Fruit Cup

Fruit Cup

By Asche

Copyright 2016

"Hey, Fruit Cup. The boss wants to see you!" Joe shouted as he came down the stairs from the store office.

"Can it wait for a minute? I'm helping Nicholas set up a display." I'd taken time out from my shelving duties to help Nicholas with his latest assignment: to assemble a cardboard display for Nabisco's latest attempt at world domination: a 'health' cookie. Assembling these things is a lot like origami and is generally far beyond Nicholas's congitively impaired brain. Nicholas was part of corporate's push to hire handicapped workers and I'd been the only one willing to mentor him enough for him to do useful work, so Calvin, the night manager, was generally happy to cut me some slack.

"The ret--" My glare got him to cut off what he'd obviously planned to say.

"Don't let the boss hear you call Nick that." I'd learned to tolerate being called 'fruit cup,' but I'd be damned if I'd be quiet when people tried to put Nicholas down.

With a lot of directions and me occasionally stepping in, we got the display put together and set up in the correct orientation, so I left Nicholas to stock it while I went to see what Calvin wanted.

"Elise," he said when I came into the office. "One of the morning shift people is unexpectedly unavailable. Can you cover it for the next few days?"

"Is that in addition to my regular shifts?"

"Yes, if you can manage it. Yes, we'll okay the overtime." Brings my 'special fund' closer to where I need it.

"I can do it through Saturday. I'd rather not do Sunday."

"That should be good enough. Besides, even you need to sleep sometime. Can you start this morning?"

"Sure." Who needs to sleep, anyway?

I went back to unpacking and shelving and occasionally walking Nicholas through some task. At six a.m., when the night shift was over, Nicholas came over to me.

"Can I have your telephone number?"

"What for?"

"Well --" He sounded like he was having to think of what to say. "Sometimes I like to talk with my best friend. Only she's busy when we're at work."

My first impulse was to say 'no.' I'd had some calls in the past from people I really didn't want to hear from, and I'd changed the number to stop that. But this was Nicholas, and I guess I had a soft spot for him. "I'm pretty grouchy, especially after work. I wouldn't be a fun person to talk to."

"Oh, I always love talking to you!" I gave up and wrote my number on a scrap of brown paper from the wrapping for a bunch of bags of rice. He thanked me profusely as usual and told me what a good friend I was. I told him he made it easy. Once again I thought: what kind of world is it that just giving the occasional bit of help makes you someone's best friend? I checked in with Craig, the morning manager, and he had me stock produce and then when the morning rush started, do guard duty at the self-checkout lines. Around 7:30, it got crazy and Craig logged me in on a register for a while. The customers were decent to me, which was a relief. With this and that, the time passed and at 2 p.m., I drove home and crashed.

At 8:30 p.m., a half-hour before my alarm went off, I got a phone call.

"Is this Lisa Conner?"

"Yes. Who is --?"

"This is Catherine Sands, Nicholas's mother."

"Is he okay?"

"Oh, yes, quite well. You know, he keeps saying how wonderful you are and how much he's able to do now down at the supermarket with your help. In fact, he keeps asking if we can have you over for a visit. That's why we're calling. We'd like to invite you over for dinner." I groaned inside. Just what I always didn't need: yet again being somebody's freak show for an evening. Nicholas had mentioned me coming over to visit a few times before, but I'd always managed to fend him off. For Nicholas's sake, I tried to be polite.

"That's very kind of you. I should warn you, I'm pretty busy. I'm doing double shifts for the rest of the week and don't really have time to do anything but eat and sleep." I hoped this would put them off long enough for them to forget it.

"I understand. But surely there's some time when you don't have double shifts? I don't mean to press you, but Nicholas would be so disappointed if you can't ever come. He says you don't do much but work, it might do you good to get out."

"Well, I go to church on Sunday mornings."

"How about after church?"

I could see I wasn't going to get rid of them with polite fictions. Time to hit them with the truth.

"Actually, there's something you probably don't know about me, and if you did, you probably wouldn't want to invite me."

"Oh, my, are you, I don't know, some kind of criminal?"

