Esme Chapter 2
What happens after a transformation? Esme lives in New York and works as a journalist. She has a secret, one she thought she'd left behind in England. Then she comes across a strange case. A child who suffers from a condition that effects the way their body reacts to hormones. Slowly he is transforming from male to female. A condition so rare it has only one other confirmed case. Esme.
Part 2: Adorkable in Western PA
Thanks to everyone at Transcripts TG Fiction for all their support and help. Even that ditzy maid!
“Is this it?” Immediately Esme felt cruel. Jay didn’t have to offer to drive.
“She may look a little beat up but she’ll more than do the job,” Jay brushed it off, holding the passenger side door for her. It was an old Honda. A piece of the rubber from the bumper was missing. Esme looked down at the rear bumper and saw a collection of dings and places where the paint chipped. “Admiring the tats?” he said, with a laugh. “You’re not really a New Yorker until you don’t care anymore about parking on the street.”
“Ah,” she said, as much to fill space as anything. “You call your car a ‘she’?”
“It’s the way she purrs.”
“Just shut up and drive,” she said as he closed the door, lifting it up slightly then slamming it shut.
She always found it strange leaving New York. Like leaving a protected enclave. While British cities had blurred lines between the urban and the rural, it seemed to her that there was a vast expanse of the unknown just past the suburbs.
Jay navigated through the streets of Brooklyn to the Battery Tunnel. “Google Maps says we should take the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to Staten Island,” she said, staring at her phone.
He laughed, “Google Maps is wrong. We’ll take the Battery Tunnel, loop around the bottom of Manhattan and take the Holland. The BQE will be a parking lot,” he said. “How long have you lived here?”
“Ten years, in August,” she said.
“Then you should know to call it the BQE. And that you should always avoid it. That and the Belt.”
‘Smug aresehole,’ she thought. She held her tongue. He had offered to drive. As they came up on the west side, she leaned her head against the window, staring upwards.
“You must have seen those buildings a thousand times,” Jay admonished her.
“Not like this.” The sun glinted off the glass windows creating bright spots in front of her eyes. They had set off extra early and it felt like they had the city to themselves. A couple of years ago, she read a book about Manahatta, Manhattan before the explorers. It had said that concrete buildings were the strongest man made structures. There are concrete aqueducts built by the Romans still standing in parts of Europe. That the skeletons of New York’s towers will still be standing thousands of years after the death of the human race.
“How long?” They had just passed through Jersey City and got on the Jersey Turnpike, the traffic clearing up like magic. She looked out the window at the dismal industrial skyline of northern New Jersey. The chemical plants and the dingy apartment buildings loomed before them.
“A little over six hours. Probably nearer to seven or eight once you factor in lunch and toilet breaks.”
She sighed, it hadn’t looked that far on Google maps. She still looked at maps and saw the scale of her homeland. You could drive seven hours from London and be in Edinburgh. The idea that you could drive seven hours and go through basically two states was still bizarre, after all these years.
“Can you reach the bag on the back seat?” Esme looked around. At a stretch she could. “My Bluetooth speaker is in there if you want music. Once we get into Western Jersey, the radio stations turn to crap.”
She did. She felt awkward stretching across. Her t-shirt rode up a little. It felt odd to be so close to him. Once she’d found it, she sat back down. Jay passed her his phone.
“The code is 081677. The date Elvis died,” he said conversationally.
‘Of course it is,’ she thought. Scrolling through she saw it was mostly rock and ‘alt-rock’ with a few nods to hip hop. “Johnny Cash or the Ramones?”
“Cash.” He nodded, “It feels like we are driving away from the Ramones and heading towards Cash country.”
She laughed, “I dare say you’re right. Do you mind if I roll down the window?”
“It fucks with the AC,” he looked concerned.
“Only for a little bit. I want to feel the wind in my hair.” She smiled what she hoped what was a winning smile.
“You don’t have any hair,” he laughed.
She ran her fingers through her short cropped hair, “I have enough.”
Again he laughed, “Alright, Thelma, let's drive windows down for a bit.”
They crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. “Welcome to Pee-yay,” he said. “Wanna go see the Crayola factory?” he said, with a laugh.
She looked him up and down. “Is that some kind of bad pickup line?”
He laughed, “Nope. Easton, PA,” she noticed how he kept calling it ‘pee-yay,’ with a weird sense of pride. “Home of Crayola crayons. My parents took me and my sister when I was a kid.” It was hard to imagine him as a child. She pictured his mother giving birth to a fully formed adult, with sunglasses.
Their first stop was Allentown. All she knew about it was it was north of Philly and New York hated Philly, and vice versa. The diner was what British people thought of when they thought of America. A chrome edged counter stretching down one side, red leather covered seats and Formica tables, with a jukebox at the table. They picked their seats and waited for the waitress. She idly flicked through the titles. Heavy on classic rock - Bon Jovi, Springsteen, everything she thought of when she thought of New Jersey.
“I’m curious,” said Jay, “what do English people think of when they think about Philly?”
She thought for a moment, “Spreadable cheese and Will Smith being born and raised in the west part.”
She paused, “Well, didn’t they give Tom Hanks AIDS?” She worried she’d gone too dark but was interrupted by the waitress.
The waitress was a middle-aged woman who hardly looked at their faces. She wore a blue uniform Esme had thought no longer existed outside Twin Peaks conventions. They both ordered black coffee, with pancakes for Jay and scrambled eggs for Esme.
It was early enough that there were men in suits entering the establishment. Two of them took the booth behind Esme.
“I’ve shifted fifty units this month,” The first man’s voice was loud and brash.
“That’s not bad, I’m just shy of sixty,” the second man undercut his friend, “I’ve been down in Florida. Things are picking up there.”
Esme and Jay caught each other’s eyes and silently laughed.
The two men continued talk about the best markets. They went into detail about their colleagues, none of whom they rated.
Back in the car they laughed out loud, “So Jay, how many units did you sell this quarter? I banked a hundred this week alone.” Esme spoke with an exaggerated American accent.
“One hundred? Well Esme that sounds respectable. I’m on a thousand, just in the last two days.”
“A thousand? Well don’t misunderstand me Jaysworth, when I say one hundred I’m talking in thousands…” They carried on for a while.
Once they left Allentown, the road became flat and dull. She thought she might see hills, houses, even billboards for tacky roadside attractions. Instead, what she saw was road. Roads and trucks. Aside from the odd tree or house there was little for her to concentrate on. She imagined her mind spreading out, filling the vast space. The car became quiet as she watched the flat landscape pass by.
