The Suitcase

suitcase

Copyright © 2012 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

The weather is no respecter of moods.

A bright sun shone cheerfully from a clear, powder blue sky, drawing a deeper radiance from the newly formed spring flowers. There was an invigorating freshness to the crisp, cool morning air and the world was filled with birdsong from recently returned travellers, arguing and establishing their territory.

In stark contrast to the cheerful spring promise, two young girls met and embraced in subdued silence, each fighting ineffectually to hold back tears behind tightly closed eyes. Words were unnecessary, inadequate even, given the circumstances, so they held tight and drew comfort from each other’s closeness until their swirling emotions settled.

“You okay?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Is Kevin coming?”

A shake of the head, no. “He has a meeting this morning. Said he’d try to make it later.”

“I guess we’d better go in then.”

Reluctance weighed heavily on two pairs of shoulders as the girls pushed past the creaky gate and walked up the short path. The door was painted green, but faded and peeling with neglect. The key, as usual, needed to be wiggled in the lock before it would turn, and the door, swollen and sticking from recent rain, required the combined weight of both girls to open.

There was a musty smell to the house, both familiar and a little repellent. It wasn’t exactly messy, just lived in and suffering from the neglect of its week long abandonment. The hall was tidy enough, apart from the light patina of dust that covered the banister and picture frames. The kitchen, visible from the front door, was in a worse state, with a sink full of dirty pans and counter tops covered in detritus.

“Right! Let’s get started then.”

The girls shucked their coats to reveal faded jeans and worn sweatshirts; just right for the work at hand.

“I’ll tackle the kitchen if you like.”

“Sure, I’ll start on the lounge and hall.”

The girls worked in silence, each lost in her own thoughts and pouring an intensity into the tasks they performed that gave evidence to their turbulent feelings. A little over an hour later, the lounge and hall were cleaned and tidied, and the kitchen nearly so. A kettle was boiled and tea made – ingredients from a small supply the two girls had brought with them. Most of the original contents of the fridge sat stinking in the bin outside.

There was comfort to be found in company, but neither of them felt like talking still, so they sat opposite one another, staring into space and sipping at their drinks. The break didn’t last long

“Right, upstairs we go. Bathroom or bedroom?”

“You did the kitchen, so I guess I’ll take the bathroom.”

“I won’t argue with that.” They shared a smile, remembering times past when they would have done just that.

It wasn’t much later when…

“Debbie, can you come here?”

“What is it?” The taller girl appeared from the grimy depths of the bathroom, sleeves rolled up, hair tied loosely out of the way, cloth in rubber gloved hands.

“Have a look at this. I found it in the wardrobe.” She was standing over the bed a small case open in front of her.

“So? It’s a suitcase. Where do you keep yours?”

“It’s not so much the case as what’s in it.” She turned the object in question slightly and lifted out a very pink knitted dress. There was a stain near the waistline and most of the sequins from the black rose pattern on the front had fallen off. Despite the wear and tear, it was clean and had been carefully folded. Flashes of lace showed among the remaining contents.

“Maybe he had a girlfriend on the quiet.”

“If he did, she had the absolute worst taste in clothes.”

It was true; the case held the saddest mixture of old dresses, skirts and blouses the girls could imagine. Most were faded or worn in some way, and the mixture of mismatched styles and colours was truly bizarre, but they were all clean and neatly folded.

The girl named Debbie reached in a pulled out a pair of low heels that might have made decent sized barges and held them up for inspection.

“You don’t think…?”

“These do all seem to be plus sizes.”

Debbie sat down on the bed. “How could we not know?”

“We always felt there was something Debs, don’t you remember?”

“Yeah, I remember, but not this. Nothing like this.”

“Where do you suppose he got it all?”

“Who can say? He did used to pick up jumble for that charity shop down the high street. Perhaps he kept a bit of the stuff back.”

“That would be like stealing though wouldn’t it? And from the poor and needy. Dad wouldn’t do anything like that.”

“Except that none of this stuff would have made it onto the racks. Look it’s all worn or stained or something.”

