My non-fiction story “Zero Per Cent” will be published next month in Canopy Review.
Zero Per Cent
I’ve always found Bangkok’s taxi drivers adept at getting me to my destination. But that afternoon, our cab driver dropped us at the wrong intersection. Desiree and I had to walk a mile in the wrong direction before retracing our steps to find the Center of Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery on Sukhumvit, soi 55, tucked behind a narrow gravel walkway, flanked by high concrete walls.
I had been interviewing Desiree Abellanosa for two years, gathering details for a book based on her life. Only recently had she shared her desire to have SRS, sex reassignment surgery. I had assumed that she didn’t want to surgically replace her penis with a functioning vagina. She already looked like a woman: long black hair, ample cleavage, and long, slender legs. Also, according to Desiree, the market rate for pre-op transgender women was much stronger than for “post-ops.” By remaining pre-op, she had been able to earn hourly rates of three to five hundred dollars as an escort.
But last fall, sober and out of her life of prostitution, Desiree emailed that she planned to have SRS and invited me to meet her in Bangkok so I could make the surgery part of her story. Perhaps a kind of happy ending.
By the time we entered the Center’s clean, air conditioned offices, my shirt was drenched in sweat and my hot feet were swelling in my shoes. Desiree’s hair stuck to the side of her face and her back was sweaty. I headed straight for the water bubbler, then sank into a chair, but Desiree, unable to relax, paced the room. She picked up a surgery pamphlet, flipped through its pages, put it back on the table, and picked it up again.
“Desiree, sit down. The receptionist said the doctor will be with us soon.”
She sat in the chair next to me. “I can’t believe I’m here.” She flicked her hair to the other side, and started to get up.
“Sit.” I said. “So, you never really told me. When exactly did you know you wanted to have the surgery?”
Some of Desiree’s memories are unclear, the effect of hormone treatments and her years addicted to meth. But what happened at age eleven – the year she discovered that she liked boys– remains lucid.
Desiree doesn’t actually remember a time when she didn’t feel like a girl. She grew up in a middle class Philippine family – a loving mother, brother, and sister. Her father, however, refused to accept her transgenderism. That year, age eleven, her father discovered Desiree wearing her sister’s school uniform: black pleated skirt and white blouse with the all-girl’s Catholic school crest flat against her chest. The following week, he caught her with an older neighbor boy, experimenting as young kids often do. All this was too much for her father who was determined to smoke the bakla, faggot sin out of her.
Desiree’s father grabbed her by the back of her shirt and marched her to the rear of their store-fronted row house, mostly pounded dirt and weeds. Unlike the yards of the neighboring houses, scattered with shredded plastic, rusted motorcycle parts, and discarded roof tiles, here Desiree’s mother grew cilantro, tarragon, and thyme in ornamental clay pots. Also, her father and uncle had built a large fire pit, where they roasted lechon and grilled tilapia wrapped in pieces of wet burlap at family celebrations.
Desiree watched as her father shoveled chunks of lump charcoal into the pit. When he was done, he forced her inside one of the bags, pushing her head down, face scratching against the course burlap. She remembers her body being hoisted into the air and tied securely to each end of the spit. She smelled smoke before she felt the heat of the fire. Soon, her skin began to tighten, she thought he might really let her burn to death. When he finally let her out, her mouth tasted like soot and her clothes smelled like fire – but she still felt like a girl.
Desiree’s father died last year. They reconciled beforehand – he apologized for how he had treated her and she accepted. I often suspected her father’s mistreatment as the root cause of her life as a prostitute. But I know it’s probably more complicated than that.
Before I could ask more, Dr. Sutin walked into the lobby and introduced himself to Desiree in Thai.
“She’s Filipina, not Thai,” I answered him in my rudimentary Thai.
He switched to English. “Ah. You look a little Thai. Very beautiful.”
Dr. Sutin asked us if we would like anything to drink. Then he brought us into a small conference room where he held a ruler in one hand and began explaining the different options for SRS – penile inversion or grafting.
“It all depends on the size of your penis,” he said. “If it’s large enough we can do inversion, which is safer and less costly, eight thousand U.S. compared to thirteen thousand.”
“I think we can do inversion.” Desiree smiled.
“Good.” He ran his fingers along the raised markings of the ruler he held in his hand. “This will assure a vaginal depth of six inches. Ideal.”
“But my dream would be twelve inches. Can I have twelve?” Desiree whipped her hair to the other side and waited.
Dr. Sutin looked at me. I shrugged.
“Umm. Well, twelve inches would be inside your intestines.” He held the ruler against his stomach as if performing a seppuku-style suicide. “It wouldn’t be safe.”
“Okay. Six inches will be fine.” Desiree smiled. Dr. Sutin exhaled and set the ruler back on the table.
The doctor excused himself to go get some paperwork for her to fill out.
Desiree looked at me. “After my surgery, when I have my…” She pointed below her belly.
“You’ll have to find me a good American husband.”
“I’ll see what I can do for you,” I answered.
A few days later, the morning of Desiree’s surgery, we met for breakfast. She sat across from me with her face bent over a bowl of congee — all that the doctor would allow her to eat before the operation. I felt a little guilty loading my plate with curry and rice, a few eggs over easy, and taking a plate of papaya and mango. Watching an unusually quiet Desiree slurp rice gruel into her mouth, I was thinking about the finality of it all, the irrevocability of the surgery. It wasn’t too late for her to back out, save her money, and go home.
“I wonder if anyone changes their mind. Of having SRS, I mean.” I said.
She looked up at me and said nothing.
“You know like at the last minute.” I waited for her to make a joke.
Desiree looked up from her watery-white bowl, set her spoon down, and said softly, simply: “I think it must be something like zero per cent.”