Fearless Heart

Friday, February 15, 2013


I was recently chatting with a friend about Valentines Day and jokingly asked her if she had submitted her list of demands preferences to her beau regarding the big day.

Her thoughtful reply surprised me - something that occurs regularly when I speak with her.

She said that they prefer not to focus the celebration of their relationship on a day that they feel is dictated by the commercial needs of greeting card companies.

Instead, she says, he likes to surprise her throughout the year with demonstrations of his affection, and vice versa. Sometimes this takes the form of flowers, candy, or gifts; more often it's a simple gesture that carries far more weight when the person performing the action is taken into account.

I was left shaking my head in admiration - also a common occurrence after our conversations. She would be the first to tell you that she is far from perfect, and by no means has everything figured out... but she is far ahead of me, that is for certain. This was a perfect example.

I've always loathed Valentines Day. The emphasis on extravagant material expressions of the most profound emotion we have - love - seems not just vulgar, but obscene.

While I still feel that way, what I could never acknowledge until I started transitioning was the real reason why that was so.


Raised a boy, I thought I was supposed to be, at best indifferent, and, ideally, immune to needing the affection of someone else. Men were tough, strong, independent. Right? They didn't need anybody.

Since I was incapable of understanding how they *really* felt - Lord knows you would never dare speak about such matters, after all - I tried to approximate what seemed to be the "right" way to act. Which was to pretend I didn't care.

The truth was that Valentines Day was particularly difficult for me, as it was for so many of us.

In addition to the day-to-day torment that I felt, the holiday added yet more complicated emotions I simply was not equipped to process at such a young age.

Putting aside the fact that I knew I didn't dare to so much as hint at how much I wanted to be just like them, I had no idea how to even speak to any girl I found remotely attractive, let alone tell them I had feelings for them beyond friendship.

Nothing made sense. People told me to be myself, but I hated who I really was. And when I tried to act the way my friends did, the result was confusion, laughter, or, worst of all, pity.

I tried anyway. Such was my desire to fit in and make those terrifying feelings go way. But after enough rejections, I already knew what their response would be anyway. So I withdrew and decided the safest course was simply not to care. Or to try not to care.

I failed miserably, as I had to.

And of course on top of that, I also had that secret, unspoken ache that Valentines Day emphasized: the overwhelming desire to not only be accepted as who I was, but for one special person to acknowledge I was special.

I spent the rest of the year convincing myself that this was impossible, that I was destined to spend my entire life alone, living a lie. And here was a day seemingly designed to underline that for me.

But deep down, there was always a tiny, tiny voice that I would hear late at night, saying that this year, just maybe, it might be different. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it, that voice was always there.

I went to an all-boy high school. We had a sister school, an all-girl high school. My sister attended, as did many of the girls from my neighborhood and from my after-school job.

Every Valentines Day the schools sold carnations you could send to students at the other school. If I remember correctly, the choices were white (friendship), pink (I'd like to get to know you), and, of course, red (I love you).

I always sent a white carnation to my sister, and once I started working, I did the same for the girls with whom I worked. I guess I just thought they would like it. And they did; they all thanked me for my thoughtfulness, which made me feel good at a time in my life when that was a rare occurrence.

My younger brother began attending my school when I was a junior. He was everything I wasn't: confident, athletic, outgoing. Girls were attracted to him like catnip. I marveled at how effortless he made it all seem, and was more than a little jealous, though I never admitted it.

The student council handed out the carnations during homeroom on Valentines Day. I feigned indifference when my homeroom teacher began calling out the names of students who had received a carnation, lest I give away any sign of my true feelings.

Suddenly one of my friends was prodding me.

"Get up there! Mrs. S just called your name again!"

Sure enough, Mrs. S, one of my favorite teachers, was looking at me with a bemused expression.

"You have carnations waiting for you!" She held up four carnations of varying hues. "Don't you want them?"

"That can't be right," I blurted out.

The entire class burst into laughter.

Her smile grew broader. "I think it is."

The good-natured (well, mostly good-natured) catcalls and hoots rained down on me as I slinked up to the front of the room to accept the carnations. I didn't dare look at the names. And after a moment or two, order was restored.

With only a few minutes left before the bell rang, the student council rep entered the room again, red-faced. He whispered something in Mrs. S's ear. Stricken, she mouthed, "Are you sure?" He nodded.

She stood up, walked to my desk, and knelt down. I could feel every eye in the room on us.

"L... I'm so sorry," she said, her voice barely audible. "There was... we made a mistake. These are actually for - "

"My brother," I interjected. "These are for my brother, aren't they?"

She blinked. She taught my brother as well. After a moment she nodded.

"OK," I said. "That makes sense. Here you go."

As I handed them to her, the room exploded again, this time in hoots of derision. Mrs. S. patted my arm as she stood up. More than anything I wanted to disappear under my desk. But I had nowhere to go.

The bell rang a few moments later. Several of my friends awkwardly joked with me. I did my best to laugh along, but they quickly sensed how fervently I wanted to move on and kindly let me do so.

My brother received the carnations the following period during his homeroom. He received a half-dozen in total, as I recall. Miraculously, no one ever told him what had happened. To this day he doesn't know.

