Sunday, January 8, 2012

Of Friends, Mammograms, and Van Gogh

It's the first post-holiday weekend in Bucharest.  The weather is blustery, rainy, and cold but not cold enough for snow.  It's the perfect weather for long talks, visits with friends, writing, and just curling up on the couch with a book and a glass of wine.  Although born in New York and having lived most of my life in the mid-Atlantic, I love the northern latitudes even with their winter unpredictability and grayness.

Devoting as much time as I have to retrospective jottings has been important to maintaining touch with family and friends.  One of the fun things about working for the Foreign Service is that one gets to travel and live overseas.  I learn new languages, live in new countries, and make new friends, but maintaining close relations with those one has left behind in the US is hard even for those of us with normal lives.  Imagine what it is like to come out as a transsexual in transition to family and friends when there is an ocean, a continent or two, and many time zones in-between.  Although I did as much as I could in person on three visits to the US last year, I started writing these notes as a way to explain more fully what had been hidden for decades to those who thought they knew me well.  The most gratifying part of writing has been that it has worked.  My son and sisters have become closer, and many friends have rallied around in ways I never expected.  Thus the retrospectives, some of them difficult to write, have their place.

But not all friends have Internet, and not all have followed.  One friend whom I have known since 1978 has drifted further and further away, and after a phone conversation on Thursday evening, I believe she is gone for good.  Like me, AJ was a misfit.  I met her through a friend while in graduate school.  She was pretty much a street person just a year or two older than me who had a hard time getting along with anyone.  I took her in and for months she had her bed roll on my floor in New Haven, Connecticut.  Then she disappeared and did not turn up again until the late 1980s.  She had joined the Hare Krishna and lived in their Baltimore temple.  At least she lived there until she was unceremoniously shown the door and ended up on my doorstep again.  Thus it has been ever since.  We talk by phone, sometimes frequently and then sometimes not at all for a year or two.  From time to time she would turn up at my doorstep in need of help, and I would always provide.  She was one of the first to learn of my being transgender in 1990, and she was one of the few who did not reject me.  The last time I saw her was in 2007.

Sigh.  AJ does not have Internet access and has no idea what I look like today other than for a photograph I sent her a few months ago.  For the past year and a half she has been adamant in trying to dissuade me from transition, asking me to forget my physical body and live in the spiritual world.  She could accept that I am transgender as long as I did nothing physical about it, a reaction that is unfortunately all too common.  On Thursday I told her I would be going for a mammogram the next day, and this finally brought home to her just how far I have gone down this road.  She had stumbled over my name for months, but somehow the mammogram hit her harder than a legal name change, a new passport, and an evolving voice.  Our conversation ended with her saying she did not think she could accept me any longer.  The following morning I awoke to a critical, painful voice mail message.  What had been a dialog has devolved into something much uglier, almost abusive.  A friendship has ended.

One side of me is guiltily happy that I will no longer have to try to convince or persuade, let along help AJ out of a difficult bind in future misadventures.  Another side sheds a tear for losing a relationship of 33 years duration, a voice that was there in my own difficult times.

The losing and gaining of friends is well known to everyone who has walked this road before me.  It's part of the process, as I already knew from my failed attempt to come out in 1990.  The happier side is that many other old friends have become closer, and to new friends in Romania I am and have always been Robyn.  

Lipscani Street Scene
Venturing out under gray skies this morning, I headed to Van Gogh in the Lipscani district for brunch with a friend.  Lipscani is Bucharest's old town, a pedestrian area of small shops and cafes in the city center.  Van Gogh is a favorite gathering place for many of my friends here, and it has also become one of mine.  It's a warm and cozy place to get out of the cold on blustery days.

I first met my friend SL at ACCEPT, the Romanian national LGBT rights association, several months ago, and we had been trying to get together ever since.  Today we swapped stories of growing up transgender in the US and growing up gay in Romania in the Communist period.  To me, every LGBT person I have met in Romania is a hero, and that is all the more so for those who grew up before the overthrow of Ceausescu.  My own timidity in the face of social conservatism in the US in the 1960s and 70s looks like petty cowardice in comparison to what LGBT people had to endure here.

After brunch we walked for a bit in Lipscani before going our separate ways.  I had a smile on my face, the blustery day seemingly that much brighter for good company.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot to say that the mammogram was negative.  Despite being between thin and normal weight most of my life, I've always had breasts that were at least A cup or somewhat larger.  I should have been having mammograms for years, but no doctor in the US ever referred me even after I would casually mention that one of my sisters had been treated for breast cancer.  When the Romanian doctor at the Sanador Clinic told me, "Ms. McCutcheon, everything is normal," I breathed a sigh of relief.

This has been my weekend in Bucharest, a weekend of friends lost and friends gained, a mammogram, and Van Gogh.  May this winter day find you all surrounded by a warm, loving glow.

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