A June afternoon, back in Portland when I was twenty years old and a dude:
I looked onto my street for the ninth or fourteenth time and Lexa picked up her phone. “Hey, are you still coming?” I said.
“Yeah. I take forever, you know that.” She was two hours late. “Just checking,” I said.
“I’ll be there soon.” We hung up. Lexa and I had been dating for three weeks. The women’s clothes weren’t a surprise to her. We’d met on OkCupid and I’d put up a picture of myself in a skirt, wanting to at least establish I was not a manly man. I hadn’t, however, informed her of my increasingly pesky problem of wanting to be a girl all the goddamned time.
I opened the sliding door a crack. It was clear and warm out. Would be nice if it stayed this way for the parade tonight, I thought, though my hope belied overwhelming fatalism: Spring had been effectively cancelled that year. At the beginning of June the rain was still unflinchingly constant, which was unusual and depressing even by Portland standards. I stepped out to admire my dry and sunlit apartment complex, then went inside, pulled back the thin green blanket I was using for a curtain, and wrenched open the sliding door to let in the glowing heat.
Her station wagon arrived half an hour later and I got in. “Skirt, huh?” She said with the smallest of grins, nodding to the green flowing hippie thing that fluttered around my ankles. “Are you really surprised? You look awesome, by the way,” I said, alluding to the white T-shirt with black skulls on her short, skinny frame and her bi-colored hair. She had tied up the bright green top layer in a ponytail, and wore down the jet-black bottom layer, which was just long enough to brush the top of her shoulders.
“Thanks.” She zipped the car off my street and turned east, away from downtown and the route of the Starlight Parade.
“Where we going?” I asked.
“Natalie’s,” she said, “We’re gonna leave my car there and take the MAX so we don’t have to deal with traffic.” Parade-going was a significant break from the routine we’d quickly established in three weeks. Usually, she would pick me up after dark with a couple other friends (though some had cars, Lexa always drove) and go to a Shari’s Diner in Outer East Portland (though I usually had money, Lexa always paid) then go to parks and play ten fingers sitting on a slide while Lexa had a smoke. The order of events, which could vary, was usually decided by Lexa, and I liked it that way.
After the first week, she punctuated this routine by coming to my apartment afterward to make out and talk. “You’re really nice,” she’d say to me. “I kinda date assholes. It’s a change.” After the second week, she further punctuated the routine by coming in to have sex, then pillow talk, then leaving. “Even if we weren’t doing this,” she said, “I feel like you’d be such a friend. I feel really close to you.” I decided this meant she was uncontrollably into me. I began marking my days by grinning stupidly and listening to indie love songs.
Given the potential dealbreaker status of divulging the whole “want-to-be-a-girl” thing, it seemed wisest to keep it an indefinite secret. I reasoned that maybe if I was with a girl who liked feminine guys—as Lexa seemed to be—and maybe if that girl loved me, I’d feel fine as a guy and I could keep lasering off my beard and dyeing my hair pink forever and throw out my boxers and wear a dress to our inevitable wedding, and I’d never have to talk to her about that unseemly phase in college when I wanted to switch genders.
On the way to Natalie’s, Lexa mentioned that a friend of hers didn’t believe I was straight, given the skirts. “She was kinda angry about it,” she said nonchalantly, “She said, ’He’s probably gay! He’s lying! I think he’s fucking around with you!’”
All my boy life, friends and strangers and even lovers thought I was gay and just didn’t know it, but this reported virulence surprised me. Then I thought about her other friend, Blake, who I’d met after Lexa picked him up from work at a Plaid Pantry (Portland’s local 7-Eleven competitor). He got in and said “Are you gay? I just told my co-workers some faggot was waiting in the car with my friends.” (In addition to the pink hair, my black hoodie had pink hearts on it. Over a pink Planned Parenthood shirt.) I laughed it off to avoid considering that a girl I liked was friends with morons.
“So what’d you say to her?” I asked.
“I told her she wasn’t right.” Lexa shrugged. “She didn’t believe me, but that’s just how she is.”
She looked over and smiled at me. “Don’t worry about her.”
