . . and I realize I am that.
What the heck is going on? Am I asleep, or dreaming, or something? This is so weird!!
With this thought my mind seems to start up once more. Searing heat and a deafening roar surge back into my conscious awareness as time picks itself up, dusts itself off, and gets on with its business of life-ing. I uncurl my head a little and open my eyes in time to see the wall of flame, having exuberantly consumed the oxygen made available to it by the broken skylights, retreat up the stairwell, over my huddled body, and back into the third-floor landing area.
I gasp, inhale deeply, shudder as I release the tension trapped in my cowering body, cough a few times, then spring up and sprint down the stairs, running out of the front door of the apartment building and into the street where multiple fire crews have arrived and are preparing to enter the building.
As I run, I notice that there’s something different in my experience. There’s something new. The silent awareness and deep peace that I’d just experienced—and realized deeply to be my true nature beyond identification with my mind—is still with me. It’s not that it’s new—I can see now that it’s always been with me—it’s just that now I know that it’s here, that it’s always been here, and that it’s always been the truth of who I am. I also see that I need do nothing for this to be true.
I wonder if this is the ‘Truth’ that all the books have been talking about?
I now see that the ordinary, everyday, garden-variety awareness that I’ve used to observe my world for the past 42 years is simply a localized version of this awareness that I’ve been reading about in all the spiritual texts, and which is variously referred to as God, Spirit, Being, Consciousness, Tao, Brahman, Allah, etc.
As I run down the stairs and out into the street, the world around me has an unreal quality to it. It’s like I’m a character in a dream who’s woken up in the dream, though I’m also aware that I’m the dreamer seeing through the eyes of this one dream character. The sirens screeching, the lights flashing, the neighbors gawking, the police questioning, the ambulance crew fussing, the oxygen mask delivering, the news helicopters hovering and filming, all is unfolding within the unmoving, vast silent expanse of myself, and this unmoving silent awareness is perfectly untouched by the any of it.
Hmmmm, this is completely fascinating!! What the hell just happened to me?
Concerned and fearful faces lean in and ask me if I’m OK, each time followed immediately by the question, "How did the fire start?" Later that night, when I’m finally free of the chaotic scene in the street outside the Eldridge Street apartment building, I glimpse myself in a mirror and finally realize why people have been staring at me so strangely. When the fire had started, I’d been wearing a green t-shirt and white yoga pants. Now, thanks to the toxic black smoke cloud I’d run into, I’m jet-black from the waist up—only a pair of bleary eyes breaking the uniform darkness. My yoga pants are smeared with dirt and soot here and there, but they otherwise remain white. The look is dramatic . . . and extremely comical.
The tenement building on Eldridge Street is still standing; the rapid response of the fire crews having saved the structure. The walls of my top-floor apartment are intact too, but it’s a gutted shell, and the roof is completely gone. As I look around the scene of devastation later that night, I realize that all evidence of my personal life up to this moment has been eradicated by the fire. I no longer possess any clothing or personal belongings other than the t-shirt and yoga pants I’m wearing. My computer, my back-up drives, and all my photographs and videos are gone too. But I’m alive, and on some level, I know that tonight I’ve received the most amazing, astounding, astonishing gift that anyone can receive in their lifetime. I don’t understand it, but I feel deep gratitude for it none-the-less. All my questions about the meaning of life now seem to have been answered, without my mind understanding any of it.
As I wander through the ruined apartment, continuing to take in the devastation, one of the firemen comes up the stairs with a set of infrared goggles to give the rooms a final inspection before leaving. He wants to ensure there are no hot pockets that might flare up and restart the fire after they’ve left. As he’s surveying the area in the sitting room where my small alter used to be—the place where I’ve been starting to meditate intermittently—he lets out a long, loud whistle.
“Wow!! That’s amazing!! Never seen anythin’ like it before. Here, take a look. I’m gonna go get Geoff and Warren. They need to see this; incredible!!”
I take the infrared goggles he’s handed me and look towards the spot indicated. There, beneath ash and burned debris, is the stone Buddha head that’d been the centerpiece of the little alter I’d recently constructed. Through the infrared goggles it’s glowing brilliantly, radiantly, like a tiny sun. The radiant Buddha smiles serenely, knowingly, up at me . . .
“He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”
— Lao Tzu (6th century BC)
Breathe, you can do it. Only a few more minutes to go. Oh, my God. Why the fuck am I doing this to myself? Christ!!
It’s the middle of day seven of my first ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat. The arrangements had been in place for months before the fire, with the retreat due to start—at Fishkill in upstate New Eden—just two days after the life-defining event had occurred. I’d debated long and hard about whether to go or not. In the end Lola had convinced me.
“Why hang around here with that terrible smell and no apartment of your own to live in? Go!! I can take care of things here; you know that well enough by now. I have a sneaking suspicion that more will be revealed to you if you do.”
Prophetic words indeed.
Having just lived through an incredibly profound—not to mention completely terrifying—brush with death, and having just performed what might best be called psychic surgery in destroying all evidence of my personal life to this point in the fire, I think it’s safe to say that I’m feeling vulnerable.
For those of you who’ve never experienced it, the standard entry-level Vipassana retreat is ten days long, is undertaken in conversational silence, and there are no distractions—technological or otherwise—of any kind allowed. Simple vegan food is served for breakfast and lunch, and one fasts in the evening. As I recall it now, the timetable consists of six 45-minute meditation sessions through the day, with walking meditation between some of the sessions, and resting between others. There’s also a recorded dharma discourse by S.N. Goenka—the founder of this branch of Vipassana—in the evening before bed. It’s an austere experience which in the future I will describe to others as boot camp spirituality.
What’s unfolded for me on each of the seven days of the retreat so far is an incrementally lower emotional low each morning, followed by an incrementally higher emotional high in the afternoon or evening, like a sort of week-long, expanding, phenomenological rollercoaster.
The first couple of mornings I was despondent and teary. When I allowed the bubble of sadness to be fully present without any resistance to it, at some point it popped, and then I felt happy.
On days three and four the lows had felt more like grief combined with a sense of worthlessness. The highs on these days were reminiscent of the altered state I associate with marijuana, with a mild euphoric quality.
On days five and six the lows felt very much like the worst depression I’d experienced back in 2003, with that familiar sense of meaninglessness that makes you feel completely dreadful. The highs on these days were quite like the experience of being high on ecstasy, where everything is stunningly beautiful, and I feel sublime and fully connected to everything and everyone.
Now, in the middle of the low of day seven, it feels like I’ve just hit the depths of despair. Have I ever felt this terrible before? Perhaps in those moments when I’d considered suicide back in 2003, but in some ways, this feels worse. It’s like my very existence is completely pointless, and everything’s utterly hopeless. Pure dread and despair with no way out. My physical body’s screaming from the pain of sitting unmoving for so long so often, and my mind is screaming from the sheer torture of the whole experience. Get me out of here!! Now!!
All my demons have come back to haunt me. Many have already been met and released—for which I’m enormously grateful—but it feels like my repository of demons has no bottom. A Buddhist might say that I’m burning up my soul’s karma, and there appears to be a shit load of it!! Wow, I must have been one mean motherfucker in a former life, or perhaps in many former lives.
Then, just as I make the decision—for the seventh time in seven days—that I’ll leave the retreat center the moment this meditation period ends, something shifts. Some inner release occurs as I bear the deeply painful emotions I’m feeling, and suddenly I pop into a state of pure ecstatic bliss.
Woohoo!! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Oh, my God. I feel amazing. What a ride!!
Each of these daily emotional releases have occurred during what feels like the most extreme suffering possible, and each has been accompanied by a string of rather remarkable insights. These insights appear to come from deep inside me, and while at some point they are translated into words by my mind, they haven’t arisen as words or thoughts as such. It’s more like the voice inside my head I’d heard in the Himalayas back in 1983, and in Australia in 2003, but not as distinct, and with less of a quality of being spoken words. It’s hard to describe how these insights arise, they just do. It’s also hard to describe what the insights are, except to say that they feel like remembering things that I’ve long ago forgotten. They include phrases like: you are not your mind; believing your thoughts is the only obstacle; love is the answer; love heals all; everything is love; stop doing and just be; time is an illusion; everything is vibration; everything is empty; nothing ultimately exists; and on and on.
The closest analogy I can draw to this Vipassana experience is an acid trip. Since my first drug experience with MDMA in Kansas City back in 1985, I’ve tried a number of different recreational drugs in various combinations, but over time I’ve become uninterested in all of them except LSD. These days when I take acid—which is infrequently, always in the privacy of my own home, and always as part of a sacred inner journey—I go to the exact same place. It’s a place that I’ve started calling the Realm of the Sacred. In this place—which feels to be beyond where my thinking mind can go, and somehow outside of time and space—I enter a vast empty void that’s full of an infinity of self-effulgent points of the ineffable sacred. Each point is like a dimensionless diamond from which the loving light of consciousness bursts forth, creating the manifest universe. It’s a place of creation, a place of infinite potential, and a place that is the source of both wisdom and of love. On these inner journeys I also receive insights not unlike the ones that are now coming to me in the Vipassana retreat.
How am I going to survive the next three days? If it keeps going like this I’m going to go through the absolute depths of hell. Can I bear more pain than this? Should I just leave now? I know in my bones that this is exactly what I need if I truly want to be completely free of my suffering, and I know that I must bear everything that’s being presented to me. OK, I’m going to stick it out. I’ve got to!!
