Shannon stared at her face in the mirror for a long time amid the flushing of toilets and the chatter of girls’ voices. She put her hands to her cheeks and pressed in. Her face was too square. Next to her, Delilah bent towards the mirror. She inspected her complexion (in Shannon’s opinion, there was nothing to inspect) and pulled out a bottle of foundation. She leaked the liquid onto the back of her hand between the thumb and pointer and dabbed at it daintily with a little brush, applying the pale cream to her already pore-less cheeks. Shannon drew closer to the mirror and inspected her wide pores, most of them darkened. She washed her face everyday with multiple creams and it still looked like this. Delilah applied her eyeliner with expert strokes. Whenever Shannon did it, the black paint smeared with the oil on her skin. Another girl approached the mirror and made a comment to Delilah that was audible but not comprehensible to Shannon. The two girls laughed and continued to speak in undertones. “What are you guys talking about?” said Shannon as nonchalantly as possible. Delilah muttered something that Shannon didn’t quite catch in a tone that implied that it was obvious.
That evening Shannon sat in her room with the door shut. She wasn’t doing anything, just sitting. She was looking at the dream catcher she’d made when she was seven, but she wasn’t really seeing it. She let her mind wander, thinking about nothing in particular. School. Johnny Depp’s sallow cheeks. How the actors who played Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins would never be cast in anything because they would always be seen as Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. There was a knock on the door. It was her mother. “Shannon, can I come in for a minute? I need you to look at my dress.” Oh, hurrah, Mom and her low self-esteem. Before she could respond, her mother opened the door. “Does this looks OK?” Her mother was wearing a bright red dress. Its lack of sleeves and its low-cut collar flattered her petite shoulders and small breasts. The skirt was cut above her knees, revealing her thin, shaved legs. She was wearing red heels made of delicate leather straps, like sandals. “Its not too much, is it? Like I don’t look, you know, slutty in it?” “No, it’s not too much.” “Do the shoulders fit right? How about the back?” Her mother turned. Her back was well-shaped, and her skin showed few signs of age. “You’re beautiful, Mom,” said Shannon, a bit depressed. “Oh, no I’m not. Gosh,” her mother waved her hand dismissively. “I want to look fetching, but not provocative. I don’t want to lead him on, or anything.” Her mother was going on a date. This happened pretty much every weekend. After her divorce, she had begun to wear makeup and her apparel changed from sensible to flirtatious, almost overnight. “I’m leaving in half an hour and I won’t be back ‘til late. Remember to set your alarm.” They were going to New York City the next day to shop for Shannon’s prom dress. “Did you find a date yet?” Her mother seemed particularly concerned about this and had been nagging Shannon about it for a month. “Honey, if you want to date, you should really consider losing some weight. And I’d really like it if you grew your hair out.” “All right, Mom, I’ve got homework to do,” said Shannon, hefting her three-inch-thick physics textbook. Her mother laughed. “OK, honey, have a good evening.” She blew Shannon a cute kiss and left.
Shannon’s town didn’t have many places to shop, hence the trip to New York. Walking down Fifth Avenue made Shannon tense and her mother giddy. The windows were full of designer cuts, outlandish shoes, and large purses whose appeal Shannon had never understood. “No one dresses like this in Ithaca,” her mother said with rapturous agony. “Oooh, do you think I’d look good in that?” She pointed to a business skirt and jacket patterned in black and white geometric designs. “Let’s go in here. I need to try it on.” “Mom, we definitely can’t afford that,” Shannon grumbled. “Oh, don’t be such a party-pooper. I just want to try it.” The store was dimly lit and the walls were sheik and modern. There were not many clothes in the store, just a few well chosen pieces. “Welcome to Pemberly’s. May I help you?” A woman said in a black dress with a swooping neckline and a necklace of bulky amber beads. On her head, not a single hair was out of place. “Yes, I just have to try on that suit in the window,” said Shannon’s mother. “The black and white one.” “That’s from our Fanny-Rae collection,” said the sales assistant. “We’ll try you in a size small. I’m Georgia, by the way.” “Nice to meet you, Georgia. I have a friend with that name. She’s a bit of a snob—oh, but I have nothing against people named Georgia,” her mother laughed. Georgia gave a petite smile and handed her the business suit. Shannon waited outside while her mother babbled on in the fitting room. “Would you like me to get anything for you?” Georgia asked Shannon. “No,” Shannon said promptly. “Thanks.” Shannon was dressed in cargo pants and a big red t-shirt. She wanted to keep it that way. Her mother emerged timidly from the fitting room. (The only time she was timid was when she was trying on an article of clothing.) She didn’t say anything, just stood like a mouse in the