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I was listening to "She's Not There" the old Zombies song, remade by Santana, and I got to wondering about the story behind it. Here's what I came up with:

My friends are avoiding me, I can tell. 

When I see them, they look away. They don't want to catch my eye, and see the pain, and wonder if they could have said something, or done something to prevent it. At the moment all I am is a source of guilt to them.

No-one told me about her, the way she lied
No-one told me about her, how many people cried
Well it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don't bother trying to find her
She's not there.

Rosie made the effort, last night. She's a great kid Rosie. She came round, and cleared up the apartment, then she cooked me a meal and sat beside me and held my hand while I talked, and talked and talked, and then when I cried, she hugged me. She even had the guts to look straight at me when I said "Why didn't you warn me?" and say, "I tried Dave. We all tried. You just wouldn't listen."

She may be right, but even so the rest of them are avoiding me.

It all began a couple of months after I moved here. I'd come for work, and I'd fitted in really well. I was working in a small team of coders, all about my own age. There was Bob and Jill who'd been together since high school, and Mark, Rick, Don and Rosie. Though most of them had grown up around the town and gone to school locally, they welcomed me into their group with open arms and, to begin with, we did everything together. They showed me the cheapest place to buy pizza, the best bars, and Rosie even helped me find a better apartment, on the top floor of her cousin Tony's place. Everything was sweet.

I guessed that Rosie would like to be more than a friend, but she didn't push it when it was clear I wasn't interested. As I said, she's a great kid, but she's not my type in any way - she sort of reminds me of Velma from Scooby Doo; you know what I mean, little, dark, glasses, sensible, clever. Everyone's favourite sister. Maybe the fact that I knew she liked me stopped me taking her seriously when she warned me about Celeste, who knows?

But I'm getting away from the story. 

I'd been due to go out with the guys that evening, but my car broke down. I called up Bob and asked him to make my apologies, and I decided I'd just take an evening on my own and go to the bar down the street. 

I was at the counter with a beer, just looking round the place and trying to decide whether I liked it, when I saw her. She was sitting alone at a corner table, and she seemed lost in her own world. I mean really, it was like the bar in the people in it didn't exist for her. Expressions crossed her face, as if she was having some kind of internal dialogue. Once I saw her, I just couldn't take my eyes off her. She seemed so different, so alien. So I watched her. She looked at her watch. Her fingers traced patterns on the table in front of her. She took a drink then picked up her mobile phone from the table, checking for signal or battery, or something, then put it down again. 

Then she turned and looked full into my staring eyes. And she looked, and looked. 

Nobody told me about her, what could I do?
No-one told me about her, though they all knew
Well it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don't bother trying to find her
She's not there.

She wasn't beautiful. Not in the traditional sense. Her nose had a bump in it. Her mouth was too wide, her lips too full. Seen from the front I could see the long dark hair that fell to the small of her back was pulled back starkly from her face, giving her a severe look. I guess you could call her striking, but not beautiful.

But my God, those eyes. 

She seemed, with one look, to know me completely. Not only who I was, but who I had been, and who I could be in the future. It was like she was reading every memory, every fantasy, every dream and hope I ever had. I couldn't break away from her gaze

Her eyes still locked on mine she rose from her seat, and walked straight to me. "I'm Celeste." she said. 

"D..Dave," I managed to stutter, feeling both guilty and foolish

A small smile drifted across her face. "Well Dave, it looks like I've been stood up, which is a pity, because I don't want to be alone tonight. What about you? Would you like to be not-alone with me?"

"Sure." I smiled, "Here, let me buy you a drink." I felt more confident now, after all, I'm not a bad looking guy, girls have come on to me before. But then she took my breath away.

"No, it's not a drink I'm looking for. I want arms around me, kisses, a bed, and a body beside me in it. I. Don't. Want. To be. Alone." Her voice was strained, and intense, and the intensity was mirrored in those omniscient eyes. 

Well, what would you have done? I took her home. 

Well let me tell you 'bout the way she looked,
The way she acted,
The colour of her hair.

It was an incredible night. She was incredible. Her kisses burned, not like fire, but like hot wax that keeps on heating the flesh after the candle has moved on. Every movement she made was spare, and graceful and calculated, like a dancer who knows exactly where to place every part of her body for maximum effect. She smelled like pinewoods, sharp and fresh, and she tasted like mead - honey but with intoxicating properties. 

