'My True Self'

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There is something a little unsettling about laying eyes on Vicki Gray for the first time. Her shoulders look too broad, her hands too thick. When she walks, her lanky arms move in prim arcs, as though limbs that swung loosely for a lifetime had been tamed.

But at 64, Vicki Gray is finally comfortable in her skin.

At times, she can seem like a kid parading around with a new toy, or a freed prisoner inhaling fresh mountain air, or a desert-island castaway devouring a cheeseburger that by some miracle washed ashore.

After a Sunday Episcopal service at her church in Northern California, a parishoner tells her, "I saw your picture in the paper." He is alluding to her public role in a fight over a power plant in her hometown of Vallejo. "You're famous."

Vicki laughs. "Some would say infamous," she says.

But back at the house she shared with her spouse of 30 years, her confidence falters. She trembles as she points to the photo of Mimi by the couch - dear Mimi, with those dimples, that smile.

"I'm sorry," Vicki says, pressing a tissue to her eyes. "People say it gets better. It doesn't."

They married in 1967, when Vicki was Lt. Victor Stephen Gray, Jr., a strapping Naval Academy graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran, a charmer who rose out of Bronx poverty to become a diplomat.

They traveled the globe together as Victor moved from embassy to embassy, in Poland, Germany, the Bahamas. They also navigated an inner world few would dare to imagine.

"It became more and more like play-acting to be Victor," Vicki says of those not-so-distant days. "I felt dishonest and deceitful not telling our friends, our relatives, the people we loved, who I really was."

Victor Gray knew he wanted a different future, but not if it meant sacrificing his past.

On June 21, 1958, a Navy telegram arrived at a crowded tenement in the Bronx. The family's oldest boy, 19-year-old Victor Gray, saw at once the new direction his life was about to take.

He had been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, plucked at the last minute from the waiting list. His parents had wanted him to go to Fordham University, close to home. Too close, Victor thought, to their world of dead-end factory jobs and small ambitions.

The Naval Academy was his ticket out. It would put him in a uniform, on ships that roamed the seas. With its macho sink-or-swim culture, it also offered something else: the chance to prove he was a man.

He was 4 when he first sneaked into his mother's bureau. He would take her underwear, slide under his bedcovers and try them on.

For this boy from blue-collar New York, women's undergarments became a refuge from the awkward trappings of manhood. Even then, he hated men's tweedy clothes, the tight collars, the ties. He hated the roughness he felt he had to project to play his role, to protect himself.

So he lost himself in fantasy. Hospitalized with rheumatic fever, Victor looked out of his window and day-dreamed as merchant ships massed on the East River. Some day, I'm going to get on a ship like that, he thought, and set out over the horizon.

Then, at age 13, at the corner newspaper stand, Victor understood something about himself for the first time.


The headline spanned the front page of the New York Daily News. A 26-year-old Bronx photographer and former G.I., George Jorgensen Jr., had gotten a series of surgeries in Denmark that turned him into Christine Jorgensen. "Nature made a mistake, which I have corrected," Jorgensen had written to her parents, "and I am now your daughter."

That's what I am, Victor thought.

But at that time, in that place, it was what he could never be.

At the end of the Naval Academy's grueling first-day orientation, plebes collapsed in their cramped dorm rooms, where they met their roommates.

Eddie Bealle, an 18-year-old from Baltimore, walked into his ground-floor room and heard a thick Bronx accent that reminded him of thugs on TV police dramas. This picture of toughness was completed by the veritable carpet of chest hair on Midshipman Victor Gray.

"When upperclassmen would see the black hairs peeling over the white T-shirt," Bealle recalls, " `they'd say, `Gray, I told you not to wear a sweater - that's not an authorized uniform.' "

The questions about sexual identity that had tormented him as a boy, Victor had now buried somewhere deep inside. He was training to be a warrior.

Through their four years as roommates, Bealle never wavered in his impression of Victor as a man's man, a collegiate boxer who loved sports, booze and women.

Victor was engaged three times, but there were no weddings. He broke off one engagement in the middle of his bachelor party, calling his fiancee from a pay phone to say they were through.

None of these women were right, he told himself, because none had been able to cure him.

Victor Gray was the gunnery officer on the destroyer USS Waldron in 1965 when he volunteered to go to Vietnam. The 26-year-old lieutenant junior grade craved a real war.