We drove up 82nd. “I saw this homeless woman,” she said after a silence, the usual edge in her voice slightly softer, “as I was coming to your place. She reminded me so much of how I used to be homeless, I stopped on the other side of the intersection and ran across the street to give her some money.” Her voice has become empty and sad, telling me this. “And then I found out I only had a twenty, so I just gave it to her.”
“That’s really nice of you,” I said. She made a noncommittal noise and took a corner, so I lifted my feet to avoid the car floor swirl of McDonald’s bags, Dean Koontz books, half-filled packs of Camels.
We met my roommate Gabriel downtown and snagged a patch of sidewalk on 10th right before the sun set behind a grey but warm sky and the parade started winding down the street. Now, as a general rule, I loathe parades more than I hate Rick Santorum. They’re long and hot and boring. But I love the Starlight. It’s a perfect temperature and lit by city lights and it’s one of the few places where big swaths of Portlanders mesh together. The marchers range from the roller derby league to firefighters to every high school marching band in the metro area to bagpipers, white lights outlining their instruments.
The crowd’s cheers were not evenly distributed among the marchers, so we began sympathetically cheering for anybody who wasn’t receiving applause. (“WOOOO STERLING SAVINGS BANK!”)
After an hour, Lexa turned her brown, gold-flecked eyes toward me, her elbows resting on her knees. “Can I keep you tonight?” she asked without preamble.
It was the kind of question that’s at once surprising yet entirely natural to hear. “Yes. Of course,” I said, unsuccessfully containing a stupid grin.
“YEAHHHHH GO NORTHWEST CIVIL WAR COUNCIL!” said Gabriel.
Back at her house, Lexa took out a vodka bottle for the only time that I saw her drink. I pulled and Lexa slugged. We watched reality TV until three in the morning and got into bed. “By the way,” she said hesitantly, "if I start shaking or freaking out during the night, I’m having a nightmare. So just like, slap me or something. Be like ‘Lexa! You’re freaking out! You’re dreaming!’ "
“Okay. Thanks.” She clicked off the light. I put my arm around her and she squeezed my hand. After a very awake half an hour, my consciousness level had started ticking down when her body started vibrating subtly, ferociously, almost more shivering than shaking.
“Lexa,” I whispered. “You’re dreaming.” She kept shaking. “Lexa! Wake up!” I said, a little louder. “You’re just dreaming!” Still shaking. I put my arm on her side and tried gently rocking her. “Lexa, it’s okay. You’re just dreaming.” The shaking stopped. She took my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she whispered.
I was grasping sleep when she started shaking again. Lexa, it’s okay, you’re dreaming. I felt her shake at least ten times through the night. Thank you. I kept my arm around her so I would wake up when it happened, and half-asleep I repeated Lexa, it’s okay, you’re dreaming and rocked her. I tried to do it softly, but sometimes she couldn’t wake up and I rocked her harder, too hard, I thought. I apologized a few times but all she said was Thank you.
Having a cigarette on her back porch the morning after, she took a look at my hair, the initial pink vibrancy of which had faded to a shade of moldy cotton candy. “You really need to re-dye that,” she said.
Later that week, we bleached my hair at my place and decided to have sex on the couch while it was processing. On the floor post-coitus, I pointed at a few white stains on the back of the couch where my frying hair had touched the fabric. “Hey,” she said, “Now you’ll always be able to go ’That’s from that one time I fucked Lexa on that couch,” except she didn’t sound out the word “fucked,” she clipped it from the back of her throat like a smooth TV censor, more like “ft.”
She started re-dying my hair pink, me sitting in my boxers and her standing nude. When she was naked, Lexa had a tendency to cover her breasts whenever she had a free arm, cradling them like a baby. It seemed especially odd to me now given that her crotch was in wildly close proximity to my face. I asked her why she covered her breasts. She said she thought her boobs were saggy. How sad, I thought, she feels so bad about them when all I feel is bad that I don’t have a body like hers.
Another week later, we were sucking down burgers at a brewpub. “How would you feel if this relationship became more platonic?” She asked.
