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An Unexpected Swim               by: Debbie Cybill


I WAS driving along the road beside Dow’s Lake in Ottawa, Canada one fine summer’s day with the windows down. The traffic was extremely light, just one other car in front of me . The lake on our right was glistening in the sunlight and I took my eye from the road for a moment to admire it. When I looked back again I saw the other car start to weave and the women driver seemed to be swatting at something, a wasp, perhaps. Suddenly, the car jumped the kerb, streaked across the grass, hit the guard rail, turned a full cartwheel and hit the water, right way up.

I braked hard, kicked off my heels, slipped out of my jacket, raced from the car in my bare feet and jumped in, laddering my stockings on the way. The woman was leaning out of the window of the car which was half submerged, screaming, "Help, I can’t swim." The car was only about fifty feet from the bank, and the water was almost shallow enough to walk, but she had panicked. The weeds were clinging to my legs so it was easier to swim than walk. Besides, I might tread on broken glass. I reached the car and tried to open the door which was stuck. The driver pulled back from the open window expecting me to open the door and she disturbed the delicate equilibrium of the car, which was perched on the edge of the shelf. It slid over the edge into deeper water, totally submerged with only the radio antenna sticking above the surface.

I dived down into the murky water and reached for the woman. She had shrunk back away from the window and I had to lean right inside before I could seize her. With some effort I managed to pull her out through the window and swam up to the surface, resting for a moment on the roof of the car, which was only just submerged.

Now, the problem was to reach the wall again. I grabbed her by the shoulders and started to swim. The woman was trying to push herself up by pushing me under into the weeds. I thought she would only be happy if she were riding on top of my head. By the time I reached the bank, with my wig askew, three other cars had pulled up. Hands reached down the wall and hauled the woman up.

Someone had phoned the police, and by the time I was out of the water myself, with my mascara streaming down my face, a patrol car was just pulling up. All hope of slipping away disappeared. I had to make a statement to the officer, who kindly made no mention of how I was dressed, and naturally I had to give my full name and address as a possible witness.

"Drivers Licence and car registration, please, Ma’am."

I silently handed them over. I saw him writing down my details in a notebook. He took down my statement and made me sign it, then handed me back by documents. "Thank you, Sir."

Still no mention of how I was dressed, but by now he clearly knew that I was a man..

At least, the officer kept the onlookers away. The ambulance arrived almost right away and the paramedics laid the woman on a gurney, then turned their attention to me. They wanted to take me too to hospital, but I claimed I had nothing worse than scrapes and bruises and finally managed to persuade them to leave me alone.

I sat in my car with a soggy skirt and underwear, with streaked makeup, looking a mess.

"I guess you don’t want to meet the press, do you Sir?"

"Hardly! Looking like this like this!" I waved a hand over my skirt.

The next day the Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported the rescue and the woman, whose name I finally discovered, must have been surprised to learn that she had been rescued by a 70-year old man, not by a woman as she had supposed. I never heard from her, and that did not matter, though it might have been kind if she had offered to pay my dry-cleaning bill.

With advancing years it has become much easier for me to pass, and my wife loves it when I dress. I know I look like an old hag, but that is better than looking like an old curmudgeon. Now that I I am retired I almost never dress as a man, and my wife and I often go out together in matching outfits. What it is to have a supportive wife! We even visit friends en femme.

That was two years ago. Just this month I had an invitation from the Protocol Office of the Canadian Governor General, to attend a private reception to receive a Citation for Bravery. The kicker came at the end, "In other circumstances you might have been proposed for the Medal of Valour." I can guess what those other circumstances might have been, and I can imagine the civil servants in the protocol office having kittens over the idea of inviting me, wondering how I might dress. I was wondering the same thing myself. I think my wife and I will go in matching outfits for the hell of it. We saw the card that came with the letter. In the bottom right hand corner in small print it read, "Tenue du soir," French for, "Evening Dress".

"Oh, goody!" said Chantal, "We shall both wear evening dresses." She picked out a wonderful full-skirted taffeta ball gown in turquoise, then held it up to me.

"No, its not your colour."

TWO WEEKS later we walked up the steps of Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General but Chantal was wearing the turquoise ball dress not me. Instead I was wearing a matching dress in peach, with a fitted bodice, long sleeves and a voluminous skirt down to my ankles. We were both wearing evening makeup, of course, and quite a lot of antique jewellery when I handed our card to the butler. He led us across the foyer and ushered us through a door into the reception room, intoning, "Doctor and Madame D. B. Cybill."

We moved forward together towards the vice-regal throne, for that was what it was.

"Which of you is doctor Cybill?" asked the Governor General while her husband sat by with his usual sardonic smile on his face.

"I am," said Chantal.

She hates to be ignored and treated just as an appurtenance of her spouse. The GG raised a quizzical eyebrow and raised a hand to be kissed. Chantal seized it in a strong grip and shook it instead. I could see the GG wince.

"I am delighted to meet you doctor Cybill. I have read a detailed account of your brave rescue at Dow’s Lake."

"No, that was not me. I am doctor Chantal Cybill, and my husband here is doctor Debbie Cybill. He was the one who made the rescue." Somehow she kept a straight face though I had trouble doing so.

"I had heard that you wearing a skirt at the time of the rescue, but I never expected to meet Debbie." She held out her hand as if expecting me to kiss it. I shook it instead, just as Chantal had done, then we chatted briefly about the rescue.

"I have read so much about it that I just had to meet you, doctor Cybill, or may I call you Debbie?"

"But we have met before, your excellency, though I don’t suppose you remember."

"I meet so many people that I sometimes forget them, I fear."

"Do you remember 25 years ago when you were professor at Trent University?"

"Of course. That was quite a happy period."

"I was on the faculty there too. I believe you were a member of the Academic Development Committee, were you not?"

"Yes, I was indeed. Were you a member of that committee too."

"I was chairman at the time."

"I am afraid I really do not remember you."

"Of course, you don’t. I was a mere professor of science and could be of no use to you in advancing your career."

"Touché," said her husband. "That’s just like you, dear."

She pouted.

"I am surprised you were not recommended to me for the Medal of Valour."

"I am not. I suspect your aides feared that I would turn up dressed like this and that would not do for a public ceremony, though we might get away with it in a private presentation like this one."

"That’s right. The presentation of the Medal of Valour is a public affair, with the television cameras along. I forgot. It would not do for the public to see me making the presentation to a man in a dress."

The conversation turned to my cross-dressing, before she held out the certificate for me to take.

"We need more men like you in Canada."

"Men like this?" I waved my hand down my skirt.

"No! Men who are willing to take action in an emergency instead of standing by, not wishing to become involved."

We then said our farewells and left, but I just had to make a curtsey before we did so, though Chantal did not.

The smile on the face of the GG’s husband was more sardonic than ever.


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