When I was young, I dreamed of living a fabulous life of riches and luxury, fame and fortune. In the past few years, there have been some points where it seemed like, in some way, that might actually happen. During my last year of university, I received international media attention for my historic homecoming win (I was the first openly trans homecoming queen at my college) and, as a result, was contacted by a casting director at MTV about participating in some “True Life” thing or something. That was exciting, but even my fifteen minutes of viral fame didn’t turn into reality TV infamy, I had big plans to move to Chicago with my BFF Daye, which was just as exciting.
I was about to graduate and there seemed to be so many possibilities for where I would end up — all equally fab. Would I become the first transgender MTV reality starlet? Would I end up a fierce career queer in Chi-Town? Could I possibly begin actively transitioning, something I was starting to seriously consider at the time? I didn’t know for sure, but I was certain that I was on the verge of living the fabulous, Sex-and-the-City style life I’ve always dreamed of.
Then things fell apart.
First, my plans to move to Chicago fell through. That was majorly upsetting not just because it ruined the fantasy of me moving to a big city and becoming a younger version of Samantha Jones, but because I didn’t have a back-up plan. All the jobs and internships I’d been applying for were in Chicago and I had already charged the U-Haul to my credit card.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered the fact that things might not work out. But, for various reasons, I couldn’t picture myself being happy unless I was a major “success” in some way, whether that meant being on TV or living in a big city and sharing my fabulously on Instagram. So when I heard back from MTV that I wasn’t selected to participate in their docu-series and they weren’t interested in the reality show idea I had casually pitched to them (which, if you must know, was completely fab), it felt like any chance I had at a fabulous life — at success, happiness — was gone.
The following summer, I learned that it doesn’t take all that much to be happy and sometimes, life’s more unexpected turns — like spending your first summer out of college in a small town, working retail and living in a friend’s basement, as I ended up doing — can actually be pretty fabulous in their own ways.
Sure, working part-time as a cashier in a small Iowa city’s only Target store isn’t quite what I pictured my first post-college job being, but I was good at it and I actually enjoyed it. Plus, I was doing so much more than that — I also scored a regular writing gig, as a contributor for an online LGBT e-mag, and was working on LGBTeen, my own writing project, which was actually picking up steam. I was also spending time with friends, getting closer to people I knew in college and making new connections.
That’s not to say I was instantly in love with my post-grad life — it took me awhile to fully enjoy where I was at. I actually hesitated to even apply for the job at Target, because I wanted to focus on finding a job related to my major. I spent many days depressed in bed, escaping into Netflix shows (Drop Dead Diva was a major pick-me-up during this time). But once I started working, I fell into a groove pretty quickly. And then one day, exhausted after a long shift spent standing behind the check-out counter and then commuting on my bike, everything changed.
I arrived at my friend’s place to find my roommates and some of our mutual friends gathered around a fire in their backyard, drinking and shooting the breeze. I grabbed a Lime-a-Rita, lit up a cigarette (don’t ever start smoking, kids) and joined them, letting my muscles relax as laid back into my chair. Eyes closed, I exhaled my first drag of the Marlboro Menthol and almost instantly felt a spark inside, bright and warm as the bonfire that was burning in the warm summer night. It came as such a shock, I had to vocalize, “Lauren,” I called out to my roommate, “I think I’m… happy.”
She laughed, smiled at me and said, “Good,” pleased and — apparently — amused that it took me so long to have this revelation.
As I basked in the glow of the fire and that feeling, I realized — what more could I want than to come home from an honest day’s work and be surrounded by people who I love so much, who love me?
Though I ended up leaving Iowa at the end of the summer, that moment allowed me to move forward without fear. Though I enjoyed that time of my life, I didn’t want to spend forever working at a small-town Target. And though, during my time attending college there, I did fall in love with Iowa, many of my friends would be moving from our college town after they graduated. I wasn’t sure what life had in store for me, but I realized that I didn’t have to become an overnight public relations superstar in order to feel successful and — more importantly — happy.
Now, as I find myself unemployed, aimless and — once again — so far removed from the type of life I dream of living (though I’ve adjusted my standards a bit), I hold on to that moment. Because it taught me that no matter what happens in my life, I can continue to have those sparks of happiness along the way.