"Jaswinder," she’d pleaded. "This is foolishness. You are no more a man than I am an elephant. Look at you. You have cut off your beautiful hair and your eyebrows are like a bush. You are letting too much sun come to your skin, and you look like an African. You will shame your father and I if you continue with this. What will Auntie Nazneen say? You must stop this nonsense. You smell like a goat. Go and bathe, you will feel much better. I will draw you a bath and lay out fresh clothing, clothing befitting the beautiful young woman you are. Then you will have food and sleep. Don't wrinkle your brow, my daughter. You will create unbecoming lines. I know that you are troubled and that this is a difficult time of life. Maybe you are just one of those women who love women. What do they call them here - lesbians? This we can keep a secret and you can still marry and have children if you are discreet about your perversion, for that's what it is, my daughter. You will come to love the husband we have chosen for you. This is the way of life. You cannot be a man. Jaswinder, where are you going? Talk to your mother! If you go, you cannot come back!!"
Throwing the door open, he stumbled out of the artificial coolness of his suburban home into the hot sticky day. Christ, so much for mother love. Heading for the park he played in as a child, he fished around in his pocket for the joint he had put there that morning. Suburban parks were not known for their tree cover, but he found a place behind the swing sets where he could smoke and avoid being noticed by some racist white housewife who would smell the smoke and call the cops. He didn't care about being arrested, but did care that he might be thrown into a cell with men who would see that he didn't have a dick and mess with him. Or worse yet, if they checked his I.D. that identified him as female, they would put him in with women who would either try to mother him or treat him like a freak. Either way he'd be royally screwed. Hopefully if someone smelled the dope and saw him, they would fall prey to their prejudised assumptions and think the smell was curry.
Instead of calming him, the smoke set his mind on some kind of crazy trajectory out into a very bleak universe. What was he going to do? What stupid god had planned his life?
He had told his mother that he was a boy when he was four. Grinding the spices for the evening meal, she had stiffened and then rolled her eyes. The next day Auntie Nazneen magically appeared bearing gifts - cookies, brightly coloured hair ribbons and white skinned dolls with curly yellow hair. Weeks later, his mother found them hidden under his bed, their hair cut short and their girlish garments ripped to shreds. On the first day of school, his mother spent what seemed like hours dressing the long thick hair, which was such a source of pride in his family. Jazz waited until snack time to pull out the ribbons before he joined the boys jumping in the puddles.***
In the years that followed, there were many such indignities - ballet class where he was outfitted with pink tights and a tutu; gatherings of giggling girls playing dress-up while the boys played outside in the ravine; and the quiet walks in the park with Auntie Nazneen.
"Why, you will not believe this Jaswinder, but as a child I sometimes wished I was a boy. Boys have all the luck, don't they? But when you are grown you will find that a woman's life has many pleasures. We must be as Shakti intended us to be. Otherwise we tempt Fate."
And then came adolescence, with blood coming out of the hole between his legs, the sprouting of breasts and the buying of brassieres - all the while with his mother fussing over him. He was horrified the day she took him to The Bay to have a bra fitting and announced in a loud voice to all and sundry that …"my daughter, like all the women in our family is destined to be deep chested.” The back of his neck had burned in shame. That night when he went to bed, he began taping down his bosom, hoping that the pressure might stifle their growth. In spite of his mother's protests and his father's stern looks, he began insisting on wearing pants at home. The headboard of his bed became the outlet for his rage - nighttimes found him in his room, the door locked, playing the knife thrower with his headboard some not yet identified enemy. By the time he was 15, he made a practice of walking every Saturday afternoon to the local Tim Hortons - telling his mother he was going to the library to study. There he shed his dress for a t-shirt and a pair of his older brother Sugith's worn jeans, and tucked his long hair up into a cap. Hopping the bus into the city, he strode down Bloor street flashing smiles at the beautiful young women sipping café au laits in the trendy shops there. The first time Sugith caught him doing this, he shook Jazz until his teeth shook.
"You freak! Get home before I tell Father. And put my jeans back. I wondered where they went."
Jazz swaggered back a few steps, shook his head and then glared at Sugith, curling his upper lip back into a snarl.
"Go ahead, you stupid goon. And I'll tell Mom about the porno you keep under your bed."
