Hope you enjoy, and as always, don't be afraid to let Chris know what you think of his work!
PRISONERS OF TIRESIAS
by Christopher Leeson
Who turn darkness into light and light into darkness,
Who make bitter sweet and sweet bitter.
Shame on you! you who are wise in your own eyes
And prudent in your own esteem."
Immediately after the meeting, I followed Billie back to her room for the loan of her maid's cap
It was true; in Billie Walters' closet there hung the complete outfit of a French maid, down to the feather duster. Never having understood the excitement surrounding the French maid (except that I could always appreciate a good set of legs in fishnet hose), I now found myself wondering where the fetish could have come from. French bawdy houses? I couldn't imagine that any well-to-to 19th or early 20th Century French household would have accepted a servant costume that looked like a cross between a miniskirt and a ballerina's tutu.
Had Billie lived a strange lifestyle back home? If not, how else could she have come by the risque ensemble? I deciced to ask her.
"The Sallys had an all-guy party a few months ago," Billie explained cheerfully, "and they needed someone to play the maid and serve drinks. It seemed like it'd be fun, so I helped them out and they all chipped in to get me this uniform. When I go home I'll have to pass it on to one of the other girls here, but I'll be taking back some wild pictures of me wearing it. Do you want to see them?"
Does the Pope look forward to Easter?
"Billie," I began uncomfortably, "I'm sorry that I embarrassed you the other day."
She grimaced. "That's all right, Erin. You didn't know; I suppose I'll have to face the fact that I'm stupid. I never learned much in school. All I can remember the teachers talking about is sex, and they talked about it all the time.." She shrugged just then. "Well, to be fair, I guess I also learned that teachers aren't paid nearly enough."
I tweaked her arm. "You're not stupid! I'd be in the same boat, except that I was home-schooled. Not many people could do what my folks did, but Dad had gone to a private school and Mother attended a parochial one. They gave up a lot of quality time to give me the same chance that they'd had."
"You're lucky," Billie said wistfully. "How are your folks doing now?"
I shifted uncomfortably. "They're dead. A boating accident." Then I changed the subject: "Say! I could teach you to read and write, like they taught me, if you'd want me to."
The young blonde stared at me with disbelief. "Honest? If you could do that -- I mean, I've felt like half a person all my life. But -- but it's too much to ask from a friend."
"What are friends for? I like to keep busy and what else is there to do at night? Go out and get laid?"
"Maybe," Billie suggested teasingly. "You seem to be getting awfully chummy with that Rod Ganners guy. Everybody's talking."
For crying out loud! I felt like I was living in a fish bowl. "We're just good friends," I assured her.
Billie smiled wisely. "I know that -- but if you ever want to borrow my maid outfit -- "
"Stuff it, Billie!"
#Rod, Jordana, Allie, and I met Christy at her infirmary bed. She was a terrible sight to see -- eyes blackened, lips broken, bruises all over her face and, where there were no bandages, dark cuts were scabbing over.
The patient seemed to withdraw into herself the instant we came in, which wasn't unexpected since she didn't know any of us very well. Beating victims, I'd read, often felt humiliated and blame themselves somehow. -- But we did our best to reassure the convalescent and we soon had her talking.
"Maybe it was my fault," Christy suddenly said.
"Your fault? How can that be?" asked Jordana, who was just a little better acquainted with the officer than the rest of us.
"I was doing some bad things; what else can you expect when you do that except something bad?"
"Why did you do those things, Christian?" I asked softy. I had used her real name without thinking. For some reason, whenever one Charlie tried to express a serious or intimate thought to another, it always seemed more sincere to use her male name.
She shrugged to reposition her bruised shoulders, registering discomfort at the corners of her swollen lips. "I didn't feel very good about myself, I suppose, and I had trouble making friends. Then Jesse came along and, well, one thing just led to another."
"Well, we want to help you now, Christy, so you won't have to depend on people like Jesse for company," Jordana promised.
Was Jordana right? Or did we just want to use Christy's tragedy for our own ends?
"But we need your help, too," continued the Association treasurer, "so that nobody else will ever have to go through what you just did."
"How can I help?" the battered girl asked dubiously.
"We're going to start a "Violence Against Women" action against Jesse," explained the ash blonde. After that, when you're up and around, we want to get to know you a lot better. I suppose that it's always the shy people who are overlooked; we're all sorry for not paying more attention to you."
While Jordana comforted Christy, I was thinking hard about what we could do. There was no Men's Protection commission, of course, no People's Protection commission even, and despite the broad language used in writing the VAWA, there wasn't even any Lower-Class Women's Commission. Women had been assaulted in the corridors and offices of the White House, and back in the '90's government reached a nadir which it never recovered from when a sitting president was himself the perpetrator -- a man with a lewd history of cocaine use and violent rape as an office holder back in his home state.
"How can anyone help me?" the young guard asked glumly.
"If you only want somebody to mistreat you," replied Allie evenly, "there's nothing we can do. -- But we want to start a support group for people who have special problems that even the psychs just don't understand."
She shook her sore head. "I don't want a support group; I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me. I just want to fit in." I thought that saying that had taken a lot of courage.
We talked for a little while longer and the battered girl finally consented to let us take some pictures. Rod had said nothing all this while, but I think he was affected by the victim's plight as much or more than the rest of us. Maybe he was feeling guilty just because he was a Sally and it was a Sally who had hurt the girl.
The victim-group spokesmen aimed at instilling this kind of guilt in society, but I didn't care for it. Good people should never feel responsible for what scoundrels have done, not even if they're the genetically-linked descendants of scoundrels -- unless, of course, they had been one of the idiots who had voted the said scoundrel into office. Guilt for what others have done just leaves the door open for new rascals to take advantage of it and them. Whole societies can be twisted out of shape by a cunning pressure group practiced at playing the blame game.
Rod took the photos and Jordana promised to visit Christy again the next day. As we were leaving, Dr. Trent intercepted me in the corridor.
"Erin," she said, slightly agitated, "I'm sorry that we haven't had a real chance to talk since you arrived. Are you doing anything for dinner tonight?"
"No, Doctor. What did you have in mind?"
"Gabrielle. My place. Eightish?"
"I'll be there. Thanks -- Gabrielle."
#Being a senior staff physician had its advantages. Gabrielle had a private two-room apartment and a private kitchen whose warm air was sweet with cooking aroma. Our main course was Tiresian "duck" (it looked more like a loon, actually) bartered from barbarian bird-catchers. I could appreciate a skilled chef because I was an amateur gourmet cook myself. We talked pleasantly, about cuisine mostly, until my hostess maneuvered us out to the sofa, when our conversation grew more serious.
"Was there any particular reason that you asked me over tonight, Gabrielle?"
She nodded gravely and touched her gravid belly, as if my question had unwittingly involved her unborn child. "I've regretted not attending your meetings," the physician began, "but there's so much on my mind these days. Even so, I've been very impressed by what you're doing," she went on, "-- organizing the women, I mean."
"I don't deserve the credit," I shrugged, "It was more their idea than mine."
"You've taken a load of guilt off my shoulders, Erin. No one knows more than I do as ranking -- Charlie -- that I should have been doing more to help our people."
I smiled sympathetically. "Don't feel bad, Doctor. For all its jawboning, our group hasn't really accomplished anything yet."
"I think you've done quite a bit for morale. Men -- Earth men -- have lost the art of standing up and bitching. Back home it's all around us and we can't see how low we've really sunk -- but once you get to Tiresias, the blinders come off and the truth slams you in the face."
"Christy got slammed in the face, I know."
"We're all at risk -- so be careful," Dr. Trent warned. "The ascendant power doesn't like anyone rocking the boat. Remember that policeman in California who tried to start a white male officers' advocacy group?"
I remembered he was labeled a racist and a sexist and fired. Free association was always discouraged; even Senegalese illegals had their own advocacy groups, but the California officer, despite a sterling record, had been suspended, harassed, and finally driven from the force.
I slumped back into the sofa; the future for a rebel under tyranny was never bright. The 1960's hell-raisers never suffered societal reprisals because their revolution was, at its heart, a sham. They had really been a tool of people who already had power to take even more power, much like the Red Guards who served the Party Chairman in China at the same time. What kind of revolution is ordered by the prehistoric fossils doddering at the top?
"A man has to do what a man has to do," I finally said.
"Yes, we do, don't we," my hostess nodded. "What's next?"
I sighed. "We're following the official channels as far as we can -- and we'll be putting up those posters. If the Sallys are going to defend their position, we have to show them exactly what kind of sleaze they're defending."
"It's a good start," Gabrielle affirmed. "We have to change things, but we can't stop with just Tiresias. We have to set matters right back home, too, or there's going to be a bloody revolution -- and we all know what revolutionaries are."
She suddenly grimaced self-deprecatingly. "Big talk from a do-nothing, I know. It's easy to spin one's wheels, easy to be bought off. I didn't live badly before; a cardiovascular surgeon of either sex can get along, even as a second class citizen. Maybe I don't deserve any better -- I don't know." Gabrielle then touched her stomach thoughtfully. "But what I've had isn't good enough for my son. My son can't be second class to anyone!"
The eternal parental vow, but I knew that her boy would be exactly that, unless some important changes were made, and quickly.
"It's going to be a boy, then?" I asked, skirting a subject too big for me.
"It's going to be a girl here on Tiresias, but he'll be my son back on Earth."
I could tell by the gleam in her eyes that that was exactly the way she wanted it. "I'm very happy for you."
"Thanks. The baby should arrive in a couple weeks. "I'll be a father a couple weeks from now; it's incredible if you think about it."
"You don't think of yourself as a mother?"
She gave a rueful smile. "Biologically, I'm the baby's father. I couldn't bring viable semen for artificial insemination across from Earth, so I found a willing egg-donor and had as many of her eggs as I could fertilized in vitriol with my sperm. She was a concert pianist with a 160 IQ and a family of good physical and mental health.
"The sex of the eggs changed when I brought them over, of course, but their viability remained. I had to have three eggs implanted before one took. That wasn't bad odds, all in all; I guess it was fated."
"What would you have done if all the implants had failed?"
Trent frowned. "Then I would have found a Sally willing to do the job for me. I wouldn't have liked the randomness of it, naturally, but any port in a storm."
I nodded but her determination amazed me. Why such a seemingly normal and intelligent person like Dr. Trent would go to such lengths to bear a child herself. Despite the delicacy of the subject, I put the question to her.
"That's what they all want to know," the doctor smiled wanly. "The truth is, I had a bad experience in marriage -- one of the worst a man could have. I swore that I'd never again trust a woman with a child of mine."
This is a snapshot from Dr. Trent's album. It shows Gabriel and his wife before the unplanned pregnancy which embittered their marriage.
"Those are strong words. It must have been a terrible experience."
"It was," she sighed, then explained how she had been a staff surgeon servicing cases referred over from the Mayo Clinic. "When I got married I wanted children very badly," she went on, "and when we were courting my wife had assured me that she wanted the same. But I guess she only wanted a surgeon's income because after we were married she kept putting off starting a family for the sake of her career. She was an English professor -- quite a mediocre one, if you ask me, but she had connections with several Women's groups and could work the University quota system for all it was worth."
Gabrielle, lowered her gaze. "I'm sorry. That's my bitterness talking."
"No problem. I'm still mad as hell about what my fiancee pulled on me."
"Well, anyway, you can imagine that my wife's attitude was driving me up the wall. By the time she'd gotten pregnant, because of contraceptive or condom failure, things weren't at all good between us. I thought that the child could be a new beginning for us, but she was very ambivalent about bringing it to term. I did everything I could to encourage her, but toward the end she decided that it just wouldn't fit in with her career plans.
"To get me off her back, she got a restraining order and put me out of our house. She had no problem there; it's easier to get a court order against a husband than it is to get a fishing license."
Right you are, Doc -- carp, not husbands, are a protected species.
"But even on her own she kept vacillating, giving me hope, then taking it away, until the baby was almost due. Then she opted for one of those partial-birth abortions. -- You how that goes -- it's infanticide in everything but name."
Trent rested back in the sofa, her face uncharacteristically gaunt. "I loved my son, even unborn; I would have been glad to rear him alone, if that's how it had to be, but I couldn't do anything because the whole system is against the child and the father."
Her mouth turned down with seething inner anger and I thought it best just to listen quietly while she went on. "I knew where my son was going to die; I knew when he was going to die. I knew who was going to kill him -- but I couldn't stop it. The man is supposed to protect and preserve his family, isn't he? Well, I failed miserably and after you've washed out that badly you stop being a real man. Tiresias is as good a place as any for me."
No, Dr. Trent's story was not fun and games at all.
When agony like Gabrielle's comes out -- especially out of a person whom his listener doesn't know well -- his company can only sit in stunned silence; that's the way it was with me. I didn't know what to say, I didn't even know what to do with my hands and feet. When to blink or swallow became a major decision. Even so, when Dr. Trent at last fell silent I reached over and laid my hand upon her forearm.
She looked up gratefully and said, "Sorry to get so emotional, Erin, but you did ask. That's all there is to it. -- I have to do this; at least this way there's nobody in the universe who'll be able to say that I don't have any rights to my own child as a parent!"
With the air cleared, the rest of the evening was light and convivial. By the time I left the apartment I had become pretty solid with Dr. Trent, and what she had said had given me a great deal to think about.
#By now life on Tiresias had started to fall into some kind of routine. I met with Rod almost every day and filled him in on everything that was happening, but he would never let it go until I had also told him exactly what I felt about it also. In a way, the journalist had turned into my confessor; I could talk to Allie and some of the others, but the greatest relief of all was to talk to Rod. Maybe it was because Rod could be considered one of "the enemy camp" and I felt a special need to express myself to him, to justify myself regarding the life I was living, and how I was living it.
"I'm going to have to remember that my book is about everybody on Tiresias, not just you," Rod remarked one day. "I want to write about you so much -- I mean, the material that I'm getting from you is so good that it's making the whole work top-heavy. Erin-heavy."
"You can't let that happen; I'm nobody special," I remarked over a glass of lemonade.
"It's tough being objective when I'm so involved."
"Why be objective? Do you think John Reed was ever objective?"
"Poltical fanaticism is nothing compared to what's eating on me."
I wondered what exactly he meant by that, but didn't press the issue.
Usually, after the formal interview, we'd pass some time in friendly banter. At such a time Rod once asked me: "Do you girls teach one another how to walk that way?"
"That sexy way."
"Do you mean I still walk like a sexy guy?" I asked, glad to hear it.
"No, I mean you walk like a sexy girl."
"I do not!"
"You do so!"
"I do not!"
We seemed to end a lot of conversations that way and I usually got in the last "I do not!" Ever since I'd become a woman that had been happening during spats with Sallys. Maybe pig-headedness is a sex-linked trait.
While we're on that subject, I have to say that even though I didn't actually think of myself as a real woman, Rod talked like he believed that I should be full of all kinds of new insights into male-female relationships. But I don't think I learned anything new. If anything, life on Tiresias reaffirmed what I'd known intuitively for years. It was Rod that made things different; he was willing to listen to my armchair analyses.
"Why do men fear commitment so much?" Rod once asked.
I replied without batting an eye. "A man values his relationships and he doesn't want to threaten the intimacy of the alliance by completely changing the nature of the partnership."
He seemed genuinely astonished. "You're joking!"
