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Fear Won Out :

Jessica Wicks

Author’s note:  During my years living in Houston, Texas, I had a chance to meet many of the homeless and street people. Beyond their façades were real people with feelings, certainly more than their share of tragedy, but also a delightful sense of humor. I often witnessed the most amazing examples of kindness and sharing with some, while for others, profound tragedy. Here they were in such circumstances for a host of reasons from choice to mental illness to addiction, but they possessed stories worth telling. This story is fiction, but fiction born out of truths lived in the lives of some amazing people I had chance to know and in some cases call friends. 

An old building surrounded by a holly hedge and with bushes and trees near the back created a natural cover for concealment. In the early morning darkness lay the badly bruised, crumpled body of a middle-aged woman. She strained to open eyes blackened and swollen. Her bruises, from when she had been dragged from the car, throbbed painfully. One ugly purple mark was lined with bloody scrapings and shaded by grass stains. As she lay there, feeling replaced numbness, and she groaned quietly.

Her hands had been bound for the trip, and the rope marks were still visible. She found it hard to believe that family could do this. And yet here she was, several hundred miles from home in a city she did not know and with harsh warnings that they would kill her if she ever tried to return.

The beating had left her disconnected and confused, but eventually she sat up, then tried to rise. When she saw the police car on routine patrol, she cowered behind the bushes undetected.

Life had not always been like this. One cursory glance at her broken and beaten body revealed a 35 year old named Theresa, and she had not always been a woman. She’d been born an intelligent, precocious at times—if a bit shy—young boy named Terry. Terry had a normal upbringing in Oklahoma City, with parents who loved him. He did well in school, and though at five foot eight inches he was not first on the list for football or basketball, he was popular enough. “A really nice guy” someone had written in his high school yearbook. After a stint in the military, he returned to college and ultimately became a chemical engineer. He met Nancy, a good Christian girl, and they fell very much in love. They were married, and soon after that came two daughters, first Julie, and two years later, Jeanine. With a home in the suburbs, Terry’s family seemed to be the very personification of the American Dream.

Terry, however, lived with a secret, one he had held since as early as he could remember. His mother caught him once trying on her clothes. She screamed and told his father who screamed further that he would not have a pervert living in his house. Terry was five years old at the time, and he knew from that point that he must keep this secret to himself. But those feelings, those damned feelings, never went away. Even as he performed for the world in his All-American dream family, the dark secret continued to surface. When he slipped away to live in another gender he felt such relief—and yet such guilt. Here he was, father, family man, devoted husband, but always with the dark secret.

One day when he could stand it no longer, he went to a sex therapist and learned he was not alone in such feelings. To his surprise, he found that others were uncomfortable in their gender, and there was a name for what he felt. Unable to live with the secret which was his demon, he sat down and spoke with Nancy.

It was late October and the day was cool, and still he sweated in discomfort. But he had come too far now, and he made his lips form the words. “Nancy, you know how much I love you and the children. That hasn’t changed. But all the while, I’ve harbored a secret. Love, I’ve never felt comfortable in this male gender. I believe some sort of biological error was made. I think I’m a woman.”

She gawked at him for at least half a minute, her face slowly flushing an angry red. “I’ve been nothing but a good wife to you.”

“I know,” he said, startled. “This isn’t anything you’ve done!  I love you as much as ever!”

“You can’t do this.”

“But I must, I can’t help it. I feel… I’m not whole. I wake up every morning desperately not wanting to be what I am. I—”

“Have you lost your mind?” She jumped up from the chair and glared at him, her hands clenched in fists. You’ll lose your job. We’ll lose the house. What about the children?  You can’t go around acting like a fairy.”

“Nancy!  You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not - I’m not –“

He couldn’t finish. Instead great tears of pain and anguish pooled in his eyes and leaked down his cheeks. She paced the room frantically, like a mad woman, talking, talking, talking. He could hear the drone of her voice, but everything was spinning and he couldn’t make sense of what she was saying. Not until she leaned down and began to beat his shoulders with those clenched fists was he able to focus.

She sneered, “You need help buddy boy.”

“I am getting help!  Maybe you could come with me to the counseling sessions?”

Nancy continued to express her anger and outrage and sense of betrayal, but good wife that she so wanted to be, she attended therapy sessions with her husband.

The more certain he was of his true nature, the more he transformed and gradually took on female characteristics in dress, makeup, and demeanor. But she let him know that he was on a journey she would not be a part of. Terry could see her shudder with revulsion when she saw him sitting in front of the mirror, working with make-up and applying lipstick or adjusting the wig he used early on that was eventually replaced by his own long flowing locks. She didn’t bother to hide the fear and betrayal she felt toward what Terry was becoming.

