What did Gordon Richards have to do to get some privacy?
“Well, what can I say, Gord?” his landlord offered instead of apology. “Should’ve worked more when you had the chance. Made more money.”
“How about you should just keep the damn rent what we agreed on!” Gordon countered. “A contract’s a contract!”
“Your lease is up, Gordon; you wanna blame someone, blame the government for jacking the property tax!”
“What’s it gonna take for you to sell me this place?” Now at last, Old Man Richards was sincere.
“Trust me,” said Phil Mulberry, “even if I wanted to sell, you couldn’t afford it.”
But Mulberry didn’t want to sell, of course—on the contrary, he wanted to buy up the whole building, if he could. And for what? Turn it into a parking lot? It wasn’t close enough to downtown for that to make any sense. No, no, for guys like Mulberry it was all about control, all about conquest. He wanted everything, but he knew what his limitations were, so he’d settle for the whole damn building.
“Why couldn’t I get an apartment from McDowell?” Gordon muttered. But it was too late now. McDowell was the other owner of multiple units in the Leverett building, but he kept to himself—hard not to, really, seen as how he lived in Canada or someplace, thousands of miles away, but he still owned property here and from what Gordon could gather (and he could gather an awful lot) McDowell was a heck of a lot better than Mulberry at managing his property, even though Mulberry lived in the same damn building. Gordon wished he could have that. Actually, no. What Gordon really wished was that he could leave here and go buy some cabin out in the woods or something, out where people weren’t so nosy, out where neighbors didn’t try to strike up a conversation just ‘cause they felt like they knew you after nine years living in the same building. He just wanted his privacy.
But he couldn’t even have that.
“What you need a two-bedroom apartment for, anyways?” Mulberry finally asked.
“That’s none of your business!” Gordon insisted, though to be perfectly honest, he didn’t have a better answer. He just liked his space.
But Mulberry was right—not about doing what he was doing, but about the solution to it, given that it was done. If Gordon was going to continue to live in the Leverett Building (unless he wanted to move to unit 32, which was obviously haunted, so no) he was going to need a roommate. A roommate, god dammit! He hadn’t had a roommate in damn near forty years, unless you counted his ex-wife, and you shouldn’t, even though you might as well. And since he didn’t really know anybody seen as how he didn’t like people, that meant inviting a stranger into his home. That provided some opportunities, of course. There were certain types of peopel Mulberry really didn’t like… Unfortunately, these were the same types of people Gordon was none too fond of, and besides, Mulberry would get final say anyway, so what the hell?
Once the applications started coming in, it was pretty easy to weed out most of the undesirables, mostly the folks with really odd-sounding names like “Kawabanta” and “Laminetsky” and goddamn “Ng”—what the hell kinda name was that? What was harder to spot was the black people—excuse me, “African Americans” (like any of them ever been to Africa)—but he got those at the interviews. Which only left two things to worry about: queers and muslims. He wasn’t quite sure which one would be worse, but he was goddamned if he’d have either one of ‘em in his house. Or apartment.
Finally, though, he didn find one guy looked like he could be trusted. “What kinda name is ‘Laird’?” he asked the guy. “That Scottish?”
“I think so,” said the man, name of Raymond. “Never really gave it much thought.”
“All right, fine,” said Gordon. “If you want it, this is what it looks like, your room’s over there, make yourself at home. Deal? “They’d already hashed out the details by then, so they shook on it.
At first, it was great. Raymond Laird didn’t really have much stuff, so the living room didn’t really change too much except for one painting he really seemed to want over the TV, which was fine, it was this pretty standard landscape with some ducks and a little girl in a dress, utterly inoffensive.
As for what went into Raymond Laird’s room, that was none of Gordon’s business. He kept his own private things to himself, too. That was a part of the bargain neither had even had to bring up while talking.
Yet once the other man had stowed away all his secret boxes, Gordon found himself growing curious. Oh, shut up, you old fool, he kept telling himself. You wouldn’t want him snooping around in your room, either, would you? And what would he think if he caught you? You with your hands on his pretty things?
But how do I know that what he has there isn’t…
What? What was it that he was afraid of?
Well, there were a lot of things to be afraid of, weren’t there? This Laird guy was living in his house now. Gordon’s name was on the lease. Anything this lodger did, Gordon could be held responsible for. He pictured the aftermath of the inevitable postal killing spree—not that Laird was a postal worker, he was an accountant, but that was almost worse. Who knew the sorts of depraved thoughts those degenerates kept hidden under their numbers.
It wasn’t that Gordon objected to guns—his own, for protection of his private property, was stored under the coffee table in case of emergency, and Laird knew that. So if Laird had a gun, too, Gordon expected him to disclose that. But he hadn’t. Which made Gordon suspicious.
There could be other things, too, though. He imagined the police raid and all the things they might find. Drugs, for Christ sakes, kiddie porn! Can you imagine! The Headlines: “Old Man Richards Arrested with New Roommate on Suspicion of Involvement!” “I didn’t know!” curmudgeon insists, but we know better, don’t we, folks?” I always knew that crazy old man was up to something!” says landlord Philip Mulberry, decorated upstanding citizen and whatnot.
No. No, it was too risky. This was his house, dammit, he had a right to know what was going on. This Raymond guy bursting in here like he owned the place—who did he think he was? Who was he? Expecting charity and whatnot—well, Gordon Richards did not believe in charity! Charity was for schmucks who trusted people. And trust was for idiot children.
So he waited until Laird was gone for the day and snuck into his room. Serves him right, he tried telling himself, for not having a lock on his door.
