Ryan Ruff Smith
The first person I met when I moved to Cincinnati was a guy named Mike, who lived in my apartment building. He held the door as my partner, RL, and I struggled up the stairs with my couch. When we came back down, he was waiting for us. He was a large man, maybe five-eleven, two-fifty, and he was rocking on the balls of his feet like an excitable child. I would guess that he was somewhere between forty and fifty, and I had the impression that he hadn’t paid any attention to the finer points of his personal appearance in years. It’s odd that you can tell when someone’s clothes need washing just by looking at them, but you can—it has something to do with the way they hang.
“Mike,” he said, thrusting out his hand, and I took it. As he repeated my own name back to me, there was a glint in his eye that seemed a bit frantic. He had trouble hearing RL. “Carl? Errol? Oh, Are-Ell. What’s that short for?” RL, who is much better at handling strangers than I am, didn’t even acknowledge this question. My default mode, when talking to someone new, is to try to rise to his level of friendliness and enthusiasm, however outsize it may be. This is not a conscious choice, and it’s gotten me into trouble before. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, perhaps the most outwardly friendly place on earth, and even there people thought I was too nice. A desire to please—to conciliate and to please—are my deepest bedrock instincts.
RL and I went back out to the U-Haul and Mike drifted off somewhere, though he’d left some kind of presence or trace behind, and I had the sense that he was still lurking around the edges of the property. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, while RL and I were making separate trips, lugging boxes up two flights and down the long hallway to my new apartment, Mike reappeared in front of the building, holding a rumpled fast-food bag in one hand and a half-eaten hamburger in the other. “Ryan!” he said. “You guys need any help, or anything like that?”
I thanked him but said I thought we had it under control. The box I was holding was full of vinyl records, and it was unbelievably heavy.
Mike leaned in confidentially. “Will you be working late tonight, Ryan?”
“No, no,” I said. “If we can’t finish it all today, we’ll just stop.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Ten at the latest.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Ryan.” Mike paused to chew reflectively on his hamburger. I shifted the weight of the box I was holding. “These wood floors,” he said. “You hear everything. Nice, though! Those high ceilings?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “It’s a nice place.”
Mike started to turn away and then stopped. “You have blue eyes, Ryan?”
“Yeah,” I said, after a pause, startled by the oddness of the question.
Mike nodded and went on his way. I made a mental note of the conversation so that I could tell RL about it later. At the time I thought it was funny. I thought it would make good dialogue.
RL had been on testosterone for almost two years now, but this trip was the first time he had been consistently read as male. We weren’t sure whether this was because the T had suddenly taken its full effect, or whether it was because we were in a new place where nobody knew him, and the people we’d encountered—both in Cincinnati and in Lexington, Kentucky, where we’d stayed overnight on the way—were unaware of the gray areas of transgender experience and had no option but to push him to one end of the spectrum. Whatever the reason, it was a striking change, and it also meant that for the first time I was consistently being read as a gay man. Before RL, I’d always dated women. Of course I knew that this was the terminal point I’d been heading toward, that the further RL’s physical transition went, the more gay it would make me. And yet it was still strange to me, this arriving suddenly at a new identity after having lived so long in the liminal space we’d carved out together, like being dunked into cold water after gingerly wading for years in the shallows. As far as our inner lives were concerned, that liminal space was actually a permanent state—RL’s gender identity wasn’t binary, and I still wasn’t gay, exactly—but among new people in strange cities, our inner lives weren’t visible.¹ We were whatever they saw; we were at the mercy of their seeing. Or, put another way, they couldn’t really see us at all.
The night we moved in, I walked up the street to pick up some takeout Indian food just as the restaurant was closing. RL and I were moving from Gainesville, Florida, where we had met. He was just in Cincinnati temporarily, for the month of August, before going to start his own PhD at Princeton. Gainesville is a weird, swampy North Florida college town, and our three years together there, getting our master’s degrees, already seemed like an idyll. Rent was dirt cheap, and I’d reflected as I packed my stuff that I might never live in an apartment as nice as the one I had there. In Cincinnati, I couldn’t afford a place so nice; in New York City, it would have cost me thousands of dollars a month. I’d turned thirty in Gainesville, and the idea that I was going downhill, that I’d hit an early peak in terms of my quality of living, depressed me no end. I’d spent most of the summer inventing new ways to displace this anxiety. One night, I found a free computer program that allowed you to arrange furniture in a customized floor plan and then simulate walking around the space in three dimensions. You could not only climb up on top of the couch if you felt like it, but you could jump, crouch, and swivel your torso to view the room from different angles. I stayed up until seven in the morning, arranging and rearranging the furniture, adding and removing credenzas, using an eyedropper tool to give the couch the same floral pattern as my actual couch, and pacing restlessly up and down those virtual floors. And that was all for a Cincinnati apartment I didn’t even take in the end. RL solemnly joked that he would leave me if I ever pulled another all-nighter on the program. I was lucky to have him.
