fiction by Ann Garvald
Maybe “frustration” is not the right word. “Longing” says it better. But whatever I call it, it comes up on me far too often. I’ll be looking at building plans spread over the table in my office and I’ll glance down and think how nice it would be if I was looking at a skirt, expensive hose and nice shoes instead of drab grey trousers and heavy black brogues. Or I’ll be walking down the long corridor in our building and, there being nobody around, I’ll shorten my steps, swing my hips just a little and imagine I’m wearing a trim linen beige skirt, just above the knee, a pale blue blouse, a string of pearls, earrings and a crisp matching jacket. My hair, smooth and shiny, well below my shoulders.
If only !
When I got engaged to Maggie, seventeen years ago, and told her everything about myself, I hoped there was a chance of a wonderful understanding. But it didn’t work out that way. Maggie’s reaction was that nobody had truly loved me before and that cross-dressing had been my way of filling the void. With our marriage, she said, it would become a thing of the past. And I guess I believed her, so I purged my lovely clothes and precious wigs and for fifteen years I tried my hardest. But the longing never went away, only grew stronger with each passing year until I knew that Alison couldn’t be suppressed any more. But by this time Maggie was in therapy for clinical depression and our two lovely twin daughters were well into the teenage angst thing, so I knew that revealing Alison would have devastating effects, ones I could not inflict. So Alison came back, but never out of the closet. Alison could only exist in a hotel bedroom when I was out of town on business.
Unfortunately those opportunities didn’t happen very often. Alan and I are partners in a civil engineering consulting business in Ottawa. The way it works, I run the office and the design end of things while Alan is out of town a lot, checking works in progress and generating business. It goes smoothly and we’ve been quite successful. Alan and I are close friends as well as business partners. Over the years Alan’s wife, Barbara, and my Maggie have become almost like sisters, and of course their kids are friends with our kids. All of which is wonderful, except that for me trips out of town are few and far between, so Alison is usually only a dream.
And all that was very much in my mind one afternoon when – just after one of those walks down the corridor – my computer beeped. It was Alan, e-mailing from Toronto to tell me that the Berfield deal was finally firmed up. He was flying back to Ottawa that evening. Would I be able to drive down with him the next day to Albany, New York State, to sign the contract and stay over three nights to survey the site?
Would I ?
Of course I was pleased about the contract – it was a big one and we’d been working towards it for over a year – but, given what had been in my mind just seconds before the e-mail arrived, only one thing really registered. A hotel room for three nights meant I could be Alison for most of three evenings. So my response to Alan was brief. “Great” I replied. Signed it and hit Send.
I have an older, large, carry-by-handle suitcase that I keep it at home, always packed with razor, toothbrush, three clean shirts, changes of underpants and socks, deodorant, shoe-polishing kit, all that sort of stuff. So when a trip does come up at short notice, I’m ready. All I have to do is get it down from the attic. It’s a family joke – Dad’s big old clunky suitcase. Maggie never bothers with it — she knows I repack it myself after a trip. And even if she did open it there would be nothing to notice. The large separate compartment that’s part of the lid is obviously not empty but stays zippered shut, fastened with a little padlock. Supposedly it has a blanket in it, for emergencies. Maggie never has need to look in there.
Ottawa to Albany is a pleasant drive in summer. We took Alan’s Chrysler and at the Thousand Islands crossing we went through U.S. Customs. Some hidden trepidation on my part in case they would want to search my luggage, but we were waved through. So we drove down the Interstate and we talked. The conversation turned to Albany and its history, which goes back before the American War of Independence. “Cornbury”, Alan said suddenly. “Now there was a strange fellow. Ever heard of him?” Well I guess so, seeing like I was a paid-up, albeit far-flung, member of Vancouver’s Cornbury Society. But nonchalance was definitely called for, so I paused for an appropriate few seconds, as though I was thinking, then answered in the best matter-of-fact manner I could muster. “Yes, wasn’t he Lord Cornbury, a British Governor of New York, who used to attend functions dressed as a woman?” “Right,” said Alan, and to my relief he turned the conversation to a discussion of Albany’s buildings.
We stopped for a relaxed lunch near Syracuse and covered a lot of subjects, as we always did, inevitably getting into current politics, the financial melt-down, how the U.S. banks had got the whole world into such a dreadful mess, and the whole question of neo-con economics. We talked a bit about the Chicago School, then Alan asked me, out of the blue, if I’d heard of a right-wing American economist called Deirdre McCloskey. Yikes ! Twice in the same day !. “Yes” I said with renewed nonchalance. “Used to be Donald McCloskey, but underwent a change in gender and became Deidre. Wrote a book about it, I believe.” Then I immediately moved the discussion to safer ground, talking about David Frum, a right-wing Canadian who for a while had been a speech-writer for George W. Bush.
