Ollie is pretty sure these guys are all weirdos. That’s all right, he can handle that. Schneider and Richard are good, he likes them. They’re weirdos for sure, but in a likeable way. They’re the only ones he really knows. The others all know each other, to some greater or lesser extent, but he still feels like the little one, ironically, the inexperienced newcomer. He’s getting to know them, though slowly. That suits him fine. Till is steady, he appreciates that. Pretty weird though. Paul and Flake he still doesn’t have figured out, even after these months. He’s got plenty of evidence, though, that they, too are indeed weirdos. And the more time they spend together, the more obvious it gets.
It really comes to a head their first morning in the house. They’re all milling around in the kitchen getting coffee and breakfast, most of them wearing shorts and not much else. It’s going to be another warm day. When Flake comes in Ollie thinks at first glance he’s wearing another of his oversized striped shirts. But on a second look it has a little round white collar and it’s fitted across his shoulders, though not tight. It’s a dress, a girl’s dress, with light blue and white stripes. And now that he’s looking it has a gathered waist, which is way up by his armpits.
Ollie’s not going to say anything. What’s there to say, Flake’s wearing a dress? He hates stating the obvious, especially for inane observations like that. So he just leans against the counter and smears butter on his roll.
But Schneider snorts. “Flake, you still have that?” he asks. “People are going to think you’re a sissy.”
Anywhere Ollie’s ever been, those are fighting words, but Flake just grabs an empty cup from the counter and says easily, “Like that could get worse?”
Schneider grins and shrugs. Paul is still monopolizing the coffee, so Flake waits.
Till interrupts his conversation with Richard to say with a half-smile and a stirring gesture, “Give us a spin?”
Flake obediently does an awkward pirouette, the skirt belling out under his arms. He doesn’t quite make it all the way around, and staggers sideways as he loses momentum.
“Nice.” Till chuckles, and Flake grins at him.
Paul turns with his coffee and his mouth full of bread and says, “Did you bring the pink one?” So apparently Flake’s nightgowns are a thing his friends just know about.
Flake ducks his head. “Nah, not for just two weeks.” He seems slightly embarrassed by the attention, but not about the dress at all. It hits him a little above the knees, long skinny legs sticking out underneath, and flares out again as he turns to pick up the coffee pot. He parks himself across from Paul at the table, and no one else seems to give it another thought.
They finish their breakfast and a discussion of the day’s plan of attack. As they go to put it in action, Paul kicks Flake under the table. Ollie distinctly hears his bare foot smack on Flake’s shin as he says, “Put on pants, you savage.”
Which again sounds like asking for trouble to Ollie, but he barely knows Flake. Who seems to take no offense, but instead just rolls his eyes and says, “I wasn’t going to wear pyjamas all day, you know.”
The day goes...fine. They talk a lot, over every little thing, and Ollie’s never been in a band that did that. But when he speaks they listen, and he’s never been in a band that did that, either. He could get used to that. It’s warm in the house, but the stone walls insulate them from the worst of the day’s heat.
They knock off late in the afternoon, and it’s Ollie and Richard’s turn to cook. Richard’s all right, he likes cooking with Richard. They eat outside, it’s finally cooled down a little, and kick around a football as the shadows get longer.
As everyone goes to their own evening activities he sees Flake duck inside, and a few minutes later the back storm door slams. Ollie follows the smell of cigarette smoke to Flake. He’s back in the dress again, lounging on the concrete steps. He nods as Ollie approaches.
Ollie sits beside him on the steps, the old layer of paint under his hands breaking into sharp little shards, the concrete underneath gritty. He dusts his hands off and braces his forearms on his knees. Flake’s leaning back on his elbows with his bare legs stretched out down the steps, ankles crossed. The skirt is hiked way up his thighs. He’s got a cigarette pinched in the crook of his index finger and the rest of the hand around a beer bottle. The evening sun through the trees dapples over them both. Flake doesn’t say anything, but he nudges the little stack of cigarettes and lighter over.
