This is a love story. Like every other. And like no other. This is a story about how one day I believed certain things about myself and the next day I realized, knew the way you know a good nectarine, that I had been wrong.
About all of it.
This is what real love does, of course. Transforms. Enlightens. Boils off the fat. Reveals the sinew underneath. I had read about such things in poems. Sung along with the heartbreak songs. But I had not felt that sort of love myself. The kind that shakes you up inside like a Boggle board, jangling all your letters into wholly new words, some you’ve never seen before but recognize instantly nonetheless.
It started with a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that in the end wasn’t a misunderstanding at all.
I first saw my love online. He had written something about music in a column I often read. The column comes with a photo of the author. And it was the photo, more than the words, that captivated me. It was nothing extraordinary. Just a head shot. Him, looking sleepy-eyed and stoned (which, as it turns out, he was) in a brown shirt and narrow tie. He was sitting down, slumped and easy, and it was obvious even from the pixilated screen of my decade-old computer that this man was unlike any other I’d known. I found myself staring, leaning in like he was an insect on the sidewalk. There was something about him, intelligence, warmth, confidence, but also, something else. Something I had no name for.
That night I went to see Slumdog Millionaire with my mother. I told her about the photo. “He looks like Dev Patel,” I said. He did look like Dev Patel, but I was so consumed, everything I saw looked like him. The popcorn guy. The theater curtains. The shadows on my windshield as I drove home from the movie. Late that night I gazed at the photo again. And I decided I would send this man an e-mail. From all angles, this seemed crazy and pathetic to me. What kind of fool writes an unsolicited note to a complete stranger? It wasn’t as if I had an agenda. I didn’t. I expected nothing. But not writing seemed somehow impossible. I was drawn, impelled.
I wrote two lines—introduced myself, said I’d seen the article. And pressed send.
He wrote back the next day. This in itself was a small miracle. As a successful novelist, my intended receives a lot of uninvited e-mail. He even has an assistant to weed through the letters, answering most with a cursory “Thanks for your interest and support” note. But this e-mail he read himself. And though it said nothing particularly charming or saucy or brilliant, he felt he needed to respond.
And so we began. The old-fashioned way, with letters chaste enough to show your grandmother. We did not google stalk. Nor did we write about our similar careers or engage in eager romantic self-promotion. Instead, we stayed in the present, wrote about who we were, who we wanted to be. It was the opposite of flirtation. We talked about our mistakes. Our families. Our needs. Neither one of us was selling anything. It was unlike any courtship, any conversation I had ever had. The intimacy was so immediate, the compatibility so palpable, we didn’t notice until it was too late that we’d grown hooked on transparency, on the dizzying, terrifying high of finally allowing ourselves to be seen.
It was amid all this that my love disclosed something that should have mattered. Something the whole of my history would have insisted mattered, and yet, did not. Not really. He told me, in his typically open, candid style, that he had not been born a man.
“This will never work,” says my friend Ralph the day after I find out. We are having lunch. Ralph is a chef, bald and brawny, the kind of guy who can get away with wearing a red leather coat. He shakes his head, sloppily scooping Vietnamese noodles into his mouth. Ralph has known me since I was 12 years old. He has seen the men I have cycled through over the years, the brutish painter, the boxing steelworker, countless football jocks and rednecks and martial artists, culminating with a civilized eight-year marriage to a onetime Australian rugby player that produced two daughters and one of the more amicable divorces on record.
“You aren’t a lesbian,” he says in between slurps of his noodles.
“He isn’t a woman,” I answer.
Ralph rolls his eyes. “At any rate, you like manly men. Testosterone is your Kryptonite.”
He isn’t wrong. The last man I’d been involved with was 6’4″, another ex-boxer, who’d grown up on the South Side of Chicago and so reeked of conventional masculinity that he’d been cast as cops and toughs in major motion pictures.
“Plus,” Ralph adds, looking pointedly down at his crotch, “there’s this little issue.”
“Your napkin?” I say, narrowing my eyes.
“More like what’s under the napkin,” he says drily.
And there it was. The first incidence of what I would soon learn to be the defining question about my relationship with a transman: What the hell, if anything, is under the napkin?
When you date a man who was not born male, people have questions. Most of these questions are about sexual relations. Some are astonishingly bold, like my good friend who requested I draw her a picture of what my boyfriend’s privates looked like.
Then there was my mother, who, upon hearing that my online beau and I were officially an item, blurted out, “Does it even work?”
Transmen are used to these queries, invasive and inappropriate as they may be. This is still a man’s world—men earn more, control more, are valued more—and what makes a man is nothing less than the key to the cultural castle. If the only true definition of manliness is “one who possesses a working penis,” that poses an interesting dilemma for the guy who’s suffered, say, an unfortunate lamb shearing accident. And what about men with negligible penises? Are they only 10 percent male? How about men who require pills to make their penises elevate? Are they men only when medicated?
