And that has fuck-all to do with me, darling.
Redd Hairing walked out with the last word but the stink of her dressing room performance—an astringent cologne of weed smoke, burnt plastic, and baby powder—remained. Lipstyx was livid, she said, absolutely murderous, and could Starla believe what she’d just seen and heard from that salty motherfucker? That no-talent hooker? That child? Starla La—rather, Davis—had no time to consider how he felt about the episode but was sickened by the smell. Turning back to the mirror, he lifted his chin, picked up the brush, and continued carving out his face.
Face: Starla could serve it. Pockets of fat and coarse shadows were eliminated with geometric magic, as brushes coated with charcoals and buttery golden-browns traced on expressions acute and obtuse. Yes, Davis could beat his aging features into submission in just under an hour and emerge looking a lot like his sharp-featured, glamorous aunt. But, now, he thought, dabbing off excess sheen with a sponge, what of it?
Starla La, an entity that had once been a mere projection. Ten years ago—the beginning—Starla was Davis twirled 90 degrees counterclockwise, a gaseous nebula of his collected femme inspirations. Five years later Starla burned inside of Davis, solidified, a body with its own gravity. Starla was at her most airy and luminous then, showing off and making friends and taking Davis on joyrides through the Chicago nightscape. Davis couldn’t exactly remember when the simple (but complex!) art of female illusion with attitude wasn’t enough, when Starla began to compete for gigs with queens who did death drops down a flight of stairs, backflips back up, and dismounts into selfies. He could, however, remember exactly when he’d started thinking about the dissolution of Starla, and that’s because it was just moments before, when Redd and Lipstyx’s fight sucked up the all the air in the backstage closet the performers were given to share and Davis realized he had been suffering the effects of oxygen deprivation for a whole lot longer.
Starla came to on stage and as usual didn’t know quite how she’d gotten there, and it would have been just like one of those recurring nightmares if it actually wasn’t a dream, if when the music began she didn’t immediately know the words and how to pose and move on the tiny platform, how to pull on the enveloping crowd like a bathrobe, feel their warmth, weight. Jim and Ricky and Youssef in the front, waving and singing along. A break in the music and she whispered something into the mic that made the audience roar and whistle.
At three a.m. Davis was too tired—too drunk—to strip off the drag backstage and wait for the L in the cold so he threw himself in the back of a cab at the curb with its door open. Ohmuhgod, bitch, what! Already in the backseat and walloped by Davis’s bags was some other disintegrating performer whose name he couldn’t recall. She—he—they were very young, maybe just old enough to get into the clubs, but Davis had seen them or maybe just variations of that body and look everywhere in the last few months. It was that discordant genderfuck thing that Davis didn’t think was good drag but did find sexy. This one, an especially petite anti-queen, was pressed up against the glass with their louche mouth and skinny legs spread open, waiting for Davis to apologize, leave, say something. The driver, twisted in his seat, demanded details. Where do you want to go? I cannot wait anymore. I put on meter. Davis closed the door. Clark and Pratt. Meter clicked on and the car jolted into action. Bitch this was my cab! I was waiting for someone! Stop driver stop! We need to go back shouted the shirtless kid with the violet faux-beard and tarantula lashes. The driver shook his head with annoyance and eyed Starla in the rearview. The sexy but hysterical kid was still yelling and Davis was tired. Calm down. Text your date and have him meet you wherever you’re going, which is where? The question and steadiness of Davis’s voice quieted the kid, and their eyes rolled around like the googly eyes on a doll, circling from Davis to driver to door before settling into their lap. I was going to his place and I don’t have his number and so I don’t know where I’m going thanks very fucking much.
Davis and/or Starla reached out a motherly hand. The hand said Here, child, money from my purse so that you can get to where you need to go and I can sleep soundly tonight. The child looked at the hand and back up to finally recognize the stunning Starla La, the queen whose face launched a thousand glossy postcards, scattered on the floors of every gay bar in Boystown. The child had seen Starla on these cards but never in person, not even tonight until now, there, fist-full of cash and wig askew, their hot breath together in the backseat collecting crystalline on the icy windows.
