A chilly wind whipped around my legs as I walked slowly around the old tree trunk, peering hard at the smooth bark. This must be the right tree, so where was it? Then a thought occurred to me. We were much younger and shorter then, so look further down! Yes there it was, only faintly visible after all this time but legible to someone who knew what it said in all its crude lettering and miss-spelling:
“J + R
We must have been ten when Jake carved it, and we had already known each other for four years. Drawn together as the two new boys who started school on the same day, Jake was older than me by six months, the youngest of three sons of a railway worker whose wife had run off with a workmate. With his dark hair, flashing eyes and dazzling smile, even at that age he showed signs of the youth who by his late teens when ‘growing like a weed’ as his aunt put it, and already nearly six foot tall, he would have all the girls swarming around him.
I, on the other hand had two older sisters, and when my father was killed in a fall at a building site, my mother brought us back to the town where she grew up and where there was family to support her. Jake and I even tried to pair up our parents, but although they became friends, there was no spark of romance between them.
The only male in the family, I was shorter by a head than Jake, and slight with blonde hair and a shy manner. I was always the follower when Jake led, and lead he did into many scrapes, the tree carving being only one of them. The park superintendent did not take long to find the culprits, after all his daughter was in our class. We had to sweep up leaves for several weeks before he was satisfied we had been punished enough. With all the contrasts between us, Jake and I made an unlikely couple of friends, but maybe it was the case of ‘opposites attract’? We seemed to be destined as friends for life.
Jake was determined to be a professional footballer. He was a natural with any game, but football was his passion. I was said to be bright and wanted to be a designer. I spent hours drawing everything that caught my eye, and the art teacher said I showed real promise. My aim was to go to art school.
Near the start of the school year, it was a tradition for the senior class to have a Halloween fancy dress party. No one could remember who started it but tradition was very strong at the school. When it came to our last year, the theme was to be ‘The Nineteen Fifties’. Jake suggested we could do something together, but none of the ideas we tossed around seemed original or exciting. Then one evening two weeks before Halloween, Jake arrived at our house.
“Robin, I’ve had the best idea” he announced with his usual confidence. “It’s a Halloween party remember? You and I can go as a nineteen fifties boyfriend and girlfriend.”
I felt myself blushing and hated myself for it. Jake couldn’t know, he just couldn’t.
“Well, this I must see,” I remarked, “Jake in a dress.”
Jake guffawed. “Not me — you!”
Jake and I had always said we had no secrets from each other, but it wasn’t strictly true. I did have a secret I couldn’t share with anyone, especially Jake.
With my mother working and my older sisters at the local college or out on dates, I was often in the house on my own and I suppose that’s how it started. Bored, and wondering round the house, inevitably I ended up in Marie or Jenny’s bedrooms. Interested as I was in design, I was fascinated by the satin and nylon underwear left strewn around their bedrooms. I loved the feel of the soft materials, and inevitably my curiosity on how they would feel to wear took over. Soon I was hooked and using every chance to dress in their lingerie and dresses, admiring myself in the mirror. I was careful to put everything back as I found it and I was sure they were none the wiser.
“Aw, come on Robin, it’ll be fun.” I snapped back to reality and what Jake was saying.
“Well, fun for you maybe, but I’ll be the one laughed at.” I replied sourly. The truth was that when I dressed up, I sometimes imagined myself as Jake’s girlfriend going out on a date. Now he was offering me the opportunity to turn my dream into reality, and the thought scared me to death.
Jake grinned. “You have to be the girl — you’ve got two elder sisters and I’m sure they could come up with something for you to wear. I’ve only got brothers, so that lets me off the hook.”
Just then Marie came home and Jake immediately told her of his idea. To my surprise she was very supportive.
“It will be a hoot,” she said “And I’ve got just the clothes for you to wear. Remember that guy I dated who was so keen on square-dancing? I bought a skirt and net petticoats and they’re still in the closet. They look so ‘fifties’ they’ll be perfect.”
My problem of course was that I could never refuse Jake anything, so it wasn’t likely I could do so now. And then there was the fact that I didn’t really want to refuse him this time. At least by protesting I had allowed him and Marie to ‘talk me into it’, so my secret was safe.
The day of the party arrived. It was a Friday and we were given the afternoon off from school to get ready. Marie was in charge and insisted I have a bath before dressing. When I arrived back in the bedroom she had the clothes I was to wear spread out on the bed.
