by Allison Gruber
My mother first saw my namesake in the OBGYN waiting room — a model in a bicentennial bikini smiling from the wrinkled, worn pages of a magazine.
“She was pretty,” my mother told me. “Her name was Allison.”
That was the entirety of the name origin story. Nothing terribly meaningful or symbolic — a pretty model had my name before I did. By the time I learned this I was deep in my gawky adolescence, already realizing that “pretty” wasn’t necessarily something a girl was but rather something she did.
Bewildered, I watched as my girlfriends — who had once rescued half-dead robins, obsessed over the difference between Arabians and Clydesdales, who could quote whole pages of Watership Down and Black Beauty — became suddenly fixated on the distinction between gloss and matte, ivory and off-white, sheer and opaque. They could do “pretty,” and while I sensed this was important, the urgency was lost on me. Pink or coral? Red or rust? Who cares? There were more pressing matters, like what the fuck are we going to do with the fetal squirrel that died in this shoebox?
Of course, my female friends’ interest in color schemes, powders, perfumes and nail polish had just about everything to do with boys. They wanted to be liked and noticed by boys, but considering how the boys snapped our bras, leered at us, and catcalled, all I could think was, They notice us too much.
After ten years with Ben, the man I encouraged her to date, Megan decided to marry him and asked me to be the Maid of Honor. It was the first time I had been asked to participate in a wedding as anything more than a guest and I was thrilled. While marriage interests me neither in theory nor in praxis, I love weddings. The symbolism, the make-believe — veils, gowns, tuxedos, ornate cakes, and sonnets. To attend a wedding is to inhabit a place, Wedding Town, where everything is ordered, antiquated and simple. Women handle the flowers, men handle the rings, everyone dances and toasts to love. Wedding Town is a living history museum where everyone has a part to play.
Generally, when I visited Wedding Town, it was as a mere ambassador from Homoville — I wore dark suits that made me look more like someone about to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on mutual funds than a guest at a friend’s celebration. But Megan’s wedding would be different. As the Maid of Honor, I was practically the mayor of Wedding Town; I would stand beside the bride during the nuptials, maybe give a speech, wear a fancy dress. I was thirty that year and hadn’t worn so much as a skirt in nearly a decade, and while the idea of a dress gave me pause, I understood the garment was symbolic, a marker of my role, what one does in Wedding Town. Liberace didn’t wear bedazzled capes to bed, Justice Ginsberg doesn’t wear her robe while trying on shoes. Rather, these articles of clothing are part of the act, part of the job — and I took my Maid of Honor job seriously.
As soon as I was old enough, I cast off the trappings of a feminine wardrobe, dismissing anything bright or whimsical in favor of blue jeans, shapeless pants, t-shirts, blazers, thrift-store pullovers, clunky boots, and oxfords. I owned such an abundance of black clothing that upon viewing my closet space, Megan once asked, “Does Johnny Cash live here, too?”
“Soft butch,” my gay friends called it — not masculine enough to be confused for a boy (though it had happened), but masculine enough to be pegged as a dyke. I preferred “androgynous,” for the term felt less fixed, and I felt most at home in the gray area. My fashion sense (if one could call it that) had more to do with gender indifference than identity. I was not trying to “be male” or lure women with the broken laces on my Doc Martens, the thumbholes bored into the sleeves of my black hoodie. Instead, I was trying to escape the constraints of my first sixteen years — caged in taffeta skirts, choked by hairspray, pinched by pantyhose. I was done with that grotesque, pointless charade.
The first time someone mistook me for a boy I was nineteen, visiting the local library in search of an obscure recording of Anne Sexton’s rock band, Her Kind.
“Just a moment, young man,” the librarian said.
I glanced around but I was the only one there.
I followed her through the stacks, conversing about the dead poet, the lo-fi living room recording, Sexton’s jam sessions with college kids, and the whole time the librarian referred to me as “sir.” I let her and it felt like some kind of victory. I was a Women’s Studies minor and I had transcended gender — ergo, I had won Women’s Studies. After this my college would have to open up a Women’s Studies center and name it in my honor.
The librarian mis-gendered me right up until I presented her with my library card. She grew flushed then, bit her bottom lip, cleared her throat, but said nothing. She handed me my card, my Anne Sexton cassette tape, and told me to have a nice afternoon.
I smiled. “You, too.” I didn’t need an apology because I wasn’t offended. Despite what she’d called me, I was still every inch myself; I still had a vagina, and breasts, and still liked Anne Sexton. My identity didn’t rely on pronouns or how they attached themselves to certain garments.
The night before the wedding, Megan, her soon-to-be-sister-in-law, Jill, and I all stayed together in a suite at the riverside hotel where the ceremony and reception would take place. Complimentary amenities included a nightly delivery of warm chocolate chip cookies and cold milk in small glass jugs. Jill ate the cookies while Megan and I sat on the balcony, smoking cigarettes and drinking milk.
Reflecting on my role as matchmaker, I asked Megan what my finder’s fee would be.
