A Way to Become a Way to Be

By Carl Napolitano

Issue 113, Summer 2021

June 01, 2021

“Dreamscape,” 2020, by Nicholas Loffredo

Lucretia Glamour, mother of the House of Glamour, has been dead for more than a month now, and the young queens she’d formed and raised are crowded in the greenroom for another Friday night at the club without her. They dart from mirror to mirror, hummingbirds in a garden, finishing their makeup, adjusting their hair, donning their looks, but her mirror is empty and, beneath all the bustle, this emptiness still transfixes the room. None of the queens have dared to touch what she has left behind: rhinestoned velvet gloves; slick black pumps pushed aside askew; a box full of lipsticks and knickknacks; bright nails scattered like gemstones; a pair of false lashes, big as butterfly wings, placed gently on a piece of tissue. 

In her own messy corner of the greenroom, where the counter butts against the wall, Cassandra Cassowary sits away from the other queens, alone. 

Cassandra Cassowary had christened herself years before Lucretia died. Lucretia had taken offense at her choice, said, “If you call yourself a big ol’ bird, that’s all they’re gonna see,” but Cassandra had her reasons. 

Cassandra because she was always speaking truth, but no one was ever listening. Always saying, “If you wear that, you’ll look like a fool” or “Leave that man or he’ll hurt you” and what do they do? They think sequins mean beauty and wear the hideous gown. They think each new man is different and climb right back into the same old pain.

Cassowary because she’s tall and strange and, yes, birdlike—but a bird that would ravage you, slice you open with its dagger claw, if provoked. Cassowary because of her trademark blue beat: a cyan/cerulean/sapphire ghost face. Sometimes she even paints her Adam’s apple bright red like a wattle, as if to say, Clock me, bitch, I dare you. 

Tonight, she doesn’t have the heart to twirl, but rent is soon due and these looks don’t pay for themselves. This used to be one of her few joys at the end of every exhausting week, but if she’s being honest with herself—and tonight she is—since Lucretia died, joy has felt impossible and she hasn’t had the heart to twirl. Not for these faggots huffing poppers and groping each other on the cramped dance floor, getting shitty on two-dollar shots, shoving their wrinkled dollars at her for attention. She knows she should be grateful for them—she should love them—but sometimes she hates them. Tonight, she hates them. Don’t they know what has been lost?

In the greenroom, which sits on the second floor above the revelry, she cannot hear them yet. Only the thump-thump-thump of the music. It is not a heartbeat. She sits in her chair, running her pale fingers through her long silver synthetic hair, looking/not-looking at herself in the mirror. This greenroom isn’t green but pink, the walls painted, on Lucretia’s demand, like a nursery’s—It’s a girl!—but she wishes they would paint it black. The pink is too painful a reminder. Cassandra’s whiskey ginger sits on the counter, the glass sweating. It isn’t as strong as she needs it to be.

She wears a black military cape. She’s painted her eyebrows on dark like so:  \    /

“Why so angry?” Ophelia Glamour says. 

She’s standing behind Cassandra, sipping a gin and tonic, smiling wryly. She rests her hand, her sharp nails ultramarine, on Cassandra’s padded shoulder and together they look as though they’re posing for a portrait. She wears a crimson bandage dress; it hugs tight her big padded curves, as if her entire body were a bleeding wound. Waves of billowing auburn hair, parted in the middle like the Red Sea, frame her round face and light upon her shoulders. Her face dewy and subtle—a sun-soaked sienna. Her lips painted a pale, translucent pink. She doesn’t block her brows, drawing new ones big and high-arched. She uses her natural brows, only plucks and shapes them, fills them in a little. 

Tonight, however, there’s something different about her. Cassandra can’t quite put a finger on it.

Ophelia’s gaze meets Cassandra’s haggard eyes in the mirror and she wonders if Cassandra’s about to cry. “Oh, this cape is so tough, so masc,” she says, picking a spot of lint off the wool, trying to kiki. She truly admires the garment but sometimes her deep-down mood bends her voice into hard shapes she doesn’t intend it to take. She didn’t step over to start a fight.

