Per­mu­ta­tions of X

New England Review - - Explorations - Kelly Grey Carlisle

X: A sym­bol formed by two in­ter­sect­ing di­ag­o­nal lines. In English, the let­ter rep­re­sent­ing the sounds /ks/, /gz/, /z/. In math­e­mat­ics, the un­known or vari­able quan­tity. Be­cause of its use in math, the let­ter X also sig­nals some­thing mys­te­ri­ous or ill-de­fined; e.g. the X-fac­tor, the X-files, my own gen­er­a­tion, X. Although women are of­ten as­so­ci­ated with mys­tery (think monthly cy­cles, the moon, in­ter­nal re­pro­duc­tive or­gans, our sup­posed ir­ra­tional­ity), the hu­man fe­male sex chro­mo­some was not named X as a com­ment on the gen­der.

Por­trait de Mme ***, the paint­ing by John Singer Sar­gent, was first ex­hib­ited at the Paris Sa­lon in 1884. Sar­gent’s por­trait of Vir­ginie Amélie Avegno, Mme. Pierre Gautreau, is to­day seen as a mas­terly study of fem­i­nin­ity and im­plied sex­u­al­ity. It is a full length por­trait ap­prox­i­mately 82" by 43", slightly larger than life. Her body faces the viewer’s gaze, but her head is turned to the side in pro­file, her right hand rest­ing upon the ta­ble be­hind her. Her face, neck, shoul­ders, and dé­col­letage are bare and pow­dered white. The ex­panse of white skin is dra­matic against the re­veal­ing black gown. The only part of her not pow­dered white is a rosy ear, an omis­sion that calls at­ten­tion to the sen­su­al­ity of naked skin in the same way a geisha’s un­painted nape does. The pose and light em­pha­size her kiss­able neck and col­lar bone, her lovely shoul­ders, nar­row waist, rounded hips. The black dress seems to float about her, ready to fall off. Her hand grasps the silk just be­low her pu­bic bone; one strap has fallen off her shoul­der. Her face in pro­file, how­ever, sug­gests power, an un­apolo­getic un­der­stand­ing of both her de­sir­abil­ity and her de­sire. All per­fectly rep­re­sen­ta­tional of its sub­ject, a so­cial climber fa­mous for her beauty, pow­dered skin, and ru­mored ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs. Mme. Gautreau her­self thought it a mas­ter­piece. Although the 1884 Sa­lon was packed with un­re­marked-upon nudes, Sar­gent’s paint­ing was im­me­di­ately con­demned by crit­ics for its fla­grant eroti­cism; some called it pornog­ra­phy. Both artist and sub­ject were ridiculed. Once the ex­hi­bi­tion was over, as a con­cil­ia­tory ges­ture, if only to him­self, Sar­gent re­painted the fallen strap to sit squarely upon her shoul­der. The shunned Mme *** hung in his stu­dio for years, even as he be­came one of the most ac­claimed pain­ters of his time. In 1915, when Sar­gent sold the por­trait to New York’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, he told the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor “I sup­pose it is the best thing I have done.” And then he changed its name to Madame X.

To­day, the X rat­ing is as­so­ci­ated strictly with pornog­ra­phy, but in the orig­i­nal Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica (MPAA) rat­ing sys­tem, X was sim­ply stronger than the R-rat­ing and meant chil­dren un­der sev­en­teen were not per­mit­ted be­cause of adult con­tent in­clud­ing vi­o­lence, lan­guage, or nu­dity. The X rat­ing was not trade­marked, and main­stream film­mak­ers be­gan ap­ply­ing it to their own films as a way of em­pha­siz­ing sen­sa­tional con­tent. Porno­graphic film­mak­ers and the­aters soon used it in advertising and, later, on video pack­ag­ing. Echo­ing beer rat­ing sys­tems, wherein the strong­est beers are given an XXX la­bel, the porn in­dus­try be­gan us­ing XXX as a mar­ket­ing de­vice, promis­ing that a par­tic­u­lar film was es­pe­cially ex­plicit and en­ter­tain­ing. X be­came so firmly equated with pornog­ra­phy that in 1990 the MPAA re­placed it with the NC-17 rat­ing.

