Broadway Books

Imagining Jenny

An excerpt from the Afterword by Richard Russo:

Jenny had been given to understand she'd have a private hospital room in which to convalesce. The next day she'd be operated on by Dr. Eugene Schrang, who'd pioneered "gender reassignment surgery," a term that still cracked me up (if it didn't work out, you'd be reassigned again, this time to the motor pool). I don't know if Schrang was the one who actually came up with the idea of using a penis to create a vagina, of turning one highly sensate organ in upon itself to produce another, but if so, he gets points for imagination in my book. Either that or he just lived through the Depression and, like my maternal grandmother, hated to waste anything. He was also very expensive, though as Jenny herself pointed out to me, if you're in the market for new genitalia, you really don't want to shop in the bargain basement. Still, I had some doubts about the good doctor. His Web site featured a giant vagina on its home page, and I'd begun to think of him as "Big Pussy," like the character on The Sopranos. One thing was for sure. He had a thriving practice. Dr. Schrang did some eighty male-to-female gender reassignment surgeries a year, and June had apparently been a particularly busy month. When we arrived in Egypt, he had a wardful of postop transsexuals, which meant that Jenny would have a roommate.

Her name was Melanie, and to Jenny, she couldn't have been more encouraging. "Don't be scared, hon, you're doing the right thing," she counseled in a southern drawl from behind the drawn curtain that divided the room. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, I thought, wishing I could whisper this advice to Jenny, who shared my devotion to The Wizard of Oz. Over the last two years there'd been plenty of tense, strained moments in our friendship, and lately we clung to laughter like drowning men (sic) to an inner tube. It usually wasn't long after an argument that I'd get an e-mail from Jenny that would restore our equilibrium. One such said, "Russo. I've come up with a title for Larry Fine's autobiography. It's Moe, You Bastard, You Bastard, Moe, You Bastard." Reading it, I found myself grinning from ear to ear, and not just because at age fifty-three I still took pleasure in the Three Stooges. It was, of course, the way Jim and I had communicated right from the start-that is, elliptically. To be Larry Fine was to be poked in the eye, cuffed in the head, knocked down, ridiculed, and buffeted by a malicious force of nature over the course of a lifetime, and never to know why. By the time you came to writing your autobiography, all you'd know is that you'd had enough. Moe, you bastard.

Melanie's operation had gone well enough, but her recovery had been dicey. Since her catheter had been removed, she explained to us, disappearing into the small bathroom located on Jenny's side of the curtain, she actually had to stand on the commode to pee. How the added elevation could possibly help in this enterprise I neither understood nor wanted to understand. When the door closed behind her, we could hear the seat drop and Melanie climb aboard. "It's worth it, though," she assured Jenny ten minutes later as she limped back to her own bed, bathed in sweat from the fruitless exertion. "It's so worth it."

In what sense? was what I wanted to ask, but I bit my tongue. Jenny, herself in a hospital gown now, was beginning to look panicked, all too ready for the sedative she'd been promised. Grace sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand. "How do you feel?"

"Terrified," Jenny admitted, her voice all but inaudible. "Brave. I couldn't do this without you." Her eyes shifted, kindly, to include me. I searched for something to say, failing utterly, and not for the last time in Egypt. It was language-easy, thoughtless words between friends-that I'd most felt the loss of over the long months. We value our friendships in part, I suspect, according to their ease, and Boylan and I had hit it off from the start. Ten years earlier he'd been the very first visitor to our rented camp on Great Pond, where we were staying until we could find a house in Waterville. He'd arrived, bearded then, with a six-pack of beer by way of a calling card, to welcome me to Colby College after I'd been given a job he himself had applied for. He might have been coming to check me out, the way you'd look over the guy your wife left you for, but by the time we'd shaken hands, I'd known this wasn't the case. By the time we'd drunk half of that first beer, our feet up on the railing of the deck, before I'd read his two sad, hilarious companion novels (The Planets and The Constellations) about souls adrift in the wide universe, I knew I'd made a friend. Here was a man (I thought) who spoke my language, to whom I would seldom have to explain myself, who was predisposed to give me the benefit of every doubt. By the time we'd finished that beer, we'd formed, it seemed to me, an unspoken pact, the exact nature of which we'd figure out later, the details being unimportant. It'd be easy. And until recently it had been. Now, though, I had to watch every word I said, especially the pronouns, not because Jenny got upset when I messed up (she never did), but because my mistakes, especially public, social ones, caused her both pain and embarrassment. Worse, such blunders were evidence that I missed my old pal Jim and wanted him-and our old, thoughtless ease-back again. Which I did. "You know what?" Grace said later, when we left the hospital in search of whatever the town might have to offer by way of dinner. "She's going to get all the good drugs. We're not going to get any."

Barbara, my wife, happened to be away visiting family when Jim told me. She returned a couple of days later, and I drove down to Portland to meet her evening flight. We'd spoken a couple of times, but I'd said nothing about Boylan because it wasn't the sort of news you impart over the phone and also because I myself had only begun to process what I'd been told. The first person I always want to tell important news to is Barbara, partly because I can trust her reactions, which are often more generous than my own, and partly because I often don't know what I truly think about things until I do tell her. Which was why it now felt so strange to possess knowledge that I badly wanted to conceal from her.

I waited until we'd loaded her luggage into the trunk of the car, gotten through the worst of the Portland traffic and safely onto I-95 pointed north, and only then, when the other cars fell away and the tall, dark pines began to enclose us, did I lean forward, turn off the radio, and tell my wife to prepare for a shock. ("This is not about us," I hastened to assure her, fearing she would leap to some terrible conclusion.) As I told her that our friend Jim Boylan believed himself to be a woman; that he'd understood this to be the case all his life and was only now discovering the courage to admit it; that Grace knew and was, of course, devastated; that he'd consulted doctors who had diagnosed his condition; that he intended to enter into a "transition" from male to female, from Jim to Jenny, that would involve hormone therapy and, quite possibly, gender surgery-Barbara said nothing until my voice finally fell. Then she said, "Oh, this is just insane. There has to be something else going on. We know this man." She was looking over at me now, though it was very dark in the car, as if I, too, at any moment, might be revealed to her as a stranger. I understood all too well what the news was doing to her. What she knew-what she knew she knew-was being challenged. The ground beneath her feet had shifted, was no longer stable. Of all the couples we knew, the Boylans had the marriage most like our own, and if Grace had not known the truth, never even suspected it, then what in the wide world was truly knowable? If you can be so wrong about something so fundamental, what could you trust? Or, more to the point, who?

We drove on for many minutes, adrift in time and space. I speak here not in metaphor. We were supposed to have gotten off the interstate at Brunswick and taken Route 1 up the coast to Camden, but I'd missed our exit. I know now that this is what must have happened. At the time, though, we were simply flying down the pitch black interstate, peering out the windshield at a newly unfamiliar world. It occurred to me that what I'd told my wife-that none of this was about us-wasn't true. It was about us.

Excerpted from She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan Copyright© 2004 by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


She's Not There