For me, boobs were a gateway drug.
I am in year 8 English class at my new school, I am fourteen. The girls at my old school wore thicker blue shirts, their bra straps only shown as indiscernable mounds beneath the fabric, but here, at my new school, they wear white lightweight polo shirts, and their bras show through in muted colours and defined shapes and styles and sizes. I am surrounded by a parade of exotic boob holsters, and I want to try on them all.
The first bra I ever tried on was, naturally – one of mum’s. It was like a hoola hoop on me when I was eight. Years later, as I became a chubby teen with gynocomastia – a condition where men develop small, droopy, mostly fatty breasts – after checking and double checking that the coast was clear, I tried on one of mum’s smaller sports bras which I fished from the dirty linen basket. The basket is caked in talcum powder, looks like it came out of Pablo Escobar’s ensuite. I shake the bra clean, pat it down, spilling talcum powder on the floor. Shit! Must remember to clean that up.
To my utter amazement – the sports bra kind of… fits. It’s still soggy in the cups, but mum has lost weight, I’ve gained it, and it feels tighter against my skin than any of her bras I’ve tried on. I test it by jumping up and down, talcum powder raining across my toes, and there is a noticable difference for my chest; my tiny moobs move less. The experience is incredible, I am giddy. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am actually wearing a bra, and it feels so right. I finish the ensemble with my white polo school shirt, pull it tight against my rear, and then look back upon myself in the mirror. And there, perhaps a little chunkier and less vibrant than my classmate’s, was my own bra outline, showing through my school shirt. I stare at it for a long while, with equal parts amazement and longing. So close…
I put it back in the linen basket, taking care to fold its straps and cups as closely as I can to how I found it. I clean up the spilt powder on the floor. Then I re-dust the linen basket and scurry away with ivory hands.
I am in the car with my family on a rare holiday, en route to the Gold Coast. We are travelling in winter, two weeks outside of the school break, because as dad says in the key of a used car salesman: “It’s the off-season, it’ll be cheaper, and there’ll be less school kids, shorter lines. Plus it’s Queensland – it’s always bloody hot, especially in winter.”
So far, the journey has been grueling. Mum folds on any extended travel, she unleashes the dragon and becomes a typhoon in a crimson blouse. She blames this on “you kids”, being my two younger brothers and I, for being perfect bastards of noise, and sometimes “your father” for being a prick. Dad becomes “your father” when he’s in trouble, as if we inherit his shenanigans by birth right. It doesn’t help that his way of cheering mum out of a bad mood is to gently push more of her buttons, but in a goofy, ruh-roh, kind of way.
Today, after eight hours in a car, mum is off the charts steaming with fury. The only moment of levity comes from a roadside alcohol breath test. As we approach it, a uniformed constable waves us down with a small orange lance, and dad moves into a queue of other cars. We roll to a stop and – rpppffft, mum lets one rip. The car goes quiet. Faces dart around to find the person with the most guilty expression.
And then the funk hits.
It is rank, like microwaved genocide, as if forty zombies had died in the chain of a human centipede. It spreads like mustard gas, and there is perhaps a note of mustard to it, as it reaches out and offends the nostrils of everyone in the car.
“Oh Christ! No, oh no!”
“I’m gonna be sick – oh god, oh lord take me, take me now”.
There is a tap on the window.
It is a constable with a breath testing unit. He gives dad a wheely-wheel sign, as though he were twirling an invisible sparkler, and motions for dad to wind down the window. We are all too spellbound by the copper to even think to wind down our own windows. A predicament emerges. Winding down a window will give sweet relief – the fart has started wreaking havoc at a quantum level and it has become a threat to the very paint on the car. But setting it loose… jesus.
After a moment’s hesitation, dad winds down his window. He exhales, then he leans closer to the fresh air and sips from it, parched. The noxious fumes relax their grasp, leaving us all with watery sinuses, and the funk slaps dad in the face as it lunges for freedom. The copper speaks:
“Good afternoon sir, I’m performing a roadside breath test this afternoon and you have been selected at random to participate. Now, have you consumed any alco-”
He pauses, sways. His face recedes from a healthy shade and melts down his bones in shock. His eyes water. Inside the car, we are ready to explode; holding back the laughter takes true concentration.
“Oh, excuse me there. Oh…”
He leans against the car to compose himself, pretends to be checking his detector as he rolls his head away from the torrent of acrid methane. The white plastic straw at the tip of the detector tumbles down to the road.
“Whoop,” he says, “I just dropped my last straw. You folks head on, have a good day.”
