parallax background



Robert(a) Marshall

Art by Robert(a) Marshall
Untitled Video Stills: choreography by George Russell / Videography by Judy Lieff.

Do you consider yourself trans? I asked R, as we sat down together on the train on our way to the annual conference/retreat. My question followed rather naturally from our earlier discussion in the taxi.

A difficult question, replied R. I don’t have a short answer.

We have time, I replied.

The train filled with passengers. R began: One thing to start with. Many seem to think that having once dressed up in one’s mother’s clothes is the sine qua non of being M to F trans. Or even, as the clinicians say, “gender variant.” In either case, I have no memory of going into my mother’s closet and putting on her clothes. I did have an early and strong conviction that I was meant to be, and would be, a girl. But the girl I wanted to be wasn’t in particular interested in clothes. I wanted to be a girl because I wanted to do the things girls and women did.

It was dark in the tunnel leading out of the city. Girls and women do lots of things, I said, with perhaps a bit too much emphasis.

I mean the girls and women in my family, R replied, with some impatience. In my family, R continued, women talked. Talked about feelings. Men—and this mostly meant my father, but my grandfather, too—did not. There were a number of women in my family, R said, who were artists. I was particularly close to my grandmother. She was a poet so I wrote poetry. I suppose I have always associated writing with, well, something “feminine.” Of course, R continued, being a girl also meant such things as playing with dolls. Above all, it meant not being rough. I did not want to play the way boys played. I did not want to be my father. In truth, R said, I could not bear his body. It caused me revulsion.

Revulsion is a strong word, I said, as the conductor punched our tickets.

R continued: One of my earliest memories is sitting at the breakfast table. A piece of toast pops out of the toaster. My father hands it to me. I refuse to eat it because he’s touched it. Why? Why this sense that he had polluted the toast? Why this early cruelty on my part? My father, R said, was a man wont to give instructions. Perhaps he had criticized the way I ate toast. Perhaps he was already finding fault with some girlish mannerism. I don’t know, R said, and I can’t order my memories with any accuracy, but it seems as if this revulsion preceded almost everything. As if it were primal.

I nodded, thinking about my own very different relationship to my father. Who’d been so encouraging.

Like all children, R continued, I was an essentialist. I understood behavior not as performance, not as contingent, nor as constructed, but as inherent. Animal. Essence preceded existence. So did language. I remember thinking cats were female because the word female was so close to feline.


The train began to pick up speed. Still, R said, I did not put on my mother’s clothes. So I don’t know if I pass clinical muster. I did love dress up, though. I liked to wear tights. There was a green felt hat, with a tassel, and I loved that too. My sisters were older, and they contributed to my look. I looked, when I dressed up—and it’s a photo I’m picturing in my mind—like a fey, defiant, androgynous prince.

I nodded with what I hoped would be perceived as empathy.

At a day camp, R said—perhaps the summer after first grade—we were to make dolls to show what we wanted to be when we grew up. Styrofoam was involved. I made a nurse. Then I had a sudden flash of knowing I’d done something terribly wrong. I remember trying to explain it away, R said. I became very good at complex explanations.

That’s true, I thought. R always made it too complex. The train’s bass whistle blew.

R continued: I’ve read the books by the clinicians. I’ve tried to determine whether I would meet their “core criteria” for being a trans child. Perhaps I would have been a tough call. Among the core criteria for being a trans child that I did meet: I didn’t want to stand to pee. I still don’t. My aversion to going into public men’s rooms, R said, is intense. I have always wondered, R said, if others feel the same way. It’s strange to me that they might not.

I wouldn’t know, I thought. My back was starting to hurt. Feeling warm, I unbuttoned my sweater. I thought of reviewing the schedule for the conference/retreat. We soon emerged from the tunnel.

R: During the controversy about the North Carolina bathroom bill, there was so much nonsense on Facebook. From my friends, R said. My left liberal friends. Who were all in favor of trans people being able to use the restroom of their choice. As, of course, was I. But it was clear from their posts, R said, that they meant only trans people who had fully transitioned. M to Fs who appeared convincingly female. How will they feel, the Facebook friends, R said, if I go into the women’s room? I don’t think it will go over well.

I’d surely read some of the same posts. But had not read them the same way. Past the windows: power lines, cattails.

