Sometimes, when it's quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs. That’s why I avoid the quiet. I don’t want to remember that my father tried to kill me or that he was still alive. Better to forget him and hope he forgot me.
That’s what I sometimes believe. Those are the secrets I tell people to cover my lies. I like the aura these lies provide and the protection it gives my new self, Samantha. I picked that name myself, after Elizabeth Montgomery’s character on “Bewitched”, Samantha Stevens. See, that works on several great levels. My name before my sex change was Sam so it’s easy to remember. I look much like a young Elizabeth Montgomery, an appearance I consciously emulate, and I’m secretly bewitching others, convincing them that I am a young woman with a horrific past. But I miss Daddy. He’s such a great person. He was my buddy.
Should I call him ‘her’? I don’t know. He was talking about changing his sex, too, angering me, even though I think he was just making a joke to calm me down. I changed sex because I was the cliché, a woman with a man’s body parts, a victim of an error in creation’s parts factory. Dad thought changing sex would be funny. He said changing sex would help him hide, too, and at his age he wasn’t going to be screwing anyone else, anyway. Besides, he’d never wanted anyone except Mom. “I tried another woman once,“ he told me, like the other woman was a new recipe. He’d married pretty young, twenty-two, I think it was, and Mom had been his only lover. So he wondered, were other women different? Dad experimented to learn, he told me, just that one time. It was enough. Later, he admitted he’d done it partly to get back at Mom because he was hurt. She’d already had three affairs by then. I’ve adopted Dad’s tautological rationalization since then, “That’s just her way.”
But sometimes I wonder….
I remember the fight when Dad first found out about Mom’s affairs. It’s my first clear, sharp memory. I was about five. Lightning was flashing outside as thunder rumbled. Rain slammed everything, blowing in through an open living room window, gushing down spouts and out the gutters, along the streets, flooding yards and racing down the steaming black asphalt. Dad and Mom were on their knees on the kitchen floor, clinging to one another and crying. The storm scared me. I wanted to cry but they astonished me. Standing to one side by the refrigerator, I stared at them, a big red apple in my hand. I swear I can see myself. I look back and wonder, did the storm cause me to leave my body? Or is it my imagination? I think it’s somewhere in between because sometimes, in those pictures, I’m a little girl.
Be a shame if Dad did change sex. He’s such a beautiful man.
Today is, tragically, a quiet day, smothered by summer heat. Not so distant fires are gifting our valley their pewter smoke. Lightning started two. They don’t know how the third started yet. Our softball team celebrated another victory yesterday, the tenth in a row, sending us into the district championship. I, at third base, had several key moments, as I had all summer. Lead-off hitter, I scored the winning run after Jason’s deep fly. A deeply masculine six footer, he’s the pitcher but he bats in the clean-up spot. Between me at third and him on the pitcher mound, little escapes our infield. Right field, where Jerry plays, is our weakness. Jason figured by being pitcher, he could work around that by pitching people to hit away from right. He’s pretty damn good at it. Sometimes something goes Jerry’s way and we all hold our breath. Jerry sulks about it. He hates that he plays so badly and that I’m so good. “You sure you’re a woman?” he asks me every game, as if he’s joking, eyeing my body. I can see his lust. “You play like a guy. You sure you’re not a lesbian?” “Jason can tell you that I’m all woman, Jerry,” I purr back. “That she is,” Jason agrees, touching me somewhere, usually rubbing my neck. Purrrr.
Jason and I live together. We’re recovering from a night of lovely binging but he’s a stronger man than me, ha ha, and went out to help a friend build a patio, as promised. “Hold your breath, here we go,” I said when he closed the door and left me in the silence. Mom used to say that. Dad always bought convertibles. He called them ragtops. We loved putting the top down and going for drives. Mom always sang out, “Hold your breath, here we go,” and I would squeal. Dad’s last car was a silver Lexus convertible. We didn’t put the top down and go for rides in it much.
Poor Mom. She never felt like she was Dad’s equal in appearance, brains or talent. She wasn’t. Besides being beautiful, Dad could do anything. He played the banjo, guitar, ukulele, harmonica and piano, knew Greek and Latin, and spoke Italian, Spanish, Russian and German. Before becoming a history professor, he’d been a college and semi-pro baseball player with prospects to be a major leaguer, a third baseman like me and Mike Schmidt. Dad laughed at that, pointing out that Mike Schmidt would have been his contemporary. His hero was Brooks Robinson. Dad, though, loved history over baseball, especially the wars. He’d written books about each of the wars of the twentieth century, focusing on the artists of the combatant countries. He’s a crazy guy.
