HOW TO SPEND CHRISTMAS WITH FRIENDS ON A BUDGET
It was two minutes until show time and Kelsi couldn’t find her wig. The wig was integral to the show, completing the illusion of a tragic pop-star who was also always drunk, kinda like Courtney Love, but even better because Kelsi was Salvadorean and had a natural raw sadness about her. I don’t mean that sadness is innate in Salvadoreans (and not innate in Courtney Love), but that they’re a minority within a minority—from a smaller Latin country than the general Latin population in the United States—so they move very carefully, like a cat stepping on pavement for the first time—pawing its way over solid ground—and that trepidation can be honed into something powerful on stage.
Imagine my surprise to see her in a state of panic, throwing duffel bags left and right, flinging dresser drawers open, screaming that her wig was stolen.
“Check that bag over there. Check it,” she said, pointing her long blue fingernail towards a red gym bag across the room
Bobby Lee and I looked at each other, like which of us would check that gym bag? We both knew that wasn’t her bag.
“I guess I’ll do it,” I said, feeling like her in-debt bodyguard. I unzipped the bag, rummaged through some bottles of glue and glitzy materials, but didn’t find her wig.
A deep voice outside the dressing room boomed “Everyone! Give it up for Kelsi!” and in walked a black queen dripping in sweat named Estrella. She was fat, old, and not passable in the least. She had real tits that sagged, a creaky guttural voice, and a glum looking toad-like face. When you looked at her you saw someone who had been through it, and had had enough, so you respected her immediately.
“Kelsi girl, you’re on—who opened my fucking bag?” She said, looking at me hovering over her table, with an innocent smile across my face.
“Shit,” Kelsi said, with a hint of defeat in her voice. She looked in her mirror one last time, ran her hands through her matted boy-hair in a last minute effort to flair it out, and ran out the door and onto the stage.
“I guess the show goes on. Imma get another drink,” Bobby Lee said, bounding out of the door too. I followed him, feeling a little over all the drama.
On stage, Kelsi was lit brightly, beaming like a fluorescent lamp. She performed a lip sync to Natalie Cole, I’ve Got Love On My Mind, fully committed to her act despite there only being fifteen or twenty people in the bar. She was young and skinny, with long legs that looked milky white under the show lights. She seemed to have forgotten about her boy-hair, letting Natalie Cole’s angelic voice take the lead in the performance. I told Bobby Lee, with pride in my eyes, that Kelsi had asked me to pick a song out of her collection, and I had picked that track. I expected Bobby Lee to compliment my song choice, but instead, he stretched his face in an exaggerated balk, and said that nothing that Kelsi was doing onstage made any damn sense. I always appreciated his honesty.
It was Christmas Eve, and I had agreed to escort Kelsi to her gig as payback for her rescuing me from my stay at an uptown hostel. Kelsi told me she had contacted Bobby Lee for my contact information because she had heard about me from Jason. Jason and Bobby Lee were enormous gossips, and Kelsi was a doer, so hearing about my little homeless situation spurned Kelsi into action. She told me that there were loads of affordable rooms to rent in Queens and she had a ton of connections, but she warned me that gays typically hated living in Queens because it took too long to get there for hookups. I didn’t much care and I was desperate for a place, so I agreed to interview, moved into the room, and when the time came when Kelsi needed some help, I ran and helped. I watched her put on her makeup and her drag in front of a mirror as tall as her ceiling, the only luxury furniture she owned. Kelsi told me she moved to Queens because the dominicanos and puertorriqueños in Spanish Harlem threatened her. The catcalls turned violent, she said, as they always do with men. Having had her fill of this, she left. Typical story for gays, the classic skedaddle.
When you take the subway from Manhattan to Queens the train flies out of the ground, upward, and rides just like that, suspended over the streets and alleys. The views of the city take your breath away, but especially during the winter when the buildings are covered in snow and a white otherworldly haze envelopes every street light. Because it was Christmas Eve, the city was empty, like a dream of a midnight playground.
“This is why I live in Queens,” Kelsi said to me on the way to her gig, while in full drag, pointing outside the subway train to the view of the city.
Because we were above ground, I texted Bobby Lee. He lived on 34th Street in Manhattan, just a stop on our way to the bar, and I figured he would join if he happened to be in the city. Our train dove underground, from Queens to Manhattan, passed some stops, and when we reached 34th Street the train doors opened and Bobby Lee walked in like his carriage had arrived.
