Published: November 13, 2014
“Before the Magic - Max’s Story”
by Jocelyn Samara D.
Last year, my mom sent me to St. Celeste Middle School, a well known all girl private school. It’s a pretty upscale place. If you actually have the money and reputation (and are a “girl,” presumably), you probably couldn’t do much better. I suppose it’s known for shaping their students into dignified young ladies befitting of their rich, prissy status. At least, that’s the rumor that brought me there. By extension, that made it my personal hell.
“Mirabelle Penelope Forcier!” My mom would say. “I’m not going to allow you to embarrass this family again, so you’re going and that’s final!”
It pisses me off though. “Embarrass this family?” What? Because I cut my own hair so it never gets too long? Because I’d rather wear a t-shirt and jeans than some stupid fancy dress? Because I can't figure out for the life of me how to apply makeup?
I’m not an embarrassment. I'm just not the daughter she wants.
My mom only says these things because she wanted a daughter to be a carbon copy of herself. What she got was… well, essentially a son. I suppose she doesn’t technically know that yet. I may not have ever come right out and said it, but I feel like I’ve made my stance and identity pretty clear. She just sees it as a phase she can cure by forcing girlier and girlier gender roles down my throat. I think this speaks volumes about how little she understands me.
I didn’t last long in St. Celeste though. I was expelled for fighting. It’s not like I was just going around picking fights though. Some creep actually snuck onto the school grounds and started harassing girls and taking pictures. He made the mistake of thinking I might be an easy target. I rewarded his critical thinking with my foot in his gut. And then his junk. More than once.
Turned out he was a registered sex offender who apparently didn't learn his lesson the first time. I didn't know that then, but I certainly don't have any regrets. I'm sure he learned that time.
He deserved no less as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately the head of the school and all of the faculty deigned that in such a situation, I should run away and seek help. They went on to spout some nonsense about how a “young lady” is not capable of defending herself under those circumstances. First of all: what!? Are these people for real? And secondly, I would say I handled that situation pretty damn well. But by their words, that implies I’m not a young “lady,” right?
No. Of course not.
Whatever my gender, I should be called a hero, not a troublemaker. And playing the role of damsel-in-distress shouldn’t be getting enforced on anybody, one way or another.
This year, my mom seems to be throwing in the towel, and letting me go to public school. She likes to let me know at every possible chance that it's not what she wants for me though. "I want you to understand, Mirabelle, that this is so completely and utterly degrading." she nags as she pulls the car up three blocks away from the school. Heaven forbid anyone sees her dropping off her kid at the "peasant school".
I retort. "And I want you to know, that since I'm not wearing some frilly skirt, this is the LEAST embarrassed I've ever felt when going to school." I chuckle by the end. I'm not looking at her, but I can tell she's rolling her eyes. I'm probably more proud of myself than I should be.
She sighs. "Just try to be good. Don't get in any fights this time, please." Geez, you kick one guy in the nards when they deserve it, and suddenly getting into fights is what you're known for. "And don't get too comfy here either. This isn't permanent. If I can't get you into another private school, you're going to be homeschooled."
Hearing this ruins my day. I think homeschooling would be the only thing worse than another uniform-bound hellhole. I decide not to answer. Maybe if I play my cards right and manage to have an exceptional day with no drama, I can convince her to let me stay here longer.
"I love you, Mirabelle. Try to have a good day." my mom concludes with a whiplash-inducing change of tone. Her voice is actually sweet and motherly, as well as remarkably transparently fake. It's pretty ironic. This is someone who won't let me express myself the way I want to, while simultaneously telling me I just need to "be myself". All the while, whether it's with her boyfriend or her clients or anyone else, she acts pretty much like the shining example of what it means to be fake. The hypocrisy just blows me away.
"I love you too, mom." I mumble as I step out of the car. I wouldn't go so far as to say I don't love my mother. I want to, but she's so exhausting and difficult to deal with. Even when I was in private school and bemoaning my wardrobe restrictions, it was nice to know I could get away from her for a few hours a day.
