Editor’s note: When I began to conceptualize the Trans Fiction, Trans Imagination series, I knew I would have to solicit a piece from Nat Mesnard for our first month of short stories by trans authors. Mesnard is a game designer who teaches interactive narrative at both Pratt and Catapult; they also happen to be an author of some kickass fiction. When I read Mesnard’s work, it’s clear one feeds the other. Their stories usually rest on formal experimentation, the climaxes reinforced with a shift in point of view. I hope you enjoy this particular story, which draws inspiration from Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” as much as I did.
I’d found the local AcroYoga group “playing” with each other on the quad one crisp day last fall, on my way from Biology 104 to Sociology.
On any other day, I’d have passed them by. I didn’t need more friends, did I? When I wasn’t doing homework, I had a slate of social opportunities with my usual girl gang: a Sleater-Kinney of lesbians who, when they weren’t dating each other, were subtweeting about it. Most were pursuing master’s degrees, our Midwest school merely an obligatory stop on the career arc of a public intellectual. I was the only one from here, getting my undergraduate degree two years late. I’d been a bad baby gay coming out of high school, pretending I was punk without ever going to shows, drinking way too much and dating assholes.
I was glad of my friends now. They told me that I was brilliant and beautiful, and that I had a future. I just had to finish my degree and get myself to one of the coasts. I know they would have teased me for loving the skin-on-skin grossness of a yoga practice that involved touching and grabbing bodies of whatever sort. Yet I became an AcroYogi. As Susan Sontag writes, “To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” I exulted in the grossness, relishing our group’s sweaty men. And I never told the girls about it. I didn’t feel I needed to.
Entering spring that year, I was struggling with school. When I took tests, my mind wanted to think about anything else, and thoughts accumulated until they were boulder-sized and began to roll downhill, gathering speed in a direction away from the pages of multiple choice questions. My bigger problem, though, was skipping class. The boredom was absolute—if I could have turned up the playback speed on my professors, like you did with a YouTube video, I would have. Then, in the last month of the semester, a breakup divided my girl gang. They wanted to do it like a divorce. One mom gets the group on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the other gets Sundays and our lunches on the quad. I was shuffled back and forth across town like a pawn. So in May, instead of studying for finals, I signed up for three days of AcroYoga. No one approved of this, and that was how I liked it. I abandoned my cramming classmates, my fractured clique, my everything and drove off into the corn.
1. To start very generally, Camp was beautiful. It was at a retreat center in a large clearing in the middle of Illinois farm country, surrounded on all sides by corn fields. There was wide grass, a pond, a couple of buildings, and a massive old willow tree from which hung two pink and blue lengths of circus silks, swaying gently in the morning sun.
2. Arriving at Camp, I was lost for a moment. A wide field held clusters of tents, hula hoops and yoga mats tossed among them. Then the women from my home AcroYoga group waved me over. They were a girl gang of their own: tattooed straight women who wore strappy yoga bras, torn tee shirts, and mala beads as necklaces. I doubt they even knew I was gay.
3. Camp began with a “love circle.”
4. The leader: a white guy with a scraggly brown beard and bandanna around his forehead. He instructed us to sit cross legged, and place hands upon each other’s knees. “Close your eyes,” he said, “and envision your wish for the world. Hold that truth in your heart center and contemplate how you will actualize that truth in your practice today.”
5. Sitting there, eyes closed, I could feel the subtle movements of the two people I was touching. On my left was the woman who based me at home. The “base” is the person on the bottom of the two-person AcroYoga configuration. That person lays on her back, and holds her legs and feet in the air, perpendicular to the ground. Atop those feet rests the “flyer,” the acrobat. The flyer trusts her body entirely to the strength and control of the base. My base’s knee felt familiar. The calm of extended practice lingered between us, my hand platonic on her knee, hers on mine.
To my right—someone I’d never met. I’d glimpsed basketball shorts, ragged tee, short hair. Muscular, athletic body. My hand on an unfamiliar, living knee.
6. I wasn’t historically drawn to butches, and yet a thrill shot through me at the prospect of having my curiosity fulfilled later. The confirmation of impressions that spun like lights in my “meditating” mind.
7. I opened my eyes halfway through the meditation and caught sight of the instructor, who sat at the center of the circle. That fucker was checking his cell phone.
8. Random examples of items which are part of the canon of AcroYoga Camp:
the dreadlocks of pretentiously spiritual white men
strappy Lululemon bras, all varieties
the Om symbol, tattooed upon a bicep
sweet tea vodka
my gaydar, which felt broken until the second day.
