Scott Bassis

Lydia Tata’s New York Debut

I was kicked out of my Yuma, Arizona home the morning my mother, Ana, caught me asleep on the couch in full drag. I woke up when she snatched the wig from my head, shouting a host of Spanish profanities.

It took me a moment to piece together what had happened. Tuesday nights at Scarlett’s, Yuma’s lone gay bar, I was “Lydia Tata.” I wasn’t a big drinker. I usually only had the occasional celebratory Sea Breeze after a performance. Last night, I had stupidly accepted a drink from a sleazy-looking patron. The last thing I remembered was feeling woozy and calling an Uber.

I was lucky to have made it home, which I explained to Ana, not that she listened. In general, she wasn’t the most reasonable woman. Whenever homosexuality was mentioned, she went off about God, who didn’t approve of the maricón lifestyle, but was curiously mum on her drinking, pot habit and casual sexual dalliances.

Our home might as well have been a halfway house, for all the lowlifes who had passed through, my father among them. All I knew of him was that he must have been white, which I gleaned from my complexion. On my birth certificate, I was Luis Vasquez, but people had always called me “Louis.” I didn’t care. I didn’t consider either to be my real name.

If I wasn’t made up as Lydia, I never would have fought back. “Louis” was meek-natured, “Lydia” was anything but. I pointed out that Ana had dated several “maricónes,” and detailed the depraved acts they committed while she was too busy partying it up to mind her son. After calling me a “pervertido mentiroso,” she got a suitcase, flung it at me and told me to pack. I did, with pleasure.

The joke was on her.

Ever since graduating from Arizona State University last spring, I had been working as a sales clerk at H&M. I had saved up all my money to move to New York City. Once I learned the locations of the security cameras in my store, I didn’t even have to splurge on Lydia’s outfits. Of course, I always brought back what I swiped. Lydia never wore the same dress twice anyway.

I was certainly wasting my talents at Scarlett’s, where I usually didn’t earn enough in tips for a drink, which had led to the being roofied situation. I took a bus to the airport and was on a flight that very night.

When I first arrived at Fierce, I had been in New York for two weeks and two days. I had been hired by a temp agency the week before. I had just moved into an Astoria, Queens studio apartment yesterday. A bed delivered that morning was my only piece of furniture.

Fierce had the best drag queens in Hell’s Kitchen, or so the Yelp reviews had attested. I arrived at nine, just in time for “Fierce Queen Fridays,” starring Maria Posa, 2019’s Comedy Queen of the Tristate Area, according to her Facebook page. Dismayingly, the line stretched down the block. The only time Scarlett’s had a crowd was when Christian protesters suddenly remembered the place existed.

I had planned to sit front row center, and somehow catch Maria’s attention. Now, I seemed unlikely to get in before the show started. The bouncer only let one person inside for every person who exited. It took me half an hour to reach the front.

“Relax. It’s not starting for an hour, at least,” the bouncer said. I must have looked anxious.

“It says nine,” I said, glancing at the flyer taped to the window.

The bouncer was handsome, tall and muscular with curly red hair. His Roman nose and square jaw gave him a rugged, manly look. I was sure that he was straight. I supposed that he was as indifferent to the drag show as I would be to a Cardinals game.

“You’ve never been to a drag show before, have you?” he asked.

“Of course, I have,” I huffed.

“A real show, or amateur hour at a hole in the wall?” he asked. I shrugged, as if I wasn’t sure, but “amateur hour at a hole in the wall” was a fairly accurate description of Tuesdays at Scarlett’s.

“No real drag queen has ever been on time. Nine means ten or ten-thirty. Maria hasn’t even gotten here yet. In about twenty minutes, she’ll run in like a madwoman straight to the restroom to touch up her face, tossing out any man, woman, or queen who happens to be inside,” he explained. I laughed, picturing it. In the flyer, she towered over the other drag queens. She looked like Mariah Carey, but with even fuller curves and bigger hair.

“I’m Brendon,” he said.

“Louis,” I said, warily. I gathered that he wasn’t straight after all. His familiarity with drag culture was one clue, but the way he looked me up and down dispelled any doubt.

“Are you meeting friends here? Your boyfriend?” he asked.

“I saw a few guys leave a minute ago,” I noted. I wasn’t here to find a man. I was here to find a drag mother.

“Uh, yeah, sorry,” he blushed. “ID,” he said. I handed him my driver’s license.

“Louis, or Luis?” he asked.

“Neither,” I said, taking back my license. I strode inside, catching his puzzled smirk from the corner of my eye.

