“The Velveteen Robot” by Raphael Rae

Only A could get away with telling me, “I always thought your seizures were beautiful.” My patron saint of tics, she knew about fearing the unbidden body’s ugliness. We were lying in the grass by our college’s bus stop, lazy inside a space of circumscribed motion, and I told her how hysterical I found it, the way my seizures looked nearly indistinguishable from my orgasms. 

Soft hand cupping my limp post-seizure hand, she said that she had noticed and that she always wondered, when we were dating and I was coming, if I was seizing in miniature. She said that it was beautiful: the ballet of my sparking neurons and glitching muscles. 

Historically, during my flareups of highest neurological malfunction, I’ve gilded myself in glitter and glitz, attempted sleight of hand, but with A, I didn’t have to. With A, my malfunction was glitz itself, spark-showers firework shows. Frayed wires like tangles of Rapunzel hair, a crowning glory. Passage out of the tower, even though the seizures are the tower. My body traps; my body releases. My body learned to be a body with hers, and at the time, only she, sunlit beside me, knew the motions of my orgasm. Only she could fully understand how I’d found the erotic nestled in plain sight within my ugly. 

Clench and gasp and grit and writhe and rolling eyes: hot and a horror. Context mutates, but how do I isolate this context; where are the lines drawn? A bed alone does not erotic context make, when so often I retire wiltingly, consumptively, to a mattress made in pig-print sheets before my bodymind begins to shake itself like a wet dog. 

The context comes from inside me, then, my joy and fire versus my sadness, my dulling. I contain the entire story, am a theater of sex and suffering. This concept is an evolutionary cousin of how my orgasm typically follows pain, asked for greedily. The bruising touch of teeth or wood, leather or simple living skin weaponized with adoration. My wires are crossed, always have been. Stress becomes shaking, but also: I respond to a threat with a thrill. A sadist’s ugliest face will glitter in my eyes, a sunbright match in a dark cave. Spotlit on my internal stage. 

When I read Anne Boyer’s “Erotology III,” I feel loved. She writes, “For what could be of more delight to a sadist than a face that in a few minutes can write a dozen very clear books about exquisite and surprising varieties of pain?” 

Yes yes yes, I think, this is my story. The face, the books, the exquisite pains. I may be a robot, once monotone and blankly expressioned, but I have reprogrammed myself to resemble a slapstick star in my motions, ideal for slapping with a stick! For stabbing with a star’s hot white prong! How far I’ve come from my tentative mechanical beginnings, like Haley Joel Osment in A.1. Artificial Intelligence, robot child embroiled in a fairy tale, the most mutating context of all. Pumpkins become coaches, frogs princes, mermaids ashes. A longed-for son turns to abandoned scrap metal turns to a Lost Boy on a quest to be real. 

Me? I too go seeking to Pinnochio. Or, more accurately, to Velveteen Rabbit. That which happens through love. When I started testosterone, A told me, “I’ve wanted this for you since the moment I met you.” Always, she was seeing through me, through my ugly to my beautiful, my horror to my orgasm, my glitter to my un-girl. To the real rabbit beneath, flayed lovingly of velveteen by a sadist’s hands and chewing on a spray of clover with the teeth my seizures have ground to rocky territory. 

To succeed where Haley Joel Osment didn’t, I would need to transform into a real boy, rather than a real rabbit, which is a trickier proposition if we consider the world at large, rather than the smaller world of those who reprogram ourselves. Especially when I am stripped of gender by my shaking, by the ways in which my bodymind visibly breaks. This is why I gilded myself back when A told me about my malfunction’s beauty: to reaffirm a girlhood. Now I do it to reaffirm a feyness, a faghood, that leporine leapingness. 

I am the shape above Madeline’s post-appendectomy bed, something visible only to those who have been cut surgically from the fabric of routine ways of seeing, of moving. Those sutured, those drugged, those hurting, those remade. Those eager to love a scrap-metal boy—the boy’s reprogrammed face, and the evidence of crossed wires flashing eloquent across its features with each slap or sparked neuron-into realness, however temporary or tentative, speculative or context-dependent. On pig-print sheets. On go-green grass. In the 22nd century of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. In the moment A met me and wanted.

Raphael Rae (They/them)
Raphael Rae is a poet, essayist, painter, transsexual, and New School MFA program dropout. Originally from Philadelphia, they are now based in Brooklyn and can be found on Twitter @raephaelra. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Entropy, Toho Journal, Passages North, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere, and they publish a newsletter at notjudydoll.substack.com.