“But Ali,” my mother says, lowering her voice to a whisper, “you’re not gay.”
This rapidly-becoming-familiar conversation is happening at an old-fashioned tearoom in Florida. There are doilies on the tables, women with oxygen tanks wheezing nearby. I struggle to breathe myself, trying to explain how gender and sexuality are not the same thing, how someone can feel himself to be a boy, even if he was not born with the boy kit. How nothing is clear-cut, if you are honest about it. Girls play football, boys like to sew, everyone cries. How society has made the rules, issued the uniforms, the lists of approved activities, but where it counts, in your heart, in your head, the truth is always far blurrier.
My mother takes a long sip of iced tea.
“You mean he’s like RuPaul?”
“RuPaul is gay, Mom. He’s a drag queen, not transgender.”
“Isn’t your boy gay?”
“No. He is a heterosexual man. Like Dad.”
“He is not like your father,” she gasps, looking side to side. “Your father is normal.”
Okay. Perhaps my boy is not a “normal” boy. This is true. But normal has always felt like a lie to me, a too-tight sweater we force ourselves to wear. Normal has never been too kind to women, to children, or people of color, people mired in poverty, anyone different in any way. Normal is good for no one, really. It is a lie we all decide to believe—after even the most cursory look, no one is actually normal; it is a plastic bag we wrap around our own heads.
Besides, I tried normal.
I was 14 the first time I had sex. His name was Kenny. He was an older boy I’d met that night at Skate Road 13, a roller-skating rink near my house.
“You have long-ass legs,” he’d said, shaking back his oily, shoulder-length hair as we sat hip to hip during the hokeypokey.
I didn’t like Kenny. But he had a car and keys to an apartment, and I was a mixed-up girl whose birth father had flown the coop—”He fooled us all, Ali,” my grandmother would wail—and whose new daddy seemed constantly at war with her mother, daily accusations hurled like bottles, shattering everything that was once beautiful in their lives.
“Men are full of shit,” my mom would spit, scrubbing the sink with bleach until her knuckles cracked red.
Watching her sob in the laundry room, I ached for something that felt like power. So I slept with Kenny, a boy I didn’t like. Then months later, his friend Billy, whom I liked even less. It was easy.
Easy to say yes when I meant no. Easy to confuse pleasing with power. Easy to bury myself alive in the passing desire of another. Easy to pretend I had no wants of my own, beyond making that boy happy for that moment. It was easy, and like most easy things with intense but quickly dissipating payoffs, it became a habit.
Nobody blinked. Because it was normal.
Raised in the South, I was taught that women existed to provide a service: to reflect the success of the male. So I did what many women do: I became a walking mirror, choosing men who would see only what I showed them. Men pleased to be looked after. Men who would not try to look after me. For 28 years I stayed hidden, running the show, getting it done, avoiding intimacy like rotten meat.
Then I met my Dev Patel, my “not normal” man, and the mirror disintegrated into glorious, glittering dust, the old, hardened me along with it. He broke me the way I was broken the first time a child reached to hold my hand to cross the street. I was unlocked, redefined, filled up in an instant with feelings hard to bury as elephants.
“Tell me everything; you know I love a tranny!”
I am drinking margaritas with my old friend Liz. She wants to know what is under the napkin. More, she wants to know where I see this thing going.
“How is your mother handling it?” she asks, eyes wide.
Surprisingly well, I say. She then asks if there has been any blowback.
“We’re not exactly getting sent congratulatory bouquets,” I say. Then I tell her that someone in my family had described my new love as “it” and said if he came anywhere near him, he’d “kick its ass.”
“Jesus,” Liz says, licking salt off her glass.
I shrug, tell her how I’ve never been happier, how I don’t recognize myself, how everything seems possible, blessed, easy.
“You have a boy with a girl brain,” she says, dreamily. “It is the best of both worlds.”
“Not exactly,” I think, remembering how my man manically flips the channel on the remote control, cruising for any show with a pit bull or a medical trauma or a cop. Or how his eyes glaze over when I ask if I look fat. Or how often he thinks about sex.
“His brain isn’t exactly feminine,” I try to explain. “He’s pretty much a dude through and through. He’s even color-blind.”
“No kidding?” Liz says.
“And he won’t let me drive.”
“Sounds like a guy to me.”
The next morning at home, I watch my man brush his teeth. He vigorously works his toothbrush for at least five minutes, till the foam covers his mouth clown-style. He leans into the sink, one arm crooked on the edge. He is short, 5’5″ to my 5’10”, and slight. His curly brown hair spikes up in the front like Astro Boy’s. He spits enthusiastically, then turns and grins, the white of the toothpaste still coating him nose to chin.
“Do I have something on my face?” he asks, feigning confusion.
He kisses me, leaving a slick of foam on my cheek, then shuffles off to get dressed, walking even in those wee A.M. hours like a man rich with confidence.
