LEAVING TOWN IS AN ESCAPE in slow motion. As I load boxes into the back of Lee's Ford Maverick, it feels like we're in one of those horror movies she loves, fleeing danger when we can't see who's chasing us. With Vietnam, Watergate, and all the Soviet nuclear business on the radio, running away from an additional monster just adds another layer to things that could go wrong.
But nothing has yet," Lee reminds me. "The point is to get out before something does."
I know that's the case, but hearing Lee say it aloud is scary. I'm getting used to the idea of Lee and me, me and Lee, that we have a stake in each other, though neither of us have said We're a couple. We're going to stay with Lee's Aunt Florence and rent her extra bedroom. Aunt Florence knew Lee wanted to be called "she" before Lee mentioned it, and she's never asked questions about the change in pronouns.
I have a new job since I managed a transfer from my old bank to a local branch. Lee is less intent on finding work and more on locating a doctor who'll renew her prescription for estrogen and a therapist who won't tell her she's crazy. Her current doctor and counselor are five hours away in Chicago. Lee would rather not have the long drive but says it's not too far for understanding. She's been on hormones for six months. Any doctor will want her to live as a woman and take estrogen for at least a year before she considers surgery.
"More hospitals are performing them so there's less chance of being denied by some stupid board," Lee says hours later as we hang blouses in our new closet at Aunt Florence's place. "But I'll need enough money to pay for it, and who knows how long that'll take.
Lee has read everything she can find about transsexuality, which amounts to three good books, five stupid ones, and a scattering of magazines. She saw six asshole therapists in three states before she found the one in Chicago who asked non-insulting questions: Is Lee willing to give up her job and take a drastic pay cut? Is she willing to lose friends and family? Is she willing to risk the possibility of assault if someone decides she's not passing well enough?
"She's up front with me," says Lee. "There's no easy path. but I'm done lying. At least when I lose my family, I won't be the first person who's been disowned for stupid reasons."
"You have Aunt Florence and me," I say, though I know that's cold comfort.
Lee kisses my forehead. I feel her mouth strain into a smile.
AFTER THREE DAYS and a few evening chats with Aunt Florence, Lee applies for a bank teller position so she can gather references and practice being a woman in the world full-time. We bought more skirts and dresses for her at Goodwill, and Aunt Florence says Lee can have some of her old clothes. Lee is five-eleven and Aunt Florence used to be that tall before she started shrinking.
"I think of it as condensing," Aunt Florence says.
"At least we're both small-chested." Lee fingers one of Aunt Florence's sweaters as we peruse her closet.
"Give it time," says Aunt Florence. "You're blossoming."
"I'm wilted today," Lee says, rubbing her lower back. I give her a backrub before bed, turning on the radio so Diana Ross can soothe us. Lee was in a car accident ten years ago that messed up her spine. She has the kind of persistent pain that makes doctors shrug and tell her to take more Tylenol.
"The corset helps," she but murmurs I like into the her pillow. "I thought it would be uncomfortable, but I like the pressure. It reminds me to have good posture. Someday I'll get the boobs to fill out the top."
"I don't have the boobs to fill out the top," I say.
"But nobody looks at you twice when you walk into the grocery store," says Lee.
"It's because you have cute clothes, perfect makeup, and you're model slender," I say.
"If you insist," says Lee. "I still worry about my voice every time I open my mouth. It's not just speaking breathy or in falsetto. It's the cadences, the pauses, the rhythms. It'll take a while to figure out."
I massage her shoulders with the heels of my hands. For someone like Lee, vaulting between terror and defiance is a logical course of emotion.
ON THE DAY OF HER JOB INTERVIEW, which is my first day of work at the new bank, Lee gets up an hour before me so she can put herself together. I roll on my stomach and clamp a pillow over my head to steal extra minutes of rest, After a week and a half of sharing a bedroom, I know her routine. She stuffs the top of the corset with pantyhose, shaves her arms and legs (every other day), and spends forty minutes on makeup. Lee pastes down her eyebrows with a glue stick, smooths on foundation, lightens the dark areas under her eyes, dusts blush on her cheekbones, draws in clean eyebrows, brushes on two colors of eyeshadow, adds definition with eyeliner, and fills out her mouth with lipstick and lip pencil. She accessorizes with two bracelets and three rings.
