The Way You See Me - Part 1 of 5
by Maeryn Lamonte
Sometimes things are that dark you don't even know there's a way out. Sometimes you need a friend to show you.
I hated my doorbell.
It was one of those cheap two tone models, but so cheap that the manufacturers couldn't even be bothered to tune it properly. How it's possible to manage such a nerve grating discord with just two notes I'll never know, but it made my teeth itch every time it went off. The thing is it was part of the flat – which was equally cheap and nasty – so I couldn't really replace it.
It was Friday evening and a crappy end to a crappy day which was, in turn, the end of a crappy week. I had the TV on, but there was nothing worth watching. I'd tuned it into the least offensive thing I could find and was slouched on my sofa, trying to decide whether I could be bothered to get up and pop a cheap ready meal in the microwave or just pour myself another glass of wine, when the doorbell rang.
Well rang is too kind a word to describe the noise, but it went off all the same. With my mood on a definite downward swing, I had no desire at all for company, so I steeled myself to wait it out. After a few seconds the bell sounded a second time, then a third followed immediately by a sharp, double tap of knuckles against the loosely fitted frosted glass in the door.
Like I said the flat was cheap.
I let out a long sigh and heaved myself out of my seat. There was an impatience to the knocking that suggested the knocker wasn't going away any time soon, and might possibly start shouting through letterbox if I left it much longer. I decided I'd rather face an unwelcome visitor than ignore an angry one, just as long as it wasn't...
“Hey Jerry. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
I stood aside and let her step into the flat. She managed not to wrinkle her nose at the piles of dirty laundry, unwashed plates and general clutter that were the current main features of my den. I knew I should feel shame, but I didn't have the energy.
“We need to get you out of here, buddy. Come on, go get your shoes and coat.”
Well, at least she hadn't start clearing the place up. Mind you the sink was full of crap, as was the kitchen counter, so had she been tempted to try, she wouldn't have found anywhere to put anything.
“I really don't feel like going out tonight, Ruth.”
“I don't fucking care.” The words were harsh, but the voice gentle, almost cheerful. “I arranged to go round Sally and Siobhan's this evening, and I'd rather not turn up on my own. Since you're obviously not in a fit state to be left alone tonight, you can come with me. Come on, it'll be fun.”
Fun! Fuck me, like I could give a ballistic turd for fun! I glowered at her, but she was having none of it.
“Come on you old git, get your coat I said.”
I hate confrontation, and I'm not sure I'll ever have the willpower to say no to Ruth – not for long anyway. I headed for the broom closet that my landlord had once ambitiously described as a bedroom-study. Still beggars can't be choosers, and I'd not been able to afford anything else at the time.
“And put some decent clothes on while you're at it. You make the guys down at the shelter look positively overdressed.”
No argument there. The only positive feature possessed by my track suit bottoms was comfort. They were old, worn and scruffy, barely fit to wear around the house, and decidedly not warm enough to go out in. As for my tee-shirt, it bore evidence of at least two sloppily eaten meals. I picked a pair of jeans off the floor and decided they were neither too grubby nor too creased, added one grey polo shirt – stretched out of shape by one too many runs through the washer-drier, but clean at least – and a black cardigan – holes not too obvious – and declared myself ready.
I reappeared with coat and shoes in hand and she threw her hands heavenward.
“What the fuck is that?”
“My best clothes.” Sadly not so far from the truth.
She shook her head but accepted this was the best she was going to get out of me. She put up with a lot from me, and I hadn't yet figured out why. I was beginning to think that perhaps she had adopted me as a sort of pet project, though I rather hoped I was wrong.
It took a moment to tie my laces and shrug my coat onto my shoulders. I retrieved my wallet and keys from the one tidy spot in the living room, and we were gone. I closed the door on my cesspit of a flat – so very much a mirror of my life – and followed her down the path and into the street.
Sally and Siobhan are lovers. They're Ruth's friends more than mine because she... well let's just say she has more in common with them than one might think at first, and that of course is a major part of my problem with Ruth.
No, no. Not in that way; I'm not prejudiced or anything – can't afford to be that hypocritical. It's just that she's one of those once in a lifetime women – perfect in every way imaginable. Actually I guess she's not really, but that's how she appears through my rose tinted view of her. I could wax lyrical about her delicate features, the colour of her hair, the depth of her eyes, and it wouldn't come close to expressing how she makes me feel. It's not just skin deep with her either. You peel back the surface and you find layer upon layer of exquisite beauty right the way through. Her personality, her passion, her... well, I think you get the picture.
And she's gay.
