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I have always felt wrong - like I am living in a stranger's body. When I left home for college, it was a last ditch effort to figure out how to live with myself. It didn't work. Until Jesse saved my life.
By Kathleen Hayes
January 1, 2013
It was January 1st. I always went out to visit my spot on the first of the year. At first it was to hope things would somehow get better, that somehow the next year would not be as hopeless and lonely as the year that had just ended. Then, it was to remember, and take a moment to give thanks.
It was a little after nine in the morning, and the snow had just started to fall, though the not quite freezing temperature meant nothing was sticking to the ground. I rounded the corner from 37th St to Prospect St and made the decision that it wasn't too icy to take the Exorcist steps, which would cut about five minutes off my walk. I smiled briefly to myself, thinking of the first time I had seen The Exorcist. Jesse had been horrified that I hadn’t seen it, and brought it to one of our early movie nights. Despite all the changes in the area, you could still recognize a lot of the places in Georgetown that were used to film it.
It was a short walk down to the banks of the Potomac River, and before long, I was picking my way through the grass to the slight cliff that overlooks the water. I love open space, heights and water. There is just not much of that in Washington, DC – at least not within walking distance of school – so when I discovered this little outcropping, I made it my place. If there isn’t much traffic, I can close my eyes, sit with my feet dangling off the edge and listen to the waters of the Potomac race by as the wind plays with my hair.
This year, when I sat down, there was no despair in my heart – only joy and hope for a wonderful year. As I looked at the tiny snowflakes dancing their way down to the water, I thought about Jesse. This was where I had first met him.
Five Years Ago
I woke up with a pounding head and a roiling in my stomach telling me that whatever I had done at the party last night was not my friend. Apparently, I’d fallen asleep in my clothes. Tights – which had been ripped to shreds at some point, a too short skirt, and a too low cut tank top looked even worse the morning after. I knew it was a mistake. The few people from my dorms who didn’t go home for the holidays had decided to go out on New Year’s Eve and had insisted that I come along. I had convinced myself that, if I could just act normal, then maybe I would start to feel normal. All it did was make me feel worse. And leave me with a hangover from hell.
I stumbled into the bathroom, briefly noticing that my roommate, Kira, had not come home I tried to avoid looking at myself in Kira's mirror hanging on the door, but, unfortunately, my eyes were drawn to the reflection staring out at me. As always, it felt like I was looking at someone else.
The image that stared out at me was of a short, curvy girl with long, brown hair, decent-sized boobs and an adorably round face. Brilliant green eyes reflected in a face more suited to an actress than a wreck like me. I’d always been told that I was beautiful but I hated my reflection.
It hurt to look at myself. My soul screamed of the wrongness and my heart broke with not being able to fix it. I felt a lump form in my throat and hot tears fell down my cheeks. Through blurred eyes I watched as my hand reached for my shirt and pulled it over my head. My hands moved as if possessed by a will not my own. My left hand reached behind me and undid the clasp of my bra allowing it fall to the floor.
My breath locked in my chest as I watched my fingers crawl over my skin towards my breasts. With rapt fascination I stared as my fingernails dug into the skin and raked over the useless bags of flesh that had tormented me since they had appeared. Pain shot through me, deep and sharp. Blood began pool and drip from four lines across each breast. The intensity of the pain drove the tears from my eyes, and I looked at myself with clearly once again.
It that moment, I was shocked back into my own body. Oh God. What had I just done? I collapsed on the floor in despair and sobbed into my bloody hands until I thought my heart would cease beating in my chest and I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this anymore.
I started at that thought – not because it felt wrong, but because for just a moment it felt almost perfect. If only I could just stop breathing, everything wouldn’t hurt so damn much. After a moment of indecision, I made a choice. I locked myself away in an unused corner of my mind and let my body continue on autopilot. It knew how to take a shower and get dressed.
About half an hour later, I found myself approaching my spot over-looking the Potomac. As I walked, I wondered if it would be better to hit rocks on the way down and pass out or to hit the water directly and allow myself to drown. I was so lost in thought that I didn't realize that someone else was there until I was almost at the edge.
He was sitting on the other side of the cliff, facing the water. His eyes were closed and his face was turned into the wind. His dark hair whipped around his face, a tendril flicking over his small smile. Peace radiated from him like heat from a camp fire.
A fierce pang shot through my heart as I watched him. I would never have that. There was nothing in my life making me miserable. It was just me. I had no hope of ever experiencing that kind of contentment. I almost turned around and left but I figured that since I had made my decision, I would just wait him out. I turned to sit on the far edge of the cliff and situated myself to stare out at the opposite bank until the intruder left.
I surreptitiously watched him out of the corner of my eyes until I saw him open his eyes and start at the sight of me. His small smile turned into a brilliant grin for a brief moment before he stood up and came to sit by me. A wave of despair and anger flowed through me – would he never leave?
“Hi, I’m Jesse.”
I shifted my eyes to look at him without turning my head and proceeded to ignore him, hoping he would just go away. Instead he just leaned back on his hands and settled in, staring at the water once more. A burning in my chest tightened and I wanted to cry out in anguish. I just wanted to end it all – jump into the flowing water below and allow it steal my breath and my pain. And this stranger wouldn’t let me get on with it.
