If The Shoe Fits... Ch. 3

“Lara, I don’t see any shorts?” Lara looked at me like I was stupid.

“That’s be-cause. It’s a dr-esssss.”

I didn’t know a lot about kids but I did know that boys didn’t wear dresses, although I think when I was really small my mother may have had me in them until I got too old.

“I can’t wear a dress!” This seemed like a logical argument to me.

“Sure ya can. You’re wearing one now. Duh?”

CHAPTER THREE — HIS STORY, REPEATING (PART I)

THEN

I was seven when I met her.

Some kids were already picking out their own clothes by the time they were seven. I was still letting my “mommy” dress me. Looking back I really can’t blame her for dressing me like a total dork, what did a 30 year old pothead folk singer know about boys fashion? So there I sat under the oak tree in my yard, wearing a pair of yellow shorts with my checkered shirt neatly tucked in. I was flipping through a coloring book of zoo animals inwardly debating which color to make my zebra (I was leaning towards black with white stripes but white with black stripes held a certain appeal) when a long shadow fell over me blocking my light.

“Excuse me, you’re in my light,” I said politely.

“Why are you reading outside?” Asked the shadow as if the thought of reading anywhere in general was disgusting.

“I like reading here.” I tucked the loose hair behind my ears and squinted.

“But it’s a tree! Trees are for climbing. Don’t you know anything?” As my eyes adjusted I could now see that the shadow was in fact a girl my age. Her hair was in pigtails and she was wearing a heavily grass stained skirt with a flowery T-Shirt.

“I know lots of stuff! Like, I know that the cheetah is the world’s fastest animal.” I had recently read this in a book I got from the library called, Cheetah: The World’s Fastest Animal.

“Is not.”

“Is so.” Exhibit A: Cheetah: The World’s Fastest Animal. It’s right there in the title.

“Is not!” The girl sang back to me.

“Oh yeah? Then what is Miss Smarty Pants?”

“A turtle in a race car, squid for brains.” The girl stuck out her tongue at me and flopped down next to me. I was too annoyed by her irrefutable answer to ask her what a squid was.

“That’s not fair! Animals don’t drive!” My golden retriever of the time could barely even fetch the ball let alone shift gears.

“I saw a cat driving once.”

“Liar.” The girl always looked like her mind was some place else. I remember her eyes would just drift away, as if she could see a few seconds ahead into the future, and therefore was always confident.

“I swear to Cap N’ Crunch.” She did a military salute that would have done my grandfather proud. It was sharp, and properly angled. Practiced.

“What’s that?” Yes, I didn’t know much about breakfast cereals.

“You don’t know Cap N’ Crunch?”

I didn’t respond. I knew by the girl’s tone that this was something every kid was expected to know. I wasn’t every kid. My mom, was a folk singer and she had long ago signed off on all that hippie clean living anti-establishment bullshit. I wasn’t allowed to buy processed anything. Almost everything I ate came from a weird store that smelled like grass. We weren’t one hundred percent vegetarian but tofu and soy products stood in as substitute for most animal meat. I was jealous of children who were allowed to indulge in cheez-whiz and artificially colored drinks in rainbow shades. I didn’t like this girl taunting me with forbidden fruit loops.

“Can you please leave now? I’m busy and this is my yard.” I had a zebra to get back to.

“Umm...” The girl was thinking over my request as if it had been a proposal. “...No. I want to stay.”

“But it’s my yard. I get to decide who stays and who goes!” The strange girl, who grew stranger by the moment, leaned into the tree and nodded like she was listening to it. “What are you doing?” She ignored me.

“Your tree says I can stay. It’s his yard too.”

“Trees can’t talk!”

“Can too. Listen.” She put a finger in front of my lips and cupped her ear to the treetops.

There are moments in your childhood that capture the feelings of what it was like when the world was brand new, moments that over time distill those experiences into a singular sense of joy. Sitting in silence with that bizarre girl waiting to hear my oak tree speak to me and then getting goosebumps when the leaves began to rustle and whisper was one such moment.

“I hear it. What’s it saying?” I marveled.

