“And last but not least, to my grandson, Eric, I leave my car, along with a small fund dedicated to cover the tax and insurance of said vehicle for a period of three years, in the hope that it will help him find freedom; in more ways than one.”
The announcement left me gaping in shock. The bulk of the estate had gone to Dad and his sister as we’d all expected. Some pieces of vintage jewellery, more keepsakes than valuable heirlooms, went to my sister and my cousins, then this bombshell. It was a very Gran thing to do, but an immense surprise just the same.
Over the previous few years, Gran and I had grown really close. I’d visited her most days, not out of any sense of duty, but because she and I really hit it off. See, she was an unconventional person like me, a non-conformist who lived in the world sideways. She used to bake amazing cakes and tell me stories over tea. Fantastic stories, most of which I hoped possessed some nodding acquaintance with the truth.
She also listened, which is why I had talked to her about things I didn’t feel I could share with anyone else.
She knew she was sick a long time before she let on to the rest of us. Cancer. She told me first, then spent the rest of our visit that day telling me why I shouldn’t cry. She’d lived an amazing life, lived to see her children and grandchildren grow up, known the love of an exceptional man. She had no regrets and was in fact looking forward to ‘the next great adventure’ as she called it. She made it sound so wonderful and I believed her.
Right up until the day she died, when I realise that grief isn’t for the recently departed, but for those left behind. I didn’t realise how much she meant to me until the day my mum told me she’d died and I discovered an immense aching hole in my life which only she could fill.
It took a week for us to bury her and get round to the reading of the will. I had been inconsolable for that whole week, spending every hour I wasn’t at school behind my closed bedroom door. My parents, even my sister, had held out olive branches, but I would tell them to go away and bury my face back in my pillow. I don’t remember eating or drinking during that time, but I suppose I must have because I don’t remember going hungry.
Gran would have known how hard this would be for me, and it was just like her to think up a way to shake me out of my misery. I don’t suppose it would have been that hard for her to come up with an idea either. I mean part of our daily ritual would involve her asking me what was new in my life, and most of the past few months I had bored her with rather dull tales of my driving lessons and eventual driving test. I’d passed first time, much to everyone’s surprise including my parents and my driving instructor, but not my Gran. Sadly for her, the stories about learning to drive were then replaced with tales of woe, lamenting how impossible it was for a young guy like me to get his own set of wheels.
The only vehicle our family owned was my dad’s company car, and there was no way he was going to even ask about having me added to the insurance. I searched the classifieds, but having spent most of my meagre allowance on the lessons, I had pretty much zero liquid assets. The few cars I might have been able to afford, my dad vetoed on account of them being ‘death traps’. His words.
So Gran had spent so much of those last weeks of her life listening to her selfish brat of a grandson moan on about how unfair the world was because there was no way I could get a stupid car. She never complained and always listened, otherwise how would she have known so well how this last gift of hers would affect me.
The funny thing was I don’t remember Gran ever owning a car. When she went into town she’d take the bus. On the few occasions she needed to go further either Dad or Aunt Carol would take her. She didn’t even have a garage to her tiny house. So what was this car, and where had she kept it all this time? And what was that cryptic bit at the end of the will?
The questions were banished from my mind along with my grief, at least temporarily, while I waited in eager anticipation to see me new ride. Mr Archendale handed me a key, complete with a little pink dolly on the key ring, and told me my car was in the car park below. The doll was kind of sweet and I decided to keep it as the memento it was, regardless of the ribbing I would get.
Reading of the will over, glasses of champagne duly sipped, reminiscences shared, eventually the long boring afternoon reached its conclusion and we left for home. Dad had the necessary documents for the car and I was going to drive my new pride and joy, whatever it was, back home. My folks shared a smile at the excitement I was expressing, glad to have their son back.
Out in the car park I looked around for my new ride. Every time I thought I’d found it though, a moment later someone would climb into it and drive away. It felt like I was losing a game, like all the cool cars were being taken while I dithered.
“Hey Eric, I think I found your car.” From my sister’s tone and the way Mum and Dad were laughing I didn’t think I was going to find the joke very funny. I turned anyway and, for the second time that day, my jaw hung loose. She wouldn’t have. Gran had her funny ideas, but she wouldn’t do this would she?
I held up the key and pressed the unlock button. With a cheerful chirp, the car in front of us flashed its hazard lights and my entire family dissolved into uncontrolled laughter.
It was brand new. It was a Mini convertible with the top already down and stowed away, ready for the drive home in the warm summer sunshine.
It was bright candy pink.
Even the leather seats and headrests had pink highlights. There could not be a more girly car in existence. I mean, even with My Little Pony decals it could not have screamed ‘girl’ any louder. If Lady Penelope needed a runabout to use on her visits to Tracy Island, this would be it.
Dad was the first to recover, by which time he was almost as red from laughing as I was from embarrassment.
“I’m sorry Eric, but this is so like your grandmother. She always did know just the way to put people right.
“Tell you what, we’ll get in touch with the dealer and tell them it was a mistake.”
He put an arm round my shoulders and guided me back into the solicitor’s office.
Ten minutes later he wasn’t smiling anymore. The dealership that had sold the mini to my Gran told us that she had specifically requested this model and colour, so there could be no question of a refund or replacement. The car had already been driven off the forecourt so it had already lost a huge chunk of its value, but Dad suggested we could still sell it and get a enough to pay for a reasonable replacement.
That was when Gran’s solicitor, who had been earwigging, piped up.
“I’m sorry sir, but you may wish to reconsider that plan. For one thing, the wording of the will is very specific in this regard. The money set aside for tax and insurance is intended for this vehicle alone. Should you sell it before the three years is up, the money would revert to the State. Furthermore, the law regarding inheritance is a little unusual. The car itself is not subject to inheritance tax, but should you sell it within six months of acquisition, the money gained would be.”
