Lights blurred like trailing spit. I fell hard. But I queued again. Be the cowboy, I thought. It wasn’t my thought.
Content warning: transphobia, gender dysphoria
Be the cowboy, he says to me. Balding white man.
I’m standing in a gallery. I’m standing in a gallery at a thoughtful distance from the work. He sneezes behind me. It’s just the two of us, I can feel his shoulders lurking over mine. Don’t turn around, I think. With feigned interest I approach the title card. Then memories whip the canvas.
The windswept face of a tourist. Now several tourists. They record a dust devil ripping through the desert. It’s close now, and quite without realising they all take a step back at the same moment. Watch their hats fly away. Watch them prod their phones as the devil sweeps closer. Red.
My Dad is in Tucson, Arizona. Over the phone he describes the saguaro cacti. Some of the guys saw hummingbirds fly inside them, he says. There must be something good in there, with all those prickles. He tells me they are everywhere. I google them and see the little holes he described. Little nests. We have fun pronouncing saguaro together. It’s his first time in Arizona. Work trip.
Do you remember, Dad, those DVDs we borrowed from the neighbour? Several years ago. A whole pile of Clint Eastwood films. We’d watch upstairs in the evenings, I’d make popcorn and we’d gnaw handfuls at a time. We’d squint at the TV like he’d squint at the sun and the cacti.
It was rare for you to spend so long upstairs. Mum would call us down to ask what we were doing, do you remember? You’d tell her about our little screenings with a childlike buzz. She would roll her eyes and smile at the both of us. We’re being cowboys, I thought to myself. But I said nothing, my lips were sealed. I didn’t know what I was.
Do you remember that party with the mechanical bull? A competitive streak lined the wall, all boys. I queued with them shyly and awaited my turn. And there stood Bull Man—silent, expectant. He tottered his controls until, one by one, we were smacked down. I remember the trodden grass below. Loud 2000s music. Screaming.
I waded over the deep mat, mounted the bull. I gripped its horns and clamped my legs tightly around its hide. It was buffed with age. Bull Man cranked his dial and I worked to shift my weight early, always one wrench ahead. Everyone was watching. Dad, I wanted to last a while.
Bodies whisked across my vision. Bull Man pincered his little joystick and hurled me across the pen. Lights blurred like trailing spit. I fell hard.
But I queued again. Be the cowboy, I thought. It wasn’t my thought.
He says it again—the security guard behind me. He’s sniggering in his mask. I stare deeper into the painting, there’s nowhere else to look. My neck is stiff and I flinch when he sneezes again.
On our call you describe Tombstone, the western town “too tough to die”. You drove sixty miles south-east of Tucson to get there. You say it’s something like Sovereign Hill and I clench my teeth. I think of raspberry drops and tongue ulcers. I think of swinging saloon doors, how they fill rooms with greaseless quiet. I think of racism.
You show me the web of your thumb—a shooting range scab from the pinch of a glock. But you’re not a gun person. It was something to do, like the clay target and rabbit shooting that busied your teen years. They were your brother’s hobbies first. Be the cowboy, he thought, and so you thought it too. Your parents had saloon doors to their ensuite. Seventies architecture. Outback Yorta Yorta country.
You say you’re missing home. I miss you too, I say. I scrunch my skirt in my hand.
At the party, Bull Man shot me a glare. Try again? His spectacle had waned, only a few kids were watching now. The misfits. Alcoholic mud swallowed the grass beneath our feet. I flung off my shoes and mounted the bull. What else could I do? I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know myself. Be the cowboy, I thought. Let the bull rock.
I used to have an amp with built-in sound effects. I dialled up the tremolo and plucked the lonely strings. I hid in my room all my life perfecting the role of a cowboy, never quite ready to perform it. The tremolo, a deep whorling shimmer, skipped the beats of my heart. My lips were sealed.
Now I’m four months on estradiol. I’m eavesdropping in a dress on the stairs. I can hear Mum talking with you on the phone. Three more sleeps, she says, and you’ll be home. You’re helping her through my transition, but not much, since you’re so far away. She misses you. I think she misses “me” more.
She really thought I was a cowboy, didn’t she, Dad? I hear you comfort her, you describe the saguaro and the hummingbirds. There must be something good in there, with all those prickles, you say. I touch my thinning stubble, remembering you told me the same.
Tissues trumpet from the bedroom. She’s crying. You squint at the sun. Endless saguaro surrounds you, so far from home.
Bull man cranked his joystick with discernible effort; I met his eyes in the act—fearless, vacant. Be the cowboy, they said menacingly. I couldn’t shake myself free. I couldn’t. He had me pinned.
Everyone watched me now, including the girls. Half a dozen kids recorded on their phones. Quite without realising they all took a step back at the same moment. I wanted to be seen, I wanted the girls to know me. How do I put this into words? I was the dust devil ripping dangerously close.
Bull Man dialled up his controls. Full tremolo. And I was the lonely strings in my room again. I gave my body to the game, I outright refused to fall. A flurry of lights consumed me. Loud chanting. Louder music.
Dad, do you remember when I sold my guitars? You sold your motorbike too. You worried for me. How could I give up years of my life? But I wondered the same about you. You outran the cops as a twenty-something on that bike, or something like it—I remember you told me. It seems we were both moving on from something. We were sick of popcorn, sick of picking seed from our gums. You returned the westerns to our neighbour. But that was all years ago now. Sepia times.
Do you remember my primary school graduation? It was goldrush themed. We’d been to Sovereign Hill that year, you were the parent volunteer. The school corridor was lined with on-theme “wanted” posters, sepia-toned portraits with nicknames for all the students. I zipped around looking for mine. For my grief, I didn’t have words. Pretty boy, it said. I clenched my teeth.
Be the cowboy, he said. Balding white man. Bull Man. The nausea went on on on. My arms were locked, my neck was stiff. Then the bull slowed. Suddenly he told me to get off. The guys cheered for me. Is this what I wanted? It wasn’t. I stumbled onto the mud. No grass was left.
I wanted to say something. But all I’ve known is the violence of bulls, my powerful body shaken to silence. I loosen my neck and turn to the guard. I want to confront him. He’s gone. There’s a woman. She smiles and says the gallery will close soon. I glance back at the work, it’s red and brown and beige. I lean in toward the title card. I’m no cowboy, it reads. I exhale deeply.
Dad, there are hundreds of works here: I’m no fireman, I’m no prince, I’m no stuntman. And so many memories. I am none of these things. We are not our memories, are we? I think you taught me that. I’m thinking of you as I leave the gallery. I hope you can meet me soon. Three more days.