Flashlights & Love

Our first Valentine’s Day together, Simon got me a flashlight.

Oh, he got me some red roses, too. But the flashlight was the main present. He wanted me to be prepared, just in case. This is his way, laying a path and making way for my independence, nurturing my strength. But I didn’t know that then. How odd, I thought. Then I promptly commenced to lamenting that he wasn’t more romantic.

I grew up on a steady diet of rom-coms. Still love them. But the way of the men in these movies is to completely miss the fact that they have a good thing going. To dismiss or overlook all that is good, strong, quirky about the women who love them–then to come careening back into their lives, when it’s a breath away from being too late–with some grand gesture to prove their love, to acknowledge the worth and value of the woman who has loved them all along.

I mean, when it’s put that way it kind of sounds like some bullshit, right?!

So, no, I didn’t understand the way of a man who would give me a flashlight.

I have, in fact, gotten a few big, romantic gestures over the years. Some of them not necessarily because they are what he would’ve chosen, left to his own druthers.

The proposal, for instance.

He got down on one knee in the middle of a bar on a weekend night to ask me to marry him (yes, we got engaged in a bar. We were 100% always in a bar at that point in our lives. But also, the music festival we’d planned to spend the weekend at had devolved into a mud bath of sorts, so–in his defense–the bar was Plan B.)

That may not seem like much. But it was pre-transition. He spent so much time trying not to be seen–at all–that the idea that he’d drop to one knee in the middle of a crowd of people, that he’d consciously draw attention to himself in order to bring me joy, well that’s quite a gift.

Now, I know how to appreciate those gifts, to savor them, to realize the sacrifice they take on his part. The love is in the sacrifice, not in the gesture, it turns out.

In addition to my rom-com, big gesture version of love, I also came equipped with the idea that people who love each other never fight.

Goodgodamighty.

I’ve been disabused of this idea about a thousand times over. Simon and I are as different as they come–I’m pineapple on pizza. He’s pepperoni. We see the world from such vastly different persepectives that, if we argree on something immediately–without discussion and endless cycles of negotiation–we know that that thing is foretold by the Universe. Plain and simple.

That’s how we picked up and moved from one side of southeast Atlanta to the other after two years and one day. I came to him with this crazy idea that I tried to pass off as a whim, so I could start softly and build a case later after the initial no.

And he said yes. Right away. Which is how I knew, for certain, that a move to East Atlanta was right and good and ordained by the Universe. When we both want something at the exact same time, it becomes magical, driven, possible.

Because somehow he sees through my restlessness, my (slight) tendencies to want things my way (because isn’t that really the only way?!), down deeper into what I really need. And those are the things he jumps behind. The ideas that will help me, and ultimately our whole little family, flourish.

So, yeah, he’s flashlights instead of grand gestures. But flashlights, they light your way. They give you confidence to explore. They make you feel, simultaneously, safe and strong.

But his biggest gift to me–his grandest gesture to date–is that little bookstore that I own, the one that brings me such unabashed joy. I brought the idea to him, just sure he was going to tell me I was off my rocker. We’d just moved (again). I’d finally started making some real money with a writing business I’d spent several years building up. And yet, here was this little idea that had taken hold…

And he saw it, right away. He saw that this was it for me. This was what lit me up. He asked questions that helped me sort out my vision for the store. He cheerleaded. He designed logos and websites. He carried boxes. And he told me he was proud of me, that he believed in this. That he believed in me.

That is the person I married, although I there was no way to know all this at the time. But 14 years later, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t trade that flashlight for all the romantic gestures in the world.

When Simon transitioned, I wanted to place all our relationship difficulties squarely on his shoulders. HE had changed the terms & conditions of our relationship. HE wasn’t the same person anymore (in a way more literal sense than folks usually mean this). It was his fault that we couldn’t connect the same way.

