Open Bar

Our son told me it was a bad idea to open a bar with my ex, let alone just a few months after the divorce.

“It was an amicable divorce,” I insisted, loudly. The other diners looked up from their brunch. I lowered my voice. “It makes total sense.”

“You and Dad need some time apart,” our son said, folding his arms and leaning back into the spindly outdoor-dining chair. “You can come stay with me in Michigan, if you want.” I knew he was serious because he does not like having houseguests. I ignored both his offer and his advice, however.

Matt and I worked together because we could no longer work as a couple, but we had been married too long to figure out how to disentangle our lives. And maybe, slightly because I was hoping he would fall back in love with me, once he got over the shock of me wearing skirts and eyeshadow. It’s been almost a year since we opened the bar, though, and he has yet to ask for me back. Instead, this Monday (September 9th, if anyone was counting days), he told me he had a new boyfriend. He had gotten together with him the Thursday before last, but couldn’t figure out how to tell me, Matt explained, right before the new boyfriend came into the bar so that I could meet him. The fact that he looked like me—looked like I used to—should have made me jealous, as I was being replaced by an updated model. Instead it reassured me. Some version of me had been what Matt wanted, once. And if he could be it better than I could now, well, at least I had been it at one time. “I think I had that haircut a couple of years ago,” I said, and Matt nodded and agreed while the new boyfriend stared.

Here is the truth: I don’t think Matt would have left me if we were younger. People in their twenties now, they’re all about flexibility, the gender spectrum, shrugging off labels and specificity. Matt is old school. He just dates men? How quaint. It’s unfair of me but I’m angry. I don’t think I’m that different. I wear different clothes and my body is different, a little, but I still say the same things. Still have the same habits and hobbies.

Last week I was carrying a flat of beer into the bar, when the cardboard bottom gave out (it had been rained on) and the bottles fell onto the floor. Several of them smashed. Several of them also fell on my toes, newly painted in peek-a-boo heels. It hurt like hell, and I instinctively hopped backwards, slipped on the beer-wet floor, and sat down heavily in the booze puddle. I heard Matt running toward me from the back of the bar, and my butt hurt too much to get up yet, so I stayed there.

“Oh my god,” he said. “Are you okay?”

I lifted my dripping hands, and then started laughing. A little hysterically. He dragged me to my feet while I caught my breath. “Are you okay?” he said again.

“My clothes are full of beer,” I said. I took off my shoes and made sure the heel hadn’t snapped.

“There’s broken glass,” he warned. “I’ll get a broom. Or a mop. Or both.”

My shirt was soaked, the long hem having drawn in beer just as well as a rag would have. I didn’t have an extra pair of pants in my office, but I did have an extra shirt. I stripped the wet one off and wrung it out over the puddle.

“You should put your shoes on before you go anywhere,” he said.

“Good idea.” I put my shoes back on, and then wobbled off toward my office. My ass was sore. He went off to get the mop, and broom, and paper towels.

It wasn’t until I was dry and in new clothes that it occurred to me that I should no longer take my shirt off in front of him. I apologized, and he shrugged. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”

True. None of me was. We had seen each other in every configuration. I knew him in the afternoon, sitting at the upright piano, steadily plinking out pop songs by ear. He knew me in the morning, bustling our son off to school, trying to make coffee, breakfast, and a brown-bag lunch all at once, arguing with him about whether an undershirt was necessary for a dress shirt anymore. I argued that it was old-fashioned. He argued that it absorbed sweat, so the nicer shirt wouldn’t get stained. We knew each other in the evening, nestling into the quiet of our apartment, and the firm dig of his fingers into my sore shoulders, and me resting my head back against him. And at night, of course. How can you ever really be separate from someone who knows what you look like when thrown outside of yourself with pleasure? Who knows what you taste like? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

His new boyfriend has slept with many people. Talk gets around. I don’t judge him for that; instead I want to ask him for tips. How do you get over someone? Or maybe he has never gotten over any of the dozens of people he has slept with. Maybe he carries them all around with him. I doubt it. His skinny shoulders would collapse.

