Greetings, 15 Bytes Readers! For this Labor Day weekend, READ LOCAL First is proud to introduce Andrew Romriell. Originally from Sandy, Utah, Romriell writes about queerness, religion, body image, gender identity, and sexuality. He earned his MS in Literature and Writing from Utah State University (USU). While there, he completed a master’s thesis about growing up a closeted gay man within the Mormon religion. Additionally, he helped create the university’s current international literary journal and served as its managing poetry editor. He has earned various awards for his writing and photography, including multiple placements in Utah’s Original Writing Competition and first place in art, nonfiction, fiction and poetry in USU’s 2021 Creative Writing Contest. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in journals like The Great River Review, South 85 Literary Journal, Beyond Words, and elsewhere.
Romriell’s Alchemic-like: 16 Ways to Look at Transformation, originally appeared in Sink Hollow in April of 2021.
16 Ways to Look at Transformation
Lead will play its role until the world has no
further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold
– Paulo Coelho
Suppose you are young, perhaps ten, and there is a boy sitting across the classroom. Suppose you don’t notice how much you notice him. Suppose it comes to you like sand beneath waves, slowly burying your toes—inch by microscopic inch.
Suppose you notice the way he moves two fingers across his eyebrow in some effort to smooth down the hair. Maybe he hasn’t been taught yet that he isn’t supposed to care about his appearance. Maybe, like you, he’ll one day be told it’s the feminine way, a feminine trait. But not yet.
Suppose you see him as if transparently, tempered glass: hardened. Imagine that the way you stare at him with increasing tension makes you feel unsure. Maybe he bites his lip too hard and blood covers his teeth. He raises a hand and asks to go to the bathroom. He passes you as you grip your hands together beneath your desk as if in prayer. You don’t realize it yet, but you have transformed.
Pretend you’re in a church. You sit there listening and not listening. Hearing, never speaking. Your mother has just picked up Catholicism, though she claims this is more a study than a religion for her. Still, she is very serious about it. She’s serious about a great many things. Curfew. Television time. Schooling. Politics. Activism. Abortion. Racism. Homosexuality. Taking the trash out. And now, religion.
She’s a woman of learning and research, a Law professor at Columbia University. A mother who desires a son who values the same. She often takes you to her favorite cafe—the one with floor to ceiling windows facing the Atlantic. You wonder what she thinks as she stares into that endless ocean. Is it the same thing she sees when she closes her eyes in this old, stained-glass church? When she bows her head, does she shift into a frame of mind different from that which stares into the edge of the world?
You wonder how much she has to shift when you throw her fine china plate across the room—the one gifted to her at a long-forgotten wedding. She picks up the pieces because you were too stubborn to clean up after yourself. Does she shift into another person as she sits at the edge of the bed, pulls you close, ear to heart, and tells you, People are more important than things.
You are more important than things.
The Utter Malarkey of a Butterfly Conservatory
When there’s a moment deep in the wilds of a Walt Disney World butterfly conservatory that you find yourself wondering why the fuck am I here? –just realize that it’s not quite so existential as you’ll want to think. You’re not wondering why the fuck you’re here: on Earth; in the universe; alive at all. You’re actually just wondering why the fuck you’re at Disney World and there are a million rides you want to go on and a million characters you want to see and yet you are standing in the middle of a tented butterfly garden with your mother. If you could simply realize the exaggerations, realize the extraordinary beauty of that chrysalis dangling from that leaf, you’d be able to avoid all of this—the pain and humiliation of what comes next. But you won’t, and maybe that’s why the fuck you’re here.
Imagine, when you’re older, the first time you’ll remember painting your face will be on October 31 of the year you turn fifteen. You’ll remember that, in an effort to hold onto some tiny fragment of your creativity, you dressed up as Dracula—an effervescent version of the vampiric lord. Your mother bought you the costume. It wasn’t anything staggering in beauty. It wasn’t expensive or comfortable or silk-lined. It itched up your crotch and ties a bit too tight around your neck, but when you put those pointed, white teeth in your mouth, feeling the bite of hard plastic against your gums, you looked in the mirror and smile. This only made your gums hurt more, but you didn’t care. The transformation was wondrous. Magical.
Imagine you’re back to that day, when your mother paints your face with intricacy. With brushes her mother bought for her before she left for college, she touches your skin. A pallet sits beside you both, smooth colors glob against a wooden board. She dips the brush and brushes your cheek; dips the brush, brushes your chin; dips the brush, and slides it smooth across your eyebrow, darkening the hair. In a final touch, she paints blood dripping from the corner of your mouth. You’re so excited to show everyone what you’ve become, you forget to look at yourself in the mirror until your mother calls you back. She wants you to see yourself first.
