Four years ago at a friend’s bachelorette party, someone I had never met before painted my nails teal—L.A. Girl’s “Persuasion” (I still have the bottle). My nails’ breathing seemed to be blocked; I could feel them sweating. I didn’t think of my nails as having sensation, didn’t think nail polish would change how I felt. In turn, the polish affected other parts of my body: I’ve learned that you can feel the heaviness of mascara; I’ve become hyper-aware of my hands when I try to keep them away from my face, or when they twist a ring on my finger. But these sensations are designed to disappear. The body adapts. I learned to ignore the awakened sensation of my fingernail, though to this day I cannot seem to stop myself from brushing the tip of my nose.
So much of my experience re-examining my gender as an adult has been marked by this profuse increase in sensation. My perception opened up as I considered my body to be made of more manipulable, aesthetic shapes. Brian Glavey writes that “The value of the aesthetic is the way that it allows something to be what it is and what it is not without conflict.” One femme point calls other points to itself; once one decision is made, certain defaults that seemed immovable become up for discussion, and change. Over the past year, Zoom has asked me to channel the femme affect I have been cultivating into the parts of my body lit by the computer backlight. My signature drape of long hair into shawls and capes doesn’t translate; my heeled boots are invisible. Even my necklaces hang past the bottom of the screen. My nails appear only as I gesture, though like my mother I gesture often as I speak.
In my childhood such femme adornments were magic, forbidden, because they were for girls. It seemed wearing nail polish would mark me as a girl, would make me into one. Then in high school, goth and punk boys wore black polish; in college gay boys painted a pinkie nail any color, and then a whole hand. These were actions of resistance, refusals to conform; they were not the same but in league with me, how when I wear nail polish, I am trying to no longer be a boy. It’s shocking how long it takes for the people around me to realize this. At first I didn’t say anything, and without this language everyone seems hesitant, as if to ask after a changing gender would project that possibility onto me, when it wasn’t already there. As if such change were catching, as if it would be a bad thing to catch.
Two months after I pierced my ears, I went home to Chicago. I had a pair of conferences to attend in the Midwest, but I really went home to be with my mother as she prepared for surgery to remove a cancerous node in her lung. When the coronavirus pandemic delayed the operation, I ended up staying for five months. The conferences were canceled and the heels and drapey presentation outfits I’d packed went unworn. I slept in my childhood bedroom, half-repurposed as my mother’s office. I re-read books I’d obsessed over when I lived in this room—comics about magical girls, Tamora Pierce novels about daughters chosen by gods. I hadn’t known anyone else who read them, back then, but I was happy about that. Any conversation would have clarified the difference between those characters and my own life. I loved best Pierce’s less popular books, a series called The Circle of Magic in which magic is expressed through weaving, gardening, and metalwork. In those books, the children didn’t have to hide what they loved, or pretend they were someone else. In those books, the children were taken seriously as people who knew their own minds.
The night before my mother’s surgery, I dug through her nail polish collection: neutrals, browns, a slightly pearlescent pale green I tried once. I thought of the row of colors I had in my Pittsburgh apartment, on the shelf in front of the books I have yet to read: pale pink, pearl, hot pink, copper, glittering black, banana yellow, Sailor Pluto purple, Color Pop pink glitter. Since my teal reintroduction to nail polish as an adult, I have stuck mostly to those kinds of colors, which make no attempt to hide themselves. I pick them to banish the memory of once wearing clear nail polish to school, thinking it would be my own secret, only to find my nails were so shiny everyone thought I had painted them pink anyway. As I looked at my mom’s collection, I wondered if I could get away with a neutral now. My hair had grown long; I’d been collecting necklaces, bracelets, and rings; and I was slowly approaching the magical mark at which I could switch the small piercing studs out of my ears for more noticeable charms. I took a taupe from the rows of polish, one of my mom’s favorites for everyday wear. When I check my mom’s makeup cabinet afterward, all her lipstick shades are matte, dark reds.
My mother was a special education teacher, briefly, before going to law school and working as a federal public defender for forty-two years. Being a lawyer presented her with a new dilemma: court had a professional dress code, but she refused to wear a suit. When I ask her why, she says: It just didn’t feel like me. She continues: It was a big thing, what to wear. There were all kinds of articles about whether to wear a scarf around your neck like a man’s necktie.
She tells me a story about waiting for her case to be brought before one of the first female judges on the appellate court. She was all the way in the back of the courtroom, and the judge yelled out, “Carol, that's a great dress!” She was humiliated, she says, but I love this story. I love that the sight of my mom in a great dress in a courtroom was so welcome a judge interrupted the proceedings to point it out, to make sure everyone knew that it was so.
My twin brother and I were born in 1991. The same year, a boutique opened a few blocks from where we live, next to a bookstore we still tell ourselves we grew up in. The boutique became the source of my mom’s signature look: black dresses and skirts with a twist—a geometric silhouette, a texture, one component with pattern. Great shoes. She became a fashion icon amongst the younger women in her office, aided by her habit of never wearing matching earrings. The orderliness of the pair disturbs her, she says.
When I first bought a pair of oversized earrings—brass folds I struggled to put on for a Zoom call one day, awkwardly pushed into my right ear, which bled, not quite healed—I debated whether to wear both. There was part of me that wanted nothing more than to become a vision of my mother, wearing different earrings and dark dresses to the office. Another part of me desired brightness and shine, these earrings’ obvious beauty. But I always thought my mom was beautiful in her matte clothes, too, in a style that incorporated a well-worn leather jacket my brother would lift in high school. My mom’s jewelry rarely gleams. Still, no one would accuse her of being masculine.
I entered that boutique only a handful of times with my mother, never buying anything. Then, in 2017, the year before the boutique closed, my mom stopped by in search of a dress to wear to an outdoor wedding. I went along with her. At first, she didn’t find anything she liked, but I picked out a dress for her. (Later, she will wear it all the time, but whether it’s because she likes it that much or because I picked it out she never says.) While she tried it on, I took a coat off the end of a rack—a black and quilted thing with a dramatic, folding collar. The saleswoman came up behind me in the mirror and told me it looked better on me than on anyone who had tried it on. I did not know whether to believe her. I bought it anyway.
I never saw my mom in her hospital gown. I was not allowed in the hospital, after all. I kept the taupe on my nails as she recovered, slowly weaned herself off her pain meds. In retirement, she had begun teaching law school, one class a semester: She, too, was learning to present herself on Zoom in the pandemic. She bought me a necklace I adore, one that showed up on the video if I angled my camera just so. We talked about whether we should buy ring lights. (We both did, plastic tripods for $29.99 each.) We spent all summer out of makeup, with so little polish on our nails. When I returned to Pittsburgh, we were both still learning to fit our most current selves into squares, seeing what showed up on the camera—and what was lost.
After the bleeding brass-fold zoom fiasco, I tried to put the posts of my piercing studs back in. I’d tried too much, too soon with the big earrings. But I had trouble with my right ear again. I could get the post in from the back, but tugging on my ear while looking in the mirror to place the front made me nauseous. I lay down for a moment, holding the back of the earring in place. This is a new sensation, I thought. This is something new I am learning about my body. When I got up and looked in the mirror again, I was still nauseated, but I could see how to place the earring now. I fed the little gold spike into the post. I held the back and the front tightly between my thumb and forefinger and pushed. The earring clicked together. I couldn’t help it—I marveled at how it fit.