They stopped at a fast food restaurant for lunch. Five Guys. “Five Guys, Five Guys Burgers and Fries,” Jay sang while they pulled into the lot. When she stared at him, he said “never heard the jingle?”
“How far now?” Esme dipped a French Fry into her ketchup.
“We’re about halfway. Perhaps a little over.”
Esme groaned, arching her stiff back and stretching her arms.
“What do you want to do when we get there?”
She slumped forward. She had been trying not to think about it, “Check into the motel then go find the Sheriff’s office?” It had seemed like such a good idea yesterday, now she wasn’t so sure. What could she do? It wasn’t like she was some private eye from the movies. There would be no mysterious clues and hidden passages. All she could do was interview people and hope.
It was about 3:30pm when they reached the motel. It looked like most motels she’d seen, a parking lot surrounded by low rise buildings. When she first came to America, she’d imbued such places with a sense of sadness and romantic disconnection. They reminded her of the photos of old rock stars in California, lounging by a pool, or maybe that picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. What she saw was an empty pool, with a crack running down the side and surrounded by chain link fence. She hoped for a comfortable bed and edible food. After collecting their keys, they went to their rooms. Separate but next to each other. They were on the second floor and as far away from the parking lot as was possible.
They stood next to each other, both struggling with their keys. “Shower and rest, then we head out?”
“Sounds good,” she gave him a weary smile just as her door finally gave way. She flopped down on the bed as soon as she was inside. Amazed at how tired sitting in a car had made her.
She lay there her eyes closed, somewhere in the background she could hear a gentle hum. Too tired to sleep, she shifted uneasily. Around ten minutes later, she heard the shower turn on next door. She turned and looked at the wall separating their two rooms. Her mind blank she just watched the wall, until the shower turning off jolted her back into the real world. Looking at her watch she saw that there was no time to snooze.
Her arms and legs feeling like lead, but she dragged herself into her shower. The bathroom was decorated in avocado green, every fourth tile had a picture of a dolphin jumping out the water. The main light didn’t work so the only light source was the orange light of the lamp over the mirror.
Jay knocked on her door. “Ready to go?” He was wearing a blue t shirt that said, ‘Penn State’ with a stylized lion and jeans and a faded yellow baseball cap with a black bill and a black ‘P.’
She looked him up and down. “What’s all this?”
He smiled. “What’s all what?”
“The shirt. The hat.”
“The cap,” he said, pronouncing cap clearly, “is a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, circa 1970-1975. Roberto Clemente. Willie Stargell.” She remembered that the Pirates played baseball and assumed that Clemente and Stargell were the stars then. “The shirt is a Penn State shirt.”
“I gathered that. Going native?”
He smirked. “Going not?”
She was wearing black skinny pants, a tailored jacket and knitted tie. She suddenly felt self-conscious. “Do I look that ridiculous?”
“I’m teasing you. You look,” and he paused, “fine. Besides, once you open your mouth, they’ll figure out you’re not from here. I’m like your local guide.”
“Lead on,” she said. “Show me Western Pee-Yay,” she said, hitting hard on the two syllables.
They drove around the area for a while, Jay pointing out the shells of old plants. They drove past one, its rotting husk surrounded by a rusting fence with a heavy padlock across the gate. “Welcome to paradise,” he said. “That used to employ thousands of guys.”
“What do they do now?”
He looked out. “Wal-Mart. Moved. Died,” he said in the his tone flat, the emotion battered down as if fearing a storm.
She involuntarily touched his arm. “Sorry.”
He looked at her, “what for?”
“I just thought. Your father and all.”
“Eh, yeah, well, what can you do?”
“Besides old steel plants, what else are they known for here?”
He laughed, “the Flood.”
“May 31, 1889,” he said, deepening his voice like a bad radio announcer. “The South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River breaches. When it was done, 2,209 men, women and children were dead.”
“That’s awful. Why do you know that?”
“Every year, when I was in school, they’d take us to the Flood Museum. A museum devoted to the Johnstown Flood,” he said, as if this were the most obvious thing which, she realized, it was. “Want to go one day?”
She laughed, “I try to avoid museums predicated on disasters. Is there anything else?”
“What is Slap Shot?”
He looked at her in disbelief. “Paul Newman movie about minor league hockey. Based on the Johnstown Jets.” She looked at him and smiled. “Really? You’ve never seen it. You have to see it.”
“Mm, it’s next on my list,” she said. “Is there a place to get a drink around here? I could use one before the sheriff.”
He laughed. “A decaying steel town? We can scare something up.”
They drove around until they found a bar. It was a low brick building with a steel awning and a storm door. A neon Yuengling sign was in the window, flickering. They walked inside. There was an old pinball machine in one corner and a jukebox in the other. On the bar was a rack with bags of potato chips. There were two middle aged men at the bar, one black and one white. They had the bodies of old athletes gone to seed. They were wearing Carhartt jackets that looked worn from use, not from effort like the ones she used to see in Williamsburg. They walked up to the bar. The bartender looked at Jay, then her, then Jay and smiled, trying to figure out what was going on. “What can I get you?”
Jay held up his hand. “Two Arns,” he said.
“What’s an Arn,” she asked, expecting some weird concoction. The bartender and the two patrons laughed. The bartender pulled two beers and set them down.
“Arn,” Jay said, laughing. “Iron City. Local beer.” He held up his beer and pointed it at the two men. He looked at Esme and grinned. “Too early for an Imp and an Arn,” he said, to the two men.
“Five o’clock somewhere,” the black man said, with a smile. He looked at Esme. “Where are you from?”
She smiled. “England. Crewe, England.”
“What’s someone from Crewe, England doing in this shithole, no offense, Doug,” he said to the bartender, who waved his arms around as if to say, ‘this palace?’
“My name is Esme Entwistle. I’m a reporter with the New York Reporter,” she said.
The two men glared at her. The white one spoke, “Why are you here?”
“I’m doing a story. About Donald Trump.” The bartender and the men groaned. She stammered, “He said he was the mayor of Pittsburgh, not Paris, and we just wanted to see what people here thought about it.”
The black man spoke, clearly and slowly, “I think it don’t matter who’s in power. Democrats. Republicans. We...will...always...get….fucked. That clear enough for you?”
“Quite. I understand that, believe me. I’m from the north of England. Coal mines. Steel plants. All that or there used to be,” she said.
The bartender looked her up and down. “Really? Is that so? What did your old man do, your highness?”
