I was at the mall late, as bag-laden parents escorted their children towards the exits, when I entered the store where I found the dress. I had come to send some things off, mostly my childhood; I was growing up finally and wanted to make my last walk past these stores mindful, before I had to say goodbye to it all. This store was my last stop: a pink paradise layering tulle curtains over the plush rabbits and heart-shaped purses in the windows. I couldn't tell if the girl at the register was watching me because she thought I was a very ugly girl or an even worse man. I turned to look at a display and found myself before the dress.
It was pink, naturally, and surprisingly out of season: a lavish piece with a big, short skirt and a dove-colored petticoat peeking mischievously out of the bottom. Each sleeve ended in a princess’s pouf just over the shoulder, holding up the broad neckline and its train of bunny-ear bows down the center lacing. On its tag I found a red SALE marker and a price discounted to the point that I could have walked out with it, if I'd wanted to.
I did want to.
Worse than the want, though, was the familiar emptiness that spilled like ice water down my throat and through my chest. I had sold my own dresses, sworn them off, and even now the last two were finding their way across roads and oceans to be with someone else. I had apologized to them, beforehand, because of the way I had wanted them, had loved them, had felt joy in them, and yet squandered them in being a man; a man who could feel eyes on him even in his bedroom. I could not wear them without trial, and in the end I had decided that the want was not enough and that maybe if I let this stupid phase in my life go then I would feel joy the way it was meant to be felt, as something tougher and more appropriate than clothing.
I didn't feel joy now, in an oversized sweatshirt and jeans. I felt, as I had for the last three months wearing pants, uncomfortable and shapeless. That, though, was a feeling other people could understand on me. Beauty was not. I turned away from the dress as the store's imported pop music cut off to announce that the mall would be closing in ten minutes. The girl behind the register, called away by someone in a side room, abandoned her post. I went to use the bathroom. The mirrors were foggy and grey-flecked where water had hit them, disguising my face behind a curtain of dust.
When I returned, the metal shutters were down. The shop girl, and anyone else in the store or its side room, was gone. The speakers were silent. Hair ribbons hung in tight, still lines. The narrow balcony of the mall’s upper story stretched out beyond the shutters, reflecting empty white light across the floor. The store was closed, and I had been left alone with the dress.
I turned around, first, and tried the door of the bathroom. It was locked now. Wanting this to be metaphorical, I walked over to the men's bathroom, but that one was locked, too. Maybe it was metaphorical anyhow. I tried the metal shutters, which didn't open no matter how hard I yanked, and wasted ten minutes searching the entire store for a switch that might open them for me, dress sparkling and winking at me all the while. As I tugged on the register drawer, thinking that that at least might trigger an alarm, the end of the waist tie's bow loosened and collapsed over the skirt.
I walked over and fixed it automatically, using one hand to keep the middle still so I could adjust each tail of the bow. The poor tie, I thought, to have lain unchecked for almost a full season before giving way. It was a wonder it hadn't happened sooner; dresses like these needed to be taken care of.
Then, reasoning that I couldn't think clearly in front of the display, I went to wait in the side room, which was heaped with boxes of trapped, more easily avoidable outfits. A hat with the bangle come unglued lay on top of the work table in the corner, next to an old black desk chair and a file cabinet. Two hair bows perched atop a cabinet. I sat on the ground, so as to limit what I might ruin and then have to pay for, and tried to find a way out of this. No bathroom, no key, and only half a bag of pretzels in the big ugly backpack I'd taken to wearing instead of purses. I took out the pretzels and ate them, for lack of anything better to do.
Then I pulled out my charger, plugged my phone into a dusty wall socket, and went back into the main room to have a talk with the dress. It shone as if in sunlight.
"I can't wear you," I told it, pitching my voice low so as to avoid the inevitable voice cracks I was dreading. The dress, at least, couldn't sense my intonation; I didn't have to flatten every sentence with a mallet like all the FtM guides told me to. "First of all, I wouldn't pass, and second of all, if I did pass, I'd get shouted at on the street. People look at me, you know.
"When I started T," I continued, "I knew that I'd have to stop wearing dresses, or else I'd look like a circus freak, and I'm not going to wait until I pass as a guy to swear you off. I'm sick of people seeing me in you and thinking I'm a girl, and I don't want them to see me in you and think something worse than that. I have a life to live, and I can't do it in dresses. It doesn't matter how I feel when I'm wearing you, because—"
But then I saw the horses on the skirt, and I stopped talking.
Between the transparent overskirt and the folds of the dress, small brown horses, like on a carousel, swam in place. They were strung with roses and had no saddles. Over each horse hung the golden words, À mon seul désir. I stroked the glittering, shimmering fabric they were painted on, and then I got up on the podium to take down the dress.
When I was a little girl (if I ever was one) I absolutely loved horses. I loved them because they were two things at once, beautiful and hideous, and if you only saw one, you were looking wrong. I liked them because they refused to let you know their secrets, to lie in your lap, to reveal anything behind their big dark eyes. Most of all, I liked them because of their permanence: in every history, in every tradition, in every epoch, you would find the horse. You were never without them. Loved or unappreciated, the horse was always there. I had horseback-riding birthday parties and shirts with horses on them and How To Draw Horses books, and I guess once I grew out of all that I became the horse.
The thing is, horses aren't supposed to carry weight on their backs. For millions of years they've evolved to balance most of their weight on their fronts, where their head is, and then along comes human society to ‘tame’ them. Tame what? Majesty? And so the horse is broken: unbalanced, belabored, forced to bear a weight unsubstantiated by reason. Of course, carrying the weight isn't enough—then you have to make it look like you're dancing.
