Broken arms and legs. A severed head. That was the condition of his doll three days after it was bought at the flea market using the money he had set aside each day. It had stayed in his room for just as long and now his mother tossed the doll into a wastebasket.
“You’re not allowed to buy these dolls, anymore,” said his mother. “I’m tired of having to repeat myself over and over again.” She scolded him with one hand on her waist and another pointing at him. The boy did nothing but look at the floor. It wasn’t the first time his mother had scolded him and used his doll as a punching bag for her anger. The boy didn’t regret buying the doll — but he wondered whether all adults had the tendency to break things when they were angry.
She never seemed to agree with anything he liked to do. She yelled at him whenever he was out with his friends, especially when she caught him cheering them on during a game of skipping.
She would emerge from the house carrying a broomstick in her hand and give him the look. It was a code. Just as soon as she emerged from the house, the boy would run back inside and lock himself inside his bedroom to avoid a beating.
Then there were times when the boy would beg his mother to buy him a hairpin from one of the carts that would go past their house every Sunday morning. “Just one, please,” he would say.
“No,” she would reply.
But the boy wouldn’t give up. Instead, he upped his game a little and squealed like a little girl. “Please, please, please.”
The mother, her face red and swollen with anger, would raise her voice, “You’re a boy, Ranto! Act like one!”
Yes, that was his name. A boy’s name. He was a boy, at least that was what everyone told him. His parents, his teachers, everyone. And he did not challenge the image, nor did he challenge the biological fact of his physical body. He was a boy. And yet — in ways he could not explain, he was also something else. He didn’t like his name, for example. It wasn’t a good fit for him.
Every time someone called him by that name, he felt as though it belonged to someone else. But he wouldn’t know how to explain this feeling of otherness. Or what, exactly, he wanted to be, if not the boy everyone said he was.
Ranto stood in front of the mirror and paid close attention to his own reflection.
So, that was him. The boy who was taught how to grow up believing in the values and images of a man’s man, an army man, a soldier who goes into battle and conquers enemies. His father was an army man. And most army men are hard on their boys, training them as they would their infantry unit — with calculation and precision and physical punishments.
Every now and again his father would hit him, believing it was the best way to build one’s character, and in this way his mother had little choice but to let her husband do his part as a father.
“You’re my only son,” said the army man. “You will carry on my legacy.”
Ranto turned sideways to get a good look at his reflection in the mirror. Neatly combed hair. Creaseless shirt. Smooth skin. Elongated neck, as elegant as a swan’s. No, he was not the same as other boys. He was better than other boys.
Ranto slinked into his mother’s room and discovered a tube of lipstick. Red as a rose. And how interesting!
He hid the tube of lipstick under his shirt as he walked out of the room; then he quickly dashed into his own room and closed the door. Unfortunately, he didn’t remember to lock it.
He went about his usual routine of applying new things to his face. He stood in front of the mirror and pressed the tip of the red lipstick against his lips. Slowly, delicately, he swung his hand from one side of his mouth to another, first the bottom lip, then the upper lip. Once he was satisfied with the coloring on his lips, he pressed them hard against each other.
They almost sparkled. He smiled. Then he ran the tip of his tongue across his upper lip, tasting the glossy cover. It was bitter. Yet it was oh-so-pretty.
Suddenly, his mother opened his bedroom door. Her face turned grey at the sight of him. He thought she nearly fainted in the doorway, but then her anger saved her from the breakdown that might have followed.
“What kind of person are you?” she screamed at him. “Are you trying to bring shame to our family?”
Ranto was used to this sort of remark; in fact, he was immune to it. He knew there was something unacceptable about the way that he was, the way he would always be, but he wanted what he wanted and he didn’t know how to unwant all the things he wanted. He was a boy on the outside. But he didn’t care much about it.
Inside, though, he was a beautiful and dazzling girl who would have been the envy of all the girls he knew in school, and the subject of adoration of all the boys he knew there, too. If only they could see her, Ranto thought. She would take their breath away.
Ranto would rather help his mother in the kitchen than join his father on a fishing trip. He was actually a pretty good cook; he knew how to handle ingredients and he was able to master several cooking techniques just by watching his mother.
Sometimes he wondered how it was possible that his own parents could not see what he saw and felt so strongly. Aside from his physical appearance, Ranto was the perfect girl. He loved doing girly tasks — cleaning, cooking, sewing.
His handwriting was so much better than the ordinary girls at school. And he was always bursting with creativity. If he was able to, he would arrange his bedroom like a garden with flowers in every corner.
He would stack his clothes neatly in a closet and he would build himself a special desk painted in different shades of rose. It would be as grand as the Garden of Eden — and he would be the most gracious Eve there ever was.
Ranto lay on his bed and watched the ceiling above him, occasionally blinking his eyes. He was alone in the world, he thought. He was a small boat coursing through an ocean of otherness, not knowing where to go, or how to get anywhere without drowning. Then he fell asleep.
When he was younger, Ranto would dab his entire body with baby powder after a bath. He would dress up in front of the mirror and thought of what it meant to be beautiful. He felt like dancing. There was a song playing in his head. I wouldn’t want to be anybody else, because I am beautiful in my way.