I woke up in a strange place, a magical place, surrounded by beautiful girls.
Every boy's dream, right?
The women on the walls had faces that looked like art. Some wore flowers in their hair, others had hair in neon colours. They wore t-shirts, snapbacks, ripped jeans; heart-shaped sunglasses and retro bathing suits; high heels, diamonds, and sparkling, plunging gowns. They pouted, bared their teeth, or gazed forlornly at me from afar. But every last one of them had those identical black wings launching out from the corners of their eyes. I felt the one stirring beside me now, and turned to see those same cat-like eyes staring back at me.
"Oh," I said. I coughed a little, voice breaking. "Morning."
"Morning, my love."
I scoffed, forever torn between embarrassment and endearment at Alex's mock-affection. We were dating, technically, but it was very much a 'your best friend is dating my best friend and since we're both already here I guess we should start dating' kind of dating. We did hold hands in the cinema one time, but that was mostly because I was fidgeting and it pissed Alex off to the point that she snatched up my hand just to get me to stop. We kissed too, sometimes, but only when saying goodbye or when the silences got too awkward. And we had slept in the same bed last night. No big deal.
No, really, it wasn't.
I had never been in a girl's bed before, but that didn't interest me half as much as the room itself. I looked around at the posters and the flowers and the photos of friends posing in front of bathroom mirrors.
"I like your room."
"Ah, wouldja stop."
Sitting up to get a better look, I felt a sudden pull on my neck and a whoosh of air. My hand instinctively jumped to the back of my head where my bun should have been. But it was gone, undone, replaced with loose locks that slipped through my fingers and tumbled down my shoulders.
Alex was staring at me, wide-eyed and transfixed, a smile of amazement plastered across her face. In her raised hand was my hair tie.
"Oh — damn, boy, you're gorgeous!"
I was breathing fast, heart in my throat, stammering, "Th-the fuck…?" and swiped out to snatch the elastic back. As I did, Alex held on, and it snapped right in our hands. I stared at it a moment, clutching at the hair with my free hand to try and hold it together. "C-can I borrow—?"
"I don't have any."
I glared at her, and nodded towards the braid hanging over one shoulder. "What's that, then?"
"Well, I'm using this one, amn't I?"
How was I supposed to argue with that? My hair wasn't more important than hers — except that it obviously was.
"Don't worry, it's pretty—" Alex reached up to touch it, but I swiped her hand away. "— Handsome," she finished, cocking her head to one side.
Mortified, I kept one hand holding my hair together, and backed up as much as I could towards the wall. "It's greasy," I muttered.
"Well, you can use the shower if you want."
"No, I'm going home." I clambered over her and made for the door.
Alex sighed and swung herself out of bed after me. "You're gonna go home looking like that?"
I didn't know what she meant — hair down, or greasy hair, or just all of me in general. Then I looked down and noticed for the first time the pyjama top and shorts I was wearing — drunk last night, I'd chosen the latter when Alex asked if I wanted to borrow her brother's pj's or her own. That was so many levels of mortifying — least of which being how comfortable they were.
Alex went to one of the drawers and took out a spray canister. "At least have a go of this," she said, tossing it to me. I caught it with both hands, hair falling free. "Dry shampoo. Absolute life saver."
I looked at it sceptically, the pink floral pattern on the side betraying its purpose. Alex skipped to the window and opened the curtains, flooding the room with sunlight that glinted off the jars on the dresser and lit up the eyes of the women on the walls.
"Want me to teach you?" she offered, turning back toward me and kicking a stool in my direction.
I paused, then nodded and handed her back the can. I sat in the stool, which Alex spun around with laugh that turned into a grunt. "Oomph, you're heavier than you look."
She showed me how to apply the shampoo: spraying it on the roots, leaving it a moment, then massaging through.
"Look — toss it! You have to toss it, like the girl in the picture!" She flipped her own hair over one side, then tossed it over the other. I ran my hands through my hair a few times, watching closely, then tried to copy her. My body refused to work with me, graceless and unnatural, and Alex shrieked with laughter. I wanted to believe that it was with me, not at me, but she hadn't seemed to notice I wasn't laughing at all.
