Work of the Week: KJ Cerankowski
Most people wouldn’t think of southern New Mexico as a place a person might go to lean into their queerness. San Francisco or New York, Paris or Berlin, certainly, but an alabaster expanse of Southwestern desert that abuts a U.S. military missile range? Seems unlikely. Yet, drifting among the white sands of the arid New Mexican desert was exactly where I found myself when I—I suppose—“found myself.” Though to be clear: this is not a saccharine story of coming out or embarking on some self-discovery journey in the wilds of nature to test my mettle, emerging from the brush as a more evolved or enlightened version of myself. For sure, I knew I was queer long before I set foot in any desert, or forest, for that matter. Hell, anyone could take one look at me and know it. I just didn’t yet know what new shapes that queerness could take. This is more a story of happenstance, of the overlay of landscape and body and history, and the worlds of possibility that materialize in our intersubjective becomings.
Let me begin this tale at an entrance:
“One adult and one child?” the park ranger asks as J pulls her station wagon up to the window of the entrance booth at White Sands National Park. (Technically, it was still a national monument at the time of our visit, and key to this entry point to the story is the fact that the entrance fee was calculated per person rather than per vehicle, as it is now, under the dictates of the National Park Service). I no longer remember the exact fees, but it was something like five dollars per adult over the age of sixteen and free admission for anyone under age sixteen.
I sit quietly in the passenger seat, smiling to myself, knowing the ranger perceives me to be a child of the age sixteen or younger. Most likely, I imagine, she thinks I am a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy. Both J and I being broke graduate students, I am admittedly thrilled at the prospect of saving the five-dollar fee. That could go a long way toward cheap beers at the dive in Las Cruces later. But following my parsimonious glee, another pleasure hums through my veins. She thinks I’m a boy, I think to myself. A boy.
J looks at me. I grin at J. She then sighs heavily and turns back toward the window. “Two adults,” she asserts, with a hint of irritation in her voice. The woman shrugs, takes our money, hands us some park maps and brochures, and off we go.
We enter the park just as the visitor center is closing, the sun purpling the sky on the horizon, the white dunes sprawled out before us. It is mid-July. The only comfortable time to visit the dunes in the summer months is within those few hours between the time the sun starts dropping in the sky and the hour after sunset when the park closes and the rangers sweep every last vehicle from the pullouts along Dunes Drive. It also happens to be the time you would be most likely to sneak a sighting of the “white dread” or “white terror,” sometimes called “Pavla Blanca” or “La Pavura Blanca,” the ghost of a woman named Mañuela who, adorned in her bridal gown, scours the mounds of sand in search of her lover, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Luna, who set off from Mexico City in 1540 in search of cities of gold and streets of jewels to the north. After the expedition failed to turn up any riches to claim as their own, de Luna and his thieving crew turned back south, where they met with Apache resistance to the sprawl of Spanish colonization across the region, staunch refusal to simply turn over the land for settlement and capital trade. As the white dust settled in the aftermath of the battle, de Luna’s bones, too, settled amongst the fields of white grain. He died trying to stake a claim on what was never rightfully his to claim, and now Mañuela haunts the land, seeking to reunite with her lost lover; she cannot give up the land because she cannot give up his body. The ghosts of colonization persist.
Mañuela’s ghost appears when the evening winds kick up veils of white sand, a fog that stings the skin, the pain of her presence sure to be known. But we would not meet Mañuela that night—a still, quiet, and clear evening, not even the slightest hint of a breeze to ripple the surface of the dunes. The hills as smooth as unmarred snowfields.
J pulls off the road, and we step onto the sand. I kneel and grab a handful, let the fine grit sift through my fingers, a wonder to behold. One cannot put a price on this, I think, even as I turn to J and say, “We could have saved five dollars.” J huffs at me, laments that the ranger probably thought she was my mother. We are the same age; she doesn’t look that much older than me. J is insulted, and correcting that indignity was well worth the five dollars. “But it’s because I look like a boy,” I say. “You like that, don’t you?” she asks me with a smile. I nod subtly, look out across the miracle of this pristine landscape.
J tells me if I wanted to be a boy, she would support me, take care of me while the surgical scars on my chest heal. I had never spoken aloud my fantasies of removing my breasts, nor had I ever seriously considered top surgery at that point in my life, but J’s words, coupled with the perception of the park ranger, bounce off the dunes and rattle my sternum. I wonder to myself if I could do it, go through with a surgery to remove my breasts. What would that mean for who I am, or what people understand me to be? The thought sends shivers down my spine, despite the lingering swelter of the summer air. I am at a loss for words, overwhelmed with fear and possibility, anxiety and hope, reverberating in my rib cage.
We walk on in silence, cresting dune after dune, keeping sight of the road in the distance, lest we lose ourselves in these gypsum fields. As we come to the top of another peak, J hands me the lid of a large plastic tub she brought with her, with the idea we can use it to sled down the dunes. I set it down and sit atop it. Its grooves sink into the sand under my weight. We laugh. I ask J to try to give me a little push. The lid dips further into the sand, and J’s nudge sends me sliding off the plastic piece and into the side of the dune. Sand fills my pants and I decide to roll with it. Bringing my arms to my chest, I close my eyes and tumble down the hill. I lay splayed on my back at the bottom. J runs down to meet me, laughing and pointing at the blue piece of plastic lodged in the sand just a couple of feet from the top of the dune.
