“You’re even more beautiful in person,” he tells her, and she wonders if this means she doesn’t look good in photos, a fact that her sister’s former modelling agent should have noticed since Sonja usually looked better in photos than in real life, mostly because of her smile, which she knew to whip out for the big bucks.
“We are not born into one shape, but many.”
—Gwen Benaway, “A Body Like A Home”
Nina meets Craig, 25, in a Starbucks off the toll-route highway in the northern outskirts of Toronto, knowing the further from the city centre, the less likely she is to run into someone from her hometown—someone who’d inevitably, though good-heartedly, ask her how she’s been doing, really asking about her dead sister and her mental breakdown, which had gotten her fired from two different dance companies, now. She just wants a fresh start, and to come into herself in a way she hadn’t been able to with those who knew her as the sister of the dead girl, the dancer whose nudes got leaked, the girl who got fired from her second company because she sweat through her costume on stage. Though she thinks she’ll actually like Craig, 25, a cat-lover, amateur-guitarist, she really would’ve settled for anyone who’d give her the illusion of not being lonely.
He looks different from his profile photos—two of which were group photos of him amongst his fraternity brothers, all of whom shared a vaguely similar haircut, outfit, and skin-tone. The other was a photo of his profile, looking away from the camera. Still, she recognizes him enough to know to stand when he comes through the door, as though they’ve met before. She guesses they kind of have met before, having introduced themselves vaguely in short pleasantries on a dating app where they matched based on appearances alone, really, since the bios are capped at 140 characters.
It was the kind of dating app where, in heterosexual matches, the female gets to message the male first, and start up the usual small talk. Nina had sworn off of dating entirely after the last guy, Nick, 28, had seen her through the window of the restaurant, decided she wasn’t as pretty in person as she was in her photos, and unmatched her before she could defend herself. She finally re-downloaded the app after being prompted to get back in the dating scene by her dead sister via an advertisement for an online dating company—her dead sister, the poster child of this online dating company, had been posed with the caption: meet single women in your area. She’d seen her sister online before, in a strip of advertisements, but that one had used a photo taken from her online obituary page announcing her death and details of her funeral. There, beside a woman being carried in a chairlift in her carpeted home, and a dentist leaning over a patient’s open mouth, was Sonja’s old headshot alongside the caption: Dermatologists Hate Her! Perhaps prompted by her Google searches, the ads were doing their jobs: targeting her vulnerabilities.
The first ad had tempted her to click on the link even when she knew her sister had had the skin routine of washing her face with hand soap and wearing makeup to bed. The second had prompted the idea of Nina not really having explored her sexuality yet, as her sister hadn’t had the chance to either, as far as Nina knew. Nina had been dancing since she was old enough to walk, so by the time she was thirteen, she had a good handle on her own body, and knew from experimentation what felt good—stretching her hamstrings on the shower wall while shaving her legs, cracking her neck by pushing her chin to the left, then to the right, rolling her arches on a tennis ball, masturbating with her nails filed down to nubs. But ever since her friend David tricked her into giving him a handy at his graduation pool party, she’d been hesitant to allow herself to be so vulnerable with others. Her sister, on the other hand, had been involved in nude photography and had even stood for hours as a muse for a painting class at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but never admitted to being nude in any other context to her sister, or even the diary Nina knew she hid under her mattress topper. She never brought home anyone—friends or significant others—from school, her modelling gigs, or even from the small stint of soccer she tried when she was twelve. Nina had been waiting for Sonja’s senior prom to find out what her type was, and it wasn’t until Sonja had been dead for a year and a half that Nina realized she’d never find out. The difference between the two ads, though, was what was visible in each photo: the first, a face she’d grown very familiar with, the photo specifically, as it was used in every article that mentioned her death on the news; the second, a side of her sister she had never even thought of, let alone seen as clearly as the stock photo for the online dating company suggested.