It was too much and the tears I had been holding at bay began to stream down my face. I must have made a noise of some sort because Jesse startled out of his reverie and looked over at me. I was embarrassed that he saw me crying, but felt a small amount of hope that perhaps it would scare him off and leave me to myself.
But he just gave me an unfathomable look, leaned over, and wrapped one arm around my shoulder. It shattered me. It had been so long since anyone touched me with any kind intent. I held my breath in an attempt to keep it all inside, but I was in too many pieces and it all broke through. Wracking sobs seized my entire body. I pulled my knees up and curled down around them as I tried to breathe through the painful weeping. Through the entire thing, Jesse kept his arm around my shoulders and didn’t say anything.
Eventually I was hollow. There was nothing left inside. We sat there for a few more minutes – me with tears drying on my face, and him with his arm still draped over my shoulder. For once in my life I was utterly baffled by someone other than myself. I wiped my face on my sleeve and shrugged my shoulders to displace his arm.
After a few more moments of silence, he finally spoke again, “You wanna talk about it?”
He nodded and seemed to make a decision. “Okay, then. You wanna come back to my dorm and watch Gerard Butler beat the ever-living crap out of some Persians?”
I snorted before I could stop myself. I gave him a sideways glance and I was met with smiling eyes that matched the smile on his face. Somehow Jesse’s look sent a measure of warmth into the hollowness I was. I found myself saying yes before I realized I had even opened my mouth.
“Cool. I’m in Village C East.” He stood then, and held out a hand to help me up.
We walked the fifteen minutes back to the dorm in silence that was, shockingly enough, not at all awkward. However, all that awkward crashed down on my head when we reached his door. My brain started running 150 miles per hour. I was going to watch a movie, alone, in a strange boy’s dorm room. From our interaction up to this point, he didn’t seem like a killer, or a rapist, or any of those things they warn you about in freshman orientation. But, how could I really know?
I must have paused in the doorway, because he turned towards me and suddenly he looked as awkward I felt.
“Umm. Here, I have two chairs. You can pick which one you want. I just want you to feel comfortable. I promise I’m not a creepster. I have a sister. She’s 16 years old. I would want someone to be nice to her, and you seem like you need someone to be nice to you.” He barely took a breath between sentences as he seemed to get more and more nervous that I would think something bad about him. As he was talking, he pulled the chairs to face the television, but with about three feet of space between them. By the time the chairs were set up, Jesse had run out of breath and turned a bit red in the face.
I tentatively waved my arm in his direction and tried to reassure him, “It’s fine. The chairs are fine.” He smiled and nodded at me before taking the chair on the left.
Two hours later the chairs had inched together so we could share some popcorn, and both our feet were propped up on one of the desks. It was the most fun I had had in months, maybe even years. Maybe the feeling would last if I could just avoid looking in mirrors or thinking too hard.
As I got up to go back to my dorm room, which was, thankfully, just across the courtyard, my newfound calm was shattered.
My hand was on the door knob when Jesse asked, “Wait. What’s your name?”
I hate my name and I am sure some of that revulsion showed on my face. He looked shocked. I sighed with resignation. “My name is Lisa. But please don’t call me that. I hate it.”
“What do you want me to call you?” My heart beat just a little faster at the idea that we would be seeing each other enough that he would need something to call me, but I didn’t even take a moment to try to figure out why.
“I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me before.”
“How about Li? That could be short for Lisa, but not…” He trailed off and looked flustered.
“Yeah. That works.” I said it quickly, so that he could stop being uncomfortable, and tried to smile at him. I’m not sure how well it worked but he shook himself and walked towards me.
He held out his hand and said, “Hi Li. I’m Jesse. Nice to meet you.” I shook his hand, gave him one last sort of smile, and fled the room.
A few days later, in the cafeteria, Jesse plopped down across the table and grinned at me.
“Hey Li, how’s it goin’?”
I stared disbelieving at him for a moment. He acted like we were friends. I didn’t have friends. I barely even talked to my family. I shook my head a bit and firmly ignored the tightening in my chest.
“Awesome. I just got back this exam and I did way better than I thought I would. Calculus is kicking my ass.” He kept talking after that, but it just flowed over me. I basked in what must be a normal lunch for most people. He talked about his classes, and a club he was a member of and his sister, Kayla. I must have done a good job of smiling and nodding in all the right places for a while, at least until he just stopped and stared at me.
“What’s that look for?” he asked me.
“What look?” I replied a little defensively.
“You look all confused at me.”
It made sense, seeing as I was confused. How could he just sit there and be normal with when he had seen me when I was about kill myself. I shook slightly as I thought that word. I tried to make that come out of my mouth and failed.
“How are you all normal after…after…” I paused, struggling. I settled on, “how we met?”
He turned serious all the sudden, and I wished I hadn’t said anything. I lowered my head in shame and stared at the table, begging my eyes not to cry in front of Jesse, again.
I felt the shock of cold fingers against the skin of my wrist. My head snapped up and my eyes met his. For the first time I noticed they were a deep and complicated shade of hazel.
“I don’t know what that was all about on Friday and I don’t need you to tell me unless you want to.”
It dawned on me that he probably didn’t realize I had gone there to jump off the cliff. I started to shake my head. I tried to speak over the lump in my throat. The struggle must have been clear on my face because he sat back, grabbed a napkin and handed it to me.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Here was not the place. Just take a deep breath, wipe your eyes and I’ll tell you all about our options for what movie to watch on Friday until you’re ready to leave. Okay, don’t cry. I’m sorry.”