Now in public school with some of those restrictions dropped, this should be even better. At least I'll feel more physically comfortable. Not all better, but certainly more than usual.
My mom drives away and I start walking. After two blocks, I finally start seeing other students. Most ignore me. I can see a pair of boys walking not ten feet in front of me though. One with thick-framed glasses and brown hair randomly looks back over his shoulder. He smiles in my direction and turns to his friend saying something I can't hear. For just a moment, I think my day is off to a good start. Maybe these are future friends. Maybe I can actually have male friends for once.
His friend, donning a red cap over his curly black hair turns around toward me, and he instantly starts laughing. He then says at a volume that he probably thinks I can't hear, "Dude. Those are huge!"
And with that, I go from a moment of hopefulness to hating every fiber of my being. I suppose I should probably say that while I cut my hair to make it look short and masculine, that's about the only thing I can do for myself. I'm cursed with small stature, a feminine face, and more curves than most average thirteen year old girls usually have. Red Hat over there just happened to strike the nerve that bothers me most.
I stop walking. The boys continue on ahead, Red Hat still howling. I don't know if it's still about me or not, but it doesn't matter. It hurts like it is.
Why does it have to be like this? I feel like everything would be better if I were just born right. I wouldn't have to hate my body, or wear uniforms that make me feel uncomfortable. I might even like private school. My mom would never expect me to be a "lady", and we might even have a better relationship because of it. I wouldn't be an embarrassment any more, because I'd be a normal boy... if not a douchebag like the two ahead of me. I don't even get reprieve with my name. Mirabelle? Does it get girlier than that?
I let out a long, tired sigh. "Today hasn't even started yet, and I'm so done."
The day proceeds about as I expect. The boys gawk at me because I'm unique among other girls, and the girls stay away from me because I'm unique among other girls.
I sit alone at lunch. My first thought is, "What a relief. Now I don't have to look at or listen to anyone." Except the tables are so crammed together I can't help but overhear different conversations all around me. Public school, huh?
To my right, a table of boys discussing their online gaming habits, including stories of all the noobs they've killed, or any moms they might have done last night. Most, if not all of it, wildly false I'm sure. Behind me, there is a table of girls badgering one in their group because she asked out another's ex. I guess that's taboo. Assuming I ever date or have friends, I'll keep that in mind.
The only interesting one is to my left. I overhear a boy say, "Have you seen Nick? Guy's actually wearing a pink shirt and a skirt. So gay."
I turn to this table to see the back of the head of that laughing kid from this morning. I'd recognize that stupid red hat anywhere. Especially the back of it. Some other boy asks who he's referring to. "Nick. You know, Nicolas Jiménez. Though I guess he has some girl name now. It was hilarious. The teacher just outed him in first period and-"
Every word that comes out of Red Hat's mouth pisses me off, but I sit quietly and listen and wonder. And then it sticks with me as the day goes. There's some other kid in this school that might be like me, albeit the other way around. It's somehow reassuring to know I might not be the only one. On the other hand, it's also upsetting, because here she is going for what she wants and still being persecuted. Not that I wasn't already afraid of coming out, but knowing she's not exactly a success story doesn't do wonders for my self-esteem either.
I wouldn't mind trying to find her and talk with her, but I get the feeling I only know the name she doesn't want to be called. And pink shirt with skirt doesn't necessarily narrow it down either. I've probably walked by this kid a hundred times today and not realized it.
My day ends with an art class. As luck would have it, I happen to wind up at a table with the glasses kid from this morning. Also, some punk-looking girl with green hair and a nose ring. You'd never have seen that kind of presentation in private school, so she really stands out and it's kinda cool. I think this is the first time I've seen her though. I can't help but think she's cute, but I need to reserve my attention to Glasses, so I can give him all the death glares I am capable of.