“I wish I’d never never found it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this is Dad. I want to remember all the good times we had, not imagine him flouncing about in something like this.” She held up a light Rayon skirt with a blue flower pattern on it.

“I don’t know, I think he’d look quite good in that.”

“Debbie!”

“What? Come on Judith, we have to face this. If we can’t laugh about it… well I don’t know. Besides, it is his colour.”

Judith took another look at the skirt. “I suppose it is isn’t it?” She let out a nervous laugh that threatened to shatter into a million hysterical shards. “I cannot see him in this though.” The skirt she held up was lmos obscenely short and made up of overlapping lace frills.

The two girls laughed for the first time in a week. It felt good to let go of their feelings for a moment, and all the better for sharing the experience. This would have been so much harder on their own.

“I wonder why he did it,” Judith mused. “I mean I know he was lonely after Mum… you know, but this seems a little odd, even for Dad.”

“It’s a shame we can’t ask him. What are we going to tell Kevin?”

“What are we going to tell Kevin about what?” The two girls jumped as a tall man in a business suit stepped into the room. He moved more quietly than his large frame suggested was possible and he carried a cardboard tray laden with lidded disposable cups and a paper bag. “Did you find Dad’s secret stash of priceless antiques or something? Sorry I’m late, I brought coffee and cakes as a peace offering. What have you found?”

Debbie stood and took the offered drinks. “You’d better sit down Kev.”

Judith turned the small case more towards the door so that her brother could see its contents. “It looks like Dad had a few secrets from us.”

“You’re trying to tell me that Dad was a tranny?”

“We only just found out ourselves. I found this lot a the back of his wardrobe.”

“No way! No way would Dad do that.” The colour had drained out of his face and he collapsed rather than sat on the spot Debbie had so recently vacated. “Why would he do that? Why would you even think Dad could be a… a… No freaking way.”

“We’re all a bit shocked Kevin, but we have to face facts. Why else would he have a suitcase full of women’s clothes in his wardrobe. I mean look at these shoes, they’re Dad’s size and not likely to fit any of the women I know.”

“Maybe this’ll give us a clue.” Judith, who had had been sorting through the clothes, straightened up, an envelope in her hands. The other two turned to her expectantly as she tore it open.

“Should you be doing that?”

“Well it is addressed to us,” she held up the envelope showing their names printed neatly on the outside, “and it’s not as if Dad’s going to complain, is it?” She settled down on the bed and began to read out loud.

My dearest Debbie, Judy and Kevin,

I always hoped I’d have the courage to tell you about this part of my life one day. Since you are reading this, it seems likely that I missed my opportunity. I can only imagine that something unfortunate and perhaps terminal has happened to me and that you have discovered my little secret as part of putting my affairs in order.

It was almost inevitable that this would happen one day. Not many parents have to endure the deaths of their children in our society, so the likelihood that I would go before you has always been high. I realised this some time ago and decided that I needed to make sure that this particular question was answered for you, even if I never became brave enough to face you and tell you about it in person. I never wanted you to find out like this, and I’m sorry it had to be this way.

You should know that this has never been a choice for me, or at least it never seemed so. From my earliest memories I’ve been different. As a child I always played better with the girls in my class and in my neighbourhood. Never interested in sports or play fighting or any of the things the other lads I knew wanted to do, and never fully accepted by the girls, probably because I was a boy, I grew up as something of a loner. And it was somewhere in the middle of this loneliness that I found I enjoyed dressing up.

I don’t even remember why I did it the first time. I suppose I was alone in the house and bored and I came across some of my mothers clothing in the washing or something. For some reason I put on a dress and it felt right. I couldn’t explain it any more than that at the time, but just wearing women’s clothing – even my mum’s clothing – made me feel more like the me I was inside.

I couldn’t let on to my parents or to my friends any more than I’ve been able to tell you. We pick up a lot of our cues as to what’s right and what’s wrong simply by watching the world around us, and I’d heard a whole lot of disparaging remarks made against trannies and queers, so deep down I felt that what I was doing was wrong.

