Thank You, Cecilia
To the trans queen about to sit on my face:
Thank you for prowling through the audience until you spot me, kohl-rimmed eyes smoldering as you weave through the tables. You run a satin-gloved finger across the cheek of each man you pass, occasionally stopping to raise one of the long-stemmed roses that greeted guests at their tables and run it across an unsuspecting patron’s lips. Men blush, and wives and girlfriends laugh and flirt with the singularly beautiful headliner who now stands before me.
Thank you, Cecilia, for pulling harder on my left arm than Lara does on my right. Lara—innately jealous and still mad at me—flicks a final, desperate half-smile of resignation and lets go. Thank you for the tenderness with which you tie your black feather boa into a slipknot around my neck and lead me through the crowd, down to the narrow stage that bakes beneath white-hot luminaires. You sit me down on a plain wooden chair that sits in the middle of the otherwise empty stage.
A gravelly voice fills the theater. The Mistress of Ceremonies—a barrel-chested, cigar-chomping queen called Phil-Thea Gurley—howls over the house speakers, “Please, Cecilia, don’t hurt the poor boy. His saint-of-a-mother would never forgive us!”
It’s all part of the show. Phil-Thea has never met my mother, and I suspect that my Mexican mother would remember if she had ever met anyone like Phil-Thea Gurley. I suspect that my fraternizing with anyone like Phil-Thea, in a place like this, would confirm some things my mother’s been thinking about me.
Thank you, Cecilia, for using your boa to bind my hands and feet to that wooden chair. There I sit before two hundred screaming faces, helpless, exposed, alone. My heart pounds in my ears because exposure is my nightmare.
And my dream.
The secret dream of a narcissistic, insecure, arrogant, unctuous nineteen year-old who, in the coming years, will understand more and more how badly he needs his ass kicked, his world turned sideways, his overconfidence and delusions about how this life actually works severely tested.
As I squint into the lights at the churning crowd beyond the stage, it is only now dawning on me why Phil-Thea—not yet in drag and working the door before the show—barely acknowledged our fake IDs and gestured up the blood-red carpeted stairs.
“Complimentary drink vouchers,” Phil-Thea growled as they handed me two pink tickets. “Tell the boys to seat you at table twenty-four.” They pronounced “you” as yah and “four” fo-wa, like Sonny Corleone. Phil-Thea flicked the cigar from one corner of their mouth to the other. “And buckle up, sweetie,” they added with a dismissive smirk at Lara.
“Yah gonna see some things.”
In front of us in line was a group of frat boys, the kind of mouth-breathing bros who make the hairs on the back of my neck bristle when I see them on campus back home. They were all smoking and thoroughly pre-gamed and high enough to believe that they’re truly as impressive as they felt. The pack leader, a blond, curly-haired specimen in a red Stanford sweatshirt and stone-washed 501s, eyed Lara. She was annoyed enough from our argument that I almost wouldn’t have blamed her if she had flirted with the guy, just to fuck with me, but she didn’t.
I paid just enough attention to make sure blond-bro saw me because I’m maybe just exotic enough to make him wonder how much trouble I’d be if shit went down. These pendejos are archetypes of a kind of guyness that makes me want to scream—partly because I could never achieve it, and partly because it smacks of entitlement, arrogance, and unearned opportunity.
And Blondie—because there’s no way I’m not thinking of him as “Blondie” as he snuck glances at Lara—was the loudest of them. He had his hands in the front pockets of his Levis and was rummaging around like no one would notice, or that everyone should notice. He was the kind of guy who puts revitalizing moisturizer on his cock because he thinks the world deserves it. The kind of guy who would organize a circle jerk at the Pi Kappa Alpha house not because he craved other dudes’ meat, but out of a firm belief that everyone else should have the opportunity to worship his.
Eyeing him in line, I had little doubt that Blondie would either become a Silicon Valley start-up millionaire, or die the following week in a fiery car wreck while on the receiving end of a spectacular blowjob on Highway 101. It could go either way for him.
Lara leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “What a douchebag.”
Just like me, she couldn’t not notice him.
We waited and I glared at Blondie with my chin up and shoulders back in my best East Side stance, but inside, I knew then and there that I could never be this kind of man. The realization brought with it a squirming, confusing mix of relief and resentment.
I’m not like them, I repeated to myself, wondering whether that was good or bad because of how Lara stared while Blondie and his bros bragged and raised their faces to blow cigarette smoke into the chill North Beach night.
Thank you, Cecilia, for standing before me holding a coiled whip—where the fuck did you get the whip?—and I can do nothing more than take you in.
Petite, athletic, and lethal in a ruched, maroon velvet cocktail dress that barely makes it past those muscular nalgas. The spotlights kiss your high cheekbones sprinkled with glitter, and your expertly lined mouth pouts beneath a layer of plum lipstick. Your hair is pulled into a French braid so tight that a bullet couldn’t pierce it and black enough to devour light itself. I imagine that hair unleashed and flowing over my face, its matter-bending shadows disassembling me, molecule by molecule, until there is nothing left but what I might become if I only had the courage to escape my fears and throw myself into the waves. You’re something, maybe Filipina, which brings me a measure of comfort because Filipinos and Mexicans wink at one another through the trauma of our shared colonial history, like cultural cousins. You face me, fierce and beautiful cousin, slapping your palm with the butt of the whip, your essence emitting an energy, like the bound tension of a steel spring about to snap.
