An essay about heat.
My husband cuts my hair. It’s the first thing he did, the night I came out to him; took me into the bathroom with the clippers, put my skull in the palm of his hand and revealed me. He called me “bud” a lot, that night. He was very gentle in how he spoke to me. It was a tone I recognized from listening to him get our toddler dressed in the morning; he sounded like he was speaking to someone very dear who was trying very hard at something a little beyond them. Which, in fact, he was.
He still cuts my hair, every few weeks, and I still feel what I felt that night; that same raw, broken-open gratitude. It is the most tangible, routine way he loves me.
Tonight, I’m asking him if I’m losing hair. All the men in my family do, and the T seems to have decided to bomb that one area of my body into submission before providing any other results.
“It happens to everyone eventually,” he says. “Remember to focus on the things you like.”
“I want to look ambiguous,” I say. “Bald people aren’t ambiguous. I’m not trying to transition into Stanley Tucci.”
He nods and tilts my head with his hand, trying to get his angle.
“Besides, it doesn’t happen to everyone. It hasn’t happened to you,” I say. “I don’t want to have less hair than you.”
My husband, I should tell you now, has astonishing hair. It’s thick and wild and, after a few months of quarantine, it’s halfway down his back. He started to go gray in his teens, and never finished, so he just walks through life with long, flowing, black-and-white striped hair, like a character in a bad fantasy novel.
“You do have less hair than me,” my husband says.
“On purpose,” I say. “I still want the option to grow it back.”
I probably won’t take that option, for the same reason that I’m still taking T even after it’s given me changes I said I didn’t want, but I still like to pretend I’m uncommitted. I tell myself I can control where this is going, that I can just stop transitioning if I want. I even stopped taking T for a few days, after I realized the hair was going. But the sadness I feel walking away is worse than the nervousness I feel going forward. It’s not that anything bad is happening. It’s just scary to say forever.
I said forever about my husband, and I meant it. I also know that for some people, his mere existence — the fact that, no matter what medical procedures I undergo, no matter what name or pronouns I use, no matter how much my appearance changes, I married a cis man and stayed married after coming out — is evidence that I’m faking. Straight person, someone subtweeted me; I’ve heard strangers theorize that I’m transitioning for clout, as a grift, to get attention, to play the victim, though there are presumably ways to do all those things that don’t involve growing chest hair. The wannabe-edgy straight girl claiming queer identity for attention; it’s a stereotype I heard in the ‘90s, when I called myself bisexual, and I hear it today, when I use the terms non-binary and queer. Someone’s always on the shit end of that stick, even when the stick changes hands.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s true — whether staying married is a sign of cowardice. Was I supposed to bust up my refuge just so I’d have battle scars? Do I need to have a second adolescence, sleep around, raise hell, to know who I am? Am I as real as I think, standing here in this bathroom, talking about male pattern baldness and being called “bud” and trading De Niro impressions because he just watched Heat, or does even he think of me as an eccentric straight girl? Does he love me, or is he humoring me?
When do I get to stop asking these questions? Which coming-out, which medication, which surgery, which friendship, which sex act, which relationship, which instance of survived bigotry, will ever make me feel like enough?
I always hoped to fall in love with a woman; to have a real, out in the open, long-term girlfriend. I’m surprised it never happened. “Lesbian” was my assumed outcome as a teenager, the one thing strangers thought they knew about me at a glance, though it seems clear now that they were reacting to boyishness more than anything else. I had closeted makeouts and odd half-relationships in my teens, a few awkward hookups in my twenties. Still, my right person didn’t come along, and as I got older, I felt too painfully inexperienced to try asking anyone out. In my home town, I’d belonged to a queer social circle — there weren’t many of us, so we weren’t picky — but when I moved to New York, every queer person I met was dazzlingly sophisticated and connected and aloof, and to make things worse, I had a boyfriend when I got there. To have a boyfriend and no visible history was to give up all liminality. From then on, anything I did was not growing up — it was experimentation, a word hissed between clenched teeth, an expletive uttered in stories about the straight girl who broke your heart.
