Chapter 8: Skylar
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…And ten. Done.

I stopped at the end of the lane and grabbed onto the wall, catching my breath. I’d just finished swimming my laps at the pool.

It was four weeks after the dinner at Silvia’s house, and my life had more or less settled into a routine. It wasn’t that different from my old routine, before I hatched: the only real difference was that I had a couple more things to do during my week than usual, I’d even started going to the training sessions for the triathlon team again.

Of course, I always tried to avoid the changing room when it was crowded, so I made sure to always be the first one there after the day’s lessons, and the last one to leave – this last part wasn’t hard, since I had the longest hair on the team, so I needed to take much more time than the others to take care of it. Of course I couldn’t completely avoid seeing naked men, and being seen by them, but I grit my teeth and ignored it. I’d done it for years, I could do it for some more time. But I avoided it when possible.

Like today. I looked around: I was the last one left in the pool, everyone else had left for the day. Great, that meant there probably wouldn’t be anyone in the showers. I swam to the edge of the pool, pulled myself up, and sat down for a couple seconds, shaking the water from my arms.

“Hey Xander! Working hard I see!”

I looked up. Roger was standing there, fully dressed except he was wearing plastic slippers, which were mandatory near the edge of the pool in place of normal shoes.

“You still here, Roger?” I asked. “Thought you’d left a while ago.”

“Almost, as you can see I’m ready to go. I just wanted to ask if you’d like to go for coffee after this. I can wait until you’re done showering and getting dressed.” I could see the eagerness in his eyes.

Normally I would’ve said yes, after I’d started going to training again getting coffee with Roger had become a semi-regular occasion, just to catch up and chat a bit. We’d even taken to calling them, jokingly, “coffee dates”. But that day I was particularly busy in the afternoon, so I really couldn’t.

“Sorry, bud,” I replied. “Today’s no good, I have work tonight, and some stuff I need to do before that.”

His face fell a bit, but he quickly recovered. “Ah, that’s too bad,” he said. “Next time, then. Oh, and we’re still on for my birthday party this weekend, aren’t we?”

I nodded. “Yeah, of course we are.” I’d even taken a day off from work to go, I wasn’t about to miss my best friend’s party; his actual birthday had been a couple days before, and we’d gone out at a nice café to celebrate with a slice of cake, but since most people were busy on week nights he’d delayed the big party until the following Saturday.

“Great!” he replied, and extended a hand towards me. I grasped it, and let him pull me up to my feet.

“Okay, see ya tomorrow,” I said as a goodbye. But I saw he was looking at my hand intently.

“Xander, are you wearing nail polish?” he asked, his voice puzzled.

Shit. I quickly pulled my hand out of his grasp, and hid it behind my back without thinking. He gave me a weird stare.

I was wearing nail polish – clear nail polish, to be precise. It was one of the few small concessions to femininity I could get away with in my daily life, besides the weekends when my parents were away and I dressed up in my sister’s clothes. Clear nail polish is not a big deal, I thought. And it’s not like someone will notice, right?

Wrong.

“…Yeah. Yeah, I am,” I replied, my voice a bit shaking. I pulled my hand from behind my back and showed it to him. “One of my nails got chipped. And my sister said this was the best way to avoid it breaking completely, which would be bad. And I couldn’t just put polish on one fingernail, that would’ve looked weird.”

Roger kept giving me that weird stare, but he didn’t pry further. “Okay, man,” he said. “See you tomorrow then.” He patted me on my shoulder, turned, and left.

I slowly let out the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. That was close. Way too close for comfort. I really needed to be more careful.

And, sooner or later, I would have to come out to Roger. And the rest of the guys on the team. And the school at large.

The thought terrified me.

But that could wait for a while longer. Shaking my head to get rid of the scary stuff in my brain, I headed for the changing room.

About one hour later, I rang the doorbell at Silvia, Skylar, and Ash’s house. After a few moments, it opened to reveal Skylar, smiling at me.

“Hello, Lexi,” she said. “How are you today?”

“I’m good,” I replied. “A bit…”

I noticed she had raised her hand, as if in warning. I sighed, then concentrated on my throat, trying to move the muscles like she’d taught me.

“I’m… I’m good,” I repeated, in a different voice. “A bit nervous, to be honest.”

She smiled and nodded. “Good. Like that. Your voice is still a bit shaky, but you almost got it. But need to practice every time you can,” she said, motioning me to come into the house. “And why are you nervous?”

“Well…” I continued, still concentrating on my voice. “I had a sort of run in with one of my friends today, at the pool. He noticed I’m wearing nail polish.” I showed my hand to her.

