Drag Me a Mommy by Liz Greenhill

Editor Colin Farstad, Fiction, November 25th, 2013

The first girl I kissed was waiting for me in a closet...

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It’s not my Mom’s fault that I wish she was a big black drag queen. The queen I’d want my Mom to be is named Kittin Withawhip. She’s real, and she lives in New York City.

You can’t change people, and you can’t trade them in, and with family, I guess you can’t really let them go, unless you’ve got real good reasons. But if I could, I’d erase my Mom from my family portrait, and I’d draw Kittin in her place. I’d take extra care penciling in Kittin’s wide brown eyes, her strong jaw, the tall rim of her lips. I’d watercolor her warm brown skin. I’d paint her eye shadow like bluebird wings, just like she wears it. I’d sketch out her hair real big and fluffy like she likes it.

My Mom is nice, don’t get me wrong, and pretty enough, in a frosted kind of way, but a hug from her is a delicate bump in a hula hoop of arms. My maternal ideal isn’t cool and crisp, it’s wicked and sweaty. I need a hug like a heat wave. I want it full of muscle from a body that knows how to weep. They might both smell like Aquanet and Maybelline, but I want a Mom, that underneath it all, smells like a hot-blooded man.

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When I was five I stood straight up still in a shiny purple leotard and sickly pale pink tights at the barre in ballet class. The teacher came from somewhere in Eastern Europe and she’d smack you on the butt with a ruler if your posture was off. I liked that part, the smack. And I liked the way her eyebrows leapt up into a ferocious arch when you didn’t do it right. She’d scowl and curse at you and rap her ruler on the barre. Her spit glittered on the wooden floor, a constellation of her wild temperament splayed out for our young eyes to map.

I want a field guide to passion, a map to the heart, but I can’t ask my Mom for that. My Mom doesn’t speak that language. She doesn’t brim with fury, she doesn’t writhe or gyrate or flare. My Mom is composed like a cool glass of ice tea with a long silver spoon and exactly four ice cubes. My Mom is Sally Field in Steel Magnolias with a touch of Mike Meyers in Coffee Talk. I know that might sound unlikely, but if you grew up Jewish in South Carolina like I did, you’d know what I mean.

If Kittin Withawhip was my Mom she would hold me like a baby and shape me like clay. Her long nails would preen me into something beautiful and fierce. She’d embellish me with glitter, the dazzling sparkle spray of the brave. Kittin could teach me resilience—how to reinvent myself over and over until I changed to something stronger. Someone strong enough to stand without apology. Someone strong enough to be soft again—fluid, changeable, something slippery as wet love. Her teeth glowing white in the dark. Her hot whiskey sour breath. Her arm brawn is all tawny muscle. Kittin would mold me into myself. Kittin could teach me, I bet, how to outrun even my past.

If I was Kittin’s child she would have held me in her lap. I could have traced the sequins on her shirt with my pinky. Held her face in my sticky little palms and brought our noses together. Fluffed her hair and squealed with little kid delight. I could have buried my teary face in her bosom and clutched her dress like it was my own baby blanket, or the edge of my world. I could have kissed her. Endlessly.

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The first girl I kissed was waiting for me in a closet. She said to meet her there. I did, I followed her instructions, and opened the closet door and went in. I felt her arm curl around my waist, her fingertips light on my spine. The door closed and we were squished there in the dark, her breath warm as campfire against my cheek. Her mouth wafted into my mouth. Her fingers traced the edges of my body, the lines of muscle in my neck. My hands moved up to hold her head and press her tighter to my mouth.

When someone opened the door and the light came on, they saw us entwined on the floor, a crumpled tangle of clothes and body, blinking. The light that flooded in, it changed me. I was with her, this girl with fingers like feathers and hungry lips. And yet, suddenly, I was alone. For the first time in my life, the frosted little Mom ghost, who had been stationed invisibly, but undeniably, over my left shoulder, she left. That Mom face peering down on me with a perpetual look of disdain—gone. That blast of light bleached her away. I was free.

When I was a girl and looked like a boy I wanted to be a drag king dressed as a drag queen dressed as a drag king. I imagined myself on the slim black platform stage of a little bar on Christopher Street, stripping off my lady clothes to reveal my man clothes and then some tiny black lace underneath. I was nineteen and I had the slim hips of a cub scout and 1920’s tits. Luminous skin. But I really had no idea that I might be something beautiful. I looked in the mirror and saw a face, a body, as if it had no relation to me. I looked into my eyes and a flatness pressed my body past the mirror to the wall. That girl on the wall didn’t seem to recognize me. So I’d lay on my bed and close my eyes and invent my performance. I’d imagine the music I’d slink to while I artfully removed my costumes, one layer at a time, the whole audience held captive by my allure.

