Such Softness in the Harsh World

The second most shocking thing that ever happened to me took place inside an Ikea. Stacy and I had been dating long distance for a year and on one of my trips up to New York City she asked if I’d like to go to Ikea with her, by ferry, which passed right by the Statue of Liberty. A homemaking journey and a tourist adventure wrapped into a single floating package. I said yes, of course. I hate Ikea — it’s a death trap for young couples with big dreams and a limited budget — but it was early days and we lived a thousand miles apart; I would have followed her into the sewer.

Luckily she wasn’t after any furniture, so we breezed past the people measuring bed frames and twirling around in desk chairs and flipping through fake books. She wanted home decoration; textiles; a new duvet. I stood nearby, squashing down pillows and watching them fill back up with air, while she flipped through the giant display on the wall. She asked what I liked and I told her to pick whatever she liked. I was only in her bed a few days every few months. It was really none of my business.

She chose a bright orange and red and pink one, and a dusky blue and black and white one.

“Comforters for any occasion,” I said.

She said, “Here, feel these. Are they soft enough for you?”

I blinked at her. “What?” I said.

She said, “Are they soft enough for you to feel at home in your body in my bed?”

I never talked to anyone about the softness thing — the “sensory processing sensitivity” thing — and certainly not to a girl I really wanted to like me. Not about how anything that wasn’t a t-shirt or a flannel or a fleece made my skin feel like it was covered in ants or wasps or rubbing off my bones, or about how it’d always been that way since I was a little kid, or about how I couldn’t concentrate or sit still or remember my own name if lace or wool or even polyester was touching my skin and so I sneaked my softball jersey to school to change into on test days because it was the softest shirt I owned, or the thing where I did secret laundry at night in high school using double fabric softener to try to make my clothes bearable, and cut the tags out of everything including my pants and sat on the edges of chairs and couches when I was wearing shorts so my bare legs didn’t touch the scratchy material and wore sweatshirts inside out under my coats because the super soft insides always turned to needles after they’d been washed too much, about how I could only give the briefest and loosest hug to anyone wearing anything I couldn’t wear on my own body.

“Anything’s fine,” I said. “Get what you like!”

“Please just lay your cheek on this,” she said. “I want to take care of you.”

She said it like the easiest thing in the world, like she wanted to buy me an ice cream cone or play tic-tac-toe. She’d decoded one of my main weirdnesses that I never mentioned to anyone because I’m a person who doesn’t need to compound my weirdness. She’d brought me across the river in a boat to press my face against something she was going to keep on her bed for the very rare times my face was in her bed. She wanted to take care of me.

I don’t need to be taken care of, is what I almost said because it was a simple fact.

I don’t need help. I have never needed help. I don’t need help lifting anything or carrying it either, I don’t need help reaching stuff on the top shelf, I don’t need help learning new things or going new places or figuring out how anything works. If it’s broken I’ll fix it. If it’s a problem I’ll solve it. When I was five years old and I got off the bus and no one was home to let me inside, I got on my Strawberry Shortcake bicycle to ride it several miles to my great-grandmother’s country store. When I was in middle school at basketball camp and I got moved up to the high school league because I was too tall and I started my period for the first time and my cheap shoes fell apart, I walked to the gas station and bought pads for my pants and duct tape for my sneakers and won the MVP trophy at the end of the week. When I wanted to become a writer even though I had no professional training whatsoever, I quit my job as an accountant and I became a writer. If your ship wrecked on a desert island, I’m the one you’d want to be stranded with. I find a way.

I laid my head on the duvet in her hands. It was very soft. Not as soft as I would have picked out for myself, but softer than anything anyone had ever bought because of me. (A burlap sack was softer than anything anyone had ever bought because of me.) I said, “Thank you for thinking of me.” She said, “I always think of you.”

The most shocking thing that ever happened to me took place on the telephone only a few weeks later. I was back home in Georgia and it was 2:00 am and Stacy was dozing off on the other end of the line. “I want us to be together so long I get to watch your face change,” is what she said.

I laughed. “My face?”

“Don’t laugh,” she said. “I love your face.”

