When I was a little kid, around 5 or 6, the vacant apartment above my family's became occupied. They were a small family--two parents and their little kid, the same age as me. Sonja was remarkably nice to me.
Back then, her parents called her something else, but she introduced herself to me as Sonny. I hardly talked, and still she insisted on spending most of her free time in my company. She would run downstairs and pull me along to the little park at the end of the street. It was barely more than a rectangle of grass and a bench adjacent to a basketball court. We'd sit on the bench with our legs pulled up by our chests and I'd listen to her talk about whatever she felt I needed to hear that day. A little sugar drink in hand, Sonja would go on and on about what kids at school said about her, the weird fish her mom liked to eat, that time when her parents took her to the beach and she tried to eat a sand crab...
Sonja never thought twice about my idiosyncrasies. She made up lore for the little stuffed mouse I carried around everywhere. We were his parents, he was born with a disease that had turned him into a mouse, and we loved him regardless. It was alright that I never liked to make eye contact because the both of us definitely preferred watching pigeons to watching each other. She didn't even mind that I often had nothing to say in response to her anecdotes. That makes me wonder how responsive her parents were to her... I wasn't confused when she told me about how people called her a boy, even when she insisted they were wrong. I think, had I not afforded her that unconditional, childlike respect, things would have turned out a lot different for her. It seems now like only a few minutes passed between those first few weeks we spent together and the end of elementary school. We didn't see each other in classes, of course, but she never failed all those years to join me after they were over. We must have walked home together a thousand times. Thinking about that makes my heart ache. At the time we graduated I had thought we would spend the rest of our lives together.
I was put in grade level classes and we began seeing each other more often. Her parents had gotten to know me quite well. I'd come home every day, speed through my homework, and go up to the Walkmans' to play N64 with Sonja. It was around that time, during the summer of seventh grade, that I witnessed something I wouldn't understand for a very long while. Sonja and I left my family's place, her in a skirt she had borrowed from Eileen, and we knocked on her door. Her father gave her this look like she had dragged in a dead squirrel. Very respectfully, he sat me down on their couch and I saw Sonja get taken away for what seemed like a lecture (or worse). When she came back she told me, dejectedly, that her father was among those who insisted she was a boy. I was too afraid to ask for the skirt back.
It took until we were in ninth grade for Mr. Walkman to accept his daughter. The passage into high school was very difficult for me and as a result I often had to flake on Sonja to get my work done. It was one night in the winter of that year that Sonja told me her parents would go through with her gender transition. Around 11 at night, I had just finished my homework, and she knocked like the building was on fire. I remember standing outside my front door in that fluorescent lit hallway as she grabbed both my shoulders in excitement... No one but Sonja had ever touched me like that. I stared at her wide-eyed as she talked about everything they said they'd let her do. My heart was going so fast I could hardly hear her voice over the sound of blood rushing to my head.
After this point, my high school experience isn't really relevant. Sonja was my only companion save for some kids I had met at an arcade. The work weighed on me, but I managed. My self-image fluctuated, my sentiments came into question, typical things you'd expect of a high schooler. Sonja and I both met with scrutiny for different reasons and we were always there to reassure each other. I am beyond lucky that she came into my life.
I don't know how to explain what happened after we graduated high school. I had worked my ass off junior and senior year to bring my grades up so I could get into a four-year college. The ever charismatic Sonja went off to law school. We told each other we'd call, but we never did. I suppose we might have been afraid we'd find each other too different from the people we had grown to love in the past. The first time I was approached by someone from the Foundation, I was a sophomore in college and quite eager to please. After hearing some of my coworkers' stories about how they came to work there, my experience doesn't seem all that strange. I was seeing my molecular biology professor during his office hours and he started getting cryptic... started saying there was a job he knew i'd be "great" for on account of how sensitive and observant I am. I asked him what kind of nursing job would require him to be so vague about the details. He told me to return to his office hours the next day, and I did. Over the next few weeks, he revealed things to me that sounded straight out of a science fiction novel. There was an incredibly coordinated organization lurking in the shadows of society, working to conceal anomalies from humanity in fear of mass hysteria and in some cases, danger from the anomalies themselves. I thought about all the times I'd experienced something unexplainable and tried to brush it off; they seemed to make more sense now. My professor really hammed it up talking about the Foundation. Glamorized field work, glossed over the myriad horrors, and worst of all, neglected to mention how this would change my personal life. And I get that--how else would you recruit people for your morally corrupt, shadowy organization? Even at that age I didn't have many friends or acquaintances outside of my sister Susanna (and Sonja, of course, who I still considered my friend). I didn't know working for the Foundation would keep it that way until I died.
By junior year I had found out what the job actually entailed. I was to work for two organizations at once--for the Foundation as a field agent, reporting back any anomalous findings, and for a small hospital in Staten Island as a registered nurse. The hospital apparently was located near a minor Foundation site which had come about as a result of several anomalous disease outbreaks in the area. I was to watch for signs of another. Why this didn't perplex me at all, I don't know, but I accepted the position and began my work there straight out of college.
Sometimes the work became mundane, but I never forgot that I was at that hospital for the Foundation. It's not like a child's game you're supposed to forget you're playing, or a bruise or cut you forget you have, or a jarring sound you get accustomed to over time. It's always there. It's always hanging over your head, and it will NOT let you forget. So when someone was hospitalized in critical condition after three months of almost nothing out of the ordinary, I noticed almost immediately that the "boils" covering their body from head to toe were goat eyes. They had a gaze that bored through me like a drill.
The case, along with all others in the individual's neighborhood (the illness was contagious), was dealt with by the Foundation staff at the hospital and covered up as neatly as possible for the civilian staff and victims' families. At the peak of this outbreak my stress was so high I felt I might die. And then, Sonja paid me a visit.
I hadn't seen her for close to seven years; she showed up at the door of my one-floor house a completely new person. Before I could even invite her in, I had learned about how well hormone replacement therapy was going for her, how she had been working as a paralegal still living in Brooklyn, how she still thought about me all the time but could never bring herself to call... To say the least, I was thrilled. I felt as if I was hallucinating her from lack of rest, but the hug she gave me got rid of that possibility in my mind. She spent the rest of the night at my house. We caught up, and there was surprisingly nothing awkward at all between us. Of course, I wasn't able to tell her what my job really is, but I did tell her about my more mundane hospital duties. She seemed to sympathize for my exhaustion--it's more difficult to work with lawyers than I might have thought. Sonja never faltered in her genuineness, her understanding, her respect, her love. I won't go into detail about what happened that night, but I will mention that I was a lot less stressed at my shift the next day.
So, that takes us back to the present. Sonja and I have been visiting weekly. She lives in a little rowhouse, very nicely decorated with plenty of art. She's even taken us to a real park. Even with ponds full of fish and forest trails to see, we still just sat together and watched the birds.