Clearly, you have a job to do, and two hundred paying customers gaze through the curling cigarette smoke, bright-eyed and famished, and cry out for you to do your job on me.
GOD HATES FAGS!
is what the banners and sandwich boards read, held aloft by earnest, sensibly-dressed zealots with side-parts and prim ponytails and button-up shirts tucked into pleated slacks and country skirts that reached at least two fingers past their knees.
AMERICA IS DOOMED
another sign read.
REPENT OR PERISH
The protesters’ pale faces were scrubbed clean and glowed under the streetlights as ropes of shining spit hung from the corners of their mouths. I, who had never met a Westboro Baptist and had never traveled farther east than Lake Tahoe, thought they looked exactly like what Kansas hate-mongers should look like. They lined the sidewalk on the other side of Broadway, spewing slurs and shaking their signs at us.
Several police officers loitered on both sides of the street, their meaty hands resting on bulky cop belts loaded down with guns and nightsticks, tasers and pepper spray. The banner-waving bigots alternated between pleading for them to shut down the atrocity about to take place and cursing the cops for not letting them do it themselves. Several of us standing in line catcalled the protesters, and we laughed when that only spun them up more.
Blondie pushed past me and staggered to the edge of the sidewalk to face the line of banner-wavers on the other side of the street, still wet from an earlier rain.
“There is still time to beg forgiveness, brother!” one of the protesters called out. “Jesus loves you.”
Blondie let fly a drunken laugh that ended in a long, ululating belch. “I got something your Lord and Savior’s gonna really love!” he yelled and proceeded to unzip his Levis. Two cops began to move in, but stopped when Blondie’s friends dragged him back into line before he could expose himself.
As clubbers and religious fanatics lobbed insults at one another, a small, plainly-dressed woman with stringy red hair pulled into a bun slipped away from the braying mob across the street. Clutching a large crossbody bag, she walked face-down, with short, mincing steps to Columbus, waited for the light, and then crossed to our side of Broadway.
I was reminded of a mouse that my mother and I had once watched skitter through the kitchen. Vulnerable, yet full of purpose, it scurried along the line where the floor met the wall. The rodent, I’m sure, knew that it was exposed, but carried on nonetheless, anxious to reach its destination and complete whatever business a mouse might have.
I craned my neck to watch Mouse slip into place at the end of the queue, her haunted eyes darting to and fro. She hugged the bag to her chest and breathed deeply, her thin, severe lips moving as if in silent prayer. I turned away and smiled to myself.
Maybe even Westboro Baptists need to let their freak flags fly, every now and then.
Thank you, Cecilia, for circling the chair, your hips ratcheting to the onslaught of 80s synthpop that erupts from the phalanx of 500-watt monitors surrounding the stage. With every circumnavigation, the harsh industrial beat gives way to something new. Somewhere beyond the audience, a DJ is fingering potentiometers, fondling sliders, blending in another song that my ears welcome. “I’m Every Woman” fills every corner of the theater—the 1978 original, not that technically brilliant but commercially sterile and soulless Whitney Houston cover that always felt like a hate crime on Chaka Khan’s original.
Anything you want done, baby,
I’ll do it naturally
“Now, Cecilia, behave!” Phil-Thea bellows through the speakers as your whip cracks in the gap between my knees. Two hundred mouths choke out laughter and lean toward the stage. Hungry tongues taste fear mixed with alcohol spiced with release hormones. They savor things they have no problem paying good money for but would lose their holy shit over if their kids tasted it, too.
Stage right, three tables back, is the pack of frat bros. They lean on one another and shout and wave their half-empty glasses above their heads. Blondie yells the loudest, tight curls bouncing to the music. His handsome face smolders with arousal and maybe a little envy that it’s me on stage and not him.
Mouse sits stage left, alone at her table. Her eyes flit between the entrance, where the bouncers stand impassively, and the spectacle on stage. She hugs the bulging crossbody bag close, those hard lips curling back to reveal small teeth as you, Cecilia, stand before me, rolling your shoulders to the rhythm and planning your next move.
“It’s not worth it, gurrrl!”
Phil-Thea’s entreaties are anguished, raw, and perfectly timed.
With a flick of your cinnamon-brown forearm, you coil the whip and turn to face the audience. You assume a perfect fourth-position ballet stance.
And that’s when I see it: square in the middle of your back, a red nylon tassel that looks more like a rip cord than a zipper pull.
For an instant, I forget that I’m bound to a chair. Really and truly bound tight. I could do nothing more than flop like a fish if the SFPD burst in and started lobbing smoke grenades to protect the world from people like you and Phil-Thea and the things that happen to bad people in good places like this.
And yet, I fixate on the gaudy red tassel.
In my panic, I force myself to cling to reason. I clutch at the things that will keep me safe from this theater of forced submission. That hideous tassel is a fashion faux pas of the highest order.
How in hell would this goddess wear a dress with that monstrosity hanging off the back? I ask myself and then am suddenly struck dumb by your ass cheeks flexing in syncopation to Chaka Khan’s vocals as Phil-Thea narrates a tale of resistance, nonconformity, and sexual freedom. All the while, you, Cecilia, prowl the stage in moves that feed the audience’s guilt-ridden hunger. Swaying limbs bend the hazy air, your whip at once a lasso and a dance partner, a threat and a promise. You pause to glare out at the crowd, back heaving from the exertion, before slowly returning your gaze to me.