And that was my Valentines Day, age 16.

***

One of my earliest posts indirectly touched on the first real job I had outside of school, working in a hospital kitchen, a job I started shortly after the events above. (I worked in the front office in my high school as well, which turned out to have its own hazards.)

I was one of the few boys in the department. As I wrote, they treated me differently than they did the other males. They just sensed I was different, and unlike the standard flirting and teasing they indulged in with the other boys, they were uncommonly kind to me in a way that my male friends there didn't understand. Nor did I, to be truthful.

"Why do they let you go in there but not me?" asked my friend B good-naturedly as I emerged from the girl's locker room at the end of a break. "God, I'd kill for even a minute in there! But instead they're wasting it on you!"

"Because L isn't like you," my friend P said, shaking her finger as she mock-berated him. "I can't understand why he associates with the likes of you!"

B shrugged.

"It's a small town. His choices are limited."

Actually, I was fortunate to have a large group of friends, including B and the few other males who worked there.

One of my other good friends was M. She primarily worked in the kitchen with us, rather than on the floors where most of the diet aides spent their time. As a result, we became very close.

She was 19, but was still in high school - the same school my sister attended (and my mother, and grandmother, for that matter). A serious health issue had resulted in her missing a year of school, so she was a senior.

Truth be told, I had a crush on her. She was cute, had a vivacious personality, and was wildly, riotously funny. As if that wasn't enough, she was also the head cheerleader. And best of all, she possessed the most wonderful, infectious laugh I have ever heard to this day. It was, quite simply, a joy to be around her.

I don't think she had any idea how I felt. She was enthralled by P, who worked in one of the other departments. Tall, ruggedly handsome, and a musician, he genuinely liked M and was always kind to her, but he had no romantic feelings for her at all. Even I could see that.

I was barely 16, but looked much younger. As often happened to me back then, the older women with whom I worked (in this case, that meant they were mostly in their early 20s) basically adopted me, the way one would an abandoned kitten.

I was sitting in the office with them one chilly, early spring evening as we waited for the last stragglers to come down from the floors so we could all go home. One of them asked me whom I was taking to my junior prom.

"No one," I said, surprised. It hadn't even occurred to me. Who on earth would want to go with *me*, I thought?

Of course, they immediately decided that this wouldn't do at all; I needed to go, and they vowed to find me a date. Fortunately the last diet aide arrived, and I was spared any further indignities.

I wasn't going to get off so easily, however.

I came in to pick up my paycheck the following afternoon after school, and was corralled by C and K, two of my adoptive parents. They brought me back into their office, where the rest of their partners-in-crime were sitting. It was between shifts, so everyone was there, chatting casually.

"So we've been talking all day," K said, "And we made a list of all of the girls we could think of who are around your age and would be a good match."

I began to protest, but K raised her hand.

"We're doing this for your own good," she said, and they all nodded in agreement. "We all know you're shy; you just need a little help. You're too nice to sit at home that night. Please, let us help?"

What could I say? I sighed and nodded.

"Yea!" C clapped her hands. "K, start reading him the names we came up with."

K read off a number of names. I sat quietly, with no expression. Most of those they named were not just miles out of my league in terms of both looks and social status; they were galaxies beyond my reach. I knew I would be wasting my time.

K finally read the last name. I said nothing.

"None of them?" she said, dubious. "Really?"

"Sorry," I said as I stood up. "Thank you, though. Can I go now?"

"What about M?" C suddenly said. There was a murmur of agreement.

"Of course!" said K, slapping her forehead. "How did I not think of her?"

I shook my head vigorously.

"No, she likes P," I said weakly. "Besides, she wouldn't be interested."

"Look, someone is turning awfully red!" C said teasingly. It was true. I blushed easily, and still do.

"Oh my God, they would look adorable together!" K said. I turned redder.

"Thanks, but I don't think so," I said as I tried to exit as quickly as possible.

"Are you afraid she'll say no?" asked C gently.

Or that she'll say yes, I thought. I wasn't sure which was worse.

I shrugged, trying - and failing - to feign indifference.

"I know she would never do that," K said quietly. I knew it too; M was incapable of being mean.

K paused. "Do you want us to find out for you? We will, you know. We won't do anything to embarrass you. I promise. We all do."

I knew there was no way out now, not without hurting the feelings of people who were being exceptionally kind to me.

"OK," I said. "But we'd go just as friends, right? I mean, I don't want her to think I'm expecting us to get married or anything."

They all laughed.

"Well, it *is* just one date," L said with a smile. "I think you can assume she'll hold off until at least your second one before she proposes."

That made even me smile.

"Yeah, right," I said, rolling my eyes and blushing even more furiously.

"Let us take care of this, OK?" said C as she opened the door for me. "It will be OK. Promise."

As I headed out into the chill, I realized I almost believed her.

***

The next day I came in to work after school for the final shift. I was more than a little apprehensive as I walked there, and nearly had a full-blown panic attack when I saw that M was also working in the kitchen with me.

She gave me usual warm greeting, but gave no indication of whether she had been told anything. K came in and said hello without any obvious sign or gesture to me, then informed us there were a number of new admissions, so we were going to be swamped.

