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I'll Be That Girl

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Stephen actually told Jon years ago. It was Jon's own fault he didn't know how to listen properly.

It was at a staff party, although most of the actual staff had gone home, leaving the two of them alone in a dark corner. Jon was pleasantly tipsy; Stephen sober enough to be coherent, but drunk enough to forget what a horrible idea it would be to lean over and press a kiss to Jon's lips.

Jon didn't freak out, but he didn't melt against the contact either, and after a moment he pushed Stephen gently away.

"Listen, I appreciate the thought," he said, with that self-conscious half-smile that did funny things to Stephen's insides, "but, well, I'm not really into men."

"'Sokay," said Stephen, head bowed, feeling that strange kind of calm that comes when you've gone so far past panic that you come back around to the other side. "I'm not really a man."

"Hey now," protested Jon, voice suddenly firm as he took Stephen's chin in his hand and tipped it upwards. "Don't say that. Don't ever say that. Being gay doesn't make any less of a man. You hear me?"

He wasn't exactly expecting to relieve Stephen's lifetime of neuroses and fears with a single line, but it still stung when Stephen fixed him with a look of utmost disgust before stalking away.

Stephen can't remember ever not feeling out of place.

When the other boys wanted to play baseball, Stephen wanted to ride horses. When they bragged about the scars they had received through various feats of daring, Stephen wished for smooth, unblemished skin. When they traded dirty jokes in shop class, Stephen's laugh was the loudest and most uproarious, distracting any suspicious observer from the discomfort bubbling underneath.

It doesn't come together, though, until the day when they pour back into school after summer vacation and suddenly half the girls have turned into women.

And these are girls Stephen knows, too! Womanhood is supposed to be a mystical quality reserved for teachers and mothers and the Virgin Mary, and now all of a sudden Charlene — the bossy cousin who always loses to Stephen at checkers, for crying out loud! — is walking into class with curved red lips and a sashay in her step! Like anyone could do it!

Watching her from the back of the room, seeing her toss her head and laugh as waves of hair fall over her shoulders, Stephen is hit with an avalanche of fury and desire and understanding so intense it makes the room spin.

Somewhere, somehow, there's been a horrible mistake.

As the youngest of eleven, there is no trick Stephen can think of that the older Colbert siblings haven't seen (or pulled) a dozen times before. But Charlene is the oldest (of six, with the seventh on the way), and she has yet to be tipped off about the uses of the big tree right outside her window.

If she had, after all, she never would have left the curtains open.

The most Stephen had hoped to see was how Charlene carried herself when nobody was around. And, okay, maybe what she looked like in a nightgown. (Yes, there are magazines under the mattresses of Stephen's older brothers that are completely dedicated to women in nightwear, but they're all in positions that seem unrealistic, and sometimes downright painful. They're not ladies, Stephen knows; not like Charlene is, with her easy, natural grace.)

But as Stephen peers through the leaves, unable to see the door but with an excellent view of her bed and desk, Charlene walks past the window in nothing but a towel.

When she lets it slip to the ground, Stephen nearly falls off the branch.

Every inch of her skin is pink and glowing, still slightly damp from the shower. There's a mole on her left shoulder, and a strawberry mark on her right calf (which Stephen notices while following the white cotton panties as she eases them up her legs), and of course the thin white line on her arm from when one of their classmates attacked her with a pencil in the third grade; but none of this makes her anything less than perfect.

Looking at women without any clothes on is supposed to be one of the dirtiest things you can do, right? But Stephen can't understand how. Not when she's so clean.

Only the barest shade of Stephen's consciousness is still anchored to the body in the tree. There's just enough awareness left there to keep it clinging to the bark. The rest is locked within Charlene, trying to memorize her every motion from the inside.

So as Stephen's cousin fastens her bra, Stephen herself is learning the motion, feeling the bounce of the breasts she's supposed to have stilled by soft cups of cloth. She wills Charlene to go slowly in pulling on her stockings, so that she can relish the sensation of palms against smooth legs. While the other girl uses the heart-shaped mirror to put on makeup, she brushes her fingers against her own face, just enough to know how to adapt the motions to her own square jaw and narrow lips.

Charlene pauses before the wardrobe like a dancer, weight leaning on one foot while the other points delicately behind her, and for the first time in her life Stephen feels balanced.

Not until a car pulls up in front of the house does it occur to her that women don't dress up like this every night. Of course. Charlene has a date.

She hangs a pair of pearl drops from her ears, lifts her hair to fasten a matching string around her neck...and then she's gone, turning off the lights as she leaves.

Stephen crawls back along the branch to the trunk. She's preparing to shimmy back down to the ground when, on a whim that seems to come out of nowhere, she finds herself inching out along another branch. It's narrower, but it comes right up next to the wall of the house.

When she reaches the window, she jiggles it, knowing this is stupid, fully expecting it to be locked.

The pane jerks up an inch.

Stephen moves as if in a daze. The next thing she knows, her grubby shoes are actually standing on Charlene's carpet.

She can't possibly stay. That would be crazy.