“How good was my timing, eh?” He said, squealing loudly into our empty subway car.
“I can’t believe it,” I said. It wasn’t just good timing on Bobby Lee’s part, but like magic. Friends meeting each other, by chance, in the same subway car, that moment felt like a good omen. Bobby Lee had lived in New York longer than I had, so it was possible that he was just that good at timing the schedule of an evening train from Queens to his stop in Manhattan.
“I wasn’t even sure you were in town.” I said. Not outwardly asking what he was doing all alone in New York on Christmas, but also not-so-subtly prodding.
“Yeah I’m here. We didn’t celebrate Christmas.” Bobby Lee said.
“You and your family? Jewish?” Kelsi asked.
“No, Jehovah’s Witness.”
“Jehovah’s Witness!” I yelled. I only knew that Bobby Lee was adopted, that he had lived upstate, but I had no idea he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and that he didn’t celebrate Christmas.
“Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, please, my mom and dad left before adopting me. Ya can’t really leave a religion, I guess.”
“Oh, that’s nice, I was raised Seventh Day Adventist,” Kelsi replied
I turned to Kelsi, and I probably sounded more indignant than I meant to, but I let out an honest “I don’t even know what that is!” at her.
“Forgive him. This one’s pre-drinking,” Kelsi said to Bobby Lee, nodding her head towards me.
“We’re going to a drag bar!” I told Bobby Lee.
Bobby Lee gnarled his lips.
“What’s wrong with a drag bar?” Kelsi said, in good spirits.
“Well…” Bobby Lee, smirked, rolled his eyes a little, enough to imply he was going to let us have it.
“Drag queens? They’re dramatic, everything is the end of the world, they’re loud-”
“You are literally describing yourself,” I said.
“Well, maybe so, but I’m going to need a lot of drinks. No offense.”
“None taken,” Kelsi said.
I assumed Bobby Lee knew Kelsi as she was a mutual friend of Jason’s (who knew every creature of the night), but he must have only barely known Alex Guzman. Kelsi looked very fishy. Even Alex, the boy underneath all the makeup, looked feminine. It was this feminine prettiness that made me a little envious. Not that I wanted to be feminine or to do drag, but that I knew it could never really work with me. I couldn’t ever be a pretty drag queen, I had too much boy. Something about that was upsetting, a bit like meeting a person taller than you if you’ve ever hated being too short, or if you met a beanpole when you’ve always had issues with your weight, but what I always found fascinating is that tall people and skinny people constantly said they hated being so tall or so skinny. Grass was always greener. Kelsi’s drag was like embracing the green in her grass, you know, if she’s that feminine then why not go the extra mile? Drag for her was like a tall person wearing heels or a skinny person wearing a corset.
Kelsi performed her lip sync sans wig at the Sun Burnt cow—a primarily straight bar in the East Village that wanted to get some gay dollars over the holidays—while Bobby Lee and I drank ourselves silly at the bar. Bobby Lee looked around the place.
“Nothing,” I said, “Not a soul in here. Everyone is ugly, or old, or some sort of weirdo. This place is dead.”
“Yeah, it is Christmas though, the city always dies in Christmas,” Bobby Lee said with uncharacteristic wisdom.
I was enjoying watching Kelsi get through her performance, watching her treating it like she was in Carnegie Hall. She was fine, even without her wig. She earned a smattering of applause. Estrella appeared on stage, said “Give It UP for Kelsi Glamour!” She smiled and disappeared behind a velvet curtain. The drag night at this particular bar was new, so it offered queens drink tickets as compensations if they brought along friends. I guess they were banking on the hope that gays would rather get drunk than go home for the holidays. They were right to an extent. I couldn’t go home as there wasn’t a home or a family to go to. As guests of Kelsi, we were stuck hearing more about lost wigs of hers if we wanted more drinks.
Backstage, Kelsi seemed over it, with both arms settled over her changing table, head down, mouth twisted. We approached her like two lost little pups looking for mom’s milk.
“I think I know who took my wig,” she said, and I felt Bobby Lee cringe along with me.
“W-ho dear? Who took your wig?” Bobby Lee said.
“Kathy, it had to have been Kathy Bates.”
Kathy Bates wasn’t actually the actress Kathy Bates, but a corpulent queen who was also in the bar performing right after Kelsi. She was feral. Her makeup was bright red and white, applied liked war paint. I could hear her screeching from backstage.
