Dressing in drag was not new to me. I had never worn a dress myself, but my father had.
My father was all man. His maleness defined him to me. Evenings, when he came home from work, I loved to hug him and to feel the rasp of a day's growth of beard against my face and neck. I loved to smell him, a fragrance of wool and leather and whiskey and shoepolish and aftershave.
Drag was not a frequent thing, only twice a year. Halloween, of course. Kids in costume would come to our house and ring the bell and Father would answer it in women's clothes. "Trick or treat, Gilbert," the children would say, and my father would try to guess who was behind each mask. He would drop candy into the plastic pumpkins or paper sacks and send the children on to the next house.
The other time was the Womanless Wedding. It was an annual affair, a minstrel show in rouge instead of blackface. The Rotary and the Lions--all the solid male citizens of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi--would put on a raucous play in drag and donate the money to charity. One year Mr. Rant got drunk and fell off the stage in a floor-length gown.
My father loved the Womanless Wedding. He took a different part each year: bride, mother of the bride, flower girl, maid of honor, whatever was available. He shaved his legs and Naired his chest and bleached the hair on his arms and plucked his eyebrows and rouged his lips and mascaraed his lashes and he was ready. He owned wigs. With a pedicure and a close shave, my father was a pretty good looking woman for his age.
So dressing in drag was not new.
In my junior year of high school, my class got the idea of putting on an all-girl football game. We were raising money for some worthwhile project or other--a new scoreboard for the gym, I think. The idea was for the junior and senior girls to put on uniforms and helmets and to play football against each other. The school principal agreed to let us use the stadium. We would charge admission and sell hot dogs and Cokes at the concession stand.
It seemed like a good idea.
The idea seemed even better when I first saw the girls in uniform. They were beautiful. Hulda Raby had long legs and boyish hips and large breasts, and when she was dressed in our school colors and was wearing pads and cleats and a rubber mouthpiece, I thought no one on earth had ever had such a good idea as the all-girl football team.
The girls were enthusiastic. They found a senior boy who agreed to coach them, Tony Pirelli, whose father owned the Arrow Cafe.
Positions were tried out for and assigned. Plays were drawn up and mimeographed and passed out to the players and carried around in notebooks and memorized. A wide-hipped girl named Tootie Nell Hightower learned to snap the ball, and Nadine Johnson learned to take the snap from center.
I stood on the sidelines and watched Nadine hunker into position behind the center's upturned rear-end and put her hands into position. Green forty-two ... My heart jumped out of my chest.
Pads began to clash, helmets to clatter. Nadine was a natural at quarterback and could throw the bomb. Ednita Gillespie could get open. I saw these girls through new eyes. I feared them and I loved them.
The days passed. No one except the players was allowed inside the locker room, of course, not even Tony Pirelli, the kid who coached them. But each day after practice I hung outside in the parking lot and imagined them in there. I saw them unlace their cleats and fling them into a corner. I saw them strip dirty tape from their ankles and remove the Tuff-skin with alcohol. I smelled the pungency of their skin. I watched them walk through the locker room wearing only their shoulderpads, nothing else, the padding stained with sweat. I watched them soap up in the shower and play grabass and snap each other with towels. I saw them stand under the shower and let the water pour into their upturned faces and I watched one or another of them relax her bladder and allow the urine to run down her leg and swirl away in the drain.
Never before in the history of the whole wide world had anyone ever had such a good idea as the all-girl football team.
I wanted to be near the girls. I hung around the parking lot to watch them. At first a few other boys did the same, and we punched each other's arms and made jokes, but my interest outlasted theirs and soon I was the only boy in the parking lot.
My favorite part of the day was when the girls came out of the locker rooms after practice, after their showers.
Nadine Johnson came out, the quarterback. She had short hair and it was still wet and slicked back like a man's. Hulda Raby had blonde hair that hung down to her hips. One day she stepped out of the gym into the late afternoon sun and bent over and allowed her wet hair to hang down over her face, almost to the ground. She toweled it roughly with a white locker room towel and then flung her hair back over her head so that it hung down her back again. She dropped the towel behind her, arrogant, and she seemed to know that someone would pick it up for her. It was my joy to rush across the lot and place the towel into a bin of soiled linens.
