THE VESSEL CRACKS
I’m thinking constantly about my gender. It’s on my mind all the time, constantly. I’ve tried to deal with this on my own and I can’t. I need to talk about it.
It was a mild June night the week before Father’s Day.
The weekend before, I went away with a group of women I’ve been friends with for some sixteen years and counting. On my way out the door, apropos of nothing, I turned to Tracey and with prophetically bad timing told him, “I want us to use the coming year to create the really good life I know we can have. I want to cherish our family and not lose sight of what matters most. Let’s not let the daily grind or worrying about money or careers get in our way. Let’s not let anything stop us from being happy.”
Tracey looked mildly surprised. He said little in the way of response. That didn’t trouble me. There wasn’t time for a conversation.
Overrun by motherhood and domestic details, I hadn’t been feeling like a person lately, much less a wife. My words must have sounded like a bolt out of the blue. But I meant them. When, during the course of the weekend away, one friend shared details about the messy state of her marriage, I felt more determined than ever to reclaim mine.
“I’m thinking constantly about my gender.”
What happened that night was that we made love, and immediately after, he told me. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “It’s on my mind all the time, constantly. I’ve tried to deal with this on my own and I can’t. I need to talk about it. I keep feeling like I’m the wrong gender, a lot, all the time, constantly. It’s like a continual pain. I want to talk with you about it and I want to talk with a therapist. Maybe find a support group.”
That was the gist of it, more or less the words. I don’t remember mine, the very first ones with which I responded. I know that I stayed relatively calm. Surprisingly calm, for me. I heard the urgency in his voice—the conversation took place in semidarkness, in bed—and I tried to be open and supportive, as I would often fail to be in the many conversations that would follow.
I didn’t say, Whoa. Can we please hold up a minute here? But in retrospect I think I began to do automatically what I would do frantically and intentionally in the months and years to come: I tried to slow it down. I asked questions, conveyed compassion. I didn’t pretend that I wasn’t terribly upset, but I also didn’t say, Can we please not talk about this now? Or ever? I didn’t say, Talking about this won’t work for me. I can’t be married to someone who wants to talk about this. I spoke to my husband as if he had revealed himself to be in an extreme and precarious state of mind, which he had. As if he had revealed a bomb he might detonate.
He wanted to talk. To me. To a therapist. To a support group.
“I just want to talk,” he assured me. “I’m not going to do anything.” By which he meant, it went without saying, anything to his appearance. To his life. Our lives.
So we lay in bed and talked. For hours, like two people inside a marriage, two people who loved each other, facing a mutual problem.
I was stunned. Our marriage, our family, and everything that up until that moment had constituted my story was over. That much I understood at once.
* * *
The years leading up to that night in June had been full and hectic, challenging, sometimes traumatic. Tracey and I had met and fallen in love during our freshman year in college. After graduation we left the East Coast for Europe, followed by California, where we had no particular reason to be and where we married. We worked at various jobs, pursued creative endeavors, traveled. We lived in a way that was in many respects very pleasant and that felt to me, even at the time and certainly in retrospect, disconnected, somewhat pointless. During those years, my twenties, I was dogged by the sense that real, adult life eluded me. I wanted to feel connected to a community, to find greater fulfillment in my work. I danced hesitant steps around a spiritual identity that I was afraid to embrace. I passionately longed to have children. I came to believe that all of these things would happen if we moved back east. Oddly, I was right.
Tracey decided to go to graduate school, and we moved to New England. Once there, I began to build community connections and found a spiritual home. My work as a writer deepened and expanded. A lifelong city girl, I discovered a sense of belonging in small-town and rural life that amazes me to this day. We had a first child, then a second, then a third. We moved around a bit, spending a couple of semesters and an academic year in various places, and many semesters together only part-time, while Tracey went to school or worked in one state and the children and I lived in another. I worked continually as a freelance writer with weekly deadlines I met even in weeks that included childbirth. I worked on several longer projects and published my first book.
The two years just prior to that June night were particularly packed. We moved from Oregon back to New England late in my third pregnancy and spent a grueling summer teaching every day, he in the morning and I in the afternoon, passing two children back and forth between us. Near the end of summer, I gave birth to a baby who spent a week in neonatal intensive care. A week after we brought her home, Tracey began commuting to a new job that took him away half of each week, leaving me with the sole care of a medically fragile newborn and her two attention-starved siblings. When my first book was published in the spring, I took a four-day lecture trip, leaving my children for the first time in their lives for more than a single night. My older children suffered my absence extravagantly, complaining to Tracey that they couldn’t even concentrate at school knowing I was away. My baby became listless and apparently depressed. While she took in just enough fluids to keep herself alive, I sat on the floor of a friend’s guest bedroom continually pumping and tossing out milk to relieve my absurdly aching breasts—and decided not to promote the book if it meant leaving her again overnight.
A few months later, at the end of summer, we bought our first house. Again, a week after moving in, surrounded by unpacked boxes and with the interior painting of the house not finished (it still isn’t), Tracey resumed commuting to his job. Largely on my own, I juggled all the elements of life in a rural home through a long and particularly difficult winter. By June—the June when this story begins—I felt ready for a change, though not the one I didn’t know was coming. Tracey had been awarded a fellowship and granted a year’s leave of absence from his job. I was coming to realize that the two years we’d lived through, in particular my baby’s birth and the ongoing health concerns surrounding her, had kept me in a kind of low-level post-traumatic stress. The year with him at home, I believed, was my chance to heal. To get a grip on the career that had languished during two frantic years of mothering. To repair the disjunctions that had—inevitably, I thought—jangled our marriage.
* * *
I understood at once. Okay. In one sense, that’s true. Everything was about to change. It had changed the moment his words were spoken. But did I really understand this? I think I did, in a bottom-dropping-out, plunging-elevator kind of way. But I tried to believe that our life together was going to continue, because, quite simply, I couldn’t believe that it would not. Tracey had a psychological problem, a big one. We would find a way out of it. We had to. What other choice was there?
What is unquestionably true is that from that evening on, there would never be another easy moment between us.