Half of falling in love is timing. I didn’t meet the right women at the right times. I can count the missed opportunities — a girl who invited me to her house and stroked my arm and repeatedly asked me to go to her church because “you can be gay there,” who I didn’t even realize was hitting on me until a friend explained it later; this astoundingly handsome rugby player, someone I used to look at less with lust than with awe that such beauty was even possible, who told all her friends she had a crush on me, though not one of her friends told me this until the day before I moved out of town — but time only moves one way. It’s a version of my life that could have happened, someone I could have been, if I’d been a little more charming, a little more outgoing, a little better at picking up signals. In the end, I wound up being who I am, with the life I have.
Even if I had stayed in that town, with that girl, I might not have known what to do. My attraction to masculine people was always so loud and unavoidable, and I couldn’t square it with the desire to present in a masculine way myself. What I wanted didn’t look like the butch/femme couples in sex-positive discourse or the gentle womyn-love of the second wave, and it certainly didn’t look like the femme/femme couples that were all I saw in movies and TV. I had no idea how to ask for what I wanted, or how to look like someone you’d want. Books were my best allies in most things. They let me ask intimate questions without burdening anyone. But every time I went to queer literature, looking for a label or a life that might fit me, I’d derail myself on a passage like this one, from Michelle Tea’s Valencia:
Laura was theoretically bisexual. She always had a boyfriend, but her friends were all dykes.
I know that Michelle Tea is a generous mentor to younger writers, a benefactor to her community, that she’s done a million amazing things, including coming out as bisexual after writing Valencia. The fact remains that every queer woman my age read this fucking book, and every time I thought about asking one of them out, I’d have a Laura-based panic attack.
Twenty years after I first read these sentences, I can type them out word-for-word. I memorized them. I also memorized the connotations of fakery or cowardice; the implication that the boyfriend is a personal failure, a piece of baggage Laura isn’t strong enough to get rid of; Laura’s role as the loser hometown friend who’s never seen again, while the main character goes on to be a real queer in a real city; the implication, deadly if you have any social anxiety at all, that none of Laura’s dyke friends are really her friends, that Laura is a dope and a sucker, hanging out with people who whisper behind her back that she’s a fraud.
Who would risk that? Who would be Laura, if they could help it? It was easier to stand still and decide what I wanted based on who would have me; easier to conclude that, if only straight cis men asked me out, I must be a straight cis woman. It was easier to be unsatisfied than to be a joke.
I know now that butch couples exist, and that being attracted to masculinity from masculinity is common for gay men; I might have figured things out faster if I’d started from that end of the bookshelf. I did eventually find books that answered my questions: Lou Sullivan’s diaries shook some things loose, and S. Bear Bergman writes with tenderness about his husband. There are even relevant snippets in the books I first tried. Halberstam mentions “straight butches” in Female Masculinity. There are butches married to guys in Stone Butch Blues, and Feinberg is careful to point out that “they’re still he-shes.” Then again, Halberstam deals with the straight butches for about a paragraph (you can find them at rodeos, evidently) and in Stone Butch Blues, Jess doesn’t befriend or even interact with the married butches except to tell straight people that They Are Valid.
Valid, but not included; part of queer theory, but not invited to the queer practice. That was my situation, whether you viewed me as a not-quite-bisexual woman or a not-quite-gay man or the 40-year-old lesbian virgin or a straight girl on T. I am, in fact, all of those things, subject to all the contempt you might have for any of those types. I am also always something else. Our language about desire tends to break down around non-binary people, like our language for everything else, and perhaps it’s better to say that I am just a non-specific sexual weirdo, a strange person. An accepted synonym, for weird or strange, is queer.
So you think you’re bi, but you only date men, you’re huffing, but I would caution you against assuming that “being with men,” for me, is a heterosexual practice. “Being with men” doesn’t always mean being with straight men. “Being with men” doesn’t always mean being with men in straight ways. I shouldn’t need to tell anyone’s secrets or spell anything out for you to believe me, but for better or worse, the way men feel about me is not the way men feel about girls.
