I flew to Florida because Laura, my cousin, my best and only friend, insisted I had to. The family was gathering for her mother’s funeral. I didn’t want to go—trembled when I thought of the ghosts waiting at the cemetery. Ghosts of my past were better left interred. But Laura dug her heels into my conscience, wouldn’t let up until she got her way.
When the Airbus landed in Ft. Lauderdale, I saw her husband, Lawrence, just beyond the airport security zone.
“Danielle, here!” he shouted over the noise. “Over here!” He rose to his toes, waved his hands. Thin and wiry, he had the olive complexion of his Spanish ancestors. His smile that showed perfect teeth, said he was glad I’d come.
I pushed through the crowd, some hugging new arrivals, others rushing in the other direction to get on the snake of a line leading to another line, which in turn would take them through x-ray arches. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a security guard turn his head, felt his eyes follow me. The way I always felt eyes follow me these days.
“How’s Laura doing?” I asked when I finally reached Lawrence.
“’Bout as you’d expect.” His arm around my waist, he steered me toward the escalator, and down to the baggage claim.
My cousin had a love-hate relationship with her mother. I wondered which side would thrive now that Aunt Edna died.
As if he read my mind, Lawrence said, “Laura’s keeping busy. So damn much to arrange. She’ll get around to dealing with it when this is over.”
He took the overnight bag from my shoulder. I dug for the cigarette case in my purse.
With a sideways glance, he said, “Still smoking, I see.”
I stopped, shook a Marlboro from the case so I’d be ready to light up the minute we were outside. “And you still button your shirt to the collar, even when its ninety-five degrees.”
He touched the top button of his tropical shirt, laughed. “Some things never change.”
I did a slow pirouette, my long flowered skirt twisting around my ankles. “I did.” I laughed too, but mine was forced.
On the ride to their apartment, Lawrence questioned me about the life fate or chemical mix-up had ordained I’d lead. A life estranged from my first forty years and all who dwelt there.
“I’m good,” I said, then modified my lie with, “We’ll, good as I could hope for.”
“We hate that you’re alone up there―”
“In the frozen north?” Having spent most of my life on Long Island, I now lived but a few miles from the Canadian border.
“Should be down here with us.” He and Laura told me the same thing each time we spoke on the phone.
I answered the way I always did: “Gotta be someplace no one knows who I was.” Thinking of what I’d face tomorrow, I turned to the window of his minivan. “Get through the days one at a time.” This was an instruction my shrink gave me after an operation adjusted my body. My brain?—that had been female as long ago as my first memory.
His eyes shifted from the road to me. “It’s a shame you’re not in touch with the family.” It sounded as though he thought it were my choice.
I picked at my skirt. “You know what I promised my mother. I talk to you and Laura. That has to be enough.”
“Your mother’s gone what—six, seven years?”
Again I peered out the passenger-side window.
Cars slowed on Interstate 95. An SUV maneuvered across three lanes, cut too close to a long-haul truck. Horns blared. A middle finger shot out of the SUV’s window as it accelerated to the exit ramp.
“Idiot,” Lawrence muttered. I hardly heard him. My thoughts had drifted back to my mother. To the day I made the promise.
My brother’s house was a large colonial in Roslyn, not far from the harbor, and not far from the upscale stores along the Miracle Mile. Tricia, his wife, was home when I arrived. He was out—at a friend’s house, shopping, at a ball game—somewhere, anywhere he wouldn’t have to look at what I’d become. At this thing I’d become. A thing is what he called me the few times we talked—always on the phone—since my operation.
Tricia could barely look at me. “Mom’s in her room,” she said, pointing to the hall that ran alongside the kitchen. “I’ve got work to do.” She turned on her heels, quickly climbed the open stairway. I heard a door close.
Mom smiled when I entered the bedroom my brother had made of his den when she was diagnosed with stage-three cancer. I sensed a tinge of guilt in her smile. Or maybe the guilt was in me. As she did at the beginning of each visit, she wondered aloud why I had done this to myself. Hadn’t I known it would shatter my family? For perhaps the fiftieth time, I told her my choice hadn’t been whether to live as a woman, but whether to live at all. After a long while on the fence, I chose life. Most of the family—my daughter and ex-wife included—would have been happier had I made the other choice. Then, I told her something I hadn’t before: gender dyscrasia is genetic. Immediately, her eyes moistened. She turned from me. Speaking to the bookshelves lining one wall, she said, “My Uncle Francis.”
