Every spring, when the dogwoods and azaleas started to pop, and the bream started to bite, Mama dragged me kicking and spitting to the Statesboro Mall in search of the perfect Easter dress. I rode shotgun in her ’73 Chrysler Deluxe with jacks in my pockets and holes in my jeans, so mad I couldn’t even sing Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration” when it came on the radio.
“How come Hec doesn’t have to wear a dress?” I asked.
“Hec’s a boy.”
I never wanted to be a girl. I didn’t like playing with dolls, but they got pushed on me anyway. My first one didn’t last long. I remember tearing into the wrapping paper, hoping for that Red Ryder, only to find a doll fresh out of the cabbage patch. I took it back to my room, cut off her yellow yarn, and amputated her head with my brother’s pocketknife. I grabbed a shovel from the shed and dug her a little grave in the backyard. I was mad at God for making me something I didn’t want to be.
My second and third doll met the same fate. It took five murders before Mama finally accepted the fact I didn’t take to dolls.
I didn’t take to dresses either. I hated them worse than a cat hates a bath and would do anything in my power to avoid wearing one. I’d hide them under the car hood or in the trees. I buried a few, and became an expert liar and master of dumbfounded expressions every time a dress disappeared from my closet.
If I couldn’t make them disappear before putting one on, I’d spill orange juice down the front or dump a bowl of grits in my lap while nobody was looking. If I couldn’t destroy the dress at breakfast, I’d find other means of ruination during my morning routine.
As we drove down Highway 46, I feigned illness, but Mama sniffed that out quick and gave me one of those I’m-about-to-tan-your-hide looks. I succumbed, rested my head against the window and dozed off, dreaming of beetle spins and bream beds.
Mama wheeled the Chrysler into the asphalt lot, freshened her lipstick, and counted her money. I got out of the car, slammed the door shut, and kicked rocks all the way to Belk’s front entrance. I held my breath when I walked in and almost drowned in a pond of floral prints and mutton sleeves. I swear to God, it looked like Laura Ashley had vomited all over the place.
Mama took me to a rack and pressed a dress against my body.
“You like this?” she asked.
“What about this?”
“Too much lace.”
And the beat went on.
In my opinion, a dress was good for nothing. How could you fish in ruffles and lace? Lace was only good for snagging, ruffles just something to smooth as you sat in the boat. And, pray tell, what was the purpose of those hideous bibs? I’d mastered a fork and spoon at nine months and had no intentions of reverting back.
After Mama tried to sell me on a mini purse and me telling her my Ball jar worked just fine, she, not we, settled on a blue denim cowgirl dress with a ruffled bib and skirt. I figured it was her attempt at compromise. Maybe she thought cowgirls were akin to tomboys, but judging by that dress, her hypothesis was miles from truth.
Easter morning, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, cringing at my ruffled cowgirl reflection, trying to figure a way out. I kicked open the cabinet and retrieved a tin of Kiwi shoe polish, grabbed a washcloth, and streaked cordovan brilliance down the back of the dress. I dabbed some on the shoulders and the right sleeve and dotted some on the front skirt. It looked ruined enough.
Mama walked in just as I hid the washcloth under the bathmat. I jumped at the sight of her face. She had on Merle Norman’s Miracol facemask, a regimen she practiced religiously every Sunday. The pink mask stiffened her face like Superglue, made her smile impossible, and gave her speech demonic tones. I don’t know what it was, but some ingredient in Merle Norman’s Miracol turned Mama into the she-devil.
“What’re you doing?” she monstered out.
“What’s that on your dress?”
“What?” I conjured up my best dumbfounded expression, but I could tell it didn’t hunt.
“Is that shoe polish?” Her lips barely moved, in fear the face mask would crack and spoil the magic.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Don’t lie to me.” At this point, it didn’t seem to matter if her face mask cracked into a million little pieces.
“I hate this dress,” I said.
“I can’t afford to buy you dresses so you can ruin them. I buy you nice things so you can look pretty.”
“I don’t like looking pretty.”
Mama jerked me out of the bathroom, took me out of the dress, and gave me a whipping. She yanked last year’s Easter dress off the hanger, threw it on my bed, and told me to make it work.
Last year’s dress was an obvious downgrade. It had flowers on it.
I put it on. It felt tight around the chest, and I couldn’t zip it all the way up. It was inevitable. I was changing in ways I didn’t want.
After the red stripes calmed down on my legs, Mama walked back in my room with her real face on.
“Honey,” she said, her voice smooth again. “You’ve got to learn to like dresses.” She helped me close the dress’s back with a safety pin, knelt eye level with me, and wiped the tears from my cheeks. “One day I think you’ll like them. One day I think you’ll like being a girl.”
Later that morning, as I flowered the church’s Easter cross with azaleas and dogwoods, I thought about what Mama had said, and I wondered, if ever, a flower didn’t want to be a flower, if ever, a bird didn’t want to be a bird. I wondered, if ever, they were scared to bloom, if ever, they were scared to fly.
Maybe I could be fine with being a girl. Maybe I just didn’t want to be the kind of girl the world wanted me to be. Maybe I could be a girl who’d rather fish than paint her fingernails, ride the BMX instead of the pink Huffy, play with BB guns rather than baby dolls. I might not ever find the perfect Easter dress, but maybe, just maybe, I could be me.
J.C. Sasser is the author of Gradle Bird, a finalist in the 2015 William Faulkner—William Wisdom novel writing competition. She and her husband, Thomas, along with their sons, T.C. and Robert Esten, and two dogs, Cro and Blue Moon June, live in an old barn on Edisto Island, South Carolina. For more on J.C.’s work, visit jcsasserbooks.com.