I get up in time to dig a skirt and blouse from the closet and smear on pink lipstick. Behind my round glasses frames, nobody cares about my eyes.
I don't know how rigorously they interview tellers at the bank, but Lee comes out of the back offie smiling. She's never been a teller, but after being employed as a loan officer for fourteen years, she's familiar enough with the system to fake it. Lee spends the afternoon training with me and Jenny who works at the window on my left and has been at this bank since the beginning of time (according to Jenny). She looks to be in her mid-sixties, about as old as Aunt Florence, and calls Lee and me "Sugar." We wade through the day one customer at a time, supporting ourselves with five-minute coffee breaks and little stools. When we don't have customers, Jenny and I discuss our favorite brands of shoe insoles.
What did you think?" I ask Lee that evening when we debrief in Aunt Florence's kitchen with a beer.
"So much standing," she says. "I'm not used to it."
"It takes a while," I say. We need to get better shoes for Lee, comfortable, stylish flats. I changed into jeans and sneakers like usual after work, but Lee kept her blouse and skirt.
"It's nice to be in this body full time," she says. Before our move when she was still dressing as a guy, Lee stripped her shirt and tie after work and put on stockings and a dress.
On evenings when Aunt Florence isn't pulling a late shift at the diner, she works with Lee on refining her female mannerisms: keeping her legs together, crossed or uncrossed, swishing her hips slightly when she walks, gesturing with her hands when she talks. Lee has practiced these things for years and I think she does fine, but she wants more feedback.
On nights when Aunt Florence works, Lee and I have a quick dinner then drive to a bar near the edge of town where it's easy to be anonymous. I order a beer, Lee has a glass of red wine, and we practice our voices. I'm trying to speak in a lower register so people take me seriously. That was after one of the tellers at my old bank compared my tone to a cheerful pixie. I think she meant it as a compliment, but I was appalled. I want to be a dusky alto who commands respect.
"I'll go doctor hunting next week," Lee says. "That or drive back to Chicago like I said I wouldn't do. I also didn't think I'd be a bank teller."
I pat her hand across the table. "It's a start."
"I didn't burn all the bridges at the old job," she says. "Can't throw away that schooling and experience. Yet."
"Would you ask them for references?" I say.
"When hell freezes over," she says. "But stranger things have happened."
AT WORK LEE PRACTICES her voice in comfortable snatches:
"How may I help you?"
"Would you like ones or fives?"
"Thank you for your business. Have a lovely afternoon." She pops Tylenol in the break room—I think her feet and back give her more problems than her voice—and she stays with the teller job for a month before quitting. The work is repetitive, there's not much problem-solving, and wearing a plastic smile is tiring.
"I have to be okay with making less money," she says to herself and me when we go to the bar. "It's a stupid economic reality. But I need to find something less mind-numbing."
"Gee, thanks," I say.
"You're used the rhythm," she says. "And you want to save energy for your artwork. I need something with more substance, but none of the higher-ups at the bank are women."
I nod. Welcome to girlhood.
'Two days later, Aunt Florence a job lead. One of her regulars at the diner said an office position came open at the insurance agency where he works.
"It's mostly customer service and paperwork," she says. "But I know Steve, the guy who owns the agency. He's a good customer and a fair tipper." Aunt Florence puts in a good word for Lee as an organized person with office experience. After a fifteen-minute phone chat with Steve, Lee wins an interview for the following Monday. She can't sleep the night before, tosses and turns beside me, but lands the job after a half-hour conversation.
"They were desperate," she tells me that evening. "Steve was was overjoyed I could type forty words a minute."
By week's end, she's answering phones, gathering forms, relaying questions to agents, and getting paper cuts. Aunt Florence hears through the diner grapevine that Lee is a hit.
"She has a reputation for retaining customers who call with questions about increases to their premiums," Aunt Florence tells us at breakfast.
"It's not difficult," says Lee. "You help people imagine the worst thing that could happen and say you can help them avoid it."
There's no sales pitch like old-fashioned fear. Over the next month Lee makes an uneasy peace with the job and devotes more time to thinking about her gestures.
"There's so much to remember," she says. "Like your head tilt. Do you think about your head tilt?"
