“Okay, let’s turn out the lights,” Kylie says, “and see if we glow.”
I get up fast and flick the switch. Our toes and fingers light up. We balance on our tailbones and stick our hands and feet into the air; wiggle them around so the room is swarming with neon fireflies. “Sweet,” Liam breathes. His toes are the biggest and brightest.
He says, “Know what? I have some glow-in-the-dark decals that’d look absolutely fabulous over this polish. Hang on a sec.” We see his dark shape rise and disappear into his room.
“Absolutely fabulous?” Shannon repeats. “How gay.”
“Shut up,” Aly snaps. “I hate that expression.”
“Me, too,” Carmen says.
Tension sparks the darkness. Aly adds, “He was just kidding. Obviously, you don’t know Liam.”
“Obviously,” Shannon snipes.
Kylie breaks the tension. “Your brother’s really weird, Regan. If I wanted to polish my brother’s nails, he’d be like, ‘ew, ew. Keep that gunk away from me.’”
“Mine, too,” someone says behind me.
My face catches fire. Thank God they can’t see it in the dark.
Aly clucks her tongue. “He’s not weird. He’s probably in there taking it off.”
The lights go on and Aly returns from the wall switch. She screws the lid on her bottle of polish and collects the other bottles. As she passes them back to Shannon, she says, “Let’s put on some music and dance off this pizza.”
Who could argue with that? We’re all on diets.
By the time Liam emerges from his room, we’ve moved the coffee table and cleared the floor. Everyone’s forgotten about the nail polish, I hope. Alyson is lingering by Liam’s door and she snatches the sheet of decals away from him. I notice they’re little butterflies and stars and hearts. “Cute, Liam,” she coos under her breath and nudges him. “What else do you have in that secret room of yours? Puffy paint and beads?”
“As a matter of fact.. .” He grins.
She smiles and leans against him. Liam stumbles a little, but balances himself by clenching Aly’s arm. This makes her beam. She slides her arms around Liam’s waist.
Carmen loads an old Madonna CD into the player and the music floods the basement. I’m thinking, Why isn’t Dad down here dragging “raging hormones” upstairs? Kylie and Shannon begin to dance, sort of tentatively, eyeing Liam. Carmen grabs my hand and yanks me to the middle of the floor. I’m not a good dancer. I’m too stiff, too tight.
Liam isn’t tight. He’s rocking out with Aly. Wow, he’s a great dancer. He has all the same moves Aly does, as if they’ve been practicing in private. Or he has.
Then it happens. She exposes herself. Lia Marie. The change is visible, noticeable, at least to me. She throws her arms in the air and begins to gyrate her h*ps in double, triple time to the beat. Wild, out of control, as if she’s been holding back for years. Which, I realize, she has. She may not even be aware she’s out.
She’s singing now, too, in a falsetto to match Madonna. Her eyes are closed and she’s obviously off in another world. Her world.
Everybody stops dancing. Even Aly. We all step back to make room for Lia Marie. Her elbows are lethal weapons.
Oh God. Oh God. What should I do?
Carmen leans over and whispers in my ear, “Is he tripping out or something?”
Shannon snickers behind us.
I charge over to the CD player and punch it off. It takes a moment for Lia Marie to acknowledge the silence. React. She lowers her arms and shrinks into herself, morphing back into Liam.
The lights flicker. “Liam, are you down there?” Dad hollers. “Get up here and leave those girls alone.”
Liam’s eyes cut to me. To my fiery face. “S-sorry,” he stammers. “Sorry, Re.” He stumbles toward the stairs.
“Liam, you don’t have to go,” Shannon calls after him. “We were planning on doing your makeup next.” She laughs, evilly.
I don’t. Neither does Carmen. Or Aly.
Later, after everyone is asleep, I hear in the dark, “Re?”
I’m staring at the ceiling, through it, up into the night. “Yeah?”
“What’s with your brother?” Carmen asks quietly.
“What do you mean?”
I feel her eyes boring into me. “You know. Is he like, on drugs?”
