Bright lights shine from above, white and unnatural. I feel like I’m below a spotlight under their harsh attentions, but there aren’t any dark shadows to flee to, to hide in. It makes me want to curl in on myself and pretend I don’t exist. But I can’t run away. I can hear the footsteps of others echo around me. Even though I know there are only a few—it’s a Monday afternoon, after all—it sounds like there are thousands, each one click-clacking against the tile floor. Before me is my goal, my quest. The doors leading into the twisting aisles of the maze are illuminated, the artificial light from inside leaking out through the glass walls.
“You look like an idiot, just standing there.”
My shoulders tense, pulling up to my ears. I know I’ll regret it, but the masochistic curiosity has me looking over my shoulder before I can reason otherwise.
He’s lounging on the mall bench, one leg resting on the knee of the other. His left arm rests over the back of the otherwise vacant seat, his phone in his other hand. His thumb swipes on the screen insistently, silently sucking in a disapproving breath through his teeth every so often, shaking his head at something he sees there.
He’s immaculately dressed as always, fitted in a navy suit and black tie, dark hair perfectly coiffed. It would be hard to miss him amongst the sweater and jeans wearing patrons walking past him. His shadow is explicitly defined, an exact replica of his relaxed and commanding presence painted on the bench next to him.
As if just noticing my gaze upon him, he glances up from his phone briefly to smirk at me, eyes sparkling with withheld knowledge. Almost as quickly, he glances down at his phone again and the shadow beside him slithers and grows. I feel my heart thud in my chest and my lungs constrict.
“I would know. The mother standing outside of Lush a few stores down thinks so. Can’t you see the way she keeps glancing up at you while fussing over her baby?”
“She is not.”
He looks up again and raises an eyebrow. I flush.
“Don’t worry, she’s not the only one.”
“Everyone stares at you when they pass. No one just stands outside of a store for this long. Just go in already.” The shadows begin to seep down the bench’s seat, dripping onto the floor.
I take a deep breath, relishing in the small amount of comfort the fabric pressing tightly against my chest gives me. Shaky fingers reposition my headphones more firmly over my ears, before pulling down on my hat. I shove at the few stray hairs that managed to escape their knitted prison. I take a step forward.
“Are you sure you want to go in there?”
I freeze, one foot in front of the other.
“You don’t belong in there. Women don’t belong in there. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Everyone will judge you. You should just turn back.” As the shadows extend across the ground, five fingers grow out of the puddle, reaching toward my ankles.
I turn up the volume on my music, making sure to play a song with a strong beat, one I can get lost in. I shake my head as I address him. “I survived the bus ride, despite you trying to convince me otherwise. The other passengers didn’t even glance in my direction. We also got off at the right stop and we’ve gone over every response to every possible social interaction we might be forced to partake in. Even then, I’m going to avoid them to the best of my ability. I’m not turning back now.”
He sighs heavily, disappointed. I can feel the ethereal grasp of fingers begin to encircle my ankle.
I don’t actually need to know what I’m doing. As long as I can keep my head held high and fake it until I make it, I’ll survive. With that thought, I take a second step forwards, pulling my ankle from the shadow’s grasp before it can keep hold. With a renewed confidence, I continue my journey inside uninhibited.
The moment I step through the open glass doors, the light that envelops me almost feels as warm and welcoming as the sun’s rays. The aisles of hung clothes are as open and filled with as many possibilities as a meadow. I marvel at the different fabrics, the colours and styles, recognizing the long buried desire to wear these clothes. The part that knows they’ll feel right.
A shadow looms over my shoulder, dark claws burrowing into my flesh. “Oh goodness, there are just so many choices. Where should you even start?” He speaks as he walks past my right side, pausing in front of the closest rack, his hands held behind his back. I try to step away, but the claws dig deeper. The shadows emanate from behind him. He picks at a sleeve of a shirt with two fingers and a thumb, lip curled up in disgust. “You won’t be able to find anything in here. It’ll be hidden within all this…trash.”
I jut my chin out at him. “I’ll look until I find something.”
“Have you even thought about the differences in sizes? What about the style you’re going for? Or the pants? Look at your thighs, do you think those could fit into anything?”
I tremble as I stare down a row of ripped, black jeans. I want to look for a size, but that yearning sputters and dies almost as quickly as I acknowledge it. I close my eyes as my breathing picks up pace. I can’t let this happen in the middle of the store. I can’t.
“Oh Honey, don’t cry.” A chilled hand caresses my cheek, cupping the side of my face, lifting it up. Hesitantly, I open my eyes, looking deep into the bottomless, black holes of his eyes. His hands are still clasped behind his back. “There may be other customers or employees around. You wouldn’t want to shame yourself by letting them see your tears, would you?” He leans in to whisper in my ear. “If you just leave now, we can pretend this never happened. It’s all for the better anyway.”
