Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived with his parents and two sisters in a midsize town by a muddy river. He was his parents’ second child, and his name was James.
Because he was the middle child, no one paid much attention to him except to scold him (which his parents did), or to blame him for something (which his sisters did). Also, because he was the only boy child, the greater share of unfavorable chores came to him as well: picking up the dog’s poop, taking out the garbage, scrubbing the toilets and bathtubs, chopping and stacking firewood, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and shoveling snow, depending on the seasons. He also had to go with his father and help load and unload the pickup with refuse for the dump twice a year, and every time he went he thought of all the disgusting things the seagulls were eating out of the landfill and he felt sad that there were no fresh fish in the muddy river for them to eat.
As a result of being the middle boy child, when he wasn’t being picked on or singled out for menial chores, he felt very left out of the household goings-on. His sisters and their friends didn’t want him around, and his mom and dad were always too busy working to spend time with him. The boys in the neighborhood were vile beings who delighted in torturing animals, beating each other up, and playing pointless, unimaginative games with balls and sticks, so James kept mostly to himself.
He liked to read and he liked to knit. Most of all, he liked to try on his sisters’ dresses and play tea party alone with his GI Joes and a couple of Barbies pilfered from his sisters’ room. They had philosophical debates over Earl Grey and crumpets, and asked each other what made them so different after all? They were all human where it counted.
When James was 11, his father saw him choose a female avatar for World of Warcraft.
James’ father raised his eyebrows. “Why would you want to be a girl?” he asked.
James didn’t respond. He usually chose female avatars, but now that he sensed his father’s disapproval, he thought it best to say nothing.
Later that night, he lay in bed wondering what it would be like to have breasts. They were beautiful, he thought. He would like to be beautiful. His sisters were already talking about how they couldn’t wait for theirs to grow in.
James felt a twinge of jealousy that ached in his throat.
In his first year of junior high, James met Lori. She was in her last year of junior high, a foot taller than James, and liked to wear leather jackets and boots with thick soles. Unlike most girls his age, Lori actually seemed to like James. They both loved Anne Rice novels and wearing black lipstick, and Lori asked James if he was going to the homecoming dance.
James shrugged. The truth was, the very thought of walking into a place full of strangers pairing up like a bunch of lovestruck parakeets made him want to vomit.
“I’ll be honest,” Lori said, “I’ve never gone before, but now that it’s my last year, I want to go. Will you come with me?”
“Me? Your date?” James asked, blinking.
“Well, no. More like a friend,” Lori said.
Relieved, James agreed. But he still had a concern. “What about my sister?” Bethany was a year ahead of him and already making his junior high experience an impossible one.
“What about her?” Lori rolled her eyes. “You scared of her or something?”
“No. It’s just… I’ll feel better if she doesn’t know I’m there.”
“Well, don’t worry. I’ve heard it’s dark and crowded at these things anyway. And you can wear a disguise.”
A sly grin broke out on James’ face.
“I can tell you’ve got an idea already,” Lori said.
The night of homecoming, James told his family that he was going to Lori’s house to study. His father slipped him a condom at the door. “Keep that in your wallet,” he winked, “just in case.”
James mumbled a thank-you and ducked outside, rolling his eyes.
At Lori’s house, she helped James with his makeup and loaned him a pair of heels. They both wore long velvet dresses with plunging necklines, faux pearls, and opera gloves. James achieved a convincing bosom effect with the aid of duct tape, and in his red velvet next to Lori’s purple gown, any casual passerby would have seen two teenage girls dressed for a formal event.
James’ finishing touch was a long blonde wig held in place with a rhinestone tiara that he and Lori had found together at a costume shop. He felt like Cinderella.
At the homecoming dance, James and Lori had their pictures taken together. When they walked into the gymnasium, some of the boys turned their heads to watch as he and Lori walked by. They even danced with boys, James thrilling to the music and the heat of tentative kisses planted on his gloved hand. Maybe he’d finally reached an age where the other boys had matured to his level.
In the whirlwind of shadowy bodies and bright lights, James forgot to worry about his sister Bethany. He danced part of a song with a big blonde jock that, unbeknownst to him, was in Bethany’s science class.
Bethany was trying to get the jock’s attention when she saw her brother. “James? Is that you?”
“Who?” the jock asked, frowning.
“My brother,” she said, incredulous.
James gathered up his skirts to run, but it was too late. The jock yanked James’ wig and tiara from his head and shouted, “He’s a boy!”
Mortified, James ran for all he was worth, away from the crowds and sneers and laughter, out into the cold autumn air in his sleeveless gown. Lori caught up to him and wrapped his coat around his shoulders.
“Don’t listen to them,” she said. “They’re jerks.” She walked him to her place and he rolled up his dress, washed off the makeup, and returned Lori’s shoes.
By the time he got home, his sister had told on him. James was grounded indefinitely, and he also had to see a shrink who happened to go to his parents’ church. Combined with the shaming glares of his classmates and sisters, this only made things worse. James spent more time than ever playing World of Warcraft.
One afternoon, in the few small hours between coming home from school and his parents getting home from work, James heard the doorbell ring.
“I’ll get it,” Bethany called. A few minutes later, she knocked on James’ bedroom door. “He says he’s your friend,” she said, sounding confused.
James opened the door. He recognized the dark-haired Latino boy from homecoming. They’d shared a dance together.
James blushed furiously and ushered the boy in, glaring at Bethany before slamming the door in her face.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“I think this is yours,” the boy said, handing James a rhinestone tiara. “I’m Manuel.”
“Thanks,” James said. “I’m James.”
“I know,” Manuel smiled. “Lori told me how to find you.”
James kicked a dirty sock on the carpet. “Oh.”
Manuel shoved his hands in his pockets. “How come you’re sitting inside? It’s really nice out.”
“I’m grounded,” James admitted.
“What for?” Manuel asked.
James told him, and Manuel laughed. “Seriously? That’s it?”
James shrugged and looked down. “I’m not normal.”
“Hey,” Manuel said. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
James finally met Manuel’s eyes. They were like autumn leaves shot through with sunlight.
“So, there’s a new arcade over on Spring Street. Wanna come with?”
“Sure.” James grinned and grabbed his coat.
—Written for the Cinderella collaboration project.—