excerpt > Jamie Brisick> Becoming Westerly
Her platinum blonde hair curls around her furrowed face. Her mascaraed, smoky eyes beg for validation. She wears white swing shoes, white hip-hugger capri pants, a frilly powder blue cardigan—the sort of outfit Marilyn Monroe might have worn on a Pan Am flight in the fifties.
“Stunning, Westerly. You look absolutely stunning.”
“Aw, c’mon, Jamie. You can’t just say it. You’ve got to look me in the eyes and mean it.”
This is the thing about Westerly. She’s insecure. She needs constant reassurance. And the more you feed it, the bigger her appetite grows. But it’s more than that. It’s a power play. It’s oneupmanship. She’s a spoiled Southern belle very purposely dropping her handkerchief in the mud and taking great delight in seeing me dive for it.
I gaze up from my book. “You look beautiful, Westerly.”
She smiles warmly. “Oh, that was nice! That was like Peter O’Toole or Cary Grant. That was perfect.”
The game’s been going on for three years now. In 2009 I traveled to Australia to interview Ms. Westerly Windina, formerly Peter Drouyn, champion surfer. What started as a 5,000-word profile for The Surfer’s Journal has swollen into the greatest love/hate relationship of my entire life—under the guise of a documentary film. Westerly is en route to Bangkok, where a certain scalpel-wielding Dr. Chettawut awaits her. I am, as she calls it, her “wingman.”
She opens her purse and out spills a couple of drawers’ worth of cheap cosmetics. A waft of perfumes that belong to fifty years ago hits me in the face.
“Can you get that?” she says of a tube of lipstick that is easily within her reach.
Without looking up I grab it off the floor, pass it to her. When a stewardess hands her headphones, she pretends to be unable to find the plughole glaring at her from the inside of the armrest.
I help her with that, too.
Now she’s humming along to whatever song’s playing and rocking just enough to shoulder bump me and make it impossible for me to read.
We’ve yet to leave the ground and it feels like we’ve been traveling for ten hours.
A jingle comes over the speakers. First in Thai, then in English, a recorded, babyish female voice explains how to fasten seatbelts, where the emergency exits are located, how to strap on oxygen masks and life jackets. All of this is pantomimed by the porcelainskinned stewardess standing at the end of our row.
“Look at that femininity,” whispers Westerly. “Look at how graceful and delicate she is. That’s what I keep trying to tell you, Jamie. A woman’s touch is finer than 16,000 magic carpets from Aladdin’s lamp! It can change the world.”
A few minutes later the engines fire up and we barrel down the runway. The cabin vibrates, the overhead compartments quake. Westerly’s sun-beaten, manicured hands clutch the armrest. Her ruby-red lips quiver slightly. Her eyes go glassy. As the plane angles skyward she wipes away a tear.
The trip almost didn’t happen. Days before Nick, the director of photography, and I were scheduled to fly first to Brisbane, then on to Bangkok with Westerly, I called her from my home in New York to confirm our itinerary.
“Aw, look, Jamie,” she said despondently, “I’m thinking I might put the surgery off for a bit.”
“Why? What’s happening?”
“Well, I’ve been trying to get a bloody answer out of you guys for months.”
“An answer to what?”
“The showcase finale.” The idea of the showcase finale first surfaced in December 2011, when my co-director Alan White and I were in Australia shooting a sizzle reel of Westerly. A sizzle reel is a sort of teaser used to acquire funding for a film. While interviewing Westerly at her home she insisted on singing us a song. It was a slow, melodramatic version of “River of No Return,” much of it delivered with eyes shut and hand on heart. When she finished we applauded. She proceeded to tell us her plans for the film’s climax scene, in which she would “sing, dance and tell a few jokes” in front of a large audience. “We’ll see,” said Alan.
That we’ll see snowballed into the showcase finale.
“The showcase finale is the most crucial element of the film. You’ve got to understand this, Jamie. The story is not about Peter. Peter’s gone. Peter was a caterpillar who turned into a butterfly. And without a showcase finale, we’re nowhere.”
“Wait a minute, Westerly. Now you’re misquoting yourself. Before it was ‘Peter was a caterpillar, who turned into a butterfly, but she can’t fly without her operation.’ You’ve been obsessing over your operation for as long as I’ve known you. You’ve begged me to help you find someone to help you out financially. I do that, and now you tack on this showcase finale.”
“This is my last hope, Jamie. This is for my son. Without a platform to showcase my talents I’ll just be Peter with a vagina!”
She went on and on about the great stress she was under. I told her to relax, that the film did not hinge on her surgery, that we were interested in her story regardless. She said she needed a definitive answer about the showcase finale. I told her I’d talk to the team and get back to her within twenty-four hours. That night she sent a group email to us Westerly filmmakers stating that “the showcase finale will reveal the resurrected goddess Westerly Windina magnified tenfold by her completion.” She made us promise in writing that the showcase finale would happen. Then she sent a second email with a Microsoft Word attachment that went as follows:
The Westerly Windina SHOWCASE FINALE
Starring the new singing and comedy sensation:
See this amazing lady break
all the boundaries of live performance:
she’s a new star for everyone:
a performer for all generations!
A vision and voice that will knock you out!
She will change you forever!
Westerly and I arrive into New Bangkok International, clear customs, and find Nick in the waiting area.
“Welcome, guys. Here, Westerly, let me grab that for you.”
Thirty years old, born and bred on the Gold Coast, a surfer turned ace shooter, Nick Atkins is jovial, easygoing. He has a dark scruffy beard and a reassuring, rosy-cheeked smile. Most importantly, he and Westerly get along well.