All of which was worth the rudeness of his eavesdropping. I mean the tax wasn’t much on a vehicle like this, just a few hundred pounds over the three years, but as a recently qualified, teenage driver, and a male one at that, my insurance premiums were likely to average a thousand pounds a year for those first three years.
Dad thought through a few more ideas.
First he phoned a few body shops to enquire about the cost of repainting the car and visibly blanched at the numbers quoted. The car wouldn’t have looked right without having the upholstery and trim replaced and that didn’t help the price at all.
Then he came up with the idea of swapping the vehicle, assuming I could find someone willing to do so. Under which circumstances, Mr Archendale told us, we would invalidate the tax and insurance fund again.
It seemed like I was stuck with a pink car, and Gran must have known that. I thought back to some of the conversations we’d shared when I bared my soul over different matters. Matters that I didn’t dare share with anyone else because I knew they would see me differently afterwards. The words would change their perception somehow and they would no longer see me, but something hateful and twisted in my place.
“Never mind dear, it won’t always be this hard.” She’d held me close and let me cry out my frustration.
There were times, especially after such episodes, when she’d gone quiet and thoughtful. Those times we’d ended our visits in silence, me brooding over my misery, her lost in her own thoughts.
Memories of Gran helped me to find some strength and I squared my shoulders.
“It’s a car Dad. Whatever else it may be, it’s a car. Let’s go home.”
My sister wanted to drive with me, but I knew she would spend the trip home poking fun at my car me, and I wanted to enjoy the ride home. My folks realised this was the case and dragged her away sulking, leaving me to commune with my newest friend.
In all truth, I rather liked the colour. I’d grown up loving pinks and mauves, and always been jealous of my sister with her choice of bedroom décor and clothing. My earlier reaction, as much as Mum’s, Dad’s and Caroline’s, had been over how others would respond to me driving this thing. A boy behind the wheel of a pink car was open to abuse and ridicule, and I guessed I would have to face all of that come Monday when I went back to college.
The wind felt wonderful in my longish hair as I sped down country lanes, throwing the sprightly little machine into corners as fast as I dared. She was a delight to drive and, for the first time since I’d found out exactly what my legacy was, I offered up words of thanks to my Gran wherever she was now. I hoped that her latest adventure was one she could sink her teeth into.
Monday came round and I thought about taking my bike rather than Laetitia. It had been my gran’s middle name, and seemed to suit the car well because of the joy I felt when I was driving it. I didn’t even mind the horn blasts I got or the snide comments from other drivers sitting beside me at traffic lights. I’d toyed with the idea of going out into the country and getting the car covered with so much mud that it would be hard to see the colour under the filth, but I knew I couldn’t do that to Tia, out of respect for my Gran if for no other reason.
Sunday afternoon I spent a couple of hours washing my new wheels, then Dad’s car too since I had the hose and bucket out. Monday morning brought with it a little trepidation, but Gran hadn’t left me the car to hide it away in the garage. I didn’t have her to talk to any more, but I trusted her. I grabbed my books and my lunch and headed out the door.
Student parking at the college was in the most public place possible, ostensibly to make it difficult for jealous non car owners to scrape rocks or keys down the sides of other people’s property without being caught on camera. Everybody knew this, and for the most part unpleasantness was avoided. Unfortunately for me it meant that when I arrived that morning, it was in full sight of the student body.
The reaction was exactly as predicted, ranging from raucous, uncontrolled laughter, to black, hate-filled looks. One of the guys started asking different questions, always prefacing them with an “Eric, er” until a whole group cottoned on and started doing the same. Before long “Eric, er” became very definitely “Erica”.
The worst though, was when Stacy Richards sauntered over. She was one of the hottest girls in school, and so far out of my league that I’d never dreamed of trying to talk to her. Yet here she was coming over to me.
“Hey Eric, nice car,” she said leaning down low onto the door. “. My Barbie has one just like it.”
And with that my fate was sealed. The crowd collapsed in laughter, and from that day on I was officially ‘Barbie Boy’. Erica did still get used, and on the occasions when one of the teachers would inadvertently address me with an “Eric, er”, the class would invariably collapse in giggles.
At the end of the day I walked out the college to the chant of “Erica the Barbie Boy”, but I held my head high and refused to rise to the bait.
The next day saw a continuation of my persecution, and the next and the next. A few guys from the all-muscle-and-no-brain brigade cornered me a couple of times in quieter parts of the college, pushed me around and accused me of being queer. I learnt swiftly to avoid less travelled routes between classes, and had to put up with the jibes and jokes as preferable to what the Neanderthal students might choose to do to me.
Regardless of my efforts to ignore it, the constant ribbing took its toll. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the sort of concerted persecution a group of teenagers can manage, but by the end of the second week they were beginning to get to me. It showed too, which only egged them on all the more with the result that by Friday lunchtime I’d had enough.
The last straw was walking into the canteen to be greeted by what was becoming the usual chant of “Barbie Boy” and having one of Stacy’s friends wrap a shocking pink scarf around my neck. I pulled it off and threw it back her way, then turned and stormed out without seeing or caring if she caught it.
I headed for a secluded spot I knew under an old oak near the sports field unaware that I was being followed. I was halfway through my first sandwich when a half dozen of the less academic students rounded the bole and surrounded me.
“We don’t like poofs.” The one designated as spokesman, presumably for his extensive vocabulary and oration skills, told me. “We just thought you should know.”
“That’s ok then, ‘cos I’m not a homosexual.”
I’m not sure if that last word was beyond my tormentors’ grasp or if they’d already made up their mind, but the next thing I knew was I was doubled up into a tight ball, trying to keep my back to the tree trunk, while a barrage of fists and boots crashed into my arms and legs and sides.
It seemed to last forever, though I suspect it was considerably shorter. Eventually they gave up wandered off in search of better sport, knuckles dragging along the ground as they went. The spokesman, such as he was, stayed long enough for a parting remark.
“You drive around in a girly pink car like that, you gotta be queer. You might as well go all the way and come into college wearing a frilly pink dress.”
