When it was over, Myrrh clapped as much for their own feat of love as for their partner’s artistic accomplishment. They were proud and pleased—and then came the man who sang “The Music of the Night.”
Ultimately, Myrrh had only themself to blame for the hideous affair of turbid swampy green. They had mused aloud to Elmer—Elm, they corrected themself, like the tree—about how they wished for a tailored suit, a neat, androgynous suit made to fit a body that was once female, then journeyed toward maleness, only to find itself happily stranded in a place that was both and neither. A suit designed by one of those queer tailors specifically for the genderqueer body.
Perhaps the disaster could have been prevented if Myrrh had noticed Elm making off with a set of Myrrh’s best-fitting clothes to be used as patterns. Perhaps they should’ve suspected when, during an episode of Great Interior Design Challenge, they defended a much-criticized dark green room, and Elm asked, “Do you like that color? How much do you like that color?” If only Myrrh had known to answer, “It’s great for a room, not for a velvet suit.”
Myrrh was deeply relieved that Elm wasn’t home to see their panicked dressing or their rush through traffic. Since Elm went straight from his bank job to the little community-college theater where the recital was taking place, he never needed to know Myrrh had almost forgotten. By 6:55 p.m., Myrrh was jogging up to the entrance, sweat sticking the suit’s lining to their skin.
I’m wearing this for Elmer, they told themself, then corrected themself again: Elm.Elm had asked to be called Elm over the weekend. The two of them had been reclining on their couch watching Thor: Ragnarok. Elm commented frequently on Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled body, while Myrrh lapsed into a deep contemplation of the racial complexities of the film. The mythology at the root of the epic was Nordic, and the narrative drew on notions of nationhood and migrant identity—tricky material to handle during a time when nationalism, particularly white nationalism, was on the rise in various countries. But the film had been directed by Taika Waititi, a visibly brown man of mixed background, so perhaps there was some disidentificatory value behind the paternalistic roles of—but suddenly the credits were scrolling. Myrrh had done it again, lost themself to analysis when they were supposed to be “checked in” to shared time with Elmer.
Myrrh thought Elmer was about to address this very thing when he cleared his throat and took Myrrh’s hands in his. What he actually said was: “Instead of ‘Elmer,’ I would like to go by ‘Elm.’”
In the theater lobby stood a balding man with a large, comfortable-looking belly and a stack of papers under his arm. The man held out a single sheet of paper to Myrrh. “Who are you here for?”
Myrrh hesitated, confused by the question. “Oh. Elm!”
The man stared.
“Elmer?” Myrrh offered.
“Ah!” said the man, “And you’re his . . . brother?”
Myrrh took the program. “His partner.”
At this, the man ushered Myrrh through the door with a hasty wave that was both fey and brusque. There weren’t many people in the audience, twenty at most. Catching their breath and relaxing into an empty seat, Myrrh noticed the singers seated in the front row. There was Elm’s gray herringbone vest, his head bobbing as he spoke to someone beside him. Myrrh texted Here to Elm, who tilted his head downward at his phone, but didn’t turn to wave or text back.
Myrrh was glad to see Elm making connections with other people. That was the main reason he was taking the singing class in the first place. He had even started to spend some evenings practicing and going to karaoke with kindred spirits from the class.
Myrrh had done it again, lost themself to analysis when they were supposed to be “checked in” to shared time with Elmer.
Myrrh examined the program in their hand, a single sheet meant to be folded in half which had not been folded in half. There were sixteen names on the sheet. Elm was third to last, between a performance of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music and “The Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera.
Last quarter, a student in Myrrh’s Intro to Gender Studies class had come to office hours to discuss a paper titled “Micro-Masculinities of YouTube.”
“You’ll need to define the term micro-masculinity in the introduction,” Myrrh had said.
Kamden, the student—pansexual, agender, and shy—had frowned. “I thought it would be self-explanatory.”
“It’s a good start. But you wouldn’t want a reader to assume you were referring to, say, the size of the masculinity.”
“No!” Kamden said.
“What’s an example of a micro-masculinity?”
Kamden ran a hand through baby-blue and blond hair. “Have you ever watched a guy sing ‘The Music of the Night’?”
“That’s the thing. There’s only one type of man who chooses to sing ‘Music of the Night.’ It’s one specific kind of cisgender man. And that kind of man represents a micro-masculinity.”