We’d originally planned to all travel together, but when Westerly told us that she was seriously considering postponing her surgery, we made an executive decision and cancelled the Bangkok leg of our trip. When she changed her mind the following day it was too late; there was only one seat left on Westerly’s flight, so Nick had to fly a day earlier. Not only that, but her hotel had no Nick had to fly a day earlier. Not only that, but her hotel had no vacancies.
The Bangkok night air is sweet and humid. We hail a taxi, zip through a maze of narrow lanes. On the main highway, in thick traffic, we pass ramshackle slums draped with laundry. Shadowy, bowlegged figures in shorts and T-shirts amble dangerously close to the road. Locusts of motorcycles buzz between cars.
Situated at the end of a long brick driveway, the Bangkok Rama Hotel is a white three-story building that looks generic, office-like. Our taxi driver pulls up in front of the entrance, hops out, opens the door for Westerly. She exits languorously, one foot at a time. Nick and I carry her bags across the tiled lobby to the front desk. Frayed maps and portraits of smiling monks decorate the pale pink walls. A cloth mandala hangs above a pair of old computers. The room smells vaguely of sewage.
Clad in a purple and pink uniform, the receptionist, Lamai, greets us with a stress-dissolving smile. We check Westerly in, walk her to the elevator.
“I have my debriefing tomorrow morning at ten,” she says.
“You want us to join you?” I ask.
“Yes. That’d be nice.”
“Okay. We’ll call you when we wake up.”
Nick and I say goodnight.
She gives us a scared-child look. “You boys aren’t going to disappear on me, are you?”
The following morning we meet Westerly at her hotel, eat a hurried breakfast of fruit, yogurt and weak coffee from the buffet, and hail a taxi. Traffic is heavy. The streets bristle with shops and signage and street vendors.
“I can’t wait to meet Dr. Chettawut,” says Westerly, dossier in lap. She wears a candy-apple red skirt, white lace top, and blackand- white Chanel-style ballet flats. “I felt like I should dress up, in case he asks me for a dance. I sure wasn’t going to show up looking like a bum. How can this Hollywood girl show up looking like a bum?”
“What exactly does this meeting entail?” asks Nick, camera trained on Westerly.
Westerly peers into a sequined hand mirror. She applies lipstick.“It’s an obligatory consultation. I show him cardiovascular tests, a million blood tests, referential letters. My cholesterol was something like four out of ten—super, I guess.”
The taxi driver pulls into a driveway. Flanked by a plumbing parts manufacturer and a satellite-dish retailer, Dr. Chettawut’s brick facade is plain and windowless. Thai letters stripe the two-story building. Below them: DR. CHETTAWUT PLASTIC SURGERY CENTER.
We enter the spartan waiting room. Som, Dr. Chettawut’s Thai assistant, rises from a wooden desk and shakes our hands. She is middle-aged, kind but formal, speaks perfect English. “No filming inside,” she says.
Westerly takes a seat across from her. Som pulls out a series of documents and spreads them across the desk. Pointing with her pen, she takes Westerly through the details of the surgery. Nick and I loll on the couch, flip through Thai fashion magazines splashed with cheery models, take it all in.
As ordinary as the place looks, there is something vaguely sinister about it. Perhaps I know too much. Dr. Chettawut’s facility is where both the surgery and convalescence take place. Westerly describes the surgery as “a sort of butterflying, like you’d do with a shrimp.” Afterward, for at least a week, the patient is forced to lay supine, legs restrained in a spread-eagle position so as not to disturb “the sculpture.” Peering down the tiled hallway at the double doors, I’m reminded of The Shining. I feel like little Danny on his Big Wheel pondering the door to Room 237.
After twenty minutes or so Westerly walks over. “Well, that was a piece of cake,” she says.
“It says for the next three days I can eat broths and yogurt, but absolutely nothing solid. No pad Thai, no green papaya salad, none of that beautiful yellow curry over rice.”
We’re at a little outdoor café around the corner from Westerly’s hotel, Westerly, Nick and I. It’s high lunchtime, the place is buzzing. Westerly flips through the information packet that Som had given her.
“They have to make sure I’m completely empty. They’re obviously concerned about infection—the geography of the whole thing makes it relevant. I’ll have a catheter. They pack the vagina with ice, like tuna. Like a tuna catch in the North Sea.” She giggles in a studied fashion. I can almost see her rewinding whatever Marilyn film, imitating her in the mirror.
A few feet from us is a glass display case full of roasted ducks. They’re lined up in perfect symmetry, heads torqued painfully to the right. In the kitchen behind it a sweating chef chops whole chickens with a cleaver—whack! whack! whack!
A rotund, apron-clad lady comes over to take our order. She’s elderly, gap-toothed. We speak not a single word of Thai. At the table next to us a group of workers in pale blue coveralls slurps down bowls of pinkish soup with various tendrils poking out. Their waitress arrives and distributes plates heaped with long strips of chicken atop a mound of rice and what looks like bean sprouts, red peppers, peanuts, coriander. It smells ridiculously good.
“Same,” we say, pointing at their plates.
Westerly makes a bowl with her hands. “Broth,” she says.
Somehow the waitress gets it.
Westerly shows us a page from her information packet. Item #7 shows a diagram of an enema. Item #8: Do not sit cross-legged or squat. “Chettawut’s an artist,” she says. “He does full vulva constructions.”
The food arrives quickly. Nick’s and my dishes, whatever they’re called, are excellent. The soup is a coconut/fish mixture; the dark chicken meat is tender and smoky. Spicy, sweet and sour tumble across the tastebuds.
