Credit: Courtesy Emily Cooper; Francesca Roh/Xtra
4 min

Looking back on the year I was 23

I thought the number 23 held a certain kind of magic. I still do

Through intimate and personal stories, Ivan Coyote’s latest book Rebent Sinner explores what it means to be trans and non-binary today, and the joys, obstacles and triumphs in their life. In this exclusive except, Coyote looks back on the year they were 23 years old, and its significance to them 27 years later.

When I was 23, I thought that if I just sat down with women who were trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and we could just have a really good talk about everything, they would for sure just come around and see that we are all just in this thing together. I thought a little light bulb would flicker on inside of their hurt and battered hearts, and they would suddenly see all of their sisters standing beside them. I thought they could be talked into the truth, and we could then begin to work together to make the world a better place for all women. When I was 23, I actually believed that.

When I was 23, I never spent a minute of any day hating my own body. Except for my tits, but they were so small back then, I could almost just ignore them.

When I was 23, I always trusted that I was going to get the rent together on time for the first of the month. Even when it was already the third of the month. Even when I had to choose between buying ramen noodles and taking the bus.

When I was 23, I still thought East Vancouver was an affordable place to live. When I was 23, East Vancouver still was.

When I was 23, and mostly broke most of the time, I considered store-bought tampons kind of a luxury item. A punk rock slam poet from San Francisco taught me how to roll my own tampons from toilet paper pilfered from library and hotel lobby bathrooms. I still think of her whenever I buy a giant box of 100 tampons at Costco. Sometimes I worry that I will forget her when menopause finally sets into this body permanently.

When I was 23, I didn’t mind that every pair of footwear I owned and every shirt in my closet were way too big for me. I was used to it.

When I was 23, I thought I could just run away from those memories.

When I was 23, I thought smoking looked cool, not sad.

When I was 23, I would do the math about how old I would be in the year 2000. Thirty-one. We will have found the cure for AIDS by then, I remember thinking.

When I was 23, I only had two tattoos. One of those tattoos is now buried under the ink of a newer one, and the other is a blurry smudge on my right shoulder. A pink triangle.

When I was 23, I kept a journal. I wrote or drew or glued stuff into it nearly every day. The big black, unlined art books that you used to be able to buy at East Side Datagraphics on Commercial Drive. I would splurge on a new one every new year, and scrabble in December to fill the pages of the old one so they didn’t go to waste. I wrote most of my stories that eventually appeared in the book Boys Like Her longhand in those journals. I would drag them around in my backpack and memorize my stuff from them backstage before I did open-mic gigs and cabaret nights in venues that have now all burned down or been torn down: The Glass Slipper, the Mighty Niagara, that place on the Drive right by Venables. I can’t remember its name. I can’t believe I forget the name of that place. Electric something something? That’s the thing about forgetting. I used to think I would only forget the stuff that didn’t really matter. But that is not what happens at all. You just forget. An old man warned me of that one time, when I was about 23. I forget his name now.

When I was 23, I thought the number 23 held a certain kind of magic. I still do.

When I was 23, I experienced my first real heartbreak. The kind that catches and grows in your throat. The kind that leaks out of your eyes on the bus. The kind of broken heart that feels bottomless. The kind that glues your heavy head to your pillow. Makes you forget to eat. We found each other as friends, finally, many years later, at a funeral. Every once in a while she turns her head just so, and it flicks a string inside of me, still wound tight somewhere way inside my chest. Like an echo, like a stain, like an E minor chord sung in a staircase while alone.

When I was 23, I still thought that if we could just talk to white supremacists, and people who hate trans people, and misogynists, if we just took the time to love them and have compassion and listen to their pain and tell them a different story about the truth of the rest of us, they would see. They would see us and join us, because isn’t love greater than hate? Deep down doesn’t every heart just want to beat next to another?

Last night I heard a poet say that love is not a blanket but a cloud. Her name is Juliane Okot Bitek, and I heard her say that last night, and I am 50 years old, and it did not bring me comfort, but it did flick a string inside of me. Like an echo, like a broken heart still pumping blood into my fingertips, like an E chord sung in the underground parking lot of a condominium they built where I used to gather and tell stories to other 23-year-olds wearing third-hand boots way too big for them.

It’s a full moon tonight. A pink moon, they say. I think I’m getting my period. I’m almost done with bleeding. I don’t even really need a tampon anymore. Every period now threatens to be my last.

I will not miss it.

“When I Was Twenty-Three” by Ivan Coyote. From the book Rebent Sinner (published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

This story is filed under Excerpt, Personal Essay
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