An Accidental Meeting

Christmas.

I suppose it must be Christmas - my Facebook feed was filled with trees, Santas and such trappings, masses of frosted cookies, reindeer with red noses and Donald Trump in various compromising yuletide positions. As if we didn't get enough pictures of him all the rest of the year… (Could he really do that with eight not-so-tiny reindeer?)

Could I care less?

I guess the people who thoughtfully posted warnings of Christmas Depression must have been thinking of me. This Christmas was turning out to be a real loser. I had the brilliant idea to try some retail therapy this evening after work, ditching the uniform and searching my closet for something special. The mall already had enough security guards of their own, they sure didn't need a jaded twenty-something underemployed man-in-uniform. For that matter, I hadn't much use for a man-in-uniform, either, but after four years of college and a small mountain of debt that's what I ended up being.

So much for my dreams of being a happy worker bee making a difference to the people in his life. Even less chance to dream of something that would make a difference in her life. Four years of training and the human services job market was as empty as Mother Hubbard's cupboard. To quote Scrooge, "Bah, humbug!"

There I go mixing metaphors and fairy tales again. You know you're really down when your bra feels like a noose that slipped a little too far down. Pitiful, sitting on a bench in the mall, clutching your winter coat to your faux bosom, all dressed up and not even interested enough to go into the store across the was and see if they had that cute skirt in my size. Not that I could buy it if they did - the paycheck wouldn't go that far.

It must be depression, why else would I be thinking that crossdressing is pretty stupid even if I was one of the lucky ones who could do it and not have to worry about pointing fingers and horrified glances. Sure I can get dressed up but the best place I could think of to go on December 23 was a lousy mall.

Family? Not so much any more. They just don't understand. Not that they hate me or anything, but there's a distance that neither side can seem to bridge. Friends? Not many, and most of them don't know about this side of me. Pete and Cheryl, the only family that seems comfortable with Carol, are off in Switzerland or Hawaii or some godforsaken place skiing or surfing or something. Depression means you just don't care.

Am I crazy? I want to be Carol for Christmas, enough that Carl isn't interested in going home, but I'm starting to think that Carol isn't worth the effort any more. I hope I remembered to use waterproof mascara because right now I'm about three whiskers away from crying, right here on the bench. Oh, wait - I don't have any whiskers. Crap! I can't even do that right.

"Goddammit Cindy! We have to go right now or we'll miss the bus!" came a loud voice from somewhere nearby.

"Mumble, mumble."

"Well I'm leaving so get your ass in gear or find your own way home!"

"Mumble, mumble."

Maybe I'll get to watch the mall security types in action. Sounds like there's going to be a fight.

"Well screw you! I'm gone!"

"Mumble, mumble."

With all the echoing in the mall it was hard to locate the source of the fight, but with that last exclamation a guy started walking toward the exit, waving his hands in the air. Pretty easy to spot. What I didn't expect to see was a woman in a powered wheelchair fleeing in the opposite direction with a grim look on her face. She was wobbling quite a bit, angry enough to have a problem controlling the chair. It didn't take long to see her wobbling path was headed toward me. (I couldn't say straight toward me,could I, because her path was anything but straight.)

Damn! She had her eyes closed as she prepared to sideswipe me! I was roused from my stupor and barely swung my legs up on the bench in time as she barreled past. I was congratulating myself for quick thinking when I was unceremoniously yanked off the bench and onto the floor as the long, warm skirt I had chosen to cope with the winter weather caught on something sticking out of the wheelchair. The wheelchair considerably outweighed me, but my skirt jammed in one wheel, causing it to spin and whack into the bench where I was sitting. The rider was deposited belly down onto the bench. Since her legs were missing below the knees and she wore a backpack of some sort, she looked like a bit like a misshapen turtle. Her eyes were open now, staring down at me as I lay on the floor beneath her.

"Shit!" she said with obvious effort. It was easier to hear her as the mall had gone dead quiet other than the distant murmur of the courtyard fountain.

"I don't think that shitting would help the situation, especially as I seem to be below you."

"Fuck."

"I don't thank that would work either. I think we're going to need some help untangling ourselves."

"My wig!" I think that's what she said, but her speech was indistinct. I realized that she was now bald and I could see the scars on her head that must have come from brain surgery.

Then it dawned. "My wig?" I blurted. Reaching up I found my security guard crew-cut was there for all the world to see.

"Shit!" It was my turn to swear.

"Yeah." I guess she agreed.

"Are you all right?" Someone had finally made it over to us.

"Nothing broken, I think, but what's the chances of two of us losing our wigs in a crash in the mall? You OK up there? Hey - I don't know your name, I'm Carol."

"Cindy. I don't… talk so good any… more."