My eyes track him. I think, “God, he is handsome.” I think, “How could anyone look at him and not see who he is meant to be?” I think, “If I were any more in love, I’d be unbearable company.”
He comes back into the bathroom, asks what is on my mind.
“Nothing,” I mutter.
“Liar,” he says, catching my gaze.
I do not tell him the truth—that the best future I can imagine would be to watch him brush his teeth every day for the rest of my life.
Several years back, my love was on a subway in New York City when some young thugs put a knife to his throat.
“You think you’re a man?” they hissed. “You trying to be like us?”
My love said nothing, made himself very still and quiet. The thugs nudged him, knocked the side of his head, poked his chest, then grew bored and exited the train.
When he tells me this story, I try not to worry.
“This was before I had my mustache,” he jokes, brushing his hand across the black fuzz emerging on his upper lip, the effects of testosterone therapy.
I don’t laugh. I am drowning inside. Terrified that this man, this gentle, generous, brilliant man, could be in danger simply because of who he is. “This is America,” I think. “The land of reinvention. Why would anyone even care?”
But some people do care. Certain men, especially. Men who resent anyone crashing the boys’ club without an invitation, daring to take power where none was given. Which, if you think about it, is the genesis of every human rights movement in history.
“I don’t want any harm to come to you,” I whisper in my love’s ear while he sleeps.
I watch his face, his chest moving up and down, and I wonder, “How did this big love happen?” A love so bright I can only sneak glimpses, anything more igniting me like tissue paper. And then I remember the letters, the first date, the tumbling of wall after wall, both of us putting down our shields, taking long looks, allowing what we felt to trump what we’d been told to think.
And then there was the moment, early on, when he was washing dishes and instinctively cupped his hand over the sharp edge of my kitchen drawer to protect my daughter’s forehead from a scratch. That moment alone told me all I needed to know about who this man was, and what he could be for my children. Without even knowing, he passed me hope, clear and simple as a plate.
“I like him,” my 9-year-old said that night when I tucked her into bed. “He’s not like other boys.”
A few hours later I am cradled tight in my love’s arms, something that, in other relationships, had always made me feel confined, uncomfortable. He is looping his fingers through my hair, tucking it behind my ear. We lie like that for hours, breathing slow, saying nothing.
“I’m going to take care of you,” he says, finally. “Whether you need me to or not.”
“I don’t need you to,” I protest. “I’ve never needed anyone to….”
“Even so,” he chides, pinching my cheek firmly.
My love and I are getting married.
“Real married,” he always clarifies.
His driver’s license lists him as male, as does other essential paperwork, edits that were simpler than qualifying for a Sam’s Club card. According to the government, he is officially a man.
“Now if your mom could just get her head around the Jewish thing,” he jokes.
I do not love my fiancé because he is trans or in spite of his being trans. I love him because of who he is, the same reason he loves me. And the rest dissolves, as it did in the beginning, when he was just a boy smirking from a photograph.
There are rare challenging days. “Ladies” days. Days when the well-meaning waitress or dishwasher salesman will be confused by my man’s slender frame and mistakenly ask how we “ladies” are doing, prompting him to shrivel in front of me like a dropped leaf. Usually, he says nothing. Unless it is date night, and we are having drinks and appetizers and we have dressed up in our Saturday finest—he in a jacket and tie—and the third or fourth “ladies” tips him into a concise but always mortifying rebuttal.
“Excuse me, but I’m a guy.”
An apology usually follows. Which makes it even more awkward, because he doesn’t want anyone to feel bad or sorry, he just wants to be seen the way he sees himself.
I think about this sometimes. How I would feel if I were called “sir” while I was on a date, wearing a dress and heels and cherry lipstick. How abnegating it would be to have the world look at you and decide, no matter how many signals you give, that you are something you are not.
There is this misbegotten notion that transmen and women are about playing dress-up and fooling people. But to be trans is to feel the truth so acutely you can’t fake it. It is to be so consumed with the truth of who you are that you are willing to risk everything to inhabit it. To refuse to be what other people have decided you are—this is an act of courage few individuals dare try. I know I didn’t.
It is late fall, and we are walking through through the woods with the girls, searching for birch bark and tossing sticks to the dogs.
“This is the first time I’ve ever stopped wondering where I’m supposed to be,” my fiancé says as we climb a slight hill, all of us hand in hand. I start to cry. So much sweetness, such simple tenderness.
We talk about the holidays, the kids’ soccer matches, we talk about the wedding, a year from now, my dress, my hair, whether or not he should wear lifts, like Andre Agassi did when he wed Brooke Shields.
“I need every inch I can get,” he says, a wink in his voice.
We banter and tease, and I giggle, flip my hair. I am drunk with optimism, skipping through leaves, looking for unicorns in the clouds. And I realize then that this man has done something I never thought possible. Something revolutionary.
He has made a girl out of me.