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and made a visible effort to curb what I realized was stress babbling. I was bewildered by his understanding and kindness, but nodded my head in agreement. By the time he had finished delineating our movie options (Heath Ledger acting the fool, Leonardo DiCaprio being overly dramatic or Gerard Butler, again, just being generally hot), I was able to smile, agree to another Gerard Butler flick, and walk out of the cafeteria like a normal person.
Just before we parted ways at the exit, I turned to Jesse, did my best to put everything I was feeling on my face and quietly said, “Thank you.”
His smile shone out of his entire face before he waved, said, “See you Friday,” and walked down the path towards his dorm.
By Friday afternoon, the scratches I had made on myself the week before were almost completely healed. I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror as I prepared myself to go to Jesse’s. For a moment, the swirling darkness of the week before threatened to take over me again. I could feel myself – the part of me that felt real – trying to separate itself from what the mirror was showing me. The weight of breasts and hair and hips felt like they were dragging me to the ground. I didn’t know what it meant, except that the person looking back at me was not me.
I leaned onto the sink and tried to breathe through the pain in my chest. Finally, I closed my eyes and turned away from my reflection. I was determined not to be a basket case when I showed up at Jesse’s tonight. I plastered a smile on my face and hoped that, by the end of the evening, it might even be a real one.
When I walked out of the bathroom and started getting dressed to go out, Kira looked at me.
“Got a hot date?”
“What?! No. I’m just going to watch a movie with Jesse.” I was shocked. I hadn’t once thought of Jesse like that.
“Is Jesse a boy or a girl?”
“Then it’s a date.”
“Girls and boys can be friends.” And now that I thought about it, with the way Jesse was obsessed with Gerard Butler, I said, “And besides, I think he’s gay.”
“Oh, okay then.” She sounded a bit disappointed with that. “Well have fun.”
“Thanks. You too.”
I think that was more words than Kira and I had ever spoken to one another in all our previous encounters combined.
By the time I reached Jesse’s room, I had worked myself into a right state. I kept flashing back to high school and how horrible I felt whenever people talked about dating. I never seemed to fit anywhere. Somehow, hearing other’s “normal” conversations just highlighted to myself how wrong I really was.
I couldn’t help wondering if he did think it was a date. The thought of someone touching me, or expecting anything physical from me made me sick to my stomach.
As soon as he opened the door, I blurted out my fears before I realized I had even opened my mouth.
“This isn’t a date, is it?”
“Oh, thank God.”
A slightly offended huff came from Jesse before he said, “I’ll try not to take that personally.” I felt horrible for a moment before I saw him smiling, amusement twinkling in his eyes. “Besides, I’ve already got a girlfriend.”
“Oooohh,” I said, a little shocked, “but what about…” I waved my hand towards the television, “…umm, Gerard Butler?”
His lip twitched up on one side. “Well, you don’t have to be attracted to men to admit that he is one badass dude. But, I’m bi.”
“Oh, okay. That’s cool.” I was amazed at how open he was. He just put who he was out there. For some reason the fact that he had a girlfriend made me feel safe with him.
Before I had time to think much more about it, Jesse pressed play and claimed a seat on the end of the bed. I let my brain turn off for an hour and half of gunfights and explosions.
Even after the movie ended, it was amazing how easily we just sat around talking.
Over the next couple of weeks, I ran into Jesse at the cafeteria and we continued our weekly Gerard Butler movie night. I had never had a friend before. It was kind of surprising that I had a friend at all. I still felt all that wrongness deep inside, but when I hung out with Jesse, it seemed to settle into something bearable.
It was Friday, five weeks after that night so I was getting ready to go over to Jesse’s room to watch Gerard the bounty hunter chase after his ex-wife. Kira had left earlier for a date so I had the whole room to myself. I always liked that because it meant I didn’t have to get dressed in the bathroom and risk the mirrors.
I had just grabbed my ID stuffed it in my pocket when my phone started jumping around on my desk. I answered it immediately when I saw Jesse’s name on the screen.
“Hey, what’s up?”
He sounded a little sheepish when he answered, “I got GERM’d. I’m gonna have to cancel tonight.”
My brain didn’t quite process that. “You what?”
“I got GERM’d. I broke my leg and Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Services had to take me to the hospital.”
I would have to parse that later because all I heard was hospital. “Are you okay? Are you still in the ER? I’m on my way.” My rising panic was evident in my voice and I had to sit down for a moment and take a deep breath.
“I’m fine – really. I just fractured one of my bottom leg bones. They’re going to put a cast on me and send me on my way. You don’t need to come.”
“Of course I do. I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
I grabbed my laptop and randomly picked one of my DVDs, threw them into my bag and hit the hallway at a run. It was a about a twelve minute walk across campus to the hospital at a normal pace. I made it in eight minutes at a run.
Once I reached the ER desk, I had to take a moment to catch my breath before I could speak to the lady behind it where Jesse was.
She looked at her list, nodded, gave me a stern look and said, “He’s already got one visitor. So don’t be too loud or bothersome or you will be asked to leave.”
I assured her I would be the paradigm of well behaved as I turned to walk into the ER proper. I barely had time to wonder who Jesse’s other visitor might be when I heard his girlfriend’s voice ringing shrilly through the open space.
