19. One year later
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"You're so good with your fingers," I cooed.

Cara smirked, "Yeah. It comes with the territory."

She continued plucking away at her bass. Her fingers danced confidently up and down the fretboard as she played, filling the store with deep rhythmic music. I watched her in awe. We had been going out for almost three weeks but it was still hard to get over just how fucking cool she was. with her sideshave and her leather jacket and her, you know, self-esteem. Sometimes she even wore sunglasses indoors.

Her eyes flickered over to the clock on the wall.

"Almost six," she said, "Maybe I should lock up early."

I blushed. I knew what that meant. We had done this a few times before. After I finished up at the office I would come by the music shop to hang out with Cara and listen to her play. When she closed up early it meant she wanted to go into the back room and make out.

It was still hard to believe Cara was actually into me. We had actually met at one of her gigs. I had confessed to Drew that I had a crush on the hot bass player, and almost screamed at him when he insisted on introducing us. When we talked I was so scared I was gonna make a fool of myself, I just made dumb jokes and lavished praise onto her as much as possible to avoid talking about myself. When she asked for my number I almost thought it was a joke. But for some reason she seemed genuinely into me, as evidenced by the lustful look she was giving me right now.

"Won't your boss be mad?" I asked nervously.

Cara rolled her eyes, "We don't need to tell him, Melanie."

I blushed, "Right. Sorry Cara, I'm just... nervous."

"I know," she smirked, still strumming away, "It's cute. You wanna lock up for me?"

I nodded and hopped down off the counter to go lock up. Cara set down her bass and headed to the back. I pulled down the shutters at the front of the store, locked the door, and went to go join her in the storeroom.

Cara had taken her jacket off and hung it on a music stand. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt underneath, and her tattooed arms flexed as she slowly took off her rings, placing them on top of a box of sheet music.

I closed the door behind me and waited nervously. Cara turned and looked me up and down, smirking approvingly. Since my promotion, I actually had to go into work, at least some of the time, so I had been trying to look a little more professional. I kinda liked the outfit I was wearing today. It was nothing fancy, just a white blouse with a black pencil skirt and a jacket, but I had put a lot of effort into making sure my hair and makeup were on point. I always did, when I knew I was going to see Cara. And anyway, I liked doing it. Even after all these months, I still got a little thrill out of seeing myself dressed up nice. All these months of dieting and exercise and HRT had paid off, and sometimes I actually thought I looked... kinda pretty. And apparently Cara thought so too.

"Look at you," she purred, "In your little suit. Big day at the office?"

My pulse quickened. Oh, I kinda liked it when Cara teased me like this. It made me a little anxious, but it was also really sexy. I was never 100% certain that she wasn't actually just going to laugh at me and turn me away, but that almost made it more exciting.

"Um, actually it was," I said, "You know how I was kinda in charge of that fitness program thing? My bosses thought I did a really good job, and, um, and it was improving morale, and stuff, and now they want me to come up with, like, some sort of team-building thing for the end of the year,. But I'm not really sure where to start, and..."

Cara strutted over to me and ran a finger down the side of my neck. I shivered. She hooked her finger under my collar and pulled me towards her.

"Mm, that sounds hard," she said, "I think you need something to take your mind off it."

I giggled nervously as Cara drew me closer into her presence. She had such an aura of confidence and sexuality, it was almost dizzying. My lips parted submissively and she kissed me, almost roughly, her other hand wrapping around the back of my head so she could manhandle me as she pleased. She let go of my collar and started unbuttoning my blouse, snaking her hand in so she could squeeze my left breast, teasing my sensitive nipple through the fabric of my bra. I moaned and kissed her back. Cara pressed me up against the storeroom door, ravaging my mouth with her tongue. I held onto her hips, feeling her lithe, toned body moving under her shirt. She stopped playing with my breast and reached down between my legs, running her hand along the sensitive skin of my inner thigh, making my skirt ride up and making me gasp and whine as she started kissing my neck. Just as her fingers were about to reach my panties, there was a banging sound from outside.

