20 Years After Breaking Off Our Engagement, My Ex Found Me To Explain Why She Left

Note: The following essay contains mentions of suicide. Names and some identifying characteristics have been changed. Because every transgender person approaches their identity, transition and the elements related to both in their own personal way, no two approaches will be the same. In accordance with Tracy’s wishes, male pronouns and the name she was given at birth are used for the first half of the essay and female pronouns and her new name appear in the second half.

My friend Tracy and I have started trading tips on the best way to paint nails in order to avoid bubbling. I advise her on quick-dry topcoats, toe separators ― things she’s never heard of. Tracy, like roughly 1.4 million other adults in the United States, is transgender. Tracy is also my ex-fiancé. Six months ago, over 20 years after our painful breakup in 1999 and two subsequent decades without any communication, she decided to contact me and come out.

Until recently, I knew Tracy as James. We dated for over four years after we graduated high school. We lived together that last year, got engaged, and broke up a few weeks later. The person I knew then was the boy who brought me M&M cookies while I was at work in the mall. We had known each other since we were in preschool and lived in the same neighborhood in our small Southeast Texas oil refinery town. Our community was insular, extremely conservative, and there were least two churches per neighborhood.

When we began dating, we did what most 18-year-olds do when they’re in love ― go to movies and concerts, make out, and laugh during cheap dinners. James changed the oil in my car, hung a shelf in my room, took me shopping, sat on my bed flipping through my stacks of Marie Claire and Glamour while I put on my makeup.

I thought he was sweet and in touch with his sensitive side in a way other guys I had dated weren’t. We both had a total of two gay friends and had gone with one of them to a gay club, but we didn’t know much about the LGBTQ community then. Transgender wasn’t a word that was even in either of our vocabularies. A few times after being intimate, James told me, “I feel like a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.” I laughed, having no reason at that time to think his comment was anything other than a joke.

A year later, everything began to change.

James attempted suicide twice. He called me after the second attempt (I did not learn about the first attempt until recently) and told me what he’d done. I wanted to save him in any way I could, even if that meant just sitting with him in the campus psychologist’s office and holding his hand, walking him to the registrar’s office to get his medical withdrawal from school, or helping to pack his belongings to move back home.

I didn’t understand his depression or his wanting to die. I wondered if I was in any way to blame, but we continued our relationship. We struggled, broke up, got back together, had terrible fights and broke up again. One of us would always return with some grand gesture — quoting love songs, makeup sex, tears, and then finally, laughter ― and things would be OK again for a while. It was volatile, but we were 19, 20, 21 years old. We were essentially babies when it came to relationships. We didn’t know what we didn’t know about ourselves, each other, the world around us, or love.

In the last year of our relationship, we transferred to a new university in another part of the state and lived together in a cheap apartment. Things were still volatile and became even worse as the months progressed. We decided to get engaged in hopes that it might stabilize and save our relationship. My parents put an announcement in the local paper and threw a party. No one knew that by that point we were sleeping in separate bedrooms. I had also begun to notice James was spending a lot of time in dissociative states. When he would disassociate, it was like he wasn’t there — he would stare blankly into the distance and often seemed to be frozen in some thought I couldn’t see or hear. I would curl into him, my head on his shoulder, trying to reach him, to bring him back, to save him ― and us ― again.

The morning after the longest dissociative state that I witnessed, he made breakfast and then went for a walk. He returned with his friend Adam, who sat in one of our chairs by the front door. James called me into the bedroom.

“I think you know what I’m going to say,” he said, looking down at me on the bed. I said I didn’t.

“As of right now, our relationship is over and one of us needs to move out.”

I asked him if he was kidding. He was not. I yelled as he and Adam packed a few of his things. I called friends for support and found out that he had told everyone his plan the night before — including my mother.

I dropped out of college and moved back home. He sent me and our friends insulting emails in which he blamed me for all of his problems. I cried and refused to eat for so many days that my mother took me to our family doctor and asked him to give me something to “take the edge off.” It didn’t work.

Eventually I rebuilt my life, got a job, graduated college and graduate school, wrote books and married a wonderful man. However, I still carried the trauma of my relationship and subsequent breakup with James with me wherever I went. I always wondered what was so wrong with me that I had caused him so much anger and grief. I often wondered if he showed up at my door, would I slam it in his face or begin weeping and hug him to me, never wanting to let go?

A few months ago, I got my answer in the form of a response to one of my tweets about a book I was reading.

I was sitting on the couch with my husband when a reply popped up: “What a coincidence! I just finished that book.” I saw the name on the Twitter account, gasped and threw my phone onto the couch. I checked the profile several times ― in shock to hear from James in this way after all of these years ― and I wondered what he wanted.

A few minutes later, he sent me a direct message asking if I’d read the email he sent me. I hadn’t — it went to my junk folder as my email didn’t recognize his address, which seemed fitting. I retrieved his email and wept while I read his apology for his behavior toward me and for the ugliness of our breakup. “I feel that I brought a lot of darkness into your life and turned what should have been exciting years finding our places in this world into a severe struggle just to breathe,” he wrote.

