Then the moment was over. “Alright now,” said chef Belletti. “Let’s go. It is time.”
Without heeding my protests that I needed some more time, I was dragged by the chef and Molly out of the changing room and through the kitchen, towards the dining room. The other chefs were already busying themselves around the stoves, putting the final touches on prep, but they paused to gawk at me as I crossed the room. “Hey, Xander!” Stefan shouted. “Looking good!”
Chef Belletti stopped dead in her tracks, and turned around to face him. “Stefan,” she said.
Stefan’s face changed, an oh-shit, deer-in-headlights expression taking shape on it. “Yes chef?”
“Unacceptable. Xander is already having a difficult time this evening, and cat-calls are certainly not helpful,” the chef told Stefan, stabbing an accusing finger towards him. “Apologise.”
Stefan knew better than to protest. “Sorry man, I was out of line,” he said.
I nodded in acknowledgement, and as soon as I did I was dragged onwards by Molly and the chef; as we left the kitchen and entered the dining room, they paused on the threshold and looked at each other.
“I just realised something,” Molly said. “It was what Stefan said.”
Chef Belletti nodded. “Yes, I did realise it too.” They both turned to look at me.
“...What?” I asked. I probably had the same deer-in-headlights expression on my face as Stefan had had, moments before.
“Xander, I’m sorry, but your name is… Ah...” said Molly, and then hesitated.
“It is not good for your current appearance,” the chef continued. “I understand that it is your name, but if a customer hears it by chance, they might… Take exception.”
I gulped. I hadn’t considered that. “So what, I should change it?”
“It’s probably for the best,” nodded Molly. “For tonight at least. Then next time you can go back to being Xander.”
I paused, deep in thought. They were right. This could be a potential safety issue. And besides, it’s not that I was particularly attached to Xander. I never even really liked that nickname anyway, ever since my classmates started calling me that over ‘Alex’ in third grade, but it was too much of a bother to correct them every time, so in the end I let it go. “Alright,” I replied.
Both women looked at me expectantly. “So, what should we call you for tonight?” asked the chef.
I paused again. Alex, maybe? I’d always wanted to be called that. But it didn’t quite feel right to choose that name under these circumstances. It almost felt like cheating. But what other name could I use? I sighed. “I don’t--”
“How about Sandra?” said Molly, suddenly. Me and the chef looked at her, and she continued, “You know, Alexander to Xander, Alexandra to Sandra. It fits, doesn’t it?”
I considered the name for a few moments, turning it over in my head. Sandra. Sandra. San-dra. Sandy? Maybe? No, Sandy didn’t feel quite right. Sandra felt better, but it didn’t really feel quite right too. But it was just for tonight, right? Wasn’t it?
I nodded. “Okay. Sandra.”
Molly and chef Belletti smiled, and the chef turned around to face the dining room, where the other waiters were busy putting the final touches on the table. “Everyone, your attention for one moment, please,” she said, and everyone stopped and turned to look at us. She pushed me out in front of her. “This is Sandra, she will be replacing Xander for tonight. Please do not give her a hard time.”
She. Her. Again. Those words gave me a little buzz, deep in my stomach, that I couldn’t quite identify as a precise emotion. Happiness? Contentment? Euphoria? A mixture of all of them? Whatever it was, I really didn’t have time to psychoanalyse myself right that moment, there was work to be done.
I looked across the dining room. Everyone seemed to have taken my new appearance in stride, and were already resuming their work. After taking a few moments to steady myself I joined them, asking the maitre’d what needed to be done.
And then it was time to begin service. It was business as usual, surprisingly; no one commented on my appearance, but I did catch a few customers looking at me intently, as if trying to discern something about me. Fortunately I didn’t need to linger long around their table, as on a slow night like that waiters were only expected to bring the food out, clear the empty plates when the diners were done, refill the water and the wine, bring some fresh bread. Some nights, when it was very busy, we would also need to take orders, but not that night; and I was thankful for that, since I was pretty sure my voice would have given me away. But I did get more thank-yous that I normally got.
About halfway through the service I took my break, and went out back to smoke. By chance, Molly took her break at the same time, and we found ourselves chatting; I mentioned the customers staring at me to her, but her answer was to smile and say, “They’re staring because you’re cute, silly!”
Those words hit me. Deep. A couple hours before, in the changing room, I was in too much shock to completely realise what was being said. That night it was the first time I’d been called cute in years, and probably the first time ever that wasn’t someone saying “Oh, what a cute kid” to my mother when I was very young.
“You...” I began, then hesitated. Molly looked at me, eyebrow raised questioningly, while taking a drag from her cigarette.
I gathered my courage.
“You really think I’m cute?” I blurted out.
She took another drag, exhaled the smoke, and nodded. “Yep. I do. Your face is cute. Your eyes are cute. Your nose, lips, eyebrows, lashes, hair. Everything about you is cute,” she said. From her tone, she was completely serious.
I felt tears starting to run down my cheeks. My cigarette dropped to the ground, and I turned away from Molly, my hands covering my face. I started shaking.
Molly looked at me in surprise, then she dropped her cigarette too, and was quickly by my side, giving me a half hug, and asking me what was wrong. I couldn’t answer, as I’d started to sob, tears still streaming down my face.
My head was spinning, full of thoughts about what had happened that night. The clothes. The makeup. The name. Being called cute. It all felt good. It all felt right.
