I’m sick of apologizing.
When the phone rings I pick up without a thought or care for who might be on the other end. It’s Missy. Several months have passed since the inception of her silence. She’s calling to say thanks for the parcel of Crown Royal and handmade flowers she found wrapped in the corner of her foyer with my handwritten letter. My handwritten letter of apology. Her voice sounds tinny and false, a thin representation of the woman I imagined myself restoring to better terms. A woman whose industry and friendship I’d given up hope for having in my life long before the call. Too much time has passed. The damage already done. No matter how sincere she may actually be, I’m not hearing her at true face value. Like a weather forecaster that’s called for a chance of rain when the downpour has already pooled in potholes and overflowed the curbside drains. Missy tells me she would’ve called sooner had she known the paper sack beside her front door promised more than the typical contents of a brown grocery bag: old newspapers for recycling, debris swept up from the back porch, beer bottles or broken glass. My gut instinct tells me she’s blowing smoke my direction, but I also know how our lives run away from us. What might seem routine for anyone else can be a full tilt circus for a performer. A handshake or glance or phone call becomes paramount in the scheme of our lives. Even so, more than two months have passed since I performed at her birthday party.
“I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” I assure her.
“It wasn’t such a big deal to me. Really.” With actors, I’ve learned that any kind of insistence or emphasis on one idea is a setup. A punchline or reversal waits in the wings of a quick breath. “But it’d mean a lot if you called my mom and apologize to her.”
So I do. I jot down the number and call her against my better judgment. I mean, after several months, what is there really left to say? “I know my performance wasn’t appropriate for the party but it wasn’t meant to be malicious in any way.”
Missy’s mom, thank goodness, offers the understanding any artist would be thankful to find in a mother. She tells me it would’ve been perfectly fine for a ladies’ night out. However, (it’s this however that stings me) with her husband by her side, he’s the one who could use an apology. Which brings us right back where we started. Apologizing.
I do my best to nip all this I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry in the bud. “Please, let him know how sorry I am for not being more considerate of the situation.”
“Let me give you a number where you can reach him in person.”
I hate hate hate this phone. How pathetically reduced I feel with apology after apology. The more I apologize the more I think I shouldn’t be sorry for shit. I’m tired of all this nicey-fucking-nicey. I’m sick of apologizing!
• • •
Actors love to tell stories, especially their own. Get a bunch of actors in the same room and you’re sure to hear all about the backstage mishaps. Or better yet, the onstage fiascos.
I constructed a wig out of phone cables for my farewell performance at Missie B’s. The black cord wrapped like a turban around my head with phone receivers, microphones and hookah tubes spilling down as hair from a central nest. I rehearsed the number so I could grab a phone receiver and throw it out at the audience. When the coils sprung back I’d catch it and scream lyrics into the phone’s mouthpiece. Except when I took the stage I tossed my head back with a dramatic flair and the tangles of sculpted hair shifted out of place. With the receivers jumbled, I could only hope to pick the right one, or at least one with enough life in its coils to spring back with some oomph. Boy oh boy, did it ever. Just as fast and hard as I threw out that receiver it snapped back with a resounding thwack to my forehead.
I shook my ass with g-force in its cassette-tape-skirt and screamed lyrics out loud in my own voice, took a puff off the hookah and continued into the next verse as if the audience wouldn’t notice a stream of blood gushing down my forehead. After all, audiences in one-room drag bars are known for overlooking all sorts of mishaps. It wasn’t like my twins bulged from beneath strips of duct tape or I watermeloned the wrong words with my tongue darting in and out of my mouth like so many drag tongues on fire. I wasn’t some tired old queen pulling out my dentures and dropping them down my pantyhose because the number had gone so far wrong there was nothing left to salvage but laughter at my own expense. No. I’d plain and simply smacked myself upside the head. What difference could a little blood make? It wasn’t until I reached the safety of the backstage dressing room when I realized the seriousness of my injury.
“I gave myself a concussion,” I tell Missy. “That’s when I knew I should give up drag.”
