The Handshake That Hides the Snake

Your past is always there. Erik discovers his will force him to make choices and decisions about those he can trust.

The Handshake that Hides the Snake
by Angela Rasch

My life hummed with discontent. Marisa seemed to want things no man could consistently give his wife. The pressures that appeared to be an unending part of our business grew daily. Mom’s once marvelous mind seemed gone forever, while mine ached for a purpose in life that had so far proved elusive.

My partner, Kim, and I had flown into Omaha the previous afternoon. We arrived early enough for me to go on what was to be an eight-mile run, but by the end of the fourth mile I had labored so hard in the oppressive July humidity that I cut my goal-distance by a fourth. I enjoyed the exercise and did well in road races. My runner’s body weighed less than the standard of two pounds per inch of height. But for the love of changing scenery, I would have used the treadmill in the hotel.

Kim would often go with me. Being so enviably feminine was a drawback; those mind-blowing curves obviously slowing her pace. She managed to look invitingly soft, without an ounce of fat on her body. Kim had stuck with the same boyfriend for months, despite being hit on wherever she went. I felt jealous of the how comfortable he made her.

To distract Kim from her claustrophobia -- which always broke out in elevators -- I chatted steadily all the way to the top floor of their building. Sultry air imprisoned their downtown and rose in waves from the sidewalks to the windows of the 20th floor conference room of Imperative, Inc. where Greg and Curt held us hostage. Our meeting with them had been set for 8:00; and they were already twenty-five minutes late.

~Maybe one of them is caught in Omaha’s morning traffic.~ I thought.

The massive leather chairs that held us and their matching imposing thirty-foot long, rectangular table contrasted with the seventy-two-inch circular, glass-top, chrome-legged table back in our meeting room in Minneapolis. Our Americana style chairs weighed about half as much as their monsters. Either our furniture was “inadequate” -- or theirs was meant to compensate for something Greg or Curt felt they lacked. A gargantuan bowl of fruit dominated the conference table; the pears having enjoyed better days.

“Let’s get started,” Greg said while striding into the room. As CEO of Imperative, Inc. he controlled a large manufacturing operation and liked to give the impression he was more efficient than Mussolini.

Curt followed him and immediately shook my hand; his firm grip felt pleasant. “Good morning, Erik . . . Kim. Did anyone offer you coffee, water, or Cokes?”

“I’m good,” we answered in unison. Kim and I had been summoned for a command performance to discuss our financial position. The two of us had already taken at least a dozen flights to Omaha, during the five, stress-filled years we had worked with Imperative, Inc.

Curt had a firm hand on their financial tiller as CFO, but seemed to lust for the kind of power Greg wielded. I could understand Curt’s pain -- wanting something he seemingly couldn’t have -- leading my own life of quiet desperation.

The two of them had managed their company for eight years and orchestrated its rise from a local penny stock to a place on NASDAQ with a solid share price in the 40 — 50 range. Handsome and successful, a story in the ~Omaha World~Herald~ had deemed them two of Omaha’s most sought after bachelors,.

Greg’s face matched his reddish hair while he blasted away at me with an update of our debt. Although he was only about five years older than me, he delighted in the role of father/mentor . . . a father/mentor who seemed distraught.

He dressed like a funeral director in a blue blazer with gray slacks, white button-down collar shirt, and a red tie. Greg’s attempt to overcome his dour demeanor with ill-timed laughter made him seem all the more menacing and calculated. “Why is it you refuse to listen to reason?” he asked with threatening intensity.

~If he would lose five pounds, he would look a lot healthier.~

“I’m not going to ruin Celebration to placate you,” I said, having waited a count or two to add emphasis to my statement. I still felt a thrill when I said the name of our company. Kim and I thought “Celebration” provoked thoughts of the good things in life.

“Erik, do you really think we would want to ‘ruin’ your company?” Curt asked quietly. In contrast to Greg, Curt seemed to think deeply. He acted with courtesy -- to a fault; even though some of his efforts to be complimentary seemed to lack substance. He wore an elegant, three-button, Brooks Brothers suit -- complete with monogrammed cuff-links, matching tie-clip, and monogrammed silk handkerchief in his suit’s breast pocket. “Every other multi-level marketing scheme I’ve scrutinized makes its money charging their salespeople fees to attend company seminars, rallies, and other functions. Or, their consultants are sold motivational tools, tapes, and books at a large mark-up over company costs.”

Despite our differences of opinion, I enjoyed talking to Curt because he would look deep into my eyes, appearing to be interested in what I had to say. Curt could be a bit of a poser with his incessant boasting about being an “active” member of the Omaha Symphony Guild, but overall he was much easier to stomach than Greg. Curt had apologized several times for the tone of Greg’s memos to me about the “ever-increasing” size of our debt with them.

“The same old squabble,” Kim noted. “To fee or not to fee.”

Everyone grinned at her effort to break the tension in the room.

Her tailored suit with pink silk blouse set off her honey-blonde hair. She looked wonderful in that wine lipstick women of my coloring just can’t wear.

I should have taken a cue from her and worn something similar, but I am who I am, so I selected a light-blue sport coat over a cream-colored golf shirt. I dressed casual, but spent a good deal of time in the morning picking what to wear. When I wore a suit and tie, I made the sales consultants nervous. An apprehensive sales consultant won’t sell as much as one who’s relaxed. You should always dress the way that makes you the most money.

“Celebration works as well as it does because we’ve rejected all those scams,” I argued. I had made the same case every time Greg or Curt suggested we operate more like the average multi-level marketing pyramid.

“What makes you think Celebration ‘works well’?” Greg asked through a nasty chuckle that paralleled his terribly small his eyes.

I looked to Kim with disbelief. Celebration made his company millions. Curt understood. He always had something good to say about how things were going.

“We have nearly 45,000 consultants in the United States and Canada. In another year we plan to go into five other countries.” I had turned toward Greg as I spoke -- wondering what went on in his head.

“That doesn’t make you a success.” Greg sounded like a peeved judge on American Idol. “You’re too soft, Erik. The contract your sales consultants sign doesn’t even contain a non-compete clause. They could all leave Celebration tomorrow and start with a competitor the same day.”

I turned my palms up and shrugged. “That won’t happen as long as we provide them the opportunities for success they need. It would be unethical for us to bind them to a contract that forced them to work with us, if staying with Celebration was detrimental to them.”

“There’s a huge chasm of available profit between ethical. . .and legal.” Greg snickered offensively. “Fuzzy, overly-generous thinking like you and Kim embrace has led you directly to the financial hole you’re in.”

Kim stepped in. “If Erik has a management fault it’s that he cares too much about other people. Sometimes he gets totally overscheduled trying to do too much for our sales consultants.”

Greg gawked at us, as if he couldn’t fathom the idea of compassion for others. “Do you have any appreciation for how much money you owe Imperative?”

He spewed his disapproval in my direction; he always directed negative comments toward me. Kim had a free pass because of his obvious lust for her body. He wasn’t the only one, it seemed like everyone who saw her -- wanted her. Although happily married, I enjoyed the innocent pleasure of walking into a bar with Kim and gloating over the envy in every male’s eyes who saw us. I could almost read their minds. “How did a puny guy like him get a girl like that?”

A smile crossed my face that I had to cover. It wouldn’t help to have Greg know that his tirade hadn’t stopped me from a moment of private satisfaction, but it felt great to recognize that my size was no longer a handicap. In high school, and even in college, bullies had made my life miserable. I had been called unspeakable things because of my quiet mien and smaller size. Their comments had insinuated a sexual preference that I didn’t embrace.

I love women. Despite an occasional harmless sexual fantasy about being with another man — and an unrelenting suppressed desire for femininity -- I had remained wholly heterosexual. One look at my wife screamed to the world of my sexual preference; a scream Marisa acknowledged infrequently.

Marisa had been our college’s homecoming queen our senior year. I had attracted her attention by winning scholastic honors for my work designing a business plan for a revolutionary kind of marketing company. I had reinvented multi-level marketing -- taking out all the false promises and wealth-centered scams and replacing them with real opportunity for consultants selling an actual product. Marisa became fascinated by my business acumen . . . and over time . . . by me. She was my perfect wife.

Curt flashed a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation on a wall screen that described our debt to Imperative and how it allegedly had “expanded without their consent.” They had been provided full knowledge of my company’s expenditures and had encouraged our aggressive expansion. However, scarlet letters on ebony backgrounds conveyed the intense irritation Greg seemed to have irrationally started to harbor.

Stating he understood my arguments, Curt acted more levelheaded, which I appreciated. “You know,” he said, “when I was getting my M.B.A. at Wharton we reviewed a case study involving multi-level marketing. We concluded fees were a must.”

Greg fumed. “You’re wasting your time using logic on Erik; he knows everything.”

His anger reminded me of how I’d felt not long ago when Marisa complained about the embarrassing smallness of our house. Just as soon as I got Celebration off the ground, Marisa had to have a starter castle, the best cars, and an incredible wardrobe . . . and I did everything I could to provide what she wanted. She deserved the best; and I wouldn’t have been much of a man had I failed to meet her needs.

Then there were Mom’s requirements. As an only child, and fatherless, the responsibility for taking care of Mom fell to me when she became ill with Alzheimer’s. Her assets had been depleted after only a few years; and I paid $4,500 a month for her care at an assisted living center. Every month Marisa fought with me to find a less expensive facility, because it cost a third of my take-home pay.

“Maybe it would help if you changed your company’s name?” Greg suggested “Celebration sounds so ‘faggoty.’ ”

“Greg,” Curt said sharply, “I detest that word. Besides, almost all of the Celebration consultants are women. Isn’t that right, Erik?”

Curt also directed most of his questions to me, but not because of his desire to bed Kim. He was one man who seemed immune to her beauty. When Kim and I were with Curt it was almost as if she wasn’t in the room. Too bad for Curt, because Kim had told me she thought Curt was “the cute one.” I had to agree.

“Most of the consultants are women,” I answered. “We have about a hundred male consultants. We don’t have any rules about that, but men are less comfortable holding scrapbooking parties for their friends.”

“Well,” Curt enthused, “naming your company Celebration gave it just the right touch of femininity.”

I could feel myself blushing. Every once in a while it seemed odd for a man to be running an organization like Celebration -- even disappointing for some. After all, there really is a “Mary Kay” behind the cosmetics multi-level marketing company.

“I think some of your ideas indicate pure genius,” Curt offered. “The darn thing is, I’ve run the numbers; and I’m having a hard time calculating how you’re ever going to be able to service your debt with us.”

“Are you sure about your figures?” Kim asked quietly. Curt and Greg stared at her. Kim graduated Summa Cum Laude from college with a double major of business and computer science, but Greg seemingly preferred to lose himself in her enchanting blue eyes. She had only worked for me a year when I rewarded her skill and desire to make the company successful by giving her ten percent of the stock, retaining the rest for myself.

Greg’s fascination with Kim had been horribly evident, right from the start. The first time Kim and I met with Curt about possibly selling Imperative’s materials, Greg found several reasons to pop in and out of Curt’s office.

Things had been different back then. Imperative had been a struggling operation, which needed a big boost in sales to remain solvent. Celebration soon generated forty percent of their sales. Curt once divulged they made over eighty percent of their profits from what we sold for them.

Right along with our sales growth Greg’s unwanted attention toward Kim had grown consistently to the point where it was sometimes embarrassing. Much to her credit, Kim laughed it off as “Boys will be boys.” She understood we could use her beauty to our advantage and dressed in “tuna” skirts and sheer blouses that revealed her Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie. Although Kim had the body and wardrobe of a harlot, she possessed the soul of a Sunday school teacher. In fact, she did teach weekly Bible lessons.

In the beginning I had resisted a large involvement with Imperative; I picked our vendors carefully. . .and Greg had bothered me. It appeared he hired only those management people he could dominate. I had checked Imperative’s financials before we signed with them, and found them to be weak. To finally convince Celebration to sell for them, Greg and Curt came to our office in Minneapolis and pledged to create a strong scrapbooking program that would eventually introduce a new component package every month. Consistent new product would provide our sales force broader opportunities.

Although Celebration enjoyed huge sales figures, we had incurred immense expense developing a sales force capable of marketing the product line Imperative promised. Imperative helped us financially by changing our contract. In our industry a sixty-day payment contract is standard. Our contract with Imperative had been modified to allow us 180 days to pay for inventory. Our sales force actually sold their product within twenty to thirty days. Our contracts with our individual salespeople were on a forty-five-day payment basis so we had the use of that “float” for over four months. We had converted that float into more development and owed Imperative nearly five million dollars for scrapbook supplies we had sold with virtually no collectibles to offset that figure.

“Our numbers are dead on,” Curt said to Kim, without the heated emotion Greg had been using to deliver his tirade toward me.

Greg turned up his thermostat again. “What are you going to do about it?”

“I. . .ahhh. . . .” My mind spun. Our sales projections had been based on my ability to inspire our consultants and Greg’s promises of an unending cornucopia of new product. My spreadsheets had indicated Celebration would make obscene profits in the future — a future that seemingly always drifted one or two years out.

After our initial success selling the Imperative scrapbooking line, they hadn’t developed their new products at the rate they had promised. They seemed more than content to capture the immense profits their basic scrapbook supplies generated through Celebration and had practically shut down their research and development department. I would attend an industry convention and come back with new ideas for product, and Greg would say, “Everyone needs white paint; and that’s all I want to manufacturer.” Imperative made a fifteen percent margin on our business with annual sales of $200 million through Celebration.

“We’re adding sales reps at an average rate of over one hundred a day,” I said. “Just last week we added almost a thousand new consultants.”

“You’ve added more people to sell more scrapbooks.” Greg laughed derisively. “Then you’ll use the increased float from those additional scrapbook sales to add more salespeople.”

I nodded. That had been our plan right from the start. We had posted good results selling for small suppliers, but given the access to additional capital afforded by our Imperative contract my entrepreneurial spirit had taken over. I wanted to run a big business; and if taking a large financial risk helped us accomplish that goal — I had to do it. We were making Imperative so much money, it didn’t seem reasonable that they would kill the goose that generates all of their eggs.

As our sales force grew our “success” had become intoxicating. Newspapers and trade magazines featured stories about our tremendous growth. They spoke glowingly of how a “pyramid” without corrupt intent had achieved greatness.

Of course, I drew a salary commiserate with our growth, which Marisa promptly spent. Life was good. Fame and fortune had found me.

“You’re making huge profits from the scrapbooking supplies we sell,” I said petulantly. ~Celebration is doing the right things — just as it is.~ Despite having steeled myself against his onslaught, my voice shook a bit. I could feel a deep blush taking over my face.

Greg smiled. For the last few years he had become increasingly more demanding and less friendly. Using the power of the financial bind we were in, he had forced us to sign an agreement to sell only Imperative products through our sales network.

Our debt to Imperative had been about two million when we became exclusive with them, but when his pledge for increased product line proved to be hollow our “same-consultant” sales suffered. The only way we could sustain our business was to take on more salespeople, which required greater investment, which in turn pushed us further into debt. We had spiraled down into our current dismal situation.

Even worse, Kim and I had become close enough to our sales consultants to understand their dreams and aspirations. Celebration provided the additional income it took to change their lives from horrible to just barely tolerable. We worked hard to overcome the shortcomings of the product line we provided through sales help and motivational tools that Celebration supplied at no cost. They did okay, but it pained us to think about how much better they could be doing, if we weren’t shackled to Imperative’s limited product line.

I looked over Greg’s shoulder at a picture of Curt and he holding the heads of two dead deer — God I hated the very idea of hunting. Pictures like that emphasized that I wasn’t the same kind of person that Greg seemed to be.

Kim shook her bracelet, like she always did when she was nervous and thinking earnestly. The only charm on it was a small gold Celebration logo. . .champagne flutes crossed in an obvious toast.

Curt stood. “The profits we’re making from your sales more than offset the money you owe us, but unfortunately for you and us, our auditors are starting to ask questions that are becoming embarrassing.” By my calculations they had made, over the years, nearly eighty million in profits through the sales generated by Celebration. Their stock price increase was largely because of their success working through our sales force.

Greg’s churlish attitude seemed foolish and misplaced. He leered at Kim like a man in heat.

Kim smiled at him, something she could do -- no matter how angry she felt. “We’re good for the money. Don’t we always meet our sales projections?” Kim had the ability to seem almost childlike. Maybe it was her huge eyes, or her true innocence showing through. Kim and I never discussed her love life in any depth, but I suspected that she and her boyfriend were saving certain things for after their marriage ceremony, if their relationship came to that.

Greg’s face became nasty again. He and Curt kept themselves in good condition; and could be intimidating. Curt had about five years on Greg making him almost ten years older than me. I was no physical match for them.

“What good are sales, if I end up in jail?” Greg growled.

“Jail?” I asked in amazement.

Greg shook his head as if he couldn’t believe how stupid I was. “Sarbanes-Oxley has changed everything. Ever since Congress enacted that law in 2002 with its accounting standards, things have become serious. I have to sign off on our financial statements -- swearing I believe them to be accurate. We list your debt as an asset. If your business fails, as it would if we called your debt -- and I claimed that huge asset on a previous annual statement -- I would be prosecuted.”

“Every time we talk about this debt you provide financial information that we rely upon,” Curt said calmly, as if he really didn’t want to criticize me, “and then you go out and spend more money.”

“Yes,” I said, totally flabbergasted, “we’ve spent money developing a sales force that’s selling nearly eight hundred thousand Imperative scrapbooks every month.” ~Simple economics suggests Imperative could reduce the wholesale cost to us by a figure that would allow us to wipe out the debt in a year. What possible good would it do their company to lose our production?~ I had suggested a compensation restructuring program several times, but they maintained it would ruin their relationships with their other wholesalers to give us preferential treatment.

Kim laid a hand on my arm. I had asked her to do that if I appeared to be losing my temper. The subtle scent of her Chanel perfume floated toward me. For some reason it always calmed me. We were a good team. I was good at making the quick decisions necessary in business, knowing I could always fix an error. She had the ability to keep people calm, no matter what the circumstances.

We had made promises to our sales consultants. Kim and I had over fifty employees. We not only knew all of them personally -- we also knew their families. I had to preserve the ability to make enough money to provide for Marisa and Mom.

“The thing is,” Greg said, looking directly at me, “we just don’t have faith in you like we once did.”

My emotions took me back to the fifth grade on a frigid day when Billy Fadland had cornered me in back of the school. He held an ice ball in his hand and had threatened to hit me in the face with it if I didn’t give him the popcorn I just bought from the band mothers’ candy sale. I gave him the popcorn and from that day forward had lived in regret.

“Greg’s got a point,” Curt said, gently turning off his projector. “He’s just not sure if you mean what you say anymore, making it hard for him to sign the annual statement.”

“What?” I stammered. I’d always prided myself on meeting my word. The success of Celebration stemmed directly from the integrity with which we worked with our consultants. Unlike other sales companies, who charged their people unnecessary fees for seminars and sold them superfluous training books for exorbitant amounts, we worked to actually help our sales consultants make money.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Kim exclaimed. “You have no right to question our honesty.”

“Don’t we?” Greg asked.

Curt slipped a file from a box next to his chair. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but our auditor’s management report states you’ve been using fraudulent numbers to convince us to extend credit to you.”

~Credit Fraud. People go to jail for credit fraud!~ “That’s crap.”

Greg slapped his desk. “Crap? I’ll tell you what ‘crap’ is. The amount of money you owe us has grown every time we meet with you. I told you several years ago that you needed to start making a profit; and you made projections that convinced me you would. Your projections now appear to have been pure conjecture, if not something worse.”

“My assumptions wouldn’t have been fantasy had you come through with new product. . . .” I stopped when Greg stood so that both men now towered over me. I thought about rising from my chair as well, but that would have just emphasized their much taller height.

Greg picked up a file from his desk and started to read.

My thoughts went to the seven women who headed the top of our seven sales pyramids. They had been part of our original eight sales consultants. We had spent months picking them. We only misjudged one, who gave up her career to concentrate on her family and subsequently had split her pyramid within the remaining seven families. Because the pyramid was organized into families, we could almost instantly communicate ideas down the chain. If our discussion with Imperative continued to where it seemed to be going, the bad news would travel instantaneously throughout Celebration.

“Kim,” Greg said, “you and Erik need to show us that you’re willing to change things around and follow the recommendations we make for changes in your organization.”

“We can’t have you running our company,” Kim responded emphatically.

Greg laughed. “Someone has to. You haven’t made a profit in five years.”

“There hasn’t been a need,” I whined. “With the credit terms you afforded us we could grow without a profit.”

“Well,” Greg snarled, “all that’s over. As of today we’re changing your contract to sixty days and are demanding immediate payment of all outstanding balances.”

“We can’t meet those terms,” I said, feeling tears of frustration forming. Once again Greg’s passive-aggressive behavior had become a problem. He often said one thing and acted in an entirely different manner. “You know that kind of change would put us out of business.”

“I’m sorry,” Curt said gently, “but Greg just doesn’t have the faith in your integrity that he once did. Sarbanes-Oxley puts that burden squarely on his shoulders. It’s the auditors who are pressuring us.”

My thoughts raced as I mentally reviewed the last few years. ~Have we done anything to lose their confidence? Have we been overly aggressive and brought on our own downfall?~

“Greg,” Kim begged, “isn’t there something we can work out? This seems terribly rash.”

“I wish there was a way,” Greg answered. “I like working with you, but my board has put my head on the chopping block. They’ve absolutely forbidden any growth in what you owe us. The board has tied Curt’s future with the company to this as well.”

Curt nodded to let us know he was being threatened. He looked concerned and almost fatherly. Kim had once called Curt “prematurely venerable.”

~Something isn’t right. Greg hand-picked most of the members on his board. He sits on most of their boards. I’m not sure I should believe him.~

Greg rapped his desk with his knuckles. “My board has been on the warpath since I forced them to give Curt and me our Golden Parachutes. It would cost them millions to fire us, but they told me they would bite the bullet, if I don’t get this debt handled.”

~I have to do what I’ve been thinking about for months.~ “Kim and I will sell Celebration,” I said with resignation. “We’ll pay off the debt and move on.”

“Sell Celebration?” Greg roared. “Based on EBITDA your business has no value. You have negative cash flow.”

“B. . .b. . .but,” I stammered unable to grasp the concept of Celebration being valueless. I had truly thought Celebration was worth quite a bit, at least enough to cover our debt, if not a lot more. “We’re honest. We’ve had a great partnership.”

Greg looked at me in a way that made me feel about two inches tall. “You’ve taken advantage of our personal friendship.”

I fought back a bitter laugh. I didn’t really consider Greg to be a “friend.” I had taken him to dinner with Marisa a few times, but it had quickly become uncomfortable. Marisa had embarrassed me by fawning over him; and he had openly reciprocated. For some reason she thought it appropriate to complain to Greg about how much I was spending on the nursing home for Mother. Afterward she had gone on about how handsome and attractive he was “in a way only powerful men can be.” She claimed his flirting had been innocent and just his way of being charming.

“That’s right,” Greg added, “you’ve taken a mile for every inch we’ve offered. Is there any wonder we can’t believe a word you say?”

“That’s not fair,” Kim exclaimed. “Erik is totally honest.”

Greg laughed.

“Erik ~is~ totally honest,” Curt agreed, echoing Kim’s defense of my character. Curt smiled at me in a genteel way that made me feel as if there might be hope for our situation.

“Totally honest?” Greg asked derisively. “He’s not even honest with himself.”

Kim and I glanced at each other.

~What on earth is he talking about?~

“Can you give me one good reason to believe Erik?” Greg asked Kim; apparently he wasn’t going to explain his last comment.

Kim shrugged in apparent exasperation of the absurdity of his question. “He does everything you tell him to do.”

Again Greg laughed. “Erik and you never do what we say. That’s the precise problem.”

“That just isn’t so,” Kim complained. “Every time you’ve asked for more sales, we’ve delivered.”

“I know,” Greg said, “and the only reason we haven’t allowed our legal department to seek action against you for credit fraud has been our belief that maybe you could come around and make things right.”

“Of course we can,” I said, feverishly thinking of ways to be more efficient. “We intend to pay Imperative every cent we owe you.”

Greg put his head in his hands. When he looked up his face brightened. He looked toward Curt. “I think maybe we should run that test we’ve been talking about.”

“Test?” Kim asked.

“A test,” Curt explained, “that will give Greg and me assurance that you will listen to our suggestions in the future.”

“We’ll never charge fees to our consultants for meetings, or sell phony sales aids,” I vowed.

“We have no intention of asking you to do either of those,” Greg said, “although you should. Our test will simply be this. For the next forty-eight hours, Kim — and you -- will stay in Omaha. During that time you will do everything we ask you to do. None of it will be illegal. You might even find some of it will be fun; at least I hope it will be fun.” He winked obscenely at Kim.

~Oh God. He finally is going to demand sex from Kim. Neither is married, but Kim. . . .?~

***

Upon my request the two of them left us alone to talk things over. Kim hadn’t said a word, staring out at the ConAgra building.

I had to get things out on the table. “We’ll have to come up with a way to convince them that doesn’t involve you having sex. . . .”

“I have to do it, you know.” Kim spun around to face me.

“You’re not serious? We can’t possibly agree to what Greg wants. It’s obvious that Greg intends to have you. . . .”

“Have you left us any other option?” she asked bitterly. Tears streamed down her face.

~Had I. . .?~ I couldn’t allow them to drive a wedge between Kim and me, so I didn’t rise to her anger.

“We must be able to do something?” Kim’s voice sounded desperate. “What about calling our legal beagles?”

Kim had a much higher opinion of attorneys than me. I used them when I absolutely had to, and then only as advisors. Most of them had little or no business acumen. “I called Jerry last week right after Greg demanded we come to Omaha. Jerry and I talked for an hour about possible problems. He said that Greg could unilaterally change the payment terms of their contract at any time; and there isn’t much we can do about it.”

“Bankruptcy? Did you talk about going into bankruptcy for protection, while we reorganize our debt?”

“Not realistic. The courts wouldn’t be favorable toward us. Jerry said our five years of losses wouldn’t seem prudent in the eyes of a court. Besides, without Imperative supplying product it would take us months to establish contracts with other companies. Our sales force would move on to other sources.”

“What do you know about Sarbanes-Oxley?”

