Ava was captivated by the beauty of Amstel River as she sipped on her much-needed dose of caffeine. The river flowed like a stream of glass, quietly and peacefully in the warm afternoon of July. Most tourists in Amsterdam refer to the Amstel River as just another canal, but it was much more than that. It was the river that caused Amsterdam to come into existence. The downstream portion now simply fed into the canal system of Amsterdam giving the impression that the Amstel just stopped.
Ava was quite fascinated when one of the old draw bridges across the canals needed to open to allow a vessel of commercial barge to pass through. She didn’t notice that Zane was already standing in front of her, ready to take a photo.
“Rot op vuile teringslijer!” Ava cussed under her breath as she realized that he took a photo of her.
Zane didn’t mean to scare her. He was just mesmerized of her that he forgot that Ava didn’t like to be on photos. “Sorry,” he apologized as he tried to wipe the spilled coffee on Ava’s shirt.
“No, just…don’t,” Ava tried to calm herself. Panic rose in her body. Her knees got weak, and she couldn’t even stand even if she wanted to. Anxiety curled into her stomach and her clammy hands started to tremble.
Zane sat beside her, patting her back. “Baby, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Ava gripped his hand. She was surprised that she managed to react like that.
“Don’t call me baby.” Zane cringed, her strength could be equal for a man. Is she PMS’ing? Zane thought.
“I’m going home,” she distraughtly headed to the bus stop. She knew that she had been overreacting. Is it because of my menstruation and the lining of my uterus sheds and such…? She grimaced at her thoughts.
“Hey, honey bunny, Kitten? Sugar booger? Shmoopy poopy? My little smoochy-kin? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I won’t do that again,” Zane knelt in front of her and all the people around them were already staring and laughing.
He never felt this way to any woman before, not even to his ex, Amanita. Amanita broke up with him a year ago when Zane complained about her perfume and fifty shades of makeup.
Broken hearted, or pretending to be, rather, he wandered around the Central Library. And that’s where he met Ava. She was there reading books about curse and magic.
The librarian warned him not to approach her for she was a witch, but he didn’t listen. If she was really a witch, she was probably the most beautiful witch he had ever seen, or maybe, she really was, for she enchanted him already.
“You just met your soulmate!” his dad said. “You should never let her go.”
And he didn’t.
He visited the Central Library until he gathered all his strength to talk to her. When her Jade-green met his sea-farer blue eyes, he knew that his dad was telling the truth and he was really lucky. No, lucky was an understatement, he was blessed.
With the echoing voice of his dad in his head… “Never let her go.”
He uttered words he never even said to Amanita before. “Marry me.”
Ava just stared at him that time and smiled. “Calm down dude.”
“Stop that,” Ava scowled. Why am I so emotional? Is it hormones? I hate being a woman! I hate this body! she buried her face in her hands in shame and distress.
All she wanted right now was to go home and hide. She was not really mad with Zane. She was the one who was being unreasonable.
“Boo-Bah-Bear? My Fiber-Optic-Cable of Desire? Snuggle Wuggle Woogie Pumpkin? My Ava, purest of them all?” Zane looked at Ava like an abandoned puppy in the middle of Mars and she couldn’t resist him anymore.
“Fine. Just…take me home,” she sighed as she headed back to Zane’s car.
He rolled their window down completely and put the car in drive as he pressed the gas. The car immediately filled with wind and fresh air and her hair began flying around in all directions. Zane know that she didn’t mind that.
Ava was different from all the women he met before. She never wear make-up or dress up like Barbie dolls. She hated perfumes that could make some women smell like harem of whores. She hated girly stuff and being a damsel in distress. She’d rather lie down on the dirt and watch millions of stars than to eat in a fancy restaurant and Zane loves her for all of these.
He could still remember all of their dates. They spent their first date watching an action movie, eating pizza and drinking beer. Their second date playing video games. Third, getting high in a café for smoking three rounds of weeds. They joined a bike tour on their tenth date, they visited Rijksmuseum where they both admired the awe-aspiring Rembrandt’s Night’s Watch. On twenty fifth date, they simply walked at Prisengnacht at night, they were so excited to see all the houses with their lights and see people inside like they were watching shadow plays.
