I remember playing by myself in the family room when I was five years old. I’d found my big sister’s pink dress from the costume box and pulled it over top of my clothes. I remember laughing and singing to myself, twirling aimlessly until I fell to the floor, out of breath and dizzy. I felt like a Disney princess. I felt feminine and beautiful and delicate and precocious — of course back then I didn’t know that I felt those things, but what I felt (and what I remember to this day) was the simplistic joy of being a child playing dress up.
I remember hearing the sound of my mother’s car pull into the driveway as I lay there on my back, breathing sharply. I remember the sound of her heels smashing against the unfinished concrete of our laundry room floor, and I remember looking up and watching the handle of the family room door turn slowly open. I remember the look she gave me as she walked in; I remember how quickly her face turned white.
I ran over to give her a hug and felt her arms wrap around my body loosely, careful not to touch the pink dress I was wearing. This hug felt different. It didn’t feel like Mom was hugging me. “Why… why are you wearing your sister’s dress?” she stammered. I remember feeling confused. I wanted to wear it, I told her plainly. She frowned and stared at me for a long minute, before asking quietly, “So you like wearing that dress?” I nodded earnestly and she let out a tired sigh. “Alright sweetie, but –” she lowered her voice to a whisper and turned around slowly, as if to see if anyone was behind her, “but you have to take the dress off before daddy gets home, OK?” I bluntly asked why. “Daddy would get upset if he saw you wearing that,” she said carefully. Again, I needed to know why. “Because you’re a boy, that’s why.”
In that moment, I remember feeling like a giant wave had come crashing into the room, enveloping me, drowning me. My five-year-old mind quickly inferred that putting on my sister’s pink dress and pretending to be a princess had been a mistake. A big, big, big one. I remember that squirming-in-your-stomach feeling of freshly realized guilt. I’d just been caught doing something bad and now I was in trouble. Mommy was upset with me, disappointed in me. What only moments ago had been an enchanting game of make-believe had become something for which I felt a deep, lasting, lonely shame.
I remember promising my mother I’d take it off before Dad got home and, without quite understanding why I felt obligated to, I began apologizing to her profusely. I remember the tears that began to well up in my eyes as she walked out of the room. I pulled off the dress and stuffed it back inside the costume box, only to quickly pull it out again and hold it in my arms. I remember crying quietly as I admired it. Ruffles, tresses, beads, and sequins with frilly pink lace lining the décolleté — it was just a generic children’s princess costume from a generic costume store. But for me, on that afternoon, this dress was something beautiful. This dress allowed me to become someone else, to enter another world, to feel things I couldn’t in my ordinary clothes. I wanted so badly to wear it again and I wanted so badly to destroy it. I wanted to experience the unrelenting femininity I had achieved simply by putting it on, but at the same time I wanted to rip the stupid thing apart. When I heard the sound of my father’s car pulling into the driveway I quickly stuffed the dress back into the costume box a second time. I would never pull it out from there again.
I then frantically rummaged through a bin of toys. I remember feeling a sense of urgency — I needed to create a situation that would appear normal and natural when my father walked in to say hello. I needed to behave like a boy. So I pulled a red fire truck out of the bin and began to push it back and forth across the floor lamely. I could hear my father’s footsteps now. I started to make noises in order to fabricate happiness, enthusiasm and masculinity. I vroomed and boomed and screeched and howled siren sounds, all the while listening to his shoes thud powerfully against the concrete floor in the room next to me. I remember how my heart beat faster and faster and a lump began to form in my throat. “I wonder if Mom will tell him what I did,” I remember thinking. I scrunched my eyes tight and whispered, praying to whatever might be listening, I hope not.
My father opened the door of the family room the same way my mother did. When he saw his little boy playing animatedly with a fire truck he smiled. He sat down beside me and gave me a tight hug — unlike the one from Mom, this felt real. He asked me how I was and, with my eyes downcast towards the fire truck toy, I told him I was fine.