“Are you done yet?”
“Hold on a sec. Just getting a smudge off.”
He gently wipes the corner of my eye with a tissue. I am lying on my back across my bed, with my head hanging down. I have a perfect, reversed view of the kitchen across the hall. My long hair touches the floor. Ryan is kneeling over my head with an opened tube of brown/black mascara in his hand. He is waving the blackened brush dangerously close to my hair.
“Watch it,” I caution.
He pulls at the skin below my lower eyelid and touches the wand to my lashes. “Do you think you could hurry?”
Ryan always has trouble with the bottom lashes. He does most of my makeup in the bathroom mirror, but when it’s time to do the bottom lashes, we finish them in my room. He has applied purple and grey eye shadow, rubbed dark rouge on my cheekbones, and covered my lips with caked-on, gummy lipstick. The colours are all wrong, dark and violet-hued, clashing with my fair complexion and auburn hair. I know nothing about makeup, but I know a clown when I see one. My eyes are too big and animated, and my smile is too glossy and forced. No thirteen-year old should wear dark beige, wrinkle defense foundation. This is what happens when you borrow your mother’s makeup.
He walks up behind me in the bathroom, and peers over my shoulder, looking at both of us in the mirror. “What do you think?” he asks.
“Well, I don’t look like me." I tuck up my hair and pull on a wig. I shake my nylon brown curls."But I don’t look real either. Nobody will believe I’m your cousin."
We are friends in the neighbourhood, strangers on the school playground. He hangs out with the cool kids, the girls who live in town. I have a few friends, mostly girls who are bussed in from the farms around our community. The town girls despise me. I’m different. I don’t worry much about my hair or my clothes. I’d rather read. Or kick a ball. Or play Four Steps Around the House at twilight, just as the streetlights are warming themselves up.
At school, I don’t talk very much. I keep my distance from most people. I’m not always sure what to say. And when I do talk, everything comes out wrong. I prefer to hide behind the pages of a good book. Or any book. Some of the girls in my class are nice. They let me hang out with them, but they’ve made it clear that we only do certain things together. I can stand in their group at recess. We can do homework together, at school, and we joke around a bit. I do not share in their secrets. I don’t spend time with them after school. I won’t be invited to birthday parties, boy-girl parties, or Saturdays out.
I am somewhat gratified by the opportunity to mingle, to stand with other girls. I spend a lot of time on the playground alone. My desperation prompts me to accept these crumbs and I require no more. I never expected Ryan, a popular boy, to become my friend. He lives across the street.
One day, as I sat reading on the front steps of the house, he rode up the sidewalk on his ten-speed.
“Hi,” he says, startling me. I drop my book.
“Hi.” I am at a loss. What else do I say?
“What are you reading?” I pick up my book and hold it out to him, Jane Eyre.
He pretends to be interested. “Do you like it?”
“You read a lot.”
“It passes the time.”
“You know, maybe if you didn’t read so much at school, more people would talk to you.
“I doubt that.”
“Maybe you should try it.”
Ryan appears at my doorstep the next day. We have a short discussion about math homework. He jokes. I laugh. “
You have a nice laugh,” he remarks. I look away, embarrassed. “And you know something else. When you’re at home, your voice is different. It’s much louder. At school, when you talk, I can barely hear you.
“I don’t talk much at school.”
The next day at school is a particularly awful one for me.
Out loud. On the playground. In front of everyone.
And stuck-up Betty MacDonald walks around with her nose wrinkled for half an hour. “What is that smell?” she asks her friends. She makes that annoying clucking sound with her tongue every few minutes and points her nose higher in the air. “She didn’t even say excuse me,” she announces to everybody and nobody, periodically throughout the day. All the girls like Ryan. She makes a point of telling him the sordid story.
“So, what’s the big deal?” he asks her in my presence. “Don’t you fart?”
I have an ally. A secret ally.
We don’t talk at school very often. We hang out in the evenings all the time. We act like we don’t have phones and flicker our bedroom lights at one another when we want to talk. He is conscious of my unpopularity, and reminds me that he has a reputation to preserve. “But, you know what? We’ll find a way to show them who you really are. I scuff my North Stars in the dust and study the sidewalk. Who am I, really?
Ryan does a brisk trade in movie posters. He buys Tiger Beat and Teen Beat, and he cuts out all the pictures. On the bus he trades his Leif Garrets and Shaun Cassidys for pin-up girls. Farrah Fawcett is his favourite, but he also likes Jacklyn Smith and Cheryl Tiegs. He makes loud panting noises when he sees his favourites, and dramatically holds his new possessions close to his heart. I know what he does with the posters he acquires.
He sells them to the boys. He has no posters of any kind in his bedroom. There are pictures of old cars on the walls.
At the end of September he hatches a plan.