It was a recognition that operated covertly, in odd ways. Once, at a party, a boyfriend of mine got wasted and started boasting about how tough I was. She’s scary strong, dude, she’s just insanely strong for her size, try her. He made me arm-wrestle his guy friends to prove the point, and I did, indeed, end up beating most of them, because they were drunk and they thought it was a joke until I started winning. My boyfriend hollered and beamed with pride, knowing I could beat up the other boys on the playground. This was a very hot date for me. We didn’t have language for it, but he knew who I was.
Men would remark on how easy I was to talk to; they’d thank me for not making them do girly shit, tell me shuddering tales about their exes’ Sex and the City DVDs or bookshelves full of Bridget Jones. If there was a magazine article on tomboys, they’d forward it to me, sometimes with little notes so I knew they were sending it, like, ironically. The mid-‘00s archetype of the Cool Girl — the girl who likes nachos and beer and whiskey, David Foster Wallace and bad action movies and blow jobs, who watches porn and tells dirty jokes and wants to fuck as often and easily as a man, and who is doing all of this, supposedly, as an act, to make straight men like her — served me well for a time.
But if you peel back the surface of the Cool Girl, you find someone soft and feminine, a real live girl desperate for her man’s approval. If you peeled back my surface, you found someone who liked nachos. I wasn’t telling jokes or watching Speed to impress my boyfriends, I was doing it because I’m funny and Speed is an amazing film, and there are girls who like those things, yes, but as every relationship devolved into a power struggle, as every conversation became some dick-measuring contest over who was smarter or stronger or tougher or more accomplished or more talented or just more important, it became clear that the men who thought they loved me were looking for a girl who wasn’t there. I was supposed to knuckle under, once things got serious; drop the act, ride bitch, say uncle. They wanted to arm-wrestle, but they expected to win.
It’s the Catch-22 of patriarchy; men are taught to hold women in contempt and view other men as their only worthwhile companions, but they’re also taught that it’s the worst thing in the world to be gay. The tomboy seems like a perfect solution — a way to be with a guy without, you know, being with a guy — but they eventually become repulsive and taboo to the extent that they fail to be feminine. Everything that seemed wild and exciting to these men soon looks monstrous and emasculating; when they get what they want, they never want it again.
Then I met my husband. I don’t know why it turned out differently. He was a feminist, but most of the guys I dated called themselves that. I might have been softer and easier to live with, as I reached the end of my twenties, but he’s witnessed the worst depressions of my lifetime, too. He was the boyfriend who made me arm-wrestle his friends. That, I think, is what did it. Most guys figured out what I was, but they thought I was broken. He ran off to brag to his friends about me; he treated me, not as strange, but as unique, a source of pride.
My husband makes the fire on a Saturday night and drags the rug out in front of it. Every decent-sized apartment in this town has a fireplace, even the cheap ones, because the winters are harsh and dark and awful and last for about nine months. People upstate come to respect the fire, as we have, for being the closest thing they have to a sun.
In the city, a fireplace would be unthinkable unless we were rich. So it’s our luxury, building a fire on Saturday nights, putting a movie on, making out in front of the only warmth we get. I am supposedly mutilating myself, according to the TERFs out on their book tours, destroying my sexual functions and desirability. He is supposedly settling for me, proving how kind he is by not treating me like a mutant. In practice, I’m on drugs that make me want to bone 24 hours a day, and it’s not a bad gift to unwrap, ten years into a marriage. We seem to be doing okay.
He puts on a Smashing Pumpkins concert from 1995, some video that got uploaded onto YouTube, and it turns out I still know all the words. I try to seem like I’m sarcastic, mouthing along to the bits where Billy is being a real drama llama — and God is empty, just like me!!!
“This seems very you,” he says. “No offense. I’m like a Phish guy, ‘hey, we’re all jamming along in the universe,’ and you’re like a Billy Corgan. You’re…”
Billy Corgan is the worst. I know this. I also listened to his albums on a loop from puberty until age eighteen, and I can’t un-listen to them now.
“More intense,” he says.
