transience // permanence
There’s a box of objects in my closet with no clear purpose. Seven objects, to be exact. And there’s maybe one other person in this world who could draw a connection between these seven seemingly worthless keepsakes. I call this person Z. She's a librarian, born on Bastille Day, a pinball enthusiast, and she was my first love in the most starry-eyed sense of the word. The objects in the box are what remain after everything that’s happened since we met.
I’ve known Z over a timeline marked by changing lexicons—first as a partner, then as a friend, then as a friend in gender transition. But Z has always been exactly who she always was, which sounds obvious, but it didn’t used to feel that way. My memory weaves together a conflicting duality with an identity of its own, like multiple songs being played on top of the other. With both faders up, one truth invariably drowns out another. The wave forms eventually level out, and I’m left with this story.
I’m a cisgender person, and I don’t intend to tell Z’s story. This is not a eulogy to a lost love, and it’s not a celebration of a partner’s journey, though I celebrate the person she is today in small ways every day. It’s squarely the nowhere place in between.
It was during the summer before I turned twenty-one that I first felt happy in that all-consuming, technicolor kind of way that was bound to end with a fall.
I was living in a new city, in a house with friends, a mile from my partner. And I had just gotten my first restaurant job. I was a server, but that’s all I would tell my friends at first. The name of the restaurant was, quite frankly, too embarrassing to reveal to anyone. Of course, I couldn’t keep the secret for long.
Z and I used to have a game where we would tell each other secrets. Driving through the mountains in Wyoming, my ’97 Tercel gasping through the elevation climb, we would bait each other into sharing our most private, cringe-worthy stories. I was reticent, feeling like I had nothing compelling enough to offer. I also knew that twenty years on this earth hadn’t afforded me enough time to identify where my public self ended and my private self began.
Z’s secrets were an entirely different story. She had three or four gems that came to her mind without pause. None of the secrets, at least to my mind, revealed that she was a woman. When Z’s turn came around, she would protest over and over again in playful ways that let me know I would earn the secret if I kept baiting her a few more times. It honestly didn’t take much. When the time came for the revelation, I was shocked at how not cringe-worthy it really was.
Today I wonder whether her cringing was linked to the proximity of those secrets to the big secret, the one I wouldn’t find out for another three years. These smaller secrets revealed an emotive, feminine quality that neither of us named. As those shades of femininity came out more vibrantly, so did my feelings towards this person. But as you’ll notice, I’m still sidestepping my end of this story about secrets.
Of course, this secret is rendered infinitesimal compared to her big one. Turns out, it might also overshadow any hint of femme embedded in her small secrets, just by virtue of its punchline. Because the restaurant where I was working was called Lady Elegant’s Tea Room.
As I disclosed the entirely lame identity of my employer, Z giggled at the time, a laugh that contained no malice but still brought a blush to my cheeks. So I began to reveal the ridiculous daily happenings at Lady El’s—the exploitative lack of tips, my coworker’s obsession with Kraftwerk, the sad truth that they masked their Trader Joe’s cookies in a spread of lacy white doilies. But then, as always, I made things kind of weird. Or, I guess I should say, Z and I found our playful and bizarre sweet spot with this particular subject. And it began with a Scotch Brite® Dobie™ sponge.
I came home one day raving, to a point of hyperbole, about how much I loved this pale yellow scouring pad. How it brought rare joy to the long hours of washing Lady Elegant’s collection of tea cups and saucers, which, on certain days, were truly begging to be thrown against the wall. I’m nothing if not obsessive, and Dobie™ was the object of my fixation. I promptly stole one of the sponges from my boss’s kitchen—immaculately unused and still in its box—and hid it in the Tercel.
Z caught on to my obsession and started a running joke about the sponge, suggesting that I was cheating on her with Dobie™. For a brief time, this sponge was a central character in our lives. I would open my phone to text messages that read, “If you’re with Dobie™ right now, don’t come home.” It felt silly and exhilarating to have this private joke. It also felt as though our very status as a couple was being fortified by this cleaning product, even while the sponge was being framed as a homewrecker.
