Who the Hell Am I Anyway?

by Mark Doty

Mark Doty

I always felt cheated for people not letting me be myself. When I was five, my parents dressed me up in a papery blue shirt and neat kakhi shorts and took me to church. I could handle the first hour. I sang in the choir and watched Bible characters move around on the felt boards in Sunday school. 

The second hour, when I sat through adult church, was unbearable. The shorts would chafe my legs and I always had to go to the bathroom and the chairs were too hard and I didn’t like standing up so long for the hymns. I felt stifled. 

I’d squawk and kick and breathe heavy to get my parents’ attention until my Dad would hiss at me to be quiet and deal with it. I always looked forward to unclipping my bow-tie and changing out my Sunday best for my Aladdin tank top and purple shorts. They were much more comfortable.

When I turned seven my parents left our house in New Mexico and started doing deputation to raise money for missions work overseas. We lived in a big van with shutters and a TV in the back, moving from city to city, speaking at church services, staying with relatives in the area. I’d wake with the sunlight bleeding through the shutters, my face pressed against the window. 

Every week my Dad drove the family to more early morning services, old diabetic deacons and good-natured twentysomethings who would pinch mine and my brother’s cheeks. I never knew which state we were in or where we would go next. My home waited overseas in some hazy ideal full of the alien and the strange.

And when I got there it didn’t feel like home at all. It was just another place. We lived on the edge of a large rice patty and I dressed in a school uniform that itched in the heat. I sat around during lunches not talking to anyone because I wasn’t really there. Why should I make temporary friends? After a few months of language school, my parents packed up and took us to another island, where my Dad flew airplanes and we climbed trees in the backyard after school.

Years later we came back to America and stayed with my grandparents. I grew two more chins and read Animorphs and The Neverending Story in the elementary school hall while my classmates made fun of me, called me fat and a faggot for reading. It was my first cold winter, so my parents bought me a thick green jacket padded with down. I wore it every day. Buttoned it up so my paunch wouldn’t show so much. 

Winter changed to spring, and then to summer, and I still wore that coat. I wouldn’t take it off. I could laugh and not worry about anyone seeing my belly. I’m pretty sure I mowed several acres lawn wearing that coat. But then it started to smell bad. Something had started growing in it. After careful inspection, my parents had to peel it off me and throw it away.

In my mind, I still look just like I did the day they threw out the coat. You aren’t born with an identity. You wrap it around yourself as the years pass. You take one off, put another one on. Maybe you’re a feminist or gay or a jock or a Republican, or a log cabin feminist who just happens to play football. Maybe you’re a jerk no matter what label you assume. Maybe you’re the nicest guy anyone will ever meet, encased in a woman's body. Or maybe, like me, you’re still the same shivering, awkward kid from fifth grade who read too many books, who just wants a coat to hide inside.

Last updated December 21, 2022