Sonja had posed for these photos years before she killed herself, and still in this one, her arms were blurred out heavily, removing the streaks she carved into her forearms. She looked happy, which itself was a phenomenon Nina wasn’t used to—their parents recognized that she had been depressed even as a child, though it never really hit them until after she started self-harming. Maybe, Nina thought, Sonja looked so happy because of the woman she’s pictured leaning into. Or perhaps, because of the way Sonja had been styled that day—a way Nina had never caught her sister wearing a day in her life, with a low pony, the front of her hair slicked back and with a red plaid button-up shirt open with a white shirt underneath. Perhaps, Nina wonders, she’d never seen these photos—despite her having seen nearly everything else Sonja took part in, mostly because it was a talking point both she and Nina were interested in, took pride in—because of their immigrant parents, and how they expected their children’s lives to go once they all moved to Canada. Along with being successful in their academics and extracurriculars, whatever they were, Sonja and Nina knew they were to marry a nice Serbian man—it was all right if he was Black or even Hispanic, their parents supposed, as long as he wasn’t Croatian. Then, they were to get full-time jobs that would offer them and their family a comfortable house in the suburbs, perhaps even to assist their extended family back in Serbia if they ever ran into financial struggles. Their parents had sacrificed, Nina’s mother reminded her, everything they had for a better future for her and Sonja, and dating a nice young man would be the least they could do. Maybe, Sonja—or even Nina, herself—would have been interested in dating a woman, but this didn’t seem to be an option their parents would consider for their daughters. Maybe this is why Nina is on a date now with Craig, 25, and why if Sonja, 16, was interested in dating girls, she never told her parents or sister.
Weeks after matching with Craig, 25, a woodworker from Newmarket, he asked for Nina’s number. Nina had been going back and forth between responding to his long, prompt messages to her, and ghosting him. Up until this week, she’d been procrastinating on responding to his relentless messages, but finally, after being rejected from the last audition she had lined up for the month, asked him if he’d like to go get coffee. She mostly asked him out just to bring her confidence back up—she knew he’d say yes, so the stakes were low, because of his admitted infatuation with her via her profile.
Craig, 25, smiles as he recognizes her waiting for him, though she also waves to flag him down, in case there is any doubt that she is indeed Nina, 22. He assesses Nina before hanging his coat on the back of the chair opposite her. Nina keeps her jacket and scarf on, still wet from the snowflakes that also melted into her scalp soon after she arrived. They exchange pleasantries, Nina, keeping things simple by saying she’s doing well thanks, though she’s been spooked ever since running into her sister’s former modelling agent. The last time Nina had visited her parents back in London, Ontario, the agent had mistaken her for Sonja, not knowing Sonja had been dead for ten years. Nina had heard her sister’s name called in the Zeller’s parking lot, and mostly because she was embarrassed that she’d turned around after being called Sonja, she went along with the conversation, imagining what her sister would be up to had she made it past her sixteenth birthday. She made her sister a PhD candidate in psychology—she’d be 26 this November, she calculates—and her sister’s former modelling agent thinks this is wonderful. She asks Nina if she (Sonja, not Nina) has a boyfriend, and Nina (Sonja) nods, yes she does, at the same school. In fact, he’s there on a soccer scholarship, though she (Nina) learns later this isn’t common in Canadian universities, and she’d been misled by American television. The agent asks Nina (Sonja) if she’s still modelling, and Nina (Sonja) says occasionally, yes, then brings up an obscure jewelry company that’s mostly still selling through Instagram advertisements and YouTube sponsorships with influencers her age. The agent nods enthusiastically, as though she’s impressed with the news of modelling for said obscure jewelry brand. Good for you (Sonja), she tells Nina. Nina agrees, yes, this is good for Sonja, and pretends to be proud of herself (her dead sister). The agent reaches out for Nina’s (Sonja’s) arm, and rubs it, saying she’s so happy for her (Sonja), and that she (Sonja (Nina)) looks so happy—this hits Nina in a way she doesn’t expect, and suddenly she feels like she’s going to be sick. The agent says that they (she and Sonja) should catch up soon, and Nina (Sonja) agrees, yes, they should, though Nina plans on never frequenting that Zellers again in case she was to ever run into her sister’s former agent with her parent or a friend who might out her. She wonders if she really does look like her sister, or if she just looks like what her sister’s former modelling agent imagines Sonja would have looked like had she made it this far. Maybe this is why she (Nina) can’t look at herself in the mirror.