At the top of the stairs, half obscured by shadows and cigarette smoke, stood two mounds of humanity who inspected the paid guests with a mix of curiosity and caution, like a pair of amateur Secret Service agents. Bouncer #1 was a massive, almost supernaturally pale twenty-something with a soft baby face and 24-inch biceps. His origin story unfurled in my imagination the instant I saw him: too clockable to hide in his small town, and tired of stomping homophobe ass, he fled Nebraska for the bright lights and warm bath houses of San Francisco where he found community, competition, joy, and disappointment—all tempered by the ability to sit quietly at a café or bookstore and just chill, safe in the knowledge that, for that brief moment, he could be anonymous in this teeming, misty city. I imagined his new friends teasing him for his flat Midwestern accent and giving him a nickname that fit his wholesome, innocent vibe. At the bar, just before closing, they would gather round, force him to take a shot, and chant at the top of their lungs his new moniker: Corn Bread.
Bouncer #2 was harder to nail down. Tall, spectacularly obese, jet-black goatee, and just toasted brown enough to make me want upnod him and say, “¿Quiúbole, ‘manote?” I didn’t, because he might be Chicano, but he could just as easily have been Italian, Brazilian, Samoan—or San Joseño from my same block and even less comfortable with Spanish than I am.
His eyes settled on me as I approached and I initiated a gaydar sweep. Nothing, but that didn’t mean anything. Even I knew that it’s too easy to mistake tough for straight. I’ve known card-carrying heteros who’d weep after a dirty look, and power-twinks who could kick your ass into next week and not spill a drop of their daiquiris while doing it.
“The person at the door said to seat us at table twenty-four,” I said to him.
He looked me and Lara over and nodded slowly. “Pónte listo, güey,” he said with a knowing smile. Get ready, dude.
He led us to our table and I decided that Bouncer #2 would henceforth be known as Patito—Little Duckie—for the way his red Chuck Taylors pointed out at awkward angles from beneath the hems of his pristine, tan Ben Davis pant legs.
Patito returned to his place at the top of the stairs, opposite Corn Bread, and for some reason, I felt safer in their presence, as if their calm vigilance was a talisman against the red-faced pack outside and the festering white invincibility of the Stanford fratties who had bounded up the stairs ahead of us. We passed between these two guardians of the burlesque, minimum-wage knights charged with protecting patrons from themselves and ensuring that the club would make it to the next night without police acting in the name of the greater good.
“Show some mercy, Cecilia. Don’t take it all out on the boy!” Phil-Thea’s entreaties shove the speakers to the edge of feedback.
You have me in your crosshairs. I wince when your legs aim perfectly angled kicks over me, your muscled calves brushing the top of my head.
“Maybe he’s one of the good ones!”
You caress my cheek with the whip. The braided leather is hot against my skin. A bead of sweat rolls down my temple, my cheek, down the front of my neck and past the gold, Aztec calendar medallion my mother bought me in Mexico City when I was ten.
For the first time in a long time, I think that I might deserve this. All of it. The humiliation and the attention. To be brought low before a sea of strangers, for the shattering of the illusion of ill-gotten normalcy, masculinity, safety.
Doesn’t the world owe that to every man?
The chair, the stage, the entire club begins to warp beneath the weight of some new realization. Their foundations creak in protest against the external forces applied. The words we use to lock ideas in place—labels that allow us to call this thing this and that thing that—begin to come apart.
My mother and older sister, Cámila, sat on opposite ends of the couch. Cami turned her face side-to-side as she checked her makeup in a compact mirror. The air in the living room vibrated with tension. Both Cami and I were going out tonight, which meant my mother would stay home alone, again, watching t.v. and fretting over what our futures would hold. Lately it seemed that Cami’s future was headed in a direction that my mother could get behind.
Mine, however, was apparently up for debate.
I stood by the front door and slipped on my jacket, unable to shake the feeling that I was being watched. My mother opened her mouth to say something and then turned away. She did this twice before I finally lifted my chin at her.
“¿Qué?” I said.
“You keep looking at me like it’s something.”
“Vas a salir con Lara?” Are you going out with Lara?
Cami slipped her mirror into her purse and stood up from the couch.
I nodded, suspicious. “Why?”
My mother shook her head and turned back to the television, which was not on.
“How come you don’t ask Cami who she’s going out with?” I said. “Shouldn’t you be more worried about your daughter than your son?”
Cami rolled her eyes. “No me metan en esta pendejada,” she said and walked quickly into her bedroom. Don’t drag me into this bullshit. Through the doorway came the banging of drawers opening and closing. The commotion of someone aggressively preparing to leave the house.
My mother heaved a deep, Mexican-mother sigh and exhaled. “Lara,” she said, “she’s very beautiful.”
I held my breath and silently willed Cami to come back into the living room. If I waited long enough, maybe my mother would drop it and let us each leave the apartment in relative peace.
Another sigh. “M’ijo, it seems like you and Lara are becoming serious. Are you two making plans?”
Cami appeared in her bedroom doorway wearing heels and a black leather jacket.
