Updated: Oct 9, 2021
The minute I laid eyes on her, I noticed something different about the woman seated in SMP’s 5th floor reception area. I don’t mean just the 60’s-style Marlo Thomas hair, which looked like a wig, nor the black cat eye frames of her faux-diamond-studded glasses, nor her pink sleeveless A-line mini dress, another retro affection on a par with her glossy white vinyl go-go boots. I did the double-take when I saw her white-gloved hands, folded demurely in her lap. Who the heck wears white gloves these days, except for actresses on Mad Men? I thought as I strode past her to my cube buried in the windowless core of the building.
Now, don’t think me rude for saying nothing to the young woman. As the only female on the floor, I scrupulously avoid doing anything that risks my being mistaken for a receptionist. In fact, after the promotion of our last receptionist, George, to the QA department, we put a large sign on his former desk advising visitors to dial the number of the person they’ve come to see. We’d hire another receptionist as soon as we hired all the coders we needed, a mission-critical task, as my know-it-all boss, Mitch Testa, reminded me whenever I asked for a permanent marketing assistant instead of a still another temp for a few weeks.
When I reached my cube, my VOIP phone’s message light blazed red as a Christmas tree bulb. I grabbed the receiver, punched the button for messages, and listened to a raspy voice, “Uh, hi, this is Trixie, Trixie Starr. I’m, uh, the temp who’s here to do a project for, uh,” here, the message paused as Trixie rustled papers, apparently seeking a name, “Gloria Stern. I’m waiting in the lobby whenever you’re ready, Ms. Stern.” Setting down the receiver, I clucked to myself. The speaker sounded male, the voice vaguely familiar. Did he remind me of someone on an old YouTube video about Gamezilla, the company SMP acquired five years ago? I shook my head. The person in the lobby clearly presented as female. Maybe Trixie smoked or naturally possessed a throaty, Marlene Dietrich voice, I decided as I retraced my steps.
The woman looked up as I approached. “Hi, I’m Gloria,” I offered my hand.
“I’m Trixie,” she squeaked, despite her voice’s generally low register, as she rose and demurely squeezed my palm. “Nice to meet you, Gloria.”
“Likewise, Trixie,” I replied, surprised how far I needed to crane my neck to meet the deep brown pools of her eyes. I filed this peculiarity, along with Trixie’s other eccentricities, under “things for later consideration.”
“Let me show you where you’ll be working,” I led the way to the empty cube near mine.
Two days later, I’m sitting with Mitch for our weekly 1:1 in one of the few conference rooms that haven’t morphed into offices because of our chronic space crunch. When I first suggested to Mitch that we meet here instead of his office, as usual, I congratulated myself on my cleverness. Sitting here, not in front of his computer screen, meant my boss no longer faced the irresistible temptation to do e-mail while we talked or, to be more precise, ignore me while I talked at him. Now, as he tapped away on his iPhone, I wrapped up my current point, “The social media campaign for the 5-year anniversary of Gamezilla’s acquisition is going great. There’s lots of fabulous content, plenty of opportunities for customer engagement.” Determined to switch things up, I pushed aside the sheet with my typed agenda and asked, “Do you have any questions?”
Sensing a challenge, he glanced up. “So that temp we hired to help you with the campaign is working out okay?” he grinned, proud of himself for coming up with a relevant query so quickly.
“I think so,” I hesitated, unsure how to pursue this ticklish subject. “But, uh, how much do you know about her?”
Mitch shrugged, “She’s just whoever the agency sent over.” He again consulted his phone’s screen, apparently seeking a response to his last text. “Why do you ask?”
“She’s a bit, uh, unusual.”
Mitch chuckled, scrolling on his phone with his index finger. “Aren’t we all?”
“Most of us don’t dress like we came off the set of Mad Men.” I crossed my arms. “Who wears white gloves anymore? Or miniskirts and go-go boots?”
Mitch shrugged. “Sounds like she dresses retro. Plenty of people do that. Remember, we don’t have a dress code here.” He eyed his phone’s screen again, as if willing a new text to appear.
“Have you seen how tall she is?” Of course not, I thought furiously. You never leave your office and mingle with “little people.” “Or heard her speak?”
Mitch sat up, startled by something that popped up on his screen. He looked up, confused, as if he’d only just noticed I sat across from him. “What are you getting at?”