The next afternoon we took a walk on our winding country road, Lilly, not yet two, in the stroller, Adam and Bibi on bicycles. (Adam, Bibi, and Lilly are not my children’s names.) It was a bright June leafy-green day, there were the shouts of happy children, all made distant by shock. I felt numb.
But Tracey was in turmoil. He was having some kind of breakdown; I had to be the stable one. When the older kids were out of earshot, I nervously asked him, “How are you feeling? Do you want to talk some more?”
“I’m not feeling so good.” He shrugged. He repeated the salient points of the previous night’s conversation. He felt wrong in his body. Increasingly so. That is, the sense of wrongness was on the rise. Also the time he spent feeling wrong, thinking about feeling wrong. It had gone from being an occasional thought to a frequent one to a constant state of mind. An obsession. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” he told me. “I think about it all the time at work. Sometimes I feel like I’m not going to be able to function.”
Tracey mentioned again that he wanted to find a therapist, possibly a group of people struggling with similar feelings.
“Could you give me a little time to get used to all this before you contact therapists and groups?” I asked him. It was selfish, since I could see that he needed professional help. Irrational, since there was zero chance that I was going to “get used to” the feelings Tracey described. It was my way of trying to hang on to a sense of us. I wanted to catch my breath. If he needed to “deal with these feelings,” didn’t that mean we needed to somehow deal with them together? Before new players were introduced into our intimate lives?
“I can wait a while,” Tracey said. “But not long.”
* * *
As a surprise, I had made plans for our family to spend the coming weekend in Maine. I had made those plans just a week or two earlier, spontaneously, when it occurred to me that the perfect Father’s Day gift would be a weekend away. We loved spending time together, and a celebration at the beach would give us all pleasure. Our family was something to celebrate. My husband was a wonderful father, and that was something to celebrate.
We went away for Father’s Day weekend as planned. Well, sort of as planned. We went to the beach, soaked in a hot tub, sipped white wine at a patio table beside the swimming pool while the kids swam. We ate at family-friendly restaurants. We were nice to each other. But I doubt that either of us relaxed or enjoyed ourselves for an instant. The photographs we took hint at the story. There are the shots of an exuberant trio of children laughing and clowning in brilliantly colored swimsuits. Then there’s a shot of the children and me on a rocky path above the ocean in which I stare at the camera as solemnly as if the cliff behind us is the one we are about to tumble over. There’s one of Tracey staring down, away, palpably miserable. His head hangs as if his neck can’t bear the weight.
We went home. Family life went on, as it will with three children. If it was abruptly drained of color and joy, it was still our family, our life. Tracey was depressed but calm. Still Tracey. Still the man I loved. He told me that he was glad that he could confide in me, grateful that we could talk about his feelings. What Tracey didn’t say was that I wasn’t the first person he was confiding in. I discovered that accidentally, the week after Father’s Day, Thursday. Yet another walk with the children, this time on a quiet tree-lined street in town that ended on a local college’s track. The big kids raced ahead to get to the track. Tracey’s cell phone buzzed. The caller was a friend and colleague who lived abroad and who I had never met. For several years they had carried on an e-mail correspondence, but recently they had been talking on the phone. Daily, or nearly so. Suddenly I understood why.
“You’ve told her!” I exclaimed when Tracey ended the brief call.
Tracey declined to answer. Which, of course, said it all.
If Tracey was talking to this woman, he must be talking to others. He was. He had been confiding in women friends, some he didn’t even know all that well, for months. This wasn’t something he just needed to share with me, a therapist, a support group. Something he wasn’t going to do anything about. For the first time since his announcement (but not the last!), I was distraught. Betrayed. In his response—angry, cold, dismissive—I caught my first glimpse of the new Tracey. “Of course I’m talking to my friends!” he snapped. “I have to talk to someone and I can’t talk to you!”
It would be hard to overemphasize the impact of this moment on all that was to come. The revelation that he had been talking to other women. That he had misrepresented the situation to me. Above all, his utter lack of concern for my distress. I had been working very hard to think about what Tracey needed, to be compassionate. To believe that our family was stronger than Tracey’s problem and might survive it. But Tracey and his problem had already stepped outside the realm of our marriage. His family was no longer his first priority. I just hadn’t known it.
Tracey, who sees his life as an epic tale of liberation akin to the Passover story, might possibly liken the period that began then to the days of intensified suffering leading up to the Jewish people’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt, the darkness before the dawn. For me it was just darkness. By which I mean both that it was horrible and that I couldn’t see. I didn’t know what was coming next. I couldn’t visualize it even when, technically, I had a pretty good idea what was to happen. The result was that I was paralyzed. Paralyzed with fear.
I still sometimes dream of this period and its immediate aftermath now, years later. In one dream I arrive at an apartment that is supposed to be our home in great reluctance to see him, only to find that he’s gone. I see empty hangers and a note that reads, “After so-and-so-many years I have finally decided to leave.” The figure named is meant to represent the duration of our marriage, but it strikes me as wrong. He is ending our post-marriage, not our marriage, which he’s already ended. His message goes on to offer some “fun pages” scattered throughout the apartment, photocopies of little puzzles, pointless bits of practical advice, the sort of stuff used to fill out the columns of small-town newspapers. I don’t ask myself why, when he was obviously planning to leave, he would do so while I was out, without the decency of a warning or good-bye. Instead I feel a version of bereft, not quite the real thing, which would require a loss that at this point has already occurred long in the past. It is more a profound experience of aloneness. Also, thanks to his cheerful, offensively useless pages, I feel the stirrings of anger. Walking through rooms of empty hangers and photocopies, my bereft dream-self doesn’t know it yet, but when all else fails that anger will see me through.
* * *
What I’d like to do now is move forward from that June, telling my story, my new story, the one that began then. It’s a painful story, difficult to tell for many reasons, yet preferable to revisiting everything that came before it—that is, my marriage. It is excruciating to revisit my marriage. It requires me to call up the face, the voice, the smile, of a person from whom I thought I would never part but who purposely took himself—along with his face, his voice, his smile—out of existence. Out of my existence. It requires creating a cognitive link between all that was and the present, a task I seem unable to accomplish. But I have to say something about my marriage, don’t I? Screwing myself up to it, I feel certain that people don’t write about themselves because it gives them pleasure. Anyone who does it must have other reasons, as do I.