On the other hand, it's not like Charlene will be coming in here until she gets back from her date. Why, that could take hours.

Stay, whispers a low voice in the back of her head.

Okay, she thinks. But only for a couple minutes.

She goes for the wardrobe first. It's stuffed with clothing, and for Stephen, who has hardly ever worn anything but her brothers' hand-me-downs, the newness of the outfits is almost as stunning as their actual styles. There are skirts that flare at the hips and blouses that curve at the waist, white socks trimmed with lace and panties with itty-bitty bows on them, sheer stockings folded neatly in on themselves....

Take them, hisses the low voice. They should be yours. You deserve them.

She'll notice if something disappears, thinks Stephen desperately.

But then, the stockings are all identical, and there are so many. Surely just one pair wouldn't be missed?

Footsteps in the hall freeze Stephen in place.

She's still rooted to the spot when the door opens and the light flicks on, a voice saying "No, it's okay, I just have to get—"

For an instant they just stare at each other, terrified, Stephen squinting against the sudden brilliance.

Charlene screams.

The sound snaps Stephen out of it. She bolts for the window, fairly diving through it, as Charlene pelts her back with makeup bottles and other objects grabbed frantically from the desk, shouting for backup all the while. By the time it arrives, Stephen has already swung down the tree, fast enough to earn a torn shirt, and is tearing across the back yards as fast as her graceless but wiry legs will carry her.

Not until she's safely back in her own room does she discover the pantyhose in her pocket.

Charlene's father very nearly breaks down the door.

When Papa hears the story (shouted so loudly that Stephen can hear it all the way up the stairs), he laughs raucously and declares that boys will be boys.

Stephen is on edge for days, waiting for a punishment that never comes.

Word travels fast.

Stephen is terrified of being shunned, but the story only seems to turn away the girls. Guys, all the guys, even the cool ones who would never under ordinary circumstances come within ten feet of Stephen, are walking up to the geek table at lunch to offer backslaps and thumbs-ups and hearty congratulations.

And, really, what is Stephen supposed to do? Reject the praise? Disavow this outpouring of glowing, unadulterated approval that salves an ache Stephen had always taken for granted?

There's nothing to do but slip into the role, offering a token protest of modesty before letting slip a few juicy details, hooking the audience for good before reeling them in with ever-increasing embellishments.

It's all lies, of course, but Stephen is an accomplished liar. Always has been, always will be. (Don't worry, sir, I'm eighteen. No, officer, I haven't been drinking. Of course I'm not scared. Go away, Jon; I'm sick of you bothering me.)

After a month of catcalls in the hallways, Charlene disappears.

The next Stephen hears of it, she's enrolled at some all-girls' boarding school halfway across the state.

If Stephen's body stays very still for a while, it gets easier to forget where its outlines are. Sometimes she lies on her back in bed for hours, the stolen pantyhose pressed against her nose and mouth like a filter, keeping her from breathing in the world.

Then one time she stretches the nylon across her throat, pulling it against her windpipe.

Not until her vision starts to go blotchy at the edges does she pull it away, chest heaving as she gulps frantically for oxygen.

You're doing it all wrong, says the voice in the back of her head. You'd just pass out, and go limp, and then the pressure would stop. Now, if you tied a knot, pulled it tight, and let go....

The pantyhose spend the next year stuffed in the back of a drawer, hidden behind the equally discarded baseball glove. When Stephen leaves for Dartmouth, she leaves them behind.

"Hey, Colbert, I think the blonde one's giving you the eye."

Stephen eyes the table in question, then slurs, "They're all blonde."

The four of them are backpacking across Europe, a journey which will supposedly broaden their horizons, although so far most of what they have learned is that, between their combined college educations and any given bartender's practical experience, there is usually enough shared language to order something they can stand to swallow.

Case in point: Stephen's grasp of German, the most nuanced among them, does not actually consist very far beyond shouting nonsense syllables at top volume. And yet here they are in Germany, crowded around a table with a round of lager that only tastes slightly like dishwater and a collection of not-unattractive blonde women sizing them up.

Ten minutes later, Stephen has somehow moved to an upstairs room, propelled by the surprisingly large hands of the blonde who had been doing the eyeing. She's firm and graceful and confident, and if she's not exactly gorgeous, well, now Stephen understands what a handsome woman means.

Stephen understand other things, too, and uses both hands to put a stop to her advances for long enough to croak, "Wie viel?"

The woman cradles Stephen's face in her hands and smiles, for all the world like a mother beaming at an overly-innocent child, though she can't be that much older than Stephen. "For you? Free."

She resumes her moves, and, ooh, they're definitely not going unappreciated, at least by the relevant bits of Stephen's anatomy...although that in itself isn't exactly something to be thrilled about.

Stephen believes in divine creation, of course, but has long had the suspicion that God was phoning it in when He designed the male genitalia. Women get smooth, clean silhouettes, but men are stuck with these ugly stringy bits, hanging out like loose threads at the end of a seam.

(It would make them easy to lop off, remarks the low voice, which Stephen is absolutely not listening to.)

