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Tucked inside the heart of every nice girl

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“I think I’m turning into my mother,” Yanli says, and takes a sip of wine to cover up the way the words taste in her mouth.

Wen Qing laughs, then coughs to cover it. “What makes you say that?”

Yanli can’t help but smile at her. When they first met, Wen Qing was a junior doctor and it’s taken her basically since then to not jump to diagnosing people without asking them questions first.

Still, Yanli hesitates. She knows that she opened this conversation, but she’s not sure if she should say, not sure if she’s betraying anything. Her instinct to protect comes first. But on the other side of the coin, that’s why she needs to talk about it. She can feel the resentment growing inside of her like a brewing cloud and if she doesn’t defuse that soon, she is going to end up using harsh words and regretting it.

“You know Zixuan is working on her eyeliner skills, right?” Yanli says. Wen Qing nods. “She was twenty minutes late leaving for dinner yesterday because she couldn’t get her wings even.”

Wen Qing nods. “Who were you meeting up with?”

“The guys,” Yanli says. It was just her brothers and some of their shared friends, but still.

Wen Qing winces. “I guess she doesn’t know that the first rule of makeup is that you can’t hold up the group, eh?”

“Yes,” Yanli says, “but that’s not even the problem.” She sips her wine again. “She got so defeated about it.” Wen Qing cocks her head. Yanli squirms. Zixuan crumpled like cheap cardboard. Stomped her foot and everything like a literal child. She wanted to do it herself, but she also wanted Yanli to fix it, somehow.

“Hopping straight to winged eyeliner from applying eyeshadow with her fingers is a big jump.” Wen Qing says.

“I told her that it would take practice, but she didn’t want to hear that.” Yanli feels some of the frustration creeping into her voice.

By the time they got to the restaurant to meet with everyone, Yanli felt like she was holding a pot of boiling water inside of her chest. She took small, careful breaths so she wouldn’t upset it and spill it all over everyone. It took a lot of her focus and didn’t leave much space for conversation. Her brothers threw her some looks, but after she made the universal sign of ‘I have a headache,’ they made space for her at the back of the booth and didn’t make her talk much.

“She wants it to be easy. She has this vision of how it should go and she just wants to be good without putting in any of the time and work.”

The light goes on in Wen Qing’s eyes. “Ah.”

Yanli puts her face in her hands. “See?” she says, muffled. “I’m becoming my mother.”

Wen Qing pats her. “Did you say it to her?”

“No,” Yanli says. But what if it’s only a matter of time? Zixuan is going to complain about the number of female-specific clothing terms, or something else, and Yanli is going to snap. But she didn’t say it, it’s true. She doesn’t want to. She’d carve the words into her own bones before she ever turned them on her wife. “But I hear what you’re saying.” She groans. “It’s just!” She looks at Wen Qing. “Permission to vent?” Wen Qing nods. “She’s read more books than me! She’s told me that gender is a performance so many times. She knows theory words for things and she watches all those YouTube essays. Why is it a surprise to her that all of this stuff is work? None of it is natural or fun.”

“None of it?” Wen Qing asks, her tone suspiciously neutral.

Yanli narrows her eyes. “What are you saying?”

Wen Qing’s eyes shift to the right, avoiding Yanli’s stare. “I guess I think some of it is fun.”

Yanli sits back in her seat. “Huh.”

***

She thinks about it on the bus ride home.

Yanli is a good girl. Has been all her life. She’s not perfect, she could be more beautiful, she could be more obedient, but she’s been good. She never acted out, she doesn’t get drunk, she’s considerate, she studied pharmacology because her parents said it would be a good career. Even her steadfast devotion to Zixuan fits, although her mother keeps treating it like it’s a rebellion. But being a good wife was pressed into Yanli as hard as any lesson and she means to do it. Zixuan is the love of her life and she means it.

So she’s a good girl.

But she’s never been good at being a girl. All of these things that Zixuan is learning took Yanli three times as long, hating every moment of it. She reminds herself to cross her ankles, to move her hair before she moves her head so everything will stay in place. Reminds herself to smile and to make sure her nipples won’t show through her shirt and every other item on the unending list of things that have to matter to her. It’s exhausting.

Fun was not even a question.

And that’s not even counting the things she’s actively trying to stop. Like, she never comments on other women’s appearances the way her friends do, not even to think about cute outfits. And she doesn’t do that race-to-the-bottom thing, where everyone criticises their own appearance. Especially, she doesn’t talk about food or weight, even when everyone is cooing about ‘indulging’ in a pastry.

Zixuan cranes her head to look at her own reflection when they’re walking past a particularly reflective window, and says, “Do you think this outfit would look better if I was a little skinnier?”

