Art Kavanagh

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A slip of the masc

A short story by Art Kavanagh

For perhaps the tenth time that oppressive, sticky morning, David wished he’d worn a longer skirt. The calf-length cotton print would have been perfect, but he’d talked himself into putting it back on the rail in the shop, on the grounds that it was an unnecessary expense and didn’t fit his overall “look”. He was now sure that had been a mistake. The skirt was long enough for him to have got away without wearing tights, especially with the new boots, and would have been cool enough to allow him some relief from this hellish heat.

And as for his “look”, he’d been vaguely aware, for longer than he’d like to admit, that it needed updating. It’s not unusual for men of a certain age to settle into a habitual pattern when it comes to things like clothes, food and everyday activities. Way back when he’d first started openly to dress fem, he’d warned himself that he’d have to be willing to shake things up a bit, to innovate; to get used to living — and dressing — outside his comfort zone. Instead, the comfort zone had expanded just enough to include his new reality, but no wider.

Though he would never have claimed to have any kind of visual flair, he was still pleased with himself about the look, which he had settled on as long ago as 1994. Of course, it had mutated in the years since. The tan leather jacket had been an inevitable early casualty. But at the start it had been an essential element in achieving that femmasc balance that he thought of as his defining innovation. To start with, he had worn the jacket open, over (if anything) a threadbare and torn t-shirt.

What hadn’t changed, what remained central to the concept, was the short denim skirt, not quite a mini but well above the knee, worn over thick, black, opaque tights. He loved that style of skirt, must have owned several dozen examples over the years: he was never without one. Neither would he be in the future, even though he was grudgingly coming to recognize that it was time to retire that outfit.

He had never bothered with a wig or makeup. They didn’t interest him, and it had not been his intention to pass as a woman, quite the contrary. He believed time spent applying makeup to be time inexcusably wasted, and it was hard to imagine himself wearing a wig except as part of a disguise — and disguise was the last thing on his mind. Until recently, he’d had a full head of hair, which he had generally worn long. He had eventually developed the habit of applying nail polish to his fingernails as well as to his toes.

After he’d got rid of the leather jacket, he varied his tops, while keeping the skirt and tights constant. Often, when the temperature allowed it, he’d wear just a light t-shirt, occasionally a collar and tie and for a while an expensive tweed sports jacket which might have been made to go with a denim skirt. The principle had always been masc above the waist, fem below. Well, with a couple of exceptions. His usual boots, while they perfectly accessorized the tights and skirt, would not have seemed incongruous on a marauding football hooligan; and he sometimes liked to wear a choker that he’d inherited from his mother, set with an emerald. After several years, he finally admitted that he hated the green stone — the baleful eye of a malevolent, monocular alien — so he had it replaced with a garnet.

Of course, the brightly coloured cotton print skirt would not have been suitable for mourning, but (as he noted with some relief) he clearly wasn’t feeling bereaved. Unless she’d changed more than he could imagine, Tessa wouldn’t have approved of the way he was dressed whatever he’d worn, and she was past caring now. He hadn’t seen her for ages. Without children (who might easily have been in their 30s by now anyway) there had been no reason to keep in touch, though David had followed her career with interest and more than a little vicarious pride.

David could not say for sure how much his fem dressing had contributed to their breakup, but he had no doubt that the part it had played had been neither negligible nor decisive, though tending more towards the former. Tessa had erupted when he’d announced his intention of dressing like that full-time. She had furiously demanded an explanation.

He had told her it was obvious that there is a strong taboo against men and boys behaving (and that includes dressing) in ways that tend to undermine their masculinity or bring it into question. To breach that taboo is just about the most transgressive thing a male could do without causing harm to another person; and that had made the idea all but irresistible to him. Neither of them was satisfied with his explanation but David insisted that it was the best he had: both objectively true and an adequate justification (if one were needed) for the way he dressed.

Tessa had been increasingly frustrated by David’s refusal or inability to offer a personal, emotional account of what was going on with him. Some years later, after they had run into each other coming out of a play at the Peacock, and agreed to meet for coffee later in the week, she told him that she had been terrified that he had really wanted to “live as a woman” and maybe even to undergo hormone treatment or surgery. Tessa was in favour of everybody’s right to live however they wanted (provided, of course, that didn’t mean exploiting or oppressing somebody else) and to become whatever they wished to be (within the limits of what was possible). She supported the rights of transgender people — but she had balked at the prospect of finding herself married to one unexpectedly and against her will.

