I don’t know what else to do. There’s nothing at the store.
It’s October 1998. Wyoming. A short, round-faced kid is combing the Kmart costume aisle, tailed by her exhausted mother who still has half of a 50-hour work week to go. The Disney movie du jour is Mulan, and no other movie has been as great in my eight years. I need a costume from it.
Every other Disney movie I’d seen up to that point was passé in the face of Mulan. Part of me saw my future self in Mulan’s early scenes: not yet a disappointment to my parents, but getting there; incensed every time I was told to wear a dress or act like a girl. I dreamed more than once about having to become a hero like Mulan, secretly taking my dad’s place in some life-or-death scenario. Even when my brother actually joined the military, I’d spend hours in the backyard practicing with a stick, half “Be A Man” and half Goku.
The costume I find is not right. It’s pink and purple and white, the dress taken from the part of the movie I couldn’t care less about — the uniform Mulan herself hated. To make matters worse, it’s the same soft, silky rayon fabric as every other licensed costume, with its “Officially Branded” colors and easy familiarity that saves its wearer from having to explain who they’re supposed to be. A sheer, cheaply made outfit, which half the time will likely be covered up by a stay-puft winter coat as the inevitable blizzard descends on Halloween night.
But that’s irrelevant.
The point is that this costume is wrong.
I’m looking for Mulan’s military uniform. Looking for Ping — the male persona Mulan adopted to save her father and prove her own self-worth. And it shouldn’t matter this much. But it DOES. So I drag my mother to every department store in town, every specialty store. She puts her foot down, gently, after the eighth try.
So I wear the damn dress.
It pulls snug where it’s not supposed to, and it’s harder to take long steps with the skirt around my legs. I make one long stride and catch my boot on the hem of the skirt, falling face-first into a pile of slush. I want to get up quickly to avoid feeling like more of an idiot than I already do. I wave everyone else ahead, not wanting them to see me.
Wanting to pretend they hadn’t.
Lying there, I step backward out of my skin, out of the costume that’s stretching and clinging in all the wrong places. I see myself, but instead of being face down in the snow I’m standing in front of a mirror. No, hundreds of mirrors.
Every reflection is trying on a different costume to see how it fits, and I watch.
“She” is clinging and slimy, like wet satin. Adults wrap me in it at birth, stitch it on me like they stitched Peter Pan’s shadow, so that even when I can’t see it, everyone else does. It won’t come off, they silently tell me. Just get used to it.
I try She out once, not just enduring it but acknowledging it. Yeah, you can call me your girlfriend, I guess. She feels like being wanted, after a fashion. “Girlfriend” has a cinematic feel to it, like a big shiny trophy at the finish line. So I say, Yes, but immediately the plastic label seals around my head, every breath of the word drawing it in tighter and tighter until it molds to my skin, where it can strangle me without anything seeming amiss.
“He” is the worn-out shirts I steal from my father. He is warm, and comforting, and when I’m home alone I hide in the back of my parents’ closet under piles of them, feeling safe with all my insecurities hidden away.
My voice is muffled under there. You couldn’t hear me if I spoke. That’s all right — I’m hiding.
But then in the snow I see me trying on “They.”
No one understands.
“They” is the clothing you never find on purpose. It’s something you saw once on TV or on the bus, worn by people happier than you. You cannot imagine that they ever hated themselves; it’s almost as though there was a day they came home, made the decision, and then everything was better, though it can’t have been as simple as that.
They is the outfit you smuggle home and hide under your mattress for four or five weeks, feeling it beneath you while sleeping. It’s enough, for a while, to know that it’s there. You take it out now and then, admiring it in front of the mirror, enjoying the way it makes you feel. Not borrowed, but made — by you — the stitching a little unsure but loving. Owned.
When you take it out, hesitant and cringing preemptively, you’re not quite ready for the people who don’t understand. Who press other clothes into your hands, their clothes, and insist you change. You don’t really hate those people, but you want to.
Then the struggle ends. And knowing it will end, even for that brief second, it’s suddenly not so unbearable.
In 1998, I climb out of the snow drift. I go home with a sack of candy, and I forget the dress in the back of my closet. Its job is done.
I know it will be okay someday, but it isn’t yet. “Someday” is a comfort to me, with its notion of survival — a promise of future happiness. But for a long time, no one sold Ping costumes. No one thought it worth acknowledging that children like me existed — freaks not worth marketing to. I lived through those days, too.
In 2002 it’s the dead of summer, not Halloween. I feel myself swelling and oozing outside of my own control. I need a new costume again, so I ransack the bathroom cabinets until I find a long roll of athletic tape. I wrap it around and around my chest until I feel like I can’t breathe. I don’t have a cause. There’s no war to fight in, but I’m certain if I don’t do this I’ll die.
I keep going, until I can feel the fabric cutting into my skin, squeezing my ribs. I know you’re not supposed to do it this way. It isn’t supposed to hurt — but I want it to, on some level; I want to squeeze it like I did that pink and purple and wrong dress, twisting it around and around until my hands hurt and it was a harmless little ball.
I don’t know what else to do. My skin won’t come off.