"No, I'm --" I always hate to out myself, but if they ever see me at the supermarket, they'll know, anyway. "You see, I'm a transsexual. Until a few years ago, I was living as a man. And I look it. I'm not like LaVerne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner. I don't look like someone who was born female." I look like an ugly guy in a dress, I thought, but I didn't say it.

Dead silence. "I'll understand if you don't want me over." She put the phone down and had some kind of whispered conversation. Finally, she came back on.

"I don't understand. Are you trying to tell us you really don't want to visit?" Her voice sounded strained.

"Not if it would make you uncomfortable. Most people are around me."

"It's not a problem for us," she stated in a flat voice. "As long as it's not a problem for you. Do you want to think about it for a bit?"

Now I was feeling bad about being so unfriendly. "I'm off from Saturday afternoon until Sunday night."

"Would Saturday evening work for you?"

"Sure. I'll take a nap in the afternoon, after my shift."

"Are you sure? We can make it later."

"Oh, I'll be fine."

"How about 7:30?"

I got the address and directions. It was too late to go back to sleep, so I made a thermos mug of extra-strength coffee and got myself put together for work.

The rest of the week went about as smoothly as could be expected. I was getting maybe a half-hour of checkout experience each day, which might qualify me for a better-paying position. The 16 hour workdays left me exhausted, but it did mean that I slept like a log when I was off and didn't have any nightmares.

Saturday morning is always a madhouse. In our part of town, it's when the working stiffs are off work and can come in to do their weekly shopping, and all the registers are open. Craig had me on a register for much of the morning, and I thought I was doing pretty well until I saw a big guy a few carts back in the line give me the hate stare. I'd seen that a couple of times since I'd transitioned and it alway put me into full fight-or-flight mode, even though they usually didn't do anything more than stare. I felt my knees get weak and my mind fog up. Fortunately, I'd gotten a lot of practice scanning and coding, so I could do it mostly on autopilot. But once or twice I forgot where I was in ringing through and my customer had to remind me. Still, I held out until I was mostly done with the guy before the starer. I was grabbing the last few soda bottles when he spoke.

"Since when do they let faggots in this place?" he announced with a tone of total disgust. "When I was in the army, they knew what to do with pieces of shit like him." My hands were shaking to the point that I had trouble hitting the right keys. The guy I was checking out stared down the aisle away from the hater, the people behind the starer were staring off into space, all too obviously hoping to avoid getting involved.

When the previous guy had paid and loaded his cart, I turned to scan the starer's items.

"Don't you dare put your filthy hands on my stuff. Who knows where they've been? I don't want to get AIDS. Or worse."

"If I can't touch your items, how can I scan them?"

"I don't fucking care. You shouldn't be around decent people in the first place. All I know is I'm not letting some pervert put his hands all over stuff I'm going to eat."

Because the neighborhood isn't the best, every register has a button below the counter that you can hit with your leg to call the manager. Hit it twice in a row, and security comes; at least, that was what I was told. I hit it once and prayed Craig would come before this guy took it into his head to kill me. It looked like he could do me in with his bare hands without working up a sweat.

"There isn't anyone else to handle this register. If you don't like having me check you out, you can always go to another line that's more to your liking."

That got him mad. "I didn't stand in this fucking line for two fucking hours so some perverted tranny freak could make me stand in another fucking line for two fucking hours." He was leaning over the counter with his face practically in mine. For someone who was supposedly so repulsed by me, he was getting awfully close to me. "You know what I oughtta do?" He was flexing his hands above the belt that was full of his beer bottles and cans of food. I didn't say anything. I'd like to say it was because I knew better, but actually it was because I was paralyzed by fear. "I oughtta beat the crap out of you."

We both stood like that for a few minutes.

"I ain't got all day," he shouted.

"If I can't touch your groceries, and you aren't willing to us a different registery, how can you expect --"

"Don't talk to me like that. It's not my problem. It's your problem for being a sissy fag and your queer-loving boss's problem for hiring a sissy fag like you. I'll bet you like to--"

Just as I kneed the button twice, Craig showed up.

"What's the problem?" he asked cheerfully.

"You got this tranny fag trying to get AIDS all over my groceries. You need to get a normal guy here."

"This is who I have," he said in a no-nonsense voice. "You can either let her check you out or you can pack your stuff up and get in a different line."

