Saturday, April 9, 2011
Waltzing With the Azaleas
Rarely does my writing line up with anything current, nor do I write with that intention. This novella was first published through GLB Publishers in San Francisco in 2008. With the event of Chaz Bono coming out as transgender, it seems a fitting time and topic. It's a long piece, so I'll leave it on through April. I would love your comments. You can reach me at email@example.com.
“You’re not going to puke, are you?” Jessica cut her speed back to a crawl. Her variegated ponytail, Auburn Sunset and Grape Ice this week, swung abruptly over her left shoulder as she shot a look over at Cory in the passengers seat.
“I’m not going to puke,” Cory mumbled. “I hate that word.”
Jessica paced herself parallel to the curb, just in case. “You look a sort of avocado.”
“It’s just the jacket.”
“Well, then, why do you wear it?”
“Could we talk about something else?” Cory drummed his fingers on his knees. His cuticles were jagged from nibbling and picking. The old neighborhood crept by in a white coating of winter broken by slashes of barren trees.
He leaned forward, and with his bare hand wiped away the vapor that clouded the windshield on his side.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to do that? It leaves streaks,” Jessica said.
“I was never allowed to ride in the front seat,” Cory mumbled, brushing a tuft of hair from his forehead. “Turn right at the next corner. It’s the blue house on the right,” he instructed.
Jessica pulled up in front of a wooden two-story, with a large lawn that sloped to the curb. Hints of red brick peeked through the blanket of snow suggesting a sidewalk. “Do you think she’s already there?”
“Not if we’re on time,” Cory said ruefully.
Jessica cut the engine. The temperature dropped immediately as the Midwest winter enveloped the car. She re-zipped her parka and struggled her hands into her mittens. Fighting a shiver, she said, “Tell me again why I’m here?”
“Because you’re my best friend. And that’s what best friends do,” Cory said. He slipped his gloves on and reached for the door handle.
Jessica turned to look at him. “How many years since you’ve been back?”
Cory sensed she was delaying the inevitable with her prattle. “I was seven when Mother died,” he said. “Aunt Lavinia took Catherine and me in, and leased the house. Life went on—more or less.”
“You okay, really?” Jessica laid a mitten-swaddled hand on his arm.
“Yeah. No. But, thanks anyway,” he gave a weak smile. “Let’s go.”
The frigid air sliced through Cory like a cleaver as he kicked at the snowy pathway, uncovering just enough brickwork for a foothold up to the porch.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Jessica squealed as she hugged her parka tight around her and followed in his steps.
By arrangement, the key was under the mat, although in this small burg it would have been safe to leave the door unlocked, even open, in good weather.
They stomped remnants of snow and slush from their shoes, powdering the dark blue porch. It reminded Jessica of foam on the ocean.
“I don’t suppose they left the heat on?” she hoped out loud.
Cory jiggled the key, swung the door open, and stepped into the vast, dark cavern, a place you’d expect to see ghosts floating aimlessly. Jessica hesitated, wrinkled her nose at the dank smell, and then followed close behind Cory, pulling the door shut after her.
“I thought childhood houses were supposed to look smaller when you went back to them as an adult,” Cory mused.
“Where’s the thermostat?” Jessica asked. Cory pointed to the wall on the left.
He stepped to the right, into the hallway, and jumped at his reflection in the built-in mirror. Suddenly he returned to the memory of another day over a decade ago in this same spot.
The tree lights sparkled like handfuls of diamonds hurled into the night sky.
Five-year old Cory, cocooned in a fleecy white blanket, a passable imitation of an evening gown, stood before the hall mirror outside the living room and carefully draped shimmering strands of tinsel over his head, one by one, to create the perfect hairdo. He looked beautiful. He wiggled his toes in his mother’s pink satin mules and smiled.
“Christ, Cory, is that my lipstick you’ve got smeared on your face?” Catherine swept into the room. She grabbed a fistful of tinsel hair. “Jesus, you’re such a little freak. Mother!” she howled. Her white-blonde pony tail trailed like jet vapor as she took the stairs two at a time.
Cory looked at his reflection. A few remaining strands of tinsel slid down his small cherub face, hung unevenly from his shoulder, and then slithered like a silver snake down his leg to lie crumpled on the floor by his foot. Shame turned his cheeks crimson.
Devon Broadhurst descended the stairs as if carefully picking her way down a precarious mountain path. She paused half way down, leaned a leathery elbow heavily on the railing, and regarded her small son standing there like her worst nightmare. The words, ‘Devil’s spawn’ floated into her mind, and she grimaced.
Devon wheezed and pounded her chest with her fist. “Cory, how many times have I told you not to touch Catherine’s make-up?” It was rhetorical, she knew. She descended the remaining stairs, one heavy footfall after the next. Cory held his breath. She shook her head tiredly. Her scraggly black hair was plastered against her cheeks. “And, take off my God-damned slippers.”
A five-beat cough rattled her sunken chest, and she fanned herself with her free hand. “You look like a whore. What were you thinking?”
She didn’t wait for a reply, merely wrapped her long, bony fingers around his scrawny arm and dragged his non-resistant body toward the bathroom.
Cory was doing an apt impression of Raggedy Ann. His mind was cotton batting, his feelings were numb, his body trailed along behind Mother. The pink mules sat abandoned on the cold hardwood floor of the hallway.
The white cream was in stark contrast to the cobalt blue jar, and the pungent scent of Noxzema filled the small room. Latching onto a tuft of his hair, Devon jerked Cory’s head back and smeared his face with the cleanser. The fumes stung his eyes and made them water. She wiped his skin roughly with a handful of paper towels from beneath the sink. Her face was a study in disgust.
“I’m sorry, Momma,” he whimpered, peeking up at lips clamped shut like a turtle’s mouth, and eyes that were slits in her withered face.
He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be sorry for—the emphysema that wracked her lungs, for being a failure as a son, a freak, wanting to be beautiful—but he knew he was supposed to be sorry.
Devon dropped the pink-smeared towels on the sink counter. She slumped to her knees, grabbed Cory, and pulled him roughly to her bosom in a suffocating embrace. Her dressing gown smelled of cigarette smoke she’d sneaked in her upstairs bedroom. Tears fell from her red-rimmed eyes and soaked his hair as she sobbed, “Oh, Cory, Cory—what will become of you when I’m gone?” She rocked him back and forth.
Another series of coughs blew over the top of his head like tornadoes touching down, skipping, touching down. He hated it when she talked like this. She wasn’t going anywhere. She couldn’t. She was his mother.
“Cory! Cory?” Jessica shook his arm. “Cory, what’s wrong with you?” Her voice edged on hysteria.
“Huh...what?” Cory was doubled over, one hand holding his stomach. With the other, he grabbed the front of Jessica’s parka to steady himself. His face was flushed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Here, come on...” She led him to the stairwell and pointed to the bottom step. “Sit,” she said. “What are you sorry for?”
Cory’s shoulders heaved, as a dam of tears broke loose. “I’m so tired of apologizing for myself,” he sobbed, wiping angrily at the tears. “I’m not a freak!” he shouted into the hollow room.
Jessica sat on the step above him and peered down into his face, now blanched of all color. “No, Cor, of course you’re not a freak,” she said, stroking the back of his head. “Who are you talking to?”
“Ghosts,” he sobbed, “the dead and the living.”
Just then, the front door creaked on its hinges and swung abruptly open. A blast of arctic air attacked them from behind.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Jessica jumped up, and spun around. With fists at the ready and feet planted firmly, she crouched, prepared to do battle with unseen forces.
“Cory, you in there?” Catherine poked her head through the opening. She glared at Jessica. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, stepping through the door, hands on hips.
Jessica slumped in relief as Catherine stepped into the room. She stuck out her hand in greeting.
“I’m Jessica. You must be Cory’s sister.” She took in the image of the Ice Queen—tall, with pale blonde hair pulled back in a severe French twist. Her eyes were light blue and her face was as pale as her hair, the color broken only by a swipe of blood-red lipstick. She was wrapped in a long silver fur coat and wore high-heeled boots that weren’t made for walking. Breathtaking, in a Greta Garbo, don’t-touch-me sort of way.
“Guess I was expecting Darth Vader or someone,” Jessica chuckled. She withdrew her hand that hung, unmet, in the air.
“Common mistake,” Cory commented, rising from the stair steps. “Hey, Sis,” he fumbled a hug around Catherine’s rigid body.
She studied Cory for a moment. “You look emaciated,” she said, with no particular emotion. “Don’t homosexuals eat?”
Jessica, slack-jawed, and with eyebrows raised, willed Cory to utter a searing retort.
“Maybe we could stay focused on why we’re here,” Cory suggested, choosing his battles carefully. Jessica groaned.
“Ah, yes...” Catherine made a sweeping gesture with her black kid gloved hand, taking in the emptiness of their childhood. “We’re here to say goodbye. Really, Cory, couldn’t we just have signed the damned papers at the broker’s office and have been done with it?”
At the sound of the doorbell, all three turned and stared at the front entrance.
“Saved by the Southern belle,” Catherine said as she went to the door.
“Whatta bitch,” Jessica said after Catherine was out of earshot. Cory shrugged.
“Hello, hello? Y’all in there?” Dody Sawtell, the broker, called from the other side of the door. She gave the bell one final ring.
Catherine yanked open the door and motioned her inside.
Dody, a year or so older than Catherine, and a good forty pounds heavier, clambered into the room, stomping snow from her boots onto the hardwood floor. She tromped on by Catherine into the great room.
“Oh, my, this couldn’t be young Cory, all grown up?” She gave him the once-over and batted her mascara-laden lashes. Her rubber soles made a squeaking sound as she passed Cory. She stopped briefly, regarded Jessica as one might a smudge on a glass, and walked on. Jessica stood like a shadow just behind Cory.
“Where did you find her?” Jessica whispered in Cory’s ear.
Cory grimaced. “She’s the only game in town, I’m afraid.”
“And Catherine—my, aren’t we just looking—healthy,” she offered with a saccharine smile.
“Hello, Dody,” Catherine’s voice was hard and flat. “Can we just get this over with?”
“I hope y’all have had time to say your goodbyes to each and every little ol’ room, as highly unusual as this is.”
“I’m good,” Cory replied. “Doesn’t seem as important as it once did.”
He shot a look at Catherine, who leaned heavily against the wall, arms crossed over her chest, lips pursed, and eyes in a squint. For just a moment, she looked like a teenage version of Devon that Cory remembered from an old high school yearbook. “You good?” he asked.
“Alrighty then,” Dody chirped.
She looked around the empty space for a table on which to place her alligator briefcase. Cory’s eyes fixed on the briefcase that contained the documents that would free him from his prison. Finding no appropriate surface, Dody spread the small, stapled stacks of paper along the length of the bottom step of the stairwell. With Kindergarten teacher precision, she laid a gold pen, imprinted with Dody Sawtell, Title Officer and her phone number, on the end of the step.
“I’ll need your autographs on each line where there’s an ‘x.’” With a fuchsia-colored nail she pointed to an ‘x’ as a visual aid.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Cory muttered. Jessica snickered.
Catherine slipped off her gloves, shrugged off her bulky coat, and slung it over the newel post so she could bend sufficiently to reach the bottom step. She and Cory each signed at their designated ‘x.’
“That’s it, then?” Catherine clicked the tip of the pen several times. “When do we get the check?”
Dody gathered up the pens and papers, filed them in her briefcase, and regarded Catherine. “Aren’t we just as eager as flies on poo,” she smiled with all the warmth of a mosquito. “The check will be at the bank first thing in the morning.” She snapped shut the briefcase, and tossed out the word “Ta,” back over her shoulder as she strode past Catherine and Cory and out the door.
“I guess this is it then,” Cory said, noting a catch somewhere in his throat.
“This was it fifteen years ago,” Catherine retorted. “You were just too young to know it. I’ll see you at the bank at nine in the morning.”
“Are you staying at The Crossroads?” Cory asked.
“It’s the only motel within driving distance of this Godforsaken place,” Catherine said as she shrugged on her coat and gathered up her bag.
“Maybe we could all have dinner together,” Cory said.
“I think not.” Catherine slammed the door behind her.
“Holy shit,” Jessica snorted. “Talk about Daughter Dearest.”
“Yeah, well…” Cory was at loss for words to explain his family.
In Room 207 at The Crossroads, Jessica turned up the heat and then clicked on the television that was bolted to the wall. She bounced on the queen-sized bed closest to the bathroom. “Not bad,” she judged, stifling a yawn. “Although I could probably sleep on an ice floe after today.”
Cory clicked the television off.
“Hey, that was a rerun of To Tell the Truth,” Jessica complained.
“How appropriate,” Cory said as he sat down opposite Jessica on the remaining bed. “Can we talk?”
Jessica fluffed the pillows and leaned against the headboard. “Shoot,” she said. “Are you missing David?” she asked, referring to the thirty-four year old man Cory had been dating for the last few months.
“We broke up.” Cory kept his eyes focused on a spot on the flowered bedspread.
Jessica gasped. “You what? When were you going to tell me?”
“Look, I know you didn’t approve of David . . .”
“It’s not that I didn’t approve, exactly,” Jessica interrupted. “But, Cory, he was just so old! You two were in sort of different worlds. You’ve only been out for three years, and…” they sat in the uncomfortable silence that usually accompanied any talk of David.
“I know. You’re right. He wanted to settle down, white picket fence and all that. I think he’s having a mid-life crisis,” Cory said with a grin. He glanced over at Jessica, then back down at the bedspread. “Jes,” he cleared his throat and shifted his position. “I don’t think I want to date gay men any more.”
Jessica’s mouth hung. “Cory, I hate to mention the obvious, but you’ve just obliterated the entire playing field of possibilities.” She shook her head back and forth slowly, trying to grasp any logic she might have missed.
Cory stood and paced the small room. “I’ve been thinking,” he said as he passed the end of her bed, turned and headed the other direction.
“Uh huh, and…” Jessica prompted after a moment.
“I’ve been thinking for a long time,” he passed by again.
Jessica stood, grabbed him by the arm, marched him to the end of the bed, and sat him down. She sat opposite him, knee to knee.
“A long time…”
“I don’t think I’m really gay,” he said quietly.
“What?” Jessica slapped both hands to her cheeks. “Why am I always the last to learn these things?” she sputtered. “Oh, Cory, it isn’t me, is it? You haven’t fallen in love with me, or something, have you? Please, say it isn’t so,” she said, horrified at the possibility. “I’m queer as a camel in a swim suit.”
“Relax,” Cory said. “I don’t want to date girls.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I want to be one. A transsexual.” He sighed heavily, his shoulders drooped, and he peered up at her through heavy eyelashes. He’d never said that word aloud. Jessica sat in silence. He watched as countless expressions washed over her face without so much as a single muscle twitch. She released the breath she’d been holding in a whoosh.
“Like TJ, who used to be a ‘she’ only the other direction?” Jessica asked.
Cory nodded. A trickle of sweat ran down his temple.
“I just haven’t had the word for it before. I think I’ve known since I was a kid. As a teenager, when I’d shower, I’d imagine I had breasts. Then I’d look down and see this thing between my legs that felt like a foreign object,” Cory paused. Jessica’s eyes were wide, and her mouth was small and round.
Cory took a deep breath. “When I started dating guys,” he continued, “all of a sudden my penis became this hugely important thing. It was all wrong, Jess. I’ve got the wrong body.”
“So, you want to be a girl, you say,” Jessica reiterated. Cory nodded. “So you can date straight guys?”
“I guess, yeah,” Cory said.
“I don’t know, Cor,” Jessica looked away. “That’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around. What will become of us?” She had a wary look on her face that made Cory uneasy.
“Nothing will change between us,” Cory said, and knew as the words left his mouth that there was no guarantee.
At five minutes before nine the next morning, Jessica and Cory pulled out of the Dew Drop Inn and headed for the Farmers and Merchants Bank.
“Do you think Catherine will be there already?” Jessica asked.
“Oh, she’ll be there,” Cory said. “Trust me.”
“You haven’t said what you’re going to do with all that money.” Jessica glanced sideways at Cory. She pulled into the bank’s parking lot and cut the engine.
“There’s this place in Trinidad, Colorado,” Cory said as he turned up his coat collar against the winter morning. “The doc there is a transsexual. She does the surgery.”
“Oh my God.” Jessica tried to keep her eyes above Cory’s belt line. Failing that, she mumbled, “Shit.” She looked out her window. “You sure about this?”
“I’ve never been surer of anything in my life,” he said. “It will be about a year before I can have the surgery, so I’m going to let my money grow for a while, along with my hair,” he giggled. “It’s an inside joke.”
They sat in silence for a moment, Jessica with elbows on the steering wheel, chin in hands. She cleared her throat. “Well then,” Jessica finally said, “let’s go get your future.”
Catherine, wrapped in silver fur, stepped out of the F&M lobby onto the snow-shoveled concrete. She threw them a withering glance, turned and re-entered the bank.
“That girl’s got a Popsicle up her…” Jessica stopped short when she noticed Cory’s stricken expression.
“After today, I’m afraid I’ll never see my sister again,” he said, staring at the spot where Catherine had been.
“Her loss, my friend.” Jessica linked arms with Cory and trudged into the bank.
The finances were transacted in a blur of efficiency and within half an hour, the three were headed back out the door to the parking lot.
Jessica grabbed Catherine by the elbow and turned her around. “I’ve just got to ask you this for my own information.” Catherine shot her an icy look. “Why are you so hateful to your brother? Really…” Her exasperation was growing and her voice cracked with emotion. “I’m just curious. I mean, don’t you know that he loves you?”
Catherine’s face rearranged itself. She looked at Cory. For a moment there was a vulnerability Cory had never seen.
“When I look at you, Cory,” she said in something just above a whisper, “I see our past. I see Devon, shrunken with cancer. I see a crazy little boy in girls’ clothes. I see myself as a teenager, supposed to be able to figure out how to live my life with no one to turn to. I see that damned hell hole of a house that echoed with loneliness and hopelessness, that was full of sickness and stench.”
Catherine closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the hardness was back. She wrenched her arm from Jessica’s grasp. “That’s not my life anymore. You’re not my life anymore,” she said to Cory. She turned abruptly and walked to her car.
Cory held his bottom lip firmly between his teeth. He would not let it tremble. He would not.
Cory felt the sun filter through the gauze curtains behind him. His therapist regarded him thoughtfully from her wing-backed chair.
“So, you really said the word? No more euphemisms, like, ‘I’m not comfortable in my body’?” Marguerite asked.
“And you decided Jessica would be the first friend you told,” Marg said. “I suppose that makes sense,” she nodded.
“Ever since we met in the Lesbian and Gay Support Group three years ago, she sort of took on the role of the loving big sister I never had. I figured I owed her the honor,” Cory smiled.
“How did she take it?”
Cory shrugged. “It was a little hard to tell,” he said.
“And how was it for you, to take that risk?” Marg asked.
“At first she didn’t say anything. I thought, oh, so this is how it’s going to be. The first in a line of losses.” He kicked off his sandals and folded his legs yoga-style on the leather couch. “I wanted to cry or say, ‘just kidding’, you know, back pedal real fast?”
“But you waited,” Marg said.
“Yeah, for a long time. Just as we were falling asleep, she said, ‘Hey, Cor, whatever works for you is fine with me.’”
Marg smiled. “You’ve met with Doctor Chan regarding the hormone therapy?”
“Uh huh. We start next month. He suggested I start shopping now. Develop my style, you know. Maybe start letting my hair grow.” He tugged at a tuft of hair tucked behind his ear and stared at the floor.
“What are you thinking about?” Marg said.
“Oh, I was think about that Christmas when I was five, and the tinsel hair—” his voice trailed off with the memory.
The following Saturday, Cory met Jessica at Hot Couture. He was wrapped in a pink-feathered boa, and was beaming at his reflection in the floor-length mirror.
“What in the name of sanity are you doing?” Jessica appeared next to him, punked-out with orange spiked hair and a clip-on nose ring.
“Stylin’,” he winked into the mirror.
“Cor, you’re going to be a girl, not a hooker.” She led him over to the racks. “Are you a summer, fall, spring, or winter?” she eyed him from head to toe.
“Fall,” she decided.