He flees, shaking his head, and we erupt in wheezes of laughter. No-one can speak – though we try, only scattered words come out “epic… fart… stench… ungodly… run!”. The car ahead of us moves forward and dad follows it, we move out of the roadside testing bay, giggling and snorting and winding down our windows to breeze free any lingering funk (and it does linger!). The glowing horizon of the Gold Coast skyline appears in the distance.
The family skunkwagon lumbers on.
We arrive at the Big 4 Caravan Park, where we’ve rented a small family cabin. It is pretty average accommodation; aged and worn, with the beguiled chique of a high school demountable. It has a bamboo lounge covered in the same material which makes cleaning vomit off of bus seats easier. My brothers and I head to our room to fight over the beds; I get the one on the far side closest to the window. Outside, betwixt a moat of cabins, I see a bathroom and shower block, for the campers, as well as a series of clothes lines, with nothing drying on them yet. It’s all pretty boring, so far. But there are roller coasters to look forward to.
Our time on the Gold Coast was memorable, if brief. Everywhere we go dad complains about the price of things, especially the food and drink in theme parks – “Jesus bloody Christ, it’s highway robbery! You’d have to sell your arse for a beer!”. We ride the Lethal Weapon ride at Warner Bros; a suspended corkscrew roller coaster we simply can’t convince dad to go on. At Dreamworld, he comes out grinning from the gift shop where he’s scored “I survived the Tower of Terror!” shirts for 90% off in a clearance sale. At the time, the Tower of Terror was the tallest and fastest ride in the world, a powered launch shuttle coaster reaching speeds of 161klm/hour (100miles/hour) and with a tower drop of 115m. We tell him it’s unethical to wear a survivor’s shirt if he hasn’t survived the ride, and to our astonishment – he rides it, if only to justify the bargain. When he steps off the ride he is pale, says “It wasn’t that bad really. Like a big elevator”, wobbling as he tries to get his sea legs back.
On the second to last night of our holiday, the thief struck.
It is a warm winter’s night (yeah… Queensland, where climate change goes to get high). I am fixated on something. I am lying on my stomach, gawking out the window with steely magpie eyes. Tonight, the clotheslines are filled with clothes and bedsheets and towels and bikinis and even a surfboard, laid across the lines. And there are bras. The plan began to perculate in my mind with an exhilerating rush. It was a feeling before it was a thought, something akin to… forged wholeness, perhaps.
I am outside, it is late.
I have a towel with me, to pretend I’ve fetched it from a line. Caravan parks aren’t places which get very dark; there are lights everywhere through the night. But there are shadows between the rows of holiday bungalows, dark pockets where misdeeds are done, and I am in one now. My heart is pounding, it feels irregular. I am aware of both everything and nothing, hyper-alert with adrenalin and blind with fear. There is no time be choosy – I grab the first bra I come across in the dark. It is wet still, large. I am not sure if I’m breathing as I scrunch it into a soggy ball and wrap it in my towel. Then I power-walk out of the shadows and back into our cabin, the journey a heavy blur. I check at the sliding doorway if there is anyone in the living area; it is empty, everyone has gone to bed. I rush into the bathroom, lock the door, freeze… breathe… breathe….
The bra is actually a crop top – it has green and blue horizontal stripes, with massive cups. It is old; the fabric is tatty, has lost structure. As lucky dips go, it is a fucking wet dud. I put it on anyway – it feels almost slimey, and its disgusting against my skin. It is miles too big for me, hangs off me with an emaciated sigh, dropping down and dripping soapy water on my toes. I become nothing but disappointment and shame. There is no wholeness here, I feel – lessened, diminished.
Into the warm night I return.
I am in such a hurry that I forget the towel. The soggy bra is nestled umcomfortably in my hands, as if I am carrying uranium. I freeze as a shadow begins to glide, plucking at the clotheslines on its silky slide towards the shower block. An old man disappears inside. I rush, return to the dark where I found the crop, practically throw it back on the line. It swings, lumbers, then tumbles to the ground. I think about leaving it there, then panic, pick it up and coil it like a snake, almost tying it on the line. Then I run back to our cabin, my own dark shadow never letting me be.
The next morning I eat breakfast on my bed as I watch out the window, hoping that someone will come and collect their garment. When the owner does come, I am in shock. She is a million years old, with a pirate’s limp and an inside-out blue floral dress so obtuse that it probably works better inside-out – or incinerated and worn as a paste of ash. She doesn’t seem surprised at all that her battle-scarred crop top is looped on the line. She pulls at it, slings it over her shoulder, grabs a towel and something else, then hobbles back towards her caravan none the spooked.
All day I am filled with regret and a healthy dose of shame. Yet the regret is not unanchored and more than regretting what I’d done, I was disappointed that I’d failed. In my version of Ocean’s 11, tentatively titled Ocean’s One, I fucked up by robbing a vending machine instead of a casino. I knicked a geriatric’s knee-height booby hammock.
