My name is Nina Madeleine Zamora-Perez. In a previous life, I was Claudia. Before that, somewhat hesitantly, I was Joaquina. In my family’s eyes and in the eyes of the French bureaucracy, I am Joaquin Jesus Zamora-Perez. To my family, I am still the little boy with the bowl cut and striped shirts who imitated the llamas on our farm in the Andes; the little boy who spat on rocks and pretended to eat the grass. To the French bureaucracy, I am another name of another immigrant, hidden beneath a growing pile of paperwork. To be anyone other than Joaquin Jesus would break my family’s hearts. To be anyone other than Joaquin Jesus would make the French pull their hair out.
I’ve been in Paris for about four years now and started working here not long after I arrived. Everyone assumes that I work au Bois to save up to get a pussy, to be Nina in everyone’s eyes, including on paper. If I’m being honest, I like my dick—sometimes, anyways. I like that I can pee standing up in the woods or in a dirty bathroom in a seedy bar. I like that I can get hard for someone, even if I can’t get it up as often as I used to (estrogen’s a hell of a drug, let me tell you). The truth is, I mostly work here because of the sisterhood and, you know, to be able to make ends meet. Paris isn’t cheap you know. I also like the rush of seeing grown men at their weakest, most pathetic. With every blowjob or ass fuck, they have the brief delusion of being in charge, when deep down, they know it’s not the case at all. They’re the ones spending money they could be spending on food or clothes on a quickie in the woods in the middle of the night. They’re just a slightly older, slightly hairier, slightly richer version of the thirteen-year-old boys jerking off to porn in their parents’ attic.
Yet there I am, trying not to inhale, with my nose pressed to their smelly, wiry pubes and my chin centimeters away from their lopsided, discolored ball sacks. I have the power to get them off and take their money. I also have the power to reject a client, which isn’t the case in every service job.
Of course, the guys who come here aren’t always awkward, adorably pathetic twerps. Sometimes, they’re raging assholes that’ll try to hold me down or scream at me saying that I charge too much, or that I look like a man, or that I’m unnatural. Sometimes, the guy will get really creative and call me a pute. (As if he isn’t just calling me a not-so-nice synonym for my job title. What did he think I was selling, balloon animals?) One time, I called upon the spirit of that little kid in the Andes and spat in the man’s face and ran.
“I told you, girl. You need that pepper spray. You never know when one of those cabrons is gonna pounce. “
Claudia was the first woman like me I’d met in Paris. I’d seen her sitting in a café terrace in the 19th. I was instantly drawn to her long, flowing icy blond hair, her face framed with large Aviator sunglasses, and her ruby red dress with peasant sleeves and a plunging neckline. She slowly took a drag from her cigarette and gently tapped the ashes into the cendrier. In front of her were a lipstick-stained, half-empty espresso cup and an open copy of Le Monde.
“Viens vers moi, ma fille.”
Her voice was rich with cigarette smoke and more than sixty years of a constant cycle of grief, pain, and moving on. I could also hear her accent right away.
“Hablas español?” I asked
“Si, chiquita,” she faced me and smiled.
Claudia beckoned me with her cigarette-less hand, her lilac acrylic nails like shimmering daggers in the piercing sunlight.
I took the seat across from her.
“What’s your name, honey?” she asked
My new acquaintance tilted her head back and laughed.
“What is it?” I felt as if I had said something wrong.
“Well, what a coincidence. That’s my name, too!”
The even bigger coincidence was something that, to this day I haven’t told her; that she wasn’t the first Peruvian transgender sex worker named Claudia I’d met. The name seemed to follow me like a shadow.
“Well, Claudita,” she began, “how are you making it in this city?”
The whole story, in Spanish, had been living inside of me like magma. Now, it was time for me to erupt.
