Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (Part 6)

Cotton fields.  I dreamed of them day and night all through the autumn and winter of 2007-08, white fields stretching as far as the eye could see.  If I could just get to those cotton fields, there would be peace and normalcy.

When I look back over my life, I find it odd but strangely true that I found the greatest personal normalcy in places where life was anything but easy, anything but normal.  Leningrad in 1978, the Caucasus in 1981, a wintry Soviet Union in 1987-88.  The smells, the images from those brief excursions are imprinted on my mind in greater relief than years of living my own far from normal life in the suburbs of Washington, DC.  In the winter of 2007-08, all I could think of was getting to Uzbekistan, today an independent nation but once the Soviet Union's cotton plantation.

I have reached the point in my tale where the statute of emotional limitations has not yet expired.  I have made my own peace with the events of 2007-10, but others have not.  The story will be sketchier from here on, as I live in hope that emotions and hurts may yet heal, that a day may come when, for one or another significant life event, I may again find myself happily in the same room with people who experienced some of this hurt.

By December 2007 I was taking Prozac for depression, Xanax for anxiety, and Ambien just to get a few hours sleep per night.  I had never expected divorce to be easy, but after repeated "what if" discussions through the years, I had thought it would be, if not amicable, at least a field on which negotiation would lead the day.  In this I was very, very deluded.

It had been one thing to live overseas in Moscow with my spouse in Maryland.  It was quite another to know she was just a 15-minute drive around the Washington Beltway.  The contrast between our Silver Spring home and my cheap Greenbelt apartment was stark.  Neither did Greenbelt compare well with Moscow.

My job from September 2007 through March 2008 was to learn the Uzbek language.  I was the only student, and it did not take long for the instructor -- formerly a highly-place Uzbek Government official -- to see that I was distracted.  My mind was on the divorce, not learning Uzbek.  The fact that I learned just enough Uzbek to get by is a testament to my instructor's tenacity, not mine.

Outside the classroom, my life was filled with attorneys and counselors.  Communication with my spouse was problematic, but when the holidays came, we both broke down and decided to try one last time.  We spent the holidays together and started marriage counseling, but by the end of January I could feel that nothing had changed and nothing would.  My spouse resisted, saying she did not want to divorce, but around me the home renovation that I did not want continued.  The workers who were involved did not even recognize me as a person to be acknowledged.  Old wars over my choice of friends, what few I had in Maryland, reignited.  By February I had moved back to Greenbelt, and every marriage counseling session began with my saying, "I want a divorce." 

The matter was still unresolved when I landed in Tashkent in April 2008, but then a strange thing happened.  Within weeks I was off the Xanax and Ambien, and within months I was off the Prozac.  Life was bearable again.  There was an ocean, a continent, and nine time zones between me and Maryland.  Only the difficult telephone calls and arguments continued, but with time their frequency diminished.  In late August or early September I told my spouse that I had made a final decision and would tell my attorney to file.  After that the lines of communication went dead.

At the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent I was responsible for the economic, science, and technology portfolios, and soon I was immersed in work.  I had never had even an introductory course in economics, and coming to grips with my new responsibilities was difficult as I tried both to do the job and to give myself a basic education.  Ironically, I found I had little use for the Uzbek language I had spent six months studying, as Russian was still the language of diplomacy.  I also worked closely with American businessmen and with the Tashkent chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce.  Thus I was speaking English and Russian 99% of the time and only used my limited Uzbek when traveling outside the capitol.

Statue of Amir Temur, Central Tashkent
Tashkent was not Moscow, and Uzbekistan still felt very much like being in the Soviet Union.  The reforms here since independence in 1991 had not progressed nearly as far as they had in other former Soviet republics.  Although the statues of Lenin were gone, one of the main newspapers was still called Pravda Vostoka just as it had in Soviet times.  Trade barriers were high, and there were almost no Western consumer goods to be found.  When I would tell local friends of the new economic crisis that was beginning to unravel in the US, they would stop me by saying, "We've been in economic crisis since 1991."  Life was difficult.  Money was scarce not just in a theoretical sense.  Many employers would go months without paying their employees.  Banks frequently did not have cash for days or weeks at a time.  The largest banknote printed was 1000 soum, about $0.50 USD, and shopping trips meant putting money in bags, not a wallet.  People horded what money they had, and the shadow economy of barter and black market may have been as large as the official economy.