Nina turns her coffee cup—a tall dark roast with almond milk—in her hands, as Craig, 25, announces he’s going to grab a coffee, and asks if she’d like something, too. She peers down, and remembers she’d given the barista her sister’s name the first time she visited this location months ago. Since then, she’s gone in regularly to get out of her apartment on weekends, mostly to clear her throat and use her voice in the small interactions she has with the Starbucks employees and patrons, occasionally a dog who got tied up outside on a railing while their owner ordered inside. Though she’s careful not to do it often, she does sometimes use her sister’s name. Today’s cup also says Sonja, the barista having recognized Nina’s face, though Craig, 25, doesn’t notice. She’s good, she assures him, and he takes this as a no.
He comes back after a moment, carrying a cup with the decaf box ticked and “Craig” messily scrawled across the cup’s round belly.
“You’re even more beautiful in person,” he tells her, and she wonders if this means she doesn’t look good in photos, a fact that her sister’s former modelling agent should have noticed since Sonja usually looked better in photos than in real life, mostly because of her smile, which she knew to whip out for the big bucks. Though Nina liked to think her profile photos weren’t a different version of herself, just examples of how she saw herself, she did recognize that many features people most often saw first and which thus defined her were the features she erased from her photos: the craters in her cheeks blurred, the red streaks of eczema around her nose, chin, forehead and neck softened into a flushed glow, the brown in her otherwise clear green eyes that announced her Eurocentric background. That morning, she’d kept her photos in mind while getting ready to meet him, trying to match the images she’d used to “put herself out there.” She smoothed her skin as best she could, dabbing layer upon layer of powdered foundation, bronzer, blush on top of her skin, until it looked matte, then she added a dewy highlighter to add some shine. She’d pencilled in wispy lines to replace the tiny eyebrow hairs she’s pulled out and which seem to have stopped growing back entirely now. She’d replaced the sparse, tiny lashes on her upper eyelids with a new set of faux ones. And though this was the Nina she liked best, the one she felt most comfortable being, she still had a nagging thought in the back of her mind that she was tricking everyone somehow. Though she didn’t know how to be herself otherwise.
“You’re welcome,” he says after a while.
“Oh sorry,” she says. “Thank you.”
“You’re also taller than I expected,” he says, smiling now.
“Yeah, for some reason I thought you’d be shorter.”
She thinks of how she could have given him this impression, reflecting on her profile—how none of the pictures she chose showed much of the background, so nothing could really offer a good scale for comparison. She hadn’t done this on purpose, though she did worry about her height after introducing her friend David to Drag Race. She’d shown him just the preview, including a shot of the glamazonian host walking the runway: a massive blonde wig and accessories that coordinated with her frock, sometimes a faux flower, other times a bow or a tiny hat that emphasises her hair-to-body ratio.
“You can tell that’s not a woman,” David had said. Nina frowned.
“You don’t know that,” she said. RuPaul’s performance had become second nature to Nina, having watched the show since the third season was released on Netflix, and she forgets that the host, though often going by either he/him or she/her pronouns, in personal life identifies as male. Sure, she’s tall, but so are all the contestants, especially in their heels, so none of it really makes a difference. It’s all relative.
“No, come on, Nina. Look at him. He’s massive.”
“She’s wearing heels. And so what, she’s tall.”
“She must be, what? Six seven?”
“So?” Nina repeats.
“No woman is that tall.”
“My mum’s tall,” Nina said, standing up from their sofa. She could often intimidate David into agreeing with her or following her orders if she towered over him, and she took advantage of this as best she could while she was still at least a foot taller than him.
“Yeah but not that tall,” he said, closing his eyes. Nina sat back down and closed her eyes, too, imagining the woman on the TV and her mother standing side by side, wondering who’d look taller, more masculine.
“Fine, she’s not a real woman,” he said after a while, as though this was a compromise.
