Neither Nor

I am a man. Or so I’m told. I am a woman too; people have told me that as well. I often tell myself I’m neither, but I don’t find many people inclined to agree. Either/or is fine (I’m told) but neither just won’t do.

“You have a lovely baby boy,” said the doctor to my parents, who seemed to find it quite a convincing argument. So much so that there has been nothing I could do or say since to convince them otherwise.

They’d say: “your favorite color shouldn’t be pink.”

I’d think: “it (is but) shouldn’t be.”

They’d say: “your favorite toy is a princess doll? No, no, it is but couldn’t be…”

As I grew older, the theys would change though what they said would stay the same. But whilst the never-changing theys stuck to their line, different{I}s came and went inside my inner stage:

I am a boy (or else, why do people say I am?).

I am a girl (I feel like a girl. No, something stronger than feel, something like knowledge in my bones).

I am both (my body doesn’t fit my mind. Or it does, but my bodymind doesn’t fit the world).

I am neither (I am …)

Something beyond words.

Then one day I saw a picture.

It was embroidered onto a silk scroll that was hanging on a wall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The stitching was so intricate and delicate that it gave the impression of a glossy painting until you looked at it up close. The picture on the scroll showed a being with luminous skin, gliding atop a giant blue lotus. They held another lotus flower in their left hand and a set of prayer beads in their right hand. Their face was a mist of peace, serenity glowing from their eyes like a crisp dawn. As soon as I saw the scroll, words didn’t matter anymore. “That’s what I am,” I thought, “whatever that person is.” There was a placard next to the artwork with faux-cursive writing on it, telling three stories about the being depicted in the image. I read the stories over and over again until each one began to embroider itself into my heart.

I took a photo of the image and the next day I went to a tattoo parlor to get it inked on my chest, starting, painfully, at my sternum and blooming outwards towards my nipples. I was mostly wearing low-cut dresses at that time in my life, so the tattoo burst out like an over-eager heartbeat from my chest. (What people called) a man’s chest beneath (what they called) women’s clothes is something to be stared at, or so I’d been told by most eyes I’d ever met. So, I hoped this image might answer the question their eyes were asking, in ways my words had always failed to do.

But more often than not, they’d just say things like:

“Freaky tattoo! What’s that all about?”


“Oh, the (wo)man in your tattoo is so beautiful; who is (s)he?” with the bracketed and unbracketed version, to my delight, tending to be split in roughly even numbers.

To answer their question, I’d tell them one of the three stories that I’d read on the placard in the museum, choosing a different one, depending on who I was speaking to.

The first person I remember telling one of the stories to was Adrian, the manager at the software company I was working at, who always insisted on calling me “bro” however often I asked him not to.

“Hey bro, sweet tattoo!” he said when he saw it for the first time. “What’s it all about? Is that a manga character or something? I love manga, dude!”

I let the “bro”s and the “dude”s slide and replied:

“No, it’s not a manga character. The tattoo is a picture of someone called Tara who appears in lots of Buddhist stories. The stories say that Tara was what Buddhists call ‘an enlightened being,’ which is someone who has attained the ultimate wisdom that a human being can achieve and has extinguished all suffering from their heart. Apparently, on the eve of Tara’s enlightenment, several men crowded round and said something like:

‘Oh Tara, near-Buddha, knowing
All the wisdom a woman can
Be wise enough next life
To be born again as a man’

But, you know, what they really said probably didn’t rhyme like that. It was something like that though. And Tara replied, saying something like:

‘I am a man and
I am a woman too and
I am both and
I am either and
I am the neither nor
That lives in the heart of
Every one of you.’”

That’s not really what Tara said, not according to the placard anyway. In the placard’s telling, Tara simply pointed out that “from the perspective of the exalted state of wisdom that the men were praising, the categories of male and female ceased to exist.” But my feeling is that Tara would have said it with more style than that, more heart. That they would have spoken with a calm, incantatory fierceness that would render the placard’s academic-sounding sentiment into something lyrical and piercing. Something that distilled all the complexity of their message into the clarity and simplicity of the picture I now had tattooed on my chest.

“Cool story, bro!” Adrian murmured back in a way that made me know my words had failed like they always do. But a slight paleness flushed on his skin as if the image was glowing slightly from inside him.

