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Reassignment

There was a man dressed as a woman at the party, and when Audrey met him, she acted like it was nothing. That was how everyone else was acting, and anyway, Audrey had been tipped off by her department chair that this man, Helene (his real name was Howard), was going to be there. Helene used to teach at the college, then opted not to go up for tenure and essentially got fired. He was apparently pretty popular, though, since he was still being invited to faculty get-togethers.

Helene was dressed in platform flip-flops, capri pants, and a tank top. He wore a sleek wig that looked like Eva Peron hair. He had shaved armpits and nail polish on both his hands and feet. When he spoke, he gesticulated in the way that gay men seemed to think women gesticulated, waving their hands around wildly, touching their fingertips to their hearts, etc. Meanwhile, Audrey had never seen a woman act like this in her life.

Later, Helene’s girlfriend, Marisa, came to the party, which completely confused Audrey. She couldn’t understand a man who dressed as a woman only to date a woman. She could only assume that man was a lesbian. Except how could a man be a lesbian? Audrey didn’t mean to be obtuse, she really didn’t. But why complicate things unnecessarily? It all just seemed a long way to go if you were going to end up fucking a woman anyway.

Helene greeted Marisa with a long kiss on the lips, and suddenly Audrey felt tired. She said her goodbyes and went home. She had only recently moved to the small town to teach at the college, and now she was disappointed that a man dressed as a woman had been at her first faculty party. It just wasn’t what she had imagined academia to be. She wasn’t even sure what she was doing here except that her husband had caught her screwing around when they were supposed to be reconciling and told her that was it, the party was over, get a job.

So she got one and left the city and now she and her husband were more apart than they’d ever been. Audrey didn’t mind too much. Not really. It was good to get away from Judd. This was the only way they would ever make it to a divorce. Otherwise, living in the same place, they couldn’t seem to help themselves: they were always in each other’s business or going out to movies.

When Audrey got home from the party she changed her clothes and ate ice cream. She tried to call Judd then felt relieved when he wasn’t home. It was only habit, after all. She wondered if he was out screwing someone else, then tried to picture his face while he was doing it. She imagined Judd thinking: this woman has a much better vagina than Audrey; she then made herself cry. Don’t worry, she thought quickly then, trying to soothe herself: no one has a better vagina than you. Eventually she went to bed, a sound, dead sleep that was disappointing to wake up from.

Audrey had joined a gym in order to work off all the ice cream she had been consuming, and when she went the next day, she noticed Helene’s girlfriend, Marisa, on one of the weight-training machines. In fact, at the party the night before, Audrey had taken note of Marisa’s slender yet well-defined arms. She was a very tall, pretty young woman and could easily have dated a man who wasn’t pretending to be a woman. Audrey wanted to ask Marisa what she was thinking, but that would’ve been rude, so instead she just said, “Hi.”

Marisa looked up from her arm curl machine and said, “Oh, hi.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Audrey said.

“No, no, that’s fine,” Marisa said, wrapping up her set. “I’m done.”

“That was fun last night at the party,” Audrey said.

Marisa got up off the machine and used her towel to wipe away the sweat she had left behind. “Really? Everyone thought you hated it since you left early.”

“They said that?” Audrey said.

Marisa nodded.

“But I had fun,” Audrey said. “I’m just a little depressed about my divorce.”

“That’s what I told them,” Marisa said. “I said, ‘Leave the woman alone—she’s getting divorced.’”

“Thanks,” Audrey said.

“Sure.”

After a moment, when Audrey couldn’t think of anything else to say, Marisa excused herself to the locker room. Audrey finished her workout, then went home to call Judd. “You’re not going to believe it,” she said, then she told him all about the party and Helene and Marisa and how she had run into Marisa today and how pretty and nice she was and how she was dating a man who dressed as a woman. When Judd didn’t act as excited about the story as Audrey thought he should, she felt pretty sure he had a girlfriend.

“Are you fucking someone?” she demanded.

“Audrey—” he said, and when the first thing he said wasn’t no, she hung up on him.

Anyway, why should she care? she thought, lying on her bed crying. Who would go out with Judd? Only someone who liked really boring men with no sex drive, that’s who. Even so, Audrey couldn’t stop crying. It was stupid, this whole thing. Judd was a good enough man. There was no reason not to be married to him. He was decent and did his share of housework. He cared about Audrey’s welfare a lot. He listened to her problems and anxieties and tried to provide solutions. But for the life of her, she couldn’t have sex with him. And now, here he was having sex with someone else.