They were also both loss for words for the moving experience in Anne Frank House. They enjoyed biking in Jordaan, it was close to everything yet quiet and tranquil. It was perfect. Nice picturesque neighborhood, lively streets, nice markets, café and restaurants and lovely boutiques.
Until they already lost count of their dates. They almost visited all the museums, sights, landmarks, nature and parks, cafés and restaurants in Amsterdam, yet they were not yet getting tired of each other. They were more like best friends than being a couple.
“Zane said you’re acting strange…er. What’s wrong Ava?” Amber, Ava’s best friend sat in front of her wearing one of her ridiculous red dress. She handed her a glass of water and medicine for her dysmenorrhea.
“Is it two years? No, it’s three years and six months to be exact since I got this curse,” she sighed. “Three years and six months since that day, when I woke up with these…two mountains in my chest…and my missing John.”
“Don’t put it that way Ava,” Amber shove the tendrils behind Ava’s ears. She really admired her best friend’s unblemished peaches and cream complexion, sliver of moon eyebrows, velvety eyelashes, pointy nose perched atop her orchid-pink lips and her long dirty-blonde hair. If she only knew.
“A year ago, I convinced myself to live as Ava, the name you gave me. I considered dating Zane, hoping his awkward kisses would uplift my curse like those I’ve read in books, but it never did. I never expected…” she paused. “To fall for him, Amber. We’re both men for mushrooms sake! He’ll never understand me,” she drew her knees closer to her chest. She always do this when angst succumbs her.
Amber felt the gray aura around her, a mist that wouldn’t rise. A state of depression that she couldn’t see Ava through. And all she knew was…it was bad.
Zane was driving with Ava going to Giethoorn, Ava’s hometown. It was their first anniversary and he prepared a surprise for his girlfriend. Ava on the other hand, had no idea on where they were going. Her thoughts were occupied that she forgotten even their anniversary.
She surreptitiously gazed at Zane beneath her lashes. He’s grinning like a teenager while driving. If he knew, will he still accept me? she thought.
She closed her eyes and reminisced the time when she lost herself.
Three and a half years ago, she woke up in an unfamiliar place. She opened her eyes, in the dark stillness. She couldn’t see much but the dim glow of the bedside lamp. Half asleep, she removed the several tubes that were connected on her body and stumbled to the bathroom.
She was about to empty her bladder when she noticed something was missing. Panic rose, she fumbled for a switch. Light filled the bathroom, and she could see a woman in the mirror. She was about to touch her and the reflection did the same.
Her heart started pounding really fast. She shouted and several women in white came to calm her down. She just realized that she was in a hospital. The doctor came and explained that she was in a car accident. She told them that she was not in her body, that she was a man but no one believed her…except her doctor that time, Amber, who became her best friend now.
A flash of blinding light and screeching metal and tires brought back Ava from her reveries. She froze and even before she could react, flashes of images came in front of her eyes.
“Eustass,” cried by the little girl inside the obscure, searing and suffocating corner of her wardrobe.
Ava felt like she was watching a movie, but she was right there, standing like an apparition. Unseen.
The door creaked open. The little girl held her breath hoping there’s a portal right there that would suck her out of that place.
“Baby?” the man’s voice sent shivers on both of them.
Ava could see him coming closer where she was. She wanted to stop him but she couldn’t do anything but to watch. ‘Eustass, help me.’ the little girl sobbed.
“Who are you? How did you know my name?” Ava asked but the little girl couldn’t hear her for she was just a ghost to her.
The man stopped and the closet opened. “Hey baby, are you trying to hide from me?” he grinned as he pulled her out. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s only the two of us now. And you need to behave so that I won’t get mad at you.”
The little girl froze in fear as she felt her dress fell down. He made her wear a pink-striped bikini this time and made her posed like those women in his magazines.
“No! Don’t do that!” Ava tried to stop him but nothing happened. She was already crying too. She now recognize the little girl.
They were both blinded by the flashes of his cameras.
