It began with a box.
Hidden—but not that hidden—in my husband’s closet, I came across something that I had never seen before. Sitting at the back corner on the right side was a slightly tattered, ordinary brown packing box. We’d been married for seven years, but I had never felt an inclination like this before—I wanted to look through something personal of his.
I felt as if I had found a mysterious chest in a dark cave that one might find in a foreign land. The Curse of the Mummies, I thought, telling myself that I’d been watching too many movies. I knelt on the floor, laid the laundry out next to me, and slid the box out of the closet. I slowly opened it, strangely tentative, like a child peeking under the bed to check for monsters.
The first thing I saw were stockings, lots of them. That wasn’t new for him, nor me, as we’d been playing around sexually with garter belts and stockings for a while. But there were more; many more stockings than I’d ever seen, along with synthetic breasts, bras, and high-heeled shoes.
I saw red and every other shade of anger and hurt. Was my husband having an affair?
I glared at his things, my heart racing. I felt sick. I paced around the house, but that only made me feel worse. I grabbed the phone. He was working on the ski hill that day.
I dialed Rick’s number and waited for him to answer the phone. Time crawled. I barely heard his voice before I was yelling, “Get the hell home! NOW!”
“Why, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“Just get home.” My whole body was shaking.
It only takes ten minutes to get from the ski hill to our house, but it seemed like hours. As I waited for him to arrive, I kept thinking, please let it be an affair. But something inside me already knew that it wasn’t as ordinary as that.
Our beautiful bungalow was nestled in the forest of southern British Columbia. I heard his car pull into the driveway, the car door slam shut, and then the front door opened. Rick rushed into the living room, then stopped suddenly.
“Look in the box!” I shouted.
“It means nothing,” he said. He didn’t have to look. He already knew what I’d found.
“Just go get it, please,” I said. I tried to slow my breathing and the pounding of my heart. There was a dull roar in my ears as he returned and placed the box on the table. Tears streamed down his face.
“I’m not trying to hurt you,” he said, his breathing quietly laboured.
“Well, then, explain what this stuff is!”
“I’m just experimenting. I’m not having an affair. I love you. I don’t know why I’m doing it; please, I don’t know why.” He stared at the floor.
As awful as it sounds, I wanted to hit him. I wanted to make him feel exactly like I felt right at that moment.
Rick slumped into a chair and said, “I won’t do it again.”
Time slowed down even more.
“Get rid of that box,” I said. “Burn it, bury it. It can’t be in this house, or in our lives.” I didn’t want to know what he was doing with any of those things. I just wanted our life to go back to normal.
We held each other, both sobbing.
“It’s ok,” I said. “I love you. Everything will be alright.”
The box became our secret; a box full of stuff we didn’t want to discuss.
I told myself that it would never happen again. Months passed. I thought it was all over. Then one day, there was the box again, sitting in his closet. This time, I didn’t hesitate to look inside.
Gingerly, I picked up a pair of strappy, black patent, opened-toed 6-inch stilettos. They were, I guessed, a size 9. Only someone tall would wear them. There were several pairs of stockings in black, grey, and taupe. Some were sheer, others had a single welt or seam up the back of the leg, in red or black. The stockings were all very long.
Not my size, I thought, as I fought back tears. There were garter belts, one black and lacy, one in white satin, then another black one, this time with a lacy pink overlay and pink bows atop the straps. Six straps, as opposed to the four that I always remembered on the ones that I’d worn in my early teens.
Rick had always encouraged me to use the ones with six straps. “They hold your stockings on your legs so beautifully,” he’d say.
I pulled out a bra, two, three. I stared at them, blinded by tears. They were black, white, and lacy. Lace was becoming a theme. The straps of the bras were wide— wide enough to support large breasts. But whose breasts? I was afraid of the truth, but I knew.
Next came a skimpy white cotton t-shirt, so small that it couldn’t possibly fit over breasts and bras; or could it? Porn stars wear this kind of crap, I thought. A slender, mint green skirt with inlaid strips of the same color. My God. That bastard took one of my skirts out of the garbage bag of old clothing I’d readied for donation to the thrift shop!
“That’s my skirt!” I found myself yelling. Then I found another, smaller box tucked under all of this, and there they were: the breasts. They were individually nestled in round compartments, upside down. No nipples, just round, soft, and fleshy-feeling—and unnaturally squishy. I imagined that breasts like these were used after mastectomies. Under the fake boobs lay a roll of two-sided tape, glue, and a bottle of some kind of liquid. I guessed that the liquid was for removing the tape and glue from the skin.
