The Lives, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie

This story was originally published in The Oxford American Magazine’s Race Issue (Feb ’09)



i·bex n: a type of wild mountain goat with large curved horns. Ibex are found in the Alps, the Pyranees, the Himalayas, Ethiopia, Central Asia, South Siberia, Transjordan, and Nubia.

All I’ve ever wanted is to feel whole.

When I was a kid, I once surgically sawed my Barbie in half, like a magician.  Then, I cut photographs of myself in two and pasted the top half of my body to the bottom torso and legs of my doll.  I brought my new self to bed, and said, “One day, you will have legs, and you will be a real human girl, you will be whole.”  Then I went to sleep and dreamt I was half me and half doll, and woke up shrieking.  Daddy came to my room and soothed me with a compress and with words: “When you are older I will help you get a human lower half.  You will be beautiful then, and you will have no more nightmares, and nothing to fear.”

My name is Zelwa.  I am half woman—the upper half— and half Transjordanian Ibex, but I have never been East of the Atlantic. As far as I know, my late grandma was the only other half-ibex in my family.  Nonetheless, there are about 5,000 of us halfies in the country, mostly residing in Wyoming, Montana, Texas, The Bay Area, and New York, where no one bats an eye when we trot down the street, our upper bodies suited, our leather briefcases strapped to our furry backs.  I’ve lived in all these places, was born in the Great Plains of Montana, then moved to Wyoming, where my father became a pilot and bought a modest airplane, then San Francisco, where my mother fled from him and into a woman’s arms, then New York, where I studied law before deciding to move to a tiny Texas town, where the residents are used to me, and greet me with a, “Hey, Zelwa!” and a smile.

My father is coming to visit me soon, to convince me to have an operation that will make me all-human.  Dr. Yumeji, a real-life magician, has been resuscitating and reusing lower human halves for about three years, bringing in halfies from all over the world, and performing the surgery for an exorbitant sum.  Daddy wants to pay for the surgery, but if I do it, I’ll insist on paying half.

I’m a loaded family attorney.  Twice a week, I travel by plane to Houston to defend my clients.  I do, as an adult, the thing I was best at doing as a child: I saw things in half.  The mom gets one kid and the dad gets the other.  Or, the kid gets sawed in half, and has to spend one week with his mother and the next with his father, and on and on until he wakes up in the middle of the night wondering where he is, even though he is now 37 years old and should know better.  Once in a while, I saw families so well that women and men decide they want to remain bound together.  Those are secretly my favorite cases, because while most couples have no business being together, many have no business coming apart.

Ibex were once the supermodels of the Near East, where our fine likeness was painted on vases and water jugs, our horns curling back like shells.  Sadly, I do not have horns…but I am horny.  As you can imagine, though, I have been single for a while.  I have a personals ad up online, but I never use a full-body shot for the greeting photograph.  Sometimes I add it as a fifth or sixth photo, and sometimes, I get emails from hot dudes in Dublin or Dubai, emails that read: “Hello there!  I love your photos.  You are brilliant at Photoshop!  Keep up the magic.”  Or, I get emails from guys who are looking only for BHLs—Beautiful Half Ladies.  So, I prefer to meet people offline.

Nowadays, when I go on dates, I drive my disability-equipped van, which allows me to steer with my hands and provides my lower body lots of room.  But when I was younger, I used to show up at dates’ doors, carry them on my back, and gallop off to dinner.  This was a problem because it created an intense and too-early sense of intimacy.  I figured that out in therapy.  Dr. Why is good for me because she doesn’t allow me to use my half-ness as an excuse, and she encourages me to accept it.  Her real name is Dr. Rye. When I went in and told her I was considering the Surgery, she said, “Why?”

“Because I am sick of feeling different, of being alone.  I think it would be nice to feel whole.”

“Do you feel unwhole?  Divided?”

I pointed at my hooves and nodded.

Dr. Why stared at me.  She enjoyed long moments of silence and eye-contact.

“Something’s percolating?” she said.

“My fear of eye-contact and long pauses,” I said.

“What else?”