Missy doesn’t remember taking me to my first gay bar when we worked together ten years ago. Hard as she tries she just can’t place me. I don’t hold it against her. Faces come and go in the theatre. I was eighteen when we met and I’d developed a knack for hopping from residence to residence soon after our brief acquaintance. New cities rose and fell on my ephemeral horizon. The big break we all dreamed of hunkered somewhere around the road’s next bend, nearly in sight. I know firsthand how after a number of years the shows and names and faces start to blur. Working and playing the clubs convolutes the details further. Keeping up with a late night crowd can bend your mind. All the knots of lost conversation. Tangled lover’s scenes. The occasional lapsed possession of faculties. Even in a seemingly small venue like Kansas City it’s easy to lose track of the cast of characters in your life. Including your own self.
When Missy isn’t directing for Ron’s Late Night Theatre she hosts a cabaret show at the Dixie Belle. Her co-host and fill-in barback, Jackie Daniels, recalls my penchant for bizarre costumes. “Your filmstrip number was fierce, girl.”
“Now I remember!” The wave of reverie cracks in Missy’s voice despite this being one of many instances from our past. “You were the girl in the filmstrip wig. I wondered where you might’ve gotten off to all those years. Mmmm, it’s good to have you back, baby.”
“Thanks. It’s good to be working with Late Night.”
Our conversation marks a first between Missy and me since I joined the cast of RoseMarie’s Baby. A conversation I anticipated since coming on board with the most irreverent theatre troupe in town. Granted, it’s our closing night cast party, but I’m thrilled whenever I can meet up with a lurid part of my past and make reconciliations with where I’m at now.
“Make sure to stay in touch,” she says. “Ron’s reviving Valley of the Dolls this fall and I think he needs to recast a role.”
“I’d love to be a part of things.”
Our cast files out of Missy’s home with puckered goodnight kisses from her front porch. For many of us, the end of the run can be the end of a relationship. Closing nights are never an easy negotiation of goodbye. Missy hands me an invitation on a postcard. The caption says, Bitter Bitch Birthday Bash. In the picture, two aging and saggy-skinned women walk hand in hand along a beach in bikinis. The card reads as more than an invitation to Missy’s birthday. The card lets me know I’ve been welcomed as a member of Ron’s Late Night.
“I’ll expect something really edgy for my birthday performance.” Missy kisses me on the cheek. “Goodnight, baby.” I walk the half-mile home through Midtown feeling giddy and nervous about pulling together a showstopper in a week’s time. Missy is going to adore me as Medusa.
• • •
Directions: Straighten the wire hanger. Wrap one newspaper page around the wire hanger, clamping fisted fingers open and close to scrunch the paper tight around the wire. Twist the black electrical tape round and round and round the newspapered hanger until it looks like a shiny black spear or snake. Repeat. Snakes will vary in size depending on the tightness of the newspaper. Bend snakes from their centers to shape of head. Secure with electrical tape. Six or seven snakes will usually cover the bulk of the skull. Attach remaining snakes with tape at random intervals to the base, making sure to give height and dimension to the hair. Hair size may vary according to taste. Flat hair is not recommended.
• • •
Shaving is such a bitch. I don’t know why women even bother. Well, ok, there is that silky-smooth skin thing. I get that. But for me it only lasts a day (two if no one touches me) and then I’m itchy and bumpy and full of ingrown hairs. It’s why I could never perform live on a regular basis. Sure, plenty of men have offered me hose to wear instead; don’t get me wrong, it has its perks, but on the whole there’s something about bare legs that brings out the woman in me. So I shave. Not every day, aw hell no. But still, I shave.
I like to do it in the tub. It lets me pretzel my legs around my body and make sure I’ve found all the obscure places like behind the knees and below the butt cheeks. Before I’m finished I end up with my knees on my forehead and my ass under the faucet. No one should have to shave their asshole, but there I am the night before the big birthday show, getting all the details just right.