“Uh,” I said, “Um.” She waited. “I guess that would make me unhappy, but I’d accept it.”
She took me back home and came inside. I sat sullenly for a few minutes until she kissed me and dragged me into the bedroom. Shortly after, we were back in the living room (clothed this time). Then she said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Sure,” I said cautiously. She was rarely one to qualify a question.
“What is it about wearing women’s clothes?”
I let out a soft laugh. I guess it’s not a big deal now. “Yeah… I want to be female. And I don’t know why. I just do. I wish I didn’t, it’s a problem. I don’t know if I’d ever actually do it. Probably not. But a big part of me wants to. And that’s why I dress in women’s clothes.”
“Being a woman,” she said calmly, “sucks more than anything else in the world.” She didn’t look me in the eyes so much as looked at them.
She left and I went off to get abominably drunk. Three days later, it was my twenty-first birthday. I woke up with hot lava coursing through my urethra. After waiting to pee in a cup for a couple hours at Portland State Health Services, I researched my developing symptoms and self-diagnosed a yeast infection. Five days later I got a call. “You’ve tested positive for Chlamydia,” the nurse said.
Lexa returned my voicemail hours later, the first time we’d spoken since the platonic sex.
“Hey,” she said, “You said you had something important you wanted to tell me?”
“Um, yeah. Look. I have Chlamydia.”
“Is it possible you got it from someone else?”
“I got tested for everything before you, so I really don’t think so.”
She said she’d get tested. She told me she was sorry, one of the few times I’d heard her say that to anybody in the five weeks I’d known her. “I promise I’ll give you a better birthday present the next time I see you,” she said before we hung up.
I saw her once after that, an uneventful afternoon with her friends at her new house. She flaked the next time we tried to hang out, and then I stopped returning her calls, messages, texts saying Merry Christmas and Happy New Years, invitations to her 22nd birthday party. Casey!! says the last thing she wrote to me. When you get back/have free time, we need to hang out. Its been decades since I last seen you. I wish I’d had the goodness to either go see her or say goodbye.
When I talk about Lexa—which isn’t often—it’s usually about the Starlight Parade, or the platonic sex, or the time we went to the river and talked to ducks while her friends played hacky sack, and I generally end these brief stories with “and then she gave me Chlamydia.” That part is funny to me now, years after the fact. (And the dozen doctors’ appointments and the boats of money it took to make it go away. Pro tip, kids: Chlamydia is not always a one-stop shop fix.)
But when I think about Lexa—which I do, a lot—I don’t think about those things, nor do I really miss her that terribly much, though part of me still cares, wonders, worries about her. Mostly I think about her sitting on the couch and looking at my eyes. Being a woman sucks more than anything else in the world. The variations I’ve heard on that phrase are generally more supportive and less hyperbolic (“Welcome to being a woman, it’s a tough road. Sure you wanna do this?”) but I always think about Lexa when I hear it, and I imagine her saying so why the fuck are you doing this again?
I’m pretty comfortable in the answer to that question by now. I was given a male body, I chose to get a different one, it’s been a bitch to do so and I wouldn’t be pushing on if I also wasn’t happier each day the more female I become. But whenever the prospect of danger and hardship from being female arises, Lexa is always there. More than anything else in the world. My defense tends to be well, not to me.
So far, she says back.
I know I don’t really have a conception of how much safety I’ve effectively booted away in one go by transitioning, presenting to the world as a gay transgendered female instead of a straight cisgendered male. (They all ended up being right, in a twisted way. I didn’t turn out straight after all.) I’ve got little doubt that it was the right decision despite this. Surely better than being a man and increasingly hating it with each day.
But if I could take the proverbial pill to wake up a cis male, mentally fine in his body, would I do it? There are people who love me very much who would, I think, happily give firm answers to that question, both on the yes and the no side. Many years ago I would’ve said yes, easily. Now I’m not sure. The answer to that question has to do with what it means to be a man, a woman, and all the possibilities in between. I, personally, haven’t figured that out yet. If I ever do, maybe part of the peace will be in being able to stop thinking about her.