The papers got it wrong. They usually do. This wasn’t a hate crime…at least not in the traditional sense of the word. I didn’t care that he was a cross-dresser or that his sexual preference was “anything goes”. Those things don’t matter to me. What people do in the privacy of their own bedroom is their business, not mine. No, my motive had nothing to do with his slinky dresses and wigs; it was all about the person under the mask. Sometimes, no matter how much makeup a person spackles onto their face, they can’t hide the ugliness inside.
To help you understand why, I guess it would help for you to understand me. For most of my life I’ve been an outsider. Growing up, we moved around a lot because of my dad’s work (or lack thereof). Usually, it was the fellow outcasts, oddballs or geeks that sought me out; after all, there’s safety in numbers. Everyone needs someone to watch their back. Even though I was small for my age; I could hold my own on the school yard. One thing was the same no matter where I attended school; bullies always singled out the new kids. It was almost as if they were staking their claim but I learned fast. Usually, all it took was landing one good punch- give them a bloody nose or a busted lip and they’d back off. My grandmother always used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” but, personally, I don’t think that applies to tormentors. None of the bullies I’d ever met responded to anything other than brute force. We moved in with Grandma when I was just starting tenth grade, right after dad died. That’s when I met Cory Randolph.
He lived right next door and neither of us were what you’d call ladies’ men. Where I was short and scrawny, he was tall and lanky. Grandma called us “Mutt and Jeff”; though I never understood what that meant. Cory and his kid sister, Sherry, were kind to me and we hit it off right away. They let me walk with them to school and at lunch they introduced me to all their friends. From that day forward, we were inseparable. I’d never had any siblings so they became my family, especially when mom met someone new and moved out to live with him. Even after high school we stuck together. Cory convinced me to take courses with him at the community college. He finished quicker than I did, lack of funds prevented me from taking a full course-load but each semester Cory continued to encourage me.
I was still stocking shelves at the neighborhood grocery store (flexible hours and health insurance even for part-time employees) when Cory landed a real, grown-up job. Monday through Friday, nine to five, paid lunch and breaks, with his own little cubicle; I was both proud and envious. I couldn’t wait until I graduated too so I could join Cory in the real world.
With a little extra financial boost from both my grandmother and Cory, I managed to graduate the same year as Sherry. Cory’s company was in the midst of a growth spurt and they were looking to fill ten new positions so he put in a good word for us. Sherry and I both applied and were accepted. It seemed too good to be true, all three of us working together.
The first few days on the job, Sherry and I were in training sessions so we only saw Cory at lunch. We were surprised to learn he sat alone. In a break room full of people, Cory was stuck in the back corner, all by himself. It was just like being back in high school, no wonder he wanted us to come work there. I’d only had time to take a few bites of my sandwich when a raspy, cruelly sarcastic voice carried over the dull hum of multiple of conversations.
“Well, well, look at this. Cory kiss-ass has recruited some friends.”
Cory’s face blanched. I hadn’t seen that expression since we graduated. Furious, I turned around to confront the jerk but my words froze on my tongue. I don’t know exactly what I’d been expecting but that wasn’t it. I’m not sure if it was the riot of carrot-colored curls, the inch-thick layer of makeup, or the size twelve pumps that threw me off first. Pinned to a snug fifties-style sweater-set was a name tag reading Darren Mann. Those broad shoulders and Adam’s apple belonged to a man named Darren but the pouty, red lips and dramatically long eyelashes lined in smoky charcoal didn’t.
“What are you gawking at, loser?” Darren sneered at me.
I stammered, trying to insist I wasn’t staring but everyone knew I was. Out of instinct, Sherry looked down at the floor. She slumped down low in her chair, making herself seem so small and lost.
“And who is this little wallflower? Could it be? Does Cory kiss-ass have a girlfriend? Let’s have a look-see.”
The only thing worse than Darren’s screechy-high falsetto was the eerie sing-song tone he used to taunt us. Meaty hands lifted Sherry’s chin for a better look as Darren’s talon-like metallic red nails curled around her face.
“Oh-Em-Gee! This is just tragic. Girl, you need a complete overhaul. Do you even know what concealer is? And that hair, ugh, and your nails…if you’d fix yourself up a bit you could find someone better than him.”
“Leave her alone,” I blurted out. “She’s his sister not his girlfriend.”
“Honey, I’m guessing in his family that’s the same thing, am I right?”
Darren looked around the break room with sheer malice in his eyes. Nervous twitters of laughter broke out under his harsh glare. I opened my mouth to say something in their defense but Cory nudged me and shook his head no. Seeing he wasn’t going to get a response, Darren hurled a few more insults at us and left.
“Whatever you do, just avoid all contact with Darren. I’ll explain tonight on the way home.” Cory whispered.
I was so angry I could barely pay attention to our training seminar. At the end of the day, we all piled into Cory’s car. Sherry and I were anxious to get an explanation.
“So, what gives?” I demanded.
“Well, I didn’t know it at the time but apparently Darren and I were up for the same promotion. When I got it instead of him, he threw a fit. Our company prides itself on celebrating diversity and being a safe, accepting place to work. People don’t have to hide who they are inside because all are welcome here.”
“Really?” I scoffed. “What’s safe and welcoming about being bullied by a two hundred pound gorilla in makeup?”
“Just hang on, I’m getting there. Anyway, when Darren started carrying on about being discriminated against for his….um, fashion sense; management got scared. They had just been featured in nationwide magazines as being one of the best places to work in the country. A scandal like that would really hurt them. As it turned out, they ended up promoting him too, just to keep the peace. Our HR director asked me to make the first step and try patch things up with Darren.” Cory sighed and shook his head. “It was a complete accident but he made me so nervous that instead of calling him Ms. Mann I said Miss Mandy. Everyone started saying he should change his name ‘cause he’s more a Mandy than a Mann and now he hates me. I’ve apologized a million times but he won’t listen. HR won’t do anything because he’s still playing the discrimination card so I just have to suck it up. Eventually, he’ll find someone new to bully and he’ll forget all about me.”
“You sound like Mom,” groaned Sherry. “She always used to say that crap when we were in school.”
“She was usually right.”
That night, as I stared up at the ceiling while trying to fall asleep; I imagined avenging my friends.
**Be sure to return, Monday, June 2nd for the next installment of Mandy**