“Uncle Francis?” Mom had never mentioned him.
In the nineteen forties, she told me, her family didn’t understand why her uncle wasn’t married, and why he constantly stared at women’s clothing, but never at the women. People said he was strange, ignored him. He used to disappear for weeks at a time, no one new where. When he returned, his collar would be stained with makeup. Then one day he didn’t return.
Hearing the genes which formed me came from past generations of my mother’s family, made me feel a bit better about myself. Clearly, it didn’t make Mom feel better.
The converted den in which she now spent most of her time was large enough for a hospital bed, a dresser, and little else. The drawn shade left the room dim. Bright sunlight light hurt her eyes, she said. We played gin rummy, ate the pastrami sandwiches I brought. And talked. Mom loved me—even if I was no longer the son she’d given birth to. I needed to believe she loved me. For a long time, it was all I could cling to.
While we played cards and nibbled at our sandwiches, my mother seemed to inspect me carefully.
“What,” I asked after a few minutes. I glanced down. Though I was dressed in jeans and a ribbed turtleneck sweater, I said. “Is my slip showing?”
Her answer smacked into me as if it were a battering ram. “Tell me,” she said, “do you have the right clothes? I remember some of the things you tried to put on when you were a child—”
My God, she’s known all along. The shock almost knocked me from my chair. I’d been so careful when, as a teenager, alone in the house, I’d tried on her bra, panties, stockings. Had I returned her clothes to the wrong drawers, hung her skirts out of order in her closet? It was like Mom to notice such small discrepancies.
“—you’re a grownup,” she was saying when my mind cleared enough to hear. “You have to dress properly—skirt down to your knees—if you want people to take you seriously.”
I nearly choked on a tear. Had Mom accepted I was her daughter?
I didn’t get to relish the moment. My mother looked up from the cards in her hand. “Promise me you won’t tell anyone what you’ve done to yourself,” she said. “Not ever.”Her voice was a pleading whisper. Her friends, our family—aunts, uncles, cousins—she would be mortified if they knew. As was her Uncle Francis, I would be a secret: an abnormal child hidden in the attic.
“Not even Laura?” I asked. I hadn’t spoken with my cousin in the six months since my operation. Now the thought I never would again tore at my heart.
“No one,” Mom said. Her eyes glistened with newly formed tears.
Having elicited my oath to a dying parent, she wiped her eyes, and again dealt the cards.
For the past seven years, Laura and Lawrence had been my only family, though I hadn’t seen them in all that time. That I had them was Laura’s doing. She’d phoned me the day after my mother’s funeral.
“I looked for you, Danny. Everywhere,” she’d said. “Why the hell weren’t you there?”
I askedhow she’d gotten my number. She told me our Aunt Adele had cornered my brother’s wife, wheedled it out of her.
“No one would even mention your name,” Laura said. “What’s going on?” A shouted, “bullshit!” stopped me as I began to invent a story.
From the time we were children, my cousin could tell when I lied. Her silence demanded the truth. My voice broke. A sharp pain shot from my chest to my knees. As if each word were wrenched from the dark cavern my heart had become, I said, “I suppose…uh…I don’t know how to…” A sob snuck up on me.
“Tell me!” Laura said.
“Uh…well…” I didn’t know how to tell the cousin who had been my best friend when we were kids. If the brother I’d looked after and defended from bullies had turned his back on me, if my child, whom I loved more than myself, could no longer bear to hear my voice, how would Laura react?
I took a deep breath, dreading the silence of a dead phone line. “My name’s now Danielle―” I said so softly I hardly heard my voice.
Laura heard me. She always did. The abnormal child had crept out of the attic. My stomach in a knot, I waited for the worst.
After what felt like ten minutes, she said, “Is that all? You’re an idiot. Did you think it would make a difference to me? You’re you. Male, female, who the hell cares? My God, from the way your brother sneered when I asked about you, I thought you’d killed someone.”
“Guess I did,” I said. “I killed his big brother.”
Flooded by a tsunami of tears, during the remainder of the phone call I must have sounded as though I were talking underwater.
Laura’s apartment was on the ground floor of an extensive condominium complex. Not lavish, it was just the right size for her, Lawrence, and their son, Jonathan. It had two bedrooms off a rectangular space that held a dining room set, a few chairs, a computer desk, a television, and the couch on which I would sleep. Beyond, a glass door opened onto an enclosed patio—what residents called a Florida porch.
My cousin swiveled from her computer when the front door opened. “You made it,” she said. Her eyes were red. She twisted her knuckles on them.