Yanli misses a step. She almost falls, except Zixuan catches her. “That’s…” Yanli says. She has to say something. She’s been biting back all of her words, but on this, she can’t. She can live with a lot, but she doesn’t want to go back to being fourteen and feeling like everything about her was wrong. She tries to think about all of the essays that Zixuan watches, but her useless brain only produces ‘hands are not tools, they’re ornaments at the end of wrists’ which is funny but isn’t helping her out. “Patriarchy?”

“Yeah, but,” Zixuan pouts. “I want to look good.”

That, Yanli knows what to do with. She wraps her arms around her wife. “You always look good, babe,” she says, and leans up to press her face into Zixuan’s neck. This bit is easy. This feels good.

***

It’s easier, she thinks, being a woman when she doesn’t have to think about it. Most days she can put it out of her mind. She goes into the world, trying to be a person. She helps her clients, advocating for them against a world of doctors who seem pretty blasé about drug interactions. She hangs out with her friends, she goes for runs, she lives her life.

Then they’ll be at the liquor store and the clerk says, “Anything else for you, ladies?” It sends her spirit two steps to the left of her body. For a moment, she’s outside, looking in, reminded of how she appears in the world. Zixuan grows two inches, glowing, and Yanli smiles reflexively and says no, pulling out her card to tap it on the reader.

“That’s twice in one day,” Zixuan says, as they’re walking into the parking lot. Her joy is infectious. It smoothes Yanli’s shoulders down, settles her.

Yanli gives her a big grin and a squeeze.

***

She goes into the bedroom, beyond ready to put cosy pants on. Zixuan has a stack of sports bras and is trying them on.

“Oh!” she says, when she sees Yanli, “Can you help me figure these out?”

Yanli nods. This she can commiserate on. Why do sports bras have so many straps? She walks through her method, which is basically just laying the bra flat on the bed before trying any more complicated vertical manoeuvres. Zixuan gets it on. It’s a lovely number, mustard yellow cross straps and some mesh over white fabric. It looks good on her, really highlights her collarbones.

Zixuan moves a little. “Well, this doesn’t fit,” she says. Yanli looks at it. Seems fine to her. “It’s so tight.” Yanli slips two fingers beneath the band, rotates them so they’re perpendicular to Zixuan’s ribs. She barely feels any resistance.

“No, that’s right,” she says.

Zixuan goggles at her. “How could anyone do sports in this? I can barely breathe.”

She resists the impulse to roll her eyes. “If it doesn’t compress, then it’s not doing its job. It’s supposed to hold things down.”

Zixuan looks dubious.

Yanli takes a breath. Holds it. Releases it. “You don’t have to wear one if you don’t want to,” she reminds her. Yanli wishes she could live a bra-free life, but her boobs, while not that large, are ponderous. The momentum of them disconcerts her when she’s doing activities.

“Last soccer game, I was worried my nipples were showing, so.” Zixuan is cheerfully unselfconscious about this type of a thing. Watching her, Yanli does think it would be best if no one experienced teenage girlhood. No one told Zixuan she should pretend she doesn’t notice her body while simultaneously obsessing over it. Like Yanli’s decision to always wear a bra: she’s never explained that to anyone in her life. Zixuan, though, completely missed that message, so she absolutely has no compunction about vamping or much of anything else. Ever since the ‘should I lose weight’ incident, Yanli has been trying to think about it this way. Zixuan was never taught the rules of what it’s ok for her to say, how proud she’s allowed to be, what the acceptable ways to express insecurity are. She’s purely honest. She’s not at all worried that anyone is going to ridicule her for the way she expresses these genuine feelings. And Yanli doesn’t want to be the one to teach her that lesson.

So Yanli hums and suggests nipple stickers. She wore them once under a bridesmaid dress and they did the job.

***

Yanli goes for a run. She started in high school when Wei Ying was on the track team, but she kept it up long after an ankle injury made him quit. She’s never gotten runner’s high, but there’s still a peace she gets from it. There’s a camaraderie among runners that she likes, all of them acknowledging each other with a nod, and moving to the side depending on each other’s pace. And there’s a pact between pedestrians and runners too. She likes these little social contracts, the way they relate to each other based on their awareness of each other’s needs. When people look at her when she’s running, it’s because they’re trying to figure out if they should move out of the way. And then they nod and smile at each other. I see you, you see me. She always feels good on a run.

Not today, though. It’s like Zixuan cursed her. She’s running, and normally running feels easy, the body working together, but today all she can think about is how her sports bra does constrict her breathing. Almost twenty years she’s been wearing one and she never noticed. Today she does. Every breath she takes in is a fight against her breastband.

