Spotlight

Spotlight

Spotlight

A Pride Month Short Story by Reece Taylor

          He first came to my apartment early summer, at 12:30 am. He’d responded to a personal I’d posted online: Seeking “straight” men who like men dressed in women’s clothes.

          I cracked the door open. He stood beneath the flickering corridor lights, his face shadowed from the rim of a baseball hat. He was married. Top. Discreet (and so was I). He’d made all that clear before emailing me a picture of himself in front of a smudgy bathroom mirror, holding his cell phone in a way that covered much of his face. He’d said he wasn’t one for kissing, too.

          He was in jogger pants and a cotton tee that hugged his meaty shoulders. I had to look up to him when he passed me to come inside. We whispered an awkward hi in the darkness, then I guided him to my room from the light of my cell phone. 

          The room smelt waxy from a candle I’d lit before he came. The complimenting glow would feminize my face. He fished out keys from his pocket and set them on the computer desk. I posed myself on the bed like Cleopatra.  

          He sat beside me. “You look good,” he said. “Like a real woman.”

          I forced a chuckle like I was amused, but that was my way of being mysterious. Men loved mysterious women who wore short skirts. I pushed my hair over my shoulder. Dangled one leg from the bed, daring him to touch it. He waited a moment, then reached over and dragged his palm up the back of my knee. He touched me as I imagined he touched a woman, or his wife—hard, assertive, and eager for sex.  Even when he brushed his fingers through my wig, the synthetic didn’t seem to bother him.  Whatever he was imagining me to be, man or woman, I didn’t care. This was all just pretend, anyway.

          Everything was over in about an hour. He said he had to get some sleep before the big game with his baseball league.“Maybe we can make this a regular thing,” he said as he scooped up his boxers. I agreed, but I wasn’t expecting much. I let him out the front as we thanked each other.  

          He turned to me. “I’m Barry,” he said.

          I tucked into the darkness of my apartment; covered my bare lips with my hand. 

          “Gianna.”

          Gianna Dupree was my stage name.

 

          I arrived at SPOTLIGHT a half hour before the drag show began, strutting past the line of people waiting to get in.  Saturday nights were always packed. By 11, most would crowded around the tiny stage, tossing their dollar bills at the queens who high-kicked and hair-flipped themselves into a frenzy. Aside from the shows, SPOTLIGHT was known for its mixed crowd. For a gay club in a strip mall, right across from a Del Taco, I’d say it did well for itself.

          I was last to perform. A sensual track set the mood as the club lights dimmed and the spotlight came on me. Ostrich plumes, Swarovski and lace.  High, elegant hair. Subtlety was my style. I sashayed along the stage in my pumps, lip-syncing my oos and ahhs through the gays and drunken bachelorettes while claiming fistfuls of cash. The thrill was to keep them guessing,Is that a real woman? There’s no way he has a dick.

          After the show, some guy in a suit cornered me near the restrooms, stuffed a twenty-dollar bill in my bra strap and offered to buy me a drink. “Your legs look delicious,” he told me. The disco lights reflected off his smutty face. “That’s what I love about a woman.”

          I shrugged and said, “Vodka tonic.”

          He didn’t care to know anything about me—just hounded me until I became disgusted and excused myself backstage.  But that’s how it was for some of these men, and I was OK with the fantasy.  I knew they’d come to SPOTLIGHT every Saturday night to see what I’d bring to the stage—what I’d wear and how I’d move my hips. I figured, if Gianna Dupree had that control over them, she was doing something right.

 

          When Barry emailed me a few days later, I was working my day job sizing racks at Haute Fashions, a big-box shop that sold cheap women’s clothes and jewelry. He asked, Had fun?  Again tonight?  I didn’t have any plans, so I said yes.  He responded, K. Be there midnight after gym, then reminded me to be smooth and to wear something “slutty.”  He also said to hold off on the perfume because he couldn’t go home smelling of another woman. So I left the Mademoiselle in the cabinet.

          I began my transformation in the shower by shaving over my legs, chest, and face stubble. I powdered generously with Baby Powder, then eased into black lingerie and a burgundy tube dress, dangly earrings, a long, brunette wig, and enough foundation to mask the boy-face underneath. I studied myself one last time, feeling dangerous, then sipped on a cocktail while I waited for him in the dark.  

