Mid-October, and around the rocks of Devil’s Den legions of…
Stephen was singing along and tapping his hands on the steering wheel to the Mountain Goats, one of his favorite bands. It was a good day for driving and singing. October blue sky, hills layered with oaks and maples and sweetgums flashing scarlet and gold leaves. We’d left Chapel Hill in the afternoon and were on our way to Johnson City, Tennessee, where Stephen was born and raised.
“Remember, don’t call me Stephen around my granny,” he said.
“What about around your parents?”
“Yeah. They won’t but you should call me Stephen.”
He reached to adjust his glasses, and then rubbed his finger over the naked patch of skin in front of his ear. This morning he had shaved off his sideburns and stubble, but there was nothing he could do about his deep voice.
“I don’t get it. How can your granny not know?”
Stephen had started taking testosterone about eight months ago. He’d come out as transgender to his parents, but was too scared to tell his eighty-one-year-old grandmother, the woman who’d helped raise him. They’d seen each other many times since Stephen started physically transitioning, and his grandmother never asked questions. As long as she didn’t say anything, Stephen wasn’t going to either.
“I guess people see what they want to see,” he said.
Stephen and I had met that summer. He was my closest friend in Chapel Hill, where we were both grad students at UNC. I’d moved there from New York. When I left the city, I was afraid I wouldn’t find a queer community—I never dreamed that one of the first people I would meet would be a trans guy from East Tennessee.
Stephen pulled in to a gas station and parked his Subaru wagon behind a massive pickup. I followed him in the rundown store, feeling uneasy. Sometimes that’s how it is when you walk into a straight space, especially in rural America—you know you don’t belong, and they know it too.
But we were trying. We were wearing flannels and jeans and boots. Stephen read easily as male, even with the smooth face. He was tall, that helped, and his salt and pepper hair, neatly clipped, made him look older than thirty. Plus he had the low voice, the thick neck and strong jaw. Back then, I never knew how people were reading me. I was skinny and tall. I wore my hair short with a line of bangs angled toward my eyes. This was before I’d changed my name or started using male pronouns, and a long time before I even considered taking testosterone. Still, I didn’t look the way a female is supposed to look. Mostly, I just confused people.
The grizzled guy behind the counter, sporting an impressive set of chops, wore a trucker hat with a deer patch on the front, a hat for which hipsters would pay good money. He watched us walk in, arms crossed over his chest.
“How you doing, buddy?” Stephen said.
Stephen’s loose way with strangers, even with the straight, potentially scary kind, always eased the tension.
“All right, man, how are you?”
“Good. Real good.”
While Stephen went to the men’s room, I wandered the aisles, pretending to study rows of chips and candy, wondering what this guy thought of me. There were times I got called ma’am by one person then sir by the next in the span of about thirty seconds.
When Stephen came back out, he nodded at the guy. “Thank you, sir.”
“Y’all have a good one.”
Back on the road, I asked Stephen what he thought—how did that guy see me?
“He probably saw us as two guys,” he said.
I didn’t believe him, but it was nice to hear. I didn’t know what I wanted exactly, except that I was feeling more and more uncomfortable being seen as a girl. I flinched whenever I heard the word “ma’am”—it came at me like a fist. But when someone called me “he,” I opened up, swallowed the word, held it inside me.
“The way you were talking to that guy, it’s so easy for you,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“You talked to him just like, like, this dude.”
“That’s just how I am. I would have acted the same way before.” Stephen lit a cigarette, cracked the window. “I get nervous, too. Afraid someone will figure me out.”
“What was the men’s bathroom like?”
“Does it feel weird, you know, to go in there?”
“Did you use the men’s bathroom before you started passing?”
“On and off. It depended.”
“Makes me nervous,” I said.
“The thing is, men don’t notice shit,” Stephen said. “Women will stare at you, they’ll pay attention. But if you’ve got short hair and use the men’s room, nobody will even look at you.”
Stephen was used to my questions, used to me studying him. I intended to write my thesis on the trans community. I’d brought my camera and recorder to document our trip. I didn’t call myself transgender, not yet, but I was drawn to the stories in ways that I still couldn’t articulate for myself, even though, to others, it must have been obvious how thirsty I was for recognition and validation.