Neither of us are under the impression that he looks good in this situation. Matt left me after I came out as trans, a realization I only came to because he encouraged me to think about my past, my psyche, my trauma, etc. etc. Many people have been so good as to point out his poor timing. They think he is a dirtbag, or a Republican. This insults me—I married him, after all. I don’t have poor judgement. I go over the top defending him, and he slathers on humility. It’s a two-man tango of excuses. We’re very good at it by now. We have a lot of the same friends, and neither one of us wants to ask people to pick sides. One of the good things about the bar is that new people come in, people who don’t know we used to be married, whose worst thought about me is that I might be the kind of straight woman who hangs around gay men for the wrong reasons. At least they’re not thinking what our friends are probably thinking, which is that I’m too desperate to notice when I’m not wanted.

We sold the house quickly after breaking up. The same house our son grew up in. He was not happy about that.

“You didn’t expect us to live there forever, did you?” I asked him.

“Maybe,” he said. “Not really. I just don’t like the idea of other people living there.” He helped me move into a one-bedroom, while his husband helped Matt move. I felt like I won something there, because Matt got the in-law. Then I felt guilty, because I love our son-in-law, and he was being generous by coming up from Michigan to help us at all.

It was about a month after we moved that Matt brought up the idea of opening a bar. It wasn’t the first time—he had always liked the idea, probably influenced by sitcoms that made local pubs into the family rooms of the neighborhood. But he hadn’t seemed serious before. I seized on the idea with the desperation of the drowning. Maybe he was worried he was going to drown, too.

In classic psychoanalytical style, I blame my mother for all of this. She wanted me to be something I was not. Like many parents, I suppose, only I was too obedient a child. Two years ago, one year before the divorce, when she died, Matt helped me clean out her house. It was the house I had grown up in, which she had rattled around in since I left for college, alone after my father died while I was in middle school. Armed with black drawstring trash bags, we roamed through the silent rooms, sorting into trash and donate. There was no keep pile. The furniture we would sell along with the house. My mother’s taste was impeccable and expensive, and I expected there would be some happy collector eager to divest us of the dining room set, the rolled-arm sofa, the Tiffany table lamp. I didn’t want to keep any of them. Matt pushed me a little. “What about this?” he asked, hand resting on a dark wood bookshelf with carved whorls crowning it. “We’ve been looking for another bookshelf, right?”

“I don’t like it,” I said, despite the fact I had been ogling a similar one online only a week before. He wisely let it go. He campaigned harder for the china, gleaming white bone plates with gilt edges, uneven as if painted with a calligrapher’s brush. I relented, reluctantly, and we took some of those home in boxes, but I never opened them. They’re still with his things, actually. I realized after we sold the house that the plates had been bundled into his boxes rather than mine. I wonder if he will keep them, or if he will feel uncomfortable having my mother’s dishes around. It’s another thing I don’t ask him, this time because I am curious to see what he will do unprompted.

We saved my old room for last, because it was on the second floor, farthest from the front door, and we had been going through the house methodically. The order helped me keep my nerve. My mother was dead and I did not know how to feel. Now that she was dead I wasn’t sure if relief was enough of a reaction, or if I was wobbling on the edge of a meltdown. At the end of the hallway, Matt opened the door to my childhood bedroom. It was neat, white-walled. The walls were decorated with framed prints of famous paintings, because that was what my mother thought was appropriate, but I loved the picture of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Klimt’s Medicine. All the greatest hits. He sat on my childhood bed, and it moved me suddenly, to see him there as if he had always been part of my life.

“So this is where it all began,” he said, gazing around the room. I liked it when he did that, talked like a screenwriter wrote his dialogue. He lay back, spread his arms. He could reach nearly from the head to the foot of the bed.

“Yes,” I said. “Here is that illustrious space where I did my homework and read paperbacks.” I pressed my hands to my chest in mock-awe. “Oh, but this is more interesting.” I went over to the closet, which had once been hung with collared shirts and blazers, and was now mostly empty with a few shoe boxes at the bottom. Probably empty themselves—my mother saved every empty box she got her hands on, in case it would be the right size to pack something away in. The highest shelf was almost out of my reach—I had to stand on my very tiptoes to get to the box I was looking for, and my mother couldn’t have reached it without standing on a chair or stepstool. I snagged it with my fingernails and dragged it down from the back of the shelf, where it had been hidden out of sight. He looked on, only a little intrigued. I popped the top off and tossed it next to him. The inside was lined in scrapbook paper, a toile pattern in blue. I picked up a bottle of nail polish and shook it, but it had dried out, despite the closed top. Notes I had written were now on yellowed paper, the blue lines of my college-ruled notebooks faded almost into invisibility. “Look,” I said, showing him the box. “This is the stuff I tried to hide from my mother. Isn’t it ridiculous?”