“You were right,” she says to Zixuan when she gets home, before she even gets into the shower.

“Hm?” Zixuan says, smiling at her. She’s watering her monstera, but she puts down her jug to smile at Yanli, like she needs all of her focus to do it right. Yanli’s hot from her run, but she still warms under Zixuan’s gaze.

“Sports bras make it harder to breathe.”

“Yes!” Zixuan gestures with both hands. “Why is women’s clothing so awful? I already knew about the pockets, but there’s so much more wrong than that. The pants are too tight and don’t get me started on the shoes. Even the so-called flats have no support in them. What if you spontaneously need to run somewhere!” Yanli tries to hide a smile. The obvious answer to that is: you don’t. You don’t do activities unless wearing the specific clothes for them. “Why does anyone wear these things? If we all refused, they’d make better things.”

“Beauty is pain,” she reminds Zixuan, carrying on the joke. “We wear them because—” she cuts the flow of air off to her voice, realising that the joke was about to get too real. We wear stupid, flimsy, transluscent, impractical clothing because you need to do it to get treated like a lady. Zixuan hasn’t learned that either. She goes out into the world in a lace-front top and basketball shorts and Yanli respects her for it, even when Yanli knows she’d look so cute in a maxi skirt instead.

What would Yanli’s life look like if she wasn’t worried about fashion and truly dressed for comfort? If she hadn’t grown up being praised for looking grown-up in pencil skirts or stiff tops? Would she have a fraction of the joy that Zixuan has going into the world?

But the answer comes back to her: no. Because she knew girls growing up who couldn’t pull an outfit together. Girls who tucked their shirts into teal sweatpants and wore sneakers when everyone else was wearing platforms. She knows women nowadays who get pushed aside when someone else wants into the frozen peas at the grocery store. And she knows why.

There’s no escape from this. Tears prick at her eyes and she has to turn away so Zixuan doesn’t see them. She needs to get out of this conversation. “We wear them because we can,” she says, instead, because she doesn’t want the bullying to start at home. Zixuan can be a revolutionary a little longer, even if she doesn’t know it.

***

This is more thinking about womanhood than Yanli has ever done. Womanhood happened to her, an accretive process of time and her mother’s judgmental glances. Layer built up bit by bit to make the woman Yanli is today. She’s sure she made some choices in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like it. Instead she only feels the mark of ages, a sedimentary rock in contrast to Zixuan’s orogenetic explosion. But that’s just from where she’s judging it. Time and practice should bring them to the same place, as day-to-day living shaped Yanli, it shapes Zixuan too. Not that many people get such distinct moments of choice where they get to determine who they are becoming.

It’ll settle down.

She just has to be patient, and has to figure out how to stay cheerful in the meantime. So she asks Wen Qing, “Which parts are fun for you? Of doing girl stuff,” she clarifies. She could do with finding a little joy in the midst of all of this discomfort.

“It’s still getting to you?” Wen Qing asks.

“I didn’t realise how much bullshit was involved in being a woman.” She corrects herself. “Or I guess I did, but I sort of repressed it or something. Can’t change it, you know?”

“That’s true,” Wen Qing says. They’re standing on the sidelines of Zixuan’s soccer team game. Wen Qing’s girlfriend, Mianmian, got Zixuan onto the team. Zixuan also plays at work with the rest of her co-workers, but this is the team she takes seriously. And it’s how Yanli found out that the women’s league gets to book the soccer pitches last, after the men’s league and the children’s leagues. Zixuan was incensed and Yanli thought it was ok to allow herself a sardonic eyebrow raise and a “you mean to tell me sexism is real?” Zixuan laughed.

All of which is to explain why they’re standing next to a soccer pitch at 9p.m. on a Wednesday night, wearing three jackets and clutching thermoses for dear life. Yanli can barely see Wen Qing in the leftover glow from the lights that are bright on the pitch and nowhere else.

“Yeah, so I’m trying to find some nice things to do.”

“What about finding a really cool outfit? You have a great jacket collection.”

Yanli considers it. She does like a good jacket. They make cool silhouettes. But to be honest, she got into jackets because they make outfits go a lot farther. She found two or three cuts of clothes that work on her and bought everything basically the same. Jackets are a way for her to switch up the look without having to get more clothes.

She shakes her head.

“Skincare?” A chore. “Makeup?” The reason that she needs to do skincare. “The freedom to express your emotions?”

Yanli snorts. “And get told I’m emotional? No thanks.”

“Yeah, but have you seen straight male friend groups? It’s like they’re all in a 24/7 d/s relationship with no safeword. It’s just humiliation and ritualised violence.”