“Fall? Sounds a sort of drab, doesn’t it?” Cory worried.
“Think autumn leaves, golden stalks of corn, clear blue skies, pumpkins—”
“Pumpkins! Yes. Orange is good,” Cory grinned, tweaking a pointy lock of Jessica’s hair.
“You’re sort of willowy. I’m thinking long skirt, silk over-blouse, maybe a vest, knee boots,” Jessica offered.
“Sounds kind of Annie Hall,” Cory grimaced. “I’m thinking something maybe more this decade. Tee shirt, Capri’s, sandals—” he countered.
“Did you bring the padded bra?” Jessica asked.
“I’m wearing it,” he said in a pout.
“Oh,” she glanced at his chest. “Sorry. Guess you’re sort of creeping up on them, huh?”
“Growing into them, Doctor Chan calls it,” he corrected. Cory draped a russet colored short-sleeved tee, and beige Capri’s with a russet and moss green floral pattern over his arm. “Uh oh, dressing room problem,” he muttered.
“Unisex,” Jessica smiled and pointed to a series of cubicles along the side wall.
Glad that he’d shaved his legs that morning, Cory pulled the Capri’s up over his hips and slipped the tee over his 36A temporary bosom. The three-way mirror reflected back an attractive, trim, androgynous being. He stepped outside the cubicle where Jessica waited.
“Oh—my—God,” she clapped her hands gleefully.
“But, do I look like a girl?” Cory worried, turning slowly.
“Well, you don’t not look like a girl,” Jessica said. “I think until your hair grows, you might want to try a wig.”
“Where would I find a wig?”
“There’s a cancer supply store on the other side of town,” Jessica offered.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Twenty minutes later, a sales clerk at Hair4U had lined up a variety of styles on the counter in front of Cory. The way she sized him up over the top of her glasses made him squirm.
“The weave on the inside of this one minimizes the itchy scalp that sometimes comes from hair loss,” she gave a tight smile, and handed Cory a conservative bob in sandy blonde, closest to his own color.
Jessica snorted. “Sorry, allergies,” she said as she pulled a tissue from her pocket and faked a sneeze. Cory shot her a look.
The clerk snugged the wig into position, fluffed it, and pointed Cory toward the mirror on the counter.
“Mmm, I’ve always wanted to go auburn,” Cory said, gently fingering the shoulder-length wavy tresses on the stand to his right.
The clerk narrowed her eyes. “Most people don’t want to do anything too extreme in these cases,” she said.
Jessica, unable to contain her mirth, bolted from the shop, claiming an expired meter.
Cory regarded the clerk. “I’m feeling particularly bold these days. You know how it is,” he smiled bravely at the clerk.
“Of course you are,” she nodded as she slipped the blond wig back on its form and eased the lush auburn curls over Cory’s head.
“Yes,” Cory whispered into the mirror.
“Well, then,” she said as she rang up his purchase, “remember, we’re hair for you,” she twittered as she put the wig in a box and handed it over the counter.
“Thank you,” Cory batted his eyes.
“Good bye—uh—Miss,” the clerk said.
Cory stretched her bare legs into the sunshine and wiggled her toes. Her back rested against the smooth bark of the elm tree. She was as mesmerized by the interplay of sun and shade as it danced on the grass in the breeze, as by the opalescent pink polish she’d painted on her toenails that morning. The color reminded her of her grandmother’s favorite tea set.
* * *
The clink of the pink China teacups and Nana’s smile had filled Cory’s heart with happiness and comfort as they sat on the patchwork quilt under the oak tree in the late afternoon sun. Tea parties with Nana, decked out in glittering jewels from her antique velvet jewelry box were Cory’s favorite thing about summer.
“Here dear, try this strand of pearls,” Nana looped the soft, eggshell colored beads about his delicate neck.
“Nana, try these beautiful red earrings,” Cory said. He clipped to his nana’s ears the garnet stones that reflected tiny beams of red onto her papery soft cheeks.
Nana giggled with delight. They clicked teacups. “To the beautiful people,” she said, as they sipped their honey-sweetened ginger tea.
Car accident; gone; won’t be coming back—pieces of phrases overheard. Momma stubbing out her cigarette; Catherine staring out the window. “What am I supposed to do now?” Momma asks of no one in particular as the smoke from her cigarette twists and curls like ghosts over her head. She sighed deeply.
* * *
“Earth to Cory,” Jessica nudged Cory’s leg.
“Huh?” Cory looked over at Jessica splayed out on the blanket, baseball cap shading her eyes.
“I said have you chosen a major yet?” Jessica sat up, yawned, and stared out across campus at the students crisscrossing the Quad like so many worker ants. “You are going on to the University, aren’t you?
Cory scrunched up her face.
“Cor, you have to break out of the nest someday. You know that, don’t you?” Jessica sighed. They’d been having this conversation all summer.
“I was thinking I could check out the Repertoire Theater here—they have a good season lined up,” Cory offered.
“Ah, so this week you’re going to be a theater major.”
“You’re being sarcastic.”
“Last week, your professional goal was to become a florist. When do we get around to beautician? I mean, could you get any more cliché?”
Jessica shifted her position, sitting cross-legged opposite Cory on the blanket.
“Really, Cory, if you’re going to practice being a girl, you’ve got to let go of the gay-guy stereotypes.”
“It’s fine for you to be a metal sculptor, but I can’t be an actor? How fair is that?” Cory whined.
Jessica reflected on the myriad future paths her parents had indefatigably supported her through—artist, vet, entrepreneur, botanist, chemist—purchasing pastels, stethoscopes, ledgers, microscopes, as her interests changed by the year.
Jessica looked Cory in the eyes. “This isn’t about a career, is it?”
Cory’s eyes dropped to her hands, folded in her lap. She studied her cuticles.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” Jessica confirmed. “Talk to me, Cor.”
“I’m, you know, concerned…” Cory’s voice trailed off. She unfolded her hands, picked at her thumbnail, and folded her hands again.
“Concerned? Try again,” Jessica urged.
“Okay, I’m scared,” Cory blurted.
“Better. Go on.”
“I mean, people know me here. They accept me as who I’m becoming. I’m not so naive as to think this is going to be an easy transition. And frankly, the thought of starting over in a new environment, having to pass—Jes, it fills me with terror.” Cory’s body shuddered. “Remember those two trans girls last year somewhere down south? They were dragged from their car and beaten senseless,” she said.
Jessica reached over and took her hand. “You’ve been talking with Dr. Chan and Marg about this, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. They say what I’m going through is normal,” Cory gave a weak smile. “Well, normal for the situation, that is. And that with the hormones, my body is changing, and I’m appearing more credible as the months go by.” She looked down. “Even my—well, you know—is getting smaller.”
“So, what’s the problem? You’re gorgeous, dahling,” Jessica said with a grin. “You get any more femme, I may have to ask you out myself.”
“Don’t tease, Jes. You know I’m not a lesbian.”
“We could fix that,” Jessica bounced her eyebrows a couple of times in response. Cory threw a handful of grass at her.
“And the voice lessons?” Jessica asked.
“I never was very macho, so raising my vocal register isn’t all that challenging,” Cory said. “The thing is, I don’t feel like I’m being heard.”
“Welcome to the wonderful world of women,” Jessica said. “How are the walking lessons going?”
“I’m a long way from the runway, but I have a passable girl walk.” Cory ran a hand up and down her hairless calf and frowned.
“Here’s the thing, Jes. So, okay, I look, sound, and move like a woman. I’m pre-surgery. I find some incredible hunk. We go out. We like each other. Things get heavy. The hands start roving,” Cory heaved a sigh, wadded the tissue she’d been twisting in her hand, and threw it as far as she could. “Even if I tape it down, there comes a point . . .”
“I don’t know, Cor. I just don’t know how to guide you through this one.” Jessica sat with head hung, looking as morose as Cory felt.
“Wait,” she sprung to life, “Remember last year when TJ left our group? Didn’t he start something called Fifth Option?”
“TJ moved eighty miles from here. I lost track of him. Fifth Option?”
“Yeah, like lesbian, gay, bi, straight, trans,” Jessica counted off on her fingers.
“Why is trans always last?” Cory asked.
“Don’t get testy with me; I didn’t name the group,” Jessica said. “I know we could find TJ. He’d know about this stuff. Come on Cor,” she urged. “What do you have to lose?”
“It’s not what I have to lose that scares me. It’s what I have to gain.”
“Hey, Cory, wait up,” Josh called as he dashed out the door of the Arts Building.
“Hi, Josh,” Cory blushed under the intense blue eyes focused on her. She felt naked and vulnerable as she took a raggedy breath in and tried to focus on the reality of the earth under her feet. “Can you believe that assignment? Create ‘fear’ using only blue. God.”
“Yeah, I thought maybe we could work on it together,” Josh’s smile and those perfect white teeth stirred something in Cory that at one time would have passed for an erection.
“Oh, well, maybe. Uhm . . .”
“How about over coffee, if you’re free? Or tonight? We could brainstorm over a bottle of wine.” He stepped closer.
“Ah, well . . .” Her ears rang and her vision began to fade. Oh my God, I’m going to faint, she thought as she squatted and dropped her head between her knees.
“You okay?” Josh asked, kneeling next to her, one arm thrown protectively across her shoulders. “What can I do?” The alarm in his voice was like a sobering slap. She took a quick gulp of air and struggled to her feet, supported by Josh’s hand beneath her elbow.
“I’m fine, really. Thanks. It’s just—that time of the month,” Cory stammered. She turned her face away in shame.
“Really? I mean, maybe another night then?” Josh studied the back of her head.
“Yeah, that would probably be better,” Cory turned and offered a smile. “Thanks for understanding.”
“Hey, no problem. I have sisters. You take care,” Josh waved as he turned toward the Student Union.
Cory buried her face in her hands.
Two days later, Cory sat across from Marg. They sipped tea from delicate gold-rimmed cups with matching saucers.
“I’ve never heard of Chrysanthemum tea,” Cory said. “Where’s it from?”
“A friend brought it from Chinatown.” Marg inhaled the fragrant steam that drifted from her cup. “Cory, we could sit and talk about tea until the cows come home, but I’m thinking there’s something else on your mind.” She sat her cup down with a clink.
Cory told her about the exchange with Josh. Her face flushed when she admitted using her period as a delay tactic.
“Interesting diversion, albeit biologically impossible,” Marg smiled. “So, what’s to lose by being honest with someone who seems to be interested in you—assuming it’s the real you he values?” Marg asked.
“A potential friend, I guess. I’m not sure Josh knows about the real me. Seems like a high price to pay,” Cory said, slumping lower in her chair. She swirled remnants of flower petals in her cup.
“And, what’s to gain?” Marg asked.
“A potential friend. Someone who’d like me, even though . . .”
“I’d say that’s about fifty-fifty.”
“But if he’s interested in me sexually, then gets all grossed out or something, I’m not sure I can live through that,” Cory blurted.
“Cory,” Marg leaned forward and caught Cory’s eyes, “unless you plan on spending your life in the closet—a very tiny, lonely closet—you’re going to have to live through these experiences.” She sat back with a sigh. “If he rejects you because you’re facing gender reassignment, he’s not the sort of person you’ll want in your life. Trust me.”
The following Wednesday, Cory lingered by the door as students spilled out of the Art Building.
“Josh . . .” Cory called out as Josh bounded down the steps.
“Hey, Cory. How are you?” He turned and flashed a smile that made Cory’s feet sweat. “You started on the project yet?”
“No, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You have a minute?”
“Sure. You want to grab a cup of coffee at the Union or something?” Josh suggested.
“Okay.” Cory took a deep breath as Josh slipped a supporting hand under her elbow as she took the two steps down to ground level.
They carried their cups to a small table in the far corner of the room where the general din was quieter.
It’s now or never, Cory thought, as she took a sip of her latte and settled into the creaky wooden chair. She cleared her throat. Josh’s eyes bored into her as he leaned slightly forward, elbows on the table.
“Um, Josh, there’s something I’m not sure you’re aware of that might make a difference in what happens next,” Cory began.
Josh tilted his head attentively. “Sounds serious,” he said.
“I’m getting ready for gender reassignment surgery,” Cory said, not allowing her eyes to drop.
The corners of Josh’s mouth twitched slightly. He blinked.
“I’m transgender,” Cory said, daring Josh with her stare to have a reaction.
“Yeah, I know,” he said with a slow smile. “But you still have to do the project.”
Something between a chuckle and a gasp escaped Cory. “You know? And you’re okay with this?” she asked with astonished relief.
“Cory, I think you’re incredibly brave to take steps to get your life congruent. What integrity. I admire that. You’re the kind of friend I’d like to have,” he reached over, took Cory’s hand, and gave it a quick squeeze, “if you’ll accept me.”
“Friend,” Cory reiterated.
“Friend,” Josh grinned. “So, what are your thoughts on portraying ‘fear’ using only blue?”
“Let me get this straight,” Jessica’s voice was strident on the other end of the phone. “You can’t meet for breakfast because Josh is picking you up to take you to the Art Institute?”
“And you can’t go to the movies because Josh is coming over for dinner?” Jessica interrupted.
“And you’re not available to go shopping with me today because you and Josh have to finish that friggin’ art project?”
“Look,” Cory said, “I know I’ve been spending a lot of time with Josh lately, but he’s my friend too.”
“I’m thinking you’re in denial, Cory. I just don’t want to see you get hurt,” Jessica said.
“You sure you’re not jealous?” The sound of the receiver slamming into its cradle made Cory wince. She shook her head as she hung up her bedroom phone.
“Unbelievably possessive bitch,” Cory mumbled, sorting through her closet for the black velour scoop-neck top she wanted to wear with her new jeans. She struggled into her black leather boots and checked herself in the mirror. “Yup,” she smiled, “this will make his eyes pop.”
The doorbell rang at exactly four o’clock. Cory ran her fingers through her hair, gave her blouse an extra tug, moistened her lips with a swipe of her tongue and headed for the door.
“Wow,” Josh gaped. “You look—amazing.”
Cory smiled. “Come in,” she said, holding the screen door open.
Josh handed Cory the grocery bag he’d been balancing on one hip. “I thought we’d do sort of a theme dinner in honor of the assignment,” he said as she unpacked the goods on the kitchen counter.
“This is great,” Cory squealed. “Cordon Bleu TV dinners, Blue Nun wine, blue cheese with blue corn chips. You are too much.” From the bag she pulled out a bouquet of blue iris and went in search of a vase.
“Don’t forget dessert,” Josh said, reading into the bottom of the bag. “Blueberries,” he grinned.
“Who knew art could be so much fun,” Cory batted her eyelashes coyly. “Here,” she said, handing him the corkscrew, “Let’s start with the wine, chips and cheese.”
“Gosh, Cory, it’s only four o’clock. Shouldn’t we maybe wait a while?” Josh said, sliding the sleeve of his sweatshirt back over his watch.
“Lightweight,” Cory teased. “This is our inspiration. I say we go for it.” She sat two wine glasses on the table, shook the chips into a pottery bowl, and placed thin wedges of cheese on a cobalt blue plate.
While Josh poured the wine, Cory slipped an Elvis CD in the player and found the cut that lamented a blue, blue Christmas without you.
“To art,” said Josh as they clinked glasses. His gaze lingered at the scoop of her blouse.
“To the artists,” countered Cory.
Over wine, chips, cheese, and more wine, they talked form and function of design, whether to go abstract in their statement or stay with realism. Words flowed easily as Cory poured her third glass of Blue Nun. Josh smiled lazily across the table. Hands behind his head, he arced backwards in a stretch that left Cory breathless.
“What?” he asked.
“What, what?” Cory responded.
“You have a funny look on your face.”
Cory blushed. “That’s my ‘oh, my God, you’re such an Adonis’ look, I guess,” she grinned.
“Uh, Cory . . .” Josh’s face went blank, unreadable, like a mime’s face
“Hey, let’s get those dinners in the oven.” Cory extricated her foot from her mouth, jumped up from her chair, and grabbed the table to steady herself as the floor tilted.
Josh was there in a flash, an arm around her waist, his thumb resting against the swell of her breast. “It’s the empty stomach thing,” he said. “You okay?”
Cory wanted to swim in the blue of his eyes. She turned to face him, slipped her arms around his neck, and drew him near. Her lips parted with want.
“Whoa,” Josh stiffened, disengaged himself, and stepped back. “Cory, look, I don’t think . . .” he stammered. “I really like you, and,” he took both her hands in his and looked directly into her eyes. “You’re attractive and all, but I mean, essentially, you’re still a guy, right?”
Cory blanched. She pulled her hands free and wobbled towards the kitchen. Humiliation covered her like sweat, and tears stung her eyes.
“Oh, Josh, lighten up. It’s just the wine,” she struggled for a flippant tone. “C’mon. Let’s fix dinner,” she called over her shoulder. She clamped her lips tightly to check the urge to vomit.
“Oh, my God, how can you drink this?” Cory choked, sputtered, and dabbed at her mouth with a postage stamp sized cocktail napkin. She set the aperitif glass of chocolate Port on the tiny round table between them. Their wrought iron bar stools were scrunched intimately into a quiet corner of Club Q.
“It’s tres chic, my dear,” TJ replied, practicing his newly adapted sophisticated-man style.
Cory grinned. “I think I liked you better when you were more, ‘hey dude, let’s grab a beer.’”
“That was so yesterday,” TJ tipped his stool back slightly on its hind legs and regarded Cory over John Lennon lenses that rested mid-bridge on his nose.
“Would you not do that, please? I feel like you’re talking down to me.”
“My God, Cory, you’ve turned into a real bitch,” TJ said, righting his chair and sliding his glasses back into their normal position. He sipped his aperitif. “What’s up with you?”
Cory relayed the whole dreadful Josh debacle as couples of all persuasions moved with bodies glued together on the dance floor to a slow song. While waiting for TJ to respond, Cory snuck a peek at his chest. She wondered if he taped.
TJ looked down at the small glass in his hand. He sighed and shook his head slowly, as if recent history were replaying itself in his mind. “It’s hard—the first time.”
“That’s it?” Cory leaned forward. “Does it get better? I mean, do you figure out a more graceful way to handle those situations?”
“It’s going to sound like a cliché, Cory, but I think communication is the key. I mean, you sort of sprung yourself on the guy, right?”
“It was the alcohol.”
“Bullshit. You had the hots for him. You chose your clothes to seduce him, right?” TJ’s harsh words were tempered by the gentle tone of his voice.
Cory looked away in embarrassment.
“Hey, it’s okay,” TJ reassured. “It’s normal that you’re going to find guys attractive. And this guy even knew about you, right?”
“And he liked you as a friend?” TJ waited for another nod before going on. “So, what do you suppose would have happened if you’d told Josh that you found him sexually attractive, versus, say, pouncing on him?”
“He would have said the same thing, that he wasn’t interested in me that way,” Cory mumbled into her lap.
“So, that would have been disappointing. Would it have been as humiliating?”
TJ’s kind smile and the softness of his eyes made something catch in the back of Cory’s throat. She took a raggedy breath in.
“No, I guess not,” she said. “At least my dignity would have been intact.”
The DJ cranked up the volume and bodies writhed to Madonna wailing about being touched for the very first time. Cory gave a sardonic smile. She could relate.
As if reading her mind, TJ reached over and took her hand. “Look,” he said gently, “there are going to be a lot of ‘firsts’ to adjust to, and people in your current life aren’t going to know how to support you.”
Cory nodded, knowing he was right. She swirled the remainder of her drink in her glass and looked at TJ.
“Why not do yourself a favor, and come to a Fifth Option meeting? We won’t bite—well, unless that’s what you’re into,” TJ grinned wickedly. “You don’t have to figure this out alone; none of us did,” he added.
Cory jotted down the time and place of the next meeting at Rod and Barbara’s home, and promised to see TJ there. A real trans couple. Cory felt a certain amount of voyeuristic curiosity building. What had she been afraid of? Limited options? Never being able to have a relationship with a straight man? Fully accepting that she was now a transgender woman?
TJ, five foot six at best, and of slight build, stood to help her on with her coat. This transition can’t have been easy for him either, Cory thought, as she stooped to allow TJ to assist her. Again, she was aware of that catch in the back of her throat.