We passed a boarded up farmhouse, a yard buried under gutted cars, a billboard that said The only Path to God is to the Right, and a yellow school bus, probably someone’s home, parked in the middle of a pasture. The landscape reminded me of southern Ohio, where most of my family was from, where I used to visit my grandparents. The politics of these places scared the hell out of me, but there was something about them, with their old-time look and rundown beauty, that spoke to me—I wanted to touch the knotholes in the fences, smell freshly mowed hay, walk across fields. When I was living in New York, I’d gone away for six weeks to work on my novel in a cabin in Tennessee. Every morning I woke with the birds, then brewed coffee and wrote. No city noise to battle with, no high rent to worry over. With my life slowed down, I had more time to examine it. The truth was, I wasn’t happy in New York. It was then that I started thinking about leaving, but it took me another two years to finally go.
Stephen turned onto a residential street and eased up on the gas. “We’re here.”
His parents lived in a neighborhood where most of the houses had been built in the sixties and seventies. Huge maples and oaks canopied the sidewalks and the spacious front yards, shedding fall leaves. Their house was a brick ranch with well-tended flowers curving along the walkway.
His parents came out through the garage to greet us. They were friendly and gracious, shook my hand and welcomed me, but their main focus was Stephen, their only child. His father patted him on the back. He was shorter than Stephen, with a rounder build. They both had the same bright blue eyes, both wore glasses.
When Stephen and his mother hugged, they rocked their bodies together. They had the same plum cheeks, big smiles.
“Supper’s ready,” his mother said. “And I made cupcakes for dessert.”
“Oh good. Mama made cupcakes,” Stephen said, smiling like a little kid.
His mother put the food out on the table: mashed potatoes, meatloaf, an iceberg lettuce salad, and green bean casserole that she probably made just for me, the vegetarian. She was worried I didn’t have enough to eat and dished more on my plate. She and Stephen did most of the talking. I liked listening. They drew out their vowels and said things like “I reckon” and “I was tickled,” reminding me of home.
“Granny doesn’t know I’m coming, does she?” Stephen asked his mother.
“No, I didn’t tell her. She’s going to be so happy to see you.”
His parents also did not want Stephen to come out to his grandmother. Nobody thought she would be able to emotionally or physically handle it. “I just wouldn’t have any idea how to tell her,” Stephen said to me. “Not in a way that she’d ever understand. I can’t imagine that she could fathom why on earth someone would want to change their ‘God given’ gender.”
After supper, while Stephen’s father watched TV, we looked at family pictures. Relatives, ancestors, stern men and women in dark clothes. And pictures of Stephen. In one of them, he wore a bunny costume for a dance class: a black leotard and silky pink bunny ears, long hair pulled in a ponytail.
“Mama,” Stephen said. “That’s embarrassing.”
“She loved dance class,” his mother told me. “And she played the fiddle too. We should show one of those videos of you playing the fiddle.”
Stephen shot me a look when his mother used the wrong pronoun, but he didn’t correct her. All evening, his parents kept calling him by his birth name and referring to him as “she” or “her.” Sometimes Stephen didn’t react, at least not outwardly; other times, his brow creased, his jaw clenched like he was biting down on all the pain he’d been carrying around for so long. To ease the hurt, I made sure to say his name a few times, to use male pronouns. Whenever I did, his mother just kept talking, her hands locked together in her lap like she was trying to hold herself together. She laughed a lot, but there was something sad in her expression, a wistfulness. Here was her thirty-year-old child, once her daughter, now a man.
Stephen told me that he and his mother used to fight a lot when he was in high school, especially after he came out as gay. Back then, still identifying as female, gay seemed like the only way to describe himself. His parents, both Democrats, were liberal up to a point, but still, his mother didn’t approve. After she found a love letter that Stephen had written to a girl, she kicked him out. His father wasn’t as upset: “I guess it’s like being a Republican,” he’d said. “I don’t understand it, but it’s your decision.”
When Stephen came out as trans at twenty-nine, his mother cried. She also said, “I love you.” She said, “You’re my child.” His parents were trying. They had given him a bouquet of flowers after his chest surgery, and his father had bought him a men’s suit for a job interview. They would get better about using his name and the right pronoun, and Stephen would get better about correcting them. He wanted them to know who he was, he wanted to be seen.