9. At Camp, everyone seems gay, but no one is. Or at Camp everyone’s gay, but no one acts like it. Girls with armpit hair paired off with boys I thought were twinks. Blonde, straight women laid on each other’s bodies, massaging each other with homoerotic glee.
10. Camp is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.
11. On that first night, bonfires dotted Camp. Solo cup in hand, I watched the straights move among the tents as if bar hopping on the downtown strip. Men and women selected each other, and went to lay in the grass to “play.”
12. My girl gang back at home didn’t know I was here. My phone glowed in my hand, the new group chat devoid of my friend’s ex lit up with words. Someone had acquired a supply of gimp—that plastic lace we all used to make friendship bracelets back in the 90s—and they were hosting an ironic crafts night on Saturday to the tune of frosé and yet another viewing of The Craft. Everyone would be there except the ex.
13. I missed their love, those two women. Without it, I’d ended up here, in the dark alone with nowhere to go but a tent. The gimp party’s host texted, “So who’s coming?”
14. I tossed my phone in the grass.
15. Before me, a group of women—my lady base from home among them—carried lit-up hula hoops out into the central field, where they took the stage and spun light into air.
16. Did I want sex? Well, I wouldn’t have turned it down.
17. But the agenda at Camp wasn’t sexual. Or, not exactly. It was a search for a deeper kind of harmony. That was the point of AcroYoga: finding another human body that understands how to move with yours. Maybe that is sex. I don’t know. Some bases freed me, my body light atop their feet. Others were heavy and impossible, their energy pulling me into the ground.
18. On the second day of Camp, I was paired off in the morning workshop with a man. He was short, older than me by at least ten years, and had thick, hairy thighs and big feet. We were practicing back bending poses, his toes massaging my shoulder blades. I stared into the glowing blue sky. He told me he thought I was a good flyer. I laughed in a self-deprecating way. He’d mentioned he was an experienced practitioner of the AcroYoga arts and I assumed he felt obligated to praise me due to obvious insecurity. But he insisted we worked really well together.
19. I’m five foot one, athletic, and femme. He was probably thrilled to find a woman flyer who was shorter than him. After coming off his feet, I gathered my hair and re-tied my ponytail, flashing my undercut.
20. The last woman I’d dated said she was straight. Everyone agreed dating her was a terrible idea. The warnings drove me toward her, not away. Even though her energy pulled me into the ground, I liked it, liked her, and exulted in the wrongness of it all.
21. He kept talking, telling me he was a manager at a grocery in Peoria, lifted weights in his basement gym, was single. I squinted at him in the sun. He had one of those impossible-to-remember white male faces. Then the workshop instructor tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re small,” she said. “Come on over here. I have a lady who wants to learn how to base.”
22. I left my male base and crossed the field without a second glance.
23. The person I encountered on the other side was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a lady. It was that butch, the one whose knee I’d touched in the love circle.
24. Flying bird is the first AcroYoga pose most people learn. Your base puts their feet over your hip bones. Bends their knees. You lean in, touch hands, and then your base pushes through their legs, lifting you in the air. Draw in, pull up, engage back muscles.
Release hands. Trust. Fly.
“It’s like you don’t weigh anything,” Jo laughed.
“Throne?” I asked, and before I had finished nodding, I was there, sitting atop their feet, my legs wrapped around theirs. These static poses, always so labored, so carefully executed with other bases, transformed with Jo to flow, to water.
25. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. From that point forward, my Camp sensibility.
26. So help me Gaia, after flying bird, Jo dropped me down into folded leaf.
In this pose the base’s feet shift to form a shape like first position in ballet, toes angled out, so that each foot can align with the crease of the flyer’s corresponding hip. The flyer’s torso drops, draping down over the pillar of the base’s legs like a piece of laundry.
With a bigger base, flying folding leaf feels like dangling in the air. Spine tractions, tension evacuates, you feel yourself to be part of the air. But with a shorter base, you don’t dangle. You bury your face in the crotch at the bottom of those solid legs.
27. My gaydar isn’t gaydar, exactly. My thing is painfully adjacent. According to my girl gang, I have “closet magnetism.” This uncanny ability to recognize gay people before they even recognize themselves.
The last woman I’d dated said she was straight. Everyone agreed dating her was a terrible idea. The warnings drove me toward her, not away. Even though her energy pulled me into the ground, I liked it, liked her, and exulted in the wrongness of it all.
28. The outdoor cafeteria sat at the center of Camp, in a wooded grove dotted with picnic tables. There, we received our vegan penance three times a day. Tanned organic farm sorts with dirt beneath their fingernails delivered unto us gritty sausage and tortillas, beet greens sautéed over a Bunsen burner with nutritional salt and sprouted garlic. And they expected us to say “Thank you,” which I did through gritted teeth.
