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Alexandra Billings Headshot

Into the Center of Everything

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I didn't see a way out. I couldn't think of any other way. I was tired of hearing things in my head, and tired of feeling weighed down from the top of me to the bottom, and mostly tired of this constant, numb sadness that found its way into every moment of my life.

I was 16 years old, and I wanted to die.

I had tried twice before but failed. I was found both times, once by my best friend, the other by my mother. I knew, as I sat on the brown chair in the corner of my bedroom, that this time needed to work. I couldn't put my friends or my family through this one more time. This time had to work. There was no way around it.

I had been dressing in my mother's clothes for as long as I could remember, and because this was the late '60s, there was no word for what I was or what I felt. I knew there was this thing called "homosexuality," and in school, in Mr. Jameson's sixth-grade health class, we were shown a film about "the homosexual." All I remember is this grainy, black-and-white, flickering image of a stout, bald, lecherous, middle-aged man convincing an unsuspecting teenage boy to get into his car. I remember them driving off, and then this deep, resonant, male voiceover warned us, with eerie conviction, to "stay away from the homosexual. If you feel at all suspect, tell a neighbor, tell your parents, or report them to the authorities." Whatever this thing was, it was bad enough to get you thrown in jail, or, apparently, grounded really badly.

By the time I'd made the decision to end my life, though, I'd already had sex with men. For some reason, I'd never thought of myself as a homosexual. I'd never made love to a man as another man. In my spirit, in what was true for me, in the world in which I lived, I was a woman making love to a man. It took some imagination, believe me. It took me believing that what I felt was true in my heart was also true in his. I never asked my sexual partners how they saw me, or what they thought of me; I simply believed what I believed. And there was no reason for me to go on. I didn't have any role models, or any political allies, or any protection from what I assumed was clinical insanity. All I had was what I was born with: my curiosity.

I sat in my chair, and I went through a list: gun, pills, rope. These were either too messy, too involved, or not foolproof. And honestly, where did I think I was going to get a gun in Schaumburg, Ill.? No one in Schaumburg carried guns. The closest thing was perhaps those nerf water guns, but that could only cause temporary water blindness. So I sat. It was a Friday afternoon, and both my parents were working, so the house was mine until 3:30, when my mother would get home from school. The day was going, and I wasn't any closer to a solution. I decided to walk.

I remember the day being extraordinarily bright. We lived in the suburbs of Chicago, and in the 1970s the suburbs were still living in the days of unlocked doors and next-door neighbors watching each other's kids for the weekend. Moments from my life then began to play out in my head, like the time I was in full makeup and dressed in my mother's favorite red skirt and white blouse when she suddenly came home, unexpectedly early. I ducked into her bedroom closet and had to stay there through two lengthy phone calls with her bridge ladies. Then I remembered the time I'd forgotten I'd made up my face the night before and woke up with red lipstick smeared all over my pillowcase. I told my mother I'd been in a fight with a basketball player. I'd never seen her so proud. And then there was the time I was in my room dancing to ABBA in a long, pink night shirt I'd stolen from Marshall Fields and had stuffed with a pair of tube socks to simulate breasts, and as I was doing my finale spin, my brother burst through the door to tell me dinner was ready. I'd never hit the dirt so hard and so fast in my entire life. I told him I was playing army and that I has just been fatally wounded.

I came up to the busiest intersection in our neighborhood, and watched the midday traffic zoom by. One car. Another car. I was standing on the corner, and as the sun got just a bit lower in the sky, I knew that whatever I was, whatever this terrible thing was that haunted me, I wanted it gone. I didn't want it anymore. I didn't understand it, and I didn't want it. It sickened me, and I was ashamed of who I was. I stepped off the curb, and as each car stopped at each light, I walked a little closer to the center of the intersection. My mouth was sewn shut. There was no sound anymore. The sky started to blacken, and I closed my eyes. With a gulp of air in my chest, I ran as fast as I could out into the middle of traffic.

I remember hearing a huge crash that sounded like someone had just rolled two full garbage cans down a cobble stone street. And then I heard a muffled scream, and I opened my eyes. I was standing in the center of nothing. There wasn't a car in sight. The crash I'd heard had happened in the parking lot only feet away from me, and there I was, with my eyes wide open, in the middle of the day, standing in the center of nothing.

And everything.

The cars that should have hit me had swerved and hit each other. The traffic that should have collided with me had ceased completely. And the day, which had turned grey and dark, instantaneously brightened up and poured sunlight on the top of my head. I had survived what I wasn't supposed to have survived. I had been dreaming for weeks about ways to end my life, because when I looked in the mirror I was repulsed, and when I tried to fix it, other people were repulsed. But my plan failed. And when I came up with this idea, this way out that I discovered by pure accident, something intervened.

I don't know about God. I don't know one way or the other. I do know that if it were up to me, solely up to me, I would have died that day, in the center of nothing. But my life has been rich and filled with me going forward into the next thing, and sometimes the cars have missed me, and sometimes they haven't. I don't know why. I don't know why not. So I don't think it was solely up to me. But I can't say that I know.

What I do know is I couldn't be happier than I am right now. And that has very little to do with me being transgender. It has everything to do with me being true. I don't waste any more time trying to figure out how to fool anyone. I don't try to fool myself, and I don't try to fool other people. I'm not honest every, single second of every single day, but I'm not necessarily talking about being honest. I'm talking about being true. I've found out that I like to live in both the sunlight and the darkness, and that sometimes, when I think nothing is happening, everything is happening. And that secrets live in the loudness of life. And that not everything in the world that happens to me happens for a reason; sometimes cars just crash in the parking lot and I get lucky. But I'm still curious, and I'm still asking why. And that's who I am. That's what keeps me true.

And whatever the reason, whether there is or isn't one, I'm eternally grateful that I walked out into the middle of that particular piece of chaos. I'm not recommending it -- I don't think we all need to take that kind of a chance -- but if it hadn't been for that day, if I hadn't been at the end of something, then nothing bigger would have ever started. I have to remind myself every so often that I am messy. I am not just one thing. My voice is colored and varied, and I don't believe in positive or negative experiences. I just believe that everything happens.

And I want to be in the middle of that. I don't want anything to pass me by anymore. No matter what people warn me the end result might be, I want to sometimes walk out blindly into the center of everything... and pray.