I held up my hands. “¿Otra vez con ésto?” This again? “I don’t know what to call it, Mom. Yeah, Lara and I have been going out a lot. Check out this one,” I said, pointing at Cami, “all leathered up like some chonga girl. Why aren’t you worried about her?”
Cami’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Ya te dije, don’t even try to make this stuff about me,” she said, using her finger to draw an imaginary line between me and our mother. “And you,” she said, turning to Mom, “leave him alone. He’ll find his way.”
Find my way?
They exchanged heated glares for several seconds before my mother shrugged. “I’m just asking. Is that a crime?”
Cami laughed. “You never ‘just ask.’ You poke and pry and try to break him down because he’s not the way you want him to be.”
“The hell’s that supposed to mean?” I said.
My mother tilted her head—which both Cami and I understood as her warm-up for pitched battle. “It means that sometimes a parent has to check on her children and make sure that they’re moving in the right direction.”
“And what direction is that, Mom?” Cami said as she approached the front door. “I go out. I have friends and boyfriends. I have one boyfriend that I see more than others. We do lots of things that would make you uncomfortable. You don’t seem to be too worried about my ‘direction.’” She stood next to me and shook her head. “But you pester Dani and pick-pick-pick because you’re afraid of what you’re seeing.”
Even in three-inch heels, Cami had to look up at me. In her eyes was a pity I’d never seen before.
My mother slowly pulled her hands over her face and let them fall to her lap. She stared at the dark television in the corner of the room, as if willing it to turn on and provide an escape from my sister.
“He’s fine,” Cami said. “He’ll figure it out.”
“Figure what out?” I waited for an answer, but the tension in the room only rose until I could almost hear it humming in the air.
“Entiendo muy bien que significa ser straight,” my mother said, her voice tired. I understand very well what it means to be straight.
Cami placed her hand on my arm, as if she were preparing me for something.
“Y también estoy bien con gay.” And I’m also fine with gay.
“What are you talking about?” I said. Cami’s fingers tightened on my arm.
“Pero no estoy de acuerdo con bisexual.”
“Would somebody tell me what the fuck is going on?” I shouted.
My mother’s face flushed red. “¡Ey, cuidado con esa boca!” Watch your mouth! She took a deep breath and looked up to the ceiling.
The tendons in Cami’s neck flexed as she fought to maintain her calm. “What do you mean you ‘don’t agree with bisexual?’ What’s there to agree with?”
My mother sat up straight on her couch cushion and looked me over. “One way or the other, I can deal with, but both…no,” she said with a finality that terrified me. “No puedes caminar dos senderos a la vez.” You can’t walk two paths at once.
The tension in Cami’s neck released and her grip on my arm loosened. “Okay, Mami. That’s how you feel about it. It’s getting late and Dani and I each have our plans,” she said, nudging me toward the front door. “We can talk about this later.”
My mother waved us away and turned to stare again at the blank television.
What am I and why am I here? What did Phil-Thea see when I handed them two twenty-dollar bills to enter the club? I do not feel safe right now, here beneath the lights and your gaze.
Thank you, Cecilia, for making me feel unsafe.
I lift my eyes to meet yours, at once frightened and keenly aware for possibly the first time. This whole pendejada is both wrong and freeing. This is how so much of the world lives out each day—knowing that they’re not in control of the machine that they feed. What have I done to help maintain this world?
You tuck the frayed end of the whip under my arm and circle me three times. With each time around, the leather squeezes my chest tighter until, with a sudden pull from your taught arms, I am flung backward into the dark. My bound feet arc above me as the chair legs take flight and the crowd gasps in anticipation. I am falling, falling, falling. My humiliation will be complete when the back of my skull meets the stage floor and I am rendered unconscious.
How many people will it take to carry me to my car? How will we get home? It’s never even occurred to me to ask Lara whether she can drive a stick.
The lights wheel above me and I resolve to meet my unconsciousness with whatever dignity I have left—but the pain does not come.
The back of my head hovers inches from the stage floor, my fall arrested by the toe of your leather ballet flat. I blink into your upside down face and, for the first time, you smile. It is not an innocent, guileless smile. The kind of smile you give a friend. Your smile fills the space between us with irony, artifice, and the life-giving magic of a good lie.
“For the sake of all that is holy, Cecilia, show the boy mercy!”
Cecilia the Queen. Cecilia the Investment Banker or Bartender or Aesthetician or Auto Mechanic or Yoga Instructor when you’re not Cecilia the Badass Headliner. Cecilia, the effortlessly powerful Dominatrix who has lain the chair down gently onto the stage and is now straddling my prone body in a drag club in North Beach, San Francisco—you smile the smile of a woman in complete and utter control and I realize that I am no longer just your foil, your victim, or your cuck.
I am your accomplice.
With a grace that defies belief, you begin to lower yourself onto me, dancer’s thighs bulging as you descend. That reality-blurring smile disappears behind the skirt of your cocktail dress as a sweaty, musky darkness envelops me.
“Don’t do it, Cecilia! You remember what the cops said last time: You sit on one more face and we’re shutting down this debauched shitteree!”
And Chaka Khan sings,
I can sense your needs
Like rain onto the seeds
Down, down, down you come, so low and so close that even the chorus of the howling audience and Phil-Thea’s pleas become muffled and faraway. There descends a dark peace beneath your skirt, a pulsating stillness that threatens to put me into a dreamstate where face-sitting is life and death is the moment it ends. One more inch and we’ve officially checked the legal box of lewd and lascivious—but not quite.