There was something like an epiphany in that moment. None of the bright lights and wonderful feeling of finding that perfect answer, in fact not even an answer at first. Just the beginnings of one, like the end of a ball of twine dangled in front of a kitten’s nose; a tantalising promise of the whole ball at the other end, a reason to pounce, to chase, to follow.
My lunch was strewn all over the ground, but I wasn’t hungry anymore. I gathered up the mess and chucked it into a bin before heading off to the sports hall bogs to clean up. I winced and limped a bit on my way to my afternoon classes, wearing a borrowed rugby shirt to hide the bruises forming on my arms. It was a hot afternoon which earned me a few puzzled looks from my teachers, and one asked if I was alright as I limped out of her class. I gave the age old excuse of having fallen down the stairs. My rep was already so far in the toilet that I didn’t want to tarnish it further by pointing a finger at my asinine assailants. The way some of the staff had been looking at me recently, I might end up being accused of bringing it on myself.
Back home, I hid away in my room and chased the twine. Go to college in a frilly pink dress. It was my fondest dream, the one I had shared with Gran when I realised she was the only person I knew who would listen long enough to understand. It was also my worst nightmare. The thought of the ridicule and bullying I would be subject to if I tried it. The thing is, wasn’t I already going through that same ridicule and bullying simply for driving a pink car? How much worse could it get?
Under my mattress was an envelope Gran had given me a few days before she had died.
“Don’t open it until you realise what it’s for Eric. After I’m gone, put it away until you are ready to move on.”
I’d hated her talk of going and had cried over her words and her weakness, but I had taken the envelope even so. There had been no need to promise. We had always had the sort of relationship where we knew that an agreement to do something was as good as a promise.
Was this what it was about? The pink envelope still held lingering traces of perfume, which was odd in itself because Gran never wore perfume. I took a shuddering breath and slid a finger under the flap.
There was money. Quite a lot of it. I’d never seen fifty pound notes before, but here I was holding twenty of them. There was also a letter, hand written in Gran’s arthritic scrawl.
My Dearest Eric,
You always were a clever child, so it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve worked things out. The little pink Mini was a way of showing you how most people think. That they are predictable and will respond to anything that’s too different by attacking it. It’s not your fault that your dotty old Gran left you a pink car, or that you had no choice but to keep it. It didn’t change how they reacted though did it? People will judge you by their standards all your life if you’ll let them.
Do you remember telling me your secret? Of course you do, stupid question even rhetorical as it is. You told me about those times you went down to your sister’s room when she and your parents were out. How you would sneak clothes out of her wardrobe and put them on. How they made you feel wonderful and soft and complete. Then afterwards you would feel guilty about what you had done and put everything back in its place and go and curl up on your bed and cry.
I never told you, but you’re not the first person I’ve known like that. It runs in families sometimes, but can skip generations apparently, so neither your father nor your aunt have shown any such tendency. Your grandfather did though, and struggled with it for most of his life.
You won’t remember him I don’t think, you were very young when he died, but he was a wonderful, gentle man. He didn’t tell me about his feelings for a very long time, but there was one evening, after your father and aunt had left home as I recall. We were sitting alone together and it seemed to me that he was bent under the weight of the entire world. I made him tell me. There are things that a woman can do which are underhand and unfair, and I used every one in my arsenal to prise it out of him.
He confessed to being jealous of me, the way I could just put on a dress and look beautiful. He talked about that part of him that felt like a girl, that wanted to do feminine things, of how he had suppressed it all his life because he knew that people wouldn’t understand, would react badly to him. It was so hard for him because he spent all his life trying to live up to an expectation that was terribly foreign to his own nature.
His revelation came as a shock to me, I can tell you, but I couldn’t be upset by it. He had tried to do what he felt was right, to be the person he thought I wanted him to be, instead of the one he really was. I fell in love with him all over again that evening.
You know I’ve never had much time for conventional thinking, and if this girl inside was the making of my Cecil, I wasn’t going to turn her away. He wasn’t a very tall man, none of the men in our family are, so when we went to bed that night I lent him one of my night dresses and I saw him come alive. We experimented with dressing him up after that and in time found other ways of bringing the girl in him to the surface, letting her out for a while.
Those last years were the happiest in our marriage, largely because he grew and bloomed into a far more complete person through being able to express all of who he (and she) was, and I was able to share that experience. I have never regretted the decision I made that evening to embrace all of him.
I’m sorry I didn’t get to telling you about him while I was alive. I have no excuse other than to say that the time never seemed quite right. But I’m telling you now in the hope that it will help to make your decision for the future easier.
You see you do have a choice. You can live according to other people’s standards, conform to their expectations and become one of them, or you can refuse to be defined by their limited view of the way things should be, and just be yourself.
Conforming means denying that part of you that doesn’t fit in this world. It means being someone you’re not. We all do it to some extent, but for most it’s relatively easy because the benefit of belonging outweighs that part of us we must give up. For others it’s difficult, but they do it anyway. Sometimes to avoid hurting the ones they love, other times because the constant battle for self-validation, the struggle to convince yourself that you are worthwhile when almost everyone refutes it, is too hard. We all want acceptance and joining in is often the easiest way of finding it.
You could quite easily do that right now. Sell the car and accept the losses. Put some of the money you make to one side so that you can still afford tax and insurance, and buy an old clunker that fits in more with the what’s expected of a young man like yourself. If that’s what you choose to do, the enclosed money will help make sure you end up with a reasonably decent set of wheels. Your peers will be only too happy to accept you back into the fold once you make the decision not to be different.
Or you can say stuff the lot of them. By now they’ve done their worst to you, so why not go that extra mile and embrace who you really are. Define yourself by your standards and not theirs. Show them that you’re not prepared to be constrained by what they think is right. Now that you know it’s unlikely to get much worse, you can ask yourself if you’re strong enough to live as yourself regardless of how they treat you. Do it right and in time you may be able to convince them that you deserve better from them. Do it right and you may be responsible for helping people to extend their understanding of humanity, helping people like yourself gain acceptance. If this is what you choose, then this money is to help you release that part of you that is still trapped deep inside you.