“I heard that someone like me—like us– could make it here. I had enough to get a plane ticket and to sleep at a hostel for a couple of nights, but after that I was on the street, sleeping in benches, in alleys, wherever I could. Then I finally went to an LGBT resource center but no one there spoke Spanish, but a boy who knew a few phrases said that I could stay with him and his boyfriend. I’m still with them now but I feel bad about taking up space and…”
Claudia placed a hand on my shoulder and cracked a smile.
“Slow down, honey, slow down,” she gave out a sigh. “Believe me, I know how you feel. I spent my first few nights on the street. I knew no one. I don’t know how all those Americans in the 20s did it. But once I found my way to the Bois be Boulogne, the cash started flowing in. Girls like us, we ain’t exactly a dime a dozen in Paris, but in those woods, we’re fucking queens. After just two weeks—two,” she held up two fingers in case I somehow hadn’t heard her, “ I had enough for my own place. Over the next few years, I got enough for this…” she tapped a finger on her petite nose “this…” she drew a finger across her full cheeks and lips “and for these bitches.”
Without giving a damn who was watching, Claudia grabbed her large breasts—G-cups, I’d later learn- and moved them around. She gave a mischievous smirk.
“In a few months, I guarantee, you’ll have enough to get some tits yourself. Maybe get rid of that big honker of yours. Before I started, my nose looked like yours.” I should probably mention that Claudia isn’t exactly one to hop on the moving-past-internalized-sexism-and –racism- and-you-know-common-courtesy-bandwagon.
Any further criticism of my appearance was postponed when she got a message on her phone.
“It looks like my date just got off the metro. He’ll be here any minute. In the meantime, let’s exchange numbers.”
I was relieved to make a new friend in a strange city, someone who really understood what I was going through. I felt a rush as my phone buzzed, and I saw the name we shared pop up on the screen.
I couldn’t keep from smiling as I began to walk away.
“Don’t get used to the sunshine, honey,” she called after me, “It don’t last long ‘round here.”
That night was my first night in the woods. It was a balmy summer night, but I was trembling. I stayed glued to Claudia’s side as she introduced me to her friends, each of whom making some sort of joke about us having the same name. I saw the other women come in and out of the trees with their clients. I also saw men come in and out of white trucks parked on either side of the road. If you stood in the middle of the street, those two rows of trucks looked like they went on forever. Seeing those camions made my stomach drop in a way I didn’t think others could ever understand. I never really got to know any of the mysterious women in the camions, as most of Claudia’s circle worked on foot.
“But,” as one of my new friends so eloquently put it, “ma fille, in the winter time, what I would give to have the luxury of humping some hairy dick in a nice, warm camion.”
After a week or so, I had gotten a good lay of the land and some experience getting laid on the land (sorry, puns aren’t my strong suit). Every few minutes, some drab looking guy in a knock-off brand sweatshirt or faux leather jacket would come up to one of us. I remember one of the first full French sentences I could understand was “Combien tu prends?”—How much do you charge?
At the time, I had only memorized how to say the numbers zero through ten.
“sept cinq,” I would respond—seven five—seventy-five.
Over the next couple of months, I’d made enough to start paying Léon and Nico, the couple I’d been staying with, rent. I was afraid to find other roommates or an apartment by myself, and I already felt like I spent enough time with the women au bois. With Léon and Nico, I felt safe. The two of them had also recently gone backpacking across South America (what is it with bourgeois white people backpacking across South America?) and could speak some Spanish, so it wasn’t all blank stares and miming between us.
As often as we could, we cooked and ate dinner together. I introduced them to papa a la huancaina (substituting ajis amarillos with the closest thing I could find to chilies at Simply Market) and they introduced me to tartiflette.
Around the same time I began paying the two of them rent, I learned that Léon was trans too. I’d woken up in the middle of the night from the sound of him walking to the bathroom. He was dressed in a pair of briefs and nothing else. I could see the scars on his chest and the slight hourglass shape of his small frame. It wouldn’t be for another year or so that we would have enough shared language and comfort with one another to share our stories.
