Beautiful Beasts – Deanne Gertner
When my sister Valerie was eight and I was six, we used to secretly stuff baby dolls up our shirts and waddle around with our hands on our backs, little plastic feet sticking out of our collars. We took turns giving birth next to the swing set in the backyard. Then we’d strap them into the swings and have Mommy Time, coloring each fingernail with a different magic marker.
Dad caught us once. Valerie and I were on spring break, and Mom was on maternity leave even though it’d been a stillbirth—I would’ve had a little brother, Mark. The casket was smaller than one of Dad’s shoe boxes.
That afternoon, Mom was lying down for one of her headaches, so Valerie and I were in the backyard trying to be quiet. Dad came home from work early to find Valerie pulling a baby out the bottom of my shirt as I grunted and pushed. I fell back into the grass, pretend exhausted, and just as Valerie was about to hand me my new baby boy to nurse, Dad snatched it out of her hands.
“Do you think you’re a God damned girl?” he shouted, spit flying out his mouth. My whole body shook. He dragged me to my feet, and knelt down so we were almost the same height. I couldn’t look at him. He smelled sour, moldy, like when you forget the towels in the washer for a few days. I held my breath when he got close. “You want to play with dolls?” I nodded. “I guess,” he said, “we’ll just have to make you a girl then.” He picked me up by the shoulders, holding me as far away as possible, like a dirty diaper. I stiffened in his grip. I knew not to wiggle or kick or scream as he carried me into the kitchen. Valerie seemed so far away in the doorjamb, her face crumpled like yesterday’s underwear. I wanted to tell her it would be okay, but she saw something I didn’t. Dad pulled my pants down first. He stared at the Batman logo on my underoos. I wanted to pick my half-wedgie, but Dad pulled the underwear down to my ankles. The cool air licked at my legs and crotch. Then he grabbed the scissors from Mom’s knife block, the blades winking in the light. He made a few snips in the air and walked over to me. I tried to understand what I’d done that was so bad. I’d only gotten spanks before, and only when I’d lied. Now, though, I realized the truth wouldn’t save me. I squeezed my hands tight and locked my knees, determined not to cry.
“Don’t do it, Daddy,” Valerie said through her sobs. She shook her head. Spaghetti-long streaks of saliva ran out her mouth. “I made him do it. It’s my fault.” Dad turned to Valerie, blocking my view of her. He took a step closer to her, and I felt as if I’d just jumped into ice water. I wanted to stop him from hurting her, too, but I was stuck to the tiles. I peed, though I didn’t realize it was happening until I heard the stream hit the floor. Dad turned around, and the scissors dropped from his hand.
“Clean this up,” he said. “And don’t tell your mother.”
I didn’t. I didn’t say anything to her or anyone. Not a single word crossed my lips until I entered second grade later that fall.
Twenty-nine years later, I was waiting where I always wait, just behind the curtain, stage left, trying to resist the urge to scratch my eyes out from the glitter and glue on my fake lashes. My teeth were slick with Vaseline, and the powder and wax of my make-up was all I could smell. Every time my legs brushed together, the vinyl squeaked.
After her rendition of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” Anastasia asked how many drag virgins were in the house. Each of the bachelorettes bejeweled with penis necklaces raised her hand. They looked as natural at BJ’s as a flock of flamingos in Alaska.
“Just so you ladies in the corner are on the same page as the rest of us,” Anastasia said, pointing at the bachelorettes with her red press-on nail, “this is a tipping facility, if you know what I mean.” Anastasia made an O with one hand and thrust the nail of her index finger in and out of the hole. “These ladies are working hard for you tonight,” she said, “and the way you show your appreciation for their talent is with your cold, hard Washingtons.” She rubbed her thumb and fingers together. “That’s right, ladies, get your asses over to the bartender and break those twenties down! We’ve got quite a show for you, folks, one of the best drag shows on East Colfax. Now, I’m going to turn it over to BJ himself, Mr. Bob Johnson.” Anastasia pointed her mic at the DJ station in the back corner.
BJ’s white mustache glowed alien blue in front of his laptop. “And now, ladies—I can’t remember the last time we had honest-to-God ladies in the house—and gentlemen,” he said in his sports announcer baritone, “the lovely, the talented, the bendy…Bianca!”