“No!” My voice is louder than I mean it to be. I lower it. “Of course not. He hates drugs. He’s totally anti-drug.”
“He’s different, though, isn’t he?”
Yeah, I don’t say. She’s different. I turn my face away from Carmen’s penetrating gaze.
“Come on, Re. You can tell me.” I feel her hand reach out and grasp my arm. She squeezes. “I’m your best friend.”
I close my eyes.
She adds softly, “I don’t have any secrets from you.”
I pull my arm back, rolling away from her. I can’t tell you! I scream inside. I can’t ever tell you.
In the morning — more like noon — everyone packs up to leave. They say they had a good time, but what happened last night hangs over us like toxic smog. I’m not sure they know what they witnessed — Lia Marie revealing herself.
I think Carmen suspects. I don’t know what she suspects, exactly. Maybe that he’s gay. He isn’t gay. If he were, I’d probably tell her despite the fact I’m sworn to secrecy. I don’t dare tell her the truth.
That was the first — and last — time Liam ever lost control. Why then? Why at my party, with my friends? That next week Carmen began to act cold toward me. I didn’t blame her; I don’t blame her still. What kind of person keeps secrets from her best friend?
My Carmen CD skipped a stanza and I scrambled to my feet to pause the player and remove the CD. With the corner of my sheet, I wiped the disc clean. It was wearing out from overuse.
That was my last slumber party, to host or attend. Along with Carmen, everybody else sort of drifted away. Or I drifted. I heard Carmen’s mom got invited to tour in Europe over the summer and Carmen went with her. She didn’t even say goodbye. Just went away and never came back.
It wasn’t like I’d never had friends before Carmen. I had lots of friends when I was little, in preschool. First grade. Second. Before friendship got complicated. Before it came with expectations.
Elise and David Matera were the parents I wished I had. I’d been baby-sitting for them since I was twelve, and hoping any day now they’d adopt me. They were a regular family. They loved their kids. Really loved them. They were always hugging and kissing and playing games with them. Cody was currently in his “why” phase. He must’ve asked David a hundred times now, “Why is the sky blue?” and each time David would patiently explain, “Because every color in the rainbow has a wavelength. Like this.” He’d demonstrate on Cody’s drawing paper. “When light passes through the atmosphere, the wave gets scattered. It spreads out.” He’d squiggle the lines. “The blue we see is actually millions and millions of scattered blue lights. Tiny little pinpricks of light, all streaming into our eyeballs at once.”
“Wow,” Cody would breathe.
I would, too. I mean, I didn’t know that. I doubted my dad did. I know he didn’t because when I asked him the same question he said it was because God’s a boy. If God were a girl, the sky would be pink.
“What about sunrise and sunset?” I’d asked.
Dad had looked dumbfounded. “You kids. You think too much.”
It frightened me how shallow the gene pool was that Liam and I were wading in.
The Materas were my single source of income. A constant source lately. That was another thing; they were always doing stuff together. Like dating. The last time Mom and Dad went out on a date was ...I can’t even imagine them dating. Mom and Dad?
“I left the number of the Arts House and restaurant by the phone,” Elise told me, slipping on the coat David held open for her. “Thank you, darling.” She smiled up at him, lovingly. I hadn’t seen my parents share a private look like that since . . . Never.
“Tyler has a runny nose, but don’t worry about it, Regan.” Elise pulled a tissue out of her purse. She bent down and swiped Tyler’s snot, adding, “He’s getting over a cold. Which he caught at that day care.” Her eyes narrowed at David.
“I know, I know.” He held up his hands. “We should never have left him there, even for a morning. Those places are breeding grounds for bacteria. That’s why we praise Buddha for Regan.”
Did they really? Wow.
“Waygon, come watch me dwaw a T-Wex.” Cody tugged on my hand.
Mirelle shot to her feet. “Regan’s going to play Barbies with me. Right?” She planted herself in front of me, her curly hair springing corkscrews all over her head. “You promised.”
