Kit has agreed to the plan but can he go through with it?
Thirty Million Reasons
by Erin Halfelven
We had the top up on the convertible to make conversation possible but neither of us said much at first. I kept mulling over the decision I'd made to go along with Ed in his crazy idea. I couldn't figure out why I'd done it. I had all kinds of questions to ask Ed but none of them sounded sane.
When I noticed that we were heading out of Palm Springs I asked Ed where we were going.
"We're gonna see a woman named Anna Maria," Ed said. "If you're still willing to give my plan a try, she'll be able to help you out."
That sent a chill down my spine. I smiled and said, "Okay."
We used the Palms to Pines Highway over the mountain and down to San Jacinto in the last of the early morning, the car climbing and twisting on the steep road. I tried to think of something else to talk about, anything but my mind kept turning over the same thoughts. Why had I agreed to dress as a girl for Ed and what would this Anna Maria woman do to help me?
Ed wouldn't answer many questions about Anna Maria, just, "You'll have to tell me what you think when you meet her." Which really made me curious, and maybe that was the idea because I couldn't worry so much about why we were going to see this woman if I kept wondering what she was like.
The scenery distracted me, too. Living on the desert floor, a person tends to forget the beauty and majesty of the nearby mountain forests. Mt. San Jacinto is one of the tallest peaks in Southern California and the west side is lush with pine and cedar, green even in the middle of summer. We climbed from the palm-lined lanes and golf courses of the Springs' suburbs, through desert scrub and chaparral, then a mixed forest of live oak and evergreens, and finally the tall timber of Ponderosa pine at around 5000 feet with the mountain still towering over us. The road twisted through canyons and switchbacks with glimpses now and then of the Coachella or De Anza Valleys; one full of the cities that had sprung up around Palm Springs and the other still a dusty, rural land of cattle ranches and emptiness.
San Jacinto lay in a rocky canyon further down on the western slope of the big mountain, on a different road that actually led back toward Highway 60, Ed's ranch, Whitewater Canyon and Mom's deli. A lot of retired people lived here in the year-round warmth but there was also a small college and some farmland. The streets had the cock-eyed logic of all mountain towns; the business district took a couple of right angle turns in the middle of downtown to go around an inconvenient big spur of rock. On a shady side street, Ed stopped the Miata in front of a bungalow with a small sign identifying it as "Anna Maria's Hair and Nails".
"We're here, Kit," he said.
I closed my eyes and tried not to hyperventilate. A beauty salon, I should have guessed. Ed actually had to get out, come around the car and open my door for me before I could get out. He laughed. "Testing to see if I'm really a gentleman?" he asked.
I blushed when I realized what he meant. "I'm just scared," I confessed.
"Don't be, Anna Maria is spicy but sweet."
That remark confused me so much that we were in the door of the little shop attached to the bungalow before I realized it. The little house had been remodeled as a small shop. Mirrors covered one wall of the wide room that must have once been a porch on the front of the house. Salon chairs, three of them, sat in front of the mirrors. A nook in the corner had couches and armchairs around a big glass coffeetable. An arch led into another room where I could see sinks and those sci-fi-like chairs that have a hairdryer built in.
A short, slender, Hispanic woman in her early thirties had been reading a newspaper in the nook as we entered. She wore the smock of her profession, in a pale cerulean blue, and her henna-streaked, brunette hair was pulled back in a practical bun. She looked up and grinned. "Mister Ed!" she crowed delightedly.
Ed brayed like a donkey and then laughed. I felt even more confused. "Anna Maria Torres, this is Kit Prentiss," he indicated me with one hand while giving Anna Maria a hug with the other. "Kit, Anna Maria."
"What a beautiful child," she said, taking my hand. "I'm sorry, Kit, did that embarrass you?" she asked, seeing me blush again.
"I don't think it added any," I said. "I'm embarrassed just to be here. No offense meant?" My voice squeaked horribly and I continued blushing. If I could stop, I would; it had been a major source of embarrassment most of my life. And of course, being embarrassed about blushing easily doesn't help at all.