Then as she turned to leave, she winked at me with smile.

Hoo boy. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or terrified. Probably both.

As it turned out, we were swamped. Truthfully, I was glad; there really wasn't time to think, as I was racing up to the floors with meals and racing back down to take care of my duties in the kitchen. Three hours went by in a flash.

The kitchen staff was always the last to leave, as we were responsible for making sure the day's cafeteria receipts were safely handed over to security. I was debating what to do as I retrieved both my jacket and M's when the issue settled itself.

As I handed M her coat, she thanked me with her brilliant smile. Then she fixed me with a quizzical look and said, "So C and K said you needed to talk to me about something?"

My throat was instantly parched. She was either an Oscar-caliber actress, or she genuinely had no idea what I wanted to discuss with her.

"Yeah, well, umm..." I stuttered, my voice squeaky.

"What's up, L?" M said with a sympathetic laugh, her expression puzzled. "It's just me here, you know!"

I took a deep breath.

"Umm... well, I was wondering... my prom is the end of next month, and... well, I wanted to know if you would be interested in going with me.

A look of shock crossed her face.

"You don't have to," I hastily added before she could even speak. "If you don't want to, it's totally cool, and I'll never bother you again."

A huge smile spread over her face.

"You're asking me to your prom?" she said, incredulous.

I nodded weakly. I was emotionally spent already.

She reached over and put her hand on mine.

"I would love to go with you!"

"Really?" I said. It was my turn to be incredulous.

"Of course I would! I can't tell you how flattered I am that you thought of me!"

"Well, I mean... I can't believe you aren't already going," I said, and then realized how that sounded. "What I mean is, are the seniors all idiots?"

She laughed her most infectious laugh.

"They all know I have a crush on P, so I guess they figured why bother? But he has a girlfriend, so..." Her voice trailed off.

"Well, they're still idiots," I said heatedly. "And I'll bet P would take you if he could."

"Thank you, L," she said. "You always know just the right thing to say."

Like hell, I thought.

"Well, we should get out of here before they lock us in for the night with the cockroaches," she said. "We'd have to have them for dinner too, because all of the refrigerators are locked."

I scrunched up my face in genuine disgust, and she laughed again as we headed for the door.

We stepped outside and bade each other good night. She turned to me before she stepped into her car.

"We're going to your prom, L!" she said. "I can't believe it!"

Neither could I.

***

I wound needing some unanticipated minor foot surgery the next day, and thus was out of work for the weekend.

When I got home from school on Monday afternoon, my sister C was waiting for me, indignant.

"You asked M to the prom?!?" she said. "And when exactly did this happen?"

"Last Thursday," I said.

"Were you planning to inform me at some point before you were headed out the door that night? Or Mom or Dad?" C asked.

The truth was, I hadn't told anyone because I wanted to have an out if M changed her mind, which I was afraid would happen once she had time to think about it. If I didn't tell anyone, I reasoned, then I could act like it hadn't happened.

I simply shrugged, saying nothing.

"Well, she pretty much cornered every single girl at school today to tell them," said C. "She was practically bouncing off the walls."

"Really?" I asked. "Why?"

C looked at me for a moment.

"Trust me, she is SO happy right now."

"But why?" I asked, genuinely curious.

"L, do you have any idea how flattering it is for us to be asked out to someone's prom? Especially by someone who's like you?"

"I don't get that? Someone like me, meaning...?"

"Meaning you aren't interested in some piece of arm candy, dummy. You asked her because you genuinely like her as a person. She knows how shy you are; she knows how hard that must have been for you. *That's* why she's thrilled."

"I guess I hadn't thought about it like that," I admitted.

"Think about what you just did," C said. "You asked out a senior who's more than two years older than you... and she's the head cheerleader! You're only a junior... and you're taking the head cheerleader to you prom!"

"Well, yeah," I said. "But we're only going as friends."

She shook her head.

"So what? Would you give yourself a little credit for once? I'm proud of you for asking her."

"You are?" I said.

"Damn right. She's a lucky girl. And she knows it, too."

I wasn't so sure about that... but then realized it didn't matter.

Because I was going to my junior prom.

***

Juniors who were attending the prom were given the day off from school. To my surprise, only a handful of us were going. I had assumed many more would be attending. Fortunately, two of my good friends were also going. And since we were all seated at the same table, I had no need to worry about carrying a conversation.

My friend T, who attended a different school, was acting as chauffeur, even donning a limo driver's black cap he had insisted on buying. It didn't quite match with his rusting, battered Ford Torino, but it was the effort that counted.

My breath caught when M came down the stairs several minutes after I arrived.

She was radiantly beautiful. As was her gown, which she and her sister had made themselves. I tried my best to push out the thought that was nearly unbearable:

That's supposed to be me.

Somehow, I willed it away. I told her, sincerely, how wonderful she looked.

"And you look very dashing, L," she said, adjusting my tie.

Like hell I do, I thought. I was a fraud. I knew it, and I hated myself for it.

Unsure what I was supposed to do next, I held up the wrist corsage I had purchased.

"I hope this is OK. I was worried I might stab you to death trying to pin one on."