He looked. There was a sheaf of papers, mostly bad poetry from my early teenage years. A porn mag, of course. Tubes of lipstick and nail polish, and a few earrings. I picked out a pair of silver drops, the metal now tarnished. “These are the only things I ever stole,” I said. “And they weren’t even expensive—I just happened to be with my mother when I saw them, and she would rather have died then let me have them.” I paused, thoughtful. “I suppose she has, now.”

“Don’t say that,” he said absently. He picked up some of the papers, holding them carefully at the edges as if they were two hundred years old rather than twenty or thirty. They were old enough that I was no longer embarrassed by them, so I let him, and continued poking around, opening the drawers in the bureau to see if I left anything interesting in there. I hadn’t. I knew a lot of children made havens of their bedrooms, but my mother’s presence had always been powerful, inescapable, all through the house. I had always felt like I was a guest in her home.

That’s where my memory of the scene ends. We didn’t end up taking anything from my old room. I had long since cleared it of any meaningful possessions other than the box. Matt didn’t tell me what he’d read, or talk to me about it then. But a few days later, over breakfast, I was talking about the estate sale, and he said, seemingly off-hand, “A few of the poems you had in the box were interesting.”

“I sincerely doubt it,” I said, spooning jam onto an English muffin.

“You talked a lot about wishing you were born a girl.”

“Oh, yeah, that was something I was obsessed with for a bit. Fairly typical way of dealing with being gay, I guess. You know, inverted gender and all that.” I didn’t get it at the time. I was thinking about it in context of my mother still, her absolute terror that I would be abnormal, her fury at discovering that I was. I had tried very hard to avoid that fury.

“Hmm.” He stirred his coffee. “You don’t feel that way anymore?”

I flicked my eyes up to his face, but his expression was neutral. “Of course not.” Silence hung in the air after that – I thought for minutes. I ate my muffin, and tried not to imagine why he would ask.

I don’t know why he did, what marital insight told him that there was something more than adolescent confusion in those poems. I had no idea. I had buried everything, a long time ago, at my mother’s implied request. What he said that morning, though, burrowed into me, started things moving.

I lost a lot of sleep the first few months in my new apartment. It is hard to sleep in a bed by yourself when you aren’t used to it. Not because of the emptiness, that vibrating space on the other side of the bed that belongs to a person who is not there. Our son recommended a body pillow. As if I were pregnant.

I wonder if he and his husband will have kids, if they will adopt or use a surrogate like we did. I wonder what it would be like to carry a child. I wonder, too, if I had realized sooner, if I could have raised our son as his mother, could have spared him bullying for having two dads. Probably having a trans mother wouldn’t be any better, but that doesn’t stop me feeling guilty, so much so that I call him.

“You’re being ridiculous,” he said once I explained my problem to him. “I never minded that you were gay. Are gay? Were gay.”

“But don’t you think it might have been better…?” I fumbled, trying to find words for the fear I felt, that my lack of self-knowledge had been passed on to him.

“I don’t care if it would have been better, Mom,” he said bluntly. “It might have, or it might have been worse. I’m happy now. Dad’s happy. You can be happy if you stop worrying. That’s what matters.”

“I am happy,” I said defensively.

“That’s good,” he said, his tone warmer. “I hope so.”

I took off my ring when we separated, because it’s what one does. But it drove me to distraction. I had made a habit of touching my thumb to the warm metal, fiddling with it without noticing what I was doing. Now every time I reached for it and it was gone, I thought for a moment I had lost it. I had the familiar surge of panic, the list: did it come off when I was washing the dishes? when I was showering? gardening? before remembering that it was in the top drawer of my nightstand. Not lost, just not here.

I mentioned to Matt how I kept thinking I had lost my ring, and he nodded. “It’s hard to get used to,” he said. “I always wonder where I could have dropped it.”