Even if she weren't, I'm under no illusions about how unlikely a candidate I would be for her affections. I could list a whole catalogue of reasons why she would never see me the way I'd like her to, so I've never told her how she makes me feel. Cowardice probably – that's page seventy-six in the catalogue – but also a fair amount of self-preservation and pragmatism mixed in. I resolved, a long time ago, to sit on my feelings until they went away, but that might have happened a lot sooner if she hadn't decided to be so bloody nice to me.
Sally and Siobhan only live a couple of streets away. I forget how Ruth first met them – some sort of gaydar thing probably – but since they befriended her, they'd become something of a semi-regular, occasional social event for Ruth and me. It was at the first of our get-togethers that I discovered that Ruth was batting for the home team and, very shortly after that, that I ruefully accepted my place in her life as 'friend'. Before the revelation, the mere thought of walking alongside her had been intoxicating, but without hope, the spark gutters and eventually – so I'm told – dies. My spark for her was still dimly glowing deep inside me, but I knew there was no sense in trying to fan it into anything brighter. I ignored it and settled into a disconsolate trudge beside her.
I'll say this for Ruth, among her other fine qualities is an atypically unfeminine capacity for companionable silence. She knew my moods and how best to respond to them. Quite often she could talk me out of a sulk with just a few words, but this evening was decidedly not one of those times. This evening she knew to keep her peace and managed, somehow, still to draw me out of my despondency, albeit much more slowly.
Each step I took further away from my hovel of a home saw a very slight lightening of my mood. There is something particularly self-destructive about wallowing in your own filth. You lose the will to help yourself and as things get worse, you spiral out of control. That's why human beings need each other, why I needed Ruth.
You see, my parents died a few years ago, in a plane crash. Statistically one of the safest ways to travel, but stats have a habit of turning around to bite you in the arse1. A few months after the funeral, my brother headed off to Australia; something he'd been wanting to do for a long time, and I think Mum and Dad's death kind of made him realise how easy it is to miss your opportunities in life. He's doing pretty well for himself – got a good job and a girlfriend and everything. We Skype from time to time, but we've always been different so we don't find much to talk about even when we do talk.
After he left, I kind of found myself completely on my own. I always was something of a misfit, so have never found it easy to make friends – close friends especially. I spent too much time in my own company, and was just about to disappear up my own sphincter when Ruth came along.
We met in the library, both reaching for the same book at the same time or some such cheesy cliché. We kind of laughed, she insisted I take the book, which isn't the way things are supposed to go – you know, the guy's supposed to be the gallant one? – and we parted company. The book wasn't even that good, but then she was at the library again when I brought it back a couple of days later, and it gave me an excuse. I walked over to her and handed her the book, told her what I thought of it and, in an uncharacteristic surge of bravado, asked if she wanted a coffee.
We hit it off despite our differences – she's ten, maybe twelve, years younger, bursting with enthusiasm and passion for life, and I'm kind of burned out and drifting aimlessly – and coffee became a regular thing. Liquid Esperanto I've heard it called; a place to go where all barriers of age, race, gender, class and creed break down; a reason to meet, to talk; somewhere to dangle your lips when there's a lull in the conversation; harmless, hopeful; a place between acquaintance and something more.
Except there never was something more. I did suggest going out to Ruth a few times, but she always had some reason to say no. Never quite 'I'm washing my hair', but at times it seemed like that sort of thing. Then the day came. I was working up the courage to ask her out again when she asked me instead. She'd been invited around for a meal with a couple of friends and wanted to know if I'd care to be her plus-one. I mused briefly over ursine arboreal defecatory habits2 and papal religious preferences3, but only very briefly. I mean hell, yeah!
I even tried to smarten up for the evening, not that I had anything particularly smart to wear. I couldn't use my work clothes, which consisted of shirt and trousers in corporate colours with corporate logo emblazoned all over them, and my general criteria for buying stuff otherwise consisted of blandness, cheapness and how well it fit, along with how fast I could pay for it and get out of the damned shop. I have always hated shopping for clothes.
The couple of friends in question were, yep you guessed it, Sally and Siobhan, and it was obvious from the outset they were a couple in every sense of the word, and very much at ease in their own home. What became increasingly obvious over the course of the evening, though, was that Ruth was similarly inclined. I'm not sure exactly what gave it away – a subconscious mimicking of their mannerisms, an occasional exchange of meaningful glances, I don't know – but by the end of the evening any pathetic hopes I might have had regarding Ruth had crumbled to dust.
She walked me home afterwards. Yeah, I know, shouldn't I have been the one to walk her home? Ruth doesn't go for that kind of stuff. She doesn't come across as delicate and on the one occasion I'd raised the matter, she'd opened her bag to show me a can of super-strength Mace and a fairly illegal looking cattle prod. She also had a personal alarm clipped to the outside of her handbag which, along with the self-defence classes she'd taken a few years before, pretty much settled the question of who'd be better able to handle an attempted mugging.