The box seemed bottomless. It was never-ending, full of things I didn’t want to discover. I pulled out two brown glass bottles of pheromones (amazing that human scent can be bottled!), then a chestnut brown, bob-style wig with bangs, plus a longer one that was dark brown with auburn streaks. Then I found a box of maxi-pads and a sleeve of condoms. What the hell?
The last item to roll out was a small red rubber oblong thing, rounded at one end with a hole at the other; a mini dildo, something anal. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to handle any of it. I tossed, stuffed, and scrunched everything back into the box in disgust.
I remembered reading somewhere that if someone really wanted to keep something from you, they would hide it so well that no one would ever find it. Rick wanted me to see this. I felt like I was reliving the same scene from before—from the first movie. This only happens in movies, right?
Again, I made a phone call with the same anger and the same demand: “Get home,” I said.
“Why are you going through my things?”
His tone left me feeling speechless. I was surprised, and somewhat frightened, but I repeated my demand for him to come home.
Again he pushed back: “Stay out of my closet,” he said.
“Please, come home. We need to talk,” I repeated. As I asked this, I felt like a child—completely foolish. Why should I feel like this? He’s doing this to me!
Once he came home we sat in the family room, yelling at each other. I was incredulous that he felt he had any right to be mad. Finally, I asked the question that I should have asked months earlier:
“What are you doing and who are you?”
“I’m a cross-dresser,” he said.
And with that one statement, it started. That was when I began to lose myself in Rick’s world.
“I want to help you through this,” he said. His words soothed my psyche. “There are websites you can go on to learn more about cross-dressing so that you can feel more comfortable about who I am, and my dressing. It will never leave this house,” he promised.
Once again, the box in the closet became our secret.
When the anger finally subsided, my mind wandered in a million different directions. Did a lot of men like cross-dressing? Were women into it, too?
“He better not go out of this house dressed like a woman,” I said out loud. I was anxious, but I said it with conviction. Our small town would be shocked. There’s no way he’s been going out and about here in Rossland dressed as a woman; I definitely would have heard about it—wouldn’t I?
Suddenly I thought back to the time when Rick and I were waiting for a cab in the lobby of a convention centre where we’d been attending a spa event. Because I work as an aesthetician, occasions like this were more for me than for him, but Rick always liked to be there to support me. Naturally, the discovery of the box of lingerie in our closet had left me questioning Rick’s motives.
He’d been the first to notice an awkward-looking person, standing with shoulders slumped forward, as we waited in the lobby.
“Look over by the door,” he said. “Is that a man or a woman?”
I saw a man in drag. He wore a wig and a gaudy, brightly-coloured dress, along with some high-heeled pumps. Caked-on makeup made him (or her?) stand out even more in the crowd.
“How weird. How sad,” Rick said, looking away.
Later on, I recalled that moment and wondered if the man dressed as a woman had a partner. If so, what gender was the partner? Now that I had to live with my husband’s cross-dressing, I vividly recalled that person, standing in the lobby wearing a wig, and, more importantly, I imagined the people in his life. How did they cope with his behaviour? It horrified me to think of Rick ever looking like that. I tried to make myself stop thinking that way; it only made me angry.
I’m a liberal person. I can deal with this. Who does it hurt? I asked myself, eager to rationalize away my gut emotional response. Later that year, after confronting Rick about the box, I began to look at the websites he had told me about. I started with Support Groups for Spouses of Crossdressers, and then I went to a site called The Secret Garden. There I found my way to a woman in England who was married to a cross-dresser and we began corresponding. She wrote that her partner had come out to his family and friends. They more or less had accepted it, she said. She told me about dressing up with her partner to go out shopping or to dinner. She enjoyed the adventure of the outings.
I wished that I could be as accepting as she was, but I honestly couldn’t imagine myself shifting roles like that with Rick. This woman, presenting herself as a support worker for spouses, said that it was nice to be with a partner who understood women so deeply. We were lucky our partners didn’t want to have affairs with other women, she said, and that they only wanted to dress like them.
Oh, great, I thought.
Other sites were full of kinky sex. They brought me back to all that I’d found in the box. I remembered the shock of finding maxi-pads, condoms, and the little red rubber thing.
“If not for sex, what else would these be for?” I wondered aloud. I really didn’t want to delve any deeper into these sites. They were making me feel worse. Whatever curiosity I initially felt, I knew one thing for sure: this was the last thing I really wanted in my life.
