Two different people played me “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” a few hours apart. I like to believe it was a plot—they were in that conspiratorial pre-hook-up phase—but it wasn’t. They plugged their phones into the shitty radio in my Grams’ old car, their words haunting one another’s as they told me you’re gonna love this.
I did not. I thought it was needlessly twee. But I trusted them both, and when a week later I packed up my dorm room and started driving west, I decided to give All Hail West Texas a genuine try.
Over the course of that week, I had graduated college with a diploma with the wrong name on it. I’d passed for the first time. I’d driven away from a rebound who had been his own sort of driving away from a partner. I was alone with my body for the first time since I was teenager. My trunk was full of alcohol swabs and needles that made me shake to think about. And here was John Darnielle, telling me to hail satan, that the pirate’s life was for me, that I was the one thing in the universe god didn’t have his eyes on.
I laughed. I whooped. I didn’t cry, but I thought about it. And then he sang: And I want to go home, but I am home.
I did not dissociate, but I did leave my body. It felt like the fight club I’d been in the year I started coming out, the night where I told a much stronger friend who’d been holding back that he could hold back a little less and he immediately knocked the wind out of me. As I slumped against the fridge in the dorm lounge, trying to reassure him that I was fine even though I couldn’t get any words out, I felt the place where the pain was and I felt my lungs and I felt the rest of my body and I felt his hands and his breath as he tried to help me up and I heard myself laughing and I could feel that I meant it but it all felt invented somehow. My homes were gone.
He’d been straight and I’d been out our whole relationship. We grew into the cognitive dissonance kind of beautifully. He was shitty about it for a few months—something I’d never put up with now, but I was twenty and afraid and ashamed—and I’m glad I stuck it out, because once I really explained it to him, he got on board. He even got me a binder for Valentine’s Day.
He told me he was scared he wouldn’t be attracted to me when I looked and smelled and sounded different. He told me he was scared that I would turn into a different person. I never wanted to be monogamous but agreed to it because it was a hard line for him, and now I wondered if it was a bad idea to try to be present with my body while it felt like a shared thing. We never acknowledged my plans to start T as a factor in our break up; we went right from planning our wedding to being unable to compromise on where we’d move after graduation.
We saw each other twice after the break up. The first time I was two and a half months on T. He had come back east to visit his other friends at my college right before we graduated. The first thing he said to me: “You look different. You sound different.”I held him while he cried about I don’t remember what on the steps of an academic building after dark.
The second time was a month after that in the home in LA that he built with a Craigslist roommate and not with me. It took both of us to walk the last of his shit from my car to his room, books and blankets and men’s clothes I’d used for practice. Instead of trading mixes like we used to we spoke vaguely of songs we knew the other would never try out. I tried to explain “The Mess Inside”without saying anything about him, or about us, or about how I’d tried to scream sing it in my car every single day since the first time I heard it but I didn’t know how to make my new voice scream or sing so I got scared and whispered. He loved concept albums, so I told him about All Hail West Texas, but all I could talk about was how the sound quality was only okay and the song titles were pretentious and it was mostly acoustic guitar, all things he hated.
My car broke later that day, stranding me in California for a few extra hours. I texted him that I would like to see him again, but this time to fight or fuck or do something, anything, that approached acknowledging what I thought we had meant to each other. He declined.
I first heard Against Me! on Thanksgiving. My friend didn’t want to go to their parents’ house, so I got up early to visit them before going to see my own straight family. They’d just moved to New York and they were tremendously broke and tremendously depressed. We smoked cigarettes on their stoop and took off our pants and got under their quilt and decided to try out Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I remember holding hands and how at that moment in time, they were one of the only people allowed to touch me; I remember feeling their fingernails inside my skin; I remember how tightly we squeezed when Laura Jane Grace said that she should have been a mother, she should have been a wife, she should have been gone from here years ago she should be living a different life and how it still wasn’t tight enough.
Four months later we’d borrowed my college roommate’s boyfriend’s car and driven to Long Island because that was the nearest place we could get tickets to see Against Me!. By the time Grace came out for the encore, I’d fallen in love with the crowd, in love with the band, in love with my friend, in love with myself. She was alone on stage, and she told us that she was going to do a song by John Darnielle. I tried to suspend myself in the moment before getting invested—the Mountain Goats have so many songs, and I knew so few then—but I am energetic and hopeful and I’ve yet to find a way to stop myself from going all in at a moment’s notice. Then she said that she was going to play “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I gripped my friend’s arm too tightly or I didn’t touch them, I can’t remember. I was with them and I was alone and both were more true than they had ever been before. When it was over, they whispered into my ear, factual: “Something just happened to you.” Then they disappeared into the mosh pit.
In the car on the way home, my ears rang with the quiet and the darkness of the suburbs. It took longer than usual for it to feel like it was time, and when it did, I tried to tell them. “That song was all that I listened to on my road trip after college. I wasn’t passing at the beginning of the trip and I was at the end and I learned that song the first day I was alone on the highway and I...” They listened well. It didn’t feel bad that I couldn’t explain it.
I have friends now who didn’t know me before my medical transition. I wish that they did. I want everyone to know all of me all at once. New friends may not be able to know my old voice or my chest without scars or what it’s like to think of me first by my birth name, but I can try to fold them into the history of my body. So it’s one of these friends who I asked to design my “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” tattoo (just two tiny horns, which is stupidly obvious and perfect and something I would never have thought of by myself). I got the tattoo alone. I spent a lot of time in the suspended state of knowing that the artist was wrong about what he thought my body was.
Next week, the tattoo designer and I are going to see the Mountain Goats’ Goths tour. I will be getting to her place many hours before the show so that we can go full goth, lipstick and nail polish and a corset she’s going to lend me. I don’t think anyone else will be dressed up, but I hope it makes people glad to see that we are. It will make us glad to see ourselves.
Sometimes I get transported so powerfully by music that I am in multiple places at once. Not split between them, but fully in each of them, and each of them fully encompassing me. I wonder, next week, where I will be, and what that will feel like. Will I feel trapped or free in my car? Will the ex’s apartment feel like a flaming scar or a blink? Will I be able to explain any of this to my friend if I can just hold her hand tight enough? With my scars and her corset and our music playing all around, will I still want to go home?