Anyway she walked me home, glancing across at me from time to time as I slid back and forth between despondency and outright pissed off. The whole purpose of the evening, it seemed, had been her way of telling me her interests lay elsewhere. In retrospect it can't have been easy deciding to tell me at all, let alone coming up with a way to break the news, but I felt... well betrayed isn't quite the word, although it does give a sense of the anger I felt. I felt let down as well, which is were the hopelessness fit in. We walked all the way to my flat in silence and might have ended our friendship on the doorstep, had she not asked to come in for a coffee. Just a coffee mind, don't get any ideas.
Coffee has always been something of an event round my place. I can't stand instant, and have become progressively more anal over the years in my preparation of the real stuff. I even tried that Kopi Luwak once to see if being shit out by a cat actually improves the flavour. It was different, and I'll admit it was pretty good, but not sustainable on my salary and, in my opinion, not worth the overdraft. Still, grinding fresh beans and setting up the machine allowed me to settle my mind, and Ruth to choose her words. By the time we were both sitting down behind steaming mugs of Joe, we were both pretty much ready.
There wasn't much to say on her part. How she'd never been attracted to men, how she'd felt that way as long as she could remember, how she'd struggled with it for a long time before finally accepting it as part of her, how she was sorry for the manner in which she'd let me know, but hadn't been able to think of another way, how she hoped it wouldn't change things between us.
But her words did something to me – kind of prized open a chink in my armour – which led to me telling her about my own little peccadillo. I mean if she could trust me with her secret, then couldn't I do the same with mine? It's not something I'd ever talked about with anyone before. I mean I'm pretty sure Mum figured it out. I'd always tried to put things back the way I'd found them, but it doesn't matter how careful you are, you always slip up somewhere, and she was pretty observant in any case. She never said anything directly, but there were a few times, after I left home and we met up for a coffee, when she'd guide the conversation around to the topic and kind of hint I might have something to say on the matter. I never did have the courage to respond though.
I regretted never telling her, especially after she died. Unshared secrets weigh heavily on the conscience, and after the funeral there literally was no-one I dared talk to about it. Until that evening with Ruth that is. Trust deserves to be returned, and the chances of there ever being anything more between us were pretty much nil. I figured here was at least something that could be salvaged from the wreckage.
She took it well; thanked me, even, for being so honest with her. I think that was kind of when she decided to adopt me as her good Samaritan project. It was hard telling her, just like it's hard writing this – too hard to say anything more specific right now – and I think she got the idea of how much of a struggle I was going through. She'd faced a similar sort of thing herself, and I think she decided that I needed someone solid in my life to lean on. Not for every day, of course, not forever and not with the kind of closeness I wanted, but a good friend to hang on to – someone who wasn't going to run away when things got tough, someone who wouldn't let me slip away completely.
That's the trouble with Superman though, isn't it? He's there when your life's in danger, but not when you're just struggling to get by. Then you're supposed to be comforted by the promise that he'll be there if things get too bad. You never see what happens to the people he saves the next day. Except for Lois of course, and for most of the story, she puts her life on hold for him, and he's so self-reliant and strong he never seems to need her. That's me: Lois Lane in the body of a fat old man, only my Superman is perfectly happy without me, and she probably still doesn't quite get the way I feel about her.
So that was then, and this was now. A short walk took us to Sally and Siobhan's, and it was the usual mix of good food, fun, laughter and silent pain. With Ruth and me both on Shanks's pony, the booze was flowing pretty freely and we all started to relax. The good company and friendly banter was lifting me out of my black mood despite myself. Then Sally picked up an empty beer bottle and spun it on the table. Whether by luck or judgement, it ended up pointing towards Ruth.
“Truth or dare?” Sally asked.
“Dare.” Ruth always was one to face a challenge.
“Okay, I dare you to kiss Jerry, full on the lips,” she said. “A proper kiss mind, no half measures.”
Ruth leaned across and...
It was soft and sweet and oh so sensual – and I'd never experience anything like it again. Something inside me tore in that moment and it took all my self control not to break down.
The bottle was spinning again, and hey, guess what?
“Truth or dare?” Ruth asked me.
“Er, truth.” I stammered. I couldn't face a dare, not after that last one.
Ruth was kind, or at least she tried to be. “If you could be anyone in the world today, who would you be?”
The other two groaned and made rude noises over the pathetic question, but for me there couldn't have been a worse one. There was only one answer in my mind, and it was something I dared not share. But I couldn't see past it.