Being a man is like that.
I considered this as I took the dress off its mannequin and carried it into the dressing room, leaving the petticoats on the stand. There were cameras around, but I figured that this couldn't be much worse than trying it on by day, never mind the fact that they'd locked me in here and therefore had lost the ability to judge anything I was about to do. I took note of the sign, though, which informed me that I could not take photos.
There were petticoats in the dressing room, too, and plain white stockings, but nothing else, so I went all-in and collected from the surrounding displays two headbands, a pair of pink lace wrist cuffs, a small bag, four rings, two block-heeled shoes, and a fuzzy white bracelet; the padding of my feet the only sound in the building. Comparing it all on the dressing room bench, I decided against the headband with bunny ears; I'd been optimistic, but multiple animal motifs rarely worked together, and headbows were always a safer bet. I yanked off my sweatshirt, shirt, and gloves and pulled the proper size petticoat over my jeans, reaching down to yank them off underneath. I'd been worried about my shoulders, but they fit alright in the dress, and I zipped it up with little trouble. I had to adjust some of the rings and put the rest back, and the shoes I'd taken were too small; I searched in vain for a larger size and settled on going barefoot, with stockings. Larger shoes existed elsewhere.
I hadn't cut my hair out of a functioning style yet—hadn't convinced myself to cut it yet—so the headbow didn't overpower my face. I slipped the strap of the bag over my head and took a deep breath before looking into the mirror.
And there it was: joy. I'd wanted not to feel it, to have back that last recourse of personal dislike, but I couldn't shove it away. Worse, I could never tell whether I looked like a man or a woman anymore, so I saw myself as I truly was. The long legs of the horse; the small mouth of the rabbit. The large, dark, vigilant eyes of both. And the pink: the pink which brought out my eyes, my hair, the timbre of my skin. The pink which made me otherworldly, imposing. I brushed a strand of hair to one side, shut the curtain of the dressing room, and sat down. Dressing rooms had always made me feel like Clara in the Nutcracker: entering the mirrored box to emerge as a beautiful, graceful adult. The foal into the horse.
I stepped out of the box, and there I was, too: the foal into the horse; the girl into the man. Every mirror in the store applauded me. They reflected, without bias, the veil of early hair upon my face, the squaring of my jaw, the lacing across my waist, the hourglass of my broader shoulders and smaller hips. I felt it again, the way I'd always felt it—my shoulders back, my stride lengthened by the power of the dress. Alone, I ruled it all. I whirled, and still remembered how to hold my skirt down.
The cameras squinted and glittered; I hoped they never saw me. Their flat, expressionless eyes lacked my horizontal pupils’ ability to block out out dazzling light, to focus only on what lay ahead, and raised desperation in me like the hairs on the back of my neck—why should I have to fight to be a man? Why did I want it? The horse neither wants nor becomes a horse; it merely is one, a natural stage after foalhood. The horse carries no pretensions and knows itself faultless, even under the bridle. Then, too, the horse has no option to pretend that it is anything other than what it is.
The weight, the weight, the weight, and no freedom left for beauty. I had been told enough times to slump my posture, but walk with my head held high; spread my legs on the train and scowl to be taken seriously. I had been shown enough times that I had to pick one or the other, my manhood like Atlas's weight on my shoulders, clutched closer when someone tried to take it from me. Why did I want this?
Because of my eyes in the mirrors of the shop.
I made one last half-hearted argument: I shouldn't buy the dress, because that would be consumerist.
This seemed pretty weak, even to me.
I took everything off and returned it all to its various places throughout the store. It had been dark awhile, and I was beginning to feel the cold again now. I checked the shutters on the store one last time, unplugged my phone, and in the silent enveloping privacy of the shuttered shop took my binder off to sleep.
I was awakened by the salesgirl coming back in in the morning, baggy-eyed and fumbling with something in her hands that opened the shutters. I scrambled to my feet with my full bag, and she jumped backwards, not expecting another animal. She was wearing a lavender cardigan, today, and a light blue blouse. Twin rabbits clamped the cardigan closed on either side, spreading a rose gold chain between them.
"You were in the store," she said, and I didn't know whether she meant "yesterday" or "overnight" so I said, "You locked me in."
"I didn't know you were here," she said. "You—where were you?"
"In the bathroom."
"But I checked the men's bathroom." She seemed dumbfounded, at first, and then figured it out. She slapped a hand to her mouth; "Oh!"
"You thought I was a guy?" I asked.
"Well, I—But I mean—" Either she meant to apologize, or to box me. Her hare’s eyes were too easily blinded by the light. I shook my head to all possibilities.
"It's fine. It's complicated. Are you open tomorrow?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "That's when the holiday sales start."
"The dress." I pointed—as if there were another one as bright in the store. "Will it be on sale? More than it already is, I mean?"
She squinted in its direction. Her voice was high, soft, even when in control. "It might be. I'd have to check how it's discounted now."
"Then I'll come back tomorrow," I said. "Sorry. About being in your store all night, I mean."
"What are you apologizing for?" she asked, and I debated joking, never trained myself out of it. Instead, I nodded, and laughed politely as she said, "I'm the one who locked you in the store!"
On my way out of the mall, dodging early crowds of people, I spotted a family with two children entering a large store with a blue and yellow logo across its doors. The mother looked exhausted; the father spoke carefully to both children to remind them only one toy. I turned around and had to walk backwards for a few steps to confirm—the little boy was wearing two barrettes in his hair, and on the little girl's bag stood a unicorn.