“Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” goes the children’s song. The three little piggies wouldn’t last long today, I’m sorry to say. They’d be in the bacon slicer faster than you can say ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” There are big bad wolves lurking.
It’s not cool to be the one who see’s the wolf. It’s not cool to be the one who feels fear. Except for the fact that it’s possibly that very fear that keeps you alive. At least, that’s what I think about in those dark times when I’m haunted by some unpleasant memories of Africa in the nineties. My gut feeling saved me more than once.
After Shannon had her sex group experience, and I had reacted pretty badly about it, we’d moved to a place of uneasy acceptance as I’d agreed, ok – I’d work on it. ‘It’ in this case was my reactions to something that simply didn’t feel right. It’s such a small thing, isn’t it?
It just didn’t feel right. Well, get your hard hat and let’s see what happened next.
It so happened that at about this time I was moving apartments. It’s always a stressful time, however the many things that had to be done were certainly keeping me busy. Late one night I found myself in the basement of the apartment building from which I was moving, and there among my daughter’s belongings I came across a box that had found its way into her storage, but was clearly one of my own. As I’d previously mentioned, the press work had come at a high emotional price. Many years of working in Africa had been wonderful, but it’s a sad fact that many marriages that work very well in Africa fail as the couple return to the predictable life we enjoy in the west. In fact, my marriage began to falter and then gradually fell apart some years after returning to the States. In the course of that, many of my belongings were lost, or in the case of my photographs, burned by a passionate ex. A wonderful mother, she certainly did things in style!
Little did I know, my daughter had rescued a small collection of photographs. When I accidently came across them late one night as I was preparing to move things from one storage place to another a remarkable thing happened. I was sitting beneath the naked bulb of a light in the dim storage area at 2 am, sorting things. And there was this box.
I opened it, surprised that a few ten by eights were there. Turning over the first picture I was confronted by an image I had long banished from my mind. There before me was the necklacing of the poor unfortunate wretch in Meadowlands, from so many years before. It was as though I had been punched in the face. I turned a second picture over, much as one turns tarot cards, to reveal the future. Only here was my past. A past I had spent many years pushing from my mind.
In those monochrome tones I could see the horror of that moment once more. The experience was quite extraordinary. In a moment I was transformed. I could smell the tires reek. My mouth almost tasted the smoke and I could feel the hard floor of the Buffel beneath my feet. I make no excuse for what I felt. It was fear, excitement and the tumbling river of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Sweat trickled down my back, and my breath was short. For a moment I thought I was having a heart attack.
In that moment I was transported back to being that twenty six year old, violent and angry young man. Those very qualities that served me so well in the survival of tempestuous times were right back upon me. The feeling came, and I expected it to pass, but as I looked at the images it was as though I had opened a floodgate. I put away the box, but the images would not leave my mind, and instead as I tried to sleep, they rotated in my imagination, filling me with dread. The names of friends long dead came to me. People who didn’t make it back.
It didn’t take me long to realise I’d triggered something. To say I was disrupted is a horrible understatement. Over the next few days I found myself increasingly short tempered, distracted by thoughts of the past, and behaving like the twenty six year old I’d once been. My mind was shaken up and wouldn’t settle. I began to hate myself for my fragile and insecure nature. And yet, it wouldn’t subside.
I leaned on friends, and tried to reconcile myself, but nothing really seemed to help. My wife saw the change. She wondered what I could possibly have done to myself. As the days passed I wondered if I would ever revert to the settled person that I had become over the years. Instead, I was a twenty six year old year old agitator walking around in a fifty five year old’s body. It felt quite surreal, but more than anything else, it felt frightening.
As things settled into this new disrupted reality I gradually found ways to hold things together, but always in the background there remained the short fuse, and the hot burn of anger.
A few weeks later the dam broke. Shannon and I had met for a coffee and as we were leaving she said she’d be meeting a friend for a glass of wine that night. I picked up the lie immediately.
I let it sit for a while. A glass of wine. Such a small thing. Later that evening I messaged her, and with no reply she was acting a little out of character. I think because I was stressed about a few things, my mind went into overdrive. By midnight my messages were going unanswered and I felt desperate. I felt lost, and knew something was amiss. It sounds so pathetic relating it now, but I could feel something was very wrong.