"I always had this question in the back of my mind: Could I stand up to it when someone was shooting at me? Could I be like John Wayne on Iwo Jima? Did I have the mettle?"

He was assigned as an American adviser to a South Vietnamese Navy base in Long Phu, along the Mekong Delta. His job was to stop sampans ferrying machine guns to the Viet Cong. He was so good at it that his superiors awarded him a Bronze Star, with a "combat V," for "courage under fire."

Yet Gray felt his survival had less to do with courage than luck. Few of the sampans were carrying weapons. Most held just peasants and fishermen.

One day, Victor and the other sailors cheered as fighter jets bombed an island off the delta, whipping smoke, fireballs and the stench of napalm into the air. Minutes later, he stopped a sampan carrying a stooped, mud-caked woman. The old lady shrieked as she put down her paddle, picked up an object from the boat and held it to Victor's face. It was a baby's blackened corpse.

Victor's friend Roger Krueger, another Navy officer, visited Long Phu soon after and found a haunted man. Victor sat in his small room and stared at the walls.

His superiors "started thinking he had too much of the Vietnamese," Krueger recalls. "The commanding officer didn't want him going nuts." So they gave him a new job, at a communications post atop a mountain in Vung Tau, along the Saigon River.

A report came in one night that a Navy hovercraft was drawing fire from a Vietnamese sampan on a beach nearby. Victor ordered in U.S. aircraft. Surveying the damage afterward, the Americans realized they had erred. The boat carried no weapons - just a village fisherman. An innocent man was dead.

Shaken, Victor traveled to the fisherman's village to offer his condolences and a gift of cash he knew would never do. Within a year, he would resign from the Navy.

The day he got home from the war, Victor proposed to Mimi Geiger, a California girl with a gift for gab.

They had met just before he left for Vietnam. He was studying Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, Calif. Mimi was teaching at an elementary school nearby. As they exchanged vows in an old, red-tiled Spanish church at the Carmel Mission, the future looked full of possibility.

Victor joined the State Department and in 1972 opened an American Consulate in Krakow, Poland. U.S. officials wanted a presence there during the thawing of U.S. relations with the Soviets. But the job's pressure was crushing. Everything went wrong.

The "14th-century house on the square" in Krakow that he and Mimi had been promised was actually a construction site. Victor fought for weeks with the alcoholic who was supposed to renovate it. He also had to hire 12 Poles as consulate assistants. Meanwhile, his supervisors in Warsaw chewed him out for turning in reports on the Polish economy that didn't quite agree with theirs.

The stress cracked the psychological armor he had worn since leaving the Bronx. When he stepped out to meet Polish dignitaries, among them the young archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who would one day become pope, they saw an American consul in a formal suit. Underneath, Victor was wearing women's underwear.

It was extremely risky behavior for an American diplomat in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Several Western officials had already been compromised by their sexual pecadilloes. The Polish secret service was recruiting agents, and blackmail was a favorite tool. Victor knew he was being watched.

At their home in Krakow one day, Victor confessed to Mimi that he occasionally wore her undergarments. He did not tell her the larger truth - that he felt he had been born in the wrong body.

Returning to the United States in 1977, Victor and Mimi settled in Pasadena, Md. Over the next 15 years, he rose through diplomatic circles, eventually directing the State Department's Office of Northern European Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of International Cooperation. His career was impressive; at home, trouble brewed.

After several years of trying to have children, they learned he was infertile.

Victor questioned whether there was a biological basis for his "gender dysphoria," as the books he had started reading called it. The books said the causes were a mystery. Freudians pointed to an overbearing mother and an absent or distant father. Some scientists blamed hormonal imbalances during a critical period of prenatal brain formation. He began to wonder about his fraternal twin, a girl who was stillborn.

He felt he needed to act, but didn't know what to do. The books said some people who suppress their torment end up striking out against themselves in the form of self-mutilation.

As Victor came to grips with these discoveries in the late 1980s, Mimi was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgeons performed a radical mastectomy. But Victor worried.

He needed her. He was sinking deeper into depression. He couldn't sleep. Work demanded more of him. He was teaching as the Department of State chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington. He was also trying to make headway toward a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland.

Once again, the stress nibbled at his composure. He was snapping at Mimi and hating himself. In anguish, he began slicing his genitals with a razor.