The cocky look on his sister's face made Sugith's blood boil. He pushed Jazz hard down onto the pavement, and then standing over him swore him to secrecy.
The day came when Sugith could no longer contain the need to stop his sister from parading around the downtown core like the homo that she surely was, After all, his friends were now laughing behind his back, and the girl he was hot for rejected him saying that he probably had homo tendencies like his little sister. When he blurted out the truth to his father he immediately regretted it. Amarjit's face became stony. He accused Sugith of a great unkindness and barred him from leaving the house until the truth could be discovered. The next Saturday afternoon Amarjit went first to the library, then to the corner of Bay and Bloor where he saw for himself the shame that was his daughter. He pulled her into an alleyway and for the first time in his life, struck her.
"You have brought great dishonour onto our family. Back home, you would be severely punished for your actions. But let this be enough. You will come home with me and you will not be allowed out without supervision. I will show you to your mother dressed as you are. If she does fall dead immediately, she will make sure that you understand your place in this world. Stand up and follow me to the car. And lower your eyes as is proper!"
When Jazz refused, Amrjit struck him again, this time full on the face. His lip began to bleed but he did not care. 'You may take me home and dress me like a sheep of a girl, but inside I will not change', his thoughts burned in him. 'From this moment forward, I hate you.'
Two years passed and Jazz grew to be a man in the body of a woman. His sojourns downtown continued, but now happened during school hours. Instead of the trendy Yorkville district, Jazz chose Church Street. Originally he chose this spot because he knew Sugith would not be caught dead in 'Homo Central', as he called it. But eventually he began to feel relaxed in himself in a way he had never experienced. He was accepted, no only by the homosexuals but by people like himself - who called themselves transgendered, transsexuals or - in the way of the North Americans who were called 'Indians' by mistake - an error perpetrated by Columbus which was never corrected - 'two feathered'.***
A red-skinned man name Jean Paul told him,"In our culture in the olden days, we were considered holy. My medicine name is Red Feather. The Great spirit speaks to me when the moon is full." He took a drag from his cigarette and took a swig from his bottle of Johnny Walker Red. "Go in peace little brother."
In the local Starbucks he met a young black man - self-identified as a flaming queer -named Marque. Marque took him under his wing, introduced him to the other 'two feathered' people and to the joys of cursing and smoking marijuana.
"Don't people in your country smoke? Isn't that where the hookah comes from?"
At home, he dutifully donned saris and other loathsome female apparel and applied kohl around his eyes as his mother had taught him. But passive acceptance became revulsion when at age 18 his mother introduced him to the young man they planned for him to marry.
"His parents are from the village of our ancestors. You will not love him at first. But understanding will grow, and from understanding will come love. You will marry and have many children and in this, my daughter, I know you will find happiness.'
Jazz sat in the living room and coolly regarded the young man her parents had chosen. He was pale skinned and had thick glasses that slipped down his nose regularly. Not that there was anything wrong with him. He was nice enough, quiet and kind. But at their third meeting, when the boy smiled and complimented her on her beauty…'like a spring flower' he had said shyly, the volcano brewing inside Jazz erupted. His entrails rising up in his throat, he tore off his glass bracelets and spit on the floor.
"You stupid geek! You bleat like a goat and smell like one too! Jazz stormed out of the living room and up the stairs. In his room he ripped off his sari, pulled on his jeans and t-shirt - as well as a newly acquired bomber jacket - out from their hiding place behind the dresser, changed and left the house, slamming the door.
The first thing he did was go to a department store and buy some scissors. Off came the long black hair that his mother loved so. He jumped the bus and went downtown, passing by Jean Paul on the street corner. His two-feathered brother was too drunk to recognize him. Jazz looked away and rubbed his hand on his scalp, not yet used to the feeling of having short hair. Jumping off the bus and running down the street, he pushed past the homeless man standing in front of Marque's apartment building,
Thankfully Marque was home, but getting ready to go out. He half listened as Jazz poured out his tale and then picked up his keys.
'Stay here, baby. Smoke a joint if you like, I'll be home in a few hours. How do I look?' Jazz looked at his lanky black friend.
"Not as good as you do in drag, but not bad."
