By Rahne Alexander
This is the way I remember it. It was 1987, and I had left home, even if my parents didn’t yet know it. We had to leave college for winter break, or pay extra to stay. I couldn’t afford it, but I didn’t want go back home because that first taste of freedom was so savory. I didn’t even go to church once.
I’m not sure if H and I were calling each other girlfriends yet. I mean, she definitely wasn’t yet calling me a girlfriend, but she knew I was trans. She was inquisitive; she ferreted me out. I didn’t last a month in the real world before my deepest-darkest was revealed, and somehow the world didn’t end.
I came out of my closet and she welcomed me into hers. She gave me a green knit dress that was outrageously long on her, but it worked well on me. The strapless, ruffled white denim dress that made me look like Princess Di, even though I couldn’t see it then. If I had had any confidence whatsoever who knows what I would have been capable of.
Anyway, my secret was safe with H, who was going back to her home on the Jersey Shore for Christmas. I loved her light accent, which really came out when she asked me to put Heart’s Bad Animals on the tape deck or talked about her hometown, Manasquan. The name felt romantic, and I was falling in love with her and the place she came from.
H helped me start to learn how to use makeup and helped me begin to unpack the considerable amount of emotional baggage I had brought with me to college. It was brave and kind of her to do so. I more or less moved out of my dorm room and into hers, where I was free to experiment with outfits at my leisure.
Her parents were going to travel out to visit for Parents’ Weekend, which was a couple of days before Hallowe’en, so there were a lot of costumed Parents’ Weekend events. We’d cooked up a costume where she dressed as a stylish gangster and I was her gun moll. Our friend down the hall joined us, dressed as a bodyguard. As a result, the first time I met her parents I was in a thrifted blue chiffon gown and gluing on nails for the first time.
We all went out to dinner looking like a young Tony and Carmella with her parents from Manasquan, her uncle from Oklahoma, a few other people from school. A sit-down Mexican place. “We come all this way to Los Angeles,” her mom drew out the name of the city so long, as if she was making a point of not saying LA. “We gotta try the local food!”
We all sat around a big table and her uncle poked at the menu and said, “Oh, you have to try fajitas. They’re amazing – change your life.” He chopped the air with his hands and said “fajitas” a few more times.
The food was great and everyone had a great time, and her parents went back home and we never talked about the blue chiffon dress again. I was only just beginning to understand that, sometimes, you only wear a dress the once. It was too much for just sitting around the dorm room. I began to yearn for a few good basic wardrobe pieces. Some ballet flats, some Express tops. A little black dress of my own.
After Parents’ Weekend, we went back to our first semester of floundering, trying to figure out just what exactly I was, and what that made us — if I was really a (dun-dun-dun) transsexual, would that make us lesbian? We looked at grainy halftone photos in medical books from the library stacks, and I didn’t flinch at the surgery pictures. We both found that compelling evidence that I might be a full-blown transsexual. But were we lesbians? We decided to take a women’s studies class together in spring semester, just to check.
I was running full-tilt toward becoming a brazen femme dyke, and I could think of nothing more crushing than to shove all of that back in the closet and spend the holiday I hated most at my parents’ house. For sure, they’d make me go to church, dressed as a young man.
My anxiety ratcheted up as Christmas neared, and I was an inconsolable mess. Somehow, her parents agreed to let me visit for a few days over the break. I’d go after Christmas and stay through the new year. Somehow — probably credit cards — we managed to afford a plane ticket from my dusty Central Valley hometown to the exotic shores of Brick, Wall, and Neptune. My first time on a plane.
I had to fly out of the municipal airport on a prop plane to connect in Los Angeles for a flight to Newark. I did my first airport all-nighter in LAX waiting for my connection. I listened to mixtapes on my discount Walkman and read a little paperback edition of Franny and Zoey, which was H’s favorite book, and when I finished that, I started Myra Breckinridge.
