I Am Not Myself These Days, page 4
“THE CANDYMAN MAKES…EVERYTHING HE BAKES…SATISFYING AND DELICIOUS!!”
It was incredible that Debbie hadn’t thrown up yet. She’d been spinning at an increasing speed for nearly a full minute. The end of the song was approaching.
“THE CANDYMAN CAN!!!…THE CANDYMAN CAN!!!…THE CANDYMAN CAN!!!”
At this final line Debbie stopped spinning. What happened next will go down in drag queen history. Debbie stopped with her back to the audience, lifted up her chain-link miniskirt, and bent over, revealing what looked like a big red plastic umbrella handle coming out of her ass.
None of us could make out what it was at first. It looked familiar. All of us had seen one before. Somewhere. And then, just as the crowd collectively remembered what it was, Debbie reached behind her and started pulling and twisting at it.
It was one of those giant hollow plastic candy canes they used to sell at Christmastime in the checkout lines in Woolworths. They were about two feet long and filled with M&M’s. The front row panicked as they realized exactly what that red handle Debbie was tugging at was attached to: two full feet of M&M delivery chute shoved up her ass.
The M&M’s came showering out of Debbie’s ass with amazing speed, bouncing off the stage platform and ricocheting into the crowd. She started swaying her hips from side to side in order to strafe the entire breadth of the audience. It was pandemonium. People screaming, then gagging after a stray M&M bounced directly from Debbie’s ass into their mouth. And because she’d been delayed an hour the final few inches of M&M’s had melted together and fell in a big brown clump onto the center of the stage floor.
Debbie calmly turned around to face the audience with a huge grin. She took a deep bow—extracting the tube in the process—and placed the red handle back onto it. Then she spun it around her finger and flung it out into the candy-coated shell-shocked audience.
This is a drag queen that demands your respect.
But tonight Li’l Debbie is more sedate. Neither of us has to perform. Just stand outside and let the “right” people in. Which is pretty much anyone who promises to send a drink out to us after they get inside.
“He’s gotta be pretty hung to make that much money,” Debbie says.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen it.”
“You’ve been dating a hooker for three weeks and you haven’t slept together? What’s that about? Short on cash?”
“He just doesn’t want to yet. Wants us to get to know each other better first.” Even as I say it I realize I sound like the naïve girl on an Afterschool Special.
“He’s a pricey whore, and you’re a cheap slut. End of story. Start fucking already,” she says glibly, fishing a stray wig hair off her thigh.
Truth is, it does feel a little strange. At this moment he’s on a call at a midtown hotel wearing nothing but a leather harness while beating up some naked guy he’s never met. But when he stops by afterward to pick me up, we’ll go to his place and sleep in pajama bottoms and modestly close the bathroom door when we pee.
“Well, like my mother always told me,” Debbie says, “it’s not the size that matters, it’s how much it costs an hour.”
“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?” I say.
“Did I say Ma made any sense, bitch?”
It’s two thirty in the morning and the street is dead empty. It’s one of those summer nights in New York when the bricks and pavement have soaked up so many days of relentless sun and haze that the city doesn’t have a chance to cool down even in the middle of the night. If I stand next to the wall of the club I can feel the heat radiating off the building. I spray antiperspirant on my face underneath my foundation in the summer, but on nights like tonight it doesn’t help. There’s no such thing as a “natural look” drag queen. I’m sweaty and smeared and bored and not anywhere near drunk enough.
Three Hells Angels turn the corner onto the street from Second Avenue and roar past the front of the club on the way to their own club. The noise as they pass is incredible. I wonder how anyone can stand to live on this street.
“Hey Papa!” Li’l Debbie yells at them, waving them over. They do a U-turn in the middle of the street and come back to us. I can’t help but think this might not be such a great idea.
“Hey girls,” the lead motorcyclist yells back. “Club busy tonight?”
He’s smiling. As are his two friends. Over the years I’ve learned that there are two classes of people who get a big kick out of people who are different from themselves. The very rich, and those who are freaks in their own right.
“Totally dead,” Debbie yells over the roaring bikes. “Have you come to save us?”
“Get us some beer and we might do some thinking on it.”
“No problem, Papa, the fridge is full,” she yells back.
Debbie ducks inside and the three Angels break out their cigarettes. She comes back with bottles for them and double vodkas for us. We prop the door open so we can hear the music and start our own little block party, just the five of us. Two of them are from Queens, and one is down from New Hampshire. They show us their tattoos and pictures of their girlfriends. I show them my fish and share the secrets of “tucking” with them. Several beers and vodkas later and we’re having a much better time than anyone inside the club.
Suddenly Johnny, the leader, stands up on his bike and brings his weight back down on the starter. The explosion of sound echoes down the street. He pats the seat behind him.
“Hop on, Blondie,” he yells at me.
His friend starts his bike and gestures to Debbie. Neither one of us hesitate anywhere near as long as we should. I swing a seven-inch heel over the seat and settle down behind Johnny. Debbie, with considerably more effort, maneuvers her three hundred pounds onto the bike behind. With my arms around his leather waist, Johnny takes off toward Third Avenue.
