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Carlos is dead

Battles have been won with greater odds.

John Snow

Undeterred and on a considerable roll, I’m sitting at my desk, pounding the keys of my MacBook Pro, intent on finishing my damn thesis. They’re not as vigorous as the woodpecker’s constant assault on the electricity pole outside my window, but my fingers don’t stop for anything. I can’t stop; I have two weeks to submit my thesis to my advisory panel, and I’m stuck sifting through hundreds of pages of research, trying—failing—to decipher my handwritten notes so I can prove my argument that women have better grammar than men. 

The New York Philharmonic blares Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in my ears as I type. My eyes are so honed in on my indecipherable writing that I don’t hear the warning of the rapid tap tap tap at my bedroom door before my Cuban mother stampedes into my space. The doorknob smacks into the wall and rebounds shut behind Mami.

“Carlota! Niña, I’ve been screaming out your name for an hour. Toma––here’s your mail.” 

A sudden chill spills down my spine, the way it does in the shower when I jump in before waiting for the hot water. The shivers overtake me, sending me to a distant place. Mami slams the mail on my desk, knocking me out of my reverie. I twitch, then nearly fall off my office chair. I tear my headset off my head and plunk it beside the mail, then wait for my heart to stop thrashing against my chest. Even my eyelashes feel like they’re pulsating.  

“Coño, Mami. Pero you scared the shit out of me.”

“Don’t talk to me like that.” Mami glares down at me, eyes bulging. It’s the kind of bulging that indicates I shouldn’t say another word lest I get my mouth slapped off my face. “Dale, descarada. Take a break and pay your bills. Joanna is picking up lunch.” She taps today’s pile of letters and junk mail with her perfectly manicured, long red nails.  

She slips out of my room, but not before letting Bobbie amble inside. He sniffs at my outstretched hand, brushing his cold nose against my palm. I nuzzle the short, cottony curls on top of his head. He reeks of a pup who’s been outside too long. 

“Let’s see if Mommy’ll bathe you today, you stinky beast.” I plant a loud kiss on Bobbie’s forehead. He pushes away from me and jumps on the bed, circling twice before curling up like a snail for a nap. I smile at him, then turn back to my desk. It’s as good a time as any to sift through my mail.

I grin at the glimmering cover of the new Runner’s World magazine like a mad scientist, fingertips tapping as my hands steeple over its masthead, which peeks out from the bottom of the pile. It tempts me to ignore my credit card bills and skim through the magazine’s shiny pages.  Running always settles my over-churned mind, and it’s what I’d rather be doing now. But I sigh, pick up the stack, and rifle through the envelopes. God forbid I miss a credit card payment. 

Then I see it. Tucked between the junk mail and Chase bills is a square envelope made of fine, uncoated cotton paper. The return address is in San Francisco. I set aside the rest of my mail, then flip the thick envelope to check its flap. No name, not even a date or a stamp. It’s as if it wasn’t processed by the post office—or put in the mail in the first place. 

I only know one person in San Francisco, which seems like the farthest place on the planet from me. The return address on the letter is written in his same luxurious, right-tilting cursive with embellished descenders. My eyes sting. The memories of my time with him return to me across the years, unbidden. 

*

We’d grown up together. He lived across the street until he moved to Berkeley for art school. Although he was two years older, we spent most of our childhood playing. We’d thought it amusing that our names were nearly identical: I was Carlota. He was Carlos. Everyone called me Charlie, except Mami. She hates nicknames. Now that I think of it, Mami was Carlos’s biggest fan. She knew he would never harm me. Little did she know. 

People used to say we were attached at the hip, but he’d probably say I followed him around. I just liked him––his energy, his whimsy. I’d like to say I didn’t get along with any of the other kids in the neighborhood, but I’d be lying. I hated them—all of them except Carlos. He was my best friend for years. Then, he started his senior year of high school and vanished. He didn’t even say goodbye when he left for college. I was devastated. 

Before he disappeared from my life, we’d take long weekend walks to our old elementary school. We had nothing better to do. The schoolyard was fenced in, but it had an opening between the posts so anyone could come in and play ball on the basketball courts or throw a football around on the massive field, maybe even kick a soccer ball on the dry, patchy field. We didn’t do sports.  Instead, we’d go directly to the jungle gym. There, we talked about our future. He’d tell me what he’d do if he ever left Miami, and I’d tell him what I wanted to be when I got older. Some days, I wanted to be a police officer.  Other days, a firefighter. It wasn’t until much later that I wanted to be an English professor. But all Carlos ever wanted to do was leave. And not just Miami––he wanted out of the whole state.