My face was another thing I never talked about. I’d grown up looking just like my dad, everyone said so. My mom said it too, that I looked like him, and that I acted like him in every way. “You’re just like your dad.” Which in most families is probably an affectionate thing to tell a kid, but my mom meant it as the deepest insult. My dad was the one who had to tell her she couldn’t keep writing bad checks, running up the credit card bills, forging his name to legal documents. She called it “her illness” so we all called it “her illness.” I guess that’s what made her lash out at anything and everyone who called her perfection into question. I had a quick mind and sharp tongue and my dad’s nose. I didn’t understand her. And so she told me I was just like him.

I’d read somewhere in my early 20s that if you’re going to develop the same mental illnesses and personality disorders as your parents, you usually do it by the time you’re 25. I don’t know if it’s true, but I clung to it like God’s personal promise. I sat awake in my bed by myself on the eve of my birthday when I was 24 years old and counted down the minutes. Five and I would never raise my hand to anyone and especially not someone I loved, four and I wouldn’t say mean things on purpose to make people cry, three and I would think of others as much as I thought of myself, two and I would never make anyone question their own reality, one and I would always be grateful for everything anyone did for me. Midnight and I was still me. I sobbed into my pillow. When I woke up, the mirror told me my face was turning into hers, but my heart told me I was free.

Except my face isn’t really my mom’s. She has tan, flawless skin; bright green eyes; a mouth made for smiling. My face is her shape but my skin is scarred and lined, a hormonal acne nightmare since I was barely ten. My chin is crooked from one too many baseballs to my teeth. My eyes are her color, but muted, and I can hardly see out of my left one, a truth that betrays me every time I take off my glasses and it lazily looks in toward my nose. My face is a funhouse version of my mom’s.

Stacy messed with everything I thought about my body. She liked it. She wanted to take care of it. She wanted to watch it change.

Her closet filled up with soft things and she kissed my laugh lines as they turned to wrinkles. I know her scars, exactly the way her day went from her posture the second she walks in the door. I know where the invisible border is between her abdomen and her side that separates feeling really nice from feeling unbearably ticklish. I know the meanings of all the shades of all the colors of her eyes and whether or not she’s in the bed beside me when I wake up even if I’m not facing her direction.

I stopped thinking about my weird body as being weird until just this year when a pap smear and mammogram reminded me that my body exists outside of the warm blanket of Stacy’s perception. I’d spent 25 years of my life worrying about the nature/nurture damage to my heart and the way my face was transforming into my mom’s, when I should have been worrying about the gene mutations that caused her breast cancer when she was younger than I am now. Those initial tests concluded that I had an enlarged uterus and focal asymmetry in my right breast, and so I had MRIs, and blood work, and ultrasounds, and outpatient surgeries, and mammograms, and biopsies, and endless consultations to get to the bottom of it.

My breast abnormality isn’t malignant; it just needs to be monitored. My reproductive system is, medically speaking, “a wreck.”

When we found out I need big surgery, and that the big surgery is going to require a major recovery, I called Stacy at work and told it to her matter-of-factly. Then made a list of things to do: stuff to buy and hospital appointments to make and responsibilities to delegate. I checked off everything one by one. Peppermint capsules and chicken broth, blood work and pre-admission, all my writers handed off to different editors. There’s a shovel in the kitty litter that Stacy can use so she doesn’t have to wrestle the 40-pound bags and a jar full of quarters for the laundromat so she doesn’t have to fight the change machine and a new cord management system installed by my bed so I don’t have to bend over. Stacy asked what she could do, how she could help, all she wanted to do was be useful, and I said nothing, nothing, I’ve got everything under control. And so she held me on the nights I was pretending to be able to sleep and whispered “I’ll take care of you” over and over without ever expecting an answer.

The first time she walked into the recovery room after I’d been under general anesthesia she lost the structure in her limbs. Every way she moves is so commanding and purposeful; she looked like a different person when her arms turned to rubber. I was sitting up and drinking apple juice and everything was good. The doctor had already talked to me. Nothing to worry about, everything normal, once I was finished with the graham crackers I could go home, and then onto the next test. I reached for her hand and said I knew it was hard for her to see me like that, with the tubes in my nose and the IV in my arm and my even-paler-than-usual face. She tugged on the neckline of the hospital gown I was wearing. “It’s too stiff,” she said, “We have to get you out of it.”