“It says...” And then the girl smiled a wicked smile that I would grow to both love and hate as the years went on, ”...climb me.” With the quick hands of a magician, the girl snatched the coloring book from my unprepared hands, shoved it in her back pocket and scrambled up the tree to the lowest hanging branch that was almost two feet out of my reach.

“Hey! Give that back!”

“Hahaha. The tree says if you want it, come get it.”

“I’m not supposed to climb trees! It’s dangerous.”

“Says who?”

“Says my mommy!”

“Well, I don’t see her. Is she invisible? Is she a ghost?”

“Don’t be stupid. Please give me my book back.” My eyes were starting to tear up.
My head drooped and down they came like raindrops falling on the dry early summer soil.

The next thing I knew I heard the sound of my coloring book falling gently to the ground and the girl was hanging by the branch, her feet still a foot or two off the ground.

“Um.. A little help?” The girl was swinging from the branch now like they were monkey bars. Her T-shirt nearly yanked up to her underarms, her belly exposed.

“What?” I snapped out of my stupor and after dusting off my book I went to help the girl.

“It’s higher than I thought. I’m scared. Just grab me around the legs and help lower me down.” I looked up at her like she was crazy. “Please!”

It seemed like a good idea but in practice, was not. The best I could manage was to grab the girl around the knees. I tried to slide her down to the ground but we both lost our balance and came crashing down on top of each other. Luckily neither of us were hurt, although I was not used to such physical activity. I lay stunned on my back when the girl offered me a hand. I crossed my arms to send a signal that I wanted nothing to do with her.

“Thanks. I’m sorry I took your book.” She left her hand out there for me to take. “I just wanted you to play with me.” The girl seemed genuine.

“You promise no more tricks?”

“I promise.” Was she crossing her fingers behind her back?

“OK.” I took the girls hand and she pulled me up. We brushed the leaves and grass off each other and for the first time since I’d met her I caught myself having a good time. “I’m sorry I told you to leave.”

“It’s OK.” Then the girl blushed which seemed completely out of character for her. “My name’s Lara. My family just moved here.”

“I’m Alex. Welcome to the neighborhood.”

The girl who I now knew as Lara pretended to hear the tree whispering to her again. “The tree says we should be friends.”

“OK.” I knew the tree didn’t say it, but I liked this girl. I didn’t have any friends unless I included the old ladies who came to see my mom perform.

“See ya around, squid for brains.” The girl skipped off down the street leaving me with a slightly wrinkled coloring book and grass stains all over my shirt. I would later find a book in the library about squids, and feel insulted all over again when I did.

NOW

She wasn’t there. I couldn’t do this without her.

The flash of a camera went off. The euphoric feeling of seeing myself transformed into something so attractive slowly gave way to panic. Although the makeup was doing an admirable job of disguising me in the soft light and perfect angles of the beauty salon mirror, how could I expect to walk around the city in the revealing light of day? I’d be spotted, tagged, and then ostracized from society. What had I done? Why had I let them go so far? My mind was filled with doubt and self loathing. The pleasant smile on my face contorted until it was recognizable to all watching me as horror.

“We have to wash this off of me. I can’t do this.” I looked at Hector, and then to Celia. I could best describe the look they gave back to me as “understanding.”

“I know is a big step for you. Going from a caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly is no easy. What will the other caterpillars say?” Hector said in a consoling ‘been there, done that’ sort of way.

“You d-don’t understand.”

“I understand. She understand.” He nodded to Celia. “We do understand.”

“N-No, you don’t. I can’t. This is too much. Get this stuff off of me.” I couldn’t find my next breath.

“Alex, calm down. You’re seriously gonna hyperventilate.” Caitlyn tried to grab my hand but I yanked it away.

“No. I’m a joke. Worse! I’m a clown.” The room was getting smaller. Everyone was looking at me. I could hear the distant jeering of a gallery of my biggest foes.

I headed for a nearby sink and turned on the water. I began splashing my face and frantically rubbing away at the makeup with both hands. The stains would not so easily be removed.

“Hey kid,” Celia turned off the water. “Stop.” I tried to turn it back on but she stopped me and forcibly put my hands at my sides. “It’s gonna be OK.” Somehow her words were soothing.

“I-I-I” I-I-I was gasping for air now.