The following Friday night, Cory stood staring into her closet. She sighed heavily. “What do you wear to a coming out meeting?” she asked of the dust bunnies that slept among her shoes. She pulled out the red power dress she’d bought on a whim at the thrift store. “What was I thinking?” she said, as she shoved the dress back among her girl clothes. Cory settled on black skinny jeans, a rust-colored tee, and a light-weight black leather jacket. She clipped coral earrings set in silver on her ears and surveyed herself in the mirror. “It will just have to do,” she said, checking her watch.
The lights shone brightly through the open curtained windows of the tract home on Harmony Drive. Cory parked across from the house and watched as people milled about, drinks in hand, engaged in animated conversation. “It’s just a meeting, for God sake,” she admonished herself. She wiped her palms on the legs of her pants, checked her rear-view mirror, and glanced up and down the street before exiting her car. Freak show. Where did that come from? she wondered.
Cory gave a tentative knock, hoping the sound would be lost on the crowd inside and she could return home. A beautiful, statuesque woman in her mid-forties answered the door. Her hair was frosted chestnut, and she wore a stunning green brocade Chinese pantsuit.
“You must be Cory. Come in, I’m Barbara. We spoke on the phone.” The woman took Cory’s hand and led her into the living room. “Everyone, this is TJ’s friend Cory,” she gestured around the room. Cory felt her face redden as she plastered on a smile.
“Welcome, I’m Rod, Barbara’s husband,” a shorter version of a Tom Cruise look-alike said. “What can I get you to drink?” Cory shrugged. “A coke, I guess—thanks.”
“Hey Cory, good to meet you. I’m Jake,” a young man with a well-trimmed beard stuck out his hand. “I’m TJ’s roommate. He had to work overtime tonight, and asked me to apologize for leaving you stranded.” He had perfect white teeth, hazel eyes under thick lashes, and small, square hands with manicured nails. Not at all hard to look at. So far, this was feeling like a gathering of the town’s beautiful people.
Cory accepted her Coke, and found a place on the couch next to a—hmmm, either a very butch woman with a definite need of electrolysis, or a man who preferred dresses—she couldn’t decide. Cory averted her eyes and hoped the meeting would be called to order soon. When she looked up, a person of indeterminate gender smiled and lifted a glass to her from across the room. Oh my God, she thought, that is the most gender-neutral person I’ve ever seen. She found it creepy that she really couldn’t tell.
People took seats and the conversation quieted as Barbara called the meeting to order. Introductions were made and brief histories of their trans status exchanged.
“And when I began wearing dresses,” Mark shared, “my wife packed up the three kids and moved out of state. My life consists of court battles and attorney fees. I can’t even begin to think about the cost of surgery.” Cory clenched and unclenched her jaw a couple of times to relieve the tension.
Ali grinned broadly as she said, “I have something positive to share. The new guy at the office asked me out for coffee.” Cory noticed a churning in her stomach. Be careful, she warned silently.
Glenda shared that she’d been cornered in an alley outside the bar at two a.m. “This guy said, ‘Your luck just ran out, slut.’ I figured I was dead. His buddy was waving a broken beer bottle back and forth. If another couple hadn’t come around the corner just then, well…” She took a raggedy breath, lowered her eyes, and said in a quiet voice, “I’m so glad you’re all here, and that there’s someone for me to tell this to. I’m so ashamed.”
The meeting ended with the sharing of recently found resources, a good book someone had read, the name of a local therapist who was trans-friendly, and the reciting of The Serenity Prayer.
“Okay everyone, there’s a ton of food in the dining room. Please help yourself,” Barbara said. “Cory, will you stay for a while? I’d like to hear how this was for you,” she added.
“Oh, thanks, Barbara, but I have to get up really early. I’m sorry. Can I call you?” They exchanged numbers.
Once outside, Cory ran to the nearest bush beyond the arc of the porch light and threw up.
Cory drummed her fingers on the phone table as the third, and then the fourth ring sounded in an artsy loft across town. “Pick up, damn it,” she said, exasperated. Five rings. Six rings. Cory was ready to hang up.
“Hello,” a tired voice mumbled, followed by an unstifled yawn. “This had better be important, it’s early.”
Cory’s voice caught in her throat like a patch of cloth on barbed wire.
“Hello, already,” Jessica barked. “Who’s there?”
Cory cleared her throat. “Jes, it’s me, Cory.”
Silence. Then, “Cory who?”
“Come on, Jes. I’m sorry, okay?”
“Sorry? That’s supposed to make everything okay again? It’s been weeks, Cory.” Jessica sounded more hurt than angry.
“You were right, Jes. I came on to Josh and he dumped me because I have a dick. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.” More silence. “I miss you. I need a friend,” Cory said.
“Yeah, for how long?” Jessica’s voice was tight.
Cory hung her head and fiddled with the phone cord. “Forever,” she said quietly.
Silence. Then, “Meet me at the Black Cat Cafe in half an hour. I need breakfast—your treat,” Jessica added.
“Got it,” Cory grinned.
Within thirty minutes, Cory pulled into the Black Cat’s parking lot. Jessica was waiting out front with a ‘don’t talk to me’ look on her face. They entered the café, slid into a booth, and gave their order to the waitress. They sat in silence waiting for their food. Cory traced her finger along the design in the Formica tabletop—she could play this game of paying her dues. Jessica studied the café as if this were her first time there.
When the food came, Jessica plowed her way through a stack of waffles, a side of bacon, two eggs over easy, a tall orange juice, and coffee, black. Cory picked at her English muffin and Earl Grey tea, silently observing the food-devouring phenomena across the table from her.
The cafe was all but empty. Crazy Mary, gray hair matted beneath a paisley scarf tied under her chin, sat cackling to herself over a cup of cocoa and a rumpled newspaper at the end of the counter. Cory recognized Kash, the new girl in town whom she’d met at the womens bookstore last week. She sat alone, staring out the plate glass window, her omelet growing cold from neglect. Cory tried to catch her eye, but failed.
After the waitress brought a third refill of coffee, Jessica finally sat back, patted her stomach, took a deep breath, released it with a sigh, and looked at Cory. “Okay, so I’ve missed you too,” she said, then glanced out the window and frowned.
The sky was the color of gunmetal. It had been raining for a week. Cory knew that Jessica hated winter. She knew a lot about Jessica.
“I thought you’d have a whole new bunch of friends from that support group you were going to,” she continued. “So, what’s up with that?” She folded her arms over her chest and looked Cory squarely in the eyes.
A smile played on Cory’s lips. She felt as if she’d just been challenged to a duel to prove her loyalty and friendship. “The best thing that came from that group was a good reading list,” she said, and gave Jessica a rueful smile.
“Everything you wanted to know, but didn’t know who to ask?” Jessica grinned. “So, tell me,” she said, leaning forward, elbows on table, getting into the spirit of things, “what were they like?”
“Well, they weren’t like anything—I mean, they were all individuals. Everyone had a different story. One woman was living as a guy so she could be with her girlfriend, who was her former boyfriend, until the MTF surgery. The partner didn’t want to be in a lesbian relationship.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “Are you making this up?” she asked.
“No, I swear,” Cory raised her hand in the air.
The waitress swung by just then. “What can I get you, darlin’?” she asked Cory.
“Sorry, my mistake,” Cory grinned, lowering her hand. Jessica chuckled.
“Another woman,” Cory continued, “post op, was so beautiful. I mean, Jes, you couldn’t tell. You know? And a middle-aged man—totally indiscernible. I gotta tell you, hormones and surgery can work miracles.”
“So why did you stop going?
“One night they got in a big fight about fence-sitting. This gender-blender androgynous type didn’t want to have to declare whether he or she was a guy or a girl,” Cory said.
“And that’s a problem how?” Jessica shrugged. “I mean, whose business is it anyway, unless you’re going to sleep with him, or her. Hmmm, maybe on a need to know basis…”
“Do you mind?” Cory interrupted. “I’d gotten what I needed from the group—that there’s no right or proper way to be a different gender. And, I’m not alone. And, I don’t want to have friends just based on my gender—there’s more to me than that,” she finished with an emphatic nod of her head.
“Welcome home,” Jessica said as she reached across the table and gave Cory’s hand a squeeze.
* * *
“You seem pretty excited about the possibilities of surgery,” Marg hooked a strand of gray hair behind her ear, leaned back in her chair, and settled in for the hour.
“Oh, Marg, you should have seen her,” Cory’s eyes were round with awe. “All the curves were real—I asked,” Cory answered the unasked question. A blush tinted her cheeks.
Marg smiled and nodded. “Remember, each person’s body is unique, and responds differently to the hormone therapy,” she offered. “How are you doing with the walking lessons and the voice coaching?” she asked.
“As long as I stay focused,” Cory rose and demonstrated by crossing the office and back, “I walk pretty much like a girl, don’t you think?”
“Looks good to me.”
“And even though I sometimes feel like Minnie Mouse, I’m managing to keep my voice in a register that’s slightly higher than my normal voice is,” Cory finished with a shrug and a grin.
“How’s it going out in public?” Marg asked. “You passing?”
“The other night Jess and I went out for dinner.” Cory sat forward in her seat, and excitement glittered in her eyes. “The waitress said, ‘More coffee, ma’am?’ She was talking to me. Cool, huh? I wasn’t even wearing a dress.”
“So, surgery is a few months off yet,” Marg noted. “What’s the next task ahead?”
Cory withered. She sunk back on the couch and sighed.
“Dating,” Cory said, with the same amount of enthusiasm she might have had for swimming in a tar pit. “Ugh.”
“We can’t let the past be the template for the present, or we’d never move ahead,” Marg said. Her voice was gentle, but serious. “I know you got your heart broken by Josh, but you really had more to lose there. He was your friend first, right?”
“Yeah,” Cory agreed, “but casual dating has never really appealed to me, you know?”
“They say you can’t learn to swim unless you jump in the water,” Marg smiled.
“You’re just full of platitudes today, aren’t you?” Cory chided playfully. “Now there’s a truly scary thought,” she added.
“What’s that?” Marg asked.
“Me, in a swimsuit.” Cory rolled her eyes and faked a swoon off the couch.
“We’ve got splashdown,” Marg chuckled.
Cory held a perfectly white mushroom in the palm of her hand, marveling at its smooth surface, the unbroken underbelly. She counted out six and laid them gently in the plastic bag. As she reached for the smallest red bell pepper, it was whisked away by a large hand that appeared out of nowhere.
“May I?” The man attached to the hand offered her a different pepper.
Cory jerked her head up and locked eyes with a gorgeous hunk of manhood. He was tall and tan, with white teeth beneath a tantalizingly crooked smile, and wavy brown shoulder-length hair.
“I, I . . .”
“The other one had a blemish,” he smiled at her. “I just put it back myself.”
“I noticed how carefully you chose the mushrooms. Figured you’d want nothing but the best,” he closed her fingers gently over the pepper that now rested in her hand. Cory gave him a weak grin.
In the background of the market din, a canned voice sang “Love Is All Around You.” Cory gulped.
“My name is Kurt,” he said. His hand, strong but gentle, lingered over hers.
“Cory. Cory, yes, that’s my name,” Cory babbled. She felt a blush start just beneath her collar bone and work its way up like a rising tide that would either strangle her or wash her out to sea.
Kurt released her hand and stepped back. Cory’s inhale felt like glass in her lungs.
“Cooking something special?” he asked, those brown doe eyes lulling her.
“Vegetable soup. Dinner, actually.” Before she could clamp down on the words, they spilled from her lips. “Are you free?”
Good God girl, she thought in a panic.
“Well,” it was Kurt’s turn to stammer, “uh, yes, I’d love to.”
Too late, Cory thought fleetingly, I’m dead.
“Listen,” Kurt continued, “why don’t I grab a loaf of sourdough and a bottle of Chardonnay? Oh, do you drink wine?” he asked.
No, no, no, I don’t, Cory said vehemently to herself.
“Yes,” Cory said with enthusiasm, “that would be lovely.”
“I’ll meet you at the register,” he winked and disappeared down the aisle.
Okay, just breathe, Cory instructed herself. No, call Marg. No, better yet, have Jess meet me out front with an emergency that needs my immediate attention. Cory wiped the sweat from her inner elbows on the sides of her shirt.
She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat and moved on to the zucchini bin.
Kurt was standing next to the check out line. He motioned her over and stepped into line. In his arms, he balanced a bottle of Chardonnay, a loaf of bread, and a potted plant sprinkled with coral colored flowers. She smiled in spite of herself.
“You bought me Azaleas?” Cory grinned.
“Oh,” Kurt said, his expression crestfallen, “should I have gotten roses?”
“Actually, I love Azaleas. How could you have known?”
“You just don’t seem like a traditional kind of girl,” he smiled as he commandeered her cart, placed her groceries on the conveyor belt next to his, and pulled out his debit card.
“On, no, wait—” Cory protested, scrambling to separate her week’s shopping from his dinner contribution.
“Humor me,” he said, with a languid smile that started a flame in several parts of her body simultaneously. He ran his card through the machine, and typed in his PIN.
The clerk winked at Cory. “He’s a keeper, honey,” she stage-whispered.
As the groceries were being bagged, Kurt leaned close to Cory and said, “I hope I didn’t embarrass you. It’s just that this is less than what I would have spent on taking you out to dinner. And, it will be such a pleasure to have a home-cooked meal.” He stepped behind the cart and began to wheel it toward the exit, smiling at her companionably.
Cory felt at loss for words. It sounded so reasonable, coming from Kurt.
“Why don’t I load these in my car,” he said as they left the grocery, “and follow you to your house?”
“Okay,” Cory managed. “Where are you parked?”
“The silver one, over there,” Kurt pointed to the left. A shiny Mercedes convertible sat in the shade of a crepe myrtle. Cory’s eyes went round.
“I’ll pull up in front of you,” she said. “Oh, and…” she placed her hand on his arm briefly and glanced at the groceries, “thank you. That was very generous.”
“You’re very welcome,” he said, and headed across the lot whistling a nameless tune.
Kurt pulled out of his spot and followed Cory to the exit. She put her blinkers on to signal left, fully expecting Kurt to make a sharp right, disappear from sight with her week’s groceries, never to be seen again. In her rear-view mirror, she noted the Mercedes blinked for a left turn.
Alternative ending number two, she thought: He’ll follow me home, carry the groceries in, strangle me with a pair of nylons, wrap my body in a sheet, and carry me to the dumpster. Then he’ll take over my cottage. I wonder if he’ll remember to water the plants in the window box, she thought idly.
Cory wove her way through traffic, the Mercedes a sleek shadow behind her, and pulled up in front of her brown shingle. Kurt drove on by.
“Ah ha!” Cory shouted. She banged her fists on the steering wheel. “I knew it. I’m screwed.” She leaned heavily against the back of her seat and closed her eyes.
Kurt executed a neat U-turn and pulled up in the shade of a maple across the street from her. With boyish energy, he leaped from the car, grabbed both bags of groceries and the potted plant, and stood at the side of Cory’s car. At the shadow cast by his body, Cory opened one eye. Kurt bent down, a look of concern contorting his otherwise flawless face.
“Listen, if you need a nap or something, I’ll fix dinner,” he offered as Cory climbed out of her car.
Idiot, idiot, idiot, she said to herself. “No, I’m fine, thanks,” she said to Kurt. “Just, um, centering myself,” she mumbled as she searched her bag for her keys.
Cory gasped and coughed. Her windpipe felt crushed. Pain shot through her shoulder and red fluid blurred her vision as she struggled to see through swollen eyes. She noted the phone receiver lying loose in one hand, but could not make her fingers close around it. The piercing sound of a receiver off the hook filled the room like a flea bomb—then blackness.
From another world, the shrill sound of a siren cut through the oblivion. Cory struggled for consciousness as alternating streaks of red and blue lit the room around her in flashing syncopation. Gruff voices barked unintelligible words into the static of a radio.
A face leaned close but she couldn’t make out the features. It was as though she was looking through cotton batting. Another stab of pain as a hand touched her belly, then darkness.
Swaddled in a sheet, Cory felt herself being lifted from the floor onto something hard and flat. Each bone in her body seemed to jam and smash against the next. Discordant words and fragments of sentences floated around and above her.
“ID is in her bag.”
“Next of kin?”
“Who called this in?”
Then the night air, cooling her skin, which seemed on fire. A light strobed red, blue, red, blue. Nausea, then stark nothingness.
The wailing siren pierced Cory’s head like a drill. She felt the stab of a needle in her vein as an IV was started. Her vitals were called out in a string of medic-speak. The ambulance swayed and howled like a drunken banshee. Once more, nausea overtook her.
A bright light shone in one eye as she managed to open her lid. She winced at the pain. A curtain swished on its metal hooks with the coming and going of figures as they moved around the small cubicle in a ghostly dance.
“She’s conscious,” a masked face hovered over her.
More fragmented sentences.
“Why? Oh, my God.”
Blankets were rearranged. Swabs that stung her skin rubbed her face and head, then her pelvis and legs. Cory groaned.
She was aware of someone holding her left hand. She struggled to turn her head and moaned with pain.
“Lay still, Cor,” Jessica whispered near her ear. “You’re going to be okay. I promise,” Jessica sniffed as tears rolled down her cheeks. “You’re in the hospital. They’re going to take good care of you,” she choked out feeble reassurance.
“J--Jess,” Cory managed.
“Shh,” Jessica kissed a small spot on Cory’s head that wasn’t scraped and bloody. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. Just rest.”
“Do you know how to reach his family?” one of the attending staff asked.
“Her family,” Jessica corrected. “That would be me,” she finished.
* * *
“Any news from the police?” Cory asked in a strained whisper three days later. She was settled in her bed propped up by mounds of pillows. Jessica tucked the edge of a quilt under her chin.
“No, seems he’s gone underground, like toxic waste.” Jessica squeezed Cory’s hand. “Listen, you’re safe. I’m here, and no one is getting in without going through me, little lady.” Jessica did a quick John Wayne swagger. “Okay?”
Cory tried a feeble smile. “The doors are locked, right?”
Jessica nodded. “Cory, he’s not coming back. There’s a warrant out for his arrest, and that composite picture—it’s on the news. They’ll find him. It’s just a matter of time.”
“I’m so stupid,” Cory croaked. “They say, ‘too good to be true’ for a reason.”
“Honey, stop being so hard on yourself. There’s no way you could have known. Try to rest. You need to save your voice for your appointment with Marg on Friday.” Jessica touched Cory’s cheek gently. “I’m going to clean up the living room, then I’ll be in the spare bedroom, unpacking.” Cory nodded, and turned her face to the wall.
“It looks like a bomb went off in here,” Jessica muttered as she pulled the broom and dustpan from the closet.
Fragments of pottery, soil, and plant debris were strewn about. Delicate coral petals, like colorful tears, were scattered across the rug. Blood smeared the floor and crusted the edge of the coffee table. Stuffing spilled like vomit from the knife slit in the couch cushion. Jessica wrinkled her nose as she attacked the visible signs of her friend’s night of horror.
Shards of glass made moving through the room hazardous. She righted a chair that lay on its side, and replaced the lamp that was wedged under the desk. A wine bottle, the jagged edges of its broken neck coated with a brown congealed substance, protruded from beneath Cory’s favorite pillow cross-stitched with ‘To Thine Own Self Be True.’
“God, Cory, what did he do to you?” Jessica gasped as she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.
Cory rearranged herself into the corner of the couch, and protectively hugged an extra pillow to her stomach. The lacy curtain behind her, rippled gently in the afternoon breeze. She took a sip of tea, cleared her throat, and tried not to decipher the look on Marg’s face.
“Are you sure you’re up for this, Cory?” Marg asked, as she removed her bifocals and laid them on small table next to her chair. She rubbed the bridge of her nose with her index finger.
“I’ll never be up for this,” Cory said, taking another sip of tea. “I’d rather run through the mall naked than recount that night. I feel like such an idiot, asking a complete stranger into my home.”
“There will be time in the future to look more closely at your enthusiasm and decision making when it comes to this new world of heterosexual dating,” Marg said with a gentle smile. “But for now, we’re going to have to find a way to help you accept that what happened to you was not your fault.”
Cory’s eyes were fixed on a spot on the floor. She signed heavily.