Whatever you decide, know that I shall always love you and be proud of you for your own gentle courage. There is so much about you that reminds me of my Cecil. You brought him back into my mind and my imagination these last months of my life and for that I am far more grateful than I can express. My fondest wish for you now is that you find a way to live honestly and contentedly with yourself.
With all my deepest love and fondness,
The letter was blotchy with my tears by the time I was done reading it. I put it on my bedside table to dry. After tea, I changed into my pyjamas and lay awake thinking about what Gran had said in her letter, trying to decided which would be easier for me. I had to make a decision. I knew what I wanted, but did I have the courage and the strength to face up to the challenge. I still hadn’t completely made up my mind when sleep took me.
Most Saturdays I exercised my teenager’s prerogative to stay in bed until lunchtime, but today was different. Sometime between sleeping and waking I had reached a decision. I woke early with a plan in mind and a will to carry it out. I pulled on a loose tracksuit, dragged a brush through my hair and headed for the door.
Mum gave me an odd look as I passed. “Are you alright love?” She was probably just surprised to see me up so early, but it smarted a little that she hadn’t noticed anything over the past weeks while I had been struggling with the way things were at school, and it was only now that I had a way to deal with those things that she chose to speak up.
“I’m fine Mum. Just heading into town for a bit. I’ll see you later.”
She waved a hand vaguely in my direction and went back to her magazine. Well we’d probably have more to talk about later.
The mall wasn’t far away and the car park surprisingly empty for a Saturday morning. I was probably ahead of the main crowd, which worked for my plans. I found a spot near the main entrance, in full view of the mall security cameras, and put the top up to secure my little car against who knew what.
Just inside the main doors was a salon. A sort of turn up and wait place, but with high enough prices that the wait was usually quite short, especially this early in the morning. I walked up to a group of stylists who seemed to be enjoying an early morning coffee before the crowds started massing.
“Excuse me, can you help me?” I asked.
“Certainly sir, what would you like?” The speaker was noticeably older than the other stylists. From this and her readiness to talk to me I suspected she was the proprietress.
“I’d like you to make me look like a girl.” There it was said. Not so hard.
“Er, I’m sorry sir. We don’t do that sort of thing here.”
I looked around the room at large black and white photographs of men expressing different degrees of meterosexuality. One of them had a sort of manga-goth thing going with a windswept pixie cut, dark eye shadow and lips too dark and glossy to be natural.
“Can you make me look like that?”
“You do have the right face shape sir, so I imagine so.”
“Ok do it, only in ash blond and pink.”
She looked at her companions who returned ‘nothing to do with me’ shrugs. Nonplussed but not laughing.
“Fingers and toes as well?”
“Yes please, also pink.”
I settled back in the chair and closed my eyes, entrusting myself to her care. The hair happened first with some quite brutal snipping with the scissors. I was afraid she’d decided to send me away with a short back and sides until she returned my worried expression with a trust me smile. Not much I could do at this stage in any case, so I relaxed. Two of her assistants set too on my nails around this time, shaping and painting. I was already past the point of no return and excited about where it was taking me.
Once the preliminary hackage had been done to my hair, leaving me with considerably more than I’d expected, she covered it all in a foul smelling paste and tin foil, then turned my face to the mirror.
“Your first time?”
“I’ll go slow, show you what goes where and how.”
She was as good as her word, showing me every step to transform my face in the way I’d asked. Then she attacked me with a wipe to take it all off again before uncovering my hair, now baked to a turn, and washing out the foul goo.
There was a period of time in which that magic called styling takes place, involving more brush and hair drier than scissors. It allowed my nails to finish drying, and by the end, the face in the mirror belonged to a cute but plain girl with near white hair. She handed me the makeup tray.
A half hour later, sufficient for trial and a lot of error, I looked into the mirror and smiled.
“Is there anything I can do to heighten the cheekbones a little more?”
She showed me a darker powder and applied it delicately to one side of my face, then handed me the brush to tackle the other. It was still me in the mirror but, despite the androgyny of the track suit, it was definitely the girl in me looking back rather than the boy.
“Perfect. I’ll need all the slap necessary to keep this look going, and I’d like to finish with a full body wax.”
Which was painful, but oh so worth it for the smooth feel of my skin. The reckoning came to a lot, but I didn’t care. This was a huge step forward for me, and worth twice the outlay. Not that I’d tell them that.
As a parting gift my stylist jabbed needles in my ears. No extra charge, even for the silver studs she popped in. I smiled my thanks and walked out into the, now considerably busier, shops.
Where I had a brief attack of nerves but once I realised no-one suspected who was under the tracksuit, I gained confidence and took to the clothes shops. Buying underwear was tricky at first, but I found a kind and sympathetic sales assistant who told me not to worry about being flat chested and showed me a few padded bras that would fit and give me at least a hint of a bust.
The best time was with the dresses and shoes. The weather man had promised a long and sunny summer, so my main focus went on hot weather wear. I walked out of the mall wearing a bright yellow summer dress and flat sandals and carrying an enormous pile of bags and boxes. I’d made a pretty significant dent in Gran’s money, but this was what it was for. Heads turned my way as I carried my swag out to the car, but no-one was jeering or calling me names. I held my head high in the certain knowledge that they were only admiring my looks and climbed into Tia for the short drive home.
“Hi Mum I’m back,” I called as I struggle to push my burden through the narrow doorway into our home. She popped her head out of the kitchen where she was washing up.
“Eric, what on Earth…”
There was a crash as she caught sight of the new me and let go of the plate in her hand. The noise disturbed my sister who came into the room and just about bust her jaw on the ground. She looked daggers at me as I made my way past with my bags full of clothes, but I suspect that was largely because I looked better than she did.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked coming back from my room considerably less burdened.