But despite this gloom, Tashkent was not a gloomy city and neither were its citizens.  There were beautiful historical and modern areas, and the food -- none of it fast food -- was wonderful.  Shashlyk (shish kebab) was sold on almost every corner, and recalling the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables in open air markets still causes my mouth to water.

I had friends again.  My St. Petersburg and Moscow friends had friends of their own in Tashkent and had told me the previous year, "We'll put you in good hands."  They did.  I quickly found myself invited for dinner, for walking tours, and for theater and concert events.  V, my long-time friend from Petersburg, came to visit in September 2008.  She had been born in Uzbekistan, and she showed me where she had lived and all the places of her childhood.

The autumn and winter of 2008-09 were the time of what I now call the Phony War.  My attorney was in no rush to file papers.  I wrote to my spouse with settlement proposals.  I took it as a given that she would keep the family home and cars and, in addition, half of our retirement and other assets.  I suggested legal separation, not divorce, so that she would still be covered by my health insurance.  With our son now in college and with his college fully paid for, child support was not an issue.  There were no replies.

The Hot War began in summer 2009.  My attorney finally filed divorce papers.  Within days I received requests for documents and interrogatories from my spouse's attorneys.  They were detailed and voluminous.  While my attorney had slept through the winter, my spouse's attorneys had been hard at work preparing.  Within weeks I fired my attorney and hired a new one.  It turned out that the attorneys representing my spouse were reputed to be among the ten best divorce attorneys in Washington, DC.   I was badly outgunned and had to find a new attorney who would be a match for this opposition.  My life began to revolve around interrogatories and replies to document requests as my focus on the Uzbek economy weakened.

"So," you might ask, "What happened to your being transgender?  It's been a long time since you wrote anything about it."

Although I had shaved my legs and done some limited cross dressing in 2005-06, I was still where I was emotionally in 2002, when I had tried and failed to transition for the third time in my life.  I hated to look at myself in the mirror, but I had accepted defeat in 2002.  I was going to take this to the grave.  It was hopeless even to think about it.
En-Route to the Ferghana Valley

What I didn't know was that my spouse's attorneys were about to do the greatest thing anyone had ever done to encourage my transition.  When I received a large package of discovery materials, I experienced a body blow.  Throughout, page after page, was my transgender history in black and white.  Even the medical records from my visit to Johns Hopkins in 1990 were there.  These were papers I did not have, that had gone missing from my own files years ago!  The full history was there.  Painfully, I began to relive 1990 and 2000-02.  Although I had thought I had done everything possible in the 1990s to be normal, to accept the possibility that I was only overworked and depressed, not transgender, this was not how it was seen through other eyes.  Pages and pages of interrogatories and statements could be reduced to just one thing:  "You deceived."  I was not trusted and hadn't been since 1990.
Friends were beginning to learn about my hidden side.  A Moscow friend forwarded a letter she had received.  "Is it true?" she asked.  I stumbled, replying, "It's my past."  But was it?  My Moscow friend eventually slipped away from me, not satisfied with my answer or the path my life was beginning to take.

This brings me to the story of F1, my best Tashkent friend.  If there is anyone before whom I feel guilt and sorrow over the turn that events were to take, she is that person.  I met her through my chain of Moscow friends.  Her daughter F2 was my son's age, and together they were for me the picture of survival through difficult times.  Their apartment was spare, and money was little and far between.  F1 and F2 became my surrogate family and my release from the ever-increasing pressure of the divorce.  
Nearly my age, F1 looked ten years younger and had a sense of humor and optimism that had seen her through Soviet rule and the ensuing economic chaos of independence.  Also, for the first time in my life, here was a woman whose interest in me went beyond friendship.  I felt it at our first meeting, and I thought of my Russian friend LM in the US who had once told me, "Your only problem is that you married the wrong woman."

