"The great deed of the supreme hero is to come to the knowledge of this unity in multiplicity, and then make it known."
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 disorder I was born with. The medical profession say I’m a 46,XX/46,XY chimera.
Pretty impressive, hey?
Now I know what you’re thinking. That’s sounds pretty weird! Right? Well, you’re absolutely correct. It’s pretty weird . . . and exceedingly rare. Statistically speaking, 46,XX/46,XY chimerism occurs so infrequently 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. More recently—as I’ve become more open about sharing my story—other people have been more inclined to label me with it. That’s OK. People are generally afraid of what they don’t understand, and they need to defend themselves against feeling this fear by projecting it—often along with some anger—onto others . . . which usually means back onto me. These fearful and angry projections, however, no longer have anywhere to land in me, so it’s really not a problem anymore.
Another term that could apply 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 away from using the word unless the situation specifically calls for it.
Two newer terms that could also apply to me are non-binary, and genderqueer. I do love that these non-category categories now exist for those who identify with them, but if I’m completely honest neither of these terms really fit me that well either, so I tend to avoid using them also.
The single word that describes me better than any other is one that is much more old-fashioned, and significantly more laden with negative associations and prejudices: I’m a hermaphrodite.
There, I said it. Phew!!
I can still feel queasy in the stomach just thinking about saying that word. Actually saying it out loud—and in the process revealing what’s been my life’s most shameful secret to you—can be so frigging hard. Still, these days I’m discovering that speaking the truth—and not just the superficial 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 truthful will only ever lead to more pain and suffering.
If you stop and examine the etymology of the word hermaphrodite, it’s actually quite beautiful. It is, of course, a combination of the names of two Greek gods, Hermes and Aphrodite. Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, is known as the messenger of the gods, and the divine trickster. He transports the souls of the dead to Hades, and he is associated with travel, good luck, and fertility. Hermes is usually depicted wearing a winged cap and boots, and he often carries a caduceus staff. Aphrodite is sometimes said to be the daughter of Zeus and Dione, but she is also said to havearisen 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.
Now I do want to be completely clear here—for the sake of my fellow intersexes—and say that the vast majority of intersex individuals are not hermaphrodites like me (as is commonly portrayed in the popular press), and that they have entirely different causes for their sexual ambiguity; we are a very heterogeneous group. I believe this is one of the reasons why there’s so much misinformation and misunderstanding about what it means to be intersex . . . it’s complicated!! Technical medical diagnoses—e.g. androgen insensitivity syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Klinefelter Syndrome (XXY), 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 isn’t our choice to be intersex, it’s simply how our physical bodies developed. Usually this aberrant development is in response to an inherited hormonal imbalance, or a chromosomal abnormality of some sort. 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 being blonde, or being double-jointed, or being Russian, or being a tall, blonde, double-jointed Russian—and not judge or condemn us for being something that we didn’t even have a say in; we’re just human beings like everyone else . . .
Throughout my life—from early childhood onwards—I experienced a number of momentary flashes of what 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 spirituality to some depth—I discovered that these moments of awakening might best be called satorimoments. Within them I experienced the momentary lifting of Maya’s veil—the egoic veil of illusion and separation—and flashes of deep realisation of my true nature occurred. There were none, however, that caused a lasting shift in my identity away from the ego until my 40th year.
This first big wakeup call—the one that truly turned the focus of my attention inwards, 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 2018, I’m 54 years old, and happiness is always here . . . even in the most challenging and sad of life circumstances. Happiness isn’t something that comes and goes, it’s my nature.
I feel so lucky, and I’m so grateful to have been blessed with the opportunity to discover this liberating truth in my lifetime . . .
II: THE ACCIDENT
"Inside your body is a priceless treasure, a gift from the eternally generous one. Look for that gift inside of you."
It all begins with two eggs and two sperm.
Well, there are hundreds of millions of sperm, actually, but only two that count in the end.
Mama’s been wanting another child for some time now; papa’s happy with his two boys. My papa, Hank Williams, doesn’t share Gabriella’s passion for reproduction. In fact, life had felt so much easier—and in many ways more enjoyable—for Hank before the arrival of the twins, which had ramped up his burden of responsibility exponentially. Hank pines for his care-free bachelor days when he could go drinking with his buddies whenever he wanted. In those days, when life became too stifling for Hank he’d hop on his now thoroughly rusted Harley, and ride way too fast along winding country backroads to clear his head and really feel alive.
Unbeknownst to papa, mama stopped her birth control pills six weeks before the night of my conception. That night just happens to be Hank and Gabriella’s sixth wedding anniversary. The party 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 bubblyfor a toast. There’s some dancing, and a few folks get a bit rowdy. Overall, it’s nothing special, and everyone’s home in bed by 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 oestrogen that’s been coursing through her bloodstream for the past three years. Two ovaries, two follicles, two eggs, two ovulations.
Both ovulations occur on exactly the same day: April 20th, 1963. In fact, both ovulations occur, rather miraculously, within moments of each other.
Mama’s two eggs bob peacefully along their respective fallopian tubes as she stares at the peeling paint on the bedroom ceiling jerking rhythmically in front of her slightly out-of-focus vision. Two eggs, ripe and ready for the picking. As his body shudders and jerks, Gabriella’s legs grip Hank’s lower back firmly, pulling him deep inside of her; he lets out a stifled moan, “Haaaa-haaaa-haaaahhhhhh!!!”
Hank breaths heavily for a few seconds after his exertions, then falls into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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 sperm vibrating like an excited puppy vying for its master’s attention. Each sperm single-pointedly focused on its sole 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 sperm—exactly half, to be entirely precise—carry within their bulging crowns an X chromosome. Each of these X chromosomes are accompanied by 22 other blobs of compacted DNA, the 22 so-called autosomes. For ease of reference, we might call each of these sperm carrying an X chromosome 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 make a human embryo, a 46,XX embryo, that will later develop into a female human being . . . a girl.
Exactly all of the remaining half of the hundreds of millions of papa’s sperm in the early hours of this particular Sunday morning in April, carry within their bulging heads a Y chromosome (yes, 23,Y sperm; now you’re getting the hang of it). Each 23,Y sperm is also looking for an egg of its own to fertilize. This time, however, the aim is to create a 46,XY embryo . . . a boy.
Now 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 ach burrow their way, with great gusto, through the zona pelucida of their respective egg.Susan and Phillip ach release their genetic material into the interior of their particular egg, their heads exploding in unison, chromosomes ejecting into the cytoplasm. Voilà, CONCEPTION!!
Their life’s purpose fulfilled, Susan and Philip now die 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, die also . . .
Gabriella lies on her back with her hips elevated for some time before rolling onto her side to sleep. Our two eggs, now fertilized (you might call them zygotes—a 46,XX zygote, and a 46,XY zygote—if you were inclined to), continue to float peacefully down each of mama’s fallopian tubes. They pass amongst papa’s dead and dying sperm, oblivious to their pain and demoralizing sense of unfulfilled destiny. The maternal DNA inside our two zygotes, having mysteriously been activated by this recent turn of conceptual events, now starts stimulating the latent protein making apparatus of the inner organelles of their respective zygote to switch into high gear; RNA messengers start running busily around the cells giving orders:
Make protein. Make more protein. Make even more protein. Piece bits of protein together 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 instructshow 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. A pair of 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 all 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—and the production and secretion of the extra nutrients—is being stimulated by the soaring levels of progesterone now coursing through mama’s bloodstream. Progesterone that is being produced and released by the corpora lutea that have formed on mama’s ovaries in the wake of their recent ovulations.
Next, quite unexpectedly, our two bundles of cells (our two morulas, if you like)—no longer simply pairs of cells, but now numbering sixteen cells each, having undergone three more cell divisions in the ensuing days—bump into one another.
In all that space.
Two morulas—a 46,XX morula and a 46,XY morula—become stuck to one another.
Not just stuck to one another, but firmly stuck to one another.
Oh no, that can’t be good!!
Lacking entirely in articulated extremities, and completely devoid of any 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 termed a 46,XX/46,XY morula—now floats off on a new trajectory through the fluid in the apex of mama’s uterus, like the compound body formed when two meteors collide and fuse in the enormity of outer space, having a different mass, momentum, and trajectory to each of its component parts.
The two rudimentary sparks of consciousness that came into form with each of our two conceptions just a few days ago now face off with one another:
This isn’t how it’s supposed to go!! You shouldn’t be here, not now.
Oh dear. I predict this is not going to end well. Not well at all!! . . .
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 our chimeric morula accelerates exponentially. The rapidly expanding bundle of cells 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 centre that will later become my chest and heart.
One embryo, later to become one foetus, then one neonate, one infant, one toddler, one child, and eventually one adult . . . me.
One body, with one head, one brain, one nose, one mouth, one neck, one spine, one heart, one liver, one pelvis, one bladder, one anus.
Two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two shoulders, two arms, two hands, two kidneys, two hips, two legs, two knees, two feet, two ovaries, two testicles . . .
Whoa!! Whoa!! Wait a minute!! Did you say two ovaries AND two testicles!!
Ah, yes, that is what I said. Two small underdeveloped ovaries tucked high up in my pelvis, quite near my kidneys. Two small underdeveloped and undescended testes, stuck in their respective inguinal canals. Two testicles that will never develop sufficiently to descend into my one small, contracted, empty scrotum my whole life.
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 scrotum. One vestigial vagina. One small, underdeveloped uterus.
All in all, quite ambiguous in the genitalia department.
All in all, perfectly formed in every other way . . .
III: THE ARRIVAL
“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.”
I’m born in New Eden City—the Bronx, to be precise—in the good old U. S. of A. The year’s 1964; January. It’s a punishingly cold winter in New Eden this year. The entire city’s snow-bound for weeks after the blizzard that raged the night I’m born.
My papa, Hank Williams, is the cook in a local Bronx diner, The Brisket Basket. He’s known for making the best Cajun-style fried chicken you ever tasted. His recipe’s 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 a beautiful voice and considerable acting talent—she’d moved to New Eden City 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.
My mama, Gabriella di Loreto, was born into a strict Italian-Catholic family in Pittsburgh, but she was raised by her mother and a string of stepfathers in Washington Heights after the di Loreto family disowned grandma for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Mama only had three children; she would gladly have had more if life had allowed it, but a diagnosis of uterine cancer—caught early enough to save her life, but not her womb—put an end to mama’s childbearing career soon after I came along. For most of her adult life, 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 places that looks after old folk with dementia and other nasty degenerative diseases . . .
My gestation is uneventful, and I’m held blissfully 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 labour.
The firm, massaging pressure of mama’s uterine contractions are, perhaps surprisingly, most enjoyable. I even find the confining pressure of being squeezed through the birth canal quite pleasurable . . . in a painful sort of way. There’s one moment—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 I pop out into the world, and into a state of pure ecstasy.
There it is, the origin of my later addiction to pleasure: my own birth . . .
It’s an experienced midwife, Merlene Tucker, who assists mama with my delivery. Merlene is known, by everyone who knows her well, to be calm and competent, and she rarely calls in medical assistance for her deliveries . . . unless things are looking particularly grim. Merlene takes one look at my genitals 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’s never seen anything like it.
Dr Henry Crenshaw—the neonatal paediatric registrar on call at Jacobi Medical Centre Maternity on the evening of January 19th, 1964—is feeling bitter about having failed his ophthalmology primary exam for the sixth (and final) time the previous month. Henry Crenshaw had been looking forward to a quiet, prosperous life performing cataract surgery, diagnosing macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, and retiring at fifty. Now, he’s headed inexorably towards a life of low-paying, long shifts covering unwanted hospital rotations at any hospital in the country that’ll have him.
Dr Harry—as everyone at Jacobi knows him—adjusts his magnifying loupes into position on his pointed 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!
“Hmmm. Well. Yes. I see. Ummm. OK.” Harry adjusts his loupes again, and scratches his head absent-mindedly. He’s unsure of what he is seeing, and 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. Does it really matter. Mumble, mumble.My life is so miserable, I’m such a failure. I don’t care about this hideous creature or its pathetic parents. Mumble, mumble, mumble. I wish they’d all leave me alone and go rot in hell, damn them!
“It’s a boy,” Dr Harry ejaculates suddenly, not willing to admit that he doesn’t have a clue, and thereby risk being accused of being a failure yet again. Harry is acutely aware that at this point in his life any further failure, no matter how small, risks dragging him into the emotional black hole that’s rapidly opening up inside his besieged mind. The most likely outcome of falling into this black hole for Dr Harry is a successful suicide; easy access to the brain-numbing and heart-stopping drugs on the anaesthetic trolley in the adjacent operating suite enough to ensure that Henry Crenshaw’s final earthly endeavour will be a successful one.
Dr Harry scrawls some rudimentary notes into Gabriella’s hospital file:
“Hooray!! It’s a boy!!” Merlene 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 look furtively at one another, hold each other’s gaze for a moment, then nod in unison and break out into beaming smiles. They hug each other, Merlene, and their new arrival, then Hank pronounces solemnly—to anyone in earshot—that I’m to be named Angelo Washington Williams; 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 had been offered to him just a few days before.
Hank’s patience with the manager of The Brisket Basket has been wearing thin for some time now, and he knows that it’s only a matter of time before he loses his temper and is drawn into physical violence with him . . . and that will not end well for anyone, Hank’s quite sure of that.
Hank Williams is to be the new personal cook for the recently arrived, and already infamous, Swami Primananda at his ashram in upstate New Eden. The Swami Primananda Ashram has been built 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 will take place there a little more than five years hence.
Hank likes to cook, and he’s good at it, but more than cooking Hank Williams likes to smoke pot and drop acid. Through his network of drug-addicted friends, Hank has been introduced to the teachings of Swami Primananda, in which he’s 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’s less than overjoyed at the prospect of living on the Swami’s ashram, however. She faces the prospect of raising a newborn—not to mention caring for her twin toddlers—without the assistance of her mother, sisters, and close circle of friends, 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 had thought to herself on the drive from New Eden to the ashram.