The stage was at the back. Unsurprisingly, there were no seats left. It was so packed that I could barely elbow my way to the bar, ten feet from the door. I waited fifteen minutes to order a Sea Breeze. As soon as I paid, the patron behind me shoved me aside, spilling a third of my drink.

“Need a napkin?” Brendon asked, glancing at my dripping hand. He stood inside the bar, next to the door. I flicked the wet off.

“Aren’t you being derelict in duty?” I asked. Before he could answer, a six-and-a-half-foot figure in a fur-trimmed, lilac trench coat and a sky-high bouffant stormed past, stampeding through the crowd like a runaway rhinoceros.

“Maria Posa,” I said.

“Right on cue,” Brendon said.

“I’m going to try to squeeze up front,” I said, turning from him.

“Good luck with that,” he said.

Ten minutes later, I was back where I started. After settling in what seemed like the perfect spot, a lesbian couple loudly scolded me for blocking their view. Apparently, it was an off-limits zone. Fortunately, no one took my original place. At least I could still see the stage.

At a quarter past ten, Maria Posa emerged from behind the curtain. She wore a gauzy, black tutu. Affixed to her back were huge, black and orange butterfly wings. Pirouetting to the theme song from Reading Rainbow, she leapt off the stage and twirled through the audience. When the snippet ended, she bent over, wheezing heavily. She crossed her eyes comically. Abruptly, she collapsed onto the floor, provoking gasps. I stood on my toes, only able to see the tips of her wings.

“This floor is never mopped, by the way. I’ll probably end up pregnant,” she grunted. She stood. The crowd cheered. After sauntering back onstage, she turned to a middle-aged man in the front, who nonchalantly sipped his wine. He ignored her as she stared at him.

“You didn’t get the entrance, did you?” she asked. He shrugged.

“My name: Maria Posa. It’s like ‘mariposa.’ That’s ‘butterfly’ in Spanish. It’s also slang for ‘homo,’” she said. The man nodded disinterestedly.

“You know: homo. H-O-M-O.” She formed an “o” with her mouth and bobbed her head, miming fellatio. Finally, the man laughed. She turned to the audience and rolled her eyes, as if she was speaking to a moron.

“Now, let’s get this homo party started!” She pointed to the DJ, who put on Pink’s “Let’s Get This Party Started.” Every time Pink sang that she was coming out, Maria acted out another crude sexual gesture. The audience roared with laughter. Her lip-syncing was flawless. She spun, slid and twerked across the stage. Despite her size, she moved with the lightness of her namesake.

Sheneida Bigone was next onstage. Dressed in a rhinestone-studded, black leotard, she did splits, cartwheels and backflips. She ended with a wig toss, somersault, thigh-catch maneuver that definitely wasn’t recognized by the International Gymnastics Federation.

After Sheneida was Vivienne Dildetto. An older queen, perhaps in her sixties, she wore a ruffle-sleeve, blue sequin dress straight from Dynasty and lip-synced an old show tune. Though she hardly moved except for some dramatic arm gestures, she had gays of every age singing and clapping along.

Maria returned to the stage, now in a glamorous red evening gown and matching satin gloves. Someone in the front whistled.

“You couldn’t afford me,” she quipped. To which, the man pulled a fifty out from his wallet.

“Okay, you could probably afford me,” she admitted. She snatched the bill and nestled it between her breasts. The DJ played a mash-up of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” The crowd jostled each other to hand her cash. Getting her attention seemed hopeless.

“Rafael’s on fire tonight,” Brendon said. I hadn’t noticed him come back inside.

“Rafael? Are you friends?” I asked. He nodded.

“Can you introduce me to her?” I asked.

“Oh, so now that I know Maria Posa, I’m worth your time of day?” He crossed his arms.

“Sorry, I can be defensive,” I confessed.

“Why do you want to meet her so badly?” he asked.

“So that she could teach me everything she knows. My drag name’s Lydia Tata,” I revealed.

“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with drag. Too bad, the one time I tried it, I looked like Jodie Foster on steroids,” he said. I laughed.

“Was that a vodka cranberry?” he asked, glancing at my empty glass. I nodded. He headed to the bar. He returned a minute later, a fresh drink in hand.

“Hang around a while,” he said, giving me the drink. He went back outside.

After the show, I stayed in my spot. Brendon slipped in periodically to chat and make sure I never wanted for a drink. I told him that I had just arrived in New York. I learned that he was thirty-two, ten years older than I was. He had another job as a security guard at Madison Square Garden. He was originally from Des Moines, Iowa. He came to New York to attend NYU, but never graduated.