Taking a deep breath, holding it, then letting it out, I tear myself from his grasp. The cold fingers burn as they dig in, attempting to keep their hold. But I don’t falter. I don’t stop until I’m an aisle away from him.
“No. I came all this way. I’m not leaving until I have something to show for it. Something that will help make me feel better.”
He makes a tsk sound with a shake of his head, but doesn’t step closer. He motions with a hand for me to continue, even as he raises a disbelieving eyebrow and the corner of his mouth quirks up, amused.
He doesn’t disappear though, like he usually does when I defy him. He keeps a vigilant watch over me, always a few steps behind me, his shadow embracing me. “For your protection,” he says when I ask. “You never know when an employee might look over and laugh at the woman trying to make her way through the men’s section.”
Not a woman, I repeat in my head like a mantra each time, whenever I feel his sinister words whisper in the back of my mind.
I walk up and down the aisles of clothes, inspecting each offer, trying to focus on my music, rather than his voice trying to lure me away from my objective. I let my fingers brush against the fabrics of jeans and shirts when I feel the urge. I let the different textures settle my mind; it was another thing to focus on, rather than the words.
It’s the sight of a bright red button down that draws me out of my trance. The boldness of the colour is subdued by the black in the plaid of the shirt. It’s an excellent statement about myself, of what I wish to portray. I can feel my back crawl with the creeping fingers of the shadows. I dive into searching for a size, before I can become overwhelmed by his voice, before he talks me out of it.
A medium should work. That’s the size I wore for my work uniform over the summer, when they had run out of women’s sizes. That should still work here, right? …Right. Worst case, I can always come back out for a different size.
“You can’t ignore me, Ray.”
I’m heading for the next aisle, an anxious skip in my step. As long as I put some distance between us, his words won’t sink their teeth in me. But we both know that’s a lie.
“And you aren’t going to stop me from following through with this, Ramsey.” I catch sight of another plaid shirt, blue this time.
His laugh is carefree. “That’s cute.”
I find the size easily and move on. A black sweater catches my eye. I add it to my growing pile.
“You’re going to need to find at least one pair of pants, now.” I try not to jump at the words that are suddenly murmured in my ear. I turn my head slightly to try and glare at him over my shoulder. Without a word, I head to the back of the store, where they have the rows of jeans folded up on tables and hanging from the wall.
I gravitate to a grey pair, and immediately start inspecting the sizes. 28/30. What does that mean?
“How do you expect to find a pair that will fit like this? Those aren’t sizes you recognize, you have no idea how they’ll fit. Asking an employee is out of the question. All the ways they’ll judge you.” He sighs, shaking his head. “That’s before they tell you that there’s no size that will fit you. You don’t have boy’s hips, after all.”
“I can do this by myself. I’ll eyeball it.” I’m already digging further back.
“And if none of them fit? You’ll be stuck looking like a girl from the bottom down.”
“I have to try them on first. I can’t know any of this until I try them on.”
He bristles. I’ve made him uncomfortable. I take a brief moment to feel proud of the small success. “Look, Ray. You know I’m only looking out for you. I don’t want you to make a fool of yourself. I want to help you blend in, make you feel safe. I’m trying to protect you.” I pause, hands holding onto the last pair of jeans on the rack. “You remember all those other times I’ve kept you safe, right? Remember the time at the club? The time at the house party? This is no different.”
He lounges against the wall beside me. An arm is wrapped around his body, supporting the weight of the other elbow, as he holds his chin between his thumb and forefinger. His left hip and shoulder support his weight as he crosses his ankles. His toe taps against the ground. My attention is drawn to it, unable to focus on anything but that noise.
He jerks his chin in the direction behind me, drawing my attention again. “Those employees are looking at you. Watching you. One was going to approach you. Twice. Probably thought you were a lost cause. Just imagine their laughter, if you were to ask them for help. What purpose does a woman have, shopping in the men’s section? Just think of the stories they’d tell, the gossip they’d share.”
My fingers clench at the fabric of the jeans in my grasp. My breathing stutters, as my mind paints the clear picture he’s painting for me.
Masculine voices carry down from the floor above, as I hear footsteps descending from the staircase in the middle of the store.
“Other men are approaching. You stand out like a sore thumb.”
I pull the jeans from the rack, keeping my head low. My hands aren’t shaking; they definitely aren’t shaking. I move over to the navy coloured jeans, pulling a pair with the same numbers as the one already in my hand. I’ll be safe once I get to the fitting rooms. No one can see me in there. I’ll be safe.
“There’s an employee waiting behind the counter in the fitting room area. You’re going to have to talk to her.”
I swallow thickly as I count the number of items in my hand. Five. I have five items. I count again.
