Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault "I love everything about being a woman," Jessica gloats through a faint chuckle that sensually rumbles her heavy Spanish accent. She reaches for a pack of cigarettes, shakes her long dark hair out of her face and takes a drag as deep as that declaration. The ash end radiates, red-hot as her lipstick. She holds the smoke for a moment, then blows it out audibly and watches it stream like a visible whisper toward the ceiling. As it gathers in a gray cloud above her, Jessica leans back on her living room couch and smiles with satisfaction.
"Yes," she emphasizes. "Everything."
There is much to love. Jessica carries 200 or so pounds on a five-foot-11 frame, standing more than six feet tall in her favorite pair of wedge sandals. Her legs are long, and the calves that protrude from her blue denim pedal-pushers are as smooth as her very smooth cheeks. Her lips are full. Her breasts are, too, and they are proudly showcased in a sheer V-neck blouse that strategically exposes a couple of inches of firm cleavage. Jessica is a pretty sexy dresser. She might be an attractive woman—if she wasn't, very obviously, a man.
"Everybody can tell, I know," she acknowledges dismissively. "Look at me. I am very tall. I am big. Sure, I know I don't look like a woman—not 100 percent. What do you think—I am crazy?"
No, but whatever this reality check may confirm about Jessica's sanity, it also has to be a disappointment to her vanity. She has invested more than half of her life into her pursuit of womanliness. Yet there remains something unconvincing about the hard line of Jessica's jaw, the breadth of her back, the size of her hands and feet, the muscles in her arms, the cracks in her voice. They exude a masculinity that can't be subjugated by flowing tresses, sexy clothes, breast implants, makeup, plastic surgery or even the ingestion of female hormones.
"Of course I know this!" Jessica says, pretending to pitch a little hissy fit. "People see me, and I see them point at me. I hear what they say: 'Look over there! There is a transsexual!' I don't care!'"
It took Jesse six years of cosmetic, surgical and hormonal changes to become Jessica, although the transformation is still a work in progress. It probably always will be. "The process is a long time, and it is not easy," she confirms. "It is difficult, and it is too much money—for implants, for nose job, for hormones." Jessica breaks into a laugh. "And for toenail polish."
Actually, the transformation was less expensive in Mexico than it would have been in the United States. "Breast implants are $4,000 here, but they are $2,000 in Mexico," Jessica points out. "My nose job was half as much, too. And the hormones? They are almost free in Mexico, and you don't need a prescription."
Jessica also has silicone implants in her cheeks, but they did not turn out so well. The right side, especially, looks swollen and misshapen, as though she has been in a fight or has a toothache. "It's a bad joke," Jessica says disgustedly. "It cannot stay this way."
Before Jessica undertook any of those changes, however, she simply let her hair grow.
"That was the first step," she said. "After that, I got the hormones for the titties and so I would have no hair on the face, no hair on the chest—no hair on the body. Later, I bought the new clothes."
Perhaps surprisingly, the change to women's clothing was just as significant a step for Jessica as the changes to a womanly body. "For a long time, I had two sets of clothes," she says. "Some for dressing in the clothes of the woman at night, and some for dressing in the clothes of the man in the day."
At 29, Jessica's sexuality has always been a subject of others' scrutiny, judgment and commentary. For her first 13 years, she was a boy named Jesse—the third of six children, with four sisters and one brother—who was struggling to grow up gay amid the Mexican machismo of her home town of Veracruz.
"Back then, especially, the society in Mexico is no good for gays," she recounts. "Not just because of the pointing and the saying things. Because of the discrimination—not just of gays, but of blacks and the poor. And my family? It was too much problems. They say, 'You are gay? Oh, no!' But it was true. I was a gay boy."
Yet, for most of her life, that definition didn't quite fit, either. "I always like women—woman form, I mean," Jessica says. "I admire women, their shape and their style. I really enjoy these things. They seem comfortable to me. They make me happy. Then I understand: I feel feminine, too."
So shortly after Jessica became a teenager, she decided to become a woman.
"No, I don't want to be a woman!" Jessica corrects you huffily, and now her irritation is not faked. "I want to imitate a woman!"
She remembers very clearly when she went public with her new identity. "The first time I go in the street in a blouse, I feel very nervous," Jessica says. "I think everyone is looking—people I know, people I don't know. It is very scary. Walking is so difficult I feel I might fall down."
Now Jessica fairly swaggers with confidence, luxuriating in the body she has fashioned—and the lifestyle that follows. She enjoys showing you her photo album, filled with pictures of friends and parties.
"I always like boys—and big dick," Jessica says lustily, "but I never like the very gay, gay, hiiiiii honnneeeyyyy gay boys. Not the feminine type for me. I like the masculine type. And now, because I imitate a woman, I only attract men who like women—or men who are bisexual. I don't care, as long as it is a real man."
Some of Jessica's friends are transsexuals, too, people she has met at bars like the Frat House and the Lion's Den. One memorable photo shows Jessica and two other transsexuals—all dressed provocatively—beneath the caption Las Curvas Peligrosas (The Dangerous Curves). "This is a name of a group of big women singers in Mexico," Jessica explains. "This is the joke of that picture."
But most nights Jessica stays home. "Oh, sure, I like parties and going out, too, but I like it better here," she says, wriggling into her couch. "I have to go to work every day, and this is what I work for—my home, my TV, my kitty. This is what I enjoy."
It has been a year and three months since Jessica settled in Orange County, but she's made herself comfortable. "My dream all my life is to live in the United States," she says. "I came around this area because a long time ago, I knew a girl who lives in Santa Ana. When I passed across the border at San Ysidro last year, I called her and said, 'Hello! I am here!'"