Then there was Alex, a teenager who I used to mentor. They had closely cropped hair and wore loose-fitting clothing to hide their small breasts. We’d meet every Wednesday evening after their school day was finished and they’d talk to me about all the feelings they weren’t supposed to feel and say all the words they weren’t supposed to say. Of all the people I’ve ever met in real life, Alex looked the most similar to my image of Tara; they floated around the place as if carried on a lotus flower, their skin shining, more often than not with tears, but shining nonetheless. They came to me one time, crying and red-faced, after a day in which their classmates had pinned them down and shaved their head to the scalp, leaving just a few carved tufts that spelled out the word “freak.” The petals of whatever invisible lotus they normally floated on were all withered, their body drooped, and their heart was drenched in the despair that they spent every waking day trying to glide above with grace. They said to me: “I just can’t take it anymore. Being me. It hurts too much.” I gave them a hug but I didn’t know what to say, until I found the second story about Tara rising from my heart, translated into my own words, and then unraveling from my mouth:

“You know Alex, I have a tattoo on my chest of someone called Tara. There is a story that once upon a time there was a being of pure compassion called Avalokiteshvara who witnessed all the suffering of all living beings, all in one go, and it made them cry. The story goes that when they cried, lotus flowers fell from their eyes, and Tara was born out of these lotus tears, promising to help Avalokiteshvara cure all the suffering in the world.”

Alex carried on crying and so did I, and both our hearts grew a little larger, beating towards one another from inside our chests.

Then, of course, there was Lucia, lovely Lucia, my love. I met her the day after waking from the deepest sleep of my life. It was my habit at that time to recall the third story about Tara to myself every time before going to bed. I’d stand in front of the mirror, imagining I was Tara, and tell myself the story as if I was a mother telling it to her child as she drifted off to sleep. According to the third story, when Tara became enlightened, they fell immediately into a blissful state of meditation that will last ten thousand years. They are still enjoying that bliss right now, the story goes, as the ten thousand years are not yet up. People say that the sheer calm and ecstasy Tara radiates from within their meditation can be tuned into by any living person with a heart open enough to recognize its frequencies. Back then, when I imagined Tara entering into their millennia of meditative bliss, I liked to think they hoped to awake to a time when words and pictures wouldn’t be needed for people to explain who or what they were; a time when they could just be what they were and everyone would understand. As I shut my own eyes each night, I hoped against hope that I might wake up to such a world, that perhaps it wouldn’t take ten thousand years, but could happen in a single night. I never really believed it would happen though. Not until I met Lucia.

Lucia is a woman. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever met or ever will. Lots of people told her she was a man because her parents had named her Luke and her body looked a certain way to certain theys who think a person is made of a name and a body and all else is stardust and nonsense. But she told herself “I’m a woman!” in a stronger voice than I could ever muster for myself (for I could not say it without whispering in my own ear at the same time “no, you are not that either”). She even had her body changed to make things easier for the “lots of people” who couldn’t see what she saw inside herself. After that, some other people did start to agree that she was a woman. A beautiful woman too, as if her new body was a telescope that allowed them to see the sparkling galaxies of beauty that were inside her all along. But still, not everybody agreed. There were still plenty of others who would shout at her:

“Get out of here, you freak!” and “here” had been a bar, a hairdresser, a public park, and, yes, her own home, when she was 16 and her drunken single father found a letter in her room confirming that she was about to have an operation that he couldn’t for the life of him understand. Since there wasn’t much about her that he had ever understood, she did as he said and got out of there, heading out into the streets with nothing but a rucksack with a few crumpled dresses and some underwear in it.

So she’d wander from forbidden here to forbidden there, wondering if anywhere was unforbidden for someone like her who was who she was shouldn’t be. She wore the shouldn’ts proudly like the body she draped over the glittering galaxies beneath her skin. She wandered into homeless shelters, where men with wandering eyes as hungry as their stomachs would stare, and touch, and oh, I can’t. She’d wander into the rooms and cars of men with leers and money, wandering out with tears forming in her eyes. She’d wander into fists that flew at her for no reason other than that she was who she was, as if they were trying to beat her body into the shape they thought it should be. She wandered and she wandered, until one day she wandered into me.