So, aged just three days old, I’m taken away from the city and its readily 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. Like the Swami and Hank, Javier enjoys his inner journeys—compliments not only of LSD, but also of a surprisingly wide range of other entheogenic substances—and at this point he’s 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 some kind of inferior, second-rate penis, and I don’t consider it abnormal that I urinate from an opening situated on its underside, about half way along its 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 possible 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 benursed 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. Mama decides to cut her losses in planning her escape, and takes Aaron and Frank—who are able to make the difficult scramble through the woods needed to bypass the ashram’s security—with her, but leaves me behind. Mama rationalises 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. So, having been abandoned by my birth mother at just four 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 Hank under his wing, and encourages him to create gourmet meals on a daily basis. Hank’s reward for his exceptional culinary talents, a weekly sojourn into the uncharted corners of his mind compliments of the Swami’s personal LSD supply. While these inner journeys are rewarding for Hank in the moment, they are not a productive activity for the health of Hank’s 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 really quite fun. 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 flavour, and I most definitely have my preferred breasts from which to suckle.
There it is, the next phase in the development of my addiction to pleasure: breastfeeding.
There’s no shortage of other children to play with in the early years. Schooling is unstructured and haphazard, and rather than being centred around a curriculum, or textbooks of any kind, lessons are generally taught spontaneously based on whatever is occurring on 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 around with me a perpetual sense of excitement, and am curious about everything, but I also have a tendency to be mischievous. Although I do act out my mischievous side 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 some deeply unconscious level, I’m aware—from earlier than I can remember—that there’s something wrong with me; that there’s something missing or 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 this unpleasant feeling away by seeing me, acknowledging me, or loving me. I discover quickly that the best way to get the love and approval I’m craving is to be good . . . so I am . . .
Although Hank and Gabriella christened me Angelo, the Swami, needless to say, gives me his own name: Bhairani. Now as it turns out, Bhairani is quite a difficult name for a toddler to pronounce or 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 unknown to me, Swami Primananda decides that I’m somehow different from the other children, that I’m the special one, and he increasingly gives me personal attention not afforded any of the other children . . . or indeed any of the other adults either, for that matter. This 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 meal times, and alone time with Swami some evenings. Here I’m rolled up in a little 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 really 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 do consider myself smarter than she is . . . even if I do say so myself. Gila most definitely has the edge when it came 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; 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 is the first of us to realise that how we are being raised on the ashram is quite against the law. Perhaps this is because she was already six years old when she’d arrived at the ashram, and therefore had memories of what a normal life—a pre-ashram life—had consisted of. It’s also 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 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 Hank Williams), 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 dead bodies—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. Suddenly she realises that her little Angelo might be alive and free, and that she might actually be able to see her baby boy once more; by this time mama has realistically given up any hope of ever seeing me alive 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."
Six adults and nine children—ranging in age from six months to thirteen years—are gathered in our small two-bedroom North Bronx apartment. It’s my fifth birthday, and mama’s throwing me a party.
I haven’t been back from Swami Primananda 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; I’ve only known them all, including mama, for less than two months.
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.
Slice of atmosphere anyone? You get wafers with it!
My identical twin brothers, Aaron and Frank—now nine 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 together in the apartment, the twins are feeling like all their Christmases have come at once. I’ve never heard two human beings make so much noise . . . ever.
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 pretty chuffed with life. Nothing agrees with Laura more—apart from perhaps breastfeeding—than being pregnant.
It’s 5pm on Sunday afternoon, it’s the middle of January, and it's cold 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 have been triggered left, right, and centre 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 head of the dining table. Everyone had left the table after lunch had concluded about half an hour before, and they’re now scattered all over the apartment deeply engrossed in various activities. I see miserable faces all around me.
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 it’s my birthday? Is there 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?
At exactly that moment, however, a bubble of my natural effervescent joy erupts from deep inside me, pushes the developing shame aside . . . for now . . . and I start to giggle. One of my naughty plans—this one centred around how to cheer these people up—has popped into my head: I will surprise everyone by dressing up in my Mickey Mouse costume and performing for them. Dressing as Mickey has always been my favourite 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 start to feel excited as I put on the Mickey Mouse costume yogini Amani had made me 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, and yellow fluffy 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—it’s pretty amusing.
My heart’s racing, and pounding forcefully 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 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 little hands into the air above my head, and finish with a valiant “Ta-Daaaaaa!!”
No one so much as flinches.
My arms fall to my sides and I look slowly from face to face, wondering again what on earth is the matter with everyone.
Uncle Nigel’s in the kitchen pulling his tenth beer for the day out of the refrigerator. He’s fuming silently after being given a serve by grandma. She’d made him promise never to see his sweetie-pie, Melinda, ever again. Damned meddling woman. 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 drank two glasses of wine with lunch, then promptly passed out. Marlise’s alcohol tolerance is low at the best of times, but when combined with the exhaustion she’s currently 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, two glasses were more than enough to put Marlise into a coma for a solid four hours. Even sound asleep, however, she looks sad.
Aunty Laura is laying on her back in one corner of the living room carpet, rubbing her huge belly, smiling, and singing softly under her breath to her unborn child. I think to myself how child-like she is herself, 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 newspaper, and trying to think of a believable 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. 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 15,000 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 of last week’s wages on a bad bet on Friday night, and is yet to find the courage to own up to it with Laura.
Mama’s in the kitchen whipping up more food, desperate to make sure everyone enjoys her particular 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.
Grandma’s now in the middle of yelling at Aaron and Frank, having finally reached the end of her tether. “Why don’t you boys just SHUT UP for a few minutes, and give us all a little peace and quiet. God in heaven, 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, she’s feeling irritated. As a result, grandma is projecting her anger onto anyone and everyone who comes into her line of fire. That Nigel is a no-good lying cheat. My Marlise’s far too good for him; he has to go.
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 actually looks happy, which makes me smile.
Finally, I see little Grace. Currently only half way 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 diamonds, 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 her arms above her head, then rolls gently onto her left side—unable to maintain her tenuous upright posture with the altered centre of gravity inherent in her new arms-up attitude. As she lays on her side she starts to gurgle ecstatically once more; everything’s just so amusing to Grace.
“Oh Gracie, thank you so much. I love you little Gracie.”
There it is. Consciousness, awake and unselfconscious, looking back at me through little Gracie’s eyes. She’s present, she’s here, unlike everyone else in the apartment this afternoon, who are all somewhere else. Somewhere lost in their own little worlds. Somewhere lost in their own stories. Somewhere lost in their own minds.
I go to Gracie, lay down beside her on the dining room rug, and hug her for a long while. She reaches up to pull my ears and hair, and I gaze into her laughing eyes, smiling all the while. I occasionally 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 except Gracie sees me. Am I invisible to them, or are they all just asleep somehow? Clearly, they’re all caught up in their own minds, only seeing a world of their own mental creation rather than the world as it actually is. But why is that? It’s not like that for me or Gracie. I see them. 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 wave of aloneness. I feel something which later in life I will label despair, but which in the moment is just a cluster of unpleasant sensations in my body that don’t feel good. Not good at all . . .
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 released towards the ceiling with a long, almost silent “Waaahhhhhh!!!” 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 big wet patch in the middle of the pillow; I turn it over so as to hide any evidence of my misery.
I climb up onto my own bed 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 means to live in the city? That you become incredibly self-centred? 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 recognised. 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. There has to be.
I sit silently, reflecting on all of this for quite some time, then a possible solution presents itself:
I know, I’ll just have to be better. I’ll just have to try harder. Try harder to be more interesting, more talented, more special, smarter. I’ll 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 goes into hiding again 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.
But how can I convince these people I’m lovable if they don’t even see me? Is this some sort of horrible nightmare I’m trapped in? Is it some kind of test that I have to pass in order to become a grown-up, or am I just dreaming all of this?
Finally, I sit on the floor in one corner of the living room and watch in disbelieving horror. As I sit there trying to work out 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 negative feelings in my chest and belly do indeed go away when I close my heart, so does all of my joy, excitement, curiosity, and wonder. This 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 quickly out of my body, or rather, is no longer accessible as part of my present-moment experience.
But where did all the good stuff, all the joy and excitement, go? Oh, God. 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 is a very important choice for me to make at this very important moment in my life:
A) stay with the sense of being myself—playful, mischievous, curious, joyful—but also experience this heavy pain and shame of being unseen, unlovable, and unworthy of receiving love, or,
B) close my heart and be free of the pain, but then be completely numb inside.
I sense that in choosing B) I will forget that the joy-filled me ever existed, and I will then be just like all of my sleep-walking relatives. It’s all too overwhelming so I curl up in a ball, put my thumb in my mouth, and close my eyes. I hope that the whole horrible nightmare will go away, and that when I open my eyes again I’ll be back in Swami Primananda’s lap, swaddled in a blanket, being rocked to sleep . . .
Sometime later, I open my eyes and the apartment is quiet and empty. Aaron and Frank are in the 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, blue rubber gloves covering her delicate 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.
She stops in front of the middle of the sofa, stretches her arms above her head as she looks up at the ceiling, then lets out a long, weary sigh, “Aaaaarrrrrrhhhhhhhh.” She pulls off the rubber gloves and places them neatly on the arm of the sofa. She reaches around 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 sits down heavily on the sofa, allowing her body to be caught by the bulky beige three-seater, and to relax after what has turned out to be a very long, tiring day. Mama then stares unblinking at the small square of dark, starless sky that is on display in the window directly above my head.
After about ten minutes of this silent, unmoving tableau, mama glances down at me and notices that I’m looking at her. She flashes a mechanical smile, hauls herself up out of her place of repose, comes and kneels down next to me placing a hand gently on one of my shoulders, and says: “Wasn’t that 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 is Brainy, not Angelo, and I hate you. I hate you. I hate all of you. Leave me alone. Take me back to the ashram. I HATE YOU!! . . . “
V: THE FIRST DEATH
“The personal entity, which identifies its existence with life in the physical body, and calls itself ‘I’, is the ego. The physical body, which is inherently inert, has no ego sense. The Self, which is pure Consciousness, has no ego sense. Between these two, there mysteriously arises the ego sense, which is the ‘I’ thought. This ego, or separate personal identity, is at the root of all suffering in life. Therefore, it is to be destroyed by any means possible. This is Liberation, or Enlightenment, or Self-realization.”
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 persists.
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, unlike at Swami Primananda Ashram, at school 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; 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 most definitely 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 quieter and more withdrawn.
My teachers remark amongst themselves on the heavy sense of melancholy they feel radiating from 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 eventually stop altogether.
The one exciting discovery I make this 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. four times, Black Beauty three times, and was part way through my third reading of The Scarlet Letter. It was in the reading of these few classic literary gems 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 fantasy world, I can temporarily forget about how sad and lonely my new, constricted, life is. I also find that I sometimes I can even access the joy fountainthat still resides somewhere deep inside me, and which is accessible when my mind is not busy telling its story about how miserable and alone I feel.
The other essential discovery I make this first year of school is that if I really engage in the schoolwork fully, 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 existence; I become a conscientious student . . .
With Gabriella’s lowly income fromThe 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 Worldat 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 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 boat trip on Uncle Frankie’s brand-new cruiser. Frankie’s luck had turned the corner after January, and he’s now in the middle of an extraordinarily long winning streak. None of us—not even Frankie himself—knows that the winning streak actually ended just moments after Frankie proudly pushed the cruiser away from the wharf, and we set off up Long Island Sound for the day; the sure-fire winner he’d 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 turned out to be both the first and the 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 particular 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 twenty minutes after Uncle Frankie runs 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 east end of the island.
I find mama sitting on one of the benches under the high roof of the picnic rotunda. She’s bent forward, with her head resting on her neatly folded raincoat which is placed squarely on the picnic 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 for a moment 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 her left shoulder, and am shocked to feel the heat radiating from her body. I shake her ever so gently, then let out a little cry as she falls sideways onto the bench, grazing her forehead on the edge of the picnic table as she falls. Gabriella Williams lays unmoving on the bench where she’s fallen, unaware of my presence, or the world around us. Mama’s eyes are open, but they’re glazed and unseeing.
“Mama, what’s the matter? Mama, wake up!! Mama!! MAMA!!”
Gabriella’s body is burning up with a fever of 110, and her blood is full to overflowing with leukaemia cells. After a full day and night of tests at the hospital, accompanied by much waiting and angst on the part of the family who are all gathered in the uncomfortable, crowded, hospital waiting-room, a doctor informs us that mama’s developed AML—acute myeloblastic leukaemia—and that she needs to begin chemotherapy right away or she’ll be dead in a matter of days.
Mama—who had 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 leukaemia 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, 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 also.
The toxicity associated with the cocktail of drugs Gabriella needs to bring her aggressive case of leukaemia under control is high. While she’d soldiered on valiantly through her earlier experience with chemotherapy, this time she’s completely knocked for six, and losing her hair is the least of her concerns. Symptomatically, severe ulceration of her mouth and throat—not to mention all her other mucous membranes—is the mostly painful side effect. Haematologically, the most troubling side effect 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 in order to keep her organs functioning, and her body alive.
Throughout the weeks that mama’s hospitalised, the twins and I live at grandma’s. 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 whiteboard 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 explosive temper to be triggered and expressed on a fairly regular basis. Aaron and Frank both 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 I’m always the one that gets in trouble. Ha, ha, ha!!
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 and calves 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 the heavy chemo, and when the leukaemia 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 haematology fellow working at Calvary Hospital in 1969 is involved in a clinical trial of a new class of chemotherapy drugs, that are showing great promise in the leukaemia treatment arena, at nearby Jacobi Medical Centre. 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 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, a glimmer of hope. Mama 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 moderately healthy glow, and a big smile on her face. When the four of us return to the Co-Op City Blvd apartment that day, I haven’t been so happy since before the siege at the ashram. Mama’s 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 Transplantis the buzz phrase on the lips of all haematologists 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 actually curing leukaemia 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 Centre. Here she’s prodded and poked, and every test known to man is performed on her and her blood. Her three sisters are tested for their suitability as donors, and after a month the team delivers their verdict: mama’s a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant, and Auntie Marlise is to be her donor.
A family gathering is convened at grandma’s house the evening before mama’s hospital admission, where the mood is sombre; even the twins are uncharacteristically quiet. Plans are laid for a big 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 of 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 family still see me, and 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 most certainly 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 realise the terrible mistake they’ve made in giving me to this dysfunctional family. Someday someone will come and claim me, surely. Someday my saviour 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 room of my own, 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 realise their mistake, and I’ll be rescued, I just know it.
