One of my favorite things to witness in the American suburban expanse is ridiculous buildings trying their best to incorporate motifs of classical architecture. On Eisenhower, in the south of Ann Arbor, there’s a strip mall that’s trying it’s best to look like a fun-size imitation of the Colosseum, except it’s only a semicircle, and I don’t think there are any Tropical Smoothies in Rome. At this faux façade, with its vehicular arena of a parking lot, there is a Tex-Mex fast-casual chain called Moe’s Southwest Grill. It’s objectively worse than Panchero’s or Qdoba, but I like it the best. I like it because it reminds me of Clemson, South Carolina, a then-small town with a college a lot of my family attended, home to a Moe’s location I ate at when I was eight or so. I was stupid then, so I probably made my mom order me a cheese quesadilla. The multicolored plastic kid’s cup with the big bendy straw lodged in the lid similarly lodged itself in my mind.
Why I am I talking about a pretty okay fast casual southwestern chain for a Books piece in a B-Side themed around the number three? Truth be told, I don’t know. I do know this is how my mind jumps: Weird Roman rip-off architecture to Moe’s to South Carolina. to the Anderson public library. There’s a Moe’s in my Southern hometown as there is a daunting library that looks like a downsized Parthenon (or at least it was daunting to me when I was eight and two stories equated to about seven kid Cassies stacked on top of each other). I always left the library with a book when my mom took me, but I never read them there; my time was happily spent logging hours on the computers playing Magic School bus point-and-click games.
I do know that tenuous little connections like this make up my lifetime career and hobby of reading and writing, from its humble beginnings in South Carolina. to its radical new changes in Germany to its uncertain endings in Michigan. I’ve lived in a trilogy of fixed places in the never-ending and incessantly moving series of novels that is my life. I’ve lived in a few more houses, but three places. Two continents. One girl who bided a lot of her time alone, in the pages of constructed worlds that were always easier to follow than real life.
In first grade I was put in an accelerated reader program because I smoked all the measly excuses for chapter books out of the water. Some called me a gifted student, but I know now that translates to “gay and depressed by their teenage years.” I remember being presented with the challenge of tackling some more advanced literature — in this case, “The Chronicles of Narnia” — and the next day I came in proclaiming I was already finished with “The Horse and His Boy.” Never mind the fact “The Horse and His Boy” was the fifth book in the series, I, with my advanced tyke eyesight, had conquered it.
I didn’t actually read the book. I just sat in my bed and stared really hard at a page for 30 seconds before flipping to the next.
Cut to few years later and a bunch of miles farther, and my fifth-grade class was tasked with writing a story for a big assignment for the class. Inspired by the worlds of Percy Jackson and Charlie Bone, my opus was about a group of ragtag friends who get thrust into a fantastical situation and solve it with some ingenuity and the power of staying true to your heart, or something. The gimmick with this story was time travel, and the name? “Back in Time.” A classic. I still have it printed on now decade-old paper if you want a signed copy.
In fifth grade I was living in Germany, and the school library was up a set of stairs from the fifth and fourth grade hallway. It was the highest point in the school, its atmosphere airy from all the natural lighting the surrounding windows allowed. Almost every week I would parse through its tight shelves, looking for a title of “Horrible Histories” I hadn’t read before. A lot of the historical references were lost on me, but I loved the pictures.
Walking up the stairs of the North Hatcher Stacks doesn’t fill me with that same brand of childlike glee. I hardly walk up them to check out a book, —only to suffer. Writing is a lot more involved now, and the reading so tough that even if I try to read a page it feels like I’m back in first grade staring at argle-bargle. Yet at least in my sophomore year of college I find myself trying to read and write — more so than when I first moved to Michigan.
Reading and writing was always mindless fun in the first two places I lived. In the third, it used to be a taxing chore. Fun was no longer to be found. My energy spent trying to make new friends or make sense of this crazy new state did often not see any reward, so I forewent my traditional pastimes for … nothing, really. When I became aware that my family was to leave Germany soon, that we would have to leave behind the life to which I had practically just adjusted, a spark died in me. Germany had become a waste; things would be better in Michigan, a fresh start.
When things weren’t better in eighth grade at a Michigan Catholic middle school, I assured myself things would be better in high school. A fresher start.
They weren’t much better at all.
Being designated an accelerated reader back in first grade meant I spent reading time in a group separate from the class. However, this group consisted of me and me alone. Perhaps this was the first time I realized I was forever doomed to the outside, never able to pinpoint why I could never quite fit in. Did I just need to make more friends? Did I just need to have a girlfriend? How could I be normal?
Perhaps the answers to those questions were found in the childhood books I read, with their outsider protagonists, and they secretly lodged their way into my mind. Only now do I know I’m far from normal, but I’m pretty cool with that. At the end of the day I really do love being a (beautiful) transgender woman. I regret a lot of things about my childhood, primarily the fact I’ll never have the girlhood I always wanted, but there were nuggets of good. Tiny, silly memories that form the person I am today. Scenes from the trilogy of places that is my life.
I can’t rewrite my past, rip it out like a page of a notebook or chuck its Word document in a digital trash bin. I sure as hell can write my future, and until I figure out exactly what I want it to be, I’ll keep reading to find out.