Jessica lived with her friend only long enough to land a job as a hairdresser, buy a reliable used car and rent a modern one-bedroom apartment in a safe residential neighborhood a few miles from the beach. That wasn't long.
"I know how to take care of myself—to survive, you can say," she clucks. "I am by myself for a long time, so I learn." Now, however, her solitude is relative. Her apartment complex accepts children and pets, and Jessica smiles contentedly as she watches her four-month-old Siamese kitten, Lucretia, tussle with a catnip mouse while neighbor kids play loudly just outside her front door. "These are happy noises," she summarizes with a shrug. "No problem."
Her cell phone rings, and as Jessica walks toward her bedroom for some privacy, she passes the framed photograph of a man. His picture is hanging on the wall in the hallway, a few inches from her own. He is wearing a Speedo and striking a pose that accentuates a chiseled physique. He is ruggedly handsome.
"He is my ex-boyfriend," Jessica explains when she returns to discover the photo has been noticed. "He is a jerk. I cannot trust him. If I go out of the room, he will try to fuck my girlfriends." Still, she hasn't removed the photo. "Well," Jessica counters with sass, "he is still cute."
She has returned with a can of air freshener, and she blasts it into the thin cigarette haze that has drifted across the living room. "I like to smoke a little, but I hate the smell," she says, flapping one hand back and forth as she sprays with the other. "And, really, it is so dirty, the smoke. I like everything very clean."
Jessica's apartment is spotless, but the cleanliness of the place gets an extra emphasis from its quiet. A light-brown, low-shag carpet stretches from beige wall to beige wall. The only place to sit is an off-brown-and-off-white, heavy-knit couch. One wood-grained end table supports a nondescript lamp; another sits in front of the couch like a coffee table and features a couple of candles. There's a Buddha statue sitting atop a slick, varnished chest of drawers along one wall, a couple of angel statues on a small stereo along another, and a couple of dried-flower arrangements are positioned here and there. The walls are mostly blank, except for a striking color print of a modern-faced goddess in ancient Aztec costume hovering above the couch and a woolly macram creation hanging near the front door. There is no table or chairs beneath the ceiling fan in the dining nook, but a framed print of the Last Supper is propped against the wall, presumably waiting to be hung. "I just moved in this month," Jessica explains. "Before, I lived in another apartment."
There is a knock on the door. It is the cleaning woman, come for her pay. Jessica hands her a few bills, thanks her, and is smiling self-consciously as she comes back to the couch.
"Now you know who makes it so clean—but I am too busy to do it myself!" she says, giggling as she plops onto the cushions. "There are so many better things—even watching TV with my kitty. Anyway, it's a good deal, you know?"
The beard that used to grow on Jessica's face is threatening to return, she admits, although there is no outward sign of the few stray whiskers that have recently begun to reappear. "Since I am in the United States, I don't take any hormones—no prescription and too expensive," she explains. "But I go to laser treatments." She'll be going to Mexico for a visit soon. "I can get hormones there," she says.
The maintenance of her femininity will never end, Jessica says, but she considers the effort worth it. "This is who I am," she says. "I don't want to return to a man. I have never wanted to. I will never want to." She pauses. "But I do want to get the silicone out of my cheeks," she says.
At its essence, Jessica doesn't see how her effort and commitment to her appearance differs much from anybody else who wears makeup, gets cosmetic surgery, styles or dyes their hair, takes vitamin supplements or anti-depressants—anything to enhance or maintain the identity they think of as their own.
"I don't wish I was born a woman," she says. "I'm not going to have surgery to cut off my dick. I like my sex. It is me. Yes, it makes me different, okay? Everybody else is a woman or a man, a woman or a man. I get to have two sexes—maybe 30 percent the man and 70 percent the woman, but it adds up to 100 percent, okay?"
Jessica misses her family, too, who over the years have come to accept her appearance and way of life. "No more problems," she says. "They were worried when I was very young—because I was very young, you know? But now, they say, 'It's your life. It's your problem and your decision. You are adult. We don't care.'"
There is also the matter of straightening out her legal status in the U.S. Her visa has expired, and Jessica doesn't want to lose the life she is building here. "I want this country to be my home," she says. "My big dream was to live in the United States. I am here. Now, I don't have too much other dreams. Only to be happy."
True love? Jessica is a little cynical about that right now. Marriage?
"No, no thank you!" she says. "I told you—I want to be happy."
Jessica's experiences in relationships with men—most recently, with her ex-boyfriend—wounded her. "Because somebody break my heart, I don't want a boyfriend again, anymore," she says. "I was looking for one boyfriend forever, but like I say: you get a boyfriend, and you leave, and he fucks your friend. I don't do that. If I have a boyfriend, it is only him—nobody else. I look for a boy who is dedicated. I looking for that."
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Finding a mate would seem to be more difficult as a transsexual, but Jessica disagrees.
"You have ever been in love? Married? Did it last?" she asks. "Maybe not. How do you feel then? See, it is a problem for everybody—nothing special for a transsexual. One time ago, somebody break your heart, now it is scary. This is true for everybody. It's okay. I don't feel alone. I have my kitty. My kitty loves me. And I love myself."
That's what she feels will carry her through a life that will likely remain a subject of others' scrutiny, judgment and comment.
"Some people, when they see me, they still yell, 'Faggot! Faggot!'" she says. "Before, that hurt me. Not anymore. Now, they say, 'Faggot!' and I don't care. I say, 'Okay, I am a faggot. Everybody is something.' I tell them, 'I know what I am.' I ask them, 'Do you know what you are?'"