Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Chapter 15 - Questions

That night, Liliana was waiting for him at the park. It was cold. His face was windburned and he wished he had something heavier than the down jacket he was wearing. He did have his gloves on, and even so he could feel cold in his fingers.

And there she was, still wearing the same dress she'd worn every night they were together, the same open-toed sandals, and the necklace he had given her. And nothing else. How could she do that? Did she not feel the cold somehow?

He asked her that question on their way home, and she said only, "Can I wait to answer that? At least until we get inside?"

They walked hand-in-hand, or hand-in-glove. He started to take his glove off so he could feel her hand, but she told him to leave it on. It seemed weird, to be walking down the sidewalk, bundled into a coat and gloves and walking hand in hand with a woman dressed for summer. He wondered what the neighbors thought.

He chuckled at the thought. Liliana asked him what was funny, but she didn't press when he just shook his head.

When they got home, he shed the coat and they sat in the living room on the couch. She took his hands in hers and looked him in the eye.

"I have some things to say to you. Some of them will answer some of your questions, but others will raise more questions I may or may not be able to answer. Before you say anything, I want you to think about this:

"I cannot answer all your questions. There are things that I am forbidden to say.

"I must answer anything you ask me three times. Even if you try to take back the question, I cannot ignore it.

"If you ask me three times something I am not allowed to answer, I will have to go away and you will never see me again, whether I answer it or not.

"Now I know you want to know where I come from. At certain times I am permitted to take someone there, and one of those times is coming up. If you will meet me where we first met by the stone doorway just before midnight on the longest night of the year, I will take you to my homeland."

"Your homeland? You mean it's in another country? But how can you take me there?"

"Please, Jeremy. Pay attention. Don't ask so many questions. Every one of them is a chance that you will ask again in a different form a question you have asked before, and therefore a chance that we may be separated forever. Do you understand?"

He nodded, although it wasn't really true. He understood what she was saying, he comprehended the meaning of each of her words, could put them together in sequence and glean the meaning of her sentences. But it made no sense to him, and he didn't expect to find any sense in it.

"Wait. The longest night . . . that's the 21st, right? What night is that?"

Her brow furrowed in a puzzled frown. "What do you mean?"

"Just a second." He got up and went to the calendar, lifted a page. "That's a Wednesday night. I can't get off work that day, and sunset is early this time of year. I can't make it until . . . I don't know, 6?"

She smiled. "I'll be there at sunset. You come when you can. The earlier you come the longer time we'll have."

"I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Good. Now." She took his hands again. "I am permitted, nay at this point I am required to tell you that I am not what I seem. How old do you think I am?"

He'd been wondering about this himself. When he first met her, he thought she was considerably younger than himself, perhaps 21 or 22. After a while, it seemed like she was closer to his own age, and then he guessed that she might in fact be considerably older. He would have guessed 32 or 33 at this point, but he knew that it was always a good idea, when guessing a woman's age, to guess lower rather than higher.

"I don't know. 25? 26?"

She laughed. "You may have thought that once, but surely you don't still think I might be younger than yourself? Be honest with me, please, Jeremy."

"OK. 33. How close am I?"

"Not much closer. I am much, much older than you, Jeremy, older than women of your race live to be, far older than any human woman who looks like this could possibly be. I am not one of your kind, although I appear to be not only to your eyes but to your ears and lips and tongue and fingers . . . and all other parts of you as well. I have enjoyed our time together, but if it disgusts you to think that you have laid with a woman who was not really a woman, I will understand. You must be given a chance and a choice. A chance to see what it is that you have gotten yourself into and a choice to continue as we have been or cast me aside and seek among your own people for a proper mate. For I can never be a proper mate to you, Jeremy Morrison. I cannot bear you a child to raise in this world and carry on your name."

"I don't care about that," said Jeremy, reminded suddenly of his mother and her anxiety for grandchildren. "That's not important to me."

"It is not now, but it may be. It is something to think of, and to sleep on, and to test in your mind back and forth before you choose. Do not be too hasty."

"I love you," said Jeremy. He reached for her, and she came into his arms, and they dissolved into a long and lingering kiss. But when it was over, instead of settling into his lap as she often did, or pulling him up and toward the bedroom, she slid back into her place on the couch and said, "You have not expressed surprise at the notion that I am not a woman."

Jeremy laughed.

Liliana frowned in puzzlement. "Did I say something wrong?"