But I also felt a tension in these jokes, a sense of make-believe, as if we were playing the role of a heteronormative couple, rife with conventional power dynamics. We didn’t know it at the time—or, I should say, I couldn’t conceive of it yet—but the heterosexual relationship didn’t fit us.
For me, the sponge was also an affectation of domesticity. It was true before then, and has become even more magnified since, but domestic life does not sit right with me. The summer of 2011 was my first shot at occupying the role—I had someone to don an apron for. I suppose as we get older some of us absorb more pressure to take on that role, but I still don’t yearn for domesticity—I avoid it. Or more accurately, I avoid demonstrating to myself and others all the ways that I fail at it.
Domesticity strikes me as just another hoop to jump through to gain respectability from others. I’ve learned that avoiding this convention can be just as harmful, recalling the time I quit buying groceries entirely to evade the contested space of our communal kitchen, a punk setting with its own set of rules. I struggle to inherit domesticity and other definitives, gravitating instead towards the transient, liminal spaces on the outer edges. Transience carries with it a potential to transgress, to disrupt the social impulse that keeps things in neat and tidy boxes. Embracing things as and/both feels like a radical decision when you’re constantly being faced with either/or.
I ask myself now, why didn’t I ever open the box that contained the sponge, or use it? I suppose it became so imbued with meaning that I started to believe that if I treated it as a time capsule, that meaning would remain absorbed within it long after those moments were gone. Maybe that was one of the secret thoughts I couldn’t offer to our game.
We tried out secrets both trivial and crucial on each other that summer. Larger secrets surfaced much later. And eventually the Dobie™ joke was played out. I stashed the sponge in the harrowing vortex of my cluttered car, thinking that, every once in a while, we would encounter it and be reminded of our private joke. But the sponge was entombed under layers of maps, spare T-shirts, and cassette tapes, until it became a lost relic of our real-life mythology.
Music is the most connective thing I know of, but it can also isolate the listener within a single breath. Favorite songs are held and shared but somewhere down the line, through repetition of the ritual, the music becomes shrouded in performance, effort, make-believe. I hold onto the sounds as best as I can while witnessing their gestures unravel.
Truly miserable songs are the ones I know best, the ones I play most often on the radio—murder ballads and stark laments set against pitch-black soundscapes that still manage to be self-deprecating about their own pretense. The lyrics ruminate on lonesomeness, loss, and the bittersweet desire of Eros. These songs take on masks, creating beauty out of the never-ending uncertainty that identity poses.
Music was a prized possession that Z and I borrowed from one another. I gave her the circuitous ramblings of Paul Simon’s Graceland and she reciprocated over and over with the underground/folk/punk of bands like the Replacements, the Gaslight Anthem, and Minutemen. These bands turned their emotions inside out with over-the-top masculine ardor. I would add these songs to playlists and begin to filter my gaze on Z through the characters imagined in the lyrics. She made an effort to return that gaze in kind and we were playing with imaginary truths again. The music carries on a fiction I still can’t entirely shake.
Graceland was far more restful, a relic from high school that found its way into heavy rotation in the Tercel. On the desert roads of Nevada and in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it became a codified soundtrack, each listen adding a new layer of texture to the landscape of this inner world. I figured this album belonged to the road, so I was surprised when Z continued to pop the tape in the deck long after we resumed life in the Twin Cities. Side A made its flip to B during lost afternoons at the lakes and over tense silences on newly plowed roads.
We crossed the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Saint Paul the same way every time. One moment tempers the fleeting and permanent with heightened specificity. The rising snow banks always made my spineless California self nervous, while Z had a bit more grit in the tundra, having grown up in New England. On this day, she was in the driver’s seat, carefully making the turnoff as Paul Simon sang about diamond-soled shoes, and the familiarity of the ritual sheltered our cold hands against each other. I became attuned to each crinkle around her eye or squeeze of her hand when the tape would cycle back around to a line that had sparked a laugh or question when we first heard the album together on those days in the mountains.
Paul’s verses circled around like semiotics, markers of each moment, here and gone in a measure but seemingly eternal. Black tape wound itself around white plastic, an analog document with an ephemeral effect. The sound quiets but its meaning endures.