I rubbed my temple. “It was a knee-jerk reaction to Enron and some of the other financial messes.”

“Do you think Greg is really afraid of it?”

“I can’t tell for sure, but he’s right about the potential for prison. . .that’s been in the papers.”

Kim turned away, apparently unable to look at me while she spoke. “I’ll just have to go through with it.”

“But. . .he wants to have. . .sex with. . . .”

“I know,” she said quietly.

Kim had never stood up to me. . .if I flatly disagreed with her. If I said I wouldn’t go along with her decision, she would back down. ~But, where would that leave Mom? How will Marisa react to being penniless?~

“It’s out of the question,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster. “You simply can’t do it.”

She smiled. “What makes you think that it’s your decision to make? I can do what I want with my body.”

“But. . . .” ~Kim is a responsible adult who should be able to make her own decisions.~ And --- ~he’s not ugly.~ I hated how I was thinking. Obviously I was judging him as a sexual partner; and, why not? Greg had successfully emasculated me by making me totally subservient over the last hour. I didn’t have anything left in me to fight him.

Kim looked at me and slowly shook her head.

~She wants me to assert myself, tell her not to do it, and then pull a rabbit out of my hat that makes the problem go away, like I’ve done so many times with our business.~

“What if Curt wants sex -- too,” she whispered.

“They're both handsome men.” I couldn’t believe I was trying to talk her into it, but what else could we do? ~I’m all out of rabbits.~ “Curt is too refined to do that, but Greg will do everything he can to have us thrown in jail for credit fraud if you don’t. . . .”

“I know. I can’t even think about those tiny jail cells.” Her face twitched.

I let out a sigh and allowed a minute or two to pass without saying anything. “If you can stomach it, you’ve got to do it. It’s our only chance. Once we’re by this bump in the road everything will fall into place. Do this Kim -- and I’ll give you fifteen percent more stock.”

“Is that what whores make — ‘fifteen percent more stock’?”

The bitterness in her voice surprised me. I had done some pretty horrendous things for our company. I had fired several people over the years; and that was never fun. Perhaps I needed to put a stop to this and accept our medicine, but what about Mom?

The door flew open; Curt and Greg came back in. Greg seemed pleased with himself, while Curt hung back — looking flustered.

“I assume you’ve had a chance to talk things over,” Greg said. “Kim, you do fully understand what I want?”

Kim nodded.

Greg turned to me. “Are you giving your full consent for your partner to do everything I ask of her?”

“Yes,” slipped out of my mouth, leaving a bitter taste.

“You’re both absolutely sure?” Curt asked quietly. “Think it over for another five minutes if you want.”

“We don’t need another five minutes,” Kim said. “I’m okay with it.”

“I’m . . . . I’m willing to go along with it,” I said, feeling as low as I had ever felt in my life.

“Then you’ve failed the test miserably,” Greg said. . .to me. “I was pretty sure you would. Curt thought you might step up and pretend to be a man, just this once, but you didn’t surprise me.”

“What?” I asked, not comprehending what he’d said.

Greg tapped his desk with his pencil. “The test was all about Erik talking you out of being subjected to my will,” he said to Kim. “I’m not going to force you to do anything.”

A single tear rolled down Kim’s cheek. I couldn’t tell if it was from relief or from fear of a future without Celebration. She could find another job, but I was --- ruined.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” I asked.

“There’s always an alternative,” Curt said with a polished smile. He pulled a folder out of his ever-present briefcase. “We did prepare a second test, should you fail the first.” His face had turned red, as if something embarrassed him. “This one is a bit more involved. Both of you would have to stay in Omaha for the next two weeks. Under this test, you would spend that time preparing.” He stopped and took a drink of water, peering carefully at me before continuing. “Two weeks from today you will come back to this office dressed completely as a woman.”

“Huh?” Kim asked. Her eyes glazed over as if she had gone into shock.

“You will be the picture of femininity,” Greg added, his eyes sparkling with evident delight. “You two sure as hell know how to spend money; so you’ll have no problem spending a bundle on the right clothing and making yourself look presentable.”

I suddenly felt faint. I couldn’t have possibly heard them right.

Greg laughed. “It’s perfect. Kim, you haven’t been the problem. We need you to help transform Erik. He’s the one who doesn’t follow orders. If you two agree, Erik will spend the next two weeks making himself look so convincing as a woman that no one will go crazy when he walks in here. If he does that we can continue with the loan. Erik will have learned his lesson about who’s in charge between our two organizations.”

“You see how it is, don’t you?” Curt asked, more of Kim than me. “Greg needs to be sure Erik will do what we ask of him — even if it’s something Erik doesn’t want to do -- so Greg can feel like he can rely on him.”

“Impossible!” I said evenly. “I don’t know what kind of demented joke you think you’re pulling, but I’m not buying it.”

“I don’t think Greg’s joking.” Kim’s words dripped slowly from her mouth. “It’s our only chance; you said so yourself.”

“What makes you think I could look like a female?” I asked no one in particular, feeling another blush pass over my face again.

“Are you kidding?” Greg hooted. “What do you weigh?”

“A hundred thirty-nine,” I answered, not getting his point.

“That’s seventy pounds less than me,” Greg said. “Curt’s thin as a rail and he weighs forty more than you do. When did you get your last haircut?”

“About three months ago,” I admitted. My hair was shoulder-length, but I kept it neat.

“I get a haircut every other Wednesday,” Curt said, without emotion, “at a barber shop.”

~I do get my hair cut at a salon, but so do a lot of men.~

“Look at your fingernails,” Greg demanded.

My nails were carefully filed at about a quarter inch, or so.

“Do you get manicures?” Greg asked.

“No,” I answered pointedly.

“But,” he argued, “your nails are as long as Kim’s. The only difference is she has polish on hers. You don’t even have an Adam’s apple.”

I swallowed, knowing my throat looked as smooth as Kim’s. I shook my head violently. “Nonetheless, it ain’t going to happen. I’ve got things that need attention back in Minneapolis. We’ve been working on an ad campaign for weeks; and I still need to decide on the right font to use.”

“Fine,” Greg said. He picked up his desk phone and punched three numbers. “George, I need you to start proceedings against the people up in Minneapolis. Put the packet of information in the mail to the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, the one that clearly indicates credit fraud. Thanks.” He hung up. “I wish it hadn’t come to this. I suppose you two will need to hurry back to Minneapolis to clear the decks for when the shit hits the fan. My people tell me the authorities will move quickly, so you probably should be prepared to be arrested within twenty-four hours.”

“Erik!” Kim pleaded. “You can’t allow them to. . . .”

“I’ll do it,” I whispered just loud enough for all to hear.

“I knew you would,” Greg said with a self-satisfied chuckle.

Curt didn’t say a word, but he seemed content. He probably had realized it was the only way to satisfy Greg’s noticeable need to control me.

I closed my eyes as my world crumpled around me. I didn’t want to give Greg my bag of popcorn, but he had a big ice ball in his hand and. . . .

“You see, Erik,” Greg said. “The last time I was in Minneapolis I went to your mother’s nursing home.”

My head snapped up. “Why?”

“Marisa complained so much about all the money you spend on that place; since it was our money I thought I would check it out,” Greg explained.

“Her Alzheimer’s is advanced. . . .” I started. “She doesn’t recognize me and is rarely lucid.”

“Lucid enough.” Greg grinned. “I like to know everything there is to know about someone who owes me $5 million. Your mother and I had quite a conversation. She told me all about her daughter — Bethany.”

Kim questioned me with her eyes.

~She’s well aware I have no sister.~

Greg’s voice attacked me again. “She showed me an album filled with pictures of you from your high school years.”

I ducked my head and closed my eyes. Old fears, hurtful feelings, and despair clouded my brain -- driving out everything else.

Greg could hardly contain himself as he continued. “You made quite an attractive teenage — girl.” He placed several snapshots of me on the table. The pictures had been taken by my mother. In every one of them I looked like an average teenage girl enjoying her vacation -- which I had been, in a way.

“I knew it,” Kim exclaimed, so softly I barely heard her.

I couldn’t pull my eyes off the pejorative pictures to look at her. My mind reeled, unable to comprehend everything that was happening.

“After I saw your pictures,” Greg said, “I came up with the idea for the test. I knew it would hard for you to admit to your. . .inclinations, but obviously you can pass the test, if you really want to.”

~Who else has Mom told? Does Marisa know?~

“Curt,” Greg said, “in order for Erik to have the confidence to walk in here like that, he’ll need a trial run. You should take him…er…her out to dinner the night before.”

~No. . . .~

Curt shook his head. “That’s not a good idea. . . .”

“Sure it is. You can get your friend from the Omaha Symphony Guild to help Erik, can’t you?”

Curt shook his head weakly. “She’ll help, if I ask, but. . . .”

“Curt’s friend is going to have one of those sex-switch operations,” Greg said. “She’s accepted by Omaha’s society because it makes them all feel good to be so damned liberal about things like that. Curt will take you to the French Café.”

“I don’t know,” Curt said quietly.

“Then take him someplace else,” Greg snapped. “You’re pathetic. You never want to try a new restaurant.” He slapped the table. “Damn it, Curt. You’re the one who wants Erik to succeed. You’re the one who wants to give him another chance.”

“That’s right,” Curt admitted.

“Then you’re the one who should take him out to dinner -- once he’s ready as a ~her~.”

Curt seemed unconvinced. “I don’t think it would be wise. . . .”

“It wouldn’t be wise,” Greg said, cutting Curt off, “for us to take the chance of Erik looking like a transvestite hooker when he comes in here in two weeks. Neither you nor I could stand that kind of embarrassment with our board. They’re still pissed off over the Golden Parachutes you and I negotiated with them.”

Curt chuckled. “We did put in place pretty good separation packages. . .should they ever decide to fire us.”

“We sure as hell did.” Greg looked ecstatic. “We actually got a package nearly twice as large as they wanted to give us. Here’s how I see it, Curt. There are some women who look like men and there are some people where you just can’t decide what they are when you see them. But in Erik’s case, when you see him you think female until you find out that’s not the case. Am I right?”

“I guess. . . ,” Curt said, looking away from me.

Greg snorted. “Sure I’m right. Look, I’ll make you a deal. If, after you take him to dinner, you decide he looks bizarre, we’ll consider the test to have been failed and move on.”

~I won’t look ‘bizarre’!~

Curt held me in his gaze and pointed at a picture of me on the table. In it I had been ready to go out to a movie and dressed especially nice. “Can you look like this — only about fifteen years more mature?”

Kim stared at me, openly waiting for me to answer.

I bit my lip and closed my eyes. I hadn’t dressed for years, but the desire to be female had never left me. I opened my eyes. “I can be as feminine as I need to be to walk in here without anyone thinking a thing about it.”

“Okay,” Curt said, with a degree of resignation that indicated his agreement to have dinner with me -- the night before my in-office test.

Greg laughed viciously. “I’ve prepared a document. Of course, with all that you owe us we can take over your business any time we want, but this contract is a quit claim. It will only be valid if you fail your test. If you pass the test, per paragraph six, you can keep your business and we will convert your note to a long-term debt to be paid off over thirty years, at one point over prime. Is that agreeable?”

My head spun with the realization that I had no choice; and since everyone in the room had seen the photographs I had no real reason not to agree to their terms.

Curt cleared his throat. “Because of the unconventional nature of. . .the test, we must have your assurances of absolute cooperation. You must agree to always act as if you’re totally pleased to be given the opportunity to change your gender.”

“I understand,” I whispered. ~I’ll set a smile on my face that can’t be blasted off by dynamite. I won’t question anything anyone suggests. Nothing is as important as keeping my business.~

The agreement made no mention of cross-dressing; it only stated that I had to submit to their will and act like I enjoyed it. Even so, their intent was obvious. What they wanted me to do would be humiliating, but I couldn’t let down my mother, Kim, all our employees, and our sales consultants.

“It is essential that you never act as if you’re being forced,” Greg said. “You must be positive at all times. As you can see in paragraph eight the agreement stipulates that you must act as if you are in total agreement with doing everything that is required of you. If you do all that, we’ll finally be convinced of your determination to make a go of it with Celebration.”

“You can do it,” Curt said in a supportive tone.

I nodded, quickly read the short document again, and then Kim and I signed where Greg indicated.

***

“Curt made a quick call,” Kim said as we rode toward our hotel in a taxi. “His friend will meet with us right away. At least Curt’s being helpful.” Kim took a black perfume container from her purse and spritzed Chanel No. 5 in the air above my head.

“What the. . . .” I squealed. “Why did you do that?”

She smiled. “No time like the present for you to start feeling pretty.”

I frowned at her.

“Darn it,” she pouted. “We have one shot at making everything work out for us. You need to get your mind right and start progressing toward a positive outcome.”

“I’m never comfortable going with the flow,” I complained.

“You’d better get comfortable,” she snapped. “Women have been accepting idiotic suggestions for years. . .it’s called fashion. We often find it easier simply to accept what is happening at face value.”

I closed my eyes and shrugged. ~I can do this, but it isn’t going to be easy being feminine in front of Kim. . .and Curt.~ Strangely, I could almost taste the immense personal satisfaction I would have walking into Greg’s office looking good enough to pass the test, and consequently forcing him to give us the new terms on our debt.

“Chanel is my favorite scent,” Kim said, sounding less irritated. “Don’t you like it?”

“It’s great. . .on you.”

“No — really. Chanel isn’t one of those scents that react differently on individuals. If you think it smells good on me it smells good on you.”

I glared at her. “It smells good on a woman.”

“And. . .?” she asked.

I shook my head. Kim had clearly decided our course of action was obvious and paramount to all other considerations. “Are you going to enjoy watching me do this -- because I didn’t step in to stop you from agreeing to sleep with Greg?”

“ ‘Sleep’?” She frowned. “Do you have any idea how sexist you sound? Sleeping your way to the top. . .or out of a jam. . .isn’t anything new. Women — and men — have been doing it for years.”

“Doesn’t make it right,” I countered. “Look, I’m really sorry I’m not a better partner.”

“Are you kidding? You’re a great partner. Greg’s an ass . . . forcing you to do this, but we really don’t have a choice. In a way I can almost concede his point. I agree with you that Sarbanes-Oxley has teeth. If Greg has lost confidence in our ability to make the hard decisions, he has a right to test us. It’s his career that’s in jeopardy.”

“But why did he have to pick something that’s so demeaning?”

“Demeaning?” She sucked on her lip. “You might want to think a bit about what you just said. I’ve been a girl all my life; and I don’t find it demeaning.”

The hurt in her eyes caused me to cringe. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know,” she said in soothing tones. “It’s really confusing for you.” She stopped for a moment. “Did your mother force you to dress like a girl in those pictures Greg showed us?”

“No,” I answered quietly. “Mom would never do anything like that. It was as much my idea as hers. . .maybe more mine.”

She nodded slowly. “Why did you do it?”

“I’m transgendered,” I said, almost eager to tell Kim the full truth. “Since I was four years old I’ve spent a good part of every day wishing I had been born in the body of a female. . .the right body.”

“Wow. . .wow. I watched a special on the Discovery Channel about people like you. It made me cry to think about how they. . .you. . .must feel.”

I couldn’t look into her eyes. The last thing I wanted was pity. All my life I’d craved someone to talk to about my gender feelings. . .but not like this.

“I always wondered a bit about you,” Kim said in a whisper. “There are things you do that shout “female” -- like Greg pointed out. Which wasn’t at all nice of him. We all have our pack of dildos.”

I laughed. Kim had a cute habit of saying “pack of dildos” for “peccadilloes” -- but in this dark hour her humor came across especially funny.

Kim laughed with me. “Did you ever realize your little laugh sounds . . . girlish?”

A jolt of adrenalin shot through me causing my back to stiffen. “No.” My whisper was barely audible.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed about. I’ve always found you quite attractive as a person, even if you’re a little effeminate. Maybe I find you attractive -- because you’re effeminate. I mean, I like manly men, but I can’t stand men who go out of their way to act masculine. I like people who are who they are. You’ve always been a sweet person. I like that.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say things you don’t really believe. I can handle whatever happens over the next two weeks.”

“I won’t lie to you,” she said sternly, “and I didn’t. That’s how I really feel. And. . .you were quite beautiful in those pictures.”

“I was a good-looking teenager,” I said quietly.

“No. . .you were gorgeous,” she insisted.

“Ohhh.”

Her eyes told me she wasn’t kidding.

I stared out our taxi’s window at a homeless person whose sign said, “Will work for food.” I needed a sign stating, “Will Suffer Abject Humiliation to Keep My Business.”

“Is it time now to call our attorneys?” Kim asked just loud enough for me to hear.

I leaned in close to her ear. “It’s too late for that. We’ve signed the agreement.” I sniffed the air around me and grinned. “The perfume’s been sprayed; and we can only move forward.”

She smiled and continued to whisper. “Greg’s insane. His locomotive is so far around the bend you can’t see it from the caboose. It’s a good thing we have Curt looking out for us.”

I sighed. “If Curt hadn’t stepped in, we’d be flying back to Minneapolis where we would be arrested for credit fraud. We owe Curt a lot.”

Kim frowned. “Curt hates the thought of taking you out on a date.”

I gasped. “Is that what our dinner will be . . . a date?”

Kim nodded. “Greg will make sure it is. He’s downright evil, and is finding some sort of weird pleasure in all of this. You know what a control freak Greg can be. You need to do your best to make sure Curt isn’t embarrassed by how you look or act. We owe him that much.”

I nodded and felt the return of a bit of my male pride. If I did my best to look and be as feminine as possible, I could pull another rabbit out of my magical hat. I could save the day. ~I won’t be able to tell Marisa about the great thing I did, but I’ll know -- and Kim will know. Besides, Curt’s apparent unconditional belief in us will prove to have been well-placed.~

“You can do this,” Kim said patting my hand. “Dressing in women’s clothing isn’t illegal; and it might just get us out of our current problems. You need to think of this as fate. It’s something you were meant to do.” She poked my arm playfully. “You need to embrace your nature.”

I rested my forehead in my hand unable to respond. Facing up to my “nature” had been a secret for me to hide inside for so many years.

“One thing for sure,” she said, “You can’t afford to take a chance by balking at things people suggest. Anyone we see,” she tilted her head toward the taxi driver, “could easily be on Greg’s payroll and trying to trip you up. For the next two weeks you have to be pliable . . . and smile. No matter what people ask you to do, just do it.”

I stared at Kim as she continued to talk about everything she would help me with to make my task easier, but I tuned her out, concentrating on a day nearly two decades before.

***

We sat at Mom’s dressing table in her bedroom as she did her face. Her room had that exquisite odor that comes from forbidden powders and perfumes. I loved the shape of the bottles that lined her table; their delicious curves demanded that I caress them and sample their delights.

I had just got back from my weekly appointment. My shrink, Dr. Ketter, had expressed concern about my “issues.” He said my poor grades and some of the problems I had at school were “over-compensation for self-perceived shortcomings -- and suppressed anger.” He also said I hadn’t reacted well to my father being killed in that car accident. Dr. Ketter was trying to help me “dig down” within myself to find the root of my anger. So far we hadn’t been successful. I hated talking to him, because he treated me like a ten-year old.

Mom had plenty of money from Dad’s life insurance policies. We lived in a big house; and she didn’t have to work, but all of that couldn’t make up for not having Dad around. Couldn’t they see that Dad being gone was enough to make me unhappy?

“Erik,” Mom asked, while she made that wide-eyed gesture she always did while stroking her lashes with mascara. “Do you think much about your dad?”

~She never gets mascara on anything but her lashes!~ “Sure, but then I think of other things; and it doesn’t hurt so much.” I made fists with my hands to keep from losing control. I still cried when I thought a lot about him.

She shoved her mascara wand back into its tube, and then held me in a hug. “What ‘other things’ do you think of that make the pain go away?”

I returned her embrace, pressing my face into her shoulder. She smelled like heaven and her dress felt amazing against my face and hands. “I think about what I want to be.” I said it quietly, hoping she wouldn’t ask any more questions.

Her fingers rubbed my back, as she spoke gently into my ear. “Do you mean when you grow up? Do you think about what you want to be when you grow up?”

I bobbed my head without moving away from her. “And what I want to be before I grow up.”

She held me at arm’s length. “You hair is getting so long. It’s so fine and so blond. You’re my sweet little angel.”

I smiled. Of all the things I wanted in life, pleasing my mother was at the top of the list. “Thanks, Mom. You look like an angel, too.”

She let go of me and returned her attention to her make-up mirror. “I’m afraid it takes more and more paint and powder to make my ugly old face into something anyone would want to look at.”

“NO!” I protested a bit too loudly. “You’re beautiful, with or without make-up.”

She giggled. “You’re good for my soul. But isn’t there something a thirteen-year old boy would want to do on a Saturday morning -- other than watch me make my face?”

I shook my head. “I’m learning by watching you.” I blushed when I realized what I had just admitted.

She studied me for a moment. “Sweetie — last Saturday when I came home from the grocery store you were very quiet; and I noticed someone had been in my make-up drawer. Was that someone you?”

~Oh no!~ A tear slid down my face. I silently nodded and waited for my punishment.

“Honey,” she said softly as she wiped my face with a tissue, “it’s okay. When you said just now that you think about what you want to be -- to avoid thinking about your father -- what did you mean?”

I gnawed on my lip. ~If only I had the courage to tell her.~

She took my hand in hers. “Did you mean you wish you could be a girl?”

Fighting the urge to turn and run, I waited as long as I could before slowly nodding. I ducked my head a bit, even though she had never struck me. I didn’t know what she would do in response to such an appalling confession.

“Dr. Ketter said he thought your anger issues might stem from gender confusion.”

“I don’t like him,” I said flatly, while wondering what “gender confusion” meant .

“Oh, why don’t you like him? He seems pleasant enough.”

I scowled. “He makes me feel funny. I’d rather not talk to him anymore. He makes me feel as bad. . .worse than how some of the kids at school make me feel.”

She pulled me close to her and sighed. “You should never feel bad about who you are and what you think. You’re a special person. I don’t know anyone else who’s as sweet and kind as you.”

I reared back and looked her in the eye. “But. . .people laugh at me at school; and now the doctor says I have some kind of gender disease. That’s sick. I don’t trust him.”

Her face looked as sad as I had ever seen it. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “There’s just something about him that makes me suspicious.”

She looked me in the eyes and spoke earnestly. “Without the ability to trust each other there would be no living in this world. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“You couldn’t even eat a casserole, if you didn’t trust people.” She rubbed my head, something she had a habit of doing whenever she had said something I needed to remember.

It wasn’t as if she was lecturing me. . .more like she was sharing a really good secret. Mom never made me feel depressed about myself. When I had been little, I had once asked her for a doll. She got me one for my sixth birthday and every birthday or Christmas she added to my “collection.” She often played dolls with me when I was young and let me know in many ways that motherhood was a fantastic calling.

It was her turn to bite her lip. “Do you know what puberty is?”

~Puberty? Do I really want to have a conversation with Mom about puberty?~ “Yes, I know.”

She held me between where she sat and her mirror -- looking over my shoulder. “Take a good look at yourself. You’re a very good-looking child. There’s nothing to laugh at that I can see.”

What I saw in the mirror was a very small, thin geek with enormous eyes who looked too delicate to survive dodge ball in gym class. I tried to smile, to make Mom feel better, but the face in the mirror just looked stupid for the effort.

“Have some of the boys in your school gone through some physical changes?” she asked.

I thought for a moment. “Almost all of them. It isn’t much fun for me in physical education because I’m so small; and they have muscles and hair on their bodies and have big. . . .” I stopped before talking about the size of their things compared to mine. I sometimes forgot I was talking to Mom when we were together. She seemed more like a good friend.

She laughed. “What you’re going through is temporary. Soon your voice will break; and your body will blossom. I remember when it happened for me. One day I was flat as a board -- a carpenter’s dream, they called me -- and the next. . . .” Sometimes it seemed like she forgot whom she was talking to when she chatted with me. She laughed again. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

She had asked that question a hundred times over the years; and I had given her many different answers. At first I had told her I wanted to be a cowboy, and then a fireman, and then an astronaut. Deep down I had really wanted to be a ballerina, and then a nurse so I could care for sick people, but I never found the nerve to tell anyone.

Somehow I summoned the courage to be truthful. “I want to be pretty — like you.”

She smiled and hugged me. “Once you go through puberty you will have secondary sexual characteristics that will make you handsome, but they will also change things so you won’t grow up to look like me.”

“I know. We studied all about that in health. That’s not fair,” I said angrily but softly, not wanting to break the spell created by our embrace.

“I suppose it isn’t fair, but it’s what will most likely happen.” She held me away from her and studied me again. “But, we certainly can grant your wish until you actually go through puberty.”

I couldn’t believe what she had said.

“If not being able to be a girl is making you angry, we should try to fix that.” Mom wasn’t a person who sat around waiting for things to happen. She did things that had to be done, when they needed to be done.

“I. . .don’t. . .know,” I said, terror dominating my voice.

“I think it’s just the thing,” she said happily. “I should have realized it sooner.”

I stood and backed away from her, deathly afraid of where all this might take me. ~What if someone finds out?~

She smiled. “If you’re willing to try a little self-therapy, I’m willing to cancel your upcoming appointments with Dr. Ketter.”

“Really,” I said with honest interest.

“Really. . . ?” She rose and her hands flew through her drawers grabbing various pieces of wonderful, but forbidden clothing.

“I don’t think I. . . .”

“I’ll be careful for the two of us,” she promised. “We’ll try today to see how you like it. If you don’t enjoy being a girl, we’ll find a new psychiatrist, but we need to get to the bottom of things. You’re much too bright to throw away your future with the kind of grades you’ve been getting.”

My fingertips tingled in eager anticipation, but I didn’t want her to think badly of me. “Mom — boys don’t do those things.”

She stopped, and then sat down on her bed. She patted the spot next to her until I joined her — and then she placed her arm around me. “My dear, we’re doing this because we both know that you want to find out what it would be like to be a girl. Or, maybe you’re a girl inside and simply want your outside appearance to match the real you.”

I nodded slowly, but remained unconvinced -- and petrified.

She hugged me again. “Dr. Ketter guessed your secret some time ago. He told me he thought you might come to me with the truth about things sooner or later. He told me we should let you try your desired gender.”

