It’d been a warm, sunny spring afternoon. The grass in the cemetery was green, the roses and lavender in the wreaths fragrant. Iqbal’s funeral had been a quiet affair, all things considered.
Our circle was getting too old for the type of soap opera drama that had marked our younger years. We’d lived for enough decades that my friends and I had settled into some kind of rhythm, had dared to allow some of our sharp edges to be burnished smooth.
So by the time of Iqbal’s funeral, Joachim had long since given up staging drunken screaming matches in parking lots with Jésus for stealing Joachim’s boyfriend Steve, lo these many years ago. After all, soon after Steve had left him, Joachim had met and bottomed to Randall at a play party, and they’d been together ever since. Randall had ceased lamenting the flawless beauty of his youth to anyone who would (or wouldn’t) listen. He’d started dating a couple of eager smooth-skinned houseboys, vetted by Joachim. The young men kept Joachim’s and Randall’s boots spit-polished. Randall had let his hair grow in grey, waxed his mustachios, and relaxed into his daddy role.
Munroe had become an actual daddy as a result of a drunken evening with his dyke friend Alice. He ended up sharing custody of the little girl with her—mostly amicably, with some glaring exceptions. “Baby” Tina was twenty-two years old now. She’d attended the service with hugs for all her uncles and me, her aunty. Almost everyone had remembered to call me Sally. After all, it’d been seven years. Pete did slip up and call me “Jack . . . er, Sal,” but I didn’t bite his head off; he was, after all, burying his husband. But it’s been seven fucking years, dude, and you’re still making that mistake?
When I transitioned, Pete’s awkwardness about it had cooled our friendship down quite a bit. So as I stood beside the grave site with the others, watching the coffin being lowered mechanically into the hole and longing to get out of the black pumps that were crushing my toes in two very stylish vises, I was surprised when my phone buzzed with a text from Pete: The bar in an hour? Just you and me?
Well. It’d been years since he and I had hung out like that, but I knew exactly which bar he meant. I texted back, Make it an hour and a half. To underline that I wasn’t going to let him “Jack” me again, I added, Momma needs to slip into something more comfortable.
I only stopped at home long enough to switch my heels for flats and give the hubby a squeeze, but Pete was already waiting when I got to the bar. He was nursing a virgin Manhattan, extra maraschino cherries. Nowadays, sugar was his drug of choice. He looked glumly up at me and kicked out the chair opposite his. The haunted look in his eyes made my heart ache. I sat. He said, “Rye and soda?” I didn’t even need to nod. He knew what I liked, and was already signalling the waitress.
Two women sitting together at the bar gave me the side-eye. They leaned their heads together to talk, scowling at me the whole time. Easy to figure what they had their panties in a twist about. “You okay?” I asked Pete. “Never mind. Stupid question.”
His eyes met mine. “Something happened the other day.”
He frowned. “Yes. No. I’m not sure.”
I sighed. “Tell me.”
He tried on an ill-fitting smile. “I dunno. It’s dumb. You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“‘But you must be mad,’” I quoted. “‘We’re all mad here.’”
Unlike the Cheshire Cat’s, his smile became a little more real as he quoted back: “‘There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.’” His smiled cracked. “Maybe it was just the stress. Of everything. Of Iqbal . . .”
My drink had arrived. I took a sip, let the bite and chill of it roll around on my tongue, swallowed. “Pete, I’m listening. You know I always will, no matter how crazy the thing you have to tell me.” No matter how hurt I was that we weren’t really friends any more.
His eyes were wet. “You remember Mrs. Richardson.”
It wasn’t a question. Pete and I had known each other since we were teenagers in high school. He was the first person I told outright that I wasn’t a boy. He’d laughed it off, quite gently. But I’d never mentioned it to him again.
And of course I remembered that cunt. She shouldn’t have been allowed near kids, much less allowed to foster young Pete. Meeting a foster kid had been quite the eye-opener for me. Meeting the spinning ball of hatred that was Mrs. Richardson made the skin on my arms crawl, made me almost grateful for my passive-aggressive mother and my transphobic dad.
I said, “One minute she’d be sweet as pie, the next she’d be raging.”
“She wasn’t always like that, though. At some point, she changed.”
I hadn’t known that. “Really? What turned her evil, then?”
“The other way round, Sal.”
Good. I was back to being Sally, or as close as Pete would get to it. “Wait—you mean she used to be worse?”
He nodded. “When I was first placed with her, she’d come at me night and day. She said I was a lost cause, but she would whip me into shape. Once I laid the table with the knives and forks on the wrong side of the plates. She sent me to bed without dinner.”
“She made me do all kinds of evening and weekend chores till I was so tired, I fell asleep on top of my homework. Then she punished me for getting bad grades. Took my socks away that fall and winter. Couple of my toes never recovered from the frostbite.”