Cara stopped and pulled back.

"Shit," she gasped.

"Is that your boss?" I whimpered.

"Ugh. No," she said, "I know who that is. Fucking Leonard."

The banging noise continued. I realized it must be someone knocking on the store's front door. Even though I had locked up, the hours written on the sign still said we were open for another fifteen minutes. The knocking on the door didn't sound angry. It was almost a little tentative.

"Who's Leonard?" I asked.

"He's this fucking loser customer," Cara muttered, "He can't play guitar at all, but he comes in like once a week to look around or buy some bullshit accessory, as if that's gonna make him suck any less."

"That's kinda nice that he keeps trying to improve, though," I offered.

"Yeah right," Cara laughed, "If you heard him trying to play, you'd tell him to give up. Some people just don't have what it takes."

"I mean... maybe he just needs help..." I said.

Cara gave me a death stare, "Melanie, I'm not obligated to spend my own time helping some midlife crisis dipshit trying to recapture his youth."

"I think you actually are," I joked weakly, "Until six, anyway."

She glared at me. I realized the banging sound had stopped. Leonard must have given up and gone home.

"Sorry," I said, "I was just..."

"Ugh, I know," Cara smirked, "You're sweet. Don't worry about Leonard, though. Seriously, he's a fucking loser."

She leaned in to kiss me again. I turned my head to the side.

"Sorry," I said again, "Um, I think maybe I need to head home. I'm really stressed about work, and my roommate said she wanted to do something tonight, and, um..."

"Are you serious?" said Cara.

"Um," I squirmed guiltily. Fuck. Cara was so pretty, and she was nice, really, but I guess being interrupted had kind of killed the mood. For whatever reason I didn't really want to kiss her anymore, "I think so. I'm sorry."

"Whatever," said Cara. She stepped away coolly and started gathering up her stuff, "I'll see you around."

"Sorry," I said, "That was really nice, and you're really—"

"Melanie, it's fine," she said, a little snippily, "Have fun with your roommate."

"Okay," I said. I paused at the door, not sure whether I should give her a goodbye hug or a kiss on the cheek or something. In the end I just said, "Good luck with your show tonight."

Cara nodded and I left the store awkwardly. As I walked back towards my apartment building I felt gloomy. Things had been going really well with Cara. Like, maybe if she said she wanted to be girlfriends, I would have said yes? I don't know. It didn't really matter, anyway. I had fucking ruined it, like I always did. I was such an idiot. She was doing me a huge favor by letting me spend time with her at all, and I had to go and make things weird. But I couldn't help it. Something about the way she was talking about that customer made me feel really shitty and uncomfortable. I mean, she was right, she didn't have an obligation to help him out. But she didn't have to make fun of him for trying to improve himself. I didn't really want to be with someone who was that judgy. I wanted to be with someone more like...

I dug my nails into my palms. Ugh! No! Fucking stop! Get it together, Mel!

I tried to think about something different. Focus on getting home. My roommate had been very vague and cryptic about what she had planned tonight, but I was sure whatever it was would help cheer me up. She was great like that. Thoughtful, and fun, and really easy to hold a conversation with.

I made it home and hung my coat by the door.

"Shani!" I called out, "Are you home?"

I heard a clatter from the kitchen, and after a couple of seconds, Ashanti poked her head out.

"You're back early!" she raised her voice, "Wow! Mel! You came home earlier than expected!"

"...Yeah," I said suspiciously, "Is everything okay?"

"Everything's fine!" she said, then dropped the loud voice, "No, yeah, everything's fine. What's up, Nina? I thought you were hanging out with Cara for a while?"

I sighed, "I dunno. I don't think things are gonna work out with Cara."