The thing is, once started I couldn’t stop. I’d lived so much of my life with a sense of wrongness inside me, and now I had a way of easing that. I started to look for opportunities to dress. Whenever my parents went into town on a weekend and ask if I wanted to come I would say no, then as soon as they had driven off, I would rush upstairs and pick out something from my mother’s wardrobe to put on. There were a few times they came back early and nearly caught me, scaring me so much that I would stop for a while, but I would always go back to it – like a dog returning to its sick or something.

I always felt guilty afterwards, I suppose because I had this strong sense of how wrong it all was, and so I bounced back and forth between a need to be as completely me as the clothes allowed me to feel and a desire not to do what I felt was wrong. It wasn’t an easy time, almost how I would imagine a drug addict feels, struggling to get by between fixes, hating himself for his dependence, but always going back to it. It’s not like drugs though, not exactly. The only high I craved was the euphoria of feeling right in myself after spending so much of my life feeling wrong, the only guilt associated with doing what I was doing being associated with the way other people saw it as wrong. But I wouldn’t realise this for some time.

There were times when I tried hard to stop completely, but the longer I denied that part of myself, the louder it screamed for attention. I met your mother during one of those long periods of denial, but I was always aware of the feeling deep inside of me. I told her about it one day before we were married, knowing that I couldn’t consider entering into the sort of lifelong partnership that is marriage with a secret like that hanging over us. She didn’t understand – thought it was some sort of kinky sexual fantasy on my part and told me that once I’d been with a real woman I wouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing. I didn’t think she was right, but she refused to discuss the matter further, so I left it.

It was almost certainly my cross dressing that brought an end to our marriage. I tried to stop for her sake and the sake of our relationship, because I felt certain I knew how badly she would respond. I managed to keep my feelings at bay for some years, but I always felt the desire and in time it grew into a need. Then one evening, a few months after Kevin was born, I stayed home to look after you lot and give your mother a chance to go out with some of her friends. You were all asleep, it was early in the evening and there was this one dress your mum had bought post pregnancy. It was a little larger than most of her clothes so I was pretty certain it would fit, and it was so beautiful. I gave in to my urges, and the sense of relief that came with dressing again was overwhelming.

Once started again, I couldn’t stop. I tried to keep it secret, but your mum was always a great observer of details, so it wasn’t really a surprise when she find out. She confronted me one day and I admitted readily to what I had been doing. In one way it was a relief – I always hated lying to your mum – in all other ways it was a disaster. The scene that followed was, well let’s just say unpleasant. She sued for divorce and told me that if I contested it or fought for custody, she would let everyone know about my little “perversion” as she called it.

I could see she meant it, so I didn’t fight her on either. She wanted to me to have no contact with you, worried that I might influence you with my unnatural ways or something, but that was the line I wouldn’t cross and, since she stood to lose as well should my secret be made public, I managed to negotiate equitable visitation rights.

She made me point out all the clothes of hers that I had worn, even once, and packed them into a suitcase – this suitcase as it happens – then she demanded I leave the house with just the suitcase and the clothes I wore. It was meant to be a punishment of sorts, but I managed to get to the bank ahead of her and transfer enough of our joint assets into a separate account to allow me to buy more appropriate clothing for work and to live modestly until my next pay-cheque. I never begrudged leaving the majority of our money with your mother or making the child support payments, because I knew that it was you that benefited from them.

I blamed myself for the breakup of our marriage for a number of years, believing for most of that time that, since I was the one who was in the wrong, she had every right to be angry. It took me a long time to admit to myself how little control I had over my urges, and to realise that the fault that caused the division between us was not entirely mine any more than it was entirely your mother’s.

We learn about right and wrong by observing the people and attitudes around us, and we live in a society that has a long history of stoicism: denying ourselves certain indulgences in order to work towards a greater nobility. This isn’t altogether wrong, because human nature is selfish and if we followed our baser desires, we would tend towards behaviour that serves our own needs at the cost of those around us. In fact you could argue that we’re already seeing evidence of that in the modern world. The thing is, the rules and attitudes we develop that dictate what is right or wrong don’t always come from a particularly altruistic source themselves. Most of the time we do decide that something is right or wrong as a result of the harm it brings other people in our society, but this isn’t always the case, as the rich and powerful have tended to influence the law so that it works in their favour and against the greater good.

