Trapped: A story by Alana Donovan
Fighting Words 2019: Alana Donovan is 17 and a student at Holy Child Killiney, Killiney, Co Dublin
I ignored the disapproving look on her ageing, Botox-filled face and smiled at the wavy tufts of red hair that now exposed my ears. Photograph: Getty Images
“So, Alissa,” the hairdresser began, hesitantly chopping off more and more of my past, the auburn strings descending like confetti. “What on earth made you decide to, um, ‘go pixie’ anyway? I mean, this is a really short style you want.”
I ignored the disapproving look on her ageing, Botox-filled face and smiled at the wavy tufts of red hair that now exposed my ears.
“Just because it’s me.”
My freckled face radiated a ghostly white hue in my reflection, as my mind drowned in worry of what reaction my parents were going to have to this. But now, instead of seeing a mask that didn’t belong to me in the mirror, I saw a little bit of me.
“Thank you, young lady.” I paid the hairdresser and, just before I left, I heard her sigh. “She had such lovely long hair, too.”
I crept into the house and quickly pulled a beanie over my head, feeling the strange new breeze at the back of my neck. Realising no one was home, I went to my room and collapsed in relief onto my bed. My intensely Catholic parents had been going to Sunday Mass since I could remember, and I had been making excuses not to go for the same amount of time. I sighed at the pearl rosary beads my mum gave me. They watched me from where they hung on the wall, supposed to comfort but always doing the opposite. What would a priest say if I told him who I really was? Even worse, what would he preach to my parents? I felt sick at the thought.
This Sunday, I couldn’t go to Mass because I was “studying at Georgia’s” again. I knew she’d cover for me if my parents called. She’d gotten me out of countless situations growing up, being my one and only friend throughout childhood all the way up until now. Once, she had convinced our teacher that I, too, was worthy of a gold star, even though I’d consistently failed every maths test. She had even talked my parents out of grounding me a few times, and sent paper airplanes up to my window when it failed. I absolutely did not deserve her.
Somehow, in the same way it happens every day, I found myself standing in front of the floor-length mirror in the corner of my room. Routinely, my heart dropped to my stomach and the all-too-familiar ache grew in my chest as I looked at what was supposed to be a reflection of me. My hair made sense now, but nothing else did. Following the daily habit, I poked despairingly at my chest, my hips and everything I wanted to just tear away. I had grown very used to feeling disproportionate, but it was never comfortable. I wondered how something you’ve lived on your whole life could feel so wrong – like it’s not even yours. It was like one of those dreams where you know you’re at home, but the place that you’re in looks nothing like your actual house at all. I pulled out my tee-shirt so that it looked flat. Maybe matching my appearance with my brain was just impossible.
I jumped as the door opened downstairs. “Alissa honey, we’re back from Mass!” my mum called. Panic took over me as I heard her footsteps come up the stairs. I pulled the beanie down further over my head. Maybe she’d just think my hair was up in a bun underneath. Maybe she’d even like it. “Ooh that really suits you, hun. By the way, are you secretly a dude? Because that would be totally cool and not sinful in the eyes of the church at all.” She didn’t end up responding quite like that. I could see the horror in her eyes even before she ripped the hat off my head. I heard her screams but didn’t listen.
“Are you insane? And without telling us?” All I could think about was how much she hated this. “Why would you do that to yourself? You look like a boy!” How much she would hate me.
It was only in the still moment after she slammed my door that sobs shook my body. I let the walls close in around me, and sadness turn into anger. How did they still see me as a girl? I could function as a boy in this world. No one would know any different. I could convince the world of who I really was. I didn’t have to hide from everyone. Barely giving it a second thought, I grabbed my phone.
Within seconds, a new Instagram account was made, “TrappedAlex17”, and a message was typed out to Georgia, my long-term best friend and possibly even longer-term crush. “Hey! My name’s Alex, I’m a friend of Alissa’s. She’s told me a lot about you and you seem really cool.” I paused for a second, my hands shaking like crazy. What was I doing? “. . . and really pretty . . .” On the other hand, wow, I was finally saying this. “So, yeah. Just wanted to say hi.” My heart pounded so hard at my ribs it felt like it would burst out at any second. “PS, she also told me that you don’t like blue bon-bons?! We need to talk about this.” I giggled to myself, short of breath and on a complete high. I pressed send.
Over the next few weeks, I told Georgia everything I never got to say to her. Every day, I’d power blindly through school, just itching to get home. Every night, I’d text her as Alissa first, saying I had too much homework and couldn’t talk, and then I’d text her as Alex, who ironically felt way more like the real me. That’s what I told myself. That I wasn’t lying because, technically, this was the real me. All of the feelings I suppressed as a kid could be let out. All of the feelings I tried to counteract by wearing awful dresses to family parties and nodding along as Georgia obsessed over boy bands, passively agreeing. For once, I felt right after a life of feeling constantly just slightly wrong. Georgia was finally getting to know me.
