By Angela Rasch
“I will always love psychology and the basis of psychology is family.” – Jodie Foster
I had read about a lethal terrorist’s attack in Brussels on my newsfeed but never connected it to my parents’ trip to Europe -- until a policeman knocked on our door and my already tumultuous world collapsed. With no brothers or sisters -- or other close relatives -- I found myself completely on my own. Suddenly I could no longer express my true self and lacked a viable path to an acceptable future.
Dad’s lawyers wrapped up all the loose ends and established a trust fund for me that the attorneys said would easily pay for my college -- as if that solves my problems. In the process, the lawyers had a number of psychologists “evaluate” me. I suggested that they simply speak to the various doctors and gender specialists my parents had working with me, but they said they needed “fresh opinions.”
For the last fifty-two days, I’d been in the custody of Pennsylvania Department of Child Welfare Services. They had placed me in a private home with two septuagenarians, who ate food so bland that even the ants who ran freely in their house refused to eat it. Their world-view stepped out of the 1950s and clashed mightily with my special needs. I never argued with their demands, because to have a decent discussion you need to be able to find some common ground. . .which we didn’t seem to have.
In addition to wasting time with a variety of not-so-professionals, who didn’t know anything about people like me, the lawyers accumulated fees tracking down my only living relative. Had my parents not made many millions of dollars in their seven Chunky Pizza franchises, the lawyers would not have been so thorough – and I would be a permanent foster child for six more years -- until I turned eighteen.
“Thorough” is a polite term for the two hundred and forty-seven billable hours (at $450 per) they spent on something that took me five minutes to accomplish on a library computer with a search for my mother’s sister “Beatrice Schaftner.” My foster parents had placed strict controls on their Wi-Fi, so I couldn’t even use Google on my own computer. They said that the internet was “giving me ideas” that someone my age didn’t need to think about.
I had found a plausible excuse to go to the Paoli public library. My foster parents seemed to think that such a “privilege” constituted a huge accommodation. The not-at-all-homey feeling of the brick building stuffed next to the Wells Fargo Bank mirrored the reality of my life since my parents’ demise.
They won’t even allow me to check out books. Books have always been my best friends and now I’m only allowed to read my textbooks. This library and its rows of beckoning books makes me feel like a kid in a candy store -- without any money to buy anything.
Using Google and other search engines I soon learned Aunt Beatrice worked as a research psychologist at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At first, I was hopeful that she would have had experience with people like me and would be enlightened. But, all I could find was one published paper by her -- a tepidly received tome on the impact of adverse learning schema on children.
My parents had never spoken to me about my aunt, other than to say that she was “odd” and a “spinster.” Even a twelve-year-old boy knows that “spinster” is code-speak for a lesbian. My parents had been mildly (and apparently disingenuously) liberal -- in that they accepted almost everything “in theory” and seemingly had rejected my aunt as an embarrassment due to her sexuality.
Two of my classmates had already come out as lesbians. Their sexual preference didn’t matter to me and only really meant that they dressed severely and displayed more angst than anyone else. Some of my classmates described them as “awesomely strange” while most simply ignore them. Justin said that girls are often turned gay through acts of “lesbianage” by other girls, which makes no sense and is just something stupid that a boy like Justin would say.
Sandra and Julie might, or might not be lesbians. They’re really into being cool. The use words like “dat” and say stuff like “Killin’ it” and “Is that a thing?”
Sandra can be awesome, but Julie – not so much.
Wait! I don’t want to give the false impression that Mom and Dad were Neanderthals. They were great about most things and very supportive. When I finally got up the nerve to speak openly with them about my innermost feelings, they couldn’t have gotten more solidly behind my decisions. I now have a deep appreciation for how much they meant to me in my search for gender actualization.
In contrast, my state-appointed social worker and my foster parents decided it would be best if I set aside my “self-identity search” and go through a “decent period of mourning” as a “normal” child. To “help” me put aside my “notions” the three of them made the determination to take me out of my school where I had gone for the last six years and place me in a different school in a brand-new neighborhood -- where I knew no one. I hadn’t had many friends at my old school and had established no close relationships in my new school, preferring to float through the day without engaging.
Besides, who wants to be friends with a kid who tends to get teary whenever he thinks about his mom and dad.
The social workers even made me stop playing soccer. . . which is my passion. They said that playing soccer seemed to be part of why I was “so confused about my gender.”
One of the social workers, who was wearing an Allen Iverson jersey, said soccer is a gay sport. How can a sport have a sexual preference?
I had been really looking forward to this season. We would finally be using a full-sized ball on a big field with eleven players on each team. I can remember playing with a size three ball with six players on a side, when I was five. Soccer is something I’m good at where my small size isn’t a huge disadvantage. My athletic legs are my best feature and now I can’t show them off. Just because some well-intentioned fools think I’m a mess they’ve taken that away from me. If my lawyers were any good they would have filed motions on my behalf to force my legal guardians to allow me to at least play soccer.
The lawyers. . .. If I had a dime for every bad thought I’d had about those unctuous jerks, I’d be rich. Given that my trust fund is valued by the courts in excess of fifteen million dollars, I suppose I almost do have a dime for every time I’ve thought something negative about those shysters. I learned the word “shysters” watching a show about lawyers on TV. I like it because it makes lawyers sound like poop.
The lawyers . . . talked to me in condescending tones and used words like “precocious” when I asked questions and tried to assert my rights. They questioned my extensive vocabulary – often wrongly. It was obvious to me that they were threatened by my intelligence. Gosh! Up until now all my intelligence has gotten me was a punch in the gut on the playground. It’s bad enough having the issues I have to deal with, without my lawyers’ fool nonsense. Maybe I should stop reading newsfeeds every day and limit myself to young adult fiction. . .if they ever let me read novels again.
The attorneys were also threatened by my open honesty. Although it was obvious that I had become a cash-cow for their firm. It was even more plain to see that some of the firm’s partners thought I displayed mental issues. They steadfastly refused to learn even the basics about what it means to be trans.
I couldn’t locate any recent pictures of my aunt online. Looking through my mother’s things I could only find photos of her when she was about six or seven. I imagined her to now look a lot like a middle-aged Mamie Eisenhower – the only other person who lived in Cedar Rapids that I’d ever heard of. Since I had no idea what Mamie Eisenhower looked like in her late thirties, I Googled pictures of a “middle-aged Mamie Eisenhower” and congratulated my imagination on its accuracy.
The lawyers told me that my aunt had married a wealthy man who died after two years, while they were vacationing on their yacht. He had been washed overboard and his remains were never located. My internet search indicated that after the taxes were paid on her inheritance she was left with over $500 million in personal fortune. Her home was valued by Zillow at $23 million, which was one hundred and fifty times more than the value of the average home in Cedar Rapids.
There was some nastiness printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about the uncertainty of the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. Given that one out of every fifteen residents of Cedar Rapids worked for the business he had created, a certain amount of snarkiness about the new (quite young) owner was probably normal. A Coast Guard investigation had cleared her of any wrongdoing . . . as if the Coast Guard is a CSI!
She apparently did her professorial research for the college while working remote on the grounds of her estate, which was surrounded by high walls – with an armed guard on duty. The rent-a-cop in the picture I saw was short and skinny and probably near-sighted, but his gun looked big and real.