The avenue is much busier, especially as we reach St. Mark’s Place. I love the East Village. It should be the mandatory first home of everyone who moves to New York. We pass groups of runaway teens, half of them kicked out of their homes because they were too much trouble for their families. The other half ran away from their middle-class suburban homes intent on becoming too much trouble for their families. I spot Quentin Crisp in a lavender suit with matching hat and scarf trying to cross Lafayette.
Johnny is going faster now, trying to catch every green light. People stop and stare at our little group as we fly by. I’d like to think I fit in as a biker chick girlfriend. L’il Debbie, however, in her super plus–size Catholic School–girl outfit probably draws considerably more attention. I have to hold one hand on top of my head to keep my wigs from flying off, and it occurs to me that I’m not wearing a helmet.
For a second, the advanced class sixth grade hall monitor in me starts to panic. This is something I could get in big trouble for. This sort of behavior is sure to disappoint someone. My parents, my old teachers. I picture Mrs. Zariff, my fifth grade teacher, suddenly waking up with a start in her floral print bed knowing that somewhere, one of her teacher’s pets is flagrantly “crossing the line.” I picture my sixth grade Good Citizen Citation spontaneously bursting into flames in my old desk drawer at my parents’ house. I picture my obituary in the Oconomowoc Enterprise, informing everyone that the brain responsible for their former debate team hero was splattered (but held loosely together by a blond wig) across Astor Place in New York City. I see teachers, priests, my parents’ friends all whispering among themselves that they knew, they always knew, that I was too perfect not to have some fatal flaw. That they knew it was an act all along.
I let my eyes go blurry, finally giving in to the vodka. The streetlights and neon store signs register as streaks on my comprehension. This recklessness is just the kind of behavior expected from someone who suddenly surprises his parents with an uncharacteristic string of “unsatisfactory” marks on his third grade report card…the same year that he was bursting into tears inexplicably in the middle of the night. And nobody
Being mutilated in a motorcycle crash is precisely the fate that good people would expect to befall a boy who moves to New York City and wears women’s clothes and is developing a drinking problem and is falling in love with a guy who gets paid to have sex with other guys.
“Shut the fuck up,” I tell the hall monitor in my head. “Shut the fuck up.” What good has being good done me thus far? What have I gained other than a propensity toward panic attacks and a brief addiction to Xanax?
I’m falling in love with a hooker and it feels better than every Regional Concert Band Championship medal stuck in the back of the top drawer of the desk in my childhood bedroom. I’m falling in love with a hooker who willingly, happily, makes my life easier, and seems only to expect whatever I’m already giving him. Nothing more. Doesn’t need me to bring home straight As. Or blue ribbons. Or respectable career choices.
Go faster,” I yell into Johnny’s ear.
Maybe I could do what you do?” I say to Jack.
“No, period. Way, period,” he replies between slurps of ruby red borscht.
“It says the next correspondence will be from their law firm.” I’m rereading the letter I had gotten this afternoon for roughly the thirtieth time, trying to find a loophole.
“They can’t kick you out for at least a year. New York City laws are all written in favor of the tenant. I know people who haven’t paid rent in more than five years,” Jack says.
The idea of people mooching off their landlords for more than a half decade deeply offends my inner-midwesterner. Of course my situation is different. I make money; I just don’t make enough to pay my full rent. I have just barely enough cash flow to pay my half of the monthly bill, and even if I never ate or drank (shudder), I still wouldn’t have enough take-home pay to cover my deadbeat roommate’s half.
“Is Tempest even looking for work?” Jack asks, moving on to a plate of pierogis. We’re at what’s fast becoming our favorite Polish diner in my East Village neighborhood. I’m so nervous about being evicted I can’t eat.
“Unless he’s looking for it facedown in the laps of random cabdrivers, no,” I reply. My roommate has a thing for having sex with most every penised person he comes across.
“That’s inexcusable,” he says.
“Not having a job or blowing cabbies?” I ask.
“Both. Because he’s not getting paid for either.”
When I got this job in New York five months ago, I wasn’t confident enough to come to the city without a roommate. When I first saw Miracle on 34th Street as a child, I knew there was an apartment overlooking Central Park with my name on it. But then Welcome Back, Kotter got me worried that I’d have to take an elevated train covered in graffiti to get to it. Eventually, after watching Fame, I realized that I might just be scrappy enough to get by if I learned a heartfelt song or two and wore the right leg warmers.
But when the opportunity to move to New York finally presented itself, I froze. Atlanta was the first real city I’d lived in, moving there right after college in Michigan. And although I’d lived in Atlanta for only two years, I was pretty much Queen of the Hill, living in a little rented pink cottage in Virginia Highlands. I had my first advertising job, was doing my weekly drag show, and had a close circle of new friends. One of whom was my now-roommate, Tempest.
When I first met Tempest, he was going by the name “Piddles.” Tempest had a different name every month or so. Soon after “Piddles” he became “Sarge,” then “Charm,” then “Grit”—each new name came with an appropriate story. One night, my group of friends and I were trapped inside our favorite club waiting out Hurricane Opal, which was raging outside. Crystal Cox, the emcee of the club’s drag show, was giving periodical weather reports from the stage. She’d just finished a joke about Opal having passed through Alabama, causing “forty-five million dollars’ worth of improvements” when the lights went out.
