No. No no no no.
I tap on the image in the Instagram post, accidentally liking it, and then quickly untap it in a panic. If feel like I’m I’m having an out-of-body experience as I pace the kitchen, absentmindedly unloading dishes from the dishwasher before I realized that they’re dirty. My head feels buoyant, like all thought has eluded me, like those neurons are refusing to fire.
This is fine. It’s fine.
Oh, forget it. It’s not fine.
There’s no use pretending I’m okay. I slump to the floor, my back against the cabinets.
I wonder what this means for me. Except…it really doesn’t mean anything for me, does it?
It’s about her.
No, not Joseph. Jocelyn.
The name is like a word in a foreign language, feeling wrong in its newness. The person who had attended every birthday party since I was six, who was my first kiss, who was my first “I love you,” to whom I gave my virginity, who asked me to marry him…
She asked me to marry her.
And her name is Jocelyn.
But I don’t know Jocelyn.
I know Joseph.
And it’s with that thought that I swallow a thick lump in my throat and beg my tears to control themselves.
It has been six months since Joseph left me.
Joseph had always been a constant presence in my life, and as I sit on the dirty linoleum floor of my kitchen, events begin to play in my mind—Joseph and I sitting on my back porch in August, hands sticky with melted popsicles; Joseph kissing me at midnight at our parents’ Y2K party; Joseph sitting on my roof with me the day my parents got divorced; Joseph in a navy tux at prom; Joseph carrying boxes into my college dorm; Jospeh down on one knee…
And Joseph was gone.
Well, not gone. Joseph was just Jocelyn now. But how much of the person I knew had always been a mask?
And that thought makes me angry—irrationally, irrevocably angry.
Anger doesn’t make sense, but in a world where Joseph is Jocelyn, nothing makes sense anymore.
Because I’m a glutton for self-punishment, I open Instagram again and gaze at the post that has just changed my life. There she is—same caramel eyes, same bumpy nose like her dad, same lips that I can still remember the taste of. But she’s wearing makeup, and she’s grown her hair out.
The caption below tells the story—how she had denied a truth about herself for too long, how she was ready to join the ranks of brave, trans women who had gone before her, how she wanted to be called she/her now.
I feel like someone is stabbing me in the stomach, making breathing impossible. I want to be understanding and compassionate and inclusive about all this, but…I can’t. I can’t. I’m breaking.
And that’s when a text comes through, my phone tells me it’s from Joseph Jimenez.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
Joseph: Hey, I saw that you liked my post. I feel like I should have told you in person, and I’m sorry you had to find out this way. Want to get coffee soon?
I didn’t like her post. Of course I didn’t.
Dread wraps around my throat as I pull up instagram. My hands are shaking, and—
Yep. I definitely liked the post. I thought I’d un-hearted it, but I didn’t. Inwardly I curse Zuckerburg and whoever invented the double-tap-to-like feature as I pull up Jocelyn’s message.
She wants to get coffee? Like she didn’t just break my heart and leave me alone and reeling for the last six months only to drop this bomb on me—through social media, no less.
Oh I’ll get coffee.
And then Jocelyn is going to get a piece of my mind.
But anger is the farthest thing from my mind when I see her.
I still love you. The thought pops into my head uninvited as I watch Jocelyn open the door to the random Starbucks I selected for our coffee date. She didn’t dress in an excessively effeminate way, but I don’t get the feeling that it was for my benefit. It seems like the clothes she wears are just what she’s most comfortable in—a simple cream sweater, capri pants, and those sandals that both of our moms wear to help with their arches.
She sees me and smiles. It’s the same smile she’s always had, and that’s what surprises me the most. She’s so familiar, and yet, completely different. I smile back, and she walks over to the table. I have to remind myself that I’m supposed to be mad at her.
I’m still attracted to her—that much is obvious to me. Maybe I should find all of her feminine, being that she’s a woman and all. But I don’t. Even if that’s the right way to think about it, I can’t clean up my brain that easily. I’m reeling, and all my feelings and reactions to this situation would never pass for politically correct.
Despite myself, I still notice her muscular calves, shaved smooth, poking out beneath her capri pants. She’s always shaved her legs. Even back when we were together. Maybe it had been a clue, one that I had refused to pay attention to. I notice the muscles in her shoulders, her high cheekbones, the tilt of her eyes that I’d always found charming and mischievous. She’s wearing false eyelashes, and there’s something about the way they darken her eyes that’s mysterious and sultry. I suppose it’s attractive in the way that men who wear nail polish or eyeliner are attractive—masculinity mixed with just a touch of femininity.
Or in her case, a lot of femininity.
And it’s intoxicating.