An article I read about Cedar Rapids said the town smelled like Quaker Oats because that’s where they make it. My foster parents smell like Vick’s Vapor Rub, so a Quaker Oats odor will be a welcome upgrade. I’m not sure how I would describe the way Philadelphia smells. Downtown smells like tourists --when you get close to the Liberty Bell – or maybe like horse manure, from the mounted police. The part of Philly where I grew up smells like gas lawnmowers in the summer and wet dogs in the winter. . .masked over by whatever expensive scents the women and men wear.
A librarian, who dressed like she was channeling Adam Sandler’s fashion sense by wearing a hockey shirt and sweat-pants, tapped me on the shoulder. She reminded me that an unescorted child of my age is not allowed in the library after 8:00 in the evening. I packed up my things and mentally prepared myself for moving from Philly to Cedar Rapids in two days.
I’m not a teenager, yet, but I’m NOT a baby. People think I’m younger than I am because I’m small.
The picture of Beatrice’s gate-guard I’d seen online didn’t do justice to his complete nerdiness. He actually sniffed at the papers the attorney who had flown to Cedar Rapids with me had presented to him.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting to see Mrs. Schaftner?” He asked suspiciously. His eyes sparkled as if he was in on playing the best joke ever.
My attorney was already extremely upset that all that had been available for him to rent at the airport was a nine-seat minivan. He’d booked a full-sized luxury car, but it was a Hawkeye football weekend at the University of Iowa and Iowa City is only a half an hour away from Cedar Rapids. The man at the rental agency had said that we were lucky to get anything . . . reservations or not. My attorney didn’t look like someone who felt fortunate.
“We have an appointment with Mrs. Schaftner,” he barked -- as if the guard was standing between him and his kibble.
He’s been irritable ever since his porcine body barely fit in his airplane seat. Could his skin possibly be any whiter? I doubt he’s seen the sun in years. His nose is like a shaker hood scoop forcing air into his internal combustion system to fire his greed. He tried to act young by talking about pop stars but mispronounced their names and attributed them to the wrong songs.
“Mrs. Schatfner doesn’t take no appointments. Hey -- what are ya trying to pull? Lawyers don’t drive minivans.” The guard stared at me -- as if traveling with a twelve-year-old boy was also outside an attorney’s acceptable profile.
“This is a copy of an email I received from Mrs. Schaftner’s secretary,” my attorney said with the authority of someone whose set of jacks had just bettered your two pairs: kings over eights.
“Mrs. Schatfner doesn’t have a secretary,” he mumbled as he surveyed the printed email. “Ohhh. . .. Ruth made the appointment.” He shoved the papers back into my attorney’s hands, and then swung open the metal gate.
The drive to the main house wound its way through a short -- but heavy -- forest. Several outbuildings dotted the grounds, including a horse barn and non-descript brick and stone building that an architect had probably charged a huge fee to unsuccessfully make look like something other than a warehouse.
A woman dressed in a black with white piping housekeeper’s uniform stepped through the front door while we pulled to a stop. I judged her to be quite old . . . maybe as ancient as thirty-five. She appeared to be friendly and concerned for my welfare. Her eyes rarely left me, to engage the lawyer’s. She touched my shoulder lightly and I got a distinct impression that she wanted to hug me -- but refrained.
Her dress definitely has been individually tailored, and not bought off a rack. She must have recently lost weight because it doesn’t really fit her properly. Her hands don’t have the same redness that my foster mother’s hands got from housework. Her hair has been professionally styled. Her long, thick braids had to have been done for her. By whom? She has an unnaturally thin waist. I suppose I notice it because Mom had such a narrow waist. My waist is thicker than I’d like it to be and is lower on my body than it should be.
“You must be Ethan. I’m sorry for what Andy put you through at our gate,” she said merrily. “I’m Ruth.” She extended a hand to me -- and then turned to the attorney, without offering him so much as a smile. “Mrs. Schaftner has asked that I sign whatever forms you need to be executed. Here’s my power of attorney.” She handed him a piece of paper. “She has had her fill of attorneys and doesn’t see a need to personally interact with you. Just unload Ethan’s things and I’ll have Andy bring them in, after he shuts the gate behind you -- when you leave -- now.”
My attorney’s high-priced mouth dropped open, but he quickly recovered and placed a form in front of her for her signature.
He stuffed the signed document in his briefcase, and then left in his mini-van.
I giggled when I considered how he must feel. First the mini-van, then the impolite guard, and now my aunt refuses to see him. He must have realized that there isn’t any money to be had in arguing with “Ruth.”
A moment later I found myself in the front hall of my new home.
“How was your flight?” She inquired, checking me from head-to-toe for possible fractures and contusions.
She has the contented look of someone who has accomplished a lot in her life. “It was okay.” I’d been on a number of vacations with my parents and thought of myself as a seasoned flier. “I had a short connection at O’Hare, but luckily my gates were close to each other.”
Her face registered relief -- as if she had thought I had crossed the surface of Antarctica by dogsled, rather than suffer the mundane atrocities inflicted by the CSAs.
“Your room is upstairs,” Ruth said. “I’ll take you up after your suitcases come in. In the meantime, I’ll get you a strawberry salad and a glass of skim milk for lunch. We eat light. Mrs. Schaftner will join you for dinner. She works every day from 8:00 to 6:30 and has dinner at 7:00 before going back to her work for another two hours. It takes a little getting used to her.” She grinned. “I’ve known Beatrice all my life. I like her, but then. . ..” She shook her head for some unknown reason. “You know, Mrs. Schaftner wasn’t notified of your parents’ death until weeks after the funeral. She tried to get ahold of you, but your attorneys blocked her efforts. I’m so sorry someone as young as you -- has had to deal with so much -- without family at your side.”
Her hands fly through the air pointing the way to understanding her remarks. She’s nice. She’s the first adult who’s spoken to me like I’m a human being since Mom and Dad died. The lawyers and social workers made me feel like a fungible commodity.
By the time dinner was placed in front of me by Ruth, I could have eaten a twenty-four-ounce steak. Unfortunately, “dinner” was a repeat of the luncheon menu: a bland salad with a glass of skim milk.
I’ll get Aunt Beatrice to give me access to her Wi-Fi, and then I’ll search for a nearby Subway and have Grubhub deliver. I used Grubhub once in Philly and my Thai food had been delivered by a driverless Uber, which was cool.
Ruth and I sat waiting at a huge table in chairs that would accommodate a pro football player. The grandfather’s clock ticked loudly, and then chimed seven reminders that it was indeed time for us to eat.
Aunt Beatrice swept into the room.
Her movements seem theatrical and contrived. Her clothes are beautiful and quite fashionable but don’t seem to fit her body all that well.
“Ethan,” she addressed me, “when I enter the room you should stand. You should not sit again until after I’ve taken my place at the table.”
I nodded and stood. Her voice sounds robotic -- like mine had when I was in that school play. We did The Reluctant Dragon and I was Saint George, which was fun, except the sword was too heavy for me.
Once Ruth and I were seated she took up her glass of wine. My glass had been filled with apple juice. “Happy days!” She toasted.