“He was an engineer. For Rolls-Royce.” The men guffawed. She laughed with them, in an effort to defuse the tension. “First off, they made aircraft engines too. Second, just because you worked somewhere that makes expensive things doesn’t mean they paid you that way too.”
“That’s the truth,” the white man said. He looked at Jay, “And what about you? You buy some western PA to English phrasebook? Who’s your favorite Pirate of all time?”
Jay laughed, “This like a war movie where they ask the German who Babe Ruth was? All time - Clemente, has to be. Favorite I saw - Slick.” He looked at Esme. ‘Andy Van Slyke,’ to which she responded ‘Of course.’ “That good enough?”
The men laughed. “Where are you from?”
“Uniontown.” He stuck out his hand. “Jay Stepanik.”
The bartender spoke, “You related to a George Stepanik?”
Jay smiled. “Big guy? 6’3”? About 300 lbs?” The man smiled and nodded. “My uncle.”
The bartender spoke. “Worked for him at Franklin Division.” He turned to Esme, “Steel plant,” which he pronounced ‘still plant.’
“Is that what we drove past?” she asked. Jay nodded.
“He’s a good guy. How’s he doing?”
“Silicosis,” Jay said. “Ten years ago.” The men just nodded, understanding what was said.
“So, she’s a reporter. What are you, her boyfriend? Take her to all the best places?” he said, waving his hand around.
“Oh god, no,” Esme snapped, at which the men laughed and looked at Jay, who smiled and shrugged. “He’s my photographer. A photographer with the newspaper. Well, anyway, I really want to know what you think of the whole ‘mayor of Pittsburgh, not Paris’ thing…”
The white man smiled. “Not your love life, is that it?”
She turned beet red. “Yes, fine, not my love life.”
He laughed, “I’m just teasing you. What do I think? I think it’s all just bullshit. Not a single job will come back here. I don’t believe a word he says.”
“Did you vote for Hillary?”
“Hell, no,” he said.
“Because she’s had eight years, twice, once with her husband and once with Obama, to help me and they didn’t do shit. May as well give someone else a shot.” He looked amused at her look of shock. “People in New York don’t get it. We’ve been fucked here since forever. Coal, steel, cars, it all comes and goes. Democrats, Republicans, we get screwed so why not elect him? What do I have to lose?” ‘The world. The next war. The environment,’ thought Esme.
“So what do you do for a living now?”
The white man spoke, “I drive an Access-A-Ride. Pick up old people and take ‘em to appointments. That’s the growth industry here - old people.”
The black man spoke, “Work at Conemaugh Valley Hospital in maintenance. $12.00 an hour. Non-union,” he said. He pointed at Jay, “Smart move leaving. Shoulda left in the 80s. Moved South.”
“How come you didn’t?” Esme asked.
“Family. Family here.” He looked at Jay, who looked away.
The white man spoke, “Plus, you figured the good times would last. Bethlehem Steel wasn’t going nowhere. Until it did.” He shrugged. “Well, anyway, that’s it, Ms. Esme Entwistle from Crewe, England. Good luck on your story. Not what you thought, huh?”
Esme looked down. She then took down their information, names, ages, histories. As they left the bar, Jay took out his wallet and held up two fingers. “Imps and Arns.” He looked at the men. “Five o’clock somewhere.”
She sat on a plastic chair waiting for the Sheriff. She could see through an internal window into the offices. They looked reassuringly like offices everywhere. Standard desks with the usual personal effects. Was there one place that made them all? One desk had three family photos on it and what looked like a homemade mug, the handle missing and now used to hold pens. The next was untidy, piled high with folders and paper.
Esme was regretting her choice of outfit. Back in New York it had seemed professional,now she felt like a caricature. She was sat there for a good thirty minutes, watching people come and go. She needn’t have worried. Most hardly even glanced at her. She was happy enough with that.
“Ms, actually,” she regretted her sharpness immediately. The man standing over her looked tired and stressed, like overworked public servants everywhere. He was tall, over six foot. He had a small paunch, but apart from that looked in good shape. From his size and stance, she pegged him for a former football player. The American type, of course. “Sorry sir,” she tried to stand up, he was close to her, “It’s been a long drive. Yes, I’m Esme Entwistle.”
“I’m Sheriff Rees,” he said, not offering his hand. “Esme. Unusual name,” he turned and started walking down the hall. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed him.
“Esme was my grandmother’s name,” she had to walk fast to keep up. “She died just before I was born.”
Sheriff Rees opened a door with ‘Sheriff Orson Rees’ written on it in faded gold letters. It opened into a single office. One wall was filled with filing cabinets. In the middle was a large desk with two chairs either side. The first, a comfortable looking chair with arm rests, the other more simple, plastic with minimal padding. The Sheriff took the chair with the arm rests and motioned for Esme to sit on the other.
Before she sat she took in the message board on the opposite wall. It had a number of different police posters on it. Mostly missing persons with the odd anti-drug one. Some had faded.
“I wanted to speak to you in here,” he reached behind him and pulled out two objects, one a gun, the next a heavy duty looking set of handcuffs. “This case isn’t to leave this room. Can I trust you?”
She nodded her head, all the time unable to keep her eyes off the handcuffs.
He leaned back, watching her closely. She shifted in her seat. Had it been designed to be uncomfortable for the sitter? “I guess I have no other choice.” He eventually said.
“Does the, er, other case know I’m here?”
Rees shook his head, “I thought it best not to get hopes up before I was sure about you.”
“Well, that makes sense sir.” She was aware of the reverence Americans reserved for their police. Comes from them being allowed to carry guns, she thought. There was some significance in the cops here being a police ‘force’ and at home a ‘service’.
“Please, call me Rees,” for the first time he smiled. Esme found herself relaxing, having not realised she was so tense, “Everyone else does.”
“Thank you Rees. I’m here to get answers myself.”
They talked for a while. The family was well known locally. The father had worked as the head of accounts at the Johnstown office of a regional property developer. That was before the crash. Now he worked as temp between different small firms, but at least he worked. “For around here, he does OK,” Rees explained, “he helps out at the church. She’s active in raising money for the school.”
“Are there any children?” she had deliberately opted to leave her notebook at the motel, “other than the one I know about.”
“No, just him.”
“When can I meet the family?” she was eager to get on.
