My cousin Galena lunged at me, thrusting her sword at my chest. I beat her blade out of the way and advanced, but her blade snuck under mine. She drove the tip into my shoulder, and I felt a dull sting under my collarbone.
"Three to one," she grinned triumphantly under her fencing mask. "Better practice those finger exercises, Mark."
"I can't believe this, I'm losing to a girl half my age and half my size," I grumbled.
"I'm not half your size… more like three-quarters," Galena giggled and swatted me playfully with her blade. The gym door opened, and Aunt Enid waved to us.
"Don't worry, we'll be finished after I beat you in the last two bouts. Then we can go to Grandma E.D.'s house and you can tell her all about getting your butt kicked by your little cousin," she snickered.
"Hah! Dream on, kiddo!" I challenged. But as she predicted, victory was hers.
After practice, I changed into a long, flowy paisley skirt, a strappy tank top, and flip flops. Throwing a trench coat over myself, I walked out of the mens' room and waited until I was in the backseat of Enid's car to put on my long red wavy wig.
"You look splendiferous, Mark." Galena said as I adjusted my wig and put on my makeup.
"I'm not Mark any more," I said. "I'm Jasmine."
"You're a princess!"
"So are you, my dear." I crossed my legs, and Galena giggled and crossed hers. "Now, shall we have tea with our dear Grandmother?" I mocked a British accent.
"Quite so, dahling." She replied, crossing her hands daintily on her lap. "Have you been practicing your knitting?"
"Indeed I have," I said, pulling a mass of duckling-yellow material from my bag. "Eventually this will be a sleeveless sweater."
"Well that's easier than these arm warmers," Galena sighed, showing me a hand-drawn pattern.
"It would be a lot easier if you didn't use black yarn," I pointed out.
Galena shrugged. In the past few months, her wardrobe had darkened significantly, and I noticed traces of eyeliner shadowing her deep chestnut eyes. Dressed in black jeans, a band t-shirt, and studded bracelets, she looked like the teenager she was, but her face still bore traces of its rounded childhood, and Galena swept her long, messy dark hair into a ponytail instead of bothering to groom it.
I remembered when I was thirteen, the day my sixteen-year-old sister walked in on me prancing around in her new prom dress and singing along with Madonna into one of her high heels. She screamed at me, called me a fuckface, and beat me over the head with her shoe as I frantically pulled her dress off until I cowered before her in my boxers, socks, and her tissue-stuffed black lace strapless bra. After she gathered up her clothing and slammed the door, I lay curled under my sheets, quivering and drowning out Madonna with my sniveling.
That evening, we had visited Aunt Enid and her new baby. My sister glared at me when she passed the tiny, wide-eyed infant to me. I stared at my new cousin, and her big dark eyes connected with mine. I smoothed the fuzzy hair on her forehead and promised myself I would always look after her, making sure her life would never be as fucked up as mine.
Over the years, I visited as often as I could, even after I graduated high school, dropped out of art school, and worked two jobs: driving UPS trucks by day and glamming it up at tranny clubs on weekend nights. Despite my sister's reaction to my first "drag performance," my family has always supported me, even if they don't exactly support my lifestyle. I'm pretty lucky for a bisexual drag queen. Aunt Enid doesn't even mind that I take Galena shopping every other weekend, even if I dress girlier than Galena does.
I live in a downtown Seattle apartment with my cat, Krystal, and fortunately, most of my family lives within a few miles. Though my day job involves lots of driving, I can't afford a car yet, so I have to rely on public transportation, friends, relatives, and my feet. Every Sunday afternoon, Aunt Enid takes Galena and me to fencing practice, then knitting lessons at Grandma E.D.'s house. Yes, I'm a 26-year-old girly boy who knits. But nobody seems to mind except Galena, since E.D. always tells her to make her stitches more like mine.