Westerly, on the other hand, grimaces with every spoonful. “This looks like the soup they gave Steve McQueen in Papillon when they pushed it in his cell.”
After we finish eating Westerly goes back to her information packet. She reads us the harrowing details of the actual surgery. She looks up. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Som said that I need to get a final evaluation before the surgery. I thought I only needed two—I saw these psychologists in Brisbane, one of them’s a real specialist when it comes to gender dysphoria. But Som says I need three. She set up an appointment for tomorrow.”
Nick and I wait in the lobby of Westerly’s hotel. She returns from her evaluation in bright sundress, black faux-Dior sunglasses, face aglow.
“I had him laughing. It was, ‘You’re in the navy now!’” She giggles. “He took one look at me and he just knew. He said, ‘Right, you’re a prime candidate.’”
“That’s great news,” I say.
“Sometimes I get in a mode where everything feels just right. I just look and feel right.” She removes her sunglasses, looks me square in the eye. “She’s coming out of me, you know.”
In an earlier interview I’d asked Westerly if she ever had doubts. “I’ve made myself have doubts,” she said. “I’ve had to force myself to question it. But that’s just it, that’s how I know. I’ve had to force myself to see it from the male perspective, I’ve had to go backwards in time and cross back over that line. You see, I see everything from a woman’s perspective now . . . I’ve had nearly six years of knowing it can happen. I have never wavered from the fact that I just want to be completed.”
For the next day and a half Westerly is radiant. In the trashy, ginormous shopping center she tries on discount jeans, poses like a pin-up girl for Nick and me, bursts into a tango with the smiling salesgirl. Through the gardens near the Royal Palace she literally smells roses, chats up tourists. When Nick asks her to walk across a long footbridge that stretches over a busy intersection again and again and again so he can shoot various angles of it, she is happy to oblige.
“You should have seen Peter when he was here in ’74,” she offers as we amble through Patpong, the epicenter of Bangkok’s redlight district. “He was in heaven!”
Music thumps out of go-go bars with names like “Bada Bing” and “Superpussy.” Lingerie-clad girls hover under neon signs. Potbellied men drink beer in cafés.
“Peter was never satisfied with just one,” she says with a Marilyn giggle. “He had to have two or three or even four. And the girls just loved him.”
Westerly’s affection for Peter comes in many forms. Most of the time it’s wistful and forlorn. When she talks about his awkwardness, his pretending to be something he was not, she sounds like a mother remembering her deceased child. Always there is great love. I find this fascinating. It’s as if Peter could not love himself as Peter, but hop across the gender gap, and with that distance and objectivity, the love gushes.
When we were shooting the sizzle reel Westerly took us through her wardrobe. “This is my evening dress,” she said, holding up a pearl-colored cocktail dress, “if ever I’m asked out.”
“What kind of guy would you like to date?” I asked her.
“Someone kind. He’d have to be a real gentleman . . . Someone who understands me.” She paused, brought her hand to her chin.
“Someone like Peter.”
(Later, in a separate conversation, she would say: “Peter was always looking for a princess, he wanted to find his princess. Unfortunately, the princess was me. I’m the princess that Peter always wanted but never met.”)
On the third morning Westerly, Nick and I eat breakfast in the dining room of Westerly’s hotel. In walks a butch and beefy man in dress and high heels. Her thinning ginger hair is combed forward. She looks at least Westerly’s age. She clutches a black purse.
“We’re all on deck,” whispers Westerly.
She proceeds to tell us that the Bangkok Rama is part of the Dr. Chettawut SRS (Sexual Reassignment Surgery) package deal. You stay four or five nights at the hotel, go in for surgery at Chez Chettawut, convalesce there for roughly one week, then move back to the Bangkok Rama for a few days, where Dr. Chettawut’s nurses do house calls.
On cue a svelte transgender woman saunters in. She’s tall, wears a long, slinky peach-colored dress. Her face is lean and beautiful. She looks no older than thirty.
“I think she’s French,” says Westerly.
“Have you talked to her?”
“No, but I heard her talking to the receptionist.”
The newcomer takes a seat on the other side of the room, as far as possible from the first woman. They are alone. They wear game faces.
“You’re all here for the same thing. Why not at least say hi to each other?” I ask Westerly.
“Oh god no, Jamie. I don’t want to talk to them.”
At first I find this strange, but on second thought it makes perfect sense. Clearly there’s a heavy psyche-up going on. They are about to say goodbye forever to their former selves. They’re giving each other space.
Westerly spends a lot of time thinking about her future as an entertainer. Much of this thinking is done aloud. About a month before we came to Bangkok she, or rather Peter Drouyn, was invited to the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations for Surfing Australia, a government-funded organization that oversees the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, into which Peter was inducted in 1991. At this red-carpet gala they will be naming Australia’s Ten Most Influential Surfers. Peter has a good shot of making the list. Here’s the email she sent back (to Andrew Stark, Surfing Australia CEO):
Hope you are in fine spirits as I write this.
I have an entertainment segment ready to launch at the 50th Anniversary Surfing Awards ceremony.
I would like to be invited onto the stage under spotlight (from backstage if possible), in my gala outfit and with a large white birthday cake topped with 50 lit candles rolled in beside me, by two stewards, one either side of the trolley.
Then I will sing a special arrangement of the “Happy Birthday” song. I will sing that alone and then blow out the candles.
Then, after the hip-hip-hoorays! times three, all will fall quiet and I will sing my flagship song (won’t tell you yet).
It would be gracious of you if you provided a Spanish guitarist to accompany me. He will sit on a stool beside me (standing with mike).