Hulda Raby did not notice me, of course. My reward was to be close to the locker room door when the others came out.
Tootie Nell Hightower, the center--I could not look at her without seeing her bent over the ball, its leather nap gripped in her certain hands. Lynn Koontz--I heard the beauty of her name for the first time. It was a football player's name. You could play tight end for the Steelers with a name like Lynn Koontz. The twins, Exie Lee and Nora Lee Prestridge. The Sewell girls, Marty and Ruby. Ednita Gillespie, the wide receiver. I heard Nadine say to her, "Nita, honey, you got a great pair of hands."
I envied them their womanhood.
I watched them on the practice field each day after school. Tony Pirelli, their coach, seemed to me the luckiest boy in the world.
I insinuated myself into their midst. I volunteered to act as a flunky for the team. I helped line the field. I asked parents to act as referees and scorekeepers, and I made sure everyone had clean socks. I carried equipment and water bottles and the first aid kit. I saddlesoaped footballs and replaced broken elastic. I dealt with the high school principal, who was worried about the light bill, since the game was to be held at night.
It was springtime and the Mississippi Delta was Eden to me. I saw it as I had never seen it before, the whippoorwills and coons and owls and little bobwhites. Mornings the pecan trees outside my window were heavy with dew and smelled like big wet flowers.
In my dreams I listened to the music of green forty-two hut hut hut ... It floated on the air like a fragrance of wisteria. I knew why men married, as my father had, and were true to the same woman over a lifetime. I thought of my father's mortality.
I went into my father's room and found his revolver and broke it open and poured its cartridges onto the chenille bedspread. I thought of my own mortality. I understood for the first time the difficulty of ever knowing who I am. I longed to be held as a lover by a woman in a football suit.
The all-girl football team idea got out of hand. It became elaborate.
Somebody suggested that we should have boy cheerleaders, dressed up in girls' cheerleading costumes. It would be hilarious, everybody said. What fun. Somebody else thought it would be just great if we made it homecoming as well. You know, with a homecoming court. Everyone agreed, Sure! Oh boy! It would be like the Womanless Wedding, only better. We'll hold the ceremony at halftime. We'll crown a homecoming queen!
I didn't like the idea. I said, "I'm against it. It's a silly idea. I vote no."
Everybody else said, "It'll be hilarious. Let's do it, sure it's great."
I wanted to say, Are you insane? We have discovered what makes women beautiful. The girl-children who were our classmates three weeks ago are now women--they are constellations! Do you want a constellation walking in a parade with some goon in a dress?
Instead I said, "No way. I'm not doing it. I've got to line the field. I've got to pump up the balls. Count me out, brother."
I did it anyway. I was elected cheerleader. That's small-town high school for you. It was a big joke. I didn't want to do it, so everybody voted on me. No try-outs, nothing. One day I get the news and a box with a cheerleader costume in it. I said, "Forget it."
Everybody said, "Be a sport."
Right up until the night of the big game I still wasn't going to do it. I wasn't even going to the game. Why should I? Nobody was taking the game seriously--nobody but me and the girls who were knocking their heads together.
Maybe this will explain it: One day after practice I saw Ednita Gillespie get into her father's pickup alone. She yanked open the door and, as she did, she put her fingers to one side of her nose and blew snot into the gravel driveway of the schoolhouse parking lot. The door banged shut behind her and she drove away.
Do you understand what I mean? It was not Ednita I loved. Not Tootie Nell or Lynn Koontz or Nadine Johnson. It was Woman. I had never known her before. She was a presence as essential and dangerous as geology. Somehow she held the magic that could make me whole and give me life.
That's why I wasn't going to the all-girl football game.
I said all this to my father in his room at the back of our house. In this room I could say anything. I could smell my father's whole life in this room, the guns in the closet, the feathers of birds he had killed, the blood of mammals, the mutton that greased the line of his fly-casting equipment.
I said, "It would take a fool. To dress up like a girl, when there are women--women, Daddy, not girls--dressed in pads and cleats."
What do you suppose my father said to me? Can you guess? Do you think he said, "Don't be silly, it's a school project. I want you to participate." Do you think he said, "It's up to you, of course, but I just want to tell you, you're going to be missing out on a whole lot of fun."