I blinked. ~Maybe he isn’t such a bad guy?~

“In fact,” she said, “he said he’d look into prescribing certain drugs for you to put off puberty so you can make up your mind.”

~Make up my mind?~ “Drugs? I’m not sure I want to. . . .”

“No problem,” she whispered. “We can talk about it in a few weeks, or so.”

She spent the next hour transforming me into Bethany. That’s the name she had picked for me when I was in her womb. . . had I been born her daughter.

I wasn’t totally sure we were doing the right thing until hours later, when we cooked together in the kitchen. I simply gave myself to the moment and forgot how much different I felt. “I love you, Mommy.” I suddenly felt exactly like the teenage daughter I had finally become.

From that day forward, for the next two years, we spent more time together as mother and daughter than we spent as mother and son. If I didn’t have something to do that prevented it, I raced home from school and changed into a skirt or dress. She often took me, as Bethany, to stores, movies, and restaurants in distant suburbs. We even went on vacations where I spent entire weeks as her daughter. She took more pictures of me as Bethany than she ever had as Erik.

Dr. Ketter had been right. Things just seemed to fall in place for me. My grades improved greatly — and I smiled so much people kept mentioning it.

She taught me everything she knew about make-up, clothes, and the art of femininity. Because we both knew the day would soon come when I could no longer be her “daughter” she allowed me to dress and act much beyond my years. In addition, she helped me try my hand at being her maid. I also got to be her nurse whenever she had the flu or a cold. We bought uniforms for me for those occupations; and I immersed myself in both roles.

When I was almost sixteen the inevitable became apparent when I started to grow hair in my armpits. Thanks to Dr. Ketter I had been taking a mild dose of hormones to mitigate the onslaught of testosterone. My changes weren’t quite as drastic as some, with my voice going from soprano to alto, but never making the jump into an average male range. . .unless I consciously lowered it by speaking from my diaphragm. Even so, we put away Bethany for good.

That was a sad day -- filled with tears from both of us, but like Mom said, “You have to be a man, because that’s who you are.”

Dr. Ketter felt it best for me to very gradually ease off the hormones, so he continued to prescribe a limited dosage throughout my teens.

All the time I spent as a girl left its mark. I became much more comfortable with girls for friends than boys. I found that girl friends were a great cure for my feelings of hopelessness. Even after my voice dropped the boys continued to tease me about how I walked, how I held my hands, and a million other things, but I had transferred to a private school where being odd didn’t mean as much as it had in public school. In fact, if you weren’t a little odd in my new school, you were considered a misfit. Most of the boys and about half the girls simply assumed I was gay and pretty much left me alone.

***

Kim had quit talking after we travelled a few blocks. She softly touched my arm to get my attention. “I suppose the first thing we need to do is pick a feminine name for you. Erica would be the easiest.”

“No,” I said. “I think ‘Bethany’ will do just fine.”

***

While we checked back into our hotel, an Embassy Suite on 10th street, an attractive, thirty-something came up to us and stuck out her hand.

“Hi. My name is Dawn. Curt asked me to meet with you.” She was dressed in dark-blue maze print shirtdress that accented her darkly-tanned skin and long, dark chestnut hair. Her impossibly white teeth gleamed as she smiled -- seemingly to make us all more comfortable. You could tell by the way she carried her over-sized handbag that she loved her belongings and wanted to have as many as possible with her.

She drew us to a small conversation area just off the main lobby, where she confirmed that she wanted to help with my transition. We sat on supportive, over-stuffed chairs arranged around a square coffee table. Someone had left behind a copy of the ~Omaha World-Herald~, its headlines of stock market woes and political blunders reminded me that a real world existed outside of my predicament.

I studied Dawn as she spoke -- searching for a male under all that femininity. If there was anything that gave “her” away, I couldn’t see it. I began to suspect she was a “genuine girl” who was having a gentle joke on the world.

“Let me tell you straight,” she said, winking to let us know she had carefully selected the word ~straight~. “I think you’re one lucky girl.”

Dressed like I was I winced when she said “girl” even though no one other than the three of us could’ve possibly heard her. The scent of Kim’s Chanel perfume on me affirmed her choice of pronouns.

“Curt tells me that you’ve always wanted to be a girl,” she said. “He said his company is going to do everything they can to help your dreams come true. Is that right?”

I nodded, assuming that Curt had given her that explanation rather than to come clean about how Greg was forcing me to cross-dress.

She grinned. “You’re so lucky. I’d die to have that opportunity. I’m waiting to raise enough money for my snip-snip.” She giggled nervously. “Curt told me that I should try to make it easier for you by pretending that for some unstated business reason you’re supposed to dress and pass as a girl two weeks from today, and during the entire process you are to be super-happy about everything. He emphasized that to help you form a good, positive state-of-mind you must never let on that you aren’t pleased with everything. Is that right?”

I nodded, again.

“And I’m supposed to help,” Kim added cheerfully.

“How fun!” Dawn explained that she helped transgendered males with their clothing, make-up, and general demeanor. “I work mostly with transsexuals. Transgendered people are so much fun to be around. Sure, they’re a little self-centered, but they make up for that by being enormously creative. As a rule they’re highly competitive people who usually succeed in their jobs because they’re quite determined.”

Kim patted her nose with her index finger. “Right on the nose. You just described Erik, to a ‘T’. ”

“Exactly,” Dawn said. “To a ‘T’. Doesn’t matter which ‘T’: T-V, T-G, or T-S.”

I stared at her, still having a hard time believing her theoretical gender. “I thought,” I said hesitantly, not wanting to violate the rules of my agreement by being negative. “I thought you would be much taller, heavier, and much less soft-looking.”

She snorted. “Would it make you feel more comfortable if I my make-up looked a bit more garish?”

I grimaced, obviously having been less than tactful. It wasn’t only her make-up that showed good taste. Her clothes were quite fashionable and her overall bearing that of a highly successful businesswoman. Her chain strap handbag and round toe, chain slingbacks perfectly accessorized her dress.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I want you to know that I’m completely in your hands. So — whatever you want to do with me is okay. You’re the expert . . . and I’ve just got to do this.”

Dawn nodded and smiled broadly again. “I know. . . . I’ve always felt like I have no choice, but to be a woman.”

~She wants to show me she’ll go along with my “cover story.” I’ll have to decide at some point if it’s worth it to tell her the truth.~

After we moved to my suite on the eighth floor, Dawn took a yellow pad from his, er . . . ~her~ briefcase and started to take notes. “Let’s start at the beginning. Do you have a fem name?”

“Bethany.” I answered.

“Why?”

I sat demurely on a hide-away sofa in the living room of the suite. The designers of the hide-away had obviously sacrificed comfort to create something that wasn’t quite what it appeared to be. “That’s the name my mother would have called me had I been born a girl.” I’d managed to answer without stammering. I hadn’t expected her to be quite so direct.

“You ‘were’ born a girl, silly.” She laughed as she walked around my room with a delightful sway in her hips. “You mother has great taste. Bethany is one of my favorite names. Do you see your mother often?”

I smiled. ~Why does she need to know that?~ “I see Mom about once a week, maybe twice a week, if I can.” ~She doesn’t need to know about her Alzheimer’s.~

“How would she feel about you dressing as a woman?”

~Dawn is getting very personal, for no apparent reason. Can I count on her discretion?~ I had frozen a broad smile on my face. It would take a hurricane to get me to change my expression. ~I won’t lose our business over a technicality.~

“I’m sorry,” Dawn said. “I should’ve explained before I asked such personal questions. I need to know how much social programming we have to overcome. You said that I can do whatever I want to you, but what I do isn’t half as important as what you do. For you to reach your goal we have to find out exactly what it is YOU want.”

I couldn’t stop a blush from running across my face. “I want to do whatever is needed to pass this test.”

“Erik’s mother dressed him as a girl when he was a teenager,” Kim divulged.

Dawn looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “She did? Interesting!”

I nodded, but didn’t add anything.

“In general,” Dawn asked, “how to you feel about women?”

“I like them. I’m married. . . .”

“His wife is beautiful,” Kim offered, “and he’s usually a great business partner.”

I felt a frown settled on my face when Kim said “usually” but quickly recovered my smile.

Dawn then asked me a series of questions about my favorite authors, politicians, actors, and actresses. “It appears you don’t have much of an anti-female bias,” she concluded.

“I don’t normally think of people as male or female,” I said. “Gender isn’t a factor I would consider when deciding if I want a person as my friend or business associate.”

Dawn nodded.

Despite what I had said I was trying desperately to determine a gender for Dawn. Everything I could see or hear said “female” — but I knew. . . .

Dawn tapped her pad. “Are you bi-sexual?”

I almost bit my tongue, but continued my smile. “Why do you ask?”

Dawn grinned. “Curt said he thought you would look sexy as a woman; and I think he’s right. I’m wondering what I need to help you prepare for, in the future.”

Despite attempting not to, I shuddered.

Dawn evidently didn’t see my revulsion at the idea of any male finding me “sexy” and continued with a look of delight on her face. “Let’s take a few measurements and jump right in.” She pulled a cloth tape from her purse, and then asked me to stand while she measured my head, neck, chest, waist, hips, inseam, feet, and a few other things, including my arms.

“I’m going to go buy you an outfit to wear shopping. When I get back we’ll get you changed; and then we’ll go out and start putting together a wardrobe. I’ll pick up some basic cosmetics, but I’ll wait to have you along to buy most of what you’ll need.”

I had all I could do not to gulp. “That sounds wonderful,” I managed to say.

Kim smiled encouragement to keep up my positive behavior.

“Do you always wear Chanel No. 5?” Dawn asked.

Kim giggled. “That was my doing. Bethany doesn’t really have a trademark scent.”

I closed my eyes and wondered if things could possibly move any quicker than what they already had. I felt dizzy and sat down again.

“Bethany,” Dawn said, “while I’m gone I want you to take a shower.” She pulled a brown paper sack from her bag. “Use this shampoo and conditioner, and the gel and razors. Get rid of all your body hair. Don’t unpack any of your male clothing; you won’t need them. For the next two weeks, you’ll be totally immersed in femininity.”

When she returned I was balanced on the edge of my Olympic-sized bed with a towel around my waist. She had purchased lingerie, shoes, stockings, and a dark-brown, wool business suit with a white turtleneck. The skirt came to my knees; and a black leather belt with a large silver buckle created a waist over my stomach.

“Don’t you just love these satin, peep toe pumps?” Dawn asked.

I remembered my role. “They’re darling.”

“They have a three-inch heel,” Dawn said, “but I noticed in the pictures Curt e-mailed to me that you wore heels as a teenager, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

~Oh my goodness, why had Curt shown her those pictures?~

She fastened a single strand of pearls around my neck, and then held up earrings that matched the necklace. “We’ll have to get your ears pierced this afternoon.”

~Ears pierced?~ “Of course,” I said with a grin.

Once I was dressed she worked with my hair a bit. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to fool with a wig — and it looks like we won’t. I’ll make it work well enough to get you to a salon later today. They’ll do your hair and nails, wax your body, pierce your ears . . . and in general give you a complete tune up.”

Kim gave me thumbs up and a brief grin.

~I’ll need her ongoing support.~

She pulled her phone out of her purse. “I’m going to call our office. Do you want them to call Marisa and tell her we’ll be staying in Omaha longer than planned?”

I nodded. ~Marisa will understand when I eventually explain everything. Well. . .I won’t tell her everything.~

“You have beautiful skin,” Dawn said as she dabbed foundation on each cheek and my forehead before using a small sponge to smooth it. “We’ll just start with lipstick, eyeshadow, and bronzer. Do you want to do your own make-up from here on?”

“I can.” In the mirror I could see Kim staring intently at me as I did my face. ~Why hide what I know about make-up at this juncture?~

For the next ten minutes, on Dawn’s command, I walked, sat, talked, and gestured.

“There are a few things for you to work on,” she said, “but for the most part I think you’re totally passable just the way you are — at least for our purposes this afternoon. What do you think, Kim?”

Kim walked around and inspected me from every angle. “Her hips are a little narrow; and her waist is a little too thick.”

“Padding and a diet,” Dawn said. She jotted notes on her yellow pad.

“A diet?” I questioned. “Greg implied that I’m too skinny as it is.”

Kim poked me to remind me to be positive.

Dawn didn’t seem to notice my lack of enthusiasm for her suggestion. “You might be too skinny for a man, but not for a woman. I would guess you need to take off about ten pounds.”

“Ten should do it,” Kim agreed fervently. “Is her bra a 34 B?”

Dawn nodded. “The inserts I bought are the best available, but we should really think about something more realistic.”

I didn’t react. ~She can’t possibly mean what I think she means.~

“Breast augmentation is great,” Dawn said. “I started out depressed like you are because I had neither hips nor boobs. All of a sudden I got them, and they felt sloppy. But after a few days, they really became me; and I became them.”

Maybe I had betrayed my reluctance, because Dawn sighed. “We’re going to have to work with some self-hypnosis.”

Kim laughed. “Are we going to make Bethany act like a chicken?”

“Feminization Hypnosis,” Dawn said, sounding serious, “is used by transsexuals to help them become more comfortable with their femininity -- using subliminal suggestion and re-programming through hypnosis.”

Kim suddenly became less cheerful. “Is this a sneaky way to force Bethany to do something she doesn’t want to do?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think you can be hypnotized to go against your nature.”

“That’s right,” Kim said. “This isn’t the kind of forced conduct that many couples use in their sex life. Using hypnosis, Bethany’s feminine side will be drawn out, encouraged, emphasized, and reassured. The change through feminization hypnosis isn’t just a psychological one. Physiological changes can be brought about too. I’ve seen it work.”

“Physiological changes?” I gasped, thinking about her comments about more “realistic” breasts. “I’m not ready for anything permanent.”

“No,” she laughed. “We’ve all been there, Honey. I promise you nothing I suggest will be permanent. More and more, hypnosis is being used to round out existing medical practices and in some countries is used as a primary cure for many issues, as it has been for hundreds of years.”

“Does hypnosis really work?” Kim asked.

Dawn nodded emphatically. “I’ve seen very positive results with several of my friends. Hypnosis works by communicating directly with the parts of the brain that are responsible for certain bodily movements and thoughts. The brain is a magnificent organ; and we use only a fraction of it in our daily lives. Much of the brain is yet to be understood but with hypnosis we can re-program the brain and achieve amazing results.”

“Will Bethany have to go to a hypnotist’s office?” Kim asked.

“That’s the beauty,” Kim answered, looking thrilled. “Bethany will become her own hypno-therapist by making video recordings on her laptop to help with her feminization process. It’ll work.”

“What about unintended consequences?” Kim questioned. “I’ve seen a hundred dumb comedy skits about someone being hypnotized accidentally.”

Dawn chuckled. “Contrary to a popular myth, when you’re under hypnosis you are still fully conscious, aware of your surroundings, and remain in total control. In a state of hypnosis you’re simply deeply relaxed, which allows access to parts of your brain that will aid your feminization. At any point you can wake up without any side effects, feeling refreshed and wondering where the time went. You’ll notice small changes in the way you act. Some of my friends saw immediate positive benefits, while others had to listen to their feminization hypnosis sessions again and again over the course of a few days, but it worked in the end for all of them.”

“I’ll give it a try,” I said, sounding much more receptive than I really was.

A sharp rap at my room’s door startled me. Before answering I spun before the mirror to assure myself that I wouldn’t humiliate anyone. I looked like a mature edition of the girl in the pictures, just like Curt wanted.

“Florist delivery, ma’am,” the boy at the door said. He handed me a purple and white oblong box, with an attached card that came in a purple envelope from Piccolo’s, an Omaha florist.

I signed for them, gave the outwardly unsuspecting boy a tip, and then opened the card, which stated, “You. . .have wowed me from the very beginning.”

~Wowed me? Who? Why?~

“I dozen long-stemmed yellow roses,” I announced after I opened the box. They came with a vase, which I filled with water to keep them fresh. Their unique aroma quickly filled the air around them.

“How sweet,” Dawn cooed as she read the card. “They must be from Curt. Yellow roses are a sign of friendship and congratulations. Evidently he wants you to know he thinks you’ll do okay.”

I felt ambivalent about receiving flowers, but I submissively stuck my face into them and deeply drew in their essence.

“It looks like someone would love a floral-scented perfume,” Dawn said, noticing my beaming face. “Maybe you should try something romantic like White Shoulders?”

“Or Dune?” Kim suggested.

“Oh. . .look at the time,” Dawn remarked. “Bethany, we need to scoot to the salon.”

With that we were off to introduce “Bethany” to the world. . .again.

***

The next ten days went by in a whirl of lotion, silk, satin, lace . . . and roses from Piccolo’s in those purple and white boxes. Every day a dozen roses arrived. My room looked like the Queen’s croquet grounds from Alice in Wonderland.

Although none of the cards had been signed, or even attributed to Curt, Dawn could tell by the inscriptions that he had sent them.

“You don't have to be perfect, to be perfect for me,” one of them had said. Another said, “When I am with you, I never want to leave,” -- that one had been accompanied by pale pink roses.

“He sure is playful,” Dawn noted. “Pale pink roses mean he wants you to have fun with what you’re doing. The cards are his way of telling you he’ll be okay taking you to dinner.”

“He’s probably embarrassed,” Kim speculated, “because he made such a fuss over being seen with you in public.”

Although the words scared me a bit, I had to smile when I read the cards or thought about the flowers, which I often did. Marisa was anything but a romantic. She had never given me as much as a Valentine’s Day card. She celebrated February 14th by going to the jeweler’s and buying herself something “special” which she later told people was from me.

I found myself wondering how long he spent composing each card. I hadn’t felt so childish since the fourth grade when I actually cared what the little heart candies said. My test had become a complex game; and it felt good to have his friendship.

Becoming Bethany again seemed almost too easy. Kim took to helping me like a squirrel attacks a pile of acorns; and we seemed to be growing much closer than we had ever been. She talked non-stop about dresses, make-up, and ways to fix our hair. We purchased yoga leotards and worked out together for an hour a day. Our daily practice was based around twelve basic postures. She had some background from a class she had taken; and I was soon familiar with the lunge, tree, cobra, downward-facing dog, and other poses.

She never broke character, always treating me like Bethany, which made my test easier. We agreed early on to avoid talking about our business too much, choosing to depend on our people to fill in for us.

Back in high school I had driven myself to become as close to a real “Bethany” as possible to avoid catastrophic detection when Mom and I went out in public. Under our new circumstances my competitive urges pushed my female presentation toward perfection. ~There’s absolutely no way I’m not going to keep Celebration.~

Kim would stop in to see me every night right before I went to bed to help me with my “Nightly Beauty Ritual.”

I sat at my dressing table looking into my mirror at Kim perched behind me on the bed. She wore a cute, Michael Kors, black jersey, ruched dress we had found for her for almost half off. When we shopped she always had an eye out for something to wear, since she had brought only enough for a three-day trip. She looked absolutely darling.

“That’s it, Bethany,” Kim said, bringing me out of my thoughts. “My mother used to tell me ‘Cathedrals have better foundations than outhouses.’ If you want to keep your beauty you have to have healthy feet.”

My feet had just enjoyed ten minutes of soaking in a basin of warm water mixed with a handful of fragrant bath salts. I was currently washing them with soap and water.

“Now use the foot filer to scrub your heels,” she instructed.

I enjoyed an opportunity to be alone with her. It seemed like Dawn was with us every waking moment.

“You’re like a ~matrushka~,” Kim said, “one of those Russian nesting wooden dolls. Your exterior as Erik was attractive, but who would have ever guessed there was a beautiful Bethany inside the Erik you.”

“I’ve started to dream about a life as a woman,” I said, blushing -- and wondering why she would refer to me as beautiful. “In my dreams I’m doing the simple things a woman does.”

“I suppose that’s only natural,” she offered.

“But the thing is -- I’ve realized those “simple things” are really the same simple pleasures I enjoy as a male.”

She bit her lip and nodded. “Use your orange stick to clean the edges and grooves around your toe nails,” she cautioned.

I frowned as I saw the dirt that had somehow accumulated.

She smiled when I reached for my moisturizer before she had to tell me. “I’m just amazed at how positive you’ve stayed the last ten days.” She touched my hand to show her support.

“It hasn’t been so bad,” I admitted. “I miss all the fun we have working at Celebration, but I’ve convinced myself that becoming Bethany is what I want to do, which makes it all that much easier. That way I don’t fight anything.”

“You’ve done great,” Kim squealed. “Dawn has been a real pal. Don’t you just love all the incredible outfits she’s helped you find?”

“For sure!” In truth I thought Dawn’s taste for me was much too feminine. It seemed everything Dawn selected: clothes, hairstyle, perfume, make-up. . .all were the sexiest or most feminine choices available.

I took up the walnut scrub to clean the oil from my face and rubbed with circular motions using cold water.

“My sister has to use baby oil on her face, because it’s so sensitive,” Kim said.

I applied night cream starting at my throat with upward sweeps of my fingers.

“Are you ever horny?” Kim asked.

I choked. “Horny?” She and I were close, but not in that way.

Her face turned beet red. “When I watched that documentary about men who dress as women, they talked about those men who use women’s clothing, make-up, and perfume as a fetish. I hope all this isn’t making you so sexed-up that it’s driving you crazy?”

I giggled. “Don’t worry. I’ve been talking things through with Dawn. At first I did get ‘all horny.’ I reasoned that masturbation was out, because Greg might deem that a sign that I wasn’t positive about everything that I was being asked to do. Dawn took care of my ‘horny’ problem by giving me an anaphrodisiac.”

“I know what an ‘aphrodisiac’ is, but what’s an ‘anaphrodisiac’?”

I used the tip of my little finger to apply an under-eye cream. Then I worked a moisturizer into the rest of my face, my neck, and arms. “An anaphrodisiac is something that quells or blunts my libido. It’s the opposite of an aphrodisiac.”

Kim brightened. “Do you mean like saltpeter, the stuff they put in men’s coffee in the Army?”

“Uh huh, except that’s an urban legend. They wouldn’t give soldiers potassium bromide, or saltpeter, because it’s a mild sedative.”

It was Kim’s turn to giggle. “You wouldn’t want a man to doze off half-way through throwing a grenade.”

We fell into each other’s arms as we laughed. Kim’s warmth and friendship felt terrific.

I pulled back from her to continue my ritual, and began swirling a small container of almond oil in a pan of hot water, allowing it to heat. Once it was warmed I massaged a bit of it into my scalp so my hair would be well-conditioned and supple. I would leave it in overnight and shampoo in the morning. “Dawn has me taking Cyproterone pills twice a day. They give them to sex offenders. One is purple and the other is white.”

Kim frowned.

I touched her hand. “It’s no big deal. Dawn said the drugs will wash out of my body twenty-four hours after I quit taking them.”

“I don’t like the idea of you taking drugs.”

“I know, but I think they’re having the side-effect of helping me feel more feminine. I’m certainly a lot more emotional than I was ten days ago.”

Kim shook her head. “Maybe we should do some online research to verify what Dawn has been telling us?”

“No,” I said sharply. “I can’t have any negative thoughts running through my head. We’ll only get through this if we put our faith in people, at least until they show us we can’t bank on them.”

Kim screwed her face up like she’d just eaten a sour pickle. “I don’t trust Greg.”

“Neither do I, but we have to have confidence in Curt and Dawn. They’re on our side. Curt’s proved his loyalty; and Dawn thinks I’m a willing transsexual. She has no reason to lie to me. Besides, the drugs might not be what’s making me feel feminine; it might be a response to the videos of me I’ve been watching.”

“At first, when Dawn suggested it,” Kim said, “I thought making videos of yourself was a weird idea, but it sure seems to work.”

I smiled at myself in the mirror as I thought of the videos I had “starred in” and the many, many times I had watched or listened to them. In each, I told myself how much I wanted to do something. The first one had been about wearing the “sweetest, most erotic lingerie.” The hard part had been keeping a straight face when I looked in the camera. Dawn and Kim were always in the room, so I had to act like I loved the idea of convincing myself that “lacy bras are delightful.”

Kim handed me the castor oil. “Dawn always has had good ideas to help you improve your videos so that you say just the right things to the camera. Watching them has helped your voice, your posture . . . everything. It’s amazing to see how quickly you’ve adapted.”

I applied pure castor oil to my eyebrows and lashes, particularly those that needed growth, to help them mature thick and long. Every other night I treated my tired or puffy eyes with a cotton pad soaked in chilled rose water or thin slices of cucumber I kept in my room’s small refrigerator.

Setting the castor oil aside I spread grated cucumber mixed with carrot juice under my eyes, to reduce black circles and sagging skin. “In just four days I’ll go back to being Erik; and things will be like they should be.” ~Like they should be? I’m not sure any more. I enjoy being Bethany, much more than I thought I would.~

Kim looked at me out the sides of her eyes. “Will you miss being Bethany?”

“What? Oh for gosh sakes! No! We’re doing this to save our business, and that’s all.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Smear Vaseline on your lips; and you can sleep like a child and get up like a fairy!”

~A fairy! Kim didn’t mean anything by saying that; I’m sure.~

Kim saw my small frown and apparently realized what she had said. “I’m so sorry Bethany. I would never say or do anything to intentionally hurt you. You’re my best friend.” She took off her charm bracelet and handed it to me. “I want you to have it. Our wrists are the same size,” she said, as she fastened it.

“I couldn’t accept it,” I said, without much sincerity. I really wanted it. “I know how much it means to you.”

“Not as much as your friendship.” Her eyes glistened.

“It’s lovely. Let me give you something in return to express how much you mean to me.” I looked through all of my jewelry, but it was all new and lacked true significance. My eyes fell on my old wristwatch. “My mother gave me this when I graduated from high school. She had it inscribed, ‘Friends Forever.’ That’s how I feel about you.”

“Are you sure?”

I could tell from her expression that she would cherish the watch. “Yes.” I fastened it to her wrist.

“I absolutely love it,” she said, and then laughed cheerily as she let herself out. “Sleep tight, Bethany. I love you.”

“Love ya more.”

Her mood had been great ever since she became sure I would pass the “test” and save our business. Her confidence buoyed mine. Without Kim I never could have made it through all we had.

