Pronoun Confusion

By: Evan Steuber


They were married twenty happy years and then cut open. Visitors were coming for the weekend, scheduled to arrive Friday night. No doubt they’d probe the marital wound, marked as it was on their body. So the apartment must be thoroughly cleaned. Because a dirty apartment is too honest, stresses too strongly the transitory state.


They came in from work Thursday night. She sat on the couch, eyes glassy and red, a beer in her hand. The six o’clock news mumbled in the background. “How was your day?” they asked, standing awkwardly in the doorframe between living room and foyer.

She started crying. It was always waiting there, the pain of knowledge deferred. Loving someone completely and realizing it was incomplete.

Even though they wanted to run away, there was nowhere else they wanted to be. So they put on a smile, asked, “Work that bad?”

“It’s not work.”

“I know,” they said. “So, you think we should start cleaning?”

They picked up brooms and mops. Silent except for the squeak of floors and furniture and the occasional cleared throat.


All of those years they’ve been married. They were a husband and a wife. Were a couple.


At work they were the teacher. People said to the teacher, “How you doing, man?” The teacher winced but smiled, tried to recover. Remembered it was a manner of speaking.

“Great!” the teacher said, “How about you?” All smiles.

“Pretty good,” was the thing everyone said.

The teacher went and cried in their office sometimes. Then the teacher fixed their makeup in the university’s bathroom mirror, apologizing to each male that entered the space. Not that these males were upset. These males were confused, stumbled into bathroom stalls with squinted faces.

They were unsure what to do other than apologize.


At work people said to the teacher, “How you doing?”

“I’ve been better,” she said. Everyone knew something was wrong that she refused to talk about, or had not yet learned how to express. Instead she took cues from the high-schoolers on how to be someone else.


The visitors arrived, old college friends. Hard to know what is worth explaining, what can be explained. It’s always something different. A couple, they were the friends they’d get drunk with. All the friends worth having got drunk with them.

“Don’t you look pretty,” the man of the couple said on greeting. The smile that followed hard to interpret. An insult or a compliment? And directed to whom? To them?


In therapy they were the client. The client asked, “Why is this a thing?”

“You can’t choose your identity,” the therapists said.

“But we can both agree that God is a practical joker? If we think God exists?” Because it was or wasn’t God who made their body the marker of a wound. To feel at home was to feel at odds.

The therapists refused to tell them if God existed.


They lived in the city. The city was called Chicago and doesn’t mind being called so, has no opinions.

Chicago is not sentient. There’s a joke in there that they refused to make.


Their entire life they didn’t know they were living in a closet, knocking into hanger, convinced it was the sky.


She, also a teacher and a lover and a friend and a daughter and a voter and a human being, was pressed into a closet every time they told someone that they were they and had been hiding in their own closet. It meant she didn’t know, that she’d missed something. Her understanding was locked away.

A closet is where you go to hide, telling lies through the door about why you’re there. A waste of time. The door only works from the inside.


“It is no one’s fault,” the therapists said. So they struggled with fault inextricably disconnected from causality. They counted the ways. Cancer is no one’s fault. SIDS is no one’s fault.


The college friends sat and drank at their kitchen table. They all drank. They said, “Our president is a nut-job.” They said, “That’s giving him too much credit.”

They asked, “Are you wearing makeup?”

They said, “Yes.”

They asked, “Have you always?”

They said, “No.”


“Probably,” someone once said, “this wouldn’t be as difficult if you weren’t married.” They were so floored by the obviousness of this statement that they had nothing to say for a good half a day. Everything was obvious and terrible.

Obvious it would be easier to extricate they from he if they were not also already they while masquerading as he. Forget for just a moment the complication that it may be a she being extracted from they who was once known as a he.

None of it changes the original they. The two who define themselves by each other.


A storm is no one’s fault.


They took the friends to Millennium Park. People were taking pictures. They walked up to the big silver bean that reflects and took a picture of themselves in its smudged curvature. They don’t look anything like that.

When they looked in mirrors they did not see them, but rather a projection of an idea of them. Someone else’s idea. Maybe the bean’s idea.


The friends declined to mention anything else concerning their gender-confused appearance.

Perhaps they found the only answer to such observations is: yes. But there was a better answer to the follow-up question of: “Have they always?” They’d been thinking about it. Yes, they know now what they would have said, and with swagger. Cowgirl swagger? Leaning forward with their drink, eyes narrowed, their look all-knowing, breathing the words as if just occurring to them, “Denial is a powerful thing.” Still, as true as that statement was, it ignored the general state of confusion surrounding everything. Perhaps, a last minute peak in inflection.


Denial is a powerful thing?