29. I ate lunch with my friends from home. Jo sat a picnic table two down from mine, among the apparent Camp outcasts, folks who’d come here alone. My partner from earlier, the grocery store manager, was over there too.
30. Jo had short hair, a sharp barbered fade, probably in preparation for Camp; no tattoos. A perceptive, even eager facial expression. From what I could tell, they seemed to like eating and didn’t mind the vegan food at all.
31. My mind was racing. I stared down my meal, daunted by the prospect of finishing it, and kicking myself for not bringing snacks. What, I asked myself, would Susan Sontag do?
32. I checked my phone.
33. There was a new email from my academic advisor. The message laid out my options—quite limited—for avoiding academic probation.
34. There was a missed call from my mother.
35. There were 102 new texts across the two different group chats. Not knowing about the ironic gimp party, our other friend had gotten us Adderall and wanted everyone, except her crafts-loving ex of course, to attend a day of cramming on Sunday. I shook my head. Yeah, ADD meds cleared my mind, but I felt like hell taking them. I’d never touch medication like that again.
36. If I failed, would anything even change?
37. The man from earlier raised his eyebrows and smiled as I wandered over to the table. I sat down across from Jo. The man asked me what my name was again—I guess he didn’t remember—but I ignored him and asked Jo if they were enjoying the food. They appeared instantly pleased to be receiving my attention. Was I being too obvious?
38. “Can you see if they’ve got any of those, um, sweet little figs?” I asked. “I’m having a craving for fruit.” Back at home, I was known for my comedic impersonation of Shane. In our group, watching The L Word was a rite of passage. But Jo only paused. “Figs? I didn’t even know they had fruit.” They looked at me quizzically. No guile. I froze. “Actually, you know what? I think I’m too full,” I said, face turning red.
39. That afternoon I skipped workshop. I wandered the retreat camp looking for an outlet to charge my phone. Wooden pillars wired up with plugs dotted the woods for campers who needed a dose of electricity but every plug was taken.
40. I wandered past the willow tree toward the pond. Someone was swimming, nude. A white woman. A dog was in the water with her, splashing at the edge. She tossed a stick and the dog went and got it, proffering it to her like a prize. She soon noticed me there on the hill, standing in indecision with my cell phone. I tentatively waved.
41. I couldn’t back away, not after she’d seen me watching. I went down to the edge of the pond and kicked my sandals off.
42. She approached, coming up out of the water without shame. I looked at her. She was extra naked: not a hair on her body. Even her pubes were shaved. She threw the stick again for the dog and stood, hands on hips, watching the animal do its eager work. She asked me if I wanted to join her for a swim. I said it looked a bit muddy in the water.
43. “These weekends are about getting dirty,” she replied. “Besides, it’s clean mud.”
44. I asked her what made mud clean and she replied, “Oh, just like, you know. No pollution.” She squeezed water out of her hair. The dog approached and deposited the stick at my feet. She told me the dog’s name was Chakra and I asked which chakra. She shrugged. “I just thought it’d be a cute name.”
45. Standing at the edge of the water, I glanced down at my flagging cell phone. Its battery was on 2%. A new email had arrived from my Intro to Gender and Women’s Studies professor. Ironically, I was failing her class. Did I want to meet and discuss my draft for the “creative” final essay inspired by one of the readings? The essay I had not yet begun.
46. I had a crush on every professor I had who was a woman. And I’d spent hours in this professor’s office, watching her talk about University politics. I nodded and took notes and told her she was right about everything. It was a cisheteropatriarchal mess here.
47. I didn’t understand why she kept saying graduate school was such a good idea. I tried to want it. I imagined myself into a similar office, wearing snappy outfits and meeting with students. But the vision disintegrated. What I saw ahead was darkness, a watery, nauseating darkness that seeped into everything. Out in the muddy water before me, the woman’s body rose up and dove down, flashing whitely, a sun-dappled sea. I gazed at her, craving the release of annihilation.
48. I threw my cell phone in the water.
49. The moment I did it, I regretted it, and grabbed the thing back out to wipe it clean. It was still on, water purpling the screen behind its glass.
No, we had better things to do than look desperate and alone in a Midwest college town. We had laptops with shows on them, we had projects, we were a chosen family and we thought nothing could knock us down.
50. There was a party that night. The last night of Camp. A dance, a talent show, a final opportunity to join the masses of bodies and play. As the sun set that afternoon, AcroYogis converged on a sandy clearing in the woods.