• • •
My little red wagon carries costume pieces and props and a tackle box of makeup in rickety clanks along the city’s sidewalks. When I arrive at Missy’s, I grab hold of the cart’s metal-lipped rim and lug it up concrete stairs, park it at the bottom of the porch. A swarm of familiar faces greets me from the landing with “Hey it’s the Queen of the Devil Bitches! What’s in the wagon? Glad you made it!”
Before I have a chance to make an entrance, Ron pulls me aside. “Missy set up a karaoke and none of us are performing in drag. We thought you should know ahead of time.” His words surprise me, coming from the same diva who scolded me at a RoseMarie’s Baby promotion a few weeks earlier: “You are working with celebrities, dollface, so you’d better prepare yourself for it! People will be calling out your name from the streets and on dance floors. You’ll be getting fan mail before you know it. Late Night is the shit so don’t go and blow it!” Ron started in on his tirade because I took off my face at the Dixie Belle before the end of the night. But I was tired of all the tranny chasers, tired of the red spandex sucking against my sweaty skin like a Body Glove leech, tired of the wig hair in my mouth and my balls being shoved up inside me as if I wouldn’t notice their departure. Just plain tired at 2 am. Anyone who told me how come-fuck-me-hot I looked in red spandex and Pat Benatar hair was either a bad liar or not my type.
So when Ron says the group is backing out of Missy’s birthday show I shrug it off as another one of his moods and remain in stage mode. The Birthday Girl greets me with a big hug and a cheap beer. The scent of a hangover wafts up from the open tab of the thin aluminum can as Missy helps me transfer my goods to her second story bedroom, a last minute dressing room, while the rest of the Late Night crowd looks on without a word. Once everything is unloaded, we join the Kansas City Theatre Community for drinks below. I schmooze and pose in photos alongside local celebrities, pretend like I’m more important than I am. All the big names and directors are here. Unicorn. Coterie. The Rep. I start doubting my performance, a tragically drag lip synch, but hey, this is a Bitter Bitch Birthday Bash, not the Apollo Theatre. And besides, I’d been rehearsing all week so why the hell not? I bounce up the stairs two at a time and unlatch the lid to my tackle box. The sponges and foundation are ready and waiting in the top compartment. I pull them out and place them in front of the mirror, take in a deep breath and reach for the powder. Once I set the foundation there’s no turning back.
Kathy belts out Over the Rainbow. Bob follows with a charming version of Ol’ Blue Eyes, his standby audition. I hover in the kitchen, out of sight from the back door. My grand entrance to the wooden deck awaits me as I mouth the opening lyrics to Mr. and Mrs. Hell in a continual loop: You don’t believe that junk from Sunday School? Hah! When I hear applause followed by a lull, I take it as my cue and varnish my eyes into a Glamazon gaze.
Three-inch latex platform boots strut slinky legs to center stage, my black and white hard-backed chair strategically carried in front of my groin. The wig twists high above my head; I feel its bounce pulling taut along the black electrical tape stretched under my chin. Titters and whistles call from the onlookers scattered across the lawn. I posture in statuesque repose. The pause button releases with an intense rush of music and movement. I listen intently for the lyrics, worried about giving good synch with the outdoor acoustics. My arm points toward the audience with staccato conviction as I walk around the front of the chair to reveal the complete ensemble: my grandmother’s wet suit flaring around an exposed leather g-string. Howls. A quick jump up and I’m on top of the chair giving myself a hard slap on the ass. Ha ha ha huh. My hands travel up and down my body, one on a twisting piece of bendy hair, the other rubbing my foam rubber nipples before sliding down to my leather g-string in convulsions of ecstasy. Ooooooh yeah! I work that chair harder than Sharon Stone in writhes and seductive glances. The audience murmurs with hands over mouths, wide-eyed at my exhibition.
I have no way of gauging an audience’s emotional response, but I feel the buzz of electricity flowing between the crowd and me. Every eye remains glued to the spectacle before them, even if there is what sounds like gasps of outrage mixed with the WOOTs of support. I don’t give a damn why they’re making noise, I need the noise as proof the show is provoking some sort of reaction. The musical break in the number allows me a chance to forget about the lip synch and choreography and get a closer view of my audience. I high-step my way down the stairs, every step a deliberate placement, and move freely into the audience.
