Against Me! Shape Shift With Me

[Total Treble/Xtra Mile; 2016]

Styles: amputation, anaphora, memories/ghosts
Others: Exile on Main Street, Exile in Guyville, “love songs”

I am 19 and we just broke up and my ears want loud things. I ask Lauren, tattooed whirl of a bartender, petting a potted plant (“they can feel it, you know?”) if she’s heard the new Against Me! record. “They’re a little mainstream for me, you know? Arena rock, right?” I confront how invested she is in stroking that particular fern. I decide against investing too much in what Lauren says. She snickers. “I guess I’m against Against Me!”

Pronouns run and shift like the Earth’s plates, like the shock of pop music; I become you, he becomes she, the matter of an ours is rearranged, reconstituted in new bodies. We line our rubbery thought-stuff up against something called linguistics, the word science we keep around to script a little more sense — but just like the thoughts, the science is treacherous. Pronouns are deliberately cloudy, counting on context, daring you to assume too much. We have anaphors that refer to what came before and cataphors that run the opposite way, but they both designate without real resolution. Grammar gets it wrong so much of the time. Discourse depends on humans, regardless of where pronouns sit: what happens without precedent? “Shape shift with me/ What have you got to lose?”

We’re 21, stopped at a red light. We don’t see each other like we used to, but it’s nice to share the familiar silences, to fall into old cues. Things don’t change so much, I think, which feels big at 21, and you clear your throat and shake your hair and say, “hopefully by this time next year, I’ll be living as a woman.”

Grammar gets treacherous when it’s transformative. Ghosts and pasts crop up when we quote things, when we quote ourselves. “I wanna be more real than all the others/ I wanna be more real than all the rest,” Grace sings over the roil of “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be;” it’s “I wanted you to be more real than all the others/ We all want to be more real than all the others” on a rambling “Norse Truth.” Pronouns run. The thing about the grammar of transformation is that it’s not product-based: you don’t know what the transformed thing is, you don’t know what you’ll be in between. Grace: “The idea that you’re going to transition into who you’re going to be — that’s not how you’re going to end up. You don’t know who that person you’re going to transition into is. You just have to see.”

And then I’m 11, enamel wound in wire, an excitable bonebag, all knocking shoulder sockets in an extra large Cross Country shirt (“for the length,” said mom, “you’re tall”). Some days at practice, we commiserate over our too-big shirts. When you’re 11, bodies don’t fit and everything feels baggy.

“All the devils that you don’t know can all come along for the ride,” and I’m 25 in the still of the just-started car, here in this weird city to see you. “I wanna be as close as I can get to you,” shouts Laura Jane Grace through the speakers, paraphrasing things we said to each other last night, paraphrasing something she said about Shape Shift With Me (“there’s a million songs in the world and every song on the radio is about falling in love or falling out of love in some way, shape or form, but there’s no one from the transgender perspective presenting that”). Not everything on Shape Shift With Me fits like “333,” which fits plenty, and hits hearts. Some of the hyper-syllabic loose-lyric delivery of “Norse Truth” drags baggy, some of the mixed political/personal imagery of “Suicide Bomber” bogs down what the song wants. Like want and love and bodies, songs won’t always feel good.

I’m 11, again, on my belly on the floor under your basement pool table spreading shiny marbles across the floor. “This good?” I say, and then again, “this good?” a little louder. You don’t hear well. Your ears work different than mine. You perch up over the back of the ratty recliner, nod yes, shake your straw-hair back. It’s longer than mine, almost long enough to cover your forehead, to tide the deep-set eyes, to offset some of the worry. You don’t hear well. Sometimes you don’t feel well. When you’re 11, everything feels baggy.

At 25, starting the car, Shape Shift With Me sounds like love songs because I’m here to see you. The drums on “333” and the way “Crash” sways means the songs are well written; the way I welcome them means I see me in their words.”Rebecca” is honest, a whole half-love (“I don’t wanna stand here next to you/ And pretend there’s something I don’t wanna do/ When l just want to grab you by the skull/ Rebecca kiss me, but let’s not fall in love”) because we want bodies. But love songs aren’t anaphors, and they don’t move one way — “I love you” doesn’t promise its opposite. “12:03” is hooky, sonic assurance, but it sneaks us into space between doubt and thrill: “I’d prefer to live a little bit reckless/ Whatever takes the edge off and alleviates the swelling.” Hearts swell — the trick is keeping the thing in your chest from breaking (“Norse Truth”: “just because I can intellectualize it doesn’t mean I feel it in my chest”). Maybe Shape Shift With Me is about love songs, but maybe Shape Shift With Me is about bodies. We want to be above us, in love; we want to be in love songs. And then “ProVision L-3” shoves us inside the chill of the body scanner, an airport horror that frequently registers the trans-body as anomaly, as an intruder. “What can you see inside of me?” Grace strains and who’s the you? “12:03” gives us three separate you’s, and one of them is really a me. Pronouns promise transition, a fluid skipping back and forth. Who(she) sees what(her) inside Laura Jane Grace and when do we put ourselves in the songs we hear? Pronouns shift. Shapes shift.

I’m 23 years old, my favorite number, my dog isn’t a year yet, all four legs different lengths, and we’re standing outside on New Year’s Eve and he’s growling at you. I tug his leash, tell him to stop, like I’ve been telling him all night. You say it’s okay, it’s okay, but the unspoken horror we share is that my dog is standing in for the world, seeing something inside of you that doesn’t match what’s outside of you. We don’t see each other like we used to, but things change. I say I like your boots — high-heeled, pointy. You laugh (“there’s gotta be some perks to all of this”) and throw your straw-hair back. It’s longer than mine. Things don’t change but shapes shift. Sometimes you don’t feel well, but we keep walking, still honest,“Limited range to haunt/ Thankful for the friends I’ve got.”

We want to love other bodies and we want to love ours. Bodies get in the way of love; bodies are all we have to love. “Delicate, Petite, and Other Things I’ll Never Be” self-anatomizes, promises “the finest attributes of an amputee/ Something to eat instead of what you need feed,” and there’s a weird shifting between amputation and haunting on Shape Shift With Me, on the split grammar of “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts”: “Tonight I can’t sleep because I’m haunted.” Foreign bodies keep us up all night, and all of a sudden we sympathize with the conjured: “I know the feeling well/ Longing for something lost” Can you atomize a ghost? “I feel you like a phantom limb.” Sometimes we find ourselves and we lose love; transformation leaves trails of ghosts, severances of selves.

Our knee caps are rugburned and covered in golden retriever hair. There are marbles all over the floor. We’ll huddle on the basement stairs, we’ll flick the lightswitch, and we’ll shine a flashlight at our little galaxied pile. Maybe the light reflects off one marble, spreads to another; maybe we get a basement miracle, a maze of light, bright stuff shining off every orb. We know it’s a stupid idea, barely an idea; we know it won’t work because that’s not how you’re going to end up. You don’t know who that person you’re going to transition into is. You just have to see. We’re 11, but we’re everything else, too: “All the places that we never went/ All the times we never had.” So we keep the rugburn for the afternoon, the afternoon for a little longer. And we flick the light switch and we shine the flashlight and there’s nothing, really, except too-big tees, lots of you, lots of me.

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