Between Ode and Lament: A Convoluted Love Letter
(Content warning: Regret and suicide.)
When I was asked if I enjoyed the Kim Petras concert, my response vacillated between lament and ode. ‘There was definitely an undercurrent of self-hatred and regret to the evening,’ I started, ‘but on the whole, I really enjoyed it. She’s iconic, and somehow, even prettier in person.’
This strained territory between ode and lament has long characterised my experience of listening to Kim Petras. Her back-to-basics approach to pop music with uncluttered hooks, playful lyrics, and glossy production is refreshing in an era where pop seems to be having an identity crisis, self-consciously posing as anything other than what it is. Beyond this, however, my ability to enjoy her artistry snags on my own insecurity. Sometimes, I swear my ego is so delicate it has to be dry cleaned.
In 2011, the private health insurance company Bupa launched a campaign titled, ‘Meet the Healthier You’. The campaign imagined five scenarios where visibly ill individuals met with limber, lucent versions of themselves. While the ad almost certainly oversold the service, it succeeded in tapping into a uniquely human capacity psychologists and anthropologists have termed ‘counterfactual reasoning’: those speculative processes by which we construct alternate realities based on imagined chains of cause and effect. In the words of Barbara Spellman, Alexandra Kincannon, and Stephen Stose:
Counterfactual reasoning allows us to imagine something in the world being other than it actually was or is (i.e., counter-to-fact); we can then imagine, or mentally simulate, the world continuing to unfold in a direction other than the direction it has actually taken (2005, p. 28).
As you may already suspect though, the imaginative mechanisms of counterfactual reasoning leave it vulnerable to the all-too-human propensity to romanticise anything other than what actually is. This specific phenomenon is referred to as an ‘upward counterfactual’, which seeks to ‘simulate a better reality’ (2005, p. 77). As noted by Mandeep Dhami, David Mandel, and Karen Souza, ‘Although people also construct downward counterfactuals, studies indicate that upward counterfactuals are much more prevalent’ (2005, p. 168). Thus, constructing alternate versions of our lives is rarely a rational enterprise. Marcel Zeelenberg and Eric van Dijk elaborate:
If you decide to enter into a business venture with someone or to marry someone (else), you will never find out how successful each enterprise would have been had you chosen another partner or spouse, or none at all. In these cases, only the chosen option produces an outcome (2005, p. 158).
Such is the appeal of the Bupa ad and movies like Back to the Future, The Butterfly Effect, and Sliding Doors. They allow us to vicariously experience the sorts of alternate realities we construct when engaged in counterfactual reasoning.
Occasionally, however, we do receive a peek into what could have been. For instance, Zeelenberg and van Dijk recount the story of fifty-one-year-old Timothy O’Brien who died by suicide ‘after learning that he had missed out on a £2 million prize in the national lottery.’ They write:
While watching television he saw the numbers of his winning combination, 14, 17, 22, 24, 42, and 47, appearing one by one on the screen. He always played these numbers, but on this occasion he had forgotten to renew his five-week ticket on time. It had expired the previous Saturday (ibid., p. 147).
Leveraging the unknowability of counterfactual outcomes to safeguard against regret is a common defence mechanism (ibid., p. 153). It is for this reason insights into what actually could’ve been often heighten regret beyond the levels of regret associated with unknowable outcomes (ibid.). That I’m still alive testifies to my inability to comprehend the desperate regret that led to O’Brien’s suicide. Nevertheless, as I stood in the audience at Kim’s show, Bupa’s ‘Meet the Healthier You’ was no longer fiction concocted for commercial purposes.
As trans girls who both aspired to careers in music, it’s impossible to not see in Kim Petras the potential I lost by lacking the resources I needed when I needed them most: as a child. In an interview, Miss Petras explicitly acknowledges how beneficial early intervention was for stabilising her gender identity and broader sense of self. ‘So, when I was around twelve,’ she starts, ‘I finally got hormone blockers, which prevent male puberty, and I went through a normal female puberty with oestrogen’ (Petras cited in Spotify Spotlight 2018). If twelve-year-old me had heard about puberty blockers — whether from a doctor, a teacher, an online article, a news report, whatever — it would’ve felt as though I’d discovered a panacea. At that age, the thought of having an oestrogen-induced puberty was the sort of fiction I concocted to help myself sleep: a bedtime story, at best. I never even entertained the thought it may have been medically possible. ‘It was a struggle to get [puberty blockers and oestrogen] that early,’ Kim elaborates, ‘but it’s really important because there’s some stuff that happens in puberty that can’t be revised’ (Petras cited in Spotify Spotlight 2018). As someone who writes for a living, there are few feelings worse than seeing an error post publication and knowing it’s too late for it to be revised. When that error is your own body, there’s no escaping that stomach-braiding feeling. After all, your body isn’t a magazine you can hide in your bottom drawer or a typo that can be patched up with whiteout and DIY calligraphy.
