“And now Ben’s coming to the wedding with—I don’t know, some girl from Facebook, and I’m going to look like an idiot going alone. Because I am an idiot. Because I’m the one who dumped him. Christ, I’m an idiot.” Charlie groans and falls over onto the bed.
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Scarlett says, opening the curtains. They take a seat on Charlie’s wire-strewn desk.
“It is that bad,” Charlie insists. “No. You don’t get it. If I ditch now, it’ll look like I’m a pathetic gay idiot. If I go, I look like even more of a pathetic gay idiot for making moon eyes at him.”
“Really? At someone else’s wedding? Charlie, you’ve got no taste at all.” Scarlett straightens a figurine on Charlie’s desk.
“This isn’t funny.”
“It’s hilarious. Two of our classmates are getting married at eighteen, which would usually mean that someone’s pregnant, except they’re both cisgender lesbians, and you broke up with your boyfriend because you thought he was only into guys and you’re... maybe not one,” Scarlett says, gently acknowledging Charlie’s glare, “except clearly he’s not only into guys, because he’s going with a girl now, and you still like him even though I think the issue isn’t that he’s guys only but cis guys (and gals) only, so that means you need to get over him anyway, and I am here to help. Let’s have a makeover.”
“I’m not listening to you,” Charlie says, hiding under a pillow. “I’m not listening.”
“Charlie—you need a date, right?”
“And she should be hot, right?”
“Who said ‘she’?”
“Bear with me on this. And you’re sort of a she, aren’t you?”
Charlie sits up and squeezes the pillow gently.
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” Scarlett says. “Now’s a great time to find out. You’ve already made this wedding situation completely about you—”
“—so it’s not like making it more about you is going to ruin anything. I’m getting my makeup kit. You sit tight.”
Scarlett clambers past Charlie’s monitor and climbs onto the balcony outside the window. Charlie watches them jump from there to their roof.
Sometimes Charlie thinks it would probably be easier if Scarlett didn’t live right next door. It would be safer, at least—but before anyone can worry Scarlett returns, makeup in hand, to arrange everything perfectly on the bedspread.
“You have the perfect face,” Scarlett chatters, sitting down. “So fem! Look at those lips. I have a wig that would look perfect on you. Hold still. I can’t believe I’m the theatre kid in this relationship. Thoughts on this eyeshadow color?”
“This sucks,” Charlie mutters.
“Wait ‘til you hear my plan for the wedding,” Scarlett chirps, and Charlie looks moodily out the window.
Portia is a stupid fake name. It would be stupid even if Scarlett didn’t dig it out of Shakespeare’s Top Ten Greatest Moments When Women Pretended To Be Men, because who the hell is named Portia? Scarlett insists that it’ll add to the look. She can be an Instagram influencer.
Charlie would rather die.
And yet: Charlie is here. At the wedding. Dressed up in a wig, a lot of makeup, and a thrift store dress that’s supposed to make Portia look more ‘authentic.’
“Hey,” someone says, and Charlie/Portia blinks. “You seen Annie?”
“Um,” Portia says, in a voice a little higher than Charlie’s but not high enough to seem fake. “No.”
“Okay,” whoever-it-is says, walking away. Charlie stares after them, wondering how the hell that worked.
Especially because, if it did work, there’s a lot more to be done.
Step one, Scarlett said. Go find Ben and whoever he’s dating.
This is bad enough on its own. This is bad enough without Scarlett insisting that they and Portia can have zero public contact during the wedding, or else it’ll throw everything off. But Portia twirls (in this dress, every movement is sort of twirly) in the direction of different people, looking for Ben.
“I don’t care who did it, somebody’s pregnant.”
Portia stops. Sentiment aside, the voice is definitely Ben’s.
“You sound like that girl from Twilight.”
And that voice is feminine, so—probably Kathleen or Cathrynne or Chicken Kutlet or whatever her name is. Charlie has been purposefully avoiding Facebook.
“Yeah, and Bella was pregnant. Case closed.”
“No, she got pregnant after the wedding.” The feminine voice sighs lightly, and Portia swirls over.
“Hi,” Kashyyyk says, looking at Portia.