I waited for him to follow this up with so let’s just wear them anyway but he did not, of course, and so the ring stays in my nightstand. I guess my fiddling was noticeable, though, because for my birthday last winter our son got me a ring. It’s silver with a pearl. He was nervous about it, I think. “I just thought it was pretty,” he said diffidently. I hugged him tight. I wear the ring on my right hand, and when I am nervous I touch my thumb to the smooth metal.

Matt drove me to the hospital for the surgery, a month after we separated officially. He waited the long hours while I was unconscious. He drove me back when I was woozy and nauseated from the anesthesia, barely able to crawl into bed on my own. “That sucked,” I complained as he tucked me in.

He kissed me lightly on the forehead. “It’ll be worth it.”

“Yeah,” I said, already falling asleep.

The next morning I was already feeling better. “I think it was just the drugs,” I told him from my seat at the kitchen table, while he made breakfast. “My chest doesn’t hurt that much, actually.”

“Just wait, maybe the adrenaline will wear off.”

“Thanks a lot. How could I still have adrenaline when I slept the whole night?”

He admitted I had a point, and gave me an Eggo.

In the weeks afterward he was a saint. My recovery was fairly easy, but I was anxious and hesitant. He went shopping for new clothes with me, and waited patiently while I dithered, and held me with equal patience while I cried in the dressing room.

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” I sobbed.

“What do you mean?”

“The whole point is that I’m supposed to feel, I don’t know, free or something. Like I’m my true self. And instead I just feel confused.”

He kindly did not snap at me.

We really tried. I think a lot of people around us secretly think that if we had just been to couples counseling, or simply waited it out, or relied on faith or done anything, anything at all, we could have gotten through it. But the truth is I could feel how uncertain he was when kissing me, as if I were a stranger. I felt nauseous when he touched me as if I were still a man, and he was hesitant and uninterested when I asked him to treat my body as a woman’s. It wasn’t his fault, or mine, but the map of my body had changed in ways I couldn’t yet communicate and he couldn’t predict. When I shrank away from his hand on me, when he had to force himself to touch my chest—that’s when things broke. We both felt it. And there was no point in saying it didn’t happen.

I wanted him to love me for who I was now, but that had changed so fast. I chased him, demanded declarations and affirmations and endless gestures. He gave and gave, until it was clear that I would never be satisfied. I wanted him to love me with such force that it drove away my insecurities, my doubt and guilt and uncertainty. I didn’t know what else I wanted, only that I needed him to provide it. That’s why I don’t like it when people blame him for leaving me after I transitioned. I drove him away. I knew that I was doing it, too, but I couldn’t stop. And he is wonderful, but he is only human. My fallible best friend. The kindest thing I think I have ever done is break up with him.

I couldn’t read his expression when I told him, which was alarming. I thought I knew him well enough that I could always tell what he was feeling. I explained that I was becoming desperate, that I was driving myself crazy seeking affirmation from him, that it wasn’t fair to him. I thought maybe he would tell me that it was okay, that this was a rough patch and we would get through it.

“If that’s what you think,” he said, “then I guess… that’s what’s best.” He turned away slightly, and then I could see the exhaustion in his body language.

“I love you,” I said, as an apology.

“But you’re breaking up with me.” I looked at him, and he sighed. “I wish you weren’t. But I think I understand.”

Even in that worst of moments, he was generous.

The second time his new boyfriend came into the bar, it was while we were open, not in an arranged meeting before hours. I hid in the back, trying to peek over at the two of them without being noticed. The other staff definitely noticed, but they were kind enough not to mention it. His new boyfriend came around the bar to hug him, and they kissed, warm but not over-passionate. Then he went back around and sat on a stool in front of Matt. He stayed there throughout the night. I thought he would get bored and leave, but he didn’t. Even while Matt was busy with other customers, he gazed at him as if he hung the moon. I know the feeling. I hated him a little less, just for that.

Our son had dinner with Matt and his boyfriend recently. He mentioned it offhand while I was on the phone with him. “When were you in town?” I asked, shifting the phone to my other hand as I washed dishes. “Why didn’t you come see me?”