On my return to the Lower East Side, Lola’s very excited as she’s just learned that renowned spiritual teacher, Evelyn Bourne—who we’d both connected with a few years back during a viewing of the film, Keys to Life Eternal--is going to be in New Eden in October; just over a month from now.
“The timing’s pretty incredible, wouldn’t you say? She hasn’t visited New Eden in more than a decade. There’s just so much synchronicity happening for you right now; it’s almost unbelievable.”
Mrs. Chu and I attend a Satsang meeting with Evelyn Bourne where we sit in the back. It’s strange, but neither of us really understands what’s being said in the meeting, almost like people are speaking a foreign language. I recognize on some deep level, however, that what’s being spoken of is what I’ve been searching for.
We learn there’s a weekend retreat starting in a few days, so we sign up. During the first meeting of the retreat Evelyn instructs us to turn and face the person sitting next to us for an exercise: a repeating question. In this exercise one of the pair is instructed to be a true friend—to have a quiet mind and an open heart, and to not take anything personally—and to repeatedly ask the same question of their partner for ten minutes, receiving their answers silently, then repeating the same question again. The question: “How do you sell out for love?”
As I turn and greet the young gentleman sitting next to me, I’m almost knocked off my seat. There’s an intensity in his eyes that I’ve never encountered before; a fluttering in my chest starts up, making it difficult for me to concentrate. I see a recognition register in his eyes also, and we smile at each other but, as instructed, say nothing.
As we sit gazing silently into each other’s eyes, a now familiar alteration of my perception of time occurs. Time appears to slow to a crawl, all noise around us quietens, and a vibrantly alive electric field opens all around us, some sort of private force field. We exhale deeply in unison and relax fully into our chairs as our breathing synchronizes effortlessly.
“My name’s Amir,” the young man whispers to me before we start. “I’m Angel O,” I whisper back.
Amir answers the question first. He’s so eloquent and honest in his answers it brings tears to my eyes. I sense a deep sadness in him much like my own, but also a purity and innocence that I’ve never encountered before; I’m enchanted and mesmerized. Is it possible to fall in love in just ten minutes? I guess you can because I’m pretty sure I just did.
We then change roles and Amir asks me the same question repeatedly for ten minutes, “How do you sell out for love?” I only manage a few answers before breaking down sobbing. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but something that’s been bottled up inside of me for a very long time has finally been given permission to be released, and it’s enormously cathartic. Amir places a hand gently on my knee but says nothing.
After the meeting Amir invites Lola and I to lunch; it’s delightful. He’s charming, radiating pure joy, and his smile is infectious. After a while Mrs. Chu excuses herself, and Amir and I continue talking. We’re so engrossed in our conversation that we completely miss the next meeting of the retreat.
I discover that Amir had been born in Paris soon after his parents had moved there from Syria. He’d studied political science and romantic poetry at the Sorbonne, and then completed a master’s degree in fine arts in New Orleans back in the mid ‘90s. After this he’d mostly worked in retail and hospitality, having been unable to land any academic appointments in his chosen field. A recent urge to re-engage in his academic career had prompted his moving to New Eden just a few months ago, and he’s now enrolled in a PhD in politic science at nearby NEU. Amir also tells me that he’s a practicing Sufi, and that integration into life in New Eden has been extremely difficult due to racial discrimination at every turn. He’s been completely unsuccessful at securing a job to help support himself while studying in the city, and he’s currently living in a men’s shelter in the far reaches of Brooklyn.
After Amir’s heart-felt revelations, I open up to him and reveal that I’m a hermaphrodite. Without so much as blinking an eye he asks me how this has impacted my life. His empathy is palpable, and I have tears streaming down my face as I pour my heart out to him.
At the end of the first day of the retreat I invite Amir to Eldridge Street and introduce him to Bernard. Bernard’s Bookstore is as busy as ever, and Bernard is looking for a new assistant to run the store as his current assistant is due to go on maternity leave any day now.
As I’ve decided not to move back into my apartment after the fire—despite a beautiful renovation supervised by Mrs. Chu—Bernard and Adam are planning on moving into my vacated third-floor apartment. This means that the studio at the rear of the bookstore will be vacant. Bernard agrees that Amir is the perfect person for the job and invites him to start immediately. Amir moves in just a week later and becomes the newest addition to my Eldridge Street ‘chamily.’
It’s the beginning of my first, and only, true love affair. Something I’d become resigned would never happen to me in my lifetime.
I’m 42 years old . . .
XVII: Cancer, Colostomy, the Third Death, and the Third Message
“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
“The diagnosis is anal cancer,” I hear the oncologist say firmly and formally.
As the words leave the doctor’s mouth and approach me, however, they become muffled and distorted, as though I’m sitting behind silk curtains in an exotically decorated hotel room in Marrakesh, the fabric suddenly blown about by a sirocco off the Sahara. Then, I’m abruptly whisked away to a subterranean cavern, cool and silent, where the sound of the doctor’s voice barely penetrates at all, and the outside world seems distant and somehow unreal.
Am I dreaming?
I already know the fact of the diagnosis: a medical degree and 25 years working in the profession means that having had intermittent bleeding from the anus for some time, and having just discovered—on self-digital exam—a large, firm, irregular mass inside my anal canal, there’s no doubt that I’ve developed anal cancer. It’s hearing the words spoken out loud for the first time, which somehow gives them more authority, that throws me so abruptly off balance.
My body tenses and I withdraw subtly from the doctor and her strangely offensive words. In truth, it’s the unconscious clenching of my diseased anal sphincter that causes this subtle physical movement. The more profound movement in this long, drawn-out moment is occurring in my mind. A barrage of thoughts has arisen and they’re chaotically jostling for supremacy. Finally, all but the victorious thought are banished to my subconscious for consideration at a later time.
The triumphant thought is not a thought about how I acquired the disease; it’s not a thought about why the doctor I’d consulted a year ago about a nodule had failed to diagnose it as cancer; it’s not a thought about the staging of the cancer, or my likely life expectancy; it’s not a thought about what treatment options are available to me; it’s not a thought about whether the oncologist believes the cancer is curable or not; it’s not even a thought about death—something which has just become significantly more tangible and imminent than it had been only moments before. No, the victorious thought on hearing the diagnosis spoken aloud is my reaction to the type of cancer I’ve developed.
Anal cancer. Oh no, anything but that!! Why couldn’t it be a nice respectable rectal carcinoma, or prostate cancer, or even lymphoma, Hodgkin’s or otherwise. I can imagine telling my friends and work colleagues those diagnoses. But anal cancer? Oh, great!!
The moment of confirmation of the diagnosis of cancer in an oncologist's office, while a significant moment in anyone’s life, is not so early in most stories of cancer, and mine is no exception. The events leading up to this pronouncement are worthy of some consideration.
In many ways the story began in childhood. You already know about my unusual chimeric genetic cellular makeup which resulted in me being a hermaphrodite, confirmed when I was fourteen, and associated at the time with a heavy load of secrecy and shame. I’ve also told you about my shameful secret of being diagnosed as HIV-positive when I was 25; the virus acquired as a result of my predilection for receptive anal intercourse. This predilection, in turn, fueled by the shame I harbored around the appearance of my physical body and my ambiguous genitalia. In recent years, I’m pleased to report, the shame that I’ve experienced because of these issues has started to find resolution, through therapy initially, and then later through spiritual self-inquiry.
Embarking on this process of inner self-examination didn’t take long to reveal the deep well of shame, worthlessness, and unlovability I’d been desperately trying to avoid feeling at all costs my whole life, and which was, paradoxically, the motivating force behind almost all the activity of my life. After being fully acknowledged and opened to, this deep well of painful negative emotions inside me began to be freed up, released, and a deeper love—the unconditional kind—started to make itself known.
By early 2013 my life is being lived free of negativity most of the time; I’m happy and fulfilled most of the time; I’m deeply in love with Amir most of the time; and my baseline emotional state is again one of joy . . . most of the time. There are still moments, however, when I can go into old stories of inadequacy and unlovability, and my mood can quickly spiral into extremely dark places. I begin to intuit that there may be another layer of shame and self-hatred that is yet to be uncovered, met, and liberated.
At around the same time, a parallel story—one occurring on a very different level of reality but one that is very relevant to this story of cancer—is beginning.
Once upon a time, in an anal canal not so far away, there lived a stratified squamous epithelial cell named Wayne. Now like every other stratified squamous epithelial cell that’s ever existed, Wayne was flat, weirdly irregular in shape, and surrounded by other virtually identical, yet somehow also strikingly unique, stratified squamous epithelial cells, each of whom were, coincidentally, also named Wayne.
Wayne’s life had begun just a few days before when a basal epithelial cell—let’s call him Alvin, shall we?—residing in the much sought-after enclave of the stratum germinativum, had undergone mitosis producing an exact clone of himself. Alvin had named his clone Wayne, and sent him off to rise up through the layers of the skin on his journey towards the surface.
Wayne wasn’t particularly active as far as cells go. Mostly he liked to just hang out, mind his own business, and generally fit in; Wayne didn’t like to make waves. In fact, Wayne spent most of his days doing absolutely nothing. At the urging of his DNA, Wayne would occasionally turn some small molecules into larger molecules which he would then externalize onto the surface of his cell membrane. Here these larger protein molecules—his surface receptors—would adhere firmly to matching surface receptors on his neighboring Waynes’ cell membranes. Together all the Waynes formed an impermeable barrier: the skin.