So there you have it: a “special” appearance by Westerly Windina—no fees asked!
This will help launch my “showbiz” career in this country.
Let me know ASAP if you find my offer to your liking.
Have a really good afternoon!
“You’ve said many times that Peter is dead. Maybe you want to say a proper goodbye? We could do some kind of send-off.”
Westerly smiles. “Oh, Jamie, that’s a lovely idea. Peter always loved flowers.”
“Golden hour’ll be just sparkling on the river,” adds Nick, consummate director of photography.
This is on the eve of her surgery. The three of us are seated on a leather couch in a Western-style café drinking weak coffee. Since we met up with her at the breakfast buffet a few hours earlier, Westerly has been all grins and giggles.
“I think I’ll wear my slim-fitting red dress,” she says.
At 3 pm we catch a taxi and make a beeline for the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok’s largest waterway. Only it’s less a beeline than a plod. Traffic is all honking horns and brake lights. Exhaust fumes are chokingly thick.
Clad in white high heels and red vintage sheath dress with black lace bra strap poking out at the shoulders, Westerly rides in the backseat. She holds a bouquet of white roses on her lap. She babbles on about her showcase finale.
“. . . a nice gentleman on the piano gets up and then the guitarist will sort of chime in on that composition of mine, and it will be all solid and tight. An old microphone, fifties-style. And a glittering gown, tight-fitting—”
“Can I ask you something for the camera real quick?”
“Tomorrow’s the big day. Are you anxious?”
“No. I’m calm. I’m blissful actually.”
“By this time tomorrow you’ll have an entirely new apparatus.”
“And I’m over the moon about it!” Westerly laughs. “And it’s not just there to look pretty. It’ll be fully functional. It says in the little booklet that it might even be more sensitive than what’s there now.”
Hot sun stabs through the windows, casting Westerly in a dramatic amber glow. Her face looks leathery, grandma-ish. Cherry-red lipstick mottles her teeth. A motorcycle clips our rearview mirror and the elderly taxi driver curses in Thai. Nick points to the low sun and gives me a furtive, we’re-going-to-miss-the-goodlight look.
We arrive at the pier with not a minute to spare. Westerly and Nick, camera over shoulder, break into a trot. I lug backpacks, a tripod. The river is wide and mirror-smooth, a row of buildings and vestige of setting sun on the other side. Westerly stands at the water’s edge. Her made-up face looks sad, almost clownish. Conscious of the camera, she bows her head, shuts her eyes, mutters something inaudible.
At that very moment a water taxi comes charging around the bend, aimed for the exact spot where we’re perched. It’s long and light blue and packed with tourists. Its wake chops the glassy water and rocks the floating pier, forcing high-heeled Westerly to bend her knees and extend her arms to keep from falling. Bobbing up and down, she looks like she’s surfing. The water taxi pulls up inches from us, its leaf-blower drone blaspheming our private moment. Waves slosh onto the deck. Nick quickly lifts his gear to keep it from getting soaked. It’s impossible not to think of that scene in The Big Lebowski in which Walter, with a Folger’s coffee can doubling for an urn, commits Donny’s “mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean.” A gust of onshore wind blows the ashes straight into the Dude’s face. “Everything’s a fucking travesty with you, maaan!”
We walk from the pier to a narrow lane packed with restaurants and shops. The night sky has a rose hue; the air is soft and humid. Smoke from a hundred street food vendors—pork broth, pad Thai, omelettes, shrimp, samosas—wafts cartoonishly up our nasal passages and insists that we eat. Immediately.
We find a little corner restaurant, take a seat at a picnic table under a blue plastic tarp. Nick and I eat crunchy green papaya salad and absurdly tasty pla pao (roasted fish stuffed with crushed lemongrass stalks, coated in a thick layer of salt, dipped in sweet and sour chili sauce).
“How good are the little prawns in the salad?” says Nick.
“I’m blown away by this fish!”
“You boys are just downright cruel,” says Westerly, drooling over our plates, sipping coconut water through a straw.
After dinner we walk to the main boulevard to hail a taxi. Along the way we pass a shoe store advertising “Pimp Daddy Exotic Animal Shoes.” The window display is a mixture of boots and shoes, along with a taxidermy snake, lizard and stingray.
“Can we have a quick peep?” asks Westerly.
Inside we marvel at the garish loafers and cowboy boots, one pair of which blends about five colors and four different animal skins. The salesmen wear suits, look straight out of a Jackie Chan movie.
“Peter would have loved these,” says Westerly, pointing to a pair of shiny black ostrich-skin ankle boots.
We continue on. The boulevard whirls with taxis and cars and puttering vans and swarms of motorcycles that jostle between lanes and occasionally veer onto the footpath to get ahead. Lights flash. Horns honk venomously. Chaotic Bangkok is even more chaotic than usual. And of course it is. It’s rush hour in the heart of downtown.
We have no luck hailing a taxi so we settle on a tuk-tuk—a three-wheeled motorized taxi. According to my guidebook, we are to hang on tightly to our possessions. Thieves prey on tuk-tuks. They slink up on motorcycles, snatch purses, duffel bags and cameras from unsuspecting tourists, then disappear into the traffic.
We pass shopping malls, trinket and T-shirt vendors, nondescript apartment complexes. Electrical wires crisscross the night sky. On a wide street beneath an expressway, which forms a concrete canopy overhead, traffic lets up, and we actually start moving. Hot pink taxis speed past. Wind whips through our hair.
