Alex Li ’19

Fragments of Red Satin

Father stops the car somewhere along Bruckner’s Boulevard and slaps Peter across the face. It was on our way over to dim sum in the city, a family tradition. The stillness casts a shadow of silence over all five of us, and our eyes are fixed on the man slumped in the driver’s seat. Our car is motionless along the roadside, all of us trapped in a sphere of our own making as the rest of the world moves forward. My headphones are plugged in, so I can only see my dad’s lips spitting insult after insult and my brother staying silent like the good boy he’s supposed to be. Maybe my dad found out Peter got a B on his last calculus exam. Or maybe he found the red satin dress in his closet. Peter starts to fiddle with his fingers, scratching away at the scars of black and blue nail polish from the night before. Father keeps on yelling; he starts crying. I leave my headphones on.


6 years ago

Peter sneaks into my mother’s closet and slips on my mother’s black stilettos—scratched with imperfections and a missing heel. He went to the dollar store and bought himself some cheap red lipstick and a tacky floral-print sundress a couple of days ago. He keeps those hidden underneath the untouched action figures father got for him last Christmas.

Father always works late at the Laundromat and mother goes out every night for tea with the rest of the Chinese moms. Abby and I are eight years old, too young to understand yet. When mother leaves the house, Peter is free. He slips on the tattered stilettos, dons his gown, and smears the makeup onto his face.

He is beautiful in his own right. It was the only time I would ever see my brother confident. Peter struts around the house with authority and ambition. He practices placing one foot in front of the other, ready for the runway, and puts on a show for Abby and me. Abby and I think he is playing dress-up, a game, though the game was more real than the lie he lived before 7 PM every day. Peter gives a twirl for us, showing off his toned calves. Abby and I erupt in applause as he gives the most elegant of curtsies, rivaling the perfection of a well-seasoned debutant. It was a show for us, something spectacular and entertaining. A couple of weeks later, my father came home early. He didn’t say a word.


I hear a scream and the crackle of the fireplace. I run to the staircase only to see Peter’s floral-print dress blooming into flame alongside a broken boy. Peter’s face was bloodied and his fingers were burnt.  Peter’s sundress was no more, but he clawed at the flames to salvage what ashes lay behind—his smoldering dreams. My father bought him a tie.


Peter tells us to call him Zoe from now on, but not around mom or dad. He comes home with another dress—one lined in red satin. It burns like the flames that engulfed the flowers. The dress shimmers in the light, igniting my view of the world.  Peter puts on the dress in front of his bedroom mirror and becomes entranced by his new skin. I walk by his room and see him from the corner of my eye. He catches my gaze and smirks. A brawny Jessica Rabbit eying me with allure and zest. My body begins to shiver. I feel cold to the touch, yet my skin starts to permeate with sweat. I turn away and run. 


Kids at my school call my brother faggot. I don’t really know what that means. They said that he feels like a girl and is dating a guy. I find it odd. His boyfriend is nice. They’re cute together. But the other kids make fun of him and he runs to the bathroom. The wrong one. He didn’t come out for an hour yesterday. The other kids followed him this time. He trudged out with a bloody nose, wet hair, and smeared lipstick. Nobody calls him Zoe. I sometimes forget and he forgives me; he tells me to remember next time. There are some times when I do remember, I still call him Peter, it’s more comfortable.


I walk into the bathroom and see Peter. His cheeks are powdered like a china doll, and streaks of misplaced eyeliner layer his face. His eyes glaze, staring down his naked body trembling from the cold. A long scar scathes his entire thigh, circling around to his pelvis on either side, his battle wounds. Father said that Peter had to be the man of the house. He shamed him for walking a daughter’s stride, told him to honor the man who crossed the sea for his children. To honor the man who left the slums of Hong Kong to show him light. Honor.

Yellow bottles litter the counter, empty. Peter starts to sway uncontrollably, his knees buckle from underneath his dainty frame, his eyes roll towards the back of his head. He staggers around the bathroom, performing a sort of dance. Peter drops to the floor and I scramble to his feet. He lies down on my lap, unmoving, unconscious, unnerving; a reincarnation of Pietà, sitting on the chipped tiles of my bathroom floor. “I love you, Zoe,” I cry. Her eyes began to open. She smiled, and I saw a sunrise.


I take off my headphones and open the car door, letting rush hour in and chaos out. My father doesn’t even notice, he keeps yelling at Zoe. 

“How could I raise such a pussy! Be a man and grow out of this skin!”

Mother and Abby follow the tirade, cutting into the fabric of Zoe’s moral fiber with every blade of insult and disgrace they can find.

Zoe just shakes her head and stares at her toes. Her fingers are bleeding now. In unison, Zoe and I disembark from the van, our eyes unwavering and our movements deliberate. We start walking along the roadside; we have no destination in mind. Our eyes wander but never meet. We start turning our heads towards each other. I begin to see the edge of her smile, but I start to shiver and sweat before we fully embrace. My vision fades and I am left with darkness, then bright light.

I cradle myself back into the real world, back into the car alongside Peter. I see my father still yelling at him. Peter sits still in his seat, still fiddling with his chipped nail polish. I sit still. My hands reach to take off my headphones, but stop midway.