Here are the writings done in classes taught by Viki Levitt, using “Begin Again,” in the SOAR Lifelines Writing Workshop in Potsdam, NY.
by Leon W. LeBeau
SOAR Lifelines Writing Workshop
Potsdam, New York
Penelope Ann Smythe, “Penny,” was born in the city of Montreal, Canada, and became the eldest of four daughters. As the last two sisters arrived about ten years after Penny’s birth, she was given much responsibility pertaining to her younger sisters, specifically with child care and with meals’ preparation.
When Penny’s father, an accomplished young engineer, was appointed plant manager of Northern Electric in Lachine, the family of six moved there from Montreal. And when his income climbed with more responsibilities, he moved his family to the quaint Quebec village of Pointe Claire and located on a prestigious private street across from a scenic golf club but still on the island of Montreal. It was at this time that I met my Penelope.
Penny was adventuresome. She, her sister, and a friend crashed a party my cousin George had had in the cottage he rented that summer near the Canadian village of St. Anicet not too far from the Fort Covington border crossing. George knew Penny’s family who also rented a cottage nearby. I was at the party.
I suspect my shyness was interpreted for aloofness for during the party, during the dancing, someone dared Penny to pinch my bottom.
We were married the following year.
To say my Penelope has a weird sense of humor is a rather tepid statement. She had tried to teach her two younger sisters to fly: she had not been successful.
After we were married and were expecting our first child, we were living in Moira in Franklin County, a fair distance to Massena in St. Lawrence County where our hospital and doctor were located. Penny had bought me a book entitled, “How to Deliver Your Own Child.” Fortunately, I never had to use it.
Penny could hardly wait for April Fools Day. One year she put not tea but beer in my thermos. As I wasn’t driving that day to the high school where my commuter partner Bruce and I taught, I had the thermos between my legs. The sloshing of the frothy contents caused a slow leaking to occur and dampen my crotch. Bruce nearly drove into the ditch as he convulsed with laughter.
The last April Fools prank happened early one Sunday morning when Penny woke me from a sound sleep shouting, “Leon, wake up. There’s a fire in the basement!” The previous day I had been using a propane torch for a plumbing project. I tore out of bed, I raced to the cellar, there was no fire. My reaction squelched future pranks.
Penny is very accomplished. When we were married my in-laws gave their daughter a sewing machine as a wedding present: Penny was an excellent seamstress. She made her own clothes. She even made her wedding dress, a gown that could hold its own with any Parisian haute couturier’s creation.
Penny’s interest in sewing developed early. As a child Santa brought her a toy sewing machine. As she grew older she progressed to using her mother’s machine.
I still remember a gray herringbone suit she had made and worn with a black turtleneck sweater and black tights. She looked wonderful! I know she was well suited for her position as medical secretary for the Director of Child Psychiatry at Children’s General in Montreal.
After our three daughters were born and the five of us were living on a school teacher’s modest income, the dresses Penny made for them with remnants from the fabric store were transformed into unique creations that people turned to look at when they saw our well dressed children.
I remember when our oldest daughter, Lianne, was in a high school play and had the role of Lady Thiang, the head wife of the King of Siam, in the musical “The King and I” and upon entering the stage in her floor length brocade sheath, bright yellows and oranges and blues against a black background, and she sang “Something Wonderful” in her sweet, untrained, plaintive voice, my eyes welled up.
And I certainly remember Gwen, our middle daughter, in her wedding dress made with a mother’s love; Gwen looked so beautiful!
And I’ll certainly remember our youngest, Molly, in her red-orange first prom dress, another mother-made creation. Molly was sixteen, with her learner’s permit, and asked me if she could drive to pick up her date, a boy who was a year behind her in school. Molly also asked me if before we reached Stevie’s house I would crouch down in the back seat so it would appear she were driving by herself: of course I told her I would not.
When Molly’s date arrived at the car, accompanied by her as she had gone to his door to show his parents her dress, I told Stevie how handsome he looked. He turned to me, his eyes dazed, and said with absolute adoration,” Yes, but look at Molly!”
My Penelope’s interest in sewing continues to this day. Through the years she has made numerous unique Halloween costumes, elegant prom dresses, professional-looking wedding dresses for each of our daughters; now she sews for our grandchildren.
Through the years Penny has tried to dissuade me from purchasing gift certificates at the local highly fashionable dress shop, but she always comes away with a truly unique garment. If something is too pricey, she mentally stores the design: when she arrives home she makes her own design and pattern; the result is usually very successful.
Penny is multifaceted. She has developed skills in macramé, in knitting, and, in weaving, like Ulysses wife Penelope in Homer’s Greek epic poem “The Odyssey.” However, unlike Ulysses’ wife, Penny did not have to stave off suitors who were pressing Penelope to choose another husband after her own husband’s long absence, totaling twenty years. Penelope managed to deceive the suitors by saying she would make a choice once her weaving was completed but she unraveled her daytime work at night.
My Penelope is a very intelligent, determined, and academic person. As a young wife she had always wanted to attend college, a main reason for our moving to Potsdam fromFranklin County. So after the birth of our third child Penny began taking courses in education on a part-time basis at SUNY Potsdam and began juggling the responsibilities of homemaking and child care. When the latter was not available she would bring her young daughters to class with her, position herself near the open door and be able to watch them during class. Her instructors were very understanding toward this non-traditional student, very determined mother of three.
When our daughters were in school all day, Penny arranged her schedule so she would be home when they were and attended college full-time. She earned not only her Bachelor’s degree but also her Master’s in Remedial Reading. She is now retired after many years in the classroom.
Our life together has been a series of adventures, certainly an odyssey the privations of which were caused by me and related to the purchase of three handyman specials needing extensive renovations. Nevertheless, our adventures together have resulted in many wonderful times. Whether or not my Penelope would have waited some twenty years for her Ulysses is unknown; I do know that mid-June this year of 2014 my Penelope and I will be celebrating fifty years of married life!
by Deborah Nikkari
SOAR Lifelines Writing Workshop
Potsdam, New York
The first year was much worse than I ever could have expected. It wasn’t just
the absence of comfort and caring; it was the bleakness and despair. It rained every day
for a month. I gradually fell into a deep dark pit. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, the cords
were attached one by one, to tie me down. “Don’t call home because it costs too much.”
