“Now that it’s just the three of us, can I ask you a question, just out of curiosity?”
It’s the moment we’ve been expecting all night, anticipating since my friend invited us to dinner with her host mother—a short, svelte, Korean-American woman who sat expectantly across the table from us as she addressed me. Her eyes, dark and narrowed, flicker between him and I as she attempts to figure us out.
“You called him your boyfriend,” She says. She’s addressing me but turning her attention to his slim form, masked slightly by dark loose-fitting sweaters and bad posture. She continues: “But you’re a…”
She lets the sentence trail off into the air, writhing, heavy, and serpentine between us. It matches the tangle of adrenaline and anxiety I feel in my gut.
The unspoken accusation, veiled thinly in mock confusion, and aimed at the boy whose hand is running soothingly up and down my thigh beneath the table. He’s offering me the support I owe him.
“A boy,” I supply, smile plastered across my face. “He’s a boy.”
“Of course, of course, I was just checking.” She breezes through an explanation of just not being sure whether or not I was just a lesbian, and about how great it is that Goucher College is so “open”. She checks his gender three more times. Her voice is always kept deliberately light, like the lure of an anglerfish. I assure her that, while I am in fact bi and have in fact dated women, I am dating a boy.
I don’t tell her he’s trans. I don’t want her to take that as an admission of sorts, don’t want her to think she was somehow “right” about him. I don’t tell her that he’s an older brother and a son. I don’t tell her he’s too sympathetic to make his friends pay for their own gas. I don’t tell her he’s funny, and honest, and smart. I don’t tell her how thoughtful he is. I don’t tell her that he’s an artist or that he prefers tea to coffee. I don’t tell her that his body is none of her business, that it’s not a political statement, that it’s not a fucking choice. I don’t tell her that he self harms, that sometimes things get too overwhelming. I don’t tell her that he told me hours before that this would be fun, “like a test.”
I didn’t tell him that he doesn’t need to pass a test.
And I don’t say all of this now. All I can manage is, “Yeah, people come in all shapes and sizes.” An accompanying laugh cloys its way out of me, coating my insides and falling from my lips. My smile is stretched so wide I fear my face may crack in half.
I can’t help but feel that my selective ignorance of her subtext is a paltry offering to the boy whose warmth spills from his fingertips and seeps through my jeans, pressing into me in waves. Later, when we are pressed tightly together in the unlit backseat of the car that carries us back to the safety of Goucher, he tells me that she’s the kind of person he “can laugh at,” that he’s ok, that it didn’t bother him. I let his smile reassure me as he pulls me close, one lithe arm wrapping around me. Pressing my nose to his throat, I breathe deeply.
“I really like you. As more than a friend.” I say. My voice is distorted by the pressure I feel.
Those nine words took over forty-five minutes to say. Forty-five minutes of sitting next to him on his bed, the words roiling and kicking inside me, charging like a team of horses towards the surface only to meet the impenetrable barrier of my lips, pressed thin by nerves and a nameless hesitancy to lend permanence to emotion.
He’s long since figured out what I’m trying to say, what my stunted start-stops are and my hot flushed face means. He waits for me to gather my courage.
He throws a blanket over his head.
“Wait!” My voice is almost pleading, so I try to laugh, “Don’t take it off. I think the blanket’s helping.”
At that point I hadn’t fully dropped the justifications I’d crafted for keeping my mouth shut: He’s going through enough already with his transition, he’s a whole two years younger than you, you don’t know if he even likes you back. In the span of a couple months, I’d progressed to spending nearly all my time with this kid and I had it bad.
In that moment I looked at the lump of blankets on the bed that hid him from me. I summoned all of my courage and pride. I dug my nails into little crescent moons on my palm, and blurted it out.
“I like you,” I said, screwing my eyes shut.
From the depths of the pile of blankets came a quiet response, “What if I like you too?”
I laughed, the noise bubbling up unexpectedly. “That would be pretty convenient.”
“The problem is anonymity,” my professor says as we discuss my intended research methods for a project, “We only have two boys in the class—”
“Three boys.” I correct her, trying to keep my tone somewhat neutral and unaffected.
She forgot one boy.
The one who had to email her in advance and tell her that the name on her roster was wrong, that he was in fact male not female.
“Of course! There are three boys in the class.” Her voice lacks guilt; sounds less like someone has been misgendered and more like she’s been reminded of what she had for breakfast; a simple forgetting.
“Hayley, Hayley, what’s wrong? Don’t cry.”