After the dinner, I’d taken up Skylar on her offer to help me with my voice. Going to her house for lessons before going to work at Silvia’s restaurant – which was just a few miles from their house – had become a regular occasion. At first we’d focused on getting my pitch and timbre to a place where I was happy with them, and through the use of some tricks she’d taught me and lots of practice (usually in the evening, in my room, with the door closed, or on the weekends with my sister Lena), I’d managed to reach a point where my voice was passable. But maintaining that voice over the course of long conversation was a different matter entirely, hence the conversation practice I was doing currently. Every now and then, Skylar would warn me my voice was slipping, and how to correct it.

I was really grateful for her help, especially since she had been so gracious as to do it without asking for anything in return. Which was a big thing, since being a vocal coach was her day job.

“Ah, that’s too bad,” she said. “So what did you do?”

“I told him one of my fingernails was chipped, so I put nail polish on to avoid it breaking completely.”

“Okay, back up a second,” she interrupted me. “Enunciate the words a bit more. Fingernails.”

I frowned, and concentrated on the word. “Fingernails,” I said.

Fingernails,” she repeated, putting a specific stress on the syllables.

I listened to how she pronounced it, and tried to imitate it. “Fingernails.”

“Great. Try to remember how your throat and tongue moved just now,” she said. “Go on. Did he ask anything else?”

“No, he didn’t,” I replied. “He just dropped the subject.” I sighed. “I feel a bit guilty, though. He’s my best friend, and I’m lying to him.”

“You’re not,” Skylar said. “You’re just not ready to tell him everything. That will come in time.”

“I just wish I could come clean to everyone,” I said. “So far, the only ones who know are Lena, my counsellor Miriam, and you three. And Molly.”

“I know you feel bad. But it’s for your own good. You need to be careful about this, to avoid burning any bridges.”

“Yeah, that’s what Miriam tells me.”

“No, not like that. Miriam,” Skylar interrupted me once again. “You said it right before, try to remember it.”

I frowned. “That’s what Miriam tells me.” Skylar nodded, and I continued. “I’m sure it will come as a surprise to most. I just hope it will be worth it.”

“In my experience? Yes,” she said. “I would do everything over again in a heartbeat. But I’m not you. It’s up to you to decide who and when to tell.”

“I know,” I replied, and sighed. “I’m just… Feeling so unsure. And tonight’s the night, even.”

“Oh, right! I’d almost forgotten.” She paused. “You don’t have to do it tonight, if you don’t feel up to it.”

I shrugged. “I gotta do it sooner or later, might as well be tonight.”

“Okay,” she nodded.

We kept chatting for a while longer, and then I looked at my watch and saw it was almost time to go to work, so I excused myself. She hugged me while seeing me off, and then I got into my car and drove to the restaurant.

Once again, I sat in my Crown Vic in the parking lot for a few minutes. Was I really going to do it? True, Silvia had said she would make sure I would have no trouble, but still.

I sighed. What was that thing someone said once? A thousand mile journey starts with a single step?

Okay, let’s take that step.

I got out of the car, and walked through the back door of the restaurant.

Molly was there, waiting for me. Silvia had roped her into helping, and she’d readily agreed; I think she still felt a bit guilty for dressing me up the first time, even though I’d told her not to worry about it.

“Hi, Lexi,” she said. “It’s in there.” She nodded to the girls’ changing room.

Somehow, hearing my name being spoken made me feel a bit better. Less anxious.

I nodded in return, and walked in.

The room was as I remembered it from the last time I’d been in there, that first fateful night: a near-twin of the boys’ changing room, but significantly more clean, and with a couple more mirrors hanging from the walls.

One thing was different though: one of the lockers had a brand-new name tag, proclaiming LEXI in big bold letters.

Hanging from the locker’s door was a uniform, exactly like the one I’d worn back then.

This was my own, though.

I just stood there for a few minutes, looking at it. This was another big step. Once I had worn that and stepped out of the locker room, there would be no going back.

I gulped.

“Get on with it, Lexi,” I muttered to myself.

I quickly undressed, and put my clothes in my locker. My locker, I realised. I had a locker in the girls’ changing room. I dwelled on it for a few seconds, then I kept going. I pulled on the bra Lena had given to me, the padded one that gave the illusion I had a bit of a chest; then a camisole – which I’d been told was needed to avoid my bra showing through the thin material of the blouse – and the uniform itself: blouse, skirt (pulling it up to my waist like Molly had done), tights, apron, and shoes. I pulled my hair in a high ponytail with a scrunchie, and gave myself a once-over in the mirror.

There I was. Once again, I saw a girl. Her face looked a bit masculine, I wasn’t wearing any make-up after all, but overall I was satisfied with the result.

I cracked the changing room’s door open an inch. “I’m done getting dressed,” I said.

“Good,” came Molly’s answer, and she entered the room too. She sat me down in front of the mirror, and pulled out the array of cosmetics she kept in her purse.