“Come on Jerry, spill,” Siobhan nudged me.
God, how much worse could this get? I looked across at Ruth, terror and regret flooding my eyes. If I started to answer, maybe something else would come to me.
“If I could be anyone in the world today...”
Panic froze my brain. All I could see was the answer in my mind, the answer I wanted so desperately to avoid.
A quizzical cast grew in Ruth's eyes as I drew the pregnant pause out to a full and late gestation. Nothing would come, no alternative. I looked directly at the most beautiful girl in the world.
“...I would be the person you fall in love with.”
Our two hostesses whooped with delight at the revelation, but all I could see was the shock in Ruth's eyes – the eyes I cared for more than anything. I couldn't hold her gaze, turned away. Sally was talking. Any distraction to move past this moment.
“Even if it meant being a girl?” Ruth's sexual preferences were as openly known and shared in our little group as Sally and Siobhan's. Perhaps, if I could deflect this onto me, make it less about Ruth, things wouldn't be so bad.
“Maybe especially if it meant being a girl.” More whoops, accompanied by raised eyebrows. I didn't dare look at Ruth. “I mean girls have more fun, don't they?” It was lame, but I was trying to make light of things. Sally, bless her, played along.
“We could make you an honorary girl in our little group if you like.”
I forced a smile. “You know, I actually would like that a lot. As long as it doesn't bother anyone of course.” Adrenaline coursed through my veins. I didn't know what had come over me; I'd just revealed the two biggest secrets in my life, all over a casually spinning bottle in a stupid game.
“We could probably find some clothes that would fit you,” Sally said.
“No that's okay, I'd be happy with just the title.” The hole was already deep enough. No need to dig any further.
“Oh come on, dressing up's one of the best bits about being a girl. You want to look good don't you?”
“But that's just the problem, isn't it? I mean there's no way anyone could make this look good.” I gestured at my scruffy, more than slightly flabby body.
“Challenge accepted. Come on Shiv, let's see what we can dig out. I rather suspect these two have a few things to say to each other, and would appreciate a bit of alone time.” Sally stood, pulling her girlfriend to her feet, and before Ruth or I could say anything, they ducked through a door, revealing in passing the briefest of glimpses of the messy bedroom beyond.
Silence descended, became oppressive. I sat staring at my hands, picking at my nails. “I'm sorry,” I said. “I shouldn't have said anything.”
Ruth put her hand tentatively on mine. “It's okay Jerry.” It sounded anything but. “I'm flattered, in a way.” Almost as dire as 'you're a wonderful man/woman but...' “It came as a bit of a shock is all, but I suppose it's good to know the truth.”
An opening. “Are you up for a bit more? Truth I mean.”
She shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
'How much worse can this get' you mean? She didn't actually say it, but I could all but hear the words echoing around in her head. I took a deep breath.
“I never meant for you to know any of this. I mean I know you're not interested in guys, so it would be pointless telling you, wouldn't it? I just couldn't think of anything else to say – I'm not expecting you to respond at all. In a way it feels good to get it off my chest at last, but I know that no matter how much I might want to be a girl, no matter how much I might feel like one on the inside sometimes, I don't expect there's enough of a girl in me to interest you.”
“That's not what this is about is it? Your whole 'want to be a girl thing' isn't because of your feelings for me?”
“God no. I've been this way since long before I met you. It's just kind of ironic that the one person I fall for could only love me back if I were what I always wanted, but never could be.
“If this situation counts for anything at all, it's kind of my version of the carol singing scene in Love Actually. You know, when the best man bloke calls on Keira Knightly, plays carols from a boom box, and shows her all those cards telling her how he feels?”
“I love that bit.”
“Me too. I cry almost every time.”
“Okay, you got me.”
Silence grew between us again, but I was too immersed in self recrimination and regret to notice. Ruth caved in first.
“So you really want to be a girl?”
It took a second or two for me to resurface, then another to replay her question. “Yeah. No. I mean... it's complicated, but on the whole yes I think I'd be better off with an inny than an outy.”
She ducked her head, fighting the smile. If I could still make her laugh then this wasn't quite the disaster I'd feared.
“I don't get it,” she said. “I mean why?”
I gave her question the consideration it was due. I did have an answer, sort of.
“I didn't get it myself at first. I'm not sure I do even now, not completely. I was always miserable as a kid; lonely, out of place, always feeling like I didn't quite fit. Then one day, I found one of my mum's skirts and put it on. I don't remember why I did, just that once I did, everything felt different. Better somehow. More right.
