by Alizée Chesnoy
The mascara comes last. It is a familiar routine, now, born from the fervent study of YouTube tutorials and countless hours of practice both. Late nights spent mesmerised – watching the same fifteen seconds on a loop, until concealer and eye-liner become second nature.
You handle the wand carefully. Angle it slightly and brush outwards with feather-light touches to give yourself doe eyes. You flutter at yourself when you’re done: pout and admire the handiwork and blow yourself a kiss.
It starts with blue: there are pictures of you, new-born and wrinkled and red, decked in a sky-blue onesie. The colour follows you in the years that come after, a spectrum of velvet marines and pastels that find their way onto your shirts and your socks.
You hate it.
You are six years old, trailing with scuffed sneakers behind your mother as she powers through supermarket aisles. You need new jeans.
You ask for a dress instead. It is a yellow little thing, with braided straps and drapes at the bottom asking to be swished around. Your mother laughs, all half-hearted attention, without slowing down. Says, that’s not for you.
You ask her if it’s because it isn’t blue.
Looking back, you think that might be when it first happened – your mother’s smile crumpling into tightness. Her voice suddenly laced with edge – her grip around your wrist only slightly harsher. You do not know about that movement yet – do not know the cutting stretch of lips will become familiar. It’ll be there every time you behave in a way you shouldn’t. No, she says. It’s not because it isn’t blue.
Can you teach me how to braid your hair? You ask Alice one day, and you spend the afternoon practicing – French braids and fishtail braids and milkmaid braids. She is all lazy curls and messy waves, with hair down to her shoulders.
She gets bored half-way through; nudges your shoulder and tells you to grow your own hair so that you can braid it to your heart’s content without making anyone else sit still for the better part of an afternoon.
You try to laugh it off, your hand fluttering across the flushed nape of your neck. Not sure I can do that, you mumble. Course you can, she replies. Look at Alex’s hair, it’s practically longer than mine.
It costs you a tooth-and-nail fight with your mother, but you manage to put off your next hairdresser appointment.
You buy your first skirt at fifteen. It takes you three weeks. Hours spent with Alice in dressing rooms – discussing cut and colour, trying on the most improbable things and laughing so much it steals your breath away and earns you a handful of disapproving glares. Your throat closing up and your heart breaking quietly when she looks at both your reflections in the neon-lit mirrors and tells you, in a voice that is suddenly gentle and serious and careful, that you are beautiful.
Days of making detours before coming home so you can stop by the store and make sure it’s still there, palms shoved at the bottom of your pockets, trying hard not to look conspicuous. You’ve almost bought it a handful of times now – held the hanger in white-knuckled hands and walked to the register with pinked cheeks before deflating and abruptly heading the other way round, hanging the skirt back up and walking out as fast as you can.
You muster up the courage one afternoon, bring it to the counter and pay for it with crumpled bills held tight in your clammy hands. You clutch the bag to your chest – elated and breathless. It feels like walking on clouds, and you text Alice, DID IT, and she answers all in exclamation points.
It is a black skater skirt – easy fabric and fluid movement and it feels like home, pulling it on when you’re back in your room. You make it twirl; hitch it up higher, pull it low on your hips, study the line of your legs in it.
You don’t wear it – you sleep with it under your pillow for weeks and only try it on when you’re alone, but it is enough, for now.
It is September: the year is crisp and brand new and you inform your parents you want to take up track. There is a split second where your mother’s back tenses from where she is at the sink, and deflates in relief when she hears the end of your sentence. You’ll manage, keeping up with both football and track? She asks, without turning to look at you.
You resent her for that. The movement of her back, tight with fear, and how she’s been pushing you to play on a team ever since you were old enough to kick a ball. She is probably grateful it’s track – that you haven’t pulled a Billy Elliot on her and asked to take up ballet. You almost want to, so you can see the look on her face. Want to quit football just to prove a point.
And the thing is, you like football. You’ve been on the team nearing four years now; you like the easy camaraderie and the feeling of belonging to a unit and the pride of working together on a common goal. You like the grass-stained trainings that leave your lungs burning and the adrenaline that comes with matches. It surprises people, sometimes. You’re allowed to like whatever it is you like, Alice shrugs. As long as it isn’t killing puppies. Or Game of Thrones. She shudders. Alice has a thing against Game of Thrones. She is also the wisest person you know.
You stay on the football team. You take up track, and it feels like flying.
You are at a party, and you are kissing a boy. It is warm and wet and weird and you want to lick your way into his mouth and you are quite sure you’re going to end with saliva on both your chins and his hands rest just on the space your shirt leaves uncovered. It doesn’t feel like fireworks. It feels like a goddamned explosion.
One night you come home late and find your mother awake. It is a ridiculous hour – four-thirty in the morning, and you do not know how it happens. Both she and your father are usually asleep when you tiptoe home trying hard not to stumble, and most of the time you do not come home at all – sleep at Alice’s instead because her parents aren’t often there and it’s easier that way.
You both freeze, deer caught in each other’s headlights. You go stone-cold sober faster than you ever have.
She takes it in – the crop top you changed into after you left home earlier in the afternoon, the glitter spread aplenty on your cheekbones that’s probably smeared all over your face by now, the manicures you and Alice so painfully gave each other before heading out – and she looks like she is seeing you for the first time.
All the things she tried so hard to teach you throughout the years – how to toughen up and not cry, how to wear your hair short, how to look smart in a tie at Christmas, how to play with fake swords and toy trucks, how to behave like you’re supposed to.
Like she is only now realising you never learnt them, not properly. Like she is only now realising you never will.
She sends you your father. He’s always been the one to deal with shit when it hits the fan. He’s the one who buried your dog in the back garden when she died, and who knew what to say when your Aunt Emma lost her job, and now you.
He knocks into your room late on Sunday, all shuffling feet and awkwardness and brave faces. He’s trying very hard to look you in the eye, which you are very much avoiding. You’ve rubbed your face raw to get the makeup off, and your hands are sweaty, and you’re terrified.
He’s a beer with the guys kind of man, your father, who doesn’t read much apart from the sports sections in the papers and has hairy shoulders. He is also a quiet man, who listens more than he speaks and doesn’t shove his opinions into other people’s faces, but it doesn’t stop you from being afraid of what he sees when he looks at you.
He sits on the side of your bed, hands clasped above his knees. It’s all right, is the first thing he says, and you look at him then. It’s all right, he repeats, and he’s trying to keep his voice from shaking, but you can hear it break. Sam, he says. Why didn’t you tell us?
Your voice is hoarse from talking and you’ve never felt so raw and light at the same time. You feel more like yourself, which isn’t something you’ve felt in front of your dad in a while. Let me deal with your mother, he tells you. She’ll come around. We both will.
Your laugh is watery. They don’t even know half of it yet – you haven’t told him how you’ve been practicing with different pronouns and genders, trying to figure out if one fits better than the other, and how you don’t know the answer yet. But you can talk about it, now. You’ve got time.
Sam, he says again, like he knows what you’re thinking. We love you. The rest, we can figure out together. He pauses. You can teach us.
Alizée is a poet in Paris. When she isn’t writing, you’ll probably find her photographing street art, practicing sarcasm, and drinking unhealthy amounts of tea.