THE SINGULAR THEY / Emi Ito

Damien Fleming first heard someone say to ‘think of the children’ on television, and had never taken those words seriously for a long time.

The phrase, which he later learned was seldom used without irony, was one he remembered from a joke in either a cartoon or a sketch comedy, he couldn’t remember which. Something about the Pee-Tee-Ay, whom he, as a five-year-old, only knew by their caricature: a band of uptight adults who were the bane of all children once they went to grade school. Think of the children, these adults would cry, think of their safety, their education, their naive little minds, their sensitive little hearts, as they siphoned all that led way to adventure and discovery out of children’s lives, leaving only the little bits and pieces of worldly wisdom they deemed ‘appropriate,’ for the children to chew long after the bits lost their flavor.

Damien insisted his parents take him to see those movies with dark lighting and bare skin in their promotion reels. He demanded that his schoolteachers let him read the paperbacks they hid in their office; he’d return home past curfew just to walk the streets as lamps started lighting up the night, and he felt like a star. Street lamps turned to stage lights in middle school, and that was the way it was going to be until he grew old. That was, until his name was in the back of a few student film staff rolls, in the back of a few industry people’s minds, when his education had run its course, and art school spat him out to wash up on the shores of an old whaling town.

He had drifted into the line of sight of one Mrs. Salisbury, a woman who took care of a number of children less than half his age in her home. She’d brought him want-ads for canning factories and coffee shops. When he told her he was a film major with a minor in theatrical studies, she returned to him with a child half his height, just barely prepubescent, one of her newer wards.

The two of them stood in front of Damien, one in a pressed plum dress, the other in a shirt two sizes too large. “She doesn’t like dressing up, my little girl,” Mrs. Salisbury said, as she ran her fingers through the child’s uncombed hair.  “But she’s very fond of acting. I just hoped she could learn something or another if she spent time with you.”

“Of course,” Damien had replied, and bent down. “What’s your name, Darling?”

“Darlington,” said the child— who he would later know was no girl. “Mell Darlington.”

Damien had taken to clearing his living room of clutter for his little guest to move about, and clearing his voice to say: “Once more with feeling, Mell,” as his teachers in school used to tell him. He was no director on a large set with his voice booming through a megaphone, of course. But Mrs. Salisbury had entrusted Damien with Mell, and he knew directors did not choose their assistants, those who carry a second megaphone into their domain, lightly.

“Stop right there. I’m not feeling it, Mell. I’m not buying it.”

This was why Damien’s collection of DVDs were now locked away, no matter how many wistful glances Mell threw at them. The unspoken rule of him tutoring Mell, as is with all tutors, was that Mell would have to learn something Mrs. Salisbury approved of. So here he was, thinking of the children, or of this one child at least. Yes, he did rather like Mell.

“Mell, this is a love story. Who in their right mind would go after that?”

It went without saying that Mell reminded Damien of himself at that age, and it made Damien think: when you’re little, having someone there to encourage you could make all the difference.

“Stop. Stop. Do you even care what the lines mean?”

Just someone to tell you early in life that hard work and determination all added up.

“You call this giving it your all? You are not giving it your all.”

Just some reassurance that you were on the right track, because performing is glorious in that you can express so much of what’s inside of you, and there’s an audience for every one of those expressions. He’d be proud to support that.

“Ab-so-lute-ly hor-ri-ble!”

Mell was holding a scream within that tiny throat. Their eyes bore into the empty space where Damien’s script had declared the love of Their life was standing. Their face was contorted, Their posture was rigid— just the way he wanted.

“Excellent.”

Mell did not move until Damien clapped his gloved hands, a signal to end the performance. He then offered a drink from the fridge, which his pupil accepted by pitter-pattering into the kitchen on bare, bandaged feet.

Damien flipped through the script, a work of fantasy he had yet to complete, on the sofa. His gloves, thin as they were, made the pages wear away quicker than a three-week-old script usually did. The notes he scribbled into the margins were on the thorough, legible side, if he did say so himself. After saying several of the lines aloud to see if they sounded right, he found his throat was dry, and the clock on the wall told him it was time he felt hungry.

Damien tossed a frozen banana into the kitchen’s blender with a few berries, and winced at the ferocious roar it gave at the press of its power button. Mell watched as the blades ripped Damien’s fruits apart, while sipping a cup of juice. They smiled when he poured the smoothie into a cup and downed half of it in two gulps. Damien did not smile back.

“It’s rude to stare,” he said. “Didn’t Mrs. Salisbury ever tell you that?”

“She tells me not to look at strangers. But when she’s doing something, she lets me watch,” Mell confessed. “I dunno, she watches me.”

“She doesn’t tell you to go watch TV, or anything? Not a movie? Go read a book?”