I dropped my voice. “I think she wasn’t always a she. At one point, she was a he.” I leaned forward. “And he, I mean, she sounds like someone I heard talking on YouTube about Gamezilla. He, uh, she may have worked for that company.”
Mitch shrugged. “Okay, the temp’s transgender. So what?” He focused again on his phone and began tapping as he spoke. “I can’t legally inquire as to her gender. She presents as female. I can’t stop her from using the ladies’ room. Are you uncomfortable with that?”
“No,” I shrugged. “He, uh, I mean, she behaves herself in the women’s room.” I emphasized the non-sexist term. “She doesn’t bother me—and I’m the only other person who uses that bathroom.”
“All right, then,” Mitch muttered. “Case closed,” he announced and triumphantly hit the “send” button on his phone.
The next morning, I heard a tentative rap on the edge of my cubicle. I looked up from scrolling the impressive spreadsheet compiled by Trixie to behold the women herself, in an outfit 10 years more retro than yesterday’s: she wore a scarf around her neck, an angora sweater, poodle skirt, and saddle shoes. “Hi, Gloria,” she beamed. “I’m checking on that file I sent.” She stepped in and perched on the edge of the visitor chair in front of my desk. “Will that work for you?”
“It will more than work for me. It’s a treasure-trove of tidbits about Gamezilla from a plethora of sources. Great work, Trixie!” I beamed.
She beamed back, her blazing red lipstick glowing against her pearly whites. “I’m so glad you like it. I really enjoyed creating and debugging the macro that compiled it.”
I sat back. “You programmed a macro to do this? You didn’t just scan the files visually and copy and paste the relevant bits?”
“Of course, not,” Trixie looked equally stunned. “That’s a lot of manual work, subject to human error. A computer’s much better at extracting and compiling relevant data.”
I shook my head. “But all those data were in different formats—e-mails, IM’s, Facebook posts, even old-fashioned memos. One program can’t scan all that.”
Trixie shrugged. “It took several macros, actually, but the base logic was identical: search for text strings of key phrases and then extract those, parsing out the sentence before and after as well as the sentence containing the key phrase—in addition to metadata, such as the quote’s source document and date—then compiling those into a spreadsheet.” Trixie tipped her chin in the direction of my computer monitor.
I sat speechless, head spinning at Trixie’s matter-of-fact description of the intensely complex process. Something in her nonchalant manner reminded me of the flipness of some techie I’d recently heard—where? On YouTube maybe. I shook my mind to clear it and ventured, “Well, from what I understood of what you said, which, honestly, was half,” I conceded, “it was brilliant, but wasn’t it kind of overkill for a one-time project?”
Trixie frowned. “But I’ve automated the solution. The process is perfect!”
“True, but why spend the time automating a process for a one-time event?”
“You don’t know that it’s a one-time deal,” she sniffed. “Besides, it’s more fun this way.”
I struggled to prevent my jaw dropping. “Writing complicated macros is fun?”
Trixie shrugged and stood with a ruffle of skirts. “Different strokes for different folks.” She winked mischievously, turned, and, with dainty steps, despite her stature, threaded her way between cubicles back to her workstation.
With the conference room in use during this week’s 1:1 with Mitch, we defaulted to his office again. At least he left his phone in his desk drawer this time, instead glancing periodically at the monitor that sat between us, tapping at his keyboard only occasionally.
During one particularly long stretch of his pecking at the keys, I faltered in my recitation then fell silent. “I’m done, Mitch,” I sighed, thoroughly defeated.
“Okay, then, tell me how that temp of yours is doing,” he glanced up at me from his screen. “What’s her work like?”
“Like I told you last week, she does great except, well,” here I paused, hesitating. “Sometimes she’s a bit over the top.”
“What do you mean?” He arched a skeptical brow as he peered at me over his monitor.
“I asked her to scan several databases of old social media posts from Gamezilla before the acquisition. The easiest thing to do would have been to scan with her eyes, take notes, all that. Instead, she wrote this elaborate set of macros that automated the whole thing, with Boolean logic search strings, and such.”
Mitch clucked, “Sounds like she did a good job. She certainly lived up to our request for someone with good tech skills. Probably saved herself—and us—tons of time.” He glanced down at this monitor and pecked away some more.
I considered my agenda, half the items on it as yet untouched. “Well,” I began, staring down, “the actual search may have only taken seconds, but writing and debugging the macro took hours—and all for a one-time use.”
