“Do you like it?” Gracie asked anxiously.
I didn’t look in the mirror, but I pretended to.
“It’s perfect!” I squealed in my well-rehearsed girl voice, hugging her. It was so easy to make Gracie happy. “You are a makeup goddess!”
“You are so lucky you have a date,” she said. I nodded silently. I couldn’t really say I disagreed. As much as I wanted to take a girl to prom, that wasn’t happening, and my parents love Keith, so I might as well make them proud one last time.
“I mean, all the good ones from our school are taken,” she continued. “You are so lucky you happen to work with an adorable hunk like Keith. Oh, no!” she said at my still vacant expression. “I didn’t mean it like that! Chloe, I know you could get any boy you wanted.” I repressed a morose laugh. “I just mean that you’re -”
“I get it, Gracie,” I said.
Pause. “Are you mad at me?”
“No,” I said tersely. Crap. That wasn’t going to cut it. “No, of course not,” I said sweetly. “I’m just nervous.”
Lying is so easy, especially to people who think they know you.
“Are you and Keith going anywhere afterwards?” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Keep up the charade or tell the truth? “No, I told you, we’re just friends.” Better not to be called a freak and a slut.
“Oh, too bad,” she said. “Your dress is so pretty though.”
I wasn’t sure how this was connected. Or true. I guess, objectively speaking, it was sort of nice.
Despite my utter repulsion for it, one simply had to admire the sheer magnificence of its engineering. I mean, the thing was held up by nothing but boobs. The tiny weird boobs that were stuck on my chest - I still refused to think of them as my boobs. Plus it was constructed from nothing but that meshy ballerina fabric. Imagine making anything but a prom dress out of that stuff - say, a bridge, or a wetsuit. And the rhinestones. The upper half was absolutely batter-encrusted in rhinestones. I honestly don’t know what NASA technology they used to glue those on, because they weren’t coming off for the apocalypse. No wonder it cost as much as launching a small satellite into orbit. And it was strangely magical how a dress that could look good - really good - on a model became a torture trap when placed on me.
It wasn’t its color - the lavender, I had to begrudgingly admit, complimented my pale skin. Nor its shape. The bodice slimmed my waist and pushed out my breasts, accenting my horrendously feminine figure.
“Really, girl,” Gracie whistled. “You look just like Mulan.”
As one of the few Asian people in this town, I had learned to just accept it as a compliment. And savor the irony.
“Or Lucy Liu, huh?” I said.
The sarcasm went right over her head. “Ooh, yeah! You guys are so lucky. You have, like, such perfect hair.”
“You better go,” I said. “Keith will be here soon, and my parents want to take pictures.”
“Okay,” she said. “You’re going somewhere with him before though, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“All hope is not lost, my friend.” She smiled. If only. “See you there! And I meant what I said about the dress. You’ll knock ‘em dead.”
Alone at last, I finally found the courage to look in the mirror. I wanted to punch my reflection until my knuckles bled. The girly purple fabric, the manicure, the short kitchen-scissor-chopped hair laced with flowers in an absurd attempt to feminize it. The deer-in-the-headlights black mascara, the Marilyn Monroe lips. I could barely recognize myself. Though that wasn’t really a bad thing - if I pretended hard enough, I could believe the creature on the other side of the glass was not my reflection, just a hyperfeminine version of me from an alternate reality where I was happy in the body I was born in.
It’s not like you haven’t put up with this shit for years, I told myself. This is the last night. The last night you ever have to deal with this.
Well, you’ll probably have to wear a dress for graduation, but the robe will cover it up. And then you’ll be off to college and you can start over...
The doorbell rang, interrupting my thoughts.
“Chloe!” I winced at the sound of my mother’s voice yelling my stupid deadname.
“Coming!” I shouted, hobbling to the top of the stairs in my four inch heels - God, how did society expect women to walk in these?