I grinned. "For crying out loud, Rod, "it's as plain as that Grecian nose in the middle of your face!"
"Commitment, the way women define it, is a swell racket only if you're a woman. When she commits, she only gains by it; she's taken care of financially, and marriage sets her free to work full-time, work part-time, or not work outside the home at all. She can putter at cottage-industry hobbies or low-paying jobs that carry personal rewards -- such as doing volunteer work. If she's particularly stupid and self-righteous, marriage even allows her the luxury of feeling morally superior to the man who's daily grind at a job he usually hates is giving her all these options.
"Her poor husband's part in the commitment game gains him nothing but more of the same dull grind, except that he's burdened by supporting two people where he only supported himself before. Even if his wife had stayed at a worthwhile job at first, she might give it up when kids come. It couldn't be the other way around, not a woman in a thousand would stand for that. The man's burden gets heavier, the hours of work get longer and he has to opt for that overtime that he hates like poison. He has no time for romance and can only be a part-time parent. -- And because keeping that miserable job is so important he has to kiss up to people he despises to get the extra income of a promotion that he deep down doesn't really want. Finally he reaps the real payoff for having "committed" to a woman -- his family hates him for neglecting them."
"But hasn't the economic success of women changed things?" Rod asked.
"Where have you been?!" I asked with a shake of my head. "Does a millionaire woman ever feel secure enough to marry a penniless, but amiable guy who'd has all the time in the world to be there for her? -- Not on your life!
"If she has money, she'll insist on chasing after men who have even more. A growing boy soon figures out that looks and personality don't cut it in the mating game; he's not a woman and he can't operate like she does. If he wants the woman of his choice he has to be an economic success -- and he has to be more successful each year or he'll risk losing her.
"A man is always being judged by his investments, or by the power he wields in the work place; he never gets any credit just for being a good person, or being there for his family. Nothing counts except bread-winning.
"Sociologists who pretend men and women are the same are nuts; they're different and complementary. Men want sex and beauty; women want material security. Women don't want to be looked at like sugar-candy, but that doesn't stop them from sizing up every man as a sugar-daddy. The two views are just the male and female version of the same thing, but the one is accepted as normal and the other is treated as some kind of degeneracy."
What I liked most about Rod was the way he didn't get contentious when I graced him with a pearl of my wisdom. Increasingly, I became frank and open whenever he asked me a question.
"Why do you suppose that women always want their husbands to change while men always want their wives to stay just the same?" he asked at some early point in our association.
I was game. "Because men marry for love and women for money."
"There you go again!" Rod moaned.
"Open your eyes, beautiful! If you like somebody because of the person she is you don't want her to change. But women never marry a man. They marry a wallet which only happens to have a man attached. Only after a woman has her hands on the loot, does she remember to take a hard look at the man whose community property she's sunk her claws into. She's probably never even thought about his looks before, or his personality, or whether she could tolerate his human habits. A husband might as well be something that a woman pulls out of a grab bag for all the study she's put into him beforehand.
"Her thinking is, 'What do you do with this booby prize?' Well, you try to find a use for it -- usually something that was never intended by the manufacturer. The day that a man can't serve the function that his wife has created for him without his consultation, he goes out with the trash while his house and money stays with her."
Another good Rod-type question was: "Why are men such jerks about sex?"
I threw up my hands; the man could be so dense! "You'd be a jerk, too," I let it be known, "if it was left to you to do all the work that goes into initiating and building a relationship from the ground up! If you're a woman you only have to sit back and rate your suitor's performance; if a man makes one misstep, or tries to angle a little pleasure exchange for all the bankrolling and ego-stroking that's being expected of him, he's suddenly considered a jerk."
"Am I a jerk?" Rod asked all of a sudden.
"You've got your good points," I assured him.
******"Hypersensitivity and political correctness are signs of a society in which too many people have nothing serious to do. Playing Gestapo with the words and deeds of simple social interrelationships makes a bland and sour society, full of rancor but devoid of spirit."
M.B. Watson, Los Angeles Times, 2006
But understanding the deplorable state of male-female relations was a far cry from being able to do anything about them. I didn't even try, there was so much else going on.
The association members made up some great posters for our shame-campaign against the Sallys. The most effective one that we concocted was a picture of the doe-eye girl smiling shyly at the camera at her ingenue party juxtaposed against a close-up of the battered woman.
"This is the Progress you stand for!" the sign said. It was crucial at this stage that we tar the status quo with the stigma of both physical and psychological brutality. This wasn't a new strategy, and we surely hadn't invented it, but history had proven it an effective means of propaganda.
If the truth be told, I could be detached, even cynical about launching what was essentially a campaign of half-truths. That was one way you moved society; that was the way that a long campaign of lies beginning in the 60's had convinced average Americans that their country was a monstrosity that could only be reformed by putting into power people who hated both it and them. What we Tiresians were confronting was an entrenched set of assumptions born of an anti-Western, anti-religious social revolution.
By means of media propaganda, politicized public education, and block-vote manipulation, a faddish political and social doctrine had been enshrined into everyday life. Constitutional law, which should have protected society against centralized rule, had been rendered impotent through spurious and fatuous interpretation. America's authoritarian masters usually operated subtlely, only occasionally demonstrating who was boss by means of police-terror -- such as the notorious attacks against Christian communities and gun owners beginning in the 'Nineties. The PC masters reserved the right to call anyone they didn't like a "cultist" or a "fascist" and when that happened the tanks and incendiary bombs were never far behind.
The radicals had won the high ground of moral superiority by treating complex social issues as stark White Hat-Black Hat affairs. It has nothing to do with truth, but in the war of persuasion it is a good route to go. In effect, we had to offer the repellent Jesse as the defining face of the whole establishment. Hopefully the unique conditions of Tiresias would render the keepers of the faith so disoriented that we could arm-twist them into some change for the better.
Knowing what we were about, we of the association steeled our stomachs. After all, no revolution can get off the ground if it lets itself be embarrassed by its own tactics, and it was them, not us, who had for so long operated on the principle of the end justifying the means. Still, aware of the dangers in stirring up heated passions, I tried to impress moderation upon some of the more excitable association women, such as Andrea. No matter what we said for public consumption, we had to keep ourselves grounded in reality.
To my mind, taking an extreme stance prior to sitting down to negotiate is a necessary evil, though one runs the risk of starting to believe one's own rhetoric, as happened in the various civil rights movements of the last century. An immoderate starting position can easily decay into an uncompromising doctrine, especially if it doesn't meet with a revolution's best friend -- namely heavy and effective opposition -- so that real compromise is forced upon revolutionary leaders, who in turned are kept from acquiring overweening pride. American society had opted to understand instead of fight its radicals, so it was rolled by a small elite of chest-beaters who never had the support to win in a real fight.
Bad things happen when any movement's leaders get too full of themselves. If such gain power, the revolution takes on the trappings of permanence, though it already has become an empty shell to be co-opted by infiltrators from the System. That's how the party of the Ku Klux Klan overnight became the party of civil rights without changing its discriminatory outlook or coercive tactics.
We Tiresians were a long way from being co-opted, though, so I didn't immediately fear becoming a limousine revolutionary overseeing a government program with a cellular phone in my taxpayer-provided car. (And may I be dead before that day comes!)
Besides my work with the association, I occupied myself teaching Billie to read and write. I enjoyed these sessions owing to the Virginian's convivial charm. The girl was no airhead either, I found out, though she tended to be reticent about broadcasting those things which she could do well. I found it hard to imagine the mild and agreeable Billie as a prison guard but, in fact, she worked closely with Andrea in Cell Block C.
It was especially hard to think of Billie as a prison guard after seeing her famous "maid picture." Here it is. Who ever said that "good help is hard to find"?
Besides a knack for entertaining, Billie had a surprising aptitude for language; she had picked up a good command of Spanish and even some passable Chinese just by growing up on the edge of poor immigrant neighborhoods. Gregarious to a fault, Billie had mingled with foreign-born neighbors and had often helped them to get along. The boy's interpreting skills had been especially helpful when his immigrant friends had to deal with the brusque personnel of government agencies -- reptilian men and women suspicious of all who came before them and who spoke only a thick dialect of bureaucratese -- and that only between the hours of nine and five-thirty.
Billie's noteworthy antics on Tiresias had surely been the actions of a person with a low sense of self-worth trying to get her fair share of attention in spite of many handicaps. She instinctively employed every asset she could muster, especially her easy charm and good looks.
The golden-maned girl was learning to read and write at a pace that I would not have predicted at the outset. It was a terrible indictment of our educational system (and the over-paid posers who benefited from it) that it had so utterly failed to educate one as bright and eager to learn as William Walters.
About that time, and much to my dismay, Jordana composed a humorous fight-song that made me look like some kind of hero. This was no cross I wanted to bear; maybe Stonewall Jackson could go all the way to the grave and never let his friends down, but I was just simple Aaron Carter -- and sooner or later I was going to fall on my face. A hero falls heavily, and hurts more people when he does.
Even so, Jordana was a good chum and I never doubted that her intentions were among the best.
Her song went:
Come all you proud women and open your ears
Of Jake and his bullies you quickly shall hear.
They went to a party, but came not to dine,
They came to bash Charlie and keep her in line!
All rowdy, all shouting, and giving the yell,
Like so many demons just burst out of hell,
The gang was all drunken on power and wine,
They came to bash Charlie and keep her in line!
They came to bash Charlie, they came not to pay,
But bold Erin Carter stepped into their way;
Their faces turned purple, their blue tongues stuck out;
They discovered in time just what Charlie's about.
All rowdy, all shouting and giving the yell,
Like so many demons just burst out of hell,
The gang was all drunken on power and wine,
They came to bash Charlie and keep her in line!
They came to bash Charlie, but dared not to stay,
Buck Channey learned Erin was heading his way,
He saw her eyes flashing and took such a fright;
He ducked in the toilet to get out of sight!
Oh, Carter's a fighter and everyone's friend,
Yet woe to the Sally who tries to offend;
She takes what they dish out and serves them back more,
But for good folks there's never a bolt on her door!
#Whenever any Tiresian officers went back to Earth at the end of their tours, new personnel were sent over for the first time. -- That had always been the case, but now there was a difference: the rights association was providing an unofficial welcoming committee for new Charlies. I went along with the first delegation myself, to find out whether the new committee would turn out to be as good an idea in practice as it sounded in theory.
Remembering my own strange state of mind that first day, I knew it would not do to put any additional strain upon newcomers. I knew, too, that we shouldn't come off as seeming excessively political, nor make the association sound like a coercive outfit that expected everyone to join.
So, we delegates agreed to keep the meetings short, friendly, and to avoid specifics except to answer questions which might occur spontaneously to a new arrival. After all, there was much that should rightly be left to a person's roommate/counselor. Allie had done a pretty good job with me.
My spiel to each new Charlie went like this: "Turning into a woman isn't easy to adjust to, but we've all been through it and it's really not an all-negative experience. We've found that the main problem on Tiresias is that sometimes the system doesn't treat us very well and we're doing all we can to peacefully change that. There are times that you're going to feel alone, but you don't have to; company and advice are only a phone call away. -- And we're starting some hobby groups and sports clubs for people who like that sort of thing. On the other hand, if you want privacy, you can have privacy."
That was about it. We ended each session by passing along some phone numbers.
One of the new Charlies was not a correctional officer at all, but an anthropologist named Lyle Rudensky. The prison required a team of trained ethnological scientists for dealing with the aborigines, but few officers had direct contact with such people. Dr. Steven Donnalyn had for the last couple years headed the detail, normally aided by two or three assistants. But one by one these associates had been reassigned back to Earth, there to assist the human studies department of Duke University, which was preparing a major expedition to Tiresias. To replace Donnalyn's staffer in the interim, the correctional office had recruited a promising graduate student, Lyle, who was then working on his doctorate in the Shantee language, the tongue spoken by natives living in the vicinity of the penitentiary.
Normally, Lyle would have been oriented by a Charlie from her own special detail, but Dr. Donnalyn, now running the office alone, was a self-involved prig who couldn't bother himself with "little people." So Billie Walters had been asked to become Lyle's roommate/counselor.
I thought it amusing that a staid young academic had to be paired up with a fun-loving eccentric who, through no fault of her own, was so ill-educated; yet, as it developed, the two of them got along fine. In fact, because Lyle was lacking in social graces the outgoing Billie was exactly what she needed to acclimate herself into our peculiar little community. And given Billie's interest in learning new languages, the match was an inspired one. No chance that anyone on high had planned it though, unless we include God. Anything good that comes from a bureaucracy has to be accidental.
About twenty-five years old, Lyle was tall for a girl and thin with pale, translucent skin. I suspected that she would respond to a makeover very well, but her self-conscious movements and her too-large, precariously-balanced glasses gave the impression of ungainliness. According to Hollywood, any nerdy girl in unbecoming clothes and a frumpish hairstyle will always turn into a raving beauty with the doffing of her glasses and the unbinding of her do. I didn't necessarily believe it, but did think that Lyle had potential. When the next ingenue party came along I would be watching to see what Lyle Rudensky. looked like after Billie had worked a little cosmetological magic upon her.
#I began my first menstrual period the same night I met Lyle. Allie, coming home and finding me in a funk and reading the instructions on the back of a box of tampons took charge and did her best to talk me through my ordeal. She even made an effort not to enjoy my suffering too much.
Fortunately I was myself again when the expected party took place. I arrived wearing my white dress again -- having taken the government up on its half-price offer. A month ago it would have been hard to believe I could see putting a hard-earned nickel into it, but I was no stay-at-home and a person needed something to wear for those special occasions. What's more, as chairman -- chairperson -- of the Rights Association, I had to maintain a confident public profile. -- And you've got to be damned confident if you're going to wear that little number.
Andrea showed up, despite the hard time that the last party had put her through. She had guts, and from the way she was looking at some of the Sallys, I thought it best if none of them found himself alone with her in the dark. Jake and his boys were on hand, too, but this time seemed a little subdued -- which was all to the good.
Andrea looked pretty good in a mini-skirt, but always looked damned impressive in uniform. She was one angry lady all the time I knew her. I wonder if she did anything to put her zeal to use once she got back home.
Jesse, I noted, didn't show up at all, though Christy attended the party accompanied by Jordana, who had taken her under her wing since her release from the infirmary. She still wore some bandages and scabs and off-color bruises still showed. It took courage to go public looking like that, but Christy's appearance was calculated to send out a message -- that physical coercion was not going to break the spirit of the Tiresian women, not even the meekest of us.
I danced with Rod often that night, most of the Sallys having become guardedly polite but standoffish toward me. Maybe I really had earned the reputation of being a ball-buster! That was regrettable, but the party was meant for the new people, not us old-timers and so I tried to introduce the ingenues to as many genial people as I could.
Mort had christened Lyle Rudensky as "Lila" and Billie had introduced her to several of her Sally friends, one which she eventually asked to join her for the vid showing. In her short, misty-blue party dress, I was amazed to see how much the tall, slim Lila looked like a Parisian fashion model. She even had the small breasts common to the denizens of haute culture.
When I had first come to Tiresias, I had envied the Charlies with flat chests, but by now I actually felt sorry for girls who had been "shorted" by Nature. My own thoughts surprised me and I thought that I must have been getting vain, since I knew of no practical use for my more womanly figure.
