Theo held his breath between each step that carried him down the dark hallway to his sister’s bedroom, where beneath her door there escaped a warm band of light. The journey, no more than fifteen feet, took nearly three minutes, and his eyes seldom shifted from the shadowy figure of his parents’ bedroom door, which he managed to pass without so much as stirring those few motes of dust upon the hardwood.
“Helen?” he whispered, and she opened the door just enough for him to slip through.
They stood there looking at each other, and again Theo felt younger than his twin sister, who was four inches taller and “such a pretty girl,” as adults often said. “Only eight years old? Is this your little brother?” they’d ask. The word his father had once used was ‘stunted,’ and though Theo had never heard it before, he could not help but turn away when his cheeks had flushed red with embarrassment.
“Remember?” asked Theo. “Remember when we took off Barbie’s clothes? Barbie and Ken? And how angry Dad was?”
“He wasn’t mad at us, he was mad at you, now be quiet.“
Theo could feel the thrum of his heart.
“Do you think it’ll really work?” he asked.
“Not if you keep talking.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Theo’s green pajamas made him feel sorely conspicuous in Helen’s bedroom, which altogether blossomed like a soft red garden: pink shag rug, crimson pillows, scarlet curtains, and even some scent that Theo recognized as distinctly red—no, feminine, he thought. He breathed in the room’s clean air, sensing notes of their mother, who attended to the space daily as if it were her favorite room in the world, as if it were the reason she had become an interior decorator.
“Don’t be sorry, just be quiet. I’m not even sure I have the energy.”
“Please!” he begged.
“I didn’t mean—”
“Do you want me to tell Daddy what you’ve been up to?“
This time Theo just shook his head, frightened. He wrung his hands together and shifted where he stood, gripping the fibers of the rug between his toes, and wondered how his sister would make things better. Somehow she would, he thought, because she was better. And he wasn’t bad, he told himself, he just felt bad—he always went to bed feeling this way, telling himself he ought to be thankful—“Be thankful!” his father would say—for everything: his parents, his sister, and their nice house in its nice part of Long Island. And so, on top of everything else, there was always the awful guilt of feeling awful. His father seemed to ask him every day, “What’s wrong, Teddy?” and often Theo wondered if perhaps there was something gentle in his father’s voice, or if he was allowed to be gentle himself.
Helen was never asked what was wrong, because Helen wasn’t wrong. Indeed, she seemed constantly able to get what she wanted. Theo tried as often as he could to act like her, to be her, but could never understand how she managed to be followed by praise wherever she went.
“How does it work?” he whispered.
“It’s like casting a spell,” she said. She took him lightly by the shoulders and pressed down, and he felt himself instinctively sit on the floor, as though electrified by her delicate touch. And that was just it, he thought, the ability that girls have to unfold each movement into something soft, into a dance—and he then remembered the previous summer, when he had stood ankle-deep in a brook and had watched the cold water roll past smooth rocks and pebbles—how he had wanted to be that water, to be something flecked with sunlight that flows steadily on forever, rounding its way past all the rough edges in the world.
“Is it going to hurt?”
Helen switched on a tiny pink-shaded lamp beside her bed and turned off the lights overhead. Theo watched his sister glide across the room as though she were weightless, and for a moment he recognized something of himself in her face. He felt a small tap of promise in his chest.
“No,” she said. “It’s the same as praying.”
With their legs crossed, they sat in front of one another, their knees touching. Theo looked across at his sister. She reached out her hands with her palms facing up, and Theo knew to take hold of them, once again dazzled by her wordless transmissions.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
And he did. He imagined that she closed her eyes too, but he wasn’t sure. “Am I supposed to—”
He felt her hands tighten a bit and then loosen.
“You need to concentrate,” she said.
And he tried. But on what? He could only focus on a familiar sense of dread, on the possibility of doors opening, on sounds and voices that hadn’t yet trumpeted from some inevitable place in the future, where he felt doomed to arrive. He began to breathe more heavily, remembering that his sister knew everything.
He could only then recall the bathroom door swinging open. That was weeks ago. He had stood there helplessly with laundry from the hamper scattered all over the floor, wearing his sister’s socks, her underwear, her skirt, his mother’s pantyhose, her blouse. And, up until Helen had opened the door, it had been like any other time before. He had felt safe, enclosed, alone. He had longed, as always, for a wig, a blonde one, so that he could really be his sister’s twin, the other Helen.
Yet even before she had discovered him, he had only known these comforts in an empty way. It was never long after the pantyhose had been drawn up his legs, after he had let the surge of relief travel through his lonesome heart that he would stand and confront the inevitable shame that reflected as certainly off the mirror as it did off the body that told him he was a boy.
For any of it to be real, the precious walls that surrounded his secret needed to be his entire world, with nothing beyond but the black vacuum of space. Sometimes, if he concentrated, as he had on that night, he could imagine himself in that world. The white tiles and wallpaper became the edges of existence, and the bright bulbs atop the mirror shone as the only light that had ever been, and together they floated like a soundless speck of powder through an infinite expanse of dark timelessness. And, if he wanted to, if he really tried, he could convince himself that it wouldn’t be so bad, that it would mean all the light of creation could fall upon him as a girl, and that the person he would become was a woman.
But Helen had let the world in, had stood there in the bathroom doorway, curious and calm, her mouth threatening a smile. It was as if she had expected to find him exactly as he was, as if she had always known. And while Theo’s eyes pleaded desperately, Helen took a deep breath, allowing her smirk to broaden as her lungs emptied into a kind of laugh. But there were no words; neither of them spoke. As fast as she had come, Helen was gone, leaving her brother to confront a silence that seemed to be, of itself, listening.
Theo did not meet her eyes for days, but watched her intensely, terrified of what she might do or say. And when it became clear that she would do nothing and tell nobody, he wondered why his distress did not diminish. He knew that something explosive resided between them, though he was too young and fearful to ponder what it could be. He knew, too, that she watched him right back, and yet their eyes never seemed to align, as if neither could quite determine what they knew about the other.