The mirror reflects someone back at you. You recognize this person, but not fully. The point of his chin; the pale color of his eyes; the way his smile is just a little crooked—these things you know. But he’s different too, transformed into a character, a made-up villain. Imagine when you stare into that mirror, you pause, wondering who’s more real: the boy or the monster.
Your mother holds you tight before you walk to school, and when you arrive, you’re excited. Your smile continues to gouge into your gums, but you don’t mind—not then anyway. As you strut into the high school, you do so with pride. But the costume isn’t why you’ll remember that day. Well, perhaps it is. It’s hard to know with any certainty what precisely latches your mind to that day. Perhaps it is:
The girl who snorts milk up her nose like some comedy show when you walk in the front door.
The boy who points, who screams words you’ll later forget. He screams them in laughter. Then his friends join in. This laughter, you’ll remember viscerally; the way mouths open and shine with flat, white, human teeth; the way voices build and build and hold vibrato like a song; the way he points and doesn’t stop pointing until you make it around the corner; the way his finger still feels like it’s marking something hidden deep inside you.
The boy who passes you a note in English as the class giggles behind you. When you glance down, you’ll see a cartoon of you: you as Dracula; you without pants; you without a penis; you with the words “FUCK ME LIKE A FAG” blistered atop the paper.
The girl who trips you as you sprint from the room.
The teacher who helps you up and asks what is wrong. You won’t tell her anything. She’ll latch to your arm. You’ll pull free eventually.
The road with all the cars honking, swerving, screeching past your body.
The memory of wanting to leap into that road with all those cars.
The memory of not doing so.
It’s hard to know what causes the memory to linger. You only really know that you got home while your mother was still at work. You rubbed the paint from your face, tore the costume from your body, spat teeth from your faux-bloodied mouth.
Your mother will come home from work early that afternoon because the school called to say you ran off. She will be mad at first. She will be scared second. She will want to know what happened. You won’t be able to tell her.
In the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, there is a phrase inscribed within Cleopatra’s Ouroboros design: “One is All.” A singular phrase pressed into the minds of her many alchemic followers, it translates that every unique substance is able to contain the substance of another. In fact, perhaps it has already been a part. This is then why it’s possible to transmute lead into gold, death into life, stasis into movement. It’s believed they’re all one and the same.
Still, it’s impossible to know whether Cleopatra and her three alchemist partners actually crafted that Philosopher’s Stone, that tangible essence that could alter the world, that could perfect it through transformation. If a stone like this could be found, could be replicated, could be used, wouldn’t everyone crave such change? If the innate process of Chrysopoeia shows the nature of all things as being transmutations, of changing one form into a higher form, from the most mundane to the most divine, wouldn’t all of humanity reach a little higher?
The Crux of The Crucible
In your senior year, you paint your face again, though this time, you’re instructed to do so. You’ve been cast in the spring play, The Crucible. It’s a dark tale, a dark tone, but that’s part of what makes it fun. As John Proctor, you get to pretend to be vile. You get to freely lie and hold secrets and become someone else. It excites you as much as it creates a boiling effect in the pit of your stomach.
When you paint your face, you ensure it’s not as dramatic as the last time. You paint it with makeup to accentuate a hollowness not yet present in your cheeks. You paint a darkness beneath the eyes, a sharpness to your chin. You’re fascinated by the way shadows can alter everything, the way lines create emotion, the way a new face can cover the old one.
After you perform, the audience cheers. You bow with the others. The audience cheers some more. Your mother buys you a bouquet of yellow roses. She likes the yellow. They’re happier, she says. She hugs you tight. You hug her back. She tells you she’s proud, and you fully believe her.
At school the next day, the boy who pointed, points again. Laughs again. He calls you Flatty. Hey Flatty! Great play last night, Flatty! Maybe you can use that make-up to make it look like you got a dick, Flatty! Maybe then you won’t be such a little cocksucker!
The pointing boy can’t see you crying in the bathroom. He can’t see the way you look down inside your pants at your own dick to see if he could somehow be right. He can’t see you. He won’t ever see you.
Do you know if they bubble, those caterpillars encased in a hardened chrysalis? Inside, their bodies eat their own bodies. They eat and dissipate and dissolve until nothing is left but goop. Caterpillar soup. You learn this long after seeing the chrysalis at the butterfly garden in Walt Disney World. It’s the first thing that makes you stop and consider the chrysalis in that garden.