“Don’t raise the temperature above 50 degrees because the landlord pays that much of
the heat.” “Don’t buy a table and chairs because we can eat on the floor.” Gradually I
couldn’t move. I wept and couldn’t get out of bed. I was dying. I even wished myself
dead. I don’t know how long this went on. I grew angrier and angrier. I imagined him
one day asking me for forgiveness and I would just turn my face. I was bursting with
injustice, and then I noticed one of the cords holding me had snapped. I clenched my fist
and snapped another. One by one, they gave way, and I started to move again. I crawled
up out of that pit, and I burst out to the surface. Like a wild, righteous, fierce woman
flower, I bloomed and opened up—my own personal checking account.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Gate / Negate
By Don Potter
SOAR Lifelines Writing Workshop
Potsdam, New York
We stepped off the tour bus into the late September heat of New Mexico’s high desert. The stop was at their magnificent capitol building surrounded by lush vegetation. Our group gathered around a massive steel sculpture that was made to resemble a section of a prison wall and a gate complete with a coiled razor wire crown and hanging rings. The statue was fabricated from structural steel and diamond back steel plate, not your typical piece of art work. The artist, a Native American, designed and built this sculpture to depict the plight of the Indian tribes in America. He has painted on the huge base the names of hundreds of Native American Indian tribes that have been wiped from the face of the earth by the Europeans who came to America for free land. This huge steel sculpture stands as a reminder that this land was not uninhabited or free. The Native American peoples lived here long before the white man arrived and paid a very high price trying to defend their homes and hunting grounds. Tribe after tribe was driven from their lands. Herded like cattle to reservations where they were to live only to be driven out again when oil or minerals were found on these places or the railroad wanted the land. This was nothing but genocide of a race of people who had lived on these lands for thousands of years.
Bob Houzous, the creator of this piece, has made a powerful statement and memorialized the plight of the American Indian. It is too bad that every American can’t see it and hear the story. Everyone should know that these people paid dearly so we could have this free land. This land was not free or uninhabited, a terrible price was paid.
Creative Nonfiction Workshop
During the course of my life, I have experienced many new beginnings for myself. I like to call it a metamorphosis when I go into my cocoon and emerge a new person. Until the next relapse that is. Ever since I was in seventh grade, I have been battling with what I have always liked to call “the blues”. Even now, I hate admitting the true problem; it’s like admitting I have a weakness when all I want to do is be the strong one. People have always called me the mom of every friend group I have had, and being weak does not fit this perspective. In reality, I am extremely weak and fragile. I have anxiety and severe depression. This is not an unusual occurrence; there are about 14.8 million Americans who suffer from the same disorders that I suffer from. However, these are not usually recognized; anyone who would look at me would never expect it to be true. But that’s the thing about depression; you never know who has it until they tell you. Especially for me, since I am always the one with the smile and the bright personality, no one expected me to have depression, much less that I would be a cutter. But honestly, I don’t mind it. Sure, it is difficult to deal with at times, but each time I relapse and cut, it is a new beginning. It is how I begin again.
It started during seventh grade. I was going through my “rebellious” phase and wanted to wear tight, black clothing all the time. My parents were not to thrilled about this and told me so on a daily basis. Being home-schooled, I never had a chance to get away from them and their constant badgering. It was like being under a microscope; everything I did was seen and commented on by my overbearing parents. Not only with my school work, but with my dancing. At that point, I had been dancing since I was six years old. I was dancing about six days a week and was expected to practice at home as well. My parents would make sure I was practicing because they were the ones paying for the lessons and they wanted me to be the best I could be. And so, I worked harder than anyone in my classes. However, like all the other girls in my class, I wanted to have that perfect figure. So, I went through a brief span of anorexia. Once that passed, I felt like I was a failure; it didn’t seem like I could ever be perfect in dancing or even in my school work.
I started feeling so down and sad all the time that I did not know what to do to feel happy. One day when I was home alone I found myself in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub, just staring off into space. My gaze wandered to the counter, where I saw that someone had left out a pair of nail clippers. It was at that moment something clicked in my brain; I felt that because I was such a failure, I needed to be punished. Despite the fact that I knew I was trying my best in everything, it was not enough. I remember reading and hearing about girls who cut and what drove them to that. In that moment, I realized that I had become one of those girls. I just felt so empty, like I had no feelings at all; all I knew was that I wanted to feel something and that made my decision for me. I grabbed the nail clippers and held them to my wrist, shaking slightly. Moments passed as I sat there. Finally, my hand seemed to move as if on its own and the ending result was bright red marks decorating my wrist. The pain seemed to be second to the invigorating feeling coursing through my veins. I felt more alive at that moment than I had in months. In that instant, I felt reborn; I was a new person. It was time to begin again.
This pattern continued for years and I used different methods to hide my growing number of scars; I took up wearing lots of bracelets and wearing long sleeves all the time during the winter. In dance class, it was more difficult to hide the scars so I just passed them off as accidental scratches from the dogs and cat. High school was a little easier, yet it was harder. Easier because I was away from my parents probing eyes for longer periods of time. Harder because the work load was increasing ten-fold. It got even worse when I transferred from the private school I was so used to and went to the large public school where I didn’t know anyone. At the public school, I was placed in honors courses, which meant my work load was even higher than before. My parents stressed how proud they were of me and of the high grades I was receiving. Little did they know that this put even more pressure on me and caused even more relapses for me. I can vividly remember sitting in my room at my desk one day after school, stressing out about a large assignment due the next day. The pressure built up inside me and somehow I needed to release it. My door was already closed so it was easy to roll up my sleeve and grab my nail clippers. Once the deed was done, I dutifully finished the assignment. I got a ninety-nine on that one. I was able to begin again.
The end of tenth grade was a bit easier for me, since I met and started dating a boy. He was everything I could have ever wanted: smart, kind, handsome, caring. All the characteristics I thought made a perfect guy, this boy contained. Months later, I started to feel the old feelings coming back. This perfect boy was able to keep them at bay for only so long. Junior year was full of much more stress: SAT, the college application process, harder classes, more Regents exams. And still, I managed to keep the grades high to keep my parents proud. Yet, the moment came – my relapse. I wasn’t sad or even scared. It was like welcoming an old friend back into my life. It was time for me to begin again.
The summer after graduation was the best and worst summer or my life. Best because I was finally done with high school and all the drama that came along with it. Worst because that summer was the first time I had my heart broken. That perfect boy who I thought was going to be with me forever had decided it was time to end our relationship. He didn’t think he was strong enough to handle long distance, but he didn’t stop to think what a break up would put me through. My heart shattered into a million pieces and even having all my best friends with me didn’t help.
That day broke the longest streak I had; an entire school year. But, this broken heart required to me to change once again. It was this time that I finally decided to tell my mom. This was the hardest thing I had to do; I knew she was going to cry and blame herself. I remember sitting her down and coming clean about what had been going on for years. She was very accepting of me and just wanted to help me; I kept to myself that this was brought on by her and my dad however. I felt no need to put that stress on her as well. But, holding back made me feel extremely guilty and it built up until I needed to relieve this feeling. Time for another new beginning. Time for me to begin again.