By Dad’s count, Mom had thirty affairs after they wed, he once told me. She rarely let lovers have encore performances, though, staying with one night flings. Dad, bless him, accepted it. “It’s not her fault, Sam, it’s her psychology,” he said. “That’s just her way.” He was a lot better about it than me. “She always uses protection,” he always said. Sometimes I screamed back, “Yes, but what protection is there about appearances and what people say about her and you? She’s the town slut, Dad.” Dad, smiling, always replied, “Sex is not that important to me, Sam, and people’s opinion of me and your mother means less to me than sex.”
The turn down quiet memory lane was becoming uncomfortable. Rapping on the door applied a welcomed brake on my thoughts. I hated opening the door and giving way to the heat but the person on the peep hole’s other end resembled me and my father. About my age, she could have been my twin. This is how I would have looked had I been born a woman. Opening the door, I stared. She stared back. “You look just like your photographs,” she said.
“What photographs? Who are you?”
“My name is Melany.” She spoke slowly, with a Texan accent. “I’m your half-sister. From your father’s other family.”
Cue whirling thoughts and the sense that my life was flushing away. “You’re wrong. My father is dead.”
“No, I know that’s what he told people…in…in his other life.”
These were practiced lines. “How do you – “
“He wrote a book.”
“He wrote a book?” I hated being a parrot.
“Can I come in so we can talk? It’s hot out here.”
Jason would be gone for hours. Jason could not find out. He could not know. I didn’t want to know. But I nodded. She was like a snake, hypnotizing me with her swaying.
She was swaying? Or was it me? We were both swaying. Darkness encroached on my vision. She and I fell toward one another, half-grasping the other’s muscular arms. Her arms were just like mine. She was crying. “I didn’t want to believe,” she said. “I didn’t want to believe. I had to know.”
I was crying. “I know. “
I did know. One quiet day when I came home sick from school, Dad was in the other room on the phone. I stood at the door and listened to his conversation as he told the phone, “I love you, honey,” and laughed. “I’ll be home next week. I’ll see you then.” I backed away, sneaking outside into the rain, hiding there for a while, giving Dad time, giving me time to pretend I hadn’t heard anything. If I hadn’t heard anything, there was nothing to remember.
Afterward, I was feverish for days, puking until I felt raw. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
Neither could I.
Melany was memory’s accelerant. With her sitting on my fawn sofa, complaining about her tears’ impact on her cosmetics – she wore too much, a big difference between her and me - dabbing her eyes and trembling, I remembered everything about Dad and his trips to promote his books and attend history conferences and book fairs. Mom never went. Flying scared her to death, then 9/11 happened. That was like throwing gasoline on the barbeque. Tearful, shaking that day, she swore she’d never fly again. Dad comforted her. “It’s okay, darling, it’s okay, shush, shush.”
That was a year before it all happened.
It was Dad’s idea to flee after Mom’s death. I hate thinking about those days but they invade when it’s quiet. Mom killed herself to save me, taking responsibility as the one who’d killed the man with her. God, God, God, what a night. I was away for my first year of college and decided to come home and surprise Dad for his birthday. I’d just driven into town when I saw Mom go by in someone else’s car. I knew what was going on. Maybe I was subconsciously hoping it would happen because I had the thirty-two handgun Dad had given me for protection. Mom took responsibility for it but I was the one that followed them, put the gun in the red Cadillac’s window when the driver rolled it down, and shot his smiling face with two hard twitches of my finger. Mom ran out of the car and grabbed the gun from me. “What did you do?” she cried. “What did you do?” I didn’t know who the guy was, I’d never seen him before, but he was a criminal with friends. Dad told me that later, after Mom wiped off the gun and said, “Dead people can’t tell any lies.” She put the barrel in her mouth.
Hold your breath, here we go. I closed my eyes and screamed through the gunshot, screaming like the girl I was inside.
All of that was my fault, all of that was my fault.
Sobbing and shaking, I called Daddy. He came out and looked at it all and said, “His friends and family will want revenge. They’ll hunt us down. We need to disappear. Just leave a mystery behind and disappear.”
Sometimes when it’s quiet, I think about his plan and realize how ridiculous it was. The police would suspect him because his disappearance would be suspicious, but I wasn’t thinking that night. I was crying. I felt so cold. It began raining. It’d been raining all week, every afternoon, like it did every fall in Pennsylvania. Mud was on everything. The dead guy’s car still idled, yellowed headlights on and a Randy Travis CD playing. Hold your breath, here we go.
