The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When my cousin Brady got out of prison, I was strangely anxious to see him. The last time we’d been together, almost ten years earlier, he was a teenage boy with wild black eyes and straw yellow hair who smashed bottles in our driveway. Now I was headed to Buckeye, Arizona, for an annual family gathering, and Brady would be there. My soft-spoken, level-headed boyfriend, Jude, was with me, and I waited until we were only about an hour from our destination before telling him the whole story about Brady and me.
Brady had been in prison for murder: two weeks before his eighteenth birthday, he’d stabbed a man twenty-six times with a butcher knife. When the judge asked him why he’d committed the crime, Brady said, “I wanted to know how it felt to kill a man.”
My relationship with my cousin really consisted of only a few brief encounters. One stands out from the rest: When I was eight years old, my mom and I went to visit my grandmother at her ranch in the desert. It was Easter break, and all the kids were given blow-up bunnies. Mine was lavender and taller than me. Brady’s was blue, and he punched it with a sharp pencil and let out all the air.
On Easter morning, Mom dressed me in a chiffon dress with white ruffles that made my arms itch. Brady wore a pinstriped suit and a satin bow tie; he looked like a stray dog with a diamond collar. My aunt and my mother decided that Brady and I resembled a bride and groom.
Soon enough, my grandmother was playing the “Wedding March” on her electric organ, and all the older cousins were throwing fake flowers and screaming for Brady and me to “walk down the aisle.” I’m sure it was innocent enough, but to me it felt terrifying. Brady grabbed my hand as if he owned me, and we marched together toward the fireplace at the far end of the room, where my aunt and my mother gleefully pronounced us “man and wife.”
Later, when it was time for bed, Brady threw a fit because he wasn’t going to be allowed to sleep with his new “bride.” I stayed awake all night, just in case he tried to sneak into my room.
Eighteen years later, when I saw Brady walk into a bar in Buckeye, a full-grown man just released from prison, I was immediately transfixed by his presence. His blond hair had gone dark and was slicked back against his head. He wore brand-new jeans and a cowboy shirt with the sleeves rolled up above his tattooed forearms. He strode directly over to my table, as if he’d known where I was sitting even before he came through the door. Without taking his eyes off me for a second, he extended a hand to my boyfriend — the same hand that had killed a man — and said, “You must be Jude.”
G . Graham
When I was eighteen and living at home in New Orleans, I got invited to a Mardi Gras party in the French Quarter. My date was in college, and I was excited that he’d asked me out. I dressed carefully but casually and came downstairs to wait for him. My mother took one look at me and ordered me back upstairs to change into something “more appropriate.”
“Wear your lavender skirt-and-sweater set,” she said. “You look so nice in that.”
So, a few minutes later, I came back down dressed in a box-pleat wool skirt cut just short enough to emphasize my lack of calves and a matching cardigan buttoned all the way up. I also had on stockings and high heels and carried a purse. My mother gave me the usual marching instructions: “Head up, shoulders back, butt under. Have a good time, dear.”
To his credit, my date paused only briefly when I answered the door. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and old boat shoes.
He took me to a vacant warehouse that shook with loud music. There were kegs of beer and vats of a deadly punch called “Purple Jesus.” Everyone was dressed like my date. I looked like a nice, churchgoing girl who’d wandered into the party by mistake. My date ditched me soon after we arrived, and I spent the rest of the evening sitting on a crate against the wall and perfecting my “Who gives a shit?” expression. Eventually, I got up and went home. When my mother asked me if I’d had a good time, I said yes.
It started out with just talk. My husband liked me to talk in bed. He liked me to talk about other women, our friends and neighbors, about their having hairy legs and armpits. And he liked me to talk about dressing him up in my clothes, starting with lacy panties and garter straps. He liked me to talk about applying makeup to his face: lipstick, eye shadow, eyeliner, and blush. He liked me to talk about shaving him, the nicks and the bright red blood. I made every effort to please; it was only fantasy, after all.
The actual dressing up also started small. When he was out of town on work and I was scheduled to visit him, he asked me to bring some lingerie — for him. I tried not to be a prude, to have fun with it, to be adventurous. But the feeling that something was not quite right gnawed at me. Then he asked me to bind my breasts, “just for fun.” He also wanted me to grow out the hair on my legs and under my arms. When it wasn’t dark enough, he dyed it. Then, packing to move into our dream house, I found a pair of black pumps in his size at the top of the guest-room closet. I called him at work to ask what this might mean. He said not to worry; it was “no big deal.” So I did nothing.