“You can’t even bother to show up on time to anything and then you miss a date because of a stupid dare! Don’t expect any calls from me anytime soon.”
I saw her storm out of one of the curtained exam rooms and headed that way as soon as she had passed me.
I peeked my head around the curtain slowly, since there was really no way to knock. “Knock, knock.”
A strained smile spread across Jesse’s face. “Hey, Li.”
“Hey.” I stood there awkwardly for a moment, unsure if I should mention what I had just witnessed. “You okay?” I asked with a wave of my arm that encompassed his leg and the direction his ex-girlfriend had fled.
He shrugged his shoulders and winced before saying, “Leg hurts, glad she’s gone. She was starting to get clingy.”
I just about swallowed my tongue when Jesse actually blushed. “Yeah, I kinda suck at relationships – boys and girls. I never can seem to keep one going more than a month or so.”
“Well, I guess it’s good I’m not your girlfriend or it would be about time for me to be on my way.” It took me a second to register what I had said. “Crap. Umm…” Now it was my turn to blush. I could feel the red spreading across my cheeks and down my neck.
Jesse looked uncommonly serious when he replied, “No. I would never let you kick me to the curb. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
My heart tightened, and I had to blink a few times before I responded, “Well, it’s a good thing I showed up, then. After all, what are friends for?”
He smiled at me, and after that, the awkward left the party for the time being. I pulled up a chair, set up my laptop on the tray table and pressed play on the random movie I had grabbed. By the end of the night we had been interrupted about a dozen times – Jesse went to x-ray, got a cast, and was checked up on many times. It was about three in the morning by the time I had a called a cab to take us the half a mile back across campus to our dorm. Jesse’s roommate, Mike, was still out for the night when I helped him hobble through the door, so I set up a pallet of blankets on the floor in case he needed anything in the night.
I woke up about ten in the morning, saw Mike was back, and left quietly to go back to my room.
The next month and a half passed quickly, as I spent most of my spare time helping Jesse get from one place to another, or bringing him food, or just hanging out and doing homework.
One evening, I was suddenly hit with the fact that I really did know just about everything going in Jesse’s life. He just didn’t hold back. He’d briefly dated one of the GERMS EMTs who took him to the hospital, but as he had said he was no better at relationships with guys than he was with girls, and he broke up with Jesse after only three weeks. His sixteen year old sister had a brief pregnancy scare. He was freaking out about passing all his classes.
Still I told him almost nothing about myself. I realized that Jesse had been a great friend to me, but I was being a kind of sucky friend to him. I decided to change that.
On Friday, I went to Jesse’s room for our regular movie night. Pizza had been added to the tradition about three weeks in. Before he could start the movie up, I stopped him.
“Can we talk?” I barely got the words out around the lump of fear in my throat. I had never spoken about any of this to anyone. Ever.
Jesse seemed to sense the importance of the moment, because he turned his chair to face mine, sat down, and said, “Sure.”
“So, you remember the night we met?” He nodded. “I am sure you have wondered what that was all about.” He nodded again. “I think I’m ready to tell you.”
He stayed quiet as I stared at my hands, trying to gather my courage. It was another minute or so before I was able to begin.
“I had gone to that cliff to kill myself.” I waited for shock or disgust but all Jesse did was reach across the distance between us and and take my hand in his. Finally, I looked up and met his eyes. That gaze seemed to break us both. Matching trails of tears ran down both our faces as he grabbed me in a hug.
“I’m so glad I was there. I’m so glad I met you.”
All I could do was nod and cry into his shoulder. Even in that moment, an angry thought flit across my mind that I couldn’t fully experience his hug because my breasts were giant mounds of flesh, creating an unnatural barrier between us.
I cried for what I was before I met Jesse, and I cried for what I still was. I cried for my wrongness, and I cried for my loneliness. Through it all, Jesse held me and cried as well.
When the tears had finished, I felt empty as I had before, but it was more a space to be filled than the hollowness of that day three months before.
We sat back down in our chairs, and I told him everything. Through it all he listened and didn’t run screaming from the room. For that, I was grateful.
When I was done, he looked a little lost. “Have you ever talked to anyone about this before?”
I shook my head.
He gently took my chin and tilted my head so I was looking at him, “Li, I am now and will always be your friend. I will always be here to listen if you need it. But I am out of my depth here.”
It was like a blow to my already fragile heart. I felt my arms and legs folding in towards my torso, trying to protect myself as I sunk into the darkness.
“Li, wait. Stop. I just meant that you might think about talking to a counselor.”
I looked up and whispered, “No. I’m not crazy.”
“No, you’re not. But something is obviously going on. Maybe someone else will be able to help you understand it better.”
“You think so?”
“It can’t hurt, can it?”
“Will you go with me?”
It was one of the few Friday nights that we didn’t watch a movie. Jesse helped me look up the hours of the Student Health Center Counseling center and we spent the rest of the evening talking.
On Tuesday morning, I met Jesse outside Village C, and we walked to the counseling center together. We had decided that he would walk there with me and wait for me outside my appointment.
An hour later I came out of my session feeling better than I had in a long time. My counselor hadn’t called me crazy. She hadn’t dismissed my feelings. For once I felt like someone else could understand what I was feeling. I wasn’t sure how it all would turn out, but I felt the beginnings of hope furling out in my chest.