Yanli laughs. “Ok, that’s true.” Yanli schools her face, trying to sell the bit. “Not all men.”

Wen Qing grins. “Yes, it would be terrible if we generalised about a whole gender.” She sips her tea. “But…” her face goes conflicted.

“Just say it.”

“You know, if you hate all of that stuff, you don’t have to do it.”

Yanli says the thing she’s supposed to say, which is, “Sure,” because she knows the rules. And then she says the thing that’s true, “But I do. If I want to be treated right.”

“Yeah,” Wen Qing says. “But I mean. More in general. Like if doing girl makes you miserable, you know. That might mean. You know what I’m saying here.”

Yanli opens her mouth. She doesn’t know.

She’s saved from having to explain that when Zixuan jogs over. “Honey,” Zixuan calls out. “My braid came out.”

Yanli fights down a spike of annoyance. Yanli has kept her hair short since she went to university, short enough that a couple of clips keep it out of her way, but she still has all of her braiding skills. Zixuan acts like those are magic, instead of the product of many YouTube tutorials and practice. It’s a perfect example of everything that has been building up in her.

She gets Zixuan to squat a little so she can examine it. “Did you do the french braid like I taught you?”

“I think so?” Zixuan says. Yanli can see that she tried, but it was really loose. Her hair is thick, thicker than Yanli’s, enough that it should grip on its own.

“You can also put a little dry shampoo on the roots to give yourself a bit more stick,” she reminds Zixuan as she works the braid out and quickly redoes it.

“That’s so many steps,” Zixuan doesn’t quite whine.

Yanli and Wen Qing exchange a quick look over Zixuan’s head: see what I mean.

“Just wait til you have to do your first up-do,” Wen Qing says.

Zixuan’s shoulders curl in a little. “Oh,” she says. Yanli shoots Wen Qing a warning look.

“You’re good,” Yanli says to Zixuan, giving her head a pat.

“Thank you,” she says and gives Yanli a quick kiss. Then she runs back onto the pitch.

***

They don’t pick up the conversation after Zixuan runs back on, but Yanli thinks about it. She tries to piece together what Wen Qing meant. If she doesn’t like girl things then… what?

She still hasn’t decoded it by the time she goes to a friend’s housewarming.

As so often happens at parties, she ends up drifting into the kitchen. It’s nice having this proximity to the snacks, she can refill things easily. Zixuan is in the living room, dancing along to the playlist with Mianmian and a couple other of their friends. It’s all late-2000s pop, so the teenage nostalgia vibes are making them giggly and happy.

In contrast, Yanli has somehow gotten into a knot of conversation with Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen, and a couple of Xichen’s climbing buddies about knife sharpening of all things.

“I’m telling you, any fewer than three whetstones and you aren’t going to have the right grain for your needs,” one of them says.

“Mm,” Xichen says, not quite agreeing. “I think the amount of water you use can let you control the resistance pretty well. Two can be enough if you start with a good enough quality knife. Of course, if you’re using something cheap enough that you need more than that, then that’s the problem right there.” He turns to Yanli. “What do you think?”

She startles. No one has ever asked her for her opinion on knife sharpening. She looks at the group again and realises that this group isn’t random. This is the boyfriends. All of the women are out dancing to AKB48 and their partners agglomerated into this clump of knife enthusiasts.

She’s noticed this, too, when the straight quotient of the party is too high, that there is a tendency, even when they don’t mean it, to try and read dynamics onto their relationship. No one is the man in this relationship, she’s sure they’d agree, but this still seems to happen.

It should bother her.

But instead she feels a queer thrill. She has infiltrated the man group. She tries to think of something to say that no one can argue with. “Different knives need different approaches,” she tries. She sees one or two nods of agreement. “There’s no way to say exactly what the right number is.” And then before anyone can ask her anything else, she flips it back. “What are your favourite whetstones right now?” The conversation about brands carries them for a while.

The playlist must hit a lull, because there’s a sudden influx of women in the kitchen. Zixuan comes and settles herself in the crook of Yanli’s arm, smiling up at her. She’s got sweat on her hairline and some of her eye glitter has migrated to her temple. Yanli wipes both of them off with her thumb.

She looks up and sees the echo of this across the room. Partners reaching for each other, checking in. It feels right.

It clicks.

What feels good. It’s not doing womanly skills. She likes when Zixuan comes back to her, when she can take care of her. And she likes… she liked when Lan Xichen asked her opinion. There’s a commonality.

Something must show on her face because Zixuan straightens. “Yanli?”

Yanli gives her a squeeze, reassuring. “I’ll tell you later.”