Read an excerpt from the first chapter of the book below. You can purchase Denise Chanterelle Dubois' memoir Self-Made Woman online, and where all fine books are sold.
Bangkok, 2005 & Southeastern Wisconsin, 1958
Finally the big day arrived and I boarded China Air for my flight to Bangkok. It was a weird flight path, flying over Canada with a stop in Anchorage, on to Taipei, and then to Thailand. The stopover in Anchorage was surreal. Winter had already set in as we landed in a snowstorm, and even though it was only 4 p.m., outside it was already pitch black. Having a two-hour layover I deplaned to walk around the terminal. I was struck by how modern the airport was, but what really caught my eye were a pair of stuffed bears, a Kodiak grizzly and a Polar bear opposite one another, both standing tall. I was awed by the immense size of these beautiful creatures, their giant claws, teeth, powerful legs, thick fur, sharp eyes, and large black noses. How efficient these animals must be in the wild, I thought, saddened to find them dead inside this airport.
It could’ve been the impression those bears made on me, or the excitement of my pending surgery once I arrived to Bangkok, that brought on an overwhelming desire to call my mother. Whatever possessed me to do this I don’t know, but by the time I realized it was a mistake it was too late. She had answered the phone. I immediately felt uncomfortable—why did I call her? I started off with small talk, gradually telling her I was in Anchorage, on my way to Bangkok, Thailand. We’d had a few previous phone discussions about my upcoming gender change, none of which ever went well. Maybe, my thinking went, once she understood I was actually going through with sex reassignment surgery—that her son was on the cusp of fulfilling a lifelong dream to become a woman—there would be some loving support. Exactly the opposite happened. I’d played this badly and my mother pleaded with me on the phone not to go through with this and “hurt myself.”
Soon the discussion revolved around those three words. Don’t hurt yourself. I listened in stunned silence, angry at her for not supporting me in something that she had hints of my whole life and was in complete denial about. On top of hurt and rejection, I felt momentarily guilty over what I’d planned all these years. I was 49, recently divorced, broke financially, and a recovering addict. Two tragedies in my life, an abusive father and an addiction to crystal meth, had ironically turned out to help push me, giving me the resilience to take this step. My mother still didn’t understand. The call ended with the two of us as far apart as ever.
There in the terminal I stopped again at the Kodiak and the Polar bears. Nothing was going to take me away from who I really was inside. I returned to the gate and got back on that plane, free of doubt about becoming Denise.
It was sweltering in Bangkok, a heat not unlike the weather one Sunday afternoon decades earlier when my journey began, in the summer of 1958. I was 4 years old. My parents, sister, and I were on our way to the lake cottage owned by my grandparents. I can remember how huge the backseat of my parents’ car seemed to me at that age. I saw the big shift handle on the steering column, smelled the musty car seats, and played with the window handle. My mother smoked a cigarette, my father a cigar. The telephone poles flew by. I counted the wires, watching them twirl and twist as we zoomed along the empty rural highway. If I lost count I started over again. I was very excited that we were going out to the cottage again because it meant I could play on the little dock and look out at the lake. I loved that lake. I could see all the way across it and look at the wind-capped waves blowing, the fishing boats with people oaring, and the occasional outboard motor boat that always left a wake in the water. I liked watching the dancing dragonflies buzzing around and landing on the dock, where I’d try to catch them with no luck. I breathed in the scent of the fresh lake water, and observed the sunshine reflect on the water and the small waves lap on the shore. I loved too the small yard that led to the lake, with its wispy willow trees, where the branches snapped like whips in the wind, and where Busha, my grandmother, had many Italian plum trees growing whose fruit I loved to eat. My earliest memory is of being under the kitchen table of our first house, in Milwaukee, eating a piece of bread with plum jam on it. I ate the whole thing and crawled out from under the table and asked my mother and aunt for another piece. They laughed and gave me one. In the yard at the lake cottage I was always on the lookout for that familiar shade of purple when those plums started to ripen.
Summer gatherings at the cottage meant plenty of alcohol being served, card playing, and Polish food—cold blood soup, kapusta, pirogues, cooked beets, mock chicken legs, raw hamburger with onions—all piled on platters set on a long table. Adults engaged in constant drinking and card playing, while pretty much ignoring what the kids were up to. That particular day my sister and I played on the dock without supervision. I hadn’t learned how to swim yet, I was too young. As much as I liked the dock, I was afraid too. The water looked so deep, dark, and forbidding between the wooden planks. I remember sitting down on the edge, next to a tied up small boat, and feeling the hot planks on he back side of my upper thighs as my tiny legs dangled over the water. My sister, only 19 months older than me but much taller, had climbed down into the boat. She was urging me to do the same. I feared the worst. I had a premonition of falling in and drowning, but eventually she coaxed me into complying. I put my hands on the edge of the dock and tried to stretch my legs down to the boat. I was shaking; my legs were too short to make it. All I could do was get one foot on the edge of it, and when I released my grip of the dock, the boat pushed away.
I went into the lake like a thirty-pound bag of cement. I was about to drown, to die. In fact, I was about to be reborn.
From the forthcoming Self-Made Woman: A Memoir by Denise Chanterelle DuBois. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.