I look for Missy but her face eludes me. In her stead, I hone in on another woman’s face, beaming from the back row of lawn chairs. Handcuff-bracelets clink from outstretched arms, balance my march through the rutted yard and crowd of onlookers as I parade to meet up with my chosen one. The audience shouts something, a muffled noise, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. I focus on the beeline I’ve made, one ear open to the music, the other to the crowd. Once I reach my captive, I grind my leather g-string to lyrics pumped from speakers in the second-story windows. Nevermind, nevermind, nevermind. I crawl through the yard on all fours, finding women in cargo shorts and tank tops cradling each other on picnic blankets along my way. Their bodies shrink from my approach. I flick my tongue lasciviously at them, rise to my feet, turn and trollop through grassy patches of dirt on my way back to the deck.
Something feels amiss. I sense more fear than shock from the audience and suddenly I want off stage but I still have the big finale. I fling my body backward over the wooden chair; thrust my pelvis over its hardback, legs extended high above, the weight of the wig and chair as a balance below. Hope you don’t go to hell and fryyyy. The music fades. I close the number in the pose I opened with, chair buffering the space between the audience and me.
Without acknowledging the frenzy before me, I turn my back on the audience and haul the chair offstage over my shoulder. Through the kitchen door and back up the stairs. A roar surges behind me. Well, I think, they certainly are making some noise. I can only hope Missy liked me. And will remember me.
Everything peels off: hose, tape, face. Missy peeks in on me. “You doing alright?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Here’s a towel if you need it.”
“Thanks,” I say, even though I’ve brought my own. She closes the door behind me, leaves me to my naked self. Everything packs up in neat piles, ready to strap down in my little red wagon for the trip home. The party sounds quiet beyond the closed door. Walking through to the other side will be like opening my eyes the morning after a one-night stand: full of vulnerabilities, uncertainties. Awkward conversations. The scandal of exposure.
I nestle myself into the crowd but no one looks at me or talks to me. I stand and stare blankly at the performers, stand and stare drinking cheap beer alone. There are more families with children than I remembered; the neighbor kids gather like gnats on flypaper along the edge of the chain-link fence. How had I not noticed them before? When did the party become such a family event? I wonder if I should stick around but I don’t want to seem rude. Seem rude, as if that could matter at this point. Surely Missy’s family is used to all the Late Night craziness. Surely it isn’t anything to worry about.
Folks migrate inside where the mingling continues into the nightfall. I fill a plate of cheese and crackers and find a seat on the empty couch downstairs, away from the drone of the crowd. Sink deep into the well-worn cushions and let my head fall back, with a deep, deliberate exhalation. I close my eyes briefly before reopening them. As if the darkness behind my lids might offer solace from the pressing of my questions. What have you really done?
My solitude is short-lived. Ron finds me brooding in my quiet haven and invites me to have a smoke with him. His gesture comforts me, brings me back to the social space of a party. But once our cigarettes are lit, he starts in on me. “You went right after Missy’s mom. Pretty ballsy move.”
“Really?” What exactly could it be, I wonder, about approaching someone in the audience that might be considered ballsy? “I had no idea who she was, though I was hoping to find Missy. You know how it is, I just wanted to get out into the audience.”
He might have given me an ok signal that everything’s going to be all right, but instead his eyes narrow into accusatory slants. “You know, her parents left right after your performance.”
No. I didn’t know. I am dumbfounded; feel completely out of sorts with this revelation. “I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?” But the mere fact I am asking shoots a series of red flag firecrackers snapping in my mind.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says with a shrug of shoulders, eyes rolling, a lilt of sarcasm in his voice. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Enjoy the party you dirty Devil Bitch. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” And he throws a backward leer of reproach before joining a small group gathering in the bathroom.
