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“Deep breath, sweetie. Straighten your spine. Bright smile! Think about a happy time in your life.”
The words ring empty in my ears. A happy time in my life? Happy? My brain crackled and strained like a record on the brink of making some noise. I don’t know how I was expected to pull a happy expression when here I was, a spy undercover. It was advice a friend had given me yesterday—I heard something that helps people dealing with dysphoria is to act like you’re a spy undercover. I had brainstormed a name minutes earlier, a backstory and everything. Pendleton Schnell was the real name for myself I came up with, the same initials as my actual name. I was an adult with a baby face posing as a high school girl. I had been watching a man, one of the teachers, for months in this faux-investigation—on the brink of some kind of discovery, some evidence against him. Doing homework, projects, and attending class each day was just the name of the game. Taking senior photos was, too.
But Pendleton Schnell was a lie, and my consciousness knew that. I managed a smile, but it was far from bright—and I was miles away from thinking about a happy time in my life.
I had arrived to school that morning somewhat shaky. My hands wouldn’t stop trembling; my focus was diverted. I came wearing a burgundy English Tutor t-shirt, a thick gray college hoodie from Italy, and my favorite purple scarf. It was freezing, and yet inside I felt a sort of hot anxiety coursing through my veins. I hated taking photos.
“Why are you so nervous?” I thought about my mom asking me the night before, in exasperation. “It’s just a photo. Big deal.” Warily, I had nodded. Big deal. Right. She just didn’t get it. That was fine. Very few people do, really—people who don’t suffer from the same thing.
My brain reeled thinking about people opening up their yearbooks and scanning bored over names and faces of the people they may or may not recognize. Pretty girls with long hair and winged eyeliner, girls I admired. Boys with square jaws and brown eyes, boys I sort of envied. Maybe they’d chuckle thinking about their memories with these people, memories of their high school year. Their fingers would trace the glossy page, trace over prim photos of boys and girls with straight spines and bright smiles, boys and girls who were thinking of a happy time in their life or else their next period’s obligations.
Then, their eyes would fall on my photo. They’d see my bare shoulders and the black drape lying across my chest—that damned black drape that represented everything that held me within a glass box, tight, suffocating, and absolute. Maybe they’d say, “Oh, she’s pretty.” Or, maybe they’d say, “Oh, my god, she looks like she’s about to combust.” It wasn’t the latter part of the sentence that bothered me. Just the she. Just the false label. Being called she was like being trapped in an embrace from someone you hated. All you want to do is get away, even if it means slipping out of your own skin and running away a bare skeleton. Anything to escape.
Wrapped up in my purple scarf and my hoodie from Italy and my burgundy t-shirt, I felt like a living bubble. Just the lining of a person, just the surface. Every day, I blew myself up, and the image sure was appealing—light from the sun reflected off my surface with pinks and yellows and blues, and people smiled at me when I passed by. But I had no organs, no heart, no blood, and no muscle. I’m just a soft, flexible, bouncy bubble of a person. Poke me and I’ll pop. Take a picture of me and I’m gone before the flash even goes off.
I went to my homeroom with dread weighing like dumbbells in my stomach. I went through the normal tricks to ease anxiety, tricks that had cost hundreds of dollars through therapy. It was always quick: count to ten, quick, in French. Smear some lavender perfume on your wrist and take a long whiff, even though you look so strange, sitting in that desk and taking a sharp inhale of your skin. Point out your senses, go! Smells like lavender. Seeing tired students in front of me. The chair feels coarse. Mouth tastes like cream cheese from breakfast. Hearing some 80s synth beat bouncing in my ears. Focus on the concrete, the concrete, the concrete.
Then, I go through flowers and candles. Deep breath in through the nose. I picture a bouquet of roses in my hands, and I’m taking in the fresh scent of them. They’re dew-kissed, and the same color as my burgundy t-shirt. Maybe someone just gave them to me as a congratulation for surviving picture day without thinking about killing myself too many times. Or maybe it was a congratulation for just living as I was day to day—sometimes I wished a congratulation like that would come my way, truthfully. As I exhale, I pretend I’m blowing out the candles of a cake. It’s red velvet, and there are five white candles on it. I was going to be eighteen soon, but five was about how old I felt.
Suddenly, I’m in my first period. It’s as if I lift my head and suddenly I’m there, leaning against a comfortable chair and tapping my foot incessantly, waiting for that call to come that’d declare me and three other girls ready for our mugshots. We’re talking about Jesus, and I devote my attention to that both as a means of distraction and because it legitimately interests me. I’m shoving my anxiety down like it’s the clothes in my messy closet. Sure, socks and pants and shirts keep spilling out, and shoving the closet door shut isn’t going to stop them from existing, but… the door is pretty, at least, and my lavender, my senses, my stupid flowers, and my stupid candles hadn’t been my rescue.
