"Nevada" and the Multiverse of Sadness – www.autostraddle.com

Posted: June 11, 2022 at 1:16 am

The problem is, how do you have some kind of emotional catharsis when you know youre too old for it? Nevada, Imogen Binnie

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was first published in 1999. I was five years old. At least one copy likely sat on a shelf at my local Barnes & Noble throughout my childhood and adolescence. The book is targeted at teens, so I could have picked it up at any point once my age entered double digits, which was when I began reading books targeted at teens and adults.

But I didnt.

I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower during my last semester of high school. A new friend who had gone to the same school as me for twelve years and had loved this book for many of them gave me her copy.

By the time I read Stephen Chboskys coming-of-age tale, I was old enough to be dismissive. I hadnt read anything considered YA in years, and I looked down upon a book I could finish in the time Id take with a more pretentious short story. And yet, despite my hesitance to give this book praise, it overwhelmed me with recognition. I knew that if Id read it four years earlier, my entire life would be different.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about Charlie, a 15-year-old who has spent the last year in a mental hospital dealing with clinical depression, the suicide of his best friend, and the death of his aunt. Hes starting high school a year late and is anxious about fitting in until he meets two seniors, the beautiful and troubled Sam, and her step brother, the gay and fabulous Patrick. Charlie falls madly in love with Sam and enters their world of drugs and drama and cool music like The Smiths.

I felt like Charlies story was my story. I was sensitive. I had clinical depression. I only had older friends. I had a sister who had bad experiences with boys. I felt drawn to gay people and community without being gay myself. I had a close relationship with one of my teachers. And I spent many nights in my feelings listening to The Smiths. The voice in my head that had prevented me from aligning too much with Holden Caulfield was silenced by the reveal that Charlie and I even had the same birthday Christmas Eve.

Three days before Charlie turns 16, he has the same first kiss I had at that age. Even more than our shared birthday, this was what unsettled me. After exchanging intimate holiday gifts, Sam kisses Charlie. She tells him she wants his first kiss to be with someone who loves him. It was the kind of kiss that I could never tell my friends about out loud, Charlie writes. It was the kind of kiss that made me know that I was never so happy in my whole life.

The specifics were different, but as I read this moment, I realized my close friend and older crush had done the same thing as Sam. They loved me for how I saw them, they loved me for my innocence, they loved me for who they thought I could someday be, but they couldnt love me how I wanted. Like Sam, they told me that. Like Sam, they warned me not to get too close. And like Sam, they still kissed me so my first could have the joy so few firsts are granted. Or at least that was my interpretation as I read about Charlie and Sam less than two years after I was given my own moment of tender evanescence.

When I finished the book, I wondered what choices I would have made had I read it earlier. I was certain I wouldnt have followed the book so closely had I known. Maybe I wouldve made different decisions about my friends or my teachers or my music taste or how I acted with my first love. As a desperate-to-be-cool 18-year-old, I imagined I wouldnt have let my life be modeled after a popular piece of young adult lit.

Now I see the fault in that analysis. My life would have been different had I read the book at 14, but only because I wouldve modeled my life after it more. I didnt drink or do drugs in high school. I think I might have. I took two years to make a move with my crush. I wouldve done it sooner. And, most importantly, I would have watched Rocky Horror Picture Show.

At 18, I didnt know about my biggest adolescent regret, but I know it now. Had I followed this book more closely, I mightve gone to a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, I mightve been immersed in a more public queerness, I mightve realized what I was trying so hard to hide from everyone and myself.

Or maybe it would have done nothing. Who knows.

Of course, if youre a fan of sci-fi or comics or physics, multiverses have been in for some time. But now theyve entered the mainstream. Whether youre going to the latest Marvel movie, the pop-arthouse title of the year, or catching up on the new season of Russian Doll, it feels like everyone is imagining alternate timelines as we grapple with our untenable reality.

But before Dr. Strange, there was Gwyneth Paltrow. Before multiverses entered the zeitgeist, we had sliding doors. Ive never actually seen the movie that gave us that phrase, but I have seen Krzysztof Kielowskis original Blind Chance and Run Lola Run, another 1998 film inspired by the premise. For many years, I thought about the concept of sliding doors on a near-constant loop.

I didnt know I was trans until my early 20s. I also didnt know I had OCD. One of the ways my OCD manifested was in thought patterns around innocuous choices. Maybe inspired by Blind Chance and the cultural presence of Sliding Doors, this was especially acute with the subway. Every time I rode the train several times a day I felt consumed with what line I took and which car I entered. Sometimes the thoughts were concerned with my timeliness, but since I often left plenty of padding for my anxieties, they moved on to more unlikely outcomes.

