When My Niece Became My “Nibling”
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Now 'they' were not a 'she' anymore—and 'he' was out of the question.
Three years ago they were still a pretty girl, demonstrably female but not as pretty as they had once been because their treatments had already begun.
To me being a man—and becoming a man—is a way of life; a neverending stress test to live up to something ineffable.
The pretty girl I’d known was long-gone. They were no longer my niece but now my nibling.
I never could get the pronouns straight. Their name, now a boy’s name and not a girl’s, was no problem but now they were not a she anymore—and he was out of the question.
My niece knew none of my confusion, of course, except when their own name—the pretty old-fashioned name of a girl and/or a woman—slipped out like I had just stepped on a banana peel.
When I’d seen this young woman three years ago, they were 27, a pretty girl, demonstrably female…
When I’d seen this young woman three years ago, visiting their grandmother at her country house, they were 27, a pretty girl, demonstrably female, though not as pretty as they had once been because the treatments had already begun. Their hair was short and they still wore dresses, but what I remember most is how unhappy they seemed to be. Anger was always in the air and they boiled with enough unhappiness to fill up a country house.
To me being a man—and becoming a man—is a way of life; a neverending stress test to live up to something ineffable and unspecified. With my niece underfoot in the old country house, I was confronted in the flesh by someone who had chosen drugs and even surgery and now presumed to make the same trip.
Sexually it seemed crazy-making in the way certain ideas get crazy when they get real. Could one (still a useful, allowable pronoun) truly become a man without being to the manor born?
The next time they came to see their Grandma they brought two friends who would soon become their roommates. One was a tall gay woman about to marry a person of no discernible gender and of no obvious pronoun: this person (a safe designation) presented as more feminine than not, though with sprouts of chest hair, so I was not quite sure what to call her/him/whatever in those days before pronouns became acts of war. Still, my niece was noticeably happier with their new friends.
Then, again, within months they were living alone again. The gay woman had developed a drinking problem.
Of course alcoholism knows no gender, so don’t mean to be simplistic here. Lord knows navigating the relationship complexities of ordinary couples, straight or gay, is hard enough. But to be gay and with a woman who wants to be a man—and exist in embryo somewhere in-between—certainly made things tougher. If one is neither a man nor a woman, and somewhere else on the sexual spectrum, then who knows what that might be? Let’s just say this was not an ideal recipe for emotional stability.
By their third trip, this summer, the pretty girl I’d known was long-gone. They were no longer my niece but now my nibling. (When I Googled the word for the first time, beard trimmers and strapless dresses popped up on the first page, and that seemed just about right.) Their hair was still short but nothing else was the same. Now they had facial hair stretching from ear to ear along the line of their lower jaw. When they stretched their arms, I could see a healthy gut and hair on a mission moving south from their belly button, with black hair to match on her arms.
The biggest change, the one that took my breath away, was that the breasts of the formerly pretty woman with the old-fashioned name were completely gone. Now they dressed in white wife-beater T-shirts with no sleeves. Everything else in their wardrobe was black—black shirts and sweatshirts and a black leather jacket over black pants.
But on this trip, something else was different: they were happy—happy to see Grandma one last time, happy to be alive in their own skin.
Still, even then—even now—it took some getting used to.
My nibling said gay men “love me.”
What do gay men love about them? Their emerging maleness has to be an obvious attraction but what about the female plumbing below the waist? Do they now find my nibling the perfect combination of parts? Do the parts make up a whole?
For all the ridiculously difficult choices made to get to this moment, I thought about what it means to truly be a man.
A couple of weeks later, in the same country house, I asked my nibbling if she wanted to learn to barbecue, because from previous summers I knew she had no clue.
A small-seeming thing, of course. Yet, whether by instinct or observation or both, to barbecue is one of those things men seem to have always known. It’s simply a fact that when summer comes men all over the country, of every age and ethnicity and social class, fire up the grill and throw red meat above white-hot coals, and that men—left by women to take responsibility for the fire—have done this in various versions of backyards for millennia. The reasons for this defy explanation; unless, that is, one invokes the (now dangerous) term hunter-gatherers.
I of course did not tell them that to be a man is to barbecue, because it would have been ridiculous. Instead I showed them how to build a small mountain of briquettes arranged just so, to wait for them to go white before deploying meat over heat, and how to move the meat to the edge of the grill so it would not cook too fast.
My nibling took to it the minute I handed over the tools of BBQ ignorance. Later, at the table, I made a big deal about how they had done the sausage just so—juicy but also crisp. I used their own name over and over, a name more boy than girl, because I still did not trust myself with their pronouns.
They took a shower after dinner and when they came out they had a towel around their waist and another one over their shoulders, covering their chest in a perfectly symmetrical way, the way so many men do after a shower without thinking twice about it. The towel over their shoulders hung in such a way that I could not see the scars on her chest where breasts had once been.
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