Your partner gives you Animal Crossing the day before you head back to graduate school. Out of all the games you’ve played, grown up with, Animal Crossing is where you feel most at home. You’re the only human, but there is only one of everyone else: pig, chicken, bear, panda, squid. There are two owls, but they’re always so delighted to see you, you can’t hold it against them.
Your neighbors are forgetful. They lose their keys in the river, ask you for the fish you’ve just caught, drop by unannounced to see your new place. No one asks aren’t you married yet, aren’t you engaged. Instead they ask, is that a dung beetle, would you like this dress that I bought but isn’t quite me, do you want to trade your sofa for this crawfish.
Your partner wants to know why you’ve named your town Puddleby, but Puddleby-on-the-Marsh wouldn’t fit. Later, when you’re mayor, you call it Mer for the sea that ripples along the bottom of the screen.
In this world, unlike the one you inhabit during the academic year, you can take care of cockroach infestations with a stomp. In the other world, after midnight, you’re clutching a running shoe, chasing something that scuttles. You’re at Home Depot before eight the next morning, after the uninvited house guest squeezed between floor and trim and vanished. After you laid wide-eyed in bed, listening for it in the walls.
When your partner visits, you go fishing, collect fruit, chat with your neighbors. After he’s left, your neighbors talk about how much they liked him, write letters, invite him for another visit.
They don’t ask about him as your partner, look startled when you use that word and see a man. They don’t ask about how you came out as bisexual but then dated men. They don’t look at you, skeptical, and ask how many women have you kissed, have you dated, have you fucked, as if you have a bi-quota to meet.
They don’t ask.
Sometimes, it feels like cheating, to be assumed straight.
In 1998, someone gave you Pokémon Blue, launching your career as a Pokémon trainer. Before 2001, you were always a boy who earns your trainer license, sets out on an adventure. Never mind the driver’s license; the roads aren’t wide enough anyway. You never thought much about it, having to be a boy.
But you meet plenty of women on your adventures: Misty, Erika, Janine, and Sabrina, the gym leaders of Cerulean, Celadon, Fuchsia, and Saffron Cities. Lorelai and Agatha of the Elite Four. Agatha, who meets you and scoffs at your mentor, Professor Oak, who has retired from training, “gone soft.” Half the battles that determine your future are with women. Even in the tall grasses of Viridian Forest or along the routes you bike, there are trainers. There are women: lass, schoolgirl, biker, cool trainer, ace trainer, swimmer. Trainers who favor one type of Pokémon, never mind battle strategy. Trainers who embody femininity, throw elegant Pokémon like Vulpix, who is too rare for you to find, even when you scour the mountainside where it lives. You wonder sometimes what they would think of you, if that were part of the narrative: a girl in dusty sneakers, travel-worn jeans, a shapeless t-shirt you wish didn’t show your still-growing breasts.
What does that fashionable trainer know, anyway, with her B-cup boobs? Or the swimmers who get to wear cute string bikinis, when you’re stuck with tying a halter swimsuit on so tight, it bruises the back of your neck. They probably never outgrew their bras in less than a year, floundered through the lingerie section, cried in a fitting room when they realized they were a D-cup already. They get to wear the cute lacey bras in bright, summery colors, not the beige, black, white trio lingering at the back of the rack.
If you could have picked your avatar, you probably would have stuck with the shapeless t-shirt and hat pulled low over your eyes.
You never thought about your assigned avatar until you were adult. By then, you realized why you had been so afraid someone would know you played a “boy’s game.” Why you tested yourself, deciding because you were attracted to men, only had boyfriends, you must be straight. Never mind the women you found attractive, that was just good sense, noticing someone was cute. The sown fear of being different, being noticeable. It’s the same fear you carried through high school, until a friend said to you, so kindly, “Emily, it’s okay to like both.”
It’s still not something you talk about—like in Pokémon, there doesn’t seem to be room for it. You’re busy with battles, ecological terrorists, cataloging wild Pokémon, fighting trainers who jump out from behind trees and issue a challenge you must face. You’re busy trying to read a map, find your way through a dark cave, avoiding Zubats that number in the thousands, ignore the taunts from Oak’s grandson. (What is his deal, anyway?) Must be easy to be a trainer, you think, when your grandfather was before you.
Besides, you’re in a “normal” relationship now, so why bother?
You know now that your favorite Super Mario Bros. was originally a different game, reskinned as Mario characters and explained away as a dream. As if any Super Mario Bros. games were based in reality. As if walking mushrooms, flying turtles, ghosts, and carnivorous plants were somehow more believable than snakes, floating masks, and dinosaurs that spit eggs.
Princess Toadstool was always your first choice. She can float in mid-air with a single jump, clear waterfalls, not even bother with the enemies that scramble along below.
You could pick Toad, Mario, or Luigi, who can pick up enemies and pull turnips faster, but no floating. Supposedly, the princess’s other skills are lower, to compensate for this particular talent, but you’ve never noticed. She can kill an enemy just the same as the others. She fights in a dress and crown, unflustered in her duties. Hard work, being a princess.
Later, you find yourself frowning when you find out it’s all meant to be a dream. As if you could only exist in other castles, not be the hero of your own story.
In first grade, you were given bound books, blank inside.
Make your own story, your teacher said.
You drew an adventure with Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess.
That’s illegal, one of your friends told you, matter-of-fact. You’ll get sued.
Later, Nintendo of America gives the princess her old name back—Princess Peach, instead of Princess Toadstool. Peach, because she wears all pink, you guess. Peach, because she’s delicate, bruises easily.
What are the responsibilities of a reclaimed princess? You wonder if she is ever asked, after, or if she must marry the hero, be in a normal relationship, hide the offset of want in her hard stone heart. You wonder if anyone thinks about her center, the pit that grows inside of her.
It must be what happens when you are always taken, always waiting.
In 1993, my sister finds mustard-plaid suspenders in a box in the basement, helps me stuff my hair under a trucker hat, paints a thick mustache above my lip. My first drag show.
Off-camera, my mom holds a Gameboy with Super Mario Land 2 running.
There’s a question box my sister made out of a Jewel-Osco bag and a coin to go with it. I duck and hit my head on the bag. My sister tosses the coin, grabs it so I can hit the box again.
On camera, I’m always in motion, running in place. After the question box, I want to do something else and turn to the camera.
“Kill me!” I order, big grin.
My sister helps my mom, forcing Mario to run off a cliff. In my greatest acting moment, I fall over, kick up my feet, play dead.
Emily Capettini is the author of Thistle, winner of Omnidawn’s Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest. Her work has previously appeared in places such as Menacing Hedge, Noctua Review, and Stirring. Originally from Batavia, IL, she is now Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Fiction at Indiana State University and Assistant Editor at Sundress Publications.