A Night in the City

©2013 by Michelle Berthiaume

This is an excerpt from Michelle’s A Night in the City: Memoir of a former transsexual.


“Is this seat taken?” a feminine voice asks. It is rich, throat, matronly. I turn to see a woman standing beside me. She appears to be in the twilight of her life. Her thinning hair is dyed auburn and is professionally cut and shaped around her pleasant face. Her smile is warm, her crinkle-cut eyes kind. Her fur hat and coat are the color of Oxblood. A tartan scarf is wrapped loosely around her elegant neck, extending below her small breasts. Her arms are folded over a small brown suitcase with a leather handle and gold snaps on top. It is quite unlike the bundles, bags, and packages carried by the other passengers crowded around us.

“No, please sit down,” I say. I rush to clear my packages from the seat beside me and move them to the floor beside my feet. “I’m sorry. You’re welcome to sit here. I wasn’t paying attention. It’s been a long day. I’m half asleep.”

The train is full of weary travelers making their way out of the City towards easy chairs and hot cocoa by the fire in the suburbs. By the time we hit New Rochelle, all of the seats are taken. I look over at Joe. He is spread out in the window seat across the aisle, his head tipped to one side, mouth agape, asleep. The tip of his bulbous nose matches the color of the wig he is wearing and strands, of synthetic hair reach nearly to the floor. The cool air bites at my ears. They are stinging as I pull at my lobes and rub them gently between my thumb and forefinger.

The elegant lady sits with the grace of Queen Elizabeth at court. She glides into the seat beside me and places her suitcase on the floor by her feet, all in one movement. She sits erect, staring straight ahead. I think about striking up a conversation with her and then change my mind. I open and close my mouth before she sees me. I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable.

“I think, without a doubt, this is the most beautiful time of the year,” I say, after the silence gets the best of me. I try to keep my voice high in spite of the weariness deep in my bones from all of the walking. The steady roll of the car on the uneven tracks has lulled me into a listless state.

“My Ex and I used to go to the city together when I was married. We would take the children and make a day of it,” I lie. I am not yet divorced. I merely try to add a degree of respectability to my story, my cover as the happy divorcee, shopping alone. I was never the one to do our Christmas shopping, and the only time I took the children was to get a tree at the farm.

The elegant woman beside me does not respond. She continues to stare straight ahead. The shadow across her face from her fur hat covers one eye and part of the curve of a delicate but firm upper lip. I feel tightness in my throat. My voice is a bitter disappointment. It must have failed to convey the excitement of a woman who is in enthralled with the holiday. I am tired and my voice reveals it. It is low and gravely. I glance at the window, which by now has become a black mirror. A worried face stares back at me. It’s hard to breathe and I feel like crying.

A voice comes over the speaker, announcing Norwalk Station. The train slows and stops. A dozen people get off the train. The sound of paper, plastic hoods, and rubber boots scuffing along the wet matting crack in the cool air that fills the car. No one gets on. Joe is still asleep, sprawled out now in two seats. There are many seats available now. I suppose the elegant lady beside me will get up and move, but the doors close and the train starts to lurch forward. I look over at her. She is still there, unmoving, staring straight ahead. I wonder if she might be dead, and then she speaks.

“My husband used to love this time of year,” the elegant woman says, without moving her head. She doesn’t glance in my direction. Her voice is gentle. I think I might have imagined it, but then a smile spreads across her thin red lips. I relax, but notice the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. They remain dark and distant. “We used to shop in the City this time of year, like you and your friend.” She looks at Joe. “It’s where we met.”

“Where is he now?” I ask. I’m nervous. My voice is shaking. I bite my lower lip until it bleeds. I had sensed the answer before I’d even begun to speak.

“He’s dead,” she says. Her eyes, half closed, open slightly, and moisture fills the corners. A  palpable void spills into the car as swiftly as the darkness had come. My reflection in the window now reveals a different pain, more selfless and existent. My own worries are forgotten, at least for the moment.

“I’m very sorry,” I say. My eyes lower to my lap. I am such a waif. The woman has just suffered a great loss. How can I be so insensitive? Where are my instincts?

“That’s all right, dear,”she says, and for the first time I feel her eyes upon me, searching through every blemish, scrutinizing every imperfection on my face, and then puzzling over the lack of them. “We had a wonderful life. Thirty-nine years together. We were married in Paris. It was a quiet ceremony, in a small church in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.”