Anna Maria laughed and winked at me. "Kit," she said, "you delight me already." She turned toward Ed, "And you, you old cowpoker, you should go find some other old coots and reminisce about Waterloo or something. Kit and I have work to do and things to talk about."
Ed laughed and winked at both of us. "I'll be down at the Western Star, when you want me," he said, moving toward the door. I wondered vaguely if that might be a bar, probably not--it was barely nine in the morning.
"If we want you, we'll rattle your oat bucket, horseman," said Anna Maria.
"Bye, Kit," said Ed.
"Bye, Ed," I said. He winked as he went out the door but whether at me or Anna Maria, I couldn't tell.
After Ed left, Anna Maria turned her open sign in the window around so it read closed. "So we don't get interrupted," she said. "And now, tell me all about it, would you, Kit?" She took a seat on one of the couches and motioned me to sit on the other.
"I don't know what to tell you," I admitted.
She looked thoughtful then said, "Maybe I should tell you? Hmm." She seemed deep in thought for a moment. I shifted nervously on my seat, wondering what she meant.
"When I was about three," she began, "it might have been earlier but I know I could talk, my next younger sister was born. She was a beautiful little baby and I couldn't get enough of being with her and mama. I wanted to help and mama let me, as much as I was able."
I smiled to show I was listening but actually I was remembering something very similar when Karen was born.
"One day while mama was changing the baby's diaper, I noticed something. 'What happened to the baby's thing?' I asked mama. It took a while to get across what I was asking because I didn't have the words then mama laughed and laughed. 'She doesn't have one,' mama told me. 'She's a little girl and little girls don't have that.'"
I stared at her. This was turning out to be oddly like the story Ed had told earlier. She was small boned and delicate and very feminine in looks and behavior.
"I told mama that I had a thing there; she said she knew that and it was because I was a little boy." Anna-Maria laughed. "I tried to argue with her that no, I was a little girl, too." She smiled, "It took me almost ten years to convince her, but when we moved here from El Centro, she started letting me dress and live as a girl."
I tried to say something but I didn't even know for sure what I meant to say. Anna handed me a tissue and I wiped my eyes. Something about her story made me want to cry.
"So," she continued, "I grew up, went to high school, got an operation, got married... Got two kids," she grinned. "Adopted, of course."
I nodded. It seemed to be the thing to do, nodding that is. Anna's story didn't sound impossible, just--unlikely. How often did things like this happen? How many people like this did Ed run into? Did he really think...Anna's story had something to do with me?
"Any questions you want to ask me?" she prompted.
I shook my head. "I...not right now."
"Do you want to see what you might look like as a girl?" she asked. "Or is this just some cockamamie story Big Ed has come up with?"
"Well, it is his idea?" I said.
She nodded. "He's been telling me about you--" my ears started burning, "--nothing bad!" she finished laughing.
"How long?" I asked. "How long has he been telling you about me?"
"Mostly last night," she said. "He wanted to know could I clear my Friday morning for a special client? He offered me a good price but I'd probably do it for Ed anyway."
"He thinks he's in love with the g-girl, uh, I might have been?" I stammered out. "
"Something like that," she agreed. "And you think he's some crazy old coot who's got way too much money now?" She nodded even more vigorously, rolling her eyes and communicating that she agreed with that opinion.
I laughed and nodded. She was easy to like, and somehow just talking to her made me feel, well, not okay but at least better about things. She wasn't making a big deal out of this, and that meant something though I wasn't sure what.
She stood up and took my hand to pull me to my feet. "Well, you're lucky. You're still young, you're small boned and not so broad-shouldered as some boys your age? Let's see what we can do?" She grinned suddenly. "I think you're going be very pretty, actually."
It didn't seem likely to me. I sat in the salon chair she motioned me towards. My head felt as if it were full of helium and my heartbeat seemed as loud as a low-rider's stereo. "What are you going to do?" I asked.
"I suppose we could call it a makeover," she grinned. "Have you ever dressed-up or played with makeup?"