The teacher introduces himself and gives this whole "what is art" speech. After fifteen minutes of that, he throws large pieces of paper on our tables and asks us to express ourselves any way we like for the rest of the class. I don't think he realizes that that's asking a lot from me.
Once the teacher stops talking, the room explodes into chatter. This includes my table. "Hey, blondie." The green-haired girl says to me. She has to be talking to me because I'm the only blonde one. "I love your hair. So spiky and crazy."
I laugh nervously. "Oh, uh... thanks. I cut it myself."
"It's awesome! Keep doing that."
"I don't know. I always thought girls looked better with long hair." Glasses chimes in. "Don't get me wrong. You're really pretty-"
"Please shut up." I interrupt. He does as I ask for a moment. But only for a moment.
"I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean any harm. I just-"
"Seriously. Shut it." I snap again. He actually looks hurt. "After 'those are so huge' this morning, do you think I give a shit what you think?"
"I didn't say that. That was all Derek." He insists. "I was just telling him the girl behind us - you know, you - was cute and that's what he homed in on, I guess. It's not what I was thinking though. And I'll be the first to admit that guy's an ass."
I'm not sure I totally believe him. Worse, his insistence on addressing me as female is obnoxious. But I calm down a little. And not wanting to make the last period of my school day a nightmare for as long as I'm here, I accept his answer. "In that case, I guess I'm sorry too."
Green Hair looks thrilled to have witnessed that. She breaks the tension, by getting all hyper. "Oh, I can tell I'm going to love sharing my art classes with you guys. Introductions!" she exclaims. "My name is Lemmy!"
"Lemmy? That's different." I say, raising a brow.
Lemmy inhales deep. "Okay, tragic story: my birth name is Lemon. My parents actually freaking named me Lemon! What the hell is that even? Anyway, it's stupid and dumb and dumb and stupid, so I've come up with something better and renamed myself. It's not so different, but it's cute and doesn't lead to nicknames like 'Sour Puss'. And yes, I got a lot of that last year. So, Lemmy it is!" I'm quite certain she said that all in one breath. She's really not the kind of person I expected.
Glasses spoke up. "My name's Trey. It's a variation of the name, Trey, which is short for, uh... Trey." Lemmy laughs outright. I admit I crack a smile. He follows up a little more seriously, "No big story behind it. It's just who I am."
The two of them look expectantly at me, waiting to hear my name. I don't want to disappoint, but I find it suddenly hard to speak. I'm so nervous, I actually start laughing. I probably look crazy right now.
"Here's the thing..." I stall. "My name is super embarrassing too. It's um... It's... well, my mom calls me... uh, Mira... belle. But I hate it."
"Mirabelle?" Trey cracks a smile. "That's not so bad. At least it's different."
"It's fricking stupid. It sounds like the kind of name you'd give a cow." I say grumpily. Lemmy snorts. "It's just... I don't know. I can't identify with it."
Trey looks at me, and with a stern face says, "Then take a page out of Lemmy's book and change it. I think it's a pretty name. But if you don't want to be called that, then tell us what you want to be called, and we'll say it. Right, Lemmy?"
"Definitely. I know I'd kill you both if you called me by my birth name. Sooooo, in favor of not getting killed myself, I would love to call you whatever you want to hear."
The hesitation is much more brief this time.
"Max. Can you... can you guys call me Max?" I ask sheepishly.
"Interesting choice." Trey responds slowly. "Any particular reason?"
"There's no big story behind it. It's just... who I am."
By the end of class, the teacher asks that we all put our work on his desk face down. Lemmy first shows us her extremely complex and detailed acid trip of a pencil drawing. Seemingly random animals and objects are littered across the scene, and are all connected by various shapes in the background. It certainly looks cool, but I'm not entirely sure of what I'm looking at. And I'm even less sure of when she found the time to put all of that on paper, given she was so talkative the whole period. Clearly, art is her thing, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
I look down at my own. It's pathetically bad by comparison. "It's terrible, isn't it? It's okay. I'm not really creative."