What’s your name, honey? Oh, Jesus, take it already. I stole your taxi and kidnapped you after all.
The kid shrugged and took the money. Well. Right. You did kidnap me. Blue lips stretched taut against teeth. Now I can tell my best girlfriends that Starla La wanted a little kai-kai with Junkette.
Starla and/or Davis laughed and considered the notion of taking Junkette home, of stripping and wiping Junkette down and inspecting all of their parts. Did Junkette want Starla? Could Junkette even see Davis? Neither Starla nor Davis could settle on any answers. Junkette, lying back against the window, miniskirt up around their waist, untucked in torn netting, suddenly flirtatious. Honestly you look a mess, darling, but you’re still freakin’ gorgeous.
The man he loved did not want Starla; the man he loved did not want Davis; the man he loved did not want anything because he was in a terracotta jar on Davis’s credenza.
Davis and/or Starla reached out a non-motherly hand. The hand said I want to press my thumb against that pretty, fat bottom lip and smear that shimmer-crusted blue down your chin. Junkette leaned into Starla’s hand and took her thumb in their mouth. Within a few moments Junkette was straddling Starla and in the next moment whipped back against the driver-side’s plastic partition, then quickly forward, tumbling off of Starla’s lap to land face-first in the seatback.
Out of my cab. You both, out. The car had whipped to a stop at a corner many blocks south of Davis’s uptown apartment. Screw you! I’ll report you, you homophobe, you sack of… Junkette sprayed a thick mist of profanities into the front seat as Davis threw open his door, tossing out all of Starla’s shit onto the curb, and then—still wearing stilettos that were guaranteed to fail a ginned-up 38-year-old queen on a dark icy street—backed himself out ass first and scrambled onto his knees to yank out Junkette, who was in a snarling face-to-face with the Slavic driver shouting presumably equally profane words in Ukrainian or Polish or whatever language he seethed. Junkette was wearing more practical footwear—steel-toed boots, in fact—and kicked the door closed, sending the cab peeling back out into Clark Street. Davis was still on his knees and in freezing pain all over, and Junkette, up on their feet, stepped out into the street and screamed after the cab long after it had disappeared from sight.
When they finally turned back to the curb, Junkette saw elegant Starla on the patch of ice, sitting on her heels in an inelegant display of wet face and exposed wig cap. Davis saw a beautiful, underdressed alien child whose blood ran so hot they didn’t shiver, whose look could survive the January windchill because their lips were already icy blue and smeared with High Drama, Starla’s favorite matte shade.
Call me Davis.
Um, ok. You have some better shoes up in that Ikea bag, Davis?
Davis couldn’t exactly remember when the simple (but complex!) art of female illusion with attitude wasn’t enough, when Starla began to compete for gigs with queens who did death drops down a flight of stairs, backflips back up, and dismounts into selfies.
Starla had fucked and been fucked plenty over the years, mostly with and by admirers, and occasionally with and by starstruck friends of Davis’s. Davis, meanwhile, was in love. The man he loved did not want Starla; the man he loved did not want Davis; the man he loved did not want anything because he was in a terracotta jar on Davis’s credenza. The antique belonged to the man’s mother, was passed down to Davis after her death. Davis did not want the man he loved in a jar, but that’s what happened. So the man was in the jar on the sideboard surrounded by a framed high school yearbook portrait, photographs from their visit to meet his father in Trinidad, and the dumb but precious friendship bracelets they’d made each other on the first day they’d met, in that support group on Belmont Avenue fifteen years ago. Davis was as in love with the man in the jar as he’d ever been.
* * *
It was another hour before Junkette and the messy queen made it to the Edgewater apartment. There the queen provided the hot water and cold cream that stripped them both down to their base layers. Junkette didn’t consider whether it was Starla and/or Davis they wanted to fuck because Junkette didn’t care about Starla and/or Davis, had already forgotten both names, in fact, but did need a warm bed for the night. The other thing Junkette needed was to come down or else lie awake grinding their teeth until daybreak, so they pulled deeply off the skunky joint and drank the overly sweet rum the tall, dark, and handsome man poured into their glass.