Jesse stood when I came out of the office. He took one look at my smile and jumped up to hug me in the middle of the waiting room.
“Did it go well?”
“Yeah. I think so. I set up another appointment on Friday.”
“My counselor, Janet, gave me some homework. You wanna help me with it?”
Jesse grinned as he said, “Of course.”
“You have any classes this afternoon?”
“Then let’s go.”
Thirty minutes later. we were sitting on a metro train and Jesse was pestering me about what exactly my homework was.
I finally told him as we were getting off the train at the Pentagon City stop. I dragged him up the stairs, into the mall, and into one of the salons.
“Janet said for me to find a way to make me feel more at home in my body. I have always hated my long hair, but kept it that way because that was how my Mom kept it for me when I was younger. I’m getting a hair cut.” I grinned as I spoke.
“Good for you.” Jesse grinned back.
Jesse and I looked through all the style books in the salon and after he suggested all the most ridiculous styles, helped me pick one that I really liked. By the end of the day, I felt like a new person. Jesse had dragged me shopping after my hair cut.
When I got back to my dorm, for the first time ever, I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself in the full length mirror on the back of the door.
My long hair was gone, replaced by a short, spiky do that was only about an inch long. I had gotten rid of the skirt I had worn that morning and replaced it with cargo pants and a short sleeved cotton button up shirt. It was loose enough that it did not emphasize my breasts. It was still not perfect but it felt like a step in the right direction.
Slowly, deliberately, I unbuttoned my shirt and took off my bra. I stared at my breasts in the mirror. The sight of them still invoked an extreme discomfort. but I forced myself to keep looking. I saw the eight pale scars across the tops of them and remembered the utter despair of that day.
I ran my fingers over the scars and as I stared openly at myself. I made a promise to myself. I promised I would find a way to live in my own skin – I would not give up on figuring how to be right within myself.
I met with Janet twice a week for the next month and half. During that time, I still hung out with Jesse and we had our Friday movie nights, but I kept him at a bit of a distance. The things I was thinking about and having to come to terms with were just too big. I needed space.
It took the whole first month for me to be able hear the word transgender in relation to myself and not freak out, and two more weeks before I could say it myself. Janet used some clinical term but somehow the non-clinical phrase was easier to wrap my head around. She was great. She never made it seem like she knew more about me that I did.
I was walking back to my dorm from my Friday afternoon appointment when my phone buzzed in my pocket.
I took it out and answered it without looking at the caller ID. “Hello.”
“Li,” Jesse’s voice was strained even through the phone, “I need you. Can you come to my dorm?”
“I’m on my way. I’ll be there in ten.”
I hung up the phone and picked up my pace. My mind raced with what could be wrong with Jesse. Because something was definitely wrong. I walked as fast as I could with my heavy back pack and burst into Jesse’s room without knocking as soon as I arrived.
His face was pale and drawn. He looked the worst I had ever seen him. I let my bag drop to the floor and ran the three paces across the room to grab him up in my arms. As soon as I was close enough to support him, he started shaking like a leaf. I shifted us until we were seated on the edge of his bed and rubbed his back until the shaking slowed down some.
“My sister is gone.”
“What?” I didn’t know much about Kayla, but I knew Jesse talked to her on the phone at least once every week. They were as close as any siblings I’d ever known.
“After the whole pregnancy scare thing a few months back, apparently she started doing drugs and skipping school. A couple of days ago my parents staged an intervention. They tried to get her to see what she was doing to herself. She pretended to agree and went to bed. They haven’t seen her since.”
“Oh my God.”
“I should have known. I mean, I knew she was having trouble, but I talk to her all the time. How could I not have known that she was going through all this stuff?”
My heart broke to hear his despair. “You couldn’t have known unless she wanted you to. You couldn’t have known.”
I had no idea what to do. I just kept repeating that as he shook in my arms and my heart broke for him.
After a few more minutes, the overwhelming need to do something took control. “Let’s call your Mom and see if they have heard anything.”
He nodded but didn’t make any move towards the phone.
I leaned down so I could look in his eyes and asked, “Would you like me to call your Mom for you?”
He nodded again.
I grabbed his phone from the desk and pressed “2” to speed dial his Mom and put the phone on speaker.
“Yes, who is this?”
“This is Li McKenna. I am a friend of Jesse’s. He told me what happened and is in a bit of a shock. He asked if I would call and see if there is any news about Kayla.”
“Oh. Nothing new. None of her friends, that we know about, have heard from her. We reported her missing to the police but they don’t have much hope at this point.”
“I am so sorry. If there is anything I can do, you just have to let me know.”
“Just take care of Jesse. He and Kayla are so close.”
“I will. Don’t worry about him.”
“A mother always worries.”
“Thank you, Li. I’ll let you know if we get any news.”
I looked up at Jesse after I put the phone down and found him still staring blankly ahead. I shook his shoulder a bit. “Hey, Jesse, look at me for a second. Have you eaten yet?” A head shake was all I got. “Do you want to wait here while I get you some food or do you want to order something in?”
I was able to get about half a piece of pizza in him before he fell asleep in his clothes on top of his bed. I sat up against the wall so he wouldn’t wake up alone. At some point I fell asleep in that position. When Jesse woke up, he wasn’t much better. He was pretty much a zombie for the next two days.
On Monday afternoon, Jesse woke up and spoke directly to me for the first time since Friday.