Keith stood at the door with my mom and dad. The tuxedo pants completely covered his legs - you couldn’t even see him limp, though his hand was planted firmly on the doorframe. I guess, objectively speaking, he looked quite good. He had taken off his thick glasses and, just like in those teen movies, the look suited him: put-together, perfect. He even had a corsage - God, it was just like in the movies. And you couldn’t have a better actor than me, I thought bitterly.
“Smile, honey!” my mom said, beaming.
Last night ever, I reminded myself, as my parents snapped hundreds of pictures of the perfect prom couple. Let them have it. Their darling little girl tottering down the stairs like I wasn’t about to trip and break my neck and be grateful for it.
“Shall we?” Keith said when the ordeal was over, and somehow, I got the feeling that he was liking this - this charade. I instantly felt guilty for depriving him of a real date. Because someone in there is a boy who wants nothing more than to take an absolutely normal girl on a date to an absolutely, perfectly, stereotypically normal, movie-worthy prom.
Hell, I think that boy is in me too. It’s just not going to happen.
“Aren’t you going to at least wait until I turn on the car before you start doing that?” Keith said. I was shredding the flowers in my hair with a vicious absentmindedness.
“Aren’t you going to at least put on your glasses before you start the car?” I asked him.
“Contacts,” he said, starting the engine.
“Ooh, pretty boy,” I said, a little surprised. If Keith cared about appearances, what next?
“I mean, not like I would care or anything, but your hair is not going to look good in our pictures.” He pulled out of my parents’ driveway and started down the street.
“What, like we were actually going to go to prom,” I laughed, ripping the last of the flowers free from my hair and chucking them out the window. Already I felt a million times better. “Unzip me?”
“CJ, I need three limbs to drive and I only have two, so will you try not to incapacitate me any more than necessary?”
“Pull over then, or I swear to God I’m going to rip this dress off my fucking body, zipper be damned.” I was doing contortions in my seatbelt trying to wrestle my binder on under the dress.
“Dude, are you trying to get us killed?” Keith yelled as my elbow inadvertently knocked into him, sending the car swerving into the wrong lane. “Is this some sort of twisted plot of yours to stop us from getting to prom in one piece?”
I laughed. He didn’t. “Please don’t tell me - Dear God, you didn’t - you aren’t thinking of actually going?”
Keith gunned the engine.
“This is some sort of sick Carrie-esque sort of joke, then, huh?” My voice steadily rose in pitch, the way I hated.
“This is exactly what I was afraid of,” Keith groaned. “CJ, be rational, please. It’s just a stupid dance.”
In Orange Springs, prom is more than just a dance. It’s a rite of passage, a remnant of the sexist debutante balls of old, a badge of entering the mainstream hetero society. Hearts have been broken, relationships ruined, drama created.
“Right. It’s a stupid dance. Which is why we’re going to go get ridiculously high and play Mario Kart,” I said. I pulled the fluffy skirt down to my ankles. My legs looked absurdly thin and pale in just my boxers.
“What are your friends going to say when you don’t show up?”
“I can text them right now.” I pulled out my phone.
“Look, Keith, nothing you say is going to get me back into that dress.”
“I never said you had to get back into that dress.”
“Oh yeah, you, you manipulative, lying -” I was spitting mad; I couldn’t even form sentences.
“Dude, can you just at least hold off your freaking out until I take you where we’re going?” Keith demanded. “Believe it or not, I’m trying to do you a favor. Do you have to make it so difficult?”
“Because every time someone has tried to do what’s ‘best for me,’ it’s worked out so well,” I snarled.
Keith opened his mouth, then closed it and just yanked on the steering wheel, pulling sharply over to the curb and jerking on the hand brake. “Fine,” he said. He got out of the car and stormed around to the passenger side. He grabbed the lavender dress from the car floor and stuffed it into the trunk. “You obviously don’t feel like waiting.”
