Transcript

247:

What Is This Thing?
Transcript

Originally aired 09.19.2003

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Billie Holliday

[SINGING] What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love? Just who can solve its mystery? Why should it make a fool of me?

Ira Glass

If you listen to the lyrics to this song, I have to say, it couldn't really be stated more simply. I had you. It was happy. You left. What was that about? More than any other pop song, it just kind of throws its hands in the air and says, what the hell? Not even at the person who left, but at the very idea of love.

Here's Keely Smith.

Keely Smith

[SINGING] I saw you there one wonderful day. You took my heart and threw it away. That's why I ask the Lord in heaven above-- what is this thing called love?

Ira Glass

Here's a story for you. Back during World War II, an infantryman named Joe Garland fell in love-- completely, breath-stoppingly in love-- with this college student named Helen Bryan. They wrote back and forth, and when the war ended, he was eager to get married. But her parents thought that she was too young. They wanted her to finish school. They did not see what all the hurry was. He wouldn't have it.

Helen Garland

So he went off and made very hasty decisions, and was married within, what? To someone else. Within about six months. A great surprise, to say the least, to me.

Joe Garland

I was terribly impatient. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have children. A little house in the suburbs. Do everything that we'd been deprived of, that we'd given up of, that we didn't know whether we were ever going to come back to. We've got to get in there. We've got to do it now. Everything you've got to do now. You've got to do everything now. Because you don't know whether you're going to be alive in another hour, or another day, or another year.

Ira Glass

Joe gets the family he wants, has two kids. Helen marries later, has four kids. Everybody's doing great.

30 years pass. And he's doing some research on the war years and needs to ask Helen some things. So they see each other. Sit down and talk for the first time, really since they broke up. They have lunch.

Joe Garland

And I must say that I felt a remarkable sort of a glow, kind of a glow. And when I went on home, I didn't know what I was happening. I had to pull over into a rest area, and I moved up in there, and I stopped the car. And I turned off the engine. And I put my head down and I just wept. I just sobbed. I just sobbed. I wept. I was so overcome with just-- here was this person again, here was this woman again.

Ira Glass

They both conclude that it's something they can't ignore. They divorce their spouses, they surprise their kids, and they marry each other.

And now, over 20 years later, they still talk like a young couple in love. They moon over each other.

Helen Garland

It's an amazing gift to have found. And I think I could have gone through my life not knowing this was possible.

Joe Garland

I was out doing errands today, and I came back, and I heard the piano playing. And I came in. She didn't hear me come in. And I stood in the doorway-- the piano is in there-- I just stood in the doorway listening. And I was absolutely transported. I just stood there and I watched her, playing the piano. And I thought, this is so wonderful.

Ira Glass

But if you ask them, what is this thing? What is different about the love that they're feeling now compared with the love that they each felt in the decades they spent married to other people? It gets hard to describe.

Helen Garland

The marriages, I think, were workable. But it's just the interrelatedness on so many different levels. If you can share many, many levels of interest in common, it's very, very rewarding.

Ira Glass

Our reporter Sean Cole went around and around with them on this. And although these are the most articulate people in the world-- she works with the UN, he's written 22 books-- they kept talking about very prosaic things, very sensible things. Like sharing. Until finally Sean asked, isn't there anything more primal at work also? And they both said, well, of course.

Helen Garland

Joe and I have never questioned that part of our relationship. That there's been a natural magnetism all along. You know? Good grief!

Joe Garland

I don't I've ever heard you put it quite that way. That's very nice. I love that. Absolutely.

Ira Glass

Which, I suppose, just brings us back to our original question.

Leo Reisman

[SINGING] What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love?

Ira Glass

Today on our program, people trying to answer this very straightforward question. Our show in three acts. Act One, Inside the Romance Industry. Act Two, The View From the Other Half. In that act, four people who've had to reconsider all their ideas about dating and love. Act Three, a real-life love story. That one from writer Sarah Vowell. Stay with us.

Act One. Inside The Romance Industry.

Ira Glass

Act One. Because we live in an industrial democracy, there is a business to cater to pretty much every human need that we have. And that includes our need for romance. There are businesses in flowers and cards and diamonds and getaway spots. And there are romance novels, where an entire industry is answering the question "what is this thing called love?" for a living. Reporter Robin Epstein attended the annual convention of the Romance Writers of America at the New York Hilton. Four days, 2400 attendees.

Robin Epstein

Romance writers know what you think of them, and they don't give a rat's ass. One of the first conversations I had at the Romance Writers of America conference is with Jennifer Crusie and Patricia Gaffney, two of the most prominent and bestselling writers on the market today. And they wearily list the most annoying questions that are repeatedly asked by people like-- well, like people like me.

Jennifer Crusie

Aren't you ashamed?

Patricia Gaffney

When are you going to write a real book? Well, what does your mother think?

Jennifer Crusie

Why do you have those stupid covers? The knee-jerk thing is now, we'll read a sex scene on the air and everybody will laugh about it, and then will ask you how you research your sex scenes, and it's this big joke, and of course, you will laugh too. And then if you try to defend it, you're one of those feminists without a sense of humor.

Robin Epstein

In my defense, I will say I was expecting to find an entirely different breed of humorless woman here-- humorless-delusionals. But instead, I immediately find myself encountering smart, funny women who are part of a business empire, one with rules and behaviors all its own.

