I am not the woman she married
• By Danna Bodenheimer •
I met my wife at on a sunken-in, second-hand couch at a party for 20 somethings, on a nearly gentrified Brooklyn block, nearly 18 years ago. The ease and chemistry were immediate. I told her a joke that I had told everyone I knew up until that point and she laughed at it, kind of differently. Maybe, more sweetly or more openly. Her laugh did something that made me feel super cool, which I am not and never have been. And also, her eyes. They were softer and steadier than most; uncannily calming and disarming at the same time. They demanded a certain truth from me that I had never had the guts to offer to anyone before her
I walked around the streets of Brooklyn for three weeks, after the couch, with the kind of butterflies that we are all desperate for. I was thinking about how to reach out in a way that would keep me seeming as cool as I felt that night. I finally emailed her, with the subject “Halloween”. My smooth move, ultimately, was to ask her if she was going to be carving any pumpkins that weekend.
We went on one date, then another, then another, before we started to have sleepovers on weekends, then most weekdays, until we were finally splitting rent and cat litter. I was the first woman that she was with, and as she became my life partner, she would become my last. And with this union came daily demands for deeper truths from each other, her always welcoming the most complex version of me that I could muster to share. This felt particularly true around sex, a space that she requested a sober nakedness that my drunk college days had long robbed.
I came out to myself on some unconscious level, as gay, when I was around five. But I kept on trying with boys and ultimately men, until I found myself making out with a boyish man or a man-ish boy when I was eighteen. At the moment that we were kissing, my body largely unresponsive to his, I heard the Indigo Girls in the background singing about how “the hardest to learn is the least complicated.” I had laugh to myself, forced into some sort of unequivocal moment of self-acceptance. I got up and walked away and promised myself that I could finally call it a day on my efforts towards performing heterosexuality.
When my wife and I got married, we both wore dresses. She went shopping with her mother and sister for her dress, a baby pink dress that suited her perfectly. My first dress was from JCrew, but a few weeks before the wedding I realized that I had eaten my way out of its size and needed to shop again. I landed on a strapless white gown with a blue satin sash. It was pretty, I guess.
I bristle at the wedding photos, though. Not because I didn’t feel authentic joy that day, but because I didn’t feel authentically like me. It is one of many days in which I was trying to be a kind of woman that I simply am not. In fact, I am not sure if I am a woman at all. The fact is that I really don’t know.
About two years ago, my mom became seriously ill with a hospital-acquired form of MRSA, which led to nine surgeries. She is fine now, mostly. But frankly, she is not the shopper that she once was. By shopper, I mean Bloomingdales black card holder who earned points like it was her salary. One time I lost my luggage returning from college and she had doubles of everything that I lost, “just in case.” Another time, on her birthday, the staff at Bloomingdales catered a little lunch for the two of us in their dressing rooms to show us the latest line of DKNY summer dresses. My mom bought two of each, one for me and one for her. She lived to dress me and to dress me well. And by well, of course, I mean like her.
Nearly an exact decade after my wedding, in lockstep with my mother’s illness, I stopped getting clothes. I don’t mean that I stopped buying clothes, I never really did that. That was her job. But I stopped getting them from her. And as the seasons passed, it became apparent that I needed some new things. My clothes went from colorful dresses to some assorted pants that I found at TJ Maxx and a few t-shirts. I realized that my wardrobe was turning all black and basically somewhat uniform. And whatever style I thought I had, was simply gone.
My wife had been encouraging me to go shopping for myself for months and all I could do was order more and more pairs of Vans sneakers. Somehow Vans became the sole/soul way that I could express my gender in a way that didn’t make me want to jump out of my skin.
This external representation started to be mirrored by internal shifts too. At dinner parties I would become silently enraged that the men excluded me from their sports talk. I follow every major sport and I know that I can keep up. I couldn’t find any rhythm with the women either. Even as my wife and I became parents to two boys, the intimacy that motherhood offers women’s friendships eluded me completely.
Sometimes, looking at my own hands and feet, I am confused about whether or not they are the extremities of a man or a woman. I like them, though.
One night, after dwelling in a lengthy and lonely interior dialogue, I turned to my wife while watching a Shark Tank rerun and confessed, “I don’t actually know what gender I am.” She said, “okay,” totally calmly. She then asked me if I wanted her to change the pronouns that she uses for me from “she/her to they/them." We both went to Seven Sisters colleges, late '90s grads, and are well versed in the language of gender expansion and non-conformity. I said that I feel too old to transition, but also, that transition doesn’t feel quite right. It isn’t exactly that I am not a woman, it is that I am not the woman that I had imagined.
My mom once told me that I should never get a haircut that is too short for a ponytail. This is like some cardinal rule in my dynamic with her and frankly, it isn’t a rule that I want to break. But as I have started to exercise more recently, I can’t say that I mind the masculinity of the arm muscles and leg calves that are forming. But, I don’t want to change my name, it feels like it was a gift to me and I’ll keep it.
But I do have to claim some evolving truths about myself and how they shape my marriage as it stands now. The chemistry is still there, but I wonder now if I claimed my lesbianism prematurely. I wonder now if I claimed a sexuality without having a solid gender identity to base it on. And the more fluid that my gender feels, the more the word lesbian doesn’t quite fit. This makes my wife and I, less pioneers in gay marriage and gay parenting. Rather we are simply two people deeply committed to each other; she a woman and me, well I am someone who is shape shifting.
Lately, I have to admit that I like hanging out with the guys; meaning men, at work, at the gym, over coffee, a lot more than I ever expected. I have come to realize that I actually want to be one of the guys. I feel most comfortable when my difference from them fades through seamless conversation, and commonalities, and laughter.
And when my wife and I were both still clearly women, I fought traditional gender roles in our marriage with a fair amount of feminist ferocity. As time goes on, I have to say that I don’t mind that she is the one who cooks. And while we are equal earners, I do keep extra tabs on our bank account, as I fancy myself as some sort of protector of our family. She does a steady job of remembering that our kids need their teeth brushed every night. I get to be more of the fun parent, more lax around responsibility but totally vigilant about getting tickets to opening night of any action flick.
Of course, these are all gender stereotypes, but our surrendering to them has felt liberating to both of us. We have found ways to, each perform our respective genders, as we have moved away from the simple notion of same-sexness.
It’s funny, because when I think about having met on that tattered couch in the most unbearably charming outer-borough, I remember what I was wearing perfectly. I felt free, on that night for some reason, to dress myself without my mom’s Manhattan echo. Though my mom was alive and well at the time, my quiet, cloistered voice could be heard in brief, tender bursts. And some days it was crisp enough for me to navigate the psychological war-zone of my closet, or closets.
I wore a black tank top and black pants that night. And, I felt awesome. I think my wife saw that, felt that, was drawn to that. She has been inviting that version of me back, ever since, and I am slowly inhabiting both me and my marriage in a delicate not knowing of gender truth and evolving love. The love, now, arises from a self that, though somewhat late in life, might sometimes be a bit more male than female, or maybe none of the above.