Daddy, Daddy, Daddy

©2013 by Michelle Berthiaume

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



Daddy, Daddy, Daddy

By Michelle Berthiaume


Optimism is the madness of insisting all is well when we are miserable

– Voltaire


The madness never leaves. It festers under the surface like an infected sore. That feeling I was living someone else’s life is still with me. The little girl’s voice inside my head grows older each passing year. She narrates some boy’s life as though somehow, someday she will set the book down and walk away from him, but fold open a page so as not to lose her place in case she decides to climb back in. She is sad and vulnerable. She has learned to hide her feminine gestures, walk with authority without swaying, bouncing, or grace, play the part of a boy, an angry teenager and chauvinistic male, but has not yet learned to revel in his successes.

In 1978 I look like any normal twenty-three-year-old man in an Air Force uniform. I wear my dress-blue uniform proudly, displaying my service ribbons, a flight medal, a small arms marksmanship medal, and a combat crew badge above my top left pocket. I have a short, cropped military style haircut, the kind forced upon me all of my life since the day my father cut the curls off my head at the age of three. My body, more athletic and protean than Herculean, is rippled with sinewy muscle. I have not stopped running and exercising. I play soccer on the base team whenever I can and volunteer for every dangerous mission that arises. Since leaving basic training I have spent nine months learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and three months traveling to and from and attending various survival schools, including three days as a faux prisoner of war in a remote part of Washington, where I was beaten with a rubber hose and locked for ten hours in a small wooden box with my knees pressed up against my chest.

I have been married to Debbie for four years. We have three beautiful daughters; one, more or less, for each year of our marriage. My commitment to the United States Military is almost completed. We are stationed at Offutt Air Force base, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command.

My plane is an RC135, a specially-fitted Boeing 707 airframe. It is housed in the old factory where the Enola Gay rolled off the assembly line in June of 1945 and changed the world forever. I am working as an intelligence analyst in a windowless building with cypher locks, armed guards, and random physical inspections. To maintain my flight status, I fly missions into Russian and Cuban airspace. We draw and map out electronic, voice and signals intelligence when a hostile aircraft locks onto us with their weapons systems. We are in a secret war the American people know nothing about.

I work for NSA but am still administratively attached to the U.S. Air Force. Our flight suits are designed with Velcro. Every time we fly, our name tag and rank is put into our helmet bags in case we are shot down and survive. I get a phone call in the middle of the night: a single word is spoken. I put on my flight suit and grab the pre-packed duffel bag from the back of the closet. I kiss my wife and children good-by. I never know where we are going, or for how long, or whether it will be for the last time. Six weeks later, I’ll call Debbie from some remote base on the planet. She will not cry. She will keep her tears inside of her like she always does, until it makes her bleed.

Debbie plays the role of a military wife well. In my absence she cares for our three toddlers alone, without complaint. I am gone a lot more than the other married men in my group. She has only begun to realize I volunteer for most of these assignments. I already have enough flight hours to earn the air medal. She has been a good wife.

I realize I am running away from some invisible threat, just as I had before I met her. I am running away from my life, avoiding the quiet places where I have time to think of what might have been had I given in to these feelings of disenchantment. I try meditation, exercise, mild self-medication. I use Benadryl to help me sleep—and still the madness comes.

We are housed in temporary living quarters. We are in the eastern part of Nebraska, near the air base, in a city called Bellevue. It’s somewhere near the Platt River at the edge of the American plains, where pioneers traveled west with the hope of finding a new life. I’ve been gone more than I have slept inside our home.

When I walk through the door of our apartment, a small brown turd in a plastic bowl is thrust under my nose. Debbie is holding the bowl in one hand and our daughter Jacqueline is under her other arm, balanced on her right hip. The odor makes me swoon. Jack is grinning. She has only four teeth in her mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.

“See, Daddy, I went potty all by myself. I’m a big girl,” Debbie says in a child’s voice. Jackie’s hands clasp together like she is clapping.

My head is pounding. I have been up for twenty-five hours. I want to find my bed.

“Wow,” I say, moving away from the smell, and surprised my voice sounds so enthusiastic. I am not energetic. “Um, let me see that again. It looks good enough to eat.”

“Ewww, Daddy,” Jen Rose says from behind Debbie. She crinkles up her tiny nose and makes a face.

Debbie laughs and moves the dirty bowl back toward my nose. I back away, narrowing my eyes. She retreats to the bathroom without giving me her usual kiss. I must have scared her. She can tell I’m upset.