“Um,” Portia says. She’s mostly concerned with how Ben’s looking at her, to be honest. He does have a really weird gaze with strangers, doesn’t he? The kind of look you get in a bar. Portia straightens herself. Charlie was in a play once; this can’t be that hard.
“I’m looking for Charlie,” Portia says. Woodenly. Sweatily. “Have you seen him?”
“No,” Ben says, still staring at her.
“Okay,” she says. Scarlett made her repeat her lines six times. Time to sound nasal. “Well, I just—we came together, but then he went to get us something from the buffet and I went into the bathroom, and I totally lost him. I’m Portia. Um, if you see him—” she reaches out almost like she’s going to touch Ben’s arm— “let him know I’m looking for him? This place is so big!” Cue scripted little giggle. “Thanks.”
And she swishes away, heart rattling somewhere inside her low-heeled boots.
(Everyone agreed it would not be wise to put Charlie in heels for the first time.)
Now, to find Scarlett and signal with her purse that she’s done the deed. Meet up with Scarlett somewhere helpfully secluded. Probably in a broom closet.
So Portia twirls around the venue some more, pretending she’s too cool for people and also that she’s totally not starving to death. Charlie went to the bathroom three times in the last half hour before leaving and hasn’t eaten anything since three hours before that because what if gender-segregated public restrooms.
But Scarlett appears nearly instantly; Portia adjusts the strap on her bag. Is this what girls do? Is being a girl about bag-adjusting?
Scarlett chugs whatever’s in their drink, tosses the plastic cup into the trash, and heads off down the hall. Charlie follows them into a room with a single table, three chairs, and one stained glass window.
“Okay,” Scarlett says, locking the door. “Status report.”
“Sheer terror,” Charlie says. “Can I take this wig off?”
“It’ll be really hard to put back on just right,” Scarlett says, so Charlie doesn’t. Instead, off go the shoes, bag, gloves. “But you look great. You pass! How’s being a girl?”
“I’m not,” Charlie says. “I mean, I’m not being Charlie-the-girl. I’m being Portia. And Portia sucks.” The gloves were a strategic choice; the veins on Charlie’s hands deemed too masculine. This dress doesn’t have pockets to hide them in. “It’s like... really uncomfortable drag.”
“Well...” Scarlett sighs. “Does it make you feel like less of a woman?”
“What does that even mean?” Charlie asks.
There’s a very uncomfortable silence.
“Okay,” Scarlett says. “Here’s my suggestion. You’re dressed as a girl right now—not in drag. A weird, really annoying girl, but definitely a girl. And everyone agrees you’re a girl. If you decide to, you know, transition and go for it and go full-time girl, it’s kind of like what people would think. Except you would have your own hair and not a wig, probably.”
“I don’t know,” Charlie says, sitting on the table next to Scarlett. “I feel like I’m hiding. I feel like I’m tricking people. I am tricking people, because this is a joke. And I’m wearing so much weird uncomfortable crap.”
“Such is the life,” Scarlett says quietly. Charlie bumps their shoulder gently. “I don’t know. I mean, people look at me and they see all the weird shit—I’m never going to look like one or the other. I don’t want to. But that means my goal isn’t really blending in. And yours probably is. And that’s okay.” They kick their legs against the desk. “I guess I just wanted you to have your day as a queen.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be a queen,” Charlie says. “I don’t know. It’s kind of a lot to jump into.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Scarlett winds one hand around the other. “I guess I’m kind of used to it. I mean, when you’re me, you’re either the queen or you’re a freak, right?”
“I don’t want to be a freak,” Charlie manages. Deep breaths. “If it’s one or the other, I’d rather—I’d rather just be stuck as a man. I’d rather be a normal man.”
But crying would mess up Portia’s makeup.
Scarlett reaches over and gives Charlie an honest, hard squeeze.
“We can leave,” they say. “Right now. If you want.”
Charlie doesn’t answer.
“I’m sorry,” Scarlett repeats. “I didn’t—I thought it would be... I’m sorry.”