When it was time, Léon and Nico would learn that I’d run away from home to Lima, when I was 18. They’d learn that I wandered the streets, having sex with men for a bit of cash and maybe the chance to sleep in a warm bed. They’d learn that on the corner, I met a woman, named, you guessed it, Claudia, who let me stay with her and became like a mother to me. Claudia told me she knew some girls who’d to come to Paris and made a better living and that she was planning on moving there, herself. All either of us knew about Paris was what we had seen in pictures or movies. It seemed like a distant fantasy.
“Things were getting really rough for me,” I told Léon and Nico as they nodded along “but, over the next few months, I saved up enough to get a one-way ticket to Charles de Gaulle. Claudia had gotten a ticket too, for a plane that was due to arrive about an hour and a half before mine; she said she was going to meet me in the airport. I didn’t see her the last couple of days in Lima. She never answered any of my texts or calls. I figured she was busy with last-minute travel arrangements. When the big day came, I hitched a ride to the airport, dressed in baggy clothes and stuffed my hair under a baseball cap. I wasn’t on hormones at the time, so as far as anyone knew, I was just a guy going on vacation. After a full day of travel, I finally arrived. Claudia wasn’t there. I waited. And waited. I tried calling her at least a dozen times. Finally, I did get a call, but it wasn’t from Claudia. It was from another girl who worked on the corner. She told me that they’d just found Claudia’s body in the back of a client’s car; she’d been strangled to death.”
For a solid minute, all three of us were still. The next minute tears were streaming down my face. And the next, the two of them moved over to where I was sitting and put their arms around me. After that, I lost all account of time.
At that point, I’d been thinking a lot about my name. I’d adopted the name Claudia when I got to Paris, as a way to honor the woman who had given me so much, and who I would never see again. She was such a big part of me and I wanted to carry something of hers wherever I went. And yet, something about the name didn’t quite sit well with me. It felt a bit clunky, and, if I was honest with myself, too matronly and traditionally feminine. I was obsessed with women like Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker and others who weren’t afraid to defy societal norms. But it was Nina Simone who I found myself particularly drawn to. She was tall, with dark skin, a prominent nose, and a deep voice, all things that I had learned and learned again were things that a woman should not have. And yet she was amazing and undeniably herself. I took her first name to pay homage to all she was, all I wanted to be, and all I was becoming.
I chose Madeleine as a tribute to the city that I’ve called home for the past four years. Yes, as in the orphan pelirrojita in the old house covered with vines. And yes, as in one of those little French cakes that kind of look like duckbills.
No one could learn my name without them seeing how I truly felt on the inside. I knew that Léon and Nico would be the first to know. Even though the other girls au bois meant the world to me, it was with those two young men that I had made a home. And that fateful night, in our home, in front of the bathroom mirror, I cut my hair. When I was done, it was almost identical to the bowl cut I’d had when I was little. I scoured through my drawers to find every piece of black clothing I owned and put them all on. For make-up, I put on dark blue lipstick and liquid eyeliner without foundation, hardly giving a rat’s ass if it was even or not.
I stepped into the kitchen where Léon and Nico were washing and drying dishes. Nico nearly dropped the plate in his hand and gasped when he saw me; Léon smiled with half of his mouth and both of his eyes.
“Hold on, there’s something missing,” Without skipping a beat, Nico slid the plate into the drying rack, ran through the living room, jumped over the couch, and bounded into the master bedroom. The moment would have been worth it just for how adorable he was, but what happened next made it even better. He came out of the bedroom with an old faux leather jacket, like a lot of the guys au bois would wear.
It wasn’t exactly easy to put on. The thing was so old and cheap that the sleeves were peeling. It smelled like incense with a hint of weed.
I loved it.
“You look great, Claudia,” whispered Léon, his head resting on Nico’s shoulder.
I smiled, shaking my head.
The words I said next came out of me so easily, you’d think I was speaking my mother tongue:
“C’est Nina, maintenant. Nina Madeleine.”