It felt like the bottom had dropped out of my belly. “We were friends! Why didn’t you tell me?” The Mrs. Richardson I’d met mostly yelled a lot. Vile things, usually variants of “dumbass.” And she’d refused to give permission for Pete to go on any school trips.
“I’d only just met you. It started happening in summer, when you were away at camp. And anyway, it didn’t last long.”
“Lasted long enough for you to get frostbite that winter.”
He shrugged. “What good would telling you have done?”
“We could have told my folks, or the school! Someone would have gotten you out of there!” I was nearly shouting. People near us glanced at us then looked away.
“You’ve never been a foster kid. More likely, no one would have believed us and the investigation would just have made her hate me even more.”
All that time, he’d been suffering. And all this time, he’d kept his secret from me.
“She was careful to only hit me in places the bruises wouldn’t be seen.”
“Jesus.” I sucked back more of my drink and waited for him to continue. But he stayed silent. I prompted him: “What made her get nicer? Or at least, made her stop physically hurting you?”
“I’ve told you about my dad, right?”
Clearly he needed to change the subject. “Yeah, a bit.” Pete’s dad had raised him alone. Got hit by a car and killed when Pete was thirteen. That’s how Pete had ended up in foster care.
“Dad used to let me read Alice in Wonderland to him. He took me fishing, worked on my science fair projects with me. He never raised a hand to me.
“I saw the accident, rode with Dad in the ambulance. He was bleeding, semi-conscious, but he held my hand till he couldn’t any more. He kept saying, ‘I’ll come back to you, Petey. I have to look after you.’ And then of course he didn’t come back. He died. And I was sent to Mrs. Richardson.” Pete clamped his hands around his drink. They were trembling a little. I wondered whether he’d even told Iqbal about Mrs. Richardson.
My drink had gone right through me, and I desperately needed to pee. I knew from past experience this place had segregated washrooms. That’s why—or one of the reasons why—I’d stopped coming to this bar. I crossed my legs and leaned forward in my chair, as Pete clearly had more to say about that bloody bitch.
“One day, she was hitting me—on my legs—and I was trying to act like it wasn’t hurting. She was pissed because of some damned thing she thought I’d done, I don’t even remember what. I do remember I was trying to tell her that I hadn’t done it, and she was shouting, ‘Children should be seen and not heard!’”
I stared at Pete, my mouth open in shock.
“Suddenly she stopped mid-swing, with her hand pulled up, like someone had grabbed her by the wrist. She opened her eyes wide and said, ‘Petey.’ And . . . she stopped hitting me. She dropped to her knees to look at the bruises that were coming up on my thighs. And then she said the strangest thing.”
“What?” I was trying hard to forget my twinging bladder. One of the two TERFy dykes had just gone to the washroom. The other was watching me, her lip curled in disgust.
“She said, ‘What did she do to you?’ You know, talking about herself in the third person? Then she went to hug me! That freaked me the fuck out. I pushed her away. She stood up, looked confused. She asked me where the kitchen was.”
“In her own house? Was she having a stroke, or something?”
“Yeah, maybe. Iqbal was confused too, when he had his first stroke . . .”
“Hey,” I said, “Do you want to get out of here, just go home? Or come back to our place? We have a guest room, you could spend the night.”
But Pete was looking off into the memory distance. He continued, “I pointed to where the kitchen was. She came back with cold water and paper towel. She dabbed my bruises and said she was sorry, that it was such a long way back and she’d brought the water as quickly as she could.”
“Bitch was seriously crazy.”
Pete had the waiter bring us refills. I hoped I could hold my water. In a pinch, I could dash back home, use the toilet there, be back in twenty, thirty minutes tops, and not risk being attacked for the unforgiveable crime of peeing in a public toilet.
“After that,” said Pete, “I never knew whether I was going to get evil Mrs. Richardson or good Mrs. Richardson. It messed with my head. Sometimes she’d just sit in her armchair in front of the TV and mutter, like she was arguing with herself. And sometimes she’d just look scared out of her wits. I was so glad when I was legal to leave.”
I smiled. “I was bigtime envious of you, getting to be on your own when you were sixteen.”
“You were an idiot, then.”
“That was no picnic, either.” He sipped his drink, then looked up. “I just remembered something. The day I left, I was just heading out the door when she put her hand on my shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin. She said, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t look after you the whole time. It’s such a long way round.’ Then her hand fell away, and her face just changed. She stepped back. She watched me leave, and the look on her face was the most hatred I’ve ever had directed at me. And that’s saying something. I scrambled down the driveway like the Devil was at my heels.”
I shuddered. “Did you ever see her again?”