"You look like shit," quipped Marque grinning. Throwing his knapsack over his shoulder, he sashayed out the door, his tight jeans revealing every contour of his high round backside.
Jazz hung out at Marque's place for a few days, until he wore out his welcome.***
"I love you sweety, but I can't keep you. You gotta get a job or go home."
Jazz opted for the later choice. He called his mother.
"Of course you may come home, my daughter. I have been so worried. Your father has grown old overnight. But we are a family. We will work this thing out. When should I expect you? I will make your favourite - lamb curry with saab."
Stepping into the air-conditioned quiet of his family home, Jazz knew he had made a mistake. Usually at work at this hour, his father was at home standing by the window with his hands clasped behind his back. Sitting in his mother's favourite chair was Auntie Nazneen, back from her extended trip to the village back home. Neither father nor aunt looked up at him. He greeted both his aunt and Amarjit deferentially. His father did not turn around. His aunt regarded him coolly, her lips set in a stiff line, and her hands folded neatly in her lap. His mother shuffled into the room, saw him and stopped. The blood drained from her face.
"Jaswinder, what have you done? You have ruined yourself."
Her jaw hung open. She looked older by years than she had just days ago. She pulled her lips into a tight smile. "Say hello to your Auntie Nazneen. She has come all this way just to see you."
His mother shuffled out. Jazz stepped closer to his aunt, but found he could not speak. She looked up at him from under her dark lashes, clicking her tongue. Jazz felt naked under her gaze. He lowered his hers/His mother returned with a tray of samosas.
"Jaswinder. Take this tray to your father and serve him. He is surely hungry. Father, your daughter has returned to us."
Amarjit stood still as a statue.
"Amarjit please." His mother's voice came out all broken.
Amarjit turned his head and regarded Jazz from the corner of his eye taking in his shorn head, flat chest and boys clothing.
"Get out of my house, you pervert", he hissed at Jazz, his eyes full of malevolence. "You are no longer welcome here."
"Brother, not so fast," Auntie Nazneen pleaded, rising and moving toward her brother. " I agree it is shocking the way she looks. But it is just a phase that she will grow out of." She turned and fixed Jazz with a piercing stare. "Am I not right Jaswinder? Remember the talks we used to have. I understand and I will help you find a way…"
"Enough Nazneen!" Amarjit commanded. "No more chances for her!"
His father folded his arms and sat down on his chair. Picking up the newspaper, he pretended to read. Auntie Nazneen drew herself up and spoke to Jazz as if to an erring servant.
"One word for you. For shame."
Like a ship on still water, his aunt moved gracefully to the foot of the stairs. With her back to him, she spoke.
"Though you disgust me in your current state, I am still your Auntie Nazneen. I will take you home with me if you want. We will talk as we once did. I will leave it in your hands, Jaswinder." Her sari trailing behind her, she sailed up the stairs.
His mother stood helplessly, looking back and forth from her husband's back to the retreating form of her sister-in-law. The silence hung like lead in the air.
"You must go, my daughter." Moving to the front door, she opened it.
"Mother, I want you to understand…'
Sighing, she took his hand and drew him closer to her. " Understand what? That you have taken leave of your senses? That you want to be a boy? Do you not understand that life does not always give us what we want and that we must accept the way we are made? Do you not understand that you are killing your father?"
Dropping his hand, she stepped back. "Go from this house. Your father and I are decided."
Jazz held his chest up and clenched his jaw, determined to hold in the tears that threatened. Half choking, he shouted, "Mother, Father… I want you to understand. I am a man. This is how I was born. I cannot change this!"
In a rare fit of temper, his father stood and picked up an antique vase that had been in the family for hundreds of years. He hurled it on the floor at Jazz's feet, where it shattered into tiny pieces.
"This is not how you were born. I remember when you were born. You are no longer my daughter. I disown you."
Amarjit stormed from the room. His mother looked up at him.
"You see what you have done, Jaswinder? Do you see that I am crying? You are killing us Jaswinder. Go for a walk and think, and then come home. I will make it right with your father. You will bathe and make yourself beautiful. Your hair will grow again. My arms are open to you as they always have been.'"
"It isn't my choice, mother. Please understand."
"How have you been eating? You are looking thin, too thin for a girl of marriageable age…'
Interrupting her, Jazz cried, "There are lots of people who are like me."
