"Well of course I totally know what I'm doing!" declares Twinky as he paints beneath his left eye a purplish lesion, the darkest yet, like a football player's grease stripe. "And even if I didn't, like you think I'd let on?" He sets down the brush. "There." Leaning back from the mirror of his white vanity, he admires himself, inspects his nineteen year old face: skim-milk skin, dusty charcoals and ashen greys contour his already prominent cheek bones and narrow chin making them all the more gaunt and skeletal. A dozen sarcoma lesions of varying size and shape cover his neck and face and shaved scalp, and whenever he twists or smiles they animate like blueblack amoebas against his ghoulish pallor.
Twinky's reflection faces me in the mirror, and as his eyelids and lips sneer back in a toothy, silent scream, he resembles the undead Barbara Steele from Black Sunday. "Well," he asks self-satisfied, "whatta ya think?"
"Looks great, Twinky," I answer, "but--"
"Uh uhhhh," he interrupts. "Joshua, sweetie, today I'm not Twinky, but Sara Coma, Glamazon Activist Extraordinaire! The first drag queen on a mission against my so-called fellow activists. Some nerve, huh? 'This will be a serious protest,'" he whines in a nasally mock, "HA! We'll see who is and isn't 'appropriate.' Hurry up with that gluing. I'm like, almost ready."
Sitting on his bed, I Superglue coffeecanfuls of rhinestones onto one of those powder blue hospital gowns, transforming it into a gem-encrusted suit of armor. All the protection we can muster.
A protest is being staged at a pharmaceutical company today, and the organizers thought none too highly of Twinky's idea: the indefatigable Sara Coma leading an army of angry drag queen patients with names like Anita T. Cell, Dee Mentia, Ann Hibitor, Angie O'Gram, and my suggestion: Rhoda Recovery. The activists lately have rejected Twinky's more outrageous ideas. So he's protesting them at their dawn demonstration.
"Don't worry, Twi . . . uh, I mean," I can't quite address him by his new drag name, "I've just a few more to go."
"Perrrrfect," in his signature Eartha Kitt. A smile cleaves his ghastly reflection in the vanity mirror. "We're actually ahead of schedule, a total first for us drag queens. That means plenty of time for you. If you changed your mind."
We sit in The Pepto Palace, Twinky's tiny studio where the walls and ceiling are a shade of pink that taffytwists your stomach despite its name. The hardwood floor as well as the furniture -- a dresser, bedbox, steamertrunk, and the vanity -- are white. All Twinky's doing. From his groundlevel apartment, a picture window faces morningdark Castro Street, the curtains tied back so the world can watch him on his pink and white stage. The first businessmen of the day, the neighborhood's Financial District queens, rush by in their colorless suits in the colorless predawn.
"Have you changed your mind, Joshua?" he asks.
"Does it feel weird getting ready so early?"
He looks back at himself in the mirror, back at me, back at himself. "Not really." He spears syringe earrings through each lobe. He taps them like expensive Christmas tree ornaments. "I usually always get ready at dusk, feels the same when you can't see the sun but it's still light out. Hope dawn works just as good for me as sunset. For both of us, that is."
I glue the last glass stone. "Do you think maybe they have a point? I mean, good taste and all?"
He stands and faces me wearing only his bra and his dragon pants: tight leggings of overlapping purple sequins sewn into a reptilian hide. "I think they sometimes forget who they're acting up for." He looks at the studded hospital gown in my hands. "Perrrrfect!"
I help him into his armor, twist the fabric around his svelte, scaly hips, balance the pads just so on his bony shoulders, tie the blue strings in the back for him. "Thank you, sweetie. I'd be totally lost without you." He gallivants off to his closet-sized bathroom, rhinestones clank like chainmail. The shoosh of aerosol indicates he's prepping his wig. Hairdryer starts.
I sit down at the white vanity and swipe my forefinger across a disc of black shadow labeled CARBON. Dabbing a bit beneath my left eye, I imagine my face covered with lesions. I could still join Twinky. Part of me so desperately wants to protest today, if only to protect him. But why can't I? Fear of those rowdy activist boys? The awkwardness of doing drag in daylight? Facing the disgusted looks directed at Twinky and me? Facing myself in the mirror? Or maybe what Twinky's doing is too extreme. Maybe it's not about good or bad taste, but just that it's so way out there that we'd turn people off, that they'd not listen or pay attention. Or maybe that's just my excuse. That we'd be more "them," like the religious freaks in Union Square, or the fire hydrant shouters who wander Market Street, "them," fringe activists shrieking angry diatribes into the dense San Francisco fog. I just don't know. God, if Twinky can do it . . . I can't even call him by his drag name. I suddenly feel so much older than him, much more than three years.
