——Let’s get the awkwardness out of the way. I’m transitioning.
…is what follows hello and an outstretched hand, fingers beringed, nails polished bright crimson.
This lunch in a small Hudson River Valley town is the last social stop of my trip east. The invitation was extended a few weeks ago. I was excited for the visit because the owner of the house is my favorite living writer. I’ve been reading their pieces about cities, movies, art, etc since high school. Few write clearer sentences or have such a graceful way to wed the personal to the universal to the political.
We don’t know each other well, but over the past few years there have been regular postcards, texts, and the occasional hang. When you admire what someone does, then meet them and strike up a friendship, the nature of the bond is rarely easy to define, much less be sure of. A fan always has in back of his mind that he’s being humored or merely tolerated.
We sit in the breakfast nook and talk over coffee. She tells me about a thing called FaceApp. You feed a photo in and it spits an older, thinner, or alternately-gendered version of your face. She discovered it some time back and, gradually, fed photos of herself from every age in. They formed an alternate album going back over sixty years. The album helped give her the courage to make manifest what she’d felt inside but hidden from everyone her whole life.
She tells me this is her first day in men’s clothing in weeks as she prepares our lunch. I tell her about how I’ve watched over the past six years most of the employees of my neighborhood coffeeshop become emphatically nonbinary. She tells me that on trans message boards twenty-year-olds worry whether they’ve waited too long to change their pronouns. Try starting in your sixties, she tells them.
Aside from the myriad personal changes to come, my friend must grapple with what to do about her professional name. That name is a known quantity associated with fifty-some-odd years of work. She freely admits she’s flying into the unknown on all fronts.
We say goodbye and I start my drive west. I keep rolling it around in my mind. I recall the few photographs of my friend as a man. There aren’t many. But the expression on his face is often furtive, sometimes almost scared, never joyful. I wonder whether I’m retrofitting this impression after the afternoon’s news, but don’t think so. I always felt a disconnect between the elegant, sometimes hilarious, always thoughtful prose, and the timid, somewhat vague visage in those author photos. The new one is the first which hints that the sitter may think themselves beautiful.
I wonder what it’s like to look in a mirror all your life and not recognize the face as your own. I have the opposite problem. When I look, I recognize the face all too well.
I check into a nondescript motel somewhere in the endless Pennsylvania hills. At 9pm the only gustatory choices are McDonald’s and gas station microwave. I scarf down a lukewarm Quarter Pounder in my room and open the laptop to write a newsletter. It’s not this one, but the one about Alice Neel. I don’t know yet whether I’m allowed to write about this afternoon’s lunch. It’s not my story to tell and I have no interest in spreading gossip.
I texted her an hour after leaving to apologize for making her wear weird clothes and got a Ha back. But I need to know what she expects, so I write an email with my questions. Her response puts me at ease. I’m relieved not to have to keep secrets. I have to believe that by inviting me over she knows that her news will spread. Not widely, but beyond the bounds of her close acquaintances. She has to know I can’t not write about this.
Thinking about what Lucy told me over lunch has rearranged something elemental in my head. The idea that one can undertake a fundamental redirect at any time is a lot more hope and freedom than I would’ve allowed to be possible. I never had any unifying theory about what does and doesn’t constitute the essence of a person. But if you don’t like the flight you’re on and still possess the strength to get up and open the escape hatch and jump, why wouldn’t you?
I’m so happy for her. It’s not often a person can make a change that will go a ways towards making inside and outside match. That’s what Lucy is doing. I’m proud to know her and touched she let me in to witness the start of her transformation.