sharp suit. Shannon thought the black and white didn’t go with her mother’s curly blond hair, and the shoulders were too pointy. Georgia had her mother turn around and said, “Mm-hmm. The suit is a bit angular on you. May I recommend something with more curves? It would flatter your shape.” “Oooh, all right,” said Shannon’s mother. “Deck me out!” Georgia ran a circuit around the store picking pieces off the racks. When she returned she presented them to Shannon’s mother one by one. “Now for you I would recommend summer colors—light purples, pale blues, a hint of green. This is an excellent example. But if you want something more daring, perhaps for a party or a date, you could pull off a darker red or green. This dress is curved well which would accentuate your hips, as I see you are smaller in that area. The black one is from our Howard Green collection. I always say a basic black dress is a necessity for your closet. Now, it you need something more suited to the office but with a little bit of zest, may I recommend the white blouse with the frilled collar and matching shoes…” It went on and on. Georgia measured her, tried her in different cuts, settled on a dress, and then found jewelry, shoes, and a handbag to match. Shannon looked wistfully out the window at a men’s apparel store across the street. There were two suits in the window—one gray, one black. So simple. Her mother emerged once more. “How about that?” said Georgia, smiling as if she were looking at a newborn. “You look really good. You should feel good about yourself.” Shannon’s mother blushed and twirled around in her new assortment. “I don’t know what to say! Shannon, what do you think? Does it look OK?” “You look divine, mother,” Shannon said, deadpan. “Oh, Shannon,” her mother scoffed with a humorous glint in her eye. “My daughter is always like that,” she said to Georgia. “Are you ready to take it to the register?” said Georgia. Shannon’s mother laughed. “Oh, no, my goodness! I can’t possibly afford this. I just wanted to try it on.” Georgia did not hide her deeply affronted look as the woman closeted herself in the fitting room. Shannon noticed Georgia catch the eye of the cashier, who raised his eyebrows in disdain.
“That was fun,” said Shannon’s mother breezily as they walked down the street. Shannon was glad to be moving her legs again. They passed endless parades of shoppers, mostly women, many of them in carefully chosen outfits. Her mother counted the number of people wearing British plaid. They turned a corner and arrived at a small boutique. Looking through the window, Shannon could see that all they sold were prom dresses. She took a deep breath and exhaled in a calm, controlled manner. The sales assistants in the shop were just as eager as Georgia had been to find exactly the right dress for Shannon, sizing her up with their expert eyes and pulling out garments. Shannon was uncomfortable being looked at so closely. She was the only customer in the store besides her mother, so all the sale assistants were busy as bees around her. She tried on sleeveless satin dresses in dark red; long, drapey dresses; dresses with deep, sharp necklines. With every new dress she was more and more sure that she would never look good in any of them. She had to wear a pair of generic high heels for the dresses to hang correctly, and she nearly tripped twice. Finally they landed on a dark blue gown with a long neckline that hung between her breasts. Shannon trembled nervously as she looked in the mirror. She looked good. “May I?” said the sales assistant, showing her a hair piece done up in a bun. “Oh, yes, do it,” said her mother. “You need long hair for a prom.” The sales assistant pinned up Shannon’s short locks against the nape of her neck and clipped the hair piece near the top of her head. It felt odd, like an extra appendage. “Oh, Shannon, you look gorgeous!” said her mother. Shannon was having difficulty breathing in the tight waist of the dress. She never thought she could look this way. All those years of trying and never succeeding, and the truth was she had to change her hair and the shape of her waist and wear uncomfortable shoes. She began to feel light-headed. She didn’t feel like herself. The sales assistant draped a sparkling necklace around Shannon’s neck. Shannon looked in the mirror, hardly breathing, heart pounding. Her hair curtained her forehead in dark waves. The bun was perched carefully near the top of her head. The necklace accentuated the pale skin on her chest and the high waistline of the dress made her legs look long and curvy. She looked beautiful. She looked truly beautiful. Her mother whooped in surprise. Shannon couldn’t breathe. She felt dizzy. There was a ringing in her ears as the world seemed to tilt back and forth, and she fainted.
They bought the dress.
The next night, back home, her mother hung the dress in Shannon’s room. Alone, Shannon sat on her bed and looked at it. She hated it. The dress told her that she wasn’t pretty without it. And it was true. She wasn’t pretty. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was short and it stuck up in places. Her face was square, her cheeks were too fleshy, she had too much acne. Her nose was too big. Her breasts were too small. She had no hips. She looked like a boy.
