For Nina

August 18, 1995

Dear Nina:

Today I went to buy this notebook
with money I borrowed from Frida . . . your daughter.
I also bought myself a large ice cream,
vanilla-flavored.
It wasn't very good.
I came home.

Frida gave me a beating for having taken the money. She didn't even care when I told her I'd bought a notebook for school. Even though it was a lie, she couldn't know.

She punished me and I had to watch two hours of telenovelas with you.

 

"I always wanted to keep a diary." Those were Nina's words a few months before she died. She was ninety years old. She was prostrate on her bed due to a fractured hip. The crazy old thing had climbed onto the roof of a neighbor's house to waterproof it.

"Mama, why didn't you tell your friend to call a specialist?" Frida (my mother) reprimanded her, with her usual tone of "Why do you always embarrass the family?"

"And let her pay for something so simple? I've climbed the highest mountains in the world, by all that's holy!"

"You never climbed any mountain. You've never even left the city."

"I've crossed the Sahara with just a bag of dates in my poncho."

"Whatever you say, Mama."

Nina, my grandmother, had not been a great explorer, to say the least. The only desert she knew was the Desierto de los Leones Park here in DF, and the highest she had scaled in her life was the Torre Latinoamericana (and she had done so in the elevator, as any person with any brains would do). She never went to the Himalayas nor to the Nile, but she thought she knew them. Nor had she ever gone parachuting, although she was certain of having done so. She had never met the prince of Denmark, although she swore she'd had a torrid romance with him.

I will say it clearly: my grandmother was a crazy old broad.

We never knew why she had such a wild and hallucinatory imagination. We never knew when it was that her mind came irremediably unscrewed and she lost contact with reality. But that day she fell off the ladder and fell directly onto some bushes (fortunately for her, but unfortunately for her neighbor's precious garden), she ordered us to call my sister and me to her side. The old woman was convinced that some piranhas (yes, that's what she said) had bitten her leg and that she didn't have much time to live.

"I should never have accepted that job in the Amazon. You can never trust carnivorous fish."

"Nina, your leg hurts because of the fall," Claudia informed her.

"And you think that I don't know that? Whatever it was. What are you doing here?"

"You summoned us," I said, a little fearful.

The truth is that sometimes I was afraid of my grandmother. I have never known how to handle crazy people, even if they were members of my own family. And with Nina, you could never know at what moment her mind would get on a motorcycle and speed off to Fantasyland.

"Well of course I summoned you. Do you think I forget things or what? I called you here to tell you something very important. Something that only you two could understand. Once I told your mother, but she was always too stupid to understand it. That's what comes from giving roses to possums. And your mother might be my own daughter, but she is a stupid possum."

One needn't be scandalized by this comment from my grandmother. There are exemplary families whose picture could appear on the cover of a magazine or the label of a bottle of shampoo; families in which all the members get along well: they all have silky hair and their homes are decorated in the best of taste. But there are also families that are just the opposite. Not nice ones at all; families with wild hair, in which the grandmothers didn't knit scarves, nor did the mothers scrupulously keep their homes in order; families in which the grandmother called her daughter stupid and the daughter secretly wished her mother would fall into a diabetic coma. That's what my family was like. There was nothing I could do.

Frida and Nina never got along well. And we never got along well with Frida. Perhaps hate is something carried in the blood. Perhaps it's something in our genes.

So when Claudia has children, she'll be in serious danger of calling them stupid, if not because of genetics, then to follow the family tradition.

"And what secret is this, Nina?" my sister asked, proud to not be considered stupid in the eyes of such a sane person.

I feared that our crazy grandmother wanted to reveal to us where the treasure of King Solomon was hidden, and that we would swear to go to the other side of the world in search of it (with how I hated to travel), but no, instead of that she told us that business about the diary.

"A diary?" I dared to say aloud with a clear tone of incredulity.

"It's not a good idea to trust one's memory," Nina explained. "They say that when you remember, what you are really doing is remembering memories."

"What?" Claudia said, a bit fed up of hearing inanities, although in truth she always lost her patience easily, not just with inanities but with almost anything that tried her patience.

