I always felt different. My whole life, I felt it. I had such crushes, when I was a kid – weird crushes. I would fixate on boys and girls, both. So that I didn’t know if I was gay or straight. In fact, being both, being in between really appealed to me, excited me. That’s why I loved to be known as Toni. I was a real tomboy half the time, but then I’d go all out and dress in the prettiest, girliest stuff too, and love it. As a teen, I was confused, awkward, silent half the time.
Then I went to art college, and fell in love – hopelessly. He was a cute, lovely, sexy, funny, totally gay young man. We bonded; we were best pals; we were a team. But that team was all about finding Adam a boyfriend, and that was not what I really wanted. Sure, we’d flirt and mess about, but only because Adam felt completely secure in my company: he was convinced that I was a girlie dyke, and never imagined that I wanted him like fire wants air.
Of course, I had to ruin things – I told Adam how I felt, suggested that maybe there was a way that we could be together. He ran.
Heartbroken, I threw myself into debauchery. I became the most lesbic of lesbians, up for anything with any woman on the scene, sleeping around, learning every manner of perverted trick, just to tease out, to torment, to tantalise the needful essence that was throbbing in my soul. I was working as a graphic designer, in advertising, earning pots, out all the time, sleeping with woman after woman, aching all the time for something else that I could not name or even imagine.
Then there was Steve – Stephanie, Stephen, Stevie: something else, entirely something else. She was a drag king, an amazing performer, a gorgeous, sexy, androgynous specimen of perfect beauty and coolness. On stage, she was Steve, in a sharp, Italian suit, bow-tie hanging loose about her neck, dark hair shaped into a perfect short-back-and-sides, face so pale, so pretty, so squarishly manly, so cutely gentle. I became obsessed.
She emerged out of nowhere, fully formed. Suddenly, she was there, everywhere, performing on stage, but also in the clubs, all the time, every night. She arrived and suddenly, I saw her all the time – she was so striking. Whatever room she entered, she would draw all eyes towards her. Sometimes she would be out dressed as her male character; sometimes she would be dressed as a gorgeous girl; at others, she seemed to be something in between. She was my ideal.
By degrees I went from fan to friend, and the girl I got to know was even more fascinating than the stage-image I lusted after. She had the ability to switch between genders so convincingly, so completely. “I’m feeling girlie tonight,” she might say, and dress in a gorgeous skirt and wear subtle make-up and look like the prettiest woman imaginable. On those days, I’d sometimes adopt the male role; sometimes she’d want a girls’ night out. Though I’d have to say that some of the best nights out we had were when we went to gay bars as a couple of pretty boys – the looks we got! I felt so at home in my jeans and check shirt, with “him” on my arm.
At times I did feel that there was something uncanny about Steph. When she took on the male role, it just seemed more real than when I did it. And sometimes, when she made love to me, it felt … well it felt like she was really, physically, completely a man. I couldn’t quite get my mind around this idea, didn’t dare to contemplate it, but the sense that something more than role-playing was going on was often there for me, just beyond the reach of my conscious thinking.
We became an item, kind of inseparable, a real couple. I was happy, if always a little uncertain of exactly what was happening and who I was to her and who she was at all. I felt that she kept me at a distance in some respects, never telling me about her past, never promising too much of a future for us, but I did not care to delve too deeply into this. Stevie’s motto was “live now”, and we did: we lived at an intense pitch, all the time, or so I thought. It was not until I finally went to Queertown that I realised how ordinary our life together had been compared to what it might have been.
One night, after we had been pretty much living together full time for a couple of months, Stevie sat me down and sadly, almost tearfully told me she had to explain something to me. At once, I felt cold, frightened, dizzy.
“The thing is Toni,” she explained, holding my hand, stroking my hair, trying to comfort me, “I have to leave …”
“What do you mean? Where are you going?”
“It’s … it’s impossible to explain, sweetie, but I’m going away, and … I’m not coming back.”
I was speechless.
“It’s not you; it’s not. In fact, you’re the only thing that’s kept me here as long as this. I really meant this just to be a fleeting, final visit, to sort a few things out … but then I met you, and I began to imagine that there might be a life here for me, that something like … Well, that real happiness might be possible here, after all. But …”
“But what?!” I blurted. “What has changed? Why don’t you want me anymore?”
She tried to explain that it was not like that. She did want me. “If I could take you with me, I would, I would, but it’s just impossible, impossible …”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Where could you possibly be going that I couldn’t follow? Do you think I wouldn’t gladly give up my life here to live anywhere in the world with you?”
We were both sobbing by now, not something either of us was much given to, normally. We sat on the bed together, holding each other, as if our lives depended on it.
“The thing is, you wouldn’t understand; you’d think I was mad … and besides it’s just forbidden … I can’t tell you …”
“Look, you’re really freaking me out now … Are you in some kind of cult or something?” I asked.
She almost laughed. “You could say that …” she began, but again, she stalled; her words evaporated before she could utter them; she lost the thought before she could verbalise it.
I pressed her, pressed her for a proper explanation.
