‘My apartment is right here. Don’t mind the lights,” he tells me in reassurance.
I am soon in a room with metal racks full of mannequin heads, knotted wigs, and unfinished dresses and skirts. There is a small table with black leather bags spilling out with makeup. Under the table is a neon blue fuzzy carpet with stains of brown foundation or, possibly, mascara.
He changes in the bathroom as I sit down on the dirty carpet. I was becoming nervous by how comfortable he was around a stranger in his home. He has become a woman. When he emerges, he is wearing nothing but tights; his head covered in a hair net; and has a full face of makeup. He has become a woman.
“I just need to let you know that I have never done someone else’s makeup before,” she lets me know as she takes a seat next to me on the ground. “I might f— it up, but you’re going to look beautiful.”
“OK,” I say timidly.
“You need to close your eyes,” she commands.
My heart begins to pound, the thud of each pulse vibrating through my entire body as I force my eyes to stay closed. The powder and makeup start to burn my skin, and a sweat breaks out on my brow, but I try not to make a sound or flinch. She hums to herself and pauses occasionally to curse under her breath. As soft brushes graze my face, I can only imagine what I look like. I have no sense of time.
After a long pause, longer than the others, she says, “You can open your eyes now.”
It feels like they have crusted over, but it is just the makeup stuck to my face. Even though my eyes are open, staring back at the stranger who just spent the past hour doing it, I still cannot see myself. She keeps saying how cute I am, though I can’t tell if she is complimenting me or herself on a job well done.
I get up from my spot. My knees pop from sitting cross-legged for so long. As I move to the mirror, a part of me does not want to see what I am. My eyes have been shut since before I entered the apartment, but I tell myself it only takes a moment to look. I need to see what that moment means. So I pull myself together and open my eyes.
In the wooden mirror in front of me, I see a beautiful woman staring back at me. I can hardly recognize her except for the curly brown hair we happen to share. A smile begins to creep on my face and my eyes refuse to blink.
A night out in Tokyo
As a 19-year-old university student in Tokyo, I finally have the chance to start making my own decisions about who I am. I came to Tokyo about two years ago from Michigan. I have not been back home since. I moved a month-and-a-half after I graduated high school. I currently identity as a queer, non-binary person, but that journey has not been easy to understand. It started with how I look, specifically with makeup. I had never embraced my feminine qualities until I met the drag performer Okini in Tokyo.
Okini, also known as Hayato Sato, and I met on a queer online dating app. Okini is originally from Hiroshima but came to Tokyo to study fashion design and work. We both arrived in the city at roughly the same time. I originally only met Sato, finding out later he was also Okini through his Instagram account. We started talking just as the initial panic about the pandemic was picking up, leading to a state of emergency in April 2020. We had never met in person until the night he painted my face in June. Sato and I have now been in a relationship for almost a year. We started dating after the moment he put me in drag.
“Wow, I can’t even see my old self,” I tell Okini. “You did such an amazing job — I love it!”
Okini swats away my compliments with graceful humility. She says this is the easy part. Next we need to get dressed and head out into the night.
Despite my nerves, there is a privacy in this moment shared between us. No one else had to know. No one else could judge me. I was lucky Okini was understanding and gentle. Going out into public was different.
I started the process by putting on a corset for the first time. I felt my ribs bending and my breath getting shorter. I look at Okini.
“Beauty is pain,” she tells me, with the impassioned grin of a talented artist.
It’s OK, because I want the full fantasy tonight. As we head to the door to leave, she stops me and hands me a pair of 7-inch black heels. I had never gone out in makeup before, let alone walk in heels. My fears of looking like an injured baby deer are realized.
The heels were also larger than my own feet. Okini is 178 centimeters tall, I’m around 160. We look like a mother and daughter going out to take pictures.
My ankles begin hurting as they bend and wobble in the heels. Okini pushes me to keep going.
It’s 2 a.m., and the florescent lights of Okini’s apartment building are dim and flickering. It’s cool outside, with a faint mist hanging in the air from the rain a few hours earlier. The only sound is the hum of neon signs that adorn the neighborhood shops in Koenji. The upside of a pandemic is that there are less people milling around what is usually a bustling part of the city — even at night. The coronavirus has provided us with a public privacy that I take great comfort in as I hobble through the streets.
The occasional silhouette runs from light to shadow as we walk by. There are closed izakaya. The only places open are two 24-hour grocery stores across the street from each other. I can hear echoes of drunken laughter in the distance as we find a parking garage to pose for some photos.
Okini helps me into position, holding my shoulders as I move in my heels. Then, out of that same darkness, someone calls out: “Kawaii! Kawaii ne!”
A man, holding onto his friend as he stumbles across the street, cannot stop staring at us. His friend shouts out in English, “You girls are beautiful! We love it!”
A girl? What a strange feeling to be called a girl.
My authentic self
Part of the difficulty of accepting who I am stems from my fear of being judged by others. It starts with my family.
Explaining my sexuality and gender identity to my parents is something I never really did. I first came out as bisexual. After a few months, I realized that was not accurate and queer was more appropriate. However, the trouble I had simply explaining the concept of bisexuality discouraged me from broaching the topic of queerness with them. On top of that, to tell my parents I feel somewhere in-between male and female, someone who wants to appear feminine yet also grow out a beard, is not something I am ready to do. I’ve been hesitant to dive into these ideas on my own — until now.
A week or so after my brief stint in drag, I return home from a long day of work when I see a cardboard box from iHerb sitting in my doorway. I’m suddenly flush with excitement as if I were a child again — on the morning of my birthday with a gift sitting at the table next to my favorite spot. My name is sprawled across the label. This is mine.
I rush in and tear the box open. There, spilled out on my desk, is eyeliner, lip gloss, foundation, highlighter and blush. My nerves start creeping up on me again. This time it is not about applying makeup, but rather where I am going to put it. My desk, with dozens of books stacking high is more of a bookshelf than a workplace.
I sit down in a chair. I pull out a small pocket mirror that I had bought a few days earlier, after purchasing the makeup online. What would Okini do? Did she do my foundation before my highlighter? How much blush is too much? I’m getting overwhelmed. Hold on. Stop. Breathe … I still don’t know what to do.
I start with eyeliner. I pull the skin down on my face to create a smooth area to draw. My hand starts shaking, and I put too much on.
“F—,” I think.
Even though I want to wear makeup, I have ignored the fact that I must learn how to apply it. I pull out my phone and start watching tutorials on how to use the eyeliner, highlighter, blush and concealer I had bought.
Start, apply, fail.
I start cursing under my breath.
Repeat until satisfied. I try five times and, thankfully, each turns out better than the last. At the end, I put down everything and look at my desk. It is covered in sparkles and makeup. My books have a sheer coating that was not there earlier. There are bunches of tissue and cotton tips laid all over. I am finished.
Just as I did a week earlier in Okini’s apartment, I get up to go look at myself in the bathroom mirror. This time I feel different — I did this myself. It was me who tried … and failed … and tried again. I stare at myself fully, and feel confused. Another feeling that I have never felt before emerges, my heart opens and I cry. I am experiencing gender euphoria, the feeling of authentically expressing your identity, for the first time. I cannot let this moment go to waste. My tears are genuine and I’m fully aware this marks a new stage in my life; one where I can start becoming my true self.
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