My wheelchair, her beard. We’re not everyone’s favorite heterosexual, able-bodied, cis, white couple.
It’s your 27th birthday. You’ve just publicly come out as a trans woman, and here we are in a dressing room at the outlet mall.
Not really a closet, but it’s hard to shake the association.
We’re trying to get your long legs into a clearance jumpsuit first, then work on shimmying through the rest.
My wheelchair is a bit too bulky for this space. I have to hold the curtain closed with one hand while talking you through how to tighten your bra straps. But once you’re in, you’re in.
In changing rooms, I’m able to stand from my wheelchair, stretch my legs. You’re able to take off your wig and give it a quick brush-through with your fingers.
We can breathe here in the in-between spaces. Here, we know who we are, and we don’t need anybody else to tell us otherwise.
“This is so freeing,” you say, swaying back and forth.
This becomes your catchphrase for each skirt and dress and linen pants you slide into. You look at yourself in the mirror, take in your winged eyeliner, pluck a stray synthetic strand of hair away from your cheek.
You are beautiful.
The accessory store where I first got my ears pierced (and then re-pierced several times) as a kid is down the hall, next to the pretzel stand. We drift naturally toward the smell of salt and warm butter.
I tell you to go in and find the butterfly clips and body glitter. It’s a requirement for every coming-of-age girl. I know you won’t like them because that’s not your style, but I want to see your reaction to the sparkly costume jewelry.
The store is small and crowded with people whose masks hang below their noses. When I can’t get through the entrance, it’s like we’re chewed up and spit back out.
“Excuse me,” you say, practicing a new, public softness. It’s muffled behind your mask and almost indetectable.
The crowd doesn’t part. I tell you that I’ll wait outside. You should go in, even if it’s just to try on those unicorn headbands near the register.
“OK, let us pass,” you say, louder.
And people look. That’s always the worst part: the way their eyes flick up and down, trying to figure us out.
Usually when I use my wheelchair, I give the people around me apologetic looks. Sorry for taking up so much room. Sorry for bringing attention to myself.
I was nervous that this was how you would feel being “out” for the first time.
“I’m not going to fit,” I say. I feel my chest break out in red splotches. “It’s OK. Find me some bat earrings?”
You agree, but only to look for what I’ve requested. Our friend goes in with you and gets you to try on fake glasses, plastic pearls, and a floppy hat.
I watch you, my wife, from the window. You strike a pose in the direction of the mirrors on the ceiling. Even there, upside down, glammed in pre-teen garb, you are so beautiful.
A young boy sits in the piercing chair while you look at earrings. The kid gets one lobe punctured, doesn’t flinch. When the piercing artist hands him a pink jeweled mirror to take a look, he turns away.
You come out from the store and take the handles of my wheelchair. People stare and I chant in my head, Let us pass.
We’re both stuck on the idea of passing. Me, forcing my invisibly disabled body into discomfort just to avoid questions or pity.
For you, of course, the stakes are so much higher.
Sometimes people talk to me as though I’m a child when I use my wheelchair. Sometimes their eyes follow me once they realize I’m not the type of disabled they expect me to be.
But at least my life isn’t at risk like yours. At least I don’t need to hide my painted nails in fists when I’m in line at the bank.
When you came out to our family members and friends, the most common reaction was for them to turn toward me, ask how I’m doing with all of this, and if we’re going to stay together.
At this point, I’ve been publicly out as bisexual for a few years, but many people must not have believed me. I suppose they didn’t have to when I was in a relationship with a masculine-presenting partner.
We knew our relationship would never be acceptable unless we stopped being who we are. Strip away my wheelchair, bring back your beard. Everyone’s favorite heterosexual, able-bodied, cis, white couple.
I tell everyone the safest anecdote I can to show that I’ve known you weren’t a man since the very beginning of our relationship. We had been texting while I got loaded into a Paratransit bus. Your message said something along the lines of how you sometimes pictured us in a lesbian relationship. We joked about being gal pals.
I’ve learned that this is something important to people: my approval of you, my wife. And truthfully, I don’t really approve of everything.
For starters, you freeze our bread, which I think makes it soggy. You’re always too quick to agree with me when I suggest takeout every day of the week, even though you’re supposed to be the financially responsible one in this relationship.
Not to mention that you prefer the original “Spider-Man” trilogy to the newest adaptation.
Someone sees your coming-out social media post and texts me, “How are you holding up?” I respond that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and mean it with my whole heart.
It’s the end of the day, the last store we’ll go into. You’re exhausted, and my arms are starting to hurt from turning the wheels of my chair. We find some blouses on sale and decide to check out without trying them on.
At the register near the front of the store, the cashier carefully folds your new clothes. She asks if we want to sign up for a credit card. We decline.
Then she hands us the bags and says, “Have a good day, ladies!”
You smile and stand taller, flush with a burst of new energy. As we’re exiting the store, we pass a full-length mirror.
Under the fluorescents, I notice a line of color-correcting concealer that I didn’t blend into your skin well enough this morning. I tell you to strike a pose, so you put your hand on your hip.
I’m in awe of you.
“Just gals being pals,” I say as a joke.
I reach up, grab your hand, and dare everyone to look.
Aryanna Denk is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and writes often about her own experiences living with multiple chronic illnesses. When she isn’t writing, Aryanna works as an instructor and disability advocate at a local university. Learn more about her by visiting her Twitter.