Years after Stacy’s head found its home in the crook of my shoulder, we bought our first piece of grown-up furniture together at the Brooklyn Flea Market. We shared a lobster roll, three tacos, and a waffle. I drank a beer. Then we saw the table, and it pulled us to it like gravity. Repurposed steel pipe legs and a tabletop made from old barn wood, deep brown with streaks of orange still glowing through. Stacy clutched it with her hand, her face so firm no one came near it until the woman who built it had a free minute to sell it to us. We called it our “darling table” and we followed it with matching chairs, a media console, two big beautiful area rugs. We bought our couch from a furniture gallery in Soho, custom made. It was the same couch we bounced up and down on in the showroom, the same one we imagined afternoons and evenings on, curled up with books and hot toddies, our faces close and dear and slowly changing. That one, but with special softer fabric.


My big surgery is Monday, October 9. I’ll be away from Autostraddle and the whole internet for several weeks. I thank you in advance for all your warm wishes. 


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 685 articles for us.

98 Comments

  1. <3 All the things people wish one another before surgery sound so sterile, compared to the warmth of this piece.
    I'll just leave a soft, flannel covered, virtual hug, and wish you and Stacy all the best.
    xoxo

  2. Crying because this piece is amazing and you’re amazing. I hope that everything in the next few weeks goes as smoothly as it can, and I’m so glad Stacy will be there. Sending all the best thoughts and hopes from this little corner of the internet. <3

  3. 1. I hope your recovery goes well and I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this

    2. Your writing really helps people. I mean I haven’t done a survey or anything, but it really helps me. It’s tender and loving and hopeful and vulnerable and so bursting with compassion that it makes my whole body feel like a bruise

  4. I started crying reading this walking home from work, came to find a bench, finished reading it, still crying. I’m privileged to know you at all, I’m sending you the very best and warmest and softest wishes.

  5. Heather you’re writing has been amazing me for more than 7 years now, but this is easily one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever written. Sending you all my best, both for your surgery, and the rest of your life with Stacy <3

  6. I’ve been staring at the Comment box for a full five minutes. Nothing I write could ever convey the depth of emotion your words have brought up for me. But I have to write a little something otherwise I’ll spend the rest of the afternoon staring at an empty Comment box, fidgeting over the keyboard, feeling replenished and bereft and everything in between.

    In my native language, Tabarnac fille, tu me vires à l’envers.

  7. This is so so so good. I love your writing and your you-ness, and everything you’ve ever written about Stacy makes me so so happy that you have each other.

    I’ll think about this essay every time I fiddle with the covers before sleep so the sheet is pulled all the way over the top of the comforter just so, so that no part of the duvet could possibly touch my face while I’m sleeping, and my gf sighs and smiles and helps me do it, or she notices me tugging on the neck of my tshirt and asks what’s wrong before I even notice myself doing it, because she knows that when the softest cotton tshirt starts feeling constrictive and bad to me that means something is wrong — I’m tired or anxious or feel sick. It makes me want to cry, but in the good way, that there are wonderful people out there silently and sweetly waiting and wanting to help with these little things that aren’t actually little at all, are they?

  8. Heather, we’ve never met but your existence means so much to me. I’ve been reading your works for quite a while now and they have comforted me when I needed something to hold on to, they’ve made me laugh when I needed levity, they’ve made me think and question and push beyond what I’ve known in my world. Thank you for everything you’ve given me.

    This was truly beautiful and I wish you the very best during your recovery.

  9. Aw, Heather. You will be missed, but I hope your surgery is successful, your recovery full and uneventful, and I look forward to your return. Your presence on the interwebs is an intelligent, warm, and needed one. ❤️

  10. I’m certain I speak for many of your longtime readers when I tell you that when the raw places deep down inside of us can’t bear to be touched because everything in our lives feels like a burlap sack, reading what you write feels like that perfect unwashed sweatshirt lining. I’m so sorry for all that you’ve gone through and have yet to go through. But I’m so glad to know that you have Stacy, and that she knows just how to create that soft, safe place for you that you create for all of us. Throwing my own healing wishes and love onto the steadily-growing pile for you.

