October 24, 2018 >

October 24, 2018 >


What Happens in the Shards of Things

by Vivian Underhill

After living beside you all these years, and watching your wheel of a mind bring forth an art of pure wildness – as I labor grimly on these sentences, wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness (fidelity to sense-making, to assertion, to argument, however loose) - I’m no longer sure which of us is more at home in the world, which of us more free.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts


It was a hot, hot September, the last worst days of summer masquerading as fall. The city air was smoky from wildfires up north, and I came home, night after night, to you curled up on our broken-down brown couch in the dark watching a reality TV show where beautiful straight couples compete with physical challenges. I put my bag away, microwaved some food, then sat down beside you.

You were deep in the wordless discomfort we now, imperfectly, call dysphoria. Without a choice you were letting go of the protective boundary that had, for your life until now, guarded your growing sense of self. Something was falling, something dissolving, something flooding in: murky sadness, long periods of dry-eyed restless paralysis, what the other day you called two decades of slow trauma taking hold all at once. Moving as little as possible to avoid feeling the interior edges of your body, trying to shrink smaller within the border of your own skin.

I held a pervasive hope, and probably always will, that we could compare notes and figure it out together, but always in the register of the verbal, the known and knowable. I spend my days writing, speaking, reading: a whole livelihood premised on the sufficiency of language. Coming home disheartened and exhausted by my own world, I asked you question after question, demanded more clarity from your vague answers, until you withdrew to silence and I stalked off, both of us disconcerted by this gulf of understanding.

Knowing how saying words can make them true, you were frustrated when I tried to summarize, guess, put words in your mouth. When your entire world, in that moment, was a constellation of embodied senses that did not yet have words.

I slept on the couch a lot, because of the heat, and because I was filled with a prickly angry insomnia. In a moment of frustration I said to my friend Claire, if this is what they need to do I wish they’d just do it already and come back to me. Be careful what you wish for, she said. This is no easy process. Or short, either. And no guarantees coming out the other side.

In class, my students and I discuss the tentacles of policing and control – of people, of bodies, of landscapes. We discuss the responsibilities of scholarship: if to write is to pluck one story out of many, and something else inevitably escapes, is erased or exiled, is there always some violation, some violence, in the work of setting down one incomplete story, pulling one truth out of indeterminacy?

At the same time, there are three books I have seen you inhale like you were drowning: Stone Butch Blues, Gender Failure, Self-Made Man. If stories are acts of violence they are also, always, acts of creation, of becoming. They make space for us to imagine our own lives into existence where there was none before.

At the beginning, I gave you a journal – one of several, over the years, thinking or hoping that perhaps my ways of understanding, making sense to myself, would work for you too. (And did I hope, too, that it would render your inner world more accessible to me?) Either way, it didn’t. They are black, small, smooth, lightly lined, things of beauty in themselves. Each has a few pages of stilted writing at the front, your good-faith attempts, but nothing more. 


What you and I mean when we say dysphoria to each other: Tightness in your shoulders, back. Fragments of a body, held together in a skin sack, a meat suit. Tight-voiced fights treading on bruised ground. Days when you’re doing fine and then one too many microaggressions or misgenderings and then silence. When it comes, it is insistent, pervasive, impossible to ignore: bad TV, early to bed, late to rise.

But then the next day, or the day after that, you are back, as funny and charming as ever: oh, it’s you, the one I love. Hello. You have broad swimmer’s shoulders, freckles, light hazel eyes with flecks of green. You are strong like a tree trunk, smooth lines both straight and curved.

Distance in the home becomes the condition of these humans living together, in this moment, humans who are geared not toward continuity or productivity or reproductivity but to stasis, to waiting, until it passes. Teaching Mel Chen, a queer theorist, I found myself caught off guard in the front of the room with how suddenly familiar their words were. Chen is theorizing toxicity – both that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to toxicity, and that racialized and queerly gendered Others are read as toxic to the white nation. Meanwhile, heavy metal exposure has so damaged Chen’s liver that everyday toxins are deeply poisonous; evenings of bad days, they lie immobile on the couch. Their lover comes home: I grunt a facsimile of greeting in return, looking only in her general direction but not into her eyes. She comes near to offer comfort, putting her hand on my arm, and I flinch… She tolerates this because she understands very deeply how I am toxic. And underneath, Chen is asking, what is the intimacy of waiting, of distance, outside the bounds of the normal?