Audrey got up after a while and ate some ice cream. Soon she would have to stop, she knew. Soon, no matter how much exercise she did, the pounds would overtake her and she would become too fat to catch another man.

“Sorry you didn’t have fun at the party,” the department chair said to Audrey on Monday morning. They were standing in front of the mailboxes in the main office. One of Audrey’s favorite things about her new job was getting mail in two places as opposed to one.

“I did have fun. Who said I didn’t have fun?” Audrey demanded.

“You left early,” he said.

“I had plenty of fun,” Audrey told him.

“Were you bothered by Helene?”

“Of course not.”

“Some people can be bothered by her.”

“Eric, I lived in New York City for eight years. I don’t think I can be bothered.” It did alarm Audrey somewhat now, though, that she was supposed to refer to Helene as she and not he.

“Okay,” Eric said.

“Marisa seems nice,” Audrey said. She wished she could ask Eric what Marisa was doing with Helene but it didn’t seem right. Not when Marisa had been kind enough to tell everyone at the party to leave Audrey alone.

“Marisa is very nice,” Eric said dreamily. “Everyone loves Marisa.”

Audrey got her mail and headed for her office. She shut the door and left the lights off. She didn’t want anyone to know she was there. It was a nice office with a window and shelves and a musty old couch. Audrey lay down on it and tried to imagine Marisa and Helene
together. Who would be the man? Audrey guessed Marisa but then that didn’t seem right. It was all so ridiculous. Mostly Audrey felt bad that everyone loved Marisa. She couldn’t imagine anyone ever saying about her, “Oh, everyone loves Audrey.” Instead, they just talked about her inability to have fun.

After a while, Audrey got up and turned the lights on. A student came in, and Audrey tried her best to care that the girl was having difficulty signing out a video camera from the equipment room.

The next time Audrey ran into Marisa at the gym, she said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Marisa said. She was going round and round on an elliptical trainer while Audrey stared at her from the floor.

“Are you a lesbian?”

“What?” Marisa said, glancing down at Audrey.

“Nothing,” Audrey said, embarrassed.

“Am I a lesbian?” Marisa repeated.

Audrey just stood there.

“No, I’m not a lesbian.”

“Oh,” Audrey said. She paused for a second. “Is Helene?”

“No,” Marisa said. “Of course not. She’s a man.”

“Oh,” Audrey said again. She had thought that since Marisa was so lovable it would be okay to ask her these questions. She had figured that lovable meant easygoing. “Well,” she said now, “I’m sorry if I was rude.”

“You’re just not making very much sense,” Marisa said.

“Sorry,” Audrey said again, and she went away.

Normally Audrey would’ve called Judd when she got home to tell him what an idiot she had been, but now she couldn’t. She was too afraid of hearing joy in his voice from fucking another woman. Instead she ate ice cream and watched TV. When the ice cream was finished, she considered not buying any more pints, but the thought saddened her so deeply that she vowed never to think it again.

That weekend, Audrey went to the mall to spend Judd’s money. They were separated and in different states, but she still had the debit card to the account they had once shared, and it made her feel slightly better to think about using it.

On the other hand, Audrey didn’t really need anything. She didn’t even want anything. Back home, when Judd had seen other women during their separation, she’d spent his money on repeated visits to a psychic who made predictions that never came true. Such as: Audrey would meet the man of her dreams and give birth to triplet girls. Audrey didn’t even like children.

She stopped in at the Apple Store and thought about buying a new computer—an impressively large purchase—then got irritated when the salesman wouldn’t explain how to transfer some old files she had at home. He kept saying that if she wanted to learn how to do that, she could pay $99 to sign up with The Genius. The Genius, he said, would teach her everything she needed to know. Audrey didn’t understand who The Genius was, or why the salesman insisted on speaking as if she did. You just lost a sale, buddy, she thought, dropping his card in the trash can on the way out of the store and hoping he saw.

She thought about buying some Nike shoes at Foot Locker since they ran sweat shops which were against Judd’s values, but then she didn’t think there would be a way for the charge to reflect that she’d actually purchased Nikes. It would just say Foot Locker on the statement.

She stopped and ate a couple of slices of pizza at the food court, but since that was only six dollars she paid for it out of her own money.

Finally she headed for Nordstrom’s. The things Audrey could purchase that would cost a lot of money and not be a waste were good bras. Plus, she wouldn’t have to try them on. She went to women’s lingerie, found her brand, and picked out seven new bras, one for each day of the week. As she was standing in line, waiting to pay, she noticed a strange-looking man coming out of the dressing room. It was Helene. He was carrying a handful of bras on those cheap plastic hangers. He had been trying on bras, for godssakes. In the women’s dressing room.

