"How do you like it?" Alyssa said, with bright, forced cheerfulness. Everything about the question stressed that it was not, indeed, a question. It assumed that the answer was "I love it.". She mandated it by her tone and her face that reflected back in the mirror at Dez, a tight smile, focused eyes that pleaded as much as they threatened. The camera was on, else her gaze would be imploring, her voice beseeching, striving for compromise between the two warring factions.
Speaking of which . . .
Marta rested her well-manicured hand on her shoulder, less friendly than possessive, and entirely unwanted. She, too, tried to catch Dez's eye in the mirror. "The new you." She said affirmatively. Behind her, Jane and Tina murmured approvingly, pointing, touching, making shapes in the air with their hands- here, her cupped face, and how well her hair now framed it, here, with two curved swipes, her body, and how well her new clothes fit it. Like they had always been- completely oblivious to anything except their respective areas of expertise, beauty and fashion. Off at an angle so as not to be caught in the mirror, were the innocent bystanders, non-judgmental, un-opinionated, with no stake in the matter: the cameramen and crew. She could tell they were trying to act uninterested, but they were waiting, as much as Alyssa with her bated breath- for her answer.
Dez sucked in a breath, and in the mirror, the stranger did, too. If she said what she really felt, what would happen? Would they drop her off, drive her out of L.A. and back to the boondocks and her old life? Or would they make her reshoot it, pretend-replay the surprise unveiling, this time replete with sincere fake joy, awe, and gratitude? It was almost too unbearable to think.
In the brief moment she had before someone prompted her, she tried to scrounge up the last three days. How much film- usable film- had they shot? Would it be enough to finish their happy little show- did she even have a choice in the matter with her reaction? And while she debated, the transformation flashed in her mind's eye in cinematic form: what the rest of the world, represented by the unblinking black eye of the camera, would see when they turned on their television sets.
The before picture: from years ago. The camera would pan in on it, that awful thing. Of course they had found and chosen the worst picture of her they could find, sitting in her reclining chair, half her hair flattened to her head for falling asleep in an odd position, in big jeans shot through with holes and stress lines, a red flannel shirt, her big brown boots, half-on but unlaced. And her face, the face of every before picture, unhappy, unsmiling, weary. She wasn't smiling because Hannah had woken her up in order to take it- she was grumpy, still half-asleep- but it didn't matter. It was the perfect evidence against her. She had protested their choice, suggesting instead some better fashion choices, her in the expensive, tailored suit Hannah had given to her as a gift, or even looking relatively normal khakis and a polo shirt. That didn't fit how they were billing her, though.
"Straight Hike for the Butch Dyke." She had repeated stupidly. Then, again, just to see if it would roll off her tongue more elegantly, sound more intelligent, the way it did out of Alyssa's pretty mouth.
"Yeah, pretty cute, huh?" She had gushed. Apparently it was a source of joy for everyone involved in the project. "Like 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy', you know. Or even the other one- it wasn't on very long, 'Straight Eye for the Queer Guy.' Come on, you know." But Dez didn't know. She didn't watch television. Neither did Hannah. When she got off of work, those long shifts at the drugstore, stocking and manning the registers on her feet, she still had to make dinner, clean up, shower. By then, she was exhausted. Even if she wanted to, it would have interrupted Hannah's studying. What with her going back to school and trying to get her degree, a lot fell to Dez, and silly TV shows- make-over shows, nonetheless- were very low on the list of priorities.
But there it would be, along with some ridiculous intro music in flashy script "Straight Hike for the Butch Dyke!", then the voice-over talking about her life like he knew it, intimately, calling her Desiree instead of Dez, while that awful picture scrolled across the screen. Then what? Then, of course, there would have to be testimonials, from Hannah and her friends. "Friends". She said it scornfully in her mind. That had been her first question after the abduction.
"Who told you I wanted a make-over?"
Marta had been the one to step forward and tell her. With her hair pulled back neatly, tightly, into a chignon, brainy black plastic glasses, and a skirt suit that made Dez's look like trash, she was formidable. She clicked efficiently with her heels, towered, took up space, pursed her red-black lips and narrowed perfectly lined and mascara'd eyes, crossed long, stockinged legs. She looked femme, of course. She had to be straight, as the show billed 'straight help' for that pesky 'butch lesbian'. But she was too tough. She was what Dez would have called an honorary dyke.
"It's not about what you want," She had cooed in a way that was neither endearing nor soothing. "The whole point of a change is that it's something you need. Your friends volunteered you for the surprise make-over." Her eyes scanned a clipboard. "You can thank Dylan, Ted, and Rob."