“Finder’s fee,” Megan scoffed. “Fuck your finder’s fee in the face.”
I stubbed out my cigarette. “Time for bed,” I said. “Big day tomorrow, hooker.”
We’d always spoken to each other this way. “Suck my dick” was a term of endearment. In college, we puzzled female peers who demonstrated their fondness for one another by way of hugs, pet names like “sweetie” and giggly declarations of “love ya!”
“Later, assface,” Megan would yell across Campus Drive.
“Burn in hell,” I’d shout back, middle fingers extended.
In the cafeteria, she’d call me a “fag” and I’d call her a “cocksucker” and many people mistook this for true hostility.
“You act like guys,” a roommate once remarked.
But despite the coarse language, Megan was one of the few friends who, very early on, understood me and took me on my own terms. A mutual friend once asked her if I was gay, and Megan shrugged and said, “She’s Gruber.”
With my bridesmaid dress hanging in the closet, my body full of milk and nicotine, Megan wished me a “good night, jackass,” and I flicked out the light, excited for the day to come. The revelry, the role-playing, the free booze.
Inches from my face, the tiny, heavily perfumed woman hired to do our makeup introduced herself as “Erica, the makeup artist.” Secretly, I took issue with her use of the term “artist.” I realize it’s a profession, but is there really anything artful about doing makeup for weddings? Can you really be creative, take any liberties? Erica was no more a “makeup artist” than I — with my various adjunct teaching positions — was a “grammar artist.”
However, rigid in my chair, draped in nothing but a hotel robe, Erica made me nervous; she had mastered something I’d never understood. Femininity.
“How do you normally do your makeup?” Erica asked.
Normally I didn’t “do” any makeup. Normally I just wore skin. But there, before Erica — a woman who had built a career on gender norms — I felt uncomfortable admitting this. I opted for the most true and least awkward response, “Usually, I just do lip balm.”
Erica-the-makeup-artist studied my face. With her manicured hands, she tilted my chin in several different directions before finally saying, “I’m going to airbrush you.”
My only context for airbrushing was T-shirts printed with palm trees against hazy, apricot sunsets, “Steve & Laura Forever” foregrounded in swooning cursive.
I smiled politely, told her she could do whatever she deemed necessary.
She misted my face with foundation, glued false eyelashes onto my eyelids, smeared a thick coat of greasy lipstick across my mouth, then spun me around to face Jill and Megan.
They gasped. “Amazing.”
“Your skin is amazing,” “Your eyes are amazing,” “Your mouth is amazing” (the latter compliment felt creepier than it did flattering). They kept firing the word at me but the pain of the first shot dulled with the fourth or fifth. What their flattery implied, however unintended, was that with the airbrushing, the slathering of cosmetics, I was improved.
Julie-the-hairdresser curled my short hair, lock by lock, into some version of a poorly constructed toupee. With my richly shadowed eyes, dark fanning lashes, all evidence of facial scars obliterated, I looked like the kind of woman I might consider hitting on before resolving she was probably straight. I was pretty and it made me polite. I didn’t tell Julie that I hated my hair. Instead, I excused myself to the bathroom and proceeded to pull out the curls until they resembled something that had come organically from my head.
Though I used the term sparingly, “pretty” was part of my vernacular, and I employed it to describe things like orchids and cherry blossoms, certain jewelry, certain fabrics. Pretty made you nice. It made others nicer to you.
If there is a truth all gender non-conforming women know, it is this: upon laying eyes on you, some men will automatically and inexplicably hate your ass. The priest who oversaw Megan’s wedding was one such man. The previous day, standing before him in my baggy jeans, faded Grateful Dead T-shirt, with my boy-short hair, he looked vaguely disgusted when Megan introduced me as her Maid of Honor.
He shook my hand limply. “Father Corrigan.”
During the rehearsal he chastised me for walking through imaginary chairs.
“You’re walking through the chairs!” he barked, as though the following day, when the chairs were occupied by people, I would continue to barrel through them like some great, fumbling beast, tipping guests from their seats.
He chided me for being too slow to accept Megan’s imaginary bouquet and for forgetting to give it back. “You must return the bouquet,” he said, sneering.
Keeping hard eye contact with Father Corrigan, I thrust my fist full of invisible flowers toward Megan and told him that when I was actually clutching a bundle of flowers I would remember that they did not belong to me.
Father Corrigan reminded me of the many pomade-slick, cigarette-reeking priests of my youth. The kind who wore gas station sunglasses and paid too much attention to the pretty young mothers in the parish.
In the dressing room, I pulled on the nylons, snapped the lacy bra together and stepped into my dress: an ankle length halter, cut so low I had to ask Megan if there was a spare shawl laying around.
“A shawl?” Megan balked. “It’s almost ninety degrees. What do you need a shawl for, grandma?”
I glanced down at my chest and Megan rolled her eyes.
“Do you want something to cover your ankles, too?”