“Did you doubt it?” I leaned down to kiss her cheek. The hug I received in return nearly fractured my ribs.
Laura took my hands. She was dressed in brown leggings. An oversized tee shirt fell so far below her hips she could have worn it as a dress. Save the Dolphins was written across her chest. Her shoulder-length auburn hair bounced when she nodded. “Yeah, I doubted it.” She held me away. “You look― Turn around, let me see you.”
Feeling more awkward than I had in years, I did. When I faced her again, her right brow was arched.
“What’s the matter?”
She shook her head. “You…you’re lovely.” She sounded surprised.
“What did you expect to see? A guy in drag?” I know I sounded defensive.
“No. Not that, but— God, you’re a woman.”
I sighed, and smiled my way into another hug.
Off to the side, Lawrence laughed while he shrugged my overnight bag from his shoulder. “If you two are done making out, can I put this down?” Then to me, he said, “This thing weighs a ton. Did you pack a suit of armor in it?”
I took the bag from him, dropped it on the couch. Still smiling, I turned to my cousin. “Will I need armor tomorrow?”
She twisted to look at whatever she’d typed on her computer screen.
“Laura, does anyone know I’ll be there?”
She didn’t answer.
“Laura—” My eyes narrow, I drew out her name.
“You’re a pain in the ass,” she said. “Have I ever told you that?”
“Last night. Right before you swore you’d told everyone, and they couldn’t wait to see the new me.”
She fiddled with the computer keyboard.
She turned to me, hands on her hips. “Doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. I need you there.” Now she sniffed.
Yeah, right. Like feeling sorry for her would make me forget she’d set me up to be humiliated.
“Screw ’em all,” Lawrence said. He put his arm around my waist.
“So, I’ll be a big surprise?”
He smiled, clearly enjoying the thought.
“It’s your mother’s funeral,” I said to Laura. “You don’t need that kind of distraction.”
I thought about what would have happened if I’d shown up at my mother’s funeral—the inevitable whispers, hands raised to the family’s mouth to mute snide remarks as I walked by. Alone. Shunned.
I glanced at my overnight bag.
“Don’t even think it.” Lawrence said. “I’m not taking you back to the airport.”
“And don’t tell me what I need,” Laura added. “You’ll be there. Next to me. That’s what I need.” She grinned. “Besides, it’s been years since the family’s seen you. Don’t tell them who you are.”
“Want a beer?” Lawrence asked before I could make like an alligator, and snap her head off.
“Good idea, get one for both of us,” Laura said.
I wasn’t ready to let go of my annoyance. “What about my brother? Tricia, the Good One―?”
“Stop it!” Laura smacked my arm. “I hate when you say that. It’s like calling yourself bad.”
“Can’t help it. They made me feel like I am. Are they coming?”
She glanced at her computer screen.
“Didn’t think so.”
“Matt will be there. He can’t wait to see you.”
Laura’s brother, Matthew, was the oldest of my cousins. He’d been a carnival barker, studied Buddhism in India. Sure he wanted to see me. I was an oddity to be observed. Were he still a barker, he might offer me a job in the sideshow.
I rolled the cold beer bottle in my hands. “Can’t say I wasn’t warned it would be this way.”
“You did what you had to,” Lawrence said. “You survived.”
I rolled the bottle on my cheek and forehead. Times like this, I wondered whether survival was worth the effort.
Lawrence rubbed my shoulder.
The shock of the ice cold bottle against my forehead helped. “Okay, you win. You always seem to. What can I do?”
As she began to answer, the front door slammed open. “Is she here yet?” a young voice called. It was Laura’s son.
Though I spoke with him by phone over the years, the last time I’d seen Jonathan he was in a stroller. He was nine, now, thin like his father, and with the same shock of black hair. Dressed in a baseball jersey and shorts, the scabs on his knees told me he had as much energy as when he was an infant.
Lawrence grabbed the boy’s arm as he ran past. “Slow down, tiger,” he said. “She just got here.”
Jonathan broke free of his father’s grasp, wrapped his arms around my waist. “Aunt, Danny, Aunt Danny, I couldn’t wait to see you.” He nearly lifted me off my feet.
Snuggling my face in his hair, I glanced over at Laura. Her smile seemed to say if her son loved me this much, why would I be concerned about anyone else?
Why indeed? How could my cousin understand what I felt? She had a husband and a son who loved her. She hadn’t mourned losing them. But it would serve no purpose to bring that up. So I helped her with dinner, then settled on the couch wondering what tomorrow would be like.