Well, then, if she couldn’t be a girl, she would be a boy.
The idea made her feel relieved and excited. She picked up the dress and hung it in her mother’s closet. She would tell her that she didn’t have room in her own. Next she appraised her closet and removed all of the skirts and dresses from their hangers, dumping them in a big suitcase, along with her single pair of high-heeled shoes. She opened the dresser drawers and removed any shirt that was petite or flowery or cut to a feminine figure. She didn’t have many, anyway. She removed any bras that weren’t sports bras, any underwear that wasn’t black or white. She even decimated her socks. She would have nothing but boring colors. Closing the suitcase and sliding it under her bed, she looked around the room. There were a couple of old barbies on the shelf, and keepsake dolls that she had never played with. A box of jewelry that she never wore, and a plastic bag of newly purchased makeup bought on an impulse. She stuffed everything in a garbage bag, even the fluffy animals on her bed. She made sure that her room was completely gender-neutral. It ended up looking pretty bare. Finally she took off her tight bell-bottoms, purple sweatshirt, and bra. (She liked the sweatshirt, but it would have to go.) She picked up a wool hiking sock and rolled it into a ball. She took a deep breath, standing in her underwear. Suddenly she felt like she was being watched, though there was no one there. She stood for a full two minutes, terrified of what she was about to do. Finally she closed her eyes tight and stuffed the sock in her panties. It felt rather nice, and made a satisfactory bulge.
The school musical was going up in a month. It was time to build sets. Shannon liked the whine of buzz-saws and the whack of hammers. She liked the smell of sawdust and the hullabaloo of boys’ voices. It was mostly boys. The musical would be Once Upon a Mattress, the story of the princess who was too tough to notice the pea under a dozen mattresses. The prince fell in love with her anyway. Shannon has seen multiple versions of the play. “I need three people to bring in this flat,” called Markus, the crew leader. Shannon promptly rushed to the loading dock and grabbed one end of the flat. Two boys took the other sides. The boys lifted their sides easily, but Shannon’s end began to drag. Her forearms ached. The flat fell to the floor. Shannon cursed inwardly and moved to pick it up again. “Want me to take that?” said Nate, a broad-shouldered youth. “No, I’ve got it,” she said. “Oh, come on, it’s alright,” said Nate, picking up her end easily. The three boys toted the flat away. Shannon stood empty-handed. Everyone was busy except for her. With relief she spied an empty paint brush and began painting a flat. The boy next to her was covering the next flat in quick strokes. He was kneeling down to the level of her waist. Shannon turned away slightly. Would he notice the sock? She inspected herself and realized she was safe in her loose cargo pants. Thank god. At the end of the evening, the crew sat around in the lobby of the theater, waiting for their parents to pick them up. There were about fifteen of them, most of them boys. Boys leaning on door frames. Boys huddled over game-boys. Boys kicking walls. Boys talking loudly to each other, taunting each other, cajoling each other. Edward took a neon yellow tennis ball from his pocket. He hit it against the wall; caught it; hit it; caught it. Roald bounced to a stand and said, “here.” Edward and Roald tossed the ball back and forth. “Here,” said Shannon in her high-pitched voice, holding out her hands. Edward tossed her the ball. She caught it and felt proud of herself. She tossed it to Roald. The two boys tossed the ball back and forth some more, blurting monosyllables to each other. They didn’t toss it to her again.
Over the next week, Shannon couldn’t decide whether she wanted the sock or not. Sometimes it made her feel relieved, unburdened. Other times it was itchy and uncomfortable. Some days she was too self-conscious to wear it, especially when all her loose pants were dirty and she had to pull out a pair of tight jeans. And some days, it just plain didn’t feel right.
