04 August 2009

Crossing and Returning

Today I crossed state lines as a woman.

Technically, it wasn't the first time I did that. On the flight home from my surgery, I crossed a few state lines. But somehow that isn't the same as crossing them on land.

OK, so I crossed from New York into New Jersey in the Lincoln Tunnel, on an Academy Lines bus to the Jersey shore. But there is a marker there delineating the two states. You don't see any "Colorado-Kansas" or "Welcome to Illinois" signs when you're 33,ooo feet up.

So why was I crossing state lines as a woman? Well, I assure you, it wasn't to do anything illegal, or even transgressive. I went to meet Mom and Dad for lunch. It was my first face-to-face meeting with them since my surgery.

Time was when I used to ride that bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York to the Jersey shore once or twice a month. Today was the first time I took that bus in four years, when I met Mom and Dad for lunch in the same diner we visited today. That day, I was seeing them for the first time since "coming out;" it was the first time they saw me "as" Justine.

I got off the bus at a place called Airport Plaza in Hazlet, NJ. From what I understand, there was an airport there long, long ago. Today about the only thing it has in common with an aviation terminal is that it always looks either windswept or overheated by the sun. It's basically a parking lot surrounded by some stores that always manage to look drab no matter how often they're renovated. That's the reason why the lot is never more than half-full, which adds to the sun-baked, windswept effect.

AP was like that more than thirty years ago, when I was attending high school a couple of towns away.

Funny that I was thinking about my high school years during the months before the surgery. I probably went about twenty years, or close to it, without thinking about them at all. But somebody told me about a site called classmates.com, which I checked out of curiosity. I found myself looking at the profiles of people I hadn't seen since graduation day. I had no desire to meet most of them again, yet I was curious as to what they were doing and where they were doing it.

I actually e-mailed a few of my old classmates, which led me to correspond with Sue, whom I hadn't seen since we graduated. She was one of the smartest kids there: I know, I had a bunch of classes with her, and she did better than I did in most of them. But the first things I remembered when I saw her name were that she was the nicest, and by far the wisest, person I knew in that place.

If souls really are re-incarnated (Something I am willing to believe.), Sue must have lived many, many lives--or, perhaps, a few particularly intense ones--before becoming a middle-class daughter in Middletown, NJ.

As you can imagine, high school was a difficult time for me. I never got beat up, mainly because I was an honors student who played soccer, which meant I didn't spend much time around the sort of kids who would've beaten me up. But as I now know very, very well, sometimes the so-called smart or educated people can be the worst bigots of all.

To be fair, I probably would've been in the closet no matter where I was at that time in my life--or, for that matter, just about any time in my life before I turned 40. And, I probably would've been deeply depressed throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, no matter who or what surrounded me.

But at least in high school I was friendly with Sue and some other sympathetic girls. In fact, it may have served as cover: Some of the boys and a few teachers used to nudge me and wink as if I were some sort of stud.

In addition to those girls who weren't girlfriends, I talked with a fair number of adult women. They included some of my teachers, particularly Mrs. Mastri, who taught the World Lit class I took during my sophomore year. But even more of a presence were my mother and her female friends. whom I saw just about every day.

My mother always seemed to have smart, literate women around her. I remember talking about Ayn Rand and Alexis de Tocqueville with Kay Murphy--who made a terrific quiche--and Wuthering Heights and some poems of Emily Dickinson with Betty Carr. Another friend of my mother's was a vegan, which was all but unheard-of in that time and place.

These women were all my mother's age or thereabouts. I actually felt more comfortable with them than just about any of my own peers. Although I was nowhere near "coming out," I knew I couldn't live the sort of life people seemed to want me to have. That is to say, I could not live as a man. I didn't say this to my mother or those women. But whenever I said I didn't want to get married or have kids, or to follow some of the career paths other people seemed to want for me, they never tried to convince me that I would "grow out of" what I thought or felt.

I didn't have women like that in my life when I went to college, or for a long time afterward. In fact, college seemed to be even more gender-segregated than high school was. And I was attending Rutgers, not some religious fundamentalist college or a military academy.

Those thoughts occured to me when I was on the bus coming home, after Mom and I saw a bus painted with the insignia of my alma mater while we were waiting for the bus I would take back home. I joked that I could get on that bus.

"Would you?"

"Go back to Rutgers? To that time in my life: no, no way, no how. It was one of the easiest times in my life but..."

"You were miserable."

I nodded. "It was one of the easiest, but one of the worst, times in my life."

"If you were doing your life over, would you have gone there?"

"I don't know. I'd say no, except that, at that time in my life, I would have been miserable just about anyplace."

"That's true. Would you have done school differently--taken different courses, hung out with different people?"

"Maybe. I think it would've been better to've had a different attitude about it all."

What I didn't get to say--my bus pulled in--was that I would like to have been living as female. But she knew that already. What I would've liked, in addition, was to have gone somewhere where nobody knew me and therefore had no expectations of me.

If I wanted to make such a move today, I probably could've gone back to the place where Mom and I had lunch: the Marina Diner on Route 36 in Belford, NJ. The food was good, but it didn't have quite the same "feel" to it as it had when I was young and it was our favorite diner. We guessed that the ownership had changed: The waitstaff and cooks all seemed to be recent Mexican immigrants. I have nothing against them, but it's certainly not what we remembered.

But most important of all, none of the customers looked even remotely like anyone we knew back in the day. Nor did anyone in the area, the town, surrounding it. I didn't need my sunglasses or anything else to go incognito there.

Mom and Dad were the only people I recognized there, or at Keansburg beach, to which we drove afterward. It was just as well; I wanted to see them.

And I'm glad I did: Mom in particular didn't seem too happy about this trip up north. Things were pretty tense between my parents, my brother and sister-in law. I hope I made things a little better for them in our former home--and as the woman I am.

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