Not a bad job for a cell, thought Wayne one day as he reflected on the meaning of his life; Wayne was quite content in his mediocrity. To some cells, Wayne’s uninspiring existence didn’t seem like much of a life, but for Wayne it was all he knew. He had no ambition to be anything other than a stratified squamous epithelial cell. Wayne knew nothing of cruise ships with waterslides, tequila shots, on-board romances, and partying till dawn. Wayne had never heard of freedom of speech, or the Stratified Squamous Epithelial Cellular Rights Movement. He was quite content being an ordinary stratified squamous epithelial cell.
A few sleepy weeks passed by, then, one sunny day in early spring, Wayne noticed that he was feeling out of sorts—he was starting to shrink. Wayne had started to dry up in preparation for his future fate when he would briefly serve his role on the surface, before sloughing off the skin entirely and entering the mystical void beyond the body: cellular nirvana. Wayne had no fear of death—primarily because he didn’t know that he was alive—so he welcomed this inevitable transition. He did, however, start to wonder what the cellular afterlife might be like . . . until his quiet reverie was rudely interrupted.
“I wonder what Eternity’s going to be like. Did I carry out my role as a stratified squamous epithelial cell well enough? Will I still be able to make surface receptors in the void? Will my fellow Waynes join me in the cellular afterlife? Is reincarnation real? If yes, what will I be in my next incarnation? A myelin-producing oligodendrocyte, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be great!! I’d get to hang out in the brain with all those smart neurons. It’d be so exciting, insulating an axon while action potentials whiz through me on their way to some distant synapse. Wow!!”
“Oh . . . hello. Who are you? You strange blobby thing that’s just bumped into me, what are you? Oooo, you feel disgusting. Not at all like a Wayne. I have a bad feeling about you. Get away from me!!”
But the strange blobby thing had stuck firmly to one of Wayne’s surface receptors, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake it free. Now, Wayne had led a very sheltered life to this point, buried well below the anal canal’s epithelial surface, and as a result he’d never encountered a virus before. This particular virus, a human papillomavirus—let’s call her Clarice, shall we?—was taking a particular liking to Wayne. In fact, Wayne’s warm and slightly moist location, as well as his flat but not yet dried up epithelial form, was exactly what Clarice had been searching for.
Clarice’s DNA had recently developed a new mutation of its own which was resulting in her expressing a new molecule on her surface. A human in a microbiology testing laboratory might, because of this new molecular expression, have labelled Clarice: HPV 16. The other result of this new mutation was that Clarice had started to find she was being drawn, inexorably, towards warmer, moister, micro-climates than she had been previously; any old skin cell would no longer satisfy Clarice’s particular requirements.
Perhaps I’m getting pernickety in my old age? thought Clarice.
As it happened, Clarice was yet to experience a moist vaginal wall, the inside of an uncircumcised foreskin, or the warm, wet grotto of an oropharynx. And, as fate would have it, she was not destined to have a close encounter with a human cervix, where she might have felt most at home. “Oh well, this anal canal Wayne will just have to do I suppose. Stop struggling, you stupid Wayne. It’s inevitable I’m going to infect you. Why don’t you just relax, and this will all go much smoother for both of us.”
Having attached herself firmly to Wayne’s surface receptors, Clarice began fusing her viral capsid with his cell membrane. She then released her DNA into Wayne’s interior and . . . promptly disappeared.
One could accuse viruses in general, and Clarice in particular, of being narcissistic. Of thinking only of their own wellbeing whilst being blindly unaware of the feelings and needs of those around them. But Clarice, like all viruses, was merely following her programming. When you’re a virus you have no higher mental capacities with which to see the personality shortcomings that might be improved with a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy. As a virus you don’t have the capacity to reflect on the possibility of a more fulfilling existence inherent in a life of compassionate service to others. No, a virus is a virus, plain and simple: selfish and self-absorbed till the bitter end.
Fast forward a few hours, and Wayne is starting to feel most peculiar.
“What’s gotten into me? That nasty Clarice made a mess of herself all over me, then literally disappeared. Now I’m feeling just dreadful.”
What Wayne couldn’t understand was why he’d suddenly acquired the urge to be extremely busy; it was most unlike him, and it didn’t feel at all natural. Wayne just couldn’t seem to stop himself making proteins, new ones, and lots of them. “Oh well, DNA knows best. I just do what I’m told.”
More disturbing than this new protein making activity was that Wayne seemed to be putting on weight . . . fast. He’d been so slim all his life, much like all his neighboring Waynes, so it felt most unnatural to suddenly find himself blowing up like a balloon. Wayne’s neighboring Waynes weren’t at all amused.
“There simply isn’t room for this new, fatter, version of you, Wayne. Can’t you stop thinking only about yourself for a moment, and consider this terrible overcrowding you’re causing? Maybe you could consider going on a diet? For our sake?”
“Actually, I’m not feeling very well,” Wayne confessed to his neighbor as he squeezed his way past him. “I don’t feel at all like myself. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that I still am myself.”
In the weeks that followed, what started out as Wayne, altered by Clarice’s viral DNA injection, grew into a completely new and unexpected structure altogether. The burgeoning squamous cell carcinoma—let’s call him Darren, shall we?—grew steadily, having overcome the cellular regulatory mechanisms inherent in Wayne’s native DNA programming. Darren slowly started to rise above the surface, killing many of the surrounding Waynes in the process. Most surprising of all, Darren acquired his own personal blood supply, as well as a personal will all his own.
I spend the months of March and April of 2013 in India. The trip is a pilgrimage to connect with the source of the spiritual lineage I’ve become aligned with through my teacher, Evelyn Bourne. I visit the sacred mountain of Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, near Chennai in Southern India; I visit holy temples in Aurangabad, Lucknow, and Varanasi; I experience an incredible celebration of Lord Shiva—Maha Shivaratri—in Haridwar; and I spend time in an ashram in Rishikesh, on the banks of the mighty river Ganga where it exits the foothills of the Himalayas. Overall, it’s a wonderful experience, but my physical body suffers increasingly while I’m there. I suspect I’ve contracted some nasty bacteria or parasite as the source of my growing malaise and increasingly problematic bowel issues, but my intuition is off the mark on this occasion.
Just a week after returning home to New Eden I receive the diagnosis: anal cancer. Histologic examination of a biopsy and radiology staging show it to be locally advanced—stage IIIB—squamous cell carcinoma of the anus. Pleasingly there’s no evidence of spread outside the pelvis at this stage, and as expected, the cancer tests positive for the HPV 16 receptor. I discover that this stage anal cancer is associated with a statistic which states that I have a 50% chance of being alive in five years. Hmm, death comes knocking on my door another time. Interesting.
Two weeks later I start the recommended treatment which consists of six weeks of daily radiotherapy to my anus, perineum, and pelvic lymph nodes, combined with two rounds of chemotherapy in weeks one and five. The effect of the treatment on the cancer is dramatic, the effect of the treatment on my physical body and energy levels even more so. Each dose of radiation drains more of the life force out of my body, and it is months after the final treatment before my energy levels return to normal.
I’m told that radiotherapy protocols for treating anal cancer have improved in recent years and are now much more focused, with less radiation delivered to tissues distant from the cancer. This improvement in the targeting of the radiation does nothing, however, to ameliorate the inflammatory reaction in my anal canal, rectum, and perineal skin that is the expected—and desired—effect of blasting huge doses of X-rays directly into these tissues. By the third week of the six-week course the skin of my anus and perineum has been completely stripped of its epithelium, and the physical sensation is of having a red-hot poker permanently lodged in my anus, day and night. This feeling lasts for about six weeks in total. During this period, it’s virtually impossible for me to sit, sleep is erratic at best, and passing a bowel motion is preceded by more anxiety and dread than standing at the start of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
I continue to work full-time throughout the treatment, finally taking a couple of weeks off when I just can’t get out of bed anymore. I’m not yet ready to reveal the details of my cancer diagnosis and treatment to anyone except Amir and my few close friends at Eldridge Street. Behind this reticence is the arising of yet another, larger, bubble of shame that’s linked with receiving the diagnosis of anal cancer. The shame is similar in nature to the shame that I’d encountered around discovering that I was a hermaphrodite and that I’d contracted HIV, but this time it’s even more intense. There’s a sense of having failed at life in the most humiliating and shameful way possible. Killed by a cancer that was acquired through being fucked up the ass.
During the months following the healing of my anus after the radiation treatment, I get into the habit of occasionally digitally examining my anal canal. That way I can monitor how the area feels as it heals, and I can be on the lookout for anything that might indicate a recurrence of the cancer without having to rely solely on the intermittent check-ups with my oncologist. At the nine-month mark I discover a small nodule that tells me the cancer’s back; a biopsy confirms my suspicions.
I know only too well that a recurrence of the cancer this soon after finishing the chemo-radiation treatment I’ve just been through does not bode well for my future longevity.
The standard medical advice for treating anal cancer that’s recurred after primary chemo-radiation is major surgery: an abdominoperineal resection (APR). This procedure involves removing a block of tissue that includes my diseased anal canal, the surrounding perineal skin, the distal part of my rectum, and the adjacent pelvic tissue—muscle, lymph nodes, nerves, blood vessels, etc. To help you visualize what this looks like, imagine taking a four-inch diameter apple corer and using it to remove a cylinder of flesh that’s centered on the anus, and which extends inside the body for about six to eight inches. That gives you some idea of what’s involved in the first four hours of the operation I now undergo.