Mell shrugged. “She says we should do those things together. Except for movies. Now that I think about it, we never watch movies.”

“Well,” said Damien, “I’ve got no problems with you going back and reading more of the script right about now. You seem to have a handle on what we’ve done, so we can keep going.”

“You don’t have an ending though, do you?”

Damien set his cup on the counter with more force than he normally would have handled a glass object. “There’s still plenty of things to go over before you worry about that,” he told Mell, and with that the child scampered across the kitchen floor back to the living room.

When Damien returned, Mell had taken his spot on the sofa. He raised an eyebrow at Their crossed legs on which They had propped the script upon, using Their lap like a desk. Mell’s neck was more than a little tilted as They read the words Damien wrote, and They were chewing the bottom of their lip.

Is there something wrong with it, Damien was about to demand of Mell, but it was then that the doorbell rang, and what he ended up saying was: “Get your socks.” Damien looked over his shoulder for a moment to confirm that Mell had jumped off the sofa, before he hurried to the entrance.

As he opened the door, Damien looked up to meet Mrs. Salisbury’s eyes, and then hurriedly cast his gaze downwards. Even if she was more than a head shorter than Damien, Mrs. Salisbury seemed tall. Her posture was by far the best Damien had seen in his life; she kept her back straight at all times with no visible effort, though her hair was white as limestone and her figure was plump.

Damien was quick to let her inside when she asked whether she may come in. He wondered why she bothered with such words. It had been almost a year now, and Damien still felt like a tourist in this town. He still tasted the exhaust fumes left over by the bus that dropped him off and turned back to the city, the same fumes which stuck to his clothes and retained the smell of a metropolis. All the while, Mrs. Salisbury was the very image of how a townsperson ought to look hereabouts.

“Mr. Fleming, how has Mell been today?”

“A delight.”

“Her lessons are going well, I hope.”

“Yes, wonderful, really. They’re quite a natural. Just need a little improvement, which is what I’m here for, so no matter.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I mean, they’re a great actor, with a bit of practice.”

“Mr. Fleming,” Mell’s guardian said with a furrowed brow, “are there children other than Mell taking lessons with her?”

“No.”

“You said they are talented actors.”

“I said that about Mell, just Mell,” Damien explained. “Them, Mell.”

Mrs. Salisbury’s posture shifted at these words; the bare minimum of movement to express with her entire body a scholarly, reserved disdain. “I do believe,” she said very slowly, “that is grammatically incorrect.”

“The singular they,” Damien began, both hands lifted into the air, their palms faced towards Mrs. Salisbury. “It’s, well, for me it was a habit I picked up in college. To save each other some awkward moments. Sometimes, we would talk about people we, er, didn’t know well enough, see… and we supposed it would be more polite to use something neutral. It’s actually quite an old practice. Used since the Middle Ages, just that it’s making a comeback. Perfectly fine English, I assure you.”

It was fortunate for Damien that all he dared to say was all he needed to say. Mrs. Salisbury assumed the stance of one who is unconvinced, but also uninterested in further arguments. “I see, yes, languages do change,” she mused.

Damien rubbed his brow, until he noticed the powder he wore staining the cloth of his gloves. The now-dressed Mell was right by his side, so he held them by the shoulders and turned Them to Mrs. Salisbury. “Making some headway, aren’t we, Mell, Darling,” he said with his best smile, presenting the child to the woman who had come to collect Them.

Mrs. Salisbury smiled at Mell; Mell did not smile back. The woman took the child’s hand, and bid Damien goodbye. Many times, as Mell walked away on bandaged legs, they looked back at Damien until he finally shut his door.

Apparently, Mell had not told Mrs. Salisbury of the talk they had with Damien— Not today, but the last time Damien had seen Mell. they had been wearing even more bandages. Mrs. Salisbury had sighed that they had scratched Their legs in a fight for some reason Mell refused to disclose. She did not want Them moving around.

“I just have to say, I thought you were smarter than to get yourself into trouble,” he said. “Acting really isn’t the same if you can’t move, you know that, don’t you?”

Mell scowled, fidgeting with Their hands. “I was practicing. But I did Prince Julian’s lines too, today in recess. Then the girls found me. And then Shirley said: ‘are you a boy or a girl, Mell?’ and I… I told her to, um.”

“What did you say?”

The corner of Mell’s mouth twitched, as they beckoned Damien to lean downwards to meet them. He offered them his ear, into which, only after tucking several long strands of his hair behind it, they whispered:

“I told her to go to hell.”

Mell pulled away. Their head hung, but their eyes were not glued to the floor, as they cast furtive glances at his face, trying to read the movement around his lips, or the fluttering of his painted lashes. When he showed no signs of speaking anytime soon, they started bouncing Their words off the floorboards towards him: “It’s not just about the Dancer and Julian. I don’t want to… I don’t know if I want to be a girl. But I don’t want them to call me a boy, either.”

