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Unmasked

In the summer of 2011, I was single and entering my second year on hormone replacement therapy. As a 28-year-old trans man, the testosterone surges offered a new sexual freedom, as well as a muscular body to explore this freedom. I was ready to indulge in the flesh. 

In the midst of this sexual freedom, I received a friend request from a woman on Facebook. We had a mutual connection, she had a cute profile picture, so I quickly accepted. Maybe she’d be open to something casual? But would I even be able to do casual? I had a history of monogamy. One therapist called me a serial monogamist. I followed one round of cohabitation with the next.

After a few weeks of exchanging daily messages, we agreed we had to meet. I found myself in an Indiana Starbucks waiting for a Russian orphan who grew up with her adopted family in Colorado. It felt surreal and adventurous, exactly what the testosterone in my veins craved. My phone lit up, “I am outside, but I look like Medusa.” I thought it was an odd reference, but I brushed it off. After all, she was attractive, and I was here for the unusual. During our conversations, we had decided to bypass mundane small talk and dive right into the conversational depths. I was curious about the darkness I’d find there.

She walked into the coffee shop with a shaggy pixie cut, just long enough to fashion herself a tiny ponytail, and a purple dress and brown boots. My assumption that she was in her early 30s were shattered by that tiny ponytail. I walked straight up to her and wrapped both of my arms around her petite frame. I had assumed that our honest conversations had created a connection, a force even, that would draw our bodies instantly together. However, she kept one arm stiffly between us leaving a gap between our bodies. I pulled away, and she looked up, exaggerated eyeliner emphasizing her blue eyes and quietly said, “Your hair … it’s perfect.” The confidence that she had through texts dissolved in front of me. She was reserved and even a little scared. I wondered if I had come on too strong. Maybe a hug was too much? But we had shared so many intimate details, not to mention photos.

We grabbed our drinks and found our way outside. On both of her forearms, she had elegant tattoos in Arabic script that led to loose bracelets. We talked about our plans for the future, each line we spoke felt full of promise. The entire time she spoke in a quiet Russian accent. Well, at least, what sounded like a Russian accent to my untrained midwestern ears. She said Switzerland was her favorite place to visit and she adored Russian literature. I believed her. I was tumbling down her ornate staircase of lies. It didn’t matter because I couldn’t be happier. My fascination with her grew with each new story spilling from her mouth.

We left the coffee shop and made plans to meet again. I drove back to my apartment with the glow of meeting someone that was both interesting and interested. I sent a text to the mutual connection we had on Facebook, “I really like her!” She responded, “She isn’t being honest with you about a few things.” A bit shocked, I replied, “Like?” “Her age and origin.” Those were a mighty few things. The first thought that passed through my mind was the phone call I had made on the way home to tell her it was great to meet her. She answered without the Russian accent. Then, a scarier thought passed through my mind – what if she was much younger than 23, the age she told me. I wasn’t angry, I was confused.

I began to think about my own life. As a transman, I told lies about my changing appearance to protect myself from nosey friends and relatives. My early twenties were filled with denials and confessions. I lied to survive. I often lied to find love. I found myself in tangled love affairs with taken women. I understood a fib or two. At this point, I think most people would have walked away from her. In fact, many of my friends were appalled that I didn’t just drop her. When I look back, I can’t say my cause was entirely noble, after all I did have a new sexual desire to conquer. A part of the reason I didn’t pass immediate judgment is that I wanted to hear her story. I wanted to know her.

When I confronted her, she quickly confessed. She wasn’t Russian. Her accent was faked. She wasn’t adopted. She wasn’t 23, but 20. The only relief was that she was over 18. She was surprised I even wanted to talk to her after what she had done. She thanked me for trying to understand her intentions instead of being offended by her actions. As she confirmed her list of lies, I could feel the coldness of betrayal, and I asked why she had done it. She explained that she pretended to be foreign because she suffered from anxiety and being someone else allowed her to explore the world. She did it often. When she was lost in an airport, she’d ask for help using an accent. She found people were kinder to her. She thrived on the kindness of strangers and the only way to receive it was to be someone else.

I knew that feeling. The way people treated me as a man was far kinder than when I was a butch lesbian. I would go into my local small town grocery store to buy a bouquet of flowers with my mohawk and feminine curves, and I’d get stares. When I went as a man, suddenly, I was being told what a good boyfriend I was and what a lucky lady I had. I was the same person with different packaging. Just like she was the same person with a different accent.

During our conversation, a deep compassion for her overtook my feelings of betrayal. I decided to try and love a flawed person because I understood her particular flaw well. A familiar flaw seemed like an easier one to navigate than an unfamiliar one. I forgave her, but looking back I probably never trusted her. But maybe you can still fall in love, or something resembling it, without trust.

Throughout the two years of our relationship, I tried desperately to know the real her. Occasionally, I’d get close and peek behind her mask. She was earthy, with a love for the outdoors. Her real laugh filled her lungs. She was funny, making bad jokes and doing impressions. When we would explore the isolated barren New Jersey pinelands and start to feel utterly depressed, she’d jump on a rock and recite some quote about despair. During these weirdly bleak moments she brought humor. Maybe because sadness is where she felt most comfortable. 

You’d never see that version of her when her mask was on. Her mask was both figurative and literal – her eyes thickly lined and her face caked with powder. I’d search for clues of who she was in old photos. If she left her Facebook logged on, I’d scrolled through the messages. Only finding out that often her words to me didn’t align with her words about me. Over time it became apparent that when the world celebrates your mask, you keep it on. The world loved her mask. Eventually, I wasn’t sure if I was in love with her or the mask. It began to feel like I fell in love with someone who wasn’t even there. This persona she had made up splintered into every piece of her. Who was she and did she even love me?

Our relationship began to slip down the mountain of lies and betrayal. I found that I was clinging to a version of her that she built during our early days together. She was no longer. She had vanished under a new disguise. She moved to another state. We barely spoke but continued to be in a relationship. Her new mask had new friends and a new job. I let go after an entire year of clinging to small pieces of her, those pieces that would call late in the night to say that she really did love me. I did not go quietly into the night. I raged because I had fallen so madly in love with a mask. I raged as “she” slipped into someone else. 

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