"Before or after the crash?"

"Before, silly."

"Darn. If this were a movie you would have recovered your voice after the trauma, just like an amnesiac remembers who he is after he gets hit on the head again."

"Maybe… you could… hit me on the… head?"

"I think it only works for amnesia."

"Darn!"

"I guess that means you're OK, so let's see if someone can get my skirt separated from you wheelchair."

There is now one elderly gentleman who knows I was wearing a red garter belt under my skirt. He seemed impressed but was polite. The green velvet of the skirt was a total loss, torn and greased by the wheels, but fortunately still didn't come much above my knees. Someone rescued our wigs so we both felt a little less conspicuous with nice hair.

A couple of more good Samaritans restored Cindy to her wheelchair, where she fastened the seatbelt she had not used before the accident.

"I hate… this… thing." she said, "But I guess… I better use… it."

"Good idea. If you're going to take up flying you either need a cape or a pilot's licence."

"You're… funny."

"Maybe a trip to the ladies room will help us look a little less funny."

Gratefully thanking our rescuers we made our way to the family restroom so we had room for her wheelchair to maneuver. Paper towels aren't the best for cleanup, but that's what we had. We removed dirt, brushed our wigs and I fixed my makeup. Cindy didn't use makeup, she slowly explained, because her fine motor skills were lousy. I offered to help, but she wasn't sure she wanted to start right then.

"Well, I was trying to decide if I wanted that skirt in the shop window. I think you've helped me decide to get it."

"I'm… sorry."

"Don't be. Come with me and be my fashion consultant."

"I have… to pee… first."

She maneuvered the chair over to the toilet and shucked her pants before I could even say a word. Flipping up the arm of the chair she practically jumped on to the toilet before I could avert my eyes. Do most women do things like this? I know they go to the restroom in bunches, but do they pee with each other, too?

It wasn't a question I could ask.

I looked away until she was finished and I heard the hum of the wheelchair motors.

Fortunately, they had the skirt in my size, The saleslady had seen the whole affair and graciously gave me her employee discount so I was once again looking more like a respectable citizen. Cindy had to wait near the entrance to the store as the aisles were too narrow for her chair and she didn't want to get the clothes greasy. I was beginning to appreciate that my problems were not the only ones in the world.

"Hey, Cindy - It's been a fun date. Want to have a Coke of something before we head home?"

"Sure."

So we talked, taking our time and learning a bit about each other. It was cancer that took her legs and invaded her brain. She was in remission, but you never know. A feisty lady, she was determined to do what she wanted to do and the rest of the world could just get out of her way. Not a bad philosophy, but hard to live every day with her challenges.

"How are you getting home, Cindy?"

"Missed the… bus. Got to… roll. Only four… blocks."

"In the snow? You're crazy!"

"Dare you to… find a…taxi that I can…fit into."

"I guess that goes for my car, too. Then I'll walk with you."

"Why?"

"Because I like you and I don't want you to have another accident tonight."

"You'll wreck… your new… skirt."

"Been there, done that, have the skirt to prove it."

"You're silly!"

"Crazy, too. Lead the way, my dear."

"Coat… pack on chair."

I got the coat out and helped her put it on. It was an ankle length thing, even if she didn't have ankles. It felt weird to grab her legs and help lift her so she could get it under her bum, but I did it once she made me understand what she wanted. Thus prepared, I donned my own coat and we started to her home. Taking a wack at the big, blue plate by the exit doors, I followed Cindy's chair into the night.

The snow had been falling while I was inside and there was a couple of inches of fluffy white stuff slowly morphing into soggy black stuff as it mixed with the crap on the sidewalks and parking lot. She set a brisk pace as I followed the narrow ruts of her wheels across the street and into the residential streets behind the businesses across from the mall.

When we got to the smaller streets she set a slower pace, which pleased me as I was slightly out of breath, which accounted for the lack of conversations between us. By the next block she had slowed to a crawl and soon stopped completely.

"Crap!"

"What's wrong?"

"Battery… dead!" she managed to get out.

"Well Merry Christmas everyone!"

"Hum… bug!"

"Scrooge had that one right."

I realized that the hem of my new skirt was now liberally crusted with wet, salty slush that was dripping down onto my fashionable boots that were fine for walking from the car to the mall but weren't meant to mush in the snow for several blocks.

"I guess I'll have to push."

Suiting the deed to the thought I gripped the handles of the chair and promptly slipped on my ass as it stayed put while my feet went skidding in the snow.

"Shit!" It seemed that the bulk of our conversations tonight were pure profanity. An odd sound emerged from Cindy that might have been laughter, but I was distracted by trying to climb back up the chair to a vertical position.