"I have a head tilt?" I say.
"Exactly," says Lee. "It's a very feminine head tilt."
"What's the difference between a feminine head tilt and a masculine head tilt?"
"What masculine head tilt?" she says.
Before Lee and I became friends, my only concern with gender was when I could wear jeans, when I couldn't wear jeans, and when I had to wear makeup. Now I know she watches me shuffle around the kitchen as I make grilled cheese sandwiches and move like a girl, though most days I don't feel very girly.
Before we moved, Lee dragged me out to go roller skating or hiking on the weekends, but being a woman in the world exhausts her. She's started spending Saturday afternoons at the library where she shares cigarettes with Nance, the local history librarian, and checks out books about local ghosts, monsters, and assorted demons.
"Nance wrote two of them based on legends she collected from older folks," Lee tells me. She loves any story that could be the plot of a B horror flick, so I'm not surprised when she asks if I want to take a road trip on Sunday.
"An hour and a half east of here there's a cemetery where one of the stones doesn't want to stay put." Lee coughs. "They move it to the back of the graveyard, but a week later it's by the front again. It's supposed to be the ghost of a young woman. Worth checking out."
WE DON'T TAKE FLOWERS to the cemetery but Peanut M&Ms, which Lee likes, licorice whips, which I like, and Lemonheads, which we both like. We need something to eat on the drive, and something to leave for Gudrun, the girl with the wandering headstone. She was twenty-seven when she died, younger than me, though I know medical care wasn't good at the time.
I'm in charge of our maps and rub my hands together as we drive.
Lee glances sideways at me. "You achy or nervous?"
"Achy," I say. It's not a lie since my joints are stiff from the week at work, though graveyards make me anxious. I blame Lee offer dragging me to scary movies, though I never declined the offer of a ticket and all the Junior Mints I cared to eat.
It's three in the afternoon when we reach the cemetery. Lee had cranked up Carly Simon and Stevie Wonder on the radio, which makes the graveyard seem less imposing until she turns off the engine. The cemetery is appropriately gothic, with ivy-covered wrought iron gates, tombstones with engravings so weathered it's nearly invisible, and no other car in sight.
Lee parks along the shoulder, I grab the bag of candy, and we begin our hunt for Gudrun. Many of the markers are a century-and-a-half old. Some are tiny, and others are much larger and look like four-foot-high replicas of the Washington Monument. Lee and I wander for a good twenty minutes, peering at faint letters until an older lady wearing coveralls and a wide-brimmed blue gardening bat comes tromping through the grass.
"You looking for Gudrun?" she says. "That's usually the case when folks seem like they don't know where they're going. Guddie is real popular."
"We brought licorice for her," I say holding out the bag so she knows we come as friends.
"And Peanut M&Ms," says Lee.
"Aren't you the sweetest," the lady says and introduces herself as Tilda, the cemetery groundskeeper and archivist.
"Guddie's over here," she says, marching us toward the front of the cemetery. "Least for the moment. I'm sure they'll move her back, but the maintenance department is getting sick of it. Takes them longer to come every time. I figure one day they'll just leave her be."
"Why won't they do that now?" says Lee.
Tilda shrugs. "They say the stone has to go with the body. I say it don't make much difference long as they're both in the cemetery, but town council don't mind me on those matters. They want me to keep the records straight and the grass mowed."
As we walk, Lee lights a cigarette. Tilda takes her own pack of Marlboros from her pocket and asks for a light. After an appreciative puff, she tells us more about Gudrun. There are at least eight different stories about how she died, and probably more that don't get repeated as much. In one version she succumbed after childbirth—the county doctor was a twit—and she wanted to be near the front of the cemetery so he'd see her stone every day when he drove past in his buggy.
Another story claimed she died in the county asylum after she was sent there by her husband. He wanted to get a divorce and had her ruled insane, then hid her tombstone in the back of the cemetery after she passed.
A third tale suggests she was run over by a carriage owned by one of the richest men in town, who also had the largest and most expensive stone at the front of the graveyard. Even in death, Gudrun wouldn't let him upstage her.