Editor

Welcome to RWA. I'm very excited that you all came, and I hope that today we can talk about your manuscripts, and what you have to pitch to me, and we can talk about that. OK? So-- Liz.

Liz Bemis

I am working on my tenth book. I'm going to be pitching to you my ninth book. And I've done fairly well in the contest circuit this year. I've finaled in the Dixie-- final number one-- the Dixie, the Laurie, the Molly, and--

Robin Epstein

This smartly-dressed woman, Liz Bemis, is a web designer from Ohio, and like almost all the other conference attendees, an aspiring novelist. She's stammering through one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the convention-- the editor pitch meeting. These early morning pitchfests in the basement of the New York Hilton are what draws most of the 2400 conference attendees. This is their chance to describe what they've written to book editors in hopes of becoming a published author.

At folding tables set up in conference rooms, editors from all the major publishing houses-- Avon, Kensington, Berkeley, and of course, Harlequin-- sit with their notebooks and bottles of water. The would-be authors parade in four at a time and are given 20 minutes to make their pitch before the next group enters.

Liz Bemis

My next book is called Falcon's Folly. It's a--

Editor

Tell us what you're trying [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Liz Bemis

OK. Single title, 100,000 words. It's the story of Jack Falcon, who's an ultra alpha DEA agent who has to abandon his testosterone-pickled ways in order to go undercover as a gay hairdresser to infiltrate a mob-led drug ring.

Editor

Fun! Romantic suspense, with a little humor in it?

Liz Bemis

Yes.

Robin Epstein

It's easy I understand why Liz and her fellow aspirants are here. What's less obvious is why May Chen, the sleek, young, New York editor, has gotten up early on a Saturday morning to listen to her.

The answer-- money. Over half the paperback fiction sold in the United States last year was romance. Over half. It's a $1.52 billion a year industry. And how about this? Romance writer Nora Roberts routinely outsells and outproduces Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham. If basketball coaches scout public courts for future stars, this year, the basement of the New York Hilton is the romance editors' [? Roscoe ?] Park.

Liz Bemis

When Marissa finds out that Jack is indeed straight as an arrow and intent on bringing down her beloved and innocent Uncle Mario, she devises a deviously distracting plan that will have the tough guy agent begging for mercy and eventually winning her heart.

Editor

Ooh, that sounds like a really fun idea. Sounds different. Love the gay spin. Very clever.

Liz Bemis

Thank you.

Robin Epstein

This pitch perfectly incorporates all the elements of the typical romance novel, which is outlined by the Romance Writers of America on all its literature, and on its website, and by every representative I talked to. At the beginning of the book, there's a conflict keeping our lovers apart, and by the last page, there's a happy ending. This is what the RWA guidelines call "emotional justice." Good is rewarded. Evil is punished. Everyone gets what they deserve.

The problem, as every editor and writer knows, is that if there's always going to be a happy ending, why would you keep reading? The difference between a good romance novel and a bad one has to do with sheer writing skill-- how well the characters are developed, the author's voice, and the complexity of the obstacles standing between the lovers and their ultimate happiness.

Outside this room, women mill around nervously awaiting their turns. Some practice their pitches, reading from index cards. Some take out pictures of their children. The RWA stations volunteers down here to make sure things keep running on time, but it's no secret that the volunteers are also here to keep anxious writers from going over the edge.

This is volunteer Victoria Malvey. She's a tall, maternal-looking woman with a lot of blonde hair.

Victoria Malvey

I can tell you that I had one woman that I had to sit down and put her head in between her legs, because seriously, I thought that she was going to faint. She got very pale, very shaky--

Robin Epstein

Victoria, it turns out, isn't just some volunteer. In fact, she doesn't need to be at this conference at all. She's already achieved what most of these 2400 writers are dreaming of.

Victoria Malvey

You know, I've published eight books. And my first editor, I met here. One of the scary ones. And she was very businesslike. And when I was waiting to see this scary editor, there was this author, Arnette Lamb, who is a wonderful author. She has since died of brain cancer, and so it was a very sad loss for the romance community.

But she was from Texas, and she was big-hearted, and she was like, honey child, there's nothing to it! She's just wonderful. You'll have a great time. And it really settled something inside of me. And I can honestly tell you that I do this volunteer, two hours, in honor of Arnette, because she did this for me.

Robin Epstein

Did that scary editor ever appear as a villain in your stories?

Victoria Malvey

Oh. How does one answer this and still remain politically correct?

Robin Epstein

I think you just did, and I think you just didn't!

A lot of the publishing pros here turn out to be surprisingly helpful, even the ones who claim at first that they're not.

Kate Duffy

I was put on the planet to reject books. I know that.

Robin Epstein

Kate Duffy is the editorial director at Kensington Books. She's leading one of the 168 workshops being offered at the conference. Her workshop is called Query Letter Practicum, and it's packed to overflowing with more than 200 people. A stack of query letters she's recently received on her left, she starts reading them, and mocks each as she goes.