No one was quite sure what to do next. The hurricane was growing louder and more violent each passing minute. Without the club’s music, we became aware of the heavy rain lashing against the outside of the building. What we thought was a heavy bass beat moments earlier was now revealed to be a near constant rolling of thunder. A huge crash startled everyone as something very heavy blew onto the roof of the club. No one had any idea what to do next. Going home, either alone or with whoever was grabbing your ass in the pitch black, was quickly ruled out as the hurricane audibly gained strength.
In the midst of this turmoil, Tempest grabbed a candle off the bar and headed up to the stage. Most everyone in the bar had their shirts off, since the air conditioner had gone out with the power. Tempest’s skin was so pale he seemed nearly translucent as he held the candle to his chest. As he passed, it seemed as if one would be able to see the flickering candle glowing right through him. His bright red hair glinted like flame itself in the strobing emergency lighting.
He took the stage, and in the faint pool of candlelight surrounding him, he began to sing an a cappella version of “Stormy Weather.”
Why I thought I’d be more secure moving to New York with a man who changes names more often than his sheets is a question only five or six vodkas can answer. And after a mere four months in the city, my folly was apparent. I had yet to receive even one month’s half-rent from him. Since I was the one with the stable job, it was my name that had to go on the lease. And subsequently, my name on the threatening eviction letters.
“I can give you some money,” Jack said through a mouthful of pierogi.
“Thanks, but I’ll figure it out. My birthday’s coming up—I’ll ask my parents for cash.”
“Do you want to stay in my place while I’m gone?” Jack asks.
Hmmmm. Let’s see. A two-bedroom penthouse with marble baths and rooftop pool? Or a shared studio apartment in a building with hallways that are permanently infused with the scent of rancid sausage and Chinese old lady pee?
“Thanks. But I’m afraid they’ll move my stuff out if I’m not there,” I say. Actually, I’m afraid that Tempest will sell my things for club money. “When do you come back? Tuesday?”
“Tuesday night. Late. I’m going to give you a key. I’d love to have you home when I get there.”
Jack’s heading to Dallas for a long weekend at a circuit party. A certain subset of wealthy gay professionals travel around the world from circuit party to circuit party simply to get high, dance, and have sex. One of Jack’s clients goes to every single one, and has hired him for the entire weekend. Fourteen thousand dollars and all expenses paid.
“I already told the doormen to let you up whenever you come by,” Jack says.
I don’t say anything. Maybe it’s the stress of my apartment situation, or maybe it’s because I’m worn out by being either drunk or hungover every day for the last several months, but suddenly I’m extremely tired and have nothing more to say.
“Hey. Don’t let it get you down,” Jack says, acknowledging my exhausted silence. “This is part of what it means to be a New Yorker. There’s not a single person who’s come to this city in the last three hundred years who hasn’t spent at least one day worrying about where he was going to sleep that night. And no one’s kicked you out yet.” He hands me a set of his keys. Even his keys feel more luxurious than my keys.
“Thanks,” I say. “Don’t worry, I won’t come by till Tuesday.”
“Come by whenever you need to, blubberhead,” he says. “That’s the point of me giving them to you.”
“Do you think we might be able to fuck when you get back?” I ask.
We’ve had this particular conversation almost every day for the last month. I haven’t gone this long without sex since I came out of the closet. I’d like to say the same about him, but I’m there
Typically the conversation goes something like this:
ME: “When can we fuck?”
JACK: “I don’t know. Not yet.”
ME: “You get to fuck all the time.”
JACK: “Are you proposing to pay me?”
ME: “Do you have AIDS?”
ME: “Something else?”
JACK: “No. I told you, I almost never even have real sex with clients.”
ME: “So then it’s not just me you don’t want to fuck around with. You don’t want to have sex with everybody.”
JACK (exasperated): “I do want to have sex with you. I really do. I just want to wait. Like normal people.”
ME: “Well, I’m normally pretty horny, so it better be soon.”
ME: “I’ll have to start sleeping with other people.”
JACK: “Then we’ll never sleep together.”
Truth be told, he probably has the right idea. The longer we wait the more I fall for him. I can’t think of anyone else who can coerce me into denying myself something I want. Here’s a guy who can tell me when I’ve had enough to drink, and that I shouldn’t have sex at the drop of a hat with him or random strangers, and for some reason, I actually listen.
It’s not like I’ve been craving a Svengali in my life. Plenty of people have tried to get me to straighten up, sober up, whatever. It’s just that at the end of the day, I don’t want to end that day with the sort of people who urge others to straighten up. I want to end it with fun people. Fun people who don’t want the present day to end until it’s the next morning.
But waiting for Jack is, for some reason, perfectly okay with me. It feels kind of safe. A comfortable sense of inevitable gratification has been settling over me since the moment we met.
I open a packet of crackers and crumble it into the little bit of borscht he’s left in his bowl. I pick up the bowl and slurp directly from it. Loudly.