51. I’d brought an outfit for this, a silvery, tummy-baring top and some yoga leggings with a scale-like print.
52. AcroYoga Camp turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.
53. I felt like a half elf, half mermaid thing.
54. I got appreciative looks from everyone when I appeared in the clearing. A bearded young man with a feather earring approached me. “Hey, I’m giving massages. Are you interested? A dollar a minute,” he said, giving me a quick wink. When I said no thanks, he replied, “Namaste.”
55. There were six different fire spinning acts and seven AcroYoga demonstrations, and a spoken word poetry piece, each act performed on the sandy stage of the clearing. Sandwiched between two people I’d never met, my back against an old log, I watched the show. The crowd was raucous, appreciative, ready for the night. With each performance, the energy of the masses grew. A glistening, shirtless man swallowed fire—I remembered him from the workshop this morning. Two women tossed each other through AcroYoga washing machines, those advanced in-motion routines that started to look like real circus movement. The spoken word poem was, of course, about love. The universe, connection, the hunt for bliss, vibrations, momentum, meaning, the release of knowing one has finally come home.
56. After completing her reading of the piece, its author propped her holistic life coaching business. She had cards to give out if anyone was interested.
57. There was a moment of silence when the talent show ended. Applause faded and the crowd shifted uneasily, worried that things were ending. Folks drifted into the trees. And then came music. Somewhere in the trees, speakers crackled to life, and some faceless DJ raised the volume, its sound pulling us back in, noise enough to push our bodies together.
58. I watched as people began to dance.
59. At home, before everything changed, I’d have been wine drunk tonight at one of my friends’ apartments. We avoided our town’s single gay bar—especially on a Saturday. Wouldn’t be caught dead there. Not with the vaguely-gendered PhD queers, not with the gossipy and self-righteous gay men, and certainly not with the one or two lesbians who’d been tossed out of our clique. No, we had better things to do than look desperate and alone in a Midwest college town. We had laptops with shows on them, we had projects, we were a chosen family and we thought nothing could knock us down.
60. The woman from the pond appeared before me. I didn’t recognize her at first. She was clothed now, wrapped in shoddy flannel and leggings. But then she smiled, and I realized who she was. “Where’s Chakra?” I asked. The woman extended her hand. Did I want to try two-high? We’d learned this position earlier that day. The flyer climbed the base, putting one foot upon an offered knee, then from there to the shoulders, her hands bracing your ankles from behind. Then stand, balanced upon the body beneath.
I took her hand.
We swayed amidst the smoke and evening darkness, firelight. Below, bodies gyrated. I could not tell where the women ended and the men began; where the flyers ended and the legs and feet of their bases took over. They were a mass, a single body, flesh at play,
I wasn’t knocked down. It was more like I allowed myself to fall.
She and I both bent knees and stumbled, and I half rolled down into the sand, tripping, cascading forward into the crowd, where I was caught in a mishmash of bodies all laying on the sand, in the midst of doing their own AcroYoga. People caught me. They were soft and warm, hands grabbing me, people laughing.
“Are you okay?” I heard someone asking and I turned.
It was Jo.
“Yeah, I’m good, I said. I brushed the sand off my knees and fully righted myself, suddenly aware of my outfit again. I gave Jo a look. “Want to play?”
We found a spot for ourselves in the sand, sandwiched between two giggling straight AcroYoga pairs, the men on the bottom, the women on top. I looked down at Jo, who was—not worried about it. They grinned. “Let’s do cartwheel to straddle bat.”
The pose meant landing upside down. It still frightened me a little. I had to dive over Jo’s body so my hips were atop their feet, legs straddled. It took commitment, the belief I wouldn’t land on my head. Jo tossed me into it easily. We were fluid, all grace, all perfection. At least on my left side. My right side was a different story, though.
That hip was tight this evening, painful hip, and as I cartwheeled in on that side, there came a hitch, a catch, and our system of bodies was destabilized. Jo’s legs noodled, and I half-fell, half-rolled between them, flopping down on Jo’s body. “Shit,” I shouted.
My partner laughed. I found their torso soft. I lay my head on their solar plexus, the anxiety of failure still electrocuting my nerves, and joked, “This is my pillow now.”
Jo said, “Napping is totally a pose in Acro.” They put one arm around me. It felt brotherly. “What should we call it? Fallen leaf?”
“I suppose that’s what I am,” I said, sighing.
Jo poked me in the shoulder. “Well, don’t get all depressed about it.”
“I’m not depressed. I’m happy.” I looked up. “Just wish I could see the stars.”
“Come on,” Jo said, pulling me to my feet.