Rees rubbed his chin. He had a firm jawline, covered in stubble. She could see the grays amongst the darker hairs. “Where are you staying?” She gave him the name of the motel, “I need to speak to them first.” He looked at his watch. She was impressed he still told the time that way. Most people in New York had stopped wearing them, and if they did it was more of a fashion statement. The watch Rees wore was chipped. The silver paint coming off to reveal the blue underneath.
“How about I pick you up around 7? We can have dinner around our house. I’m sure Mrs Rees will be happy to have company.”
“That would be lovely,” she thought of mentioning Jay, but didn’t want to spook them.
“Good, I’ll get one of my officers to take you back to the motel.”
Riding in the back of a police car was a new experience for her. The sound of the doors locking, the wire mesh barrier separating her from the driver. The officer who took her was a Hispanic woman in her late twenties called Torres. Torres spoke very little. Occasionally Esme caught her glancing in the rear view mirror at her. Her expression was unreadable.
Back at the motel, she knocked on Jay’s door. He wasn’t there. She went to her room and collapsed on the bed. She still had a couple of hours before the meal. She texted Jay to say she would be meeting again with the Sheriff. She left out the stuff about being invited around to his house. Her eyes felt heavy. She set her alarm for an hour later.
It seemed like only a few seconds had passed when the alarm went off. If anything, her head was more cloudy than before her nap. She staggered into the bathroom and splashed water on her face. Looking up she saw the shadows under her eyes. They looked dark in the unkind light. Sighing she began the job of reapplying her make-up. It was fifteen minutes past when her phone buzzed telling her Rees was downstairs. Leaving her room there was still no sign that Jay had returned. She looked at her phone and was a little cross that there was no reply for her earlier text. Could he have got himself into trouble?
Rees was leaning against his car smoking a cigarette. She could see its small pinpoint of light from the stairs.
“Don’t tell Donna,” he threw the butt on the floor, crushing it underneath his foot. He opened the passenger door for her. It made a satisfying clunk noise when it closed behind her.
They drove through street after street of houses. Esme counted at least fifteen ‘For Sale by Bank’ signs.
The Rees house was in a small cul-de-sac. She could hear the humming of a motorway from not far away. There was a basketball hoop above the garage door, missing its net, and a broken wooden gate leading around the back.
Rees’s brown shirt rode up his arm as he unlocked the front door. She could see the hairs on his forearms in the light from the porchlight.
Entering the corridor he called out for his wife. Esme heard a faint female voice calling back. He lead her into the living room.
“Evan,” Rees called out to a boy, no older than fourteen, sat on the sofa. He didn’t look up from whatever was happening on his phone. “Evan, where’s your manners? Say hello to Ms Entwistle.”
“Huh,” Evan looked up. His father laughed when the boy did a double take. Esme was uncomfortable with the amount of time he spent looking her up and down.
Still chuckling to himself Rees lead her into the kitchen. “Meet my better half.”
Donna turned around. She was a middle aged woman with her red hair tied up on top of her head. She was a good looking woman. Age and tiredness had done little to diminish her looks.
“Hello dear. Orson told me we were having a visitor. All the way from New York?”
“That’s right. Just arrived here earlier today.” A large metal pot simmered on the hob in front of Mrs Rees. The steam had clouded up the window. Behind her she noticed Evan slinking into the room. “Thank you for having me in your lovely house, Mrs Rees.”
The woman smiled at her, “Why, aren’t you polite? And you can call me Donna.”
“Esme,” she felt uncomfortable. Like she was playing tennis trying to keep the ball from hitting the floor.
“What a lovely name. What accent is that?”
“English,” she said.
Instinctively, Esme said, “God no. Near Manchester in the northwest of England. Crewe.”
“Is that near Wales?” Rees asked.
“Not far,” Esme said. “Are you Welsh? I thought from the name perhaps.”
He laughed. “Generations back, I guess. Came here to mine coal. No more coal though. What do they do in Crewe?”
She took a deep breath. “They make trains and cars. Used to be Rolls Royces, now it’s Bentleys only.”
Evan perked up, “Did you have one?” She thought ‘do they all ask this,’ and then realized he was a fourteen-year old boy, the one group that should ask this.
She laughed, “Not quite. My father worked for the company, not at that level unfortunately. He was an engineer. So was my grandfather.”
“Then the plant closed?” Donna said.
“Privatised, then sold off to foreign buyers. The Germans I think. There’s still a factory but it employs much less people now.” she said.
“The government sold their shares in the company. It used to make all the engines for the air force.”
“Same as here. First, the mines closed. Then, the steel plants. Bet the people in London did OK for themselves, am I right?” Donna said. She was shocked by her cynicism.
Esme paused and smiled, “Always.”
As they sat around the table, Evan talked about his latest school project. They were researching local history.
“So there were a lot of Welsh settlers in the area?”
“Early on, yes,” Evan spoke while shoving food in his mouth. Like many boys his age, he acted like he was in a constant rush to get somewhere and ate like it was his last meal.
“Is that where the name Cambria comes from?” She looked at the family’s faces, “Cambria? It comes from Cymru, which is the Welsh word for Wales.”
“You learn something new every day,” Esme couldn’t tell if Orson was deadpanning. She stopped talking and found it hard to look up from her food.
Evan said, “May I be excused?”
Rees said, “Go ahead.”
“Orson,” Donna said. “He’s not finished.”
He looked at her, then Esme and then back again. “He’s done.”
Donna looked surprised, then a look of recognition came over her face. “Oh, of course. Orson said that you worked on something similar in England….”
Esme paused. “Um, yes.”
“That poor child. I still don’t understand how it happened. It makes no sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.” She thought she felt her phone buzzing. She was wondering if it was Jay and where he was. “Excuse me, my phone is buzzing.” She took it out - no missed calls, no messages. “That’s odd.”
Rees laughed, then looked at Donna. “You’re all the same. Phantom buzzing. You’re so attached to it, you think it’s buzzing when it isn’t.”
Esme smiled, “I am a reporter. I get calls,” she said, not really believing it.
“Sure,” he said, with a smile. “Reporter. Right. That’s why….”
With Evan out of the room, Orson spoke, “So I’ve talked to the family. If you’re ready, you can go over tomorrow.”
Esme looked nervously at Donna.
“Don’t worry,” Orson said, “she knows the story.”
“About you, yes,” he said. “She won’t say anything.”
Donna smiled. “I’m a cop’s wife. I know how to keep a secret.” Then she took on a serious tone. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like. Did your family cope?”
“Yes, badly.” Esme winced at her own joke. Her reporter’s instinct kicked in. It was easier than thinking. “What can you tell me about this family?”