I crossed my arms. I wasn’t opposed to my breasts — I just didn’t want them on display, didn’t want them rising from my dress like two loaves of raw dough.
Both my grandmothers had gigantic, pendulous breasts, and hated them. They complained that their breasts hurt their backs, limited clothing options, obstructed “pretty.” In her seventies, my paternal grandmother got cancer and had a double mastectomy. My maternal grandmother suffered hers to her dying day. The way I saw it, breasts were for rearing children, attracting men, and tempting cancer.
I was all but flat-chested until I was twenty, when, suddenly, every pound I gained, I gained on my chest. In a year, I went from a small B-cup to a near-D. My friends noticed this, my mother noticed this, but worse, men noticed. I had inherited my grandmothers’ breasts. They were a burden. Two heavy — and to me — useless glands. Two beacons of unwanted attention I’d have to lug around for the rest of my life.
“I don’t remember the dress being this revealing.”
Megan sighed heavily. “Gruber, you’re scandalized by V-neck sweaters. Take it easy, will you?”
Fiona — a British friend of Megan’s and mine — had long ago taken to calling me “Constable.” The afternoon of Megan’s wedding when Fiona came into the suite with three gin-heavy gin & tonics, she stepped back in shock.
“Constable?” she gasped in mock surprise. “Oh, you must be Allison today.”
I took my drink and laughed. “Fuck off.”
Few people call me by my given name. Over the years, I’ve been called names ranging from the tangentially understandable to the utterly inexplicable. Grubs, Chancellor, Professor Emeritus, Grubzilla, Scripto, Constable, and once, when Fiona was drunk, Colonel. (“You’ve been promoted,” she slurred.)
Growing up, my father called me “Ace.” This was a hybrid of my first and middle names — Allison Terese. Whether fishing, dancing in an Easter dress, or pouting over my broccoli, I was “Ace.”
Today, however, I was Allison. Before she knew me, my mother named me after an idea, and the day of Megan’s wedding, in my dress, my copious makeup, with my bronze shoes, and boobs on prominent display, I was that idea. Pretty, glamorous, enhanced and utterly feminine.
At the reception I danced with men. I danced with men differently to the way I did in high school. The Junior High Zombie. Bodies at arm’s length, rocking awkwardly from foot to foot, eyes wandering, searching for an excuse, an escape. This time I danced close. I danced sincerely. Dancing with men felt fine when it was a choice rather than an imperative.
I danced with Megan’s father.
I danced with Megan’s husband.
I danced with single men. Straight men.
When Megan approached me and said, “May I have this dance, motherfucker?” I danced with her but found I missed dancing with men. The smell of cologne and perspiration and the sturdiness of their bodies had triggered a kind of nostalgia.
My grandparents had always hosted New Year’s Eve in their basement. It housed a full bar and a fireplace the adults would huddle around, smoking long, white cigarettes and drinking Manhattans, martinis, whiskey sours. At midnight, the kids were invited downstairs to dance with the grownups. My grandfather would play Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” on the hi-fi and the children, high on sugar, overtired, would slide around, laughing themselves red in the face. Half-drunk by then, my father would hold out a meaty hand and ask, “You want to dance, Ace?”
I always did. He’d lift me and twirl me and swing my arms back and forth wildly as though preparing to fling me across the room.
“Now let me spin you,” I’d say and my father would crouch down, waddle under one of my skinny arms.
“You’re a good dancer,” he’d tell me, and I’d wiggle my hips, high on the feeling of transgression, on the inherent “pretend” of being girly; watched and watchable. To everyone in the room I felt irresistibly on display.
At Megan’s reception I danced with abandon. Constable, Scripto, and Grubs feel self-conscious about dancing, would rather abstain, but apparently Allison loves to dance. Toward the end of the night, someone brought a drink out onto the dance floor and accidentally dropped it. Glass and ice skidded in all directions, but I was the only one to stop dancing. The spell had been broken.
On aching feet, I hobbled back to my hotel room, kicked my shoes off into my suitcase, threw my nylons in the trash, climbed eagerly out of my dress, and cursed as I peeled off the eyelashes — scarcely able to tell the real ones from the fake.
Scrubbed of makeup, free of the push-up bra, glasses on, I was myself again. No longer a resident of Wedding Town, returned to the world of ambiguity where people sometimes mistook me for a dude, where I didn’t wear dresses or dance with men.
Later when Megan asked me about the wedding, I said it was “nice.”
“And?” Megan coaxed.
Figuring a compliment was what she was after, I mustered my best southern accent, “You looked real pur-ty.”
“But did you have a good time?” Megan asked, impatiently.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was fun, aside from the dress-ups.”
Megan laughed. “Whatever, Tits McGee. You loved it.”
Allison Gruber’s prose has appeared in a number of journals, including The Literary Review, Ms Fit, and in the anthology Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast. Her debut collection of essays, You’re Not Edith, will be released this month with George Braziller, Inc. A Chicago native, Gruber now lives with her wife, Sarah, in Flagstaff, Arizona.