Nonfiction by Thea Constantine
I felt guilty sometimes, spending the money Tommy and Willie tricked for. After all, I hadn’t spent my time having my head pressed down over someone’s stinking crotch, hadn’t been fingered and groped in my most intimate places by some creepy stranger. I hadn’t had to pretend I liked it, wanted it, was grateful for it.
I did love going out to breakfast with the boys though. Loved when they’d come swooping into whatever hole I happened to be in and pull me out of bed. Sometimes they’d dress me, fix my hair. Of all the girls, I was the smallest, the youngest, the easiest to talk into going out at 10 a.m. dressed like Pippi Longstocking or Carmen Miranda. They’d go through my bags and pull out petticoats and scarves, hang all my bracelets on one skinny arm, and then we’d go to Arthur J’s or the Snow White Cafe and eat our asses off. We were always starving.
They seemed to understand that I was just a little broken. Understood that there was no way I could ever make it in the straight world. They knew I could talk a good game and scam with the best of them, but my staying power was limited. If I wasn’t in and out pretty fast, the whole thing would fall apart like Cinderella’s carriage. My one attempt at getting a job in a phone room ended with me hyperventilating on Sunset Boulevard after only forty-five minutes.
We’d all met in San Francisco on Polk Street. Became part of the entourage headed by whoever had the power that week. I’d stroll up and down selling fake pills that I’d bought at Walgreens. They were made to look like real drugs, and I’d sell them as such. Bio-slims were caffeine-loaded black capsules passing themselves off as black beauties. Sleepinol had the familiar Tuinol rainbow seal across the middle of the turquoise capsules. They were just a little bigger. In the dark of the clubs no one noticed. Ninety percent of the time my customers got so fucked up on whatever else they were taking, they never realized they weren’t quite as fucked up as they should have been. The other 10% of the time, I’d hide out ’til the person looking got tired.
We must have walked miles every evening up and down the same street. We’d pause to look in the window of the Palms where people with day jobs sipped beautiful blue drinks in long frosted glasses, stop at the doughnut shop where Tommy would shove day-olds on display into the hood of my pink sweater. Then we’d move on to the alcove where Bianca and the drag queens hung out and spend my beat pill money on the real thing.
Tommy and Willie were from Fresno. The girls and I were from Hollywood, my boyfriend Michael too. Bobby was from New York, Giasarra from Brazil. Blockhead and San Bruno (originally Sabrina) were from Arizona or New Mexico – I could never remember which.
In the summer the runaway population would double, and our numbers would grow, but the true core group were year-rounders. No one had parents in the traditional sense. Oh sure, there would be talk of someone’s mom or sister, but otherwise there was little evidence. For the most part, the girls and I had the most middle class backgrounds.
We did have family though. When Teri scored the apartment on Van Ness, we were over the moon. Empty as it was—it was ours at least for the month. It didn’t stay empty long.
I remember furious rapping on the window and Troy running up all red faced, asking for the keys to the front door. He and Tommy and Willie had managed to loot the lobby furniture from some B-grade hotel. A troop of boys began loading it in: huge gold lamps, an enormous gold and white sofa and two glass-topped occasional tables, one that still had a heavy chain around the base. Home is where the heart is.
The holidays were harder for those of us who’d once had them. When the only turkey with trimmings you ever got was provided by the state, you didn’t miss it much. The first Thanksgiving, I got weepy. Memories of the family who no longer spoke to me ran in a loop, along with my vivid mental snapshots of meals gone by. You were supposed to be full on a day like this. Full of food, of comfort, of safety and warmth. Everyone else seemed fine with it, but I wasn’t buying it as just another day like all the rest, which was how the girls told me to think of it. There were five of us in a cheap single room in the Leland, and all we had were a couple of boxes of Triscuits left over from when we grabbed a pallet of them off the back of a Nabisco truck weeks before. By that time, no one could stand the sight of the nasty little wheat squares. Someone suggested we could go to the mission, but that made me cry harder. I didn’t want to be a sixteen-year-old bag lady. Going to the mission would mean that we weren’t just having an adventure.
