Silence = Death

Tamara Alexander

for Max

I have been typing and writing the introductory paragraph of this story for several days now, and I keep arriving in the same place. It is hard to get the pieces in place because creating this picture has been like trying to assemble a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the dark: leave out or misplace one fragment and the picture no longer makes sense. Then there is the difficulty of where to begin.

We met in college, the first day of the spring semester, junior year. Having had an earlier class in that room, I stayed on. She was the first to arrive. Our eyes met across an empty classroom… The neon signboard in my head lit up: something was forever changed. I would spend the next two years chasing down the mystery behind that moment. Love at first sight? Nonsense. Soul mates? Ridiculous. But…

We became friends. Dinners at each other’s houses. Study groups. Movie marathons. We even had a date — candlelight and wine, out alone, glowing at each other across the table. And I told myself that I had been wrong, that she was straight. Hell, she even got married. I resolved to live with that. It wasn’t until April of the following year that I finally told her about the one and only love affair I’d ever had with a woman, and she responded in kind. I thought that this bit of history must have been what I’d been reading when we first met: not that she didn’t have feelings for women, just that they had not been about me. How could I have known how wrong I would be?

I returned home to Georgia after graduation. I held her hand in the procession and reminded myself that this was where it ended. She was happily married, and I was… adrift. We started a correspondence, ostensibly because she had missed out on having someone to talk to when she was figuring out her sexual orientation and wanted to be that person for me. She was finally talking to me, after two years, about being a lesbian. Need I say that this correspondence took some dangerous turns?

I was mad about her and always had been, and she was telling me her life story. About how she ran away to California in her senior year of college and got embroiled in a lesbian love triangle. About why she married Harold. Oh, and by the way — she thought I was beautiful. I wrote back that when I had first met her, I’d been equally enamored. Letters flew on a one-day turnaround. I was sleeping with her letters under my pillow without really understanding why. We were peeling the onion, one layer at a time.

In my confusion, I reunited with my ex. It was only then that she wrote to tell me how involved she really had been, how deeply it hurt her to have missed our chance, how badly she really had wanted to be with me. I wrote back that I loved her. That I expected to live with the ache of that regret for the rest of my life. I was with Jenny and intended to be, but I could not help but hope our paths would cross again. I sent her Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” copying it out by hand on the back of the envelope sitting on the floor of a bookstore. She left Harold.

We fell out of touch. Three months later, I spent an entire day thinking of her, and came home to find a book of poetry she had sent. “You can control it,” she quoted one of Margaret Atwood’s characters, “You can make yourself stop loving someone.” The other responded: “That is such horseshit!” The jig was up.

We spoke at all hours of the day over the next two weeks. I called her at work. “I need to come see you.” I had expected her excitement, joy, anticipation. She sighed. Her tone was ominous. “Okay,” she said. “Come. We’ll talk. There are some things you should know about me.” “That sounds serious,” I said. She agreed: “It is.” My first thought was that she had cancer. My next thought….

The visit was to be two weeks later. The topic kept coming back up: things that I should know about her. She didn’t want to talk about it over the phone. Panic would break into her voice at the subject. “Why are you so afraid to tell me?” I asked. “Nothing could change the way I feel about you.” “This could,” she said. “It’s horrid.” Eventually the strain of not talking about it won out, and she told me. By this time, I was already fairly certain what she was going to say.

“When I was born, the doctors couldn’t tell whether I was a boy or a girl.” She dictated the speech as if she’d told it many times before and all of the emotion had fallen right out of it. I finally heard the complete story of her college affair with a woman and five words she said in bed that altered the entire course of Max’s life: “Boy, Jude, you sure are weird.” Max told me she knew then that she was a lesbian,` but she could not be with women because they would know how her body was different. She married Harold because men were just less sensitive to the subtleties of women’s anatomy.

My response was tears: “I can’t believe you’ve been carrying this around by yourself your whole life.” I hadn’t been surprised; growing up in a house full of medical texts had acquainted me with intersexuality. I was not, as she had feared, horrified, repulsed, or anxious.

