Fortune Cookie Dupree was loaning me hair. It was too big for me, a neon green wig that hung over my eyes and shoulders and singed a little every time I smoked. It already had twisted bits at the end, like split ends on real hair. I meant to wear it with a red velvet bra and matching candy cane strap-on from Stacy’s Adult Toy Box—thinking to be like Christmas, ho ho ho—but in the end, the look didn’t really come together like I thought it would. I ended up painting myself in a tutu all Grinchy-green to match the wig. I had some wings that were looking mangy, which only happens if the feathers are real, but I spray painted them the same color on the porch and tied them on. At the last minute, I added a snare drum, which wasn’t green, but kind of worked anyway.
LUSH was an empty warehouse on the east side of town, a squat for half a dozen scum punks. In the past, I had spent a lot of time there, but since Fortune Cookie went to L.A. last summer for some man, I hadn’t been back. I heard Fortune Cookie was back in town about a month ago, and she invited me out with her. Sybil War and Anna Freeze would be there too, I figured. I don’t know why I said I’d go with her. Sometimes, I just like to pick a scab, see how much I can take.
Fortune Cookie usually performed at a Drag’n Brunch on Saturdays, so we weren’t going to LUSH until she was finished changing her look. She wanted to be a crystal ball that night, a cascade of rhinestones over a nude sparkle bodysuit with a battery-driven pulse of color buried deep between her boobs. With her heels, she stood six and a half feet tall. Fortune Cookie was my best friend. I had known her since she was Nathan the Mormon and my eighth-grade lab partner at Steely’s Bend Middle School.
It was one of those warm nights you’ll sometimes get in Nashville during winter. We had the windows open in her Civic, and I’d taken the hair off so I could smoke. Houses were decorated with puffy snowmen and Santas glowing on the grass. Sometimes, there was even music, though who would hear it if they didn’t have their windows down, I don’t know. People really get into this decorating stuff, even people who think queens are freaks. Fortune Cookie’s folks were like that, but we still liked to drive through the neighborhoods, see the lights during the season, think about all the things we would ask for if there someone worth asking.
It was past midnight by the time we got to LUSH, and the party was just starting. A line of people stretched around behind the building. There was a young man at the door taking money who I didn’t recognize. Outside the Civic, I struggled with my wig, trying to get it straight back on my forehead, strapped on the snare, and marched up to him like I was in a fucking parade. Sure enough, a handful of people laughed, clapped, and hollered. Someone whistled. He didn’t make us pay to get inside.
“Tell me if you see her, alright?” I called to Fortune Cookie, loud so she could hear me. Inside was music, painted bodies, two escape artists in cages on a scaffold. People kept brushing up against my wings, and it was making me paranoid one of them might be the person we were looking for. I kept spinning around, bumping into more people, checking to see if it was her.
“Are you shook? Of course, I’m going to tell you if I see her.” Only as loud as it was, I had to kind of think of what words she might be saying and put them together like I could hear. But I knew why we were there. It was for Beth.
Beth was Fortune Cookie’s sister. Six years younger, she had only been a kid when Fortune Cookie got kicked out, so not even twelve when shit hit the fan. I was already at the university by then, so Fortune Cookie came to me, crashed in my dorm room, until she found a place of her own. As far I knew, her parents hadn’t spoken to her since she left, even though she sent cards for the holidays, which was more than I ever did. But as it turned out, Beth had tracked her down using one of those cards, because a few weeks ago, Fortune Cookie received a letter. It was handwritten, all print letters except for a name, signed like an autograph: “Dear Nate, I am sorry it took me this long,” the letter said. “I hope you are well. I am fine. I don’t know if you remember Reverend (“Reverend!” Fortune Cookie cried, pressed a palm hard over her mouth) but he died last month from old age. That’s what the vet says. Mom and Dad don’t talk to me much, so I don’t know if that’s true or not. I found your address on a Christmas card in the trash. I hope you are still here. I want to come visit. Love, your sister.” A cell phone number was written post scriptum, like she’d only just remembered.