One day, Nancy walked into the bedroom and there sat Terry applying lipstick, a bright red that she and her girlfriends might well have termed “ho red.” Exasperated, she said, “You know, I am NOT a lesbian. I hope you don’t think you’ll be coming to bed looking that way. And I do NOT want the children seeing you like this.”

Lost inside his own world in search of that woman inside, Terry didn’t even hear her and continued primping before the mirror, only to be startled when he heard the door slam behind Nancy as she stormed out.

They rarely spoke after that day. Their worlds began to part, and strained social niceties were the only civilized communication that remained between the two. The day was nearing when there would be no turning back, and Terry was excited while Nancy dreaded what was to come.

The first blow came just as Nancy had predicted. Terry spoke with his boss, and his boss said he had to consult his boss, and then Terry learned that he was fired. Terry would not forget that day. George Winston called him into his office. Apprehensive, he followed his boss into the office. “Sit down Terry.”  Terry sat down. George leaned forward in his brown leather office chair. “Terry, I talked with the people above and personnel. Our operation depends on working both with the people who hire us, as well as their customers.”

“Yes sir. And in the future, they would be dealing with Theresa. You know my work record here and that I get the job done. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Terry, I’m sorry, but it is just too much a risk for our company to take. We can’t have a drag queen flitting around our work sites. It would be bad for business.”

“Drag queen?  I am NOT a drag queen!  This is something very different.” Flustered, he tried to explain the psychiatric diagnosis for gender dysphoria, the diagnosis for transsexuality as defined in the DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual for mental health professionals.

George just stared at him with a look of ill-disguised disgust. And Terry stormed out of the office, almost hitting the secretary who stood by the door with an amused look. She appeared to have been listening in. He drove home, feeling humiliated and dreading the conversation he must have with Nancy when he arrived. Oh, how he wished he was not this way, and that he could just go back to being that person everyone had known as Terry.

But Terry couldn’t stop himself on the journey he must take. No fight, no reprimand, no discouragement could dissuade him from preparing to assume female characteristics full time. Meanwhile, Nancy was preparing for something quite different. Terry, now Theresa, was jobless with no paying work in sight. Nancy filed for divorce and told Theresa to stay away from her and the children.

For the first time in her life, Theresa was homeless. She stayed at a nearby state park using money from her unemployment which she was able to draw after appeals. The payments were made under her old name since she had no resources to change her legal identity, and this just added to her sense of shame and separation.

Then one day she went by the house to try to talk with Nancy. Theresa stood at the front door of the house she had once so proudly painted and cleaned and maintained. She’d worn the neatest modest outfit she could find at the resale shop. It was a jacket dress, a long black slipover dress with modest neckline combined with a mauve jacket, and the ensemble was purposefully understated so as not to upset Nancy, but when the door opened, her former wife was quite clearly furious.

She stepped out onto the porch and pulled the door shut behind her. “What the hell are you doing here? The children are home.” Her words came out low and through gritted teeth.

“But they’re my children, too. I’d like to see them.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. Not now.” Nancy grabbed her arm and dragged her down the stairs into the yard. “Julie’s watching TV, and Jeanine is napping. Let them be.”

“I really came to talk to you anyway. Look, I’ve been staying over at the state park, trying to find work during the day, and hoping at night that you’ll get past all this and let me come home.”

“Home? You want to come home?” She looked thunderstruck.

“Of course I want to come home. I miss you. I miss the girls.’

“Are you ready to put this foolishness aside.” She gave Theresa a scathing look from head to toe. “Will you get out of these women’s outfits and back into your regular clothes?”

“You don’t seem to understand. I can’t be anything other than who I am, Nancy. This is who I am. I’m also someone who loves you, loves our kids, wants to—”

“Stop.” She held up a hand. “Let me think about this.”

“You will? You’ll give it some thought?” When Nancy nodded, Theresa felt her heart fill up with gladness. She reached out to touch Nancy, but before she could connect, Nancy backed away.

“Give me some time and space, Terry.” She turned and went into the house.

Theresa watched her go. Time and space. Yes, she could allow for that. Maybe in the next few days she could land a job, and before her meager savings ran out, she could have an income and return to the house, return to the only life she’d known. She’d be different, but she’d have the comforts of home, of love, of her daughters. She went back to the campsite feeling hope.