As we rode along the coast of Seattle, I gazed out the window at all the shops and pedestrians. Though I've lived here all my life, every time I drive through the city I notice more and more. Distraught women chasing their children, tired waiters erasing sidewalk specials signs, and painted teenage girls teetering on their platforms all illuminated the city. E.D. once told me that you have to be a creative person to appreciate all of it, and normal people just take it for granted.
Enid parked in Grandma E.D.'s driveway, and we all walked through the overgrown rhododendron bushes shadowing the crumbling walkway. Ivy climbed the bricks, and bright pink begonias drooped around the doorway. E.D. let us in and kissed all of us on the cheek, leaving gooey fuschia smudges that refused to rub off. Her curly white hair seemed frizzier, and her face seemed more wrinkled than last week.
"Hello dears," she said, clearing cracked china from the kitchen table. "It's so nice of you to visit on a day like this. If I knew you were coming, I'd have made some tea."
"But today is our knitting lesson, you knew we'd be here," said Galena.
"It is? Oh, that's right, dear." E.D. smiled and fiddled with her spectacles. She filled a pink flowery teakettle with water, then heated it on the stove. One of the cats gazed down at us from the top of the fridge, and I smelled cinnamon. E.D. served us chamomile tea in plastic cups and asked us how school was going. She still gave us plastic cups because she thought we'd break the ceramic ones, and apparently she had forgotten that I no longer went to school. We'd always be children to her.
She guided our knitting needles, occasionally offering us more tea and squawking at the cats when they jumped on the table. I noticed water stains seeping from the ceiling and a trail of ants parading up the side of the counter, but I didn't say anything. My apartment wasn't any cleaner, and I didn't dare criticize E.D.'s housekeeping.
After the lesson, Enid pulled E.D. aside and said, "Mom, I need to talk to you. In private." She glanced at Galena and me. "Mark, perhaps you and Galena could help your grandma out by doing the dishes or something."
Naturally, Galena and I pressed our ears to the door when they went into the living room. After all, if it was about us, we had a right to know.
"Mom, I know how important your independence is to you. After Dad died, you did a good job of keeping the place together. You're a great mother and grandmother, and we all love you, but over the past few years, you've changed. 10 years ago, you scrubbed this house top to bottom once a week, but now the furniture is coated with cat hair and there are dead bugs on the windowsill."
"I haven't had time to clean up," E.D. said. "I've been busy cooking, going to Bible club, and doing crosswords."
"You always found time to clean in the past, even before you were retired. It's getting to the point where you don't make sense when you talk, and you're starting to neglect this house. Mom, you're… you're getting old!"
"Now listen, Martha," E.D. called Enid by my mother's name. "You don't speak to your mother that way, I raised you and your sister from scratch, and I'm not too old to take care of myself."
"When was the last time you vacuumed? The rug is coated with dust! Martha and I have been discussing this for years, and we think it's time for you to move to an assisted living facility."
"No…" Galena whispered, and I rubbed her shoulders. I knew E.D. was getting old, and part of me agreed with Enid. I knew she'd be better off without a big house to tend to, but I always pictured her living in her house until the day she died. My cousins and I always loved going to her house. She let us play with her ceramic figures and watch when her cats gave birth, and she almost always had tea waiting when we arrived. Going to Grandma E.D.'s was always a treat, and I had a hard time picturing us visiting her in a nursing home.
"E.D. can't leave… I mean, she… she can't!" Galena backed away from the door and looked up at me. I saw the shock and hurt in her 13-year-old eyes, and I knew that deep down I felt the same way, though I'd never admit it. "Mark, do something!" She demanded.
"I wish I could," I sighed. " It's not my decision though, it's up to E.D. and our moms," I said. "I don't want her to move either, but she's getting older and even more senile, and she needs proper care. We can still visit her."
"Yeah, in a smelly fogey farm where geezers sing to themselves in squishy chairs and shit their pants all day," Galena frowned.