“What did you think,” she asked me in the car as I was preparing to write this essay about loving her, “what did you expect my body to be like?” “I thought it would be mysterious and wonderful,” I told her. “And it was.”

I went up to Philadelphia for four short days over her birthday in February. We attempted to cook, burned the butter, and collapsed in each others’ arms on the floor. We left the house only to pick up take-out and Ben & Jerry’s Wavy Gravy ice cream. Nonetheless, for the first two nights, she would not take off her boxer shorts. I could feel the wonder of her hardened clit pressing up between my legs through the flannel, but I was not allowed to touch. Although the rest of her body lay out before me to be charted, her cunt was a zealously guarded region. She told me she couldn’t lubricate because of the scar tissue, and because the surgeons had taken her labia to make a vaginal opening when she was fifteen. “Lots of women can’t lubricate,” I told her. “That’s why they make feminine lubricants. There’s at least three on the market.”

We decided to go shopping. In the feminine hygiene aisle, we compared the relative merits of Gyne-Moistrin and its competitors. I was carefully examining the quality, price, and recommendations of each when I looked up at Max. Her eyes were wide and glazed. She was shaking. Her breath was irregular. I picked up the nearest product, sent her outside to wait, and paid at the register. We went home.

That night we slept downstairs in front of the fire. It was February 5, her 29th birthday. There was easily a foot of snow on the ground and it had all frozen over. Only her boxers still remained between us. Later that night she went upstairs to the bathroom, and when she slipped back under the covers, my hands slid from one end of her body to another. The boxers were gone. I will never be able to recapture the magic of that moment. “Ohhh…” She was terri- fied, and I was aware of her fear and the cost of offering herself up to me in that moment. I have never wanted to pleasure someone, never wanted to offer my hands and my fingers to heal and to love and to delight… I have never been so awed by the feeling of touching as I was that night. I wanted to stroke and explore and learn and know every inch of her, her large and proud clit, the lines and crevasses from scars and healings, the tight cavern of her cunt which held my fingers so tightly. She pulled me down on top of her and wrapped her arms around me and came, calling my name, sobbing against my shoulder. And I wept with her.

I wept for the loss of what she hadn’t had and the lovers who hadn’t reveled in the wonder of her body, wept for what I hadn’t had before I held her in love, and I am weeping as I write this now.

It was a full year before she let me touch her that way again. January 17. Our one year anniversary. The boxer shorts had been long gone, but most of our lovemaking was by full body contact, tribadism, pressured touch. We made love that anniversary night, and I asked: please. Please let me touch you. Please don’t shut me out. Please just lie back and let me love you, the way I want to, the way you deserve to be loved. Let me know you. Let me look. Let me run my tongue into the places you haven’t let me before. Let me celebrate you, because I love this, and this, and this. I don’t love you despite your differences, I love you because of them. I want you to be this way. I want to enjoy your being this way, because it is good, lovely, delicious. Let me.

And she let me feel her, let me bury my face in her cunt and smell the rich scent of her. Let me slide my tongue over her aching clit and along the entry to her vagina, let me stroke and tease and caress with my fingers. She came in a gush, spilling out over me and the bed. And there were more tears for this ritual, more love, and more letting go. A full year. We were still taking baby steps toward completely open lovemaking. Still peeling onions.

We moved to Atlanta in the summer of 1995. Broken by the stresses of new jobs, financial worries, lack of friends and supports and a 1912 bungalow which we loved but could barely afford renovating — Max lapsed into a depression. She began to tell me that she was a monster and she just shouldn’t be here. The day she did not go to work because she was planning to hang herself, I took her to the hospital. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

I had the unenviable task of surrendering the illusion that my unconditional love and acceptance were going to save her. No matter how much I loved her, no matter what I would give to heal her, I was not enough. I could not keep her safe. I could not erase thirty years of grief and doubt about her worth and her place in this world.

I was isolated from other people in ways I hadn’t been before; no one knew her past medical history, and she was not ready for me to talk to anyone else about it. My friends from Philly called to check on me; they loved me and understood only that I was in agony because Max was depressed. They assured me that she would get better, that she would come home to me and the beautiful life we had created together. I was not certain she could ever recover from the damage that had been done.