We met in a dive bar called “Utopia” that had a smiling unicorn above the door and a jukebox that played nothing but 80s disco tunes. It was owned by a friend of mine whose name was Galli. Galli wore eyeliner the color of flamingos, talked at the speed of a sunbeam, and had sparkling studs encrusted in their front teeth that spelled out the word “welcome.” They told me they’d called the bar “Utopia” because in ancient Greek “utopia” means “nowhere” and they wanted it to be a place for people with nowhere else to go. I remember reading a review of Utopia in Time Out a long time ago that described it as “an under-the-radar LGBTQ hang-out,” but really it was a place for people who were tired of letters and words, tired of bodies and names; people who knew they were shining galaxies, beyond words, and just wanted to float side by side with other shining galaxies who didn’t care what shape their outer constellations formed. I was chatting away with Galli, whilst drinking a bitter cherry old-fashioned from a cup shaped like a unicorn’s horn, when I first saw Lucia, swaying in through the swing-door entrance.

She had long, red hair that fell past her shoulders, seeming to fade beyond its tips into an infrared glow that haloed her entire body. I felt as if the temperature of the room increased by a few degrees when she walked in. She moved the way I imagine a comet would move if it took human form, burning through the air, leaving curves of blistering intensity in her wake. I’d like to say our eyes locked together, but Utopia wasn’t a place for eyes, no, our rhythms locked together instead, my body raising itself from the barstool as if helplessly pulled into the orbit of a prodigious being of light. We danced for hours, silently but for our hearts, which I am sure began to tune into that secret frequency of bliss that Tara radiates through the world, amplifying its waves in the echo chambers of our atria. When we sat down afterward, Lucia noticed my tattoo for the first time and said to me:

“You know, it looks just like you…”

“What does?

“That tattoo on your chest.”

And there were no words she could have said, no pictures, no sounds or silences, save that song our hearts sang when we danced, that could have touched me deeper.

“There is a story I once heard about Tara,” Lucia said, without me telling her that’s who the image was of. “They say that Tara once manifested as two different women at once, who went on to be the wives of the king who founded the ancient Tibetan Empire. Of course, the king gets all the credit. But I think probably his only role in it all was that two women marrying each other and founding an empire together just wouldn’t do back then. It probably wouldn’t do now either for that matter. So, I think they married him just so it would make sense to the people around them. And you know what I was thinking when I was dancing with you tonight? I was thinking… we could found an empire together, you and I.”

So that’s what we did. We founded our own little empire with a population of two, extending across the vast landscape of our hearts. A place where there were no theys to tell us who we were and weren’t. Nobody to call us “dude” or “bro” or “freak”, to tell us to “get out of here” or carve words into our hair or shame into our bodies. Everything before meeting Lucia felt like a time from the distant past, a prior incarnation, ten thousand years or more ago. As if I’d woken to that world I’d always dreamed of when I went to bed each night, that place where words and names and bodies don’t matter. For in our tiny little empire of two, none of that did matter. All that mattered was love, which blossomed in our hearts like lotus flowers, gliding above the murky depths below.

When we cried, we cried together, or we’d go to Utopia and dance until our bodies shined with sweat instead of tears. Or we’d buy lotus flowers and use their petals to dab the salt water from our eyes. Sometimes real lotus flowers, and sometimes lotus flowers that only I could see, the ones that grew out of Lucia’s tears, blooming into kisses and tender touch. One time, we went to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art together to look at the scroll on which I’d based my tattoo. This time when I looked at it, all I could see was Lucia, and all she could see was me, as if we were looking into some kind of funhouse mirror that reflected her image back to me and vice versa. Or as if we were each facets of the same gleaming diamond that glistened in Tara’s heart. At night, I’d hold Lucia in my arms, and sleep for what felt like ten thousand years of bliss, waking each morning to a world I could never have imagined before meeting her.

Of course, it didn’t stop the “they”s and the “lots of people” saying what they’d say. Only now they would say “freaks” instead of “freak” and that little extra “s” drowned out everything that came before; it meant there were two of us, we were together, and however many “here”s we were told to get out of, there was always another here, the only here that mattered, a here the size of a galaxy that floated beneath our skin.

We got married a year to the day after we met, both wearing dresses of luminous white and exchanging lotus flowers instead of rings. Lucia’s wedding gift to me was a scroll with an image of Tara embroidered into it, just like the one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We have it hanging above our bed so that it’s the last thing we see before we go to sleep each night. Now, when I look at the image, I realize that Tara didn’t enter their meditative bliss for ten thousand years because they were waiting for a world to be born that would accept them for who they are. Instead, I believe they are feeling that ten thousand years of bliss precisely because they already living in that world, one they created by knowing who they really are. And now I know who I am too:

I am a woman and
I am a man too and
I am both and
I am either and
I am the neither nor
That lives in the heart of
Every one of you.


Join the conversation