“Look at you. You repulse me. It’s… it’s disgusting what you’ve become.”
Wendy said this as I was just changing to take a shower; I stood there, shocked. For a moment I couldn’t even move, couldn’t pull my bathrobe tight to hide myself. I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach… I’d say lower, but kicking me there no longer had the effect it did on every other man. Because I no longer looked like one.
“Really? That’s what you want to say to me, before you go?” Tears burned my eyes, and I could feel her eyes like cockroaches crawling up and down my body. I clenched the robe and drew it tight, but all that did was emphasize certain curves that had become more apparent and unconcealable: generous breasts, wide hips, a narrower waist, and not a hair on my chest, back or legs. And nothing between the legs. “How can you say that, to me? I didn’t do this. And you know that.”
“Yes,” she spat, raising her head and looking into my eyes with the most disdain I’ve ever seen cross her beautiful face. “You are revolting. At least, to me.”
Wendy grabbed her bag, turned and left our bedroom and headed off to work. She left me in tears that, even had she stayed, I could not have stopped streaming down my cheeks. I felt their sting during and long after a hot shower. It felt as if the tears had burned into my skin and left scars.
I had counted on Wendy’s love the same way a bird counts on its wings to fly. I considered our love an unbreakable bond: unconditional and unquestionable. To me. But not for her.
That morning, our lives changed: Wendy admitted for the very first time in the most stark, and yes, cruel terms, that love only carried her so far. I thought of it as a limit, a line she wouldn’t cross; to her, as she explained, it was knowing herself, and what she couldn’t do, and whom she couldn’t love: me, in female form.
This was a hole in my heart that burst open, a spot on my mind that went dim before it turned black, as the realization dawned: she didn’t love me as I loved her. She didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t love Dawn. And more than sadness, I was shocked to discover: this mattered to me. More than ever, I now thought of myself as Dawn, not Don.
And so did she.
I dressed, putting on my guy disguise, what I now felt was cross-dressing to fool people into thinking I am a man, and got the kids off to school. I stole a glance in the bathroom mirror before heading out, saw the man reflected there and knew, right down to my pores, there was more to be seen than what appeared. I was Dawn. And I could see it without the makeup, the clothes, the hair.
The change was no longer skin deep. It had leaked from my adrenal glands into the place where identity lives. I felt a new awareness, a change in the natural feeling one has, without questioning, of who you are.
Now, no one wakes up and says, “I feel like a woman,” or a man. You just are. You don’t doubt it or wonder about it. You might sometimes complain or wish or even make a joke, that “if only” one could swap, things would be better.
I’ve been on both sides, and let me tell you: there are advantages and disadvantages alike. But it was never my ambition to live how the other half lived. I never wished for anything other than what I was, growing up as a boy.
At most, I felt “different” from other boys, in that I liked art more than I liked gym. I enjoyed my friendships with girls as much with the boys, depending on what we played. My father who was determined to make an athlete out of me, once asked after a Little League baseball game what I was muttering as I stood in the outfield. “I dunno,” I lied. My dad must have been able to read lips. “Looked to me like you were praying. Praying the batter wouldn’t hit the ball to you.” I looked at him in disbelief as a knowing smile formed under his mustache.
I was told many times I was “sensitive.” I thought that meant it was okay to cry. But there was no doubt I was still a boy. Even though I played with dolls, they were Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and GI Joe. I didn’t fantasize of gowns and guys and fairytales in which I was the damsel. I didn’t consider the taunts and awful treatment I endured as a child as being true. If calling me a “fag” or “gay” meant someone thought I wanted to date and marry a boy, I knew in my heart: that wasn’t true. I wanted to get married, have five children, and to be loved by a woman, for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was all those Disney movies I saw as a child that inspired me to develop a romantic and chivalrous attitude, long before I ever felt the stirrings of being sexually attracted to a girl.
As I drove to work that morning, a familiar song played on the car radio. Bruce Springsteen, singing of the end of a marriage in “Brilliant Disguise,” ends his lament with words that had never resonated with me in quite the same way as they did that morning:
“God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he’s sure of.”
Was I still a man? Even partially? I looked like one, dressed like one. What did it mean now to be a man? To be Wendy’s man? What was it that made me feel female? “It just is,” seemed like a copout. And that feeling which overwhelmed her to the point of rejecting me, as someone she couldn’t possibly love, was that my fault?
Or perhaps: Dawn’s fault? I dialed Wendy’s cellphone, and asked the question I had never dared ask, despite all she had said; that morning’s outburst fueled my need to know.