Before shutting off the lights I wrote my daily e-mail to Marisa, telling her how much I missed her and making excuses for why I had to stay in Omaha. Not once had I let on what I was actually doing. We needed to talk about children again. She seemed to be losing interest in the idea of having a family, something we both had wanted intensely before we got married.

I also answered about fifteen e-mails from our office and sales consultants. I relaxed putting out the normal business fires.

***

Dawn had become more of a friend than a mentor. At first I merely wanted to follow her instructions to the letter, and then I wanted to really show her how good I could be. Finally, I was motivated to please her as you would want to delight any close friend.

She had shared with me, in an emotional discussion, how her wife died suddenly of cancer shortly after their marriage. Dawn’s wife had totally accepted her goal of sex reassignment surgery. They had planned to have a child first — before the SRS surgery; and Dawn was going to be the stay-at-home mom. After the funeral Dawn had concentrated on making a new life and somehow becoming a mother to honor her wife’s memory. “Failure is not an option,” she said.

The three of us had stopped in a drug store to pick up a few essentials when she came to a halt and pointed at a douche product. “You’ll need one of those,” she said sweetly.

I frowned. “I can’t imagine what on earth for.”

“You don’t want to be unladylike,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “down there. Curt’s going to want a little something in return for taking you to dinner. He’s taking a huge risk; and he will expect an equally huge sexual favor in return.”

~The flowers!~ I shook my head fiercely. “Curt’s not like that.”

“He’s not,” Kim agreed.

“Honey,” Dawn said. “When he gets one look at the new Bethany he’s going to go into testosterone hyper drive. By the end of the night he’s not going to be in full control of his urges.”

“No,” I objected, “Curt will be a perfect gentleman.”

“No such thing,” a pregnant woman said as she went by. She was dragging a four-year old daughter by the hand and pushing a one-year old in a baby stroller.

We laughed.

“Perfect gentlemen like sex just as much as imperfect gentlemen.” Dawn grinned. “Okay, have it your way, but don’t you think there’s a slight possibility that Curt might want to make love to you.”

“Virtually no chance,” I allowed, “but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to let it happen.”

“I’m sorry,” Dawn said with exaggeration, “listening to you two talk about everything Curt has done for you -- I got the impression you think a lot of him.”

~But he’s a man!~ “I suppose there’s a tiny risk he will want sex, but very tiny, if at all.”

“Then you have to be ready.”

“Uh huh,” Kim reluctantly agreed.

I thought for several moments. “I suppose.” My stomached flipped while my experience with men played in my mind.

***

I had purchased my dress especially for my first date . . . with Taylor.

Mom and I were staying at Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake. Although a lot of family’s from the Twin Cities vacationed there, she didn’t think it was too risky for me to be Bethany for our week’s stay.

We met on the tennis courts.

I certainly hadn’t been looking for a boyfriend. Boys didn’t interest me at all, but Taylor was so darn nice; and I suppose girls would find him handsome.

“Are you warm enough,” Taylor asked. His lazy eye wandered when he spoke, which probably caused some people to dislike him.

We were headed toward Brainerd in his father’s Cadillac on a late August evening with temperatures about fifteen degrees below normal. Brainerd was the nearest town with a movie theatre. Taylor had gotten his license nearly six months before when he turned sixteen; and I couldn’t get mine until that next winter.

“I’m okay,” I said, but I involuntarily shivered.

“Slide over here,” he ordered. “I’ll keep you warm until the heater kicks in.”

I couldn’t think of an excuse not to sit close to him, so I did.

He drove one-handed and pinned me to him with his other arm. His body heat felt nice in the cool evening air.

He spoke in crisp sentences that he bit off like you would a candy cane. “I’m anxious to get to know you better,”

I nodded. ~Eager . . . not anxious. I hate it when people say anxious when they mean eager.~

“What type of movie do you want to see?” he asked.

~Oh geez. People shouldn’t say “type” when they mean “kind.”~ “I don’t care,” I said. I didn’t even know what movies were playing, or if the theatre in Brainerd was big enough so we would have a choice.

“I don’t care if we see a show either,” he said. “I know . . . why don’t I buy us some lime vodka, orange juice, and Seven-Up? Have you ever had a Back Packer?”

Before I could answer he swung his car into the parking lot of a liquor store. He pulled out his wallet and showed me his fake I.D. “Winnipeg I.D. and Saskatchewan Driver’s License. Never fails. They don’t really care what you show them as long as you’ve got something that protects them in case there’s a plain clothes cop around.”

~Holy cow. Taylor has a fake I.D. He’s the first person I’ve ever known, other than an adult, who could buy alcohol.~

Five minutes later Taylor came out of the liquor store with a brown paper bag and huge grin. “Worked like a charm. I paid five dollars for them fake I.D.s but they’re worth every penny.”

Ten minutes later we were parked in a secluded spot he “happened to know about” which overlooked a bay on Gull Lake.

“I brought a couple of glasses along, just in case,” he said. He pointed toward the glove box.

After I found the glasses, he mixed us two drinks. Since we didn’t have any ice we would have to drink them warm.

“It will be totally dark in another fifteen minutes,” he said. He toyed with the radio, but the only station that came in played what they called “cabin music,” which sounded like the stuff piped into elevators. “I guess that music is romantic enough, in a way.”

“Romantic?” I asked, staring out at the start of the moon’s reflection on the lake, afraid to look at him.

He chuckled nervously. “They say if you can’t get lucky looking at Gull Lake you might as well cut off your dick.”

Taylor’s choice of words shocked me. He hadn’t used language like that before.

“I’m warm enough now,” I said, trying to slip out from under his arm.

He tightened his grip on me; so I wasn’t able to slide away. “Don’t you like your drink?”

I took another sip, and then screwed up my face. “I’m not much of a drinker.”

“I should have known,” he said. “Don’t worry, whether you drink or not isn’t the most important thing . . . not by a long shot.” He finished his drink with a long swig. Holding his glass between his legs he mixed another with his one hand, while continuing to squeeze my shoulder with the other.

“Hey, look. . .,” he said excitedly, pointing out his window, which was rolled up to keep the mosquitoes out. “. . .a black bear.”

I had heard about the black bears in the area, but had never seen one. I stared intently -- leaning around to see . . . when Taylor caught me in a kiss.

“Mmmph,” I said, while he pressed his mouth over mine.

~Taylor can drive. Taylor can buy alcohol. Of course Taylor expects his dates to kiss him.~ I had planned to give him a peck on the cheek at the end of our date, but now. . . .

Taylor broke our kiss long enough to take both of our glasses and set them in drink holders in the back seat. He then grabbed me again and started another kiss.

The taste of vodka and orange juice flooded my senses. His hand grabbed at my padded bra; and I shoved it away.

~He will be severely disappointed if. . . .~ “Please, Taylor. . . .”

His hand then locked onto my wrist . . . and he forced my hand toward his. . . .

“Nooooo,” I screamed.

“Shit,” he said. “Becky told me you would give me a blowjob.”

~Becky? Blowjob?~ “What are you talking about?”

“My cousin Becky Calwort goes to high school with you.

~He knows!~

“Her parents have a cabin up here. She came over to see me and saw the two of us playing tennis together. It took her a while to recognize you, Erik, in your tennis dress, but she finally figured it out.”

I hung my head.

He placed a finger under my jaw, and then tilted my face up so I was looking into his eyes. “It’s okay,” he said huskily. “I don’t really mind.” His face moved toward mine as if he was going to kiss me again, but I turned away.

“What gives?” he demanded angrily.

“I. . .I’m confused,” I stammered. “I’m not sure what you want from me.”

“What I want?” He laughed. “What did you think I wanted when you agreed to go out with me? Look. . .you look like a beautiful babe, so I’ll just ignore what’s in your basement.”

I stared out the window wishing that there really had been a black bear -- one that dragged me into the woods and ate me. “I thought you liked me and wanted to spend time with me.”

“Sure I like you.” His voice seemed disingenuous. He reached once again to kiss me, but I dodged away.

“Let’s not,” I said quietly.

“Shit.” He opened his door and tossed out what remained of our two drinks. “Becky said I couldn’t miss. She said you’d be so ‘fairy’ happy to have a date that you’d blow me.” He turned on the car, slammed the controls, and spun its wheels in gravel getting back to the highway.

“I’m sorry.” I pressed against my door wishing I could disappear.

“I don’t get it,” he screeched. “You’re a fairy, right; and fairies love to give blowjobs. So what’s wrong with me?”

I shook my head. “I’m not a fairy.”

“Fuck you, asshole. If you’re not a fairy, I’m the president of the United States.”

“I’m a girl,” I whispered.

“You’re a fucking freak, that’s what you are.” He pulled the car over to the side of the road. “Get out, you fucking freak. Get out; and don’t ever come around me again. If you do, I’ll smash your fucking head in.”

We were at least a mile from the resort. The walk back in my high heels turned out to be long, tearful, and filled with bewilderment.

“What happened to you,” Mom asked, as soon as I entered our room.

Between sobs I gave her a detailed description of my evening.

After grounding me for drinking she got a wash rag and cleaned the tear stains from my face. “We’ll check out tomorrow and go home.”

I nodded, relieved I wouldn’t have to see Taylor again. I then undressed and prepared for bed while we talked. “He didn’t really like me at all,” I whined. “How will I ever be able to tell if people really are fond of me, or just want something?”

“You won’t.” There wasn’t anything malicious in what she said, only a statement of fact.

“How can we live like that? How can we go through life not knowing?”

“Life is all about not knowing,” she said. “The moment you know how or whom -- you start to die a little. We never entirely know; we guess. We have to take leap after leap in the dark and hope when we come down it’s in a good spot.”

“Are there many good spots to land,” I asked hopefully.

She nodded. “Remember a loving person will ultimately live in a loving world. The sum of all you meet will be your mirror.”

I smiled. It was easy to see why it appeared Mom was fearless. She didn’t waste time worrying about things before she made a decision. She was confident she could deal with whatever outcome she would face. ~I want that kind of inner peace.~

“If you want,” she suggested, “we can register you in a different private school this fall.”

“That’s a good idea.” ~I never want to see Becky Calwort again.~ I would miss some of the kids, but the downside of having everyone talking about me outweighed any positives.

Mom finished tucking me in, but continued to sit next to me on the bed. “Much the same thing happened to me in high school.”

I stared at her quietly wondering how that could have been possible.

“A young boy took me to a lover’s lane and tried to force me to have oral sex.”

I gasped. ~Who would do such a thing to someone as lovely as my mother?~

A tear slid down her cheek. “When I got home I told my mother. I was crying, just like you tonight. Your grandmother laughed at me.”

“No . . . she didn’t really laugh, did she?”

“Uh huh — she laughed and told me boys had a right to expect certain things. She said anything a boy wanted that wouldn’t get me pregnant -- I was supposed to do, if the boy was someone suitable for marriage.”

“Noooo.”

She nodded. “You see, I was pretty much a tomboy. I hated dresses and make-up. Your grandmother forced me to wear them. She dragged me to beauty shops and threw away all my jeans and T-shirts. I had to wear nylons and perfume every day.” She stopped and smiled at me. “I know that wearing dresses, lipstick, and perfume doesn’t sound so bad to you, but to me, at that time in my life, it was horrible.”

“I understand.” I squeezed her. ~For her, being a girl must have been as bad as being a boy is for me.~

“Eventually I learned to love being feminine,” she said. “I suppose every girl has to go through a rite of passage, but I don’t think anyone should ever force another person to do anything. You can tell real easy who loves you . . . and who doesn’t. Those who limit your options -- normally aren’t on your side.”

I smiled and bobbed my head to show how much I agreed with her. “Did you ever see that boy again?”

She didn’t answer for a long time. We sat together in front of a fireplace she had lit letting its heat soak in. Finally she spoke. “Your grandmother thought he was a ‘catch’ so I had to keep dating him. Eventually we got married.”

I sucked in air and tried to think of my father. He hadn’t been around much, even before the car accident. Surprisingly I couldn’t remember his face other than in that one picture Mom had of him that she stored in the back of her top drawer.

***

“You need to make another video,” Dawn said, while nodding her sweet head. “Talk into the camera as if you’re speaking to Curt. Ask him to have sex with you. Pretend you need to overcome his reluctance and really turn it on. We’ll review your efforts; and then do it over at least a dozen times until we’ve gotten to the point where you seem totally sincere in your need to have him make love to you. This is important — so work it, girl.”

I had thought it through. Curt would never demand sex, so making a video presented no threat. ~I’ll make it hot and steamy, which is what Dawn seems to want. Kim will get a kick out of it. We need to have some fun with this, or we’ll all go nuts from the stress.~

I sat on the bed in my room and prepared what to say and how to say it. To get in the appropriate mood I glanced around the room at my roses and thought about all the loving sentiments expressed on the purple cards.

“Curt,” I began, “I think we should quit acting like frightened teenagers. You and I both want something. . .something very, very sweet. Come sit on the bed with me, darling.” I patted the bed, crossed my legs seductively, smiled for the camera, and summoned the courage to continue. My stomach tossed like it had years ago when Mom forced me to eat my vegetables.

I tilted my head back and returned kisses from my imaginary lover. “Oh Curt,” I breathed. I could almost feel his hands running over the front of the skimpy nightie I had worn for the video. My beasts strained to meet his caress. I reached for where his crotch would be had he actually been sitting next to me. We kissed some more as I massaged his penis through his pin-striped trousers, and then I pulled down an imaginary zipper and withdrew a monstrous, make-believe cock.

“Mmmmmmmm,” I moaned as I slid to my knees on the floor before “him.” I had positioned myself so that my face peered right into the camera. I formed a circle with my lipsticked mouth and brought it to where my hands held “him.”

“I’ve waited five years to taste you, Curt. I want you to fill me with your seed.” I licked my lips and breathed with the back of my throat. “First I’ll tongue you until you explode deep inside my mouth; and then I’ll make you hard again and take you into my cunny.” I smiled and tasted salty air, sucking and moaning until swallowing more come than any mere mortal could possibly produce.

~Is it possible to be over-the-top when starring in a porn flick?~

I then rubbed his crotch gently and we “kissed” for a bit before I went down on him again. Finally, I straddled his rigid cock. All the while I kept up an R-rated monologue. My ride caused a wave of orgasms foreign to anything I’d ever felt.

Later as Kim and Dawn critiqued my performance, my face burned. ~I look like a cheap whore.~

“For the most part you were fantastic,” Dawn said, much to my amazement. “but. . . .” She went on to point out imperfections in my sucking style.

Kim mainly spoke in clinical tones about how to keep my hair away from my mouth and what to do with my hands when I mounted him. She further shocked me by making sure I knew how sensitive his “little titties” would be.

It had become a personal contest to make the video perfect. The idea of actually screwing Curt felt less alien and more of a challenge. Making him sexually crazy seemed like a fascinating project. My bottom twitched in anticipation of him filling me with his manhood. As a boy I had often dreamed of a male lover, but had never acted on those impulses. Mom would have gone nuts had she known about my dreamland lust. She always seemed so relieved when I told her how much I liked girls.

After only the fourth try Dawn said I was completely ready. She said she would take my laptop home to review the entire session one more time, but was almost sure she wouldn’t find anything to correct.

~I hate the idea of allowing my computer out of my sight.~ “I’m going to need my computer tonight to do some work for tomorrow. . .that Greg needs right away.”

“What kind of work,” Kim asked.

My mind went blank. Lying isn’t my strong suit. “Just some typing.”

“Okay then,” Kim said, displaying her usual high spirit, “I’ll bring my laptop to you tonight before I go to bed. You can work on it and use a removable disk. That way Dawn can take your computer home and everything can move forward.”

“Ahhh. . .okay,” I allowed, staring into two sweet and smiling faces.

The more Dawn, Kim, and I talked, the more I realized I had been predestined to become a woman. Plus -- my competitive nature wouldn’t allow anything less. I wanted desperately to be accepted as a woman; if not by Curt, then by someone who would cherish me.

***

The night before my dinner with Curt, I could hardly sleep. I wanted so badly to show him and Greg that I could be counted on to do what they wanted. I had made a video in which I carefully explained to myself how being feminine was my core nature and not something to be embarrassed about. I told myself over and over that at this crossroad in my life being as feminine as I could be was the most important thing for me to accomplish.

Each time I watched the videos I really did feel self-hypnotized. ~I would be lost without my videos. Dawn had been so smart to suggest them. I have to be more open-minded in the future.~

I spent the entire day preparing for my night out with Curt. Dawn kept up a running commentary about how I should do this and that to please him. Kim got into the spirit of things and chipped in helpful hints for making “your” man feel like a king.

“Not too much of a king,” she laughed. “Men are like pears; you select the green ones and take them home to wait patiently until they ripen. For one half a second they look great sitting in a bowl, but before you can enjoy them they get all mushy and you end up throwing them out.”

***

I was still laughing about what she had said hours later when Curt knocked at the door, at the precise appointed time.

He had brought a dozen roses, half red and half yellow. The purple card from Piccolo’s said, “I am. . .SO lucky.”

“You look marvelous,” he said. “I knew you would. Red and yellow roses mixed together are a message of happiness and commemoration. You’ve done everything I expected you would. Tomorrow morning’s meeting with Greg should be a mere formality.”

Seeing Curt I flashed to the anger I felt toward Greg. . .and then to the debt of gratitude we owed Curt for his intervention. I twirled to give him a full view. “Is there anything I should improve upon before then?”

He laughed. “Not a thing.”

Much to my surprise he had hired a long, black limousine for the evening. After we arrived at the restaurant things just got better. He demanded a table where I would sit with my back against the wall. He took his place across the table from me. “I want to sit so that the rest of the restaurant doesn’t distract me from you,” he explained.

I could feel myself blush and hoped my foundation would hide it. As my eyes travelled around the room I saw men gawking at. . .me. Their eyes revealed that lustful need I had seen before when out on the town with Kim. At first I felt foolish, but then the satisfaction with what I had accomplished over the last ten days allowed me to feel. . .wonderful.

Curt had made an obvious special effort. Although he always dressed nice, he outdid himself -- looking like he’d stepped off the pages of GQ. “Bethany,” he started saying over our raspberry sorbet, “you might not believe this, but I care a great deal about your. . . welfare.”

I nodded, unsure where he was going.

“You see, Bethany, we’ve suspected your ‘nature’ long before Greg had that talk with your mother and first saw those pictures of you.”

“I see.” ~As nice as he’s being I feel a bit violated by their concern.~

“After Greg brought those pictures back from Minneapolis and shared them with me, I contacted a friend. . .a psychiatrist. I told her everything I could about you: how driven you’ve been, the amount of financial risk you’ve taken, and your secret.”

“And. . . ?” Even though I was urging him to go on I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what he had to say.

“Would you like more wine?” he asked.

I raised a delicate hand in a fluid and graceful motion, to decline. My mauve nails sparkled in the candlelight.

He smiled. “I’m not going to have anymore wine either. Too much alcohol makes mistakes out of friends.”

~Mistakes?~

“And we are friends,” he continued. “The psychiatrist said you were displaying a classic case of gender disorder. She said it would eventually cause your downfall in business or drive you to suicide, if you didn’t act on your impulses.”

“What do you mean?”

“She explained that if you suppressed your feminine nature you would probably continue to compensate by taking inordinate amounts of business risk.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Curt smiled. “That probably explains why you think the amount of debt you’re in is prudent, while everyone else thinks you’re in over your head.”

“Uh huh.” ~I’ll have to think about that, but off-hand I can’t agree with their theories. Curt’s concern seems genuine, but Greg had no right to talk to Mom and has continued to be out of line.~

“I told Greg what my friend said about you; and he hired her as a consultant. I really became worried about you and wanted to help. Greg has different reasons, reasons I don’t fully understand, but I’ll watch out for you.”

I sagged a bit in my seat -- not knowing if I should feel relief, fear, anger, or. . . .

“She helped us devise a plan to help you, and tonight is the fruition of that plan.”

“But, what about tomorrow?” I asked timidly.

“Don’t worry,” he said hurriedly. “Greg will sign the new loan agreement and you’ll be able to go back to Minneapolis and run Celebration. . .as a woman if you'd like.”

I looked away. ~As a woman? What would Marisa say? How would Mom react? What would all our employees say? How many sales consultants would quit?~ “I’m not sure what I’ll do.”

“I’m sure you’re not,” he said, “but you now know it’s possible. You have many more options now than you did ten days ago.”

~There’s a spot on his neck that looks especially appealing. I would’ve gladly foregone my meal for a taste of him.~

In the limousine later I half expected and half hoped he would put his arm around me, but he kept his distance. At the door he shook hands, much less firmly than he normally would -- more of a light squeeze -- that felt nice.

“Thank you for being you,” he said as he left.

***

On my way downtown, and then up in the elevator to Greg’s office, I surfed on a euphoric wave. I hadn’t really made any decisions about what I would wear on the flight back to Minneapolis, but my future looked bright; and my clothing seemed inconsequential.

I would have to talk things through with Marisa, and that would require a face-to-face discussion that would be much more fruitful, if I wasn’t looking quite so “Bethany.” ~Marisa is my wife; and I still love her. When I get back to Minneapolis I’ll take some time off to think about things. The last two weeks will probably result in a sweet memory and nothing more.~

Dawn had called my room just before Kim and I were scheduled to leave for Imperative’s office. She said Greg wanted me to come in by myself and that Kim would meet me at the airport with our bags. I didn’t ask, but it seemed like Dawn assumed I would fly back to Minneapolis as Bethany. ~I’ll just have to explain myself to whomever checks my identification at the airport.~

The receptionist outside Greg’s office welcomed me as Bethany Rue, but gave no sign of recognition, even though I’d been to Greg’s office many times as Erik Rue.

My immediate reaction when I entered the conference room where Curt and Greg waited for me was to question my wardrobe decisions. I had picked a dark-chocolate, paisley print dress from Ann Taylor, with D’Orsay stiletto heels, a wood ring hobo bag, and double-drop earrings. My knee-length hem hadn’t seemed too provocative, but Curt took one look at me and quickly turned his glance away without making eye-contact.

Greg whistled obscenely. “I see what you mean, Curt.”

Regret and confusion ran over me. ~Perhaps I’ve worn too much scent? Did I have to make my eyes look so dramatic? Should I have used a less colorful nail polish?~ “Do I pass your test, Greg?” I asked, keeping the emotion I felt out of my voice, which I had kept in a feminine range.

He chuckled as if he was enjoying a luscious meal. “Yes . . . and no. You certainly look like a woman; and you haven’t created a scene in our building, unless some of the guys are falling over leering at you.”

I tried to catch Curt’s eye, but he seemed busy reading from a file in front of him.

Greg nodded his head sagely for several moments. “The thing is, Erik. . .or would you prefer to be addressed as Bethany?”

“Bethany would be less confusing,” I said, mindful of my appearance. “What do you mean by ‘Yes. . . and no’?”

Curt coughed. “Greg I think. . . .”

“You’ve had more than your say in this matter,” Greg snapped. “It’s my ass if our little sweetheart here goes off the deep end. I’m not going to spend a year in a federal penitentiary as a boy-toy for some hairy-assed drug dealer because ‘Bethany’ lost her way.” He clipped his words tersely, and spoke in mocking tones. “I’m not going to sign off on her until I’m completely sure; and I just can’t be that certain the way things are.”

“She’s done everything. . . ,” Curt started.

“She?” Greg argued, shaking his head again.

Thankfully Curt didn’t rise to Greg’s bait.

I sat with my legs demurely crossed at the ankle. My femininity stood out for all to see; and there didn’t appear to be a thing I could do about it.

“Let’s get on with it,” Curt said. “Why taunt her since you know what has to be done? The psychiatrist said it would be best to get right at it.”

“What’s going on?” I asked — more to Curt than to Greg.

“ ‘What’s going on’ is this.” Greg wasn’t about to lose control of the meeting by allowing Curt to answer. “You failed your test.”

“That’s nonsense,” I said without hesitation. “No one would ever say I don’t look like a woman.”

“Granted,” Greg allowed. “You’re more of a woman than I could have imagined any real man could ever be, but that was only part of your assessment. You also agreed to do everything with a positive attitude. Do you remember shopping with Dawn and Kim in Victoria’s Secret?” He turned on a tiny tape recorder that sat in front of him on the table.

I heard myself talking rapidly, almost like I had been asked to pet a snake. “I couldn’t possibly wear that. I just couldn’t.”

He flipped off the recorder and scowled at me. “Well.”

~Dawn must’ve been wearing a wire the whole time.~ I struggled for a moment to put the conversation in context. “Oh, I remember. Kim had been joking about a thong she suggested for me. No one was serious.”

“Well, I’m ‘serious,’ ” Greg said. “I get very ‘serious’ when the consequences to me are total disaster. I have to be sure you’re absolutely willing to follow my lead and you haven’t shown that.”

He turned the recorder on again. Again I heard myself in an argument with Kim over a dress she thought I should buy. “I would look ridiculous in that.” He turned off the machine and waited for me to defend myself.

“You’re not interpreting things correctly,” I complained to Greg. “That dress was too light-green for me. With my darker skin I need bolder, darker colors. Kim thinks everyone is a Spring, but I’m definitely a Winter.”

Greg looked at me as if I had spoken a foreign language.

~I should call my lawyer. No — there can’t be any legal precedent for what’s happening here. And, I don’t want the embarrassment. Greg has the upper hand; and I can’t take the chance of blowing the whole deal.~ “Kim can wear pastels and browns,” I explained, seemingly digging myself into a deeper hole. “I can wear some pastels, but not that kind of green.”

“Do you see, Curt?” Greg asked. “I told you he’s crazy.”

Curt closed his file. “There’s no need for that. Just tell Bethany what we agreed to do.”

Greg flicked on his damning piece of equipment again.

I heard Dawn say, “You’ll need one of these.”

I answered, “I can’t imagine what on earth for.”

~The douche-kit.~ I didn’t even try to explain.

Greg looked sharply at Curt, but then turned to me. “I can play several more examples of you objecting to what people asked you to do to meet the terms of the test, but they become fairly repetitious.”

Despite painfully restraining my emotions a tear escaped down my cheek. I successfully kept myself from brushing it away. “It’s not fair,” I whispered. ~What will become of everything? Who will take care of Mom? How will I ever find another job?~

“You haven’t heard my offer,” Greg said. “Despite everything, Curt still thinks I should believe in you.”

My eyes ran to Curt’s, but he had turned his back and evidently found something to focus on outside the window.