“Quickly, get me a paper bag from the back.” Hector darted off to the back and returned moments later with the bag. “Breathe.” She told me.

I did. I breathed in and then out, and slowly the bag did its job. I settled down.

“Thanks.” I looked up into Celia’s concerned face.

“You OK?” She took my hand in hers. My heartbeat slowed into an easy rhythm.

“Yeah.”

“Feel this.” She pushed my hand onto her left breast and I felt a familiar yet slightly different squishiness. I looked at her surprised. “That’s not real. It’s a breast form. I lost ol’ lefty to cancer.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you need to know you’re among friends... and freaks.”

“Beauty is an illusion.” Hector said this with a kind of knowing sadness that gave his cliched sentiment weight. It was as if he had peered behind the curtain and seen the Wizard of Oz so many times that he could no longer believe in the magic.

“Ally, there’s not a man or woman alive who doesn’t cheat somehow. You ever heard of Chris Rock?” I nodded. “He says women are liars. We wear heels, we aren’t that tall. We wear makeup, we ain’t that pretty.”

“I hear that.” Said a short haired woman who was patiently waiting to have her nails finished while the drama unfolded.

“But the truth is that for all the tricks and cheats people use...” Celia gently tilted my face back up to the mirror where I had made a royal mess of my perfectly done up face. Streaks of black and smears of red now marring Celia’s pretty canvas “...you can’t fake true beauty. Not to sound like some loopy self help guru but you can’t fake it because it comes from within.”

“I’m not beautiful. Inside or out.”

“Yes you are. All the hair and makeup does is highlight what’s already there, so it becomes undeniable.” I looked at myself closer. I still couldn’t see it. “I mean, you’ve certainly looked better than you do right now...” I laughed at that. It was a warm laugh that seemed to come from a real place. So often I laughed because others expected me to but suddenly I found myself with nothing to do but laugh. “I mean, it’s not too bad, you kind of have a Phantom of the Opera thing going.”

“Do you have some soap or something? I want to wash the rest of this off.” Celia looked at Hector who seemed reluctant but soon gave in.

“Of course, cutie. This way.” He lead me to the back where there was a full private washing station.

“Do you want anything?” Caitlyn, who must have been feeling guilty about pushing me into this, asked cautiously.

“Maybe a pair of men’s pants?” I know. I’m in too far to back out of this now but somehow the thought of fully dressing up was too much for my poor frayed nerves to handle. I need something familiar right now. I need to know that I can still be myself.

“Sure.” Caitlyn chirped.

I lathered up my hands and scrubbed gently away at the makeup. Even as the makeup rubbed off and sailed gracefully down the drain on a bed of bubbles, the woman I saw in that mirror did not fully disappear. Her wide eyes and soft lips stared back at me stubbornly refusing to wash away. Had Celia meant what she said? Was I... This hadn’t been the first time that someone had said I was beautiful. This was, however, the first time I had wanted to believe it.

If only Lara was here to make sense of it all.

THEN

“Mommy, would it be OK if I went over to play at my friend Lara’s house?”

My mother was perched over her acoustic guitar scribbling notes and lyrics down in a tattered notebook. Her long mildly curled hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She didn’t even look up from her notes to reply to me. “The daughter of those army apes who moved in down the street?” She played a note out of tune. “I think you can do better.” Lara’s dad was ex-military and her mom was a dyed in the wool republican. Things I knew nothing about when I was 7 years old but which I found out later made my mother hate them.

“Pleeaaaase?”

“Really? Begging? I thought I taught you better than that?” She finally looked up just to roll her eyes at me.

“I’ll bring my own food and everything. I promise, no sugar. No TV.” This was my last ditch effort. My mother loved to bargain. Even my father, who was ten years her senior, had to bargain with her when he wanted to buy something. One summer a new lawnmower became a greenhouse and you don’t even want to know what the boat was equivalent to.

“I suppose it would be good for you to integrate socially...Deal. But be home by seven-thirty for supper. We’re having stuffed peppers. I won’t wait for you.” For a touchy feely hippie my mom was not very touchy or feely with her children. She believed physical affection made kids too dependent on their parents. She was full of contradictions. How she thought hugging me would make me less dependent on her than controlling every aspect of my childhood, I still to this day haven’t figured out. Go play by a tree unsupervised, but don’t you dare climb it!