A few of the bachelorettes clapped, but otherwise the room was silent. I was used to having to prove myself. There was no true stage, just an area without tables. It was the most intimate, intimidating show you could ever do because there was no spot light to blind you from the audience. You saw every yawn, eye roll, and scoff. You could slingshot a G-string from one end of the place to the other if you didn’t count the bar in back. But that’s also why I loved it. It was pure, raw performance, just you and the audience. When you’re that close you can spray them with sweat, blow their hair back with the velocity of a turn. You feel their neutrons commingling with yours.
As soon as that first note boomed over the PA, I was Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in one body, kicking, turning, fist-pumping, shimmying. I was a lip-syncing machine. In a Farrah Fawcett wig, sapphire bodysuit, and light-up platforms I took center stage. When I did my first set of splits, one of the bachelorettes shouted, “Shut the fuck up!” I threw myself into the music and let the beat become my pulse, the lyrics the firings of my synapses.
After the first verse, I already had two fists full of money and I tossed the wads of cash in a pile by the stage right curtain. I turned around ready to high kick into the splits again when I saw what I thought was just another closeted suburbanite in his version of “laid back” gay wear: a straw fedora and madras shorts. He was carrying a Gibson martini. But then, his hunched shuffle, usually exhibited only in movie theatres and ball games, gave him away. That shuffle, the one I spent whole summers imitating at theatre camp, was instantly recognizable to me. Suddenly, the music stretched long and thin like caramel in a candy bar commercial, and my arms and legs fought through gravity like it was congealed soup.
I wanted to disappear from the stage, fold in on myself like some origami bird or turn gaseous and hover under the ceiling tiles, anything but prance around in a skin-tight bodysuit. It felt like a block of ice was growing inside my gut. I thought I was hallucinating, experiencing a five-year-long delayed reaction to all the Prednisone I’d popped in my twenties to keep my node-infested vocal chords going for eight musicals a week.
Here he was, five feet from stage right.
At the end of the song, I scooped up my pile of cash and shot through the curtains backstage. But wait—if it was him, how did he know I performed there when I’d kept it a secret? Maybe he’d lost a bet and this was his penance. As Sophie went on for her number, I caught him pulling a stack of bills out of his wallet. He never could keep money for very long, as if the mere weight of it was too burdensome. The last I’d heard, he’d lost his teaching job and was living off his winnings from the divorce settlement. I knew it was only a matter of time before he was living in his car, the way he handled money. It couldn’t be him.
I wanted to text Valerie about Dad but I always made a point to leave my turned-off phone in the glove box. I’d traded lip gloss, boas, fishnets, even a few almost-sexual favors for complete social media anonymity for my alter ego; I couldn’t risk bringing a text into the dressing room, Dad emergency or not. Besides, Val would be more upset about my drag secret life than a possible sighting of Dad in a dubious setting, which she’d never believe anyway, convinced as she is of everyone’s so-called best intentions. Plus, I didn’t have the time or energy to explain why I needed to keep this one God-damned, sequin-encrusted, pleather-covered thing for myself. As I watched the fedora’d man drink his Gibson, Dad’s favorite drink, I convinced myself it wasn’t him. I’d been more than half way through the routine when he came in, and it’d been almost a decade and a half since he’d seen me last. I’d lost all my adolescent I-overeat-because-I’m-gay doughiness. The wig and false eyelashes were enough to distract anybody but, coupled with the bodysuit, it would have been impossible to see through Bianca to Blake. Backstage I sat in front of the mirror and stared at my shaking hands.
“What’s wrong, baby doll?” Anastasia asked. She was between wigs and looked like a Barbie with a buzz cut.
“My dad’s out there.” As soon as I said it aloud, I knew it was him. I could feel sweat trickling down my back and pooling between my butt cheeks. I’d seen straight men in here before looking for easy blow jobs or a warm place to come, men with a primitive need for a phallic mother. I’d made a career out of dating such men, those who were bi-curious and egotistical enough to see what they were doing as an ultimate form of self-flattery, a kind of narcissism that gave them permission to experiment with me as long as they were The Top. Sex with them was always rough, borderline dangerous. Afterwards I would stare at my body in the mirror, relish the bruises and scratch marks. War Wounds, I called them.