What did she know and when did she know it? That’s the question that everyone would eventually ask: Did Tracey’s revelation come as a total surprise, or did I realize that he had “issues” about his gender? It’s a question that the thumbnail sketch of my marriage I’ve just provided doesn’t begin to answer.
During the months when he was blowing our world apart, Tracey often accused me of responsibility for his crisis. Precisely what I was responsible for varied from day to day. Some days it was:
“It’s your own fault! You knew how I felt!”
Other times it was:
“It’s your own fault! You didn’t know how I felt! I’ve suffered from gender dysphoria for years and you were oblivious!”
From some of his sympathizers I would eventually hear, “He says you knew he was a transsexual.” Left unspoken: Why complain now?
From people who sympathized with me I would hear, “Of course you never knew he felt this way.”
To accusers and sympathizers alike, I had one answer: I knew and I didn’t. To the extent that I knew, I didn’t understand. In our twenty-plus years together, there had been times when I was aware that something was slightly, or on occasion more than slightly, off-kilter about Tracey, that as good and close as I believed our relationship to be, there was a distance that could never be bridged, a connection that couldn’t be made. I operated, without examining my motives, as if this thing weren’t there. As if I knew that to face it head-on would destroy our marriage.
* * *
“I hate myself.”
We sat side by side on the wide stairs in the bright, open stairwell of the modern dorm that housed us both, the boys’ floor where he lived above, the girls’ floor where I lived below, building-high windows in front and back of us. We were eighteen, freshmen. It was May. We’d been lovers since February. Tracey was getting ready to go home for the summer, and the thought of returning to his family provoked an outpouring of anguished self-loathing.
“I hate myself. I’m never good enough. Nothing I ever do is right.” He sat hunched over, clutching at himself and sobbing. He’d always felt scrutinized and belittled by his parents, inadequate no matter how hard he tried to please. They didn’t love him. That was his fault. He was unlovable. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate myself. Even when I was small I would think about killing myself. Sometimes I would wish I was a girl.”
I’d never seen Tracey upset before, and I’d never heard anyone express this kind of self-loathing. The Tracey I knew was sharp, funny, and irreverent, tenacious in a political argument but easygoing in other ways. The depth of pain he revealed now was shocking. At eighteen I might have been scared off by it. I might have slunk away from our fledgling relationship. Instead I consciously chose to jump in. Leaning over, I put my arms around him and held him. I told him his parents were dead wrong. I told him he was exactly right just the way he was. I told him he was wonderful. Point for point I outargued every negative thing Tracey said about himself. I threw every rope I had down his awful black well and urged him to climb up out of it. And he did.
* * *
Tracey had been brought up with the explicit obligation to model himself on his father. That he would therefore have trouble embracing manhood didn’t strike me as odd: I’d met his father. In those months of getting to know each other, Tracey had already told me a lot about himself and his family. A spring break visit with his family had told me more. No one was very happy in Tracey’s home, but everyone was intensely dedicated to maintaining a veneer of sunny suburban satisfaction. Appearing normal was at a premium. In this family, that included an adherence to gender roles that struck me, among educated Democrats in the 1980s, as slightly surprising. “Don’t tell them you can type,” Tracey’s father advised him about job hunting. “If they find out, they’re going to look at you funny.” Funny meant gay. Typing meant gay. It went without saying that Tracey would never get a job if people thought he was gay.
Tracey’s father was an uncharismatic man, his face affectless behind the thick lenses of his black plastic-rimmed glasses. He had a mediocre career he didn’t enjoy and spent nights and weekends engaged in solitary hobbies in his basement workroom. He had no friends of his own, and when he spoke at social occasions organized by his wife, it was with a slightly sneering condescension, as if no one present were really worthy of hearing what he might say. If he didn’t want Tracey to be gay, he also wasn’t pleased by his son’s heterosexual high school exploits. Disapproving of the string of girlfriends with whom he (accurately) guessed Tracey was sexually active, his father stopped speaking to him—for several years. When Tracey graduated from college and we married, his father decided to cut him off completely, never stating his reasons. He went to his grave more than two decades later still refusing all contact with his son. Though she kept in touch with us, Tracey’s mother complied with her husband’s wishes by never inviting Tracey, me, or our children to her home.
Because he was the man of the house, Tracey’s father was its uncontested ruler. Because he wasn’t much of a man, it was everyone else’s job to be very careful not to upstage him, something it was exceedingly easy to do. For Tracey, the implications were intricate and complex. As a talented student and the only boy in a middle-class Jewish family, he was supposed to succeed; as his father’s son, he was not. Wasting no time on his escape, Tracey graduated from high school and left home at the age of sixteen—carrying all the family baggage with him. The tensions surfaced in many ways. One small example, insignificant in itself but emblematic of the rest: Tracey’s father couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag and would get lost for hours even during drives (he always had to be behind the wheel) the family took regularly. When we traveled together, I noticed that Tracey would smoothly negotiate our route while repeating the mantra that he himself had a terrible sense of direction, just like Dad. Finally I pointed out the discrepancy. “You can stop saying you have no sense of direction,” I told him. “Your father’s limitations didn’t have to be yours.” Boy howdy, did that turn out to be true.
Who would want to be a man if being just like Tracey’s dad was what it meant? Yet Tracey didn’t come across as feminine. His signals were heterosexual and male. In college he was deeply into martial arts, he was belligerently passionate about politics, and he spoke often of his plans to move to Israel after graduation and enter the Israeli army. He initiated our intimate relationship and responded to me in the ways I expected within it. We would often meet in the city. I can still see his look of stark sexual appreciation when he spotted me walking toward him on a platform in Grand Central Station or where he waited under the arch in Washington Square Park, his smug pride climbing down from the cab of a big rig whose driver had given him a ride to meet me and told him he thought I was sexy.
Given the normal college-boy indicators, and the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about transsexuality, the only explanation I could imagine for his wish to be a girl was psychological—a radical rejection of self if ever there was one, particularly in the context of the suicidal impulses Tracey confessed to. Neither suicide nor girlhood was presented or struck me as a viable career plan. But that was where I came in. What I could do for Tracey’s sense of direction, I could do for the rest of him. I saw his strengths; I would mirror them back to him, as his parents had failed to do. I loved him, and being loved would free him from his past. In short, I wasn’t the first woman to think she could heal a damaged man, and I won’t be the last.
