I want to tell the story of my first friend, my first tattoo, and why I feel a bit like a coward for still being in the non-binary closet.

My very first friend lived around the block from me. His older sister was the same age as mine. And our mothers were friends. My first memories are parallel with him being my first friend.

When I was in maybe the second grade, they moved to another part of town. The older me realizes it wasn’t all that far—a mile at most—but he wasn’t right around the block anymore. Around that same time, he was sent to a magnet school. He was supposed to be a genius. Combine this with the gifted status of my sister, and I spent most of my childhood thinking I was reasonably intelligent but not actually smart. Because if I suggested I was, well, they are really geniuses.

It wasn’t intentional, but it informed a lot of the way I thought through those years, especially about my family.

***

A bit over a decade ago, I got my first tattoo. A student of mine—we were the same age, it turned out—did it, and I’ve since had it sharpened and expanded. My family is conservative, but not in a firebrand way. Still, I hid it from them. I just didn’t want to have the conversation. Much like being poly is something I didn’t tell them.

That was until about two years ago. I went to visit my sister in Florida, and my mother was there at the same time. The first day I was there, we went to the beach. I’m rather pale, so I wear a high-UPF shirt when I go, but you can see right through it. Well, it was time to talk about it. My voice was actually shaking at this point I was so nervous. Because my fear of rejection? It somehow started with my family. I told her first that I was afraid that she was going to be disappointed in me for this. She stayed silent. And I told her about it.

“There’s nothing you could do that could disappoint me.”

Not really the reaction I was expecting, honestly, and she even went on to compliment my tattoo the next day when she got a good look at it. Not sure when the conversation that I’m getting two more—including a massive one up the entire right side of my back/ribs to my neck and down my right arm—is going to come up, but at least it will be easier.

It’s because of what happened right before I came down for the trip.

***

My first friend had bounced around the world quite a bit. He disappeared on more than one occasion, including asking his family to not try to find him. He lived in a van on the beach in California and he taught English in Asia. He even had a potato farm in Georgia—the country, not the state. And then he came back home.

This time, though, he was different.

He came home with a big beard and he talked kind of funny about things. He was prone to massive fits of rage. Even still, he was welcome in that house they moved to three decades ago; this despite the fact that his mother commented that she felt like she was living with a terrorist. “He’s going to kill us all.”

***

I started to have doubts about a binary gender identity probably about 12 years ago. That’s when I wanted to start shaving my legs (though I didn’t—I trimmed my leg hair way down). It mostly stayed at the back of my mind, though. I don’t like to do a lot of guy things, and I’ve always had a much easier time making friends with women. It wasn’t until some time last year that I felt more of a need to assert that side of me, though.

It’s because I don’t believe that I’m trans, but I don’t feel like I match my biology, either. It’s a confusing place, and I needed the paradigm built in my mind to get that that was an acceptable identity. That non-binary is a thing other people experience. I initially picked this up as gender-fluid, as how far I want to go with my feminine side varies. But non-binary seems to be a permanent place.

***

Last month I had a conversation with my mother about my pending divorce. My ex has moved on to another relationship and seems very happy. My mom reassured me that I’d find someone too, and I just dove right in: I actually already have. She wanted to guess who it was, and she gave me two names. One is my current partner, the other a former. I was kind of impressed by that.

My family isn’t really one that gets into deep conversations, especially about things like policy or society. That’s just not a place we inhabit. Or maybe I just don’t with them. But I just don’t want to open up this last can with them—alright, next-to-last, as I haven’t told them about my work on the periphery of the adult industry. I’m nervous like I was with the tattoo.

***

I haven’t spoken to my friend since he changed schools. I can’t say we ever perfectly got along. He liked to play in the dirt and play with toy guns, things that never appealed to me. I never understood watching something as obnoxiously titled as He-Man, and even at that age, the militarism of GI Joe turned me off. Even at 6 years old, he was a guy. And I was not.

There’s a lot of me that would like to compare us today. To see if my readings on gender were accurate or not. To see how I might match up. To see if I feel good enough now that I have my doctorate and I’m a professor and have just about ticked all of the boxes in that part of my life. Could I be proud next to him? Could I be myself?

I’ll never know.

Just before I made my visit to Florida, the phone rang very early in the morning. It was my mother, and she was upset. This is a woman who calmly told me when her own mother passed away. Who told me not to worry when she told me my father was in the hospital with chest pains (it was his gall bladder, it turns out). Who delivers news stoically.

She was upset.

You see, the news in Chicago is available nation-wide in the morning on WGN America. I’m from Chicago, a small suburb just outside of it. She was watching, and she told me there was a fire. A fire at her friend’s house. But that something funny was going on there and asked if I could find out anything.

I worked in journalism briefly, and it was in Chicago, so I tried any connections I had left to find out more information. I reached WGN’s newsroom.

“There’s a lot more going on here, but nobody knows the whole story yet.” I traded them some background information for what they knew.

My friend was found sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV in the garage. The house was ablaze around him. An off-duty officer had called the fire in and went up to him in the car, checking on him.

That’s when he put the shotgun to his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Prior to this, he had killed his parents and his nephew, then set the house on fire. If you go by there now, there is literally nothing left.

We’ll never know what he was thinking, as nothing was left behind. And I’ll never quite know how I compare to my first friend three decades later. I’ll never know how I did, and if those hazy feelings from all that time ago really do point to the person I am today.

Because it doesn’t feel fair to me, now, to think back on that time so long ago. When it was he and I, our sisters, our mothers, going for a walk or something together. Because I can sit here in my little apartment, stroking my blankie I had back then, while his existence has been all but wiped from this planet. I know our experience is tenuous, our existence, but I don’t have the ability nor the perspective to look at him, at what he became, and make any sense of myself or my own identity. I look at a murderer and still fear that I’m the one who will disappoint, just like with my tattoo.

***

It’s the same feeling from the tattoo, the one I’m having right now while writing this. Will I disappoint them? Will it disappoint them that I’m more woman than man on the inside, that I have this hazy identity? That I like a nice dress and want to slim down about four inches to look good in those clothes? That I like to paint my nails? That I’m learning how to do eye makeup the way I want it to look? Will I disappoint them?

In the shadow of how another son turned out to his family, the answer is no. But I want these situations to be completely separate. I don’t want to hurt my family. I don’t want to disappoint them.

But I do want to be me. I look at the splashes of colour that come up onto my shoulder now, and I feel a bit more bold. Someday I’ll do it. I just hope I get the same response this time.

“There’s nothing you could do that could disappoint me.”

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