“I will.” I was so excited to be seeing Lara. I’d never been to her house before.

“Love you, baby doll.” Said with as little actual warmth as she could muster.

I made myself a bean sprout sandwich with pickles and soyannaise, which was a mayonnaise substitute that used soy instead of egg, and ran out the door as fast as my feet would carry me. I wanted to show Lara some drawings I did of the duck pond in our neighborhood. I especially wanted to show her that I drew her in the pond like some half squid/half girl creature from the black lagoon.

When I got to her house, which basically looked like mine and every other house in the neighborhood except bluer, her action figure of a father was washing his car out front.
He was really big, really tall, and really strong. I remember thinking he was as tall as the tree in my yard. I stood in front of Lara’s house for several minutes afraid to cross paths with him.

This made him notice me.

He approached and wiped off his big hand on a rag.

“Hello. You must be Alex. I think Lara’s expecting you inside.”

I didn’t move. I was frozen in my tracks. What was it that the books said I should do when confronted by a bear? Play dead? Should I pretend to die?

“You can go on inside now? Go on, scoot.”

I nodded and rushed past him and up the steps to the front door. I knocked gingerly. The sounds of a stampede came closer and closer as Lara sang from the otherside, ‘I got it, I got it.’ The door flung open and Lara, seeing that it was me, threw her arms around me and pulled me into a big loving hug. I honestly didn’t know how to hug back so I patted her weakly on the back until she let me go.

“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting and waiting!” Lara looked like she was on a Saturday morning sugar bender. Her eyes went all frenzied in her head and she danced around like a skeleton on a string. “It doesn’t matter. Come inside. Let’s dance.”

There was no music but that didn’t stop Lara from grabbing me and doing an impromptu boogie, spinning and twirling me around like a top. I slipped on the floor and landed smack on my rear.

“Time out. I’m dizzy.”

“OK. I’m thirsty. Let’s get a drink. Moooom!” There was no response. “Mommmmmy?”
We made our way into the kitchen. “Mooo...”

“OK. OK. Larabelle, I hear you.” Came a voice from upstairs.

“Mooom. We have a guest here. Cut it out with the Larabelle.”

What’s Larabelle?” I asked innocently but secretly knowing that I’d found something to make fun of Lara over.

“Why, that’s Lara’s full name, honey. Lara Belle Bowen. She doesn’t much care for it but I’m her mommy, so I get to call her whatever I please.” Her mother entered the room like there was a spotlight on her. She was wearing a pastel dress, her hair was up in a bun and she was wearing makeup like I’d seen my own mother where on special occasions when she and my father would go out without me.

“Moooom. You’re embarrassing me.” Lara was pulling at her hair and then suddenly she was panting and barking like a dog. She started shaking fleas out of her “fur.”

“Larabelle, sweetie, I think you’re doing a fine job of that all on your own.” The pretty woman with the red lips turned to me and gave me an appraising once over. “Well aren’t you precious?”

“Pardon?”

“And so polite too. You must be Alex. Thank you for putting up with our Larabelle. She’s a bit of a wild one.” Lara’s mom pulled a pitcher of brown liquid from the fridge. Lara seeing this began whining like a hound dog.

“Larabelle, stop it. Try to act like a proper lady.” She looked at me as if I knew what she was talking about. “Or at least like a smarter animal.”

“Like a... monkey?” Lara started an impression of a chimpanzee. It made me laugh.

“Well don’t you encourage her now.” Her mother was scolding her but she was laughing too. Lara ran behind me and started grooming me, pretending to eat grubs from my hair.

“Oh, Larabelle. Gross. That’s enough. Now you stop that or I’ll put this tea right back in the refrigerator and you can have water —which you should be drinking anyway.”

Larabelle transformed before my eyes. Gone was the beast of the forest and in its place was a girl sitting bolt upright with perfect posture, her face almost peaceful and pleasant. She was quite the actress.

“I think you might just be a good influence on her,” said her mom as she poured the sweet smelling liquid into a glass.