Tracey was damaged. Blaming his feelings about manhood on his upbringing was an easy fit. I now know that happy families also produce transsexuals. I didn’t know it then. I understand a little more about gender identity and transsexuality than I did in those days. But Tracey is the man I was married to for over two decades. My response to his transformation is not my response to other transsexuals. It’s embedded in my personal, entirely subjective experience, an experience knotty with different strands: religious, moral, emotional, sexual, cultural. I was brought up with deep-seated Mediterranean convictions about male and female: not opposite ends on a spectrum of lovely rainbow colors bleeding into one another, but entirely separate, if not to say opposing, categories. These convictions have proven remarkably tenacious, and in the Valley of the Politically Correct, where I live, not to mention the transuniverse, this marks me as hopelessly retrograde. But while some transpeople see themselves as challenging gender norms, what I’ve witnessed up close and personal—obsession with a certain body type, pride in “feminine” emotionalism and shrinking muscles, a taste for bodice-hugging clothes—would seem to reinforce them. Tracey never wanted to topple the gender wall. He just wanted to hurl himself over it to the other side.
During our marriage, Tracey would laugh at my overcharged mind-body connection. When I’m worried or upset about something, these feelings express themselves physically. Being in good physical shape is closely linked to feeling emotionally upbeat; being sick depresses me. In the past this seemed like a liability, a way in which my body was at the mercy of my moods and vice versa. In recent years I’ve become far more conscious of the sense of inhabiting my own skin, of the physical and emotional being in tune, as sources of strength and pleasure. It also makes me rather squeamish (squeamish doesn’t seem like a strong enough term, but it will have to do) about surgical and chemical alterations of the body. I’m okay with pierced ears but not much else. The ingestion of mind- and body-changing medication troubles me. The thought of flesh being sliced into is deeply disturbing. These are gut reactions, but I’d be lying if I claimed that they are devoid of an ethical element. My sense of the integrity of the body and the respect with which it is to be treated, deep-seated personal values that are echoed in Jewish thought, has a tough time reconciling with major surgical alterations performed on healthy breasts and genitals. But I’ve also come to realize that, being present in my body, I never grasped the extent of Tracey’s absence from his. I didn’t get it. The man I loved was indivisible from the face and body I loved. How could his experience of himself be otherwise?
When Tracey sat in that stairwell and for the first time spoke of wishing that he’d been born a girl, it was a given—that is, in my mind it was a given—that at his lowest moments he had wished to be something that he knew he was not. That in his fantasies the love and acceptance he craved had become tangled up with something that he knew he could never be. He couldn’t be a person who had been born and grown up female. He couldn’t be a girl because he was not one. It was inconceivable to me that he could choose the life of a transsexual. So my initial response was horrified sympathy that he felt so ill at ease with himself.
When Tracey told me a few years later, early in our marriage, that he was struggling with these feelings again, my response was just horror. I still thought Tracey had a psychological problem, and I still thought he was investing gender with a power to resolve his childhood anguish that it didn’t have. But this time it hit me that he wasn’t just expressing regrets for a life that he accepted would never be his. I realized that he had at least contemplated cross-dressing. This understanding was so powerfully, viscerally disturbing that it nauseated me and made me dizzy. For me there was no wiggle room: I couldn’t engage in an intimate relationship with a man who dressed in women’s clothes. Not even occasionally. Not even in secret. I couldn’t have sexual or romantic feelings toward a man who actually wanted to be—or, beyond that, felt that in some obscure way he was—a woman. This was not simply a reflection of the limits of heterosexuality. I had never desired a woman, but I could imagine such desire. It seemed to me that Tracey’s gender dis-ease represented something else again, a violent self-destruction that I couldn’t enter into. It would be catastrophic even to think of Tracey rejecting his masculinity. I told him if he wanted to go deeper into this rejection of self, he had to go it alone. I couldn’t go with him. He had to choose.
Given the strength of my reaction, it may sound strange and inexplicable that I thought I could continue in a relationship with a man who had disclosed these feelings—in hindsight, it does to me. I offer a parable, a metaphor: A twenty-something couple, very much in love, reach an impasse. The young man says, I love you and our relationship is the center of my life. However, I don’t think it is in my nature to be monogamous. Let’s have other lovers. The woman, deeply unhappy, refuses. She tells him that what he describes would be intolerable for her. If you want to be with me, these are the only terms I can live with, she tells him. That he has even raised the issue casts a pall. But she imagines that if he really wants to be with her, he will relinquish an impulse that is destructive not only of their relationship, but of himself. If he gives up this fantasy, it must be something he doesn’t want very badly, doesn’t need. Not something he is.
Tracey chose me. He put aside these feelings. That’s what I believed. I didn’t think he had suppressed the feelings; I thought that he had let them go.
I loved Tracey. I knew Tracey. I trusted him absolutely. He was the man whose feet I liked to stand on so that we could dance around the room as one crazy, careening body. The person I was closer to than I had ever been to anyone. My husband. It isn’t possible to be completely wrong about everything you think you know.
