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Cinderella in Flames photo

I feel like God with dyspepsia. My soul is vibrating at ultra-high frequency. I want to leave my body. I want to throw up.

There’s makeup running down my face with sweat, but it somehow feels apt. Not the worst, at least. Even with makeup running down my face, I’m convinced, in a way, that it adds to rather than subtracts from what I’m serving. I believe in the unanticipated. How could someone get on a stage with their cock burning taped against their asshole and keep a crowd entertained for hours without believing everything they do to be a calculated and valuable contribution to their presentation? Delusion is one of the qualifications of any great drag queen, alongside perversion.

In any case, I am practically encrusted in a second skin made of sweat and setting spray. On Summer nights, my delusions are consistently tested. Each night is a hot apocalypse. When I get on stage, an arid desert, I detonate from all parts of my body, my legs strutting like I’m on the front line of a phalanx, my body bursting from one side to the other, running into the crowd, rolling into the curtain, hurling glitter bombs at civilians. I rub my hand down my crotch to flaunt my slitless forged pussy, which reeks of roadkill, but the fumes of which are masked by a dense coating of someone’s grandmother’s favorite perfume. On the stage, I am a revelation, but I am extremely sweaty.

Summer is becoming vile. New York City, also, is becoming vile. I pass by a 19th century Gothic revival building that was once a theater and now has been converted into an Apple store. On every walk home, I’m bearing witness to a kind of drawn out loss of various cultural spaces, where bodies once mingled unburdened by the scripted subtext of a transaction, where encounters were sparked with something other than business exchange. Cases similar to this come in droves; there are three dismal Apple stores in my neighborhood alone, which used to be performance spaces, or nightclubs, or taverns, or saloons, or cinemas, or mom-and-pop shops, or community gardens. Their presence is gradually being sucked dry by the bloodlust of the crypto techno stock investment evangelists and rich art students who write treatises on inclusivity or who buy out minimalist gallery spaces for their polaroids of park benches and unwashed clothes.

I digress. My legs can hardly pick themselves up. Makeup running down my face. I entertain the compulsion to buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke the whole thing at once on the sidewalk, but I’ve been trying to keep away from nicotine, so I damper myself. I could go for a quick, messy fuck. Or a long and winding journey across the five boroughs in the vein of a biblical exodus wherein I may transcend my corporeal form. This is a lie. I don’t believe in transcendence.

I sweat, I saunter down the avenue. A train rushes by overhead and my memories are flurried around; a vista of the city is pulled from me, and myself at six years old, visiting for the first time. Childhood haunts me mostly in the witching hours, when darkness seems most equipped to actualize its latencies. I was six and I was freakish. I really mean it—teeth all over the place, dressed like a court jester, total lack of self-awareness. You can probably guess at the bullying I endured without me needing to elaborate in explicit detail, though I think there is something quasi-Freudian in my years as a premier bullying victim, something that might be characterized as a sexualization of the aggressor. But it’s less to do with some pre-inscribed symbolic order that takes up my experiences and squeezes them into an ancient myth and more to do with building a sexual dominion from my experiences: freeing my desire by letting it take control of what seemed, at the time, far beyond my control.

Six years old, in New York City with my grandmother: a reverie. Each avenue was a river we had to cross through without tumbling into the rush. I wanted the rush, I wanted to drown in the aluminum splendor. I think what really drew me in was my perception of the people around sharing a particular quality with me—they were deranged. At the least, less uniformly uninteresting than what I had been accustomed to. Maybe there was some idyllic naivete in this. Maybe I was actively imagining a better world than what was given, but if it didn’t quite match my visionary desires, at least I could know I have desires for something that extends past the stagnant now—something unmet by Apple stores and sleek cars. Crash, a flower pot fell from the sky and shattered against the sidewalk not two feet in front of me and my grandmother, who screamed and clutched her pearls as if in an audition. I started to laugh uncontrollably. One block further, a department store was blasting “Wedding Bell Blues” by The 5th Dimension outside of their twirling doors, and I began dancing there on the sidewalk. My grandmother told me I was born to be a performer, and I told her (for resistance’s sake) that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, not a performer. Memory flickers: the first time I performed in drag was moments after I had been dumped by a boy who smelled like cedarwood, a whiff of which would remind me of him for years to come. While concealing my stubble in a makeshift vanity backstage, the emcee at the club, which has since closed down, asked me what my opening number was going to be, and I told her, “Wedding Bell Blues,” and when I got on stage I danced my bleeding heart out.

