Chapter Seven

The first Tuesday in the new year, Jami was up early. She dressed in her new clothes, mostly black with white accents. Silver cat earrings and a cat's eye necklace. Small rainbow bracelet. More eye liner and shadow, slightly darkened eyebrows and a darker shade of lipstick.

She'd dyed a small streak in her hair and was experimenting with using small braids. The changes weren't enormous, but they gave her the feeling that she actually had some control over how people would see her.

The bus ride to the mall was uneventful. She knew many of the people on the bus, regulars also headed to their jobs. It was later in the day when the problem riders were frequent.

She did catch a few people looking at her, but she smiled and they seemed satisfied she was still the same harmless person they'd been riding with for months. It wasn't that unusual for someone to have new clothes or a changed look after a holiday break, after all.

Jami showed her ID at the entrance and walked through the empty mall to the photo store. Mr. Hoffman was counting the cash in the register and only nodded as she walked in. She hung up her coat in the stock room, took a deep breath, and walked back out to the counter.

"Good morning, Mr. Hoffman."

"Good morning, Jami." He turned from filling in the register tally sheet and really looked at Jami. "Well, Jami! This is a little different."

"Yes, sir. I'm kind of changing my look. It's something I need to do. Carys and Tam and I did some shopping for me during the past week."

Mr. Hoffman said nothing, but looked as if he wanted to hear more.

"I'm not sure you know this, but Carys is my partner. Tam is our very close friend. She, Tam, helped me find clothes and things. Carys isn't much into shopping, but she has a lot of theater and clowning experience." Did that make sense, or am I just babbling?

Mr. Hoffman set down the tally sheet and smiled. "Jami. I am not unobservant. I've known for some time that you work with Carys in theater and help with her Lovelorn the Clown act. I've also put two plus two together, considering how much you talk about her."

"You have?"

"I have. But what has this to do with your change in appearance?"

Jami gulped. "Uh, I'm trying to be a little more out, more expressive of who I really am inside. I'm tired of being seen as just another interchangeable pretty girl."

Mr. Hoffman nodded, but said nothing, waiting.

"I guess you figured out that I'm queer. I'm also intersex. I just feel I need to be a little more visibly different, because I am different."

Mr. Hoffman frowned, but still did not speak.

"I know I need to look presentable to work in the store."

Mr. Hoffman nodded.

"I'm not going to do much more than this, not here. A couple more earrings. Maybe another small color streak in my hair. I don't think it's an uncommon look for art students, for example. You have to understand the rainbow code to figure out I'm queer, and there's still no way to tell I'm intersex."

"Jami," said Mr. Hoffman. "Whatever my personal feelings may be, and I assure you they are very liberal, I am running a business here. A photo store, in a world in which film has vanished almost overnight." He paused, thinking. "Working at the counter is not likely to be a problem, but what about the clients who come to us for portraits?"

"I don't know. But the way some of them treat me is part of why I feel I have to do this."

He looked at her sharply. "You have been mistreated? You should have told me!"

"Not mistreated, but... this may be hard to understand. I'm not a pretty girl, not the way most people think. It bothers me when people so obviously believe I'm, like, the poster girl for binary gender or something. I am so not like that. I have a partner who is female, but not feminine. We have a girlfriend who isn't legally female, in contrast to me, who though legally female, has XY chromosomes."

Mr. Hoffman was staring at her.

"Okay, maybe that was too much information. Sorry. I do understand that this is a 'meet the public' job, and the public tends to be homophobic, not to mention the other, more invisible, phobias. I'll try to keep myself under control.

"But I would hope that my photography can speak for itself. I am a photographer, a good one. That's why you employ me and why I do the portrait work. Right?"

Mr. Hoffman took a deep breath. "We will see how this goes, Jami. If I receive negative comments, we will have to talk. I do greatly value your skill and talent. Perhaps I am just being an old man about this."

"No, no," said Jami, "I understand. This is a risk on my part that I have chosen to take. I will bear the consequences."

Mr. Hoffman nodded.

The morning at the store passed without event. On her lunch break, Jami went with Alyssa to Ear Sport and had two studs added to her right ear. Those people certainly had no problem with her appearance, and Alyssa made favorable comments.