Myrrh, who could already sense other students waiting in the hall, nodded. “Yes. Good. Review Female Masculinity and unpack all this in your introduction.”
Now, Myrrh folded their program in half as the lights dimmed.
There followed an experience so excruciating that Myrrh found themself both entranced and repulsed, in flux between deep listening and evacuations into complex socio-historical analyses of each song. For each performer, the instructor delivered a halting, awkward introduction. Then the singer would stand up from the front row, climb the creaking side stairs, and hand their sheet music to the pianist, who several times dropped it, the papers gliding in many directions. Every few minutes, Myrrh realized they’d been holding their breath or digging their nails into their arms—such was the overwhelming tension that filled the room.
It did not help that the instructor had chosen to sit near Myrrh, where they could hear him mouthing along with his pupils’ lyrics, murmuring the occasional “yes” or “breathe.” The students, each wearing some fedora, boa, or cravat, ranged in age from late teens to mid-fifties. Their skill and confidence ranged too, with some frozen in place and others brandishing a haughtiness that seemed frightfully inappropriate in the humble venue. One man nearly fainted in the middle of his song. A girl who hardly seemed old enough to be attending college stopped hers to yell, “Stop making faces at me, Brea!” into the audience.
Not all the performances were cringe-worthy. A woman with salt-and-pepper hair who wore no hat or gown sang a stirringly dark and beautiful song about death. It made Myrrh sit up in their seat. They were even about to cry appreciatively when they were distracted by the instructor, who gasped, “Yes, yes, give it everything, everything,”as the aria crescendoed.
Finally, it was Elm’s turn. He took the stage with confidence, and Myrrh was pleased to see that his classmates clapped heartily for him. He beamed down at the front row, blowing kisses to them and the rest of the audience. He took his place, gave the pianist a slight bow, and began to sing Little Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now”from Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Elm’s singing was not good. When his voice, limited in range by testosterone’s effect on his vocal cords, hit the high notes, it crumbled like a slice of gluten-free bread. Myrrh struggled not to look away, not to escape into analysis of Sondheim’s brilliant parables, which even now felt newly relevant, addressing group mentality, repressed desire, and—no.
No. Myrrh would be present for their partner’s performance. They listened as hard as they could, focusing on the delight and panache with which Elm hammered out the notes, the way his handsome hands swept through the air, making the kinds of gestures one is supposed to make in a musical. When it was over, Myrrh clapped as much for their own feat of love as for Elm’s artistic accomplishment.
After Elm, the instructor introduced the next singer with a little wiggle of his shoulders and a growl. Was he gay? It was so difficult to tell with music people. As Myrrh wondered, an ominous yet comical figure made his way up the stairs and onto the stage.
Suddenly, here, standing before Myrrh, was the kind of man Kamden wrote about in that paper about micro-masculinities. The kind of man who sang “The Music of the Night.” He was tall, early middle-aged, in full Phantom of the Opera costume: cape around his shoulders, hair slicked back, barrel chest stuffed into a black satin vest. He wore the iconic white half-mask, and Myrrh almost gasped realizing it was a plastic V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask that had been cut in half at a diagonal.
In one hand, the man carried a cane with an ornate plastic orb on top. In the other, a red rose, a real one. He let his head drop to his chin, then raised it slowly, eyes taking on a sharp look so dramatic Myrrh had to stifle a laugh.
He began to sing.
Myrrh’s teeth hurt immediately. It was not that he was off-key; he hit every note. But something about the silkiness of the sound coming out of his great chest, something about how his lips bent around the vowels, was unbearably, deeply wrong. His right cheek moved meatily under his plastic mask, folding and contracting against its edges like a genital. His fingers were sausage-like around the plastic orb of the cane, which he alternated between leaning on and pointing lustily at the audience. The man’s expressions smoothed and creased in uncanny reaction to the words he sang. Now he was gentle, now seductive, now awestruck, now in love.
To Myrrh’s horror, the man leaned down during a rest in the song, breaking the fourth wall, in which Myrrh had placed a great sense of security, and held out the red rose to someone in the front row. It was Elm’s arm that reached out and took it. The Phantom continued singing, energetic and even graceful in his terrible, clichéd movements.
This is true, unfiltered abjection. When Myrrh’s students read Julia Kristeva’s “Approaching Abjection,” they often missed the theorist’s operationalizing of disgust as a subversive strategy. Myrrh would walk these students through examples of minority artists who deliberately turned to bodily functions and taboo desires in their work, using the shock they created as a method of challenging the status quo. But now, confronted with this performance, Myrrh struggled to find such a reading.