We are playing on a construction site, in the foundations of the new houses on our street. Construction is still a novelty in our town. We are living in the first new houses built here in more than a decade. Suburb-like, we sit on the edge of town, adjacent to vacant, surveyed lots and farm fields. The new houses are being built down the street from us. We don’t realize that we are taking chances when we peer around studs and chase each other across unfinished sub-floors. We descend into concrete basements by means of the ladders carelessly left on the site. Our shoes are caked with mud and clay. We are sitting on the edge of a foundation, swinging our legs into a future neighbour’s basement.
"I’m having a party,” he announces. I stop swinging my legs.
“I can’t invite you.” I stand up. I’m going home.
“Wait!” he calls. “I have an idea.”
I stop. I’ll hear him out.
And so begins my transformation form me to not me. He becomes an expert make-up artist. And I learn patience. His hands grow steadier. He is fascinated with the process; he becomes meticulous in the application of concealer and colour. We practice my make-up every day for two weeks. Sometimes, he tells me, to get the eyes just right, he practices on his own face at home. We have a limited palette, as I have no make-up of my own. We only have what we’ve managed to borrow or swipe from our moms.
Ryan found a silvery brown acrylic wig at the Salvation Army, which will complete my disguise. It smells, and makes my head sweat. My make-up smears. The big reveal is to take place at the Hallowe’en party. He has given our classmates prior notice that his cousin is coming. Everyone wants to meet her. His cousin is really a costume. She is me. When everyone removes their masks at the end of the night, I will pull off my wig and I will be revealed.
Nobody asks if I am coming.
We decorate. We make cardboard tombstones with clever sayings, and ghosts out of white construction paper. Ryan borrows most of my record collection, my April Wine, my prized Meatloaf album, and my K-Tel compilations. I help hang orange and black streamers. There will be bowls of chips and candy kisses. I’m starting to feel like it’s my party, too. . At school, the girls talk excitedly about who they’ll dance with, what costumes they will wear. The lights may be out. There will be slow dancing for sure. All the girls have a crush on Ryan.
So do I. I think. I think about what it would be like to kiss a boy. Would his lips be soft or hard? Would my glasses get in the way? Would he put his arm around me, or hold my hand? Ryan’s okay looking, I suppose. Taller than me. A bit soft around the middle. Kind eyes. I like his smile. And, when he is around, I am a person. Other times, especially at school, I am a shadow.
Two nights before the party, he comes over to do a final test run. I am painted, wigged, dressed, and as ugly as I can be. I stare at myself in the mirror. No matter what colours are slathered on my face, I am still me. My body is still mine. My hands, my nose, my shape cannot be disguised. How do we change my voice, or alter my walk? I scrub my face clean. I go back to my room and hand him the wig.
“It won’t work,” I tell him.
“I know,” he says. “I’m sorry.” Here’s where he is supposed to invite me to his party anyways. At this juncture, he should stand up to the bullies and the town girls and say, “This is my friend and I like her. The rest of you can go to hell.”
Instead he says, ”Wanna kiss?”
“Okay.” We are sitting on my bed, close together. He doesn’t touch me. He descends upon me with his mouth wide open and moves his tongue around. His eyes are open. I’m not sure if he is kissing me or spitting into my mouth.
I peer at him in the semi-darkness. “Is that it?”
“Yeah. Why didn’t you open your mouth?”
“ I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
“Let’s try again.”
I relax my lips. This time it’s a bit better. It’s not quite as unpleasant, but still very wet. I don’t really care for kissing, after all. I become aware that I am kissing him like my mother kisses my father, like television women kiss television men. He is kissing me in the way he thinks lovers should kiss. We, neither of us, have kissed anyone before now.
“Let’s go outside,” he says. And while we are standing around with the neighbourhood kids, he pulls my arms over his shoulders, into a half-hug.
He sagely discusses the merits of French kissing with another boy from school. ”Mouths open all the way. That’s how you do it,” he declares. Of course, you can be an expert after only one kiss. It’s all in how you present yourself.
I don’t go to the party. Ryan’s make-up sessions do not go to waste. He pulls on the brown wig and dresses like a girl, with perfectly applied mascara. I assume. I only see him from a distance as he stands on his front lawn, greeting his arriving guests. The music is loud enough that I can hear them playing my records as I watch TV in the basement of my house. I act like I don’t care, while my parents are around. Later, I watch the party through the basement window, in the dark, and I cry.
We are never friends in the same way again. Sometimes I think about kissing him. Sometimes I want to kick the shit out of him for being such an ass. His reversion is only painful for a little while. I don’t really stay in the shadows. Instead, I keep my place in line at school. I refuse to give up my seat on the bus that Betty saves for nobody. No saving seats, I tell her. She clucks at me. I really don’t care. I start daily arguments with the boy who sits in front of me. We both enjoy the banter. I actually get into trouble for talking, once in a while.
Sometimes I look across the road at his house. I think about what he might be doing. We don’t play together after school any more. He has joined forces with the neighbourhood bullies and teases me as I make my way to and from the bus stop. He gets a lot more attention for his cruelty than he ever did for being nice to me. I feel betrayed.
At night, I notice when his bedroom lights go on and off. I think about how we used to blink our bedroom lights when we had something important to say to each o