Now I was in a new city, not quite large enough to qualify as “the city,” but not quite small enough that I could walk or bike to every place I wanted to go, as I’d done in Gainesville. I lived on Ludlow Avenue, a busy street lined with shops, and even if this commercial district only stretched a few blocks, I still got a small thrill out of stepping out of my apartment onto the street, strolling past a few small businesses, arriving at the Indian restaurant (clean and empty and air-conditioned, thank God, yet still aromatic with spices), paying for my takeout, and carrying that warm little cargo under my arm—the paper bag with plastic containers stacked neatly inside, steam condensing under the tops of their lids—back home, just a block and a half, glancing up the street at the movie theater and the ice cream parlor and the two dreadful coffee shops I could now call my own.
Back at the apartment, we realized that we hadn’t yet unloaded the silverware or any of the dishes. As we walked back out to the U-Haul, I downloaded and installed a flashlight app on my phone. I knew exactly which box the silverware was in—it was irregularly shaped—but the rest of the kitchen boxes were just labeled kitchen, so I took my best guess as to the dishes. I guessed wrong, and in the end we ate out of the takeout containers. It occurs to me that most people, when they get takeout, probably eat out of the containers, but about things like this RL and I are both very particular,2 which had made the whole process of moving—those in-between days of making do with whatever you hadn’t yet packed up, of sleeping on air mattresses and eating out of pie tins—challenging for both of us. What made it more challenging was that we were moving at the same time but not together, so that we were both consumed by our own moves at the precise time when we most could have used help from each other. RL, being more forward-thinking, had packed a week earlier than I had, even though we were loading my stuff first, so he was constantly getting the short end of the collaborative stick, and he had to deal with my panic and self-absorption as I scrambled to get everything together on the last night before we headed off. What was worse, our worldview had been reduced almost entirely to the practical details of moving, so that for weeks we were like an old couple who had run out of substantive things to say and could find common ground only in matters of logistics—packing tape and tie-down ropes, box sizes, how best to cut cardboard to protect a painting.
So we’d been living for small moments like these, when the task at hand narrowed to something as uncomplicated as eating. Naan, chicken tikka masala, chana saag, and lots of basmati rice. We rinsed the spoons and forks in the sink and ate out of the takeout containers, and even if the food wasn’t as hot as it could have been because of the time I’d wasted digging around in the truck, it was a brief moment of rapture.
The next time I saw Mike was in the front hallway. I was trying to wrestle my mailbox open with the small key I’d been given. The boxes were tucked behind the stairs, and I was cornered back there. Mike had the same aggressively friendly manner, the same unsettling glint in his eye as before. I wasn’t happy to run into him, but he hadn’t yet raised any serious alarm bells in me, like he had in RL. When I’d told RL about my last conversation with Mike, the question about my eyes being blue, he hadn’t laughed as I’d expected, but gave me a stern look of worry. In spite of his oddities, I still imagined Mike was harmless. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t used to being perceived as gay, or perhaps it was because RL had been socialized female and had developed better instincts about creepy older men. Whatever the reason, I kept up the same surface friendliness, the charade of enthusiasm I’d entered into when I first met Mike.
“You settling in?” he asked. He had a sense of being in a hurry that belied the intensity with which he was fixing his attention on me.
“Yeah, you know, it’s coming along,” I said.
“It’s a nice place, isn’t it? High ceilings, wood floors. You’ll like it here.”
“Yeah, it’s nice.” I wasn’t sure whether he realized he was repeating himself.
“Well, I’ll see you later, Ryan. Now that is Ryan, isn’t it? R-Y-A-N?”
I nodded. “And it’s Mike, right?” For a moment I was actually worried that I’d misremembered.