It strikes me how getting lost can mean wildly different things depending on who you’re with and what your destination is. There’s a sea change that hovers somewhere between the year 2011, when time was for wasting, to now, when it seems like most things are a slight waste of time. I’m wary of rose-tinted idealization of time with Z, but I do remember that before the onset of our cluttered anxieties and string of breakups, we would get lost in places near and far.
The Minnesota-Wisconsin border is a car camper’s dreamland. You cross the border and are immediately bathed in the impossible green of expansive state parks and quiet county roads. Looking back, there was probably nothing extraordinary about those placid corners of western Wisconsin but, if only for a brief time, it was a space free of life’s confines.
In those days, Z had high highs and low lows, a pattern for which we would have a name six months later. Now, eighty-seven months later, I wonder whether that diagnosis was a red herring. But on the best days, a heightened sense of possibility would wind through her thoughts, making itself known through talk of long backpacking trips and train rides through the north. Each camping trip would raise the stakes and she would get excited at the prospect of our shared escape, of elliptical exploration.
As we hauled the Tercel up a forested road near the Saint Croix River, Z and I spotted a red fox at the same instant. We only caught a glimpse before its flash of red disappeared back into the green, but that moment was a certainty. Then, like most certainties I’ve known, it retreated into a darker hollow.
The first time we broke up, I did what I was told by the teen dramas and young adult novels I had pored over in high school: I put some objects in a box. Mix CDs, origami, and a T-shirt displaying the yellow banana of the Velvet Underground & Nico’s self-titled album cover. Faded black and worn, it still smelled of Z. I gathered these objects into a cardboard box and stuffed it in the back of my closet.
I still have this box, several breakups with others and one cross-country move later. I think I knew from the box’s inception that those objects would travel from closet to closet with me, never experiencing the purge they deserved. And every time I move—I think it’s been 6 or 7 times since then—I perform a ritual reopening, which, fortunately for my slow-moving psyche, becomes more and more banal each time I do it. Today the ephemera in the box feels almost neutral, all except for the T-shirt.
When I first placed that shirt into the box, I really leaned into the sentimental cliché: the ex-boyfriend’s black T-shirt. Since Z came out, that symbolism is far more complicated, though. I touch a swath of soft cotton and wonder what it was like for her to go through her closet item by item and discard most, if not all, boy-coded clothing, almost like a reverse thrift shop treasure hunt. While Z is open about her past in a way that weaves together a continuum of experience, that process, I imagine, marked a rupture.
Nowadays androgyny is something she and I talk about playfully as something compelling and malleable in its ability to blur gender boundaries. The first time we crossed that imaginary boundary after her transition, I teased Z about a photo she had posted that showed her wearing an orphaned scarf of mine, a soft green knit with delicate shirring. My guess is that it had been trapped under the futon in her Minneapolis apartment in the winter before I drove away for the last time. I believe it was during the second conversation that we exchanged thoughts about feeling femme one day and more fluid the next. And in that initial year of cross-country phone calls, it struck me that perhaps we had both idolized Patti Smith for the same gender-bending reason when we were dating—even if I hadn’t realized it—pledging to name our husky puppy Patti on one bleary-eyed morning.
I relish in these conversations to an embarrassing degree because they seem to encompass a liberating fluidity, both in terms of our friendship and in sharing a sense of embodied gender with each other. This may sound twisted and wrong and privileged, but sometimes I envy her ability to inhabit her gender, whether during moments of femme power, or the comfortable queer in-between. I imagine possibility in her reality while staring down my privilege to do so.
I can’t claim a significant feeling of alienation with my assigned gender, but sometimes shallow breaths and a tightened chest reveal feelings of inadequacy that are wholly gendered. After all, who among us doesn’t feel staggered when faced with the kaleidoscope of forces that keeps women quieted or belittled? It’s in those moments that I feel like throwing out the entire binary playbook as I stand surrounded by evidence of its warped hierarchy on all sides.
Of course, I don’t get there intellectually every time I feel small and silent and connected to my gender in the lowest way. Nor at moments when I feel I’ll never be femme enough in the sense that femmes are apparently supposed to have their shit together with preternatural ease—those moments when inadequacy walks the line with disembodiment. I’m a small person, have worn a size zerp since I finally made it to the women’s section of the store at a humiliatingly mature age. But sometimes I wonder whether the body-shaming symbology of the holy size zero is a two-trick monster. It teaches people assigned female at birth to strive for a cruel ideal, asking us to get as close as possible to disappearing.
