Over the last two years, I’d gone from rockabilly femme styles to a more LA look—floral jumpsuits with heels, leather jackets and high boots and peacock eyelashes, and, for this event, lace patterned heels and my grandmother’s satin slip worn as a dress. My bathroom counter was a chaos of eyeliner and mascara and powders, the cord of my curling iron threading through the entire mess. It took an embarrassingly long time to get ready; I’d shoo Dylan off in the morning before I even began.
When they left, I’d pull my hair back and wonder what I would look like in drag, though I hadn’t yet had the courage to ask them: Can we be boys together sometime?
I shook myself out of it, turning a bit red—I’d fallen so fast, so hard, such a lesbian.
On one of our early dates, we went out to the hills at the edge of the city, driven along curving country roads until we came to a dirt pullout. We hopped the fence and threw a blanket down on a patch of dry hillside, far enough from the constant city lights that the stars were a scattering rather than a handful. Too many to count.
We were waiting for the meteors to streak across the sky. Dylan showed me the big dipper, tracing the constellation. They pointed out how you could use the dipper’s handle to find the north star, like sailors did to find their way home.
We were still in the beginning stages of getting to know one another, and everything they said surprised me. Their knowledge of astronomy was disconcertingly vast, and I was happy to lie next to them, wrapped in blankets, and let them teach me to see the shapes in the stars.
“You must love it here,” I said. They’d been in the city for much longer than I had.
They put an arm around my shoulders. We were still playing respectable, like we were not using a date which required cuddling in a secluded location as an excuse to fuck.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere,” they said. “Have you ever fallen in love with a city?”
“No,” I said, laughing a little.
“I’m serious! I think you know when you meet your perfect city.” I was looking up at the stars, but I could see their grin out of the corner of my eye.
“Oh?” I asked. “And when did you know?”
“Hmm. It wasn’t love at first sight, but definitely when I met my favorite food truck here.”
“Are you monogamous?”
“I haven’t thought about living in another city since. There’s more than enough variety for me. Oh, look!”
The first of the meteors fell, a flash so quick I nearly missed it. They wound their fingers through mine, both of us staring up at the sky, searching for the next one. I made a wish, silently, in the first falling star’s wake.
I anxiously counted the people who clustered around the woman selling tickets. Since it was the biggest event of the year, we needed to hit quota if we wanted the bar to invite us back. I held my breath and watched the crowd as it pushed against the edges of the smoke and beer stained walls.
Morgan, my Elvis, hair slicked perfectly, voice pitched under the music, sidled up. “How long?”
I shrugged. “Give it a few more minutes. I’m not gonna run the first ever queer event to start on time.”
The audience looked familiar and not just because I’d personally invited many of them. Three of my exes of various genders were present, as well as several old Tinder dates.
I kept my profile up, mostly to check if Dylan had done the same. We were taking it slow, which meant house keys and happy hours and no discussion, yet, of monogamy or commitment. I’m not the sort of person who dips a toe in, not really; I prefer to dive. But not everyone is that way.
Dylan slipped in the back and waved a hand at me, sidling through a cloud of their ex-girlfriends and former loves. They dated girls even more femme than me, girls who knew how to do a good smoky eye and had the patience to repaint their nails every time they chipped.
I have a policy of not questioning someone’s attraction to me. If we’re fucking, there’s enough there. But the fact of their exes made me itchy, made me wonder how much of their attraction to me was contingent on my dresses, my makeup, my steadiness of form.
Ever since I started to host these shows, a thought kept coming up over and over again. I wasn’t one for the stage. I didn’t want to bust out a microphone and some Justin Timberlake. I just wanted to do my buttons and look in the mirror. See how it felt. I couldn’t locate the center of my curiosity. I thought I’d been happy as me for years—dresses, heels, that golden feeling of totally acing womanhood. Lately, I’d been wondering if I truly liked girly things or if I just liked being good at something. Being approved of.
I posted a few times on social media, angling the livestream at the most crowded areas of the room. Even if you can’t get the numbers, inducing FOMO is half the point. I checked out the drinks in people’s hands, though I wouldn’t know until the end of the night if people had bought enough at the bar to break even.
Dylan put a hand on the small of my back and I jumped.
“Looks good?” they asked.
I shrugged. “Hard to say.” A celesbian had been spotted, the awareness of her spreading like ripples around a pebble fallen into a pond, concentric circles of OK don’t look now but, just pretend we are taking a selfie, glance over my shoulder.
I bounced on my heels, ready to take the stage to emcee, and Dylan gave me a sideways hug, just out of sight of the audience, just for us.
“It’s going to go perfectly,” they said and I laughed, because no event has ever gone perfectly. But the people in the front row were smiling, and with luck, I’d get close enough.
Events are a blur, a high of cheers and eyes and costumes—I waved Morgan onstage to a roar and she ripped her shirt open, revealing nipple tape and drawn-on abs to screams of glee. Not a move that Elvis had ever had the guts to try, but historical accuracy went out the window as the night went on. That and some of the clothes—and not just from the performers.
Somebody left a top hat and tassels backstage. Another person spilled a drink on Sam’s ex, and it wasn’t clear if it was on purpose. Two of the celesbians were in a feud. Somebody had discovered their sweetie was cheating via our Instagram. I had to clear out the bathroom three times because no matter how cute we made our sign about not fucking in the single occupancy stall, people just couldn’t follow instructions.
