I arrive in face. The concealer and contour, still wet on my cheekbones, give the illusion that I am a man. I’ve painted an Adam’s apple on my throat and drawn thick hair on my upper lip and eyebrows. My breasts are tightly bound, nipples pulled back under my armpits and taped down. I am flat, flatter even than I was as a girl. The weight of everything I’m carrying strains my left shoulder. I feel it in my back: the Ziploc stuffed with bronzer and primer, the Goodwill shoes I spit-shined with a handkerchief, the duct tape and hot glue and safety pins just in case. I’ve forgotten a tampon, so blood stains my boxers.
The bartender knows what I want. He pops open the can, and I toss him five ones. “What songs are you performing?” he asks me, and if I was myself, submissive and obedient, I would tell him, but I am not myself, or maybe I am more myself, and so I say, “Wait and see.”
The condensation from the can runs down my wrist as I carry everything past the stage and slip behind the emerald curtain. Six queens are readying themselves, their faces reflected in the mirror that spans the room. I am last to arrive, and they greet me without looking up.
Aaliyah tears herself away from her reflection and walks toward me. The way she moves her hips is sensual, just like the way she talks and the way she holds herself on the balcony when she gives critiques. Last week, as I stood before her and the audience, winded from my number, she told me, “Next time, you need to feel it in your bones. You need to sing it like you wrote the words.” I couldn’t see her face, her body a silhouette in the bright lights, but I could hear her disappointment, thick as the clouds of hair spray in the dressing room.
“Hey, baby,” Aaliyah coos. She pulls me into a hug, and I turn my head to protect her gown from my makeup. The rhinestones scratch my arms, but I let her hold me. “You got something good for me tonight?”
I promise I do, and she lets me go. The DJ begins collecting our music for the show. Instinctively, I reach into my bra, which is usually where I keep things like cash and mace, for my flash drive, but I am not wearing a bra. I find it instead in the deep pocket of my pants, men’s pants, which don’t quite fit around my hips.
“Make sure it’s explicit,” I say to the DJ as I hand him the flash drive. I want the audience to hear the sharp k in dick. I’d been watching my lips make the sound in the mirror—dick, dick. Behind me, the queens tape theirs between their legs. Fake nails are stuck to the floor. I help one of them pin a crown into her wig. Another asks to borrow my lipstick, and I place it in her outstretched palms.
Everyone around me adds blush to their cheekbones, but I add shadows. I widen my nose, accentuate my temples, sharpen my jaw. While the queens trade down in the social hierarchy of gender, I trade up. Unlike them, I’m not after beauty. Unlike them, I was taught as a girl that beauty is my greatest power, and now it’s the last thing I want. I’ve spent years and paychecks chasing it, plunging my fingers down my throat to find it, searching for it with razors and hair bows and hot wax.
“Are you transitioning now?” people sometimes ask me, and I respond, “Transitioning to what?” I know what they’re saying, but I don’t know how to answer. I can feel myself changing, but into what? I’m not sure.
Aaliyah performs first. I watch from behind the curtain as she spreads her arms wide like Jesus. She knows who she is. She knows the message she’s here to deliver. In catechism, year after year, my teachers reminded me I’m named after the angel who brought the news to Mary that she was carrying the next messiah.
Breathless, Aaliyah takes a seat in the judge’s chair, and I wait to hear my new name, my chosen name, so I can deliver my message too. Dick, dick. I practice in the mirror as I wait. I utter it like a threat, a curse, a prayer.
Gabe Montesanti is the author of the roller derby memoir Brace for Impact (2022). Her work has been published in HuffPost, Lit Hub, Creative Nonfiction, Electric Literature, and Brevity. “The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention” was recognized as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2020. Gabe is currently at work on an illustrated memoir about performing drag. Her visual art and micro-memoirs can be found on Instagram @gabemontesantiauthor.
This essay originally appeared in Brevity#72 (January 2023).