One of the biggest cliches of all time is that you never really know what you had until it’s out of your reach. When I finally reached the point where I could no longer deny who I knew I’d always been, hidden under years of carefully curated suppression and compartmentalization, I couldn’t wait to throw off my boyhood and jump onto my path to womanhood; a world of its own that I had been silently longing to enter for my entire life. I realized fairly early on in life that with each loss comes a heightened state of consciousness; experiencing a death for the first time, having your heart broken by a lover, or realizing you’ve outgrown a place or person.
There are also the happier occasions that create growth; falling in love, experiencing life in a place completely unlike any place you’ve ever been before, or the excitement that comes with shedding one part of yourself so that a new one can be born. I was eighteen when I lived abroad for the first time ripping my roots from the soil my family had lived on for over a hundred years.
I didn’t ever think I’d miss anything about my boyhood but how can you prepare to miss something that you’ve never gone without? It’s been the small actions of being a boy that I’ve found myself crying over on nights when I allow myself to wallow in self pity; just for a moment. Not having to wear a shirt on the beach, being able to take a walk at night without wondering which is the safest route to take, tensing up and moving your hand towards the phone in your pocket as a man walks past you on a dark street. Coming into your own is a painful process but we don’t often talk about the pains that come with waking up to a new sense of self.
Most people would not assume that an epiphany, the catalyst into a new life journey, would begin by binge watching an Amazon series inside of a cramped and hot apartment in a country that’s not your own. I’m not most people, so it made perfect sense to me, when after watching the second season of transparent in thirty four hours, I walked into the bathroom of the hot and cramped apartment I was staying in, grabbed a razor from the cabinet, lathered my face with thick shaving cream, and began shaving my face. I had been growing out my facial hair for the last five months. It had been my last attempt to cling to any shred of masculinity I might have.
In New York I didn’t feel the impulse or desire to appear masculine in any way, but studying abroad in Rio, I kept running into situations where my gender was called into question. After shaving the thick-black-hair off of my face I looked in the mirror and did what seemed most natural at the time; I grabbed a tube of dark red lipstick and applied it to my lips.
So much of that part of my transition seems distant and hazy. I remember putting on the lip-stick in the mirror, the episode of Transparent I watched when the thoughts started circling my mind until I broke out in tears, and the cigarettes I smoked; smoking one after another as I sat on the edge of the small terrace in my apartment, sweating in the oppressive humidity. I put the cigarette in between my lips and lit it. I inhaled a deep drag from the marlboro gold and looked out into cloudless night sky wondering where my journey as a boy ended and my life as a girl-child began. The sun was slowly coming up, the sky still dark enough that the lights from the buildings dotting the skyline were visible through a thick haze. I exhaled and ran my hands over my smooth and naked face. The heat combined with the screaming anxiety I felt inside, over making this leap kept me up for that entire night and the next four days.
A week after I came out as a trans woman I packed my bags, got on a plane, and went back home. Five months in one of the most special places I’ve ever been to was over but all I could feel was a release. I kept waiting for the moment where I would break down and be full of nostalgia and sadness over leaving but I couldn’t look back. On my last day in Rio I sat on the beach before heading to the airport, taking in the mountains and the ocean and I knew that Rio no longer looked like me. It was the best place for Marco and the city nurtured that part of me and even celebrated it, but with the birth of Nika and my girlhood it was time to go onto new chapters and to discover a new horizon.
When I left New York during the summer of 2014 to go back home before leaving for Rio the city seemed like a much different place to me. New York has a habit of changing with or without you and the ever changing landscape can sometimes make one feel hopelessly small and insignificant. Before I left New York I knew that I needed a temporary break from the city because it was no longer serving me the way I felt I needed to be served. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I realize now how entitled that state of mind was but I couldn’t handle being here anymore and so I ran into the arms of another lover and stayed there until I was ready to come back. My identity was breaking down and becoming frailer with each summer day spent in my apartment in Queens and a sense of dread was permeating my mind. For some reason New York is not the city where I was able to fully see myself. Finding clarity in the chaos of New York is a perplexing challenge that I took on every day
It was freezing and grey out the day I made the four hour trip from Rhode Island back to New York. It had been over five months since I’d been back and for the first two hours I slept in the back of the car. As we approached the George Washington Bridge all of the baggage I thought was still waiting for me in New York dissipated and it felt like I was moving here for the first time. I was seeing everything through new eyes; the smog hanging over the Manhattan skyline, The Empire State building becoming visible as you drive into the thick blanket of haze, and the reflection of the sun on the Hudson. I felt like the city was opening up its arms to welcome me home. The anger and frustration I had felt for New York when I was last here during the hazy summer months was gone and I was ready to hit the streets as a new woman in pursuit of life in New York.
It’s been five months since I socially transitioned and came back to Lang and time has continued to spin out of my control as I move on from one phase of my life to another. There are days when I catch myself staring at men on the train with their legs spread wide open, taking up an extra seat, as the rest of us try to quietly find a space for ourselves. I was certain of myself before I transitioned, gaining confidence and sexual freedom as a young gay boy. Now I’m starting all over again and when I think about it too much it feels like a crushing weight is closing in on my head. The impulse to scream until the weight releases is one I may, on occasion, give into within the quiet walls of my bedroom.
These are the moments where I become angry and nostalgic for the days when I lived as Marco instead of Nika who sits crushed between two people, who has her legs tightly crossed so as to not take up anymore space than I have already taken, who doesn’t wish to be a nuisance in spaces that aren’t made for her. But there is a price to be paid if you want to live a life of full happiness and so I guess this is what it costs. I thought coming out would make all of my anxieties go away, and in some ways it did but navigating the world is a series of upsets and small anxieties and so I’ve chosen to navigate those things in New York.