Intoxicated!! With the madness!!! I’m in love with!!! My sadness!!!! Billy yelps, worst-ly. It goes on like that, talking about shows we saw in high school, shows we saw in college, trying to figure out whether I was actually at the NIN show at Barclays — he was, I wasn’t, we decide — until we talk about what I’m currently intoxicated with madness about, which is the clerk at Wal-Mart who called me “ma’am.”
“Do I seem like a ma’am to you?”
He raises himself above me on one elbow, studying my face. It’s a look he’s started getting lately, a careful, searching expression. It’s like he’s working out a Magic Eye poster, letting the hidden image emerge from behind the noise.
“I don’t know,” he says. “You have that vibe.”
“I said ma’am,” I said.“With the m at the end. Not man.”
“Oh.” He lies back down. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I seem like a ma’am to the Wal-Mart guy,” I say. “It makes me feel like I’m fooling myself. Like I’m just some idiot in a costume.”
“Look,” he says, “a woman is just a woman, right? And a man’s just a man. Even if you’re, like eighty percent woman and twenty percent something else, or seventy-thirty, or ninety-ten, that’s a lot more in-between than most people are. But you always seemed right in the middle to me.”
It’s shocking to me, still, that we can talk about this. I look for fear in the Magic Eye expression. Sometimes I think I see it. But it’s not an angry fear. He’s just being careful, considering something new. The words he’s using are not the terms you’d pick up on Twitter. He doesn’t use the phrases binary woman or binary man, and he has not once assured me that I am Valid. What he says carries weight precisely because he doesn’t know the jargon. I can hear him choosing the words, by himself, for the first time.
So the night goes on, and we talk about other things. Heat, mainly. It’s this three-hour crime movie, and he keeps trying to watch it and falling asleep. It’s good, but it has that HBO-miniseries pace, with about five different unnecessary subplots that are just there so you can say “ah, Natalie Portman’s in this.” It also has the weakness of most crime movies, which is that men get to do all the cool stuff, and women just hang out at the edges of the plot, teary and exasperated, and plead with their men to stop doing and/or solving crimes. This supposedly represents The Human Cost. The end confirms what I’ve always believed, which is that most straight men don’t want girlfriends so much as they want other straight men to hold hands with.
Heat is the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share the screen. The whole movie, all three hours of it, exists so we can see them square off. Neither of us has what it takes to finish Heat, tonight, so we settle for trading impressions, from their big scene, in which they speak wearily of the crimes they must do and/or solve, and The Human Cost (their girlfriends) that is incurred. I got a woman, De Niro says, and we repeat it back and forth, trying to make our voices gravellier and more Italian: I got a woman. I got a woman. Eyyyyy, I got a woman. Neither of us remarks on the joke of I got a woman, which is that — though I got a nurturing, domestic partner with waist-length hair, and he got a partner with a uterus we could make a kid in — neither of us got one.
I’m in my office, looking for ways to wrap this essay up, and my husband is fixing a lamp in the other room. The pull chain broke when I tried to turn it on. Our toddler is watching him. She got a time out once for breaking this same pull chain — not for breaking it, but for yanking on it after we’d told her several times not to touch — and she’s delighted to realize that I, a grown-up, have done something wrong.
“They BROKED it,” she keeps repeating. “They BROKED the LAMP.”
“They’ve got a really forceful way of doing things,” her father says. “They’re not gentle like us.”
Neither of them thinks I can hear. This is a mistake — everyone can hear everything in this house — but I refuse to correct them, preferring instead to let them live in my dystopian surveillance state indefinitely.
“Time out,” the toddler says, with carceral glee.
“No. They’re just strong,” my husband says. “That’s the thing everyone has to learn about them. They’re a very strong person.”
He hasn’t read this essay; he doesn’t remember the arm wrestling. He’s just saying it again, the way he apparently says it all the time, whether I am or am not listening. He says they when he thinks I can’t hear. The question has an answer, at least that part of it, at least for the moment. I am real in this house, and so I close the laptop and walk out into it, going out toward the warmth and the light I chose.