"I want to say that if you want to remember the last time you had sex with a Brazilian, you don't remember the sex itself, but the last memory you had of that relationship." My sister and I couldn't avoid a small titter; the mention of sex, or any similar subject, has always made children of eight or eleven years (as was our case) laugh. Nina didn't mind this, so she went on: "Every time you remember something you're covering it in a layer of cobwebs. So with the years, dancing tango becomes as dark as a forest blanketed in fog."

Nina paused and asked me to pass her tonic to her (that's what she called her flask of brandy). I remember that it was terribly cold that night. She went on:

"If I had kept a diary and if I had written about every mountain I climbed or every tango I danced, now I could read it, could see it in my mind and feel it all once again . . . I think that the last time I had sex with a Brazilian was in Berlin . . . Now I don't know if one feels something in the stomach when you have an orgasm. I don't know. Do you?" she asked Claudia directly, who could do nothing but stare at her in fear for a few seconds, perhaps wishing that she had asked her instead about the weather.

"I don't know, Nina. I'm barely eleven years old."

Grandmother offered us her tonic. Claudia didn't hesitate to take a sip. I've never really liked brandy, I knew that from the very first time, when I was six, that my grandmother (who else) offered me a bit, apparently so I would stop crying. I had seen Dumbo and I couldn't bear that they had caged the mother of that namby little elephant.

"You pay me heed, children. There are lives, like that of your mother, that bore even God himself, lives which don't deserve even a paragraph in a cooking magazine. But then there are marvelous lives, like my own, which should be recounted in a diary. And that's what yours will be like. I know it. I know that you are not ordinary . . . I know it. Don't stop writing about your extraordinary existence."

A day later, I began to write my diary. I don't know why. I always hated to write, for me it was like doing homework. But I was also very impressionable. When I was eight, you could tell me that taking milk baths would remove freckles and I would believe it. In fact, I did believe it, and Frida gave me a monumental beating for wasting three liters of milk on my absurd vanity. "Don't you know there are children in Africa dying of hunger?" the hypocrite told me. If she cared about people dying of hunger she’d live in Zacatecas or Madagascar. What she cared about was that she wouldn't have milk for the French toast that she made every morning. I, on the other hand, had to live with my horrible beauty spot on my cheek. Well, what I was saying is that I was very impressionable, especially when I was eight years old, so perhaps I began a diary only because I didn't want to forget, as my grandmother had, whether an orgasm was felt in the stomach (if the time came when I knew whatever the hell an orgasm was). Or perhaps it was what Nina said about my being extraordinary. What I do know is that I had a little problem. I had no great events to record. I had never climbed mountains like my crazy grandmother had done (even if it only happened in her imagination). I had never danced a tango, nor had sex with a Brazilian. And at eight years old, my immediate plans didn't include finding out about these experiences (neither the dancing, nor the sex). That afternoon, I managed to steal a few pesos from Frida's wallet. I went to the store and picked out an Italian notebook with two hundred pages and a lovely indigo cover. That night I locked myself in my room and wrote on the cover of the notebook: For Nina.

That would be the name of my diary. I imagined that I would tell everything to my crazy grandmother, the only person who always had faith in me. Then I opened it and wrote the first date, and what would be the first chapter of that extraordinary life that was my own: August 18, 1995 . . .

But my enthusiasm didn't last long. It was enough to jot down that first paragraph to convince me that they were the worst lines ever written in the history of literature, and if you don't believe me go back to the first page and you'll see.

After writing down such marvelous events, I thought that Nina didn't just hallucinate climbing the Alps and having submarine adventures, she was also hallucinating in believing that my life was worth being recorded. I saw myself becoming a decrepit old man, adjusting my glasses, reading those words and feeling such shame that it would make me leap from a window to thereby put an end to such a drab existence. But when one receives a humiliating beating for a notebook with such a nostalgic color, one has no choice but to give it a second chance, not just the notebook, but the gray and abominable life one has been allotted. Perhaps the following day something great would happen, perhaps I would meet an extraterrestrial, or a polar bear would attack my school, or maybe Bono (my biggest idol) would appear on the street signing autographs.

But the next day none of these happened, so I decided to hide the notebook and to wait until something truly exciting happened to me.