Kate Duffy

"Dear Ms. Duffy, Lizzie Hampton, the heroine of my light contemporary romance, work in progress, having recently lost half her body weight, heads to her childhood home, a rural corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She's in town to work out the sexual kinks in her new body with old flame Phil Robbins. Phil Robbins wanted to be the proprietor of Lizzie's virginity 18 years ago." The actual proprietor would be her parents, but um. There's another word you're thinking of-- recipient, probably. [LAUGHTER] Just a guess!

Robin Epstein

The cover letter goes on for several paragraphs. The bizarre plot turns continue. And Kate Duffy is not finished.

Kate Duffy

"Trust and honesty become major hurdles for the couple. Add to that a hormone-raging 14-year-old boy, two best friends who obviously know best, and the Stanley Cup, and--"

Robin Epstein

And then something remarkable happens.

Kate Duffy

I think I probably-- because I'm a nice person-- would ask to see this. I would be curious to see if you could pull it off.

Robin Epstein

This happens over and over again. A medieval historical with a nonsensical plot involving a dark duke with visions of the future and a glass-blowing heroine with a debt-ridden daddy? Send in the first three chapters. A letter full of grammatical errors telling of a paranormal romance between a demon earl and a spunky woman bent on thwarting his plan, described in several paragraphs of impenetrable plot? Send it! And then this contemporary suspense, involving an ace reporter who falls in with the Camden Thieves, a notorious gang of ne'er-do-wells.

Kate Duffy

"Cold, naked, and lying flat on her back on the center of a lumpy mattress, Cathy thought her current situation couldn't get much worse. But she was wrong." [LAUGHTER] OK. "'So you're finally awake,' a slightly masculine voice murmured beside her. 'I was beginning to think they'd handcuffed me to a corpse.' The man laughed. His voice then dropped seductively." Yeah, I laugh in situations like this all the time. "'Albeit a very attractive corpse.'"

OK. This is silly, and I'm not a silly woman. I don't know who the Camden Thieves are. But I think the query letter is at fault. I don't think that the author is at fault. I can't tell from this. You're giving me so many reasons to turn it down, I want to see what the hell you're up to!

Robin Epstein

Kate asks for the first three chapters of the manuscript. What the hell is going on here? The famous authors are nice. The editors are nice. Everyone is nice. And this is the publishing business.

I make my living as a writer. I've written for magazines. I've been on the staff of network sitcoms. And I think I speak for all professional writers when I say that this is the twilight zone. Writers are actually receiving courtesy and encouragement from industry professionals, and almost more shockingly, from one another.

Where's the back-biting? The not getting your phone calls returned? The people who send you form rejection letters and don't even take the time to sign them? Where's the humiliation? Why is everybody being so kind?

Well, it seems the answer to this question is twofold. Part of what's going on here has to do with the numbers. Publishing is a business that usually sees a lot of people fighting over a very small piece of pie. There can only be so many books published because, sadly, there are only so many readers, and only so much interest.

But in the romance genre, because demand is so huge, they've got a very, very big pie. A big mainstream publisher like Simon and Schuster or W.W. Norton will almost never publish an unsolicited manuscript from an unknown writer. Not so for Kate Duffy.

Kate Duffy

We do four historicals every month, three contemporaries, four Regencies, and then we do other projects. Like, I personally am responsible for a line called Bravo, which is erotic romance. I would say every month we probably buy two or three new books from people we don't know. And that's a huge number.

Robin Epstein

But demand is just one answer to the niceness puzzle. The second becomes obvious when I enter an awards luncheon being held in one of the Hilton ballrooms. As soon as I walk in, it's stark. I'm immersed in a sea of 2000 female heads. It's like the world's largest bachelorette party.

The fact that this industry has been structured and run almost entirely by women makes a difference. Support networks abound. Virtually every town in the country has a romance writers' group, where wannabes can come to get encouragement and gentle critical feedback. And those who have succeeded make it a point to make time for others coming up. They become fans of one another.

Even the one man I ran into bought into the biological explanation for all this goodness. Literary agent Steven Axelrod.

Steven Axelrod

You know, women are just different. If you had a bunch of men and this much money on the table, it would be a free-for-all. Testosterone would be just dripping off the walls. And I think there would be vendettas, there would be-- but it would be just big and nasty. And human nature is at work here. So it's not, because it is women, all laws of human nature are suspended. But it just happens to be a very nice group of people.

Robin Epstein

Over half the annoying questions reporters always ask romance writers were ones I had scribbled in my notebook before I arrived here. And I managed to invent one of my own. I thought it would be funny if I'd ask people at the conference if there was a difference between the romance in their lives and the romance in their books.

Appropriately, I got a blank stares. Like, honey, if you don't already know the answer to that ignorant question, I can't help you. Romance fans are aware that the romance in the book is made up, thank you very much. Romance fans read for fun, and they're just as capable of laughing at their own genre as you are.

Here, Julia Madden and Victoria Dahl, two aspiring romance writers, talking about one of the classics in the genre with me and producer Alex Blumberg.

Julia Madden

To me, Savage Love is the one that I remember. And then there's The Rose and the--

Victoria Dahl

The Flame and the Flower.

Julia Madden

Those are the ones where the woman was taken by force. And then she falls in love with her rapist.

Victoria Dahl

Do you remember that one, I think it was [UNINTELLIGIBLE], where the woman is chained to the man for like half of the book?