Eventually very late that night Shannon returned my messages and suggested I talk. I was at home at the time and decided to walk my dog on the beach, to give me the opportunity to talk freely with her. My wife, aware that I was distracted, had been tolerant of my quick temper and growing signs of stress.
As I walked the dog on the beach Shannon quickly told me the truth. After all, from her perspective she’d done nothing wrong. She’d ‘had a glass of wine’ and the situation had become intimate and I really don’t know the details, although my mind was filling in the gaps mercilessly. It’s not unreasonable to think I was creating my own poison and drinking from it deeply, but try as I might I couldn’t help myself.
She told me this was one of the trans people from the sex group she’d attended and immediately I fell back on feelings of fear. In my head I joined the dots. Organised – manipulated – controlled. I could see flashes of situations from my mind like a gruesome projection over the sea as I walked the dog. People listed in a database, information shared, targets marked out, and even the house in Bloemfontein. Had she worn a nice suspender belt, was she prepped and served up like a piece of meat? What was the system in play here? I felt the same rage I’d experienced in Bloemfontein and in those painful moments it all seemed linked together.
“Oh, it’s just a person from the group. It’s nothing. I want to do it.” Her words stung like acid dropped into my heart. She was walking willingly right into it.
I know the easiest way to control someone is to create the illusion that they themselves are making the decisions and lead them deeper into a behaviour. It’s a common way to manipulate people, and while they think their exercising their own power, they’re swept easily into the place the manipulator wishes to take them.
“Really, you’ll learn to like it,” they’ll say, as the chains are gently looped about the person, who often remains blithely unaware that they’re being played. They never realise there’s a data system, that their information is being shared, and it’s what they don’t realise that binds them tighter and tighter, playing on their misplaced trust. Think how that poor child in Bloemfontein had trusted her mother, as she measured her waist for the lingerie that was being adapted.
“It’s just a nice party. You’ll have so much fun,” the words drip like syrup to the young ears. “What a good girl you are. You’re all grown up now!”
My mind poured vitriol into my brain and I twisted and turned and as Shannon slept soundly I walked in misery along that rainy beach in the middle of the night in absolute desperation. My mind played a slideshow of blood spatter, and degradation of my dearest collaborator, as she was turned from my angel to some foul succubus.
As I remember those tortured moments, I realise I have thought about it a lot and played it through from all sides. I didn’t feel sad for myself. The worst of it was that I felt Shannon had been infected by this squalid little group and had fallen under their spell. I felt she’d allowed this sordid group to cheapen her, and become something disgusting, and my pain was for her degradation. My Angel was now something not merely mortal, but repellent. My pain was for her – not my loss.
I’d also say it was not about jealousy. I can attest that, as I knew about her other lovers. Look, if I sound judgemental, I was. I felt she’d broken my trust, and when caught in a lie she’d thrown herself into this filth and reeked of it to the very soul.
Yes, judgemental. And in my eyes in those moments that was my reality. It was desperately painful, and I had nowhere to turn to recover myself. My greatest treasure, so dearly held, had become a filthy rotting corpse of what had once been. And she’d done it willingly, drawn in by her own search for something. I tortured myself with thoughts for the night, and drawing on the support of a friend managed to talk myself off that beach. The thought of stripping and just swimming out toward the horizon had swept through me. I am blessed with a few friends, not many, but a few who know of my crossdressing and my closeness to Shannon. Thank god they talked me off that beach.
Yet, I couldn’t escape the imaginings. What had happened to my angel? What had happened to my friend and lover?
In a state of complete desperation, I found fitful sleep, only to meet the dawn with new fears. In the night I sent a string of messages telling Shannon of the hurt and betrayal I was feeling, and telling her that if this was ‘trust’ I wanted none of it. In a horrible tirade of pain I asked her if her evening was ‘worth it’. Even now I wonder, and I wrestle with it. Is a moment of ‘something’ – hell, it’s not joy, it’s just fucking – worth losing a treasured connection?
For me it was easy. It was all a case of mistaken identity. I’d thought she was caring, and trusting and spliced into the core of my spirit. In those painful moments, twisting in the wind on the hook of my own pain and tortured imaginings I saw only an corrupted individual who had fallen prey to the organised manipulations of some sad little people who knew nothing of the beautiful love they’d wrecked on the brutal shorelines of their lust.
