Of Knowing Her

 (UPDATE 6/05/19 – In honor of PRIDE and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, I’m making this piece public.) 

(UPDATE 2/15/19 – For this month’s LGBTQ genre piece, I’m opening up access to this short story, originally posted in January, to all of my patrons.)

I spent all last week writing and polishing my story for the first round of the NYCMidnight 2019 Short Story Challenge. I received the prompt “Genre: Drama, Character: A Widow, Topic: A Pageant.” The rules of the competition state that the story must fit into the genre assigned, the character must be an important character in the story (though not necessarily the main character), and the topic must be a significant part of the story. 

As I spend a little more time deciding which of my longer works will become the next set of web serials, here’s a first look at the story that will decide if I make it to round 2 of this year’s competition. Enjoy!

Joyce let go entirely, her face screwing up and the tears pouring out of her eyes. She almost stumbled on the last step, but Whysteria reached up and steadied her. Joyce let herself collapse into her drag mother’s arms.

“That was stunning, doll,” Whysteria crooned in her ear. “You were stunning!”

Joyce allowed herself a few precious seconds of release, hearing the audience’s roaring approval echoing through the university auditorium. 

“Okay, not too much, babe,” Whysteria added. “I knew I’d have to redo your eyes, but let’s not spoil your foundation.”

Joyce gasped a few deep breaths and put on her smile. She turned, standing up tall to wave to the still-cheering crowd. 

“Once again,” the emcee’s voice rang out, “that was contestant number three, Miss Joyce Burns singing ‘Reflections.’”

Whysteria gave her arm the smallest tug, steering her toward the side exit to the dressing rooms.

Five minutes later Joyce gasped with another release, peeing for the first time in more than five hours. A few tears of relief escaped the corners of her eyes. Finished, she stood up, shaking off the last few drops and tucking herself back before pulling up her nylon gaffe, followed by her underwear, tights and pantyhose.

As she washed her hands, she took an illicit glance in the mirror, despite the solemn promise she’d made to Whysteria. Through her running mascara and red-rimmed eyes, she still saw Joyce staring back at her, and she had to steady herself once more to avoid shedding even more tears for the gratitude she felt for that.

Back in the dressing room, Joyce let the chatter of her fellow pageant contestants distract her from more emotional thoughts. After extensive fanning, touch-ups and meticulous reapplication of her make-up, Whysteria had cleared her to look in the mirror again.

Joyce reminded herself it was all up to the judging panel now, a group that included university staff, faculty and even a few student council members. A token judge plucked from the actual pageant world (likely as a favor to the president or one of the deans) rounded out that group. 

And it’s all in the math, she thought. The tradition of holding a pageant to choose a homecoming queen might date back to the 1920’s at her southern university, but since the 1990’s, the greatest portion of the contestants’ scores came from their GPAs. It was one more reason she thought she might actually place this evening. But, she reminded herself silently, winning isn’t why I’m doing this anyway.

* * *

After starting her freshman year under her birth name “Jerome,” Joyce had felt her true identity rising more forcefully than ever. She might still have been in the South were she’d grown up, but the university town inspired her, simultaneously nurturing and challenging her. By the time winter holidays came around that year, she’d met Whysteria, and she knew she wanted to make the transition to Joyce full time.

Her parents balked at the idea, of course. By that time, she’d begun to realize their well-intentioned concerns had little to do with her. In the end, Whysteria’s wise words had steadied her. “You don’t want to do this half-assed. You finish out this freshman year as Jerome, and then let me come visit you this summer. Let’s take that full 90 days, and I’ll help you give birth to Joyce. And, I PROMISE you, you won’t regret letting me be your midwife… and your drag mother.”

Whysteria’s promise fresh in her mind, Joyce looked back at her reflection again. What an affirming birth it had been! She’d soared high and fallen low during her sophomore year. She’d known this homecoming queen pageant would be a huge stepping stone for her, but she’d had to wait for her junior year to enter. Only upperclassmen were allowed to take part.

And of course, she’d wanted to secure special permission from the university itself. While recent changes to the school’s gender equality policy had solidified her confidence that she couldn’t be denied entrance, she hadn’t wanted any nasty surprises. With the help of one of an English major friend, she’d drafted a letter to the president and deans, proposing her participation as the first transgender woman to compete in the annual homecoming queen pageant.