Ollie fishes his pack out of his baggy cutoffs and snags Flake’s lighter. He has his own, but Flake seems welcoming, he doesn’t want to seem totally unreceptive. He sneaks a peek as Flake takes a drink of his beer, cigarette making a smoke trail as it’s lifted along for the ride. He’s wearing leather fisherman’s sandals that haven’t been in style since before Ollie was born, with the heel straps stomped down. He has a huge length of pale sinewy leg before the hem of the skirt falls. The sun catches in the light fuzz of hair on his legs, there’s a little more on his inner thighs than outer.
When he wants a drag of his cigarette, Flake puts the beer bottle between his knees and rolls the butt up to the outside of his forefinger with his thumb. He covers his whole mouth with his hand while he pulls from it. Then he tucks it back into the fold of his finger and picks up the beer again. Ollie doesn’t think he’s ever seen anyone smoke like that. The bottle left cold wet spots on the skin on the insides of his knees, sticking the hair down.
He knows Flake can be plenty chatty - truly, he keeps up with Paul, which must be crucial to how they’ve gotten along for so many years. He wishes Flake would do it now, so he didn’t have to hold up his end of the conversation. But it’s a conversation he wants to start, so he’ll have to do it anyway.
“Why do you wear that?” He waves the cigarette in the direction of Flake’s dress.
Flake warily glances at him out of the corner of his eye. He pauses before answering, like he’s deciding how much to say. Finally he mumbles, “‘s comfortable.” He takes a sip of his beer.
Ollie waits, to see if there’s more coming. After several seconds of silence, Flake adds, “Was a hand-me-down from my cousin.”
Ollie tries to think of a way to ask why on earth he still wears it without being rude. He finally settles on, “When you were a kid?”
Flake looks guarded as he answers, “You remember what it was like, everybody took what they could get.”
That didn’t extend to men wearing girl’s dresses, Ollie thinks to himself. But if he can get Flake talking about his childhood he’s got it made, Flake can ramble forever about that.
“Does she look like you?”
Flake thinks. He uncrosses his ankles, crosses them with the other on top. His sandals are kind of ugly, something his grandpa would wear. “A little. Shorter, obviously.” He peeks at Ollie around his shaggy hair, and Ollie grins. Story of his life. Flake smiles cautiously back at him. “She’s got kids now. In the West.” He does his beer-bottle-and-cigarette maneuver to take a drag. Ollie waits. Flake keeps the cigarette pinched between his thumb and the side of his finger as he says, “Older than me, of course.”
He tucks a hank of hair behind his ear with the same hand, scraping it back with his three free fingers. Somehow Ollie can almost see her for a second, leggy and skinny and blonde at twelve, wearing a dress that’s going to be too small, but worse is going to be too young, next year she’ll want something that isn’t a little girl’s style. She’ll grow into the legs, and out of the dress, and her parents will box it up for the poor little cousins in the East.
“I liked how it smelled when I first got it,” Flake continues. “Though it was just laundry detergent.”
Ollie nods, and lets out a breath of smoke. Finally he says, “I like it.” Which isn’t exactly true, he wouldn’t say the emotion he has when he looks at it is quite captured by ‘like’ , but it’s not exactly wrong either.
Flake gives him an appraising look, the long golden patches of sunlight sliding across him as the breeze blows through the trees. Ollie looks back, through Flake’s thick glasses to his round blue eyes.
Flake looks away first. “Look, don’t be a dick about this, and I’ll tell you the other reason.” He positions the cigarette and picks up the bottle, takes a swig. He looks painfully young for a moment, a thin little delinquent in an old dress trying out bad habits. “It heads off trouble. If someone is going to have a problem with me, it tends to encourage them to announce that right up front.”
“Why would anyone have a problem with you?” Ollie is legitimately puzzled, Flake is nutty but seems completely harmless.
Flake makes a short little bark of a laugh that has no humor in it. “Pick a way, I’m weird. The dress just makes it obvious.”
After a moment of contemplation, Ollie offers, “I’ve seen worse.”
“Ah,” Flake flaps his other hand dismissively, “and therein lies the beauty of hanging out with other weirdos. Compared to Aljoscha, say, I’m practically a well-adjusted member of society.”