My father was a housepainter. He went to sixth grade and no further. He said, "I will dress you in a skirt and a sweater and nice underwear and you will feel beautiful."
I said, "Uh . . ."
He said, "You have never felt beautiful."
I said, "Well. . ."
It was near dark. The fall air had turned cold. In two hours the all-girl football game would begin. My mother was still at work.
Father drew my bath and put almond oil into the water and swished the water back and forth with his hand until it foamed up. He hung a green silk bathrobe on a hook on the bathroom door. He set out bathpowder and a powder puff he had bought new for me. He showed me how to shave my legs and underarms. It didn't matter that no one else would be able to see.
When I was clean and sweet-smelling, I came into his room wearing the robe. He gave me the clothes I would dress in.
I said, "Dad, is this queer?"
He did not answer.
I took the box with the uniform in it, and a small bag with new underwear.
I slipped into the lacy underpants, and then into the pantyhose.
I let him show me how to hook the bra, which he did not stuff with Kleenex. He gave me tiny false breasts, cups made of foam rubber, with perfect nipples on the ends. When I slipped on my sweater with the big AC on the front, you could see my nipples showing through.
I put on a half-slip and the skirt. He showed me how to apply my makeup. I could choose any wig I wanted. He spritzed me with Windsong.
I did not feel beautiful. I felt like a fool. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw that I looked like a fool as well. I stood like a boy, I walked like a boy, I scratched myself like a boy. I had a dumb boy-look on my face. My hands were boy-hands. My dick, for no good reason, was stiff and aching.
The masculine smells of my father's room-the rubber raingear and gun oil and fish scales stuck to his tacklebox--reached me through my false femininity and mocked me.
My father said, "How do you feel?"
I said, "Like a fucking fool."
I said, "I've got a hard on."
He said, "Do you know any cheers? Can you do one cheer for me before you go?"
I said, "I don't think so, Dad."
He said, "Well, I'll have my eyes on you the whole game. I'll be watching you from the stadium."
I said, "I wish there was a Book of Life, with all the right answers in the back."
He said, "Do 'Satisfied.' Just once, before you go. 'Satisfied' is my favorite cheer."
There was something about that football field: the brilliant natural carpet of green grass, the incredible lights, the strong straight lines of chalkdust, the serviceable steel bleachers filled with cheering people and the little Arrow Catcher High School marching band in uniform--there was something in all that scene that told me who I was. I did not feel beautiful, as my father had predicted. I was the same person I had always been, and yet the bass drum, with its flaking bow-and-arrow design and the words ARROW CATCHER, MISSISSIPPI, printed in faded letters around the perimeter of the drumhead, told me that the worst things about myself were not my enemies and that the Womanless Wedding held meaning for my father that I might never understand and did not need to understand.
I had come to the game late. The referees in their striped suits had already taken the field. The opposing teams, in black and gold uniforms, had finished warm-up calisthenics. Steel whistles sounded and drew the players from their final huddle and prayers.
The captains walked like warriors to the middle of the field. They watched the toss of the coin.
I watched it also, from the sidelines. The coin went up and up. It seemed suspended in the air beneath those blazing lights, above the green table of Delta land. The coin seemed forged of pure silver and big as a discus. It turned over and over, as if in slow motion. It hung for a century.
I jumped up and down in my wool skirt and saddle oxfords. I was a cheerleader at the center of the universe. I waved my pom-poms and clapped my hands and kicked my heels up behind me. I tossed my hair and fluttered my lashes without knowing I knew how to do these things. The coin that I was watching was a message of hope and goodness throughout the land.
It was a land I loved, this fine ellipse in a crook of the Yazoo River--its alligators and mallards and beaver dams, its rice paddies and soybeans and catfish farms.
Suddenly I knew that my father was right, that I did feel beautiful, except that now beauty had a different meaning for me. It meant that I was who I was, the core of me, the perfect center, and that the world was who it was and that those two facts were unchangeable. Grief had no sting, the future was not a thing to fear, all things were possible and personal and pure.
I watched the opening kickoff. It was a short grounder that scooted between the legs of the front line of girls in uniform.
