By CL Farley
Sean paces a tight circle in the bathroom. His legs jerk forward in a hurry to get nowhere, rushing through each stride like the arms of a metronome. It’s too cold to be barefoot on tiles but the discomfort distracts him from the large mirror. He can angle his head to avoid the mountain of bloody cotton swabs in the sink but his reflection mocks him with dainty bone structure and cheeks that are too soft, too smooth.
He hasn’t heard his parents moving through the house or speaking for a while now.
Mom had known. She’d scrutinised him from her dresser, lipstick halted partway through staining her lower lip pink. Maybe that’s why they came home early, why the first thing she did was look into Sean’s room to check on him.
Dad’s bellow summons him. Legs that rushed now drag, feet sticking to the carpet as the journey to the lounge passes too fast. Sean hesitates in the doorway, but his father has no patience.
“Sit, Sarah,” he commands, pointing at the loveseat.
Sean isn’t Sarah, but his father doesn’t know that. He folds himself down into the seat designated by Dad’s finger and stares at the tomato sauce stain he made on the carpet when he was ten. Every time he makes a mess, it’s red.
Couch springs complain beneath his father’s bulk and Mom sniffs. Sean peeks at them through his eyelashes. Dad’s elbows stab into his knees. Shadows pool in the frown lines on his forehead and the crow’s feet beside his eyes. Sean’s mother sits to his left. The traces of tears still stain her cheeks but they blend with her make-up, as though they too were applied with a brush and a steady hand. Everything is perfect from her dyed brown hair to the shine of her patent leather court shoes.
All the things they aren’t saying haunt the air. They press upon Sean, curving his shoulders and the only way he can bear this weight is to curl into himself.
“Get your feet off the furniture,” Dad says.
Sean wraps his arms around his middle then, hugging himself, or perhaps he’s caging the truth in this embrace. He stares at the islands of dried blood on his shirt, almost invisible against the dark fabric but noticeable for their stiffness.
Dad clears his throat and shifts in his seat. “You’ve caused your mother a lot of unnecessary heartache tonight, Sarah.”
Sean didn’t ask her to come into his room and find him. He didn’t ask them to take him to hospital. It’s not like this was the first time, he had it under control.
Sean stares through Dad’s beard at the grim, thin set of his mouth. Mom sniffles and Sean watches a tissue slide from her sleeve and flutter upwards to dab at eyes that are the same icy blue as his own, the same shape. He mutters an apology.
“I didn’t hear you.”
Sean flinches at Dad’s bark. He tightens his arms around himself.
“Just tell me why, Sarah,” Mom whispers.
“Why…” The word cracks and breaks in Sean’s throat. So many ways to answer but the question isn’t as open as it seems. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try. Please.” Mom sobs. “Why would you do this to us?”
His stomach boils with fear and Sean clenches his jaw. He can’t look at them as he imagines answers that will satisfy them and shield himself.
“I hate this body.”
This body, he said. Did they notice the slip of the tongue; do they know what it means? Dad still scowls, but Mom has sharpness in her face.
“I hate my body,” he says, his voice struggling for composure.
“Your whole body or just your breasts?”
That soft voice is dangerous. Dad may be roaring wind and booming thunder but Mom is lightning that never misses.
There’s nobody hiding in the wings to give Sean his line so he snatches for anything that might fit the thing his parents think they’re discussing.
“They, they aren’t the way they should be.” He’s fracturing and he doesn’t know why. He’s lied and pretended to be Sarah for years and it will all fall apart if he doesn’t get a grip.
Dad shifts in his seat again, and he has no right to be uncomfortable about breasts when he lives in that body. Mom places a hand on his father’s thigh. Sean stares at Dad’s hands. His fingers are so much thicker than his own, the hands so much larger. When meshed together like this, those hands form a wall.
“Sarah.” Mom’s intake of breath is decisive. Sean braces himself. “You’re a beautiful young woman, and there is nothing wrong with your body. But if your breasts bother you so much then we can look into surgery and have them fixed. They can remove the scars too…”
The laugh bubbles to his lips before Sean can stop it. He clamps his teeth together to contain it, but it shakes him from the inside. It rumbles though his body, rattling his bones, and trying to burst through his skin. Surgery. To fix his breasts. They must think he wants them larger. Warm tears race down his cheeks. Surgery. Even by accident, Mom still found his weaknesses.
Sean barely notices when the seat beside him dips with his mother’s weight, but everything stalls when slim fingers sting his cheek. Sean chokes for air as he lifts his hand to touch the memory of his mother’s slap.
“You were getting hysterical, Sarah,” she says. “You need to control yourself.”
“I know.” And he does, but he can’t. His heart still pummels against his throat and the breath still grates past it. The mention of surgery still echoes in his skull, taunting him with a solution.
“We will fix this, just like we fixed your hair when you hacked it all off.” She strokes Sean’s short hair, her fingers now tender. “I know it’s tough for a girl your age, but acting out like this doesn’t help. I know what we’ll do.” Pep and cheer infiltrate Mom’s voice. “We’ll start a diet, together, and go shopping. All you need is a little boost to your self-confidence, and with new clothes, a new body…”
Sean screams. He slams his palms against his breasts and presses against them as though force alone could flatten the mounds. Zings of pain and wet trickles announce the bursting of scabs.
“I’m Sean,” he shouts, “and that’s what’s wrong with my body because it isn’t mine.”
The truth that had hidden on the tip of his tongue for years blunders into the room like the spray of diarrhoea. Sean gasps, but he cannot suck the words back in. They catch at his mother’s hand, stilling it against his head. Her nails scrape his scalp as her fingers tighten. The confession lashes Dad. The couch scrapes back as he bursts from his seat.
“What are you on, Sarah?” He roars.
“What drugs are you taking?” He surges across the gap between the couches. Mom disappears from Sean’s side as Dad’s hands engulf his shoulders. “What drugs are you on?”
Flecks of spit splatter Sean’s face. “Nothing, I…”
“Don’t lie to me.” He shakes Sean.
Sean never meant for it to escalate into the truth, but now it has and he can’t take it back. He won’t.
“I’m a boy,” he says between shakes. Sean grabs his father’s arms but can’t make him stop. “Dad, please.”
“You’re not a boy.” He bounces against the back of the couch when Dad tosses him away.
They give him the haughty glare reserved for beggars, punks, and goths. He opens his mouth to explain what he is, but Dad slices the air with his hand.
“Not another word of this…drivel. Go to your room, Sarah.”
“Now!” The wall vibrates beneath Dad’s fist.
Sean nods. He flees to his bedroom down the passage, and closes himself inside. Mom has been here. The blood on the carpet is now a map of pale stains. The smell of bleach stings his nose. The scissors still lies on the dressing table. Blood doesn’t cling to it now. It doesn’t gleam with dramatic light or look at all like a tool of urgent purpose, but his focus makes it so.
It shouldn’t be here, or look so normal. It’s like trying to make conversation with a cousin you’ve never met before, where every stilted sentence establishes how little you have in common.
Mom’s turned his mirror around and Sean doesn’t notice until after he’s glimpsed himself. He recoils then realises that he saw something different. It’s not the fresh blood that’s seeped through the bandages to his shirt but the way those bandages have smoothed out his chest. It’s almost flat.
He turns sideways and can almost see himself in the mirror’s lie.