I am twenty-four years old and sitting on the edge of my mom’s bed while she pulls my hair too hard up into a pouf. She pokes my eyes, again, as she tries to apply another layer of mascara. She tests three shades of lipstick, and scrubs and re-does my concealer. She looks my body up and down.
“Now, here is a little secret,” she says, as she holds brushes and wands between her fingers like the talons of some colorful bird of paradise. “Take this glitter and arch it up between your boobs.”
On the walls are photographs of me as a baby in a sailor suit, lying on my stomach, bare butt in the air against a silky blue-grey backdrop. There are some photos of myself as a pre-teen — plaid button-up, baseball in hand. In twenty-four years, we have never had a moment like this. The absurdity smells like childhood but feels like the weight of my new body against looks, like looking into a distorted mirror.
“I can do it for you,” she says, sensing my reluctance. She contours mermaid droplets around my boobs. She leaves a teasing little line beneath my green-scaled tank-top.
I am twenty-four years old. My partner, Charlie, and I fly in from New York to spend time with my grandmother, to accompany her to doctor’s appointments, learn her apple pie recipe before it was lost, and, if it came it to it, we were there to say goodbye. Her heart is tenuously held open by a cobalt mesh, tenderly inflated with a balloon. It is Halloween, and already the ghosts are all around us. Peeking around the threshold of my old childhood bedroom, hanging out at The Mill where Charlie and I used to sit and drink, used to dance and talk shit. At some points, in the autumn air, I swear I can see the ghosts my mom and grandma and I would be.
Mom sits up in bed and plays on her phone. My grandmother watches Rush Limbaugh, laughing at the “liberals” — eyes bright and rapt.
I worry that she is what my mom and I will also become, now that the similarities are surfacing. I come from three generations of women unable to sleep.
My grandmother comments as I walk to the kitchen one day, “You know, Brennan, you have my mother’s butt.”
I had packed for this trip in a hurry. The night we left, Charlie and I dashed out to catch a cab that arrived much faster than we expected for three a.m., and when we arrived, we realized we had forgotten our costumes. How could we face this grim week without a mask? How could we back in Iowa City and miss the chance to dance with our friends? It needed to be done the right way, so we left grandma napping and went thrifting.
In past years I went as Puck. I bought short-shorts from the same dinghy basement chain store and stapled leaves from the ground all over them, mussed up my short hair and stuck leaves in there. Another year, red denim and a vest made me Devandra Banhart (think Nick and Nora era). A few years after that I was a vampire and started a fire in the kitchen sink for Spooky-Candle-Halloween. I had been here for every iteration of myself. But this time felt new, too.
Charlie and I pop in and out of the basement racks. I find a pair of plastic blue bell-bottoms that hang like a fish’s fins, then the matching top, and finally what looked like a crop-top made of an old fishnet.
The mermaid costume was coming together. The Tank and Jet Girl idea falls away when Charlie finds a Unicorn onesie. By the counter, I find the final embellishment: a vial of glitter and a small tube of “body-safe” glue.
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In one picture, there’s me right after my mom did my makeup, but in the next slide is my mom, holding a man’s hand. It is unnerving how similar we look.
My mom shows me photos of her in the ’80s. She wears a hair clip on the same side of the crown of her head where she has clipped mine. In the ’80s, my grandmother was still a young woman. Kind and married, her youngest child — my mother — was out of the home. Grandma, a nurse in hospitals, had exceptional bedside manner.
When I was a child, writing in my diary on an air mattress in front of her easy chair, she was the nicest woman I knew. She would turn on “Zorro” or watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” with me until I fell asleep. Videos of executions came later. She would wake me with pancakes, and we’d pick apples in the afternoon.
Her and my mother would leave their hair clips everywhere. I played with them like they were tiny claws. I admired their hair and all the things it took to hold it up. It was as thick as mine is now, had the same curls in the midwest air. This was before we began to find them on the pillows when she used to paint her face. She wasn’t so scary then. She would never say things like “Someone just needs to put that man down.” I never heard gunshots coming from behind her bedroom door.
When my mother wore make-up, I was afraid. It usually meant we were going to midnight mass or some other church service where — for the obvious reasons of queer Catholic childhood — I felt the worst in my body. I was a girl who was a boy who thought he would never wear make-up.
To be fair, I still rarely do. I left it largely behind in the apartment of early coming out. The orange to cancel the old blue of my chin. The concealer and all the cakey foundation I misapplied. I never got used to mascara. But now, looking at my eyes, lined and primed by my mother, I see myself. I see her. In the background, grandma laughs.