Fortune Cookie called her that afternoon, and they’d been texting ever since. Beth was seventeen and a senior. She liked her chemistry teacher. She was applying to seven different colleges. She was nervous about the SATs. She’d played viola in the orchestra–4th chair–but dropped it this year because the director was a cunt. She actually used the word cunt. She’d had a boyfriend. It was complicated. This was conveyed via few words and a lot of cat emojis. A few days ago, Fortune Cookie showed me a text: Beth would be out for Christmas vacation and had worked a ride to Nashville with a friend who, Beth had told her folks, was visiting grandparents. Something about recommendation letters. Something about Vanderbilt.
I’d never seen Fortune Cookie nervous. The afternoon she was going to meet Beth at a donut shop, she’d changed clothes fifteen times, finally deciding on a pair of jeans and a green silk blouse, with a couple of silver bangles. She could have worked at the bank, she looked so normal, which was, I guess, the point. Even with her most normal-looking clothes, she couldn’t hide who she was, and it wasn’t like her to try. I was working then at a sunglass hut in the mall; Fortune Cookie said she’d come see me after. But when we met up, Fortune Cookie had been quiet, even for her. Beth was applying to SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I graduated with a degree I never used. But Beth was practical. She was interested in textile design and had already done an internship. “It’s just, she can do things,” Fortune Cookie said. “If she wants to do something, all she has to do is do it. I don’t mean that to sound like it’s nothing. I know she works hard, and all. But that’s all she has to do. She doesn’t–” and here she gestured vaguely towards herself, “do all this.”
“That’s you,“ I reminded her. “Glitz, glam, Adderall.”
“I’m all that,” she said, “but that’s not all I am.” It sounded like a line from a stupid country music song, so I sung it back to her until she laughed. Her little sister was having the life Nathan would have had, if Nathan hadn’t been Fortune Cookie and her parents hadn’t been psychos. But she was, and they were, and Beth hadn’t had an easy ride of it either, as Fortune Cookie had been first to say, so I didn’t name her jealousy then, but only kissed her on the cheek and asked if she wanted to watch Project Runway. They were running a marathon.
Beth didn’t text her that night, or the next day. Not until earlier that evening, when Fortune Cookie was doing her nails for the third time. I heard Fortune Cookie’s end, which didn’t give me much. A lot of Hmmm’s and Wonderful!’s. Then I heard her giving directions to LUSH, saying if she wanted to come out for the drag party, we’d meet her there.
“Don’t tweak. We don’t have to stay.”
“But, it’s a drag party at LUSH. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this, kind of thing, you know what I’m saying? Besides which, Sybil War and Anna Freeze.”
“Sorry,” she said. “I forgot.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got your back. But I am not staying.” Which brought us to where we were now, which started to be the start of the story, but of course didn’t end up that way. The party, I see now, is somewhere in the middle of the story, or maybe even the end. Family stories are like that, even when you’re there at the time of. The story you see, the one you tell, is only just one part.
They’d brought in huge electric heaters to warm the space, which was good thinking because it was December, but given the freakishly warm night, made the place like a god damn steam bath. We kept stepping outside just to breathe, one eye inside and one outside. “I’m not staying long,” I kept saying.
“Around one,” Fortune Cookie said. “She might have already left. Do you think she already came and left?”
“She would have texted.”
Then it was one-thirty, then it was after that. There was one girl with a fire baton, tossing it and catching it, all the while whirling a hula-hoop around her waist, and a bonfire of what looked like grade school desks. Around the fire, a half-dozen tattooed kids were playing a fiddle, banjo, guitars. There was punch made of some kind of sweet corn liquor and pink lemonade, and after I’d had a glass or two I noticed that people were melting in interesting patterns in the headlights of parked cars. I wanted to dance, so I did, there in the parking lot, and then there were other people with me, all of us dancing with the same beat that ran like train tracks in the music. My painted wings were flapping around, making their own breeze. Every now and then I saw Fortune Cookie, because she was so tall, and now, in my altered state, taller still; it was hard to believe that she would fit back inside the car. It was easier and easier to relax into the night, forget the drama, forget where we were. I should have done this years ago, I remember thinking. Green was melting off me, streaking the muddy grass green, green across the gravel, green across the pavement. My wings felt great, strong. I’d finally tossed the wig, and my wings were pushing air against my scalp as they moved. I tatted on the snare, my rhythm arcing and soaring over the fiddle tune, a kind of duet that left the rest behind.
