And so it was that I found myself in the lunchroom of my tiny new high school somewhere in the middle of Georgia, sitting next to Julian who had earlier introduced himself as the captain of the cross-country team. Julian's family had emigrated from Kenya only a few generations before, and running was obviously in his blood. His father and uncle had both participated in the last three Boston marathons with very respectable finishes.
It was during a lull in my conversation with Julian that I first saw her. Sitting by herself at the opposite end of the cafeteria was a very attractive young blonde. I wouldn't call her gorgeous; cute was a better word, cheerleader cute. I was entranced by her shoulder length hair, parted in the middle with long bangs, something like Helen Hunt's. She was dressed conservatively, jeans with a slight flare at the bottom, Adidas tennis shoes with pink stripes, and a mostly red striped sweater with a white turtleneck underneath.
Excusing myself from my table I walked calmly to hers and sat down.
"Hi," I said.
"You're the new guy." It wasn't a question, but I answered her anyway.
"Yeah that's me."
She was absently starring down at the table, "Did someone send you over here to talk to me, or did you come on your own?" Her voice was soft like a whisper, like a child, an angel.
"I was just wondering why a beautiful girl like yourself is sitting here in the corner all alone."
She turned to look at me finally and brushed the hair out from in front of her face. It was like a scene from a movie. She smiled. "You're sweet. And my guess is that by tomorrow you'll have it figured out."
She stood up just as the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch.
* * *
The shock of what Julian had just said had quite settled in yet. "What do you mean she's not a girl?" I asked.
"What I mean is that the 'Alex' is short for 'Alexander." I hadn't known Julian long but I was pretty sure that this wasn't some strange joke. Regardless, this wasn't the way I wanted to start my second day in a new school.
When the lunch bell rang I wasted no time in walking to Alex's table. This time I was aware of the glances and mumbling of nearby students as I sat down.
Once again, Alex was staring down at the table and not looking at me. "I told you you'd figure it out."
Try as I did, I couldn't put this utterly feminine creature together with what I now knew about her. There was no way for me to see her as a man. She wasn't over-the-top like some Hollywood drag queen. There was nothing in her looks, or voice, or mannerisms to keep her from being seen as an everyday girl next door.
After an awkward pause Alex continued, "I guess we're through now."
That was my cue to leave, but I didn't. "I'm fascinated by you."
She didn't seem impressed, "And what exactly is it about me that 'fascinates' you? Is there a little gay boy inside you just waiting to get out? Well, I can't help you. I don't even understand myself."
"Maybe fascinated was the wrong word," I said, trying to fend off some of her vehemence. "I'm not gay, I just thought I could help you."
"This is even better," she laughed sarcastically. "Let's help the freak 'straighten' out her life."
I could see I was loosing ground. "Well, maybe I can't help you… but I could point you in the direction of someone who can," I said with my index finger pointed skyward.
"Oh my God," she said with a little laugh. It was a cute laugh.
"Exactly." I smiled as I said it, and I watched as her smile turned into a frown.
"Ok, let's get real serious right now. I don't even want to get into some argument about how your God hates fags, and how it's a wicked sin, and I'm going straight to Hell unless I repent. Look you seem like a nice guy, but you need to walk away from this. Go get your gay fix somewhere else. I've spent too much time in therapy learning that my cross-dressing is ok, and that I don't need to be ashamed of it, to have you come here and start preaching to me and messing it all up."
Before she could get up and storm off down the hall, I thought I needed to clear up a few things. "Ok, I want to be your friend regardless of any of this, but its very important for you to understand that God doesn't hate you. In fact He loves you very much."
Alex had been looking at me since this animated discussion began, but now her gaze dropped to the table in front of her. "Why would your loving God make me the way I am? If it's a sin for me to be the way I am, why wouldn't He have made me a woman?"
I contemplated touching her, just a simple gesture of warmth, but decided against it. "I don't claim to understand everything that happens in this world. But I think that God sometimes allows things to come into our lives that we have to overcome and it's through these struggles that he brings us closer to him."
"You act as if I had a say in this, like its something I could fight. This is who I am."
"How long has it been since your mother died?"
Alex looked as if she'd been slapped. She looked as if she were going to slap me. Her lips quivered as she spoke, "You don't know anything about me."
There was a long pause, and I waited until Alex regained her composure and started speaking again, "About four years, I was twelve."
I watched as she remembered; the pain was evident on her face. "We have more in common than you think," I said.
The seconds ticked by in silence. Finally she spoke again. "You say we all have these things in our lives that we have to overcome. So what's yours?"
"I don't know exactly. I mean I had a hard life too. But God…" I started to stammer, and from her intent gaze I knew she understood the source of it.
"If you want to know, I'll tell you," she said softly. "You have the same problem I have. I can see it in your eyes. You want me… so much that you can barely stand it. You're right, we do have a lot in common, more than even you thought. I can see you fighting it. Maybe you've got God in your corner pulling for you. But maybe you shouldn't have to fight it. Maybe you should be who you are."
She leaned towards me, as if to kiss me. For a moment I was tempted, then I backed away.
Alex broke the silence once again, "I guess we really are through now." She stood up and left, and I didn't try to stop her.
* * *
When school let out that day I saw her walking across the quad. And despite my overwhelming desire to talk to her I continued on my way in the opposite direction. Before I turned away from her I saw the truck approaching.
It was an old Ford pickup driven by a college student, his friend was hanging out the window holding a half-empty beer bottle. As the truck drove by Alex, the passenger threw the bottle and it exploded at her feet, beer splashing all across the pink stripes of her shoes. The truck quickly stopped and both young men jumped out. She was all alone.
I ran as quickly as I could. I could hear the shouting. "Sissy!" "Fag!" I knew what was going to happen. As I neared the three the driver turned to look at me. "Looks like our little bitch here has a new girlfriend," he said to his friend. That's when I saw him take out the gun.
The two men staggered about obviously drunk. The driver pointed the gun at Alex, as she stood frozen, statuesque, a pillar of salt. With a burst of speed that would have made Julian's family proud, I put myself between Alex and the gun.
I didn't hear the shot. My eyes opened to the ambulance's flashing lights and Alex's tear streamed face above me. I felt cold. And as the sights and sounds of this world drifted away I felt content. Even if I couldn't fix everything, at least I helped.