I was being serious, but everyone burst into laughter.

"Well, at least we'd know everyone in the emergency room, right?" M joked as I slipped on the corsage.

"There is that," I admitted, relaxing a bit as it occurred to me that this was M, the M with whom I talked nearly every day. Maybe I could go through the night without disaster striking.

All went well as we arrived, had our picture taken (the photographer had to prod me repeatedly to stand closer, as I kept unconsciously edging away from M), and sat down to chat with our table mates and then eat dinner.

M, naturally outgoing, was instant friends with everyone at the table and, seemingly without effort, worked me into the various ongoing conversations. I was very impressed.

When the time came for dancing, M was out on the dance floor instantly. Because of my foot surgery, I had to stay off my feet as much as possible. My podiatrist had replaced my cast with a wrapping job that allowed me wear shoes and to go without crutches for that night only.

I was secretly relieved. I was, and am, cursed with two left feet, as anyone who has perused this blog and noted my ongoing list of injuries, mostly of the self-inflicted variety, can attest. The thought of dancing with someone as talented as M - and she was a superb dancer - well, I considered my throbbing foot to be a fair tradeoff.

Suddenly M was standing over me. They were playing the first slow song of the evening.

"All right, Hopalong," she said, grinning. "Get up here and show me your moves."

I protested, but she wouldn't take no for an answer.

"We can just stand there, L," she said. "That's all slow dances are, really. Besides, it's your prom; you *have* to dance!"

She held out her hand. I took it and hobbled out to the dance floor. I realized I would be able to little more than shuffle my feet a bit. Anything more risked me collapsing and taking M down with me.

We reached the dance floor. Ignoring my outstretched hands, she stepped in and wrapped her arms around my neck and gently pressed up against me.

I was staggered. It was the closest I had ever been to a girl. She was so, so soft. My senses were nearly overwhelmed. I felt light-headed, and had to blink my eyes repeatedly to try to focus.

I was simultaneously in awe that she was so close... and wracked with the wrenching knowledge that I was supposed to be where she was. But I couldn't be. Ever. The ache in my heart wrestled with my wonder that I was really here, with M.

"Penny for your thoughts," M said. She was looking up at me with a smile.

I was standing still.

"You'd be overpaying," I joked, and she laughed.

"Can I ask you something?" she said a moment later.

"Of course."

"Are you nervous? Because you're so tense I can feel it."

I felt awful.

"I'm sorry, M," I said. "I'm just... I don't really go out a whole lot. In case you can't tell. I'm really, really bad at all of this."

"L," she said. "Look at me."

Her eyes were enormous.

"It's just me. M. Your friend. You don't have to be nervous about anything. I'm not going to hurt you. And I'm having a great time."

"You are?"

"Yes, I am," she said. "I hope you are too."

And I realized... I was. I relaxed almost instantly.

"That's better," she murmured, and rested her head against my chest. I wanted to cry. And I wasn't sure why.

A moment later she spoke again.

"Thank you again for asking me, L," she said. "I'll never forget this night."

After a moment I regained my composure.

"Neither will I, M."

***

Although I knew M thought of me only as a friend, and secretly wished it could be more, we nevertheless became very close. I felt comfortable talking with her, and she felt the same.

For some reason, in spite of how much time we spent together, everyone seemed to take it for granted that we were just that: friends.

In retrospect, it makes sense. It's now clear to me that my attempts to act like a regular 17-year-old boy never worked the way I fervently hoped they had, and never really fooled anyone. Even me, to be honest.

Just before Christmas of my senior year, a new cook began work. His name was F. At 19, he was two years older than me. Quiet and reserved to a fault when he started (M joked that instead of this, his theme song should be "I'll Mumble 4 Ya"), we soon discovered we shared the same warped sense of humor. And it was only exacerbated by the silliness that sets in when you routinely work 14-hour days.

We became fast friends, and during my rare down time between working two jobs and attending school, we would hang out after hours, both by ourselves and as part of a larger group.

M was part of those groups, of course. F was much quieter around M than he normally was around me, but I didn't think anything of it; he was that way around *every* girl we worked with.

Shortly before Valentines Day that year, he suggested we grab a pizza and watch the hockey game that night. Neither of his roommates was there, which was commonplace. He seemed unusually fidgety and distracted the entire evening.

Finally, during the second intermission, curiosity got the better of me.

"F, is everything all right?"

"Well, actually, I *did* want to ask you about something. But it really isn't a big deal," he added hastily.

"OK. What's up?"

"You talk to M all the time, right?"

"Yeah. You know that. Why?"

"Well... does she ever say anything about me?"

"Say anything like... what? Anything in particular?"

He wouldn't look at me.

"Nothing, really," he said. "I was just curious."

 Suddenly it became clear.

"Are you sure that's the only reason?" I asked. "I know she considers you a good guy."

"What do you think of her?" he asked me.

I chose my words carefully.

"I think she's pretty great, F. Anyone with half a brain would feel the same way."

I thought of what a good friend F was, and M was, and how good they both were to me.

After a moment I took a breath and spoke again.

"She isn't dating anyone, you know."

He finally looked at me.

"What about P?"

I shook my head.