It’s expected that mama will be hospitalised for about three 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 poorly 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 shy, and her passion is books. Margot’s in her early fifties, and she’s never been married. She leads a simple life, she likes to keep to herself, and she works a handful of hour 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 house rules on her 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 children that makes me shrink instinctively from her when I’m near her. Life at Auntie Margot’s is a silent, dull affair for a six-year-old boy and his hyperactive ten-year-old twin brothers. The upside is that the twins no longer taunt me until I explode at them, and there is ample opportunity for me to dive into my literary fantasy world for comfort and rest from my ever-deepening sense of sadness and aloneness.
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 three weeks as planned. While I ‘d been aware of palpable tension and fear amongst the adults prior to mama undergoing the experimental procedure, after her successful return from hospital I sense they’re 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 Gabriella takes a turn for the worse . . .
Mama’s really enjoying being at home; particularly being able to spend more time with her boys. The diagnosis and treatment of leukaemia that Gabriella had just endured had brought the possibility of death close enough for Gabriella that she’d been forced to stop. Now knowing without doubt that she will die—and that she could die very soon—it was clear to Gabriella that she needed to re-evaluate what was most important in her life; spending more quality time with her children is at the top of the list.
Mama even has enough energy to play some board games with us. It’s in the middle of a particularly controversial game of Monopoly—which Aaron’s winning by a proverbial mile—that mama starts to feel dizzy. She excuses herself, and goes and lies down on her bed. About a half hour later I go in to see if she’s alright, and if she might like a cup of tea or something.
I find mama sitting on the edge of the bed. She’s agitated, picking at her clothing, and she’s clearly confused. Wild eyes stare at me, paranoia visible oozing from her corneas. A cursory tactile check confirms that mama’s running a high fever again. 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 cells which is more pronounced than usual,” and, “The usual anti-rejection medication just doesn’t seem to be working for Mrs Williams,” etc., etc. 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 her limp body, but nothing seems to help. The following day 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 stabilise her condition long enough for the haematology doctors to start playing around with more drugs to fight the horrifying array of abnormal cells that are clogging up mama’s bloodstream.
Because of mama’s tenuous 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 second night in ICU that I wake, and feel the urge to go and be with her.
I put 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 closing the door behind me . . .
It’s 4am, and most of the lights in the ICU are off, or dimmed down low. The sounds of various 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. The sounds are penetrated here and there by the mostly-hushed voices of nurses doing their rounds, dispensing drugs, and performing their requisite tasks; the life of a night shift ICU nurse is not a relaxed one.
Mama’s in a private room on the left side of the ICU, and when I poke my head through the door she’s alone. I slip quietly into the room, and crawl up onto the hard-plastic visitors 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’s shifted internally for her. As I stare at her, I notice some questions arising 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, empty feeling I can sense inside my chest and belly now, and which is very familiar, is actually love, and not something I need to push away? Perhaps I do love mama after all, because that nauseous, kind-of-empty feeling is really strong inside me right now?
As I sit contemplating these essential questions, mama’s eyes suddenly flash open. Without moving her head—she’s paralysed so it’s impossible anyway—she looks directly at me.
Mama smiles brilliantly at me, with her eyes, for a few seconds . . . impossible to say how many, as time had almost come to a standstill. I can’t breathe. It feels indescribable. Like pure Bliss.
Her eyes now slowly lose their focus, and they start to roll upwards In mama’s head; her eyelids slowly sinking shut once more. I feel a sudden intensification of energy in the little room—as if a thunderstorm might erupt above us at any moment—and I look around me to see what’s causing this strange phenomenon.
As I hold my breath, not sure what’s happening, mama’s heart-rate monitor flat-lines, and the alarm begins to sound.
BEEP!!! BEEP!!! BEEP!!!
I look sharply back towards mama’s face. There I detect a subtle swirl of light, almost like a wisp of white smoke, starting to emerge from the top of mama’s 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 his left arm into a sleeve of a white coat, whilst at the same time wiping sleep out of his right eye with the other sleeve. I back into a corner of the room, and 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 rear corner of the little ICU room hiding, and as I witness mama’s post-death scene unfold, I notice that my whole body’s covered in goose-bumps, and that all the hair on my head is standing on end. Next, I feel an ecstatic tingling wave of joy start to surge through my body. Starting in the tips of my toes, it rushes all the way up to the top of my head, and for a few seconds it feels like the top of my head’s been blown off completely. It’s an extreme version of the joy I’d known so intimately in my early childhood, but which I haven’t felt 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, loving energy I’m feeling all through my body—is filling the little room. It’s light, very alive, and very beautiful. It seeps into every fibre and cell of my being, and I feel unconditional love start overflowing from deep inside of me.
There’s love for mama; there’s love for papa; these love for the twins and my new biological family; there’s love for grandma, love for Swami . . . love for love.
Mama’s effervescent departing spirit quickly expands beyond the walls of the small ICU room, and the buzzing energy I feel in my body starts to subside. I run out to the nurse’s station in the centre 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 important, way. In the moment of her death, I know in the core of my being that this joy, happiness, and love I’m feeling is the true, undeniable, essence of who I am, and that knowing can now never be lost or taken away from me again. It can be forgotten, or veiled, but it’s always re-discoverable in any moment, whenever the mind stops telling its story of me and mine. I feel such deep gratitude for mama, and for her most precious parting gift . . .
The next few weeks 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 tears. Everyone looks and acts really sad, but I don’t feel any real emotion from any of them; it’s like they’re all faking it . . . again.
One day, about three weeks after mama’s 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 now what I love more than anything else.
After about an hour, we pull up in front of a bland-looking two-storey house—one that looks just like every other house on this very suburban street—where a middle-aged woman dressed in a 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 on a chain around her neck, and a stern expression on her face.
Uncle Frankie climbs out the driver’s side of his prized eggshell-blue ’67 Buick, he walks stiffly around the front of the Buick, and speaks with the woman for a few minutes; she seems to know him. Frankie then turns and opens the rear passenger door of his car, and beckons me out onto the sidewalk. Aunty Laura’s already fetched the small suitcase—unbeknownst to me, now containing all of my clothes and personal possessions—from the trunk, and places it on the ground beside me.
Aunty Laura now kneels in front of me, and places her hands on the sides of my head, gently smoothing my hair as she cradles my face. I notice she’s crying as she pulls me ever so softly towards her, and kisses me tenderly on the forehead. Laura then climbs hurriedly back into the front passenger seat of the Buick.
Uncle Frankie now shakes my hand earnestly, all-the-while ardently avoiding my gaze. He then 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, and extends her right hand forward.
“What’s going on? Why am I here? Who are you?”
“Oh, you poor little creature. Didn’t they even tell you?”
Miss Sommerville grimaces, and, placing both hands on her lumber spine, painfully stands upright once more. She looks intently at me, smiles ever so faintly, then says, “Angelo, 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; I’m well treated here.
I share a small bedroom with three other boys, and I share the orphanage with an average of twenty-four other children, ranging in age from three to fifteen years.
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 MHCare simple and repetitious, but I’m never 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.
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; adopting a toddler’s much more preferable than adopting an older child as there’s a much 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 young couple whom I’d liked the look of very much. I’d smiled excessively, and done my best to catch their attention. It hadn’t worked.
“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 eleven, 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 honour goes to Hendrick, who’s currently fourteen. Coco is definitely the most mature looking; I thought she was much older than eleven when I first saw 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, and start to feel the familiar nauseous, sinking feeling opening up in my belly. Tears well up in my eyes, and I turn away and start walking quickly back to my room.
“Hey, stupid, what’s your name?”
I stop, sniff back the tears, turn around, and I puff out my chest with my hands on my hips. I look Coco defiantly in the eye, and say, “What difference does it make?”
“Because I like you, stupid,” she replies sardonically. 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 black, and being unwanted. Coco, as the only girl at the orphanage currently menstruating, has her own room on the ground floor; I start to spend most of my free time there. Some nights I sneak out of my room—after Miss Sommerville’s done her rounds—and curl up in bed with Coco.
I discover that Coco’s sensitive like me. She presents a rough, tough exterior—she calls it herarmour—but fundamentally she’s shy, sensitive, very creative, and just wants to be loved more than anything else in the whole wide world. I start to open up to her, little by little, and over the next 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. At these times I feel like I should be a girl. Is that crazy? Am I a freak?”
“Milk, honey, sometimes I feel like I should be a sheik with a harem living in a tent in the middle of the desert. 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 very cool, and completely unique. Coco’s discovered that scavenging for clothing outside of second-hand clothing stores is a thing, and it’s her favourite hobby. She pulls open one of the big lower drawers, and starts rummaging around inside it. After a few seconds she gives a triumphant shout, and stands up grasping a brightly coloured 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 for a very long time as Coco pulls my t-shirt and shorts off, and starts squeezing me into the elasticised frock. I squeal and object, but she shushes me, and continues fussing until she’s satisfied. Next, she pulls a hairpiece—black curls attached to a gold 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.”
I slowly turn and look at myself in the mirror.
My heart’s racing; no surprises there. I don’t recognise myself initially, and look to either side of my reflection wondering where I am. Then I see myself, and an unfamiliar feeling in the depths of my belly—a feeling that later in life I will label happiness—quickly floods my system. It’s like I’m seeing who I truly am for the first time in my life. What’s different? For the first time ever, there’s no sense of anything being kept out of my experience, and I’m no longer suppressing a major part—the female part—of myself. It’s disorienting . . . but tremendously invigorating.
I smile tentatively, then almost immediately a huge grin breaks out on my face which won’t go away. I start jumping up and down, and hugging Coco, who’s laughing, and beaming uncontrollably . . .
I attend the local elementary school—Jamaica Public School 96—where I make a few friends my own age, mostly girls. During recess, I team up with Donna, Harriet, and Jane, and we playelastics--an elaborate game that involves a twelve-foot loop of sewing elastic that’s stretched between two of our sets of legs, while the other two perform various manoeuvres with the elastic and their feet until they muck up, then we switch roles.
It’s during this period that I start to realise how much more at ease I feel being around girls. This realisation 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 expressed. This is such a relief, like putting down a heavy load I’ve been carrying around my whole life.
One of the results of this realisation 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, actually. Did someone make a mistake when they were making me? I’m such a freak!! Perhaps it’d be best if I wasn’t here at all. Perhaps I should just go and join mama, and papa, and Swami, wherever they are now. Is dying painful? 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?
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’s given a farewell party, and Coco is officially the oldest at MHC. It’s during Hendrick’s party, however, that I realise, with a growing sense of dread, that in a couple of years Coco’ll 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. We’re family now, you and I. 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 . . .
The first summer at MHC feels long, hot, and draining. With no air conditioning, and so many bodies crowded into such a small space, at times it’s stifling. Not surprisingly, Coco has a solution to this dilemma.
Coco’s room is downstairs—the only bedroom that’s downstairs at MHC—and it’s adjacent to the rear door of the house, Over her many years living at MHC, Coco’s discovered that Miss Sommerville routinely sneaks out of the house at precisely midnight on the first Tuesday of every month, returning at 5am sharp. She has no idea what Miss Sommerville gets up to during these five hours—we spend long hours together making up various outrageous scenarios, and laughing uproariously about 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 doesn’t know about, she, of course, also knows where the emergency back door key is hidden.
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 down the main inner stairs, and we hold our breath; I’m so excited it’s hard not to fidget. I have my Mickey Mouse costume on, of course, and tonight Coco’s dressed up specially for the occasion . . . as Cat Woman. Meeooowwww!!
We wait in silence for a further five minutes after Miss Sommerville’s departure, then I follow Coco into the kitchen, where she recovers the key from an old tin that’s labelled with fading letters, “Bicarbonate of Soda,” and that’s sitting on a high shelf in one corner. I start to giggle, and have to shove my fist into my mouth to stop the sound. She unlocks the back door, and we sneak out.
Coco squeezes my hand to attract my attention, then puts her finger to her mouth, stressing the importance of staying quiet as we navigate down the side of the house, through the side gate, and out onto the street. As we turn silently onto the footpath, Coco starts to run. I run too, but have trouble keeping up with her long strides. We cross 123rd Street to the other footpath, then turn the corner into Rockaway Blvd. I can’t keep quiet any longer, and I let out a joyful squeal. Coco joins in, and we hold hands and skip along the wide footpath together, singing and laughing. It feels so great to be free, to be able to do as we please, and to have no one to answer to for a few hours. Ahhhhhhhhh!! Freedom!! Yes!!
We cross Rockaway, and head down 125th Street for 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 a word, Coco scrambles up the rough concrete embankment, then turns her body sideways and slips through a narrow gap in the concrete sound-proofing that separates the suburban streets from the busy highway. I race up after her, squeeze through the gap, and find myself in a little sheltered nook beside the busy road. The cars in the closer lanes are approaching from the left, and they’re unable to see us in the shadows where we’re standing. The cars coming from the right are further away, and mostly hidden 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 like to 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 in the light by the side of the busy freeway, “and be seen by the people in the cars as they drive past. Most of them don’t notice me, 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’s distracted, and they have an accident, or something. It doesn’t sound like a great idea to me, Coco.”
“Well, you don’t have to play, stupid. You can sit there and watch me, or better still, why don’t you just go back to the house and be boring like everyone else.” She turns and steps out of the shadow, and into the line-of-sight of the oncoming vehicles.
I stare at her, agog, and I’m thrilled by her chutzpah. Coco is a vision. She’s wearing a skin-tight, black, faux-leather jump suit complete with hood, along with little cat ears, and makeup whiskers. She poses seductively, and 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 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 sweet 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 bone cancer—a year before. Aiden had been eleven years old when he’d died; exactly my age now. As they 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.”
Elliott, a dentist, is tall and slim, with classical Greek facial features despite his pure Scottish genetic heritage. Elliott’s hair is prematurely grey—salt-and-pepper—and it’s alwasys neatly combed into a ‘50s-style quiff. Elliott has a nervous demeanour, but he’s kind, with a tendency to be overly considerate of the needs of others. This warmness doesn’t always play out in Elliott’s favour, however, and there’ve been many times in his life when people have taken advantage of him.
Irene’s 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. As a consequence, people often feel that Irene’s trying to seduce them. Irene’s unconscious seduction is 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 which Irene is especially good at. Like Elliott, Irene’s a natural carer and nurturer, but in Irene’s case her kindness and caring arises not out of fear and the need for safety, like Elliott, but from a deep-seated desire to be loved herself.
