Shaking tumbles me forward, my fall broken by a leading hand catching the top of a craggy boulder. Seconds pass before earth movement ceases, but I relish the motion, for the intermittent restlessness of this ground brought me here today.
Returning to upright, my eyes examine the stumble saving palm. It slid-scraped across the rock, leaving a handful of mild sting and what looks like the markings of a postage meter prank on flesh, a small price to pay for prevention of a harder fall. How fortuitous for a quake to shake this place on the day of my visit. At one time early in life, seismology interested me as a professional path, a goal swayed away by a constant battle along a personal fault line. In my younger days, when free to explore beyond the consequences of my biological error, the mission and its commingled history with the San Andreas beckoned me to visit, and at last, I’m here.
San Juan Bautista Mission, built in the late eighteenth century along the San Andreas Fault, provides historical evidence of the effects of adjusting geography. This quirk of placement draws tourists like me, our absorbing eyes scrutinising where ground uplifted in seconds, our nostrils suctioning and expelling air saturated with the pungent aromatisation of the garlic fields, located just outside the town.
How ironic living rock fascinates many, while few study human gender fractures and inversions, just those who live the experience or treat the symptoms. Me, I claim involvement with both, not by choice and by choice.
Settling my arse onto the same rock what broke my fall, I nurse my wounded paw with a tissue, sopping up the little beaded string of spotting blood. In front of me, beyond this ragged edge of thrust uplift, the tractor-churned earth of an extended field looks ready for planting. Despite the mild shaking of minutes ago, I’m comfortable here, alone with the imperfections of rock and thoughts, waiting on Nerfie, who after our walkabout the mission, decided to head townward while I satisfied my curiosity over the workings of moving earth.
Fall 1963 represents a fault line slashed through American history, the spark point into a quieter third revolution, if one accepts the Civil War as our second. Spurred by the shock of the Dallas attack, our generation clawed away the slimy grime of a hypocritical social structure, embraced a cynical contrarianism, and questioned every path imposed by generational elders. Escalation of fighting in Vietnam ratcheted up in 1964 by the Excuse of Tonkin, the fabrication coalescing all of our disparate questions into outright rebellion, young versus old, opaque faux veneer exchanged for unvarnished transparent reality.
Subsets of Boomers, sometimes united from convenience and sometimes in solidarity, shook the bedrock institutions of racism and gender discrimination, eviscerated social mores on prudish pretend personal decorum, while we young cast curious eyes in the direction of human sexuality and the marginalisation of those…different. New York had its Stonewall in summer 1969, during my fifteenth year, setting us on another freeing tangent, the inexorable march for queer rights.
Still, for all our success across the ensuing decades, we cannot discard personal history, we can only compartmentalise it away into a working arrangement designed for access only when less vulnerable. What rocked my world in autumn 1963 affected my life more than any other single event, something I can look back upon now absent most of the excruciating anguish, in contrast to three subsequent decades of struggle and coping.
A tourist group passes by, their excited chatter all about the quake. My best guess would be something around four point five, but quakes are hard to guess. Nerfie must still wander the shops of town, so I’ll just wait on this rock until she returns.
On the second Sunday after the Kennedy assassination, three years of personal remission unwittingly quaked away in reprise of an event from three years earlier, and it reduced my recuperation to mental rubble.
In those days Sundays were family day, one of visiting, us somewhere, someone to our home. The first of December in ’63 fell outside the norm, perhaps a portending, with no visits home or away. My only sibling, older, roamed elsewhere, busy casting away her adolescence through the usual teenage rites of semi-independence, rebellious by her intentional absence. She would make a dramatic return several hours later. Sleep proved elusive as I gauzed over bedtime wounds, and on her return, how could I sleep on the noisy periphery of generational confrontation? When I passed her on the way to the bathroom after an uneasy declaration of quieting truce, both of us hid our hurts, but her clothes reeked of throat gagging cigarette smoke. Helen still carried secrets our parents failed to coax out of her shuttered mouth.
She arrived home knowing not of my homebound confrontation or the reason for my need for a different freedom, free of the smothering cloak of misapplied gender. My sister sought the ability to control when, what, and where; my spirit sought to reconcile and reclaim its misrepresented actual identity. On her arrival, jumbled up in the stew of a father refusing to lax control, Helen faced mysterious accusations and rebuke for her choice to extend a kindness to me.
The Friday JFK died was a typical school day. Usual student activity ceased as the intercom blared the horrific news. Pens dropped and students cried, until a second squawking announcement dismissed us, the chain of events seared into memory and fresh near fifty years later. The first Sunday in December carries similar remembered detail, from its mundane beginning to its soul-ripping end, etched into memory like hide scorched by a glowing red branding iron.
After dinner, I’d bathed, struggled into flannel pyjamas, and shined up teeth, absent ones missing from a forced march toward a maturity I did not yet comprehend. For a child, bed carries contrast – a desired refuge in early morning, a place of imposed and unwanted shutdown at night; my request for an extra half-hour went ignored. A flustered scamper up the hardwood staircase ended in a slither under prepared bedcovers, feet seeking out and parking in the coldest corner, weird comfort sought still when first taking to bed.
