Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of me –
why, I’m the consumptive transsexual nihilist of your dreams!
Americans fear me: all their circus tents, pinstriped suits,
and newspapers unravel to rags at my Napoleonic approach.
Stay in your seats, ladies and gentlemen; keep your hands linked.
I’m a talkative fellow, I am.
Did you know Christ and I died at the same age? If he were any fun at all
he’d walk across the Atlantic and smell for himself
all this wondrous excess. In America you really can be
anything you please – just stuff some chamois
down the front of your trousers and make sure to spit on the sand
as you swagger down the boardwalk,
make sure to squint yer eye like this and lower the brim
of yer hat like that. And always have exact change for the taxi.
See, the Old World’s just a spinster in muddy petticoats;
she broke my nose with her French umbrella
so I scratched her eyes out and ran! Say do svidaniya
to pink-cheeked Annushka – she drowned aboard the SS Masquerade,
forced to walk the plank by Nikolai Konstantinovich,
who stole her suitcase and threw her corset to the sharks.
Just imagine the headlines:
LUNATIC IMMIGRANT KILLS OLD SELF IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS.
Anyway, you’ll never find me now. I’m buried beneath pyramids of playing cards,
patterned silk ties, tarnished medals of dubious authenticity,
empty whiskey bottles shattered like fireworks on the fourth of July,
my chest wrapped in miles of white bandages
like a pharaoh’s bones. These days I haunt the genteel parts of town,
scribbling moustaches on ladies’ portraits
and making sissies of their husbands.
Don’t believe all the hogwash they say about me –
the doctors, the priests, the mothers, the wives – they’ve got it all wrong.
Instead, picture me on a pre-war postcard, puffing cigar smoke
at the camera, the canvas behind me painted
with seashells and starfish and naked blond girls,
and the words AIN’T LIFE GRAND unfurling at my feet
in triumphant technicolor.
An homage to one of my favorite historical figures in all his obscure and somewhat problematic glory. As is often the case with trans or gender nonconforming people who were only outed after their death, Nikolai’s voice hasn’t been preserved and all we have about him are lurid newspaper accounts, so I wanted to write something from his perspective. (The newspapers spelled his name as “Nicolai,” but the spelling I use here is more accurate to the original Russian.)
L. L. Friedman once went on a blind date with a marble statue in Vienna. They live in New England.