I roll into town and walk the windy road to your shack. The door swings open, thin and latchless, glass rippled with age. No-one is home, the woodstove is cold, but a single shaft of light warms the floor and the air is less cold than outside, away from the winds, still. Your shack is remarkably small and impossibly tall, with a loft tucked up under the roof like a bird’s nest. Nothing to stop the sun- you were generous with the windows when you built this place. No electricity but there are overturned jar-lids on every surface, rigged with taper-candles stuck in their own hardened wax. A few oil lamps wanting oil. A shelf of jars gathering light, each one half-full of oats, brown rice, quinoa. I pull open the door again, loose door-knob rattling, and drop my pack on the deck. I ponder the coming evening, the broken porch-swing, the wild, pitched yard. I wonder where you are. You don’t have a phone and so I come calling like it’s still that time long ago (not so long ago, after all)- when we didn’t have phones- I come calling like some cousin, returning after a long absence- I was a merchant marine, maybe, and now I’m making my way west. As if I’ve walked here, hitched rides on buggies laden with winter squash. It’s one hundred years ago- or maybe it’s tomorrow.
It’s both. There’s a case of dumpstered yogurt on the deck (cream-top!) and a tall mason jar on a wooden box, upended. The light on the blond wood is going, now, and I pull a square of yellow paper from a pad and put it against the wall to write you a note. I’ve come from Greensboro, stopping here for a few days on my way to Memphis. I wonder where you are. Barry said you went to play a gig in Knoxville. Can I sleep on your deck. I shove the note in the door and pull shut the jangling door-knob.
I come back after nine, and you’re still away. But the cold and dark are there for me, waiting. How cold is it? I wonder. Twenty-five? Twenty degrees? I’ve got a new bivy-sack from Sam- camo print and very large. Second-hand off the internet. I’m excited to use it, but as I’m unpacking I realize- I left my ridgerest in Greensboro. What the heck! Oh well. At least the deck is smooth, and I’m not sleeping someplace lumpy and damp.
Mr. Winter comes home for the night, and reads a magazine in front of the fire. Mr. Winter checks his voicemail. A cold draft mysteriously finds its way through my bivy sack, and suddenly it’s as if I’m lying exposed on the deck, my sleeping bag a piece of newspaper.
I find the ladder to your loft- it’s almost, but not quite, too short. You’re either a little dangerous, or a little lazy. It scares me, anyway, but the cold makes me brave so I gather my sleeping bag in my arms like a favorite cat and ascend its wooden rungs to the bird’s nest under the roof. There’s a little window up there, with a little latch, a futon and an impressive pile of blankets and quilts. A book is tucked under the edge of the futon- Horse-Keeping For Small Pastures. I slide my sleeping bag under all the blankets and then slide myself inside it, down far where Mr. Winter cannot find me. I put my face in the hood of my down bag and pull the hood-strings until the little hole for breathing is only nose-sized, and I am still, for a moment, cold. But then I am warm, and then I am asleep.
I wake up and the first thing I see (was up once to pee, from a bad dream, forgot to be afraid of the ladder) is the dusty window across the room glowing with light, four little panes too high to clean. The light dissolves and gathers on a dress you’ve hung on the wall, a shapeless frock, just lighter than the pine walls, with a large lace collar and pearl buttons. It looks very old, and I imagine you wear it to play your banjo at special occasions, or not at all.
The morning is late. I’ve slept long and deeply. I’m a little bit sick, a scratchy throat and a sore neck, but figure now that I’ve slept in this loft I’m as good as cured. Also, there’s bright sunshine and I’ve got lots of wool clothing. Winds. Good strong winter. I bundle up, wrap my scarf seventeen times around my face and prepare to plod out into the good green world. Western North Carolina is wonderful. Just cold enough. I pull my note from the door and write an addendum- Am currently squatting your shack. Wonder where you are?
I walk a long time looking for a ridgerest to buy and end up with a new hat- one of those structured ones with fake fur inside and ear-flaps that snap under your chin. It’s a bit too big and I quickly dub it my ‘bucket of warmth’. It’ll be wonderful for the train, or right now. Later I return to your shack and you’ve flipped over my note and written on the back- Just got back from Knoxville. Don’t go away yet! Let’s make dinner later. You can sleep in my loft. There’s room for two.