For years I’d been living in this kind of unacknowledged space between female and male. I identified as female back then because I didn’t see another option, not for myself. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have a trans story. That was for people who’d known all their lives, who felt like they’d been born in the wrong body. Those were the only stories I’d heard about trans guys. They lived as masculine females before medically transitioning. They worked on cars, played football. For them, I thought, their identity was a hard, clear light. For me, everything was cloudy, shadowy, shifting. I knew, and yet I didn’t.
Then Stephen told me, “I never felt trapped in the wrong body. Some guys have that experience, but a lot of others don’t.” He added, “I also don’t have early memories of, ‘I’m a boy’.”
“How did you know?” I asked, desperate for a bright, clanging sign. I was sick of the questioning and searching, the ambiguity.
“It’s an ongoing process.” Stephen saw gender as fluid, always changing. “I feel more comfortable presenting as male, you know, more comfortable in the world.”
When I was living in New York, I caught glimpses of different kinds of transgender expressions and identities, but I didn’t look too closely. If I did, I buried whatever I saw and convinced myself everything was fine, even when I stared at myself for too long in the mirror, worrying I looked too much like a girl. I resigned myself to admiring from afar chiseled jaws and flat chests, and I never spoke about transitioning. I didn’t know how to change something so big, so connected to my identity, not until I moved to North Carolina, where I met Stephen and other trans people. Living in a quieter, slower, smaller place, I couldn’t hide from myself as easily, and the dull pain that had been pressing down on me for so long slowly started to lift.
Stephen opened a door that I already knew was there, but I’d never looked to see what was behind it. Now, with the door open, I bombarded him with questions. How did it feel to change his name? To go swimming without a shirt? To be seen as a gay man around straight men? These were all things I thought I’d never get to experience. “My parents would never understand,” I told him.
“That’s what I thought about mine, too,” he said.
Many of my queer friends, rejected and hurt by their blood families, rarely spent time with them. Stephen was different; he was close to his family, and I liked that. I visited my parents several times a year, and, always happy to see each other, we held up our ends of an unspoken agreement to ignore what could be painful or scary. After so many years of silence, I didn’t know how to suddenly start talking. Stephen understood. He told me, “We don’t talk about anything difficult in my family. I certainly am not going to change that by coming out to my Granny.”
My parents were getting old, and I didn’t want to hurt them. If I ever transitioned, I thought, I would have to disappear.
In the morning, Stephen and I went to pick up his grandmother to take her back to his parents’ house for brunch. Both of us were still waking up—Stephen with a big cup of sweet tea, me with coffee. His grandmother lived on the other side of town, about a fifteen minute drive from his parents’. The white house with rose-colored shutters sat on a corner of two quiet streets. She had been living there alone since her second husband, the only granddaddy that Stephen knew, died twenty-five years ago. Curtains and drapes blocked all the windows.
“You sure she’s up?”
“She just doesn’t like people looking in.” Stephen raised his eyebrows, made his voice high like Granny’s: “You can never be too careful.”
Stephen rang the bell. His grandmother was expecting Stephen’s father. After a few minutes, we heard footsteps, a fussing with the locks.
“Hold on,” she called.
The door opened a crack, then wider.
Granny’s wrinkled face broke into a smile that showed all her yellowing teeth. “My Lord,” she said. “What in the world are you doing here?”
Laughing, Granny pulled Stephen to her. When he was a kid, he spent more time here than at his parents’. He stood a head taller than her. Her old, knobby, bent fingers pressed into the middle of his back like they were a part of his spine.
“Surprised?” Stephen asked.
“Well, no. I had a feeling,” she said, gazing at him like he hadn’t changed a bit.
The three of us stood in the entry way to the house on a little plastic runner that protected the ivory carpeting from dirt, Granny looking at Stephen like she couldn’t tear her eyes away. I wondered what she saw. I’d expected him to wear layers, to hide in his clothes, maybe a baggy sweatshirt, but he had on a flannel that drew tight against his flat chest.
Granny didn’t want to look away from her grandchild, but she was also curious about the stranger in her house.
“Hi, honey,” she said to me, her voice warm and throaty, a smoker’s voice, except that she’d never smoked. Granny grew up Methodist, then converted to Baptist. Stephen said she wasn’t religious in a scary way though. “She’s just very spiritual,” he explained.
Granny fit her bony hand in mine. Her skin was tissue soft the way old people’s often is. All my grandparents were dead, and I missed them. “It’s so good to meet you,” she said in a strong mountain lilt.