I can’t claim any of these oppressions in a significant way, and yet intersectionality maps out a geography of oppressions that reminds us where we stand within the status quo. And the T-shirt remains in the back of my closet as yet another complicated signifier.
It’s like one of those familiar dreams you wish someone else was in on. Impressionistic moments feel at once simplistic and impossible to convey, but I found a common language for voicing the inexpressible in talking to Z about riding trains.
There’s a complicated fluidity to riding a train by yourself, a confined limitlessness, the scene outside your window refusing to remain constant while all the while staying remarkably consistent, especially in the agricultural expanse of the American Midwest. Z and I have exchanged thoughts about this feeling a lot over the years, and every time we do, I see a constellation of experiences becoming connected by light and time and movement. Her days riding high-speed trains through Japan, my tense posture against the cramped train cars in Morocco, tracing common routes back and forth on BART, the T, Amtrak, all bisecting and diverging to form that constellation of lived experience.
Riding a train alone, the movement of the train set against one’s own fixity, it makes me think about embodied transformation. It vacillates, as our behaviors do, between fluidity and rigidity. You watch the light flicker across the window as you move through groves, tunnels, and crowded city blocks and observe as those flickers give way to flashes of exposed daylight, no matter how fleeting. Movement makes transformation into an inevitability, leaving open the question; what will we become?
In Maggie Nelson’s exquisite work of autotheory, The Argonauts, she spends a few pages considering her own reaction to her partner’s decision to go on testosterone. Her knee-jerk response was one of worry and panic over the physiological side effects they might face. Later into her partner’s transition, Nelson expresses outrage at someone else’s mournful reaction to their family member coming out as trans—framed as a loss juxtaposed against their loved one’s liberation. Her partner, Harry, points out that she once voiced her own iteration of that fear, an insight that makes it easier for Nelson to make a compassionate shift in her mindset. Still, when I first read her observations, I felt entirely culpable.
Months before picking up the book at a shop in San Francisco, I found myself in a waiting room one county over, anticipating an appointment that wasn’t mine. It was the longest amount of time I had ever taken off from my job at the radio station, eleven days to offer to Z’s recovery from gender-affirming surgery. Those days wound around a messy clump of feelings rendered static by the banality of the tasks involved in helping her get to a point where she could safely board a plane back to Michigan. The job was pretty food-centric, necessitating trips to Trader Joe’s, burrito runs, and one ill-fated attempt to make a Blue Apron™ recipe. But there was also the first post-op doctor’s appointment.
I’m ashamed to admit that occupying a seat in that waiting room felt redemptive. The reason I later implicated myself in Maggie Nelson’s critique is the blunt knowledge that I was not always a picture of support and patience before that day in the waiting room. When I first received Z’s letter a year earlier—hell, for weeks to follow—I felt that same ugly sense of loss, a specific strain of heartbreak that I now know is wrapped up in egotistical fragility, a superimposition of my identity over another’s. I was not always the crazy supportive ex-girlfriend, and it took a while to get there.
The waiting room signified an arrival point, placating me as I contemplated the unnatural sea green of the office’s fake flowers and marked time among spouses, significant others, and parents. I wondered if I was the only ex-lover in the room but ultimately refused to pat myself on the back for a milestone that didn’t belong to me.
Yes, the legitimacy of that gesture nearly dissolved as I reached page fifty-two in Maggie Nelson’s book later that year. The narrative I had constructed had to go, had to be exiled in service of actual humility, or at least an attempt at it. Sure, our connection to each other has transformed in a singular way, and the time shared during Z’s recovery did play a part in that. But something can’t be everything, and this particular transformation only reveals itself when free of coercion. What I mean to say is, I still have moments of culpability, but I no longer stuff them down by cueing up the perfect sad song to envelop them. Evidently not, as the existence of this writing suggests. It preserves those moments in amber, all flaws left unobscured.
