We met because he took my photo for our college newspaper. Later, for photography class, he took portraits of me in his XL twin bed. He rendered beauty from my body in afternoon light. I’d never seen myself that way.
He was two years older, at an age when that still mattered—he could buy booze, had a better dorm, and knew what he wanted after graduating (work in politics). He taught me to drink beer with popcorn, so the bitterness cut the fat.
Neither of us had ever had sex. I liked that our narrative matched how I’d always been told the first time should go: wait until you’ve dated someone for a while. Millennial respectable. If I hadn’t waited, everyone said, if I hadn’t picked The Right Guy, I’d have gotten hurt.
He graduated that spring. We said a slightly messy goodbye—I wished I’d done it more cleanly, but now I think we did pretty well, for two kids flailing in the protracted teenage years of college. We became set pieces in each other’s pasts. My college boyfriend. The guy I lost my virginity to. Some years, we said happy birthday.
A few months ago, a friend texted with thirdhand gossip: my ex had transitioned. I read the text in a dive bar bathroom. I searched for confirmation, not quite believing it. He’d posted a Facebook status: he’d taken feminine pronouns, and a new name. No, not “he”—she had. That new name: Sarah. The same as mine.
I told my friend we needed another round. Why my name? Out of the infinite supply of names in the world, why take mine?
In our relationship’s context, I’d had that name. She’d clearly stepped out of that context. I had, too, in most ways—but I still wouldn’t have given her original first name to a cat, let alone to myself. That name still meant that person to me. I thought the two of us still occupied a shared world, however vestigial. Apparently not.
My friend and I closed out at the bar. I paced the sidewalk, and called friends who’d known me back when I’d dated him—dated her? Did her pronouns rewrite our past?
Months later, I texted her, asking about the name choice. Voicing the question embarrassed me. I felt like I might seem egomaniacal. (I still feel like I seemed egomaniacal. But I also feel like romance is egomaniacal.) How, why, had she picked the name, my name, out of all possible names? Was I so forgettable? I didn’t want her tortured, but I also kind of did want to be the one that got away. I was the one who might as well never have been there.
Her response began, “Hi Sarah.” (She’s always been more formal). She’d looked at a list of names popular when she was born, and picked Sarah. She and her partner had talked it over, and decided it didn’t matter that she’d dated me. She signed off with our first name.
Reading her message, the most salient part wasn’t the content, but her confidence. She told the story simply, logically. I’d remembered her as brooding. She used to talk in curlicued asides. (We were in college, but still). She’d moved from anxiety to calm, discomfort to ease. She’d picked a name that fit from her birth year on, recasting the past: she was Sarah.
My first entanglement, years before I met her, had ended in trouble, and trauma. I’d loved that my next episode, my losing-my-virginity-to-my-college-boyfriend story, reset that. It made me feel normal again.
Normal: a word-world I, as cisgender, could claim. That she couldn’t. So many label traps. Normal, gender, virginity. Sarah.
We use the term “salutation” for the greeting at the start of a message, but its counterpart, “valediction”—the counterpart term for the closing—gets less use. It’s formal, like her. That word and “validation” share a Latin root, “valere,” meaning, “be well.” I wrote back, “Hi Sarah,” and closed with our name, too.