Sometimes I think about visiting you in a loophole of time, between past and present, waking and sleeping.
For some reason, I always think I’d find you in Hahei, in the Coromandel. Our family used to go there most summers. It was classic Aotearoa summer vibes: swimming among the salps, a blanket of jelly; trekking all the way to Cathedral Cove, puffing to keep up with Dad; walking up the local pā to see further across the ocean.
I think I’d find you in our room. Us kids all shared a room in the bach—full of airy white light, and the smell of heat and sand. Our beds were constantly strewn with books, clothes, Game Boy Colors. A plastic yellow cricket bat. A soft toy walrus. Mundanities that unlock long-forgotten compartments in my chest when I think about them now.
I wouldn’t know what to do next, to be honest. If you met your past self in some kind of rip in the fabric of space-time, would you hug them? Is your past self a separate person, so you’d need to respect their bodily autonomy?
Maybe this summer, we can protect each other: you, the girl I was; and me—the patchwork being I have become.
I’m visiting you to try and find my way back to my body this summer. In the winter, it feels easier to hide my non-binary body in layers, so it’s harder to read: a button-up, a cardigan, a jacket, a scarf. This isn’t so easy in summertime.
I wonder if I’ll find it at the edge of the sea, or in the dune grass. As a kid, I spent a lot of time pretending to be a mermaid and writing letters to fairies and leaving them in a box in the garden. Magic felt viscerally real and tantalising—always just out of sight. It’s this strange alchemy that I want to harness now, to connect me with my body.
Being non-binary in the summer means always carrying the twin stones of gender euphoria and dysphoria in my chest. The euphoria stone sits warm and snug against my rib cage, glowing when the right pronouns are used for me, when I run along the sand in a burst of joy, when I’m feasting on a Paddle Pop Cyclone (the king of ice blocks): when I can forget about how my body looks and just find contentment in how it feels.
I don’t want to talk much about the dysphoria stone. It feels like everyone’s eyes are always crawling all over me, stamping me with gender markers. A customer at work said one time that she was trying to work out if I was a man or a woman, and then she saw that I had ‘bosoms’ so she settled on woman. I wish people’s gazes would land on me and a big shrugging emoji would pop up instead.
I want my body to melt into a will-o’-the-wisp, bobbing over the marsh of the binary.
It hasn’t always been like this. A super femme kid, I was constantly drenched in pink, purple and glitter. Characteristically, I had a fairy-themed birthday party when I turned eight. My hair was long then, and I wore a tiara, $2 shop wings, a leotard, and a gauzy skirt. My mum would write back to my fairy letters, pretending to be various occupants of Fairyland—including Pearl, the tooth fairy Mum invented for me.
As fun as expressing my femininity could be, fatphobia and body shame stuck to this expression like limpets. These forces lurked in the shadows for the majority of the year, only leaping out to bite me during summertime.
Photos of fifteen-year-old me in Hahei still elicit that old itchy shame. My cousin stands beside me, graceful and effortlessly feminine; whereas I am not as slim as her, have a lot of acne, and am starting to dress in a kind of semi-masc way that speaks to my latent queerness—complete with dorky striped glasses.
Feeling ashamed about my body only made me want to escape it. Mascness called out to me, asking me to reclaim something I’d lost—or maybe something I’d never had. Enter: giant plaid shirts. Shrugging one on over my togs after a swim, I immediately felt my body relax. I could be a kid again, but a freer kid than I had actually been—scrambling up rocks with my siblings, climbing pōhutukawa, and jumping over waves. Being pansexual made things pretty confusing though! There was a messy interplay between wanting to look sexy for boys, so buying togs that would show off my ‘figure’; and the desire to slip into the freedom and comfort of dressing super masc and avoiding sexualisation.
Strangely, the freedom of this queer masculinity has recently opened the door to the femininity I loved to express as a child. Unearthing the joy of wearing earrings and nail polish—and maybe dresses and skirts this summer!— feels like coming home to myself. Masculinity and femininity seem to lose their distinctness in the cutting glare of Aotearoa’s ozoneless summer light.
Lately, I’ve been thinking again about merfolk and magic. Back in the day, my sister and I would spend hours watching H2O: Just Add Water, which, in case you haven’t had the privilege of watching it, was an Aussie show about three girls who turn into mermaids whenever they come into contact with water. Imagine the freedom of being a shapeshifter like that! A non-binary person’s dream. Aotearoa seems to weave the idea of summer with bodily freedom and lightness of being. I’m chasing that association now.
I hope that when I find my body again, we can slip into each other, like holding hands. I hope we can take care of each other. I hope I can be an optical illusion: a trick of the light, containing multitudes.
I go back in time to visit you during our last family summer in Hahei: the summer just after high school ends. You’re sitting on our bed, all soft from sleep. I don’t think you recognise me, but we have the same eyes, and there’s hope in yours when you see me.
I suggest that we take a walk along the beach. You tug on a jumper over your PJs and shove your feet into some old jandals from The Warehouse. The night is still, a held breath. The air smells faintly of a bonfire, mixed with the ever-present salt from the sea.
Without speaking, we make our way to the foot of the pā. There’s the mini cave where we hid some rocks and convinced Joe they were a dragon’s eggs.
You’re looking out to the familiar headland, a limb stretching gently into the water. Round the corner is the Octopus Cave.
Slowly, I start to hear it: a siren call from across the waves, growing incrementally louder. Your eyes are fixed on the horizon, unblinking. I startle to discover that you’re only about nine years old now, wearing your favourite pale pink velvety pyjamas.
As the call becomes more urgent, we walk to the water’s edge. By the time we reach it, I have to hold your hand to steady you. You’re maybe two years old now, with saucer-big eyes and a sparkly swimming costume that reminds you of the Little Mermaid. I kneel beside you and you climb onto my back.
I swim us out towards the silver horizon. You’re falling asleep against me. When you become an infant, I slip you into my arms and hold you as the sea cradles us both.
Hours later, we wake up on a different shore, with the ocean breathing against us.
I realise that this is where my gender sits: between past and present, waking and sleeping. On the shoreline. With you.
Featured image by Sloane Hong.