“Oh I can’t have anything with sugar...” I said. Lara’s mom did a double take and then looked off and scowled like she was angry at the wallpaper.

“Nonsense. It’s just some good ‘ol South Carolina sweet tea. My granddaddy drank it everyday he was alive and he lived until he was a hundred and four years old.”

“Try some, Alex. It’s so goood.” Her eyes and her voice went crazy again when she got to the word good.

“This isn’t your momma’s house, Alex. It’s my house. Her rules don’t apply here. Just take a little sip.”

I had never thought of it that way. The sudden realization that I could, in fact, disobey my mother without consequences had me giddy with excitement. I liked Lara’s mom and I trusted what she told me. I wanted my eyes to go crazy like Lara’s. I wanted to climb trees and catch frogs.

I looked at the two of them who were eagerly anticipating my turn to the darkside. As my lips touched the glass rim I felt a tremble through my little body. The sweetness hadn’t touched my tongue for more than a couple seconds when a jolt of energy blasted through my veins. I took my first swallow of the cool liquid and it made me shake until I lost my grip on the glass. It dropped into my lap, spilling the sweet sticky tea all over my clothes. If I hadn’t known better I would have sworn that my mom had done this to punish me for going against her will. Regardless, I now knew the evils of sugar.

I felt terrible for making a mess but Lara’s mom assured me everything was just fine. She took me into the bathroom and helped me strip off my shirt. I told her I could take off the rest. She left me in the bathroom, in a pair of organic cotton briefs, holding a pile of my own wet clothing. When she returned Lara came in and gave me a folded up item of clothes in exchange for mine.

I unfolded the item. It was a long green oversized T-shirt but I couldn’t find any pants anywhere. I put the T-shirt on and it rolled down my body until the bottom fell to just above my knees. The fit was loose but a little tight around my body and the sleeves had these awful frilly things like on an apron.

“Lara, I don’t see any shorts?” Lara looked at me like I was stupid.

“That’s be-cause. It’s a dr-esssss.”

I didn’t know a lot about kids but I did know that boys didn’t wear dresses, although I think when I was really small my mother may have had me in them until I got too old.

“I can’t wear a dress!” This seemed like a logical argument to me.

“Sure ya can. You’re wearing one now. Duh?”

“But I shouldn’t! I’m a...” My shouting attracted Lara’s Mom who opened the bathroom door and peaked inside.

“Is something wrong? Does it not fit?” When she saw me, she smiled wider than I’d ever seen anyone smile before. She stepped inside and stepped over to me.

“I knew it. I knew there was a little princess under all those clothes.” She straightened out the dress, pulling and tugging at the corners. When she finished she took out a hair band with a butterfly on it and pushed my hair back with it, giving me bangs in the process. “Look at you, all beautiful.” She declared.

“Ooo.” Lara had an idea. “Let’s play beauty parlor!”

I honestly only knew about the beauty parlor because of my mother’s frequent trips. For an earth loving, no-sugar, vegetarian she sure loved to bathe her hair in toxic chemicals to get what people assumed was her natural curl. Even when I was at the beauty parlor I didn’t want to be there. I most definitely didn't want to pretend to be there.

Lara grabbed me by the arm and together we ran off to her bedroom. I still wasn’t sure about the dress or being called a princess but fun was fun.

Her mother called after us, “Larabelle, don’t even think about using my makeup! It’s very expensive and you’ll be paying it off until you’re an old lady if you do!”

Lara’s bedroom was much different than my bedroom. I had always thought that she slept on a mound of dirt, considering how dirty she always was when I saw her but on the contrary, her room was impeccably clean. She slept in a giant pink canopy bed with lace trimmings and a dozen stuffed bears, rabbits and cats of varying sizes. I came into her room and sat on the bed. I picked up a rabbit.

“That’s Frizz. I call him that cause I can make his hair do this.” She fluffed out the thick hair on his head and made it stand on end. “My dad bought these all for me.”

“I like your bed. It’s so big.”

“Barf. I hate pink. My mom picked out everything in here. If wanted my bed to be a starship cause then I could train at night in my dreams for when I got to Mars.”