Next to Stephen, Granny seemed small, but she was not a tiny woman. If she could have stood straight, she would have been around 5’6”. But her back was hunched, which made her head stretch out like a turtle’s. She had a long, pretty face with prominent cheekbones and a strong jaw, a face that turned heads in her day.
“You from North Carolina?”
“Ohio,” I said.
She asked if I knew the Beasleys. I said I didn’t. She asked what my grandparents’ last names were, where they had lived. She wanted to know who my people were.
“Granny, you can find all that out later,” Stephen said. “You ready?”
“Not yet. I’m having a hard time getting around.” Granny’s smile fell. “Look here. Did your mom tell you I broke my toes?”
“How did you manage to do one on each foot?”
“Who knows. These things are slowing me down.” Granny pointed to the bulky orthopedic sandals on her feet. “And look at how ugly.”
“They’re not so bad.”
“Oh, yes, they are.” Granny was dressed in black slacks and a lavender blouse, and I had the feeling she was the kind of lady who never wore sneakers or jeans.
Stephen tried to lighten the situation. “You like my shoes?”
We glanced at his worn out blue Nikes. “No, I don’t like them.” His grandmother also didn’t like his hair. “I don’t know why you have to wear it so short.”
Stephen told her we had to go, his mother had lunch waiting.
“I’ve got to fix my face first,” she said. “You two come on in here, keep me company.”
In the hallway, I stopped to look at the framed photographs covering nearly every inch of the wall. Pictures of Stephen, relatives, friends. Family shots probably taken for church directories or Christmas cards: husband in a suit, wife in a dress, a couple of kids with their hair combed and faces scrubbed. One family looked vaguely familiar.
“Is that—” I looked at Stephen. He was laughing. “Does she know the Gores?”
“Not personally, but she’s a big fan of Al’s.”
The photograph was from the nineties. The daughters and Tipper were smiling, and Al looked fresh-faced and presidential.
“The Clintons are up there too,” Stephen said.
Right above a photograph of Stephen and his parents was one of Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea. I also saw Jimmy Carter and his family.
“She’ll put a picture of the Obamas up there too,” Stephen said. “She stayed up all night watching the election, she was so excited.”
While Stephen and I sat on the edge of Granny’s neatly made bed, she fluffed her white hair, sprayed her neck with heady perfume. I imagined Stephen had spent a lot of time in here watching her fix her face, and wondered if anything about the room had changed over the years. Angel figurines, in pastel pinks and lilacs, sat on a dainty shelf. A bouquet of red silk carnations. Bottles of pills, a box of tissues. Lacy white curtains in the windows like giant wings. Stephen was her only grandchild, and there were pictures of him everywhere. Baby pictures, school pictures. Same blue eyes, same smile. One of him with his honey-brown hair falling to his shoulders, folded hand propped under his chin. In another picture, maybe age four or five, he had pretty pink bows in his hair.
“I was prissy,” Stephen told me. “I had some lovely bows.”
I asked if I could take some photographs.
“Go ahead, she won’t care.”
Granny was too busy applying dark, respectable lipstick. She fussed with a brooch but her fingers were too bent, so Stephen pinned it to her blouse. He was gentle and careful with her. He helped her pick out a sweater, which took awhile, since everything he pulled from the closet Granny didn’t like.
After she settled on a cardigan, she had to choose a scarf. She wrapped a green chiffon one around her neck. “You like this one or the purple one better?”
“The purple one,” Stephen said.
She looked doubtful. “Maybe.” Then she noticed my camera. I’d already taken some shots of her and Stephen. “Can you make our picture?” she asked.
Stephen leaned down so his face was even with his grandmother’s and both of them smiled, old and young faces, female and male. Stephen had told me that he never thought he would be able to transition while his grandmother was still alive. “But then, I don’t know, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
For as long as Stephen could remember, his grandmother had called him “my little girl.” I wondered what she thought when she looked at him now. She wasn’t stupid. Politically, she was fairly progressive. But Stephen said she wouldn’t get it. “She operates in an incredibly gendered world,” he said. “I don’t know that she has a concept that transgender people exist.”
Maybe he was right. Granny just didn’t have the capacity to grasp the changes in her grandchild. Or maybe she thought if she continued to see Stephen as her granddaughter, her pride and joy, her “little girl,” then this could be the only truth.