You’ve learned that the key is in the enzymes, that caterpillars are born with maps in their genes. When they enter into that chrysalis, the enzymes eat the body, the enzymes unlock the cells. Bit by bit, it will reconstruct into a butterfly’s body.
Though you did not wonder this when you peered deep into a bush and saw a tiny chrysalis, you wonder now whether the caterpillar knew what it would eventually become? Did it know what it would take to become it? As it encased itself and started devouring itself, was it afraid? Even though there was always a map in its enzymes, did it know it could make it out alive?
Daenerys Targaryen, but not
You stand in the doorway. Your friend has disappeared into the crowd ahead, but you remain; frozen. You want to step forward, but you can’t quite take it all in. On the edge, you stand. You watch. You try to understand what it means to be here.
The Comic Con crowd is massive, filling the halls and stairways, spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets. People jam themselves into every corner, creating something bizarre and unexpected. It’s a whirlwind of sound and color and music, a massive, throbbing life. It’s Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons and Harry Potter and Fullmetal Alchemist and Game of Thrones and Naruto and stories you’ve never seen before. It’s that undiscovered space where people from many worlds and time periods become one. It’s green hair and ray guns, steel claws and robots. It’s every genre imaginable colliding and transforming into something completely free. Manic. Glorious.
When your friend reappears, taking your hand and pulling you forward, you realize that the way you both dressed in Middle-Earth hobbit ears and hair-plastered toes is nothing compared to many of the people here. Here, cosplay becomes art. Here, there’s a place for anyone to become anything. And you feel jealous. Your stomach flips. Tightens. Stretches. Tears spring to your eyes, and you’re not entirely sure why.
And when you ask for a picture with a picture-perfect Daenerys Targaryen cosplayer, she’ll say yes. And you’ll laugh with her. And hug her. And you’ll feel a desire to become her. You’ll see the way that dress flows around her ankles when she walks, and envy will bubble up—an envy you don’t quite understand. You’ll push it back down. You’ll tell yourself the hobbit ears are enough. You’ll keep telling yourself this until the day you realize it had never been enough.
Imagine, if you can, that you realize you are gay in college. Imagine you go through a “coming out” a bit later than the norm. Still, imagine this process goes well—that the story is one where you are embraced by your mother, where your friends throw a party to celebrate your achievement, where you are excited and joyful and ready when you scream and laugh within your newfound life from the rooftops of your dorm room. Imagine it can be like this.
Then, imagine there’s a moment where you fully realize you still haven’t been fully honest. When you go to your first pride parade in the streets of New York City, when you stand cheering with your friends, when there’s a fullness that bursts from within, and your cheeks are painted in rainbow. Your honesty exudes from your being until the moment it doesn’t.
A giant float appears, one full of people dressed in all kinds of ways, all forms of rainbows. A couple are only clothed in tight underwear. A few are in t-shirts and jeans, a few more in leather pants and vests. There are even some men dressed up in drag, their make-up pitch perfect, their dresses fantastically shining under the burning June sun. They’re laughing, white teeth gleaming beneath bright lipstick. They jump to the pounding music, full of ecstatic joy. And yet, your own smile slithers back, shrinks, disappears.
As you walk away half an hour later, your friends laughing and cheering, you lock eyes on the ground, brow furrowed. You don’t yet understand why you feel an aching, a longing. You don’t know why there’s a burning frustration, but you do know it’s there.
Then, you’ll pass a drag queen on the street. Your friend will want to take a picture. You’ll offer to take it, so you won’t have to be in it. You’re scared of getting too close, to feel your envy burn.
We never noticed the
till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things
on the marble top—which turned out to be their droppings.
And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves,
each studded with four gold beads—so gold they looked to be
mineral—not animal—a miracle that kept us amazed
as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through,
pumped fluid in their wings, dried off—and flew.
I gauge from that memory that it will be next month
before the girls are “ready.” I wonder how they’ll “fly”
when there’s been frost. “And they’ll come back next summer,”
the cashier says, “to the very same field—they always do.”
I’m sure that isn’t true. But why punch holes
in our little hopes when we have so few?