It was grey and rainy in a way I’d never seen when I landed in Newark, and it kept being grey and rainy on the drive back to Monmouth County. I’d never seen a toll road before, and I marveled at her ability to throw coins into the tollbooth receptacle without completely stopping the car.
We had to pull over to get gas. I thought full-service was for the rich. It puzzled me that you couldn’t pump your own gas. While she pumped, I studied the car map. “What the hell is a township?” I asked, and she tried to explain it to me.
We started hatching plans for my visit. She promised to take me up on the train to New York, and I wanted to go to Long Branch and see where Dorothy Parker was born. I hoped we could go shopping, too. Maybe I could get some flats, maybe some basic skirts and tops. Definitely visit record stores.
Her family was so generous and welcoming. They made up a little bed for me; I had a room to myself, which was cozy even though it was partially under renovation. It was right across the hall from H’s bedroom. She wasn’t lying about having a full-size poster of Rob Lowe on her door.
At dinner that night, H’s mom was excited to announce that her brother, the uncle who loved fajitas, had sent a package so they could make fajitas at home. “All we need is some steak and some flour tortillas, and we’ll have fajitas tomorrow!”
The next morning, H and I went to drive around the county. She showed me where she went to high school and where she’d had a scary car wreck. We went for donuts at her favorite little donut shop.
We drove through Long Branch. I had no idea then where exactly Dorothy Parker had been born, but being in the general vicinity was exciting. We found a used bookstore that filled up a whole bungalow, where I bought my first Dorothy Parker hardcover collection. Inside the book was a newspaper clipping of her obituary.
We found a little flea market where I bought a Cure bootleg on a TDK D-90, and then it was time to visit the thrift store. I found some black patent leather flats and some tights and a shapeless, black knit skirt. All the tops seemed wrong; I had no idea what kind of girl I was yet. I put on the new clothes, and we drove around some more, excited and terrified to be just out in the world wearing an ill-fitting skirt, out in the world where no one else knew me. Where I could be anybody, anything.
We got home at the same time as her mom, who came to our car to say, “I was just at the A&P and they don’t carry tortillas. Can you two go out and find some flour tortillas? They have to be flow-er tortillas.” If mom noticed how I was dressed, she didn’t say anything.
H dipped into the house, leaving me and my skirt to wait in her idling Volvo. She came back with a phone book and a $20 bill. “Let’s go find Ma some flow-er tortillas,” she said, laughing.
Our first stop was Acme. After all my years of watching Wile E. Coyote cartoons, I couldn’t believe there was actually a store called Acme. They didn’t have tortillas either, but I got a bag with their logo on it as a souvenir. We went to another grocery store, which did have some corn tortillas, but not what we were looking for. We were on a sort of exotic quest for the time.
I was confused about how this place had no Taco Bells, no Del Tacos, no El Pollo Locos. Digging through the phone book, I found one Mexican restaurant with a display ad that made it seem upscale. We had to drive for a while to get there. (Maybe it was in Rumson? Maybe that’s why it seemed upscale?)
We didn’t have cell phones or websites. We just drove through the drizzle to this hideaway restaurant in hopes that maybe they would come through for us. We parked and went in. It was the kind of place with a little reception desk and white tablecloths.
“We have a weird question,” we said to the host. “We’re looking for flour tortillas so we can make fajitas for our family tonight, and we have everything except tortillas. We’ve driven all around the county. Nobody here has ever heard of a flour tortilla. Is there any chance you might have some you can sell us? Maybe eight or 10 tortillas?”
He was empathetic and kind. He went back to the kitchen to see what he could do, and returned with a plastic bag of 10 tortillas, which he said would be a dollar apiece. Thirtysomething years later, it was the most I’ve ever paid for a tortilla. But it wasn’t my money. H handed him the $20 and took the change, and the host dismissed us. “You gals have a good night. Maybe come visit us for dinner next time.”
H found a payphone and called her mother with the good news while I changed back out of my skirt in the car. I was beaming at being one of the gals. We drove home and talked about our plan to visit New York.
The fajitas that night were the best I’d ever tasted.