Finding Friendship Between Past and Present

Right now, I am doing a writing residency in the north of Italy. It’s my first residency. I had never applied for one and then, as a New Year’s resolution, I applied for many and got into a workshop in America and this residency in Italy. It is bucolic. I wake up, I eat fruit and sweetened espresso, I take a walk through the meadows and by the river and then, when I come back, I climb the stone steps to my studio and write for a few hours until the director calls us for lunch. All the while playing the soundtrack to Call Me By Your Name on a loop in my head.

The other morning, I woke up and thought about the day ahead of me and from somewhere unplaceable the thought bubbled up, Oliver is living the life they always wanted. I don’t know where this came from and I can only attribute such a voice, such a thought, to one person: my pre-transition self.

I know that for many trans people their relationship with that past self is more fraught. It is steeped, very understandably, in a certain amount of fear or discomfort. I have those feelings too when I think of myself before, most acutely when I look at photos of myself from years ago. Still, the further I get into my transition the more that, more than anything, what I feel towards that person, Chloё, is tenderness. She (and I am okay to refer to her as such) feels like a friend that I don’t get to see very much anymore but who I have endless love and gratitude for. She is the person who understands me most, and it is a great and valid sadness, I think, of my being trans to lose that person.

It is only this year that I changed my name and for the first couple of months there was a process of grief to undertake. I would make mistakes when introducing myself, stumble over the names like a magician pulling endless handkerchiefs out of their pocket. Then, after correcting myself, laughing at the apparent absurdity of the error, something would deflate a little and I wondered if I was, in fact, ready to say goodbye to the name and person that was Chloё.

If I wake up with anxiety something I have always done to soothe myself is to repeat facts. “I was born in…,” “My parents are…,” “I have two older siblings.” These objective facts steady my brain and calm my irrational thoughts. One morning, a little hungover after a night where I was introduced to new people as Oliver, a night I was immensely grateful for if a little shaken by, I woke up anxious. I tried “I am Oliver Reeson” and it didn’t work and I spiraled further. What am I doing, I thought. I’m just confusing myself more.

I kept going, regardless. I didn’t change my name back or delay that part of my transition. Then, gradually, I started to hear how it sounded coming from the people I love. A text from my dad: Hi Oliver, do you need me to pick you up from the airport tomorrow? Dad. The sweetness of colleagues at work using my name in conversation more than they ever had before, presumably to quickly get used to saying it. There is nothing like walking into a room and having six people turn around and yell, “Yo Oli!” to make you feel like the hot jock in a high school movie!

Weirdly, the people I was most nervous to tell were the baristas at my local coffee place. I think I was hesitant to interfere with the Ford production line efficiency that sees them pick up the pen to write my name on the cup as soon as I have walked through the door. It felt too clumsy to halt them and tell them I had a new name. It took me four days of shyness, of faking out, before I did it. Then, on a sunny morning in Carlton, Melbourne I walked to work with “Oliver” scribbled in biro on the side of the paper cup, grinning to myself.

I realized I wasn’t confused about who I wanted to be, I was, instead, simply, a shy person who was scared of change and scared of interrupting the lives of the people around me, if only momentarily. Hesitations that are generally recognizable to most, whether they are transitioning or not.

Though spatially Chloё feels far away from me now, I can still access her in ways, or she appears. She is still me. I have always liked journaling for the opportunity to speak to myself as a friend and to ask myself questions. Sometimes Chloё is there when I journal, or if I see something wonderful happening – like last week in Manhattan when I saw a small dog wearing four high-heeled dog shoes – it is her voice that pops into my head exclaiming “cool!” and my voice, maybe a little deeper now, responding “amazing!”

When I was a kid, the first notable sign of any gender difference was when I was three and my grandparents came to stay with us. My grandfather and I would sing this nursery rhyme where he took the role of Paul and I took the role of Peter. The song was about two little birds. We would sit on the green leather sofa in my parents’ loungeroom, wiggling our fingers at one another and singing. I was so taken with my role that I couldn’t detach from it. I spent the rest of that holiday telling my family that I was their son, Peter, and Chloё had gone away on holiday with her real family. Some mistake had been made, it happens, but it had been righted now and here I was. It is a similar feeling now. That some mistake had been made in our shared youth, that neither of us got to be the calm and comfortable versions of ourselves and now that things have been corrected we’re both happier, she and I.

I like to imagine her in the world, in the life of her choosing. I had this book when I was a kid about a toy bunny named Felix who gets lost on a family holiday. Though the little girl who has lost him cries at first, he starts to send letters and stickers from all over the world. He visits Rome, and London, and Paris, and New York, and Cairo. The thoughts that come from Chloё feel like those letters from Felix. I’m gone but it’s not sad, I’m having a good time and so are you. I like to think she is travelling around, getting into hijinx that I would have only held her back from.

In Australia I created a semi-autobiographical web series with a friend based on our shared experience of illness as young people; I had breast cancer at the start of my twenties and she has dealt with alopecia since her teenage years. Since the show came out I have received messages from viewers who respond to the Chloё character. The character in the show is also played by the very talented non-binary actor Liv Hewson, who stars in Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet with Drew Barrymore. I like to joke sometimes that Chloё is out there in other dimensions, living as Drew Barrymore’s daughter, helping people with their own experience of cancer, having a full and meaningful life of her own, objectively more interesting than mine. She is living her best life. I am living mine. It is as though we released each other.

In the past couple of months I have met many new people. They are some of the first people to know me only as Oliver. I feel like a baby boy. I listen with a gentle hunger to the ways they say my name. The ways they shorten and elongate the syllables. If they use a nickname or they don’t. The way they spell my name. When the Italian residency director calls my name he says it with an upwards inflection, “Ol-IEE.” I hear it and I think yes, that’s me, I am living the life I always wanted. I walk down the studio steps and call back to him, I’m coming.

Oliver Reeson is a non-binary essayist and screenwriter from Melbourne, Australia. They created and wrote the web series Homecoming Queens for SBS On Demand.

Oliver has written 2 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Wow. This is incredible, thank you for writing and sharing.

    This is exactly how I felt revisiting a family amusement park my grandma would take us to when we visited several times a year in coal country, Pennsylvania. I could walk around that place blindfolded and backwards.

    Going back as my chosen self, it was like we were both riding the rides, exclaiming we did it, we made it. It felt as if I was reclaiming my boihood, going back in time as well as exulting in the adult I am now.

    Everyone’s experience is different, but it’s refreshing to hear someone else who looks back at who they were, feels a pang of sadness, and says, “it’s okay, you can come too.”

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