"Her? That's no her, that's a dude!"

"I won't have you insulting my staff. If you don't want her to check you out and you don't want to go to another line, you'll have to leave." About then, two guys in company polo shirts who looked like former NFL players appeared at the bagging area of the checkout. I'd seen them doing small stocking jobs and nosing around, so I had already figured they were security and doing stocking mostly as way to keep an eye on things without giving themselves away.

The man gave Craig a challenging stare for a few minutes, then pushed his empty cart through the aisle, forcing Craig and the security guys to step back. Once the cart was out of his way, he stomped off, leaving his groceries on the belt. The security people followed him off towards the entrance, as he muttered curses about 'fag-loving pansies.'

"Lisa," he said gently, "put his stuff in the cart and re-shelve it. Then go to the break room. I'll take over the register and run the people already in line through." He looked at the woman at the end of the line. "You're the last one, I'm closing the line after you."

As I loaded the cart, I heard people muttering, "what an asshole!" "The nerve." "No cause to ...." It made me feel a little better that they weren't agreeing with him, but not much. Nobody had been willing to speak up while he was there, after all. When I was done, I pushed the cart around the end past the registers and into the store. There wasn't that much in the cart. I felt like a robot as I put the cans and bottles back where they'd come from.

I sat in the break room staring at the opposite wall, trying to control my breathing. I was somehow able to keep my hands steady, but inside I was shaking. I started to wonder how I was going to come back to work tomorrow night, but then did my best to stifle the thought. I had no choice, best not to even imagine the possibility of not coming back. I made a point of envisioning coming in Sunday night, of piling stacks of boxes on the handtruck and wheeling it out into an aisle. Like counting sheep, I thought. Craig stuck his head in. "Lisa, can you come up to the office? We need to file an incident report."

After we got the report done, Craig wanted to send me home, but I wanted the pay from the remaining hours in the shift and was afraid I'd lose that if I left. He kept me a little longer, saying he wanted to make sure I'd calmed down, then had me do simple jobs that kept me away from the customers. I was grateful to have something to keep my hands busy. At 2:00, I drove home and threw myself into bed without even bothering to undress.

My alarm woke me at 6:00. I dragged myself out of bed, shaved and showered, and put on one of my two moderately dressy outfits, the ones I wear to church and funerals: blouse, knee-length skirt with matching jacket, nude hose, and pumps. I'm not exactly into make-up, but I put on enough to disguise any five o'clock shadow, and added a brooch and a delicate necklace. I debated putting on the wig, but decided covering my bald spot wouldn't be enough for me to even halfway pass anyway. I picked up some flowers at a Korean market along the way and showed up at the Sands' house a few minutes early. Oh, well.

"Hi, I'm Bill Sands, Nick's father." The man who greeted me with a welcoming smile at the door was maybe in his fifties, with greying hair (and no receding hairline, I noticed with envy) and reminded me a little of Harrison Ford. He was wearing a tweed jacket over a beige turtleneck and khaki pants, all that was missing was the pipe.

"I'm Elise Conner," I replied, "pleased to meet you, Mr. Sands," and remembered to extend my hand for a handshake, a lesson drilled into me by my mother. "Oh, call me Bill," he insisted. I had expected at least some hesitation on his part, but either he had enormous self-control or he was one of those rare people who actually didn't care.

"Lisa! You came!" Nicholas had come up behind his father and was bursting with excitement. As Bill was leading me in, Nicholas grabbed me for a big hug. "I'm glad to see you, too, Nick," I said, hugging him back.

A woman done up a lot like June Cleaver came out of the kitchen wiping her hand on her flowery apron. "Hi, I'm Kathy Sands, Nick's mother," she said with a broad smile on her face as she put her arms out for a hug. It took me a few seconds for me to react and I thought I saw a brief twinge of disappointment in her face at the delay, so I approached her and let her hug me. It felt strange and it took me a little while to place the feeling because it was so unfamiliar: it felt good. "Dinner's almost ready," she said, "you all go in the living room, I'll call when it's done." She turned to the hallway beyond the living room and shouted, "yoo, hoo! Bryan! Come down and set the table."