They hate it.
The different bikini he made her wear. His hands that traveled around her body.
Ava woke up but could see nothing, hear nothing…just the heaviness in her whole body. So heavy that she took time to open her eyes. She started to hear noises, buzz of machines. Amber bent over her and talked to her, but she couldn’t make out too much out of it. She realized she was in the hospital.
She suddenly remembered the car coming to them. The accident. She tried to sat but felt a stinging pain in her side. “Where is Zane?” she managed to ask.
“Calm down. He’s fine. He’s resting in the next room unscratched,” she lied down again and closed her eyes.
“Tell me, you know my sister Ava, don’t you?” she asked.
Amber, staggered, brows furrowed. “You are Ava.”
“I am Eustass and you know that! This is Ava’s body! Where’s mine!” her voice was louder this time. Her breathing labored, she was gasping for breath as realizations gradually seeped in her.
Amber bit her lips. Maybe it’s time she thought. And as she gathered all her courage she mumbled the truth she couldn’t even say before. “He’s dead.”
Ava screwed her eyes shut, reassessing what she heard. She didn’t want to acknowledge the truth in what Amber was saying.
“Listen, I’ll tell you everything but you need to keep your calm,” said Amber. “Promise me.”
Ava didn’t respond.
“Promise me,” Amber repeated.
“Fine. Talk woman,” Ava groaned. Amber shook her head. She locked the door and started to tell a story.
“Once, there was a twin girl and boy living in the village of Giethoorn. When their mother died, their stepfather took them. The little girl, Ava, was sexually abused by her stepdad,” she paused only to see Ava blankly staring at the white ceiling.
“The little boy, Eustass, suffered from physical abuse too. Until one day, he just disappeared and no one ever saw him again. Their stepfather said he was taken by his aunt. The sexual abuse carried on until Ava was twelve.” Amber hesitated when she saw Ava crying. Small tiny crystal beads creeped out of her green eyes.
“A concern neighbor told the authorities and saved her from her abusive stepdad. And upon investigation, a skeleton was found buried at their yard—Eustass.”
“But…I’m not dead,” her head was pounding hard but she tried to calm herself like she promised.
“Hush, listen,” she continued. “Ava was sent in an orphanage until she was eighteen. After that, they never saw her again. Three and a half years ago, a woman tried to kill herself by jumping off a bridge. It was you Ava, it wasn’t a car accident.”
“Amber, you don’t understand anything, I am Eustass, and I am on my sister’s body! I—I don’t know, maybe my soul—”
“Eustass died a long time ago. You are Ava. After you left the orphanage, a mental institution took you. Ava, I was your psychiatrist and you escaped the institution the day you tried to take your life.”
“You’re kidding right? How? And now I’m crazy?” Ava chuckled as she dashed her tears with the heels of her hands. Memories attacked her eyes with every blink. “I’m not crazy, Amber” she sobbed.
“You’re not. You were in the institution because of depression, anxiety attacks, PTSD and DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID could be from your childhood sexual abuse, your brain pretended that the abuse or your painful situations did not actually happened.” Amber leaned to pat Ava’s hair.
“You pretended to be your dead brother, Eustass. Do you remember now?” she paused. “Ava?”
Ava nodded. She couldn’t keep her promise to calm down anymore, but Amber allowed her. She held Ava’s shaking hands in place. Her breaths were short and shallow. Her skin burned and her head aches. Her eyes itched with the salty water coming out of them. It was the first time she cried that hard.
Sea of dark emotions churned with no outlet but her sobs. After crying her heart out, letting out the pain of the past, confusions and relief, she lied down on her bed again. Snuffling as she choke back the last of her tears, she was drained and dehydrated, but somehow feeling better. Knowing she could love Zane now without any dark secret stopping her, knowing that she was a real woman.
A year had passed. It wasn’t easy for Ava, but with the help of Amber, not as a psychiatrist but as her best friend, she fully accepted everything. Nightmares were still there, but she managed to pass through them somehow. Not letting her past define her this time.
Ava was getting impatient as Zane walked beside her, guiding her to somewhere. She was blindfolded and she didn’t know where the hell they were.