“I did.” I straightened her bow barrette. “I can’t wait, either. I’ve been thinking about it all day. Why don’t you go set up your Barbie village and I’ll check out this T-Rex. Just for a sec.” I winked at her.
“Thank you, Regan.” Elise squeezed my arm. “You’re so good with them.”
David pulled open the front door. “We’ll be home by ten-thirty at the latest. If anything happens, the phone numbers are on the corkboard by the phone.”
“I told her that.” Elise slapped David’s back. “I swear, you’re going senile.” She turned back to me, rolling her eyes. “The kids have eaten, but I left you a pan of lasagna in the oven in case you hadn’t. I really appreciate you coming early. Also,” she lowered her voice so the kids wouldn’t hear, “I baked brownies for you and hid them in the cupboard. A little study snack.”
See? Perfect parents.
As soon as they left, the baby pooped his diaper. Mirelle and Cody plugged their noses and split to opposite ends of the room. While I changed Tyler’s Pampers on the dining room rug, Cody drew his dinosaur with green Magic Marker at the table.
“Do you want to be Bride Barbie or Working Woman Barbie?” Mirelle called from the living room.
What a choice. “Bride,” I answered.
Cody said, “I got a new G.I. Joe. Want to see him?”
He dropped the marker and motored into his bedroom. As I resnapped Tyler’s onesie, it struck me how ordinary these kids were. “They fulfill their gender expectations,” Liam would say. Whatever that meant. All I knew was you’d never mistake Mirelle for a boy, or Cody for a girl. Tyler was still a baby, so he didn’t count. If you dressed Ty in frilly clothes, people would probably coo over him and call him a “pretty little girl.”
Pretty. A word for girls. The way handsome described boys. Liam was right; people did use boy and girl language. They expected different behaviors. When kids acted “out of role,” as Liam put it, they were labeled tomboys or sissies.
There were lines you didn’t cross, in clothing, behavior, attitude. Like, if I wore lipstick and lace to school, nobody would even notice. Well, they might, since I’d never worn either. I wasn’t that girly-girly. People could accept if you moved along your own gender scale — be a princess one day and a slob the next. Same with boys.
To a point.
The gender scales didn’t extend equidistant in both directions. For example, if you were a girl you could be off-the-scale feminine and that’d be fine, but if you acted or felt just a little too masculine, you were a dyke.
Same for guys. Mucho macho, fine. Soft and gentle, fag.
What if you happened to be born off both scales, between scales, like Liam? Then you were just a freak.
I know that’s how Liam felt. He told me once there was no place for him in the world, that he didn’t fit anywhere. He really was off the scale. Boy by day, girl by night. Except, he was a girl all the time, inside. It was hardwired into his brain, he said, the way intelligence or memory is. His body didn’t reflect his inner image. His body betrayed him. The way people viewed Liam, as a boy, meant he had to play to their expectations. Dress the part. Act the role. And Liam was good at it, expert. He’d had all those years of practice. It had to be horrible, though, day after day after day, seeing all around him what he wanted so desperately to be and never could.
“Waygon! Look at me!”
I jerked to attention.
Cody emerged from his bedroom, clutching his G.I. Joe, and clunking across the entry in an old pair of Elise’s high heels. I had to laugh. So much for gender expectations.
David and Elise never forced Cody and Mirelle to play with boy or girl toys exclusively. Or to dress the role. David even bought Cody a baby doll last summer when he begged for one. Cody’s interest in playing with her lasted about two minutes before he was back throwing dirt clods at the neighbor’s dog.
The whole gender role expectation thing was too confusing to me. Why couldn’t people just be accepted for who they were?
I carted Tyler into the living room and plopped him in his bouncy seat. “Let me see your doll,” I said to Cody, extending my hand.
“It’s not a doll.” He huffed. “It’s a action figure.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” I smoothed G.I. Joe’s camouflage jacket down to cover his exposed and bulging parts. “Where are his pants?”
“He flushed them down the toilet,” Mirelle informed me.
“Okay, Regan. I have Barbie all dressed for her wedding.” Mirelle skipped over and thrust Bride Barbie at me.