“Sounds beautiful,” I say. I look into her face. She is glowing. Her pale face appears lit from a source other than the muted florescent lamps pressed into the ceiling above us. “You must have been very happy.”

“We were,” she says. Her smile widens; this time it almost reaches her eyes. The tiny wrinkles in the corner of each hazel jewel deepen. “We lived a life of dreams. We rented a small studio apartment overlooking the Seine. We took early morning walks along the river, painted in the park, drank espresso on lazy afternoons, and ate fresh baked croissants with chives and brie at quaint cafés tucked along the walkways along the river. We lived a modest life, but a good one, Martin and I. He held my hand every day—until he died.”

I want to say something to comfort her, but I can’t find my voice, ugly or otherwise. She daintily dabs her eyes with her delicate sleeve and looks straight ahead again. She is suddenly silent and I think she is done sharing her story. I am  pleasantly wrong.

“I miss him. Martin was a brilliant painter. He could capture the energy of the City of Lights like no other artist. His canvas came alive when he touched it. He was a great teacher, always patient and kind. He had a way to make anyone laugh. People would stop to watch him paint and he would throw his brush in the air, twirl around before it came back downm and catch it behind his back, then dab his canvas and throw it up again. ‘Art,’ he would say, ‘is entertainment, like acting or a movie. It is what makes life, life,’” She makes a gesture with her hand, as if she were there with him in that Paris park, taking a bow, then her voice trails off again. “I was eighteen when we ran away to Paris. I miss him, much.”

“Sounds like you had a wonderful life together. Were you an artist too?” I ask.

“He used to say so. He was always so reassuring, but I was no match for his talent,” she says. She tugs on the ends of her scarf which is draped in her lap,  like a schoolgirl reminiscing about her first kiss. “My parents wanted me to finish college. They weren’t happy with the fact that I had fallen for an upstart artist selling his wares in the park. We met there. My mother and I and my youngest brother were strolling through. We were on our way to Fordham, where I was to attend. Classes were to start in a few days. I was going to study medicine. We had no idea how far away from the school the park was. We were looking for someone to ask when we came across Martin’s exhibit. My mother was mesmerized, first with his paintings, then with his charm. Martin could capture your attention for hours with stories of his many travels. He was only twenty-nine, and yet he had traveled the globe. He couldn’t have painted so brilliantly without his experiences—and the love he shared with me. She hesitates, places a gloved hand on her bosom, takes in a breath, then starts again—“For me, it took only a glance. I took one look at him and I knew this was the man I would marry. This was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. It was love at first sight.”

“Southport Station,” a male voice warns over the speaker, just before the train begins to slow.

“Is this your stop?” I ask. I feel a twinge of sadness.

“No, I get off in Milford,” the elegant woman says. She pauses for a moment to see if I am leaving. She notices I don’t move to gather my packages. She turns her attention to the sleeping giant across from us. Joe is still spread across two seats. His mouth is open and his oversize tongue drapes over his lower lip like a grey overcoat hanging limp on the back of a seat. I am embarrassed for him, and also for myself. I look back at her inquisitively, and she continues: “I have a place just outside town. My parents died several years ago. My brother got the townhouse in the City. They left me the farm. I haven’t been back there since—I left.”

“Oh, my, and you’ve not been back since? How do you know it’s habitable?” I ask. There is genuine concern in my voice, and I am pleased. Her aloofness sheds and she smiles warmly at me; this makes her easier to like. I feel I’ve known her for a long time, perhaps in another lifetime. She sits back and brings her gloved palm up and pats the spot just above her breasts, where her collar should have been clasped. Her white blouse is open at the neck and the scarf hangs straight down, both ends spilling into her lap, a cascade of gold, red and black threads. It is the first time I notice the pendant she is wearing. It is in the shape of a rose. Its rubies and diamonds sparkle and refract the muted light of the car.

“What brought you to the City?” I ask. Another foolish question. I hang my head after speaking.

“It was his wish that I spread some of his ashes in Central Park, where we met,” She hesitates. Her eyes lift, as though she were looking at someone other than me. “We shared special memories together in Paris, strolling and painting along the Seine, but this is where it all began. The place we fell in love.”