I shifted my eyes to the clock and thought.  I knew what she wanted to hear, so I said, “My fear of ending up alone.  My fear that people are talking about me behind my furry back.  My feelings of inadequacy.  My general feeling of difference.”

She took a deep breath, nodded, and stared into my eyes for three or four minutes.  Then, my time was up.

I have gone to a couple of self-acceptance conferences for other half-beasts, or halfies, as we prefer to call ourselves, just went to one in Hawaii last summer; it was great, and it was not.  It was like staring at myself in the mirror for days, but it was also like staring at myself in the mirror for days, and I am female, and I do not particularly care for mirrors.  But, I got to see people whose lower halves were too enormous for disability vans, or excessively hairy, or who didn’t have human arms at all in addition to their four legs and so had to install hoof-friendly phones, as well as a million other things not equipped for fingerless people, and many of them felt like they could never have a relationship with a non-halfie.

The first halfie I was with had the exact halves as mine: he was half-Transjordanian Ibex, and his human halves were the same as mine: half Lebanese, half Eastern European (I know: we’re hot). It’s hard to find the right match in general, and so when you limit it to the unmarried halfies over the age of 21, you have 200 halfies to choose from, and let’s just say that half of those are, well, not pretty.  That leaves a hundred.  And half of them don’t read.  And half of the 50 left don’t like girls.  That leaves 25 halfies, half of whom like Star Trek a little too much and require you to go to Comic-Con with them.  And half of the 13 left are vegans and think you should be too.  And half of the 6 left are really gorgeous and want your human half to be well-toned, and well, I’m a fucking attorney, people, and I have no time for weight-lifting.  That leaves 3 guys who live in Wyoming, and who wants to live there?

And before you accuse me of being too hetero-centric, I will come clean and tell you I just could not be with another girl halfie.  It’s the mirror thing again.  Sorry.

I have, however, been with some human girls, and liked it.  I was label-free for a while, but I came out as bisexual with the help and prodding of Dr. Why.  When I told my mom over the phone, she was very proud and passed the news to my other mom, Milda.  Milda cried and said she’d always known, which annoyed me, because Milda likes to pretend she knows things before she does.  This has less to do with the fact that she’s an unsuccessful palm and tarot card reader than it does with the fact that she’s a controlling witch.  Look, I’m working this stuff out with Dr. Why, so I’ll spare you.

When I called my dad to tell him I liked men and women, he shouted so hard I was half-deaf for a week.  “It’s not enough that you’re a halfie?  You want to be half gay and half straight, too?”

I took it in stride.  My father is originally from Belarus and has a moustache and doesn’t like non-conformism of any kind.  Sometimes I think it’s a miracle he didn’t flee when I was born, my head and chest coming out first—“OK, good, good”— then: my hairy, Ibexian lower half.  Instead, he flew airplanes very far away from the ground everyday; he sublimated his need to escape via flight (that one’s all mine; Dr. Why didn’t help me come up with any of it).  I remember once I asked him if he loved me in spite of my Ibex half, and he looked down at me and said, “Oh, bubi: you can’t help it.”  After that, anything I could help, he expected me to.

I saw Splash, on my first date ever, with Rick Bartell, who had won the school’s Science Contest three years in a row, yet had really nice skin and the inkling of biceps.  When we left the theater, he asked me what I thought.  I had heard (from my dad) that men didn’t really want to know what women thought.  But I decided that afternoon I would be myself and that Rick Bartell would like me even more.

“I think,” I tried again, “that it’s weird that she has to suffer so much before he joins her in the end.  Besides, why do boys even think mermaids are sexy?  Mermaids don’t even have pussies.  Their legs are fused together into a tail.”

Rick Bartell looked at me in horror, and I saw my face reflected in his glasses: my black eyes, my frizzy brown bangs hanging like an omen over my forehead.  I noticed that he had a kernel of popcorn stuck in his teeth, that he had really big pores, and that those biceps were just the puffs of his down coat.  This was a moment of true mutual recognition, the likes of which rarely come: he saw that I was an angry halfie, and I saw that he was an unattractive science nerd.  In such moments of recognition, relationships either blossom or wilt.  Ours wilted.