Later that night, a car showed up at Theresa’s campsite. To her surprise, it was not her wife, but Jerry, Nancy’s brother, and two of the biggest and meanest guys she had ever seen. They crawled out of the car, and she rose to greet them. As she reached out her hand to Jerry, suddenly one of the two men grabbed her, and Jerry and the other man began to beat her.

“Let go, please!  Why are you doing this?”  

They knocked her to the ground and kicked her brutally, but before she could get another word out, Jerry bent over and stuffed a gag in her mouth. With the help of the other two men, they forced her hands behind her and bound her, then dragged her to her feet and slammed her against the side of the car.

With each punch came threats. “If you ever bring your faggoty ass anywhere near my sister and her kids again, I’ll beat your sorry ass far more than anything you’re feeling today.” Jerry was merciless.

When they finally threw her in the car, bruised and bleeding, Theresa heard them warn repeatedly: “Keep your ass out of Oklahoma or you may not live at all.”

The ropes dug into her wrists as she lay in the floorboard of that old Chevy wondering what fate lay ahead. Were they going to kill her?  They certainly seemed angry enough for that. How could Nancy let this happen, she thought, as tears streamed slowly down her cheeks.

They drove her into Houston, not far from downtown, got off the highway onto a secluded street, and after a few more punches, she was untied and unceremoniously dumped in a neighborhood she’d never seen before. The car roared off, leaving her lost, bewildered, and in a place where she was totally unfamiliar.

After a fitful night on the dark humid streets of the Montrose, Theresa ached more than ever from the beating the day before. Looking about her as the streets began to come alive, she knew she wasn’t alone. Here and there, furtive figures moved about, gathering aluminum and looking for things to sell. In the center of the Esplanade of Montrose near the crossing at Westheimer knelt a thin lanky fellow with long brownish-blonde hair. He was reading the daily Chronicle. Sitting nearby were other street people. She didn’t know it then, but this strange-looking man had lived on that site since the seventies. He was the unofficial mayor of Montrose and the homeless guru to whom many people new to the streets came to learn how to survive.

But she was far too shy to approach him, so she lurked in the shadows as the sun rose and the heat became unbearable and no hint of a breeze could be felt. Looking around, she tried to get her bearings. Up the street was a Half Price bookstore, and thankfully there were lots of shade trees nearby to keep out that brutal sun. Most of the homes were brick, and it was clearly an old neighborhood. 

Though she did not realize it, she had been fortunate to land in this particular part of Houston. The Montrose was one of those eclectic, bohemian communities where difference is tolerated in ways perhaps not so common in other parts of Houston. It was the home of gay bars and art studios and little shops and tattoo parlors and was a magnet for homeless youth and adults alike. The sight of a woman very early in transition who still carried many of her masculine traits was not uncommon at all. And just as important were the many services for the homeless found within easy walking distance.

So that morning, she found a food pantry called Stone Soup, and they referred her to the VA. Her VA caseworker offered her transitional housing. Furthermore they contacted members of the transsexual community who visited her, and within a few days she was simply beaming for having found new friends who understood her and a place (albeit temporary) to stay.

The VA gave her a social assessment and a list of services they could help with as a result of their evaluation, but providing hormones was not included in the list. Through them she found a part-time job doing clerical and billing duties for Ben Taub Hospital. They told her they would help her get into subsidized housing. For all her problems, life seemed to take a better turn, and Theresa lived with hope. So many land on the streets and are not able to see the light of day or even hope, but she thought that maybe, just maybe, things would be different for her.

Theresa kept her tiny transitional apartment immaculate and began to attend a nearby church. “I am what I am,” she told the pastor one day, and people seemed to accept her for who she was. Life was still scary, but in speaking to her therapist, she exclaimed, “I know it will get better!” And she really believed it when she said it, too.

Theresa had been in transitional living for about a month, when her caseworker called her into his office. “Good news,” he said. “We’ve found an apartment that accepts rent subsidy, and it’s on the bus line. We can do the paperwork today, and you can move in early next week!”

“That’s great! I can’t believe how fast you did this.”

The worker smiled with satisfaction. “Sometimes things do work out. I also found you a computer and telephone. One problem however,” he said, “your new home is in Southwest Houston, and there’ll be quite a commute.”

“I’ll manage. This is so exciting.”

But Theresa was not familiar with Houston, and there was so much she couldn’t know. She didn’t realize the safety she had found in this Montrose neighborhood with its eclectic tolerant population might not be the same in this more suburban neighborhood where she was going. And she could not have understood that in the projects where she was moving, the gangs and ghetto mentality would surely focus on her for all of her differences.