R: On a family trip to Nogales, I wanted my parents to buy me a doll. The doll had long, black, braided hair. On her blouse, the words: “Viva Mexico.” It must have been Mom, R said, who bought it for me. What did Dad think? I still think the main thing about being a boy, for me, was that you were supposed to fight. And I didn’t want to fight. Well, at least not physically.

Yes, I thought. You fight in other ways. Men always do, I thought, and then wondered about the fairness of this. I thought of my father. Office buildings shimmered in the distance.

In second grade, R continued, I got in the girls’ line to go to lunch. When questioned, I declared that I planned to become a girl. Mrs. Rosenquist told the principal. The principal called my parents. I was sent to see Dr. Kent Durfee. Dr. Durfee, R continued, was a graduate of the Menninger Institute. His office was in a white stucco building across the street from the Scottsdale Civic Center. At first, I was taken to a room with dolls. I was supposed to play. I was observed. There were white, cut-out paper figures. After a few session in the room with the dolls, I began, R said, to go to Durfee’s real office at the end of the hallway. Durfee diagnosed me as having “minimal brain damage.” MBD. His evidence, R said, was the misalignment of my ears. Phrenology, Durfee explained to my parents and me, had long been dismissed as junk science. But recent research had shown there was, indeed, something to it. To treat my MBD, Dr. Durfee prescribed Mellaril, an antipsychotic medication. How precisely MBD and my plan to be a girl supposedly interacted I can no longer remember. Perhaps it was never discussed. What I do remember is going into my parents’ bathroom in the evenings, where my father would take down the pills from the medicine cabinet, so full of vials and mystery. I would put the tablet on my tongue as if it were the host.

That’s crazy, I said. I mean about the MBD. I had the irksome sense that I was almost no more than a narrative device in R’s story. The discomfort in my back had now increased. L-3, L-4.

Hmmm, uttered R. We passed an empty station. R looked out the window and continued: I wrote about my adventures with Dr. Durfee in a novel. In the novel, I called him Dr. Kurtz. I’m not sure any of my readers—and there were hundreds—got my Heart of Darkness joke. None mentioned it to me. I cut, from my novel, the minimal brain damage and the Mellaril. My agent told me that this section wasn’t believable. The real so often isn’t. I suppose that by believable he meant it didn’t fit. The reason it didn’t fit was that my parents were portrayed, in the novel, accurately enough, as liberal, enlightened people. But the not-fitting, the not-making-sense, seems now to me to be the point, R continued. For my parents, however progressive, went along with the consensus of the time. Within that consensus, R said, it made perfect sense that a boy who wanted to be a girl suffered from brain damage, minimal though it might have been. The consensus my parents were party to was as universal as the consensus regarding gender that we have today. According to which the world is divided into two kinds of people, cis and trans. I’m not talking about the most sophisticated, theoretical understandings, R said. The essays in the book by Stryker and Whittle. I’m talking about the way it’s commonly, in my world, understood.

Or how you think it’s understood, I thought but didn’t say. I felt tired. I took off my sweater. Shadows from some wooden poles crisscrossed us in the train.


R went on: Of course now I understand that wanting to be a girl was likely understood, by my parents and Durfee, as a warning sign of future homosexuality. Trans was not, as they now say, a thing. Within a year of the start of my Durfee visits, R said, I realized the being-a-girl project wasn’t going to work. I did write about this in my novel. I regret the lyrical prose with which I rendered this surrender, R said. I’ve come to fear I gave off the wrong impression. Yes, I did accept that I was not, magically, going to be transformed. But not for one moment was I at peace with the destiny which, however far off, I knew awaited me: being a man. I suppressed this knowledge the same way I suppressed the knowledge that I would one day die. I still sat to pee. I suppose, R said, you could say I was in the closet. I say I was in a hole.

I felt a familiar paralysis in the face of R’s words. Tinged with resentment. Past the window, birds dove and rose. Gulls perhaps. A man stumbled by in the aisle.

A possible escape, R continued, a possible way out, began to arrive in the seventies. My mother subscribed to Ms. Magazine. I read the articles, R said. Many confirmed what I already knew: the violence of men. Others argued gender roles could be changed. Sex was biological, gender social; the social was mutable. If I could not change my body, the world could change. So that the body I was in wouldn’t matter. Certainly the ideology I developed, with the help of Ms., and the new books that began appearing in my mother’s study, contained contradictions, R said. Indeed my ideology, if you can speak of such a thing for a middle school student, was rather a mess. For at the same time I believed that sex roles had to be demolished, I also believed women were superior. The word man just could not, for me, be redeemed.