Bill led Nick and me into the living room. "Would you like anything to drink? Soda? Beer?"

"Just water, thank you. I just got up and am still not quite awake." A young man in his twenties who I assumed was the Bryan Kathy had just called rushed past into the dining room.

"Did you have another one of those double shifts today?"

"Yes, but it's the last one. I don't go back to work until tomorrow night."

"Unfortunately, Nick has to work tonight, so he'll have to leave after dinner. But you can stay later, if you want." Bill went to get my drink, while Nick insisted I sit on the sofa with him. I looked around the living room, trying to feel comfortable with being in someone else's home. I felt a little like I'd gotten in on false pretenses and might get thrown out or worse once they found out who I really was, although I couldn't think of anything I hadn't told them. Nicholas saw me looking at the pictures on the wall and started explaining. "That picture's from when we went to Disneyland. I liked Disneyland. All those rides."

A few minutes later, Bill and the young man I'd seen rushing past came in together bringing four glasses. "Elise, this is my younger son Bryan. Bryan, this is Nick's friend Elise."

"Hey, I know you," said Bryan. "You're the guy they call Fruit Cup, right? At the supermarket?"

I tried to pretend it wasn't an insult, but Bill glared at him. "She is a guest," he said icily, "and her name is Elise. I'm sure she doesn't need to be reminded of whatever insulting nicknames her coworkers may use." There was a moment of silence, then Bryan lowered his head and sat down in one of the chairs.

"How is it, working, what, 16 hours straight?" said Bill in a friendlier voice as he sat down in an armchair.

"It's a bit of a grind, but I don't mind. It's not all that stressful, mostly, and it leaves me tired so I sleep well."

"Mostly not stressful?" asked Bill.

"Well, sometimes you get customers who are, uh, difficult."

"Got any good stories, Elise? I've worked in retail," said Bryan.

I shrugged. "There was one this morning. It was crowded and I was on a register. This guy is in line and he keeps giving me this really nasty stare. When he got to the front, he started calling me names and saying he didn't me want to touch his stuff." I was trying to tell it like it wasn't a big deal, but my voice started shaking. "He wouldn't go away, he threatened to beat me up. My manager came, and then some security guys, and they got him to leave. Then he -- my manager -- sent me to put the guy's stuff back and he took over the register." Nicholas put his arm around me and gave me a side hug, Bill just looked distressed.

"Jeez," Bryan started, "what an a--." Bill gave him a warning look. "What a jerk!" Bryan finished his thought. "Are people really that nasty to you? Why?"

"They can see I'm a transsexual." I tried to steady my voice. "A lot of people don't see me as human. Some of my coworkers weren't very nice at first, but Corporate insists that the stores have to be LGBT-friendly and my managers put a stop to the worst. All that's really left is that nickname. They used to call me 'the Fruit', among other things, and that turned into 'Fruit Cup.' I figure if that's the worst I have to put up with, I can live with it."

"Sorry, I didn't realize that 'Fr--' -- that that name was an insult."

Kathy stuck her head in and said, "dinner's ready." Bill led me to the dining room while Bryan and Nicholas went into the kitchen, to appear a few minutes later with bowls and platters of food. We all stood as Bill said grace, then we sat down. They'd seated me between Kathy and Bill, facing Bryan and Nicholas.

Dinner was a roast with mashed potatoes and green beans. Bill served us small glasses of red wine, and then the next five minutes or so were spent with Bill cutting the roast with an electric carving knife and Kathy filling our plates with potatoes and green beans, while we passed around the gravy boat. It wasn't til we'd gotten a start on eating that the conversation began again.

"We're so glad things are working out with Nick at the supermarket," said Kathy. "He's been through a couple of jobs, but this was the first one that he's been able to stay on with."

"I can imagine," I said. "Nicholas is a good worker, but you have to deal with the fact that he's not like the other workers. You have to be willing to make some adjustments in how you do things. He's a little like me in that way."

"Speaking of that, how did you end up working at a supermarket?" asked Bill. "Have you always worked in retail?"

"No, I used to be an auto mechanic. A pretty good one, if I do say so myself. But -- well, having to be a guy was wearing on me more and more until I couldn't stand it any more. You know, transition or die." I said that last with an attempt at a laugh.