The movie that wound down the night was porn just like the last one, but it had nothing to do with Tiresias; "Bad Babes" it was called. One of the ingenue Sallys asked me to adorn his lap during the showing. I hadn't expected this, and I didn't really want to be torn away from the deep conversation that I was having with Rod, but I couldn't hurt an innocent man's feeling nor break the community tradition by refusing.
Anyway, the guy must have thought I was pretty.
#The next day brought news of community-wide importance. Dr. Trent had gone into labor.
All the gossip for the rest of the day was about Dr. Trent; then in the late afternoon the word came that Gabrielle had given birth to a strong, healthy baby daughter and that the mother was alert and doing well. A cheer went up all over the office.
I reflected on the event; it was an astonishing thing, really. Less than a year ago Dr. Trent had been a man who was hoping to be a father. Tonight he -- she -- had given a new human life into the world -- and from out of her own being. There was an awesomeness to it that gave me pause.
Amazing to tell, Gabrielle was already back in her apartment by noon of the next day. Rod, Dori, and I went over to pay our respects and to see the baby. Even if it were only for the benefit of his book and not for the fact that he and the doctor were already friends, this was one call that Rod could hardly have failed to make.
Gabrielle's small apartment was full of baby things now -- most of them still not removed from their storage boxes. The greater part of her tour was already over, but a year's extension had been approved and I understood that the doctor would have six months unpaid maternity leave and then function in a part-time and advisory capacity at reduced pay until the end of her second tour. It seemed that the surgeon had sufficient private resources to make this arrangement palatable.
"A baby does best if he has a mother's attention for as long as possible," Gabrielle explained. "It was good of Warden Gershom to approve my extension, especially since I'm not going to be able to give my job anything like my full attention anymore." That the warden had done right by Dr. Trent was something in his favor, I granted, but otherwise the Sally's acts, both of omission and commission, had usually been hard on the Charlies' morale.
"Who's going to baby sit?" asked Dori.
Gabrielle blinked bemusedly. "It's strange," she replied, "I bought nearly every baby thing I could find in the catalog before I left Earth, but neither then nor anytime afterwards did I give a single thought to who I'd find to take some of the burden off me. Maybe it never occurred to me that a baby who's really wanted might be a burden."
"Don't worry, Doc; I've got two kids," offered Dori. "I think I can take care of your little girl when you need a breather without breaking her."
"If only you could!" the new mother replied gratefully.
I was elated to hear that Dr. Trent would remain part of our little community during the whole of my exile upon Tiresias. I liked her and realized that in the weeks and months to follow my other Charlie friends would be leaving one by one.
But it was not easy to think of Dr. Trent as merely a Charlie now; it was as if she had undergone some arcane rite of passage and had emerged ennobled in some way -- that she had become a real woman amid the flock of us sorry make-believes.
"What are you going to name her, Gabrielle?" I asked.
"Eva. That's her mother's name. I'm going to call him Evan when he's a boy."
It was disconcerting to be reminded that Dr. Trent was, biologically speaking, the father of the infant. I also found it disconcerting that she instinctively thought of the tiny girl as her son, not her daughter.
Boy or girl, she's lucky to have a parent like Dr. Trent.
Rod stepped closer. "May I hold her, Gabrielle?" Consenting without words, the woman carefully passed her blanket-wrapped bundle to the journalist's arms. Rod held Eva like, I noted, a woman would.
"I'm glad I was on Tiresias at the right time to see this," he remarked, rocking the infant. Then he looked across to me. "Erin? Would you like to hold her?" We both glanced to the mother for permission and Trent nodded.
I took the child with the same care I would have afforded a loaded and cocked .45. I couldn't manage to cradle her exactly like Rod had, but without starting Eva crying, I successfully clutched her. Gazing down into that miniature face many stark impressions whirled dizzily through my mind -- like the birds on the turning mobile that Gabrielle had already erected above the baby's crib.
The newborn was surely no beauty, except for those striking eyes that were so much like her "father's." Otherwise Eva looked wrinkly, flushed, and pinched -- just as, I suppose, all day-old babies do. The tyke yawned as I held her, an action that reminded me of a monkey in a zoo.
But to feel the weight of her (and she was heavier than I expected), to experience the reality of her, was something to give one moment. Getting pregnant was not for me, but knowing and respecting Dr. Trent the way I did my thoughts on the subject were no longer simple. This child, in a strange way, represented the incredible new world of possibilities of which I was now part -- whether I liked it or not.
I looked to Dr. Trent, who had never taken her eyes off her child. How different her life would be from here on because of this birth, I realized.
-- And the incredible possibilities! If this child lived and had children of her own, and then they had children, too -- ad infinitum -- the issue of Dr. Trent would, in the course of generations, number in the many thousands. Each of them would be a person who never would have lived without a strange and courageous act on the part of a man named Trent. They would take the place of people who would have been born otherwise and by their numbers the world itself would be transformed, made-over into something that it could not have been had Gabriel Trent never lived.
I glanced across at the physician in a new light. Dr. Trent was making himself forever part of the future by the simple act of parenting, and would continue to do so perhaps to the very end of the human race. This was true of every fortunate parent, naturally, but how much more starkly the cosmic significance of it registered upon one's mind when he was allowed to think in terms of archetypes. I remembered all those Madonna-and-Child stamps the post office puts out in the Christmas season and grasped for the first time what a powerful and universal symbol they represented.
I soon passed the child back to Gabrielle and she regarded her baby's face as if seeing it for the first time -- though I doubted she had ever taken her eyes off it for more than a few minutes since leaving the infirmary.
"This planet made a miracle," Dr. Trent whispered as tears -- of humility and awe, I think -- rolled down her cheeks and she pressed the cooing infant to her breast. "I love this world," she murmured, but I couldn't tell whether she was speaking to us visitors, or to some entity much greater than any of us will ever be.
*****"The ruling class of America, that mix of political, medial, academic, and financial people who occupy the 7000 significant positions of power, holds a number of false beliefs. Unless these beliefs are corrected, or the ruling class is refreshed by a revolt from below, the United States is finished."
The Ruling Class, Karen Pinkerton, 2014
I was taking dinner with Mickie and Jordana when Billie and Lila came into the cafeteria a week later. Billie, being Billie, had on a low-cut white blouse, a mini-skirt, and high heels. Lila had clearly chosen her own clothes, since she was wearing a wine-colored pants suit which she had had the foresight to bring from home.
Here'sLila Rudensky without her glasses. While her choice of clothes wasn't bad, Lila managed to look awkward in almost anything she wore. The insert above was taken at her ingenue party, showing her in make-up and a wig. If I were a Tiresian warrior male I don't think I'd waste any time throwing the sexy Lila over my shoulder and carrying her off to my teepee the first chance I got.
The young scholar was squinting right and left as she crossed the dining room, the fashion-conscious Billie having advised her to keep the unflattering eye wear out of sight even though her new spectacles were not yet ready. In fact, I understood that Lila was expected to return to Earth for laser surgery to cure her hyperopia; she had a phobia against contact lenses and wearing glasses on Tiresias would make her a curiosity to the tribesmen she intended to study.
As I waved Billie and her roommate over, I noticed that Lyle had misjudged her size as a woman and her overly-long pants legs were slipping under her heels. Before I could warn her she stumbled against a man standing in the lunch line.
Lila, as I've mentioned, was far from the most coordinated person on the planet. When the pair had gotten their dinner and joined us, Lila bumped her chair against the leg of our table, which scrambled what was left of our meal. A moment later, being introduced to Mickie and extending a handshake, she knocked over a paper cup of soft drink with her too-long sleeve.
The disruption notwithstanding, we wished to welcome Lila into our odd little community as warmly as possible. She was, as we'd suspected, rather isolated in her own department with no one but the self-absorbed Dr. Donnalyn for company. The disorientation and strangeness of life on Tiresias could be a deadly thing at times; loneliness had lured Christy into a bad mistake and none of us wanted the same thing to happen to any other Charlie.
The young linguist seemed ill at ease as, indeed, she always had during our earlier meetings. Very probably us working stiffs were not Lyle Rudensky's accustomed company. Lyle had bought into the social system without apparently noticing how much it disadvantaged him. As with most egalitarians, class distinction was the be all and end all.
Fortunately, like most intellectuals Lila craved an audience and we found that playing to that trait was the best way to help her to relax. Whenever we got the slim brunette talking about any of her favorite subjects she became lively and animated. -- And, in fact, what she had to tell us was seldom uninteresting.
"I've wondered why we don't have a company of marines here," remarked Mickie. "We're just a little island of civilization in a sea of warlike barbarians."
"Attack is always a possibility," the linguist was saying, "but a remote one. Your guards are drilled in using military weaponry, should the need arise. That makes each of you worth twenty to a hundred barbarian warriors. Anyway, troops could be sent across from Earth at short notice."
What kind of planning was that? I wondered. I couldn't imagine a company of marines jumping into womanhood on the run and getting into the breech. In fact, they'd probably strain their backs trying to lift their basic equipment, much less move at more than a stumble in over-sized boots. Any scheme so idiotic could only come out of government.
"I remember the training I got when I first arrived," put in Billie uncertainly. "It's like a fire drill; they make you do it once and by the time there's a fire you can't remember the way out anymore. Anyway, my trainer said that I was good with an M76!"
So, the vivacious blonde had another talent that I hadn't suspected -- weapons proficiency. I felt a bit envious; the clerical staff hadn't received any such training.
"I've never been trained," I said.
Billie shrugged. "Budget cuts."
"The prison is built in a backward, low-population area," Lila assured us. "Primitive people are usually friendly to strangers, provided they're shown strength but not aggressiveness. Mountain men used to travel among the Indians all their lives -- and Jim Bridger lived to be seventy-seven.
"What the Indian traders did in the American West, we're trying to do here -- a non-judgmental appreciation of aboriginal cultures: learn the local languages, treat the people with respect, and provide a market for their trade goods. In fact, trading helps to defray some of our expenses; museums still pay well for Tiresian artifacts."
I silently chuckled at the very idea of old Jim Bridger filling in some band of craggy frontiersmen about his "non-judgmental appreciation of the Shoshones' aboriginal culture."
"But there are cities on this world, too," I reminded her.
"Oh, yes. They're on the level of the Bronze Age of Earth and are actually quite impressive. I'd give anything to visit one of them; it would be like stepping into ancient Antioch or Mycenae. We're making aerial surveys of the closest of these city states from Base Gephardt."
"I wonder what the natives think when they see a helicopter," grinned Jordana.
I had read about Base Gephardt -- another major "punch" site for two-way traffic between Earth and Tiresias. Unlike the penitentiary, Base Gephardt was strictly scientific in its purpose. There also were nonspecific reports of other, smaller "crossing points" around the planet. Some good work was being done by foreign institutions, too.
"Gephardt? That's a new word," murmured Billie. "What does it mean?"
"It's the Tiresian god of greed and destruction," I quipped.
Lila, somewhat short in the humor department, gave me an annoyed glance and cleared up the matter factually: "Speaker of the House Gephardt led the fight to get funding for the exploration base; he put a tax on RV's to support it. Duke University honored his patronage by naming it after him."
Ugly names and crass political patronage aside, Tiresias was a fascinating place for many reasons.
The planet's fauna was exceedingly rich, and a large portion of its animal species appeared to be the same as, or merely minor departures from, Pliocene mammals of prehistoric Earth. It was as if the biology of the two worlds had run in close parallel until recent geological history, after which the worlds for some reason went their own different ways. In fact, the shapes of the continents were so close that it took a minute examination to see basic discrepancies.
The reasons why some beasts became extinct on Earth while they survived on Tiresias were not at all apparent, except that Tiresias seemed not to have had any Pleistocene glaciation. Perhaps the Ice Age had forced evolutionary changes in wildlife that only had proven to be a detriment to them after warm weather had returned.
But the survival of ancient mammals on a neighboring world excited the world's zoological gardens, which were bidding competitively for specimens. Zoo teams had come across, too, but care had to be taken when transferring animal life back and forth between planes of reality. Who could say that dangerous microbes might not be transferred with them which would devastate Earth animal populations, or even people?
So far, though, no new diseases had been spread via transdimensional exchange, which was very strange. Some studies seemed to indicate that virulent new cultures often translated into commonplace ones during the transfer process. Even so, extreme care continued to be taken lest a Tiresian plague sweep unchecked across the Earth, or vice versa. Like so many other bureaucracies, the United States Center for Disease Control had its thumb in the Tiresian pie, but actually, if they knew their stuff, which was questionable, the USCDC's contribution could potentially be the most useful.
The entire subject of xeno-exploration was extremely exciting. If only I could be one of those few who "boldly go where no man has gone before, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations." How I envied what shy, clumsy Lila Rudensky was about to do. But where was my opportunity? I had been born in a country too wracked with social and economical ills for all but a few to realize their career ambitions.
Despite our talk about inter-dimensional diseases, Lila seemed more interested in another kind of contamination -- repeatedly calling to mind the lengths to which official policy went to avoid passing on Earth-specific knowledge, and particularly American traditions, to the natives of Tiresias. Clearly she was parroting the accepted cant, never having been trained to thinking deeply in any independent fashion.
I could guess the attitude of her instructors. Everything about a new culture was wonderful and exciting, while everything about Western Civilization was decadent and corrupting. I recalled a line from "The Mikado": -- "the idiot to praises with enthusiastic tone, every century but this, and every country but his own."
But it was just as well that government policy was what it was. Even if their intention was to protect aboriginal innocence from Voltaire and Charles Dickens, in doing so, they were also protecting the Tiresians from their own civilization-killing ethos. That would change, though, as soon as somebody in power found a way to profit by Tiresias' "deconstruction."
Next thing I knew Lila was describing a captive woman chaining and tattooing ritual.
"It really sounds like they treat women rough on this planet!" Billie observed when Lila described how the proudest act of Tiresian manhood was to kidnap an enemy's woman, tame her with the whip, and then, marked as property, chained, and collared, they were trained to cook, clean, make love, and dance.
"It's a paternalistic culture," Lila replied matter-of-factly, even though it would send any of her teachers into paroxysms if any of the same barbarian customs were practiced in the United States in the Old South, or even the more abhorred 1950's. But all was peachy as far as the morally-exalted were concerned. I didn't blame Lila, though; she was an intellectual and so didn't know better.
"Woman-stealing makes sense among primitive people," the young anthropologist was saying. "It keeps the gene pool stirred. -- But you're right, Billie, you shouldn't go outside these walls under any circumstances. You'd probably be considered by the locals what they call 'na sheri tigi' -- 'prime slave meat.'"
"I'm not the one who's going out there," Billie reminded her pointedly. "You are."
The scholar fell silent. Billie wasn't always brilliant, but sometimes her insights were right on the money. Work on Tiresias might be a wise career move -- but only if a man was willing to risk ending his days as a barbarian dancing girl.
#On Friday night my roommate popped in carrying Rod's camera and a brown paper bag -- but what struck me at once was the mischief in her blue eyes.
"What's the camera for?" I asked, looking up from my library book.
"I want to take some pictures of myself!" Allie chirped. "Will you help me out?"
"Sure." I sat up, pitched the book aside and reached for the camera.
"Not yet! Let me put on something sexy."
"What kind of pictures are they going to be?" I asked suspiciously.
"Lingerie, bikini shots. My tour is up in less than three months and I want to have something to remember this planet by."
