And he agreed, after two years, to talk to me about why.
The year was 2016. We talked on the phone, facetimed, met whenever I would travel and no one ever knew. During that time, he publicly dated cis women. Although in the beginning of our budding relationship, I often wondered if it would go anywhere. It was a rather effortless relationship, sometimes up to a month would go by between our phone calls, but we always circled back around and experienced marathons of a month or more where we’d talk every day.
In 2018, I began to hear less from him. Messages went unanswered, texts not returned.
He ghosted me.
And I was generally okay with that. I hadn’t even been on a proper date with him, although we met up and had dinner in his hotel room from one coast to the next- the last time when I was in New Orleans on a reunion for a reality show I had been on. I ditched it to go spend a few days with him. We were never photographed together, he was especially paranoid about that. I figured it had more to do with prying eyes than it did me, and I accepted that, perhaps naively as an unfortunate byproduct of his job.
I wasn’t starstruck by him or some random groupie chasing a film star for roll-off clout. He had reached out to me on Facebook when an article started circulating about the legal circus surrounding transgender women in bathrooms in North Carolina. The media used a photo of me, among a few others, throughout the international press. Our relationship blossomed virtually before transitioning to real life.
But it may as well have never existed at all, because despite the late night conversations, the intimate life stories shared between us, the jokes and flirty antics, they seemed to belong to me alone. Once he was gone, unreachable, it was sort of like I dreamed the entire thing. Thus, I never spoke about it to anyone, never cared to challenge him out of malice or complicate his life in any manner or disrupt the journey he was on, wherever he may be. Also, I liked him. There were no bitter parting words, no flinging vicious accusations, he literally just fell off my radar and I presumed, had met someone else. Someone more palatable on his arm, when it came to red carpets or the society pages of magazines.
It was clear to me, at some point, he never intended to integrate me into his life at all. I had become what I had always advocated against- someone’s secret.
And then last month my phone rang. It was him.
“I’m just calling to check on you. I have had you on my mind. I want to know that you’re okay.” He said.
I didn’t really have hard feelings. I’m just not that type of person. I covet, more than anything else, peace in my life. No drama, no conflict, no stress. I was happy to hear from him. I smiled, said “I’m good, thanks for thinking of me.”
We chatted for a bit with no mention being made about his sudden departure from my life years earlier. The first conversation was very formal, simply polite. And then he called the next day to tell me he enjoyed my writing. “You’re doing important things,” he said reassuringly.
“I do what I believe is necessary. Everyone is. Gone are the times when people are comfortable being silent,” I replied. And I followed it, “Times are tough, we don’t all have the privilege from running away or disappearing when things present a challenge.” It must have been subconscious. I realized how it sounded only after said it. I tried to recover- “Not you- I didn’t mean-”
“-It’s okay. I’m glad we don’t have to dance around it anymore.”
“I’m not upset,” I reassured him. “I was confused, a little sad for awhile and considered writing about the experience because I think it probably echoes the experiences of a lot of trans people.”
“Please don’t write about it, Phaylen.” He said, a sense of dread in his voice, almost pleading.
“I had no intention of naming you, but it’s still my experience and you don’t own that, it is mine to share. Things like this amplify aspects of the trans experience and as a community we need a bridge often to share those elements of our lives that can be embarrassing or hurtful.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Did I hurt you?”
I examined my thoughts, carefully revisiting the aftermath of those moments when I realized I wouldn’t hear from him again, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Honestly, did I hurt you?” He asked again, he sounded tired. His voice was more raspy than usual.
“Yes.” I said. And then I felt like I had to defend my hurt. “I thought everything was fine. I thought there was a mutual respect. I enjoyed your company, you seemed to enjoy mine. I had no idea the last time you hung up the phone would be the last time I’d ever hear from you. I was blindsided and I questioned whether I had done something wrong or you found someone better. I wasn’t crying into my pillow every night, but I did take a good hard look in the mirror and wonder if there was something about myself I was unaware of that you were, something awful.”
