“Black Ice,” a sample story from SPIRIT STORIES

She was a survivor. A cancer survivor, one of the lucky ones. She had lost her hair and both her breasts. Her hair would grow back, but not her breasts, and she decided she could live without them, she could live with being sexless.

Her brush with death had emboldened her to take on a new identity and live her life with an exhilarating sense of liberation. Her husband had left her during the worst time of her suffering, she had no children, and at age 45 she was free to live the rest of her life on her own terms.

During the final weeks of fighting the disease she had been unable to do her job, so she lost it, and she was in no hurry to find another one. Fortunately, she had a very good health plan that had covered almost all her medical expenses and she had enough money saved up to survive this transition. What kind of transition and to what end result she wasn’t exactly sure. But she was confident that she would emerge a healthier, stronger person.

To begin, she moved from the capital to a small city, and she changed her name to Speed because it sounded cool and was gender-neutral and because she wanted to live life in the fast lane in case the cancer came back. She bought herself a new wardrobe, clothing that suited her slimmer figure. She had her hair styled short. She wore loose shirts, tight black pants, and low-heeled shoes. Overall, her look was sleek and sophisticated, she admired herself in her full-length mirror and was very pleased. She resembled neither a boy nor a girl, neither a man nor a woman; she was an androgyne, an avenging angel, a self-possessed hermaphrodite. To celebrate her new individuality she bought a medium-sized black and chrome Honda motorcycle, and she spent her days riding the open roads past farms and fields, loving the feel of the wind on her face. Her greatest challenge now was not to get to work and do a superior job, but what to do with all her free time.

A large casino had recently been built on the outskirts of her city and she thought she might give it a try. She started modestly, with the slot machines, and much to her chagrin and delight she won a nice little pile on her first day. This became her “capital” and she promised herself that when it was gone she would stop gambling. Her father had been a hard-core poker player who had gone through hundreds of thousands of dollars in cycles of winning and losing until the day he died. In fact, his dying words had been “Deal me out.” No, she would not make the same mistake.

When she had played out her “capital” without another big win she stayed away from the casino for a few days. But when the weekend came and she had nothing to do she went back, and luck was with her once again. She won five times what she had lost. This encouraged her and provided her with the capital she needed to move up to the roulette table. The wheel spun in her favor and the little white ball landed on her numbers more often than not.

With so much going for her she became fearful of losing, believing that after a long streak of luck something bad would happen, so she became superstitious and developed a set pattern of daily routines from which she would not deviate. She always left her house at a certain time, stopped at the same restaurant for breakfast, where she sat in the same booth, and ordered the same thing every morning. She took the same route to the casino and parked her bike in the same space. After a few weeks she realized she was behaving like someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder but she didn’t care. What she didn’t admit to herself was that she was hooked on gambling, just like her father, but she was winning too much money to worry. She won so much money, in fact, that she was attracting the attention of other players and, of course, the management. She knew she was being observed and she was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Her solution was to wear a wig and move to the blackjack table where she lost a few hundred on her first night and went on playing for another two nights until she had come out even. Then, on the fourth night, she decided to try the craps table.

Craps was a much faster game with much higher stakes and she immediately fell in love with it, despite the fact that she lost more frequently than she won. But her losses didn’t bother her. She took them in stride because she found the game so exciting.

Determined to win, she studied the complexities of betting for the game on her computer, she learned the major strategies and the pitfalls, and eventually she tipped the scales in her favor.

She went to the casino and played night after night, ignoring the tiny voice in her head that told her to quit while she was ahead.

Then suddenly a new complication entered the picture. A man who had been watching her for several nights came over, stood next to her, and ordered her a White Russian. She had already noticed him looking at her. It was hard not to. He was big, he had a bald head, and like her he was dressed in black and wore a leather jacket. His neck and forearms were covered with tattoos. She knew he was studying her, trying to figure out her gender, and that bothered her. It was an invasion of her privacy.

He spoke to her and said his name was Jake. “My friends call me Jake the Snake.”

“And what do your enemies call you?’

“Asshole,” he said and laughed.

When she told him her name was Speed he smiled.

“That’s what I love best,” he said.

“I’m not into drugs,” she remarked curtly.

“Neither am I. I’m talking about my Harley.”

With that comment she felt they had an immediate rapport.

Matters progressed quickly from there. They went out to dinner three nights in a row. They discovered they both loved Thai food and classic rock, especially the Rolling Stones. They went out riding on country roads together. They went to a country fair. They went to the movies. And of course they met every night at the casino. But strangely enough, she thought, Jake never touched her, never tried to kiss her, and she should have been relieved instead of feeling a little offended.

After a month or so of this asexual dating, curiosity got the better of her and late one night after they’d had a little too much to drink she said, “Okay, Jake, I know you’re not gay, at least I don’t think you are . . .”

“I’m not.”

She paused. “Then why are you dating me?”

“Companionship,” Jake replied without missing a beat.

“Wouldn’t you rather go out with someone you could sleep with?”

“Not possible.”

“Why not?”

“I was a soldier in Iraq, and I stepped on a mine and lost my manhood.”

Speed could not keep from laughing. “I’m sorry, but . . .”

“It’s not a laughing matter, Speed. Try being a little more sensitive, will ya? I’m lucky to be alive.”

“Aren’t we all. I’m sorry, Jake. I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing because of the irony of the situation. You don’t know how deeply I sympathize.”

And she told him about her medical history, including her double mastectomy, and they hugged each other and laughed until the tears came.

As the weeks went by they became more and more comfortable with each other. There was plenty of intimacy – touching, caressing, kissing – but no sex per se and because of this their friendship grew deeper. They could talk to each other, really talk, and they listened to each other, really listened. They opened up and confided their darkest secrets. Jake had a past involving drugs and violent behavior, but he swore he was done with all that. He had seen enough bloodshed in the war. “I know I still look like a mean son-of-a-bitch – it comes in handy at times – but I’m really a gentle giant, you might say.”

Speed was relieved to hear that, and it allayed her fears somewhat, but she was still a bit distrustful. “I’ll wait and see,” she said and revealed that she had been abused by her father. Jake took her in his arms and cried like a baby. In one night of full disclosures their relationship was cemented forever. They gave each other medallions for their bikes and badges that they pinned to their leather jackets. “Our destinies are sealed,” they said. They moved into an old ramshackle farmhouse and began fixing the place up.

Life was full and they were happy but they couldn’t seem to shake their bad habits. They continued to drink and gamble, and one night, as they rode home together on Jake’s Harley, they hit a patch of black ice going 75 mph. the bike spun out of control and they were both thrown over a cliff. Luckily, miraculously, they made a soft landing on a huge pile of hay. At first they were stunned; the wind was knocked out of them, but nothing was broken. When they had recovered they began laughing hysterically. They laughed for what seemed like hours, looking up at the moon and the stars, and embracing one another.

“Well, we won’t try that again,” said Jake.

“Really? Why the hell not?” Speed said.

And they laughed some more, their voices echoing down into the valley below.