"Allie, I thought you'd be the last person who'd ever want to be photographed again."
"Oh, Erin, those trading cards were dirty-minded and sick! This is going to be fun.'
"Different strokes for different folks."
"You know," she went on, "I was thinking that maybe I'll become my own favorite pin-up girl! 'Who's that hot chick on your desk, Alex?' she said, mimicking a man's voice. 'She's a real turn-on! Where can I find a babe that hot?!'"
"All right, I'll photograph you, if that's what you really want, but isn't the backdrop here pretty grungy?"
"That doesn't matter! A good paint program'll plug in any sort of background you click on -- a beach, a boudoir, a Wild West saloon -- anything. Say, do you think I could make a convincing saloon girl?" She held up a modern version of a sassy Victorian bustier.
"Is that what you have in the bag? Costumes?"
"Yeah! I don't have a lot of lingerie of my own, so I borrowed what I could from the other girls. Billie has a pile of stuff; guys give her a lot."
"That's our darling Billie. Did she loan you the French maid costume, too?"
"Oh, jeez! I forgot to ask!"
"You're getting weird, Allie."
"Oh, well, I've got plenty of other things. Maybe later."
For the next couple hours I was able to live out a personal fantasy of mine -- being the man behind the camera of a girlie magazine. Unfortunately, the girl in front of the camera wasn't a real girl, and the man behind the camera wasn't really a man.
But Allie did after all look like a girl of a very superior issue. I snapped her in baby dolls and then in garter belts, bustiers, and camis, in teddies and briefers, in bras, panties, and bikinis. She started getting carried away and before long she had me photographing her with her bra almost off, then completely off, her panties gradually rolled down to the last modicum of modesty, then shed entirely. My roommie sure looked cute nude in pigtails and hugging that borrowed teddy bear.
If the shots turned out well enough she might even make some money by selling them to a magazine. Sometimes serials like Ruby or Gentlemen's Agreement ran photo features of gorgeous Charlies along with their regular fare of all-girl models. In fact, I had seen one pictorial entitled "The Girls of Tiresias" that had come out almost a year before my planet fall, and so none of my current friends had appeared in it. I wondered, though, whether Allie might show up in some future issue; a man has to earn his bread somehow, considering the dismal state of the economy.
Allie then fell back on the bed, tired out. "I guess that's enough for me," she panted. "I wonder what my grandchildren will think when I show them those pictures someday."
"I just hope you wait until they're over eighteen!"
Her rippling laugh hardly sounded grandfatherly. "Say, Erin, why don't you let me take your picture, too, now that we've got all this stuff here?"
"Me? I don't think so."
"Come on, A.C, be a sport. You'll probably want to do it before you leave anyway. When will you have a better chance?"
About fifteen minutes later I was wearing a purple bikini, holding a beach ball, and imagining being on an Acapulco beach. Allie had always had a knack for talking me into doing the silliest things!
Once I'd overcome my initial reluctance, I actually had a lot of fun with the picture shoot. With Allie's help I went through many changes of hairstyle, makeup and outfits. Allie's enthusiasm proved infectious and my Svengali roommate even coaxed me into a blue bustier to become an Old West Saloon Girl. All I can say is that if women insist on wearing the clothes they do for fun and frolic, they don't have the right to sue anybody for sexual harassment.
Eventually, just as worn out as Allie, I collapsed into bed. My roommie sat downn beside me wearing only panties and a flower-printed cami, looking so delectable that I couldn't help thinking, "If only I were a man and she wasn't."
"You're incredible!" Allie panted through an ear-to-ear grin.
"You are," she whipsered, laying her hand on my bare thigh and stroking it. I glanced up into her face and her smile faded like a sunlit field when a dark cloud passes over.
"Erin, I -- " she began haltingly, "I've been wanting to ask you something, but -- but no matter what it is, you have to promise me that it won't stop us from being friends."
"You sound serious," I remarked, losing my own smile. "Well, sure, I promise. I'd never want any silly little thing to come between us."
"That's good," Allie nodded, but did so in a way as to suggest that she was not wholly reassured. "I -- " she began and then halted.
She looked so serious that I found myself hoping that the question, whatever it was, would not be asked. I sensed that it was probably dynamite. Despite my misgivings, I reached out and took her hand. "What is it, Alexander?"
Calling her "Alexander" was poor calculation, since it encouraged her to swim out into hazardous waters. "I don't know how to say this, Erin," she struggled, "but -- but sometimes I get the strongest feelings -- about, well -- like asking you to -- "
I took a deep breath. I didn't want to ask, but I had to: "What, Allie?"
"-- To let me make love to you."
I sucked in a long breath.
No wonder Allie felt like coming on to me! Here I am in the Wild West getup I mentioned. The backdrop, by the way, is just a digital insert that my roommie added to dress the scene up a bit. Or maybe "dress up" is the wrong term to use.
Now she had said it; her face, though forcing a smile, was braced as if expecting pain. I don't think my own expression had changed, but I felt my discomfort keenly and my mind raced to respond.
Oh, Alexander, why did you have to ask me that?
I knew what my reply had to be, but how could I express it and still give no hurt? Allie, my best friend, had asked me something very personal, very difficult, and had rendered herself very vulnerable.
I stared at her, suddenly distracted by the fluorescent light on her amber hair. A feeling of crisis squirmed within me; it was like my best friend had just dropped the bomb that she was gay and wanted to be my lover.
But this wasn't homosexuality, not really. What was happening to Allie, I realized, was succumbing to her male persona and was seeing me, and not herself, as an attractive woman -- a woman whom she could love. What a strange thought!
"Erin?" she asked in a ragged whisper.
I was taking a long time answering, but it was because I didn't know how to frame that answer. One wrong word and our friendship would be scorched, scarred forever. We might still smile and have comradely moments afterwards, but it would never be the same. Allie was opening her heart to me, baring her soul; if I couldn't reply in a similar spirit something very precious to both of us would be lost forever.
At last I gazed directly into her eyes, as if piloting a ship through a minefield and said, "Allie, I won't be able to take very much away with me from Tiresias -- some souvenirs, some clothing, some sexy pictures, but that's about it. Except for one other thing -- something that's more important than any of that stuff. It's something so important that I don't want to leave it behind, no matter what."
"W-What do you mean, Erin?"
"Our friendship, Allie. I came here expecting a bad time and some hard knocks, but I found a best friend instead. I want to see you again when we're both back home; I want to see a lot of you. I want to be best buddies for a lifetime."
"That's what I want, too."
I squeezed her hand. "I know. But we've got to be careful or it just won't happen."
"You're mad at me!"
I winced, as if an exploding torpedo had just torn the bottom out of that ship of mine.
"No, Allie," I insisted, "I love you. I love you in almost every way that a -- human being -- can possibly love another, but we don't dare love each other -- that way."
"Why not? I love you, too!"
"Because we're living an illusion! It won't last. What we do today will be gone tomorrow, no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. But if we're not careful, it's an illusion that'll ruin things for the rest of our lives."
She didn't reply, so I hurried on.
"Allie, I could very easily make love to you; I could have a wonderful time being a lesbian, I'm sure. In fact, that's probably what I am."
"Don't make it sound that way, Erin."
"I only mean that there's no one I'd rather go to bed with than you. I know I could be gay as a girl, but -- but I could never be a gay guy. Could you?"
"No! Of course not! But it's not about being gay."
I stroked the back of her hand. "Back home we're going to be two guys again. -- That's great, but if we have sex together now, how could we ever look one another in the eye later on? All we'd feel is embarrassment. It would drive us apart. Don't you see?"
Allie bent her head and I studied her expression anxiously, afraid that I had hurt her despite my best efforts.
"Damn it, Aaron!" she said.
She had used my male name; what that meant I wasn't sure. I waited with baited breath for the other shoe to fall.
"Damn it, Aaron -- you're right!" she exclaimed.
#She dropped back to the spare pillow and her azure irises rolled up toward the ceiling in self-censure.
"What was I thinking?!"
I sat up and looked down into her grimacing face. "You were only expressing what I've thought about doing a hundred times, Allie. You just had more nerve than I did."
"But less brains!"
I felt a surge of relief; even though I had sexually rejected her, I really dared to believe that I had saved our friendship!
I stroked her pale gold hair. "I've had sex before, Allie, but I've never had a friend like you. I'd never want to do anything to spoil what we have; I only wish that we could be the opposite sex when this is all over."
"Of course," I added, "I'd want to be the man."
She perked up in surprise. "Hey, why should it be you? I want to be the man! You make a better woman than me."
I looked at her incredulously; what she was saying was so patently ridiculous that I snatched up my pillow and hit her with it. "What do you mean I make a better woman?! You've got woman written all over you!"
She took her own pillow and replied in kind. "I do not!"
"You do so!" And I hit her again.
"You're the hottest chick on the whole planet!" she laughed, smacking me in the face. "I bet you're great in bed!"
"I am not!" I yelled and the pillow fight went wild. Once we had pummeled one another for all we were worth, we fell down together, laughing hysterically, our arms wrapped around one another -- in care, in trust, and comradeship.
*****"Corruption is like a ball of snow; once it's set rolling it's bound to increase."
From Arkansas to Washington, Gloria La Farge, 2011
There really could be an upside to being a woman, (which didn't include menstruation, of course); on the other hand, some of the Sallys were finding out there could be a downside to being a man. Men needed more sex than women -- or, rather, women could sublimate their erotic drive so much easier than men; maybe it was that which had been behind my and Allie's photo session and pillow fight.
It didn't help the Sallys that so many of us Tiresian females were holding off from sex, or while not shunning it entirely were cutting back to punish piggish boyfriends -- as I had recommended the night of my ingenue party. The tension of the situation mounted but, interestingly, some of the most gonadal types like Jake and his randy pals, seemed to remain their usual steady, obnoxious selves as if nothing was happening. Go figure.
After a couple quiet weeks passed, the news came down that Jesse was being recalled to Earth to be charged with a criminal assault against a co-worker; he would be confined to quarters until then.
He should have been tried under the draconian Violence Against Women Act, which, like tax law, assumed the accused's guilt and required him to prove his innocence. The much more mild assault charges were therefore just a token gesture -- but tokenism usually went in the vanguard of real concessions, and it could have meant that our movement as a whole was making progress.
Dori Gurtz always had a card up her sleeve, since she was a damned good amateur magician. She was a sweet, even-tempered guy always ready to leand a helping hand. We also depended on her to teach us to baby-sit, since she was the only one in our immediate circle who had children back home.
On Thursday night Dori and Andrea invited me to go watch a taped Falcons vs. Jets football game in the monitor room. The event came as a courtesy from the prison recreation committee and was intended for the entertainment of the staff and, after them, the prisoners. I really preferred baseball, though, and the pigskin action soon had my mind wandering.
Why would a man make a career out of the physical danger and punishment of professional football? The money? The cheerleaders? The popularity? I suddenly realized that I wasn't looking at strong men exercising a power, but desperate males trying to escape the consequences of powerlessness.
It seemed to me that to win the esteem of his parents, his community, the more attractive girls, and even of his peers, almost every boy wanted to become a pro athlete if he could. The majority of us who couldn't begin to cut it lived vicariously through the sports hero's life; everything that a young boy could do outside the realm of major league sports was considered second best.
If he performed well in school, he was just a nerd; if he excelled at the arts, he was a sissy. The lad who made the field goal was automatically a champion, while the boys who couldn't perform for the crowd were ignored.
Did such denigrated youths find power in the mere fact that they were male? Hardly. Theirs was a whole different "ball game" from their sisters'. To win esteem, a woman simply had to be what she was born, her challenge to the world being, "Take me as I am."
In contrast, a man was considered incomplete in his own being; he had to make something out of himself -- no matter what the cost to the health of his body and spirit.
Except for his money, I never envied the professional athlete. Where was the cheerleader who would tell Rocky Rhodes, a has-been at thirty-five with the knees of a geriatric: "I don't care that you'll never walk again without a cane, Rocky; any woman you marry would love to work to support you. You've got such a cute face that it curls my toes and I love your personality."
The whole history of the male in society was one of his trying to get around the inescapable fact of his powerlessness. This powerlessness was deep-rooted, coming from his primordial role of defender of the group. An Achilles or Hector might be admired, but their very role of first-rank defender implied expendability. People around them could make their plans fairly certain that A and H wouldn't be around for long.
It was the male who died young in war, or came back crippled or blind. It was the male who wore the false limbs and back-braces acquired in the course of dangerous civilian work that women could disdain without approbation; it was the male who had to endure the lonely sea voyages, the treks into the mountains to trade furs with cruel savages.
There were plenty of bad men, such as the prisoners of Tiresias -- twisted products of a twisted culture, but the brute male of modern sociological fantasy, the gorilla in human mask burning and raping his way across history, had to yield to the sad reality -- that of a very vulnerable being whose capacity for self-denial and self-sacrifice bordered on the heroic. Or was it only a dysfunction -- a craving for outside approval at any price?
#On Friday, as I did almost every day, I got together with Rod to have a few sets of love -- tennis, I mean -- while talking about his book. Neither of us owned a real tennis outfit and so we wore just T-shirts and workout shorts; it made no sense to buy expensive clothes for Tiresias that wouldn't fit us back home.
Because the employees had no special tennis court for themselves, we had to use the prisoners' during those hours when it was closed to them. Surrounded by a high wire-mesh and with plenty of tough Sally guards patrolling the vicinity, we felt safe enough, though the court abutted the recreation grounds and the prisoners were able to press up close to the wire and gawk at us. We soon learned to ignore them as we played.
Rod and I had earlier discussed the Jesse business, with Rod agreeing that the Service's decision was just a sop to the Charlies -- one which would frustrate more than satisfy. What was more galling, we couldn't forget that Jake and the others hadn't received any discipline at all so far. -- But because rehashing so disagreeable a subject was lousing up our game, we concentrated upon the sport for the next half hour.
Once, when Rod was chasing after the ball, my attention wandered to the prisoners. Some of the inmates were pretty good-looking chicks -- especially the one wearing extra-tight, cotton-spandex shorts and a tank-top. A fetching Hispanic, her simple-but-sexy outfit emphasized her physical femaleness -- as it was intended to.
This is Luis Robles, the "top con" of Tiresias prison, standing where she can watch the tennis matches. To tell the truth, I enjoyed watching a girl as well-stacked as her, too.
Transforming a prisoner's self-image was part of the psychological conditioning; the more our killers and thieves thought of themselves as women, the less dangerous they tended to be. Much more could have been done in this regard, I suppose, but the policy couldn't be carried too far; this was federal prison, after all, not some transvestite humiliation fantasy.
But I thought that I recognized the girl. That fact nagged at me until I remembered that she was the same hot tamale whose lovely butt I had seen exiting the transference chamber when I crossed over from Earth. Her Latin lips and dark liquid eyes could send shivers down a man's spine. -- I knew because despite my transformation, I wasn't totally immune to a woman's beauty. But, I reminded myself, it was foolish to think of her in that way. The femlin wouldn't have been behind the wire at all if she didn't possess the mind of a violent criminal.
#When Rod and I called it a day as far as tennis was concerned, he continued unusually quiet and coaxed me to a spot out of sight of both guards and prisoners. This aroused my suspicions, because he'd seemed uncharacteristically preoccupied over the last few days. I'd already questioned him about it, but he'd only told me it was personal business and then, with obvious effort, he'd always act cheered up. But now that vexed look had come back in force.
