Birthday Suit

By Alia Volz


            Don't believe I was ever happy fiddling with dolls. Or skipping around the yard, tra-la. Adults invented the myth of the carefree childhood. As an only kid, I remember realizing—I must have been five or six—that no one would ever see who I truly was inside. Heartbreaking. Also, I remember hungering. Being so small and powerless, not even knowing what it was I wanted, just wanting, wanting.

            Then I heard him.

            Mom cranked it up while she painted. Her studio occupied the brightest room in the house. There were gobs of oil paint hardening on the braided rug, rags reeking of turpentine. Music so loud the windows shook. Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain. He moaned and screeched from Mom's boombox, falsetto riding high over that funk. His hunger bottomless like mine.

            Does six years old sound too young to feel lust? I tell you it's not.

            This was years before my first crush on a classmate. Before gender turned into a trap. Before masturbation. There were My Little Ponies and there was Prince. I ached for him. I filled my first sketchpad with hearts drawn in Crayola Royal Purple. Sloppy work, all of it. Rounded tops bulging unevenly, lines failing to kiss at the bottom. I would start with a small, timid heart, and then fix it and fix it and fix it and fix it, until it consumed the whole page.

            I stole Mom's cassettes and hoarded them in my attic bedroom. Mine.

            Back then, we lived deep inside the Emerald Triangle. Weed land. I remember the earthy isolation of that place, the secrecy. My best friend Juniper was also an only child of the boonies. One summer day, we raided my mom's wicker costume trunk. I piled everything on at once. A clown suit, two gauzy negligees, a sequins evening gown, plaid golf pants, several crinolines, a 1950s prom dress, a Mexican poncho, a cowboy hat, a rubber Ronald Reagan mask, a plastic gorilla mask. Outfit after outfit, layer after layer, until the costume trunk sat empty but for a broken safety pin.

            “Get ready for the biggest show of all time,” I told Juniper. She sat cross-legged among the stuffed animals lined up on my bed. The attic was sweltering. I sweated under those layers of old clothes. Eyes itching from mold and dust allergies, nose dripping behind the multiple masks.

            The stage set, I shuffled in too-big high heels across the carpet to my tape deck, rewound to the beginning, and pressed play. I knew all the words. “Dearly beloved,” I began, extending my arms in a clumsy ballet pose. I serpentined my hips, making Juniper laugh. “And if the elevator tries to bring you down,” I said, chucking the gorilla mask across the room, “go crazy.”

            Had a babysitter told me what a strip-tease was? Had Flashdance come out yet? Where I'd heard about stripping, I don't know, but I loved the notion: that you would begin in disguise, and slowly bare yourself, driving people mad with desire.

            I stumbled out of a crinoline, fell down, staggered back up. Leaned against the dresser and threw my head back, knocking my cowboy hat off. Kicked one leg in the air. It was important to take it slow, one item at a time. Because even then I knew “Darling Nikki” was my jam, and that was the last song on Side One. I shed the pink negligee and then the blue one, the sequins dress, the plaid pants. Juniper giggling and giggling while I clowned. The two of us so innocent, and yet not. Because there's nothing innocent about stripping to Prince, even at six.

            “I knew a girl named Nikki,” I squeaked. “I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.” And, no, I didn't know the meaning of the word fiend. Or what masturbating with a magazine entailed. Or even what sex was, though I had my theories, mostly dead wrong. But I did know it was naughty and secret and gorgeous and powerful, and that it had everything to do with eyeliner and a cocky smirk. And that it made that beautiful creature shriek.

            Twirling, leaping, crawling around the room. I danced myself dizzy for Juniper and the stuffed animals—for Lion Bion and Peggy the Pegasus and White Cloud the Cat—until all that was left of my elaborate costume were my little girl underwear. White cotton with small pink flowers. Then I squirmed out of those, too, using hands and feet like a monkey.

            I stood there, all gangly legs and pudgy kid belly. Hair sun-streaked and wild and never combed enough. Face wet with sweat and snot. Buck-ass nude.

            But in my mind, it was different. I tell you, I wasn't a naked kid in my mind. Underneath all those costumes, I was wearing a studded purple suit. The studded purple suit. My Jeri-curled hair was swished forward, half covering one smoldering eye. Bee-stung lips pursed under a soft black mustache.


Alia Volz has had work published in Tin House, Threepenny Review, The New York Times, New England Review, Utne Reader, ZYZZYVA, Narratively, The Rumpus, Huizache, The Writing Disorder’s “Best Nonfiction of 2012” anthology and elsewhere. In 2014, she received an SF Weekly award for "Best Writers Without a Book in San Francisco." To render that dubious honor moot, she recently completed her first novel, a mean little cowboy noir in which all of your favorite characters die.