I was chewing a slice of dried mango and browsing ClothesPin in bed when the message arrived — a white bubble in the top right corner of my laptop screen. I clicked on it. A new conversation opened:
you are now chatting with ClothesPin user “rosie <3”
did u know some ppl call green peppers “mangos”
I rubbed my eyes.
“rosie <3” was typing again.
its a midwestern thing
bc back in the olden days mangos were pickled
so they wouldn’t go bad. but then peppers and other
foods were pickled too. so ppl got them mixed up
For a moment I wondered if “rosie <3” was watching me, eyeing the slice of mango in my hand and cackling softly. I didn’t want to look at my window: Maybe there would be a camera there, or worse, another human face staring back at me.
My sister’s name was Rosie, but I assumed she couldn’t find me on the internet because I wasn’t Sebastian on the internet. On ClothesPin, for example, I was mermaid2439. I made at least fifty dollars a month by buying “super-cool swim gear” from the local poolside shop and then selling it all 20% pricier on ClothesPin.
Maybe it was the money that got Rosie’s attention: how I drove ten miles to the Super-Duper-Market to restock my stash of dried mango on a weekly basis. I ordered clothes from ClothesPin. I bought a stuffed walrus for Cate on her birthday. Rosie had wanted to keep the walrus for herself.
Downstairs, the fridge opened. Rosie was probably sticking her head inside, tallying its contents.
I took another bite of my dried mango. It tasted bitter, which I found pretty funny because I’d bought the kind with tons of added sugar, imagining happiness and cavities.
Half an hour later, while I was working a line of floss between my teeth, one final message arrived. That was when I finally realized who I was dealing with.
seb. u owe me for not telling dad
I sighed. Then I struggled to floss with one hand, while typing with the other:
Usually, I met Cate after school in the corridor between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms and the indoor pool. Inside this common corridor, there was an unlocked closet for pool equipment and other junk, which was a horrible design flaw on the adults’ behalf if they really cared about keeping boys and girls as far away from each other as physically possible.
This day, I changed into my Speedo before practice, covered it with a pair of baggy shorts, and waited ten minutes until Cate appeared.
“Seb,” she said. Her voice was raspy. It was late November; I think she had a cold.
“Yeah,” I grunted.
A crowd of boys passed through the corridor on their way to practice. One of them knocked twice on the closet door and made a smooching sound. It was probably Matty. He had a thing for Cate.
Cate leaned back against the kickboards.
“Your sister told me you wear my clothes sometimes,” she said.
There was a brief pause. She was looking past my eyes, scanning the pull buoys stacked against the wall.
I spoke slowly. “Not your clothes, exactly.” She was still staring, so I continued, “I buy clothes. Sometimes I buy the same clothes that you buy when we hang out at the mall.” I hoped she would feel flattered.
“You go to the mall by yourself, when I’m gone?” Cate creased her brows.
“I order online,” I said.
“Oh, right. Rosie told me that part.” Cate nodded. “From ClothesPin, right?”
I was quiet. Cate stared at the ceiling for a while. It was getting late. I could hear whoops and splashes, bodies diving into the water, where I was supposed to be training.
“Family sucks.” I closed my eyes.
Cate said, “It’s not a big deal, Seb.” She crouched and kissed me on my jaw. Her lips were chapped.
“Swim fast,” she told me. Then she left.
I sat there for a while, listening to my dizzy breathing. It sounded so much louder now that I was alone.
In the darkness of my room on Friday night, I ordered a dress from my ClothesPin account. It was worth at least twenty dollars, but I bartered the price down to twelve. Afterwards, I took down all my listings and changed my name to “Cate.”
you are now chatting with ClothesPin user “rosie </3”
seb!! or shall i call u “cate”? how dare u try to hide from me
look im british now hehe
guess whose birthday is coming up...
i would like a stuffed walrus. preferably one with lovely
tusks. walruses have a lot of teeth but they only use their tusks
to fight and poke ppl bc they swallow food whole
can u come home, dad is still out and i dont know how
to use the stove
do u want me to burn the house down
A week later, I left home ten minutes early so I could pick up the newly ordered dress along my morning drive to school. Back then I had packages delivered to the post office rather than the front door — to keep them safe and solely mine.
This dress was the first thing I’d really chosen for myself, though. I was never sure which clothes looked the same in the pictures as in flesh and blood, which was why I usually let Cate try them on first, in the real world. Then I could track down duplicates on ClothesPin.
I’d never seen this dress before, on Cate or anyone. I just liked it. It was from Free People and it was grey with all these floral patterns. I thought it would look nice on me. Maybe, I told myself for the thousandth time, I would wear it to school.
I knew I wouldn’t. School was full of people. I didn’t want to think about what the mean people would say, and even the nice people would manage to drive me crazy with sappy catchphrases, like “Way to let your true self shine!”
But I didn’t want to be called any name other than “Sebastian.” I just wanted to be a guy wearing nice clothes, and sometimes those clothes might happen to have skirts or sparkles, and that would be completely normal. I mean, Cate wore my hoodies all the time, and nobody treated her like a different person. So what if I did the same?
Meanwhile, I was still holding this plastic bundle with a dress inside, too afraid to open it, because what if it wasn’t as dazzling as I expected? Instead I stuffed the package in my backpack.
Then my phone began to ring.
I held it against my ear. “Hey, Cate.”
“Your sister thinks you forgot about her birthday,” Cate replied, yawning into the speaker.
“No way,” I lied. “I already bought her a present and everything!” More lies.
“She says you left for school without her, and now your dad is going to drop her off, and she’s going to feel like a ‘total frosh baby.’ Her words, not mine.”
It was time to change the subject. “Hey, why isn’t your name Kate with a K?”
“Rosie also claims you’re impersonating me on the internet. She recommends I sue you for online defamation.”