I never figured out what Stephen’s grandmother did or didn’t realize, or, if he had told her, if she would have accepted him. But I understood why Stephen chose not to—I felt similarly about my own parents.
“I don’t want to disappoint her. I spend a lot of time trying to make my family happy,” he said. “I don’t want to make my Granny sad. I think that’s my biggest fear.”
Before we left, Granny made sure she had everything she needed in her pocketbook: house keys, lipstick, compact, blush, and a plastic light the size of an oatmeal cookie that turned on when you tapped it. It was something you might stick to a closet wall, but she carried it with her for emergencies.
She double and triple-checked the front door, making sure it was locked.
“You can’t be too careful. There are break-ins around here,” she said. “I get scared to death just going to town.”
“Scared of what?”
“Shoot-em-ups,” she said.
Stephen and I laughed, but she didn’t think it was funny. The world was a dangerous place, and nothing was the way it used to be.
Walking to the car, Granny suddenly stopped. She looked at me, then at Stephen. Her blue eyes were alert. For a second, I thought she was going to say something big, tell him she knew the truth and that it was okay. Her face lifted into a beaming smile.
“I’m just so glad you girls are here,” she said.
That word, how it snapped in the air, knocked us off balance, how it hurt. Stephen and I looking at each other over the top of Granny’s head, we held each other’s gaze, something like laugher but stranger and darker and sadder rising between us. We were together in this surreal, alternate universe. What did she see when she looked at me, when she looked at him, that allowed the word “girls” to make sense?
“Come on, Granny.” Stephen tried to make things normal again. “Mama’s probably wondering what in the world happened to us.”
“Want a beer?” Stephen yelled over the thumping music.
We were at New Beginnings, the only gay bar in East Tennessee. This was the breath of fresh air, smoky as it was, that we needed. It had been a long day of eating too much, looking at family pictures, pretending. Stephen getting called by his birth name. Me not knowing who I was or wanted to be.
He handed me a PBR and we crossed a wide open dance floor. There was a stage and catwalk, and a separate room with pool tables and a TV. The over-the-top decorating styles competed with each other: zebra print chairs, ancient Greek-style pillars and arches, strobe lighting. There was also a gift shop that sold T-shirts and sex toys.
The crowd was mostly men. That’s also why Stephen and I were there—to feel a part of something that for so long had been out of reach. Both of us had spent significant years identifying as lesbians, but, like Stephen said, “It just never felt totally right.” Being with women, identifying as women, had made some kind of sense at the time, but not anymore. Tonight we wanted to explore this part of ourselves that felt truer. We were wearing tight jeans and snap-buttoned plaid cowboy shirts, like the kind my grandfather used to wear. Every so often a guy met my eyes, but I looked away, not sure if I was passing or not. I stood close to Stephen, my bodyguard.
A black drag queen in a shimmering slinky blue dress belted out “The Greatest Love of All,” and a straight-looking white guy in front of me, skinny with a buzz-cut and Marines T-shirt, wolf whistled. Others slipped dollar bills in Whitney’s cleavage. If only Granny could see this. It wasn’t like the drag shows in New York or Portland or San Francisco. This was all about realness. No social satire, no comedy or shock, no bearded guys in women’s bathing suits. This was old-school, all Patti Labelle, Cher, Diana Ross. Teased wigs, sparking lipstick, sequined gowns. Some of the performers’ timing was way off, and one queen didn’t know even half the words, but they never lost the crowd’s attention or adoration. They danced and twirled and pranced up and down the catwalk in platform heels and thigh high boots, beautiful spectacles of femininity.
While Stephen went to the bathroom, I waited at the bar, checking out guys in the mirror behind the bottles of liquor, all these pretty pieces of glass I was afraid to touch. One day, not long after we’d met, Stephen had studied me and said he didn’t know how I’d ever called myself butch. “You’re too prissy, too gay,” he said. “A gay guy, I mean.” What he said struck a deep chord of recognition within me, but I was still too scared and wracked by self-doubt, and I just laughed him off.
There were a few cowboy types, but most guys were wearing tight T-shirts or tank tops, their hair clipped short. High-pitched laughter, exclamations of “Girl, please,” made me smile. A tall older man standing next to me gazed at my reflection in the mirror, and I looked down at my beer, my heart racing.