“She called me a little boy as she went up on stage. I heard she sabotages younger queens. I’m sure she took my wig.”
“Why is your wig that important? Can’t you just get a new one?” Bobby Lee said.
“The wig was two hundred dollars.”
“Two hundred dollars!” I said. I had a little over one fifty in my bank account. I couldn’t begin to fathom spending so much on one wig, and for what? Tips and mild applause on Christmas Eve in a cold lonely bar?
“Two hundred dollars yeah, and it’s been a slow December.”
Bobby Lee, with all the grace of a charging elephant, backed out of the room and back to the bar. Kelsi noticed and shrugged. She turned back toward her table then gave me four drink tickets. She no longer looked like Kelsi to me, but like Alex Guzman if he was an old Catholic statue of a saint, face bent down towards the ground, eyes defeated, paint chipped. Just one more lonely queer boy. I took the drink tickets from Alex.
“You… want a drink? Why don’t you come by the bar when you get cleaned up?” I said.
After a few more rounds my phone started buzzing. I missed the call but listened to the voicemail message:
“Hi Jo, I’m sorry but, the position has been filled, we won’t need you to come in this Monday. I’m sorry. I’ll be in touch with the agency if more work comes along. It was a pleasure to work with you.”
This felt like being in front of the firing squad. I sat next to Bobby Lee at the bar. I had been through two temp positions that year, and this winter gig was my third. I was at the mercy of my income, hoping against hope that office workers would take long Christmas vacations, long enough for the company to find a permanent spot for me. I wanted Bobby Lee to ask me if anything was wrong but he was busy on his phone. I fumbled with the four drink tickets in my pocket. When the bartender swung by I placed all four on the bar and told him I needed some drinks for my friends. The drinks came in a row, and I downed the first one, then worked on the second. My anxiety was turning into anger, and the third drink didn’t help. I’d been looking forward to living in New York for as long as possible, but I was feeling that hope slowly dying.
Bobby Lee couldn’t wait for the drink tickets. He nursed a gin and tonic that he paid for.
“I told ya! Drag queens are nothing but drama. They just patter around pretending to be girls for so long that they start being catty. It’s tiring.”
“Yeah, but you love drama. Everyone who says they hate drama loves drama. You love it otherwise you wouldn’t have come,” I said.
“I was bored,” Bobby Lee offered, with a slight giggle.
We were bored. We’d normally go out almost every weekend looking for adventure. We never thought to stay home during a snowstorm, or even for Christmas. It was compulsory now, going out for the sake of being out, anything to keep me away from the four by four box of an apartment I lived in. Alex joined us—sweet Alex—looked at me, and asked what was wrong, but it was a little too late for me to answer. I was on my third drink in a row (possibly the sixth or seventh of that night) and I could only think what I was going to do for rent.
“I lost my temp job, aaaaaand I might need about a hundred dollars for rent.”
“This month’s rent?” Alex said.
“Yeah yeah—o. Next month’s. I have one more check coming in. I think, there’s a check and then that’s it, so it’s for next month’s.”
I regretted telling Alex what was wrong because—truth was—I didn’t know exactly. I didn’t even have a solid handle on my situation before I had to be confronted by Alex’s confused face.
“Maybe I could work at a bar, you know people here?”
“No I don’t.”
“Any other bar? Any openings?”
Alex shook his head.
“You don’t have… a hundred dollars you can let me borrow?”
“What if I got your wig back?”
“What do you mean?”
“You get your wig back, it’s like-—how much money you pay for that?—anyway. I get it back, and you can work, get tips, toss some my way.”
“Jo, I really don’t make that much money at a bar…”
I downed the fourth drink on the bar. I didn’t let Alex finish.
My right arm was slumped around Alex’s neck, and my eyes were fixated on my shoes digging into the fresh snow on the ground. In my left arm I held a knotted up wet pulp of fabric. I moved the fabric closer to my face and saw that it was a wig. It was Alex’s wig.
“I got it. I got your wig back, Alex.”
“Jesus, Jo, you did more than that,” Alex said.
I heard another voice, playful, in a low timbre.