Because in my case this exact same cylinder of tissue has recently been heavily irradiated, it means that things aren’t going to heal well after this type of extensive surgical resection, so a pedicle flap of skin and muscle from my abdominal wall is required to close the defect left in my pelvis and perineum after the excision. This is a delicate and fiddly microsurgical undertaking which also takes several hours to perform.
The final step in the seven-hour procedure involves fashioning a colostomy—permanent, not temporary—where the transected end of my lower colon is connected directly to the wall of my lower abdomen, slightly to the left of center.
Ironically, in 1990 I’d spent a term working as a surgical resident with a general surgeon in Tulsa. This surgeon had performed several APRs during my rotation so I’m familiar with the operation and with colostomies, and I’m not at all happy to now be the one on the receiving end of this procedure.
As the anesthesiologist injects the milky propofol into my IV line at the start of the surgery and I drift off into unconsciousness, I notice that there’s absolutely no resistance to the possibility that this could be the final moment of my life. If something were to go terribly wrong during the operation and this is the end, then I’m perfectly fine with that. More than fine. I’m completely at peace with death. Pleasingly, this thought is not coming from a place of depression and despair, and the desire to no longer live due to being unable to bear any more shame and pain, but from a place of feeling happy that my life has actually turned out pretty darned well after all.
The first week following the surgery passes with few concerns, mostly thanks to my new bff—a patient-controlled analgesia pump of morphine that I name Leroy. Once the reality-numbing drug is removed, however, I land heavily into the sobering reality of my body's new patchwork configuration, and the enormity of the recovery that lies ahead of me. Surprisingly, it all feels OK and quite manageable.
I experience a few moderately serious post-operative complications, none of which particularly phase me as I’ve seen them all before . . . in other people. Dealing with the colostomy from day one is, again unexpectedly, not a problem; all my pre-surgery objections and concerns simply vanishing in the face of the present-moment reality of it.
Whereas during and after the radiotherapy treatment it’d felt like a red-hot poker was continually lodged in my anus for six weeks, after the surgery it feels like someone has their fist—no, more like their whole arm—lodged where my anus used to be. For more than two months the pressure is extreme, and I'm here to tell you that it is not easy to get comfortable when this sensation is constantly present in your perineal region. One day towards the end of my hospital stay, while still under the foggy influence of some much-needed oxycodone tablets, I have a vivid visual image that God is fisting me. Along with this disturbing image my mind starts to question: Why is this happening to me? Why am I going through this painful experience? What’s the lesson to be learned here? Then it strikes me. That deeper layer of shame and self-hatred, the one that’d been beckoning to me for a while now and which had been vastly intensified by the diagnosis of anal cancer . . . is gone.
The unavoidable reality following the surgery of having to deal with a colostomy as well the extensive scarring of my physical body would, under normal circumstances, have fed the shame even further, like kerosene thrown on a bonfire. But instead, it feels like the shame has literally been surgically excised from my body along with the cancer.
I search around for it but at this moment shame is not present as a part of my experience. I’m not going to throw a party assuming it will never appear again, but right now it’s absent for the first time in more than 45 years. I also see that what has kept this deepest layer of shame intact and in place for so long is attachment to my physical body as the core of my identity. With this radical reconfiguring of my physical appearance, the deep attachment to my physical form has now been dropped. I see that this attachment has been holding the fragments of my ego together . . . and it’s now absent.
I start to explore what the experience of living without the belief that I am my body is like. Clearly it still feels like I’m localized in a body, and I feel very much alive and very present in my body, but there’s no sense of needing anything, particularly being seen, recognized, or loved by another. There’s also no need or desire to be in control. In fact, I discover there’s nothing I need to do other than to just be. This brings with it a deep relaxation, and a sense of peace and fulfilment that continues to deepen the quieter my mind is. There’s a feeling of being completely free for the first time in my life. Free from the need to be anything other than who and what I am right now, and free from my long-running story of pain and suffering.
Happiness is most definitely an integral part of the experience but it’s not a happiness that is conditional on anything happening to make me happy, I’m just happy. Everything is welcome and nothing is excluded, even if it’s painful in the moment.
As I waddle out of the hospital two weeks after the surgery, the now familiar voice in my head speaks one more time:
“Have you got it now?”
“Oh, yes. I've got it now, finally. Thanks for asking . . .”
XVIII: Paris, and Gay Pride
“This indeed is our final destiny as a species—to realise our state of oneness and unity with all that is.”
— Richard Rudd, from The Gene Keys.
We’re getting close to the point where my story joins all the others: July 4th, 2020. But before I finish there are a couple more significant events I’d like to share with you.
The first is another brush with death that occurred in Paris in the fall of 2014. The second is my final public appearance as Mickey Mouse in 2016. And finally, after I tell you the story of my nemesis, Lobida, I’d like to tell you how I came to be a cabaret performer with my very own club in New Eden.
Four months following my cancer surgery, Amir and I travel to Paris together. Amir has been awarded a contract to work as an editor on a major UNESCO report in Paris for six months. Luckily by this time my body has healed enough for me to cope with the trans-Atlantic commute without too much trouble, though rest is still very much my principal activity at present.
I spend my days in Paris wandering through the various neighborhoods with no destination in mind, open to whatever life will present—the very definition of that most wonderful of French words, le flaneur. After 25 years shouldering the responsibility of the lives and well-being of others in my role as a doctor and neurosurgeon, it feels both freeing and self-indulgent to be thinking about the well-being of only myself for a while.
Pleasingly, the weather throughout October and November of 2014 is sublime, and the opportunity to leisurely explore this magical city inspires deep healing in me; healing on a level much deeper than the physical. Paris also inspires a resurrection of my creative spirit again after a period of absence during my medical career and my cancer treatments. My early-life passion for music and musical theatre fully resurfaces now, and I dive headlong into it with great gusto. The studio apartment we rent in le Marais has a honky-tonk piano in the basement, and I spend long hours reacquainting myself with songs from my favorite musicals, as well as music by my favorite classical composers— Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, Satie, Rachmaninoff.
I’m inspired to visit the neighborhoods where some of my musical heroes lived. I wander the cobblestoned streets and stairways of Montmartre where both Claude Debussy and Erik Satie resided in the latter part of the 19th century, la Belle Époque.
I recall that Frédéric Chopin, who was born in Poland, had moved to Paris at around twenty years of age, and that he’d lived and composed here until his untimely death in 1849 at just 39 years of age. Today I’ve chosen to make my way to rue de la Chausée d’Antin, in the 9ème arrondissment as it’s the street where Chopin lived for most of his nineteen years in Paris. I was a little surprised to discover, on researching Chopin’s life, that he’d lived in quite salubrious surroundings and gentrified neighborhoods in Paris, having made quite a splash with his early recitals here in 1831. In his later years, particularly as his health declined, he’d performed less often in public and mostly in small salon settings. He remained highly sought after as a teacher of the piano to the Parisian elite and their families, however. I’ve always had in my mind the fact that Frédéric Chopin had died from tuberculosis—‘consumption’—and that he’d done so as a pauper, but I apparently made the last bit up.
I take the Metro from Hôtel de Ville, change at Palais Royale Musée du Louvre, and alight the train at Chausée d’Antin La Fayette. As the train disappears, like a giant metallic dragon diving back into the mouth of its maze-like underground dungeon, I glance up and notice a mural on the ceiling of the train station, beneath the tracks.
The mural is massive, stretching the entire length of the Metro station which I guess would be about 150 feet. The major images in the mural are archetypal; gods and angels dominate the firmament. Historical tableaux, so French in nature, are scattered at intervals around the periphery. Absurdly, to view the mural properly requires standing very close to the platform edge, bending down and forward, and twisting one's body to look up at it. Not a position recommended as the next train rushes into the station, as I can now tell you from personal experience.
Exiting the Metro station, I’m immediately transported into another universe. I’ve emerged at one of the global epicenters of consumerism; the intensity of the energy and life all around me is disorienting.
The glitzy flagship store of Galeries Lafayette is directly ahead of me. It is brightly and expensively regaled in its bold and fresh Christmas finery, all cleverly designed to draw shoppers into the store to purchase the must have items of the season. This year, apparently, one of the must have items is a large Darth Vader doll, which stands about two feet high, carrying a large pink Chanel handbag.
I’m feeling shaken by the close encounter I’ve just had with the number 7 Metro train, and if I’m completely honest, more of my attention is currently being given to replaying the recent close encounter with the train, and shaking off the residual tension that’s trapped in my body, than on what’s going on around me.
The sidewalk on this section of rue de la Chausée d’Antin is narrow. It’s just after midday, and the flow of pedestrians is heavy, mostly heading up the street, away from the Metro station. This happens to be the direction I want to be walking, so I allow myself to be swept along by the crowd.
Suddenly, a door swings open in front of me. A young woman, who’s laughing and showing her cellphone to the older dark-skinned woman who’s accompanying her, steps out onto the sidewalk directly in front of me. The department store door opens so quickly and unexpectedly I don’t see it until it’s already hit my upper chest and I’m knocked off balance. I bump into a man who’s hurrying past on my right, and he throws his arms up in the air as he’s knocked off balance, losing control of the packages he’s carrying in the process. The larger of the two packages falls to his right, onto the road beside us; the smaller package is flung high up in the air above us. The man himself staggers, manages to regain his balance, then stands up precariously on the edge of the sidewalk. I, however, continue to fall behind him, towards the road . . . and into the path of a rapidly approaching bus.
The driver of the bus, his attention completely absorbed in that moment by an angry thought about his lover’s recent infidelity and impending departure from his life, fails to notice me until the bus’s front grill is just a dozen feet from me. When finally seen, the driver slams his foot heavily onto the brake, and the bus skids to a halt.