“He had to go into work. He should be back in a couple of hours.”
“Oh, ok. I’ll just grab a bite to eat and unpack my things then. I’m guessing you have questions, but I’d rather not repeat myself, so if you don’t mind I’ll wait for Dad to get home before the family conference.”
I made myself a sandwich and a glass of milk and headed into my room. The hissed conversation that followed twixt mother and daughter carried through my door, but not with enough clarity for me to understand what they were saying. I did hear the phone lifted from its cradle, then the sub-hysterical (just) voice of my mother.
“Hi darling… We have a situation here… No I can’t really talk about it, but I’d appreciate it If you could get home as soon as you can… Yes I know what you said earlier, but this is important… Ok, I’ll see you in a while. Bye sweetie.”
By the time I heard the crunch of tyres on the driveway I’d managed to remove the old contents of my wardrobe and replace them with my new purchases. I’d put my old clothes into the emptied bags and boxes for short term storage and eventual – if things went as I intended – donation to a charity shop. Time to be strong. I checked my appearance in the wardrobe mirror and headed out to face the music.
One handy thing about dealing with conventional thinking is it’s predictable. Gives you a chance to work out your responses in advance.
“But you’re a boy.”
“Yes Dad, I know. Got a willy and everything. It’s just that that’s not how I feel on the inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that whatever my outward appearance, my mind wants me to look pretty, to act sweet and gentle, to do girly things.”
“But boys don’t do things like that.”
“Maybe not normal ones, so maybe I’m not a normal boy. Maybe I’m a boy with a girl inside. Maybe I’m a girl who looks like a boy on the outside.”
“Are you gay?” Another predictable question.
“I’m not sure what that means in my case. I think I need to find out if I’m a girl or a boy before I decide whether I’m hetero or homosexual.”
“But you’re a boy.”
One of the irritating things about conventional thinking is that the predictability gets repetitive. The best way to deal with it is to repeat the answers until they become part of the pattern.
“Yes Mum I know. I have all the bits a boy should have and none of the girl bits, so physically speaking you’re correct. But my mind, my soul, my id, my ego, whatever you want to call it. The me inside feels like a girl.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I was afraid of just this kind of response from you. I didn’t want to hurt you, and I knew that showing you the way I feel inside would do just that. I knew that you would have trouble understanding and coming to terms with it, so I hid it away.”
“So why now? What’s changed now?”
“I told Gran a long time ago. I thought she would understand, or at least listen, and I was right. It’s the reason why she bought me a pink car.”
“What!? That doesn’t make sense.” Dad barging back into the conversation.
“She wanted to show me how people react to anything that’s different. She wanted to give me a dry run so I could decide if going against the grain was going to be too hard meaning I should give in and conform, or if I found it easier to live with the disapproval of my peers than the denial of my true self.
“She left me another letter with instructions when to open it. I did so last night.”
“Can we have a look?”
“It’s kind of personal and to me. It mentions a few things you may not know, that you may not want to.”
“I’d still like to have a look at if you don’t mind.”
I nodded. Neither Mum nor Dad were wigging out on me which was a major plus considering I’d pretty much bulldozered them with the bleach blond and summer dress thing. I stood up and hurried out to my bedroom.
“Did you see that? He even moves like a girl.”
The exchange was hissed, soto voce, not intended for my ears, but I heard anyway and smiled. I retrieved the letter and returned to the lounge, handing to me dad.
“It’s a bit blotchy I’m afraid, I was a bit emotional when I read it.”
Dad’s expression was unreadable. Chalk one more up for the girls’ team. He looked down at the letter, Mum leaning over his shoulder to read with him. Silence followed for longer than it took them to read to the end. Eventually Dad spoke up.
“Well that explains a few things. I can’t believe I never realised.”
“You’re not upset?”
“Shocked perhaps Eric, but…
“Don’t you think this is all a little rash?”
“Yeah, maybe, but I had to do it this way. If I’d spoken to you about it first, you’d have found some way to talk me out of it. Plus I needed to step over the line before my courage failed.”
“And what happens on Monday?”
“Well I have this gorgeous pink summer dress picked out…”
“Not that. What happens when you get to college?”
“Then I find out who my friends are, or if I have any.”
“Son, if it’s shaken us up this badly, how do you think it’s going to go down among your peers? Do you want to be a laughing stock? Do you want to attract the kind of abuse that guys dressed like this suffer?”
“Not that you’d noticed, but that’s been happening this past three weeks anyway. A guy turns up to college in a girly pink car, you think he’s going to get away scot free? Or did you read that part of the letter. It’s right up there in the first paragraph.”
“This isn’t the time to be facetious son. We’re try to think of what’s best for you.”
“Yeah, and so am I. Gran showed me what kind of rubbish I can expect from people if I step out of line. She took me to the point where I could decide between being accepted as part of the crowd, and being me and fighting for my acceptance. Well I decided to fight.
“I have a girl inside of me Dad. She may not be all of me, but she’s a big enough part and she has a right to a life as well. Pretty much everyone at college calls me Barbie Boy already, plus I’m on the radar of the hate brigade anyway. If I dress like this at least they’ll have to be more careful about where they kick me.”
Most of my bruises from Friday’s kicking were on my body. The one or two on my arms and legs were high up enough to be covered by the sleeves and skirt of the dress I was wearing. The pink summer dress I had in mind for Monday wouldn’t hide anything.
My parents twigged to what I had been saying and insisted that I show them. My sleeves were too tight to roll up, but I did lift my skirt to show a large bluish purple welt on my upper thigh.
“People do this to you because you have a pink car and you’re ready to go in dressed as a girl?”
“One of the goons suggested it actually Dad. I figured what the hey. You know if I show a bit more skin on Monday, especially some of the bruises, they might back off.”
“They might go all out.”
“I know. So I’ll have to be careful. Dad I know there are risks, but Gran kind of pushed me to the point of making the decision, no don’t get all upset about it, she meant well. She did good too, ‘cos I might never have reached this point otherwise.