Fussing with his jacket, she appeared not to hear him. "The binding must hurt your breasts. In our family the women are deep chested."
"Listen to me mother! I am a transsexual…"
"Stop that talk. Do not use that dirty word in this house ever again!"
"Mother, please listen, I have researched this."
Shaking her head back, his mother stepped away from him, her eyes flashing.
"You are out of your mind. I do not need research to tell me that."
"I have felt this way since I was a child."
"And I felt I was a princess when I was a child, but I am not! We have worked hard to make a home for you. Do you think I liked working in that doughnut shop serving coffee to people who looked at me as if I was some sort of witless idiot? I did not wish that. Sometimes I felt that I did not wish to work so hard. But I did. For you. Please leave now. You have one week. Then we must cancel your marriage contract if you continue to be crazy. If we have to cancel the contract, we will be shamed and you will be lost to us forever. Go now Jaswinder. I cannot bear the sight of you."
"You can't stay here tonight, unless you want to hear me doing it."***
"Whatever." Jazz mumbled.
"How do I look?" said Marque, stuffing his already burgeoning bra with yet another sock. Dressed as an everyday male, Marque was nothing special. Six foot two with skin the colour of a dark chocolate bar, his face was unremarkable and his eyes always looked a bit sleepy, possibly the result of waking up with a joint every morning. But when he got out his ruby red size 14 pumps, put on women's underwear and did his face and hair to look like Tina Turner, he was a smash. Top it off with a strapless teal green silk dress with boobs to rival Dolly Parton, Jazz had to admit, he played the part of a woman better than most women he knew.
"Shit, I broke a nail," Marque whined.
"Let me help." Jazz pulled out the nail repair kit and got to work.
"How did you get so goddamn good at this? Oopsie, I forgot. Sorry."
Marque admired his long legs in the fishnet stockings while Jazz applied the blood red polish.
"You know when I look like this I could have six dicks at my beck and call if I wanted." Marque's baritone laugh rang out.
Jazz flinched. "I'd be happy with one of my own. Got any pot?"
Marque lifted his eyebrows and looked intently at Jazz. Reaching out to pat his face, he said, "Here sweetheart, let me smoke you up and then I gotta go. If I can find another place to get it on tonight, I'll go there. I forget that you are just a baby. I don't mean to be crude."
Lighting the joint and elegantly blowing out smoke, he laughed."O, who the hell am I kidding? I am the Queen of crude."
Marque handed the joint to Jazz.
"O.K. my little lost prince. I gotta go."
The next morning Jazz awoke after only a few hours sleep with a new sense of purpose. Listening to Marque and his new paramour do it all night was enough to shake him from feeling sorry for himself to the knowledge that he had to take the bull by the horns - to coin a phrase. He stepped into the early morning sunlight and wishing he had enough money for a coffee, walked down the street to the Christian Community Centre. Jean Paul had told him that there was someone there who could help him make his transition to being a full man.
"Hello, I'm Sister Mary Francis, come on in and take a seat."***
Jazz sidled into the office and looked at a worn chair, it's stuffing peeking out at the bottom above the wooden legs. The burgundy fabric was stained and Jazz wondered what kind of people had sat there. He suddenly felt a little queasy and wanted to go home.
"When will the counselor be here?" he asked the dour faced nun.
"You're looking at her." Sister Mary was seated behind a desk covered in reports, empty diet coke cans and a computer that looked like it came from the Stone Age. "How can I help you?"
"I thought this was a place where transgendered people could get help."
The word transgendered felt funny in his mouth.
"Uh, huh" said the nun, rooting around in a drawer. "Have a seat, please. I'll be with you in a moment."
Jazz looked around and considered leaving, then thought better of it and flopped down in the worn chair. The nun pulled some papers from a box on her desk and handed them to him, still making no eye contact. She stood and moved out from behind the desk. Jazz noticed that cracks in the leather of her white runners.
"Fill out these forms. I'll be right back. Want a cup of coffee?"
A coffee sounded good, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to stay. How could he talk to this woman? Throwing a challenge out, he asked, "How could you know anything about being a transsexual?'
"Good question. Fill out the form, and we'll answer that and other interesting questions when I return. How do you take your coffee?'