The phone rings. I gather my backpack. My feet carry me to the multi-purpose room, but it’s more like I’m floating. A bubble in human skin. “[Real Name Redacted]?” The lady at the desk asks, smiling. I can see the camera equipment and the girls waiting in line, their expressions like men on death row.
I nod soberly. A spy undercover. “I don’t have a shirt to change into,” I feebly offer. My voice sounds like chalk barely brushing a chalkboard: the personality is absent and only weak resignation to the inevitable remains.
“We have an undershirt for you. You can wait in line over there,” she said some more things to me, but I don’t remember them. My legs trembled and my feet dragged.
I fell in line next to my friend, Sydney. No doubt, she saw that I was white as a sheet: she watched as my chest inflated and deflated. I wondered if she could see the flowers and candles in my head, too—if my anxiety was that solid. “You okay, buddy?” Her voice was soft. I loved her all the time, but in that moment, I felt like I really loved her. I smiled.
“Just don’t wanna have my picture taken,” another pathetic whisper. Soon, even Sydney was whisked away. She looked beautiful, her long black hair pulled into wavy sheets over her chest. Dark eyes like space. Girls like her had nothing to worry about.
Soon, I was handed a light blue undershirt. With the same lack of enthusiasm as before, I walked to the bathroom to change. Peeling off the hoodie and English Tutor t-shirt made me feel as though I was suddenly far, far away. A knight in ancient times. I relished in the image for a moment, eyes closed, breaths slow: I stood there, taller and broader, in the midst of a battlefield. Enemies on all sides. My chin tipped upward and I looked up at the sunset, the way the yellows and pinks and oranges all bled together in a spectacular image God intended just for me. Slowly, I unclasped dirtied armor and let it clatter to the floor. Conceding defeat.
I pulled the undershirt over my head and wouldn’t allow myself to cry. After leaving the bathroom stall, I looked at myself in the mirror. Emotion constricted my throat and stomach, nausea and dread and terror and hatred and sick amusement all weaving together like an ugly basket. I laughed at the stupidity of it all, a couple of dreadful, measly chuckles escaping the steel trap of my lips before I pushed the door open once more. Back again to the battlefield. Baring skin.
When I returned to the woman, she handed me a black drape. She asked me to square my shoulders and hold it while she clipped it to my undershirt. It was supposed to create the illusion of a strapless dress in the picture. I could feel my knees on the verge of knocking together as I greeted the photographer and scooted up to the stool where I’d sit to have my picture taken. “I’m going to take a total of three pictures,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I replied. I don’t know why I worded my response like that.
“Deep breath, sweetie,” he said, leaning over his camera.
There was a thought I thought often, the idea that to this world I was nothing more than an ugly girl and weird-looking boy. Which wasn’t such a bad thing, really—after all, things could be so much worse for me than people thinking I look a little weird. But the thing was that I didn’t want people to look at me or make any assumptions about me at all. It was an impossible desire. I didn’t breathe at all. I simply stopped existing, fading into my persona the same way one would sink into a warm bath. A spy undercover. A seventeen-year-old girl.
“Straighten your spine.”
Another thought I thought often was of unzipping my skin like a fleshy pair of onesie pajamas and stepping out. Living life as a bubble person, because that was more than what I looked like—more than short hair, more than anatomical features, more than a light blue undershirt or velvety black drape. Living as the person I knew I was inside: a person who was just a patchwork quilt of empathy and apathy, happiness and terror. I straightened my spine, teeth bared in something akin to a smile. What was [Real Name Redacted] like? Who was she? Sometimes, she seemed so far away. A being whose name and likeness was attributed to me, but I couldn’t control her or anything. I just took the blame.
I thought about how it was raining outside, and how I wished I could go outside and lay down on the slick pavement and just let the rain soak up the blood from all of my wounds. It was as if my body was covered in paint, and maybe if I just stood out in the morning shower enough, it would wash away layers and layers and layers of cheap acrylic and dim watercolor and reveal a sort of hard canvas underneath. I just wanted to soak up the cold. I was so, so cold. Goosebumps crept up my neck. I smiled, but the smile was far from bright. The smile of a ghost.
“Think about a happy time in your life.”
In the millisecond before the flash went off, I shoveled through memories like clean, white snow looking for a happy time in my life, but I couldn’t find anything thanks to the blankness of my brain in that moment. All I could think about was how these days I had to go through nine thousand anti-anxiety routines multiple times per day, routines that couldn’t save me. About how I was a spy undercover and I hated having to wait until I was in the silence of my own space in order to just exist as how I was meant to exist, without the weight of someone else’s name and likeness. About how in my daydream, I was a knight on the verge of death, just war-torn and tired. About how someday, somewhere, someone would look at me and remember that girl they went to high school with. All I did was smile. It was how creatures like me survived without the armor, without the bubble, without the gear. I just smiled.