I didn’t blame him. He was a tall, slim kid, made to wear thick, black-rimmed glasses, which he’d bedazzled with glitter that attached to everything he touched. His hair was like a heavy, black velvet curtain down the center of his back. It was luscious. Sometimes, he’d slide his glasses to the top of his head and sashay down the street, pretending it was the catwalk on America’s Next Top Model, oblivious to our curious neighbors. He stood out from the other kids like a peacock. His wardrobe included vivid pinks and purples and a mix of materials like lace and denim. The other kids’ idea of a color-coordinated wardrobe was to match different hues of beige. Boring. But the other kids didn’t get bullied.

Carlos was artistic. An innovative thinker. He was the best illustrator I’d ever seen. On rainy weekends, when we couldn’t go outside, he’d come to my house.  While he drew out caricatures of the wretched boys on our block who menaced him, I added the storylines. Those drawings eventually became comic books that we stapled together. In each issue, we showcased the hoodlums getting caught in their various misdeeds. 

The boys in question—my next-door neighbors—didn’t think the comics were funny. Alberto, Humberto, and especiallyRoberto––the youngest of the three brothers––never missed an opportunity to fling slurs at Carlos as he and I walked home from school. They were crass and unimaginative vermin, and the insults they threw— faggot, pedophile, and buttfucking bottom—were mediocre, at best. Last I heard, Roberto was in jail for sexual assault, but I lost track of him because his parents sold everything and moved to Tampa. 

*

I unfold the five-page letter and start reading it slowly when three words in Carlos’s first paragraph stop me.

“Dear Charlie,” he’d written, “I hope you’re well. I’m sorry it took me this long to write, but I needed you to know something. Carlos is dead.”  

I spring upright, sending my chair hurling into the bed. Bobbie barely registers a complaint. The other sentences blur together, but those three words remain crisp on the first page. I read them at least a dozen more times. Carlos is dead. What the fuck? I force myself to continue, my sinuses stinging just at the bridge of my nose, my eyes threatening tears, my belly churning with the spicy mole I had for lunch. I clench every muscle in my body and resolve myself to reach the end of Carlos’s letter. 

*

“But back to that later,” Carlos’ loopy handwriting cheerfully professes. “I’m writing to you because I owe you an explanation. I never told you why I had to leave. Miami was horrible for me. I led a double life, and I was ashamed to say anything to you. So, I hid a part of my life from you that I couldn’t even understand myself. 

“My senior year, I slid into a depression. It was a downward spiral of hookups with guys I met off the internet, unprotected sex, and feeling awful about myself. I used the men hoping to feel something, love maybe—I don’t know. But I felt only disgusted with myself. Love was an abstract concept that my parents never showed me. One night, Peter sent me an intriguing IM. He asked me if I was ready for an adventure. Later, when we met in person for coffee, his red hair was the first thing I saw. A white boy splattered with freckles; they were all over his body. We talked for hours that night, and he was the first man not to suggest we go to a seedy motel—or the back of his sedan. We hit it off. I didn’t want to leave the coffee shop.  

“The more I saw of him, the less shame I felt for being this way. The more of me I shared with him, the more comfortable I felt confessing my truth. I told him that my brain was one gender and my body was another. That was the only way I could explain it. He seemed to understand more than I did. Peter encouraged me to express myself without fear from judgment. I finally came to grips with what was happening to me. I accepted it and dealt with it.”

*

“Dealt with it? How? Why didn’t he tell me?” I ask Bobbie. He raises his head and, after a beat, places it back on his paws with a sigh. “He didn’t have to be ashamed of who he was.” I shuffle my feet from my bed to my desk and back, pacing frantically. This prompts a groanish sigh from Bobbie. I stop and stare at the stars and the other glow-in-the-dark celestial beings glued to my ceiling. I want to yelp. Before I can, the hair at the base of my neck stands on end. An eerie sensation ripples through me, and when I shudder, my skin prickles with rows of goosebumps. I’m almost sure I hear his laughter—but of course, he’s not here. I shrug the static from my shoulders. Why couldn’t he just reply to one of my emails? Just one! But no, there was never a sign of life from that coast.

I lurch on my bed, accidentally banging the headboard against the back wall, crinkling Carlos’s pages clenched in my fist. Bobbie doesn’t even flinch. I force myself to continue.

