I Am Not Myself These Days, page 2
“Could one of the kids be black?” one of the clients asks predictably.
“Uh, well,” Laura replies, thrown off track, “it’s a family, so it would probably be simpler if they were all black. Or white.”
“Well they can’t all be black…” another client replies, looking around the table with a conspiratorial astonishment that says “These crazy New York ad guys…an entirely BLACK family! How do they think up this stuff?!”
“Then it’s settled,” repeats the original questioning client—feeling somehow vindicated, “only one of the kids is black. Please go on.”
Laura’s flailing, but the more she talks the more it starts coming back to me. I remember being in the agency’s studio right before the meeting, with studio workers running around trying to mount Laura’s and my work on blackboards. I remember sitting on the cutting bench regaling everyone with an exaggerated version of my triumphant Lucky Cheng’s victory the previous night. Everyone laughs at the stories, especially the bit about the lapdance I performed on a middle-aged guy in the audience from Texas who was in New York City for an industrial textile conference. As part of my act, I got him to dial home on his cell phone, wake up his wife, and ask her how much he should tip the draq queen gyrating on his crotch.
It gets a little hazier before that, but I also remember getting into work at about eleven and finding six messages on my voicemail wondering where the hell I was, or more importantly, where the hell were the storyboards that I was supposed to have finished this morning.
Before that, things are pretty much blank. I concentrate. Blackouts can be fun if approached with the right mindset. You just can’t sweat the fact that you’ve lost a small portion of your life for all eternity. Occasionally, little bubbles of memory will float up like surreal Mylar party balloons at unexpected times throughout the next day and start piecing together a colorful, if incomplete, version of reality.
One such balloon presently floats to the surface of my memory. It bears the caption “Pobody’s Nerfect: Congratulations on Finding a Place to Sleep Last Night!” I get a flash of a bright white apartment, an amazing skyline view, and a cheese omelet with hash browns served in a round foil deli container. It’s from this morning. I was at that boy’s apartment. The boy from Lucky Cheng’s last night. I’m not even going to attempt the mental exercise of conjuring up a name. I think I’ve accomplished enough. I’ve determined where I woke up, what meeting I’m in, and whose clothes I’m wearing. A good day’s work for a Friday. Coming up with his name would just be showboating.
I can’t wait for this meeting to be over and to go put my muddled head down on my desk.
I don’t get home from the agency until around nine thirty p.m. The hangover that set in after lunch is finally waning. If I can keep down a soft-boiled egg and grab a half-hour nap I should be in sporting shape for tonight’s midnight show at Tunnel. At least tomorrow is Saturday and I can recover a little more fully before going out again.
I’ve been in advertising for roughly the same amount of time I’ve been doing drag, which is about four years. I’m actually proud of my industriousness. Being a junior art director doesn’t pay all that well, and neither does being a drag queen, so together I’ve calculated that I bring home roughly the same amount as a unionized sanitation worker. Unfortunately, much of the money I make as a drag queen goes back into my craft. Or down the hatch. Or, occasionally, up my nose.
There’s a strange lack of knowledge about the role of drag queens in our culture. I attribute this to the appalling state of our country’s education system. Others might blame an utter lack of interest. Who am I to judge?
People dressing in the opposite gender’s clothing is like crack-cocaine for the daytime talk show industry. And being on television is like crack-cocaine for a drag queen. Well, actually, crack-cocaine is like crack-cocaine for a drag queen, but being on television runs a close second.
But these shows never really explain the many different types of men who dress in women’s clothing. There’s a big difference between transsexuals, transvestites, and drag queens. And it’s this difference that I’m presently trying to explain to my mother over the phone, while boiling an egg for a light preshow dinner. A producer from Maury Povich called the other day to see if I would like to appear with my mother on an episode entitled “My Drag Queen Son Thinks I Need a Makeover!”
“Josh, I simply have no desire to go on Channel 4 with you if you plan on wearing a dress,” she says.
“First of all, I’ll be wearing a black latex miniskirt and halter top, not a dress. And second, it’s not just Channel 4, it’s Maury—a nationally syndicated show.”
“Irregardless—” she says.
“That’s not a word, Mom.”
“Irregardlessly,” she continues, purposely trying to piss me off, “I’m not going to have all my friends think my son wants to be a woman.”
“I’ve explained this a million times, Ma.” I sigh. “I don’t want to be a woman. Transsexuals are the ones who feel trapped in someone else’s body or whatever. I’m a drag queen. I’m a celebrity trapped in a normal person’s body.”
“Well, can’t you get famous at something less perverted? Try out for a play or something. Something your father and I can go see. You were great in L’il Abner.”
“It was Bye Bye Birdie, Ma; I didn’t get in L’il Abner. And that was middle school. Anyway, you know you’re always welcome to come to my shows.” I’m absentmindedly twirling the egg around in the boiling water. “And what I do is not perverted. You’re thinking of transvestites,—guys who dress in their wives’ clothes and jerk off.”
“Sorry, masturbate,” I say.
There’s a long pause on the other end of the line.
“You know that if you want to have an operation that’s something you can talk about with your dad and me.”