It was lunchtime. Shannon clunked her insulated lunch bag on the counter. The cafeteria was filled with large round tables overfilled with students. Most of them sat in large groups. Along the wall was a long counter facing the windows. This was where you sat if you didn’t have any friends. This was where Shannon sat. She had a special corner. Each day she left class quickly to make sure no one would steal her spot. As Shannon pulled out a bagel with ham and cream cheese, four carrot sticks, butter crackers, a tiny container of peanut-butter, and a cup of vanilla and chocolate pudding, she looked up and noticed a new poster on the wall. It was just a small piece of neon green printer paper. In big letters it said “Rainbow Rights: LGBTQ group Tuesdays 3:30-4:30, student activities room.” LGBTQ? Shannon thought, flabbergasted. What does that crazy jumble of letters mean? She took out her iPhone and promptly looked it up. Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender. Queer. Oh right, that club for gay people. Whatever. Then she wondered what transgender meant: is it the same thing as transvestite? Wikipedia said: “People who were assigned a sex, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.” What? That’s not me! I don’t want a penis! Shannon thought. Then she thought about it a bit more. “Incomplete”…like I’m not entirely a girl…or a girl who’s a little bit of a guy? Or…sock somedays, no sock others… No. I’m definitely not going there. I am not one of those people. Shannon looked around. The noise in the cafeteria was deafening. To the right was the table with all the girls who dressed mainstream, who wore cute shirts and bulky jewelry and the same style of straight, long, usually blond, hair. To the left was a group of Korean girls and boys, chatting non-stop in their native tongue. There were a few different people mixed in, of course. She heard a loud laugh from the far table: kids drawing confederate flags on t-shirts. Shannon shivered. She looked at her measly lunch. It was kind of geeky, her lunch. No one used these insulated lunch boxes except the freshmen. Lunch went on and on until she thought it would never end. She glanced back at the LGBTQ poster. Under the heading it said, “All welcome.”
Next Tuesday she found herself in the student activities room. She had butterflies in her stomach. She had arrived early so they wouldn’t stare at her as she walked in. The first person who arrived was Tom. “Shannon!” he said. “Hi! Great to see you! It’s always good to have new members.” Tom was a family friend. Shannon greeted him merrily and thought, oh my god, he’s gay? Or maybe he used to be a girl. Or maybe… She didn’t feel afraid. She felt excited. Maybe there were other people she knew. Casey and Karen, the two girls who sat in front of her in physics, came through the door holding hands. Shannon tried to be polite, but she couldn’t stop staring. She tried to imagine what it would be like to date a girl…nah. A few people she didn’t know arrived last. One girl—or was it a boy?—was wearing a big t-shirt and baggy jeans, puffy skate-board shoes—a rather hip hop look. Shannon had assumed those were guy’s clothes, but she noticed the youth had delicate features—a fairly effeminate face. Finally everyone was seated. A round-faced boy asked everyone to pull their chairs into a circle. It took a while for things to get organized. People took a long time to chat with each other. Tom looked her way and smiled. “How’s crew going?” He asked. She told him about the state of the set. Currently the castle walls were being erected. “OK, guys, let’s get started,” said the round-faced boy. “I see we have a couple new members, so let’s go around and say our names and what pronouns we use.” What the huh?! Shannon thought. She had no idea what that meant, and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to answer. “I’m David,” the round-faced boy said. “I’m chair. I use the male pronoun.” Next to him, Casey said, “What direction are we going in? Oh whatever. OK, I’m Casey, I’m treasurer, and I use ‘she’.” Shannon felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. It had never occurred to her that she could choose how people referred to her. She had no answer prepared. Well, ‘she’, of course. Right? The girl next to her said, “I’m Will and I prefer ‘he’.” Shannon did a double take. Will had a low voice, but he also appeared to have breasts. It dawned on her that she found this person very attractive. Also, she had a strong urge to be just like him. How did she do that? How did she get a low voice and everything? Why can’t I do that? Oh, him, right, not her. “Shannon? Shannon!” Tom interrupted her train of thought. “It’s your turn.” “Oh, right,” said Shannon. “I’m Shannon. Duh. And I’m new. Obviously, oh my god. And I prefer…” Shannon took a deep breath. “He? No no no, she. No, he.” David gave a warm-hearted chuckle. “You can be neither or both, if you like. Or you can be ‘they’. Or ‘zee’. It’s up to you.” Shannon quickly dismissed the words that sounded strange to her. “He. Definitely,” said Shannon. He immediately second-guessed his choice, but wasn’t sure whether he wanted to change it.
The meeting was all about brainstorming fundraisers for the group trip to the upcoming LGBT conference in Albany. “I know!” said Tom. “Why don’t we make t-shirts with rainbows on them saying ‘taste the rainbow’ with an arrow pointing to your crotch?” Everyone laughed. David said, “I don’t think we could make a profit out of that. But if we had the money I would totally do it.” “I have an idea,” said Shannon timidly. The group stopped talking, and Shannon was immediately frightened that everyone was paying attention to him. “We could sell refreshments at the musical.” “Hey, that’s not a bad idea,” said David, writing something down. “There’s a high demand for that. Captive audience, and everything. Kinda like how airplane food is so expensive because there’s nothing else to eat.” “Shannon has good ideas,” said Tom. “We should listen to him more often.” Shannon was startled at the use of ‘he’. It felt odd. Was that just because he wasn’t used to it, or because the maleness didn’t fit? But as soon as he imagined being called ‘she’, he felt a bit odd about that, as well. The meeting wrapped up. Overall Shannon was glad that he had attended.