Audrey didn’t want to talk to Helene under these circumstances, but she took too long to turn away and Helene had already seen her. “Audrey!” he called over the group of metal racks in between them.

Audrey waved a little. Helene came over and joined her in line. A couple of the women in front of Audrey turned around, looked at Helene, then faced front again. “I am having so much luck today!” Helene announced.

Audrey nodded. Luck?

“How about you?” Helene asked, noting the bras in Audrey’s hand. “You found some things, too.”

“I always wear this size,” Audrey said. “I never have to try them on.” She hadn’t meant to sound quite that snotty—just a little snotty.

“I’m jealous,” Helene said, not seeming to notice. “My size is always changing—you know, because of the hormones.”

Audrey nodded, though she hadn’t known Helene was taking hormones. Suddenly she felt a little more sympathetic thinking that Helene might not just be playing dress-up—that he might actually be a woman trapped in a man’s body and working toward some sort of official reassignment.

“That was fun at the party last week,” Helene said.

“Yes,” Audrey agreed.

“Marisa says she keeps running into you at the gym.”

Audrey nodded. She waited for Helene to say something about the stupid questions Audrey had asked Marisa, but he didn’t. He just said, “That girl is so good about working out. I join up, go for a week, then that’s it. I get bored.”

“Well,” Audrey admitted, “it is kind of boring.”

Just then the cashier called her up to the counter, and Helene followed. Audrey hadn’t expected this and it distracted her to the degree that she accidentally paid for the bras with her own money. “Shit,” she muttered, signing the receipt.

“What’s wrong?” Helene asked.

“Oh nothing,” Audrey said. “I just used the wrong card.”

“Do you need a loan or something?”

Audrey sighed. “No. Thank you. Thank you for offering.”

“Hey,” Helene said, “I was going to stop in the shoe department on the way out. Want to come?”

Audrey looked at Helene. He had very smooth skin. Audrey could see that something had been done there—some electrolysis or laser surgery or whatever it was that people did. He wore the same capri pants from the party and the same flip-flops. Only his tank top was different. Audrey couldn’t understand why any of this was bothering her so much. She figured in the end, it must be her problem. No one else seemed particularly bothered. Not the saleslady, not the other customers. They stared for a second, then got over it. Audrey, on the other hand, was in a perpetual state of staring. At everything. She got over nothing.

“Okay,” she said. “Sure. I could use some shoes.”

“Great!” Helene said. She paid for her bras, then they made their way over to the escalator.

In the shoe department, Helene picked out a black pump then asked the salesman to see it in a size thirteen. “I’m sorry, sir,” the salesman said, “but those only go up to size eleven.”

Audrey could tell it hurt Helene’s feelings to be called sir, and she quickly asked the salesman what he did have in a size thirteen. “We don’t have anything,” he said.

“Oh,” Audrey said.

“It’s okay,” Helene said, recovering. “We can still shop for you. What’s your size?”

“Nine,” Audrey said, feeling guilty.

“Nine,” Helene repeated, wandering purposefully off. In the end, Audrey let Helene pick out everything, while Audrey just sat in the chair, waiting for the salesman to come out with the boxes. Helene then made Audrey walk around in front of her in the shoes, asking if they were comfortable, how she felt about them compared to the last pair, did she have anything at home to match. After an hour or so, Audrey settled on the three pairs Helene clearly liked best, even though they weren’t necessarily Audrey’s favorites.

Audrey let Helene carry the shoes out of the store, through the mall, and into the parking lot. Finally, at Audrey’s car, he gave up the bag. “Here you go,” he said.

“Thanks,” Audrey said, taking it from him.

“They just don’t make shoes for someone my size,” he said.

“Sorry about that,” Audrey said.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m used to it.”

Audrey got in the car and turned it on. The summer heat had carried over into September, and she waited patiently for the air conditioner to begin spewing its unnatural chill. She loved that moment where not only did she seem to stop perspiring, but she could nearly feel the sweat creeping back into her pores.

Only once she had pulled out of the parking lot did Audrey realize she had forgotten to use Judd’s debit card a second time. She wasn’t that mad, though. It didn’t really matter. For a long time, Judd’s money had been hers, and if she still wanted it, she could get it. But she didn’t want it. Maybe she liked carrying the card around in her wallet, but there wasn’t much beyond that. Mostly, she decided, she would try not to think of him, or picture his face during sex, or picture anyone else’s face. She would drive her car straight ahead home, saving the periphery for another day.