Eventually, as she continued growing taller than she would’ve liked, especially after that afternoon with David, she learned to slouch a bit when she sat, to seem smaller, wear flats instead of heels, stand with at least one hip jutting out, so her legs looked less lanky. Still, she got this often, her being tall for a woman. She heard this nearly every time she was out in public—in grocery stores, at Ikea—mostly from those much shorter than her, and over whom she towered. She would tell them she’s Serbian, though she’s still not sure why her tallness needed defending. She imagines her sister would’ve been even taller than her, a natural-born model, who really only stopped growing because she was pronounced dead.
“I’m Serbian,” she tells him. He pouts, as though he’s unsure of what to make of this information. “We tend to be tall creatures.”
“Huh,” he says. “Thought you were Spanish or something.”
Her sister had gotten this more often than Nina had, especially when they were children, as Sonja’s hair had been curly until she hit puberty—when it went pin straight nearly overnight—and was deemed by many makeup artists and photographers to be “ethnically ambiguous.” Though she’d been unsure of the title, even at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, she was always assured this was a good thing. It booked her more gigs, especially for stock images, as she could “pass” for being related to other ambiguous non-related family members on cans of pasta sauce, on boxed taco kits, and one time, on an Egyptian phone company billboard.
Nina wonders if Craig, 25, is disappointed to learn about her whiteness, not having as much “exoticness” in her as he’d hoped. But she does still take this as maybe a sign he’d been thinking of her, examining her features, perhaps even studying her photo while masturbating.
She shakes her head, and says “mm-mm,” very aware of what remains of her accent. She moved to Canada as a young girl, but her accent did stick out on words with a long ‘o’: snow, home, no. “What about you? What’s your background?”
The same dog owner appears outside behind Craig, 25, and Nina loses her focus on his words. She fixates on only the owner, tying the dog’s leash to the same iron post outside, and heading towards the door. She wonders if this owner would remember her like the baristas do, and if either they or the barista would say something if they overheard Craig, 25, calling her by her name instead of her sister’s. Her dead sister’s. The dog owner walks past Nina and Craig, 25, and orders their usual. Craig, 25 says something he thinks is funny—the edges of his mouth starting to curl around his gums—and he laughs. Nina laughs, too, hoping he doesn’t realize she hasn’t been listening.
“I’m glad you finally agreed to go out with me,” he says. “I thought you were like, ghosting me for a bit there,” he says, or something to that extent. Maybe he doesn’t actually use the word ghosting, but in Nina’s mind, that’s what she’d been doing. Not because she wasn’t interested in Craig, 25, but because she’d been laying off the dating scene, wanting some distance from constantly being looked at, watched, even if it meant in admiration. She’d brought this up once to a ballet mistress back when she was still studying at the academy, though at the time she wasn’t sure why she needed this break from scrutiny. The school tried for a couple of solid months implementing mirrorless classes, where students were to adjust their posture through hands-on corrections from partners, teachers, and muscle memory. She was unsure if this was better or worse than mirror use—at least then she could have self-directed her corrections—and once they went back to using mirrors regularly, Nina decided to keep her concerns to herself from then on.
“I thought maybe you’d—I mean, some girls match with guys but then never actually go out with them, even if they do message me again.”
She pauses, unsure of the language to use. Perhaps he had placed the image onto himself to make her feel bad about having ghosted him, maybe to get something out of it, maybe to make her think she owes him something. Perhaps he knew this would be her reaction, and said this purposely to make her feel guilty about having ghosted him. After all, she was a female, and that was, as she found, a burden many who identified as female took upon themselves—feeling guilty for saying ‘no’ or rejecting others, or maybe, feeling responsible for others’ happiness, comfort, well-being. Perhaps, also, he used this word—ghosted—to emphasize to Nina that he, Craig, 25, wasn’t deserving of being ignored or led on; he was, after all, a good guy.
“Yeah, I mean, you seem really nice,” she says, unsure whether she’d put a ‘d’ sound on the end of ‘seem.’ “So,” she trails off, trying to remove the sound from both their heads.
“Yeah, you too,” he says. “You’re definitely different from most girls.”