Twice, for Halloween parties, I helped him shave his legs and underarms. At one party, the transformation was so complete that some of his family members couldn’t recognize him. The other party actually had a cross-dressing theme. While most men came as burly housewives and unshaven Carmen Mirandas, my husband looked like a prostitute, complete with beaded cocktail dress, wig, nylons, glue-on fingernails (which I painted), plucked eyebrows, and meticulous makeup. I made a lace insert for the plunging neckline on his dress, so that he wouldn’t have to shave his chest (though he’d wanted to). When we got home, he begged me to take photographs of him. He kept asking me if I thought he was attractive, if he had good legs. Then we ran out of film.
My husband told the marriage counselor that cross-dressing made up only 5 percent of his eroticism. He said I was blowing the whole thing out of proportion.
After the divorce, as I was packing to move out of our dream house, I found a box of photos, many taken years earlier in our old apartment and some more recently in the new house. They were photos of him in my clothes, shot from the neck down, in the mirror: my husband posing provocatively, standing with his hands on his hips or seated with ankles crossed, in my tennis outfit, my leotards and tights, my lingerie, my work clothes.
I sometimes felt guilty that I couldn’t accept my husband’s cross-dressing. But then, he couldn’t accept it either. He was edgy and uncomfortable whenever the topic came up. Maybe if he’d been more at ease, had a sense of humor about it, I could have played along better. Maybe then he wouldn’t have gotten so angry with me that I fled three times, truly frightened of him, even when he was dressed as a man.
When I was a social worker, I sometimes visited young mothers and their children in the inner city. For these trips, I wore jeans and a sweat shirt. Babies with drippy diapers sat on my lap, small dogs chewed my shoelaces, and I crawled on old carpets covered with crumbs and cat hair. The kids and I made pudding with a hand mixer, spattering my sweat shirt with flecks of chocolate.
At noon, I returned to the office and put on a gray wool suit, taupe pantyhose, and black leather pumps. I tied the white silk bow on an expensive blouse and put small gold earrings in my ears. This was my outfit for board meetings and fundraising trips and attempts to explain the program budget to the county fiscal officer. But on my office shelf, a rhinestone tiara sparkled, waiting for the next time I would put it on and read Cinderella to a circle of small faces who half-believed it could be true.
Skaneateles, New York
My daughter idolized C. from the first time they met, in kindergarten. She wanted long, thick hair like C.’s — hair that streamed down her back and seemed never to need brushing. Instead, my daughter had thin, stringy hair that seemed unable to grow beyond her shoulders and cried out for a comb two minutes after it had been brushed. It looked best pulled back away from her face, but she insisted on leaving it down — like C.’s.
She wanted C.’s mother’s style of home decorating: tidy, serene, simple. Instead, she got me, the queen of kitsch and garage sales. She wanted C.’s quiet, traditional, genteel meals instead of our rambunctious dinner table and my experiments with organic food.
Most of all, my daughter wanted to dance like C., to take ballet classes and move like a princess. But her father and I believed that ballet wasn’t good for a young body, because we had friends who’d studied ballet as children and now suffered from terrible arthritis. So my daughter could only whirl around the living room in her nightgown, pretending to be Clara in the Nutcracker, wishing she were C., who was already on pointe at age nine.
When she was in first grade, my daughter asked if she could have ballet shoes and a tutu to play dress-up. At the time, our roof had so many holes that we needed seventeen buckets to catch the water whenever it rained. I went to the ballet store to price outfits only to leave feeling depressed. I considered making her a tulle skirt as a substitute, but I knew it wouldn’t really make her happy.
It wasn’t until her tenth birthday, when we had a new roof over our heads, that I could offer to take my daughter to the ballet store to pick out something special. There we were: me and my ten-year-old girl, who had been watching C. and coveting her life since the age of five. Did she feel as ridiculous as I did? She was too old for dress-up, and she wasn’t a ballet student. What could she want in this store? I said nothing, but I ached for her as she looked through racks of skirts and costumes. I felt sad for the missed years, for all that she’d wanted to be — or at least to pretend to be, if only she’d had the right props.