Alex Blumberg

When you read those as a kid, did you think that's what it was going to be like? Did that actually-- Did you know that it was sort of a fantasy, or did it actually inform you?

Victoria Dahl

I don't know. I think I expected to be kind of carried away. I was very disappointed by sex, I have to say.

Julia Madden

So was I! Isn't that odd?

Robin Epstein

That's got to be unusual.

Julia Madden

Only little Jimmy climbed the pinnacle. Very quickly, I might add.

Victoria Dahl

Really? Because mine wasn't nearly quick enough!

Robin Epstein

Still, everyone I talked to at the conference-- every reader, writer, and editor-- said she believed in romance, and believed it happens in real life. And sometimes in real life, it even follows the rules of a romance novel. One of the most emotional moments at the conference occurred at a keynote address by author Teresa Madeiros at an awards luncheon celebrating librarians.

Teresa Madeiros

In closing, I'd like to share a brief story with you. They met in 1957, when he was 22 and she was 18. He was a skinny, handsome GI with a motorcycle and a devilish twinkle in his eye. She was his sister's best friend. She was beautiful, smart, and funny. He was in love.

They married in 1958, and three years later, while she was pregnant with what was to be their first and only child, he was transferred to Heidelberg, Germany. They lived over a bakery run by a jovial German couple named Mama and Papa Hartmann. On weekends, they would climb into his convertible MG, without so much as a change of underwear, and go racing through the countryside to explore the castles of Germany and Austria.

The child was born in 1962. His first indication that something was wrong was when he came home from work one day to discover that his wife had given away all the furniture. Luckily a kind-hearted neighbor had taken it in and stored it in her apartment. She lost weight and stopped eating. Her speech was rapid and slurred. At times she even seemed to forget that she'd given birth to a baby.

He had no choice but to seek professional help. The doctors informed him that his wife was suffering from a severe form of mental illness. It would be well over a decade before that illness was correctly diagnosed as bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness.

He went driving along the river that dark, rainy night, at nearly 100 miles an hour, a 26-year-old soldier in a foreign country with a brand new baby and a wife facing a lifetime of torturous uncertainty. He had a choice to make. He could shuffle the baby off to be raised by relatives, and abandon his wife to the care of a German mental institution. He could drive into that river and let all of his decisions be made for him. Or he could choose to live and fight for his family.

My parents celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary this year, because my dad meant it when he said "for better or worse, in sickness and in health." I enjoyed a relatively stable, happy childhood, and my mom's hospitalizations were kept to a minimum.

My father's love is as unwavering and unconditional today as it was 44 years ago. Although my mother is now suffering from a rare brain disorder that has resulted in severe dementia, when my father visits her in the nursing home every other day, he still sees that beautiful, brilliant girl who won his heart, all those years ago.

So when people ask me, "Why do you write romance?" I can only reply, "How could I not?"

Robin Epstein

There you have it. A couple in love, an obstacle to their love, and in the end, emotional justice. Who can resist that? Why would you want to?

Ira Glass

Robin Epstein in New York.

Coming up. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, what do you have to learn about love when you switch from one planet to the other? Well, it turns out, a lot more than you think. In a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. View From The Other Half.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose some theme, some subject, some question, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories. Today's program-- with Valentine's Day fast approaching-- What Is This Thing? Stories about love and people making sense of love.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two. The View From the Other Half.

Sure, it's a grand generalization, but I think that it's safe to say that men approach love and relationships differently than women do. Most of them. And in the last few decades, thanks to medical science, tens of thousands of people have switched from one side of the divide to the other. When they did, among other things, they had to relearn how to find love and how to be in love from the other side of the gender line.

Griffin Hansbury offers this report from the front lines. A warning to listeners that they do talk about sex in this story. Here's Griffin.

Griffin Hansbury

Every so often, I get together with the guys. We grab some dinner, have a few drinks, maybe go bowling. It's typical guy time. We talk about the usual stuff. Work, women, the shape of our nipples.

I guess in some ways we're not so typical. All of us were born female and were raised as girls. Today, with the help of testosterone, we all live as men. We're trans guys. Sometimes it seems that's all we have in common. If we weren't trans guys, I doubt we'd even know each other.

Romance, on the other side of the great gender divide, has meant different things for each of us. One guy lives with his wife in the 'burbs. One plays the field. Another is still trying to find the field. And a couple of us-- myself included-- are in long-term relationships, hoping they'll last a lifetime. But all of us are still finding our way.

After transition, it became harder for me and my friend Ray to find women to date. It wasn't always like that. Back in college, we were both known as BDOCs-- Big Dykes On Campus. Here's Ray.

Ray

Basically, I was the go-to lesbian, I think. I probably slept with a good portion of the women on campus. And honestly, it was never like having to look for a date. I never had any trouble, as a lesbian, meeting women. Ever.

Griffin Hansbury

Looking at Ray, you can't see a trace of the female he once was. He's got a T-shirt that says "Italian Stallion," a goatee on his handsome face, and impressive biceps that he's built up with weight lifting and testosterone. Testosterone puts hair on your chest, lowers your voice, and basically turns you into a teenage boy. Giddy and girl crazy, staring in the mirror every five minutes to see if those sideburns are coming in yet.

Ray looked forward to being a single guy for the first time in his life-- until it actually happened.

