Dysphoria; mention of slurs (related to sexuality).
“…And Parker,” the coach said. “Congrats, guys.”
I exhaled the breath I’d been holding; it was the second Monday of December, and I’d made it onto the team’s active roster once again. But just barely: the cold I’d caught while travelling home for Thanksgiving had laid me flat, and while I’d been able to attend the lessons again on Tuesday (since my fever had gone down by then), I had to skip a whole week of training, to avoid a relapse of my illness. That meant that I only had a week to train up for the tryouts, and as a result it was much more difficult than usual to beat my competition.
But that wouldn’t be a problem for the following month: I would have all the time I could possibly want to train over the Christmas holidays – I’d inquired with Coach Davis, and he told me that while the sports facilities were normally going to be closed between the 23rd of December and the 4th of January, I could still access them by asking the coach himself for permission: he had the keys to the school’s swimming pool and running track, as well as the equipment shed where the bicycles were stored.
I still had to plan things a bit, since I’d promised my family that I would go visit them for Christmas, but that would be no problem at all.
And speaking of Christmas, for the first time ever, I had decided to buy some presents for someone outside my family; I’d never had that many friends growing up, and no one I was particularly close to, but this year I had several people whom I wanted to give a gift to: Roger and Lexi, for instance – since they were my teammates and we played in the same gaming group. And also Lena and Patrick: I’d grown really close to both of them, since one was my roommate and the other was doing the same major as I was in college, and they had taken care of me while I was sick, so I wanted to thank them properly.
I’d spent some of my time searching for the appropriate present for each of my friends during the previous afternoons, when I wasn’t training for the triathlon team tryouts, and I thought I’d managed to find something for almost all of them: a headband with the school colours for Lexi, to keep her hair out of her face while she was training – during team training sessions I’d noted that she only used a hair tie for that purpose, so I hoped my gift would be welcome; an anti-fogging spray, to use on swim goggles, for Roger, since he’d mentioned that was one of the problems he most often faced while training (I had no idea why he didn’t think of it before, but all the better for me, since it meant I didn’t have to think of a different present for him); and a nice book about how the universe will eventually come to an end in the far, far future for Patrick – it seemed appropriate, since he was studying astronomy, and the book had been written by a famous astrophysicist. That’s almost the same, isn’t it?
The only thing I was missing was a present for Lena.
I honestly had no idea what to even buy her at first: she’d never mentioned wanting anything in particular whenever we were studying together, and I wanted to give her a more significant gift than a pen case or something. I really liked her, I really liked both her and Patrick, and it seemed unfair to just buy her whatever while I’d put some significant thought into a gift for my roommate: she deserved something at least as significant as what I’d bought for him.
And then I had a thought. Lena was a very feminine girl, I’d rarely seen her wear trousers, and she seemed to enjoy showing off her… Woman-ness, for lack of a better word. She really liked wearing dresses and skirts, and accessories and jewellery along with them. Well, a piece of jewellery would be going too far, wouldn’t it? Like a ring, or a pair of earrings, or a necklace. She might get the wrong idea: while I really liked her, and I enjoyed her company, she could take it to mean that I wanted us to be more than friends, and we hadn’t reached that point just yet.
But a dress? Or a skirt? Those would be fine. It would be something she really liked, and that she could use often, without it having a hidden meaning. Moreover, it would be something I’d put some thought into, like the book I’d bought for Patrick. Yes, a dress would work great.
The only problem was: I had no idea what size she even wore. It would be really embarrassing if I bought her something that didn’t fit and which she had to return and exchange for something else, wouldn’t it?
“Theo, what’s wrong?” Roger’s voice shook me from my thoughts. “You’re really quiet today.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, don’t worry,” I replied with a smile. “I was just thinking, you know how I can get lost in thought sometimes.”
He gave a brief laugh. “Yeah, I’ve noticed. Were you thinking about anything in particular?”
I thought about it for a bit, but saw no harm in actually telling him. “Yes, actually. I was thinking about how to find out what dress size Lena wears.”
Roger blinked. “Lena’s dress size? Why would you need to know that?”
“Well, you see,” I explained. “I wanted to buy her a present, for Christmas. And I thought a dress, or a piece of clothing anyway, would be good. But I need to know what size to buy it, right?”
He looked at me for a moment, and then smirked. “Oh, I see.”
“Um,” I said. “What do you see?”
“So that’s how it is,” he continued, and put a hand on my shoulder. “Well, good luck my friend.”