Nothing in her history had ever prepared her to deal with what was to come.

Nestled away among a vast sea of apartment complexes she found her new home. In the late seventies, Houston was called Boom Town. Oil-related industries offered more investment capital than they could spend, and people and service industries were moving there from all over the country to find new opportunity in this grand exchange of wealth. With this growth, the previously unused lands around Fondren and Beechnut near the Southwest Freeway seemed to grow apartment complexes overnight, and people filled them as quickly as they were built.

But then came the bust, as that oil industry went into crisis mode during the era of oil supply shortages. The money dried up leaving many of those complexes vacant and unused. With time other investors purchased these properties for pennies on the dollar, and apartments still in business looked to find occupants at reduced rates in a renters’ market. One source of potential income was government-subsidized housing, and among all the good people looking for low cost housing, the gangs and drug dealers also arrived. When evicted from one apartment, they would be readily accepted at another with few questions.

Crime in the area exploded. Crack cocaine was widely popular, and some complexes housed many such operations. The police had to completely close some buildings because law enforcement could find no one who was not in the drug business in those complexes. At night gunfire was commonplace, and automatic weapons were routinely fired in lieu of fireworks on the fourth of July.

But Theresa, who rode with her social worker to her new home, knew nothing of this. They entered the manager’s office and then visited the apartment. It had a living room with the off white paint common in such apartments and two windows covered with mini-blinds and white drapes. The living room and dining area shared wall-to-wall carpeting, predominately blue with flakes of color. The kitchen, separated from the dining area by a wet bar, was small, but enough for Theresa’s needs.

They walked up the carpeted stairway to a bedroom and adjoining bathroom decorated in azure blue with white lace curtains and of course the obligatory mini-blinds. She was delighted with the possibilities and offered a wide grin. “I’ll take it!”

The manager took them back to the office to do the paperwork. Theresa made sure she memorized the building number to distinguish it from the hundreds of other apartments in the area with the same light pink brick exterior and shrubbery along the fronts rendering each apartment indistinguishable from the others except for its number.

The first few days went well. As she made her daily walk to the bus stop to go to work, she waved cheerfully and shouted “Hello!” to a neighbor, who just stared at her. People didn’t seem to know what to make of her, but she didn’t let that stop her. She continued to be friendly and welcoming, and here and there someone did respond positively.

As time passed, being ignored turned to something uglier. A teen gang member, part of a group standing near her apartment, taunted her as she approached the bus stop. On another day, one pulled a knife and stole her purse containing her identification and a few dollars she had hoped to buy food with that afternoon. Her bus card was clutched in her tightened fist.

“Are you bitch or punk?” one of them demanded. 

She backed away, her heart pounding and her hopes plummeting. Luckily the bus came then, and the gang-bangers scattered. She didn’t know what they were capable of doing to her, and she was frightened to think of it.

She phoned the police when she got to work, and a report was taken, but no one was arrested despite the very accurate descriptions she gave of the thieves. She called the few friends she had made, and they were sympathetic and listened, but so little could be done. No one could take her in, and she was warned to be careful. “After I get settled in, and perhaps get a better job, I can move someplace safer, “ she told one friend. She promised to call if there was any more trouble.

Each day the fear she felt seemed to grow. Before leaving for the bus stop, she would peek outside to see if any of the young hoodlums were around. Her hands sweated profusely as she turned her doorknob to head for the bus stop, and she waited until the last possible moment to make that journey. With each step her heart pounded so loudly she knew everyone must hear it.

Then one night, returning from work after being asked to work late, Theresa got off the bus as usual and headed for her apartment. As she looked around fearfully, a sick feeling formed at the very pit of her stomach.

She heard someone call out, “Hey bitch!”

Before she could turn around fully, they swarmed all around her like angry piranha. A fist came crashing into her face, then a sickening blow to the solar plexus. She sank to the sidewalk, her stomach sick and her mind whirling in terror. They took turns kicking her. One of them kept screaming “Freak!”  Then someone slammed her head with some sort of club, and everything went dark.

Swollen and defeated, she awoke in the hospital. A nurse entered smiling. “Hi, I’m Jeri, your nurse today. Goodness you took one heck of a beating!  How are you feeling?”  

Theresa tried to smile back, but only nodded and fell back to sleep.

The police came by and questioned her, and she offered what description she could but it had been so fast and sudden. Like the robbery, she knew it was unlikely they would be apprehended. She had a hunch no one would pay for what had been done to her.