"Aww, babe," she came out of the kitchen and gave me a hug, "I'm sorry. Do you want to talk about it? It's okay if you don't, I know it';s probably super raw right now. But I'm totally here for you, if you want to decompress, or just hang out and watch a movie or something. Actually I do have something planned that should take your mind off it. But I can't really talk about it right now. Sorry. I hope things didn't end badly. I know Cara can be kinda icy sometimes. I'm sure it wasn't your fault, honestly, you are such an amazing lady and I know you're gonna find someone who's the perfect match for you. If you ever want me to set you up with someone, I totally would. Do you? But also you so don't need someone else to complete you or anything, you know? You're your own woman, and you're amazing, and I love you. What were you gonna say?"

"I think that covers everything," I smiled wryly.

"Sorry," said Ashanti, "I'm just a little... frazzled, right now. Um. Do you maybe wanna, just, head to your room for a bit?"

"No, I'm okay," I said, "Were you cooking? I could help out."

I started towards the kitchen. Ashanti jumped in front of me.

"No!" she said quickly, "No, you've had a rough day, and I know things have been hectic at work recently, and... I think maybe just like have a nap or something and, um, I'll come get you in like... twenty minutes?"

"What?" I said, "Shani, it's like six thirty, I'm not having a nap. I'm just gonna go watch TV."

"No!" she grabbed my arm, "You, um, you should... do you need to shit?"

I laughed, "Shani!"

"Well! Like!" she said, flustered, "I don't know! Don't you wanna... freshen up?"

"What is going on?" I laughed.

Ashanti sighed and let go of me, "Oh god, I can't do this. Are you ready, guys?"

"No! Keep stalling!" called a voice from the living room.

I gave Ashanti a look. She shrugged sheepishly. I stepped into the living room, very cautiously, because I had recognized that voice.

Our living room had received a makeover. Or, more accurately, two competing makeovers. Our furniture had been rearranged, shifting the focus away from the TV to make it more of an open, communal space. Scented candles had been arranged strategically, filling the room with warm, intimate lighting, and the calming smell of vanilla. Also, some maniac had chucked a shitload of different colored streamers and balloons haphazardly all over the place. Across the room from me was the man I had heard calling out for more time, who I could only assume was the maniac in question. Drew.

I had only properly met Drew a few months ago, once I actually started spending time at the office. Once we met, though, he had launched into our friendship with the same insane, irrepressible energy he tackled everything with. Sometimes, I was amazed his tiny, featherweight body could possibly contain his personality. Right now Drew was straddling Jeremy's shoulders, hanging up a homemade banner.

"Close your fuckin' eyes!" Drew yelled. I sighed and did what he said. I knew better than to try and go against Drew when he was up to one of his schemes.

"Baby, did she close her eyes?" Drew asked.

"She did," Jeremy said soothingly, "And she's being very polite about us sneaking into her apartment and destroying her living room."

"I really am," I said, "I'm a saint."

"Ashanti, great work with the stalling!" Drew yelled, "The shit thing was perfect!"

I burst into a fit of giggles and heard Jeremy join me.

"I tried!" Ashanti called out. It sounded like she had made her way back to the kitchen, "I'm not good under pressure!"

"Are you done with the cake?" Drew yelled back.

"Cake?" I said, "Guys, what's going on?"

"It was Drew's idea," Jeremy said wearily, "I had to convince him not to invite more people."

"Babe!" Drew snapped, "Support me!"

"Drew, it was a good idea, just a little—"

"No, I mean I'm slipping!"

"Oh, shit," I heard shuffling as Jeremy presumably helped his boyfriend clamber into a more stable position.

"Watch out for the bookshelf please," I said nervously, my eyes still closed.

"Cake's ready!" Ashanti called out from behind me. I felt her hand on my shoulder as she gently brushed past me, and a little waft of heat. Birthday candles?

"Banner's ready!" there was a thud and a clatter, which must have been Drew recklessly crashing to the ground.

"Drew!" I whined, "Can you not kill yourself before you explain what's going on?"

"I'm alive!" he exclaimed, "You can look now!"