“Happy days,” Ruth and I responded, and then took a sip of our beverages.
She took a bite of salad and chewed it thoroughly. “Ethan – as a matter of fairness do you think my life should change to accommodate your moving into my home?”
I thought for a moment. “I think it’s wrong for anyone to be a burden on anyone else.”
She smiled wryly. “I’ve read your dossier. You have an I.Q. that should allow you to be whatever you want to be. Your teachers universally found you to be inquisitive and respectful.”
I squirmed under her intense scrutiny and wondered when she would get to the part about my issues. Despite wanting to be able to respond immediately to any questions from her, I eagerly attacked my salad.
“I believe in rules,” Aunt Beatrice said.
I nodded. Rules have always been part of my life. I’m okay with that.
“Boys have a funky odor,” Aunt Beatrice opined.
Okkaaayyy?????? I don’t smell bad!
Ruth snorted a bit but didn’t add anything.
“I won’t have that funky odor in my household,” Aunt Beatrice said flatly. “Every morning you’re to shower and use perfumed body wash. Ruth will make sure the scents are agreeable.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I stated.
“Your opinion is only of minor interest to me,” Aunt Beatrice said, “but let’s hear your theories on the subject.”
I gathered my thoughts for a moment and noted that I’d already finished everything I’d been given to eat. “I’m small for my age. I have a face that some have described as girlish. If I go to school smelling like a flower, I will certainly be bullied.”
She looked to Ruth. “You didn’t tell him?”
“I didn’t think it was my place,” Ruth explained.
Aunt Beatrice turned to me. “I’ve arranged with the public-school system to home-school you.”
I bit my lip. “Okay. . ..” I said tentatively.
“So,” she concluded, “should Ruth select a lovely lavender scent for your body wash it should be no problem, as no one outside of the three of us would notice.”
“Uh huh,” I agreed.
“Fine. Let’s proceed. I hope you don’t feel a need to argue about every rule -- as you have about your body emitting the proper aroma . . . or we’ll never get through the list.” She took a piece of paper from a pocket of her skirt. “Okay . . . rule number one we’ve already discussed. You’re to smell tolerable at all times. I would expect that in addition to body wash that Ruth will provide body powder, cologne, and perfume for your usage.”
“Ruth . . . please make sure that Ethan smells age-appropriate. Nothing too seductive. Which leads us to the next rule. No dating until you’re sixteen. In the meantime, no hand-holding, kissing, or sex of any kind.”
I could feel the intense blush that had swept over my face. “I’m not a thirsty-girl. I’m twelve,” I reminded her.
“Given the data I’ve reviewed on current fecundity and fertility, being twelve doesn’t disqualify you from strict standards regarding abstinence.” I looked to Ruth for help, but she seemed absorbed in her salad.
“I will select your friends,” Aunt Beatrice read from her list. “For the next few months you will be confined to the grounds, so new friends will not be an option. But . . . when the time comes, who you ‘hang’ with will not be a trivial decision left up to your whimsy.”
I frowned. I hadn’t had many “friends” in Philadelphia, but the few I did have were cherished. “I need friends,” I stated.
“Did I say you couldn’t have friends? Ruth, did you tell Ethan he couldn’t have friends?”
Ruth shook her head vigorously. “A young person needs friends.”
Aunt Beatrice drummed the table with her long, cherry talons. “You will have friends, but not every ragamuffin and street urchin that happens to smile your way.” She went on. “Absolutely no alcohol or drugs.”
I laughed. “I don’t drink or do drugs -- and never will.”
“See that you don’t,” she warned. “That includes energy drinks or other high-caffeine sodas.”
“I like Mountain Dew,” I wailed.
“As long as it’s caffeine-free, it will be provided in modest amounts,” Aunt Beatrice allowed. “This next rule is extremely important. You will get respect only if you give respect.”
She continued. “I will not abide any bullying, gossiping, or name-calling.”
I looked to Ruth, who shrugged. Why would I ever do any of those things?
Aunt Beatrice returned to her list. “You are to be honest at all times. You will be given what you need -- and are not to borrow anything without permission. When you seek to come into a room that is occupied you must knock first, and then wait until you’re invited.
“You will have no need for a cell phone. I detest the way teenagers sink into those things.”
“Ethan has a smartphone,” Ruth offered.
“Please give that phone to Ruth,” my aunt demanded.
“Even if I’m home-schooled I will need to do homework,” I reminded her.
“That’s the next rule. You must always do your homework.”
“What if I need to research something online to complete a lesson?” I asked.
“You will have limited access to the computer in the den,” she answered. “But only under adult supervision. You will find that our library is well-stocked with books. Ruth has made sure there are plenty of age-appropriate literature for you on our shelves.”
I’ll be able to read again! At least there’s that. “How much TV can I watch?” I asked, hoping for the best.
“TV is to be used only as a teaching tool. Games are strictly prohibited unless they are traditional board games that you can play with Ruth. Ruth will plan an occasional home movie as a treat, if you abide by all the rules and do your school work.”
No TV? I hardly ever watch TV, preferring to stream onto a device, but does her ban include my iPad. No video games?!! “What about sports? Can I play soccer?”
“We’ll see about that,” she said. “Maybe you can kick a ball around the yard, if you earn the privilege.”
No soccer! They even play soccer in Russia! Her words are mean and despicable, but her eyes are kind. Maybe I can change her mind? “But,” I wailed, “I love playing soccer.”
“It’s only a sport,” Aunt Beatrice sniffed. “It’s not even an American sport. How important can it be?”
“It’s important,” I fumed. Why does everyone hate soccer? Everyone in Philly knows Carson Wentz, and no one knows Clint Dempsey.
She continued. “I don’t believe in a big staff. Ruth and I clean up behind ourselves. Once a month we have a professional service come in to do the heavy work. You will be expected to help out with all household chores.”
I nodded again.
“You must accept responsibility for your faults. If you do something wrong, own it. And . . . above all, you must never raise your voice.” She folded the paper and stuck it in her pocket.
“What are the consequences, if I don’t follow your rules?” I asked.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “Should you fail to meet these very-minimum-standards I will take immediate steps to correct your shortcomings through standard behavioral modification techniques.”
Well . . . that explains . . . nothing.
She rose, and then walked to where I sat. She then sniffed the air around me. “Ruth, I think a bubble bath before bed is in order.” She turned and started to leave the room, before spinning around to glare. “And, one more thing. We try to eat intelligently in this household. Your young body might find our diet doesn’t meet all your physiological needs. Ruth will give you two multi-vitamin tablets in the morning and three tablets in the evening before bed. You’re to swallow those pills every day without fail!”
Vitamins? Do they think I’m stupid? “No,” I said quietly.
Her face twisted in what might have been rage . . . or maybe simple bewilderment. “No? What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“No,” I answered. “Let me help you understand. I mean: absolutely not, no way -- Jose, under no circumstances, negative, not at all, by no means, not on your life, or nay. Does that help?”
I thought I saw a surprising smile pass back and forth between the two of them … and something like relief seemingly flashed across their faces.
Then their modes reverted to form; and Aunt Beatrice’s hands clenched into fists. “Why, you’re an ungrateful whelp.”