Back at the photo store, Jami was checking new stock when a man standing at the counter caught her attention.

"Miss?"

"Yes, sir?"

"You do portraits here?"

"Yes, sir. I'm the photographer. Would you like to schedule a session, or do you just need a passport photo?"

The man looked at Jami, noticed the rainbow bracelet, smiled. "My partner and I?"

"Yes, sir?" Jami smiled in return.

"That would be no problem?"

"Absolutely not. Would you like to schedule a portrait session?"

"Yes, I would."

As Jami was filling in the paperwork, she noticed that Mr. Hoffman had come out from the stock room and was listening. "Will there be anything else, sir?"

"Not right now, no. But I'll take one of your brochures about your printing services. I prefer to do business with friendly stores." The man winked at Jami as he left.

Turning to Mr. Hoffman, Jami said, "I made an appointment for a portrait, him and his partner."

"I see. Well, Jami, that is good. But do be careful."

"I will, Mr. Hoffman." Jami returned to checking stock, very pleased with herself.

Carys and Tam had decided to go to the mall to meet Jami when she was finished with work on the first day with her new appearance. They walked into the photo store at four o'clock while Jami had her back to the counter, checking her appointment book. They stood quietly until Jami noticed them.

"Carys! And Tam! Hi guys." Jami closed the book. "Observe. I'm still in one piece."

Carys nudged Tam. "And she's happy."

"Cool cat," said Tam.

Jami came around the end of the end of the counter and stood by Carys and Tam. "Yes, I'm happy. Especially now."

They all turned as Mr. Hoffman came out from the back of the store. "You are leaving for the day, Jami?"

"Yes, sir. Uh, I think you've met Carys, and this is Tam, our friend."

Mr. Hoffman nodded at them. "Carys I remember from the play the two of you were in at Riverfront last spring. Are you also a theater person, Tam?"

"I suppose you could say that. Right now I'm a philosophy major at State. I know Carys and Jami because, well, um, we have a lot in common."

"Because we're all unusual and have been thrown together by the mysterious workings of fate," said Jami. "I need to grab my coat and bag. Back in a second!"

"In case you are wondering," Mr. Hoffman said to Carys and Tam once Jami was out of sight, "though I was somewhat startled by Jami's change in appearance, I am okay with her new look. She explained, a little bit, her reasons. I am very grateful to have her working for me. She has much talent."

"She is certainly very talented," agreed Carys. "She's also very, well, important to me, and I think this change will help her be happy."

Mr. Hoffman looked at Carys. "You love her very deeply, I can see this in you."

Carys looked startled.

"No, no, not to worry. Jami told me you are her partner. I understand that. Such love is not a new thing in the world. It is time that people accept what has always been."

"Wow," stammered Carys. "Thank you, sir."

"I have seen in my life too much of people not accepting one another." He shook his head.

"There was a teacher in my school," said Carys, "who helped me cope when people were being mean to me. His wife's grandparents died in one of the death camps."

"Ah," Mr. Hoffman was quiet for a moment. "The Nazis. They planned to exterminate homosexuals also, you know." He looked at Tam. "Anyone different."

"I know," said Carys. Tam gulped and said nothing.

Jami walked out from in back then with her coat tied around her waist and her bag slung over one shoulder. Taking in the expressions, she came to a stop.

"It is okay, Jami." Mr. Hoffman smiled. "I was speaking of things in the past, which I wish would stay in the past." He shook his head. "You three go, have fun. Make this world a happier place." He turned to go behind the counter.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Hoffman," said Jami. "Thank you." She grabbed Carys with one hand and Tam with the other. They walked out into the mall together.

"Let's go by Warehouse," said Jami. "I want to see if Alyssa is ready to leave. We can all walk to the bus stops together."

On the way to the record store Jami explained what she'd said to Mr. Hoffman in the morning, told them about the man who'd made an appointment for him and his partner, and said that she'd had no problems during the day.

"That's great, Jami!" said Tam, who was keeping an eye on passersby to see how they reacted to the three of them being together.

When they reached Warehouse, Jami looked in, but didn't see Alyssa.