There was nothing subversive about this, no double meaning or subtextual nuance in this man’s art. It did not invite empathy or identification. It was perverse, but not the good kind of perverse. It was not Carolee Schneemann reading from a long, narrow scroll as she pulled it from her cunt. It was not Divine scooping dog crap into her mouth only to grin and wink at the camera. This here, this was disgusting.
Was it the technique of the song itself, what it did to his face, his voice? Or was it the way his rendition of the song mimicked perfectly every version Myrrh had ever heard, steeped in an autoerotic impulse to express its humorless and frightened desire for the sexual, spiritual, even spatial conquest of a woman he was infatuated with? Or was it simply that to watch this man was to watch something that should be private occur before an audience?
When the final suspended note faded to silence, the audience, tiny as it was, erupted into applause. A cluster of people in front stood up such that Myrrh could only see the top of the singer’s head momentarily before it disappeared, then reappeared, then disappeared. He must have bowed four, five times before the applause died down.
The show ended with Rent’s “Seasons of Love” sung by the entire class, but Myrrh could scarcely pay attention. Then the lights came up, and the audience, chatting and laughing, headed toward the lobby.
As Elm passed without seeing Myrrh, Myrrh grasped his elbow and kissed him. “That was great! I really liked—”
But Elm, smiling vapidly, pulled Myrrh’s wrist, saying, “Come, come, there’s a reception!”
The reception was brief, the single antipasto platter and lone liter of brown soft drink decimated in a matter of minutes. Elm introduced Myrrh to a few people who gave a quick, strained compliment to the suit—“You look. . . fabulous!”—then turned back to Elm to discuss stage fright and pitch changes. Elm didn’t even seem to notice the suit.
When his classmates called him over to be introduced to their friends, Elm left Myrrh standing alone. He returned later, only to say that there was an after-party at one of the singers’ houses, and could Myrrh give him a ride there, the other cars were full.
In the car, Myrrh tried to talk about the recital. “My favorite—besides you, of course—was the guy who sang the Phantom of the Opera song.”
Elm didn’t even seem to notice the suit.
“I mean, wow, what a spectacle. It made me think of how Phantom of the Opera operates at the same sexual register as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s almost a heterosexual camp, which requires you to take it completely seriously. And while, yes, Sedgwick says seriousness is essential to camp, she understands queer camp’s self-awareness as a satirical form. I think the campiness of Phantom doesn’t understand that seriousness as part of a larger joke. Sondheim gets this and deliberately perverts and satirizes it, but Webber’s het camp is a pastiche exaltation.”
Elm never responded to Myrrh’s mini-lectures, which was fine—they knew Elm was not an intellectual. But stealing a glance at their partner now, Myrrh was horrified to realize that he was listening. Alarmed, Myrrh spent the rest of the short drive finding ways to praise Elm’s performance. Elm chuckled a few times but remained mostly quiet, until he was hopping out of the car and blowing them a kiss goodbye.
At home, Myrrh unbuttoned the jacket and tossed the stifling velvet pants over a kitchen chair. It was just after eight. They knew they should finish grading papers for their Women and Colonialism class, but instead, they pulled a beer from the fridge and turned on the Playstation 3.
Elm had been on the console last. Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore lay at the top of the pile of games. Elm always wanted Myrrh to sing duets with him, but singing made their throat hurt. “If I can do it, so can you!” Elm would insist, but Myrrh preferred him to replay Kingdom Hearts while they watched. Myrrh liked the disorienting juxtaposition of the childish Disney world and the too-pretty anime characters, and how, in combat, the screen filled with bursts of orbs and stars. It was Kingdom Hearts that Myrrh played now, the house filling with whimsical music and cartoon hi-yahs.
Around nine-thirty, Elm called.
“Hey,” Myrrh answered. “Everything okay?”
There was silence on the other end.
“Yeah. Hi.” Elm sounded breathless, emotional. “Would it be okay if you came? Here?”
Myrrh got up from the couch, alarmed. “Of course, babe. Are you safe?” As they spoke, they put on sweatpants, grabbed their keys, and slipped into a pair of Crocs meant for the garden.
“I’m okay. I just want you to come.”
“Do you want me to stay on the phone?”