“It started something that I was powerless to stop. I felt so good when I was dressed like a girl, I just had to take every opportunity I was given to climb into a dress, then afterwards I'd be overcome with guilt; I mean what business did I have pretending to be something I wasn't? After a lot of years alternating between desperately wanting to feel girly and feeling miserably guilty about indulging something I felt deep inside was wrong, I finally figured a few things out.
“First is there's nothing I can do to change the way I feel inside. I've tried – God knows I've tried – but this is a part of me, and it only eats away at me to suppress it, to pretend it's not there. Second is the reason I 'knew,'”yes I did the thing with the fingers4, so sue me, “it was wrong was because I was picking up on cues from people around me. The way my parents would react to some drag artist on TV, that sort of thing. The 'wrongness',” yes the fingers thing again, “turned out to be more in other people's minds than any absolute truth of the universe.
“It's all about getting my inside to match my outside. I've tried changing who I am inside, but nothing seems to work, so I've come to the conclusion that I'm kind of stuck with being me...”
“Not such a bad thing.”
“Thanks, I guess... But it still doesn't help with the mismatch. There are bits about my insides that just aren't normal for a guy. I find a lot of the things other guys talk about boring, I don't find it funny when someone farts in public and I don't know why everyone has to jeer when someone drops a tray down at the pub; I don't really like beer, except as a means of obliterating my consciousness; I'd rather be asked out than do the asking; that sort of thing.
“If I were to behave on the outside the way I feel on the inside, I'd get called a wuss or a sissy by both men and women alike. I'm supposed to 'man up' to things, stop being pathetic. Just because I have testicles and a penis, I'm supposed to be able to get over it and get on with life, but there is no getting over this.
“I know some women can be bitchy and nasty, but most of the ones I know are supportive of one another, kindly, helpful, caring. It's kind of the way I feel inside; the way I'd tend to behave if I had the freedom to do so without being judged.
“And that's where the problem is, I think. Everyone wants to be the person they feel they are on the inside and to be accepted as such. For me there are consequences regardless of what I choose to be. I can be the me I am inside, in which case I have to deal with the way the rest of the world – both men and women – would reject me, just because I don't fit into their tidy little definition of the way things should be. Or I can get up every day and struggle to squeeze myself into this miserable simulation of a guy, just because that's what everyone expects of me.”
“I'm still not sure I follow.”
“Okay, let's see if I can turn it around a little then. Since the day I met you, I've never seen you wearing a skirt or a dress. I'd be right in guessing you don't like them much, wouldn't I?”
“Seriously not interested.” She shook her head grinning at the image.
“The thing is you're really beautiful.” I could say that now. The cat was out the bag, which meant I could swing it freely without fear of causing more harm. “I reckon you'd look exquisite in the right dress. Something summery with a floral print in pink and light blue. Cap sleeves, a gentle V neckline to show off a little cleavage, and a light swirly skirt coming down to just above the knee. Maybe a pair of light coloured tights and a low heel – an inch or an inch and a half, just to round off your calves. I bet you have spectacular legs.” She winced at each new detail and I decided to stop before her expression became too pained.
“But that's not you is it?” I asked.
She looked up at me, the first glimmer of understanding showing in her eyes. I pulled out my phone and took a snapshot of her face.
“I'll delete it when we're done.” I said, showing her the photograph. “Pretend it's not you. Pretend it's just a girl who looks a bit like you. Can you see how pretty she is? The smooth skin, the exquisite bone structure, the gorgeous hair.
“A dress would complement those features, make them more delicate. Pastel colours would match her complexion best, don't you think? Especially blues and pinks. A touch of eye-shadow to bring out her eyes and a pale pink lip gloss. She wouldn't have to do much with the hair, maybe a hair band perhaps. Or if she were going out for the evening, an off the shoulder gown in midnight blue with her hair pinned up to show off that spectacular, long and slender neck.
“What do you think? She'd have all the boys, and maybe half the girls, drooling over her.
“That's what most people see when they look at you, I reckon. They see this gorgeous young woman, and they wonder why she doesn't make more of herself.
“But you don't see yourself that way, do you? You could dress up to the nines and turn heads everywhere you went, but that's not the you inside, and to do so would be kind of like lying. So you stick with jeans and trainers. You wear tee-shirts, sweatshirts and blouses that look more like men's shirts than anything.”
“Is that what you think this is about? You think I want to be a man? You think I'm like you?”
“No! And yes... ish.” Shit this could get confusing fast. “No to thinking you want to be a man, yesish to thinking you're a little like me.
I think you want to be accepted for the person you feel yourself to be inside, and not the person everyone tells you you are, or should be. I don't know, maybe this all started as a way of discouraging guys from asking you out, but I suspect it's deeper than that. I think you prefer your clothes to be practical and comfortable rather than decorative. You prefer a more active role in life – getting your hands dirty so to speak – you want to be recognised and appreciated for the things you can do rather than the way you look. Maybe you'd prefer to be more pro-active in romance, doing the asking rather than waiting to be asked. Belle of the ball is not you, despite how well other people think you could pull it off, so instead you choose you own way.
