Blessed in His Deed
Nonfiction by Max Oliver Delsohn
I am sitting in the bath when I receive my name. With palms upturned I raise and lower my hips, up and down, letting the water move over me in waves. I mouth it to myself, a silent chant. Max. Max.
This feels better than the lazy derivatives of Emma I thought I’d have to use when I was younger. I’d secretly post poems online as the mysterious and potentially British Edward Foxworthy, until Twilight ruined the name for all of us. After that, I tried Emmet, only to discover later that he is also a character in Twilight. I decided a name that invokes images of Mormon vampires is not going to aid me in living my truth.
Still, somehow, it struck me. Max, a name to stretch from boy to girl. A name for someone in a suit, in a dress, with body hair or a clean shave, with boobs, with a beard, with a vagina that feels more like a dick. A label to defend against all labels. Max.
After some time I get out of the bath and look at myself in the mirror. My body is delicate. I’ve been an A cup since seventh grade, I’ve broken each wrist twice, and I have never successfully completed more than one push-up. To make up for my tiny stature, I have a thick mass of curly brown hair at least twice the size of my head. I drench it in detangler as water drips down my back. I take all of it in, my angular face, my curves, my dark body hair. I regard it with a vague affection, a distant curiosity.
My roommates aren’t home, so I walk naked across the living room and through my bedroom door, slipping under the covers and opening my laptop. With no underwear to fumble with, all I have to do is type ‘porn hub gay’ into the search bar and I am good to go. As an old favorite involving a gardener with a leafblower loads on screen, I reach my hand under the covers. My mind is blank except for Max, repeating steadily and reaching everywhere. It is a meditation. Max. Max.
The gardener has only just turned on his leaf blower when I notice I have three missed calls from my youngest sister, Grace. She’s calling to say my grandmother has died. The service is in two weeks.
The only time to tell them was the funeral. Two weeks later I am on a plane home with my other sister, Hannah, discussing strategies for how to break the new name to my parents. I would be in California for three days-- getting in on Monday afternoon, and leaving Thursday morning. Hannah and I agree I should tell them both on Wednesday, the day after the service, once everyone has had a night to process.
“Mom wants to ride those four-person bikes in Santa Barbara,” Hannah tells me. “Do something as a family.”
“Yeah…” I mutter back, unfolding my tray table so I can rest my face in my hands. I think of our traditional Santa Barbara daycation, the surrey bike’s slow meander on the concrete track along the beach, shouting at each other to pull our respective weight, in pursuit of the tiny ice cream shop at the far end of the dock. I imagine my mother stuttering as she calls out for her daughter Emma, only to remember, Max. I cringe.
“Do you think she’s gonna freak out?” I ask half-heartedly.
Hannah thinks before she answers. “No. No, I don’t think she’s gonna freak out. It’s not like you’re going full FTM.”
“But I MIGHT go full FTM.”
“Don’t bring that up now,” Hannah warns, with a seriously alarmed look.
“I know,” I sigh. “I wouldn’t,”
“You may need to explain it for a while, like. She isn’t going to get it.”
“I don’t need her to get it,” I tell Hannah as I fold my tray table back up and press myself moodily back into my chair. “I just need her to know.”
My father picks Hannah and I up from the airport. He fills us in on the death of my grandma, the state of my mother. It was sudden. My grandmother died in the hospital after a seemingly-successful surgery, as my mother raced down the interstate as soon as the doctor called to report the complications. She was one hour into the three hour drive when the doctor called again.
We’ve been warned to expect anything between a chaste sadness and total hysteria, so my sister and I step cautiouslyinto the kitchen of our childhood home. My mother sits at the table, composed, but wobbles as she rises to greet us, her face stained with tears, the skin around her eyes dark with exhaustion. We hug stiffly, our custom. The brim of my baseball cap nearly collides with her forehead, but I weave just in time.
“How’s it going?” I ask tentatively, softening my tone.
“Okay, you know? Okay,” my mother says. She smiles at me, eyes wet.
My father excuses himself to pick up Grace from school, as Hannah and I settle in around the table. The first time in over a year. The ghost of how I used to move, the rise and fall of our voices together, it scares me. Is this my body? How did I do this before?
My mother begins listing all confirmed attendees to the funeral. My mother is one of eight children. She names her cousins, my cousins, the children of my cousins. I recognize almost none of them. My mother is thrilled they’re all making a point to be there.