Jeremy shook his head, still laughing. "It's just that when you said that . . . these days, a woman could be saying that to a guy, and it would mean that she, well that she was really a guy."

"You mean men dress up and pretend to be women?"

"Yes, but more than that. Some actually have operations to have themselves turned into women. They have their penises removed and essentially turned inside out to give them a vagina. They take hormones to become more feminine, which make their breasts grow and retard their beard's growth. They believe themselves to be women, deep inside, so they try to become women. Some of them succeed so well that no one knows they were born men. Others never get beyond the dress-up stage and never fool anyone."

"Is this common in your world now?"

He shrugged. "I wouldn't call it common, but it's certainly no longer rare or even that unusual. Certainly everybody knows about people like this, even if very few actually know someone it has happened to."

"Happened to?"

"Well, that's how they look at it. They see themselves as victims of some cosmic accident at birth, a woman born into the body of a man, or vice-versa."

"And what do you call these not-quite-women?"

"Transexuals. Or no, I understand transgendered is the new term they prefer. There's also transvestite, but that just refers to anyone who likes to wear clothing appropriate for the other gender, generally men wearing women's clothes since there's so little men wear that women can't get away with wearing today."

She shook her head, bewildered. "Your world is much changed since I was last out and about it in, Jeremy. I would be afraid to wander far in it without you by my side. I do not understand much of what you tell me, but it reassures me that you understand how this world works and how to move about in it."

Jeremy felt a swelling of pride. "Well, I do OK, I guess. I'm not exactly a master of the this world, mind you, but I do OK."

She came into his arms again, and again they kissed. And again she broke away and became serious.

"You already knew that I was not a . . . let us say a normal woman, did you not?"

Jeremy nodded. "I figured that out, well, in a way a long time ago. I mean, I kept fighting it, denying to myself that there was anything strange about you. Well, I mean. . ." He laughed nervously. "It was obvious there was something strange about you, but I kept telling myself it wasn't really strange. I mean. . ." He shook his head. "I don't know. It's hard to explain. Until tonight, until this moment really, I kept pretending to myself that I didn't know you weren't from this world." He took a big breath. "In fact, right then is the first time I've allowed myself to actually say it, even to myself. And it's true, isn't it?"

"Yes, Jeremy, it is, but please," she held a hand to his mouth, stopping him from speaking, "don't ask or say any more about it until you meet me at the park on solstice night. I cannot tell you anything more, and you have asked twice already. If you ask again where I come from, you will lose me forever. You have also twice asked for my name, and I may not tell thee my true name. I asked you to call me Liliana, and you accepted that, but you suspect that it is not my name, and you are right. If you ask me again, I will have to leave forever."

"Why -- " started Jeremy, but again she stopped his lips.

"Stop!" she cried. "Why are men so curious? Why do you insist on knowing what you cannot know, what it can only harm you to seek to know?"

She slid into his arms, her face inches from his, her breath warm upon him.

"Do you find me pleasing?" she breathed.

"Oh, yes."

"Do you want me to be able to be with you?"


"Then please, Jeremy, don't ask questions. Accept that I know that you are curious, and that I will tell you what I can when I can, without being reminded that you'd like to know. Every question you ask me risks cutting our time together short."

"But . . ." He shook his head. "It's hard. It's very hard not to ask. And did you just say that Liliana is not your name?"

She sighed. "You men are impossible. You came so close to losing me forever right then and there that I should leave you just for spite. Yes, I did say that, and I also said that if you ask my name again I will be gone."

Jeremy bit his lip. "I have a question, and it's not your name or where you're from, but I don't know if I'm permitted to ask it."

"Then don't."

"But . . ." He wanted to ask her whether, if he ever forgot and asked her name, she would go away forever before telling him or if she would tell him and then go away. It was a stupid question, and he realized that it was, like the question he'd just asked, far too close to the forbidden question to be safely asked and far to inconsequential to be risking their lives together on. So he bit his tongue and tried to forget about it.

But he couldn't forget it. Not really. Jeremy seldom forgot anything, anyway.

"Can you . . . are you allowed to warn me of which questions not to ask?"

"Only if you've asked them twice," she said. "Some questions I may not answer until the time is right, and others I may not answer at all, and none of them am I allowed to warn you about until they have been asked and avoided twice. I could have told you before about my name, but I was . . . unsure of your trust at first and afterward . . . well, it has all been complicated, as I'm sure it has been for yourself as well. But I have just this day received permission to bring you to . . . my home, and so I needed to prepare you. I have vouchsafed safe passage for you, you will be allowed to come and go, and even return to your own life the selfsame night, and not a fortnight or a decade or a century hence, as some who have wandered in by accident have found. We will just be visiting, although there are some rules that I will tell you that you must follow. I can . . ."