College started and with it, a whole new set of problems. Because of the scholarship I received, more pressure for my grades began to pile on. With all my friends gone, there was no distraction from my homework. I was dating my old boyfriend, only after I had a long conversation with him at persuaded him to give our relationship another try. Living at home and commuting to school every day meant that my parents were able to continue with the badgering about my homework and grades. Every assignment, every paper, every exam brought about a fresh wave stress and with that, more of the old feelings. The pressure on me was a constant weight on my back. Being away from the one I loved, who was going to school far away, was just another weight to carry. Once I reached that breaking point, there was no turning back. My new beginning was around the corner. My time to begin again.
I spent the next year of college away from home for the first time. I transferred to a school near my love. The decision seemed to be a good one at first, finally being on my own and away from my very overbearing parents. However, it seemed to be doomed from the beginning. My first roommate did not work out well at all and the second was not much better. I felt like I was drowning; I wasn’t sleeping well because my roommate was very loud and got up early every single morning. Talking to her about it did not do much good either. Slowly, the happiness I felt from being out on my own was being replaced with the despair that came from being helpless in my living situation. My old habits were running through my mind, sounding more and more appealing as time went on. This time, it was different. My arm was the target, not just my wrist, making the cuts more difficult to hide. Thankfully, it was still winter, so long sleeves were acceptable. After the relapse, I felt like I could deal with my roommate; I was a new person again.
This past fall semester had its ups and downs; I finally went to a counselor and that seemed to help for a time. I still had my same roommate and had to deal with the same problems, but with the counseling it got a little easier. Homework and finals also became a factor in the equation. The pressure built up more and more and I slept less and less. I should have realized that my relapse would be inevitable. Like an addict, I crave the feeling I gain after cutting. I couldn’t get enough of it. This time, I fully understood the person I was becoming and knew that once again, it was time to begin again.
Currently, I am doing much better. I have started to surround myself with those who truly care about me and have my best interests at heart. I still have my relapses but by now, I consider them a part of who I am. Despite many people saying it is bad for me and I need to stop, it is how I cope with situations around me and how I can start fresh with a new outlook on life. My cutting has helped me to be the best person I can be and truly helps me in the long run. I become a new person after each cut and that is a necessary part of my life. Now, if you will excuse me, I have an urgent need to become a new person. Time to begin again.
By Tina Wing
Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Potsdam, New York
What a trip this was turning out to be. My dad and I had just left Syracuse which meant we were heading home. Typically, the drive home would only take a couple of hours. But we weren’t expecting all the freezing rain that we encountered on the interstate. I was glad my daddy was driving because I would have been white knuckled by now. This was my first winter in New York after living the last four years in Texas. I had grown accustomed to the Texas winters, an inch of snow and they shut everything down. It was hard to begin again in New York. I definitely had not acclimated to this New York weather quickly enough. I was confident in my dad’s driving abilities. I wasn’t worried….I had no reason to be. The weather was getting worse with each mile. It was going to be a long trip.
My dad told me the roads were real slippery. Being a man, he had to show me how slippery they were. He fish tailed his black Dodge a couple of times. This was somewhat out of character for my father but I didn’t think anything of it. Luckily, there was no one else in our immediate area. Otherwise, I’m sure he wouldn’t have showed off the way he did. But, maybe he really wasn’t showing off. As we drove down the interstate we had seen several cars in the ditch. Each time, my dad would stop to make sure everyone was all right and to make sure help was on the way. He would offer to stay with the people until help arrived. Only once did we stay with a woman who had gone off the road. She was semi hysterical when we stopped. She was standing on the side of the road waving her arms frantically. Her car had slid nicely down the embankment and was sitting like she had parked it that way. She quickly explained that the car was still running, she just couldn’t drive it back up the embankment. Her two children were still in the car but she didn’t want to take them out of the car and into the biting cold of the storm. Yet, she was afraid the exhaust pipe was packed with snow. She was concerned for her children’s safety. This made me think of my own girls. Alysabeth, had just turned three the day before. Taylor was not even nine months old yet. My children were at home, safe and warm in their little beds, probably still fast asleep.
As my father and I continued on our journey down Interstate 81, we made it safely to Watertown. A one hour jaunt from Syracuse to Watertown had turned into almost a two hour excursion. Dad felt it would be better if we took the more traveled roads through Watertown and over to Route 11 to go home. However, we were shocked to find there were barely any cars on Arsenal Street. This is typically the busiest street in Watertown. The street is usually consumed with bumper to bumper traffic. As my father continued on toward home, he asked me to turn on the radio. That was when we heard there was a winter weather advisory for the area. We only had an hour to go before we were home or so we surmised. The icy rain was still falling with unbelievable force. Thin layers of ice accumulated on the windshield, even though the defroster was on high. As I gazed out the windshield, the street in front of me looked like a sheet of glass. It was covered with ice. The sky was overcast, dark and dismal. The bitter cold rain continued to fall.
It took almost an hour to get beyond Fort Drum. The vehicles were barely crawling. The fear was if you went too fast, your tires would slip and slide on the ice. There was no traction for any vehicle. The plows were out with the salt and sand but it wasn’t doing any good. The freezing rain was falling fast, covering the salt and snow with a fresh blanket of ice. As we came to Antwerp, we saw a state police vehicle parked sideways across the road. Every light on the vehicle was flashing feverishly. The blues and reds of the bar light reflected off the freezing rain…it was blinding at times. As my father pulled up to the officer, he was informed that all traffic was being rerouted. This involved traveling across the back roads around Route 11. Apparently, a tractor trailer had lost control on the slippery roads and jackknifed.
A tractor trailer can’t stop as easily as a car or truck. As it began to swerve, the trailer swung violently around and ended up at a severe angle to the cab of the truck before tipping over, disengaging itself from the cab. They were waiting for the necessary equipment to come in to get the tractor trailer off the road. There was no through traffic because the tractor trailer covered both lanes.
As we turned around and started on our way again, we realized the back roads were worse than Route 11. This was not our typical route, we weren’t familiar with the roads, we didn’t know how long the roads were, or where they twisted or turned. It was making for a very uncomfortable drive. The roads had been plowed but not sanded or salted. There were no houses in sight. We tried not to panic. We took comfort in knowing that if we went off the road, someone would see our vehicle. All traffic was redirected. The freezing rain was falling harder, covering everything, accumulating more rapidly. The smaller tree limbs were bent over from the weight of the ice. The traffic on these less traveled roads was even slower than on Route 11. Eventually, we came to a complete stop. We couldn’t see what the holdup was, we were too far back in the long line of vehicles. We waited and waited. We listened to the radio. We listened to the ice as it showered the cab of the truck. There was no longer any music playing on the local radio station, they were doing a minute by minute update on the storm. Several places were not going to open for business. The employees didn’t have to report to work. People were being told to stay in their homes. My father couldn’t take sitting in the truck any longer.
