It’s the story of Carla’s arrival at Kennedy airport last Saturday that’s my favorite. After a 45 minute wait in line at Customs, a woman in uniform shoos her over to a man in a glass booth. Head down, he puts his hand out and flutters his fingers. Carla passes him her passport. He takes his time, perusing the photo. A photo of an ordinary looking, middle-aged man. Average height, balding, with a mustache and tortoise shell glasses. The customs official looks up. He blinks. He looks again. Standing, more like towering before him, is an Amazon like blonde in a silk dress with black, knee high boots, pink lipstick, and a pair of cat sequinned eyeglasses. He smiles.
“OK, let’s hear it,” he says.
And so Carla tells him the short version of her long story; of her transformation from Carlo the man into Carla the woman. She explains that the sex change is not yet complete and therefore she is obliged to travel on her old passport.
The guy doesn’t even flinch. “Welcome to the United States,” he says. “Enjoy your stay.”
“Thees ees why I lowvve New York,” grins Carla, a prominent attorney in her own country on her very first visit to the Big Apple. “You’re like a virgin,” I say when we meet at a great Vietnamese dump down in Chinatown. Carla’s flamboyance and enthusiasm must be contagious. Because the usually taciturn, surly staff at this restaurant can not keep their eyes off her. They hover over us like that alien spaceship in District 9. After ordering heaps of food and a lot of beer, I ask her if she minds me asking some questions. “I’m so curious,” I say. “About the process.”
“Of course,” she replies, smiling at my husband. “Ees is like Warren Beety,” she says.”Or George Clooney.”
“Yes, he is,” I say. “The girls love him.”
As a New Yorker, I have certainly seen my share of transvestites: everywhere from nightclubs and the formerly un-gentrified streets of the Meatpacking district where I always imagined the cobblestones must have been hell on the high heels of these ladies of the night to the cult classic, Glenn Glenda (which I saw at my mother’s insistence who loved it.) But my only knowledge of transexuals comes through the books of Jan Morris and the film, TransAmerica. I don’t imagine that the decision to change sex is ever taken lightly. But as a woman with clients that include a number of extremely powerful multi-national corporations, the professional risks for Carla were enormous. “I only loose the one client,” she laughs as we stuff the thinnest of pancakes with fresh mint, lettuce, and pork. “The client was stuuupid, always. So it did not affect me. But other peeples are surprised, yes. When I argue a case in front of a judge or when they invite me to lecture, some are very shocked.”
Strangely enough, I find the fact that Carla is travelling with her ex-girlfriend a hell of a lot more shocking than her sex change. I can’t help but think how utterly disorienting/disturbing it must have been–the news that the man she knew and loved as Carlo was leaving her to become a woman. But the two of them are adorable together–holding hands and giggling.
Carla treats us to details of her latest case, a controversial one in her own country, and then segways into hilarious gossip about long-dead American heiresses like Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke and the playboy, Porfirio Rubirosa. “I know of him through my friend, an American actress. We met in Madrid when I was man. She was incredible! A Hungarian refugee with a life in Hollywood. She was a ballerina in Paris. She even ride the streets of New York on a motorcycle with Steve McQueen. ” Carla is many years younger than I am. And I am way too young to remember characters like these. But they are part of the American legend, the myth, that Europe still envies. As I watch her, hands in perpetual motion, brushing her hair back from her face, tucking in her silk blouse, touching her lips with a napkin, I am bewitched/stunned by an unexpected sense of wonder.
How extraordinary, I keep thinking. Not just the exaggerated feminine gestures but the idea of hurtling into full-fledged womanhood with no transitions. No puberty or adolescence. To be permitted to indulge in female fantasies, at last. To flirt with men and buy lipstick and clothes and shoes. How does it feel after forty years, living as a man, to walk into a store like Barneys and try on a dress? And what about the deeper, less visible things that make us women? Do hormone treatments make adjustments to empathy levels, I wonder. Will Carla think like a woman once the process is complete? What I find the most moving, however, about this evening with Carla is the obvious change in her perception of the self. I mean, there’s no way I would ever mistake her for a woman. In terms of appearance. She looks exactly like a transexual. Which is totally irrelevant. Because when Carla now looks in a mirror, she sees a woman. Perhaps, even a beautiful woman. “I think it’s incredibly brave,” R. says to me later in the car after we’ve dropped Carla and her girlfriend off at the Standard. “She’s living a dream,” he adds. It takes courage to live a dream.” R. is right. Perhaps, this is why Carla seems so fantastically confident and happy.