But I didn’t want it to feel good. I didn’t want it to feel right.
Distantly, almost as in a haze, I could hear someone talking to Molly, and her replying “...Sorry, she kinda needs a moment right now...”
My hands still on my face, eyes closed, I felt someone pulling me back into the restaurant. Meekly I let them guide me, walking for a few minutes until I was sat down in a chair. I sat there for I don’t know how long, until I’d stopped trembling and the tears had dried up.
Lowering my hands, I looked around, and realised where I was; the chef’s office. I’d only been there once, to sign the contract, but I recognised it. Molly and chef Belletti were standing in front of me, concern evident on their faces.
“Sandra, are you all right?” asked the chef.
It was a while before I could answer, and what came out of my mouth was the truth: “I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry I put you through this,” said Molly. “You didn’t seem to mind going along with it, so I thought...” She paused. “I don’t know what I was thinking, to be honest. I was just having a bit of fun, without thinking how this might affect you. I’m sorry,” she said again. She was really dejected, and wasn’t meeting my gaze.
Chef Belletti, on the other hand, looked at me. I could tell she was still worried. After a few seconds, she seemingly came to a decision, and nodded, almost to herself.
“Go home for the night, Xander. Sleep it off. It will make you feel better.”
I was taken aback at hearing her call me Xander, and almost flinched, but I caught myself. “But the service--” I started to protest, but she cut me off.
“Do not worry,” the chef said. “It is a slow night. And besides, you being okay is more important than the service.”
“Go,” she said firmly. “Molly, can you help him get changed?”
Him. That time I really did flinch. I’d only been her for a couple hours, but being him again hurt, for some reason. Neither the chef nor Molly noticed it though, and Molly escorted me to the changing rooms; we were about to get into the female changing room, when I remembered my normal clothes were in my locker, in the male one. I went in, Molly waiting outside, and changed into my normal jeans-and-t-shirt outfit.
When I came back out I looked at her, holding her skirt, blouse and tights, unsure about what I should do with them; she seemed to intuit what I was thinking, however, since she made me hand them over and told them not to worry about them. Then she gave me a good look, and swore under her breath.
“What?” I asked.
“Your make-up,” she replied. “I hadn’t thought about it. It doesn’t come out with soap, you need proper remover for that, and I don’t have it here, I usually take my make-up off at home.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“What? You’re sure?” she said.
I nodded. “I live with my parents and sister, there’s sure to be some remover in the bathroom at home. And everyone will be asleep when I get there.” Though, admittedly, I felt a bit queasy about the risk I was taking.
“Alright,” said Molly, but she still seemed unsure. “Remember, shake it before use, put a little bit on a cotton pad, and wipe your eyes with that. For your mouth, water is enough.” She walked me to my car, and as I got in she grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’m sorry, Xander. Really.”
She paused, almost as if she wanted to say something else, but in the end she just bid me a good night.
I clunk-ed my Crown Vic into drive, and started for home.
As I drove through the night, I tried to gather my thoughts, to put some semblance of order into my disarrayed feelings, but to no avail. All my life I’d always felt as if I was looking for something, anything, to fill the gaping void inside me. But that was normal, wasn’t it? Everyone felt like that. Everyone felt scared and empty and afraid all the time. Finally, in high school, I thought I’d found what I was looking for: by concentrating on sports, I was able to ignore the nagging feeling that was always biting at the back of my mind. I thought I could keep on going like this, forever, without having to actually think about things ever again.
But that night had blown everything open. The feelings I’d felt while I was looking at myself in the mirror, dressed up as a girl… I didn’t even know how to begin to describe them. It was a feeling of contentment. Of fulfilment. It was like I felt whenever I worked out almost to exhaustion, when I managed to run a marathon without collapsing, when I swam a kilometre without stopping. It was exhilarating. It was happiness.
And it scared me.
I had a good life. No, scratch that. I had a great life. If you ignored the emptiness I felt sometimes (and I was really good at ignoring it) I had basically everything I would ever want. But that feeling, that euphoria, made me want to risk everything. But I couldn’t. Why would I? I was happy. I was happy.
My mind was still in turmoil as I pulled into my house’s parking lot. It was about eleven thirty; I was home earlier than usual, usually I would arrive at about half past midnight, but I was sure my whole family was asleep: my parents liked to go to sleep early, and on school night they forced my sister (who was still in high school) to follow their example. So I was safe.
As quietly as I could, as to not wake anyone up, I entered through the front door, locked it behind me, and started up the stairs towards my room. I didn’t bother turning on the light, I’d lived in that house all my life and I knew all the nooks and crannies by heart.
Yeah. Maybe chef Belletti was right. Maybe sleeping over it would do me good.
As I reached the first floor and was about to open the door to my room the hallway light turned on, bathing me in its glow.
“Oh, it’s you,” I heard my sister’s voice from behind me. “Sorry, bro, you’re early. I hadn’t fallen asleep yet and I got worried when I heard some noise.”
Instinctively, I turned around to face her, to greet her. That was a mistake.
Before I could even realise I’d fucked up, she gave me a weird stare. “What’s that in your hair?” she asked; I fumbled upwards with my hand, touched something metallic, and realised I hadn't taken off the hairpin the chef had given me.
Then my sister's eyes widened.
“Are you wearing make-up?”