He told Mimi that he was thinking about taking estrogen and progesterone, powerful female hormones that would cause him to lose body hair and grow breasts. For the first time, Mimi recognized the dimensions of her husband's crisis.

Why couldn't he fight it? she asked. She anguished over whether she was somehow to blame. Had she stopped being attractive to him? What would their friends and family think?

Eventually, Mimi found his misery too hard to ignore, his moods unbearable. Do something, she told him. Anything. Get on with it.

Then Mimi's cancer returned. Victor felt it would be unfair to pursue his own medical treatments now. So once again he pushed his gender issue into the background. He began driving her to a clinic for rounds of chemotherapy.

In the summer of 1995, he accepted a job at the World Affairs Council of Northern California, a prestigious educational organization, and they moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where Mimi had grown up. Then came more bad news. Right after Christmas, Mimi's mother had a medical crisis. Mimi flew back to Maryland to make plans for her care.

All alone on New Year's Eve, Victor stood on the balcony of their new home and looked out at the ships anchored offshore. "All the old feelings came back," Gray recalls. "The depression, the urge to relieve the depression by cutting myself."

Inside, he dug out a magazine for transsexuals. There were listings for therapists in the back. He called one the next day, and by February, he was taking hormones.

No one would have blamed Mimi for leaving. Most wives of men who declare themselves transsexual do just that, unable to recover from a feeling of deceit and betrayal.

But in the midst of her illness and his crisis, Mimi and Victor needed each other more than ever. They had watched as things long taken for granted - her health, his identity - slid away. Each needed a tether to the past, with its comforting certainties. Each found it in the other.

As Victor saw it, he and Mimi had reached a point, after nearly 30 years of marriage, where their love transcended the bodies they were born in. Others had a different view. "Dr. Mimi," as her family called her, always felt she had to rescue people.

"The thing about Mimi was she was so mature in her acceptance of her own illness, in her support of what was happening with Victor, that she never came to me and complained," recalls Jill Honodel, an assistant pastor at their church who became Mimi's confidante. "Instead, it was, `Victor needs this to happen. Let's get this done.' " That winter, their annual Christmas letter to relatives and friends made only a cryptic allusion to the shifts in their lives. "We have discovered together new dimensions of love and commitment to one another," they wrote.

Their relationship was undergoing a slow but undeniable transformation.

Victor began to think of Mimi as a big sister, and at least in private, Mimi played along. She taught him how to walk with grace, make small talk, put on makeup. One morning, she looked across the bed and noticed the new contours of her husband's body. The hormones were having an effect. "You make a pretty good woman," Mimi said. They laughed.

On Labor Day weekend 1997, Victor took off his chinos and T-shirt and put on a blouse, a skirt and makeup. It was the start of what therapists call the "real-life test." Victor Stephen Gray was now Victoria Stephanie Gray, or just Vicki.

People with gender dysphoria must live full-time as the opposite gender for at least a year before doctors will authorize sexual reassignment surgery. The idea is to give transsexuals a chance to see whether they can truly function in a new gender role before they make unalterable changes to their bodies.

The next few months were a blur of paperwork. Vicki went to court to file a change-of-name form. She posed for a new driver's license photo. She changed the name on her military records. She applied for new credit cards.

Mimi and Vicki roamed the aisles of J.C. Penney's and Lee Jeans, picking out women's clothes. Vicki wanted to look the part of a dignified older woman. No miniskirts and high heels. She preferred cardigans, long skirts and sensible flats.

The cost of the surgeries - none of it covered by health insurance - would be nearly $38,000. Vicki dug into their savings, sold their boat and auctioned books, maps and mementos from a lifetime of travel.

With both parents dead, Vicki sat down to write her brother and sister about the change. A letter, she thought, would give them time to digest the news.

"It's been a long time," the letter began, "and there are lots of big changes in my life that I have to tell you about. This long overdue explanation will undoubtedly prove more than you expected - so I do hope you are sitting down."

Mary Ann Smith opened her brother's letter after a day at her job cleaning offices. A photo of a woman with gray hair fell out.

"You must have puzzled over the enclosed picture," the letter continued. "Yes, it's me. I'm a transsexual - you know, Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards - and have undergone years of therapy and hormonal treatment. After a series of surgeries that will begin October 8, I will be a woman and my true self. As you must see from the picture, it is a prospect that brings me real joy. I no longer have to lie to anyone - not to myself, to Mimi, nor to those others I love and owe complete honesty."