“Oh, don’t let people make you choose,” Damien had blurted out.  “Not yet. Not ever.”

“I have to be a girl now, though. I’m the Dancer,” retorted Mell, pointing at the script in Damien’s hands.

“Well, yes. You are. But they don’t have to be a girl.”

“She doesn’t?”

“They, Mell. They.”

Mell’s flinched. “The Dancer’s one person, right?”

“Euh, it’s a bit like thou and you. Makes more sense in French, or Swedish.”

“And everyone calls her ‘she.’ Like here, on page six.”

“Not everyone knows them well enough to call them anything else,” Damien had said. It was not true at the time, but he would make it so.

“So they’re like me.”

“If you say so, Love.”

Mell made a humming sound, and invited Damien to sit beside Them. Mell whispered “They, they, they…” until it sounded familiar, until it sounded correct, whilst Damien scribbled things – neatly- around the Dancer’s lines.

Mell came around again the next week, before Damien made any further changes to the script. There was a large lump in the pocket of Their shorts. “Take out whatever that is,” Damien ordered. “It’ll be distracting, and make your movements clunky.”

Mell obeyed and left their burden in the kitchen before they started, whilst Damien flipped through the script. He remembered the look Mell had given it the previous week, but had it truly been on that little face of one so eager to act it out? He could have imagined it, for all he knew.

Today, Damien’s demands to Mell were more like nitpicks- fine-tuning, since they had surpassed the need for general instruction. He even thought Mell could afford to show off a little, with the effort they put into being the Dancer, their voice and movement so lovelorn, so desperate for approval.

Approval they’ll get, thought Damien. It’ll be a happy ending: The Prince lets them dance for him forever.

Just like that, he had a conclusion. A predictable one, but execution was what mattered. He needed to tell Mell, who was resting with a drink again, alone and quiet.

“Mell, Darling,” he called, as he entered the kitchen.

Mell sat at the counter, shorts hiked up to Their thighs, exposing faint, persistent scars from the top to the bottom of Their legs. Their head was cocked to the side, one hand held a glass of milk, while the other dipped something into it— Damien saw pieces of red tin foil scattered on the counter, too little to have contained the thing Mell left there earlier. Beside it, however, was a pair of white gloves, half the size of his own.

Mell pulled the treat out of the glass, and held it up to Damien like the spoils of battle. It was a rapidly melting lump of chocolate. They smiled far too widely for his taste, then laughed: “Anything the matter, Sweetheart?”

Damien’s stomach hollowed into a cold pit. “You sound ridiculous,” he deadpanned.

Mell looked disappointed by his response, but not ashamed.

“You’re not wearing gloves today,” the child exclaimed. “What happened?”

Get your socks,” growled Damien. He was not going to dignify that line with another reaction. He marched up the stairs to his room, to his dresser drawer full of much-needed handwear.

“Mell said she would like to go to the movies with you tomorrow,” Mrs. Salisbury told Damien when she arrived. “You specifically. It goes to show she likes spending time with you.”

Damien’s chest did the opposite of swelling with pride.

“Could that be arranged, I wonder? It is the first time she has asked for anything like that since she came to the house, and… Well, I just don’t believe she would like it as much if I took her.”

“I’d get lost,” Damien stammered, coming back to earth. “I’ve never been outside the neighborhood since I moved here.”

“Yes. Er, you look rather tired, Mr. Fleming. Perhaps visiting today was not the best idea?”

“No, no. Mell’s been a sweetheart—”

OhSo that’s where they’d gotten it. Damien pressed his hand against his brow and let out a rattling sigh.

“— But if I am coming down with something, it might be better if you two left about now.”

Mrs. Salisbury left, unsmiling and looking over her shoulder so often, like Mell had the other day. She was right to.

The Prince is a man of power, who will not understand the Dancer’s plight. The Dancer will not get the respect they deserve from him. They will see dancing for the prince is nothing to be glad about. Would they stay around for the sake of pleasing the prince, who thinks, out of his own arrogance, that he is someone they need the support of? They shouldn’t. Oh, it is a terrible thing to think you understand somebody, Prince, and even worse to assume you’re good for them. 

Damien filled the script with scrawls and smudges, until he could look at it no longer and tossed it onto the living room floor.

“You’re a fine piece of work,” he told the man in the mirror of his bedroom that night, chewing on the corner of his lip. “Your smile never reaches your eyes, your lips are puffy, and your tongue hangs out like a bloated slug when you laugh. There’s a scar on the ridge of your left brow where you’ve had stitches, and your makeup focuses there, but you touch it. You keep touching it, and that’s why you can’t hide it in the evenings when the powder starts to fall off. Every other morning you find grey in your hair, that you rip out with the black strands around it, and throw away in balls of tissue paper. You wear gloves when you go outside or when you’re expecting people, because your left ring finger is webbed together with the middle one at the base, and that’s where everyone looks, isn’t it? Oh, and you have a long mirror in your room which you can’t look away from when you’re alone with it, because it shows how ugly you are.”

