I knew I could be me with you before we were a we. You were in a relationship long past its expiration, and I had to angle just so on the couch so you could get the eye shadow right, the lipstick surrounded by my stubble. I still had a buzzcut then, hair un-long, clothes un-femme. There was something on the TV, but we weren’t watching it. We were just friends.
We’d already shared a lot of the scare-you-off type stuff, but neither of us flinched. I had a fling fail, started drinking compulsively. You spoke your concern, your care. So I stopped with the rotgut. That easy.
You made my hair something it couldn’t be in nature. Something it’d never been before. Nails were last, color spread over edges and onto skin, but you insisted it would be okay. We could clean it up later. And you were right.
Back then, I thought my brain shit was garden variety depression, anxiety, PTSD. I didn’t know what gender dysphoria was, let alone that that could be part of what I was dealing with. I didn’t yet know that I loved you, although I had a pretty good idea. I’d figure it out as I went along.
There are all the things that happened just so to bring us to where we are. You grew up in a small town in North Carolina, a place that fate wanted to keep you in but couldn’t, and I was from a small town in Illinois, same thing, only 741 miles away. And the happy unreality of something like that, because what are the chances that we’d meet, that we’d be the people we needed to be when we needed to be them?
I showed you three-act structure, charted it out on paper, and you talked me through process, acrylic and gouache and watercolor. I saw your relationship fading out, losing its color, and it did to you what the end of mine did to me. It’s easy to see the codependency, the toxicity, all of it after the wounds have healed, or at least stopped bleeding. All the ways you had to surrender parts of yourself for this person who would never be happy with what was left, whatever that might be.
For me, it was being judged for my bisexuality, tolerated at best, even though she was bi too but just didn’t want anyone to know. Didn’t want to be out the way I wanted to be out. I didn’t yet know I was nonbinary. It was a heteronormative relationship, and she wanted to keep it that way. I was raised with “gay” being synonymous with bad or stupid, so I pushed it all down. Went to a Zen temple once a week, steeped myself in Buddhist philosophy. Comforted myself with the thought that I could be the full me in another life. Zazen helped, but you can’t breathe away toxicity. We’d get up between sessions, do kinhin, walking meditation. Incense smoke clouding my nose, chest rising, falling, heel then pad then toe, slowly, circling the room. There was a memento mori with a real human skull, donated to science, an old gift to the temple from a med student. “As you are now, so I once was. As I am now, so you will be,” inscribed on a placard beside it. My eyes would stray to the skull as I’d pass, read those words one more time.
You can’t live with a part of you buried. You can move, talk, eat, laugh, smile, but you will not feel like a person. There’s only so long you can push down depression before it metastasizes, outgrows you, tendrils out like some eldritch horror and wears you like a human costume. Even when you’re stuck there, and you feel like you can’t get out, you can still remember what happiness was like. Can still imagine what kind of life you might be able to live.
Writing things like this is inherently optimistic. The happy ending is baked into the retelling. A quantifiable space between the you you were and the you you are. Something you can point to one day and say, “Look. I made it. I’ve arrived.”
I’m waking up when I want to now, with you, no longer tethered to a nine to five I hate, no longer with someone I can’t be me with. I’ve got The Psychomodo coming through headphones, “Oh dear, look what they’ve done to the blues, blues, blues…” There’s light bleeding through the blinds, a freedom from expectations, presentations, patterns of thought and behavior. Still freedom from, not yet a freedom to. But we’ve at least got our start.
Nick Olson (he/they) is the author of Here’s Waldo and Editor-in-Chief of (mac)ro(mic). Originally from Chicagoland, he now lives in North Carolina. He’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. Find him online at nickolsonbooks.com or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.