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the melody-less-ness of her dance

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dark phrases of womanhood
of never having been a girl
...
sing a black girl's song
bring her out
to know herself

—Ntozake Shange, For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf



Marcus tried on names like dresses: Maria for the black one with the white sleeves; Sarah, in red with a bow around her waist; Bella in flower print. Her heart sang each time she twirled in front of the mirror. The rush of air about her legs felt like freedom, the fabric settling around them like a dream.

Every sway of those skirts was like a rhythm in her soul that compelled her body to move, to expand beyond its own confines. She could live like this, she could breathe like this. After days and days of holding it in, of watching, and waiting to be alone at home, she could finally hold her own private ceremony, something sacred that conjured her back to life.

Her mother's wardrobe was that magical place that could transform young Marcus: she became a princess every time she stepped out of it, no matter if her dresses hung loose around her frame or her shoes looked clownish on her feet. She became alive; she became herself.

Outfitted thus, she would once have clomped to her mother's vanity table to complete the image – for a princess must look pretty. But her mother had locked her makeup away and Marcus had no money to buy her own. She remembered watching her mother in the mornings, covering her tired lines and returning to her face back colour of her youth. It was beautiful. Marcus wished she could imitate what she learned when she had leisure to do so and was not ushered off to school in a T-shirt, pants and sneakers.

Now, she had to strain her ears for every sound from downstairs: at the first jangle of keys, shuffling of feet, or crackle of grocery bags, she would fly out of her second skins, hang them back where they belonged, and rush back into her room to pretend she had been doing homework all along – or playing with the firetrucks her father gave her...

Her heart would race against the twinge of guilt that squeezed it, and she hoped her mother would not notice that the order in her wardrobe had been disturbed. Marcus told herself she would memorize where the dresses hung next time so she could put them back without her mom being the wiser, but once they charmed her into wearing them, into hugging them to her small breast, all her previous resolution flew straight out the window.

Marcus still remembered the first time her mother found her coloring her nails pink. She was wearing mom's yellow summer dress and beneath its flowery hem, mom's purple high heels with the many straps dangled from her toes.

"Honey, what are you doing?" Mom stood in the door, hands on her hips, and shook her head, but she was doing it fondly. There wasn't yet any disgust in her eyes. She thought it was cute.

Unfortunately, her mom didn't decide it was time for Marcus to have a change of wardrobe then. A tiny part of her had hoped she would realize Marcus would need girl's clothes of her own.

Marcus was the third of four children, all brothers, so she had no sister whose clothes she could appropriate. Instead, she got hand-me-downs from Derek and Benny, unless her mom bought her something new – but even then it was only boy's clothes and none of the cute dresses the girls in her class wore. She wanted to be able to pick out what she liked, but going shopping with the whole family was too stressful for mom and dad, because everyone wanted to look at different things and would clamor that this time was his turn to choose where to go first.

Marcus had stopped clamoring – she didn't get the toys she wanted, but that was okay: she could play with dolls at cousin Tina's house. Tina was happy to have someone to dress up her dolls with. Or someone to dress up.

Marcus found brushing the dolls' hair soothing. But even more soothing was Tina running her comb over Marcus' coarse black hair and adorning it with pale rose butterfly clasps. Marcus still remembered those: the butterflies' wings were sprinkled with glitter, so they sparkled silver in the light.

Marcus wished her mom would let her grow out her hair instead of dragging her to the barbers every month, along with her brothers. She had tried hiding or acting sick or having a playdate at someone else's house, but it was no use. Sooner or later the hair would come off again. Especially if Jacob was mean and put gum in it.

When she was older, she swore to herself she would let it grow as long as she pleased, so she could twirl it around her finger when she was bored. But she wouldn't ever chew the ends of it as she had seen other girls do, because that would make them break and Marcus wouldn't want that.

*

Marcus had always felt uncomfortable in her own skin. But seldom was it worse than when she had to use the boys' toilets or undress in the boys' locker room. She imagined the other boys looking at her and noticing that she didn't actually belong there with them. They never did.

The first time she had wanted to use the girls' room, a girl from another class had been washing her hands and had screamed when she saw Marcus peeking in at the door. After that, Marcus had been stamped as a troublemaker. Her brothers had commended her for her bravery, which had confused her. Was it brave of her to be doing what felt natural to her?

Only later did she learn that there were invisible barriers in front of girls' rooms that boys were not allowed to cross. Whoever did that was either naughty or a hero, depending on whom you asked. Marcus wanted to be neither, because her parents gave her to understand that standing out was a bad thing.

*

The second time her mom found Marcus in her bedroom with makeup on her face, humming to herself in a cute blue skirt with a matching hat and a bra, it wasn't so adorable anymore.

"Do you think our son is gay?" Marcus overheard her asking her father.

"It's your sister's influence, I'm sure. She lets him watch her daughter's cartoons and play with her dolls. It's no wonder he's acting like a fairy."

"Don't call him that. I'm sure it's just a phase."

"It better well had be. No son of mine ought to be acting like that."

Marcus felt her stomach drop. She didn't really understand what they were talking about, only that they didn't like what she was doing. And that was bad enough. What she was doing was wrong.

Marcus locked herself in the bathroom and wouldn't come out until dinnertime. By then, the mascara tracks had dried on her swollen cheeks and it hurt when her mother scrubbed them away with a warm washcloth.

After that, she wasn't allowed in her parents' bedroom anymore.

After that, the dancing lessons her parents had reluctantly agreed to were replaced with baseball practice. Benny was happy to teach her, although she wasn't happy to learn.

"You have to really swing the bat. No, not like that. Man, you're useless."

Marcus never said she would rather do something else, because then her parents would be disappointed, but her long face was hard to hide. Derek took her up on it.

"Don't you get it, stupid? Marcus thinks baseball is boring. C'mon, buddy. I'll show you what real sport is like."

He dragged her along to his basketball club, which was only marginally better. But Marcus could take advantage of her height, and her parents were relieved to see her take to something they considered suitable for boys.

Marcus grew still and quiet.

*

Marcus had never minded running around the playgrounds with her brothers and coming home dirty, or watching her brothers' ball games together as a family – but still she missed theater and dancing, because dressing up was allowed, self-expression was allowed, and zig-zagging to and fro on 84 by 50 feet of court just couldn't compare.

When Jacob suggested they should both join the football club when they were old enough, because the field was bigger, Derek and Benny tackled him to the ground and waved for Marcus to join the pile. They said it was to prepare him for what was to come.

And indirectly, they prepared her for what was expected of her – of her male body. They set the examples she was forced to follow; by hiding in their shadows, by imitating their behavior, or at least their interests, no one would notice that something was wrong with her.

Only she would: because she was not who she was supposed to be.