Hmm, I murmured.

I should say something, R said, about sports. I’d been against them as long as I can remember. They were, for me, the factory in which the link between maleness and violence was forged. This wasn’t theoretical. Out on the soccer field, in the blinding desert glare, I was shoved, kicked, humiliated. I knew that if this were to happen to an adult, the police would be called.

I murmured something even I could not decipher. Cattails. In the far distance, a McDonald’s. How vast the limbo—the in between, the not-here, not-there, surrounding the city.

Of course, R continued, not all sports were equal. Basketball was, to me, fairly innocuous. But in coming up with my picture of the world, I painted with a broad brush. Besides putting me at odds with almost everyone at school and some members of my family, my experience of sports, and my position on this matter, had another effect. To use my body, to be “healthy in body as well as in mind” (as my grandfather put it), required, R said, using my male body. Being healthy in a male body. That was how I had to be embodied. To “play” sports meant you had to go the locker room, where it was undeniable you were male. This, R said, was awful.

Enough, I thought.


Years later, R continued, I encountered books and people that talked about the body in an entirely different way than the coaches had. Spirituality, they said, was developed by being present in your body. Yoga, etc. But this still meant, R said, being present, at home, in a male body. Often there were still locker rooms. It was still intolerable, and a predicament.

More birds dove past. I hadn’t been to yoga in weeks. Perhaps this was why my back hurt. Or perhaps it was because the seats were too small. I felt confined. I thought of putting my sweater in the overhead rack, and taking down my bag with the papers for the conference.

But back to the seventies, R said. Durfee told me once, I remember this, that the reason I liked art but not sports was that I was good at art, bad at sports. He was right, but now that I think of that comment I find it a subversive thing to have said. Though I tried to read all the new books Mom bought, I got bogged down in The Second Sex. A female cousin, whom I admired and wished to emulate, saw me reading The Bell Jar. “I didn’t think that was a book that appealed to boys,” she said. The word microaggression did not yet exist. If it had, I wouldn’t have known it. But the word “boy,” when it came in my direction, was, each time, a barbed thing.

I thought again of getting up but sat immobilized.

You see, R said, I had come to terms with not being a girl. But I hadn’t accepted being a boy. That was my secret. There were others. I hesitate to go into them, for this will, I fear, divert from my attempt to answer your question about trans. But my OCD, R said, ought not be omitted. I continued to see Durfee until eighth grade. Exactly why I continued to see him remains to me something of a mystery, since, as far as the world was concerned, my gender had been “resolved.” Although secretly it was as if I had written a promise to myself, a promise not to be a man, and buried it deep inside, to be unearthed, like one of those boxes we buried at school which were to be dug up in the future.

Another train, heading in the opposite direction, whooshed past.

I suppose, R said, that inertia, both on my part and on that of my parents, accounted for the years spent in the partial erosion of the family fortune on a psychiatrist-phrenologist. I don’t know what we talked about. Toward the end of eighth grade, R said, I had an obsessive-compulsive break. Suddenly, the repetition of certain mental formulae became an all consuming task. And the formulae were elaborate. I do not expect my rendering of this break to seem real to those who haven’t undergone something similar. But the point, R said, is that at the same time as this break, or soon thereafter, I finally stopped seeing Durfee. My guess would be that, consumed by the compulsions, I could no longer perform my role—whatever exactly that role was—in the sessions.

I did not fully understand what R meant by “obsessive-compulsive break.” A faint, foul smell wafted from the bathroom. Had R, in the past, been quite so self-absorbed?

Or maybe, R said, I was afraid he would see through me. Maybe his irrelevance finally became undeniable. The truth is, R said, that my high school years—which were my immediate post-Durfee years—are harder for me to recall than the years before the OCD. I was just so busy with the compulsions. The truth is, R said, that I do recall high school vividly. The truth is that I contradict myself; perhaps because I had in a sense split in two. I am reluctant, R said, to use such metaphors about the mind. But we have to communicate somehow. I lived in my compulsive world, but also in the old, other world. My grades declined, and in other outward ways I ceased to flourish. No one noticed. There were other problems at home. Which were more dramatic. At school I hardly spoke to anyone. I no longer wrote poetry. But I continued to read. One book I recall appearing in the house: Conundrum, by Jan Morris. A travel writer and historian, she’d been born James Morris. I don’t hear this book spoken of much anymore, R said. I wonder: did Mom buy it because it had gotten a good review in the New York Times? Or did it interest her for other reasons? It interested me—the me not consumed by the compulsions—deeply. I read myself reflected. But still I thought: We must change the world, not our bodies. I couldn’t imagine undergoing the surgery Morris described. But am I fooling myself? R asked. Did I think this only later? It is difficult to know what one thought at any point in the past, since thoughts are layered over. For later, at Wesleyan, where I went to college—and I may as well skip ahead to college, since I have nothing more to say about high school—I read Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin, Shulamith Firestone. At Wesleyan, R said, I went to teach-ins about rape. There were Take Back the Night marches. The lesbians seemed to me the most compelling people on campus. Powerful, almost magical beings. There were, at Wesleyan, at the start of the eighties, R said, just about no gay men. None out of the closet, I mean. The hole, I mean. Dykes were abundant. I suppose many were . . . what was the phrase . . . lesbians until graduation, R said.