"Turn motor… off. Pull… knobs."

"What?"

"Pull knobs!"

Fortunately, we were near enough to a streetlight to see the two black knobs sticking up near the back wheels. I gave them a yank and they disengaged with a click. Now the chair would move when I pushed it.

I was glad it was only another block to a house with a wheelchair ramp on the front, and Cindy's enthusiastic pointing told me she was home. It wasn't easy pushing that heavy chair up the slippery ramp, but I got her to the door and pounded on it, hoping someone was home. It would be just our luck if everyone was off somewhere doing their last minute shopping.

The door did open, and a young guy with a truly impressive beard took one look at the bedraggled sight before him and started to laugh.

"Didn't charge your chair again, right Cindy? Santa's going to have to leave a couple of his reindeer behind to pull your sleigh if this keeps up. Come in and get warm!"

I pushed the chair over the threshold into the spacious foyer and he closed the door behind us.

"Thank you for returning our wandering waif to us, ma'am. Oh my! Looks like grandma wasn't the only one to be run over by a reindeer."

"I managed to do this all by myself. I didn't know these things won't move without pulling the little knob thingies first."

"You've learned a valuable lesson in wheelchair maintenance. Too bad Cindy didn't learn to plug in her chair before she goes out with half-dead batteries. I'm Chuck, by the way."

"Carol. And I've heard every possible 'Christmas Carol' joke in the English language."

"My sympathies. I've heard far too many involving the name Chuck myself. Take off your coat and come in, please."

"Thanks. I'm afraid I'm dripping all over your floors."

He began to industriously brush the snow off Cindy's chair as he talked. He pulled out an old-fashioned mechanical wheelchair from the coat closet and Cindy deftly transferred herself into it. Her speech may be slow, but the rest of her body seemed to be perfectly functional.

"Oh my, Carol! That lovely skirt is soaked through, you must be freezing. Cindy, please go and get your friend a blanket so she can take off her skirt to be dried in the laundry."

"I…"

"Nonsense! We can certainly do a good deed in return for your rescuing Cindy. The bathroom is the second door on the right. Cindy will be back shortly. There are lots of towels in the linen closet, get yourself dry and we'll heat up some hot cocoa."

"That sounds lovely."

So I found the bathroom, waited for the knock and took the blanket from Cindy, then emerged swaddled in the blanket. Cindy took my poor, bedraggled skirt from me and sped off down the hall toward what must have been the laundry.

Chuck emerged from the open kitchen with a tray of steaming mugs and I was seated in the spacious living room with several other denizens of the house.

"Carol, may I introduce Woody, Ken, Ramona and Carmen, some of the other residents of this madhouse." I was greeted by a chorus of 'hellos' and waves from the group. "This kind woman brought Cindy back to us after she missed the bus."

"Tell then… how we… met." commanded Cindy.

"Well, it was an accidental encounter…"

So I told them how it happened and everyone had a good laugh. It appears this wasn't the first time Cindy had gotten herself in a situation. 'A bit headstrong, our Cindy' was how Chuck described it.

"Welcome to our family, Carol. If you haven't figured it out this is a group home where we try to support each other and have a safe and happy place to live. Usually I have someone else to help here, but Glenda has a twenty-four hour bug of some kind and I'm alone tonight. I suspect the bug might have something to do with putting off her Christmas shopping, but like I said - we try to support each other."

"You seem to have a very nice place here, all of you. I'm glad Cindy bumped into me tonight."

"So am… I!" Cindy answered.

So I ended up spending an hour or two with the group while Cindy took care of my new skirt and I thawed out. I was sorry when the timer on the dryer went off and it was time to go.

I emerged from the bathroom and my new skirt seemed to have survived the experience and my boots were almost dry.

"I'd offer to take you back to your car but I can't leave these hooligans alone here. They'd probably burn the place down or hock the silverware before I got back."

"I'm sure these perfectly delightful people would never do anything so inconsiderate, especially just before Christmas. Santa has that list, you know."

"But I know these people…"

"You're a mean man, Mr Grinch."

"Mr Grinch… Invite her to… the Christmas… party." Cindy said.

"A splendid idea. Would you be able to join us for Christmas Eve dinner?"

"I'd love to! I was just bemoaning that I had nowhere to go for Christmas."

"Great! Come by about four?"

"I'll try. I have to change after work so I may be a little late."

"Just come as you are, you're now officially family."

If only they knew!

"I'll be there with bells on."

The walk home didn't seem as cold as the walk there. I even managed to keep my skirt up high enough that it stayed dry.

***

I was awfully distracted at work the next day. Even with a bank lobby full of panicking last minute shoppers trying to deplete their bank accounts to buy presents, I was able to maintain my stern rent-a-cop demeanor while trying to figure out what to wear to the party.