Later that day, Rick and I sat down to talk about what I had seen and read.
“Have you actually checked out any of these sites yourself?” I asked.
“I have,” he said. “What did you see? What did you think? Is it helpful?”
“I really can’t deal with this,” I said, before asking in exasperation, “Are you positive that this cross-dressing thing of yours isn’t about sex?”
“No,” he said. “I told you before that it isn’t about that. I just like women’s clothing, the tactile feeling of silk stockings and satin and lace bras, and just how women look. You have more clothes to choose from than men. Men don’t care about how they look. I’ve never liked the way men are. You know that.”
“What do you mean, ‘how men are?’?” I felt so frustrated.
Rick said that men had no sense of style and not a lot of clothing to select from; he argued that the available styles had no colour.
“How boring,” he said. “Men are crass, slovenly, and don’t care about women...and there’s nothing feminine about them,” he explained.
“What the hell does that mean?” I shot back. “They are guys, and as much as I—at times—would like to see men who get in touch with their feminine sides, I don’t want men to be women!” I shook my head again. I told him that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
We turned and walked away from each other. I looked around the house; everything was in its usual place. Outside, a horse whinnied in the pasture. A blue jay’s call echoed through the air. The sound of water rushing in the nearby creek filtered through an open window and our wedding picture rested on a side table in its beautiful pewter frame. Maybe it was just a fleeting thing with him, I thought, like a fling? If I could accept it, then maybe he’d get over it faster. I wanted to accept my husband. But could I?
Suddenly, it hit me like a slap across the face: the money Rick must have spent in order to buy the clothes, the fancy lingerie. We didn’t have any extra money!
What next? I wondered. What now?
My induction into the world of cross-dressing was lonely. I needed support. I needed to talk to someone about Rick’s behaviour! If I didn’t, I felt I would implode. My mind told me that I was not alone. I wanted to reach out, but I wasn’t sure who to confide in. My mom was one possibility; she had dealt with so much and she’d always been there for me and our family. She was in her early seventies now. Could she deal with this?
I paced around the house feeling ill and swinging back and forth about whether to confide in my mom or not. Finally, I called her. In a haze of fear, confusion, and sadness, I listened to each ring of the phone, feeling a lot like I had after first finding the box and calling Rick.
“Please. Pick up the fucking phone, Mom,” I said through my tears.
Mom picked up at last; the hello came through the line in her warm and familiar voice.
“Mommy,” I blubbered.
“Jayne,” she said. “Jayne, what’s wrong?”
“I have something to tell you, Mom. I’m afraid and I don’t know where to turn.”
“What’s happening, dear?” Then with an edge of anger, she asked, “Is it Rick?” She knew our relationship had been rocky for some time now.
“Yes,” I said. “But this time it’s not what you think. Not money or the kids. It’s something so different.”
“Is he alright, dear?” she asked.
“He’s fine,” I said, almost sarcastically. “It’s something else!” My head spun; I didn’t know if I could spit it out. How could I admit to what I had been living with for all these months?
“He’s a cross-dresser,” I finally blurted out.
“A guy who likes to dress as a woman. Remember the movie, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)?”
“For goodness’ sake, Jayne, what are you talking about?”
“You know, the guy in the movie that likes to secretly dress in his wife’s clothing? Remember, she found him out as he stood in front of the mirror in a floral dress, floppy straw hat, and pump-style shoes, looking no more like a woman than the Incredible Hulk?”
“Oh, Jayne.” Her voice dropped. “How long has this been going on? Are you ok? How can you be ok? What the hell does he think he’s doing? Haven’t you been through enough with the kids, the money...my God.” Mom’s voice was tremulous as she rambled on. “Who the hell does he think he is? Do the children know?”
“Mom, please. This is so hard, too weird, too everything, without you going on—and no, the kids don’t know.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks. I felt like a little girl again. “Please, I just need to talk this through.” I slumped back into the couch, staring at my view of grand spruce and cedar trees out the living room window. Rick’s view; our view.
“He’s not a bad man. I feel there must be something so difficult in his life or in our marriage that he feels the need to experiment. He’s always had a more feminine side than most men. It must be a fleeting thing.”
I attempted to convince myself that this was just a passing phase, perhaps a midlife crisis. Maybe I could try to understand. “It’s the dishonesty that upsets me the most.” I sighed.
I told her how I’d discovered the box, but I only mentioned a few of the things I had found inside—only what I thought she could handle hearing about. But how the hell could any of my family handle this? She was silent.