So easily something built with care and trust and love can be smashed to worthless shards of nothingness, just by a little carelessness. And in that moment, I didn’t realise, it was me that was smashing our love and all that we’d had.
The next few days were a time of horrible self destruction. I see that now. I wanted nothing to do with whoever this person was that I’d so mistakenly placed trust in. I was furious, and it spilled over to others in my life. I am ashamed to say I was screaming internally in a childhood tantrum and could barely control myself most of the time.
How could this person in whom I’d placed so much trust, do this to herself? How could she destroy a once beautiful person and become this vile caricature of womanhood, purporting to support freedoms and personal rights while immersing herself in filth and infecting all around her. How could she do this to us?
My anger seemed to know no limits. Gradually I descended into a dark pit of self pity and it wasn’t until something important happened that I caught myself, and was forced to stand back and take a breath.
I will do my best to explain, and it’s not easy. Would that it were as simple as saying, ‘I made a mistake’. What happened was a pivotal moment and one, like so many others delivered by Shannon, that changed my life.
Shannon asked to meet me in a neighborhood coffee shop. As far as I was concerned this was going to be goodbye. And to that twenty six year old, angry at life and with the smell of burning in his head, it was “Goodbye, fuck off and I wish I’d never met you, bitch!”
Yes, I know that seems a little harsh. As I think of it now, I would never have said such words, but the person I was in that moment was ready to do so. I also, with the benefit of hindsight, realise that what was driving me was a head full of anger, and the realisation that the organised sex group was, in my tortured thoughts, somehow linked to the organised, methodical process of manipulation. It seemed linked to the dead child in Bloemfontein – and I know this sounds far from rational, yet in those moments of terrible agitation these links were forged like the links of some horrible chain – and there was the repellent young man with his friends preying on people in their organised little group, systematically destroying the lives of young women, and my Shannon had played right into their hands. All of these unrelated things all seemed to gel together in some conglomerate of disaster.
With distance it all sounds so unlikely. And yet, with a mind unsettled by those images of the necklacing, and with the insecurities revealed by so many painful associations, I created the most intricate engine with which to torture myself. In some last ditched effort, I went to meet Shannon for what I hoped would be the last time. An end to the pain was all I could think of. Whatever pain the end of the relationship might bring, it could not be as agonising as the pain of watching my Shannon destroy herself.
In the coffee shop I sat and waited. When Shannon showed up she did so looking combative, and beautiful. Her hair like a burning torch ready to ignite my foolishness.
It would be fair to say that I have a short fuse, which I generally control with some effort, but in those days of despair it had become a hair trigger sharpened to a razors edge by the triggers of the past. Shannon on the other hand was slow to anger, but when that anger poured forth God help the poor soul that might be the focus of it. And I was right in the firing line.
Shannon patiently though forcefully explained that she was no one’s angel. Indeed the word Angel was what she’d been called by her father, who’d betrayed and abandoned her. She was not anyone’s Angel – because she was not owned by anyone. No one was ever going to own her, and she’d spent her life finding the strength to own herself and be proud in that independence. She explained that far from betraying me she was simply exercising some of her own desires, just as I did when I dressed. She had guarded my trust with love and care, and always would.
She told me that if I’d misread something, it was not her error and nor was it meant with any cruel intent. She pointed out that while I had heaped vitriol on her, and placed my words on her as others had in the past, they were my own poison and only reflected my own pain. It was ‘my’ experience that was hurting me, not what she had brought me.
Of course, she was angry and I began to realise that while my pain was real, it was my own. I had no right to give it to her. If there was a betrayal, it was something I had done to myself. As I think back now, with some distance, it seems easy to see how right she was.
I could never own her. Indeed, her freedom and independence were thing very things I loved in her most. She also pointed out that in all those moments of my anger it was she who had tried to calm me and tell me that she hadn’t left me at all. It was my anger that heaped gasoline on my own emotions and burned me so horribly.
And she was right.