“And you're lucky. As a girl in this modern world you can get away with that. Sure you have to do battle with male chauvinism and glass ceilings and all that, but where the rubber meets the road, you can still get away with behaving exactly the way you feel inside. Maybe a few people think you're a bit odd, think you're passing up the opportunity to land yourself the handsomest, wealthiest hunk you're likely to meet, but it's not as if dressing like you do has people calling you a sexual deviant.
“This whole thing has nothing to do with your sexual preferences – although I think gender and sexuality are more closely linked than the experts would have us believe. It has to do with the way you see yourself, the way the world sees you, and the way you present yourself to the world. You can dress the way you want because there is such a thing in our society as a tomboy, and has been for a very long time. You may actually overplay it a little to compensate for the way people keep trying to squash you into the pretty girl thing just because that's how they think physically attractive women should behave, but overall you still get to be who you feel you are. You can get away without wearing dresses most of the time because dressed as you are you still look pretty amazing.
“You and I are similar – at least I think so – in that the image we have of ourself isn't one that other people naturally expect of us. Where things differ though, is that you get to show your true nature freely without major repercussions, whereas the constraints on me are rather stronger.”
“Does that mean you don't really want to be a woman?”
“What does that even mean? Be a guy, be a girl? Once you get past the obvious physical nature of it, it's all about conforming to the expectations of society. Fifty – sixty years ago, being a girl meant you would have grown up wearing a dress whether you wanted to or not. Your family, your friends, everyone you came across on a daily basis would have expected to see you looking like a girl, and if you hadn't, if you'd gone around in jeans or overalls or some such, you'd have been seen as having the same kind of stigma that guys like me do today if we choose to express the feminine side of our nature – only you'd be less likely to be beaten up because you're a girl and people don't beat up girls.”
She ruminated on that for a while. I lapsed into silence and waited.
“So what are these constraints?”She asked at last. I had my answer ready.
“Public opinion would be one, but I've pretty much covered that. Like I say, we both want to be accepted for who and what we are and, whilst people will let you get away with that, even if they are a little disappointed that you don't take advantage of your looks – the best I can hope for is to be laughed at. From my own side of the gender divide – physically speaking at least – I'd get a range of reactions from anger and violence at the extreme far end, to ridicule in the middle, right through to rejection. Guys have a strong independence thing going for them – they want to be seen as self reliant, strong, intelligent, in control – better than all the rest. Any man who rejects that and wants to be more like a woman is seen as a sort of traitor and defector to the gender. Or worse, as a threat to every man's sexuality – you know, the old story about the guy taking an attractive girl home only to find she has something unexpected between her legs. Things like that can seriously affect a guy's street cred. Men have to conform, because so very much of it is about not loosing face with your mates.
We even have new words appearing in the language to try and justify behaviour that's at the edges of masculine behaviour. Two guys start feeling the sort of close friendship that almost every girl has with at least one other girl, and we call it a bromance – in part to make fun of it, in part to declare that, 'hey this is like totally straight, yeah? We're two straight guys and there's nothing gay about us.' Men don't do handbags because they're girly, instead they have to have manbags. Metrosexual's another. It describes a man who insists he is straight, but has a concern about his appearance which is more stereotypically associated with homosexuals.
“I'm getting off the point. Girls don't see people like me as much different though. They have their expectations of men, which aren't far different from those that men have for themselves, only seen from the outside. They come across someone like me and they don't know how to deal with it. To a large extent, they take their cues from the way other men react to us, which means they consider us to be be perverts and a potential threat to children, and therefore to be avoided.
In all cases there are likely to be people – both men and women – who don't get stuck up on the unwritten rules of society and who'd be supportive, but I'm not sure any of them would really understand or be able to respond.”
“Wow, you've really thought about this.”
I laughed, but there wasn't much humour there. “When something affects you this much, sometimes there's nothing else you can think about.
“There's more. I suffer from what I've heard other guys like me call testosterone poisoning.” She looked confused, or at least slightly more so. “What is it that counts towards beauty in women? Smooth skin, large eyes, full lips, small slender figure? Mostly things we associate with children – and before you say anything, I don't think women want to stay as children, other than in wanting to hang on to some of their physical characteristics.
