The Bay Bridge was jammed and Bob was cursing.
—Fucking traffic. That’s why I left L.A. No way I’m going back there.
Come on Bob, said Claire. What kind of reason is that?
—Besides this old crate could never make it, even if I wanted to take you. Which I don’t.
Claire wanted to press him, but didn’t have it in her. She could wait for later, when he was less riled. And perhaps Bob was right. Chasing some man her mother had had an affair with, what good would that do? But part of her just wanted to leave the Bay area, to get even farther away.
The van was painted the color of rust as if to disguise where the paint left off and the rust began. The wheels rumbled over the steel dividers, the suspension shot. The traffic crawled and stopped, crawled and stopped. Bob fumbled with the gears.
—Christ, it’s the weekend. It shouldn’t be this bad.
—Probably some accident. We should have just taken the Bart.
—Yeah, yeah, tell me.
—You could have picked the armoire up another time.
They had stopped at a used furniture store and so were a bit late for the poetry reading.
—Chifferobe, honey. Back where I come from that’s what we used to call it.
—Well, why don’t you speak with a Southern accent?
—And sound like a fuckin’ hick? Hell, I worked hard to get rid of the back hills of Arkansas. That little twang may play okay for Billy boy, maybe that’s what got Monica all hot and bothered, but it doesn’t do much down in L.A.
—I thought you queers liked cowboys.
We do, he snorted. But a hick and a cowboy are two different saddles.
Ride ’em cowboy, she said to herself. Maybe that’s what I should become.
She thought back to when she first moved in with Bob. His apartment in the Castro just a few blocks away from Skin Dreams. She’d come in for another tattoo, and near the end, she’d gotten enough courage to mention she had no place to go.
He looked up at her and smiled.
—I know that look. It’s the same one you had that first day I inked you. The word that comes to mind is tremulous. Like you’d walked into a den of vampires.
Then he flicked his tongue, just like Anthony Hopkins wooing Clarice in Silence of the Lambs.
Just remember what Jody Foster did to that queen at the end of the film, she told him.
—As if. My dear I knew Jody Foster, I was friends with Jody Foster, I gave Jody Foster her first tattoo. And you, sister, are no Jody Foster.
Bob went back to his needle.
—Don’t you have any parents? You don’t look like one of the runaways around here.
—My dad’s preoccupied.
—And your mom?
Oh, he said, looking up again. Sorry.
She was surprised with how easily she had pronounced it out loud. Like it was a code for something else.
They’d been living together a few weeks. Her father of course didn’t like it, wanted her home and back in school, but he knew better than to tug the line too tightly. He had already lost one woman in his life. It helped a bit when she told him Bob was gay.
After a couple weeks she could tell she was getting on Bob’s nerves. He’d complain if she left any of her things out or on the floor or if anything was out of place or if she didn’t wash her dishes.
—Missy, this ain’t no hotel and I ain’t your maid. Christ, I thought you Japanese were neat freaks.
Claire shrugged. I’m Chinese too.
Bob rolled his eyes. Just clean up your shit, okay, Claire?
When she mentioned once that there was nothing in the refrigerator he told her she could always go back to her daddy. Later he said he hadn’t meant that, but it hurt her. She got a job at a yogurt shop nearby and so at least she was contributing to her keep now. Still, she found herself acting more gingerly when he first came home from Skin Dreams, when he was always the crabbiest. She thought of going elsewhere but where else could she go? Besides some of it was just Bob, and it was a relief to live with someone who actually did get angry when he was angry.
Still he had his closet of things he wouldn’t go into. Just like her mom and dad. One night he got a call and said he had to go down to the hospital. It was one of his customers, a boy named Jimmy. She’d seen him at the shop a few times, a kid not much older than her.
The next time Bob went to the hospital she asked if he wanted her to come with. No, he said, it’s fine.
She didn’t ask him again.
They were finally near the end of the Bay Bridge. She looked down at the waters, glittering out to the south, the docks of Oakland up ahead. They were headed for a reading in Berkeley, some Flip writer. You should check her out, Bob had said. The Flip was part of the group that used to read in the East Bay bars back when Shange was starting out, the whole scene where she found the voice for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enough.
Bob was cursing the traffic again.
—Chill out, Bob, you’ll have a heart attack.