*

“Peter was an exchange student at FIU from Berkeley. I’d never been out of the state. I wondered, with so many other places to go, why the hell he chose this one. His exchange program was ending that summer, just as I was graduating high school. But after months of dating, I couldn’t let him leave—not like that. He’d been so tender with me, had been the first to hold me after sex while we watched the sunrise through his dorm window. 

“He had a solution: I should apply to the art program at Berkeley. It hadn’t even dawned on me to study art. But that’s exactly what I did. I applied to all the art schools in San Francisco. I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna do it. Fuck my parents, fuck this place, fuck it all.’”

And fuck me, too. Right, pendejo? I roll my eyes at his blatant selfishness. Bobbie crawls closer and scoops up my hand with his snout for a petting session. I comply.

“When I got the acceptance letter from Berkeley, I didn’t even bother opening the others. They were torn up and tossed to the bottom of my trash. Peter was leaving, and I was right behind him. 

“What I hadn’t expected was that my parents would pay the tuition for all four years without so much as a protest—and in hindsight, I’m not sorry to have shut them out of my life. Had they been kinder, I might have survived Miami or even stayed there, but I might not have met Peter. I don’t regret anything. 

“But I am sorry I shut you out of my life. I wasn’t sure what to do about you.”

I take a deep breath and press my fingertips to my eyes as if it’ll stop the treacherous tears from running down my cheek.

“Life with Peter, college, and the freedom of the West Coast was incredible. I’d wake up every day with a renewed hunger for life. I wanted to explore every art medium, to recreate the beauty around me, the way I saw it, the way I felt it, the way I wanted it to look. I was almost happy. But there was still something missing. Something just kept needling at me.

“It was midway through freshman fall when I saw the flier hanging on a corkboard outside the library. It advertised the weekly LGBTQ+ students support meetings that would change the rest of my life. 

“With Peter on my heels, we sat in a room of about twenty wide-eyed students the first night. Some had a femininity about them that was natural. Instead of shaving their faces, they lasered off their beards; I was in awe. 

“At these meetings, some men, assigned female at birth, had scattered facial hair and spoke with cracked, adolescent voices that shrieked like a thirteen-year-old boy’s. But when they talked about happiness, they mentioned hormone therapy, and my ears perked straight up.

“In another meeting, a transgender woman spoke to us about her feminizing hormone therapy that produced the changes her body needed to align with her gender identity. My jaw dropped listening to her because that’s what I longed for, but I didn’t know where to start. Peter was beside me, holding my hand, as the woman explained how the clinic on campus also provided emotional support for all students, including those considering transitioning. I had much to learn, including a whole new vocabulary.

“Charlie, you would have loved the people I met at these support meetings. Not everyone there was like me, though; not everyone was in differing stages of transition. Some were gay, lesbian, and bisexual. One girl, Meg, had the prettiest short blond ringlets. I always thought your hair would look cool in a short haircut like that. Meg made me laugh so hard, recounting the mishaps of her coming out, how her parents caught her naked in bed with her girlfriend. They never batted an eyelash. Instead, they asked if the girlfriend was staying for dinner. I swear, her smile reminded me of yours. I’d see so many you at these meetings, the you I missed so much.”

*

I put down the letter, worn now from my warm, damp grasp, and slide my arm over my hot face. One of the lightbulbs in my ceiling fan flickers, aggravating my sleep-deprived, blurry eyes. “How could he keep such a secret from me?” Again, Bobbie is nonplussed.

*

Carlos was a different kind of peg, not because he didn’t fit, but because he refused to conform. He began to pull away from me during my sophomore year in high school. And while I explored other avenues of friendship, discovering my truth, I missed him, too. My explorations led me right to my next-door neighbor’s house. 

Joe and her family moved into the house next door. The one Humberto—the kid in our neighborhood who’d been destined to become a rapist—had lived in with his family. We were the same age, Joe and me. I was on my tippy toes that day, peeking out my bedroom window as she hauled boxes and small pieces of furniture into her house. I knew I had to meet her. A week later, when she was walking her dog around the block, she stopped at my porch. I was outside reading. I’d caught a glimpse of her leaving her house and wanted her to see me on her way back. 

“What are you reading?” she asked.

I tried my best to keep the blood from rushing to my face. I turned the book with a shaky hand to show her the cover as if suddenly, I had no words to say, despite having practiced in front of the mirror. 

