About all of it.
This is what real love does, of course. Transforms. Enlightens. Boils off the fat. Reveals the sinew underneath. I had read about such things in poems. Sung along with the heartbreak songs. But I had not felt that sort of love myself. The kind that shakes you up inside like a Boggle board, jangling all your letters into wholly new words, some you've never seen before but recognize instantly nonetheless.
It started with a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that in the end wasn't a misunderstanding at all.
I first saw my love online. He had written something about music in a column I often read. The column comes with a photo of the author. And it was the photo, more than the words, that captivated me. It was nothing extraordinary. Just a head shot. Him, looking sleepy-eyed and stoned (which, as it turns out, he was) in a brown shirt and narrow tie. He was sitting down, slumped and easy, and it was obvious even from the pixilated screen of my decade-old computer that this man was unlike any other I'd known. I found myself staring, leaning in like he was an insect on the sidewalk. There was something about him, intelligence, warmth, confidence, but also, something else. Something I had no name for.
That night I went to see Slumdog Millionaire with my mother. I told her about the photo. "He looks like Dev Patel," I said. He did look like Dev Patel, but I was so consumed, everything I saw looked like him. The popcorn guy. The theater curtains. The shadows on my windshield as I drove home from the movie. Late that night I gazed at the photo again. And I decided I would send this man an e-mail. From all angles, this seemed crazy and pathetic to me. What kind of fool writes an unsolicited note to a complete stranger? It wasn't as if I had an agenda. I didn't. I expected nothing. But not writing seemed somehow impossible. I was drawn, impelled.
I wrote two lines—introduced myself, said I'd seen the article. And pressed send.
He wrote back the next day. This in itself was a small miracle. As a successful novelist, my intended receives a lot of uninvited e-mail. He even has an assistant to weed through the letters, answering most with a cursory "Thanks for your interest and support" note. But this e-mail he read himself. And though it said nothing particularly charming or saucy or brilliant, he felt he needed to respond.
And so we began. The old-fashioned way, with letters chaste enough to show your grandmother. We did not google stalk. Nor did we write about our similar careers or engage in eager romantic self-promotion. Instead, we stayed in the present, wrote about who we were, who we wanted to be. It was the opposite of flirtation. We talked about our mistakes. Our families. Our needs. Neither one of us was selling anything. It was unlike any courtship, any conversation I had ever had. The intimacy was so immediate, the compatibility so palpable, we didn't notice until it was too late that we'd grown hooked on transparency, on the dizzying, terrifying high of finally allowing ourselves to be seen.
It was amid all this that my love disclosed something that should have mattered. Something the whole of my history would have insisted mattered, and yet, did not. Not really. He told me, in his typically open, candid style, that he had not been born a man.
"This will never work," says my friend Ralph the day after I find out. We are having lunch. Ralph is a chef, bald and brawny, the kind of guy who can get away with wearing a red leather coat. He shakes his head, sloppily scooping Vietnamese noodles into his mouth. Ralph has known me since I was 12 years old. He has seen the men I have cycled through over the years, the brutish painter, the boxing steelworker, countless football jocks and rednecks and martial artists, culminating with a civilized eight-year marriage to a onetime Australian rugby player that produced two daughters and one of the more amicable divorces on record.
"You aren't a lesbian," he says in between slurps of his noodles.
Next: When you date a man who was not born male, people have questions