When Shannon got home from school, he catapulted into the kitchen and sawed a bagel in half. His mother was tangled in the phone cord. “Hi, Marcy! How are you? How are the kids? …uh-huh…They broke up? Oh that’s too bad…Oh…well good for Tom, then…Shannon’s fine. She’s real busy with the play, right, Shannon?” His mother glanced over at him. Shannon’s faced turned to stone. His stomach had a violent reaction to the word ‘she’. After a few minutes, Shannon’s bagel popped out of the toaster. He fumbled with the butter knife and said, without looking up, “Mom, can I talk to you about something?” His mother was adjusting her sweater. “I just can’t…get it…to fit right…honey does this look OK?” “Mom, I need to talk to you about something.” “Sure, sweetie, what is it?” asked his mother, looking at him now. Shannon gulped. He looked at the floor, then forced himself to look her in the eye. Trembling, he said, “can you call me ‘he’?” He winced, preparing himself for the explosion. His mother looked at him with an expression he had never seen on her face before. She tilted her head. Her eyes looked sad, but contemplative, as well, staring at Shannon as if seeing him in a new light. “OK, sweetie,” she said softly. “Are you sure?” “Yeah,” said Shannon. “Yeah, it’s what I really want.” His mother nodded. “You’re not upset?” said Shannon. This was completely the opposite reaction he had been expecting. Shannon’s mother laughed. “Shannon, I’ve seen it coming for years.” “Oh,” said Shannon, flabbergasted. “All my good fashion tips, in one ear and out the other! And those dreadful pants of yours.” His mother tisked. “Then why did you buy me that prom dress?” asked Shannon. His mother looked taken aback. “You asked for it, Shannon. Don’t you remember?” Shannon remembered. If he was a guy, why had he wanted a dress? “Oh, and Tom and his parents are coming for dinner tomorrow night, OK? Wear something nice, please. No clogs.” Shannon buttered his bagel, which was now completely cold. He dumped cinnamon and sugar on top. Well, he thought, I guess I’ve begun my life as a guy. She knew it all along. She knew that I was a guy. I guess that’s it. I must be a guy. Shannon bit into the cold toast, feeling equally cold. I’ll have to think of a new name. Maybe Sean? Shannon walked to his room hissing syllables under his breath.
On Wednesday night, Shannon dug out a blue tie that someone had given him on school spirit week. It was a bit bright, but it would do. He wore a white blouse and dark jeans and learned to tie the tie on the internet. It took several tries. He felt a bit strange—when he looked in the mirror, he felt like he was looking at a stranger, not himself. Detached from his body, he surveyed himself. Swiftly he removed the shirt and tie and skittered into the bathroom. After rummaging in the cabinets for a minute, he found an ace bandage. Without thinking, he wrapped it tightly around his breasts, making them as flat as possible. He tucked in the end of the bandage. It was hard to breathe. God, he thought, even when I’m a guy, I have to wear something that makes me light-headed. The doorbell rang. Quickly Shannon pulled his blouse over his bindings and re-tied his tie. Once again, it took him a minute to figure out how to do it. He could hear voices downstairs. “Where’s Shannon?” someone said. Shannon had butterflies in his stomach once again. He slowly came down the stairs. His mother, Tom, and Tom’s parents were standing in the living room, still wearing their coats. They all looked up when Shannon arrived. Tom’s parents stared at him, bewildered and affronted. “It’s a nice tie, Shannon,” said his mother nervously, “isn’t it a nice tie?” “Hey, man, what’s up?” said Tom, cuffing Shannon on the shoulder. Shannon flinched. Feeling a reaction in his gut, he blurted, “I am NOT a MAN!” The room buzzed with silence. Shannon dashed upstairs and into the bathroom. He puked into the toilet, then stormed into his room and ripped off the tie, the shirt, and his bindings. Finally he could breathe again. He violently pulled off his pants and his panties and let the rolled sock fall to the floor. He dived into bed, naked.
He? She? Shannon was completely lost.