“ ‘Ungrateful?’ What is it I should be grateful for? I didn’t ask to be shipped to the middle of nowhere. Since Mom and Dad died I’ve been living at the whim of the courts. Now you think that, for some unexplained reason, I should trust you and allow you to make my life completely miserable.”
“How am I demanding your ‘trust’?”
I shook my head. “If you’ve read my file, as you’ve indicated you have, you know that I’m a prime candidate for hormonal treatment and would be unopposed to prescribed hormone pills. Yet, I’m not the village idiot. I ‘respect’ the fact that I will only have one body for my entire life -- and don’t want to ruin it. I’m not going to allow you, or anyone else, to force me to take unidentified pills.”
“They’re vitamins,” she snarled. “Ruth, do you have the bottle?”
Ruth pulled a vial from her pocket and handed it to me. Its label clearly indicated it contained a vitamin supplement manufactured by a name brand.
“Does that satisfy you?” Aunt Beatrice snapped.
“No,” I answered. “I’m much less than satisfied.” I stood and ticked off my list on my fingers. “You don’t want me to have normal friends . . . just the ‘perfect’ friends you pick. You won’t allow me to drink the pop I like. You demand my respect, even though you haven’t earned it. You seem to think I’m some sort of bully and doubt my integrity, even though you’ve just met me. You’ve taken away my phone and are restricting my access to the outside world through the internet. You want me to become your maid. And, you don’t trust me to be personally responsible. I can’t even.”
“From your naïve perspective, I suppose that’s about right,” Aunt Beatrice agreed. “According to your file, you have a deep hatred of your designated birth gender. I believe that your dissatisfaction has manifested itself in the personality of the young malcontent that is in front of me.” She turned to Ruth. “We will start the behavior modification techniques tomorrow morning. See that Ethan’s suite is locked tonight so that he doesn’t get it in his head to run away.”
This time she made her exit before I could say anything more.
Immediately following our pseudo-meal Ruth shepherded me to a large bathroom, with an in-floor tub, connected to my bedroom.
Ruth looked distressed. “Please,” she begged, after a few moments, “I need this job. Your aunt can be a bear, but she means well. Please find a way to understand the position I’m in. If you don’t do everything she wants, she’ll take it out on me. I have four kids -- and as a single mom, I just can’t afford to lose my income. Please.”
She can’t possibly have four kids! Yet – I can’t be the one responsible for her losing her job.
She handed me the “vitamins” and a glass of water.
“Okay,” I said, “for you.” I swallowed the pills.
She prepared a bath for me. “Please strip and step into the tub. There’s a new loofah for your use. The bubble bath is actually a Chanel No. 5 product.”
“It’s not a scent I would pick for myself,” I said.
“I know,” she agreed. “I know. But please don’t make a scene. I’ll do what I can to help you, but I need my paycheck and there just aren’t any other good jobs for me in Cedar Rapids.” A tear ran down her cheek.
I nodded. “Don’t worry. I’ll try to make life easier for you by cooperating.”
She left the room to allow privacy for me to take off my clothes and slip into the tub. The scented bath and scrubbing actually combined for a very pleasant experience. I was shocked when she came back in and told me that I’d been soaking for over twenty minutes.
She placed two large fluffy towels on a chair and hung several items on the back of the door. She also placed pink slippers on the floor, which I supposed were for my use. I’d had a pair of slippers very much like them that I used around the house on my special weekends with Mom and Dad. The slippers had disappeared, along with all the rest of my female things, when I moved into foster care.
Ruth knelt by the tub and shampooed my hair. Her massaging of my scalp was the first time a human had physically interacted with me for weeks. I found myself leaning into her hands and felt real disappointment when she had finished – longing for more.
“Dry yourself, put on your pajamas, robe, and slippers and I’ll be waiting for you in the hall. Tomorrow we’ll talk about nightly rituals and lotions, but not tonight. You’ve had a long day and I’m sure you’re ready for sleep.”
I looked over her shoulder at the clock on the small radio on the shelf. It was only 8:30, but I felt totally exhausted and couldn’t wait to nod off.
After patting myself dry with the towels, I reached for the two-piece pajamas. The tag stated that they were from Neiman Marcus and indicated their color to be “orchid.” I smiled at their satiny finish. They fit perfectly and appeared to be new.
The slippers also seemed to fit perfectly. All the slippers I’ve had before were either a little too big -- or a little too small and didn’t feel right until I’d worn them for a few days. These seemed to have been made just for me. The robe was fluffy enough to make me feel cuddled.
“You look sweet,” she said when I came out of the bathroom. She indicated a chair in front of a vanity, where I sat. Ruth put a small amount of some sweet-smelling substance in her palm and then worked it through my damp hair. “You have lovely hair,” she remarked. “How long has it been since you’ve been to a barber?”
“Mom and Dad let me wear my hair like I wanted. I managed to keep the foster parents from demanding that I get it cut . . . so it’s been about a year and a half.”
“I could clip off the split ends,” she offered. While we talked she worked a hair dryer with a diffuser and kept scrunching my hair to promote its curls. “Another day . . . another day,” she clucked soothingly. “You’ll have pleasant dreams tonight,” she promised.
“Oh,” I asked, “How can you be so sure?”
“There was an article in The National Geographic about ten years ago that told of research being conducted in a German hospital linking odors to dreams. They tested their theories on young women because young women have an elevated sense of smell. Those test subjects who were subjected to bad smells, such as rotten eggs, had nightmares, while those who were smelling roses had very nice dreams. You smell like very good dreams.”
My head snapped -- and I realized I’d almost started to doze while sitting in the chair – despite her drying my hair.
She led me to my bedroom, which I noticed was femininely-appointed. Ruth helped me out of my robe, turned down the covers, fluffed the pillows, and then tucked me in. “Good night, my sweet princess.”
I almost purred, but definitely smiled broadly. “Good night,” I managed to whisper.
Ruth woke me the next morning at 8:30. She brought a pair of pink silk panties for me to wear. “Your aunt’s orders,” she explained. “Just pull on a robe over them and meet me downstairs for toast and tea. You’ll be provided more clothing as part of your behavior modification.”
She sat down across the table from me and took my hand in hers. Her eyes sparkled with the kind of tenderness and love that had been missing in my life since Mom and Dad died. “Whatever happens today – remember that your aunt loves you and is doing what she thinks is best for your welfare.”
“Are you sure?” Given that a half slice of toast is all I was given for breakfast, I have to wonder if they care about my health.
“Absolutely,” she remarked. “I’m one hundred percent sure that she’s concerned about you and is acting in what she thinks is your best interest.”
I shrugged and accepted the pills she offered. “I believe you. But, what if she goes too far? She said she was going to ‘modify my behavior.’ That sounds sinister.”
She smiled. “I’ll be there the entire time. I’ve got your back.” Her hand tightened on mine. “Everything will be fine. You’re a wonderful person.”
“ ‘Wonderful person?’ ” I scoffed. “Tell that to the bullies at my old school in Philly. Make sure you also send postcards to my foster parents and social workers that say, ‘Ethan is a wonderful person. Wish you were here.’ ” I laughed sardonically.