When I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven, my mom planted two redwood trees in our backyard. Though able to project into the future, I still couldn’t believe that those trees would reach the towering heights of the redwoods that shaded my favorite camping spots. Perhaps it’s because standing under those giants provided a calm that was inaccessible in any other setting. I believed that equilibrium could never be anything but solitary, what with the anxiety that always descended in the company of others. That was until I brought Z to Muir Woods.
As she would tell me in different ways, she had found a calm under the redwoods that met my own with careful curiosity. It was at once serene and vital, a texture of duality I hadn’t identified before. She and I are both moved by quiet revelations in a similarly earnest way. In other words, all the feelings. So it resonated with me when she continued to invoke the forest as an image we associated with each other long after periods of silence, distance, emotional ellipses. Against the odds, it was at those points that we would come back into contact.
I saw her for the first time after she came out in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In my excessively demonstrative style, I timed a visit just as she was getting settled in to start grad school there. I remember nervously driving up in my rental car to a pub in the middle of town and watching her walk down the hilly sidewalk in motorcycle boots, hair dyed aquamarine to her shoulders.
That weekend, we decided to cross the palm of Michigan's mitten in a day trip punctuated by fits of laughter, a riot grrrl soundtrack, and of course, all the feelings. At last light, I soared back into the eastern time zone, glancing over to find Z asleep in the passenger seat, and that same calm resurfaced, taking me back to mirror image drives we had taken through the western states all those years ago.
I had heard from Z and others that this transition stuff sometimes clicks when you see your person face to face for the first time. As we supplanted three years of geographic separation with three days of sharing space, I recognized the truth underlying the generalization and resented how neatly its prophecy came true. I wanted to be the exception to the rule, to intuit the change by sheer force of my nuanced understanding of this person. Now with a lot less hubris and a bit more humility about it all, I see that this set of moments had to unfold independently within the forest.
With its chilling shade, bed of pine needles, and wavering catches of light, the forest contains a moment free of temporality while it spans all moments, all gestures, all transitions and signals of growth within its borders. Tree rings mark the passage of time with each circular revolution. The forest invokes possibility, creating a fleeting constant for two people whose connection to each other has transformed more than anyone would have expected. On the surface, growth might appear teleological, a straight line of progress. Ours is far more crooked and fallible.
It still surprises me how effortlessly the mind allows one thing to obscure another. These symbolic half-truths begin to feel so relevant, so immediate, that it’s easy to miss the underlying truth when it’s nearly eclipsed by a stand-in. Why else would someone close their closet door on some worthless objects in a box without a second thought, year after year?
There are two double doors to my present-day closet. They open up to a row of belongings built up in chaotic stacks, reflecting the late phase of a failed organization system. Every time I move into a new place, I resolve to be better about keeping a neat closet, but apathy inevitably breeds entropy. In the dead middle between the two doors sits the box of ordinary objects, making it the most difficult item to access in the closet.
I wish I could tell you all of this thinking and writing and combing through worthless objects as some kind of synecdoche for lived experience have brought me to a great revelation, but that wouldn’t be true. Plus, it would probably be a bit obnoxious. But I do see gender and other uncertain constructs dialectically now. Through this lens, and/both always overthrows either/or, each step an effort to dismantle life’s binaries.
I still resist speaking to anyone else’s experience of witnessing a loved one’s transition, so I’ll say only this of mine: it takes a while to muddle through the thought that the person you knew, and the revelation of their true identity, transforms the way you see so many things—gender, love, memory—to name only a few. Especially when that person was your first love. You also become aware that this person is exactly that—the same amazing person you always knew. I’ve also come to realize that those evolving ideas can be as valuable as they are complicated.
As for the objects in the box, I like to think that they serve as some kind of heavy-handed reminder of the fallibility of memory and its shape-shifting layers of meaning. The Dobie™ sponge is still just an unused scouring pad, but what used to be an inside joke is now a reinterpretation of the past.
These days, I take out another box from my closet each Sunday morning, this one occupied mostly by music ephemera, before heading over to the radio station. Sitting in an exhausted office chair in the studio, I don’t get the same feeling I once did as I cue up the next track, that sense of conflicting duality. As I bring one fader down and the other up, listening for the final drum fill to make space for a new set of opening chords, one feeling no longer precludes the possibility of another. One song gives over to the next, sending out a signal that connects the distance.
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