“Okay, so you’ve gotten as far as leaving the grocery store. He followed you home, carried the groceries in, and watered the potted plant—an Azalea?”
“Odd choice. Then, he poured the wine while you started dinner, right?”
Cory’s lips were pressed together like a rusty zipper. Again, she nodded.
“And,” Marg prompted, as she slipped her glasses back on. The abrasions, bruises, and scabs on Cory’s face and neck that blurred behind Marg’s nearsightedness came into sharp focus. She looked away, then back again.
“He sliced the French bread while I finished making the salad. I remember just a moment of fear when he put the knife down on the counter, then picked it up again. He ran his finger lightly along the edge of the blade. I was afraid he was going to cut himself, I think. It made my stomach queasy.” A shudder rippled through Cory, and she hugged the pillow tighter.
“We had a nice dinner. He was charming and witty, and had lots of amusing stories about places he’d traveled. I was clearing away plates and he asked if he could put on some music. I pointed him toward my record collection—you know, those old vinyl 33s—the romantic tunes no one sings any more.”
Cory paused, accepted a refill of tea, blew on it gently, and took a sip. They sat in the quiet for a moment. Cory took a deep breath and continued.
“I remember my hands were soapy with dishwater. He asked me to dance. I told him I’d never learned ballroom dancing. He said, ‘it’s easy, just watch me’, and he picked up the potted Azalea, held it in his arms and began waltzing around the living room. I thought I’d wee in my pants, it was so funny,” Cory smiled briefly at the memory.
“Take a slow, deep breath, Cory,” Marg instructed when she noticed Cory hadn’t inhaled for several seconds. Cory sucked in an audible breath and exhaled loudly.
“Good,” Marg said. “Go on,” she prompted.
“He put the plant on the coffee table and motioned me to step into his arms. It was so exciting. For a moment, I thought we were going to be Ginger and Fred. I put my hand on his shoulder. He pulled me to him roughly. It surprised me and I tried to step backward, but I couldn’t get away from him. His eyes looked angry, and his breathing was strange, almost like he was panting.”
Cory stopped, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” There were tears in her eyes, and in Marg’s too, Cory noticed, when she looked up.
“I’m right here,” Marg said. “You’re safe. The worst has already happened. These are the feelings you blocked out. Take your time.”
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die,’ then my mind just sort of went numb,” Cory said quietly. “He ripped at my blouse and was biting me on the neck. I think I remember trying to hit or scratch him, but he had my arms pinned. I could feel his erection shoved into my stomach. He moved back just enough to tear at my pants. He broke the zipper and jammed his hand down into my underwear. Then he made this horrible sound, like a dog hit by a car on the road or something.”
Cory covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed loudly. Marg moved her chair near the couch and leaned forward slightly. She placed the tissue box within Cory’s reach.
Moments passed as Cory wept unrestrained. Eventually, her breathing became more regular. She blew her nose and readjusted her position on the couch.
“And then?” Marg gently prompted.
“He grabbed my crotch hard. When he found himself with a handful of penis, he screamed in my face, ‘What the fuck are you, anyway?’ I was terrified and ashamed. He started hitting me with his fists. I fell over and hit my head on the corner of the coffee table. I remember curling up on my side as he kept kicking me and kicking me. He wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t breathe.” Cory began to gasp for air. Her body went rigid and her hands were balled into fists.
“Cory,” Marg said, “Look at me. Look at me now.” Cory’s eyes were filled with terror. “You’re right here with me,” Marg continued. She softly placed her hand over one of Cory’s fists. “You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you.” She continued the litany of soothing words until Cory’s body softened and she slumped back against the couch.
“He hurt me,” giant sobs raked through her body. Marg nodded, and waited. “That fucking bastard cut me, and kicked me, and hurt me,” she cried loudly.
“That was a terrible thing he did to you, Cory. You didn’t deserve to be hurt,” Marg said.
“No, I didn’t deserve that! He’s crazy. He’s sick. I hope he rots in prison,” Cory shouted. “Or in hell. He’s a bad man,” she whimpered now, sounding young and very tired.
“Yes, a very bad man,” Marg agreed.
Cory took a ragged breath, wiped her eyes with the back of her hands and looked up at Marg.
“How are you doing?” Marg asked.
“I think I could use a hug,” Cory said.
The crisp winter air made the hair follicles in Cory’s nose stiff. She stomped slush off her snow boots leaving puddles of muck on the top step as she rang the doorbell.
Jessica appeared behind the frosted glass window in a long-sleeved, floor-length maroon bathrobe and fuzzy blue bunny slippers. She pulled a forest green scarf tighter around her neck before opening the door.
“Quick, get in here,” she grabbed Cory by the sleeve and pulled her through the doorway. “Temperatures like this should be illegal,” she declared.
Cory sneezed, blew her nose, and removed her gloves, coat, and boots.
“Here,” Jessica plopped down a pair of sheepskin lined slipper boots and helped Cory slip her feet into them.
“Thanks,” Cory managed before another sneeze shook her frame.
“Follow me,” Jessica commanded. Obediently, Cory trailed her into the kitchen, oven warmed and smelling of freshly baked banana bread. Jessica turned the burner on under the teakettle. “Fix you right up,” she said. “Here,” she handed Cory a knife and pointed to the steaming loaf of bread under a cloth napkin.
Cory sliced thick pieces of banana bread while Jessica steeped ginger tea in a pot and added a dash of cayenne and a shot of bourbon for good measure.
After a scraping of chairs pulled from the table, a moment of shuffling around, they settling in.
“So, this is it then, huh?” Jessica held Cory’s eyes with a penetrating stare. “Most people head to Florida for Spring break. You go to Colorado to get your wiener schnitzeled.”
Cory grimaced. She took a sip of the brew Jessica had concocted. “Holy…” she choked on the cayenne floating on top. Cory cleared her throat and leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Yeah, this is sort of—it,” she smiled tentatively.
“Cold feet?” Jessica asked.
“No. Just more information after the phone consult with the staff there. I’ve never had surgery. Still have my tonsils, never was really sick as a kid, no broken bones or anything.” Cory managed a small gulp of brew.
“I could go with you,” Jessica suggested. “I mean it’s not like I have reservations in Ft. Lauderdale or anything.” She stirred a teaspoon of honey into her tea.
Cory’s eyes moistened. She reached over and patted Jessica’s hand. “That means a lot, Jess, but this is something I have to do on my own. I’ll need you on the other end of the phone the week after the surgery though.”
“You got it, sister,” Jessica smiled. “So what did you find out about the procedure—I mean, what exactly are they going to do? You going to get boobs?”
“I have boobs, thank you very much,” Cory patted her B-cup padded bra. “I don’t need facial reconstruction; my bones are actually delicate enough. And my body fat has redistributed itself this year, so I have hips and thighs.”
“Nice hips, I might add. Good ass, too,” Jessica added, grinning.
Cory blushed and swirled her drink in her cup. “So, they’ll remove my testicles, use the skin of my penis and scrotum to line the vagina, and make a clitoris from the glans. I’ll have sensation and everything.” She glanced up at Jessica who sat wide-eyed and pale.
“Ouch,” Jessica said.
“I’ll be in the hospital for a week, and then I’ll probably stay another week for a follow-up support group.” Cory shrugged. “Then I’ll be—” Cory searched for the word, “done, I guess. I was going to say safe,” Cory admitted with a shudder.
“God, Cor, I’m so sorry about what happened to you.” Jessica picked up her mug, blew on it, set it back on the table. She opened her mouth, hesitated a moment, then closed it again.
“What?” Cory asked.
“I’m not sure how to say this, Cory, but—”
“Geez, don’t stop now,” Cory said.
“Women get raped. I mean, I know the circumstances were different here, but I just don’t want you to think that you’re going to be safe just because you no longer have a dick.” Jessica’s cheeks flushed.
There was a long silence. Outside the kitchen window, icicles dripped with a thip, thip onto a cement slab. The grandfather clock in the living room made a sound like an old man clearing his throat, bonged twice, then continued its subdued tick-tock.
“I’m only telling you this because I love you,” Jessica stumbled on, “and you don’t know everything about being a girl yet. Like it or not, you’ve been raised with a certain amount of male privilege—even as a gay guy.”
“First you try to poison me with this brew, then you scare the bejesus out of me. If this is love, I’d hate to be your enemy,” Cory said. The corners of her lips twitched slightly. “Thanks,” she said, smiling fully now. “No one else has had the courage to say that to me.”
Cory shifted on the couch. The rain continued to pour in a steady stream. The earlier hailstones lay clumped about like mushy oatmeal outside Marg’s window.
“You seem restless,” Marg observed. “Are you getting nervous about the trip?”
“No, not nervous. I’m not feeling much of anything, actually. Can’t seem to make the plane reservations and rental car arrangements. I just feel sort of unmotivated.” Cory glanced behind her and out into the gray afternoon. “Maybe it’s the weather. I mean, I’ve been waiting for this my entire life, and it’s been the focus of my therapy for a solid year now.”
“Cory, this is such a huge step. It would make sense to have mixed feelings. It doesn’t mean you won’t go through with it, just that you need to proceed slowly—one step at a time, and all that,” Marg smiled.
Cory sighed. “I suppose I could at least check out the flights leaving from O’Hare toward the end of April.”
“Sounds good. You can tell me what you found out next week, okay?”
“Okay. And Marg—thanks. I mean, for everything. You just . . .” Cory wiped the tears that were running down her cheeks with the back of her hand. “Damned estrogen,” she muttered.
“You’re welcome,” Marg said as she tossed the box of tissues to Cory.
Cory rolled her suitcase up to the United Airlines gate and found a seat in an unoccupied row of plastic chairs facing the plate glass window. Her attempt at isolation was broken when a young woman in purple spandex and a lime green parka dropped a bagged pair of snow skis and a backpack into the chair next to her with a clatter. Why me, Cory wondered, noting the row of empty chairs on either side of her.
“Hi,” the woman jabbed her hand in Cory’s direction. “I’m Sunny Tuesday. Going to Colorado to ski,” she chirped with enthusiasm. “You ski?” Her shaggy carrot orange hair clashed with everything in sight.
“Uh, no. Cory,” Cory offered her hand for a quick pump. “Are those going to fit under you seat?” she asked feebly, nodding at the skis.
“Nah, they’ll check them in the front cabin. That way I don’t have to mess with baggage claim. It’s a nightmare in Denver what with the tram and all.”
Cory gulped. Tram? No one said anything about a tram. A ribbon of sweat broke out along her hairline.
“If you don’t ski, why are you going to Colorado?” Sunny asked.
Cory blinked, swallowed, and took a deep breath. “To get my wiener schnitzeled,” she said, as seriously as she could. When a tide of giggles worked their way up from deep inside her, she excused herself, got up, grabbed her bag, and wheeled it out of the gate area. “Well, that went well,” she mumbled to herself between fits of giggles. Cory shook her head. What kind of name is Sunny Tuesday, anyway, she wondered as another spasm of giggles overtook her.
A woman shepherding two children under the age of five, threw her a look and placed a protective arm on each child’s shoulder.
Settle down, Cory, she admonished herself, or they’ll call Security. With two days before surgery, Cory saw no reason why she shouldn’t treat herself to a drink at one of the airport lounges to calm her nerves.
She lifted herself onto a stool at the bar and tugged her suitcase up close against her leg. The lounge was dimly lit and the pink and green neon around the mirror along the wall gave an eerie reflection to the odd assortment of travelers at the tiny tables behind her.
Not having much experience with mixed drinks, Cory pondered what to order that wouldn’t make her sound naïve. A gin rummy? No, that was a card game. Maybe a vodka and tonic. She’d heard of that at least. Cory glanced down the bar looking for the bartender. She turned back to find a clean-shaven, older man in a business suit had slid into the seat next to her.
“Buy you a drink, miss?” he asked, tilting his head and smiling pleasantly.
Cory spun around and flinched as the man’s face morphed into Kurt’s. She fumbled for the handle of her suitcase. Her heart pumped loudly in her ears and her mouth went Sahara dry. Unable to speak, she got off her stool and willed her wobbly legs to carry her out of the lounge.
Her face burned with heat and fear. Back into the flow of the crowd, under the glare of imitation light, she leaned heavily against the wall and counted her breaths—in, one-two-three-four, out, one-two-three-four—until the ringing in her ears was reduced to a faint hum.
This did not bode well for her life as a woman. Not well at all. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Marg called it. A frigging handicap, Cory called it. Label it, she heard Marg instruct. Trigger, Cory responded in her mind. It feels like it’s happening now, but it isn’t. This is now, and that was then, and I am safe right now. There are people all around if I need help, she reminded herself as her breathing regulated and the heat drained from her face and neck. How was she ever going to meet the man of her dreams, she wondered miserably, as she contemplated a life of celibacy.
“United Airlines Flight 132 to Denver, now boarding from Gate 23,” the nasal metallic voice intoned over the microphone attached to the check-in counter.
This was it, then. Cory took a long, ragged breath, straightened her shoulders, and lifted her chin in a show of bravery. Pulling her suitcase behind her, she stepped into the cross-hatched sea of humanity and wove her way back to the gate. With boarding pass in hand, she tried for the indulgent smile of a frequent traveler, and wondered, as she fell in line, how many other passengers would return from their travels with their lives inextricably changed.
Once on the plane, Cory folded herself into the cramped quarters of 16C and looked out the window at the ground crew slogging through the slush as they loaded the baggage into the belly of the plane. Feigning interest in this ritual made her feel less antisocial for avoiding the person struggling into 16B. A horrifying thought crossed her mind. What if her seatmate was the man from the lounge, and she was trapped for the next two and a half hours in her own personal hell? The plane was overbooked; there would be no seat changes available. Cory felt her temperature rise, her throat constrict. Reality check, she heard Marg say. Cory eased back in her seat and turned her head just far enough to scope out the person next to her.
“I’m sorry dear,” an elderly woman with a halo of white hair said. “I can’t seem to find the end of my seat belt. I believe you might be sitting on it.” She smiled warmly at Cory.
Tears of gratitude brimmed in Cory’s eyes. “Sorry,” she said as she lifted herself from her seat and extricated the runaway strap.
“Quite all right. My name’s Martha,” she held out her hand after strapping herself securely into her seat.
“Cory.” They shook hands. “Are you coming from, or going to home?” Cory asked for the sake of conversation.
“Oh, going home—finally,” Martha smiled. “I’ve been spending time with my son and grandson in Ann Arbor. Much as I love them, I’m pooped,” she chuckled good-naturedly. “What about you?”
Just then a bell toned, and the flight attendant drew their attention to the front of the cabin where she demonstrated everything they would need to know to have a safe flight. Saved by the bell, Cory smiled with relief, silently grappling with the question: What about me?
The take off was smooth, and Cory thumbed idly through the in-flight magazine hoping to ward off conversation.
Moments later, the flight attendant took Cory’s order for a Coke, and handed it to Martha, who passed it over.
“You were about to tell me where you are headed when we were interrupted,” Martha said, an attentive smile on her softly wrinkled face. Her eyes were the kind of blue that inspired trust.
What if I just told the truth, Cory wondered. Would I cause this sweet old lady to have a heart attack? Would she be shocked and spend the next two hours trapped in silent horror next to a pervert? I’ll never see her again—what’s the risk?
“I’m going to Trinidad for surgery,” Cory stated simply.
“Oh,” Martha put a hand to her chest. “Most people who come to Trinidad for surgery are there for sex reassignment. It’s well known in these parts.”
Uh oh, Cory thought, and felt her throat tighten. She couldn’t read Martha’s face and there was no inflection in her voice. “That would be me,” she managed.
Martha smiled warmly. “What a coincidence,” she said. “My son, Sanders, led one of the support groups there before he transferred to Michigan. The head surgeon, Doctor B., is the best. Great staff, good aftercare, too. Small world,” Martha mused. She reached over and patted Cory’s hand reassuringly. “What a brave young woman you are.”
The intimacy of sharing her life with a total stranger and finding acceptance and support there, was just too much for Cory. She melted back into her chair and tried to regulate her breathing, she mopped her brow with the damp napkin from under her Coke.
Noticing the saturated napkin, Martha fished in her purse and produced a travel pack of tissues, which she offered to Cory.
“It’s all going to be okay. Everything will work out just wonderfully, you’ll see,” Martha said.
“I so want to believe you,” Cory said, casting a sideways glance at Martha. “I haven’t really felt scared until just this minute.” She blotted at her upper lip and took another deep breath. “I miss my Nana,” Cory said. “She’s dead. I don’t know why I’m telling you that. You remind me of her, I guess. She always made my world safe.” Cory tried for a smile.
“You must miss her terribly about now. I’m pleased to be here for you,” Martha said. Her soft blue eyes were like a balm.
The rest of the flight passed quickly with Martha securing a promise from Cory to phone her after her surgery, just to let her know how it went. Had it not been for a stay-over with an old school chum in Denver, Martha said, she’d have insisted that Cory ride with her to her home in Pueblo, less than an hour from Trinidad.
When they deplaned in Denver, Martha herded Cory through the throng to the tram that took them to the baggage claim, and then pointed out the car rental kiosk.
“You’re going to come through this just fine,” Martha reiterated. Grateful for their new friendship, Cory hugged Martha fiercely.
A dapper looking older gentleman approached and stopped a respectful distance from the two. He stood smiling, watching their goodbyes.
“Martha, there’s a man looking at us. Do you know him?”
“Malcolm!” Martha called out joyfully, as she fairly danced into the man’s arms and received a kiss that was passionate enough to make Cory avert her eyes.
“Don’t tell me this is your school chum,” Cory teased, when Martha beckoned her over.
Martha, giggling girlishly, made the introductions. “Promise you’ll call,” she said as Malcolm hoisted her bag and took her elbow with his free hand. Then they were gone, leaving Cory in her aloneness.
A spring chill hovered around the Avis parking lot like a criminal in a dark alley. Cory broke into a cold sweat that had nothing to do with the weather. She slid into the driver’s seat and slammed the Chrysler’s door closed. The rental agent, Sam, according to his name tag, sat next to her and breezed through a tutorial on how to use the navigational system.
“Any questions?” he smiled.
“Is it too late to trade down to a compact, and can I get a handful of maps?” Cory said, befuddlement contorting her face. Being tracked and guided by a combination of satellite and computer creeped her out.
“Piece of cake,” Sam reassured as he slid out of the passenger’s side.
“Wait . . .” Cory panicked. “I don’t think I can do this, really. Could you just put the address in for me, please?”
“Well, I could,” Sam offered, his voice less amicable than before, “but how are you going to get back if you don’t learn how to program this thing?”
“Triple A?” Cory grinned and batted her eyelashes.
“Let me walk you through it one more time, and then it’s up to you. Okay?” It didn’t sound like a question.
With South Bonaventure Avenue, Trinidad, programmed in, Sam waved Cory out of the parking space. “It should take you around three hours. Drive safely. Don’t panic. If you miss a turn, you’ll be directed back onto the route. There’s no such thing as lost with GPS.”
Miss a turn? Cory’s stomach churned.
“You are now on I-70 West,” the voice from the console verified as Cory left Denver International Airport.
“So far, so good,” Cory said, checking her rear view mirror. She took a deep breath and released it slowly. Her shoulders began to relax. The computer voice was soothing, cultured, the kind of voice that inspired confidence. Cory wished she could engage it in conversation to pass time. The very least she could do for her own amusement, would be to give her guide a name. Penelope.
“My fate is in your hands, Penelope. I’m counting on you,” Cory said. “Would you look at that,” Cory’s voice was awe-filled. Snow-capped mountains, each one slightly larger than the one before it, lined up like giant dominoes ahead. A sheen of haze, like perspiration on the skin of the sky, subdued the plum color of the mountain range. “Makes you feel sort of insignificant, doesn’t it?”
“In one mile, turn left onto I-25,” Penelope answered.
“Gotcha,” Cory said. She made the turn and the four mountain ranges shifted to her right. “Oh, my gosh, there’s another one,” Cory gaped at Pikes Peak in the distance. “This is so amazing. Isn’t this amazing, Penelope?”
“You are now heading south on I-25.” That would be Penelope’s last contribution for the next two hundred miles.