She laughs nervously, knowing he’d meant this as a compliment, though it made her palms itch. Someone leaving holds the door open for another person leaving behind them, and the door jams open, caught on the front rug; the heating blasts to make up for the cold air creeping in. Quickly, the windows begin to sweat. Nina feels herself warming up, but keeps her scarf on, knowing if she takes it off now, it will reveal the wetness accumulating on her chest, under her shirt, around her collarbones. Her hair sticks to the back of her neck, and she shifts the fabric over her shoulders again, hoping to mask the hunks of hair that cling to her skin, begining to get increasingly more wet.
“Seriously, it’s so refreshing,” he says, as though she’s a pool of iced tea. He reaches forward, and Nina flinches, anticipating his hand on her forearm, grasping it tightly, like another guy, Ryan, 26, had done. That date, she recalls, had gone horribly wrong because of this unexpected physical contact—something Nina would in other situations, be more than comfortable experiencing, having danced for years in incredibly close proximity with other dancers, half-naked, sweaty, in vulnerable positions—in a context where physical contact was not predictable, even necessary or consensual. Craig, 25, however, grabs hold of his coffee cup before him, instead, swooping it up to take a quick swig. She thinks she’ll go to the bathroom soon, right after she finishes her coffee, so she takes a sip of hers, too.
“Have you dated a lot?” he asks, offering another smile, his hands now covering his coffee cup.
“Um, not really,” she admits. She’d tried dating—or whatever word gets used for “dating” in high school and middle school—with people she considered to be friends at one point, but each of them ended up being impatient or judgemental with Nina’s disinterest in having sex with them. She liked to think she was entirely transparent, but each time, they said she had been leading them on, that she was being a “tease,” Blake, 23, had said of her. That she had been using him “to get attention,” the “dumb fat bitch whore.” She’d scroll up in their conversations, looking back for proof she’d said she just wanted to be friends before they started bringing her flowers to the company when she was back with the New City Ballet, showing up on her breaks with lattes with foam art and dark chocolate. She would find the rejections still in her inbox, after scrolling for hours back in their conversation, though soft, as the internet describes them—often characterized by “you’re still my best friend,”—but would never screenshot them and send them as reminders, afraid this would make them more upset, that this time they would do more than just throw names at her via text messages. Afraid that they’d say something had changed since she last said this. Afraid if they said that, she’d be lying if she didn’t say they were right.
Even when she thought she was finally ready to get back into dating—her parents pressing her again on the idea that she has a nice Serbian boy she’s been keeping from them—she was thrown again from the idea after finding a complaint, perhaps against her, in the online forums marked r/ relationships from anonymous users (M29, M24, M36, et al.). Each user paired soft rejections with a villainizing narrative as proof they had been led on, dragged, and ultimately—which they posed as the most harmful part—friendzoned by a woman they had caught feelings for. The comments, overwhelmingly supportive of users M29, M24, M36, et al. convince Nina she had been in the wrong all this time.
“I’m still dancing a lot, going to auditions, keeping up with my training, so that takes up a lot of my time.”
“Nice. Yeah, I noticed you’re like, a ballerina!” Craig, 25, says, gesturing at her. Nina thinks he’s looking at her face to make sure she really is—the proof being in the sharp jawline, the inward bowing of her cheekbones, maybe even the light fraying of baby hairs at the tops of her forehead where her hair would begin to break first when slicked back night after night, caked in hairspray, pulled by pins and heavy headpieces. She was hesitant to put this part of herself on her dating profile, knowing that some would match with her just to see more of her body. Others, she was sure, would simply take interest in her because of her body’s malleability, like when the Barbie with bendable knees and elbows came out, allowing children to pose her in positions perhaps the manufacturers hadn’t imagined children would take advantage of.
Craig, 25, shifts his arms into an arc above his head, and Nina smiles at this, his understanding of dance at the professional level through fifth en haut.