But the teeth-clenching feeling of wrong has to be endured in order to enjoy this lovely tingly feeling, so Stephen sucks it down, pulls this skillful and stunning woman closer, and, for good measure, grinds their hips together.

The wrongness reasserts itself in double-time.

Stephen gapes at the woman in horror, then, all concern for politeness shattered, sticks a hand between her legs and clenches. Sure enough, they're not 'her' legs at all.

The face swims before him like one of those optical illusions that can be seen two ways at once, though you might not even notice the second until someone points it out. She's a woman. He's a man. She's handsome. He's beautiful. He can't be.

Stephen feels faint.

"You see?" says the woman, the man, voice low and sultry, accent thick, blonde hair curling monstrously around a neck with an Adam's apple that Stephen somehow didn't notice until now. "You like."

"No!" shouts Stephen, voice returning in full force, throwing him backwards in a rush of strength born from fury. "No, I do not like! It's wrong! Do you know that word? It's evil and sinful and immoral and wrong!"

With that, she — he, damnit, HE! — runs from the room.

When the invitations to Charlene's wedding begin circulating, Stephen knows it would be a bad idea to go.

The other guests will all still be telling their own versions of the story years from now: how the bride, a vision of loveliness in a gown blooming with white flowers, was accosted halfway through the ceremony by a falling-down cousin screaming barely-coherent rants about how this was the only thing he had ever wanted, and she had no right, no right!

By the time Stephen gets back to New York, the restraining order is already waiting.

Should have punished them, says the low voice, the one that has waxed and waned over the years but never gone away entirely, though it hasn't been in the back of Stephen's head for a while now. Should have made them pay. Made them all pay.

"No, Sweetness," says Stephen out loud. "It's not their fault. They just don't understand."

You deserve so much better, hisses the voice from its new position in the handgun.

"The Nation loves me. And they'll have to start giving me Emmys sooner or later. You'll see."

It's still all wrong. You still hate it. I know you do.

Stephen strokes the back of the gun like it's a cat. "Shhh. It's okay. I'm handling it. And if it ever gets too bad, I know where to find you."

Promise, insists Sweetness.

"I promise," whispers Stephen.

Jon is on his third cup of water, and halfway through the crossword on the back of the placemat, when he hears his name.

He looks up with a start; but it's nobody he knows, just a strange woman. She's dressed for casual elegance in a black skirt and ruffled white blouse, pearls at her throat and matching earrings peeking out from beneath her long dark hair; but she looks nervous as a schoolgirl. Probably recognizes him from TV, though it's been almost a year since he was on the air with any regularity.

"Hi," he says awkwardly. (He's never quite gotten used to dealing with fans.) "Can I help you?"

The woman wrings her hands. "Are you here on your own?"

"Waiting for someone," Jon answers. "He's running late, so he'll probably be here any minute."

"Are you sure he's coming?" blurts the woman.

Okay, now Jon's a little annoyed. "He'd better," he says, maybe more abruptly than he ought to. "He can't drag me all the way down to the harbor and then not show. Listen, do you want a photo, or can I sign something, or...?"

"No, no, it's okay," says the woman quickly. "I should get going. Sorry to bother you."

"No trouble," says Jon.

He goes back to the crossword as she leaves.

Six down. "Excessively talkative person", seven letters, second to last letter "E". He smiles fondly: it's probably 'boaster', but it could just as easily be 'Stephen'....

Seconds later, he nearly knocks over a waiter on his way out the door

It's absurd, is what it is. He's running along the waterfront after a beautiful woman. Could have been ripped straight from the Hallmark Channel. The sun is even sinking low over the waves.

"Wait!" he calls, flinging out an arm, for crying out loud.

She turns quickly enough that he knows he's not completely insane, and stands with perfect poise as he jogs to a stop in front of her. At first he's panting too hard to speak, not like he has any idea what to say anyway, so he searches her eyes. Sure enough, they're so familiar he can't believe he didn't recognize them instantly.

As if in a dream, he lifts a hand. She doesn't move, doesn't so much as flinch, as he tucks a lock of hair behind her oddly pointed right ear.

"Wow," he breathes at last. "When you said you'd changed, I thought you meant you'd started doing yoga, or something."

Her lips twitch into something that could almost be a smirk, finely plucked eyebrows starting to arch. "I tried to tell you years ago, Jon. Not my fault you don't know how to listen properly."

Jon breaks into a relieved grin. She's him, all right. If that makes any sense. "So, ah, is it Stephanie now?"

Now she's really smiling, shy but proud. "Pam, actually. Pamela. It's from a Greek word for 'sweetness'. I thought about 'Charlene', but, well, I've taken enough from Charlene already."

"Pamela," repeats Jon, weighing the name in his mouth. "Pam. Have you eaten yet, Pam?"

"Not yet. I was supposed to have lunch with someone, but, well, I wasn't sure I was the one he wanted to see."

"If you weren't, he's a fool." Jon offers Pam his arm, along with an awkward but genuine half-smile. "Join me? It sounds like we have a lot to catch up on."