My grand­fa­ther, who raised me, owned an adult video store two miles east of Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port. When I was a child, he some­times took me there. I would wait in the car while he went in­side to pick up the day’s take or drop off mer­chan­dise. He tried once to ex­plain to me why porn wasn’t that bad: if a man needed to have sex, af­ter all, wouldn’t it be bet­ter if he went to our store in­stead of rap­ing some­one? So I thought the men who fre­quented my grand­fa­ther’s store would be those too ugly to get a date, and rapists. I imag­ined them hav­ing greasy jowls and warts; that they’d be obese men with re­ced­ing hair­lines, like my grand­fa­ther, or freck­led men with yel­low teeth. But the men who parked in our park­ing lot looked like nor­mal men. They drove pick­ups and BMWS and Buicks. Some wore three-piece suits; oth­ers wore jeans or sweats. There were black men, Latino men, Asian men, white men—so many dif­fer­ent kinds of men that I thought ev­ery man must look at porn once in a while. In some un­con­scious mis­use of the tran­si­tive prop­erty, I thought ev­ery man must, there­fore, also be a po­ten­tial rapist.

The store’s mer­chan­dise was kept in our garage, in brown card­board boxes that ap­peared in­nocu­ous ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional “black” or “les­bian” scrawled in Sharpie. Although my grand­fa­ther and his sec­ond wife, Mar­i­lyn, tried to hide them from me, I spent hours of my early ado­les­cence se­cretly pe­rus­ing video boxes, dil­dos, the Adult Video News, try­ing to un­der­stand sex and sex­i­ness. XXX was em­bla­zoned on ev­ery­thing, some­times in bold black type, but more of­ten in bright col­ors and fonts bet­ter suited to chil­dren’s toys. I learned about knock­ers, cum, anal pen­e­tra­tion, dou­ble pen­e­tra­tion, and more. I com­pared the women’s glis­ten­ing, round hips and firm asses to my own, judged my own nascent breasts against sur­gi­cally en­hanced ones. The com­par­i­son was not a fa­vor­able one. In front of mir­rors, I tried, but failed, to form a porn star’s pouty, se­duc­tive kiss, her al­lur­ing lick of the lips. From these ex­er­cises, I de­ter­mined that I was not sexy, I was not wor­thy of de­sire.

I do not know if my grand­fa­ther had yet en­tered this par­tic­u­lar line of busi­ness when his daugh­ter, my mother, first be­gan work­ing as a pros­ti­tute. But to me, these two facts—my grand­fa­ther’s busi­ness, my mother’s—seem some­how

Kelly Grey Carlisle

re­lated. My mother was mur­dered when I was three weeks old, in 1976. She was turn­ing a trick.

In car­toons, dead char­ac­ters’ eyes are drawn as X’s.

The mod­ern use of X to mean “kiss” de­rives from the me­dieval cus­tom of plac­ing a Chris­tian cross by one’s sig­na­ture to in­di­cate fi­delity and sin­cer­ity. I can­not sign a note XOXO to my friends, my hus­band, my three-year-old daugh­ter, with­out also think­ing of XXX printed in pur­ple, car­toon­ish caps, or the naked bod­ies squirm­ing be­neath.

X, the op­po­site of a check-mark, sym­bol­izes ab­sence, nega­tion, or er­ror. My grand­fa­ther rarely men­tioned his daugh­ter. The only two pho­to­graphs he had of her were of the back of her head, a lit­tle girl blow­ing out her birth­day can­dles. When I was lit­tle, I wanted to know what she was like; my grand­fa­ther could not tell me. I was eight when he told me about my mother’s mur­der. As a teenager, I learned that he him­self barely knew his daugh­ter, hav­ing left her mother just af­ter he be­came a fa­ther. I did not find out about the pros­ti­tu­tion un­til I was an adult.

Solve for X: Thirty-seven years later, the iden­tity of my mother’s mur­derer is still un­known.

In hu­mans, XY is the geno­type of male, in­di­cat­ing the pres­ence of a Y sex­chro­mo­some and an X sex-chro­mo­some. Given the cir­cum­stances of her death and the type of vi­o­lence in­flicted on her body, my mother’s mur­derer was al­most cer­tainly a man. She was beaten, then stran­gled with a cord or rope. Although se­men was not found on her body, the crime was most likely sex­ual in na­ture.

The first movie sex scene I ever watched, when I was eleven or twelve, was not porn. It was from Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Frenzy, wherein a se­rial killer rapes then stran­gles his vic­tims in or­der to achieve or­gasm. The scene is ex­plicit, both in its vi­o­lence and its brute sex­u­al­ity. When I watch the scene as an adult, I am re­pulsed and scared. But when I first watched it, I was aroused—the way he strad­dled her, the way her breast fell from her bra. I was also scared. In the midst of my arousal, I re­mem­bered my stran­gled mother and I was ashamed of my body, my de­sire. I thought I must be some per­vert. I thought I was dis­hon­or­ing her mem­ory.