“God, I’m sorry I have been such douche these past couple of days.”
“No. It’s fine. You got some horrible news. It just took you a little time to deal.”
“Can we just do something totally normal tonight? I want to pretend this doesn’t exist for a little while.”
“Sure. Let’s have Friday movie night on a Monday.”
“Yes!” Jesse latched on to that idea with a bit of a manic fervor. We ended up spending a few hours watching Heath Ledger make a fool of himself pretending to be a knight.
The next week or so were a bit of a blur. Jesse went back and forth from attempts at “being normal” to spacing out. One or the other of us spoke with his parents every night. It was an extremely tense time.
Finally, the Thursday before Kayla had been missing for a full two weeks, Jesse got the call from his Dad. Kayla had been found. She’d come into the local emergency room suffering from an overdose. She was in serious, but stable condition.
I was in my counseling session when Jesse got the call so he caught a cab to Alexandria by himself. I had class immediately after my session, so I didn’t check my phone until I got back my dorm 3 hours later.
“Li, they found Kayla. She’s in the ER near home. I am headed to Alexandria now. I’ll let you know how she is when I find out.”
I had just sat down at my desk, but as I heard the message, I grabbed my bag and headed back out again. With traffic, it took the cab over an hour to get me to the hospital. I asked the volunteer at the information desk what room Kayla Marie Pena was in and then shot off in the direction of Medical/Surgical Intensive Care Unit.
I found Jesse in the MSICU waiting room with a short, dark skinned man who shared Jesse’s pale, drawn expression. I walked up to him and hugged him before he even had a chance to speak. He wrapped his arms around me and let his head fall onto my shoulder. A spark of warmth shot through me as he trusted me enough to lean on me.
After a moment, I gave him a hard squeeze and stepped back. I extended my arm to his Dad. “Hello, Mr. Pena. I’m Li. We’ve spoken on the phone a few times.”
“Call me Jose,” he said as he grabbed my hand and pulled me into another hug. “Thank you for being there for mi hijo.”
His son, my brain supplied the translation, as I thought briefly back to my one term of high school Spanish. I replied simply saying, “You’re welcome. He’s my best friend.”
As we stepped back from each other, I saw a beautifully plump, blonde woman step out from the MSICU double doors and head our way. She hugged Jose and Jesse, and then turned to me.
“You must be Li. I am Karen, Jesse’s mom.”
I accepted her outstretched hand and replied, “Nice to meet you.”
“Jesse, it’s your turn to go back. Would like me or Li to go with you?”
Jesse just reached across the few inches between us and grabbed my hand. I nodded and allowed him to lead me to his sister’s hospital room. We stopped briefly at the desk to receive tags with Kayla’s room number on them to clip to our shirts before we went back.
The long hallway of glass doors alternating with nurses’ desks seemed to lengthen as we walked, but we eventually made it to room 14. 'Pena' was written on the small sign beside the door. The sliding door was about halfway open, but a curtain was drawn so we could not see into the room. In what seemed like slow motion, we both rubbed our hands clean with the foam by the door and stepped inside the room.
Even in her current state, it was clear, even in her current state, that Kayla had inherited her Mom's silky blond hair and pale skin; though currently, her skin was an ashy gray color, and the blonde hair was stringy around her head. Worst of all, though, were the tubes coming from her mouth and nose. The room was echoing with the mechanical whooshing of a breathing machine.
Jesse took a clunking step towards the bed and reached out to touch a non-IV’d spot on Kayla’s hand. He was shaking so badly that he knocked into one of her tubes. I reached out and grabbed his hand to hold it steady, and helped place it on his sister’s hand. We stood there like that for a subjective eternity.
The next week was almost worst than the previous two. Kayla got strong enough to be taken off the ventilator and moved to a regular room, but then she got an infection and had to move back the MSICU. Finally, once the infection cleared, she was back in a regular room. Jesse and I had been back and forth almost daily to see her and relieve Jose and Karen from being at bedside.
One afternoon, Jesse was sitting in a chair by the bed, holding Kayla’s hand and sleeping sitting up when Kayla stirred. She opened her eyes and saw Jesse. I quietly got out of my chair in the corner of the room and stepped out. As I was foaming my hands just outside the door, Kayla said, “JJ, I’m so sorry.”
Jesse’s voice was hard with grief and pain when he replied, “Never again, KK, never again.” Then softer, “I love you too much to lose you like that.”
I walked to the waiting room to give them some time together.
After that, life returned to normal again. It was finals, so there was a lot of studying, but there was also a lot of procrastinating. I kept going to counseling. I continued working through the idea that I might be transgender. The first time Janet mentioned it, I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I didn’t really know much about it, and the first thing that came to mind was drag queens. I knew that wasn’t what I was.
But as Janet and I talked more and more, I felt weight lift off my shoulders. Finally, something seemed to feel right. She even suggested that I visit a local Trans* support group.
After my Tuesday counseling session, I headed to the cafeteria to meet Jesse for lunch. He was almost back to his normal self, but I could still see shadows in his eyes that would be there for a long time yet. When I saw him outside I waved.
“Hey. How’s it going?”
“Good. Too much studying to do in too little time,” he said with a bit of a grimace.
“Seriously,” I paused. “You want to grab some food, sneak it out and eat it in my room?”
