Self Made Man #23: Serenity Prayer


“Which New York?” my professor asked back in grad school at San Francisco State, when I tried to write about my accidental date with a closeted lady rock star. In that New York, I bar-backed until 4 a.m. at the only queer bar in the East Village, my hair crunchy with gel, pushing past butches with cigarettes. I’d stop to dance sometimes with a pretty girl who’d pull me close, the floor slick with spilled drinks. It was my first summer of legal beers so of course I drank Rolling Rock, sucking them down too quick as I waited for something to happen, a feeling fluttering my chest, desperate for I don’t know what.

Though I lied for years and said I made out with dozens of women in that bar’s sticky bathroom, among outraged flyers (PRIDE IS SPONSORED BY CORPORATE WARLORDS) and boom-boom bass, really there had been just one girl, once. What was the point of boasting? I felt ugly, I think, in that New York even though I was recognizable, passing as queer in the same way I now pass as a man.

I only ever wanted to be more myself.   

Which New York? A decade later, that bar is gone and so is the person I was before my transition. “Your essence is the same,” my mom says on the phone, uncertainly. Two years on testosterone, I can grow a beard and take a shower at the gym in Midtown, turning strategically toward the wall. My chest muscle and tattoos pull your eyes from my scars. If you look for too long, I’ll catch your eye with a hard stare and you will, I promise, look away.

In this new New York, I’m living inside the Serenity Prayer. I say this at brunch and people laugh but I mean it. God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change: the midnight roaches and the vessel I’ve become, muscular and hard-stomached on my bike, raggedly high on testosterone and alone; to change what I can: the relationship I have with my ghosts, the buzzy sense that I’m lost at sea; and the wisdom, of course, to know the difference.

My doctor in Boston, before I left, reminded me that I was still transitioning. “Three to five years,” she said, confidently, as if she could ever know, as if it ever stops.

Change is, inevitably, loss. I lost my chance at the first New York when I left after one sweaty summer, after I turned away from the rock star in a car on Houston. “My girlfriend is coming to town tonight,” I apologized, and then lost that girl too, a few years later. Later, I lost the brutal, daily chorus of hope when I left San Francisco, and lost the body I didn’t love but everyone else did when I stuck the first needle in my thigh at the start of summer in New England a couple of years ago. I lost what I thought couldn’t be lost (what I cannot change): legibility among people who’ve known me best and, briefly, even a sense of myself in space.

I jump first, so I’m told. It’s a trait mistaken for bravery when, in fact, it’s the only way I can rally at all.

In this New York, that bar is gone and if it were here I wouldn’t have a home in it. I remember how we’d look at the men who came in with girlfriends: how we’d elbow them on the dance floor, ignore them when they tried to order. “Sleaze,” we’d agree, and turn away from a guy who almost always really was, though now I wonder if any of them were ever once one of us, too.

In this New York, I get a little drunk on a Monday night and realize that there are two types of people: the ones who see the indifference as proof that this town is cruel, and the ones who realize that this much humanity crowded together requires a kind of armor, otherwise we’d be paralyzed by our capacity for tenderness. Tonight, the man in the hoodie spins his Rubik’s cube while the old woman across from him reads her New Yorker, listless as a Woody Allen character. I watch them pretend to not see each other and I think, God aren’t we so lonely; I think: it’s so vulnerable to be this exposed and trust the other to look away.

In this New York, there’s a kind of aloneness that makes every instance of togetherness a blessing, that allows for a sort of echolocation: who am when I shake your hand? Who am I when I pass this mirror, or this one, still a little surprised at the squareness of my jaw, the new narrowness of my hips?

Handsome, I notice. Not passing anymore.

It’s a grace to know that you are your own best witness, a ship buoyed and rocked by the beating hearts around you but sealed off and separate, a world unto yourself.

I met a professor at a party in Brooklyn who took a break from academia after falling in love with a dance troupe. “In one of my previous lives,” she began and it’s never been a figure of speech, I realized. Nowhere is that truer than this New York, layered over all the New Yorks that have come before, just as my body layers over itself until I am reabsorbed, until I am my own ghost.

In one of my previous lives, I thought I could predict the arc of my life. In this New York, I ride my bike through Brooklyn in this early fall light, never quite sure where I am yet always, somehow, home.

Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. His new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim. Thomas was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, a “masculinity expert” for VICE, and the author of the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His current column, "Amateur," is for Condé Nast's Them. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. More from this author →