Thanks,” Cassandra spits, glaring at Ophelia in the mirror.

Ophelia laughs. “Chill, girl. You know I live for your looks.”

 “I know. But you don’t have to be a bitch and say I look like a man.”

Sometimes, Cassandra is a man. Sometimes, she isn’t. Sometimes, she’s neither.

Tonight, she’s nothing. 

“I didn’t say you looked like a man. I said this look was manly. That’s what you were going for, right?”

Ophelia is all woman all the time. Tonight, she is a tired woman, a sad woman. A woman streaked with small holes like a pair of tights, holes that threaten to tear wider and wider, until the skin is left bare and scars are revealed. She is trying to be patient with Cassandra. She’s heard Cassandra drunkenly orate on the Tyranny of Realness many times before. “Why should I break my neck just to fulfill their fantasy of a woman?” Cassandra would shout. “What about my fantasy? It’s mine—mine!” Lucretia would cut in, “Hush, child! Nobody’s telling you what to be,” then look Cassandra up and down with an exaggerated bob of her head and add, “Clearly.” Ophelia and the other queens would burst into hoots and laughter, snapping their fingers—Read her!—and Cassandra would be swept up with no choice but to join them in their cheer. Ophelia has always respected and admired Cassandra’s willingness to make herself garish, to become ugly—to turn her inner feelings out onto the world. But lately, Cassandra has been brooding around the club as if she were the only one who’s lost their mother. 

“I was just joking,” Ophelia concedes. “Trying to lighten the mood.”

Cassandra sighs, retracts her fangs. Ophelia is right, anyways. Her look is masc. Tonight, she’s serving solider on the front line of the War on Splendor, so exhausted by the expectation to serve beauty, opulence, grace. But where is her bayonet? Where is her sword? Where is her drummer boy who gets shot in the crossfire? And where—where—is her army? Who will join her against this constant siege? She nods to Ophelia, half smiling. 

Ophelia half smiles back. She cocks her head. “So,” she says, “I hear you’re doing ‘Cruel’ again.”

“What do you mean again? I did it a month ago and I want to do it tonight. What? You think it’s bad?”

“No, not at all.”

The song was “Cruel” by St. Vincent. Trapped bright and flat by the stage lights, Cassandra staggered and swayed across the stage in her stilettos, as if her body were on the verge of falling apart, which was exactly how her body felt. Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you? If you could want that too, she mouthed wistfully, operatically, along with the song, limbs akimbo. When the chorus came—an echoing of the word cruel—she was doubling over, vomiting up the word, a great ache in her gut that wouldn’t come out with it. She looked out at the audience with desperation, but they were a mass of dark shapes that gave her no comfort, only applause. When Cassandra finished, Ophelia had to fix her own makeup. Back then, not too long ago, the performance felt right. They were performing in tribute. Tonight, however, Ophelia knows that isn’t what the faggots have come to see. She knows Cassandra knows this too. 

“It’s just we’ve seen it already, and so recently.”

“But isn’t BonBon doing her baguette number again?”

Hearing her name, BonBon Vivant steps over, leaving Dizzy Dazzler sipping her vodka cranberry, drunk already, and Thelma Louise Glamour taking dozens of selfies in her mirror. “Who’s talkin’ about me?” BonBon chirps. She wears a fitted forest green turtleneck and a matching beret over a cute brown bob that Ophelia calls her Amélie hair. Her cheeks are big and rosy from an inordinate affection for blush and the almost empty wine glass in her hand. 

“Just me,” Cassandra mutters. 

“Aw, an admirer!” BonBon bends over to give her a kiss on the cheek but one so light as to not mar either of their makeup. 

“You’re doing your baguette number, right?

“Mm-hmm!”