In those moments the pain of those anguished days seemed to suddenly subside. The feelings ignited by the necklacing images seemed to suddenly release me. That angry fighting young man, faded as though a switch had been flicked off, and the pitiful death of the child in Bloemfontein faded from inside my eyes. Instead tears welled up within me and rolled forth in an outpouring of love that I could hardly show Shannon who I had so desperately wronged with my words and anger, for the shame I felt within. As she stormed off, I sat humbled and feeling like a foolish child.
As I watched her receding steps I felt myself close the gate of The English Country Garden once and for all. The beliefs and tools of my past were finally laid down, and those terrible feelings of disruption and anger faded away.
It was all true. My choices to dress are my own. My choice to share that with a trusted friend, a lover and a partner in passion are my own responsibility. They are mine to give, mine to feel joy with, and at times mine to regret.
If I choose to share these things I do so in kindness. And who ever I chose to share these things with will themselves have their own desires, which make them who they are. As I honor those I share this very precious part of my life with, they too have the right to choose who they share their own desires with. I must respect that, as they have respected my trust.
It’s not easy. It’s not meant to be. If it didn’t matter, it would be simple. Yet, it does matter, and for that very reason it is a thing of beauty and wonder. It took Shannon, and every step of this tortured journey for me to understand that.
While I had focussed on how much I had trusted Shannon and made myself vulnerable to her, I had overlooked the fact that in her own way she had made herself equally vulnerable to me. I had seen with eyes that were forged in a kiln designed for a very different world, and while that may be true, it is no excuse.
Shannon taught me a valuable lesson not only about crossdressing and erotic love, but also about life. My own path now is very clear. While I can take my values and reshape them, it’s also equally important to respect the values of others and to honor them.
Shannon is not well. Everyday she faces the prospect of possibly being wheelchair bound within months. If she choses to explore some things that I find difficult, in the light of her life experience, it’s perfectly reasonable because those options may not even exist in her future. Who am I to deny those desires? If I need to demonstrate my love for her, it is in understanding this.
I own only myself. And if I really want to make the world a better place, it’s only in changing myself that I can do so.
So, where is God in this? I think the answer is that Shannon taught me what I needed to learn. And in the process, she taught me another lesson; forgiveness. It is almost beyond imagining that she could take my abuse, something she’s lived her life fighting against for herself and others and turn it to care and love of the kindest form. God is there in the form of forgiveness and kindness. This angel – not mine, but here to bless me none the less – appeared in the form of a lesbian for a crossdressing man finding his way. No, that’s not the image of an angel of my childhood.
And she continues to guide and share and light my life. She has released Julius of his pain, and Juliet has emerged a happier and more understanding person.
In the weeks that followed the events I’ve recounted life didn’t stand still. Shannon sat me down one afternoon and very gently described how she came to get involved with the group. She’d had some bad experiences on an online dating site, and wanting the intimacy of human touch, she talked to her therapist. It so happened that this therapist ran a very discrete and well managed group for people who were exploring a few sexual ideas. Shannon was duly invited to one of their evenings, and without doing much participating, stepped into the slightly uncertain waters of group sex. She did so in a safe environment and one that was run in a caring manner. Several times she later explored those meetings, finding something of what she was looking for. She wasn’t in anyway being groomed or managed – that was the work of my own mind, finding a way to torture myself.
It turned out that one of the people at one meeting was someone she knew from outside of that life, and there an existing connection was reformed. Shannon told me these things tenderly and with care, and kindness. She had, in essence, been trying to avoid the unsavory experiences I’d had on Craigslist, only she’d been smarter about it. A woman faces so much more in the way of uncertainty, that the dangerous world of online hookups was something she neither cared for, no would risk.
So, in the end I learned a great deal about tolerance, and forgiveness. I saw Shannon’s example, lovingly given. I also saw how terribly self destructive my own feelings could be. These feelings were created by me, and only I could take responsibility for them. I could only feel gratitude to Shannon for a lesson lovingly taught.
I look at my foolishness now with embarrassment and shame. That I had imposed myself so cruelly on Shannon will live forever in my mind to remind me not to be so foolish with one who loves me. In conclusion, I’m reminded of words I said to my own children as they started dating and having adult relationships. How much you love someone is really about how much you can forgive them. And Shannon forgave plenty.