In the three days in the hospital, she healed physically, but emotionally was quite another thing. She withdrew into herself and said very little. On the second morning, while sponge bathing Theresa, Jeri asked, “Dear is there someone we can call?”

Theresa simply mumbled “no one” and returned to her reverie or slept.

It is the nature of fear to eat away the soul, demanding more and more of the human psyche until nothing else is left. So it was for Theresa, who each day awoke in the hospital with nerves on full alert and adrenalin pitching her into a perpetual fight or flight mode. It clouded her capacity for reason, and she was filled with dread for the day when she knew she’d be released from the hospital.

She came home to find her apartment had been broken into. The lock was jammed, the door swung open, and her computer, phone, and television, all were gone. How could she call her friends, or e-mail, or keep in touch with that outside world, even if she wanted to?  She sank to the floor and sobbed for hours, shaking uncontrollably from the fear that consumed her.

This was the final straw between sanity and something else. She feared going to the bus stop and would not go outside, even to work. Her boss tried to call her, but she had no phone. Eventually she was notified by mail that she had been fired, but she didn’t read her mail either. Her door remained barricaded.

Then came the eviction notice for unpaid rent. Someone beat on the door and called out her name. Theresa cowered inside, waiting for them to leave. A folded notice was taped to the door. It was a long time before she finally slipped outside and took the note, then crumpled it and threw it in the corner.

She waited in the apartment, too afraid to step outside, fearing the evil outside and quaking at the thought of being attacked once more. There was no communication in or out of what had become her prison. She trembled at the sound of shots fired in the air or backfiring mufflers. Some days her doorbell rang, but she had become so immobilized by the fear possessing every fiber of her being that she couldn’t move. Her only companion was herself, and isolated in a world of her own, she mumbled unintelligibly.

Then one day came an epiphany. She sensed the way to freedom. She knew what her answer must be, and a quiet serenity replaced the fear and the apprehension.

Others had made the journey from male to female successfully. She had been trying since October and now this was August, and it hadn’t worked out that way for her. Perhaps mistaken lives are relived, and she could try again, and she hoped she had learned the lessons to do the job better the next time. The electricity had not been shut off yet, so she turned down the AC temperature to shut out the oppressively hot Houston summer, and she set to work.

Theresa remembered the people she had seen on the streets before finding what she assumed was her way out. Many had psychiatric diagnoses of one sort or another. Did they have those conditions when they became homeless?  Or did they develop them as a result of the unbelievable cruelty she had seen up close herself?

“It’s a rhetorical question anyway,” she muttered. She thought of that odd man she had seen, the unofficial mayor of Montrose, who’d sat in the esplanade at the beginning of her journey. She wondered how he had done it?   How had he maintained a sense of dignity and self in a world that was so often over-full of cruelty and inhumanity?

She worked quietly to write notes of thanks to all the people who had reached out to her during her stay in Houston. She composed a letter to her wife and children to let them know that despite it all, she had always loved them. Stamped and sealed, she left them in an obvious location on the wet bar with a note asking that they be mailed.

She took some salad greens and a small smoked sausage she had saved, and some tomatoes and a bit of pasta still remaining, and fixed a most delightful feast, perhaps the best she had eaten in days. She washed down the food with a delicious glass of ice tea sweetened with sugar rather than her customary dietary sweetener. Lingering over each mouthful, she savored the flavors and tastes and lived as fully in the moment as she had at any time she could remember.

After letting the meal settle, she made her bed and cleaned until each room was so immaculate, not a speck of dust could be found anywhere in that apartment, which had now for the last weeks been her dungeon. She laid out her nicest outfit on the bedspread.

In the bathroom, she lit a couple of candles and ran a tub of warm water with her favorite bubble bath. She bathed herself clean, then quietly took her razor blades and opened the veins in her wrists. In spite of the discomfort, she smiled ever so slightly, knowing that the fear was coming to an end at long last. As she felt her life slip slowly away, a quiet realization came to her. Had she stayed on the streets in that strange little neighborhood called the Montrose, it might have all been okay.

What ghetto one lived in could make the difference of life and death. Our lives are often determined by the choices we make, and a wrong choice can bring the deadliest of consequences. So it was for Theresa at last. Her innocence did not protect her. Her choices led her to sorrow and to death.

On her bed were her nicest clothes for burial, and the water in the tub surrounded her was mixed with life’s blood. Still there was a sort of peace. When she was found a few days later and the coroner was called, it was duly noted in the file that she died with a smile on her lips.