"Did you want to tell me something?" I asked. Then, thinking I was being too solemn, I tried to make light of it: "It can't be another presidential scandal; you could broadcast those on Radio Free America and no one would care."
He set his face in a tight smile and shook his head. "I don't know if I should tell you what I've been researching, but you're going to be here long after I'm gone and I don't want you stumbling into trouble you could avoid. I'll be risking enough of that when I go back home and write up my "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" story for my paper.
I already knew that Rod intended to write a feature article about Tiresias prior to compiling his book, but up to now he'd never suggested it was going to be anything more than a light fluff piece for a Sunday edition.
"What kind of trouble?"
"What a relief! I'd thought it might be something serious." My levity, however well-intended, was not playing well and my companion's face remained grave. "Why the gloom, Rod? Nobody cares about corruption anymore. Nothing is corrupt if you have the Washington Post and New York Times on your side."
He grew so silent that I feared he was going to chicken out of telling me after all. "Hey, come on, guy; don't be so mysterious!"
He shrugged. "I guess you already know that I talk to everybody about everything."
"Yeah -- and I'm as jealous as hell!"
He looked at me and I cursed myself. What made me say a thing so stupid? "Trash that last statement!" I said hurriedly. "I was only kidding!"
"I know," sighed Rod, letting me off the hook much too easily, I thought, consider the pleasure he took in teasing. That told me that something big was troubling him, and so I waited quietly and attentively.
"You mentioned a while back that Jake and his boys are shrugging off your association's sexual boycott as if they didn't give a damn."
"Yeah. I've figured that they were beating the meat, or maybe each other."
"It's not that simple."
This sounded interesting and so I looked him straight in the eye. "So what are they doing?"
"Prostitution; it started about the time you came three months ago."
"Hey -- ! What are you trying to say?"
He took my arm. "I guess I didn't put that very well.."
"Well, say it better, then!" I said, suppressing a laugh.
"I'm serious, Erin."
I put on an attentive face. "Okay, I'm listening."
"I've got good reason to think that one of the prisoners who came across at the same time you did has put it into operation. He -- she -- picks out the vulnerable, good-looking prisoners and beats them into compliance, or bribes them into performing for any Sally who wants to get his rocks off."
"You're talking about the guards? The administrators?"
He nodded. "Both."
This was gross! But it begged another question: "What can they bribes people with? Biscuits purloined from mess?"
"Drugs. Mostly blizzard."
I frowned; "blizzard" was an almost-untraceable synthetic drug popular with addicts back home. "That's rotten stuff," I said with a shiver.
"Yeah. The guards and administrators supply it in exchange for sex, and the cons use it to recruit more hookers. Bad- drug-reaction cases are turned over to collaborating physicians. . . ."
"Not Dr. Trent?"
He shook his head. "No. In fact, Trent got suspicious first -- about the way that some prisoners were coming in already assigned to other medics, even though as head of the department she should be deciding such things. Gabrielle put me on to the story more than a month ago. She's been as worried as all hell."
"She never let on to me."
"I asked her to keep it under her hat until she went back to Earth. It's for her own good; who can be trusted here? Even Warden Gershom has to be a suspect -- in fact, he's so fond of Jake and Company that it's hard to believe that he isn't involved up to his eyeballs. Some higher-ups have to be corrupt; the junk couldn't be phase-shifted from Earth otherwise -- if that's actually the way they're bringing it in."
"Is there another way?"
"Yes," he said with a grim nod. "We're set up here to be much more self-sufficient than most penitentiaries -- because we're so isolated. We've got a good chemical synthesis lab and that means that if some harmless-seeming chemical components are ordered in, it would only take a couple corrupt techs working nights to synthesize blizzard locally."
"The bastards!" I exclaimed. "Say, do you suppose that Gershom came across with maternity leave for Dr. Trent because he wanted to put his own department head in her place?"
Rod bit his lower lip. "I've thought about that. If the warden's involved you can bet he'd hand-pick some crony to cover things up on the medical end. In fact, it's a better way than simply getting rid of Trent by refusing her a second tour. If she up and left, the U.S.C.S. would pick a new department head from outside -- one who might turn out to be just as incorruptible. As is, Gershom is allowed to pick a temporary acting head."
I waited raptly for him to continue.
"Well," he said at last, "I don't know a whole lot more. I'm still probing, but I don't want to get my informants into trouble by tipping off the culprits that there's an investigation going on. A lot of accidents can happen to inconvenient people way out here -- and every bureaucracy knows how to survive by cover-up."
"I also know that drug gangs can be damned mean," I muttered, suddenly concerned for my friends guarding the blocks. If one of them should find out something -- and then someone should find out that they'd found out. . . .
"It could be bad. But there's just one more thing: I do have an idea which inmate started the balling rolling. You've seen her," he concluded.
"That Latin girl, the one watching us play tennis today."
"The banana republic bombshell?"
"Yes, her. I've talked to my prisoner contacts, but all I know is that her name is Luis Robles and she's Columbian. The gossip says that she's an illegal whose mother sneaked into the country already pregnant to give her baby citizenship. I also gather that Luis turned pimp at the age of sixteen -- and before that he'd gotten into a lot more bad shit than anyone his age should have had time to do."
"I could get the details on him from the prisoner files," I offered.
"No!" Rod said with sudden, surprising sharpness. "That's the last thing I want you to do."
"Why? What kind of reporter doesn't want to know more?"
"I'm a reporter second and your friend first! Don't touch any sensitive files; the personnel records of every prisoner, guard, administrator, tech, and medic involved in this scam could have been red-flagged by now -- and your password would point them your way."
I wasn't going to be daunted so easily. "I think Mickie could find away around security systems; she's a whiz. We might find something to get the goods on the gang. In fact, any red-flagging might work against them. Any file that's gotten special treatment has to be considered as belonging to a suspect!"
"No! Absolutely not! Don't get Mickie or anyone else involved! I'm only telling you as much as I am to keep you out of trouble -- and to keep any of the other girls out of a bad fix, too, if they happen to learn something dangerous on their own and come to you for advice. I can't help taking some risk myself, but I don't want to be responsible for endangering anyone else."
I looked at him, admiring the way he was coming off like a courageous, commanding loner -- really adventure-movie stuff. "I think you're becoming a man, Rod," I observed with a wry smile.
He smiled right back. "Thanks. And may I say I've been fascinated watching you turn into a woman one inch at a time. I kind of like the sort of woman you're becoming."
I pushed him away. "Hey -- don't start talking dirty! I'm the same old lovable Joe Zilch I ever was!"
#After talking to Rod the sky seemed to grow dark; it was like a cloud had been hung over the prison sky. Sure, I'd known that most of my superiors were S.O.B.'s, but it was much worse to find out that among them were actual criminals who could be counted on do almost anything to protect themselves against discovery. I wished I could talk about the problem with confidants, but I didn't dare involve anyone else, not even Allie.
Life on Tiresias had never been something to recommend, but this news had made it worse. And to think that just one greedy, black-haired tart had started the whole mess! -- No, I was wrong. Luis Robles was a nobody who was simply pulling the right levers in a system already poisoned. In fact, I could almost admire the way she'd managed to do so much from the very bottom of the heap.
Even so, my indignation centered on Luis even more than on Gershom and Jake. Maybe I'd seen too many Tireasias movies, but I couldn't help fantasizing about a special punishment for the prisoner who was pimping the other prisoners. It usually involved the hot little senorita being thrown over the shoulder of a Tiresian barbarian, who carried off into the wild to become the obedient slave girl 'Luisa."
As for Jake, I didn't have any particular fantasies about him -- except the one which ends with a dance finale at the end of a rope.
Fantasies aside, I didn't like the idea of Rod facing trouble alone, but drug gangs always played for keeps and only ignorance could protect an innocent bystander. If I were some plucky heroine in an adventure novel I suppose I'd snoop and pry, no matter how emphatically my guy had warned me, until I got caught by the bad guys and Rod would have to rescue me. And then there'd be a lot of shooting and -- oh, hell!
Who needs shooting, kid? Keep your mouth shut and do your job. That's how people survive in the real world.
#After having warned me, Rod didn't volunteer any more information and he resisted my attempts to revisit the subject. His lock-jaw attitude was frustrating, but merely talking things out seemed to have relieved his anxiety. Within a couple days he was acting more like his old self.
"Allie invited me to Andrea's bikini party," Rod commented a bare week after our serious talk.
I nodded, knowing that it was the custom for a person to get a going-away party at the end of his or her tour. The most popular variety was the "bikini party," a last chance for the Charlie to "strut her stuff" and to get some mind-blowing photos of herself and her best buddies.
"I didn't know that you and Allie were such good friends," I remarked with a hint of stiffness. "Are you escorting her?"
"No. She said you were unsure about going and thought you'd be more likely to go if I escorted you."
"I wasn't unsure. -- I told her flat out that I wasn't going!"
"Because she said I couldn't go if I didn't wear a bikini. Well, I don't own a bikini -- I don't have any real swimsuit of any kind! They cost too much here."
"You can borrow one."
"Where I come from you don't borrow intimate things," I fibbed. The real reason was that wearing swimsuits and lingerie in front of Allie in the privacy of my own room was one thing, but wearing a bikini outdoors for all to see was another. For Christ's sake -- under all this deceptive flesh I was still a man and I had to live with myself when this was all over.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, Erin. Maybe you'll change your mind."
"Don't count on it!"
#I was surprised and a little disappointed when Rod failed to make a date for Friday night after our Thursday get-together. Resigned to pass a quiet Friday night alone, I was reading "Riders of the Purple Sage" when the phone rang and Allie practically broad-jumped across the room to answer it.
"Yes," she replied excitedly into the receiver, "Send him up."
"You're expecting a guest?" I asked. "Are you taking a date to Andrea's party?" I knew Allie wasn't the dating type, probably because of the way that Buck had double-crossed her.
"Not exactly," she hedged.
My friend clearly wanted to play it coy, so I decided to wait her out; the mysterious Sally would arrive any second and then I could see who he was. To my surprise, Rod showed. "Look who's here!" Allie piped.
I saw them exchange knowing glances and wondered if there was something going on between the two of them. Come to think of it, Allie and Rod had been getting very chummy of late, like when she had gone to him to borrow a camera even though some of the other girls had cameras, too. Maybe Rod had offered to escort her to the party after I had refused him. -- All right, that's fair. But why hadn't Allie mentioned it? Was she feeling guilty and thought she should conceal it? But why would she feel guilty? She wouldn't -- unless she had something to feel guilty about!
"Are you here to see Allie or me?" I asked and immediately felt stupid asking two friends such a question.
"To see Allie?" Rod echoed incredulously. "No, I came because I've got a gift for you."
"For me?" I blinked, profoundly relieved.
He held out a little carton about the size of a candy box. When I took it I instantly realized that it was much too light for candy.
"It's not my birthday. It's not any holiday at all; what's the occasion?"
"It's Andrea's last night on Tiresias."
"What's that got to do with me?" As I fumbled the box open I had my answer -- it contained a leopard-spot bikini with a wrap -- one of those high-cut items with a sparing halter and practically nothing for bottoms -- a thong!
"What's this for?" I asked sourly.
"It's your outfit for the party," Rod said. "You said you didn't have a bikini of your own, so I bought you one."
I scowled. "You were in this together! What is it about seeing me naked that turns you two on so?"
"Nobody at the party is going to be naked," grinned Allie. "Anyway, wearing a bikini isn't the same as being naked. If it really bothers you, you've got a cover-up!"
"You picked it out, didn't you?" I accused my roommate.
"She didn't have to," Rod broke in. "I know my way around bikinis. I used to look pretty good in one myself, if I do say so."
I threw the suit at his smirking face. "Fine, you wear it!"
"Erin, be fair," pleaded Allie. "You never told Rod you were against wearing a bikini on principle; you just said you couldn't afford one and wouldn't stoop to borrowing. So he got one for you and it cost him a lot. You're being unreasonable."
"You could have told him the facts!" I snapped.
"I don't tell personal things about my friends!" she explained ingenuously. "Come on, be a sport; you don't want to hurt Andrea's feelings. When I told her that you were getting a bikini, she took it for granted that you'd come to the party!"
"Every time somebody tells me I have to be a sport, I end up having to do something dumber and more humiliating than the last time."
"What's the big deal, Erin? We're all going to be in bikinis."
"Except me," put in Rod.
#Most of the girls were already at the pool when we arrived. Allie ran ahead of Rod and me, laughing, "Okay, everybody, 'Two, three, four. Tell the people what she wore!'"
They all began to sing:
"It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, wild leopard spot bikini,
"That she wore for the first time today!
"An itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny wild leopard spot bikini!
"So in the locker she wanted to stay!"
I wrapped my cover-up around myself and spun on my heels, declaring, "I'm out of here!" But Rod took hold of my shoulders and I could have more easily dragged a mountain. The other girls, all wearing two-piece swim wear, surrounded me.
"It was just a joke, Erin," coaxed Jordana. The others offered their own blandishments to convince me to stay. I even got a couple kisses.
This is Jordana McNallen trying hard to look sultry. She was always a good bud to me and one of the smartest people in the Association. She also played a wild guitar and became the poet laureate of our movement.
"Hey, cut it out!" I rumbled. "I can't stand being kissed by men!"
"I don't know about you, baby," said Andrea, "but I'm not going to be a man until tomorrow. Come to think of it, that'll no reason to stop kissing a cute little piece like you!"
"Chill out!" Dori told everybody. "Erin's a good sport and we've picked on her enough."
"What am I supposed to do with you guys?" I complained. "Thank Heaven you only want to humiliate me, not sell me into white slavery."
"The white slavery doesn't start until midnight, buttercup," Andrea teased.
They led me back to the pool chairs and, still disgruntled, I plopped down into one. Allie took a place at my lef, and Rod lat claim to the chair on the right. I adjusted my wrap to cover as much of my thighs as possible.
"Bullshit aside," grinned Andrea, "I'm awfully glad you came, Erin."
"We all are," seconded Jordana.
"You shouldn't be ashamed to let people see more of your body, Erin," Billie said. "You're beautiful."
"Don't make a federal case out of it. I'll be all right!" I scoffed grumpily as I crouched into my chair.
#Mickie showed up just a few minutes later and, after having quickly taken stock of things, she started filling paper cups with Cool-Aid and passing them out. Considering my mood, I could have used a stiffer drink than mere grape Cool-Aid.
"I guess you're excited about going home," remarked Jordana to Andrea.
"I suppose I am. But I'm gonna to miss all of you."
"In less than a year you won't know anybody here," said Mickie.
"Jake'll still be here, I bet," Billie quipped.
The black girl laughed bitterly. "Earth doesn't have much to recommend it, but it's gotta be a better place with him/her/it over here!"
"You've got people at home?" I asked.
"I sure do, if any of them have survived the last year."
"What do you mean?" Allie asked.
I mean their neighborhoods are like war zones! Nobody dares go out after 9:00 a.m. because that's when the street gangs crawl out of bed."
"Kids their age ought to be in school!" Mickie said sternly.
"School? The only people who don't carry guns at school are the security guards. Those kids never learn to read, but, man, can they push drugs!"