On the twentieth day, she told me she liked me. “Wait, really?”
“Alex, if you tell ANYONE” “I won’t! I promise ;)”
“That winky face is not very promising. Besides, we haven’t even met in person yet. You could be an axe murderer.”
“Only on the weekends.”
“Jeez, I must really like you or something.”
“I gotta to, talk to you soon. PS, I like you too.” “You only tell me every day.”
I sat my phone on the desk, grabbed a coat and made a run for the door. There was still time to make it.
I sat on the same hill that I sat on this day every year, and watched the distant, distant Pride Parade. Or rather, I listened to it. The muffled music, cheering and laughter. The people singing in the streets. They must have been only a few blocks away, as rainbow confetti dotted the roads. I think I liked to listen just to know it was still there. A world of colour I could see, but never touch. A little rainbow flag was tied to the lamp post next to me. It blew gently in the breeze. I had to tell her. Maybe Georgia would be mad at me for a while, but she’d understand why I did it. She got me, and more importantly, she actually liked me.
I needed to tell her. At least then, for the first time ever, someone would actually know me. We’d be the ones in the middle of all the music and noise. We’d be the ones singing the songs and tying rainbow flags to lamp posts. No one else would even have to know.
I got up and started home, almost skipping. I could still be Alissa in school, but afterwards I could take Georgia on dates. She’d say “he” and “him” and no one would question it. For that time, we’d just be a boy and a girl, the way we were supposed to be this whole time. I could continue to put up the female front around everyone else. It would work.
My pace quickened to a run and I burst in the door, buzzing with excitement. But before I could launch up the stairs to my phone, nay, my entire future, I caught a glimpse into the living room and was halted in my tracks. Three faces stared back. The angry face of my mum, the disappointed face of my dad, and the scrunched up, tear-stained face of Georgia. I slowly walked in. I couldn’t breathe. It was silent. My mum sat with Georgia on the couch, her hand on her shoulder. My dad had been pacing.
Georgia was the first to speak. “I came to see if you were okay, since you’ve been ignoring me in school.” Her words came out croaky and broken. “I was in your room and, when I texted Alex, your phone buzzed.” She held up my phone in her hand, displaying our texts, or rather, her texts with TrappedAlex17. The texts that held my truth, that were never meant to be read by anyone else. But she probably thought they were all lies anyway. My mum couldn’t look at me. I couldn’t tell if she was mad about the fake account or the fact that I might actually like a girl. She clutched her rosary beads to her chest.
My dad fought for something to say. His voice was timid and worried. “Wh-what’s going on here, buddy? Why would you do this to someone? Why would you do this for fun? I mean . . . I just don’t . . .”
“I’m a boy.”
Never had there been worse timing for such words to be blurted out. I said it so quietly I wasn’t even sure if anyone heard me. I shut my eyes tight and shakily released everything that had ever been left to simmer and boil inside over my lifetime. “I am a boy inside this body. I have always been. I shouldn’t have done this, but I couldn’t keep up the act anymore! I couldn’t keep living this lie. Just for once I needed to tell the truth. So I lied . . . in order to do that.” I shook my head and grabbed my face to hide the tears that stung my eyes. “I know, that doesn’t make any sense, but . . .” I took a deep breath, still too scared to look up for reactions. “You’re gonna think this is a phase. It’s not. You’re gonna think I’m confused, or that I’m a girl who likes girls or, hell, that I just want attention. But you’ll all be wrong.
“Because I may be trapped inside a girl’s body, but I am a boy. I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy.”
The last few words were distorted as I sobbed into my hands. My mind raced to what would come next. I could see it clearly; my mum kicking me out onto the street along with her rosary beads, hoping the Lord would bring me salvation, Georgia moving schools to get away from me, and my dad making sure no one ever found out that his daughter turned out to be so messed up. I just gained my identity, but what was it about to cost? I heard someone’s footsteps leave the house and shut the front door behind them. My breath became tighter and tighter and I felt myself start to descend into panic.
Suddenly, I felt myself being pulled into a warm hug. The whole world stopped moving, and my crying was silenced. I froze, afraid and confused and utterly exposed.
“If you’re a boy, you’re a boy.” And I felt the rosary beads in her hand press into my back.
This story took shape at one of the workshops run by Fighting Words, which was founded by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love in 2009 to nurture young writers around Ireland. It is now in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Mayo, Wicklow, Galway, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and Kildare.