by David DeFusco
Image by Reelika Ramot
She was a lawyer, newly divorced. Lila. I asked her out for dinner. She preferred Italian. Umbertos, I recommended, taking the lead. She had to stay late to prepare for an upcoming trial. She would meet me at the restaurant at 7:30.
I wore a blue blazer and a striped shirt, a thin tie and pleated khakis. In the bathroom mirror, I pulled my hair back and sneered like Clint Eastwood but my face was too round and my beard too patchy. I let it fall over my shoulders, arched an eyebrow, and brooded seductively. Fabio? At five-six, maybe not.
I slapped on too much Brut.
I arrived at Umbertos early and stood by the door. The heavy summer air smelled of garlic. An air conditioner jutting from a stucco wall hummed and dripped, and a neon sign for Bud Light pulsed spiritlessly. She pulled up in a Mercedes. I threw my shoulders back and crossed my arms, the Rolex heavy on my wrist. Her little black dress was tight around her athletic curves, and she walked briskly as if she were late for a court hearing, as if every movement was calculated to save time and therefore money.
She was several inches taller. Her smile was genuine but professional. I held out my hand, then lurched for her cheek. She offered it tentatively, and my lips landed hard. We laughed awkwardly, her bleached teeth contrasting starkly with her tan. When she reached for the door, I slid in from behind and grabbed the handle.
“It’s 1995, Bob. It’s okay.”
I needed to be the gentleman. I held the door open for her and followed her inside. We stood at the register, waiting for the hostess. The Vegas smiles of Jerry Vale, Dean Martin, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra hung on a paneled wall. An overweight couple sitting opposite each other in a booth looked at us dully, and a young mother of three at two tables pulled together scolded her child for spilling milk. A waitress, no older than eighteen, asked us how many. We said two at the same time. She told us to sit anywhere we liked.
I offered Lila a chair before I sat down. A fly skittered over a French Fry on the vinyl tablecloth. The waitress ran a rag over the surface, the fry spinning onto the floor. She handed us menus and said she’d be back with water.
“Can I see a wine list?” I asked.
She pointed to the back of my menu. They only served it in glasses. Lila forced a smile over the top of her menu. I was trying too hard. When the waitress returned with the water, she took a pen from her ear and a pad from an apron pocket. Lila ordered linguini—carb-loading, she said, for a 10-K that weekend. I ordered steak with a side dish of pasta, not the salad that I usually ordered. Lila would think I was a wimp. Over dinner, she said she had wanted to be an actress, but came from a family of lawyers. There were expectations. She hunched over her dish, as if cozying up with an expectation of intimacy.
“So I tell my client, first we can file an action in district court and move for an injunction against your competitor,” she said. She rested her elbow on the table, the fork pointed in my direction, a chunk of iceberg lettuce garnishing its tip.
As I cut my steak, I wondered if her ex-husband had been a worthy opponent during the divorce. I felt myself nodding too much.
“We need to show the probability of irreparable harm to your business, I tell him, while the case is pending,” she continued. “The injunction will prevent them from using the trademark, or else they’ll face a heavy fine.”
The fly returned to my plate. I waved at it, but it looped around my hand and landed on the rolls. “So what happened?”
“Three-quarters of the disputes I litigate could be resolved out of court through compromise, but people are emotional. I tell them in so many words if they want to give me their hard-earned money, I’ll gladly take it.”
She smiled confidently, as if she were a lioness stalking hapless prey. While I tried on identities, hers was fierce. I was simultaneously envious of and repelled by her avarice.
“The trial starts next week,” she said.
We had met online. She liked that I was a novelist. I appreciated her intelligence and success. I quickly suggested getting together. I didn’t like drawn-out email exchanges.
“Someday I want to write, but after I’m done working,” she said. She bit into a meatball. “This isn’t bad for a place like this. How’s yours?”
I could tell she didn’t mean to trivialize my occupation. As I told her about my novel--Senate Recall—about a closeted gay man who wins confirmation to the Supreme Court only to discover that he has AIDs, she looked squeamish.
“Awful disease,” she said.
She perked up when I mentioned that it got a brief notice in The New York Times. We left food on our plates. When I refused her offer to pay half, she excused herself and went to the bathroom. A straight friend had warned me that I was morally obligated to disclose my identity at the point of intimacy. I waved him off, not anticipating there’d even be an opportunity. In the year since the transition, I had just wanted to live like a man, be a man without distraction. I dated only a few times. Gay women, mostly, but they could tell my status right away. The butches wanted to control me, and the femmes wanted someone who was more masculine.
