I married her in 1912, down under the weathered steeple of the First Presbyterian Congregation of Dullcreek, Pennsylvania. She wore a little blue garter on her left leg and didn't tell no one until I went after her later that night. She stepped in close to me, so close I could smell her smoky breath, like smoked pine and I knew I wanted to taste her mouth on me. She was a good woman, lithe and classy, with short dark-golden locks pinned in the waved style of our heyday. Sometimes she wore hats, complete with the flourish of a male peacock feather tucked in the band. Annette was a sweet dame, with cherry-filing lips and a smile like light on water.
We giggled in the seats, her hands gentle on my stomach, my neck, all the way up to my mustache, where she carefully peeled away the super-sticky resin holding it on. Les and Annette Smith. It didn't take much to make the convincing picture. I wore my pa's suspenders and boots, and the clean cotton shirt was stuffed with just enough cotton to present a slight over-belly over the worn waist of my trousers.
And my Annette? Sweet flower she was, so convinced that any kind of destiny that involved me was certain to take her to Heaven. She believed in the Lord, up until her last breath. A distant smile and her dark eyes focused on me once again.
“Make them see Lesley,” she'd said, with her soft graceful fingers curled around my own. “Tell them. Don't be afraid.”
The day my Annette died was my momma's birthday. And my momma had herself the same situation we was in. Only my momma was a pretty woman, delicate in bone and sculpted of cheek until the Rotary club of Something or Other came upon her in the road and called her the name of a dam. She always used that word when she told the story. She told it to anyone who would listen through those bars, and that was for a long time since women weren't allowed to have death sentences. The state saved her until the one night I was born.
But with Annette, I'd tried. We'd gone out, and Annette even kissed me deeply before going into the cinema like a man and wife. I wore the pants; she wore the fancy stoles and dresses. She curled her eyelashes and spritzed on perfume that made her smell like a movie star. She sure was a star in my book.
When the mayor found out that we'd gotten married right under his nose, we were separated immediately. I was found guilty of impersonating a man and thrown into jail. Annette was not to see me for six months while I served my sentence, learned the talk, walked the walk and endured all kinds of messes that ladies should never run into.
Good thing I'm not a lady.
Annette picked me up at the gates in our old Ford, a subtle defiance to what the law stated. As long as there was no public displays of affection, they'd allow it. As long as I denied what I'd made mine back before she was fully a woman, they'd allow it. We took a faith and lived separate lives, all the while meeting in the dark with pressed breasts and heated breath. She bit my lip and I tugged her pretty curls. She'd use her fingers and then her mouth, and I'd lay across her and repay the kindness.
The sun came unexpectedly one morning—we'd fallen asleep in the same room together, naked—and the innkeeper came to the door with master keys and opened the door on our shame.
Then the men came up. There were so many of them. My hands were torn from her hands, and they beat me up in front of her, before taking her away. My lip still stung from where she bit, but hairy knuckles bloodied it good.
“Les Smith, if that is your real name, you are under arrest for homosexual acts and other abominations in the eyes of God. Annette's coming with us, and you're going back to prison.”
Defeated, I let them jerk me whichever way they wanted, and did not respond as my naked breasts were covered by scratchy wool. I didn't flinch when backhanded, I just got back up off the floor and walked behind, head down but my eye straining to catch a glimpse of dark-gold curls.
Nobody figured the classy lady'd shake loose of their grasp and run, skirts fluttering around her shapely legs but I did. I knew Annette. I knew she wouldn't just accept the fate handed to her. Maybe she didn't see the gap between the rails and thought she could beat the train and leave her pursuers on the other side of the tracks, but the heel of her dainty little boot caught and held her fast, and then there was the train, and then there I was, chained and bloody, but her head was in my lap and a man lay dead in the street because of me.
I was twenty. I don't think she knew what'd happened. Her eyes reached up to mine and held my gaze with love. I saw those pearly-whites once more before the scarlet came. They said she had no pain, it was a fairly clean cut just at the waist, but I folded myself in half just to touch my lips to hers and lay cheek-to-cheek with my Annette because my hands were still cuffed behind my back.
I got to spend the next seven years contemplating who Les was in Rockview Pen, busting rocks and being touched nearly every damn day I was in. When I got out, no one was waiting for me. I took a bus south, down where the Mississippi is redder and I staked me out a tiny plug of earth. I put on my daddy's fedora after getting a haircut from the nice barber just outside of town, and lit a cigar as I plotted my homecoming back to Dullcreek.
Women who have posed as men in history.