You finally find me at the coffeeshop, eating a day-old pumpkin muffin, gluten-free, and drinking nettle tea. We walk your bike to the store and buy a bunch of collards, a gorgeous purple cabbage, two apples, a dozen eggs. Back at your shack you light a half-dozen taper candles, pull sticks from the brush-pile and push them into the fire-box of the cookstove. I chop dumpstered tomatillas, pulling off their papery outsides in the half-light, and one small white onion. Soon we’ve got a pot of tomatilla soup going on the hot woodstove, a kettle of tea water. You add various jarred ingredients, yogurt from the porch, and some sugar. Green tomatilla skins float to the top. We make a pan of collards, with vinegar and soy sauce, and a skillet of turnip wedges, browned in coconut oil. We simmer some quinoa to add to the soup, round up a few clean bowls, and then it’s time to eat.
The soup is amazing. Thick and red and creamy with yogurt. Tomato soup is my favorite, you say. No-one gets excited about tomato soup like I do. It goes just right with the quinoa. The greens are perfectly soft and shrunken, tasting of salt and vinegar, edges crisped a bit where they waited in the warm oven to be eaten. The browned turnips are warm and glistening with coconut oil, delicious little wedges of joy.
“I think I really like tomato soup,” I say. “I never knew! And these turnips are so good!”
After dinner we talk, for the longest time, about gender- what else is there? And about queerness, and about boredom.
“I think I’m bored with queerness,” I say. “I think I’m bored with all of it. I’m bored with gender, I’m bored with dating. I think I don’t even want to have sex anymore. I think I don’t even care.”
You laugh. We talk about the remarkable fact that we’ve woken up and found ourselves in a time and place (and subculture) where it’s actually IDEAL to be queer- where non-queer friends find themselves almost apologizing for their straightness, kind of shrugging sheepishly, as if confessing an inexplicable aversion to puppies and spring sunshine. Indeed, the word straight, on my planet, has come to be synonymous with everything dull, uninspired, and without a sense of humor.
“I think ‘straight’ is a social construct.” I say. “I think it’s an impossible ideal to live up to. Since there’s no gender binary, how can there be straightness? No-one is purely feminine or purely masculine. So what is straightness?”
In the spring, you cut off your hair. You talk for a while about that. You were dating a guy at the time, a somewhat traditional fellow, played old-time fiddle. You’d had long hair for years, and you wanted a change, so you cut it off. But you’d forgotten that straight guys like feminine girls, and you’d been depending on your hair for that. You lived in a shack, you chopped wood, you wore the same old sweater every day. With the hair gone, you were suddenly butch. Dresses felt strange, straight guys paid you less attention.
“Hair!” you say, laughing. “It’s just hair!”
That night I read a page of Annie Dillard and then lie thinking, candle blown out- What is femininity? What does that even mean? Because once, not so long ago, men and women both worked outside, tended animals, planted crops, mended fences, got caught in the mud, patched worn clothing, wore no makeup- what was feminine back then? Long hair and a skirt stained with mud, as apposed to short hair and a wide-brimmed hat? Among the Inuit people of the arctic, before Europeans, there was virtually no difference in the dress and hair of the men and women. Everyone wore the same sorts of clothes, cut to fit them. What was femininity then?
A sort of image comes over me then, a glimmering thread in the great quilt of history. Heels, makeup, fragile, ornamental clothing- High femininity was born of the city. The modern femme aesthetic comes from a land, seemingly, without nature- without weather, true winter, or strong gusts of wind. A land where food comes from the shelves of a temperature-controlled buildings and transportation requires no walking. Life, indeed, in this land, requires little physical movement at all. So what you wear, then, can be a sort of art form- human beings, freed at last, from the forced practicality of clothing. I can’t help but wonder- is that where we’ve ended up? The city is feminine, while the country is masculine? Does that make nature, in the end, masculine? Are plants, animals, and dirt, all masculine? Is using your body masculine? Someone is, after all, still growing our food. Still baking in the sun, still plodding in the mud. Someone cuts our trees, someone gathers our chicken-eggs. Is that person masculine by default? Is masculinity the way of life we’ve lived for hundreds of thousands of years, whereas femininity is all things modern and abstract?
I can’t think about this anymore. None of it makes any sense to me.
I fall asleep in the warm loft, cookstove fire long dead, with these questions swimming lazily in my brain. I feel as if I’ve almost solved some sort of age-old puzzle, only to find an even more tangled puzzle underneath, or a sort of fun-house mirror that just reflects my own face back at me. And there in the mirror, twisted just beyond my reach, are the questions I ask myself again and again- the very questions, it seems, that define us as species- that started us hurtling down this path we find ourselves on- slamming old doors behind us as fast as our curiosity leads us to open new ones. And I, it seems, am no better than the worst of them. I cannot help but ask, again and again-
Where am I?
Who am I?