Anastasia scoffed. “Girl, everyone’s got to deal with their Electra Complex sometime.” She didn’t understand what I’d said. She bent over, wiggled her pink bob onto her scalp, flipped up then adjusted it in the mirror. “But really, who’s going to come to a dump like this to see his guy looking as skankified as that?” She pointed at the plunging V-neck leopard-print jumper I’d changed into, her hands graceful as Vanna White. She shuffled over to the curtains in her unclasped platforms. “Let me have a looksee.” When she leaned forward, her ass made a perfect heart. “Which one is he now, Bianca?”
I hesitated. Anastasia turned backed to me. She taught me how to style a wig, dance in heels, how to use conditioner instead of shaving cream on my legs and chest, and she gave me the confidence to wear Lycra, vinyl, and pleather in public while swirling my hips. She showed me how to be someone else so I could finally be myself. I owed her the truth.
Even so, I thought I could hesitate until Anastasia lost interest and dropped it, but she cocked an eyebrow. I pointed him out. “Honey,” she said, shaking her hand at his green-and-beige, oversized Hawaiian print shirt, “that outfit’s got to go.” She turned around and bent down to buckle her shoes. “I used to have a thing for older guys, too, in my teens and twenties.” She looked up at me between shoes and winked. “I even lived with this hot-shot lawyer in New York City. Now that was fun. Even though he made me go in drag to the Met Gala. Honey, there wasn’t a person in the gazillion square feet of that place who didn’t know who and what I was, but I wouldn’t have changed an instant of it. That night was amazing.”
Normally, we would have gossiped about the celebrities who probably didn’t even know who Duchamp was, but tonight I peeked out from behind the curtain, at my dad alone in a drag bar taking delicate sips of his martini.
By the time my next song was up my whole body was tingling. I felt as if another person had control of me, pulling me towards his table. I sashayed over, every charismatic, magnetic fiber of myself dedicated to the performance, to him. I dared him not to recognize me. I kicked just to the side of his face with my black, patent-leather platform and lunged into him with the heel. He reeked of pine-scented cologne, and I could see his oily scalp through his thinning hair. I thought, You see who I am? I pushed off hard enough to have broken skin and walked back to center stage feeling like a lit stick of dynamite. But when I turned back to face him his legs were crossed, ankle on knee, chin in hand, fingers covering his mouth, aloof, calm, steady. His hawk-like gaze never left me.
I barely finished the performance after that. I stumbled behind the curtain. My body was clammy and weak and pockets of my vision had gone white. I collapsed into my chair. Anastasia met me with a handle of Jack Daniels. “Girl, you don’t look so good. Here,” she said, “this’ll help you, baby. Bottoms up.” I poured the amber liquid down my throat, letting its fire cleanse my body from the belly up. “That fedora guy’s eating you up, huh?” I nodded. “Well, exes’ll do that. Especially if you’ve got as big of a daddy complex as I think you do.”
I took another pull from the bottle. The booze was below the top of the label now. “He’s my dad. My real dad.”
She raised her gum-waxed, penciled-in eyebrows. “Oh, honey. That’s some tough shit to swallow right there.” She put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. I pushed the bottle towards her as she was leaving. “You keep it, baby doll.” The Jack crept up my esophagus, but I forced it back down. “Come on,” Anastasia said, “it’s time for the grand finale.”
Every night the cast ended the show with Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” Each of us took a turn lip-synching a verse but we all sang the chorus together. I positioned myself at stage left, the farthest spot from my dad and refused to look in his direction.
Backstage I sat at the dressing table while the other queens packed up their suitcases and changed into their street clothes. I watched as they erased their make-up with swipes of cold cream, pulled double-stick tape off their ribs, and untucked their dicks, letting them swing free again. I loved how they looked half in, half out of drag: wig-less, naked, yet still wearing stilettos and lipstick, beautiful androgynous beasts folding fishnets and combing fros. I took a shot of Jack each time one of them left the dressing room for the crowd outside: drunks from the clubs down the street hailing taxis and gorging on two-dollar burritos.