"Come on, they'll find a nice place for her, somewhere with lots of flowers and nice nurses that will make sure she takes her medication. She'll have people her own age to talk to."
"You're making it sound like she's a monkey going to a zoo. Can't she get a housekeeper or something? You should move in with her, you'd be a good caretaker."
"Yeah right," I said. "I love her and everything, but there's no way I could put up with her every day. Plus, she doesn't need a big place all to herself. It would be nicer if she just had a little room or suite in one of those assisted living places."
Galena glared at me, then trudged off towards the bathroom down the hall. I sighed, knowing I'd never convince her. I had a hard time accepting it myself.
"You don't appreciate anything I've done for you!" E.D. shrieked in the other room. "I fed you and clothed you and made sure you went to school every day, and you're telling me I can't take care of myself any more? I'm 57 years old!"
"You're 83, mom," Enid sighed. "You just forget all the time."
I considered following Galena and comforting her, but I turned on the faucet and scrubbed the massive pile of dishes in the sink, wondering how E.D. handled life without a dishwasher.
On Wednesday night, I dreamed that someone was pounding on my door and yelling my name. The phone jolted me out of dreamland, and I groaned. Who would call me at 3:07 am? I fumbled for the phone on my nightstand and mumbled a "hello."
"Jasmine! You awake?" It was Seth, my neighbor down the hall.
"I am now. What's the deal? I got work tomorrow!"
"Your little cousin was banging on your door for a good ten minutes, but you didn't wake up. She's over here right now, she looks pretty upset. You better get over here right now."
I grumbled to myself, mumbled a "thanks," and hung up. I turned on the light and winced at its brightness. Tossing a bathrobe over my boxers and shuffling into my slippers, I staggered down the hall.
"Oh good, you're awake now," Seth said upon answering the door. He came up to my belly and wore a wife beater and pajama pants. His lover Drew, a massive creature in boxers and bunny slippers, carried a mug to Galena, who huddled in a blanket on the couch.
"Hi," she said softly. "I'm sorry to cause so much trouble."
"Nah, it's ok," Drew handed her the mug. "Here's your cocoa."
"Thanks," she said, then looked up at me. "I… I didn't know where else to go, so I went to your apartment, but you were asleep and they invited me in…"
"Right," I nodded, still too groggy to question her. "Thanks, guys."
"No prob, buddy." Seth said. "We ain't seen this lass in three months, since that fondue thingy you threw. She's a sweet girl, nice to see her again."
Galena forced a smile and sipped her cocoa. Drew sat on the couch with her, and Seth sat on his lap. They made an interesting pair, a giant and a dwarf.
"So why were you two up at this hour?" I asked.
"Oh, y'know, we were just up reading, seeing as we don't gotta work 'til noon tomorrow. We heard her in the hall and figured it'd be better to call you than wake up the whole hall."
Galena shrugged, sinking into the nest of the blanket.
"Well, thanks guys." I said. "Come on, you have some explaining to do." I beckoned to Galena, and she finished her cocoa, set the mug on the coffee table, shrugged off the blanket, grabbed her backpack, and stood up.
"Thanks," she smiled weakly at Seth and Drew, and they waved as we left.
"Ok, so what's this all about?" I asked when we sat down in my living room. Krystal hopped on Galena's lap and purred as Galena stroked her.
"Recently, everything has been really messed up," she said. "Not just Grandma E.D. going away, but other stuff too. And tonight I got into a fight with my mom, and I couldn't take it any more. When she went to bed, I put some stuff in my backpack and came here."
"How did you get here?"
"At night? In the city?"
"It's only five blocks, and I stuck to the well-lit parts of the streets."
"Still, that's really dangerous, and you should never ever do that… next time, call first and I'll come get you. Your mom is probably worried sick about you, and you shouldn't just run away like that."