I abandoned my live tweet while I watched Dylan lip sync, throw a rose, loosen their tie and throw it into the audience. My heart, dumb as fuck, picked up speed while I watched them dance.
I thought again that I’d like to wear a tie—in a boy way, not an Avril Lavigne way. Not between cleavage, just as itself. Sexy like rolled up sleeves and the ripple of muscles in someone’s forearms. Sexy like a uniform jumpsuit tied around the waist, an A-line shirt, the flat, shaved line at the nape of the neck.
It was like navigating in the dark, such a strong feeling of not this, but not that either. Not consuming, like it was for some, or overwhelming. Ignorable, the way I imagine my high school crush had felt about me. A question that could, if treated with care, go unanswered.
I thought of my mother. When I came out, she asked if I was going to be one of those lesbians, with the suits, the motorcycles, the ones who looked like men, and I said, of course not, making a show of disdain. I was going to blend in. Look normal. Still be the type of woman men desired, the type they’d ask, how do you do it and can I watch, having the type of sex that made sense to straight people, the type of relationship where people wondered who the man was because you were both so femme.
I did not, then, recognize that as an exercise in self-loathing.
I’d spent the night before the performance at Dylan’s house, stayed up too late helping their roommate perfect a very ambitious Super Freak lip sync. Dylan’s roommate, Sam, was a baby gay. Sam had barely been out one year, and was prone to sprawling on the couch after a night out and asking people how they came out, when they knew, the most embarrassing crushes that none of us yet knew were crushes, the eternal question, do I want to fuck her or be her? (The answer often the former, but sometimes both both both.)
Sam was prone to knocking on Dylan’s door with an emergency question, me pulling the sheets up to my neck while Sam peeked in, shifting from foot to foot, all jumpy energy, some ridiculous question like, “So sorry to interrupt, but am I a top or a bottom? This girl on Lex just asked me?”
Me blushing, saying, “That’s not even a thing,” while Dylan said, “Bottom, definitely.”
Sam closing the door like, I’ll leave you to discuss that.
Dylan would tell stories about their childhood babysitter, tragically devoted to a terrible boyfriend, unwaveringly straight, and stunningly beautiful. I would respond with memories of my best friend, who I’d loved in secret, our relationship doomed the instant it hit the rumor mill.
It was like navigating in the dark, such a strong feeling of not this, but not that either.
We shared stories which elided the people we had lost, mother or fathers, whole families, friends. I could have made a list—everyone could have. Instead, we told the funny stories. Dylan running straight into a closed door because they couldn’t take their eyes off the babysitter. Me, asking my best friend to teach me guitar, spending months learning nothing but the shape of her hands.
This morning, I’d heard the murmur of voices before I awoke, Sam and Dylan in the living room, a different when did you know. Dylan refusing all dresses and skirts, screaming the house down when put in frilly church outfits. That double image in the mirror, what is and what could be. An investigation into the best and most comfortable binders. A conversation that stopped when I came into the room.
Stories told so often they were comfortable, the way a child will tell their origin story over and over to themselves, until they know who they are.
I waved the Backstreet Bois onstage for our finale as I stood in what passed for the wings—the doorway to the entrance of the green room, which was actually the stockroom, which was simply sheets thrown over boxes and crates of beer and wine.
Ash, at the door, gave me a thumbs up. We’d met our target. I relaxed, leaned against the doorway, gave Dylan a smile from across the room.
Dylan smiled back, then came up to me and put an arm around me. Full view of the room of exes. A public declaration. I leaned against them.
“I have something to tell you,” I said, before I intended on saying it. “Don’t let me chicken out.”
I could feel them tense a little against me. “Good news or bad news?”
“Just a question,” I said. “Maybe plans for a date.”
“Well, in that case,” they said, and then squeezed my waist, let go of me, so I could go onstage to encourage everyone to tag us or snapchat us or post pictures for next time. Wish everyone goodbye. Call the performers out for one last bow, one last song.
After the props got put away and I’d thrown a stray mustache in the trash, we stayed for one celebratory drink at the beginning of an afterparty that promised to last all night, and Dylan and I spilled out into the city streets. The night was sticky, alive. I held their hand and made myself talk.
“I’d like to try it,” I said.
I shook my head. “Being a boy. Even if only for a little.”
I was shaking a bit. I’d only known Dylan for a few months. But I’d taken the length of their fist, had smoothed the mustache onto their face, had fallen asleep and drooled on their neck.
They slung an arm around me. “We could have a boy’s night. Let you try on some clothes. Get out my box of mustaches and cufflinks.”
I giggled, muffling it in their neck. “We could hang out, bro.”
Maybe we were drunk on comraderie or maybe it was the actual beer. They said, “Yeah, dude. Just boy time. Crack open a cold one. Bro out.”
I didn’t have the courage to lift my head from their neck yet. They were warm and smelled like cologne. I didn’t want it all the time, but sometimes would be nice. A bit of swagger. A dash of dapper. A button-up shirt and wingtip shoes. An experiment in form.
Audrey R. Hollis is an MFA candidate at Purdue University and Fiction Editor at Sycamore Review. Her writing has appeared or is upcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Strange Horizons, the Pinch, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the Los Angeles Review, among other places. She was a winner of the AWP Intro Journals award and the Kneale Award for Creative Writing in 2020. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana with her spouse and cat.
For updates, you can follow her on twitter at audreyrhollis or go to her website, www.audreyrhollis.com..