It began a sort of dating rite-of-passage for me: I would watch Splash with a date and see what they thought of the idea of suffering leading to compromise, and why Mermaids are considered hot while half-ibexes are not.  Usually, the dates would flee.  A few stayed and hotly debated that underwater life appeals to men because it frees them from the chains of surface life.  One man actually thought mermaids were an incestuous fantasy: he said that men want to be with women who don’t have vaginas, kind of like their ideas of their mommies, and want to live with them underwater in an amniotic state, suckling on their breasts.  The first girl I ever went on a date with said, “Don’t gender it.  Everyone is attracted to mermaids. It’s like the veiled temptress or the naked African chick. Everyone likes boobs and long hair and the idea of living in a closed-off culture.”

Then she leaned in and cupped my boob with one hand and stroked my long hair with the other.  “See?”

I enjoyed kissing her, because our tongues felt slick against each other, like small fish, and when we made love, I exuberantly greeted the tactile sense of wholeness I felt.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t feel whole for long, because she left me for another halfie, a real-estate developer who had the top half of a woman and the bottom half of a bull.

I went to pick up Daddy at the small local airport, where he was landing his own plane and leaving it for the week, at the end of which he hoped to take me to Montana.  As I circled the miniscule building in my huge disability van, I listened to Judy Collins singing “Both Sides Now,” and I thought about Dr. Yumeji the magician.  After the operation, I could drive a Mini Cooper.  Hell, I could buy a pair of jeans.  I could listen to better songs.  Soon, Daddy appeared on the sidewalk.  He was wearing an old beige cowboy hat, a checkered shirt tucked into Wranglers, and a huge belt buckle with an angry buffalo engraved in it.

“Darlin’,” Daddy said, and hugged me.  “You’re getting a little bottom heavy.”

That evening we played board games and drank tequila.   Daddy asked me to do impressions of Milda, who we both hated.  It was nice to share jokes at her expense, but sad that it was one of the only ways we could laugh together.

The next day, Daddy was taking a shower and the devil was beating his wife when the doorbell rang.  I rushed to answer it, but there was no one there.  I stood on the front porch– a wrap-around affair that makes me feel perfectly whole and that took me a whole year to build– and drank my hibiscus tea as the rain came down like tears out of the bright yellow-streaked sky.

The bathroom door creaked behind me and Daddy walked out, naked and sopping.  He drew a sharp breath when he saw me, then ran off to the guest bedroom.  “What kind of attorney has no towels in her bathroom?” he shouted as soon as he was safe behind the door.

I scrunched my eyes shut, but it was too late.

I knew what I’d just seen: the base of a tail.  An actual, brown, hairy stub of a tail at the top of my dad’s ass crack.

I poured the rest of the tea out in the lily patch by my porch swing, my hand shaking.

Daddy and I walked to the taqueria down the street where the owner’s eight-year-old kid takes your order and the tacos cost fifty cents a piece and the walls are covered in an amateur yet moving mural of Monterey.

“Daddy?” I said, after we’d silently gulped down one taco al pastor each.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, and scratched at his ear.  I suddenly saw his habit of scratching in a new light.

“But, Dad, I want to.  I always thought Grandma and I were the only ones in the family like this.”

He turned away and stared at the mural’s mountains, which were depicted in snowy white and muddy brown.

“Well, you’re not.  Happy now?”

“Yeah, I am.  What happened to your tail?”

He didn’t answer.  The eight year-old waiter came by and refilled our waters.  More silence.

“They killed her,” Daddy said.  “They killed her and chopped my tail off.”

“Who?  Who killed Grandma?”

“What does it matter?” he shouted.  “She’s gone now, and you will be too if you don’t take care of…” he shook his hand at me, “this!”

Up until now, I’d always assumed that my grandma, my babunia, had died of natural causes.  Now, Daddy had me picturing townspeople carrying torches and machetes.

“Daddy, what happened?  Talk to me.”

“The past is gone, Zelwa,” he said.  His face was hot and red and his eyes shone.

