By Kit Stookey
I stood facing my bathroom mirror, putting on my face for work. I blended my foundation into my neckline, my blush into my foundation, my emotions into dust. My manicured eyebrows were bold enough to keep with the trends, but not so bold to look “mannish.” My mom marveled at how closely my eyeliner matched my waterline, to give my eyes a pop without drawing too much attention to the makeup itself. I was a deft hand at cultivating the illusion of healthy, straight femininity.
I smiled in the mirror. I couldn’t convince myself that I was happy, but I could convince my customers.
Middle aged, dyed blonde hair, kids in tow: she looked like a typical customer for the mid- to upper-end retail chain I worked for during the summer of 2018. But something about her made the more experienced employees hang back, fixing already perfect displays of t-shirts that lined the walls, or double-checking that the fitting room was in fact empty. She walked through the door with her screaming kids, and just for a moment, the world stopped. It was like the moment before a storm—they say calm, but no one is calm the moment before a tornado lands. I could feel something especially bad was about to happen, but I was suddenly the only employee on the sales floor.
I approached her with a “hello, can I help you find anything?” and immediately got caught in the eye of her hurricane. Yes, they were on the way to a baseball game and had only so much time (no time) to spend browsing and her kids were bouncing off the walls, seemingly fueled by sugar and spite for me personally as they flung accessories across the store, hair clips landing on top of shelves I could only reach by pulling out an ungainly stepladder, but it had been so long since she got to shop for herself, be an individual instead of someone’s doctor or mother or wife and she hadn’t even been near one of these outlets in years—and besides, the sales were pretty good.
I breathlessly fulfilled this woman’s every want, from finding shoes in her size to wrangling her kids in the waiting area to switching out a pink bracelet with an orange one for her son so he could better fit the standards of heteronormativity (but still wear bracelets, I guess). After I rang up her purchases, my manager approached me, eyes wide with awe.
“You did a really, really good job with her,” she said.
In almost every respect, I was a terrible employee. No matter how many times my managers showed me, I couldn’t remember which way to fold t-shirts and which way to fold sweaters and how all of that differed from menswear. The clothes we sold were both too boring and too expensive for me to even think about trying on, so I could never help a customer “find her fit.” If anyone approached me at the register with a coupon or wanted to return something without a receipt, I broke: smiling and giggling and panicking as I fumbled through the options available on the register’s screen, sweat pooling at the armpits of my starched white button-down.
I only excelled at losing my identity, my needs, at a drop of a hat, rushing to cater to a customer’s every whim. It might have been so easy because it didn’t feel like I had much to lose. A recent college graduate, I had a plan for what I wanted to do come fall, but unfortunately, that plan took me almost a thousand miles from my chosen family. I wasn’t sure I could survive that. It was with my friends in Minnesota that I let myself first be bisexual, then queer, then trans. With them, I found a queer oasis that I wasn’t sure I could replicate anywhere else. I felt like I wasn’t just abandoning them with my move back to Pennsylvania, but myself. I spent nearly every waking moment at my parents’ house applying for jobs—any job—that could bring me closer to my chosen home. Or, I was crying. Through breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the grocery store, at the bank, while applying and getting rejected from said scores of jobs. I even mastered crying on my way to work, in a way that didn’t ruin my eyeliner. I did not try to reconnect with high school friends, watch movies, read books, pick up new hobbies. My shifts allowed me to become nocturnal, so I did. I ate as a hobby—my only hobby—constantly, imagining that food could sate the pit of gnawing worry in my belly. I was the poster child for depression—except at work. At work, I was asked to be feminine and happy and by all accounts invisible. I let myself be a smiling, faceless woman.
Someone taught me that in order to properly put on blush so that it rests on the apples of your cheeks, you have to smile. Every time I put on makeup, threw on a sundress, slipped on my black ballet flats, I transformed from a depressed trans queer fuck-up to a happy, straight and cisgender woman who only wanted to help you, the valued customer. Performing femininity and performing happiness felt synonymous. I became an expert at making the impossible look effortless, like Ginger Rogers doing all of Fred Astaire’s steps but backwards and in heels.
I wish I could tell you that I stuck it to the man on my last day, deliberately mixing in men’s and women’s clothes to make a commentary about the arbitrariness of gender or arranged it so a customer got enough discounts on their purchases to effectively rob the store blind. But leaving in itself felt like enough of a rebellion, or at least all of the rebellion I had the energy for on another late August night.
“Do you watch Queer Eye?” My manager asked as she counted the money in the register, her bejeweled hands glittering under the harsh fluorescence. She was the bubbly one, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that sashayed with her every step and every pop of gum, a smile on her face even when I had to ask her to help me with the most basic tasks at the register yet again. “It’s so inspiring!”
“Yeah,” I said, startled that on the last day she finally landed on a topic we could bond over after a summer of her cheerful chatter about boyfriends and beach excursions, while I just punctuated her monologue with smiles and nods and “uh-huhs”—a skill I had honed with our customers. I had already grabbed the bin of returns to throw on wire shelves in the break room, but paused, letting it rest on my hip, taking in this moment of being seen.
“You seemed like you would,” she smiled. I guess she knew I was queer after all. “Anyways, they’re incredible. The Fab Five.”
“Sure are,” I demurred, awkwardly shuffling towards the back. I didn’t say that I could never do what they do, could never have the patience to turn over my life to help some sad heterosexuals. That I had enough of that this summer.
I finished my closing tasks, my manager hers. She locked up the store and I walked to my car. I wasn’t driving back to exactly the future I wanted—I never found a job that made sense for me that would put me back with my chosen family—but I did have a future outside of selling myself as a model of happy heteronormativity. I was doing a gap year in Pittsburgh—a year of service so I could explore my future. My friends and (now ex) partner, I think, were ultimately proud of me for choosing to live my truth somewhere else over contorting myself to fit into another role contrary to my identity. They knew I couldn’t live another lie. Even if they didn’t, I knew I couldn’t live another lie.
I never felt so wonderfully selfish as I did just then, driving away for the last time, letting the summer night melt the makeup off my face without a care for who might see. I wasn’t happy, but I was happy enough to not have to pretend anymore.
Kit Stookey (they/she) lives in Pittsburgh, PA with their partner and cat. They have previously been published in Nemesis and have a BA in English that they make little use of. You can find them on Instagram at @kstookley.