I hang out and socialize a bit more, eavesdropping as best I can on border conversations to find out if there’s anything more I should know. I’m not convinced how much everyone is playing nice to my face and wonder more and more how much I belong here. Before I pack up for the road I find Missy. She’s drinking Crown Royal on the third floor balcony, looking out into the empty yard. “Hey. I just wanted to say goodnight.” She replies with a standard monotone goodnight, her voice buried somewhere deep in her bottle. “Happy Birthday,” I offer. No response. I turn to leave and hear her say thank you as I descend the stairs for the last time. It’s a long walk home with my wagon clattering behind. Happy birthday, I sing to myself along the way, dear bitter bitch.
• • •
Directions: Soak the tea bottle until the label comes off. If it won’t come off completely, cover any sticky spots with foil star stickers (I prefer silver). Straighten the wire hanger then bend it in half and shove it in the hole. This will create two stems rising out of the bottle, which can then be bent into any number of shapes. Tea lids can be tricky. Tape the crud out of them until they sit balanced on the ends of the stems. Slather several coats of green nail polish down the stems and all over the electrical tape. Atop each tea lid, tape one colored candy cup blossom as the final touch. Do not worry about meeting traditional standards of aesthetic beauty. If it’s made from the heart, beauty will abound. Chocolates may serve as a nice complement to the flowers, as will a choice bottle of liquor. Southern Comfort. Wild Turkey. Crown Royal.
• • •
The pianist plays Stormy Weather, a backdrop Michael requests when he sees me come through the door. As an old flame, Michael knows me all too well and orchestrates as much as he can for our first conversation in several years. He still dons the tuxedo he wore to his strings concert earlier in the evening. His wardrobe adds a certain level of sophistication typically missing from most of my artist friends. I wear a paint-spattered t-shirt and holy jeans; nothing special, but exactly the way Michael remembers me. Since my college days, Michael has proven a shoulder to lean on whenever I need to vent. He is my voice of reason, the maturity I feel missing in my life. He drinks full mouthfuls off his dirty martini. I milk my scotch in slower sips, hopeful for an invitation to his hotel when the bar closes.
“I don’t know why Ron or Missy won’t at least return my phone calls,” I can hear the desperate plea resonate in my voice. “It’s been a full month.”
“Why is what they think so important to you?”
Michael hasn’t forgotten my need for approval, though I don’t think he’ll ever understand it. “I don’t know,” I tell him, though I can’t say for certain I really want to know. Maybe it’s because Missy played an important role in my first theatre experiences, not to mention she’s a part of my coming out story. Maybe it’s because Ron’s Late Night is one of the few successful companies doing not only original works but also the kind of work I feel passionate about. Maybe it’s because they paid me to wear crazy costumes and make an ass of myself onstage. More than anything, I think Late Night is the one group who might understand my personal vision as an artist, but I can’t know for sure. Hell, maybe it comes down to the fact that I just want to belong.
Michael consoles me as best he can. “Quit worrying about it. They’ll call you when they’re ready. Until then relax. It’s only Kansas City. And it sounds like you’re making other connections anyway.” He rubs my upper arm and the nape of my neck, still remembers all the exact places I stow my tension. I think to myself how easily I could get used to his cellist’s hands on a more regular basis if he’d let me. I am completely at ease with his buttery voice, his soothing words and agile hands.
“Well HELLO, Devil Bitch!” Ron’s voice reverberates through the bar, loud and lit. My nerves regroup for another attack with the screech in his voice. “Is this your Sugar Daddy for the night? He looks like he’s old enough to be your Daddy.” He leans into Michael and stage whispers over the music, “Just be careful, he’s a dirty little boy. Likes to shove his cock in strangers’ faces.”
Michael chuckles openly. “Is your entrance always so theatrical?”
Ron swells with the momentary attention. He leans his head back, dresses his voice in an overly affected feminine breathiness. “It’s all about the entrance. One must know how to take control of the room.” Control being the last word I would choose for Ron in this moment. He offers his hand to Michael and they squeeze out the faintest of shakes. I’m not sure if this is meant to be a truce but it’s at least an indication of civility, a formality I appreciate more for Michael’s sake than my own. Michael allows us some time to ourselves by excusing himself to the men’s room.