* * *

And now, here she sat, surrounded by cis women (though she knew at least one of them had attended several Unity Club meetings). She wondered what other obstacles her fellow contestants might have overcome to be here. Eating disorders, perhaps? Various forms of abuse? 

“You were so beautiful!” The words broke Joyce from her thoughts, and she saw Alexis from her trigonometry class beaming at her, tiny tears at the corners of the girl’s eyes.

“Aw, thanks, Alex,” she replied quickly. Her mind raced to what Alex’s talent had been. “And you never told me you could juggle!” 

Alex blushed. “I’m good at everything you can’t get paid for. Juggling falls right in with that list.”

“Whatever,” Joyce heard herself continue. “Singers and dancers are a dime-a-dozen in the pageant world. You’ll definitely get points for originality.”

“Won’t matter,” Alex said. “My GPA’s nowhere close to yours. And the way you sang! You heard the audience, right?”

Joyce recognized the truth in Alex’s words, but today of all days (and this moment of all moments), as the assembled group of ladies faced the same scrutiny of the judging panel, she wanted nothing more than to foster the feeling of community in this room.

“Don’t you make her cry again!” Whysteria’s voice commanded their attention. Joyce and Alexis laughed. 

“Oh, I won’t, I promise,” Alexis said, backing up a step. But then, she looked back at Joyce and rushed in to kiss her cheek before fleeing back to her own dressing mirror. Unexpectedly, Joyce had to steady herself again to keep her tears of gratitude in check. Damn the hormone pills she’d been taking for 18 months now! She’d never guessed her fellow contestants of all people would treat her so kindly!

In fact, nearly everyone at the university had treated her with immense kindness in consideration of her participation today. She could think of only one person who’d seemed put off. Dean Hersch, the only female dean at the school, had never so much as smiled at her in the short, in-person meeting she’d attended to discuss her proposal.

The only other woman in the room that day (and the only person not smiling), Dean Hersch hadn’t asked Joyce any questions, but had only pursed her lips several times and excused herself from the meeting early after supposedly receiving a message on her phone. The other university staff had congratulated Joyce and enthusiastically endorsed her decision to participate in the homecoming queen pageant. Their encouragement and sensitivity helped Joyce gloss over Dean Hersch’s strange behavior in her mind.

“Who cares,” Joyce’s friend Alyssa had said when Joyce told her about the incident. “There’s always going to be someone trying to rain on your parade.” She lowered her voice, adding, “You know, I’m sorry her husband died five years ago, or whatever, but even if she’s still in mourning, it doesn’t give her the right to be a sourpuss to everyone about everything.”

Alyssa’s words had come back into Joyce’s mind a few times over the past several weeks, but mostly she’d been too busy with preparations to think much about Dean Hersch. She had the official approval of university staff, and she had the love and encouragement of Whysteria and so many of her friends. She even had her parents’ blessing now. One person’s unspoken disapproval couldn’t overshadow all of that.

* * *

Back on stage, Joyce used all the tricks Whysteria had taught her to stem the tears from coming on again. She couldn’t slow her racing heart, however. She didn’t need to glance from side to side to know she wasn’t alone in that.

The ladies held hands, all smiling broadly and nervously. Despite all the tension, Joyce realized she would probably look back on this moment, this moment right here, for the rest of her life. Because no matter what happened now, she stood in a line of beautiful women, feeling equally beautiful, equally feminine, equally worthy, no matter what title she might or might not be awarded in the next few minutes.

“I have in my hand the results we’ve all been waiting for,” the emcee’s voice boomed. “We have three crowns and five scholarships to give out today. Our new homecoming queen will not only attend next week’s football game, but serve as a student liaison for a number of events all throughout the remainder of the fall and spring terms. Our first and second runners-up will accompany her as princesses of the homecoming court at next week’s game, and our third and fourth runners-up will serve as alternates should anything prevent any member of the royal court’s attendance at homecoming.”

The emcee’s words seemed to drag on, and Joyce made herself take deep slow breaths, hearing her fellow contestants doing the same as the tension mounted even further.

“Fourth runner-up, and recipient of a one-year, $2,000 scholarship, contestant number 12, Miss Addison Driskell!” 

Joyce applauded, carefully maintaining her smile and feeling her heartbeat quicken even more.

“Third runner-up, and recipient of a one-year, $4,000 scholarship….”

It could be… Joyce thought.

“Contestant number 16, Miss Harper Washington!”

Joyce’s heart leap-frogged. Remember, it doesn’t matter. It’s not why you’re here, she thought, but she couldn’t keep herself from wondering if it were at all possible that she could have made second runner-up.