“Gran saw how much of a struggle Granddad went through fighting this. She knows more than you, or me even, how much harm this is going to cause me if I bury it for all my life. However this turns out, I have to do it. I have to try it.
“It may be that Erica comes out for a while then goes away for good. It may be that she comes out and takes over. It’s probably more likely that she finds a place out here , that both of us get to live this life together somehow. Right now though, whatever the outcome, I have to do this.”
Mum and Dad were coming round to my way of thinking. This was incredible, I’d thought the argument would be much longer and harder. Caroline was a tougher nut to crack though.
“Did you ever put on any of my clothes?”
This was a time for openness and honesty, no matter how hard. I dropped my eyes, not knowing how to tell her. I didn’t need to.
“I knew it Mum. I told you the little perv had been in my things.”
“Caroline, please calm down.”
“No! Oh gross, I feel violated. I’m going to have to chuck out my whole wardrobe.”
“I only tried on things you’d grown out of, and I haven’t done it for a couple of years now. I doubt there’s anything in your closet now that I’ve…
“I’m sorry Caroline. I knew it was wrong when I did it. I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s a bit late isn’t it perv.”
“I’ll make it up to you…”
“No! Just no alright? It’s enough that my brother dresses up like some… Oh I don’t know what. You think we’re going shopping together like sisters? Forget it. I don’t know you and I don’t want to know you.
“And as for you two, I can’t believe you’re buying this cr…”
“Caroline, that’s enough.”
Dad’s interjection was too much. She stormed out of the room and slammed her bedroom door. I guessed the mobile would be out and my recent transformation, along with all my sister’s bitter rhetoric, would be all over town in next to no time. Oh well Monday wouldn’t be such a surprise for everyone after all.
The rest of the afternoon was awkward. Dad went back to work to complete whatever it was my shenanigans had interrupted. I offered to help Mum with the housework or cooking, not something I was prone to do, but she was too freaked out by my metamorphosis and told me not to bother her. Caroline stayed locked in her room all afternoon then stormed out the front door, all tarted up, just half an hour before our usual family dinner time.
I spent the afternoon completing my outstanding homework assignments, then practising my makeup. I cleaned it all off before tea and changed into an old pair of jeans and a tee-shirt. It was partly trying to make things easier for Mum and Dad, partly to make a point. They got it straight away.
“You look like a girl wearing boys clothes Eric,” Mum told me with a resigned sigh. “Put on a dress if you want.”
I didn’t need to be told twice.
After dinner, I spent a while browsing the web, this time looking for things I could spend some of my remaining girl money on rather than the video games that had substituted as an ‘acceptable’ pass time. It didn’t take me long to find a place that sold stuff that could help my shape a bit, and I bookmarked them for future interest, once I’d put a bit of my windfall into my account.
That night I slept in one of the silk nightdresses I’d bought that morning – pink of course. I was making up for all those years I’d denied myself that particular colour. I enjoyed a longer and more peaceful night’s sleep than I had in a long while. Morning came with the sound of clattering in the kitchen. I slipped my feet into a pair of fluffy pink slippers and added the sheer, lace dressing gown that came with the nightie. A quick check in the mirror to make sure that night terrors hadn’t wrought some catastrophe with my hair, and I headed out to the kitchen yawning enormously.
She jumped and dropped the pan she’d been putting away. At least no breakages this time.
“Hi sweetie. You look… er…”
A sadness settled on me. The first sight of a really big hurdle, unless that had been Caroline last night.
“This really freaks you out doesn’t it Mum?”
She forced a smile. “I suppose it does, yes. Give me a little time sweetheart. Something like this takes a lot of adjustment.”
“Just how hard will it be do you think?”
“Well I imagine I will be the top of the gossip list for a few weeks, that and the pity list too. It’s not me that I’m worried about though.”
“I can handle myself Mum.”
“The way you handled yourself when you got those bruises?”
I looked down at my nearly bare arms and shrugged. “Yes Mum, like I handled that. It’ll either get better or worse on Monday, and either way I’ll handle it.”
“Are you sure you shouldn’t be seeking professional help over this?”
“Maybe I should. Maybe I will. Right now I’m exploring options. I haven’t gone mad, in fact I feel saner now, more at peace, than I have in a very long time.”
She reached out a tentative hand, hesitated, withdrew.
“I don’t know how to deal with this. I wouldn’t touch my son because I know he would rather I didn’t, but you…”
I stood up and went to her, took her hands in mine.
“You know, I didn’t really think how this would affect you and Dad, and Caroline. If this is too much, I could…”
She looked into my eyes, hopeful for a moment, but then she must have seen how hard it was for me to make the offer. I could see the moment she relented.
“No, it’s alright.” She pulled her hands out of mine and turned away. “Eric, I don’t know why you need to do this., but I can see that you feel very strongly about it. Don’t worry about your dad and me, we’ll get by.”
“What about Caroline?”
“Well… we’ll talk to her. But maybe you should be a little worried about who she’s talk to and what she’s saying.
“I’m sorry Eric, it’s just a little freaky when your son goes out shopping and comes home as your daughter. You do look… I don’t know if I should be saying this, but you do look very pretty.”
I couldn’t help it. I turned her round, smiled and kissed her on the cheek.
Everything she had been holding onto, she let go at that moment. The smile was fragile, but genuine. The hug was needed. By both of us. It marked a turning point.
Dad was already awake and in the garden. He found us a while later still in our night clothes, chatting over coffee like it was the most natural thing in the world. He shook his head, smiling.
“You look like you’ve come to an agreement.”
He bent to kiss my Mum then came over and kissed me on the cheek too. For a few moments things were a weird again, then it seemed the most natural thing in the world. It only lasted a second as Caroline chose that moment to appear.
“You guys disgust me. I can’t believe you’re just accepting this freakazoid’s behaviour. Why don’t you just tell him to grow up and grow a pair?”