The dirt pours out of Ron’s dump-truck mouth. He goes on and on about making sure I don’t tell anyone he tipped me off to apologize. To please apologize. I should please apologize to Missy. Apologize. For shoving my cock in her mom’s face. Missy’s family made a big deal out of the birthday party because Missy didn’t always get along with her dad growing up. And now with her dad’s health so poor and all; he hadn’t gotten out of bed, let alone the house, in such a long time. Ron emphasizes how livid Missy’s dad was when I shoved my cock in his wife’s face.
While Ron’s telling me this, he keeps looking over his shoulder like someone might be taking note of our conversation. As if he’s going to pay dearly to his peers for what he’s telling me. (Highly confidential.) But I’ve already made up my mind: Ron’s not to be trusted in his current condition. Midnight’s calling and Crazy Mary has taken possession of him. What I find most interesting is how he keeps saying that word, shoved, which I find ridiculous. I know when I’m shoving cock and my birthday performance was certainly no cock-shoving incident. But I listen to what he has to say, take it all in, knowing Michael will be back shortly to snuff out this conversation.
Ron tells me Missy’s dad actually chased me onto the stage, fully prepared to kick my leather-strung ass. But being hindered by a weakness of health and his walker, I proved too quick for him. The audience found my nonchalant attitude toward Missy’s father as I exited most shocking. They saw my insouciance toward him as a pretense for disrespect. By turning around and walking away, like her dad was of no importance whatsoever, I created a huge stir. Ron places significance on my insolent exit from the stage as the real reason why Missy’s parents left the party early. Supposedly, the whole family found my performance completely inappropriate, which in turn pitted local actors, directors, and ultimately any connections with Ron’s Late Night against me. Ron begs me to apologize, to make things right so we might work together again someday. He tells me how much he likes me and wants me to come back to Late Night. It’s the silence held in the air, a moment caught in our eyes just before he throws back his drink and slams his glass on the counter, that convinces me there’s a hint of something more than bar babble swilling between us. I don’t want his version of my performance to blow up as some infamous cock-shoving incident retold at any number of theatre functions. And I don’t want to lose a future opportunity to work with him or the Late Night crew either.
Michael returns before I can respond to Ron’s drunken rambling, not that I’m convinced I need to say or do anything at this juncture. There will be plenty of time to mull it over later. I’m more interested in going back to Michael’s hotel and forgetting the whole Late Night scene. Our glasses emptied, we bid farewell with the typical hugs and kisses that come with being a performer. All that nicey-nicey bullshit.
“We all adore you so think about what I told you.”
• • •
Scotch is my drink of choice. Neat. Not that I’m any kind of connoisseur. Not by any means. I make no bones about drinking the cheap stuff mixed with water. I have a light disposition toward alcohol so I have to be careful with my liquor. My track record with Scotch has never abandoned me in the gutter with my false friends Vodka and Sambuca so I’m loyal to my drink of choice. Ron, on the other hand, can drink whatever strikes his fancy. Beer. Whisky. Wine. Absolut Anything. And somehow manages to make it through the next day. Whatever whenever. Hand him a glass and he’ll be fine come time for business.
We’ve both had a bit much but I’m aware of my deliberation toward how I phrase every word of the conversation. Aware: the way anyone who has been drinking is aware. Ron slurs his speech a bit around the edges. “It’s a Late Night fundraiser and you can do whatever you want. Anything. We just want you to perform with us again.”