Cory passed towns with names like Castle Rock that sported an oval shaped outcropping of rocks jutting from the earth, and Colorado Springs, where a huge jet, posed between the highway and the Air Force Academy, stood sentry over travelers like a futuristic bird. Overhead, an airplane towed a glider across the bluest of blue skies.
“Breathtaking,” she whispered. Her head swiveled as she took in the sky and the mountains. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Penelope,” she chuckled. The blare of a horn on her left, called her swiftly back into her own lane.
Cory turned on the radio. A sappy country tune played on the local station as she passed the industrial town of Pueblo. No matter how fast I drive, it’s a long way to go for your love, she sang along with the chorus. She clicked the radio off.
“Miles and miles of more miles and miles,” she said. The slush-covered plains stretched endlessly to the east. Cory wiggled in her seat. She was getting butt fatigue, and her stomach was sending out hunger messages.
She realized she’d been in a perpetual squint for the last hour or so, and rubbed the corners of her eyes with her thumb and index finger. The mid-day sun was bright overhead, but brought no warmth. The mountains to the west cast narrow shadows as she approached Trinidad.
“Turn left onto Benedicta Avenue. Go one-tenth of a mile,” Penelope directed.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Cory swung into the heart of downtown Trinidad with its nouveau-chic-Western motif. Splashes of primary colored awnings shaded coffee shops, curios, and bookstores.
“What do you think, Penelope? Quaint, huh?” Cory smiled.
The cobblestone street sang its own tune under the tires of the Chrysler. Trolley tracks ran past the First National Bank. It was a tidy town with tree lined streets and old gas-light style lampposts.
“This would be a nice place to visit someday, Penelope. Maybe we’ll come back when—”
“Turn left onto St. Vincent Avenue,” Penelope interrupted.
“Sure thing,” Cory responded.
Penelope led her right up to the hospital. “You have arrived at your destination.”
“You have no idea how true that is, Penny, my friend,” Cory said as she turned off the ignition. The chatty bravado waned and Cory slumped weakly against the back of her seat. “What have I gotten myself into,” she said in a small voice.
“Trust me Jess, I couldn’t have called any sooner. The pain meds have only just worn off,” Cory said, breathing shallowly against the wooziness.
“I’ve been going crazy here, Cor. So, are you okay, really? I mean, do you have an innie now?”
“Yup. Pretty convincing, too, the doc says. Or it will be, once the swelling goes down. I’m so sore, though, that a life of celibacy is sounding good,” Cory said.
“That will pass,” Jessica laughed wickedly. Then, more seriously, “God, Cory, I don’t know what to say. I mean, this is such a big, friggin’ deal, you know?”
“I suppose you’re going to take Martha up on her offer to stay over for a couple of weeks.” The words were tinted with an emotion that Cory read as jealousy.
“Nah, I want to get home to my best friend. I am going to stay an extra week for the support group.”
“Okay, but you’ve got to tell me everything they say so I can be a good support person once you’re home.”
“I love you.”
“Great—just what I needed. A straight girl in love with me. Get home soon, okay?”
Cory hung up the phone. “That girl is an emotional brick,” she said, shaking her head.
On the third day, Nurse Ann popped her head through the doorway. “Everything okay in here?” she asked. Cory nodded, and then winced in pain as she attempted to turn onto her side.
“The doctor will be by to see you this afternoon. You up for a visitor?” she asked. “She says she’s your ‘Colorado family,’” Ann shrugged her shoulders.
“Blue eyes, white hair?” Cory asked, with a smile so big it made her cheeks ache. “Kind of grandmotherly?”
“That’s the one,” Ann said with a mischievous grin. “I’ll show her in,” she said and winked.
Cory’s eyes were glued to the doorway. She blinked as the entrance began to fill with pink balloons—twenty-four in all, dangling long green ribbons. The message on each balloon was, ‘It’s A Girl.’ A hand pushed its way through to clear a space where Martha’s face appeared with a beatific smile. She looked like the center of a gigantic rose.
Cory roared. She grabbed her stomach, as everything south of her belly button hurt like crazy. She laughed until tears soaked the neck of her hospital gown. “Ow, ow,” she groaned, rocking back and forth, and laughed some more.
“Oh, my. I seem to be causing you more pain,” the center of the rose spoke. Martha popped her head back out, pushed the bouquet of balloons through the door, and fumbled them into the room. She tied them to the back of a chair near the bed stand and bent to give Cory a warm hug.
“Martha,” Cory said, wiping her eyes, “I couldn’t be happier to see anyone. Thank you so much for coming. How was your visit with Malcom?”
“The sex was great,” Martha beamed. Cory blushed. “He sends his regards,” she added. “How’s our girl?”
“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Cory said. “I feel—I don’t know—real, I guess. Also scared, vulnerable. I don’t quite know how to be in this body yet. Does that sound odd?”
“It sounds like the exactly right answer,” Martha squeezed Cory’s hand. “I know you’re anxious to get back home, but you’re welcome to spend some time with me before you leave.”
“Thanks, Martha. Could I maybe have a rain check on that?”
“Of course. Maybe you and Jessica will vacation out this way some day,” Martha said with a warm smile.
“I think she’d love that.”
“I’ve been instructed not to stay too long and wear you out. I’m afraid I’ve already crossed that line,” she said as Cory tried to hide a yawn behind her hand. Her limbs felt heavy, her mind fatigued. “You need your rest. Promise you’ll stay in touch.”
“You know I will. I’m so thankful I met you.” Cory reached up to embrace Martha. “And, thanks for the balloons. You sure know how to celebrate,” Cory grinned.
“Take care, dear,” Martha waved and blew a kiss, as she slipped through the doorway.
The pain seared, throbbed, played a game of cat and mouse throughout Cory’s body as she dropped into a fitful sleep.
At the end of the week, Cory checked out of the hospital. The swelling was down, and the pain was manageable. The skin grafts were ‘healing nicely,’ the doc said, though Cory couldn’t bring herself to look just yet. She had also recommended that Cory spend the next week before leaving Trinidad in the aftercare support group.
“Did you miss me?” Cory asked of Penelope, as she programmed in the address of a cross-town motel. Penelope’s green light blinked spasmodically on the console. Cory grinned. “Thought so,” she said. “You can’t imagine what I’ve been through.” Cory rolled her eyes.
There had been a dusting of snow overnight. The tire tracks on the tarmac reminded her of ski trails crisscrossing down a mountainside as she backed out of the parking lot.
“Do I look different? Do I really, really look like a girl?” she asked Penelope.
“Turn right at the next corner; proceed six blocks,” Penelope responded.
“Yeah,” Cory said, “I think so too. I think it’s a noticeable change.” She smiled at herself in the rear-view mirror.
Safely delivered to the motel, she unpacked then turned on the shower. “Oops,” she said, remembering it would be a while before she could immerse herself in water. Sink-bathed, and fed, she readied herself for the afternoon group, and headed back out the door.
Cory pulled into the hospital parking lot and sat with the motor running. The heat that poured out of the vents did little to warm her clammy hands.
“I’m scared, Penny,” she admitted. Gingerly, she slipped her hand between the legs of her cashmere slacks and gave a gentle pat. “Yup, still gone,” she reassured herself.
Winding her way down the corridor, Cory found the conference room and stood peering through the glass door, unable to take the next step.
“The worst is over,” a tall, forty-ish, stunning redhead said, laying her hand on Cory’s shoulder. “Step into the next part of the rest of your life,” she smiled, swung the door open, and gestured Cory into the room. “I’m Gwen, the facilitator for this meeting.” Her eyes were green like forest moss, and there was a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. There was an earthy scent to her, like a freshly turned garden.
“Cory,” Cory wiped her sweaty hand on the leg of her pants, and then offered it for a shake.
“Well, Cory, since you’re the first one to arrive, how about being my greeter?”
“Uh, okay. What do I do?” Cory shifted from one foot to the other.
“First you relax,” Gwen smiled. “Then as people come in, welcome them, introduce yourself, and point them to the nametag table. There’s coffee, tea, and water on the second table,” Gwen called over her shoulder before she disappeared from the room.
Cory breathed in, slowly and deeply, and released it with a long sssssssss, a relaxation technique Marg suggested she use.
“You too, huh?” a young man in jeans and a Bronco sweatshirt said, startling Cory. “I’ve been sitting in my car doing that for about five minutes. I don’t think it helped, I just feel lightheaded,” he grinned.
“Hi, I’m Cory,” Cory offered her hand. “Welcome.”
“Thanks. I’m Rob—used to be Roberta. I’m from South Carolina. Are you on staff here?” he asked.
“Oh, gosh, no. I just came early. Gwen put me to work—she’ll be back soon—I hope,” Cory looked back over her shoulder. Three more people stepped tentatively through the door. Cory felt the warmth of compassion spread through her heart, like a candle under a chafing dish.
“Hi, come on in,” she smiled. “I’m Cory—welcome; there’s tea, coffee, and water—oh, and grab a nametag too.” Well, this wasn’t so hard after all.
As she shook each person’s hand, Cory smiled in recognition of the journey they had all made here. Her heart felt tender and open with a sense of belonging. There was pixie-like Erin from Pennsylvania, early twenties; down to earth Arthur, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt, thirty-something, from a ranch in Wyoming; and Charlie, formerly Charlene, tall, late twenties, with a soft smile, sea-green eyes, and hair the color of late autumn wheat. Charlie was from the Midwest and looked wholesome enough to cast in a milk commercial. He nervously fingered the top snap of his flannel shirt, a gesture Cory thought oddly endearing.
Gwen returned balancing a tray of chocolate chip cookies, warm from the oven.
“Good job, Cory,” she beamed, noticing people milling around, talking to one another. “You’re a natural.” Cory blushed.
“Welcome, people. My name is Gwen. Let’s settle in and get to know each other, shall we?”
Two hours passed quickly, with more intimate, intense sharing than Cory had ever experienced in a group—let alone a group of complete strangers. They talked about their hopes and dreams, their new bodies, their fears, and the losses—all the losses.
“I lost my family when I made the decision to have the surgery,” Arthur shared. “They were more or less tolerant as long as they knew I was still biologically their daughter. Like maybe I was just playing dress-up. They just sort of lost it when I was determined to get myself in alignment,” he cleared his throat.
“I like that term, getting ourselves in alignment,” Gwen commented.
“I’m an art major at South Carolina U,” Rob drawled. “My momma and daddy are amateur photographers. We had more pictures of ‘little Roberta’ hangin’ on our walls than the Louvre has paintings, I swear.” He shook his head. “When I came out as trans in my teens, my folks burned all the pictures of me. Left a whole lot of blank walls.” His grin touched a knot of feeling in Cory. Well, piss on them, she thought.
“I grew up Amish,” Erin said. “I’ve been banned from the church. I still get occasional letters from my sister, Laura, but she’d be in big trouble if my parents or the church ever found out,” Erin sighed heavily. “It’s hard to lose your family, and your whole community.” She wiped a tear. Rob laid an arm gently around her shoulders.
“I used to shadow my dad around the farm, work on restoring the Vet together, plow the field,” Charlie shared. “I’d ride on the back of the tractor, holding on to his shoulders. Man, that was the greatest,” he smiled nostalgically. “I knew I was in the wrong body when I started my menstrual period. My mom shrieked with joy, called my aunt and my sister, and told them her girl had just become a woman,” Charlie grimaced at the memory. “Now there was a fate I’d hoped to avoid. Men don’t have periods,” he said softly. “There were no more tractor rides after that.”
There was an uncomfortable shifting about. “God,” Cory said, as her own story clawed its way up from the sludge to be told. “I was beaten, stabbed, and left for dead by a man who planned to rape me,” Cory told the group. There were murmured words of recognition and support as she unfolded her story, slowly, as if it were wrapped in layers of burlap. “Thing is,” she said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to trust a man, intimately.” She lowered her eyes. “Even now,” she added.
“Well, I feel wrung out and hung up to dry,” Charlie said after the group. “How about you?” He turned a milk-and-cookies smile on Cory.
“Yeah. I usually only share things like this with my best friend, Jessica,” Cory admitted as she gathered her belongings.
“She must be pretty special,” Charlie said as he helped Cory on with her coat. “Hey, could you use some dinner or something? I mean, I’m not ready to be alone just yet,” he confided.
“Uh, well—” A kaleidoscope of emotions shifted about in her, colorful fragments of fear, pleasure, and curiosity.
“Oh, hey, no pressure,” Charlie stepped back tentatively. “I mean, I just thought if you were going to eat anyway.”
Cory looked into his eyes and saw herself reflected there.
“You know, I was going to eat anyway, and I would like company,” she smiled.
They strolled the downtown streets as the sun was setting. “How about this rib house?” Charlie suggested.
“You can’t imagine how relieved I am to find out that you’re not a vegetarian,” Cory said.
“We carnivores have to stick together,” Charlie said, as he ushered her into the restaurant.
“Oh, my God, this is so not hospital food,” Cory grinned as she gnawed indelicately on a barbecued rib. Red goo oozed down her chin. Charlie dipped a corner of his paper bib in a glass of ice water, reached over, and swabbed Cory’s chin.
“Oh, man, that was such a gender slip,” he said, chagrined.
“I think it was sweet,” Cory smiled. “You can wipe my chin any time.” Oh, way to flirt, Cory groaned internally.
Charlie chuckled. “I think we could both use some dating practice. How about it? We have another week here.”
Cory’s eyes widened. It felt like an elephant had just tripped over her collarbone and landed on her chest. “Date?” she wheezed. “Was this a date?” her voice squawked. “I haven’t had such a stellar dating career,” she admitted, memories of a middle-aged gay man, a straight art student, and a serial killer lurked in her mind.
“Hence, the practice. I figured it would be safer to start ‘in house’ than out there in the real world.” His smile was as warm as the hand he laid gently on top of hers.
“Ew,” he lifted his hand quickly.
“Oh, come on; it can’t be that bad,” Cory said, alarmed.
“Barbecue sauce,” he said, reaching for his napkin.
“I don’t know, Cor,” Jessica’s voice was like ice water on Cory’s enthusiasm.
“Wait—hear me out,” Cory sputtered.
“Cory, you just met this dude. Do I have to say the ‘K’ word?” Jessica said.
“Jess, he’s nothing like Kurt, I promise.” Cory paced the carpet in her motel room kicking up static, frustration sparking like a downed transmitter.
“If you tell me Penelope approves, I’m hanging up,” Jessica said.
“Penelope hasn’t even met him yet,” Cory said, smiling. She knew Jessica was rolling her eyes.
“What do you even know about this guy? He is a guy, right? I mean, now?”
“He’s a guy. He’s a sweet Iowa farm boy, studying Vet Science at the University. Real down to earth. You’d love him, Jess, I know you would,” Cory said.
“He sounds like one of the Waltons,” Jessica said. “Tell me he doesn’t have a double name, like Billy Bob.”
“Charlie. His name is Charlie. It used to be Charlene.”
“Of course it did,” Jessica sighed.
“We’ve been going out every night after group. Jess, I can talk to him for hours. There are no secrets between us. We really connect, you know?” There was a moment of silence. “Jess, you still there?”
“Cor, when are you coming home? You are coming home, right? I mean, classes start in a week.”
“Tuesday morning,” Cory interrupted the tirade she knew was coming. “Can you pick me up at the airport? Ten-thirty?”
“Gosh, it will interfere with my bikini waxing, but I think I can manage it,” Jessica said, her voice dripping sarcasm. “Of course I’ll pick you up. Baggage claim, okay? Bye.”
“All sentiment,” Cory sighed at the dial tone humming in her ear.
* * *
“How did it go with Jessica?” Charlie leaned over and nuzzled a kiss just below Cory’s ear as she eased herself into the booth next to him. “Did you tell her I’m looking forward to meeting her?”
“Didn’t get quite that far,” Cory sighed. “Some things are better said in person. Did you order?”
“Oh, man, she hates me, doesn’t she?” Charlie moaned. The waitress set two glasses of house red in front of them..
“She doesn’t hate you; she doesn’t even know you.”
“She hates the idea of me then,” Charlie said.
“Well, yeah,” Cory conceded. “She’s been sort of my main go-to person for years. But when she meets you, she’ll soften. I know she will,” Cory tried to convince herself.
Vera, their waitress, set a large vegetarian pizza in front of them. “Can I get you kids anything else?” she asked.
“Got any advice on winning over my girl’s best friend?” Charlie asked.
“Honey, a good lookin’ boy like you—you’ll have to bat her off with a stick,” Vera smiled. She unloaded a handful of napkins on the table and vanished, leaving Charlie grinning like an idiot.
“Made my day,” he chuckled as he slid a slice of pizza onto his plate.
Sated on carbs and slightly tipsy from the wine, they walked the cobblestone streets of downtown Trinidad, hand in hand. Cory’s grip tightened. For a moment, it felt like she was clinging to life itself. The air was crisp and the stars shown in bas-relief against the black sky.
“Look at that,” she pointed to the beautiful serpentine temple in the distance.
“That’s the Ave Maria Chapel,” Charlie said. “And down that street, past the First National Bank, that’s where the trolley runs.”
“How do you know so much about Trinidad?” Cory asked.
“Internet search,” he said. “I’m going to write a story about this some day. Do you realize how unique what we’ve done is?”
“Sometimes I’m not sure it’s real. I still have to check, you know?” Cory’s blush was hidden by the darkness.
Charlie wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close. They stood, gazing into each others eyes with an intensity that raised Cory’s temperature to red alert. “How will it end? The story, I mean?” she asked, as she slid her hand around the back of his neck and stroked his corn silk hair.
“That depends on you,” Charlie said, and kissed her softly on the lips.
* * *
The sky was the color of gray ash as Cory drew aside one corner of the curtain. The window looked out onto the bleak motel parking lot, nearly empty except for the two cars outside Cory’s room, a battered RV several spaces over, and a moldy looking pigeon scratching about in the cinders.
“What time is it?” Charlie asked around a yawn. He stretched, rolled over on his side, and pulled the covers over his head.
“Seven,” Cory smiled at the long, lean lump in the bed. She ducked her head under the covers. “Don’t go back to sleep. We have group in two hours.”
Charlie drew her close.
“I want so very much to make love with you, Cory,” he whispered, his palm circling her breast.
She buried her face in his neck, kissing the morning stubble and breathing in the scent of him. “We will,” she murmured. “We just have to give it time. No rush, we have a lifetime,” she said as she trailed kisses up to his lips. She felt safer than she’d felt in years.
“Promise?” he asked, holding her chin tenderly and gazing so deeply into her eyes, her soul caught fire. “I know we’re new, to ourselves and each other, but Cory, this just feels so right. I don’t want to lose you,” he said, his eyes glossy with tears.
“Not going to happen,” Cory smiled. “We talked about this last night. You’ll come up for graduation in June; I’ll fly down for Christmas. We’ll make it work. By September when you graduate, we’ll know what our next step is.” She stroked Charlie’s chest and trailed her finger gently along the surgical scars from his breast removal the year prior. “We can do this,” she said with determination.
“Our first hurdle will be telling the group,” Charlie sighed. He brought Cory’s hand to his lips and kissed each knuckle. “We’re in big trouble already. You know we’re going to get Gwen’s ‘give it a year’ lecture; Erin will cry; Rob will mutter something unintelligible in that southern drawl . . .”
“. . . Arthur will groan, click his boot heels together, and pull his cowboy hat down over his eyes,” Cory laughed. They lay quietly for a moment, lost in their own imaginings. “I’m really going to miss everyone,” Cory said softly. “It’s like having a house full of the brothers and sisters I never had, and getting ready to leave home.”
“I need a stack of pancakes before I deal with the siblings. What do you say to breakfast?” Charlie tweaked her nose and kissed her forehead.
After breakfast at a diner with a western theme, Charlie paid the bill and Cory waved goodbye to the moose head hanging over their table. The morning was bitter cold as they drove back to the hospital.
The smell of fresh perked coffee filled the conference room. The chairs creaked as the group settled in for the last meeting. Suddenly, the floor had taken on a new fascination. Eye contact was fleeting, the energy in the room subdued.
“Okay, we may never see each other again,” Gwen began, “So this is the time to say all those things you’ll wish you would have said two months from now.”
Silence seemed to have taken its own chair and was busy dominating the group.