"Oi," she said, leaning over to whisper into my ear. "Oi — let me do your face."
"Fuck off," I said, rolling my eyes.
"Bitch, come on, it'll be fun."
I scratched the bristles on my cheek, strangely chuffed at being called bitch. "No way."
"You can borrow one of my dad's razors. He uses the disposable ones anyway."
I turned around, narrowing my eyes at the girl. She smiled back brightly, reaching down to run her fingers through the ends of my hair. This close, I could see the smudges beneath her eyes from where she had forgotten to take off her mascara last night, but the wing tips were still flawless, sweeping triumphantly from the lashline.
Awe-struck, I asked, "How does your eyeliner stay like that?"
Alex blinked, taken aback by the question. "Because I'm magic," she said, breaking into a grin. I huffed in annoyance, but Alex caught me by the jaw, eyes glinting. "Let me do it, then. You could be magic, too."
I averted my gaze, gulping. There was a long pause before I replied. "… Show me these razors, then."
In the bathroom, I tried to focus on removing the fine hairs from my chin, squinting as I peered into the mirror so as to blur out the rest of my features. Once I was done, I straightened up and fixed the parting of my hair. I practiced tossing it over one shoulder, then the other, less self-conscious now that I was alone. Finally, I let the layers fall equally either side of my chest. I held a hand up, blocking my face from the reflected image, and tried to imagine a world where with this hair and in these clothes that someone might mistake me for a girl.
Alex was ready and waiting when I skittered back to her room. She beamed at me in a way she had never beamed at me before, like a mad scientist, all tools and instruments at hand. I swallowed again, my heart beating fast, and met the gazes of the pop stars on the walls as I sat down on the stool.
First, there was primer, slick and cold and followed by foundation that felt like it might have been painting me another shade of human. I didn't know where to look, occasionally getting distracted by the long dark hairs I'd never noticed before to the sides of Alex's ears, the skin tag above her left eyelid, the small reddened spots below her mouth. The make-up tickled — itched, almost — but soon it sunk in and smoothed things out. A few dabs of concealer — under the eyes — between the brows — the hollows of the cheeks where the acne scars lived. Then powder, all over, light and dry and settling soft.
I had to hold back a sneeze.
Next was highlighter, from a tube, but I couldn't keep track of where it went. And contouring — the opposite? — which was highly important, apparently. It cut out the cheekbones, trimmed down the nose, and shadowed the jawline to give the face a new structure. I hoped that the very bones beneath the skin might bend to that flat, angled brush, but then it was blended out and hope was replaced with fear. Blush followed, finally, some colour and excitement on top of the lot. The whole room was pink — walls, idols, dust, and now me.
When it was time to close my eyes I exhaled in relief, but soon discovered that my trembling body was much harder to ignore in the dark. I jumped a little at the tickle on my eyelids, a thousand tiny needles, like rubbing an animal's fur the wrong way. Suddenly lightheaded, I worried I might sway or faint. But then there was a hand to hold my cheek and the brush returned softer, finding my corners with smooth strokes and rounding them out to the centres. Alex was steady, firmly planted in front of me, a different person than I knew before, so concentrated and confident in her skill. Her craft. Her magic.
A masterpiece, she proclaimed, and what a canvas! But eyebrows — can't do without eyebrows, can we? I guess not, I replied. Yeah, I guess we're going there.
I forced my breathing — in and out — and then it was time for the wings.
Eyes open, eyes closed. Steady hand, cold touch. Wetter than expected, it sunk into my eyelashes. That's going to be a bitch to get out, I thought. Hard line and swift swoop. Oddly exhilarating. Blink for me, now, there you go. Eyes closed, eyes open. Mascara time — look up! No, no — ha! — just your eyes! Corner to corner, bottom to top, layer upon layer. Look down, and — no, shit — up again, my bad. Just a smudge — real quick — got it, it's gone.
Eyes open, eyes closed. Now almost done.