"I know…" she sighed, and her eyes glistened. "But I had to get out. Just for tonight. Please just let me stay for the night, I promise I'll go to school tomorrow and then go back home, but don't make me go back home tonight…"
"Oh, sweetheart…" I held her, and she sniffled against my chest. "Of course you can stay here, I'd never turn you away. I understand, really, I do. Remember a long time ago when my boyfriend Brandt stayed at my house for a few months when his mom kicked him out?"
"Well don't worry, this apartment is a safe zone. You're welcome here whenever you want, but next time tell me first and I'll make sure you get here safely."
"Thanks," she murmured.
"So why were you fighting? What else is bothering you?"
She told me how her mother wanted her to see a psychologist because Enid thought she was depressed. A girl she had been friends with since 3rd grade had ditched her for being too "weird," and she couldn't stand going to church any more because the pastor was so closed-minded. Her English teacher was a bastard who constantly scolded her for disagreeing with him in class, and he hit on several of her friends, who never did anything about it. On top of all that, kids picked on her and one boy tried to molest her on the bus.
"I elbowed him really hard in the ribcage," she added with a slight grin.
"Good for you," I said, but I felt sick to my stomach. I had sworn to protect my cousin, but I had somehow failed. I saw in her a reflection of my teenage self, a misguided, confused kid tossed around by society and losing hope for the future.
"Excuse me for a moment," I said, heading to the bathroom. I stared at myself at the mirror for several minutes. A shell of a man with stubbled light hair, lonely gray eyes, and the shadow of a morning beard. I looked miserable. I removed my wig from the styrofoam mannequin head and put it on. I still looked awkward and depressed, and I sank to the floor with my face in my hands. I had failed her. I promised myself I wouldn't let her end up like me, but I had failed to protect her. There was nothing I could do for her but be there for her. Though I knew her situation was beyond my control, failure burned in my skull and I clenched my fists against my forehead.
"You ok in there?" Galena said.
"I'm fine," I lied. Taking a deep breath and forcing myself to stay calm, I put the wig back on the mannequin head, washed my face, and set up the couch for her. I climbed into bed again but couldn't sleep, not after what had happened. After a little while, I felt Galena crawl into bed behind me. At least she would be safe for the night, and that thought reassured me. In the morning, I would drive her to school in a UPS truck, and life would go on. Weariness finally prevailed, and I almost ignored my alarm clock in the morning.
Friday night rolled around, and I wore my favorite green dress to Glitter Kitten, the club where I worked. I sat at the bar sipping a Pina Colada and watched Tiger LaRocca prance around on stage, singing and gyrating to "I Will Survive." She looked stunning in a sleek striped catsuit complete with fur around the collar and cuffs and a fake tail she twirled. She had painted black tiger stripes onto her golden skin, and she wore a tiger-eared headband. A dazzling African/Asian-American hybrid, her exotic beauty always mesmerized the audience, and I envied her for it. She could swirl her hips better than any other man, or even a woman for that matter. She walked perfectly in high heels, and I would have killed for her strong, sweet voice.
"Yo, Jasmine, how's it hanging?" A voice woke me from my trance. My friend Wendy walked up to me and sat down on a barstool. Her wild orange hair stuck out at odd angles from her head, making it look like her head was on fire. She wore a studded tank top that said "eat me" and pants that were so baggy she could have fit another person into them.
"Good to see you, girl!" I hugged her and offered to buy her a drink.
"I think I'm the only straight, non-transgendered person here," she giggled.
"Nothing wrong with that," I said. Wendy and I had been friends since high school, when I dated her older brother Brandt, a closet-case jock. Their fundamentalist mother called me an abomination the first time we met, and she kicked Brandt out after she found out we were dating. At first, Wendy befriended me to spite her bible-thumping mother, but we still became great friends, and she visits me at the club every now and then.
"So what's on your mind?" she asked.
"Tiger is such a sexy bitch. I wish I could sing and dance like that," I sighed.