“Did you know that green peppers are actually mangoes?”
“If you need a present for her, I still have that stuffed walrus she was so wild about. One of its fang-things is droopy now, but otherwise, it’s in pretty good shape.” Cate cleared her throat. “Anyway. See you later, Seb.”
She hung up.
Immediately, I pulled up the ClothesPin app on my phone. I tapped out a message and sent it to “rosie </3”:
Happy Bday, walrus kid
For three minutes, I sat behind the wheel with the engine idling, waiting for Rosie to reply. She didn’t.
Rosie’s birthday coincided with this really big swim meet against a rich private school. I don’t remember which school, but I remember they were rich and probably private because they had an eight-lane pool with high-tech diving boards and an adjustable floor.
Before my race, I crouched low on the starting block, gripping it with both hands. I knew Cate was watching from the bleachers off to my left, and Matty was racing in lane six, two lanes to my right.
As I dove into the water, I was thinking about how funny it would be if Matty beat me. He was way slower than me. His flip turns were graceless.
Feeling otherworldly was the only part I liked about swimming. I was pounding the water with my arms and legs, and not once did I turn my head to the side to breathe. Air for a mermaid is superfluous, I told myself. My head was screaming.
My coach trailed me on dry land, whistling like a siren, but I could barely hear him. His whistles sounded more violent than encouraging. They were growing louder and sharper, an incessant whirlwind, at the moment when I noticed I was the only one in the pool.
The horn hadn’t blown — a false start.
I stopped swimming and propped one foot against the bottom of the shallow end to glance back at the starting blocks. The other boys were still crouching at the ready, and Matty had this look on his face like he was trying not to grin.
I heard my coach calling, “Sebastian, get out of the pool.” I swam down to the end, where I should have done a flip turn, and instead I climbed out, shaking my wet body like a dog’s.
Cate was standing in the audience. She pointed to me and yelled; I couldn’t make out her words, but I figured out what she was fussing about: a rivulet of blood trickling from my right hand. I must have cut it on the fancy starting block.
Finally, the horn went off. The remaining swimmers soared. Lane four remained empty.
I looked to see if my coach was getting out his first aid kit. He was too busy whistling and hollering for the other boys, and only for an instant did he meet my eyes. I waved at him with my bloody hand.
Then I put on a pair of sweatpants. They might have been my own sweatpants, but probably not. I threw my backpack over my shoulder, kicked my swim bag under the bleachers, and left the room. A light pair of footsteps padded behind me: Cate.
“Let’s run away together,” I said, pushing my way out the door.
Cate grabbed my arm, the non-bloody one. “You should get cleaned up.”
“Let’s go to the Super-Duper-Market. It’s right across the street. Please come with me.” I was already gone, striding backwards across the pedestrian crossing.
“Only if you buy some gauze.” Cate followed me. I think she saw my eyes ringed with red. She said quietly, “You know, I don’t care if you fall sometimes, Seb.”
“I didn’t fall,” I said. “I thought I heard the horn.”
The greeter at the Super-Duper-Market shot me a weird look as we approached the grey building. I gave her a nod, thinking she would recognize me from all my late-night mango runs.
Then I remembered that I wasn’t wearing a shirt. My hair was wet. It was about forty degrees outside, so my skin was probably tinged with purple, complementing my crimson hand.
I was about to open the door when the greeter started to flail her arms around. She was gesturing at a sign that read, “Customers must be appropriately dressed in order to enter the facility.”
I unzipped my backpack to search for appropriate clothing. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to find: a t-shirt, birthed out of thin air? Instead I found what I’d been carrying: a cleanly wrapped bundle from ClothesPin.
Hungrily, I tore apart the packaging.
When I slipped into the dress, my skin was still wet, and it clung to me like a second skin. My sweatpants made the grey skirt billow — a cloud of tulle.
All the while Cate kept giving me the same face from a week ago in the pool closet, like she’d forgotten how to look at me. The Super-Duper-Market greeter had less trouble hiding her bewilderment.
“If you’re going to break up with me,” I said to Cate, “now’s the time.”
“Sebastian,” she said. She only used my full name when she wanted to stall. I waited as she grasped at words.
Then she said again, “Sebastian,” this time like an answer. She grabbed my hand. We took a step forward, and another step. The almost-December wind began to howl.
“Let’s find the gauze,” Cate said to me.
Two humans and one pink balloon were gathered around the kitchen table when I arrived home from the Super-Duper-Market. Rosie was playing a cooking game on her phone. My dad stabbed a tiny square of tiramisu with fifteen candles.
They both looked up as I entered the room. I was still wearing the dress. My arms were full of plastic grocery bags.
“Sebastian?” said my dad. He squinted at my clothes. I ignored him.
Dutifully, I set my treasures on the kitchen table. “Happy birthday, Rosie,” I said, holding the first grocery bag out to her.
It was a new field hockey stick. She’d lost her old one last week and was borrowing one of Cate’s.
Rosie said nothing.
I gave her a bag of dried mango, and another bag, and another. We had the same taste in snacks, but she didn’t eat mine because she knew I was always hungry after swimming.
I gave her a bag of green peppers. I thought she would laugh.
She smiled a little.
There was one more bag. I set it on the dinner table to see if Rosie would accept it. She leaned forward. Her hands were shaking as she pulled out the stuffed animal. She looked me in the eye. “This is an otter,” she said.
“We can call it Walrus,” I told her. “I’m sorry. I tried my best.”
Rosie opened a new bag of dried mango and offered me a piece. My dad was lighting the candles on the cake. Flames flickered, and the wax began to drip.
The mango slice felt foreign in this context, but when I sunk my teeth into the yellow flesh, it tasted sweeter than ever. I exhaled. Rosie handed me another piece.