By the time someone in the backfield picked it up, my small breasts had become a part of me, not rubber but flesh. My cock, beneath the lacy underpants, was what it had always been, this odd hard unpredictable equipment I had been born with, and yet it was also a moist opening into the hidden fragrance of another self that was me as well. My arms were woman-arms, my feet woman-feet, my voice, my lips, my fingers. I stood on the sweet sad brink of womanhood, and somehow I shared this newness with my father.
The game had begun, and I was the cheeriest cheerleader on the sidelines. One team scored a touchdown. Hulda Raby sustained a serious knee injury. Nadine threw the bomb to Ednita but had it intercepted. The band played the fight song, and we went through all the cheers.
My father and mother were in the bleachers, far up, and I could see the pride in their faces. I was a wonderful cheerleader, and they knew that I was.
We did "Satisfied," and in my heart I dedicated the cheer to my father.
I went to the principal, we cheerleaders called out, with our hands on our hips, sashaying as we pretended to walk haughtily into the principal's office.
Satisfied, came the refrain back from the cheering section, including my father and mother.
And the principal said, we called out, shaking our finger, as if the principal were giving us a stern talking-to.
And again the loud refrain, Satisfied.
That we couldn't lose. . .
With the stuff we use . . .
You take-a one step back ... Here we put our hands behind our backs and jumped one step backward, cute and coy, as if we were obeying the principal's stern order.
You take-a two steps up ... Here we put on a look of mock surprise, as if we just could not understand what the principal was getting at with all his complicated instructions, but we put our hands on our hips and took two cute steps forward anyway.
The principal's final line is: And then you strut your stuff, And then you strut your stuff, And then you strut your stuff. Which we did, by wagging our sexy hips and prankishly twirling our index fingers in the air.
The Mississippi Delta air was the Garden of Eden, filled with innocence and ripe apples. The blue of the skies shone through the darkness of the night and through the glare of the stadium lights. I smelled fig trees and a fragrance of weevil poison and sweet fishy water from the swamp.
The game went on. The huddles and the time-outs, the sweat and the bloody noses and the fourth-down punts.
And then halftime. I had literally forgotten all about halftime.
My whole world exploded into ceremony and beautiful ritual. The band was on the field in full uniform. The goalposts, were wrapped in black and gold crepe paper, and streamers were blowing in the autumn breeze. Boys with shaven legs strutted past the bleachers wearing majorette costumes. They carried bright banners on long poles. The band marched in formation, and then it formed a huge heart in the center of the field. It played "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and I felt tears of joy and the fullness of nature well up in me. I knew that the world was a place of safety and hope and that my father was a great man. I knew that I was a beautiful woman and that because of this I had a chance of growing up to be as fine a man as my father. Let me call you sweetheart I'm in love with you, Let me hear you whisper that you love me too, I loved the girls in uniform; I would always love them. They were lined up under the home-team goalposts with the maids of the homecoming court. Keep the lovelight burning in your eyes so true ...
Nadine Johnson was the captain. She led the beautiful slow processional of players and maids toward the center of the field. The band played. There was a sweetness of Mowdown in the air from the rice paddies nearby.
I knew the meaning of love. I thought of my father, the way he had looked on the day of his wedding, the first of his weddings that I was old enough to attend. He had been the bride and had worn a high-bodice floor-length gown, antique white, with a train and veil. He carried a nosegay at his waist. When the minister asked whether any person here present could show just cause why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, a drunken pharmacist named H. L. Berryman, wearing a print dress and heels, jumped up out of the audience and fired a pistol in the air. My father fell into a swoon.
It was all part of the show, of course--and although I knew it was only a play and that my father was only an actor in it, I wanted to leap from my seat in the audience and make known to all the world that he was my father and that without him my own life was without meaning.
On the football field Nadine Johnson turned to a tiny boy child, three or four years old, who was a part of the homecoming ceremonies. He was wearing a ruffled dress with stiff petticoats and was standing beside Nadine with a satin pillow in his hands. There was a silvery crown on the pillow. The homecoming court was assembled around them, arms hooked in arms, smiles bright.
Nadine took the crown from the pillow, as flashbulbs went off.
A boy named Jeep Bennett was standing beside Nadine. He was wearing a yellow evening gown and had only three fingers on one hand. He had been in a hunting accident the year before and this year had been elected homecoming queen.