Greg looked at me as a ravenous man might stare down a filet mignon. “You’ve done a lot for our company.”

I nodded. ~And how is it fair for you to return the favor by ruining me?~

“We don’t want to get into a pissing contest with you over this,” Greg said. “Curt has convinced me this isn’t something we want to go into court to settle. If you’ll agree to sign over Celebration today in exchange for debt forgiveness, we’re prepared to offer you another opportunity to prove to me how positive you can be while following my directives. If you’re successful in that test we’ll undo the transfer of the business and convert the debt.”

I shuddered. ~Why should I believe you after you’ve taken my business? How will I ever find a nursing home that’s even remotely livable for Mom? How will Marisa react to my failure?~

“I’ve had our legal department draft these documents for your signature.” He placed two folders in front of me.

Tears blurred my vision, even though I had kept most of them within my eyelids. I didn’t dare look down, because I was sure big drops would pour out.

Greg rolled a pen across the table to me. “The first contract is a simple quit claim transferring Celebration to Imperative Holding Corporation. The other is the proxy test we are prepared to offer you.” He looked down at his notes. “We’re willing to offer you a position at Imperative for the next six months. Your salary will be commensurate to what you’re making now. We will pay your mother’s nursing home expense through our corporate self-funded health plan.”

~Judging by my limited knowledge of qualified health plans I don’t think he can legally do that, but at least Mom will be okay. . .for now.~

Greg’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “We will return Celebration to you if you pass the terms of our test. Just like during the last test, you will be required to maintain a positive attitude at all times.”

I nodded.

He continued. “I’m sure you now have a complete understanding of how serious I am about you being upbeat.”

I nodded again

“Good! Since you will be working right here in our office with Curt and me you have to be one hundred percent positive. We can’t have you moping around and destroying the culture we’ve worked so hard to create.”

From what I had seen of Imperative’s culture it was pretty much like most big corporate home offices . . . risk averse and politically charged. “What would I be doing for Imperative?”

Curt continued his stare out the window.

Greg cleared his throat. “You’ll be an administrative assistant to Curt and me. You’ll sit at the receptionist desk just outside my office.”

My eyes went wide. “Are you saying you want me to be your secretary?”

He shook his head. “We don’t have any secretaries at Imperative. You will do what is needed to help Curt and I work more efficiently. If that involves some secretarial duties, so be it.”

I bit my lip. I couldn’t reject his offer, ~. . .but a secretary?~

Curt finally turned around. “In addition to your normal salary and compensation package and taking care of your mother’s nursing home expense, Imperative will pick up your hotel charges. You will also receive an expense account for clothing and grooming incidentals.”

~Clothing and grooming?~ “I don’t understand.”

“We have a certain image,” Greg said with pride. “We can’t have you coming to work in the same dress day after day.”

I closed my eyes, rested my elbows on the conference room table, and dropped my chin onto my fist.

“I’m glad you’re taking this so well,” Curt said happily. “Greg thought you would blow things right at the start and act all negative about our plan, but I told him you always do the right thing.”

~Thanks for the vote of confidence.~ “Six months?” I asked, barely able to control my temper.

“That’s right,” Greg said. “After six months, you can go back to running Celebration, just as long as you maintain your appearance and demeanor like it is today, for six months; and you must approach everything with a positive attitude.”

“You see,” Curt said, “that length of time will form the kind of crucible that will allow Greg to test your trustworthiness, so he can be as comfortable with you as I already am.”

“What about Kim?” I asked. “I won’t do this if it means Kim will lose her job.”

“You don’t have to worry about her. She’s a survivor.” Greg laughed. “I would never fire Kim. She knows how to play ball. She’ll be the titular head of Celebration in your absence. Of course, she will report directly to me.”

~Good! With Kim in charge in Minneapolis things won’t fall apart, if I’m not there. ~ “I’m not sure I can get her to go along with this. I need to talk to her before I sign anything.”

“She’s on board,” Curt said. “In fact, she’s already on an airplane going back to Minneapolis. She said she would sign the documents this afternoon, when I see her. I’m going up there to finish the due diligence required for this kind of acquisition. You don’t mind if I say ‘acquisition,’ do you? I know it’s only temporary, but from a legal standpoint that’s how we have to treat it.”

“I don’t mind.” ~Mind? Hearing you say you’ve acquired my business is like listening to a sick baby’s scream.~

“What did your psychiatrist say about this?” I asked.

“Psychiatrist?” Greg looked puzzled.

“The psychiatrist we have on retainer,” Curt explained to him. “She thinks it would be good for Bethany to have this extra time without all the pressures of running Celebration. That way Bethany will have a real opportunity to know what’s best for her.”

~Maybe this is all a good thing?~

“She’s going to Europe for the next six months, but she said Bethany will be fine.” Curt stood and came around the table to stand beside me. “I’ve only got two hours to get my things together and get out to the airport. Could you sign the documents so I can take them with me?”

~Kim’s ready to sign them. Who am I to stand in the way of something that seems to be the best for everyone? I’ll find a way to explain things to Marisa as soon as I have a moment to think.~

Greg took the six copies of the two documents from me as soon as I was done signing them. “You need a little time in the men’s. . .er. . .you should probably use the women’s restroom, shouldn’t you?”

I nodded. I had been using women’s restrooms for the last week or so.

Greg looked about ready to laugh again, but didn’t. “When you’re ready, I’ll tell Mrs. Templar to help you get started with your job. By the way, that’s a pretty dress you have on. Try to look just as nice as you do this morning every day when you come to work.”

With that he and Curt left the room. I sat for a moment stunned, and then went to find a restroom to fix my face. Within ten minutes I was busy entering data for a sales comparison Curt needed to take with him to Minneapolis.

At noon, Mrs. Templar arranged for me to have lunch with three other administrative assistants, who outside the company walls referred to themselves as secretaries. They were so much like the average Celebration sales consultant that I felt right at home with them.

When I came back to the office I found a dozen red roses on my desk. The purple card said, “I’m. . .so sorry, but things have a funny way of working.”

***

After work I walked the fifteen blocks to my hotel. Every so often I caught my reflection in a store window. I looked like the average working women of Omaha.

I also looked very much alone. ~I’ll call Kim when I get back to the hotel.~

The concierge looked up as I walked in the door of the hotel. “Miss Rue, I’m so glad you’ve decided to extend your stay with us. We’ve arranged for you to have the same room.” He walked me to the elevator and pressed a room key into my hand. “Six months -- they said you’ll be with us six more months. That’s wonderful; Omaha will sparkle in your radiance.”

Someone had unpacked all of my Bethany clothes and put them on hangers in the closet or had folded them and stuck them into drawers. My search for anything Erik would have worn proved fruitless.

I was just thinking about calling Kim, and then ordering dinner from room service, when someone knocked on the door. Peering through the security-hole I saw Dawn, the last person I wanted to see. I had spent the afternoon trying not to hate her for stabbing me in the back.

I thought about not answering the door, but remembered my agreement with Greg and decided to do the positive thing. “Dawn,” I said as I pulled open the door, “it’s good to see a friendly face. I guess you got the word my little experiment will be going on a bit longer?”

“That wasn’t a big surprise,” Dawn gushed. “I could always tell you absolutely love being Bethany. I couldn’t imagine how you would ever go back to where you were.”

~Of course you can’t, you Madame La Force!~ “Come on in. Come in. I was about to order something to eat, are you hungry?” ~I’ll be so damned positive she’ll have nothing to record but me whistling “Dixie” out my butt. Geez, two Civil War references. If I’m not careful I’ll get “hystorical.”~

“I’m not all that hungry,” she said, “but if you’re going to order, I’ll have a bagel and cream cheese.”

I got room service on the phone and placed an order with their Falling Water Grille.

“Isn’t Curt marvelous?” Dawn asked after I got off the phone. “You know, the kind of help he’s giving you with your transition is nothing new for him. He’s given financial aid to at least a half dozen of my friends; they couldn’t have afforded their operations without him footing the bill.”

~Curt?~ “I had no idea.” ~That doesn’t excuse Dawn for what she did.~

“Uh huh. Curt is a huge benefactor for the GLBT community. He often throws Imperative’s resources behind our fundraisers.” She stopped and patted my hand. “I heard he sent red roses to the office. Actually he called me and asked if I thought it would be appropriate. He’s such a romantic.”

~If I call room service right now they might be able to find a little arsenic to mix with her cream cheese.~ I smiled broadly.

She grinned like a maniac. “Red roses mean true love. What did his card say?”

“Something about him being sorry. . .and how things seem to work out for the best. Something like that.”

“Sorry? That’s strange. What would Curt have to be sorry about? Ohhhhh! I’ll bet he meant he was sorry about what Kim did to you.”

I blinked. “What did Kim do?”

She stared at me for a second before answering. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who’s as forgiving as you. If my partner had sold me down the river I wouldn’t be as nice as you, at least not so soon after I found out she did it.”

~Kim was the one who recorded me saying those things! That can’t be.~

“I don’t understand how everything Curt told me fits into your need to transition, so forgive me if I stumble around a bit. I’ll just give you my thoughts and you can work it out.” Dawn extracted a wine cooler from the mini-bar, and then split it into two glasses for us. “I guess you can’t blame Kim, although I’m not sure I would ever do such a thing to my best friend.”

I nodded, but had no real idea what to say. ~It had taken years to build the unconditional belief I had in Kim — and only seconds to shatter it. No — there has to be another explanation.~

“As I understand it, from what little Curt has shared with me, Greg made an offer to Kim she couldn’t refuse. Apparently Kim was still mad at you for something you did two weeks ago, so when Greg offered her a huge raise and a big bonus, she jumped at it. Curt said Kim didn’t believe you could meet all the requirements of some test you were taking. She had lost faith in you and was afraid of the amount of debt your company had accumulated. That’s how Curt explained it. He said she would have gone crazy with her claustrophobia if she had to go to jail. . .which I didn’t understand. . .the jail part.”

I shook my head

“I suppose,” Dawn continued, “that Kim and Greg’s long-standing affair might have played a part in her decision. If you share a bed with a man for two years, you sooner or later will come around to doing his dirty work. That Greg!” She clicked her teeth.

~Affair!~ My mind refused to absorb the loss of Kim’s friendship. I convulsed into tears as my world caved in. I cried for what felt like an hour as Dawn made soothing noises. She called room service and cancelled the dinners I had ordered; and then had them send up a bottle of scotch and a bucket of ice. She held the glass to my lips and coaxed me into drinking a few sips -- and then gulps.

“You know, Honey -- your heart is like a rain cloud — you just needed to let go of a little water,” Dawn said. “You really don’t have it so bad. Curt said he’ll pay all your expenses for whatever physical changes you want to make with your body . . . so you can feel whole.”

“I’m married,” I said quietly. “I’m not really. . . .” I stopped myself. ~The room could be bugged.~ “That’s wonderful!”

“Listen, Honey, how many times has Marisa called to check on how you’re doing since you’ve been here?”

“I call her,” I offered feebly.

She closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. When she reopened them she peered into mine. “Curt loves you. I know he hasn’t shown it yet — in the bedroom, but that’s only because he has old-fashioned values. He said he won’t even kiss you unless you become engaged, and even then he said he wouldn’t allow himself to be alone with you in a hotel room. He thinks kissing might lead to sinful lust.”

~Be positive.~ “I suppose it could.”

“Curt took an awful risk for you. Greg was really upset when Curt threatened to go to the board, if Greg didn’t give you another chance. Greg was going to toss you out on the street, Curt said. I didn’t understand all that, but I suppose you do.”

~You damn right I do. I can just imagine how a control freak like Greg must have roared when Curt forced his hand.~

“Curt told me he needs to watch his step with Greg for a while, but at least you’re safe.” She smiled. “Don’t you just love him?”

I grinned as much as I could and raised my glass in a salute. ~Kim betrayed me. My mother’s mind is gone. Marisa will probably have a fit when I tell her how things are. I’ll wait a week. Things change; I might never have to tell her. Curt might be the closest thing I have to a true friend, no matter what his motives might be. Arrgh! He’s attracted to me!~

We ordered our meals again, put away the rest of the scotch, and made plans to move forward with shopping trips, nights out on the town, salon appointments, and a dozen other girly things.

***

The next three days went by without event. I arrived fifteen minutes early each day and put my best efforts into my new job. At first, I found myself making quite a few typing and filing errors. I wasn’t used to doing such detailed work, but I soon learned to take a little extra time to make sure everything I did was flawless.

All of my e-mail accounts had been cancelled and I was denied access to Celebration’s management files and databases. It had to have been Kim who did it. I could have sent e-mails to her because I remembered her address and few others, but I took the closure of my accounts as an omen that I should break with the past and make no attempt to keep communication lines open to old friends and business acquaintances. When my test was finally passed and I returned to running Celebration, I would pick up those balls.

I would “do my time” and concentrate on being ultra-positive. Greg could still screw me over in the end, but I couldn’t even allow myself to think about that possibility.

~Curt will look out for me. When I get Celebration back I’ll buy out Kim’s shares and dissolve our partnership.~

Each day the notes that arrived with the red roses caused me to wonder where our relationship was going. “You are. . .the woman beyond my dreams,” the first one said. The next day the message was even more romantic. “I think. . .our relationship is beautiful.” The note that arrived the next morning said, “You make me. . .a very happy man.” I didn’t know how to react, but they made me feel special, considering how gallant Curt had acted with Greg.

I hadn’t figured out how to explain things to Marisa. When I finally called, I told her that I was working on a special project with Imperative that required me to stay in Omaha. The last time I talked to her she said she was going to stay with her mother and work on her art for a few weeks; and I could call her when she got back. It bothered me not to be honest with her, so not having to talk to her for a while seemed appealing.

Marisa’s art had proved frustrating for me. She had enrolled in classes at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts over the past few years. She spent gobs of money to learn pottery, oil painting, weaving, rug hooking, glass jewelry design, watercolors, photography, carving, welding, and almost every other artistic endeavor imaginable, but never advanced beyond the basics, or displayed any imaginative bent.

Dawn came to the hotel every evening to help me keep my head together. She couldn’t have been any more supportive. She was extremely careful to present things to me in a way that made it easy for me to be positive. We had gone out to a coffee shop where she brought up the possibility of the hotel room being bugged, so we both were mindful of what I said.

Once I started to respect myself, the self-discipline I needed to be positive at all times became much easier to muster.

Every day Curt would take time out from his busy day to take me into the conference room for thirty minutes to an hour. He would tell me how things were going with Celebration. We would talk about how I would have handled the problems that came up, if I were still running the business. Often he would take notes, as if what I said was important, which felt nice, given the circumstances. It didn’t bother me that he probably tossed his notes away as soon as he went back in his office. The illusion of Curt thinking my ideas were important, made me think I still had value.

He had just told me that Joan Marigold had complained about Susan Lith. They both were heads of Celebration sales families and important to its success. Evidently Joan felt that Susan had been copying her techniques and using them to pirate potential sales consultants from her family.

~That’s easy.~ I thought. ~I’ll hold a parents’ meeting for all the family heads. I’ll have our accounting department show them sales figures based on continued overall success and remind them that part of their compensation is a bonus based on total company sales. I’ll have George call the family heads, and Terry can organize the meeting site, and. . . .~

The urge to cry overwhelmed me. I had forgotten for a moment that I was no longer running the company. I felt like an amputee who experiences ghost pains from where his lost limb had once been, but held my emotions in check well enough to calmly tell Curt what I would have done to solve the problem.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I imagine you have all the names and contacts in a database somewhere and can contact everyone quite easily.”

I shook my head. “I don’t have access to that data anymore. The passwords have all been changed.”

“You computer people. I’m glad I have people to run those things for me. I can’t even turn one on.”

I giggled for his benefit, not knowing if I should believe him.

“Of course,” he said. “Kim probably will handle her problem much differently. She’s really doing a good job. You would be proud of her.”

~Sure — I would be proud of her if she wasn’t a backstabbing. . . .~ I stopped myself from thinking about Kim because it only made me feel miserable; and there was nothing I could do to change what she had done.

Curt had important things to do, so he called an end to our discussion.

“I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know what’s happening with Celebration,” I said. ~Curt’s staring at me again. I wish I could be as comfortable with my body as Dawn is with hers.~

He waved off my gratitude. “No problem. I know how I would feel if I were in your place. Greg doesn’t like it when I tell you things, but I’ll keep you up-to-date, as much as possible.”

I smiled and reached to adjust his tie. For some reason he jumped back. Before I could ask what had scared him, Greg yelled for me to come into his office.

Standing before Greg’s desk I felt like a biology specimen. He examined me at least once a day — and then would say something like, “I guess you look okay.”

Greg seemed put out and talked while looking down at the work on his desk. His office appeared dominated by a Leroy Neiman original, a semi-abstract painting in brilliant reds, yellows, and blues of Rosenblatt Stadium during a College World Series. “I have a meeting in fifteen minutes with Asher Luse. Asher is the new president of Winchell Bank. His only talent is selecting the right parents. His father had the guts and genius to start a bank from scratch and build it into one of the premier banks in the state. Now he’s handed it to his son. I hate guys like that, who have no right to be running a business.”

~Is that why you took my business from me, because you think I’m unqualified to run it?~

He looked up at me. “Keep Asher busy when he gets here. I don’t want to spend too much time with him. I’ll finish up what I’m doing before I start our meeting.”

I turned to leave.

“Nice perfume,” he said to my back.

“Thank you,” I mumbled. ~I’ll never wear this scent again. Too bad, I really like it.~

Ten minutes later an attractive man who appeared to be about my age walked up to my work station and handed me his business card. “I’m Asher Luse from Winchell Bank. I have an appointment with Mr. Larcen.”

“Mr. Larcen’s expecting you.” I pushed an intercom button, which buzzed in Greg’s office, to let him know Mr. Luse had arrived. “It’ll be a moment. Would you like coffee, pop, or water?”

“No, thank you. . . .” He paused to look at the nameplate on my desk, “. . .Bethany Rue. Your mother must be a poet to have picked such a beautiful name.”

“Thank you.” Surprised by his compliment, I suppressed a giggle.

He picked up the ~Wall Street Journal~ from the coffee table. “I’ll just have a chair until he’s free.” His smile revealed a perfect set of dazzling white teeth.

As the minutes passed I felt an obligation to engage him in conversation. “I noticed your Celtics’ lapel pin. Are you a fan of the NBA?”

His face brightened. “I’m a Celtics’ fan, but I’m sorry to say, most NBA games bore me to death.”

“I know,” I commiserated. “They need to do something about the guaranteed contracts. I don’t place wagers on sports, but if I did, I would bet on the NBA team that has the most players in the last year of their contract. That’s the only time some of them play their best ball.”

He stood and walked to stand by my desk. “I’m more of a college fan. Who do you follow: the Jays or the Mavericks?”

I knew enough about the Omaha sports scene to know he was referring to two local college teams. “I’m a Gophers’ fan. My home is in Minneapolis. I’m only living here temporarily.” ~For some odd reason he makes me wish I was more attractive.~

“While you’re here you should sample the local sports. The Bank has tickets to just about every game in the area. I’d love to show you our teams.”

I blushed and ducked my head. “I really don’t have much time for basketball. Work keeps me awful busy.”

“What a pity,” he chuckled. “Bethany, you need to remember we work to live; we don’t live to work.”

His words resonated in my head.

Before I could respond, Greg came out of his office. He grinned maliciously. “Asher, it’s good to see you. I see you and Erik have been getting along okay without me.”

~Erik! My God!~

“Erica?” Asher stared at me in confusion. “If your name is Erica, why does your nameplate say Bethany?”

“Not Erica,” Greg said with a chuckle. “Erik is one those sex-change people. He’s going through what they call a ‘real life test.’ ”

~What can Kim possibly see in Greg?~

Asher nodded thoughtfully “Really? That’s very interesting. Wait a minute — Erik. . .Rue. . . from Minneapolis. Are you the Erik Rue who created Celebration?”

I nodded.

“Why are you sitting at the receptionist desk?” Asher asked.

“Come into my office,” Greg said, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“I’m sure Bethany can tell her own story.” Asher glared at Greg, and then turned toward me. “I would sure like to continue our conversation, but I only set aside ten minutes for my visit with Greg; and I really have to run. Nice meeting you. Greg, I’ll have to see you another time.”

He left without shaking Greg’s hand.

I wanted to choke Greg, or at least to chastise him, but I remained outwardly calm and most of all. . .positive.

***

The next few days went by without event. Greg had made his point by outing me to Asher. He could do it again at any time, so he had all the power. I felt jailed, although there were no bars.

~Mom always said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It’s possible this whole “test” ordeal is meant to satisfy an unpaid debt for the joys of my cross-dressing youth.~

That thought quickly evaporated when a registered packet arrived for me. It contained a letter from Marisa’s attorney . . . and divorce papers.

According to the letter someone had given her a copy of the videos I had made to help me with my transformation. The attorney said that the nature of the videos made any contesting of the divorce impossible, especially the one of me pantomiming a homosexual relationship.

She wanted everything she could take, which excluded only my retirement account. Her attorney included a snide remark about my “suspect” ability to find future gainful employment, so she wasn’t asking for alimony.

~Had she ever really loved me? All I have left is my job with Imperative and in four more months that will end.~

Curt found me sitting at my desk with tears running down my face. He arranged for a taxi to take me back to my hotel and made sure Dawn would meet me there. He said she would be with me until I felt “better.”

At first it seemed like he might be pushing me out of the office to save embarrassment for Greg and him, but I quickly realized he really cared about me.

Dawn had talked me into adding two full-length, floor mirrors to the furniture in my hotel suite. The idea was to learn the habit of primping every time I saw my reflection. In my current state of mind the mirrors made the room seem like an outrageous funhouse. I would have smashed them had not Dawn knocked on my door at that moment.

“You poor thing,” she said, and then, after setting down what appeared to be a heavy grocery bag she took me into her arms.

I sobbed into her shoulder for about fifteen minutes with her making no attempt to break away. She simply chirped soothing noises and allowed me to vent.

“I brought the fixings for daiquiris,” she finally said. Her bag contained several bottles, and a blender. She ordered ice from room service.

After we drank and she walked me through my feelings about being deserted by my wife, she smiled. “Let’s talk about something much nicer. You once mentioned making your physical appearance more real.”

I steeled myself to be positive, but to also be sure I didn’t allow her to talk me into anything permanent or dangerous.

“You need several minor surgeries,” she said. “You probably haven’t done the research, but there are several smaller operations that lead up to your orchidectomy.”

I involuntarily pressed my legs together. Just the mention of surgery to cut off my manhood caused me to shudder.

“For example,” Dawn said, apparently not noticing my reluctance and distress, “most of my transsexual friends have had some work done on their cheekbones. High cheek bones and a sculptured mid-face are elements of beauty in both men and women.”

I took a sip of my daiquiri. “I agree.”

“You’re lucky; you have a prominent cheekbone.” She drew a line on my face with her forefinger. “You have a perfect, graceful line down to a sweetly-shaped apple chin — one that is almost pointed and narrow. Your chin doesn’t protrude — like Jay Leno’s. That kind of protrusion is normally a bad thing on a female face. Your facial curves work equally well for a man or woman.”

“What are you suggesting?” I asked in confusion.

“There’s no need for you to have a ‘buccal lipectomy’ or any of the other related surgeries my friends have endured.” She smiled. “I won’t suggest anything that is permanent or unnecessary. Like — you certainly don’t have to have a tracheal shave, because your Adam’s apple isn’t at all noticeable. What we have to concentrate on -- are those features that detract from a feminine, attractive face.”

My shoulders sagged in relief. ~Dawn is the one person besides Curt that I can, for sure, count on.~

She studied my forehead closely. “You have some extra of what they call ‘frontal bossing.’ When there’s too much bony overgrowth, it can be filed down during a browlift. In unusual circumstances when the ridge is because of a big frontal sinus, more surgery may be necessary, but I’m sure yours would require very little change.”

“Is that kind of surgery reversible?”

She nodded. “Oh sure, they do that all the time in female to male transitions.”

Her fingers ran along my forehead again. “You’ll need a browlift procedure which is done with a snip behind the hairline. Excess bone will be shaped and the hairline raised.”

~That sounds drastic, but I don’t dare show a lack of enthusiasm.~ “Why do people have that done?”

“Some people, male or female, look better with higher hairlines,” she said. “Even though hairlines are mostly lower on females than on males, lowering the hairline is usually part of the deal for transgendered males. Although lower hairlines are more typically feminine, this doesn’t necessarily mean that lower is better. Your face, however, calls for a lower hairline. Don’t worry, plastic surgeons raise and lower hairlines as often as you and I would a window shade.”

~I never would’ve thought plastic surgery was that easy.~

“There’s another area of your face that doesn’t need any change at all -- and that’s your mandible.”

My hand found my jawbone.

“Your mandible is quite masculine,” she said.

“I thought you said it didn’t have to be changed.”

She giggled as she poured me more liquid. “A masculine jaw doesn’t always detract from a feminine face. Your mandible is exactly like Gwenyth Paltrow’s.”

“She’s beautiful,” I said with real admiration.

“And so are you, Honey. The thing is, if you can’t be sure about yourself you can never really be sure about anyone. You’re the one who is in the best spot to decide what you want done.”

I nodded. “What about my nose?”

“To rhinoplasty -- or -- not to rhinoplasty -- that is the question.” Once again she spent several minutes looking at me before continuing. “You have a very attractive nose; and most attractive noses work well on either men or women. Gender has little to do with it.”

“But, shouldn’t it be smaller?”

She sighed. “I have a friend who made that very mistake.”

I shuddered again, expecting the worse.

“She had her lovely nose made smaller without realizing that small noses draw attention to themselves on tall woman.”

“I’m short,” I protested to no one.

“You’re short for a man, but slightly tall for a woman. Here, have another daiquiri.” She refilled my glass.

I took a sip. I had already consumed too much alcohol, but didn’t want to be a party-pooper. I hiccupped.

Dawn grinned. “The nose should be in quiet harmony with the face and not make a gender statement. The key to transgender plastic surgery is making things look natural and authentic.”

“You mean like what you said about making my breast more realistic?”

“We-all,” she spoke like ~The Princess Bride~ minister. “Finding the best way to be wee--alll is what it’s all about.”

