It all started with a question I should never have asked. ‘So, do you have sexual fantasies?’
I was thinking about how we’d both been reading Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, popular once again now in the post–AIDS-is-going-to-kill-us-all nineties, and how liberating it was to share fantasies that were once thought to be taboo.
‘Sure I do,’ Paul says.
‘When you masturbate?’ I ask. I’m 19—and curious.
‘Yeeeah.’ I can tell he’s wondering where this is going.
‘Doing it with two girls, a threesome?’
Paul stops to look at me and traces his long fingers, soft and olive, along my collarbone, then up my neck and over both lips to my philtrum, the bowed, finger-shaped indentation between the nose and lips. The ‘love potion’ of the Greeks (Dr Green’s words from his comparative religion class echo in my ears), the place where the angels of the Talmud placed a finger and erased then sealed the secrets of heaven in the womb.
‘No. Just you and me.’ He grins and strokes my hair.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘Well, I’d dress up as a woman and we’d do it like two lesbians.’ This is not the answer I was expecting.
‘Can I tell you a secret?’
I nod, my bright 19-year-old eyes looking up at him.
Paul leans forward, his wavy brown almost shoulder-length hair falling forwards to tickle my nose and cheek, his brown eyes lighting up. He whispers that he has a secret, something he’s held close for so long, that he trusts me, that he knows I am the one, the first one he can tell, but I have to promise never to tell anybody else. He has a box, a box above his wardrobe that is filled with women’s clothes. He likes to dress up in those clothes when he is alone and he wants to know if I will let him dress up with me.
I say ‘yes’, like Molly Bloom in Ulysses I say ‘yes’. In the most female of ways I say
‘Yes, yes, yes.’
As I leave that day he tells me, ‘This has been the happiest day of my life.’ And he strokes my chin on the doorstep of his mother’s house, planting a soft kiss on my lips, then touches a finger to my philtrum and says ‘Thank you,’ in the softest, most feminine of voices.
I walk away thinking how different the world looks when a secret is revealed, like when my mother told me about the birds and the bees when I was 12. The next day I catch the bus to school and it is like all the colours of the bush surrounding our farm have changed; the eucalypts, tuarts and banksias greener and sharper and taller than they have ever looked before.
• • •
‘You know Mick Jagger and David Bowie used to be lovers?’ Paul tells me in the most matter-of-fact way while he’s going through his record collection, taking Paint It Black off the record player and putting on a Bowie album. Paul’s a fan of sixties and seventies rock and pop. It’s 1993 and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him buy a CD of new music.
‘What’s the thing with Bowie?’ I ask.
‘It’s like he’s not from this world. And nobody can work out where he’s coming from or what he is—a man, a woman, an alien. Sometimes it’s like he’s not even trying to be human, as if he’s beyond that. And Ziggy Stardust …’ Paul sighs and clutches the cover of Diamond Dogs to his chest as if it’s a totem.
I guess I think of this as the education of Miss Natalie. The girl from the country, whose mum and dad are immigrant farm-workers, raising four children on a farm while working six days a week and, with each breath as they pick, weed and pull in the fields, repeating, ‘I’m giving you an education so you never have to scratch in the dirt like we do to make a living.’ That’s one of the reasons we click, since Paul is also a working-class boy from another high school in the outer burbs where kids pick fights by pulling out knives and punch-ups are a daily occurrence.
I want to be a musician and Paul knows that I strum a borrowed nylon-string guitar and make up songs in my room when I know nobody is listening. What he doesn’t know is that I hate rock, glam rock, blues rock, rock’n’roll; the whole ‘cock rock’ universe. I like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, k.d lang and Ani di Franco. But it’s best if I hide my love for country and acoustic tunes because loving country is way uncool. As uncool as wearing thongs instead of ankle-length Doc Martin boots and socks in the middle of the searing Perth summer.
