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Crack and Peel

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“Rejection of others is a powerful tool. It can be wielded as either a shield, to protect our own energy from harm, or a weapon, to harm someone else’s energy,” shares the Spiritual Astrology: Know Thy Innerself guide Este, a granite-voiced older Belgian woman who eats Nostradamus for breakfast and therefore makes Katya horny, on a recorded video call on a snowy weekend night at 11.

Katya is watching the virtual class on her laptop in her apartment as she gets into drag. Something about her guide’s statement wriggles a key in a door she very much wants to keep locked. Still, she wonders aloud what she’d say in real-time as she adjusts her plastic bra with B-cup titties attached:

I’ve noticed in my own life I reject people who resemble my past self or maybe I tend to know when someone is going to give up on me, but I don’t always get out first. Sometimes I wait for them to finally do it and it gives me this dark satisfaction to know I was right, even though it hurts to be rejected.

Her brown borzoi Basil emits a quiet mumble from the couch. Is he concerned? More likely, he is annoyed at the interruption of his nap.

If she ever attended the class live she would have to improve the appearance of her place— a brick shoebox littered with drag shit, wilting plants, Basil’s toys, soda-stained paperbacks, and a few too many mini vodka bottles. But she won’t have to tackle that insurmountable task, as her Spiritual Astrology induced thoughts and feelings are confined to the emails she and Este send back and forth. It’s nice enough, as close to therapy as she can stomach, and she doesn’t have to unmute the class clown who is a white guy with dreads.

The class is a gift from her most recent boy toy: a pseudo-sugar-daddy who launders the money that trickles down from his rich parents via purchases for her. Sometimes he does it through loans, whenever she needs to re-convince him that she’s more financially responsible than she really is. Though really, it’s to re-convince herself. He offers her whatever she wants with no interest every time she fists him while she wears his latest lingerie or latex purchase.

It is a common practice for men to offer her whatever she wants. They usually can’t provide.

“Everyone’s input today has been a joy to hear,” Este concludes, while Katya munches on honey-butter almonds. The guide’s wrinkled brown eyes gaze warmly into the webcam. “I want to leave you all with a hint of what we will be discussing for our next class: Sleep is fundamental to good health… Have a great rest of your week, darlings.”

Katya drafts an email to Este after she finishes assembling her look for work tonight: a choppy hair unit a la Joan Jett (but blonde), sky blue eyeshadow, overdrawn red lips, an orange patent leather tiger-print tube top with a matching mini skirt, two layers of purple tights, white leg warmers, and tan shearling-lined boots. She’ll take those last two articles off once inside, in exchange for a pair of wooden clogs.

She throws on a leopard print coat, ties a vintage red silk scarf around her head, scratches Basil under the chin, and is out the door.

Katya shows up 10 minutes late to shake her padded butt at a seedy little gay bar in Bushwick named The Cat’s Meow, which stinks of cologne and beer, and everyone always looks like they have a long, troubled night ahead. Before, in-between, and after her numbers, she gabs with the girls, drinks free shots, and leads on some men and one particularly charming butch.

Sometime past 1 in the morning, she makes the sobering walk from the bar to the Ukrainian-Russian diner more than a few blocks down. The two hideouts are the cornerstones of her life in her early thirties, being within tolerable range of her humble abode in Brighton Beach.

She isn’t alone on her quest in search of syrniki and decaf coffee. Though none of the girls nor a piece of ass tagged along, bar hoppers and insomniacs roam the same neon-washed street as her. This is Brooklyn on a Saturday, so bedtime isn’t a concept known by many. The smell of cigarette smoke and cocktails fill the air, sharing the space with the sounds of indie rock and drunken revelry.

It’s comforting, if not somewhat alienating. She pulls her coat closer around her body and ignores the looks her way.

It’s easier to make the walk as a man than as a woman, with no wig peeling back her scalp or high heels sending a jolt up her spine with every step over uneven concrete. But it’s less rewarding. Cheap food tastes better when she feels she’s earned it. So, aside from the cravings she sometimes gets on her nights off, she almost always arrives on set as Laura Hutton, rather than White Man #5.

Not that she finds herself ugly as a man. Rather, the right term is ‘unremarkable’. Which is not bad. Anonymity is up high on her list of eternal cravings, wedged in tight between sex and love, respectively.

Katya hasn’t been in love since she was a teenager (it was one time, it was unreciprocated, it was devastating) but last night, she had sex. Waking up hungover, creeping steadily towards death, she shooed the guy out of her apartment as nicely as she could. This means not nice at all, but this doesn’t bother the type of men she picks up. It’s part of the appeal. Mommy issues, she figures. Daddy issues, when she’s hairy and rougher.

She plans to have sex again tonight, in an hour or so, either with one of the first names in her contacts or with that weirdo trade Shea keeps trying to pass off to her.

Katya enters the diner, Polina’s Kitchen, and is welcomed first by the scent of beef stroganoff, then by the lone waiter who wields a coffee pot. He’s cute, in a Midwestern farm boy kind of way, the country mouse to her city mouse, standing out amidst the lonely dedushkas and wasted Eurotrash that she blends in with. He’s quiet, funny, and smart. Smart enough, anyway.

He’s wearing a food-stained white apron around his waist and a country-teeth smile. His hair is shaggy and would fall in his pretty brown eyes if he wasn’t wearing his standard trucker hat. He smells like the Special of the Day. She’s not a hugger, and he isn’t either, but she wonders… 

“Katya,” he says, with fondness that she’d find gross from most men.