Beyond the whitewashed cinderblocks of the funeral chapel, a checkerboard of lawns with row upon row of carefully tended graves stretched to the horizon. The last time I’d been here for a funeral, my mother, my brother, Tricia, my ex and my daughter, me—we’d comforted each other as my father’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Now, while I wandered among the graves, I was overcome by the difference fifteen years had made. Mom was gone, my ex-wife had remarried and, as if to erase the memory of me, my daughter had taken the name of Brenda’s new husband. Lifting my hair to cool my neck, I wondered whether my father could have accepted the path my life took. He was a man’s man, a talented athlete who had surrendered his dream of stardom to tend to his family’s needs. He had expected, accepted, no less from his sons. Both of them. My brother followed in the old man’s footsteps, and now owned a successful furniture factory. He was a community leader. I’d wanted to do the same—tried to do the same—until I couldn’t any longer. Until a plot next to my father became my only alternative to the life I now led. In Florida’s August heat, I felt a sudden chill. It was if my father’s ghost strode past me, refusing to acknowledge I was his child.
I sat on a bench under a palm tree near my parents’ graves. My head bowed, I whispered, “I’m sorry, Dad, Mom. I’m so—”
My plea for forgiveness was interrupted by a hand on my shoulder. My head snapped up.
“Laura asked me to find you,” Aunt Adele said.
Tall, blond hair stylishly cut, her face perfectly made up, she was the last of three sisters: my mother, Aunt Edna, Aunt Adele.
I gazed looked past her, waiting for the rebuke I knew would come: How could you have done this to my poor sister. She never forgave you. Nor have I.
My aunt reached for my arm. Instead of harsh words, she said, “The service is about to begin, Danny.”
I stumbled to my feet. “The family—” I whispered as if afraid to disturb the ghosts of my parents. “I…I can’t.”
She took my hand. “You can, Danny—Danielle.” She smiled. “You’ll sit with me and Uncle Sid.”
“But, Laura needs me to sit with her.”
“She has Larry and Jon. You need to be with us.”
The coffin was made of pine, undecorated. A simple bed for a woman, whom, everyone believed, lived simple life. While the minister intoned words of consolation, Aunt Adele held my hand. Uncle Sid wound his arm around my shoulder. Weeping, I whispered a prayer I’d not been permitted to say at my mother’s funeral. As if she knew what was in my heart, my aunt drew me close. My uncle hugged me.
When the funerary rite ended, we turned our backs on the past, and gathered with family and friends in Laura’s apartment. I helped her in the kitchen, placing sliced meats on plastic trays while she spooned salads into bowls. Lawrence tended the bar set up on the computer desk. Jonathan played outside with cousins he rarely saw.
Without looking at Laura, I remarked, “What you said about your mom at the service—I guess you’ve finally forgiven her.” Forgiveness had been on my mind all day.
She shoved a serving spoon into a bowl nearly overflowing with macaroni salad. “It’s time to let go of the past,” she said. “If we don’t, it’ll eat us alive.” I knew she wasn’t speaking about her mother.
“Easy to say. Not so easy to―”
Her eyebrows pinched downward. “When we were kids I looked up to you, thought you were so brave.” She pushed me away. “I’m not so sure any more.”
The words sliced into me with the sharpness of the knife she now used to chop celery stalks.
“Hey, I didn’t want to cut the family off,” I said.
She glared at me over her shoulder. “You sure?”
I turned her to face me. “You know what I promised my mother.”
“Yeah, yeah. But then Aunt Evie died, and you still didn’t get in touch with anyone. Not Aunt Adele, not Matt, none of our cousins. Not me. You know what I think?”
“Could I stop you from telling me?”
“You’re scared. Maybe ashamed.”
I dropped my eyes.
She caught her breath. “You are,” she said. “You’re ashamed.”
The clock above the sink ticked, children’s laughter came through the window. A slew of low conversations floated over the counter separating Laura’s kitchen from the living room. I glanced up to see Lawrence raise a glass, and fill it with far more than two fingers of Jack Daniels.
“Better get food on table before Larry gets everyone drunk,” I said, then, to the wall behind the sink, I added, “Drunk might not be a bad idea.”
Laura punched my shoulder.
“Ow! That hurt.”
“Good. You deserve it.”
