By MALCOLM CONNER
You can blame it all on Percocet.
I was three days post-hysterectomy and a little loopy on painkillers. After five years of weekly testosterone injections, the canal (I can’t stand calling it a vagina, much less referring to it as “my”) had atrophied to near nonexistence. This made surgery difficult; I tore. The pain was bad enough. The fact that it was in an area of my body I had tried to ignore made me feel even worse.
I had been treating the ache with Percocet, at the cost of my lucidity. In a minor delirium, I developed a sudden need to tell a charismatic acquaintance — a girl from India in my physics class — just how beautiful and funny she was.
It was winter break, and I was at home in Wisconsin, while she had remained in San Antonio, where we went to school. So I decided to send her a quick message.
I ended up writing her a rambling letter.
“Hey,” I began, “you have cow eyes. I know that sounds like a bad thing but have you ever looked into a cow’s eyes? They are so deep and brown and beautiful. I’ve looked into a lot a cow eyes because I’m from Wisconsin.”
After ruminating for another paragraph about cows and eyes, I wrote about how, when I squinted at the back of her head during physics, it looked as though the kinematic equations on the whiteboard were growing out of her hair. Finally, mercifully, I concluded by asking if she wanted to get together after the break.
The next day, looking for her response, I found my letter as a new email in my own inbox. In my stupor, I had sent it not to her but to myself.
I didn’t try to resend it. But when I saw her back at school, I couldn’t resist telling the story of my misdirected, narcotics-fueled message. She laughed, then asked what surgery I’d had to get me on painkillers.
“That’s top secret,” I said. “You need security clearance. I’m going to need fingerprint scans, and your phone number.”
She gave me her number. But I didn’t give her security clearance.
No one at school knew I was transgender. I had transitioned at 15 and arrived at college with no intention of discussing my unusual childhood with my peers. So far I had managed all right, but now, that intention was on a collision course with my dating prospects.
The more she and I flirted, the more I realized how unprepared I was to explain my history. Should I tell her bluntly or start from the beginning? What if she was angry, or told the whole school? Listening to a friend boast of a recent hookup, I felt a bitter envy; how simple it must be to have a body that makes sense, that needs no explanation.
After a few dates, I sat her down in the ornithology lab where I worked and tried to explain. Since she is pre-med, like me, I figured the simplest explanation was the medical one; how at the start of high school, after years of feeling like a boy trapped in a girl’s skin, I was told by my doctor that I had gender dysphoria, the product of a mismatch between body and brain.
Although I tried to maintain a confident tone, I grew flushed and hot before I even managed to say the word “transgender,” and my voice grew so quiet that her growling stomach nearly drowned me out.
When I was finished she sat very still, the only sound a whirring centrifuge, in the other room. I waited for her to get up and leave. She didn’t.
Taking my hand, she said, “I had no idea.”
In the flood of relief, I also felt a twinge of irritation. Of course she had no idea. I’m almost six feet tall, with a full beard and an Adam’s apple that had once poked a girlfriend in the eye. What would have tipped her off?
“I don’t really care, I think,” she continued. “Just tell me if I say something stupid, O.K.? I don’t know a lot about it. I don’t know anything, actually.”
For the next week, everything was fine. I was her first kiss. She fed me my first tikhi puri.
Then one night, as we sat in her car, I learned that the biggest impediment to our relationship wasn’t that I was a boy with two X chromosomes, but something much more commonplace: my heritage. Her parents, who had immigrated to Texas from India when she was 5, feared that their culture would be diluted and lost in America, so she was forbidden from dating anyone who was not Indian.
With my Midwest accent, ratty Packers sweater and frozen-tilapia complexion, I was the antithesis of the son-in-law they hoped for. She hadn’t told them about me and didn’t know if she ever would.
A more painful breakup later on seemed inevitable, so we agreed to stop seeing each other. I hoped that the rationality of the decision would offer comfort. It didn’t.
Soon enough, though, we drifted back to sitting with each other in physics. There, during a demonstration of magnetism, our professor pulled apart two neodymium discs, only to see them slide back together when she laid them on the table.
We watched, took notes and imitated. Within a week, she was back in my bed. It wasn’t a decision, it was physics. Opposites doing what opposites do.
After the first few days, when all I could think was how stupid we were being, our relationship had evolved into a surprisingly functional one, though with a few limitations. I couldn’t post photos of us together online, or talk in the background while she spoke to her parents on the phone. Once she had to accessorize her temple apparel — a colorful, traditional kurti — with an oatmeal-like woolen scarf to cover the hickeys I had carelessly left the night before.
We went on muck-collecting expeditions to find anaerobic bacteria for her microbiology class. I found a way onto the roof of the student center, where we would go to look at the stars. At first I made jokes about how doomed we were, but as we grew closer the jokes stopped being funny.
She was truly unfazed by my transness. I exulted in this; it seemed like I had finally cleared the last hurdle between me and the mundane heterosexual existence I had yearned for. Joking about reincarnation once, she said I must have had great karma to be a human in this life.
“It couldn’t have been that good,” I said, “or I wouldn’t have wound up in a girl’s body.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not a girl’s body. It’s yours.”
As we lay together at night, listening to the possum living in my ceiling scuffle back and forth, we initiated each other into our opposite and alien existences. I told her about the ordeals of my middle-school years and the euphoria of my first testosterone shot, the suicides of friends, the post-transition balancing game pitting safety against loss of identity.
And, feeling homesick, I told her about walking on frozen Lake Monona, and how the Wisconsin woods turn orange and then black and stay black for too long, until you think you’re going to die in the lonely cold before the ice ever melts. And how one day everything turns green, the trees and branches and trunks and even the boulders, too.
She had never seen snow. I had never seen sugar cane fields.
She told me about her grandparents’ blue house in Gujarat, where she had lived while her parents tried to ground themselves in Texas, and the terror of the plane ride to meet them; 5 years old and flying to America in a cabin full of strangers.
She attended weekly services at the local Hindu temple and would do her best to explain what had been talked about that day, despite my total religious ignorance. My favorite faux pas: Telling her we should name the elephant figurine on her dashboard Elphy McTrunkface. It turned out he already had a name: Lord Ganesh.
She and I are still together, and we will almost certainly break up. Our relationship is based on mutual respect and trust — like any healthy pairing — but also on denial. She cannot marry me. We both know this, though I think she knows it better than I do.
The foolhardy logic I use to rationalize my commitment to her will no doubt worsen my inevitable heartbreak. But for now, it sustains me. As animosity towards brown-skinned immigrants seems to worsen daily in this political climate, and anti-transgender bills that strip me of my dignity draw closer to becoming law in the State Legislature, there are days when we wake up scared, go to bed scared and navigate our isolation in between.
Why not find refuge, however finite and daring, with each other? In a time of such upheaval and uncertainty, our reckless, quiet love feels like deliverance.