“Phay.” He sighed after saying my name. “You’re a great person.”
I pressed my lips together firmly. Ugh. “Thanks” I said, underwhelmed with the response. I didn’t want to him to be sympathetic or worse, condescending. “Look, I’m not fishing for an apology. I’ve moved on, it was a small valley but I’ve been on three peaks since then.” I explained. “I’m doing great, no need to look back.”
“Are you going to write about it?” He asked.
I took a deep breath, “I might, does that bother you?”
“Yes!” His voice got a bit louder, “Yes it bothers me.”
“Well, it shouldn’t. I never had any intention of using your name. This is my story; How the whole thing impacted me and made me question my value, which is the plight of a lot of transwomen who are left feeling the other party is indifferent to them, or how easy they are to be disposed of. I’m sharing my perspective.”
“If that’s what you need to do.” His voice trailed. “But it’s incomplete.”
I winced and smiled “How is it incomplete? There is no end. I don’t have the luxury of a polite parting of ways. There was no mutual agreement to cease communication.”
“No.” He said abruptly, “Incomplete because it’s a two person story and you only tell your side… and no one ever knows the rest of the truth which sends it into history as a tragic, cautionary tale for women like you about men like me.”
I rubbed together the pads of my index finger and thumb as I thought intensely. “Then… you tell me why… and I’ll write about that if that sounds fair to you.”
“Like an interview?” He laughed and I followed, a running joke between us had been how my insatiable curiosity about people always made them feel like I was interviewing them.
“Sure, why not? I’ll call you James. Seems like a reasonable deal to me, I get to learn more about my own experiences and you have the opportunity to qualify your actions.”
At this point I fully expected him to hang up the phone. But he hadn’t yet. So, seized the moment.
“Did you ghost me because I’m trans?” I cut right to the chase. I’d wondered for years now, mulled it over on sleepless nights in the past, if that was the primary factor in his abandoning our relationship or even, at minimum, a friendship. This was his opportunity to tell me, and like a cowardly man, he wouldn’t…
“Yes.” He half-whispered instead.
I took a shallow gasp and hoped he didn’t hear. Immediately I regretted asking. I regretted this call. I regretted looking back. This wasn’t the peace I wanted, this was painful. No matter how much time had passed, it was like a blade going through a slim scar, opening it once again to the point of bleeding. I felt the sharpness, the burning in my chest. At this point I wished he had been a coward and lied to me.
The better part of me realizes I did this to myself. I didn’t really need to know- for all intents and purposes I already did- but I’m clearly a glutton for punishment. It felt like there was a fist shoved into my solar plexus; that seemingly empty space below the lungs that makes space for your diaphragm to expand was now the place my heart lived. I held my breath delicately just behind my throat before releasing it ever so slowly. You’d be surprised how easy it is to just… unconsciously not breathe.
“I’m sorry.” He continued, maybe feeling a sense of urgency to fill the dead air that had manifested itself on the line, I imagine my silence was more antagonizing than whatever reaction he could predict I’d have.
“I suspected as much,” I sighed, unable to conceal my disappointment; Not so much in him, but in this. This seemingly unavoidable through-line where everything else about me is rendered moot in the shadow of my gender. This has happened before, to me, to hundreds- thousands of transwomen who dare try to be looked at through a human lens, defined by the quality and content of their character and find themselves reduced to a penis or vagina. Almost an alien.
“But it’s more nuanced than that.” He began, “It would be easy for you to portray me as some selfish, detached man who used you for my own arrogant satisfaction and abandoned you when I’d had enough. That’s not true, and it would be dishonest of you to frame it that way.”
I cleared my throat, pushed a loose hair from my eyes, “H-How should I frame this then, James?”
