I met him while we were trying to design vehicles powered only by the sun, the kind that require less power than a toaster.
He said little, and so what he did say had impact. When he told a joke, it took us all a second to realize he didn’t mean it. He was a minimalist in all aspects of his life — he only spent money when needed, he even left the comfort of his small bed to stay overnight in the workshop.
I was a colourfully dressed 18-year-old, burdened by mental illness. I was trying to present my impulsive instability as a healthy sense of fun.
He was quiet and serious and three years older — in many ways, he was my polar opposite.
This was the context in which I met Ryan*.
My job within our university’s team was everything from creating 3D computer models to cold-calling companies to spreading epoxy onto carbon fibre. Ryan installed data collectors about the vehicle, wired them up and used the data to decide how fast we could go based on what power we had in the battery pack.
Ryan was very good at his job, and me? Not so much.
Ryan asked me out through an e-mail.
I assumed he was reminding me of a team event; I always forget, so this wouldn’t have been unexpected.
But instead, we had breakfast for dinner at a diner just a short walk away from the university. Our conversation started out awkward, but the moment we delved into the kind of dark humour we both enjoyed, we hit our stride. We were two young people to whom the world had been cruel — and we found shared comfort in being cruel back.
After dinner, we walked back to campus together — me with my purple dress and short bleached hair, him with his dark clothes and lit cigarette — an unlikely match, but I felt closer to him than I had to anyone in a long time.
Our evening was cut short by team duties, but the next night we found ourselves together again. He sat next to me on the piano bench as I practised. He kissed me in the elevator on the way to my dorm room. He slept with me in my single bed, his arms and legs wrapped around me.
At a time when I didn’t feel safe with myself, he felt safe with me. That thought alone kept me awake in wonder.
We shared our secrets that night.
He told me about his childhood in a small corrupt Asian country, and shared his fear of returning to that place. He asked me to call him Ryan, instead of his localized birth name. I was one of the first people to call him by that name.
He began to stay with me every night in my university dorm room instead of returning to his tiny apartment in Chinatown. I made space for him in my concrete room and he helped me bleach my hair.
In many ways, we were each other’s firsts. When I told him I loved him, it was the first time I said those words to a romantic partner. I was hesitant, but I was learning to trust myself again.
I believed that it was love.
I wasn’t wrong.
With my new self-confidence came self-discovery. The first time I borrowed Ryan’s shirt sparked something in me, sent me searching online for words to describe how I felt.
The discomfort I felt since puberty had been buried under layers of ambition, illness and hyperfemininity. But the introduction of diverse genders via Tumblr, however heavy-handed, sent me digging again, questioning the thing I had taken for granted for so long.
I shared my self-discovery with Ryan. I enjoyed borrowing his clothes a little too much. I spent a little too much time reading the blogs of other trans people. I tried to compromise with gender neutrality, and spent hours researching what that entailed.
Throughout this, Ryan was supportive, but he was also honest.
He said he was not attracted to men — even the man who used to be his girlfriend.
After over a year together, we rented our own apartment, a basement unit, windowless but clean. The landlords had a friendly obese cat we both adored.
We cooked for each other and cleaned without being asked. We were ideal roommates, each of us trying to take on the larger share of the work.
We became comfortable with this new relationship. We were each other’s closest friend and biggest supporter. We knew each other’s favourite food and activities. We loved each other, even if we didn’t show it physically anymore. We were like an old married couple — except we were 21 and 24.
Freed from the constraints of romance, he became more open to my transition. I discussed the gauntlet of doctor’s appointments that came with my decision to physically transition.
This time, I had already begun to change. We both knew it.
He was the first to call me James, before I changed my mind and settled on Jonathan.
Love is a choice. And we chose to keep going.
It was early spring and our lease was ending.
I was six months on testosterone and about to graduate. I found a new place in downtown Toronto and I moved in with another friend. Ryan, on the other hand, had chosen a spacious apartment uptown. He asked me to drive the moving van.
After we had loaded and unloaded his belongings, we stopped for food, and sat in the truck to eat it. We were alone together again, free of obligations. There was no better time for me to say it.
“We’re just friends, right?” I said.
There were words said after that, but there was little to add. I put an awkward arm around him as we sat in silence.
Our partnership was over, but we are not.
After that conversation, almost nothing changed between us. Maybe all of the changes had already occurred, as our personalities shifted over the three years we were together.
If you asked Ryan, he would say that I was the only one who had changed. In a way, it’s true. My appearance has changed drastically, while his has remained familiar. But the funny thing about love is that it’s hard not to notice how the other person has grown during your time together.
In the end, the love I had — and still have — for Ryan is defined not by its power, but by its endurance. We were not a fiery combustion engine, but a quiet solar array, absorbing enough of the sun’s healing light to move onward, steadfast and sustainable. We used our limited power efficiently, and we are better people because of it.
Now when Ryan tells a joke, he does it with a cheeky smile, and his friends are quick to respond. He works as hard as ever, but also takes the time to treat himself. We meet occasionally to play pool and drink beer and toss insults at my cats. Our text messages have their own language to them, the kind that develops between two people who spend enough time together.
He no longer needs me to make him feel safe.
I guess he never really did.
*Name has been changed.