Then Stephen was next to me, his cheeks flushed. “Some guy just kissed me.”
“What? Who? When?”
“Just now, when I was in the bathroom. There was only one stall and the damn door didn’t lock, and then this guy pushed open the door.”
“He see anything?”
“No. I started to walk out and he said, ‘You’re cute.’ And then he grabbed me and started kissing me.” Stephen’s words came out fast, a teenager talking about a crush. I kept forgetting that he was still new to this world too, still finding his way.
“Dude, that’s awesome. You’re in.”
Stephen passed in ways that I couldn’t, not yet. Passing isn’t the right word: this was just who he was. And what I felt when I looked at him was the ache to touch that kind of truth in myself.
Stephen and I were leaving East Tennessee and heading back to North Carolina. We passed empty fields and forests that popped with color. Spirals of smoke rose up from the occasional farmhouse, a sight that made us nostalgic for a way of life we’d never lived. For Stephen, his Appalachian roots were a solid part of his identity. I couldn’t exactly claim this, but my memories of spending time at my grandparents’, the pull I felt toward the language and place, made me feel connected to something bigger than myself.
“You think my granny knows something?”
He was looking straight ahead. We were the only car on the road.
“I don’t know. It seems like you’ve figured out a way to be yourself around her.”
“That’s the thing, I’m not.”
We drove in silence for awhile, then Stephen pointed out a log cabin on a hill, craggy mountains rising behind it. “I’d like to live there,” he said.
The place looked just about perfect, and for an instant, I felt the same desire: to wake up every day with a view of the forest and mountains, to grow vegetables and chop wood and read by the light of the fire.
“Don’t you think it would be hard to live here? Especially if you had a partner.”
“Not if I had a girlfriend,” he said.
“What if you had a boyfriend?”
Stephen rubbed his chin where the short hairs were growing back. “That’s a different story. No, I couldn’t live here if I was with a boy.”
“We’d get killed.”
“We? Yeah, I reckon we might.” He glanced at me. “You sure know how to bring a person down.”
The road followed a river that snaked in and out of the forest. Stephen shifted into a lower gear. For awhile, we were quiet. I wanted to apologize, but I didn’t know why.
“I miss being able to go to family things,” he said. “All my mom’s side of the family lives in Virginia, and we used to have these big Thanksgivings. I can’t do that now because everyone will know.” He paused. “I miss seeing the old people in my family.”
Stephen came to a place where there was room to pull over and turned off the engine. My chest ached like I was binding, all these secrets, the exhaustion of trying to protect my parents, to hide myself, everything so tightly wound and hidden. Transitioning isn’t just about change, it’s also about loss, letting go.
“My parents, it would kill them. I’d never get to see them again,” I said. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want to make them sad.
The engine was ticking like the sound in my chest. Stephen looked at me with soft eyes. “You don’t know that.”
“I’ve wanted to change my name for years,” I said. “I never thought I could. What if it’s too late?”
“It’s not too late,” Stephen said. “It’s never too late.”
Stephen already saw me as a boy, he saw my true gender. But it went deeper than that. He saw me for who I was. He put his hand on my knee. There isn’t just one trans story in the world, Stephen taught me that. There isn’t just one way to be.
“One day you might surprise yourself, how you decide to be around your parents. Hell, they might surprise you too.”
His hand was still on my knee, the fingers curled, waiting. The tightness in my chest began to fade, and I turned toward him, our faces so close. He could see what I couldn’t yet.
“Come on,” he said.
We got out and crossed the road, twigs and acorns crunching under our shoes. Here we had an open and up close view of the river and a small waterfall. The day was clear, and a hard light gave everything an extra shine. Yellow hickory leaves, the black bark of the oaks. River rushing over boulders. Leaves decaying into the ground, returning to where they came from.
“I feel completely different when I’m in the mountains,” Stephen said. “It’s just different. It just feels different.”
I knew what he meant. We felt more at home here than we ever would be at a gay bar or around our families. Here, there was nothing to explain. Stephen somehow was making it work; maybe I could too, maybe I wouldn’t have to disappear—instead, maybe I would finally be seen. We stood next to each other as ourselves, surrounded by forest that was millions of years old and feeling content with all its mystery. Here, now, the two of us, we could just be.