“Your friend alright? He looked pretty pale for a second. You don’t need to go to the hospital do you?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said, not sure if the voice was in my head. I looked over and saw a black drag queen walking next to us. It was Estrella, the same queen who was hosting that night at the bar. She was in a short dress with a heavy down jacket draped over her, carrying her high heels in one hand, while her delicate long legs hulked over snow mounds while wearing light brown Timberlands.
I let off of Alex’s neck and followed the pair into the subway. I’d lost track of the last few hours. Curiosity got the best of me so I asked Alex what happened.
“You were drunk off your ass is what happened. You ran out of the bar, into the back alley, and you just sort of crouched behind some dumpsters. Bobby Lee and I followed you, asking what were you planning and you kept shushing us. I made the mistake of telling you the queens would exit out from the alleyway, and you were determined to confront Kathy Bates. I tried to pull you out of the snow but you kept swatting me away. Kathy Bates came out, along with Estrella, and as soon as you spotted her you leapt out from behind the dumpster and you pushed her.”
Estrella interrupted: “It was a shove! You were gangsta. Trying to act tough.”
“You shoved Kathy Bates. She fell backwards a little, had one knee on the ground, then she stood up. Shoved you right back. Your ass landed right on snow. You said: ‘I know you took Kelsi’s wig! I know it! You’re nothing but a fucking cunt!’ Kathy Bates’ face cracked, she pointed a finger at you, said, ‘Oh you think you’re bad, calling me names? You’re nothing, boo.’ I think she was going to beat your ass with her stiletto. Estrella stopped it.”
Estrella said: “I seen Kathy cut up bigger boys than you. It’s Christmastime and I wasn’t about to be a witness to bloodshed. I knew she had your wig too, girl. I pulled her away from your drunk ass and said she should give the wig back. Fun’s fun, but people shouldn’t lose an eye over romper room fuckery, you know?”
Alex continued: “Kathy walked back into the bar, came out with my wig. She held it out in her arm, dangled it, let it drop in the snow. It’s pretty much ruined.”
“Girl,” Estrella said, “just blowdry it, or better yet, get a nice shake-and-go for your bar gigs. It’s not like people can tell the difference in bar lighting.”
They told me the rest of the story as we waited for the Uptown N train in an abandoned subway station, how I threw myself at the wig, curled up right next to it, which explained why my whole right side was wet. Bobby Lee had left me as soon as the fight broke up, probably had enough of that whole scene.
Estrella said she lived in Queens near Alex, and was surprised they’d never talked before. She was happy to travel with us as long I didn’t throw up. I didn’t have it in me to do that. Just wanted to curl up in my Queens apartment and die.
“You’re gonna stay with me. Sleep on my couch,” Alex said. I agreed out loud but knew I wouldn’t be taking up that offer. Our train pulled up and we piled in, again, train car as empty as the subway and as the whole city. As we rode, Estrella opined.
“Kathy and this whole scene is so rude. I just hate drag queens. They’re nothing but drama.”
I was taken aback.
“If you hate drag queens and drama then why are you a drag queen?”.
“Boy, what else am I going to do? Put on a suit, get a paycheck? Who would hire me?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know who would hire me.”
“You have an office job don’t you?” Alex interjected.
“Used to. I lost it tonight. It was temporary.”
“Maybe you should be a drag queen, though, I can’t say I highly recommend it,” Estrella said.
Alex let out a guffaw so striking it startled me.
“Jo, a drag queen? Jo’s too mannish. Trust me, you’re better off putting on a tie and putting your resume out there.”
That envy from before came back. Sure Alex was pretty, but there was no need to shove that in my face, and while I could say I was too mannish for drag, it wasn’t alright for her to say that.
“Maybe I should do it? I need some quick cash next month.”
Estrella joined in Alex’s laughter.
“Boy, you can barely do butch, how the hell are you going to do girl?”
“No, I’m being serious. I could do it. What? It’s so hard to put on makeup and walk in heels? I could do it.”
Estrella clapped her hands, hoop earrings knocking into each other, hooted and hollered, Alex just looked at me as if I had just said that brain surgery was easy. The train barrelled through the tunnel and opened its doors to empty station after empty station. My head was still swimming with alcohol, but also with a kernel of a mad idea, that I could do a few drag nights with Alex’s help. Estrella put her hand over my arm.
“Honey, I want you to do something for me,” she said, “I want to see you walk from the start of this car to the end wearing some high heels. Mine are probably around your size because we both got fat feet.”
Alex cackled as I took Estrella’s stilettos.