“None of those people matter anymore,” she said sternly. She paused. “Ethan, I can see that you have a feminine spirit. It seems odd to call you by a boy’s name. Do you have a girl’s name that you would prefer I call you by?”
I thought about denying my inner self, something I’d been forced to do for many years, except in my home with my now deceased parents, but her kind face convinced me to bare my soul. “I prefer to be called ‘Chloe.’ Actually, I prefer ‘Chloe Ann.’ ”
“ ‘Chloe Ann is a beautiful name. It fits you.” She squeezed my hand again. “We’d better go. Your aunt is waiting.”
I shuddered and tightened the sash on my robe.
We went out a side door, and then walked briskly on a path toward the warehouse-like building I noticed when we arrived.
“According to the cornerstone this building was built in 1968,” I noted.
“Your aunt purchased this estate four years ago after her husband died, so I don’t really know for sure when it was built. Judging from its appearances, 1968 sounds about right. That makes it about fifty years old.”
Ruth opened the door, which swung on well-oiled hinges. The building was open to the steel rafters without any internal divisions. It appeared to be big enough to hold a tennis court. In the center of the room was a square glass box that stood about ten-foot tall and probably measured thirty feet to a side. On closer inspection, I realized the box was made of plexiglass that had yellowed enough that it could have been built at roughly the same time as the building.
The only light in the building seemed to be coming through the dozen or so skylights.
Aunt Beatrice looked up from her desk, which sat next to the huge box. “Ethan, good morning.”
“She prefers the name ‘Chloe Ann.’ ” Ruth stood next to me. Our shoulders rubbed.
Aunt Beatrice nodded. “Chloe Ann. . ..” Her hand swept to indicate the box. “. . .this is a much-enlarged version of B. F. Skinner’s operant chamber. The normal-sized box would be about a ten-inch square making this one about fifteen times as big. But the basic principle is the same.”
She bit her lip. “I purchased this property from Professor Slatter’s estate. I don’t think he ever got a chance to test his theories. He was found guilty of murdering his wife shortly after he built this building. He spent the last four decades of his life behind bars. He had bought into the urban legend that B. F. Skinner used an operant chamber, or Skinner Box, to train his daughter. The urban legend was disproved when Skinner’s daughter came forth as an adult and said it never occurred. But the same principles used to train rats for the last many decades can also be applied to humans.”
My feet told me that the best thing to do would be to run as fast and as far away as possible, but my curiosity prevailed. “How does it work?”
She smiled. “The first step is to starve the subject so that they will react positively to food rewards for their correct behavior.”
That explains the minimal amount of food I’ve been given since I’ve been here.
“Then we reward approximations of the desired behavior, constantly shaping you to be the person we want -- until we have perfected your demeanor.”
“If I go into that box are you going to give me food when I do the things you want?” I asked.
Aunt Beatrice nodded.
I looked toward Ruth. “Can I trust her?”
“Don’t worry,” Ruth answered. “I’ll be right here.”
Aunt Beatrice opened a door on the side of the box for me.
I noticed that there was no door handle on the inside, but trusted Ruth and walked into the box.
The door shut behind me.
“You will be much easier to train than a rat,” Aunt Beatrice said gleefully. “Because I can communicate orally with you, I expect we will accomplish as much today as we would have in four to five sessions with a rat.”
She sounds demented. I looked around the box. In one corner stood a mirror, a counter covered with cosmetics, and a chair. They had placed in another corner a rack with dresses, skirts, and tops on hangers. Next to them was a tall five-drawer dresser.
On the far wall a stainless-steel sink had been connected to the outside of the box through a small flap-door like on a mailbox.
“When you respond correctly we will drop a small amount of food through the slot,” Aunt Beatrice said. “You will receive fruit, vegetables, and portions of granola bars.”
“Sounds okay. What do I have to do to get something to eat?”
“The first thing is quite simple,” Aunt Beatrice said. “Your dossier stated that you want to be a girl; is that correct?”
“Uh huh,” I answered. “For as long as I can remember I’ve wished I’d been born in a female body.”
“So you say,” Aunt Beatrice stated, “but I think someone just wants attention. If you really want to be a girl go to the cosmetics bar and select a perfume that you will be happy to wear twenty-four/seven for the next several months. We’ll just see how much of a girl you really are.”
I walked to the bar and looked through the perfume bottles. There were several yummy choices, but a light-lavender bottle caught my eye. “Oh – I love Princess by Vera Wang.” I picked up the bottle, sprayed a little in the air and allowed the mist to reach me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ruth drop an apple slice through the slot. When the food hit the sink, it was accompanied by an audible click.
I picked the slice out of the sink and munched on it. “Okay . . . I like this game.”
“We’ll see,” Aunt Beatrice said. “We’ll see.” She opened a large notebook and scanned down the page with her index finger. “Okay, go to the clothing rack and pick out an outfit that you would willingly wear to a restaurant tonight, should we decide to take you.”
I smiled and approached the rack. “What kind of restaurant?”
“Don’t be obtuse,” Aunt Beatrice chastised. “It’s obvious you’re stalling because you really don’t like the idea of presenting yourself in public as feminine.”
I shook my head. “That’s so not true! Would it be a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths -- or would we go to a fast-food restaurant?”
“I don’t eat fast-food,” Aunt Beatrice snorted.
I pulled a cotton dress with a large sash from the rack and held it up to me. It was red with a large print of tropical fish, gathered waist, flared skirt, and puffed sleeves. “It’s a Dolce and Gabbana. I had a dress like this with a full-length skirt and chiffon sleeves, but the print was flowers. I just loved it.” All of my dresses had been destroyed by a well-meaning social worker who said their destruction would help me “through a phase.”
I heard a click, and upon checking the sink found a large carrot slice. I smiled at Ruth through the plexiglass.
“You’re a good little actor,” Aunt Beatrice observed. “We’ll have to step things up. Although you’re a little young for heels I think we should give your so-called femininity a real test. In the second drawer of the dresser, you’ll find a pair of two-piece sandals with a five-inch heel.”
The shoes turned out to be red-suede with tan accents by Steve Madden. “I absolutely love them. They go perfectly with this dress. Am I right, ladies?”
Once again -- I heard a click and found a one-inch square of granola bar in the sink.
“You’re good,” Aunt Beatrice complained. “You’re very good. In the fourth drawer, you’ll find undergarments. Select those that go with your dress and shoes, and then get fully dressed.”
Four minutes later I had received another slice of apple.
I looked in the mirror and wished that my curly blonde, shoulder-length hair had been shaped lately. I sat at the dressing table and did what I could with a brush, several barrettes, and a setting mist.
“Okay, little mister,” Aunt Beatrice said with some obvious anger after I announced that my hair was probably as good as it was going to get. “Let’s see how you feel about having your face covered with cosmetics. Go to the table, sit in the chair, and then I’ll come in and I’ll help you apply lipstick, foundation, and eye makeup. You’ll need to watch carefully because you’ll be doing this on your own every day from now on.” She laughed nastily.
“Let me try to do it myself.” I pranced to the table in my cute little heels and spent the next ten minutes carefully doing my face. After I was done I turned toward Aunt Beatrice. “How did I do?”