“You can’t go to Mars.” I had read about this in the book, Mars: You Can’t Breathe There. Or maybe I’m making that up.

“Yeah I can.”

“No, you can’t. The air is made of poison.”

“I’ll make bubbles of air here on Earth then, enough to breathe forever and I’ll bring them with me.“

“You’re silly.”

“You’re pretty. Do you like my dress?” Lara opened her closet door and showed me my reflection. I’d never much thought about wearing a dress but here was proof that I looked good in one. Could it be that my mother was wrong about this and sugar?

“I do. But my legs are cold.” Lara’s house was like being at the North Pole because of the air conditioner.

“Oh, I have something you can wear.” Lara went into her closet and fetched a pair of long striped socks. I didn’t know what to do. I was cold but this was another thing that girls wore that boys didn’t. When I didn’t stir from my spot on the bed, Lara began taking off my socks and putting the longer ones on me.

“What do you think? I think they’re sooo ka-yoot!” Lara was super happy about playing dress up with me and I was starting to come around to it.

We spent the afternoon playing beauty salon. I put Lara’s hair up in old toilet paper rolls and pinned them there with a hair pin. She pretended to cut my hair and do my makeup, putting only a little lip gloss on me for real. By the end of the day we had our own secret universe that felt like it would collapse upon itself when it came time for me to go home. While we were waiting for our pretend hair to set and nails to dry, we sat and watched TV together. I had never watched much TV but I became a rabid fan of the Disney afternoon and was even convinced to sit and watch Beauty and the Beast with her. I didn’t really understand much, but I knew that the girl in the movie, Belle (like Lara Belle!), was pretty and for some reason she liked this big hairy beast. Lara said it was the story of her mom and dad which made me laugh.

Lara and I went into her backyard to play. She had a jump rope and a hula hoop and we took turns playing with them. She also had toy nerf guns and wanted to play at being spies. She was convinced that the dog next door was actually an alien and together we hunted it down. I wasn’t very good at this game and I really wished I was wearing shorts when we were climbing over rocks.

The sun was setting when Lara’s mother called us both in for dinner. I didn’t tell them I had to go home. They were having chicken wings cooked on an outdoor grill. If I had to I would eat two meals just so I could experience these mouth watering meat things. We were sitting at the table, giggling about the drawing I made of the duck pond (which Lara wasn’t insulted by but praised for its creativity, “I’m rubbing off on ya,” she said,) waiting for her father to come in with the last platter of wings when the doorbell rang.

I heard muffled talking and then a bit of angry shouting and I instantly recognized my mother’s stern tone.

“Alex! Get your stuff we’re going home.” I turned around to look at my mother who was more annoyed than angry. Still staring coldly at Lara’s mom.

“Mrs. Hoth. All due respect but, what’s the harm in letting your daughter stay for a few wings?” Spoke up her father as he came in with the steaming pile of chicken goodness. “She’s been looking forward to these all day.”

The look of outrage on my mother’s face was one I would not soon forget. She looked at me with daggers in her eyes. “My daughter? Alex, what the fuck are you wearing?” I would also not soon forget my mother’s first f-bomb in front of me.

“Mrs. Hoth! I will not have you barging into my house, cussing in front of the children.” Lara’s Mom shouted back.

“Listen you, Reagan-loving, warmongers, I don’t have a daughter, I have a son. His name is Alex and he’s sitting there in your kitchen wearing a dress.”

The room turned on me. Before I was a sweet, wonderful thing worthy of protecting and now I was the grand betrayer.

“But Lara said...”

“What kind of sick fucks are you? Dressing up someone’s son like a girl?”

“It’s not her fault, Mommy.” I found the courage to speak. “I was bad. I ruined my clothes because I was drinking sweet tea.” I was crying.

“Don’t say another word. Stop crying. It’s not going to work. We’re going home.”

Against my protests, my mother dragged me out of Lara’s house still wearing a dress.

NOW

The walk back to my car was a long one. I had said my goodbyes to the people at the salon and told Caitlyn that I didn’t need her to come with me back to my car. I was wearing a pair of greenish brown cargo pants and my black hoodie, no makeup and my hair pulled up under a black baseball cap but for some reason, I felt crossdressed. Maybe it was the smooth touch of the fabric against my hairless legs, or the seductive hair that even now threatened to burst out of my ballcap and swoop across my face with a flourish. I felt like that woman in the mirror could slip out any moment and reveal me.

