Mary Lynn Reed
Theo spun me around in the barber’s chair, fingers pressing his lips. I’d asked for a “high and tight” crew cut and he didn’t hold back. Displaying me like a prize, he yelled, “Look at this amazing boy I've created!”
No one cared. This was Northalsted, Chicago, and the place was full of smooth, real, beautiful boys. Through the mirror, I gave Theo my playful seductive glare. He fanned himself, and said, “Jesus, Dean, have mercy on me—”
I laughed, shifted my legs. Even with shoulder-length hair I was sometimes Sir'ed by the slightly distracted. I didn't mind. What unnerved me were the second glances, catching the fullness of my chest. Their embarrassment, and in the wrong place, anger. There were a lot of places where a girl with a crew cut could get her head bashed in.
Theo and I grew up together in Charleston. He let me crash on his sofa my first term at Northwestern, before the professor I’d come to work with found funding for me. Even after the money came in, it was hard to give up the proximity of Theo’s sofa to the Boystown club scene. Lesbian bars didn’t do a thing for me but I dug the flashing lights and hard-throbbing techno of Boystown.
“How’s the love life?” I asked Theo.
He swept my hair into a pile, shook his head. “Richard studies too much but when he’s a doctor it’ll be worth it, I guess. Dustin is hot, hot, per usual. Keeps me sane.”
“They still like each other?”
“Bizarre, isn’t it?” He winked. “This ain’t South Carolina, darlin’. We in Boystown, and we likes it!”
I was studying engineering back then. Had a knack for mechanical things. Dad was a tinkerer, Uncle Roy an electrician. I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I was good at math and if I watched you take something apart, I could put it back together. Fast. Mom was determined I leave South Carolina with an education, and she had a little money tucked away that she never let Dad touch. So I went to Clemson, studied Mechanical Engineering. Far back as I remember it seemed pre-determined that I would leave home, as if Mom always knew there was someplace else I ought to be. Grad school in a big, northern city seemed a fine alternative to an entry-level desk job in the hell-fire heat and blue-collar desperation of my childhood.
One night I was sipping warm beer out of a plastic cup at a campus party, found myself talking to Barb Wincheski, wife of Professor Peter Wincheski, Chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering. Barb owned an art gallery on Michigan Avenue. Her hands were well-manicured, nails painted bright pink, but she knew how to blend with the college crowd. Her Chuck Taylors color-matched her turtleneck and blazer.
“I’m a bit of a shutterbug,” I told her.
She raised an eyebrow. “Your look is striking. Ever do self-portraits?”
I fanned my exposed scalp, laughed. “I prefer the view from behind the lens — looking at others.”
I visited her gallery, took her to lunch.
She loved the ballet, though she’d never danced.
“Pose for me,” I said, and we wound up naked in my apartment, camera never coming out of the case.
Eventually, I did photograph Barb. Fully clothed, and in her element. She hired me to take a series of candid shots on the opening night of a postmodern neoclassical exhibit that left me a little dizzy.
“What do you think?” she asked, delicately juggling a martini and her iPhone with one hand, her other grasping my arm.
“I dig the symmetry,” I said, enjoying the way she sidled in beside me.
“Anything else?” She took a long sip of the martini.
“Professor coming tonight?”
“He hates art.” She released my arm, and slid swiftly back to her clientele.
I wasn’t an event photographer, but I did my best. When I culled through the night’s shots and presented my selections, Barb said I had a unique perspective.
“It’s complex,” she said. “What you focus on — where your eye lingers.”
She wanted to see my independent work.
“What are the subjects you return to, again and again?” she asked.
“Underneath the El trains,” I told her. “The shadows, the steel. It’s like living under a geometric sky. I have hundreds of those shots.”
We were on the futon in my apartment. She was wearing one of my large T-shirts and nothing else. I was in my boxers.
“Show me,” she said.
I pulled out my laptop, started a slideshow.
She had a regular buyer who loved gritty photos of the city. She asked if I made my own prints, if I’d ever sold anything. I was shocked and I guess it showed.
“It’s okay,” she said, her lips finding my collarbone, my shoulder. “I bet I can sell your work. If you’re interested.”
And sell it, she did. She took my images, had them professionally printed and framed, and sold five of them for five grand. I was in my Optimization of Engineering Design class when she texted and told me. I gasped and the girl next to me reached out to make sure I was okay, that no one had died or been hit by a car.
“No,” I whispered. “My girlfriend is freakin’ amazing.”
That wasn’t the only surprise Barb had in store for me.
“I’m leaving Peter,” she said, over pink cocktails at The North End.
I was so high on her sale of my photographs I almost missed what she said. The DJ had just kicked up the volume on the house beat, moving the bar’s pace from Happy Hour to Evening Jam. Barb was looking past me, watching the boys trickle onto the dance floor.