"He's serious about his girlfriend, she tells me."

I hesitated.

"I think you should ask her out, F."

His face showed relief and apprehension in equal measure.

"I don't think I could do that," he said. "What if she said no?"

"For God's sake, F, she said yes when I asked her to my prom. The bar can't be set all *that* high."

We both laughed.

"I was thinking of getting her a card for Valentines Day," he said. "Do you think it's a good idea?"

"F, believe me, I am literally the last person on earth you should be asking for advice about this sort of thing. On every level possible.

"But... I think you should trust your instincts. Maybe you could buy cards for all of the girls who work in the kitchen and cafeteria? And then give M one that's nicer than the others?"

"Hey, that's a really good idea!" he said. "Thanks, L."

He paused.

"You're a really good friend, you know."

Then why did I feel so awful inside?

***

F did as I had suggested, a gesture he joked earned him enough brownie points to last until the following Valentines Day.

A week or two later, I was once again paired with M in the kitchen. It was a Friday, and F had the day off.

"I was thinking of going for a bite to eat," M said. "Want to come?"

I said sure, and moments later we were off.

She suggested a sit-down restaurant, which surprised me; I was expecting to grab a burger or slice of pizza. But I didn't think anything of it.

After we ordered and made the usual small talk, we lapsed into silence. M clearly had something on her mind.

"Penny for *your* thoughts, M," I said and she smiled in recognition.

"Is it that obvious?" she said.

"I am the oldest child of a police detective," I replied solemnly, "And thus have superior powers of observation. Or I do when I remember to wear my glasses."

She shook her head.

"You really are a goofball," she said with affection, "But I guess I am too, since we hang out together, right?"

I agreed just as our food arrived. We ate quietly for a while. Once the dishes were cleared away, I spoke again.

"So... what do you want to talk about, goofball to goofball?"

She shifted in her seat.

"I wanted to ask you something," she said.

"What do you think of F?"

I felt a sharp pang, but pushed it aside.

"He isn't my type," I said. "Too hairy."

"I'm serious!" she said, flicking her straw wrapper at me.

"Well, " I replied, "He's one of my best friends, so I'm biased, but I think he's a really good guy."

She nodded.

"You know he gave out valentines to all of the women in the cafeteria and kitchen, right?"

This time I nodded.

"Mine was different than everyone else's, though."

"I know."

"Do you know why?"

It was my turn to shift uncomfortably.

"Maybe you should ask him?" I asked. It was more of a plea than a suggestion.

"I'm scared, L," she said. "I am so awful at this. What if I'm wrong? I just couldn't..."

Again, I chose my words carefully, struggling to stay focused.

"I don't think you have anything to worry about, M," I finally said. "I mean it."

"Really?" she said, unconvinced.

"I'm about as far from an expert as there could possibly be... but yeah. Really."

"Thank you, L," she said, relieved. "You're such a good friend. What would I do without you?"

I forced a smile.

"You'll do fine without me."

***

While it was far from the ideal situation, I did my best to find the humor in their courtship - if you could call it that - that ensued.

"Can you believe these two?" asked C one afternoon several months later, gesturing at F and M awkwardly avoiding eye contact.

"It is sad," I agreed.

"We should make them watch of those nature documentaries on mating rituals in the wild," C said. "Maybe it would help."

I shook my head.

"I tried that once," I said, looking somber.

"Really? What did you do?" asked C.

"I'm not really allowed to talk about it. It was part of the settlement."

She chuckled as she walked away, shaking her head.

It was a sultry summer evening. I had graduated in June, and was working full-time the entire summer to save money for college. More than full-time; I often worked 60+ hours a week. It was exhausting, but worth the lack of sleep; anything to keep me from being alone with my thoughts.

But at my manager's insistence, concerned with how hard he felt I pushed myself, I was taking the next week off. By coincidence, so were F and M.

F came over, pale-faced, when M went to take her break.

"M just said we should go miniature golfing tonight," he told me.

"Hey, that's great! It's about time one of you two did something," I said. And I meant it.

"L, you have to come," he said. He looked desperate.

I was incredulous.

"What?!? F, 'we' doesn't include me. It's a date!"

"I'm not sure," he said. "But if it is... God, I'm gonna throw up right now just thinking about it."

M came back in the kitchen. I looked at F, then sighed.

"Let me think about it, OK?"

Relief flooded his face.

"Thanks. You're the best."

That wasn't how I felt. Not by a long shot.

A few moments later F went to the cafeteria for his dinner break. As soon as he was out of sight, M came over.

"So, I hear someone has an engagement tonight that involves miniature windmills and plastic dinosaurs," I said with a smile.

"L, I don't know what I was thinking! It just came out! I'm freaking now!"

"Just clear your head before you putt and picture the ball going into the cup. See? Problem solved." I said, wiping my hands.

"I'm serious!" she said, loudly enough for people in the hallway to look in.

She lowered her voice.

"I'm not joking. I don't think I can do this, L."

"Of course you can," I said, and I meant it. "I know you can."

She looked at me for a moment.

"Would you come?"

S***.

"M, c'mon... I really don't belong there. I don't."

"Please?"

Her large brown eyes were pleading.