Our tuk-tuk is bedecked with powder-blue vinyl seats, a dark blue ceiling, and chrome bars and poles to keep us from spilling out onto the street. A row of five interior lights flashes different colors, creating a cocktail-lounge effect. I smile at Westerly, her face turning from purple to orange to blue. She smiles back. Nick pulls out his camera, aims it at her. Backlit by headlights, her Marilyn hair looks angelically gossamer, like peroxide cotton candy. Her visage is wistful. She shuts her eyes, places a hand on her heart. Breathily, forcing Nick and me to lean in close to hear, she sings:
If you listen you can hear it call
There is a river called The River of No Return
Sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes wild and free!
Love is a trav’ler on the river of no return
Swept on forever to be lost in the stormy sea
I wake on surgery morning to an email from Som. Dr. Chettawut, who we’ve been trying to pin down for an interview since we arrived in Bangkok, has agreed to see us an hour before Westerly’s surgery.
Nick and I grab a taxi, race over to Westerly’s hotel. We find her sitting at one of the ancient computers in the lobby.
“Ready for your close-up, Ms. Windina?” I joke.
She gives me a nervous smile, goes back to her screen.
“So we’re going to have to leave a bit earlier, Westerly. Chettawut’s going to give us an interview. We need to get there at eleven.”
“I need to talk to you both,” she says.
“Can we do it in the taxi?”
“No. Let’s go up to my room.”
Westerly stands. Behind her I catch a glimpse of the computer screen. It’s open to a page on The Guardian’s website: Patient tells hearing she regrets sex change. We take the elevator up to her room. It’s bright, spacious, almost a suite. A pair of Westerly’s lace panties is draped over a chair.
“Sit down,” she says. “What I have to tell you is, I think, going to have a big impact on the film.”
I take a seat at a small table against the window. Nick unloads his backpack and tripod, sits on the bed. Westerly sits across from me. Her floral dress is bold and summery, but her face is demure, makeup-less. She has yet to do up her hair and the bald crown of her head is untypically exposed. She clears her throat, begins.
“Listen, fellas, I have a strategy for the Westerly showcase finale. I would go to the Surfing Awards. If I was called up, I would sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ which you’d obviously film. You would obviously film the clapping and the roaring and all the rest of it. Okay. If Peter was not invited onto the stage, and not included, Westerly Windina immediately walks out. But the showcase finale still goes on. You know, Stuff you all, here she is. I think the people who are disappointed that Peter wasn’t in that top ten won’t be disappointed when they see her showcase finale, you know? They’ll say, ‘Good, she got the last laugh.’ So given that scenario, that scenario takes place whether or not I go ahead with the operation. No one will ever know. And the idea is, Has she had it? Or has she not had it? Right, as far as the movie’s concerned we should keep it quiet. Because there’s a big ending, a twist like nothing ever.” She pauses. Inhales. “If in the event that I didn’t have this operation, Peter will reappear. You see? He reappears in the end. The twist is: Westerly goes back to being Peter. And Peter just walks from the ocean with his board.”
Westerly proceeds to tell Nick and me that she wonders if she’s just kidding herself. She says that seeing those “other apes” (referring to her fellow transgender hotel guests) makes her wonder if she’s not just like them, if at age sixty-three it might be too late in life to become a woman. I’ve never seen her so vulnerable.
“What would you do if you were in my shoes?” she asks me.
I tell her that there are two choices. One is totally irreversible; the other is not. “If you’re having doubts, why not put the surgery on hold for now? We support you with whatever you want to do.”
Nick seconds the motion.
Westerly rants her doubts about the surgery, about “those apes who are just kidding themselves.” She says something that is downright homophobic. Westerly insists that Peter was never homosexual, vehemently denies that he ever had any homosexual urges. Yet she’s told me more than once that, post-surgery, she hopes to have a relationship with a man. I wonder how much thought she’s given to the realities of this, wrapping her arms around a hairy, muscled body, razor stubble, a hard penis.
“Have you ever thought that you might just be gay, but you’re sort of trying to leapfrog your way over to the other gender to get out of it?” I ask.
Westerly grimaces. “No straight man ever likes to be called gay.”
“I’ve had people wonder if I’m gay for most of my adult life and it’s never bothered me.”
“Oh, Jamie. That’s just nonsense.”
At that moment the phone rings. It’s Som, Dr. Chettawut’s assistant, wondering why we haven’t shown up for the interview. Westerly tells her that we’re still at the hotel, that she’s having doubts about the surgery, and that we’re on our way.
We taxi it over to Dr. Chettawut’s. Som greets us at the door. Westerly sits down with her at her desk while Nick and I wait on the couch. Westerly wears a frown that covers much more than just her face. Her shoulders slump. She grasps nervously at her handbag. Even her comb-over takes on a new hue of desperation, her shiny scalp poking through her diaphanous hair.
I pick up snippets—“I just have so many doubts.” “I’m not sure this is the right time.” “I woke up with this voice in my head telling me to pull back.”
Som speaks quietly, confidentially. “We ask that our patients be not one hundred percent but two hundred percent sure. If there’s even one per cent of doubt, we suggest they hold off.”
Westerly follows Som down the hall and through the double doors to talk with Dr. Chettawut. They return about fifteen minutes later and sit back down at the desk. Som produces a document. Westerly signs it. It’s the formal cancellation of her surgery.
We exit Dr. Chettawut’s with a relieved and giddy Westerly. She wants first a coconut water, as soon as possible, then lunch.