          Barry had on Hawaiian-print swim trunks and a compression shirt when he arrived (which he later told me was perfect for absorbing sweat during workouts). He showered, then came into my room with a towel draped low around his hips. He stood with his arms down, his solid body filling the space. He looked heavy, like some type of machinery, and I thought, it’d be impossible to knock him down.

          We had sex twice before collapsing onto the bed. When I turned my head to him, I noticed patchy keloids on his chest, and a tattoo that covered much of his left shoulder.  From the candlelight, I could only make out a silhouette of an eagle.

          “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to it.

          He slapped his hand over his shoulder. “Semper Fidelis. Always faithful.

          His tone was sharp like I’d asked something stupid. I leaned in for a closer look—admired how the black design blended with the dark wood color of his skin. He was looking at me, and as I drew back, he grinned.

          “How long you’ve been doing this crossdressing stuff?” he asked.

          “Maybe a year.”

          In fact, it had been ten years. A friend from high school dolled me up the first time. We were away on a weekend retreat for our LGBT club. One evening, before lights out, he took tweezers to my brows, then slathered my face in makeup. He gave me his snake-print skirt to wear, along with a crop top with Fabulous bedazzled on it, sky-high stripper pumps, and a black wig with awful red streaks down one side. I catwalked through the bunks, allowing my campmates and advisors to take me all in. They applauded and took pictures and said how beautiful I looked. I posed in front of the mirror, noticing the contours of my body and how it moved in heels. The goddess had come to life at fifteen. And I welcomed her, thinking, this is what it’s like to be powerful.

          “You want to be a woman?” Barry asked.

          I shook my head. “I like living both lives. Best part is I can take everything off and just be a boy.”

          He crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s a shame. You’d look nice with tits. You should consider it.”

          If that was a compliment, I sure didn’t know how to reply.  I knew he was suggesting how I could better fit his desires like I was some moldable thing—like I hadn’t already spent two hours dolling up for him. I laughed it off as I watched him thread his fingers through my fishnet stockings.

 

          SPOTLIGHT began its Drag Days of Summer amateur contest where eight queens would compete for a spot in the Saturday night shows.  Who would be the next sensation?  The club had its new drink specials (Wear your Swimsuit and get a Free Shot!), afternoon beer busts on the patio, as well as Striptease Wednesdays from a cast of go-go boys.

          I was hosting the first week of the contest, so my look had to make an impression. I’d sewn together a canary-colored leotard and embellished it with appliques and beaded fringe. I had heels and earrings to match and my wig was styled in a beehive like Brigitte Bardot. By the time the competition began, the line to get into SPOTLIGHT was wrapped around the building.  

          As I performed the opening number, my coworker from Haute Fashions, Lizette, bounced her way towards the stage and threw a handful of bills at me. As soon as the competition ended, we sat at the back bar and shared a pitcher of piña colada.

          “His wife has to suspect,” she said, referring to Barry. She had her palm pressed to the side of her face. “It’s been a while, right?”

          “Two months, darling,” I reminded her. “Don’t think it’ll last much longer though. Guys like him never last.”

          Oh, Lizette—the only person I talked to about Barry. She loved hearing the details of my gay sex, or anything involving me dressing up as a woman. That’s how we’d pass those long hours sweeping the floors and organizing go-backs at the shop. The idea seemed to strangely fascinate her.

          She’d known of Barry’s bisexuality, his tattoo and the keloids on his chest. She even knew that we started texting throughout the day, and how he began visiting often and staying past 3:00 am. We’d have sex, finish a bottle of cheap wine, have sex, then lay together drunk. “In that room there’s always sex,” I’d told her. Because without it, there’d be no use for Gianna.

          I asked Barry once how he managed to keep all this from his wife. “She knows I don’t sleep well and that I stay up late. We don’t even sleep in the same bed.” 

          “You don’t feel bad about cheating?” I’d asked him.  

          “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”  

          I felt uncomfortable hearing this, like I was some she-devil luring him away. I wanted to tell him, Go home and love your wife!, but I shut myself up because I was just as much to blame.  

