When I first saw your picture, I was twenty years old. Winter 2005. I was coming off a Chicago street, smoky with December cold. Sheltering from the wind in the arch of the Smart Art Museum, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go in or not; then all of a sudden a sharp gust cut around the corner and sliced at my eyes, and I shouldered the door open and slipped into the startling heat of the lobby.
From the moment I came upon you—naked, the long strokes of your body balanced on the stones of the Great Wall—from that moment, you were like human calligraphy. I walked across the echoing tiles of the first floor galleries, through Ancient Egypt and French Expressionism and past the Japanese scrolls. I walked into China and stopped right in front of you, stared at you, and you stared back calmly.
You were so calm.
So I followed you, that afternoon. Through frame after frame, from room to room. From the Great Wall to the East Village. You were in a bathroom, posed in front of a mirror, bare hip jutting, smooth shoulder- blade, applying lipstick to your swollen lips. You were in a bath-tub, head lolled back against the white porcelain wall, eyes half-closed and black tufts of cut hair furring the water like blood. You were painting in the clear half-light of a studio. You were balanced on the edge of a torn armchair in the middle of the street. Always balanced, always precarious, always composed. Always naked: the muscled arms and flat hard torso of a man and the high curved face, the long slender hands, the hips of a woman. Chinese artist Ma-Liuming, the captions said, performing his alter-ego Fen Ma-Liuming. And “Fen” means other, it means different, I looked that up on the internet and some sites said that Fen implies female. And thatmade me laugh because when you pursed your painted lips and swung your hips—well. That’s more than just an implication.
There’s a story about Mateu and the Dean of the Medical School, and the story goes that back in October he went to her office to talk to her about his acceptance for the following fall. I can just imagine it—the cool sterile white of the hallways and then Mateu like a breath off the equator—cinnamon skin, black leather, high-heeled boots, metal at his wrists and throat, rings in his ears, and his every word is pure silver. The conversation went well but at the end of it the Dean leaned forward across the desk.
“Medical school is a serious commitment,” she said, “And I just want to take a moment to address your— choice of—apparel, I suppose. You’ll be taken more seriously if you dress like a man. After all, that’s what you are, isn’t it? A man?” —And Mateu, without losing a beat, without shifting in his seat, without losing a sweet bright chin-lifted moment—Mateu crossed his legs, narrowed his eyes, and said, “Senhora, you can call me Mateu when I’m wearin pants, but when I’m in a mini-skirt, people best be callin me María.”
Why are we this hungry? Why are we so hungry?
I don’t ask Mateu this. But I watch him—he is giving me a lift home, fifty miles per hour on streets marked clearly twenty—I watch his long carefully manicured fingers on the driving wheel, his heeled boot on the gas pedal, the glint of metal in his ears. In my pocket is a piece of paper folded in fourths, it came in the mail today from an art-gallery owner in London.
In September of 1999, Mr. London writes, I had the pleasure of displaying several of Mr. Zhirong’s black and white prints of a number of East Village artists, among them the man you inquired about, Ma Liuming. I have not had personal contact with Mr. Ma, but I have heard that he is currently living and working in the Beijing area. Why don’t you try and contact him through Beijing galleries?
Sometimes, waiting in the cold, I play with the zipper on my jacket and wonder: is there some hidden seam in my skin, pull on the right place and it all slips off?
Sometimes I wake up from dreams that I barely remember and find my hands clamped over my chest, and I am surprised by the vague dream-memory of flatness there, of something hard between my legs.
Sometimes I look at Mateu’s old biology books to remind myself that through the desperate force of your own propulsion forward you can change the shape and contour of your body. Look at amoebas. Look at jellyfish.
Sometimes when I swallow I think I hear it echoing inside me. Sometimes I think: Mateu and me, we’re too young to be this hungry.
I only ever read one interview with Ma Liuming that was translated to English, and in it he never even said what he’d wanted, what he’d intended, if he knew what it meant: the stark, calm enigma of his naked body. He said that when he performed it was not as himself but as Fen Ma-Liuming, the woman; that he hadn’t expected either to be arrested in August or released a few months later; that he was aware that he disturbed people, but—he suggested softly—maybe wasn’t that all right? and that it wasn’t drag, he wasn’t even gay, it wasn’t as much performing as it was becoming. But he didn’t specify what that meant, either: performing or becoming. In the end of the interview he said that he didn’t regret any of it, he wouldn’t have done anything differently. And I was glad he’d said that, but I wished there had been more because he didn’t talk about what it’s like to strip down to the surface of your skin and then change that surface, chip your mistakes away like a sculpture of a sculpture, and then walk the length of the Great Wall of China naked in a body you can wear. A body you can bear. A body you can be proud of. He didn’t say a word about that.