He started undoing his belt.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Don’t worry,” Keith said, whipping his pants off. “With legs like these, no one is staring at my ass.”
He was right; I couldn’t not look. The metallic sleekness, the high-tech cyborg qualities inexorably drew the eye. I’d seen them so many times, lounging around his house in shorts. I’d seen the J-shaped running ones, the flesh-toned ones, just the stumps, even. I still stared.
Keith pulled a pair of black shorts out of the trunk. “I’m wearing these, okay?” He tossed me the pants. “You’re wearing those.”
“I’m what?” I still hadn’t gotten over the Keith undressing in front of me on the side of the road plot twist.
“Put them on.” He was already wearing the shorts. They were long enough to cover all but about an inch of his skin. “You know they’ll fit.” We’d discovered years ago we wore the same clothes size.
As if in a trance, I pulled on Keith’s slacks. As expected, they fit perfectly.
“We’re picking up your jacket, and then we’re going to prom,” Keith said naturally. No more frustration. A hint of amusement, maybe, hiding in the corner of his mouth?
I had a vague sense that I should, perhaps, be angry, but I was too stunned to feel any animosity. Maybe because no one had ever done anything like this for me before.
“Hang on,” I said.
“We’re going to be late,” Keith said.
“Hang on,” I repeated.
“Well, we’re going to make an entrance, at any rate,” he snickered, mostly to himself.
“I don’t want to make an entrance!” I said, finally able to formulate an argument.
“You want to be normal?” he said. “You want to walk in that door wearing that purple dress? You want me to put on some pants that cover up my legs?”
“I didn’t want to go at all!”
“I thought you were done with covering up,” Keith said. He climbed back into the driver’s seat. “I guess I was wrong.”
“That’s not what I meant when I said that,” I protested.
“Look, man, we all want to be normal,” Keith said with a humorless chuckle. “You think I want to haul your crusty ass to prom? If I were a normal guy, I’d be out to dinner with my girlfriend right now. But the fact is, ‘just wanting’ is not going to grow me a shiny new set of legs any more than it’s going to grow you - well, you know. You can’t hide in the basement playing video games forever.”
“So you think you can just do this without asking me?” I growled. “You’re just going to out me without -”
Keith pinched his nose between his eyes. “I’m just telling you to go to prom in a tux, okay? You don’t have to if you don’t want to. But you obviously do, because you’ve been complaining about not having a girlfriend to take ‘as a statement’ for three months. And now you seem to think the only two options are showing up as the sugar plum fairy or staying home. I’m telling you there is a third option.”
“You should have at least told me then!”
“You would have said no.”
“No I wouldn't!” I lied.
“Why do you care what people think? You’re going to college in a few months,” he said.
“Well why do you care?” I shot back. “Girls don’t give a shit that you have prosthetics, Keith! God, you always complain about how no one likes you, but you’ve never even tried asking anyone out. If I’m hiding in the basement, you’re right there with me, buddy. Everyone thinks you’re hot, Gracie even said so!”
We sat there rigidly for a heartbeat, staring at each other with hostility. Then we burst out laughing.
“Fuck it,” I said.
“Fuck it. I’ll go to your stupid dance with you,” I said. “I’ll wear your stupid suit.”
“YES!” he said as we drove off again. “So....Gracie said I’m hot?”
“She called you a hunk, dude. I’ve never even heard anyone use that word.”
“Well, I admire a girl with a colorful vocabulary,” he laughed.
“I’ll introduce you when we get there,” I said. “I hope she doesn’t kill me for ruining her masterpiece.”
“Have you thought about what you’re going to say to people?”
“I would have, if you had warned me.” I play punched him. “Nah. I would have gotten too anxious. I guess I’ll just make it up as I go.”
“Just be yourself,” he said. “Tell the truth. I want everyone to know the CJ I know.”
I smiled, and in the rearview mirror I looked in to wipe the makeup off my face, the boy in the reflection smiled back.