“The way I see it, this is kind of evolution at work. In more brutal times, physically weaker women looked to men for protection, and what's more likely to draw out the protective instincts in an adult of either sex than the image of a child in danger, so natural selection had a tendency to favour women who retained youthful features. It's kind of a primal need which may go some way to explaining why so many women chase after any and every means possible to fend off the effects of ageing, and why they're so concerned about growing old; at least until it after it's happened.
“Men don't have that, and for most it's an advantage. Testosterone boosts physical development and makes guys tougher and more rugged. That's alright for most, but when, on the inside, you feel a need to look delicate and pretty, well do I need to say more? I look ridiculous in a dress. I know it and it's not what I want to be. It's not how I feel on the inside.
“I could probably make a half decent looking guy. Diet and a bit of exercise and I'd have reasonable muscles and a flatter – well okay, less circular – belly. A change of wardrobe and I could probably pass for halfway near handsome, but it wouldn't be me. Everyone would see this guy and respond to me as though I were a normal bloke, and I'd have to keep pretending to be a normal bloke, and that would just eat away at me until there was nothing left but gristle.”
“Oh come on, it can't be that bad can it?”
“Imagine yourself living in the fifties. Imagine waking up every morning wearing a nightdress covered in pink ribbons and lace. Imagine the first decision of the day, being whether to wear the pink dress with the flowers or the peach one with the big bow. Imagine all your friends only ever wanting to talk about clothes or boys. Imagine a life where you're expected to wait until someone asks you out, where all have to look forward to in life is looking after your husband, your home and your children; no way to express yourself professionally.”
“Are you saying you'd want all of that?”
“No, of course not. No self respecting human would want to be limited in that way. But you're missing the point. Right now I don't have access to any of those things in the same way you wouldn't have had access to the aspects of your life that make you so different. I feel like I'm being limited in who and what I can be. I don't know if I want to be a woman – not altogether, not completely, not all the time – but I do want the freedom women have now.
“I can't be who I want to be because no-one would understand or accept me on those terms, and I can't be who they expect me to be because I can only pretend to be someone else for so long before something gives – and it has given already. So instead I sort of exist. I am this badly dressed, amorphous blob of a person you've decided to make your friend because I can see no alternative, nothing that I can strive to become would be better.”
I stopped talking. I'd run out of words, but even if I'd had more to say, I was horribly aware of having stepped quite a long way over the line, of having exposed my vulnerabilities in a way that I never should have in front of someone whose respect I wanted. Then again that boat had long since sailed and was merrily burning on the horizon. I started picking at my nails again, refusing to look at Ruth.
The bedroom door opened – timing suspiciously convenient; almost tantamount to an admittance of eavesdropping – and Sally poked her head through the door.
“Hey Jerry, come on, Let's see what we can do with you.”
I stood and glanced over at Ruth, who was lost in thought. I didn't much feel like doing this now, but I'd put something of a dampener on an otherwise enjoyable evening, and I figured I owed it to everyone to make an effort. Too little too late perhaps, but worth a try. I stepped into the newly, and somewhat hastily, tidied bedroom. The door closed behind me cutting off any danger of me making things worse between Ruth and myself – at least for now.
“You won't know this,” Sally said in a mock-conspiratorial stage whisper, “but neither Siobhan nor I were always the svelte, lissome figures you see before you today. When we first met, we were both a little broader in the beam, and we decided back then to keep a few of our old things as a reminder and a warning, should we ever be tempted back into more crapulous ways. We have a few things we think will look good on you, but you have to trust us and let us do the business before you peek, okay?”
I shrugged and let them lead me through to their en-suite where a florally scented bubble bath was waiting for me. I was only permitted ten minutes to soak and wash my hair, but it was enough to settle some of the emotional murk my recent conversation had churned up. By the time I was done, a set of used but thoroughly laundered – so I was told – underwear awaited me. The knickers – Marks & Sparks finest, which meant enough frills and lace to give me a gooey soft feeling – were generous enough to fit my ample rear end as well as my not so optional extras up front. I'd never got the hang of tucking, so let them sit in there as best they could. With my figure, or lack of it, I decided that one more unsightly bulge wasn't going to make that much difference.
Even with an extender, the bra was a little snug around my chest. I adjusted the shoulder straps, but the cups still gaped, at least until a hand appeared through the doorway offering me a couple of rice filled knee highs. I have a fair amount of surplus flesh up top, and so was able to tuck the makeshift padding sufficiently under my own moobs to give a halfway believable cleavage.
Which was just as well, because when I emerged from the bathroom, I found a close approximation of the dress with which I had threatened Ruth earlier. It was more blue than pink – which suited my colouring better – and the skirt was shorter, falling to just mid thigh at a guess. What was most noticeable though, was that the neckline plunged rather deeper than made me feel comfortable.