“Joyce and Sheryl are flying in,” she continues, eyeing me expectantly. In an attempt to placate her lesbian daughter, my mother used to temper unintended expressions of disgust towards my sexuality with the quick name-dropping of two delightful older lesbians she grew up with, friends of my grandmother named Joyce and Sheryl. My mother always made a point to tell me how my grandmother ‘never had a problem’ with Joyce and Sheryl, and she didn’t, either.
“Oh, cool. I’ve never met Joyce and Sheryl,” I remind her, trying not to engage.
“Sheryl’s a sweetheart. And you’ll love Joyce-- Oh, shoot, I mean Josh. Josh and Sheryl. Right.”
My eyes narrow as Hannah’s widen.
“Joyce is Josh now,” my mother says simply. I look over at Hannah, who is laughing.
“Well THAT’S ironic,” Hannah blurts out, before immediately throwing her hand over her mouth.
“What are you talking about?” my mother asks. It’s the voice that she uses when someone’s about to be grounded. Neither of us respond. I scratch the back of my neck even though there is no itch.
“What, are you changing your name now, too?”
She stares at me, incredulous. “Thanks Hannah,” I mutter.
“I am so, so sorry dude.”
I did not actually come out as a lesbian to my mother. Instead, I was caught violently kissing my best friend in ninth grade. We were surrounded by textbooks and tried to plead studying, but the door was shut and the lights were off and dry-humping isn’t subtle. So, any conversation of this kind had never happened before. My scalp feels hot beneath the hat. Beneath it, I can feel my hair bunching. Is this a woman’s hair?
“I was going to tell you after the funeral…” I start, but am abruptly cut off.
“I support you,” she responds immediately, leaning in on her elbows like a teenage girl, listening for a secret. “So what’s the name?”
“You do what makes you happy. Now tell me what’s the name!”
“Max…” the name falls out of my mouth, limp and ugly. “I just want to be called Max.”
“I support you, Max,” my mother says, eyes wet again. She seems… sincere. I glance over at Hannah, who shrugs.
“Now we HAVE to go shopping for the funeral,” my mother says, apparently satisfied with my twenty second explanation for abandoning the name she gave me at birth. “A simple black dress should be fine.”
Once Grace gets home we all pile into the car, my mother, sisters and I, on our way to Pegasus, a clothing store in a strip mall just five minutes from our house. It is one small room of suburban pre-teen chic, with cheap dangling jewelry on a revolving rack, amidst neat stacks of overpriced skinny jeans and flowing sheer blouses. We could be in my 7th grade crush’s closet. I furrow my eyebrows and attempt to focus on the task at hand. Hannah and Grace are in their element, darting in different directions, grabbing several dresses at once off the shelves.
Though aggressively grossed out by them as a child, I grew to appreciate dresses in my adult life. I wore them on dates, to college parties, the occasional foray into the mystical, confusing world of femininity. Sometimes, the dresses felt like a costume, and I was just a drag queen with a deeply unfair advantage. Other times, I felt pretty, and I felt like me.
And then, for no specific reason at all, I quit shaving my legs. I started exclusively wearing boxy shirts, and bought myself a binder; the countless Victoria’s Secret thongs I had accumulated over the years were replaced by novelty boxers I purchased in bulk over the Internet. Whether my feminine side was authentic or a two-decade long, private joke, the sparkle had faded.
Regardless, the point was I had worn dresses before, and I had liked it.
I locate the Pegasus sale section and grab the blandest black dress I can find. Shuffling off to a changing room, I throw the thing over my body without removing my jeans. I’ve stopped wearing bras, too, so I stare at myself in the dress and try to imagine what it will look like once I squeeze into that old push-up bra buried deep in the garage.
As far as dresses go, this one is modest, this should be manageable, this would have been acceptable funeral attire a year ago. But now I cannot recognize my reflection. I can’t tell if my skin is burning. I cannot shake the nausea, the thought that I am fundamentally mismatched, a collection of all the wrong clothes and body parts.
Grace peeks in to look at the dress. “It looks so good, Emma.”
“Does that work?” I hear my mother yell from the opposite side of Pegasus.
I look myself over once again, and swallow hard. “Tell her this will work,” I whisper back to Grace.
On the car ride home, I briefly explain to Grace that I’m now going by Max. ‘So are you a boy?’ No. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m genderfluid. ‘What is genderfluid?” It’s supposed to be everything, boy and girl. It’s both and neither at once.
“I don’t think that’s a thing,” Grace decides.
"Emma? I mean Max?" my mom interrupts as she checks her rearview mirror. She is wearing her sunglasses, so I cannot see her eyes.
"Will you shave your legs tomorrow?"
