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Circumstances - 2. A Story I Was Told Last Christmas

Two people meet in a gay church on Christmas Eve and have a surprising conversation.

It’s an odd story, told at an odd time – Christmas Eve – in perhaps an odd place – a church social hall. The woman telling it could still have been in her seventies, and you could see both a trace of the petite beauty she’d once been as well as the sprightly sailor boy. Her wife had long ago died, but their two daughters and a half-dozen grandchildren were living and visited often. “Well, often enough,” she amended.

Her wife had died when they were both forty-two. “The girls were in their late teens – Gwen almost married – but they were old enough to live on their own. That’s when I decided to leave Portland and begin the change. It was the seventies.

She hadn’t made the complete change for many years. “The technology simply wasn’t there – it still isn’t easy, unfortunately. But when I arrived in San Francisco, I started cross dressing.”

It was easy. She was only five-two and looked younger than she was. “I might have had a hard time getting into the Navy, being so short, but I was a mechanic at a time they needed mechanics. My daddy started teaching me about motors when I was seven. By the time I was twelve, I could take apart and reassemble a car almost blindfolded. And I quickly learned about planes.”

And about women – tall women. “Well, taller – five-seven, five-eight. I wasn’t about to have short sons. It puts them through too much. And women thought I was darling – I was really cute. But the joke was on me. My wife and I only had daughters. Still, they’re taller than I am.”

Though she was wearing boots with three-inch stilettos, and she often wore high heels.

“I’m getting a little shaky in them now. But I used to dance like the blazes.”

I could imagine that.

“But it’s been a long time since I’ve danced,” she went on. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s asked.”

She lived almost surrounded by women. “The only men I see are at church, and they’re not interested.”

It was a gay church.

“And I’ve lived with women most of my life. My mother and sisters, growing up. My wife and daughters. My first partner and my second. I keep hoping for a third, but, so far, it hasn’t happened.”

It was why she left San Francisco. “I figured a smaller city… with less competition… But the truth is, I just see fewer people.”

“You’ve never been attracted to men?” I asked.

“At my age, they’re harder to find than women.”

“But if one asked?”

“I’d turn no one down. But it’s not my preference. I had enough of men in the Navy.”

She’d served twenty-five years.

“Was it rough?” I asked.

“Some… because of my height. But I was good at my job and a great drinking buddy. What they now call ‘a wing man.’”

“Where did you hear that?”

“I read… sometimes, a lot. Sometimes, there’s nothing else to do.”

“I’ve seen you at church.”

“Yes. It’s become the center of my life.”

She hadn’t meant that to happen, either.

“But the change was a definite choice,” she explained. “I’d been thinking about it for years. I’d never tried it – the cross-dressing. Not even in my wife’s clothes. They would have hung on me. But I took to it immediately, even the heels.”

“Stilettos? In San Francisco? In the 70s?”

“They’re always in style. Especially accessorized by a whip.”

I’m afraid I laughed. That, I couldn’t imagine.

“You’d be amazed,” she went on. “Small men like to be punished for it. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them. And I had to earn a living somehow. No one would hire me as a mechanic.”

“Even with your background?”

“I couldn’t tell them about the Navy. And this may sound surprising, but I never was good at lying – at telling stories. It was easier not to explain. So I fell in with friends when I was shopping for clothes. Even though I could buy anywhere, I liked the specialty shops. Again, nothing to explain. And I started working at one, mainly for cross-dressers. Though people came in, asking for other supplies. And when someone suggested I could easily earn more money than working behind a counter, I tried it. For a while. But after I hit fifty, my age began to show. And humiliating anyone, without really hurting him, takes creativity – and energy. So I started selling jewelry, and, later, cars.”

“Cars?”

“It was a natural. After all, I knew the mechanics. And I was sexy. Deeper voice. Charming. I knew my way with men. And they’re the ones who largely bought foreign cars.”

“High end?”

“You wouldn’t catch me selling a Chevy.”

This time, I laughed with her.

“Besides, I needed more money to finish the change. By then, doctors had begun to catch up.”

But so had AIDS.

“I lost a lot of friends… but I was lucky. Well, not lucky. Faithful. To my wife and partners. And even with the most primitive hormones, in overdoses, my male parts functioned. And I never liked being the receiver. So I was very low risk.”

Her first partner died of cancer.

“She was a bit older than I was anyway. I needed that guidance. But she had a good life. And a fairly long one.”

Her second partner was younger.

“But she still died of cancer. I have no luck on that account. Three in a row.”

And the woman she’d followed here died as well. That was the odd story.

“I don’t think Jill ever would have really been interested in me. She was so much younger. Three of my grandchildren are older. But there was something about her. When she said she was leaving San Francisco, I asked if she was going alone – and if she minded that. She said it was a little scary, but good scary. She liked to have adventures. Though when I asked if she wanted company, she didn’t object.”

They’d driven taking a circular route, but always knowing where they were headed.

“Still, we looked at other cities. We could have been persuaded.”

“You weren’t?”

“Not finally.”

“Why here?”

“Why not? It has almost everything a person could need. Why are you here?”