He grinned broadly. “Yep! That’s an easy one, right?”
He left me there nodding, mirroring his grin.
I was finishing up the last week of my long-distance freelance job, working from home, and so the unpacking had been happening in fits and starts. At first I’d hated the apartment. My anxiety about settling for something less than I’d had in Gainesville had tarnished every corner. The more we unpacked, though, the more I grew to like it. By the end of the first week, we’d done just about everything except hang the pictures and unpack the books. I also had two large bookshelves, still in their boxes. I’ve heard that many relationships have ended in IKEA stores, and ours had certainly taken a bump. We made the mistake of going right at closing time. It was late, and we hadn’t eaten yet, and the maze of showrooms you have to pass through to get to the checkout became increasingly confounding. In the lightbulb section, I found the model I needed for my lamp back home, but I couldn’t find one that was dimmable, and I needed dimmable or the lamp wouldn’t function, and I suppose I must have directed some of my frustration outward, at RL. I was contrite for days afterwards. If people think that I am an exceptionally patient person and have no temper to speak of, it is only because I know that if I lose my temper, I will be the one to suffer for it. I can’t say an impatient word without going up onto Golgotha. I was still repentant for days after RL had forgotten about it.
Our first Friday night in Cincinnati, having things mostly unpacked and feeling ready to celebrate my finally being done with work for the summer, we went up the street to see a movie. I was happy but a bit dazed, and still stupid from lack of sleep and days on end of thinking about nothing except for work and moving, and I was trying to recover my faculty for intelligent conversation, trying to remember how to relax into it and get caught up in the flow of ideas. RL always had something to say. He had always just read something that made him think of a novel or a theorist or a movie in a new light—he was always synthesizing—and I felt sheepish that for weeks I had not been able to rise to meet him, to engage with his ideas any further than to acknowledge them, grunting monosyllabically like a philistine husband. But that night I was starting to come back, as if out of a thick fog, and I was startled to see RL in sharp focus again—frankly, I was dazzled. We came back up the street from the theater holding hands. I’d started to notice in Lexington that this sort of thing drew glances, not always friendly, and I’d already become more cautious about public displays of affection, but that night I felt easy and content and let myself not worry about it.
I would be embarrassed to report much of our dialogue directly, consisting largely, as it did, of ongoing personal jokes and silly terms of endearment. It was a private language. We both valued cuteness in conversation but were suspicious of cutesiness on the page. Written, our dialogue would probably sound childish, show-offy, and demented, by turns. Some things just don’t translate.
When we got back to my apartment, we were laughing about something. We flopped down happily onto my couch, and then almost immediately we heard a scream.
That in itself wasn’t so unusual. In cities, sometimes, you hear a scream, and you don’t know where it’s coming from, and you don’t know whether it’s serious or playful, or, if it is serious, how you’d ever be able to find its source and get a handle on the situation and do anything about it. But this scream was very loud and didn’t sound far away. We stopped and listened. There was another scream, followed almost immediately by distinct cries for help. We both stood up. “Is this real?” I said. We went to the back window in the kitchen. There was a door in the kitchen that led to a fire escape, and beyond that a parking lot for the building next door. We thought the screaming was coming from the lot, or perhaps from the street, out of view. We couldn’t see anyone. The cries for help gave way to a strange sort of moaning, which gradually became more verbal. The person seemed to be yelling a name. Also, the pitch had dropped, from a shrill falsetto to a guttural bass. The screamer kept repeating this name, over and over, and slowly it started to sound like my name. I was incredulous. Maybe he was saying “Brian.” The voice kept yelling, and it became undeniable that he was saying my name, saying “Ryan,” over and over. “What the fuck,” I said, feeling a chill whip through me. “I don’t even know anyone here.”
I think it struck us at the same time. That weird guy in my building. Could it possibly be him? He had been very intent on getting my name right. But I didn’t even know him.
That was when the yelling got ugly. “Where’s my faggot?” he suddenly burst out. “Ryan! I need my faggot.” These verbalizations were punctuated occasionally, still, by strange falsetto screams. “Wake up, faggot!” he called. “I’m going to beat your ass. Do you want to get your ass beat tonight, faggot? Ryan!” Again he screamed.