Rio seems to be a city that captures anyone who visits it and either sends them spiraling into a love affair with all it has to offer or sends the visitor running home, unable to look past the chaos of the city, and into the beauty of its imperfections and flares. Coming to Rio the first time around was nothing but a pit stop as I waited to head to Europe, specifically London, a place I had dreamt of traveling to my whole life. Alas, the universe had a different plan in mind for me and in the course of two months my heart burst open and an overwhelming love for the city, its culture, and its people was planted inside of my soul. Throughout my life I have struggled to find a community that “looks” like me, that truly sees me and understands me. When I got to Rio I felt like I found my community and my tribe. And when I left my heart was broken and I was certain I would never feel such bliss, happiness, and love again.
I stood up, brushing the white sand off of my tiny speedo, and walked down to the ocean. The waves were smashing against the stand, pulling people in, and then spitting them out. I waded into the water and let it cover my thighs, while I looked at the setting sun. The sky was full of pink, orange, and purple hughes, falling over the favelas that circled above the city, sitting perched on the green mountains that dotted this playground city. I had shaved my legs for the first time in six years that morning and the water splashing against them made me feel slimy and soft the way a jelly fish feels if you’ve ever touched one. Christmas was coming in three days; my first christmas away from my family. Walking into my womanhood in a country whose language I didn’t speak or fully understand, in a country that looked like me in some ways but still wasn’t completely home away from my family and those who knew me best.
All of these things overwhelmed me in a way I had never experienced before. Maybe it was being so far away from everything I knew, maybe it was the paralyzing heat, maybe it was the space cakes I ate on an empty stomach, or maybe it was a combination millions of smalls factors that exploded within me; but it was on that beach, standing in the south atlantic ocean, that I made a promise to myself to enter 2016 as Nika, leaving Marco behind in this city.
During my last two weeks in Rio, I ran wild through the city trying to hold onto the freedom and anonymity I had in a place where so few people knew me. The beach was overwhelmed with people and to a visitor this might seem like too much to handle; to the locals and the people who made this city their chosen home, it was normalcy and as good as it gets. The brightly colored umbrellas were banging up against each other from one end of the beach to the other, people laying out, some roasting in the sun with oil covering their faces and bodies, others sitting under the cool shade, sipping capirinhas; a local drink made from sugar cane, vodka, and lime. I had just eaten my third space cake sold to me by a young guy with dreads and washboard abs. He told me to split each one with a friend because they were so potent but mind numbing potency was exactly what I desired.
Within the following days I began making good on that promise slowly coming out to a select few friends but unable to leap into the next step of telling my family about this realization. I wasn’t ashamed and I wasn’t scared of what their reaction would be, but a permeating sense of guilt overtook me every time I thought of telling my family that I was a woman. It was as though that by telling them I was a woman I was in turn robbing them of a brother, a son, a nephew, etc. All of the things they thought they knew about me were going to unravel and I wasn’t ready to micromanage their unraveling while dealing with my own rebirth. It’s now been three months since I’ve come out and everyone knows. If they had any unraveling to do they did it without burdening me and left me to navigate this path in the openness of New York.
By happenstance I came upon Rio de Janeiro; I don’t mean to say that I discovered this city or put it on the map for others. I ran through a list one day of cities and countries I wanted to travel to and somehow Rio ended up on that list. When I planned my trip there, it was to be a two month pit stop, before I headed to England for the rest of my gap year. Two years later and I’ve been back twice now, unable to shake the geography and sounds of that city from my psyche. Clarity came in the form of coming out as gay my first time in Rio, where much like my second time there, I was surrounded by a group of twenty-something-year-old volunteers, and much in the same way as the second time, I was basking in the sun in a speedo when my consciousness rose to the surface and washed me anew.
It’s been months since I’ve been back in New York and the honeymoon phase of coming out has worn off and at night I find myself lying in bed wondering how to get back to the sense of clarity and purity I always feel when I’m abroad. In Brazil I thought I had prepared myself for the obstacles that come with being not only a woman but a trans woman. But how do you prepare yourself to fight in a battle when you’ve never experienced one before. This isn’t to say that navigating the world as a gay person wasn’t difficult but being a man was the most carefree experience of my life and there are days that I want that sense of security back.
There’s a real danger in romanticizing the things that matter to you, something I’ve thought about a lot in the time that I’ve been back in New York. I look back on my semester in Rio and I see someone who was blissfully happy but also entirely conflicted, struggling internally not to boil over like a tea kettle. These days I am so caught up in the moment as my body and mood changes so frequently, I barely have time to look back and long for anything that once was; I only want to look forward right now unable to pause for moments full of nostalgia. I knew that saying goodbye to my life as Marco would be a jarring process but I didn’t realize how long it would truly take. There are still pieces of him that follow me around but I trudge forward anyway. I said goodbye to twenty years of boyhood on a sunny beach in a loud and beautiful city. Out with the old and in with the new;it’s the perfect way to survive and flourish in New York.
Coming back to New York has been an experience in which I’ve silently mourned one loss and loudly celebrated my own rebirth. Layers of anxiety and confusion lifted and I’ve been in a process of growing exponentially in the warm embrace of my community of friends and peers alike within the comforts and safety of Lang. My hair is longer, pods of flesh are visible beneath my shirt as my breasts begin growing, and the essence of my being feels completely renewed and different as I walk through the halls of a place where I can process the loss of losing a part of myself I wasn’t completely ready to say goodbye to. Even with the nastiness and sadness, the confusion and internalization of everything trans people face, I wouldn’t go back in time and do anything differently. The pain has been a necessary one; one that has literally given me life and set me on a path to higher consciousness and a healthier life, so that even if I am in the chaotic quietness of Rio or the rapidly changing landscape of New York, I can continue to find the space to breathe and shift my identity as I see fit.