I drove as fast as I could back to my apartment. I ran a traffic light or two but it was an even tradeoff if I had any hope of catching Lara before she did something...

FOR RENT

...stupid. The sign said it all. Lara was going to move out. I’d fucked up but good this time. I slid my key in the lock, fighting back a crying fit as I did so. I steadied my hand and undid the top lock and then as I reached for the doorknob it swing open.

Lara was standing there, her eyes bloodshot and her nose rubbed raw.

When she saw me she immediately grabbed me round the middle and hugged me with enough force to crack my ribs. She buried her head in my shoulder.

“Caleb’s gone.” She was referring to, Caleb Delorenzo, our mysterious third roommate and fellow childhood friend. The truth was he’d been gone for six months now but since we still received rental checks on time every month we always assumed he’d be back.

“What do you mean? How? We’ve only been gone for a few hours.” Well, I was gone for about five or six.

“He must have known and waited until we both pulled away.” I guess that was plausible if a little mission impossible-ey.

““Well he didn’t have much stuff.” Just a duffle bag and a few small boxes of memories.
But why would he...?“

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s in trouble? Maybe he owes money to the mob? Maybe he was abducted by aliens?”

“He doesn’t owe money to the mob and he wasn’t abducted by aliens. Don’t be ridiculous. Did he leave a note?”

Lara shrugged. She was terrible in crisis situations. Things hadn’t changed since we were kids. I entered the apartment and looked around Caleb’s empty room until I found a note on the windowsill. The envelope was dated today.

I tore it open and read it aloud.

Dear Lara and Alex,

What’s up bitches? I’m sorry to have to tell you this way but I couldn’t face you in person and txt seemed so impersonal. Frowny face. I’ve dropped out of college. Now before you go and crucify me for breaking our promise to each other, please note that I’ve found something even better than Sunday morning breakfast on the quad... I’ve found love.

In an ironic and totally hot twist of fate, the man of my dreams is one of my dad’s investors. Who would have thought that my soul mate was interested in pork product futures, aside from obvious sausage references, ‘natch. Anyhoo, he’s tall and sexy and dreamy in a middle aged Sean Connery kind of way, but most importantly he loves me and wants to marry me.

Well, we can’t do that here, thanks to Governor Homophobe, so we’re going to elope in State X. I know you’re all totes jealous. I wanted you both to be in my wedding and after seeing ‘Ally’ on the website, I was psyched to get you in a bridesmaid dress, ho but alas, there is no time and I have to be on a plane in 24 short hours.

In closing I want to say that you two are and will always be my best friends and I know we’ve been through a lot but I hope one day when you’ve both graduated and you’re off saving the world or curing Aids that you’ll stop by our love chateau and be godparents to our Malawian orphan, Spandex. I’ll write to you soon.

All of my love for you,

Caleb.

Tell Lara you love her already.

I put the note down and was filled with a mix of emotions. Anger that Caleb would even imagine me in a tacky bridesmaid gown, joy at the news of his impending nuptials, hurt that he didn’t trust us to accommodate his tight schedule and confusion that he thought I still loved Lara.

Lara seemed to come through a haze of similar emotions. Thank god the awkward silence ended when I took my hat off to cool off and down came the swoop, cascading with my layered hair into a “windswept” look.

“Did you... get a haircut?” Lara was seldom this dumbfounded.

“No. I got all of them cut.”

“You did that for me?” Lara’s weeping came to a stop. I hope she wasn’t reading too much into Caleb’s words. That was a long time ago.

“I did this for us. So we could make some money. Together. I’m sorry I was such an ass.”

“I’m sorry if I pushed you into this. I thought, somewhere deep down, you wanted it.” Lara gripped me close. Close enough for me to feel her breath on my neck but then pulled away. She looked more closely at my face and studied my hair. “...you look hot.”

“Really...?”