Erin finally interrupted. “I’m afraid to go home,” she said just above a whisper.
Rob mumbled something that sounded vaguely like “home is where the heart is.” Arthur shifted in his chair and pulled the brim of his hat over his brow.
“That’s a start,” Gwen encouraged. “Let’s talk about going home. What’s your biggest fear, Erin?”
“I’m afraid no one will love me,” she said, as tears rolled slowly down her cheeks. Cory felt a fire rage somewhere deep inside. You’re not my life anymore, she remembered Catherine saying.
“Well, that just sucks,” Arthur said, leaning forward, elbows on knees, peering up from under his cowboy hat. “You’re a lovely, kind, generous little lady. You’re brave and honest. Anyone should be proud to be your friend, let alone your family, and downright thrilled to love you,” he said, uncharacteristically effusive.
“The people who meet you now, will love the real you, not the you who tried to be what everyone else wanted. That has to be worth something,” Cory offered. Erin wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and gave a weak smile.
“And you’re starting off with five people who love and support you, whether we see each other again or not. We’re always there in each other’s hearts, right?” Charlie added. Erin nodded. Cory reached over and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“I know it doesn’t make any more sense than a skunk wearing Patchouli oil,” Arthur said, “but I’m afraid if people find out I’m a post-op trans, I’ll lose my credibility as a cowboy—at least in my neck of the woods. That’s not all I could lose. Some of them rednecks can turn on you like a surly snake.”
“You even going to be able to ride a horse for a while?” Rob grimaced, folding his hands protectively over his groin. Good-natured laughter bubbled around the circle.
“You’re the real-thing cowboy, Arthur, that’s what people are going to know about you,” Cory said.
“Safety issues are real,” Gwen added. She glanced briefly at Cory, who slunk almost imperceptibly down in her chair. “You’re all going to have to exercise a great deal of discernment as to who you trust and why you disclose to someone.”
Charlie cleared his throat, shifted in his seat, took a deep breath, opened and then closed his mouth. He glanced at Cory who had that deer-in-headlight look on her face, but nodded anyway.
“Yes?” Gwen prompted.
“Okay—Cory and I are in love, we’re going to go back to our own homes, finish school, then probably get married, and move to the suburbs,” the words spilled out like stuffing from a pillow.
Charlie looked around the circle. Four mouths were shaped in big ‘O’s, like donut holes. Cory’s lips were pressed tightly together. It was so quiet you could have heard a dust mite sneeze.
“Well,” Gwen said, breaking the silence, “Cory, do you want to add anything to that?”
Cory, red-faced from her own embarrassment, said, “We didn’t really talk about the suburb part.”
“You dawg, you,” Rob punched Charlie playfully on the arm. Erin burst into tears, Arthur clicked this boot heels together and said, “Hot damn.”
“We know about the one-year rule,” Charlie turned toward Gwen, “and by the time we’re ready, it will be just about that.”
“It’s a wonderful thing, to fall in love,” Gwen smiled. “The idea of waiting a year is really more about giving yourselves time to get to know how you’re going to relate to other people, so that you don’t just latch on to the first safe person who accepts you, out of fear,” Gwen said, looking at Cory and Charlie in turn, then to the group in general.
“But we really do love each other, Gwen,” Cory chimed in. “We’ve talked about this, and it’s what we both want. I have no interest in even meeting other men,” she cast a look at Charlie, who grinned and blew her a kiss.
“I know you love each other,” Gwen smiled sadly. “Just remember, that rules are made for a reason, usually based on life experience. That said, I wish you well.”
The conversation shifted to pragmatics of life back home, reestablishing connections, work, and school. There were promises to keep in touch, tears, hugs, even talk of a reunion. They said their final goodbyes as Gwen herded them out of the room like a momma hen with her chicks.
Back in the motel room they had shared for the last two days, Cory folded a pair of slacks and zipped her suitcase closed. Charlie made a last sweep of the closet and drawers, cabinets and counters.
“Man, I always leave something behind,” he muttered, as he checked the bathroom.
“That would be me,” Cory said, forlorn as a wilted flower. As she sat on the end of the bed, a scene replayed itself from the further reaches of her mind—in another motel room, during a different winter, saying to Jessica, I don’t want to date one, I want to be one. How many lifetimes ago was that?
Charlie moved the suitcase to the floor and sat down beside her. “Wish I could go visit Martha with you, but my flight arrangements are pretty much set in stone,” he smiled, and draped an arm around her shoulder. “I’m glad you decided to do that before you leave.”
“Oh, you’ll meet her someday, I have no doubt about it,” Cory grinned, thinking about her spry friend. “And Jessica, too,” she added.
“You’re going to work on softening Jessica up some before June, right?” Charlie said, intimidated by their tight connection, and Jessica’s abrasive style.
“What was it Vera said? You’ll have to bat her off with a stick?” Cory laughed. There was an awkward moment of silence.
“I guess we can only put this off so long,” Charlie said, and pulled Cory into a tight embrace. Their tears mingled as they kissed, sweetly, deeply.
“Call me when you get home,” Charlie said, wiping his eyes. “Don’t walk me to the car, or I won’t be able to see to drive, okay?” He kissed her quickly, shrugged on his coat, grabbed his bags, and walked into the cold Colorado morning without looking back.
With the guttural cry of a wounded animal, Cory curled up on the bed and wept.
Cory slipped her glove off and banged harder on the metal door frame. No answer. She blew warm air on her fist, rubbed it with her gloved hand, and was about to try again when she was interrupted by a thirty-something, gorgeous specimen of man making his way around the shrub that separated the two lawns. He was athletically built, had a shock of red hair, and moss-green eyes that grabbed hold of Cory’s and wouldn’t let go.
“Hi, are you Cory?” he proffered a solid man’s hand.
“Yes,” she hesitated.
“I’m Brian, Martha’s neighbor.” As they shook hands, a tingle worked its way up Cory’s arm. “She said to expect you, keep a look-out for you,” he said.
“Has she stepped out?” Cory asked.
“More like carried out,” Brian offered. “The medics came a couple of hours ago.”
“Oh my God, is she okay?” Cory panicked and tightened the grip on the hand she still held. Brian’s eyebrows shifted toward the center of his forehead as he dropped his glance to their hands, fused in the cold. Cory followed his eyes. A band of red crept up her neck like a dickey, and she dropped his hand.
“Yeah, I just talked to her. They thought it was her heart, but everything seems to be all right now,” he offered a lopsided grin that made his left cheek dimple. Cory knew the tip of her little finger would fit that indent perfectly. “She was worried about not being here to greet you,” he said.
“That’s so like Martha,” Cory said, smiling in relief. She was fascinated by the specks of brown that brought out the mossy color of his green eyes, and the way his upper lip reached two small peaks, like a mini-mountain ranges. She’d never touched red hair.
“Come on, I’ll take you,” Brian said, commandeering her elbow and leading her across the lawn.
“What? Where? ” Cory felt like she’d follow this man anywhere, but would prefer to know where he was headed first.
“The hospital. Martha’s ready to be picked up,” he chuckled. “Where did you think I was taking you?”
Cory shrugged, her cheeks flamed. She lowered her eyes, feeling suddenly vulnerable and exposed. Give yourself time to get to know how to relate to other people, Gwen’s voice echoed in her mind. I feel like a crushed-out teenager, Cory thought. What’s wrong with me? I just left the love of my life, and I’m drooling icicles over a total stranger.
Brian opened the passenger door of the rust-fringed blue Chevy and Cory slid in. Penrose Hospital was minutes away, across I-25. They turned onto Lake Avenue and parked in the lot next to the ER. Cory opened her door, and stepped into a patch of slush. Her foot slipped, and she made a three-point landing in the cold muck. Brain stood at the front of the car searching for his passenger.
“Help,” Cory called weakly. Brian rushed to the passenger side, reached out a hand, and hauled her to her feet.
“Lord love a duck,” he chuckled, “you’re everything Martha said you were.” With his gloved hand, he swiped at her coat and pant leg, sluicing off the dirty snowmelt.
Struggling to regain some dignity, Cory brushed the hair out of her face, and straightened her coat collar.
With a firm grip on her elbow, Brian led Cory across the drive and through the doors of the ER.
“Well, for goodness sakes, what happened to you?” Martha greeted her from a plastic chair where she sat swaddled in a blanket.
“That was supposed to be my line,” Cory grinned as she threw her arms around the older woman, and inhaled the maternal scent of her. “Are you okay?” she fussed with the blanket, tucking it in where she’d dislodged it with her hug.
“Oh, I’m fine—checked out and ready to go home. I just like to throw some excitement in to my days,” she grinned wickedly. “I see you’ve met Brian,” her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Quite a hunk, isn’t he?” she stage-whispered.
Cory swallowed hard, counted to five before answering. “I suppose, if you like that sort of thing,” she averted her eyes. Brian, legs stretched out, hands folded in his lap, occupied a chair across the aisle. Occupied it well, Cory thought. His arrogant expression suggested he was used to being admired.
Martha stood, folded her blanket, and laid it on the back of the chair. “Let’s go home. I can’t wait to hear about your adventure,” she said, slipping her arm through Cory’s. Brian stepped between them, taking each one by the elbow. “Trust me, this is a better idea,” he grinned.
* * *
Brian ushered the two women into Martha’s cozy, sun-warmed kitchen. It smelled like cinnamon rolls, and Cory inhaled deeply. Martha put the copper teakettle on the burner of the white enamel gas range. “Will you stay a while?” she addressed Brian.
“Thanks, Martha, but I’ll leave you two to catch up. Cory,” he held out a tentative hand, “it’s been real,” he grinned.
“Mutual,” she said, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re in Martha’s life.”
“Mutual,” he said with a wink, and backed out of the door.
“That young man is enough to bring back hot flashes,” Martha said, fanning herself. Cory laughed.
“So tell me all about Charlie,” Martha said, setting a plate of cinnamon rolls on the table and filling two mugs.
“Charlie—” Cory began. Oh yeah, Charlie, she thought, rerouting her thoughts. Her face reddened with embarrassment.
“Are you okay, dear?” Martha asked.
“It must be the hormones,” Cory said, tugging at the neck of her blouse. “I’m so confused, Martha, I was actually flirting with Brian. I mean, shame on me,” she said harshly.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, dear. I flirt with Brian from time to time. He just brings that out in a girl,” she smiled. “Come on, sit down, have some tea and a roll, and tell me all about it.”
Two hours later, Cory glanced at her watch. “Oh, Martha, I have to go soon,” she sighed. “Part of me wishes I could cancel my flight, cancel my life, and just move in here with you. You’re the best,” she said. Cory got up and gave Martha a bear hug. “I never exactly had a Mom,” Cory confided.
“I’m sorry to hear that, dear. Please, come visit any time,” Martha said.
“You’ll be getting two for one, you know,” Cory teased. “Jessica is the sister I never exactly had, either.”
“I’ll expect you, Jessica, and Charlie to come visit real soon. Wait until I tell Sanders. He’s way too used to being an only child,” she chuckled.
Martha helped Cory on with her coat and fussed with her collar. With a last ferocious hug, the two women parted. “Love you, Martha,” Cory called as she opened her car door.
“Love you too, dear,” Martha called out. “Drive carefully.”
Cory programmed Penelope for the Denver International Airport. “In one block, turn left onto I-25,” Penelope instructed.
“I’ve missed you, too. I’ll talk fast,” Cory said, clicking on her turn signal, “we don’t have much time.”
The sky was dark, deep, and clear, when Cory reached the outskirts of Denver. Stars blinked and glittered like her Grandma’s diamond necklace, and Cory smiled.
“I guess this is it, Penny,” Cory said as she pulled into the rental lot. “I’ll never forget you. We’ll always have Trinidad. Here’s lookin’ at you, car,” she said, in her best Bogart impersonation.
“Delayed,” Cory groaned and rolled her eyes. “Delayed how long?” she asked the agent behind the counter.
The woman’s forehead was creased with impatience and fatigue. “Snow in Chicago has everything backed up,” she said, for probably the hundredth time that evening. “Check the overhead. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s word,” she gave a smile that held no joy.
Cory selected one of the phones clustered in a maze of metal partitions and dialed Jessica’s number. The answering machine clicked on, and a surly voice stated, “Talk to me.”
“Jess, I’m stuck in Denver. Snow in Chicago. Don’t know for how long. I’m so sorry,” Cory sighed. “I hope you check your messages when you wake up. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything more.” She hung up with a sense of dread, knowing how Jessica hated last minute changes. “It’s out of my hands,” she explained to the phone as she eased it back into the cradle.
Cory collapsed in a cold, plastic chair, exhausted. The cinnamon roll had worn off hours ago. Motivated by hunger and boredom, she meandered back down the concourse in search of a restaurant, and found them all closed. Airport food, especially at night, didn’t really appeal to her, but neither did a low blood sugar attack that would make her woozy and unable to pull off even the simplest of transactions.
The green light over the lounge bar cast a cadaver-like sheen as Cory stepped up to the counter. There were no other patrons. She battled a wave of déjà vu and looked back over her shoulder as she hoisted herself up on a stool. The little round tables behind her sat empty and forlorn.
“Evening,” the bartender said, placing a small white napkin in front of her. “My name’s John. What’ll you have?” he smiled.
“Food. I need food, John,” Cory leaned her elbows on the bar. “Do you serve food here?”
John placed a short bistro menu in front of her. “Bless you,” she said, and scanned the menu hungrily. Cory ordered a pastrami sandwich and a glass of red wine, and John went off to work his magic in the tiny kitchenette.
Cory spun her stool around and watched the few weary travelers pass by. A fatigued looking young woman pushed a fussy toddler in a stroller and dragged an oversized suitcase on wheels behind her. She shot Cory a look. Cory sent her an encouraging smile. An older man in a blue uniform swabbed a large dust mop that looked like a giant dead moth back and forth.
“Here you go,” John placed the sandwich and wine on the counter. “Bon appetite,” he said with a wry smile.
Cory sank her teeth into the spicy meat with a grateful sigh.
“Excuse me, miss,” a man said from behind her.
With a mouth full of sandwich, Cory froze. She couldn’t swallow, couldn’t cry out. Trapped. John had vanished. Eyes wide, she looked at the image behind her in the mirror that lined the bar. Business type, mid-thirties. Her shoulders tightened, and she felt like any moment she might choke.
“I think I left my book here a while ago—a paperback. Right where you’re sitting. Did you happen to see it?” he asked, catching her eye in the mirror.
Cory shook her head no.
“Okay, sorry to bother you,” the young man said. He turned and left the bar.
Cory spit the mouthful of soggy bread and masticated meat out onto her plate, and wiped the sweat from her brow with her napkin. She took a gulp of wine, then another. A few deep breaths later, her shoulders relaxed. How long will it take, she wondered, as she stared at the unhinged woman reflected in the mirror. On wobbly legs, she left the bar and her sandwich behind.
Cory paced the gate area. She pressed her face against the plate glass and stared into the dark nothingness. A young man, head pillowed on his backpack, stretched out along the baseboard of the window. His snoring was circular, nonstop, frenetic. It made her want to kick him. She rubbed her eyes and settled into a chair.
A middle-aged woman wrapped in a royal blue blanket thumbed through a magazine, cheater glasses resting mid-bridge on her nose. Now and then, a bronchial cough rattled the air around her. She shifted in her plastic chair, blew her nose, and went back to her magazine.
Cory dozed fitfully. Forty-five minutes later, she woke with a crick in her neck just as a bedraggled, but uniformed woman stepped behind the check-in counter, and spoke into the microphone.
“Flight 329 from Chicago will be landing in a moment. We’ll begin boarding as soon as the incoming plane has been prepped. That should be about twenty minutes,” she stifled a yawn. “We thank you for your patience.”
Cory offered up a silent prayer as she dragged herself back over to the wall of phones. After the beep, she said, “Jess, 7:30, baggage claim, Frontier, Flight 748,” she paused, “God, I can’t wait to see you,” she finished with a catch in her throat.
Northward bound on a moonless night, Cory reclined her seat as far as it would go, and tucked the blue micro-fiber blanket under her chin. Gravity and fatigue tugged at her eyelids.
A gentle hand on her shoulder shook her awake. “Miss, we’ll be landing in ten minutes. Please bring your seat upright,” the flight attendant smiled warmly. Cory blinked, disoriented. She’d been dreaming of the group, but instead of Gwen, Martha had been leading the discussion. Except Martha was really Nana. Reality fought its way through the dream fog as she realized she was about to embark on her new life, with her real self finally brought forward. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Excitement and fear battled for position.
Cory scanned the crowd as she made her way to the baggage claim. Hoping that Jessica woke in time to get the message, she reached for her bag and yanked it off the carousel with a solid clunk. She pulled the retracted handle out and turned to exit the throng of travelers.
“Yikes!” she said as she stood nose to nose with Jessica, crowned in green dreadlocks, wearing overalls and a pumpkin-orange turtleneck sweater under her fatigue jacket.
“God, Cor, you look awful…” Jessica grinned, “…tired, I mean—awful tired,” she amended.
Cory grabbed her, and hugged her hard. “I’ve missed you so much,” she chuckled softly into the mass of hair twisting away from Jessica’s face.
“Cut it out,” Jessica wriggled out of her grasp. “People are going to think you’re queer.”
“Martha sends her love,” Cory said as she rolled her suitcase behind her. “She wants all three of us to come visit soon. Jess, you’ll love her…”
“All three of us?” Jessica interrupted. She turned around and looked at Cory. “Is there something you forgot to tell me? Like what’s-his-face is hiding around the corner, waiting to join us? He’ll have to walk; there’s not enough room in my car for another person and their luggage,” she said, her words running together.
“Whoa, my jolly green friend,” Cory said. “No one is going to jump out at us around the corner. Charlie is back in Iowa. Martha just wants to meet the two people I love most in this world, okay? Someday. Not this week, not this month.”
Jessica hitched her chin, squared her shoulders and walked on, appeased for the moment.
“You know you’re going to have to meet Charlie at some point, right?” Cory slipped her arm through Jessica’s and flashed her a convincing you’re-my-best-friend smile.
“Not this week; not this month,” Jessica grumbled as she led Cory through the parking lot.
“So—can I see?” Jessica bounced her eyebrows.
“Geez, Jess, no,” Cory flushed. “Is nothing sacred?”
“Hey, I’m just curious. No biggie. Well, at least not any more,” Jessica chuckled. She sat crossed legged on the futon and slurped her tea.
“You have no idea how good it is to be home,” Cory said, looking around her colorful studio. Batiks hung from the ceiling; stained glass caught morning sun through the window; overstuffed multi-colored pillows flumped against the walls and scattered rugs from Mexico lent bright splashes of color to the dark wood floor. On her way to the kitchen, she cranked the wall heater up another notch and it pumped out warm, dry air. It wasn’t cinnamon-cozy like Martha’s, but it was all right.
Cory poured steaming water from the bright yellow enamel kettle into her mug and dunked a ginger teabag. She placed four brownies on a cobalt blue plate and put them on the wooden crate-turned-table in front of Jessica.
“What, are we on a diet?” Jessica grumbled.
“There are more in the kitchen. Help yourself,” Cory said as she nestled three pillows together near the heater.
“So now what?” Jessica asked as she devoured a brownie.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s next in your life? You’ll be finishing your AA this summer. You going to fly to Iowa, join Charlie and the other Waltons, and plant corn or something?”
“I thought I’d see if Alise will hire me on at the gallery downtown. I thought you and I would hang out after work and on the weekends, like usual. That’s what I thought. You have a problem with that?” Cory lobbed a pillow at Jessica.
Jessica’s grin was flecked with brownie crumbs. “Think you could talk Alise into showing one of my metal sculptures?” Jessica swiped at her chin with her napkin, and then took a swig of tea.
“First, I have to get the job,” Cory said, then amended, “No, first, I have to call Marg and make an appointment.”
“You’ve been back a week and haven’t called her? What’s that about?” Jessica eyed Cory. “Used to be we couldn’t have a conversation that didn’t somehow involve Marg says this, or Marg says that.”
“Yeah, odd isn’t it. I’m just not feeling as dependent on her as I was back then.”
“Back then, before you were…” Jessica struggled. “I mean…” she glanced down at Cory’s crotch, “you know.”