“Are we done? I don’t want to be,” I said, as I held back a shudder and so many tears I felt my eyes would explode. I talked to the disembodied voice over my car speakers and begged her to tell me: “Are we still married?”
“You’re not the man I married,” she said. “You took his place. The man I married… is dead. You killed him.”
Lest there be any doubt, after a long pause of silence on my part, and without a tear or a trace of sadness on hers, Wendy dealt the killing blow: “You are not the one I want to spend the rest of my life with. And I won’t.”
She couldn’t have been more clear.
I couldn’t have been more devastated than if she told me she’d been having an affair. Except in that case, I’d be the injured party, accusing her of breaking our vows and violating my trust. What was this then? Wasn’t I still the injured party?
I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t change my body to become female. I had fought it and worked to find an answer and an antidote to this transformation. Now, fighting back tears unsuccessfully, not sure what point I could possibly score in this losing battle, I told her all this. “It’s not my fault.”
“No, it’s not. But you did stop fighting,” she said. Wendy was cool, calm, deliberate. She was a fantastic listener, and had a crisp, clear delivery that once served her well in broadcast news as well as now in the classroom. When she spoke, it was as if every word she chose was selected with due diligence and enunciated with care; not a thought out of place. And that is what made her outburst that morning hurt so much more than if she had said it out of spite. Wendy meant every word.
“You stopped fighting, and went with it. You killed Don in the process,” she stated, accusingly.
“So that makes me…” I paused. We both knew what was coming next and I didn’t dare say it.
“The other woman, yes. You took him from me. And you expect me to love you? You? You’re someone I hate. I don’t even know if I can be friends with you. I can’t, can’t talk anymore. I have to go.” And she clicked the “end call” button even before the word “go” was fully out of her mouth. I could tell, there were tears behind the anger, the fear and disappointment. She was as crushed as I was, and as the person who loved her more than I loved myself, I felt her pain even more strongly than my own. She didn’t ask for this. It wasn’t fair, and it was heartbreaking to think of how her dreams of a life together, her plan for bar mitzvahs, weddings and family get togethers was torn to shreds by this woman, the woman we felt I had become.
I may have been both the injured party and the murderer, but
Wendy was the innocent victim, who deserved better than this fate. And I could do nothing to ease her pain.
Or could I?
She often reminded me, as a point in an argument, that she had married a man, and that if I were not a man, those vows were no longer valid.
Memories of our wedding always brought a smile to my face, and it grew wider when I pictured our children at their weddings, when I thought of the many places
Wendy and I still wanted to see together, and as I imagined cradling the first grandchild in my hands as a grandfather, that feeling was overwhelming, beyond my own ability to hold it inside all to myself.
And the next day, when I shared these feelings with Wendy, she reminded me that even after transition, I’d still be the children’s parent. I could go anywhere in the world I wanted, without having to worry about what people thought of my appearance, because I’d finally be true to myself and my body. It made me think, that would be all anyone could ever ask for. She said she hoped I’d still want to be a part of the family as our grandchildren made their way in the world. I’d still have a seat at the table, just a different seat.
“But… that’s MY seat,” I said. “Wendy, you act as if I’m making some incredible sacrifice here. I’m not being generous. I’m not doing anything but being 100% selfish.”
She stared at me, her eyes questioning.
“I have made a choice, and it’s one that makes me happy. Happier than any other choice.”
Wendy’s eyes welled with tears as we said our goodbyes – across a room. I begged her to hug me goodbye, as I cut that space between us in half, then by three-quarters until I was right in front of her, my arms extended for a hug. She nearly fell into my arms as she whispered, “I love you enough to let you go.”
And so I went. But not to work.
I headed for a meeting not far from our home, a meeting of transsexuals, cross-dressers and their supporters. It was my first, and after some discussion I decided I needed to do this alone. I was welcomed, introduced myself around and spent most of the evening discussing how on earth this had become our life. And without breaking confidences, I talked about my decision and expressed my fears of where Wendy and I might wind up, after this night.
I felt comfortable in this environment, among these people. As someone who was new to this group, I thought most of the guys looked like guys and most of the women definitely passed. And I realized that this was their place not to care about that. But I couldn’t escape the notion that some of these kindhearted folks would probably not get far under close examination. Short-short skirts and high heels brought to mind “Some Like it Hot” and “Tootsie.” And then there was me.
I was dressed as me, as Dawn, behind Wendy’s back, after swearing I would never do it again. My wig was brushed, I wore a black top and the same jeans and sneakers and jacket I had worn when I left the house; I had not worn the compression shirt and I applied just enough lip gloss and mascara to make a difference. I felt more than comfortable. I belonged.