“Trixie,” she replies, smiling in kind. His name tag reads Brian. By the Devil’s gay grace, her favorite waiter is a drag queen himself. A Dolly Parton kind of gal. Even sings and plays the gee-tar .

Katya didn’t learn this from going to one of Trixie’s gigs. He’s never been to one of hers either. The two of them really put their heads together to come up with enough excuses that the rules were laid a year and a half back— they haven’t taken this whatever-you-call-it they have across the border. It begins and ends at Polina’s.

Not that she would never be caught dead with him; on the contrary, she would probably spend as much of her time as possible with Trixie. That’s the problem.

“Would the lady like me to take her coat?”

She accepts his offer and goes to her usual booth, in the corner of the small building where she can watch the crosswalk activities as she takes the pins out of her wig. She enjoys people-watching within the diner as well. She’ll chit-chat with the regulars, but she saves her conversational appetite for when Trixie has time to sit across from her and steal a bite of her food. Again, for him, she’ll make exceptions.

Odds are Trixie is her soulmate. Or whatever is closest to that. She’s not afraid to say this out loud, half-joking when they’re having too good of a time, because he knows how to agree without making it awkward. And by that, she means calling it what it is. He has a crush on her, and she on him, there’s no denying, but to entertain it would be stupid.

First, he’s just a year out of college. The age gap is one thing, but then there’s the fact that his bright-eyed idealism hasn’t been ripped from him yet, which is arguably worse. The man has never gone through a Nietzsche phase. And on an astrological level, they’re not compatible. She has a bad, bad history with Virgos.

But most pressing of all: if they went down in flames, where else could she get food this cheap that reminded her of home?

Katya ruminates on this with every hot meal she eats here. She watches him interact with everyone, being patient and sweet, bumping up against their Slavic sensibilities only occasionally— a cruel signal to her that he’d get along well with her family.

He knows her name, first and last, courtesy of her debit card emblazoned with Dmitri Zamlodchikov underneath a portrait of her dog, but he’s never said it, even when she shows up out of drag. She referred to him as Brian when they first met, before they got to talking about their lives, then he promptly encouraged her to call him Trixie from then on.

She wonders what her name would sound like, rolling off his Wisconsinite tongue. She’d let him call her Dimi like her favorite aunt does.

“My dog started this thing where he rubs his nuts over my high heels,” she says this to Trixie once he returns to her booth. He pours coffee into her chipped mug as she inspects her cuticles post fake nail removal. “What do you think that means?”

“You probably should stop letting him watch you when you do it.”

“Fuck off,”  Katya laughs, and tugs on the sleeve of his worn flannel shirt to urge him to sit with her.

*

The sun is rising as she heads home, after she and Trixie exchange a bag of ponchiki for a wad of vodka-and-perfume scented dollar bills.

Now fully de-dragged, Katya decides against having sex, as the only gentlemen who would be up this hour are either insomniac cokeheads or the office drones, and he settles in for the night with a quick jerkoff and falls asleep to Brahms: Intermezzi, Op. 117 - 2. In B-Flat Minor playing on Youtube.

The following afternoon he lights the candles all over his apartment (relishing in the evil possibility of burning the whole ugly building down) only long enough for him to remove the remnants of makeup sludge in the shower. He then hastily blows out all but one candle that he can keep a direct eye on. Katya knows himself too well to do otherwise.

Later, he goes to the black box theatre where he teaches improv classes to those aspiring to be actors and those aspiring to be normal in social situations. It’s a cushy job. He eats snacks and drinks sodas as he supervises from his director’s chair. On days when he feels like genuinely contributing, he’ll slip in meditative practices he picked up from his weekly visits to a mental health clinic during his teenage years.

And no, for all his faults, he doesn’t engage in relationships with his students. Except going on coffee dates with the lesbians, who connect with him on an emotional level better than anyone he’s ever dated long-term. In another life…

*

The next time Katya is at Polina’s, it’s after a messy drag brunch that ends in bachelorette tears. Katya wanting nothing to do with drag… for at least a week. One of the girls went in too harsh, and Katya, despite her best efforts at avoiding drama, ended up being the queen who comforted the straight woman too drunk to know when to shut up during a number.

As if things weren’t fucked enough, she learns Trixie will be filling in for the Saturday night slot she gave up. But to be honest, seeing what could go down does pique her interest.

“I planned on sneaking in incognito anyway,” she says before she can stop herself. “Just to see how it goes without me.”

“To see if we’ll crash and burn?” he asks. She shrugs, but laughs, giving herself away. “You still thinking about doing that?”

He asks it casually, but the way he fiddles with one of the sugar shakers clues her in. He wants her to come. She takes a moment to watch a beeping taxi pass by the window glazed with ice.

“I dunno,” she sighs. This would be the way to do it, though. Slip in and out unnoticed... “I called in sick for the week. If I get busted, it might be the one that finally gets me booted once and for all.”

“I could take the fall for you. Shea sleeps over at my place sometimes, she can’t get too mad at me.”

“Never offer to take the fall for a drag queen. Especially a flaky one like me.”

“Giving me lessons now?”

He makes her smile, despite herself. “Maybe,” she plays with the food on her plate. “Look,  I can’t promise anything.”

“I don’t expect anything from you. If you do come, just let me know if you want to hang out after.”

He pops one of her French fries into his mouth and leaves her with a coffee refill and too many thoughts swimming around in her head to sleep soundly that night.