“Let’s just say pre-op for that period of time, okay?” Cory picked up another brownie. “Anyway, I’m thinking I might be done with therapy for a while.”
“I hope you’re not thinking I can guide you through any snags you might come up against with what’s-his-name,” Jessica mock-shuddered.
“His name is Charlie, and no, I’m not thinking I’d turn to you for advice about our relationship. Sheesh,” Cory shook her head. “I do owe it to Marg to have a final meeting though.”
Cory took her traditional seat on the couch in front of the large window. The lace curtains were drawn back to reveal the bare branches of winter and the pale shimmer of afternoon sun. The room seemed smaller to her.
“Did you move the furniture around or something?” Cory asked.
“Oh my,” Marg smiled, “we’ve come to that point in our journey,” she said cryptically. “I’ve experienced this before with clients who do a huge piece of work, go away for a while, and return. It’s as if you’ve outgrown the container,” she explained. “Sort of like coming back to a childhood home after growing up—it often seems smaller.” She settled into her overstuffed brocade chair.
“When I went back to my real childhood home, it seemed huge, cavernous in fact,” Cory remembered. “I guess in some ways, this has been more a home for me to grow up in.”
“As in most homes where we grow up, there comes a point at which we leave—we launch ourselves into the world. I sense that time has come for you, am I right?” Marg’s gentle, implicit permission made the next step feel like a graduation for Cory.
“I have been thinking of stopping for now. Do you think that’s premature? I mean, I know I have all these changes coming up,” Cory faltered.
“Hopefully, you’ll always have changes coming up in your life, Cory. That’s how we grow. You know I’ll always be here for you, right? Anytime you need,” Marg assured her.
Cory felt her throat tightened with emotion. She blinked back tears. They sat for a moment in silence, honoring the relationship that had become important to both of them.
“Can I tell you about this wild adventure I’ve been on?” Cory grinned finally.
“I’d like nothing better,” Marg said.
They spent the remainder of the fifty minutes in conversation about the surgery, the group and all its colorful members, Charlie—especially Charlie—Penelope, Martha, and Brian. What Cory chose not to talk about was her fear, that prickling feeling of dread in her stomach, like the clench before diarrhea every time she thought about having sex. Instead, they did a kaleidoscope review of their work together over the last two years, and parted with a hug and a promise that Cory would call anytime she needed.
Cory stepped out into the afternoon chill. If she had been Mary Tyler Moore, and, if she had been in Minneapolis, and if she had been wearing a beret, she would have tossed it into the air in celebration of her new self.
“Buy you a beer, darlin’?” the stocky redhead asked, sidling up next to Cory. His face was puffy and his eyes bleary. He ran a grimy nailed, pudgy finger down Cory’s arm in a too-familiar way that made Cory want to recoil. But she didn’t.
“Sure,” she said instead.
Something cowboy played on the jukebox and a fog of cigarette smoke hovered over the bar. Couples leaned into each other on the dance floor, hands wandered over bodies, sloppy kisses slid over faces. You could smell sex in the stifling heat of the summer’s night. She downed half her beer. Her stomach clenched. It has to be someone unimportant, insignificant, she reminded herself.
“Vern,” he introduced himself, his boozy breath creating a palpable fog between them. Cory wrinkled her nose and stifled a cough. He was old enough to be her father. Cory felt a sneer forming on her face and worked her muscles to turn it into a smile.
“Carol Payne,” she said, nodding. “Pleased to meet you.” She cast a glance at her half-empty glass.
“Two shots,” Vern called to the barkeeper and moved the beer glasses aside.
She rewarded him with a grin. “Now here’s a man knows what a woman likes,” she forced herself to say. She knocked back the shot.
“So, what’s a sweet girl like you doin’ all alone in a dive like this?” he slurred.
Fair question, she thought. How do you tell a man that you’re looking for a cheap quickie to try out the new equipment so you’re not going into a long-term relationship a total virgin? And, God forbid, what if it doesn’t work?
“Looking for company, like everyone else, I guess,” Cory said, offering a closed-lipped smile that hid clenched teeth.
“In that case,” Vern said, leaning his bulk suggestively against Cory, “let’s blow this joint. I’ve got something back in my room that we can light up and have us a party.” He laughed and nodded vaguely toward the door.
Vern slapped some bills on the bar, slid off his stool, stumbled onto his feet and wavered there a moment. “Par-ty, par-ty,” he chanted, and then belched loudly.
The streetlight filtered in through the broken slats covering the one dirty window of Vern’s shabby studio over the hardware store. The stench wrapped itself around Cory’s neck and threatened to squeeze. Without turning on a light, Vern grabbed Cory’s hand and dragged her onto the bed made lumpy by an assortment of crap that Vern threw randomly on the floor.
“Got anything to drink?” she asked. What she needed was anesthesia mainlined into her veins, but whiskey would do.
“Got beer,” he said, “and some dynamite weed. Be right back.” He fumbled in the refrigerator, then the cabinet drawer and returned with two beers and a joint as fat as a slug. He handed Cory the bottles while he groped for a book of matches from his pocket and lit the joint. Vern inhaled deeply, coughed around the edges, and passed the joint to Cory.
Cory took a deep swig of beer, then imitated Vern and inhaled the pungent smoke. She held it in until she thought her lungs would burst and exhaled it in a coughing fit worse than the time she swallowed her gum.
“You got some capacity,” Vern said with admiration.
Cory took another hit, smaller this time, followed by a long swig of beer and set her bottle down on the nightstand, toppling an overfilled ashtray onto the floor.
“Come here, you sexy thing,” Vern said, grabbing a handful of her shirt.
Cory tried to focus her eyes on a crack in the ceiling and held her breath against the stench of Vern’s mouth. Vomit in the back of her throat threatened to choke her. She shoved Vern away from her and sat up, panting, her arms crossed tightly in front of her.
“I can’t. I just can’t do this,” she said.
The tops of the gallery’s double Dutch doors were open to the sidewalk, and the flush of spring that had turned the grass green and filled in leaves on the trees, diffused the air with the scent of early wildflowers. Sunshine poured through the plate-glass and warmed the Italian tile floor where Cory stood. She wiggled her toes in her sandals as she considered the best placement for the new painting that she held in her hands. She turned slowly, eyeing the possibilities.
“Can you handle things while I slip out for coffee?” Alise asked, hand on the doorknob. Cory nodded. “Bring you anything? A mocha, maybe?” Cory nodded again. The Tibetan bells on the door jingled as Alise pulled it closed behind her.
Cory leaned the painting against a freestanding wall, stepped back and did a visual critique. It had to be perfectly placed. It was, after all, Josh’s first show—Josh of ‘paint fear using only blue’ fame. She smiled at the memory.
Absorbed in thought, she didn’t hear the door open behind her, and turned only when a shadow cast itself on the wall she was considering.
“Good morning. May I—” Cory was interrupted by a delivery man wheeling in a poorly taped rectangular box.
“Delivery for Cory Broadhurst,” he said as he removed the dolly from under the box. He handed Cory a clipboard with an attached receipt to sign. There was no return address.
“Who would send their art wrapped no better than this?” Cory said, cringing at the sight of the dilapidated box, addressed in a child-like scrawl of magic marker, frayed tape loosely holding the ends together. She pulled a box cutter out of her back pocket and sliced the flimsy tape, ripping at the cardboard, which gave way easily, to reveal the contents.
“Oh, my God—Charlie!” she screamed and threw herself into his opened arms. “What are you doing here? This is insane,” she said, looking at the remnants of box and tape at their feet. “You weren’t due until June,” she babbled, kissing the corners of his goofy grin.
He hugged her tightly and spun her around in a circle. “Couldn’t wait,” he said. He held her at arms length and appraised her. “I swear, you are still the most beautiful woman in the world, and I’m crazy in love with you. Close your eyes and hold out your hand,” he said.
“I can’t take one more surprise today,” Cory said, but obediently closed her eyes. She felt a disc in the palm of her hand and opened her eyes to a single diamond set in gold.
“Marry me,” Charlie said simply.
The blood slowly drained from her head and she felt a swoon coming on, which was interrupted by the jingle of Tibetan bells as the door swung abruptly open and then closed with a bang.
“Bad timing?” Jessica’s sardonic voice broke the spell. She took in the scene—a man grinning like an idiot, standing amidst torn cardboard, holding Cory’s hand in which rested a ring. “Charlie, right? You’re early,” she said.
“This could have been possibly the most romantic moment of my entire life,” Cory sighed.
Charlie smiled awkwardly and offered Jessica his now free hand.
Jessica stood, one hip cocked, glanced at the ring then at Charlie. “Might this be premature?” Her voice sounded schoolmarm-ish.
Cory’s foot tapped out a little rhythm of impatience. “Allow me to introduce you two—Charlie, Jessica. Jessica, Charlie. Now is when you shake hands like adults,” she set her jaw.
“Aw, crap,” Jessica muttered and stuck out her hand. “Sorry; you just caught me off guard,” she said.
“I seem to be doing that a lot today,” Charlie grinned and clasped her hand warmly. “You wouldn’t believe how scared I’ve been to actually meet you,” he said.
“Good; let’s keep it that way for a while,” Jessica replied. Her tough-girl act was belied by the quirks at the corners of her mouth.
The bells jingled again as Alise returned. “Ah, you made it,” she gave Charlie a hug. “I’m Alise. We finally meet,” she smiled.
“I called ahead to see if you could get the day off,” Charlie answered in response to Cory’s look of confusion.
“You knew about this,” she turned to Alise, “and you didn’t tell me?” Cory’s jaw dropped in disbelief.
“I have the day off too,” Jessica chimed in. Cory shot her a look. “Of course, I have about a month’s worth of laundry to do,” she backpedaled.
“I would be honored to take both of you lovely ladies to lunch, before we drop Jessica off to do her laundry, that is,” Charlie grinned.
“Cool,” Jessica said, wedging her way in between them and linking arms with both Charlie and Cory. “Let’s go.”
Charlie held the door open at By The Sea, and pulled out chairs for Cory and Jessica when the waitress led them to a table by the window. Jessica shot him a look as if he’d just sprouted a head of purple hair.
“So, what are your plans?” Jessica asked pointedly as she took a bite of spicy crab cake followed by a forkful of coleslaw.
“You have the appetite of a truck driver,” Charlie said with admiration. “That’s your second order.”
“Strong metabolism,” Jess said, gulping her Sam Adams.
“Plus, she works out and does Tae Kwon Do,” Cory added. “Don’t let her dainty presentation and genteel manner fool you, she could take you down in a minute,” she chuckled.
“Back to you, Chuck. What are your intentions here, if you don’t mind my asking,” Jessica said.
“Chuck?” Charlie said, amused. “No one has ever called me that.”
“Up until now,” Jessica burped and patted her chest. “Your intentions?”
“Well, I graduate in June, and I’ve been looking at the Vet school up here as a possibility,” Charlie smiled across the table at Cory. “I’d have to work for a year to establish residency—probably at the animal hospital. I thought maybe Cory and I would live together to make sure we’re compatible before we hitch our wagons, so to speak.”
“You haven’t even ‘hitched your wagons’ yet?” Jessica sounded incredulous. “Interesting visual,” she added as she speared a thick cottage fry doused in catsup. “Most people ‘hitch their wagons’ before they even think about compatibility or marriage for God sake. Unless you’re still sore from the surgery, or…”
“Jess,” Cory interrupted, “‘hitch your wagons’ means get married.”
“Oh,” Jessica took another swing of beer. “Talk amongst yourselves,” she waved at them, sliding out of the booth, “I’ve gotta pee.”
Charlie shook his head. “Is she for real?”
“She grows on you,” Cory smiled. “I’ve been scanning the rental ads since we talked last week. You’re serious about this?” She reached over and took Charlie’s hand.
“I’m serious about this,” he said. “Should we be looking for something with a granny unit?” he jerked his head toward the ladies room.
“Oh, horrors, no,” Cory chuckled. “She’ll settle down, really.”
“This place is just as I’d imagined it,” Charlie said, patting an overstuffed, magenta pillow next to him on the futon. “Your apartment is an extension of the beautiful work of art that you are.”
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, yawning as she laid her head on his shoulder. “I wish you could stay longer.”
Charlie wrapped his arm around her and drew her close, kissed her forehead, her eyes, her nose, and worked his way down to her mouth. He stopped suddenly, glanced at the door, and said, “Locked?” Cory nodded. “I keep thinking she’s going to pop in any minute, or come crashing through the window or something.”
“She really does have a month’s worth of laundry to do,” Cory said as she parted her lips to allow the tip of Charlie’s tongue to dart playfully into her mouth. Cory felt the world begin to tilt on its axis, and a pleasant, melty sensation spread through her loins.
“Funny,” Charlie said, “Jess thought ‘hitching your wagons’ meant, well, you know, sex,” he said under his breath. Color rose in his cheeks.
“Yeah,” Cory smoothed a hand over his hair, touched his cheek, and kissed his chin. “I mean, I guess she has a point about compatibility,” she said. “We couldn’t really have sex before we left Colorado.”
Charlie shifted so his he was leaning into Cory, his weight on his elbows. He looked into her eyes and saw his own reflection swim in their depth. “Um, do you think we—I mean, we couldn’t then, but maybe now we should . . .”
Cory’s stomach shook with suppressed laughter. “‘Hitch our wagons’?” she grinned. “Wow, this will be a first,” she squirmed. “Are you healed enough?”
Charlie paused a moment, a look Cory couldn’t read passed quickly over his face and was gone. “I think so. How about you?” He propped himself on one elbow and was exploring the curves of Cory’s body with his free hand, playing with buttons, un-tucking fabric, jiggling her zipper.
Cory felt a wave of nausea and shoved a memory back into the dark corner of her mind. “Uh-huh,” she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I think so. I guess there’s only one way to find out,” she said as she pulled him to her. “Let’s go slow, okay?” she whispered in his ear.
Two hours later, Charlie flopped over on his back. “Not bad for the first time out of the gate,” he grinned wickedly as they lay sprawled, spent, on the futon.
“Not bad?” Cory punched him playfully. “I think that was a blue ribbon run. We should celebrate,” she suggested.
“I thought we just did. I need to at least catch my breath,” he teased.
“I mean our engagement. You know—champagne and caviar or something. Just the two of us,” she added when Charlie glanced over at the phone sitting on an overturned orange crate.
“You have some place special in mind?” Charlie asked.
“Chez Moi,” Cory responded. “I have an eclectic selection of foodstuffs left over from various potlucks. I’ll put the champagne in the freezer. You run a bubble bath.”
Over a candlelit bath in the old claw-foot tub, they spoke of love and their future. “This is real, isn’t it?” Charlie smiled slowly. “It’s what I’ve been waiting a lifetime for,” he said.
“This is as real as it gets,” Cory said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever have this experience once I started on my journey, you know?”
“I do know. I really, really do know,” he said, as he lifted her foot out of the bubbles and placed a gentle kiss on a water-wrinkled toe.
Down the hall, the kitchen phone rang. “Whoever that is can wait,” Cory said sinking back into the warm water and the look in Charlie’s eyes, as the machine picked up.
An hour later, Charlie pulled the champagne out the freezer and found glasses in the cupboard. Cory, wrapped in a plush white bathrobe, winked at him from across the room as she pushed the Play button on the answering machine. ‘Pop!’ went the cork.
“Cory, this is Gwen, from Trinidad’s After Care Program.” There was a pause. Cory smiled expectantly. “I know this is going to hard to hear, but Erin’s parents called me yesterday. Cory, Erin killed herself. I don’t have all the details yet.”
Charlie dropped the glass he was holding. It shattered on the tile.
“The parents asked that I let the group members know,” Gwen continued in a monotone, “but they don’t want to be contacted. They said this is a very private time for them, and asked that you all respect that.”
Cory’s legs no longer supported her and she reached for the chair. Missing that, she landed on the floor. Unable to take in any more, Cory didn’t hear the end of Gwen’s message, only the beep signaling the end of the call.
Charlie sat beside her, propped against the cabinet, in silence, his clammy hand holding Cory’s tightly. Shards of glass glittered from the floor near the sink as minutes passed with a muted ‘thick, thick, thick,’ of the clock in the living room.
Cory opened her mouth to speak. Her jaw trembled, and she closed it again. They sat, under the 60-watt bulb, for what seemed an eternity. Cory glanced up at the champagne bottle on the kitchen counter. “I can’t…” she said, struggling with the words. “I know,” Charlie replied. He struggled to his feet, held out a shaky hand and helped Cory up. He led her down the hall to the bedroom. There would be time for words tomorrow.
The next day, Sunday, started with a low cloud level, the gloom outside matching the gloom inside as Cory made a series of calls to group members.
“It’s Rob,” she handed the phone to Charlie. Charlie sighed and with a husky voice said, “Hey my man, how’s life in the south? We’ve missed you—yeah,” he said in response, “I wish it could have been under different circumstances too.” They talked back and forth for a while, Charlie nodding thoughtfully. He was silent for a few moments, and then said, “We’re good—aside from this, I mean. I popped the question, she said yes. Okay, I will,” he said and glanced at Cory. “You too.”
His eyes were moist as he hung up the phone, pulled Cory to him and kissed her gently on the lips. “From Rob,” Charlie said, smiling weakly. “He said to tell you life is for the living, and he loves us.”
The weekend storm had cleared, and sun shone brightly through the living room window. The scent of fresh mown grass wafted in through the screen door. Cory had taken the day off, deciding to follow the ‘life is for the living’ theme, and was moving about the kitchen clattering dishes onto the counter. Charlie sat, legs folded yoga style on the futon, and slowly turned the pages of the album he’d brought from home. “I look like a dork,” he groaned.
“Everyone looks like a dork in a cap and gown. It’s like enforced geekdom,” Cory chuckled and handed him a glass of orange juice. “Don’t want you going hypoglycemic on me,” she said. “I wish your Mom could have been there.”
“Yeah, well…” Charlie ran a thumb over the picture of his Dad, next to him, with an arm draped over Charlie’s shoulder, grinning like the proud parent he was. “She could have been. At least Dad was there,” Charlie said, with a break in his voice. He took a sip of juice and set the glass down.
“I’m incredibly proud of you.” Cory leaned over the back of the futon and placed a big sloppy kiss on his cheek. Charlie grinned in spite of himself. “Do you think they’ll come visit after we’ve settled into the new house?” she asked.
“Don’t know. What time are Jess and her new girlfriend coming?” he said.
“Ten. Be kind, okay? Britta is sort of…” Cory searched for the right word.
“Odd?” Charlie supplied, catching Cory’s hand and bringing her around to sit next to him.
“Intense, I think would be fair. Look, she’s the first girl Jess has dated in years.” Cory got up, went into the kitchen nook, and pulled out the coffee grinder and beans. She measured out eight cups worth of beans and pushed the button on the grinder.
“Guess she finally got it that you’re not available,” Charlie said under the metallic whir.
“What?” Cory said, pausing, “Couldn’t hear you.”
“Nothing,” Charlie said, closing the album. “I’ll set the croissants out. You want me to make Mimosas?”
“Let’s wait until they get here. You could start the bacon,” Cory said just as the doorbell rang. “Scratch that,” she amended. “Go for the Mimosas. I’ll get the door.”
Jessica opened the front door as Cory left the kitchen, and led a wispy, pale-faced young woman by the hand into the hallway.
“Jess, good morning,” Cory gave her a hug. “Britta, welcome,” she offered her hand.
Britta was sheathed in black; the lower half of her head shaved, and from the crown sprouted a tuft of strawberry blonde hair. Her eyes were dilated, and rimmed in ebony. Her cheeks were concave, her lips were thickly layered in white, and she slowly lifted an anorexic hand that Cory was hesitant to shake for fear of wounding her.
Cory clasped the fragile hand gently. It felt like a spider web.
Jessica rubbed her hands together briskly. “Smells great in here,” she said. “Where’s the little man?”
“In the little kitchen, making those great smells,” Cory bantered back. “Come on in. Honey, the girls are here,” she called to Charlie.
“What’s this, a throwback to the old days?” Jessica whooped when Charlie stepped out of the kitchen wearing a white lace apron and sporting a spatula.