She picked out a long skirt meant for flamenco dancing and held it against her waist. “I want to try this on,” she told me, a mixture of embarrassment and longing in her face. I went with her to the dressing room, and she put on the ruffled, multilayered skirt, smoothed it over her thighs, and began to twirl in front of the three-way mirror. I wanted to apologize to her, to tell her how much I wished I could have made her happy back then. But I knew that, if I had it all to do over again, I’d have done it the same way, except I would have bought her a skirt when she was six — a lacy white tulle skirt.
She took the flamenco skirt off slowly. It cost far more than I’d told her I could spend, but I don’t think she ever believed she would take it home. It was something a little girl would want. And she wasn’t a little girl anymore. For her, it was too late.
My four-year-old daughter sprints over to the bed, where I am engrossed in a novel, and pleads, “Can I play dress-up with your clothes?”
I sigh. The pickings in my closet are slim. Dresses droop crookedly from hopelessly intertwined hangers. Dirty blouses, skirts, and pants lie balled up on the floor, awaiting my semiannual trip to the cleaners. I watch Renee unearth silk scarves from behind old sweaters. Mercifully, she flings the clothes away, drapes an old sheet around herself, and parades down the hall, exclaiming, “Look at me! I’m a bride!”
At Renee’s age, I wanted desperately to be a boy. I loved football games and torn bluejeans and insisted that my hair be cropped as close as possible. While I eventually outgrew my prolonged tomboy phase, I never quite mastered the art of dressing like a girl. There will always be a smudge on my blouse or a hem that has come unstitched. Beautiful and expensive clothes intimidate me. I feel as if they are taunting me, daring me to wear them well, knowing that I will fail miserably.
I continue to be amazed that I have given birth to a daughter who, at her young age, stops to browse through the summer frocks hanging outside a shop, insists on accessorizing her preschool outfits with beaded necklaces and bracelets, and is already obsessed with all things bridal. This child has spent days poring over a book of Barbie dolls. When she came to the page depicting Barbie as Scarlett O’Hara in her green velvet hoop skirt with matching jacket and bonnet, my daughter’s eyes bulged, and she gasped with pleasure.
A few days ago at a children’s indoor play space, Renee, as always, gravitated toward the dress-up section, drawn like a moth to the flame of frilly pink ballerina costumes and heart-shaped purses and glow-in-the-dark nail polish. When I suggested that she find a toy or puzzle to play with, my words merely floated past her. Instead, she stared at the dangling jewelry and asked, “How long before I can get my ears pierced?”
While growing up as a farm boy in Utah, I played dress-up obsessively. One time, my three brothers dressed up, too, and we took turns being the mommy. I was wildly happy. Another time, I sat on the edge of the bathtub in front of the mirror, wearing a droopy velvet dress, tears streaming down my cheeks. When Mom asked me what was wrong, I sobbed that I wanted to be a girl.
The following year, my sister told me she’d overheard Mom and Dad fretting that I was too old to be playing dress-up. After that, I had to take my obsession underground. I’d lock the bathroom door, put on a dress and makeup, stare at myself in the mirror, then hurriedly wash my face and change back into pants. But shame soon overcame desire, and I stopped altogether.
I didn’t “dress up” again until I was thirty-seven. That year, I took my savings, bought an outfit, and went to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. On my big night, I left the hotel with a satchel, slipped into an alley, and changed into a tiny black bikini bottom, black slippers, a feathered half mask, and a lavish antique shawl. This “Girl from Ipanema” was not “young and lovely,” but bald and hairy.
When I stepped out of the alley, a packed bus roared by, and boys leaned out the windows shouting obscenities. In a daze, I walked to the beach, where a rowdy group of Brazilian boys followed me along the shore, howling and making wicked remarks. A hand reached out and pinched my buttocks. I trembled with elation and fear, but I walked proudly on. A mother with two young children glared at me. The macho guy who’d sat next to me on the plane came along with a hooker. He grinned and said, “Look at you!”
Suddenly, the sky exploded in fireworks, raining color down on my little scene, and it seemed as if I’d ignited a kind of ecstatic Armageddon. I was having the time of my life.
Joan was a nurse, and I was a social worker. We were both employed by an organization that helped people with AIDS. I sensed something was strange about Joan my first day on the job. I had met at least ten people already and was feeling a bit overwhelmed when she came toward me like a butterfly on speed, gushing about how happy she was that we would be working closely together. Confused, I told her I’d thought I would be working alone. Her face dropped. Later that day, I realized I had been mistaken, and I apologized to Joan. Still she seemed miffed. This was my introduction to the two faces of Joan.