But I digress. The point I was coming to is that at other times we decide issues based on what we feel, and the majority of people today, who don’t have the mixed up feelings that I’ve had to deal with all my life, have a natural tendency to believe that it is wrong for men to dress up in women’s clothing. The reasons for this are many and varied. In part they come from religious writings, and a great many of the better laws and morals in this country are derived from the Bible, so I’m not going to dismiss that out of hand. The thing is, most people these days don’t give the Bible, or any other sacred text, much credence, and even those who do are selective about what they read from it. Most people who would argue against homosexuality or transvestism are still partial to the occasional bacon sandwich for instance. Another reason would be that most men look wrong in clothing designed for women, but then the same could probably have been said at the time when women fought for the right to wear trousers, and now no-one bats an eye at a bifurcated woman. Besides, if you’re going to legislate against clothing based on how it makes a person look, there should probably be laws against fat people wearing lycra.

This letter is becoming a bit preachy and I didn’t want to stand on my soapbox and lambaste you on the topic. The point I wanted to make is that ultimately this becomes a contest of differing feelings. I only feel complete if I can indulge the feminine side of my personality – because that is what I have decided my passion for feminine clothing is – and most of the rest of the world feels that it’s wrong for a man to be seen in a pretty dress. The question I would put to you is exactly what harm would I be causing if I did go around wearing a frock in public?

You could, I suppose, argue that the young and impressionable might be tempted into trying something new and potentially detrimental to them, but yet again, how is that different from the way women fought for and won the right to wear trousers back in the fifties, or whenever it was? The only reason why there is currently no such thing as dresses for men in our society today is that most people don’t want them. However, there are enough of us who do that I would argue those who don’t are suppressing our self expression by denying us the freedom to do so.

I’m getting preachy again, and I don’t mean to. The thing is, I have always been aware of how people would see me if I were to go public in my preferences, and I’ve also been aware of how that would reflect on the people I care about, namely my friends and – most importantly – you three.

I didn’t want to hurt you or disappoint you, you see – at least no more than I already had. It was hard enough for you growing up without me being in your lives every day, maybe wondering if I didn’t want anything to do with you. I believe that people gain strength and stability in their personalities from the image they have of their parents, particularly – and this may just be wishful thinking on my part – from their father. That’s why I insisted on telling you, over and over until you were bored, that I loved you just as your mother did, and the only reason we were apart was because there were issues she and I could not reconcile.

I suppose I imagined how you might respond to me if you learned that I were… well as you found out here, and in every case I saw how, in light of the way society looks down on people like me, you would be hurt by the revelation. So I hid this part of me away. I never went out and bought women’s clothing for fear of being noticed and ridiculed publicly for it. Instead, I bought large quantities of jumble at car boot sales and the like, sifted through it for things that would fit and passed on the remainder to the charity shop in the high street. I only ever dressed in private with the curtains drawn so that no-one would see, and I have never risked telling anyone else about me.

I thought about telling you all a number of times, because I felt it would be better for you to hear it from my mouth rather than find out like this. Every time I envisioned myself saying something though, I saw just a little more of the faith you put in me to be a good role model – someone you could talk to, someone whose advice you would trust – crumble away. I mean who in the world would want to live with the shame of having a dad who likes to dress up as a mum? How could I look any of you in the eye without seeing something of the pain and sadness, the loss of faith? I wanted you to be proud of me, to know that I was someone who could provide a rock you could stand on if and when your own lives started to shake.

A bit presumptuous of me, taking on God’s role there, although that wasn’t my intention. I know that whatever foundations I have in my own life, they can only carry so much weight. It’s just that people are so much more an immediate place to turn in times of trouble; God can seem a little remote and hard to get to. I just wanted to be there, and to be strong for you. All of you.