“It was just a quick thing, Mom,” he said, embarrassed. “I had dinner with Dad and—uh.”

“Right,” I said, filling in the details. “What do you think of him?”

“He’s nice,” he said. “He looks like an airhead but apparently he’s really into folklore.”

“Folklore?” I asked, surprised. “Like, fairy tales?”

“And mythology and stuff. Yeah. We talked about Greek myths a bunch.”

I snorted. “Three gay men discuss Ancient Greece. Revolutionary.”

“You can’t hate everything, Mom.”

“Watch me.” But I wasn’t serious, and he knew it.

Apparently October 11th is National Coming Out Day. At the bar, a few days before, Matt asked if I wanted to do anything to celebrate. Hang banners or something. Make a drink special.

“Oh, honey,” I said, “I already know you’re gay. We don’t need a banner.”

And it wasn’t funny, it was barely a joke, but we both started laughing. We laughed until we were clinging to the bar to hold ourselves up.

“That was so dumb,” he said when he could breathe.

“You’re dumb,” I replied. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” he said. And it was true, I thought, even if not in the way I wanted it to be.

His boyfriend comes into the bar on the 11th, leans and kisses him over the counter. I see this from my table nearby, where I am looking through a catalogue of commercial bathroom products and drinking a violently purple house cocktail Matt named Genderfuck, in honor of the holiday. As if the two of them were in a movie, separated from me by a screen, I watch. He smiles as he talks to Matt—it is too loud for me to overhear, and I can’t read lips, but he has a genuine smile, not covering his teeth. Matt ducks his head, laughing at a joke. When he turns back to work, I wave my hand at his boyfriend. He does an actual double take, looking over his shoulder to see if I meant to summon Matt instead of him. After a moment, he comes over to my two-person table. “Hey,” he says, in what he may think is a neutral voice. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to talk to you,” I say. I gesture at the chair across from me. He sits in it like a bird on a twig, ready to take off again. “I wanted to say I’m glad you’re with him.”

It isn’t what he was expecting to hear. It isn’t exactly what I feel, either, but it is what I want to feel, and it’s not as far from the truth as it once was. He folds his arms. “Thanks, I guess.”

“I think he really likes you,” I say. “And I wanted to apologize to you, if I was rude when we first met. He’s a really good person to be with, you know.”

“I do know,” he says. When he talks about Matt his face isn’t so angular. He smiles at me, then. “You’re a little tipsy, huh?”

“Maybe,” I say. “But I mean it. He’s my best friend and I want him to be happy, so be nice to him. And if he’s cranky then he’s probably got low blood sugar and just needs a snack.”

He tilts his head, his blond curls bouncing a little. “So you’re not trying to get back together with him?”

“If we could be together,” I say, “then we would be. But we can’t.” It hurts to say. It hurts that it’s true.

“I’m sorry about that,” he says quietly. He isn’t, but it’s nice of him to say. I shrug, trying to cover up what I am still figuring out how to heal.

“That’s all I wanted to say. Thanks.” I take another long drink of the Genderfuck, and grimace. “I swear there’s like a pound of sugar in here.”

“I’ll have to try it,” he says. “Talk to you later.” He gets up and heads back to where Matt is, to sit across from him while he makes drinks. I don’t like him yet. But if Matt sees something in him, maybe there is something to see. And if there isn’t, then I will be here to comfort Matt and remind him that he is better than the boyfriend ever could hope to be.

I catch Matt’s eye across the room. He frowns, probably worried about me talking to his boyfriend. I smile, and give a mock salute. “Not bad!” I call, and he laughs.

Our eye contact is broken by a small crowd of people. Younger than us, loud and joyful. I can’t identify their genders by sight. I don’t want to. They look so happy, as they push toward the bar, consult each other about drinks, offer promises to pay for each other. Matt’s boyfriend gives up his seat for one of them, but he’s smiling about it, the same smile as I’m wearing. Some of the younger people are holding hands, and I say a silent wish for them to be loved by each other, in any way that feels right. Their voices fill the small space, and though I’m sitting at my own table, I don’t feel alone at all.

About the Author

Misha Grifka Wander is a queer nonbinary writer currently based in Ohio. They have studied creative writing at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University, and are currently working towards a PhD in English from Ohio State University.