“I hated school too. Drag was all I cared about,” I confided.

“Is it still all you care about?” he asked. I blushed, thinking, perhaps not anymore.

Just then, I spotted Rafael, AKA Maria Posa, heading towards us. He was homely out of drag, with a pockmarked face and receding hairline. Though he had removed his dress, makeup and wig, he wore his silicon breastplate over his t-shirt.

“Goodnight, baby,” Rafael said, kissing Brendon’s cheek.

“You were fabulous,” Brendon said.

“Who’s the twink?” Rafael asked, turning to me.

“This is Louis,” Brendon said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“My eyes are up here, sweetie,” Rafael sneered. I realized I was staring at his nipples. I had never seen such professional breasts. I had always used repurposed shoulder pads.

“Why don’t you take them off to go home? You can never get enough attention, can you?” Brendon said.

“These cost me five hundred bucks. I’m not going to shove them in my bag, like a common pair of falsies. I treat my titties with care.” Cupping the breasts in his hands, he softly caressed them. Brendon burst into laughter. I studied Rafael, admiring his wit, wondering if he could help me develop mine.

“Why is he staring at me like that? Don’t tell me he’s straight. He’s not, like, your nephew or something?” Rafael asked Brendon.

“No, he’s a friend,” Brendon said.

“Ooh, a friend.” Rafael gave an exaggerated wink. “Yeah, he looks as straight as a Fire Island pool party.”

“He does drag too. Have you heard of ‘Lydia Tata’?” Brendon asked. I opened my mouth to explain that I had only ever performed at one bar in Yuma, but Brendon shot me a silencing glance.

“I don’t think so. What bars?” Rafael asked.

“Lots of places, but only outside New York,” Brendon answered. “He was wondering if he could fill in one night for one of your girls. He wants to break into the Manhattan scene.”

“He’s cute, I’ll say that: Timothée Chalamet-cute. The old leches will eat him up. You’ve seen him perform? He won’t embarrass me?” Rafael asked Brendon.

“He’s amazing,” Brendon said, smiling at me.

“Tomorrow night at Python. Get there at eight. I’ll let you do one number, no pay, but you can keep your tips,” Rafael said.

“Thank you so much,” I gushed.

“What are you on Instagram?” Rafael asked.

“Um, I’m not on Instagram,” I said, sheepishly.

“Oh boy,” he muttered, arching his brow skeptically. He asked for my number and added it to his phone contacts.

“Do Britney, ‘Sometimes.’ You’re giving off poor, innocent victim vibes,” he said. I wanted to protest, but kept silent: Lydia was no victim.

“Well, ta-ta ‘til tomorrow, Lydia Tata. Be gentle with this one, Brendon. He looks fragile,” he said. He waved goodbye and left. I knew I should be thrilled, but Rafael had soured the moment with his condescending attitude.

“I’m not really fragile,” I said.

“Compared to him, who isn’t? He’s built like a tank,” Brendon grinned. “And you’re slender and delicate.” His eyes gleamed with desire. He leaned in close, opened his mouth. We kissed. I stepped back, glancing down shyly.

“So, are you just going home now?” he asked.

“I guess,” I said.

My heart raced with fear and excitement. All through college and even while working at Scarlett’s, I had never so much as kissed anyone. Even if I liked a man, my mistrust always won out. Perhaps it was because Brendon seemed so kind, or because he had plied me with vodka cranberries, but this time, my mind wasn’t telling me to push him away.

“Or, we can have some fun, celebrate your new gig,” he smiled.

“Okay,” I said.

I stayed until after closing. We agreed to go to my place. He didn’t want to rankle his roommates; he was behind on his share of the rent. As we walked to the subway station, he took my hand in his. Sitting on the “E” train, he put his arm around my shoulder.

Before we undressed, I told him about my lack of experience. He said not to worry. In bed, he called me beautiful and sweet. When I asked him to put on a condom, he said, “of course.” He yanked his pants from the floor and took one from his wallet.

The alarm on his phone went off at eight. He said he had to be somewhere, then kissed me. 

“See you soon,” he whispered.

When I woke up a few hours later, he was gone. Immediately, I began preparing for Lydia’s New York debut. I joined Instagram, uploading old photos of myself as Lydia. I practiced the choreography in the “Sometimes” video until I had it down pat. I searched for an outfit at a thrift store on Steinway Street.