Except…

I learned a long time ago to look for my part in a messy situation. But as my relationship with Simon was devolving into lukewarm friendship—I mean, we weren’t besties or anything. We just kind of got along okay mostly—I didn’t FEEL like looking for my part. Smugness suited the situation better, I thought. My mindset fell more along the lines of “Oh, so you want to transition? I’ll show you transition…” or something like that, anyway. The long and short of it: I just knew Simon had ruined us. And I certainly wasn’t going to take it upon myself to pull us out of the hole we were quickly sinking in to. I hadn’t caused this mess. And I wasn’t going to fix it.

Except…

My anger roiled under the surface constantly. Minor annoyances that I used to roll my eyes about became reasons to seethe. As Simon sorted through his mixed feelings about leaving Tampa, I packed the house with a mix of fury and excitement. I couldn’t get to Atlanta fast enough. We were orbiting in completely different emotional spheres. We were in close physical proximity most of the time; but, emotionally, we were worlds apart.

I threw myself into life in Atlanta. Work, friends, activism… Atlanta breathed life into me that I hadn’t felt in years. And pushed me further away from Simon, who seemed to be struggling a bit to settle in. I’d love to be the compassionate heroine who swooped in to help Simon navigate his malaise. But I was busy. And happy. He was on his own.

In the back of my mind, a constant refrain played: But I’m attracted to women. This isn’t fair. But I’m attracted to women. This isn’t fair. But I’m attracted to women. This isn’t fair.

And, while it is true that I am attracted to women, I quickly ramped up my interest in women to a late 1990s level (if I hadn’t thought I would’ve been decades older than most of the women there, I totally would’ve cruised lesbian bars. But, alas, vanity saved me). I was obsessed. It was like diving back into those first years when I realized that loving another woman was an option… the possibility was intoxicating. And I was there again… but this time I was married. To a guy. What the actual fuck.

And so, this confluence of events was how we reached The Great Meltdown of 2016.

It wasn’t him. It was (also) me.

Flux

Life is constant flux. Knowing is transitory. Grasping destroys even the most beautiful things.

When Simon transitioned, I knew—knew down in my bones—that this would be better. For him. For our family. For Jane. But that knowing clashed against my belief about who I was—defined largely by being a lesbian. I couldn’t conceptualize how I could be gay and be with Simon. People often rail about being put into a box—they don’t want to be labeled. But I did want to be labeled. I’d worn this particular label (lesbian) for over 20 years. And I was pissed that someone would try to snatch that away from me. I felt betrayed by Simon’s need to be himself. Because that self wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

Everything I wrote about that summer—two years ago now—was true. We did reconnect in meaningful ways. Our physical spark returned. We fell in love again.

But all the while, I felt off-kilter. Like I was lying to myself. I didn’t know if I could be married to a man. Because I didn’t want to be. I’d married the person I wanted. Now she was gone. And in her place was this guy—who looked like her, who both was but was not the person I fell in love with. My everyday life was a total mindfuck.

Angry. Sad. Betrayed. Lonely. Scared. All of this I felt with varying intensity, all the while cheering Simon on through his transition. Which was never about us (it couldn’t have been; it shouldn’t have been). Simon transitioned so he could live, really live, his own life. Which left me to figure out how my lesbian self—fit into this new life of his. And how he fit into mine.

More and more, I was convinced that he didn’t.

I crafted the life I wanted to live. I built it up brick by brick, carefully constructed to fortify me in case of disaster. Because disaster loomed large any time paused long enough to evaluate our situation. Which wasn’t often. Emotional survival became the ultimate goal.

When shit went wrong (like, really, really wrong), my fortification didn’t do jack to protect me. I felt vulnerable. Crushed. And searingly lonely. Everything I’d believed to be true for more than 13 years suddenly felt like a lie. A complete fabrication. I couldn’t breathe.

But I could see clearly.

I saw that grasping at a label—even one that served me so well for so many years—was destroying me. I finally saw the person standing in front of me—and he had real needs, fears, desires. Those had both everything and nothing to do with me. When I could just see us standing there—me and him, stripped of labels, and free to choose—then I knew that I wanted him. Not in that sure, we’ll stay together way. But in an I choose you way. Not you are good enough, but you are ALL that is ever going to be good enough.

So I chose him. And in the choosing I found freedom.