"She should be here. She works the same hours as me, most days," said Jami.

"Is that her, way in back?" said Carys, who was the tallest of the three.

Jami went up on tip toe and looked. "Yes! Come on." Jami walked toward the back of the store, the other two following.

As they neared that part of the store, they could make out voices.

"When do you get off work, cutey pie?"

"You want to go to a party with us?"

Alyssa was backing away from two teenage boys when one of them grabbed her wrist.

"Let go of me!"

"Hey!" yelled Jami.

The boy who had grabbed Alyssa's wrist looked at Jami and the two people coming up quickly behind her. He let go of Alyssa's wrist.

"Leave the store, now, or I start screaming," said Alyssa.

The two men glanced at each other, shrugged, then slowly and insolently walked past Carys and Tam toward the front of the store. As they did, one of them looked at Carys, then at Jami. He smirked as he said in a low voice, "Still have your little pet freak, I see." Carys was too startled to respond.

Jami was running to Alyssa, who had sagged against a display case. She hadn't heard what the boy said.

"Are you okay, Alyssa?"

"I am now," said Alyssa. "Thanks, Jami.

Carys began to walk toward Jami and Alyssa, but Tam put a hand on her arm to hold her back. "What was that about, Carys? Who was that guy?"

Carys shook her head. "I don't recognize him, but a girl in my class at the high school used to say that about Jami." She looked at Tam. "Let's not tell Jami, okay?"

"If you think that's best."

"It's probably nothing. A lot of kids knew who I was. That guy seemed like the type to parrot whatever crap people were saying about me." They walked over to Alyssa and Jami.

Jami put an arm around Carys and grabbed Tam's hand. "Carys and Tam! This is Alyssa."

Alyssa smiled in greeting. "Any chance I can talk you all into walking to the bus with me?"

Carys nodded. "Absolutely. I don't think anyone will hassle the four of us."

"Thank you so much! I'll go clock out and get my stuff." Alyssa walked quickly to the back, returning soon with her coat and a pack. They walked out into the mall together.

The two boys were sitting on a bench across from the store. One of them pointed at them and said something to the other one. They both began laughing.

"Shit," said Alyssa.

"Maybe we're not the best of company, after all," said Carys. "Let's just walk and ignore them. If they don't follow us, it's no problem."

The two boys followed them.

"Jami, can you call Mall Security on your cell?" said Carys.

"Doing it."

"Let's keep on walking, then, but not obviously toward the bus stop." They veered off down another wing.

"Should we run?" asked Alyssa.

Carys looked back. The boys had just turned the corner into that wing, walking fast to keep up.

"No," sighed Carys. "Let's stop and deal with this. Security shouldn't be long."

"Are you sure?" Alyssa was beginning to panic.

"Here is good," said Carys. "Back up against this wall, Alyssa. I promise I won't let anyone get to you. Jami, get next to her! Keep talking to Security. Tam, stand next to me."

"Security actually hung up on me," said Jami, "but I'm pretending."

Carys swore under her breath, turned to the two boys and put her hands on her hips. "Stop right there!" she said. "One of you evidently knows who am I, so you probably know my reputation. Are you sure you want to tangle with me?"

The boys stopped about ten feet away. "We're just looking at the freak show," said one. "It's a free country." The other boy raised a cell phone and made it obvious he was taking photos.

"Security will be here in one minute!" shouted Jami.

The boys looked around, nervously. It so happened that a Security guard was just rounding the corner, followed moments later by a second guard. The boys started to walk quickly toward the nearest exit. One of them turned around and yelled, "Don't drive too fast now, freaks!" They both laughed as they continued to the exit.

Carys, Jami and Tam looked at one another, but said nothing.

When the two Security guards reached them, Alyssa and Jami identified themselves as employees and explained the incident. Because the boys had left the mall, Security wasn't inclined to follow up.

After Security left, Carys said to Alyssa, "What do you want to do? I don't think those boys could have known we were heading for the bus stop."

Alyssa looked pale. "Can we go sit down somewhere for a bit?"

"Sure," said Carys, "let's go get something to drink."

"Not the food court," said Alyssa.

"How about we go into Italiano's?" said Tam. "That's a real restaurant. No one would be allowed to make trouble in there. We can all split a pizza or something."

