by Andy Winder
When Kingdom Hearts III came out earlier this year, I considered buying a PlayStation even though I’m not much of a gamer these days. I guess that’s nostalgia for you: things you associate with your first love, especially your first queer love, never lose their power. I decided that paying rent was the bigger priority, but I’ve caught myself thinking about Natalie when my mind wanders even though we haven’t seen each other for years.
Natalie’s family had left for Oklahoma and mine moved to Northern Utah the summer after ninth grade–both of us hundreds of miles away from our hometown, St. George. Southern Utah isn’t the easiest place to grow up if you’re LGBT– even less so if you announce that you’re a democrat to your peers, as Natalie had done on her first day in our seventh-grade class.
“A what?” I’d asked when rumors about this new girl circled to me.
I’d heard that word on a radio show my dad listened to every morning while driving my sisters and me to school. But what, I tried to remember, had Glenn Beck said about democrats? Bad things, I recalled. That Glenn Beck did not seem to like democrats at all.
Few students were out as gay or even supportive of LGBT issues at George Washington Academy, the charter school I attended through eighth grade. One of my teachers gave our class an hour-long talk about how, like in Ancient Rome, gays and lesbians would cause the downfall of American society–to which a student raised his hand and asked, “Excuse me, what’s a lesbian?”
Declaring yourself a democrat wasn’t the best idea on your first day of school. But that made me curious about her. Hadn’t I declared myself “emo” a few months ago after watching Phantom of the Opera for the first time? My friend Sariah had declared an intervention after I started wearing all-navy-blue uniform clothes to school and penning self-insert Twilight fan fiction, but I’d felt great at the time. I told people I was sad, but what I meant was that I was twelve and confused liking Fall Out Boy for being sad.
Maybe democrats were misunderstood. And anyway, I’d never find out unless I got to know her.
My English teacher gave me the chance when she placed Natalie in my reading group. Her voice was the first thing that stood out to me. It was clear and melodious, and she focused on how she said things as much as what she said. Everything about her seemed like she paid attention to the details–she parted her black hair neatly, she had perfect posture, and her ironed uniform put my rumpled slacks and baggy polo to shame.
“I’m very into Japanese culture,” she said, gesturing to the graphic novel on her desk. “And Star Wars, but more so when I was a kid. Do you like manga?”
I did. My sixth-grade teacher Ms. Kerr had banned manga because she thought too many people were reading them instead of “actual books.” This had turned my fascination into a defiance to invest myself in the art form even more. Sometimes, I’d even slip a hardcover book sleeve over manga volumes and sneak them into class (another reason that Sariah told our friend group that she worried about me).
We became fast friends. During lunch and recess, I always wanted to be as close to Natalie as I could. She was the only seventh-grader I knew who followed current affairs and studied for the ACT. Every time I talked to her, I felt like she taught me so much about the world and about myself.
I liked her a lot. I liked all of my friends, but the way I liked her was different. It was more like how I felt about Zac, another classmate who made me blush when he played rock-paper-scissors with me after school while we waited for our rides. And I wanted her to like me, too.
On Friday nights, Natalie would invite me to her home for sleepovers. I liked going to her house–her parents were both lawyers, and her upper-middle-class life fascinated my lower-middle-class upbringing. I found it perplexing how her family had an imported water dispenser in their home and that every kid had their own room. It was here that she introduced me to two things: video games and cosplay.
“My friends and I are doing a Kingdom Hearts cosplay group for the Anime Fannatiku convention in April,” she said, “and we need someone to be Demyx. Do you wanna join us?”
For those of you who hung out in less nerdy circles than I did growing up, “cosplay” is when dedicated fans make costumes of their favorite fictional characters and wear them to conventions. It’s just as much an art form as it is a hobby and some people (Natalie’s group included) made their costumes from scratch and entered them into contests.
This particular contest would involve performing a skit in full costume and competing against other amateur cosplayers in terms of craft, stage presence, and creativity. For me, it would also involve dressing up as a male character.
Most of what I knew about the Kingdom Hearts gaming franchise, I knew because Natalie liked it. I’d saved up my babysitting money for months to buy a handheld console that would let me play the game so we could talk about it–normal platonic friend behavior, right? Demyx was a character who I can only describe as “anime David Bowie:” a villain who wore a stylish leather cloak, wore his hair up in a spiked mullet, and whose weapon of choice was a sitar with magical powers.
“Uhm, I’ll have to ask my mom but probably,” I said. “I dunno if she’d like me dressing up as a guy.”
I don’t know why I said this. It’s not like I’d worn a men’s costume before or that my mom cared about gender norms. She always told me that girls could do anything that boys could do, and I believed that, too. But I had a secret: sometimes, I felt like I should have been born male, not female. I’d never told anyone about this, especially not Natalie, but the gap between how I saw myself and my body kept widening as I started going through puberty. Something about this costume seemed like it would validate these feelings and maybe whatever I felt about Natalie, too. It’d be one thing if it were all a costume, but in some ways, I didn’t think it would be.
