Disappointment characterized not the first birth, but the second in the amniotic procession the twins enacted on May 16, 1978. It was the first of many staged productions for the energetic children of withered opera rose Emilia Hemmings. Emilia knew just what she was getting, no surprises for her. Only two months earlier, peering into the murky flourishes of stratus cloud-like ultrasound pixelation prompted the doctor to declare twins, female. Emilia’s Flashbulb-Fuchsia colored nails clutched the paper-covered sides of the examination table in glee, barely able to contain her excitement.
At the time of the second table-clutch, Emilia saw that her twins weren’t as identical as she had expected. Her husband, Ernest, mistook the look of anguish on her face for exhaustion. As she was brought each child, one in a pink blanket, the other in blue, she looked back and forth between them, amazed at one, confused by the other.
“I’d rather have pink blankets for them both Ernest” she whispered hoarsely. Ernest was excellent at taking care of things (It was he who had gotten out of the doctor the real story, that an errant leg had concealed the bit of flesh that might have given Emilia some warning). Not wanting to upset her, he carefully rushed off, to take care of things.
“And what will be their names?” the nurse asked, pen poised above the birth certificate.
“Marcelline, and….and….Ernest…ine” said Emilia. The nurse eyed her, but Emilia met the gaze and returned it twofold. Ernest reappeared, the blue blanket was exchanged for pink, and Emilia breathed a little more easily. She held the luminous creatures, admiring their rosied patinas.
“Ernest darling, I named one of the babies after you.”
Emilia walked proudly with her tandem stroller, children in matching ruffled dresses and socks with fold-over embroidered cuffs that fanned out around their plump little legs like gossamer mushroom caps. She ran into a young blonde woman, who was jogging with a pink sweatband on.
“Your girls are beautiful” she said in the obligatory tone-of-amazement reserved for bestowing compliments upon another’s offspring.
“They are, aren’t they?” Emilia responded, basking in the compliment. Why should she correct her? Was it her fault that they looked so alike? They were twins.
I didn’t learn how to unfasten a woman’s undergarment the usual way. Nor did I learn at the usual age.
“Ernestine! Come here, I need you!”
“Here I am Mommy.”
“I can’t fasten this, come here, be my angel and…yes that’s it, just put the hook into the eye, make sure you get all three….”
“One keeps coming out when I try and put the other one—”
“Just try and put them in all at the same time! Hurry, we have five minutes.”
“It’s not working.”
“Here sweetie, look, I’ll show you. See how I do it on you?” She slipped the beige loops over my arms, fixed the cups in place on my flat chest, and in a swift movement, demonstrated, while I looked over my shoulder into the mirror how the fastening was to be done, in one confident, synchronized, hooking motion.
“Please honey, now try on me, I just can’t quite reach.” After some fumbling, I did it. Then mother stood up, satisfied, and grasped my shoulders, turning both of us towards the mirror. “Look at us! We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?” Wearing the bra encouraged inside me an indescribable inflorescence. A trill of dangerous excitement, a wave of shame, and an afterglow of arousal. I laughed, feeling uncomfortable and also conspiratorial.
“Mommy, are you in there?”
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Ernest. Can I come in?” I heard Marcelline howl in protest.
“Sweetie, I’m dressing, so right now this is a ladies-only place.” That was my cue. I put on the sweeter, higher pitched contra-tenor that she had taught me. I was wearing my best smocked housedress, with geraniums embroidered around the collar. This was a day-time only dress, since Mommy said Daddy didn’t like dresses.
“May I come in?”
“Ah, Ernestine, is that you!” Emilia said excitedly “Come help Mommy get ready.”
And when I entered, I really was Ernestine. As Ernestine, I was equal to her cherished Marcelline.Together we were free to indulge in what we called the ‘marvelous.’ We looked at her collection of buttons and fancied who the original owners had been. I listened to the tickling sounds of perfume bottles clinking together, and she told stories about the men who had purchased them for her. She would braid my hair, smooth creams onto my hands to make them softer, efforts at keeping that naughty Little Ernest at bay. Emilia’s hands were already well initiated into the signs of aging, like a peachy iced-over pond mottled with the cracks and cuts of skaters long past. She loved having her little ‘Tine smooth them over with lavender cream. Then, she would let Marcelline paint her nails, long and ovaline, a deep blood-ripe aubergine color like the wellings of a small pin prick, transforming them to carefully domesticated talons.