BonBon’s baguette act consists of her lip-syncing cartoonishly to “Lady Marmalade” from Moulin Rouge while feeding the audience big bites of a fresh-baked baguette that she holds between her legs, at her crotch. She slaps the faggots on their faces with her hard-crusted dick, mock fucks them if they bend over for her, and sometimes bends over herself to take an autofellatious bite of the bread. The faggots roar with applause and laughter every time. They give tip after tip just to get a taste of her. By the end of the performance, she’s left with only a handful of baguette. She makes a big show of soaking it in red wine and savoring every mouthful as the scattered dollar bills are collected from the stage.

Cassandra turns to Ophelia, clutching her glass tight. Ophelia looms large above her. “So why isn’t it an issue that BonBon is doing something old?”

BonBon reaches for Cassandra’s hand and holds it gently. “What’re you doing, Cassy?”

“She’s doing ‘Cruel’ again,” Ophelia answers then finishes her drink.

“Oh.” BonBon’s face scrunches up for a moment before softening, releasing. “It’s a beautiful number. So powerful, and moving.”

Cassandra smiles up at BonBon a genuine, sad smile. “Thank you, Bonnie.” She turns to Ophelia. “So, what’s the problem?”

Ophelia sets her empty glass down hard on the countertop, turns to the mirror, bares her teeth, checks them for lipstick, and tries to collect herself. All her life she’s taken the feelings and desires of others into account not for their sake but for her own survival. It isn’t fair. “Nothing’s the problem,” she says, her voice gentle as a lamb growing horns. “But don’t you think you might do something more crowd-pleasing tonight? Girl’s gotta make some coin, right?”

The thought of doing anything to please anyone makes Cassandra want to fall into her drink. Wasn’t this supposed to be her freedom? Her escape? She says nothing, only stares dully at her reflection in the mirror, but it isn’t herself she sees—it is a creature she knows well but cannot name. 

Ophelia turns her back to the mirror, leans back on the counter. The edges of her hair catch the light from the vanities. She knows she’s said that all wrong—pussyfooting, accusatory. How would Lucretia have said it? How would she have snatched Cassandra out of her gloom? Where did that grace come from? And why did she have to go and die on them like that? Why must Ophelia be the one to pick up the pieces, to keep their house alive? “Look, you can do ‘Cruel,’” she says, “but do a second song, won’t you? We’re all doing two songs anyways. We’ll tell Mike to add it to the playlist.”

“Yeah, Cassy!” BonBon chimes. “You can pull out something fun, like Madonna—or Gaga!” She shakes Cassandra’s still body, as if to rattle something inside of her back to life. 

The thump-thump-thump of the music below persists. 

“I’m so fucking sick of Madonna and I fucking hate Gaga,” Cassandra says in a voice more shatter than speech. 

BonBon gasps so sincerely it’s almost comical but nobody’s laughing. She clutches her turtleneck at her breast. Everybody knows she’d give her heart to anyone she loves in need and Cassandra is certainly in need, but would she receive BonBon’s heart as the precious gift it is? “You don’t mean that!” BonBon says. “Remember when you did ‘Like a Virgin’ in that chastity belt? You had so much fun. Everyone loved it!”

“Well, I’m not gonna have fun tonight if I’m being forced to do it. Just let me do what I want. Just leave me alone.” Cassandra tilts her head back at a gruesome angle, shakes a few ice cubes into her mouth, and crushes them with her teeth. She doesn’t mean the last part, though. If she really wanted to be alone, she would’ve stayed home in the mess of her bedroom, taking pulls from a handle of cheap liquor and watching a video of her favorite performance by Lucretia on repeat: Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Lucretia in only a simple black dress, encircled by the spotlight. No spectacle or cheap thrills. Just her glistening face in perfect harmony with the words, the music, conjuring a great and fervent storm. The entire club in an enchanted hush and murmur. Cassandra’s face shredded to tears. 