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The summer I lived in New York and was almost a young adult, but really still a teenager, I used to go to a diner at the far end of Avenue A where a big beautiful black drag queen named Miss Lulu fed me. She’d see me walk in the door after my shift at the movie theater and plunk down a bowl of mashed potatoes with portobello mushroom gravy on the counter. She’d say come on chil’, give it up, all Southern and drawn out, and my heart would melt. A puddle of gravy lumped in my chest, shaped like Alabama. I always wanted to see Miss Lulu perform at Lucky Cheng’s, her other job, but I never had enough money to go there, and I was too shy to ask her if she could pull a string for me. I was eating chick peas out of a can most nights I wasn’t at the diner sitting on a silver stool spinning away my summertime.

Some nights I’d go with Henry to The Crowbar, a bear bar on Avenue B. At The Crowbar nobody gave me a second glance. I was a girl who looked kind of like a boy, but not enough like a boy to capture anyone’s attention there. At The Crowbar it was like I was invisible. I felt so comfortable there, being unnoticed. It was like how everyone always says they wish they could be a fly on the wall. At The Crowbar I was. I walked through the crowd like I was floating, sliding past sweaty hairy guys, watching big thighs bulge out of strips of black leather. I’d make my way over to Henry, where he sipped his gin and tonic at the bar, his legs crossed with slim blonde reserve. Henry didn’t date guys at The Crowbar, but he liked to go there. I never asked him why. I think he was just learning to be gay. And being at The Crowbar helped him. Like how you can’t learn to swim if you don’t get in the water.

Other nights, after my shift at my other job dishing ice cream, I’d go to the convenience store by NYU where they never carded. I’d buy a Fosters and sip it from a brown paper bag, hunched against a brick wall, trying to look tough. Rugged, alone, fearless. One night like that I met up with Henry and we both were drinking Fosters on the street, me like a motherless child, and he like a fatherless child, and we roamed. We walked all night through Alphabet City, and then we cruised up to the Limelight where Henry had long dreamed of being a go-go dancer. Stick legs coming out of his jean short cut-offs, his ribs traceable through his tiny t-shirt, Henry looked fourteen and had never danced before anything but a mirror. He was just a kid from New Jersey who was barely out of the closet. I was hardly any different.

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One day that summer I was waiting for the subway when someone suddenly pushed me over, and a woman behind me fell to the ground screaming. The person who pushed me ran down the platform and up the stairs. I got up and brushed myself off over and over with slow hands, thick hands, not my hands. The woman behind me lay there on the platform, like a crumpled bag, weeping, injured in ways she could not say. Her face scrunched up like a mewling baby. The train came and went, its rumble shaking the platform furiously. My hands like blown-up cartoon hands, dry breath in my mouth, this air wasn’t mine to take. I could not make my legs go to her.

When the train hissed to a stop again I stepped on. I saw her get smaller and disappear, a fallen form floating down a black tunnel. I got off at my stop, walked four blocks to my apartment, up six flights of stairs, and over three uneven layers of patched floor. Then I sat on the edge of my futon bed and stared at the wall until the voices of the world stopped screaming.

If Kittin was my Mom I would have called her then.

And she would have told me to get in a cab right away and come to her, and I would have taken a cab straight to the club where she danced and entered her dressing room without even knocking where she’d gather me up in her arms and hold me, crooning, baby, everything’s going to be okay, her long nails peeling the teary strands of hair off my cheek, her whisper, with my head resting on her chest, don’t worry, honey, she’d hush me, and I’d lift my chin and see her mouth moving the words I longed for, the bling beauty mark above her lip winking at me like a hypnotist’s charm. Kittin. Mommy. Safety in these arms. The rhythm of her heartbeat running hard, my own private metronome.

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writer liz greenhill nailed magazineLiz Fischer Greenhill is a writer, visual artist, and acupuncturist from North Carolina who stumbled into adulthood in New York City and now lives in Portland, Oregon with her encyclopediac young son. As a child, Liz shook hands on an offer to trade her sister for two chocolate chip cookies. Find her online, here.

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Colin Farstad

Colin Farstad's work has most recently appeared in Spilt Infinitive, Analekta Anthology, and Coal City Review. He is the editor of the short story anthology The Frozen Moment : Contemporary Writers on the Choices that Change Our Lives (Publication Studios, 2011). Colin has been a teacher, editor, writer, event coordinator and connoisseur of classic cocktails for years. Currently he's living in Brooklyn, hard at work writing a novel tentatively titled It's Never Over and working at the literary agency DeFiore and Company.