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  • Writer's picturePenny Sterling


Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Carson Simms was one of the first people I revealed my true self to. She wasn't sure if I was joking or not--which says a lot about the relationship we had, or at least the sort of person I am. I sent her a picture of myself. Her response was immediate, and it showed the sort of person she was:

"Let's go shopping.”

Let me unpack why I think those three words really define the incredible human being she was and why I will miss her for the rest of my life:

  • It was quick.

  • It was unexpected

  • It was appropriate

Professionally, Carson made a living taking in data, analyzing it, and presenting strategies based off of it. And that’s what she did here.

  • She took in the data about her big, goofy, guy friend: She’s not a guy. She’s a woman.

  • She analyzed it: She’s unfamiliar about how women interact with each other. She’s also going to need new clothes. And new ways to look at clothes, because omg what she’s wearing is so inappropriate.

  • She presented a strategy that efficiently combined both tasks:

“Let’s go shopping.”

And that was it. I was Penny, and we went shopping. For the first time in my life I walked into a clothing store with the plan of buying dresses and skirts instead of just glancing longingly at them. And it wasn’t a hand-holding, encouraging, gentle introduction. She threw me in the deep end. She strode into the store with me as if it was no big deal for a 5-foot-nothing asian-american woman to be there with an effeminate linebacker (which was the best I could muster at that point, presentation-wise), and started looking for clothes for herself. I hung near her, nervous. “Go look for stuff your size and then we’ll try them on,” she finally told me, exasperated.

And so I did. And we tried our clothes on. She laughed and chatted with me, refusing to allow me to wallow in nervousness. It worked. She helped me learn how to look at clothes:

Carson: Oh, sweetie. Not that.

Me: Why? It looks good on me.

Carson: Not from the back.

I had so much fun with her that day. Eventually. Once I got past the terror and the awareness of all the strange looks I was getting from customers and staff. But Carson’s pointed refusal to see me as anyone other than her friend Penny gave me strength. I used her strength when I had none, and thought about her every time my strength waned afterwards.

That strength is now gone from this world. It left sometime Saturday night. Maybe Sunday morning. I don’t know all the details, and while they matter in one way, right now the only thing that matters is my friend is dead.

Carson was more than my friend. She was my girlfriend, in a completely new way for me-- a way that fits me far better. She was the one who not only encouraged me to explore my femininity, but reveled in it. You know those “girlfriend” montage sequences you see in shows? Where two women do all these cliched “basic” things, like shopping for clothes, shoes and makeup, have brunch, and drink cocktails? Yeah, that was us. And it wasn’t like I was a project or a charity case. She loved doing these things with me. She had a reputation for being a bit of a hardass, and I was her outlet to this sort of femininity just as she was for me.

Penny and her friend Carson smiling for the camera. Carson is much smaller than Penny
I know--hard to tell us apart, isn't it? (I'm the one on the left)

Take the time we showed up for brunch wearing identical Steve Madden black patent ballet flats. “Twinsies!” she said, and meant it. Never mind that she wore the smallest size in the line, and I wore the largest. To us, we were twins. Later that day (while shopping) we found identical rings that also fit us both, and bought those too. The ring is a silver alloy with the infinity symbol () worked into it, to reflect the permanence of our friendship. I haven’t taken it off since. I doubt I ever will now. Although now it makes me cry when I look at it.

I’m most likely going to cry again within the month, when it gets cold enough to wear the scarves and mittens Carson crocheted for my kids and me. That was another bonus of hanging with her: a growing pile of cute winter apparel. It was always a good thing when she showed up at brunch with a bag.

Size differences aside, we had many things in common besides a love of fashion and eating food. We also loved cooking food, Star Wars and Star Trek (although she only liked TNG) and we both had very strong feelings about our cats (she adored all of her cats, and I despise all of mine), and we both worked programs of recovery. We also accepted that we had differing tastes. I teased her about her love of psychobilly music, and she couldn’t understand why I liked baseball. She’d tell me the only way she’d go bicycling with me is if I put her in a child’s seat on my bike and I’d tell her that Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s Over the Rainbow wasn’t an artistic interpretation, it was him not knowing the words.

And we were in competition over who had the most overprotective mother:

Me: Honestly--if my mom had her way, she would have kept me covered in bubblewrap and locked in the backyard!

Carson: Well, at least you could go outside!

We also had our demons. And hers were frightening. Sometimes they would actually wrest control from Carson and take her on terrifying trips that always left her shaken and struggling with the fallout. This is not a metaphor. She would have no memory of the events, and would have to listen and accept the damage the monster insider her had done, and pay for it. I was one of the few people who knew the depth of this aspect of her, and her defiant attempts to recover from them. She was intensely private, and would be mortified that I’ve mentioned this. And she’d be furious with me for talking about it.

Too bad. Don’t like it, Carson? Too bad. Come tell me to my face. Come back and yell and me, and never forgive me, because that would mean you’re still alive and a world with you angry at me is a world I’d like better than one without you. I was 55 when I transitioned. I’m 59 now. I’m very aware that I have a very shortened timeline for living a full life as a woman. And I never expected that your timeline would end before mine. And it hurts. It hurts so much.

In the last show I did during Fringe, there's a story whre I talk about baseball. It only lasts for a minute, but halfway through the bit, I hear a disgusted uggggh from the audience.

And I knew Carson was in the house. And I was happy.

After the show ended, we hugged and I met her new man, but there were a bunch of well-wishers so we kept it brief. We continued the conversation in text, where she explained that no, I’m not an imposter, and people really did like the show, which is one of the duties she took on in service of our friendship. We also agreed that we were due for a late morning meeting over eggs benedict or kimchee pancakes or mi xao don or whatever struck our fancy that day, and we would wear cute autumnal dresses and sit on the sidewalk and flirt with passersby and just enjoy our time together.

And, in the nature of these sorts of conversations, her last text was simply this:

A beating heart.

That heart is now gone from the world, and I miss it.

I will miss it for the rest of my life.

This has taken a lot longer to write than I thought it would. Not because I didn’t know what to say, but because it was so hard to say it. And there’s so much more I wanted to say about her, and there’s so many times when something happens and I think “I should text Carson about this” and I can’t.

And because it is the nature of humanity, there are things that I do that make me smile and laugh and think about other things and even though I know this is how humans heal I still feel guilty because I know I’m not done mourning yet and I’m once again crushed about the whole thing.

My friend is dead. Carson is dead, and I’m not okay.

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Saturday was a day of relaxing after my niece's wedding, catching up with an old friend, and then a mad dash across the state so that I would only be half an hour late for the job I had lined up last


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