The Ghosts of Who We Were

November 4, 2016.

I stopped at the Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania the other night on the way from Cleveland to New Haven. It’s a hotel I’ve been to a few times and there’s something reassuring about knowing what the lobby looks like and where the elevators are. Maybe it's that the feeling of home lies in the familiar and comfortable. I checked in, went up to my room on the 7th floor which looked down on a large strip mall anchored by Target and JC Penney. It wasn't so terrible - even mundane things look surprisingly good from up high late at night, and retail signs cast a glow not unlike a state fair midway after dark. 

I was hungry and thought about room service but I wasn’t desperate enough to justify the expense; the lure of a cosmopolitan and a less exorbitant menu finally won out over introversion and I grabbed my purse and headed downstairs to the bar. After 7 hours in a car my legs were pretty happy to be moving and I probably looked like I was headed somewhere important in a hurry. 

I walked into the lounge, it was a quiet Sunday night, only 3 women at a table and one other person at the other end of the bar. I felt a little bit like a rock star, a little bit like an imposter and a little bit like a visitor from another planet. Three things I feel more often than you'd think. I ordered a drink and some food to go, and the bartender struck up a conversation - mostly small talk, where are you from, just passing through, what do you do.   

And just like that, I was blindsided by this intense deja-vu. 

Back in my early 20s while I was in college, I used to work in a bar at a restaurant - mostly pina coladas, strawberry daiquiris and frozen drinks in garish, tacky souvenir glasses. When I got offered a job at a bar in a 4-star hotel, I jumped at the chance - no more dirty beer cooler, no more psychotic boss watching us on cameras and listening in on our conversations with hidden microphones. Just making drinks in a quiet, semi-normal place.   

I learned to make manhattans, martinis, Campari and soda, a Pimm’s cup, stuff people never ordered in a steakhouse that prided itself on large portions and a big salad bar. I learned how to work the dense and complex register, I learned how to charge bar tabs to a room number, where to sneak cigarettes (the loading dock.) But behind the scenes the hotel was going broke, and even their international beer selection began to shrink one bottle at a time. First the Tsingtao was gone, and then the Stella Artois. Even Heineken was on probationary status, and what used to be an impressive pyramid of beers from around the world was at one point down to 4 bottles. Two of which were domestic.  

Business tapered off, and I spent a lot of quiet Sunday nights there wishing I could close up early and go home when a late check-in arrived and came down 15 minutes later looking for a turkey club and a stiff drink. So when I found myself sitting at the bar of the Sheraton a couple of weeks ago, it was like the space-time continuum had bent and folded and two realities had come to meet each other. The 22 year old me, making drinks and wondering about the future, and the 46 year old me who I don’t think that 22-year-old could ever have even come close to dreaming up. 

My imagined future, at that time: You’re going to finish your Bachelor's degree, get a Master's in Choral Conducting, get a respectable job, maybe get married, buy a house and do a little writing and performing on the side. Beyond that - who knows? Maybe a dog and a couple more fish. 

Reality: You’re going to finish your Bachelor’s degree, and then you’re going to move to Arizona and do a year of grad school before realizing it’s not right for you.  You’re going to start playing in bar bands, you’re going to play in jazz and swing bands, but there’s going to be this nagging sense that you’re getting farther and farther off course. You’re going to begin to address the issue of being transgender, but it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of thought and you’re going to have to wade through a shit-ton of anxiety. You’re going to pick up a guitar and start writing songs again, but it’s going take 4 or 5 years before you come up with anything that even feels like the beginning of what you want to say.   

You’re going to call the beginning of what you want to say Boy in a Dress.   

You’re going to start touring, you’re going to work at a church, you're going to staff an art gallery, you’re going to paint houses and in between you’re going to keep writing songs and tour a little more. You’re going to move out of your generic stuccoed apartment into something funkier and draftier in the artsy part of town. You’re going to start hormones, you’re going to start electrolysis and you’re going to question it every step of the way because your Catholic upbringing tells you that you don’t have the right to have agency over your own body.   

You’re going to realize that the depression and anxiety you struggled with at 15 wasn’t just a fluke.  

You’re going to change your name, you’re going to finish your transition as much as anyone can, for a long time you’re going to do nothing but write, record and tour because it’s the only way that you know how to try. You're going to be one of two trans women in a production of the Vagina Monologues, you're going to see RENT and it's going to change your life. You’re going to quit your side jobs and make a living playing music, you’re going to finish your 9th, 10th, 11th CD and at some point you’re going to move in with and become part of an unbelievably loving family in Iowa. You’re going to be invited to play in Germany, you’re going to go back enough times that it feels familiar and comfortable, another home.   

Like the Sheraton in Harrisburg, where I find myself sitting at the bar drinking a cosmopolitan, listening to the clink of the glass against the granite of the bar as I set it down. My turkey club arrives in a styrofoam box, I pay the bill and leave a good tip because I know what it’s like to work a in a hotel on a slow night. I’ve been on both sides of that bar, and in both cases I have developed a profound appreciation for generosity. 

Up in my room there’s a Law and Order marathon on (Chung-Chunk!), and the ubiquitous turkey club is actually pretty good. There’s some kind of pepper on the bacon, and maybe they used aioli instead of mayo. It’s a nice touch. The bartender made me another drink to take up to my room - he got it just right, and I sip it while thinking - what a weird fucking life. It’s good, it’s bittersweet, it’s lonely, it’s painfully beautiful. To see and experience the world through the eyes and ears of a songwriter and poet, to hold conflicting realities and possibilities, to feel that I am young, I am old, I am naive, I am world-wise, I am cavernously empty, I am fiercely content, I am completely disconnected, I am a part of everything.   

On the 7th floor of this 3-star hotel, the red glow of a distant Target sign lights the window and I wonder where life will take me, and if that future reality will someday bend and distort to meet this one while I live a life then that is perhaps unimaginable to me now.   

So many lives within a life, maybe even other lives before that with lives within them, phantoms, shadows, images, traces of the revenant and incorporeal, the truth of who we are, the ghosts of who we were.

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