Her mood turned darker still. "I've got a cousin who worked hard in class and got good marks despite everything. But when it came time for financial aids for college, she didn't qualify because her grades and discipline record showed that she wasn't "at risk." Under the system, you can't get help unless you're an illiterate troublemaker. The last I knew she was frying hamburgers at a Burger King."
"Who sets up these programs?" Billie wondered out loud.
"I don't know, but if it was the Nazi party they couldn't done it better. I get mad every time I think about what those bastards in Washington are doing to us. If a revolution ever comes, I'm gonna get me a gun an' start shooting, If it doesn't, I might as well move to some free country, like Uganda or Singapore. Hell, maybe I should take a page from your book, Erin, and start the revolution myself."
I shifted uneasily. "Shooting isn't part of my book, Andrea. The trouble with revolutions is that the people who get killed first will be the honest fools doing their duty, the soldiers and the cops on the line. The people with the power are going to hide in their bunkers until the last."
"It wouldn't be any fun to kill that kind first anyway. I want them to feel the noose tightening, like Hitler in his bunker."
"Hey, all this talk is getting heavy!" laughed Billie nervously. "Anybody want to join me in the pool?"
"I will," volunteered Rod.
Billie plummeted into the water like a playful teenager and Rod leaped after her. The driblets from his mighty dive rained down on my bare legs.
As I watched the two of them plashing around the pool my brows knitted. What was my escort doing swimming with the most beautiful girl on Tiresias? More reacting than acting, I pushed up to my feet and paced hesitantly to the diving board.
"Take your cover off and come on in!" called Rod.
"I'm not taking anything off," I yelled back as I leaped into the water, knifing down, feet-first, between the swimming twosome.
"Oh, Erin, you're so silly!" the dunked blonde admonished me.
"Will you stop making a big deal about my clothes?" I complained as I leveled off and began to float.
"It's not fair that you get to see all of us in our swimsuits and we can't see you."
"Just drop it! It's not normal to want to see me in a bathing suit" I told her sharply as Rod glided around behind me.
Suddenly my treacherous boy friend grabbed my arms, crying, "I'll hold her, Billie. You undress her!"
"You voyeuristic bastards!" I yowled as the traitorous Billie undid the ties of my wrap. Then Rod stripped the cover-up off my back and splashed out of reach as I tried to pummel him. Billie also dog-paddled away, afraid that I was going to punch her out.
Rod quickly climbed up to the tiles, holding my cover-up for all to see, like the token of a panty raid!
"Come on out, Erin. Let's see what you look like!" Jordana called.
"Not on your life, you degenerates! I'll stay in the water until it's dark!"
They all laughed until Allie scurried to the edge of the pool and yelled, "Better come out, Erin, or we'll all sing Wild Leopard Spot Bikini until you do!"
"Go to hell!"
She was as good as her threat:
"Two, three, four, stick around we'll tell you more!
"Now she's afraid to come out of the water.
"I wonder what she's going to do.
"Now she's afraid to come out of the water,
"And the poor little girl's turning blue!
"No! No more!" I pleaded. "I'd rather be tortured in the cellars of the National Organization of Women than hear another word!"
I swam over to the ladder and emerged dripping wet. "All right, laugh if you want to," I growled. "That's what all this is about anyway!"
"Photographs!" shouted Mickie and there was a click-click-clicking all around me; every hand seemed to have a camera in it.
Given my mood, it was a wonder that the water beading me didn't steam. Then Rod sidled over and put his arms about my waist, laughing, "Simmer down, Erin. It's just because you're always making such a big deal about women's clothes that you invite a lot of joking around."
"Yeah, sure. What's next? Anyone want me to drop my top?"
"Do your own thing, baby. We're all grown-ups here!" yelled Andrea.
I sat down, teeth gritted, but my pride prevented me from retreating back into my soaking-wet cover-up.
You look really wild in those leopard spots," observed Andrea. "Don't let the barbarians see you in that getup -- or one of them is just apt to throw Erin the Jungle Girl over his shoulder and take her off to the woods for some major whoopee!"
"Remember what Lila said about tattoos, collars, and slave dances," put in Mickie.
"You broads have been watching too many porno flicks," I grumbled. "Will you stop making me the center of attention?"
"She's right," agreed Allie. "We've had enough fun with poor Erin. Let's get off her back." Turning my way she said: "Would you like to take some picture of us for revenge now, roommie?"
I accepted her proffered camera. "I guess so; I can always make trading cards out of them."
"That was low," blenched Andrea, and even Allie looked pained.
Funny thing about a bikini; after you've worn one in public for about a half hour it doesn't feel much different from wearing bib overalls!
******"Love demands infinitely less than friendship."
Adventures in Contentment, William Pratt, 2003
Things settled down after that; we all chatted, swam together, and then played some volleyball. Subsequent to another quick dip to cool off, we repaired to the chairs and the topic of Rod's book came up.
"When's your research going to be done?" asked Jordana.
"It's really done already," Rod said. "I mean, I'm always learning new details, but I have what I need to discuss the proposition intelligently and, anyway, my leave is almost up. I won't have a job to go home to if I stall any longer."
"Have you been stalling?" wondered Billie.
"A little," he admitted.
I hadn't realized that Rod was so close to leaving. I had nine months to go on Tiresias myself and suddenly felt very much alone.
"W-When do you go?" I asked, appalled by my telltale stumble.
"At the next big transfer. It's not scheduled yet, but will certainly be in less than a week. They have to send Jesse back and Andrea's tour is up, but they still want a few other things to come together before they pull the switch. Operating a transfer isn't cheap."
"Are -- Are you going to miss this place?" I asked haltingly.
He cast a meaningful glance my way. "Some things I'll miss very much."
"When I get back to Earth I'll want to look you up," I said carefully. "That'll be all right, won't it?"
"I'd be very sorry if you didn't."
I thought I should say something more, but no words came. Suddenly I wished that I could leave the party gracefully and go off by myself to have a proper funk.
"It's strange, but I almost regret the inevitability of becoming a woman again," the journalist remarked.
"You wouldn't regret anything if you had to put up with what we do back home," advised Dori seriously.
Rod shrugged. "I suppose that's true."
"You know," Andrea interjected, "this place has changed my head. I've seen the system with its pants down and from now on all I care about is what's good for me, my friends, and my family. If anybody says 'boo' to that, the fuckers better duck for cover!"
"You're turning into quite a revolutionary, Andrea," Dori observed.
"Damned straight!" the black girl snorted.
It was getting dark and the insects bothersome, so we started wrapping things up. I had had a good time, over all, up to the point where Rod reminded us that he'd soon be going home. That prospect bothered me more than I had ever thought possible.
#Rod and I spent much of the weekend together without directly addressing the subject of his imminent departure or the big story he intended to break once he got there, but it finally couldn't be put off any longer.
"Erin," he suddenly said when we met in the dormitory lounge, "the word's been given. I'm leaving on Wednesday morning."
I felt a huge emptiness. I had expected at least a couple more days than that. "That's not very long," I said, trying to hold my voice steady. "You never mentioned how little time you had left until the party. Why?"
"You never asked."
I looked away.
"No, that's not what I wanted to say. What I mean is, I wasn't looking forward to leaving, not after I met you. I was trying not to think about it and I certainly didn't want to bring it up and rain on our parade.
"Yeah, we make a good team."
"And there was one other reason."
"-- I didn't want to mention it and then find out that you didn't think that it was any big deal."
"Rod! We're better friends than that. We --" I was groping. "-- We could have given you a party."
He laughed, amazed. "I don't need a party."
"I think you should have one."
He squeezed my upper arms. "Erin, listen. I just want to spend as much time with you as possible before I go. That'll be my party."
I kept my chin up. "Sounds good. Are you free Tuesday night?"
"I didn't make any special plans. What did you have in mind?"
"I'd like to cook you a last supper."
"A last supper? Erin, that's sweet, but I'm not being executed!"
I scowled. He laughed gently.
"I'd love to taste your cooking, but you really don't have to make it sound so final."
"It won't be. I'll be seeing you once I get back to Earth. I promise." For some reason, my mind flashed back to our first meeting. "You know, I was positive that you were out to seduce me that night we met." I didn't add that I was a little disappointed that he'd never even tried. It was just like all the guys said; when a girl says "no" she really means, "maybe."
"I didn't want it that way, Erin. Making love to you would have been wrong."
"Because there's never been a time when it would have felt right. Maybe things would have developed that way if we only had more time; I don't know. I just hope that we'll be given another chance later."
"We never did have a chance, did we?" I said, almost indicting Fate.
"Of course we did, but we both had too much past baggage to overcome first."
I turned away again. "Why am I feeling so wasted? It's not like we ever had a lot going. We've never even kissed!"
His drew me close up against himself, forced me to face around. "We could change that, if we really wanted to."
"I suppose we could."
"We're running out of time, so we'd better shake a leg."
"That's what I was thinking."
He drew me up against his chest; it felt strange to be engulfed by such mighty strength, but I stayed steady as he lowered his lips and I tentatively raised mine. Our mouths pressed together and for the first time his five o'clock shadow prickled my face. It felt, well, if not wrong, new, and I had a sense that an unexplored door was opening, while another was closing behind my back.
But for all its strangeness, being held in Rod's strong, commanding arms felt surprisingly right and natural.
It could be -- habit-forming.
#Rod's impending departure and our first kiss preoccupied me afterwards and all I could think about was seeing him again. In fact, we had a date to go bowling with Jordana and a friend of hers, Mark.
Rod and I had arrived at a watershed; we no longer needed to pretend that we were meeting just to interview but could admit to one another that we simply wanted to be together. How I regretted that our relationship had moved at the pace of a glacier and that we had wasted so much valuable time. But now I didn't know whether I should go bury my head in shame or start dashing in slow motion across a field of poppies.
I made plenty of blunders at work the day following our kiss, so I wasn't too surprised when the warden called me in. But when I got close to the door, I began to wonder whether Gershom was about to lower the boom on me for creating the Tiresian Women's Rights Association. Or had he found out that I knew something about Jake's dirty, underhanded dealings? It was possible, if he had planted bugs in all the so-called "private places." I had a premonition that things would never be the same again once I got out of that office.
Warden Gershom was an overweight Sally pushing sixty. "He" had been active in the women's movement in the 'eighties and 'nineties and then moved into a cushy job in the federal bureaucracy. Affirmative action moved her up fast.
Carl "Charlene" Gershom gave the impression of being smart, tough, and knowledgible. In fact, I still believe he knew everything there was to know about the dirty business going on at the prison. I wonder how she liked having her hair fall out after she turned male.
But it was hard not to show the jumpiness I felt. This -- person -- might have been a criminal -- one able to engine an unfortunate "accident" if I needed one. Behind that mild face could hide a depraved brain. I bet he'd deserve to land him behind bars himself, if there were any justice left in the world. Now I knew what it felt like to be a White House employee called into the Oval Office.
"Please, sit down, Mr. Carter," he said with a pleasantness that threw me.
"Mister Carter?" I murmured.
"Yes, mister. I have very good news for you; that little matter of discipline which led to your Tiresian transfer has been resolved entirely in your favor. Leda Cavendish's complaint has been set aside as being utterly without merit."
I couldn't believe it -- and to tell the truth, I wasn't in a state which could bear many shocks.
"That's good," I muttered, somewhat dazed. -- And it was good news, no denying. Trashing that nonsensical charge would take the single black mark off my otherwise blemishless record of service.
Gershom seemed to want to say something more than he had but was taking his dear time about it.
"Do these happy circumstances have any further ramifications?" I asked.
"Indeed they do, Officer Carter. The main office agrees that it's not at all proper that you be asked to fulfill your tour of duty at this installation -- unless you absolutely want to. That means you can return to Earth immediately and you'll have a new assignment waiting when you get there. In fact, the next transfer is scheduled for Wednesday morning. You may have Tuesday off with pay to get ready, if you wish."
I was stunned. I could come away from Tiresias with a clean record and, better still, go back arm in arm with Rod! I was already starting to think of him as "Rhoda;" we'd finally be ourselves again -- and together. We could find out whether what we had as a woman and a man could survive a life lived as a man and a woman. I almost shouted, "Yes, sir, thank you, I will!"
But I was suddenly struck by a vague skepticism. As hard as I had fought to defend my good name, I had been railroaded into an ignominious exile. Why would the EEOC division of the USCS have bothered to keep my case open once I was safely out of sight and out of mind?
They probably hadn't; Gershom probably had had friends back home put pressure on both agencies to reverse judgment. For whatever reason, this "clearance" of my record was calculated to help the Service, not me.
"Shall we plan on your departure Wednesday, Officer?" Gershom pressed. He seemed as overly anxious to see the last of Aaron Carter as a kid was for Christmas to arrive. Why?
"I'd like some time to think about this, Warden, sir. -- I've made a lot of friends here and I really don't have a lot of things going back home," I ended lamely.
"Of course, Mr. Carter, if you need time. . . ." Gershom seemed bemused; I suppose that he'd expected me to leap out of the water into the bait pail.
"I think I can give you an answer by tomorrow," I suggested.
I did, but as yet I had no idea what that answer would be.
#I wanted to talk my momentous choices over with Allie, but I didn't get the chance before Jordana called me down to the lounge to meet Mark and Rod. We all went bowling and, because Rod and I both had so much on our minds, Jordana and Mark slaughtered us in all three games. If there had been only Jordana I probably would have brought up the subject of my meeting with Gershom, but I kept mum because I didn't know Mark Norwich at all well.
After we all left the recreational area, Jordana and Mark split off while Rod and I went up to the big lounge between the men and women's dormitories. Rod had been picking up my unspoken signals that something big was on my mind and that I was anxious to talk about it.
I told him what had happened and he gave me a hug. "That's great!"
"Is it? I don't know."
His elation became bemusement. "Why? Are you having second thoughts -- about us?"
"Oh, yeah, sure I'm worried about us. But that's not what's bothering me."
"Rod, this smells bad. I've been thinking about what's behind it."
"What have you decided?"
"I'm betting that they think they can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
"How do you mean?"
"I think they're worried about the Rights Association. They're thinking that if they can get rid of its leaders it'll die off of its own accord."
"I don't know, but if they're manipulating me I don't want any part of it."
"So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. I want to go home with you, but I keep thinking about Gabrielle's baby."
"What's the baby got to do with you and me?"
"Gabrielle is a role model. She had to go through a lot to create something wonderful."
"And, well, since I've been here I've created something, too. Doc's staying on Tiresias to suckle her baby; maybe my baby needs suckling just as much."
Rod looked grim, but I think he understood.
"I've gotten people's hopes up and I'd feel like a rat leaving them in the lurch," I clarified.
"What more can you do?"
"I don't know. I don't want to think that I'm indispensable. Maybe one of the other girls could do the job better than I could, but even if that's so, they'd just go after her next."
"It's not fair to take all this on yourself, Erin -- but it's just like you."
I looked up at him. Had I made him angry?
"It's why I love you so much."
"You love me?" I echoed with a quaver. But that begged another question: "Like, ah, what do you mean? What kind of love are you talking about?"
He was struggling to answer truly. "The best kind of love," he said finally. "The boy and girl kind of love."
That was mind blowing: "Is - is that right?" I stammered. "Who's the boy and who's the girl?"
"Maybe we should flip a coin."
The crazy guy! I felt like kissing him. So I did.