"OK," I said resignedly. I sighed and shook me head. "But when the hell did I become Henry Kissinger?"

How do I get myself into situations like this?

M hugged me.

"Thank you, L! Thank you! I owe you one!"

Oh, right, that's how.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I said, trying not to smile. It was hard to be upset at M for long. "Let me finish washing these dishes so we aren't all here until midnight."

F came back in the kitchen a few minutes later.

"M just said she thought you should come along, and that I should ask you," he said. "See? I'm not the only one who thought it was a good idea! So.... whaddya say?"

Yeah, fine," I said wearily. "But you're paying for my round."

"No problem!" he said. He was practically bouncing off the walls.

This is going to be a long night, I thought.

I had no idea.

***

F picked me up last; M was already in the front seat. I climbed into the back, exchanging greetings.

Within moments it was crystal clear I didn't belong. F and M were in their own world, smiling bashfully at each other and scarcely aware of my presence.

Deep breaths, L, I told myself over and over. Deep breaths. Just try to get through this.

It became increasingly uncomfortable as our round of mini golf commenced. The chemistry between M and F was so apparent that other golfers were smiling, although I got a few confused glances, as if to ask And what are *you* doing here? 

I was asking myself that very question.

Although I am perhaps the least-coordinated individual to ever lift a golf club, I somehow managed to sink a hole-in-one on the last shot. Bells started ringing, and other golfers clapped.

"Congratulations!" said the manager. "You kids just won a free round!"

Great. Just great.

F and M both slapped me on the back. Of course they were happy; they wanted to be here.

I gritted my teeth and tried to hurry the round along as best I could. I had to keep coughing to remind F and M that there were other groups behind us; otherwise they would have simply stared at each other.

When I finally reached the last hole, I made sure that I knocked the ball completely off the green. There was no way in hell I was doing this again.

We bought ice cream and sat on the wall, watching the other golfers play through. I tried not to look at my watch, but it was a struggle. I did my best to make small talk, but it was pointless. I was the third wheel.

After several minute of silence, I glanced down to tie my shoe. Just as F slipped his hand around M's.

That was all I could take.

I stifled a phony yawn.

"Man, I am beat," I said. "I hope you don't mind, but I think I'm ready to call it a night."

"That's too bad," said F a touch too eagerly. Then he blinked. "I mean, are you sure?"

"I am," I said. I wished I could simply vanish.

I stood up and stretched. M looked at me.

"What are you doing?"

"Like I said, I'm just going to head home."


"It so early, though!" she said. "It can't be more than - "

"It's 9:08," I said without looking at my watch. "I worked a lot this week, and I guess it caught up to me."


"But it's at least a five mile walk to your house!" she said.

"I could use the exercise," I said, bouncing on my toes. Please, just let this end.

"It has to be 90 degrees right now!" she added.

"I was going to go for a swim when I get home anyway," I said, turning to the parking lot. "Listen, this was a lot of fun, OK? Please, don't let me spoil it for you guys. Go grab a bite to eat or something. I'll have something when I get home."

"Really?" said F. "Are you sure you have to go?"

Was I ever. Was I ever.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be a drag on you two."

They stood.

"Thank you for coming, L," said M. After a moment's hesitation she came over and hugged me. I was trying to hold everything inside, and was near my breaking point.

"Yeah, thank you, L. I mean it," said F. After a moment he moved in as if to hug me as well. I laughed in spite of myself.

"Don't forget I carry mace, Mr. Grabby Hands," I said.

"Just thought I'd see if I could cop a feel," F said, grinning.

M rolled her eyes.

"And on that note," I said with an exaggerated bow, "I bid you both a good night."

I turned and walked away without looking back, exhaling deeply.

Suddenly I was bone-tired. How am I ever going to walk five miles? I thought. Then I realized it didn't matter. Anywhere is better than here.

It took several minutes, but I finally exited the parking lot and was waiting for the light to change when a car pulled up beside me. I glanced over.

It was F and M.

"Come on in," said F, reaching to open the back door. "We'll give you a ride home."

"Oh, thank you," I said, genuinely touched. "But really, I want to walk. I need to stretch my legs."

"Please, L. Let us drive you."

It was M. Her tone spoke volumes beyond her simple request.

"Sure," I said after a moment. I climbed in. "Thank you."

F looked at me in the rear view mirror.

"It's the least we can do."

I smiled. He smiled back.

No one spoke on the way home. This time the silence wasn't awkward; things had changed. And we all recognized it.

I went inside. My mother looked up from her Harlequin Romance.

"You're home early," she said.

"Yeah, I was tired, I guess."

"You work too much. I know you have to pay for books and things, but... you need to have fun too sometimes. You don't know how to relax."

"I'm OK, Mom."

"I just worry." She smiled. "So how's M?"

"She's good. She said to say hello."

"I like her," she said. "Such a sweet girl."

"Yeah, she's nice."

"Is she seeing anyone?"

That was as close as my mother - or anyone in my family - ever came to asking me why I never went on dates. It was simply a subject that was never raised. My first therapist told me Freud's famous maxim that the Irish are the only people immune to psychotherapy; I couldn't agree more.

My throat was dry. I coughed.