After that, I saw Joan chumming around with other co-workers, always with a huge smile on her face. Her eternally cheerful expression made me uneasy. I doubted anyone could be that happy all of the time.
Joan made a point of telling everyone how active she was in her church. She even quoted Scripture and displayed holy figurines on her desk. I began to feel ugly and cynical for doubting her sincerity. Here I was, a lapsed-Catholic hippie fornicator, living in sin with my lover, shaving neither legs nor armpits. Who was I to judge the motives of this wholesome person?
While I kept my questions about Joan to myself, she questioned me to my face, though always out of others’ earshot. She told me that she could tell I didn’t like certain clients, and that I seemed to have something against nurses. I became increasingly uncomfortable around her. I also began to see a pattern to Joan’s moods. On some days, she styled her dyed-blond hair with lots of hair spray, wore thick makeup, and dressed in loud, flashy clothes. The more she dressed up, the more mean-spirited she became (though the smile never left her face). On other days, she dressed simply, wore no makeup, and was practically harmless. The mood of my workdays was ruled by whether it was a “dress-up” day or a “plain Joan” day.
After much thought, I decided to tell Joan how I was feeling. Using my best social-work skills, I talked about what my perceptions were, how I felt, and what I wanted. I didn’t attack or blame. In response, Joan became angelic, naive, and wide-eyed with wonder. She assured me that I was wrong, that she had nothing but warm, loving thoughts about me. When I stood my ground and cited several examples of her unpleasant comments, she began sobbing and said she couldn’t understand why I was attacking her.
I have a different job now. Sometimes, when things get tough, I’ll remember working with Joan, and they don’t seem so bad anymore.
Darcie came over to play with my daughters on a regular basis, but it was a year before I met her mother. I guess it never occurred to this woman to walk down the alley and meet the people with whom her seven-year-old was spending time.
When my girls weren’t available to play, Darcie eagerly cruised the neighborhood in search of companionship. She would hang around the older kids in the parking lot of the apartment building across the street until her mother hollered for her at dusk. My husband and I heard rumors that Darcie had been molested, that she had been hospitalized several times for mental instability, even that she had tried to kill herself.
Darcie’s absolute-favorite game was dress-up. We had a big trunk filled with scarves, hats, petticoats, leotards, thrift-shop dresses, capes, and even glittery costume wings. The girls layered these on in every possible combination and became princesses or orphans or “poor sisters” living in a dumpster. Darcie was a heavy girl with a mass of red curls and a galaxy of freckles across her face and arms. I once heard her say to my daughters, after she had wriggled into a lacy petticoat and draped a purple feather boa over her shoulders, “Pretend I’m rich and skinny.”
One day, the girls were immersed in a fairy-princess fantasy in the backyard when I heard a knock at the front door. A woman I had never seen before stood on our stoop in an oversized T-shirt and spandex shorts. “Is Darcie here?” she blurted out. “She was supposed to be home an hour ago.”
“Yes,” I said, “they’re playing out back.”
When the woman started for the rear of the house, I said to her, “I take it you’re Darcie’s mother.”
She turned to me, smiled sweetly, and introduced herself. Then she continued on her mission.
In the backyard, Darcie was dressed in her favorite white petticoat and feather boa, balancing awkwardly on a tiny pair of sparkly plastic high heels. “Get out of those trashy things right now,” her mother said, “and don’t you ever let me see you dressed like that again.”
Darcie came in and hurriedly changed out of the clothes. She hung her head as her mother gripped the top of her arm and steered her down the driveway away from our house. I wanted to yell after them, “She’s only seven years old, and she’s a fairy princess, God damn it!” But I just stood there at the screen door, unable to speak.
I begin with my bra, a padded, underwire affair with pockets. It makes me look larger than I am, but it’s comfortable, and it was free, given to me by the cancer society. My prosthesis sits in the pocket of my right cup, day in and day out, like a faithful companion. Next, I draw in just a hint of color to represent my eyebrows. When I use just the right touch, they almost look real. Then I reach for the eyeliner to make lashes. Now I’m almost done with my disguise, except for the most important part: my wig.
For me, dressing up has become the art of replacing what’s lost.