Ray

It ended up being really kind of scary and sucky versus exciting. You know? Appearance-wise, sure, it works for me to go into a straight club. But would I know what to do once I got there?

Being socialized as a female, I just feel like I, and many of us, were never really taught how to pick somebody up. You know, I think staring at somebody briefly and looking away was like the big signal that you were interested in somebody. And now seeing the way men are socialized, and how very much men make eye contact, and are able to approach people. I was never socialized that way.

Who was our target audience now? Who are we supposed to be trying to date? It doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to try to date lesbians, because generally speaking, they're going to want to be with women.

And yet, dating 100% heterosexual, never given it a second thought women, seems to have its own treachery. Because there were some, you know, body differences when you're transsexual. And not knowing if they'll run screaming from the room or like pull a Crying Game-- who wants to expose themselves to that?

Griffin Hansbury

When you hang out with a bunch of transsexuals and you talk about dating, eventually you get to The Crying Game. When we talk about The Crying Game, what we're really talking about is that intimate scene where the trans woman opens her robe to reveal the truth and the guy responds by puking in the bathroom.

For most people, it's a surprise ending, nothing more. But for me, and for many trans people, it's the ending we fear the most-- even for our happiest and most fantastic stories.

Ray

My friends and I, a group of other trans men and myself, were going away for a weekend down to the Jersey Shore. And on a particular night, we happened to be driving down to Atlantic City. And we were in an SUV. I guess there were about four or five of us. And we were all pretty early in our transition, but we all sort of looked male. Like average, younger than our age, men.

And so this carload of girls is kind of driving by the SUV, and we're up a little higher, so we have a good view of everything. And they see us and they start waving, and doing that thing that whatever 19-year-old girls do. Waving and being flirtatious. And, you know, our interest was kind of piqued.

And then suddenly, one of them like pops out of the sunroof and lifts up her shirt and flashes us her chest. And so now we're like, really shocked and screaming, and like, oh my God, and we're clapping and egging her on.

And the next thing you know, the passenger in the front seat decides to grab the girl who's driving and start kissing her for us. Like, watch this. And then starts, you know, kissing this other girl. I guess that whole, girl kissing girl, turns guys on.

So we were just really egging them on and having a great time. And we were just all sort of looking at each other, like we couldn't believe it was happening. You know? Like, this is us. This is not the car past us. They're really looking at us.

And so this went on and on, and it got the point where it was happening for like a half an hour that we were alongside of them. And so they pulled up alongside of us eventually. We opened our window. They opened their window. I guess we had just gotten out of a toll booth. And one of them said, where are you guys going? And we said, oh, we're going to Atlantic City. They said, oh, we are too, we are too! What are you guys doing there? We're like, oh, we're going to gamble and stuff. They're like, you want to come hang out with us? And we said, sure! Let's go, let's go!

And suddenly she says, hey, we're going to go skinny dipping. Do you want to come? And suddenly we just all look at each other and our faces just drop. You know? Just drop. Because we suddenly realize that this whole fantasy thing that was being created couldn't really exist without the reality of who we are. We were all very early in transition. Some of us had had some surgery. Some of us hadn't. And there is no way we were going to be naked without them knowing our history.

So we just kind of like waved and smiled and didn't really answer, and they went away. But I think we all remember that as a really, like, just-- as silly and immature as it sounds-- it was really defining. It was a moment that we had missed. And we had a chance to kind of live that for a moment. Just a moment. But that was enough. You know?

I remember having some sadness, but I remember being a lot more excited about the fact that that happened. You know? There was a moment where, because we were a collective together, because there were four or five of us, I had a sadness for us. Of like, this fate that we share, that there is something exceptional. That there is something. We are an exception to most men in the world.

I forget that, though. On a daily basis, I do forget that. After a while, you just live as a man, and you forget that you are such an exception. And so there are moments that point it out, and sometimes, they are harder than others.

Griffin Hansbury

It's so hard to break the news to a woman about your past, that Ray and I have almost never risked it.

True story, though. I was on a blind date with this woman. We had lunch. We'd been talking for hours. And I was just getting ready to come out with my big revelation. And she says to me, there's something I have to tell you. She looks kind of nervous and she says, up until now, I used to date women. Does that bother you?

I said, no. It doesn't bother me. Because up until now, I used to be a woman. We never had a second date.

My friend Ethan doesn't have these problems. Unlike the rest of us, he's had absolutely no fear of The Crying Game. When I ask him how he can be so confident, he just shrugs his shoulders. It never occurs to him to be afraid.

An easy-going and good-looking, dance club DJ with mutton-chop sideburns and armloads of tattoos, Ethan's a babe magnet. In his glove compartment, he keeps a spare toothbrush and a clean pair of boxer shorts. That's confidence. Ethan can pick up a woman in a bar, tell her about his past, and go home with her the same night-- no big deal. Here's an example of the kind of story he tells.

Ethan

I went to an all-girls high school. So I went back to my 10-year reunion, and I was like one guy with like 15 women, and it was so much fun. And I tell you, I just had the best time.

Well, first of all, in that night-- let's see-- just like there was such debauchery. It was ridiculous. We were like kids. We were playing spin the bottle, truth or dare. I was like, oh, no way! Holy cow, this is crazy.