In Chicago there was a thriving literary scene, a lot of improv comedy and stand-up, plays and ballets, symphonies and culturally relevant things. Many good restaurants, and lots of LGBTQIA+ sources to seek out. And yet, they wished for something of their own. A piece of the South they originated from.

They wanted the same friends, but on new terms. I am not who you thought I was. You thought I was he and so did I. I am now they, may soon be she. Can we accept that I have always been different? Now that I accept my difference, can you? Or did you already? Which one of us is late to this party?


Last time they visited home they were on the deck with their mom. Their mom was on the swing and they were in a chair that rocked, and she, their protector, was standing against the railing. Their mom was talking about the gays. “I just wish they’d all go back in the closet. Why do they have to shove it in everyone’s faces?”

There was an intellectually pointed response concerning historical invisibility of a group corresponding with the invisibility of the persecution perpetuated. But what they said was, “Why do you have to picture them having sex all the time?”

“Ugh,” their mom said. “They’re the ones sticking it in my face. And that’s not even to mention this whole transgender thing.”

“What about it?”

“I mean, with the bathrooms,” their mom said, and her face let go of its anger, became suddenly grief-stricken, her voice dropping. “Just think about your nieces,” she said. “About little Lucy. Think about little Lucy.”

They looked up at her standing at the railing. Of course they were thinking about Lucy, the two of them. They were thinking, can she be saved from this ignorance? Can we?


People’s ideas are fixed in place, time and emotion. May be better to start over.


The man of the couple joked, “Too bad you can’t join the military anymore.”

They frowned and then they laughed. They all laughed. It was a pretty good joke.

Then they went to the bathroom and threw up. What kind of reaction is that?


For a while, to lighten the mood, on first delivering their news, they said they preferred the pronouns it and that. Until they were told some people used the pronoun it. And then they felt terrible because they insulted those who felt seen within those words. And because every time they tried to make a joke, it was at the expense of someone’s reality. When would they learn? They’d always been a joke, other people’s jokes, their own jokes. Man-Lady. Tom-Boy. She-Male. Girly-Man. Boy or Girl?


They were out with the couple at a fancy restaurant. Fancy restaurants are expensive, demand that you act a certain way. Enjoy the wine more convincingly. Take smaller bites. Say mmm.

“You don’t act like a girl,” he said.

“I’m not a girl,” they said. But that wasn’t quite right. Or quite wrong. Not quite sure.

And how does a gender act? What is a gender act?

“I thought that’s what this was all about,” he said

“Well,” they said, “denial is a powerful thing.” But it didn’t make sense and it came out

all wrong. Their mouth was full, their words slightly slurred from wine.

“What now?” he asked.


It was not just knowledge deferred that grieved her. It was because she wasn’t attracted to she, wasn’t sure she could be.

Just as one changes to become the one they always were, the other remains the same, was always herself. If they were really she, she didn’t know if she could want her. Love her, certainly, but that is different.

One can’t be oneself and blame the other for the same.


Desire is no one’s fault.


They stood together to watch the friends go, waved goodbye from the rainy porch, ducked back inside and sunk into the furniture.

“I’m so tired of visitors,” they said.

“I feel like I’m living in a museum.”

“Exhibit A,” they said. “Person thought to be man and hitherto interpreted as gay.”

“Exhibit B,” they said. “Shockingly beautiful woman married to assumed gay man.”

“Shut up,” she said, “my beauty isn’t such a shock.”


Every day they went to work. Sometimes they dressed in a way that helped people understand. Sometimes they dressed in a way that confused people. Sometimes they said what was wrong and sometimes they didn’t. Regardless, they remained they.


They came home from work and she was fussing with her hair in the bathroom mirror. More visitors were coming that weekend. In-laws. The truth must be watered down. Scrubbed away.


At church, when they were little, a traveling pastor visited. He did a presentation about brain-washing. He was serious. He said, “Brain Wash. Wash Brain. Clean Brain.”


“I’ll never be that beautiful,” they said, walking up behind her in the mirror. “No one could be.”

“Your problem is you’re suffering from a failure of imagination,” she said.

But they knew. Only real beauty could make such a statement.


They wondered sometimes what the cost of kindness was.


This repeats itself. The apartment is cleaned. People visit. People are given versions of the truth that makes sense to them. People leave. They sink into the furniture. They look in the mirror.


Time is no one’s fault.


Evan Steuber hails from Kentucky where they spent their first twenty-some years working in restaurants and retail, meeting the love of their life, and getting educated. Evan's fiction has appeared in Packingtown Review, The Gravity of the Thing, and Noctua Review. They recently received their PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Evan is pretty excited about life and philosophizes about the undead in their spare time.