I set out to buy something Britney-esque, perhaps a crop top and pair of white jeans. Yet, I left the store with a frilly, black skirt, a black, lace blouse and a black, organza shawl. At home, I stitched the pieces into a dress. I had to be true to Lydia. She was smart and tough, not a vapid sex object. I decided to perform the song ironically, with a sarcastic sneer: a goth outcast making fun of the popular girls.

“Jesus Christ, I said Britney, not Bellatrix Lestrange,” Rafael gasped the moment he saw me. I had taken the subway in full drag, receiving less askance looks in an hour than I would have stepping off my porch in Yuma.

Rafael was powdering his cheeks with rouge. Python had a dressing room. It was poorly lit, even with several floor lamps brought in. Guessing from the pornography on the walls and the condom dispensers in each corner, it doubled as the backroom.

“I have this idea,” I said, excitedly.

“Ideas are for Brooklyn. Put on that and that, and get rid of that makeup,” he pointed to a midriff-baring white tracksuit and a dirty blonde wig on the chair.

Sheneida Bigone sat beside Rafael, wearing a blue wig and a neon pink jumpsuit. He introduced himself as Kevin.

“You can borrow this.” Kevin passed me a container of Pond’s Cold Cream. Luckily, I had my makeup case in my backpack.

I sat beside another drag queen, who I hadn’t seen before. He wore a rather basic blonde, pussycat wig and an ill-fitting, lemon-colored dress.

“I think you look stunning,” the drag queen said.

“Golda Showers just wants to get into your panties. Besides, her fashion sense is as tacky as her name,” Rafael snorted. The other drag queen, Golda Showers, scowled, but said nothing. With a sigh, I wiped off the makeup I had spent hours painstakingly applying.

“Don’t try anything ‘artsy.’ This is Python, full of slutty gays wanting to laugh, drink and fuck, not lesbian poetry night at a Park Slope coffeehouse,” Rafael barked as he curled his lashes.

“Rafael hates Brooklyn. They must’ve kicked out his PR trash family when they gentrified,” Kevin stage-whispered to me.

“Yeah, and this candy-coated two-dollar whore is descended from African royalty,” Rafael huffed.

“Fat bitch,” Kevin muttered.

Maria performed first, followed by Sheneida, then Golda, who garnered less applause than the others. Maria performed a second time before introducing me as “as dumb as she is pretty” and “doing drag to pay for her third year as a University of Phoenix freshman.”

My enthusiasm deflated, I slunk out. I didn’t feel like Lydia Tata. I felt like a crossdressing exotic dancer. I planned to perform the routine mechanically, then leave. Before the music started, I heard someone shout, “Lydia!” I turned and spotted Brendon in the audience. Suddenly, I felt a burst of energy.

I replicated all of Britney’s signature moves perfectly, her spins, her arm gestures and her belly rolls. As I mimed the lyrics, I felt their sentiment, the thrill and vulnerability of falling in love. I laughed. I cried. I shimmied. I writhed. The cheers and whistles nearly drowned out the music. I took dollar after dollar, more than my hands could hold.

I ended with a death drop. It was a predictable finish, but a fitting one. This felt like the end of my wretched old life. In New York, I would have fame, love and money. Bills rained down on me as I lay on my back.

“She usually earns her cash turned around the other way.” Maria reappeared, now in a teal cocktail dress. I collected the bills then scooted off stage. In the dressing room, I counted eighty-three dollars. I changed out of drag. Rafael didn’t return until after the final number.

“Louis, I need you Wednesday at Mantasy. I’ll give you two songs: ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and ‘Dangerous Woman,’” Rafael barked. “Vince, I don’t need you anymore on Wednesday,” he said to Golda.

“Go choke on a dick,” Vince, AKA Golda, snapped. He grabbed his duffel bag and stormed out.

“I’ll have the outfit for the Ariana number. I’ll let you do your own Cyndi,” Rafael continued, unfazed. I nodded.

“You’ll get fifty-bucks and we split our tips,” he added. I was clearly a higher earner than he had expected. I thanked him and said goodnight.

“Must be his bedtime,” Kevin murmured.

“Maybe Tata’s a teetotaler,” Rafael mused.

“He’s what? A tina tweaker? Not after that Chipotles. I’d paint the whole restroom.” Kevin shook his head.

“I have work tomorrow,” I said. Though I didn’t understand exactly what Kevin was referring to, I sensed it was drug-related and horrid. With a quick wave, I left.

It felt odd to walk through the crowd. Before, all eyes had been on me. Now, people just talked to their friends or were absorbed in their phones. I felt special to no one: until I saw Brendon.

A group of men was with him. Several were older, with shiny, botoxed foreheads. One looked my age. He wore a black sheer mesh shirt.