Griffin Hansbury

But even Ethan encounters dating difficulties. He's always dated women casually, but it's different now that he's a guy. When he doesn't call someone for a week, or when he's busy with someone else on a Saturday night, he now gets angry emails from unhappy women. The old rules he used to play by have changed.

Ethan

Previously, it was sort of, there was-- you know, if I was dating a straight woman who is used to dating men, because I was a woman, I think she would feel safe. Like, she sort of felt like, well, there's safety here. I don't have to play games, because this is my equal. This is my friend. This is my partner. This is-- you know, feeling like we're on the same playing field. Everything's level. And I feel like that's definitely not the case, or not the approach that's taken when you're seen as a man.

Griffin Hansbury

We've all had to adjust to these strange new codes of behavior. Before I looked like a man, I could talk to women about how I liked going to strip clubs, and that made me cool and edgy. Now it just makes me a jerk.

My friend Nate is a different story than the rest of us. Most of the guys in the group always wanted to be men and were attracted to women. Nate wanted to be a man, but he was attracted to other men.

Nate

One common response I get when I tell people I'm transgender is they say, well, why didn't you just stay a girl? If you're attracted to men, why not just be a straight woman? As if that's all it takes. It's just being attracted to men.

My entire persona. Like, my personality, everything about me is male. I mean, a straight woman, I may in fact be attracted to-- both be attracted to, say, Antonio Banderas, but I think that the ways in which we-- everything else is different. Who we are is different. Very different.

Griffin Hansbury

It is a little hard to understand, I know. But today Nate is a cute gay man with close-cropped hair, stylish glasses, and a trim, compact build, looking for another cute gay man to date.

In his search for love, Nate had a harder time than the rest of us figuring out his target audience. Like everyone else, he couldn't understand how a female-bodied person could be a gay man, and he went through a long process of elimination. He knew he wasn't a straight girl. He felt like a boy. Maybe he was a lesbian.

Nate

I made every possible effort. I bought all the folk music albums. I was good at the cultural stuff. I wore sandals. I went to Mexico and studied, you know, women and their struggles in Latin America. I own every Indigo Girls album ever made. Every Ani DiFranco album. Gosh. I became a vegetarian, had a heavily soy-based diet. I mean really! I'm not kidding. It was actually being a woman attracted to women that was the hard part.

I even went through a man-hating stage. Not that all lesbians did that. I mean, certainly, this was my attempt at being a lesbian. That came more from my resentment of everything men had that I wanted.

I would just look at men on the subway and just feel so resentful. I felt like men just took for granted the fact that they looked like men. I'd look at these men just sitting there on the subway. I was like, God, if I were them, I would just be jumping up and down, jumping for joy. And they're just walking around, these schlumpy men, you know? Just all these different men, with their male chests and male genitalia and wearing a tie to work. Just not even appreciating it.

Griffin Hansbury

After the lesbian experiment failed, Nate finally realized what he had to do. He got chest surgery and started taking testosterone. Nate liked to joke that he's the only person he knows it's been L, G, B, and T-- the common shorthand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. And for every letter, there's been a coming out to his parents. Think about that for a second.

But so far, all his hard work hasn't helped his love life much. Meeting men isn't too difficult for Nate. He's got a couple ads online, and gets regular responses. He goes out on a lot of first dates, but there aren't a lot of seconds.

I haven't had anyone, you know, throw up like in The Crying Game. So I guess that's a good thing. But the best one was, I met this guy through a friend of a friend, and we met up, and walked around the city. And we ended up at Hudson River Park and we watched the fireworks at the end of the Gay Pride Parade. There's some beautiful fireworks at the end of the parade. And I don't know. I guess you could say it was romantic.

We had a subsequent date, and at the very end of the date, I said, you know, there's something that's kind of hard to tell you, but I feel like it's time to let you know. And he said, what, you're transsexual? And he was joking. He was trying to come up with the weirdest thing that he could think of, just to make me feel better.

And I wish I could just go out there and date whoever I wanted, and they didn't have to be this incredibly open-minded person, you know? My therapist the other day said, he actually said, we'd be both [BLEEP] ourselves if we didn't say that it's going to be incredibly difficult for you to find a life partner. And I'm thinking, God, I'm paying you for this?

Still, Nate keeps trying. He's cute and funny, and he's playing the game, which is more than he ever did before transition, when he couldn't even get off the bench. I'm sure it's just a matter of time before Nate finds someone to curl up with on the couch to watch Will and Grace.

So you spend all this time waiting for love to come along, worrying that it never will, and wondering what you'll do with it now that you've got this new body. What happens then when love finally shows up?

Ray, the Italian Stallion from earlier in my story, has been with his girlfriend Amy for nearly a year. She knew he was trans right from the start, because Ray's roommate introduced them. Ray fell for Amy the moment he first saw her, and she fell for him. But Amy had never dated a trans man and Ray had never dated a straight woman, so nobody made a move. Six months passed with no contact at all.

Finally, it was Amy who got things going. She dropped Ray an email and their courtship began at a glacial pace, including a long series of platonic lunches and dinners.