“Damn hot.” I felt a twinge of an old, long buried feeling. “Like, Natalie Portman hot.” Well, here lies what little sexual attraction I still harbored for Lara Belle Bowen, she of the extreme bangs, crooked front teeth and flat chest. Declared dead on this 23rd day of May in the year of our lady Princess Amidala.

I inwardly smiled at the comparison.

“What happened to us?”

THEN

The bell to start recess rang out all across the school. Children everywhere were sprinting toward those great steel double doors and out they came pouring into the playground like water from a busted dam. I lagged behind only because I soon got winded if I ran too fast, although since we had started seventh grade, a constant parade of bullies and jerks had made me a much faster runner than I had ever hoped of being.

I was carrying a composition book with me, filled with plots and notes about the great American novel that Lara and I were going to write. It had upside down train robberies, a horse that could breathe underwater, weaponized fireflies and a man who, with only the left side of his body, was still the fastest swimmer in the world. Every day since we started sixth grade we would dream up new ideas to add to it, and if they didn’t exactly fit, we’d change the whole thing to accommodate them. It was my favorite time of day.

That was all about to change.

I went to our usual spot on the bleachers, out of the site of any of the various playground sports that might make me a target but Lara didn’t show up. It wasn’t like her to be late.
When I saw what time it was I ventured out into the general population. I stuck to the shadows and walked swiftly past large groups while the ball or puck or whatever was in play. I had to dodge a basketball which somehow got hurled at my head. I was good at dodging things except, ironically, dodgeballs.

I saw Lara chatting with a group of girls. I should have known something was up when they all appeared to be wearing the same brightly colored outfit repeated four times for in slightly different shades. Lara's was an obnoxious pink color.

“What does he want?” The brightest of the four asked of me to no one in particular as if I wasn’t worthy of being addressed directly.

“Hi Lara.” I said meekly. They laughed at me.

“What, is he gonna curtsey too?” said the one in red doing a mock curtsey to further belittle me.

“Is it true you want to be a girl? Lara told me that you and she used to play dress up.” Lara just stood there. Not joining in on my dressing down but certainly not defending someone who was supposed to be her friend either.

“No! It was only once.”

“So it is true! Little freak does want to be a girl!”

“It was by accident.” They heard what they wanted to. They grabbed my chest and pulled my shirt out like I had breasts. They called me a fag. They asked me when my period was. They made fun of my long hair. All the while Lara did nothing to stop them.

I ran away crying that day on the playground and made a vow never to let that happen again.

The next day I stole fifteen bucks form my mom’s wallet and went to the barber. I told him to shave it all off. I didn’t cry. I burned. Nothing would make me feel like that ever again.

Lara came to my house two days later carrying a basket of my favorite homemade peanut butter cookies. I opened the door to her only because I wanted to hurt her as badly as she hurt me.

“Alex... did you get a haircut?” Lara couldn’t believe her eyes. In all the time she had known me I had never had short hair. This was a first.

“No. I got all of them cut.” It was a popular joke that now took on a cruel meaning.

“I’m sooo sorry for how I treated you on the playground. I didn’t know what to do. Girls have never been nice to me before. I just..”

“Stabbed me in the back?”

“I wanted them to like me. I wanted to be with other girls my age. I didn’t think it meant I couldn’t hang out with you. I would never give that up for... ”

“Are those for me?” Lara happily handed over the basket feeling like maybe all was forgiven.

“I really felt terrible. And did you see that dress? Pink. Barf.” I took a cookie and bit into it. I ate it cheerfully.

“I have something for you too.” Lara was probably feeling relieved at this point. I wish I had known how sincere her apology was. I wish I hadn’t been a vindictive ass but these wounds weren’t so easily mended.

“Here.” I handed her the torn pages of our novel that I had shredded in a mad fit. “Get out of my yard.” I slammed the door in her face and watched her as she went off crying the paper pages being blown away like flower petals on the wind.

I wouldn't talk to her again until the middle of my freshmen year when a boy named Caleb brought us back together.

...to be continued.

author's note: If you think Alex's mom is a little bit of a walking contradiction well, she is. And her convenient belief systems are based on my friend's mother. I had to break up this chapter because it was running too long but it's all part of one long narrative arc and hopefully when it's done Ally will be ready to play dress up again. =)



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