“Was she killed because she was half-Ibex?  That would never happen now. Halfies have done a lot since those days, we’ve gotten a lot of recognition, we’re protected by laws, we have more rights…we’re…”

“You’re nothing!” he said.  “Tomorrow, we’re getting on my plane and I’m taking you to Montana.  You will get that operation done and this nightmare will be over.”

I took a deep breath.  I knew what I wanted to say, but I was still shaking and afraid.  “I’m sorry about what happened to grandma, but I think this is bullshit.  I mean, I’m a grown woman now.  I own my own fucking house.  I have a really good job.  I’m successful and happy.  Why change who I am?  What’s wrong with the way I look now?”

“Everything,” he said, and threw his napkin on the table and walked out of the tacqueria and into the bright street alone.

I wanted to run after him and scream.  I wanted to trample him under my hooves.  I wanted to tell him I was beautiful, and that of all the people in the world who’ve pointed and laughed at me, he had always been the first.

I trotted home alone, my eyes red and wet, and passed a park, a barbeque hut, the pie company, and a liquor store.  I went in and bought a small bottle of tequila, then walked across the street, a mile up the road, through the gates of the San Jose Cementerio, passing pink and purple piñatas which mourning grandchildren had raised over their dead.  I thought of my babunia, and saw the dam of the river in the distance, and I wanted to slip my body into it, bob in the water until it swallowed me up.  On my right, a group of goats was grazing a scraggly patch of green.  I envied them.  The dam disappeared from my view, and a long, silver fence embraced the horizon.  I hopped over it and into a field of blonde grass.  I lay in the dry blades and drank until the sun set behind a cracked wooden barn.

In the morning, it was clear Daddy had gone. I fried eggs and downed a glass of orange juice, and imagined my father flying.  He was wearing a scarf and a flying cap and a smile, and he had wings.  His wings extended from his chest, their span expansive and their tips sharp and poised.  When I put my dish in the sink, I noticed Daddy’s wallet—he must’ve forgotten it– on the wooden chop-block.    I picked it up and debated whether I should snoop, and decided to go ahead.  Inside, a small album flapped open: my child-face looked back at me, as I held BB guns, swam.  In one photo, my father was hugging his mother.  I slid that picture out of the wallet’s narrow frame and set it on my bookshelf.  It took me a week of trotting back and forth to notice, but when I did, there was no mistaking it: every photograph I’d ever seen of my grandmother was taken from the waist up.  This one was no different.  But I looked at it closely and then saw: the patch of fur, barely the size of my fingernail against the matte photograph, just behind her: a gleam of white: her lovely Ibexian fur. I thought of Daddy’s tail and I cried, but not because I thought he was right, which is what I used to believe, but because I knew he was wrong, and I felt sorry for him. I wish I could tell you that all wounds were healed after that; wish I could say that everything made sense and that I accepted myself unconditionally from that moment on; but it remains a daily effort.  I am half human, after all.

I will tell you this: less than a year after I found the photograph, I went swimming in the dam and met a woman bathing topless at the wall, the stone place where the river spills onto rocks and disappears.  Her left breast was a little larger than her right, and her nipples were pink and flat.  A few kids were running across the wall, and she said to me, “Doesn’t it look like they’re walking on water?”  I said it did, and she said she loved how easy the eye is to trick.  I dipped my head under the water, but when I came up for air, the bathing woman was gone.  When I saw her again, she was lying in the grass by the water, her tail blending into its greenness.  I stared at her tail’s scales and then at her smile, and I galloped out of the water and lay next to her in the grass, next to the mermaid who is still here with me.  In the mornings, she brews coffee and nags me to buy toilet paper on my way home from work, and I smile at her, because everyone knows that halfies don’t use the toilet.  On Sundays, she makes me do yoga with her in our back yard.  I put my arms over my hooves and she puts her arms over her scales and we do our Oms, she reminding me: “There is oneness in duality.  Nothing is one and nothing is double.  You are both.”  Then, we do our salutations, our bodies like mirrors facing the whole, brilliant sun.

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