Alex moved to the dresser, picking a few tubes and opening the caps to test the colours on the back of her hand. I met eyes with each of the posters in turn, gazing up beneath a thick curtain of lashes, blinking slowly, trying to soften my face to look natural, feel natural, but in the end it was only a mask.
Eyes falling on the other real ones in the room, my face grew hot beneath the layers.
Alex just stared back. "Nothing."
I sat there, tense, skin feeling heavy and tight, unable to meet her eyes. I knew something felt funny, but couldn't quite place it — it was a mask, just a mask, but it was painted over another that had been there all along. Now it was cracking, slipping —
And what was she staring at, anyway?
Alex approached me again, lipsticks discarded, and reached out and tossed my hair in her hands, pulling it forward and framing it softly around my face. Her hand lingered a moment, and I glanced up as a faint smile crossed her face.
I exhaled slowly through my nose, lips sticking together as they parted. "Looks fucking stupid," I breathed, voice catching on the syllables. I cleared my throat — tried again. "Right?"
She laughed a little, but couldn't seem to speak. My eyes widened as I looked up at her, my tacky lashes pressing up against my brow. I dared not ruin any of it so I kept perfectly still, watching the girl as she watched me, and wondering exactly which mask she was seeing. My chest was rising and falling rapidly now, feeling tight and weird and wrong. And Alex was scared, too.
"You're a fucking stunner, y'know?" she said finally, yanking my chin up suddenly. "Fuck me, you're gorgeous."
"Shut up," I said, but quietly.
"Why should I?"
"Because it's not true, that's why."
"Yeah, it is, you dope. You're beautiful, alright? Believe me."
"No, it's…" I sighed. "That's just some old bullshit girls tell each other, right? I've seen some downright ganky looking wans giving each other that shit, and it's just not true, is it?"
"Alright, look here," said Alex, almost snotting herself laughing. "I'm telling you, we mean it. Because all girls are beautiful, y'hear?"
"I'm not," I said, and then froze in horror.
Without missing a beat, Alex grabbed my face in both her hands and kissed me.
Eyes open, eyes closed. Girls on the walls, girl in the chair.
"And I'm telling you, you are."
It didn't hit me until a moment later. It was a soft hit — less a thump and more of a feather floating to rest silent and weightless in my stomach. Actually, maybe it was the opposite: an invisible weight being lifted, a tension released. It burst though my mouth in a small hiccup, a surprised little sob. Then the pain began in my throat, trickling along my jaw to snag between the eyes.
"No, shit, don't cry!" gushed Alex, dropping to her knees to throw her arms around me.
"Don't give me that crap," I croaked, hiding my face in the crook of my elbow and trying to shove her off. "Girls can cry as much as they want, can't they? Can't we?"
"Eh, yeah, but I didn't use the waterproof mascara." Alex lifted my chin and wiped the tears away as quickly as they came, patting my face down to save as much of the makeup as she could. I grimaced, but Alex beamed back at me. "Girls can cry, sure, but God forbid you don't look perfect doing it."
"Ah, shit," I sighed, and started to laugh despite the tears.
Alex traced my pale mouth with her thumb, and leaned in to kiss me again.
I giggled a bit, flustered, and turned my face to the side. "What's all that about?"
"Dunno," she laughed. She glanced around the walls at all the girls, and not a pretty boy in sight. "I'm super gay, I guess."
I blinked, eyelashes sticking together. I took a moment to unstick them, then shot Alex a startled look. "You…?"
"Yeah. It sort of just hit me now." She paused. "Why, did you think we were gonna break up or something?"
Honestly, that was the last thing on my mind. We were barely going out in the first place.
"It's not really magic, you know," she was saying. "Just some expensive shit my sister got me in New York. These wings will never budge on you, I swear to God."
"They better budge before I go home or I'll be battered."
"Then stay. Stay. I wanna keep kissing you."
"But what about the lipstick?" I asked, averting my eyes. I could deal with this later, promised myself I would, but for now I belonged in this chair. This room. This daydream.
She paused, really paused, but then smiled. "Alright, then. Lipstick it is."