What did I learn from falling in love with a trans person? That spark plugs are on sale this week at Fleet Farm. How to feed a chicken. How to drive a trailer. The secret to making the best mojito you’ve ever had.
We met in Iowa, at graduate school. He kept his horse, who didn’t have a name, on a farm just out of town, along with the RV he slept in. He invited me to learn to ride and I went because I was claustrophobic and I breathe easiest when I’m a little scared. He made me ride bareback so that I’d learn to feel the horse’s movements through my legs. He’d jog beside me down the highway, the sun setting neon behind us, and the neighbor’s dog followed along, casting a thin shadow on the road.
Later, weeks later, he climbed onto the horse behind me, his hands like feathers on the creases of my hips.
Later, months later, we went walking in the Wisconsin Northwoods, near the cabin he had built with logs he skidded from the forest with a team of draft horses. I bushwhacked ahead and he followed, tracking my spoor in the first fall snow. He came to a log I had balanced on maybe 10 minutes earlier, and directly over each of my footprints was the careful print of a cougar. He didn’t tell me about the cougar until were inside again, and I lay back on the couch beside him. He touched my collarbone with one finger. He touched the whole length of me before we kissed.
“I love you,” I told him. This was in January, in the middle of the night. He lifted his head from my stomach. “God help us,” he said.
Being trans is about gender, but loving a trans person is about sex. From the outside, at least. It must be a fetish, or I must be secretly bi, or — at the very least — I’m sacrificing, just a little. A very female thing, the pity of love.
My partner doesn’t want his body. But I do.
I wondered, at first — what it meant about me, my sexuality. I adore men. Their shoulders, their chests, their thick arms. Deep voices and the prick of stubble against my neck, someone who can wrap me up and protect me from the world. That was how I knew I liked him: I couldn’t help but watch as he worked with his horse. I watched his small hands, his strong forearms, his jeans tight around the muscles in his thighs. I watched him break the neighbor’s gelding, his limbs lithe as the animal reared and bucked beneath him, his face calm in a way I’d rarely seen it. I never had a thing for cowboys until I met my own.
As the weeks passed, as my skin burned at his touch, I decided I didn’t need to understand. I didn’t want to be another woman who interrogated her sexuality as soon as his lips touched hers. I didn’t want to be another anything.
There’s solidarity and fear in a town with no privacy. People have to work together, have to spend their lives together. They catch each other’s horses and borrow each other’s tractors. When I moved into my partner’s farmhouse, some of our neighbors muttered slurs at me from barstools, or pulled me aside to explain why we weren’t welcome in their homes. Apologetic, as if they wanted me to reassure them that it was ok. My partner doesn’t care much; he’s used to it, and he’s got kind, brilliant friends who make me proud to live here. He just likes to keep track of who’s saying things behind his back. I care, though. I want to smash their stupid mouths.
That’s been one of the hardest things for me: not to defend him when he doesn’t want defending.
I’m chatty early in the morning and he’s chatty late at night. He reads random pages of Wikipedia, anything to quiet his mind. Lately he’s been reading about pilots. He likes to read interesting sentences aloud and I throw my pillow to shut him up. I don’t like any noise before sleep. I prefer to read until my eyes close, something mindless. Lately I’ve been reading about makeup, even though I don’t wear much. It’s relaxing to me that people can control how they’re seen.
Each morning he wakes up around 2 a.m., tiptoes to the couch, opens his laptop, and reads Wikipedia again until he falls back asleep. Each morning I find him there, wrapped in too many hand-crocheted blankets. His chin to his chest. He’s disheveled and hopeful and I love him so much like that, his hair flat to his forehead, his eyes puffy and soft. While his gluten-free bagel toasts, I put my cheek on his chest, careful not to tickle his nose with my hair. He smells most like himself in the morning.
How do you apply for a job when your references refer to you as “she”?
How do you correct them, again and again, without making them feel resentful?
They’re proud when they report that they only tripped up once, they corrected themselves, they’re sure the interviewer understands.
Do you really think you’ll get that job?
Some people trip up on purpose to prove that they haven’t been fooled. That they’re too smart for that.
My partner’s name is Quince. I didn’t want to have to tell you. I wanted to hold out, just use pronouns — make a subtle point about, I don’t know, how insignificant names are, how malleable. You’d know him better from watching him ride than from learning his name; and when his name changed, it doesn’t mean that he did. But I need names in a way he doesn’t, and am anxious about avoiding them. After just a few weeks, I named the horse Untitled.
Thieves stole Untitled and took him to Oklahoma. We know exactly who they are, a girlfriend and boyfriend with a baby on the way. I’ve found their pictures on Facebook. They named him Lucky and he lives on a ranch.
Quince didn’t want to call the cops. He thought that if he could talk to the thieves directly, maybe he could reason with them. He had trained Untitled himself and rode him across the Dakotas the summer before coming to Iowa, and he’d promised Untitled’s former owner that he’d take good care of him. That promise was serious. Maybe he could explain that to the thieves. Maybe he was afraid to get an institution involved.