* * *
Davis woke up after an hour or so of sleep, Junkette sprawled on their back next to him. Shame and fear slid through him like a wave of nausea. He got out of bed and flipped the kid on their belly. Who knew what someone who called themself Junkette had dancing around in their blood and guts. Who knew who had already been invited to the party: Tina, likely; Molly, maybe. Davis kneeled at the bed and put his cheek close to Junkette’s open mouth. They were alive, they were breathing; of course they were, it was fine. But this was the last time Davis was going to let Starla get him here. The endless and exhausting nights, the drinking, the sex with boys too young for him. Needing to be snarkier, edgier, better. The glitter on the dresser, floor, and everywhere else. (How much had he ingested over a decade? He imagined his colon sparkled like Christmas tinsel.) The housebound days with the unspeaking, unknowing dead man in the jar, who wouldn’t have let Starla run amok if he’d still been alive and not in a fucking jar.
Davis stepped out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. He poured himself a glass of water and sat at the table to drink it down, hoping to dispel or lessen the aches and pains that were certain to come with sobriety. There was a pile of Starla at his feet, and another on the chair across from him.
Gravity always wins: Starla was already collapsing under her own weight. But what if they were binary stars? Starla, his companion self for all of these years, keeping him alive amid all that grief, that dark energy expanding around them, but now just hot as hell and siphoning off his spirit. Starla was too big not to burst; Davis wondered if he’d be left intact or blown away.
Yet Davis could not be sure if it wasn’t actually his own body that had collapsed—that after sucking off the energy of a much bigger star, a star of his own creation, he was overheating and ready to explode into the ether, to become, like the man in the jar, just a bunch of dust.
* * *
Junkette woke to a pulsating brain and the smell of smoke. There was a full glass of water on the nightstand, which they drank in one gulp, next to a bottle of ibuprofen, which they ignored. Finding none of their clothing in the tidy room, and desperately needing to piss, they shivered naked down the hallway and its cold hardwood floor and found what they thought they remembered to be the bathroom, its door closed. They knocked. Hello? No answer or sound from behind the closed door. They tried the handle. Locked. Um, hiiiiii. I need to pee can I come in? And where’s all my shit? Silence still. Ok, listen, I’m dying so I’m gonna have to take a piss in a plant or something. Sorry ‘bout it. Junkette skittered around the apartment, hands cupping his crotch, looking for some big gay potted plant but finding nothing. With no other option except to open the window and freeze their dick off, Junkette dragged a chair over to the kitchen sink and then—remembering that the sex was hot and the guy seemed sweet—removed the mugs and bowl from the basin before letting go. They were just shaking it off and climbing down when the door opened and the guy, the queen—David! that was his name—came out, cigarette in his mouth and giant headphones on his head, almost just as naked except for Junkette’s pink fishnets, wrapped around his neck like a boa. David, right? I’m sorry dude I just had to. You didn’t hear me I was knocking.
The queen’s mouth bloomed with a smile too big to be believed that early in the day, a smile somehow both coquettish and wicked, a smile that stayed fixed on the beautiful man’s face as he, pulling the headphones down around his neck, sauntered over to the sink and ground the cigarette into the splatter of urine that remained on the steel. Junkette could hear the distant tinny beat of some dance music as the queen put his hands on their chest and closed his eyes, breathing in sharp with his nose and mouth as if it were the last breath he’d ever take.
Starla, darling. Call me Starla.
Amanda Krupman is a writer from Cleveland, OH. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flapperhouse, Smokelong Quarterly, The Forge Literary Magazine, BLOOM, The New Engagement, Punk Planet, and others. Amanda received an MFA in fiction from The New School’s graduate writing program and was recently a recipient of a Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Residency Award. She teaches writing at Pace University and Middlebury College. AmandaKrupman.com