She went to my head. 

I left her curled up in my bed when I went to work. The dark, dark hair was spread out around her head, her head resting on an arm, and the half light showed how creamy pale her naked skin was.  As I slipped out from between the sheets she murmured a little, as if she didn't want me to go, but she drifted back into sleep. 

I felt about 10 feet tall, and completely invincible as I walked to work. 

Of course, I told the guys all about it, when the girls weren't there. They grinned, and told me how lucky I was, then Don asked the name of this amazing woman. 

"Celeste." I replied, a smile all over my face. A look darted between them. "Celeste Everton?" Mark asked, guardedly. 

"Yes, do you know her?" 

He nodded, looked at the others, then back at me. "Yeah, I know her. Look, Dave, man, go carefully, okay?"

I looked at him questioningly.

"Celeste has a reputation as a … well… she's hurt a lot of people."

I continued to look, waiting for him to go on, but he and the others just looked uncomfortable. Then I laughed. "Hey, I'm sleeping with her, not marrying her, guys. I'll be fine."

They seemed relieved and the conversation moved on.

Rosie, however, wasn't so easy to shake. "She's poison Dave," she said. "She gets under people's skin and then leaves them high and dry. One of my best friends from school tried to kill himself when she left him. Get out now. Please."

I looked at her with dislike. "You're just jealous," I said coldly.

It was obvious she was hurt, but I was angry.  Here I was, finding my feet, with somebody outside the group and my friends just didn't seem to be happy for me. Okay, maybe Rosie had a reason, I thought, but she'd have to adjust.

Outside work though, things were fine.

Celeste was everything I'd found on the first night and more. She was bright and fascinating and funny -- and she was sexy as hell. Every night together was an adventure, a voyage of discovery, and I was learning as much about me as I was about her.

Inevitably, I drifted away from the guys at work as I became more and more absorbed in her. The regular evenings out became rare, and then stopped altogether, although we still got along as well as we ever had inside work. But my nights belonged to Celeste. I couldn't bear not to see her, even for 24 hours.  I was as addicted to her as any junkie to his fix. I suggested once or twice that she come out with them. She just said flatly "They don't like me. They never have." So that was that. Rosie called me, every so often, but the connection and the closeness of the group was gone.

I didn't even notice when Celeste moved in. It was a gradual encroachment. Every day more of her stuff was in my place, and one day she just didn't go home at all. But it seemed natural and right, that she should want to be with me all the time, the way I wanted to be with her. I never thought to charge her rent, of course. She gave me so much, made me feel so good...

Her voice was soft and cool
Her eyes were clear and bright

Sometimes, very rarely, she would talk about her desires for the future, how much she longed to travel and see the world. Those wonderful blue-green eyes would light up with enthusiasm, and her voice would become wistful as she talked about India, China, Europe. But it wasn't so much that she wanted to go there, it seemed, as to get away from here, to something completely different.

Then she'd laugh it off. "Just a dream." she would say.

I tried, several times to tell her I loved her, but she would put a finger to my lips and say "Don't tell me, show me." So I did, over and over and over again. She never once told me she loved me either, I'll give her that.

She never said goodbye, either.

She's not there.

Last week, I came home, and she was gone. There was no sign that she had ever been there. Her things were gone, clothes from the closet, perfume and make up from the bathroom, cup from the kitchen. The place was clean and sterile... and empty. Even her scent had been drowned in the smell of disinfectant and air-freshener.

Tony said he saw her catch a cab, about an hour before I got back. "An airport car" he said.

She didn't even leave a note.

They said they were sorry, at work, but as I say, they're avoiding me. I can't blame them, I'm a wreck. I don't smile, I don't laugh, my work is a mess, and most of all, I don't want to go home. All I see when I get home is the emptiness. All I see is that she's not there.

Well it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don't bother trying to find her
She's not there.

She's Not There
A Life in Two Genders

by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Broadway Books, 2003

When I first saw She's Not There I had no intention of reading it.

I was at Powell's Books for the first time, and I had wandered over to see if they had a transgendered section and not just a "gay and lesbian" catch-all. They did; a few shelves, which is as good as the big gay bookstore in San Francisco has to give. And sitting there was She's Not There, yet another dreary, formulaic, and depressing chronicle of the terrors involved in becoming a woman after reaching middle age as a man.