“I’m sorry, I think you said—”
“I’m leaving him,” she said again, turning and looking me straight in the eye.
“He’s the Chair of the Department—”
Barb laughed. “And I’m the Queen of England. What the hell?”
“I don’t know why I said that. It was the first thing that popped into my mind,” I said.
She downed her little pink cocktail and pulled me onto the dance floor. We danced until closing, then went back to my place and fucked until dawn.
Turned out Professor Wincheski’s marriage had been on the skids long before I came to town, but I still fell out of favor rather quickly in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Luckily I wasn’t in that department but professors gossip worse than teenage girls. It didn’t take long for the faculty on the Mechanical side to begin looking at me askew as well. It’s not like I had been blazing a trail to academic glory before I met Barb. I was holding my own. I could have made it to Dr., if my energy had stayed focused in that direction. But once she’d sold a few of my photographs, a path I’d never let myself imagine opened up.
As soon the divorce papers were served, I moved into Barb’s apartment in the city. I bought a new camera with the money from that first sale, and took an official leave of absence from Northwestern.
“I can’t keep your funding on hold,” my advisor said. “Grants don’t work that way.”
His dusty office was full of textbooks and antique mechanical gadgets. The ridge in his forehead deepened with concern. He was a decent man but when I looked at his life, surrounded by dusty, old things, it didn’t have the same magnetism of the crisp, clean lines in Barb’s gallery downtown.
“I know it’s a risk,” I said. “But I want to take it.”
It felt like leaping without a net. Except there was Barb, holding a net. She was smart and successful. She knew the art world, and she believed in me. I didn’t know how to explain it to my professors, let alone my family back home in South Carolina. But quitting school didn’t feel like a risk at all. My gut told me it was right.
I went to see Theo before I turned the paperwork in. My gut wanted some back-up. The barber shop was packed that day. So many gorgeous men, even I almost swooned when I walked in.
“You don’t want me to tell you what to do,” Theo said, dusting hair off a hunky blond’s shoulders.
I sat on a stool tucked beside his station. I kept trying to spin it but it was solid, not a swivel.
“Just tell me I’m not crazy,” I said.
Theo raised an eyebrow. “Sweetheart, we both know you’re crazy as hell.”
I kicked at the base of the stool. I really wanted that damn thing to spin.
“How’s Dustin doing?” I said. “Is he working?”
“He got a commercial!” Theo said. “It’s good pay.”
Dustin did improv and stand-up comedy and was always at an audition.
“It’s not crazy to be a photographer, right? I don’t have to be a gallery artist. I could get a job at the Tribune. Or the police department — I could shoot crime scenes.”
“Seriously, that’s where your mind goes?” Theo said.
The hunky blond in Theo’s chair turned to me. He was older than I’d realized. Forty or so. He must have been a bodybuilder at some point. “You’re too young for this much angst, kid. If you want it, do it. It doesn’t have to be your whole life. It’s just the next thing on your list.”
He had kind eyes. I smiled at him, and said, “Thanks.”
I jumped off the stool, kissed Theo on the cheek.
That first year with Barb was a frenzy of “new life.” I explored the city with my camera, seeking new angles and perspectives, searching for just the right light to shoot my favorite spots. I took some classes. Film and darkroom techniques. Digital, too. I joked that I had to quit school in order to learn all the things I wanted to learn.
Barb also threw herself into her new passion— being the best Lesbian possible. She had plenty of gay male friends from the art world but now that she was with me, she set out to educate herself on all things women-loving-women. She went to the Women & Children First bookstore, walked right up to the counter, and said: “I’m a late-blooming lesbian and need a reading list to get me up-to-speed.” She came home with a box full of books and devoured them all.
The one thing Barb said she missed from her Professor’s Wife days were dinner parties. So one Saturday night we invited Theo, Richard, Dustin, and a lesbian couple Barb befriended at the gym over for homemade gnocchi and meatballs. Lisa and Jamie Hunt-Waters were a Chicago power couple, for sure. Lawyer and financial analyst, respectively. Barb was an art dealer, after all, and wealthy friends made fantastic customers. I hadn’t met Lisa and Jamie yet but I knew I was supposed to make a favorable impression. Barb dressed me up in a white cotton button-down and a pair of leather wingtips for the evening. I went along without complaint. Didn’t look half bad, actually.
Barb worked all afternoon on the gnocchi, from a recipe she’d learned at a cooking class in Tuscany. “Learning to cook was the highlight of many vacations with the old Professor,” Barb said.
“Worse things have come from marriage,” Richard said, sneaking a taste of the sauce in the kitchen.
My contribution to the party was a playlist of downbeat ambient electronica, and chic little twinkle lights strung just under the crown molding throughout the dining room and den. Theo gave me a thumbs up on both, and the Hunt-Waters power couple didn’t balk when they arrived, so I called it a success.