“Bacon grease,” he punched Jessica playfully on the arm. “Hi there,” he addressed Britta, “I’m Charlie. Hope you brought your appetite.”
As if through a haze, Britta struggled to focus her eyes on Charlie’s smiling face. Failing that, she dropped her attention to the floor and waited for further instructions from Jessica who obliged and guided her into the kitchen.
Charlie glanced at Cory who shrugged her shoulders and mouthed ‘be kind.’
Charlie poured the Mimosas while Cory finished the bacon and scrambled the eggs. “Jess,” she directed, “could you get the cinnamon rolls out of the oven for me?” They moved like a well-oiled machine, each navigating around the other efficiently in the tiny kitchen. Britta was propped at an angle, against the doorframe, like a branch that had been snapped from a tree.
Once plates had been filled, they assembled on the living room floor, propping themselves with pillows and creating makeshift tables out of whatever surfaces were available.
“So, Britta,” Charlie turned to her, “tell me how you and Jess met.” His smile ricocheted off her blank face.
“We met in Philosophy 200,” Jessica said. “Britta is an Existentialistic Nihilist,” she beamed.
“Great,” Charlie managed. “Cor, breakfast is great,” he reached over and patted Cory’s knee. “Great,” he repeated, and fixed her with a ‘get me out of here’ look.
“What do you hear from the realtor? Wish somebody had left me an inheritance. Can I have your place when you move?” Jessica asked through a mouth full of cinnamon roll.
“They’re considering our offer,” Charlie said. “We should know by the end of the week.” Cory added, “I can recommend you to the landlord. It’s not like we’re interchangeable.”
Jessica chortled. “I should say not. Can you imagine me living with Chuck?”
“Now there’s a truly scary thought,” Charlie said playfully.
Britta hiccupped and the three turned in surprise having forgotten she was present. She blotted her white lips with her napkin, and then returned to moving her food around on her plate with a fork.
“Could I get you something—different?” Cory asked, concerned that perhaps Britta was a vegan or a vegetarian and Jess had overlooked that detail.
“She doesn’t eat much,” Jessica said. “So yeah, put in a good word for me with the landlord. I can’t believe you’re willing to move to the burbs,” she rolled her eyes. “You’ve really changed, Cor.”
“Duh,” Cory said, and the three of them broke into laughter.
* * *
“That was awkward,” Charlie said later as he dried the dishes. “I don’t think Britta said a word the whole time. Strange girl. What is Jess thinking?”
“I think she’s afraid I’m leaving her,” Cory frowned, “so she’s responding in her Jess-sort-of way—you know, extreme.”
“She’s replacing you with a zombie? Real flattering,” Charlie grinned. Cory grabbed the towel from his hands, and snapped him on the backside with it.
“Last time I abandoned her, she dropped me like a hot potato. I had to grovel for forgiveness, and ply her with lots of food.” She leaned her head on Charlie’s back and breathed in his scent. “I’m not abandoning her, I’m moving across town for God’s sake. And I’m not selling out. I just want to live in a nice house.” She sounded petulant even to herself.
Charlie turned and planted a kiss on her nose. “It used to be you and Jess against the world, you know. Things change,” he pulled her close.
Cory laid her cheek against his shoulder. Suddenly serious, she said, “Sometimes I wonder if we deserve to be this happy.”
“Please, tell me you’re kidding,” Cory said into the phone the following morning. With her free hand, she stirred a pot of oatmeal on the stove. The smell of French Roast filled the kitchen and the toast popped just as Charlie came into the room. He pantomimed taking it out of the toaster and Cory shook her head.
“I know Belize is beautiful, and you can live there for practically nothing,” Cory said. She thrummed her fingers on the side of the stove as she listened.
“I don’t care that she lived there half a year after she dropped out of high school,” she rolled her eyes at Charlie, “Jess, you can’t just up and move to Belize with Britta. That’s nuts.” She flailed about for a good argument. “Besides, I was counting on you to be my brides—uh.”
Charlie leaned back in his chair and snickered.
“Forget Britta,” Cory snapped. “Jess, I need you as my bridesperson. I don’t know how I could get through this without you by my side.”
She turned the heat off under the cereal and glanced at Charlie, who sat with hands folded, and stared out the kitchen window. Her heart clenched with love for this man.
“Jess, you have it all wrong. This isn’t like before.” Cory clattered the lid on the pot and slumped against the counter. “We need to talk. Get your butt over here for breakfast—right now,” she said, and slammed the receiver back into its cradle.
She turned to Charlie, “Pull out the waffle iron,” she said, “this is war.”
Twenty minutes later, the three sat around the small table in a pool of sunlight. Jessica, eyes downcast, sniffed runaway mucus. Her face was splotchy and her once punked-out hair had lost its oomph.
“You look like someone just hung your cat,” Charlie said as he passed her the box of tissue. As she reached for the box, Charlie noticed a dried smear of blood from one of three deep scratches across her wrist. He looked away.
After a loud honk into a handful of tissues, Jessica took a ragged breath. “I haven’t forgotten what happened the last time you got all involved with a guy,” she said, still staring at the table.
Cory scooted her chair closer and took Jessica’s hand. “I was younger and stupid, okay? That was a terrible way to treat a friend. Jess, this is a different time in our lives. Our lives,” she gestured, taking in all three of them.
“We want a family,” Charlie said, “and our kids are going to need an auntie to keep us from ruining their lives.”
Jessica jerked her head up with a quizzical look. “How can—I mean, you can’t—uh—can you?” She blinked and swiped at a tear.
“Adoption,” Cory said. “That’s not the point. Jess, you are part of my life, and by extension, part of Charlie’s as well.”
“You’re stuck with me kid,” Charlie bobbed his head, trying to elicit a smile. “Jess, we’re just moving across town.” Charlie lifted her chin so she had to look him in the eye. “We’ll see you as often as we do now. Well, not exactly…”
“What Charlie is trying to say is, nothing is going to change between us,” Cory said. “I love you. You’re my chosen sister, you know that.” She pulled Jessica into a clumsy hug. Charlie joined the hug.
“Now, will you please break up with Britta?” Charlie chucked her on the chin.
They were interrupted by the jangling of the phone. “I’ll get it,” Charlie said, disengaging himself. “Hello?” There was a brief pause. “Sure, hang on,” he covered the mouthpiece and said, “It’s someone named Brian for you.”
Cory jumped up and ran over to the phone. “Brian,” she squealed. “Are you in town? Great to hear from you…” she stopped mid-sentence. Her face went ashen and her eyes pooled. Charlie pulled a chair up behind her and motioned her into it. “No. Thank you. I wish it had been under different circumstances too,” she said, the phrase an echo of only days ago. “I’m so sorry. Yes, she certainly was.”
Cory finished the conversation and fumbled the phone back into its cradle. She stared out the window. In barely a whisper she said, “Martha’s dead.” Jessica moved behind her and stroked her head as Charlie wrapped his arms around her. “Aw, honey,” he crooned.
“I had hopes, you know,” she said over Charlie’s shoulder, “that Martha could be sort of like the mother I never had.”
“She was the mother you never had—for a little while,” Jessica offered. Cory nodded. Charlie winked appreciation at Jessica. They stood together, a little splotch of sadness on an otherwise sunny day.
“So, are we going to have waffles, or what?” Jessica asked.
“I guess it’s a moot point,” Jessica answered her unasked question as she wrapped newspaper around a pottery goblet and fit it gingerly into the packing box.
“What’s that?” Cory looked back over her shoulder from the top of the stepladder. To Charlie she said, “Here, hon,” and handed him a platter from the cabinet shelf.
“Whether or not we were going to meet Martha before the wedding,” Jessica said. “I mean, it’s sad. She was going to be your matron of honor.” She folded and tucked the flaps of the box.
Cory sat down on top of the counter for a moment and shook the kinks out of her arms.
“Who’s giving you away?” Jessica asked.
“No one is giving me away. I don’t belong to anyone,” Cory said with a look that dared anyone to disagree.
“I’m not wearing a funny dress,” Jessica declared.
The rest of the day was spent hoisting boxes, driving back and forth across town, working together as a team. That night over pizza, Jessica said, “Honey Dew Lane. Could you get any more burb-ian?” She took a swig of her Sam Adams. “I saw your neighbor peek from behind her curtain. Wonder what she’s thinking.”
“She’s probably thinking a nice couple with a peculiar friend is moving in next door,” Cory shot her a look. Charlie chuckled and threw another log in the fireplace. The room smelled homey and lived-in already. He stretched out on the tan carpet, plumped a pillow under his head and sighed with satisfaction.
“Are you going to tell them? Your neighbors?” Jessica wiped pizza sauce from her chin with her sleeve.
“It’s not like it’s a secret,” Charlie answered, “but I don’t know that it’s really any of their business.”
“If someone asked directly, I’d give them an honest answer. I think,” Cory added.
“Sure. Like someone’s going to say out of the blue, ‘Hey, did you used to be a guy?’” Jessica chuckled.
“One hurdle at a time,” Charlie said, as they cleared the pizza box and beer bottles from the living room floor. “Are you coming back over to help unpack tomorrow?”
“Sounds like I’m not staying the night,” Jessica said with a grin. “I’ll be here for breakfast,” she called over her shoulder on her way down the hall and out of the front door.
The next morning, Cory stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing her teeth while Charlie finished in the shower. At the front of the house, the doorbell rang.
“Good God, it’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. Jess isn’t due until nine,” Cory grumbled as she rinsed, spit, and slipped on her robe. She peeked through the security hole before opening the door, and groaned.
On the other side of the door was a middle-aged woman with a saccharine smile plastered on her face. She wore a jogging suit, and her honey blonde hair was tightly bound on top of her head, exposing her brown roots. She rang the doorbell again and Cory jumped.
“Good morning,” the woman chirped as Cory opened the door. She shoved a loaf of something covered in a cloth napkin forward as she sized up Cory. “I’m Mrs. Geraldine Fortney . . .” her voice raised at the end, as if she questioned that fact. “My hubby, Sam, and I are your neighbors across the street,” she pointed with a brick red nail, in case Cory had missed the behemoth structure taking up more than its share of the block. “We just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood,” she rattled on, “and to say how glad we are to see a nice young couple move in.” She took a breath.
“Thank you, Geraldine. How nice of you,” Cory was about to introduce herself.
“You just never know who’s going to move into a neighborhood these days,” Geraldine launched out in a new direction. “Just last month a homosexual couple looked at the place.”
Cory could feel her eyes begin to squint and she fought the urge to back up and slam the door in the woman’s face.
“I told Sam we’d have to go to church twice a week and pray real hard for an acceptable buyer for this house, and look—here you are,” she spread her hands in glee, her smile stretched even farther.
“What? Oh, okay honey,” Cory called back over her shoulder. “I’m sorry Geraldine, my husband is calling. Thank you for the lovely loaf of, uh . . . We’ll talk again,” Cory backed up and began to ease the door closed.
“That’s perfectly okay, honey. You just go take care of that man of yours,” Geraldine waved bye-bye as the door clicked shut.
“Holy shit,” Cory muttered as Charlie came down the hall, towel clad and smelling of soap and new beginnings.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie stopped and tugged his towel closer. “I guess I should have put a robe on?” his expression was quizzical.
“Oh, no, love, not you. The neighbor—a real whacko,” Cory said shaking her head.
“At least she brought food,” he said, taking the loaf from Cory and peeking under the napkin. “Mmm, banana bread—still warm, too,” he smiled appreciatively.
“If she’d known who we were, I’d be checking it for arsenic,” Cory said. “Charlie, our across-the-street neighbors are raving bigots. I’m not so sure I feel all that safe at the moment.” She leaned heavily against the wall.
A sound at the door made both of them jump. “Don’t answer it,” Cory whispered. They stood, staring wide-eyed, as the doorknob turned. Jessica shoved the door open and stepped into the hallway.
“Geez,” Cory hissed with exasperation, “since when don’t you knock?”
“Well, excuuuuuse me,” Jessica said. “You two look like you were expecting a burglar or something.” She dropped her backpack on the floor and headed for the kitchen.
“Worse,” Cory said. “A bigot.” Cory recounted the experience with the neighbor over banana bread, eggs, and coffee.
Jessica raised her eyebrows. “She said what?” She choked on the bite of bread she was chewing. “I ought to ride my Harley back and forth across her well-manicured lawn…”
“You don’t have a Harley,” Charlie interrupted.
“I ought to get one then,” Jessica said. “Or maybe I’ll sneak over late at night and rip out that azalea bush by the front door.”
Cory paled. Butter smeared down the tablecloth as the knife slipped from her hand and fell onto the floor. “Azalea bush?” she said in a whisper.
“Oh, shit,” Jessica muttered. She jumped up, ran around the table and threw her arms around Cory, whose body was shaking. “Cor, let it go. That was a long time ago,” she said in a soothing voice, resting her head against Cory’s. “You’re safe now,” she added.
“No, no I’m not safe now. There’s a crazy woman across the street that could hurt me,” her voice wobbled. “Charlie, I can’t live here,” her eyes flashed desperation.
“Whoa, babe, slow down,” Charlie took her hand and looked into her eyes. “Take a breath. We’ve got you covered. You’re safe right this very moment. Jess and I won’t let anything happen to you,” he crooned. Cory’s hand was cold and Charlie rubbed it briskly to restore the blood flow.
“PTSD,” Jessica said, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” she explained at Charlie’s look of confusion. To Cory she said, “I think you’d better call Marg.”
“I feel like a failure,” Cory said, her voice thick with emotion as she stared at the carpet. She pulled a pillow from the end of the couch and held it close to her stomach.
“Cory,” Marg’s voice was gentle, yet firm, “look at me please,” she urged. “Thank you. You got triggered. You realize that, right?” Marg maintained her soft gaze. “The azalea reminded you of the harm Kurt did.”
“But, this woman really is dangerous,” Cory defended.
“Her mindset is dangerous,” Marg agreed, “but there’s no reason to believe that she will cause you physical harm, no reason to believe you have to leave your home.”
Cory remained unconvinced. “She doesn’t know me. If she knew who I was, I’d be in danger. You should have heard her.”
“Take a breath, slow down,” Marg urged. “What she believes is that you’re a happily married young woman who has purchased her first home. That’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but, I don’t know that my goal in life is to ‘pass’,” Cory said. “I want to be able to be myself without worrying about my personal safety.”
“Do you remember a long time ago,” Marg settled back in her chair, “we spoke of all the ‘firsts’ you’d be facing in your new life? And that you couldn’t hide from life to avoid them? That you’d have to learn from them what you could?”
“What you choose to disclose about yourself, after getting to know someone, is entirely a separate matter. Right now, what she knows about you is true and accurate, is it not?” Cory nodded again.
“I’m not suggesting this woman will ever be someone you’ll call a friend, but here’s an opportunity to get to know her over time, and perhaps by doing so, expand her world view a little.” Cory’s shoulders relaxed and her jaw unclenched. “Possible, don’t you think?”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference with Kurt,” Cory said.
“No, it wouldn’t have made a difference with him,” Marg acknowledged. “Try to separate the two events in your mind. I’m not talking full disclosure,” Marg said, leaning forward. “As you get to know her over time, you might take a small, safe risk and see how that goes.”
Cory looked doubtful. “Maybe. I guess I can at least see that she’s not the same as Kurt,” she conceded.
“Cory, you’re a wonderful woman, and anyone would be all the richer for knowing you,” Marg said.
* * *
“How did it go with Marg?” Charlie asked that evening. He handed her a glass of Merlot, sat down next to her on the sofa, and threw an arm around her shoulder. Cory snuggled in close, took a sip of her wine, and released a long sigh. She stretched her legs out and rested her feet on the ottoman.
“I guess we don’t have to put a For Sale sign on the lawn just yet,” she smiled. “Maybe they’re not all like her,” Cory said.
“Maybe…” Charlie said with a wicked grin, “we could put a For Sale sign on her lawn.”
“This is truly scary,” Cory teased. “You’re starting to sound like Jess.”
Outside, colorful lights lined houses and wrapped trees. They twinkled and cast their hues onto the snowy crust covering Honey Dew Lane. Bright chips of stars glittered overhead against the black night. Inflated plastic Santas, snowmen with derby hats, reindeer, and all manner of holiday bric-a-brac covered the lawns. Icicles, real and electrical, dripped soundlessly from the eaves.
Inside, Cory steadied the chair as Charlie leaned precariously to top the tree with their first ornament purchased as a couple.
“John and Peggy, Mrs. Alexander from down the street, and, I don’t know—maybe five or six more people,” Cory counted the neighbors expected for the annual holiday party at Geraldine and Sam Fortney’s house—or, The Fort, as Sam liked to call it.
“How long do you suppose Jess will pout over not being invited?” Charlie asked. He climbed down, stood back and admired his work.
“I don’t know why she’s pouting at all—she hates the Fortneys,” Cory said.
“Good food, open bar—my guess,” Charlie leaned his head to the side. “It’s crooked, isn’t it,” he said, looking at the tree topper, an antique angel with spun glass hair and feathered wings. “Why didn’t you tell me while I was up there?”
“I like it crooked,” Cory smiled and wrapped an arm around his waist. “It’s like the angel’s smiling down on us, blessing our first Christmas together.” They kissed, celebrating the moment.
Charlie broke away with a quick pat on Cory’s behind. “Get your coat,” he grinned. “We might as well get this over with.”
“I’m thinking it might not be so bad,” Cory said. “We have some pretty interesting neighbors,” she pointed out. “Did you know Mrs. Alexander’s parents were Holocaust survivors? She just finished a book about her life. And Mary Drew used to be a daytime soap star. How cool is that?”
Charlie chuckled as he helped her on with her coat. “I’m proud of you,” he whispered into her hair as he kissed the top of her head. “And Marg would be proud of you, too.”
Across the street, they were greeted with Bing Crosby crooning ‘White Christmas’ through speakers hung from an evergreen. The sound of laughter and raucous conversation drifted out of the door as the Fortneys welcomed their neighbors.
Cory kept one arm linked through Charlie’s as they wandered among the guests, smiling and exchanging small talk. A fireplace crackled warmth and good cheer in the background.
“Damned Democrats think they can get that gun legislation through—over my dead body,” Sam was trumpeting to a captive audience. “Sweetheart, it’s Christmastime,” Geraldine said as she led Sam away, releasing the grateful quartet he’d cornered. “And, look, Cory and Charlie are here…” she embraced each in turn, and Sam slapped Charlie on the back.
The food was divine, and the champagne flowed freely. Sam gathered the throng around the fireplace, “A toast to the holidays, to good neighbors, and a prosperous year ahead,” he said, raising his glass. Cory and Charlie clinked glasses and exchanged a kiss.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Geraldine said, smiling at the pair. The tone around them had dropped to quiet conversation with neighbors sitting and standing in small, intimate groups. Sam stood next to his wife and threw a hearty arm around her shoulder.
“So, tell us, Charlie,” he said with a champagne slur, and a nod toward Cory, “how you and the little woman here met.”
Cory’s teeth clenched and she stepped closer to the fire, warming her hands behind her. “Yes, dear,” she smiled, unhinging her jaw, “tell the people how we met.” She looked around and saw a crowd of eyes focused on them. A film of sweat broke out on her upper lip.
“Well, you see . . .” Charlie slid his arm around Cory and pulled her gently to him, “we met in a support group following our gender reassignment surgeries.” He paused and noted the polite smiles and attentive nods. He cleared his throat and continued, “Cory having been a man originally, and I having been a woman, that is.” He brushed a quick kiss across Cory’s cheek and she leaned her head against his shoulder. “It was a match made in heaven—well,” he corrected, “actually in Colorado, at the hospital.”
The cemented smiles began to crack as the story seeped into each guest’s information processing center. There was a palpable sense of collective breath held.
“Hah!” chortled Sam. He whopped his leg with an open palm. “That’s a good one. You really had us going there for a minute, Charlie.” The spell broken, the guests laughed heartily, milled about, refilled their drinks, and chatted noisily.
Cory’s feet tingled with sensation after experiencing a few moments of the numbness that comes with being out of body. “I can’t believe you said that,” she whispered.
“I figured it was just easier to tell the truth,” Charlie winked at her. “Merry Christmas.”