I decided that if just for the evening, I needed companionship. As I waited, I stretched my back, stiff from sitting erect throughout dinner. Don’t slouch, my friend had told me. Take up space. I walked Lila to her car.
“I had a good time,” I said, waiting for a sign. “Good luck with your case.”
She dug her keys out of the purse. “You want coffee? My place?”
I closed her car door, and got into my Supra. I followed her to her gated community and up a winding driveway alongside a fine trim lawn. The house was Tudor style, gabled and with several chimneys, clad in brick. She tossed her purse on a jeweled stand in the foyer, half the size of my apartment, and told me to pick out a movie in the living room while she put on a pot of coffee. She asked how I like mine. Black, I said.
“I like a man who likes his black,” she called out from the kitchen.
Everything about the living room was large. It had a high ceiling and a sea of plush carpeting, a long sectional couch that looked unused, a hulking cabinet containing a wide screen TV, two credenzas with china, figurines and framed photographs, and a fireplace with vases sprouting lilies on the mantle. An Edward Hopper painting of a house on Cape Ann, startling in its size, commanded the wall above the fireplace.
I picked out Moonstruck and sat on the couch. She came into the room with a pewter tray holding a coffee pot, two mugs, napkins and spoons. She placed it on a glass coffee table and poured my cup, then sat beside me. I curled my finger inside the ring of the mug. I was conscious not to cradle it in both hands, as I had seen women do. She drew up her legs and took off her heels.
“I love Cher.” I wondered if I should have admitted that. I stared at the opening credits.
She stretched her arm over the back of the couch. I felt her hand on the back of my head. “I like your hair. It’s soft.”
“Olympia Dukakis. Nicolas Cage.” I pointed at the TV. “Brilliant.”
Ten minutes into the movie, she took the mug from me and set it on the table. Then she leaned in. We started kissing. It was tender at first, but quickly became frenzied. She was lean, but strong, and her kiss was more carnivorous than sensual. When she put her hands on my chest, I thought I felt my breasts, the way I was told people feel a lost limb. It sent a charge between my legs. I pulled back.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
I felt like a virgin terrified of losing control in a spasm of ecstasy. The testosterone hadn’t prevented me from getting wet. I thought of my straight friend.
“Lila, I need to tell you something.”
“Let me guess, you’re not over your ex.”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Then what?” she said curtly.
“I find you very attractive—”
“Here it comes.” She rolled her eyes. “The stroke and a kick.”
“Hold on.” I held out my hand like a cop in traffic. “Let me ask you something. Do you tell your clients they’d be better off working out a compromise? Without you?”
She frowned. “Not quite, but what does that have to do with this?” She gestured toward me and then at herself.
Her admission that she withheld information from her clients gave me an opening. In that moment, intimacy was not only worth the risk of humiliation, but a necessary affirmation of my new life.
“Never mind,” I said, reaching under her dress.
She fell back on the couch. No panties. I kissed her neck and mounted her. She writhed and moaned, frantically sliding her hands over my face and back. She cupped my backside and then, seemingly in a moment of recognition, she quickly slid her hand between my legs. I didn’t have time to react.
A look of horror.
I lifted off her, and she retreated on her elbows. She avoided eye contact as she slipped on her heels and straightened her hair. Betrayal was deep in her voice.
“How dare you?”
“I was going to tell you,” I said, as I tucked in my shirt.
“You need to leave now.”
She stood by the open door, arms folded, head down. I paused to apologize, but she looked away.
“It’s easy for you,” I said. “All I want is what you want.”
I passed into the night more confused about my place in the world than when I first confronted my real identity as a teenager. As I drove home, my hands were shaking. I remembered feeling liberated after my breasts were removed. In that heady state, I naively assumed the world would change in the same way I was changing. I was a man, not a woman playing a man, but I understood her reaction, understood why she’d think I was counterfeit.
Before I had transitioned, I was by my very being fraudulent. God didn’t have to answer to His carelessness, I heard my teen-age self crying to my Catholic mother.
Dave DeFusco is the communications manager for the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and has spent a career in higher education promoting ideas and research that help humankind. He also likes the academy's civilized hours and lunches with clean-shaven people. He holds an MFA in creative writing and is now pursuing the truth wherever he can find it through short stories and a novel still in development about a madcap chase through the sewers of Paris.