ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01

From the bottom of the well you can see the moon

Author | Autor: Joca Reiners Terron

Translated by Anthony Doyle

It was one sunny afternoon I’d decided to spend sucking on fruit drops in the shade of the sitting room of the transvestites’ apartment that I got the idea that would bankroll my sex change. While gazing at the walls plastered with posters of stars from the golden age of cinema I decided to help the girls improve their appearance. I figured the prettier they looked, the higher their intake would be, and the longer they could go on protecting me. I was still afraid of being tracked down by Omar or even the missing Nelson. Half-way through the bag of fruit drops I had one hell of a stomach ache, but ever since that day I’d been convinced that good ideas were somehow related with sucking on fruit drops. It was a recurrent relation, reinforced every time I found myself faced with an irresolvable problem: just drop those little yellow pills on the tongue and it was sure as done.
The number of transvestites living in the apartment oscillated, though four or five were more or less fixed. There was one, corpulent to the point of being practically a lost cause, who served as a kind of leader. Later that same day I’d had my bolt-out-of-the-blue while sucking down half a kilo of mints, I pitched to her my idea for doing Hollywood star make-ups. She loved it.
  — Can I be Marilyn? — asked the future Marilyn. Her eyelids were like two butterflies ready to compete for the succulent nectar of a flamboyant. She gazed with devotion on the poster for Some Like It Hot. – I just adore that film.
  She had taken to me, and I needed her help, so I baptized her Marilyn with some lukewarm coca-cola in the bottom of some forgotten glass. She gave this gruff cackle and clapped her huge mitts with sheer joy. I would have to find some way to rectify Marilyn’s shortfall on elegance.
  Without the slightest iota how I was going to acquire skills as a coiffeur, make-up artist and wardrobe assistant, I renamed the entire fluctuating population of the apartment according to my beautification program, dishing out names like Ava, Rita, Gloria, Zsa-Zsa, Grace and even Elizabeth, a name I had never considered for my own second incarnation, and toward which I bore no envy whatsoever. I must have baptized half a dozen without the slightest problem, because, given my growing fame among the transvestite community, my secret name had achieved a certain renown: overnight, I had transformed myself into Cleopatra, the star-maker of the Alexandria Beauty Salon.
  When another lost cause came knocking on the door of the apartment on Major Sertório Street in search of the touch of those magic nails with Disney figurines of Cleopatra, I’d quickly suck on ten or fifteen fruit drops for inspiration, grab my arsenal of lacquers and hair clips, bobs and tweezers, piranha clips and scissors and get down to business, turning one more foreman or plumber into a superstar from the Hollywood heyday. I’d snip, file and polish their coarse hides, clean their brutish cuticles, and wax their arms and legs, their equine anuses and hairy loins. Then I’d take their manes and mold them into the likeness of whichever star poster was frantically beckoned to by their excited little fingers. And so, with all that brushing, picking, perming and Chanel cuts, as their masculine shells crumbled and fell like scree among the hair and skin filaments strewn about the floor, their new identities began to emerge, incipient and fragile in their fledgling femininity, still reeking of nail varnish and acetone, until their final metamorphosis into Claudia, Cyd, Sophia, Deborah, Judy or Audrey, or yet another Elizabeth, their silhouettes finally conforming to their recalibrated destinies.
  So I started buying specialist magazines and spying on the other beauty salons without anyone knowing. I put some money aside especially for this and took advantage of those visits not only to look after myself but also to learn new techniques. It was on one of those reconnaissance missions into unknown territory that I got heaps of praise for the smoothness of my hair, the softness of my skin and the natural sheen of my nails.
  — Guess it runs in the family — said the manicurist. — You must definitely take after your mother.
  And as the smile slipped from her face into the basin where I was soaking my feet after I told her I didn’t know who my mother was, I noted how my tootsies seemed to have shrunk in size. With every builder I turned into a movie starlet, I became less Wilson and more my true self, more Cleopatra, the glory of my unknown father. I don’t think the daily shots of progesterone and estrogen had anything to do with it.
  Marilyn soon noted my natural talent as a beautician and made me a good business proposal: she’d stop hooking and start prospecting new clients down at the District while I looked after expanding the facilities. That way, we’d conquer the world, she said. I took the opportunity to ask for an advance on my commission, which would be thirty-five percent of intake – thirty-five percent of the world seemed a pretty good idea to me. As Marilyn turned out to be a decent entrepreneur (she even ordered some fliers for the salon, which she’d handed out all over the city, leaving me scared as hell I’d be found out by Omar and Nelson), I figured that I’d have enough funds for the surgery in no time. Such was the optimism that I even started nurturing notions of taking a trip. One day, when I had the afternoon off, as I sucked on thirty-odd pineapple flavored fruit drops (my mouth was acid-attacked and my tongue turned yellow), I came to the conclusion that there was really only one place on earth for me to go and that was Egypt. So I decided that I would debut my fully-fledged femininity on the banks of the River Nile. I’d keep going with the hormone doses and put some milliliters of silicone here and there where there was still, let’s say, a certain lack of three-dimensionality. From what I’d seen of the movie Cleopatra and the films of Mohamed Karim, Egypt was the ideal place for a woman to explore all her vital energy. And anyway, there was no place else on earth Cleopatra ought to be than in her native Egypt. The Queen would return to her home.