Here she is," says Tilda, stopping by a rounded marble head-stone with an angel sitting on top. "The angel chipped one of its wings a while back, but that hasn't stopped Guddie from flying where she pleases. That stone may look small, but it's over three hundred pounds. Harold's got a bad back and Guddie's wearing him down. She'll have her way in the end.
I place three pieces of licorice in front of the angel and wonder what kind of expression she had when newly carved. She looks like she's kind smirking, but maybe that's my dream of poetic justice. Lee adds a handful of M&Ms to my offering, then gives some to me and Tilda who nods her thanks and tells us to have a lovely whatever-this-is.
There's a lesson in that," Lee says after Tilda resumes her grass-tending duties. "Someone tries to put you in your place, you just move. They put you back, you move again. And again. And again. Until their back gives out."
"How do we make their back give out faster?" I say.
"Numbers," says Lee, eating another Peanut M&M. "The more of you there are, the harder it is to move you."
NOW THAT SHE'S befriended a historian with a penchant for the paranormal, Lee has a new destination for us every weekend.
"We have to go to this town where there are mutant people living in the woods," she tells me one evening at the bar. "They were victims of a government experiment."
"Its sounds like a movie I saw with my cousin Roger when we were in high school," I say. Lee flips through her notebook undaunted.
"There's a lizard man who lives along the river near Loveland, a ghost dog that haunts the lawn around a county courthouse and sniffs people's rears, and a haunted pond with a farm at the bottom," she says.
"A ghost dog that sniffs rears?" I say.
"The pond was created when a hydroelectric dam was built." says Lee. "This farmer was kicked off his land and wasted away with grief. Now he sits on the bank looking mournful. If you see him, you're supposed to give him a beer."
"What kind of dog?" I ask.
"There's also a haunted bus just outside of Youngstown that picks up passengers and doesn't drop them off. We might not look for that one." She flips to the next page. "A couple of years ago in Defiance, people reported there was a werewolf running around shaking the doors to their houses and trying to get inside."
"How did they know it was a werewolf if they didn't open the doors?"
"The newspaper article said it was a hairy, grunting creature," says Lee. "We could hang out in a park around dusk and see what happens."
"We'll never be seen again," I say. "Except maybe for smeared blood."
"We'll get burgers for dinner," she says. "And an extra for the werewolf. Maybe it would like to chat, but everyone runs away screaming."
"I dunno," I say. "At least a couple of them might be pissed and vengeful."
"You bring the silver bullets, I'll bring the burgers," she says. "This weekend it'll be an easy drive. About an hour from here, there was an old orphanage that burned down a century ago. The ghosts of the kids who died leave handprints on your car if you come at dusk."
"Why can't we go see the dog?"
"That's the weekend after next," says Lee.
ON FRIDAY EVENING we spend a half-hour at the grocery store debating what kind of candy to buy for ghost children. Wrapped or unwrapped? Hard or chewy? Fruity or chocolate? Peanut butter, caramel, or peppermint? We settle on butterscotch disks, peppermints, and Lee's Peanut M&Ms.
"Did the legend explain why the kids died?" I ask Lee on the drive. "Didn't anyone yell an alarm?"
"I don't know." Lee wrinkles her eyebrows. "I'd prefer to think it I was a smoky fire and they drifted off in their sleep."
I nod. The other option is too terrible to consider.
"What if we bring a ghost kid home?'' I say. "They might be bored of hanging out in a field."
"We'll but leave I imagine candy so we they're not tempted to be hitchers," she says, but I imagine we could still get invisible riders in the back seat who'd sneak cookies from Aunt Florence's kitchen and spread crumbs across the floor. We'd need to have a séance. Maybe the kid would be willing to chat. I'd like to know what they thought of the world seventy years after they died, now that we have cars and televisions and radios and indoor plumbing and microwaves and environmental degradation and public service announcements with pictures of mushroom clouds. Maybe after a couple evening news broadcasts about Soviet summits, broken arms reduction treaties, and Vietnam, the kid would go back to the forest.
LEE HUMS IN THE MORNING when she puts on her makeup and kisses me after breakfast, but when I pick her up from work in the afternoon the color has drained from her cheeks. This new life must be a combination of euphoria and fear. She can wear skirts and dresses and cute shoes. She can reapply her lipstick mid-day. She can walk into the ladies' room at work because there is only one toilet, but she worries she'll forget to lock the door. When she orders red wine at the bar, the waiter replies, "Yes, ma'am."