Id stand in front of the train cars, convinced that the one to my right held my soulmate and the one to my left held my murderer. Or the other way around. Or the way around. Or the other way around. Or the other way.

This didnt prevent me from getting on the train what good would that do since the next train would have the same dilemma and also what if I missed my soulmate but I would spend the subway ride looking around at people awaiting my outcome. These impulses werent helped when my anxieties found validation. I never met my soulmate (I dont believe in them) and I was never murdered (Im writing this essay), but I did have less dramatic encounters. How could I quiet my obsessive thoughts after ending up in the same train car as a classmate and striking up a flirtation? How could I quiet my obsessive thoughts after a man put his penis on my shoulder and pissed down my back as he laughed?

The problem with my thought patterns wasnt their validity it was their use. The reason we find multiverses and sliding doors so compelling is because every small decision we make does have the potential to alter the course of our lives. Every time we leave the house, we may encounter our soulmate or our murderer or, more likely, someone we have mediocre sex with for a few months or a car that runs us over.

Its why fate is such an attractive notion. If we miss out on our destiny with one small choice, another small choice will come around soon to fix it.

Choice itself becomes an illusion.

I tweeted this on March 11, 2020 at 9:04pm. Id had my last electrolysis appointment and gone to the grocery store to buy three weeks worth of food. A brief quarantine was predicted and, since I worked from home, I figured I might as well start slowing the spread early. I couldnt yet comprehend the next two years, but even three weeks at home felt daunting. So fuck it. I started Glee.

The pilot of Glee aired on May 19, 2009 toward the end of my freshman year of high school. I did not watch it. I loved musicals, but my reluctance to embrace anything feminine, gay, and mainstream prevented me from checking out a buzzy TV show on Fox about showchoir.

Since I was in theatre, I mustve known people who were Glee fans Gleeks, if you will but I dont remember much beyond a resurgence of Journeys Dont Stop Believin. I wouldnt think about Glee again until I started writing for Autostraddle and all the queer TV nerds around me insisted I check out the first 2.5 seasons. One viral clip that revealed Jewish mommi icon Idina Menzel guest starred, and it got added to my ever-growing list of queer TV Id missed while hiding in my translucent closet.

My plan was to watch Glee until quarantine ended. I assumed this would get me through the first season, maybe the first two. Of course, quarantine didnt end, and I watched all six. It became the only thing I could get myself to do, a task both thoughtless and thoughtful as the world asked so much of us all.

I already said I loved musicals, and you know I am gay, but I cant articulate how much I wouldve loved Glee if I watched it as it aired. I was too desperate to be cool to have turned into a full Gleek, but privately it wouldve consumed me.

Like most queer shows Ive caught up on since coming out, Glee is full of contradictions. At its best, its a sharp musical about adolescent queerness and the suffocating culture of American suburbia. At its worst, its a white man rapping Bust a Move to his teenage students.

For better or worse, I wish Id watched Glee while it aired. If Perks showed me elements of the life I did live, Glee showed me the life I didnt. While I was having stolen kisses and confused angst, the Glee kids were having lady kisses and dramatic realizations. They went from bullied and closeted to a post-Prop 8 fantasy of liberal acceptance. They came out in song, declared their love in song, experienced heartbreak in song, got married in song. True to both its genres teen soap and musical everything that happened to the kids on Glee was as big as the feelings I stuffed deep inside.

Im not sure what effect watching Glee in high school wouldve had, but I have to imagine watching a show this gay about characters on the exact same high school timeline as me would have done something. And while the trans representation was bad, it was at least better than any other trans representation I saw. Its also yet another opportunity I might have had to become obsessed with Rocky Horror.

Watching the show as an adult, I felt affection for my queer self who attended suburban public school from 2009 to 2012. She experienced so much bullying and so much brainwashing. She fought so hard to escape and so hard to survive. I also felt affection for an alternate self who knew about that queerness. A version who could have experienced these fights with more clarity and a stronger sense of self.

Closeted me wouldve quietly loved Glee, but that girl? She wouldve been a Gleek.

By the time I moved to LA and stopped seeing her, Id been practicing these new habits for over four years. My brain wasnt perfect, but I felt like Id achieved what I could with those tools. And so, when my new therapist suggested we try EMDR, I said yes.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a technique where you recreate the eye movements of REM sleep to retrain your mind and bodys relationship to trauma. The way an EMDR session worked for me is as follows: Wed start with the same painful memory, my eyes would follow my therapists finger back and forth as I thought of the memory, then I would say the new memory my brain jumped to, and so on and so on. It was a bit like writing a braided personal essay in real time so, of course, I loved it.