Nobody speaks. My mother clears her throat. Then, after a moment, “It’s what grandma would have wanted.”
As my father and I approach the massive Spanish Renaissance style church towering above the thick morning fog, the goosebumps on my bare limbs rise. I stare down at my cold and furry knees. I had agreed to the dress, but couldn’t erase all the hard work I had done for the past six months growing some legitimate leg hair. I try not to think about the gawking from my devoutly Catholic extended family. For the first time since I was 11, I wish that I were blonde.
I slide myself into the mass of people gathering outside the church entrance, hoping to avoid as many relatives as I can. My aunt Lily and her husband, Greg, an aging one-hit-wonder from the seventies, spot me from across the foyer and rush over to me with a box of yellow flowers. “Hi Emma,” they both say hastily with a quick hug. Lily puts one hand on my shoulder and pushes the box towards me with the other. “Give these to guests when they come in, sweetie.”
I am handing out daffodils to some teenaged cousins when my mom whirls by, beaming as if a celebrity has just walked into the funeral. My first thought is Josh and Sheryl. I feel myself blushing.
“Harry’s going to perform Amazing Grace after the Eucharist,” my mom tells me, then lightly jogs towards another aunt looking lost on her way to the bathroom. I don’t get a chance to ask if Josh and Sheryl have arrived, or if musical performances are typical of funerals-- and in that moment, I realize, I’ve never been to a funeral before. This is the first person I’ve truly known to have died.
My grandmother and I were not close. The peak of our relationship came in the form of an impromptu wine-drinking contest on Christmas Eve last year. It was my grandmother’s idea, so of course I accepted, only to learn later my mother had secretly been serving her non-alcoholic wine since 2011. Needless to say, I lost that drinking contest.
Aside from that, my time with my grandmother was made up of passing hellos and goodbyes, small talk at family gathering, and the occasional command for me to ‘brush my damn hair once in awhile.’ I couldn’t call her a mentor, but my grandmother was honest, blunt in the disarming, good-natured sort of way. I wanted to be like that, too. And that was something.
The door to the church finally opens. The organ begins to play as I follow my mother down the aisle. Eyes are on us and with each step something wooden inside is hacked up and splintering. An enlarged photograph of my grandmother’s face just a few years before she died sits in a large frame on the church stage. Some people in the pews turn to look as we walk by, but I recognize none as Josh and Sheryl, and I hate myself for looking, I hate all of us for looking. We stop to file into our pew, in the center of everyone, and suddenly I am crying, willing myself anywhere else and out of this dress, out of clothes and names and history. I try to redirect my thoughts to my grandmother, to mourning, but there is only shame, and then rage, a deafening rage at myself and at my mother and at the whole concept of a funeral, the way it mocks the specificity of pain.
And then I am really crying, sobs loud and unapologetic. My skin is burning and my dress is wrong and my body is wrong and they’re all making me selfish, this solemn audience, and in front of all these people it’s the only thing I can feel. No one expects this from me, and I sense more relatives ogling, fascinated with the depth of my grief. Aunt Lily pats me on the back when I sit down, but I keep crying throughout the ceremony, all the way until Greg finally gets up on stage to perform his rendition of the classic, Amazing Grace.
It is at this point I am getting myself together, and maybe about to laugh, when I notice my mother has made her way next to me in the pew, has rearranged with my sisters so she can hold my hand. Before pulling away from a long, stiff hug, my mother squeezes my arm and whispers, “I know, I know. I miss her, too.”
On the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death I call my mother. She is driving home from the cemetery to meet with my father and Grace for breakfast. Her voice is slow and sad, but somehow peaceful, still full of love. Our conversation is brief, cordial and kind. She doesn’t stutter when she says my name. She hasn’t stuttered in months.
A year later, too, in the mirror. My hair’s gone. That glorious dragging of soft, dead weight. I loved it for being beautiful, to her, to her, toyou. I loved it because my mother and her mother told me to brush it out, to press my curls flat, but I refused. It was my first, sweet rebellion, with so little at stake.
Hair grows other places now. Legs, arms, and it’s still growing. The only skin I ever shave is my face, expectant with each new needle in my thigh, wondering how my body will interpret the testosterone this week. I regard each change with a vague affection, a distant curiosity.
Boy, girl, boy, girl. These lenses wash over me with each new mirror. Photographs, store windows, still water. Remember, imagine, remember... Emma, Max, Max.
And each time, the compulsion returns, desperate for meaning, for knowing: Is there truth in this body? Truth in this fat distribution, in this tone of voice, in this name? I come in the tradition of women, and I leave--