“Ooh, smooth skin. That will help.” Sally rubbed an appreciative hand up and down my arm. One of the few concessions I made to my feminine alter ego was keeping my body hair at bay. I'd tried shaving, but that was expensive in razors and didn't last particularly long, plus it made my chest itch, so I'd switched to hair remover. It was working okay, but I did have some skin sensitivity issues and was considering giving waxing a try.
Siobhan offered me a dressing gown, which I gratefully wrapped around myself, and led me to a stool in front of a large dressing table. The girls had draped a towel over the mirror, leaving me totally at their mercy, especially once they had painted my nails a subtle but very pretty shade of pink. I sat very still, fingers and toes splayed out as best I could manage, and opened and closed my eyes when told. The mix of gentle perfumes was heady and the soft touch of brushes on my face loosened the aching knot I had been carrying inside me for so much of my life. Loosened, mind, not released. It had been there too long to be undone in just one sitting, especially after those words I'd shared with Ruth. Still it was good to feel the softening.
My hair was longish, more through neglect than intent, and apparently long enough for Sally to use her curling tongs on it. It felt strange by the time she'd finished; oddly mobile.
Finally they declared the the renovation work complete and offered me a pair of tights which were, well, tight, but at least they were long enough that I didn't end up with saggy crotch syndrome. I suspected they belonged to Siobhan who was particularly well endowed in the ambulatory department. A familiar cool wave washed over me as I slid the soft material up my legs, and I was glad of the tightness helping to hide the growing bulge between my legs.
They stood me up and held out the dress for me to step into. It was tight in the bodice, but intentionally so, flattening out most of the unsightly rolls of fat around my midriff. I smoothed down the front of the dress and felt like I had come home. I don't know how else to explain it, and I know most people wouldn't get it. Even my efforts with Ruth so far hadn't seemed to have taken firm root, and she was sympathetic. There was something inside my mind – or perhaps deeper, in my soul – which felt so right when I was dressed like this, and so wrong at other times. All the analogies about being a square peg in a round hole, or wearing shoes on the wrong feet, they all fell short of reality. It was like being bent out of shape for most of my life, and only in these very occasional, very private moments, being allowed to relax into something like my normal form. I almost cried from the sheer relief of the moment.
Long legs don't necessarily mean large feet, but Siobhan's shoe size was only one less than mine. She offered me a choice of a pair of flat, strappy sandals or a pair of open toed slingbacks with kitten heels. I went for the slingbacks which, with straps loosened, fit me tolerably well. My toes reached over the edge a little, and I wouldn't have wanted to walk very far in them, but they were a necessary part of all this effort. As were the necklace, the bangles, the clip on earrings, the small clutch purse, the sprays of perfume onto my neck and wrists. By the time they were done, I felt more completely me than ever before.
The girls declared me fit for purpose, and with a flourish, Sally pulled the towel off the mirror to show me my reflection. I prepared myself for the familiar heavy hearted feeling of disappointment and looked.
A plump, middle-aged woman in an ambitiously short dress looked back at me. She wasn't likely ever to win any beauty contests, but that didn't matter. For the first time in pretty much forever, I both looked and felt right.
That was when I realised just how much I had been holding back all my life; how much, even when dressed, I still felt bent out of shape. I was used to looking stupid in a dress – heavy brows, rough skin, strong features, all betraying the presence of a heavy-set male trying to be something that he evidently was not. I'd never bothered with hair or makeup before, because had no skill an those areas, and because I'd never believed such fine touches could soften the course lines and achieve the sort of results I saw in front of me now. For the first time in my life I looked in the mirror and the girl I had always known was there looked back.
“What do you think?” Sally asked.
I shook my head, causing my curls and earrings to dance. “I could cry.”
“Oh come on, it's not that bad.”
“No. No it's not. It's perfect. Thank you.” I pulled her into a hug, which she didn't resist until Siobhan coughed gently beside us. I wasn't sure if Shiv was warning me off her girlfriend or just feeling left out. I hugged her too.
“Shall we seek an impartial third opinion?” Sally asked.
My overworked adrenal gland dug into its emergency reserves and filled my veins with liquid ice. The stunted little girl in me still dreamed of a happily ever after, in which she captured the heart of her princess charming. The rest of me, more experienced, more callused, less optimistic, was not so naïve, but my fairy – hopefully the use of the term wasn't too derogatory in this case – godmothers had dressed me for the ball, and I couldn't help rising on wings of desperate hope.
I bit my lip and tugged nervously at my borrowed dress. I could scarcely breath as the door opened and I stepped through, looking straight into her eyes.
- British English for posterior.
- Do bears shit in the woods?
- Is the Pope Catholic?
- You know, the 'quotation marks in the air' thing.
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