I was sick with anxiety over this phone call but I knew more than anything that I had to call him. I'd had this phone with a local number for my new city, actually my old hometown, for over a month now. I'd looked up the number of our old neighbor and added it to my contacts the very day I got this phone, swearing to myself that I'd call and let him know I moved back to town. I'd brought up the number countless times this week, and at least three times already on this Saturday morning, but this was the first time I actually let it ring. Yes, I wanted to see him; I've had a terrible crush on him for most of my life. After three rings, which became a sweaty-palmed eternity, he finally answered.
'Is this Joe Harrison?' I asked, my voice a nervous squeak about two octaves higher than I'd hoped for.
'Speaking.' he replied. 'Who's calling?'
'You probably don't remember me, ' I said, still trying to push my voice down to a lower register. 'I'm Alex. Alex McMannis. I used to live next door.'
'Of course I remember you, Alex, ' he replied. 'What brings you back into town after all these years?'
'I have a job here, ' I said.' It's in the Curator's office at the City Art Museum. I start next week. I'm just getting settled in my apartment.'
'That sounds like a great job for you, Alex, ' Mr. Joe said. I could hear the pride in his voice. That helped me relax a lot. Mr. Joe meant so much to my three sisters and especially to me when I was growing up. We all hated having to move away ten years ago.
I'm really happy to get this job, ' I answered, my confidence returning. I really was a lucky young woman to get this job at age 25. I had worked so hard in college and graduate school for a master's degree in gallery and museum management and now I had scored my dream job. 'It was hard moving away from you and Miss Jean.'
'I imagine it was hard for you, ' I said, 'having to move right in the middle of High School.'
'Tori swore she'd never forgave Dad for making us move, ' I laughed, finally at ease in this conversation. 'But she came around the first day of school when half the football team asked her for a date. Julie was already in college and Kelly was starting that fall, so it didn't make as much difference to them. It wasn't a fast start for me, but it turned out to be a good thing eventually. It gave me a chance to re-invent myself.'
'Uh, can I come over?' I forced myself to say that. I had to see him in person and the very thought of that meeting tightened my stomach into knots. 'There's a lot we have to catch up on and I think it would be better if we did that in person.'
'OK. I'm free all afternoon and I think you know how to find the old home place, ' he told me. 'I'm so happy you decided to look me up!'
We said our goodbyes after I promised to be right over. I couldn't back out of it now. I had to go. If I was nervous before I called him, it was only a preview of the panic attack that was washing over me now. I reassured my nervous self by remembering how Mr. Joe always said, 'House rule: no judging.' He always said that to me and my sisters when I was a little boy.
Yes, you read that right. I was a little boy, but now I'm a young woman. Now you know the reason for my nervousness. Mr. Joe remembered me as Alexander McMannis but now, legally and officially, I am Alexandra McMannis. I haven't yet taken the final steps and had sexual reassignment surgery, but the law already recognizes me for what I am - a woman.
Remembering that the Mr. Joe I remembered so fondly would at least try not to judge kept my hands from shaking enough for me to slip on a pretty sundress with a pair of summery sandals, touch up my makeup and hair and make it to the car. I the address already programmed into my GPS and it started giving me directions to his house on the far side of town from my new apartment.
On the drive over, many scenes from my childhood replayed in my memory, most of them involving Mr. Joe. He always accepted me for who I was: a not-very-masculine little boy who loved art and music and had no interest in hunting, fishing or football, much to my father's dismay. I especially remember the time he stood up for me when my dad said I should choose more manly hobbies than the art and music which I've always loved. Since Mr. Joe was a graphic designer and an incredible guitarist, he really laid into Daddy for that one, and I adored him for it. These memories of Mr. Joe's unconditional acceptance of me were the only thing that kept me from turning around. Still, I wondered how unconditional his acceptance was going be. The little boy he remembered turning up at his door as a grown-up young woman was going to be a lot to take in. Sometimes I have trouble taking it in myself.
As I drove, following the directions from the GPS, I thought back to when we moved away from this man that I adored so much. The fondest memory was of the going-away present he gave me Ð his 1960s vintage Fender Telecaster and twin-stack Marshall amp and speakers. I still have them and I still play. In fact, they were what kept moving to a new city from being a total nightmare.
When we got to the new school and my twin sister Tori (Victoria) and I started our junior year, I told people that I played, and when they came over to hear me they were all so jealous of me because of that equipment. I was suddenly cool because I had that vintage Fender with twin-stack Marshalls and could play pretty well. Some of us formed a band and we were doing some minor gigs by Christmas. It was pretty cool to be one of the popular kids for once in my life.
The other guys in the band were in heaven with the attention they were getting from girls, but I wasn't so comfortable with that part of my popularity. At that point in my life I wasn't sure if I was attracted to girls, and I was still afraid to think that I was attracted to guys. I certainly wasn't attracted to the effeminate gay guys I knew at school. That wasn't a group I imagined fitting into. It wasn't how I pictured myself. Actually I wasn't sure how I pictured myself. I thought maybe that part of me was just disconnected or something. I think I was just in denial.
So I just kept the groupies at arm's length by making excuses, telling them that I was tired from the gig or that I had to load the equipment. Most of the time the girls accepted that and went after the easier targets, and Billy, our drummer, was always an easy target. One night, there was this girl who had set her sights on me and just wouldn't take no for an answer. She helped me load the equipment, massaged my hands, rubbed my neck and eventually tried kissing me. I finally told her I wasn't interested in girls just to get away from her. She made this face like she was going to throw up, said 'You're gay?' I just nodded and said, 'Yes, I like boys.' It was the first time I'd ever said that, even to myself. Really, I'd just said it to make her leave me alone, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I really wasn't attracted to girls. It didn't take long for the whole school to hear about it after that. I think she probably had a lot to do with that.
Things were a little strange for a while until people realized that I was still the same old Alex and not much had really changed. Most of the girls probably thought it was a waste, the gay guys probably were wishing I'd hit on them and the straight guys were hoping I wouldn't. Being in the San Francisco area probably helped with acceptance, but it didn't hurt that Tori was popular with the football players and let them know they didn't stand a chance with her if they let her brother get bullied.
Tori and I turned 18 just after our senior year started in September, and that's when things started happening. The school had this annual Senior Class Halloween party. It was actually a pretty big deal. Everyone was talking about who they were going with and what they were wearing; it was almost like the prom. Around the first of October, I told Tori that I didn't have a date and that I wasn't going to go, but she insisted. I told her I felt uncomfortable going alone, and she actually told me she would cancel her date and we'd go together.
The next question, then, was about costumes. Tori said we should go as 'the zombie twins from hell, ' which I thought was a little lame. She said it wouldn't be lame if we also went as each other. She thought it would be hilarious to pull such a prank on the rest of the school, even if people figured out we had switched places, it would still be a memorable time. Her enthusiasm for the idea eventually brought me around.
I think she got the idea because I hadn't cut my hair since we moved, so it was already about shoulder length. She spent a couple of weeks getting me ready for that party, including dragging me into a shop in the mall and getting my ears pierced. I tried to object but she told me I was the cool rocker dude and pierced ears would only add to my image. She was right. Nobody even gave the plain gold studs in my ears a second look.
The party was on a Saturday, so after school that Friday, Tori and I went and got identical haircuts. Her wavy auburn hair had grown to reach the middle of her back, so it was a pretty drastic style change for her, but it was really pretty when it was styled. Mine didn't look girly at all but I knew, once it was styled for the party, it would look just like Tori's.
.... There is more of this story ...