“The Jankowskis. They’re good people, we met them through the church.” While she listened to Donna, she watched Orson. He sat back in his chair, his big hand brought a glass of orange juice up to his lips, but he never took his eyes off them. His movements were slow and purposeful.
“Aiden, the, erm, ‘case’ was a good, er, kid. Always got good grades, played on the baseball team.”
“Were there ever any signs?” She had often wondered that of herself.
“He was quiet, but so’s the father,” Donna said. “Tall for a girl. If that’s what he is now.”
“It wasn’t like he played with Barbie dolls or anything,” Orson interjected.
“He always stuck by his mother,” Donna said thoughtfully.
“Not so you would notice,” Esme smiled at Orson standing up for the child, “Remember how Evan used to cling to you back at St. Mike’s?” She assumed that was their church.
Donna chuckled, “Aiden was a skinny thing. I remember thinking that.”
“Tall and skinny are common traits in AIS. Apparently there’s a high percentage of top models who have it…” her voice trailed off, worrying that she’d sounded big headed.
Orson chuckled, “Well at least the poor boy has a career to fall back on. I wouldn’t go telling them that now though.”
“Do you have a picture?” Esme asked.
He got up and fetched a work file. She shuddered thinking about why Aiden needed a sheriff’s work file. After a little rummaging he pulled out two pictures. One showed a wiry boy in a baseball uniform beaming next to someone she assumed was the boy’s father. The next picture was clearly the same boy, only it wasn’t. The same open, round face but the grin was more wary. The child’s dirty blond hair was cut short but it was clearly a girl. She was tall for her age, like Donna had said. Anyone looking at it would see a tomboy just entering puberty which, on balance, was a pretty fair description.
After she handed the photos pack to Orson he stood up, placing his knuckles on the wooden table, “I should take you back, you must be tired.”
She was a little taken aback, she wanted to ask more, “What time do you think we can meet them tomorrow?”
“Bob, Aiden’s father, finishes work at five. We’ll go over there at six, if that works.”
“Sounds good,” she’d have to find something to occupy herself with through the day. That made her wonder about Jay. She quickly checked her phone. There was nothing.
They drove through the silent streets. In the background, the radio murmured classic rock.
“You keep checking your phone.” Orson kept his eyes on the road as he spoke.
“Work,” she lied, “It’s funny, the world continuing in New York while I’m here.” She’d had one text from Freya teasing her about Jay and two work emails. Both were group emails about company policies.
“The world turns here as well, you know,” he said with a smile. “People are born, they live, they die, all that. Never go to New York.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” she shifted in her seat, “I meant my life. My friends and work colleagues.”
They shared a cigarette, leaning on the car, outside the motel. It had been a long time since Esme last smoked. The smoke burned her throat, causing her to cough. The motel had a series of blue fairy lights running along the outside of the building. They shimmered in the heat. Again she glanced at her phone, again nothing.
After he had left, she bought a bottle of water from the vending machine and headed straight for her room. Jay’s room was ominously quiet, the note she had written earlier still poking out from underneath the door. For a moment she thought of calling Orson back, but knew she’d look silly. What reason did she have to expect Jay to call in with her? Was he in a bar somewhere? Who was he with?
It was only when she climbed into bed that she realised how tired she was. Every muscle seemed to be complaining at once. She didn’t remember falling asleep.
She woke needing the bathroom. The room was still, the changing light of the motel sign crept under and around the curtains. Coming from New York, she could really hear the silence. The clock on her phone said just after 3am. There was a text.
Jay; ‘Sorry, phone died on me. Got lots of good photos. Catch up over a late breakfast?’
She tossed her phone to one side and headed to the toilet. When she returned, she lay there unable to sleep. She punched her pillow, trying to make it fit better, then punched the mattress a couple of times for good luck. It was nearly five before she managed to slip back asleep.
“Did you sleep OK?”
“Huh. OK I suppose.” She gave Jay a weak smile, then turned back to staring out of the window.
The waitress, a young woman with the faded remnants of a purple dye job in her blond hair, came over. She placed a plate of eggs in front of Esme. She gave her a warmer smile.
“What do you want to do with the day?”
She kept eyes on the parking lot outside, refusing to look at him, “You said you’ve sent photos to Freya and MM?”
“Yes, like we agreed.” Tension in his voice.
“Well, I guess I’m going to have to spend the day writing my article, aren’t I.” she gave a shrug of her shoulders and an annoyed little click of her tongue, “Realistically I mean.”
“Do you have enough for it? We should go out and get more local color.”
She just shook her head, still looking away. They finished their food and coffee in silence. Jay occasionally shot her glances, although she tried not to look.
After finishing his pancakes and bacon he looked directly at her, “OK. Be like that,” he threw some cash on the table and got up.
“Like what?” Her eyes darted to him. She’d been so completely angry. It had filled every part of her. After a few short words, in a matter of seconds, it had all disappeared. It was replaced with fear. “What have I done?!”
“You know what.” With that he left.
She slumped in her chair, feeling like shit.
“Do you want more coffee?” The waitress made Esme jump. What had she heard?
“Can I get one to go?” she wanted out of there.
“That’s extra,” her terse tone convinced Esme she’d heard, and judged everything.
“I-I-don’t mind paying. How much?” She fumbled getting her wallet out of her jacket pocket. Around her she could feel the harsh looks of others closing in on her. She remembered returning to school. Sitting in the middle of class as a teacher ‘explained’ what had happened. All those eyes fixed on her.
She tossed the change on the table and stood up, almost pushing the waitress backwards as she slid out of the seat. She grabbed her jacket and moved as quickly as she could. Jay’s car had gone. The motel was only two blocks away, but she’d hoped to catch him.
Her t-shirt was soaked through with sweat by the time she reached her room. Her pale skin was born to cope with flint-grey skies, not the harsh, almost white sun here. She lay on her bed, all energy having drained away. After a few minutes she checked her phone, nothing. Five minutes later she checked it again. The thought of just staring at a silent phone was too much. She picked it up and began typing.
Esme; “Sorry, I was a bitch. Forgive me?”
She put the phone down on the bed without sending. She watched the screen, her finger hanging over the ‘send’ button, until the screen went to black. She thumped the back of her head against the pillow, not realising how thin it was. Her skull met the cheap wooden headboard. The pain was sharp but short lived, but still it felt more real than anything else.
Eventually she needed something, anything to keep her mind focused. She picked up her laptop and started on her article.