"Actually, I think she is."

"Oh," she said. A moment later she added, "Well, I hope he's a nice boy."

"He is," I replied. "I know him. He's a great guy, actually."

"That's good. She deserves it."

"Yeah."

After a moment I turned to leave.

"Think I'm going to call it a night."

"Pleasant dreams, hon."

I knew there was no chance of that.

***

I was correct.

I went upstairs, turned on the air conditioner, climbed into bed, and shut off the lights.

And then the emotions flooded in.

F and M are great. They're two of my closest friends. And it's obvious that they were a perfect match. They *belonged* together. I'm genuinely happy for them.

So why do I feel awful?

It isn't F's fault that M likes him.

It isn't M's fault that F likes her.

F had a girlfriend.

He wasn't responsible for the fact that he *wanted* a girlfriend, while I thought I needed one to save me from the truth that terrified me.

And M... M was a girl.

She certainly wasn't responsible for the fact that she was something I knew I could never be, no matter how much I secretly yearned for it to be so.

Happiness, sorrow, guilt, regret, longing, terror... they all spent the night wrestling for supremacy that endless night, as they did for years - decades, really - after.

I was 18 years old.

***

F and M quickly became an inseparable couple.  Some of my heartache was eased by how perfect they were for one another. It truly was a joy to see two people so clearly meant to be a couple.

I have many, many happy memories of our times together. Every time I watch the climax of Ghostbusters, for instance, I cannot help but smile at the memory of M's delirious, seemingly endless fit of laughter as we saw what Dan Ackroyd's overactive imagination had wrought.

But as was inevitable for young adults, our paths soon enough put us on different paths.

M left first to pursue her college education.

Then F moved on to a better-paying, more promising career.

As for me... well, you can read more about my journey here, if you are so inclined.

I lost touch with F and M, which was perhaps inevitable.

I was surprised - shocked, really - to hear years later from a mutual friend that they had broken up after years of dating. He no longer had contact with them, though, so I wasn't able to find out why.

Years later, long after I had moved away, my mother and sister would occasionally see M at a high school reunion. She always asked for me, they reported, and was doing very well. That makes me happy.

I've never been able to find out anything more about F. I certainly hope he found happiness as well.

My friend V once told me that there is nothing we do in life that is more important than finding the person with whom we will share our life. I hope everyone reading this either already has that special someone in their life, or soon will.

We all deserve no less.

***

If you have stuck with this up until now, your fortitude is about to be rewarded. In spades.

Anyone who has perused my blog has probably noticed that I have a soft spot for Kentucky's mighty My Morning Jacket. In fact, I went to see them on New Year's Eve, and had a wonderful time.

Frontman Jim James just released his wonderful solo debut album, Regions of Light and Sounds of God. To celebrate, he debuted one of the album's best songs on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It was, quite simply, magic.

If you ever wondered what pure joy sounds like... well, here is your answer.



I do hope those of you not in the colonies are able to see this. It is guaranteed to make your day. If you can't, I encourage you to track it down if at all possible. You will not regret it, I assure you.

8 comments:

Debra on February 16, 2013 at 6:23 AM said...

Wow Valentine's day at age 16. That had to be horribly humiliating and such a huge letdown.

I know I struggled with similar issues growing up and my younger brother was very similar to yours. I did my best to make do by sending gfs (read that as 'girl that is a friend') roses and writing poetry for them as well. Often mixing in a special girl with whom I hoped for something more. They often were grateful and some were often not so much.

When I got married, I finally had someone to spend valentine's day with and I enjoyed that. I enjoy it now as well, greeting card holiday or not; I can finally join in with everyone else when I couldn't at all growing up.

As for the story of you, F, and M: wow girl. Just plain wow. You really had an opportunity there with M as a friend and going to prom, wow. But at the same time being the one who hooked up F and M...that just had to be heartbreaking in multiple ways. I asked many girls to homecoming and prom growing up and all of them turned me down. I was like some feminine reverse polar magnet to girls...they wanted nothing to do with me. Ironic when considering where I am now and all the guys seem to find me attractive.

When M was in her prom dress and you were recognizing that you should have been in her place.....thats interesting. I never could really put enough of a finger on my gender issues back then to understand that was my problem. I was pretty well oblivious. In a way, I guess it made life much more bearable because once I did figure it out in my late 20s, there was no way I could not transition.

Anyway, long...but great post. Good story. Good reading. Hope you had somewhat of a good valentine's day this year at least and if not, one or more in the future ;)

April on February 16, 2013 at 3:06 PM said...

Dear Cass, a Russian novel of a post but just moving to read.

"the wrenching knowledge that I was supposed to be where she was"

I have had the same revelation in a much more serious situation....my wedding

Well Kissinger was quite the ladies man, though Mamie Van Doren in her autobiography says he had bad breath and his place smelt of old socks

Cassidy on February 16, 2013 at 5:33 PM said...

Dear sis:

Your wedding... I just cannot imagine what that must have been like. I don't think I could have kept it together.

Apologies for the length of the post. Some of them, like this one, aren't really posts; they're exorcisms. They take on a life of their own, and I've learned to just let them go where they want to go.