As we wait for our drinks, I note the tension in her shoulders, her fingers, her mouth. So many reminders must be pealing in her brain: Sit up. Tilt your head. Legs together. Cross your ankles. Don't take such a large swallow. At least for now, she can't break the fragile myth of what womanhood is supposed to be.
I ENJOY OUR TRIPS down graveled roads, passing cornfields and barns and country churches with graveyards populated by wildflowers and scattered tombstones. We roll down the windows and turn up the radio, nodding to farmers in pickups. I watch for cop cars and sheriffs' deputies, anyone who might pull us over for going three miles past the speed limit.
For years it's been easy for me to float under the radar as a brand of tomboy. My last romantic relationship was with a guy who seemed vanilla until he turned hippie and moved to California to experiment with psychedelics. But now I'm with Lee. In love with Lee. Terrified at what some guy who says he's in law enforcement might do if he stopped us. I've never confronted this pressure of fear, but the police are more frightening that any ghost, lizard man, or werewolf.
Lee asked her doctor in Chicago to copy part of a letter that Dr. Harry Benjamin described in his book The Transsexual Phenomenon, which she's read three times. It's a note he gives to patients undergoing estrogen therapy:
To Whom it May Concern: This is to certify that the bearer, __________, is under my professional care and observation. This patient belongs to the rather rare group of transsexuals, also referred to in the medical literature as psychic hermaphrodites. Their anatomical sex, that is to say, the body, is male. Their psychological sex, that is to say, the mind, is female. Therefore they feel as women, and if they live and dress as such, they do so out of an irrepressible inner urge, and not to commit a crime, to "masquerade," or to "impersonate" illegally. It is my considered opinion, based on many years' experience, that transsexuals are mostly introverted and nonaggressive and therefore no threat to society. In their feminine role they can live happier lives and they are usually less neurotic than if they were forced to live as men. I do not think that society is endangered when it assumes a permissive attitude, and grants these people the right to their particular pursuit of happiness. Like all patients of this type, __________ has been strictly advised to behave well and inconspicuously at all times and to be careful in choosing friends.
Lee's doctor signed the note at the bottom, a scrawl I can't read, but it looks official. She keeps the note in her purse and has four Xerox copies in a folder in case anyone snatches the original. That's happened to people with similar notes.
"Some cops will rip it up in front of your face," Lee says, but I'm glad for the insurance, no matter how small. I also don't want her traveling alone.
LEE DOESN'T LIKE that I refer to our road trips as the Tour of Terror, so I only do that in my head. This time we're going to a pond where a school bus rammed through the metal barricade and disappeared into the water. No one board bus was seen again, but locals claim the children who were on that bus grew fins and gills and turned into mer-kids.
"Why are so many legends about dead children?" I ask.
"People like tragedy," says Lee. "Have you ever listened to folk songs? Everybody dies."
Twenty seconds later, my heart speeds up when a pickup races past us, skirting too close. A cop car with blazing lights is quick to follow. Lee pulls to the side of the road as we watch dust from both vehicles settle. We glance at each other, exchanging a wordless expletive. She keeps a steady two miles under the speed limit as we continue the drive.
There's a metal guardrail along the road beside the pond and a white wooden fence around the bank. There are no monuments, markers, or battered silk flowers, but Lee says she's sure this is the pond we're looking for. She parks on the shoulder just after the guardrail. We wade through the grass and undo the latch on the gate, then spread our offering of lemon drops and peppermints at the water's edge. Lee skips stones across the pond while I think about being a kid on a field trip, drowsing in my seat or trying to read as some jerk behind me yanks my hair, then sensing the sudden swerve, my body jolting as the bus crashes through the guardrail—
Would there have been time to scream?
The kids must have panicked, then . . . they grew fins? Gills? Morphed into mer-children, their tears mingling with the pond as the gift from a forgotten water spirit changed their bodies into ones that could survive under the ripples?
"How long would it take to get used to eating algae?" I ask Lee. "Once you were part enchanted fish, would it be gross or taste like a cheeseburger?"
"They're only part fish," says Lee. "I'd think cheeseburgers or algae would be fine."