To the audience, I am a helpless victim of unbridled perversion. To that cackling mass, I am a simp being humiliated by an exotic creature they would never ever bring home to mother.
But you and I, Cecilia, for these few minutes, we are a team. What the audience can’t see and doesn’t know won’t hurt them.
“Oh God, the humanity!” Phil-Thea’s voice reaches me through the darkness. “Let the boy live!”
I kick my bound feet in mock suffocation and the crowd roars.
Stage lights erupt like stars exploding in heaven. Blinking against the glare, I am dimly aware of your whip constricting my chest, of the chair being slowly pulled upright until I face the audience once again. Phil-Thea expresses their relief at my wellbeing as you pirouette around me to uncoil the whip. On your third time around, you catch my eye and, in a flash of white, you bite at the air. Your teeth meet so loudly that I hear the snap above the pounding music. You pose facing me, spread-legged between the chair and the crowd, and do it again. This time you add a wink.
What was that? I wonder, terrified. I like it—God, I like it—but what does this mean?
“He’s had enough, Cecilia! Don’t get too close.”
You strut up to me and pause.
“The boy can still defend himself! He still has his mouth!”
You wink at me again and turn to face the spectators who hoot and howl and have begun to throw the roses that greeted them at their tables. You straddle me, your taut ass grinding onto my lap. The red nylon tassel brushes across my nose.
“No, Cecilia!” Phil-Thea’s practiced terror is palpable.
“It’s time, gorgeous,” you say under the music.
Thank you, Cecilia, for calling me gorgeous.
I bend my neck and bite down on the nylon tassel, so hard that I’m afraid I’ll lose a tooth. Your legs tense and then snap when your body is launched upward. The tassel pulls against my jaws and your dress gives way, the elastic fabric surrendering to the power of your flight. The ruched, maroon cocktail dress tears free and drapes itself over my head. Through a crack in the velvet veil, I watch as you stand triumphant before the crowd in a midnight blue bodysuit. Rhinestones glitter beneath the stage lamps as flowers spin through the smokey air to land at your feet.
Through your spread legs, three rows beyond the stage, Blondie is now standing on his table, a long-stemmed rose dangling from his mouth. His frat bros cheer him on as he drops his empty beer glass and brings his hand to the top button of his jeans.
“Table nineteen!” Phil-Thea’s tone over the mic is calm and clinical. All business.
With an agility that belies his size, Patito twists between the tightly packed tables toward Blondie, whose pants are now around his ankles. He hooks a thumb into the waistband of his boxers as Patito breaks into as much of a sprint as the tightly packed club will allow.
Meanwhile, stage left, Mouse has transformed at her table into a gigantic insect. No, what looks like huge praying mantis eyes are actually the glass goggles of a full-face respirator mask, pulled halfway over the top of her head. In her hands are what appear to be aluminum cylinders the size of Coke cans. Mouse’s dark eyes are crazed and wide, her lips pulled back into a quivering rictus exposing small, mean teeth.
“Table four. Now!”
Corn Bread races from his post at the entrance down the left-side aisle.
Mouse holds the cylinders above her head and flips a tab on each. Twin fountains of white fog billow from her hands before she throws the canisters into the crowded tables. Club-goers laugh and cheer, thrilled to experience this new and unexpected part of the show.
Phil-Thea has officially lost their shit.
Mouse snatches another canister from her bag as baby-faced Corn Bread hurls his three-hundred pound bulk onward.
Thank you, Cecilia, for breaking character and glancing over your shoulder at me. Thank you for mouthing those three perfect words:
“What the fuck?”
The screen door banged shut behind us as we descended to the apartment courtyard. At the bottom of the stairs, Cami took a cigarette from her purse. The flame from her lighter cast shadows across her handsome face. She nodded and we began to walk toward the street.
“Well,” she said between drags, “that finally happened.” She looked up at me, her expression tired but expectant.
“Mom’s been acting so weird lately, all freaked out over who I’ve been spending time with.” I checked my watch. I had exactly twenty minutes to get across the Valley to pick up Lara if we were going to make it to San Francisco in time for the show. “And more and more, she keeps acting like Lara and I should be married or something.” We got to the street and stood on the edge of the curb. “I can’t even think that far ahead, you know?”
Cami nodded and took a drag from her cigarette. “She’s worried about you.”
“What does she even have to worry about?” I said, trying to not sound whiny. “I don’t get in trouble. I work. I’m doing alright in school—I mean, it’s only State, but still.” I shrugged and looked up and down the street.
“You’ve also been hanging out with new people. Guys she doesn’t know.”
I didn’t answer. For once, I wished my sister would offer me a cigarette from her purse, if nothing else than to provide a distraction.
“She’s trying to understand what that means,” Cami said.
“Why does it have to mean anything to her?”
Cami laughed. “Ever since she kicked Dad out, she thinks she’s the only thing that stands between us and total disaster. If we fail on her watch, then that makes her a failure.”
“How the fuck am I failing? Tell me that!”
“Ay, hermanito,” Cami said, bumping me with her shoulder.
“I mean, are you failing because you’re dating Kevin?”
Cami laughed silently and leaned forward to track a car that had turned onto the street. “Why do you say his name like that?” she said.