As I carried the tray of cold cuts from the kitchen, Aunt Adele grabbed my arm. “This is Roy and Evelyn’s daughter—Danielle,” she said to the woman she’d been talking to. She pinched my cheek. “Didn’t Danny grow up nice?”
I felt the woman’s eyes inspect me. “I didn’t know Evie and Roy had a daughter.”
From the way my face burned, it must have turned bright crimson. I forced a laugh, said the first thing to enter my mind. “Oh, yes. I’m from their first marriage. They kept me hidden in the attic.”
Now Aunt Adele punched my arm—this had apparently become a family trait in the time I’d been away. If I stay here much longer, I thought, I’m gonna go home bruised. If I didn’t fly home immediately, more than my body would be sore.
The woman reached out her hand. “Nice to finally meet you, Danielle. Yes, I see the resemblance to your mother. I knew her well, you know. We were in school together.”
Smiling, still holding the platter of food, I listened to reminiscences of my mother and her sisters. Then the woman took my arm, and led me to other friends. She started each introduction with, “Look who’s here. It’s Edna’s niece—Evie’s daughter.”
Each in turn said, “Didn’t know she had one,” and stared at me as if I were a grey alien with a huge balloon-like head.
After ten minutes of this, I tried to escape into Jonathan’s bedroom. Laura blocked my path.
“I didn’t get you down here so you could keep hiding.” She tapped her foot. “Get back in there. Talk to people. Like it or not, you have a family that loves you.”
I heard Aunt Adele’s voice: “Danny? Now where’d that girl go? Oh, there you are. Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Laura shoved me in my aunt’s direction. “She’s so happy you came. Let her show you off.”
I glanced back at my cousin. “I hate you.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m royal pain in your ass.”
Lawrence was leaning against the wall. A crooked grin in on his face, he swirled the amber liquid in his glass. I had no idea what he was drinking. Didn’t matter. I grabbed the tumbler from his hand as I passed. “I need this more than you do.”
As I lifted the glass to my lips, it was gone.
“You don’t need a drink.” Laura handed the glass back to her husband. “All you need is us.”
I moved close to her. “Why are you doing this? Your mother died. You’re supposed to be miserable.”
She turned her back, walked into the living room, and dropped onto the sofa near our aunt.
Again swirling his drink, Lawrence whispered, “She lost her mother years ago. The thought of losing you gives her nightmares.”
I looked to where Laura lounged back on the couch, staring through the glass door to the Florida porch. Lawrence was right: my cousin had mourned the loss of her mother since she was ten. Or, really, the loss of her mother’s love. Nothing Laura had ever done was enough. I’d once heard my parents say Aunt Edna had fallen in love with a soldier who’d been killed in Europe during the Second World War. So great was her love for the soldier, she had none left for her husband or children. That’s why Matt had run off with a carnival. And when the carnival hadn’t taken him far enough from his mother, he’d flown to a mountain retreat in India. It was no surprise neither he nor Laura keened for their mother now.
While I stood, lost in those thoughts, Jonathan rushed in, his face red from playing in the Florida heat. “Aunt Danny,” he called, and clutched my hand. “I missed you. You gonna stay here with us? C’mon, I wanna show you the kite Dad got me.”
I touched his cheek, marveling at his unrestrained love. Then I wondered why Aunt Edna couldn’t cherish the unrestrained love of which her daughter was capable. How could she have shoved it through a shredder like it was wastepaper? I looked around the room at the family that welcomed me home. Was I doing what my aunt had done? Had acid tears from mourning the loss of my daughter’s love, my brother’s, my departed friends, left me blind? My cousin had seen how I’d withdrawn from life. She struggled to pull me back. Struck now by how much more I might lose, I wiped the perspiration from Jonathan’s forehead, and said, “I’ll be with you in a little bit, sweetie. First I need to tell your mom something.”
Feeling more comfortable in my clothes than I had since I arrived, I perched next to Laura.
She tilted her head to look into my eyes. “What?” she said.
I glanced round the living room. Aunt Adele turned from couple she was speaking with, and smiled at me. On the Florida porch, among the live fens and potted palms, Uncle Sid laughed at Matt’s description of the streets of New Delhi. He touched Matt’s arm. They both waved to me. Family was this, I realized, not memories buried in a rarely visited cemetery. Family is living, laughing, loving in the present. The tear running down my cheek was soon joined by its sisters. Here, with these people I was home.
“What?” Laura asked again.
“Jon’s birthday,” I said, “it’s next week, isn’t it?”
“I’ll to be here for it.”
Laura’s tears matched mine.