Maxine and I are drinking coffee at my place and I am telling her about it.
He arrived at my door on a Friday night.
I’ve got the lights down low so I don’t see him clearly at first. I am standing at the top of the stairs waiting, when a person with long hair, trousers and a jacket emerges. At first I think I’ve let a strange woman into the building by mistake. As the person gets closer I realise it is Henry, with his hair out—although he seems different. His thick dark brown hair is freshly-washed and blow-dried—puffy—you know how it is when you’ve just washed your hair? It hangs to his shoulders. The other times it was tied back in a ponytail, or twisted up into a bun at the back of his head.
What’s wrong? he says.
Nothing, I answer, still in shock that I thought he was a woman.
I keep the lights down low, so I don’t notice his shoes. He kicks them off before we sit down on the couch.
What’s the matter? he says.
He’s kissing me on the lips and I notice a slightly sour smell. He has this nice way of kissing—gentle, very sweet usually. And he makes a little sighing sound every now and again.
I’m smelling the shampoo in his hair near my face and tasting the slightly acrid flavour of him. Is he nervous? I’m kissing him and running my hand over his chest. It’s then that I feel a lump, like a breast, although it feels spongy.
He’s got breasts? Maxine exclaims.
No. I knew he didn’t have breasts. He’s wearing a bra. A stuffed bra, and a lace silk camisole.
Who have I let into my apartment? What sort of a crazy is he? I know nothing about him, apart from the fact that he’s a great dancer and a good kisser.
What’s going on? I ask.
What do you mean?
What was that I felt?
What did it feel like?
So, then I notice his feet are covered by stockings. I look over to his shoes by the side of the room. Black strappy sandals with a small heel.
Are you wearing stockings? I ask. And a suspender belt?
That’s when I want him to leave. I’m so repulsed with the possibility of seeing him in a suspender belt and stockings.
Did you say that to him? Maxine asks.
No. But he could tell. He offered to go.
So, what happened?
Well, dinner is cooking—I don’t want to waste the food—you know what I’m like—so I stand up and go into the kitchen. I boil up some pasta and warm up a tomato and spinach sauce I’ve made already—he’s a vegetarian—and then serve it up in bowls and bring them to the coffee table, him watching me closely, while clutching a cushion from the lounge to his stomach, every now and then making a hiccup-kind-of-noise, as if catching his breath.
I want you to know early on, he says. The last woman I went out with … I told her after eighteen months and she walked straight out. Why shouldn’t I have silk next to my body? It feels nice. Why shouldn’t I wear high heels to make me taller? Women wear men’s clothes. Why not the reverse?
Do you feel like a woman? I ask. A woman in a man’s body?
Do you know what it feels like to be a man? he snaps. I’m not someone you’d take to the family barbecue, he adds.
Have you been in long relationships with women who’ve accepted it? I ask.
Yes, he says. I make a good friend. I love shopping. I’m a good one to take shopping. When I go out in a dress and high heels around my way, no one bats an eyelid.
Does he use a condom? Maxine puts in.
Make sure it doesn’t come off. Don’t have sex with him any more.
He’s a fabulous dancer.
Just dance with him, then.
A little later, when I take the bowls to the kitchen, he puts on some music. I’d asked him to bring CDs. He’s very fussy about what he listens to.
Has he been married? Maxine asks.
For two years. She left him for another woman.
Maxine giggles. What’s the world coming to? she asks.
I don’t want you to judge him, Maxine.
I’m not. But he’s confused. He doesn’t know what he is. You shouldn’t get involved with someone like that. If you’re in an intimate relationship, you take in the other person’s stuff. You must know that? It passes across from one person to the other.
It’s true, he’s confused. But I really like him.
Just dance with him. That’s all.
I said to him early on, when we seemed to get on well and to have so much in common, that I’d like to see him regularly.
Is he seeing anyone else?
I asked him that. His response was, I’m with you at this moment, and have been for the last few hours.
He’s probably seeing someone else.
The main thing is that he’s not into men. He laughed when I asked him if he’s on hormones. I’m just me, he said. I’ve got nice legs though. It’s horrible being me, he added. It’s an awful thing to live with. He gave a massive, heart-rending sigh.
Someone like him would find it hard to get a woman, Maxine says.
It’s probably hopeless anyway. He’s eighteen years younger than me—apart from anything else.
Another short-lived relationship, she says, unable to disguise the disapproval in her voice. You need an older man, more of a father figure.
Speak for yourself.
She shrugs. Does his family know?
No. He said his mother might suspect something.
So, it’s his secret—he lives a secret life, Maxine says, but I can see she doesn’t understand.
I’m upset. But I am not going to talk about it with her any more. I know what she thinks.
So, what else? Maxine says. What else happened?
Nothing else. That’s it. We ate dinner and then he went home.
I look around the room where Henry and I sat, see the black-timber-painted floor, the bright cushions on the chairs, the colourful paintings on the walls, the photos of myself and the children on the mantelpiece, the New Yorker magazines he’d flipped through still there on the coffee table. My children are married now and live their own lives.
You don’t remember what it’s like being single, I say to Maxine at the front door.