Elaine Dunn possessed the most peculiar talent of changing her appearance. It was a peculiar skill she had since birth, as some children are wont to manifest at such an early age. Not dissimilar to, say, an aptitude for responding to music, thrusting one’s little infantile limbs about in a way that reminds parents of dancing, thus spurring a childhood process of traumatization through dance lessons. Young Ms. Dunn, however, instead could wear the faces of many baby girls.
Infants though, for the most part, look and act more or less the same; it was the mother who first took notice through the intimate process of nursing. While initially dismissed as post-natal sleep deprivation, other members of the family noticed the change in hair, eyes — and later, a change in the ever-more distinct features upon the little face.
As many families do with children, these peculiarities simply became a staple of the child’s upbringing. The most curious things can seem so normal to a family immersed in it, but which could puzzle an outsider. Thus, with wanton disregard for control, Elaine ran a wide breadth of shape, sizes, colors with impunity. As the infant rolled from one version to the next, a different set of temperament and attitude would shift with the cheekbones and shapes of little toes.
The infant could inflate to an obese size overnight — dear mother would awake earliest, to call the family to gawk at the ballooned infant. Such a display, after all, one would expect to see only some daytime ‘Doctor Intervention’ television program. Given that the young one was guaranteed to shift to something else in due course, no action was taken.
By contrast, though, Elaine could take the shape of a picture-perfect child. An infant model, the kind to be featured in artistic photographs upon parenting magazines. Naturally, a parent wants to take pictures of this photogenic little changeling, before morphing into a little someone who was a little lacklustre. She would be coaxed with sweets and toys to smile and giggle. And showered she would be, with praise and affection gone unreceived by other versions.
And out of infantile self-interest, the face of Elaine Dunn became that beautiful, well-mannered little girl featured in the family’s social media.
Make no mistake, the young Ms. Dunn would, every now and then, take a new form, even a temporary one, before shifting back into the body her parents identified as hers. Just as the mysteries of language began to replace the empathic language of mouth-noises she shared with her mother, she gained a greater faculty of control over her body-shifting. Whether it would be something as cosmetic as hair color, or something as drastic as the shape of her fingers.
Greater change, naturally, required greater focus and concentration. But to see the change first; then the changes would normally manifest on its own time — usually a few hours or, for most severe changes, overnight. Though, it was always easiest and fastest to revert back to the most familiar face she had built for herself. The naturally flawless face her parents so proudly paraded around the house in picture frames. It was the face that belonged there, posing with her sisters in still images that looked back upon her like a mirror.
Expectedly, she was dissuaded from making any kind of serious change, but even her early schoolteachers expressed concern for a little girl who liked to dye her hair with alarming frequency. Elaine's parents began to enforce stricter rules about how she was to carry herself. When asked why, her parents — her mother, usually — would respond: “It’s unlike normal people to change so much. As long as you have one name, you must be one girl.” Or to some similar effect.
Suffice, Elaine revealed in private times with her families, where she would take on a number of different appearances, to the envy of her sisters. And vacation-times were by far when she felt the most creative. Her body was a blank canvas, which let pigments drip from her thoughts across her skin. Paint and paint over. And, as such, the message that fathers give to daughters, “You can be anything you want to be,” was interpreted by Elaine to be quite literal.
When Elaine was eight, she woke up with a penis. Far from natural, at this age, for children to deconstruct the difference between the appearance of boys and girls beyond the length of hair. Beyond the pink, and the frills, and the skirts, and the sequins and rhinestones upon her running shoes, she wanted to now how it felt to be like the boys whose shoes were all canvas and mesh. For whom lace was replaced with camo, bright colours, and popped collars.
For popped collars were in vogue at the time. At least for the boys. For the other boys.
Without a second thought, entering the kitchen caused her mother to drop a plate. Elaine did not think there would be such drastic a response, given that she had woken up either as a blonde or brunette before. “Really?” asked her mother, her eyes welled and teared as she combed her talons through the short, curly hair her daughter had donned through the night. “Right now? You have to pull this right now? Sweetie, we have company coming tonight, you know that! Change back right this instant do you hear?”
Through conscious effort, it seemed, she was only able to return her eyes to the steely blue, from the near-black that they had become. Her mother cursed under her breath and showed their daughter’s mischief to her husband. “You’re going to have to stop this nonsense at once,” he said, definitively, though gazing at his watch. He turned to his wife, “Fix this up, can’t you?”
“I’m trying, dear,” said mother, like a sting, and took Elaine to the mirror in her bedroom boudoir. The strong cloud of perfume lingered thick, in a way that Elaine hadn’t ever noticed. Though even with her mother instructing her on changing back this very instant, the scent did more to feminize her juvenile face than any urging from her mother. “You need to take this seriously, dear!”