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, 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 leans around and over the front seat of the car to look me squarely in the eyes at close range, “you are the same age as 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 yourself, and we want to support you 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 . . . “
VI: THE FIRST MUSICAL, & PUBERTY
"You are what you think, so think only of Freedom."
My new home in East Hampton is the most glamorous house I’ve ever seen, let alone been inside of. The sprawling two-storey, faux neo-classical mansion has twelve bedrooms, three 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 are two cooks and two housemaids, as well as two full-time gardeners. Everything’s neat and formal—both inside and out—with not a leaf, stone, picture, statue, or obelisk out of place.
After a full 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 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 and buy you a whole new wardrobe tomorrow. I love shopping, do you?”
“I’ve never been shopping, Mrs Sutter.”
“Oh Angelo, why don’t you call me Irene? How does that sound?”
“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’s divided. On one level, I’m completely excited about this new, surprisingly positive, turn in my life’s journey. It’s pretty incredible how many of the details of my core fantasy are coming into reality right here in this moment. It’s uncanny, actually, like I’ve just got exactly what I’ve been praying for all these years.
On another level, I see that I have to be careful how I behave around Elliott and Irene, especially in the beginning, as it all feels just a little bit creepy. It’s like I’ve been custom-ordered to fit right into the hole left in their lives when Aiden died. While I know very little about psychology and attachment theory, it’s doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Sutters are acting out their unconscious 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 I get to know Elliott and Irene more and more, I find myself relaxing, and I start to enjoy the many benefits this new phase of my life is offering. I learn that it was Irene’s parents who were wealthy. As an only child, she’d inherited the entire estate when her parents had died in a head-on car crash a decade or so ago. I also learn that Irene and Elliott’s shared passion is human rights:
“All human beings should be treated with dignity, and have the same freedom and opportunities irrespective of race, skin colour, gender, sexual preference, 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 are, truly 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’ll live. 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 enjoy it, little Milk.” I arrange for Elliott to take me back toMHC for Coco’s birthday celebration. When we’re together I feel that Coco has a wall up with me, and there seems to be nothing I can say or do to repair the damage to our friendship.
Something about the stability of my new home environment enables me to apply myself more diligently at school, and everyone—including me—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.
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 it has the highest level of education on offer in the state. We 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. “I went to school just next door at St Helen’s of Belport, and together with Brookhaven we put on the most wonderful musicals each year. I just know you’ll love it there. Does that sound alright with you, dear?”
I hesitate momentarily, 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 first arrive at Brookhaven, I’m overwhelmed. All the boys are so smart and confident, and most of them come from wealthy or famous families. I try to be friendly and helpful, but inside I feel insecure and unworthy; I find myself being envious of the self-confidence I feel and see all around me.
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 a part of the in-group. I wonder at times when the other shoe will fall, and something bad will happen, but for now I find myself really enjoying being at 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 I had some natural musical ability, and when I was at the ashram I was a natural performer, I haven’t had the opportunity to be involved in anything musical or theatrical for years. At Brookhaven, I’m encouraged to explore my creative talents, so I take up the clarinet, and I join the school choir. Being a part of the choir means I’m to be involved in Brookhaven’sannual musical; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is to be my first experience of musical theatre.
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 had their voices break this year with the onset of puberty, but I’m still waiting. It’s weird 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.
I'm given a place in the children’s chorus for Joseph — sixteen sopranos who sing echoes of Joseph’s lyrics, and high ethereal “la-la-la’s” 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 Belport, 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 doing nothing, gossiping, playing silly games, hanging out; 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 seen bits and pieces of the show, never the whole thing. Then, I get sick, and miss both dress rehearsals. No one’s concerned 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 School is quite grand, featuring high-vaulted ceilings, lots of rich, deep-brown wood panelling on the ceiling and walls, as well as polished wooden floors. Plaques containing the school Honour Roles in the fields of sport and academic prowess hang on three walls of the hall; the stage occupies the fourth.
The staging for Joseph is basic—a few static sets made by the woodwork department, and 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 see the faces of the front row of 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, stage right. Standing in the spotlight is The Narrator—a sweet female senior from St Helen’s, with an angelic face, and, as I'm about to find out, a voice to match. 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. It’s that fantastical place into which one is invited to enter when one’s watching a musical. In here life’s usual rules don’t apply. In here the real world doesn’t exist. In here you can be anyone you want to be, and you can do anything you want to do.
As I watch the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers—complete with intrigue, scandal, Elvis impersonators, nymphomaniac wives, and cowboy hoedowns—unfold before me, I’m drawn deeper and deeper into this fantastical 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, I become acutely aware—possibly for the very first time—of the presence of envy, and I feel sick in my stomach. It’s 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 enough. Ouch!
Just as quickly as it arises, however, envy is squashed back down into my subconscious, and I’m drawn back into the colourful 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 front row of the audience; parents and siblings 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 since then had progressively hidden itself away—is back; I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I babble like a crazed fool 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 love affair with musical theatre begins . . .
Concurrent to this period of settling in with the Sutters in East Hampton, I start to feel changes in my physical body that are at times pleasurable, and at other times disorienting. The main change is an intense new energy that runs through my body from time to time. One minute I’m feeling relaxed and calm, the next I feel like my body’s burning up, and I can’t sit still. Yet other times it feels like someone’s pulled the plug on my fuel reserves entirely, and 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, calm, sadness, panic, rage—bang, bang, bang; one after the other. There’s no logical or circumstantial reason for these emotions to be happening, they’re just happening. As a result, I find myself having to deal with a rapidly changing inner experience in which it’s challenging just to be myself.
I’ve no idea why these sensations and emotions are happening to me. Overall, I’m feeling happier and more settled than I’ve been 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. I start to notice that the most disturbing changes are not happening in my physical body anymore, but in my mind. For the first time in my life I start to think about sex. I start to think about sex a lot.
The thoughts about sex arise unbidden, and they 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 realise this, I’m shocked and horrified. Fear arises around being found out, ridiculed, and ostracised by my school peers. I start to have nightmares, with visions of being beaten up by the other boys, kicked out of school, and of dying alone in a ditch by the side of a deserted road, abandoned and unwanted. They’re horrifyingly clear images, so I keep my new, socially unacceptable, secret well and truly to myself, and another layer of shame—this time around being gay—is added to my already overburdened psyche.
In the privacy of my bedroom, however, with great curiosity I start to explore what sexual arousal in my body means; I find it completely exhilarating. I quickly map out my erogenous zones—mouth, nipples, penis, perineum, asshole. I discover that stimulating as many of these sensitive areas of my body as I can at the same time heightens the pleasure, and the pursuit of sexual pleasure becomes my passion, my obsession. I soon discover that I if a certain magic 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 mind-blowing experience of orgasm--le petit mort, the little death.
In this little death of orgasm, I discover, there is a brief moment of no thoughts—including no thoughts about my past, so no thoughts about my sad, lonely life—when a flash of something truly incredible and mysterious occurs. It seems to me that this incredibly pleasurable moment of no-mind—and the yearning to re-experience over and over the moment of pure bliss that occurs in this instantaneous death of the ego—is the origin of the yearning for future orgasms, and which is at the core of all sex addiction . . . including my own rapidly developing addiction to sexual pleasure.
There it is, the next phase in the development of my addiction to pleasure: puberty, and the discovery of masturbation . . .
Now, I’ve already given you a pretty 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 life story, so I really don’t feel the need to dredge through that physically and emotionally painful experience yet again. I would like to add here, though, that at the time 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 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 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 leather director’s chair that’s behind his large desk, rubs his ruddy face furiously with his palms for a few seconds, then leans his elbows on the desk in front of him and buries his face in his hands, groaning.
“My life will be ruined before it’s even started,” Ken says quietly to no one in particular. “If anyone finds out about this, my whole life will be for nothing.” He’s pale, and clearly terrified. All of Ken’s ambitious life plans have, for the very first time, crashed and burned, and he isn’t coping with the possibility of such profound failure.
“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 centre himself, where Irene’s 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 is sure what’s wrong with me, and no one is able to piece together the conflicting evidence that’s being uncovered with each successive examination and test.
I’m referred to Nassau University Medical Centre for a CT scan, after which I’m referred to yet another doctor—a gynaecologist—who tells me that I have a vagina, 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 true hermaphrodite . . .
During this period, 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, I’ve been orphaned, I’ve been rejected by my biological family, I’ve been expelled from Brookhaven, I’ve started menstruating despite believing myself to be a boy, and now I’m being told that I’m a hermaphrodite. Familiar painful feelings and emotions start to resurface in me once more—being different, being damaged, being unlovable, being an abomination—and shame settles in as the background of my emotional milieu once more. I withdraw from contact with the outside world, and I speak infrequently to anyone. Mostly I think about how miserable I am, and I ask God why I’m being punished. What have I done to deserve such a crappy life? I think I’m a good person. I don’t ever do anything malicious or hurtful to other people. I’m kind and helpful. So why am I being punished, over and over?
Irene and Elliott 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 body into being the best I can possibly be at my school work, 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 do my best to suppress any thoughts about what this discovery means, and I get on with being scholastically brilliant.
Dealing with the monthly reminder of my monstrous secret, however, takes great strength and will, and during the days leading up to my period—as well as the first two or three days after its onset—I find I’m literally unable to face the world . . .
Elliott and Irene Sutter are infrequent attenders of the local East Hampton Anglican church. I make this discovery only after I’ve been living with them for some months, as their annual commitment to church is exactly two visits per year: Easter, and Christmas Eve.
This year, 1978, Christmas Eve happens to fall on one of my pre-menstrual days. I realise 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 don’t think I can face the world today.”
“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!!” At this I start sobbing, and I hang my head. I push my chair away from the table and run to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
It’s about fifteen minutes later that Irene knocks, then immediately opens the door without waiting for my reply. I look up at her and scowl.
“Come on, 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.” She exits, slamming the door behind her. The door opens again, “And don’t you ever slam this door ever again!!”
I reluctantly drag myself out of bed, and pull on my church clothes. I can’t believe they’re being so cruel; gosh I 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. I can’t believe they’re blackmailing me into going to church. It’s all so bloody hypocritical. Preaching about love and acceptance, kindness to one’s fellow man, and treating one’s neighbour as oneself, then out on the world everyone’s just being selfish, racist, and God-darned cruel. What bullshit!!
As Elliott slows the car down to take the corner into the church parking lot, I pull the door handle, push the door open with my feet, and roll out of the car and along the bitumen for a few metres. Elliott slams on the brakes, and a piercing screech fills the air. All of the 40 or so parishioners currently standing on the steps outside the East Hampton Anglican Church turn and stare at us.
I start running, swooping down alleys, and jumping over fences. I hear Irene shouting, and Elliott gunning the car to try and catch me, but I easily outpace them. Having lost them, I walk all day, and then when it gets dark I find a cosy spot behind a pizza shop and make myself a bed out of cardboard boxes. I want to run away, and leave Elliott and Irene Sutter to their stiff, mediocre lives, but I don’t have any money, or anywhere to go. The following morning—Christmas Day—I sneak back into the house, stop briefly in the kitchen to say I’m sorry, then hide in my room for two full 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, and masturbation. But even Mickey has morphed for me recently. Whereas previously, being dressed as Mickey 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 recognise me.
On some of my pre-menstrual days I dress as Mickey and hang out in the kitchen with Frannie 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, and engaging Gunther and Deiter in casual conversation. This experiment is even less successful as neither of them seems to 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 boundary that borders onto Main Street—I find a small hole in the hedge, and I push my way through until I’m standing by the side of the busy road. As a big Range Rover passes by me—about ten feet away from me—the woman who’s sitting in the passenger seat looks out and sees me. Her mouth gapes open in shock . . . then smiles as she swivels her head round to get a better look 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 with it a feeling of excitement, as well as fond memories of my monthly early morning forays to the Belt Parkway in Queens with Coco.
Another car passes, and this time I step forward towards the street 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 really quite elated, 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 metres away.
Irene leaps out of the driver side of her Mercedes 4WD, runs towards me, and grabs me roughly by the arm. “You stupid boy, 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 being well beyond the scope of my current life experience.
Irene is furious. I’ve never seen her this way before. In fact, she’s inconsolable. She escorts me silently to my room and locks the door behind me. About 30 minutes later, Elliott arrives home in a flurry, and I’m summoned to the library. Irene’s red in the face, while Elliott is deathly pale. He gestures for me to sit while they both pace the room, folding and unfolding their arms, huffing and shaking their heads.
“Angelo, we can’t tolerate this kind of behaviour anymore. It’s just not acceptable,” Irene starts. “What were you trying to do? Make fun of us? Hurt us? After all we’ve done for you?” She clutches her pearls, and sinks into an arm chair 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 that we’ve given you. Irene’s been sick with worry since the Brookhaven and Christmas Eve incidents; she can’t take any more. We want you to pack your things right now, and Gunther will drive you back to the orphanage . . . ” Elliott’s voice trails off to nothing as he reaches for the whisky decanter.
“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, and she looks very much like she’s about to have a stroke.
Elliott and Irene Sutter, already rocked out of their comfortable, insular East Hampton bubble by the scandal at Brookhaven, by the public humiliation I’d caused them at Christmas, and by my shameful secret of being a hermaphrodite, 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 exhibitionistic Disney characters, atheists, and hermaphrodites are not included in the Sutters’ “equal rights for all” life philosophy . . .
VII: THE FIRST MESSAGE: "BECOME A DOCTOR!"
"Realise deeply that the present moment is all you ever have."
"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 hesitated; I suspect she’s daydreaming of tropical islands, cocktails with fruit and umbrellas, and bronzed natives in lava-lava’s rubbing coconut oil into her back.
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 the part that connected words to retained pieces of information—geography, climate, culture, history, religion, etc.—had gone off-line.
I’d stepped into the travel office on a whim, urged by an unseen force, as I walked back to the subway after a first-year physics lecture that’d covered the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Riveting!!As I’ve no plans to travel, I’m a little surprised to find myself standing here attempting to make a decision about where I’m going to travel to, and when I’m going to do it.