I understood what he was getting at. “Hey, no, hold on a second,” I protested.
“What?” he said, an innocent look on his face.
“It’s not what you’re thinking. At all,” I said. “There’s nothing between me and Lena besides a good friendship. That’s all.”
“Isn’t there now?” Roger continued, the smirk never leaving his lips. “Is friendship the reason you’re putting so much thought into selecting a present for her?”
“It is,” I insisted. “And for the record, I’ve put as much thought into Patrick’s present as I did Lena’s.” I crossed my arms in front of my chest. “So there.”
My teammate paused. He gave me a long hard stare.
“You’re giving Patrick a Christmas present,” he said finally.
“I am,” I nodded.
“And you’ve put lots of thought into it. As much as you did in selecting Lena’s gift.”
“I did,” I replied. “What are you getting at?”
He kept staring for a couple seconds, then shook his head; he had an undecipherable expression on his face. “No, it’s nothing. But if you want to know what Lena’s dress size is, there’s a simple solution.”
“And that is?” I asked.
“Ask Lexi,” he shrugged. “They’re sisters after all, and I know for sure they’ve been sharing clothes with each other. Lexi is sure to know what size Lena wears.”
Of course. Why hadn’t I realised it before? That made perfect sense.
“You’re right,” I said. “Thank you, I hadn’t thought about that.”
Roger smiled. “I swear, Theo, sometimes you seem unable to realise the simplest things.”
“Hey now,” I protested, punching his shoulder lightly. “Whatever do you mean by that?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Thank you for coming with me, Lexi,” I said as we entered the store. “And you too,” I continued, nodding to Roger and Pat. “I always get nervous when I go shopping for clothes.”
“Hey, that’s what friends are for, right?” she smiled back. “Now, what were you looking for?”
I realised then and there that I hadn’t told her – or Patrick, for that matter; I’d just asked them to come along with me to do some clothes shopping, without telling Lena about it, but nothing further.
“Um, about that…” I fidgeted a bit. “I’m looking for a Christmas present.”
“A Christmas present?” Patrick asked, his eyebrows rising.
I nodded. “For Lena.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Lexi replied, “Oh. So I guess it’s official then?”
“What? No!” I said, perhaps a bit too defensively. “It’s just that she’s a nice girl, and I thought I’d surprise her.”
“Mmhmm,” she said, entirely unconvinced.
“Don’t.” I lifted my finger in warning.
“Don’t what?” Pat asked; he had an amused smile on his lips, but also a weird look in his eyes.
“Lena and I are just friends, that’s all.”
Lexi shrugged. “If you say so. Now, this way,” she said, grabbing my arm and dragging me along towards a clothes rack from which various pieces of clothing hung. “My sister and I are the same size, so if you think something will look good on her I can model it for you.”
“Thank you,” I replied. I looked around for a few seconds, then grabbed something that I thought Lena might like.
“A jumpsuit, Theo? Really?” Pat said.
“Hey, jumpsuits are cute!” I protested. My friends just looked at me. “Jumpsuits… Can be cute?”
“You’re absolutely hopeless,” Roger smiled. “It’s probably for the best if you let Lexi take the lead.”
I sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. So, what do you think, Lexi?”
“Well, I think she might like this,” she answered, grabbing a blouse off the rack.
The next half hour was a complete whirlwind of me being dragged around inside the store, Lexi choosing clothes, and me giving input on whether I liked them or not. After a while I began to get the hang of it – a little bit, anyway – and started suggesting items of clothing again. Some of those were rejected out of hand, but for many of them Lexi and the others nodded approvingly. In the end we settled for a cute calf-length long sleeved blue dress: something that was fine in a casual situation, but that could also be dressed up for a special occasion with some accessories, Lexi explained.
“Okay!” Roger exclaimed. “Since we’re here, shall we look at something else? Like a hat, or a pair of gloves, or something.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m okay. You knock yourself out, I’ll go pay for the dress and wait for you outside.”
“Sure thing!” Pat replied.
I was starting to walk away, when I heard Lexi swear; I turned back. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Me and my butter fingers,” she mumbled. “Could you three give me a hand here?”
She pointed towards the inside of the changing room: there was a pill bottle on the floor, with several pills, both blue and yellow, scattered all around.
“I realised I was late for my dose, so I decided to take it now, but the bottle slipped,” she explained. “Damn child-proof caps, they should outlaw them.”