“The Catcher in the Rye,” she said. “That’s a classic.” She stood there, waiting, as I tried to dislodge the dry bird’s nest from my throat.

“This is Bobbie.” She shrugged at her horse-like dog, cottony, tawny curls covering his body. I leaned over from my rocker, outstretched my hand for him to sniff, and stared numbly at the smooth skin on her knees. 

“Hi, Bobbie.” He gave me his heavy paw and drooled on my hand. Brushing away dust and dirt, Joanna sat on my terrazzo porch. Bobbie curled beside her. We were quiet, listening to the whooshing wind breezing through the red flowers on the royal poinciana tree,  standing like a sentinel between our houses.

“I’m Joe,” she said. “Joanna… but call me Joe.”

“Charlie,” I replied.

“I’m gonna walk Bobbie tomorrow at about the same time, so you don’t have to wait for me to come over. You can join me if you want.” Then, she got up, dusted her shorts, grabbed Bobbie’s leash, and strolled back to her front door. Just as she opened her door, she turned her face my way and gave me a see-you-later nod. That was the first time I understood what it meant to have butterflies fluttering in my stomach.

*

“By senior fall,” Carlo’s letter read, “I had lasered off all my facial hair. Removing the hair on my legs and back was torture. It took thirty-six two-hour treatments. The hormone therapy worked slowly.  My body caught up to my brain. And because my thoughts weren’t constantly focused on my appearance, I saw a broader future full of possibilities.

“Before, I was a shadow, lurking, incognito—in the wrong body. That was no longer me. Suddenly, I loved looking in the mirror.

“After receiving my art degree, I applied to medical school to help others like me feel whole as I do now. For some, it will take their entire lives, and they’ll wander through life, confused about who they are—who they indeed are. For others, their state will deny them their healthcare and try to remove them from their loving parents. But for now, I’m moving forward.

“If I know you––really know you, the way I think I do––I’d say you’re working hard on an advanced degree, probably on your thesis or something like that.”

How did he know?

“Charlie, if I learned anything from you during the roughly sixteen years we knew each other, it was to be myself, my true self. You were always you—the little kid from across the street who wormed her way into my miserable life. You lit a torch somewhere in the hollow space between my ears that shone brighter each year we knew one another. I’m sorry I didn’t see that before. Now, Peter is the spotlight that shines brightly on me, and when I think of home, I think of him.

“So, now, I want you to meet someone very special. She’s been with me my entire life but didn’t know when or how to show herself. Carlos is dead, but Charlotte is very much alive. I am her, and I’m outside your bedroom door.”

*

Wait, ¿qué?

I glance up at my closed door, down to the sheets in my hand, and back to the door. Bobbie follows my gaze. I wipe my eyes with the hem of my shirt, hesitant to walk to the door, my heart booming in my ears.

Inching toward the doorknob—Bobbie follows closely behind—I grasp it tightly and heave it open, uncaring that it bounces off the wall when it slips out of my hand.

There she is, a little older and probably a little wiser. Charlotte, with her dark, shiny hair hanging over the front of both her shoulders; her onyx eyes, not sullen anymore but glittering with joy; her grin, beaming perfect white teeth. 

My embrace is forceful enough to knock her back. But I wrap my arms around her waist and steady her before she hits the floor. She smells of lemons and honey, crisp and sweet. Her arms are tight around my neck—the rhythm of her heart thudding against me.

“You’re still so strong,” she says with a laugh.

“You’re still so skinny.” Clasping Charlotte’s hand, I push Bobbie’s snout from her crotch, lead her inside my room, and shut the door behind me. “Let me look at you—really look at you.”

She’s my height, plus a few extra inches in a pair of scarlet-colored suede stilettos, wearing fancy black slacks, a red silk shell, and a fitted blazer. After brushing her hair behind her ear with an elegantly manicured hand, she stands, waiting for my assessment. 

“Jesus, you’re stunning,” I say. “As beautiful, feminine, and extraordinary as ever.”

“Thank you.” Charlotte’s makeup and tan, olive skin hide most of her embarrassment.

“I have so many questions and things I want to say.” Remembering the letter, I pluck it off the bed. “Peter? Where’s this Peter you speak of so highly?”

“He’s at the hotel.” She smiles. “We’re here for a medical conference.”

“Well, damn girl, I can’t wait to meet him.”

Transgender rights are being eroded in the State of Florida. Visit Equality Florida’s website to learn how you can help.

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