I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. Drew was grinning expectantly. Jeremy and Ashanti were exchanging a glance like maybe they weren't totally sure this was a good idea. Sure enough, Ashanti was holding what seemed to be a birthday cake. On the top were a few candles, and some very familiar lines of pink, white and blue icing. Wait a second. I glanced around the room and realized, yeah, all the balloons and streamers that Drew had bukkake'd my apartment with were pink, white and blue as well. I looked up at the homemade banner, which read:

HAPPY TRANS-NIVERSARY!!!

"Oh my god," I gasped. Jeremy and Ashanti looked at each other again. Drew kept grinning.

"Happy Trans-niversary!" he said, "Welcome to the three hundred and sixty-sixth day of the rest of your life!"

"Wait," I said slowly, "What is this?"

"It's your trans-niversary!" said Drew, "It's like the anniversary of when you came out!"

"Do people even celebrate that?" I asked.

"I did!" said Drew, "Where do you think I got the banner?"

"Sorry if this is a little overwhelming," said Jeremy.

"We were kind of worried that this might stir up uncomfortable memories, or possibly come across as othering in some way," Ashanti said nervously, "And you know we would never want to do that, right? We love you so much, Nina. You know? And we know this is only a tiny fragment of what makes you who you are, obviously, and we would never define you by it, because you're so much more than your gender, I mean, we all are, of course, but Drew was really insistent—"

"I told them!" Drew said proudly, "That being trans is incredibly fuckin' good and cool, and coming out is pretty much the dopest thing that a person can do, and it is BULLSHIT that you did it before I got to meet you and give you the fuckin' props you deserve!"

"We gave her props," Jeremy said, "I was actually there when she realized—"

"Oh, yeah, cis male saviour, thank you so much for your service," Drew mocked, then quickly hopped up and gave Jeremy a kiss on the cheek to show he didn't mean it. He turned back to me, "Anyway! How do you feel? One whole year as the real you! Cool as fuck or what?"

I bit my lip and looked up at the banner again. HAPPY TRANS-NIVERSARY!!! Three exclamation marks. I wasn't sure if I felt three exclamation marks about it. I contemplated for a second.

"It doesn't work, does it?" I said.

Drew's smile wavered for a moment, "What do you mean?"

"The pun," I said.

Drew's face fell. He looked back over his shoulder at the banner.

"But... no, it's, like, the anniversary of being trans. Trans anniversary," he looked back at me desperately, "Trans-niversary."

I burst out laughing, "Drew, that's so fucking bad! It doesn't work at all!"

"Well I can't call it a tranniversary!" he protested, "Then it sounds like a fuckin' slur!"

"Oh my god, it's PC gone crazy," I smirked, "What about... womanniversary?"

"Okay!" he said, "I dunno! Maybe that works better! But I made the banner for my own fuckin' trans-niversary, because some of us aren't lucky enough to get surprise trans-niversary parties thrown for us!"

"How— HOW do you not hear how clunky that sounds?" I barely managed to say through a fit of giggles. Ashanti laughed and put the cake down on the table. I saw Jeremy raise a hand to his mouth to cover up his own laughter. Drew noticed and gave him a smack.

"Shut up! I'm a genius!" Drew said, "Trans-niversary is the best possible name for this!"

"If you made the banner for yourself, why didn't you call it a manniversary?" suggested Ashanti.

"Ugh! Fuck!" Drew dropped to his knees on the floor and flung out his arms, "Fine! I'm not fuckin' perfect! Are you demons happy now?"

I grinned and joined Drew on the floor.

"Hey," I said quietly, "You are perfect. This is perfect. I've been feeling kinda down about myself recently, and it's actually really nice to realize how far I've come."

"I just feel really shitty that I wasn't there to help you when you needed it," Drew muttered.

I squeezed his shoulder, "I know, dude. I'm really glad you're here for me now. Thank you for the surprise trans-niversary party."