During a hellish year at college, while submerged in depression and eating disorders, I met a man who said he wanted to sleep with me — fat, suicidal, repulsive me. He was beautiful, with dark hair, bright blue eyes, and a stunning smile. As improbable as his request seemed, he apparently meant it.
I had no sex drive at the time, but that didn’t matter. I wanted to be wanted, even marginally, to be freed for a moment from my despair and compulsion. I didn’t expect him actually to like me. Whatever he offered — or wanted — would be enough.
Our “date” was set for 7 P.M. in my dorm room. I wore pantyhose, high heels, and a gorgeous black-and-gold dress that somehow still fit my bloated frame. I even put on makeup and attempted to fix my hair, which I’d shorn nearly to the scalp in the irrational belief that if I made my face look fat enough, I would become disgusted with myself and quit bingeing.
For the last step of my preparations, I got extremely drunk. That year, drunk was better than suicidal, and now it blunted the knowledge that I was consciously allowing myself to be used. Nevertheless, for a moment, I felt attractive and, more importantly, alive.
I don’t recall the sex, or much else about the evening. Later, I found out that this man was on a quest to bed as many women as possible in the shortest period of time. I believe I was number sixty-five. He soon dropped out of school, and a subsequent roommate stole my beautiful black-and-gold dress.
By 9 A.M., the mercury was already soaring. I grabbed my knapsack and began to walk the dusty, ruddy streets of Brazzaville, Congo. I followed the sidewalk, hopping over drainage ditches as deep as graves. The thick, hot air laced with taxi exhaust wrapped itself around me.
A hill up ahead promised a breeze or a view, or both, so I began to climb it. As the slope steepened, I saw religious architecture near the top and heard a bell tolling slowly, followed by a humming, as if in song, from around the corner. Turning at the intersection, I was stunned to find a crowd of women wearing beautiful bright-patterned skirts and blouses and matching sashes in their hair, walking gracefully toward the open doors of the church. I stood, dumbfounded, in my Levi’s and denim shirt, admiring the rainbow colors of this Sunday-morning scene. While I stared, a young woman broke away from the group, stepped up to me, and said, in halting English, “I love your jeans.”
San Diego, California
A few years ago, I was a finalist for a teaching job at a school founded by back-to-the-land hippies. As I prepared to leave for the interview, my father urged me to wear a suit. “You need to dress up to make a good impression,” he said. “You’ll never get the job if you don’t.”
As someone who practically lives in overalls and sandals, I didn’t take his advice.
I met the headmistress of the school at her old farmhouse on a particularly hot summer day. After a while, she suggested that we continue the interview out by her pond, where it would be cooler. Once at the pond, she proceeded to remove all her clothes and enter the water. Feeling a bit awkward fully dressed, I disrobed as well. We continued the interview as we swam, both completely naked. I couldn’t wait to tell my father that I really didn’t have to dress up for the occasion.
But I still didn’t get the job.
Upper Makefield, Pennsylvania
When I was a young girl, about ten years old, my parents hired a baby sitter for the first time so that they could go out for dinner and a movie. Immediately struck by the potential liberties I could take in their absence, I stole into my parents’ room and opened my mother’s lingerie drawer. After carefully studying the arrangement of her bras so that I could replace them in the exact same order, I chose one to take back to my bedroom. There, I locked the door, strapped the bra as best I could over my skinny, flat chest, and stuffed it with socks. I couldn’t believe how sexy I looked. I rolled down my briefs to make them look like bikini panties and posed provocatively in front of my mirror. Then, feeling certain the baby sitter would suspect that I was up to something, I carefully put everything back as it was and went to watch TV.
Now I have daughters of my own, and, remembering that desire to try on an adult identity before my body showed any signs of adulthood, I placed some of my old clothes and lingerie in boxes for my kids to play dress-up. After several years of waiting, though, I have realized that my children aren’t interested in trying on my clothes. They see far more tantalizing images in magazines and on TV than I ever saw in my mirror while wearing my mother’s underwear. The other day, my six-year-old asked me why Victoria’s Secret doesn’t make panties in her size.
I grew up in the 1950s in a predominantly female household. Besides my father (who was mostly at work), there were my older sister, my mother, my grandmother, and myself. It was a house full of cooking, caring, sewing, dressing, washing, ironing, worrying, and cleaning. The feminine atmosphere was often smothering.