In the end it was all an illusion though, wasn’t it? And I’ve probably been crueller in waiting until now rather than if I’d told you and faced the consequences. My only hope is that you’re all as bright and intelligent as you’ve always seemed to me, that you’ve suspected something was a bit off with your old man and made a few guesses as to what it might have been. Regardless of whether you guessed right, simply suspecting something was wrong will hopefully mean that this revelation comes as less of a shock.

Know that I love you all, that I would never want to be the cause of any pain in your lives, that I’m sorry because I’m sure that this is bound to cause you some heartache, and that wherever I am, as long as I am able, I will continue to love you with all of my being.

Yours with all my fondest love,

Dad

The shocked silence that descended on the three lasted for nearly a minute before it was broken by Debbie.

“Well, that explains a lot.”

“It explains why Mum divorced the bloody pervert.” Kevin’s words dripped with barely controlled rage.

“Kevin! Come on, weren’t you listening?”

“I was listening. To an old fart trying to justify being a pathetic sissy.” He stood up. “I always wondered why Mum didn’t want anything to do with him, and now I know she was totally justified.”

He stormed out the room, followed by his two sisters.

“Kevin!” Debbie called after him.

“No!” He stopped and turned, slicing at the air with an open palm. “This is sick and I don’t want anything to do with it. Or with him for that matter. You sort this dump out if you want. Keep anything you find and welcome. He’s not my father, not any more. I’ll have nothing to do with him.”

“Kev!” Debbie made to follow her brother’s retreating form, but her sister held her back.

“Leave him Debs.”

“But…”

“He’s upset and you’re not going to change his mind today. Give him a while to cool off, then we can work on him. What we need to figure out right now is what we’re going to do about it.

-oOo-

He sat in a chair beside his bed staring vacantly into space. He was wearing plain cotton pyjamas and a dressing gown, both of dark blue. He looked older than his fifty seven years, and there was the slightest hint of slackness to the right side of his face.

The room felt empty, despite the bed and other furniture. Through the door, the corridor was filled with noises of busyness and purposeful activity, but the room seemed to be caught in a bubble of frozen time. The man sat in silence, blinking occasionally, slowly and deliberately, but otherwise completely still.

A face appeared in the doorway.

“Hello Daddy.”

Debbie stepped into the room, dropped a couple of carrier bags on the bed and walked over to embrace the stationary figure. He turned his head slowly to look at her, but showed no sign of recognition.

“Strokes are funny things,” the doctor had said. “There’s no telling how much a particular episode will affect the body or the brain.

“Your father doesn’t seem to be too badly affected physically – you can barely see the slackness in his face and he hasn’t lost much motor coordination – but it did take place in the left side of his brain, which could mean it has affected his speech centre. He may be unable to speak or even to understand what we’re saying to him. He’s probably frightened and confused at the moment. You’re going to have to be very patient. Recovery, if there’s any at all, will be slow and may be very limited.”

“Have you had your wash yet?” The words were more to fill the silence than anything. Her father showed no signs of understanding, but he was clean shaven, which meant that someone had seen to him this morning. “I hope you don’t mind, but Judith and I went shopping the other day and we thought you could do with some new togs – she’s going to stop by later this afternoon by the way. Come one, let me help you get dressed.” She slid a hand under his arm and lifted. She wasn’t sure she could have managed on her own, but for once her father was uncommonly helpful and raised himself slowly and unsteadily to his feet.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

The raised voice came from a well muscled young man in nurses scrubs standing in the doorway. Debbie, who had managed to help her father into a bra and knickers, was easing a bright floral print dress over his head.

“If this is some kind of April Fool’s joke, you can bloody well stop what you’re doing right now.”

“Is it April first today? I’m sorry, I’ve lost track of time recently. I know this may look odd, but no it isn’t a joke. Have a look in my handbag, there’s a letter.”

While the nurse rummaged in her bag, Debbie zipped up the dress and settled it onto her father’s shoulders and hips before easing him back into the chair.

“You mean this one?” The nurse held up an envelope with three names printed on it.

“Yeah, we found it with some of my Dad’s things the other day. It’s his handwriting, written a few years ago I think.” Debbie opened a packet of tights and started bunching them up ready to ease onto her father’s raised foot.

“Is he…?”