          When I came home from SPOTLIGHT, Barry was waiting in the parking structure, holding a bottle of Hpnotiq. He offered to haul my things up to my apartment, then we settled in the dark living room and sipped the cognac until it was gone.  

          “You look so fuckin’ sexy tonight,” he said as he rubbed my padded hips. “Any woman would kill for your body.”

          He had that drunken squint in his eyes I’d learned was his horny face, but I was far from being in the mood. I was exhausted from the performances and the crowds at SPOTLIGHT. I wanted to undress from Gianna (and this god-awful corset that dug into my ribs) and stuff her in the hamper so I could be myself.  But Barry wouldn’t understand that, would he? To see me, stripped of everything that turned him on?

          I took his hand from my hip and said, “Yeah.”

          “What?”

          “You know I’m not a woman, right?”  Those liquored-up words came out smooth, and I imagined the fantasy that had been built between us collapsing at his feet.

          He chuckled beneath his breath.  “Gianna, I know.”

          “My name is Evan.”

 

          I learned of Barry’s PTSD as we laid half asleep in my room. A summer storm had made its way into town sometime after 1:00 am. A gush of wind came through the window and crashed the blinds onto the windowsill with a thud. Barry jolted to his feet and gazed around him in the dark. He stood bull-like, his eagle tattoo appearing like a shield over his flexed shoulder.  

          “What’s wrong?” I asked. He didn’t respond.

          I poured him a drink to help him relax. He gulped it, then sat on the floor naked with his back against the closet door.  His knees were pulled to his chest and he seemed to collapse there.

          “Loud noises set me off,” he said. “Ever since the military.”

          I figured he told me because he was embarrassed and didn’t know how to explain himself.  He stared into his empty glass, shaking his head and whispering, damn, damn, damn. I wanted to sit beside him and take his hand, but I didn’t.  

          “When were you in the military?” I asked as gently as I could.

          “Two-thousand two. Afghanistan. Killed a few people.”

          The worst, he said, was coming home and pretending everything was OK. No one—not even his wife could understand what went through his head. He’d had trouble sleeping and discovered large crowds made him anxious. But it was his rage that got the best of him. Said he “black-bagged” his sister’s ex-boyfriend after finding out he’d shoved her into a wall.  Beat him up bad.  His outlets became baseball, drinking, and sex. No doubt Gianna was one, too.  

          He stood and walked over to me on the bed. His cock was stiff and he had that squint again as he stared down at me. And then he grabbed my head in his hands, knocking my wig back until it nearly came off. I let out an awkward whimper; froze and felt my face redden as I knew he’d seen the short, brown curls of my “boy hair.” I expected him to stop—to no longer want me—but instead he slid it further back and said, “Take that shit off, Evan.”

          He leaned into me and licked my mouth.  Pushed me flat onto the bed.  He fumbled me in his grip, sucking and biting around my neck like he’d discovered some exotic fruit.  He breathed moist words into my ear, and I stared into the ceiling, paralyzed because I didn’t know what to do.  I imagined him thinking once he came inside me, I did it! I conquered Gianna Dupree and all her tricks—exposed her as a fraud.  

 

          I told Lizette what happened as we tagged stock in the dusty backroom of Haute Fashions. “He’s beginning to like you,” she said, slightly amused.

          I flicked my wrist. “He doesn’t even know me.”

          “Do you like him?”

          “He said he was ‘damaged goods.’”

          She picked up a box. Slit it open with a box-cutter. “Does he want you as a girl or a boy?”

          “I don’t know.”

          For a moment I was back at the LGBT camp where it all began. I realized how powerful Gianna had become since then. Last night revealed that to me as I laid under Barry, trying to make sense of who I was. 

          Lizette, more than anyone, knew of my failed dating life, and how I never really had a boyfriend. I figured the problem was this: gays loved Gianna Dupree—who she was on and off the stage—but could never date her. Because a drag queen is too flamboyant and feminine to have as a boyfriend. 

          Somewhere, through the years, Evan took the backseat. He wasn’t as glamorous or eye-catching as Gianna (because she would never wear outdated jeans and tennis-shoes like Evan), but certainly he had something Gianna didn’t?  