Almost ten years had to pass for me to work up the nerve; to dig in my closet and pick up that notebook once again. This notebook. It no longer has two hundred pages (I tore out a few to jot down phone numbers and recipes), but the indigo color is just as bright. On the cover I still found that dedication: "For Nina." Who would have thought? Ten years later. Just when I am about to turn eighteen. And I think I finally have something worth recording.

 

The Day I Tell You About My True Nature

I am a woman.

I've said it! I've finally confessed to someone. And you are not scandalized, because who am I going to tell if not you. You tell me: who? Besides, it's absurd for a diary to be surprised (even if it hasn't had any news in ten years). That's what a diary is for. To listen to the most terrible and difficult things, even when most of it will be a bit muddy. Well. I must confess that I blushed a bit myself on confessing it to you. But I think that's natural. It's not easy to say that one is a woman, when all one's life you've had a male anatomy and the very unfeminine name of Eduardo. And of course, you must be asking yourself how it is that suddenly, at almost eighteen years of age, this brute comes to realize something like this. Well, just so you know, this is nothing new. It is older than you are. And you aren't exactly young, diary. What happens is that what I am telling you is something I have carried inside me for a long time and I had never dared to confront it, but now I recognize it openly. It's something I knew almost since I was born. Or at least since that memorable day.

Perhaps I should have started there. With that first memory. If my grandmother could hear me, she would enter another diabetic coma.

When I was five years old and aunt Lola asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered her with complete naturalness and assurance: "A woman." The lady gave an absurd cackle that let me see her twisted, yellow teeth. (Can you believe she had them that way until just a few years ago? That miser couldn't spend a tiny bit of her fortune, because if there's one thing she has it's money to buy herself a smile out of a toothpaste commercial, and instead of that she has preferred, for all those years, to keep spending everything on her stupid collection of stuffed toys and on boxes and boxes of cigarettes, the cause of her lovely dentures.) Sorry. I'm digressing (again). What happened is that aunt Lola smiled. Then, assuming that I hadn't understood the question, she tried to clarify: "No, dear. I mean, what profession would you like to have. Would you like to be a fireman, a doctor, a soccer player?"

"Well . . . a secretary."

The old lady turned whiter than the mayonnaise mask she sometimes used at night (and which by the way never helped at all) and at the same time coughed (perhaps the effect of her last dose of nicotine). You should have seen her face. Worse than if I had become a demon out of the Apocalypse or Saddam Hussein (who was the villain of the moment and who is now not at all fearsome, because he's been executed and now he is at most a poor pathetic bearded ghost).

It didn't take her even a second to realize I wasn't joking. Especially that business about being a woman. I don't know what bothered her most, my wanting to be a secretary or a woman. Suddenly she must have imagined me in a badly tailored dress, wearing square glasses and tights with holes in them, chewing on a leaking pen, and she must have wanted to throw up, but good manners and her nebulous intelligence allowed her to just pat me on the head and emit a forced little laugh (one of those that women use when morality and good taste have been beaten and they find themselves in their underwear) and to say "Oh, that's so Eduardito."

So you can see, I already knew at five. I had a feminine voice trapped by an unknown dark force. But now, after years of captivity, at last you feel in your pages my true and marvelous voice, and even though you don't tell me so, I would almost bet that you must be rather conflicted by those years of silence. I hope you don't mind that your name continues to be that of my grandmother. But to speak to you like this, as if I were speaking to Nina herself, makes me feel more confident. Nina was the only person who would have tolerated hearing the confession of someone who had discovered they were living with the wrong genitals. You see? Now I didn't blush on using the word genitals. She told me things that I couldn't understand even now, but you could see on her face, on the three wrinkles that ran along her cheeks, when she told me her crazy adventures, that for her what was important was not that I understood, but that I listened to her. That's what was important. To know that you are listening to me now. For me, Nina, you are like a twin sister of my grandmother. That grandmother who barely knew me. That old woman who I had the chance to listen to often, but who never had the opportunity to listen to me. And now that I can, I want her to know me, through you. I want her to know everything about me through this new Nina. This Nina that doesn't have wrinkled skin, but instead almost two hundred blank pages. So don't be surprised if sometimes I address you as my diary and sometimes as if you really were my schizophrenic grandmother.

