FRED JOINED A writers group that met once a week. In addition to working on his novel, Fred began to explore his inner feminine side in personal essays. It took courage to share his process with the group and, happily, Fred found that his companions accepted and embraced his shifting identity. With an enormous sense of relief at being able to out himself to a small portion of the world, Fred attended some of their meetings dressed as his female persona.
In October of 2004, Fred turned forty-four. I decided to throw a party for him and invite his friends from the writers group. They were his only local friends, other than those he had met through me. Fred had never really cultivated a circle of friends on his own. During football season, he went out to watch a few games with my friend’s husband. Otherwise, we did things together or he pursued his interests alone.
On the night of the party, I baked Fred’s favorite chocolate cake. The boys and I walked around the neighborhood and collected tiny, brightly colored leaves to place at the edges and in the center of the cake over the glossy, sour cream-chocolate frosting. I decorated the living room and extended our table to seat ten.
The guests arrived on time and gifts collected at the end of the long table. I watched the writers banter back and forth with my husband. It was a pleasure for me to see him appreciated and valued in his work. Fred smiled, laughed, and appeared very comfortable with them. I was the one on the outside this time, and I didn’t mind the role reversal. I glowed to see him so joyful and at ease with his friends and welcomed the opportunity to bring this community into our home, our family.
I set the cake before my husband, lights dimmed and candles blazing. Fred silently made his wish and blew out the candles. Everyone clapped and the cake was served. Trinidad and Sam sat beside me and devoured their servings in just a few bites. The group included me in their conversation out of consideration, but mostly they were excited to gather outside of their regular Tuesday night meeting. With great animation, they attended to one another, happily discussing their lives outside of writing.
I collected empty plates as Fred reached to open his first gift. I returned from the kitchen to see our guests leaning in close as Fred pulled a pink vinyl purse from the sparkling tissue. The bag bore an art deco image of a woman emblazoned across the front and a long pink zipper ran down one side. My breath caught in my throat. I looked at the boys. They watched with curiosity.
I had no idea what to do. This was clearly a gift for Fred’s feminine side. I had never seen that part of him acknowledged beyond the privacy of our home; indeed, I had rarely spent time with it myself. The children, now four and almost two years old, had no concept of gender in any conscious sense and only knew their father as he showed up in jeans and a chamois shirt. It hadn’t occurred to me that bringing the writers group into our home would open Fred’s gender exploration to our children.
My heart raced and I began to sweat as Fred, blushing, unzipped the pink pouch. He reached in and carefully pulled a pair of black fishnet stockings from the purse. The woman who had offered the gift began to rise out of her seat with excite- ment. “I wasn’t sure if they would fit,” she said. “They only came in one size.” Jewelry, too, spilled out of the bag and onto the table.
Fred picked up the pieces one at a time, gently stroked the stockings, and then shifted his gaze to me. I stood still in the threshold between living room and kitchen, knuckles pressed against my lips. How would I survive this moment? I did not want to walk away from Fred’s friends. I wanted to honor the acceptance and kinship he had found there. This group had saved him personally and cultivated his talents as a writer.
At the same time, my insides turned to ice. This was our home. Fred and I chose how much of his feminine exploration would be revealed here. Every day, we walked a fine line of being honest with each other and ourselves about our feelings as Fred spent time in Heather’s shoes. Never had it occurred to me that Fred’s “other woman” would find her way into the living room over cake and birthday wishes.
Our boys took in the situation with interest but no apparent confusion. I wanted to scoop them up and run out the door to God-knows-where. Only one local friend, Michelle, knew of our plight, and she was hardly accepting. Where would we go? What would we do?
As I churned internally and my head began to pound, laughter and the clinking of wine glasses played on before me. Friends leaned across the table to share witticisms and pat each other knowingly on the hand about long-time inside jokes. Torn, Fred looked to them with wonder then back at me beseechingly, fully perceiving the jagged trap I found myself in. He half rose to come to me, but I shook my head and left the room.
My husband would celebrate no more birthdays. Our community reflected it back to me clearly: she had moved on without me.