His eyes sparkled with a bit of tricksome glee I hadn’t seen in a while. “Sure, I’ll meet you there in ten minutes. The person with the best haul gets to pick the pizza this week.” He dashed off before I could even agree.
I was glad he was in a good mood, because I had decided to tell him what Janet and I had been talking about.
I ran after him, swiped my dining card, and filled my back pack with pizza wrapped in paper towels and cups of fro-yo wedged precariously so as not to spill them as I walked.
I beat him to my room by about a minute, but he came in bearing about twice as much food as I had. He had somehow managed to smuggle an entire pie in his backpack – along with chicken fingers and fries. We laid out our spread, declared Jesse winner and dug in.
After we had eaten, I grabbed Jesse’s shoulder and asked him to sit back down.
“I have something I need to tell you.”
I was pretty sure Jesse was going to be cool, but I still got a flock of pigeons dancing around in my stomach as I started to speak. “You know I have been going to see Janet for awhile now. We’ve been talking about a lot of stuff and I have really been doing better.”
“I figured out why I was so miserable in my own body. My brain, my soul, my emotions – they are all a man. It’s only my body that is a woman.”
Jesse looked a little confused, so I gave him a moment to process what I had said. Janet had warned not to take a first reaction to close to the heart. Sometimes people just needed a moment to get used to something.
Still confused, Jesse said, “So you’re a guy? Even though you look like a girl?”
“Yeah. I guess the technical term would be transgender.”
He paused. “Okay.”
I stared at him for a moment in disbelief. “Okay? That’s it!” I had been expecting a bit more of a reaction than that, and all the adrenaline that had built up in my system kind of overloaded right then.
“Yeah, okay.” He paused, “Have you ever pretended to be someone you are not to me?”
“Then you are the same person I’ve always known. You’re the one who brought a movie to the hospital so I wouldn’t be alone when I broke my leg. You’re the one who kept me fed and passing my classes when my sister was missing. You’re the one that stood by my side when we thought she might die. You’re the one who watches movies with me every Friday night. You’re the one who incites me to steal from the cafeteria and smile for the first time in who knows how long. You. It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl.”
Through that whole speech, he had stood up and walked closer to me. By the end he had his hand on my chin and was forcing me to look into his eyes. I felt such a relief and joy well up through me at his acceptance. He reached his arms around me and hugged me. I reveled in the warmth that burst forth from my heart and hugged him back with all my might.
Finally, we let go and tumbled back into our chairs.
“So now that you’re a man and all do you want a properly manly name?” He snickered a bit as he spoke.
“Li is not manly enough?”
“Nah – It’s just short for Lisa which is a girl’s name.”
“Then, how about Leo.”
“But that’s barely a change.”
“But I like it.”
“Fine. Leo it is then.” He grinned at me. “Leo, will you grab the fro-yo from the mini fridge and pass it over.”
I handed it to him and he said, “Thank you, Leo.”
We both burst into laughter. It was just the release we needed.
A few days later, I had packed up my room, and my parents had come to pick me up from school. My Mom had flipped her shit when she saw my haircut and how I was dressed. I had always been her little princess. I had been so wrapped up in self loathing, that I didn’t really notice her or anyone else for that matter. If my hair cut caused that kind of reaction, I dreaded her reaction when I told her I was transgender.
My Dad had broken the tension with a gruff, “She’s adult, she can dress how she likes.”
During the four hour drive back to Pennsylvania, I could feel the weight of my Mom’s stare every time I glanced towards the rear view mirror. Driving, my Dad was oblivious to it all, listening to a book on tape about bird watching.
As soon as we got home, my Dad and I unloaded most of my stuff into the garage. A few suitcases of things I would need before I went back to school for the summer came upstairs with me to my room. My Mom was waiting for us in the kitchen when we were done. She picked up the conversation right where we had left off at school.
“What have you done to yourself at school this semester?”
“What do you mean, ‘What have I done to myself?’ I am happier than I have ever been. I have a best friend for the first time. I am finally understanding myself. Oh, and I got a haircut. Is that what you mean?”
“How are you ever going to find someone if you look like a…a…a…lesbian?”
“Is that the worst thing you can think of - that I might be a lesbian?”
“I have nothing against lesbians. I just don’t want you going around looking like Ellen!”
“Really, Mom? Lesbians are fine as long as I’m not one?”
“Are you saying you are a lesbian?”
“NO! Of course I’m not a lesbian.” I almost blurted out what I really was right then, but fear coursed through me and my mouth clamped shut with an audible thud.
The breath my Mom had been taking in to continue yelling stopped in her throat as she recognized what sudden shutting of my mouth meant.
“What were you about to say?” She asked with a searing glare that had always scared the truth out of me as a child.
“Catherine, let her be. She’ll tell us in her own time.” I turned briefly to stare at my Dad. I had never really paid much attention to him, but he seemed to be more astute than I ever gave him credit for.
My Mom momentarily shifted her glare to my Dad but then turned back to me, intent redoubled. “What were you about to say, Lisa Catherine McKenna?
I steeled myself and angrily replied, “I could never be a lesbian because I’m a man.” It took everything in me to maintain my eye contact.
After about thirty seconds, she looked away and scoffed. After a few more seconds she threw up her hands, turned and left the room.
I sat down in the closest chair with a thump. Dad pulled out the chair across from me and sat down.
“This being a man thing, did you say that just to piss off your mother?”
I sighed, “No.”