She sat upright, looked around. "I do not know if I can tell you now, or if I must wait, so I supposed I'd better wait. If I can tell you in advance I'll speak of it the next time we come together, which will still give you time to think of them before and then be reminded before we go. I'm not sure, there may be a rule that you can be told the rules only just before the journey."

She lay back down in his lap, suddenly relaxed as a cat. "I think that is all I have to say tonight. Why don't you carry me to your bed and make love to me?"

Jeremy laughed. "I'm not exactly a bodybuilder. I don't know if I can." But she was surprisingly light, and he had no trouble carrying her in his arms into his bed, where they made love late into the night.

Chapter 14 - Problems at Work

"Jeremy, I'm concerned."


"About you. What's going on?"

"Nothing. Why?"

She didn't say anything for a while. It seemed almost like she was giving him time to change his answer. Finally, she sighed. "Jeremy, there's obviously something going on in your life. If you want to tell me it's none of my business, that's fine, because it's not, except that you make it my business by allowing it to affect your work. Your performance the last few weeks has not been up to your usual standards, to say the least."

Jeremy had been worried when Cecilia had come up to him and asked to speak to him, then led him away from their work area to an empty conference room. Those kinds of meetings between an employee and a supervisor rarely went well. It was worse because he knew Cecilia hated this as much as he did. She wasn't really cut out to be a boss.

He had a sudden impulse to tell her the whole story, including his crazy suspicions that Liliana was not a human being, but a creature out of faerie. Even saying it to himself it sounded so lunatic that he chuckled to himself.

That made Cecilia bristle. "You think this is funny?" she demanded.

He shook his head. "No. I'm sorry. I wasn't laughing at you. I was laughing at myself for getting myself into this mess."

"What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into?"

He shook his head again. He knew better than to tell anyone he was in love with a magical creature from another world, and since he couldn't even breathe or hint at that possibility, it was hard to speak of Liliana at all, and why her coming into his life had brought him as much anxiety and anguish as it had inspiration and pleasure.
"Is it this girl you've been seeing?"

Jeremy groaned audibly. He wished he'd never mentioned Liliana to Mike.
"Jeremy, listen. I understand you don't want to talk about this with me. But you need to talk to someone." She gave him a flyer and a business card. "This is a counseling service that the city contracts to provide help for all city employees, and that includes us here in the library. They do all kinds of counseling, from drug addiction to marriage counseling to just giving you someone to talk to about stuff you have a hard time talking to your friends or coworkers about. I want you to," she bit her lip. She probably wasn't supposed to come right out and tell him to go to counseling, Jeremy figured. "I want you to think about giving them a call."

"Look, Cecilia, I know you mean well, but this is something I have to deal with myself."

She nodded. "I understand. But you're not dealing with it. And as I said, it's affecting your work. I can't just stand by and allow that to happen."

"OK, I understand, I'll do better."

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but it's gone too far for that."

Suddenly he felt ice in the pit of his stomach. Was he being fired?

"I'm going to have to put this down as an official warning in your file," she said. "If you are late, or miss a day without bringing in a note from a doctor, or I catch you falling asleep at your desk again, any of those things will mean a day's suspension without pay, do you understand?"

This dire news hit Jeremy like a cool breeze of relief. He let out the breath he didn't even know he'd been holding. "Yes. I . . . I understand. I'm sorry. I'll try not to let it happen again."


He jumped. Cecilia had never yelled at him before. "What?"

"You can't just try. You have to stop this now. If you keep it up, I'm going to have to let you go. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I will. I promise. No more late days."

Jeremy stayed behind and sat by himself in the conference room for a while after Cecilia left. He was racking his brain trying to remember the policy on warnings. Was it six months he'd have to go without a single late day, or a whole year? It didn't matter. He'd start coming in half an hour early every morning. No, an hour -- he'd come in early and do his correspondence for his new writing career! He'd do it here, and even bring in his laptop so they couldn't complain that he was using library equipment for his personal use!

Feeling much better than he had when he went in, which he knew was completely out of touch with what had just happened, he walked out of the conference room with a spring in his step and went back to work. He left the flyer and the business card for the counseling service behind.