When she speaks, I’m almost surprised to hear the voice that I know so well come out of her mouth, and it’s a reminder that she’s still the same person I’ve always known. Her gender doesn’t change the fact that we have history.
“Hey Cat,” she says.
“Hi Jos—“ I almost say Joseph. “Jocelyn.”
She laughs at my gaff. “It’s okay. It takes some getting used to.”
I pause, and it’s an embarrassingly long amount of time before I remember that I ordered her favorite drink for her—a caramel macchiato. That didn’t change about her too, did it?
“Here,” I say. “I ordered your usual.”
She perks up. “Thanks, hun.” She takes a long drag of the sugary drink and nods toward my drink. “Still an earl gray fan?”
“Always,” I say.
She puts her drink down and looks at me, and I feel like I’m punctured under her stare, every thought and feeling laid bare. It’s more vulnerability than I can take, and I don’t know how to interpret such a look. I don’t know how trust her anymore, and I’m terrified that at any moment she’s going to upturn my life for a third time.
“I knew I needed to talk to you,” she says. “I’m going to be really honest with you because I’ve decided I’m going to try to be much more honest in general in the future. I’m not going to hide what I really think and feel, and I’m sorry if that hurts you. I’m sorry that your feelings are the collateral damage in a lot of this. But this is who I am, Cat. This is who I’ve always been.”
“And why we broke up,” I finish for her.
She shifts a little in her seat. “Yes and no.”
She takes a deep breath, and now I am sure that something else is coming.
“Cat,” she says, “It’s not just that I’m trans. I’m also attracted to men.”
I blink. “Men,” I say, completely unhelpfully.
“I’m a straight trans woman.” Her jaw is set and her gaze is steady, and that is more of a change than the hair or the clothes.
Joseph used twitch and fiddle when she felt uncomfortable. I remember talking her down from a panic attack before a lacrosse game in high school one time. She’s always been so up in her own head, perpetually unsure of herself.
This self-assured person in front of me is completely different.
She’s brighter. Those broad shoulders suddenly seem so much more relaxed.
But…but she likes men.
I laugh awkwardly, and I know it’s the completely wrong response. I feel like every micro-expression is being examined. I want every gesture, every syllable I utter to proclaim love and acceptance, but my heart isn’t obeying. My heart feels…betrayed? Inadequate?
“Jocelyn, can I ask you something?” I say suddenly.
“Okay.” She leans forward in her chair, and when she does I can smell the coconut in her shampoo.
“If you like men…when…when we were together…was that real?”
She looked confused. “It really happened.”
“No. I mean, was…” God, this is going terribly. I want an answer, need one, and this is my only chance to get it. Ever. After this coffee date I know that she and I will go our separate ways, that I will be a part of her old life, not matter how much time we spent together or how important it had been to me. I won’t be able to be “just friends” with her. There’s far too much baggage for that.
“When you told me you loved me,” I try again. “Was that true?”
“Of course I love you.”
“You know what I mean.”
She looks away. Maybe I should drop it, but now that I’ve started, it seemed like I can’t stop. My brakes are out.
“It’s just that when we were growing up it seemed like you chased me. Our whole childhood, the teenage years, you chased me, and now I’m learning that you’re not even attracted to women. I mean—“
“You think I was lying?”
“No!” I insist.
Yes, my heart says.
Our eyes meet across the table. She holds her coffee so delicately, like a fancy French woman. But the look in her eyes right now—I know that look, that burning intensity. I wilt under it.
“It’s complicated,” she says.
“But you’re attracted to men,” I say.
“Yep.” That word coming out of her beautiful, painted mouth in a thick, southern drawl reminds me of the person I’d thought of as a teenage boy who used to go hunting with my dad. Was that boy real? Was any of it real?
“So you were never attracted to me,” I conclude. I mean it as a question, and I just hope she takes it that way too.
“I wasn’t lying to you,” she says finally. “I wasn’t trying to trick you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ve always loved you. I remember kissing you and really wanting to. But…but I’m not sure how much of it was me wanting it and how much of it was me wanting to want it, wishing that I could want you. You’re a great girl, Cat, and I just wanted to be normal.” She shakes her head. “I know that’s not a super clear answer and probably not the one you were hoping for.”
“I had no expectations,” I say. Now who’s lying?
She looks at me seriously then. “I can’t help you feel better, Cat. I can’t tell you that even though I like men, you’re the only woman I really wanted. I can’t tell you that those years meant the same thing to me that they did to you. I’ve spent a lot of my life lying to myself. I’m done lying now.”
The chasm that has been in my chest since I saw the Instagram post deepens. “Do you think it means something? About me, I mean?”