“I just... didn’t want to lie anymore,” Charlie says. “To Ben, at least. And it felt weird and gross and wrong to be—whatever—while not... feeling like his boyfriend. I don’t know what I was. But not his boyfriend.”
“Keep going,” Scarlett says, putting their hand over Charlie’s.
“I think—it’s funny,” Charlie says. “I think this is actually really funny, Scarlett. And if it wasn’t me, and my issues, I would be able to laugh about it. We’ll probably laugh about it later, anyway.”
“Usually ends up that way,” Scarlett agrees, wiping at their nose.
“I just wish I could know that now,” Charlie says. “You always seem so confident. And so happy. It doesn’t seem like it could ever be that way for me.”
Scarlett bites their lip.
“It takes a long time,” they admit. “I’ve been out for years. I was never really looking to pass. And you have a really good face, and I think you really can do this if you want—you know, if your parents are okay with it or whatever, but it does take a really long time. When you’re not all dolled up, it takes forever.” They twist their handkerchief in their hands. “I can help you, and—and obviously you can pass, but it takes forever.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Charlie whispers.
“But it’s not all bad. People don’t notice, at first. And sometimes they don’t notice until you look like a different person. And not everything’s permanent. It’s about what you want, Charlie.”
“What I want,” Charlie says, “is not to give a shit who Ben brought here.”
“Fair enough,” Scarlett says. They blow out a long, soft breath. “It’s been fun, though. I was thinking you could be Portia a bit more, then come back here and change into boymode and I could paint some lipstick marks on your neck.”
“We can still do that,” Charlie says, and Scarlett laughs. “No. Really. If—” Charlie clenches one hand. “If it takes forever, I don’t want to waste two hours because I was scared. I don’t want to start tomorrow. I want to know now.”
“Okay,” Scarlett says. Charlie hops off the table. “One condition.”
“Ditch the Instagram influencer look. Ditch the plan.”
“Ditch—what?” Charlie asks, tripping over the tiny bag.
“What kind of girl would you like to be?” Scarlett asks.
“I don’t know that yet. Not one who wears gloves.”
“You can take them off.”
“No way I’m taking them off.”
“Oh, Charlie,” Scarlett says, and they give Charlie a very particular look. Charlie gives them one right back. “Be whatever kind of girl you want. Okay? Find people you’ve never met; try on some personalities. Do some acting, for God’s sake,” they cry, throwing their hands into the air. “Experiment. Then figure out if you ever want to do this again.”
Charlie takes a deep breath.
“You don’t have to do it again,” Scarlett says. “And make sure to tell the brides that you’re your own date, too; it’ll be funny. Say you two met on Google Translate and see if they believe you.”
So Portia returns to the floor. She swishes around, communicating more or less effectively with different guests. People tell her that she has wonderful bone structure, and she laughs politely in response.
When things get difficult, Charlie finds it’s easier to imitate Scarlett.
“Obviously I want this to last,” Portia says, waving an arm recklessly enough to smack someone, “but my father just doesn’t approve. He hasn’t really appreciated me since my first million... but I can’t resist Charlie. What a hunk!”
Charlie loves how confused people look when she says that.
The more Portia socializes, though, the more Charlie realizes that a lot of people really don’t have any idea who Charlie Santos is. Portia asks people if they knew that Charlie had an interest in photography; went to fencing camp; once wore only blue clothing for six months. Obviously, nobody knew, because she made it up, but Charlie’s surprised what people will believe. It’s as though there is no Charlie Santos—and that’s true, isn’t it? Because Charlie hides all day, indoors. Charlie spends every day online. Charlie isn’t a social creature.
Talking to people as a girl—well, it’s terrifying. But the more people Portia whines at, the more Charlie realizes that this is working, and that it’s possible for Charlie to look like a girl. With long hair and some tasteful makeup—and gloves, for now. Though Charlie’s sure that the ride home will be full of “lots of cis women have short hair” and “none of my female friends wear makeup” and “literally everyone has veins in their hands that’s called having a cardiovascular system.”
But Scarlett doesn’t start with that.
“Well?” they ask, applying a single lipstick smudge to Charlie’s neck. “You looked like you were having a good time.”
