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She supposed it had started with the t-shirt.
She'd been in her favourite comic book store, and her father offered to buy a souvenir, because how often do they visit? And so she chose the t-shirt with the sarcastic slogan, which, of course, having a geeky and niche-interest punchline, only came in a men's roundneck.
This didn't bother her in the slightest however, because she loved the shirt. It was alien, yes; never before had a shirt hid her figure rather than emphasising it - but a safety-pin gathering at the back fixed it so that it no longer swamped her frame too much. The neck was high, so she never had to worry about bending down, and it was comfortable.
Despite always secretly fancying herself quite the avant-garde clothes alterer, it never occurred to her to change the shirt any further, and so it was integrated into her daily life, another little discrepancy.
She'd always been a petite little thing, having inherited her father's classical 'is it a boy? Is it a girl?' face- and so a few weeks later when she was feeling particularly contrary (after the monthly family row) she decided to try and be a boy for a day. Just to see if it could be done.
On went the beloved shirt, on went the skinny jeans (best way of hiding the shapely legs in plain sight, she mused) and she walked around, studying her male counterparts and trying to nail their swagger.
Later, she studied how to hide her long hair - out of curiosity, of course. She'd never visit any sites explaining how to pass as a boy because she isn't like that, she enjoys being girly and this is only a hobby. A flight of fancy. There's great info on a theatrical site, funnily enough, and the second outing is a lot more satisfying.
She nevers questions why there is a second outing at all.
And then she watches the BBC's latest show, and she's amazed by the lead character. He swans around London, solving crimes, and she's completely enamoured. The infrequent visits to her distant father-figure in the city are called to mind and she daydreams about treading the same streets, being dashing and fighting the baddies herself.
It's silly, she thinks, but even when she's walking round as a girl she'll smile, or whirl around, and in her mind's-eye it will be one of the actors. And that doesn't trouble her at all- she's always been imaginative, and it's not like she's going to tell anyone- until she realises that it isn't normal to pretend to be male, to study how to pass and dress up as a boy and imagine you are one, even if your setting is in a cheerful sunny seaside town rather than the dangerous, seductive city.
She briefly considers telling someone, but bar people at her school who would surely commit her if they knew, she can't think who to tell - and doesn't everyone worry about being normal?
Then come the private tears, the long silences where she's asked if she's 'quite alright, dear?' and the constant brooding, because inside she's angry at herself. She needs to think. She doesn't even know what she wants, she's never wanted to pass (has she?) other than for a few afternoons, and that was pretend, it didn't matter...
She feels wrong in full girl-regalia (because isn't she supposed to be a freak?) and wrong when trying to be a boy all of the time she's allowed to get away with it . It's like there's two people, warring with each other... Except they think the same and have the same face, so surely they aren't two at all, but one?
And the questions pile up.
There are some days when she is laughing with her friends and feels like a fraud, like a voyeur into their lives. Although she's sure she doesn't like girls that way (only thing she is sure of at the moment), she feels irrationally guilty for being here. She wants to know whether they ever wonder about these things, whether they ever feel this way, but of course not, because she is broken. ?And even among the community of people who are meant to have experienced the same things, be the same, the people who can apparently solve the world's ills and make you feel comfortable in your own skin and give you a piece of cake and a friendly few words, even they cannot help.?
?And so the girl decides to test herself, and starts refusing food in between meals, and at her lovely little school of lovely little people no-one notices that anything is wrong, even when she switches from being a hungry baby bird to the first one to offer her leftovers around.?
?Except they aren't left-overs.??
The sarcastic little voice inside her head laughs cruelly at herself and points at another girl the other side of the room mirroring her actions, the one with the pale, pale skin and the bagged eyes and the thin wrists. The voice scolds her and says that her friends aren't stupid, they'll notice, just like last time with the other girl - the one who, the voice reminds her most unhelpfully, she herself was the most vocal about. She'd spent the lunchtimes holding her wrists (pathetically thin, she remembered) and repeating the old arguments like a small child until the girl ate, but she parries the thought inside her head and points out to herself that no-one here will notice, that no-one will care, will they? She's spent so long being invisible, and now she has a reason for it no-one will ever know anything is happening at all.
It's not hurting anyone. So it's okay for the moment. And it's just an experiment, anyway.
?Later, at home, is harder. The girl could never bring herself to start manically weighing herself, or throwing up or any of that nonsense; because a small amount of rationality remains and the voice in her head laughs at what's she's doing, and for some strange reason this embarrasses her. This has never been about being pretty, or thin, it's been returning her body to pleasing ambiguity because she can always put the weight back on.?
No-one does notice. Funny how it works out so conveniently, she thinks.?
Time passes, as time does, and whilst this silent struggle eats away at her inside she continues to do well at all the things that make those who could help, the adults, leave her alone.
School is dealt with, and she marvels at the way what used to be a real facet of her personality, the happy schoolgirl, quickly becomes nothing but an empty mask.