Next door to us, on both sides, lived large families full of boys. They were older, bigger, and stronger than me, and they played baseball in the empty lot between our houses. I was scared and in awe of them. From my room, through my starched and ironed white curtains, I’d watch them yelling and running and hitting balls.
When I was about eight, I became friends with a younger cousin of theirs. One day, I asked him if he wanted to see what was in my dresser. I slowly opened all of my dresser drawers for him, one at a time. It was at once very sexual and totally innocent. He looked with great appreciation at my piles of perfectly folded underwear.
Afterward, I suggested that we dress up in each other’s clothes, and we did. He put on my dress, and I put on his pants and shirt. We laughed and looked at ourselves in the mirror and laughed some more. I remember the feeling of wearing clothes that were still warm from his body.
That night, I dreamed that I was in the lot next door, where this same boy was flying a kite, making it climb higher and higher through the clouds. And suddenly I was the paper kite soaring and experiencing an all-over sweetness that I didn’t as yet understand.
Brooklyn, New York
For the audition, they asked to wear the skimpiest outfit I could find, something dressy but revealing. Even though I knew the film would be terrible, even though part of me cried, “No!” I reluctantly agreed.
I went out and spent three hundred dollars on a sparkly red halter top, pin-striped hot pants, and four-inch platform mules. I showed up at the call-back with the shorts and halter top concealed beneath a skirt and a button-down shirt and the shoes in a shopping bag. In the waiting room — part of a former wrestling gym that still exuded the odor of stale sweat — I took off the shirt and skirt and slid the mules on my feet. There were four other actresses there, all dressed provocatively. We eyed each other quickly and then turned back to our scripts.
When the filmmakers called me in, I was nervous, but ready.
“How about you sit on the couch?” said the producer, who was also starring in the film. “Now, we can just shoot you, or we can do it as a love scene.”
“A love scene?” I asked. I had been told to memorize and prepare a monologue.
The producer explained that they needed to videotape me as near to naked as possible, so that the director, who wasn’t there, could see my body.
“You really need to do this?” I asked, feeling the dull sensation of a headache coming on.
Well, he said, I could refuse, but if I did, my chances for landing the role would greatly decrease. He said it was down to just two of us, and the other girl hadn’t taken her clothes off. I knew which girl he was talking about. I’d seen her at the other auditions. She had large breasts. She was blond. She worried me.
I sighed, rubbed my temples, and decided to go ahead with the love scene. Even after all of this, I still wanted the part. I needed the part.
Everyone but the producer and the cameraman left the “room” — really just an area of the gym cordoned off by a hanging sheet — to give us some privacy. Then the producer lay down on the sofa and said he was ready whenever I was. I removed the halter top first — I was proud of my breasts — then turned sideways to the camera to take off the shorts. (I didn’t want them to get a clear shot of my ass, which I thought was too big.) I kept the shoes on. They were expensive.
I lay down on top of the producer, burying my face in his collarbone for just a second before I started kissing his mouth and rubbing up against him, all the while arching my back to make my rear end appear more taut and muscular. I suddenly became afraid that some pubic hair might escape the confines of my thong underwear.
When it was over, the producer and the cameraman both told me I was wonderful. The producer pulled at his crotch and apologized for being aroused. “You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t,” the cameraman said. I felt a swell of pride as I reached for my shorts. They said the director would watch the tape, and I would receive a call within a week, either way.
They never called. I found out later that the other girl got the part. I was left with my humiliation and rage — and a three-hundred-dollar outfit I’ll never wear again.
Brooklyn, New York
We’ve been doing this for two years. It always starts with dinner and drinks. I make her laugh, and she grabs my hand under the table and guides it up her smooth inner thigh. I whisper something in her ear, something I will do later. When she gets up and walks to the bathroom, other men can’t help but look. I smile and drink my Scotch.
At the hotel room, I relax with a joint while she puts on some music and takes her bag of tricks into the bathroom. She reappears wearing stiletto heels, stockings with garters, tiny panties, and a lacy bra — all black. She dances before me, gyrating slowly and seductively, while I sit on a chair in the middle of the room, a silly, stoned grin on my face. I have on an Armani suit, a hand-me-down from my no-longer-trim brother, the same suit I wore to my mother’s funeral. She thinks I look tough in it, with the squared shoulders and the fitted waist.
After a few songs, she smiles and returns to the bathroom to switch outfits. I make another drink and change the music. We do this until dawn.