—No way, dear. I’m gonna die cell by cell, not all at once. I ain’t ever going to die from a fuckin’ heart attack. Lou Gehrig’s got nothing on me. Iron man? Shit. Did he ever pierce his flesh? Did he have studs in his nipples?
—You know, I was thinking about that. A stud. In my nipple.
He looked at her out of corner of his eye.
—No way, dear. You’re underage.
—That never stopped you before. Besides aren’t you one of the charter members of NAMBLA?
—We’re not talking Tadzio and Death in Venice here, Claire. We’re talking about the nipples of a sixteen-year-old girl. Anyways all that’s passé. Didn’t I tell you about that? How I did David Carradine’s nipples back in L.A. years ago? Do you want to have anything to do with David Carradine, the guy who drove Bruce Lee out of America and back to Hong Kong?
—What the fuck are you talking about?
—David Carradine’s nipples? Oh you mean Bruce Lee. Well, Bruce Lee’s the one who thought up the whole idea of Kung Fu. You know, the TV program? He thought it was going to push him over the top. But they gave the role to fucking David Carradine, the white guy that they had to makeup in yellow face, squinting up his eyes and all that. That’s when Bruce knew it was time to get out of America.
—You sound just like my father.
She took out a cigarette and lit it.
—I still don’t see what David Carradine has to do with my nipples.
Bob reached over, grabbed the cigarette from her and threw it out the window.
—Hey! What the…
—What did I tell you about those things? Fucking cancer sticks. It’s a joint conspiracy between the government and big tobacco and all those red-neck senators like Helms to get the youth of American hooked on something they can make a profit on. You want to make those asshole Republicans rich, honey? Because that’s what you’re doing every time you light up one of those.
—Yeah, yeah. This public service message was paid for by Billy-Bob Thompson and the committee of fags to wipe out fags. But the catch is, they only let fags who smoke on the committee.
—Very smart, Maria, very smart.
— Broadway lyrics? Isn’t that a little cliché?
In her head though she could hear, stick to your own kind, stay with your own kind. The image of Ashok, her ex-boyfriend, popped into her mind. She tried to push him back out.
—Jesus, Bob. You’re such a fucking hypocrite. Who appointed you my mother?
That word had just popped into her mind. Bob turned to her.
—Get this straight, dear. I ain’t your mother. I ain’t your father. I’m just your friendly neighborhood tattoo artist. You want to kill yourself with those cancer sticks, you want to support old Jesse Helms, go right ahead. But not in my van. This is a no smoking zone, courtesy of the clean air act of Skin Dreams.
—Where you smoke and the customers don’t?
—If they’re underaged and named Claire, yes.
—Yes, dear. That’s how I know I’m the adult and you’re the child.
The Flip writer read a section from her novel about the shoes of Imelda and another section on Marcos. She had spiked short-cropped hair and big hooped earrings and a diamond stud in her nose, shitkicker Doc Martens, black jeans and a black tank top, and she moved about the stage like a rock and roll singer, the Pinoy version of Joan Jett. She read this hilarious poem about an S&M club in Amsterdam, how a friend of hers got up on stage and marched the men in the club around with a whip, screaming orders at them like a true femi-Nazi. Sieg Heil to the Uber-dyke. That poem ended her reading. Then her punk band got up on stage with her and she sang. The songs weren’t as interesting as the reading but it was all of a piece.
At one point a Chicano boy came up to Claire and asked her to dance. He looked nothing like Ashok but she was reminded of him anyway. She said yes and they danced to one song. She made a getaway back to Bob and her table before he could ask for another dance. She put her arm around Bob when she sat down and told him she was using him as a beard and he laughed and said, honey, you ain’t the first to use me that way. She caught the Chicano boy looking at her from across the room and she tried to avoid his eyes. Eventually he seemed to give up. But she felt a little bad just the same. Whether for him or herself she didn’t know.
On the ride back she found herself thinking about the passage on Marcos and the stories of the old man, the tyrant, the dictator, the ridiculousness of Marcos despite his various cruelties and crimes. The ghost of lost fortunes, revolutions and wars. And of course there was the image of the woman on stage, chanting, singing, heaving it out as if the words were rocks thrown in the streets at a line of riot police. Where did that come from?
But she knew the answer. So did her mother.