I'm not convinced it would be so easy, but I'm a picky eater. Perhaps the mer-kids expanded their palates and still enjoy peppermints. Can they poke their heads out of the pond to get the treats we left? I was never good at swimming so if I turned into a mer-person it would have benefits, but the algae-eating leaves me unnerved.
On the way home we stop at a silver pillbox diner. The white tile floor looks like it hasn't been mopped for a week, though the smell of French fry grease is intoxicating. The walls are decorated with photographs of the Little League team the diner sponsors, and each table holds a milk glass vase with a red carnation. Behind the counter a solo waitress with gray curls chats with a couple old guys. She waves at us and the expanse of booths.
"Sit anywhere," she says. Lee wears her new pink Vans, trying to cultivate a slight hip swish without the reminder of dress shoes. The waitress brings iced tea. She nods when Lee orders a tuna melt with French fries. I order a cheeseburger, but Lee gives me a long gaze.
"I thought you were easing up on cheeseburgers; she says.
"Mom wants me to ease up on cheeseburgers." I shouldn't have told her about my mother's latest theory that red meat exacerbates hereditary arthritis. I didn't think Lee would take it seriously. "I thought you were easing up on smokes."
"Not while I'm researching local history," she says. It comes in handy that we both have vices.
LEE ISN'T HAPPY TO DISCOVER that the Lizard Man near Loveland is also the town mascot. Drawings of his slim form and a couple grainy photos are featured on T-shirts, postcards, and shot glasses sold at the gas station. They also sell homemade jams, and we buy one for Aunt Florence since we need something to show for our drive. The lady working the register says gooseberry is her favorite.
"Dammit," Lee says when we get back to the car. "I don't feel like looking for the Lizard Man since I've seen him on a T-shirt."
"I'm not surprised they've commodified him," I say. "Look at Halloween. Spooks, sugar, and capitalism."
"Guess we need to find less popular legends," says Lee. "How do you feel about axe murderers?"
"I prefer the Lizard Man," I say.
"It's only two o'clock," Lee says, meaning the gooseberry jam won't be enough for this weekend. We drive an additional three hours to search for the ghost dog that wanders around the county courthouse. The sun is too high when we arrive-the dog only appears at dusk-but we walk the grounds, sit on iron benches, and anticipate the poke of an invisible wet nose.
At six thirty, Lee allows that we can take our jam and go home. She doesn't mention looking for axe murders, which is fine since I'm haunted by too many things already: my stupid joints, fear of being fired if I miss too many days at work, fear of Lee being assaulted in a dark parking lot, not being able to get surgery, or surgery being too expensive.
Maybe the Tour of Terror is Lee trying to direct her search for danger and distract herself from dangers we can't avoid. That's the logic I turn to the following weekend when she convinces me to look for werewolves. That amounts to us sitting in her car in a park at dusk. waiting for something to happen.
"Do you think the werewolf was hunting," I ask Lee, "or being hunted?"
"That's what I want to ask." says Lee.
According to Lee's newspaper reports, the werewolf was going around town pounding on doors late at night. There are many reasons for door-pounding.
Let me in! Something's chasing me!
Let me in! I'm in danger!
Come out! Someone is in danger!
Come out! You're in danger!
How do you distinguish any of those kinds of pounding from I'm a danger!
"What if the werewolf was looking for a safe place to hide?" I say to Lee. "How would you know unless you opened the door? But who'd open the door for a werewolf?"
We pause and listen to the cicadas.
"I don't think I could," I say. Speaking that idea aloud makes me feel strangely ashamed, but it's easy to imagine the werewolf going for my throat.
"I want to say I'd crack the door to see what the werewolf needed," says Lee, "but I forget how dark small towns can get at night."
"You're willing to look for the werewolf now," I say.
"Yeah." She reaches for the Peanut M&Ms in her purse. "While we have a getaway car." I hear the crinkle of the M&M bag, the crinkle of the letter from her doctor, and consider what I'd say if a werewolf came loping by.
"Have some licorice," would be the first thing, which would give us a moment to pause and chew. Not talking can be more difficult than talking, but after we got used to the werewolf and the werewolf got used to us, it might not look that scary. We could go from there.