I’d been dancing with her for a while, our bodies finding their groove in the same way, when I made the connection. I knew it, before I could explain it. At first, I clocked the scent of Aveda hair product; Sybil War used that too. But it wasn’t her or Anna Freeze: it was Beth, dressed like a Season Two Mad Men extra, skinny tie and highwaters, wearing it cropped so her tramp stamp flashed every time she turned her backside to me. She wouldn’t have known who I was, I was pretty sure. Even if she hadn’t just been a kid when I left for school, I’d never been welcome over at Fortune Cookie’s. I looked around for Fortune Cookie, but didn’t see her. Beth moved closer, reached to touch my wings, feathers trailed from her fingers, fell around us where we moved. “Beautiful,” she whispered.
I grabbed her wrist and pulled it away. “You’re Beth. Beth Benson.” Her eyes got big. There was a kind of drug-induced tunnel of sound that included only the two of us. I knew she could hear it too. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m a friend of Fortune Cookie’s.” I must have said this a couple of times, holding on to her wrist like she would fly away. She finally shouted “Okay!” at me, whether to let me know she heard me or to let me know she believed me, wasn’t clear. Around her eyes was stained with wet mascara, and she shook loose her hand from mine so to wipe the sweat from her face. Her eyes sparkled with whatever they’d put in the punch.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Let’s get Fortune Cookie. Are you alone?”
She shook her head, but when I grabbed her hand again and started to walk, she came along. We forced our way back into the warehouse, blindly pushing in between the tight crowd of dancers. Carrying the drum was like being pregnant, and now I wielded my belly in front of us like a baton cutting through traffic. My thought was to get us through to the other side, where there was a bar set up, and see if Fortune Cookie were visible from there, but it was so tight that it was impossible to tell which direction we were going. Beth’s face was buried in my wings, and I imagined her resting there, eyes closed, like I was carrying her. It made me want to cry a little, or to slap her awake, to remind her, “Don’t trust me! You don’t even know who I am.” We could have been walking this way for a long time, moving like waterbugs across a pond, when suddenly the bar appeared to my left and I lurched towards it, dragging Beth behind me.
She was heavier than I’d imagined, but when I leaned her ass against a keg, she was at least a head taller than anyone on the dance floor, and so she could see what I couldn’t until I pulled myself up beside her. At the center of the space they’d set up a platform, every side a speaker blaring music, and in center of the speakers, there were three queens dancing, which at the center of them all, as you might have expected, was Fortune Cookie.
It had been a long time since I’d seen her act, and I saw it now as it might have looked through Beth’s eyes. Fortune Cookie’s body was beautiful and strange and enormous. Rhinestones clung to her every curve, a toxic second skin. From dark roots, her blonde hair writhed around her broad shoulders, down her smooth bare back as she moved. But it was her face that caught my attention and held it. It was a gorgon’s face, fierce and proud, a face with anger held so deeply that it let out its own light. Her lips curled towards us; her eyes turned from one to the other, expecting nothing. It was a terrible sight.
But I turned then to see Beth, saw her match her sister’s gaze, her mouth open, her eyes hard, glittering with something that might have been pride. “Gorgeous,” I saw her say. “She’s gorgeous.” But then I saw, like I’d known I would, Sybil War’s shaved head with its make-believe tribal tat I kind of secretly envied, and knew I had to get out of there. “Come on.”
Beth followed me down into the remaining crowd, and we made our way back toward the door. I texted Fortune Cookie to let her know that Beth was with me. As the place cleared of people, the music only got louder and more depressing. My feathers, what was left of them, were thin bones, not really feathers at all. I looked down at my feet, which were stained brown with beer and whiskey and dirt from the dancing earlier. Beth stumbled a little, then caught herself.
“You doing okay?”
She nodded, but she didn’t say anything. Her eyes were less sparkling now, and she looked sleepy. There were sunlight freckles across her nose and cheeks.
“We got to get out of here,” I said for what seemed like the 300th time, though maybe I didn’t even say it out loud. Beth nodded again. I checked my phone to see if Fortune Cookie texted back, but there was nothing. I was starting to think I could see the outlines of trees on the other side of the parking lot. “Were you here with anyone?” I asked, but Beth just looked at me, blinking. “Is there anybody you need me to find for you?” She looked trusting, like a stray dog or something. It pissed me off. I couldn’t look at her anymore; there just wasn’t room in my eyes.