So I sit on his bed, munching on salt and vinegar chips, sprawled across his lime green and white Ikea bedspread—tasteful and not screaming ‘girly’—flicking the chip crumbs off the duvet onto the floor in time with the music.
‘Do do do-do do do doo doo,’ Paul sings along and flicks his hair off his face in a way I never see him do in public, with a flourish. He sparkles a little.
‘Did Bowie just sing “put on your dress”?’
‘No, the lyric’s “you’ve torn your dress”.’ He turns to me and rolls his eyes, then says, ‘Do you want me to?’
‘To what?’ I say.
‘Put on a dress, lover?’
‘Why not?’ I love him so much I can’t say no, even though I don’t want him to. The sex is great, I-want-to-lock-myself-in-his-room-and-fuck-all-day-and-night great, but I’m finding it hard to reconcile Paul the man with Paul the cross-dresser.
Paul puts on a schoolgirl uniform we picked up together last week at the Salvos on William Street. He has an agreement with the girl working there who knows his dress size, 14. She sets aside clothes for him once a fortnight that he picks through, choosing what he likes before buying the clothes. It’s a gingham blue and white uniform from Perth Ladies College. I smile; the rich moles of PLC would not be impressed to see a slightly hairy Greek guy in their school uniform, I think. Then he grabs a handful of silk scarves from the secret box, takes the needle off the record, careful not the scratch the collectors edition first pressing, and places the needle back to the start of the song.
We bounce and dance around his room, swirling and waving the scarves in circles. Purple, red, pink and orange scarves fly through the air. We stop dancing to yell at each other, the speakers are turned up so loud they begin to buzz and crackle, ‘Hot tramp I love you so!’
Paul pulls me close. He’s hard. ‘Come on, my “hot tramp”. Let’s fuck like horny lesbians,’ he says, out of breath, pushing one side of my jaw-length bob—dyed fire engine red—behind my ear.
I notice how his face looks different when he’s dressed as a woman; it’s as if a light enters it and all the tight places on his forehead, jaw and cheeks fall away. As we fuck, even though I want more, and even though Paul knows exactly how to turn me on, I notice how our lovemaking has begun to feel hollow for me, while I can see Paul, now Davina when she is dressed, is turned on like a hormone-flooded teenager.
Davina stares at herself in the full-length mirror by her bed as we make love and I am beginning to feel secondary to her fetish. It’s as if she is more in love with the image of Davina and the textures of women’s clothes—soft, slippery, free and restrictive—than she is with me.
As we continue these explorations—Davina greeting me in a red one-piece swimsuit with a hard on when I turn up one afternoon at her house to study; Davina asking me to use a dildo on her for anal sex; Davina asking me to swap underwear one morning in the bathrooms on campus before we go to class; Davina taking me on more shopping expeditions—I feel like I’m being pulled into a whirlpool. A whirlpool of sex, gender, obsession and confusion.
• • •
I drive home from Paul’s place across the Swan River, across the Narrows Bridge, where the traffic has to slow down to squeeze through two lanes during the day, before the freeway opens up to three lanes. The first question anyone you meet in Perth will ask is, ‘Do you live north or south of the river?’ I live in Palmyra, south, and Paul lives in Carlisle, north.
It’s 3 a.m. and to stop from falling asleep at the wheel, I roll down the windows, put the cassette of k.d. lang’s Ingénue in the tape deck with a satisfying slide and click, turn up the volume dial to just below ‘distort’ and let the music wash over me. I pull out the cigarette lighter and suck on a Dunhill Blue until the tobacco sparks red. Paul hates it when I smoke; he says it makes me
The river is quiet, quiet as a flood. In still ripples, the full moon reflects a triangle of light off the surface. I think how I hate that the moon is thought to represent female, and the sun, male. I don’t want my identity to be a reflection of light from the sun; I want to shine with my own light. Black/white, male/female, sun/moon, north/south. Why can’t I be both the sun and the moon? A world of opposing pairs separates us, like the river.