“I think they had to make a law specifically to make them mandatory, dear,” Roger said with a smile, crouching down and starting to pick up pills.
“Ah, whatever,” Lexi replied.
As for myself, I was a bit worried; I crouched to the floor, too, and started gathering the pills. There were two kinds: one was blue, oval-shaped, with a lowercase B marked on it, while the other was round and yellow.
“Um… What are the pills for?” I asked. “Why did you need to take it now?” I lowered my voice. “Are you… Ill, or something?”
Lexi looked at me and smiled. “Nah, don’t worry, Theo. It’s for a… Condition I have. Nothing life-threatening, but something I have to keep under control. Hence the pills.”
“I see,” I said. But I was still worried; even though I was fully aware it was none of my business, I resolved to look up what those pills were once I got back to my dorm room. I was sure I could find something by googling.
We finished gathering the pills, and I picked up the dress, while my friends started looking for something else to buy; leaving them behind, I started moving through the racks of clothes, heading towards the register, when I stopped. Something had caught my attention: a simple dress, knee length, red but decorated with a pattern of orange and yellow flowers. It was the only one left on its rack, all alone – everything else around it had apparently been sold. I walked over and felt the fabric with my hand, looked at the colours. I really liked it; it even looked like it was my size, normal for a man, but a bit on the large size for a girl.
No. No, I couldn’t.
After all, even though I’d given myself some small concessions – the nail polish, and the less-masculine haircut – that would have been a step too far. I mean, I might want to look pretty once in a while – who wouldn’t? – but wearing a dress? That was beyond what I could do. I was still a man, and men don’t wear dresses.
But try as I might, I couldn’t pry my eyes from it; I was still staring at it when my friends caught up with me.
“Did you find something else?” Roger asked, shaking me from my thoughts.
“No!” I said, jumping in surprise. “I mean, yes. Yes, I think Lena might like this, what do you think Lexi?” I added really quickly.
“It’s quite different from her usual style, the one we found before is closer to what she usually wears,” she replied. “And it looks like it’s a couple sizes too big, too. Actually, it would--”
“Nevermind then!” I half shouted, removing my hand from the dress and letting it fall back down, hanging straight from the rack. “Did you find something?”
My friends exchanged glances. “No, we didn’t,” Patrick said.
“Okay, then I’ll just go and pay for this one dress and we’ll be on our way,” I said. I started to turn towards the register again.
“Hold on,” Lexi said.
I turned back towards her. “Yes? What is it?”
She was giving me a weird stare; she had an expression that was halfway between puzzled and inquisitive. She looked at me in silence for a while, until I repeated, “Lexi? What’s wrong?”
She took the dress we’d picked out for Lena from my hands and gave it to Roger. “You boys wait here,” she said, and then she grabbed my arm again, pulling me to a secluded part of the store. There was no one else around.
“Alright,” she said, her voice dropping in volume. “Now listen here, Theo. The look you had just now…” She shook her head. “Let’s just say it’s a look I know very well. It’s the look of someone who desperately wants to try something, but is making up excuses in their mind as to why they can’t. The point is…” She took a deep breath, grabbed my hands, and looked into my eyes. “The point is, this can be hard to figure out, what with society and stereotypes and all. I went on for years believing otherwise, and I’m telling you so you don’t have to figure it out on your own: if you want to wear a dress, you can just wear a dress.”
Can I? I thought. Can I really? Am I allowed to? Is that a thing I can do?
A memory flashed through my mind: uncle Adam, at Thanksgiving, sneering at me, and saying “What, you a fag or something?”
“So,” Lexi continued, and made a significant pause. “Do you want to try that dress on?”
She held my gaze. “Are you sure?” she asked.
She looked in my eyes for a few moments longer, and then nodded. “Alright,” she said. “But it would be perfectly okay for you to do so. Just to be clear on that.”
She let go of my hands and turned away from me. “We should probably get back to the others.”
I nodded weakly. “Yes, probably.”
I paid for Lena’s dress, and then we made our way to the food court to have a snack before heading home. After we were seated, however, Patrick excused himself, saying he’d forgotten something in the store; he returned after a while, a bag with the store’s logo on it in his hand – he’d spotted a pair of jeans he liked, he said, so he decided to buy them. But his words, and everything that was said after that, barely registered in my mind.
Until I fell asleep in my bed that evening, I had just one thought running through my brain.
I should have tried that dress on.