"Transition?" asked Kathy.

"The process of going from being a man to being a woman. Or the other way around, if you started as a woman."

"Oh," she said thoughtfully.

"Anyway, when I finally came out at work, nobody could deal with it. Nobody wanted to work with me. I got harrassed, and my bosses didn't do anything because they didn't want me around, either. I got fired eventually, and I couldn't find any other shop that would hire me. I was homeless for a little while before someone at my church got me in touch with the supermarket. Oh, I'd switched churches because people at my old one weren't comfortable with me any more."

"Which one are you going to now?" asked Kathy.

"Hillside Unitarian Congregation. I keep a low profile and no one's given me a hard time yet."

"It's sad that your old church didn't have room for you. We are all the Lord's children, however we may look."

Bill added, "I'm afraid we had that problem even at our church. We adopted Nicholas because we were told we couldn't have children the usual way, and I'm afraid a lot of the other church members weren't able to accept a child like Nicholas. A number of them asked us to leave him at home. Fortunately, our pastor backed us up."

"'The Lord made him that way, and The Lord doesn't make mistakes,' is what he said," said Kathy forcefully. "But it took several years, and a few people left. I'm not sorry they left, though. It was obvious that Nick was doing the best he could, and I don't think they're all that Christian if they can't tolerate 'the least of these.'"

Nobody said anything for a while, other than the occasional 'please pass the --'. Finally, Bryan asked me, "do you have, like, a girlfriend?" He quickly added, looking at his father, "or a boyfriend?"

"I was married, back before my transition. She was a really nice woman, still is, but she couldn't handle me becoming a woman, and we got divorced. She remarried, and she's still not comfortable with me being, you know, the way I am, but we've learned to be civil with one another, at least. But even though she hates it, she's been a lot more decent than anybody in my family."

"Oh?" asked Kathy.

"My mom acted like I'd died when I came out to her and didn't want to see me, and my dad said I wasn't to visit them or call them or anything until I got over my 'perversion.' I had a brother and a sister, but they won't talk to me, either."

"Oh, jeez, that sucks," said Bryan, earning another glare from his father. That seemed to be their relationship: Bryan would act like a typical generation y-er, his father would glare at him, and he'd act chastened for like a millisecond. "Aren't your family supposed to have your back, no matter what? Me and Aaron, whenever someone would pick on Nick, we'd gang up on them and make sure they never did it again. Isn't that what everyone does?"

"I was the 'wimp' brother. Tom and Mary were disgusted that I didn't stick up for myself more. And when I transitioned...." I decided that dumping on my family didn't look good and stopped.

"You know, it's funny," said Kathy. "We adopted Nicholas because the doctors told us we couldn't have kids, but a few years later, while we were just trying to keep our heads above water with parenting, I got pregnant with Bryan, and then a few years after that, I got pregnant again with Aaron. People told us we should get rid of Nicholas now that we had 'real children,' which I thought was horrible! The Lord gave Nicholas to us, he was our responsibility now and one of His children, it was not for us to reject His gift. You know, I think The Lord kept us from having children for as long as He so we'd be ready to give Nicholas a home. And I think having Nicholas, it taught us so much. About loving people for who they are, about appreciating the good and not focussing on the negative. I think we're better parents and better people for it. To reject people, especially your own family, for not being who you think they ought to be, I just can't understand it."

We'd mostly finished eating the main course when Kathy brought out apple cobbler for dessert, and we switched to talking about lighter topics like the weather or good places to go on vacation. I was starting to feel really relaxed. I guess the wine was having an effect.

Then Bryan said, "do you do a lot of double shifts?"

"I do as many as I can. I can use the overtime."

"Is that because being, you know, a --"

"Trans woman?"

"Yeah. Is that really expensive?"

"Kind of. The insurance pays for the hormones, but I have to pay for getting rid of the beard. Electrolysis. $90 per week, I've been going for three years and I'll probably need to go another two at least. Plus, I'm saving up for some expensive stuff."

"Like the, you know, surgery? Where they --?"

"SRS -- sexual reassignment surgery?" I finished my glass of wine. "Yes, that's on my list." Part of me was shocked that I was talking about it, but it seemed that that part wasn't in control at the moment. Had I had so much wine?