Not much of a qualification, Ollie thinks, but perhaps that was the point. He nods.
They sit quietly for a few minutes. The sun is setting, gold turning to copper on Flake’s legs. When his cigarette is in danger of burning his fingers Ollie stubs it out on the step between them, and while he looks down at it he says quietly, “This is going to sound odd. I expect you to say no.”
“After what I just said?”
Ollie doesn’t let himself stop. “Can I touch it?” He can’t look up, can’t look to see Flake’s face. He stares at his kneecaps instead. The world stops for a minute, crickets starting to chirp their solitary songs, the breeze rustling through the trees.
Softly Flake asks, “Why?”
Hunched next to him, Ollie doesn’t know what to say. He didn’t expect Flake to sound so completely neutral, like he only cares about the reason, not the request. “I don’t have siblings. My cousins are boys,” he finally produces. “Younger than me.”
Flake doesn’t answer at first, and Ollie is afraid he’s really screwed up. But Flake doesn’t get angry, he just drinks the last of his beer and drops the butt into the bottle. His voice is light as he says, “I’m not actually a girl, you know.”
“No, I know, but I -” Ollie hates that he does this when he’s flustered, “Are you -” he can’t put words together, “Do you -” but of all people Flake might forgive him.
“Do I like girls?” Flake actually sounds totally comfortable with this conversation, strangely. More than he did a minute ago, even.
“Unfortunately.” Ollie’s fingers tighten on the corner of the step. “Though since I never make anything easy for myself, I’ll just tell you I don’t stop there.”
“I’m not -” Ollie takes a breath, tries to let his brain have a chance to make a sentence. “It’s really just the dress. That I want to touch.”
“Oh, is that all.” Flake sounds slightly sarcastic, but not unkind. Ollie steels himself and glances over. Flake is looking back at him, smiling a little, bottle hanging loosely from his hand. The dress is snug across his chest, pulled tight by his upper arms, the skirt falling away from the backs of his thighs to lie below on the peeling steps.
Ollie swallows. “Yeah.”
“Hey, if that’s what you want.” Flake stands, brushing himself off. The dress hangs down farther than when he was sitting. He puts the bottle on the top step. “Let’s go down to the bench, where everyone and the dog doesn’t come through.” He offers Ollie a hand. “If I’m going to let boys feel me up.”
Ollie’s brain just thoroughly short-circuits at that, he can’t produce a single word of protest. Flake doesn’t seem to notice or care, so instead he reaches up and takes his hand. He mostly lifts his own weight, though, he’s pretty sure Flake couldn’t stand up to a stiff breeze.
As they amble down the lawn, Ollie gets himself together to ask, “Don’t you think this is kind of fucking weird?”
Beside him in the slanted light, Flake grins. “I’m weird, right? Look, I’m hugely, pathologically anxious. I have a whole list of things that are completely off-limits. When I’m not trying to avoid them, I’m trying to avoid thinking about them. Otherwise my brain just goes round and round, worrying that maybe, someday, I’ll be sick on a train. For instance.”
He glances at Ollie, like he expects him to say something, or interrupt him, but Ollie doesn’t.
He goes on, “It doesn’t help to know that they’re stupid, or unlikely, or no one else would mind. But there is one treatment. Distraction. Well, that and alcohol. But as long as I’m sufficiently engrossed in something else, I can crowd out the anxiety. And you’ve so far managed to completely stay away from anything that sets me off. So if you’re just fucking weird, that’s great. Fucking weird is fun and interesting.”
“Oh.” Ollie thinks this over. “Does that get you into trouble?”
“Eh, define trouble. Girls mostly scare the shit out of me, so no problem there. I’d have a hard time holding down a normal job, so that could cause me some issues, but so far so good. I don’t yet find a life of crime intriguing, though if I ever become a gangster or something I guess you’ll know why.”
They’ve come to the bench, which sits in a little grove of trees at the bottom of the yard. It’s nice, surrounded by the thick greenery. It’s been cool and shaded all afternoon, and it’s well screened off from the rest of the garden. “I bet everybody comes here to make out,” says Flake, who Ollie is coming to think has no filter at all.