The feeling of my thigh flesh rubbing together, but not quite, was a delightfully foreign one. Each leg touched the other, but was separated by the diaphanous, scratchy-in-the-silkiest-of-ways material.
“Stop squirming, they aren’t pulled up all the way yet.” Marcelline yanked the waist band up a little more, forcing the nylon right up into the crest between my legs. I winced and wriggled. It embarrassed me to do this in front of people other than my mother and sister.
But it was Emilia’s birthday, and we had created a little drama centered around her favorite painting. Today’s production would be about Degas and his dancers. We had decided to forego choreography in favor of improvisation but had troubled ourselves to write dialogue. Marcelline, true to megalomaniacal form, would play the role of Degas. I would be a ballerina.
Staging these shows was one of those embarrassing family rituals that exists purely behind closed doors. Big Ernest’s legs were impatiently crossed. Emilia sat forward on the sofa, just on the edge, with her shoulders back and her eyes wide, her head bobbing in encouragement Marcelline flicked the light switch on.
There I was, pale torso and sloping shoulders clad in a leotard which made my rib cage bulge like little cnidarian bellows, forcing their wing-like contours over the top of my dancer’s skirt. A matching ribbon was sweetly cocked above my brow. I attempted futilely to lift a stockinged leg up onto the mantel, a stand-in for the traditional barre, but it was too high and made a comedy of my various warm-up poses. Marcelline came on stage wearing a beret, a monocle, and a marker-scrawled beard. She held in her left hand a malformed wood slab, her thumb poking through to support it, and in her right hand she juggled two paintbrushes and a long thinly tapered cigarette holder.
As I traipsed delicately around the living room carpet, Marcelline positioned herself in a corner and began to make exaggerated scrawling marks with the paintbrushes on a hidden canvas. Then her dialogue began. She was the mastermind, the star, of these productions, and she delivered every line as if it were an exclamation, a wise proclamation of grave importance, perhaps uttered by someone like James Earl Jones.
“Little dancer, how pretty you are!”
I kept on dancing.
“I could paint you for hours and hours! But what shall we do when it get’s dark outside? I will no longer be able to paint, and you will no longer be able to dance!” She pulled a sad face and dashed her paintbrushes to the ground, growling in a mock low-pitched voice
“It’s no use! [ hand thrust to forehead in mock-faint pose] How I must suffer!” She flung the palette sideways, a violent boomerang that threatened to crash into the crystal decanters on the credenza.
At this point I became afraid, seeing how Big Ernest’s bristling eyebrows had followed the catapulted prop, and cried out, “Be careful!” which prompted Marcelline to shout and shake her arms in admonishing incredulity.
“The fourth wall Ernest! The fourth wall!”
I then sat in the middle of the stage, my blond hair shining despondently in rings around the crown of my head.
“You’ve broken it!” Marcelline wailed, arms falling and slapping her thighs in frustration.
“No I haven’t, you were the one who threw it, and it missed anyway.”
“No, Ernest,” she heaved contemptuously, “you’ve broken the fourth wall.”
I sat staring straight ahead, chin in hands for thirteen minutes this afternoon, the whole time focusing on the new blue plaid comforter my father had purchased for my bedroom. Over it I had laid out my collection. Of the numerous confections Emilia had secretly been buying me, I had two different garter belts, one pale yellow, the other a sweet coral; eight brassieres of varying lace intricacy (and one with conical, 1950’s cups!); four pairs of nylons, three differently colored, and one a special fancy pair with fan perforations (which created what I felt was a more elegant take on the fishnet look); and nine different pairs of panties. Soon I would be needing a new bra, to make evenly matched pairs. It all looked vile on this new bedspread. But the bedspread helped me play my part in a blue plaid life.
