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Emily VanDerWerff

Mar 27 2019

6 min read


It felt a little like the bird was following me around the upper floor of my parents' home. I would walk past a window, and there it would be -- thonk -- flinging itself at the glass, for reasons unknown.

Red has always been my favorite color, so when I was a kid, I longed to see cardinals. They didn't make it as far west as where I grew up, but one was not only that far west but was a perpetual visitor to my parents' backyard. There weren't other cardinals around. He had just decided the strip of trees behind their house was the place he belonged. How he made his way there, I have no idea. Climate change, I assume. Or maybe he was just lost.

My mom said he was "dumb," because he kept banging against the window. Sometimes, a bird will hurl itself against the glass just firmly enough to be stunned or even to die. When I was young, our cats would wait for such an event, an easy supper they didn't have to work for. But this cardinal, somehow, knew exactly the right amount of force to apply to let us know he was there, while not breaking his neck or otherwise injuring himself. Thonk.

He was there that whole final day, pacing me as I made my last laps of the place, making sure everything was in order, in the event that I never came back. My wife and I cleaned out a storage locker filled with wedding gifts we received for a life we'll never lead, one where we have a big house in the suburbs and a couple of kids and I'm a man, no problem. And every so often at the window of our house, late at night, when I think I'm alone, thonk. Again. Again.

The storage locker was filled, too, with items I'd bought in high school and college, when I cultivated a personality that boiled down to, "LOL random!" I was trying to construct a persona out of things and quirks, hoping that nobody -- least of all me -- would notice that it was hollow. I felt an intense wave of sadness at every new box uncovered, at all of the photos I found of old selves. I really thought I was my costume. Realizing I'm not has been the best thing I've ever done, but it's also invalidated large swathes of my life. If I'm a person now, who was I then? An automaton?


Cleaning out these items is a little like attending my own funeral. There's good music, and good company, and even good food. But it's not hard to shake the idea that we are burying my old self along with all of these things, that he was never really me. He was, instead, the toys and books and VHS tapes, the hobbies and manuscripts and stuffed animals. He was a golem, constructed from capitalist detritus, and I used him to protect me, until I realized I could protect myself.

But can I?

When I finally tell my parents, it feels better than I was expecting. They are not exactly amenable, but also they don't fly into the rage I expected. They seem more shellshocked than anything else. Afterward, I will have to get out of the car and walk around and around and around a barely open convenience store, trying to find a way to let all of the energy that has been building up inside of me for the entire weekend spill out of me. I barely am able, because this is energy I have been holding in my whole life. I have introduced my parents to their daughter. It is a momentous occasion for all of us. I am here, just outside the window, waiting to get inside.

They will later reject all of this, try to reject the terms I've asked of them, which I think are quite reasonable. In essence: Please use my name and pronouns. And don't vote for people who want to wipe me from the face of the planet. They reject these terms. I can continue to be their son, though, to still have the name they gave me. And they will continue to vote for Republicans, and maybe we can forget this whole mess ever happened.

Afterward, I walk along Hollywood Boulevard, daring myself to leap in front of a bus. My wife, on the phone, gets me to read the names of the stars on the Walk of Fame, just to focus on anything else. It gets me home, but some part of me is still there, waiting to hurl herself against the great windshield of a bus in hopes of breaking through, or maybe just of finding some way in to another life.

But I'm writing this instead.

The night I tell them, after I bury my old life and try to reclaim this new one, I start the conversation by saying that I have something I want to talk with them about. I say that there will be emotions around what I am going to say -- anger, yes, and sadness, definitely, and grief, maybe -- and if we could all just do our best to be kind to each other, that would be good. I realize that I am telling myself this as much as I am telling them. I am still mad about a childhood being steered away from feminine things, and about an adolescence when my world was kept small and my horizon limited, because somewhere inside of themselves, they knew. I am ready to forgive. I am ready to forget again before I even get to forgive. I just need them to realize who I am and what I have become.

"I..." I say, and I feel a hitch in my throat. "I am..." And there it is again. My wife takes my hand. My sister squeezes my shoulder. They are here for me. It is inevitable that I will continue. It is inevitable that I will disappoint them. It is inevitable that they will disappoint me. It is who we are. It is what we do. I know all of this, but I begin anyway, because it is the only way forward, the only way to be happy.

Outside, there is a flutter of wings and the softest collision with the glass.

I am a trans woman in her 30s. I live in Los Angeles, and you might have heard of my other self. I'm obviously not named Emily Sandalwood, because lol, whose last name is Sandalwood? Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and probably never write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny.

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