“You could always go as, like, a female version of him–”
“No, it’s probably fine! I’ll just… not tell her it’s a guy, I guess. I want to compete with you guys.”
Our time together revolved around preparation during those months leading up to the anime convention. At school, we’d practice our skit and sketch concept art and notes for our costume designs. Her handwriting was like her voice–clear and controlled but still light. And on the weekends, we’d spend hours cutting and stitching fabric. Her hands would guide mine over the sewing machine, and I used to hope that she wouldn’t notice how much mine shook.
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she told me. “I’ve never felt like someone cared about me the way you do. You’re so genuine.”
Nobody could make me blush like she could. By now, I’d started to realize that what I felt for Natalie wasn’t platonic. I spent months praying every night that God wouldn’t send me to
Hell for how I felt about her. Sometimes I’d feel peace, but other times a guilt-ridden pit would settle so deep into my stomach that I couldn’t eat or get up from bed for days at a time.
But I kept coming back to Natalie. I couldn’t help myself. When I was around her, her light could break through all the darkness for a little while.
On the morning of the convention, we donned sleek, black coats and wigs that we had bought online–though I would soon dare my friends to chop off my hair into a cropped, jagged cut. Something about short hair made me feel more like myself. Throughout the panels, we held each other’s hands and I rested my head on her shoulder. And even though I trembled during the costume competition, the brightness in her eyes kept me steady.
Our costumes didn’t win any prizes, but we grew even closer. We held hands even more often: gripped at an ice skating rink, linked while trick-or-treating for the last time in ninth grade, clutched as we watched scary movies. She complimented my newly shorn hair, and I told her she was beautiful. Even though shame loomed over my head whenever I went to church on Sundays, I wanted to put a word to the feelings she and I shared–to make it tangible. So on her birthday, I sent her a card and told her that I loved her, and that I knew we couldn’t do anything about it, but I loved her anyway.
It took her awhile to acknowledge what I’d written on the card, and she agreed–we were both Mormon. We were both, as far as we knew then, female. There wasn’t anything else to say about it. And we never did, though I cried every night for a month afterwards–partially because of her and partly because God had made my body and my feelings all wrong.
But it didn’t matter for long, at least when it came to her. By the end of ninth grade, our parents both decided to move away from St. George. She would move to Tulsa, where her family was from, and I would move to my grandparents’ home in American Fork. And that was that.
We’d still sleep over at each other’s houses during that last summer, but the boxes started stacking up in both of our houses. We tried not to talk about how soon we’d have to say goodbye, but that didn’t stop the day from coming. The night before she left for Oklahoma, we slept side-by-side in sleeping bags. The rest of her room was empty. I’d wished I felt empty.
The next morning, we hugged when my mom picked me up and promised we’d write each other. And then I left, just as confused as when I’d met her but with a heaviness because of how much I missed her and how much of myself I knew I’d have to face. My family would soon follow hers by packing all of our things in moving trucks and settling into a city where only our relatives knew our names.
Now that she was gone, I tried to process how I felt about her as well as how I felt when others saw me as a man. Neither were easy things to think about, and they didn’t get easier, but things started to get clearer. And things started to get clearer for her, too. We could mark these milestones in our emails to each other.
“I have a girlfriend now,” she wrote me during senior year. “She has hair like Ramona Flowers. You know, like from the Scott Pilgrim movie?”
I congratulated her on coming out and, next year, told her something I’d only ever told my parents and my counselor: “I’m transgender. I don’t know if I want to start going by Andy or Anthony but when I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”
Back before I transitioned to male, every time I came out used to make me have a small panic attack. But a few days later, she told me that she admired my bravery and that she’d use whatever name and pronouns made me happy. And even though we weren’t thirteen-year-olds figuring out who we were and who we loved anymore, it gave me closure.
After a while, we stopped writing as frequently–every few weeks became every few months and, eventually, once or twice a year. But I still thought about her when I chose a new name, and when I began transitioning, and when I started dating my first partner. I’ve always had a hard time ending relationships. I’ve grown shyer the older I get and it takes a long time for me to trust people. But it takes an even longer time for me to let go of them.
That could be why I wanted to play the final Kingdom Hearts game so much. It’s not the characters I want to revisit. I want to go back to when I fell in love for the first time–not forever, just for a little while–so I can replace the guilt I felt back then for the gratitude I feel now. I want to thank Natalie for showing me how to love someone so much. And when the game’s end credits play, I’d turn off the TV screen and smile.
Andy Winder is a YA writer whose work has appeared in HuffPost Personal, Bustle, The Outline, and Book Riot. He is currently revising his queer romance as a 2019-2020 Pitch Wars mentee.