* * *
Over the years that followed, there were moments when Tracey seemed distant and preoccupied. There were no more expressions of self-loathing or suicidal impulses; he’d just withdraw. Then he’d return. We’d go on with our lives. No doubt if I had been older, more experienced with men, sure of myself and what I wanted, I would have wondered more about what was going on inside Tracey. As it was, we’d met as teenagers. We were busy growing up together, and I accepted that we each had our demons to wrestle. And for the most part, we were in harmony. We worked consciously and conscientiously to build a strong relationship, to develop and hone our communication. Everywhere we lived or traveled we took long walks, frequented cafés and bookstores, spent hours at home reading aloud, cooking, and drinking wine. Tracey was an avid football fan, and he taught me the game so that I could enjoy it with him, albeit without his zeal. He tried, and largely failed, to get me to share his love of science fiction. I introduced him to photography and European cinema; he lived with my preference for what he called relationship films, and I lived with his for films involving aliens and violent death. Judaism grew increasingly important over the years, as a set of ideas to explore, argue over, agree upon, and ultimately express as life practice. We supported each other’s work and career aspirations. Against my own economic interests, my desire to start a family, I pushed Tracey to get off a steady, relatively lucrative, but dull path through the business world and go to graduate school. As a writer, Tracey was the reader I wrote to, for, against; usually the first, always the most important, responder to anything I’d written. Not that I necessarily took his editorial advice. We often fought bitterly over his suggestions and laughed together about my ultimate disregard of them. Continually, we talked. Conversation was the art we practiced as a duet, analyzing the books we read, the plays and films we saw, the jazz we heard, other people, each other and ourselves, religion, politics, and philosophy. Over dinners with friends we could talk and talk for hours, both of us loving to laugh and to make people laugh with us. We talked about almost everything. We had every conversation, except the ones we didn’t have. Or rather the three we didn’t have: we never spoke of the discomfort Tracey had once expressed about his gender—but those feelings had been resolved long ago, hadn’t they? We didn’t talk about having children. And we didn’t talk about sex.
It’s not quite accurate that we didn’t talk about having children: Tracey didn’t talk. I talked, but rarely, aware of his distaste for the subject. I brought it up from time to time in our early twenties and more frequently as thirty loomed. That Tracey refused to entertain the idea became a festering source of pain. Much later, he would say that his reluctance to be a father was his reluctance to be a man. He would imply that he’d been envious of my female body and what it could do—if he couldn’t have a baby, damned if he was going to let me have one. But Tracey’s position in our standoff on having a family looked and felt like that of any young guy who just doesn’t want children. Like someone who lacked my lifelong passion for babies and was loath to take on the responsibility, the financial burden, the curtailment of freedom, that come with them—all of which Tracey spoke of when, as time went on, I began to press the issue and that he later complained of when the children arrived.
The spring of Tracey’s thaw toward parenting was an especially good period. I had quit a lousy job to write full-time and was publishing a number of my stories. We’d moved across the bay from San Francisco to Oakland to a funky artists’ loft complex. Our new perch had drawbacks, but we could ignore them and thoroughly enjoy our stay because we knew it wouldn’t be lengthy: Tracey had been accepted to graduate school, and we’d decided to move back East in the fall. In a conversation about the upcoming year, Tracey said out of the blue, “I’ve been thinking that this might be a good time to have a baby.” I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak. With this one shy sentence a wall between us dissolved and in its wake came a rush of energy and intimacy, a heady sense of embarking on a new adventure. We were happy and full of anticipation. Yeah—or so I thought.
When he broke up our family, Tracey said, “I only agreed to have a baby because I knew you would leave me if I didn’t.”
He said something else that haunts me. “When we decided that spring to have a baby, I warned you that I’d read that gender identity issues sometimes flared up in middle age, and that I was worried this could happen to me.”
I remember the long walks we took those months around our industrial neighborhood, around nearby Lake Merritt, up and down the Berkeley Hills. The long talks in which we fantasized our family into existence, happily terrified by the prospect of parenthood. I remember it all vividly. What I don’t remember is Tracey saying anything about gender issues. Since this would have come in the midst of roughly two decades in which the subject was never mentioned between us, you would think if the conversation had taken place, it would be a standout. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The response he attributed to me—“We can’t live by our fears”—sounds like something I might have said. Most striking about Tracey’s report of this conversation is that his concern was for the future. Just like me, he didn’t see himself as having a gender problem. He worried that he might have one later. The way someone in remission fears the recurrence of cancer.
The third source of silence: sex. Tracey was shy about talking about sex, though not about doing it. For over two decades we had an active and, I believed at the time, satisfying sex life. We didn’t sleep in separate beds. We didn’t forget to touch, didn’t find sexless weeks slipping by unnoticed. Whatever the disconnect between Tracey and his body, it didn’t result in performance glitches, not one in over twenty years. Sex was physically pleasurable. It was an expression of affection, emotional closeness (continually I feel the need to add: or so I thought); something to wake up to when we didn’t have to jump out of bed for work or babies, to spend long rainy afternoons and late nights after the children were in bed, enjoying. Something to be surprised by in the middle of a shower. But we never said much about it.
One day, after we’d been married for some time but before we had children, I showed Tracey a short story I’d written about an encounter between a man and woman.
“Sexy,” he commented stiffly.
Just the single word, sexy. Not a compliment. Not exactly a criticism. An observation that clearly made him uncomfortable, as if I had gotten myself up in an alluring outfit for a party I was attending without him.
I never felt, not even then and certainly not from my very differently informed perspective now, that Tracey and I had a profound sexual connection. Around the same time as the short-story incident, I found myself in a conversation about sex with several other young women. One of the women said, “Sex is a communication.” I remember this now, so many years later, as an “Ah” moment. An instance in our long relationship when, forever skirting the abyss at the center of our marriage, I briefly, vertiginously, looked down. I had never heard sex described as a communication before. I had no idea whether other people, most people, experienced it that way. I knew instantly that I didn’t. This was a point in time when I was happy with Tracey. But sex between us was not a communication. We were good to each other and we had a fine time, but our bodies weren’t talking, at least not to each other.
* * *
“Oh, look,” I told Tracey. “This is perfect for you.” I was reading the events calendar of the local Jewish newspaper. “A Jewish men’s group. Why don’t you check it out?”
“I have no interest in that,” Tracey snapped. “What would I have in common with them?”
I laughed. He was kidding, right? What did he have in common with his own demographic? Tracey wasn’t kidding. He was angry, as insulted as if I’d suggested he join a group for the mentally impaired. “I don’t want you making suggestions like that,” he said testily.
“Um—okay. I won’t.”
His response surprised me, but behind his back I was still laughing. How typically male, I thought. Women join groups to connect with other women. Men join groups, when they join them at all, because they want to engage in a particular activity. I thought Tracey needed more friends. I just wanted to encourage him. This conversation took place only weeks before Tracey’s June announcement. It never occurred to me that what upset him was that I was suggesting he was a man.