The first night she stayed with Bob, he made her call her father and tell him where she was. Her father asked if he could talk to Bob. They were on the phone for what seemed like a long time.
—Your father said it’s cool for now.
—I’m glad the two of you could agree on my future.
—Listen, Claire, if you don’t like it, I can drive you back.
He laid out some bedding for her on the couch.
Do you have another pillow? she asked.
He glared at her. Oh, you were expecting four star accommodations? Didn’t you check your Frommer’s? We’ve been downgraded.
—Lonely Planet. Whatever. Christ, the ignorance of the young.
—If you don’t want me…
—That’s not what I’m saying.
He looked at her as if she were a stray dog. Just don’t get too comfortable, he seemed to be saying. I like my privacy.
Yeah, she called after him as he went down the hall, well I can always go down to the docks and start making my own way.
He came back and stood near the front door, his sleeveless T-shirt revealing a vast array of icons and messages, images from the underworld and an uncertain past.
—Girl, you are way too skinny for a real man. You’d never make a dime.
—There are those who like it like that.
—Oh yes, dear Lolita. And you know what happened to her don’t you?
—Read the fuckin’ book, Claire. Good-night.
She woke up the next day and a copy of the book was lying on her blanket. She found it surprisingly chaste, almost old fashioned. Bob told her that wasn’t why you read it, for the thrills. If that were it, the book would have died back in the sixties.
Then why read it? she asked.
He looked at her in a way that made her feel as young and stupid as he meant her to feel.
—For the sentences, Claire. For the sentences.
One night when Bob was at the hospital visiting Jimmy, she went out walking. She passed an old hotel where several of the neon letters on its sign were out. A homeless man sprawled out on soiled cardboard near the alley, his plastic bags splayed beside him in a ragged row. He was so still that she stopped and peered closer to see if he was breathing. An oily ammoniac stench rose from his body, wafting through the alley’s rankness. The streetlight at the far end sparkled in the broken glass on the cobblestones. Reflections in the puddles there, a mirrored world.
At the next corner she passed a transvestite. She was dressed in pink hot pants and a halter top and in her high heels she towered over Claire. She waved the boa draped around her shoulders and whistled at cars passing. The heels were crystal clear. She took one off and rubbed her feet.
—Girl, I need to bring these into the repair shop.
Claire laughed. You talking about the shoes or your feet? she asked.
—Both. Someone with an evil mind designed these shoes. But what can you do, a working girl has to eat.
She took a second look at Claire. Isn’t it a little late for someone like you to be out?
—I just live down the block.
—Your mamma and daddy know you’re out like this?
—I don’t know.
—So they don’t, do they?
Claire didn’t say anything, the answer seemed apparent.
—You sure you don’t need a place to stay?
—No, I’m staying at a friend’s.
—He treating you right?
—He’s a friend.
—No, just a friend. And he’s gay.
—Well, why didn’t you say so. You’re a little young for a fag hag, but I guess it’s best to start early. She pointed a finger at Claire. You take care now, you hear?
A car was passing. Ms. Crystal Heels raised her boa and whistled. Claire kept walking.
A fag hag, she thought. So that’s what I am.
They had just come back from the funeral.
Bob went to the kitchen. When he looked up a few moments later he was pouring from a bottle of scotch. Wasn’t he supposed to be on the wagon? She thought about saying something but figured he knew what he was doing. He downed the first drink quickly and came back into the living room and put on a Nina Simone record. The smokey rich voice, swirling overtones, the fine grit. I live alone, it hasn’t always been easy. Strings sweeping the room, shifting the shadows deeper.
He stood there listening a bit. Then he went back in the kitchen, poured himself a second one and came back out, sat on the couch and leaned back, looking at the ceiling. He didn’t seem like he wanted to talk so she went to the bathroom and undressed and took a shower. She told herself she wanted to wash out the smell of incense, the joss sticks that they had placed around the coffin. Bob said Jimmy had converted to Buddhism near the end. A Buddhist from Cody, WY. Another twist to the story.