A transsexual was not a transvestite or a drag queen, Vicki explained. Transvestites and drag queens cross-dress as a turn-on. Transsexuals wear women's clothes because it expresses their true identity.

The letter ran on for four pages, explaining the psychological diagnosis of gender dysphoria, the lack of a "cure" or any real understanding of causes. Then Vicki explained why she waited until age 58 to act: "Because I have so little time left to truly be myself."

Smith sat at her kitchen table in stunned silence. This was her brother saying this - the one she had bragged about, the one who rose from poverty to win military medals, meet popes and statesmen.

"It's a very hard thing to grasp," she says. "If you're asking me if I was happy about it, no, I wasn't. How can I say I understand when I don't understand?"

Vicki's younger brother, Larry Gray, an accountant, was unnerved. But he remained open to trying to understand his brother's predicament.

Vicki eventually paid visits to both siblings, and she calls on the holidays. After the initial shock, they say they have come to see past the changes in their brother's appearance.

"Family's family," Smith says. "If he were a murderer or something like that, that would be different. But it's nothing like that. He just decided to change his gender," she says, with a laugh. "It doesn't make him a bad person."

Around this time, Vicki quit her job to focus full-time on "transitioning." Plastic surgeons flattened her Roman nose, gave her forehead a gentler slope, narrowed her jaw and chin. The hormones and electrolysis thinned her body hair.

Meanwhile, doctors seemed to have brought Mimi's cancer under control. She led a cancer support group at her church and became the household's breadwinner, teaching underprivileged preschoolers.

Despite her support for her spouse, Mimi made clear that she did not want to be perceived as a lesbian. She told Vicki that when they went out in public, she would not hold her hand. And while they remained affectionate, the hormones made it difficult for them to love each other physically.

Still, Mimi was willing to join Vicki as she introduced herself to the people who had known her as Victor. None would need Mimi's reassurance more than the parishioners at St. Paul's Church.

The article in the church newsletter ran in December 1997 under the heading "Welcome Vicki."

"Human sexuality is a mystery we continue to struggle with, and there is much we do not understand," the Rev. Harold O. Clinehens Jr. wrote. "Yet it is my view that our acceptance of one whom we love does not require understanding. It is never our place to decide who may come to the altar."

It had been a tough decision for the Arkansas-born pastor. His church was in Benicia, a former factory town near Vallejo that attracted conservative professionals fleeing the excesses of San Francisco.

Father Harold liked the Grays. They were smart, well-educated people who had donated a tapestry to the parish hall, served as lectors and lent time and enthusiasm to church activities. Yet as they explained to him their desire to continue worshipping at St. Paul's, he secretly pictured every pastor's worst nightmare: parishioners storming out the door.

After their first meeting on the subject, the priest picked up a book on gender dysphoria that Vicki had recommended. Then he phoned the Episcopal bishop of Northern California.

The Book of Common Prayer allows the church to excommunicate anyone whose lifestyle is so immoral that it "scandalizes the body" of worshippers. The priest and the bishop mulled over the details of Victor Gray's case. They concluded that gender dysphoria, while unusual, was not immoral. And so Father Harold published his announcement.

It didn't take long for parishioners to start calling. They asked if Gray was a homosexual. A transvestite? Was Mimi now a lesbian? How were they supposed to relate to the Grays? Is this sinful? What do we tell our children?

A question-and-answer session with Vicki's therapist drew about 80 people, more than a third of the congregation. Dr. Lin Fraser had counseled transsexuals in her San Francisco practice for more than 25 years. Many clients had asked her to explain their condition to bosses and co-workers. But this was the first time she had been asked to address a church.

At St. Paul's, she says, "people were talking about it much more in terms of who they are as a community, a culture, a spiritual body. This was a `we' kind of thing: `How are `we' going to deal with it?'"

Father Harold arranged another meeting, in the more intimate setting of a parishioner's home, this time with Vicki and Mimi present.

A dozen people turned out. After Father Harold led the group in a short prayer, the questions came: Do you still love him? Do you still love her? Are you still married?