For me, EMDR functioned as a sort of physical time travel. If the (misguided) goal of every time travel story is to change the past, this process allowed the internal change without all the external side effects. I couldnt go back in time and stop the bullying I faced or grant myself an earlier self-awareness, but I could massage the pain of that timeline to change my future. Its nostalgia as action.

This is how it feels to come to art too late. Its no longer an experience of immediate connection, but one of processing, of rewriting. By imagining earlier exposure, we get to create that alternate timeline. Were watching the show, reading the book, as our present self and our past self. We may only get one timeline in our universe but it can feel like weve lived many lives. We experience these works of art as those different lives. We imagine the person we couldve become. We imagine the people we can now someday be.

They become a part of us. Inside our singular body exists a multiverse of madness and, within that madness, healing.

Okay, I had heard about Nevada. After all, I approached transitioning like a straight-A student with a self-made syllabus. Nevada was on the notes app list I brought to bookstores alongside Redefining Realness, Little Fish, and Shes Not There. But Ive always preferred reading actual books, and I held off on the titles I could only find online. By the time I gave up and read PDFs of Stone Butch Blues and Torrey Peters novellas, Id been to all those support groups, and Id lost interest in Nevada.

The same impulse in me that didnt want to watch Glee, didnt want to read the book my peers worshiped. After all, I barely considered most of them peers. They were consumed by their oppression, while I thought we were luckier than most. They seemed to romanticize their chaos, while I yearned for calm. They found new ways to hurt themselves, while I felt like the world hurt us enough. This condescension was misplaced while I wouldnt quite copy the aesthetic or swagger, I was just one breakup away from the chaos and self-destruction. And, of course, had I read Nevada, I wouldve known that feeling superior to other trans girls is the biggest clich of them all.

I finally read the book last year and, while I found echoes of that post-breakup self, what I really observed were those other girls I met early in transition. Oh this is why they acted that way. Oh this is why they said those things. I suddenly felt affection toward the qualities that annoyed and alienated me years ago. We were all just looking for reference points as we did this thing we had no idea how to do. This is what they found.

But thats not to say Nevada is wholly removed from my own early transition experience. After all, the book itself is concerned with the very things Ive been writing about.

Maria feels like she transitioned too late to be anything but fucked-up. She struggles with expressing emotion, fakes her way through sex, and cant even remember to take the hormone shot a past version of her coveted. She talks a lot about self-improvement, but her clearest actions are on behalf of others. While she often treats the people in her life with selfish cruelty, shes generous online with her blog. She writes about transness so others can connect with her experiences and find answers even though she has no answers for herself.

Enter James.

Part two of Nevada, shifts the third person limited omniscient narrator to another lost trans girl with many of the same issues as Maria. Except James is about ten years younger and about that much further behind in his transness. When Maria meets him at the small town Walmart where he works, she decides he is the reason for her reckless cross-country excursion. If shes too late to heal, maybe she can at least save another trans girl from the same fate.

Except, of course, shes not too late. Nor is she equipped to help this other person before he is ready to receive it. Maria loves to monologue with an air of self-awareness but as revealed when the novel slips into James perspective or briefly into Marias girlfriends perspective, Marias knowledge of herself and her defense mechanisms is limited.

Despite its reputation, Nevada is an accomplished work of fiction, not a wayward guide for lost trans girls. Maria is not a role model. And not even in the way Maria would tell you shes not a role model. Theres a reason the dedication says this is a sad book. The misery of Maria and James is understandable, but it is not inevitable. The versions of them we meet are not the only versions that can exist and hopefully are not the only versions that will exist.

When I think about the times I mightve read Nevada, I feel conflicted. If Id read it when it first came out, I might have come out, too. I think back to who I was my sophomore year of college and the impact it would have had on that confused girl. I like this narrative, because it gives me a few extra years.

But far more likely, I wouldve read it upon first coming out. I would have related to Marias dissociation, her feelings of being trapped in her theoretically good relationship, the ability to express emotions in writing she can never express in life. I wouldve embraced her draw toward chaos and understood the fact that coming out as trans was the first change she ever actually made to her own life that felt like it was leaving the map that was laid out for her at birth.