The answer came in the form of a smiling Ruth, a click, and another slice of carrot in the sink next to the granola I had not yet eaten.
“Argh,” Aunt Beatrice snarled. “Ruth, we didn’t starve him enough. He’s just pretending he likes it to mess with us.” She came right up to the plexiglass and would have been nose-to-nose without it. “I didn’t want to have to go this route, but I think it’s obvious that we need to extinguish your aberrant behaviors.”
“No,” Ruth argued quietly. “We need to talk before we do anything like that.”
“Remember your position,” Aunt Beatrice growled. “This boy is going to behave right, if he’s going to live with us.” She squinted angrily at me.
Over her shoulder, I could see Ruth mouthing “Don’t worry.”
“You’re going to repeat what I tell you,” Aunt Beatrice said. “I have the controls here in front of me. While you jabber on with your nonsense about being feminine, I’m going to administer electrical shocks. I can vary the intensity. I’ve got a rheostat that starts out with a mild, fifteen-volt shock. Hopefully, that will be enough. If it’s not, I can slide the rheostat so that the shock can be as much as 300 volts, which is dangerous. I can even go to 450 volts, which would be severe and painful.”
Ruth stood behind Aunt Beatrice and winked broadly at me.
“Let’s start,” Aunt Beatrice said. “We’ll have you thinking differently in short order. You’ll be the boy you were intended to be when you were born.”
“I don’t want to be a boy,” I shouted. “I’m a girl.”
Aunt Beatrice’s hand gripped the rheostat hard.
I felt . . . nothing.
“Did you like that?” She laughed. “Now, repeat after me. I’m a girly-girl”
“I am a girly-girl,” I stated proudly.
Her hand showed strain as she gripped the rheostat. “How was that?
I shrugged. I felt nothing.
Aunt Beatrice frowned. “Now say, I love dresses.”
“I do love dresses. The prettier the better.”
Once again, I’m not experiencing any pain and her face indicates disappointment and confusion.
“Hmmm. You have a high pain tolerance. I’m going to set the rheostat on ‘danger.’ Now say, I love perfume and makeup.”
“I do. I do love makeup and perfume. I love to smell and look beautiful.”
Again, there’s not even a tingle.
Her face showed intense surprise. “Something is wrong. I’m going to give you the maximum shock. I didn’t want to have to do this, but you’re forcing me.”
“I don’t think you should. . ..” Ruth started.
“One more word out of you,” Aunt Beatrice said to Ruth, “and you’re fired.”
Aunt Beatrice turned to me. “Repeat after me. I’m a very pretty little girl and when I grow up I want to look just like my mother.”
Mom! I looked in the mirror and saw that I did look a lot like my mother.
I spoke as she had asked, again.
She immediately squeezed the rheostat with both hands. When I didn’t yell out in pain, she looked extremely upset. “Something is very wrong.” She opened the door. “I need to check the electrical wiring.
I watched her frantic actions until I felt Ruth’s hand grab mine.
She pulled me out the open door, and then slammed it.
Aunt Beatrice is locked in the box!
“Ruth,” Aunt Beatrice screamed, “Have you lost your mind? You’ll never work in Cedar Rapids again.”
“I can’t let you torture this poor child,” Ruth said. “She’s a sweet little girl and YOU . . . you have no compassion.” She turned to me. “Let’s teach your aunt a good lesson.” She turned toward the box and stared at Aunt Beatrice. “Here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to use negative stimulus to modify your behavior. You forgot that the electrical shock requires two people working together. I wasn’t turning on the juice with you, but I’m going to work with Chloe Ann. When the two of us push our rheostats at the same time you’ll receive the shock that you thought you were going to give to Chloe Ann.”
“Please, no,” Aunt Beatrice begged. “My heart isn’t healthy enough to survive a maximum shock.”
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” Ruth said. “It will hurt like hell, but a tough broad like you will probably be okay.” Ruth fiddled with both rheostats. “They’re set to give her the maximum shock.” She handed one to me. “Now Beatrice, repeat after me, I’m an unfeeling person and I love it. Say it or I’ll set the shock on continual -- and let it run until you collapse.”
“I’m an unfeeling person,” Beatrice said very shakily, “and I love it.”
Ruth gripped her rheostat hard while Beatrice spoke.
I just can’t bring myself to hurt Aunt Beatrice, even though she probably deserves some punishment.
Ruth turned to me. “You must not have been ready. I’ll get her to say it again.”
“No,” I said. “My mom and dad taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right. I won’t do it.”
“Please do it,” Ruth begged.
I shook my head. “Aunt Beatrice could suffer permanent physical harm,” I explained.
“Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.”
My nails dug into my sweaty palms.
“In order for this to work, you have to. . .,” Ruth wailed.
I bit my lip. “It’s obvious that Aunt Beatrice wants us to st-st-st-op this.” I wept as I stuttered.
“Whether she likes it or not,” Ruth said, “you must go on until she learns, so please go on.”
“No. . .this is awful,” I groaned.
“It’s absolutely essential that you do your part,” Ruth said very sharply.
“I can’t,” I said softly. I had an urge to giggle to relieve the tension but suppressed it.
“You don’t have a choice,” Ruth snarled. “I’m going to get fired for nothing, if you don’t shock her.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and then threw down the control.
“That’s wonderful,” Beatrice said and pushed open the door to the box. She came out and wrapped me in her arms. “You’re a wonderful girl.”
“How . . . how did you get out?” I asked in surprise.
“It was never locked,” she explained.
“Why didn’t you get out before -- so that I couldn’t shock you?” I queried.
“You couldn’t shock me,” she laughed.
“How could you be so sure?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing, this building isn’t wired for electricity.” She laughed again.
“But. . .?” I turned to Ruth. “Why did you throw away your job?”
Beatrice giggled. “I’ve worked for your Aunt for ten years. She would never fire me. Would you fire me . . . Bea?”
The woman I had thought was “Ruth” took me in her arms, again. “I’m your aunt and she’s Ruth, my secretary, and very good friend. And, please call me ‘Bea’ – all my best friends do.”
I closed my eyes and tried desperately to take it all in, but there were too many moving parts.
My senses shut down to keep out unnecessary information while I churned all that I had learned in the last few days, trying to pick out what was real.
Ruth is really Aunt Beatrice.
Aunt Beatrice is really Aunt Bea, or simply Bea.
The voices around me sound like they’re being filtered through a foot or two of water.
I wish I was back in Philly in my real home with Mom and Dad. I try to sound like I’m old, but I’m really just a kid.
“Your mother’s ring. . ..”
I felt something being slid onto my finger.
But “Bea” is really Ruth; and she seems to be nice.
The real Bea kept rubbing my shoulders and saying that I would be able to live the way I wanted.
Bea seems even nicer than Ruth. . .the real Bea. . .. The real Aunt Beatrice is nice – and seems to be good friends with . . . the real Ruth. “Bea” seems to think I’m “precious.”
“You must be famished due to my stupidity. Ruth, can you find that necklace I brought back from Brussels last year. It’ll go nicely with her outfit.”
She can’t seem to quit hugging me. And, I’m hugging her as hard as a I can. She reminds me of Mom . . . a lot.
“Oh, that’s the one. . ..”