I’m not supposed to say this, but although transitioning post-puberty remains the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, I fear it will never afford me the integrated identity a pre-puberty transition would have. On the night of Kim’s concert, the disparity between my post-puberty transition and what could’ve been had I transitioned pre-puberty was less regret-fuelled musing and more unignorable reality. Listening to her voice, the sort of pristine soprano uncoloured by testosterone, and watching her move in a skin-tight black jumpsuit that exaggerated her oestrogen-induced waist-to-hip ratio left me feeling more snips and tails and puppy dogs’ tails than sugar, spice, or anything nice.
When cosmologists harp on about the theoretical possibility of an infinite number of universes, I roll my eyes and think, ‘I already knew that. My brain invented all of them.’ I used to taunt myself with the idea that I discovered puberty blockers in every universe but the one I’m in. In 2016, as a part of my Honours creative work, I wrote a poem called Pseudoscience (see appendix) about a desperation to exist in a parallel universe. The poem uses the sensory evocations of the astronomical term ‘cold spot’ to draw a connection between the astronomical phenomenon and the more domestic phenomenon of the speaker's bed being the coldest spot in their home. When the poem says, ‘The 6 p.m. news informs me a cold spot in space / could be proof / of a parallel universe. / I don’t know what that means; I just know I want to go / back to bed,’ it’s poetically rendering the hopelessness that leaves the speaker bedridden as being motivated by a subconscious pull to another physical existence. Meanwhile in the poem, their Chihuahua clings to sunlight from the back screen, watching them ‘as though she knows / something I don’t’: that something being an ability to exist outside of these cold spots and, by metaphorical extension, in the here and now.
But no amount of poetry, counterfactual reasoning, or late-night crash courses in cosmology will ever strip away the universes wedged between my life and the life of the Ariel who received puberty blockers. In my first ever blog post, I bemoaned the unflattering trans representation I was exposed to as a child before concluding, ‘[…] knowing trans youth listening to Kim Petras may be spared the uncertainty I experienced growing up gives me a feeling of peace stronger than any dysphoria.’ While I’m certainly heartened many trans youth have better resources than I did during childhood, it’s a stretch to say this gives me a feeling of peace stronger than any dysphoria. Even as I wrote that post, I knew I was manufacturing a satisfying narrative arc instead of representing the uncomfortable truth that I may never outgrow the allure of my compulsive counterfactuals. In lieu of travel, down payments on a home, nights out, and the other expenses that give shape to the lives of others my age, I may always be saving all I can to salvage some approximation of what would’ve come naturally if only twelve-year-old me had been privy to—
‘One hundred,’ he said before I could even finish asking how I looked on a scale of one to ten, with one representing a turnip and ten representing Kim Petras. I was barefaced and about to head to the grocery store. It was my first time leaving the house without makeup since transitioning other than a late-night trip to Coles the previous year that ended with me hunched over the steering wheel, crying too hard to leave the parking lot.
On the day I first spoke to Rhys, I was in bed, listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album after, once again, a promising dalliance unravelled before it could begin to crystallise. My philosophy with heartbreak has always been to immediately cathect to someone else so I never have to confront the reality of what’s been lost. As Melissa Broder astutely wrote in The Pisces, ‘I needed to feel seen by someone, even someone I barely knew and did not like’ (Broder 2018, p. 95). I swiped for so many hours on Bumble that day the app informed me, ‘You’ve gone through all the bees in your area. Widen your search in “Settings” or check back soon.’
I wouldn’t say my conversations with my matches were disappointing. That would imply I was expecting something worthwhile. Nevertheless, I was irked to once again be wrenching meaningful responses from guys who were more interested in clit reviews than lit reviews.