I stared into the mirror, its lights and my face spinning. Unlike the others, I stayed in costume. I heard a Dinah Washington song coming from the bar. I pushed off the chair, grabbed the Jack by the neck, and steadied myself before going forward. I concentrated on every step, sliding one foot in front of the other as if I were on a balance beam. My fingers grazed the cinder block wall as I made it forward little by little. The place was empty except for BJ behind the bar. I hovered by my dad’s table for a moment, trying to piece the night’s sequence of events back together. The only evidence that he had been there was the half-eaten cocktail onion in his abandoned glass. I plucked it and swallowed it whole like a pill. By the time I got to the bar, I felt less likely to puke. BJ was hand washing glasses at the other end, whistling along to the song. I lulled my head back and forth to the music.
I heard the toilet flush, and my skin turned to goose flesh. I heard the friction of paper towel on skin, the squeak of rubber soles on linoleum. Each step echoed. My back hurt I was sitting so straight. He sat next to me, and the cushion sighed as he eased himself down.
“Gibson martini, please.” It was him. I glanced over to be sure. He held my gaze and added, “Make it two.” I watched his hand slide a fifty dollar bill across the bar. BJ pushed it down into his tip jar and pulled out crumpled, torn, and taped-together bills to make his change. I held my breath. I thought without the distractions of a performance he’d make me out. “That was some act tonight,” he said. I could feel my guts trembling.
“Bianca’s hands down our best,” BJ said as he poured the drinks. “I keep telling her she could make a go of it. Compete in one of them reality shows.”
I glanced up but kept my eyes focused on the Jack label. BJ knew something was off. He hovered in front of me, wiping the same spot of counter with a stained blue rag until I nodded at him and he went back to washing glasses.
“Care to join me?” A martini glass inched its way over.
I shook my head and lifted up the Jack.
“Smarter not to mix your booze,” my dad said. “I’ve learned the hard way. Well, cheers.” He clinked his glass on my bottle and drank the whole martini in a single gulp. I thought he would leave after that, but he stayed put. He bounced his knee and then started finger tapping the bar. His nervousness calmed me. If he knew it was me, he’d be cold, nearly hostile, and pretend I wasn’t there—that is, if he stayed, which he wouldn’t have. There’d be no wondering what he thought or felt—it’d be more than clear: that I was a worthless, flaming, fag of a son. But he was awkward, unsure, almost apprehensive. He still couldn’t see who I was. Suddenly I felt invincible: I could toy with him, test him, jerk him around all I wanted. He wouldn’t see me as Blake because he couldn’t.
I coughed as daintily as I could then said, “Haven’t seen you ‘round here much. You a drag hag or what?”
“Uh, well…” He wiggled on his chair. “This was my first time.”
“I popped your cherry?! Lucky me.” I nudged his shoulder then winked. The tips of his ears turned red, and he reached for the other martini but knocked it over. The little onions rolled to the end of the bar, stopping before they toppled over. I reached for them by standing on the foot rest. The chair wobbled, but then I felt him sturdy it. I looked over my shoulder with parted lips and narrowed eyes. When I sat back down, I placed the onions side by side on my tongue then swallowed them whole. “Yummy,” I said.
“Most people hate those,” he said.
“I’m not most people,” I said.
“Me either,” he said.
I wanted to ask him who he was, but he turned to BJ and ordered another martini. He rested his palms, which trembled ever so slightly, on the counter between sips. I sat there trying to think up other things I could say and do to freak him out, but whatever mean streak had taken hold of me was gone. My eyes felt dry, the lids gummy. All I wanted now was a hot shower and my bed. I was sick of my facade but didn’t want to ruin things after coming this far. I arched back in the chair, pointing my fake, nipped-out rubber breasts to the water-stained ceiling tiles and then yawned. “This kitten’s had all she can take for one day,” I said. “I’d best get going.” When I reached for the Jack, his hand gripped mine.
“I don’t—” His voice was raspy and low and his eyes were red-rimmed, the circles underneath seeming to darken by the second. He squeezed his eyelids shut and looked about to cry. He dropped his elbows to the bar and held his shaking head in his hands. He looked lost, as if he had sleep-walked his way into this dive. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
I could have come clean then, bound us both in the terrible truth of the moment—if I wanted to hurt him. But instead, I felt my resentment slide to the floor as easily as a dropped robe. Without it I felt lost, unsure of myself minus the succor of bitterness. I looked at him, at the depressed triangle he formed on the bar top, and my hand hovered over his knee before settling, light as a butterfly landing.