Whenever she heard a car pull into the lot, she would stop and walk slowly over to the window, twitching the curtains open. From where she was, she couldn’t see the cars. She would count the minutes after the engine was killed. One time she heard the footsteps coming her way, but eventually they turned off in a different direction. The door to Jay’s room stayed closed.
Jay’s photos were beautiful. He really was talented. In the harsh sun, the buildings looked bleached out. The towers of the old factories looked like the apocalypse had come to Renaissance Italy. The ones taken later in the day were covered in long shadows. There was one showing two boys, possibly brothers, standing in the middle of the street. The older one held a baseball bat and his brother’s hand. While the street was bathed in the sun, the two boys were hidden by the shadow of large red-brick building. On the building was a sign saying ‘All sales final. Going out of business’. A few clicks later and it was her laptop’s wallpaper.
She picked up her phone. The unsent text was staring back at her. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and hit send.
Her brain cleared for the first time and she started work. She found the article came fast. She used a couple of the stories she’d picked up with Jay. One about paying into a savings account over a year to pay for his little boy’s Christmas present. The other about a guy who couldn’t get a mortgage just because his zip code was flagged up as a ‘danger’. The guy claimed he’d never had any serious debt his whole life (‘lived here my whole life, saw what happened when people thought it would never end.’) One illustrating the hope and resilience of people living around there, the other how the system was stacked against them.
In all, it took her the best part of two hours. By the time she was finished she was feeling better. She had kept her mind disciplined, focused on the article, putting her phone away in her case. When she finished, she retrieved it, but there was no reply. She sat down on the end of the bed, her shoulders sagging. Had she been that bad?
Her t-shirt was still sticking to her. Lifting her arms she could smell it. After showering she checked her phone again. Still nothing.
Feeling hungry, she went down to the vending machines and bought a chocolate bar and a packet of chips. Back in the room she Googled Aiden Jankowski. After scrolling through a number of other Aidens, she finally found a Facebook page. The last update was from six months ago. The homepage indicated that a number of recent posts by other users had been deleted for failing to live up to community standards. Esme didn’t need to guess what they had been like. She did find some older posts. A picture taken in the holidays, Aiden sitting in between his two younger siblings. A baseball game between two school teams. She guessed the boy in the oversized red helmet was Aiden.
She looked over at her phone again. It was still dead. She hated looking at it and took desperate measures. She texted Freya.
Esme; “I think I’ve [email protected]*ked it up with Jay”
A reply came quickly.
Freya; “There’s a you and Jay :-) Oh no, what did you do?”
What did ‘you’ do, not what happened. Esme turned the phone over in her hands, feeling like she had hot lead in her chest.
Esme: She typed ‘there is no me and Jay,’ and then deleted it angrily. Instead: “He was sweet. I was a bitch.”
She hit send and fell back on the bed, as if admitting the truth had knocked her down. Moments later the phone rang.
“Hey,” she said, suddenly and unexpectedly close to tears.
“Hey you,” she could hear the sound of the office in the background, “I’m just heading to the corridor. Wait up,” she was slightly out of breath. “OK, OK. Tell me what happened.”
Esme felt the lead in her chest cooling as she explained.
“Oh hun, honestly you’re fine.” Esme could hear her smiling across state lines. “You’ve just had your first lovers’ tiff.”
“Shut up,” she sniffed. She hated how much better she felt.
“Honestly the number of times I bit Jason’s head off in the early days.”
“Really?” She had a hard time imagining her friend being difficult, ever.
“Really! You should let him know you were worried. Guys like to know we need them.” There was a pause, “To be fair, I think that’s what we all want.”
Esme looked forward at her laptop and the blank TV screen. For a long time all she wanted was to be left alone. She’d built her whole life around that idea. Could she ever be anything different?
She jumped. There was the tell-tale buzz.
“What?” Freya picked up that there was something going on.
“A text, hang on,” she switched the phone to speakerphone, “From Jay.”
“What does it say?”
“Hang on, hang on,” she was worried she’d press or swipe the wrong thing and lose the call, or the text, or both. She read it through twice before replying to Freya, “He says; ‘no worries,’ he’s sorry he stormed out. Do I want to meet up after seeing the family? There’s a winking face and…” she prepared herself, “and an x,” she couldn’t bring herself to say ‘kiss’. There was a long pause. “You know I can hear you thinking ‘told you so’ from a different time zone.”
Freya laughed, “Western PA isn’t a different time zone,” then, suspiciously but with “what family?” ‘Shit,’ Esme thought. ‘She doesn’t know why I’m here.’
Esme lay back on the bed, hand on her forehead, “Um, a family we’ve met. Half of them voted for Trump, half Hillary. Trying to decide if there’s something there.”
Freya laughed and, in sing-song, said, “You’re lying. He’s meeting his family and wants to take you there.”
“It’s not his family, I promise you that,” Esme said, laughing in the hopes of distracting her.
It worked. “Whatever. I’ve got to get back to work soon, you’re lucky, So, what it’s like there?”
“The nineteen eighties. I half expect the ghost of Thatcher to chase me down the street.”
“I don’t know why you Brits hate Thatcher so much. I mean I know she was conservative, but she was the first female prime minister.”
“First barely human PM,” Esme thought back to the bar yesterday, “I think people around here would get it.”
“Whatever.” She heard Freya sigh, “I’ve got to get back to work. How’s the article coming?”
“Good, I’ll send over the first draft now. Jay’s pictures look fantastic, did you see th…” there was a smug silence coming from the other end, “shut up!”
“OK kitten,” Esme hated it when Freya called her kitten. ‘Cute, but with claws’ she’d said. They had both been stoned at the time, “Call me later. I want to hear everything,” making clear what ‘everything’ meant. She hung up.
Esme looked at the phone again. She read through Jay’s text three or four times before starting a reply, each time her eye catching on the ‘x’. She crafted her text with care and precision, like the opening to an international treaty.
Esme; “No, it was my fault. I was being a cow. I was worried when you didn’t reply to my texts last night,” she stared at the phone for another ten minutes, then added, “x”
After it was sent she returned to her computer and sent Freya the article with a jpeg of Jay’s photo of the two boys. A note attached saying she wanted to use this one. She’d only just sent it when her phone buzzed again.
Jay; “’Cow’, LOL, you’re super English. How about we catch up over tea and crumpets after you meet the family? X”
She replied back saying that, if he made it alcoholic, he had a deal. He sent back a winking face she assumed was a ‘yes’. Then it was done. Had she just arranged a proper date? She paced the room a couple of times. Looking at the clock she still had a couple of hours to kill until six.