I stare through the mirror at the picture window behind me. How I'd love some wraith, some spectral face like Twinky's to appear there in the outside dark. How I'd love to be like Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, Vera Clouzot, haunted by apparitions in their mirrors, turn and they're gone. How I wish, how I want to be shocked, scared into joining Twinky, how I need some prime mover to frighten me to action.
I squint at my reflected lesion then press my forefinger against the glass, the glass presses back against my reflected finger. Funny, no matter how hard you force against a mirror, no matter how you strain, you never quite touch your own reflection. I wish I could, though. I wish the glass would give way, turn soft and gauzy like it did for Alice when she entered Looking-Glass Land. I bet my reflection, my looking-glass self would join Twinky in an instant.
The hairdryer stops.
"There! All done." He emerges from the bathroom. "Tah dah!" He wears his stringy chemo wig: a platinum baldpatched ratnest cut so swaths of his scalp show through. "Almost ready." Through the vanity mirror I watch him sit on the bed, pick up a pair of white bunny slippers also covered in lesions, and gently brush the long ears. He looks up at my reflection, smiles in acknowledgment of the blotch on my cheek. "Second thoughts? Great! We'll fully get you together. I got that old bathrobe, and dark eyes and sunken cheeks don't take much. Maybe some I.V. scars? Hey, there's your name. Ivy Scar." He looks up at my reflection, head cocked, his dusty grey lips in mock pout. "Like, what's Sara Coma without her best friend in crime?"
"If I miss one more day at work this month they could fire me," a lie that half hangs in my mouth like overchewed pancakes.
Twinky picks at the slippers.
"Why again do you wanna do this? I mean, what's the real reason? It could be dangerous."
"Well I figure they totally might beat the shit outta me, right? But if I don't go, it's like, they already beat me." He looks up from the bunnies. "You know, once you hold yourself back, nobody's gotta do it for you."
"But what exactly did they say? Their reasons?"
"They're just not the way they used to be. Like, their ten year anniversary is coming up, and they're talking about throwing some big fancy party or something. I think they should totally burn down a building or block a bridge or something."
Twinky finishes the bunnies, sets them down, looks up at me blankly. I turn around and ask, "Would it make a difference, do you think, if we . . . you were actually sick?"
"Joshua, does it really matter?" He steps into the slippers. "Like, how would anyone know in the first place? And besides, we fully would act like it anyway, like good drag queens."
Facing myself in the mirror again, I examine my lesion. There, Joshua. There. Imagine your face full of them, your whole body riddled. That enough? Just add a few more. Screw work. What kind of a friend are you?
But I rub the shadow off, only to make a warpaint smudge across my cheek, lick my thumbs and scrub myself vigorously clean. Twinky ignores me, spit-polishes a sequin between thumb and forefinger.
I walk over to the picture window, the glass screen for the outside world, and look for the ghosts, for the dawn. None. Just a faint shadowy glow that may or may not be false dawn, but I've never really understood what exactly a false dawn is. Seems to me that it's either going to be dawn or not. But nothing to show me the difference out the window. Nothing. Another businessman walks by, doesn't look in.
Twinky opens a doctor's housecall bag. His studded mail shining and clinking, his dragonhide glimmering with every step, he clanks over to the vanity and fills the bag with his wallet, touch-up make-up, loose coins, sunshades, a corn muffin. He produces two latex gloves from a drawer and stretch-snaps them on. Flexing his gauntletted hands, he smiles. Looks over at me. Smile stops. Turns to the sign leaning near the door. Bubblegum pink nailpolish reads:
Doctor's bag hanging from the crook of his elbow, Twinky hoists the sign like a quarterstaff, faces me. "Ready for battle. And you?"
I turn back to the window where sudden sepias and purples will soon dawn orange and pink, and the Financial District folk continue by. One looks up at me and keeps going.