“Here, put these on,” she ordered, holding up a pair of pink nylon panties. I started to protest that I’d wear my boxers, but Marie cut me off.
“You won’t feel like a girl if you wear boxers,” she said. “You have to be a girl from the skin up.”
She left the room while I stepped into them and drew them up around my waist. They felt so good.
“OK”, she said when she returned, and helped me into a matching bra, filling the cups with rolled up pantihose. Next came the pale pink skirt and the white net petticoats that would make the skirt stand out. Finally I put on the white satin blouse trimmed with a pink ribbon to match the skirt.
Bobby sox and low heel shoes completed my costume. I was slightly disappointed that she hadn’t made me wear stockings and heels, but as a fifties teen, the sox were more authentic, and as for dancing in heels, that could have been a real trial.
Marie then set about doing my make up, and added a touch of perfume. Finally, from somewhere she had obtained a pony tail hair piece that matched my own fair hair. She stood back with a satisfied look on her face, and only then she allowed me to look in the mirror. I gasped. Robin the boy had disappeared and in his place Robin the girl was looking back at me. I had seen myself in a dress many times before, but never looking like this.
The doorbell rang and Marie made me stand there while she went to let Jake in. He looked very dapper in his slim pants, white shirt with a narrow tie and a long dark jacket. His hair had been heavily oiled and slicked back, and he looked like a young James Dean. I was very impressed. Then I noticed the expression on his face, one I’d never seen before.
“What’s wrong?” I asked “Do I look so bad?”
“Err, no. You look pretty…good” he seemed to add the last word as an afterthought.
“I think Robin looks very pretty,” said Marie, grinning. I scowled at her, but I was secretly pleased.
The hall where the party was held was only a short distance, so we walked there. I had never been out of the house dressed as a girl before and it was a strange sensation. My short heels clicked on the pathway, and I could feel the breeze on my legs and blowing my skirt. It felt wonderful. Did all girls feel these fabulous sensations, or were they just used to it? As we reached the entrance, I was suddenly nervous. What would my classmates say?
We walked in and the hall was full of people in fifties clothing, the girls looking far more feminine than usual in their wide skirts. It was such a contrast to the pants they normally wore to school. A girl called Laura who I knew had a crush on Jake came up to talk to him.
“Hello Jake” she said as she glanced at me “I thought you were coming with Robin.” Then she looked more closely at me.
“Oh my gosh,” she squealed “It is Robin! Hey girls, come and see Robin.”
Suddenly I was surrounded by a dozen girls, all ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ and telling me how good I looked. Instead of shy retiring male Robin, I was ‘one of the girls’ Robin and it felt good.
Just then the music started up - all the hits of the fifties, and the dancing started. A boy called Paul came over and asked me to dance. I didn’t really know him and I was sure he thought I was a genuine girl. We started to dance the jive, a dance whose main aim seemed to be to show off the girls’ legs as they spun around, their skirts flaring. Fortunately Marie had given me some lessons and I seemed to manage it quite well. There was certainly a queue of young guys waiting to dance with me, and I was having the best time of my life.
When Jake finally caught up with me he made a remark “Well you seem to be having a good time.” If I didn’t know better, I might have thought he was jealous!
The evening passed all too quickly and finally Jake and I were walking back to my house. To my surprise, he was holding my hand, just like we were a real boyfriend and girlfriend. I loved it! We reached my gate and turned to each other to say goodnight. Jake looked down at me, and crazy though it seemed, I knew he wanted to kiss me. He held back and then of course I did it. I reached up and kissed him. For about three wonderful seconds our lips touched, and then Jake started back, his eyes blazing.
“Whoah there, what do you think you’re doing?” he almost shouted. I was shocked and speechless.
“We’re guys Robin, and guys don’t kiss! Well not straight guys anyway.” I could tell he was really angry and my eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry Jake” I started, but it was too late, Jake was already heading down the street, almost at a run. I stared after him, the tears now flowing freely, and then I went into my house, ran upstairs and threw myself on the bed sobbing.
Marie came in at the sound. She held me, rocking in her arms and gradually between sobs the whole story poured out. She made little comforting noises and gradually my crying eased.
“Robin” she said “I don’t know if this is the right time to tell you, but I know about you dressing in my clothes, and tonight when I dressed you and did your make up, you startled me how feminine you looked.”