It’s not like he was stealing anything. He just wanted a look around. In particular, he wanted a look in those boxes…
They were dresses. Dresses and skirts. And blouses, and—ugh!
This was so much worse than Gordon had expected. He almost wished there had been kiddie-porn, or instructions on building bombs, at least then he could’ve called the cops and started over with a new roommate. One who wasn’t some damn freak of nature. But no, nowadays you had to be “tolerant” and “understanding” of grown men playing dress-up even down to their goddamn underwear. It made him sick to his stomach even thinking about it.
After he put everything away back where he found it, he went back and sat in the living-room. He thought about Raymond Laird wearing women’s clothes. He told himself he didn’t want to think about it, but every time he did he got a thrill like you wouldn’t believe. It made him angry, but the anger made him happy; it felt justified.
Then when Raymond got home, he couldn’t even look at him. He didn’t want to. He had a secret, now: that he knew Raymond’s secret, and Raymond didn’t know. And he didn’t want him to.
Raymond acted like he knew there was something wrong, or off, or different, but he didn’t say anything.
Having a secret turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be, though. So the next day, as Raymond was starting to head off to work, Old Man Richards found himself hollering at him from his chair “You gonna go out dressed like that?”
Raymond stopped, confused, turned around, looked himself up and down, trying to see what was wrong with his outfit, making sure his shoes and socks both matched. Finally, he gave a helpless shrug in Gordon’s direction.
Gordon just stared at him, and finally Raymond understood.
He was running late to work, though, so he didn’t say anything. But as he turned and walked out, Gordon could tell there was a look of shame and fear on his face.
Well, fine, he thought to himself, let him do some stewing for a change! These freaks and perverts, it’s about time! If he feels enough shame, hell, maybe he’ll, I don’t know, stop doing it? Christ sakes.
Sure enough, Raymond didn’t even come home until pretty late. When he did, it looked like he’d been drinking. Couldn’t handle it, could you? thought Gordon. Just couldn’t handle somebody knowing the truth about you.
Raymond sat on the edge of his seat, leaned forward, legs spread just a bit, and ran his hand across his open mouth, almost like he was making his leaps, you know?
“You went in my room,” he stated.
Gordon said nothing.
“You went in my room without my permission.” He flexed the fingers of his right hand and his joints popped. “That’s not what we agreed to.”
“What you gonna do about it?” Gordon sneered, then added another word, a word he shouldn’t have said, a word that gave the game away and made things unnecessarily uncomfortable in their living situation.
But after a short, tense moment of silence in the wake of that word, Raymond snorted and started to laugh, only a little bit at first, a few rocks before the avalanche, like he was uncovering several different layers of irony over the course of laughing.
“Well, what’s so funny!” a frustrated Gordon finally demanded.
So when Raymond had calmed himself down enough, he finally replied: “You just don’t get it, do you? Oh, it’s not what you think. It’s not the obvious thing.” Then he paused and continued, “But once I tell you what it really is, you’re gonna think it’s so much worse!” And he burst into giggles again.
This was doing nothing to help Raymond’s case in Gordon’s eyes.
“Oh, let me have my fun,” he finally said. “Probably the last time I’ll get to laugh like that for a while. “And then, more thoughtful, “It’s been a while since I’ve laughed like that.” Finally, he composed himself. “I’m not a transvestite.” He was calm by now. “Well, at least… Those women’s clothes. I don’t wear them in secret or anything. I’m assuming that’s what you meant when you used that word. Although I guess technically… But I’m not… exactly… a gay man, Gordon. Because I’m not… exactly… a man. Yet.”
Gordon had no idea what Raymond was talking about.
“That is to say, I am a man,” Raymond continued. “I always have been. In my own way, I guess. It just never occurred to me that I could be, I mean, I kept hearing about it, but me?” He chuckled, then stopped. “I was born… a woman, or… with women’s… I was assigned female at birth. I just never felt comfortable in my skin, you know?”
Gordon still looked at her blankly.
“No, I guess you really wouldn’t know, would you?” she sighed. “I’m still attracted to men,” she continued. “For a while, I thought maybe that was why I… So I guess that word you used earlier does technically apply to me, or to what I want to be—I’m still new at this, see? I’m still… I’m trying it out. Trying to what I want to be—I’m still new at this, see? I’m still… I’m trying it out. Trying to see if it… fits me better, and I gotta say, I’m liking the results. So far. For the most part.” After another moment of silence, “Those clothes in there are mine, or were mine—I don’t know why I kept them, I just didn’t think—I didn’t know… They’re just in case, I guess. Listen to me, I’m fifty-three years old and I’m still experimenting. Going through ‘phases’—“ But he caught himself. “No. No, this isn’t a phase. But they’re still… I don’t know. It’s a safety thing, I guess.”
Finally, Gordon managed to clear his throat. “So are you…” he began, then adjusted, “that is, do you… He wiggled a bit in his seat. “What are you? Now, I mean?”
“I’m a person,” Raymond said coldly.
“But what… what parts do you have?”
Raymond drew himself (herself?) up in the seat and said confidently: “I don’t have to answer that question. It’s private.”
That just seemed patenlty ridiculous to Gordon. They’d been talking about this for ten minutes already, he (she?) just hadn’t made… Oh, hell, hadn’t made it clear in all the rambling monologue.
But that was it. Raymond said no more, just got up and went back to h—to Raymond’s room, leaving Gordon alone to stew.
He’d actually make a pretty nice-looking woman, he found himself thinking. Prettier than my ex-wife, anyway… And he snickered.
But at night, he found it drove him crazy. He tossed and turned as he’d never tossed and turned before. He just couldn’t stand not knowing such a basic fact when Raymond knew so much about him.