"Yeah, she is pretty hot," Wendy nodded, munching on the olive from her martini. "She gives me the bubblies, and I'm not even into girls."
"She's a man underneath," I grinned.
Wendy shrugged. "Don't worry, you steal the show just as much as she does. You could have a harem of people of every gender if you wanted, you know."
I laughed and watched Tiger pull a rose from the vase atop the piano and toss it into the audience. "Well I just wish I could put as much soul and beauty into my act as she does."
"You can, my dear," Wendy patted my shoulder and smiled. "Trust me, you can."
Grandma E.D. planned to move to the Succulent Gardens Assisted Living Center on Tuesday, and on Monday, I stopped by to help her finish packing. She cooked us a fabulous dinner of beef brisket, green beans, couscous, and mouth-watering apple pie. I was glad that her suite in the assisted living center would contain a kitchen. Despite her senility, she still hadn't forgotten how to cook.
I wrapped her glass animals in tissues and placed them in a box for my mother. E.D. wanted her to have them, plus her good silver. She gave me her Japanese tea set and asked if I would continue teaching Galena to knit. I borrowed her old station wagon and drove her 6 cats to their new homes. My sister and her husband took two, my parents took one, Galena convinced her mom to let her have one, my cousin Elena took one, and I took my favorite, a fat old tabby named Lily. It tore me up to see those cats separated, since most were siblings, and I couldn't hold back my tears while I drove. The cats were family, and they had to leave each other. My mother would take E.D. to the assisted living place the next day, and the cats would miss each other as much as we would miss her.
I hoped Lily and Krystal would get along, but I figured they would since Lily was Krystal's aunt. I remembered when E.D. gave me the tiny ginger kitten as a housewarming present when I moved to my apartment, and I was glad that at least part of the cat family would be reunited.
"Here, you take these," E.D. handed me a box of old books when I returned. She had made a list of who should get what. It seemed like I was reading her will, even though she wasn't dying. I had to sort through 60 years of accumulated junk in some rooms of the house, but I had most of the rooms clean by midnight. My cousin Eddie and his fiancé would move into the house in a few days, and I figured they could sort out the rest.
I packed up E.D.'s car with the stuff I was taking, and I told her I was ready for her to drive me back to my apartment. "I have one last thing for you," she said. She handed me her car keys and smiled. "It might not be a hot rod or whatever you kids fancy driving nowadays, but it'll get you around. All the paperwork is in the glove compartment. Treat her well, kiddo, she's yours now."
"You're giving me your car?"
"I won't need it," she smiled sadly. "I'll have everything I need there, and they have vans going to shopping centers every day. You'll have to come visit me now and then."
"I will." I nodded, biting my lip. "Thanks, E.D." She nodded and hugged me, and I had to leave before I lost it again. But on the way back, I had to grin. I had a car. It might have been an old, ugly one, but at least it was a car.
I drove Galena to the mall in the station wagon that Friday. She suggested that I paint it purple and stick a Barbie head on the antenna, and I thought it was such a great idea that I bought purple paint and a Barbie doll. I gave Galena the honor of pulling its head off, and she said it was strangely gratifying.
"So how are you feeling now?" I asked as we sat down at the food court. "Life treating you any better?"
She shrugged. "Life sucks. It just happens. At least my mom and I are cool again. I agreed to at least talk to a school guidance counselor so she'd stop bugging me."
"Not yet, I will when I'm ready."
I nodded. "It took me ages to find a good therapist. Some issues work themselves out over time, some keep bugging you until you want to explode."
"I wish you were a psychologist, Mark… er, Jasmine."
"Because I can talk to you and really trust you. You're the only person in our family who really understands me, and you're even better to talk to than most of my friends. You're my hero, and I hope I'm not a major disappointment to you because my life is so messed up."
"You're never a disappointment, Galena. I mean… I've been blaming myself for not protecting you from the evils of the world…"
"Why would you blame yourself? I'm the one fucking up my own life here."