“I was,” Charlie admits. “Scary, but good. And I’m ready to go back to—normal Charlie now.”
“Okay,” Scarlett says, pulling back to judge their handiwork. They study Charlie, squinting. “I’m proud of you,” they say, eventually. “Let’s leave together.”
“Yeah.” Charlie does another calming little inhale-exhale before squeezing Scarlett’s hand. “I don’t think I can handle a lot of... alone... gender time right now.”
“Understandable.” Scarlett pushes the bag of Portia’s things a little further under the table and steps outside, holding the door for Charlie. “We’ll go home soon. You can do all the genderthought you need in bed, with the lights off. Make your ideal self in one of those online dress-up games.”
“People do that?” Charlie asks.
“Oh, Charlie,” Scarlett laughs, winding their arm around Charlie’s shoulders. “You’re so behind. I love you.”
Scarlett is fully willing to let Charlie do pretty much anything, at this point—eat all the cupcakes off the display stand, kick empty bottles of Pepsi across the room, rubber-band-flick the remaining guests. Charlie waves all options away with a small head-shake and waits until the end of the party to talk to Ben. As it is, he and Kathrynah—Charlie finally checked Facebook—are halfway out the door when Charlie catches up to them.
“Hey,” Ben says, and Charlie feels like an idiot to miss the look in his eyes.
“Hey,” Charlie says. Kathrynah looks between them for a moment.
“I’ll—see you back at the car?” Ben says, and Kathrynah shrugs before heading away. Charlie waits to make sure her face is buried in her phone before saying anything.
“I’m sorry,” makes for a good start. “This is kind of a mess,” comes out next. Then Charlie does some major hand-wringing and comes up with, “I’m glad you found a date. Really. Sorry I couldn’t talk to you earlier. I was... lost.”
“Yeah,” Ben says, grinning. “Yeah, I remember—never been in a church.”
Charlie takes a deep breath, because when he says it like that it’s almost like he’s the only person who knows. Charlie Santos barely exists, outside of this little circle. Outside of Scarlett, waiting patiently at the buffet table.
“I think I need some space,” Charlie says. “I didn’t want to be rude. I had my date, and all that...”
“Oh. The car girl?”
“What?” Charlie wonders suddenly if there were other girlfriend impersonators.
“Porsche,” Ben says, and Charlie’s mouth shuts fast to trap a laugh.
“Um,” Charlie says. “Yeah. Her.”
“I get it,” Ben says, shrugging. “She’s cute. She why you wanted to break up?”
“Because you met her,” Ben clarifies. “I heard you guys met a couple months ago, on Microsoft Calendar or whatever. So. That’s cool. To be honest, I was talking to Kathrynah before, too, so it’s all good.”
“Uh-huh,” Charlie says, stepping out of the way. People are trying to get through the door.
“See you,” Ben says, disappearing into the crowd. Charlie waves once, slowly, before withdrawing back into the church. Scarlett runs up, holding onto their hair.
“How’d it go?” they ask, taking Charlie’s hand. Charlie takes a deep breath, following them back to the little room with the clothes bag.
“Fine,” Charlie admits. “Maybe a little better. I can live without him.”
Scarlett squeezes Charlie’s hand.
“Good.” They grin lopsidedly at Charlie. “Any news for me? New names? Pronouns? Vibes when we’re out?”
“Not yet,” Charlie says, stumbling a little after Scarlett.
Scarlett nods warmly, scooping everything up. The beaded strap of Portia’s bag pours out onto the floor.
“You can think about it,” Scarlett assures Charlie, fixing everything into the bag. “I’ll wait. You do have forever, after all.”
“Right,” Charlie says, brushing away a loose strand of hair. Forever. Endless tasks. All the time in the world to reform. Fuzzily, a future-Charlie comes into view—someone with longish hair and a soft voice. Hormones. Surgeries, maybe. A long way away. Still working, perpetually, to become a different kind of person. No one specific endpoint.
And right now, in this moment, there’s no big job that has to be done. No decisions to be made. Scarlett holds the door open as they exit, and Charlie takes a deep breath before following. All present-Charlie has to do, after all, is think.
She can do that.