Oh yes, I said, inserting myself in a crack in R’s monologue. I wished I had an icepack for my back. I should probably be looking at the papers for the conference. I thought again of my father.


Sophomore year, R said, I stumbled into love with Susan. We lived together in the ecology house. Often I thought she was a lesbian-in-waiting. Her lesbian friends, R said, viewed me with wariness. Following in my family’s tradition of liberal engagement, or trying to, I joined the Clamshell Alliance. The Clamshell Alliance opposed nuclear power. It opposed, in particular, the building of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. I remember the training sessions, held in a lounge in a dorm on Foss Hill. I remember one evening, in order to discuss sexism within the alliance, we divided up into men and women. The women needed space in which to speak freely. A space not dominated by men.

I nodded, understanding this need quite well.

R went on: How awful this felt, to be in the group with the men. And to thus be labelled a man. Of course they were all—or presented themselves as—straight. I did not belong in this group, I thought. But to whom would I protest? I still wonder how other males feel when put in such groups. Are all male groups—or all straight male groups—awful to them, too? Of course it is hard to believe, R said, that the minds of others are so different from our own. No matter how often we bang up against this truth. The point of the male group: we were to come to terms with our complicity in the patriarchy. I don’t think anyone then used the word privilege. But the concept was there.

I tried to stretch.

R continued: Susan and I read Andrea Dworkin, R said. We talked about androgyny. Dworkin had written that “man” and “woman” were fictions. Cultural constructs. She challenged the traditional biology of sex. There was no reason not to think, she wrote, that humans had once been androgynous. Androgynous fucking, she wrote, would do away with objectification, with our culture’s obsessive focus on genital sexuality. It would do away, also, she said, with conventional role-playing. And this was the sex Susan and I tried to have. Sex was, for us, a sacrament, R said. Or we aspired to that. Or claimed we did. Sometimes we fell back into the roles we’d been brought up in. Sometimes, during sex, and later, in the wake of sex, recalling it, I experienced myself as a boy. I mean I felt the glow of it, perhaps even pride in it: my boy-being, that is. And simultaneously felt myself a traitor to myself. Still, not for one moment could I imagine myself as a man.

parallax background

“Glenn was my best friend, he was a painter, as I was, and I was in love with him. I’d met him before I met Susan. But, like me, he was in the closet. In the hole. As the whole school was. It’s curious that, at Wesleyan, faggots were so nearly invisible while lesbians were rather celebrated. The feelings between Glenn and me grew over time. But remained unacted on. I think Susan assumed one day they would be. As I assumed that she would one day end up with one of the lesbians with whom she often stayed up deep into the night talking.”


Dworkin wrote, R continued, about transsexuality. When, in the future, sex roles disappeared, she maintained, when androgynous community took the place of patriarchy, then the phenomenon of transsexuality would disappear. I suppose she was rather utopian. I expected to see her utopia. It seems to me, R said, that, if anything, sex roles have, in the last thirty years, been strengthened.

I began, silently, to formulate an objection. Why would the disappearance of transsexuality be a good thing? Didn’t transsexuality . . . oh wait . . . transgender . . . in itself dissolve patriarchy? Maybe . . .

R continued: These roles are seen as natural. And so the phenomenon, transsexualism, it could be argued, has flourished rather than disappeared. Dworkin maintained, R said, that before her utopia took hold, in the interim before sex roles dissolved, sex change operations should be a right. On demand, as it were. This entire part of her thought, R said, has now been forgotten because of her stance on pornography. If even that is remembered.

Oh, it’s remembered, I thought.