I read her medical records over and over. Sorted through John Money’s articles left from college psych classes. Read her journal, trying to understand. At night, I screamed my lungs out at the sheer futility of trying to help her. I had nightmares of surgeons wielding shiny scalpels tying her down and rearranging her body. I wept at work. I wept at home. I did endless battle with our mounting financial doom: the mortgage was late, the car unpaid, utilities coming due—all without her income. How would I ever keep things intact so that she had a life to return to when—if—she recovered?

Why was there no one to talk to? Why was she sleeping in a tiny bed in a hospital corridor with hourly safety checks instead of at home with me? What had I done to merit losing her this way? How could she think she was bad when I loved her so much? How could she not know how amazing and special she was?

Life became a parade of visiting hours, drive-thru hamburgers at Wendy’s on the way home, buying her books, taking her Joshua Bear, keeping her family at bay so that she could rest. I was spending all of my time being busy, painting the room that had been the final stressor, borrowing cash, calling on all of her breaks to check in. For the first weeks, I only cried. I railed at my therapist about the injustice of life. I mourned that I couldn’t be the one to save her. I could only hold her hand, tell her to hold on, and pray.

I read her records, and I wondered, if this had happened to me, if my body had been desecrated and abused and held up in public for the amusement of interns, would I have survived it even half as well as she had? Would I have had the courage to go on for thirty years with the memory of those rapes, my mother’s shame and my own, and the lies of doctors? A lesser person would not still be in the world. I do not think I would have survived this. No, I know I would not have.

I made promises to keep myself sane. I swore that I would not lose her. I swore that I would not allow this to happen to anyone else. I promised myself that if she slid off the face of this earth out of the exhaustion of fighting for her right to exist, I would not allow this to happen to any child like her. I would find out how and by whom this awful process was being perpetuated, and I would make it stop. I would become louder and louder until I could not be ignored. I have never doubted that I could be a force to be reckoned with, and I was finding out by juggling my whole life those months that I was indeed, incredibly strong and capable, and that I could accomplish miracles out of my love for her.

It took four months. Three hospitalizations. Persistent suicidal ideation and unwavering depression. She lost her job because she couldn’t stop crying. I dragged her to monthly support group meetings in the gender community. I made her return calls to Cheryl Chase at ISNA. I pushed her to call the people Cheryl sent out to make contact with her. Each time, she would feel a little less alone, and a little more hopeful. And then the depression would creep back, telling her to give up. Telling her she would never be whole, would never be accepted, would never be anything but a shameful secret. As many times as I had learned in that first precious year together that love is an amazing healer, I had still to learn that sometimes shame and blatant evil can be stronger. I might love her with all my heart, but that was one small glow against the bitterness and dark of the rest of her experiences. Would it be enough?

It is now almost a year since that last depression. It still creeps up on us from time to time. When she doesn’t come home on time, I have to pace myself not to panic. I have to remind myself that not being home does not mean she has killed herself. But the danger is always there. It’s only in the last few weeks that it feels less close, less powerful than me. Less powerful than the sense of self I’m amazed and awed to watch her discover.

She has cut her hair, embraced butch, and found a good endocrinologist. We marched together in the parade at gay pride. I have come to believe myself a part of this community. I may not be transgendered, transsexual, or intersexed. I may have been fortunate enough to be born into a body that matches my sense of self and is accepted by society in its original form. But this is still my fight.

There is a popular slogan in the gay community that proclaims “Silence = Death.” Her silence, and mine, almost meant her death. I am reminded of the words of the Catholic priest who recalled that during the holocaust he did not speak because he was not a member of any of the groups they were rounding up for execution. When they came for him, there was no one left to speak for him.

She is my partner, my lover, the greatest gift life ever gave me. I choose to honor her decision to stay alive. I choose to speak on a daily basis. I honor her courage and her complexity. If she walks between the worlds set up by a gender-dichotomous society, then that is where my path leads as well.