1. Mary: The LandLady, 1966
The corner room was rented out to me as long as I called her mother. In the corner room, honey peaked through the curtains, which infuriated the mold living under my favorite velvet wingback chairs—products of a successful dumpster dive. A fish tank filled to the brim with floating doll heads used to rest on the dresser, which didn’t match the furniture, and was falling apart with equal ferocity as the rest of the place. Mary claimed that it would keep the demons away. The apartment above the Oyster House was cluttered with Asian elephants that turned up their noses for luck, and Indian sex sculptures modeled from ancient copper. We used to rub fat men’s tummies for luck too. We understood we were mixing religions. This is where she took me in. A runaway, with a new mother who was naked and rusting under her kimono. Out of my closet and into hers, I tried on a wig for the first time. She would say, “Blonde suits you.”
2. Gloria: The First Black Drag Queen, 1969
Gloria rented the room directly across from me. Every day she reminded me that she was The First Black Drag Queen over cups of sludge and cigarettes. Pencil sketches done by a famous local artist stuck to me on muggy days when the sun made me pulpy. Her outlines fluttered on yellow paper all over the house. Mary loved them, like any mother would love their first child, slightly more than the rest. Her curvy form was scattered in large chunks that peaked out of dresses. Styrofoam, Styrofoam, Styrofoam. In the summer, she would float through the window and flaunt her oiled skin at me, knocking her teeth together like she was chewing cud. When she spoke, she pronounced every syllable and pecked with each beat like a chicken. It seemed like she embodied every farm animal in one. I learned to speak like her, walk like her—to make myself matter like she did. She lived with my mother and I for a short time, but after the Stonewall riots, the news stopped speaking of her, the cameras stopped reeling, and she packed up her things and left. Her dusty room is still covered in the jewels she left behind. I found a small wooden box with a false bottom that had my name painted across the top. Inside she left me her favorite jewel necklace. It was the one she got from a Duke, so she said.
3. John: The Lover, 1966
Gloria was always bringing men over to the house for me to meet. Much to my complaint, she introduced me to John. When she told me she invited him over for tea, I told her I didn’t want to see anyone, that I wasn’t ready. John was a burly young reporter who had just come back from the Middle East. He shook my hand like a man, and walked like a soldier who was hiding from any bodily hint of vulnerability. I was scared that he was one of those straight men who didn’t know Gloria was actually a man underneath her dress and wig. When he sat at the table, there was a moment where his legs spread apart and he slouched back against the seat, his arm engulfing the back of it like a slab of meat on a butcher block. He saw me and asked for Vodka. There weren’t many men invited back to our place in those days. I responded eyes cast down, “You know I’ve always said the only way you know a true alcoholic is when they order a vodka. They can go home to their wives without them smelling it on their skin.” He responded, “Honey, I will neva’ have no wife.” We both laughed, and I let him teach me in ways that Gloria and Mary couldn’t. The only thing that haunted us was the bedroom. We heard rumors about Acute Infection, Clinical Latency, and AIDS. We heard friends of friends were dying from it. Every time he touched me I heard the IV drip, and the screams of our neighbors who find lesions in the bathroom mirror. John didn’t rush things. We went to the Warhol once to see Gloria’s photos. Photographers took pictures of us looking as salty and sweat stained as Gloria, and our picture showed up in the newspaper that Sunday. Pittsburgh’s Take On Gays. We read it as, “Pittsburgh takes on gays.” We read it as “Gays have AIDS.”
4. John: The Lover 1980
John’s niece’s name was Suzanna. Ever since I met him, he had been building her a dollhouse for her eighth birthday. It was decorated with tiny teapots and chandeliers. The chandeliers were actually made of chandelier earrings we picked up at a vintage shop in Lawrenceville. They looked great on the stage, and they looked beautiful against John’s muscular long neck as the light hit them. All John’s muscles were strong except his heart, which broke over the sight of sparkling jewels or the dancing children in the PPG fountain. It was this innocence that kept me from showing him a letter from his parents that we got January 1990. John contacted them when he was in a reconnect-with-the-parents phase in order to set up a meeting with Suzanna. He hadn’t seen her since she was born. They replied with a typed sheet of paper that read “No Contact Fag,” written in large, heavy hitting black letters. One night, shortly after I received this letter, John and a couple of our friends went to a show where John was supposed to perform. He told me he forgot his tights at home and was going to ride his bike back to get them. He kissed me on the cheek, leaving a red tulip on my pale face. Three men slit his throat while he carried his bike up the steps of Jefferson Street. They cut his throat, but the news never spoke, about him being a gay. After he died, I didn’t have the heart to get rid of the unfinished dollhouse. Each morning I meticulously worked on finishing it. When I finally did, I mailed it, each piece wrapped carefully in butcher paper. Everything was stacked neatly in a box. Her parents returned to sender. They also mailed a note that said Suzanna had drowned.
5. Me: After, 2002
I’m the only one left. Mary died of AIDS in ’85. The smell of Gloria’s lilac perfume still pulses through the house on hot days, and the memories of John are sprinkled around the apartment. A little bit tacked to the mirrors, the bed posts, the refrigerator, and as I remember them, I forget. Like errands, I write them on sticky notes and fill the house with them. They end up under my fingernails and between my teeth. I tried to make new friends, but sometimes I talk to John at a coffee shop and tell him how my day has been. I don’t care that the barista asks me to leave and tells me I am making the other guests uncomfortable. While Suzanna and John play in heaven with tiny furniture, I sit next to the doll heads. Their staring eyes look at my wig—the first one Mary ever gave me. I have to choose to put it on, but all I think of is John’s body when Mary took me to the morgue. He looked made of plastic, his eyes marble. Staring in the mirror, I touch my scalp and remember what I used to tell John, “Put it on John, what’s the worst they can say, that you look like a girl?” My face bakes, vodka bottles litter the floor, and leather tights make bulges under my corset… I am getting too old for this. I walk out the door, and promise John that I will not give up making people feel uncomfortable. We were drag queens once.