I ducked back, keeping away from the windows. We thought he must be down there, in the parking lot or at the bottom of the fire escape, yelling up at my back door. “This is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me,” I told RL in a whisper.
“I know,” RL said. He was listening intently.
“Should I call the police?”
I went into the bathroom and dialed 911. My account of the event was confused and confusing. None of it made any sense, really. I didn’t know if we were in immediate danger. The doors were locked, but I thought it might just be a matter of time before Mike lumbered up the fire escape. I tried to explain where we thought the yelling was coming from, and the dispatcher said that some officers would be on their way.
When I came out of the bathroom, RL was still in the kitchen. He was trying to see, to hear, to keep tabs on where Mike was and what was going on. I wanted to tell RL to get out of the kitchen, away from the windows, but I didn’t want to reveal myself, in case that might send Mike over the edge. We weren’t sure whether he knew we were home. I went around the corner into the entryway, away from all the windows, and waited. I could still hear most of the yelling—it was unbelievably loud. Mostly he was just repeating the same stuff over and over again and screaming, but later RL filled me in on a couple of phrases I’d missed: “I’m sick of faggots moving into this building” and also, inexplicably, “I need you to do some work.”
I had to call the dispatcher back to discover that the police had arrived. She told us to go out the front door on the Ludlow side and talk to them. In a rush of adrenaline, we put on our shoes and hurried down the musty hallway, down the stairs, and out the door. The officers weren’t there. RL had seen them sitting in their squad cars on the far side of the parking lot out back, so we started walking toward the corner, but I didn’t want to go all the way around—we still didn’t know where Mike was exactly. I called the dispatcher back, and she said the officers would pull around and talk to us. We met them on the corner of Ludlow and Middleton. The one in front was a beefy, skeptical guy who seemed to think we were wasting his time. There was a female officer in the car behind him; she didn’t speak to us at all. The first officer said that they’d been sitting back there for ten minutes and hadn’t seen or heard anything. It occurred to us only then that Mike must have been yelling from his own apartment. I told the story again, explained why we thought it was Mike. The officer said there were a lot of people named Ryan, and then muttered something about the First Amendment.
I wilted almost immediately in the face of the policeman’s authority, but RL stood firm. “Listen,” he said. “Of course I’m concerned about Ryan, but this guy also sounds extremely unwell. He probably needs help.”
Begrudgingly, the officer agreed to go back to the building with us and get out of his car to see if he could hear him. He said the most he could do was treat it as a noise complaint and ask the guy to be quiet, and we were prepared to settle for that.
When we met the officers out back, Mike seemed to have calmed down a little, but he was still going, screaming and whimpering, less verbal than before. His apartment was the one directly below mine, which explained why it had sounded like he was standing outside my window. I realized that I’d passed by his window several times, bringing boxes up the fire escape, and what decorations I could see had made me think that an old woman lived there, or maybe a veteran of the local theater. There was some kind of trellis, frilly curtains, and a red lampshade. The officers prepared to knock on his door and told us we were free to go. RL and I hurried back around to the front, not sure whether they would wait until we were out of view.
When we got back to my apartment, the yelling had stopped. We spoke in whispers, trying to make sense of what had happened, which proved difficult. We cast about for a while trying to guess at Mike’s motivations—what his deal was exactly—but we kept coming up short. This was unnerving, because it meant that we had no idea what might come next. We weren’t sure whether this was the end of it or just an overture to still crazier acts—whether he was a serious danger to us, himself, or both.
RL said he would stay up all night. I was desperate for sleep and probably would have passed out before long even if we hadn’t been able to secure the apartment. In fact, we did discover that the kitchen window didn’t lock, and we wedged a spirit level into it as a temporary measure. Then we talked briefly about whether I would have to move out. At this point I was still fixated on logistics—whether the rental company would let me break my lease; whether, God help us, I could summon the energy to move again. We agreed that it was important to document everything while it was still fresh in our minds, so I wrote a long email to my rental company, revised and proofread it, sent it, and went to bed.
Shortly after the sun rose, RL crawled into bed beside me.
“Hey,” I said. “Have you been up this whole time?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t stay up with you. I was so dead.”
“It’s OK,” RL said. “I wanted to. I got a lot of reading done.”
We curled up together. It was comforting to know that he’d been keeping watch, and I was glad that he was with me now. My protector.