There was a rustling of the phone, as if he were shifting ears or holding it to his chest to gather his thoughts. Clarity came again quickly, “I acknowledge that I was childish and I hurt you. That wasn’t my intention, and I make no excuses for my negligence-”
“Stop.” I interrupted. “Wait. I don’t want a PR response. I’m not going to learn anything different or walk away from this any better off with a factory issued apology. You knew I would be effected-”
“Of course I did.” He shot back. “Of course I knew. And I felt dreadful, Phay. It wasn’t what you’d prefer to think, where I’d see your number come up and consciously decide not to answer. I had missed calls. It drifted from me, it didn’t maintain itself as a priority to meet you in the middle anymore when I realized how much it would cost me if I entertained that avenue any further.”
I mocked him with a quiet laugh. I was offended. “You couldn’t pick up the phone and say “Hey, I don’t care to speak to you again” or “Sorry I’m not interested in even being friends with you. You bring down my real estate value.”
His voice rose an octave… not yelling, but not the gentle rumble that was his more typical tone. “Because that’s not how I felt!”
“Seems to me that’s exactly how you felt.” I said, shrugging.
“From your perspective, yes. From here…” His voice trailed. “If I’d have said those things they would have been lies.” He paused as if waiting for me to respond, but I was listening, intent on letting him explore it on his own, without my goading him. I wanted honesty, after all, not to lead him to a conclusion that would satisfy me, for my sake alone. “This is complex, right? I won’t win here by being truthful, Phay, I just set myself up for persecution with you and your pen as my judge.”
I admit it. I rolled my eyes, a little prickly by his sudden defensive stance. “You were content moving on, not at all concerned with what you left behind as I tried to piece together this puzzle alone. Before I wasn’t a priority, but now you’re worried about what I’ll say?”
He exhaled audibly into the phone, grasping at words. “I- would’ve destroyed everything else I loved about my life by introducing you into it and that’s the truth. It isn’t because I didn’t care about you, or what you thought of me, but in my career, my currency, my value in my trade relies on what people think of me. My identity as a man, as a figure people have expectations from, who people respect or admire for whatever reason would be sacrificed and as shallow, as desperately god damn pitiful as that probably sounds to you, that I am a man who recognized the liability of my own emotions regarding you and the risk of losing so many other things I rely on- my friends, my family, my work opportunities, my reputation, my own certainty in myself and suddenly being thrust into having to explain myself non-stop and appeal endlessly to the conscience of other people in my orbit that I am not changed, yet have become a spectacle in the eyes of gawkers and the subject of salacious gossip in ways that would ruin me. I chose, for my own mercy, not to do that. As much as I care about you, as much as I want you to have the best because you’re just a remarkable, beautiful human being and I hate that I contributed to your pain by trying to avoid incurring more of my own, I had to accept that it- it just- it wasn’t our time. Do you understand?”
I soaked in his words, sensed the fear and the crippling anxiety pushing each one off his tongue, knowing I would hear and reply. I had at once felt his desperation to convey his feelings and the swelling of my own resentment, maybe my bitterness that wanted to leap in front of my better instincts and react just as defensively, admonish him for assuming that I alone was some massive, destructive force of nature, toxic to the joy of others by the sheer virtue of existing in their space and interacting as people do.
Before I responded, he continued. “I didn’t want to go to war… I didn’t want to become a social statement or postured as some political flag bearer for men that love a trans woman. I didn’t want to have to defend my sexuality or my masculinity or abandon my own legacy to become a long-running joke for internet dwellers. In these respects, Phaylen, I am not an effectual spokesperson; I’m not fit to carry the baggage that would come along with that topical responsibility I’d be asked to. To you that probably seems shallow and spineless, and maybe I am here, as I am unequipped to navigate this and I can’t offer anything more spirited or wholesome to make me proud of myself or give you the closure you deserve. I wish I could just say it wouldn’t work because you’re a shitty cook or that I’m just not interested because that would be so much easier than what this is... and easier still was just not dealing with it or not having to explain myself to you and reveal myself as some common septic male specimen avoidant of social progress or ‘wokeness’ because of the implications on myself regardless of the pain I cause others. I am rather ashamed of this, if I’m honest. In a better world it never would have been like this for either of us.”