Avila Beach, California
My Polish cousin Halina was engaged to be married. Her father had died shortly after their arrival in Toronto, so my father would be hosting the wedding reception and giving the bride away. She asked me to be a bridesmaid.
The rented dresses were hideous — long, red-velvet potato sacks with a silly bow beneath the breasts. I hated being a bridesmaid and could barely tolerate Czesek, my corresponding groomsman, who, like Halina, was straight off the boat from Poland. He tried to romance me in his car on the way home from the rehearsal, unaware that, though just seventeen, I was six months into an affair with a middle-aged man and had seen the interior of many a cut-rate motel. His childish attempts at seduction bored me.
During the interminable prewedding photo session, I smiled knowingly at Halina and whispered to her in Polish, “Don’t worry — the first time isn’t that bad. Make sure you have a sexy, see-through nightgown.” I didn’t know the Polish words for “sexy” or “see-through,” so I wasn’t sure she understood. Halina smiled back demurely.
After the ceremony, we piled into cars and headed for the Polish Legion Hall, which seemed oddly dark and empty when we arrived. My father flicked on the light to find the banquet-room tables were bare. There wasn’t a single tablecloth or place setting or floral centerpiece in sight. A frantic phone call revealed that the caterer had forgotten the date and was at his summer cottage for the weekend. My father and my uncle ran out and bought Kentucky Fried Chicken for seventy-five.
When Halina and her husband got back from Niagara Falls, they sued the caterer and bought a used Cadillac with the settlement. Their baby was born exactly five months later. I felt like an idiot and avoided Halina ever after.
As a young boy in the sixties, on my way to Catholic school, I sometimes stopped by my aunt’s house for her to do my hair. She’d sit me down on a stool and apply globs of pomade to my head, combing and stepping from side to side until she got everything just right.
I’m not sure why my mom didn’t fix my hair. Maybe she was having one of her nervous spells and couldn’t care for me. Maybe if she’d gotten that close to me, the urge to hurt me would have welled up too strong inside of her.
Finally, my aunt would comb my bangs straight up from my forehead, pick up the can of hair spray, and say, “Now cover your eyes.”
My hair was the one thing that made me stand out among the lines of other boys in navy blue pants and clip-on ties. Throughout the day at school, especially after a nun threw a nasty look or word — or object — at me, I would touch the hard curl atop my face, a wave so high and perfect a surfer could have ridden on it, and it would transport me away from that place. As the day wore on, though, the wave lost its firmness, and also its power to transport me, and I had to stay and face what the nuns dished out. It was as if some of them could sense who was already being abused at home.
For years, I insisted that I wanted to go to public school with my neighborhood friends, but it wasn’t until I was in seventh grade that my parents finally gave in. On the morning of my last day in Catholic school, I decided to wear my shiny, skin-tight blue-green pants, my pointy, toe-squishing Beatle shoes, an iridescent yellow shirt, and a tie with a bright, swirling paisley pattern. I was revolting against the years of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse that I seemed singled out to receive.
Upon my arrival at school, a nun ushered me hastily down the dark, quiet hall toward the mother superior’s office. Her bony fingers dug into my arm, and I could see the fury in her face and the anticipation of one last humiliation coming my way. I feared she was right. Though the mother superior was kinder than the other nuns and seemed to understand what they put us through, she had never stood up to them or tried to stop what was going on.
Now the nun who’d apprehended me flung me toward the desk where the mother superior sat. “Look at him! Look how he’s dressed!” the nun said.
The mother superior gazed calmly at me, gave a faint smile, and said, “Ah, Albert, you look quite handsome today.”
I was an image-conscious sixteen-year-old girl when I was diagnosed with scoliosis. My doctor’s prescription — a back brace to be worn twenty-one hours a day — dealt a devastating blow to my vanity. The brace was a confining, very uncool contraption of thick leather straps and cold metal rods. It extended from midway up my skull to below my butt and encircled my entire torso. I could hardly even turn my head. My mom lovingly sewed me a new wardrobe of hideously ugly clothes to fit over “the beast,” and my dad suspended a trapeze-like bar from the ceiling above my bed to help me change sleep positions.
After a year, my doctor decided the brace was no longer effective. If left surgically untreated, he assured us, I would be in a wheelchair by age forty. So, soon after my high-school graduation, I went under the knife.