  11. Heather, you may have a hunch by now that you are able to touch people with your writing, but in case you don’t: You do. You really do. Thank you for everything you have written so far and for everything you will write in the future.
    I wish you all the best for your surgery. Get well soon.

  12. Warm wishes to you, Heather.

    And to Stacey, may you find supports and strengths during this difficult time as well. I remember sitting in a hospital far away from home when my wife had surgery. And crying when I saw her for the first time afterwards when she was so pale. I talked to one person who said I needed to stay strong for her, and I said I would, and for the most part I did, but I also needed to take a bit of time to allow for my feelings.

    Also for several months after the surgery she was depressed (which was confusing at the time as she was having grs which she had wanted for years). She did some research and found out that it was quite common after anesthesia for people who are prone towards depression to be depressed.

    So best wishes to you both during the surgery, recovery, and beyond. <3

  13. Hi Hwather, I just got into catching up on the A+ pod last week, and your contributions always made me smile.

    Thank you so much for writing this piece about you and Stacy, and all the best to both of you for your recovery.

  14. This is the first time I’ve commented on Autostraddle!! Not to be creepy, but Heather — I’ve been a major fan of yours ever since you were doing PLL recaps on AfterEllen (there were NUMEROUS occasions where your writing was so funny that I literally choked on whatever I was eating or drinking at the time because I was laughing so hard).

    Your writing is incredible and you just seem like such an awesome, amazing person. This piece was so beautiful, and I am filled with joy by reading about the love you have in your life. Sending all the best thoughts to you, and wishing you the speediest and most serene recovery.

  15. Although we’ve never met, your writing has had a huge impact on me. You’ve helped me deal with so much stuff and made me laugh and smile in equal measure.
    I just want you to know that along with everyone else here, im thinking of you and hope that everything goes well.
    Sending a unicorn patronus across the ocean! X

  16. Heather, this is beautiful. I know you and I know big surgeries, so I also know you are gonna get through this just fine. All my love to you and Stacy, and we’ll be here to celebrate your victories!!

  17. Everything that you write strikes me at the core and makes me forget everything else while I’m reading, which is sucah a rare and valuable thing these days.

    I wish you well on your surgery and recovery, and am glad that there is a Stacy with you.

  18. The capacity you have for sharing yourself seems unending and overwhelming. Thank you for always being so open and willing to share your heart with strangers.

    I wish you only the softest of blankets and the quickest recovery. Selfishly, we’ll miss you on the internet.

  19. I gotta admit I initially read the title of this piece as “Butch Softness in The Harsh World” and I was really excited to read it. Even though it is not quite what I expected I am blown away. Heather, words cannot describe how much your writing means to me. I wish you much safety, stability, and comfort in the coming weeks and beyond.

  20. Sending you so much love and wishing you the best care from everyone around you Heather. Your pieces always touch me deeply but this one was something else. Even now you give us amazing gifts. You will be missed on AS but please take all of the time that you need <3

  21. Wishing you a gentle and bearable recovery, Heather. May your future be filled with many trips to flea markets and soft things and kittens and time well spent with Stacy. Be brave and let her care for you even when it isn’t easy.

  22. Heather, very few writers have the power to reach straight into my soul and elicit sobs based on the sheer beauty of their prose. And you’re one of them. Thank you for reminding me that it’s ok to need help, even when you’re usually the one who’s “got this”. Good luck with your surgery and best wishes for your recovery.

  23. Thank you Heather for this beautiful essay. Your writing always manages to warm my heart. I wish you and Stacy nothing but the best during your recovery. All the positive vibes your way for as long as you need them!

    And when things get tough just remember in the words of Pat Summitt: “Left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat.”

  24. For anybody who read this and thought “oh, me too with the softness and the world being A LOT of not rightness” it is a very real thing, and impacts more people than you would think. Try using wool wash rather than regular clothing detergent or softner. If you are getting detergent build up put the clothes in to wash with a cup or two of vinegar and no detergent.