“I’ve felt this way for a long time.” I replied. “I really wish I’d been born a girl.”
The next morning I decided to ring Jake, but his brother answered and said he was out. The same thing happened a bit later, so it was obvious he didn’t want to talk to me. I left a message asking him to ring back but heard nothing. The rest of Saturday and then Sunday passed and still no word from Jake.
Monday morning came and I really didn’t want to go to school. How could I face Jake when he so obviously didn’t want to talk to me? Was what I had done really so bad that it had ended our friendship for ever? I arrived at the school yard and saw Jake in the distance. He was facing my way, but when he saw me he promptly turned around and started talking to some other boys. I hardly had time to take that in when I heard a voice behind me.
“Robin!” It was Laura, the popular girl who had come up to us on Friday night. I don’t think I had ever talked to her before that night, but now she wanted to talk to me.
“Wasn’t Friday night a hoot?” she said brightly. “You looked so amazing. You really had me fooled for a minute and I’m sure you fooled some of the guys there.”
“Err, yes, it was fun.” I said uncertainly, not knowing where this was leading.
“Some of us girls are going down town next Saturday.” she went on “Just to check out the shops, have a bite to eat and chat with the guys. We’d like you to come too.”
“But you wouldn’t want a guy with you.” I said haltingly. My gaze kept drifting to Jake who still had his back turned to me.
“No, silly. We want you to dress as a girl again. One of my friends was stood up by one of the guys who hang around there. We want you to chat him up and make a date with him, and then we’ll tell him you’re a guy. He’ll be so humiliated.”
I thought that was rather cruel, but Jake still had his back to me and suddenly I thought ‘I hate guys’ and I agreed to do it. I did go with the girls to town, but that is a story for another time. As we finished talking I looked around for Jake, but he had gone.
It took me two days to finally get a moment alone with Jake and even then he tried to avoid me but I persisted.
“Jake, we’ve been friends for so long. Can’t you accept my apology and we’ll move on?” I said.
“You don’t understand.” He said. “I’ve got plans.”
“What plans?” I demanded. “Surely they’re not affected by a little thing like that?”
“Little thing?” he responded. “You don’t understand do you? I can’t be seen with you — ever. OK?”
I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I knew that was the worst thing I could do but I couldn’t help it.
“Let’s just leave it at that.” He said and walked away.
I wondered how I could see out the rest of the school year with things as they were, but in fact events resolved that for me. Two days later at the school morning assembly the headmaster made an announcement.
“I have some news about one of our students.” He started. “Jake Western, the captain of our football team is going to leave us. He’s been offered a contract with the Tigers and has to take it up right away. We’ll miss him of course but we wish him well with his sporting career.”
The students whooped and cheered, all save one. I stood there as if struck by lightning. Now I understood. The Tigers were one of the top teams in the country. It was exactly the chance Jake had set his heart on. I suddenly realised something else. Any new recruit would have his life minutely examined by the media and if what had happened with me came out it would be splashed over every tabloid in the country and his career would be over before it began. That wasn’t all. The Tigers were based 500 miles away. I wondered if I would ever seen Jake again. I felt so miserable, but I knew I had to at least try and set things right with him before he left on Friday.
It took me two days to finally get a moment alone with Jake. Everyone wanted to talk to him and wish him all the best, and I just stood back willing him to be alone for a minute. Finally by chance it happened, we walked towards each other in the corridor and Jake was alone. I saw him hesitate and jumped in before he could turn away.
“Jake, I just want to wish you the very best of luck with your football career.”
His face softened. “Thanks Robin” he said “You know now why I couldn’t tell you what was happening and…” his voice trailed off.
“Why you can’t be seen with me.” I finished for him. He looked embarrassed but nodded.
“It’s alright — really” I lied, willing the tears not to start flowing. “You have to follow your dream.”
“You must follow your dream too.” said Jake. “You’ll be a great designer some day. I’ve seen your work and it’s brilliant.”
“Well maybe. “ I replied. “And maybe we’ll meet again some day. Good luck Jake.”
“Good luck, Robin.” he replied and took my outstretched hand. Even in that moment of high emotion I noticed that he didn’t shake it the way two men shake hands, but the way a man would shake a woman’s offered hand. I held it together until he had gone and then the tears flowed gently down each cheek. ‘Follow my dream’ Jake had said. Well, I had two dreams and I could only follow one of them.