I literally had NEVER spoken of these events to anyone. Ever. I told my therapist that today, and she was astounded that I carried things like this for so long. (There are others; I just haven't worked up the strength to write about them yet.)

BTW, it turns out I have something in common with Kissinger; who knew? (Hint: It's not Mamie Van Doren.) ;c)

Hugs,
Cass

Cassidy on February 16, 2013 at 5:36 PM said...

Dear Debra:

Thank you for the kind words.

I'm genuinely happy you have someone to share the day with. Your videos are so touching; you and your beau are clearly a good match. It gives me hope. :c)

Debra, I *so* can relate about feeling like I had some kind of force field around me that kept girls away. I wrote a post about my senior prom, which unfortunately didn't go nearly as well as my junior prom:

http://cassidysquest.blogspot.com/2011/07/famous-final-scene.html

I can't write a poem to save my life, but I used to draw custom comic strips for girls I was attracted to. It never worked. :c) I still draw them on occasion, but only for friends these days.

When I look back, I think I unconsciously choose girls I knew wouldn't be interested. Partly because I had zero self-esteem, but I think the real reason was that at some level I knew I wanted to BE them, not be WITH them.

It's really odd; I distinctly remember that momentary insight/thought that I should have been in M's place, but I didn't understand what it meant. Not sure if that makes sense, but that's how I felt. Maybe I didn't allow myself to understand.

I had no idea what transsexualism was; I grew up in a conservative, blue-collar Irish-Catholic family in a culturally and socially repressive part of New England in the late 70s/early 80s. I just remember this constant sense that something was profoundly wrong, and that I must never, ever, tell anyone, let alone try to understand it myself.

I think you hit the nail on the head. When I finally had to admit the truth to myself, I was so worn out from a lifetime of fighting that I *had* to transition. I'm just sorry I waited so long, but that is neither here nor there.

I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I know that I like myself now, for the first time in my life. I'm more than a little frightened about the idea that men could find me attractive, to be honest... but I think I could learn to get used to it, should that happen. ;c)

No more blabbing from me! lol Have a wonderful weekend Debra. Looking at the Seattle weather forecast longingly as we face the prospect of another half-foot of snow here. Soon enough I will be back on the Left Coast where I belong...

Hugs,
Cass

P.S. No surprise to this gal that the guys find you attractive. And no "seems" about it! :c)

Stace on February 17, 2013 at 2:54 PM said...

Wow, I had enough evil, embarrassing things thrown at during secondary school (from some of the teachers and the students) but I don't think mine were on that scale. Sorry you had to go through that, I'm not surprised you wanted the floor to open up.

As for F and M,wow - you are a wonderful, wonderful person.

Stace

Cassidy on February 17, 2013 at 8:19 PM said...

Hi Stace!

I'm so sorry you had to endure similar incidents. Anyone, particularly a teacher, who takes pleasure in mocking others only reveals the depth of their own insecurity and self-loathing. At the end of the day, they have to live with the consequences. They are small, small people.

This incident wasn't really anyone's fault, but far too many times I was singled out for ridicule or worse for no reason other than the fact that I was different.

In each case the perpetrators were the kind of white trash who are the reason I loathe this area, and why I will leave it far, far behind once I am full-time.

Sorry about that, Stace. My emotions over bullies are still raw, due to my latest run-in with their ilk.

As far as F and M, well, thank you. :c) I would like to think it was at least somewhat motivated by wanting to do the right thing by my friends.

However, I suspect that it was also a way I could punish myself. Not consciously, of course; I still didn't really grasp the truth about who I was.

But I suspect that far too often self-hatred was my motivation. There can be no other explanation for some of my choices over the years.

As I progress further into my transition, and with the help of my wonderful therapist M, I am gaining enough perspective to forgive "him" for those decisions. I can see now that he simply did the best he could in very difficult circumstances.

Thank you as always for your kindness, Stace. It's appreciated more than you know.

Hugs,
Cass

Calie on March 2, 2013 at 6:58 PM said...

Cass, you are such a wonderful writer! What a story.

Sadly, it brought back memories I try to forget. That period was such a bad time for me. Never did have a girlfriend but there were several who I wish were friends. There was someone like M who I had wished would be a friend or perhaps even a girlfriend. Never did send a Valentine card. Never did send a card. Never sent flowers. Never received flowers.

Funny, back to my M. She was crying the day after the Prom. I asked another girl what was wrong with her. She just give me an evil eye and said that M had turned down all other offers, waiting for me to ask. It just wasn't in me to be a boyfriend.

Calie xxx

Cassidy on March 2, 2013 at 7:42 PM said...

@ Calie: Oh, hon... your story is just heart-breaking. I wish I could give you a huge hug right now.

While I can only imagine how you felt that day, I had a similar experience with H, whom I wrote about in "Why Can't This Be Love?" To this day she is the only girl (post-grammar school) who asked me out.

I am still haunted by how my inability to be what she wanted might have caused her pain. She deserved far better.

I'm still learning to forgive myself; I hope you are doing the same. You deserve forgiveness from the one person most reluctant to grant it: yourself.

Thank you for the kind words, Calie. Love you, girl!

Hugs and love,
Cass

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