The squealing sound of the bus’s brakes slows and deepens as the now-familiar experience of time slowing down starts to occur. I continue to fall, in slow motion now, towards the bitumen, reaching my upper body around and grasping at thin air, desperately trying to halt my fall, my face a distorted mask of panic. Instead of landing directly on the road surface, however, I fall onto the man’s large package, which luckily for me contains pillows that significantly cushion my fall.
I then bounce, slowly and gracefully, off the bag of pillows, and land heavily on my back in the middle of the street; dazed, but essentially unhurt.
My eyeglasses dislodge from my face in slow motion as I fall, and as they land on the road beside me both lenses shatter. The tires of the bus grind, menacingly slowly, to a halt just inches from my head.
The man’s smaller shopping bag, having sailed in a high arc up into the air above us, now lands, in super-slow motion, just behind my head. The jar of raspberry confit that the man had just purchased for his wife to decorate a recently baked gateau shatters, and its contents ooze out all over the street adjacent to me, giving rise to a striking vermillion halo around my head.
Time now comes to a complete standstill, and for a few moments everyone and everything around me is completely silent and motionless. On this occasion, however, I notice that the young woman who’d opened the door and bumped into me is also apparently aware of this most unusual occurrence—horror and terror clearly evident on her face.
Time now abruptly returns to its normal pace, and the sounds of the busy location roar back into my perception. A crowd quickly gathers around, inquisitive faces leaning in and wondering if I’ve been badly injured. A kind older gentleman kneels beside me and says, “Reste immobile, monsieur. C’est d’accord, je suis un médecin.” He checks me over, and quickly concludes that I’ve not suffered any major injuries.
The crowd starts to dissipate as they sense there’s no grisly images to be snapped for social media, and I’m assisted to my feet by the helpful doctor. I sit on the sidewalk for a few minutes to regain my composure.
I feel a little disoriented, and I’m bruised in a few places, but after another few minutes I’m able to stand without any trouble, and I continue making my way slowly up the street towards Chopin’s former residence. I can’t quite believe that within a matter of minutes I’ve come alarmingly close to being killed by two large, deadly, modes of mass transportation.
It’s not until several years later that I discover that the young woman who’d knocked me off the sidewalk and in front of the approaching bus was none other than Eve Abercrombie, the daughter of Ken Abercrombie himself. After more than 35 years our paths—albeit indirectly—cross once more.
“I’m so excited. I can’t believe we’re finally going to Gay Pride together, Amir, after all these years.”
“Please hurry up and finish getting ready, Angel O; I don’t want to be late. We’re leaving in fifteen minutes, OK?”
I quickly put the final touches to my makeup, and pull on my most recently created Mickey Mouse costume. I love my new gold sequined braces, and Mickey’s over-sized red shorts on this occasion are fully sequined and sparkling like a fiery meteor shower.
I slip on my chunky platform shoes and arrange the fluffy yellow shoe covers—that give the illusion of me having giant yellow feet—over top of them. My new set of Mickey ears are made from black velvet, and they’re more padded than previous versions. They look and feel extremely luxurious, and I’m very pleased about how the whole outfit has come together. Finally, I pull on a pair of short, white satin gloves, and I pick up my cheery new baton.
Over the years I’ve created three separate Mickey Mouse outfits after I outgrew the one that Irene Sutter had made me as a teenager. On two occasions the new Mickey outfits had been for special parties. I’ve created the most recent Mickey to wear to today’s Gay Pride parade.
“I’m ready, Amir. Let’s do this!!”
“This is amazing, Amir. I’m so excited, I think I’m going to burst. Have I told you lately that I love you?”
“Yes, Angel O. You told me you loved me five minutes ago. I love you too.”
The crowd on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue is at least ten-deep, and it’s virtually impossible to move; we’re packed in like sardines. The 2016 New Eden Gay Pride March had gotten underway about 45 minutes earlier, and the stream of brightly decorated floats is showing no sign of abating. The music from the floats as they pass by is deafening at times, and sometimes it feels more like a competition for the loudest and most powerful sound system, rather than a celebration of the most creatively decorated and politically correct float.
“I’m going to get a drink. Do you want anything, honey?”
“No, but be careful, and don’t do anything stupid, OK? And come straight back afterwards.”
It’s sweet how much Amir worries about my well-being. He also knows from first-hand experience that when I’m in a big crowd like this I do tend to get over-excited, and I’ve been known to behave unpredictably.
A few minutes later I’m waiting in the queue for the cash register at a nearby 7-Eleven.
“Dr. Angelo Williams, is that you?”
“Robbie McMahon. Oh, my God. You look amazing. Where did you get that outfit? And who did your makeup? Was that you? Wow, girl, you’ve been practicing.”
“I know. Pretty good, right?”
I’ve worked with Robbie in the operating theatres of Jersey City Medical for more than two decades. As a theatre orderly, Robbie is an integral part of the team that keeps the theatres running in a slick, efficient manner. As a theatre orderly, Robbie has also generally been looked down upon by the other surgeons, but I’d had a crush on him since our first meeting. Over time we’ve become good friends, and we now meet socially in the city from time to time. Robbie has a rocking body, but more importantly, a heart of gold.
I’d encouraged Robbie’s early forays into drag, and today he looks incredible in a Rio-inspired Carnivale outfit, with huge iridescent green and blue feathers poking out in all directions, and a sexy sequined two-piece.
“Are you going to join in the parade, Angelo?”
“It’s Angel O now, sweetie, and don’t be ridiculous. I couldn’t do something like that. I think you can get arrested for crashing the barriers of an event like this; I don’t fancy ending up in jail today. What did you have in mind?”
“Hey, my uptight friend, why not live a little? I’m so happy that you look so well after all the drama you’ve been through with cancer over the past couple of years. I don’t know about you, but when I was diagnosed with lymphoma back in the day, it made me wanna go crazy and break a few rules. You gotta make the most of whatever time you got left, my friend, and you are looking incredible today. You really have to show that off a little.”
“I know what you mean. Life certainly looks very different now than it did prior to cancer, that’s for sure. I don’t stress the little things anymore. So, what should we do?”
“Well. I propose we pay for these drinks, powder our noses, then jump the barricade and see what happens. What do you say, are you in?”
“Hell yes, I’m in!! Amir’s going to kill me.”
“I can’t believe how amazing this is; what a rush. Thank you so much for suggesting it, Robbie.”
“I told you so. And you, my friend, are the belle of the ball. As Mickey Mouse, everyone already knows you, and clearly everyone wants a selfie with you. Brilliant. You’re the star!!”
“I know. This might be the most fun moment of my entire life. There’s always been a part of me that’s wanted to be seen and admired by others, but there’s always been this bigger part that didn’t feel worthy of other people’s love and attention. Well, bugger that. Today I’m beautiful, and lovable, and no one can say otherwise.”
Robbie and I had joined in the cavalcade of floats flowing up 5th Avenue without being noticed, and the crowd is receiving us with great enthusiasm. We roam all over the wide avenue with gay abandon like we’re an official part of the parade, and we stop for photos almost continuously. Amir scowls as we waltz past him, then smiles and yells out his support.
“Go Mickey Mouse. You look amazing!!”
“You know what, Angel O,” Robbie yells to me, “we’re perfect just as we are. Nothing else needed.”
“That’s freaky, but I was just going to say the same thing, Robbie. It’s funny to say this in the middle of receiving all this positive attention, but for the first time in my life I’ve just realized that I don’t need anything—recognition, admiration, confirmation, praise, love—from the outside because I’m perfectly happy and whole just as I am; it’s remarkable. I never thought I could ever reach this point in my lifetime. Never!!”
Throughout the hour or so it takes us to make our way from 8th Street all the way to Central Park I’m on a high. I reflect on the ups and downs of my journey through life dressed as Mickey Mouse. From the initial positivity I’d experienced as a toddler on the ashram, to the complete invisibility I’d endured as a child with my biological family in the Bronx, to the blinding rush of excitement I’d experienced standing by the side of Belt Parkway in Queens with Coco, to the anger and humiliation imposed on me as a teenager by the Sutters of East Hampton, to the self-imposed negativity and hiding as a young adult. In the past few years, however, since the mysterious arising of the longing to discover true happiness and freedom had entered my life following the mysterious message I’d received in Australia, and the life-changing experience I’d had in the Eldridge Street fire, Mickey Mouse has again come to represent for me a celebration of life. I no longer feel any pressure to be something I’m not, or to hide and feel shame about who I am.
Freedom from the negative effects of the traumatic experiences that happened in my early life, freedom from the need to be seen and admired by others, and freedom from taking personally the incessant doubting and judging of my mind, have all been important milestones on the journey to the state of happiness and fulfilment that I’m discovering to be the true experience of life in the present moment . . .
XIX: THE GARDEN CABARET
"In the end it's very simple. Either we give ourselves to silence, or we don't."
— Adyashanti (1962- )
Upon returning to New Eden following our time in Paris, I recommence my role as staff neurosurgeon at Jersey City Medical, but it quickly becomes clear that I still need to conserve my energy, so rather than working full-time I decide to just work part-time as a trial. This proves to be the right decision, and I rediscover an enthusiasm for my work that’d been absent in the years prior to the cancer. I also find that life flows more smoothly—not only at work but also in my private life—than it ever did previously. In the space opened by working part-time, I channel any extra energy I have into re-igniting my childhood passion of musical theatre that’d resurfaced in Paris.
