A week before I moved from south Louisiana to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to take a job I really wanted, I spent a weekend in New Orleans with a woman I was seeing named Susan. She was beautiful and we couldn’t stand one another. We drove to the city that Friday afternoon in silence.
We had spring rolls and greasy noodles at a Vietnamese restaurant that night with a friend of mine by the name of Tammy who was always trying to seduce my girl. Tammy had a couple of cool blonde femmes in sundresses and heels with her who spent the evening acting like her groupies. Tammy used to own a gay bar in the French Quarter. Now she owns a crummy gift shop there, close to Canal Street, where it always smells like garbage and Daiquiri vomit.
Tammy and the blondes were driving to the suburbs to watch a drag show after dinner and she invited us. “No way,” I whispered into my girlfriend’s ear. It was my last time in the city until December, probably. This happened in July.
Tammy mentioned that it wasn’t just going to be drag queens; Sheena would be there. “Who is Sheena?” I asked. She said I would have to see for myself.
It wasn’t just going to be drag queens; Sheena would be there.
The bar was a cinder-block wreck just off I-10 with an industrial-sounding name I’ve forgotten. It has probably changed hands and scenes and names since then. We parked down the street at AutoZone because the bar’s little bitty parking lot was overflowing with Camaros and Tahoes and a VW Bug or two.
The inside was dim and smelled like smoke, with walls painted flat black and a long bar outlined in neon tubing where a couple of handsome butches twisted the tops off bottles of light beer. There were jello shots and a frozen Margarita machine and everything.
Susan wanted water. I found the end of a line while she looked for Tammy and the groupies. I saw Tammy pat the single chair she’d saved at the edge of the stage, and then I heard a husky voice over the speakers saying, “Hey darling, looking beautiful,” and, “Honey, look at you.”
I tried for a glimpse over the shoulders of the women in front of me, but all I could see was a wig: Cher, circa Moonstruck.
All I could see was a wig: Cher, circa Moonstruck.
On the way over, Susan admitted she knew Sheena. A friend of hers had slept with Sheena in the ’90s and had described an unforgettable seduction technique of hers: a striptease that culminated in Sheena popping off her plastic press-on nails slowly, one by one.
“Second pinky nail, it was on.”
“Which friend?” I asked. I guess the combination of excitement and revulsion in my voice caused her to become demure.
“No one you know.”
The line moved, snaking toward the stage. I tapped the girl in front of me on the shoulder to see if I was in the right place. She pointed across the room at the bar I thought I was heading for. “What’s this line, then?” I asked. “The bathroom?” The place was thick with women, a sea of tapered hairlines and popped collars.
“Second pinky nail, it was on.”
“This is the line for Sheena.” She held up a five with both hands and twirled it like a bow tie. I heard the opening bars of “How Will I Know?” by Whitney Houston and decided that Susan could get her own water. Tammy could get it. I wasn’t giving up my place in line.
None of what I witnessed squared in my mind as drag. Sheena was performing as herself. The line fell away, revealing a stout, fifty-ish woman in pancake makeup, a spangled black dress, and clear plastic heels. She was lip-synching with every muscle in her face and neck to make up for the fact that she had to stand still because every couple of seconds someone from the line shoved money in her hand and waited for her blessing. Responses were based on the enthusiasm of the tipper. Shy girls got a wink. Those who lingered got kisses on the cheek, a booty slap.
Sheena didn’t so much dance as sort of shift her weight from side to side, occasionally departing from the line of fans to drop wads of bills in an overturned top hat at the corner of the stage. She stalked through the audience now and then, stopping to steal a sip of someone’s drink and swat a hank of synthetic hair from her eye using one French-tipped, plastic press-on nail, silently belting out hit after hit. The songs didn’t exactly fit together, but no one seemed to mind that she followed up “Delta Dawn” with “No Diggity.”
No one seemed to mind that she followed up “Delta Dawn” with “No Diggity.”
Sheena changed outfits after a couple of numbers, trading Cher for a platinum bob and bright red mini dress for “Edge of Seventeen” and “Simply the Best,” the song that was playing when my turn came. I was so flustered that all I could think to say was, “Damn, girl, look at you.” I handed over the only cash I had, a ten, and she raised an eyebrow and hooked her index finger’s nail under my chin, pulling me close. The only thing separating us in that moment was her useless microphone, and she smelled like cigarettes and face powder. I was about to kiss her right there in front of Susan and Tammy and the groupies when she ran her hand down my ribs, gave my hip a hard smack, and sent me on my way.
Susan was pissed off and ready to leave. “Let’s stay a minute,” I said. “Don’t you want to say hello to Sheena?”
“No. I’m tired. And I’m sure she doesn’t remember me.” The way she emphasized “me” let me know that she was the one who had slept with Sheena. She had been the recipient of the press-on nail seduction. I was jealous.
Six weeks later, on a day when I was homesick and feeling like a sham of a person, Sheena crossed my mind. I wasn’t making deadlines or friends at work, and my apartment had roaches. I’d ended my relationship with Susan over the phone, but she kept texting, saying that I was horrible and that she was going to drive up because she couldn’t live without me. I was standing over the copy machine I’d managed to jam for the second time in an hour when I admitted to myself that I wanted to quit and run away so badly. I was about go sit in my car in the parking garage and cry when I remembered that there was a woman in the world with the nerve to make a living performing in drag as herself, and that made me feel like I had some pretty high-class problems. I walked to my office and I closed the door and locked it. I put my headphones on and scrolled through the songs I’d downloaded on my phone until I got to “Simply the Best.” I dug a Sharpie out of my bag, and as the music began, lifted it to my lips and started shifting my weight.
Jane V. Blunschi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Arkansas. Her Pushcart-nominated work has appeared in Cactus Heart Literary Magazine, and Gaslight, an anthology of writing by Lambda Literary Fellows. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, Jane lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Illustrated by Meghan Murphy.