For a couple of hours after I woke up, things seemed less bleak. The sun was shining and the apartment was almost fully furnished and I made coffee while I waited for the rental office to open for business. Maybe what happened had simply been a fluke. Maybe Mike had gone off his meds or had a bad drug trip and it would never happen again. Or maybe—did a part of me even hope this?—his outburst had been part of a larger psychological break, and after the police left he had killed himself. We hadn’t heard a thing from downstairs since the yelling stopped.
I was tired but not sleepy, dulled and yet fully alert. After a while RL got up too, groggy but uncomplaining, and we drank coffee together and ate the last of our granola bars and talked in low tones about contingencies. I was still clinging to the vain hope that I wouldn’t have to leave the apartment. Despite my initial anxieties, I’d grown into the place—I’d almost come to love it, even. Though we’d been there only a week, there were already memories and attachments. The fire escape out back—that was where we’d taken RL’s picture for the Princeton website, where we’d both stepped out on pleasant nights to make phone calls, where we’d planned to sit some evening and have cocktails, once I found a decent liquor store and unpacked the bar supplies. It had been ours, something we had shared. Now I doubted I would ever use the fire escape again, knowing that Mike was lurking below us. Even if he were evicted, Mike would know where I lived, would know exactly which landing to come to. No, it was not conceivable to stay.
Shortly before nine, we started out for the rental office—on foot, since it was in the neighborhood. I found that I was jumpy, not only as we were leaving my building, but on the street as well, looking around me all the time, laser-focused on the destination, unable to sustain a conversation for more than a sentence or two at a time.
The office was a squat one-story 1970s building atop a steep hill. The young man we met with was apologetic, worried, and powerless to help us immediately. He was also—I was fairly certain—gay. He listened with clear alarm to the story I told, and when I asked what he would do in my situation, he answered cautiously that this was why he didn’t live in the city center himself—he was from a small town originally, and safety was a big priority. The property manager was out for the weekend, but the young man assured us that they would deal with it first thing on Monday. He was pretty sure they would be able to move me into another one of their buildings, but he couldn’t make any promises. It didn’t occur to me to ask whether there was such a thing as an emergency in his profession, and what exactly one might look like, if this wasn’t one. I was overwhelmed and had no clear sense of my rights, and I left just feeling grateful that I wouldn’t have to pay a fine for breaking my lease. For me, fear led not to anger but to logistical worry.
RL and I left the office with no clear destination. I was half inclined to go back to the apartment, to reclaim what was ours, if only until Monday. How could we just let Mike win? But it was impossible to imagine being comfortable there. We wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation without wondering if he could hear us, our attention always veering downward.
We wandered through a mostly empty parking lot and sat down on some concrete steps that led up the hill toward Ludlow. I made a few phone calls. I hadn’t yet connected with anyone from the English Department in person—I’d been waiting until I was done with work and unpacking—but there were a few people I’d been in touch with over the summer, and I thought we could probably find someplace to stay. As it turned out, there was another PhD student who had a guest room we could stay in, and in fact she and her husband were going to dog-sit for someone else the next day and would be happy to put us up for as long as we needed.
Still, we would have to go back to the apartment to pack. There wasn’t any way around that. We resolved to do it as efficiently as possible. There was even some debate as to whether I should take the time to pee in my own bathroom or whether I should wait until we got to my classmate’s house—that was how eager we were to get out of there.
As we threw clothes into my suitcase, we kept glancing out the windows. Maybe five minutes after we’d gotten back, Mike walked out the front door of the building. RL and I crowded at the window and watched him shuffling toward Ludlow. He looked tired and dejected, but I couldn’t say for sure whether this affect was different from his usual state. He was only gone a few minutes, and then he came shuffling back, holding a plastic cup, which he sipped from occasionally—soda, probably, from the gas station.
Just before we finished packing, we saw Mike again, this time through the dining room window, at the back of the building. He was sitting in a lawn chair in the courtyard and unambiguously staring up into my apartment. Because we immediately shrank away from the window, it was hard to get a good look at him. I saw that he still had his beverage in hand and that he did not break his gaze even to drink from it. If he’d looked unkempt before, he looked ruined now—pale, eyes hollowed, bedraggled.
We got out.