I was disappointed when I’d learned our good friend Rob had gotten an undercover assignment in England. It sounded interesting and dangerous. I’ve heard some don’t come back. They are officially classified as lost due to training. Had I not been married, the misery I have been feeling in the past few weeks, the same haunting I have felt most of my life, might have had an outlet, an end.

“Jenny Bear!” I scream and growl, making my best imitation of a grizzly bear. I grab Jen Rose under her arms and run into the living room. I throw her high into the air and catch her in a cacophony of giggles it is hard to believe comes from one child. We roll around on the floor until she climbs on top of me, and I tickle her. She screams for me to stop, then giggles and says, “Do it again, Daddy.”

“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” Jack toddles out of the bathroom without her diaper. She runs to join her sister, sitting on top of me. I hear a baby cry, and know Debbie will be busy for the next twenty minutes with April. I look around the apartment.

It is neat and clean. Homemade spaghetti sauce is simmering in a large pan on the stove. The spices are lined up on the shelf, standing at attention, awaiting further orders, as though the final dash has not yet been commanded. Laundry is folded neatly on the kitchen table. A radio plays in another room, a song from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album. Except for two Cabbage Patch dolls lying on the end of the couch, the toys are stacked in the small oak chest near the entrance to the kitchen. Inside, Bozo the clown smiles up from the center of his yellow box. He appears content with his place in the world, surrounded by children’s laughter.

A spasm hits me, and I feel sadness; it’s as if an invisible gas had been released into the room. How I envy Debbie!

When Debbie has finished changing the baby, she finds me in our bedroom with the door closed, lying on top of our bed still in my flight suit. It reeks of JP4, a special blend of jet fuel.

“You stink,” Debbie says. “Can’t you take a shower first before you lay in our bed? You know that smell gives me a headache.” She picks up a strap of my duffel bag and drags it into the closet. She turns and sees me still staring up at the ceiling.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asks. She is suddenly somber. She knows something is wrong.

Over the years I have fallen into a routine. Generally, no matter how tired I was after a mission, I would have showered and would have been waiting for her in bed, naked. I’ve always felt a man should please his wife when he has been away from her for a while, particularly when he left voluntarily. Those rare times I’d crept in and lay quiet beside Debbie in bed put her on edge. We never discussed it.

“No,” I say, not looking at her.

Debbie turns up the radio.

Stevie Nicks sings, “Here we go again, you want your freedom.”

Debbie closes the door on her way out.

The tears flow down my cheeks. I want to die. How I envy her.


What’s wrong with me?

I love my family.

Why can’t I be happy?


Ten years have passed. I am no longer in the military. I own my father’s business. I bought my brother Rick out. We live in the big house on Beckley Hill that overlooks the city, four states, and Canada. I’m a man who owns a city block in two cities, and is looking to build a third store in another city where the state mental hospital had operated for years.

The thorn of the rose hurts long after the blossom has died. Some memories sting worse when one looks back on them than when they first unfolded.

I watch Debbie in silence. She rocks back and forth on the edge of our bed. Her eyes are fixed straight ahead, staring off into the distant time and place when marigolds and buttercups bloomed in earthen pots on the ledge outside our bedroom window. She is singing a familiar song, one I know well. It’s song we sang together, sitting under stiff sheets and heavy blankets on cold rainy evenings in the dark, whispering promises we were too young to know we would someday break. It haunts me as I watch her sitting there, arms folded across her chest as she rocks and sings in a voice that seems to belong to a child: Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be.

There are no tears in her eyes, but I know she is crying inside, where women bleed in silence.

Watching her decline in the waning days of our marriage bothers me. The misery has seeped to the surface, and left its mark in the fine lines at the corners of her eyes. She looks old. She looks tired. She looks broken.

In the winter of our marriage in 1992, I was still running the family business. Our famous sandpaper-snow tires were in demand. I usually came home late. When I had come home one evening after work, I had passed my wife and daughters in the kitchen and gone directly to the bedroom. They had just sat down for supper.

I hadn’t said hello or returned their greetings as I’d passed. I hadn’t stopped to take off my boots. I hadn’t stopped to wash. I went into our bedroom and lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, looking for answers from above. I hadn’t noticed when she’d walked in, closing the door behind her so our children wouldn’t hear our conversation. In her bones, she knew it was the time.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I’d said.

“What?” Debbie’s voice was barely audible. A robin’s egg had fallen somewhere. Its shell cracked.

“Why?” It was a question not directed at me.