Is this something like what you might have written, if you were a writer?

You know too well how your distance called up for me old fears, of abandonment and isolation, that predate you but happily grasp onto these moments and gnaw away. The refrain over our years together: no matter how constantly you stay, in and out of fights, resentment, confusion, still I am sure you are one foot already out the door. On the nights you ghost, both here and not-here, there is no intimacy of waiting or distance. Just me, turning out the lights and locking the doors and your labored breathing even asleep. Reverberating alone in our house with the old fear that kicks in and I shut you out for leaving.

My students just looked at me, confused and fixated on this partner who appears in one paragraph and then fades away again. But why does she stay in such a bad relationship then? Why can’t she leave this toxic partner? That’s not very feminist…

I steered the discussion back toward toxicity as a concept for theorizing violence and social difference. I was frustrated at the time by their literalist reading of these figures who are both less than and more than their human counterparts, standing in as condensed versions of the article’s theoretical center. And in retrospect, I was defensive, inadvertently interpellated by their questioning. They have a point: it is worth thinking too about our relationships to suffering. Not in place of your struggle, or as equal to it, but as integrally a part of it: as Judith Butler writes, we are undone by each other; for another; by virtue of another.

This is how it feels, you said. The tendons of my neck and my shoulders and my collarbones are like steel cables, you know those thick ones they use for bridges and stuff. I imagine them coiled tightly, shining silver, dense and metallic, slippery. That ethereal snaking noise when they’re let go and slink back into looseness.


Recently, my friend Carson wrote to me: It is right to love someone through their heroic journey, through transformation. To want them to be, to be well, to be at home in their body. But beyond what’s right, what happens in the shards of things?

We talk it through, talk until we meet the edge and fall off it. When your dysphoria began, we hadn’t yet encountered a thing we couldn’t share through language, and neither of us knew where or when this change would stop.

When we met, I fell for the way you listened, the gentle attentiveness that marks your way of being in the world. My sister calls it your butch eye contact – it’s like you crack open my soul and rearrange all the stuff in there she said once, giggling, as you stared her down. But I have also always been certain that you train it most specifically, most intently, upon me. I feel seen, sometimes more deeply than I see myself. And the implication, so obvious that at first I couldn’t pinpoint it: that I am worth this close attention, this time.

When you had to turn that serious gaze in upon yourself, it was jarring. (My fears, in a triumphant chorus: I knew it all along, it could never last, they never actually loved you!) In your emerging process, we had to find different ways to be together, to love and be loved.

A few years ago, you went to a weekend conference and I raged and resented your absence. My old demon of insecurity: you’d abandoned me. Recently I told this story to our mutual friend Harper. We’d fought before you left, would fight again when you came back. They nod and smile, sitting in a movie theater at intermission: I do the same thing. Cindy comes back and I’m like a cat: do I know you? What are you doing in my house? They say it’s insecure attachment. Cindy rolls her eyes: Yeah, it’s awful. We laugh, but when it’s happening it is so not laughable.

So I drove to the BART station to pick you up, and I saw you sitting there reading in your raglan sweater, so impossibly everything I’d ever wanted. You looked up and this big smile broke across your face seeing me. Through the windshield: oh god this is what I will lose when they leave. My throat closed and when you jumped in the car I ignored you, drove home in a cloud of sudden resentful anger and we fought for days until I thawed.

Other nights, I think: if you love me this much, there is more to me than I am seeing. I trust your judgment on everything else, why not this too? Early mornings you stumble out of bed and find me writing on the couch, and coax me back to the bed and its cool pillows to finish sleeping.

What if it’s a lot? What if it’s too much? You asked often, big-eyed with concern. I’m worried I can’t be a very good partner to you right now, and I really need you.