“I’m going out to see what the holdup is,” he told me. “We are never going to get home if we just sit here.” My father hopped out of the truck. I sat there looking at all the ice forming on the tree branches, it was so thick. The ice was building up on the truck especially in the bed since it was not heated. I looked out through the trees; through the little forest. I thought I could see parts of Route 11 through the trees. It was hard to tell since I had never been on this road before. It almost seemed as if the trees knew I was watching them. The tree branches began to break and fall to the ground. Other limbs began to crack under the weight of the ice. I jumped, shivered and hugged myself. I turned the heat up one more notch. My father was out there. He was walking in the freezing rain. He would be cold and wet by the time he got back to the truck.
A few minutes later, I spotted my father walking back toward the truck. His nose was red with cold. His jacket, soaked by the freezing rain, clung to his body. I looked in the back seat for a blanket. He opened the truck door and started to get his gloves.
“What’s wrong Dad?” I asked him when he made no attempted to get into the truck.
“There’s a large tree branch down; it goes right across the road. There are about 12 people up there…all of them with their thumb in their ass wondering how in the hell they are going to move the branch so everyone can get by.” I looked at my father; I surmised what he was planning.
“They’re all just standing there,” he said again. “So I said to them, well, we gotta hook it to a truck and drag it out of the way or cut it up. There’s no way to hook it to a vehicle because everyone is so close to the branch. I told them I had an axe that I’d come back to the truck and get it so we can at least attempt to chop the branch and get it out of the way.”
“I’m coming with you,” I told my father grabbing a pair of gloves out of the truck door. We left the truck running and unlocked. Who was going to take it? Where were they going to go? If we had turned it off, the ice would have built up on it so bad we wouldn’t have been able to leave. We walked to the front of the line of cars. The branch was still across the road. The people were still standing there. My father started chopping. I don’t know how long my father chopped at that branch but I could see the exhaustion in his face. I begged him to stop and let someone else take over. He finally did. Another man took the axe from my father. It was at this point that a gentleman in long dark trench coat came over and stood beside my father.
“I have a chainsaw in the truck.” The man stated flatly. My father looked at the man. He obviously did not look like the chainsaw toting type in his business suit and trench coat.
“Well, go get it.” My father said to him. The man came back with the chainsaw and handed it to my father. My father expertly started the chainsaw and began cutting through the branch. Suddenly, swarms of men bearing chainsaws came out of their vehicles to help cut the branch. I began moving the pieces of wood and throwing them off to the sides of the road. My father had paused to take a break, he handed the chainsaw off to another person. I was throwing a chunk of wood off to the side of the road when my father joined me.
He put his hand on my arm, “You shouldn’t be handling those pieces of wood.”
“I’m fine Dad,” I told him. “Years of experience.” He looked at me; his blue eyes twinkled with pride as he realized the values he had instilled in me as a child. It was then that a young man in his PT (physical training) uniform frantically came running up to us.
“Hey, man,” he said to my father, “when do you think you’ll get this branch moved off the road? I have to get to work. I’m already late and my commanding officer is going to be pissed.”
My father looked at the young man and bluntly stated, “When you get your ass out of your vehicle and help move the limbs and pieces of wood so that a woman doesn’t have to do it.”
The young soldier looked at my father and laughed. “I can’t get my PT uniform dirty. My commanding officer will kill me.” With that, the young man ran back to his warm car and climbed inside.
“Asshole,” my father said as he looked at me. My teeth were chattering from the cold. I didn’t have a hat so my hair was frozen to my head from the freezing rain. My cheeks were pink where the little balls of ice had pelleted my face.
“We are almost done. Go back to the truck and get warm. There are plenty of men out here to help. You shouldn’t have to.” I looked around at all the people who were helping to clear the branch. I smiled as I walked back to the truck. There were other young soldiers in their PT uniforms and in their BDU’s (battle dress uniform) helping to cut the limbs and move the pieces of wood. They weren’t worried about how dirty they were going to get, how late they were going to be, or how much trouble they were going to get into.
We were all in the same situation that morning. I hadn’t realized how many people were out of their vehicles helping to move that branch. The branch of this tree was so large I could not put my arms around it. It was only one of the first big branches to fall from the weight of the ice, mainly due to its unhealthy state. That morning proved what coming together and helping each other in the community was all about. However, as I was walking back to the truck to wait for my father, I was overcome by a feeling of doom. I couldn’t help but think this was only the beginning.
Unbeknownst to me the next two weeks were going to be filled with more ice…The Ice Storm of ’98 as it came to be named. We were going to have no power, little heat but lots of family time. Our Amish neighbors would check in on us often. They were used to this kind of living and the ice storm barely affected them at all. Certain city folks were granted permission to travel the ice covered roads to bring those of us who lived in the country some necessary supplies. But when the ice melted, the electricity was restored and we were able to travel the roads safely, we once again came together as a community to help clean up what Mother Nature left behind.
By Allie Racette
Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Potsdam, New York
Lorrielle, my brother’s girlfriend of seven years—four years, then—offers me a prom dress.
I already have a prom dress. A blue gown hangs in the back of my closet, but it’s been worn to two previous proms, and the daughter of a couple whose combined salary is less than the national median income just isn’t selfish enough to ask her mother to buy her a new one.
The subject had risen over Christmas dinner.
“I wonder where I could find a cheap prom dress,” I’d mused.
Lorrielle had turned from where she’d been leaning against my brother, forcing him to support more of her weight, bit by bit, just to hear him whine. (“Babe, stop. Babe. Seriously!”)
“You could take my old dress,” she’d said. “We’re about the same size.”
We aren’t the same size, though. We’re nowhere close to the same size. The dress is labeled a size fourteen—and in women’s sizes, in the United States, that means it falls somewhere between a size eight and a size twenty, probably. Realistically, the dress is a size twelve. Optimistically, I’m a size twenty-two.
Lorrielle brings the dress over for me to try on a few days into the New Year. I can’t squeeze into it. For the first time in my life—or, the first time that really matters—I realize how fat I am.
There are plenty of labels in the world. Stupid, selfish, ugly, bitch. At seventeen, some of them might even apply to me. But none of them carry the same weight—ha-fucking-ha—as the word that, trying to magically slither my way into a dress that I can’t even pull over my ass, suddenly, doubtlessly, applies to me—obese.
It needs to be bolded for emphasis. Normal, twelve point Times New Roman can’t convey the stigma and fear and pain and embarrassment that are all wrapped up tight together in that five letter word, as tight as the stupid pink beaded monstrosity that can’t contain the spillage of adipose tissue over the elastic of my underwear and around my bra straps.
“We’ll find you a cheap dress somewhere, Allie,” my mother says, ever practical, as I regard my fat reflection despondently. My mother was fat, once, but her straightforward thinking made kicking the pounds look easy. (“I just watch what I eat and get out for my walk every day.”) She’s slimmer, now—she takes up less space in the mirror than me.
“No,” I reply with a shake of my head and a burst of determination. It’s pink, and beaded, and floor length, but it’s a challenge. I’m too stubborn to ignore a challenge. “I’m going to fit into this dress. Prom is in May; I can do it.”
