I was 14 the first time I had sex. His name was Kenny. He was an older boy I'd met that night at Skate Road 13, a roller-skating rink near my house.
"You have long-ass legs," he'd said, shaking back his oily, shoulder-length hair as we sat hip to hip during the hokeypokey.
I didn't like Kenny. But he had a car and keys to an apartment, and I was a mixed-up girl whose birth father had flown the coop—"He fooled us all, Ali," my grandmother would wail—and whose new daddy seemed constantly at war with her mother, daily accusations hurled like bottles, shattering everything that was once beautiful in their lives.
"Men are full of shit," my mom would spit, scrubbing the sink with bleach until her knuckles cracked red.
Watching her sob in the laundry room, I ached for something that felt like power. So I slept with Kenny, a boy I didn't like. Then months later, his friend Billy, whom I liked even less. It was easy.
Easy to say yes when I meant no. Easy to confuse pleasing with power. Easy to bury myself alive in the passing desire of another. Easy to pretend I had no wants of my own, beyond making that boy happy for that moment. It was easy, and like most easy things with intense but quickly dissipating payoffs, it became a habit.
Nobody blinked. Because it was normal.
Raised in the South, I was taught that women existed to provide a service: to reflect the success of the male. So I did what many women do: I became a walking mirror, choosing men who would see only what I showed them. Men pleased to be looked after. Men who would not try to look after me. For 28 years I stayed hidden, running the show, getting it done, avoiding intimacy like rotten meat.
Then I met my Dev Patel, my "not normal" man, and the mirror disintegrated into glorious, glittering dust, the old, hardened me along with it. He broke me the way I was broken the first time a child reached to hold my hand to cross the street. I was unlocked, redefined, filled up in an instant with feelings hard to bury as elephants.
"Tell me everything; you know I love a tranny!"
I am drinking margaritas with my old friend Liz. She wants to know what is under the napkin. More, she wants to know where I see this thing going.
"How is your mother handling it?" she asks, eyes wide.
Surprisingly well, I say. She then asks if there has been any blowback.
"We're not exactly getting sent congratulatory bouquets," I say. Then I tell her that someone in my family had described my new love as "it" and said if he came anywhere near him, he'd "kick its ass."
"Jesus," Liz says, licking salt off her glass.
I shrug, tell her how I've never been happier, how I don't recognize myself, how everything seems possible, blessed, easy.
"You have a boy with a girl brain," she says, dreamily. "It is the best of both worlds."
"Not exactly," I think, remembering how my man manically flips the channel on the remote control, cruising for any show with a pit bull or a medical trauma or a cop. Or how his eyes glaze over when I ask if I look fat. Or how often he thinks about sex.
"His brain isn't exactly feminine," I try to explain. "He's pretty much a dude through and through. He's even color-blind."
"No kidding?" Liz says.
"And he won't let me drive."
"Sounds like a guy to me."
The next morning at home, I watch my man brush his teeth. He vigorously works his toothbrush for at least five minutes, till the foam covers his mouth clown-style. He leans into the sink, one arm crooked on the edge. He is short, 5'5" to my 5'10", and slight. His curly brown hair spikes up in the front like Astro Boy's. He spits enthusiastically, then turns and grins, the white of the toothpaste still coating him nose to chin.
"Do I have something on my face?" he asks, feigning confusion.
He kisses me, leaving a slick of foam on my cheek, then shuffles off to get dressed, walking even in those wee A.M. hours like a man rich with confidence.
My eyes track him. I think, "God, he is handsome." I think, "How could anyone look at him and not see who he is meant to be?" I think, "If I were any more in love, I'd be unbearable company."
Next: "I love him because of who he is, the same reason he loves me"