Amy

Well, it got to the point where it was ridiculous. Like, we went out to dinner, we heard this band, and we were sitting really close, sort of-- it was like a Moroccan restaurant-- we were sitting on pillows on the floor. And we were sitting there, and it was sort of like-- you were talking, but both of us were sort of like, kiss each other. In, I think, both of our minds, it was like, somebody has to kiss somebody. Sort of like you're talking, but then you lose track of what you're saying, because you can't even pay attention to it, because you're like, we've got to kiss, we've got to kiss. And we didn't.

Griffin Hansbury

Finally, one night after a movie, Ray walked Amy home, and they lost themselves in conversation for 70 long blocks.

Ray

It's miles, yeah. It was definitely miles. And we weren't in walking shoes, and we were carrying bags, and it was nighttime, and there was a million different reasons why we should have just taken a cab or the subway, but we did not.

And she did say that she wasn't really sure, like, completely how she felt about the trans thing. And then at the same moment, or like the next moment, she'd be very physical with me. So I was getting these two different signals.

Amy

When we took that 70-block walk and we ended up at my house, I thought, well maybe he'll kiss me goodnight. And then he kind of hugged me goodnight, and I was a little disappointed.

But it was my choice. Like, I was the one who went, you know, saying, let's be friends. And then I don't know why I was disappointed that he didn't kiss me. I couldn't-- I was sort of confused-- and I couldn't really figure it out, what I was doing. What I was doing. I couldn't figure out what I was doing.

Griffin Hansbury

In retrospect, what do you think you were doing?

Amy

Because I liked him so much, I wanted to make sure that if we-- I just knew that every step I was taking was like a step I couldn't turn back.

Griffin Hansbury

Romance is about overcoming obstacles. And in a way, Ray and Amy's story is the perfect plot for a romance novel. Girl meets boy. Girl grapples with the fact that boy used to be a girl. Girl falls in love with boy. I'm surprised Harlequin hasn't jumped on this one yet.

I like to think that trans men give you the best of both worlds. I hear so many women say things like, I wish my gay best friend were straight for like a day. Well, that's us. We're your gay best friend, and we want to date you. We want to go shopping and take dance lessons with you. It's not a bad deal when you think about it.

But of course, even with all the good stuff, no trans man is perfect. There is one big thing missing. Or maybe it's not so big.

Amy

So what everybody really wants to know is what our sex life is like. And it's weird, because when I talk about it, I feel like a science experiment.

Griffin Hansbury

I mean, I get really sick of that question when people ask me, and here I am asking you about it. And as a trans man, I think that that's a question that-- an answer that is something that I really want to know, and that I'm afraid of. Like, do you miss having a penis? I think it's on every trans man's mind too.

Amy

It's a difficult question to answer. Because you love this person, and in some ways, it feels-- you know, modern technology has made it possible for it to be very similar. And you know, sometimes I think-- I don't necessarily say I would miss a penis. I missed an ease. I miss a little bit more simplicity. I miss the simplicity of it, I think. Not the actual body part.

Griffin Hansbury

If you passed them on the street, you wouldn't know that Ray and Amy were anything more than ordinary. The only way you would know is if they told you.

Coming out is something Amy never had to do until she fell in love with Ray. Now all of a sudden she's co-starring in The Crying Game, and people look at her differently too.

Amy

Half of your listeners, they're wondering what I'm like. They're wondering what I look like. Am I attractive enough? Couldn't I go to a bar in New York and pick out a nice single Jewish man? And I'm definitely the kind of girl who'd go to a bar. I look like every other cute girl New Yorker who wears expensive clothes and pointy-toed shoes. Like, I look like everybody else. And I'm choosing this. Like, I've chosen this person.

I fell in love with this amazing man. And all my friends who know him are jealous. Like they wish that they could meet a Ray.

Griffin Hansbury

Transition itself is in some ways the most romantic undertaking of all. It's an idealistic adventure, extravagant and kind of unreal. You commit yourself to a feeling early on, a dream you've had all your life, and then you do it, believing all the while that the impossible can be made possible, that the great divide can be crossed. It's a total leap of faith, like falling in love. You don't know what will happen when you get to the other side, but you go there anyway.

Ira Glass

Griffin Hansbury.

Act Three. A Love Story.

Ira Glass

Act Three. A Love Story.

Well, we wanted to end our show today with a love story. A little real-life fable with an answer to the question, what is this thing called love? Sarah Vowell believes that she has just the one.

Sarah Vowell

The marriage of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash is the greatest love story of the 20th century. The first time Johnny saw June, he was on his high school senior class trip to Nashville, and she was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, singing with her famous relatives, the Carter family, and cracking jokes with Ernest Tubb.

Years later, in 1961, the Opry was where they would meet. They were backstage, and Johnny went up to June and told her, "You and I are going to get married someday." She laughed and told him that she couldn't wait. I'm guessing that when Cash went home that night, he didn't mention this to Vivian, his wife.

Not long after that, June joined Johnny's road show and they were traveling around the country together on tour. His wife mostly stayed home, and so did her husband. But June Carter was a lady-- a solid, accomplished, well-meaning Christian professional. And no solid, well-meaning Christian pro willingly falls in love with another woman's husband, especially if he's a pill-popping speed freak like Johnny Cash was back then.