For many parishioners, it was the answer to that last question that put their concerns to rest. "Mimi accepting it made it easier for other people," says Tina Thornburg, 44, who had joined the church shortly before the announcement in the newsletter. "If Mimi could do it - and she's the one who has to live with Vicki - then the rest of us could."

Even so, three families left St. Paul's. One wrote the Grays: "Just because we're silent doesn't mean we accept your sinful lifestyle."

A little later, at a prayer group that met in the church basement, a middle-aged man announced that either the Grays had to leave the group or he would. He picked up a Bible and demanded to read a passage he said showed the sin of transsexualism.

Others objected. "Let him read it," Vicki intervened.

The man shook, beads of sweat forming on his brow, as he read from the section of Deuteronomy known as Abominations: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord."

When the man stumbled over some words, Vicki put a hand on his shoulder, as if to steady him, and said, "You can do it."

The man finished the passage, stood up and left. All the while, Mimi was holding Vicki's hand.

Mimi had carried Victor across a rapids and showed him that there was life on the other side. She exposed herself to ridicule, guilt and embarrassment to see her husband through his ordeal.

When Vicki came to in the hospital after the sexual reassignment surgery in September 1998, she knew she owed Mimi everything. But how could Vicki repay her? In the end, there was too little time.

While on vacation in Santa Fe, N.M., in the summer of 1999, Mimi cried out in pain. Doctors discovered that the cancer was advancing stubbornly on her liver and bones. She lost 30 pounds and the strength to get around without a cane or a wheelchair.

One day in early April 2000, Mimi stepped out of the shower and looked at her emaciated figure, the skin hanging loosely off her hips. Vicki dabbed her body with a towel. "I look like Auschwitz, don't I?" Mimi said.

Vicki read aloud from her diary. She wanted Mimi to hear just how much her support had meant, how much she loved her. Then Vicki asked: "Do you still love me?"

It would seem so stupidly selfish later. Here Mimi was dying, and Vicki was leaning on her shoulder. She needed to know that Mimi was OK with what Vicki had put them through.

"Do you still love me?"

"Uh, huh," Mimi said, her smile flickering.

On April 8, 2000, Mimi died. Vicki scattered her ashes in the sea. In the weeks and months that followed, Vicki cried often. Her friends, including Jill Honodel, the assistant pastor, detected an undercurrent of guilt.

"As a priest, I look at Mimi as a symbol of God's grace," says Honodel. "In a sense, God's grace is what is given to us when we don't deserve it. I think Vicki, in a very profound way, feels a sense of not deserving the tremendous love and support, and yet she knows she's a receiver and is humbled."

Faced with carving out an independent life, Vicki went to work at a bookstore, waded back into her Ph.D. dissertation and began taking writing classes.

She was still attracted to women, but declared herself through with romantic relationships. The hormones and surgery had muted most of those urges anyway. But she began making female friends, finding them much better than men at emotional intimacy.

Despite her broad 6-foot frame and her knobby hands, Vicki felt like she was "passing" as a woman. Her voice was still naturally a tenor. But she practiced a falsetto and complimented it with other feminine cues, like smiling and laughing more often. She even found that the commando driving style that so often had Mimi clinging to the passenger seat was giving way to a live-and-let-live civility.

At times, there were stares or double takes. Once in a blue moon, someone would hurl an insult, like the man who cursed and threw something at her from his car.

But there were also the older male customers at the bookstore whose occasional advances she had to fend off. She chuckled to herself that their eyesight must not be very good.

Many transsexuals make a clean break with their past. But Vicki had too much invested in her worldly accomplishments as Victor: the Naval Academy, Vietnam, the State Department, the Ph.D., her Christian faith, her marriage to Mimi. She had fought hard for those things.

Underneath her personal motivations was an evolving political one. A 17-year-old California boy who dressed as a girl had been killed recently in an act of hate. Vicki was beginning to feel that part of the reason those things happened was that transsexuals were invisible. "For decades, I tried to hide who I was, what I was," Vicki says. "I stepped out of that closet, and I'm not going to step into another one."

Last September, the Naval Academy's Class of 1962 held a reunion dinner at the school's ornate Officers' & Faculty Club. Assembled inside were some of the leading lights of the 24th Company - two admirals, a federal judge, businessmen, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Vicki walked into the room in a black dress and jacket. "Hi, Tom. Hi, Stan," she said, recognizing the old faces.