Big Ernest stepped in quietly to see his boy lying prostrate at the curated intimates. At this point, a decision was made, and things might have gone two different ways, or maybe even five or eight or sixteen different ways. Big Ernest could have looked on in personal dissatisfaction, in quiet grief, perhaps with a tear squeezed down his ridged cheek. Big Ernest could have left, silently closing the door behind him. But Big Ernest did none of these things.
Big Ernest roared mightily.
“What in GOD’s name do you THINK you’re doing?!!”
Terrified silence, followed by more terrified silence and stricken eyeballs.
“This has gone on… too long! No son of mine will be some sissy boy pussy,” he hissed between gritted teeth. My father grabbed me and dragged me over to my desk. “Scissors! Get the scissors!”
I looked at the pencil cup that held a large pair of shears.
With a menacing look, Big Ernest roared “NOW.”
No sooner had I quickly grasped the handles than my father had thrown me violently to the bed. I was shaking so hard that the two scissor blades rattled together, a lilting counterpoint to the symphonic rage. Big Ernest took slow deliberate steps towards the bed, looked around its surface, and selected the coral garter belt set. He dangled it over me hatefully. With a disdainful drop, the garment fell on my face. I felt asphyxiated. “DESTROY IT.”
My face flooded with tears that darkened the coral material, expanding fiercely into red stains. I tentatively sliced into them, as if they were part of me. Soon, I was surrounded in tatters, eviscerated. He supervised as I ruined my trove, howling for my mother, mucus pouring from my mouth and nose. In the hallway, with her back against the closed bedroom door, fluids similarly emitted from Emilia, choking her. Black veins materialized on her face as her mascara ran, resembling stuck-on bits of waterlogged, carbon lace.
I sat in the frothy, multi-colored entrails of shredded fabric. All the while, Big Ernest paced the room, throwing his hands up in the air and doing a frightening jittery dance while slovenly muttering under his breath questions like “Is this what you want! To be a freak?” and “How will you ever become anything like this?” or “What have I done wrong? Why did I let Emilia indulge herself?” and “My boy is going to be a queer isn’t he?” and finally, more audibly, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
The first of seven visits that abruptly ended when Emilia threatened abandonment and divorce (less easily hidden than a sexually perverse son) was a humiliating one. Big Ernest had discreetly found an agreeable (read: coercable) doctor to handle me and my sickness.
I sat in a mildew green chair, in a paper gown, looking like an uncomfortable paper crane. Beneath the folds, my waxing and waning tumescence was monitored by the penile plethysmograph Dr. Pheonix’s nurse had affixed to me. In front of me, a small screen projected images that shifted every fifteen seconds. The first session, I had been made to sit there and look for a full half hour. A lollipop, a grassy field, a woman in a swimming pool, a penguin, a man playing tennis, a penis, a puppy, a book, a farm, nylon stockings, a mountain, snow, two large breasts. I sat there, noticing my own swelling and shrinking. I was encouraged to tell stories about how I was feeling during this interactive shame montage. No matter how hard I tried to control it, I found I couldn’t. Two people sat in an adjoining room, looking at their own smaller screen, interpreting what my responses meant. As I became engorged and displaced air in the glass shaft, the displaced air told my observers just how unacceptable I was and to what degree, up to six significant digits.
Marcelline and I lay side by side, ensconced in our twin beds. I couldn’t sleep
“What’s wrong, why are you fidgeting?”
“I don’t know.” And then, “Marce, am I still young enough to play your ingénue?”
“You know how dad gets about the shows. And your shoulders, too broad. What kind of ingénue looks self-sufficient? You’re on the em-effing football team.”
“So I’m too old?”
“Just not ingénue-young”
“I’m only fifteen,” I moaned.
“And fifteen is old,” she responded. “We’ve already missed so many opportunities. For example, if we wanted to become prodigies at any discipline, any discipline at all, we would have had to choose it and begin way before now. And,” she continued, “We’ve reached that age when we’re no longer attractive to pedophiles. It’s too late,” She said with a great sigh.
“Yes,” I agreed.
Our jackets were speckled with streaks of olive, yellow, umber – a collage of faux foliage to confuse both potential targets and predators. We wore stiff leather boots, with laces held up the ankles by steel pegs.
