A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Ms. Hernandez, Cordelia & Jan Morris
Thursday, September 04, 2008

In his 1979 book Arabia, Jonathan Raban describes how he eventually was able to, "Just be sitting at table among mosquitoes with glasses of Stella beer..." with his fellow travel writer of note, Jan Morris when both happened to be in Cairo. He tells it like this:

As James Morris, she had lived in Cairo on a houseboat in the 1950s. James Morris had been the correspondent in the Middle East for the London Times, and before that he had worked for a news bureau. Jan Morris, commissioned by Rolling Stone Magazine, was revisiting Cairo for the first time since she had changed gender, and she was nervous about what Jan might see in James's city."

Or as Morris herself told Raban, "I'm so frightened of going back to places and finding that I liked them better as I was than I do as I am."

Like most men I have been sexually confused many times. I remember the first time. I was around 7 years old and the day was such a shock to me that I even remember I was in a colectivo (a Buenos Aires bus) on the fashionable then (and now) Avenida Esmeralda. A woman got on with a strange little person. He or she was wearing a dress but he or she had a shaved head. Until then I thought that boys and men had short hair and wore pants (short or long but preferably short) and girls and women wore skirts or dresses and had long hair. I was confused. Was she a boy or was he a girl?

My second moment of sexual confusion happened when I was around 8. It was a Buenos Aires carnaval and people dressed up and sprayed each other with pomos which were large toothpaste type tubes made of metal and full of perfumed water. I had gone to see a western with my grandmother on movie theatre row on Avenida Lavalle.

We were in the subte (the Buenos Aires underground) on our way to Retiro train station to take me home. From my vantage point I could see the end of the other subway car and there was a woman's bare back facing me. She had long hair but something was wrong. Her back did not look like a woman's. What could she possibly be? I was confused.

Not long after an American girl came to my house to play and asked me, "Do you want to see it?" I was much too naive to figure out what exactly I was going to see. When I saw it, "it" did not resemble at all what my precocious (so I thought friend Mario had told me that girls had up front. I was confused again.

In more recent times I have been repelled by the usual macho reaction to seeing two women together. These are usually photographs of gorgeous women with red fingernails and fantastic bodies interacting on divans. It ocurred to me that there are better and more interesting ways of showing these most feminine activities. A film, Bitter Moon directed by Roman Polanski comes to mind every time I think of this. In this film both Peter Coyote and Hugh Grant (both playing idiots) are left in the lurch in the end by the two women of their life, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner. When these two abandon their men and proceed to dance with each other I was wonderfully shocked.

I had something of the sort in mind when I placed Ms. Hernandez and Cordelia in front of my Ikea mirror.

In one of the many books by Jan Morris that I have read I remember a wonderful sentence that she wrote upon seeing a large portrait of British Lord Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher. I recall that Morris wrote something like, "The man that I was, admired the man that is in front of me and the woman that I am, could possibly have loved the man that he was."

She was never confused. I am sometimes.


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