Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman is a brilliantly told story about being intersex, exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.
“This book tackles the delicate topic of being intersex and gives a lot of insight into the problems associated with it, while still being a very enjoyable fiction read.” The Guardian
"Readers of authors such as John Green will devour this novel.” Junior Bookseller & Publisher
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
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Alex as Well
By Alyssa Brugman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Alyssa Brugman
All rights reserved.
THERE ARE MOMENTS in life when something happens and it changes everything forever. You make one decision, and after that you can't go back. It doesn't even have to be a big thing.
Five days ago I stopped taking my medication. I think that might be one of those decisions. How do you know? Maybe if I just start taking it again, everything will go back to the way it was? I don't think so.
Five days later I'm in a shopping center. I'm not going to tell you which one in particular. Just imagine an ordinary shopping center that stretches out long in both directions, cinched by a four-story car park.
I slouch into Myer. Unmedicated. I stop in the makeup section, rifling through the nail polishes on special. Alex is with me. The other Alex. I am Alex as well. We are the two Alexes. I guess that's confusing for a lot of people. Sometimes it's confusing for me too.
The girl at the Clinique counter lounges against the display, chewing gum. "You want a makeover?" she asks. I double-take. Yes, she's talking to me. She's all smooth. Smooth hair, smooth face, smooth clothes. This is what you would look like if you had literally been through the wringer.
"Don't worry, you don't have to buy nothing." She smiles somewhere behind the mask of her face. I'd like to be all even the way she is.
I hesitate, because five days ago I would have thrust my hands in my pockets and scooted out of there. Instead, I steal across the floor and into the seat she has spun around for me. There's a little mirror on the counter, but it's not facing me. Through it I can see outside the door. There is a scrolling sign in reverse:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
There's pop music playing. It's the Black Eyed Peas. The shoppers are bopping.
(I've got a feeling.)
"Close your eyes," she tells me.
The Clinique girl sets to work. She smells sweet and powdery like gardenias and floor polish. She's dabbing things on my face, finger-painting. With my eyes closed, I can't tell where she is going to touch next. Her gum breath blows on my cheeks and neck, giving me goose pimples.
"Cold, lovey?" she asks.
"I haven't had a makeover before," I confess. I've always wanted to. But I have walked past these counters feeling like a trespasser. As if there was a sign:
PROPER GIRLS ONLY.
But it's more than that. I am all goose-pimply and jittery. If I had a tail, I would be swishing it.
There's a little tiny brush over my eyelids. I try not to scrunch them.
"Look up," she instructs.
She's putting mascara on.
"Can I tidy up your eyebrows a bit?" she asks me.
"Sure," I say, not realizing that she means she wants to tear my hairs out one by one.
My eyes water. I might be crying.
My dad left us last night. I think so, anyway. Last night I kinda thought maybe he just went out, but he didn't come back.
You know how they say to kids, Oh, it's not because of you. Well, it is one hundred percent because of me.
"There." She turns the mirror toward me. "You're naturally beautiful, but you don't have to be naturally beautiful. That's a lot of pressure. You can even out your skin tones and highlight your best bits. You don't have to go overboard. It's like airbrushing in real life."
It's not thick makeup like a drag queen, which was what I was expecting. It's not aggressive and dark, like when I do it myself. She's made my eyelids pink and shimmery, and my lips are glossy. I press them together. It feels oily, sticky, and tingly.
"It's plumping," she explains.
You're telling me, says Alex.
I can see his face in the mirror too, a shadow in the background.
Tonight's gonna be a good night, he's humming.
Then the Clinique girl shifts the mirror slightly. There's a guy sitting on one of the couches outside the door. He's about twenty. He looks bored. He's probably waiting for his girlfriend. He's brooding and carefully tousled like the vampire guy. The Clinique girl smiles at me and licks her chops. "Luscious," she observes.
"Mmm," I say, smiling back, pretending to appreciate him too. Alex rolls his eyes.
"You could do something a bit more feminine with your hair. Maybe wear something with a waist. Not that I'm telling you what to do or nothing, it's just that you probably don't realize how pretty you are."
The Clinique girl lays out the different products she has used on my face on the counter, and I buy the gloss, the mineral powder, and the shimmery pink eye shadow. It's expensive, but my parents have always been quite generous with pocket money.
"You have really great bones," she tells me, handing me my receipt.
One great bone, says Alex.
I snort, because it's not a great bone, is it, Alex? No, it's just a teeny, weeny little noodle, you loser.
"Believe in you. Don't be a before picture," she tells me, as I'm walking away.
"Okay," I say, smiling. "Thanks."
I bet she says that to everyone.
In the girls' toilet I braid my fringe across the front the way the girls are all doing it these days. I push my hoodie back, and now I am a girlie girl. I stand there looking at my new face. I like this face. It's my face. I spend so much time looking at Alex's face—his face.