  However, my consultancy work with the transvestites was not limited to the physical aspect, and by shaping their new identities I sought also to hone their spirits, giving them lessons in behavior and etiquette. This was another good idea brought to me by fruit drops. Through etiquette, I hoped to refine those brutish creatures, oblivious as they were to the complexity of the female psyche (transves- tites usually came from the countryside and from poor families; more often than not they were first-born sons whose only female role model had been their mothers; rude women from hinterland towns and totally lacking in the elegance it takes to succeed on the metropolitan sidewalk). I wanted to prime them to become the kind of ideal female unhappy males spend the night searching for in the rearview mirrors of their curb-crawling cars; the Venuses that could give those lonely men a few brief moments of happiness and illusion. In this manner Marilyn and her crew would fill their empty, charmless existences with the cheap philosophy I had gleaned from self-help books and Hollywood gossip magazines. I felt like the leader of a cultural revolution.
  After a short while working under Marilyn’s new scheme, which translated into roughly two years’ worth of intense dedication, I managed to feather my nest (or maybe that should be stuff my garters, under the circumstances) enough to consult a specialist surgeon. Marlene, the most experienced of the Alexandria Beauty Salon recruits (and the only one who had retained some semblance of her former masculine self, which might have had something to do with her burly German genes and the fact that she’d once been a brothel bouncer in Florianópolis) took me to see one she knew, the owner of a clinic on the outskirts that was specialized in all manner of clandestine surgery, from abortions to gender reassignment. Though it was far away and had an appearance that in little evoked the asepsis one would expect of a regular hospital, the place wasn’t exactly a tip and business seemed to be going quite well for the Dr. Frankenstein of sex, thank you very much.
  When I spoke to the doctor, an ashen-faced man with a dead gaze, the kind of visage that would be much easier to look at under general anesthetic, I decided not to reveal a thing about my deliriums of not being able to see my own sex. He asked me about my anxieties and no matter how thoroughly I plumbed the hitherto unfathomable depths of my somewhat scrambled mind, I could find no response other than to say that "I always considered myself a woman. This surgery will merely correct a slip of nature". Given his intrigued expression – though it can’t have been much different from what he usually heard – it was obvious that the doctor’s interest had been piqued by my urge to redress an apparent bungle on the part of nature. He later explained that his clients tended to lay the blame for the imperfection at the door of some God or other, but never nature. Somewhere inside me, however, I knew that God had nothing to do with problems of a genetic or psychological order. After all, nobody could possibly be more evolutionist than me, who had left the theory aside and plunged head-first into the practice.
  In the time running up to the operation I decided not to keep insistently verifying the vacuum that existed between my legs. Never had the fear been so intense that I might all of a sudden see a penis thick as a sequoia flourish into life in that bush-ringed clearing. It was relatively easy to think of other things at the time: the debts mounting on the horizon were so large and hairy that there was little else I could do but immure myself within my laboratory of metamorphosis at the Alexandria Beauty Salon. The agenda controlled by Marilyn in her tireless pursuit of new streetwalking goddesses for our celluloid Olympus seemed to have no end to it. To fuel my own dreams, I decorated the mirror of our recently-inaugurated "Star Trailer" with photos of the pyramids of Egypt and the banks of the Nile River which I’d cut out of old magazines. To make the whole thing even more inspiring I photocopied some stills from Cleopatra showing Liz Taylor lounging around the Library of Alexandria. I dreamt of my future travels and of the furor my majestic beauty would cause among the Egyptian plebs. I couldn’t wait for the journey that would definitively mark my transition into womanhood.
However, after a few consultations, Dr. Fransextein suggested that I see a psychologist specialized in pre-surgical therapy. It sounded kind of unlikely that a scientist might doubt the Darwinist beliefs of a patient, but that is certainly what seemed to be happening.
  I went to the clinic a month before surgery. The psychologist was an elderly gentleman with a kindly expression and a head of hair as white and wispy as summer cloud, rolling in waves, even from the inside of his floppy ears. I was sure I knew him from somewhere; at least that was the impression I got when I first noticed the rebellion going on in his bushy eyebrows. He was the image of Professor Langevin, though I had no way of knowing that at the time, as I still hadn’t gotten my memory back. Maybe it was because I felt he was somehow familiar, but I ended up telling him all about my deliriums of asexuality, something I had never spoken to anyone about before.
  — You mean to say you have not seen your genital organ since childhood, is that right dear?— said the psychologist, his voice laced with compassion. He really seemed to be upset about the premature disappearance of my penis. — Exactly. I look for it, and look for it, but nothing — I replied. — I have no idea where on earth it went. — And that is why you would like to have transgender surgery. Don’t you find that a little contradictory? I mean, if you can’t see your penis, then surely everything is hunky-dory.
  — I don’t see anything at all, that’s the problem. I should have a penis, but I can’t see it. What I’d like to be able to see there is a vagina, but I don’t see that either. There’s nothing there except a void, doctor, you understand? I’d like to fill that void with something moist and warm.
  — I see. A vagina.
  — Exactly, a vagina. And all the rest that goes with it, especially the boobs and butt.
  — But you do understand that you will not feel a vagina in the same way as you feel this void you are experiencing now, don’t you? Because it will not be the same thing. The nerve connections are...
  — I know that, doctor. It’s just that this void really gets to me. I don’t want to feel nothing when I get an erection, for example. Or when I run for the bus, you follow? It seems I’m carrying a bag with a broken clasp, with the contents just about to fall out all over the floor. That apart, as you can see from my appearance, I already feel totally like a woman. I just need to put the finishing touches to the shell.
  — Shell?
  — Yeah, shell. What goes on inside my head is far more complex and I don’t think mere gender distinctions can account for the enigma.
  — You seem quite sure.
  — Very sure. No doubt. I am totally sure.
  — Well then, my dear, all that remains for me to do is recommend to my col league that he proceed with the surgery. Is that really what you want? — Yes doctor. That’s what I want.
  — So, go for it, Cleopatra. Be happy.
  — Thanks doctor. I’ll do my best.

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