“Hey cutie,” one of the older men said as I approached. He reached for my crotch. I swiveled away from him. I smiled affably but wondered what Brendon was doing with such a creep.

“You were amazing. This is Lydia Tata!” Brendon exclaimed to his friends. They nodded apathetically.

“I’ve got another gig on Wednesday at Mantasy. I wish I knew how to repay you,” I said. I hoped he would ask me on a date, or for my phone number, or my Instagram handle, now that I had one. Instead, he threw his arms around me, which was fine too.

“You’re even hotter to me now,” he whispered. I realized he was drunk: his breath reeked of alcohol. He stepped back, stumbling.

“Come on, let’s head to Hardcore,” the one in mesh said, giving me a scornful side glance.

“Farewell, my lovely Lydia Tata,” Brendon slurred. He gazed at me longingly before turning to follow his friends out.

I wondered if he had ingested more than just alcohol. I decided it didn’t matter. I blushed during the entire subway ride home, just thinking of how he had called me lovely.

Brendon was at Mantasy on Wednesday, minus the questionable friends. I ran into him on my way to the dressing room. My wig was in my backpack, but I was in full makeup. My overcoat concealed the pink bustier and spangled rainbow dress I found after hours of scouring thrift stores.

“Can I get a peek?” Brendon asked. I opened my coat surreptitiously, like a pervert in the park.

“Sickening!” he declared.

“Thanks,” I said. I snapped my coat shut and headed off.

“You’ll slay it,” he called after me. The “dressing room” was a janitor’s closet crammed with three stools, a table and a large mirror.

“Get in here, bitch. There’s room,” Kevin said. He took the makeup case from the stool and set it down on the floor. I squeezed in beside him.

“Usually, there’s four of us. Vivienne called out because of the coronavirus thing. She can’t get sick: she’s positive,” Kevin divulged. The coronavirus had been on the news for weeks, but I hadn’t paid much attention.

“Tell the whole world, why don’t you?” Rafael scowled. “Never trust this one with any secrets. Gurl has the loosest lips I know, and I ain’t talking about her lady bits.”

“Shut up and fix your makeup. You look orange,” Kevin scoffed. After examining himself in the mirror, Rafael dabbed his face with white foundation.

“You can’t talk to me like that, by the way. Kevin gets a pass because he has the mental capacity of a three-year-old. Dolphins are smarter than this bitch,” Rafael said to me. I snickered.

“What are you laughing at?” Kevin snapped, but he couldn’t keep from laughing either.

“Now shut up and let me fix my mug. I look like Trump with tits,” Rafael grumbled. I asked to borrow Kevin’s green, glittered eyeshadow, and we stopped playing around to focus on our looks.

I nailed the Cyndi Lauper-inspired number, capturing her spunky attitude and cartoonish demeanor. Yet, my Ariana Grande lip-sync garnered even more applause and dollars. In a pony-tailed wig, a simple black dress and with a minimum of movement, I was fervid and sultry. My eyes kept drawing to Brendon, who stared at me with awe.

The closing number was a duet between Maria and Sheneida, a Taylor Swift, Katy Perry mashup, sprinkled with Sophia’s best insults on The Golden Girls. I listened from the dressing room while getting out of drag. After it ended, Kevin walked in, panting and covered with sweat. He pulled off his wig and collapsed onto the stool.

“Rafael has to put you in the finale next time. While we were on stage, some guys were chanting, ‘where’s Lydia?’” he said.

“Really?” I grinned.

“Creepy old wannabe sugar daddies, but without the bank accounts, but still,” he said offhandedly.

“I guess we’d have to rehearse together,” I said. I felt nervous. I had only ever rehearsed alone in front of a mirror.

“No shit, and if you think Rafael’s a bitch now, wait until he’s teaching you his routines. He would’ve made a good Catholic school nun, if he wasn’t such a whore,” he remarked.

“I can imagine,” I said.

“I mean, right now he’s screwing some guy in the men’s room,” he said. I winced; I didn’t want to imagine that.

“He hooks up with him a lot, like at every show. I think it’s just a fuck-buddy thing,” he continued, without any encouragement.

“I don’t care,” I said, hoping to be spared the sordid details.

“Me neither. He is really hot though, and I usually hate redheads. Total freckle-phobe. I see one, I want to grab a concealer. But I’d take his Irish cream any day. Maybe he’s attracted to talent,” he mused.

I suddenly felt overcome with the urge to vomit, cry, or hit something. It wasn’t only the red hair that rang a bell. It was that phrase, “attracted to talent.” I could picture it clearly: Brendon fawning over Maria Posa, just like he fawned over Lydia Tata.