Dad put his hand on my shoulder to keep me from reacting.
“Caroline, nobody’s just accepting anything here, but neither is anybody going to tell anyone else how they should live their life. I can’t say I’m totally ok with what’s going on in Eric’s life, but I think we should give him a chance to figure it out for himself.
“Your Gran was a pretty amazing woman you know? And this,” he indicated me. Me in my nightie and dressing gown and fluffy pink slippers. Me with my bleach blond pixie cut, “this is her idea. Now I might have had reservations over letting Eric see this through if it was just him, but I’ve learnt to trust my mother, and if she thinks this is necessary, then we’ll see it through no matter what you or I or anyone else thinks. Are we clear on that sweetheart.”
Dad has this was of talking, cool and calm and reasonable. It’s quite irritating really ‘cos by the time he’s finished you have no arguments to throw back, but you wish you did. I could see that in Caroline now, all sulks and pouting, but she begrudgingly allowed Dad to pull her into a hug.
After that we settled into an uneasy truce. Everyone was less bothered by the elephant in the room, but we all knew it was still there. Still I could live with that for the time being. I showered and dressed, this time in a cerise jersey knit dress with long sleeves and a knee length skirt. I saw Caroline looking it over and decided that I would wait for her to mention it before saying anything.
I helped Mum in the kitchen getting lunch ready. We usually had a roast for Sunday lunch, and it was usually a marathon effort for Mum on her own. Doing it with her was kind of fun, and by the time everything was ready to serve up, she was still smiling instead of being frazzled and bad tempered as usual.
In the afternoon we took a drive out to some random stately home and went for a long walk in the gardens. Nobody commented on my appearance which had to be a good sign. Nobody stopped and stared, but I did get a few appreciative glances, much to Caroline’s continuing disgust.
On the way home we stopped off at a video rental shop for the evening’s entertainment. Caroline suggested Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire out of spite, so Mum and Dad ignored her and let me choose. I picked While You Were Sleeping and Shakespeare In Love in an effort to catch up on some of the soppy films I’d missed while trying to be a boy. Dad wasn’t too impressed, but I guess that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.
We made salad and sandwiches and snacked over the films. I cuddled up next to Mum – I’m not sure how many of us would have been prepared for me to do it to Dad – and cried in all the right places. It was late by the time the credits of the second film were climbing up the screen, so I kissed Mum and Dad goodnight, gave my sister a nod and headed for bed.
I had completed my ablutions and was just settling when there was a light knock on the door. I whisper-called for whoever it was to come in and was surprised when a pyjamaed Caroline slipped into the room. She perched on the bed, eyes straying undirected towards my wardrobe. I lay still and waited. Eventually she sorted out what she wanted to say.
“I don’t like what you’re doing, I think it’s weird and creepy. That being said, I’ve been a total douche since you did the whole,” she waved her hands about indiscriminately, “thing. I guess I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“Me too sis. I kind of sprung this on you lot. I didn’t mean to upset anyone, it’s just that this has been building pressure for a long time now. Once I decided to do it, it was kind of all or nothing. I couldn’t do it by degrees.”
She ducked her head, obviously building to something herself. Yet again I waited. When she spoke next, she wouldn’t raise her eyes.
“Any chance I could borrow that dress you were wearing today?”
I knew it. Still, not the time for a victory chant.
“Sure. The least I can do after those times I sneaked into you room.”
She gave me a smile, for once passing up the opportunity I’d given her for a row. The dress was hanging back in the wardrobe. She took her time looking through the my other stuff before pulling out her prize. She held it in front of her and looked over at me.
“It’s a good colour for you.” It was an ok colour on her, but discretion lies at the heart of diplomacy. “Mind you they had one in a sort of aquamarine that I think would be more you.”
She laughed. “Nice try sis… er bro. I’m fiscally challenged at the moment. You have some nice stuff in here though, any chance I might come visiting again?”
My turn to laugh. “I understand better why you were so upset about me sneaking into your stuff. Tell you what, if you promise to ask before borrowing any of my things, I’ll promise to do the same.”
We did that ludicrous pinkie swear thing and another bridge was built.
Sleep came easily that night despite concerns about my plan for the morrow.
Wow this thing was short. It hadn’t seemed so in the shop, but here I was tugging at the hem and wondering if it was such a good idea to show so much skin on my first day to college in a dress. Still it did show off my bruises to good effect and that was at least part of the plan. Over the weekend a few new ones had sprouted and they’d all darkened quite nicely.
I checked my hair and makeup in the wardrobe mirror. Not ideal, but Caroline was hogging the bathroom and I didn’t have anything else to work with. I’d have to spend a bit of Gran’s money on a decent vanity, but not before I bought my sister that peace offering to seal what we’d started last night. The mall wasn’t too far out of the way and should still be open on the way back from college. I had her size and only hoped that they’d still have one in aquamarine.
The war paint was immaculate, even if I say so myself. I transferred my books and other necessaries to the rather large shoulder bag I’d bought for college stuff and headed out. Mum was waiting with my lunch as usual, and a disapproving look which wasn’t. Oh well nobody said this was going to be easy.
“You let Caroline where stuff like this.”
“Caroline is not my son. I’m sorry Eric, you look amazing in it, but you don’t know how to deal with the consequences of wearing a dress like that.”
“There aren’t going to be any consequences Mum. As you so bluntly pointed out, I’m Eric, your son. No-one’s going to want to take me behind the bike sheds even if I could launch a thousand ships.”
“The college staff are going to have a hard enough time with this as it is….”
“The college can get stuffed. If they’re going to have a problem with this, then best they see just how far I’m ready to take it from the outset. Also best everyone gets a look at what some people there think is acceptable behaviour. My mind’s made up Mum, this is how I’m going.”
She wasn’t pleased, but she stood to one side. “At least take a cardigan in case it gets cold.”
“Thanks Mum.” I took the proffered garment and gave her a peck on the cheek on my way past.
