I’m sitting on the couch leafing through old photo albums when mother walks in. She’s so old now, I hardly recognize her. I know she doesn’t recognize me, at least not by the way I look, but she can tell that it’s me. She says nothing. She nods then goes back to bed. I don’t ask where father is. I can already guess, there’s only one coaster on the coffee table.
I find a baby photo. I have to make sure at first that it’s me and not one of my brothers or sisters. There were six of us. Looking at a baby photo, it’s hard to tell us apart. The date on the back makes sense. I only have a guess for my birthday. I could go knock on mother’s door but I don’t.
Rosy cheeks, wispy hair, it’s hard to tell much anything from the photo. The child in the photo could grow up to be just about any white person, male or female. I find another photo. This one was from kindergarten. I’m pretty sure its me. I remember the dress. I think I was born a girl. Things get confusing after a while. I think the dress was a gift from my grandmother and not a hand-me-down. I have red hair.
I stole the hair from a girl on the first day of class. I remember how she stood out. She looked special. I wanted to be special. The smart thing would have been to wait until the next day to have red hair. I didn’t have any patience back then. I changed it while we were sitting around on the floor playing some game with a bean bag. The little girl next to me gasped. But that was the end of it. Nobody paid enough attention to have noticed what color my hair was before. I’m sure the teachers just dismissed it as a trick of the light. Most people do.
I saw a program on television once where they did an experiment. They’d have a black guy ask someone for directions holding a map. When the person was distracted they’d switch him for a white guy. Sometimes there was a flicker of confusion, but people ignored it and proceeded to help them. The only time the change-up really caught people off-guard if it was a man to a woman. I try not to do that out in the open. The clothes don’t fit for one reason.
I find a photograph of me in middle school. I have short black hair. I look androgynous. It was a phase. I look a lot like whoever had the number one song on the radio. That was my thing after I realized that I shouldn’t just change immediately in the middle of the school year. I’d do gradual things, like my nose, or my hair color. I’d change up my make-up then do my cheekbones.
My siblings knew something was weird with me. At first they thought I was just a great mimic. Like that comedian that could make his face look like famous actors. My mother had always known something was up. My first memory of doing the change was kindergarten, but I’m sure I’d probably changed my eye color or tried to look like a cute baby I saw in a commercial. I don’t always control it.
Dad had just ignored me. With six kids it was kind of easy to look past the odd one. I tried making myself look like my brother who was a year older then me. I was nine or ten when his friends had come by to go play. I answered the door as him. We went to the park and they kept asking me why I was acting funny. One of them called me a faggot and started pushing me around. I ran home crying. When my brother saw me as him, he decked me. I could make the black eye go away, but it still hurt. He never really talked to me after that. Everyone else just gave me distance. When I dropped out at 13, my parents didn’t care. When I ran away a year later they seemed relieved.
I’d stop by every now and then. They were polite, but there was no warm welcome. I think they never accepted the idea that I was their child. I was just some stray they’d taken in for a while until I decided to move on. Sometimes I’m angry at them. Sometimes I’m not. All of that was a long time ago. My mother is an old woman now.
I don’t age outwardly. Internally I do. I can look any age I want. You stop counting birthdays after a while. Not that mine was ever a big deal growing up. I’ve given so many false dates as my own, it gets harder and harder to keep track.
When I left home I made myself look older. I thought I’d go be a fashion model. I could walk into an agent’s office and impress them with having whatever look was in, but when they saw how I moved, it was obvious that grace did not go with beauty. When you fail at modeling, people begin to offer you other kinds of work based upon your appearance. I was too scared of sex to accept any of them.
By the time I’d left, I had developed a few different personas. Some male, some female. I had different circles of friends and could couch surf for a while. It was weird at first listening to people talk about the other me’s. Once I had two different sets of friends try to set up the male version of me with a female version because we were both kind of ‘odd’.
I was never close to anyone in particular. There was a boy I liked back then. I tried to kiss him. He pulled away. The first time I met him I found out he like a certain actress. So when I met him again I made myself look like her. We hung out at friend’s houses. I finally had to ask him on a date. We saw a movie. After it was over and we walked back to his car I leaned in and kissed him. He blushed then pulled away.
It took me a week to realize that it wasn’t me. I met him a third time as a boy. Things worked out a little bit better between us. This time he was the first one to kiss me. I had to look at magazines to make sure everything was physically right.
He was sweet but I couldn’t get over the idea that I was living the biggest lie of them all. I wanted to tell him, but I knew it would crush him or put him into some deep depression. He was sensitive like that. I broke it off and tried to date only as a girl for a while.
I’m sure most people could think of a million smarter things to do with my ability than I could. My biggest problem has always been that I see it as a social tool, a way to be liked and not something with practical value. Stupid, I know. But I grew up using it the same way someone else uses a smile or the pitch in their voice. I was just a shy kid that used it to either be the center of attention or to fade away.
When I was sixteen I got into the music scene. My voice wasn’t bad and I could always manage the ‘right’ look. Sometimes that was as a girl sometimes as a boy. The upside was that there was always a couch to sleep on. The downside was that couch usually came with someone trying to make you get high or force themselves on you. I never did anything you would have heard on the radio. Although I probably slept with some people you did.
I kept drifting. Never towards anything, just always away from people when things got too weird. I’m sure some of the people I met would have understood. But I didn’t know that. Fear of rejection kept me moving.
I know it sounds like a cliche, but I spent three years living with a blind man. He was kind. But his world was just too orderly for me. He asked me to leave eventually. His neighbors couldn’t understand why he’d kick out a girl that looked like the hotter younger sister of that famous actress. It was kind of a trick I pulled, or a parting gift, depending on how you look at it.
People, place, identities, they all began blending from one to another. I thought seriously about becoming a spy or something. I could never figure out how to go about it. Just showing up at the CIA and announcing myself would probably have got me a one way ticket to a government laboratory. I don’t know if they really have those, but I never wanted to find out.
I stopped moving from place to place after a while and settled into just a couple personas. I tried to not stand out so much and always be the prettiest girl or guy in the room. I even spent a lot of time looking just mediocre. I waited tables, danced. I did whatever I had to do to get by.
The man I live with now knows all about my ability. I think he loves me for who I am. I’ve looked the same for six months now. Attractive, but not knock-out gorgeous. It’s a lot of different looks combined. I came back to the old house because he asked me something, something I didn’t know how to answer.
I’m looking through the photo albums hoping I can find a clue, but I know it’s not here. I know it’s not anywhere. It’s something that’s lost forever.
When I change or take on a trait, it’s not like I’m elastic that will snap back after a while. That new look is real. I wake up with it every day until I change something else.
He told me that he wanted to see the real me. I close the album and set it back on the shelf. The real me isn’t in there.
I let myself out the back door and walk back to my car. I try to think of how I’m going to tell him that there isn’t any ‘real’ me. I have a thousand looks, but no face of my own. I’ve been borrowing other people’s for so long, I never stopped to wonder what mine was. Now it’s too late. The real me was lost before there was a ‘me’.
I start the car and the house fades away. I should have just pulled into some other driveway and found a random ‘me’ in someone else’s photo album. There would be a lot less painful memories there. I wipe the corner of my eye. I could never hold in my emotions. I look in the rearview mirror. My mother’s face looks back at me. She’s crying. It’s her young face. The earliest face I can remember. It’ll have to do.