The girl observes her life and its goings-on like someone becoming drunk, who is not in control of their actions?but still possessing enough brainpower to watch it all go to h*ll. The others people she knows get on with their lives also, and many scandals are reacted to and dealt with along the way – but she feels detached throughout. Sympathy is offered, along with a listening ear, and times pass once again.
It no longer occurs to her that she should have discussed this with someone by now; or at least, it no longer presents itself to her mind as an issue. Most of the time she forgets about how the experiment started, and since the time is fast approaching that she will be leaving the watchful eye of her family and friends, her self-awareness and thoughts slip into a form of hibernation.
When the exam results arrive, she is only slightly less enthusiastic than she should be; after all, a studious girl is one that an adult can trust to be left alone.
More confirmation of that fact that she can accomplish her goals is merely a welcome feeling rather than a cause for wild partying.
When the time comes for her to leave, the girl cannot bring herself out of the apathetic coma she's been inhabiting. Once again, she is subjected to watching the disconcerting switch between personality and a mask at close quarters – only this time, something constructed a barrier between herself and any bloody issues she may have has become a reality. Something fabricated to help her exist in reality has become something stopping her from doing so, but somehow, she can't bring herself to care.
As it is, the only change her new-found freedom brings is the taking up of smoking. When young, she'd promised herself that she would not follow in the footsteps of her selfish father, unwilling to stop smoking for any cause and branding his first son with severe asthma.
Instead, she now regards the habit with a mix of disdain, dark amusement (when the voice rears its ugly head after all these months) and boredom. Drugs aren't ever experimented with; the nicotine is for appetite repression only.
She flirts with the idea of patches, as the feeling of going-to-h*ll-in-a-handbasket surfaces again.
What will the neighbours say, the suddenly chatty voice muses.
It's only the morbid pondering on her epitaph's contents that forces her to quit, though since she'd grown older the starving enough is not enough to satisfy her passive-aggressive hatred of the skin she wears. She considers going back to wearing oversized t-shirts (the slogan-ed one having survived many wardrobe culls) and finally having the guts to actively combatting the unhappy state she is in, but the unease fits into her life like a metal band round the trunk of a tree that, although never should have existed, has been absorbed and grown round until it supports her life and occupies her thoughts as a nameless presence.
It is months afterwards that she starts combing the old shops of her college's forgotten streets and finds the old top hat, battered and well-worn. She circles it for weeks, and then finally buys the old thing for less than the price of a bus ticket. It feels un-familiar in her arms and is handled with the care usually afforded to a newborn baby.
After the hat, a tie is acquired, and other miscellany follows. A pipe (reminiscent of her brief flirtation with the habit, and still stinking of tobacco powder) and then a swatch of tweed occupy her dresser. The masculinity of the things scare her, like leaning into a yawning precipice, and the next day a pack of lace doilies are purchased.
It is only after a very long argument with herself (when did she become this pathetic?) that the girl wears the battered old top hat to a lecture, perched jauntily on her head where it has no place to be. There is a snicker from a girl with the complexion of an orange, but no-one else seems to notice.
This is interesting.
Pretty soon, the other items are trotted out and she cements her thrift-shop-customer status by volunteering at the shop's till every Sunday. By now, her parents have to had stopped listening to her excuses as to why she never visits, but this new one is refreshing because there is a tangible reason now, even if it consists of nothing more than being the saviour of little old ladies who cannot distinguish between a handful of coins of differing, yet small, value.
It is only when she is spending time in London with her father as the prelude for asking for a job as a dogsbody at his company that she starts to see how wonderful and diverse people can be – seeing what she dimly remembered hoping to see at her time at college, where she could be herself.
A poster catches her attention- a club showing people dressing in some sort of period style and pairing moustaches with fringe dresses, equestrian gear with glittering make-up.
It is only now that she sees that the chains of the past year have been mainly self-imposed, and she curses herself for such idiocy.
The day afterward she blows a month's earnings at her small waitressing job in a bohemian shop near her father's office, where the store manager is dressed like an extra from A Clockwork Orange and sneers at her whilst she pays.
Once again, her parents notice a change in the girl- the brooding silences and angry looks directed at thing air are echoes of the previous year. Little do they know how much they're related.
On a cold September night, when the rain lashes the taxi window and the cold bites through the antique cotton of her costume for the night, the girl steps out to brave the elements. She's clutching the ticket stub in her hand, cheaply printed and bearing the smiling image of a clown with lipstick and a beard (picked up a fortnight after the girl saw the poster. After running into the Clockwork Orange extra again behind the booth's glass, she's forced to conclude that the universe is telling her something, and in high spirits after getting directions to the club, she learns his/her name is Trudy and that the sneer wasn't personal or on purpose).
Stepping under the club entrance's awning and joining the small queue for entry, the girl smiles.
The metal band over her heart loosens for the first time in over a year, and she steps inside.
Tomorrow, everything changes.