Whenever I leave a nightclub, I try to find new ways to get home. New crosswalks, new lamp posts that fleetingly reveal me to the world, new blocks in which I may make an imprint of myself. I want to know the city like the body of a lover, trekking its yet unmapped thresholds, warming myself up to its hidden details. Isn’t it erotic? The night? Haven’t you noticed how our petals unfurl when the sun recedes? The night conceals nothing; it scrapes away the cold enclosures exacted by the day so that everything is free to bloom without disguise and exude their sweet perfumes which cross paths and mix into one spellbinding, implacable musk that blankets the entire cosmos. It’s the starstuff we’re made of that Carl Sagan once spoke of. Music, memory, sweat.

Which is to say that sometimes, in the night, I can no longer tell where drag ends and my body begins, or where my body ends and the city begins. I see glitter scattered around my feet on the ground and I think I am melting into the sidewalk, or I feel something inside of me like swallowed concrete. I become heavy and wilting, dirty and delirious. Vaguely primal, I sweat, I saunter. The senses are slipping. I’m inexplicably horny and need caffeine.

I saunter, I wander towards the nearby Starbucks, which happens to be adjacent to an Apple store, both of which are suggestively adjacent to a municipal building. The two corporate logos—the bitten apple and the siren—in their neon signage light up the entire street like two heaven-sent halos. Over the Starbucks’ front door is a large banister that reads “Justice for Gay Paraplegics.” It is the ambiguous issue they have decided to headline for the month, which was originally spearheaded by Andrew Parable, a Columbia graduate living on the Upper West Side who made headlines when his butler, apparently inconsiderate to Parable’s paraplegia, neglected to put the brakes on Parable’s wheelchair while helping him onto a superyacht, so the wheelchair rolled down the dock and fell into the water, thus stalling Parable’s gay yacht trip. Two weeks later, every Starbucks and sorority in America donned a “Justice for Gay Paraplegics” banister.

When I enter the Starbucks, showered by clinical overhead lights, a man with few teeth who looks like a decrepit Paul McCartney greets me. Could it be? No, certainly Paul McCartney would have the means for veneers. But the resemblance—“Paul?” I utter half-heartedly.

The man smiles at me, pats me on the shoulder, and replies with glee, “Yes! It’s me!”


“I’m Paul!”

“Okay, well—goodnight—Paul.” No, it couldn’t be. Could it? He continues to smile at me as I walk past, and I turn a glance at him twice more before proceeding to the order line.

As I stand in line among the metropolitan nomads and nighthawks, refugees of the various nightlife scenes from sports bars to ballrooms, I leaf through the dollar bills I accumulated over the course of the night, my tips. They’re worth more in sweat and tequila stains than exchange value. Among the collected tips I find a five-dollar monopoly bill, sigh, and pocket it. I consider leaving the store immediately and running all the way home without any beverage in hand, but my enervation guides me otherwise.

The next memory jumps me here, in the Starbucks line, and yet the memory isn’t actually mine, but rather a superposition of some other mythology onto my scintillating thoughts. I’m in a dress, a periwinkle dress with a hoop skirt, and I’m waiting in line at a café (in a memory). A man approaches me. He has black panther eyes and lips like sweet poison. He offers to buy me a coffee. I tell him he shouldn’t assume a lady can’t pay for her own drink. He says he would never assume that about a lady while his ferine eyes dance across my body. I permit him this dance. Then I notice the fringes of my dress blackening, rotting, curling into itself. The dress begins to wilt off of my body, disappearing into flakes of ash. The bustline evanesces and my flat chest is exposed. The skirt is trickling up my thighs. I’m flustered, fortless, I fretfully clutch my bared body and dash from the line, leaving behind the man, the café. I turn back once before I’m completely nude and see the man holding something up, shouting at me. I feel a bare foot hit the pavement and realize that he is holding my Louboutin stiletto which had fallen from my foot as I ran from the building.

“Ma’am?” the cashier says.

“Hi,” I mumble.

She repeats the number I owe for my latte and I nearly burst into tears.

I ruefully surrender the respective amount from my collected tips.

Nighttime shivers.

Angels do lines of coke on the saucer of the moon, too effete to pay heed to their human underlings.

I take a sip of coffee: I have kissed fire. A thin flame charges down my tongue and into my blood; the flames build into a hoop and then I dive through it. I dive into the sky. Clouds part, a chorus sings. And as my vision, like a camera lens, comes to focus, bringing the properties of light and depth into harmony, I detect someone gazing in my direction, and it differs from the gaze of a bemused onlooker, which by now would slip past me like a delicate gust, by disclosing amity, an element of knowing. Somewhere in the folds of consciousness I put a face to a face. It is the face of someone I know, or knew, striking me like a bullet here in the Starbucks: a lover from long ago.