I didn’t want to leave Dad. “We’ll tell the truth,” I told him. He shook his head. “Listen to me. The truth doesn’t matter, Sam. You killed a man and that doesn’t matter. Your Mom took the hit for the murder, and that doesn’t matter. That man and his friends are killers. The truth as far as they’re concerned is that he’s dead and blood demands blood. That’s the truth.” He said more but what took hold of me is when he said, “You can start a new life. You can come out of the closet and live openly and be who you really are.”
I didn’t know he knew I was gay and a cross dresser. It all came out as my Mother’s blood and brains mixed with the mud. We went home. Daddy opened a safe I didn’t know he had and took out stacks of money. “Two hundred thousand dollars.” He handed it to me as I gaped, wondering, where did Dad get so much money? “Get in your car and go. Don’t look back. I’ll get in touch with you when it’s safe.”
But he never did and I didn’t look back. I became Samantha, first with a sex change operation, then with a name change at a courthouse, and then went on to college and a veterinary science degree and moved to Cedar Springs. I made up stories that Daddy had abused me and was trying to kill me when he thought I was going to the police about his sexual abuse. I said he was a teacher, and that I was hiding under a new name the police gave me. It seemed cleaner and easier than the truth and gave me cover about why I couldn’t have children, expanding if asked, I’d been pregnant. Daddy had taken me for an abortion and everything had gone wrong.
Jason swallowed it all, the naïve dear. He said, “We can adopt.” I said I’d need to think about it. I hope he understands that means no way in hell. I’d tell him that but he seems so innocent that I’m afraid it would ruin him.
“Daddy has two pictures of you in his office,” Melany told me.
I could see Daddy’s office in our house, a squared dark oak desk in the middle of a fortress of books.
“You’re a boy in one and a woman in the other," Melany says through my memories. "Daddy insists that they’re cousins but I never believed that. Then he wrote his book.” A book. “He called it “Disappeared”. I read it to proofread it for him and I don’t know.”
She flashed Daddy’s smile at me. “I’ve always been a sneaky person. I’d overheard phone conversations, I guess he was talking with your Mom, and I just started thinking that something didn’t sound right. So I started going through his stuff. Every time he went away, I explored his office. He was clever, let me tell you, but he was overconfident. He never thought anyone would go looking for the truth. He trusted us. I found his wallet with all of his other identification. Sorry about your Mom, by the way.”
He thought he was smarter than us. He was smarter than me. “So here you are. What do you want now?” But I knew what she wanted. I understood her. She was smart, like Daddy. She was just proving it to herself. But she is more like Daddy and me than she realizes. Lying, she told me how she wanted to meet me because she thought I was so brave. She told me about our brothers. One is older than her and one is younger. She’s older than me, too, but just by a few months. I’m Daddy’s third child.
Hold your breath, here we go.
She wanted us to be friends. I agreed, yes, let’s be friends. Let’s keep in touch. It’ll be our little secret. “And you can come for a visit,” Melany said, eyes aglow, looking like Daddy at his happiest. “Our cousin, Samantha the vet, from Cedar Springs. Don’t you want to see Daddy’s face when you show up?”
“I sure do,” I said, smiling with gritty hostility inside and beaming false joy outside. Melany thought herself smart but I bet Daddy is still one step ahead of her. He wanted her to find out about me and ‘find me’ and surprise him with a visit or he would never have put the photos out. Didn’t she see? That’s how Daddy worked. But she couldn’t see. Daddy knew she thought she was smarter than him.
He was playing her.
Just like he’d played me.
I won’t ever go see Melany or Daddy, I tell myself.
That’s just one thing I tell myself. I tell myself I really knew almost everything Melany told me. I’d just kept it a secret from myself. But then, if I knew everything, I would have to confess, Daddy knew everything, too, and his arrangement for us to disappear was part of a deeper plot. I would have to think about how conveniently he had all that money to give me that night and the money’s source. I would need to finish answering the question that I avoid, why did I take the money and run like a coward? I would need to reconsider Daddy’s reaction after seeing his wife, the woman he loved, dead. I would need to confess that Daddy didn’t really care about me or her, that he didn’t love me or he wouldn’t have let me go, and that can’t be true. Everything he did was done because he loved me. I would have to ask myself, what did I really know?
What did Mom really know?
I would need to think about my reaction when I saw her dead.
Sometimes when it’s quiet, I think of myself and these questions, and what I believe about myself, and what I’ve told others. Then I look at them and wonder, who are you?
Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll find out. But then noise fills the quiet and I’m safe again, at home in Cedar Springs.
Causes Michael Seidel Supports
Kiva, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Propublica.org, Doctors Without Borders, GreaterGood.com