“Probably,” he agrees. It is exactly the place everyone would go to make out. He sits on the bench.
Flake stands right in front of him, arms at his sides. “Knock yourself out.” He sounds weirdly like Paul when he says that, and Ollie has a moment of insight into their status as spiritual twins.
“How - what do I - what -” his brain has given up on words again. He just looks helplessly up into Flake’s face, otherwise he’ll be looking right at his dress-covered middle.
“Sorry.” Flake sounds genuinely contrite. He steps sideways and turns to sit beside him. “Should have asked. How would you like to do this?”
Ollie draws a shaky breath. He’s still kind of in shock that this is happening, that Flake is so prepared to let him do this. Whatever this is. It’s hooking him deep, somehow, this forbidden thing offered so casually. “Can I -” he points to the fabric draped between them.
“Don’t grope me, otherwise it’s all yours.” Flake reaches into a pocket that’s up by his ribs, he stuffed the pack in there.
Ollie barely notices him lighting up, he’s reverently gathering a handful of the striped cotton. It’s soft, almost threadbare. He’s surprised it’s lasted, given that Flake must have gotten it twenty years ago. He holds it crumpled in one hand, and strokes his fingertips across the hills and ridges of it. He’s trying to not pull it tight against Flake’s thighs. Flake impassively looks out at the trees, the sky, unperturbed. Ollie realizes his own breathing has gone shallow.
Flake turns back to him. He sucks in a drag, holding the cigarette between two fingers like a normal person this time. Smoke streams from his mouth as he says, “This isn’t half bad, as far as interactions I’ve had while wearing this go, you know.”
Ollie nods, hand tight around a wad of the skirt. He forces himself to look into Flake’s eyes as he raises the other hand to his shoulder, seeking for any signs of discomfort as he strokes down the outside of the short sleeve. Flake just takes another suck of smoke, the cherry bright in the gloaming shade, and says, “Wanna wear it?”
Ollie is paralyzed. “Yes,” he whispers.
“Just about everyone else has,” says Flake cheerfully, handing the cigarette to Ollie.
He lets go of the skirt to take it. “Wait, what?”
Flake stands up again. “Yeah, it’s not going to fit Richard or Till, but Paul and Schneider each had to have a go.” He puts his hands on the hem. “A while ago.” He pauses again. “You mind me stripping?”
Ollie shakes his head, and Flake pulls it off over his head, white briefs and long torso coming into view. He holds it out, and Ollie gives him the cigarette back in exchange.
Flake flicks the ash off before poking it into his mouth, where it wobbles wildly as he says, “It helps to have the shoulders of a twelve year old girl, but you should fit. Just take it easy.”
Ollie is skeptical, but if Schneider fit he might too. He tugs his shirt off and drops it on the bench, then turns the dress around in his hands. It just feels like old t-shirt, washed to death. He finds the armholes through the bottom and eases it over his head. Somehow expected it to smell different, sweeter. Girlier. But it smells like cigarette smoke and Flake. It falls over his chest, his upper back, the insides of his arms. He shudders.
“Are you stuck?”
“No.” He wiggles through the top of it, until his arms are far enough through to pull the rest of it down.
Flake crosses one arm over his chest and rests his other elbow on the wrist, cigarette dangling. He’s apparently fully at ease standing here in his underpants and sandals. Ollie can feel that his eyes are wide as he looks back. The dress is tight around his shoulders and chest, tighter than on Flake, and billows loose from there down.
“Take the shorts off.” Flake grins. “Get the full experience.”
Ollie kicks off his sandals and reaches up under the skirt, suddenly modest. Not for any good reason, it’s just wearing the dress that’s making him feel naked. The shorts drop away, and the skirt brushes around his thighs as he steps out of them.
“Now you have to twirl,” commands Flake.
Gingerly Ollie lifts his arms. He doesn’t think it’s good for the dress when he raises them too far up, it strains and stretches, so he just puts them out to the sides. He spins, and the skirt pulls away into a round little dome. It’s fascinating.