"I guess you want to be completely a woman, right?" I nodded. "I guess that must be weird. Wanting to feel like you're a woman but having, you know."

"Yeah, I know. God, do I know!" I suddenly remembered they were pretty Christian, but I didn't get any glares. Maybe because I was a guest, or maybe because they figured they couldn't expect too much from a heathen.

"Wow. Lost your family, lost your wife, lost your job. You must have really wanted to do this."

"More like needed to. If I hadn't transitioned, I would have died."

Bill and Kathy and I decamped to the living room, while Bryan and Nicholas cleaned up. Bill brought over a photo album and we looked at pictures of their children's childhood: baby pictures, vacations at the beach, Disneyland of course, graduations, the usual. It all felt so normal it felt weird. Nicholas and Bryan came in and told stories about the pictures.

"Nick?" said Bill. "Isn't it getting time to get ready to go to work?"

"Right-o!" he said "Just let me wash up and get changed." For some reason, getting Nicholas ready involved the whole family and I was left alone on the couch. It felt very comfortable on the couch, looking at the pictures on the wall. Very peaceful. Very relaxing.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I became aware that it was light, sunlight. I rolled over to look at my bedside clock to see how late I was, only I couldn't find it. There wasn't any table there. I slowly realized this wasn't my bed and this wasn't my room. The nightgown I had on wasn't my nightgown, but a long granny style gown in some sort of off-white synthetic flannel with little flowers printed on it. I also realized I needed to pee. I got up, found the door and peered out to see if I could figure out where the bathroom was. I suddenly recognized the hall as the hall in Nicholas's house and remembered that I'd been here for dinner. Oh God, I thought, I must have gotten drunk and passed out. I snuck around until I found the bathroom and used the toilet, then snuck back into the room I'd woken up in. I found my clothes, minus the pantyhose and underwear, neatly folded on a chair. There was also a big fuzzy bathrobe on another chair. I had no underwear on. Someone, the Sands, must have undressed me and put me in a nightgown. I wasn't sure which was more humiliating: passing out drunk or having the Sands see my naked body, especially the part of me that was proof positive that I wasn't a real woman.

"Elise?" I heard through the door. "Are you awake?"

"Yes," I replied meekly.

"Breakfast is ready. Don't bother to dress, just come on down to the kitchen." She didn't sound too upset. I put on the bathrobe and, as instructed, padded out the door and down to the kitchen.

The whole family was gathered around the kitchen table, except for Kathy, who was at the stove. Nick was still dressed from work, Bill and Bryan had bathrobes on with trouser legs showing underneath, and Kathy was wearing a full apron over a slip. Evidently they didn't want to get food on their good clothes. Bryan and Bill were reading the paper, Nicholas was still eating and waved to me.

"We've got bacon, eggs, and waffles," Kathy asked. "Toast, too, if you prefer. What would you like?"

"I'm really sorry," I said. "I guess I must have gotten drunk and --"

"Hardly drunk," interrupted Bill. "You had a half a glass of wine. I think you were just exhausted. Double shifts, a stressful day. Happens to all of us one time or another. Now: how about you tell Kathy what you'd like for breakfast and sit down?" he said kindly but firmly.

I sat down and said timidly, "might I have bacon and eggs?"

"Bacon and eggs coming up."

"Coffee?" asked Bill. "We also have orange juice."

"Might I have water? I'm not sure how my stomach is feeling right now."

"I'll get it," said Nicholas, as he got up and fetched a glass from the cupboard, filled it from the sink, and set it down in front of me

"Thank you."

"I'm sorry to have put you out," I said, after I'd drunk some of the water. "Putting me to bed. That must have been--"

"Don't worry about it," said Kathy. "We know you didn't mean it. You must have really needed the rest. We tried to wake you up, but you were just too out of it. There's no way you could have gotten home, so we just helped you into Aaron's bed. We figured you wouldn't want to mess up your nice clothes by sleeping in them, so we changed you. I hope you weren't upset."

"Not upset, exactly. But -- it seems like such an imposition on you. I hate being a burden."