We get her coconut water from a vendor across the street and catch a taxi back to the Bangkok Rama. Westerly drops her gear in her room, returns. We walk to the same café we ate at a couple of days earlier. The gap-toothed waitress recognizes us. So does the sweating, hacking chef. We take a seat. Next to us a family eats big plates of chicken and steaming vegetables over rice, the smell of ginger and lemongrass floating into our faces. When our waitress arrives Nick and I point to their dishes. She laughs, writes on her notepad. A group of young businessmen walk past. Westerly lights up.
“Oh, those boys were looking at me with such loving looks. I must stay Westerly, there’s no doubt about that.” She orders noodles and iced tea from our waitress and continues. “You know, that’s just what I mean, that boy gave me a lovely look. He was looking at me like. . .” She nods her head in the affirmative. “So, I know I look all right. That’s fine, everything’s fine, it’s just that, no operation just yet.”
I ask what aside from the trans folk in the hotel prompted her to pull out.
“Just before I woke up this morning I had this dream, and at the end of it someone yelled out, ‘We need good men. We need good men.’ I woke up and I thought about that, We need good men, and I thought, Yeah, the world certainly needs some good men.”
She interprets this dream not as a sign to stay male but for “Westerly to promote good men.” She says she wants to “wait to become completely feminized.” She’ll see how the showcase finale goes. If it’s a success then she’ll go ahead with the surgery.
This last part turns my stomach. From the get-go we filmmakers have agreed that we’d approach this project in a fly-on-the-wall manner, following Westerly through her metamorphosis, whatever that entails. Her pushing us into filming her showcase finale turns the movie inside out. We entered into this believing that Westerly had suffered gender dysphoria her entire life, that her “completion” was essential. Now it hinges on audience response?
Lunch arrives and Westerly takes her first bite of solid food in five days. “Mmmm.” She shuts her eyes. “This is heaven food.” With Nick’s camera trained on her she eats in showy fashion, giggling between bites, moaning as she chews.
“I’m glad the decision went right to the last second possible before the surgery,” she says. “It’s meaningful, very meaningful, that I was not sure right to the very last. It would have been different if I’d made up my mind three or four or five days before. That would have been too easy.
“It’s a bit like a sniper, dare I make this analogy, where the sniper holds up the rifle, just about to shoot, then drops the rifle, not certain about it. And then sees a clear vision and puts the rifle up again.” Westerly enacts this: one eye closed, the other aimed at some imaginary target across the room, hand gripping barrel, trigger finger cocked, dropping the rifle with furrowed brow, raising it with resolve. “And then he’s just about to shoot the rifle and, ‘Not now. Not now. Maybe tomorrow.’”
She turns to Nick’s camera. “That’s exactly how it happened with me. So it means I’m not finished as a sniper. I’m not finished as a hunter. This transition still goes forward. It still goes on. It’s just going to take a bit longer.”
There’s Westerly pretending to be Marilyn at a press conference, a pack of journalists hanging on her every word. Then there’s the person sitting across the table from me—scared, vulnerable, trying to convince herself of this newly arrived-at truth. Most of the time there’s a clear distinction between these two Westerlys, but in this case she drifts between both—her artifice not strong enough to veil her real feelings, her real feelings needing a sheen, a luster, some kind of coating.
I too drift between roles: sometimes the director/interviewer, other times a genuine friend and support. We’ve gotten to know each other dangerously well, WW and me.
“What does Westerly want?” I ask.
“Westerly wants to showcase all those abilities that Peter couldn’t, such as in the entertainment field, performing arts. In the same way Peter rode his surfboard, the only way he could express his skills was by the balance of a wizard. He was able to put a little bit of show business into his surfing. I suppose you could call him a showbiz-type surfer, a very powerful one. ‘Cause even in showbiz you’ve got to be powerful, you can’t be a wussy. So he did use part of the skills he possessed, skills that perhaps a little girl in him possessed before that. So I’m going to expose those skills at last. And I’ve preserved—Peter preserved himself for years waiting for something to happen, and now it’s happened, and we’ve got our first opportunity coming up at the showcase finale, where Peter can finally showcase all those beautiful skills without fear and panic attacks. See, I don’t have any of those. So we’re all systems go. We’re going to show the world what we can do. Not just ride a surfboard; that’s a fraction of what we can do.”
I ask what she is doing to make these dreams come true and she says that she’s training, practicing her singing and playing keyboards. She says her “producers”—us—have agreed to her showcase finale and that this has been a source of relief.
“I can relax more, I can evolve as a female more naturally without stress. I’d like to have everything done at once. That’s what I’m thinking about right now, I’m thinking about how I’m going to look when I have the money to do everything I want to do, and have a career in entertainment, and include my son in that, too. Because he’s a creative guy. He loves movies and music, just like typical Drouyns. I’m preparing myself mentally and physically for the showcase.”
I have to ask: “What if the showcase is not the giant success you hope it will be?”
“Well, we tried, didn’t we?”
“If I’m given the support that I hope I’ll get I don’t think there is going to be any problem in getting managers or agents. I mean, all one has to do is to ring a manager or an agent and they’ll take you on. I’m looking for someone who can see in me the kinds of skills that can grow into something that audiences really want to see, you know? So I’m not even thinking about people going, No, no, no, you’re not for us; I’m not even thinking about that. And I think that’s a very negative approach anyway. That’s never been Peter’s style or my style. And Peter did prove that he was a good actor, too, at several stages. Because Peter tried to launch his entertainment career but his persona prevented him, his mind. Imagine if he could have exposed his musical song and dance skills. And now it’s Westerly who’s going to expose those skills. But give me a chance, for god’s sake. That’s all I’m asking. If my producers give me a decent chance and support me and have belief in me, there’s not a problem about the future, and that’s when we will have the operation. And that’s when everything will just be roses. Yellow roses.”