He hesitated, then said, “No. I’ll talk to you when you get here.”
Elm hung up as Myrrh got into the car, shaken. They mentally reviewed all the terrible things that can happen to queers in little towns where liberal university culture clashes with rural conservatism. The physical violence. The psychological violence. Myrrh had trusted that Elm’s singing class would be a kind of safe space, a watering hole where the out and closeted drank together, but, apparently, they’d been wrong.
At the house where they’d dropped him off earlier, Myrrh texted Elm, and a few seconds later, he emerged. Myrrh checked that the passenger door was unlocked, readying themself for a quick getaway. But when Elm opened it, he sat on the seat with the door open, his legs still outside the car.
Elm turned his whole body to face Myrrh. “Turn off the car.”
Spooked, they did.
Elm then took Myrrh’s hands in his and looked into their eyes. “I’m sorry to do this. I am so, so sorry.” He paused, looked toward the house. “I’m leaving you. For Bruce.”
Myrrh’s body jerked. “Who the fuck is Bruce?”
“The Phantom . . . ” He didn’t finish.
Myrrh grasped for words, for sense. “I thought something horrible had happened to you. I thought someone tried to hurt you.”
Elm hung his head, staring at the parking brake. “I wanted to do this in person.”
Myrrh looked at the top of Elm’s head, his thinning auburn hair. “You had me drive out here so you could break up with me?”
Instead of hanging his head lower, which is what Myrrh needed to see him do, Elm sat up. “Bruce and I have been seeing each other for about three months. It’s serious.”
“Can we finish this conversation at home?”
Elm put a hand on Myrrh’s knee. “I want to stay with him. Tonight.”
Myrrh almost laughed. “Fine. We’re not monogamous, Elm. I don’t care. Just—”
“He cares. Bruce is a really good guy. He was the one who told me I should have this conversation with you, take responsibility for my actions. And take responsibility for what I want.”
Myrrh had to look away from Elm’s face, which glowed obscenely with the mania of love. They stared, instead, at their own knuckles gripping the steering wheel.
Elm began to laugh. “I know! It’s ridiculous. But it’s real. I want it. I want to be a woman again, a real woman this time. With him. For him. He’s my Phantom. And I’m his Christine.”
Myrrh saw the man giving the rose to Elm—the pale crease of cheek where the mask cut into it, the fingers grasping the cane’s plastic knob. They imagined the bearded, masculine Elm stuffed into a late-eighteenth-century gown, leaning against the bow of a baroquely decorated gondola, letting his hand graze the black water, while above him, Phantom Bruce ferried them into darkness with slow, sinister strokes of a pole. Myrrh couldn’t bear it.
“Christine is a soprano,” they said.
“In the plot. In The Phantom of the Opera, Christine Daaé is a fucking soprano. What the fuck are you? The ass end of an alto?”
Myrrh regretted saying it instantly. It was profoundly transphobic and went against all of their values as a practiced smasher of both the binary and the patriarchy. But it hit Elm right where it hurt the most, and if Myrrh could not get Elm to love them, at least they could still make him hurt.
Elm nodded. “I know you’re having feelings about this. Strong feelings. I can only say thank you for loving me. And I’m sorry. I don’t have any clear answers for you about what is happening between myself and Bruce. We just . . . fit.”
“Like puzzle pieces.” It came out of Myrrh hoarse and spiteful.
“Get out of the car.”
But Elm did not get out. “You know when I transitioned, I did it because I wanted it. And now I want this.”
“Get out of the fucking car!”
“When you said the thing about taking heterosexuality seriously, I thought, My God. What have I done to myself?” He pulled himself out of the seat, then leaned down, his hand still on the car’s roof. “I mean, look at you! You could be everything you wanted if you just let yourself!”
Myrrh tried to read in his face what this could possibly mean, but it was in shadow. “What?”
“Look at yourself. You could be the man you want to be. It’s so easy.”
Myrrh did look at themself. They were wearing the unbuttoned suit jacket, flannel sweatpants, and bright-blue Crocs. Fury filled them. If they’d known they were being invited to a breakup, they would’ve dressed for it. And if they’d wanted to be a “man,” they would’ve been it. They would’ve grown out their facial hair and dressed like a lumberjack like any other millennial guy-hipster.
“I’m sorry I can’t be with you. I’m going to spend the night here. We can figure things out tomorrow.”
