This first appeared in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review. The full version appears in my collection, A Flame on the Ocean. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Winston’s final song echoes inside Ella’s head. She can only remember the chorus, “I’m every woman, it’s all in me…” She allows the words to play on a loop, savoring the wisps of his performance. The door clicks closed behind her and she pauses in the foyer, calling out, “Perkins.” She separates the syllables, drawing out the r and the innn. She hears his feet on the hardwood floor, jumping off the bed and running to greet her before she sees him. “Good boy,” she says, crouching to stroke the large, black and white cat who is purring and rubbing his body against her boots. She places her purse and keys on the floor and runs both hands along his back. “I’m every woman, you’re a black cat,” she sings, changing the lyrics to the song she cannot get out of her head. He looks up at her and she continues to pet him. He meows once and walks into the kitchen with his tail held high. “You had your dinner before I left and it’s too early for breakfast,” she calls to his back.
She stands, picks up her purse and keys, and sets them on the slim, polished dark wood table near the door. She walks through the living room, an expanse of dove gray walls with dark wood furniture and red accents, and into her bedroom. Twin framed Diane Arbus photos above the couch, a shirtless young man in suspenders with a crooked smile, and a woman in a house dress shielding her eyes from the sun, look down on her as she passes. Once in the bedroom, she sits on the black and gray abstract patterned comforter and begins removing her fire engine red patent leather boots. They’re the same shade as the short, bobbed wig she removes and places on a white, Styrofoam wig head on her dresser. Her dress lands on the floor and she rakes her fingernails through her shoulder-length brown hair, shaking off the sensation of her scalp being constricted beneath a wig for many hours. Her arms slip into a fluffy, pale green robe, a gift from a fan. Perkins is meowing and she follows the sound into the kitchen. It is too early for breakfast, but it is not too early for the salmon treats he loves. She shakes three from the container and lets him eat them from her palm.
She begins to prepare a mug of chamomile tea and notices she is still humming Winston’s song. She does not mind the earworm. She could be halfway to falling for him. It is too soon to know, but it is not too soon to savor accompanying him when he performs. She knows his secret is performing in drag. He knows her secret is Silky Maxwell. Everything else, she’s beginning to believe after three dates, will fall into place. His dress, though, she thinks, wrinkling her nose at the mauve taffeta. “You’re the best mother of the bride that DC drag has ever seen,” she’d said to him while they were getting ready at his townhouse.
“And you’re the best at not using this outfit to get more likes or followers. Are you even allowed to go out without posting it?” he responded, tugging at the hem of her short, black, vintage slip, worn as a dress. They’d both laughed and turned back to the mirror. He glanced at his watch and commented on the time. He didn’t go on until after 10:00 pm, and there was no reason to arrive at the bar before 9:00 pm.
How does it look, she wonders, to see her and Winston together? At first glance, beneath the streetlights in the summer darkness, they could be a prim mother and a rebellious daughter. However, mothers rarely take their daughters to Dupont Circle at night, a neighborhood full of gay bars, nightclubs, late-night restaurants, and a thriving drag scene.
She brings her tea into the living room. Perkins jumps on the couch and she sits next to him. He nestles closer to her and she can feel the warmth of his body on her thigh. The tea is too hot to sip. She sets it on a coaster on the coffee table, a low expanse of polished, ebony wood that compliments the table in the foyer. Her mind wanders from Winston’s dress to the first time he invited her to his townhouse to get ready to go out.
“This is Deirdre’s closet if you can call it that.” His fingers curled into air quotes at the word closet. He led her into a spare bedroom. Two steps in, she froze. Winston’s drag persona, Deirdre, was not the stunning, theatrical Glamazon she imagined on their first date when he told her he performed in drag.
Shelves lined one wall of the room. One shelf was filled with wigs in shades of dirty blond, auburn, and middling, average brown. They were mostly curly and shoulder-length or shorter, reminiscent of a cafeteria lunch lady. Had Winston brought her to his grandmother’s house? Her stomach began to tighten.
Another shelf was full of sensible shoes in muted shades of brown and navy, white sandals with Velcro straps, and one pair of black pumps with chunky heels. Sturdy, utilitarian leather handbags with thick straps filled the final shelf. “Do you impersonate Mrs. Doubtfire?” She was incredulous at the display, comparing it to an old Robin Williams movie in which a man poses as a dowdy housekeeper.
He laughed. “I’m sorry about the surprise. I know what people think when they hear the words drag queen.”
Her hands were on her hips and her brow was furrowed in indignation. She flashed back to her initial excitement at meeting Winson, another person with an enormous secret he could not share. She’d imagined them as co-conspirators, but her hopeful expectation now felt like a huge weight. This wasn’t the wardrobe of someone who would be a close companion. “Surprise is right. What’s your deal, Winston?”