He went looking for Untitled himself the next summer. Bought a trailer, drove to Oklahoma, tracked down the ranch after days of looking, found Untitled in a field. Climbed onto that bare back and started riding away, until he decided to stop and tell the thieves where he was going. He didn’t want them to think the horse was just missing. He wanted them to know a wrong had been righted.
It seems a lot of things don’t work out the way he wants them to.
He hadn’t even dismounted before boyfriend thief had a rifle pointed at his neck. When Quince tried to explain, to show that he had Untitled’s papers, boyfriend thief began to beat him with the rifle, swinging wildly in the air. Quince just sat there, high on Untitled’s back, waiting for the anger to pass. Calm. But his calmness made everything worse. Furious at his lack of reaction, boyfriend thief reached up, grabbed Quince’s thumb, and snapped the bone in his fist. “And the whole time,” Quince told me later, “Untitled just stood there. He was so good. It made me want him back more than ever.”
Then the sheriff showed up, warned Quince for trespassing, and told him not to come back. We never saw Lucky again.
“You’re so brave,” people tell him.
“Does he have a…penis?” those same people ask me, after their second beer.
He proposed to me in an outhouse. Very traditional, down on one knee. The outhouse, I’ll mention, had not been used for decades; an artist had turned it into an oracle, tucked into the edge of an open woods at the end of a dirt road. People could ask a question and pick an answer from a basket. Before I got there, Quince had replaced the answers with answers of his own, ones appropriate to the sentiment of the occasion.
Joy is not a drowning substance. Let it soak you.
I went into the oracle alone. I asked a secret question and pulled my answer: You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. And another note, hidden under what was once the toilet seat, with a ring tied to a twig: Also, you and Quince should spend your lives together, loving one another every day. [This note is only for Blair, from the Oracle.]
He came in behind me and kneeled on the wooden floor. It was a tight fit for both of us. It was dusk and the mosquitoes were out. I didn’t want the oracle to propose on Quince’s behalf. I told him to ask me again, directly this time, before I said yes.
“They used to hang horse thieves,” said everyone except the sheriff.
Our favorite trip was to the Wisconsin Dells, a cheesy tourist town filled with water parks and gift shops. For three days we rode water slides and drank colorful drinks and played games in a flashing arcade. We went to a timeshare presentation, sitting in an audience of middle-aged couples while a man in a golf shirt urged us to make quality time for our families. He told too-loud jokes and maintained excellent eye contact. We loved it. The normalcy was thrilling; we basked for an hour in the fantasy of suburban coupledom, a life of sales scams and vacation clubs. When the group dispersed to meet with sales reps, we were both looking forward to the hard sell and the tour of a two-bedroom retreat facility. But when our sales rep got us alone, he gave a closed-mouth smile. “Look,” he said, “I know you guys aren’t gonna buy this. Just, if anyone asks, tell them I gave you the pitch.” I waited for the trick, for him to reveal a special option just for us. But he only led us to the door and out into the parking lot, where our station wagon baked in the sun.
You can tell when someone has googled his name, at least in the artist scene. They’ll act one way for weeks, and then suddenly they’re too nice: They let him finish what he’s saying. Maybe they post something pro-trans on Facebook. If you didn’t know his gender history, you’d think he’s younger, arrogant, just a little too smart. He takes risks, cracks jokes that make people uncomfortable. He’s always pushing. There’s a logic under everything he says, an idea, but unless you pay close attention, you’ll miss it. It’s always sad, the day someone stops treating him like he’s an asshole.
The state of Illinois won’t release Quince’s female birth certificate, so we’re not sure, when we get married, how we’ll look on paper. When gay marriage passed, trans marriage did, too.
I know that things will get easier — that, one of these years, Quince will be more accepted. I’m positive. When we want it bad enough, it will happen.
Because when we need to, we’ll disappear.
Like so many others, we’ll move, change our names. It’s his choice, but if he chooses it, I’ll go with him. Someday when we’re tired, or when we see the chance. Leave our small town for any other town, and when we get there, we’ll just be ourselves, our current selves, and there will be no more slurs, no more intrusive questions, nothing left to hide. We’ll plant a garden, go to the grocery store, raise some more chickens. Maybe we’ll get another horse. Maybe I’ll take a dance class. Maybe he’ll find some hunting buddies. We’ll invite the neighbors over for mojitos and walk our dogs in the park and go to garage sales on the weekends, and we’ll either have kids or we won’t, and we’ll make friends we love, and our friends will love us, and we’ll be known, for once, for who we are.
Blair Braverman graduated from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, where she was also an Arts Fellow. She has been a resident fellow at Blue Mountain Center and the MacDowell Colony and her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, The Atavist, The Best Women's Travel Writing, Orion, AGNI, High Country News, Waging Nonviolence, and on This American Life. She lives in Mountain, Wisconsin, and is currently training for the Iditarod. Her first book Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (Ecco) went on sale July 5.
To learn more about Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, click here.