David had, of course, disclaimed any desire to be a woman. He did not think of himself as trans. For him, the issue was one of masculinity (and, to the extent that you can’t repudiate one without embracing the other, femininity), not about being male or female. But, because he couldn’t articulate what it was he wanted and why, Tessa had concluded he must be in denial. She had believed that, unless he remained in a permanent state of indecision, he would eventually have to transition. She didn’t want to be still married to him when that happened.

David felt a large bead of sweat roll down the hollow of his back and get trapped by the waistband of his tights. He wanted to tug at his skirt, hold it away from his body to let some cooler air in, but he knew that Tessa would have been furious at him for drawing even more attention to the way he was dressed, as if his clothes weren’t obtrusive enough in themselves. So, he forced himself to stand pokerfaced, ignoring his discomfort largely for her sake. This would be the last thing he would ever have to do for her: he could afford to give her this much, though she was no longer able to appreciate it.

First thing tomorrow, he’d go back to the shop and see if they still had the print skirt. If not, there would be other suitable clothes, a wider range than he had allowed himself to consider up to now. He might even try on a dress. He was now materially better off than he had been during his marriage or in the years immediately following it. He could afford to have dresses made or altered to fit his massless, zero-dimensional boobs. He’d never worn dresses very much, and not at all since the breakup with Tessa, because he felt he couldn’t carry it off without a stuffed bra. The funny thing was that he actually liked bras, and had enjoyed wearing one on the occasions when he’d permitted himself that indulgence. They felt excitingly unfamiliar, in a way that skirt and tights no longer did for him; the slight tightness around his chest acted as an additional reminder that he was breaking the gender taboo.

But for years he hadn’t allowed himself to wear a bra because it was anatomically unwarranted. It smacked of dressing up, which in turn suggested either childish games or attempts to pass as female. If there was one thing that David wanted even less than to pretend to be a woman, it was to treat his fem dressing as a game, a prank, or in any sense frivolous. It was none of these things, but an intensely serious effort to free himself from the demands of his masculine traits. A bra had no function to perform in that struggle.

Or so he had long thought. Now, with no further need to prove to Tessa that his sartorial choices had nothing to do with a desire to become a woman, perhaps he could afford to relax his personal dress code just a little. He wouldn’t be throwing out his denim skirts, to be sure, but nor would he be relying on them as his unvarying uniform, like Steve Jobs’s black turtlenecks. If he started to wear dresses regularly that would necessarily mean a departure from his fundamental rule: masc above the waist, fem below.

A rethink was overdue. Though he wasn’t going to throw out the skirts, the same was absolutely not true of his tights. Tights might be the most deceptive of garments, delivering almost exactly the opposite of what they promised. They seemed to offer a form-hugging, shape-outlining, limb-clinging barely thereness. Instead, they drooped and sagged, seemed always to be trying to return to a shape that was entirely their own (not yours), regularly required tugging back into place, and refused to let you forget that you were wearing them. Along with their sturdier cousins, leggings, they were probably his least favourite things to wear. He hated them, if that was possible, even more fiercely than he had hated the boxers he’d once felt obliged to wear.

The irony was that his inflexible rules of dress had for years denied him the freedom to wear a bra, while requiring him to pull on tights practically every day, and all supposedly in the name of allowing him greater control over how he presented himself to the world. He felt a dangerously compelling urge to tear off his tights then and there. He refused to put up with them a moment longer, and was ready to rip them from his legs, shredding them with long, sharp, purple nails, until all that was left were the tattered wisps of synthetic fabric sticking out of the tops of his boots. To his relief, he was able to resist the impulse: even if Tessa was now permanently out of reach of any embarrassment he might cause her, he still had a responsibility to allow her remains to depart in dignity.

David was one of the first to leave the crematorium. He hadn’t planned to go to lunch, but now he thought he’d skip the drinks as well. Most of Tessa’s friends at the end were people he didn’t know. Instead, he’d go home, have a shower and change his clothes. Later, he would toast Tessa’s memory privately, alone in a quiet bar they had both liked. As he reached the bus stop, he ran his right thumbnail down the side of his leg and deliberately, surreptitiously, made a small rip in his tights, just at the hemline of his skirt.

Posted by Art on 05-Oct-2020; updated 21-May-2022.