Tuesday, December 11, 2007



I'm sitting on the back porch with my nine year old, Henry, enjoying the late afternoon sun. I squint a bit as I paint my toenails. For months I've been drawn to brown or bronze, but today ... Fire Engine Red.

Henry is fascinated by the process. He's always enjoyed art, dressing up, drama. When he was four and his best friend had a 'Crazy' birthday party, Henry kitted himself out in a pink and white polka dot dress, a lipstick-smeared face and the piece de résistance: a pair of orange underpants on his head.

"Mum?" Henry says, breaking my reverie.

"Mmmm," I reply.

Vincent, our neighbour's bull, lets out a sustained bellow from the paddock across the valley. Henry waits for the animal to quit hollering. "Would people think I was silly if I painted my nails?"

"Maybe," I say. "But who cares what people think. They're not the kind of people you'd be friends with, anyway. I pass Henry the glittery red shoebox containing my dozen or so bottles of nail polish. He chooses Iced Lilac.

We're almost done when the back door opens and my eldest brother steps outside. "Henry, what do you think you are? A girl?" He makes a light snorting noise and heads back inside the house, shutting the screen door behind him. Opens it again to frown directly at me. "And you, you should know better."

Although my brother has been supportive since my husband died, he often questions my ability to raise my children without their father.

Vincent the bull lets out another almighty holler but I don't wait for him to finish. "Your uncle's reaction represents just one opinion," I offer. "You know he loves you, Henry, but you don't have to see the world exactly the way he does."

Henry, however, has already grabbed a fistful of tissues. He takes sharp, stabbing breaths as he swipes at the polish on his nails.

evening haze
settling on the hills –
first mozzie


A week later my home is the venue for a charity art auction. I've hired a gender illusionist to play the role of auctioneer, and the accomplished performer turns up two hours before the gig – the time it takes to don the costume, wig and make-up that help transform the affable and athletic 'Tobin Saunders' into his ultra-feminine alter-ego: 'Vanessa Wagner'.

"I'm just dying for a cuppa," Tobin says, plonking himself on the couch, smiling at my brother and several friends who are fussing over sushi in the kitchen. As I hand around mugs of tea, Tobin is already removing flecks of black varnish from his nails, deep in conversation with my seven-year-old niece.

"That's right, Arabella," he's saying. "I'm a man who'll be dressing up as a woman, but I don't try to hide the fact that I'm a man. I leave my sideburns intact, for instance, and I don't wear fake boobs or shave my legs."

Kids crowd around.

"But you've already got nail polish on, even before you dress up as a woman," Arabella observes. "Men don't wear nail polish."

Tobin takes a sip of tea and regards my niece with an expression of exaggerated horror.

"Oooh, Arabella – and by the way, that's a lovely name, Arabella! – how much have we evolved as a species when we can't even let each other dress, paint or accessorise as we please without suspicion, fear, ridicule or at worst, violence?"

I catch Henry's eye and he beams me a smile. Tobin is winding up his monologue. "What I say to people who dichotomise gender into purely 'male' and 'female' is, 'Loosen up, people! Loosen up!'"

the blue sheen
of a peacock's plumage
all those eyes


Later that afternoon, resplendent in a pink polyester pantsuit and enough plastic 'bling' to sink a prawn trawler, Vanessa negotiates her way through two hours of bidding wars that results in the sale of more than forty paintings, prints and sculptures. Interspersing the serious business of selling art with astute social commentary and sharp-witted banter, our heavily hirsute hostess exceeds my expectations; the auction raises three times the anticipated amount. Also happy to mingle, Vanessa wins the hearts of everyone present – whether talking with a celebrated sculptor, the local vet or a young woman living with a traumatic brain injury.

That night as he prepares to leave, my brother explains that if Tobin were running for Prime Minster, he'd have his vote for sure. I think back to Tobin's comments about nail varnish and wonder if my brother had heard. Perhaps, sometime soon, I'll tell him about nail polish-wearing celebrities like Antonio Banderas, Lenny Kravitz and David Beckham.

red eyes
and a red bum …
an otherwise black beetle

by Sharon Dean
Alstonville, New South Wales, Australia
first published in Contemporary Haibun Online, V3, N2, June 2007

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