The Red Toenail
When I was ten-years old, my father threw a shoe at me in an Atlantic City hotel room after I called him a faggot. I was around eight and didn’t know what the word meant, only that boys in my class said it to each other.
My parents always cursed around me, and I in turn did the same to them. It was free reign—family code. I believe I said something beforehand like, “Are you fucking stupid?” after calling him out for leaving the PlayStation 3 in our car parked a mile away. He laughed, and wanting to one-up myself, I pulled out my new word.
“What are you, a faggot?”
And then a sneaker came hurtling at me from across the room—a greying Sketcher with chunky pleather and untied laces. It didn’t hit me, and I thought it was a joke, granted an exaggerated joke, one that was uncharacteristic of my father who never got physical, but a joke nonetheless.
For the rest of the vacation, he ignored me. We rarely made eye contact, and conversation was kept to one word, bitter responses. I wrote this off as strange but didn’t care to think about it further. I was only visiting my father for the weekend, a product of my parent’s custody court orders a decade ago. My mother’s house was just hours within reach.
My father and I had never clicked anyway. It was not that he was absent from my life, but ever since I was six months old, he had lived an hour away, and his apartment felt foreign. My mother always dedicated her space to me. The walls had my kindergarten artwork. The cupboards had my Power Puff Girls dishes. The T.V. was always set to Nickelodeon. My father, on the other hand, retained his own space, cutting out slivers of it to share occasionally. I didn’t care if we were distant from each other on a vacation; we were distant always.
This relationship seemed unending, like a concrete mold solidifying in the sun. But one night in high school, the plaster cracked. I caught him ten minutes before we were supposed to leave for a wedding, rolling a joint in the bathroom.
“I was gonna go to the roof and smoke it before we left.” He held up the half-formed cylinder in his fingers, dots of green spilling into the sink.
“This wedding is gonna be long, and you know I hate drinking.” Traditional Egyptian weddings were long, and alcohol did disagree with him. “I was enhancing things,” he smiled.
We climbed on to the roof, my silver heels slipping on the ladder rungs. Four stories above downtown Jersey City, you couldn’t see the garbage or traffic. Everything looked luxurious. Manhattan was to the right. The windows and titanium looked like one giant glare on the Hudson. The Empire State Building was blocked by the mysterious tree that bloomed pink flowers at its own will.
“Don’t get used to this,” my father said. “This is a one time thing.”
A year later, we were passing a joint back and forth on his black leather couch. It was winter break of my junior year of high school. Blinking Christmas lights from our neighbor’s balcony kept shifting the light composition of the room. Jersey City was a backdrop chorus of looping car alarms, police sirens, and speakers vibrating Spanish music.
“You caught me that one time,” he explained, handing me the joint.
My father had just showed Myra to me for the first time. The unveiling was done through a series of posed photos on his cellphone. There were hundreds of them. My father in a black straight wig, a lace bralette, bedazzled with a medley of jewelry: shiny hoops, bangles, a necklace with a big orange flower. My father had nice legs; tucked into a bathing suit bottom, the black stilettos bringing out shapely muscles. Every swipe of the digital page melted the concrete mold into lingerie and denim mini skirts.
“I had red nail polish on my toenails and wore sandals. You were only four or five, but you definitely caught me.”
“I . . . I don’t remember.”
“You were all bugged out and kept asking questions. You definitely remember.”
I tried to imagine the scene instead. I imagined my father in sandals, the kind with khaki Velcro across the toes and around the ankle. I imagined the red nail polish, bright with flicks of glitter because—as I would learn later—my father’s style was much flashier than my own. I imagined asking the question with a tone of curiosity and maybe amusement. I imagined the pit of my father’s stomach twisting, his awareness being heightened, every noise amplified and movement heavy.
I thought about Myra—the long-wigged, tacky eyeshadow, red stiletto version of my dad staring at me on the screen. And I thought about my dad—the bald, far away, leather work-boot version of Myra stuck somewhere inside.
“I didn’t have nail polish remover then. Myra wasn’t as prepared as she is now.”
My father was crying. I met him with only a blank stare. Prior to pulling out his phone and unlocking the photos, he had warned me that I might puke or get fucked up for life or hate him indefinitely. But I did not. I felt numb to Myra. After years of assuming we would never be close, we were suddenly stitched together by the intestines, our gut pains simultaneous and telepathic. I wanted to thank her. Whoever she was—a desired gender, an interest in women clothes, an obscurity with no label—it did not matter. In her presence, the man and the apartment that seemed alien for so long was a translucent fortress, perhaps an unintended one, designed to keep some out and others encased in. But it was not one built with the intention to make me feel uncomfortable as a child and awkward as a teenager; it existed out of circumstance.
“I thought you knew all these years because of that,” he said, breaking my silence.
I realized for eighteen years, and possibly past that, Myra was always hiding bits of herself away: a stick on nail, a bralette, a set of gaudy feather earrings I thought I lost in eighth grade. She was always being stuffed into the black suitcase under a row of dusty VHS tapes in my father’s closet.
My father thought I collected one of these artifacts years ago and kept it as evidence: the red toenail. Even the way he phrased it: I “caught” him, as if red-handed in some forbidden act. I did not uncover Myra like a game of Clue. In retrospect, physical aspects of her presence were clear: clumps of long hair in my bald, single father’s shower, bathroom products like makeup remover, his cheetah-print glasses frame phase. But when she was revealed, those were not the unanswered questions that became clear. What became clear were reactions, reactions to hateful words. Reactions in a room full of men—negative, removed, making excuses to leave—versus a room full of women—laughing, blossoming, leading the discussion.
“I didn’t know because of the nail polish,” I said.
I handed the joint back to him. His eyes focused on the bundle of embers on the end and then dropped to the ground. Something swept across his face, which looked to me like disappointment. My father feared Myra’s physical detection, but the other kind of detection had scared him more—the kind you cannot ascertain immediately, the kind that floats to the surface, the kind that makes you question things without proof.
He could hide fake nails and high heels but not the part of himself that wanted them. Even when my father disintegrated into Myra, he wanted the breakdown to come externally, from some piece of evidence, some flash of red nail polish I saw him wearing years ago.
The air in the apartment was thick and yellow by this point. Through it, I saw in my father’s wrinkled brows a quiet consideration for the internal elements of Myra’s existence. He gave up trying to convince me of the nail polish memory, and a comfortable silence fell over us. In the stillness, we thought of Myra’s long-standing history with our family. We acknowledged her presence truthfully, together, within and without both of us for the first time. My father exhaled the smoke he was holding in. He scratched the back of his head and tried to relax as Myra, ripped from the confines of her dusty black suitcase, sat somewhere in that same room, stark naked and willfully comfortable.