A New Year’s Disappearance
Remembering a man who vanished without a trace: my brother, although I never met him
It was 33 years ago this New Year’s Eve that Sam Todd left a party in Soho to get some air. He would not be seen again.
Sam Todd was a divinity student at Yale, a young man, like many, “giddy with their own futures.” On New Year’s Eve, 1983–4, he attended a party at 271 Mulberry Street with a group of recent graduates from Vassar. He was 24. One of his friends, Heather Dune Macadam, described Todd that night, as he “twirled like a young colt, laughing and eating up the energy of the night until he was so dizzy he had to leave me on the dance floor to spin alone while he went outside for a breath of air.” At 3 a.m. he left the party without his coat.
I was living uptown that year, across the street from a vacant lot, trying to be a writer. We were the same age, Sam Todd and I. The New York papers were full of the story of his disappearance. Fliers were posted; homeless shelters were searched. Rivers were dragged. Weeks went by, then months. Eventually there was nothing more to say about his story, other than the unbearable sadness of never knowing its ending.
The story haunted me, however. I’d wake from dreams in which Todd was knocking on my door. Come on, he’d say. Everybody’s waiting. He made it sound as if oblivion was an exotic gift, given only to a rarefied few.
Occasionally, I’d mention the case to my friends; their initial response was curiosity, followed by a vague discomfort. “Why are you so obsessed with this guy?” asked one friend. “You don’t even know him!”
But of course I knew him. The world is full of people who wonder what it might be like to vanish without a trace and begin life anew, under a new name, under a new personality, even — as was the case with me — under a new gender. Who among us, besides those without imagination, has never dreamed of escaping his or her own history?
For that’s what I imagined Sam Todd had done. In my fantasy, he was no victim of foul play or amnesia. In my heart, he had struck out for a place where no one knew him, like Gauguin boarding a steamer for the Marquesas. How hard could it be, I wondered? To head out like Huck Finn into “the Territory ahead of the rest,” a place where you could become, at last, the author of your own life?
I got my answer three years later. In May of 1987, I loaded up my Volkswagen and started driving north from Baltimore, where I’d been teaching a class at Johns Hopkins. I wound up in Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island. I wasn’t certain what was going to happen next, other than that I was going to find a way to end this transgender business once and for all.
I’d wake from dreams in which Todd was knocking on my door. Come on, he’d say. Everybody’s waiting.
One night, I put on my female “gear” and looked in a motel room mirror in Dingwall, N.S. Why shouldn’t I settle down here, I thought, and start life over as a woman? I could get a job working on a lobster boat. Then I lay on my back and sobbed. No one would ever believe I knew anything about lobsters.
The next day I climbed a mountain and, near the summit, stood by a cliff overlooking the sea. A fierce wind blew in from the Atlantic, and I asked myself — is this what you came here to do?
Then the wind blew me backward and I landed on some moss and looked up at the blue sky. Something in my heart — or perhaps something from on high — whispered to me, “You’re going to be all right.”
And so I headed home. A week later, in New York, I went to a party and met the woman who became the love of my life, a woman who, some years later, would help me begin my life anew, not as a person without history, but as a woman whose great curse instead became her greatest gift. On the cusp of middle age, to my great surprise, I, too, became, like the young Sam Todd, a person giddy with my own future.
I still think about Sam Todd and his family and his friends every New Year, about the profound loss they must feel, even now, about the man they loved. I think about them searching the city on New Year’s Day 1984, as the magnitude of their loss first became clear, their hearts broken. There are thousands of Sam Todds who go missing every year, people whose loved ones are left with a story that has no resolution.
On New Year’s Day each year, my wife and children and a large, raucous group of friends climb French Mountain near Belgrade, Me. We stand at the summit together and eat oranges and sing. Our children make angels in the snow. There is a sharp drop-off at the summit, and we frequently have to shout at our dogs to keep them from going off the edge.
As I stand there, I think about the gift of life, how wondrous and fragile. I think about the wind that blew me back from the precipice in Nova Scotia, and the voice that whispered, “You’re going to be all right.” Now and again, I wonder to whom that voice belonged. It might have been the voice of Christ; it might have been my father’s ghost; it might have been the shadow of the woman I eventually became. You can take your pick.
As for me, I sometimes think the voice belonged to Sam Todd, whom I never knew, and whom I still mourn, as if he were my brother.
This piece originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the New York Times on Dec. 30, 2013.