We didn’t have to go far afield to be invisible. It was dark, true dark, and once we were a few feet from the tents, we couldn’t see them, or each other. Sounds from the party came through the trees, its music and voices and general joy. We stumbled, holding hands and giggling, until our bodies decided it was time to fall down into the grass. “Damn,” I said. “I have this planetarium app on my phone. I wish I hadn’t—” I sighed, exasperated.
“Hadn’t what?” Jo asked.
I turned red in the darkness. The silence between us lengthened. Somewhere out there, coming for me, I could sense the anger I’d feel the next morning. Disappointment, dehydration, the prospect of going home. Would I have to go to the gas station and buy a fucking road map?
“Did you hear that?” I whispered suddenly, gripping Jo’s hand.
On edge, we gazed out into the impenetrable shadows, listening. Leaning against Jo, I strained my ears toward the far edge of the woods, trying to hear—I don’t know. A coyote, a yeti, whatever monster my nerves had conjured, some villain-like being crossing the retreat camp slowly toward us, hungry, ready to consume.
I think Jo could feel my sudden panic. Our skin touched, hands and forearms, and then they were half-hugging me again, further darkness, a cave within a cave—and I put my arms around them and lay my cheek against their cheek. We interlaced fingers, which you’re never supposed to do in AcroYoga. You could break a finger if someone twists as they’re falling down. Doing this completely normal thing, so forbidden here at Camp, made me laugh. Jo laughed too, and we squeezed our hands together, exulting in breaking taboo.
Our first kiss was all me asking. My body putting to Jo the question I hadn’t been able to word properly earlier. The response was hungry, an energetic lit with curiosity. Our tongues touched, just once, and I experienced the sensation of a cosmic hand taking hold of the thread that strings together my energetic center, and pulling firmly up. I guided one of Jo’s hands to the zipper on the side of my silvery yoga top and they pulled, the cloth peeling off me. I could not even see my own body, it was so dark. I ran my hands over their legs, which were round and muscled and prickly-calved in gym shorts, shaved, but at war with shaving. I put my hand under their shirt and made contact with the edge of their sports bra. Jo moved my hand away. They touched the waistband of my scaly yoga leggings, tracing that line. I let them lead. They were the base, and I was the flyer, after all.
I wanted to bury myself in Jo’s body. I reached down and lifted up my waistband to grant Jo’s hand entry. The hand that moved in was confirmatory—yes, I was not wearing underwear, did not enjoy extra layers of cotton beneath my Lycra, and besides, weren’t we at an AcroYoga camp in the middle of all this damned corn? Jo gave a pleased snort, and I giggled, an admission. After a moment, I said, hang on, and I wiggled out of the leggings.
I was naked in the darkness.
What would happen if someone came for us with a flashlight? Chakra, at least, had been naked at the pond—but no, her name wasn’t Chakra, that was the dog’s name. In the darkness I could hear and feel Jo moving on the grass, wiggled out of their gym shorts. With my hands I sussed out boxers, we kissed again, I was dizzied. The dog was Chakra, I was Chakra, I was Jo. The creature I imagined had not come for us; we were the creature, our breath filling its cryptid lungs, our hips initiating the motion of its unseemly flesh. I climbed onto Jo, lying full out on their body as though atop a mattress, and they gripped me firmly, our dynamic no longer anticipatory, nothing in the future, everything only moving toward now, toward Jo’s hands, the scent of us together, of the grass, of the distant bonfire, the feeling of being held, the evening’s lost edges, continuity of smoke and sand and agony, unbearable pleasure of struggling toward something I could never reach, but then, miraculously, I did reach it.
61. AcroYoga Camp is a tender feeling.
62. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature.
63. The next day, we all had to leave.
It was by text that Jo came out to me, weeks later. “I’m shocked,” I texted, appending the emoji with the wink. Their reply was, “I feel weird saying it still.” And I replied, “Regardless of gender, you’ll always be my best base.”
It did not help the bright light of my supposed future that I had encountered this beast of mystery, the creature amidst whose weird body Jo and I had encountered each other so completely, on the eve of so many tests and bureaucratic hurdles that mattered to me so little. If I had any chance with the damn Gender and Women’s Studies essay, I thought, maybe it lay in articulating this thing from AcroYoga Camp, this beautiful queer thing. And yet another part of me was thinking, fuck it. I don’t need to write about this—any of this—because I’m living it. I stared into my new phone, happy to have it, burdened by what it afforded me, and tried to think of what to say to Jo. How to text, how to sext, the consequences of failing, of giving up everything, what was next, what was okay, what was enough. Nothing was ever enough.