One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one's best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender…Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender

When things feel really pressing and we have time, we go to the woods to walk. This is good – it keeps you in your body and keeps me calm. I try to let the suffocating fear come, press in upon me, leave again. Once, we stood ankle deep in a rocky stream and you said it’s hard to tell what you really feel when the outside pressures are so hard to see past. What is genuine desire, you? What is internalized from the outside world?

I teach my students Foucault, try to chisel through his dense language to how power works through the very constitution of ourselves as self-knowing subjects: our desires, our language, our modes of identification. “I get it but that’s so problematic,” one student said. I remember feeling something like self-forgiveness when I read Foucault: that we are all constituted through and by power, myself included. But they were disturbed by the idea that they weren’t autonomous, these proud queer young people, that even they were tied to the terms through which power works.

You, too, felt yourself running circles, questioning: Why do I feel this? Where does it come from? Between the overarching binary (trans)gender narrative, and the various ignorances and erasures of the cis world, where is there room for the quagmire of neither, both, just you?

Reading The Argonauts, you circled this passage in dark pen and sent me a picture: “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some and some times, this irresolution is OK – desirable, even – whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief?”

The stream was cool and rustling quiet. Perhaps will there always be discomfort and uncertainty, I suggested. Maybe there are no radical transformations, only gradual shifts. I was thinking to myself that there were still moments like this, even in the discomfort. You shrugged, irritated. Maybe. But that sucks.

I felt squeezed, too, between a different set of constraints: between your need for me to be stable and supportive, and the outer world so quick to pass judgment on you and your decisions. In my first year of a graduate program that felt more draining than satisfying, in a new place with new people, I felt empty in my core, hollowed out. Sarah sent me the words KEEP THE EARTH BELOW MY FEET in bold all-caps, which I taped on the fridge.  

After a long and hot week, you dissolved into tears in our bed. When do I get to just be in my body? And I knew you needed this space and it takes time and it’s ok if this process is hard. So I said all those things and you calmed and then I crept into the kitchen and leaned my forehead into the cabinets, my elbows on the linoleum counter, and I cried quietly, trying not to wake you.

What I didn’t want to feel: the knot in my stomach that clung to the you that I knew, because in my own life story, you were perfect for me the way you were and why would I want you to change? But also, from the beginning there was something in you that resisted being pinned down in any gender at all and that was part of what so drew me to you. This was not new - or, even as it was new, it was also the in-rush of a part of you long abiding.


The here and now is simply not enough. Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.
José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia

You asked me to experiment with the pronouns I use for you in my writing. You wanted to hear yourself spoken of as they, as he, as she. Before you trusted your own desires, before you’d told anyone else. So I did, and read select portions back to you, and you listened and breathed, both of us jointly conjuring ghostly versions of yourself, the first imaginings you could then live into.

Like Muñoz’ queerness, you are finding other modes of being, rehearsing toward some ideal that we can’t quite imagine yet, yearning toward a utopia that doesn’t exist, but is perhaps just on the horizon of the current moment. What possibilities harbor there? What are the wordless feelings, felt presences, of what could be? Running with just a T-shirt on? Feeling at home within your skin, less back pain, walking in comfort?

This irresolution: perhaps letting it stand, in all its unsettling power, can open a little more space for knowing ourselves differently, knowing gender differently: alternative, more capacious ways of being and becoming.

For Foucault, too, power isn’t only repressive: Where there is power, there is resistance. Imagination, creating, dreaming are our gifts, tools for imagining a world differently. Returning and reworking become acts of understanding, memory, care. And resolution is not just impossible, but less interesting, less fraught, less dazzling.

My old friend Claire cut out a poem by Hafiz and sent it to me. We have not come into this exquisite world to hold ourselves hostage from love, it says. I make lists of all the ways I know you love me, and it feels, circularly, like writing a love letter to you.

And for the record, I still can’t imagine a person better suited for me than the person you are now.


Vivian Underhill is a PhD candidate in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying environmental justice issues around oil and gas activity in California. In addition to her academic research, she writes fiction, prose, and poetry, and has been published in Bitch Magazine, the Flatirons Literary Review, and the LIPpoetry series.