I guess they felt bad for me or maybe they were just sick of my whining. Someone went out and lifted a box of instant stuffing and a jar of gravy. Someone else came back with a couple of packets of cheap pressed turkey lunch meat and borrowed the electric skillet from the guy down the hall who Teri slept with from time-to-time. An onion appeared, some butter. A meal was cooked. I wish I could say I was as grateful as I should have been. I still feel bad that I didn’t fuss over it like I should have.
We pinged up and down the coast – LA to San Francisco and back. We’d initially gone up to tend to our friend who fell climbing into a third story window high on angel dust. He’d broken his legs, his teeth had been smashed out along with a cheekbone. Until then he’d been one of the handsomest men I’d known. What we thought we could do for him, I don’t know. Be there, I guess. It seemed very important that we stick together. He tried to run away when he first saw us. More like hobbled really, on his cane. It’s so hard to lose your beauty. I didn’t realize how hard back then.
When my boyfriend died, I fell apart. I’d just gone out with Giasarra to smoke a joint while he napped. Came back and saw there was a little drop of blood under his nose. I couldn’t wake him up. I kept calling the ambulance, 911 or whatever they had then, but no one came for forty-five minutes. When the paramedics finally showed up, they pronounced him DOA. Said it was because of the half-life of some of the pills we were taking, the ones that were supposed to get us off another drug. They stay inside you, or half of them do. Then they sealed off our room leaving me on the street half hysterical. I don’t know who spotted me and spread the word, but the girls came and got me, took me to their room. I think I was in shock. I’d only had one close friend die on me so far. Why him and not me? My memories of that time are dreamlike. I just remember a big room with a bed where I lay and people came and sat with me. Brought me little gifts, drugs and candy and knick-knacks. It was what I needed. I don’t remember how long I stayed there or when I first got out of bed. They walked me back up and down the street again. I got stronger.
Things change, people don’t. That’s what Bobby used to say. I think of Shelly. She lived in a room upstairs from us at the Leland. She invited Teri and me up one time to do our nails. We thought she was a drag queen, but it turned out she was in the middle of the full-on change. She had all these nail polishes. Every color. I think she felt she had to lure us up with something nice – but we really liked her. She wanted to experience girl talk, female bonding or something. We learned a lot about what they call gender re-assignment now. She was having it done at Stanford. She owned a really nice restaurant and had a house somewhere, but she’d moved into the city for the duration of her change. They made her wait a really long time. She said she’d gone through tons of psychological and physical tests. Stanford wouldn’t do it unless you had a certain amount of female organs. Turns out a lot of us have all kinds of little surprises lurking around inside. She was on hormones and so far, they’d done her breasts.
One of the things I loved about Teri is that she’d ask the questions you wanted to ask but were too
polite or scared to. She asked if we could see Shelly’s new breasts. If we could touch them. They were perfect and they felt so smooth but a little hard too. The biggest surprise, though, was the ship tattooed across them. A huge one, with sails and masts, the whole nine yards. Like the kind people put in bottles. She’d really tried hard to be a man at one time. Tried so hard she joined the navy and got married, had a couple kids. I asked if she wanted to get rid of it, like a painful memory, but she didn’t want to. It was a part of her journey, the scars she carried. We were always tempted to ask her to take us to her restaurant for something to eat but we didn’t. I’m surprised sometimes when I think of the times we held back. Why this and not that?
Shelly had a happy ending I think. I saw her months later walking with some friends. She’d had the whole operation by then. She was wearing a little cardigan and a tweedy skirt. Her friends were dressed the same as she was. Very low key. We chatted for a bit, moved on. I imagined the fanciful ship sailing beneath her twin set. The little surprises you don’t see.
We all had scars, the kind you could see. Tommy ended up with a huge one that went from his navel up to his chest. A pink shiny dividing line, thick and brutal. Willy had a split eyebrow that looked like a lightning bolt. We acquired the roundish divots from abscesses, the ones that look like tiny meteors landed on your arms. Those and the telltale lines that traced our veins like maps of our circulatory systems. Our friend who fell out the window had what looked like laugh lines that radiated out from his eyes, but they were scars. He had big ones on his legs, too, with stitch marks you could see. Teri had them on her wrists. I had one across my throat. It’s hard to lose your beauty, but it’s part of the journey I guess. I’m married to a man with one across his lips. It was one of the ways I could tell he was for me.