*Oh, baby, you've come a long way.*
#On Tuesday morning I put in for the whole afternoon off, then went in to see Warden Gershom. There was no trouble in getting an interview. -- No trouble at all.
The old Sally listened patiently, but without a smile as I told him that Tiresias had so far been a good experience for me and I'd decided to stay for my whole tour. He seemed decidedly unenthusiastic about my enthusiasm and told me he'd keep the offer open, should I change my mind.
Rod had warned me the night before that if the Service couldn't get rid of me by playing nice-nice, they'd start riding me to force me out early. Maybe they would, but I was determined to make myself a tough burr to get rid of.
After work I went to the provisions department and picked up the food that I had ordered that morning. It cost me a lot and it exhausted my monthly allotment of special purchases, but the occasion was one that warranted a little splurging.
I carried my stuff back to the dormitory, where I bypassed my own room and went directly up to Dr. Trent's. I'd talked to her the night before and she'd given me permission to use her kitchen. I left the bags on her counter and then went to ask Allie a big favor.
"You want what?!" my friend exclaimed, her blue eyes starting.
"You heard me, damn it! Do I have to shout it down the hall?"
"Erin, are you sure? You've hardly been here three months. This is moving pretty fast. You won't be setting the record, I grant, but it's still pretty fast. You're the last person I'd have thought -- "
"All right, so I'm human after all. Are you going to let me have one?! I can pay for it." My abruptness was born out of pure embarrassment.
"Of course I'll share; I don't expect I'll have any use for them the rest of the time I'm here." Without further argument we went to her drawer and located the bottle under discussion. After explaining how I should use it she startled me with a big hug. "Go to it, gal," she whispered.
Once I had my best friend's blessing I felt worlds better. There was so much to do that I was sorry that I hadn't asked for the whole day off; we began by dismantling Allie's bed, which a housefellow on duty let us temporarily store in an equipment room. Allie promised to sign me out a small dining table while I hurried back to Dr. Trent's place.
While I puttered around in her kitchen, little Eva started crying up a storm, which sent Gabrielle hurrying to her crib. After checking her diaper and finding it dry, the doctor next unbuttoned her blouse and offered the infant a nipple, which didn't meet with her offspring's satisfaction either. So, finally, the new mother tried to calm the infant by singing lullabies and rocking her gently. Dr. Trent's voice had a lovely lilt I noticed and while I filled the little apartment with aromatic cooking odors, I listened to her singing herself breathless with such ditties as:
"There was an old woman
Who lived in Dundee,
And in her back garden
There grew a plum tree;
The plums they grew rotten
Before they grew ripe,
But she sold them quite dearly,
Three pennies a pint. . ."
I smiled grimly; there was a downside to being a mom. Eva kept up her crying jag the whole time, with only brief lulls between cranky outbreaks.
During one such respite a tired Gabrielle came into the kitchen to peer over my shoulder. "Are you finding everything?" she whispered hoarsely.
"No problem. Eva's being tough on you, isn't she, Doc?"
The physician chuckled sadly. "Last night it was like sleep-deprivation torture. Everything you read about infant care doesn't add up to one ounce of the reality; it all has to be learned by the seat of your pants." She paused briefly, then sighed, "Be very careful about what you ask for, Erin. -- You just might get it."
Her words struck me because I, too, was asking for something, and the odds were that I would get it, too. Once I had it, though, what was I going to do with it?
"Just to stay sane I'm going to have to find some quiet time," Gabrielle remarked wearily, touching her much-reduced belly, "-- especially some time to work out. I don't want Eva to be stuck with a dumpy hausfrau for a mother." I took a hard look at my companion and realized that once she'd tightened herself up, Gabrielle would have a fine figure.
But more than that, I noted that Dr. Trent had unthinkingly referred to herself as a mother and not a father.
"The association is thinking of sponsoring an aerobics class," I told her. "Dori might lead it; she's reading every exercise book in the library."
"I could use it. By the way, do you need any help in here?"
"I could use a hand chopping the onions."
"Sounds fine; I could use a good cry," Dr. Trent jested softly.
She seemed so tired that I felt sorry for her; Gabrielle was finding out the hard way how tough it was to be a single parent. But she was keeping her sense of humor and I was sure that she'd come through. All of us Charlies would feel ennobled if just one of us could prove out to be a good parent under such circumstance.
But more than that, I wanted to personally do something to help Dr. Trent succeed; maybe it was time that I learned how to baby-sit. But I couldn't start my second career that night; I had a full and pressing itinerary.
At the dining table, Dr. Trent cut the onions with the precision of a surgeon, occasionally wiping away a tear on her cuff. A saying that I had not heard since childhood suddenly came back to mind for no special reason.
To be a surgeon, one needed the eye of an eagle -- and Dr. Trent's alert and discerning eyes had impressed me from our very first meeting. The surgeon also needed the heart of a lion, and our good doctor seemed not to lack courage. And, finally, he needed one more thing, a thing which seemed especially fateful and ironic in our present circumstances.
He had to have the hands of a woman.
I squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder fondly, and she looked back wondering what had suddenly moved me.
#Once I got back to my room loaded down with Pyrex and Tupperware, Allie did everything she could to help me get dinner laid out. While my best bud set up the service, I took a quick shower to get rid of the kitchen residue, rubbing myself down with scented soap. Afterwards, when I emerged rosy, fragrant, and well-scrubbed, she did my hair and make-up. Finally, bless her, she made herself scarce.
"I guess I can clear off a piece of floor in Dori's and Jan's room for the night."
"I owe you one, pal."
"No you don't! This will be the best piece of gossip we've had in a long time." With a wink, my roommie tucked her pillow and blanket under her arms and vanished.
*Well, Aaron, it's going to be all over the place. If you're going to have the name anyway, let's just hope to play a wild game!*
When everything seemed in order to the last detail I went down to the main lobby and waited nervously for my guest. Seeing me dressed up, everyone felt duty-bound to ask if I was expecting someone. I muttered something about dinner, feeling as awkward as a schoolgirl going to her first prom.
Then I saw him and sprang from my seat, at once regretting that I couldn't play this thing out more coolly.
"Well, look at you!" he said with a broad grin.
"Well, look at yourself!" I replied archly.
He had on his natty ingenue party suit, while I was sporting my little white dress. I had considered borrowing something which Rod hadn't seen me in before, but decided against it. -- Both of the previous two nights on which I'd worn my outfit had been good ones and if the little item was good luck I didn't want to tempt fate.
"Well, come on up," I said nervously, my tense lips almost too stiff to smile.
He took my arm. "I'd love to."
*******"Love is the is the irresistible desire to be desired irresistibly."
Louis Ginsberg, Public address, 1968
His fingers weren't cold, but as soon as he touched me I was covered with goose bumps, which must have looked horrible since I was showing so much skin. But Rod didn't seem to notice as he ushered me into the elevator and up to my door.
I put Mozart's "Serenade for Winds" into the player and served a quiet little supper. The main course was poached salmon fillets and skillet rice with shrimp. For dessert we had papaya-buttermilk smoothies. The wine was Grable's White Label, a California brand which somewhat embarrassed me despite the fact that I couldn't afford better. We didn't talk much at first; knowing we soon would have to part didn't leave much room for empty chitchat.
"I wish I could go with you," I finally said.
"You could! I'll help you pack tonight."
"Don't tempt me, Rod. I just can't. -- Does that upset you?"
"No. I understand, or I wouldn't take no for an answer. What worries me is that we're up against something so big that we won't be able to beat it."
I looked up from my plate. Was he finally going to talk about the sex-for-drugs conspiracy again? Not a good idea; the president of the Rights Association was the most likely to have her room bugged.
"I mean," Rod continued, "we're going to be two completely different people soon, doing completely different things. Maybe it won't be so bad to take the pressure off, to think things over."
Time enough for thinking later; on impulse I got up and stepped behind him. Putting my arms loosely around his neck and leaning forward I whispered into his ear: "It'll be bad."
He took my wrists and kissed them each in turn.
"Rod -- " I muttered throatily, "I've been trying for two days to think of a way to ask you -- about something -- and -- and I thought of a lot of different ways to do it. The trouble is that now that the moment's here, every way I thought of sounds absolutely amateurish and inept."
"It's nice to be amateurish about some things," he said, still holding my arms fondly.
"For Christ's sake, how can one guy ask another guy to let him make love to him without sounding gay or something?"
"What guys are you talking about?" he asked teasingly.
I pulled my hands free and rapped him on the side of the head. "I'm talking about you and me, damn it!"
He chuckled, pushed his chair away from the table, and turned.
"That would have been my first guess."
"Maybe you're not as dumb as I thought you were?"
"What made you think I was dumb?"
"I'm still a virgin, aren't I?"
He captured my right arm and swept me into his lap.
#I thought he was going to kiss me, but instead said soberly, "Erin this is a big step. I don't think we can ever be the same two people if we do it. Are you sure you're ready?"
"No -- so don't ask me that question again!"
We sat there quietly for a moment, just looking at one another thoughtfully, before Rod said, awkwardly, "I didn't bring -- anything."
My mouth involuntarily pursed. It frustrated me that he could be so practical at a time when I was so carried away with emotion.
"I'd have been awfully disappointed if you did," I managed to reply. Obviously, if Rod had brought a condom it would have meant that I hadn't surprised him. And if my proposition was no surprise, what kind of a -- person -- did he think I was?
"Women! I'd never be able to make a bit of sense out of that if I hadn't been where you are a few times myself."
"A few times?"
"A couple times. -- Once!" he clarified.
"That's better," I said, giving him a hug. I'd hate to think that you were a loose man."
"You're doing terrible things to my self-control, Erin. I only hope you took the pill."
"I did," I answered, "-- one of Allie's." My face flushed hotly when I made my confession, and so that he couldn't see me blush I crushed my mouth against his. This time I barely noticed the texture of his face as our lips met.
"Have you ever made love to a woman?" I asked.
"Not on Tiresias."
"What the hell -- ?!"
"Take it easy, Erin, I'm only kidding."
"Okay. Okay," I murmured uneasily. "I shouldn't get so uptight."
He squeezed me again. "No, you shouldn't."
"What's up-tight is that dress!" Rod observed. "I don't know how you can breathe in it -- I don't even remember how I used to breathe in outfits like that."
"I almost can't," I sighed. "What are we going to do about it?"
He turned me around on his knee and I learned how good a former woman can be at undoing eye hooks and zippers at record speed! I let him have his fun, but pulled in the reins at the last second, not wanting my program to be spoiled. "Whoa!" I said.
"Wait? For what?"
"I want to make it perfect."
"It's a perfect now -- "
"Spoken like a man," I said, enjoying the chagrined look on his face.
"God," he said breathlessly, "it's so powerful. How do you guys ever resist it even for a second?"
"We respect our women."
I pushed away and got up, holding up my unfastened dress so that he wouldn't get an eyeful. Now that he was turned on, my unexpected exit into the bathroom seemed to echo after me in a psychic scream. Well, he could chock it up to learning; he'd never understand the basics about being a man until he understood sexual frustration.
For whatever reason, it's always the woman who sets the pace and writes the meter of romance. I used to think that this was because the man needed the woman more than she needed him -- that beggars can't be choosers -- but that could hardly be true with Rod and me. I think now that it's just part of the baffling dynamics of psychology that operates automatically during male and female interaction.
I returned to the room a few minutes later fragrant with "Passion in the Dark" and wearing my little green tunic, minus its matching hair ribbon. I was hoping to look glamorous, provocative, sexy, but when I stepped into the room I felt more like an out-of-sorts plucked chicken.
Oh, God, don't let me make a hash of this.
"I don't see any foot-long gray beard," Rod teased, his glance bright.
This is the nightie that the party committee gave me. Rod liked it, so I guess I have to like it, too.
"Don't remind me," swallowing hard. "We all say silly things sometimes. I'm trying to look like a sexpot; how am I doing?"
He stepped closer and placed his hands upon my hips. "You're doing fine, but I'm not sure I want a sexpot."
"You don't? Well then, I'm a silly goose!"
"No. I think you're wonderful. In fact, I've had fantasies about you wearing that thing ever since I saw it at the party."
"Fantasies, huh? Got any others?"
Did he! He kissed me suddenly, running his hands up and down my back, and lower. I could feel his body heat right through the flimsy fabric. I couldn't help but reel; rather than let me collapse, Rob scooped me up and carried me to the bed. I hadn't expected the caveman-approach, but didn't make a fuss about it. For the first time, being in the grasp of a person much stronger than me made me feel protected instead of intimidated.
He placed my head over the pillow and eased me down to the sheets. They weren't satin, but might as well have been. "Whew! We really got here in record time. -- I'm actually not that kind of girl," I added with a twisted grin.
"Neither am I," whispered Rod while he loosened his tie and took his shirt off in the blink of an eye. I felt myself tense up and he noticed right off. "Relax, Erin," he whispered. "We can stop anytime you want."
I looked up at his lightly-furred pecs. "Oh, yeah? You'll traipse off to a cold shower if I say so?"
"If I have to."
I reached out and tugged at the dark tufts upon his chest. "You're too good to be true."
"I am. You're lucky you found me."
"I only had to go to another planet and get a sex-change."
"See? A piece of cake."
I hit him with the pillow. He scooped it out of my hand and kissed me once more. Then he eased down next to me and started fondling my breasts. I was just beginning to get into it when his fingers located the elastic band of my panties and I felt his tug.
Hey, guy! I just put that on!
I swallowed hard as Rod slipped the garment down my thighs, along my shins, and over my feet. Though I wanted to be pliant and playful, my body was stiffening like a board.
"Please, Aaron, I love you so much. Calm down; I'd never do anything to hurt you."
I nodded and closed my eyes, turning the process over to him. Suddenly, he rolled me to my face into a lovemaking position with which I was not totally unfamiliar, but it worried me a little. It's not that sauce for the goose shouldn't be sauce for the gander, but I would have appreciated a little practice with the missionary position first.
I needn't have worried, it turned out; Rod simply wanted to massage my neck and shoulders.
I needed it -- and how good it felt! But thinking ahead about my agenda, I became so anxious that all his efforts to thaw me were undone.
What is this? Am I frigid?
Get it together, Aaron! I scolded myself. My virginity? What was that? -- I'd lost it when I was seventeen and never looked back. But now, suddenly, in a strange way, both Rod and I had become virgins again. That was the miracle of this planet; what was lost was found again. Good old Tiresias!
I savored the massage -- a respite from tension was exactly what I needed. I had tried to go too far too quickly, only to discover that I wasn't as ready as I had supposed. I hoped that my boyfriend wouldn't think that I was some kind of a jerk.
But then I relaxed; no need to fear. Women are never jerks, no matter how inept they may be when making love, no matter how catastrophically they may fail, no matter how close they get to the payoff before they chicken out.
I tried to remember exactly what I would have wanted a nervous virgin to do back when I had been a man and decided that the best thing was to let Rod take charge, to lead me through this jungle of passion at his own speed. In fact, his massage had made me feel so buttery that he could have done just about anything he wished at that moment and would have gotten no complaint.
What he did was turn me over and draw my tunic down to my elbows, then pressed his face into my breasts to lip-nibble them. When I felt the tickle and the moist warmth I thanked my lucky stars that Rod wasn't all knotted up with jitters.
Make a note, Erin: confident guys are fun!