She raised her glass toward me in a toast.

I clinked my glass with hers, and then sipped some more.

“Fixing your breasts might be the easiest and safest thing of them all.”

I nodded so hard I almost fell forward.

Dawn giggled again and took my glass from me. “Someone’s had enough.”

I smiled deeply. ~Dawn is my true friend.~

“We have doctors in Omaha who are out in front of the curve on transitional adjustments,” she said. “They can do wonderful things; things that are natural because they’ll use your own body to define what happens.”

“Sounds great.” The room had become her face -- which had taken on an annoying habit of going in and out of focus.

“You know, I wanted to be a nurse,” Dawn said with some regret, “but I dropped out of college after a quarter. It all seemed so unimportant once I started to concentrate on my transitioning.”

“You can still become a nurse. Hey, I want to be a nurse, too. Let’s go to nurse school.”

“Maybe, but I think I help people more doing what I can to work with their gender dysphoria.” She bit her lip, and then continued. “Like the surgery you should have done. The doctors harvest a bit of bone marrow from your own hip. They use that bone marrow to get your stem cells. They excite those stem cells and inject them in the parts of your body that need feminization.”

“Like here and here,” I said, slapping my chest and hips.

She grinned while she nodded. “Your breasts and butt will read your DNA and grow like they should have had your body been born properly female. Soon you will have the hips and breasts you always wanted.”

“Just what I always wanted,” I said eagerly, as she led me toward my bedroom.

“And nothing more,” she cautioned, reaching for precise words, which was her habit, almost like she had carefully rehearsed her lines before coming to my room. “And, it’s all reversible with other injections of drugs. Two of my friends changed their minds after having the procedure done; and they were completely satisfied.”

~Reversing drug?~ “How does that reversing work?”

“I’m not sure about the specifics, but Carla Ann had two of the biggest. . . . Carla Ann was amply endowed. She decided her change was ruining her marriage, so she took the drug and one week later was flat-chested. The same thing happened when Cynthia got cold feet, except with Cynthia the reversing took about three weeks and she had to have some minor surgery to tighten the skin on her chest.”

~With all the detail Dawn gives, it must be true.~

She helped me into bed. “We’ll talk about it again tomorrow. If you give the go-ahead, I’ll talk to Curt and make certain Imperative will pay for everything.”

Even though I mourned what I had lost, I felt delighted by what I had left in my life. Still, at that moment I wished I was a child, because mending a toy with a hot glue gun was much easier than fixing a broken spirit.

~I know everything points toward Kim having betrayed me, but I still don’t believe it. If only I could think of a reasonable alternative for what happened.~

***

Dawn assured me again and again that everything could easily be reversed.

I had to be careful. If I appeared to scrutinize her suggestions too much Greg could say I wasn’t positive. I wanted to ask for documentation, but didn’t dare. ~I’m only going to be in this spot for six months. My body won’t even began to show growth in that time, so where’s the harm?~

I checked into the hospital at eight in the morning. A team of two nurses and one doctor scraped bone marrow from my hip. They had given me a local anesthetic to numb the area. I had been warned that some people experienced intense pain, while others felt practically nothing.

One nurse held my hand during the entire procedure, but that actually wasn’t necessary as I was one of the lucky ones who only felt an occasional dull pain.

Eight hours later they injected my stem cells into my chest and pelvis area.

A week later I felt itchiness where Dawn said I would. Two weeks after that my nipples were already much larger, the colored area around them had expanded quite a bit, and my hips broadened. After only a month, I no longer need padding to make my clothes fit properly.

Several times during that time Dawn invited me to have lunch or an evening out with her friends. In addition to IKEA furniture, which seemed to shout about her short-term planning, her house was filled with glass cats, ceramic cats, plush-toy cats, and paintings of cats.

“I would kill to have a real cat,” she sighed. “If I get within a hundred yards of a sweet little kitty my eyes water, my nose itches, I break out in a rash, and start coughing."

~It would mean everything to me if Curt would take me to see his friends or relatives.~ I could tell that Dawn loved me, which is the greatest compliment next to being trusted.

***

“The thing is,” Curt said as he wrapped up our daily discussion of events at Celebration, “you probably believed Kim too much.”

~If we don’t trust people can we ever find joy or love?~ I sighed, which was about as negative as I ever allowed myself to get. “Someone once said that we should get to know people and bank on them to be who they are — instead we depend on them to be who we want them to be — and when they’re not, we cry.”

He looked at me quizzically. “Do you have faith in me?”

I nodded. Curt had shown me a side of him that I hadn’t known existed a few months before. The day of my procedure flowers from him had arrived at my hospital room. The card from Piccolo’s had said, “I am. . .in love with you.” I had been startled, but over the next few weeks became more comfortable with the idea.

My divorce had been quickly finalized. Her attorneys found out I no longer owned Celebration and their dreams of a huge pot of contingent fees gold dissolved, causing them to rush things along. Marisa and I didn’t even meet to sign the papers. It had all been done through our attorneys. I was able to keep one car, my retirement accounts, and a few thousand dollars in cash. She got everything else. Had I still owned Celebration, she would have gotten that, but -- of course, I didn’t.

At first I had wanted to fight the divorce, but then I realized our marriage hadn’t been all that wonderful almost from the very beginning. She had satisfied my need to show everyone I could support a woman like her. I had given her status and a lavish lifestyle. ~We both can do much better.~

Curt continued to send flowers from Piccolo’s. The cards became more and more romantic, saying: “I love you. . .I love us.” and “You are completely beautiful both inside and out.” and finally “I long. . .to hold you.”

We went out to dinner quite often, but he never asserted himself physically for so much as a goodnight kiss. He continued to be sweet about telling me things about Celebration and faking like he was interested in what I would have done if I was running it instead of Kim.

One evening we were dining out when he remarked about how “graceful” our waitress moved. The next day I looked into enrolling in ballet classes. About a week later I asked him what he thought about the look of a woman sitting near us in a restaurant who appeared to be anorexic. When he said she had “a classical beauty” I renewed my resolve to take off another five pounds.

It was Curt who accidentally dropped the bomb that Marisa had started a relationship with Greg. I held it together until I got back to the hotel, for more daiquiri therapy with Dawn. She helped me understand that it all had been inevitable. The next time I saw Greg I had a moment of intense anger, which I managed to hide. . .and then proceeded forward as if nothing had happened. ~First Kim, and now both of them at once.~

Several times Curt gave me a ride home from work. On those occasions he never came in, simply dropping me off at the front door of my hotel. Once, when I was about to leave his car I just had to do something, so I reached back and squeezed his thigh. I would have loved to have gotten more physical with him, but respected his desires to wait.

I knew Curt was truly comfortable with me when he finally took me to the symphony. Although we didn’t meet any of his friends, he seemed okay being there with me. Once we were alone in his private box he took my hand.

I immediately flashed back to my teenage years. ~He’s going to turn out to be just like Taylor. In no time at all he’ll push my hand toward his penis!~ Instead Curt simply gave my hand a gentle squeeze before returning it to my lap. ~Curt isn’t an immature and opportunistic child like Taylor had been. He’s . . . fabulous.~

That night, after another platonic date, I went to sleep actually aching with desire. My dreams were anything but nonphysical. In them, I ravaged Curt with the aggression of a caged animal. I woke understanding that I had turned a corner.

The next week he went out of town on business. Before he left I stuck a note in his attaché. Its content matched the spirit of the purple notes I had been receiving with my flowers. I sprayed the card with my perfume, Romance by Ralph Lauren, which gave the impression of velvety woods, exhilarating florals, and seductive musk. He never mentioned it, but I’m sure it gave him pleasure to think of me when he found it.

I couldn’t deny that I was falling in love with Curt. He obviously had fallen for me; and I could do much worse.

He was still my boss. One day he called me into his office. “Bethany, you’re doing great work.”

“Thank you.” My face felt warm. His compliment meant a great deal to me.

“I’ve been put under a great deal of pressure by Greg,” he said. “He wants us to know a lot more about our competitors. I want you to travel to the towns where Imperative’s competitors are located. Without letting them know what you’re doing, I want you to find out everything you can about them, and then report back to me. I want to know their strengths and weaknesses. Can you do that?”

From that day forward I spent most of my working days on the road. It meant I saw Curt less often, but other than that it was no hardship. Besides Dawn, and my mother, who didn’t know me when I called her in Minneapolis, there was really no one I cared to see. My new responsibilities kept me from constantly running into Greg, which was a splendid bonus. I still feared his ability to out me whenever he decided it would be fun.

***

That following Monday I found myself three states away, sitting in a car outside the home office building of Meyer & Meyer, one of Imperative’s chief competitors. Curt’s orders to me were to, “Look for their soft underbelly.”

My plan was. . .non-existent. I seemed unprepared for undercover work. I laughed at the irony in me thinking I couldn’t pass myself off as something I’m not. I had done just exactly that for most of my life. . .posing as a male.

I felt almost as lost as I had when I went on my first job interview right out of college, before starting Celebration. I had solved my predicament at that time by going to the site of the interview an hour early and walking around the company’s campus to get a feel for its culture. I decided to take a similar approach with my sleuthing.

First I found the Meyer & Meyer HR department and applied for a secretarial position. ~Who knows, if things go wrong at Imperative I might need a fallback.~ Of course, all the personal information, including the name I put on the application, was false. Using the Hollywood technique of combining the name of my pet with the street I grew up on, I called myself Kitty Decatur. My other cats had been name Puss and Fluffy, so I had no choice.

My interview and my stroll around the company weren’t as informational as I had hoped, so I checked out the bulletin boards in several of the buildings and found the location of company flag football games and the centers where the women’s leagues bowled.

Posing again as someone trying to decide if I wanted to work at Meyer & Meyer I went to a football game that evening and struck up conversations with several Meyer & Meyer employees. I didn’t learn any company secrets, and didn’t really want to, but I did hear a lot about what the employees would do if they ran the zoo. Gerald McGrew’s infamous imagination, which gave the world the word “nerd” -- had nothing on the novel ideas I heard from those football players.

Several of them hated the way their company thought all women loved pastels. Plainly put, not all women love cool colors like purple, green, and blue. Some actually favor orange, brown, and gray -- warm and neutral colors.

They told me more about their competitors than they did about their own companies, which was very helpful. Almost all of them told me that Imperative would be a big nothing without Celebration, and how much the industry envied Imperative for having that relationship.

Later, I went to a brew pub with the bowling team and kept up my ruse.

“I think women have to be the family historian,” a just-out-of-college said from behind a mass of vivid red curls that hid half of her face.

I had been listening much more than talking, but had to ask a question. “Where do you go to learn how to do that?”

A blonde with a face that promised more fun than anyone could possibly handle giggled. “Moms could go to Who Knew? U.”

We all laughed.

A woman whose shirt proclaimed her to be “Denise” became serious. “We’re all fully-trained by the time we’re six. We’ve played with enough Barbies, and served enough air-tea to know our roles in life.”

“By age six?” the red-head challenged her. “Do you really think so?”

“For sure,” Denise answered. “If your mom hasn’t given you the secrets of raising a rugrat by then, you’ll never learn.”

I shuddered.

“I can take one look at each of you,” she continued, “and tell you exactly what kind of childhood you had.”

She went around the table and was apparently quite accurate from each person’s reaction. One woman had been a tomboy, another a girly-girl, and another had been a Brownie Girl Scout. Then she came to me. “You, Miss I’m-Looking-for-the-Perfect-Place-to-Work, you obviously were a Pretty, Pretty Princess. Your daddy couldn’t wait to come home every day with a present just to hear you squeal with delight. You had him wrapped around your pinky.”

I nodded and laughed, wondering if the others had been similarly misdiagnosed.

~Their friendship reminded me of what Kim and I had enjoyed. I still couldn’t accept her deceit as fact.~

***

Eleanor Roosevelt is often quoted as having said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I decided that Greg’s power over me was immense enough without my fearing he would expose me to my co-workers.

Four other administrative assistants and I had become quite close. They were the ones whose opinions of me I cared about the most. Jeri worked in accounting. She mainly wore pastels and loved Coach scarves. Tanya lifted weights and had muscular shoulders and forearms, although she was dainty in all other ways. Heather had only been out of college for only a few years and became wide-eyed with the slightest provocation, which Amy loved to provide.

Amy’s wardrobe pressured the boundaries of propriety, but in such a way that the casual observer would never notice. She had one skirt made from yards of fabric, and split so that she could open it all the way to her waist, which, of course, she never did. I had become addicted to hoop earrings, but never dared to wear any as large as hers.

All four would defend the head of her division to the hilt with fierce determination. On the other hand, they wished their boss would listen more carefully to their ideas. They all thought Imperative would be a much better company if Greg and Curt paid more attention to the division heads’ ideas.

I spent most Fridays in the office working on what would eventually be my report to Curt about our competitors. Lunch with my friends had become a TGIF ritual.

“That’s a lovely blouse, Amy,” Heather said. We had just ordered and were enjoying our iced tea. Everyone had specified decaf, low-cal.

“Thank you.” Amy smirked, tipping off what was about to happen. “It’s made with Velcro at the seams instead of stitching so I can rip it right off my body. . .if I have to.”

While Heather turned eight shades of red, we all laughed.

“Girls,” I said, sensing the time had come to confide in them, “I have something I’d like you to know.”

“Are your panties made with Velcro?” Amy asked, batting her eyes suggestively.

“No,” I answered while giggling. “This is a bit more serious.”

The waitress brought our salads, which for most of us, was our complete meal. Tanya was the only one who lunched on real food.

After everyone passed the dressing and had a few mouthfuls, I continued my admission. “There’s something about me you all need to know.” I swallowed, trying to find enough courage.

“Did Curt finally propose to you?” Tanya asked.

I could feel all four of them staring, but was unable to meet their gaze. “Uh. . .we’re just friends.”

Tanya grimaced. “My worthless husband sends me roses once a year on Valentine’s Day and I have to pout to get them.”

“I’ve seen how Curt looks at you,” Heather said to me. “That’s more than idle curiosity in his eyes.”

“No, really,” I said adamantly, “our relationship is strictly platonic.”

“No such thing,” Amy said with a snort. “Life for men is all about inserting Tab A into Slot B.”

“I’m not a slot,” Jeri protested.

Amy snorted again. “Careful, or you’ll sound like Nixon.” She launched into a Richard Nixon imitation. “ ‘People have got to know whether or not their President is a slut. Well, I'm not a slut.’ ”

“I said ‘slot’,” Jeri said quietly.

“Uh huh,” Amy laughed, and then moved on. “Curt’s nicer than Greg. With Greg it seems to be one excessive demand after another. He loves to be ~the man~.”

They all murmured their agreement.

“He makes up rules just to show everyone who has the power,” Jeri said. “A prime example was that memo about everyone making sure their cars were washed, if they parked in the company lot.”

Everyone laughed.

I cleared my throat sensing a chance to bring up my secret. “I’ve waited too long to tell you guys this. . .but I was born a guy.”

“Yep,” Heather said, “and I was born a poor black child, just like Steve Martin.” Her alabaster skin looked like it had never absorbed a single UV ray.

“No . . . really,” I said.

“Honey,” Amy said, “your blouse shows me enough of your chest so I know it’s real.”

“Surgery,” I explained.

One by one their eyes registered their acceptance of my admission.

“I sort of knew,” Jeri said. “I heard a rumor that started at the Celebration office in Minneapolis, but I never. . . .”

“Does Curt know?” Heather asked.

I nodded.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Amy said. “I’ve seen some of his notes with the flowers.”

I could feel my face becoming flushed. “He knows,” I said stubbornly.

Amy shook her curly head. “But he’s such a homophobe.”

“No -- he’s not,” I said a little too vehemently. Amy had always been nice; and I had no right to refute what she said, but. . . .

“He is, Bethany,” Jeri said, agreeing with Amy. “He once had Human Resources find a way to fire one of the best workers in our division because he heard that employee had taken part in a gay rights parade.”

It was my turn to shake my head.

“I’m sorry, Bethany,” Heather said. “When I came to work here I was warned by several people to keep quiet around Curt about Annie, my significant other.”

My eyes teared, but I didn’t allow my emotions to get the best of me. ~They’ve got it wrong. With everything Dawn’s told me about the great things Curt has done, they’re all badly mistaken. The only way I’ve made it through all this is by having Curt by my side.~

“I’m living proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” I said. ~If anyone is to be blamed for my situation, it’s me.~

No more was said about Curt, as they asked sweet questions about my transition. Each of them made sure to hug me several times before we went back to work, where -- at my suggestion -- they spread the word about me to those who needed to know.

***

Curt and I had two lovely dinners the week after my luncheon with the girls. I watched what he said -- looking for anything that seemed remotely homophobic, but it just wasn’t there. He seemed almost painfully without bias.

After four weeks of traveling I filed my report with Curt, but received no feedback. I assumed I hadn’t uncovered anything he could use.

***

For some reason my breasts seeped. I checked on-line and found that such a condition might be a symptom of cancer, so I made an appointment with the doctor who had coordinated my breast/stem cell procedure with the plastic surgeon and the other doctors.

Every other time I had gone to see her, Dawn had gone with, but this seemed too personal to involve her.

I sat in the small examination room the last week of September waiting for her verdict. As I looked at the doctor I felt relief at her being a woman. Dawn had accurately said, “A male gynecologist is like an auto mechanic who has never owned a car.”

After checking my X-rays she turned to me. Her hands expressed profound concern for my well-being. “I saw no signs on your pictures of anything to worry about.”

I sighed. “Thank you. That would have been ironic.”

“I see–but both men and women contract breast cancer; you were right to come in.” She stood to leave. “Is there anything else bothering you?”

I sighed. “Actually, there is.”

She took a chair and waited.

“My body has developed to the point where I’m quite pleased with it.”

She smiled. “We don’t have a money-back guarantee, but I’m always glad when our customers are pleased.”

I laughed. “I’m pleased, but I don’t want to be overjoyed. If I start getting too big, either through my hips or on top, do I come to you for the reversing drug?”

She scowled. “First of all, from what I can tell from the way your body has reacted so far, I don’t think you need to worry. What you’ve grown in the way of a figure is pretty much all that’s going to happen. The second thing is this . . . I have no idea what you mean about a ‘reversing drug.’ We don’t have any drug that’s going to change you back. Where did you get such an idea?”

I shook my head. “It’s just something I’d heard about. Now that you’ve assured me there isn’t going to be a problem with over-development, whether or not a reversing drug exists doesn’t really matter.”

She knitted her brow. “No, I suppose not.”

Dawn had been misinformed, or had intentionally misled me. ~If she has intentionally misled me -- why? Probably because she wants me to feel as good about my body as she does about hers.~

***

A week later, Curt and I were having our daily discussion about Celebration when Greg walked in.

I always sensed intense disapproval during his inspections. I could never really pinpoint what it was I did wrong. ~I hope I’m doing so good in my test that Greg has to give Celebration back, which displeases him.~

“Have you told him yet?” he asked Curt.

Curt looked baffled. “Him?”

“Have you told Erik what he needs to do?” Greg asked, clearly irritated.

Curt turned red. He might have been angry at Greg for calling me a “him,” but seemed more embarrassed by what he had to tell me.

“I was going to get to it this morning,” Curt said. His tone sounded rather different, almost as if he hadn’t told the truth.

I waited patiently with my smile set on my face.

“As long as we’re all here, I’ll break the news.” Greg turned toward me. “We’re under pressure from our board to increase the profits from Celebration. I’ve decided to start charging the sales consultants a monthly advertising fee. They will pay $25 each per month to us for the national advertising we do on their behalf.”

~And so it starts.~ I continued to keep my face placid despite my rising anger.

Curt smiled at me. “It’s a small step that will generate nearly $14 million in revenue for Celebration. We will create a $1 million ad campaign to run on the Women’s Entertainment Network, which will allow nearly $13 million to fall to Celebration’s bottom line.”

I nodded, feeling queasy.

Greg laughed raucously. “We realize some of the sales consultants will quit, but they’ll be the deadbeats who are costing us money.”

“That’s right,” Curt said, matching Greg’s fervor. “We need you to write a letter to the sales consultants telling them this new fee will be advantageous for them. We’re thinking about announcing the fee two months after the Celebration national convention, which will occur the first week of November. That will time the announcement to come out after the holidays.”

~The Convention! It will be held in less than three weeks. Usually the time leading up to the convention is my busiest part of the year.~

“We know charging fees is going against the grain for you,” Curt said, “which is why we’re telling you so far in advance to give you time to get comfortable with the idea. For the moment we want you to just think about how you can best sell the concept to the sales consultants.”

~There’s no way I can, or will, sell them an idea I don’t believe in.~

“Also,” Greg said, obviously enjoying himself, “we want you to speak at the national convention. You can pick the topic, but your presence there will tell the world you’re okay with the current structure.”

~Who says I am?~

“Of course,” he continued, “according to the agreement governing your test, we expect your remarks to be totally positive.”

“Of course,” I said, making sure not to sound petulant.

Greg dismissed me and Curt nodded his agreement. Evidently our discussion of Celebration had ended, which was okay by me, because I had too much to think about as it was.

Later that day, I went into Curt’s office and found him working at his monitor.

“Curt,” I asked, “do you have a minute?”

He looked up with a scowl, which he quickly adjusted to a smile. Flowers from him had continued to arrive on a daily basis with cards containing messages that left me stunned. He vowed loved nearly every day. “What is it?”

“I need a few days off,” I said. “So many things have been happening. I need some time just to sit and think.”

“Are you unhappy?” he asked, with what appeared to be genuine apprehension.

“Oh no,” I said, with what I hoped passed for enthusiasm. In truth, there was much about my situation that I loved. Each day I could feel myself becoming more female; which felt marvelous. “It’s just -- I usually take two months to work on my speech for the convention. It’s really important to me. But, I really need some time to think about. . .us.”

“Us?”

I smiled as broadly as I could. “I know how you feel from what you say in your cards, even though you never tell me face-to-face.”

He blushed and looked away.

“I’m pretty sure I feel the same way,” I rushed to say before I lost my nerve, “but I need to get away from. . .everything, to sort through things — so I’m sure.”

“Of course,” he said audibly choking. “I think a vacation can be arranged. Why don’t you start on leave tomorrow and come back after the convention?”

I agreed. Although I felt secure in my relationship with Curt, I needed time to think about what I would do about Celebration. I could never take an active part in an unjust action against the sales consultants, no matter how I felt about Curt.

I had to consider leaving, but I knew I could be sued for a breach of fiduciary responsibility if I worked on creating a competitor company on Imperative time.

I had two big problems. The first was finding a way to continue Mom’s care once I quit Imperative. The second was securing start-up financing for the company I intended to build. I assumed no bank would lend me the kind of money I would need on a signature note without a co-signer.

My heart told me I could convince Curt to quit Imperative and go with me. He probably could help with the financing and certainly would provide additional star power to attract creditors.

In yoga, some of the poses are called inversions. In those positions you bring the heart above the head. The purpose of doing inversions is to refresh the brain with new blood. If I decided to rely on Curt explicitly I needed to elevate my heart over my head.

If I was wrong about Curt, or disclosed to him more than I should of my thoughts, Greg would certainly have Imperative’s attorneys seek injunctive relief from the courts to prevent me from starting my competitive company.

***

Before I left for the day Greg called me into his office. “I need you to send a floral bouquet to Ann Schuster in the Binding Department. She’s leaving today after twenty-three years with the company. I hear she’s filled with cancer and won’t last long. Too bad, she’s got a sweet little body.”

I fought to keep my disgust for Greg off my face.

“The card should say,” he continued, “ ‘You’ve been a model employee. Imperative will miss you.’ ”

I turned and went back to my work station where the air would be less foul. I had ordered flowers dozens of times for Greg and Curt. The corporation always used Garden Flowers, so I called them, expecting to talk to Carrie, who handled our account. Instead I got a phone message stating they were closed because everyone on their staff had contracted flu. ~It’s going around.~

I checked with Yahoo and found the number for Piccolo’s, the florist Curt always used to send me flowers. “Hello,” I said. “I’m calling for Mr. Larcen at Imperative, Inc. I need a floral bouquet sent to our office this afternoon. Is that possible?”

“Sure,” the female voice on the other end said, “let me get Jean on the phone. She handles all the flowers for Imperative.”

“Hi,” another voice said, “this is Jean. Are these flowers being sent by Curt?”

I almost identified myself as the person Curt sent his flowers to . . . so I could tell her how lovely they were, but I felt that would be unprofessional. “No, these flowers are to be sent with a card from Mr. Greg Larcen, our CEO.”

“Okay,” she said. “Does Mr. Larcen want me to compose the card for him? Curt almost always has me write the card. I get most of the messages out of a book I have here, but some I write myself. He enjoys it when I let my imagination run wild. He says sending the roses is some sort of a joke. Pretty expensive joke, if you ask me.”

~What?~ “Uhmmm, no that’s okay,” I managed to say. “I’m sorry. Someone just came into my office I have to deal with. I’ll call you back later.” I hung up.

For the next ten minutes I stared at nothing, glad I had already arranged time off. I then found another Omaha florist and ordered the flowers for Ann.

***

The very first year Celebration held a national convention I developed the habit of holding court in the main lobby of the hotel, so I could greet the sales consultants as they checked in. I wasn’t going to wait until I walked on stage to gauge their response to my transition. By then it would be too late, if I had a revolt on my hands.

Each one reacted to meeting the new me a little differently, but the majority opinion seemed to be “wait and see.”

~People don’t like change. When they see change it challenges them to realize their current situation is transient. That’s upsetting because they fear the unknown.~ I could tell by the standoffish way they acted toward me that they wanted to judge whether or not the inside of me had changed along with my exterior.

Later in the day, I sat behind a long table on a raised platform at the front of the huge meeting hall in the San Diego Marriott waiting for Kim to introduce me. We had met outside the room and briefly hugged. The words exchanged might as well have been in Romanian, because it appeared neither of us had anything to say.

While I waited I looked at my wrist at the bracelet Kim had given me. I had brought it with because it was the only piece of jewelry I owned with the Celebration logo on it. For a second I regretted wearing it, because it symbolized a friendship that had been bartered away for personal advancement.