Six p.m., the squad car pulled up to the house. “Here we are,” the Sheriff said. It was a one-story brick home, small but neatly kept. It reminded her of her Nan’s bungalow back home. There was an old SUV in the driveway, next to a sedan of the same age as Jay’s. The lawn was mowed and there were bushes in ringing the house. In the back yard, she could see a swing set that clearly hadn’t been used in a couple of years. She assumed that Aiden and his, her siblings had outgrown it but it was too large to easily take down. She would have given anything to go back to a time when her biggest concern was seeing how high she could go.
Walking up the driveway she rubbed the back of her neck. The sun was making it prickly. “They know about me,” Esme said, “right?” She had asked him this four times on the way over.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to ask you not to be nervous. They’ve been through enough.” He got out and opened the door.
“Thank you, Sheriff. I’ll be fine,” she said, smoothing out the non-existent wrinkles in her shirt. She had agonized over what to wear. At first, she had put on a blouse and tailored pants, then thought it too feminine, that it might scare or depress Aiden. Then, she went with a t shirt and skinny jeans, which she dismissed immediately too informal. Would it insult the Jankowskis to show up at their house dressed for a night with Max? She ended up going with the jeans and the blouse and flat shoes.
He rang the bell, a woman opened the door. She was about 5’5” and 160 lbs. Her hair was blond, but she could see the gray starting to peek through. She gave them a fake smile. “Orson,” she said.
“Lorraine,” he said. “This is Esme Entwistle. From England.”
Lorraine looked her up and down, appraising her. Esme thought, ‘am I another woman or am I her son?’ She put out her hand, “Mrs. Jankowski, it’s very ni...well, um, thank you for hav...um, hello.”
The sheriff looked at Lorraine. “Do you want me to stay?”
“No, Orson, you’ve done more than enough, as always. We’ll call when we’re done. Come in, Miss Entwistle,” she said, as she closed the door. She turned to Esme and let out a breath, “thank you for coming. This is, as I’m sure you know, very hard on us all.”
She started to say, ‘I imagine,’ but realized that she didn’t have to. “I know. How is Aiden?” she said. She suddenly felt self-conscious of her clothes, her hair, of her entire being.
They walked towards the kitchen. “He, she...I’m sorry, it’s still very new to me,” she said, tearing up.
Esme looked down at the floor. “I know, Mrs. Jankowski.” She couldn’t bear to look her in the eye. They walked into the kitchen. It reminded her of the kitchen in her parent’s house, small. On the refrigerator, she saw report cards, a school calendar and what appeared to be a magnetic schedule for the Pirates. At the round table sat a man in his 40s. He had the look of a man who opened up a greetings card only to discover a tax bill.
He stood up. Lorraine said, “Esme Entwistle, this is my husband Bob. Bob, this is Esme Entwistle...from England,” she said, pausing and enunciating each word slowly. The blouse she was wearing wasn’t expensive, but Esme could see that she took great care to keep it clean and pressed. The house too. Everything was tidy.
“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Jankowski.”
He looked her up and down. She was used to dealing with the sleazy once-over men gave her in bars, she hadn’t had to deal with this kind of look in a long while. She felt like he was a technician and she was some tech that had developed a fault he hadn’t seen before. “Bob. Call me Bob. Thank you for coming, I guess.”
Esme said, “When the sheriff called, I, uh, knew I had to come. Sorry,” she said, laughing, feeling like she was losing them, “that sounded awful.” She shifted back and forth, trying to decide if she looked too feminine, too masculine or not enough of either. “I mean I...I’m afraid I don’t know what I mean right now.”
They both laughed, she hoped not just to put her at ease. “That makes three of us,” Lorraine said. “I don’t know how else to start this, so I just will. When did you find out? About you, I mean?”
Bob pulled out a chair, a gesture that, for whatever reason, made her feel less self-conscious. Esme sat down, “When I turned thirteen.” They looked at her, waiting for something more. She felt herself slide in the chair and then sat up sharply. “Things started to change. Initially, it was just that I grew suddenly, but my voice wasn’t changing and well….”
Lorraine looked at her. “Well, what?”
“This is awkward, I dare say.”
Bob stared at her, “Ms. Entwistle, please. Don’t feel awkward. This is awkward for all of us,” he laughed nervously, which made her feel better. “Sorry, Laney,” he said.
Esme took a deep breath. She came all this way. “Well, my...uh...testicles weren’t descending and I wasn’t developing facial hair.” She had never said these words aloud to anyone and continued. “My parents weren’t concerned, I mean not concerned enough to take me to the doctor when I asked about it.”
“How did you find out?” Lorraine asked.
“I went for my annual physical and the doctor looked at me and was concerned. My penis was, as he said, severely underdeveloped.”
“That’s what the doctor said about Aiden.”
“Well, yes. And then, well, my body began changing. I began to develop...in my chest and hips. My...down there...became less… well more female. Eventually, the blood work and genetic tests determined that I had it.”
“That sounds like Aiden,” Lorraine said.
“I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry,” Esme said. Sorry for what? She’d spent some time in Spain. A Catalan friend had once told her that, for the Spanish an apology was an admission of guilt. In the English speaking world it was an expression of sympathy.
“Did they ever determine what caused it?”
Esme said, “No. They said it was a ‘genetic abnormality.’”
“That’s awful,” Bob said. “They told a kid that?”
“Well, I mean...I think it was supposed to be helpful.”
They both laughed quietly, Lorraine saying, “I’d hate to see harmful then.” Esme laughed, grateful for the joke, such as it was. She wasn’t ready to tell them how they removed her testicles, to prevent cancer later on. She was sure that they had read it on the Internet, but felt it cruel to say it out loud. To them and her.
“How is Aiden doing?”
“How did you do?”
“Hm.” They looked at her. “Sorry, that’s a loaded question.”
They sat around for a few minutes. “Would you like to meet Aiden?” Bob asked.
“Is he, she up to it? I’m sorry, but what pronoun does Aiden prefer?”
Lorraine looked at her and said, “Prefer? Or use?”
“How about I just stick with Aiden for now?”
Bob walked off to get him. She could hear the sound of a low-volume argument through the walls, then shuffling down the hall.
“Ms. Entwistle, this is Aiden. Aiden, this is Ms. Entwistle from England.” Aiden shuffled in, his blond hair growing to just below his ears. He was wearing a t shirt and shorts, his legs pale and hairless. She could see the beginnings of breasts and a slight curve to his hips, she thought. Or was that just what she expected to see?
