My brother Max quipped that men were from Mars, women were from Venus, and he was from Mercury. I don’t think he really believed that the first two categories were rigid, nor was he making fun of author John Gray’s 1992 book title. Rather, I believe he was having fun while playing seriously with language and convention.
Understanding and embracing of nonbinary or enby identities, the use of they as a pronoun
denoting an individual, and the self- and community identifiers demisexual, pansexual, and asexual all found greater public prominence in the years after Max died of vaginal cancer (technically, mullerian duct cancer), shortly before his 42nd birthday. I often think of what we might be talking about and doing, if he were still here in physical form.
Our not existing physically for over a decade in the same time-space realms has not deterred our communication. A little more than a year after Max died, I distinctly felt him advise me to buy what is now my home. I was in the dining room; his presence near me was obvious, his voice—as always—distinct. “This is your house,” he resonated in my ear, with emphatic affection. Ten years ago, this summer, I moved into the house. My home was built before the Civil War and is in a neighborhood replete with Underground Railroad history. He would have appreciated all of that.
Still able to get up for short stints before he was fully on his deathbed, my brother told me during one of our last in-person conversations while we were tinkering in the house that if I should
see a weta in upstate New York, I would know it’s him. Flightless crickets, the enormous weta have
been known to face off with cats; they are neither altogether admired nor generally understood to be attractive in their native New Zealand. Shortly before Max died, several of his closest friends, I among them, had sequential visits with him and his family in their Atlanta home.
Max explained how he and his friend Mani (a fellow Intersex activist who hails from New Zealand) had talked lovingly about the weta, in part because of what I just described—we all share an admiration for deviance in the natural world and beyond. Significantly, though, the English word, weta, is from the Māori word, wētā, where the singular and the plural have the same form. This means that weta connotes a commitment shared by many gender nonconforming and genderfluid people, as well as those for whom beliefs about the separations between “I” and “we” are artificial at best and dogmatic at worse.
On the one year anniversary of Max’s death, Clark was visiting with me in New York. We were moved by the movie Avatar, notwithstanding its many problematic components, especially with respect to race and disability. We sat together recuperating as the final credits rolled, and my
speechlessness was broken vividly when the words Weta Workshop scrolled on-screen among the many creative design and animation production houses listed. I jumped out of my seat and shouted, shaking my head disbelievingly, then laughed at the perfection of Max’s posthumous joke, totally consistent with his cleverness and sense of humor. Not long after, a local friend of mine and I ran an errand and wound up going somewhere we hadn’t planned on visiting in our initial quest. Parked in the lot where we arrived was a boat with the giant letters w-e-t-a painted on its side. I am glad that my shrieks at having seen a weta in upstate New York not once, but twice, after Max died weren’t too disruptive.
Famous in Queer circles in the 1990s and thereafter, my brother was featured in a variety of journalism articles and documentary films. Considered one of the progenitors of the Intersex rights movement, he was my platonic soulmate well before he was photographed protesting with colleagues and friends from Hermaphrodites with Attitude at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting. He was present for the first international summit with Intersex folks, who gathered in solidarity and to make social change. A short film about this experience was made by the now defunct Intersex Society of North America.
I met Max, who I refer to as my brother by energy not by birth, when we were 18. The first time we drank too much was with each other. We read many of the same fringe books and also swapped recommendations. Before his life in Atlanta, he lived for a time in Philly, when I was still in New York City. We visited each other in our respective cities, every six months or so. Once we spent an entire day scouring used bookstores for a copy of Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He had just read it, and was pining for me to read it, too, so we could discuss it together. We found success at the Gryphon Bookshop on Broadway. The next day, the book was strangely all over town, as it had been reprinted in paperback. Neither of us thought this was coincidental, but we laughed at our efforts from the prior day.
Max and I talked about everything from fairies, theology, and philosophy to evolutionary biology, linguistics, poesis, and psychoanalysis. We both loved patterns, lists, taxonomies, and messing with all of these. We shared a fascination with all things Monty Python—especially Brazil, after which he named one of his cats. Brazil the cat had a goddess on his back, Max said of the brown tabby’s whorls.
We enjoyed the macabre and the absurd. Like my father, Max read lots of Lovecraft. I tried, but only got so far. Max was fascinated by lycanthropy, played at being a genteel vampire in his life as a LARPer (live action role player), and delighted in Edward Gorey. In the years since his death, my sister-in-law has sent me some precious things, including his green cotton sweater, a variety of superhero and other figurines, a vest he wore when LARPing, and the framed Gashlycrumb Tinies poster that hung in his place in Philly, and, later, in their Atlanta home.
A few months ago, shortly after I arrived home from the day’s adventures, my cat jumped into the air. I have seen other cats do this, but not Balboa. Straight up he went, a vertical spring with a tail. Then, he looked inexplicably over his shoulder. He ate invisible things off the floor. Boa stared toward and into the room, then looked up at and placed his paw on me. This happened all evening. Just one paw—and the staring.
I was wearing Max’s green cotton sweater. I hadn’t realized the date when I put on the sweater, that morning. I wasn’t thinking—I just really wanted to wear it. Driving in the early
afternoon, I had a wordless memory of being 16, a time when I had first driven a car. It was a textural embodiment, like a smell, not a flashback. Although I wanted to hold onto the memory, it vanished in a puff. I noticed a craving, as some Buddhists might say. Then, I accepted that what
happened was a gift and could not endure my attachment. I felt an extraordinary presence. Much later that evening, I realized that all of this had occurred on the anniversary of Max’s death. Not a coincidence, I thought.
My brother departed from his body at around 11 a.m. I was facing a wall of cake at Wegman’s when I got the call. Back at the car, turning the keys in the ignition, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing “Under Pressure” accompanied my shaking. At first, I didn’t want to do anything that night, approaching 12 years ago, a time which seems like another place. I went out, eventually, hung out with friends at another friends’ restaurant that is now closed. I read strangers’ astrology charts, in low light.