"It wasn't a problem. I used to do that sort of thing for my Dad and then my Mom when they got too old to take care of themselves, so I'm used to it. Oh, I washed out your underwear, it should be dry by now." She put a plate in front of me. "Now, eat."

I ate.

It wasn't until I'd put a few forkfulls in my mouth that I realized I really was hungry.

"Would you like some more? Maybe a waffle?" asked Kathy when I'd eaten most of it and was engaged in collecting the scraps on my fork.

"A waffle would be nice," I admitted.

"One waffle, coming up!"

As I ate my waffle, I found myself tearing up. "I don't mean to be ungrateful," I said as I was finishing it up. "But why? Why take me in like this, put me to bed, like I was family? I'm just a stranger."

"You're not a stranger, you're Nick's friend!" said Kathy.

"You were in no shape to get yourself home," added Bill. "And it was no trouble to put you up, Aaron's off at college, so it's not like he was going to use his bed last night. What else could we do?"

"There have been plenty of people who would have been happy to push me out the door and let it be my problem."

"Doesn't sound very Christian, if you ask me," he concluded. "After all, if in the Bible even the despised Samaritan knew to help someone in need, could we do any less?"

By then, everyone was done eating. Bryan and Nicholas attacked the dishes, while Kathy fetched my clean underwear from the laundry room. We all went off to get dressed for church.

"I would invite you to come with us to our church," said Bill as we were waiting in the living room for the rest of his family to be ready, "but I'm afraid some of our members would not be very welcoming. You can of course come if you want, but I wouldn't want to talk you into coming and then have you face that."

"Thank you, but I think I'd rather go to my own church."

"I understand. I think it's our church's loss, though."

I didn't say anything, but I was having a hard time understanding his thinking. Why would they be missing out on anything by not having some pathetic tranny visit them?

Bryan and Nicholas came in, followed by Kathy. "I guess it's time for me to go," I said. "I really appreciate your hospitality. Two wonderful meals, and -- your kindness. Words cannot express how much I appreciate you all taking care of me when I ... well, zonked out right in your living room." I couldn't help blushing, I was still very embarrassed by the whole thing.

"We loved having you, and we weren't bothered by your unplanned sleep-over in the least," she said in an amused tone of voice. "It was an adventure. But if you really want to show how much you appreciate our hospitality, don't be so stubborn about letting us invite you over next time!" She gave me a hug and kissed my cheek to show she wasn't really mad. Nicholas gave me a hug, too, but Bill and Bryan just shook my hand.

I spent the drive over to my church trying to wrap my head around what had happened. I just felt confused. Why? I thought.

Our church was one of those classic white-painted churches, one that had started life as a Baptist church and it looked it, and had a parish hall on the opposite side from the parking lot. As I walked up from my car to the church, I noticed that there were flower beds on either side of the steps into the building, and in them were little brightly colored flowers sticking out of the ground. Some part of my mind supplied the word 'crocuses.' I hadn't remembered there being flowers there before. Pretty, I thought.

I took my usual seat in the back of the church and listend to the last little bit of the choir rehearsal. I suddenly remembered that the choir director would put out a call every month or so for anyone who wanted to to join the choir, no experience necessary. I used to sing, I thought, though I couldn't remember when.

People trickled into the church, and as the starting time approached, the trickle became a stream. Occasionally, I'd see people smile or wave in my general direction, but I wasn't sure it was for me, so I didn't say anything. Reverend Roberts began the service with a responsive invocation. Most people called her Ellen, but that's not how they did things in the church I grew up in. There were readings, there were hymns, which I would as usual quietly sing along to. The choir sang. There was a collection at one point. I was as usual mostly half-listening, just enjoying being among other people without the responsibility for actually interacting with them, but this time I couldn't so easily settle into my usual obscurity. Something had changed, but I couldn't figure out what.

I became aware that Reverend Roberts was delivering a sermon. I recalled that the word 'love' had been used a lot. I had missed most of the sermon, but this part I was fully awake for.

"There is a tendency to want to restrict love to those who, in our minds, deserve it. People like us, people whose lives make sense to us, people who fit our concept of 'humanity.' But we all are one underneath it all. 'No man is an island.' Whatever we reject in someone else is something we can find in ourselves. So when we exclude someone as being unworthy of our love, we exclude a piece of ourselves."