“Who knows?” Mitch shrugged, addressing the screen in front of his nose, not me. “We might do another campaign like the Gamezilla one someday.”
I leaned forward, sensing opportunity. “You’d consider resurrecting my original suggestion about doing a campaign for the Starbird Games acquisition? It happened at the same time as Gamezilla’s purchase, after all.”
I finally got his attention. He scowled at me over the top of his monitor. “That again? I told you, nobody remembers Starbird. Gamezilla, on the other hand, has a following—even now.” Mitch once more dropped his gaze to his screen, signaling that he’d closed the subject—again.
Stymied, I took a deep breath, decided to make the offer I’d been dreading. “You know, Mitch, I hate to lose a good temp, but Trixie’s a natural-born coder.”
Mitch started and looked up at me from his monitor as if I’d reached around the screen and slapped him. “What are you saying?”
“You’re always telling me, we’re short on coders.” I shrugged. “Maybe we ought to hire Trixie permanently—to fill one of the open engineering roles.”
Mitch snorted. “Are you serious, Gloria? It just won’t work,” he laughed. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. Trixie’s a girl, isn’t she?”
I straightened in my chair. “She’s a woman.”
“Whatever,” Mitch rolled his eyes. “The point is that she’s a temp, not an engineer. Besides, woman can’t code.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded, leaning forward. “Women can code!”
“All right, Gloria,” Mitch held up his hands, as if fending me off. “Sure, women can code, but I don’t see a female coder working well on any of our teams. There’s a reason you don’t code, Gloria.”
“I don’t like to, but Trixie’s different.”
“Yes, she’s different—so different, in fact, she’ll never fit in any of our teams.”
I bit my cheek and said nothing. After all, I needed my job.
After lunch, as I stood at the sink washing my hands in the women’s room, Trixie emerged from one of the two stalls and took her place beside me at the room’s other sink. With a deep breath, I summoned up courage to broach the subject of coding. “So, Trixie,” I looked into the mirror, addressing her reflection. “Were your ears burning this afternoon?”
“No,” Trixie looked up. “Should they have been?”
“Well,” I said, elbowing the cold faucet off, “I was singing your praises as a coder to Mitch.”
“That’s very kind,” Trixie nearly purred as she rubbed into her hands the soap from the dispenser that hung on the wall between our two sinks. “Thank you!” she chirped.
I sighed as I turned to the paper towel dispenser. “You don’t have much to thank me for.” I tore a sheet off with unintended force. “Mitch wasn’t receptive.”
Trixie shrugged as she ran her hands under the stream of water pouring into her sink. “I’m not surprised, really. We have a whole floor of coders here, and only two of us use the ladies’ room—you, a marketing manager, and moi, a Kelly Girl.”
I paused as I dried my hands, cringing at her casual use of not one but two sexist phrases in the same sentence. “Aren’t you a temporary administrative assistant,” I emphasized the appropriate term, “because you want to be?”
“I coded in a former life,” Trixie finished rinsing her hands and elbowed her faucet off as well. “But I took a break and dropped out of the field for several years, and, now, no one will hire me as a coder—so I temp instead.”
To give myself time, I examined my plain, short nails then wadded my used paper towel into the smallest possible ball. Finally, I looked directly at Trixie. “If you don’t mind my asking, Trixie, are you cis- or trans-?”
“No, I don’t mind,” she replied nonchalantly as she shook excess water off her hands into the sink. “I’m transgendered.”
I stepped aside silently as she reached around me to get a towel to dry off her hands as well. Inwardly, I marveled at how casually she admitted to not being a ciswoman. She didn’t even seem disappointed that I’d suspected. She just accepted it. The nonchalance of her response unnerved me, threw me off, so that I blurted, without thinking, “You could get yourself a coding job just by changing your clothes.” The moment after the words left my lips, I bit the lower one.
Trixie stood with her back to me, ripping off a towel with remarkable gentleness. I started to apologize when she turned around and looked me square in the face. “You may be right. I was successful in high tech before my transition, and now look at me.” She separated her hands, as if inviting me to admire today’s outlandish retro outfit. “But if making it as a coder is that simple, why don’t you change your gender?” she asked. “Then you’d make more money.”
I deserved that, but my jaw muscles tightened nevertheless. “The point is,” I replied, biting off my words. “I shouldn’t have to change my gender to get paid what I’m worth!”