“I said those are transsexuals, Ma. I’m very happy with my penis, thank you.” I was about to add, “and so are hundreds of others,” but figured I’d save it for a later conversation. My plan is to drive my mother insane with a kind of psychological Chinese drip torture, not flip her out all at once.
“Well, whatever you are, I’m not going on any cry-baby Oprah show with you and your weird friends.”
“Jesus, Ma, are you even listening? It’s Maury Povich, not Oprah Winfrey. If it were Oprah I wouldn’t even give you a choice. We’ll talk about it again tomorrow.”
I decide that when I do get famous I’m going to have to estrange myself from my parents. I don’t think they’ll come across well in my People magazine profile.
As soon as I hang up the phone, it rings again. I’m sure it’s my mother calling back to remind me to send a birthday card to my great aunt Zelda or something.
“Is Aqua there?”
“Barely,” I reply.
“What’s going on?”
I don’t recognize the voice.
“I’m boiling an egg,” I say.
“I would think a six-time Amateur Drag Queen titlist would have someone to do that for her.”
“I give the staff Fridays off so they can get laid,” I say.
“You’re very generous,” says the mystery voice.
I take a long sip from the icy vodka I’m holding in my non-egg-stirring hand.
“Well, it’s easier than screwing them all myself,” I reply.
I start to add up what I know about this anonymous caller. He’s someone who was either at last night’s show, or someone I called today to brag about it. He’s relatively humorous. And he acts as if I know him. Another good thing about being a drunk is that it sharpens my sleuthing skills.
“I was wondering if I could come by this weekend to pick up my clothes?”
Now, you’d think a question like this would narrow down the identity of this mystery caller quite considerably. In my case, it’s still wide open. I have a box full of clothes from mystery dates.
“I’ll bring back you
“Which stuff do you have?” I ask. This’ll nail it. No matter how high or drunk, I never forget an outfit and where I wore it.
“The stuff from last night. How much drag paraphernalia do you have scattered around the city, anyway?” he asks incredulously.
“Um, I was just kidding.” I wasn’t. But at least now I could picture him. Kinda. The boy in the mostly white apartment with the weird masks on the wall. “Can you come by tomorrow? I have a show tonight; I’ll be up around noon.”
“Where’s the show?”
I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Now he’s going to want me to put him on the list, and I already have two more people than I’m allowed.
“It’s at Tunnel,” I say, “but the list is closed.”
“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s too busy there. I wouldn’t be able to talk to you anyway. Are you going anywhere afterward?”
I think it’s a little presumptuous on his part to think that I would want to talk to him anyway. I mean, sure, I went home with him, probably slept with him, ate breakfast with him, and wore his clothes to work the next day. None of this I see as necessarily flirtatious on my part. All in a night’s work as far as I’m concerned. But there’s something flirty/sexy about his voice that’s appealing to my inner-romantic comedy actress. Then again, maybe it’s just his penthouse apartment I’m hearing. My inner–gold digger frequently beats the crap out of my inner–Meg Ryan.
“Yeah, I’ll probably go to the Boiler Room afterward,” I say, “I should be there after three.”
“Okay, I’ll see you there,” he says, “unless I get paged.”
Paged? At three in the morning? My penthouse fantasies instantly expand into penthouse doctor fantasies. The idea of blank prescription pads just lying around an apartment nearly causes me to choke on my eggs à la vodka.
“And hey,” he continues, “don’t drink so much tonight. See ya.”
He hangs up right before my rage begins to well up. “Don’t drink so much?!” Who the fuck is this guy other than some guy I don’t even remember fucking? No one, absolutely no one, tells me what to do when I go out. That’s the whole reason I force my swollen feet into seven-inch heels that leave them covered in blisters, which would really really hurt if my feet hadn’t gone numb two years ago. That’s the reason I wear black latex catsuits in 100-degree dance clubs. That’s the reason I spend more hours putting on wigs and makeup than I do sleeping. So that I can go to the front of every fucking velvet rope line, get showered with drink tickets and free bumps, and get paid merely to be somewhere and do whatever the hell I feel like. I have a helmet of blond hair and armor of corset to protect me from all manner of dull people—dull people who do things like watch how much they drink.
So why am I excited to see this guy?
I am, of course, completely bombed by the time I get to the Boiler Room. But being the smart gal that I am, I did a couple of bumps of coke before leaving Tunnel to appear more alert. So now I’m very alertly drunk. For instance, it’s painfully clear to me that I’ve finished two more vodkas with no sign of this guy and I’m going to be forced to buy myself a third. The Boiler Room is a kind of after-hours hangout for the sorts of people who work in big dance clubs. So most of the other patrons have grown deaf to the constant drink requests and shrill mating calls of the North American Drag Queen.
It’s him. As soon as I see him, I suddenly remember the whole evening before and breakfast this morning. His name is Jack. I remember pulling into the circular drive of a contemporary high-rise apartment building on the Upper East Side and watching him hit the button marked PH. I remember walking into his apartment and thinking it was the apartment on the old Bob Newhart Show. Low and long and modern, with a sunken living room. The skyline of Midtown New York looked like a stage backdrop outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. I remember standing on the small balcony, with a cool summer wind drying my sweaty outfit, and looking east toward the Queensborough Bridge, which seemed close enough to reach out and touch, and much smaller than it does from the ground.