London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Cape Town, Bangkok, Sydney, Tokyo, 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 commenced eight months ago at my state guardian’s urging. I’d 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 the La Guardia Community College. At the completion of the degree I’m required to work for the LICPWD 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 if cheap red wine at the time, and actually going ahead with the flight-of-fancy idea hadn’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 checkpoint at Kathmandu airport.
When I was sixteen I’d travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where my high school band had played concerts as part of a cross-border cultural exchange program. On that trip, however, all of the travel details had been handled by our responsible adults. This is my first solo expedition outside of 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. Really, I’m still a child, and one who’s had minimal exposure to the outside world, its politics, or its dangers.
Two uniformed men step in front of me. I assume, incorrectly, that they’re Nepalese immigration or customs 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 of my fellow travellers who’d been with me on the flight from Singapore are walking straight ahead, and out the main doors of the airport, I’m a little concerned by this turn of events. An unpleasant wriggling sensation starts in my chest and belly. I look for a label for it. Apprehension, perhaps? No. No, it’s definitely fear.
The two uniformed men are short for adult males. In fact, they’re 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 short in stature due to the elevation at which they live.” In 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 altitude when return home to New Eden.
The room we enter is a tiny cube no greater than two metres in any dimension. There’s no furniture, and there are no windows. A single bare lightbulb is in the centre of the ceiling, brilliantly illuminating the small space. The word cell flashes across my mind momentarily, but is quickly swept aside by a larger wave of naïveté. At the prompting of my new acquaintances, I drop my backpack lightly to the floor, and stand before them smiling. The machine guns start waving again, this time up and down, pointing from my neck down to my feet. The wriggling sensation in my chest turns to a writhing. This time, 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 I determine 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 reply of no assistance.
My mind is busy desperately trying to reconcile the conflicting emotions of the thrill and sexual excitement of being a young hermaphrodite naked in a confined space with two handsome military types with guns, versus the shame and terror of being a young hermaphrodite naked in a confined space with two handsome military types with guns; I undress.
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 when it started, so, in fact, I was half way there already,
“What, lift up my pee-pee . . . and . . . and what . . . spread my legs?” How humiliating.
I take a step to widen my stance, then gaze up at the ceiling, suddenly fascinated by the branching pattern of small cracks that I can just touch with my free hand, quite close above my head.
“Now turn around and bend over . . . OK . . . and . . . and . . . and what . . . and spread my butt cheeks?” Now 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, mortified.
Them, bending forward, staring at my exposed asshole, 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 acclimatizing to the culture. This is a Buddhist country, I learn. This terminology is foreign to me. Since leaving the ashram before turning 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 seem too radical. To feel the life and energy of a culture that identifies as Buddhist—or any religion for that matter—is entirely new for 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 a number of Buddhist temples, and for the first time in my life see and experience 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 another twenty years.
A hair-raising eight-hour bus ride to Pokhara is the next stage of my journey. In reality, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. It feels like I’m following my nose, sniffing out a scent, but I’ve no idea what’s at the end of the path. When I’d arrived in Nepal 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 guardian and the La Guardia Community College Engineering Department. Westerners I met and spoke with in Kathmandu were quite often going to, or coming from, a town in the west of Nepal named Pokhara. Apparently, Pokhara’s 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? No friggin’ idea!! . . .
Trekking the foothills of the Himalayas is actually quite easy if you’re young and/or fit; luckily, I’m both. The tracks are well-established trails that link local villages. The 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 uncanny 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 can help me with that?
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 inaccessible 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 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 and dhal, rice and dahl, spinach, rice and dhal, rice and dhal. 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 seasoned travellers. 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: vibrant young people talking enthusiastically about God. Well, generally they’re using words other than God—Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu, Brahman, Kali—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 feel a new sensation, an exhilarating tingling feeling, start to run 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, hovering mist and cloud. The full majesty of the Annapurna Range, as seen from this well-known viewing point, is yet to be revealed to me.
I don’t know what’s going on . . . but I feel GREAT!
Waves of goose bumps course up and down my body.Is it that I just made it to the top of the mountain that I feel like this, or could there be another explanation? Whatever it is, it feels really good.
I yell loudly, wave my arms above my head like wind vanes in a gale, and jump up and down like a maniac, “Yeeeeeehhaaaaaaaa!!!”
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 later that night around the large communal fire, the centre of life at the Poon Hill Lodge.
I sleep soundly in the lodge tonight. This particular lodge is a popular destination with westerners, and there are fifty 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 move my wrists and ankles in circles, starting to wake my body up more fully. I notice that the kitchen light is on . . . which 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 cover three sides of rough wooden frames, the fourth side is open towards the east, towards the Annapurna Sanctuary. 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. Naked, I shiver uncontrollably, hug myself and rub my arms up and down briskly, then run up and down on the spot for a while, trying to warm myself up.
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 back in America seems like another life that happened to somebody else. I lather soap on a washcloth, and I start to wash my body. As I prepare to wash my back, I swivel around instinctively, and . . . I’m stopped dead in my tracks. Motionless. My awkward body posture and open-mouthed facial expression captured like a flesh-coloured marble statue, as if for all of eternity.
Opposite where I’m standing, the sun is just starting to rise on the eastern horizon. A thick uninterrupted layer of cloud lies just below where I stand, which at this moment is obscuring the direct rays of the sun. The clouds themselves, however, are starting to glow a deep, rich shade of pink. They stretch from horizon to horizon, and their texture is like cotton candy, lit from below by the light of the rising sun.
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 Massif.
Next, angelic voices all around me start singing: “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah." Well . . . that’s how I remember it now. Maybe I added that bit later.
My body’s bent and unmoving. A soapy washcloth is in my left 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 a voice announces, firmly and matter-of-factly, and appearing to arise inside my head, or perhaps just a little 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.
“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 goose bumps, now familiar, course up and down my body . . .
“It’s a beautiful mornin', isn’t it?” a loud voice booms in my right ear.
Irish, my mind responds automatically. Dense curls of brown chest hair greet my peripheral vision as I look up and 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?"
He points, superfluously, towards the astonishing vista that has unfolded in front of the bathing cubicles, "Niiiiiiiiicccce!!”
I look slowly back around to my left and take in the awe-inspiring view once more. The sun is well above the eastern horizon. 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 with fellow travellers on the trail is back again. This time, however, it’s merged with the goose bumps . . . and is feeling QUITE PLEASURABLE!! It feels like pure excitement, pure terror, and pure joy, all mixed together. 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 . . .
I receive a full scholarship to study medicine at Wichita State University in Kansas. It’s a new scholarship program— Gifted-Students-of-Colour-in-Need (can you believe it’s actually called that!!)—that’s awarded to me in 1983, and which comes courtesy of a large legacy donation left by a wealthy African-American couple. Esther and Edwin France had both been physicians in Wichita their whole lives, and they’d had no children of their own. As I’m half black, have no independent financial means to speak of, and I score 154 on the statutory IQ test, I come in at the head of the line for the inaugural scholarship.
The new, and relatively positive, view I’m now carrying 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 love it even more when we start working with patients, and the challenge of uncovering clinical signs and symptoms, and making diagnoses is presented. I also find that I like my fellow medical students, who on-the-whole are enthusiastic and non-judgmental when compared to the vast majority of humans I’ve encountered in my life up 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, malemedical student from New Eden. From time to time, however, I find I have to give some attention to the suppressed female part of me, as the force with which it wants to make itself known is now, quite simply, undeniable.
I’ve started calling my female self, 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, eye lashes, wigs, corsets, stockings, and high heels that has become an integral part of the transformation involved, and I spend some time allowing my feminine side to be expressed. At present, I still judge 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 she’s given some voluntary expression now and then.
What is becoming clear to me, as this surreptitious exploration of Angel unfolds, is that it is in Angel that my creativity lies. Slowly I start to acknowledge that it’s exciting to allow this creative energy to come out, and to be surprised each tome how that looks and sounds. The other thing I discover in this investigation is that when I allow Angel to be fully present, I feel confident and powerful, and the shame and self-hatred I feel about myself and my body the rest of the time is somehow no longer present in my experience . . .
As my medical training progresses, it becomes clear that I’m most drawn to becoming a surgeon. Through the later years of my medical degree I choose rotations in the various surgical specialties, but the day I first assist in a neurosurgical theatre is the day I know I’ve found my calling.
I discover that the intensity of the focus and concentration required in these life-and-death procedures requires absolute presence, absolute focus. This brings with it a heightened sense of aliveness, as well as the temporary cessation of the sad story of me. I laugh one day when it occurs to me that it’s a bit like the cessation of thinking that occurs in the moment of orgasm, except that it’s for a much longer time period; I start to call my neurosurgical theatre time le grand mort, the big death.
While I’m in the operating theatre assisting or operating, there’s no more poor me for hours at a time, and it’s such a deeply nourishing relief. Clipping cerebral aneurysms, draining sub-dural haematomas, excising meningiomas, biopsying glioblastomas, implanting shunts and deep-brain stimulators, dissection tumours from spinal cords, and decompressing lumbar nerve roots becomes my happy place, and it all excites and thrills me like nothing before.
I have an apparent talent for the technical skills required to be a neurosurgeon, and when this is combined with my agreeable nature I find myself rising quickly through the ranks of the profession. A two-year stint as senior neurosurgical registrar at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore looks good on my CV, and when a Junior Staff Neurosurgeon position becomes available at Jersey City Medical Centre in 1993, I jump at the opportunity. My goal was always to return to New Eden City at some point, which—despite many painful childhood memories being associated with it—I’ve always considered my home. Working in Jersey City means I can live in Manhattan, and easily commute to and from work. I rent a cosy apartment in Greenwich Village, where I 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 actually turning out significantly better than I could possibly have imagined when I was a traumatised 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 number of important emotional issues remain unattended to . . .
One of the first patients I treat at Jersey City Medical Centre is a young woman named Yantra Srinivasan. Yantra had exuberantly celebrated her 21stbirthday 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 four times the legal limit.
Yantra’s car was a complete write-off, neatly wrapped like tissue paper around a light pole, twenty metres up a freeway embankment. Luckily for Yantra she’d been wearing her seatbelt, which had literally saved her life. The angle at which her head had hit the airbag, however, had thrown it sideways, and she’d struck her left temple sharply of the car-door frame. This had caused her left parietal bone to fracture, rupturing her middle meningeal artery in the process. A rapidly developing extradural haematoma had resulted, with subsequent compression of Yantra’s brain. The situation had become critical soon after her arrival at JCMC, causing Yantra to lapse into unconsciousness as her brainstem was forced down through her foramen magnum, and extreme pressure on the respiratory centre in her medulla had caused Yantra to go into respiratory arrest. Panic had ensued in the Emergency Department as the life-or-death situation had unfolded.
I happen to be operating upstairs on my first trauma on-call night, and Yantra’s rushed up for emergency burr holes to be drilled in her skull to drain the blood, and relieve the pressure on her brain. My team and I drain the haematoma and stop the bleeding just in time, and Yantra makes a full recovery. Before discharging her from the hospital a few weeks later, however, I suggest 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 her . . .
Later that year I move from Greenwich Village to an apartment building on Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side. I love this funky, grungy, eclectic neighbourhood. The building itself, typical for this neighbourhood, has four floors. Mrs Lola Chu is my landlord, and she lives on the second floor with her son, William. Lola’s elderly parents live on the first floor, and I move into the third-floor apartment. The occupant of the below-street-level ground-floor apartment at the time, John Buchanan, is an angry and anti-social banker. In almost ten years, I share less than a dozen words with the man. The delightful Bernard McCall and his gorgeous young son Adam move into this apartment in 2002, which is a great relief for the rest of us.
It’s so sweet to find myself being 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, usually on her way out for 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 he goes away and researches everything he can find about human chimerism. Lola immediately wants to know if I’m being supported in my rights to be a hermaphrodite and an intersex individual, and wonders if there is any cause that she can champion for me? They’re all so sweet about it. I love them dearly, and would do anything for them; truly, they’re my family now.
The other wonderful relationship that blossoms for me now is with young Adam. He’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; oh, how he makes my heart melt in ways that it’s never melted before. I’m 38 years old when I meet my boys. I’d put myself through intensive fertility testing a few years before when the urge for me—Angel—to become a mother to my own child had arisen very strongly. I’d consulted with one of the most highly-regarded IVF specialist in the city, and she’d managed to harvest a number of viable eggs from my small ovaries (after 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 a number of 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 go—and the result was two healthy, viable embryos. Implantation into my small, anatomically aberrant uterus, however, just didn’t take—and I couldn’t come to grips with the concept of a surrogate—so I finally gave up on the whole endeavour.
It’s with Adam, however, that I’m finally able to express my mothering energy fully. With Bernard’s permission, I now 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 . . .
VIII: LOST IN DESIRE
"The fulfilment of life is alive and awake inside you. All that is needed is to turn your attention toward it and recognise it as your own self."
So, I imagine by now you’re curious about how my sex life is going, given my anatomical challenges in this arena. Truthfully, the issue of sex and intimate relationships has been the most challenging of my life, and let’s just say that a whole lot of shame has been involved every step of the way.
From the very onset of my interest in sex—when I was twelve—I’ve always been attracted to males, never to females. I guess that makes Angelo gay, and Angel straight, right? It wasn’t until I was in medical school in Wichita, however, that I first noticed the arising of the urge, and the motivation, to try and make myself more attractive to possible sexual partners. Prior to that—following the traumatising start with Ken Abercrombie—there was just no way that I was ever going to go there.
It was me—Angelo—who took charge of my physical body during this period. I'd found my second-year physiology lectures most enlightening, about how exercise could be used to keep the body healthy and functioning well, and that muscle fibres could be made to hypertrophy if they’re given a little extra attention. When this information was combined with my observation that men who regularly went to the gym and lifted weights developed an aesthetically pleasing change in their physique, the result was that I became obsessed with working out. At one point I was so obsessed with it you might have mistaken me for a gym junkie or a bodybuilder, rather than a medical student. By the time I turned 21, my body had grown bigger and more muscular than the average person might have thought was healthy. All of this activity, of course, was just my way of compensating for the shame and self-hatred that I still harboured around the appearance of my physical body, most particularly around the appearance of my ambiguous genitalia.
I—Angel—wasn’t 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—was still in the driver’s seat the majority of the time, so Angel’s protests generally went unheeded.