Slumping down in the chair, Jazz stared at the scuffed hardwood floor.
'Two creams, two sugars."
"We only have milk - 2%. I'll be right back.'
Jazz looked down at the form. Most of it was fairly basic stuff, name, address etc. But then it got into some pretty personal questions about when he had first felt that he was a different sex and what kind of things he had done to express it. Express it? He shook his head and began to write. Page two he refused to fill out. The questions were ridiculous. Had he ever tried to commit suicide? Had he had any surgeries and was he on meds? Forget it. He didn't come to see her for therapy. Why the hell had Jean Paul sent him here?
The old door creaked open and Sister Mary shuffled in, his coffee in hand. Handing it to him, it spilt over onto Marque's clean shirt.
"Shit," he said.
"Hey! No one gets to swear here but me!" The stern look melted from her face. Looking at his sullen expression, she chuckled. "Good I laugh at my own jokes here, 'cause no one else sure does. Now, let me see your intake form."
Cracking open a can of diet cola, Sister Mary Francis began ticking off things on his form. "No place to live. Well, that's the first thing we have to deal with. How are you eating?"
Jazz suddenly felt like he was talking to his mother again. He sat up straighter.
"I'm fine. I crash with friends. I don't need you to help me eat. I need you to help me book a surgery so I can really be a man."
"Honey, you are either a man or your not. There are lots of human beings walking around with penises that are about as far away from being a man as our Prime Minister is from being honourable. Surgery is the last piece of the puzzle. First we need to make sure that you have a roof over your head and food to eat. You can only rely on the kindness of strangers for so long. Are you sure your parents won't take you back?"
"Only if I'll put on a sari and marry the man of their dreams."
"So, the kid's got a sense of humour. Good. Are you willing to get a job?"
"I'm supposed to be going to school in the fall. To study economics." Jazz clenched his fists.
"Economics. Good choice in today's world. Maybe when you graduate you can come and help me get some proper funding to run this place. Do you have a place to stay tonight? If not, I can get you a bed in a shelter."
"No, I have a place to stay," Jazz lied.
"Good, come back tomorrow. Sorry, but I have to run. I have an appointment with my hairdresser." Sister Mary Francis stood and smoothed the front of her habit. "No good joking with you, I can see that. Seriously, I have another appointment.'
"Is that it? We're done? I don't have time to screw around lady. Is there someone else I can talk to?"
"You want to be a man?" said Sister Mary Francis looking directly at him for the first time since he'd come into the room. "Then listen up. You have no money, no place to live and no food to eat. Your parents have 'cast you out', as you say on this form. You want to go to university, but have no idea how to fund it. Being a man means first and foremost facing and dealing with those realities. I can help you with that. Now, do you want my help or should I return the call of the 14-year-old girl who just ran away from home because her father beat the shit out of her when she told him she is gay. I can help her if you don't want my help. What's it going to be?"
"Man, I thought Christians were supposed to be nice," Jazz mumbled, slurping the rest of his coffee and pushing himself up from his chair
"Nice is a four letter word that has nothing to do with the work of the Jesus Christ. Shall I see you tomorrow at 2?"
"Fuck you, sister!" Jazz cursed out loud as he walked down Church Street. He threw the intake forms into the garbage, and then stopped. Turning around slowly, he reached his arms into the garbage can and took them out, pulling the rotten banana peel away from the first page. Grinning at the spiky haired blonde who waltzed by him in her green pumps, red lipstick glistening and hips swaying, he laughed out loud. He rolled up the intake forms and shoulders swinging, rolled down the street. It was going to be a good day.
Elizabeth Copeland has always been fascinated by the world of story. It started with an introverted little girl made up stories and blossomed into her career as an actor (acting out stories), singer (singing stories), storyteller (stories memorized and told to an audience) to her work as an arts educator (stories as tools to teach).
She began putting her stories down on paper ten years ago, but has only recently had the courage to send any of it out. Her work has been published in Vitality Magazine, So to Speak and most recently an article included in a collection entitled – ‘Stories of prayers and faith.’ She has self-published the booklet ‘Into the Spotlight’, and is currently working on a novel for young adults. She lives in Burks Falls with her husband and two cats. You can read another piece by Elizabeth here.
For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.