You’ll say no at first. You’ll refuse the second and third time too. When your best friend asks you a fourth time, however, you’ll hesitate because it’s her birthday, and that’s all she needs to get you to join her at the drag show that happens every Thursday evening at The Shakery. Unlike many of your friends, you feel evasive about these things—clubs and dancing and drinking. You feel like you don’t want to be that kind of gay. Though you don’t admit it, you feel like there’s something wrong about it. Something unrighteous. Like you could be something better than that boy who dresses colorfully. Freely. That, even though you never fully joined in on your childhood Catholicism, perhaps being something akin to chaste is still somehow holier in the eyes of the universe. At the very least, you don’t want to fit that cliche.
Still, it’s her birthday, and you go. You wait for an hour to get in. When the show starts, your friend stuffs fistfuls of dollar bills in your hands. She pulls you with her to the front of the crowd. On the stage, the man dressed all in drag, more beautiful than any person you’ve ever seen, crouches down to pull the green from adoring fans. Sheepishly, you reach out your hand with the money. The drag queen’s hand will touch yours as she grasps your offer. You look up.
Her eyes are blue—ice blue. You notice this first. Then you notice the violet eyeshadow—intricate and balanced. She has rosy cheeks, blushed out simply. Each line is perfect, each contour meticulously implemented. Then, her lips, painted in deep crimson, will curve up. She meets your eyes, gives you a wink, and grasps your hands in hers, money dropping from both your grips.
For a moment, you fear she’s going to pull you up to the stage. You fear it in the same moment you hope for it, but she doesn’t do this. She simply holds you, hands cupped in hers as she lip-syncs “Firework” by Katy Perry. You don’t hear the words, though you see her mouth moving. You see her, and she sees you. Just for a moment, you stand somewhere in between a man in the crowd and a queen on the stage. Ready to leap, not ready to leave the ground.
When you get home that night, you wonder whether she saw something in you. You wonder if you might see it now too. You wonder what it would mean. You wonder how you might discover. You wonder if you ever could. And, when you go to bed that night, you’ll consider whether you can buy some lipstick from the Walgreens two blocks down without looking like a complete novice.
You won’t go to Walgreens the next day. You won’t go the day after either. It’ll take you two weeks to summon up enough courage to make that trip. Even so, imagine that when you text your best friend about your courage, she calls you and screams through the phone’s speaker: firstly, about how she couldn’t be more excited and into the new you you will discover within makeup; secondly, about how you’re an idiot for thinking your best friend would ever allow you to buy your first batch of makeup at Walgreens.
Thirdly, that she would let you buy it alone.
Within the hour, you’re standing inside the entrance of Sephora, hazy on how you ended up there. Your friend has already begun marching through the aisles of makeup, the rows upon rows of colors and shines and mattes and lashes. Before you can move, she holds up a tube of something you don’t recognize, yelling that she has to try the color you. A blush rises in your cheeks. At first, you’ll think this is from embarrassment. You’ll realize as you reach her, your flushed cheeks are a result of excitement, a wave of renewed bravery, a crashing sense of place.
And when the man at the checkout counter—the one with the effortlessly sculpted mascara and flawless foundation—asks you if it’ll be everything, you look into his startlingly green eyes and respond that you have no idea.
Your friend will say it’s only the beginning.
The Last Shedding
Another thing you didn’t know about caterpillars and butterflies and their process of melting and reforming inside the Walt Disney World butterfly conservatory was that the chrysalis isn’t something the caterpillar makes. But you did wonder how the caterpillar created an armor so hard. You wondered how it learned to do this, whether something else taught it to do so, whether it taught itself. You’ll later understand that this was the wrong question.
The chrysalis comes to mind, years later, when your best friend sets your newly purchased bag of makeup on her vanity, offering you the chair that faces the mirror. She’s going to walk you through the steps to sculpting your face, to defining your features, to making yourself up. You want it to be beautiful. Perfect. You asked her to put the makeup on you first, to show you how to do it. You tell her that you’ll hold the brush later.
You tell your friend about the caterpillar, the way it melts inside itself. You tell her about rebirth and a chrysalis that contains it. You tell her how the body that’s revealed when the caterpillar sheds its last skin is the chrysalis. Rather than being crafted on the outside, the beauty is built from within.
Imagine that as you speak, you come to understand your question better, how it was never about how the caterpillar learned to create armor.
The right question was how a caterpillar came to shed its armor.
And when your friend tells you this question feels like a metaphor, you’ll ask her where you fit, but she won’t be sure. When you don’t answer, she’ll laugh, hold up the brush, and ask if you’re ready. You’ll look into the mirror, pausing for the briefest of moments before saying yes.