Dylan, Ted, and Rob. Their names made her mouth swell up with a tangy bitterness. Did they call themselves her friends, then, when they called? And did they smother their laughter when they did it? They couldn't use that word, not even in the loose terminology of 'acquaintance'; she simply didn't know them well enough. The only time she saw them was when they came to the apartment to study with Hannah. Even there, maybe because they were there, they scared her. They weren't men, they were boys, dangerous boys riding waves of foolishness and testosterone. They egged each other on, they joked dirtily, laughed loudly and drank, and they looked at Dez like an interesting, but disgusting, bug.
Despite Hannah's reassurance that they were, especially when separated from the pack, sensitive, good guys, Dez wouldn't buy it. They took Women's Studies class to meet women, she was sure, to study them, but not in an academic sense. And they couldn't understand Dez at all. Maybe when Hannah had told them she was gay, they had imagined someone else, someone who was the opposite of Dez, the way guys like to imagine lesbians. It had probably turned them on- they probably wanted to watch, the pigs!- but then there she was, an anticlimax, a letdown, a mystery. She could practically hear them, see them in front of the camera, bad-mouthing her in a supposedly helpful way, as they told the camera that she needed expert fashion advice. Rob would throw in, leering, that she could even be hot if they did it right. She wanted to hurt them all, badly.
But where would Hannah be? Her sweet Hannah, girlishly shy in front of the camera, rocking on the balls of her sandaled feet in a sundress fit for L.A. weather, hands behind her back or shoved in pockets. What would she even say? What could she say? And how many times did she have to re-record it to get it right, the way other people happily reacted, with clapping hands and big, expectant smiles to see their loved ones get done up?
Or did it happen just that way, the first time?
Even now, as she looked at the ridiculous sight in the mirror, Dez had to wonder. Was this what Hannah wanted? Maybe the names on that clipboard included Hannah's. Maybe she had prompted the guys to call, or said something to make them do it. Over the past few days, she had only let her mind stray to darker places a few times. She knew that, for the guys, it was a joke, gussying her up like a girl. But what if it was a joke to Hannah, too? What if they sat around laughing at the silly idea, bonding even closer by means of her humiliation, sealing what she had so often feared and wondered about? That Hannah would bark out, with harsh laughter, "I've finally figured out what I want, and it's not you! I want a real man!" Dylan. Ted. Rob. Doing a better job to protect and care for her, with their college degree-fueled careers, doing a better job to fuck her with their real cocks, doing a fantastic job of getting her pregnant and giving her lots and lots of babies. She cried in the foreign, impersonal hotel room, because Hannah was somewhere nearby, but unaccessible, because, as Alyssa kindly reminded her and Marta remanded, "It has to be a surprise when they see the new you!".
The surprise that she was now, not a good surprise, like a party or can of snakes, but more like a surprise attack, would certainly garner raised eyebrows and open "O" mouths. But the program, of course, wouldn't jump straight to the end. No, it would be gradual, a layering, starting with her hair. The hair that had provided Tina such a difficulty. Cropped short and close, razored at the neck, that she smoothed back with gel or let hang free. Trimming it closer simply wasn't an option- that might have made Dez relax a little, in fact- so she brought out a smorgasbord of product: mousse and pomade and shine serum, fluffy round brushes and a blow dryer. She did her worst, fluffing it up, curling what little she could, giving it the body and bounce it had never had. Then Jane compounded it with the makeup, all those objects that were simultaneously foreign and familiar, always seen in the medicine cabinet. She watched Hannah put them on every day; it wasn't that she didn't know what to do with them, as everyone seemed to think. They instructed her, talked down to her, as though she didn't wear the makeup because she didn't know how.
She swallowed hard when they applied the lipstick. She took the opportunity to squeeze her eyes shut tight when they dusted her face with powder. Not ruining her eye makeup became the excuse to not let out a tear, and for once, she thought ironically, she knew how a femme must feel, worried about something as trivial as mascara.
The clothes they gave her were supposedly given immense consideration: roomy, flowing skirts and loose blouses. "Comfortable." Alyssa billed them. Once again mistaken, as if the jeans, the pants, the button-down shirts and sports jackets, were about comfort. The very airiness of the clothing made her nervous. Much better to stick her in the tight, constrictive sort of skirt-jacket ensembles that Marta wore. At least they had some power behind them. But they wouldn't do it. It was then, standing there in the naked space of a wide skirt, the too-clingy clutch of a lacy top, with her hair feeling stiff and wavy above her and the artificial, greasy feel of makeup on her face, without having seen how she looked, she proclaimed herself exactly as she felt.