Lemmy shakes her head. "Not at all, Max! It's really good." I'm comforted a lot more by her actually calling me that, than her attempt to cheer me up. "If you turn the page on it's side, you can actually see how the dog becomes a dragon. The dog represents how you're straight-forward and loyal to your friends, and the dragon represents how fiercely you would defend what's important to you."
I turn my page back to me. "Uh, yeah. That's what I was going for. Good eye, Lemmy." I don't see it.
All I really did was draw shapes. Mostly weird circles. I was paying more attention to our conversation than the work anyway, so I didn't feel like I had time to work anything truly expressive out. Originally, I thought I might try drawing myself as a man, but I chickened out. Not to mention, I feared I wouldn't do it any justice.
It's not what I was going for, but I like Lemmy's interpretation though. Even though I feel like I could never defend what's important to me. I don't even know what IS important to me. I know I beat up that voyeuristic creep at my old school, but was defense really my intention? Or was I only interested in punishing someone who was clearly doing something bad?
And why can't I even defend myself from my mom in favor of being true to myself? I mean, what could be more important than that?
"Look at this way. You both did better than me." Trey says, revealing his work. It consists of his name in the top-left corner, and a line in the center of the page.
"Went all out, did you?" I snark.
"I liked our conversation, so I wasn't drawing."
"Wait! Wait! I got it." Lemmy interjects. "See, it's a straight line in the center of the page. The location means you're a very centered person, in control of his life." I raise a brow. I'm jealous if that's actually true.
"And the line?"
"I don't know. You're straight?"
The three of us start cracking up. Trey wears this intense look of shock on his face. "Oh my god, Lemmy! You're right!" He starts laughing again before he can finish.
"Come on, guys. Bring 'em up here." Our teacher calls to us from his desk. "Last class of the first day. Don't you wanna go home?"
Before putting my work down on the teacher's desk, I give it one last look. My eyes are drawn to a lower section of the page where the circles seem to take the shape of a rabbit with butterfly wings. In that instant, my head pounded like I suddenly had a migraine, but only once and then it was gone. When I looked again, my eyes couldn't quite discern that shape anymore. I knew where I saw it, but I couldn't seem to make it out again.
The three of us exit class together. Lemmy stops, smiles, and bows slightly. "Max. Trey. It's been a pleasure. Let's do this again sometime. I was thinking maybe the same time tomorrow?"
"Sounds like a plan." I say.
We both wave to her as she walks off, singing something to herself. "She's so strange." Trey just blurts out. We both laugh.
"Yeah. I don't mind that though." I add not looking at him. "I'm pretty strange, so she actually makes me feel comfortable. Like I belong somewhere."
"Mm. Yeah, you're pretty strange too... Max." My preferred name gets tacked on to the end of the sentence as if he was trying to make a point.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Nothing, really. I like strange people too. I'm not an artist, but I think I'm going to like art class." Trey smiles, and turns away. "See you tomorrow, Max."
"You too, Trey."
As I walk towards the doors to leave the school, I realize that asking Lemmy and Trey to call me Max was probably the closest I'd ever come to telling the truth about myself to someone. And the craziest thing was that they accepted and complied with it. In the grand scheme of things, this is probably a small step. Practically nothing. But I feel accomplished and proud of myself, because it was honestly a small step I wasn't sure I was ever going to take.
Make no mistake, I'm not exactly prepared to take after the elusive pink shirted kid. The thought of trying to convince the whole school of my identity and presenting in a way that's totally comfortable for me is like a dream. I could want nothing more. But it's also horribly overwhelming. Didn't Pink Shirt have reservations or concerns going into this? I'm sure this wasn't a decision made overnight.
I want this. Never more than today, right now. But I don't think I'm ready. I should probably just take this one step at a time. Two friends calling me by my preferred name may be a small step forward, but it's a step at all. Let me see where this goes before I take things further. Let me make sure I can convince my mom to let me stay in this school with my friends first.
Of course, it always has to come back to mom...