Yet, she’ll sense something in your tone and in the glimmer of your eyes. She’ll pause too, glancing down at the brush. Then, she’ll hold it out to you. It’s yours, she’ll say. You get the first mark.
You’ll ask what happens if you mess it up.
Imagine she smiles then, shakes her head in lilted laughter before telling you, Well, I suppose that’s what the second mark’s for.
Your mother’s house is cold. It’s always been this way at night. She likes keeping it cold so she can feign being gloriously happy when having to go to bed early, diving beneath the covers, burrowing down until all you can see is her face. She’d glance at you as you shook your head, embarrassed. She would say something to the effect of: At least I’ll get a good night’s rest.
And she was right, of course. She tended to be right. You clench your hands together to try and stop the shivering. Whether it’s from the cold house or your own clamoring nerves, it’s hard to tell. You just wish it would stop.
She sits across the table from you, staring. She always stares at you like this when you say something that’s enticed her. She does it to everyone. She says seeing someone is the most important thing. She says that to see someone deeply, you must pause to do it. You must take that moment to look in their eyes, find humanity buried deep within, and breathe it all in. It’s a practice she’s done for as long as you can remember. It’s the same look she used to give that endless ocean in her favorite café—the one in which she used to attempt fundamental understanding of what it meant to be on the edge of the world.
A pause. A look. A breath.
When she breathes, you look back up to her. She has tears in her eyes, ones that weren’t there before you told her you had been practicing drag for over a month now. Your mouth hangs open, an unfamiliar noise issuing from your throat. It’s like a word caught in fear, stuck to your throat like silence. You want to let it free, but it won’t loosen its hold.
Your mother reaches out her hand across the mahogany table, open to air, welcoming you to take it. And you do, though hesitantly. She clasps her other hand over yours. Her warmth spreads over your clammy fingers, and you feel the urge to apologize for the cold. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s never minded the touch of your commonly clammy hands. She’s always been happy to hold them anyway.
After releasing you, she unclips her necklace. She holds it up to the light above you both. It’s the one her mother had passed onto her—a diamond-shaped sapphire placed within a golden square. She asks you to wear it at your first performance, the one she’s so excited to see.
The Philosopher’s Stone. To think that the greatest alchemic achievement in all world history is a legend, something unprovable, something unseeable. Still, philosophers, alchemists, and treasure hunters have been searching for it for thousands of years. Perhaps they all hope to prove the unprovable.
The Philosopher’s Stone is believed to have the power to create perfection out of imperfection. Turn lead to gold. Mortality to immortality. The idea of perfecting the imperfect is a tempting one, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you want to be the one to discover such a thing? Perhaps not.
When that caterpillar dissolved, when it reassembled, do you think discovered perfection? When your mother painted lines of blood on a Dracula-ed face, did you need to be perfect in order to be seen? It all dissolves eventually.
And at your most imperfect, when you throw a china dish across the room because your mother said you couldn’t go to a party held by that boy who wrote a note titling you “FAG” and nicknaming you “Flatty,” your mother still held you tight in her arms and comforted you.
People are more important than things, she told you. You are more important than things.
The dressing room is bright. Bright lights, bright mood, bright music playing over the speakers of someone’s phone a few mirrors from you. You haven’t really started getting ready yet, but you know you need to. Your dress hangs on the mannequin behind you, the stiletto heels on the floor beneath it. Your makeup lies in before you, but you lift your hand to your mother’s necklace draped around your neck. You grip it in your fist and hold out for some kind of courage to catch you.
You sigh. You look. You pick up that brush on that table with that mirror and the boy there reflecting something innate back at you. You press the brush against your cheek and sweep. And you stop. Shake your head. Paste more makeup on your face. Stop again. Stare. Craft color on your skin. Pause.
There’s the moment here; pay attention to it. Between beings, between knowings, between selves, there’s a space for a breath. Perhaps that’s where you see yourself fully. You’re no longer the you of before. You aren’t yet the person you’ll become. You’re in between. You are the pause in breath, the transformation, the way your mother held your hands across a table after handing you a necklace, and she saw you—really saw you.
Oxygen beats beneath your skin. You see him: the boy with all the fear. You see his knuckles, the way they burn white under the strength of which he clenches his fist; the way he holds so tightly to a necklace; a boy who always craved an in-between—a space between spaces; a transcendence in mirrored eyes enveloped by deep violet eyeshadow, a slight upturn of crimson-colored lips; a look; a pause; a breath; a place to be everything; the opportunity to simply be.
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Categories: Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First
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