“You gonna marry him?” It had been on my mind lately, the idea of her moving out and leaving me alone with our mother.
“What would Mom say, you marrying a guy like him? Would she think that’s a failure?”
“She’d get over it.” Cami adjusted the strap of her purse and readied herself as the car approached. “He’s white, but he’s not clueless. He knows there are things he doesn’t understand about us—yet.” The car flashed its high beams when it reached mid-block. Cami stepped off the curb and waved before looking over her shoulder at me. “This isn’t about your girlfriend, Dani.”
“What’s it about, then?” I watched as Kevin’s car approached and began to slow down.
“Mom’s trying, but she doesn’t understand, and I’m sick of walking on eggshells around you two. Like it or not, shit got started tonight and now things are gonna come out.”
The car slowed to a stop and the window rolled down, revealing Kevin’s chiseled face. “‘Sup, Dani?” he said as he pushed open the passenger door. “How’s it hanging?”
I glanced at my sister, like seriously? “Hey, Kevin,” I said.
As Cami climbed into the car, I blurted out, “Tell me all this is going to be okay.”
Kevin frowned at her. “What’s he talking about? Is he talking about us?”
From the passenger seat, Cami gave me an easy smile. “Don’t worry ‘manito, I got you. See you tomorrow.”
Mouse’s eyes dart back and forth from Cecilia to the crowd. “Groomers! Perverts! Pedophiles!” she shrieks at the crowd. “You deserve the ass-fucking you’ll get in hell!”
Some in the crowd begin to boo, but more cheer her on, thrilled to be getting their money’s worth. A couple of roses arc through space made misty by the canisters that Mouse has just thrown.
With a final, rage-filled scowl at me and Cecilia, Mouse pulls the gas mask over her face and starts to throw smoking cans in every direction. Several tables away, Blondie is now Full Monty, hips shaking and cock bouncing to Chaka Khan.
Anytime you feel
Danger or fear
Instantly, I will appear
Patito and his red Chuck Taylors have almost reached Blondie, but Corn Bread is rolling down the aisle, having tripped on a speaker cable that wasn’t properly duct-taped down.
Mouse is now a masked, smoke-bomb-chucking machine. A canister lands on the edge of the stage and rolls to a stop against my shoe, face-up. The brightly-colored label reads:
CRUSADER INDOOR PEST FOGGER
KILLS PESTS FAST
TREATS 2,000 SQ. FT.
EFFECTIVE AGAINST SPIDERS, FLEAS,
TICKS, BEDBUGS, SILVERFISH, ANTS,
ROACHES, FLIES, & MOSQUITOES
And drag shows.
Cecilia shakes her head at me, as if to say, Insect bombs? THIS is the best those sorry-ass Westboro wanna-be terrorists can come up with?
My eyes have begun to sting. I pull against my binds, but Cecilia’s black feather boa holds me fast to the chair. With a flick of her ballet shoe, Cecilia sends the smoking canister flying into the crowd. She smiles at me with a mix of amusement and defiance, steps to the edge of the stage, and throws her shoulders back.
“What time does the show start?” Lara had said when we got to The City.
“Ten, I think.” We were coming up on the interchange where I needed to decide on the fastest way to North Beach. “We should be fine, as long as I can find parking.”
Traffic looked heavier on the 101 cutoff to Van Ness, so I veered right onto the Eisenhower toward Embarcadero. I flipped the wipers to clear the light mist that hazed the windshield. San Francisco glowed softly beneath a vault of clouds and fog.
The passing lights cast shadows across Lara’s face. Blonde and fair, with impossibly symmetrical features, Lara was the kind of girl that made people wonder why she was going out with you when she could have any guy she wanted. I wondered what my mother thought about me and Lara together—and why who I spent time with worried her so much. I tried not to let it distract me from what I hoped would be a fun night.
“How did you hear about this place?” I said.
“A client at the shop told me. She’s one of my regulars—cuts, perms, colors. Sometimes I thread her eyebrows. She and her husband come up every couple of months to get dinner and see the show. There’s this one tranny they said is absolutely amazing. Cecily, Celia, whatever. My client says he’s so convincing you’d never know he’s a dude.” Lara slid her hand up my pant leg. “I guess the show’s so twisted, my client and her husband can’t get home fast enough. She says last time, they pulled off 280, at that rest stop by the Junipero Serra statue, and screwed each other sideways in the back seat.”
“Huh. Maybe we should take 280 home, then.”
Lara laughed, a musical sound against the hum of the road noise. “That’s what I was thinking.”
I took the 4th Street exit and flipped the wipers again. “The performers at this club…did your customer call them ‘trannies’?”
“‘Cuz I’m not sure that’s okay,” I said.
Lara looked at me from across the dark car, half of her face obscured in shadow. “Why? What’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t know. I just…I don’t think all drag queens are trans, or the other way around. And…” I looked at Lara to see how this was landing. She stared back from the passenger seat, her beautiful, symmetrical face impassive. “And I’m pretty sure that ‘tranny’ isn’t right, either. It’s, like, an insult.”
Lara turned in her seat to face me. “And, how exactly are you an expert on this stuff? Have you been to this place before?”
I tapped the steering wheel as we waited at the light at Mission Street. “No. I don’t know. I mean, isn’t it kind of obvious? It’s like calling me a ‘beaner’ or you a ‘cracker’ or something.”