"I'm a drag queen."
Alyssa rushed forward to contradict her. "Oh no, honey, it's not like that." She assured her. "I know you can't see it, and maybe it feels that way, but Jane is a great makeup artist. You look very demure, not over-the-top. There's nothing drag queen about you."
"That's not what I meant." She said, and her voice came out surprisingly strong, against the four people who had taken over her life since two days ago. "I mean it the way it is. Like when you put a guy in makeup, whether it's demure or over the top. He's still a queen."
Strange, how it could come out like that. Dez wasn't a guy. She didn't feel like one, and she didn't want to be one, like some of her other female friends did. Some of them had become men. She liked being a woman, loved being a butch, being Hannah's butch; it came naturally. But that didn't change the fact that putting that makeup on her, those clothes, messing with her hair, wasn't a make-over. It was drag.
Alyssa had pursed her lips and regarded her quietly, probably misinterpreting the statement. But it was Marta who snapped to attention.
"Listen here, missy," She barked. The cameras were off; apparently the switch that stopped the rolling of film also turned off her geniality, too. "This isn't however serious you're making it out to be, okay? You don't do anything except pout when the cameras are on. Get your attitude in gear! So you're butch, you're masculine, we get it. That's why we picked you in the first place. Well, so are those boys on 'Queer Eye'." There they went again, using references to which Dez was only fuzzily acquainted. "Those boys let the queers dress them up in pink and become little metrosexuals and you can't even handle a skirt. If they're secure enough in their masculinity to do that, why can't you?"
At that point, Dez was angry. She'd spent the last two days getting primped and polished, touched more in an hour than she'd ever been touched her whole life, being remarked upon and tweaked in ways that felt degrading. And the whole time, she'd issued soft complaints, voiced her reservations, tried to explain that this wasn't what she wanted, that wasn't the right way to go about that. She spoke up, Jane and Tina ignored her, Alyssa assured her in a soft voice, and then assured Marta in an even softer one. But that was the last straw. Dez was tired and lonely. She had spent too long feeling insecure about Hannah, about losing her to men, to other butches, to the life outside of their world that school offered her. And then hey'd dressed her in this damn pastel lace, painted her face when she'd made it clear that she wasn't like that. This wasn't a case of bad fashion. It was her life.
"Because." She had said, her voice raising, interrupting Tina and Jane in their small talk. "Because when those guys do those gay things, it's OK, because they're still guys. You can see it, you know who they are. They never quite pull it off. They're still straight, they're still not as queer as those queers that host the show. But when you take away my masculinity, the way I dress, the way I choose to be, you don't leave me with anything else. No one will know who I am! It's a lie, can't you see that, dammit? I'm not butch, like it's something you can fix. I'm a butch."
That had brought some color to Marta's cold white face, and the little starts of tears to Alyssa's shocked and fearful eyes. Tina and Jane just kept talking in the background, now, presumably, about Dez's outburst. Alyssa called for a lunch break for everyone to cool down, and then they would shoot the final scene: when Dez saw herself in the mirror.
They were waiting, all of them. Marta, cold and harsh and determined to get the right response. Alyssa, worried. Tina and Jane awing and cooing over her. The camera crew, curious question marks of studied indifference. And Dez looked at herself, and smiled.
She smiled, because it was suddenly, very, very clear. She looked ridiculous. She made about as ugly a femme as could be, ugly enough to make her want to cry, if she didn't know she looked so damn handsome as a butch. The clothes were wrong. The makeup looked silly, clownlike. Her hair, awful. The entire package was laughable. She smiled, and then she laughed, loud and pure.
"I guess this didn't go according to plan." She chuckled, right at Marta's inflamed reflection. It felt like the lead in her sluggish veins was gone. She was reinvigorated, alive. How could she think they could take it away from her? All that fear. As if they could take away who she was. As if they could hide it behind feminine touches. Sitting there in her dress, she felt more butch than she ever had in her jeans or suit. Had she ever been scared they could turn her into a femme, or worse, a straight? Had she ever believed, for a minute, that Hannah, her loving lesbian wife-in-spirit, could want a man? It made her laugh even harder. Dez would get to see her, her face tight and scrunched up with their shared worry, and one look and they would both know the truth.
Behind her, Marta sighed and shook a disgusted head up to the ceiling. "Cut. Just, cut. We might as well scrap the whole fucking epsiode. And I want to talk to the producers before we choose another candidate for an extreme make-over."
Dez snorted. But hadn't it worked, this little make-over of theirs? She had never felt more energized, more made-over. She had never felt more beautiful, more different than she had before. Certainly that was an extreme make-over.