As I continue driving, bugs hitting my right hand as I dance it up and down outside the window, I think, I still don’t understand why Davina makes me feel so uncomfortable, why I love Paul more than her. Why I can’t help thinking how ridiculous she looks in a size 14, black second-hand lace teddy and why I alone can’t turn her on as much as the clothes do. Am I not enough? Not beautiful enough? Not sexy enough? Not womanly enough? Did he ever love me? Or does she want to be me?
• • •
It’s mating season for the peacocks and peahens on campus. The peahens squawk and the peacocks call out across the courtyard, their loud and strong ‘Ay-oos’ echoing against the limestone walls of the Arts faculty buildings. I sit on a wooden bench waiting for Paul before our women’s studies tutorial, drinking tap water from my recycled Evian bottle. When he arrives, we sit and chat, watching the birds call. The peacocks congregate together, then flutter and open their tail feathers as the peahens walk away, looking indifferent.
‘They remind me of you,’ I say, nodding at the peacock wiggling his tail, fanning his iridescent blue-green feather eyes at a peahen.
‘Because I’m a show off?’ Paul says, nudging my ribs.
‘No, because they put on more of a show than the peahens.’
‘Babe, is that what you think?’ He leans back and looks at me.
There’s so much going through my mind, so much I don’t understand, and so many questions I have for him. As I answer I look down and tear at the paper label on the water bottle. ‘I don’t know … why … why you have to be such a tart when you dress up. Is that what you think: all women are dirty sluts?’
As soon as the words come out, I know I shouldn’t have said them but I couldn’t help myself. Dirty sluts, dirty sluts, my brain repeats.
A cloud washes over Paul’s face and he lifts his head up, pointing his aquiline nose high. He looks at me for a moment, then sits up and walks away, coffee in hand.
• • •
I sidle into the women’s studies tutorial, not having done any of the readings, to find out we’re watching 30 minutes of the movie Some Like it Hot, where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have to dress up as women and join an all-female band to avoid being killed by gangsters out to get them after they have witnessed several murders. It’s all I can do to stifle an ironic laugh as our tutor announces the topic.
Paul slips in five minutes late, not even looking my way and sits as far away from me as he can. It’s stifling in the small tutorial room as the air conditioning has broken down, so our tutor has opened the windows and we can all hear the nearby ‘ah-oo’ of the peacocks bouncing off the walls.
Admiring Marilyn Monroe saunter by in heels after he struggled to keep his balance in them, Daphne, Jack Lemmon’s female character, exclaims, ‘I tell ya it’s a whole different sex!’
I begin to feel sweaty, clammy, and then short of breath. The room feels smaller and smaller; the beige walls swimming. Lemmon and Curtis can cross-dress as women only because their lives depend on it and only as they remain fiercely heterosexual. The class breaks into laughter at a scene of the cross-dressing friends. That’s what it is, I think, a joke. We are a joke. The whole world views women and femininity as a joke, a ruse, a trick. A man dressing as a woman can be one thing only, a joke. There’s no crossing over, there’s just a straight black line that can’t be crossed.
I get up, trying to leave quietly with my head throbbing and knock over a plastic moulded chair on my way out. Every-one turns to look at me as I leave. As I slide away, my purple Doc Martens skidding on the lino-tiled floor, I try to walk—not run—as fast as I can through the hallway, out to the fresh air and away from the squawking peacocks.
• • •
If it had been 2018 and not 1992, here’s what would have happened.
When I got home off the bus that afternoon, mum would have told me I have five messages from Paul and that he wanted me to call him back. She would have said he was calling from somewhere that sounded really noisy, a payphone maybe, and that it sounded urgent.
I may have called him back. ‘Where are you?’ I’d ask.
‘I’m at Karrinyup shopping centre.’
What’s he doing there? It’s miles away from Carlisle, I’d think. ‘Are you okay?’