In my first couple of years at university I did have the opportunity to have sex with a couple of guys who were clearly interested in having sex with me—Angelo—but I always sabotaged the possibility of it as the actuality of it approached. This usually led to even longer and deeper periods of self-loathing . . . for both of us.
I think you’re starting to get the feel by now that, given my mental state at this point in my life, actually having sex with another person was never going to happen . . . at least not unless something drastic changed for me. The desire was there, absolutely, but the ability to follow through on the desire failed to actualise, time and time again.
What did start to develop in the place of a real sex life, however, was a very elaborate fantasy version thereof. If I found a guy to be particularly attractive, he would become the focus of all of my attention for a time, and I would create a whole imaginary life together with him. Early on this involved physically stalking the guy involved, and I would get a sort of high just being in his vicinity. The result of this was some embarrassing public confrontations, which forced me to make my fantasy obsessions more discrete, and more internal . . .
It’s during my third year of medical school in Wichita that I start taking occasional weekend trips to nearby Kansas City. Here I spend the evenings in gay bars, or attend small gay dance parties that are scheduled here 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. Hanging out in these bars, however, only makes me more sad and lonely because I know that I won’t actually be going home with anyone; fear of the shameful disclosure that naturally follows removing my clothes still too challenging to be met at this point.
When it comes to the dance parties, it’s me—Angel—who takes the lead. It’s fairly 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 21stbirthday, which I’m celebrating by attending Jamie and Vanessa’s thirteenth annual Mid-Winter Costume Ball in Kansas City, that I’m first introduced to MDMA . . . ecstasy . . .
There must be a thousand 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 Ball last year, my first big party in Kansas City, but I’d realised 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 favourite blonde wig which is styled up very elegantly, and I’m wearing a new pair of stilettos that are covered in pink glitter and sequins. I feel special, and I can truthfully say that I actually look pretty for the first time in my life.
I stand at the edge of the first-floor balcony looking out over the crowded dance floor below. The event is being held in an old theatre that’s had the seats removed from the downstairs stalls area, but 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 recognise, and I feel the urge to move my body a little. I’m not really that 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 lesbians here. Some bisexuals too I presume, and probably a few transgenders. There’s definitely lots of queers . . . whatever that means. There’s leather, Lycra, bondage gear, high fashion, the odd tutu, and even some people wearing almost nothing at all. Anything goes, and I feel fully at home. The label freak no longer applies only to me . . . as it does most of the rest of my life.
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 bounces up to me and declares, “Oh, my God. Your dress is the same colour as my eckys. Here, take a look.” With this she pulls a small metal box out of a secret hidden pocket in the rear of the psychedelic jumpsuit, and carefully shimmies off the lid.
I lean forward and peek inside. Sure enough, there nestled inside the little pill box are five bright pink 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 have to have one. They’re the same colour as your dress for cryin’ out loud. It’s pre-destiny.” At this point the woman picks one of the pink pills from its resting place, and without hesitating, thrusts it deep inside my mouth.
I gag as her fingers hit my uvula, then swallow automatically before I can even get out my first word of protest. “Ggghhmm. Noooooo!!! I don’t do drugs.”
“WHAT?!! Haaaaaahahahahah!! You don’t do drugs? How funny are you? Well 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 ecstasy before?”
“I most certainly have not. What’s going to happen to me?”
“Oh boy, you’re in for the ride of your life. Woohoo!!”
The psychedelic jumpsuit bounds off in search of its next victim, and I sit down in the front row of theatre seats to take stock of what 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 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. 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, I THINK I’M EVERYONE’S TYPE. HA, HA, HA, HA. OH, MY GOD, I FEEL AMAZING. THANK YOU. WHAT’S YOUR NAME?”
“GEORGIE. WHAT’S YOURS?”
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 joy is flowing through my veins. I feel happy. I feel confident. I feel free.
I never knew that as an adult it was possible to feel this good. Ecstasy, I decide, is my new best friend. There’s no trace of self-doubt, and there’s no concern about how I look. I just feel great . . . without needing anything 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; 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 says 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 that to me before. In my altered state, I immediately jump to one of my happy-ever-after fantasies. My body is suddenly flooded with waves of goose bumps that course up and down me uncontrollably. Later I come to know this phenomenon as peaking, but in this moment I attribute it to the knowledge that someone actually wants me. Somebody actually desires me.
I—Angelo—now take back control of the situation, and I make a bee-line for the nearest bathroom. It’s the ladies, but as I’m dressed as a lady I figure that I can use it without any hassles. This is not my usual experiencein life, however, where bathroom choice can cause me to experience a great deal of 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 a somewhat dishevelled, but it doesn’t matter. I’m gorgeous. How is that possible? How did I get to be so beautiful? I’m not yet used to this particular effect of the ecstasy. The effect that turns off the voice of the super-ego. The harsh critic in my head, that’s been with me since I was young, in this moment is no longer telling me what a horrific, worthless piece of trash I am. It’s unbelievable.
“You’re gorgeous, darlin’. Truly you are,” a random stranger says to me as she washes her hands next to me, and starts to re-apply her lipstick.”
“I know, right? I’m totally gorgeous. Who knew?”
“How’s ya night?”
“It’s my 21stbirthday, and I’m having an absolutely fucking fabulous time. 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?”
“NO!!. It can’t be!! But I only got here a little while ago. What happened to the time? 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, babe. Who says it has to end, anyway?” Then, she’s gone.
I look in the mirror again, and smile wryly as I realise that I have nothing to take my makeup off 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 and 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 sky is ominous. Strangely, I’m oblivious to the cold, and I wander along the street feeling so much joy and gratitude for just being alive. I can’t 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 I’m greeted with suspicious and judgmental looks. It’s such a stark contrast from the openness and loving connection I’ve had with almost a thousand strangers all through the night, but it doesn’t touch my positive mood.
Closing the door to my motel room, my body’s still buzzing and full of energy. I can’t believe how up-beat and energised I feel after having been dancing all night without any sleep. I go to the bathroom and look for my makeup remover. As I look down I notice the word TANK written in hot-pink lipstick on the back of my right hand. “Wow, will you look at that. The after-party. Some part of my mind was conscious enough to write down where the after-party is, because I knew I wouldn’t remember it. What a clever thing my mind is. Thank you, mind. I love you!!”
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 hope he’s at the after-party. That would really make my day. Actually, it would make my year, my life.”
As I walk the mile-or-so to the club, the sky’s a little clearer, but it’s still cold. I pass by a church where people are exiting, and I stop and stare at them. They all look bored, and completely miserable. As I watch them, my heart swells open in such a way that makes me want to wrap them all up in my arms and give them a group hug. Luckily, common sense prevails, and I continue walking.
The after-party is well and truly pumping when I arrive; the club’s full to overflowing. I’m surprised they let me in at all, but everyone is so friendly, and I feel so welcome. The crowd here has a higher percentage of gay men than the ball, and most of them have their shirts off and they’re dancing intimately with one another. I feel a wave of self-doubt, and look around for a familiar face. The effect of the ecstasy is definitely wearing off now, and suddenly I feel like I’m plummeting into a familiar abyss of shame and self-hatred.
“Hey, is that you? I’d recognise those biceps anywhere.” The cutey-pie from the ball is suddenly before me, and I feel like 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, this time in the arms of a short, hot young Texan. The people all around us fade into a blur of bodies and coloured lights as the two of us enter into our own bubble, and time slows to a sensual pulse of just us; mouth-to-mouth. Apart from kissing me, the Texan seems intent on rubbing my chest, and playing with my nipples. He peels my t-shirt over my head, and tucks it into his 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 quite sensitive. The effect today, however, is more stimulating than I ever remember previously; perhaps another beneficial effect of the ecstasy? He leans forward and starts sucking on my right nipple, which instantly puts me into a higher orbit of bliss. OH, MY GOD!! A part of my mind remembers there are people all around us, and it thinks I should be horrified and ashamed of this public display of intimacy. But that thought is now a part of another me, one from a former time—the pre-MDMA Angelo. I let the thought go, and relax into enjoying the sensations in the moment fully.
“Hey, want a tab?”
“A tab. LSD. Acid. You know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“OK, why not.” I throw caution to the wind, and decide to let this ride take me where it will.
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 doesn’t seem to matter right now—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.”
“Ha! The hick farm boy from Texas leading the sophisticated guy from the big city into debauchery and depravity. Ironic!”
The Texan, holding my hand firmly, now jostles his way to the rear of the club, through a black plastic curtain, and into a completely dark space beyond. The music is muffled here, and I can hear men groaning all around us. It’s impossible to say how many men are in the black space because there’s no light at all, but it’s jammed to the rafters, and it’s clear no one is spectating.
The kissing and chest fondling starts up once more—I assume it’s the Texan—and soon a hand goes down the front of my jeans. I pull back and grab the hand, halting its downward path. The hand is slowly removed, 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.
I know that my asshole is sensitive to the touch from years of experimentation when masturbating, and 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 pleasant so I allow it to continue.
Being in total darkness now, I realise just how much I’m being affected by the LSD. Eyes open or closed doesn’t much matter, but the extraordinary light show of visual imagery I’m seeing is both mesmerising and distracting. In fact, I find it hard to pay attention to what’s happening to me physically. It’s only some time later that I realise my jeans are around my ankles, and the Texan’s cock—at least I presume it’s the Texan’s—is up my arse.
“Here, take a snort of poppers. I know, you’ve never done that either, right? Just trust me . . . and inhale real deep.”
I sniff the pungent aroma coming from the small bottle that’s being held under right nostril, and all of a sudden my world is rocketed into another realm of altered reality, and to another level of intensity . . . of everything. I lose all sense of boundaries, and have no idea where my body finishes and another’s starts. It’s all just sensation—exceedingly pleasurable sensation, I might add—rolling over me and through me, again and again, like waves rolling onto a wild ocean beach . . .
I’ve been working nights as a waiter in an Italian restaurant to make some extra cash during my first two years in Wichita. Now, I realise, I need to make more money if I’m 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 them all.
I apply for a position with 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, platelets, or factor X to hospitals as they are needed urgently overnight. The job pays well, and I usually sleep most of the night without being disturbed. 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 Dallas in November, and even a long weekend in May of 1986 to Chicago for IML: International Mr Leather. I’m on the circuit, and there’s no looking back after that first Pink Panda in Kansas City on my 21stbirthday.
There it is, the final nail on the coffin of my developing pleasure addiction: ecstasy . . .
It’s during an immunology lecture in 1986 that I first hear about a new syndrome called AIDS. Apparently, it’s mostly gay men that are being affected by it, and, disturbingly, previously healthy young men are starting to die from it. Research is starting to connect the dots, but the data is all still very sketchy. The scientists are 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 proven cure.
I discuss this with some of the men I meet at the circuit parties, but no one’s really worried. “It’s just a thing that’ll pass. It’s only happening in San Fran and New Eden, maybe L.A.. No need to worry about it. I’m fine. Shall we fuck?”
Late in 1987, I come down with what seems to be a really bad flu. I feel terrible. I continue to work and sleep overnight at the Red Cross, but my fever’s so high one night I can’t concentrate, and make some mistakes in sending out blood orders. Management are not impressed, and they tell me to take time off until I’m fully recovered.
Three days into the illness I start to develop pain in my toes and feet. Within 24 hours the deep aching 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; I’ve lost the strength in my legs completely. My roommate brings me food and drink, and I crawl into the bathroom when I need to go to the toilet. I’m scared as I’ve no idea what’s happening to me. A doctor makes a home visit, and suggests I should be admitted to the hospital as he has no idea what’s going on. But I feel 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. The pain and weakness continue its incessant pilgrimage up my body, however, and for five days I lose most of the strength in my arms and hands. Pleasingly, by this time I’ve regained full use of my legs, and I’m able to essentially care for myself.
For a few days I experience the worst headaches I’ve ever felt—like my head is 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 through a straw or else food and liquid 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 functioning. What was it that caused this bizarre illness? I’ve 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.
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 find it almost impossible to speak 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; from my crappy life. To know that I’ll be dead from AIDS in a few years—without having to go through the messy drama of actually killing myself—takes the pressure off me somehow.
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 possibly neurosurgeon, if I make it that far—go to as many gay dance 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 . . .
IX: THE SECOND MESSAGE: "YOU"RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!"
"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 14ththDalai Lama
What time is it now, I wonder? 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 my brain stays alert, and knows what time it is, even when I’m 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 dingo’s, but I don’t think there are dingo’s around here. And all of 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? Actually, come to think of it lots of spiders are nocturnal, aren’t they? Oooh, I hope I don’t run into a spider’s web, or accidentally stumble into a funnel web spider’s burrow. It’s pretty cold. I wish I’d put on another layer of clothing, although the path’s getting steeper and I’m starting to sweat a bit. 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 really 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 somewhere, 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 have to stay hydrated when you’re hiking, don’t you? Dehydration can creep up on you, I believe. How long have I been walking for? Oh, it’s only been 23 minutes. Not likely to be dehydrated yet, I suppose. Maybe I should’ve brought more water. Two litres 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 litre per day, or two? I can’t remember. I'm sure I learnt that in a second-year physiology lecture, 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 really 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, in northern New South Wales, Australia. Its present-day peak is the central core, and all that 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 upwards at the sky. The steep granitic peak is visible for miles around, and is 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 aboriginal name is Wollumbin. In Aboriginal legend, Wollumbin was a giant bird who was speared by a warrior.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; Wollumbin and its surrounds represent the masculine.
On this particular morning—May 9th, 2003—I’m climbing Mount Warning prior to dawn so as to be at the peak when the sun rises. I’m 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 had given Mount Warning its English name in 1770, having used it 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 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 in me. I don’t know what, but in coming to Australia I’m looking for something. Some form of guidance, 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 wouldn’t have 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. Oh, I'm so stupid. I should have researched this before setting out. You’re such a TWIT!! I really need to think about these things more before I go rushing off like an idiot, unprepared. Actually, that’s a recurring pattern in my life, isn’t it? 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 was up it would be manageable, but right now there’s no sign of the sun . . . and no moon either. In fact, I can’t even see my hand when I hold it more than 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? Pheeeeew!! 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 6.30am, but it’ll start to get light a bit before then, surely? And it’s . . . 5.25am now. So, in about . . . 45 minutes. Oh, God!! Really? I have to hang onto this chain on this tiny ledge for 45 more minutes? F*%#ing hell!! No way!! Oh, my God, I’m such an idiot. Oh . . . wait . . . I think I hear something? Yes. YES. YEEEESSSSS!!! “I’M OVER HERE!!!! HELP!!!! HELP ME!!!!”Oh yay, voices. YAY. And they have a flashlight. Oh yes, thank you. Thank you, God, THANK YOU!!