Years later, June would describe falling in love with Johnny this way. "I felt like I had fallen into a pit of fire and I was literally burning alive." So June, who had been a professional musician since she was as tall as a ukulele, called her songwriting partner, Merle Kilgore, and they wrote about June's forbidden feelings for Cash.

It was a song straight out of Dante. They gave it to June's not particularly Dante-esque sister Anita, who recorded it as "Love's Ring of Fire."

Anita Carter

[SINGING} Love is a burning thing and it makes a fiery ring. Bringing hurt to the heart's desire, I fell in the ring of fire. I fell into, into the burning ring of fire. I fell down, down, down, down, into the deepest mire. And it burns, burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire. The ring of fire. The ring of fire.

Sarah Vowell

Johnny Cash heard Anita Carter's record, and then one night, he had a dream. He dreamed of mariachi horns playing this song. Some say it was the influence of the then-popular Tijuana Brass. Others say it was the barbiturates he took before bed to take the edge off the amphetamines. Either way, Johnny cash went into the studio with a couple of trumpet players and made his dream come true.

Johnny Cash

[SINGING] Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring.

Sarah Vowell

The peculiarity of the song's orchestration is topped only by the weirdness of its credits. Here was a married man singing a song written about him by the betrothed woman who was in love with him, and singing the record back-up "oohs" were said woman, June Carter, as well as her sister and her mother. Mother Maybelle Carter, the most respectable elder in the history of country music, if not America itself. Listen to how cheerful they sound.

Johnny Cash And The Carter Family

[SINGING] I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire.

Sarah Vowell

In this song, to compare love to fire, isn't just the pop music sexy heat cliche like "you give me fever" or "hunka, hunka burning love" or "it's getting hot in here." This is fire as in brimstone, old-time religion, written by the daughter of a people who believed in the eternal flames of hell.

June Carter was coveting her neighbor's spouse, which meant she was breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Loving Johnny Cash was a sin, and for her, the wages of sin were death-- a death in which the sinner spent all eternity as nothing more than kindling.

When June Carter admitted to herself that she loved Johnny Cash, it is, in a small Country and Western love song way, not unlike the moment Huck Finn resolves to help the slave Jim escape, even though he's been told that doing so would be wrong. "All right then," he says. "I'll go to hell."

This is from June's recording of "Ring of Fire." Notice, no trumpets. Just an old-timey fiddle, and she strums her autoharp, maybe ribbing her husband a little by pointing out in the liner notes, "That's the way I've heard it from the beginning."

June Carter Cash

[SINGING] The taste of love is sweet when hearts like ours meet. I fell for you like a child. Oh, but the fire went wild.

Sarah Vowell

There's an acre of misgiving in that little word, "oh." As in, oh, what have I done. Oh, his poor wife. Oh, Lord, forgive me. Oh, for crying out loud, I better flush his pills down the toilet yet again. Oh, I am Grand Ole Opry royalty, and this belligerent drug addict is about to get banned from my beloved Opry for smashing out the stage lights with a mike stand, and oh, I'm going to love him anyway.

"Ring of Fire" became a number one hit for Johnny Cash in 1963. Then, finally, he got divorced, and June got divorced, and he got sober, and in 1968 they got married.

When I say that Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash's romance was the greatest love story of the 20th century, I'm not just thinking about their fiery courtship, though your better love stories do require that obstacles are overcome, and the Cashs had plenty of those. I was really thinking about their marriage-- 35 years of actual happily ever after.

The pictures of the two of them together through the years are almost suspiciously entertaining to look at. Johnny's cracking June up, or she's cracking him up, or in my favorite, the photo on his compilation album, Love, she's fallen asleep against his shoulder. His chin is resting on her head, and he might be smelling her hair. In his liner notes next to that picture, Johnny Cash says that he's sitting there thinking about Robert Browning's poem about the death of his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when June Carter Cash walks in and wonders what he'd like to eat for lunch.

And that seems about right-- the two of them in a room together, pondering sandwiches and poetry. Grandly, he often credited her with saving his life. But he also bragged, she likes the same kind of movies I do.

On June's solo album, Press On, after her "Ring of Fire," the very next song is a duet with Johnny. It's a gospel ballad narrated by an old married couple worried that one will die before the other. Worried about getting left behind. "If it proves to be as well that I am first to cross," June sings, "and somehow I have a feeling it will be."

June Carter And Johnny Cash

[SINGING] But if it proves to be his will that I am first to cross, and somehow I've a feeling it will be. When it comes your time to travel, likewise don't feel lost. For I will be the first one that you'll see.

And I'll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan. I'll be sitting, drawing pictures in the sand. And when I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout and come running through the shallow water, reaching for your hand.

Sarah Vowell

As she predicted in the song, June died first. Four months later, Johnny was buried next to her, because, as he once said, "This thing between us has been happening since 1961, and I just don't want to travel if she can't come with me."

June Carter And Johnny Cash

[SINGING] So I'll just rest here on the shore and turn my eyes away until you come and we'll see paradise."

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell has got a brand new book, Assassination Vacation, that comes out in April.

Credits.

Ira Glass

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Stacy Tiderington.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who is officially our boss, but really, at this point, after all these years, he's more like a co-worker, and he's my friend. And his dad just died this week, and all of our hearts go out to him, and his mom, and his family. We'll resume making fun of him in a week or two.

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.