Nearly four years have passed since we shared the stage together and I remain wary. I heard through the rumor mill that Ron and Missy are no longer talking. Ron runs Late Night all by himself now. That’s how it goes in theatre. One day you’re best friends and everything is fine and then someone farts and it’s several years trying to repair the damage. Ok, maybe it’s more than a fart. The furtive glances caught in passing an ex-boyfriend at the club. Too many late night phone calls after the club has closed. A friendly handshake with the artistic director of a rival theatre company. Everything shifts in the rub. One face replaces another. Names and numbers all change. As much as I’d like to make this about Missy, she is no longer in the picture. Though Ron has come to represent any number of Late Night names and faces, Jon “Piggy” and David Wayne and Phil “Blue Owl” and even Missy too, the only player I can be sure of is the role I have taken for myself. If I’m going to go through with this, I need to make it all about me. “What are the legalities in the space?” I ask. “Do you know what we can get away with? A quarter inch of material covering your crack?” This has become my typical lead-in to see if anyone really cares what the city or county or any book of law might have to say about what we’ll put in front of a crowd. I’m willing to put my own neck on the line as long as everyone else knows what might be at stake.
I’m convinced Ron’s drunk when he says without any inflection whatsoever, “Oh, you can do anything. Really.” He swats his free hand at the air as if he has just noticed the stench of urine soaked cigarette butts and is choking back his gag reflex. His drink, a dark one, spills over the lip of his tumbler. I wait for the punch line as he realigns himself but he continues in this same vein. “I like it when you’re dirty. We don’t care about nudity or anything. Be as nasty as you want. Private party. Invitation only. It’s a birthday party for my sister. Anything goes. Swear.”
A birthday performance and anything goes. I wait for a longer pause to know there’s not a hammer waiting at the end of all his clauses. Then I add my own. “So I can get out the Crisco, attach a whisk to my dick and whip up some brownies on stage?”
“You are such a nasty bitch.” A silly grin creeps across his face. He’s not sure how serious to take me. Like me, he waits in the pause. When I say nothing he adds, “I like brownies.” He pauses again. I return my best deadpan until he continues. “But really. I’m serious. Whatever you want to do. It’s fine. The dirtier, the naughtier, the better.”
Hmmm. “I’ll be there. What are the dates?”
He rattles off the details, slobbers his best kiss and returns to his entourage. I have three months to come up with a five-minute show. If he’s willing to let me slap my junk in a batter of brownies, the possibilities are endlessly unnerving.
• • •
Directions: I don’t concern myself with overly specific directions for the performance. This one’s not about making a spectacle for the sake of Ron or Missy or anyone else connected with Late Night. This is my chance to perform something on my own terms. No second-guessing or apologies for whatever choices I make in the end. No elaborate costumes or characters to put on. I’ll go as myself and speak in my own voice; use my own stories and experiences as the foundation for my show. No lip-synch or written script to work from. No. This one should be all me. And maybe a simple prop as long as it’s not all about the prop. Maybe, say, a flagpole or hula hoop. No need for extravagance. Bare bones, baby. And to hell with them if they don’t like me now.
• • •
The bus drops me off a block away from the theatre. I haven’t talked to Ron since our initial conversation about the show. A line extends out the door and down the sidewalk. I wait with the other patrons, hands gripped tight around my hula hoop and flagpole.
The man at the box office asks how many. I’m not sure if he’ll recognize me from the local theatre scene but I tell him anyway. “Ron invited me to perform tonight.” He motions with his arm and Ron’s head pokes around the corner with a gasp of surprise. “So good to see you, dollface! I’m so happy you made it.” I can’t tell by the tone of his voice how genuine he’s being, not that I could ever really tell with Ron, but his personal escort to the dressing room is a good indication he’ll at least let me take the stage. He asks me what I’ll be doing in the show.
“I prepared two numbers. I can do the Durango Flag Routine or Hula Hooping for Jesus. Does it make a difference?”
“Oh no, honey, just pick one.”
“I’ve never done the Hula Hooping for Jesus so let’s go with that.”
“Sure, that’s great, let me pencil you in.”
Plenty of familiar drag faces line the dressing room mirrors. Burlesque dancers and male strippers clump in circles of conversation. I have nothing to worry about. The Late Night troupe is cordial, pleasant, preoccupied with makeup. In fact, there is a powdery haze in the room that smells a bit like wet clay. Some strange mix of cigarettes and hairspray and deodorants and any number of powdered cosmetics. Ron asks me to wait in the house during the show and he’ll make a bit of inviting me from the audience. I follow his lead and wait for the cue from the back of the house.