I took a deep breath. "I was your age when you were born. My life was just as complicated as yours, if not more so. You know, evil teachers, mean kids, plus the whole puberty and gender confusion thing."
"Well, I haven't had the gender confusion thing yet…" she giggled. "Even if I'm not a girly girl."
"It's pretty weird. I wouldn't recommend it, as much as I like being a gender-bender. Anyway, as I was saying, when I was your age and I held you for the first time, something big went off inside me. You were just a baby, so little and innocent, and I promised myself I'd always look after you so you wouldn't turn out like me, confused, troubled, and alone."
"Really? Aww, that's so sweet," she said. "Why didn't you tell me? That's awesome! So all these years you've been kind of my guardian angel?"
"I've tried," I said. "But I think I've failed you in a way."
"No, no, you haven't. If it wasn't for you, I'd probably be locked up in some mental ward. You haven't failed me at all, you've helped me. Remember when my parents got divorced? You took me out for ice cream and always listened when I was upset. Last week, I was on the verge of insanity, and you let me stay with you and made me feel a lot better. I may be confused and troubled, but at least I'm not alone. I'm a teenager, I'm supposed to be messed up. You at least have the patience to deal with me. So don't go blaming yourself, you've been nothing but amazing."
"You think so?"
"I said it, didn't I?"
I grinned, and for once I felt important. I couldn't blame myself for things beyond my control, and Galena said I was her hero. Perhaps I had accomplished my goal after all. "Now all I have to do is make sure you survive to adulthood with minimal scarring."
She sighed and laughed. "Eh, I don't wanna grow up. I want to go back to being six, when life was decent."
"Don't look to the past, look to the future. Someday you'll look back on all this and you'll be amazed that you survived. Things will get better, just give it another ten years or so."
"If you say so," she shrugged.
"Well, shall we dump our trays and head to Victoria's Secret?" I asked. She stared at me in horror for a moment, then we both burst out laughing. At least we were back to our usual, goofy selves.
The next night, I stood up on stage at Glitter Kitten, belting out Tori songs and glancing suggestively at Wendy, who kept laughing when I ground my pelvis into the piano. Even Tony the poker-faced piano player snickered at my performance. I loved being up there, entranced in the music and expressing myself through impersonating my favorite artists.
The audience cheered after my wild performance of "Professional Widow," and I heard a familiar voice holler, "Go get 'em, Jasmine!" I looked over towards the bar and saw E.D. waving a wine glass in the air, beaming at me. For a minute, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how she managed to get to the club and why she was there in the first place, but I knew she came to see me. She looked so amusing and yet so out of place, a little old lady among leather-clad gay bikers and blue-haired drag queens.
I thought of calling a cab to take her back to the assisted living place, but I decided against it. "Hey, E.D.!" I waved. "Everyone, that darling woman is my grandmother." The crowd laughed, and Wendy helped her to a table in front of the stage. "She's such a sweetie, she gave me her car," I said. "So I'm going to devote this next song to her. It's one of my personal favorites, and you Hedwig fans will recognize it." Several people cheered. "It's called 'Wicked Little Town.'" I nodded to Tony, and he began to play.
"Forgive me for I did not know, 'cause I was just a boy, you were so much more…" I sang. The crowd went silent, and as I felt the music in my blood, I sang for E.D., Galena, and myself. "When you've got no other choice, you know you can follow my voice through the dark turns and noise of this wicked little town." I looked at E.D. and saw tears in her eyes, and I winked at her. All eyes were on me. Even Tiger had stopped chumming it up with the bartender and stood mesmerized.
I finished the song, and the crowd roared. I hopped off the stage and walked over to E.D. She gave me a big hug, and then told Wendy, "That's my grandson!" Despite the craziness of the past few weeks, everything turned out fine, and for once I felt so happy that I could have bought everyone in the club a drink. So I did.