It was hard to get over the mental hurdle that, once again, my transness had made me not viable… not to date, not to love, not to be seen in public with- all of the things I write so emphatically against when it comes to dating. In the emotional gamut the conversation had become, I softened. I, of all people, knew the world was not kind.
I leaned back in my chair, my eyes fixed forward into nothingness as I spoke; “Much of my life I have been deeply invested in trying to be something else- someone else to meet the perceived standard of acceptability for the world around me. I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted to fit in and move forward without the resistance or the chaos. I wanted the expected life and the simplicity it offered, to do the expected things… have a career, get married, have kids and grandkids… the things I’ve watched everyone around me do over the years. I feel left behind. I’ll never untether from that inconsolable sadness upon discovering that those simple things were not an option for me. I grieved the life I wasn’t allowed to have like an early death. If I’d had a choice, this path might not had been the one I choose either. It is a war. I’d be a hypocrite for chastising you for not wanting to fight bare knuckled and bloody fisted every single day when you don’t have too.”
Neither of us spoke for a minute, we sort of held the moment of peace in reverence. I was glad for the closure, the honesty, the reminder that the dark underbelly of our culture that has claimed countless lives and left others traumatized and alone in the end still persists. That’s the very reason I found my voice, when being silent wasn’t an option I could accept. The thing about war, when it is yours, you reach the defining moment where you stop being afraid of the flashes and booms and you become, not a consequence of them, but a warrior stepping through them. You become fearless. Sometimes we get so busy carrying the weight of our armor across the battlefield that we forget our war is not the only one being waged.
James took a sharp inward breath and it startled me from my thoughts, drawing my attention back to him. “I wish I could be better. Because I never felt better than when I was with you.”
I smiled, cast a downward glance into my lap, “The thing is, James…” I closed my eyes and gently shook my head, “It won’t be that hard for me to find someone better.” I did my best not to sound snarky or arrogant, but just as honest as he had been with me. “Not everyone is going to be afraid of how I look standing next to them, or sitting across from them at a restaurant table. Not everyone is going to care if people laugh or make a joke or ask prying questions. I do that. “I laughed softly, “Because not everyone thinks that love or partnership comes with some costly exchange. That person is the one for me.”
I waited for him to say something, but nothing was offered. “I appreciate you being honest with me, I know this wasn’t the conversation you were expecting.”
He half-laughed, “I hope you know that I can’t be the only guy like this, right? I’m not the only one who is afraid of the risk-”
I interrupted “-You’re not the only one.” I said consolingly. “I get letters from men who tell me how much they wish they could cast away their fears and be with a transwoman without losing their kids or being turned on by their church or losing their job… all the time. You’re not alone.”
“I thought not,” he said quietly, as if to himself. “Sad state this is. Unfair.”
I stood up and watched as my cats scurried to the kitchen ahead of me for their supper. “I should go. I have to get my day started. Again, sorry for the intense dialogue.”
“I’m glad we talked, Phay. I missed you.”
I wanted to tell him that he didn’t, in reality, miss me, but only the idea he had romanticized of me; The idea of taboo love. The exhilaration, perhaps, of breaking the rules. After all, he could have called years ago.
“Take care of yourself,” was all I could muster.
“Can I call you again? Maybe we can catch up properly? Next time maybe not drill my soul for an interview.” He said in jest. “I’d just like to- I don’t know.” He fumbled with his words.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m home a lot these days.”
“Same.” He said, “Crazy times we live in.”
“Best time then…” I began as I cracked open a can of cat food, “To find a partner for the end of the world.”
There was slight moan on his end, “Right. A partner for the end of the world.” He repeated.
“Talk soon, James.”
“Good-bye, Miss Fairchild. Chat soon.”
And I hung up the phone. I swallowed hard, my blood coursing through my veins at an unnatural speed. Truth was, I missed him too, but again, only what I wanted him to be and that person never existed. Not in this time.
And I never heard from him again.