“Absolutely,” my mother says. She’s skeptical.
The first twenty-six are easy; they melt off of me from January to May, just as the snow melts while the sun starts to shine brighter and longer. The dress still doesn’t fit, but I’m too damn pleased with myself to care. My friend alters it for me—she adds a panel of fabric in the back and makes the laces longer. It looks like it fits when it really doesn’t. I don’t feel guilty. Everyone’s in the habit of lying about their weight. What the hell do you think Spanx are for? (Though, for some reason, they still use skinny women to advertise a product meant to reduce the appearance of fat. I’ll never understand it.)
Prom is great. There’s nothing else to be said. This isn’t an ABC Family drama. My date is my best friend—he doesn’t ditch me, and I’ll never regret taking over-priced photos with him.
Prom is great, but it awakens something in me. Or maybe it’s the dress that does it. Or maybe it’s the over-priced photos, in which I still have three or four chins and my dress straps pinch the fat at my shoulders to create rolling hills of pale skin.
Whatever it is, it creates a monster.
It’s the type of monster that people encourage, because on the outside, it looks like a good thing. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you’ll pardon the cliché.
At 190 pounds, five-foot-seven, my BMI, (that’s Body Mass Index, calculated based on height and weight), is 29.8. 30.0 or greater is obese. I’m not obese anymore; I’m just overweight. The stigma isn’t as suffocating as before, and yet, it doesn’t feel like enough.
“Allie,” my dad asks, “are burgers okay for dinner?”
“Sure,” I say. “But make mine small, like three or four ounces.”
He weighs the meat on a scale. It’s a perfectly acceptable portion size, unlike the ten ounce behemoths served at restaurants, or the eight ounce baby-behemoths my father prepares for himself and my mother. I eat the burger, but ignore the chips on the side. I walk an extra mile on the treadmill the next day.
“Allie,” my dad asks, “are burgers okay for dinner?”
“Sure,” I say. “But can you grill one of my Boca burgers for me, instead of a regular burger? And no cheese.”
He seems happy enough to fill my order. My dad loves to cook for his family. He’s a great cook; that’s part of the problem. When my pediatrician asks about my eating in her thick Indian accent, I always parrot the words I learned from my mother—“I don’t snack or eat junk food. Everything I eat is home-cooked and pretty healthy. I just eat a lot of it.”
I try not to blame my parents. They tell me I was stubborn as a child, that I wouldn’t shut up until I was fed. I believe them.
“Allie,” my dad says, “your mother and I are having burgers for dinner. Do you want me to cook one of your Boca burgers for you?”
“No,” I say. “I’m not very hungry right now. I’ll cook something later.”
I don’t sit at the table with them, because then I would have to see their food. I wait until they’re finished with their dinner, and then I cook my own—a veggie burger on one meager slice of bread, with spinach, and tomato, and honey mustard. Fruit on the side. The entire meal is less than four-hundred calories. My meticulous counting—portioning, weighing, planning—puts me at 1200 per day, sometimes less. That’s not enough, but it’s working.
I’m still overweight. 27.4. 24.9 is “normal.”
“You’re getting too skinny,” a friend’s mom tells me. “I can see your collarbones.”
My collarbones are naturally prominent.
“You must be really close to your goal, Allie,” a cousin comments. “You look great!”
“Thanks,” I reply. “It’s mostly about health, though. I’ve never really lacked confidence. I just want to outlive my parents.” My cousin laughs. Not close enough, I think.
My mother and my fashionista cousin take me shopping because my clothes are all falling off of me. It’s satisfying. We weave our way through the crowded racks at our local TJ Maxx. My cousin is a few racks over with her eye on a pair of white jeans while my mother and I browse sundresses.
Suddenly, my mother stops and fixes me with the big brown eyes that I inherited. “You know, you walk like you take up so much more space than you do,” she says.
I blink at her, uncomprehending. The dress in her hands is cute, but too short to be my style. “What?”
She turns back to the rack, occupying her hands while she speaks. “You’ve lost all this weight, but you still step out of the way a little bit when you walk by people, like you think you’re going to run into them. You don’t have to do that anymore. It’s just funny to watch, because it’s such a habit for you. You’ll probably always do it.”
My mother is barely five-foot-one, and will never take up very much space, even if she wants to—but she sees it in me. She’s always been perceptive.
25.8. Overweight, but my new jeans are a size twelve. My body is happy. I should stop.
25.1. It’s so close I can taste it. The flavor is worth the lack of taste in the diet that sustains me—salad, fruit, sandwiches, sometimes soup. Water. I’m practically drowning myself.
No one in my freshman class believes it, at first, when I tell them I was once more than seventy pounds heavier. I show them the pictures with the three or four chins and the hills of pinched skin. They believe me then.
Lehman dining hall is all-you-can-eat. I never really learned that can and should are two separate things.
“I expected it,” I tell my mother, when I return for summer break and my jeans are a bit tight around the waist. “Freshman fifteen. At least it all went to my ass.” Pear shapes have less risk of obesity-related disease than apple shapes.
I can still come back from this.
“It’s a struggle every day,” I say into the mirror, and my reflection nods once in agreement. My body crowds the narrow glass again; I’m taking up space.
“But you can’t give up. You’re beautiful.”
My reflection nods again. I don’t know if she believes me.
“The number on the scale does not define you.”
There’s skepticism in her big brown eyes.
“You’re worth it.”
She turns sideways, pokes at her stomach that hangs over the elastic of her underwear, pinches her arms that will never be toned because even without the fat, there will always be loose skin. She traces stretch marks with her fingertips before zipping and buttoning her jeans, as if that thin layer of denim hides it all away.
“It’s not the end of the world,” I say, and she faces forward again. I tug my shirt on over my head; my reflection follows suit.
“It’s simple. Exercise; don’t eat too much; don’t beat yourself up. You’re still so far from where you were. This time, it really is about health. But your mental health is just as important, got it?”
That wins her over. I reconcile with the girl in the mirror, and give her one last, firm nod before leaving for class.
What a Drag
By Danielle Argentina
Creative Nonfiction Workshop II
Potsdam, New York
“You’re gonna see me do things you’ve never seen me do before,” he says.
He just picked me up from Penn Station, where in a furry of blurry shoulders and chests I found my frazzled way to the bamboo shoot standing above the rest: my brother is dressed in all black, as he is most days. His one leg, pin-thin from thigh to ankle, is resting on the wall while the other is grounded on the tiled floor. I couldn’t help but think the passing thought that he looked like a flamingo pretending to be a raven.
He finally finds my face – pale, slightly rural, and wide-eyed innocent – staring at him from across the crowd, trying desperately to make my way to him without getting jostled for the first of what will be many times this evening, as is usual of my small stature in this city of sky scrapers and tall natives.
