Things are fine until the men start grilling. Then everything begins to go wrong.
I’m visiting Pam, my oldest friend, but also a mirror to what my life might have been had I been prettier, smarter, and more successful. Her first time with a boy, Bobby Sinclair, on her parent’s couch, winter of 9th grade came two years before my first make-out session, during a junior year that saw Pam juggling three different guys. We stayed in touch through college, me at the State University of New York at Albany, and her roaming the more exclusive halls of Yale. We lost touch briefly during her medical school and residency, while I tried a series of careers. I dropped out of law school, not cut out for life in the shadow of the judicial system, and couldn’t keep up with the academic rigor of physical therapy school. I ended up a preschool teacher. It barely pays the bills, but allows me no end of challenge and variety. On any given day, you never know what the little sweeties will come up with.
During her third year in pediatric residency, Pam and I reconnected, resuming our friendship like no time had passed. She’d already met Hank, been dating for nearly a year. During the next few years, we talked frequently. I attended her wedding as maid of honor with Bertram, a guy I had been seeing for about three weeks, and who only lasted another three after that.
You’d expect I’d visit more often than I do.Yes, I sound self-centered, petty and resentful, but I can’t help comparing her life with mine. Hank is CFO of a financial company in Manhattan, and he bought her a six-bedroom house on an acre and a half of beautiful lawns and gardens that a team of landscapers keep green and growing year round. How can I not contrast that to the apartment I share with two virtual strangers, with an acrid chemical smell in the hallway and stairwell, and a kitchen that’s smaller than the front seat of my twelve-year-old car? It’s less than a two-hour drive from my home just south of Philly to her affluent Westchester neighborhood, but I’ve only managed the trip twice in the four years she’s lived there.
This time, though, I had to go. She’s taking maternity leave from her spot on staff of the Center for Pediatric Neurology, and this is my one chance to see her daughter as a near-newborn.
I love babies and I love Pam, so I can’t not go. But her happy, healthy, gurgling bundle will remind me that I don’t have the child I want more than anything else, and that I’m not even married.
Which brings me to Shane.
Pam has been begging to meet him. We’re dating four months now, a duration I’ve only achieved twice before, once to a man named Darren who ended up getting back with his ex-wife, and once to a guy named Brandon who decided I wasn’t busty enough and broke up when I refused to get implants. Even if I weren’t dying to meet Pam’s daughter Melissa, I’d need a real humdinger of an excuse to stay away.
So I sit now cradling a precious five-week-old on a picnic bench under the awning that covers Pam and Hank’s 40-foot long backyard deck. The baby is fast asleep, blissful eyes tightly shut, diapered butt resting in my palm, and head safely nestled between my arm and chest. I’m facing my old friend, who looks far more like a high-school cheerleader than a mother who gave birth barely a month ago.
“Your time will come,” she declares confidently, guessing my thoughts. Turning to Shane who sits dutifully to my left, she asks, “Did you come from a big family?”
“I was the oldest of four. One brother three years younger, and my twin sisters came along when I was twelve.”
“Did the two of you end up doing a lot of babysitting?”
Shane laughs. “I did. My brother used to get in trouble so much, my parents wouldn’t have dared leave them alone with him.”
“So you like kids?”
Shane nods. “I do.”
“Want a bunch of your own?”
It’s casual conversation. That’s Pam’s way: Don’t hold back, plunge ahead even where sensitivities might be involved.
A subject change is in order. I look over at the massive gas grill that Hank has fired up. “Hank, do you need help getting the meat on?”
I give Pam a semi-dirty look for raising the “kid question” with a guy I’m not even engaged to, but I temper it with a smile to say I’m not really mad. We discuss Shane’s work (product development at a building supply company) and whether he’ll be sticking around long term (I really hope so). Between talking and getting my fix of baby Melissa’s cherubic face, I’m not paying much attention to the men, when a single line of Hank’s deep bass voice comes clearly across the deck.
“Yeah,” he says, “I learned to grill in the scouts.”
No problem there. I turn back toward Pam, when I hear Hank again, this time asking Shane, “You ever been in the scouts?”
I snap my head toward the men again with such speed that I feel Melissa tense slightly with the movement.
I’m willing Shane not to say what I know is coming next. Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it. I promise to give money to the next forty panhandlers I see if he just doesn’t say it.
I should have promised fifty. He says it.
“I was in the scouts, but not the scouts you’re thinking of. I was actually in the girl scouts.”
My stare is fixed on Hank’s perplexed face, like watching a car accident I’m powerless to prevent.
Shane explains. “I was female assigned at birth. I transitioned to male when I was in college.”
It would be completely unreasonable to ask Shane to keep his history to himself, and I wouldn’t dream of it. He is not ashamed of his transition, no reason he should be. He doesn’t hide his background, completely comfortable when the subject comes up.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Except, maybe around Pam. Eventually, if Shane and I stay together, it is bound to come out, but she spots my boyfriends’ deficiencies long before I do, and I really want her to like him. Yes, being transgender is not a deficiency, but who knows what Pam will think? I scan her face, and it’s obvious she heard, but I can’t tell what’s going through her mind.
