Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: “The Freezer Door”

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Author, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore Photo by Jesse Mann

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a transgender writer, speaks about crafting a narrative from the inside, internally, rather than imposing it. Her new book “The Freezer Door” explores the idea of radical visions not predicated on dominant norms, and the challenge of finding these visions in the gentrified gaze of contemporary cities. She discusses disappearing into books and her vulnerability, searching for connection with the world and people and the text itself, and writing what she’s most afraid to write in order to go on living.

Some language used by the author in this excerpt might be considered sensitive to readers.

Excerpt from “The Freezer Door” by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.

One problem with gentrification is that it always gets worse.

But then I go into a Hooters, and it’s a vintage clothing store. A friend of mine is trying on breasts. This is why I like dreaming.

I remember when faggots kissed hello. We had so much to fear and so we feared nothing, I mean we feared one another but we feared fear more. Kissing one another on the lips, this was joyous and commonplace, a legacy we were inheriting, an art—how to stretch out our lips in front of our faces, how to queen it up in front of a loving or hostile public, how to emphasize connection or disdain.

We kissed hello because we had to. We had to know we could kiss like this, a simple greeting but something splen- did and transgressive even when mundane, or that’s what it felt like for me when I moved to San Francisco in 1992, and I was 19. This kiss didn’t necessarily feel like a radical act, it was just something you did if you were a faggot, whether in suit and tie or broadcasting the pageantry of outsider imagination. Was this something that united us? I wouldn’t have said so then, but maybe I’m saying it now.

Yes, there were the ones who turned their cheeks, too good for this kiss unless they explained the sudden turn by mentioning a cold sore, one just starting or one in the past, whichever way we hoped we were taking care. Sometimes you knew someone had really bad breath, but you kissed her on the lips anyway, it was okay to endure a little discomfort to avoid seeming snotty or scared. Unless this was one of those queens who would grab you and start feeling you up, that was a good reason to avoid contact.

You kissed the ones you loved and the ones you didn’t even like that much, sometimes even someone you hated, just so you wouldn’t seem shady. Too much garlic was never a problem, we kissed anyway. We kissed the living and the dying, knowing that the dying were part of the living and we wanted to keep them with us.

Maybe this was a dream—I mean I know it wasn’t a dream then, but maybe it is now. Now we’re more afraid, afraid of one another, so even the gestures of intimacy disappear. Most of the time I don’t even think of kissing someone hello anymore, I reach for a hug if possible and this can be beautiful too, but in a different way. How strange to think that in the early-’90s, when it felt like everyone was dying, we were less fearful in certain ways.

When I’m washing my hair in the shower, and suddenly I think what the hell am I doing? Oh, I’m in the shower— this is one of the things I do in the shower. Sometimes repetition leads to revelation, and sometimes revelation leads to repetition, which leads to no revelation ever again.

You know when you notice someone’s looking at you, but you’re not sure, so you do the same thing you were just doing, so you don’t look like you’re looking? I was holding a piece of chewed-up licorice root in front of my face in between two fingers, getting ready to throw it out the window. He lit a cigarette. I hate cigarettes, but that’s the place for them, downstairs and outside and away from my window. He crossed the street, looked back, waited, so then I literally leaned out the window. He came back. Eventually I said do you want to come up? And he did. That’s when I knew my life could start again.

There’s a certain kind of knowledge, growing up in a particular body, socialized to be a particular thing you will never be, knowing this and learning to grow with it instead of against. Maybe I’m saying we all need different kinds of people in our lives, right? When anything becomes homogenous, there’s a problem. When anything becomes so homogenous that people don’t even think about it, that’s worse.

Excerpted from The Freezer Door© 2020 Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.