“God knows, out of drag, he’s more George Lopez than Ricky Martin,” he continued, oblivious to my distress.

I stormed out of the dressing room and into the restroom. Inside, there were two urinals and one stall. I spotted the top of Brendon’s head over the stall. Curiously, four feet were visible, one pair in Nikes facing another in Louboutin pumps. As if the gargantuan size of the pumps wasn’t enough to identify their owner, two DD latex breasts were slung over the stall door. No doubt, Rafael had placed them there to avoid them getting smushed.

I stomped over, my hands in fists, ready to bang on the door, curse at them and hurl Rafael’s precious breasts to the floor. I heard stifled groans, the clink of a belt buckle. They stopped, sensing my presence. I turned away. I felt humiliated enough. At least now, only I knew what an idiot I was. Brendon hadn’t come to my shows to see me. He was there to get his rocks off with Rafael. Tears filled my eyes.

In a daze, I returned to the dressing room. I retrieved my coat and backpack. Glancing at the mirror, I realized my cheeks were streaked with mascara. I hadn’t finished removing my makeup.

“Hey, did Rafael tell you to come to Fierce on Friday?” Kevin asked.

“Um, no,” I said. I looked down to hide my face, but he was focused on reapplying his eyeliner, primping himself for his after-show plans.

“I’m sure he meant to. Give me your number, I’ll text you the details,” he said. I gave it to him. It seemed like the easiest way to leave. I had no intention of ever seeing Kevin, Rafael or Brendon again.

As I sat slumped on the subway, I wondered if I should give up drag for good. I loved being Lydia Tata. Crowds loved watching her. But she was only an illusion. The high I got from performing was temporary, and the rest of my existence felt even more pitiful by comparison. I was just a poor, gay freak, who dressed up in women’s clothes. Of course, no one would want me for anything except an easy lay.

If I returned to Yuma, I could put my savings towards earning a graduate degree. Ana might let me move back home. I could tell her I had been off at conversion therapy camp; my gay was all prayed away. Yet, I knew I needed Lydia, even if she wasn’t real. How would I get out of bed each day without her?

Thursday at work, my temp agency sent me to a finance firm. The job was pure data entry. While my hands typed, entering figures onto Excel spreadsheets, I imagined how I would enact my revenge.

I would show up at Fierce on Friday. I would give the DJ my own mix, explain there had been a change. Each song would be about betrayal, perhaps “Back to Black,” “You Oughta Know” and something from Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I knew Brendon would leave his post at the door to watch it. I would locate him in the crowd, direct every word to him. I would be both seductive and vicious. He would realize all he had missed out on. He would learn his lesson: Lydia was not to be trifled with.

As I visualized the scene in my mind, I was only vaguely aware of the chatter around me. As usual, much of it pertained to the coronavirus. Testing was in short supply. A celebrity announced his diagnosis. Strange, new symptoms were being reported. A financial analyst whispered into her phone, “I can’t stay here, I’m taking care of my dad.” A CPA confided to his secretary, “I’m scared. I have a heart condition.” One cleaning lady told another in Spanish, “Even young, healthy people are dying.”

At four o’clock, I received a text from my temp agency: “We’ve decided to suspend operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Do not report to your scheduled jobs tomorrow. Further details to follow shortly.”

I read it several times in disbelief. The gravity of the situation finally hit me. If I was out of work for too long, I wouldn’t be able to make rent. I couldn’t get sick. I had no insurance. I checked online for a face mask. They were sold out everywhere. Thermometers and latex gloves were sold out too. Toilet paper was selling for six dollars a roll.

On the way to the subway, I passed McGee’s, an Irish pub that just yesterday was bustling. It was dark. The stools were stacked on the counter. A handwritten sign read, “Closed for coronavirus.” I realized that, most likely, Fierce wouldn’t be open tomorrow. My revenge would be postponed indefinitely. My broken heart didn’t matter. The world was shutting down.

I made do with masks sewn from fabric scraps. I swiped free gloves from the dispenser at the pharmacy. I found a twelve-pack of toilet paper at the grocery and felt like I had won the lottery.

It had been a long while since I hadn’t been preoccupied with Lydia, her outfits, her makeup and her routines. Without her, life lacked purpose. I spent my days watching pirated movies and old seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race on my phone, feeling like a zombie.

“Bitch, ur not dead r u?”