    Also, what I do in my actual job is research about this kind of thing… and what it means for people using buildings. So, the world might be A LOT on the regular, but I promise that I’m working really hard to get some action on that front. All of the people who work adjacent to me are very invested in making our built environments less barrier filled for all kinds of people, so if you are wondering when the world is going to make space for you… I promise that we really are working our hardest to make it sooner rather than later.

    P.s. Yesterday I had a meeting about how to make queer spaces in cities more accessible in general. So I really am coming for them on all fronts.

    P.p.s Heather and Stacy I hope that you get sent many many adorable baby animal pictures or whatever else is a helpful thing.

  25. brb, ugly crying.

    “When I wanted to become a writer even though I had no professional training whatsoever, I quit my job as an accountant and I became a writer.” DAMN RIGHT YOU DID HEATHER AND THE WORLD IS BETTER FOR IT. Truly. You manage to floor me with every essay, so keep ’em coming (and possibly invest stock in facial tissues!)

    Wishing you all the best. <3

  26. If I’m ever trying to sternly persuade my wife to do something she doesn’t want to do, she will say she can’t do tough love, only soft love.

    Well, I’m diverting all the soft love to Heather for the next few weeks.

    Take all the time you need, you’re worth waiting for xx

  27. I quite literally just created an account to say this-
    You are my hero. You have been since 2012 when I first discovered your PLL recaps on afterellen and I soon thereafter figured out that I was queer, and there were other people, a whole wonderful community of people, who were too. If i ever see an article with your name in the byline I click on it first, because you’re such an excellent writer and you make tv recaps so beautiful and important and that goes for every other thing you write, too (including this, which has made you and Stacy my real life otp)
    I hope everything goes well with your surgery!!!!!!! Sending good vibes your way

  28. Thank You Heather for sharing both your love and your vulnerability. It’s more than evident that you and Stacey are both special souls who have found their equals. If you need to be encouraged to do anything to help yourself in the coming weeks, it may just be to allow yourself to be the lucky recipient of Stacey’s love, expressed as physical help.

    Take all of the healing time that you need and have a bit of a holiday too, before you commit to work.

    Wishing you health,happiness and healing. With many more years to write and create. Best wishes too, to Stacey and a reminder to her to care for herself as well.

  29. Oh Heather! Your essays usually make me cry, but this one made me REALLY cry! You are such a beautiful bright human and what you do brings me so much joy. I’m sending you and Stacey so much love <3 for your recovery process. May it go smoothly.

  30. Sending you my very best wishes for your surgery. And thank you, thank you, thank you, for this essay and all of your personal essays. Your writing means so much to me, and I know to everyone else here.

  31. I also upvoted every comment with tears streaming down my face. You are such a gift. Thank you for your beautiful and inspired words. What an amazing way to share with this community something so deeply personal. Thank you so much. Sending prayers/love/light etc to you and Stacy and your fur babies <3

  32. You’ve done what you can to take care of Stacy before your convalescence, and you’ve done the same for your community here by offering us this softest of reassurances. Now you can take the time you need to rest, recover, and allow yourself to be supported in return. Be well. <3

  33. Sending positive and healing thoughts to you Heather

    This piece, like so many of your pieces I’ve read, is incredible and beautiful and moving. Thank you for sharing with us, your words bring me to tears in the best way

  34. I’ve just been watching the comment counter on here all day, like “wow! 69 comments… Woah over 80! I wonder what Heather wrote…” and I didn’t get a chance to read the whole thing until just now. And I don’t know what else to do except upvote everyone, and I don’t know what else to say that hasn’t already been said. Just, Heather you are such a light in this harsh world. ❤️ You are held and cared for and so deeply beloved by everyone here.

    In my family we like to say “headbutts” when you’re sending love to someone– like how when cats affectionately ram their heads into your face, or other parts of your body. So. I am sending you all the headbutts, and I hope your kitties give you some too. 🐾🐾

  35. Heather. You are such a wonderful writer and such a beautiful soul. I’ve never even met you but I just want all the softest, sweetest, best days for you and Stacy.

    ps I stayed in and watched Carol tonight for the first time and it was amazing

  36. I wish you a smooth surgery and a speedy recovery. Even though everything is under control, accept the help, both of you, when it’s offered. Sometimes people don’t have words, but helping is how people show their love.

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