“Kind of,” she laughs. “I do more modern than ballet, now,” she tells him, thinking maybe this would explain to him why she’s not rail-thin, as he probably understands ballet dancers to be. Maybe also because she wasn’t sure if she could still call herself a dancer, not being part of a company, anymore. Not dancing full-time. Even though she struggled with that identity even when she was in the academy or working full-time. Imposter syndrome, her guidance counsellor told her it was called, but Nina knew that she was the one exception to this rule. Others experienced this syndrome. Nina was herself an imposter. She thinks of her sister, again—how she would badger Nina for being a pathological liar, perhaps even having BPD (“borderline personality disorder,” Sonja had explained, as though Nina should know this already, being the way she was) for lying to her friends about being born here, about having had orthodontics as a child (“These old things?” she’d say, pointing to her teeth, relatively straight for a child who often lied about having worn it all night long, as she had been instructed), about living in the nicer side of town, especially when they were settling into their grungy student apartment after her father got laid off. What would Sonja think of her calling herself by her sister’s name to baristas regularly?
Craig, 25, begins asking her a question, though he loses her attention again, this time to the man seated beside her. He’s scooting towards her, and she shifts her coat closer to her legs to make room for his exit.
“‘Scuse me, sir,” the man says to Nina, quietly, politely. He scoots between his and Nina’s tables, and Nina watches his eyes for if he would look at her again, notice her long hair peeking out of her scarf or her makeup, and recognize his mistake. He leaves without another glance at their table, nor his, still littered with his coffee cup, a sugar packet, a newspaper. Nina feels relief, though her relief rebounds back into anxiety; why did this relieve her in a way she hadn’t experienced for years, maybe ever. She thinks of untucking her hair from her scarf, but no one’s looking at her anymore, except Craig, 25. He says nothing, though he looks embarrassed. Nina wonders if he’s uncomfortable, anxious, now too.
“I’ll be right back,” Nina says, shifting her voice into a higher pitch. She shuffles out of her seat towards the bathrooms, thinking she should put more effort into doing her hair, perhaps letting it stream out of a toque or flow on either side of her head, maybe in small plaits or twists. That she should stop being lazy with her voice and raise it more often to avoid this confusion, erase any ambiguity that strangers may have with her gender. But would raising her voice, if to an extent that felt unnatural to Nina, also make her a compulsive liar?
She tries the bathroom door and it’s locked, so she stays in the hallway between the café and the back, tucking herself to one side in case an employee needs to come by or the door were to suddenly swing outwards. She ponders some advertisements pinned to a corkboard behind her: private guitar lessons, community art classes, a tutor wanted in the west end. Then, she spies a poster of women, all in black outfits and high heels, on a dark stage, highlighted by a thick white beam of light, streams of smoke cascading out from the curtains beside them. THE POWER OF HEELING, the poster announces. January 25th, at Fever Nightclub—the very club where Nina had been grabbed by the arm by a man who didn’t take no for an answer, grabbed by the breast by a man who said ‘honk honk.’ She takes a photo of the poster if only for the aesthetics. She wonders if she, too, could pull off tiny black shorts and heavy eyeliner, bright red lips and strappy heels. Or if she’d look like a child wearing her mother’s clothing. His mother’s clothing. A woman comes out of the toilet and walks past Nina without a glance. She sits down at a table nowhere near Craig, 25, whose head is down now. Staring into his phone, sipping his drink without looking at it. She watches her reflection in the mirror inside the darkened bathroom—just the dark outline of her coat and wet scarf visible—and quickly looks away, having made unintentional eye-contact with a stranger.
Then she’s at the door, her back turned to the seat where she met Craig, 25. She thinks of apologizing to him on her way out, maybe spewing some vaguely polite lie (my apartment’s flooding, my sister’s been in an accident) instead of telling him the truth—her grief and the uncertainty of her own existence heightened by caffeine. She turns towards the door and pushes on the bar, its weight doubled by the wind pushing back against her. She watches herself as she walks by the entire café window, mimicking the reflection that strides in the same direction as her—Craig, 25 on the other side of the glass, still staring into the blue glare of his phone. Then, the glass ends, turning into the brick exterior of the building next door, and her reflection disappears. She spots a bit of plastic that catches in the snow drift before her. It’s frozen in a strange shape, a clear sheet of thin plastic, maybe. Perhaps a used condom, a bubble tea straw wrapper, or a bit of cellophane from a grocery store floral bouquet. She wonders how long it’s been there, and how long it’ll stay.