“I do not understand.”
I looked up at him. He was peering at me with genuine curiosity and not an ounce of hatred or disgust.
I felt tears in my eyes as I tried to explain. I struggled with the words and they just wouldn’t come. My Dad pulled me out of the chair and into his arms. As his strong arms wrapped around me the dam broke.
“Oh Daddy,” I cried around my tears.
“Baby, it can’t be as bad as all that. Just tell me. I’ll still love you.”
I eventually got control of myself and sat back down at the table. I told him everything – about how wrong I always felt, about almost committing suicide, about clawing at myself, about Jesse, about counseling, and about how I finally figured out who I really was.
When I was done, he patted my hand, said he loved me and promised to make Mom understand. Just as he was almost out of the kitchen he, turned back and said with a wink, “After all, these days, there are many ways to have a grandchild. That will ease her mind.”
Two weeks later, we packed my things from the garage back into the car and I went back to Georgetown, to an apartment Jesse and I were sharing for the summer so we could keep on with our work study jobs. Those two weeks were a little rough, but by the end my Mom had gotten to the place where she could hug me again.
That summer with Jesse was enlightening in many ways. Janet referred me to a therapist who specialized in gender reassignment issues. I began to talk about when I wanted to begin hormone therapy, whether I wanted to consider top surgery, bottom surgery or both. And I finally got to experience what it was like to be attracted to someone.
All the time I had known Jesse, I had been so wrapped up in myself, I never really considered him beyond friendship. I had seen him fall in and out of four relationships over the course of the semester, but I never knew any of them or spent time with them and Jesse.
But when we moved in together, I started noticing. He’d come out of the bathroom with a towel around his hips, and my heart would speed up in my chest. His casual touch sent shivers up my arm. I found myself watching him as he read or watched tv.
I knew I was in no place emotionally to have a relationship but it was exhilarating to finally understand what it was all about.
Despite all that change, everything seemed to stay the same. Jesse and I still ate together and watched movies and goofed off and stole food from the cafeteria. Nothing had changed and everything had changed.
January 1, 2013
Jesse broke me out of my reverie when he sat down beside me. I smiled at him as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. He’d sat just a little too far away and had to stretch so I scooted closer and rested my head on his shoulder.
“What are you remembering today?” he asked me. He knew my ritual.
“Our first year.”
“How do they say it - ‘It was the best of times and it was the worst of times’?”
I chuckled as I replied, “That about sums it up.”
Jesse leaned away just far enough that we could face each other. He took my chin in his hand, leaned forward and kissed me. The whole getting to kiss Jesse thing was new enough that it was still exciting every time. The feel of his lips on mine lit a fire in my belly and sent sparks throughout all of me. It amazed me that after all those years of not fitting in my own body that I could find someone who fit beside me so perfectly.
Jesse smiled as he broke the kiss, “I love you, Leo.”
“I love you too, Jesse.”
I leaned my head back on his shoulder and remembered the first time he had kissed me. It had only been a month, but I knew it was a moment that I would remember forever.
December 1, 2012
I ran up the stairs because I knew Jesse would be waiting to start our weekly pizza and movie night. We’d been doing it since we met first semester of college, back when I still went by Lisa. He was the friend who stuck by me through it all and we’ve never missed a Friday night. Even when he broke his leg and had to be rushed to the hospital, I just went there. It was fitting that we would celebrate the end of the whole process together too.
As I burst through the front door of our shared apartment, I had a huge grin on my face. “It’s done!” I yelled, excited my final follow up appointment had gone well. “No complications, no infection, completely healed, and clean bill of health!” My top surgery had been done years ago, but I had just gotten my bottom surgery a little over a month ago.
He grabbed me into a hug, and I could feel his grin on my cheek as he whispered, in a voice choked with emotion, “That’s awesome, Leo. Congratulations.”
When we separated, we just stood there staring at each other grinning for a few moments. And then something shifted in his gaze and I don’t know how I knew, but I did. I only had a heart beat of warning before he had threaded his hands through my hair and pulled me in for a kiss.
For a second, I was so shocked I couldn’t even react, and then Jesse just pulled away with a stricken look on his face.
“Shit. Sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. But, god, I’ve wanted to that for ages. But then, I wanted it to be perfect, and for you to feel like you, and…”
It looked like he was about to wind up for one of his stress rants so, without really thinking about much beyond this is Jesse and he wanted to kiss me, I grabbed him and kissed him back. Reacting more quickly than I would have imagined possible, he slammed me into the wall with his body and devoured my mouth. His hands pulled my hips into his, and then there was no more room for thought. Just for the feel of heat pooling in my groin, the frantic beat of joy through my heart, and the way I finally fit effortlessly in myself and against him. It was perfect.
January 1, 2013
A few minutes later Jesse knocked his shoulder against mine.
“Come on, if we don’t leave soon we’re going to be late.”
I let him pull me up off the ground and kept our fingers locked as we walked away from the cliff. It had taken a long time, a lot of yelling, convincing, talking and stubbornness but we had finally gotten to a place where my family had invited Jesse and me to a New Years Day barbeque, and no bloodshed was anticipated.
I smiled and said goodbye to my cliff for another year, hoping there would be many more things to be thankful for this time next year, and saying a prayer of thanks that I had met Jesse all those years before, and that my life had not ended on this cliff.
It was the perfect way to begin a new year.