Trixie tilted her chin up ever so slightly in a mild challenge as she toweled off her red-tipped fingers. “Shouldn’t that apply to me as well, even if I’m not a genetic girl like you?”
“First, neither of us are ‘girls’” I replied, tightening my right fist around the already impossibly small wad of paper towel. “And second, it applies to you, too, of course. Look, Trixie, we’re on the same side. The guys are the jerks.”
Trixie crumpled her paper towel into a loose ball and casually tossed it into the nearly empty trash can by the door. She looked up at me. “Then why do you work here?” she asked, calmly. “If all your colleagues are jerks?”
I shrugged. “Because I need a job.”
“So do I,” she smiled and with a tug, pulled open the door and disappeared out into the hall.
Back at my desk, I stared at the to-do list on my computer’s monitor, but I failed to muster the required focus. Instead, I started back through my Gamezilla archive folders, telling myself I needed to double-check something. Who in that old company wrote memos the same way Trixie wrote them now? In what old tech podcast did I hear someone who talked like she talks? I wracked my brain, combed my files, came up empty. Desperate to shut off the distractions from the cubes around me, I resorted to my tried and true tactic to achieve flow: I put on my headphones and started playing YouTube videos. In this case, they featured the founders of Gamezilla, bragging about all the genius things they’d done half a decade ago. As one after another of these arrogant, self-serving geeks paraded on stage at some trade show or press conference and explained animatedly the obscure mechanics of their—at that time—bright shiny new innovations (now reduced to mere check-box me-too features), I grew frustrated with their smug assumptions about their audience—all adolescent males, jittery with testosterone, caffeine, and self-conscious irony, oblivious to the fact not every gamer looked exactly like them. Finally, fed up, I glanced at the suggestions on the right-hand side of the screen. A series of them marched down the monitor’s flank, looking dismally familiar, but one did look a little different. This speaker founded a company other than Gamezilla. I stared at the description: Starbird Games. I’d probably watched this one back when I still nurtured false hopes about Mitch consenting to let me give that old company some social media love, too. Shrugging, I clicked the play button.
The guy who materialized on screen looked like all the others: shaggy, unshaven, trying way too hard to be way too cool. I hovered my mouse over the close button in the upper right-hand corner, about to click, when the fellow onscreen opened his mouth.
I froze. I closed my eyes, listened only to the voice. Then I paused him, pulled the earbud out of my left ear, grabbed the handset of my VOIP phone and snuggled it against my cheek with my shoulder, punched in the sequence to play archived voicemail, and listened to the last message. Nearly convinced, I played the YouTube video simultaneously. The same person spoke in both my ears, different words but the same voice—in stereo.
That afternoon, around 5, I looked up to see the women’s room door swing open as Trixie went in, no doubt getting ready to head home since the terms of her temp contract meant no pay for hours logged after that—even if she went home and diddled with macros and code on her computer into the wee hours, which she obviously did. I faced another couple of hours slaving away in my cube but decided to stretch my legs.
Once again at the sink, washing up, I looked up as Trixie exited her stall. As she washed her hands beside me, I struck up a conversation on a neutral subject. “So, how’s the posting to social media going?” I asked.
“Well,” Trixie replied, addressing the mirror, rather than me. “Hootsuite’s a snap, but the user experience on Later, for posting to Instagram, is suboptimal.” She turned to face me, “I understand why Later built their app requiring human intervention through a mobile device because that’s all Instagram will allow, but there must be an easier way.” She elbowed the faucet off. “I’m thinking about programming an automated agent to save the hassle of having to get on Instagram daily …”
I elbowed off my faucet as well. “No matter what the problem,” I observed, striving for a bland tone, “you code your way out of it.”
Trixie shrugged and smirked, “Old habits die hard.”
Shaking off my fingers, I said, as casually as possible, “Speaking of old habits,” I turned to face Trixie as well, “have you ever heard of a company called Starbird Games?”
Trixie shrugged again, this time looking away as she shook water off her hands. “Sure, this company acquired them 5 years ago. What’s that got to do with ‘old habits’?” She stepped around me to get at the paper towels.
I glanced over my left shoulder to address her directly, though she faced away from me. “Do you know anything about the company’s founder, a fellow named Patrick Starr?”
Trixie wiped her hands elaborately, with more care than usual, as if buying time, but when she answered, she sounded unconcerned. “Yes ... a bit.”