“Change directions sometimes, otherwise you get dizzy,” Flake advises. Like giving tips on spinning in his dress is a thing he routinely does.
Ollie reverses, the skirt twining tight around him before spinning out in the other direction. He suddenly wants to laugh. He also kind of wants to run away, sprint as far from everything as he can, wear his body out with the relentless cycle of breathing. He could do cartwheels like a kid. He could drag his fingernails down his arms, his chest, ripping himself out of his skin. He spins the other way, the dress spiraling in around him before spreading like a flower opening from bud to bloom. He presses his hands over his eyes, even though he’s getting disoriented.
“Hey.” Flake sounds more friendly than anything else. His voice fades in and out as he goes past Ollie’s ears, “Are you freaking out?”
Ollie gulps. “A little.” He stops his spin, and moves his hands from his eyes to his shoulders, arms in an X over his chest. He sways, unbalanced.
Flake doesn’t say anything right away, just prods the bench and sighs. “I’m going to get splinters in my butt.” He drops the end of the cigarette and squashes it with his sandal.
“You could put on my shorts.”
“Yeah?” He grabs them and shakes them out before he pulls them up. Ollie’s never been able to reconcile Flake’s history of stardom with how dang goofy he is, but somehow he can see it when he casually puts on the shorts. The way he didn’t give it a second thought, he just instantly went for it, without a care for how he looks, like he’s so confident that it will either look great or it doesn’t matter. Even though he’s all elbows and skinny white-clad butt, and the shorts are old and huge, he makes it look...maybe not cool, but something.
Ollie thinks of himself as pretty slim but the shorts barely hang on to Flake’s hips before he sits. He grabs Ollie’s shirt from next to him, but instead of putting it on he wads it up and puts it on top of his bare, bony shoulder. He looks expectantly at Ollie and pats the seat beside him, like of course that’s what they’re doing now.
Flake stretches his arm out on the back of the bench behind him. Ollie puts his own hands flat on his thighs, then spreads his fingers, the dress thin and warm under them.
“C’mere.” Flake pats the bunched up shirt on his shoulder, and Ollie realizes it’s meant to be a pillow. Heart thudding, he gently lays his head down on it. He almost never gets to put his head on someone’s shoulder, but Flake is nearly as tall as him. Flake puts his arm around his back. “There you go.” He wraps his hand over the soft sleeve of the dress.
“Why?” Ollie can’t force his voice above a whisper.
“My shoulders aren’t very comfortable. Too pokey.”
Ollie shakes his head, wasn’t it obvious that wasn’t what he meant? He can’t tell if Flake is making fun of him or just avoiding the question.
“Was that the answer to a different why? Sorry. Trying again. You’re a lot less scary when you’re scared. I figured you wouldn’t mind.”
Ollie shakes his head again, his words muddled. Is he scared, is that what this is? What kind of wouldn’t mind? Not that he does, but what is Flake even after here?
Even though Flake has been speaking in a normal, quiet voice, Ollie can’t get above a whisper. “I meant how are you so - so relaxed for all of this?”
“Oh. That.” Flake squeezes him gently. His hand feels narrow, the bones only thinly padded. “Does it help to know you’re not the first? I’ve seen this before, or something like it. See, some guys want to wear a dress, this dress, just for the novelty. Some guys get off on it. Some just think it’s comfortable. But a few guys have more of a reaction than that. So I can at least try to not make your life difficult about it.”
They sit quietly while Ollie gets his thoughts in order. He hates to be patronized, he’s always been the big quiet kid people talk down to and try to rile up for fun. But even though Flake is a little older than him, and quite a bit more experienced than him, he still seems so dotty. It feels like getting advice from his grandpa. And this is about as straightforward as Flake has ever been with him. At length he asks, “What is it?”
“The reaction? I can’t tell you, I have no idea. That’s all on you to figure out, I’m just a dork in a nightie. But it happens.”
Ollie relaxes minutely, settling his head more heavily on Flake’s shoulder. The top of his shaved head nestles against his neck. “Anyone I know?”