“Hi Hon, you find everything okay?” The employee smiles at me, blonde hair pulled into a high ponytail, lips an immaculate red.
That isn’t the question I’m expecting. My mind races. My chest feels tight.
“Don’t just stand there,” he whispers over my shoulder. “She’s waiting for an answer.”
My breath stutters in my throat when I open my mouth to respond.
“Ma’am?” The employee’s smile is strained. Her eyes flicker across my face.
I freeze and try not to visibly flinch.
He laughs. “She thinks you’re a woman. Women aren’t supposed to be in here.”
“I’m not a woman. I’m fine.” I tug at my hat.
“Would you rather she think you’re a man?” His presence behind my left shoulder feels like a physical weight pressing upon me. The shadows are slithering across the floor, encircling me. They creep up the counter, towards the employee. She makes no indication that she can see them, see him.
I clench my teeth; my hands are shaking. “No, but it’s better than thinking I’m a woman.” I try to return the smile as I nod. “Yes. …I found everything…fine.”
She looks as relieved as I feel at my answer, grabbing a dry-erase marker. As she takes a step from out behind the counter. The shadowed hands brush by her, and instead grab each other, encircling me.
The employee asks me how many items I have. I respond a little more easily, having rehearsed that response. She writes it down on a white board next to the change room’s curtain. I keep my head down as I walk by her into the curtained room. I hang up my items and listen to the click of her retreating footsteps. I tug at the curtain, making sure it’s closed.
When I turn to face the mirror, I catch sight of my reflection in a darkening room. But it isn’t only my reflection, it never is.
The shadows rise from the ground like smoke, swirling around my legs, tightening like vines. In the reflection, I can see him looming over me, arms clasped casually, but commanding behind his back. His chin is tilted down towards me, shoulders pressing forwards. His eyes are level, staring straight with mine, unblinking. I can barely see their colour through the gloom and heavy shadows under his eyes.
The single syllable pulls all the air from my lungs. It stutters and stops. My heart pounds, my knees feel weak. “R-Ramsey.”
“You know I care about you. But you’ve been obstinately ignoring all of my advice. I’ve tried being patient, reasonable. But look at the situation you’ve put yourself in. That employee’s probably thinking about what a freak you are right now. She’s probably going to talk about you to all her co-workers. You’ll be the talk of the store, for being such a social wreck. Not to mention for being somewhere you aren’t meant to be.”
I nearly collapse against the wall. I manage to throw a hand out to catch myself, wheezing. I can’t breathe. Oh God, I can’t breathe. My heart is pounding. I’m going to die.
He sighs. “I hate to do this to you, Ray. I hate that you react this way. But I can’t get you to listen to me otherwise. I told you this whole thing was going to be a mistake, and look what’s happened?”
No. No, I’ve dealt with this before, dealt with him. I just…I just need to close my eyes and ignore him. I just need to breathe.
I take a shaky breath in, hold it, relishing at the wholesome feeling of oxygen in my lungs for as long as I can, before letting it out. I start that process again, just as he decides to speak up.
“I see what you’re trying to do. It won’t work forever. It doesn’t deal with the situation at hand. You’re still being judged, in the wrong place, in the wrong body. You can’t ignore these things, Ray.”
I shake my head. Breathing. I’m breathing right now, and that’s enough. That’s exactly what I need to be doing right now. It’s a slow process, his words are continuous. It’s a struggle to have them just roll off me. I lose track of my surroundings and time.
My hand clenches into a shaky fist, grasping at soft fabric. The texture pulls me from my mind, from his words. Opening my eyes, I catch sight of the red plaid fabric. I’m here because I wanted to try on clothes that could help me feel right. Clenching my teeth and steeling myself, I pull the shirt from the hanger. Trying on these clothes is exactly what I’m going to do.
I put one arm through a sleeve, then do the same with the other. I do up the first few buttons and pause. It’s silent. The shadows have lessened. I allow myself a small twitch of my lips.
Once fully dressed in a shirt and jeans, I look back into the mirror. I smile. The kind of smile that starts as a pleasant swell in my chest, warm like sitting by a fireplace in the dead of winter.
The shirt gives me more of the figure that I know is right. The colour is bolder than what I usually wear, but I like it. It feels comfortable. Natural. Now, the pants are a bit long, I’m standing on the extra fabric, and they’re a little small around my hips—my girl hips.
Masculine laughter travels along the hallway of the change rooms, carrying from the store.
The darkness falls again, suddenly, without warning. I’m engulfed, drowning.
One arm wraps around my shoulders from behind, the other around my waist, pulling me tight to his body—the anchors I need in the storm raging in my mind. His chin rests against my shoulder as he meets my gaze in the mirror. “You’re safe Ray, with me.”
By Emma Fletcher
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page