“Not her, no. Heard she’d jumped in front of a car, or something. Didn’t care.”
“Pete,” I said gently, “You were telling me about Iqbal?”
He stared into his glass, spoke with his head still down. “We used to fight. Like, knockdown fistfights.”
“’Fraid so. Blood was shed, there were trips to Emergency, the police were called.”
“Police? To a fight between two brown men?”
“Yeah. It’s a miracle we survived.”
When one lives in a world in which large portions of it want one dead, every minute is a triumph, every breath a defiance, and, if one’s jib is cut that way, every statement a manifesto. The everyday vagaries of life and love are just writ that much larger, because they mean that much more. The game of “he said/he said” is raised to a level of artistry rivalled only by the sport of kings. Every breakup is forever, because love may never find one ever again. Every new lover becomes one’s whole life, because one is stealing love from the jaws of hatred. What t-shirt to wear with the perfect jeans to go clubbing is almost as brutally important as what words to write on one’s placard to attend that demonstration against legalizing faith-based homophobia. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. It stopped, all the violence between us. One day, Iqbal took his hands from around my throat—”
“—and he looked at his hands as though he’d never seen them before. He said, ‘No more. I’m not going to fight you anymore.’ I mean, it didn’t end right away. For one thing, I wasn’t ready to stop. Didn’t know how, really. But Iqbal really meant it. He’d changed. Eventually he got me to go to counselling with him. And bit by bit, we figured shit out. Figured out how to be good to each other.” Pete sobbed, once, so loudly that people three tables over stopped to look our way. “God, Sally, I miss him so much.”
“I know, honey.” I took his hand in mine. He jumped at my touch. I tried not to feel hurt.
“You know the last thing he said to me?”
I shook my head.
“He said, “I found my way home to you, Petey. I looked after you. I got better at it, so that I could be with you all the time.” He went unconscious after that, and was gone by the next morning.”
“He loved you very much. That wasn’t strange at all.”
He nodded absently, then pulled his hand away to pick his glass up. He had a sip. “Okay,” he said. “I suppose. But here’s the thing; only my dad ever called me Petey.”
I tried to concentrate through the yammering of my bladder. “No, that’s not right. Didn’t you say that Mrs. Richardson did?”
“Once. The day she stopped hitting me.”
“Once. The last time he was conscious.” Pete’s hands started shaking so badly that he had to set the glass down. He put his hands in his lap. “So what I’m really asking myself is: who was I married to all those years?”
Something squirmed in the pit of my belly. How could he even think—? “Pete . . .” I whispered.
He jumped to his feet. “I’m sorry, Sal. It’s just been so hard the last couple of days. Losing Iqbal, the funeral, all those people to be polite to while . . .” He stopped, his face pulled into the lineaments of grief. “My head’s just been full of all these weird thoughts.”
“I understand,” I murmured. But I didn’t. “You need to be gentle with yourself this next little while.”
“Let me get the check.” He put some bills on the table.
“Okay, thanks, but first I just need to . . .” I stood, clamping down hard on my aching bladder. Another reason to be thankful I’d diligently done all those post-surgery kegels.
Pete sighed, as one does when one is about to say something difficult for others to hear. “It’s just that . . . well, Mrs. Richardson, Iqbal; people around me keep turning into someone else. You used to be Jack; now you’re Sally.”
The cold burn of betrayal and erasure was just about to tsunami over me, scouring me from skin to bone, when he got a strange look in his eye. In a clear voice, he said, “But Jack is just what people called you. I finally figured it out. You were always Sally. You have always been exactly who you are right now.”
I can be an emo bitch sometimes. When I started weeping, he pulled me into his arms. “Sally, I’m sorry I’ve been such a dick.” For the first time in years, my friend and I held each other like the close companions we used to be.
And then I really, really had to go. I waited, hot-footing, till I was as sure as I could be that there was no one in the Women’s. Pete stood outside the door painted with the stick figure lady in a triangle skirt until I exited safely. He walked me home, hugged me again on the street outside my apartment building. I told him I’d check in on him tomorrow, waved goodbye as he headed off in the direction of the subway station.
Age and a track record of survival can bring poise to a life lived cheek by jowl with the possibility of danger. You might say that one’s trigger becomes less hairy. Nevertheless, one is always watchful for that slight shift, the moment when a situation turns.
That new look in Pete’s eye, the complete change of demeanour. And wasn’t that the first time, he’d called me Sally? Not Jack-er-Sal. Not Sal. Sally.
In the long elevator ride up to my twenty-first floor apartment, I tried not to ask myself whether Pete’s sudden change of heart had been all him. As I kissed my sleeping husband and got ready for bed, I tried not to feel guilty that I didn’t care who had been behind Pete’s eyes. Whoever it was, they were my friend.