Some­times when we were alone, start­ing when I was eight or nine, my grand­fa­ther would tell me sex­u­ally ex­plicit jokes. Some­times he’d talk to me about sex, com­plain bit­terly that Mar­i­lyn wouldn’t have sex with him, tell me how one day I would have sex and that I would en­joy it. I re­mem­ber, too, the well-worn spank­ing mag­a­zine that sat on his desk, of­ten in plain sight.

De­sire, vi­o­lence, men, shame; when I was young, each line seemed in­evitably to lead to the other. Their in­ter­sec­tion was sex, sex the cen­ter of their cross­ing.

X, as in Xmas, is an ab­bre­vi­a­tion for Christ, de­rived from the first let­ter of the Greek Χριστός, or Khris­tos. Dur­ing my first two years of col­lege, I was a born again, fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian. I found the con­cept of pre­mar­i­tal chastity es­pe­cially at­trac­tive. Although I be­lieved it sin­cerely, it was also a good ex­cuse to avoid the thing I feared, to ra­tio­nal­ize my shame, to make my unattrac­tive­ness a spir­i­tual gift. Even as I grew into a lib­eral Epis­co­palian, I held on to the idea of pu­rity. But then I fell in love. The first time I went down on a man, in a messy dorm room at sunset, the dy­ing sun blaz­ing through the win­dow, I was scared. But I knew what to do, knew what pose to take, how to arch my back to em­pha­size my breasts and ass, how to fake fo­cus and en­thu­si­asm. My heart in my throat, my shoul­ders tight­en­ing at my lover’s vi­o­lent cries.

In hu­mans, the geno­type for fe­male is XX, rep­re­sent­ing the pres­ence of two X chro­mo­somes, one from the mother and one from the fa­ther. Although the name on my birth cer­tifi­cate is Kelly Michelle Archibald, I have never met the man who gave me my sur­name or half my DNA. When I was eight, my grand­fa­ther told me that Wil­liam Archibald was in jail when my mother was mur­dered. “Af­ter Michele died,” he said, “he tried to get cus­tody of you. But he didn’t give a shit about you. He just wanted to use you to get out of prison. He prob­a­bly wasn’t even your fa­ther. She prob­a­bly just used his name.” I grew up think­ing my birth fa­ther did not want me and that the man im­pli­cated on my birth cer­tifi­cate only wanted to use me.

Af­ter his con­ver­sion to Is­lam, Mal­colm Lit­tle changed his name to Mal­colm X. The X rep­re­sented his African an­ces­tors’ fam­ily name, one that he could never know af­ter cen­turies of slav­ery. “For me,” he wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “my ‘X’ re­placed the white slave master name of ‘Lit­tle,’ which some blue-eyed devil named Lit­tle had im­posed upon my pa­ter­nal fore­bears.” When I ap­plied for my first pass­port, shortly af­ter that con­ver­sa­tion with my grand­fa­ther, I listed my name as Kelly Michelle Grey, tak­ing my mother’s name and eras­ing my fa­ther’s. “Archibald” was an ugly name any­way, I told my­self.

X, the sym­bol of cross­ing out, of dele­tion. Later, I de­cided my fa­ther wasn’t even worth think­ing about, so I ban­ished him from my thoughts. Af­ter a while, his ab­sence seemed so nor­mal to me that it did not feel like an ab­sence. I for­got that I had no fa­ther. X, the ab­sence of an ab­sence I did not think much about.

When I was thirty-six, the cold case de­tec­tive who works on my mother’s case sent me a let­ter my fa­ther, Wil­liam Archibald, had writ­ten a few weeks af­ter my mother’s death. It is dated De­cem­ber 27, 1976, and is ad­dressed to the orig­i­nal de­tec­tive on her case. “I re­lated to you that I have no in­ten­tion of giv­ing up cus­tody of my daugh­ter,” my fa­ther writes, his let­ter typed neatly, pre­cisely, “and

Kelly Grey Carlisle

that I wanted to make my own ar­range­ments for her care un­til my re­lease, and that if court ac­tion be­came nec­es­sary, I wanted to be present and rep­re­sented legally at any and ev­ery de­ci­sion made con­cern­ing my child. You told me that you would re­late that in­for­ma­tion to the home where you had taken my child that very day.” For weeks, he’d been told that no case­worker had been as­signed to me and that I was still be­ing cared for in Mclaren Hall, LA County’s foster in­sti­tu­tion. Then, on De­cem­ber 27, the day he wrote this let­ter, he’d been in­formed that I had been given to my grand­mother two weeks be­fore. No one would give him her ad­dress. “I most cer­tainly do not want that woman to have cus­tody of my baby for any pe­riod of time at all,” he in­sists. “If she in­tends to at­tempt to get cus­tody from me in court, I want the child placed with my sis­ter pend­ing that ac­tion, not with her.”