“Hello. Hello. Hi. How are you? My name’s Angelo, How’s it goin’, mate?”
“What’s up, man? Are you climbing up here without a torch, man? That’s pretty dumb you know, man. You could break something, man, 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 guys?”
“Sure, man. Be my guest, man. 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 totally shrouded in its own personal halo of cloud, like a localised meteorological party-pooper.
I eat the single dry muesli bar—the only food that 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 shower and warm bed at my B&B in Tyagarah: a small village on the coast just north of Byron Bay.
Emotionally, this is not an easy 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. My work, which I’ve genuinely loved until the past year, I’m now finding 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 this damned pain.
Life feels painful, pointless, meaningless, joyless. I keep hoping that some kind of magical black-hole will open up underneath me so I can jump into 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 say out loud to myself. No, I want it to be cleaner than most of the methods of suicide I’m aware of; I can be such a control freak sometimes.
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? Arrrrgggghhhh, noooooooooooo!! No. Not that. Pretty much anything but that!! Being eaten by a shark would be worse, though. Actually, now that I stop and think about it, there are lots of worse ways to die. Anyway, enough about that dreary subject, and back to the more uplifting part of this particular story.
As I lay my already aching body down on the bed at the guesthouse, I glance at the clock on the bedside table—8.45am—and I notice a book sitting beside it. The book isn’t mine, and I’m sure it wasn’t there when I left the apartment earlier in the morning. I wonder if Matthew—the owner of the B&B—put it there for me? No, I later find out, he’s 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. Importantly, the book had been written by a HIV-positive man, and it described how discovering Buddhism had changed his life for the better.
Interesting. I’ve been wanting to look into Buddhism for a while now. How weird is that?
As I open the book, blindingly bright light radiates from its pages, temporarily dazzling me. I put one hand up to shield my eyes, and I 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 speaks, plainly and clearly—and definitely inside my own head—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 and stare at the ceiling.
What does that mean, “I’m going the wrong way?”
As I lay there on my back, still 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 happens by itself. There I discover that what I’ve been frantically searching for my whole life—recognition, love, acceptance, meaning, happiness, fulfilment, peace—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—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 moment, that occurred on the morning after I’d climbed Mount Warning, marked the beginning of a journey into myself where I’ve discovered—and continue to discover ever-deeper—the love that is unconditional and endless; the peace that is the very nature of the quiet mind; the wisdom that arises out of emptiness; and the joy 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 . . .
”Every story has a happy ending. If you’re not happy, your story hasn’t ended yet!”
From the time of the revelation of my hermaphroditism when I was fourteen, until well into my early forties, my two halves—Angelo and Angel—always had quite separate personalities, groups of friends, and lives. With my few very close friends—Mrs Chu, Bernard, William, Adam—there was overlap, but mostly they were kept entirely separate.
I always imagined that most of Dr Angelo Williams’ medical colleagues wouldn’t have taken kindly to the news that on the weekends he put on makeup, high heels, and a frock. Similarly, I also imagined that some of Angel’s friends might not have understood why she was leading a double life, instead of being fully honest with the world about who she was.
Over the years I never considered this separation to be negative in any way, it was more of a survival strategy. It also didn’t feel 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 me. In fact, it’s always felt like Angelo and Angel were two separate people, two separate beings, who just happen to have ended up in the same physical body. Imagine, if you will, Siamese twins that are not just partially joined together, but fully joined together. Two people, one body. What a f*#%ing miracle/mess is that?
At one point, I did experiment with using non-binary pronouns—we, they, them—but this never worked for me as at the time I was always either Angelo or Angel, but never both at the same time. Having recently turned forty, however, something bigger is calling 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,” answers Mrs Chu. “I didn’t hear anything, but the music’s up pretty loud. Let me go and check, then I’ll serve dinner; it’s almost ready.”
I must tell Lola to have someone come and take a look at the doorbell down on the street. It seems to work on and off, but it’s not reliable. Might just be a loose wire? This building’s in a pretty poor state of repair considering it’s less than 100 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.
Mrs Chu comes sprinting back into the kitchen, her face a mask of horror. “That was Fred from across the street. There’s smoke coming from your apartment windows!!”
“No, can’t be,” I reply matter-of-factly, unwilling in that moment to take it in.
“Angel O, I’m not kidding. The fire brigade’s on its way!!”
“Shit!! NO!! Really? . . . "
The main focus of my attention at present is the intense spiritual search that’s been triggered by the message I’d received in Australia three years ago, compliments of a book about 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, however, I already know 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 lead me to Kabbalah, which inevitably resulted in my purchasing a pack of Tarot cards that I’m endlessly fascinated by. Through an image on a Tarot card—a winged heart, the symbol of Divine Love—Sufism briefly called to me. 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. Esoteric Christianity was a quick detour after Gurdjieff, but—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 L.A., Tantra had been my entry point into the Hindu scriptures, but the sheer volume, and the confusing maze of its numerous paths, overwhelmed me, and I 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 the Buddha has something profound to teach me. At this point in time—mid-2006—however, I’m still looking for a Buddhist text that will give my mind the answers it’s searching for: What is this “Truth” that all the books I’m reading are talking about? What does it mean when they say “the self doesn’t exist?” What is the cause of this intense longing that’s appeared in my heart? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What is the meaning and purpose of Life? With each new day, and with each new book, my list of questions grows longer; I’m yet to start finding satisfactory answers.
Since the revelation in1989 that my body had been infected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus—and my nihilistic decision to party my ass off for a few years then die—life had turned out to be in support of me not dying from AIDS, as more effective, and less toxic, medication than AZT become available. In fact, my health had remained perfect, despite what might’ve been construed as a formidable death-wish, given the amount of partying I’d done for a number of years. Slowly, however, it had become clear that I was in this life for the long haul, and I let go of some of the franticness with which I was chasing a good time. I gave more and more of my life energy to my work . . . and to being a good human being . . .
I spring off the stool I’m sitting on in Mrs Chu’s kitchen, sprint through her 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 tight, and full of images of the terrifying 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 instantly disoriented. What the heck? Why can’t I see?
As I take my next in-breath, I inhale thick, black, toxic smoke into my lungs, and I cough violently, doubling over as I do so. I’m standing on the second 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 vision enters the nine-inch clear zone between the floor of the landing, and the undulating toxic cloud that’s filling the upper recesses of the stairwell.
I gaze 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 and door frames. I can see through the doorway of my apartment—the door having disintegrated—where everything’s been consumed by the fire. At this moment, I notice, there are no flames; my mind quickly presents me with its logical analysis that all the available oxygen must have been used up.
I descend a few steps, squat down so that my eyes are at landing level, and I quickly try to assess the disaster that’s unfolding before me. My mind’s whirling furiously. The primary question it’s seeking an answer to—and which it keeps coming back to, over and over, despite more immediate issues—is: How did the fire start?
It‘s the end of August, which in New Eden means the hottest part of summer. Tonight it’s perhaps 75F—not hot by many standards, but warm enough for me to have turned on the portable air-conditioner in my bedroom two hours earlier. But how could that have caused a fire? It's only three months old, and it's the latest model; it was supposed to be extremely safe and efficient . . . and it wasn't cheap.
Suddenly, all of 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 to my right—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 time slows down, and the writhing ball of flame slows with it; the flames slithering towards me now looking very much like a many-fiery-headed Medussa.
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 clamour of thoughts forces their way back into my conscious awareness, and, with the wall of flame only feet away, my brain 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. The final skylight explodes.
Most of the glass is blown outwards, but a small smattering of glass fragments land on my back. The wall of flame jumps toward me, then slowly oozes its way over my back. It starts to crawl, painfully slowly, down the outside of the stairwell where I’m crouching, terrified. The fire’s engulfed me on all sides; I'm completely surrounded by flame. My mind is overwhelmed, time is flowing like cold molasses, then . . . it stops all together.
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 mind that’s totally silent, not the environment around me.
My mind is completely silent . . . and completely still. There are no thoughts in my mind, and there’s not a trace of movement.
There’s the awareness of the absence of thoughts, but there are no thoughts.
From this place of total mental stillness, awareness looks outwards, and all that’s perceived is light. Clear white light. I use the word white, but really it's just light. It has no colour. This light is the awareness that is observing the light; 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.
I am awareness itself.
I now notice deeper than the light, deeper than the awareness, perfusing it, co-existent and co-emergent with it, a deep sense of peace. I feel the peace rather than seeit. I sense it in my body, somehow—despite not being aware of having a physical body in this experience. The peace is everywhere, in everything. This deep peace is the very substance, and ultimate nature, of everything . . . and I am That . . .
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 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 back 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 tense, cowering body, cough forcefully 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 three fire crews have just arrived, and are preparing to enter.
As I run, I notice there’s something different in my experience. There’s something new. The silent, unmoving, peace and awareness that I’ve just experienced—and realized deeply to be the truth of who I am beyond the identification with my thinking mind—is still with me. Actually, it’s not that it’s new—I see 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 that to be true.
I now see that the ordinary, everyday, garden-variety awareness that I’ve used to observe my world for the past 42 years is a localised version of the same Awarenessthat I’ve been reading about in all the spiritual texts, and which is variously referred to as: God, Spirit, Being, Consciousness, Tao, Brahman, Truth, 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 an animated sci-fi movie, or that I’m seeing the world from somewhere deeper inside myself, from silence itself. I now see that all things are exteriorto silence, and that by all thingsI mean the universe. I also see that the universe is all just vibration, all just noise. Paradoxically, the noise is made out of silence, made out of emptiness, and the noise doesn’t disturb the silence in any way. The sirens, the flashing lights, the neighbours gawking, the police questioning, the ambulance crew fussing, the oxygen mask delivering, the news helicopters filming—all is unfolding within the unmoving truth of the Self, and unmoving silent awareness is perfectly untouched by the whole drama . . .
Concerned but 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 burning building, I glimpse myself in a mirror, and 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 here and there, but they 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 also, but it is a gutted shell, and the ceiling’s completely gone. As I look around the scene of devastation, 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. My computer, back-up drive, and all my photographs and videos are gone too. But, I’m alive, and 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 anyway.
As I wander through the apartment, continuing to take in the devastation, one of the firemen comes up the stairs with a set of infra-red goggles to give the rooms a final inspection before leaving. He wants to ensure there are no hot pockets that might flare up and re-start 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 beginning 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 have to see this. Incredible!!”
I take the infra-red 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 centre-piece of the little alter. Through the infra-red goggles, it’s glowing brilliantly, radiantly, like a tiny sun.
The radiant Buddha smiles serenely at me . . .
Breathe. You can do it. Only a few more minutes. Oh, my God. Why did I do this to myself.
It’s the middle of day seven of my first ten-day Vipassanā meditation retreat. The arrangements had been in place for months before the fire; the retreat due to start—in Fishkill, upstate New Eden—just two days after the life-changing 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. I have a suspicion that more will be revealed to you there.” Prophetic words indeed.
Having just lived through an incredibly profound—not to mention terrifying—brush with death, and having just performed what might best be called psychic surgery in destroying all evidence of my 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 Vipassanā retreat is ten days long, is undertaken in conversational silence, and there are no technological distractions of any kind. 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 these sessions, and a dharma discourse at night. It’s an austere experience, which in the future I will describe 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 expanding phenomenological rollercoaster. The first couple of mornings I’d say I was teary and sad. When the bubble of sadness was allowed to be fully present without any resistance, at some point it would pop, and I’d then feel quite happy.
On days three and four the lows had felt more like grief combined with worthlessness. The highs on these days were reminiscent of the altered state I associate with being stoned on marijuana, with a euphoric quality to them. On days five and six, the lows had felt very much like the worst depression I’d experienced back in 2003, with that old familiar sense of meaninglessness to really make me feel completely miserable. The highs on these days were quite like the experience of peaking on ecstasy, where everything around me was stunningly beautiful, and felt absolutely sublime.
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 this seems even worse. It’s like my very existence is completely pointless, and everything’s utterly hopeless. My physical body’s screaming from the pain of sitting unmoving for so long so often, and my mind's screaming from the sheer torture of the whole experience.
All of my demons have come to haunt me. Many have been met and released—for which I’m enormously grateful—but it feels like my repository of demons has no bottom. A Buddhist would probably say that I’m burning up my soul’s karma, right? Wow, I must have been one mean mother-fucker in a former life . . . or perhaps in many former lives; I seem to have so much negative karma to burn up. Will it ever end?
Then, just as I make the decision—for the seventh time in seven days—that I’ll leave the retreat centre the moment this meditation period ends, something shifts. Some inner release occurs as I bear this deep, painful emotion, and suddenly I pop into a state of absolute bliss. Woohoo!! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Oh, my God. I feel amazing.
Each of these releases have occurred in the midst of what feels like the most extreme suffering possible, and they’ve been accompanied by a string of rather remarkable insights. The insights have arisen from deep inside of me, and while at some point they may have been translated into words by my mind, they haven’t arisen as thoughts as such. It’s more like the voice in my head I 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. Actually, it’s hard to describe how these insights arise, they just do. It’s also hard to describe what the insights are, only to say that they feel like remembering things that I’ve long ago forgotten.
The insights have included phrases like: you are not your thoughts; love heals all; stop doing and just be; time is an illusion; everything is vibration; believing your thoughts is the only obstacle; and on and on.
The closest analogy I can draw to this Vipassanā experience is an acid trip. Since my first drug experience with ecstasy in Kansas City back in 1985, I’ve tried any number of drugs in any number of combinations, but over time I’ve became uninterested in all of them except LSD. These days, each time I take acid—which is infrequently, always in the privacy of my own bedroom, and always as part of a purely 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—I enter into a vast empty space that’s full of an infinity of overflowing points of ineffable sacredness. Each point is like a dimensionless diamond, from which love and light bursts forth and creates the manifest universe. It’s a place of creation, a place of infinite potential, a place that feels to be the source of all knowledge and wisdom, the source of everything. On these LSD trips, I also receive insights not unlike the ones that are now coming to me here in my Vipassanā experience.