Nadine placed the crown on his proud head, and the flashbulbs went off again. The bleachers roared with applause and cheers and approval. Nadine kissed Jeep, and Jeep was demure and embarrassed.
I had wanted--dreamed!--of this moment, dreaded it in a way, because I had believed I would envy Jeep this perfection, this public kiss of a woman in a football suit, which I had believed for three weeks was the completion of love and sex and holy need.
And yet now that it was here, it was oddly meaningless to me. There was no jealousy in my heart, no lust for Nadine in all her sweaty beauty.
And yet there was lust in my heart, sweet romance. My breath caught in my throat, my tiny breasts rose and my nipples hardened. (Seemed to harden, I swear!)
I looked down the line of suited-up women and their male maids. Tootie Nell, wide-hipped and solid; Hulda, with a damaged knee; Lynn Koontz, her magical name. I looked at the drag-dressed boys who clung violet-like to the certain arms of these beautiful women.
And yes there was lust and even love in my heart, but not for the women in black-and-gold. The person I loved was wearing a business suit with a back-pleat in the skirt, so that when he walked you could see a triangle of his gray satin slip and the back of his beautiful knee. Tony Pirelli, the kid who coached the team, was an Italian boy with dark skin and dark eyes and a nut-brown wig that caressed his shoulders. He wore a soft gray silk blouse with ruffled sleeves and, at his throat, a ruffled ascot. His shoes were patent leather slingback pumps with two-inch heels, and the girls had given him a corsage, which he wore on his breast.
I hated my thoughts and my feelings. I was certain my father could read them all the way to the top of the bleachers.
I had never seen anyone so beautiful as Tony Pirelli. He never smiled, and now his sadness called out to me, it made me want to hold him and protect him from all harm, to kiss his lips and neck, to close his brown eyes with my kisses, to hold his small breasts in my hands and to have him touch my own breasts.
I believed I was a lesbian. What else could I call myself? I felt like a fool for not having noticed before. I was a fool for having strutted my stuff during the cheers, for having loved the Mississippi Delta and the sentimental songs played by the band.
I didn't see the rest of the game. The band played and the crepe paper rattled and the banners whipped and the crowds cheered, and I ran away from the sidelines and through the gate and away from the football field and the school grounds.
This happened in the autumn I was sixteen years old. Now I am forty-five years old, and all of it seems too fantastic to be true. Maybe my memory has exaggerated the facts, somehow.
I remember what happened afterward very accurately, though.
I ran through the little town of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, toward my parents' home. I don't know what I wanted there, the safety of my father's room, I think, the fishing rods and reels with names like Shakespeare and Garcia, the suits of camouflage and the rubber hip-waders. I was still wearing my cheerleader costume and my makeup and false breasts and even the wig.
And then something happened, by magic I suppose, that stopped me. The Southern sky seemed to fill with light--no, not light, but with something like light, with meaning, I want to say.
I stood in the street where I had stopped and I listened to the distant brass of the Arrow Catcher High School marching band. It sounded like the blare of circus horns. I took deep breaths and exhaled them into the frosty air.
I took from my skirt pocket the lace handkerchief my father had put there for me, and I dabbed at my eyes, careful not to smear the mascara more than it was already smeared.
I began walking back toward the football field. I was not a woman. I did not feel like a woman. I was not in love with a boy. I was a boy in costume for one night of the year, and I was my father's child and the child of this strange southern geography. I was beautiful, and also wise and sad and somehow doomed with joy.
The gymnasium was decorated in black and gold. There was a table with a big crystal punch bowl, and other tables with ironed white tablecloths and trays of sandwiches and cookies. Around the walls of the gym our parents had placed potted plants and baskets of flowers. The girls had changed to their party dresses, the boys had put on the trousers and sport jackets our parents had brought for us. We were proper boys and girls, and our costumes were stuffed into bags in the locker rooms where we changed.
A phonograph blared out the music we loved.
I danced close to Nadine Johnson and imagined, as I felt her cool check against mine, that I could see the future. I imagined I would marry-not Nadine but some woman like Nadine, some beautiful woman, faceless for now--and that together we would have sons and that we would love them and teach them to be gentle and to love the music we were dancing to and to wear dresses and that, in doing this, we would somehow never grow old and that love would last forever.