I haven't done this before. I've wanted to since as long as I can remember.
The door opens, and my heart beats fast for a second. Sprung. But the woman just walks straight past and into the cubicle behind me. She doesn't even look at me.
Are you okay? I ask Alex.
He shrugs. Wanna buy something with a waist?
We go into the Miss section. A new song starts, Miley this time.
(I'm nodding my head like, yeah.)
When I walk, I swing my hips a little bit. Lazy. Swishing my tail. I run my fingers over the clothing. I slide the plastic coat hangers over the metal racks, digging the screech sound they make. That's the shopping sound.
I find a peasant top that laces up at the front, a halter top, a cute Vnecked T-shirt with a butterfly appliquéd on the front, and a short skirt. I take them into the changing room. I pull the skirt over my hips, and I try twirling it back and forth in front of the mirror. It's full and short, and if I twirl fast enough, Alex can see my underwear in the mirror.
I try the halter top on, but I have nothing to fill it. I try the peasant top instead, and I undo the lace, and fluff it out so there is the suggestion that there could be breasts there.
(And I know I'm gonna be okay.)
Then I look at Alex, and I can tell what he is going to do next.
Don't you dare, I say to him, but he already has his hands down his pants. He is looking at me being a girlie girl in the mirror. He is glaring at the suggestion of where breasts could be. He is imagining big ones. He is staring at shimmery pink eyelids, but mostly it's the lip gloss that does it for him.
I hate it when he does this. It's so gross. It's a real boy thing to do. I say, You are breathing too loud.
He says, Shut up.
I say, I found out my dad left this morning. Don't you think it's a little bit insensitive?
He looks at me and sees a hot chick—a smooth Clinique girl. I look at him and see a chimpanzee tugging on his little noodle.
His face has gone red. He says, Shut up and let me finish. So I pout a little, with the lip gloss on, so he can finish quicker and we can get out of here before the stink of him makes me throw up.CHAPTER 2
WE'RE SITTING IN the foyer of the new school. I am. The other Alex is here too. It's only a few suburbs from the old school, but it feels far enough.
It doesn't matter which school it is. The foyer is like every other school foyer, with those timber honor boards that have gold writing and a display case full of weird gifts from sister schools in Asia.
On the enrollment form I write Alexandra Stringfellow, age 14, sex female, religion Catholic.
Is that what you're going to put? Alex asks me.
My pen wavers over the page for a moment.
Shut your face, I say under my breath, because I've decided.
Most of the time, I don't need to think about things. I just need to do. Spontaneous. Enrolling in a new school is doing, impulsively. I was literally walking past. They have a big billboard out in front of the school. There's a gorgeous girl looking studious and healthy, and I thought, That's a cool uniform. So I go in there, with my new Clinique ironed-on face—stalk up there and ask for an enrollment form. Just like that.
The rest of the form is supposed to be filled out by my parent/guardian. My mother is not with me. In any way. I print her name in the space provided. The next question is "occupation."
Put "nutbag," Alex suggests.
I snigger, because being mental really is a full-time occupation with her.
You know what she said to us this morning? She was writhing about in her bed, weeping, and I put my head around the door to tell her Alex and I were leaving, and she said, "You're killing me, you little pervert. Killing me!"
But that's nothing new. She didn't even say "killing us," like, plural with my dad, because this is all about her.
So this is what we're doing. We're getting a makeover, like a proper girlie girl, and I'm going to a new school.
The rest of the form is about allergies, vaccinations, emergency contact numbers, and "any significant medical conditions." I leave that bit blank.
You're not going to put anything there? Alex asks me. Nothing worth mentioning?
There's another form where I can pick my electives, so I slip that one to the front.
Building and construction
Physical activity and sports study
I turn over the page to see if there's anything on the back, but that's all there is.
I'm clicking the pen with my thumb. Clickety click. I probably wouldn't hate commerce/law. I circle that. Maybe history. I could probably Google most of the assignments.
We don't need any more drama. Physical activity sounds like lots of getting changed in sweaty locker rooms. Nooo, thank you.
What would I pick if I had every subject in the world to choose from?
I would do sewing. But they don't offer it. I know it's a cliché, someone like me being into fashion. I'm not really into fashion, though. I just like girls' clothes. They don't use the same fabrics to make boys' clothes.
Now I am remembering preschool and playing dress-up with the clothes in the trunk. I have picked a fairy costume. It's just wings and a tulle skirt, but pink. Pinkety pink. The wings are silky and the skirt is coarse. I like to rub it between my fingers.
My mother came to pick me up, and she looked across the room at me with the pinkety-pink wings on, caressing the tulle skirt. Horror and shame splashed across her face as if I had smeared shit everywhere. That was the first time I understood that there was something wrong with me. According to her, anyway.
That's how fetishes are born, Alex says solemnly.
No, you were already born with the fetish. Preschool just enabled you, I counter.