My heart skipped a beat as people called me by my chosen name, and treated me as the woman I tried to present. We laughed, we chatted, we shared our struggles. Before I knew it, two hours had passed and it was time to say good night. I hugged my new friends goodbye, I shook the hands of the transmen and I was polite to the cross-dressers, who frankly make me felt uncomfortable; dressing as a woman is a turn-on for them, not who they are. I was most definitely not a CD, which would have turned this into a hobby instead of a condition.
But as I walked out, I looked up to the stars in the brightly lit night sky and could sense that something had changed tonight for me. I had been accepted into a community. One I didn’t even realize had thought of me as a member. I cried a small bit, staring at Orion. And I cried more, as I realized his arrow pointed toward home.
My home. Where my wife waited to learn what my choice was. It was not the decision she thought I made, and certainly not the one I believed I would make. I realized in that moment my condition was not in charge of me, not on that night, nor ever.
As Wendy, my therapist and a psychiatrist had warned me: I could not have my cake and eat it, too. As a child, I could have pretty much anything I wanted. As a grownup, I was still learning that I was no longer a child.
I walked for a bit, bypassing my car and going over my thoughts. Was I panicking? Maybe I’m being rash. Why must I decide this now? And I heard the answer from the sarcastic voice in my head (which for some reason sounds like my Bronx-born mother in law): “What, you want more time? Of course, sure, put her through another month of misery! Hey, how about I schedule this for 2017? Too soon?” I needed to make up my mind, for real.
I thought about how for the rest of my life, the guy who accepted unequivocally that he was bald and refused to do anything to hide it would now, as a woman, wear a wig until her dying day. I thought how comfortable I felt and accepted and happy as Dawn, and how unhappy I had been for so long as Don. I thought of our kids, and what this would mean for them, and for Wendy.
Never again would she kiss me. No touch she’d ever make of my body would ever be as warm and intimate as it used to be. She’d face her own questions, people feeling sorry for her, people hating her, people wondering if it was her fault. Wendy blaming herself for not being able to love me and not being able to change me.
No decision was going to undo the very real changes to my body. I would be sentencing myself to forever wearing either a compression shirt or this wig. I’d be real as a woman in this world, but a freak to the world I grew up in… or, a phony to the world appearing as a man, and a woman in my mind; would Wendy know? Could she tell? Would it matter? Will I live a life of regret, or happiness?
Either way, I knew: there would be regret. Either choice offered happiness. But only one provided happiness that came from inside my heart. Where Wendy had made a place for herself, deep inside my heart. She had mostly moved out, but left just enough for me to know, she’d be back in my heart – if I made her feel welcome.
And as I turned down a street with no streetlamps another thought occurred to me: I’m a woman, walking alone on a dark street with about $50 in my purse. This certainly cannot be good.
I made my way back to my car, wiped off the makeup, removed the wig and put a men’s T-shirt over my top, then headed home. I walked in just after ten o’clock, where my wife had exhausted herself working, cooking and cleaning and was fast asleep. I went to the dining room table and removed my bracelet, put my Tory Burch eyeglasses back in their case and removed from my purse all my credit and debit and ID cards – especially the “Dawn” ones — and, lastly, spent 45 minutes trying to remove the back on my earring, never having done that before. Damn frustrating!
When Wendy awoke the next morning, I accompanied her downstairs. She looked at the display of my stuff and asked, in her pre-coffee fog: “What does all this mean? Are you decided? Are you Dawn now?”
“No, I’m tossing all of this, and the earring, if you can help me remove it. I want to go full-time… as your husband.”
We kissed, as we had not kissed in months, perhaps years, and I knew this sacrifice on my part would never be easy, even though I was making it for that most selfish of all reasons, to truly be happy. Perhaps that is why she stopped embracing me to tell me, how happy she was but how worried that I was not being true to myself, “You won’t be as happy as you could be,” Wendy said, crying.
“Oh yes, I will,” I told her, confidently, “so long as we are together, I’ll be happier on our most miserable days together than I would be on my absolutely happiest day alone, without you. I love you enough, Wendy, to let Dawn go.”
We made plans that morning for a romantic getaway, just the two of us: a place for us to talk privately, without the interruption of children, to honestly discuss our future and how we would make it work. To help her better understand “gender variance” and for me to better understand her sadness, anger and how my own mixed messages were the root cause of her confusion and despair.
She found a B&B in New England with a “his and her” spa package, something we’d never done. And Wendy felt it necessary to mention, just in case I missed it: “So, that would mean YOU are the “His” and I am the “Her.” Right?
Without a doubt. And yeah, it was something that was probably good to remind me, just in case.