When our marriage began to unravel we were still socializing as a couple, but we didn’t have real friends in common. Our relationship seemed to require a level of exclusivity and isolation in order to flourish, an ambience I don’t think either of us actually felt at home in and that I didn’t like to examine too closely while I was living in it. In retrospect, I see that before I got involved with Tracey I had a number of close friends, male and female, gay and straight. After, I kept female friends at bay and avoided friendships with men altogether. I’m not claiming direct cause and effect, only that this was the way it happened. I did know that male friends wouldn’t fit in our marriage. Without anything said between us, I understood that other men in my life were a potential threat. To our relationship. To Tracey. Whenever I briefly, ever so slightly, became friendly with a man, the immediate effect was a chill in our marriage. If I mentioned a man’s name at home, Tracey would respond with sarcasm and hostility. If he met a man I liked, it was a given that he would dislike him. We never spoke of this directly. Jealousy was outside the bounds of Tracey’s self-image. After our marriage ended, one of Tracey’s friends told me that he’d always understood that Tracey didn’t want him to know me.
A friend once described the huge distance in her marriage by saying that she had to go outside of it, to a best friend, to “process” the things that happened in her life because she could not do this with her husband. This seemed to me to be a terrible admission. I thought that was what marriage was, the place where two people could take whatever either of them went through outside it. Tracey was my process person, no question. That doesn’t mean I didn’t miss having close friends, even as my reserve made it impossible for anyone to be truly close to me. When I became a mother, I felt keenly the lack of other women to share the experience with and I sought out friends in a way that I hadn’t done before in the whole of my married life. I worried that the mutual experience of motherhood couldn’t be a strong enough point of connection with another woman to lead to friendship. But if it wasn’t enough on its own, it turned out to be a great starting point. Despite the limits I put on intimacy in my friendships, the attachments I formed with other women during the early motherhood years ended by being the basis for the real connections that would later come into being while my marriage crumbled. But forming these attachments with other mothers brought a different problem to the fore. Tracey was interested in my relationships with other women. Too interested. Whenever I began a friendship, he would edge suffocatingly close. He wanted in.
One day when our first child was an infant, Tracey and I ran into my new friend Alice out in town. Alice looked at Tracey oddly and giggled as though they shared a secret. When I asked Tracey about it later, he smiled. “I called Alice to ask if she had a babysitter she could recommend,” he admitted. “I wanted to take you out for your birthday. I asked her not to tell you about it so that it could be a surprise.”
My birthday had already passed. “Did she recommend someone?”
“No, she didn’t know anyone.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
There were several things wrong with this picture. First, I was a ferociously protective first-time mother. Tracey, who knew me so well, couldn’t have imagined for an instant that I would leave my baby with a sitter I hadn’t thoroughly vetted myself. Second: “How did you get her number?”
“I looked her up in the phone book.”
I took a deep breath. “I know you meant well,” I said slowly. “But I don’t feel comfortable with you calling my friends or having conversations with them that you ask them to keep from me. About anything.”
Tracey just smiled a self-satisfied smile. “I was doing something nice for you.” The next time he found some pretext—it always felt like a pretext—of doing something nice, he again got his hands on a friend’s phone number, again called for advice or information, and again asked for secrecy. When I found out, I tried to explain that it made me unhappy. He didn’t get it. He never got it. It felt creepy every time. Now I think I gave up on intimacy with other women rather than share it with my husband. This simple insight astonishes me. More astonishing: How could I have lived that way? Without close friendships? When I think of my connections to men and women now, I can only feel deeply grateful that I live that way no longer.
At the time, though some friends didn’t know what to make of him, most thought Tracey sweet, gentle, the sensitive type—qualities that, when I encounter them in my friends’ husbands, now cause me, entirely unfairly, to cringe on my friends’ behalf. As if I could see the panties, the tweezers, the boat-sized high heels headed their way. This is a passing PTSD-style reaction. I don’t really want my friends to spend their lives with brutish cavemen. When they eventually discovered what was going on in our marriage, what Tracey was up to with me and with our children, my friends, of course, took a different view of him. After we separated, Tracey sometimes insisted that my friends were his friends. As far as he was concerned, he and my friends had been having same-sex peer relationships. He was surprised to discover that he was the only one who saw it this way.
It goes without saying that I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of why I was drawn to someone with whom I was in many ways ill matched. After we separated, a friend of mine posed the companion query to Tracey: “Why did you stay for so long with a woman who could never accept the person you call your real self?”
“I lived through her,” Tracey said without hesitation. Obviously I was what Tracey wanted to be. I had a woman’s body, a woman’s experience of the world, women friends, all things he could glom on to. But any woman would have done for that. Tracey elaborated on his viewpoint. “She was always in touch with her emotions and desires. I never knew what I wanted. She always knew exactly what she wanted, and wanted it passionately. I felt numb, and she was so alive.”
* * *
Sometimes people who didn’t know our marriage try to tease out whether and to what extent the relationship was an entity they could have recognized as normal. Did we divide our domestic lives, as many couples still do, into his and her responsibilities? Yes. Tracey was much better at earning a living and coping with car maintenance. He could shovel more snow. I was the better cook and home decorator. I was the one responsible for family pictures, by which I mean I was the family photographer, I assembled the photograph albums, and I was the one who kept the big picture in mind. All the big pictures. I organized our social lives, balanced the checkbook, made all the lists, grocery, to do, and otherwise. I knew when holidays were coming and what had to be done to be ready for them. When we were traveling for a few days or a year, I packed for both, then for all of us. Of course, these things became more pronounced once we had children and there were so many more details to keep track of, so many more pictures to hold in mind, so much more money to be earned. Though I worked always, Tracey bore the brunt of supporting us. To date, he has never filled out a school application, scheduled a routine pediatric appointment, or helped a partygoing child select a birthday gift for a friend. Like many husbands and fathers, during our marriage he was able to handle discrete tasks, under direction. He could get tiny arms and legs into the places intended for these appendages in tiny garments, provided said garments were selected and laid out for him ahead of time. He could not do hair, but a child can get through a day with wildly disarrayed hair on occasion if necessary. Competitive with a vengeance, he could engage children in an exciting game of soccer, which he played to win even when his opponents were four-year-olds. On the other hand, he was, and remains, incapable of feeding a child within the bounds of any known civilization’s notions of healthful eating. He could get a child to school or home afterward somewhere in the range of the accepted time parameters, but expecting them to arrive at either destination with all the necessary books, lunches, outerwear, and comfort objects was expecting way too much. (“Make up your mind,” a preschool teacher advised me. “Do you want him to remember the kid or the teddy bear?”) In short, Tracey could not do the things generally, if idiotically, considered hallmarks of feminine dexterity. He still can’t.