“Really?” I stepped around her to get at the paper towel dispenser myself. “How much do you know?” I turned my back on her to pull out a towel. “I’ve been doing a bit of research about him, and shortly after the sale, which made him a millionaire—oh, by the way—he completely disappeared and hasn’t been heard from since.” I turned to face her.
Trixie stood at the mirror, examining her reflection, checking her makeup. “That’s about all I know—or anyone else knows—for that matter,” she tugged a stray hair.
I dried my hands but kept my gaze fixed on Trixie. “You’re about his age and height. You even look like him, a bit, minus the scraggily beard, of course.”
Trixie, still gazing at the mirror, patted her cheeks tentatively. “Of course.”
“He was a natural-born coder,” I pressed, “like you.”
“Thank you!” Trixie finally turned to me and smiled.
I crossed my arms and leaned my left shoulder against the wall by the towel dispenser. “You even speak like him—albeit at a slightly higher register—on the various YouTube interviews I’ve watched. You even use the exact same phrases and expressions.”
Trixie, in her turn, leaned her shoulder, protected in her well-padded dressy jacket, against the wall and crossed her arms facing me. “So you think I’m his long-lost sister or something?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I practically threw up my hands. “You’re Patrick Starr!” I pointed to Trixie’s breast, well-padded by a frilly white collar.
Trixie raised her hands in a gesture of mock surrender. “Guilty as charged! Yes, I once was known as,” here, Trixie made air quotes, the bright red talons of her nails rending the air, “‘Patrick Starr.’”
“And now you’re ‘Trixie,’” I countered, making air quotes with my plain nails. “I don’t understand why you didn’t just opt to be ‘Pat.’”
“Who would want to be a ‘Pat’ when she can be a ‘Trixie?’ ‘Pat’ is so plain, so obvious, so overused.”
“True,” I conceded, “but why did it take you so long—five years—to learn to be a woman?”
Trixie shook her head, her blond locks waving around her cheeks. “I could ask you the same thing, but, in your case, it took a lot longer: over a quarter century!”
I sighed and changed the subject. “So what are you doing here now?”
Trixie shrugged, looked down at the tiled floor, pondering the question. Looking up, she replied, “Like any parent—I wanted to see what happened to my baby, Starbird, after she grew up.”
I dropped my used paper towel into the trashcan that stood between us. “So what do you think?”
Trixie sighed deeply. “It’s not the same—of course. I don’t recognize it.” She held up her red-tipped right index finger. “There’s not one person left from the organization I started. Heck, when I walked in here, I expected to be recognized immediately. It’s been two weeks, and you’re the first to say anything—you, a complete stranger.”
I crossed my arms again and leaned forward from the waist. “So that’s why you decided to become a female secretary, so no one would suspect who you really are?” I uncrossed my arms. “That seems like a lot of work just to learn the fate of a business you sold.”
“It is,” Trixie agreed, “and that’s why it’s a lot more complicated than my wanting a convincing disguise to hide my true identity. In fact, my transition was just the opposite. Before that, I was hiding the real me.” She spread her hands, inviting me to gaze on her person. “Now, I’m finally presenting as who I really am—and have been—all along.”
“So you want to live as a woman?” I frowned.
“Do I really have to choose one gender to be all the time,” she countered, “let alone my whole life?”
I shook my head, still puzzled. “So, after you sold your company, you were at loose ends, and you decided to change genders?”
Trixie shrugged and replied with a sarcastic smirk, “It was either that or join the Marines.”
“Spare me!” I huffed and flounced out of the women’s room.
The next morning, I staggered into my cube, more bleary than usual. Even after I crawled into bed last night, my mind raced—with possibilities.
When I saw the top of the women’s room door open, I practically pounced, setting down my cup of coffee, almost sloshing its precious contents onto my desk. Leaning over in front of one of the sinks examining my reflection, I tried to look casual when Trixie emerged from her stall. She wished me a cheery “Good morning,” and when I turned to respond, I blurted, “Yesterday you channeled Dolly Parton in Nine to Five. Today, no—lemme guess—it’s Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds. Did I get it right?”
Trixie shrugged. “One out of two isn’t bad. Yesterday, I meant to channel Jane Fonda in Nine to Five, but today is definitely a Garcia day. I cracked the case last night!”
I scowled, puzzled. “What case?”
Trixie looked over her left shoulder and bestowed on me a dazzl