We stand there at the low point of these rolling desert hills, knowing we are standing on land that used to be a lakebed. The Tularosa Basin, where White Sands is located, was once a lush grassland, the flora and fauna fed by the gigantic Lake Otero that covered much of the area the dunefields now occupy. The land was roamed and foraged by giant sloths and mammoths, camels and bison. Early human inhabitants carved stone and tended to wild ricegrass, hunted game and built fires. Whole histories of existence held in these tiny granules of gypsum beneath our feet, caught in our hair, between our toes. In every crack and crevice of our body, we carry a record of life.
There are “hearth mounds” scattered throughout the dunes that also preserve some of this history. The mounds date to prehistoric times, marking sites where early inhabitants made fires and built pits for roasting meat and grain. The heat from fire causes a chemical reaction that hardens gypsum, creating small solid cave-like mounds within the dunes that entomb artifacts and relics from early desert life. The mounds are often only found after gusting winds (or Mañuela’s wanderings) cause enough shifts in the dunes to reveal the small rocklike domes speckling the smooth hillocks of sand. Nature’s unearthing of accidental time capsules. A modern discovery of ancient technology.
Following colonization and the growth of industry, in the pursuit of capital, humans learned they could likewise apply heat to gypsum, forming plaster of Paris. Or, by following the application of heat with a mixture of water, they could mold the plaster into sheets, forming drywall, building walls, building empire. Gypsum soon found purpose in hardening cement, as a food additive, as a color additive in cosmetics, and as a conditioner for soil, improving moisture and acid control. Soil treated with gypsum is notably beneficial for some of the largest cash crops of agribusiness: corn, cotton, wheat, and peanuts. How easily the white mineral feeds white desire.
With so much utility, gypsum has acquired significant value, so much so that scientists have dedicated research dollars and lab hours to synthesize it, to keep up with a demand that may someday exceed its natural availability. It has become, in many ways, the bedrock of so many industries, the foundation of modern living. It is no small miracle, then, that White Sands, where fields of gypsum abound in a magnitude incomparable to any other place on earth, has not been completely devastated by the mining of this mineral. It is no small wonder that in 1933, Herbert Hoover, for whatever reason, had the wherewithal to side with the local people over capital investment and answered their pleas for protection by designating 275 square miles of gypsum dunefields as a nationally protected monument. Had these lands not been protected, instead of marveling at these dunes on this summer evening, J and I would be left staring at our plaster walls, taking for granted how each heat-blasted grain of sand collaborates with water to hold a roof over our head.
But by the miracle of portioned-out stewardship over parcels of land in the face of a colonizing machine bent on erasure and elimination, I get to stand at the bottom of an ancient lake. I get to press particles of gypsum between my fingers, to marvel at its smallness and my own smallness amongst the collective of sand kernels that could engulf me and fragment my bones into their own. I look across the sweep of sand as the moon starts to cast a gentle glow that grows brilliant on the veneer of the ivory dunes. I look down and pause as I notice a large black beetle traversing the sand field. I watch as it makes its way with a fierce determination, no apparent fear of being buried. But what do I know of the emotions and wants of a beetle? I just know I am a giant in comparison to the beetle, and I am afraid of being buried, me, a beetle in comparison to the universe.
Here I stand where a lush landscape became an arid desert, where a lake evaporated, leaving a crystalline indentation that the wind gathered into mounds and hills. I read that a windstorm lasted for 3,000 years, temporarily banishing life in the blasting sting of dust while the earth transformed itself. In the end, life still clings. The beetles make home; humans make and steal home. I plant my feet on the desert floor in the home of my own body, by necessity one that transforms. Our cells are constantly replacing themselves. I am the wind, with the ability to shift and shape my body, an architect with the tools of technology and medicine at my disposal. I can smooth the knolls on my chest with the slice of a scalpel. I can sprout whiskers across my chin like wild grasses, fertilized not by gypsum but by synthetic testosterone. I can make boy appear in the transition and refiguring of the mountains and valleys of my own skin and bones.
How easily we forget how unstable the ground we walk on actually is, minuscule shifts beneath the earth’s surface, constant tectonic friction, and elemental movement. But the sand reminds us of this instability, slipping away beneath our feet with each step. We sink into it; we carry it away with us, these granular pieces of earth, mineral and glass, wind and seawater. The sand holds history in the hearths, a constant reshaping of its form and structure. It presses into my skin, into the holes of my body. It passes through me; it shapes me. J and I will lose each other after this trip to the dunes; we will drift apart as continents and mountains, hillsides and sandcastles drift and shift. But for years to come I will still feel the press of J’s hand into mine, the dimpling of chalky gypsum dust between our palms. I will feel the echo of boy ringing through my chest, a chest that in two years’ time will be flattened across the pectorals, marked by my own hearth mounds in the knobby ridges of scar tissue that stretch from sternum to armpit.
With time, anything can become something else, but it is always still itself, in a way, carrying its remnants, the pieces of history that refuse to disappear because we need them to make us. We need them to remind us of all that was unmade in our own making.
KJ Cerankowski is a queer writer based in Cleveland, OH. His poetry and prose appear or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Entropy, Gordon Square Review, Paper Darts, The Account, and Limp Wrist, among others. He is the author of Suture: Trauma and Trans Becoming, a critical lyric memoir available from punctum books. He teaches at Oberlin College.