I didn’t respond. She’d known what I was saying. It’s always sad when some beautiful thing dies. When it first beat in your hands you knew it was fragile. There can be no love without the fear of loss. I had changed in the last year, and so had our relationship. She had noticed, but said nothing.

I had broken sacred promises. I had not been faithful to her. I’d slept with a dozen different women, most of them in the last year. Although I’d been a doting, thoughtful, loving husband, remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, and I’d left a single red rose on her pillow occasionally throughout the nineteen years of our marriage, she would have noticed. I hadn’t been discrete. I hadn’t wanted to be. I had intended that she divorce me to save her the pain of knowing the truth.

There had been an English girl I’d met at the Bird-in-Hand; she worked as a show girl for Mercedes Benz. I’d called her Wendy Woo. She fell in love with me one weekend in Kensington. She’d wanted to have my baby. I’d met her on one of my last sorties to Great Britain. I’d wondered—if only for a moment—whether her love would have saved me from wishing I could walk away from myself and be someone else. It hadn’t.

There were two French Canadian women on separate trips to Canada—one a drug addict who scared the hell out of me when I couldn’t wake her up until the next morning. She’d fallen asleep on top of me in the middle of copulation. The other woman had enormous round breasts and silver-blue eyes the color of the Adriatic Sea at dawn. She’d taught me French in bed—and I had inadvertently and ruefully taught her American men could go all night long and not orgasm.

I’d met Roberta at a tavern near the capitol building in downtown Montpelier. She’d been obsessed with married men and was borderline schizophrenic. The first time I’d slept with her, I’d noticed a man in a truck parked down the street, his cigarette glowing in the dark, his eyes familiar—and hateful. I knew him. He’d gone to school with my mother and was one of my best customers. Butch would later tell me he was in love with Roberta and angry I had interfered. He was another married man Roberta had collected. I’d stopped seeing her when she’d threatened to kill Debbie if I ever failed to come to her apartment when she demanded.

I’d met another woman with pale skin and black eyes who practiced witchcraft, whom I’d thought was some dark angel sent to cull my wounded soul—but, like all the others, I left still an unhappy male. There was a woman from Boston passing through our town who sold cosmetics for Mary Kay. I’d met her at a local watering hole and brought to our house to fuck her in the basement while Debbie and my children slept upstairs.

The last was a coed from the University of Maine who I affectionately called Jenny O. She was the most dangerous liaison I’d had. She’d told me just before I was about to enter her that she had herpes. It was a disease that had just became known in 1993, and I took the risk without a condom. I’d felt invisible—not human, and reckless. She’d called the house and spoken with Debbie. When I’d heard the conversation I knew I’d gone too far and my plan to maneuver her into divorcing me wouldn’t work. Debbie was never going to give me up. She had threatened to kill Jenny O if she’d ever called, or came near me again. That’s when I knew it had to end.

Debbie had an uncanny way with animals, domestic or wild. When we were first married, a gray squirrel that lived in a tree near our apartment would sit up on the railing on our front porch. He would wait for her to walk out the door in the morning. She had named him Petey. She would put her hand on the rail and he would scamper up her arm and sit on her shoulder. They’d stare into each other’s eyes like lost lovers, then she would give him some scrap of food from her pocket. He would chew on it, tuck it into his fat cheeks, then leap away back to his nest. Her face would light up whenever he came running up to her door.

Debbie was the kindest, most gentle soul on the planet, and I had killed something inside her. I had changed her. The embers winked out beneath cold ash when she’d smiled. I had never intended for that to happen.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed and I was sure they were sleeping, I went into my study and removed a fifth of bourbon and my Glock 9 mm pistol from the bottom drawer of my desk. I sat in my study, drinking from the bottle and thinking hard about my life, cried harder, and waited. When the spirits had done their job I sat on the sofa, put the business end of the pistol into my mouth, and cried some more. Then, through my sobs, I heard a child’s voice. My daughter Jackie must have gotten out of bed and followed me into my den. She was in the shadows where I couldn’t see her, but I heard her loud and clear. I recognized her lisp when she asked “Daddy, what are you doing in the dark?

It startled me. Jackie was seventeen. I’d heard her voice, but it wasn’t her voice. It was child-like, with a lisp, the voice she had when she was three years old. She was, of course, not there at all.

I removed the barrel of the pistol from my mouth and put it back in the bureau. I put the clip in a separate drawer and crawled back into bed next to my sleeping wife. I stared up at the ceiling and waited for morning.