My mind went back to just hearing the music of the words and not the content, but at the same time, the words I had heard replayed themselves in my mind and even though I didn't process them, they contributed to my feeling of being unsettled.

After the closing words, I got up and followed the crowd to the parish hall. I was feeling the urge for something to nibble on and there was almost always a spread in the social room. There was at the door to the corridor, as usual, a clump of people around Reverend Roberts, but when she saw me walk by, she made a point of interrupting her conversation.

"Elise, how are you doing?" I wasn't sure if she really wanted to know, but I was too unsettled to hide how I was feeling.

"Uh, I -- I don't know," no doubt sounding as lost and bewildered as I felt.

She put her hand on my hand. "Elise, would you like to talk?" she said in a serious tone.

"I don't know," I whined even more helplessly.

"Elise," she said gently, "please sit on the bench out in the passageway, I'll come by in a few minutes when I finish up here."

I obeyed woodenly. From the bench I could see people walk back and forth. I observed them as if I were an escapee from another planet.

A little girl, maybe three or four years old, wearing a pink and green frock with two frogs embroidered on it, stopped and looked at me.

"You're pretty," she said, then giggled and looked up at her mother for reassurance. I was startled. I knew I wasn't pretty, perhaps she was talking about my suit. I did think it looked nice, especially with the brooch. "She's pretty," she said to her mother.

I pulled myself together and smiled at her and said, "you're pretty, too. That's a cute dress you have on."

She grinned but buried her face in her mother's pants leg. The mother gave me an indulgent smile, then looked down at her daughter. "What do you say, dear?" she said. The girl exposed enough of her face to look at me out of the corner of her eye.

"Thank -- you!" she said and buried her face again.

"Thanks!" her mother said to me, again with a big smile, then said to her daughter, "let's go and see if they have any chocolate chip cookies." The girl squealed and started running down the passage. Much like with the flowers, I'd been coming here for years, yet this was the first time I'd noticed the children.

A few minutes later, Reverend Roberts came and sat down next to me on the bench, turning so she was almost facing me.

"Reverend Roberts--"

She interrupted. "Please, it's Ellen," she said softly, then waited for me to speak.

"I don't know, I'm just so confused."

"Tell me what's been happening."

"Uh, one of my coworkers, his family invited me to dinner, they kind of twisted my arm, and they were just so -- they didn't say anything about -- they didn't mind that I'm --" I shook my head and waved my hands helplessly. "Friendly? I think that's -- and then, oh God, I fell asleep and they just put me to bed and gave me breakfast and weren't mad at all, they want me to come back. I'm just this tranny freak they don't know at all, why would they? I mean, why? I don't understand. Oh, God, I'm raving, you don't want to listen to my incoherent --"

She put her hand on my shoulder and gave me a sad smile. "Hush. I want to listen. I'm glad you're speaking to me."

"I'm only speaking because you asked me to. I don't know how you knew -- today --"

"Elise -- I don't know if I should say this, but -- ever since you started coming, every time we're both here, I've come over to you and asked if you wanted to talk. This is the first day you haven't -- well, it's the first time you've responded."

I remembered how Kathy had acted like they'd been trying to invite me over for years. "You mean ... all this time ...? God, I'm so stupid!!" I felt tears dripping down my face.

She shook her head. "Not stupid. Just hurt. Hurt and afraid." Her voice was low and soothing. "Afraid of rejection. I know it's hard to believe, but there are people who will accept you, if you let them in." She was looking straight at me. Her eyes looked damp. "We've all been waiting, Elise. Waiting for you to let us in."

At this, I broke down completely. Ellen pulled me over and held me to her chest so that my head lay on her shoulder. "Let it out," she said, as I sobbed and shook and she held me and stroked my back and my head. "Cry and be healed." Even as I sobbed, I felt the pain of years, of decades, pain that I had long ago stopped even being aware I suffered, being washed bit by bit out of me, and as it thinned and ebbed, I began to feel the first glimmers of a long-forgotten feeling, like sunlight sparkling on raindrop-laden leaves at the end of a thunderstorm. It took a while, but eventually I was able to put a name to it: it was hope.

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