After Marcelline had informed me that play was over, I knew it was time to change. Thus, rifle team.
I nestled the butt into my shoulder, cradling softly before pulling the trigger. That moment, when everything is quiet and still, just before the projectile is launched, is full of excruciating tension, a pinched short- breathed feeling of anticipation and fear and wonder. You know what will happen, you can even visualize the feel of the kick back, but every time it happens it is still miraculous.
“Ok, let’s get her,” Jonas whispered.
A slight faun ambled sixty feet off to our left. Everyone froze, and then pivoted slowly. It reminded me of a dance Marcelline and I did once. A slow, dramatic pivot, moving our arms like the Shiva Tandava and humming in loud, nasal whines, attempting to create overtones (that had been for ‘It’s A Beautiful Day in the Bollyhood’).
“It’s too small, Jonas,” I protested.
“Its alive, and we have guns,” he replied. “Alright, guy who gets it gets to do my girlfriend tonight.”
Things cocked, things aimed, eyes focused, index fingers stroked, flirting with the sweetest spot until a flurry of cracks scattered into the forest. I hadn’t fired. I’d wanted to. I just hadn’t. The histrionics were there, but without delivery.
“I am totally nailing Lisa tonight!” I cheered to disguise my inaction, arms raised skyward. I immediately regretted this, because as my arms raised, I felt underwires tickling my chest, making my body hairs bristle, causing another part of my body to raise. My face fell and the gloating cheer dwindled into a strained remark. I may have convinced Dr. Pheonix over time that I was better, and I became more adept at concealing things from my father, but under no circumstances had I been able or even desired to cease my collecting. In fact, its forbidden nature had pushed me into wearing my treasures in situations where I could feel the delicious endangerment that accompanied the possibility of being discovered.
“You really think I would let any of you do Lisa? I shot that bitch fair and square, just like I knew I would. Check the bullet if you don’t believe me,” Jonas retorted.
In the truck back to school, we discussed strategy for the skeet match next week. Back on campus, we headed for our lockers. Jonas came up behind me and tripped me. I went sprawling as he chuckled,
“That’s payback for Lisa”
Lying on the floor, I could feel just the slightest sliver of my lower back exposed – the camouflage jacket had ridden up during the fall, just as my pants had ridden down – and now four guys were staring at my silk covered ass.
“Holy shit,” breathed Jonas.
A barbed giggle fanned out from an intimate crew that sat in a way that so fully excluded me. It danced, funneling inside the pink of my ear until it slipped inside, and all I could wonder was ‘was that about me’
If I thought I was friendless before, I was flirting with desolation now. The guys constantly reminded me of their disdain with fresh lascerations, bruises, or welts on any or all parts of my body.
“Football practice is getting rough now that I made Varsity” was what I told Big Ernest when he asked after my weekly-mauled face. He wasn’t the only one who had noticed a change.
“Are you okay Ernest?” I heard a small voice ask after last Tuesday, when Jonas had dumped me out of the flatbed of his truck and into a pile of mulch.
After taking me home for band-aids, Lisa, of Jonas’-pimping-out-his-girlfriend fame, revealed a side of her that needed to nurture. Specifically, a side that needed to nurture whilst sticking it to Jonas. Who was I to protest?
In just a week, we were in her basement on her plaid sofa after school, 4 pm, constantly vigilant for the sound of a key in the front door. I felt that familiar tingling when I saw her shirt lift, which became an insistent strain once the shirt was flung to the floor.
We clumsily squirmed on her couch for a while in the beautiful, un-choreographed dance of sexual novices, dances that can only be done a certain number of times. Then my fingers felt hook and eye.
Now, doing it on someone who wasn’t Emilia felt exhilarating and like betrayal.
Feeling the flare of hips, being able to trace the inward, magnetic pull of the small of her back that announced the enticing jut beneath, I felt dizzy with my clumsy, clamoring desire. But more interesting than her actual body was this act of undressing, or really not even undressing, but being able to behold her body clad in the trappings of females. I dropped my hands, trying to turn her around, so that I could look more fully upon her, but she kept guiding my hands back to that latched place. A place I didn’t really care to go, unless I could keep the artifact of the trick.