I was bemused, the universe seemed to be answering my depression by introducing me to people who were coping with problems far worse than mine. My Aunt Kendra would see God's hand in the whole thing. Me, I wasn't so sure God was really there, but then I wasn't sure He wasn't either. Typical - I really didn't have much certainty in my life, did I?

Being Christmas Eve, the bank closed early so I took off as soon as I could and rushed home. After much dithering I had laid out my outfit the night before. Not having any tacky Christmas sweaters in my wardrobe, I settled on a rosy blouse with long puffy sleeves and an almost-red skirt that came just below my knees. I had learned my lesson last night - no ankle length hems to scrape the snow on the ground. I took out my green wreath earrings that made their appearance once a year, settled a sweet gold necklace about my neck and added a couple of jeweled wrist bands to complete my Christmas look. I was particularly careful shaving and doing my makeup, I didn't want anyone noticing my lack of innate femininity.

Wishing I had time to bake something homemade, I settled for a mince pie form the grocery as my contribution to the feast. My parents had stressed a good guest never shows up at a party empty-handed. I spent a minute being maudlin over our estrangement, but resolutely discarded the feelings of loss and concentrated on enjoying the time with my new friends.

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by a woman who had to be Glenda of the twenty-four hour flu. She relieved me of my mince pie, hung my coat in the closet and complimented me on my earrings. I guess I'm not the only one who loves tacky holiday jewelry,

The dining room was gaily decorated, there was a bowl of punch on the sideboard, (Non-alcoholic, of course. This was a group home.) and trays of appetizers that were becoming seriously depleted. Cindy rolled enthusiastically over to me and gave me a great big hug.

"You… came!"

"Of course. You invited me."

"Thanks!"

"You've certainly made me welcome."

And they had, I spent a pleasant time talking to my friends and munching goodies before we sat down to dinner. It wasn't the institutional menu I expected, several of the residents were proud to help with the cooking, so we had some real homemade dishes from several family traditions.

I wasn't the only guest, there were parents and friends of the residents to help celebrate and we had a wonderful time. Afterwards everyone pitched in with the cleanup and with the drain rack piled high with dishes and the dishwasher chugging along, we found ourselves in the living room.

Glenda rose and started to hand out candles - electric ones to those whose hands weren't so steady and real wax one to the others.

"We have developed a tradition here for Christmas Eve and we are going to continue that tradition tonight. As you light your candle please tell us something you are thankful for at this holiday season, then light the candle of your neighbor until we have a room filled with the light of gratitude and appreciation.

With a great smile on her face, the lights were dimmed and she lit the candle of the person on her right. I don't know if she planned it that way, but that person was Cindy.

"I am very… very… thankful for my… new friend… Carol."

She passed her light to Woody and the room gradually brightened along with my spirits. Was God there with us? I don't know, but there was a presence and a love that only increased as we passed the light of hope around to each other. The flame made its way back to Glenda, who lit her own candle and spoke.

"Tonight I have something special to be grateful for. You all know I took off yesterday, but I never said why. Well, I visited the doctor and in another few months I'm going to be a mother."

The announcement was met with rousing cheer and hearty congratulations. A new life coming into the world, another couple fulfilling their dreams of parenthood. A magical time indeed.

As the evening went on and people left for home, Chuck took me aside.

"Carol, what are your plans for the next few months?"

"Pretty much what I'm doing now. I guess I mentioned I'm in a dead-end job, but maybe something will turn up."

"You said you went to college and have a degree. Would you be interested in applying for Glenda's job? There are not many people who take so well to our residents on such short notice."

"What?"

"We'll be needing a new councilor soon, you might be the one. You would certainly have my seal of approval and about a dozen recommendations from the residents."

"Oh damn!"

"You back to the swearing again?"

"Yeah. They'd never hire me. I'm not qualified."

Huh? You have the degree and the aptitude. The pay isn't all that great, but the benefits are pretty good."

"Chuck, I'd never pass the background check."

"Skeletons in you closet?"

"Nope, suits and ties. I was born a man - nobody would hire me."

"I wondered, but it isn't my place to pass judgement on Cindy's friends. It is my place to pass judgement on the people we hire. Carol, we mean it when we say we don't discriminate. You'll raise some eyebrows but dammit girl, you would be an awesome candidate. Apply for the job, please."

"I… I…"

"You're starting to sound like Cindy. If she can be as feisty as she is then you ought to follow her example."

"I guess a girl can dream, maybe even have a dream come true."

***

The next few months were hard to get through, but the day I turned in my uniform and put on a skirt to go to work was the happiest day of my life.



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