I texted Fortune Cookie again. “I’m still with her. We’re going to take off if we don’t see you in a minute.”
“Do you have a car?” Beth asked me suddenly. “Are you hungry?”
I nodded, then she stumbled into me again. I caught her, and again the sweet smell of her, when we’d been dancing before I knew who she was, caught in my breath. “Let’s go.”
There was a dive bar not far away, a late-night cold-beer place I hadn’t been to in years. We ordered a basket of fries animal style, grilled cheese, Joe’s hot chicken, Frito pie, and a damn sandwich. It was as if we were too tired to make choices, so we just ordered everything we liked, without even talking about it. What do you want? Yes. What can I get you? Yes. I’d left the drums and what was left of the wings in the car. While Beth got a cup of coffee and some packs of mayonnaise for the fries, I went to the bathroom where I washed my face and arms in the sink. Green water swirled down the drain, stained the paper towels I threw in the trash. I made a face at myself in the mirror, then put on whatever lipstick I grabbed from the Civic. It looked freakishly orange in the bathroom’s lights, but it was better than nothing.
“I used to come here all the time,” I told her when I got back. “I used to work late nights in the studios, like, every night. Come here after. It was the best time of my life, I think.”
“What happened.” I swallowed burnt coffee. “I don’t know. Graduated. I had to work. I still do stuff, but, you know, it’s hard to keep up.” Our food came, baskets and baskets of it. We each started in on whatever the fry cook put in front of us.
“Are you working on anything now?” It’s what people always asked.
“I never really know exactly what my pieces are about.” And that was a lie, but Beth nodded anyway, bit into a Frito layered with Velveeta and sour cream and chili, like she believed me, like all my work wasn’t about the same thing, as if it weren’t all about metamorphosis and body hair and what we lose and the first sound we hear in another person’s heart knocking quiet as boat docks, as if I hadn’t just been strumming the same chord again and again and again.
“When I was a kid,” Beth said, “I loved your drawings. They hung them down at the gas station, remember?” She reached over, picked up the last fry from the basket, then dropped it. “I even made a copy of one of them.”
“You copied it? Like, at Kinko’s?” I scooped some egg yolk onto the grilled cheese, then handed her the basket. The bottom was the best part.
“No, copied it, like I drew it. I sat down on the floor and copied it into my notebook.”
“No shit?” I finished the hot chicken, half the bun still left, watched the cayenne drip from bread to the wax paper. “I would totally have given it to you.”
“I don’t think I could have asked you. You know, the way my folks are.”
“I can’t really believe you’re here. Fortune Cookie’s beside herself.”
“I can’t really believe it either.” I shrugged, trying to look casual. There was the feeling about this girl that nothing meant exactly what you thought it did, like every strand of thought connected in ways that you didn’t expect it, or something like that. I picked up the coffee, but I was slowing down. “I think you’d love SCAD,” I told her.
“Yeah, a long way from home.”
Beth was so tall it really was hard to remember that she was seventeen.
My phone buzzed with the text from Fortune Cookie. “Where r u? Can u come get e?”
I showed it to Beth. “Let’s go,” she said. She stood up, then, impossibly, leaned down and touched the toes of her pointed cowboy boots. The skin on the back of her neck looked just like I thought it would. I left a couple of twenties at the bar, which was a ridiculous amount of money even given all we’d eaten, but I didn’t have the brain to wait in line. That text, it seemed to me, had come right in time. I shouldn’t be left alone with this girl. I wasn’t responsible enough, and every minute that passed I felt worse about myself.
The sky was light gray now, with streaks of pinkish-orange over the dark trees. Here and there a string of colored Christmas lights draped over a bush or sagged from the gutters. Morning birds called out at a squint of the moon. Beth had taken her boots off, and her socked feet curled on the dashboard. I turned on some music, so I wouldn’t have to talk. Beth’s hand balled up into a fist she beat against her thigh. She knew the words. Decorations hung at half-mast, damp in the warm air, and as I angled the Civic towards the warehouse, lit a cigarette and reached for a neon green wig no longer there, I thought, pleading, that nothing needed to ever be the same. Fortune Cookie closed the car door behind her rhinestone glitter falling to the seat like snow, and elsewhere, the smell of cologne, and so Beth and I turned to look at our friend together, looking into her eyes, looking back for anything not burning.