We exchange hellos as we hit Thirty-Fifth Street and walk up Eighth Avenue to a small, nameless beauty supply store. He needs to buy a face, he says, and here is where he will find most everything he needs to do it.
We saunter over to the foundations first. It is crammed at the front of the store near the counters, so personal space in relation to strangers has become an unspoken issue that everyone seems to passive aggressively accept. With my backpack stuffed to the brim for the upcoming weekend, I try to make myself as small as possible, but it is not helping much.
Anthony sets his wrist among the compacts of beiges and creams and settles on a shade somewhere between pale and taupe. He then buys mascara, lip liner, lip stick, eye shadow, eye liner, and Ben Nye White, the secret to the ultimate face.
He explains: Ben Nye White is the cream-white makeup that is used to create highlights on the face, like under the line of the brow, the lids of the eyes, and tops of the cheeks to create more defined cheekbones. Ben Nye setting powders, such as Neutral and Ultra White, are used to set “wet” makeup applications, blend things together, and highlight eye shadows.
“Jacob will have the rest,” he says off-handedly as he pays for his purchase. He says thank you, grabs his bag and receipt, and speed walks his way to the corner. At a foot and a half and an entire leg’s length below him, I can only keep up with his graceful catwalk at a bouncy, sloppy jog.
“What kind of things?” I ask in a huffed breath, only a little unnerved, as we head down Eighth Avenue on Twenty-Seventh Street, aiming for a corner café to grab a quick dinner.
He laughs. “Well, weed for one.”
I shrug. I knew he smoked; I’d seen him before and after his partaking, but he was right to observe that I had never seen him in the moment of indulgence.
“Is that it?” I ask, letting it go unspoken that this would not faze me.
“Well, you’ve never seen me perform in drag,” he points out the reason for my trip.
I laugh aloud at the obviousness of his statement. He was right: I had seen plenty of snapshots of Shimmy Choo, but I had never seen her live, in person, lip-syncing Cher and dancing in a skin-tight dress with her legs pinned into five-inch Jeffery Campbell’s.
When my brother isn’t being the diva of a fashionista that he is on the day-to-day, he transforms himself into a drag queen he has delightfully named Shimmy Choo. When asked where the name came from, he alludes me to the shoe company.
“But I’m Jimmy with a little Shimmy,” he explains with a twinkle in his eye.
We eat our paninis at our naturally quick pace before we head down Sixth Avenue on Twenty-Third Street to catch the M train to Brooklyn. It is August, and the fog rolls in an oath of rain without the relief of the heat or humidity. We walk down the subway staircase and we each make one semi-humorous line about entering hell. The eerie pipe music coming from the four-person Asian band settled in the corner only adds to the analogy. He sits as I stand and fan myself with my Metrocard. He curses after every train that is not ours, muttering to himself about needing enough time to get ready.
I silently calculate the hours: our goal time to arrive at Jacob’s apartment is 6:30 PM, and Shimmy Choo needs to be out the door and ready to perform by 11:30 PM. It is going to take my brother five hours to go from string bean city-slicker to full-breasted Brooklynite. When I point this out, he grumbles that five hours is pushing it.
The subway finally arrives and we enter a cool bath of air-conditioning. As I tick off the six stops we need to make, the subway emerges from underground and the promised rain begins to plink and plunk against the windows. Another string of curses escapes Anthony’s lips before we exit at Flushing Avenue.
We walk down the set of double stairs while simultaneously opening our umbrellas. Bushwick is awash in grey, and I can’t say I can contribute it to the weather. The noises are a muffled version of those left behind in Manhattan and the straight-faced strangers are peppered along the sidewalk instead of soldiered together from a lack of space. There are a few other people out on our side of the street: tall, wide-shouldered men, and having to huddle under their hoods from the rain only makes them appear more menacing to me.
“This is why I don’t leave home without a little something,” Anthony says as his metallic switchblade lay open in his palm.
After walking two of the three blocks to our destination, we stop off at a small thrift store for Shimmy Choo to browse for that extra-something. A woman behind a glass counter of miscellaneous accessories tells us to leave our bags at the front of the store, right at the lip of the open door in a big, canary yellow, plastic tub. I’m immediately put off by this, but I oblige, though I hover near the bin the entire time we are in the store. Between the people walking past outside and the few who are meandering through the aisles, I am not in love with the idea of someone running off with my backpack. And of course, leave it to my brother, a senior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, to walk around with a handmade leather backpack with faux-fur flaps and gold studs. Everything he owns is eye-catching, right down to his belt buckles and his silver rings, and all I can imagine at this moment is chasing after some bastard who’s decided to steal his designer man purse and hawk it for cash. So, I stay near the bin.
Anthony finds nothing that Shimmy likes, and so we head back outside, where the rain is heavier than twenty minutes before. Down Harrison Avenue, in front of a gas station, is a small building that seems to have been overlooked by the rest of the city. A buzz, a voice, and a creek of the door later and we enter the apartment building. Anthony and I immediately greet a set of stairs that fall to the attack of our shoes, the buckling of the wood and the click of Anthony’s boots reverberating from the walls like hammers to nails. On the second floor, muffled music is coming from the door to our right, and Anthony opens it without knocking. Immediately I am hit with a wave of hairspray and shirtless, singing gay men standing in the middle of the room.
There is a chorus of hi’s, hello’s and darling’s amongst the cheek-cheek kisses and outfit praises. Jacob, who I have met briefly on a few occasions, is standing in front of the stove, bare-chested, barefooted and boxer-clad. A mannequin head is shoved between the two rows of stove plates, its red-wine wig being shaped into submission. I watch the hairspray dance down the wig and settle onto the stove.
Kiki Kouture, another lady-boy of the house who, like me, has “heard good things from Anthony,” kisses me European style before complimenting my eyes, my hair and my cheekbones. He is draped in a loose, round neck tank top and nylon gym shorts, cluttered in jewelry and a few facial piercings. Aside from his scruffy beard though, his face is stunning: flawlessly pale with high, thick eyebrows, full lips, and eyes decorated in the latest products from his workplace, a M•A•C Cosmetics store uptown.
The other two half-dressed, half-drag people in the room are both in the middle of their transformations for what will be their first-ever performance on stage. I say hello as I settle onto the loveseat next to the fridge, placing my backpack behind me to have something to lean on.
“Ugh, I need to shave,” Anthony graons as he digs through his bag for his toiletries – a razor, a glue stick and powder. His shirt is already beside me as he joins the others in the apparent undress of the house. Kiki hands him a butter knife on his way past.
“For your eyebrows, darling,” he explains.
Like Ben Nye White, a trio of glue, powder and a butter knife play key roles in drag make-up: glue is used to cover the eyebrows, flattening the area in order to start the process of drawing on a “new” face. After applying and drying five or six coats of glue, going upwards with the edge of a butter knife to really flatten the eyebrows, a loose powder is pressed into the brows to fill the cracks between the hairs. From there, a light coat of concealer is smoothed over the entire area before another layer of loose powder is dabbed on to secure and set everything in place.