When we checked into our hotel in Albany, one that Alan had stayed at before, I reminded Alan that I’d been late in the office the previous evening, getting the Berfield plans ready, and I wouldn’t mind getting off to my room soon after an early dinner. That was okay with Alan, so after I’d unpacked and laid out Alison’s things on the other bed, I went back down and joined him in the restaurant, secretly looking forward to how I would become a much happier and more relaxed person for the rest of the evening.
After dinner we moved to the lounge for a quick drink before I headed upstairs. Both of us are knowledgeable motorsport fans and we got to talking about obscure British race car drivers of the 1950’s, the likes of John Coombs, Roy Salvadori and Jimmy Stewart, Jackie’s elder brother. “How about Roberta Cowell” said Alan suddenly. “Heard of her ?”. This time he really caught me off guard and I know it showed. “Oh,” I said after a couple of moments of confusion, “Yes, I’ve heard of her. Had been Robert Cowell. Very minor race-car driver. Another gender-crosser. I read about her in a British magazine when I was a kid. Went to Sweden for surgery, actually ahead of Christine Jorgensen, although that isn’t generally known.”
Alan’s response was silence for a minute, then he gave me a strange look and his voice hardened. “Three obscure gender-crossers, Cornbury, McCloskey, Cowell, and you know about them all. You know a lot more about gender-crossing than you’re letting on.”
And to my surprise he leaned forward, put his hand to my shoulder, then sat back holding up, between his forefinger and thumb, a hair about twenty inches long. There was only one place it could have come from — the ash-blonde wig on the bed in my room. And what came next floored me even more. “It’s time,” he said “for me to know about this Alison business. You’d better not try to hide it.” I could feel my face going pale, my stomach churning, and I didn’t even try to lie my way out . All I could say, stammering, was “How did you find out ?” He didn’t answer my question. Instead he got up. “I’m going to make some calls” he said curtly. “When I get back, we’ve got to have this out.” And without another word he walked out of the lounge.
I sat there absolutely shattered. Life was coming crashing around me. The conversation, when he came back, would tear me apart. And for sure he’d tell Barbara — maybe he was on the phone to her now — and sooner rather than later she’d feel she had a duty to tell Maggie. What would this do to my marriage, to the kids ? And what about the business ?
My dejection grew as I sat there. I watched two young women come into the lounge and my thoughts turned to the injustice of it all. Why had fate dealt me such a rotten hand ? Why was it that those two girls, with full approval and encouragement of society, could dress the way they wanted, wear make-up, have beautiful hair and be delightfully feminine, all totally acceptable, yet all of that was absolutely forbidden for me ? I had tried to cross the barrier on my own, secretly without hurting anyone, but now I was going to be despised, ridiculed. Even worse. And Alison would have to go.
Watching another woman come into the lounge, and envying her too for her unquestioned right to be the person she was, I again asked myself the question that had so often tormented me in the past. Why won’t they just let me be what I want to be ? Why, why, why ? The turmoil in my mind was nothing new, but now it had new and terrifying implications.
My thoughts, a mixture of anger and despair, were interrupted when I realized that the woman was walking over to where I was sitting. “Hi” she said brightly. “I’m Lucy”. She was probably one of the staff about to tell me what the evening’s entertainment would be in the lounge, but I was in no mood to be polite. “Look, I said, “I want to be left alone.” That should have snubbed her but it didn’t. “Well,” the woman said, “that may be how you feel but I’m not going away”. And she pulled out the chair that Alan had vacated and sat down opposite me. My annoyance erupted in anger. “Now look here …” I started, but she cut me short. “You can make as much fuss as you like.” she said. “Go ahead and call the bartender. Call Security if you want. “But I’m not moving from here. At least,” she continued, “not until I’ve met Alison”.
A couple of seconds passed as incredible recognition dawned. “My God,” I gasped, “Alan !”.
“No, you should know better than that. It’s Lucy, okay?” she said with a smug smile. And as I sat mute and transfixed, Lucy looked at me, her tastefully made-up face a picture of amused delight. And then we both began to giggle and it took us quite a while to get things back under control.
“I have a confession” she said at last. “That hair I held up didn’t come from your shoulder at all. I’d brought it down with me – a final trick of the day to test you. And it worked !” Which set us giggling again.
“But how did you suspect in the first place ?” I asked. “Well the concept itself wasn’t exactly foreign to me, was it now ?” she replied, fluttering what had become enviable eye-lashes. “But when I received your e-mail yesterday I began to think that perhaps we had more in common than we had ever imagined. It was obvious your mind was somewhere else — set on something other than the Berfield contract. Otherwise I don’t’ think you would have signed it “Alison”, would you now ?”
Ouch ! Once again I had hit the send button without re-reading. Only this one time I was glad – ecstatically glad.
The thought was interrupted by an exaggerated cough. “Excuse me,” said Lucy, “but much as I enjoy talking to you, I’d really rather meet Alison. Do you think you might go up to your room and have her come down? “
And so I did.