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. Oh, my God. Can I bear more pain than this? Should I just leave now? I know that this is exactly what I need if I truly want to be free of suffering, and I know that I just have to 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 Mamaji will be in new Eden in November; only two months from now.
“The timing’s pretty incredible, wouldn’t you say, Angel O? There’s just so much synchronicity happened for you right now, it’s unbelievable.”
Mrs Chu and I attend the public Satsang meeting with Mamaji, and 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 know on a deep level, however, that what’s being spoken is what I’m 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, Mamaji instructs us to turn and face the person sitting next to us for an exercise: a repeating question. In the exercise one of the pair asks the same question of their partner, over and over, for ten minutes. The question, “How do you sell out for love?”
I’m floored by the experience. My partner, a very attractive young middle-eastern man, answers the question first, and he is just so eloquent in his answers. I sense a deep sadness in him, but also a purity and beauty that I’ve never encountered before; I’m enchanted. Is it possible to fall in love in just ten minutes? I guess you can, because I just did.
We then change roles, and Amir—that’s his name—asks me, again and again, how I sell out for love. I only manage a few answers before I break down sobbing. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but something that’s been bottled up inside for a very long time has finally been given permission to be released, and it feels enormously beneficial. Amir places a hand gently on my shoulder, but says nothing.
After the meeting, Amir joins Lola and I, and asks if he can take us to lunch. It’s delightful. He’s happy and radiating joy, and his smile is infectious. After a while Mrs Chu excuses herself, and Amir and I sit talking. We’re so engrossed in our conversation that we miss the next meeting. I find out that Amir was born in Paris, and studied political science and romantic poetry at the Sorbonne. He’s currently enrolled in a PhD at nearby NEU, and he’s only been in New Eden for a few months. Amir tells me that he’s also a practising Muslim, and that his integration into life in New Eden has been extremely difficult due to discrimination at every turn. He’s been completely unsuccessful at securing a job to help support himself while he’s studying in the city.
After Amir’s heart-felt revelations, I open up to him, and reveal that I’m a hermaphrodite. Without so much as blinking an eyelid, he asks me how this has impacted my life; his empathy is palpable, and I pour my heart out to him.
At the end of the first day of the retreat I invite Amir to Eldrige Street, and introduce him to Bernard. Bernard’s Bookstore is as busy as ever, and I know that Bernard is looking for a new assistant to help out in the store. I’ve decided not to move back into my apartment after the fire—despite a beautiful renovation supervised by Mrs Chu—and 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. He moves into the studio a few weeks later, when Bernard and Adam move upstairs.
It’s the beginning of my first love affair; something I’d really thought would never happen to me in my lifetime.
I’m 42 years old . . .
XI: CANCER, COLOSTOMY, AND THE THIRD MESSAGE: "HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?"
"In the end it's very simple. Either we give ourselves to Silence, or we don't."
“The diagnosis is anal cancer,” I hear the oncologist say firmly and formally.
As the words leave the doctor’s mouth and approach me, they become muffled and distorted, as though I’m sitting behind silk curtains in an elaborately decorated hotel room in Marrakesh, the fabric suddenly blown about by a sirocco off the Sahara. Then, abruptly, I’m 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 digital examination—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—which seems to give them more authority somehow—for the first time 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 anal sphincter that causes this subtle movement. The more profound movement in this long, drawn-out moment, however, is occurring in my mind. A barrage of thoughts have arisen, and they’re chaotically jostling for supremacy. Finally, all thoughts but the victorious one are banished to my cerebellum.
The triumphant thought is not about how I acquired the disease; it’s not a thought about the staging of the cancer, or my prognosis; it’s not a thought about what treatment options are available for me; it’s not whether the doctor believes the cancer’s curable or not; it isn’t even a thought about death—something which has just become significantly more tangible and imminent than it was only moments ago. 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 myself telling my mother and my work colleagues these diagnoses. But anal cancer? Oh, great!! . . .
The moment of confirmation of the diagnosis of cancer in the 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 attention.
In some ways, the story begins in childhood. You already know about my shameful secret of being a hermaphrodite, confirmed when I was fourteen. I’ve also told you all about my shameful secret of becoming HIV-positive when I was 25, acquired due to my predilection for receptive anal intercourse. In recent years, all of the shame that I’ve experienced as a result of these issues and more, has started to find resolution through spiritual self-inquiry.
It was through my meeting with Mamaji, in 2006, that I’d discovered self-inquiry. Self-inquiry involves looking deeply and earnestly into one’s moment-to-moment experience, with particular emphasis on one’s inner experience, especially one’s emotions. Embarking on this process soon unveiled the deep well of shame and worthlessness that I’ve been desperately trying to avoid feeling at all costs my whole life, and which has, paradoxically, been the motivation behind almost all the activity of my life. Self-inquiry has also revealed the shame and self-hatred to be simply the natural response of my emotional body to the sense of separation from God, from Love, that is inherent in the individual ego’s very existence; it’s a universal human experience, not something particular to me. In progressively seeing through the ultimate non-reality of the ego, these painful negative emotions begin to dissipate, and a deeper love—the unconditional kind—starts to make itself known to me.
By early 2012, 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. Yet there are still times when I can go into old stories of inadequacy and unlovability, and I begin to intuit that there is another, deeper, layer of shame and self-hatred that’s still to be uncovered and met.
At around the same time, a parallel story—one occurring on a very different level of reality, but one very relevant to this story of cancer—begins . . .
Once upon a time, in an anal canal not so very far away, there lived a stratified squamous epithelial cell named Wayne. Now like every other stratified squamous epithelial cell that’s ever lived, Wayne was flat, weirdly irregular in shape, and completely surrounded by other, virtually identical, yet somehow also strangely 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 Alan, shall we?—residing in the much sought-after enclave of the stratum germinativum, underwent mitosis, producing an exact clone of itself. Alan had named his clone Wayne, and set him free 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 nothing. At the urging of his DNA, Wayne would occasionally turn some small molecules into larger molecules, which he would then externalize onto his external cell membrane. Here these large protein molecules—his surface receptors—would adhere firmly to matching molecules on his neighbouring Waynes' cell membranes. Together all the Wayne’s 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. Really, Wayne was quite content in his mediocrity. To some cells, Wayne’s uninspiring existence didn’t seem like much of a life at all, 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 steamy day in late summer, 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—as he didn’t know 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? Will I still be able to make surface receptors in the void? Did I carry out my role as a stratified squamous epithelial cell well enough? Will my fellow Waynes join me in the cellular afterlife? 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? Actually, what are you, strange blobby thing that’s just bumped into me? Oooo, you feel disgusting. Not at all like a Wayne. Oooo, get away from me, I have a bad feeling about you.”
But the 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.
Recently, Clarice’s DNA had also undergone a mutation, which was resulting in her expressing a new molecule on her surface. A human being in a microbiology testing laboratory might, as a result of this new molecular expression, have labelled Clarice: HPV 16. But as Clarice would have absolutely no inkling what the implications of such a designation would be, I suggest we don’t tell her, OK? Clarice just knew that she was now 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 just getting pernickety in my old age?”
As it happened, Clarice was yet to experience a moist vaginal wall, the inside of an uncircumcised foreskin, or the warm, wet, windy grotto of a nasopharynx. And, as fate would have it, she was never destined to have a close encounter with a cervix, where she might have felt most at home. “Oh well, this anal canal Wayne will just have to do I suppose. Stop struggling, damn you, you stupid Wayne. It’s inevitable that I’m going to infect you. Why don’t you just relax, and this will alll go much smoother for both of us.”
Having attached herself firmly to Wayne, 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 Clarice in particular, and viruses in general, of being narcissistic. Of thinking only of her own wellbeing, whilst being blindly unaware of the feelings and wellbeing of those around her. 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 your personality shortcomings that might be improved with a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy. As a virus, you don’t have the capacity to see 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 . . .
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 a few hours ago, but then she literally disappeared. Now, I’m feeling just dreadful.”
What Wayne couldn’t understand was why he had 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, right?”
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 neighbouring Waynes, it felt most peculiar to suddenly find himself blowing up like a balloon. Wayne’s neighbouring 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.”
“Actually, I’m not feeling very well,” Wayne said to his neighbour, as he pressed his way past him. ”I don’t feel at all like myself. In fact, I’m not 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 Frank, shall we?—grew steadily, having overcome the cellular regulatory mechanisms found in Wayne’s native DNA programming. Frank slowly started to rise above The Surface, killing many of the surrounding Waynes in the process. Most clever of all, Frank acquired his own personal blood supply . . .
I spend a month in India in March of 2013. The trip is a pilgrimage to connect with the source of the spiritual lineage I’ve become connected with. It includes a visit to the sacred mountain of Arunachula in Tiruvannamalai, near Chennai in Southern India: the place where Ramana Maharshi lived out his life after his profound spiritual awakening as a 16-year-old boy. I also spend time in Lucknow as part of a gathering of Sangha from all over the world organized by Mamaji and Levi’s foundations. Here we attend Satsang at Papaji’s Satsang Bhavan, and visit Papaji’s house. Finally, I visit Haridwar and Rishikesh on the river Ganges in the foothill of the Himalaya’s.
Overall, it’s a wonderful experience, but my physical body suffers increasingly while I’m there. At the time I suspect I’ve contracted some nasty bacteria or protozoa as the source of my growing malaise and increasingly problematic bowel issues, but my intuition’s off the mark on this occasion.
Just a week after returning home to New Eden, I receive the diagnosis. Histologic examination of the cancer, and radiology testing, show it to be locally advanced—stage IIIB—squamous cell carcinoma of the anus. As expected, it tests positive for the HPV 16 receptor. Two weeks later I start the recommended treatment course, which consists of six weeks of daily intensity-modulated radiotherapy to my anus and perineum, 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; it’s months after the final treatment before my energy levels return to normal.
I’m grateful that the radiotherapy protocol for treating anal cancer has improved in recent years, and is now a much more focused treatment, with less radiation delivered to tissues distant from the cancer. This improvement in the targeting of the radiation, however, does nothing to ameliorate the inflammatory reaction in my rectum, anal canal, and perineal skin that is the expected, and desired, effect of blasting large doses of X-rays directly into these tissues. By the fourth week of the six-week course, the skin of my perineum and anus had been 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 work 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 my lover and a few very close friends. Behind this reticence is the arising of yet another, larger, bubble of shame that is linked with receiving the diagnosis of anal cancer. The shame is similar to the shame that I’ve encountered around being gay and contracting HIV, but it’s much more intense. There’s a sense of having failed at life . . . in the most humiliating way possible.
During the months following the healing of my anus after the radiation, I get into the habit of digitally examining my anal canal—it’s easier, and surprisingly less gross, than it sounds—about once a month. 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 fully on the intermittent check-ups with my oncologist. At the nine-month mark—in March of 2014—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 chemoradiation is not a good prognostic sign . . .
The classical medical advice for treatment of anal cancer that’s recurred after primary chemoradiation, is major surgery—an abdominoperineal resection (APR). This procedure involves removing a block of tissue that includes the diseased anal canal, the surrounding perineal skin, the distal part of the 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 centred on the anus, and which extends superiorly for about six inches. That gives you some idea of what’s involved in the first four hours of the operation.
Now, 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 the surgery, 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 quite a detailed and fiddly microsurgical undertaking, and takes a number of hours to perform.
The final step in the eight-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, on the left side.
Ironically, in 1989 I’d spent a term working as an intern with a general surgeon in Tulsa. This surgeon had performed a number of APR’s during my rotation, so I was familiar with the operation, and with colostomies. I was not happy to now be on the receiving end . . .
The first week following my APR passes with few concerns, mostly thanks to my new BFF—a patient-controlled analgesia pump (PCA) 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 perfectly manageable.
I experience a number of 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 quite unexpectedly, not a problem. All of my pre-surgery objections and concerns simply vanish in the face of the present-moment reality of it.
Whereas during the radiotherapy treatment it’d felt like a red-hot poker was continually lodged in my anus. After the surgery, it feels like someone has their fist—actually 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’s not easy to get comfortable when this sensation is constantly present in one's body.
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 again? What’s the lesson to be learned here? Then it strikes me: that deeper layer of shame, the one that’d been beckoning to me for a few years now, and which had been vastly intensified by the diagnosis of anal cancer . . . is now gone.
The unavoidable reality following the surgery of having to deal with a colostomy, as well as having extensive scarring all over my body would, under normal circumstances, have fed the shame even further, but instead it feels like the shame has literally been surgically excised from my body along with the cancer.
I search around for the shame, but it’s no longer a part of my experience. That's not to say it may not come back in the future, but at this moment it’s absent for the first time in 35+ years. I also see that what has kept this deepest layer of shame intact, and in place for so long, is my attachment to my physical body itself: attachment to its appearance, attachment to the physical pleasure I’ve derived from it, and, most importantly, attachment to the physical body as the core of my identity. With this radical reconfiguring of my physical appearance—something that is so real and undeniable—the deep attachment to my physical form is finally dropped. I see that this attachment has been holding the fragments of my ego together . . . and it’s now absent . . .
The good news is that it’s not necessary to go through a diagnosis of cancer, or painful surgery, to have this realisation. It’s available to anyone in any moment if one is willing to really look deeply inside, and open to whatever is present. Every event in one's life can then be used as a pointer to that which is deeper. All that’s required is the willingness to remain fully open to whatever is appearing in one's experience, resisting nothing, to discover this Truth.
The bottom line—no pun intended—is that I was obviously extremely stubborn about letting my suffering go, and the fact that I needed these extreme experiences to discover my true nature shows the tenacity with which I was holding onto my story of suffering.
As I waddle out of the hospital two weeks after the surgery, the now very familiar voice in my head speaks one more time:
"HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?"
OK, yes. I've got it now. Finally. Thanks . . .
XII: PARIS, MARDI GRAS, AND THE GARDEN CABARET
“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
You’ll be pleased to know we’re getting close the end of this story. Before I finish, however, there are three important moments I’d like to tell you something about. The first is another brush with death that occurred in Paris in 2014, the second is Mickey’s final public appearance in 2016, and the third is how I—Angel—came to be a cabaret star with my very own club in New Eden.
Angel(o)'s story is almost complete. Thanks for your patience.
—Angel Stevie xx