The days that followed were long, formless, and stifling. I have trouble now differentiating them, and perhaps it’s better that way. Of all the varieties of short-term and long-term damage that Mike’s outburst did us—psychological, financial, emotional, temporal—being thrust back into the experience of moving was perhaps the one we resented most. Suddenly life was again stressful, logistical, tedious, exhausting. We’d deliberately left ourselves one week between the end of work and the beginning of my PhD orientation to read, write, explore the city, and spend time together before RL headed off to Princeton. Now that week was slipping away.
The rental company did agree to move me into another building, and we found an apartment that was good enough. A week before, the chipped, faded tile floor in the living room would have made my heart sink, but now it seemed acceptable. Yet we agreed that we couldn’t do the move ourselves. Going up and down the stairs of the old building with our hands full, leaving the door unlocked, making noise—it was too vulnerable a position to put ourselves in. RL had a family friend who had set us up with movers to load the U-Haul back in Gainesville. Jason had been almost impossible to get hold of, but he’d come through in the end, and now we tried to get back in touch with him. We wasted several days waiting to hear back from Jason, making do with an air mattress and the small quantity of kitchen supplies we’d managed to smuggle out of the old apartment. Finally, at the end of the week, we rented another truck, hired cut-rate contractors via U-Haul’s website, and got the job done. The movers were brothers from rural southern Ohio who looked like neo-Nazis and had impeccable manners, though I did catch one of them gawking openly when RL walked into the living room wearing a T-shirt tucked into short denim cutoffs, and I felt again the wrench of protectiveness and worry that had of late become so familiar to me. It was as if Mike’s tirade had vaporized and scattered and left a residue over the whole city, so that I was constantly turning back and scrutinizing glances to see if they were hostile, transphobic, or violent. RL and I had ourselves discovered a new access to violent thinking, and we shared with only a little guilt and hesitation our fantasies of what we’d do to Mike, given the chance. In my case, the fantasies usually consisted of a few choice words, devastatingly pronounced, emphasizing, I suppose, my privileging of the verbal and the emotional. RL just wanted to smash him. And though it was hard for me to visualize the precise nature of the smashing, given the considerable difference in size between RL and Mike, I did not for a moment doubt that RL could do it. He was scrappy. And unlike me, he could own his anger.
There is a good and necessary organization in Ohio that keeps records of things like this, hate crimes against LGBTQ folks. They maintain a database and also provide informal counseling over the phone, someone to talk to. My friend Mary, who works for Legal Aid back home in Minneapolis, had done a lot of research on my behalf in the immediate aftermath of the encounter with Mike, and she pointed me in their direction.
Shortly after the second move had been executed but before I was fully unpacked, I gave this organization a call. It was midafternoon, and RL was out at a coffee shop, working. I paced around the kitchen and told the woman who had been assigned my case the whole story. She was sympathetic and precise and gave me helpful ideas about how to navigate my neighborhood, how to form contingency plans and escape routes should I run into my aggressor again.
At the end of our conversation—which was longer, richer, and more comforting than I’d anticipated—she asked if I’d be willing to share some demographic data for their records. First she asked me about Mike. What was his gender identity? I could confidently assume it was male. His sexual orientation? If he wasn’t straight, I told her, he clearly wasn’t comfortable with that. Then she asked about RL. It felt good to hear someone ask.
Then she asked about me.
I hesitated, worried suddenly that I would be found out as an impostor. My queerness, such as it was, was strictly relational. But then, what identity isn’t? Orientation is a facing outward, an attraction toward—it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Still, I was protected to a degree by the contingency of my situation, its ambiguity, its reversibility. I didn’t know if I had a full claim on the identity. I’ve always paused at declarations.
“Well, that’s the weird thing about it,” I said. “Before RL, I’d always dated women. This is my first queer relationship. So it was weird to feel the privilege I’d been walking around with suddenly taken away.”
I waited for her to dismiss me. Instead she said, with great sincerity, “Thank you so much for sharing that.”
It was a strange thing to feel, after such a jarring arrival—this unqualified welcome.