* * *
There were moments over the years when I was aware that on a deep level things were not what they could be between a man and a woman, not what I longed for in a marriage. I didn’t lie to myself about these feelings. I just consciously packed them away. If I wasn’t going to break up my marriage—and I wasn’t—what else could I do? When I imaginatively reenter those moments now, it’s with a keen sense that if Tracey hadn’t done what he did, I would have remained in that marriage, packing my longings away forever. Living a kind of half-life.
One of those occasions, particularly poignant, occurred during a two-year course of Jewish study I engaged in at our synagogue. The rabbi who taught the class gave a spirited and dynamic explanation of the traditional view of the Jewish wedding as a cosmic collision of male and female, heaven and earth, a generative Big Bang (sorry, I can’t resist) out of which life begins. Hearing her describe this joining of masculine and feminine forces, I knew at once that she was describing my own beliefs. I felt the rightness, the sexiness, of this view of marriage. At the same time, I knew that this was something I had never experienced. Something I would never experience. I didn’t say to myself that my problem was that I wasn’t really married to a man. I just felt that something was lacking. I remembered being more in love in our early years, enjoying our togetherness when there was more of it. I hoped those feelings would return when children and work didn’t so relentlessly crowd out the time and energy to cultivate them. But at no point did I kid myself that ours was the ecstatic union of opposites the rabbi described. I knew another sort of marriage. Compromise. You give up some things to get others. You build a relationship, a family, a life, on an all-grown-up acceptance that things can be good, not perfect. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks now as though I gave up the wrong things. I gave up too much. At the time, I understood only that I had never experienced the kind of encounter the rabbi described, and that made me sad. I didn’t know that failing to encounter a man in this way, I would never encounter, never really become, myself.
Searching now for these “Ah” moments, I can find them. They were there. But I am wary of my impulse to find them. To say that they formed the only true texture of our lives, that they appeared in the gaps where two segments of utterly false surface didn’t quite come together. That the story I thought we were living was entirely other than what I believed it was while it was happening. To say those things would be easier—cleaner, certainly—than to come up with a plausible story that includes these two opposing truths: Before and After. I want to do as Tracey’s done and just call it all a lie. Asked by a friend how, if he felt the way he now says he always did, he could have loved me for all those years, Tracey dismisses the subject with a single word. “Testosterone.”
I can play either/or, too. I can say Tracey was a wonderful husband, lover, father, friend. He was funny, smart, sensitive, supportive and caring, spiritual, ethical, creative. A man with whom I could share my deepest self, could envision laughing with and loving through the ages. Or I can say Tracey was a fabrication. A fake. A creep who—to quote a transgender information Web site I turned to early on in anguish—didn’t want to be with me, he wanted to be me. When I sat beside him and our children in synagogue on Saturday mornings and read the lines in Psalm 116, What shall I give back to God / For all God’s bounties are upon me! and thought they had been written expressly for me, I can conclude that I must have been seriously, sadly delusional.
Which is it?
What did I know and when did I know it? It’s because I’m asking that question, because I’m digging through the past with the explicit intention of answering it, that I discover random bits and fit them together into a story about a marriage of uneasy compromise. A story whose known ending—failure—creates links between seemingly disparate elements. In my narrative during that marriage the bits would have lain where they fell. Remained disconnected. Wouldn’t have figured at all.
I was certain that Tracey had made peace with himself. So certain that, about a year before the June night he told me our marriage was over, I did something I had never done before in all the time we’d known each other: I brought up the subject of gender. His gender. It was a sticky July afternoon. Tracey picked me up from the campus of a local elite college where I was teaching a journalism course for advanced high school students. Always on the lookout for things to spark their writing, I had brought my class to a gay-lesbian-transgender panel discussion. As it happened, the gay and lesbian speakers had failed to materialize, and the transgendered visitor had to carry the whole show. Afterward I’d gone up to him, an obviously male retiree in a flouncy dress, wig, and sloppy makeup who tugged at my affection and pity, to thank him for coming and to tell him that I thought he was courageous. Getting into the car with Tracey afterward, I described the encounter. Then I told him, “You could have chosen that life. You could have put me through the hell that man says he’s putting his wife through right now. Thank you for not doing that.” Eleven months before Tracey would tell me our life together was at an end, I said: “Thank you for choosing me.”
* * *
Even before the obvious signs of maleness, Tracey’s laughter disappeared from our lives. His funny stories, his verbal play, in fact, his words on any but a single subject. His emotional presence. His touch. That June I began to lose my husband. My lover, my best friend, the father of my children, the person who knew me best. The person I trusted and thought I knew above all others. I lost any sense of control over my life. That summer, to paraphrase Hamlet, time went out of joint. For me, the known world spun rapidly, crazily, into a chaos from which, six years later, it can still sometimes seem I haven’t entirely emerged. While for Tracey, everything moved with excruciating slowness. His statement that he wasn’t going to do anything didn’t hold for long. His appearance began to blur, the man I knew not so much feminized as smudged away into an awkward and sickly stranger.
For two years we continued to live together, full-time the first year during Tracey’s fellowship and leave of absence from his job, then part-time the second when he returned to that job in another state. Outwardly we were still a couple, but our long marriage and our family painfully unraveled. We entered into a battle of wills. We demanded compromises of each other that, in the end, neither of us could make.
Overnight, it seemed, Tracey stopped smiling. He no longer took pleasure in anything. He said he was ill. He looked ill. He complained of fatigue, stomach ailments, and dizziness. He lost his appetite and began to lose weight. I saw his suffering and at first felt empathetic and concerned. I tried to understand him. Visiting an exhibition of Aztec art with my son, I was struck by a sculpture of a young male warrior staring out of a feathered suit of armor, a body-sized bird costume in which the boy was intended to go into battle. The slight figure stared out of the headdress of feathers, eyes wide with anticipation and possibly fear. This must be what it feels like to be Tracey, I thought. To inhabit a form that feels like a costume. A second skin in which he cannot be himself. In which he must do battle.