"Okay," nodded Alyssa, still looking scared.

Jami hesitantly took Alyssa's hand, who held on tight.

"Okay, let's go," said Carys. "Lead the way, Tam, and I'll follow behind Jami and Alyssa."

By the time they were seated in the restaurant and had ordered, Alyssa had calmed down. She looked around at Jami, Carys and Tam, then said,"I was... I was raped the summer before last."

"Oh, God. I'm so sorry," said Carys.

Jami went white and almost dropped her glass. Tam took it from her, then took hold of her hand.

"I did everything I was supposed to do. Reported it, had counseling. But it's hard to ever feel safe again, or to ever trust anyone again. Especially men," said Alyssa.

"That's why I go to Michfest, Jami, even though I don't agree with some of their policies. It bothers me. I don't want to hate anyone. I don't want to hurt anyone. But I don't know how to make the world a better place."

"Which is why I've never gone to Camp Trans," said Tam. "It's just not that simple."

"Are you okay, Jami?" asked Carys. "I know this is one of your personal nightmares."

"I can't give in to fear, or I'd never have opened my front door, much less gone out into the world. If I hadn't done that I'd still be alone, and it would be so much worse."

"I hear you," said Alyssa. "Some days it's almost more than I can do to make myself leave my apartment and come to work here. But I do what I must.

"I'm really happy to have met you, Jami. I feel like I can say things to you that I couldn't say to other people. I don't know you that well yet, but I already think of you as my best friend."

"Thanks, Alyssa. All my real friends in the world are sitting at this table." Jami smiled. "I'm glad you're one of them."

* * *

They all got off at the same stop and walked Alyssa to her apartment building. They exchanged phone numbers and promised to help each other out whenever necessary.

Carys, Jami and Tam walked to Mrs. Carmichael's house and went up to the apartment. It was still warm for January. They made a pot of tea and sat around the kitchen table, talking about the experience at the mall, drinking tea, trying to relax.

Jami drained her first mug. "So who was that guy, Carys? And what did that last thing he said mean?"

"I don't know," said Carys. "But the way he talked reminded me of Linda, the girl who got all bent out of shape and began harassing me after it became known that you and I were together. And the thing about not driving too fast..."

"Was that a reference to Kathy?" said Jami.

Carys just shook her head. "Maybe, if they're from the same high school."

"Does this Linda have a younger brother?" asked Tam.

"I don't know," said Carys. "Do you think it's important?"

"I'm just thinking, in case those two guys decide that harassing Alyssa or Jami is fun, it'd be good to know who they are. Just being proactive," said Tam.

"Harassing me would not be fun," said Jami. "I have claws, and I'll use them."

"No, Jami. No, no, no!" Carys set her cup down. "I want you to promise me that you will not escalate teasing into anything physical."

"What if they do the escalating?" said Jami. "Do I just stand there?"

Carys put her head in her hands. "Jami."

Tam reached out to touch both Carys and Jami. "Whoa. Let's talk this out, think this through. You know something like this happens to everyone like us, sooner or later."

"I know," said Carys, looking up. "I just don't want it to happen to Jami."

"So what do we do, Car? You can't follow me around."

"We be proactive. Crystal is a senior at the high school. She can find out if Linda has a brother there, send us a photo, then we'll know if that's the same guy."

"Being pretty doesn't make me stupid. I took a photo with my cell phone while I had it out pretending to talk with Mall Security," said Jami. "It's not very good, of course, but I can send it to Crystal."

"Of course you did, and please do," said Carys. "No one said you're stupid, Jami. I love you. I worry about you."

"Okay," said Tam. "Step one, identify those guys. And we need to share that with Alyssa. If nothing else happens, great. If it does... have you had any self-defense training, Jami?"

"I've read all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics."

"Right. How about you ask Alyssa if she's been to a class, because sometimes that's recommended to victims? Then we can take it from there. I guess it wouldn't hurt all of use to do that."

"You're being awfully serious about this, Tam," said Jami.

"I totally agree," said Carys. "If you want to be more out and active, you need to be able to take care of yourself. We all do. Sad, but true."