I await the quick-trip clatter of Lady Babylon’s six-inch platforms delivering her sweaty self to the bar. Sometimes, after we close up, I rub the splendid arches of her long feet. I don’t like to watch her dance, but I can’t look away. It makes me feel sick-hot in the pit of my stomach. Like a tequila and hot sauce shot. Butterfly likes to make me take them with him and I almost always throw up in the trashcan in the storage room.
Lady Babylon is wearing her silver latex leggings and the feathers over her breasts are peacock feathers and she is why I show up for work at The Mourning Star every damn night. I like the way the walls are painted blue and look like water under the wobbly light of the misshapen lamps swaying from the ceiling.
Lady Babylon is always smiling. Sometimes it is the sharp, hard, shark smile that all the dancers here wear when they count the salty ones and fives over vodka tonics, and maybe a line or two. Sometimes, her teeth are tucked behind her lacquered lips, stretched wide over a normally prominent overbite.
“Blue, darling.” Everyone is darling. Only I am Blue, and I attend when she rolls her Puerto Rican rrrrr’s at me.
“Mmhmm,” I answer.
“Come back with us tonight?”
I know that my cheeks turn salmon pink and mottled when she speaks to me. The other dancers know it too and they laugh when I stammer, so I just shake my head no.
“You should. Or maybe we’ll come to your place, yeah?”
I shrug at her, like I always do, and slowly count the tips from my jar.
Butterfly, who often shorts me on his tip out, snorts and adjusts the slight bulge in his thin panties at me. He doesn’t tuck and some of the people I serve love it, and others are bothered by it, not that Butterfly cares what anyone else might think.
“Yeah, we’ll come back to yours, Little Boy Blue,” he says, but I don’t want them to. I think he can see the fear in me. I think he knows that I love Lady Babylon and that all my love is the wrong sort of love.
But tonight Lucifer says, “Fuck it. Why not? You can read us some of that poetry.” Her eyebrows are silver, like the curly strands of her wig. She glints like aluminum and rhinestones. Cheap, loud. She doesn’t do as well as the others on stage, but makes out all right in the back room. Her waist is so tiny that I worry she will snap in half someday if she bends at the wrong angle.
Lady Babylon looks down and away, because that was just between us, and when the others keep laughing and teasing me, she yells, “Shut the fuck up, stupid bitches,” over their roaring.
Everyone changes from their stage costumes to their street costumes and then we slow-walk on tired feet down 5th to my dank rent-controlled apartment. I didn’t understand this at first, why they wouldn’t shed all the makeup and be themselves, until Butterfly got pissed at me for mentioning it when I first started and said, “This is my fucking self, you little faggot. I know you got tits under that shirt, so shut the fuck up and give me another fucking vodka.” He sounds like my dad when he drops out of falsetto and I’m afraid of both of them when they yell.
Lady Babylon takes my hand, and the other girls catcall until I let go and wipe my sweat-damp palms on my jeans.
Inside, Gin Blossom passes around the heavy bottle of Old Crow snatched from the back of the bar. I don’t like all these people sitting on my sagging couches. Touching my sketchbooks, asking why all the drawings are the same. I don’t say: they are one wide wave, rolling from the ocean into the sand. They touch the postcards of the Pacific from my mom that I keep stacked up on top of the stereo. Butterfly strokes the gull feathers next to them until I snatch them away. They’re from the last time I saw my mom, the last time we went to the beach.
Lady Babylon, she keeps looking at me like she wants to say something. Maybe talk about the poetry, or tell me to stop looking at her so goddamn hard. I’ve been told that before. “Stop looking at me you little weirdo.” Yeah. I hear that a lot.
Lucifer is licking the bottle like a glass cock and giggling while the others roll their eyes. Butterfly drinks too fast and cries while talking about his son, Jeremy, and how the boy’s mother won’t let him visit. I retreat to the bathroom after the fifth or sixth long pull off the bottle.
I try not to look at myself in mirrors, or I can see the girl under the cropped hair, the heavy brows, the translucent eyelashes, she’s there, waiting. I breathe through my nose and focus on the grey tile, the dingy walls. In and out, like the oceans I’ve never seen, but I think they must ebb and flow like this. My shower curtain is The Great Wave of Kanagawa — my mom’s favorite painting. It bellows in and out with the breeze coming through the small window.
“Hey Blue, can I come in?” Lady Babylon cracks the door open and slides in, barefoot but still six inches taller than me. Her eyeliner is smeared under her eyes. I can’t see the color in the dim light, but I know they are hazel with a golden starburst in the center.
“I’m really sorry, Blue. It’s not like I meant for them to laugh at you.”
I nod. I hate the sounds of my own voice. I prefer nods, shrugs, jerking my chin at things.
“I really do like you, you know.”
“You can call me Jenny, you know. We’ve been around long enough, hey?” Her own voice is hushed.
I feel like I’ve had a vat of tequila and hot sauce as she starts to unbutton my shirt. I put my hand over her larger one before she can unwrap the binding around my chest.
“Come on Blue. Don’t be shy.” She’s licking my earlobe, then she’s pulling my jeans down and this is too much, all wrong, too fast and I shove her away.
“Honey, what did you think we were going to do?” she asks, hands on her hips, lips a hard red line slashing across her face. “What’s the problem?”
“Just don’t, okay.”
“You are one fucked up girl, Blue.”
“I’m not a fucking girl!” My wrong self breaks and scatters over the sink when my hand hits the glass. A thousand lips and eyes fall near the toilet, the shower. My voice sounds like my dad’s and Lady Babylon looks afraid.
Ani King is from Lansing, Michigan. She has previously been published in theNewerYork, Freeze Frame Fiction, and Rose Red Review. Ani King knits an excellent hat and regrets what happened to those house plants. Not that it was her fault. Read more about her on her website: thebittenlip.com