I never wanted to be a princess in white. I wasn't one of those little girls who dreams of her wedding day — I wasn't a girl at all. I saw myself as grubby, an animal. I was happiest in overalls and didn't mind when other people asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I liked being difficult to nail down.
When I was young, there was no word for what I was — or what I was not. Even now, the words we have are incomplete. I struggle to describe myself. "Not a girl" is usually as far as I get. The closest our language has so far for a person like me is "non-binary," meaning I exist outside the "masculine" and "feminine" gender norms. It means that, walking down the block, I will get called both "sir" and "ma'am" before I even cross the street — and neither will be right.
When I met my first husband, I was in boys' clothes. He said I looked like Ramona Quimby, the scruffy, mischievous girl from Beverly Cleary's iconic children's books. We rode our bikes everywhere through Portland, as though every day was summer vacation. But as the relationship progressed, I could tell that he needed me to be feminine. He craved it. If I ever looked or acted like a girl, it owned him, totally.
Me wearing my usual overalls with my ex-husband in 2006 | (Claire Rudy Foster/Courtesy Narratively)
Once, I put on a thrift store denim tube dress and went to visit him at the coffee shop where he worked. I was the only one there. He came around the counter and stood over me, too close. The look on his face — shock, total possession — frightened me. He crowded me into a corner and put his hands on the wall on either side of my head. I could smell his cigarette breath. The rough bricks were sandpaper against my naked back. He was a tall man, almost six and a half feet, with 40 pounds on me. In that skimpy shred of fabric, I felt very small. Like I couldn't possibly get away.
"You're supposed to be working," I said.
"When you come in here, looking like that?" he growled. "What did you think was going to happen?"
Our wedding was tiny — just us, our witnesses and the priest. His eyes followed me, taking in every detail. My milk-colored silk gown was heavy, but I still shivered, as though I was wearing nothing at all.
A photo from my first wedding | (Claire Rudy Foster/Narratively)
I held his fingers while we promised to love and cherish one another forever, but I sensed it was not me he loved. It was the dress. And because I was not a woman, I could not fulfill the promises I made him. They weren't my promises; this wasn't my part to play. I could only be the thing that I was. I was deeply closeted at the time, and it hurt to be seen as a bride. A woman. A wife. I held my husband's hand and I ached. When I tried to repeat the vows, my eyes leaked. I wasn't crying because I was moved. I cried because I was a fool, and I knew it, and because it hurt to pretend to be something I was not.
The marriage lasted three crummy years, and then I left.
I kept my wedding dress. It was gorgeous, a gift from my uncle Brian, not something to be parted with lightly. He made the bespoke Grace Kelly number with a full tea length, godet skirt with hand-embroidered panels. For the first fitting, I stood in Brian's sewing room in my underwear, fidgeting, while he measured me for the design.
"You've got a bubble butt," he teased, taking two extra hip measurements to accommodate it.
He pinned the muslin pattern pieces around me, adjusting for fit. I tried to relax. I'd need space in this dress; to bend, eat, breathe. Brian pinned the panels closer, adding pins where the muslin needed to follow the curves of my body. He knelt to check the pins around my hips. He marked a place over each knee, pinched the fabric, and tested its draping. The skirt would flare from here.
He looked up at me and smiled. I remember his warning: "Don't gain or lose too much weight, or I'll have to redo everything," he said. "The corset already has 14 bones in it."
If I changed too much, he'd have to add or take away. One alteration would change the proportions of the entire dress, a month of minor, careful adjustments to preserve the integrity of the pattern and the durability of the garment. The entire process was thousands of hours of hand work. I nodded, promising.
Do I need to say that I failed to stay the same? The small ways I changed, from my pronouns to my self-expression, transformed my life in colossal, unpredictable ways. Every tiny adjustment altered the pattern.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.