I sat with the email for a while, shaking as I reading it over and over again. I appreciated his apology, but I was still angry so many years later and having a difficult time with our past suddenly being dredged up. My thoughts raced out of control as I tried to guess what caused him to reach out and apologize to me now, 20 years later. I wondered if he was in a recovery program and this was part of journey to heal or if he had recently been divorced and now wanted another chance at a relationship with me. I decided to reach out, gave him my number, and we began the long climb toward a much overdue reckoning. 

One of the first things James told me when we finally talked was, “James will no longer be here at some point this coming spring.” I was worried he was dying of cancer or some other terrible disease.

“No,” he assured me with a laugh. “I’m transgender. I’m about to begin the process of transitioning to present and live as a woman. I’m also a lesbian.”

I took a breath and listened. James, who had not yet changed her name at that point, told me of her struggle — her lifelong feeling of being different, of not being comfortable in her own skin, of feeling broken even when she was a child, and how that sense of brokenness never left her until she came out.

I began to understand the emotional isolation she endured — even while we were together — because she constantly felt as though she was didn’t fit into the world. She talked about gender dysphoria, her emotional dysfunction and how not being able to live the life she was so desperate ― and meant ― to live led to deep mental health struggles and emergencies. We talked about her suicide attempts and how surviving them merely set her on autopilot throughout not only the remainder of our relationship, but for a great part of her other subsequent relationships and eventual marriage.

I wanted to understand all of it. I wanted to be kind and supportive but I was also struggling with my own confusion, my own doubts, my own worries that I had hurt her or, perhaps selfishly, that she never loved me or that when we had been intimate, those moments were something else to her — an escape? A way to try and affirm the masculinity that had been assumed and demanded of her for her entire life? She listened to everything I had to say and then told me that her love for me had always been true and deep — “the shaking in your bones kind of love.”

She also admitted that the reason she ended our engagement was, in large part, because she didn’t know what to do with her gender identity, which kept trying to rise to the surface. She hated that self then ― she didn’t understand it, still didn’t have a word for who she was, but she knew at some point it would destroy the self she currently presented to the world.

The more I listened, the more I began to heal. I started looking at myself more positively, understanding that I was not a terrible person, a bad partner, a breaker of people and relationships. It was as if by learning about James’ transformation, I was experiencing my own kind of transformation. I forgave her for her anger, her abusive behavior and all of the trauma that I had experienced when she left me.

James and I began a new friendship. I still struggle with this change, but I am proud of her, who she is becoming, the hard work she is doing to become her truest self. I realized I held on to the pain of the past for too long. Because I had no way to explain why our relationship ended the way it ended, I never considered what she might be going through or the profound trauma she was experiencing at that time. I was too caught up in what I was going through ― I could only see the negative emotions that were coming at me and that I assumed were the result of my shortcomings and inadequacies. Because I been left without any answers for 20 years, I spent those years focused on me and what I could have done wrong instead of focusing on James and what she could have been going through.

James is Tracy now, some six months after coming out, and fully identifies as female to family and friends. She’s been taking hormone replacement therapy and I hope it helps her healing and that she finds the emotional stability she deserves. She’s also been doing extremely painful laser hair removal treatments on her face, for which she has to take several strong painkillers per session. I listen to her discoveries and struggles — fears over public bathrooms, work concerns, worse. I both worry about her and celebrate her transition and want her to be safe, finally proud of who she is becoming.

The physical changes have been remarkable — her skin is smooth and bright due to the hormones and I’m incredibly jealous of her gorgeous hands and fingernails. We’ve been having fun playing around with gender swap photo apps — I would make a terrible-looking man — and talking about makeup.

Not everyone who is transgender transitions medically. Some trans people may not undergo any kind of physically transition and may not move from one end of the gender binary to the other. Everyone is different, but for Tracy, these are decisions and steps that have made her feel the best about who she is ― who she truly is ― and I support her. She is fully aware that I wrote this essay, saw it before it was published and is as hopeful as I am that sharing our stories might make a difference.

I have a new friend. A friend that is different from the one I grew up with, dated and almost married, but this friend wears pink cat ear headphones and watches YouTube videos on how to do at-home manicures. My own world has been widened with this new understanding, and there is tremendous healing that comes with forgiveness — both of another and the self. I’m glad our paths crossed again in this way. Coming out as transgender, I realize, isn’t a death, but a new birth, a journey that isn’t the same for everyone, but one filled with hope, with beauty and promise. And for me and Tracy, recovery.

Amanda Auchter is the author of “The Wishing Tomb,” winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry and the 2012 Perugia Press Book Award, and “The Glass Crib,” winner of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award for Poetry. Her recent work appears in “The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks” (University of Arkansas Press, 2017) and “Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations of Sylvia Plath and Living” (2018). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and lives in Houston, Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @ALAuchter.

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