While I wait I watch burlesque dancers in full body suits gyrating with little sense of rhythm to the latest in World Beat. Strippers take their shirts off and prance about in their leggings but not so much as one g-string, let alone a tight pair of Jockeys, in the bunch. Drag queens lip-synch, sort of, through their debauchery. My heart races in anticipation for my turn.
Ron calls out from the stage, “Who here can hula hoop for Jesus?” I race down the aisle to the stage. Ron asks, “Can we have some hula hooping music?” but I’ve already started in with my monologue.
I remember my first performance. Oakwood Baptist Church held a talent show for Jesus. I was only six but I already knew I could sing. I unbutton my short-sleeved plaid shirt and toss it to the floor. Everyone at church knew I could sing. I’d get up in the pulpit and lead the congregation in hymns on Sunday nights. So I thought to myself, what could I do for Jesus that I’ve never done? I pull my tight white t-shirt up over my head and throw it down beside the button-up. My sister got a new hula hoop for her birthday and I was pretty good at it. I decided I would hula hoop for Jesus. My standard black belt whips off with snapping sounds at every belt loop. So I took her hula hoop to church feeling good about what I was going to do for Jesus.
My aunt looked at me and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” Shoes and socks slide off.
I told her, “I’m going to hula hoop for Jesus”
Her face held a look of concern. “But you’re such a good singer, why don’t you sing for Jesus?”
She did have a point about music. Hula hooping is much better with music. So I asked my girlfriend Holly, I said, “Holly, will you sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ while I hula hoop?” I shimmy out of my blue jeans and kick them toward the mounting pile of clothes.
She said, “Sure,” face aglow with the radiance of a five-year-old’s romance. So Holly sang Jesus Loves Me and I hula hooped for Jesus.
The hula hoop didn’t fall once during the show. I was real proud about what I could do for Jesus. After the show, we had cookies and Kool-Aid. We were Southern Baptists so anytime there was an excuse to bring food, we did. Folks from the congregation kept coming up to Holly and saying things like, “Oh, Holly, what a lovely voice you have,” or “You did such a great job of singing, little lady. I’m sure you’ve got a future in it.” But no one said a word to me. I take off my underwear, revealing the leather g-string, my last article of clothing. Didn’t Jesus like my hula hooping? And I thought to myself, I should have sung the song myself. The leather g-string falls to the floor.
I sing at the top of my lungs. Jesus loves me this I know. The hula hoop is up and spinning with a quick nudge from my hand and wiggle in my hips, my cock flopping haphazardly with the gyration. I scream more than sing, trying to hear myself over the bellows of the crowd. For the Bible tells me so. The hoop feels heavy, languorous, like I’m moving in slow motion or under water. It bounces off my cock, which starts flapping more in circles with my gyration than the back and forth sway-slap I rehearsed. My singing slows with the adjustment to the listless hoop, which I try bumping up off my shaft but it’s a losing battle and finally drops with a thud to the stage. Bending over naked is a show in itself. Ron’s jaw drops further; he gives a double take from behind for the sake of the audience. They are weak but he is strong. I give a heftier spin this time and am back at my gyrations. Yes Jesus love me. My voice cracks, but I find my rhythm with my whole body in motion, head held high in the lights, the crowd laughing and cheering all the while. Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. I take a final bow and gather the pile by my side, hurry backstage with my arms full.
“Let’s hear it for Hula Hooping for Jesus!”
The cheers of the crowd follow me down the corridor to the dressing room. I skitter through the crowd of performers, adrenaline pumping through my entire body with shivers. One of the drag queens turns with a smirk plastered across her face. “You ain’t wearing no clothes.”
“No,” I reply, fumbling nervously back into my underwear.
“You ain’t right, girl.” The room ripples with sighs of agreement. “You just ain’t right.”