I heard someone moaning and didn't immediately realize that it was me. Rod gave a soft laugh and I tensed again, afraid that I had done something silly, but when I peered up at him I saw that his face remained mild and reassuring. My nervous grin conveyed to him all the permission he needed to carry on and he smoothly undressed me, pushing my tunic down to my waist. My arms were free now, but I didn't know what to do with them, so kept them close to my sides.
He pushed back a little and drew his fingers along my thighs, across my stomach, and up to my breasts which he seemed to like so much. I shivered from my scalp to my toes.
What the hey? I'm so passive! I'm letting this guy play me like a violin!
He now noticed how much my nipples had hardened. In fact, they were standing up like they do on those porn-novel covers and tears suddenly burned my eyes as I realized that the crazy reactions of my "slut" body were making me seem "easy"-- and hence not worthy of respect.
But Rod never let on if he was thinking that. He kissed my lips while his hands continued exploring my breasts and belly. Finally he peeled my tunic away completely; the loss of contact with the fabric sent another thrill of panic through me, though it had been absolutely inadequate as a cover-up.
He clutched me to him then, but something else intruded to change the equation utterly. His maleness had grown enormously, the head of it had kissed my thigh through his trousers, even while his soft lips played suction cup with mine.
I could hardly breathe, and it wasn't just because Rod's face was covering my mouth and nose. My heart was racing like some small animal trapped inside my rib cage; if I had had a coronary condition it would have been curtains for me right there. Rod drew back, but only to pry off his shoes, kick his trousers down and away, then remove his socks.
"I always hated when a man didn't undress completely," he explained.
"M-Me, too," I stuttered. "I mean -- "
"I know what you mean."
He began to ease the weight of his upper body upon me and he felt heavy, out-weighing me by at least fifty pounds. I hadn't realized it before, but my ankles were pressed close together as if tied. This didn't suit Rod, so he slipped his fingers between my thighs, teasing them apart with a light burrowing motion. I tried to cooperate, but my pegs had a mind of their own and before I could relax them Rod had brought in the heavy equipment, working one of his knees in to separate them.
I swallowed a painful gulp; the moment of no-return was barreling down on me and I was as jumpy as a colt. Hadn't intended to be so inept about this, but --
Erin, as a sex-kitten you're a washout!
He kissed me again, but this time pushed the tip of his tongue inside my mouth. It would have surprised me more, except that this wasn't the first time the big lug had tried that. I pried my teeth apart and our mouths began to play together like two wet, warm oysters making love.
I understood that he was bringing me along slowly and carefully, like a doughboy guiding a blind buddy through no-man's land. But I was still afraid -- afraid that I wasn't very good in the sack and that I'd let him down.
Rod was nuzzling my neck as his right hand continued to swivel over my body, finally arriving at its goal. I shuddered as he stroked my vaginal lips, when his fingers edged close to my clitoris. The next thing I knew, one of them was working its way deeper, deeper. Gasping, I instinctively clutched his sides, my nails biting into his taut flesh.
By now Rod was moving his finger where no man had gone before. He touched me, deeply, and --
"You have a maidenhead," he remarked softly.
"Inconvenient," I chuckled with a hint of hysteria. But I recognized that what he had found was my FDA seal of freshness. The thing proclaimed my purity and once it was broken it would not be coming back; everyone after Rod would know that I was used goods.
Everyone else? Was I suddenly fantasizing myself with a slew of lovers after Rob? Some kind of Messalina welcoming all comers? No, that's not what I wanted!
He withdrew his single finger only to replace it with two. I sucked in a sharp breath and my hips raised of their own accord, as if seeking additional penetration. He withdrew his delving digits a minute later and changed position, his penis inadvertently dragging across my flesh, communicating its size and hardness.
Rod and I loved to watch the sunset together.Only after I saw this picture printed did I remember that we always saw our sunsets while looking over a tower. It was strange that I never noticed any tower when Rod was beside me.
He's going to do it! But I can't let him go all the way! I can't -- I --
My skin prickled; he was about to take something from me that I could never get back again! Yet I forced myself calm; I was going to do the same thing to him, of course; we weren't misusing one another -- we were sharing something. But if only the feeling of subjecting myself to a permanent, unrecoverable change didn't daunt me so.
I put my hands under Rod's arms, preparing myself for the inevitable, unable to keep my eyes from closing.
Can I let him do this? Do I dare? What if the pill didn't work?
I sensed him guiding the head of his penis to my loins and I stiffened. What was wrong with me? Why the dread? Hadn't I started this myself? Hadn't I wanted it to happen?! I tried to find comfort in the memory of the girls I had held in my own arms, trying to project the soft feelings I had felt to them into Rod's heart.
Meanwhile, bracing my heels against the sheets, my body prepared itself to succumb to the breakthrough at Normandy. It must have been Freudian to imagine myself in the role of the loser. The charge, when it came, required little of General Ganners -- except for a slight back-and-forth jarring.
I felt something letting go with a twinge of pain that was more shocking than hurtful. He was filling me -- perhaps by only an inch at a time, but it felt like mile upon mile. Rod persisted -- what guy wouldn't; his weight was full on me now, his maleness triumphant -- and the total effect was overwhelming. It felt like being inside a woman as a man, only completely different.
"Erin," Rod whispered, "I love you more than my own life."
I blinked, peered up into his eyes, and saw my own reflection in them. His words soothed me like a balm upon raw flesh, made me feel like a person again, not a piece of meat dangling above the grinder. I relaxed just a little, then lurched as he pressed deeper.
"Shhhhh," he whispered just before he started pushing himself into me. What was he feeling? I tried to remember as I pressed my head back upon the pillow, groaned, endured, and tried to find some way to enjoy it.
Enjoy it? At this point I felt like a sausage casing being filled. Penetration was unlike anything I'd experienced before. Savor it, I told myself; the first time never comes twice. Despite my anxiety, the sense of intimacy was, in fact, incredible. It was like we were merging into one physical being.
Rod didn't pump me at first; instead he lightly kissed my eyelids, my temples, my cheeks, and my neck. When he got serious I sensed that he was still trying hard to keep his passion under leash and encourage me to remain calm.
A futile task; his lovemaking was like a fire-stick and my edgy desire provided all the starting fluid he required. I moaned in both misgiving and pleasure -- and that I could feel pleasure amid such a rush of emotion astonished me.
Rod's action caused my breath to quicken and my heart to beat in wild staccato. I felt as though his penis was growing longer and thicker, filling me to capacity. My nipples were so blood-charged that they hurt when his chest bounced lightly against them.
While Rod "took" me he was also caressing my haunches, sending ripples up my spine as if it were a high-conductivity cable. By putting his hands under me, he raised my hips slightly, and I unconsciously shifted my knees, allowing him better access into the steam-hot recesses of my body. His thighs slapped rhythmically against mine as they worked me over and when I detached myself enough to think about it, I simply couldn't believe what was happening.
How did you get from there to here, Aaron, my boy?
Rod's thrusts grew stronger as his primordial male drive crowded out his genuine desire to be gentle. My passion kept building and building, wringing tears from my eyes and forcing me to cry out, even though I hated "screamers." It was like I feared that what was happening to me would never happen again and that this one experience would have to last a lifetime. In that state of mind, I wanted nothing to be left to the imagination, to have it, and know it, all.
My skin beaded with perspiration as the procedure continued. It seemed that Rod was purposely not climaxing, despite his inexperience, but was trying instead to usher me into ever-higher states of excitement. If only this didn't have to be the only time. . . .
As I lay there under him my body seemed to cast off all conscious control, making me just a passenger in a runaway coach. Then suddenly I hit the exit-trough of a water-ride -- an incredible rush in which waves of pleasure swept thorough me, their sharpness increasing with each repeated surge, until I thought I was going to lose my mind.
My legs reared up and locked around Rod's waist, my arms clenched his neck; my breasts were flattened by the pressure of my body against him. My skin had gone all prickly, and my insides seemed to blaze -- hot and soft and oozy -- as though I were melting. It was like I was not in bed, but in another dimension of space and time, though I felt my nails dig into his back and rake across his skin. When he grunted I knew it was partly from pain and partly from the pleasure.
Not bad for a couple of virgins.
In another instant we were both sharing simultaneous climaxes, a sensation that charged not just my genitals but every atom of my being. For the first time I understood what women were describing when they talked about their orgasms.
Rod had groaned and buried his face in my hair as his own spasms overcame him. Warm fluid gushed into my womb and I clasped his buttocks, holding him flush lest any of it be spilled and I be less his than I longed to be.
Then it was all over, except for the afterglow. Rod quieted and became like dead weight upon me for a few seconds before he rolled to the mattress at my side. He did not release his hold on my body, though, nor did I release my grasp on his. Our ragged, wasted breathing, harsh at first, gradually softened to light sighs as we lay entwined. Rod 's breath sounded sleepy, though his heart was beating wildly near my ear.
Reluctantly, each of us took our turn in the bathroom, then returned to bed. Warmed by his nearness, my tears came in a silent flow as I reflected on what I had done, what I had undergone. My spring-like innocence of the ways of Womanhood had been sacrificed, never to return. It was summertime now; I was no longer a virgin field upon which the pioneer only gazes with wistful dreams; I had been fenced, plowed, sewn. But would I thereafter know a husbandman's kindly attentions for many years to come, or would it be simply slash, burn, and move away?
Foul your nest and move West?
Rod fell asleep quickly and the last thing I remember was drawing up the opposite sides of the bedspread to cover our damp, nude bodies, as by the folding wings of a butterfly.
#I slept until Rod's movements awakened me in the night. I let him think that I remained asleep while he got up and visited the bathroom. So much to think about; so many impressions to sort out. I was suddenly worried that Rod would hurt me when he came back, should he only realize that I was awake.
Not physically hurt me, of course, but I been rendered fragile. What if Rod didn't really care about me beyond the physical experience? Was it possible that he had set me up, had brought me along until I had actually believed that what we had done had been my own idea? One mocking word, a single unkind sentiment and I would be burned like a match set to tissue paper.
Poor Allie. How had she survived Buck's betrayal? Could I be just as brave and resilient? Would it next be my turn to find out? I wiped my nose with the back of my hand.
It was like I had felt the Midas touch and had turned into brittle crystal. One small act of insensitivity, one deprecating remark, one suggestion that the experience we had shared had been only a physical thing with him, and I would shatter into fragments. But I didn't want silence from him either. I wanted -- more than anything else -- some word of reassurance. I needed some small expression to prove that Rod still respected me, that something was still the same even though so much had changed.
And how I had been changed! I had never worried about these sorts of things before. They had never been absent from my mind when I had been a man, of course, but they had always lurked in the background. They were right up front now; that and so many things were becoming clearer to me.
I realized that I hadn't made love because I wanted pleasure for myself. Just holding Rod's hand gave me pleasure, his hug was bliss, his kiss sent me to Heaven. What I had wanted was to impart to him some small parting gift. I had wanted to send some part of my being home with him. I had wanted to say, without the banality of words, that I understood that to be loved is to be changed, that I trusted him and wasn't afraid to be changed by him. I wanted --
Oh, I don't know what all I had wanted! I had wanted the world; I had wanted nothing. I had wanted to take; I had wanted to give.
Most of all, I had wanted to forge a bond of understanding which would not break in the face of the strange alteration of form and role that must overtake us when we returned to Earth.
Rod was coming back and so I pretended to sleep. He paused over me, somehow knowing that I was playing possum. He eased himself down beside by my side and I could feel his moist cheek against mine. When I realized that he was going to speak, my breathing stopped. What would he say? I feared that I might misconstrue almost any innocent word in my foolish agitation and ruin something fine and beautiful.
"Thank you," he whispered.
I opened my eyes, saw his mild expression. He had said 'thank you.' Simply 'thank you.' He hadn't intoned them like "Thank you, I've got to be going. Maybe we'll run into each other again someday." It was more like, "Thank you for accepting me into your life, into your being. Thank you for becoming a part of me, and letting me become a part of you." They were exactly the words that I had most needed to hear.
I nestled closer, my eyes hot and flowing with emotion. We clenched hands, impressing upon me again that his were so much larger and stronger than mine. I marveled at the gentleness with which they could touch me when a man's strength could do such devastating harm. Rod, still smiling, was asleep in moments, but I lay awake for just a little longer.
It was after midnight, I knew, and later today Rod would be gone -- not just from the prison, not just from the continent -- but from the planet, from the entire universe. I could search from pole to pole, ocean to ocean, like Psyche seeking Eros, and never find him. Rod would, in a sense, have ceased to exist; not even a grave would be left behind for a monument.
I blinked away the dew filling my eyes. I'd be left alone with my girl friends, with the Rights Association, with the routine of my job -- if I could manage to hold onto the latter with the management breathing down my neck. Could these little things fill up the vast canyon of emptiness that Rod's absence would create?
Did I really love him?
Did I love him in that special way, that way which would forever after leave me incomplete in myself?
Well, maybe -- I didn't know for sure; I thought that only time could prove what kind of love ours was.
Did fashioning a lasting bond take a little longer than our brief springtime on Tiresias had allowed? Perhaps. Possibly the seed which we had planted on an alien world might be transplanted to Earth, but maybe not. Was this a kind of shipboard romance? Could what we had nurtured here, under a strange, star-lit sky of a bright, new, exotic planet survive in the bleak, cold, decaying environment of Twenty-First Century America? I could not say; I could only hope.
What I did know was that loving Rod had changed me in some important but indefinable way. I might again be a man in nine month's time, but I could never again be exactly the same man that I once had been. I had become someone else, something else; I had taken the man whom I loved into my bed and shared with him my entire being. The old portrait of myself had been painted over with fresh colors, ingenious new images. It might be repainted yet again by future experience, but the buried colors would always remain an undercoating, unforgotten and unforgettable.
Some changes are transitory, some are not, I recognized. Living transforms us in ways that only death may eradicate completely.
-- Unless we are truly immortal in spirit, as I was reared to believe.
There had been a time when I had thought I could be master of my emotions, that I could use reason to avoid the painful follies of others; now I knew that that was impossible. Likewise, there had been a time when I had believed that I might stand along the sidelines of life upon Tiresias, watching, learning, but not experiencing. That, too, had proven a dream.
I was no longer sure of what I was, or what I was capable of being, but I better appreciated my limitations, my humanity. I knew I could not go through life wearing detachment and cynicism for a suit of armor because there was no iron in me. My flesh was soft; my spirit compliant; if injured, my blood would flow as freely as another's. But worse than any physical hurt might be the injury that a heart sustains; it was beyond my power to care and yet not feel.
I could not tread close to those things which are alluring and sweet without, sometimes, becoming entrapped by them like the fly who steps into a drop of honey. I could not ride the vicissitude of life like some fearless rodeo star. No matter how desperate my hold upon the reins, occasionally Life must throw me off. And when I crashed to earth I will lie there injured, blue with bruises
When my fall comes, I hope that I would be able to struggle to my feet under my own strength, or, in the absence of such strength, that I have loving friends to help me rise.
I had learned a little more about the man -- the person -- that Aaron Carter was deep down. -- I had learned that he cannot always be brave, nor wise, nor always calm, aloof, and rational. He could not always be dignified.
There would be times, I now knew, that I must revert to type, when I could be nothing more than what I am -- that simple, multifaceted-but-human-and-very-fallible creature which the inscrutable gods of Tiresias have decreed that I must be.