I am digressing from the main subject. Another of my defects: I get sidetracked a lot. Sometimes I can be talking to someone about the Oscars and suddenly, without any warning, I start to talk about water shortages. My God. I think it is something I inherited from my grandmother. I only hope I don't one day confuse olives and spark plugs. But my being all scatterbrained, it's true. You see? I did it again. Well, I said that the main theme of this first confession is: the change.

What, didn't I tell you? Well yes. I want to change. I want to not just recognize myself in my true sexuality but to go further. I want to be a woman in body as well. Of course I'm afraid. I'm not foolish, I know that to be fully a woman obvious things must happen to my anatomy, but I am not in a rush. Don't worry, I don't plan to take a knife and eliminate my masculinity as soon as I finish writing this page. Barbarities, no thanks. It's something that must happen step by step. It's not something that one can just take, like drinking a glass of water. It is a very difficult decision and I know that I must continue to let it mature in my little head. It's not something that one can just gulp down, like a shot of tequila, just like that. Not at all. I know that it’s something that must be plotted, like the plans of the worst villains of the telenovelas. Something that I must think about a lot.

I have not yet decided to make the full change, but the very idea excites me. I am ready, dear Nina, to find out with you if I really should take that great leap. So I have only one question, once I have recognized myself . . . What's next?

 

The Day I Tell You How I Found My Real Name

Today Victoria Citlali Dorina de la Concepción was born.

After thinking about it a lot, Nina, I decided that one of the first steps I must take was to change my name.

It wasn't easy. There were so many names to choose from. I love so many, from the common names like Fabiola, Adriana, Diana, or Elena, to those that most people don't like, such as Cordelia, Ursula, Fernanda, or Deborah. I like foreign names, like Jennifer, Madeline, Midori, or Gretchen, and Mexican ones like Xóchitl or Eréndira. Almost all women's names fascinate me, that's why I couldn't decide to choose just one. In truth, all feminine nouns have a music and a delicacy to them, you can almost swear they give off a marvelous perfume (even if that sounds so cliché). The harsh sun is not the same as the pale moon, a brusque wind is not the same as a gentle breeze. Now that I think of it, I could also call myself Rain or Mist, but I'm just not enough of a hippy. And even though my name is pompous and long, to you, dear Nina, I will always be Victoria. Yes, like the Victoria who triumphs, like the sexy and mature Victoria Abril, like the glamorous Victoria of Victoria’s Secret or like the real Princess Victoria of Sweden. But never Vicky, please! No thanks!

 

The Day I Tell You About My First Confession

And today, Victoria Citlali Dorina de la Concepción had her first mission: To kill Eduardo. My God, how tragic that sounds! Like something out of a cheap fotonovela.

Be that as it may, today Victoria took his picture (Eduardo's), buried it in the back yard, and brought him a bouquet of roses (people always like roses). And she didn't do this because she hated him. She could never hate him. For almost eighteen years they shared the same body, the same life. To hate Eduardo would be to hate herself in some way. Victoria killed him because it was necessary to do so. Because today, when she had begun to exist, it was obvious that they could no longer share the same body. Two people can't occupy a single space. It is a universal law of physics. The victory could only belong to one of them.

You can't imagine how difficult it was. It is one thing to confess to you, Nina. After all, you are nothing but processed wood pulp, which makes talking to you like talking to a plant (don't be offended, but if you think about it, that's how it is). Of course if you really think about it, in reality, who I am telling this all to is myself, you are nothing but a representation of one of the levels of my conscience (I don't know which out of all of them, but that's how it is). That's what some ridiculous psychologist would say.

Anyway, whether plant, my own conscience, or nostalgia for my grandmother, it's one thing to tell it to one of those three and quite another to tell it to a human being other than oneself. But I got to thinking that Victoria Citlali cannot exist if she doesn't exist for other people. So I decided to talk to the person who, after Nina, I thought, could understand me best: my sister Claudia. After all, she is what is called a born rebel and if anyone close to me knew anything about crises and how to confront them, it was her.