I still wasn’t sure. But I wouldn’t admit that.

“In any case, we took separate apartments. I didn’t want to interfere with her life. And I could afford better. But we saw each other almost every day.”

“Did you know her friends?”

“Not really. Except by the stories she’d tell. She was terrific at gossip. She could make the most terrible experiences exciting.”

“Were there many?”

“By my standards, yes. I’ve led a surprisingly quiet life. And I was used to gentlemen. She craved something different.”

“Craved?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Like what?”

“I told you. She liked adventure.”

But she got more than she could handle.

“A young man was interested in her. He seemed decent enough in her stories. Certainly better than most of the others. But I’d never met him.”

“Were there many men?”

“Jill wasn’t shy.”

“Is that how she earned her living?”

“No. Not at all. She was a computer technician. A programmer. But she met a majority of her friends in bars. Bars I wouldn’t have gone into even as a six-foot sailor.”

“I didn’t think this city was dangerous.”

“You can always find places you shouldn’t be.”

“That’s too bad.”

“But that’s not where she met this man. I think it was through business. And, as I said, he seemed decent enough. Educated. But he was dark skinned. Not Black. Perhaps Hispanic. And that was beyond her limits.”

“Why?”

“She’d been raped by a dark skinned man. I think he was Indian. When she was relatively young. After high school... maybe early in college. And though she claimed she wasn’t racist, and I never saw any sign of that – she dated all kinds of men. But she was always afraid another dark-skinned one would turn on her.”

“Had it happened more than once?”

“Not that she told me. And she told me almost everything. But she didn’t want to let this one too close. She was afraid he’d move in – he was that serious. In fact, he was deeply in love.”

“You’d think she’d be flattered.”

“She was. She told me that. But I think that scared her too. So they stupidly fought.”

“What a waste.”

“That night, they more than fought. From the testimony, it appears he pushed her. I can’t say Jill didn’t push him first, knowing how she was. But she fell and hit her head. And I don’t know if you know anything about head wounds, but they bleed a lot, and he panicked.”

“What did he do?”

“Left. Without trying to help. And without trying to get help. The friend he went to said he was afraid he’d killed her. So he ran.”

“And she called you?”

“If only she had. She’d still be alive. But she called someone she shouldn’t have trusted. Someone it seems she’d smuggled drugs with. That was one thing she didn’t tell me. When he got to her apartment, he was afraid that if he took her to a hospital… even to an emergency room or a clinic… too many questions would be asked. And he had a terrible record. He thought everything would lead back to him. So he killed her. Stabbed her. Then he also ran.”

“Did they find him?”

“Eventually…they found the first man first. It was all over the news. As soon as I heard what happened… before I even knew who was involved but knew which part of the city… I had the worst feeling. And when I called her phone and a police officer answered…”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a shock. I almost moved out of the city that evening… not that I was in danger. I just didn’t want to be alone.”

“How long had you been here?”

“Over a year… almost two. I had plenty of new friends. So I wasn’t technically alone. But in the shock…”

“What made you stay?”

“I was afraid the police would think I was involved. And, under those circumstances, your entire history comes back. Every scrap of it. And even after all those years, I could just see my face on television, identified as James.”

“When did they find the second man?”

“After the first was acquitted. He had to go through a horrible trial. No one is blameless, but he was close. At least, he didn’t go to jail. The second one did. Ironically, he was killed there. After only getting a life sentence, the other inmates found out what he’d done and killed him for it.”

“Strange justice.”

“Jill would have hated the attention. So many of her secrets were told. All her supposed weaknesses. The world doesn’t understand women who adore having sex with men.”

“Why didn’t you leave after the trials?”

“I considered it. But I didn’t want to go back to San Francisco, which is really my home. And I wouldn’t go back to Portland – even though my daughters and their families live there. It’s too cold, and I’ve been away too long. So I stayed.”

“And started coming to church?”

“I’d been doing that all along. But I started to volunteer more. I’ve been here more often. Helping people.”

“I’m sure they appreciate it.”

“Thanks.”

And then there was silence. For a moment, then longer. That was the end of her story, the immediate one, and maybe she realized, awkwardly, that she’d said too much. Or realized how little we had in common and wondered what I might think. As we sat there, both, perhaps, wondering what to say next, the music started quietly again in the background.

“Do you want to dance?” I asked.

The music was appropriate, and though I was never much of a dancer, I thought I could manage.

She smiled and said, “You’re thirty years too young.”

“Probably less,” I admitted. “But you don’t seem like you’ll break.”

So we danced, slowly. The top of her head came well below my chin, and I felt like the tallest kid in high school again.

Why had she told me what she had? I didn’t know. We were near strangers on a padded bench, sharing a last piece of chocolate cake that had been too big for either of us. I’d simply asked, “When did you move here?”

2019 by Richard Eisbrouch
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That last line pulled everything together so beautifully. Without it, it would have been just another story, a good one but one of many. The last line made it special.

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Thanks.  Every time I think I may have a favorite story, someone points out something about one of them, and I reconsider.   I guess that's the reason we share thoughts.

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