As we crossed Mission, it struck me, like a slap in the face, that Lara and I had never talked about the differences between us—the cultural things, our backgrounds, language.
The messy stuff.
Lara rolled her eyes. “What’s gotten into you?” Her voice had a hard edge that made it cut through the air. “Let’s just go and have fun watching the freaks.”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. The streetlights slid past and I tried to time my breaths to the rhythm of the wipers across the windshield. I reached over to her side of the car. She didn’t pull away, but her hand was rigid in mine. The narrow space between us had changed. The scrape of the wipers and hiss of the car’s tires over the wet pavement sounded harsh and impatient.
Thank you, Cecilia, for standing at the edge of the stage, arms and legs spread wide, a silhouetted X against the spotlights. My eardrums distort from the tumult of the crowd, and I am overwhelmed by a gratitude whose origin is both unknown and unexpected. You stand before me and the audience a conqueror—exhausted, tiny, and exposed, but a conqueror nonetheless.
Beyond the stage, Patito is trying desperately to not let Blondie’s dick touch his beefy arm. Even through the thickening cloud of pesticide, it’s obvious that Blondie’s member is pink, uncut, and substantial enough to flop around as he resists being yanked off the table. The angry redness of his crotch and balls from the recent shave job makes it abundantly clear that he is not a fan of body hair.
“I love you, man!” he shouts at Cecilia, above the growing tumult from Mouse’s barrage of bug bombs.
Patito pulls the frat boy into a rear bear hug. Blondie’s manhood collapses over Patito’s forearm and the bouncer instinctively releases him. Blondie falls head-first onto the floor. His companions gape at their fallen comrade’s motionless, de-pantsed body and fly into a rage. One of them jumps onto Patito’s back as another pistons his fists uselessly into the bouncer’s immense belly. Ripples of fat spread out from each blow. Patito begins to spin wildly to buck the young man who has mounted his shoulders and buries a red Chuck Taylor into the junk of another bro caught flat-footed trying to protect his beer.
Corn Bread has righted himself after his calamitous fall. His now-crooked nose gushes blood as he builds up a head of steam and turns the corner toward Mouse, who is reaching again into her seemingly bottomless bag of poison gas. Numbed to her surroundings by the respirator mask, she is totally unprepared for Corn Bread’s arrival.
Mouse’s fanaticism is no match for the bouncer’s righteous bulk.
Thank you, Cecilia, for nodding calmly at the growing maelstrom and acting as though this is just another day. Thank you for laughing when massive Corn Bread and miniscule Mouse crash to the floor made sticky from spilled drinks and sweat. The remaining canisters of pesticide explode beneath their collective weight.
Only now do some customers begin to scream.
“STAY CALM, everyone!” Phil-Thea’s trucker voice booms over the PA.
I gag on the salty, savory cocktail of tetramethrin, cypermethrin, and piperonyl butoxide rapidly filling the club.
“You alright, hon?” you say to me.
“I’m good,” I croak. My throat is on fire and my cheeks cramp from the grin that has spread across my face. “I’m perfect.”
“Yes we are,” you purr. The stage lights spark off of your glittered cheekbones. The gauzy air makes you even more beautiful.
San Francisco’s finest begin to pour through the entrance. From their position off-stage, Phil-Thea’s cigar dangles from their mouth at a dangerous angle as they hold one cop at bay with their mic stand. Other officers file past and aim tasers at the cheering, shouting, and wailing audience members.
Somewhere up there, not far from the entrance, is Lara. I hope that she’s hiding under the table. I hope that the gas hasn’t reached that far and that the police don’t tase her in an orgy of authoritarian release. I hope that she’s not still mad at me.
As Patito wages battle against the bros, and Corn Bread and Mouse lie motionless on top of a blast zone of white powder, and cops swing nightsticks and shoot electric barbs into the crowd, I gaze at you in awe, Cecilia. You who stand, spread-legged at the front of the stage waving two gloved middle fingers in the venom-filled air.
Kevin’s car drove slowly down the street until it disappeared around a corner. I smiled at the thought of Cami using her powers of persuasion to distract him from the awkwardness of when he arrived. With that brain of hers, she would dazzle him with a dozen shiny objects until he’s laughing and enjoying the night out, totally forgetting that Cami and I were in deep discussion when he had pulled up.
I looked up at the second floor of our building. Blue t.v. light flickered through the living room window. My mother would spend the evening watching reruns, content that Cami’s life was on the right track and fretting over what a slow-motion trainwreck mine apparently was. I was tempted to march back upstairs and challenge her to tell me exactly what she thought my life was about. Why do you think I’m so broken? I’d ask her. Why does it matter so much to you who I’m hanging out with? What is it about me that bothers you so much?
I took two steps toward the building and stopped cold. Lara and I would go out tonight. Lara and I only ever went out alone, just the two of us. I’d never made any effort to introduce her to my other friends from State, my guy friends. The thought of how some of them might treat her made me shudder—or maybe it was the chill setting in as it got later. What was I afraid of, that Lara would judge me, or that they would judge Lara?
I gripped the car keys in my pocket and headed for the apartment carport.
Thank you, Cecilia, for turning away from the chaos to finally release me from my bonds.
“Let’s get you out of here,” you say as your black feather boa uncoils from my wrists, my waist, and my ankles.