Inevitably, things between RL and me were thrown slightly askew. The worst part about moving again was that it forced me to live with my worst self. I was trying with all of my willpower not to be obsessive, self-centered, and peevish, but in the strange purgatory of always moving, I was forced to stand aside, as if at some small but unbreachable distance, and watch myself become obsessive, self-centered, and peevish. Ever since our spat at IKEA, I’d noticed that something small in RL had been shut off—some modicum of companionability, some modicum of warmth—and I didn’t know how to turn it back on. This had happened a few times before in our relationship. RL always took time to process things. He preferred not to talk about something until he fully understood it. If I forced an issue too soon or too stridently, he might shut down; if I waited too long, the issue could become overgrown and unmanageable. For my part, I was almost physically unable to live with uncertainty. My tendency was to discuss something as soon and as rashly as possible, in the interest of dissipating any temporary unease, even at the cost of a worse outcome in the long term. As we’d spent the past three years poring over each other’s instruction manuals, we’d found that this was the key calibration between us. Often I miscalculated, and RL had already broken up with me twice. What was heartening was that we seemed to be learning and progressing—I could now manage to sit back for a couple of days while RL worked through something, and he could provide enough periodic affirmation to keep me from boiling over into emotional distress.
The strange thing was that whenever I finally discovered the source of RL’s shutting down, it almost always came as a surprise to me. I consider myself an intuitive person, so this obliviousness was humbling. But really, intuition is a mixed blessing. It tells me too much to rest easy and too little to understand. My point of view is strictly close first person.
After our purgatorial week had ended, once we’d more or less settled into the new apartment, I had a sense that the proper moment had arrived to discuss our latest tension, but I was anxious about it. So much was in flux, with RL leaving for Princeton in less than two weeks, and I didn’t want to risk a conversation that could break my heart. As always, I didn’t understand the source of RL’s closing off, and therefore I resented it. RL knew I needed affection, the way a finicky houseplant needs direct sunlight, and it seemed to me that he was choosing to withhold it.³ After all I had been through, I thought I had a right to that affection, that whatever my own sins of omission may have been, I deserved it.
“Can we have a feelings check-in?” I asked him. This was our term for these conversations.
It was late afternoon. We were sitting in the bedroom of the new apartment.
RL looked startled, as nervous as I was. “Can I finish just this one thing?” he said. “Five minutes.” He was working on his laptop.
For a moment I felt brushed off, but now I’m glad he gave me those five minutes. I’d been planning to come at it in my usual way, haphazardly, from a blinkered perspective, detailing my hurts and anxieties and asking for comfort.4 But in the brief intermission, it occurred to me to wonder what this all must have been like for RL. I tried to imagine how I would have felt, having been displaced from the stability of even a temporary home by a tedious and frustrating drama that was not even my own.
So when he closed his laptop, what I told him was “I’m sorry.” I said, “I just realized that I’ve been totally inattentive to your needs.”
The conversation that followed was thoughtful, detailed, and considerate, and there’s no need to report it here. I could see on RL’s face from the beginning that I had found the proper valve.
I saw Mike three more times. My new apartment was several blocks from the old one, but I was still in the Clifton neighborhood and did my shopping in the same places. The first time I saw him, it was from my car. He was walking up Ludlow as I drove past, and I felt an unfamiliar combination of primal aggression and fear wash over me. This was when I was still at the height of my anger, and it was hard not to imagine running him down. Instead I fixed him with a murderous stare. It seemed safe from the car, and maybe it would send a message. He didn’t look up.
The next time, I was in my car again, but RL was with me. We were going to check my mail at the old apartment—a procedure we’d risked a few times already—but as I pulled up I saw Mike across the street, talking to someone outside the CVS, and I kept driving. RL very seriously asked me to turn around. He wanted to confront Mike. I didn’t turn around but kept on going, out of the neighborhood. I said that I was actually going to have to live here, and who knew how often I’d see this guy around? I said that the last thing we wanted to do was allow things to escalate. I suppose I was right, but it would have felt good to take decisive action. I’d like to know what RL would have said, if I’d cut him loose, if we’d actually done it.
The last time, I was on foot. It was evening, just after dark, and I was going to meet some of my new friends for ice cream. RL was staying in. As I neared the shopping district, I saw Mike on the opposite side of the street, walking in the other direction. As before, he didn’t look up. I’m almost certain that he didn’t see me. He was carrying something—a large envelope—and as he turned onto Clifton Avenue, it occurred to me that he might be going to our rental office. The property manager had told me they’d sent him a letter, asking him to contact them, after he’d ignored their phone calls and knocks on the door. Perhaps now he was delivering his reply, or a bomb, or some anthrax. Anything seemed possible.