He pouts. Alex is kind of set on making it my mother's fault, because he doesn't like the idea that it's all my fault.
The only other thing I can remember about preschool is hiding under my bed because I didn't want to go and my dad dragging me out so fast by my ankles that I got carpet burn on my knees.
He was rough with me, Alex says. He would make us wrestle, but sometimes I felt like I was only a tumble away from a hairline fracture.
The woman wants the clipboard back. Her eyes are ice blue. She's pale like us, except it looks better on me.
I quickly circle art metal.
You should have gone for general wood, Alex complains.
You're General Wood, I tell him.
We snigger, and the woman looks at me curiously.
The lady from the front office stalks down the hall in front of me. Keys on her hip like a gunslinger. She opens the door to the storeroom, and there are school tunics wrapped in plastic bags. It gives me a little shiver. The boys wear black shorts and a gray shirt. The girls' uniform is a red-and-green tartan box-pleat tunic with a belt and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar.
I hold it against my body. I am going to wear it with patent-leather Mary Jane shoes and knee-high socks. The woman grabs it by the underarms and presses it across my chest, checking the fit.
"Never mind, I was a late bloomer too," she says.
I can't help but glance down at her big ole baggy boobies, and the distaste must show on my face, because she winks at me.
She consults the clipboard again. "My daughter is in your year. Sierra."
At first I think she is calling me Sierra. "Oh," I say.
Doesn't sierra mean "mountain"? Alex asks.
And then there is a silence, so I add, "I'll be sure to look out for her."
"I can arrange for her to be assigned as one of your buddies if you like."
"That would be awesome," I say.
"That's it then," she says, shoving my uniform in a plastic bag. "You just need to bring in a copy of your birth certificate and your immunization schedule."
"Your birth certificate, and you should have records of the dates of your jabs. Your mum will know. Are you starting today?" she asks.
"No, I've got a ..." I jerk my thumb over my shoulder, as though that will explain. "A thing," I finish vaguely. "A copy of my birth certificate. No problem."CHAPTER 3
ALEX AND I are waiting in the office of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Some colorblind person decorated the place in 1982. It's lemon with a dusty potted plant in a cane stand and a picture on the wall of a person under a palm tree on a beach, except it's all triangles. It looks like clip art or an Icehouse album cover.
I am regretting coming here, because if [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Crockett were any good, then their office would be flash, wouldn't it?
There is a receptionist behind a wall. She has an opaque glass window between her desk and the waiting room, which she has shut. I guess she sees some unsavory types.
* * *
I should stop here, because it's not Alex and I, not really.
We're just the one person. Did you get that already? You guessed it from the blurb, right? I put in some clues.
Alex and I are the one person, but I feel like two people, and this is the problem. It's always been like that, but since I stopped taking my medication five days ago it's so totally clear that I can't be the other Alex anymore. And that's why my dad left us.
* * *
The receptionist slides the window across. "Mr. Crockett will see you now." She tilts her head toward the narrow, lemon Icehouse hallway.
I tiptoe into the cluttered office. Crockett has hairy eyebrows and a little snub nose, like a koala. He's probably sixty. He looks over my shoulder for the real client, and when he sees it's only me, he looks irritated, and I am embarrassed.
"What can I do for you?" He's bored already, as though this is a prank he doesn't have time for. He thinks I'm going to try to sell him crappy fund-raiser chocolate. He's shuffling through papers. He puts one stack of manila folders on top of another stack. He tucks a ballpoint pen behind his ear.
"I need a new birth certificate."
"You can get that from Births, Deaths, and Marriages. You fill out a form. It's quite straightforward. Heidi at reception can help you with that." He looks at his watch.
I open my mouth, but I'm not sure where to begin.
Okay, the beginning is this: "No, I mean a new birth certificate. I want to have my gender legally reassigned."
He stares at me. Then he really stares at me, and he's doing what people have always done as long as I can remember. He's trying to figure out if I am a boy that wants to be a girl or a girl that wants to be a boy.
I'm staring at him right back because Crockett has hairs growing out of his nose. I don't care how busy or important you are, you can attend to stuff like that.
Why does it matter whether I am a boy or a girl?
But it does. It really, really matters. People want to know which one you are. They want to be able to decide what you are, even when they are just walking past on the street and will never see you again. It's crazy. Most people don't see it as a gray area. They are physically affected when there is confusion.
They are repulsed.
For me it's a very gray area. Grayity gray. We are the Earl and Countess of Gray, Alex and I.
Now that you know, you're probably wondering what I look like. I kind of have that Tilda Swinton Cate Blanchett Cooper Thompson–ish ice-queen, cleaved-from-stone look. I'm beautiful/ugly. Pale, long, and bones. Like a duck carcass. People get an emotional response when they look at me. It's fascination and loathing. Because they can't figure out what I am.
Excerpted from Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman. Copyright © 2013 Alyssa Brugman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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