I passed around mini hors d’oeuvres. Dustin and Theo held hands, chatting with finance-guru Jamie, who smiled a lot and didn’t say much.
“What are you photographing these days, Dean?” Dustin asked.
“Train tracks,” I said. “Intersections, in particular.”
Richard swooped in. “Above ground?” he asked.
“No more under-shots of the El?” Theo asked. “You’ve graduated from bottom to top?”
Dustin nudged Theo’s arm. “Just like you, dear—”
Theo’s face flushed.
“A-ha!” I said. “Tell me more—”
Jamie slipped away, made her way back to Lisa’s side.
Barb set the last serving plate on the dining room table, called us for dinner.
Richard and Dustin and Theo sat on one side of the table, Richard in the middle. I was at the far end, nudge-distance from Theo. Lisa and Jamie took up the other side, with Barb in the host seat, a fast dash back to the kitchen.
“What did I miss while I was in the kitchen?” Barb asked.
“Dean was telling us about shooting train tracks,” Theo said.
“Intersections,” I said.
“They’re fabulous,” Barb said. “Dean’s work is progressing so rapidly. I can’t wait to do a full show. It’ll take Chicago by storm!”
“I’d love to see,” Lisa, the lesbian lawyer said. She was a firmly built woman, with great posture. Clearly the gym fanatic.
Jamie was softer and quieter, her smile designed to conceal.
“You should give Lisa and Jamie a preview in your studio,” Barb said. “After dinner.”
My studio was a converted loft bedroom at the back of the apartment with a tricked-out computer and massive monitor for touching up digital images. I didn’t usually let anyone back there and Barb knew it. I shot her a look, across the table. She smiled.
“I’ve been reading this remarkable book,” Barb said.
Grateful for the change of subject, I grabbed a roll from the basket in the center of the table.
“It’s a memoir of a female-to-male transsexual. Very thought-provoking,” Barb said.
“See a lot of that in Boystown these days,” Richard said, sipping his wine.
“Barb reads a lot of books,” I said. “I think she’s studying up for Queer Jeopardy.”
“I dated a drag queen once,” Dustin said. “Hardest top I ever knew!”
Barb looked displeased. She tossed her head to the side, angled her commentary toward Lisa and Jamie. “The description of the writer’s gender dysphoria — feeling out of sync with your own body — it got to me,” she said. “Made me think hard about what it means to be a woman. Or a man.”
“I think it’s sad,” Lisa said. “All the butch dykes are disappearing, replaced by beards and hairy chests.”
Richard touched his facial hair, and Lisa quickly added, “No offense.”
“Besides that, there are so many different labels now. Non-binary, pansexual, omnisexual, an entire spectrum of asexuality. I can’t keep up. Makes me feel so old,” Lisa said.
“The gnocchi is really fantastic,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
Richard and Dustin moaned, nodding their agreement. Forks clanked against plates, scooping pasta with abandon.
“Richard’s about to start an internship at Northwestern Memorial,” I said.
Barb gripped the table, and said, “Congratulations, Richard. That’s wonderful. But Dean, I was talking about this book. About transsexuality. Why are you changing the subject? Does it make you uncomfortable?”
Theo laid his hand on my knee under the table. I didn’t realize my whole body had tensed into a tight coil until he touched me. There was a decade’s difference between my age and Barb’s. I rarely thought about it, until it lit up the room like a neon sign. She looked at me like a child.
“When did you stop using your girl name?” Barb continued. “When did you become Dean, and not Robin?”
The room fell quiet, except for the slow lounge groove still playing softly from the Bose.
I put my fork and knife down gently, pushed back from the table.
Theo jumped in, and said, “Eighth grade. We were thirteen and had just watched Rebel Without A Cause. I said, I’m gonna call you Dean. It just stuck. She was that cool. Then, and now.”
Everyone’s eyes were on me. I held Theo’s gaze, counting silently in my head.
Barb had never mentioned this book to me, or asked me these questions when we were alone. She waited until she had an audience. Until I couldn’t deflect the interrogation. And that’s what it was. She’d been saving it up for awhile. Little things that hadn’t made any sense before became clear. She’d been carefully avoiding gendered pronouns for months. Every time she referred to me to anyone, I was “Dean,” never “she,” “he,” not even “them.”
Barb stared at me across the long table. “So you found your true self at thirteen,” she said. “Did your parents call you Dean after that?”
“My true self?” I said.
Theo turned to Richard, then Richard to Dustin.
“We’re all unique, I think,” Jamie said, the sound of her voice startling everyone. She hadn’t spoken more than a single word all night. But now she said, boldly, “Who we love. Who we are. How we present ourselves to the world. How can it be defined in a few words? Or even a name. We’re just ourselves, I think.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s right.”
“But it’s also about honesty,” Barb said. “We should be honest about who we are, shouldn’t we? At least to ourselves.”