I saw dozens of people in the audience who had played important roles in the salad days of Celebration. A small convention booklet in my purse listed the names and Celebration I.D. number for each attendee. Darleen in the second row was number 227HI. The twenty-two at the start indicated her tax residence was in Minnesota. The seven meant she was in the seventh family, which is Connie’s. The HI meant she had been ninth sales consultant -- I -- recruited by the eighth sales consultant -- H -- to join directly under Connie.

Each person could have twenty-six sales consultants that they directly recruited. After they filled out their direct family all future sales consultants they brought on board had to be slotted by them under someone else in their family. When I was still running Celebration the longest identification number had included nine letters, indicating the number of generations of sales consultants within that family. Of course, everyone shared in the commissions generated by the sales in their downstream family.

I opened my remarks with some toss off remarks about the state of the crafting industry. No matter how many times they were told their mission was to help people make heirlooms that would be treasured forever, they never seemed to tire of it.

I shifted into a discussion of the bell-shaped curves that seem to govern every aspect of human behavior. “Half of the people will be on that side of the curve that would be labeled dishonest . . . the other half will be on the side labeled honest. Experts seem to agree that twenty-five percent of the people in the world will steal anything at any time — and another twenty-five percent will steal if they think their chances of getting away with it are good. Remember those percentages when you’re applying selectivity to the process of adding sales consultants to your families. Honesty is paramount to your family’s success and your success.

“Remember that twenty percent of those in any endeavor will create eighty percent of the desired outcome. Twenty percent of you create eighty percent of Celebration’s total sales. Ten percent of you create fifty percent of the sales. Be selective. Look for honesty first and productivity will follow.

“Our society is rooted in the Golden Rule. We seek to treat others as we want to be treated. This is known by some as the Ethics of Reciprocity. Buddhism holds as a primary principle that we must put one’s self in the place of the other. The Dalai Lama says, ‘If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.’

“The Bible states in Matthew 7:12 ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’ And, in Luke we are told to ‘Love our Enemies’ and ‘Just as you want others to do to you, do the same for them.’

“Confucius said, ‘Do not impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.’

“The Islam religion states, ‘Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.’

“Judaism tells us ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation, go and learn.’

“Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t an ordained minister and didn’t represent any organized religion, but she told us ‘Do what you feel in your heart to be right — you’ll be criticized either way.’ And she was right.’

Smiles and small laughter rippled through the audience.

“Let’s apply how we should treat each other to our work within Celebration. Years ago Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s summed his company’s culture in four letters QSVC. For years that corporation prospered by respecting Quality, Service, Value, and Cleanliness. There were many things about Ray Kroc that I don’t admire, but I wholeheartedly embrace QSVC, probably more than they do within the McDonald’s culture today.

“Isn’t the whole idea of service and value about the Ethics of Reciprocity?”

I could tell by their faces that the Celebration sales consultants agreed with me.

“I would like to adopt QSVC, but let’s change it to have a special meaning for Celebration. Let the Q tell us that we need to avoid the Quick sale. Rather we want to nurture our relationships so they last a lifetime, if at all possible.

“The S is to remind us that a Smile will help everything we do.

“The Celebration V should stand for the Value each of you adds to each sale. That Value is very important. You have complete control over how much personal attention you bring to each transaction. Make each sale special and it won’t be the last one in that relationship.

“And finally the C. The C is the big enchilada. It is the ingredient that makes or breaks every relationship. . .business or personal. The C is so important we use it twice for Come Clean. Tell each other who you are. Don’t hide the truth about you, because you simply can’t.

“Thank you.”

For a few seconds I wondered if my remarks had been too esoteric. Then the applause started and rolled through the room. They had understood.

We adjourned; and then person after person found their way to hug me. There was nothing stand-offish in how they pulled me to their hearts. Many of them said, “I’m so happy that you’ve found a way to be totally honest in your life.” Six family heads made it clear they supported me; the seventh was sick and hadn’t attended the convention.

If tears had been dollars we all would have been rich as Midas.

***

It was almost a half an hour later before I separated myself from the last well-wisher outside the main convention meeting room. I needed to go to my room to relax, unwind, and fix my face.

As I approached the elevator I saw Kim was already waiting for it. I hesitated a bit, but decided to share a ride with her.

“Your speech was wonderful,” she said quietly after the door closed and we started rising. “I noticed halfway through that you’re wearing my bracelet.” She raised her arm allowing her sleeve to fall, exposing the wristwatch I had given her.

“Old habits die slowly,” I said.

She reached for the operating panel and pushed the STOP button bringing the elevator to a halt.

~Thank goodness no alarms went off.~

“I’ve missed you,” she said.

“I’ve missed you too,” I answered quietly.

“I can’t run Celebration the way you did,” she said. “My enthusiasm gets the best of me, and I make poor decisions.”

I chuckled softly. “I doubt that. Your enthusiasm was always one of our biggest assets.”

“But setting priorities is a problem. . . .” Her voice trailed off. A tear escaped from her eye. “I get so lonely. Sometimes I can hardly stand the void you left in my life.”

“I didn’t have much choice in that,” I reminded her.

“Why have you become so cold toward me?” she said, her voice breaking. “Why did you demand that I not contact you other than through e-mails. Do you have any idea how impersonal those e-mails have become?”

~I haven’t received an e-mail from her or sent one to her since she took over running Celebration.~ I stared at her in silence wondering what she was talking about.

“I considered you to be my sister,” she said, clearly upset. “But now I’m totally confused. I had come to believe you had changed completely when you sold out to Imperative, but your speech tonight -- you haven’t changed at all.”

“Sold out?”

“What do you call it when you give up on the company we almost killed ourselves creating?”

I shook my head. “You agreed to it first. I never would have signed if you hadn’t told Greg you were ready to sign that afternoon.”

“I never said that,” Kim wailed. “I never would have signed that contract if you hadn’t signed first. When I saw your signature it was like someone had reached into my chest and ripped out my heart.”

~Who is she kidding?~ “Why did you agree to run Celebration if your heart had been ripped out?”

“Greg told me it was the only way we would ever get it back. He said you were determined to give your gender transition first priority and didn’t really care what happened to the company. He asked me to run Celebration so that it would survive until you came back to your senses.”

I felt staggered. The preponderance of evidence indicated I had been duped by Greg. . .Dawn . . . and Curt. “What do you see in Greg?”

She frowned. “What is there to see? He’s totally dishonest and self-absorbed. I despise him.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Curt told me you and Greg have been having an. . . .”

“I’ve heard all about you and Curt, too,” she countered. “What you’ve obviously heard about Greg and me is completely false. Have I also been hearing lies?”

I hung my head. “Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?”

She nodded. “I know what you mean. Curt convinced me he was my best friend. You were so distant, while he was so available.” She shrugged, and then whispered. “Did you fall in love with your captor?”

“It was only recently that I saw him for what he really is.” I reached for the red STOP button. “Let’s go to my room. I need something with a lot of alcohol in it. It appears you’ve been getting e-mails from Curt signed with my name. And, it appears I’ve been a fool believing you could be anything but what you are.”

“I’m sorry,” we said in unison as we embraced.

~Although I always kept my doubts that Kim could’ve turned against me, I should have rejected the idea immediately.~ “They certainly toyed with us.” ~How could have I been such a love sick idiot?~

Kim sniffed. “Ya know — I never totally bought into what they fed me about you.”

“Me neither,” I choked out.

“We’re fools,” Kim wailed.

“No, I don’t think you and I have made any serious mistakes yet — we just need to learn from this without developing scar tissue on our hearts. A person could get hurt by trusting too much, but life would be agony if we didn’t count on anyone. We believe in what Celebration means. We should continue to work toward its mission and let it take us where we want to go.”

She nodded, and then hugged me again. Kim had never felt so good and so inviting. Months ago, I would have been physically excited by her body, but that no longer seemed remotely possible. I was emotionally thrilled by, and totally in love with, my best friend.

I stood back from her. “How’s that boyfriend of yours?”

“He got mushy,” she giggled, “so I threw him in the garbage. I’m free as a bird and ready to take on new challenges.”

Within two hours we had drafted two business plans for a new company. The one plan involved a large scale operation that required an up-front capital expenditure of just under $1 million. The other, the most probable, was a modest operation that would squeak by on a very small amount of initial investment.

***

The role my smile at work represented had been expanded to include total amnesia for what I had learned at the convention. I returned to Omaha and took up with Curt, Dawn, and Greg as if nothing had changed. My smile was real in part, because I now had a purpose in life, but my soul cried each time I realized how base those three could be.

“I was wondering about something, Curt.” I said across the restaurant table about two weeks after the convention. I was wearing a fabulous navy-blue, Vera Wang halter gown, which I had allowed Imperative to buy.

His eyes registered repulsion for a second before glossing over into his ubiquitous smile.

~He probably thinks I’m going to suggest marriage for us.~ “Do you remember months ago when Greg talked about the value of Celebration? He mentioned a term a person could use to value a business.”

He laughed. Lately he had begun to treat me more and more like a pet. . .a rather stupid pet. “The term is EBIDTA, which stands for earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes and appreciation. What Greg meant is the business world usually uses an EBIDTA multiple of 6.0 to 7.0 to measure a company’s value based on the cash flow it can generate.”

I tried my best to look perplexed.

“It’s simple,” he said. “With $3 million of cash flow the company being appraised would be worth somewhere between $18 and $21 million.”

“Do you like my new perfume?” I had gone to Victoria’s Secret and purchased Heavenly just for our dinner date.

He smiled, but not the usual fake smile I had grown to loathe.

I grinned back at him with a look that I hope signaled to him that I was ready to deliver what Heavenly promised. Thoughts of sex would keep him lopsided. “After you change Celebration to charge those fees Greg told me about, will the value of Celebration go up much?” I had calculated the increase in value to be over $75 million.

“Some.” His smile broadened as he apparently thought of what they had taken from me.

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “I never could have done it.”

“Have you prepared the letter to go to the sales consultants?” he asked, giving me a look he saved for just before he wanted to whine about something. Curt could be a real complainer. He never actually got sick, but he was always saying he felt like he was coming down with something.

~If only malaria would strike him.~ “I’ve been giving the letter quite a bit of thought.” ~And when I do, I get mad as hell.~

His pupils dilated and the corners of his mouth twitched. “Once you write that letter to the sales consultants and we start taking in those fees, the value is going to increase — that’s for sure.”

~Think, Curt. Put your larcenous heart in gear.~ “Uh huh,” I said. “Have you talked about that with any of the board members?”

He shook his head. “No, we didn’t want them to count the chickens before. . . . No we haven’t.”

“Good, good. You’re so smart,” I squealed. “Can I buy part of Celebration?”

“How much money do you have?”

I pretended to think for a moment. “I have almost $10,000 left after paying my divorce settlement. Could I buy part of Celebration with that?”

He nodded slowly, but was obviously distracted.

~He needs a nudge.~ “Maybe if we got together: Greg, you, and me. Maybe we could chip in and buy Celebration.”

He stared off into knavish space.

~His wheels are definitely in motion.~ “What do they call that — that thing corporations get?” I asked.

He looked at me blankly.

“Oh you know,” I said with some frustration. “What do they call it when some outside party tells a company what something they want to buy is worth?”

“A fairness opinion,” he replied. “The management of the acquiring company usually will hire a law firm and an investment banker to issue a fairness opinion.

“That’s what I was trying to think of,” I gushed. “I just couldn’t remember.” I did my best to look puzzled. “But aren’t investment bankers dishonest? Who would ever believe them?”

He laughed. “You’re having negative thoughts today. But you’re right. I know a few people who will sell their letterhead for the right price.”

The sneer on his face caused me to inwardly shudder, but I steadied myself to show nothing but eagerness. I patted his hand. “I’m sure you’ve done the numbers and are just playing with me. All I have in the world is that $10,000, but if you and Greg allow me to buy in, I’ll put up every penny of it.”

He nodded. “What makes you think the board would allow us to buy Celebration? They’d smell a rat.”

“I was just hoping. But, didn’t you once say everything is for sale for the right price?”

“Of course,” he answered, “the right price might be more money than we can raise.”

“If only you could give the board a reason to sell Celebration. Is there any reason Imperative shouldn’t own Celebration?”

“You would have thought so this morning,” he said, thinking out loud. “I got a call from Joe Melling. He’s one of Imperatives other big wholesalers. He really hates having to compete against a subsidiary of ours. He thinks it’s a conflict of interest for Imperative to own Celebration.”

“Would the board agree with him?”

“If I surveyed our other wholesalers and worded the questions properly, I could get enough evidence to show the board a need to sell.”

I opened my eyes as wide as possible. “You’re brilliant. I suppose that’s all you need . . . the right price and a solid reason.”

“That should do it,” he said, looking satisfied with himself.

“You know what would be great?” I asked as sweetly as I could. “If the board had something they really, really wanted from you, me, and Greg, something we could throw in to make the deal work.”

“There’s only one thing Greg and I have that would excite them -- our Golden Parachutes.”

~Now you’ve got it.~ “Oh, I don’t know. You would have to be a pretty good salesperson to get them to buy that deal. They gave you a Golden Parachute because they want to keep you — and I can see why.”

He chuckled. “Several of the board members hate our parachutes. They don’t have it as good on their boards; and they’re jealous. You’d think they’d use ours as leverage to get theirs improved.”

~Curt is anything but stupid. I knew he would love the idea of buying Celebration . . . if he could think of it as his plan.~

“Look, Bethany,” he said. “I’ve got to get right back to the office. Would you mind buying lunch just this once? I really need to talk to Greg.”

With that he got up and left, leaving me with the bill -- and an enormous grin on my face.

***

The sale of Celebration by Imperative, Inc. to Greg and Curt went by without a hitch. As I had predicted, the Imperative board members were cool about the deal until the Golden Parachute “pound of flesh” was placed on the table. They rushed the deal to get it done before the end of the year. In just over forty-five days Greg and Curt closed, paying $5.5 million for a company that would, in their minds, soon be worth about twenty-five times that. They never asked for my investment, as I had presumed. Curt told me both of them had mortgaged everything to the hilt.

I continued to smile my way through days filled with doing the biding of Greg and Curt. Nothing more had been said about me writing a letter to the sales consultants about a $25 monthly fee, until just before noon one morning in early January, when Greg beckoned me to enter his office.

“Curt and I want to take you to lunch,” Greg said. It was the first time he’d made such an offer in the almost six months I’d worked for Imperative.

Not waiting for my answer, Greg looked down his nose at me. “Bring along a draft of the letter I asked you to prepare to go to the sales consultants. Curt and I will help you make it readable. Be ready in fifteen minutes. I could eat the asshole out of a skunk. We’re going to Austin’s to have half a cow. I suppose you’ll want a soup and salad, but Curt and I have man-sized appetites.”

The way he said “man-sized” dropped my body temperature five degrees.

Fifteen minutes later we were at Austin’s. On the way in, Greg told the maá®tre d' that Asher Luse, the president of Winchell Bank, would be joining us for dessert. True to his word Greg ordered their biggest steak “to celebrate.” I did order a salad, but passed on the soup.

After the waitress left with our orders Greg turned toward me. “Did you bring a copy of the letter you’re writing to the sales consultants?”

~The time has finally come.~ “I’ve thought it over; and I just can’t be a part of a pyramid that charges fees.”

“Just as well,” Curt said. “Greg, I don’t see any reason for us to continue this charade. We’ve wrung every bit of value out of Erik we’re ever going to.”

~Erik! Obviously the gloves are coming off.~ I called on my yoga training and focused on a spot on the wall just to the right of Greg’s head, so I could steady my mind. With the amount of money Greg and Curt stood to make it was easy to understand why they couldn’t be trusted. I understood them, but forgiving them would take longer.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Curt look around him, as if to check the room for people who might want to listen in on our conversation. “The thing is, Bethany. You’re just too weak a person to run a major operation like Celebration.”

“Oh.” My plan was to allow whatever tears that might appear to flow freely. I was pretty sure nothing they said would be a surprise.

Greg grinned like he smelled blood in the water. “When I went to see your mother I was admittedly looking for a weakness in you to exploit. When she showed me those pictures of you running around in skirts as a teenager, I freaked. Holy shit! I had given a whacko a $5 million loan. Your mom said you had died, which I understood to mean you had put away your dresses for good, but I knew that sickos like you never get over that kind of thing.”

“You should have seen Greg’s face when he got back from Minneapolis,” Curt said, chuckling. “He was whiter than a KKK meeting.”

My left eye started to feel weepy. Despite everything, this meeting would confirm that Curt’s affection for me had all been a ruse. Even though I knew I should despise him I still had a quixotic heart that yearned for the phony romance I had bought into.

Greg nodded. “It was actually Curt who saw the opportunity to take advantage of what we knew about you.”

Curt puffed himself up. “I was surprised when I checked Minnesota laws and discovered that cross-dressing isn’t a felony, heck it isn’t even a misdemeanor. Nevertheless, I immediately told Greg that if we played things right, Imperative could own your business. If Imperative owned Celebration we wouldn’t ever have to worry about losing the profits from the sales you brought us.”

“Besides,” Greg said, “since Kim and you never got non-competes from your Celebration sales consultants, they could walk at any time. That was a risk Imperative couldn’t afford to have. We’ll take care of that now. You’ve got to take care of ol’ ~numero uno~.”

“We actually did you a favor,” Curt said. “Someone else eventually would have taken over Celebration. It was inevitable that someone like you would lose it. This way we’ll see that you end up with something.”

Greg frowned. “I can’t say the same for Kim. I went up there last week and tried to reason with her, but she wouldn’t put out. Screw her. . .if I can’t. I sent Samason from legal to Minneapolis this morning to give Kim her walking papers. She should be hearing from him right about now.”

~She and I expected they would soon fire her.~

Our meals arrived and the two men dug into theirs.

I toyed with my salad, wishing I could whittle on Greg the way he was attacking his steak. ~Why doesn’t he fire me?~ “Why didn’t you just call our debt and demand a non-compete from Kim and me as part of us turning over Celebration for debt forgiveness?”

Both Curt and he shook their heads at my apparent naíveté.

Curt spoke first. “Those damn non-competes never hold up when you need them. They work to scare silly housewives, which is why we’ll get them for the sales consultants, but you would have found an attorney who would have given us fits.”

“Courts don’t like to take away a person’s right to make a living,” Greg asserted.

Curt wiped salad dressing from the corner of his mouth. “Judges rarely enforce them beyond a county line — and often will open the contract and blue-pencil out what they think is too strenuous.”

“Besides,” Greg said, “we needed you and Kim to make sure things went smoothly. It was nice to be able to pick your brains during the ‘transition’ period.”

“I’m happy I could be of service,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster.

“All’s fair. . . .” Greg toasted me with his wine glass.

“Look, Bethany,” Curt said. “Put yourself in my place. How much fun do you think it was for me with you throwing yourself at me all the time? Thankfully, I rarely had to touch you. It was pure heaven when I could send you out of town on those wild-goose chases to check on our competitors.”

“Didn’t you even read my report?” I asked.

They both laughed.

Greg spoke through his mirth and a chunk of his steak. “Curt and I got together for a barbeque in my backyard after you gave him your little memorandum. Your ‘intelligence’ made a fine fire-starter.”

“Was Dawn in on your game?” I asked, wiping a tear from my cheek.

“Not really, she’s easily fooled because she’s an idealist,” Curt said. “She works best in the realm of conjecture, surmise, and guesswork with incomplete knowledge. I told her you were a reluctant transsexual who badly needed to make the switch. I also convinced her you had tried to commit suicide several times and would eventually succeed if you didn’t cut off your wang. Her imagination ran wild.”

“Why would she believe you?” I asked, imagining a chain saw sex-ectomy for Curt.

“She wanted to believe what we told her,” he said with a sneer. “She’s a do-gooder looking for good to do. Of course, I paid her enough to finance her own sex surgery, which she’ll have next month. We scripted everything we wanted her to tell you about us and about the medical treatments available to you. The nitwit couldn’t have been more gullible, but she is quite an actress.”

“Like when we told her we needed to have overnight access to your laptop,” Greg said. “She didn’t want to get it for us until we told her we needed it to have our corporate psychologist analyze your e-mails to make sure you weren’t contemplating suicide again.”

Curt snickered. “That’s how we got a copy of your videos to show Marisa. It’s also how we got the passwords for your e-mail accounts. We slipped a networking card in your laptop and rented the room next to yours in the hotel. We had access from that point on to whatever we wanted. If Dawn hadn’t been so easy to fool, things would have been tougher for us.”

“Look,” Greg said, acting magnanimous. “Kim’s done today, but we’re going to take care of you.”

~He’s so obvious. He wants to toy with me like a tomcat does with a mouse before he kills it.~

“I have to admit,” Curt said lifting his glass to salute me, “the idea you helped me come up with about buying Celebration was brilliant. The two of us are filthy rich. In fact, your ex also made out quite well.”

“Marisa?”

Greg smiled maliciously. “It’s Mrs. Greg Larcen as of last week. We flew to Vegas and got hitched.”

Despite everything I felt a pang of loss.

“The board didn’t accept our first offer for Celebration,” Greg said, “even though we included our Golden Parachutes. I had to convince Marisa to liquidate her assets to come up with enough additional money to swing the deal.”

~Poor Marisa.~

It was Curt’s turn to act overly-gracious. “Because you made us so much money, we’re going to save your sorry ass.”

“Oh?”

“Uh huh,” he continued. “We’re going to keep your benefits going so your mother’s nursing home expense will be paid. But we can’t pay you as much as we currently give you. You’ll have to find a part-time job in addition to working for us, if you expect to wear the kind of clothes you have on today.”

I was wearing a Sweet Pea blouse over Diesel, cuffed trousers.

Curt smirked. “The only job we have for someone like you is as a sales consultant for Celebration. Of course, you know what’s coming in the way of fees and other necessary expense you’ll have to meet. You better be ready to work your ass off.”

I frowned. ~Both Curt and Greg are brilliant but they respect nothing, which cancels out their shine.~ “I really don’t care if you like me or not . . . all I want from you is your respect for who I am.”

“Who you are?” Greg laughed. “You’re nobody.”

“I’m not? What makes you think I won’t start a competitor network?” I tried not to sound angry, but in reality wondered why those two had ever mattered to me.

Greg grinned. “For one thing, those operations you had are permanent.” He stopped to wait for a reaction of shock, which I faked. “That’s right. One of the pills Dawn thought was an anaphrodisiac was really a powerful testosterone blocker. You’re now what’s called a she-male. You’ll never regain your maleness; and you’ll never make enough money to have the necessary hormones to continue to pass for a female.”

I hunched my shoulders to fake misery. “Why did you have Dawn talk me into surgery? Was that just for your amusement?”

Curt curled his lip. “Greg and I believe in shooting the wounded. We needed to make sure you went so far in changing your sex that you couldn’t turn back, so we could discredit you with the sales consultants and anyone else who might otherwise help you.”

“Discredit me?” I asked. Trying to follow their twisted logic dragged my mind into a dark place crammed with crawly things.

“Sure,” Greg said. “We figured once everyone saw you running around as if you’re a woman, your reputation would be ruined. I couldn’t believe you actually went to Celebration’s national convention in a dress. I heard from at least a half dozen sales consultants who thought you looked like a complete freak.”

~But — the ones who count love me.~

“Look,” Curt said, “it’s over and you lost everything, but we’re going to give you a job; not a great job, but the benefits are what you need to take care of your mother.”

“I could start my own business and compete against you,” I said, hoping again to smoke out anything they might have up their sleeve.

“Fat chance.” Greg beckoned to someone at the front of the restaurant. “There’s Asher. He’ll tell you the facts of life.”

Asher joined our table; and for the first time that day I felt embarrassment for what I knew Curt and Greg were bound to say. Asher seemed pleased to see me, and almost frigid toward Greg and Curt.

Greg waited until the waitress took their dessert orders.

I passed on anything sweet, feeling slightly nauseous, even though things had gone exactly as I had thought they would -- so far.

“Asher,” Greg started, “I want you to speak freely.”

Asher appeared baffled. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Curt and Greg both laughed.

“That’s a good one, Asher,” Greg said with a disgusting amount of swagger. “Imperative, Inc. is your bank’s most important customer; am I right?”

“On any given day,” Asher responded, “Imperative is our largest single depositor.”

“That’s what I mean,” Greg said. “As your most important client, I need you to tell Erik the facts of life.”

I blushed. Being referred to as “Erik” unsettled me, even though I had thought our discussion with Asher might come to that.

Asher looked at me before addressing Greg. His eyes spoke of kindness — and anger. “I’m sure ‘Bethany’ has a firm grasp on the facts of life.”

Greg looked perplexed. “Okay. . .wrong start. Let me tell you a little story to help bring you to where we are today.”

“Okay,” Asher said, looking at his watch.

Greg cleared his throat. “About six months ago Curt and I called ‘Bethany’ into my office and forced her to sign over her company to us by pulling the credit terms we had extended to Celebration. Effectually we put her out of business.”

“I’m sure we don’t have to tell you how that game is played,” Curt added, with a chuckle.

“Let me stop you two right there,” Asher said. “Perhaps you should have your attorneys brief you on lender’s liability before you implicate yourselves by telling me more than you should.”

“We’re not a bank,” Curt asserted. “We don’t have to follow lender’s liability laws.”

“Lender’s liability?” Greg asked weakly.

Asher looked at him with disdain. “A debtor can have a legal action against a creditor if he can allege unfair enforcement of loan covenants or violations of implied terms of loan agreements.”

~Like pulling Celebration’s credit for no rational reason, or failing to supply adequate new products per our agreement. My attorneys had talked a little about Imperative’s lender liability, but we had agreed it would be a non-starter as an action against them if they changed our contract, because Greg would say I had entered into the contract with a high level of sophistication.~

“But-t-t-t. . . .” Greg stammered. “That’s hard to prove and our contract with them wasn’t really a loan agreement.”

“Uh huh,” Asher said. “I’m sure you two have covered your actions so that it would be hard to prove and almost impossible for the person in need of credit to understand, until it’s too late -- a perfect crime for the unethical.”

Greg coughed. “. . .let’s move on. As your most important client I’m going to ask you to exercise a little selective memory. I want you to explain to Erik how running around play acting as if he really is ‘Bethany’ has ruined whatever chance he ever had to secure credit through a commercial lender.”

Asher wiped his lips with his napkin. He had finished his sherbet. “I’m not sure what the game is here, but I’ll tell you all exactly where I stand.”