As the afternoon progresses she becomes less and less Westerly and more and more Peter. Not Peter the surf star. That bursting confidence he felt, that sense of boundless possibility, is perhaps the seed, the vestigial seed, that gave birth to Westerly. I’m referring to has-been Peter, the Peter who felt kicked to the curb, the Peter who’d lost all hope.
It starts when we pick her up to go to dinner. She meets us in the hotel lobby with a defeated posture, hugless. The girly clothes she’d been sporting the entire trip are replaced by the jeans and T-shirt outfit she favors on the days she sees her son, Zac—“so I don’t blow him out.” She’s a hurler of complaints: about the construction work going on in her hotel, about the credit card she’s maxed out or her bank has frozen or whatever.
It gets worse when the taxi driver drops us off a few blocks away from the restaurant we’re looking for. “My feet hurt.” “You guys are walking too fast.” “You haven’t even complimented me on my new barrette.” She begins walking even slower, complaining even more. The little infrastructure we’d created—Westerly diva one minute, damsel in distress the next; Nick and I her steadfast appeasers—has crumbled.
I feel a sense of failure. I’d never thought of gender reassignment surgery as a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is thing, a proof of one’s sincerity, but given the hundreds of times she’d talked about her need for “completion,” given that this was the center around which my entire relationship with Westerly revolved, I couldn’t help but feel I’d invested years and money and mental energy on a fraud.
Dinner starts with a succulent green papaya salad followed by a saltcrusted baked fish with sprigs of lemongrass and other herbs I can’t quite identify poking out of it. It’s buttery, melts in the mouth, each stab of the fork releasing a kiss of delicious scents. The restaurant is on a busy corner. Old bowlegged ladies pushing carts waddle past. Uniformed school kids point and giggle at the display case full of live fish. It’s a glorious Bangkok night, the air balmy, the sky clear and happy.
Westerly moans and bellyaches her way through all of it. “My bank card’s not working.” “You guys are barely paying attention to me.” “Smells like a friggin’ toilet.” Her hands turn ungainly. Her elbows clunk the table. Her head becomes a burden to her slouching back and shoulders. A scowl consumes her face. Her voice takes on a husk and bitterness. It’s as if she no longer has the energy to play Westerly.
I lose my patience. If she’d just been honest with herself I’d have wrapped my arms around her and done all I could to make her feel less alone. But the blaming and lashing out is comically childish. To give her an ounce of commiseration would be contributing to the self-deception that, to me, is the root of her disenchantment. I do not open the door for her when Nick hails a taxi to take us home. That she has to reach out and do it herself elicits a silent treatment that hangs thick on the ten-minute drive back to the Bangkok Rama. Cars whir past. Motorcycles whine by. We are on the opposite side of the street from Westerly’s hotel, and to turn around and pull into the driveway means going another half-mile down the busy street, and another half-mile back. Our driver pulls over. “Bangkok Rama,” he says, nodding towards the hotel.
Just up the footpath from us, clad in lingerie and slutty dresses, about a half-dozen go-go girls sprawl across a row of benches in front of a bar. They resemble a streak of leopards lazing under neon lights, limbs curled and stretched, paws adorned with stilettos and shiny nail polish. I’d never seen Westerly get catty. In fact she was always the first to praise striking femininity. But in this mood she’s worked herself into, the scene to our left is abhorrent. It’s nothing she says, just her refusal to so much as glance in their direction. Nick, up front, hops out, opens her door, and escorts her across the street and into her hotel.
He returns with an exasperated shake of the head. He whips open the door, almost roaring, “I need a fuckin’ beer, mate!”
Patpong feels less like a red-light district than a theme park version of a red-light district. Girls in skimpy dresses make kissy faces from a shadowy doorway. A spiky-haired guy in a silver suit tries to drag us into a club called Gold Fingers—“My bar, big bar, young girls, I show you.” The road is lined with go-go bars advertising sex shows. Right down the center of it is a long row of souvenir shops, adding tourists to this otherwise X-rated scene. Honeymooners amble alongside packs of blood-gorged frat boys with faux-hawks. Families complete with kids clutching stuffed animals sip Cokes no more than ten feet from a sign that reads:
PUSSY PLAY PING-PONG
PUSSY SMOKE CIGARETTE
PUSSY SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY
PUSSY EAT WITH CHOPSTICK
PUSSY SING AUTOGRAPH
We find a corner bar thumping with music and flashing neon lights. A waft of thick air—body odor, stale beer, a sudden flash of all my worst hangovers—punches us in the face. Nick and I grab a couple of frothy Singhas and find a booth in the back.
On small, circular tables with poles poking up from the center, bikini-clad girls with heavily made-up faces dance. Some are all spread-eagles and inversions. Others just shuffle, as if bored or suffering stage fright. In their nosebleed heels they somehow manage not to kick over the drinks. More working girls, these ones less overt in denim shorts and tank tops, move from lap to lap. Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” blares. A Hong Kong mafiosolooking guy—sunglasses, pinstripe suit and tie, chunky gold rings and wristwatch—holds court at a table of three girls, one under each arm, the third refilling his whisky glass.
Then, just as we’re getting comfortable, just after a full-lipped woman at the bar blows Nick a kiss, the music stops, the house lights come on, and the go-go girls all disappear down a dark hallway. A trio of husky men in red polo shirts comes out and quickly, like they’ve done this a hundred times before, removes a bunch of tables and chairs at the center of the room. In their place they bring out rubber poles and ropes. A pair of muay Thai fighters in shiny shorts emerges from the hallway, dancing, shadowboxing, throwing kicks. In a matter of minutes the ring is set up and the fighters are going at it with heaving grunts and sweat flying off their foreheads.