I could feel her fingertips graze my skin while Bea clasped a necklace on me.
It’s pretty and delicate.
“Ruth, she deserves the best meal Cedar Rapids has to offer.”
Somehow, with their help, I put one foot in front of the other until I was sitting in back of a car with Bea. Ruth was driving.
I noticed that Bea's property backed up to a golf course.
“You can just walk onto that course any time you’re not disturbing anyone’s round,” Bea said. “Ruth and I often pop on and off after playing three to five holes. It’s a nice walk and we’ve been on the board long enough that we have some privileges.”
Although I haven’t figured out where everything fits, yet. My senses all seem to be working again, and I realize I have a strong appetite.
Ruth and Bea chirped back and forth about who lived in which house and how they fit into Cedar Rapids’ society. It seemed like everyone either worked in insurance, for a college, or for Beas’s company.
We’d only driven a few blocks when we pulled into the back lot of a restaurant.
A few moments later I found myself sitting down for late lunch at The Irish Democrat Grille. Aunt Bea’s idea of “the best meal in Cedar Rapids” was in perfect harmony with my tastes.
I soon bit into a bacon cheeseburger washed down by a huge Mountain Dew. My beautiful dress was a bit much for the pub -- but I preferred the Grille to some stuffy restaurant.
I love my new heels, they make me seem like I’m five foot six.
“First of all,” Aunt Bea said. “Ruth has been my trusted employee for over a decade. She is also my best friend. The maid’s uniform I’ve been wearing is actually hers, but she only wears it when we’re trying to mess with people’s minds. We actually have two housekeepers and a cook who are on the premises every day.”
The real Ruth laughed. “If the circumstances weren’t so nasty, I would have had a ball playing the Dickensian version of your aunt.”
“But,” Bea sighed, “the world can be a vulgar place and the ‘circumstances’ have, indeed, been ‘nasty.’ ”
Bea and Ruth exchanged glances. They both looked as if they’d been put through a wringer.
“Why did you trade places?” I asked.
“Oh,” Aunt Bea moaned, “some ideas are better than others. In retrospect, I wouldn’t do that again. But our thinking was that in order for the Milgram Experiment to work properly it’s required that you buy-in to the authority figure who demands that you administer the shock. Ruth is very active in community theater and is a much better actress than I am. So, we wanted to take full advantage of her skills. Even Andy at the gate played a role. He’s a sweetheart and would never be as mean as he pretended to be with that lawyer.”
“You all fooled me,” I said. “I trusted you fully and had become quite upset with Ruth. But why was it so important that I go through the Milgram Experiment?”
“I’m trained in administering the Milgram experiment,” Bea explained. “Although it’s been debunked by many, I’ve found it to be a fairly good indicator of a person’s compassion.”
“Compassion?” I queried.
“Let me start at the beginning.” The waiter cleared away her plate and Aunt Bea ordered a chocolate sundae for me. “Your father and I never did get along as in-laws. When your grandparents died fifteen years ago, your dad thought he was meant to step into the role of my father. He and my sister were already married, which he evidently thought qualified him to be the boss of me. He was twenty-five and I was twenty-two. That was about three years before you were born.”
I nodded and took another swallow of Mountain Dew.
“Chloe Ann, your father was set against me marrying Sam. Sam was a wonderful man who had already started to assemble a brilliant business when I met him. He had been divorced and was eleven years older than me; those were two things that your dad could not stand.”
“Dad was probably trying to protect you . . . too much.” Dad often went too far to try to protect Mom or me. He made me wear a teeth protector and concussion helmet while I played soccer when I was six.
“Uh huh,” Bea agreed, “but we were young and neither one of us knew when to quit. Things were said; and it became impossible for the two of us to be in the same room.”
“Ohhh,” I stumbled, “I thought it was because of you and Ruth being. . .lovers.”
They both laughed.
“Nope,” Ruth said. “We’re both heterosexual. I’ve been happily married to Joe for the last eight years and have two little children.
Aunt Bea giggled. “Ruth, did I tell you that I doubled the number of children you have?”
“I need a cost-of-living raise,” Ruth teased.
Aunt Bea looked me in the eyes. “You mother and I secretly remained friends all these years. Your father didn’t know it, but your mother kept me up-to-date on how things were going for him and sent me pictures of you every month. Once a year my sister and I would spend a weekend in New York together. It was her doing that their will designate me as the person to take over your guardianship, if something happened.”
She choked on “if something happened” and a tear ran down her face. “I always thought your dad and I would eventually make up. People can be such idiots!” She bit her lip. . .hard. . .but was having trouble composing herself.
“Lawyers can be such self-serving idiots,” Ruth interjected. She picked up the story for Beatrice. “Your parents’ lawyers initially called your aunt and warned her that you were suffering from a mental disorder and recommended that she not take the chance of having someone like you in her home.”
“I’m not crazy!”
“Of course, you aren’t,” Ruth said. “Your aunt really let them have it when they came with that nonsense.”
“Hey, they were telling me that they couldn’t find you,” I complained. “Can’t we sue them for malpractice?”
“There are much better ways to spend our time than messing with pigs,” my aunt cautioned. “But let’s keep that thought in mind as we exchange notes.”
“After your aunt gave them a heated opinion about their faulty diagnosis, those jackals contested the will,” Ruth said. “They tried to get the court to disqualify your aunt because of the ugly rumors surrounding. . .. Well that was just crazy. When that blew up in their faces, they then tried to assert in court that you suffered from mental problems due to your gender disorder. They tried to convince an unbelieving court that you would be better off under professional, twenty-four hour-care.”
“I don’t have a ‘gender disorder’,” I said flatly. “I was born in the wrong body. That is not a disorder, it’s simply a fact.”
My aunt wiped her eyes and took over. “Oh, Chloe Ann,” her hand patted mine. “There’s not a thing wrong with you. People have their own agendas. The lawyers were operating out of pure greed. They wanted to keep control of you and your fortune, so they could charge horrendous fees.”
That makes sense.
She continued. “Right after the accident, they found a friendly judge to issue a restraining order against me. The first I heard of your parent’s deaths was in the legal documents they served on me keeping me from contacting you.”
I shuddered. What if my aunt hadn’t cared about me, and the lawyers had gotten their way?
“I have lawyers, too,” Bea stated with anger. “We quickly quashed their nonsense about me being a threat to your personal security. Then they filed a motion with the so-called findings of a group of hired “experts” from Johns Hopkins who sought to prove that your being trans made you unfit for normal guardianship. The creeps they found at Johns Hopkins are trying to turn back the clock forty years. That really made my blood boil and I unleashed my legal beagles.”
“Did you win?” I asked timidly.
“Your aunt hasn’t lost a legal battle as long as I’ve known her,” Ruth said with a smile.
“But all their gyrations got me thinking about all the idiots in the world.” Aunt Beatrice signaled the waiter to refill my Mountain dew. “My studies have been in the area of gender analysis. I’ve worked with dozens of trans girls and boys. As a whole, they’ve been truly delightful people. Many of them suffer greatly though -- from shame and guilt because of the morons, like those at Johns Hopkins.”
“I’ve never felt ashamed of who I am,” I stated.