“Second runner-up, homecoming princess, and recipient of a two-year scholarship worth up to $8,000, Miss Cassidy Owens!”

Despite her reasoning with herself from just moments ago, Joyce’s heart plummeted. With only two more winners and 14 other girls still standing in this line with her, all their hearts hoping for the same thing, she knew she hadn’t placed.

It’s OKAY, the voice in her mind began again with fervor. You did this. You did amazing. Whysteria said you were stunning. You’re standing up here, the first transgender woman to ever compete in this pageant. You did what you came to do, and tonight you’re going to party with Whysteria and Alyssa and so many of your friends. And just look at these women you’re standing up here next to now. You’ve already won. You’ve….

“Joyce, that’s you!” Alexis’s voice caught Joyce by surprise. Joyce realized the girls on either side of her were smiling at her and urging her forward.

“Joyce, you got first runner-up! He just called your name, girl!”

Joyce’s mouth fell open. She felt her mind short-circuiting. 

“I think she’s a little shocked.” The announcer’s voice sounded far away, and Joyce had no idea what to do. First runner-up? She’d won? She’d gotten second place out of all these women?

A memory of Whysteria’s words from days ago snapped into her mind. “If you place in the pageant, you don’t cry. You don’t grovel. You walk up to that mic or that podium or whatever and you accept that award with dignity, because you will have earned it. You will deserve it, and you won’t owe anyone anything extra for it!”

Joyce snapped back into herself, put on her smile and walked proudly to the front of the stage. She had one last double-take as she recognized Dean Hersch walking up to her, also smiling broadly as she placed a princess sash over her shoulder and handed her a small bouquet of flowers. Joyce inclined her head as the silver-haired woman placed the princess tiara there. Joyce reached for Dean Hersch’s handshake. Their eyes met, and Joyce realized there were tears on the Dean’s cheeks.

“Thank you for what you did here today,” Dean Hersch said to her, the words too quiet for anyone else to hear. The older woman turned and walked off the stage. Joyce stared after her, so many questions whirling around in her mind. She heard the emcee name Macie Grayson the new university homecoming queen. Joyce smiled and clapped as best she could without dropping her flowers or scholarship certificate.

* * *

For the rest of the evening and into the following days, Joyce felt air-light. She floated from the after-party that evening through the weekend (during which it seemed everywhere she turned, someone offered her enthusiastic congratulations) and all the way to dinner out with her parents on Sunday evening. 

In a moment so precious not even Whysteria’s practiced techniques could keep back Joyce’s tears, her father kissed the top of her head whispering “You make a beautiful princess, sweetheart.”

* * *

Walking from her first class to the student center on Monday morning, Joyce felt herself finally beginning to come down from it all. She didn’t mind. In four days, she’d attend the football game as part of the homecoming court, and the scholarship she’d won would significantly shrink the student loan debt she’d face after graduation. She’d even received a message from the local TV news station with a request to interview her about being the first transgender woman to compete in the pageant. She hadn’t decided how to respond to that yet.

As she turned the key in her mailbox near the activity desk, she saw an unmarked envelope shuffled in with her mail. Even university communications always bore some sort of address. Who with access to the back end of the mailboxes would slip her an unmarked note?

She tore open the envelope and pulled out a letter.

Dear Miss Burns, 

Forgive me, but I didn’t trust myself to keep it together in that meeting, and I don’t trust myself to be able to say these words to you without becoming emotional now.

You blew us all away at the pageant. Even if you hadn’t placed, I hope you understand the considerable good you did, openly competing as a transgender woman, the first in this university’s history to take part in that tradition.

While it may be common knowledge around campus that I’m a widow, most people, even among the faculty, don’t know that my husband Arnold took his own life five years ago. I long suspected through our marriage that Arnie identified to himself as a woman, but he would never admit it, even to me.

I’ve learned to purge all the what-ifs from my mind, but as our world changes – as inspiring people like you insist on its forward motion – I  can’t well enough express my gratitude for your bravery and uncompromising authenticity.

I know from very personal experience that when it comes to one’s true gender, self-denial equals self-destruction. I will always miss my husband. I realize I would have lost “him” either way, but as hard as his transitioning might have been for me, I can’t tell you how much I wish I’d had the privilege of knowing “her.”

Thank you again for your fierce and beautiful grace!

Wishing you all the best,

Dean Eliza Hersch