When I first met Josie, I asked if her name was short for “Josephine.” It reminded me of The Wallflowers’ song by the same name, which came out when I was in high school. I’d see Josie around and in my head, I’d hear the chorus:
You’re so good to me
And I know it ain’t easy
Josephine, you’re so sweet
You must taste just like sugar… and tangerines
We were fast friends. We were in group therapy together, and we hit it off during the group’s coffee break one night. She cracked a joke about something just as I was sipping shitty, burnt coffee with powdered instant creamer. I laughed so hard that I squirted hot coffee out of my nose and all over her shirt. It burned my nose and made my eyes water. She understood that, but afterward, she liked to say that she had made me laugh until I cried. In hindsight, I think we both just really needed to laugh that night.
It’s been years since I last saw her, but Josie has been on my mind a lot lately.
It started when I discovered Transparent. I couldn’t sleep and so I binge-watched every episode of the first two seasons over two nights. In the first episode, there is a scene where Sarah, the oldest daughter, has snuck into her father’s home. Mort comes home unexpectedly and Sarah is startled when he walks into the bedroom. But she’s also confused because her dad is wearing makeup and a wig, and he’s dressed like a woman. Mort sits down with Sarah and explains that he’s been “dressing up” as a man his whole life, and now he’s ready to be a woman.
That scene sent my mind reeling with thoughts of Josie. I imagined Josie having a similar moment with her own daughters, where they saw her as a woman for the first time. Josie had two teenagers. When she had said they were a “handful,” I assumed she just meant that it was difficult to get along with teenagers. I didn’t consider how their relationship with their parent had changed. But I only ever knew Josie, not the person she had presented before she transitioned.
Like a few of the people in our group meetings, Josie attended because she was required to. She’d been found unconscious after a failed suicide attempt and once her condition had stabilized, she’d been admitted to a mental health facility where she was being treated for depression. The facility was across the street from the gym where our meetings were held. She was on constant suicide watch, which meant that a nurse was by her side every minute of the day, even when she went to the bathroom. A nurse would drive her to each group meeting, sit beside her during the discussion, shadow her to get coffee, and shadow her back to her seat. Every time.
On the night when I squirted coffee out of my nose and it got all over Josie’s shirt, her nurse was a tall Hispanic man who was built like a bodyguard. Josie and I couldn’t stop laughing, but he didn’t even smile. He just stared at us. I imagined that he resented having to escort a person who was obviously not too depressed to make a joke.
It’s funny how we think we know what depression is supposed to feel like for someone else.
One night, when it was Josie’s turn to speak, she explained to the group that she felt unwanted everywhere she went. She said there was nowhere she could go where it was safe to talk about her feelings. Most people she met didn’t seem to care that she had feelings. She said she loved her daughters, but she worried that she wasn’t fit to be a parent because she couldn’t even protect herself. She started to list all the names people had called her, and she broke down sobbing. She asked to be excused, and her nurse stood up and led Josie out of the room, holding onto her arm.
Once the door had closed, a young man named Wade blurted out, “You know that’s a dude, right!? She’s a fucking dude! She has a dick. It’s so gross.”
There is a budding novelist in me who likes to make things feel better by rewriting scenes from real life so that they have better endings. I’ve tried to rewrite the ending of that scene many times, and I’ve never been able to find an ending that doesn’t feel awful.
The real ending was this:
I leaned forward and looked over at Wade and I said, “She’s not a dude. Don’t say that.”
And Wade said, “What’s wrong with you? She has a dick! That’s a dude!”
I said, “I don’t know if she does or she doesn’t, but I think you’re being really mean. You heard her. She’s really struggling. We should help her.”
Wade slumped back into his chair, folded his arms, and looked away. Then he said, “I don’t give a fuck how she feels. She did it to herself. She deserves it.”
And I said nothing. I had no words. I just sat there and looked at the floor and my mind went blank. And like a coward, I allowed “She deserves it” to be the end of that discussion, in front of all those people.
Finally, the counselor who was running the meeting had to break the silence. His name was George and he was filling in for someone else. The only thing I can remember about George now is that he had white hair.
“Guys, come on,” George said. “It’s time to move on. We’re not here to talk about Josie.”
He turned to me and asked, “Why don’t you update us on what’s going on with you?”
And I don’t remember what I said, but I know that I said nothing about Josie after that.
The budding novelist wants Josie’s story to tie together nicely in the end, with no loose details hanging out. I think life feels more bearable when simple details appear to fit together like puzzle pieces. Maybe that’s why I write — so that I can create glimpses of worlds where suffering only happens if it means something. In the novel version of Josie’s life, her suffering would have meant something or she would not have suffered at all.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason; I’m too skeptical for that. I believe things just happen, and meaning is created in how we react to those things and when we think about our reasons for doing so.
When I imagine what became of Josie, I don’t believe there ever came a day when Wade regretted how cruel he had been and apologized to her. I don’t believe George walked across the street after the meeting that night and requested to see Josie so that he could offer words of comfort. And I know I didn’t go over there, either.
When I think of Josie now, I don’t know if I even believe that she’s still alive. I hope she is, but I don’t believe it.
But when I hear “Josephine,” I do want to believe that parts of it were written for Josie.
I know I was wrong
I knew all along
But I got so far from home
I never thought I’d be so lonesome
You’re so good to me
And I know
It ain’t easy