“Read the letter, I think you’ll understand.”

The nurse pulled the sheet of paper out of the envelope and started to read whiled Debbie completed rolling the tights up her father’s legs and then went hunting in one of the carrier bags. She pulled out a pair of flat shoes – canvas with a t-bar buckle and cheerfully decorated with tiny flowers – and slid them onto his feet.

“Is there a problem here, Mark?” The newcomer was a tall, grey haired man with an air of kindness and confidence about him. He would have looked every inch a doctor even without the white coat and stethoscope.

“Er, no sir. That is, I thought there was something going on with Mr Richards here, but look a this.” He handed over the letter, which the doctor scanned quickly. Debbie, meanwhile, was working swiftly and expertly with a makeup kit. She didn’t use much, just something to emphasise the eyes and a little lip gloss. The doctor looked up at her just as she was finishing.

“I thought it might help him feel right in himself. That is the phrase he used isn’t it?” She dug a hairbrush and a can of hairspray out of yet another carrier bag and started working on her father’s hair. He always kept it longer than was quite respectable for a man of his age, which meant there was enough to style into something more feminine. “What do you think?”

The nurse glanced uneasily up at the doctor, who was rereading the letter. This could hardly be called conventional treatment, but Mr Richards seemed more responsive than he had been since his arrival a week earlier, and he wasn’t fighting what his daughter was doing. If anything he seemed to be trying to help.

Debbie hunted out a hand mirror from the unending supply of carrier bags and held it up for her father to see. The tears that flowed down his cheeks threatened to mess up even the small amount of makeup he wore, but they spoke in eloquent volumes what his muted voice could no longer say.

Mother and daughter walked around the grounds together arm in arm. Their progress was slow, the older woman stumbling every now and again, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do except enjoy the Spring sunshine so neither worried about the pace. Occasionally other patients and visitors would approach close enough to the pair to notice something not quite right about them, but apart from a few furrowed brows, there was no undue reaction.

Debbie rested her head on her father’s shoulder and hugged his arm close to her. The capped sleeve of his dress felt unusually soft against her cheek and his arms were smooth to the touch. She’d never realised before how hairless he was, and suspected that he’d made regular efforts to keep himself so. The continued absence of hair, even a week after his stroke, suggested waxing, but she didn’t really care to speculate. They found a bench in the sun and Debbie helped them settle onto it.

“You know, since that nurse came into the room this morning, I’ve been trying to figure out who’s the bigger fool. At first I thought you were for keeping this hidden all these years, but after the way Kevin reacted the other day, I can understand what you were afraid of and I think it was really thoughtful of you to try and spare us.

“I wondered if Kevin, Judith or I might have earned the dunce’s cap for not noticing anything. I’ve gone over my entire childhood in my mind, trying to see what I missed, and sure, there were clues. With hindsight it’s dead easy to sit here and spot all the signs, but you were pretty good at keeping things under wraps. Kevin was the most surprised and upset by your revelation, but I think that was more because he’s been in denial about the whole thing than because he didn’t suspect.

“I actually think Mum wins the booby prize, probably with Kev coming a close second. I mean you’ve been a great father all these years, even though you weren’t around much – and of course now we know why. Mum’s said some pretty stinky things about you at times – of course none of us believed any of them – but what I remember most is the way you never said an unkind word against her. You always supported her, even when one of us had a strop on with her, and you never got angry with her, even when we told you the things she said about you. Kevin may have started to believe her lies a bit, but not Judy and me.

“I don’t know how much of you is left in there Dad. I don’t know if you know what I’m saying or if you’ll every really get better from this, but I hope you do. I hope you can understand me when I tell you how wonderful a human being I think you are and how grateful I am to have had you as my father. I hope you’ll recover from this enough for me to find out what it would be like to have you as a mother too.”

She felt the weight of his head settle gently on the top of hers, and they sat watching the birds and the flowers for the longest time.

“Maybe we’re all fools in a way. Mum and Kevin for not being prepared to let other people be different, you for not trusting at least some of us to love and accept you no matter what, and Judy and me for not saying the things that really matter when we had a chance.”

-Fin-