After three weeks out of work, I received a text from Kevin. I ignored it for a day. I couldn’t think of Kevin without thinking of Brendon and Rafael. Ultimately, I felt too guilty not to respond. With all that was happening, Kevin might very well think me dead.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Good. We need u for a show,” he replied a few minutes later.

“A show?” I wrote back.

“U never heard of Instagram???”

Evidently, Maria and Sheneida had been performing online since the lockdown started, collecting tips through Venmo. Rafael was looking for featured guests to drive up his views. At first, I balked at the offer. Yet, I remembered my dwindling savings account. I remembered that, after watching all eleven seasons of Drag Race and four seasons of All Stars, all that was left was the godawful Drag U.

“K,” I wrote. He replied with a “hug” emoji and a “Don’t fuck it up” GIF.

Signing into Instagram for the first time since I created an account, I discovered that Lydia Tata had already amassed forty-one followers. Though I was elated to become her again, I dreaded having to work with Rafael. He sent me a text saying he would call tomorrow to FaceTime and to have a look picked out by then.

“Show me your outfit,” were the first words he said when I answered. I pointed my phone at the clothes laid out on my bed.

With most stores closed, I was forced to be creative. I altered the blazer I wore for work, bringing in the waist and tightening the sleeves. I removed the tulle from the goth dress Rafael had rejected. Turning the fabric inside out, I created a pencil skirt. I glued the black lace from the same dress onto the pink bustier from my Cyndi Lauper look.

“Miranda Priestly meets Stormy Daniels: I like it,” Rafael said. I grinned. Despite myself, I valued his praise. “You know what it’s perfect for: ‘Womanizer.’”

“How about ‘Man, I Feel Like a Woman’?” I said. He paused to think it over.

“Even better: remember, make it empowered, but slutty,” he said. I heard a cough. It wasn’t from Rafael, but he started coughing, acting as if it was. He was obviously hiding something, or someone.

A figure appeared behind his head. It was Brendon, dressed in flannel pajamas. His hair stuck up. He coughed again into his hand. Rafael quickly shifted his phone, cutting Brendon from the frame. I watched my own face crumble in the top corner of the screen.

“Can you give me a minute,” Rafael hissed at Brendon.

“Just got up to pee,” Brendon said. I heard a door shut.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Rafael said to me.

“Like what? Like you’re disgusting?” I spouted. My finger hovered over the “end call” button. I didn’t press it. It gave me satisfaction to see the shame on Rafael’s face. He glanced down. His cheeks were bright red. I heard a toilet flush, a door open, then a door close.

“You’re the lucky one. He’s sick. His roommates kicked him out. He showed up here with nowhere to go. Like an idiot, I took him in. Already, I’m getting a sore throat.” He rubbed his throat, grimacing.

“Serves you right,” I spat.

“Look, Louis, I didn’t steal him away from you. He’d sleep with you right now, if you wanted. He’s a player. He won’t be faithful to anyone. He also drinks too much. He does too many drugs. He hates himself for being a failure. He hates himself for being gay. Believe me, you’re better off without him,” he said, calmly. He sounded concerned for me, as if I were his son. I reminded myself what a talented performer he was.

“Then why do you want him?” I asked.

“Because he’s handsome. He’s smart. He’s sensitive. He doesn’t make me feel fat and ugly. He’s got a huge, perfectly shaped…”

“Stop,” I croaked.

“Nose. I’ve always been a nose man,” he said. I glowered at him, unamused by his attempt at levity.

“He’s complicated. They’re the worst guys to fall for. You keep going back, no matter how they hurt you. This shithead could end up killing me,” he sighed.

“Maybe he only hurts you because he doesn’t love you. Maybe he’d treat someone else better,” I remarked. I was certain Rafael was just using Brendon for sex, and vice versa. But what I had with Brendon felt different: beautiful and special.

“Maybe. It’s none of your business,” he growled. My words had cut him. “Just be ready for tonight. You need me, remember that. You know how many little drag queen wannabes would put their legs behind their ears to be in my show?”

“I’ll be ready,” I said. I hung up. I was on the verge of quitting, but I knew I couldn’t. Rafael was right: I needed him, at least for now. When the bars reopened, I could go hunting for a new drag mother.

Something else Rafael said stuck with me. Brendon would sleep with me again, if I wanted. I still ached for him. I wondered if we could start over. I could pretend I hadn’t seen him and Rafael in the restroom, or in Rafael’s apartment. I could make him be faithful to me.

I was willing to forgive him, to forget my humiliation. Lydia couldn’t, however. As soon as I put on her outfit and wig, I felt her strength course through me. I wasn’t going to put up with anyone’s bullshit.

