Nevertheless, curiosity abounded. People wondered what brought a single young woman from the New York City suburbs to Warrenton, of all places. I told them — a bit gruffly — that I needed a change of scenery and that I had left everything I’d ever known to join the staff of what had once been one of the best suburban newspapers in the country.
I never imagined the first person I’d confide in would be a high-ranking cop. Yet somehow, even though we’d only known each other for a few months, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could trust Major Paul F. Mercer, Jr.
“I got married at a horse show — at the Hampton Classic Horse Show, one of the most prestigious shows on the east coast,” I told him on what promised to be a typically hot and humid June day. “It was a fairy-tale wedding. We got married on the grand prix field. We had a horse-drawn carriage, seventy-five invited guests and three thousand spectators. Oh, and it was on TV,” I added, almost as an afterthought.
Traffic on Route 50 crawled past the Upperville Horse Show grounds, and then came to an abrupt halt behind a motorist who wanted to turn into the wrong gate. Major Mercer stepped off the grassy shoulder to talk to her and quickly pointed the wayward driver in the right direction.
“So what happened?” he asked when he returned to his cruiser.
“What?” I said.
“You were saying you had this fairy-tale wedding. Apparently, things didn’t work out. What happened?”
I wanted to tell him. I just didn’t know how.
Sitting on the ground behind his black Ford Crown Victoria, I began pulling up blades of grass. One by one, I let them slip through my fingers.
“I’ll tell you,” I replied, eying the trim, uniformed man with short, prematurely gray hair who, as third in command, was also the public information officer at the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office. “But only if you promise not to tell anyone else.”
“I promise,” he replied, becoming uncharacteristically grave.
“Okay.” I took a deep breath, dropped my gaze and resumed uprooting the grass. “So, you know what a transsexual is?” I asked.
Rip, up came another fistful of grass. Rip, rip, rip. Tattered blades fell softly back onto the earth.
“Well, Adam — a couple of years after we got married I found out Adam is really a woman — or wanted to be a woman. We got divorced. He went and had the surgery and everything, so he’s … she’s Audrey now.”
I bit my lower lip and dropped another handful of shredded grass before I finally looked up, dreading a look of dismay, disbelief or disgust and half-expecting to see his trademark grin.
He remained serious. “Alex,” he paused. “I’m a country boy but I’ve also been a cop for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my career. I can’t understand why anyone would do that, or begin to understand what you’ve been through. I will never tell anyone and I will never tease you about it — unless you open the door. Okay?”
He extended his hand and I reached up to take it. The lithe major’s strength surprised me as he pulled me to my feet.
“Okay,” I said, meeting his gaze and returning the handshake. “Thanks.”
It turned out to be the first of many conversations we had about my ex. The subject became a matter of dispute, debate and more “counseling sessions” than I cared to admit. Paul was never shy about doling out personal and professional advice, and teased me relentlessly about billing me for it. He also kept his word and never joked about Adam unless I fired the first salvo.
As much as I loathed talking about my ex, time made it easier to share my story with friends, sources and coworkers. More often than not, I broached the subject when female acquaintances bemoaned the rough times in their own relationships.
“That really sucks,” I would inevitably say after listening to their tale of woe. “But I bet I’ve got a story that tops it.”
In time, it became an inside joke among my closest friends.
“Trust me,” one of my best pals, Christiana, said when the dinner party conversation at her house once turned to crappy relationships, “Alex has a story that can top that.”