As she was brushing her hair in the mirror she suddenly decided she needed to cut it. She took out a scissors and before she knew it there were dark strands littering the floor. She put a towel around herself and went to the kitchen and got a broom and a dustpan. Bob asked her what the hell she was doing. Nothing, she said. After she passed through the living room again, she heard him call out, Christ, Clarie, what the hell did you do? Fuck you, Bob, she called out in the hall. She looked at herself again in the bathroom mirror. Fuck, what had she done? It looked awful. What could have possessed her? It looked like some child had done it. Or a monkey. She picked up the scissors again and made a few more clips and only made it worse.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
When she came out of the bathroom, she could smell the smoke in the hall. Well, she thought, at least he’s gotten off the booze. She tried to calm herself, not think about her hair.
In the living room Bob looked up at her but said nothing about her hair.
Such a beautiful boy, Bob said, taking a toke from a joint. You wouldn’t believe how beautiful he was. Nothing like the way he was at the end.
He handed it to Claire. She took a long drag. She was just glad to be getting high and didn’t want to question the contradictions in his smoking policy. She kept waiting for him to say something more about her hair but he didn’t seem to notice. Or perhaps he did notice and that was why he wasn’t saying anything.
—When I go, Claire, I want a closed casket. I don’t want anyone to see what I’ve become. No, not a closed casket. Just burn me down to ash. Fine little specks of dust.
He took a drag and let it out and closed his eyes, as if he were imagining.
—Or maybe just my arms and my back, that should be open to the public. Me lying face down, like I’ve been shot and I’m lying there in the dirt.
A slight frisson passed through her. She wondered if he was going to say anything about her hair. A feeling that wasn’t quite anger welling up inside her.
—My mother shot herself.
He looked at her.
—I know. Your father told me.
A tightness in her stomach, something gurgling there. Her mouth and throat already dry. The smell of the weed in her nostrils, familiar and foreign. She could feel a slight edge, just a faint whisper, of paranoia at the edges of her consciousness. She wasn’t high enough to be anywhere near the real state. And yet she held the joint in her fingers, not knowing whether she should bring it to her lips or not.
—I’ve never said that to anyone.
He took the joint from her, inhaled a drag and held on to it.
She waited for him to say something more. When he finally did speak it wasn’t where she thought he would be speaking from.
I grew up in a foster home, he said. Well, a series of foster homes.
—I didn’t know that.
—My mom shot my father.
—I was thirteen. I wasn’t home when it happened. I didn’t know really why she did it. It wasn’t like he beat her or anything like that. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a saint. Abusive as hell, but mostly with words. If he beat anyone it was me, mostly with his belt. I always wondered if it had something to do with another woman, but my mom never said anything about it after it happened. I didn’t see her much anyway, just a few visits to the prison. I ran away from a foster home when I was sixteen. Arkansas wasn’t a place you wanted to be a queer. So I ran away to L.A., hooked up with a sugar daddy for a while. A Hollywood producer. I was beautiful in those days. Oh not as beautiful as Jimmy but I did all right. After a while though it felt too much like Sunset Boulevard, I could see myself ending up floating face down in his pool. I hooked up then with this tattoo artist, he had a place on Sunset Boulevard, a little bit of irony. The scene there was just beginning to pick up. It was just dumb luck, catching a market on the upswing. But I was pretty good at it, you know.
—I’ve seen your work.
—Yes, you have.
She waited for him to go on but then he took another toke and let it out and just sat looking at her. Something of pity in his eyes she didn’t care for.
—Claire, Claire, Claire. What are we going to do with you?
—What are you talking about?
He leaned forward and said more softly, You ever going to get over your mama?
—Christ, Bob. I just told you she shot herself.
—I know. I know. I kinda thought you wanted to let that pass.
—Then why didn’t you?
—Because I started remembering things and the more I remembered the more I realized that you don’t know for shit what you’re doing. You’re just a kid.
—See. That’s a kid’s answer.
She felt cornered. She didn’t like it. Stop bogarting, she said.
He hesitated, then handed the joint to her.
—Sure, toke on up, if that’s what you want.
—What the hell’s the matter with you?
—You’re more stoned than me.
—So what makes you so all high and mighty and righteous?
He let the question hang there between them, then gave a slight grunt. He tilted his head to the ceiling as if he were trying to make his way through the faint haze of smoke drifting there. He closed his eyes. He seemed to be listening to the music.
—I said, what makes you so high and mighty?
I heard you, he said, his eyes still closed.
—You going to answer me?
—I didn’t think it was a question. Just a statement of fact.