But sincere attempts to sympathize with Tracey alternated with bewilderment and rage over the close, secret relationships he’d formed with women confidantes, over his insistence that his urgent need to express his femininity outweighed every other concern.
“I have a medical condition,” he insisted. “A fatal condition that’s going to kill me unless I get treatment.”
“Who decides the treatment?” I asked.
It was hard to understand the sudden, dramatic change in a state of being he now claimed was lifelong. Not to wonder about the timing of this sudden attack with the start of a year off from work. (Coincidence, he claimed.) It was hard not to see him in a friend’s description of her husband as a depressive who needed to suck it up, find the right medication, and do what he needed to do to support his family and be a father to his children. When Tracey and I both eventually spoke with gender specialists, they agreed that his physical symptoms were extremely unusual to them. These professionals who spent their lives supporting gender transformations had never heard statements like Tracey’s, that wearing anything other than a dress would cause him to faint—or die.
The first of those gender specialists entered our lives on a hot July afternoon that summer. While we waited for Tracey to return from his initial session with the therapist he’d found online, the children and I played in the backyard, giddy with mounting anxiety. Well, no. The children were giddy; I waited with mounting anxiety. As the big kids hurled themselves over and over off the low stone wall behind the house and the little one launched herself into my arms, maybe they didn’t even feel the tension in the air—at least, not yet. It was still early days for that.
It seemed important that Tracey be received into the embrace of a loving family when he arrived home. When he finally pulled into the driveway, later than I’d expected, we called to him to join us in back. He walked around the house, grim, not exactly unfriendly but also not as though it made him happy to see us. “Daddy, Daddy, watch us!” the kids cried out just as they always did, oblivious or determined to be.
I waved him over and he sat beside me. “How was it?” I whispered.
“It was okay.” He sat hunched over, staring at his hands. He didn’t look pleased to be home, as he had in the past. He looked uncomfortable. He didn’t join in the children’s antics, as he would once have; he didn’t show any pleasure in watching them. He still looked like himself, though. Blue jeans, white T-shirt. Blue tapestried ritual skullcap. Mustache and beard.
“But—did you like her? Was she nice? Are you going to go back?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said wearily. “She seems great.”
“But then—” Then why aren’t you cheerier? More hopeful, at least? I didn’t put those questions into words, but Tracey caught the gist of them. He shrugged. “Well, what does she think?” I insisted. As if he had presented a medical practitioner with a set of symptoms to diagnose.
“I told her I don’t want to destroy my family,” he said slowly.
I gulped. “What did she say?”
“She says she has no agenda about where I go with this.”
* * *
I have no clear memory of the remains of that summer. But if Tracey didn’t want to destroy his family, by fall he came to accept it as collateral damage. A fog of grief and fear—cold, wet, palpable—had begun to fill our house and thicken. With our very different levels of awareness and comprehension of what was happening to us, my children and I were lost in it.
With the support of his new therapist and his women friends, Tracey began to transform himself. For two years I endured the day-to-day drama, by turns infuriating, gut-wrenching, and hilarious, of living with a man attempting to turn himself into a woman. Lacy underwear and high heels that weren’t mine began to appear, and the man I knew vanished. I slogged my way through the stages of mourning: denial, anger, deal making, and the agony that comes with accepting the unimaginable. I tried to convince Tracey that he was not a woman. When that failed I tried to convince him that, for our children’s sake, he could believe he was a woman and still choose to live as a man. I reminded him of a Jewish folktale about a prince who believes that he’s a chicken. Like a chicken, the prince insists on going around naked, scratching in the dust under tables, and pecking grain off the floor. After the series of unsuccessful cure attempts typical of such tales, a wise man convinces the prince that he can be a chicken who wears clothes and sits at a table and eats with a knife and fork.
“Why,” I asked Tracey, “can’t you be a chicken who behaves like a man?”
For his part, Tracey’s perspective was that if I loved him, I would accept that a transsexual has to do what a transsexual has to do—and sacrifice my own identity accordingly. When he wasn’t telling me that the person I thought I had known had never existed, he’d say that it was a sign of my limitations that I couldn’t grasp the idea of same person, different package.
“After all,” he said blithely, “the changes I’m making are pretty superficial.”
“If they’re so superficial, why do you have to turn all our lives upside down for them?”
Tracey was outraged. “The symbols of gender are the most elemental and meaningful things possible!”
Not so superficial after all. And that was the sticking point. He didn’t seem the same. He didn’t act the same, didn’t sound the same. His values seemed to change along with his personality.
“What if you knew that doing this would destroy one or all of the children?” I asked him.
Ice cold, the man I had once thought a wonderful father replied, “I would do it anyway.”
When I eventually got around to reading other women’s accounts—that is, the accounts of women who stayed with their transsexual husbands—they said about their partners what my husband said about himself: He’s still the same person inside. Where inside? I wanted to shout.
This argument reached an absurd zenith on the day he declared: “You only loved me for my gender!”
“Yes,” I said sarcastically. “Since nobody else had that gender, I had no choice but to love you.”
We fought. I pleaded. Our interplay, previously harmonious and full of humor, was strained and discordant, hostile. Our once rich and wide-ranging twenty-some-year conversation about (almost!) everything shrank to a single topic. I told him how much I loved him in one breath and attacked him in the next. He told me he was the same person he had always been in one breath and that I had never known him in the next. We talked and talked and talked. In mounting desperation, I came up with one metaphor after another to describe his dilemma and the alternative ways I proposed he think about it, as if I had found myself in a game of Extreme Writers Workshop and the stakes were my marriage and family. As if I needed only to find the right words, the right image, to convince him to go on living as a man. He countered with his own metaphors, trying to convince me that he could not. I made deals, or tried to, not so much with him as with the condition overtaking him. Just as I have heard one tries to make deals with death.
Copyright © 2012 by Christine Benvenuto