Esme and Aiden stared at each other. Esme had no idea how to deal with teenagers. She thought back to when she was one and shuddered, remembering ‘freak’ and ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘tranny.’ She thought she’d left that behind on a former 1960s council estate in Cheshire. From what she saw on Facebook, her brother, Nick had a daughter who appeared to be about Aiden’s age, but they had never met. Esme stuck out her hand, “Hi Aiden, I’m Esme. It’s very nice to meet you.
She saw Aiden look at her arm. She had no body hair below her eyebrows, one of the indicia of the condition. He looked at her arm, then his, then hers again. “Hi,” he said, listlessly sticking out his hand.
“Would you like to go into the living room?” Lorraine said. “It’s more comfortable.”
“Whatever’s best for all of you, Mrs. Jankowski.” They walked in. “You have a lovely home.” On the hallway wall between the kitchen and living room was family portraits and photos. She could see last year’s photo. Aiden, his father and his younger brother in shirts and ties and his mother and sister in dresses. She remembered the picture over the fireplace in Crewe, pre-teen Philip in his football kit. She couldn’t remember another photo in the house after that and willed herself not to cry.
“So how was it?” The bar was in the front of a little restaurant, around the corner from their motel. The decorations suggested Mexico. If Mexico could be summed up by big hats and novelty toys with moustaches. Jay downed his tequila and started on his beer.
“Awkward. It was hard to know what to say. The parents looked like there had been a bereavement in the family.” She toyed with her beer bottle, attempting to take the label off in one perfect sheet.
“You can’t blame them I suppose. It’s not like there’s a handy leaflet explaining what to do. How about the kid?” They sat at the bar, around them a middle aged man with dyed black hair set up the tables.
“Damn!” The label had ripped. “He was OK. Shy at first, a little sad. Angry whenever the subject came round to the doctors who they’ve seen.” She put the three remaining pieces of label on the bar, placing them together like a jigsaw puzzle. She thought of Aiden, how he couldn’t sit still, hugging a pillow against himself. His intense stare that never seemed to leave her. As if he was trying to commit to memory her every move.
“Do you think they will do an exclusive interview for you?” She remembered Aidan’s mom and dad leaving the room to make coffee. How Aiden had whispered, ‘can I get pregnant?’. The relief on his face when she’d told him no.
She shrugged, unable to meet his eye, “Possibly,” a pause, “Probably even. If we can get MM to cough up some cash. The medical bills are killing them.”
“Not covered by their insurance?”
“Damn.” She looked up at him. He seemed genuinely concerned. He was older than her, and his hairline was showing the first signs it was about go into retreat, but his face was boyish. In the right light, when he wasn’t stressed or tired, he could pass for being in his twenties.
The waiter showed them to their table. He lit a candle, and placed in a used wine bottle. It sat in the middle of the table making it hard for Esme to see Jay without leaning to one side.
“So what next?”
She took a gulp of beer, a little bit spilling onto her chin. She hoped the candle and bottle had hid that from Jay’s view. “I’ll write up what I’ve got,” she lied. “Send it to Freya, see what she thinks. If she can persuade MM, I’ll get back in contact with Bob and Lorraine. Hopefully I can come back as early as next week,” She knew she had to come back, “The article will need pictures too.” And she had to come back with him.
The laminated menus had a cartoon Mexican on the front that reminded her of the Mexico 86 World Cup Logo. She’d been born the same year and her father, expecting a football/soccer mad son, had bought her a mug and t-shirt with the logo on.
Jay reached around the table and pointed at her menu, “This section is less spicy.”
She wanted to snap off his patronising finger, “I’m British. We grow up eating Indian food. I can handle spicy.” She folded her arms, watching his face through the flickering flame, “What’s the spiciest thing on the menu? I’ll have that.”
Her face was red, she didn’t need a mirror to know that. She could feel little beads of sweat running down her forehead.
“How is it?” she could tell Jay was fighting back his amusement.
“Fine,” she said, her voice tense. She put another spoonful in her mouth. Immediately her tongue began to burn. She broke, “Fine. It’s not fine! Water, I need water!” She grabbed for the jug of water. Jay signalled to the bar for two more beers.
“Don’t laugh,” she sulked, “It’s not fair.”
He laughed harder, “The great Esme Entwistle admitting to weakness. If only the office could see you now.”
“Do they think I’m a bitch?” She looked away.
“No!” he overcompensated, “Just aloof.”
“’Aloof’? I’m sure that’s the language they use down at O’Neil’s,” where some of the younger male staff went after work. It had air hockey, chicken wings and everyone was ‘bro’. “What does Sal say?” Sal, the writer of the tech column, was the king of the Bros, a wannabe tough guy from Queens. He was born a frat boy and would die a frat boy, probably from a mis-tapped keg.
“Sal thinks you work as a dominatrix in your spare time,” Jay took his new beer from the waiter.
Esme went white, she hoped Jay couldn’t see. Sal had come dangerously close to sinking one of her battleships. She took a swig of her new beer, her mouth returning to normal.
“How did they differ?” Jay asked.
“The family you met today from the one in England.”
It took a while for her mind to readjust, “There were differences. Personalities and such. But there were more similarities.”
“How do you mean?”
“The dad angry, impotent, unable to do anything. The mother worn away to almost nothing with worry that won’t end. That kind of thing. I hope they react better than the family in England did.”
“Fell apart, did they?” She nodded. She could see him watching her. “And what about the English kid? How did they take it?”
‘The English kid’, “About as badly as you’d expect. It’s not something anyone prepares you for. Your dad can hardly look at you, you watch your mum fade away. Your brother is embarrassed to be seen with you at school,” she said, willing back tears.
“Sounds like you’re really invested in this.” He leaned back in his chair. Behind him she could see the only other couple in the restaurant. They were holding hands.
“It’s hard not to, when you get to know the families. You don’t want to let them down.”
He smiled at her.
The drive home the next morning was uneventful. Mostly she dozed, curled up on the passenger seat as best she could.
Jay set up his phone and hit play. A country song came on.
“What is this?” She heard lyrics about rock and roll and James Dean.
“Just listen,” he said. The singer sang, ‘happiness is seeing Lubbock, Texas in your rearview mirror.’ “I always play this when I’m leaving. I hate to admit it.”
She smiled, closing her eyes, “I know what you mean.”
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