MATT BROWN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
After driving in and out of the Shell station parking lot six times, Paula Danaher finally parked her 10-year-old grey SUV and sat sweating through her new belted plaid shirt dress. “The sooner you do this, the easier it’s going to be,” she told herself, lighting another smoke.
The Shell station, or as the locals say ”the Valley View,” is at the crossroads in Midland, about 60 kilometres northeast of the port city of Saint John in the Bible belt of southeastern New Brunswick.
It’s the de facto social and commercial hub, where you can buy a cup of coffee, rent movies for $3.99, pump first and pay after. Store clerks greet the patrons by name. Many wear woodsy camo or ankle-skimming skirts with long hair pulled back into black-capped buns. Country music plays on a boom box and there’s a waft of manure in the air.
Until that fall morning of 2016, the community had always known Paula as Paul: as the reserved elfin boy and the youngest of four from a divorced family the next town over. Then later, as the married father of two with a scruffy beard and a short fuse who stopped into the Shell almost daily for a black medium coffee, a pack of Rothmans or $20 worth of gas.
Paula lives in Hatfield Point, population 200, “on the Belleisle,” a meandering bay that carves through the string of roadside settlements, where the pace of life is akin to the lazy flow of the Saint John River. The communities are isolated by low rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountain Range. The church parking lots are full on Sundays.
There had never been an openly transgender person in the rural area. At the age of 42, Paula was about to change that.
With one last look in the mirror, at her freshly shaved face and cheeks striped in Covergirl classic pink blush, Paula stepped out of the car. She pulled open the door of the Shell, clutching the movie Divergent. To her relief, the old guys who usually congregate by the coffee machine or on the bench by the door weren’t there yet.
She stepped up to the cash and handed Brenda the cashier the DVD with trembling, manicured hands.
‘Smokes?’ Brenda said.
“I took some deep breaths – Pranayama breathing – and whispered, ‘It took everything out of me. It’s really hard for me to be here right now.’” Paula recalled.
“Brenda said, ‘It’s okay, you’re alright. That’s $12 please.’”
The decision to come out publicly arrived one lonely Saturday night in August, one month earlier. After a few glasses of wine, Paula contemplated taking fistfuls of pills she had lined up in bottles on the kitchen table.
“I just kept thinking about my kids,” she recalled.
“I laid on the floor and cried. All these scenarios went through my head about what it was going to be like to start to transition – how hard it was going to be and how ugly I was going to be. I’m going to be bald for the rest of my life. I’m going to sound like a boy for the rest of my life. Like, this is going to be horrible.”
Yet the months that followed brought a new kind of bliss. She no longer hid her lace-trimmed tank tops under men’s plaid shirts. She learned to perfect her trademark black winged eyeliner, and gave up her nightly eight-pack of beer for healthy, home-cooked meals.
But every hour out in the world was also a test.
When Paula returned to work as a Zamboni driver and rink attendant for the City of Saint John, all of the employees had undergone sensitivity training in preparation for her transition.
The coming months were saddled with hardship. Her work boots were stolen and she found a hunting knife stabbed into the bottom of her plywood locker. The letter ‘A’ was crossed off the end of her name on a workplace bulletin board.
Eventually, she decided to change her shift to nights so she could work solo, to feel safe.
Subsequent trips to the Shell weren’t quite as smooth as the first. Some of the men who hung out at the Shell tittered and chuckled when Paula would arrive. A few wouldn’t go over to the coffee machine if she was there.
The ridicule was worse at the Tim Hortons in Hampton, where she says one man closed an automatic door in her face.
“Your senses are always heightened, like you’re always on and ready for the attack or for someone to stare at you or for someone to laugh at you,” she said.
In mid-May last year, when Paula was discarding an old sofa at the foot of her shared driveway, she alleges her neighbour came running toward her swearing, yelling homophobic slurs and punched her in the side of the head. The neighbour was charged with assault and has pleaded not guilty. The case returns to court in November.
But still, despite everything, there are true moments of reprieve in quiet acts of kindness.
Station 33, a café and yoga studio in the nearby town of Hampton, became her sanctuary where no one gives her a second glance. One of the owners, Rebecca Evans, cut and saved her elbow-length dark blonde hair for a wig for Paula.
When her car broke down near a covered bridge, 11 men stopped to offer help while she waited 40 minutes for a tow truck. One man drove home and returned with his tools to try to help.
Perhaps the most meaningful moment took place at the Shell about a year after her transition began.
Doug, a man in his 80s who had worked at the Shell his entire life, handed Paula her packet of Rothman’s.
He said, ever so easily: “I hope you have a good day, Paula.”
“What?” Paula remembers saying. “Did you just call me Paula?”
Doug replied, “That’s your name, innit?”