I watch Anthony disappear as I settle into the loveseat and begin to do what I always do in situations like this: I slip in the corner to become, and remain, a silent observer.
The entire apartment is in a disarray that wrestles between typical college guy and atypical burlesque dancer: the floor is littered with running shoes and high-heels, the coffee table is cluttered with random knick-knacks and every make-up product Kiki owns, and each room has clothes and dresses hanging out the bottom of the doorways like tongues. Wigs of various sizes, shapes, colors and lengths adorn the top of the refrigerator, the arm of the couch, and the doorknob of one of the bedrooms. I listen to a techno-dance playlist bursting through a small set of speakers while someone curses.
Eliel is lying on the couch, half-naked, and staring up at the phone in his hands while Kiki hovers above him, various brushes between his fingers like marimba mallets and an entire palette of colors climbing up his arms. I watch as Eliel slowly becomes Vanity Insanity, his drag queen persona who will appear in full costume in just a few hours for the very first time. Mila Ratchet, whose real name I never actually catch, is combing her “tired” wig as she praises her complexion for allowing her to go from a crew-cut brunette to a curly-headed blonde.
I wordlessly watch the three of them interact, my eyes darting from one open mouth to the next like a ball in a tennis match. Kiki’s eyes only look up from Eliel’s face to allow the lamp above his head to cast a light on the progress of his contouring; he only speaks in replies and in punch lines while the other two nervously banter about their upcoming performance that will take place in a matter of hours.
Minutes later, after Mila stood up to use the bathroom, a girl – a biological girl, to be more accurate – comes out of the bedroom with the wig on the handle. She is bright-eyed, flush-faced, and smiling, and she does not belong here. She sits in the chair Mila Ratchet just occupied, and sticks out her hand for me to take. Her name is Megan, and she is Jacob’s old friend from high school. Her smile is wide and her timbre matches its innocence. Her hands move with calculated precision, and her hair is straight and neat. Megan will be witnessing Jacob’s performance for the first time tonight, and I point out our commonality of this and add Anthony to the list. From here, our conversation turns to age, hometown, college, major, and post-grad plans. Here, the conversation fades, as we are left with nothing worth asking and nothing worth knowing.
“And voila!” Anthony announces. “No eyebrows.”
He has emerged from the bathroom: his chest and his face are shaven, and his eyebrows are indistinguishable from his forehead. He has just applied the first layer of what will be many layers of foundation, but for now he is allowing it to ‘bake,’ a term used by drag queens to let make-up set after initial application.
Though many tend to shy away from heavy creams and foundations, most men in drag find it necessary in order to conceal five o’clock shadow as well as to create a smooth surface for new eyebrows, eye-shadows, blushes and lipsticks. Brown shades of concealer are used even on the palest faces for what is called ‘contouring,’ a shading technique used to add depth to a face and to change the shape of facial features to look smaller and more feminine. Places of the face to contour include each side of the bridge of the nose, just under the jawline, about the temples, around the upper part of the forehead, and most importantly, the line of the cheekbones.
Anthony crosses the den area and enters Jacob’s bedroom, waiting to finish his make-up while Jacob simultaneously does his own. He gently closes the door with the heels of his foot.
I refocus on the ongoing conversation. Mila Ratchet has started to praise her years of swimming for allowing her body to be able to pull off a horizontal-striped jump suit with cut-outs on the side, something she leaves unspoken as a daring move.
Vanity Insanity corrects her. “Yeah, but tonight I’m wearing nothing but a corset, a pair of black panties and a garter belt.”
We all smile, but no one corrects her to mention that she will not be wearing a single pair of underwear, not for a successful ‘tuck,’ a technique used to hide the penis between the legs while in drag. Later in the night, when she comes out of the bathroom in full costume, she will painfully grab her crotch and finally admit to wearing three pairs of underwear that are two times too small.
Shimmy Choo reopens the door of Jacob’s bedroom. I stand to take her in: she is wearing one of my hand-me-down dresses that only reaches mid-thigh – a donation to the Shimmy Choo Cause – and one of my old fur shawls. Her heels are dipped in rainbow glitter and make her four inches taller than her normal six-foot stance. I smile; I have seen my brother in heels before, but this is not my brother.
The skin-tone colored of her dress and the white caps of her fluffy shoulders make all of the other colors of her outfit come alive: her hair, a cherry wood red, has been bobbed and balled into a bird’s nest similar to that of the Spring 2010 Chanel Runway show. Her false lashes fan out like butterfly wings. Her eye-shadow is in strata of black, green, and yellow, and bottomed out by a magenta lip. Her eyes are glazy from the pot, but it only adds to her look. She smiles, and it gives way to the only sign of Anthony I can find.
Scarlet Envy stands to follows suit, and emerges from the room with her back to me. I silently zip up her pantsuit before I clasp one of my necklaces around her neck. The transformation is complete; there is no sign of Jacob.
Scarlet throws some make-up into a purse and heads into the living room. She calls a car service to take the four of us to TNT (This ‘N That Bar) in Williamsburg on North 6th Street between Barry Street and Wythe Avenue.
“Adam’s gonna meet us there; he’s Shot Boy tonight,” Scarlet announces to the squeal of Shimmy Choo.
After a few minutes and a quick phone call, Scarlet, Shimmy, Megan and I head downstairs and pile into a taxi-van. Megan and I duck in first and wait for our drag queens to join us. Shimmy is so tall and her hair is so wide that she needs to gingerly dip and slip into the front seat. Scarlet graciously slides into the back and requests our destination as we make our bumpy way through the midnight rain to what appears to be the only operating building on the street.
We tip the driver, climb out of the van, and walk up to the door where the bouncer is seated, only standing long enough for Scarlet to kiss her hello before we head in. She is, after all, the hostess of Scarlet Fever, the weekly Friday night gig we are attending.
We open the double wooden doors and exchange one form of darkness for another: TNT is one large, open space, with its bar countertop on the left and all seating and booths on the right. At the very end of the room is a small stage raised approximately one foot from floor level. A lonely microphone stands in the middle as a DJ sets the mood from the far right corner.
“I usually can’t walk to the very front of it because of the lights,” Shimmy confesses, pointing towards the stage. She fluffs her wig. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do about it tonight with this hair.”
We walk up to the bar and Shimmy hands the women two orange tickets. She orders a Long Island Iced Tea and gets me an Angry Balls: an Angry Orchard beer mixed with whiskey. We take our drinks after leaving a tip on the countertop and saunter over to the start of the stage to greet Adam, who is smiling in his black leather underwear and holding a tray of plastic shot glasses. He places three on the counter and he, Shimmy and I toast to the evening.