I shook my head. "Not really." I didn't tell her about the time in 29 Palms, besides, I hadn't really even touched any of Aunt Shellie's stuff.
She nodded. "Not everyone is as fearless as me." Then she laughed, "It's no shame to be afraid, you probably had better sense than I did. Do you think anyone in your family ever suspected?"
"No," I said after thinking about it. "Suspected what?"
She grinned. "Later. Today, you're here for me to help you find out how you'd look as a girl. Right?"
I couldn't speak. I nodded. This was a favor for Ed, a man who was doing a lot for me and my family. It wasn't my idea but I had agreed to do it. As Anna said, Ed had too much money and too little sense but I couldn't believe he wanted to get me hurt.
"Okay, there are lots of things I could do, chica, but do you want to be able to go back to looking like a boy easy?"
"Yes. I don't think I'd want to have to tell my mom what's been going on? This is just for today, anyway."
She gave me a funny look. "Okay, I can give you a hairstyle can go either way, nail polish is easy to remove, show you how to do some easy makeup. But no perm or dye this time, no nail extensions, hah?"
"No." This time?
"I cancelled all my Friday morning but we don't want someone coming to the door and knocking." She went around the room, closing window blinds at this point. "No one expects me to be here until about 12:30. Three hours, we got plenty of time. You want your ears pierced? Lots of guys get pierced ears."
"No?" I squeaked and put my hands over my earlobes.
She laughed. "You're funny," she said. "It wouldn't hurt so much but we can do that later, hah?"
I nodded again, ignoring the later.
She went to work, first she washed my hair, which I had just washed but she said this was how a hairstylist gave such a better haircut than a barber; wet hair is easier to style if you know what you're doing. Most of the time, I had no idea what she was doing. It didn't occur to me to ask if I couldn't just wear a wig for what I was still expecting to be a few hours of masquerade.
It felt wonderful to have someone wash my hair though, Mom had done it for me when I'd been little, of course, but the last person who had washed my hair for me had to have been Alison, back when I was six and she was almost nine. I'd forgotten all about that until Anna-Maria had lathered up my scalp and began massaging the pleasant smelling suds.
"You got nice hair," she remarked. "Thick, it's a little wavy, not quite straight." I nodded. "Be still. It's gonna take a perm really good but we'll do that next time, maybe. I bet if you got some sun, it would be a pretty blond color or we could dye it? Later," she added before I could answer.
She kept saying later. It worried me. Somehow, I had thought this was going to be a one day experiment. What had Ed told her?
After using towels to soak up most of the wet, she began cutting. "When I'm done, you can brush your hair one way, it looks like a girl's hair; comb another way it looks like a boy's. I'll show you. Also, if you use a curling iron, you can make it look even prettier. You know how to use a curling iron?"
"No." I'd examined my sisters' once or twice, sheer curiousity, but I didn't know how to use one.
"I show you that, too. So tell me, chica; you got any boyfriends?"
I blushed and almost shook my head, again, before I remembered what she was doing. "No," I whispered.
"Girlfriends?" she asked.
"No. I've had a few dates."
"Doesn't feel right?" she probed.
"Huh? No, I'm just too scared, I guess."
"How about when you dream? You dream of being a girl?"
Chills ran down my arms. I started to say no but then I remembered. After Jay and the pool, I had actually dreamed that somehow the moon had turned me into a girl. I'd forgotten about that until just then. I felt my face turn brilliant red.
She laughed. "In these dreams, are there boys?"
"Just one," I squeaked meaning just one dream. She thought I meant just one boy.
"Ah ha!" she chortled. "Does Ed know he has competition?"
I shook my head, unwilling to risk further misunderstanding.
"Ah, ah! Be still!" she scolded. "I don't like getting blood on my scissors!"
"How do the other boys treat you, mija? They mean to you?"
I thought about that. I guess I made a face.
"Assholes," supplied Anna-Maria. "You can say assholes when it's just us girls." She chuckled. "So you like boys but you're afraid of that."
"I-I'm not gay," I protested softly.
"No, honey," she said. "If you were gay, you'd be a lesbian." And she chuckled again.
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