Mom arrived, fluffed the pillow and adjusted the covering blankets, offered sweet dream wishes and planted her obligatory goodnight kiss, vacating the room in a parental tag team handoff to Dad. All smiles, he didn’t bother with the finery of my nesting as Mom did; he only offered a neutral, ‘See you in the morning.’
Then he saw the dolls.
Understanding washed in on a wave of vicariousness, as my eyes spied his happy smile sag into furious scowl. Focused beyond me, Dad glared toward the room corner aside the nightstand. Three years had passed since the first encounter, and in the interim, I’d made slow progress toward re-established esteem, although the level reached fell far short of my pre-incident norm. In seconds, with his attention fixated on the twin ragdolls in the corner, the gains of three years evaporated, leaving me helpless. Unlike the first time, I grasped the conflict raging inside my father, the embarrassment, the disdain, the assumption he won the unlucky societal draw sticking him with a queer child.
Wise to the ways of my father, I knew where the conflict would take him. The lack of understanding for what his child faced upset me in early adulthood; at the time, I only knew he would target my arse again. He would do nothing to relieve me of years of stripped self-esteem, but he could make it worse, and he did. Eyes flashed lightning over the imagined invasion launched under his roof. Girlthings had invaded boyspace and contaminated his second child.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, attitudes towards queer folk fluctuated. Quirky but harmless, society judged queer people to be in the two decades before my father’s birth, not so much abnormal. In the latter half of the 1920s, attitudes reversed, driven by a wave of negative printings by so-called experts re-declaring gay folk pariahs. Radclyffe Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness in 1928 and by the end of the year stood trial in Britain for the audacity of writing a lesbian novel. By the start of the Great Depression, lesbians once deemed charmingly inverted became adulterated miscreants, purged from our college and university faculty for fear of student corruption, the persecution ushering in a new Dark Ages for twentieth century queerness and feminism. The regression set back the advancement of women into professional trades by a half century.
My hovering father imagined how the world would react once aware of my detestable deviance. “What are those doing in here?” he challenged at last, of me, of the universe, of himself. “Those belong to Helen, not to you.”
“Helen said Amy and I could play with them,” I defended, with knowledge I had no chance. Amy Winter lived next door, kindred spirit, girl child, and preferred playmate. The words emerged without realising I’d just thrown my sister in the squashpath of a parental steamroller.
“Boys do not play with dolls, Eric. We’ve discussed this before, yet you defied my instructions. Boys who do these things, they have something wrong in their heads.” For emphasis, Dad tapped his temple a few times, the incognizant sound of a woodpecker working.
His words pushed my body further under the blankets, a vain attempt to escape his anticipated wrath, parallel to my sinking in a quagmire of imagined failings, spawning the birth of a wish for oblivion.
He never shouted, although I found little comfort from his controlled response. His message carried great big teeth. Looking back, I wonder if he tempered his verbal response in order to forestall the powerful counterforce of maternal intervention.
“This is a modern time,” he continued. “We know better now, we know it is possible to stop undesirable behaviour before it goes too far. It’s wrong, Eric. What’s more, I know you know it is wrong.” With this final declarative judgement, my safe haven of blankets whisked away as if by sorcery. Rolled over, de-jammied and pelted by hand. Even through the sheathing of briefs he kept in place, my father managed to redden flesh and leave a sting worse than the measly scrape of my hand now, with a longer shelf life.
Dad left the room, his anger swallowed down. Each step away brought me closer to relief. Through the barrage, I maintained silence. With him gone, with no need for the pretence of bravery, my pillow absorbed emoting dampness and smothered my snivelling.
Struck flesh recovered in hours, but a scarred soul lasts forever. With time, our scars can morph from wound to inspirational source if channelled through forgiveness, directing us toward some greater goal; at least mine did. For me, the journey forward wound through several stumbles and a tunnel of depression during the years of suppression. The confluence of experience and knowledge becomes wisdom, something not possessed by any child of nine. Faced with a choice of conform or face societal smackback, I paid the price and ploughed forward.
An hour later and down a floor, voices shouted over each other and further masked whimpers evaporating away my self-esteem. In 1963, America stood on the cusp of its third remake, but in our home, Dad wrestled with how to battle against forces no one then understood. When faced with familial trouble, as with so many in the Catholic enclave in those days, he turned to his parish priest. Knowing neither why I was so different nor why society insisted I was a boy, within two weeks I faced a new dilemma as my clueless father dragged me before a cloaked wolf he believed sagacious beneficent sheep, a predator paedophile priest Dad awarded broad license to untwist me from pansy bent ways. I’ve never told anyone what followed in the years ahead, not when I came out, not in therapy prior to sex reassignment surgery.
“Ho there, rocksitter. Fun shake, eh?”
“The shop spelunker returns – with purchases, I see.”
This woman rocks my world. Impish Nerfie flashes a playful tongue, only to notice the blood spotted tissue in my fisted hand. “Erica, what happened?”
“I just lost my balance when the quake hit. No biggie.”
“So you’ve been parked on the rock since it struck? What have you been thinking on, oh goddess of repaired spirits?”
“Nerfie, let’s head back to San Francisco and claim space in a bar. We have to talk.”