Myrrh watched him cut across the lawn and trot up the steps of the house. He had to knock on the door to be let back in.
Myrrh drove away.
Winding through the empty town, Myrrh began the cool, rational process of disentangling their lives. Myrrh did not want to remain in the house; it was too large for less than two people. They’d begin packing immediately. Once they got home, they went as far as labeling a clean black garbage bag THRIFT and shoving the whole velvet suit to the bottom of it. But then they took another beer from the fridge, stripped to their underwear, and returned to the PS3, ejecting Kingdom Hearts and replacing it with the karaoke game.
The game’s opening sequences bleared under Myrrh’s tears. They could not unfeel their deep revulsion at the Phantom’s performance, a revulsion not unlike that which the suit inspired. Which made Myrrh remember unwrapping the suit, excitedly pulling back the tissue paper only to feel the gut-punch of its ugliness. It was then that Myrrh should have realized Elm was having an affair. After all, what a strange, overcompensatory thing to do.
What did Elm plan to do now? Elmer who had, when they’d first dated, been Alma, an adamant lesbian. Who, three years into their relationship, announced she was a man. Who, after refusing his doctor’s suggestion of chest surgery, had taken Myrrh’s hands in his and said, “I know you get it. I mean, this is what you do. You think about these things.”
If Elm wanted to perform Christine to Bruce’s Phantom would he—she? they?—detransition? Shave his beard and wax his chest hair? Call them breasts again? Elm had some fantasy of being heterosexual, but would Elm and Bruce even count as straight? Wouldn’t they be a kind of gay male couple as Elm and Myrrh had been a different kind of gay male couple? Or would Elm and Bruce join the grayscale of heterosexual diversities, clinging to some public subaltern identity that hinged entirely on a set of private behaviors? This, of course, would ultimately necessitate them to be overtly public about their sexuality. They’d post pictures of themselves in revealing Halloween costumes, Elm in a leather corset and grape-colored lipstick, Bruce in a leather half-mask, vest, and codpiece, clasping Elm’s neck, his mouth open.
Ashamed of their own shallow, useless questions, Myrrh sobbed as they sought a video-game avatar that looked like them, choosing, at last, an androgynous, brown-skinned figure wearing a Michael Jackson–style military jacket. The avatar beckoned, doll-like and stiff. Myrrh ran to the bathroom, snot, and tears flowing down their face. They blew into a handful of toilet paper, then furiously brought the whole roll back to the couch.
Gender was not a spectrum or a Möbius strip or a four-dimensional object. It was not a gingerbread man or a unicorn. It refused to be workshopped or seminared, corrected, disrupted, or intervened. You could say, Fuck gender! But gender would not be fucked. Gender was a shitty lover whom you fell in love with drunk and fell out of love with drunk. Gender was a Pisces. Gender was a giant pain in the ass.
Myrrh searched immediately for the only song they knew they had the range to sing. A song that was just a man shouting. The game’s camera swooped over the stage, taking in Myrrh’s avatar from different angles, then over the three or so individuals that had been cloned into an audience of hundreds, clapping and pumping the air in uncanny unison. The song’s opening riff twanged, and Myrrh brought the microphone close. It smelled of Elm’s mouth. Not a foul smell, just the smell of a mouth you thought you knew. Myrrh let themself be blinded by the television’s silver light, their eyes fixed on the little white words and blue bars that scrolled endlessly from right to left.
The first few stanzas came out thickly, and Myrrh had to pause the game. They blew their nose and pulled at the beer bottle. What had the instructor said? Give it everything.
Finishing the beer, Myrrh unpaused the game. Their awkward 3D avatar wiggled and gesticulated on the stage while the crowd of clones went wild. Myrrh felt their weak, unmelodious tenor bubble its way out of their chest, a bark, a burp. A voice uncomfortably high to be a man’s, weirdly low to be a woman’s, and far too adult to be a boy’s.
I can’t get no Oh no no no Hey hey hey hey That’s what I say
They punched the air with their crude, ugly sound. It was, to Myrrh, the most pleasing sound in the world.
Migueltzinta was raised in Mexico and California. He writes across several genres and works in various other mediums including performance, video and installation. His favored themes include questions of power, gender, territory, perversity, institutional intrigue and the Wild West. He identifies as Mestizxxx. His work has appeared in The Indiana Review and Midnight Breakfast, among others. He lives in a small town in Alberta, and is very gay and very trans.