Word had started circulating on the class's e-mail discussion group in the late 1990s that one of their members had gotten a sex change. But when organizers of the 40th reunion got word that Vicki planned to come, there was a measure of surprise.

"I thought it took a lot of guts - a lot of guts," recalls Pete Labyak, a retired Navy captain and classmate.

Vicki's class had graduated 14 years before the school began admitting women. Many still felt strongly that Congress made a mistake when it made the school co-ed. Most were conservative Republicans, skeptical of the legacy of the social change movements of the 1960s.

At the reunion dinner that evening, Vicki's classmates broke the ice by offering condolences. "I'm sorry to hear about Mimi," one man said.

The next morning, some 100 members of the class filed into a hotel conference room for a seminar on international relations. Vicki took a seat at the table for featured panelists.

Stew Lingley, a classmate and reunion organizer, knew about Gray's diplomatic career and had asked her to take part. He warned the panelists to steer clear of controversial political topics like Iraq.

But after a sleepy half-hour discussion, Vicki ran out of patience. "Now let's talk about Iraq," she briskly announced.

Lingley's head dropped into his lap. Oh boy, he thought. Now we're in trouble. But what unfolded was an intense discussion that galloped along for two hours. Hands shot up and hearts spilled out as the Annapolis grads parsed the moral questions behind a possible engagement with Iraq.

Vicki led the discussion with a brio that impressed her classmates, challenging people's views and displaying a masterful command of the issues.

"She didn't hold back in any way," Lingley recalls. "She projected herself with the same mind that was there before - it had nothing to do with the physical changes."

That night, the entire class - all 300 at the reunion - gathered in a hotel banquet room for dinner. One after another, they approached Vicki to say they were glad she came.

The reunion's organizers were taken aback by the absence of whispering, let alone outbursts. But some weren't surprised at all. This was no gathering of brash young sailors. They were in their 60s now. Many had soldiered through their own personal crises.

"You got to understand," says Labyak, the retired captain, "some of us have lost our own children already. Other people are in their third or fourth marriage. We've seen war, we've seen death. I would say there's a heck of a lot more maturity."

More than ever, Vicki was grateful for the lessons in toughness and coolness under pressure she had picked up at Annapolis. "Sometimes," she says, "you meet crises worse than someone shooting at you."

To follow Vicki around in Vallejo for a week - to work, to lunch with friends, to community meetings, to church - is to see a person at peace. People greet her with smiles, embraces, a raised glass of champagne.

After Mimi's death, Vicki began pouring her energy into Vallejo's civic life. She got involved with her neighborhood group. She joined citizens fighting a proposed liquid natural gas plant on nearby Mare Island. And she began writing a column, "Vicki's View," for a local news Web site.

She finds her past and present interweaving in unpredictable ways. When she wrote a column headed "Propaganda 101" about the Bush administration's prewar information campaign, a line at the bottom said, "Vicki Gray is a retired diplomat." Other columns bore tag lines identifying her, variously, as a retired professor, a Vietnam veteran, a former EPA official.

Not everyone could believe it. While testifying at a recent City Council debate that touched on ship safety, Vicki tried to boost her credibility by mentioning her career as a Naval officer. One disbelieving citizen sniped, "You've squeezed a lot into a short life."

Much of her public persona is defined these days by her finesse for confrontation. In City Council debates over the proposed gas plant, she minced no words with the well-heeled executives from Shell Oil and Bechtel Corp.

"I wish you would go away," she told them.

"She is one of those people who will confront people face to face," says Elena DuCharme, who chairs the neighborhood group that fought the gas plant. "Vicki will name names."

Under public pressure, Shell and Bechtel dropped their proposal. The following Saturday night, citizens gathered in downtown Vallejo to celebrate at the "Bad Gas Ball."

A mirrored disco ball spun from the ceiling, and shafts of colored lights skittered across the floor as dance music thumped.

Vicki entered in a black turtleneck and a patterned scarf. A young man approached exultantly and slapped her a high five. Next came an older woman who threw her arms around her. Surveying Vicki's outfit, she said "You look so cute!"

Vicki poured herself a glass of wine and meandered through the crowd. In the center of the room, a circle of a half-dozen people moved their bodies to the music.

Vicki watched from a distance, until one of the dancers raised her hand with a little wave and said, "Come on, Vicki!" Then she strode into the group, spinning as the circle closed around her.