Texts had obviously been flying over the weekend, because pretty much everyone enrolled at the college, and maybe a few who weren’t, were waiting out front as I drove up. Trial by fire or what.
“Hey guys he’s here. Barbie Boy’s here.” The cry went up as I slid Tia easily into an empty slot. “Hey Eric, er…”
The crowd went silent as I stepped out of the car. I swear fifty percent of my audience started drooling as I shut and locked the door, the other fifty percent turning various shades of green. All of them wore some degree of shock over the dark bruises on my arms and legs, the sickly range of colours, the extent of the coverage. If only I’d thought to wear something that showed off my midriff. Then again I wasn’t quite that adventurous yet, and I seriously doubt I’d have been able to talk my way past Mum showing my belly button.
I looked around for the person who’d called out to me. At a guess it would be Mr Belisha Beacon Face over there. “Yeah, why not? Erica could work.” I gave him a smile and trotted up the stairs to where a member of the college administration was waiting to usher me into a side office.
There were four of them, haranguing me over college dress code and asking me just what I thought I was doing. I let them vent spleen until they’d run out of bile, then spoke calmly.
“What I’m doing is my business. I don’t mean to upset the running of the college and as regards dress code, there are at least a couple of girls I saw this morning who you’ve let past without comment who are showing more skin than me.”
“But that’s the point, they are girls.”
“No, there are all sorts of other points here. There are girls in this college wearing shirts and jeans without you objecting, so how can you discriminate against what the guys are allowed to wear? There are guys wandering around the campus with their jeans so low you can almost see the bottom of their boxers, which I would argue is considerably more indecent than you think I look. You turn a blind eye to the gay relationships that are going on around here, just as you do to the openly promiscuous heterosexual relationships, so how can you object to alternative lifestyles like mine? You’re just bothered because this is a new kind of different and you haven’t decided how to react to it yet.”
“What if we said we were concerned for your safety?”
“I’d say that’s great. Where were you on Friday when I accumulated this lot of bruises?”
“Are you saying this happened on College grounds?”
“As if you didn’t know.”
“You know who, and I shouldn’t have to point them out.”
“No, there are all sorts of other complications. What arrangements should we make for you to use the toilets for example?”
“All sorts? That’s only one, and I’ll fit in with whatever you decided is best. I’ll use the gents as I usually do if that’s the best you can manage. No I don’t expect to use the ladies, but you might let me use the disabled loos or come up with some other idea. Frankly I’m a little upset that a place with such a reputation for open-mindedness doesn’t already have a contingency plan for dealing with people such as myself.”
The arguments went on for another half hour, meaning I missed registration and the beginning of my first lesson. They called my dad and I could have kissed him when he told them that he supported what I was doing and hoped the college would do the same. Eventually they agreed to give it a try and I headed off for what remained of my first lesson.
The class fell eerily silent as I made my apologies and settled into my seat. Even the teacher stared at me open-mouthed for a while before physically shaking herself back into reality and carrying on with the lesson. It turned out that all I’d missed was a surprise test, so yay me.
Morning break passed without major incident. One of the lads decided it would be fun to slip his hand up my dress and grope my bum, laughing with his mates about how I was wearing lacy underwear. I turned on him and asked if he wanted to play with anything else I had up my skirt and had the satisfaction of seeing him turn a particularly vivid shade of lobster as his mates laughed at him instead.
Second and third period were clones of the first, with the exception that I was there from the start. Then came lunchtime and, as I made my way to the cafeteria and the safety that numbers bring, it became obvious that Friday’s Neanderthugs were sufficiently upset by me that they were prepared to be bolder than usual in pursuing their neo-Nazi campaign to rid the world of anyone different. Two of them grabbed me by the arms as I approached the cafeteria entrance and steered me away towards the sports fields.
I struggled of course, and protested loudly, but no-one was prepared to stand up to these guys. I began to prepare myself mentally for the beating that was to come.
“You shoulda listened to us gaybo.”
“But I did. Don’t you remember you told me to come into college wearing a frilly pink dress.”
“That wasn’t a suggestion you punk, and now you’re going to wish you’d never been born.”
Even the clichés were from the fifties. I almost wished for the first kick just so I could stop listening to him drivel.
They were all there and looking meaner than I’d seen them. Then suddenly there was a blip of a siren and the police were there too. Close enough to have seen and heard, fast enough to catch every last one of them. The principal had been listening this morning then, and from the look on some of the police officer’s faces, he hadn’t bothered telling them that I wasn’t actually a girl.
A friendly looking WPC lead me away for a bit of counselling, while the rest of the force took thugs and co off for a less enjoyable stay at the local nick. Even if they ultimately escaped formal charges, they wouldn’t soon forget having a station full of very angry policemen showing them how far it was possible to go within the bounds of the law.
I assured the WPC that I was ok and headed back to the cafeteria. As before my arrival commanded an instant hush and a roomful of eyes turned in my direction. Worried looks turned to relief at my appearance. It seemed that I was the chief topic of conversation and, although no-one had been prepared to get involved, they’d none of them felt it was right that I should be dragged outside and kicked senseless. I picked out a chicken salad that didn’t look too limp and lifeless (my packed lunch had disappeared somewhere in the fracas) and turned looking for somewhere to sit. A hand-clap started, then grew in volume and speed as more people joined in. At the far end of the room, Stacy Richards shifted across and indicated I should join her. Hey why not?
I tucked my short skirt underneath me as I sat and smiled my thanks at her.
“I’ll say one thing for you Erica, you’ve got balls.”
“Yeah, I kind of think that’s the problem.”
One of her friends snorted milk out of her nose and I tucked into my surprisingly undisgusting lunch, while her friends helped her try to rescue what was left of her blouse and her dignity. Eventually I was drawn back into the centre of attention. Stacy leaned across like we’d been best friends forever.
“I like your little pink mini,” she said.
“Thanks. I bought it on sale in Macy’s.”
What? You didn’t think she was talking about my car did you?