Some time ago — weeks, perhaps months? — I did a little online research and, once hopefully fruitful, reached out to an old friend. Next month it’ll be 31 years since we met. I was thinking it was only 30, but I was always terrible at math, and the older you get, the less the details of the years mean anyway. As time went on, he moved out of state, but the that’s about when the internet started coming into its own. Then a little over 15 years ago, we parted ways over something stupid. I had assumed that was the end of it.
As time went by, I made a couple of attempts to reconcile, but I heard nothing in return. We had the same stubborn problem: we could each drop someone from our lives and not look back. I thought that was going on here, but it turned out he’d moved again. A couple of times. Email was an ephemeral thing back then, especially if you lost your address when you switched to a different service, forcing you to get a new address. And if you wanted to lose someone, you could force the switch. I have no idea how anything played out, I only know these were possibilities. And I let it go, for a lot of years.
When I reached out this time, I found his mom’s address. She, unlike her son, never tried to hide. Of course, with public online records, who can ever be certain information is correct? So I sent an old fashioned letter with a stamp and everything through the mail, addressed to him, in care of her, in the rather thin hope anything would happen. I included an email address.
Today, I got that reply.
It’s a weird thing to write something off so completely only to have it show back up. It happened a few days ago with my lost cat, who has found herself some new people. But to lose someone who was once a best friend, and then to find them again… I physically went into a state of shock. Literally. I was gobsmacked. What should have been an unmitigated happy occasion was a bag of mixed emotions that I couldn’t readily separate and identify, let alone process. I was happy too, don’t get me wrong, but… the questions started forming. “What if…?” They fired at me faster than conscious thought, as though they’ve been harboring in my nerves all this time, waiting to burst through my chest like one of Ridley Scott’s Xenomorphs.
The reply was cordial, friendly, regretful, hopeful. Totally unlike the friend I left behind so long ago. I don’t know yet what’s happened in the interim, but like any of us who’s lived a few decades, I suspect there’s a story full of unexpected sidesteps and near misses. Maybe a few hits. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. But it tapped an emotional wellspring within me.
You see, this friend and I… we shared every secret imaginable. We knew everything about one another and could count on one another in thick or thin. We had each other’s backs. Except we didn’t. I withheld one secret from him, and I somehow managed to hide it in plain sight. He introduced me to the concept of role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, back when Advanced D&D, 2nd edition was relatively new. The first couple of characters were generic, just something to get the feel of the game with different class dynamics. But then I decided to push my “acting abilities.” 30 years ago, I rolled up a female fighter / thief. Standard Saturday fare for us was to begin gaming at 8 am and continue on straight past midnight. We might miss a Saturday once every couple of months. It worked out because we were perpetually broke, and this way we only had to afford food. The character in question was challenged at every turn, and her adventures became something of an all-consuming legend between us. Before it was over, she achieved god level status, and I’ve had the pleasure of using her in other games to torment other players across the multiverse. You name it, she’s made her mark on it.
My friend couldn’t know that this character was my personal outlet, my avatar for the mixed bag of hormonal emotions that was me coming to terms with being trans. He still doesn’t know. I learned a lot about how to safeguard my secret simply from this character taking hits from enemies like you wouldn’t believe. It became an understanding that if you so much as breathe the wrong word, expect that the one person you don’t want to hear it will hear and use it against you. I learned to hone the arts of subterfuge and secret identity. I learned that lying is simply another skill to be learned, and like anything else, the key to consistency was to believe the lie, or at least allow a part of yourself to believe it. Not a day goes by that I don’t credit this character with keeping me safe. And now it happens that the architect of all her pain, who also made her stronger, is back in my life. I consider this character to be one of my greatest gifts. So much joy, so many lessons learned without actual threat to myself in real life, so many stories that satisfied far better than anything I was reading or watching on a screen.
Accordingly, she inspired me to write. I studied all the basics of character, plot, etc., learning how little things like identity drive people to be who they are and why. It was the kind of focus that you can only get from being a closeted trans teen in a backwoods country community where saying the wrong thing can end up with a shotgun in your face. This character became more than just my alter ego. She was my salvation. It was like having a separate personality. I got so good at it that other characters developed just as readily, and just as believably. But she was always the first, and she never let the other characters forget it. She evolved from the stuff of teen fantasy to adult concerns. She grew as I did. It made her effective in these stories. But there was always a part of her that was as unstable as I was, though for different reasons. Every good character needs that tragic little flaw to resonate properly. I let her take that baggage in a form that made sense to her. The more I could act out through her, the more stable I could remain when the chips were down. The more secret I could be about that which few would understand or accept in those days. Some kids have imaginary friends to help them cope with bad times. I created mine a lot later. I only let her go in recent months, when the realization set in that my gaming days were over due to scheduling. I’ve toyed with the idea of taking the character back to ground zero and telling her story properly in novel format. I’ve also toyed with keeping her the powerhouse of a goddess she is so she could screw with new characters. I’ve had a lot of false starts over the years on that front, but nothing ever came of it. Even now, I’m sort of apathetic about it. But I have to admit, I do miss her. I miss her more even now that the co-creator of her earliest adventures has returned.
The question now becomes, how will this play out? I have to feel my way through this and gauge his attitudes on such matters, but when the time comes, I’ll have a story to tell him about a character — and a friend — he thought he knew. I truly don’t foresee too much of a problem. Like anything, it’s the idea that’s so much bigger than the reality. And here lately, I’ve been coming out to all of my closest friends. No problems yet, thank the Force. There’s always doubt. I’m learning to push past it. Come what may, I can say I reached out, I made contact, and however it plays from here, I have closure for a bygone chapter. And, of course, I’m living more and more as my own woman than through the eyes of an imaginary friend. That’s a win, worthy of the heart I’m trying to heal.