Eventually, Stevie managed to say, “There’s a place, a place where I’ve been for the last few years. It’s where I belong; it’s where I have to be; I have to go back there, and stay there, be there forever. I can’t live away from it; I just can’t.”
“But what place? And why can’t I come too?”
She couldn’t explain; she merely held me, rocked me, comforted me.
“There’s someone else, isn’t there?” I said. “You have another life, another partner, a family even …”
“No, not …” she began, “not that, not exactly … There isn’t one other person no … where I belong, it’s not like that, but it’s impossible to explain.”
I tried to joke her into some kind of sense: “So you’re from Venus really. Is that it? You’re ET and you have to go home?”
She shivered, actually shivered at this, almost as if I had hit upon some kind of truth, even as I was trying to lighten the mood with absurdities.
“I love you, Steph,” I said, “I’m totally, hopelessly, endlessly in love with you … Surely there is nothing that we cannot share … Tell me, tell me, please … What are you hiding?”
Finally, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Have you heard of Queertown?”
I didn’t know what she meant, at all.
So she started trying to explain. She showed me a couple of stories in gay anthologies, a few snippets from papers, some internet pages, but what she was showing me was confusing and contradictory. Queertown, it seems, was a daydream, an idea of place where everyone was gay, where gayness was the norm, where freedom was absolute for gay people. But another article had it that Queertown was more than that: it was fantasy realm, where sexual identity was slippery, mutable, constantly in flux, where any kind of pleasure was possible for those who lived there, because their bodies were as malleable and controllable as their imaginations. Yet another source, wrote of a myth from ancient times, which had been recently updated and hence renamed “Queertown”. The original story spoke of a place where men and women lived like gods, transforming themselves at will and making love almost constantly. Then there was a site about apes, which referenced “Queertown” when explaining how bonobos live a life of socio-sexual freedom and openness. Another clipping was mocking those who sought to find some truth in this daft legend. The overall evidence was skant and inconsistent. It made little real sense.
“What are you trying to tell me, Steph? That there is such a place as Queertown, that you’ve been there, that you’re leaving me so you can return?”
She laughed, then admitted: “That is exactly what I’m telling you, Toni.”
I left the study, where we were, by now, poised together over her laptop, and shaking my head, I made as if to leave the flat altogther. She followed me and took me by the hand.
“I don’t like being made fun of,” I pouted.
She kissed me softly on the lips: “I’m not making fun of you. There is a real place, a secret place, a place called Queertown, and it’s beyond anything you could imagine, better than any of those hints and guesses, better than any myth or legend. It’s a place like no other, a place where any kind of life is possible, where everyone is accepted, where happiness is real and continuous, where men and women become women and men at will, where bodies are playthings and minds really meet. It’s a pre-Fall place, a Garden of Eden, a total liberation, a joy, a joy, an everlasting joy. And I have lived there, and I must live there. I must live there forever. Life here is pale, ordinary, dull in comparison. There, every second, every moment is filled with meaning and pleasure and communion. And I cannot take you there, because it is, it really must be a secret, and I have no right to betray that secret. Indeed, I would be cast out for all time if they even suspected me of such a betrayal.”
I tried to understand: “You’re saying that you want to leave me to join some sort of perpetual orgy in some secret gated village?”
She took this as a joke. “It probably sounds like that, yes. But until you’ve been to Queertown, you cannot possibly understand.”
“So take me! Show me!” I demanded.
We argued; we discussed; we plotted and planned; we tried to find a way forward. All night, we talked, but never did Steph make any real attempt to describe the place – “It just has to be seen to be believed,” she kept saying.
“But how did you did get invited? Who decides who can go there?” I wondered.
Steph was evasive – it was complicated, hard to explain: “Everything makes sense when you’re there, but out here … it can’t be put into words …”
Gradually, I began to wear her down, to make her accept that taking me with her might, somehow, be possible.
“But it’s different there,” she insisted. “We wouldn’t be together like we are here.”
“There must be a way,” I said.
Then she became very serious. “The thing is, Toni, once you’re there, you cannot really, ever leave. Even if you come back, like I have, you won’t be able to stay for long. Life here is impossible once you’ve been to Queertown. You have to go back. And look what that’s doing to us. Are you ready to turn your back and everyone and everything you’ve ever known? Are you?”
I insisted that I was if it meant that I could go with her. Ultimately, what convinced her, I think was my simple statement: “If it’s that great when you’re there alone, imagine what it could be with the two of us there together!”
At this she seemed to relent, and the drift of our conversation shifted significantly.
“Getting you there is not such a problem,” Steph explained, “but staying there undetected, without a proper invitation from those who rule there … And even if you can stay … I’m still not convinced that it is what you really want. You may regret leaving this world behind, because that is essentially what you will do if you go there; you will leave this world and inhabit another.”
In the end, we concocted some sort of scheme to smuggle me into this weird region. I only half-believed what she was telling me, but I wanted to be with her and I wanted to see where she would lead me to, so I packed my gear and set out with her, a few days later, to make the journey to Queertown.
Next chapter features the place itself! Friendly suggestions welcome! :)