It was around dinner time when Rhys first messaged. In the space of two hours, we covered our disenchantment with the dating experience, our mental-health issues, our trial and error with medication, and our romantic aspirations. ‘I really can’t thank you enough for talking to me,’ he said before the end of the night. ‘Can I, like, buy you lunch or something someday? You really deserve it.’
We met four days later. With my arms drawn across my strapless pink dress and enough makeup to sink a ship, I approached him at our agreed-upon meeting spot at Wollongong train station, jasmine and vanilla oil heralding my arrival. ‘You look really lovely,’ he said, smiling as I led him, clad in nylon shorts, a white top, and a blue backpack, to my car, and then, to the restaurant.
That entire lunch was an exercise in lovelorn apophenia, a desperate search for confirmation he could also feel the tempest that had seized my circulation. No movement, choice of words, or glance escaped my interrogation. The evidence had been compelling: he’d paid for lunch; when I couldn’t decide which Ben and Jerry’s flavour I wanted, he insisted he buy me two; and when I was nervous about slipping on the linoleum at the shopping centre, he assured me he’d catch me.
We headed back to my place, equipped with Ben and Jerry’s, to watch a movie. The previous night we’d discussed our plans to cuddle on the lounge after finishing our ice cream. I was about to dish out a bowl for him when he said, ‘Maybe later. I’m not very hungry.’ My apophenia translated this to: ‘I don’t want to cuddle with you. You’re not what I was hoping for.’ Deflated, I took a seat in front of the TV and tried to focus on the movie. Five minutes into the movie, he turned to me and asked if I’d like to sit a little closer. Then, five minutes after that, he asked if we could move to my bed. It was there we stayed, tangled up on my single mattress, until four o’clock the next afternoon. Just last week, while reminiscing on our first date, he told me he loved me as early as that day. ‘I knew you were special.’
While fact checking my first draft of this article, I discovered Timothy O’Brien — the man who died by suicide, believing he could’ve been a millionaire — would not have been a millionaire at all, even if he had renewed his ticket. In actual fact, only four of his numbers had been drawn, entitling him to a sum closer to fifty pounds (Bunyan 1995, p. 3). Fifty pounds is certainly better than nothing, but his potential winnings would not have changed his life nearly as drastically as he believed. And even if he did become a millionaire, what’s to suggest the counterfactuals he’d constructed around this post-jackpot life were in any way accurate? When confronted with regret, our instinct is to construct upward counterfactuals, simulations of a better reality. We always consider what we would’ve gained had our lives taken a different trajectory, never what we have now that would’ve been lost or, perhaps worse, never found.
The allure of what might’ve been may always colour my experience of the world. I may never have the esteem to endure assaults on my identity, to feel unscathed by accusations of being a man or a faulty simulation of a ‘real woman’. I may never be able to distinguish between being seen and being under threat. But when I tilt my steering wheel toward the line of hedges out the front of Rhys’s house, when I feel his body between mine and all I’ve learned to fear in this world, a life in any of those parallel universes loses all appeal.
Broder, M 2018, Ths, Bloomsbury, London
Bunyan, N 1995, ‘Father Shot Himself Over Jackpot That Never Was’, The Daily Telegraph (London), 16 June 1995, p. 3
Dhami, MK; Mandel, DR; & Souza, KA 2005, ‘Escape from Reality: Prisoners’ Counterfactual Thinking about Crime, Justice, and Punishment’ in DR Mandel, DJ Hilton, & P Catellani, The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, Routledge, London, pp. 165 - 182
Markman, KD & McMullen, MN 2005, ‘Reflective and Evaluative Modes of Mental Simulation’ in DR Mandel, DJ Hilton, & P Catellani, The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, Routledge, London, pp. 77 - 93
Spellman, BA; Kincannon, AP; & Stose, SJ 2005, ‘The Relation between Counterfactual and Causal Reasoning’ in DR Mandel, DJ Hilton, & P Catellani, The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, Routledge, London, pp. 28 - 43
Spotify Spotlight 2018, Introducing Rise: Kim Petras, online video, 27 July, Spotify, viewed 20 June 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HitStNOE2mQ&t=121sA>
Zeelenberg, M & van Dijk, E 2005, ‘On the Comparative Nature of Regret’, in DR Mandel, DJ Hilton, & P Catellani, The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, Routledge, London, pp. 147 - 161