The body cast followed — nine months trapped inside an unforgiving plaster shell similar in shape to the brace, only heavier. I went back to live with Mom while recovering. I could walk, sit, and use the toilet, but needed help with such small tasks as tying my shoes or washing my hair. After about six weeks, I began to drive again and found a menial job to keep me busy. I also resumed my social activities. I’d always had plenty of friends and even been somewhat promiscuous, despite everything. My young lovers didn’t seem to mind the cast as much as they had the brace.
With the heat of summer came increased perspiration, horrible itches, and no chance for a swim. One muggy night, I pleaded with my new boyfriend to cut the cast from thigh to armpit with a bread knife. He reluctantly complied. Cautiously, I slid the cast off and stepped before the mirror: there stood a taller, bean-pole-skinny girl I scarcely recognized. I felt liberated.
I began sneaking out of my shell every night. My new self, secret and foreign and tiny, had a personality of her own. She was brazen, with a passion for clothes shopping. She would stroll into hip stores, her appearance concealed beneath a size-sixteen dress and a body cast, and spend my hard-earned money on low-cut, tight-fitting, size-three ensembles. In the evening, when the cast came off, out she’d come, like a butterfly from a cocoon, ready to put on a beautiful new outfit. I would watch delightedly, as if from a distance, smitten.
I was fifteen years old when my siblings and I found out that our father was a transvestite. He’d left our family home when I was three, and we rarely saw him after that, because he lived and worked abroad. In a way, it was a relief to learn that he had left us because he had his own issues to work out, rather than because he did not love us.
My father’s name was Derek, but when dressed as a woman, he called himself Helen (the name he had wanted to give me at my birth). When he came out, he sent us a tape of a radio interview with Helen, conducted at a transvestite convention. He also sent some photos of Helen dancing at a party on a boat.
I never had a problem with my father’s cross-dressing, only with his dishonesty about it. Even after he told me, I had to help him lie about it to his girlfriends. I eagerly anticipated a time when we could openly go out together as Helen and Emma. Once, we even went so far as to pore over photographs of Helen, discussing which outfit she should wear: Sunday-afternoon-tea Helen; disco Helen; schoolteacher Helen (who looked just like my aunt); Helen the vamp; Helen the artist (who looked a bit like my mother). But, sadly, we never did have our evening out. My father died in 1994.
After his death, I was the only one interested in having his home videos, virtually all of which were of Helen. The most poignant were of her taking a walk in a cemetery.
I wish I could have spent more time with Helen — and with Derek, for that matter. I loved them both and miss them dearly. In my occasional dreams of my father, he is always Helen, and she is always happy.
It is midnight on the night father died, and my mother, my Aunt Pearl, and I have just come back from the hospital. I am standing in my mother’s kitchen talking on the phone to my younger sister when my little son David shuffles in from the hallway in his footed pajamas, throws up on the floor, and bursts into tears. I hand the phone to Pearl and take David to the bathroom.
I am up most of the night with David. Between his bouts of sickness, I lie with him on the sofa in my clothes and think about Dad and the horror of his illness and the funeral to come. When David finally falls asleep near dawn, I carry him into the bedroom, and we get under the covers next to my husband.
Before I know it, my husband is waking me. “Nancy, you’ll have to get up. Some of your father’s friends are here — the Masons, I think. Your mother’s resting, and they want to talk about the service.”
Oh, God. I’ve been wearing the same plaid slacks and stained white blouse all night, going back and forth to the bathroom with David. Now I have to get up and go out to the living room and talk to Dad’s friends from his lodge. I rummage through the overnight bag I threw together for myself and the children the day before yesterday, but I can’t find anything clean to wear. How can that be?
I remember how, when I was growing up, we would make weekend trips several times a year to visit relatives in North Carolina. We’d leave around two in the morning on a Saturday and stop for pancakes and gas somewhere toward daylight. On one of these trips, Daddy had some reason to look through what my sister and I had packed for ourselves. He was enraged to find out that we hadn’t brought dresses, only dungarees and shorts.
“What if the car breaks down?” he yelled, brushing his hand over his bald head in exasperation. “What if we have to ride Trailways back home, and you don’t even have a dress to wear?” (This was the early fifties, and such a thing would have been disgraceful.) And then I remember what else Daddy said: “What if somebody dies and we have to go to the funeral?”
N. E. Capps