I rise from the chair and peer, watery-eyed, beyond the stage. A mob of Mouse’s co-religionists appears at the top of the stairs, brandishing their signs like spears. Outflanked, the cops swing their batons indiscriminately. The frat boys flee from Patito who has now achieved full berserker mode, and Corn Bread has begun to stir again. I’m relieved to see Phil-Thea standing strong in a corner of the club, swinging their mic stand in furious arcs and apparently unfazed by the taser barbs bristling from their hairy shoulders.
Somewhere in the roiling chaos is Lara. I take a step toward the edge of the stage.
A surprisingly strong grip clamps onto my wrist and Cecilia shakes her head. “Bad move, cutie.” She waves her hand in front of her face and grimaces at the fumes. “There’s another way out.”
“But my girlfriend’s out there.” I try to pull away, but she holds tight.
“She’ll be okay,” Cecilia yells into my ear. “I got a good look at her when I got to your table. She’s white, hot, and probably scared as hell. Cops love that shit. They might even help her out.”
Two police step over Mouse’s unconscious body, sleeves covering their mouths. One of them points and shouts something at Cecilia before beginning to haul himself onto the stage. He flails at Cecilia’s leg with his billy club and misses, too slow and clumsy for her dancer’s reflexes. A rage rises up inside me and I place my foot flat on his chest to keep him from pulling himself fully onto the stage. The cop raises the club again and grunts as I launch him back into the crowd.
Cecilia pulls hard on my arm. “Time’s up!” she yells, her eyes wide from adrenaline.
She leads me past black curtains to a narrow backstage area. We crash over folding tables piled with paint cans and set supplies through a shabby dressing room that doubles as the club’s office. It takes me a few seconds to sense that she’s led me into a poorly lit loading area. In the corner is a narrow stairwell leading down. I marvel at how gracefully her feet land on each step as we descend steeply into the murk. Just as I’ve lost all orientation in the blackness, a trapezoid of light appears in front of us.
Crisp winter air floods my lungs when we fall together through the doorway and onto the damp sidewalk. We lie on our backs, shoulders touching. The moisture from the rain seeps through my shirt and spreads across my shoulder blades as our gasps turn into laughter so deep and guttural that we begin to choke. I help Cecilia up from the wet pavement. She shivers in her bodysuit and her brown skin is goosepimpled in the chill air. Half a block up Broadway, people begin to emerge from the club entrance, coughing and pawing at their eyes. Several police cars have pulled onto the curb, their gumball lights turning the street into a demented arcade. The sirens of more emergency vehicles call out from the surrounding streets.
Cecilia points to the crowd. “Your girl will come out over there,” she says.
We stand facing one another for several seconds, catching our breath and trying to think of something to say. Cecilia sniffs and then opens the door we just came through.
“Wait, you’re actually going back in?”
“I have to,” she says, looking a little sad. “Phil and the guys are gonna be in serious trouble after tonight, and I owe them. They’re my family.”
I want to tell her that she can’t go back up those stairs and that she deserves better than to get beaten or arrested. My head spins from the rush of emotions. I’m angry at what the night has become; that Cecilia, Phil-Thea, Patito, and Corn Bread have to be this brave just to be who they are. I’m frightened by what happened in the car between me and Lara. I’m terrified and excited that Cami opened a can of shit with my mother that we will have to revisit.
And, I can’t escape the butterflies in my belly when Cecilia looks at me. I open my mouth to tell her some truth that I can’t quite wrap my brain around when she points over my shoulder.
“There she is.”
Lara stumbles onto the sidewalk. Her blonde hair is disheveled and reflects the red and blue lights from the police cars. Dazed, she turns and begins to wander away from us, toward Columbus Avenue.
My mother is right. I’m a failure. I didn’t protect Lara from what happened. I want to run to her and apologize and tell her that everything will be okay.
But, as she weaves through the crowd, bumping off of strangers, I realize that we’re different from one another in ways that I’ve barely begun to accept. I begin to understand what it means to whisper goodbye in your heart. I should go to her, to start something new—even if that new thing is an ending.
The touch of gloved hands on my face brings me back. Tenderly, Cecilia turns my face to hers. She really does have a beautiful smile.
“Thank you for sharing my stage, gorgeous,” she says and lifts herself on her toes to kiss me on the cheek. “I’m gonna remember this night for a long time.”
I hold the door open and watch as Cecilia’s feet carry her lightly up the stairs. To my left, a row of police in riot gear have formed up beneath the flashing club marquee. With a shout, they file in through the main entrance, eager to join the fray.
Lara has disappeared into the crowd. It’s not too late to catch up to her. Shouts reach me from top of the stairs that Cecilia has just climbed. I laugh when I realize that my cheeks are wet not from the rain, but from tears.
“Fuck, this life,” I say out loud, and rush upward, into the noisy, foul-smelling dark.
Tomás Baiza is originally from San José, California, and now finds himself in Boise, Idaho. He is the author of the novel, Delivery: A Pocho’s Accidental Guide to College, Love, and Pizza Delivery (2023), and the collection A Purpose to Our Savagery (2023). Tomás’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies and has appeared in various print and online anthologies and journals. When he is not writing, Tomás is running trails, obsessing over bonsai trees, and playing guitar way too loud. Instagram: @tomasbaiza