On our last night at the crime scene, my brothers and I were returning from the on-site playground, which had closed at 9pm. As we walked down the loose stoney path, we came across a grid of identical tents. They were not modern tents, they were old, very angular. There was a school coach nearby, watching over the tents like a comatosed guard dog. Yet it’s what’s between the tents which has my attention.
“Hey – I’ll uhh, you head back, I’ll catch up” I said.
My brothers know something is amiss, protest, but I execute older brother privleges and tell them to piss off, they do.
I slink towards the tents. It is darker here than near the cabins, and on this side of the lawns the tents themselves block the light. Hanging between some of the tents are ropes, with clothes drying on them. My heart begins to pound as I creep closer. For all the want of selection, I am riddled with terror, and I cannot linger long. Once again, I grab the first bra I find. This time it is pegged to the rope with a wooden peg. I remove it, then yank at the bra. It stretches in my hand… but then it snaps away and out of my grasp – there was a second peg! The rope wobbles as the clothes sway backwards and forwards gently. I am a stone, paralyzed. The sides of the tents shimmer from the wake of the wobbly ropes, then settle, then stop. I wait a good minute, silent and unmoving, but no-one stirs inside the tents.
I remove the second peg, I take the bra, leave a bag of sand equal its weight, then I piss off before a boulder chases me and I nearly lose my hat under a rocky door.
It is perfect.
A small black sports bra. It has a pattern of pill-shaped holes in the upper layer of the fabric. The inside is stretchy and soft. I put it on, and it is tight upon me, almost too tight. The cups are small, and suit my moobs perfectly. I practice jumping up and down in front of the mirror, then stop, pause – I’m wearing a bra! Not a mum bra, not an old lady bra – a girl’s bra, maybe even someone my age. Somehow, this lets it feel realer, closer to a way of existing that I couldn’t know, as if for a brief moment I am transposed into a parallel universe where I am simply a girl wearing her sports bra. I can’t bring myself to take it off – I go to bed wearing it, caressing my chest, succumb to dreams.
I wake. It is early light. My brothers are asleep. I have the doona pulled tight and high against me. I am filled with shame again now. I get out of bed, sneak out of the cabin. It turned cold overnight, my breath escapes in clouds. Scrumpled in my pocket is the black sports bra. I keep my hand secure on the pocket, with my thumb inside to feel the soft fabric as long as I can before I return it. My plan is to simply run by, toss it, let it land where it lands. Yet when I return to the tent sites – they are gone. The entire school group, packed up and gone before 7am. I walk over to the site where I’d stolen the bra, find an orphaned tent peg resting in the sand. It is crooked, sullen.
I stuff the bra between two collectible plastic cups – one from Seaworld, one from Dreamworld. I push the upper cup down hard, twist. My family and I pack up and leave on our long, fart-powered cranky adventure back home. The whole 12 hour journey, I keep the cups nestled safely between my feet. The outer one reads: “I survived the Tower of Terror!”.
I am back home, I am in the bathroom again. I am wearing the black sports bra; it is delightful. My shame and guilt hasn’t diminished, and I’ve often thought about the girl whose bra I stole over the years. Sometimes I get lost in hypotheticals – what if she was poor, and it was her only bra? What if it was her favourite bra? What if it was like, a special medical bra and now her boobs have fallen off?! It still brings me shame when I think about the loss I caused that fellow traveller at the Big 4. Shame is something that a lot of transgender people are acquainted with. Something as simple as an article of clothing seemed forbidden to me, and the thought of asking for a bra as a child was simply inconceivable – I’d be put in a loony bin, my family would disown me, I’d confirm to everyone the freak I’d felt myself to be.
I am of course not a freak… even if I am a bra thief. Nor is any LGTBQI+ person a freak. We are on the blade of existence, we are the explorers of human experience, the harbingers of love and we are carrying the fire.
I put my school shirt on, turn my back to face the mirror, marvel at the jet black sports bra pressed beneath my white polo shirt. It is as a yang symbol, divorced of its yin – mostly white, with a tiny dash of black in the centre. Which is appropriate – as I feel like a mostly good person who did a bad thing. Yet it also hides a gendered fable. In ancient Chinese lore, the yang symbol is traditionally male (white), with a dash of female, while the yin symbol is traditionally female (black) with a dash of white. Just as I reflected in that mirror as mostly male, with just a dash of female. It is a beautiful thing to advance one’s identity. Yet it is a painful existence to feel… incomplete.
I was a yang with too little yin.
I wish I could reach back to myself at that time and say:
“It’s okay, you’ll be okay. This is actually the start of something awesome, just… stop nicking knickers, kid. And make the most of those pockets.
You won’t have them forever.”