Sheneida was Maria’s first guest. Appearing with Maria on a split screen, Sheneida lip-synced to Rihanna’s “S&M” in a latex, Catwoman-inspired getup, complete with a whip. Between high kicks and spins, she twirled the whip over her head, then cracked it down.

“That is one mean pussy,” Maria declared when Sheneida’s number ended.

“Sweet as pie when I wanna be,” Sheneida cooed.

“Sure, when she wants her pie eaten. Don’t trust her, boys. She scratches,” Maria warned. LOLs and laughing emojis populated the screen. On the top right, there was a viewer count: 307. That was enough to fill up most Manhattan bars.

“They’re just love scratches, baby,” Sheneida purred. After making playful scratching gestures towards the camera, she exited the live-stream.

“Now, here’s another one of my girls. What she lacks in talent, she makes up in being an easy piece of ass. Give it up for Lydia Tata, ‘cause she’ll definitely give it up for you,” Maria announced. The joke stung. I wondered if she was alluding to the night I spent with Brendon. After taking a deep breath, I joined the live-stream. I was Lydia now, not Louis, and she was not so easily unnerved.

“Love the dress,” I said. She wore a sheer, green gown clearly inspired by Jennifer Lopez’s famous Versace look.

“Thanks,” she smiled.

“On someone who could fit in it. You look like Miss Piggy if she tried to wear Kermit. J. Lo? More like J., ‘oh no.’” I sighed pityingly. One viewer responded with a laughing, crying emoji, another with a row of pigs. Rage flashed in Maria’s eyes. She gave a light, fake laugh.

“From Miss Fashionista over here. This dress is worth more than everything in your closet. I know a ‘Goodwill queen’ when I see one.” She flipped her hair back haughtily. Nails being polished floated up the screen.

“Money can’t buy taste,” I remarked. Someone posted the boxing glove emoji.

“How do you know what money can buy? You don’t even have enough for furniture. The only thing in your apartment is a bed. That’s all you need. But gurl, if screwing is your work and recreation, you should at least be good at it.” She shook her head with disdain.

No one could see my apartment. I stood in front of a bedsheet taped to the wall. When Rafael and I had FaceTimed earlier, I hadn’t walked around. He could only have known about my bare apartment from Brendon. A tea emoji and three screaming cats scrolled up my bright red face.

“Is that what Brendon said?” I sneered. She glared directly at the screen, unapologetic. A surprised pair of eyes appeared, sent by Kevin.

“Did you ever think he was just telling you that so that you wouldn’t feel threatened? You know, because you’re not pretty. And you’re hard to be around, because you’re a bossy bitch. And you try to relegate good-looking queens to eye candy, so you can at least be the funny one, since you have nothing else. I bet you’re a great sperm dumpster, though, aren’t you? Girls with no self-esteem always are. They don’t mind squatting on the floors of restroom stalls, getting their stockings wet with piss,” I seethed.

I felt lightheaded with adrenaline. A flurry of comments appeared. I made out cringing faces, screaming faces, a “gagged,” a “shook.” In the corner, I spotted the viewer count: 370. Over sixty viewers had joined in the last few minutes. People watching were telling their friends to watch.

Maria’s eyes were wide with shock. I caught her glancing up at the counter. A smile twitched on her lips. She seemed impressed.

“You’ve gone too far!” she shrieked, jabbing her finger at the camera. “I would never soil my Fendi tights to give head in a men’s room. I sit on the toilet, after putting down a disposable seat cover. Why do you think I keep a packet in my purse?”

I laughed. I found myself relieved that Maria wasn’t so offended that she couldn’t crack a joke. I had to admit, the whole situation was funny: two drag queens fighting over a bouncer, who definitely wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile, a pandemic ravaged the world.

“You’re right, sorry,” I said. Screw it, I thought. If Brendon made her happy, she should have him. As long as I had Lydia, I would be fine. Besides, us queens wouldn’t survive this lockdown without each other.

“Can you do your damn lip-sync now? Are you done being a bitch?” she asked with an annoyed roll of her eyes. Still, I could tell she had enjoyed our spat. It was entertaining. In hard times, people needed that.

“Never,” I snarled. I swiped up, hit “play,” then swiped down. I bobbed my head to the beat. As the guitar cut in, I began to strut.

Scott Bassis has had short stories published in Litbreak Magazine, Poydras Review, The Furious Gazelle, The Writing Disorder, JAB, Sweet Tree Review, The Acentos Review, Trouvaille Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Sandpiper, Me First Magazine, Image Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.