“And, I’m happy for you that you haven’t been horribly mistreated,” Bea said. “The things they said and did were wrong -- but it seems they didn’t result in damaging trauma for you.”
“The lawyers, social workers, and my foster parents all were woefully -- or intentionally -- misinformed about trans people. I just let what they said run off my back.” But it did hurt at times.
“The silliness this morning with the Skinner Box was to ease your guilt by having Ruth, pretending to be me, become a person forcing you to cross-dress and giving you plausible denial,” Bea said. She sniffed. “It was a stupid thing to do. I suppose I wanted to get some use out of that building, after all these years. After I bought the property, I found out that the prior owner had been one sick puppy. He never actually got to use that thing on anybody, thank goodness.”
“Your aunt was merely trying to set the stage for her Milgram Experiment with our ruse in the Skinner Box,” Ruth explained.
“In my studies, I’ve found that trans people who have been mistreated have a tendency to become less compassionate.” Bea sighed. “My major concern for you was that I would need to work with you to gain back the natural compassion that you may have lost. But – our experiment clearly showed that you’re more compassionate than the average person.”
“What if you would have found out that I’m self-absorbed?” I asked quietly. “Would’ve you stuck me in another box somewhere and engaged in behavior modification?”
Ruth and Bea both roared.
“Chloe Ann,” Ruth stated, “your aunt has spent a great deal of energy fighting against the evils of conversion therapy. She treats people for the damage done by psychological trauma, but she doesn’t try to make her patients into something they aren’t.”
“What exactly is the ‘Milgram Experiment’?” I asked.
My aunt spoke. “In the early 1960’s many people were obsessed by the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem. A psychologist at Yale University named Stanley Milgram devised an experiment. He wanted to try to answer the question on a lot of people’s minds.”
“What question?” I asked.
Ruth stepped in, again. “Everyone wanted to know if Eichmann and others could have been simply following orders when they committed their atrocities.”
“I see. We studied the Holocaust in school and talked about the crimes and the trials,” I said.
Aunt Bea patted my hand. “The Milgram Experiment was meant to measure the willingness of people to obey an authority figure. It was structured very much like what you experienced this morning.”
“Although some people now believe that Milgram cooked his books, it’s still widely believed that a very high proportion of people would follow the instruction, although reluctantly,” Ruth said. “Only about a third reacted like you did and refused.”
I couldn’t hurt someone like that.
“I didn’t think you were lacking in compassion or had guilt issues,” Aunt Bea said, “but the lawyers and the doctors they hired painted a fairly dark picture of your mental state. I didn’t want to waste any time getting to a treatment phase to help you, if needed. Thank goodness that’s not part of our future.”
“Was it really necessary to put me through all the anguish before I rejected your authority?” I asked.
“We wanted to establish me as a horrible person, who the average person might want to punish. I’m trained,” Bea explained, “to recognize trauma. If you had been going through too much, I was prepared to stop the experiment and tell you all those stupid rules we discussed were bogus.”
“Am I truly home?” I asked hopefully. “Am I fit to live in your house?”
“Fit?” Aunt Bea gasped. “You’re not only ‘fit . . . as far as I can see you’re extremely well-adjusted . . . perfect.”
“But won’t I remind you of my dad. You and he didn’t get along.”
“I hope I see my brother-in-law in your every movement. I miss him deeply. I loved my sister,” Bea said with a tear escaping her eye. “I can see so much of her in you, and parts of your father. I can’t be a replacement for them, but I’ll try as hard as I can to be a parent you can come to when you need me. I feel a great deal of love for you and hope that you will grow to love me as well.”
I leaped out of my chair at the same time as Beatrice shot out of hers -- to end in each other’s arms.
We fit together like Legos. Home, at last! Yaaassss!
I didn’t want to break our hug, but a man and his son approached us.
Aunt Beatrice saw him and smiled.
“Bea,” he said. “It’s so nice to see you away from campus. Ruth . . . it’s always nice to see you as well.”
He looks like a soccer dad in his khakis and Coe College hoodie. Like so many colleges, Coe’s colors are crimson and gold.
“Good afternoon, Professor Fletcher,” Beatrice said with a softness to her voice that I knew signaled that she liked him, “let me introduce you to my niece, Chloe Ann. Chloe Ann, this young man is Professor Fletcher’s son, Mark. I coached Mark on the U-14 team last summer.”
I looked up into the friendliest face I’d ever seen. He looks like the best friend I’ve never had.
Then it dawned on me what my aunt had said. My mouth dropped open. “You coached a boys’ soccer team?”
She smiled. “It was a co-ed team for boys and girls. I played soccer in college and spent a little time on an Olympic development team before ruining my knee. I’m hoping you’ll play on the U-13 team this year because I’ve told the league I want to coach that team.” She hugged my shoulder. “It will be fun. According to your old coach in Philadelphia, you’ll be that star striker I’ve been looking for, in order to play a more open style.”
“As Mark’s old coach,” Mr. Fletcher said to my aunt, “you would have been proud of him this morning. The U-16 coach asked him to ‘play up’ for a tournament. Mark scored two goals and dominated the field.”
Mark blushed, closed his eyes, and then shook his head. “I got lucky,” he said quietly.
Mr. Fletcher turned to me. “Your aunt is a hero to the Cedar Rapids soccer community. She donated the seed money that got things rolling for the new soccer complex. No one in our city loves soccer more than her.”
“I’m not a hero, Adam,” Aunt Bea said. “Donna was a hero. Mark’s mother, Donna, was my best friend and the person in life I’ve admired the most. In 2015, she went to Africa as a nurse to help contain the Ebola crisis. She gave her life.” She touched Mr. Fletcher’s arm. “I miss her and can’t even begin to understand your loss.”
“Thank you. Mark and I get by, but our house feels so darned empty. I see you’ve finished your meal as well,” Mr. Fletcher said, seemingly wanting to move on from discussing his wife’s passing. “Mark just told me he’s still thirsty and I was going to get him another Mountain Dew. Could we interest you in after-lunch drinks?”
“I try to stay hydrated during games,” Mark said, “but I’m always thirsty later in the day.”
Adam is a nice man and his son seems . . . interesting. I hope Bea agrees to stay.
“I’ve got to get back to finish a project at the house,” Ruth declined. “Professor Fletcher, would you mind giving Bea and Chloe Ann a ride home?”
He smiled. “That would be a pleasure.”
“The Fletchers also have a house that abuts the country club. You can see it through the tress in your backyard,” Ruth explained.
After Ruth left, we sat.
I noticed a book with a familiar orange cover in Mark’s hand. “I read After the Shot Drops a few months ago, before. . .before things got complicated in my life. Do you like it?”
“This is actually the second time I’m reading it,” Mark said. “It’s awesome. People at school think I’m weird. They freak out because I’m always reading something.”
“My aunt has a library with lots of cool books in our house,” I offered. “Maybe you’d like to come over -- to check it out,” I added shyly.
Shy? I’ve never been shy before!
I’ve donated several of my books to Erin either to sell on Amazon or to help generate donations through Hatbox. BC is much-needed, so I’m pleased to allow Erin to keep 100% of the proceeds to help with this site’s expense. I encourage other authors to do the same.
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