But the video isn’t enough. Lucretia is made small on the screen, so very far away. It is here at the club that Cassandra can still smell remnants of her perfume, bright and floral, and the deep sweet musk of her sweat. The other girls must smell her too—surely, they must—but still Cassandra says, “Just leave me alone,” and yanks her hand out of BonBon’s and it’s all Ophelia can hear and see.

Ophelia moves a stray lock of auburn hair out of her face and back into the sculpted waves of the wig with a calmness that belies the heat rising in her face. The wig fits a bit too tight on her head. She leans toward Cassandra so that their faces are close enough to kiss. Ophelia cannot hold back any longer, her capacity for kindness snapped short like a bone. “If you don’t do something that won’t depress the shit out of the crowd, Craig and Louis are going to fire you. I’ve heard them talking. They’re not happy.”

Cassandra flicks a nasty laugh right into Ophelia’s face. “Like I fucking care what Lewis and Clark think about my drag! What the fuck do those assholes know? It’s not like they pay us what we deserve.”

Ophelia keeps her voice level, her face stone still, made into marble, hard and gleaming. How can Cassandra be so reckless, so self-destructive? So stubborn. So selfish. “And what’re you gonna do when they cut ties with you?” There’s only one other gay bar in town, and Cassandra already pissed off the owner more than a year ago with her discomforting performances and her distasteful take on the art of female impersonation—which is to say her guts.

Cassandra’s face distorts like a molding jack-o’-lantern, a flame spitting from her mouth. “Why can’t you let me deal with that? You think I don’t know they’re getting sick of me doing weird, sad shit every weekend? You should be worrying about yourself. They’ll dump your ass too, one of these days, if you don’t watch it. She’s not here to protect you either. They’ll replace you with some eager little queens who learned drag from a YouTube video and only want attention. But you don’t see that. You think they actually care about us. You think you’re safe because you’re beautiful, and you do what they say because you’re so goddam eager to please. Well, you’ve always been good at bending over for men with money.”

Cassandra’s head snaps to the side, the blue of her makeup caught on Ophelia’s palm. The sting of the slap dazes her. “Ophelia!” BonBon cries. Ophelia swallows the spit collected at the front of her mouth. Cassandra’s beat is blurred on her cheek, like an afterimage. What if Ophelia fucked it up even more? Cassandra smeared into submission, all that smugness smothered. No, she doesn’t want that, even if it would feel good. She takes big, heavy breaths. “What—the hell,” BonBon stammers. 

Cassandra is making a sound that is neither laughter nor whimper. The pain sparkles and fades on her cheek. She rights her head, looks up at Ophelia, and then sees it, what’s so different about Ophelia tonight. It’s the hair. She’s seen that wig many times before, but Ophelia has restyled it drastically—cutting it short, setting it in waves, parting it down the middle, making it something almost entirely different, almost unrecognizable. But Cassandra sees and something inside her ruptures. She steadies herself and stands. 

“You’re wearing her hair.”

It’s a statement of fact said so flatly that Ophelia doesn’t know how to read it nor how to respond except to return the flatness. “Yes. I am.”

Cassandra throws her glass to the ground and it shatters. She lunges at Ophelia, who claws at her face, and they fall onto the constellation of shards. Ophelia rips the silver hair from Cassandra’s head. Cassandra cries out and bites Ophelia’s arm. They tangle and writhe, a snarl of limbs and rage. The shards cut through their tights, their skin, and blood smears. BonBon is shrieking. Thelma Louise shrinks into the corner. Dizzy is so drunk she’s unfazed. The wig stays firm on Ophelia’s head. For a moment she’s pinned but then she knees Cassandra in the crotch and Cassandra crumples. Ophelia traps her in a headlock. She struggles, and then she doesn’t. Then, she is weeping.

Black streaks down her blue face. “You stole it from her,” she sobs.

“She was going to give it to me,” Ophelia says. She loosens and shifts her hold so slightly it becomes an embrace.