“The outcomes of dress parties are always held in the strictest of confidence.” So he won’t tell Ollie, but he won’t tell on him either. He goes on, “Look, I’ve seen a lot of weird shit -”
Ollie grins, he can only imagine.
“Yeah, and I’ve done some weird shit, and some of it was fun, and some of it I’m never doing again. But this,” he pinches the skirt beside Ollie’s hand, fingers pulling it across his thigh to lift it a little, let it drop back down, “doesn’t even register. I just don’t think it’s weird. I like to wear dresses, other people do too, all is right with the world.”
Flake clears his throat. “I have a more selfish motive, too.”
Here it comes, thinks Ollie.
Flake pauses before continuing. “I - I don’t usually get to be the calm, confident one. It’s a nice change. Because sooner rather than later you’re going to see me clammy and shaking and drooling like a terrified cat about something everyone else thinks is normal. And again and again, if we stay in this band.”
That wasn’t what Ollie expected at all. Flake sounds resigned, self-conscious in a way he hasn’t been this whole time. Ollie nods on his shoulder.
Morosely Flake adds, “And the stutter is probably overdue to come muck up my life again, you’ll get to experience the full glory of that, too. It’s exactly as humiliating as it sounds. So if I can build up a little good will before then…” he trails off.
Ollie thinks about this for a minute. He realizes he’s just been letting Flake hold him, and they’re wearing each other’s clothes, and it hasn’t even been especially awkward. It’s blue all around, the evening stretching into night. The crickets are in full swing, and the sky is lighter than the shadowy hollow here between the trees, with a couple stars barely showing. There’s enough light yet that he can still see features, like Flake’s shape inside his baggy shorts. And he’s sitting here in a dress, in the dusk at the bottom of the yard with Flake’s lanky arm around him, and it feels good.
Worse than that, it feels terrifyingly cosy and comfortingly dangerous, like the gentle warmth of hypothermia, like the silence following a gunshot. He feels like a worshiper in a white marble temple consecrated by his own quivering gore, viscera splattered out on the altar. Like he’s been flayed open, and some holy burning light poured in under his skin. In a minute he’s going to have to go back to the real world, where he can’t live forever like a fish swimming in this torrent of hot terror and starshine.
Overcome, he reaches for Flake’s other hand on the bench across him, catches it by the wrist and brings it to its mate on his shoulder. Flake says, “Hmmh?” but doesn’t resist, and then gets the idea and pulls him in closer with both warm arms. Ollie puts his own hand back in his lap.
He finds his voice. “You’ve been pretty generous with the good will, I would say.”
Flake jiggles his resting head as he laughs. “Hey, I try, on the rare occasions when I can afford it.”
“Do you want your dress back?”
“In a minute. I’ll get cold soon.”
Ollie luxuriates for a few brief moments that melt away like spun sugar, gone as soon as he tastes them. He doesn’t wait too long before stirring, though, he doesn’t want to make Flake ask. The places that had been touching him suddenly feel chilled as he stands up. He peels the dress off in one movement, no sense in dragging it out. He drapes it over his arm while Flake undoes the button and lets the shorts just plummet. He feels less exposed when he’s standing there in just his boxers. They trade. He gets a glimpse of Flake stretching up to ease his arms into the sleeves, his nipples darker than the rest of his skin, before he glances away. He doesn’t watch while Flake tugs the dress down.
There’s still light in the sky as they walk quietly back up to the house, but the yellow lights in the windows are far brighter. They let themselves back in the back through the kitchen. In the main room Schneider is curled up on the couch with a book, the lamp casting a warm bubble of light around him.
“Have a nice tall-guy date?” He doesn’t really look up. “I bet the bench down there is the best spot for making out.”
Flake waves airily to him on his way through. “Dress party. You know.”
From the way Schneider’s head jerks up to stare at Flake’s receding, swishing back, he does know. His gaze darts to Ollie.
Oh. Oh. Ollie stares back, his eyes gone wide.
So he’s pretty sure these guys are all weirdos, but maybe he’ll fit right in.