R continued: I should mention Glenn. Glenn was my best friend, he was a painter, as I was, and I was in love with him. I’d met him before I met Susan. But, like me, he was in the closet. In the hole. As the whole school was. It’s curious that, at Wesleyan, faggots were so nearly invisible while lesbians were rather celebrated. The feelings between Glenn and me grew over time. But remained unacted on. I think Susan assumed one day they would be. As I assumed that she would one day end up with one of the lesbians with whom she often stayed up deep into the night talking. About what, I would wonder, as I lay waiting for her on the futon in my room at Ecology House.

I also talked with Glenn, R said, about androgyny. Which he, too, was in favor of. I did not fully grasp, R said, that for Glenn androgyny was primarily a matter of style. He was thinking of David Bowie; I was thinking of the elimination of gender. Maybe Glenn understood this in part. It is often the case, R said, that people use the same word to refer to different things.

R went on: I suppose it’s easy to tell a story if your identity is a given. If you’re a woman or a man, comfortably, in your own head. If you’re gay or straight. Somewhat comfortably in your own head. I think that’s why people like the categories “cis” and “trans.” I suppose I could get in trouble for saying this, R said.

We passed a shimmering reservoir, or a small river, or a lake.

R: There were a number of reasons my relationship with Susan was doomed, but one was that any heterosexual relationship put me in the position of being a man. In part because I was in love with Glenn, in part because I intuited, sensed, felt, vaguely stirring in myself, more general homophile desires, and, in part, because, as I have mentioned, heterosexuality seemed to doom me to being a man, I steered myself toward the gay zone. I chose it. The clinicians, and most people, though not the academicians, deny the possibility of choice. I don’t. I won’t bore you with the details of my breakup with Susan. I moved to New York, R said. I thought Glenn and I would be lovers there, but that did not happen. I do not want to go too far afield from your question, R said, and so I won’t go into that story. I will mention that my coming out coincided with the blossoming of AIDS. The eighties: I cannot explain the fear in which we lived, in which I lived. My experience, you see, R said, was enormously different from that of those who had come to New York just a year or two earlier. Those who saw hundreds of their friends die. I only saw a few. Of course I saw the men with KS on the street. Their thin arms and faces. But this was nothing compared to what others went through. Had I been a braver soul, had I come out even a few months earlier . . . well, R said, as if skipping over something, it is worth noting that, throughout the eighties, I remained almost virginal. Often I feel that I missed out. I am embarrassed by this feeling. Fear embraced us. Kids these days, R said, have no idea.

Perhaps they have some idea, I said, the need to challenge in my voice. I held my sweater in my lap.

Sure, R said. Some of them have seen Rent.

R paused. I looked out the window. Bare trees. My back pain had grown sharper and moved lower down. L-4, L-5, I thought.

R continued: I will also skip over how my father again thought I needed psychiatric treatment. How this time he didn’t have the power to make that happen. I do not think this is relevant to the trans question. What is relevant, R said, was the tension between being gay and holding fast—secretly—to not being a man. Being gay, becoming gay (no one said queer yet), performing being gay, accepting being gay: choose your verb, R said. We make the past by describing it. The present, too. We’re making the present between the two of us, right now, in the words we use, R said.

We? I thought. There is only one person speaking here.

I was, R went on, attracted to effeminate boys. I wanted to be androgynous and to be with those who were androgynous. This led me into a conundrum, R said. A conundrum within a conundrum. Many of the effeminate boys, R said, were attracted to masculine-appearing males. You see the lengths, R said, to which I go to avoid the word man. In my case, this put me in a seemingly impossible position. I did not wish to be masculine. But nevertheless, I needed—it seemed to me—to suppress some of my fem tendencies.


We passed an empty station.

R continued: And many of these fem boys were bottoms.

Hmm, I said.

R continued: During the last thirty years, the categories bottom and top have sometimes seemed to me to be starting to dissolve. But they also have, R said, remarkable staying power. Bottoms, R said, wanted tops. Playing this role was half okay for me. Because, you see, I wasn’t into penises. You could say, if you want, R said, that if I was a girl in a boy’s body, I was a girl who was not into penises. Or not so into penises. So playing this role was half okay. But also half not-OK, said R. Because it put me at odds with myself. Again, it put me in the role of being—or playing—a man.

I began to formulate an objection: being a top, I thought, doesn’t always have to mean being a man. Or does it? I wondered.