“Bullshit,” Cassandra chokes. She plucks her silver wig from the floor and holds it to her chest like it’s a dying creature. 

But Ophelia is only half lying. Once, far before Lucretia fell suddenly ill—when she’d just taken young Ophelia and Cassandra under her wing, before they even had their names—she brought them home to her one-bedroom apartment to teach them all she knew. She let them rummage through her closet of dresses and gowns and try on her nice, lace front wigs, the ones she’d won pageants in. And it was then she saw Ophelia in auburn and it made her smile something big, her smile a bounty. Made her say, “That hair was made for you, girl.” Doesn’t Cassandra remember that day too? Of course, she remembers. She could never forget. How powerful she looked in the blond beehive. How good she felt in violet velour. How big her heart bloomed seeing for once a way to become, a way to be. 

What was it that Lucretia saw in them back then? What was it that made her take in these two hapless girls and give them beauty, give them art? Is it gone now? Was it buried with her? 

Who are they without her?

Ophelia begins picking the glass from her and Cassandra’s skin. BonBon hands her tissues to wipe up their blood. The cuts are minor, but each one deepens Ophelia’s regret. How could she have let her sister ache like this, all alone? Why has it taken her a month—and violence—to hold her this tender and close? To tend to both their wounds? The door opens slightly and there’s Craig’s head with his straight white teeth and trendy high fade haircut. “What the fuck happened?” he says. “You’re on in fifteen.”

Ophelia scowls at him. “Just get us a fucking broom. We’ll be ready.”

Craig’s head disappears.

For a moment, there is silence. Cassandra lies collapsed in Ophelia’s lap like a Pietà.

Then, Cassandra’s voice, now soft and quiet, a powderpuff: “I’ll perform another song—a fun one, I promise—if you please just take off that hair. Wear something else. It hurts too much to see you in it.”

Ophelia takes Cassandra’s silver wig and tries to comb out its tangles with her fingers and nails, but the tangles persist. What Cassandra’s asking for isn’t much, right? Oh, if only that were true. Each time Ophelia gets on stage, a part of her breaks off in the torrent of sound and light and movement. Tonight, the wig is keeping her afloat, keeping her together. “I can’t,” she says. “I need it. I need her. And I need you.”

Cassandra wants to protest, but she knows she’s made a selfish request and Ophelia looks so beautiful. Who would she be to take that beauty away from her? She needs Ophelia too.

Then, they both feel hands lifting them. BonBon and Thelma Louise hoisting them awkwardly, clumsily, but still, up is the motion, up is the way. A broom arrives and what is broken is swept away. Ophelia fits the silver hair back upon Cassandra’s head and pins and sprays it up into a mass like a bird’s nest from a fairytale. What great bird might land there? What strange eggs might it lay and leave? Will Cassandra be able to carry these eggs without dropping them? Will they hatch, squawking, naked, and helpless—mouths turned up toward the sun? Will they grow cerulean feathers, sapphire wings? What song will she teach them—give them? 

Cassandra faces the mirror. Her face is ruined, but she considers it for a moment. She takes a tube of lipstick from the box at Lucretia’s mirror and makes her mouth a brash, burning red, but she leaves the rest of her face smudged and in shambles. It’s far better and truer than anything she could’ve painted herself. In the back of her throat, there’s a warmth returning. Her breath fogs the mirror as she leans in close. She starts mouthing the words to a bright song she once loved. 

The rest of the queens ready themselves as well: slipping on their heels; finishing their drinks; affirming their reflections, and each other, one last time before they take the stage.

Carl Napolitano

Carl Napolitano is a writer, potter, and drag performer from Little Rock, Arkansas. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received his MFA in fiction, and his work has appeared in Assaracus, CRAFT Literary, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. He has served as an associate editor for Sibling Rivalry Press and a resident artist at the Iowa Ceramics Center. Follow him on Instagram @carlnap.