As you know by now, I’d lived on a secluded ashram in upstate New Eden until I was almost five years old. My life there had been completely sheltered from influence by the outside world, and I remember it as a happy environment where I’d been surrounded by people who freely expressed joy and positivity much of the time. My fellow ‘ashramers’ were fundamentally upbeat folk, many of whom would sing and dance at the drop of a hat. As a result, I’d started singing and dancing at a very young age and I’d always loved it.
While I was living at the Mercy Home for Children in Queens I’d started experimenting with the out-of-tune upright piano that resided in the sitting room, but Miss Sommerville’s strict policy on the piano’s usage had limited my opportunity to play, and I really didn’t have enough of a chance to see if I had any talent for it. I was curious, however, and a part of me, even then, was excited at the prospect of exploring it more in the future.
There was then my brief stint at Brookhaven Boys, where I’d started to learn the clarinet and sung in the school choir. It was performing in my first musical--Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat--however, that’d really ignited my passion for music in general, and for musical theatre in particular. This experience had inspired me so deeply that it had opened a creative doorway inside me that never fully closed again.
During medical school in Wichita, the sweet family I’d boarded with in my final two years had owned an electric piano that I was encouraged to play, with headphones on, whenever I desired, and I’d used it as a way of relaxing and resting my mind after a long day of study. Once I got my own place in New Eden, a piano was one of my first purchases and I played whenever I got the chance, which unfortunately wasn’t that often. Here again it was mostly a way of de-stressing after work, and I never really had enough focus to become proficient at it.
Over the years I taught myself to play simple pieces by my favorite classical composers—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Satie—but mostly I would play songs from my favorite musicals: Showboat, Anything Goes, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Evita, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, etc. While I did occasionally play or sing something for other people through these years, generally it was for myself alone; Angelo’s shame and self-doubt were still strongly in play throughout this period despite the happy discovery that, in fact, I possess a beautiful voice and a natural talent for playing the piano.
Also during medical school, I’d started seeing the occasional drag show in the gay bars I visited in Kansas City. This had served as the inspiration for me to seek out live cabaret performances of any kind whenever I could. It’d been on one of my weekend visits to St Louis—for a small Midwest gay dance party—in 1986 that I’d first had the pleasure of seeing Miss Delilah Jones perform. What incredible talent and stage presence she possessed, even in those early years of her career. In the years that followed I traveled all over the country to see her perform, and she became one of my musical idols. It’s not until the summer of 2018, however, that I finally pluck up the courage to write to Miss Jones and ask for her guidance in my new direction—a career as a cabaret performer.
In my letter I tell her how much she’s inspired me over the years, as well as sharing my secret of being a hermaphrodite in an open and emotionally raw way. She’s so moved by the letter that she invites me to tea at her SoHo apartment. It’s delightful. We talk about fashion, dress designers, makeup, health, nutrition, politics, vocal technique, music directors, song repertoire, love, lovers, lovemaking, everything; I’m in heaven.
Miss Jones then sings the most sublime a capella version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for me. Glorious!! Next, she insists I sing for her so I trot out one of my favorite tunes from Showboat, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man.” She gushes sweetly about how wonderful I sound and tells me that I can have a great career . . . if I just believe in myself. She gives me some contacts in the field and suggests that I enter the Voice of the World singing competition that’s recently been announced; she’s going to be on the judging panel.
The finale of Voice of the World in September turns out to be the most publicly humiliating experience of my life to date.
Pleasingly, I’d found my stride in performing through the early rounds of the competition despite my almost complete absence of actual performance experience. In fact, I discover that when I’m on stage, in the spotlight, all my usual nervousness and self-doubt simply evaporates, and I’m just singing. Pure joy, expressing itself through my body, mind, and soul. Clearly in these moments it’s Angel who’s in control.
For the finale I prepare a sultry version of the classic, “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” a la Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. I’m dressed and made up to look just like Marilyn, another of my icons and muses by this time, and the performance is a cracker; Radio City Music Hall rises to its feet as one.
I appear to have the crown in the bag, then the final contestant, Lobida—ugh, how I loathe that name—struts onto the stage looking like a slut from hell. She’s squeezed like sausage meat into a horrendous leopard-print Lycra outfit, looking like the ‘before’ half of a Weight Watchers commercial. Lobida had confronted me in the wings of the stage earlier in the night and all but threatened me. I’d been thrown a little off balance by her taunts, but had managed to pull myself together for my performance.
Lobida now proceeds to perform a vulgar, sexualized version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” to which the crowd responds with great enthusiasm; there’s no doubt she has charisma. I really don’t feel that her performance deserves to trump mine, not when it’s the vocal quality that is the primary element being judged, but the judges disagree and Lobida is crowned the winner. She receives the crown, cape, and scepter with something less than dignity; really that woman has no class at all. Backstage I hear whispers that social media is reporting the judging to be rigged, but I feel no inclination to become involved in the discussion.
The worst moment of all, however, comes as I start my walk across the stage after receiving my runner-up sash and flowers. Lobida deliberately trips me up, and I land face first in the middle of the stage; my wig flying off into the orchestra pit. The audience erupts into howls of laughter, and I’m completely humiliated. From that moment on—despite my current life intention to be loving and kind to all beings—Lobida is my sworn mortal enemy.
The rave reviews I receive for my performances throughout the competition are enough, however, to catapult me into minor celebrity orbit. I tour gay bars and clubs across the country; I do the circuit of festivals, both national and international; I’m given guest spots in headline roles for a couple of Broadway shows. Then, in April of 2019, I’m given a show of my own at Radio City Music Hall: A Night with Angel O. It’s a fabulous hit, and the press is exuberant in its praise of my poise and talent, and they make special mention of the depth of emotion that I’m able to convey in my songs.
After the sell-out show, an investor/producer—the darling Ted Schoenberg—buys me my very own sweet little club in the East Village which I name, The Garden Cabaret. Ted does all the hard work to refurbish and promote it, and opening night is planned for March of 2020.
The Garden Cabaret—or TGC, as it quickly becomes known to its inner circle—is small and cozy, chic and stylish. There are circular booths around the periphery of the club on an elevated rise. The curved lounges are covered in lush, plush green velvet, and antique mirrors line the walls making the space appear and feel larger than it is. The main floor of the club—which can turn into a dancefloor when emptied out—has smaller tables with comfortable armchairs positioned around them. All the tables have old-fashioned ‘candlestick’ telephones with which to order drinks and food, as well as to chat with other guests. The décor is jungle-chic, with vines and palm trees, camouflage prints and dappled lighting, and the odd leopard and lemur lurking in the shadows.
There’s significant hype around opening night, and the number of advance bookings we receive takes us all by surprise; savvy New Edeners, their ears always tuned in to the grapevine, endlessly on the lookout for the latest hotspot to be seen and entertained. My policy for The Garden Cabaret is simple: everyone is welcome, everyone is encouraged to be exactly who they are, and everyone is encouraged to express themselves in whatever way that feels true for them in the moment.
The centerpiece of life at The Garden Cabaret will be the two nightly shows starring yours truly. Up-and-coming acts are to be given the warm-up slots, and open mic will be an integral part of the between-show entertainment. After the second show, the plan is to clear the tables from the main floor and see what evolves based on whoever is in attendance that night: perhaps dancing, perhaps a ’ball,’ perhaps a game of charades, perhaps a guided meditation, or simply sitting together in silence; I’m so excited to see how it will evolve.
The opening show I’m planning at TGC is to be called “The Garden of Eden Spectacular” and is an homage to the inspiration for the name and theme of the club. The show will be in two parts. Part 1—which is written and ready to go for opening night—will show early humans in paradise before their fall from grace, then a depiction of ‘original sin’ and its repercussions.
Part 2—which is still under development, and which will most likely be ready for its premiere in a few months—will show the redemption: humans in the present who are ready and willing to meet their pain and suffering, and to wake up from the egoic trance that is the core of the current painful state of mind-identification that humanity is stuck in.
Just one week prior to opening night, however, the COVID-19 lockdown is imposed, and we all go into enforced isolation for a few months. In one way I’m devastated as I’m so eager and excited to bring my vision to the stage, and at the same time I’m completely at peace with this change of plans as these days I’m fully surrendered to life being in charge.
Before I finish this chapter, I do want to let you know about a significant transition that happened for me in 2019. Through the previous years—as I’ve deepened into discovering what it means to be a more fully integrated hermaphrodite, into being Angel O—what’s arisen is a level of certainty and trust in myself that had been absent when either Angelo or Angel was flying solo in the driver’s seat. Why would that be? Well, I do essentially have two people inside of me, as I’ve mentioned several times already in the telling of this story, but it’s a pivotal point so I’m going to highlight it one more time here.
As you know quite well by now, Angelo and Angel—who should have been fraternal twins but through a freakish accident ended up inhabiting one body—fundamentally have different, and frequently conflicting, personality traits. Angelo tends to bring a deep-seated feeling of being not good enough, along with a healthy serving of self-doubt and shame to everything he does; though he is also hard-working, and dauntless in his drive to succeed despite his perceived shortcomings. Angel, on the other hand, tends to bring a clear sense of being quite fabulous, and the belief that she deserves to be praised and admired for everything she does; though her tendency towards being a raging perfectionist, unnecessarily judgmental, frequently prideful, and sometimes resentful and entitled are clearly problematic in certain situations.
As Angel O—with these polarities fully acknowledged and accepted but also transcended—we care deeply about the welfare of others and will go out of our way to put others needs before our own, without needing any recognition or praise for doing so.