His voice might have quivered, ‘I need you to come get me. I’m … I’m dressed up and … and …’ He’d break down sobbing. ‘I’m standing by the payphone between Jeans West and Myers. Please. Please come and get me. Please.’
In this impossible past the scenario would have continued in the present tense: I hesitate for a moment, then grab my keys and get into my Laser and drive across the river, up Stirling Highway, across the old Fremantle Traffic Bridge. The river; calm and sparkling.
When I find Paul at Karrinyup Shopping Centre he’s a mess, mascara streaming down his face, wearing a too-bright fuchsia-pink lipstick, smeared a little at the edges of his shapely lips. He’s dressed in a polyester wrap, with bold prints of flowers, purple, pink and white on the fabric, and hiding in the corner, clinging to a maroon vinyl handbag that matches his outfit. A sprinkle of stubble is beginning to show on his face.
I look at him feeling guilty. ‘I was confused; I needed to talk to someone, so I saw a counsellor at uni. He said you were a transvestite.’
He stares at the wall. ‘I’ve always hated that term. It’s an ugly word.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.’ I grab a tissue out of my handbag. ‘Here,’ and wipe away a little of the mascara and the smudged lipstick. He says between sobs that he just wanted to know what it would be like to be in the centre for a change, instead of on the outside. I ask him if he’s okay, I ask him what happened.
‘I saw someone I know and I freaked out and ran to the loo. I was waiting in line … I wasn’t bothering anyone,’ Paul pauses to push the hair out of his wet eyes. ‘Then this woman came out of a stall and she had two little kids with her, a boy and a girl. She looked me up and down. Twice. I was polite, I said “Hi.” But … but it must have been my voice. She called me a perve and told me to get out,’ and he sobs, his tears running clear now, the mascara mostly cried away. ‘When I didn’t move she told me she’d call security, so I left.’
I fear this is how it would always be. I didn’t sign up for this shit, I think. I know now that Paul’s and Davina’s struggles and the cross-dressing will always come first. The mystical power of the clothes could never match the love I have to give him, and her.
As I hold him and we cry together I can’t stop repeating, ‘I’m so sorry, so sorry.’
• • •
Instead of a 2018 culturally appropriate explosion we break up a week after the Women’s Studies tutorial, when summer has begun to cool down. We are sitting at Paul’s mum’s place while she’s at work, watching a video of the Stones’ Gimme Shelter.
I sit on the floor between Paul’s feet on the cheap acrylic carpet, pastel pink and grey and beige, beginning to pill in spots. Paul sits on the couch.
We watch the movie in silence, the events of Altamont unfolding without voiceovers or interviews, as if we’re there with the Stones. When the fan gets stabbed by a Hell’s Angel gang member while trying to rush the stage, I have to turn away.
‘I can’t take any more of this. Can we do something else?’ I ask.
We go into Paul’s room and sit on his bed. He starts touching the top of my arm with the tips of his fingers, then works his way up to my breast and starts kissing my neck, the spot he knows makes me melt. I leap up, saying I need some music and find my CD of REM’s Out of Time. I break up with him by the second track, ‘Losing My Religion’.
I tell him I can’t do it any more. I tell him, ‘It’s not the dressing up,’ but it is. I tell him, ‘I still love you,’ and I do. I tell him I can’t live my life with a secret like that, that I need to live an open life. I don’t think about what that means for him.
He says he feels like we were forever trapped in a ‘high school relationship’ and we need to act more like adults. ‘If we can be adults, we can make it work.’
But I tell him I can’t. This time it’s me pressing my finger to his lips, to seal his philtrum, lest the right words come out and I stay. •
Note: I have used a pseudonym and changed identifying details here for the character named Paul.
Natalie D-Napoleon is a writer and educator from Fremantle, who now lives in California. Her award-winning poetry and nonfiction has appeared in Westerly, Hippocampus, Writer’s Digest and Australian Poetry.