The boy sneaks past the bathroom, opens the door to his sister’s room, and slips his thin frame through. From her closet he retrieves a dress, a flowery, colorful affair. He leaves, closes the door silently, tiptoes back into his room and, contrary to house policy, locks the door behind him.
He removes his pajamas and puts on a pair of black boxer briefs he usually only wears for basketball. He puts on the dress, letting it fall over him, raising his arms as if diving into it.
A summer dress, of linen or some such material, with thin stringy straps and a low, straight neckline revealing the violin curves of his collar bones and his sharp shoulder blades. It kind of falls down and away from him, above the knee, accentuating the delicate curves of his toy body here and there: his hips and butt.
He feels pretty, looking at himself in the mirror. He likes the feel of the wind up his legs as he walks. It gives him a slight erection, but it is hidden by the shape of the dress.
He walks out his door with his backpack, past his sister who is just coming out of the bathroom, who gasps as she covers her mouth with her hand before tears come to her eyes and she smiles.
Bye mom bye dad, he says, as he walks out the door.
Have a nice day honey, his mother replies while washing dishes.
Yup, says his father.
As he walks across the yard his father sees him from the corner of his eye. The cigarette drops from his mouth and the newspaper in his lap catches fire.
God damn it to hell, shit, fuck, as he throws it to the floor and stamps it out.
What is it, Herman?
Did you see what our son was wearing?
We should be so proud of his courage, says the sister from the top of the stairs, hands clasped at her chest, mascara running down her cheeks.
He walks to school through the streets of Suburbs, USA. Cars come to a stop upon seeing him. Kids laugh and parents whisper at doorsteps but he does not notice.
The halls of his high school fall silent as he walks through them. In homeroom he is assaulted with stares and volleys of crumpled pieces of paper that would reveal FAGGOT and GAY and crude drawings of sex acts if he picked them up and unfolded them. When the teacher walks in she sends him to the office as the bell rings to begin the day.
He sits in a chair in the principal’s office, legs spread wide in innocence, hands folded in his lap. The principal—bespectacled, balding, arms crossed—stares out the window through Venetian blinds.
Is this a joke, young man?
Is what a joke, sir?
If it is, it will go on your permanent record.
He is sent to in-school suspension, with the promise of a very serious meeting with him and his parents tomorrow. When he leaves the office a group of girls approaches him.
They ask if he would like to borrow stockings, underwire, pumps, or makeup. When he says no, thanks, they run away down the hall, whispering and giggling.
He walks out through the doors of his high school, toward home. The football team practices on the field to his right. They stop what they’re doing and press themselves against the fence, claw at the chain-link, whooping and whistling as he walks by. The coach growls at them. A football is let fly and it bounces off his head with an eruption of laughter.
Most of the windows of his house are dark. When he enters, he can hear his mother whimpering in the kitchen beneath the drone of the radio and the sounds of her cooking. His father stands in the darkened living room, looking out the windows in the same stance of the principal.
School called. Go to your room and take that damn thing off. We’ll have a long talk tomorrow, young man.
The boy obliges in silence. His sister is waiting at the top of the stairs.
Hey, she says softly, if you need to talk I’m here for you.
More words than she’s spoken to him in weeks.
You look nice, she adds.
The boy continues to his room. He hears his sister scream FASCISTS! down the stairs and slam the door to her room.
All day he maintained his silence, made no proclamation.
He sits at the foot of his bed, looking at himself in the mirror: at the dress, and the parts of himself it doesn’t cover. He grips and twists its cloth with a trembling hand, begins to lower a strap but places it back on his shoulder—each word spoken to him throughout the day revolving in his head.
He falls back onto his bed. His eyes glaze with tears that don’t quite find their way down his face. Model airplanes hang from the ceiling, casting shadows that fly across the walls as the sun sets. He reaches for an old stuffed animal and worries it in his hands, listens to the far-off barking of dogs and children playing in the street.
He does his homework. He takes out a binder and looks at his collection of baseball cards before turning off the light to sleep, curled upon top of his covers.
Breakfast is spent in silence. The boy’s mother went back to bed after cooking. His father does not eat, does not touch his coffee mug, looks back and forth at the boy and his sister with something between anger and bewilderment. The boy sits in his pajamas and stares at his plate long after he’s finished. When they are excused, he and his sister walk back up the stairs. He follows her into her room.
Can I borrow another? he asks.
Yes, she says, and smiles as she hands him the dress.
Shay Swindlehurst graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a BA in English. He lives and writes in the Berkshires, in the small town of Lenox where he grew up, not far from the former homes of Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorn, and Edith Wharton.