As Angel O, we’re confident in our own abilities and talents without the tendency to feel inflated or entitled, and there’s a complete absence of self-doubt about who we are. This allows us to naturally show up and perform in any situation—something Angelo has historically found nigh on impossible, and which Angel has always been sure she’s had in the bag when truthfully there’s always been something awry in her performances.
As Angel O, we need nothing, and there’s such an abundance of love and joy inside of us that we want to share with the world, it naturally overflows to everyone around us without any effort whatsoever.
You might’ve noticed in the last paragraphs that our pronouns have changed. Instead of I, me, mine we’re now using we, us, ours. This feels completely in alignment with where we presently find ourselves, so we’ve decided to use them for now and see how it goes.
As we embrace this integrated, holistic, flamboyant yet at the same time humble way of being and living more and more, we feel more enlivened and engaged in life. Simultaneously, life starts presenting us with more opportunities which seem to unfold effortlessly. Time and time again we find ourselves shaking our head and pinching ourselves, unable to believe our great good fortune.
As the integration of Angel O deepens, however, it becomes clear that we’re required to meet and embrace everything that we’ve avoided up to this point in our lives: any residual pain, shame, fear, rage, grief, resentment, or self-hatred that Angelo and Angel have carried with them—much of which has already been met and released, but some of which is yet to be revealed—now starts to come forward for examination. It’s not pleasant, and at times it’s decidedly painful, but it’s so liberating when our emotional wounds are finally fully met and freed up that we find ourselves being completely willing to do so.
Eventually it starts to feel like there are no further shadows lurking in dark unseen corners of our psyche, and everything that arises in our experience is fully welcomed just as it is. Sadness can be here and so can happiness; desire can be here and so can fulfilment; anger can be here and so can compassion; judgment can be here and so can acceptance and forgiveness. Our attention no longer wants to land anywhere, on any attitude, on any belief, on any point of view, and as a result we find ourselves more and more fully present and engaged in the open and joyful experience of life in each moment . . .
XX: DIABLO, THE MIRROR, AND THE FINAL MESSAGE
"The universe is a dream framed by a single dreamer, where all dream characters dream too."
— Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
As the new decade dawns life feels open and exciting, meaningful and fulfilling, and I feel deeply connected to everyone and everything. What a stark contrast, I realize suddenly one day, to the miserable me who’d contemplated ending my life sixteen years before. The me whose life had felt confining and deadening, meaningless and unfulfilling, and who’d felt completely disconnected from everyone and everything.
You might have noticed in that opening paragraph that my use of plural pronouns has dropped away again, and I’ve reverted to I, me, mine. Not to harp on this relatively small detail unnecessarily, but for the sake of clarity, for a few months it’d served me well to use the first-person plural pronouns of we, us, ours, but it hadn’t taken long for me to realize that there was still something dualistic about regarding myself as plural, as more than one. Although it had felt like a necessary step to fully embrace the duality of my masculine and feminine aspects simultaneously, I started to notice that my attention was being inexorably drawn to rest on that which is deeper than these polarities; on that which is present before all polarities come into existence.
This deeper resting of awareness, I now discover, naturally includes my male and female halves—and in fact includes all polarities—but more importantly it transcends them. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that I discover a vast space that precedes my body and mind, that precedes all form, which is the source of my body and mind and all form, and which, finally, is the source of everything. This vast space holds it all, holds all of manifestation, the entire universe. The vast is both infinitely large and dimensionless at the same time.
With this deeper resting of attention in and as the infinite space of primordial awareness itself—in and as the mind of the dreamer, Schopenhauer might say—it’s poignantly clear that there’s only one. Only one consciousness, aware of itself as both the source of the universe and as everything in the universe. Consciousness giving rise to all form as itself, much like the mind of the dreamer giving rise to all the forms in its dream.
So, it’s clear now that I, me, mine are the most appropriate first-person pronouns to be using. The challenge I’m currently working on clarifying in the pronoun arena is deciding what third-person pronouns to use. Neither she, her, hers nor he, him, his alone is adequate. They, them, theirs clings to the duality I feel I’ve just transcended, and therefore feel like a hindrance. It, it, its sound so cold and impersonal.
There are several non-binary, all-gender-inclusive, pronouns that’ve been proposed recently—ze, zir, zirs; ne, nem, nirs; ve, ver, vis; ey, em, eirs—but I think I’m a little bit too old, and certainly a little bit too old-fashioned, to adopt something so new and modern sounding. For now, what feels right is: s/he, her/him, hers/his.
It’s true that there’s a growing sense of positivity, openness, and excitement arising where I find myself at the start of 2020, but when I look at the state of the world—at how so many people are struggling just to survive; at how so many people are suffering deeply around issues of racism, discrimination, and violence; at the ongoing, and in some cases escalating, level of conflict, division, and lack of freedom that’s present in many regions of the world; at the chaotic and mostly failing attempts to bring climate change under control; at the widely divided and generally discombobulated state of politics globally, but especially in the US—it’s abundantly clear that positivity, openness, and excitement are not even remotely present for the vast majority of humans at this time. In fact, the whole world seems to be becoming progressively more conflicted, then . . . a novel coronavirus arrives on the scene.
Now I could spend quite some time talking about this particular world drama, describing the virus’s unstoppable march around the globe throughout 2020, and the extensive pain and suffering it brought with it for a large percentage of humans for a multitude of reasons. But we’re all only too familiar with, and generally tired of, the story of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I really don’t feel the need to spend any more time talking about it here. On a more personal level, however, The Garden Cabaret’s grand opening is put on hold as New Eden City is locked down, and for a few months I find myself spending a lot of time at home with Amir.
We dive into spring cleaning, expanding our cooking repertoires, watching a back-catalogue of classic movies, and feeling incredibly grateful to have a safe, comfortable space in which to isolate. I discover that, along with the significant slowing of the pace of everyday life inherent in the lockdown, there’s a profound opportunity to be more contemplative and introspective, and I become curious about what might rise from the depths of my psyche to be seen during this time.
Self-inquiry by now is a fully integrated and effortlessly natural part of daily life. In fact, self-inquiry now feels more like it is simply an aspect of who I am, that shows up as needed to clarify and deepen my current realization of the Truth.
The first issue that resurfaces for further examination and clarification during this time is my lifelong addiction to pleasure. Throughout the telling of this story— The Story of Angel O --I’ve highlighted the moments and stages of how my pleasure addiction developed, but I haven’t really told you much about the stages of its being let go and liberated.
Over the past few years it has become increasingly clear that indulging in the addictive pursuit of pleasure as a way of avoiding feeling the emotional pain of being ‘me’—which had happened on a regular basis for almost 40 years—was detrimental not only to me, but also to those around me. As my commitment to truth and freedom has evolved and deepened, my unconscious indulgence in addictively pursuing pleasure has all but disappeared. There can still be moments, however, when this energy arises, like a phoenix from the ashes, and vies for my attention.
It’s been clear to me for some time that it’s Angel who is the principal repository of my inflated ego—the fabulous, talented one. It’s also been clear that Angel has historically been the one who has actioned indulgence in addictive behavior. It took longer to recognize, however, that it was Angelo’s attempts to avoid feeling the painful shame inherent in identifying as the deflated ego—the worthless, unlovable one—that was at the root of the impulse that moved Angel into these activities.
At one point a few years back in the unfolding inquiry into my shadow, I decided to give mine a name of its own: Diablo. Really there’s no separation between Angel, Angelo, and Diablo except that Angel and Angelo are trying to be all light in their various ways, and that Diablo is happy being all darkness. The light, finally, is no ‘better’ than the darkness, just different. It’s all ego; it’s all rooted in pride, worthlessness, shame, and despair; it’s all about the desire to be seen and loved as a way of taking away the emotional pain of feeling unlovable and worthless.
The moment of le petit mort that I described earlier—the much-sought-after moment of ‘no-mind’ that is an integral part of the orgasm experience—is a split second of total relief from the pain and suffering of the ‘story of me,’ and a split second of the experience of pure freedom and bliss. Now that I’ve discovered that it’s possible to consciously choose no-mind and bliss in each moment by simply stopping and surrendering fully into the present moment, there’s no longer the energy to pursue orgasm in the same way.
The inquiry into Diablo that arises now during lockdown is to consciously shine the light of my awareness into the shadowy corners of my psyche once more, curious if there are any hidden desires or shameful secrets left to be uncovered. One night, as I’m lying awake in bed in the early hours of the morning—a not-infrequent occurrence at this point in my life—every moment of unconscious indulgence in pleasure from my whole lifetime flashes past my inner vision, like a super high-speed pleasure/horror movie. The main difference I see as I watch this movie is that in every moment of choosing so-called pleasure, I was also choosing pain. “Oh, my goodness!!” I exclaim out loud to the darkened room; Amir stirs but doesn’t wake.
With the reliving of Diablo’s story, now seen through a different lens, I make a simple decision to finish the story once-and-for-all. As I do so any residual negativity or weight associated with this unconscious story of addiction simply evaporates. In the moment of finally both embracing and ending it there’s a new lightness and sense of freedom present, as well as a deep, deep feeling of relief. “Phew!! Thank God that’s over!!”
What’s also clear to me in this liberating moment is that I must stay vigilant to noticing the tendencies of my shadow as it will always be a part of my psyche until my body is no longer living, and when triggered it can be very seductive and sneaky in picking up the life force and tempting me to indulge in ‘the dark side’ . . . just one more time.