It sounds like a fairy tale– the kind of story told to young girls on their first sleepover: true romance, a story of love at first sight, and two young lovers running away together to live as artists in Paris. My heart flutters like an autumn leaf. Each of us has her own fairy tale to yearn over. I dreamed of romance and love once. Somewhere deep inside me a small spark of hope remained alive that was not buried with my former ego. I catch myself wishing for something long forgotten. Only a child or a fool could believe true love could overcome anything, even dark secrets. I am stupefied.

I study her features, her attractive face, fine clothes, and expensive jewelry. I almost envy her, until my eyes drift to the small brown suit case resting under her legs. Is this all she brought with her from Paris? A lifetime of memories carried in one small brown bag? Her eyes catch mine, and I blush.

“It was worth it,” she says, as though she had seen into my mind. Her small gloved hand touches my elbow. Hope fills my eyes and I blink back the tears. The elegant lady, who watched her dream come to an end, who carried the remains of her love across a sea to throw him on a breeze in the park, bows her head and says: “I have no regrets. I wish I could go back to relive it all again.”

“Weren’t you afraid of leaving all you had to start a new life with someone you barely knew?” I ask, in a voice so soft, so feminine, that I don’t recognize it as my own.

“Never,” she says. “The moment I put my hand in his, all my fears were gone. No matter what life brought, I felt as long as he was beside me, I would never be afraid again.”

“I envy you,” I say. My voice is hard. I stare out the window quickly to avoid her stare and that enigmatic smile crawling across her lips. “You’ve chased your dream and found real love. What more is there in life?”

I can’t believe I said it aloud, nor the tone of discontent in my voice. I feel the blood rush into my cheeks. The sad, wide-eyed girl in the black glass stares back at me and I wonder if she could ever be happy, this girl who didn’t even know who she was for  thirty-eight years. It’s unsettling. Some stranger I meet on a train draws to the surface those forbidden dreams of my youth. Emotions known only to women are somehow imbedded deep within my breast. I am confused. I want to throw my arms around her and thank her, and at the same time I want to cry. She stares at me for a moment, then she stiffens in her seat and stares straight ahead, like before, except it is not like before because she had opened her soul to me and I had rebuked her.

“I’m sorry,” I say, in a low voice. I wonder if she heard it because she continues to stare straight ahead and doesn’t move. “I’m sorry for your loss, but you have lived a dream I’ve only dreamed and I shall never be able to achieve. It’s just not that easy for someone like me.”

The elegant woman stares ahead, the reflection of her face and mine appearing to overlap in the window beside me, as though she is a part of me, or will be. She says nothing. I feel the emptiness around me and dive to that innermost place where I feel safe. My mother assures me I am beautiful and everything will be alright. I close my eyes and breathe.

The train lunges where the tracks are weak and I bump against the elegant lady’s shoulder, not hard, but enough to move her, and I, from our trancelike states. We stare at each other apologetically and smile and right ourselves, settling back into our moods—both feeling sorry for ourselves, for different reasons.

Joe stirs from his sleep and sits up. He yawns and then smiles and nods at me, letting me know I look fine. I motion toward his head and he straightens his wig. His eyes make furtive movements from side to side. The other passengers don’t notice or pretend they don’t see his hairline has fallen low onto his brow.

“Stratford Station,” the voice over the speaker bellows. The train slows. I am sad and don’t understand why. I cast one more look at the reflection of the scared blonde in the dark glass. Every hair is in place. Her makeup is impeccable except for a smudge of mascara that ran near one eye. Her smile is pressed neatly onto her painted lips. I am content she is passable, but my heart flutters just the same.

The elegant woman moves aside for me to gather my things. I don’t know for sure, but I feel she is watching me as I stand beside Joe near the door as the train pulls to a stop. A foreboding creeps over me, like a leaf shuddering on its branch just before it plunges to the earth.

The doors swish open and as I step through the portal I hear that rich, eloquent, feminine voice once again: “Dear, you just have to believe.”

I turn, but the doors have closed and the train is pulling away. I glance through the window. The elegant woman is sitting up straight in the seat we once shared, staring ahead. A smile is pressed upon her lips, and it reaches her eyes. At that moment, so did mine.

”What was that all about?” Joe asks. “Who was she?”

“An angel,” I say, and I pick up my bags and walk away.