His golden face melts my armor. Embers of memory flit by: embracing in slow motion, fighting fire with fire. All of it collapses into the moment before me, and I approach him, sitting at a table here at this haunted hour.

There is always, of course, this diaphanous estrangement between yourself and another person when you’ve touched a piece of each other’s hearts and then fell distant, partitioned by a veil. It’s something like witnessing a part of yourself in a most corporeal embodiment drifting through time’s volatile reservoir. You did not expect to be accosted by yourself here, in this way, in this variation. There is a suddenness to the encounter that precludes all pretenses. We become reduced to our most direct attractions and aversions, without room for intellect. I am face to face with my own pulse.

I surge, I sail across the Starbucks floor towards the moment that smirkingly eludes me.

The voice reaches toward me tenderly: “If it isn’t Petra Bourgeoisie.”

“If it isn’t the devil incarnate. Hello, Timothy.”

He gazes right through me, Timothy in a frame of lilies. His hair matted down, a stained shirt draping loosely beneath his chest. This is no time for quips. The past is at stake, resurfacing indelibly, bursting open before me like bubblegum. There is not much to say about Timothy, except for a hymn and a humble ending immortalized somewhere among the stars. 

“You look incredible,” says Timothy. “Incredibly alive.”

“Must be a trick of the light. I’ve sweated half my makeup off already.”

“Don’t get me wrong, your face is a mess. But you were always good, in a way, at making messiness work for you.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean.”

“I don’t know.” A blush, a sputter of warm familiarity. My eyes wander to the dip of his clavicle, where his shirt collar begins to cast a shade across the skin. The strange remembrance of a body, it overcomes me sensorially; I remember through a lattice of sensations that diffuses through me, the bend of an elbow around my torso, the perfume of an armpit, a totalizing possession. I deter my impulses and turn my head, then take a seat across from him.

“Anyways, what’s up with you? What are you doing here?”

He puts a hand to the side of his face and says, “A lot has happened since—”

“No kidding, you look like you just got back from the gulag.”

“I’m homeless.”

Somewhere, a whale dies on the shore.

“I’m homeless.”

I feel the crash of waves against the sand. I become unstitched from the filaments of my nervous system, dissolving instead into this steady lapping. Our bodies exchange souls ad infinitum. Oh Timothy, my beautiful Timothy, wasn’t it not so long ago that we were kissing our mothers goodbye on the cheek, and running into each other on bustling streets, and the angels blew their horns as we stood naked on either side of the bed, and the fire of determination, and the holy ghost, for a moment, was real. We are reeling through time, which puts on a cabaret with us; always surfacing into, always dissolving into a sea change.

The nocturnal world thrums outside, a car engine rumbling into and out of vicinity, the lull of motion, of light. I am caught between sympathy and detachment. Temptation to romanticize this war-torn figure, the soul fallen from grace. To reduce him to an object of affection, pulverize him with my solicitudes, drink from the fountain of his vulnerability. He does not let-on to any sentiments of destitution, yet I craft from him a vignette of his desperation, in which I take him home and we remove each other’s clothing, and I let him do what he wants with me, let him savor in this one libation of indulgence, though this too will be deprived from him, since we are not lovers, should not be lovers. I shamefully erase this image, though this does not erase the premise, there is nothing changed by my self-scrutinizing. He is still just as destitute and just as beautiful; no moralizing can surpass this. And we will not attempt to formulate this into words, because we have already felt it. And the truth is we have not exchanged souls, for we have no soul to speak of.

“Where have you been staying?”

“I’ve been moving around quite a bit. Sometimes I find a guy who lets me sleep at his place, sometimes I’m at the park. Once in a while a friend will let me stay with them for a couple of days.”

“Are we friends?”

“If you want us to be.”

I feel myself circumstantially lost, for maybe in another rendition, in another variation, Timothy and I would be true friends. Maybe we would still be lovers (I console myself knowing that it was he, and not I, who cleaved the irremediable split). But I think of my small apartment, my cold roommate. I think of the inevitable tension and compromised desires. I think of saints and salvation: that is not me.

All has fallen into a languorous rhythm. Without any trace or feeling of altruism, I reach for my tip money. I keep about a third of it to myself, and I put the rest on the table in front of Timothy. My repentance. “I’m sorry, Timothy,” I concede, and then I take my coffee and exit the Starbucks, passing under the “Justice for Gay Paraplegics” banister, and a minute later I am puking up a caustic mixture of coffee and booze onto the sidewalk. The night unwinds and Cinderella’s dress is turning to rags as I drift all the rest of the way home in a dense fog: I sweat, I surrender.