At least, that's what I assumed. I hadn't realized I had such strong stereotypes of (or resentments against) transwomen's writing until that moment. I flipped through it anyway, out of some half-formed sense of loyalty to all transgendered writing, and discovered what an idiot I had been.

"Listen, I don't know if I should tell you this before the surgery, but I'm a Democrat," I said. The doctor looked at me, not sure if I was kidding.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a goddess. Her book is bright, funny, clear, and sharp. She tells a very difficult story with sensitivity and amazing self-awareness. Even more impressive, she puts tremendous feeling into all of it, and balances the bittersweet and the sad with hysterically funny and often sarcastic lines.

As transgendered readers know, our stories are often sad, complicated, even tragic. And when told to straight audiences, they can become deadly boring as they ask the same questions over and over. We become mired in the basics, and in language that is not our own; we become stuck in the prescribed story about how terrible it is to be trans and how nobody would ever want this and no one would ever undergo the torture of transition if it were not even more hellish to be trans. Thank goodness, Jennifer Boylan rises above these ruts to tell the truth about her experience: that there is pain, there are hellish experiences, but it's also just another variation on the infinitely strange experience of being human.

Her story opens with a present-day adventure, a ride with a hitchhiker who used to be one of her students and who doesn't recognize the newly-Ms. Boylan. As well as providing a setting for the story, a grounding example of who is telling this story and where she is coming from, the anecdote provides us with a great, subtle illustration of the problems involved in being open about gender changes. No matter how many times she thinks about broaching the subject with her old student, how many times Colby College comes up, Jennifer can't bring herself to do it.

"I was glad to help," I said quietly. "You take care." I so much wanted to take her hand and say, Goddamnit, Ashley -- it's me!

Introductions and old friends, pronouns and personal stories, become complicated by the need to include what is essentially very personal information in order to make it all make sense.

This is a very personal book. Debating whether to reveal herself to her old students is the least of her problems; greater are the problems of whether to transition, of how her wife and their marriage are affected by her transition, or her relationship to her best friend:

As we walked toward the bathrooms he seemed to take another hard look at me. "Which one are you going to use?" he said. "Will you at least do me that favor, and tell me before we get there?"

"Which would make you more uncomfortable?" I said. "I'll use that one."

"Tell you what, Boylan," Russo said. "If you get back to the table first, you leave a mark. If I get there first, I'll rub it out."

Since this is a true story, there are no pulled punches or carefully engineered happy endings. Everyone's complicated attempts at support and struggles with the changes in this woman are portrayed with self-deprecating honesty. For that alone, this book is a refreshing change from most memoir, fiction, and theory.

Clarity. Grace. Serenity. Harmony. Acceptance.

Jennifer Boylan takes our hands and brings us into her childhood, into her whole life. We learn everything about her, from her personal reaction to hormones and surgery to her childhood fantasies and the time her Aunt Nora died (but didn't). Much of it is heart-wringing, but like all great writers, she sees the humor in it too.

My friend Curly, early in the process, asked me, "What's it like? What's it like to have boobs after all this time?" And I simply said, "It's not like anything. They're just there.

Curly shook his head. "Man, Boylan, you areturning into a woman. One thing about women, they have no idea how interesting their tits are. They don't think they're all that remarkable at all. I mean, when I'm with girls sometimes I just want to say, how can you concentrate on anything, looking like that?"

"Sorry," I said. "They're great, but you know. The world doesn't revolve around breasts."

"Listen to you!" Curly shouted. "Of course the world revolves around breasts! What else would it revolve around?"

I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "Like maybe, the sun?"

Curly looked at me as if I were a stranger. "The sun, yeah right." He sighed. "I wish you could hear yourself."

This book appeals to people on many levels. For some, it serves as a tender and informative explanation of "the transgendered experience." For others, it is a passionate validation of the feelings and experiences they've shared with her. And it will come as a huge relief to many of her readers, as they find one more volume to add to the small stack of books they can give to people to explain who they are.

But to me it's not the stories that are most important in a book: it's the tone. The story itself here is fantastic, but it is also wonderfully told. Jennifer Boylan is frank, funny, and intimate; reading She's Not There is like striking up an accidental conversation with the person next to you on the bus and getting drawn into a lavish life story before their stop comes along and you part ways forever.

Going from male to female is easy. What's hard is going from a person who lives in her head to a person who lives in the world.

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