R did not stop: I should add that there was another reason I was okay with not getting fucked. AIDS. Being a top, R said, increased my chances of survival. R looked out the window a moment. About this, R said, I can’t underestimate my shame.

Why? I asked. What was there to be ashamed about?

Across R’s brow passed an expression, seemingly of judgment, targeted, perhaps, at my ignorance.

Because, R said, it was cowardly. Because, R said, it was my way of keeping myself at a safe remove. Because it leaves me, R said, not entitled to speak.

I think you are entitled to speak, I said. You speak a lot, I thought.

R was silent again a moment. Perhaps, R said, this is too much information.

No, I said, somewhat defensively, it’s not too much information.


In the late ’80s, R said, I returned to therapy. I went first to Dr. Bill Gilson. I hoped he could help with my OCD. But this was a topic he had little interest in. My OCD, he told me, was a symptom of more deeply rooted problems. I told him, of course, at great length, what was still, then, one of my great secrets: the ancient story of wanting to be a girl. One time, my parents were visiting me in New York. Gilson suggested we have a family session. Having, as I’ve said, great faith in doctors, my parents agreed. And all I remember of it is this: Gilson telling them, “Well, one thing we can all agree on is that R’s masculinity is not in question.” I can’t remember with what bullshit he later excused this, R said. I continued to see him for years. After which I saw other therapists. All were worthless, R said. With one exception, all were worthless.

I nodded, exhausted.

Around this time, R said, I occasionally went out in women’s clothes. Not often, occasionally. I felt, in these moments, a sense of freedom, R said. Of ease. But I also feared I was drawing attention to myself in an unseemly manner. I felt I was showing off, as my father had often accused me of doing.

The conductor announced the city of our destination. Twenty minutes. From there we would take the bus to the conference/retreat.

And so time passed, R said. As you know, I went to Rome. And then to Oakland. And then the years with W, all those years in San Jose. There’s no way, when you are young, no matter how often you have been told of it, to imagine the speed with which it will roll. How this will stun you. I was stunned to wake—as it were—one day into a world in which trans was, well, a thing. The best of times: a world that would have been unimaginable when I was in second grade. The worst of times, for it seemed it had all come too late for me. The worst of times, because all of my ideas now seemed so irrelevant.

But it is not too late for you, I thought. You are not strong.

What would happen today, R asked, if I were a second grader declaring I was going to be a girl? I imagine, R said, there would be supportive counseling. I imagine, R said, a determination would be made as to whether I was gender variant or trans. I’m not sure what the verdict would be. It would likely depend on where I lived. Perhaps there would be a support group for my parents. At what age, if things went that way, would the hormones begin? Perhaps when I chose my new name, a party would be held. And perhaps I should celebrate this, R said. Celebrate that it’s better today. But I do not. Maybe I am selfish. Certainly I am jealous. How easy they have it, today, with their belief that there are girls born in boys’ bodies, boys born in girls’ bodies.

That is not necessarily what “they” believe, I thought, but did not say. It’s not necessarily easy, I thought but did not say. You’re too self-involved, I thought but did not say. L-5, S-1.

R went on: Their position is essentially the same one I held when I was first sent to Durfee. In truth, I am confused, R said. I feel split. Perhaps, however minimal, I do have brain damage. But I am loyal to the belief I developed later that it was the world that needed to change, not my body. My plan was to dismantle gender roles, indeed to dismantle gender itself, for gender, correctly understood, I still think, is nothing but a social construct. It seemed a reasonable plan, R said. I’m not the first person in my family with grandiose ideas.

Perhaps you simply lack courage, I thought but did not say. Or perhaps you are attached to your male privilege. You have never had a period, I thought, but did not say. You have never worried about getting pregnant, I thought but did not say. I did not know what to think or say.

So what’s your preferred pronoun? I asked.

That’s a tough one, R said. Not “he” or “she”—both feel wrong. I miss “Ze.” And I’m uncomfortable with “they”: the plural still doesn’t feel right.

But the language has changed, I thought. “They” often now signifies a singular subject, I thought and was about to say. You haven’t asked me a single question, I thought, and wondered about my own passivity. Why was I still so often this way? I thought of Dad. I needed some Advil.

So use whatever you want to use, R said. I’m sorry I’ve rambled on so long.

It’s okay, I said.

He excused himself to go to the bathroom. I wondered how long he’d held it all in. His jewelry glinted in the light. He wore his shawl awkwardly, or so it seemed to me.