It’s on a Friday in late May, about two months into the initial COVID-19 lockdown, that I’m walking down the hallway from the bedroom towards the living room—a route I’ve literally walked tens of thousands of times in the fourteen years I’ve lived in the apartment—when I’m drawn to stop and look in the mirror that’s in the middle of the hallway, opposite the front door of the apartment.
How many times have I gazed into this oval looking glass? Again, literally tens of thousands of times, but today there’s something different. Today something urgent and important is calling for my attention. I stop and turn to squarely face the mirror front on.
I happen to be wearing my most recent Mickey Mouse outfit—the one I’d made for the 2016 New Eden Gay Pride March—for no reason other than it makes me smile. My mind automatically starts scanning the image of the reflection that I’m seeing in the mirror.
The judging part of my mind—my super-ego, if you like—runs through its usual assessment of what’s good and what’s bad about my appearance: the Mickey Mouse costume is good, though I could have done a better job of stitching the black velvet ears, which are a little lumpy and irregular in shape; my complexion is bad, being pale and somewhat blotchy today, and my face is definitely showing more signs of ageing than I would like; my smile is good, and becomes more so when I allow it to naturally expand across my face; the slouching of my posture is bad, and causes me to look older and more tired than I actually am.
The judging is automatic, incessant, extremely familiar, and it has always accompanied seeing my reflection in a mirror from the very youngest age. For no reason that I’m aware of, it’s in this moment that I first become fully conscious of this automatic judging tendency of my mind and for a moment . . . I distance myself from it.
I continue to observe the judgments objectively as they arise—and the judging thoughts do continue to arise—but for a moment I stop taking them personally. In this moment of seeing the judging thoughts from a distance, it’s blatantly clear that they’re neither true, nor necessary. It’s more like they’re just noise.
I can’t quite believe how long I’ve been taking these thoughts to be reality. More importantly, however, I see that these judging thoughts are simply conditioned and automatic, and that they’ve been one of the main causes of my personal suffering from early childhood onwards. At least they have been until now. What a relief to discover that I can simply stop paying attention to them. “Thank goodness!!”
Now, from a quiet place deep inside of me, deeper than the judging thoughts and the often-noisy background chatter of my usual mind activity, there's the simple seeing of my reflection in the mirror without judgment, and without commentary. Just pure, simple perception. “Wow, what a relief!!” It’s as if I’m seeing myself as I truly am for the very first time. Who I am is not this body—or rather, not just this body—I’m seeing reflecting in the mirror before me. Subsequently, there’s nothing to change, nothing to fix, nothing to improve, and nothing else to be except exactly who and what I already am in this moment. It reminds me a little of the experiences I’d had with MDMA back in the ‘90s when the voice of the judge was also put on mute for a period.
“Aaaarrrrhhhhhh,” I exhale audibly and deeply, and something in the depth of my belly relaxes. I feel a rush of excitement, like anticipation, but the feeling could also be labelled terror and that would be close too.
Next, as I continue to gaze into the mirror, I notice that I don’t hate myself. Unlike virtually every other moment of my life to date, there’s absolutely no trace of self-hatred present. Instead, it’s more truthful to say that I love myself.
“What!?! I love myself!?! But how can that possibly be?” I say out loud to my reflection.
Until today, there’s always been a part of me that has known myself beyond doubt to be bad, ugly, damaged, and therefore worthless and unlovable. I’ve been aware of this firmly held belief from before my first memory, and it’s always felt like it has inhabited the core of every cell and fiber of my being. How can I now be seeing myself as lovable? The relaxation and relief I experience in my physical body deepens even further now, and an overwhelming feeling of well-being spreads throughout my body, mind, soul, and being.
Just moments later, however, something contracts in my gut. A thought, in my mind, accompanies the contraction: But isn’t it narcissistic, and therefore unacceptable, to love myself?
As I examine this thought and its associated body contraction, I see that in the moment of fully allowing myself to love myself something extraordinary had happened. Something had opened and I’d known myself, without doubt, to be free of the suffering ‘story of me.’ This freedom is clearly what I’ve been seeking for the past sixteen years—since my first real awakening experience in Australia back in 2003—but really for my whole life. In the moment of completely stopping everything, including hating myself, I’d freshly realized my true nature to be silent, aware, intelligent love. With the arising of the body contraction and doubting thought, however, the sweet, blissful experience is once more absent.
Next, the now very familiar voice inside my head speaks one more time:
As I stand quietly reflecting on these two simple words, my attention ‘looks back’ into my recent past. There I discover the world I’m leaving behind: samsara, separation, division, duality, suffering, bondage. A world that revolved around the main character in the story of Angel O, me. Strangely, I also find that the mirror is behind me, as if I’ve just passed through the mirror somehow, passed through the looking glass.
Then, as I ‘look forward,’ I find myself in a different reality than the one I’ve known up until now. I feel liberated, and nothing else is needed. It feels thrilling to just be. In this moment I know, beyond doubt, that this is Reality: nirvana, non-separation, non-division, non-duality, freedom, truth.
There’s no need for Angelo, Angel, Diablo, or even Angel O here. There’s no need for any name at all here, just the blissful experience of everything as oneness. Whoever and whatever shows up here is welcome. The experience is of being here without needing to do anything other than just enjoy being here, and to respond lovingly and responsibly to life as it unfolds around me.
The dream character, Angel O, having finally stopped all doing in the dream for just a moment, finds her/himself awake and fully liberated while still in the dream. I know my identity to be the dreamer, to be Consciousness—God, if you like—while also being an awakened aspect of the dream. Oh, my goodness!! That’s not what I expected. That’s crazy!!
“But what’s the point of life now? What do I do? How do I live?” my mind wants to know. The wisdom that arises in response to these questions, which comes directly out of the depth as my mind remains quiet and open, is a question rather than a statement, and it goes something like this: If everything is me, all aspects of a dream within the ‘mind’ of the dreamer, how will I treat others when I meet them?
“Well, I’ll be kind, and loving, and patient, and generous,” I answer out loud to my own inner questioning, “and I would do everything I can to support others to discover this liberating secret in themselves also.”
A volley of questions and insights follow, mainly around the implications of this realization. As I remain ‘stopped,’ my vision widens, naturally and without effort, which somehow gives permission for my physical body to relax even further. With my belly so relaxed and full now, it feels like I’m pregnant.
I take a long, slow in-breath, hold it for a few seconds, then as I exhale, I close my eyes and allow myself to fall even more deeply and fully into the quietness I’ve discovered in the core of my being. This quietness is so blissful, so attractive, I wonder why I would ever give my attention to anything else. I believe the Sanskrit word for the stateless and timeless ‘state’ I experience now would be, samadhi.
For a short period now the material world is experienced as a wispy veil, a flimsy tapestry, on top of an infinitely deep nothingness. Angel O—my body, mind, and story—is an integral, though also tiny, part of this tapestry. I see there’s nothing for me to do except to relax and surrender ever more deeply into this experience of oneness . . . then continue to discover what it is to live as that.
Much like the insight I’d seen a few weeks back around my shadow still being able to tempt me back into desire and therefore back into suffering again, I see that I must be vigilant in giving my attention and allegiance to unmoving silence otherwise I can be caught by my mind stuff again, and return to the experience of separation and suffering—to samsara-- in the blink of an eye. I see that giving everything to this means to be willing to remain unmoving, open, and to be willing to welcome whatever appears without preference or judgment.
To not follow thoughts of desire as they arise in the mind; to not move away and close off in fear; to not believe the content of my thoughts and beliefs; to not deny, push away, or even have preferences about unpleasant emotions and body sensations; to not follow my mind into stories, judgments, beliefs, delusion, and separation; to not indulge or believe in the illusion of time. All this is and more is the vigilance required to remain true to this, to remain here, in freedom . . . Beyond the Mirror.
I look around in wonder, smile, and laugh quietly to myself. “Wow!!”
For a moment I wonder what I should call myself now, but the name Angel O finally fits perfectly—the ‘O’ accurately pointing to my true nature as nothing—so I’ll keep using it for now unless something else shows up.
I turn and walk down the corridor to the living room, curious what life will present to me next.
And so, my story now also arrives at the all-important moment in the telling of this tale: July 4th, 2020.
When news of the re-opening of bars, restaurants and clubs in New Eden had first stirred in mid-June, I’d reached out to my talented cast of performers and technicians, and we’d recommenced rehearsals for our postponed opening night show. Initially we rehearsed online, then just three days before opening night we were given the green light to rehearse in person, and onstage at The Garden Cabaret. Pleasingly, we were also given the green light to perform without masks. The grand opening of TGC is to take place tonight, the evening of July 4th . . . Independence Day.
I find it fascinating to look back over the story of my life, to recognize all the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows, the woundings and healings, the successes and the failures, the synchronicities and the opportunities—taken and missed—that lead me here.
What’s even more fascinating to my mind is imaging where the human story will go from here. Will humanity survive its current challenges, or will it end soon, having brought about its own extinction? This story of the evolution of the human species on the planet called Earth, how will it all end? There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course, because the story is still being written, moment by moment, but isn’t it fascinating to wonder?
All I know for sure is that what I want to do for the remainder of the lifetime of this queer, hermaphroditic body of mine is to share, with whoever is mysteriously drawn to hear it, the great good news of the possibility of waking up to one’s true nature and identity as Consciousness, and the possibility of living a fulfilled life of true happiness and freedom inherent in that awakening. May all beings awaken and may all be happy and free . . .
For Angel O's audition piece, choose any section of the above story that's about two minutes long.