His voice is the gentlest I’ve ever heard it. It’s soft and sweet— as if a small piece of his soul was plucked out to create it. The sound of it almost startles me so much that I stop crying, but the tears are already rolling, hot and heavy, down my face and on towards my sheets. A levy inside me has broken and everything is pouring out. My face is pressed stubbornly into the crook of his neck. The skin there, pulled tight over lean muscle, is hot and wet from my breath. Even as I feel like I’m completely helpless, I still can’t bring myself to allow him to witness it. He moves to look at me, worry and confusion mirrored in his grey-green eyes, and I, like a spring sprung loose, snap quickly onto my stomach, my face safely shielded beneath my arms. He runs his hands down my back and waits patiently for me to explain to him what’s wrong.
We were kissing on my bed minutes before.
“Anything above the pants should be fine,” he had said earlier.
I’d tried. Even though I couldn’t let go, even though all I could be was hyper-vigilant, taking in and over-analyzing every little reaction. He smiled at me and I crack, seeking shelter against his shoulder, like birds to nest when the sun sets. He can’t know that I’m paralyzed by the fear that I might somehow upset him, hurt him in some intangible way. He can’t know that, with his gender dysphoria acting up and particularly high today, I’m scrambling to know what’s ok and what’s not— to know what I can do to make him feel good and what will unlock private trauma and pain inside him. He can’t know anything unless I tell him; my lips are sealed together. I can’t find the words. Not until I’ve cried, and cried, and cried and let the helplessness, and the worry, and the doubt wash over me. When the well of tears within me has gone dry, and the anxiety and fear has burnt itself out, he takes my hand and squeezes.
“I just feel helpless.” I manage to say weakly, “I don’t want to accidentally trigger you.”
His smile is tender, tempered by understanding. He nods, taking my face in his hands and kissing me delicately. I cling to his lips, desperately drinking him in, desire licking its way up my insides. He deepens the kiss and his hands are firm, anchoring me to the present, to him. This time I tentatively allow myself to be pulled in, to let this beautiful boy kiss me and to kiss him back with all I’m worth. Almost without my notice he takes my hand that’s resting above his heart and guides it down towards his pants. I recoil, my hand jerking away from the fabric as if burnt, the fear searing its way back across my mind and my heart beating its way out of my chest. Without a word he takes my hand deliberately and slides it back down, this time letting it slip beneath and rest against skin.
“Are you sure?” I ask, my voice quiet and shaky.
“Yes.” He smiles, his eyes crinkling genuinely and some unnamed emotion dances across his eyes.
“All I want to know is if your boyfriend fucks you with a penis or not. I mean, you said you’d been fucked by a guy—does he have a penis?”
My manager waits impatiently, ignoring the line of cups with drink orders scrawled across them in favor of interrogating me, her question presses against the headache that seems to accompany every night shift I work.
“I have a boyfriend, we have sex, and I’ve therefore been fucked by a guy,” I say, repeating the statement for the third time. This is my mantra for her, the impenetrable wall I’ve built, the sentence I’ve been returning to since she saw me sitting with him during my break, our bodies huddled close together as he traded his strength for some of my stress. His dark hair, short and thicker than mine, was sticking up slightly at odd angles from where he’d been running his hands, flat and deft, through it while he was reading for class. My fingers had twitched with the desire to retrace the path his hands took with my own.
“Ok,” She says, following me now as I make drinks, “But does he have a penis or not?”
“His body parts are none of your business and it’s not my place to discuss them with you,” I say. It feels as if the espresso machine is inside my head, grinding away.
“It’s just a question.” She says, as if this was like any other conversation we’d had during the few years we’ve worked together. She stares at me, waiting. I stare pointedly at the steamed milk I’m pouring. The milk flows over the top of the cup and across the counter before I notice it.
“I love you.” He says for the first time.
I lay curled in bed with him, our limbs tangled together as shared air mingles between parallel sets of lips. The smile that sweeps across my face goes unseen, the digital clock flashes some time after four in the morning, and I lean closer so that the warmth from his body seeps into mine, lips just centimeters apart.
“I love you too,” I say. Something I’ve said before, but never felt like this. Something that I’m not sure I could communicate to those outside of this inexplicable thing that is us, but that I wish I could. I wish that I could just hold this incandescent thing up in my palms and shout at them. Make them see it, too.
Hayley Libowitz is a Maryland resident; feminist, queer, cis woman; writer; activist and advocate, with a degree in Anthropology and fluency in east coast sarcasm. Her preferred pronouns are she/Her/hers.