Not an Unusual Highway Scene Outside Tashkent
It had taken me over 50 years to learn an important lesson.  I sat F1 down at the kitchen table and told her, "There's something you need to know about me."  When I was done, she asked, "Is this your past or is this your present?"  I replied that I thought it was the past but that in truth I just didn't know.  I was in the early stages of an escalating divorce and didn't know anything anymore.  F1 thought and replied, "That means you will understand me better, just like my girlfriends."  I was stunned by the response.  Unlike what had happened in 1990, I had before me someone who accepted me.  "I'm a doctor and have seen everything," she said.  "We'll work this out together."

It was wonderful.  I would accompany F1 and her daughter on their shopping trips, helping them choose their clothes.  A shopkeeper once offered me a chair, saying she had never seen a man so patiently accompany his wife or daughter while they were shopping for clothes.  "There's a reason," I thought silently as I accepted the chair.  F1 would tell me about her ex-husband and boyfriends, and I could ask her things I never dared ask anyone. 

On a Springtime Mountain Walk with Friends
Although I resisted commitment and said repeatedly that my future was unknown to me, with time I began to think that perhaps this really was the middle path I had hoped for, a possible life with someone who knew and was not appalled.  Could it be?

The divorce continued to escalate.  My payments to my attorney and in support to my spouse were over $4000 a month.  A date was set for mediation in May 2010, just after the end of my tour in Uzbekistan.

My work suffered.  I did a tolerably good job, but it was not what I had done in Moscow or before that on the Russia Desk.  I could feel it, and I sensed that it was noticed.  The divorce dominated my time, sapping both my savings and my energy.  When it came time to bid on my next position after Uzbekistan, I did something that in the Foreign Service is considered unorthodox at best, tantamount to career suicide at worst:  I asked to leave the realm of political and economic work and return to the world of information technology, something that would leave me free to concentrate on the divorce and building a new personal life.  I got my wish, and in October 2009 I learned that I would go to an IT position in another Russian speaking former Soviet republic.  F1 was overjoyed.  She would be able to visit easily without a visa.  I agreed that once the divorce was final and I had gotten settled, I would invite her to come on a long visit.  Then, with my own life returning to normal, we could find out if there was a future for us.

Rough Travelers Enter Karakalpakstan
Meanwhile my son came to visit not once but twice.  We had agreed between us never to talk about anything remotely concerning the divorce, but I was relieved just to know that I had not lost him.  We traveled together to the Ferghana Valley, to Samarkand, and even to the desert fortresses of Karakalpakstan.

I went on long bicycle trips.  Sometimes I rode 45 miles completely around Tashkent on the ring road to relieve stress.  In the spring of 2009 I rode the back roads for three days from Tashkent to Samarkand.  Another time I rode my bicycle to Tajikistan, meeting en-route a Belgian bicyclist who was on an even longer trip to China.  
In 2009 I flew twice to Maine.  I had fallen in love with Maine in the 1990s and even more so when I passed through it in the summer of 2007.  I had received nearly $100,000 as my portion of my Mom and Dad's estate, and it was the only money I had that was not under the cloud of divorce.  With my sisters as helpers and real estate advisers, I found the property not far from Lincoln that I now call home.  It's only the smallest of cabins, but it's on 32 beautiful acres.  My sister and I fell in love with it the moment we saw it.

The movers came in late April.  I invited friends for a farewell dinner, and then we walked around nighttime Tashkent.  I was too distressed over the divorce to have the same emotions I had had when I left Moscow, but these were friends who had helped me and supported me as they watched me sink ever further into the morass of litigation.  As I hugged F1, F2, and all my friends one last time, it hit me.  I might never see any of them again.

Last Nighttime Walk in Tashkent
It was on my mind the next day as my plane rose into the sky, the cotton fields quickly replaced by steppe and desert.  A few days later I would see my spouse across the table in a mediation room, our first meeting in over two years.  My life was about to take the sharpest turn it had yet taken, a wild turn that was beyond my imagination. . . .


This blog, which I began and still write mainly for friends, is also for my friends in Uzbekistan.  I know that they read it, and I dedicate this entry to them in thanks and love.  Most of all I dedicate it to F1 and F2, friends who have remained friends.  I miss you all.  May you find the better future that you richly deserve.
* * * * * * * * * * * *

Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- Decision on Gros Morne -- or -- The Day My Universe Changed (2002-11), Part 5
Following entry --
  Pacing the Cage -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (2002-11), Conclusion (?)

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