She snorted. “What, that you’re not straight?”
“…yes? Am I bi or…pansexual? Demi?”
“I can’t answer that for you, hun.”
“But—“ I can’t finish the sentence. Because what I want to say is that I’m attracted to her now. I don’t know if I’ll ever be attracted to any other woman, but I like her. I’ve always liked her. Since we were licking popsicle juice off our fingers on my back porch in 1995, I’ve liked her.
But I can’t tell her that, because I don’t think I could take the rejection.
Because this whole thing, since that photo popped up on my instagram feed, has felt like the biggest heartbreak of my life.
And I’m not allowed to be mad at her. Even if I am.
I take a deep breath, realizing that my throat has started to thicken and my eyes have started to burn. No, I can’t cry. I cried for days when he—she—broke up with me.
It would be so pathetic to cry now when she’s the one who just went through the, I assume, very harrowing experience of transitioning. But somehow she’s the one who seems put together.
It’s me that’s a mess.
She reaches across the table suddenly and takes my hand. Her fingers still feel the same—knobby knuckles and calloused pads on the end from playing guitar.
“I care about you, Cat. Please believe that I care about you.”
Her caramel eyes are sincere, and dammit if I didn’t immediately fall in love with her all over again the minute I looked into them.
You can’t erase your first love.
Most people, I suppose, get to remember theirs fondly. I don’t know how I’ll eventually remember my time with the person I called Joseph.
“I wish it had worked,” she says, and now her voice is thick with emotion. “God, I wish that I could’ve liked girls. I could’ve done all of this without hurting you. We would have been great together, Cat. You and me. We were always great together.”
I wonder if I would’ve stayed with her if she’d liked women.
In fact, I know I would’ve. I wouldn’t have cared what people thought or what it would have made me. I would’ve have loved her my whole life if I could’ve made her happy.
“I’m just happy for you,” I say.
She smiles and I think I’ve fooled her. Maybe I’ve even fooled myself a little bit.
“I didn’t do right by you. I know that,” she says. “But I’ll tell you one thing—even though I was lying to myself, even if I was using you to see if I could “fix” myself…Out of all the girls, I still picked you. That wasn’t for no reason, Cat. You’re special.”
When we’re done talking, she stands and we embrace. Her body feels the same as it always did against mine, but it smells like her coconut shampoo now. I almost ask her what she uses because it smells so darn good. She runs a hand down my back.
“I love you, okay?” she whispers.
“Okay,” I say. “I love you too. Always.”
She grips me tighter. “Do you remember Christmas when we were nine?”
I bury my face in her chest. “Which one was that?”
“I hid mistletoe all over the church so I could kiss you after the nativity play.”
I smile. “We were both angels in that play. I remember that.”
“They should’ve made us devils.”
I laugh. “Pastor Dan really had his hands full with us. I remember stealing communion bread after service. And burying your dad’s keys in the church playground.”
She chuckles. Her voice is deep and familiar and comforting. “You remember that time we switched clothes during Sunday School? Because you hated those frilly dresses your mom made you wear? You wore my shirt and tie, and I wore your dress.”
“You looked better in it anyway.”
We pull apart, and she holds my shoulders, squeezing them gently. “I’m glad we did this.”
“Me too,” I say, and I’m surprised that I mean it.
She retrieves her purse from the back of her seat, and I knew our coffee date is over, that she’s about to walk out of my life…again.
Goodbye Joseph, I think. It’s like the man I loved has died.
But it’s stranger than that, because that man isn’t real. I have real memories of a person who never truly existed—not in the way I thought he did, anyway. He’s like a fictional character whose story I got to live in for a while.
He was Peter Pan, and I was his Wendy. He was always make-believe.
Jocelyn had always been there, wearing a Joseph skin, pretending to fight with pirates and flirt with mermaids.
She moves to leave, and I brace myself for the last goodbye as she passes. But then she does something entirely unexpected and kisses me.
I know she’s throwing me a bone, but my heart swells anyway.
“I thought you were done lying,” I say.
She shrugs. “For you, hun? I could play pretend one last time.”
I watch her back as she walks out the door.
Peter Pan is gone. If I’m Wendy, now I have to find a way to grow up. J. M. Barrie never wrote that part of the story—when Wendy has to move on and pretend that she’d never been to Neverland. Maybe the trick isn’t to pretend that it never happened, but to think of it like a beautiful dream, like a favorite bedtime story.
Those moments with Joseph—the popsicles and mistletoe, New Year’s Eve and spin-the-bottle, I-love-yous and wrist corsages at prom, awkward first-time sex and a diamond ring—that is my Neverland.
Joseph is my Peter Pan.
And I can live with that.