Drew smiled, "God, it really is fuckin' clunky, isn't it?"

I giggled, "It's so bad, bro."

Despite the god awful name, my first trans-niversary party ended up being really nice. After Drew settled down, it ended up being pretty much like any time we hung out. We drank, and ate cake, and played some dumb party games. I was glad that Jeremy had talked Drew our of inviting more people. I was much more social than i used to be, but I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the past year than spending a night in with the three people I loved the most. The only part that made me a little uncomfortable was when Drew insisted on doing speeches. They were really nice, and heartfelt, and thankfully short, although Ashanti's probably would have lasted ten minutes if it had been delivered by anyone else but her. The only problem was tha hearing my friends talk about all the supposedly amazing things I had done over the past year just made me squirm. When Jeremy and Drew thanked me for introducing them, and Drew told me how much everyone looked up to me at work, and Ashanti said how much she loved having me as a roommate, it all rang hollow. I knew I had gotten so much more from them than I had given in return. No matter how much progress I might have made over the year I was still the same fat, lazy loser I had always been. Honestly, maybe coming out was the only thing I actually had to feel proud of. But I also knew that if I said that out loud I would just bum everyone out, so I tried to block it out and just enjoy the night.

It wasn't that hard. I loved my friends, and they were all so wonderful and fun that I barely felt like anything was missing. It also helped how much we ended up drinking. By the time we wrapped things up, Jeremy practically had to carry Drew out the door. Drew would never let any limitation hold him back from going after what he wanted, but that unfortunately included his own very low tolerance for alcohol. I waited with them at the curb until their ride showed up, then gave them a last hug goodnight and headed back upstairs.

Ashanti was waiting in the living room, sprawled over an armchair, lazily batting about a pink balloon.

"Hey Shani," I said, "I think I'm gonna get some sleep."

"Mmm," she nodded sleepily.

"You gonna be okay out here?" I asked.

"Mhmm," she nodded.

"Okay," I smiled. Ashanti always reached this point after enough drinks. It was like she had used up all her words for the day.

I went around the room, carefully blowing out the last remnants of Jeremy's candles, then fetched Shani a blanket in case she didn't end up making it to bed.

"Mmm!" she smiled gratefully as I draped it over her. She snuggled in, then reached out a grasping hand. I interlocked my fingers with hers and gave her a gentle squeeze. She squinted up at me happily.

"You're welcome," I said. Ashanti let go of my hand, and I lowered myself to the floor, leaning against the side of her chair for a moment.

"Mm?" Ashanti asked.

"Oh, nothing," I sighed, "I was just thinking... this is actually the anniversary of us becoming friends, too."

"Mmm," she cooed.

"Yeah," I smiled, "You remember, that night I came back to your place? Back when you and Jeremy were living together? I thought it was gonna be awkward, because we didn't really know each other. But you were so lovely, and we got drunk and watched The Parent Trap, and...." my voice broke and I stopped.

Ashanti raised her head, "Mm?"

I shook my head. Oh god. I could feel it welling up inside me, the emotions I had tried to keep down since I left Cara's work. The emotions I had been trying to keep down for a whole year now. It was pointless, they always came back after a while. Sometimes when I was working out, or cooking, or I woke up in the middle of the night and realized how alone I was in my bed. I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks.

"I still miss him, Shani," I whimpered.

Ashanti slid off the chair, down onto the floor next to me. She threw half of the blanket over my shoulders and huddled up to my side.

"Mmm," she soothed.

"I'm sorry " I sobbed, "You guys threw such a nice party for me and I can't even hold it together for one—"

"Mm," Ashanti said, softly but firmly, and put a finger over my lips. I sighed and stopped talking. She leaned her head on my shoulder and hugged me tightly until I finished crying.

Once the tears had finally stopped, and my breathing had returned to normal, Ashanti rubbed my back and looked me in the eyes.

"Mm?" she asked gently.

"Yeah," I said, "I think so. Thanks, Shani."