Melissa picks that moment to wake with a start and immediately start crying, a gently mewling sound like a lonely kitten. “I know that sound,” Pam tells me. She comes around to my side of the table and takes Melissa from me. “I was right,” she declares triumphantly, as she pokes her daughter’s diaper. “Come. Let’s go into the house and get you changed.” She makes a motion with her head to join her. I look over at Shane, who appears comfortable (though the same couldn’t be said of Hank), so I follow Pam in. In the nursery, she momentarily hands Melissa to me and opens the cabinet beneath the changing table to retrieve a diaper. I comfort the girl, bouncing her gently in my arms, wondering whether my turn will come..
Once cleaned and changed, the baby’s demeanor improves only briefly. We don’t quite make it back outside, when she lets out a new sound, much closer to the classic “Wah! Wah!” Instead of going out, Pam slides one of the kitchen chairs out from under the table, sits down and lifts up her shirt, watching the baby eagerly put her mouth on her breast. I look nervously out the window at Shane and Hank ministering to the steaks, hoping things are going well between them.
Pam, once more guessing my mind, assures me they’ll be all right.
I sit back down at the table. “I’m not really worried about Shane. He’s comfortable with just about everyone, but I don’t know how Hank’ll take him.”
Pam shrugs gently, so as not to disturb the feeding baby. “I gotta ask. Are you two … doing it?”
Instantly it feels like we’re back in high school, sharing all details of adventures with the male sex.
I shoot her a mock exasperated look, hoping she’ll back off. I knew she would ask, and I know I’ll end up telling her, but it’s somewhat more uncomfortable now that she knows his anatomy is, well, non-standard.
She seems oblivious to my discomfort. “Does he have a penis?”
I’m tempted to tell her it’s none of her business, but, really, I don’t mind talking about it and I imagine Shane would probably expect me to.
“Well technically, he does.”
“What does ‘technically’ mean?”
“He has a penis. It’s just not ‘attached’”.
That satisfies her curiosity, and we move to tamer subjects.
After the feeding, we go back out to the deck, where tangy flavorful steaks await and Shane and Hank have found common ground. Hank collects wine, which Shane knows something about, or at least fakes it. Pam tells how she met Hank at a Rascal Flatts concert and we move from there to our various musical tastes and to the band where Shane plays bass part-time. It’s all very friendly, but I can’t shake a vague sense of discomfort, either from Pam or Hank or my own imagination. Only Shane seems perfectly at ease. As the sun sets and we clear the dishes I think I understand. I let Pam down. She wanted to see me happy with Shane, having a man speed me on my way to my dream of starting a small family. She hoped I’d finally put behind me my disappointing early life chapters. I didn’t deliver. I’ve brought her yet another doomed relationship that will leave me exactly where it found me, no closer to my dream.
Once the table is clear and the dishwasher loaded, Shane offers to drive all the way back.
“You seem tired,” he tells me. “I can tell.” He’s right. The visit has taken an emotional toll: The anxiety ahead of time, the constant reminder of the baby Pam has and I don’t, and continuous stress of a life that deviates from the script. His look tells me he knows all of it. Pam and Hank are upstairs, putting Melissa down to sleep in the nursery, as Shane comes up behind me and gently kneads my shoulders. The loving pressure turns aches that I hadn’t been aware of into fountains of warm pleasure. I moan happily, but he slides his hands off.
“We’ll need to get going. I promise to give you the rest of the backrub at your place. How does that sound?”
My answer involves placing my lips on his for a long luxurious kiss.
As I’m drying my hands after washing up before our trip home, I hear voices in the hallway. Pam and Hank speak quietly, so as not to disturb the child they just put to bed. They don’t know I hear them through the closed door. I’m tempted to make a sound so they’re aware of my presence, but something in Hank’s tone brings me up short.
“I didn’t appreciate it when you and your friend went in and left me out there with that … guy.”
“I’m sorry,” Pam answers. “I needed to get Lissa fed.”
“Don’t ever do that again.”
Hanks voice, delivering this last line right before they head out of earshot, sends a chill through me. I try to reframe it. Could he have been kidding? Could he be acting out the caricature of the bullying male ordering his wife around, perhaps to assure her he’d never be that way. I want a way to understand what I heard as anything other than a man who thinks nothing of making a demand as if his wife were a servant. I can’t. I know what I heard. There was no warmth or humor in his words.
I’m shaking by the time I make it down to the ground floor. Shane has begun to say his “thank you’s” and “good-byes”. I listlessly join in, discretely waiting until Shane has headed out to the car and Hank has drifted back toward some other part of the huge house.
“Pam,” I ask, “is everything OK?”
She makes a confused face. “Of course. Why would anything be wrong?”
I’m reluctant to tell her what I heard. “Are you happy? I mean with Hank, and the house, and everything.”
“Of course,” she answers. “I love the house and Hank is a great husband. Why would you ask?”
“I don’t know. Just a feeling.”
She pats me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I’m great.”
“You know you can talk to me any time.”
“Of course,” she answers dismissively. I hope she’s sincere, not just a great liar.
I buckle myself into Shane’s car and wave at Pam who stands in her doorway as we pull away.
I try to forget what I’ve seen. If Pam wants my help, she knows how to ask for it.
“What’d you think?” I ask Shane.
“I see why you like Pam,” he tells me. “She’s great.”
He’s silent for a few seconds. “A bit overbearing, don’t you think? Let’s just say that, if you decide that I’m not good enough for you, I hope you don’t end up with someone like Hank.”
I give his shoulder an affectionate rub. “I think I’m going to stick with you for quite a bit longer.”