When Debbie awakened, she found me lying in bed beside her, still dressed in my work clothes. I had removed my boots, but not before our comforter was soiled. Like my soul, it had been permanently stained. Debbie didn’t complain. She never complained, no matter how miserable I made her. We resumed our conversation of the night before.

“We can work it out. Other people have.” Debbie’s voice broke.

“We can’t –not this. No one has had to deal with this.”

“Why?” Again, it wasn’t really a question directed at me, but this time I’d answered.

“I don’t know. I’m just not happy.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Change my sex,” I said.

She went quiet. Somewhere in the house a toilet flushed.

“Isn’t there another alternative?”

I’d just tried it. The taste of gun oil was still in my mouth.

“Yes. I’m going to try to see if I can survive as a woman.” If not, there was always the other alternative. I’d sensed she’d been awake when I’d left the room earlier, had perhaps even followed me.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No,” I said. “It’s not you, Debbie, it’s never been you. I love you. I want you to know that. I’ve always loved you. You and the girls are my whole world. But I can’t go on—I choked on my emotion.

“Why can’t you get help?”

“There is no fix for what I have. I told you before we even got married. There’s something wrong with me.”

“But I thought that was a normal fantasy. Women wonder what it’s like to be male, and to have a penis. It was normal.”

It was more complicated than that. I hadn’t explained it well. I’d told her that when I’d dreamt, I was the girl. We both were too young to understand. Neither of us could deal with my meltdown. I’d really thought that once we were married, it would end, and we could make it. The young are so naive.

“There was a lot more to it than that. I’m a woman in a male body. I thought you understood. I thought I could make it work. I can’t be male anymore. It’s killing me inside, and it has nearly destroyed you. I’m sorry. I thought you’d divorce me and you’d never had to know why.”

I sobbed.

Debbie got up out of bed and stood by the door, pacing and waiting, until I grew quiet again.

“Won’t you try to see someone? Can’t you wait a little longer, until April is out of school? Then we could sell everything and move away.” Debbie spoke rapidly.

I’d had my nose broken and reshaped by a surgeon in Montreal, and I’d been getting electrolysis from a woman in Montpelier for several months to see if it would alleviate some of my symptoms. It made it worse. I’d begun to see what it might be like to feel normal in my own skin. People sometimes called me “ma’am,” even in a baseball cap and dirty jeans. I was lost.

“I’ll wait. You can do whatever you want, and I’ll wait for you to feel better. I only ask that you be more discrete.” I knew what she meant.

The sex with the women I’d slept with was not nearly as pleasant as the lovemaking Debbie and I had enjoyed during our marriage. She’d been a good wife. Being with other women didn’t make me want to remain male, although I had hoped it would. It only made me and Debbie more miserable. I wanted to be those women, to feel what they’d felt when in the arms of a passionate man. I’d waited too long. It was already inside of me, a feeling I could not control—a restlessness that could no longer be stilled.

I knew that if I tried to wait as Debbie had requested it would mean more suffering for her, our daughters, my family, and would likely be the end of me. People had already begun to notice I was looking and acting differently. They were beginning to talk.

“It won’t work,” I said.

“What’s going to happen to me?”

Debbie had no family. Her mother was dead. Her father had abandoned them when she was a child. Her sisters and brothers were scattered around the country and dirt poor.

“I’m giving you everything, Deborah—the house, the cars, all of it, and everything in our savings accounts. All I’ll take is the money I’ve saved since I was a teenager.”

It was money I’d been saving since I’d first learned there was hope for people like me. I had read about sex-change operations when I’d been a junior in high school. I was seventeen. I had no particulars because information was hard to come by in those years; everything dealing with transsexuals was censored by the government, even educational and medical material. I’d saved $12,000 in cash over twenty years. I kept it in a box in the back of our closet.

“You can live with Mom and Dad until you get back on your feet. You can enroll April in school in Florida. I know they’ll take care of you. You’ve been like a daughter to them for nineteen years, more than half your life. I’ll be disowned, but you and the kids  won’t be discarded.”

“We’re getting divorced?” Her voice sounded distant.

“You’re not a lesbian. You deserve to know what it’s like to be with a real man. I’ve never felt like one. I acted the part probably better than most, but I don’t know what real men are like either. I think it would be best for you. Besides, the transition is difficult, and I don’t think you could survive it. I’m not sure I can.”

Debbie began pacing at the foot of the bed again. Then she’d reached out and grabbed my hand.

“I thought we were going to grow old together. I’d always envisioned us together in our old age.”

The softest summer breeze could not have whispered more quietly than she’d spoken at that moment.

I let go of her hand. The door opened and she left.