“Now, pay attention, Lexi,” she said. “I’ll go slowly, but you need to learn to do this on your own.”

I nodded, and she got to work. First she layered some foundation on my face, “To have a base to work on.” Then came an eye pencil and mascara, some blush, and a bit of lipstick. In about ten minutes, she was done. She’d painted my face masterfully, like a renaissance artist, highlighting my features without obscuring them; I was seriously impressed with her ability.

“Of course this is just a simple, no-nonsense makeup,” she said. “We could do so much more, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for a work environment.”

I nodded. I was already running the steps over in my mind, committing them to memory.

There was a knock at the door. “Hello? Lexi? Molly? Are you in there?” came Silvia’s voice.

“Yeah,” Molly replied. “Come in!”

I turned to greet Silvia, and she stopped in front of me, looking me up and down with a critical eye. She reached behind me and straightened my ponytail, and then my apron, and nodded. “Good,” she said. “Are you ready, Lexi?”

“...No?” I replied.

She smiled and gave a small laugh. “Do not worry, you will get used to it. Give me five minutes, then come to the dining room.”

I nodded, and she was off. Molly and I left the changing room, and through the kitchen door I could hear Silvia call for the chefs’ attention, and ask them to go to the dining room. Then she moved on, and she did the same for the front-of-house staff.

We moved to the waiting position we’d agreed on, near the door that led to the dining room from the kitchen, and listened to Silvia talk to the staff.

“Good evening, everyone,” she said, and then waited for the chorus of “Good evening, chef,” to die down.

“I have called for a meeting of everyone tonight,” she continued, “because there will be a change in the staff, and I thought it would be better to tell all of you at the same time, so none hears it second-hand.”

I could barely see her, through the small glass window that was set into the kitchen doors, but she was running her eyes over the assembled staff. Then, when no one had anything to say, she turned around and called, loudly: “Come in!”

I gulped. My heart was racing at what felt like a million heartbeats per minute. I was almost panicking, but I had to do this. I gave a glance to Molly, who was standing beside me, and she smiled and nodded.

Here goes nothing. I took a deep breath, then pushed open the double doors, and walked into the dining room; I took the place we’d agreed on, standing beside Silvia, while Molly joined the waiters lined up in front of us.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, but I just had to bear it for a bit.

“Everyone,” the chef said, “This is Lexi. You have known her under another name, but she has decided to start coming to work like this from now on.” She paused, and her voice hardened a bit. “I am sure there will not be any issue with that. Am I right?”

“Yes, chef,” came the answer. I felt my tensed-up body relax a bit.

“Good. Then we can go back to work, tonight is a bit busy so we need to work well together. Have a good evening, everyone.”

Everyone broke ranks; the waiters started busying themselves with preparing the dining room, while the chefs headed back to the kitchen. Most of them passed me without saying a word, but Stefan paused for a second, put his hand on my shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. When I looked at him, he was smiling at me. Then he was gone, back into the kitchen.

After a minute Silvia turned to me, and smiled. “I would say that went well,” she said.

I nodded. “Yes, it did.”

“Good,” she said. “I have to go to the kitchen, Lexi. But do tell me if you have any trouble tonight.”

“Okay.”

She turned and walked through the double doors to the kitchen. I stood there for a few moments, until I heard someone call my name.

“Lexi?”

I turned, and saw that it was the maitre’d.

“Yes?” I answered.

“Get to work, young lady,” he said with a smirk. “Your new name and uniform are no excuse for slacking off, are they now?”

I smiled. “No, I guess not.”

And then I was off, to help the other waiters set the tables.

The chef was right, that night was quite busy, but I had no trouble doing my usual work of bringing food out, replacing the water and wine, and clearing the empty plates.

About an hour into service the restaurant was becoming much busier than usual, though, and the maitre’d couldn’t keep up with all the tables which needed to order, so he started delegating.

“Lexi, could you please take table seven?” he asked me, handing me five menus – one for each person at the table, and one for myself in case I needed to consult it. “They’ve been seated for ten minutes and still need to order.”

“Okay,” I nodded, taking the menus and heading for the table. I was a bit nervous, since I would need to use my new voice, but I didn’t think that would be a problem: after all the training I’d done with Skylar, I was quite confident in it.

I mentally rehearsed my speech as I approached the table, and concentrated on getting my voice just right. Alright, here we go. Big smile, endear yourself to the customers.

“Good evening,” I said, looking down at the menu to see what the day’s special was. “I’m Lexi, and I’ll be your waitress for tonight. To start off, can I--”

Xander?

I stopped. My smile froze on my lips.

Woodenly, I looked up.

Sitting at the table, with his parents and brother, was Roger.

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