Alternate

(This short story of mine was published in issue #3 of eFEMeral. I’ve decide to put it up here on the internetz at Johanna Qualmann’s insistence!)

Alternate.

William chews his bottom lip in nervousness, glancing at the girls as they jump rope in the middle of their primary school oval. He watches as Alexandra jumps impossibly fast over the red rope, and finally musters up the courage to ask if he too can play.

The three girls continue to make cherry-coloured circles in the air as he stutters over his question. Alexandra sighs, and after much deliberation, they finally concede to let him try.

William grins in reply. His grin is scraped off like the skin off both his knees as he trips on the rope and falls to the mud covered ground.

Alexandra meets him at eye level, and won’t let go of his gaze. She dares him to cry and pokes the exposed, bloody skin so that it stings and makes tears well in William’s eyes. He wishes the other boys were here; maybe they’d stop Alexandra.

But all the other boys are playing soccer across the field, or are too busy with hide and seek. Alexandra scoffs at him.

“Don’t be such a boy,” the seven-year-old tells him imperiously.

*

William, from twelve through to sixteen, diligently follows all the advice from magazines like boyfriend to become not too manly, but the right type of man that is clever, ‘sexy’ and fun. He makes sure he’s like every other guy: he shares a few drunken kisses and gropes with girls from his year (but he hides the hickeys and photos so people don’t call him a slut). He cringes when his elder sisters make jokes about masturbation and hides the fact that he does it himself (because really, what type of boy admits to that?). He starts to raise questions about gender in history class when they learn about the Roman empress Caesar, but everyone pays him out and his teacher rolls her eyes so he stops (which is fair enough – William doesn’t want people to make jokes about himself and his ideas.)

Although a part of William hates how comfortable – or is it familiar? – he is with seeing so much skin shown in all the singers’ film clips shown on TV, he can’t help but judge the way Chris Lyncaster’s scarf is fraying, how their school uniform does nothing for his figure, and feeling as though his own complexion was a hundred times clearer in comparison.

Tips from boyfriend earn William a girlfriend, and for a moment he feels like the luckiest guy in the world. She’s amazing; she’s an angel; he thinks he could tell her all his secrets and she’d understand.

Lucy brags about their sex life to half the school, and William tries to see this is a compliment. The other boys in their year throw around words like man-whore, cock and dickhead until William gets so stressed that he finds himself in the school office trying to stop his hands from bleeding, glass cutting into his skin. Everyone’s laughter as the glass test tube shattered under the forceful tap water during science still rings in his ears. He gets so angered by the stress that he slams his hands against the office wall. His cuts cry red again.

When Lucy and he lie together later, all tangled in bed sheets, William dreams of an alternate world. His mind wanders, and his ideas take shape as he silently inches closer into Lucy’s warm, strong embrace. He watches the deep midnight sky dilute into cerulean hues of morning as he garners words to explain his alternate world.

A world where there are no opposites. No boys, no girls, just people.

Once or twice he mentions this idea to Lucy, but it takes a third time when Lucy is actually listening instead of playing games on her phone for his words to register. His girlfriend tells him to keep on dreaming.

He does.

*

William can feel the disappointed stares his parents are giving him, but he doesn’t dare look up. Instead, he gazes unseeingly at their tiled dining room floor. He hopes the dull thumping in his head will tune out his mother’s words, but it doesn’t.

His father quietly asks William to raise his head and look at his mother when she’s talking. His mother flinches as the bright white light illuminates his bruised face, the dried blood congealing along his left eyebrow.

William’s mother is devastated and disappointed in him. William feels much the same. He’d finally built up the courage to get people like his ex, Lucy, out of his life. He’d finally been able to express his ideas at university. He’d finally gathered enough courage to go to an equal rights rally – only to get beaten up by ignorant, stupid people and come very close to being arrested by the police for disorderly behaviour. She was hitting me – I was trying to protect myself wasn’t the best excuse the police had ever heard, apparently.

His father tells him that he expected better behaviour. William gets grounded – which is sort of humiliating at the age of twenty. William’s eldest sister turns up the volume of the football game she’s watching as he tries to explain to his mother why he wasn’t sorry he went to the rally, wasn’t sorry he believed the things he believed. The only thing he would apologise for was being involved in a fight. His mother raises her voice, and William does too.

“You would do the same thing, wouldn’t you?” he asks. “If the situation was reversed? If women had it worse off?”

His question careens to the ground as soon as it leaves his bruised mouth. His sister snorts and focuses her attention back at the TV, where commentators of the game are gossiping about legendary forward Bethanie Hart’s recent hamstring injury. His parents decide to check out of the conversation; they probably think it isn’t worth the stress arguing with someone who only sees his side of the story. Maybe if William’s face wasn’t coloured with blue and purple blind hatred his parents wouldn’t be so unaccommodating.

But they don’t ponder his question. They don’t imagine what it would be like.

Because it’s almost unimaginable.

~ Emma Di Bernardo

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