When I open the door to the restaurant, people look up.
And I feel the energy shift.
The way it always shifts, when I walk into a room.
When I allow myself to be noticed.
I am in Salt Lake City, where I grew up.
I’m with my mother, who still lives here, in the house where I was raised. And my son, who goes to college here
I’m just down for a quick visit.
We are meeting my brother and my niece for dinner.
It’s a large restaurant. Two stories. Crowded. Noisy.
We walk up to the hostess, who smiles at us reflexively.
I watch as she notices me: the microsecond in which her face freezes, the reset that follows in the subsequent microsecond.
It’s deeply familiar, this transaction. It’s endemic to the territory I inhabit: the land of late-transitioning trans girls.
My presence exerts a subtle pressure upon the atmosphere in any room. I know this.
It compels others, as they notice me, to…
I don’t know what.
And it always feels worse here in Utah.
Is it, actually? I can’t tell.
Possibly I’m just more sensitive to it here.
Or maybe I’m just too sensitive in general.
Which is what people sometimes tell me.
That maybe I’m just a wee bit overly self-conscious?
Utah places me on guard in a way that no other place can.
I haven’t lived here for decades, but this place remains for me, in certain deep and difficult ways, home.
I am so very intimate with its particular dangers.
Utah is the enemy I know.
The hostess leads us up the stairs to the table where my brother and his daughter have already been seated. The staff pauses to let us move between the tables.
I watch them notice me.
I watch the other patrons glancing up as we pass.
I never know exactly what it means, this noticing.
Except of course when it’s the full-on stinkeye.
The meaning of stinkeye is always clear.
And the hard male gaze.
The hard male gaze is also unambiguous.
But mostly it’s not those things.
Mostly it’s awkward double takes and sneaky sideways glances.
The casual gaze extended just slightly too long.
Tonight the noticing mostly seems like a sort of subtle checking.
The posing of a question.
Is that a….?
We sit down and our chirpy waitress arrives.
I watch her as she notices me.
She takes our drink orders.
Moments later a friend of my son’s materializes beside our table.
He works here, as it turns out.
He is a goofy, exuberant boy. He swoops in to say hi to all of us. There is no noticing necessary. I am familiar to him. I am his friend’s father.
He comes up beside my chair, leans in and gives me a hug.
He always hugs me when I see him.
Which I like so much.
For many reasons.
But mostly because it sends a certain signal to everyone else in the room.
That I am not beyond the pale.
My son’s goofy friend goes back to work. The waitress returns with our drinks. She takes our dinner orders.
And then, because more than five minutes have passed since the last time I peed, I excuse myself from the table.
I walk downstairs, across the main floor of the restaurant, down the hallway that leads to the bathrooms.
Visible, in a hundred small ways.
Every step of the way.
As I pull open the heavy bathroom door I hear the sound of giggling.
“It’s so fancy!” a girl is saying.
She is at the sink. She glances back at me as I enter. I laugh softly at her exclamation.
She’s just standing there, playing with the handles. She’s, maybe, ten?
Another girl is in one of the stalls. From her voice she sounds younger.
It’s just the three of us.
I go into the other stall. I sit. Exhale. I let down, stop tracking, grateful for the sanctuary, grateful to be, momentarily, unseen.
As I am peeing the girls keep talking and giggling. It is evident that they are sisters.
The one at the sink says to the one in the stall: “that lady laughed at me when she came in.”
As if I can’t hear her.
I smile. I wipe. I flush. I emerge from the stall.
Both girls are at the sink now. Playing, lingering.
“So,” I say to them. “What is it that makes these sinks so fancy?”
They proudly demonstrate to me the features of their extraordinary discovery. The knob that controls the water pressure. The separate knob that controls the heat of the water. The arc of the tap, the sloping marble sink.
I lean down, turn on the water. Adjust its temperature.
“Wow,” I say. “You’re right. It is fancy!”
I wash my hands, then move over to the towel dispenser to dry my hands. The sisters have congregated there as well. They are pulling out towels.
Still giggling. Still lingering.
As we are all drying our hands I notice the older girl’s newly-painted nails. Turquoise, like mine.
“Ooh,” I say, “I like your nail polish!”
I hold out my hands to show her mine.
“We got our toes done too!” the younger girl says.
I look down at her sandaled feet.
“Pink,” I say, “pretty!”
I glance at the other girl’s feet. But she is wearing sneakers.
“I guess I’ll never know what color your toes are.”
She gives me a smile that says: you’re silly.
“C’mon,” she says to her sister. “We need to go back.”
It’s true. They need to go back.
Their parents are probably getting annoyed at how long they’ve been in here.
And then I am alone.
And I am the one who is lingering.
Because suddenly I am afraid.
The fear blows threw me with gale force, rattling my brain awake after its brief nap.
My brain sits up, goes immediately back to its incessant job: assessing risk.
It starts feeding me information.
It calculates all of the noticing that was going on in the restaurant.
Cross-tabulates that with all the lingering, here in the ladies room.
Presents me with a concise analysis of potential scenarios which could play out within the next few minutes, based on this data.
And I don’t want to have to be thinking any of these things.
I so much don’t want to.
But I am thinking about them anyway.
I think about the parents of these girls.
The family they belong to, which has gathered in this place just as mine has.
I wonder if their parents were among those who were noticing me.
And I wonder, if they were, what question their minds might have been asking about me.
I wonder what it was that they were deciding.
Anna, I say to myself, you are an idiot.
What were you thinking?
I was not.
That’s the answer.
I was not thinking at all.
For a few minutes I was just moving through the world.
I was peeing.
I was just making silly chit chat.
I was not thinking of this ordinary moment as something that might get me…
I don’t know.
Which is precisely how a trans girl gets herself whatevered.
Even a trans girl like me. A white girl in a restaurant filled almost entirely with other white people. Binary, able-bodied. In possession of congruent identity documents. A girl who possesses certain resources. Whose particular privilege allows her to invisibly slip the bonds of so many greater risks. Who is, in so many ways, insulated.
Still, I have to walk back out that door.
Insulated or not.
I had to come in here and now I have to leave.
That remains true.
And I don’t feel any less afraid.
I wonder: should I have done something differently?
Is there a way I could have avoided arriving at this moment?
Should I not have interacted with the girls?
Should I have not come in here at all?
Should I have held my pee?
Should I have just stayed the fuck at home?
There is, of course, no resolution to these questions.
There never is.
I tell myself: probably everything will be fine.
Probably people are right. Probably I’m worrying for nothing.
Because everything is almost always fine.
Awkward, but fine.
Scary, but fine.
Most of the time nothing happens but the noticing.
I linger for a moment more.
Wondering what I might find waiting outside the door.
Wondering what I might encounter in the parking lot, later, when I leave.
And I think: how can I explain?
What this moment is like?
To my family, to the world?
You, who are perhaps insistently expecting the answer to a certain unvoiced question.
How can I tell this story in a way that doesn’t make me seem ridiculous?
Or anywhere on the spectrum between those two things?
How can I tell this story in a way which prevents it from being weaponized against me?
Against all us girls.
How can I tell it without making everything worse?
It’s impossible of course.
There is no safe way to tell this story.
I drop the paper towel in the garbage.
I take a breath.
I feel in my purse for my pepper spray.
Just to know where it is.
Then I look at the door.
Considering what is on the other side.
The enemy I know.
I place my hand lightly on its smooth, dark surface.