It’s the kind of truck stop where a voice on the loudspeaker calls out “Customer 47, your shower is ready.” In the back, plywood covers a large hole in the wall, a monument to some past collision. In the front, porcelain bald eagles are arrayed next to bright yellow boxes of energy “vitamins.”
When I was a straight, white college student, I used to appreciate places like this as kitsch. That was before I traveled the U.S. with my ex–a gender non-conforming man of color, a non-citizen. Now I sense the undercurrent of violence. I can taste the ambient terror.
My six-year-old son, Waylon, has to pee. I take him with me to the women’s bathroom, then begrudgingly allow him to choose a candy treat. “Those are two for one,” drawls the white woman behind the counter. I just want to get out of this place, but Waylon’s already made a beeline back to the candy aisle.
Just then, Katy walks up. “Do you have your phone on you?”
“You want to make a phone call right now?” I ask, incredulously. I have cash in hand. My eyes are fixed to the spot where I’m waiting for Waylon to reappear with a second pack of Skittles.
“No,” she says, sounding only slightly exasperated. “I need to do the phone trick.”
Duh. I’ve been focused on my own freaked out feelings and shepherding Waylon out of this place. I’ve forgotten to think about how Katy is going to pee.
“The phone trick” is something Katy came up with over our last summer road trip. It’s a survival strategy for places where an ambiguously gendered body is likely to run into trouble in public restrooms.
It’s simple. She holds the phone to her ear as she enters, pretending to be engrossed in conversation. She speaks in a high voice, so that people who might be confused by her appearance can assign a gender category that allows her to use the women’s restroom. She never puts the phone down or stops talking, leaving no opening for strangers to engage her.
A few minutes later, I’m sitting in the front seat with my eyes on the door of the truck stop. When Katy finally emerges, she slides into the driver’s seat and hands me back my phone. “How did it work?” I ask, relieved that we’re all safely in the car.
“I needed it,” she says. “It worked.”
We’re not the most vulnerable to violence in a truck stop in a place like Van Horn, Texas. I’m well aware that our travels are protected by the buffer of our race and class and citizenship privilege. No economic dislocation launched this voyage. We’re on vacation. We chose to come to West Texas. We’re driving a Prius with a Would Jesus Discriminate? bumper sticker. From far away, all people can read is “Jesus.”
Katy slows down when she sees a white car in the distance, but speeds up again when she sees the green stripe that signifies border patrol, not state trooper.
I’m remembering what it was like to go through checkpoints with my ex, how he tensed up miles ahead of time. The agent leaned into the window and said “U.S. citizens?” out of the corner of his mouth. My ex showed his driver’s license and maybe his permanent resident card. He used his deepest, dudeliest voice while the agent surveyed our belongings in the back of the truck.
Fort Davis, Texas
Katy gets pulled over for speeding. The officer makes her get out of the car before he’ll approach. I watch in the mirror. Even though she’s got driver’s license and insurance papers ready, I’m afraid. We’re in the middle of the nowhere. What if the trooper doesn’t take kindly to someone whose presentation doesn’t match her gender marker? What will he think of the two of us traveling with a child?
Waylon is watching cartoons on the iPod, oblivious to all around him. Later, when we’re safely on the road again, Katy teases him: “You didn’t even bat an eye when Mommy got pulled over by that cop!”
“You mean when you were talking to that cowboy?” he says, completely unalarmed.
He’s too complacent about cowboys, I decide. I’ve just been re-reading Borderlands/La Frontera, and I try to tell a six-year-old version of Anzaldua’s history: how the Cochise people moved southward, how the Aztecs dominated other tribes and the Spanish exploited those divisions, how the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo robbed people of their property. We end up in a conversation about different ways of understanding humans’ relationship to land.
“I don’t think anyone can own the earth!” Waylon says, outraged. I have to smile, because–as an only child in an owning-class family, he can’t even share toys very well. Still, I’m glad that borders don’t seem natural or inevitable to him.
After all this talk about how the west was stolen, Waylon has another question: “But how do we tell them that we’re not the bad kind of white people?”
I pause. I’m trying to parse the “them” and to imagine what kind of encounter he’s imagining. We talk about the people we know who variously identify as Native American, Hispanic, Chicano/a, or Mexican. I’m trying to think of how to teach him to be just without being self-righteous. How do you inculcate reflexivity? Six-year-olds have a fairly dualistic worldview. Either you’re good or you’re bad, just like the cartoon characters he watches on the iPod.
“Maybe the answer is just not to act like a know-it-all,” I say. Waylon shakes his head eagerly. He hates know-it-alls. They are the bane of his kindergarten social landscape.
We’re staying for the night in Marfa, the hipster capitol of west Texas. With its big sky and classic county courthouse, Marfa looks like a movie set of a western railroad town. Some of the scenes from Giant were shot in our hotel. Now the 1920s storefronts are homes for galleries and trendy restaurants, thanks to the magnetism of the nearby Chinati Foundation.
They’re used to weird white people here. We don’t even stand out next to the noisy German art collectors and East Coast ArtForum types. At breakfast, we become enamored of a seventy-something woman with round, black-rimmed glasses and a helmet of silver hair. She’s a dead ringer for Edith Head. Katy waits in the vestibule outside the bathroom, hoping to capture a surreptitious iPhone picture of our crush, but ends up accidentally snapping some random dude exiting the restrooms.
We make a day trip to San Solomon Springs, a natural spring-fed pool in the middle of the desert. It’s Saturday, and the place is full of middle and working class families, brown and white. There are thickets of picnic tables, and people are barbecuing, hanging out, horsing around. Everyone from middle-aged bikers to tiny kids line up to jump off the high dive, which was constructed–like the rest of the pool–in the 1930s. There are no lifeguards.
While I’m swimming with the fishes in the deep end, Waylon has to pee again. Katy escorts him to the entrance of the men’s restroom. Using the men’s room on his own is relatively new, so she attempts to give him a refresher about what to do if anyone approaches him. “I’ll just kick ‘em in the balls,” he says, slipping out of her grasp and lighting out for the urinals.
After our swim, we stop at a roadside general store to stock up on chips, soda, and ice cream bars for the drive back to Marfa. As I slide into the car, I tell Katy that there are two single-stall bathrooms at the back of the store, with a gender-neutral common area for washing up. “It’s probably your best bet for miles around for a trouble-free pee,” I say. She jumps back out of the car. It’s been hours since we left our hotel this morning, and I wonder how long she’s had to go.
Las Cruces, New Mexico
We decide to spend an afternoon at the movies. Halfway through the film, I have to pee. I emerge from the dark theater, still in a cinematic dream state, and suddenly I’m confronted by a sign that says, “Restrooms for Humans Only.” Perhaps because I’ve been studying too much Traditional Values Coalition propaganda, it takes me some time to figure out that this isn’t intended as anti-trans intimidation. Because we’re in the southwest, it takes me even longer to ascertain that the cartoon alien on the sign isn’t part of some kind of anti-immigrant campaign.
I stand in front of the sign for a long minute. I realize it’s an ad for a sci-fi movie. I proceed to the bathroom, feeling oddly suspect.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we find the only gender-neutral “family” restroom on our 1000-mile road trip. That, and the spectacular caverns, make it well worth the drive.