“Your par­ents were a cou­ple of street kids,” my cold case de­tec­tive told me. “He was look­ing af­ter your mom un­til a cou­ple of months be­fore she had you. Well, I mean, he was do­ing rob­bery and break-ins to sup­port them. But then he got caught. Your mom started turn­ing tricks to make some money for you guys. That’s prob­a­bly why she went with him. The guy who killed her. She didn’t know what she was do­ing. But I don’t think your grand­fa­ther was right about your dad. I think your dad re­ally wanted you.”

The de­tec­tive also sent me a pic­ture of my fa­ther, a driver’s li­cense photo from 1994, the year I grad­u­ated high school and one of the few times he was out of jail. It was the first time I had ever seen him. In the photo, he is mid­dle-aged, pudgy, and wears the cheap over­sized eye­glasses you prob­a­bly get in prison.

He is most likely dead now. He has been at large on a felony war­rant for decades; there hasn’t been any ac­tiv­ity on his so­cial se­cu­rity num­ber for years. But still, he is a pres­ence in my life now, a pho­to­graph on my shelf, a mem­ory of some­one I never knew but who, it ap­pears, loved me.

The proof­reader’s mark for delet­ing a dele­tion, that is, restor­ing some­thing that was crossed out, is a “stet” writ­ten in the mar­gin, a row of dots un­der the text to be re­stored, and a large X over the orig­i­nal cor­rec­tion in the mar­gin.

This is how I learned to judge my­self not-ugly: sit­ting cross-legged on the floor in my col­lege li­brary, pulling art books off the shelves, star­ing at por­traits and nudes, men­tally com­par­ing my face and body parts to theirs. Renoir’s Girl Braid­ing Her Hair, Frieda Kahlo’s eye­brows, Gau­guin’s Tahi­tians, Olympia’s short neck, Mat­tise’s Blue Nude (Sou­venir of Biskra), Sar­gent’s Madame X. When I went back to my room and stared in the mir­ror with those artists’ eyes, I, too, was beau­ti­ful, wor­thy of de­sire.

This is how I learned to not be scared of sex: prac­tice. The idea of pu­rity, it turns out, is over­rated.

In spite of my for­merly con­flicted feel­ings about sex, men, and fathers, I am hap­pily mar­ried to a good man. The EPT preg­nancy test uses a plus sign to in­di­cate preg­nancy, although for the pur­poses of this es­say, an X would have

been more con­ve­nient. I keep our blue + in a plas­tic bag in the top drawer of my dresser, along with a new­born bracelet and a tiny, dried stump of um­bili­cus.

My daugh­ter, Milly, like me, like my mother, also pos­sesses the XX geno­type: two X chro­mo­somes, one from me and one from her fa­ther. I imag­ine the two X chro­mo­somes in my cells as but­tons: a blue but­ton from my fa­ther, a red one from my mother. Which one does my daugh­ter pos­sess? Which one did I pass down? My fa­ther’s crim­i­nal­ity? My mother’s vi­o­lent end? My fear of sex? My poor body im­age?

But not ev­ery trait is de­ter­mined by ge­net­ics, and, it turns out, chro­mo­somes aren’t like but­tons. The metaphor fails. While I have two X chro­mo­somes, one from my mother, one from my fa­ther, I passed nei­ther on to my daugh­ter. As an egg cell is be­ing formed, the two X’s, fa­ther’s and mother’s, ex­change seg­ments of genes, each with the other. The chro­mo­somes found in the egg cell that com­bined with my hus­band’s sperm cell to form Milly are nei­ther my mother’s nor my fa­ther’s, nor even mine, but a new com­bi­na­tion of genes and traits. And, it turns out, one of the two X chro­mo­somes in fe­male cells is in­ac­tive and ex­erts no in­flu­ence, mean­ing that Milly’s bi­o­log­i­cal iden­tity as a woman may very well come from her fa­ther. In short: the ex­act pro­por­tion of my mother to my fa­ther to my hus­band to me in my daugh­ter is vari­able, an un­known quan­tity.

So, of course, is the ul­ti­mate ef­fect of my past upon her fu­ture.

Kelly Grey Carlisle

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