I’m reminded of something one of my surfer pals once said to me: “We men are simple creatures. We want to either fuck or fight.”
“I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.”
These are Westerly’s first words when we greet her in the lobby of the Bangkok Rama. She wears jeans and a white blouse. Dark sunglasses hide her eyes. A scowl mars her face. Her voice bristles with determination. “I’ve rung Som. I’ve told her I need to talk to Dr. Chettawut. They’re sending over a car.”
It’s a bright, hot morning. The cacophony of honking horns and food vendors pushing carts down the slow lane take on a Groundhog Day tinge. Sitting bolt upright in the backseat, Westerly is uncharacteristically taciturn. Her orange cardigan—“Just like Marilyn’s!”— is bunched in her lap along with her black handbag.
She stares pensively out the window.
As we near Chettawut’s she tells Nick and me that she wants us to wait outside. “I’m just going to walk in there, hat in hand, and explain that I was anxious, and distressed, and that I want to go ahead with the operation.”
She’s in there for a good half hour. As we wait out front, a barefoot monk in saffron robes walks past. He smiles at us with a serenity that seems 10,000 miles away from the rollercoaster we’ve been riding.
Westerly exits with a broken look.
“How did it go?” I ask.
“I don’t think it’s that good.”
“What did they say?”
“They said you’ve made a decision and it’s cancelled. Som’s going to talk to Dr. Chettawut and they’re going to let me know at the hotel.”
In the taxi Westerly relapses into last night’s vitriol—all of it aimed at Dr. Chettawut. At the lunch buffet at the Bangkok Rama, she reaches a point of absurdity. Giggling, she says, “It’s a tragic irony. It just follows my whole life. That’s what’s happened to me for years and years. I’ve got a monkey on my back. I can’t get it off. It always ends in disaster.”
“What do you think would change that?” I ask.
“Money. Just money. Money buys anything. Well, if you don’t have the money you don’t have gender reassignment surgery, it’s as simple as that.”
Her arms are folded, her lips press tightly together.
“I’m going into a black hole that I thought I was just about out of.” She raises her hands to her ears as if trying to muffle a noise only she can hear. “Right now I feel like getting a knife and just cutting it off. I mean, to me it’s totally separate from me but it’s attached. I don’t even like looking at it. I don’t like looking at it. I don’t like looking at it—not for a long time.”
Westerly gets the news from Som: Dr. Chettawut will not be doing her surgery. But there’s a seed of hope. Years ago, when Westerly was first exploring gender reassignment surgery, she’d corresponded over email with a surgeon at Yanhee Hospital here in Bangkok. She’d mentioned this in the taxi and over lunch. Now that Chettawut has officially turned her down, all she can think about is Yanhee Hospital.
“I think we should go straight there,” she says.
“Don’t you want to call first?” I ask.
She heads up to her room, returns a few minutes later.
“I’ve rung Som and told her that I’ll be stopping by to pick up all my documents. We’ll go there then straight on to Yanhee Hospital. Let’s go!”
If the Westerly of last night was a glimpse of the embittered and hopeless Peter Drouyn, then the Westerly that springs to life here is a glimpse of Peter the 1970 Surfer of the Year, Peter the founder of method surfing, Peter the visionary who would change competitive surfing forever. She walks with resolve, a determined glint in her eyes. Rather than wait for Nick and me to hail a taxi, as she’s done the entire trip, she steps off the curb and does it herself.
A hot pink taxi pulls over. “Welcome to my taxi,” says the driver through the open window. “My name is Chan.”
We climb in. Chan is a slight, round-faced man with slicked back black hair. He smells of Old Spice or Brylcreem or a combination of the two.
Westerly hands him a couple of crumpled pieces of paper—one with Dr. Chettawut’s address, the other with Yanhee Hospital’s.
Chan points to the Yanhee piece of paper. “Famous hospital,” he says.
There’s not a lot of talk in the car. Westerly exudes faith and dignity. She holds her chin about an inch higher than she did on the last couple of taxi rides. I am wondering if Som and Dr. Chettawut suspect why we so urgently need this paperwork. Do the surgeons talk among themselves? I imagine an online chat room for SRS doctors in Bangkok, the name “Westerly Drouyn aka Westerly Windina aka Peter Drouyn” flashing in red.
Chan is a savvy driver, darting from lane to lane, snatching every little open space, nearly rear-ending the car in front of us in order to make it through yellow lights. When we arrive at Dr. Chettawut’s, Westerly hops out, marches through the door. She returns two minutes later, a stack of documents in her hand, a hopeful smile on her face.
She gets into the car, slams the door behind her. “Yanhee Hospital,” she says. “And step on it.”
Bangkok’s streets are choked with traffic at all hours of the day and night. The alternative is the expressway—expensive tolls, but much quicker. We take that option, Westerly and Nick in the back, me riding shotgun. The expressway is elevated. To our left, a cluster of high-rises reaches towards the muted sky; to our right, a sprawl of residential buildings. Tableaus of Bangkok daily life: a team of uniformed school kids chases a soccer ball down a sunscorched field, an elderly man in a singlet smokes a cigarette on a balcony, a crew of workers spreads wet concrete around the third floor of a skeletal building-in-progress.
Westerly holds her purse against her chest. She stares out the window anxiously, longingly, the light emphasizing her every crease and wrinkle. She starts with a barely audible hum, then softly sings the lyrics:
I lost my love on the river and for ever my heart will yearn
Gone, gone for ever down The River of No Return
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