She helped me up and took me back to my room. I changed into my PJs, a long t-shirt with a picture of a heart on it and a pair of comfy pink pants, while Ashanti leaned sleepily against the door frame. I got into bed and she gave me a hug then turned to leave. She took a step and wobbled unsteadily.

"Mm," she said, concerned.

I giggled, "Come here, dizzy girl."

She turned back with a grateful smile, then clambered over m body and plopped into bed beside me. She was mumbling in her sleep in seconds.

I reached for my phone on the bedside table, just to set an alarm for the morning. I couldn't resist checking Instagram. I scrolled through my feed for a bit. Cara had posted some pictures from her gig that night. In a couple, she was with some girl I had never seen before, but who seemed to be very familiar with her. I sighed. That was fine. Cara and I hadn't really gotten to the exclusive point anyway, and... I didn't really care. She was fun, and seriously so fucking cool, but deep down I had known it wasn't gonna work out. I opened the search tab, and my fingers started tracing a familiar pattern. Don't do it, I told myself, and then hit search anyway and brought up Adam's profile.

He still hadn't posted anything. His last photo was from a few months ago. I scrolled through them, for a while. His eyes... his smile... I felt an ache of pointless, stupid longing. Maybe... maybe he was thinking of me too, right now. Maybe he was alone in his bed, looking at pictures of me, and thinking, wow, she's so pretty now, I should call her. My hand drifted up to my boob and I started gently thumbing my nipple through my sleep shirt. Maybe he was actually really impressed by how pretty I looked, especially in that photo Shani took before we went out last Friday, and maybe he was biting his lip, and sliding down his pants, and taking a hold of his perfect cock and...

I heard Ashanti mumble something behind me and quickly dropped my hand, blushing furiously. I had to stop. This was pathetic, and unhealthy, and I needed to be productive tomorrow. I still had no idea what I was going to do for the team-building event at work. It was time to go to sleep.

Instead of doing that, I went back to the search bar and looked up Adam's gym friend, Dilruk, just in case he had posted any photos with Adam in them. I wasn't stalking! I just wanted to know what he was up to. That he was doing okay.

Dilruk had only posted one new photo, and it was just a selfie with some ripped lady in workout gear. Probably his girlfriend or something. Fuck. A sick feeling washed over me. What if the reason Adam wasn't posting anything was because he was so busy with some new girlfriend? I mean, that would be good. Obviously, that would be really, really good for him. That would actually make me super happy. If he had a girlfriend, that meant he had moved on, and forgotten about me, and...

I wiped my eyes furiously. I was not fucking crying! I wanted this! Obviously I wanted this, I was the one who fucking walked out on him, right? This was good for both of us. And, and maybe he didn't even have a girlfriend anyway, right? I mean, I didn't even know that the lady in the photo was Dilruk's girlfriend. I took another look at her, and gasped.

Holy shit. That definitely wasn't Dilruk's girlfriend.

That was Michelle Champion.

As in, Michelle Champion's At Home Aerobics. The lady without whom I would literally not be the woman I was today.

Fuck, that brought back memories. I still worked out, although these days I was a lot more comfortable with my body the way it was. I was still chubby, but that was okay. And I liked my curves. And my boobs. Anyway, I mostly just went running or took spin class and yoga and stuff with Ashanti at her gym. I hadn't used my Michelle Champion DVDs in a while.

I went to Michelle Champion's profile and check out some of her photos. Wow. Okay, maybe I could stand to get a little more in shape. I scrolled down her timeline, feeling steadily more and more guilty about how much cake I had eaten tonight, and then saw a post that made me stop.

It was a promotional image for her new corporate venture: Michelle Champion's "Raise The Bar" Corporate Fitness and Team-Building Seminars: Lift Your Productivity To A New Personal Best. I clicked through to the website and spent few minutes reading through the description. It actually sounded... perfect.

I smiled, "Michelle Champion, you just saved my ass again."

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