          That’s what I hoped.

 

          Barry hadn’t asked me to dress for him or cared if I met him without makeup. He’d remind me, “Just be comfortable,” but I’d swipe mascara on anyway and keep a candle lit in my room.  When we had sex, his hands glided across my body and wigless head. He’d hold me afterwards as we dozed off and on, and I’d tuck my head in his armpit, feeling like I was entirely his.  

          “Sex is gone with my wife,” he once said in the middle of all this.

          “Oh?”

          “But not you.  We have a connection.” He cleared his throat, said nothing, then cleared his throat again. “I’ve been planning a divorce.”

          My gaze fell on something black at the edge of the bed (probably his boxers). I couldn’t look to him and see whatever expression he had sprawled across his married face. I took my arm from around his chest and shrank, wanting so badly for him to let me go. When he finally slid out from the bed, I again watched him put on his board shorts, his tee and running shoes. He gathered his things, inflated his chest, said, “OK, back to reality,” then kissed me before I let him out the front door.

          I returned to my room. Flicked on the light and saw all the things Barry never could in the dark—the framed Bouguereau poster, the half-finished jigsaw puzzle, the diploma in anthropology —and realized he would never see any of those things. None of that mattered when you’re a Gianna to a married man.  

          The wind from the ceiling fan rustled a stack of condom wrappers on my nightstand. I crumpled them in a tight, little mess and stuffed them deep into the trash bin.

 

          Tonight’s theme at SPOTLIGHT—purple. Everything purple. I closed out the show, performing I Feel Love by Donna Summer while garbed in a beaded dress. A frequenter (nicknamed “Blue-hat guy”) tipped me fifty dollars and held onto my wrist a little too long.  

          Backstage, I packed my costumes, scrubbed my face raw, and changed into my “boy clothes.” The last bit of liner smudged beneath my eyes made me look dead. I gelled and slicked my hair to one side, remembering Barry saying how smart and cute that style looked on me. One last look in the mirror and I was disturbed by the hybrid creature that sat there. That he/she/she-devil, with its swollen eyes, red-stained lips, and slicked hair was, in some way, morphing into something far beyond myself. I pictured Gianna in that mirror (dressed in lacey lingerie), pressing Evan down as she clawed herself to the spotlight.  

          Then, a text from Barry: How was the show? Looked sexy???

          I threw the last parts of Gianna into my suitcase, zipped it up, and rushed out the back door of the dressing room.

 

          She laid all around my apartment—in boxes, on hangers, in drawers, and even beneath the couch.  I imagined filling a large trash bag with all her things and tossing it out the window. Then, I saw myself running outside like a dummy, shouting, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! as I chased every damn bracelet that rolled down the street.

 

          Summer was ending, which meant SPOTLIGHT was planning its annual Labor Day luau. I decided not to host the event. Gianna Dupree would have to wait another day. At least until I felt like looking at her face again.

          I hadn’t seen Barry in a week. He must have been busy tending to his marital duties. He’d do that sometimes. Disappear. But with school starting soon and now full shifts at Haute Fashions, I was busy myself. He texted me early afternoon, saying, Hey babe. I miss you. Meet me at the burger place by my house in an hour?

          We sat outside on the restaurant patio. This was the first time I saw him in the afternoon light. The light emphasized his rough edges—pitted skin, calloused knuckles, and one yellowed front tooth.  But what did he think of Evan now? What did he notice? The thought made me want to find a patch of darkness to hide in.

          “You need to start coming to my house,” he said. “I can’t do nights right now. Not for a while.”

          “I can’t.  It’ll be too awkward. I don’t belong there.”

          He leaned onto his elbows, his ring finger displaying a prominent tan line. “What’s awkward about it? We’ll be able to see more of each other if you do.”

          I felt my forehead bead with sweat.  

          “Come over right now,” he continued.  “We’ll be alone.  We don’t have to stay inside if you don’t want to.”

          Something was wrong with this entire situation—almost laughably wrong. I thought, What type of person do you take me for? I don’t want to upset you, Barry, but there are limits to this thing we have. And I won’t cross them. Then, I realized, as I slurped down the rest of my Coke, I’d already agreed, wondering if this was Evan or Gianna who made that decision.