Claudia was always a sort of Wonder Woman to me. She has always managed to get everything she wants, and she hasn't needed to use a real lasso or an invisible airplane to do so. It doesn't matter that in order to achieve her goals, she always leaves everything in complete disarray (like that time when she fixed the washing machine and we were never able to clean the grease stains she left on the floor). I remember that time when, at twelve, she approached Frida and asked her to let her take acting classes. Frida told her something like:

"An actress? You want to become a strumpet?"

"A what?"

"No daughter of mine is going to be the concubine of anyone."

"A concuwhat?"

Frida didn't bother to explain that, for her, all artists, even Meg Ryan and Doris Day, were exhibitionist prostitutes, so she decided to end the discussion by calling into question my sister's talent:

"You couldn't be an actress, you need to be able to fool people for that. That is the one thing that those shameless women know how to do: make people think they're as pure as driven snow when in reality they're just oversexed hussies."

Claudia wanted to convince her that she had talent, that she wasn't a promiscuous slut, and she asked me to help her. One afternoon, we offered Frida a scene in which a hysterical woman, played by my sister, ran from the house to her husband, interpreted by me. (Let it be said in passing that my entreaties to Claudia to let me play the pregnant daughter instead fell on deaf ears, and that the rehearsals were bothersome, since my sister wanted my lines to be said perfectly and there were various moments when she was about to tear her hair out because of my multiple mistakes.)

Frida got upset . . . no, it is more precise to say she grew furious, because it was obvious that Claudia was portraying her running to our father. She punished Claudia for being impertinent, a bad daughter, and a whole series of archaic and outdated adjectives. And she concluded by saying:

"If at least you had tricked me, but you see . . . you didn't even have the talent to do that."

Later, Claudia managed to work things out so that Frida gave her permission to study acting. That's why I admire her, she was never afraid to take on anyone, not even Frida. That's why I chose her as the first person to learn about the existence of . . .

"Victoria Citlali what?"

"Dorina de la Concepción."

". . ."

Those three periods indicate a long silence, which made me say:

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"What?”

"I like just Victoria better."

"That's fine." (I knew she wasn't going to understand my magnificent extravagance.)

"Just don't call me Vicky."

"Listen, do you think you're maybe just gay?"

"I'm telling you it's more than that. I've always felt I was trapped in a body that wasn't mine.”

". . . ."

More inexplicable silence from my sister.

"What are you thinking?"

"Holy shit! I've always wanted to have a sister!" (Claudia has always had a "foul mouth," Frida would say, or she "talked like a sailor," Nina would say, but what can we do, it was part of her charm, I always said.)

This great revelation, as you can understand, led us to recall how we were when we were little girls . . .

And I say we were "girls" here, because I just decided that if I am going to call myself Victoria, I should start to assume my gender even when writing, so let me repeat it: when we were little girls, I used to envy the clothes and shoes that were bought for Claudia. I confessed to my sister that it was I who in secret put makeup on her Barbie dolls and changed their dresses. "So that's who it was. I had thought there was the ghost of a little girl living in the house with us," she said. The truth is that Claudia had barely played with her dolls, and that's why the mystery of her Barbies with makeup had barely bothered her. She preferred to play baseball in the park, scraping her knees and leaving her best clothes in tatters.

I also told her that ever since I could remember, some hidden place within me wanted the jeans or T-shirts that aunt Lola bought me to magically turn lilac or at least purple. But I always told myself (both for the color of the clothes, as well as for the Barbie dolls): "What's wrong with you? Those are things for old broads to like . . ." What a phrase: old broads! It frightens me that I was so vulgar to have used such an expression. But that's how it was. I was a man and I had to act with hardness and coldness and I couldn't do any of the things that women did . . . like cry during movies. Oh! Better for me to tell you about that tomorrow, because it's getting late and I have a feeling Frida is going to knock on my door and tell me to turn out the lights. Yes, Nina, I am almost eighteen years old and she still bothers with that, but don't think it's for me to get the rest I need, she does it to pay the electric company a few pesos less.

Para Nina, Un diario sobre la identidad sexual, written by Javier Malpica, illustrated by Enrique Torralba, published by Ediciones El Naranjo © 2009 by Javier Malpica, text, Enrique Torralba, illustrations.