A little boy began to cry while mother rolled her eyes in a way she never had for the sight of a crying girl. “You need to toughen yourself up, because the rest of the world won’t be so kindly towards this thing you do. You won’t always be able to be safe like you are with your family.”
In the end, mother decided that it was a lost endeavor. An elder sister had one idea, that perhaps Elaine was out with a friend for the night, and that this young boy was a nephew or something. As a result, Elaine, for the evening, was Patrick Dunn.
Patrick Dunn made the occasional reprise, borrowing the less effeminate clothes from the wardrobe. Altogether, Elaine was glad to make his acquaintance.
Though public appearances as Patrick were initially deterred, it became inevitable that Elaine began to receive more boyish clothes from her family as gifts. Always, of course, with a preference for Elaine, whose body shape was, at least, consistent. As if every day she would wake up as the ideal, day-older version of yesterday’s Elaine that her circle of the world had come to expect.
Though Patric liberated her, in some way, and common fixtures of the bathroom mirror became Teagan, Haley, Selina, Robert, Jackson, Adriana, Xander, Chloe, Rachel, Gloria, Alex, Blake, Deborah, other Rachel, Kylie, Maddison and Ashley-as-a-boy’s-name. They were weekend identities that served no official capacity, but who served their use in her voracious exploration of self-genesis.
Growing up and thrust into middle school, boy clothes were borrowed from her small circle of friends with whom the truth was shared.
To them, she was still Elaine, but the changeling talents were useful for mischief, investigating rumors, and figuring out who was saying what about whom. Elaine learned that her abilities were so obscure and bizarre, as long as she could quickly change back into the pretty young thing everyone knew her as, no one would ever believe such a story about her.
Shifting between so many different people held its advantages, academically speaking. In some forms, she preferred mathematics; in others, she was more creatively inclined.
As a boy whom she had named Clancy, he could read two books in a single weekend. As the ‘Chloe’, mentioned earlier, she was adept at any kind of arithmetic equation. And just when it seemed like Elaine was some placeholder to make her family comfortable — some kind of secretarial identity — she learned that Elaine’s hands were of perfect size, and of perfect distribution and control of muscles to make the most eloquent of illustrations.
The desire to actually enjoy her time spent as Elaine really ought to have come at relief to her parents. Though upon the most curious of timing, her mother and father had taken to referring to her as Chloe. So elated they were with her honours in junior-year advanced mathematics. And as they convinced her to spend most of her senior year working statistics, accounting, and calculus, they claimed that a career in numbers would afford their daughter far more stability than pursuing passionate whims.
Elaine was written on her identification, though Chloe’s face was who everyone saw. Chloe, however, generally preferred not to be seen by others; given a shyness of temperament and reserved sensibility. The chaotic nature of post-secondary education yields a pattern of staying up late and scurrying to classes in the morning, and, for Chloe, the chronic pressure to socialize over-extended her capacity to focus. Some mornings, she would wake up finding she had resolved back into Elaine’s familiar, outgoing face.
Coffee was especially useful in speeding the change back to Chloe’s face, as long as she sat in the back of the room with thick-frame glasses and a hoodie to conceal the gradual shift in feature. And coffee, thus, became a significant drain on her budget as Elaine’s face bore the tax of strain incurred by Chloe’s fretting.
Rather quickly, it became apparent that the structure of college did not reward her capacity for adaptation. A talent which had served her in high school when a range of course topics were compulsory. Though in college, her exclusive stud was mathematics, and so she was punished for her natural yearning of variance.
But when she could break free from Chloe’s lead-shoed responsible disposition, Elaine felt the colour and whirl of life on campus.
There were groups to join, sports to play, corners of the city to investigate, people to befriend, people to lay. So much was needed to be done to get the ‘full college experience’. The one such championed by 30-year-olds who depicted 18-year-old students of such astounding emotional depth of self-definition it made it seem like college had all the answers. While, in reality, it was all too much for one person.
As fate would be so kind, Chloe was not necessarily one person. And on weekends, she had the time to slip into a new face and live out a new experience.
Some weekends, Elaine would take to the streets, visit the student gallery, join art groups at school, attend presentations and performances. And that was enough for a while, but eventually, the others began to bubble up for want of a proper university portfolio, which she had no time to develop. From a nap, one Thursday, Chloe woke as the boy named Ashley, who decided, to himself, that accounting was the worst profession of all. Forgoing a study group, instead, he crashed a frat party, quickly becoming one of the most popular among the drunken boys. And had sex with two different girls over the course of the night.
