In Greek mythology, Salmacis was the nymph who fell in love with Hermaphroditus. She prayed she would never be separated from him; when she kissed him, the gods answered her prayers by fusing the male and female bodies into one.
The gender line has always been obscure to me; as my wife used to say, I glide across that line a dozen times a day. At first, she would say it affectionately (though only in front of friends or other dancers because she was afraid I would allude to the obvious and, for Mercedes, fantasy was always preferable to sordid, humiliating reality.) Later, she began to say it only to me, sneering as if the idea accompanied a bad smell. She said it so often, and with such heaviness, that I no longer glided across that line: I tripped.
But it makes me employable. I’m a good dancer, bordering on exceptionally-good; it’s my ability to do both parts which keeps me employed. I’m fortunate to have had so many projects, and will probably have work and money for years still. Throughout my adult life, my lack of interest in delineating the male and female aspects of myself stemmed partly from laziness and partly from gratitude for what each of them brought me. If I catered to one more than the other, I was afraid one would abandon me.
I didn’t ever explain that to Mercedes. She would have just laughed in my face.
Whenever she started in on the way I looked, I would sigh onerously and point out again that the Russian Red lipstick was paying for that wine she was knocking back like water.
She ignored my comment, flipping all the blame back on me. “You’re at home. There’s no need to look like that here.”
“Would you like me to go wash it off?”
I’d go scrub my face, slick my hair back with a little gel so the widow’s peak was visible. Apparently, that was good enough for her; appearance was everything. When I looked sufficiently masculine, she would take another bottle of Cote-du-Rhone from the cupboard in the dining room and set the table for dinner. We would eat, talking like a normal couple and putting little bits of food on Alex’s highchair tray. After dinner, she would do the dishes while I got Alex cleaned up, and then we would go for a walk to the park. She would prattle on as we walked, talking about a house that was for sale in a better neighbourhood than the one we lived in, or about what so-and-so had worn to the kindergym class even though she was still nursing and looked like she was going to fall out. I would push the stroller and listen to her, and hold her hand as we sat on the hard wooden bench. And, at night, when I tentatively touched her stomach and breasts, she would willingly sleep with me.
It would be hours later that she would wake me up by turning on the dressing table lights, pushing the slender tubes of eyeliner and mascara into my hand.
“Put it on,” she would whisper, her voice harsh and deep. She stood behind me, watching as I applied the colours and drew the lines, running her hand through my hair to arrange it over my forehead. When I was finished, she would slide bracelets over my hands, drape a necklace around my throat. The final touch would be the Russian Red lipstick. Watching her face in the mirror, I would be deluded that she loved me.
Often, we wouldn’t even make it off the chair.
Gilles Bouchard originally accepted me into his contemporary dance company because he needed a man. We worked together for almost a year before the day he decided no woman would be able to dance the new role the way he wanted. He came to this conclusion late one afternoon as we were leaving our rented rehearsal space, flicking off the lights and testing the doors to make sure they were locked. He was sulky, having spent several hours on fruitless auditions. Repeatedly, he had ordered me onto the floor to demonstrate positions and moods. He believed the girls were just ignoring him.
“Seventeen of you, and not one of you can dance,” he’d spat at their backs, revelling in his role as tortured director and misunderstood artist. The girls had been following his orders rather than his lead; they didn’t know how to bend their spines to the pressure of his hand, or how to look into his eyes to see if he was ready to catch them. “Adrian,” he’d hiss again, his French accent softening my name into something feminine. He snapped a hand in my direction. The girls were insulted, snorting peevishly at him like annoyed horses.
He dismissed them all. Freed from the tension Gilles had created in the room, I was flying down the stairs ahead of him, anticipating the light and tasting the fresh air on my tongue before I even opened the door.
I heard him bark my name. “Stop,” he said. “Come back upstairs.”
He didn’t change out of his street clothes again, just kicked off his shoes and dropped his sweater to the floor. He stood in the middle of the room. The sun was going down and the grey light of the cloudy day was turning to gloom; he looked spectral and foreboding.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just follow me,” he said. “No, don’t bother with music.”
Following a pattern with another dancer is easy for me; it was instinctive with Gilles. He pulled me in, turned, pushed me away and waited for me to return to him. The music was the rhythm of our feet, the sound of our breathing, the beat of my own heart. Wordlessly, he watched as I sprinted away; he followed me, circled me, blocked me. He summoned me with a slight movement of his shoulder, spun me over his back. Dropping me to the ground, he lowered himself to his hands above me, then twisted until he was standing over me like Death over his victim. I could tell he had found what he wanted: the look in his eyes had changed from disdainful to electric.
“You’re my woman,” he panted. “You’re small enough and light enough. I’ll put you in a dress and find someone else to take your part.”
He took me into the dressing room, handed me a costume and a wig to cover my short hair. I turned my face up, trying to breathe evenly as he painted my skin and accentuated my eyes. The last thing he did was smear my lips with Russian Red lipstick.
Standing before the mirrors, we both saw the same thing.
“You make a beautiful harlot,” he said.
The rest of this short story (9 300 words) can be purchased for $1.00 CAD by emailing Sheila
(see “about” page).