I kept going up Ludlow and met up with my friends, and we sat outside with our ice cream. The whole time I was jumpy, constantly looking over my shoulder, expecting him to come back up the street at any moment. But he never came. He must have taken a different route home, or maybe I’d missed him.
It’s been two months now, and that was the last time I saw him.
But I did find out what was in his letter. Earlier this week, I called the rental agency to ask what had come of the whole thing—whether Mike had ever explained himself, whether he’d been evicted. At first the property manager seemed reluctant to talk. “Well,” she said. “His reply was very interesting.” She paused, and then went on to explain that Mike had told them that he suffered from night terrors. Sometimes he would sit up in the night and start screaming, sometimes he would yell things, but he could never remember what in the morning. He told them he had no recollection of that night, except that he’d woken up knowing that something had happened, that he’d had one of his night terrors. “Of course, what he was yelling was very disturbing, regardless,” she said. “But if he really couldn’t remember any of it, well, it didn’t seem fair to—you know. We gave him a very serious warning.”
I didn’t believe any of it. Even so, it stopped me. What if some element of the story were true? The whole thing had had such a nightmarish quality. I’d never entertained the idea that the bad dream might not have been just mine, that it might have been his, too. But then, too, there was the aggressive staring. The absurd duration of the yelling, the targeted nature of it, the creepy encounters in the hallway. Even if his outburst had been largely the product of his subconscious, it was still damning—it was such an ugly thing. But all the same, there entered into the equation an element of doubt. I would not be allowed anything so
uncomplicated as a villain.5
I’m in the new apartment now. It’s very quiet here. The last names on the mailboxes are mostly South Asian, and in the hall there are wonderful cooking smells. I haven’t exchanged more than a nod with my neighbors. I’ve come to feel at home.
RL is gone, off to Princeton. Our month together went by quickly. It wasn’t all bad. I find myself feeling nostalgic for even the worst times, because RL was here.
When we first started dating, early on, I was very cautious in the way I talked about our relationship. I told friends back home that it was temporary, tied to a specific time and place, not likely to last. Partly, I was protecting myself—I didn’t know whether RL would keep me. Mostly, however, I think I was trying to protect my friends, their ideas of me. To conciliate and to please them. Of course, none of them would object for political reasons to my dating a trans guy, but I worried they would think I wasn’t being genuine. I didn’t want them to think I had changed in some fundamental way that might exclude them, that might mean they didn’t know me anymore. Leaving home had allowed for a kind of evasion that I kept trying to renew—I wasn’t gone, I was just away for a while. If I couldn’t preserve my former self, that past identity, then at least I could suspend it, suggest its eventual return, and put it off forever.
I still think sometimes about the old apartment, the one I lived in for only a week. How important it seemed that I get everything right, how permanent those decisions seemed. It was not a vacation property. It was mine. It was where I lived. The fire escape, the scuffed wood floors, the light in the morning, the sounds of the dishwasher at night—these things were meant to figure in my life. I still feel the loss, but not the deprivation. That something that seems permanent can prove to be temporary is not surprising—it’s the basic plot sketch of most narratives.
What’s surprising is that sometimes it can go the other way, too.
1. We ourselves are not innocent of occasional acts of flattening and oversimplification. RL’s preferred pronoun is “they”; the use of “he” here, and frequently in conversation, is just one of many microconcessions we both make daily to make ourselves more legible.
2. RL, reading an early draft, pointed out that one of us is perhaps more particular than the other.
3. Before I added the qualifying phrase “it seemed to me,” this sentence itself was the source of another minor rift, another humbling obliviousness on my part. It was not the first time in my life, and will surely not be the last, that a writing problem became a personal problem.
4. David, the editor of Subtropics, suggested that perhaps I am being a bit too hard on myself here, in a way that is symptomatic of the very tendency to be hard on myself that I diagnosed earlier, and kindly suggested that I cut the words “from a blinkered perspective.” This was a shrewd suggestion, and I’ve retained the phrase only for the purposes of this footnote.
5. This business of the night terrors is the one detail I’ve made up. So perhaps it’s not so much that I wasn’t allowed a villain as that I couldn’t abide one. Where no explanation exists, you’re sometimes
obliged to invent one, and this rings true enough for me.