I wouldve related to these things, and I wouldve felt repulsed by other things. And maybe it would have caused me to lean into my chaos, and maybe it wouldve scared me away. But, ultimately, I dont think it wouldve changed much at all, because while I didnt read Nevada, two other people did.

Casey Pletts Little Fish and Torrey Peters Glamour Boutique were my Nevada. They were the portrayals of realistic, self-destructive trans women I latched onto with relief and pain. Both authors have mentioned Nevada as a pivotal moment in their own artistic development.

The only reason reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower in middle school wouldve changed my life is because nothing else I was reading presented alternate views of masculinity. The only reason watching Glee in high school wouldve changed my life is because nothing else I was watching showed contemporary adolescent queerness. The only reason reading Nevada in 2013 wouldve changed my life is because nothing else I was reading acknowledged trans people exist.

Art is meant to connect with us on levels far more complex than introductions to basic aspects of our identity. Its special when something is able to have that impact, but its more indicative of a failed society than successful art. In fact, its an unfair burden placed on artists who have loftier goals than representation.

In a world where every train car has your soulmate, it doesnt matter which one you choose. In a world where trans people are safe to live openly and trans literature is allowed to thrive, it doesnt matter when you pick a single book off a shelf. The best way to ensure that representation doesnt matter is to have a lot of representation.

Later, Marias friend echoes a similar sentiment: Hey stupid, did you ever stop to think that that pattern, that coping mechanism, was actually a brilliant strategy to keep yourself alive?

The first time I visited my family after coming out to myself, I stayed in the closet. I took off my nail polish, put my boy clothes back on, and let my mom make comments about how I needed a haircut. A week in my hometown reminded me of the suffocating suburban culture, and I returned to my girlfriend in New York with a revelation. If I had transitioned as a teenager, in my hometown, with my family, I wouldnt have survived.

It was a nice thought. Id spent months getting angrier at myself with every gender epiphany. How could it take me so long to figure out? Why didnt I realize sooner? Why didnt I start transitioning sooner? But now there was a new narrative. I almost didnt survive high school in the closet I certainly wouldnt have outside of it.

I wrapped myself in the warmth of this narrative for years. I took comfort in this morbid thought as I started hormones at 23, as I paid money I didnt have to remove a beard that shouldnt have grown, as I embraced my own delayed adolescent chaos. I believed it until the pandemic slowed me down. I believed it until I was once again visiting my parents, once again in that same suffocating suburb.

That first trip home, I had all the serious talks with my parents Id never had the courage to broach. Maybe it was because the pandemic had reminded me of our mortality. Or maybe it was just because I hadnt seen them in so long. Either way, there was no small talk that week.

One night while walking their dogs, I stated my oft-repeated narrative to my dad. I told him that if Id come out in high school, I dont think I wouldve made it. Really? he replied. Thats all it took.

No, not really. I was depressed in high school, but so much of that depression was due to my inner confusion. I was a feisty and political kid, and if Id had language to describe myself, I wouldve done so with fury. I fought so hard for gay acceptance at my school without even knowing where I fit into that. If I had known, not only would I have been happier, but I wouldve had a clearer sense of purpose. I see videos of kids giving eloquent speeches to their state legislatures and I think, That wouldve been me.

Maybe Maria did have to stay in the closet. Maybe, for her, that defense mechanism really was necessary. But its just as likely it had more to do with the misinformation she believed than her ability to withstand being an out trans teen. I know thats the truth for me.

What can we do with that knowledge? What can we do with the fact that we got on the wrong train car? Or, more accurately, that the right train car never arrived at our station?

I cant believe in fate. I cant believe I was meant to have those years taken from me. Instead, I can fight for a world where other people have it better. Marias impulse to help James wasnt wrong. She just needs to help herself first. Maria is not too late to live the life she deserves. I wasnt too late to live the life I deserve. Theres no such thing as too late. Theres just later than what shouldve occurred.

Each one of us has an infinite number of versions we couldve been. We can long for those other versions, we can hope the lives of others have more ease, but we have to accept the version that exists. Do whatever it takes. Read the books you shouldve read earlier, watch the shows you shouldve watched earlier, find a therapist who does EMDR, or just get out of your own head for five fucking seconds so you can take your estrogen shot and tell the people you love how youre feeling.

If every choice we make determines who well be in the future, we owe that acceptance to our future selves. We cant change the choices we made, we cant change the choices we were offered, but we can make new choices today.

Our future self is almost here. Go ahead. Pick a timeline. Who do you want them to be?

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"Nevada" and the Multiverse of Sadness - http://www.autostraddle.com

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