“That’s all we ask,” Curt said with an unctuous smile.

Asher continued. “The first thing we need to get straight is your nonsense about Imperative being Winchell Bank’s ‘most important’ client. I acknowledged that you’re our largest depositor, but over the years you two have beaten up the officers who handle your account. You’ve negotiated such low fees and high interest rates on your deposits that your account is a loser for us. That’s my fault for allowing my people to be mesmerized by volume over profit, so I haven’t done anything about it — to date. But — Imperative isn’t remotely the bank’s most important customer.”

I tried to read Curt’s eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was proud he had negotiated so tirelessly, or sorry he had lost the power he assumed he owned over Asher.

Asher looked at me. “Bethany — I have a confession. Shortly after I met you I ran into a banker from Minneapolis who runs Western National, Celebration’s bank. We were both attending a Fred Pryor seminar. ”

“Was the banker you met Jerry Weist?” I asked.

“Yes,” Asher said. “Jerry and I had quite a conversation about you and your partner Kim. He affirmed every positive thing I had read about you. He was surprised to hear about your transitioning.”

“There’s another possibility for credit shot to hell,” Greg said to Curt, obviously gloating.

“You don’t seem to hear so well today,” Asher said to Greg. “I said he was surprised. In no way did it appear to be a negative for him — and it certainly isn’t for me. Jerry had nothing but praise for Bethany’s character and only wished she had felt comfortable coming out in Minneapolis. I’m sure I’m speaking for him -- and I know I’m speaking for my bank -- when I say I would be willing to lend Bethany a fairly large amount of money on a signature note, if she had a creditable business plan.”

Greg’s face turned red. “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I am,” Asher said. “I understand Bethany. According to what I’ve read and heard she wants to improve the lives of her sales consultants and their clients. It’s not really what she’s done that impresses me, as much as what she wants to achieve.”

“But she’s a transvestite,” Curt roared much too loudly.

“And you’re intolerant,” Asher said. “Why is it we’re always the most small-minded against those we don’t take the time to understand?”

“Let’s go,” Curt said to Greg. “This meeting is going nowhere, there are a hundred other banks who will want our account.”

“Good luck,” Asher said. “My guess is you won’t be able to replicate the deal you have with us. A deal that I plan to end in the near future.”

“That’s impossible!” Greg sputtered.

“No,” I said. “That’s the facts of life.” I stood, and then opened my attaché case. “I did prepare a letter for this meeting. I’m through working for Imperative.” I handed Greg my letter of resignation. “Thank you for giving me the incentive I’ll need to be a tireless competitor.”

“Bring it on,” Curt said. “You failed the first time because you’re weak. That hasn’t changed.”

***

Three days later I was in my mother’s nursing home sitting across a desk from its director, who had adopted a perpetual sneer that was successfully eroding my confidence. We were discussing changes in my contact information.

“And, would you prefer if we used ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Mister’ on all correspondence?” she asked, after I had given her my new name and address.

“Yes,” I said without any expression of the resentment I felt toward her. I had dressed in a simple black jersey v-neck belted dress with minimal gold jewelry.

She was one of those who wanted to show her displeasure with my personal decision to correct my outward apparent gender, without making a verbal argument. “Do you have a job?” she asked abruptly.

“Why do you ask?” I strained to control my temper.

“We do have rules we must follow,” she said, icily. “If you can’t pay the bill the government won’t let us toss your mother out into the street overnight. We’ll need some economic assurances to protect our financial interest.”

“I’ll be the majority partner in a new company,” I explained. Kim and I had decided to form a company called Bliss. She would own forty-nine percent of the stock; and I would own the rest.

“That’s so wonderful,” she said, without a shred of sincerity. “When do you expect to start that company?”

~Her hands seem to be fifteen years older than her face — probably because she can’t find plastic surgeons who do hand-lifts.~ “I gave notice to my former employer three days ago. Even though he said I should leave immediately I’ll wait two weeks to make sure I’m not legally an employee before starting my company.” I didn’t want a lawsuit claiming I had violated my fiduciary responsibilities as an employee.

“Who will be responsible for the payment for your mother’s expenses?” she demanded. The veins on the back of her hands showed the green dollars pumping through them.

“I will,” I said evenly, “same as before.”

“But it’s not the same as before,” she corrected me. “You were the head of a large corporation and now. . . .”

~A large corporation I created!~ “What’s your point?” I asked, knowing very well where she was headed.

“Your circumstances have changed,” she said plainly. “We can’t afford to risk a large financial loss because you’re no longer able to support your mother.”

“What makes you think I no longer have that ability?” I asked, even though it was obvious what had created her bias.

“It’s not that I’m against people doing whatever it takes to float their boat.” She stopped to allow me time to realize she had meant that in such a way as to imply a sexual perversion. “However. . .many people aren’t as open-minded as I am.”

“And. . . .” I reached for my purse, knowing what was coming.

“. . . .and we would like a deposit equal to the first year’s total payments,” she said with a smirk.

~Not bad. I thought she would ask for a two-year deposit.~ “Sounds reasonable.” I opened my purse and took out the new checkbook I had received that morning at Asher’s bank, before flying to Minneapolis. I had cashed in my 401(k) retirement account which provided enough to start Bliss, if all went according to plan, plus fund four years of nursing home cost for my mother.

Five minutes later I was standing outside my mother’s room. I hadn’t seen her since starting my “test” with Imperative. For the first time in months I felt conspicuous because of my appearance. The director had knocked some pegs out from under me.

“Mom?” I called as I pushed open the door to her room.

She sat at a small card table working on a jigsaw puzzle and looked up with an inquiring smile, holding a piece of the puzzle in her left hand as if it was the most precious thing in the world. Her eyes ran the length of my body; and then came back to peer into mine. “Bethany,” she said with eagerness I hadn’t heard in years, “you look fabulous. Is that a new dress?”

I ran to hug her.

Our conversation, once my tears abated to the point where I could talk fluently, ignored my birth sex. Nothing she mentioned gave me any indication that she thought of me as anything other than her brilliant daughter. She seemed to know about the success I had with Celebration, but assumed it had been done as Bethany. She knew nothing of Marisa, but loved Kim dearly.

After two hours she grew weary, but we made plans for an upcoming outing that I wouldn’t have thought possible during any of my visits to her over the last few years.

~I’ve read that Alzheimer’s patients can slip in and out of lucidity. If my afternoon with my mother turns out to be a onetime thing, I’ll be content to have felt her unconditional love once again. But I can hope, and will hope, for more.~

***

I sat across the conference table from Forrest Lange, the VP in charge of marketing for Meyer & Meyer. I had just confessed to him about my espionage trip a few months back when I was gathering information for Curt . . . information he and Greg would never read.

“. . . .and you actually applied for a job here as a secretary, using the name Kitty Decatur?” He questioned me through a chuckle. Then he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Did we offer you employment?”

I nodded. “A very good job, but I decided to start my own company, again.”

“I was pleased to receive your phone call,” he said.

I smiled. Three weeks had passed since I left Imperative. Meyer & Meyer played an extremely important role in our strategy. They had agreed to a meeting with me scheduled just two days after I called them for an appointment, which I took as a positive sign.

Kim and I had met with the seven Celebration family heads the day before at a restaurant in Minneapolis. They all had dropped everything to fly in to see us. All but one could hardly contain her excitement at the news of our new company and the possible advantages for their family members. The single negative response had come from the one who missed the national convention. She had taken one look at me, said something about “an abomination,” and then turned tail and left.

“How many sales consultants do you think will break loose from Celebration to work through Bliss?” Forrest asked, getting right down to business.

“Over the last few days we’ve received verbal commitments from just over eight thousand,” I responded.

His eyebrows shot up.

I quickly continued. “We expect that number will increase rapidly once we have actual product to back up our plans.”

“How many companies have signed with you,” he asked, writing notes as we talked.

“We intend to contract with about ten suppliers,” I answered. “As I said on the phone, we want to extend our product line beyond what Celebration does -- to include greeting cards, holiday décor, school projects materials, and materials and support for volunteer activities. But to answer your question. . .you’re the first company I’ve talked to beyond phone calls to set up face-to-face meetings.”

He nodded and continued to jot down words and numbers on his yellow pad.

“Meyer & Meyer was one of our main suppliers before Celebration signed an exclusive contract with Imperative,” I said, to fill in the silence.

“That was before my time with Meyer & Meyer.”

I suppressed a frown. I had hoped to leverage Kim and my history with them. We had enjoyed a good relationship -- at least I thought we had.

He stopped writing, and then put down his pen. His eyes looked tired, but he managed a smile. “I’m sorry to have to break some news to you,” he said, looking apprehensive. “The week after you left Imperative, our president received a call from Greg Larcen at Imperative. Mr. Larcen told our president about your ‘psychosis.’ ”

My heart sank. ~How could Greg do such a thing?~

“Mr. Larcen claimed you’re departure from Imperative wasn’t on the best terms. He said he had to fire Kim for incompetence; and you made it out the door just before he could fire you.”

I shook my head, at a loss for words.

The marketing VP continued. “Our president informed Mr. Larcen that Meyer & Meyer had an extensive file on you and would be very surprised if what he said was factual. Then Mr. Larcen told him that you’re a transvestite who plans to have a sex change.”

“Actually,” I said with conviction, “I’m a transsexual.” I had made the decision to seek SRS as soon as possible.

“The thing is, Bethany, Meyer & Meyer doesn’t care about your private life other than how it impacts our business. I’ve met with our executive committee. Several of the members of that committee worked with Kim and you at Celebration and were bitterly disappointed when you were forced into that exclusive contract with Imperative. They enjoyed working with you. Our president can’t wait to establish a relationship with your new company.”

“That’s excellent!” Despite my efforts to appear composed, I breathed a huge, audible sigh of relief.

“When our president told Mr. Larcen that he intended to work with you, Mr. Larcen became quite angry. He threatened to reduce his pricing for products we manufacturer -- so as to hurt our profitability.”

My shoulders tensed again.

“We don’t react well to threats,” Forrest said, as he slid a contract across the table to me. “I’m sure we weren’t the only company Mr. Larcen called. We would love to be your exclusive provider, but we’ve read your business plan; and we actually think we can end up with more sales through your organization as part of a much larger pie.”

“That’s how we see it,” I said, nodding vigorously.

“Should you run into obstacles with any company you really want as a supplier, let me know immediately; and we’ll go to bat for you. Our president feels he owes Mr. Larcen that much -- for all his concern over our welfare.” He laughed. “Now I’d like to take you to lunch in our executive dining room, our entire management team is eager to see you again, including our president. We think you’re new company is going to be huge for our company; and we can’t wait to get going.”

***

Four weeks later I was in Asher’s office to close on a $1,000,000 line of credit. It would be nice to have, but if we executed our plan correctly we wouldn’t need to draw on it.

“Have you started to sign contracts with companies?” he asked.

“Are you extending this line of credit to us on blind faith?” I asked, surprised that he wouldn’t have asked for more concrete information beyond our business plan — such as copies of contracts.

He smiled. “I’ve been in and around banking all my life. I’ve learned to judge people first and ideas to a much lesser extent. Ideas are a dime a dozen; capable people are rare.”

“Thank you,” I said with a coyness that appeared out of nowhere. For some reason I blushed furiously.

“You’re one of the top two or three hundred young executives in the country. Our bank is honored to be involved in your new enterprise.”

I almost gasped. Greg and Curt had done everything they could to convince me I made major blunders running Celebration. Asher’s faith in me affirmed my competence.

He reached behind himself and took a three-inch thick file off his credenza. “My loan officers put together a comprehensive study of you and the business plan Kim and you have developed. You’re more than a pretty face.”

I studied him. ~I would trade everything in that file for the kind of pretty face that a man like him would find attractive.~ “Just to add a line or two to your file. . .so far we’ve signed every supplier we wanted except one — and we’re working on two companies to fill the gap that company left for us.”

“What company is that?” he asked. “I can’t imagine any company that would be so fat-headed as to pass up an opportunity to work with you.”

“We eventually would like to work with Imperative,” I explained. “We won’t seek a contract with them as long as Greg and Curt are at the helm, but their product line is good and most of the company is solid.”

“I know what you mean.”

“We’ve signed agreements with nearly thirty thousand sales consultants.”

He looked startled. “How on earth have you handled that much paperwork?”

“There’s no paperwork involved. Kim set up a website where the sales consultants can sign up without our involvement. We’ve already taken orders for over two million in sales.”

He shook his head. “Can I buy you lunch?”

I nodded. “Will I be meeting our account officer?”

“Account officer?”

“Will the person who will be handling our account come to lunch with us?”

“I’m going to handle your account personally,” he said. “I was hoping we might have lunch on more of a personal basis. I have to confess that I’m quite intrigued and eager to get to know more about you.”

“I suppose I am a bit of a sideshow attraction,” I said, feeling a bit let down.

“Sideshow? Oh. . .I suppose you mean because. . . . Am I rushing things?” His face turned red.

I blinked. “Rushing things?”

“I like you. I find you very attractive. I usually don’t mix business with my personal life, but you’re so amazing I can’t help myself. Do you mind?”

***

Looking out the window of the conference room on the twentieth floor of the Imperative building I couldn’t help but review the six months since quitting my job there.

In a moment or two I would be meeting with the top executive who had taken Greg’s place. He and Curt had foolishly gone ahead with their plans to implement Celebration fees, because their greed wouldn’t allow them to walk away from the huge profits they’d envisioned. Celebration had fallen apart with the exodus of over eighty-five percent of their sales consultants, whom had gone to Bliss.

The sales that Celebration had been making for Imperative dropped by ninety-five percent, which created a huge reduction in Imperative revenues -- and an operating loss.

The Imperative board had summarily fired Curt and Greg and ended the contract with Celebration. Greg and Curt had tried to revive Celebration by signing with other suppliers, but mainly because of the phone calls Greg had made to company presidents about me, he found nothing but cold shoulders.

With nothing to sell, the company Greg and Curt stole from me -- and then purchased from Imperative for pennies on the dollar of what should have been its market value — was now worthless.

The door to the executive suite opened; and I was faced with the memory-filled sight of my old work station.

An eager-faced man reached to shake the hand I had offered. “Good morning. I’m Bill Wislon. I was in charge of accounting under the old regime.”

“Nice to see you again, Bill.” He had been friendly to me whenever we ran across one another during my so-called test. “Congratulations on being named CEO of Imperative.”

“Thank you. I didn’t know if you would remember me. I hate to bring up Greg,” he said, “but I have to tell you -- he was a piece of work. I apologize for not being more pro-active when I suspected foul play. It all didn’t make sense to me. Celebration was too good an operation for you to be the president of one day, and then Greg’s secretary the next.”

“Administrative assistant,” I corrected him -- with an apologetic grin.

“In Greg’s day I would have had to buy my ‘administrative assistant’ a lunch for using the “s” word.” He laughed.

“When I was working here,” I asked slowly, “did you really know I had once been the president of Celebration?”

“Greg and Curt loved to tell people that. They’re a pair. It’s embarrassing that I didn’t put two and two together until I reviewed the Celebration acquisition files after they were fired. Again, I apologize for being so slow on the uptake.”

I nodded. “I would be wrong to hold you accountable for not judging that pair correctly — after all, I misread them badly myself.”

“They fooled a lot of people, but things have a way of catching up. Now that Celebration is in bankruptcy Greg and Curt are both on the street looking for work. My guess is they won’t have an easy time finding it.”

I bit my lip, unwilling to show much in the way of my bitter feelings, even though as things had turned out I had prospered greatly — in many ways. I’d heard rumors that neither of them had received much in the way of a separation package from Imperative. Given their fixation on money, their circumstances would make both of them miserable.

“I suppose you heard about Greg’s divorce?” he asked.

“I did.” I had consequently instructed my attorney to reopen the divorce settlement and increase the payment to Marisa to get her back on her feet. Rumor had it Greg married her to spite me, which was ironic.

“Enough of the past,” he said. “I was overjoyed to receive your phone call. We dropped everything and have prepared contracts for you to sign so we can start working with you again.”

“Is it the standard contract,” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “We included all the normal incentive clauses. You shouldn’t have any trouble blowing through the required volumes to qualify for the top sales commissions.”

“I’m sure we won’t,” I said, “but we want to include two other provisions.”

I could tell that he was struggling to hold the smile on his face. He hadn’t had all that training Greg and Curt had given me.

“Everything is negotiable,” he said, “but we think our contract is fair.”

“Oh,” I said, “it is. But I’m sure you would agree, given the recent past, there are extenuating circumstances between Imperative and Bliss.”

“I’ll give you that,” he said with a frown. “How can we put things back to where they were before the gruesome-twosome started their little escapade?”

“The first change in the contract is actually in your favor,” I stated.

“Really,” he said, “I’m all ears.”

I handed a contract I had prepared to him. “This is the contract I would like to sign with you. It includes two new paragraphs, otherwise I think it’s identical to the one you prepared. Paragraph twenty-six has to do with excess profit sharing.”

He took a moment to read the paragraph. “This says you’re going to share excessive Bliss profits with your suppliers and sales consultants. Why would you want to do that?”

“I admire the way Ray Kroc put together McDonald’s. Part of his success was because he made sure his vendors and franchisees were successful. Our mission is to improve the lives of our sales consultants and their customers. If Kim and I are making all the money we want, why shouldn’t we share the excess with the people that are responsible for our success?

He nodded and grinned. “Well, that’s easy for me to agree to.”

“The second paragraph I added is number forty-five. This one might be a bit harder for you to accept, but it is very important to me.”

He studied the additional provision. “You want us to allow you to offer jobs to Jeri, Amy, Tanya, and Heather. I know all of them quite well and I can understand why you would want them. Do you think they’ll move to Minneapolis?”

“If they will come to work for me, I’ll open an office in Omaha. I’m thinking about moving part of the Bliss operation here.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Will you need that many executive assistants?”

“I intend to offer them all management positions.”

“In that case, of course I would agree to your contract. I would never try to stand in the way of their career advancement.”

I smiled, thinking about renewed friendships with four of the nicest people I knew.

After he signed four copies of the contract I had prepared, he looked up. “Will you be able to join me for lunch?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m having lunch with an old friend, but I’ll be back to Omaha next week and will definitely arrange to have either lunch or dinner with you.”

***

I arrived at the restaurant ten minutes early in order to watch Dawn as she entered.

After hugs and kisses that lasted long enough to make others in the restaurant seem uncomfortable, we sat.

“I was so surprised to get your phone call,” Dawn said caressing my hand as if it was precious.

“Surprised? I know I should have contacted you before now, but. . . .”

“I know,” she said. “When Curt and Greg were let go from Imperative it was front-page news in Omaha. They did a story about the loss of sales from Celebration and how you and Kim had started Bliss. I felt like such a fool when I finally realized how stupid I had been -- believing Curt and that horrible Greg.”

I bit my lip trying to find a way to ease her concern.

“There I go again,” she said. “I now know Curt was as big a crook as Greg, but I just can’t seem to accept it.”

“Curt’s pretty smooth.”

“Oh, Honey. That must have hurt you.”

I nodded, thinking back to how my heart had been broken.

“After you left Imperative,” she said. “Curt told me you were mad at me for telling you all those lies about things. He said you told him you never wanted to see or hear from me again.”

I shook my head. “Add several more lies to Curt’s total.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “I’m so sorry Honey, I thought a bunch of little white lies would just help you transition easier.”

“I know your heart was in the right place. I’ve had plenty of time to think about it and every fib you told me was directed at helping me transition.”

“Doesn’t make it right,” she said, her cheeks now soaked.

“No,” I said softly, “but it does make it easier for me to forgive you. And now you must do the hard thing and forgive yourself.”

She closed her eyes for several moments. “Bastards,” she spat as she looked me in the eye.

I nodded. “What goes around comes around. People eventually get what they deserve.”

She laughed. “Then I must’ve deserved a wonderful pussy, because Honey -- I’ve finally got one.”

I blushed. “Me too,” I whispered.

“Aren’t they marvelous?” She stroked my hand again. “I hope you’ve found a man who likes it as much as you do.”

I smiled.

“Terrific!” She giggled, sounding like the old Dawn. “Every girl should use what Mother Nature gave her before Father Time takes it away.”

“How are you doing?” I asked, after we quit laughing.

She raised an eyebrow. “Do you mean since my surgery?”

“Yes; is everything okay?”

“Honey, it’s amazing. I had no idea how much guilt and shame I carried around with me. Since I had my plumbing corrected I’ve been bursting with energy.”

“Me too,” I agreed. “It’s funny, but having to smile and act positive all those weeks during my alleged test really has helped me shape a positive attitude that’s been beneficial in everything I do.”

“The only problem you ever had was being a bit of a perfectionist, but that seemed to disappear as Bethany emerged.”

I laughed. “I was so anal; now I’m very willing to let the world slide a little.”

“You’re not taking that anaphrodisiac any more, are you?” Her face clearly expressed fear.

“Do you mean that drug you got for me so I wouldn’t feel so horny?” I giggled.

“That was another Curt lie,” she said. “After you quit Imperative he told me that one of the drugs was a testosterone blocker.”

“I know,” I said. “No harm in that. I would have taken them on my own had I been given the choice.”

She nodded. “But the other drug was actually Oxytocin. It’s a drug the body creates and releases during hugging, touching, and orgasms.”

I smiled. “No wonder I enjoyed myself so much during my test.”

She shook her head. “It might have had something to do with your upbeat attitude, but the reason Curt gave it to you was much more sinister. That drug is involved in social recognition and bonding. . .they gave it to you so that your level of trust would be much higher than normal.”

I bobbed my head again. ~How many decisions did I make that had been skewed by Oxytocin.~ I had quit taking the Oxytocin about the time I discovered Curt hadn’t written the cards that came with the flowers.

Before we finished our lunch I told Dawn about my plans to open an office in Omaha and secured her agreement to come to work for Bliss. She would be a wonderful addition and would fit into my future plans to cut back on my work load and eventually phase out of the business.

***

The office building didn’t appear any more formidable than any other I had been in, but I could hardly find the courage to enter it.

I twisted the ring on the fourth finger of my left hand. Asher had placed it there a month earlier, on the second anniversary of our first actual date. Thinking of his love straightened my spine and allowed me to move forward.

“Miss Rue, come in.” The woman who welcomed me to her office had a desk sign that said, “Greta Millar, Adoption Consultant.” Her receptionist had told me that Ms. Millar would do the preliminary screening and would let me know if Asher and I would have a reasonable chance.

“I’ve reviewed the information you provided on line for us,” she said brightly. “My, you’ve had an interesting life.”

I did my best to smile, even though my stomach was churning. Adopting a baby meant so much to Asher and me. I felt certain he loved me unconditionally, but asking him to go through life without a child seemed unjust.

“We have had some situations in the past with people like you,” she said, frowning. “I’m sorry to say this, but we’re not totally comfortable facilitating your adoption without further discussion . . . discussion that leads to answers that mitigate our concerns.”

“I see.” ~But I don’t. I know that I’m as complete a woman as I can be and that I’ll do everything possible to be the very best mother for my child and hopefully additional children.~

“You represent a profile that has proven to be troublesome,” she said.

~Will Dawn run into this same treatment, when she tries to adopt?~ The doctors who injected stem cells into my breasts and hips had told me there was hope down the road that they could use a similar technique to allow me full reproductive capabilities. Although they had reserved a place for me in their research project, it appeared it would be years before that procedure became a reality.

“Maybe I should look elsewhere,” I said, starting to rise.

She motioned for me to sit, which I did. “Please. I don’t mean to be over-bearing, but I know the standards of the other reputable adoption agencies in Omaha; and I don’t think you’ll find them to be much different than us.”

~It’s as if all of my fears were coming to life before my eyes.~ “Please,” I begged. “Asher and I will be good parents. He’s so kind; and my mother was so good for me. I’ll do everything I can to be just like her.”

“How would that be possible?” she demanded.

“I don’t see where I’m handicapped in any way from being like my mother. I can love a child, just like she did.”

“But can you really?” she asked, her jaw stuck out. “You’re the president of a very large corporation. Can you really fulfill the obligations of motherhood . . . and prowl the corporate boardroom?”

My shoulders sagged in relief. “Ms. Millar, I agree with you entirely. Several years ago my entire life was centered in my work. I felt compelled to nurture the thousands of sales consultants that worked with Celebration -- and now, Bliss.”

“I love your products,” she said. “My aunt is a Bliss consultant; and she loves her work.”

“That’s great,” I said, glancing at her nameplate. “Oh. . .is your aunt Susan Millar?”

“Uh huh. How can you possibly know every consultant?”

“I don’t, but I know the special ones, and Susan is special. Actually I know a lot of them and have made their lives my major concern. But now I want to take the love I’ve poured into them and concentrate it on my family.”

“How do you expect to balance your job and your family?”

“I don’t,” I said. “I no longer want my job to define me. I’m planning on retiring and selling my interest in Bliss to my partner.”

She smiled broadly. “My aunt will miss you. She talks fondly of you and thinks of you as family.” Suddenly her face became clouded again. “Do you plan to start another business?”

“No. I’m going to be a wife and a mother. . .if I can find a way to convince you to change your mind.”

“You already have,” she said, her face once again beaming. “Once you and Asher are married, we will start in earnest to find you a wonderful child. You should be a mom within a year.”

I floated out of her office, feeling tremendously lucky for the millionth time. Everything in my life had happened for a reason. I had long since lost any desire for further recriminations against Greg and Curt.

~I actually owe them a debt of gratitude for helping me become a complete person.~

My fingers twirled my engagement ring. Asher had it inscribed to say, “May we always trust in our love.”

The person who had misled me the most in my life had been me. I had consistently talked myself into a disappointing life as Erik . . . an existence that on the surface seemed okay, but one that really hadn’t fit me.

The lessons Mom had taught me about trusting people and moving forward in life through great leaps of faith -- had served me well. She had said, “If we don’t trust anyone, we can’t even eat a casserole.” How very true.

By trusting Kim, Mom, Dawn, the thousands of sales consultants, the manufacturers, Asher, and finally -- my true self. . .I had become Bethany. For Bethany, everything was coming up roses.

The End

Thank you to early readers: Laika, Erin, Dimelza, Kelly Ann Rogers, Sarah Lynn Morgan, and Susie Heywood.



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