I remember him sitting on the edge of his tub watching me take off my makeup with a tube of his body lotion and some toilet paper. He watched me pull off my three pairs of eyelashes. He brought me a pitcher of lukewarm water to put my fish in. When I took off my wig, he reached over and smoothed out my flattened, messy hair with his fingers. He drew me a bath, no fussy bubbles or oils, and listened to me talk about the song I performed that night, and the audience, and my advertising job. And when I stood up in the tub, and there was no more talk, and no more Aqua, he wrapped me in a soft white towel. And I was drunk, and tired, and tired of myself, and he looked right in my eyes and said, “Hello again.”
By the time he brought me the deli breakfast in bed the next morning I was performing again. Wearing an invisible wig and makeup, I was flip and dismissive and rude. Even if he never saw the clothes he lent me ever again, he was no doubt glad to see me leave his apartment.
But now, for whatever reason, he was back.
“Hey, you,” I say. I try to act normal. Unfortunately I can do multiple different impressions of normal, and I can’t figure out the appropriate one for the moment. I’m dangerously close to simply having to “be myself.”
“How was Tunnel?” he asks.
“Fun. You know…noisy, sweaty, sceney, and sparkly.”
“I haven’t been in years. How was your show?” he asks.
“Good. I did a female James Bond thing. Everyone seemed to like it.” I didn’t tell him that halfway through the number, when I grabbed a girl out of the crowd and held her “hostage” with my toy laser gun, I was so drunk that I fell backward, pulling the mortified girl down on top of me.
“You wouldn’t tell me your real name last night,” he said.
“A girl’s only weapon is her secrets,” I say.
“Spoken like a guy with his dick tucked behind him.”
“It’s Josh,” I say.
“Nice Jewish name.”
“I’m Catholic. Guess we’ll never be married then. Shame.”
He turns to the bartender and orders for us both. One Absolut cranberry, and one club soda with lime. Great. He doesn’t drink. Which means one of two things: either he has never drunk, or he drank all the time and has been cut off by his “higher power.” Both options are equally frightening to me, and an instant turnoff. I need to get my drag stuff back tonight, maybe have a little sex, steal a prescription pad or two, and get him the hell out of my life.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that sober people are just that.
“Here you go,” Jack says, handing me the club soda while keeping the Absolut cranberry for himself.
I take a sip and hold the soda water up in front of my eyes, scrutinizing it.
“It’s clear, like vodka…and has bubbles, like champagne,” I ponder facetiously out loud. Holding up the lime I go on, “And this piece of fruit indicates that it’s some sort of cocktail, yet…” I pause dramatically to take a sip before continuing, “it doesn’t make my problems disappear and allow me to escape into a false world of cleverness and beauty.”
“It will, however, allow you to sober up a little to better appreciate the enormous breadth of my personality,” Jack says.
“Any drink that makes things look enormous is the perfect drink for me,” I say, shifting my weight back on my heels.
“You don’t need another drink. I’m sure you’ve been drinking all night,” Jack says. He, of course, is right. My typical drinking schedule is one vodka rocks when I get home from work to help me nap. Two to three more while I put on my makeup and costume. And anywhere from ten to fifteen at the club. I’m not stupid. I know I drink far more than I should. Than anyone should. But part of the pattern stems from the fact that the corsets I wear bring my waist down from thirty inches to twenty-three inches. After about fifteen minutes in one, th
Jack has one more drink, and I have another soda (in addition to sipping out of someone else’s abandoned rum and Coke while Jack uses the restroom) before we decide to head home. There’s no question of whether and where we’ll spend the night together, having already dispensed with that awkwardness the night before.
We’re in a cab heading to his apartment when Jack reaches over and cups his hand over mine. It’s a simple gesture, but one that catches me off guard. I keep looking out the window as we head north on FDR. Past the United Nations, the neon Pepsi sign in Queens, and Roosevelt Island. The East River sparkles under the bridges. But all I’m thinking about is his hand on mine. By this point on a ride home I’m used to a hand on a thigh or, by the more aggressive, a hand slipped up into my crotch, but not a hand on my hand.
“I don’t usually go home with guys while I’m in drag,” I say, breaking that silence that has held since we left the bar. I’m lying again of course. I almost never go home alone. But his hand on mine makes me want to acknowledge this trip as somehow different. If I say it out loud, maybe it’s true.
“Me neither,” Jack says. “But I’m not taking you home because you’re in drag. I’m taking you home because I want you there.”
And I believe him. I remember enough about the previous night to know that I was more comfortable at his place than I was in my own messy overstuffed studio apartment, with my horribly selfish, angry, and unemployed roommate. I know that I felt cleaner, and more content, than I’d felt in several years in his calm space in the sky. I remember the soft warm towel he wrapped around me when I stood naked in front of him in the tub.