The Prom Queens

Helen Burnside left New York. She had watched the towers collapse. She felt the rumble of armored jets patrolling in belated formation through the still-rising columns of grey human smoke.

She despaired at the shattered illusion of invulnerability, quickly replaced by a constant see-something-say-something paranoiac vigilance. She sold her parents’ two-bedroom co-op in Brooklyn Heights, stored her furniture; packed a suitcase, a paint box, and a carton of books.

On the Acela, unsettled and unsure, she read The Magic Mountain. Imagining being embraced at the station, like Mann’s Castorp character, by the quieting arms of her cousin. In her case, the cousin would be Beatrice Longfellow.

Bea, a retired City schoolteacher, lived on the coast north of Boston. She had a beagle and a spare bedroom to offer. The offer was sincere, if not well-considered. Bea had voted for Bush, and this fact alone sat between them like an un-invited guest at dinner who sucked his teeth after every swallow.

It was across from Bea’s apartment that Helen first saw Mackenzie. He was alone, hitting tennis balls, sweating in the afternoon sun on the tennis court in the park. He was tall, slender, self-contained. He looked to be around Helen’s age.

In Brooklyn, she lived along the water and practiced Tai Chi at dawn on the Promenade with a group of other satisfied-and-single women.

One morning, after his workout, she sat near him on the bench. They talked: exercise, politics, and the book she was reading. He lived in a rented cottage up the hill; like her, an exile from the city, which he loved but felt the need to leave.

She began to look forward to seeing him. Attracted in a simple, uncomplicated way. In time, she found herself planning her day around his schedule.

In cousin Bea’s mind, Helen was being naïve and impulsive. She herself had seen the man in the park and was wary of him, there day after day, never with anyone else. You had to wonder she said. And you had to look out for yourself.

“Face it, Helen, us wrinkle-resisting, collagen-coddling types had our shot once. It’s over for us. You only get one chance to be the prom queen. Now we have to settle for comfortable underwear, some warm soup in the winter, and ceiling fans that don’t squeak in the summer.”

One afternoon, Helen walked up the hill to Mackenzie’s place with him. They paused on the path, the striated quarry wall curtained behind them. He turned to her. She looked up at him. He took her arm. Her heart boomed. He told her he cared for her.

“I hear a ‘but’ coming,’ she said.

“But…,” he said and told her he was on long estrogen therapy. He was a transgender person. Had come to this place to get away. Had been preparing for months for gender reassignment surgery.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “I mean, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean, shit, I don’t know what I mean.” She began to cry. He put his arm around her.

“How about some tea?” he said.

Some nights Helen stayed at Mac’s. Nina Simone records. Coltrane. Warm goat cheese and beet salads. They read together. Helen tended to her brushes and paints. Mackenzie strung his racquets and wrote ad copy for the Summer IKEA catalog.

They talked about the City. The gender gap for artists, friends from Cooper Union, living to be the age your parents were in the photos in your wallet.

When winter came, Helen painted a portrait of Mackenzie. Another one in January. Snow clung in clumps to the limbs of the naked trees, they both cut their hair and Helen painted one of the two of them nose-to-nose. She moved her books on to his shelves.

A part of her, a big part, wished nothing would ever change between them, that this feeling would last forever.

She spent more time with Mac than with Bea. She painted each day. Feeling herself changing. Working in acrylics and palette knives. Feeling an aggressive freedom of movement and form.

When it came time for Mac to have surgery, Helen told Bea she’d be moving back to New York.

“It’s that man, isn’t it? Mark my words. No good will come of it,” she said, her mouth filled with malign animus. “Not with him or with any man.”

Helen packed her portraits of Mackenzie. A chronology of transition, the smoothing of her jawline, the careless fall of hair across a broadened brow. Shadows, too, of uncertainty, dislocation, and isolation, flickers of inchoate fear.

In New York, Mac recovered from surgery. Helen’s portraits were shown in Brooklyn. She drank peach Bellinis and wore black a lot.

Mackenzie returned to work full-time. Played at the Midtown Tennis Club. Learned to rumba and wore red a lot. She started anti-androgens; considered implants.

Helen opened a gallery in Tribeca. They met for dinners. Films at the Angelika. Found other cis-trans couples in the Movement.

Mac’s apartment in Chelsea overlooked the water. Helen’s was a loft in SoHo.

Time slipped by. Helen called one evening. They met at Balthazar the next day.

Helen despaired. Sales were off. ARTNews called her work stale and monotonous. She thought her work was too threatening. Maybe it was both.

Mac was shunned by women and jostled by men at work. HR told her the company was moving in a different direction. Security watched her carry her plants and coffee mug to the elevator.

What are we to do?” she asked.

Helen looked at her, took her hand, and said: “Carpe per globos, puella. Et iratus sum nimis!”


“Seize them by the balls, girl. Now I’m pissed, or something like that.”
One year later, their book, What Ever Happened to the Prom Queens: Intimate Portraits of Women in Transition, hit the bookstores: a forward by Susan Faludi, a sizeable advance, and a ten-city book tour.



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