Care was taken to prevent those kinds of antics, for everyone wanted to know who ‘that Ashley dude’ was. As a concession, Whitney would wake up instead, deciding that all of her clothes were too boring, and that one new outfit billed to her student loan reserves wouldn’t break the budget. Though, that would happen a couple times a month…
Or then he would be Patrick again, who would be so done with studying, that he would take an array of nude pictures while Grindr downloaded onto Chloe’s phone, and then participate in a weekend-long five-way involving a couple, a tourist with a wife in Turkey, and another student who shared a class with Chloe.
Mason, who was similar to Elaine in many ways, dolled out cost of admission to off-campus galleries. There, he would mingle with artists, connoisseurs, and professors, impressing those who would listen with a sharp awareness of theory, history and technique.
There was Blake, who sat at the edge of his seat during the philosophy lectures he snuck into, restraining every urge to raise his hand for every question raised. Usually succumbing to such impulses, to the delight of professors who enjoyed the class engagement without the I'm-smarter-than-my-peers loaded questions. As interesting as it was, he was aware that philosophy was not a career-maker, though he justified it as enriching knowledge for life lessons. Chloe had no use for it, and stuck to coffee and numbers.
And then there was Alex, born ‘Alexis’, who, in their androgyny, informally audited lectures in the gender-studies complex. And through a demeanor of mystery, would worm their way into the pants of classmates for cathartic, gender-aware sex without commitment with an insatiable hunger that could often not wait for a locked bedroom.
But even Elaine was losing her energy, as herself; finding it more difficult to balance her own interests and everything else she felt that she ought to be interested in. They all spiraled out of control in a pursuit to explore every corner of fresh adulthood. Every second of downtime needed to be filled with one of the multitudinous hobbies that could be investigated, scrap of knowledge to be learned, people who could be befriended or bedded. There was so little left for Chloe to actually do the work.
If Chloe was going to get through school with any kind of respectable grade, something needed to be done. So, Elaine invented Jack, whose preference was taking advantage of the scant amount of free time that everyone had to simply do nothing and rest. Much to the benefit of all parties involved. For a time, anyway.
One morning, Jack woke, his eyes-sunken and dull, to learn that he could no longer wear Chloe’s face. After two years of switching between so many, he stared at himself in the mirror and couldn’t remember what Chloe looked like. Even pictures of Chloe seemed like a whole other person, in a way he didn’t feel for looking at Elaine or anyone else. This was his last semester though, and after a lack-luster education of being unable to focus entirely, he figured he may as well just ride it out.
Most of the time he attended lectures as Elaine, who was far too busy doodling on the margins of notebooks instead of following along. And she realized how boring it must have been to be Chloe. She figured that Chloe must have finally just had enough of being shoved to the front to do everything boring.
After graduation, it became increasingly difficult to focus on a single, pivotal face. As much as he never meant to, Jack became a preference, freedom from the anxiety of inadequacy. If there was no tomorrow, then there was no expectation to live up to. If there was no world beyond his apartment, then there was no world that was passing him by.
He’d find work with a face — whoever, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t work in accounting, regardless of his official qualifications. For without Chloe, he couldn’t seem to make an identity with a knack for numbers like her’s. So he took work as a server, a barista, a cashier. For as long as he could.
Over time though, he would wake up, and his work face would be alien to him. He would email his resignation, and then wait, living off savings, preferring to do nothing at all, until he woke up with a face who didn’t enjoy the idleness. And then they would do whatever unskilled labour the new face could stomach doing.
In his mid-twenties, Jack went away for a short time. Elaine, at last, made a decision to take over once more, and even managed to get behind enough of Chloe’s numbers that she found work that paid well enough for her to invest in her art. The easel she had gotten so many birthdays ago came out from under her bed and was joined by another. Paint supplies wore her income down, though the color in her life afforded her a wealth more worthy.
And it was in this span of time that she met new friends, and made one in particular, a boy-and/or-girlfriend, who most commonly wore the face of Kyle.
Kyle’s gift was not dissimilar to Elaine’s, though his life provided him with different uses for it. He had trained himself to administer different faces for longer periods of time, shedding his old life entirely when he left a face behind. And since then, he had settled into Kyle, an attractive young man, though not so attractive that he seemed at all unreal.
“People like us cannot be successful by holding on to this,” he said, stroking Elaine’s cheek. And so he began the process of firmly solidifying an identity in Elaine. “We need stability,” he said, “it’s what’s important.” Elaine, of course, did not want to live her entire life just scraping by to feed her passion as just an idle hobby. Chloe hadn’t died for the sake of mediocracy. So she agreed that Kyle’s way would be significantly better.