He opened one eye. He reminded her of a lizard sunning itself on a branch. He stayed like that, so still she wanted to slap his face.
—Fuck you, Bob.
—Big words for a little girl.
—Shit, you’re such a fucking asshole. You’re as bad as my father.
He opened both eyes.
—Bad as my father, bad as my mother, bad as I wanna be. That’s you all over isn’t it?
—Forget it. You’re fucking high.
—It is good weed. Always get the best.
—Honey, you don’t know what junk is. I know junk, I was a friend of junk, we did a lot of work together.
He started laughing then and this only made her madder. She squashed the joint in the ash tray.
—Hey, I wasn’t through.
—Don’t you believe in the clean air act?
—This is my fuckin’ house, Claire.
—God, you’re such a fucking hypocrite.
Suddenly he stood up. She had this image of a giant Godzilla towering over a city, it just leaped into her mind and she couldn’t shake it. His face seemed leathery and yellowed and ugly and his teeth crooked and his eyes tiny slits as if he could barely open them, and this made his teeth seem larger, almost like fangs. He was snarling something and it frightened her, though his body had grown so swollen and jaundiced now, the LGD tearing away at his muscles, his own cells devouring each other like some cannibalistic tribe high on incestual flesh. And even as he shouted at her she knew it wasn’t her but some piece he’d been writing in his head or even had written before, back in the days when he’d had the energy for performance, teaming with Tim Miller back in L.A. at Highways, in some beginning that was now so long ago he couldn’t quite believe it had ever existed. But he was still shouting, and that was all he had left. There were times he paused, for breath or because she tried to interrupt, but there was no stopping the torrent and this is how she remembered it later, as if she were watching him up on stage, just like the Flip poet pouring out the venom.
—Fucking asshole, fucking goddamned punkette. You think you can just shoot your mouth off like that? This is my fucking house, my fucking house, I pay the fucking rent, I put food on your table, I pay for the clothes on your back, and you have the fucking gall to criticize me? I rose from the dead, just for you. That’s what my daddy would say, said it so much my momma finally couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe that was better than offin’ herself, you think? Course that didn’t stop my friend Jimmy. No, he just had to get his kicks, had to keep riding bareback, had to keep shooting his veins through with whatever poison he could find. Riding that death wish. You call me a hypocrite? Call me high and mighty? Who do you think you are? You can’t forgive anyone, not me, not your fucking boyfriend, not your father, your mother, not even yourself, you’re the most high and mighty asshole teenager I’ve met, well at least since the young so-called Billy Bob Thompson, straight out of Arkansas. That’s right missy. Takes one to know one. Only I know a hell of a lot more than you, missy, you insufferable suburban brat, slumming along with uncle Bob as if it was all one long joy ride. You wanna make your daddy sorry, you’re mad at him for going through your drawers. Jesus, you don’t know shit about fathers, you have no idea what a real living nightmare of a daddy might be. And that little boyfriend of yours, you’re still so mad at him, you can’t forgive him for caving in to daddy-ji and mommy-ji? I suppose you’d rather have someone like Jimmy, someone who wouldn’t back down before anyone, who wouldn’t listen to anyone, least of all me, what did I know, I was some self-righteous ex-junkie, trying to show him the light. Fuckin’ Jimmy, fuckin’ Jimmy, fuckin’ Jimmy. And you, what are you going to do now, Claire? You going to fuck it up just like your mamma? You going to take that high road? Is that what you want? Is it?
She wanted to stand up and slap him, just the way she slapped the white jock in the lunchroom, the time he went after Ashok. Only she couldn’t get up, something was weighing her down, she felt so tired, like closing her eyes, like closing her eyes and having it all go away. Maybe if she closed her eyes she wouldn’t be there anymore, and Bob wouldn’t be standing over her like some figure in her dreams, some demon or dragon or figure of flight and fire and fierceness.
Get up, Claire, get up. Leave.
And then she was beating on him, slapping him, screaming at him, crying, the sobs taking her out of her body, wracking her inwards, her hands flailing, her body shaking, she could feel him grabbing her and pinning her arms to her side, wrapping his arms around her, and from a great distance, as if over the roar of the ocean, she could hear the pounding of surf, the salt spray filtering through the air, a bloody taste somewhere on his tongue. And hers. Spouting words. Wind, waves, moans.
Front page image by BSC Photography.