“Are you ready?” she felt Zane grinned in her ears and she couldn’t stop herself grinning too.
“Don’t tell me we’re inside the botanical garden and you’re going to propose?” Ava was laughing as Zane removed her blindfold. “Are there flowers and butterflies and people watching around?”
“Damn Ava! You just ruined it! You should’ve pretended!” he scowled. Ava was laughing way too much and though upset, Zane couldn’t stop himself from beaming too. “Okay fine, you’re right. But you’re in front of the cactuses, not flowers. I know you hate flowers.”
When Ava’s eyes adjusted, she admired the beautifully landscaped garden, Hortus Botanicus, an oasis in the middle of Amsterdam. Butterflies were flying around them, she was right, they were in a paradise.
“You know, I could pretend that I like flowers for you because I love you.” Ava’s lips curved into slow heart-stopping smile. She loved the lovely cactuses exhibited around them.
“You are too cheesy, are you sick? Well, whatever, just shut up and I will recite my proposal speech,” Zane pouted.
“I bet it sucks,” Ava laughed. He glared at her with a smile.
“Roses are red, violets or blue.” He wolfishly grinned as Ava took a pebble to throw at him.
“You could do better than that dude!” Some people around them were laughing. Most of them were their friends. Ava spotted Amber and her husband in a distance, watching.
“Okay, I’m serious this time. Well, there’s something unique about us,” Zane started.
“Both of you were crazy!” Amber cheered and everyone laughed.
“It was something deep and spiritual. The way I fell for you? It was not just a mere attraction, lust or admiration. It has a sense of haste. Like the universe made me do it. It’s like if I won’t love you, there’s no sense at living at all. My heart literally aches with the thoughts of spending my life without you,” Zane took out a ring. It wasn’t a normal engagement ring that you could see in Tiffany’s catalogue. It was his family’s heirloom and he was way too sure that Ava would like it.
“I don’t think that I will ever met someone that could really match to you. Not that I was looking for someone to compare to you anyway but I could see all sorts of people and no matter who they are, or what they say, they couldn’t capture my attention quite the way you could. I could talk to all kinds of people, yet, I always find myself thinking about how they’re not quite as amiable and hilarious as you. I know people always say your first love is the person you compare everyone to, but maybe they’ve got it wrong. Maybe, it’s your true love.”
“That isn’t convincing. I won’t marry you,” Ava pouted. Zane didn’t think that Ava would not accept his proposal.
“Fine. Listen! I didn’t just fell in love with the best of you. You…aren’t even that beautiful!” he yelled. Everyone fell silent, even Ava. “I don’t like your eyes that sparkle like millions of stars, your laugh that sounds like music to my ears….damn. Why am I still complimenting you?” Insult? Insult? How could I even insult this goddess? Zane thought. “Your cookies tastes like ass!”
“You liked my cookies.” Ava smirked.
“Well, I do love your cookies.” He sighed in defeat.
“You have a bad breath in the morning and you snore way too loud. You don’t even know how to kiss properly!” He was making everything up. God knows how much he loved kissing her and she doesn’t even snore.
“You know just the right things to say to a girl,” she laughed.
“You’re not even a girl. I knew everything Ava, you’re a transwoman, but I still love you and accept you for that,” Zane wore the ring when he caught Ava off-guard.
“Asshole. Who told you that?” Ava glowered. She was staring at the ring in her middle finger. He doesn’t even know where to put it.
“Amber.” He smiled.
Amber broke into laughter and Ava cringed in embarrassment. Zane just suddenly realized it.
“You…don’t tell me?” he paused, yelling to Ava’s best friend. People were all laughing. Amber was all teary, she couldn’t believe Zane would actually believe her. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t.” she laughed.
“Damn it! You’re a real woman?!” he bawled at Ava.
Ava sighed and glared at him. The garden caretaker released more butterflies. They danced through the air, fluttered their wings and soared everywhere.
“I didn’t know, it’s okay too if—”
“What a dumb guy to marry.” Ava mumbled as she sealed Zane’s mouth with a kiss.