 

          He led me through the front door like some crazed bachelor. I stood with a tensed grin, expecting a woman to flounce from the kitchen, saying, “Barry, my darling! I’m so happy you’re home!” The living room had mushroom-colored walls and carpet that made me woozy. An iron wall decoration hung crooked above the fireplace. In the center of the room was a plush, grey couch that faced a TV.

          I asked for the bathroom, then crept down the hallway while Barry waited for me on the couch.  Don’t look around, I thought. Keep your eyes on the carpet. But I couldn’t help myself.  I saw:

          An unmade bed in the master bedroom.

          A framed photo of a smiling woman in a cap-and-gown.

          A child’s room, full of pink.

          Back in the living room, Barry showed me his small collection of baseball bats. “This here’s my favorite. The Louisville Slugger…” he said as he spun it in his grip like a toy. He went on, but I wasn’t listening. I thought of that smiling woman in the photo. That pink room with frills.

          He scooted closer to me on the couch. Turned on the TV. Put his thick arm behind my neck. Let out a bearish groan. I eyed the front door, listening for the lock. She’d be stepping through any moment, stunned cold at the sight of her husband massaging another man’s shoulder.

          I was prey in his cobra grip. I couldn’t breathe. He now had his hand down the back of my shirt, rubbing and rubbing. He spread his legs, then took the back of my head and edged me down towards his swollen bulge. I thought I heard footsteps coming up the walkway—then the click of the lock. I shot up.

          “No,” I said.

          “What’s wrong?”

          “You have kids?”

          “What?”

          “You have kids?”

          He paused. “I do. A daughter and stepson.  Is that a problem?”

          No, it’s not a problem, Barry. Not at all. We’re only about to fuck on the couch while your wife and children are gone. The couch where they make forts with the cushions, or nap after a long day at school. Where your wife watches the morning news, chomping down Cheerio’s as she flips through work files. Does this not matter to you?

          In fact, Barry, you have me mistaken. Gianna Dupree isn’t sitting next to you, Evan is. She’d be the one to go along with this. She’d cross those limits with you—that she-devil. But isn’t that what you’ve always like about her? Well, I’m afraid, you’ve lived your last fantasy in this thing we have.  

          I stared at his smug expression, asking myself, What the hell am I doing here? How did I allow this to happen? I’m no caricature. My heart was splitting, and I felt Gianna boiling up, urging me to rethink things. I knew once I got up from that couch and left, I wouldn’t see Barry again.

          Slowly, hesitantly, I took his hand from my shoulder.  “I’m not doing this anymore,” I said, and walked out, imagining a spotlight dimming behind me as an audience stood and cheered.

 

          The next time he texted, he wrote, I knew that was a bad idea.  I’m sorry, babe.  

          I stared at the message. My fingers hovered over my phone, typing, deleting, then retyping a response.  

          Let me make it up to you, he continued. I’ll find a way to come over tonight. Dress up real sexy.  Blonde wig. Lingerie.

          A part of me hoped his wife would find evidence—a piece of me on that couch. That way Barry and I could finally be exposed like the liars that we were.

          I didn’t respond.

 

          At SPOTLIGHT, a crowd gathered around the stage, anticipating what would be the biggest drag show of the summer. The club went black. Music began. From behind the heavy curtains a queen slinked out, the stage lights reflecting her embellished swimsuit.  Her feminine mystique awed the crowd, and now she had them hooked. She strutted up and down the catwalk, collecting tips, lip-syncing to the men who’d wait until after the show to buy her a drink.

          Lizette and I watched from the back bar.

          “You should be up there,” she said.

          People rushed by to get to the stage. No one could recognize the plain, timid guy sitting there, dressed in outdated jeans and tennis shoes, was Gianna Dupree. No one said, You’re so beautiful! Like a real woman! Can I take a picture with you? because I was just part of the crowd, as Evan, and that was perfectly OK with me.  

          I took a long swig of my drink, then leaned back onto the chair. 

          “I’ll be up there next week,” I told her. “Don’t you worry.”


Bywater, New Orleans

Bywater, New Orleans

Chicago Suite

Chicago Suite