I was masculine, yes. Never felt comfortable in women's clothes. My voice was thick and heavy (sultry, some women said), my jaw square. But what gives someone the right to take those facts and proclaim I’m not in the right body? Or that I’m not being honest about who I am? I was working myself up to saying all that out loud, when Richard cleared his throat, and stood up.
“I’m thirsty, that’s what I am. More wine, anyone?” he said.
There was a collective exhale. Everyone shifted and turned.
Barb got up to clear the dinner plates. I opened another bottle of wine. Two hours later, they were all gone. I sat in my studio with the lights out until the apartment was quiet, and I knew Barb was asleep. I texted Theo to find out which club they’d gone to, joined them for a few hours of dancing before the blinding lights switched on at 4am. We ended up at the all-night diner.
Theo and Richard and Dustin. The three of them were about as different as three gay men could be, yet together, they just made sense. And they were smart enough not to sit around and try to dissect why it worked, or what it all meant, or to throw a lot of bullshit labels on it to try to make other people comfortable.
“You okay?” Theo asked.
“Never better,” I said. I was drenched in sweat from the dancing and the still air of the diner.
“Hang in there,” Richard said. “Crazy as that shit was, I think that woman loves you. In her own, ex-professor’s-wife-Michigan-Ave-art-dealer kind of way.”
Dustin finished off a full-stack of pancakes and two orders of bacon, and said, “Man, I wish we had some more of that gnocchi. That stuff was de-lish.”
We spent another hour talking about Richard’s internship and Dustin’s commercial. All the things that would have made great dinner party conversation with the Hunt-Waters couple, if Barb hadn’t hijacked the night for her gender identity detective mission.
I bought some danish and coffee to go, took it home. Put the stuff on a little silver tray and brought it to the bedroom. When I opened the door, Barb was sitting straight up, wide awake.
“Have fun with the boys?” she said.
I put the tray over her legs, and kissed her. “I brought you breakfast.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She carefully moved the tray off the bed, pulled me down on top of her. We moved together, slowly at first. Kissing. Rhythm picked up, and I reached into the side-table.
“Why?” she said.
I stopped, looked at her. “Why what?”
“Why wouldn’t you answer my questions last night? Why were you so uncomfortable?”
“Why’d you wait to ask in the middle of your dinner party?”
She pushed me off. “I don’t know. Maybe it freaks me out, too. Reading that book, it made me wonder. Whether you might be in some kind of gender crisis.”
“Crisis? You know how that sounds, right?”
“Do your parents call you Dean? Why don’t I know the answer to that question? Have you ever talked to a therapist? If you won’t talk to me—”
“I’m quiet, that’s all. Why does it matter what name my mom and dad call me? I like boys clothes and I like to fuck women. So what? I don’t need a goddamned shrink. Is this even about me? Maybe you’re in crisis? What do your books say about that?”
I’d moved to the dresser, started shoving clothes into a duffle bag.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “I love you, you little shit. Can’t you see I want you to be happy?”
Outside of family, no woman had ever said she’d loved me before that. Leave it to Barb to declare it in the middle of a fight.
“I need to clear my head,” I said.
She sat on the side of the bed, head in her hands.
“I’m gonna go up to Evanston, get my Toyota out of storage, and take a drive,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
I sat down beside her, took a deep breath.
“It took a while but yes, my parents do call me Dean. It’s a nickname. That’s all. I’m not in a crisis. Whatever the hell that means. I’m just going to take a drive. I’ll shoot wildflowers on the side of the road and I’ll think about what you’re saying. Okay? I’ll think about all of it. I just need to clear my head.”
She exhaled, sat up straighter. “Lisa texted me this morning. She wants three of the pieces you showed her last night. You’ve got real talent, Dean. No matter what else happens, know that I can sell your work. Okay? Know that I will do that for you, no matter what.”
I kissed Barb on the forehead, put a couple more T-shirts into my bag, and left.
I stopped at the barber shop on my way out of town. Theo gave me a fresh cut and an extra long hug. He walked out to the car with me.
“I don’t know about this backroads, crap,” he said. “There are a lot of Southern accents between here and Miami. What’s wrong with the Interstate? You like to drive fast.”
“Not this time. Everything’s a blur from the Interstate. Barb is a pain in the ass but she might be right about a few things. Too much of my short life has already been a blur. I should move slower for a while, pay attention to the details. If I'm going to be an artist, I should see more of the world—and maybe, understand more, about myself.”
Theo squeezed my hand. “All right, you be safe. Boystown to South Beach. It’s a gay pilgrimage, Baby…Take me with you. I swear, I’ll be very quiet.”
I laughed, rolled the windows down in the Toyota. A pair of beautiful men holding hands passed by, smiling. I took a deep breath and pulled away, heading south on Halsted.