When an interview required someone who was more direct and straightforward, he helped Elaine become Viktor. When that employer did not call back, he shuffled him off towards another interview as Dominique. When Kyle disliked the homosexual romance that had developed, he made Dom into Tanya. Tanya, while suited as a romantic partner, was too timid to impress employers, so he told her to become Barbra, and she landed a job as an accounting clerk, but was laid off for missing too many days of work when Jack made a reprise.
From Jack, Kyle made Stanley, who took Jack’s laziness and made it into melancholy. Stanley was developed for a single interview, which went nowhere. But by then, Liam was too broke to continue on, and became Alicia, who took a job at a returns desk for a bulk department store. Alicia would remain, on Kyle’s instruction, until there would be enough money saved away to begin a proper job hunt anew.
Though one morning, Elaine looked at photopgraphs of Alicia and Kyle with immense jealousy, for seemingly, it was another woman entirely kissing his cheek. And before Kyle returned from work that day, Elaine decided to fish out the paints she had kept stored under her bed in a plastic container. Kyle returned home and tossed the canvas against the floorboards. He looked Elaine in the eyes with such intensity. “There’s no point to my help if you’re not going to take this seriously! I’m not going to waste my time.”
Elaine slid the easel under her bed.
For a job with a non-profit Queer homeless shelter, he turned Elaine into Quintin, an effeminate, gender-queer individual. And while Quintin only remained for the few days it took to hear back from the employer with a rejection email, it was the only two days that Kyle fucked one of the male faces with any enthusiasm.
For a corporate position, an entry-level accounting clerk at a for-profit collection of female lawyers, Kyle made Quintin into Bailey, a tall woman who he enjoyed for a few days while she waited for inevitable rejection.
For a nonprofit sick-kids wish-fulfillment organization, he made her into Dolores, who, according to her backstory, received the name from a long line of Doloreses. She was kind, warm-eyed, and wanted kids of her own. Kyle was very keen to hammer that thought into her.
For another layover job, where a doctors’ entire private practice was managed by outsourced telephone agents, Dolores needed to be Robert.
Robert was shed at the first available opportunity. The perfect position arose, and the perfect persona was needed. For a week, Kyle coached Robert into William, into Patricia, into Cole, into Hubert. Kyle’s frustration grew voracious. “Be stronger.” “Be more assertive.” “Don’t be so pushy.” “Project confidence.” “Make your handshake better.” “Stop fidgeting.” “Stop sitting there like a lump.” “Be more charming, crack jokes.” “Come on, you’re not taking this seriously.” “This really shouldn’t be as hard as you’re making it.”
Until one morning, Kyle woke up before the sun rose. In the indigo curtain over his eyes, he looked across the bed and into a mirror. Over the night, he reasoned, he had become exactly like the other Kyle. This twin image was of the most exact copy, where both men acted, spoke, and thought as each-other did. And in that sleepy haze, where lucidity carried on after dreaming, Kyle fucked himself with the kind of feral vigor he’d never experienced before. “You’re perfect,” he said to him, collapsing in a post-coital cloud of lusty self-infatuation.
Out of an empty bed, to an apartment that was not entirely familiar. In the mirror was not Kyle, but an entirely unknown face. Sunken, tired, blotchy, bloated. Faces had always been sculpted, as if deliberate, this one was staggeringly normal, like features had been randomly hoisted from their parents and thrown across a visage like a 52-pickup of genetic lottery.
Kyle was absent, and gone with him was any mark he had left on the apartment and the placement of life. Only a few hours after they had inseminated each-other, it was like he had never been there. But, Dunn wondered, who was it? Pictures on the wall showed the same man, with various other men and women. The same one was Kyle, Dunn remembered that from context, as Kyle’s face almost never changed. And happy hours were they when Kyle had taken on another's face. And so, logically, the others must have been Dunn’s previous faces.
Dunn knew them as fiction. What they liked, what they did, but none of the familiarity of having done it with one’s own hands. The degree on the wall read Dunn’s legal name… Dunn could see the graduation as if it was all laid out on a screen. Memories of professors’ squeaking markers on whiteboards were no more familiar than recalling details from a movie watched while sexting.
Dunn sat on the sofa. “How did I get here?”
Wondering why, exactly, there didn’t seem to be any replacement faces bubbling up between bone and skull. And wonder Dunn did, what the exact process and movements once had gone towards slipping into a new face. Strangely, at this junction, there didn’t seem to be any recollection at all for how to operate the only talent that had ever meant anything.
All that came to mind was chaos, a flurry of taking two or three steps down an avenue, then turning back and starting down a new one. So many streets began, but none traveled any length. And at the end and beginning of it all, there wasn’t a single completed talent to show for.
And so, sitting upon the couch in the apartment that seemed too small to have been comfortable for two people, the contents of a person desperately wondered if they could possibly become anyone else worth living.