When Damien’s teeth punctured his flesh, a stream of voices swarmed like hornets around his head. He’d tried to forget them many times all these years, the voices from those films, the ones with dark lighting and bare skin in their promotion reels. But one of them wasn’t raging, lascivious or predatory. It was displeased, like a parent or a teacher:

There’s stories you tell kids, and stories you don’t. Think of the children. Think of what it does to them.

Dawn broke. Damien closed the blinds on it, and ruminated on how Mell would speak of him, one day. Perhaps at a dinner table with half-inebriated friends, perhaps on a well-worn couch across someone taking notes, perhaps only to Themselves in the dead of the night. Whatever the situation may be, one thing was for certain: They would not speak very highly of him at all.

 

In the evening, the sickness was still there, but wallowing in it became tiring. He needed to pick up the script, and shred it. Burn it. At least do something about it.

When he went to find it in the living room, it was not strange to him that Mell was sitting on the couch, though he hadn’t remembered that he’d forgotten to lock the door all this time.

“Hello, Mr. Fleming.”

“Don’t ‘Mr. Fleming’ me,” Damien groaned. “You didn’t even ring the doorbell, did you?”

“I did,” Mell protested. “Five times.”

“Must have been while I was…Asleep, then. But that’s no excuse for breaking and entering.”

“I didn’t break anything!”

The man deflated. “I’m sorry. I know. Nothing’s really your fault, see. I’m sorry.

“No, I mean, I shouldn’t have just walked in. Um, are you sick?”

“Been better, yes… Give me that script, Mell.”

“I want to finish reading it.”

Damien shook his head. It hung low, for he was too weak to make further demands. “You’ll hate the ending,” the man grumbled.

“Is it sad?”

“It’s awful. For the Dancer, anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because Prince Julien doesn’t really love them for who they are.”

Mell pondered this, and made a noise through that lightly chewed lip of theirs. “That is pretty awful. But if I tell you the parts that are bad— You know, like you do for me— Will you write it again?”

“You’re too good for this fairy tale tripe,” Damien said. He did not look at Mell, but he watched the rays of sun crawling into the living room as he sat beside Them. “You ought to be taking real classes, doing real scripts. Coppelia, or Pygmalion, or at the very least something from Shakespeare.”

Mell was silent. They were straining their eyes to read the lines beneath Damien’s pen-scratches.

“I mean, come on, I still don’t have an ending! Why do you insist on this one?”

Mell sighed. “I just sort of need to, I guess. It’s like, I want this story to be perfect. I want to be the Dancer perfectly, and I want Mrs. Salisbury to see it, too. Does that make sense?”

Before Damien could either nod or shake his head, his neck was craned towards a sound elsewhere in the house. The phone was ringing.

“Mrs. Salisbury,” he said into the receiver before he heard a voice; he turned out to be right.

“Yours was the only place I thought Mell would go,” she said when Damien told her of the situation. “I’m sorry. You must want to be alone to rest.”

“No, it’s not a problem at all.”

“Is that so?”

“I’ve just been a little overwhelmed by things, things I need to sort out. But that’s it.”

“Ah. That is the way. When you try to make sense of things, stay organized and do what is best, because you think you know best.” Mrs. Salisbury’s voice had an odd echo, and sounded as if she was not speaking into the microphone at all. “Mell walked out this afternoon without telling me. And I hadn’t the slightest idea why.”

“You didn’t?”

Somebody called for Mrs. Salisbury on her side of the phone, but she did not speak.

“Listen, I don’t know much either,” said Damien. “All that I do know is Mell’s got a lot on their mind.”

“Mr. Fleming?”

“Yes?”

“Please tell them I’m not angry.”

She gave him another long silence, which he didn’t suppose was permission to hang up. But Mell calling his name was. They’d been listening, the fingers on both their hands locked together.

“Did she say I have to go back?”

“Not technically. She was going to let you see a movie today, wasn’t she? I guess it would be the same if you stuck around.” Then it occurred to Damien: “I haven’t seen a good movie in a long time.”

Mell’s face flickered between blank and cheerful, like a street lamp in the dusk. “Me neither. What’s a nice one, for example?”

“Pick one,” he urged, pointing to the cabinet of DVDs. “Those are all excellent. I’ll go get the key.”

“For real?”

“Just because you’ve earned it, mind you. So, let it never be said that yours truly doesn’t think of the children.”

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