Adam is Jacob’s on-off boyfriend and another resident of the Bushwick apartment building. The toxicity of their relationship keeps them perpetually off-kilter, particularly when Jacob becomes Scarlet, a lioness who is always on the insatiable hunt for a spotlight. Later tonight they will have a fight after everyone is sleeping that ends with both of them moving out and moving on in separate apartments and separate directions in the few weeks to come. Tonight, because Scarlet is standing in for Jacob, but both are working, the two lovers are mid-shift between clenched-teeth and soft kisses.
I watch as Shimmy meets new fans and greets familiar faces, all with a regal handshake and a school-girl smile. She introduces me as her “biological sister,” as ‘sister’ on its own in the drag world denotes friendship and platonic bond. She talks with a timbre just a touch above my brother’s, whose smile has even disappeared at this point. Regardless, my brother is a flamer to the moths, and everyone he interacts with always relishes in his cheeky demeanor and coy confidence. I laugh; I have seen my brother work a room before, but this is not my brother.
Our leonine hostess walks over to whisper something to the DJ as another man emerges from the end of the bar and sets a Bucket for Bucks on the lip of the stage. Scarlet Envy gives him a nodding smile as she approaches the microphone.
“Hello and welcome to Scarlet Fever!” she roars to a rousing applause.
“It’s Friday Fever time, kids!” she continues, “And we have a truly untouchable lineup tonight, Brooklyn. We’ve got cheap drinks, hot bartenders and expensive hookers. Well, affordable hookers if you offer Shimmy half a cigarette…”
There is peeled laughter as Shimmy shakes her shoulders, winks a flashing eye, and licks her teeth.
“Shimmy Choo is here tonight to return to the stage and shimmy faster than my vibrator – yes! – faster, I say. Mila Ratchet is also here, and she’s gonna pop her drag queen cherry tonight and take you to your breaking point with fellow virgin, Vanity Insanity. And guess what? We also have a real live woman gracing the stage today. Yes ladies and gentlemen, Lena Marquise, a real lady with a real vagina who is bound to quench your sexual thirst for days. Sickening girls means sickening shows, so don’t forget our Bucket of Bucks to tip the ladies we know you love. So enjoy the drinks and entertainment you thirsty queers, and let the show begin!”
The applause swells and dies as Scarlet turns her back to the start of her first song. It is a techno dance remix, and she lip-syncs in perfect time with Gossip’s “Get a Job”. Her pointed eyes, overt gestures and thunderous catwalk serve her stage presence well. She is familiar with her weekend crowd, and her persona has been fine-tuned to the point where Scarlet Envy is not a character, but simply a woman who has taking on a man’s body and thrown it into disguise. When her song ends, she fishes the dollar bills out of her bra to add it to the pile from the bucket. After it is empty, she replaces it back on stage and gives Shimmy Choo another introduction before placing the microphone back on the stand.
I smile and clap along as my brother steps onto stage, gets into a hip-holding pose, and waits for the music to begin. As the shimmery introduction to Celine Dion’s “I Drove All Night” begins, Shimmy slowly swishes, sways, and pouts her lips. Her lip-syncing is on point, and her dancing is in perfect time with the graceful instrumentals. As she continues her routine, I can see that Shimmy is two inches too tall for this stage, but her dipping, stripping and shimmying is making it unnoticeable to anyone unaware of the concern stated earlier in the night. When she throws her hands above her head and faux-belts out a bridge and a chorus, she touches the ceiling, purposefully gripping the rafters while she rocks her hips in front of the fan. I cheer; I have seen my brother dance before, but this is not my brother.
She exits stage-right to a round of applause, playfully fanning herself with the tips she just made. She uses them to buy us both another round of drinks. We sip them as we watch the others perform, including Lena Marquise, who is wearing nothing but an American Flag bikini, which she slowly strips from her body while she lip-syncs Lana Del Ray’s “My Pussy Taste Like Pepsi Cola.” Once she is completely naked, Lena settles onto a wooden stool she has brought on stage, spreads her legs, reaches down with her right hand, and removes a bent straw. She unfolds it and slips it into the glass bottle of Pepsi in her other hand. Her eyes light up with every gasp, breath and throat-caught word.
I look over at Shimmy, who is laughing in wide-eyed amusement, and we both exchange a look of relief as Scarlet announces an intermission.
We place our empty glasses on the countertop and cross the room to head outside for an escape from the stale, musty air of the club. Shimmy lets out a sigh as she searches for something in her purse, and her hand reappears with a pack of cigarettes. She settles one between her lips, only slightly smudging them, as she cups her hand around the flickering flame. It is still lightly raining, but no one minds, certainly not anyone smoking.
Shimmy cranes her neck and blows her smoke towards the sky.
“How was it?”
I smile, recognizing my brother’s natural voice. We are a few feet away from the other pockets of people who have emerged from the cave.
“You were amazing.”
I watch my brother take another suck, puff and drag. He thanks me on the exhale. I perch on the tips of my toes to fix his lipstick. He groans.
“Fuck. I’m a mess, aren’t I?”
“No,” I say. “No, you’re fine. Just a little smudge, that’s all.”
He puckers and pops his lips as his gaze focuses on something behind me. He gives me one last smile before submerging once again; only his eyes are visible above the waters he is swimming in at the moment.
Two men saunter over, one to talk to Shimmy, the other to bum a smoke. She introduces me, and the conversation takes off. Her steeliness has returned, and the cigarette makes an excellent prop to her punchy one-liners. She talks to several others, introducing me to all of them, before we return for the second half of the show.
It is 4 AM before we leave TNT. Shimmy Choo put on two more performances, and only once did I see Anthony again, when Shimmy forgot the lyrics to her last song. To an untrained eye, Shimmy’s mouth was fine, but Anthony was silently cursing at the edges of his eyes.
Adam, Shimmy and I take another taxi-van back to Jacob’s apartment and slowly, limply, drunkenly saunter up the stairs. I remove my heels and settle onto the floor in front of the coffee table. Kiki has left for work, Vanity Insanity and Mila Ratchet have gone on to another bar, Adam is changing out of his leather undies, and Shimmy is in the bathroom.
Scarlet and Megan enter just behind us, placing a Styrofoam container of chips and guacamole dip on the coffee table. We sit and eat and discuss the performances of the night, namely that of Lena Marquise, whose second performance included cutting up her grey cotton t-shirt, the only thing she was wearing, until it fell to the floor in pieces, then reaching between her legs yet again, and coming out with a condom filled with a white, creamy, questionable substance. We all agree to disagree on the difference between shock value and cutting-edge.
I dip another chip into the guacamole and turn my head to the sound of a door opening. Anthony emerges from the bathroom, his face still shining from scrubbing it clean and his black curls still coming to life after being smothered under a four-pound wig. He joins me on the floor, popping a chip into his mouth as he folds his legs beneath him.
He smiles. I smile back.
“There you are,” I say.