I’ve heard horror stories of transgendered people whose families have rejected them, but I was one of the lucky ones. My sister Marie was wonderful in her support. It was she who sat beside me and held my hand when I haltingly told Jenny and my mother how I felt and what I must do. My mother looked shocked at first but then she got up and gave me a hug.
“You are my child, Robin, and I’ll always love you.”
There were tears all round that day. So I started on my journey to womanhood. Others have told their stories much better than I can, but there was the usual challenges to overcome, and so many highs and lows. I stayed at school until the end of the year, even though I felt sure that people would start noticing changes in me. Then I found a job with a very understanding employer. Again, I was so fortunate, but one sacrifice had had to be made. There would be no college for me. I had to have money and I couldn’t expect my family to provide it while I studied. I saved every penny I could, and after about three years I finally stepped on a jet plane bound for Thailand and the surgery that would make me whole.
While this was happening, I followed Jake’s career with great interest. As a ‘local boy made good’, there were plenty of stories about him in the local paper. I cut each one out and pasted them in a scrapbook. It wasn’t just football stories either. Now and then there was a picture of him at some social event, always with a glamorous blonde, and the inevitable stories that this might be ‘the one’. I stared that the pictures and how I wished I was that blonde on his arm. All this time there was never a word from Jake, and I did not dare to try and contact him, but I thought about him, all the time. When I read the report of his career-ending injury, and saw him leave the hospital on crutches, I wept for him.
It was two years later. By now I was working in a lingerie store “La Femme”. There seemed a certain irony in the wheel turning full circle. I was working and selling exquisite garments of silk and lace, and still doing little designs of my own in my spare time. That was the closest I could hope to get to being a designer.
It was a quiet lunchtime and I was the only one in the store. Turned away from the counter and tidying the shelves, I was lost in thought, and I didn’t hear the door open. When he spoke I froze.
“Excuse me miss, I wonder if you can help me?”
I turned slowly. There he was, older now but handsome as ever, still lean and athletic with his dark hair and a slight smile on his lips. That smile that made women go weak at the knees as I was doing now.
“Yes sir, how can I help?” Jake didn’t recognise me, I was sure of that. How could he?
“I’d like to buy some lingerie for a special lady.” he said and my heart felt like it had been pierced by a red hot arrow. I fixed the smile on my face.
“Yes sir, and do you know what size she is?”
“No,” he admitted “But she’s about your size. In fact” he went on “She’s exactly your size.”
I felt the color flooding my cheeks.
“Robin.” he continued and I suddenly realised that Jake, the ever confident Jake was actually nervous. “Do you think it’s possible for a young fool who threw away the most precious thing in his life to grow older and wiser and be given a second chance?”
“Yes, I think it’s possible.” I replied slowly. Just then the shop door opened again and a woman customer entered the shop. She started to browse among the racks.
“I can’t talk to you properly here” said Jake urgently. “Could we have dinner tonight? Please?”
“I’d like that” I said. I wrote my number on a card and handed it to him. “Call me. Oh and one last thing.” A smile flickered over my face “I promise I won’t kiss you.” Jake had the grace to look embarrassed. He smiled his thanks and hurried out of the shop. The woman gave up her pretence of browsing and came to the counter. “Who was that?” she asked.
“An old friend,” I replied. “We lost touch.”
She looked pointedly at my ringless left hand and said “Well if he’s not married or gay I suggest you don’t lose touch again.”
Jake and I dined that evening in the town’s best restaurant, but I couldn’t tell you what we ate. There were so many years to catch up on, so much to say. He reached across the table and held my hand as I told him all that had happened to me.
“You didn’t follow your dream to be a designer?” he asked.
“No.” I replied. “I had two dreams and only enough money to fulfil one of them.”
“Well, perhaps it’s not too late.” He replied. Then he told me all about his career.
“What about all those glamorous women?” I said “How come you never got married?”
“Well” Jake said slowly “It’s a funny thing but my mind kept going back to a party I attended when I was a teenager. I went with the prettiest girl I ever saw and I treated her so badly, I never dared to try and find her and beg forgiveness. But I never forgot her.”
Later that evening Jake walked me back to the door of my apartment. I didn’t let him in that night, and as I promised, I didn’t try to kiss him. But Jake kissed me. It was a long slow lingering kiss. A kiss that held so much promise for the future.
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