“The beginning of this car to the end? You mean where the emergency door is, through all the poles, right to the end of the car, where that door is over there.” The car was the standard size, about fifty feet, maybe sixty or more. It barreled through tunnels, teetering, with constant braking before stops.
“Yes, and you cannot hold on to any poles,” Estrella said.
“You can’t even do that with normal walking shoes,” I said.
“Oh now he wants to make this easy,” Estrella said as an aside to Alex.
“Fine, I’ll do it, but if I can do it you have to give me something.”
“Bitch, I will give you half of what I earned tonight,” Estrella said.
Putting on the stilettos was my first real regret, they were smaller than Estrella made them sound. The back ridge of the shoe bit hard into my ankle, and the tip made my pinky toenail gnarl into the next toe over. I lifted myself from my seat with the help of a nearby pole (“This doesn’t count!”), and found that I felt terribly unbalanced without the use of my heel as support. Every little move I made to adjust myself resulted in an uproar from Estrella and Alex. I walked, shoes and all, towards the end of the train, feeling the top of my foot bend and almost snap at the weight of my legs. The train did its part to unbalance me by lurching up then stopping at a station, causing me to throw my entire body onto a pole. Again, the laughter from the queens just managed to piss me off.
Once I reached the end of the car, I turned around, put my hand on my hip, and stared down my own personal moving runway.
“Yes! Girl! Look at her!” Estrella shouted.
Alex, mouth agape, shook his head in amusement.
I started, one foot in front of the other, leaning on the sole of each foot, tip-toeing right foot, then left foot. My right arm was bent, with my right hand gripping my waist. My left arm was out for show and for balance. The train lurched left, so I leaned right. Estrella went from doubter to believer, clapping for me. They were seated near my side of the train where I started walking, and as I passed them I told them both that I used to wear my mom’s high-heel boots when she wasn’t home. They hooted in response. The train lurched violently, almost knocking me over into the pair. They held their hands up, screaming. I steadied myself with both arms out (no time for showmanship, I had to reach the end). As I steadied myself, the train shot out of the ground from Manhattan to Queens, revealing the whole of the city covered in snow. The city lights beamed into my eyes. I steadied myself, and continued my walk, slowly avoiding the poles at the center of the rolling train car. The hollers from the queens themselves were muted, and they were no longer in my peripheral vision. The subway car itself moved swiftly and silently as well. The lack of sound felt ominous. All I could see in front of me was the train, and the glow of the city casting moving glares of bubbles as if we were in a giant aquarium.
I felt the force of the train shift right, and my whole body followed. I tripped over my heel, fell head-first—hard—into a subway seat, then onto the ground.
“Holy shit!” I heard Alex say.
I didn’t feel pain, probably due to the strong buzz, but I did feel numbness in a large spot on my face. Estrella and Alex picked me up off of the ground and laid me back out on a seat. I craned my head up to see that I had almost made it to the end of the train. Maybe some twenty steps more was all I needed.
“Well…” Estrella said, “you get an A for effort. There’s hope for you yet.”
“Do I win the cash prize anyway?”
“Fuck no. Also it was only fifteen dollars anyway. Slow night and all. Tell you what. I’ll put in a good word for you at some bars, maybe you can work doors for a while.”
We reached Ditmars, the end of the line. Alex asked if I wanted to sleep on the couch. I told him I’d be fine.
“You’re going back home? It’ll take you awhile. You’ll fall asleep on the train!”
“I’ll be okay” I said.
Estrella and Alex left me in the train, which pleased me greatly. There was nothing more than I wanted at that very moment than to be left alone. As the train barrelled back towards lower Queens the PA overhead announced the next stop, a mechanized voice and familiar friend. I caught sight of the vision of a snow-covered Manhattan gleaming bright lights like jewels and completely abandoned. My legs were on the seat, my shoes dangling from my fingers, my head tilted to the side against the glass, half-asleep and half-dreaming. The bruise in my head, the wetness on the right side of my body, and my gnarled toes, all of these sensations kept me awake.
The train hurtled and I listened to Plainsong by the Cure, an old favorite I had downloaded from LimeWire, burned to a CD and re-christened into my own personal Christmas song. The doors slid open, stop after stop, opening and closing for no one. It was a long trip but I made it to my bed. I watched the sunrise from my bedroom window, and despite not having slept, I felt I had dreamed the ride home.