The following is from Jennifer Savran Kelly's debut novel Endpapers. Kelly lives in Ithaca, New York, where she writes, binds books, and works as a production editor at Cornell University Press. Her short fiction has appeared in Hobart, Black Warrior Review, Green Mountains Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, and elsewhere. In 2014, she was selected to study in the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
Leaving the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I submit to the crowd on the sidewalk, keeping its erratic pace as I take a left onto Fifth Avenue and walk four blocks to catch the 5 train downtown toward Brooklyn. When the doors of the train slide closed, I catch sight of my reflection in the window. I let my hair fall over my left eye and observe how the bulk of my coat erases my curvy hips and D-cup breasts. With my new Prohibition haircut, in my jeans and engineer boots, I can almost believe I’ve taken on the male form.
It’s still a bit jarring. For the last few years, I’ve been erring on the side of female. On the train, however, somewhere on the border of real life, where everyone’s a stranger and I can hide inside my coat, it’s easier to let myself slip. At the next stop, a seat opens. I sit, leaning back, widening my legs like men do. A woman across the way looks at me and, feeling emboldened, I wink. When she smiles, I look away, horrified by my transgression, my hands already on my bangs, sweeping them to the side.
Back at my apartment, as I zip Jae into my dress, I’m impressed by how easily he wears it, how much he never seems to care what people think. He primps in front of the mirror while Lukas looks on, amused—or perhaps interested—and I rummage through Lukas’s half of the closet, looking for something that will work for me. Trying on the second of his two button-up shirts, I study myself in the mirror and don’t know what’s worse: that I feel like a weird, misshapen man or a woman playing dress-up. Meanwhile, Lukas is helping Jae pick out makeup colors. Even though Lukas won’t go out dressed like a woman, he’s always eager for an excuse to get into makeup at home, as long as it’s around people he trusts. He looks happy helping Jae. And I should be glad to see them having fun, but my heart feels suddenly heavy. I’ve been avoiding Lukas all day, worried he’ll notice me brooding about yet another thing I can’t shake off. Earlier this week I tagged along to a party he was working at the Manhattan New Music Project, a reception for a local musician who’d won some indie award. While Lukas and I have become too practiced in our impression of a heterosexual couple—there I was in my black dress with the white collar and high-heeled Mary Janes, he in his button-up and tie—the musician still sashayed flamboyantly straight to Lukas. For most of the night, his hand was living it up on Lukas’s shoulder, and me, I may as well have not been there. Lately I’ve been missing when our love was easy. When the only way his touch felt was right.
“This isn’t working,” I say.
Lukas turns to me. “What do you mean? You look . . . nice.” He hesitates over the last word. I know how hard it is for him to give such a direct compliment, especially in front of someone else, and I soften a little.
Turning back to the mirror, however, I wish I could see what he sees. Sometimes it gets lost. Fed up with myself, I walk over to Jae and pull some lipstick and eyeliner from the makeup bag.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he says.
“The plan was for you to wear makeup. We never said I couldn’t.”
He looks from me to Lukas. “Seriously? The straight dude is the only one willing to go out in drag?”
Lukas laughs. “I have band practice.”
“Right, convenient,” I say. I lean toward the mirror and start to line my eyes. They both watch as if they’re going to stop me, but then return their attention to Jae’s face. When my own is complete, I reexamine myself and decide the shirt isn’t actually too bad, though it needs a tie. I throw one on, but instead of pants, I grab a pencil skirt from the closet and head to the bathroom. When I reemerge, Jae shakes his head. “What?” I say. “I’m in drag. I’m a man in a skirt and makeup.” But I actually don’t hate what I see in the mirror. I pull my bangs back with a barrette. Maybe it’s not a cop-out after all but something closer to who I am. At least today. Lukas and Jae still look disappointed. I try to brush it off as nothing more than my imagination and hold my arm out for Jae, whose transformation is now complete. Before he comes to me, he turns to Lukas to say goodbye, batting his fake eyelashes and putting his hand out for a kiss.
Lukas takes it with a bow.
“Oh my god, stop being so cute and let’s go,” I say.
Finally, a couple of hours later, Jae and I are here, packed tight on the dance floor, me remembering why I hate being high and Jae looking ridiculously pretty in dark eyeliner, sparkly shadow, and cherry-red lipstick. His drag may be a bit rough, but he’s beautiful on the dance floor, in the colored smoky light, his body mingling with strangers, contorting to “Crazy in Love.” As I sweat in Lukas’s button-up, I envy how ordinary Jae looked on the subway ride here, as if this is a regular way for him to be out in the world. But of course for him it’s only drag, a costume. Meanwhile, I keep regretting my skirt, more concerned that people will see what I’m not than what I am.
After a few songs, Jae’s winded and we go to the bar for a second drink. His eyeliner is already running, and one of his fake lashes has come loose. I peel them both off, one at a time, as he shouts over the music about his crappy day at work, his coworker who insists on backseat-driving all his copyediting. I yell back at him to try to let it go for the night, enjoy the music, when some half-dressed dude reaches over us to signal the bartender. As he excuses himself, he laughs—at us—and says, “Fun outfits.” Then, to me, “You know, the city’s full of straight bars. It’s too bad you’ve wandered into the wrong place.”
Jae ignores him and tries to lead me back to the dance floor, but I pull away, my mood fallen like a brick. “Nah, let’s go,” I say, loud enough for the guy to hear. “I’m done with goddamn queers.”
“Whoa, take it easy,” says Jae. “I’m pretty sure he was kidding.”
“Fuck that. I’ll accept them when they accept me.”
Jae looks apologetically at me, and then at the guy, who’s not even paying attention anymore.
Outside, I feel pot-sick, out of control of myself in a way that makes breathing impossible. Suddenly I need out of my skin, out of Lukas’s shirt that’s straining to contain my body. This is exactly why I stopped hanging out with queers when I moved in with Lukas, why it was so comfortable to slip back into the closet. Trying to break myself to fit in, even among the marginalized, was exhausting. Now I can’t stop thinking about the dude at the bar, his self-important, patronizing face. Stupidly, I start to cry.
“Hey,” says Jae. “Hey, Dawn, it’s all right.”
“Whatever, fuck that guy. Come on, let’s walk.” I put two cigarettes in my mouth, light them, and offer him one.
“Where are we going?”
“Nowhere. I just need to keep moving.”
Jae is unfazed by my anxiety. He’s quiet and calm as ever, and as I walk next to him, my body grows solid again.
After several minutes we’re walking past Marble Cemetery, and even though I haven’t planned any of this, I stop and say, “Here we are.”
I peek through the bars of the gate, but I can’t see much in the dark. Jae joins me.
After a moment, he pulls his head back and blows out smoke. “That was fun. What next?”
“I barely saw anything,” I say.
“What do you want to do? Break in?”
I laugh like of course not, but the night has me feeling adventurous. I actually wouldn’t mind breaking a few rules. Quickly, I scan the street to see if anyone’s paying attention to us. There are hardly any people out at this hour. “Yeah, why not.”
“Very funny.” He grinds his cigarette butt into the sidewalk. “I’m not joking.”
He shakes his head, but as he looks back at me, a hint of a smile animates his face. “In our dresses?” he says.
“Technically mine’s a skirt.” Before I lose my nerve, I hike it up to the tops of my legs and start climbing the gate.
“Holy shit,” says Jae. But soon he’s following.
From Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Savran Kelly.