James, as the doctors and staff at St. Mark’s Regional Hospital in San Diego insisted on calling him, applied pancake make-up over the band-aid camouflaging the skin lesion on his chin. He was glad to be home, surrounded by his Nippon figurines, the ornate lampshades with exotic scarves draped over the top, and his trunk of overflowing satin and silk costumes, boas, several strands of pearls, and oodles of costume jewelry. His move to San Diego had been a windfall—the most money he’d ever made doing drag. He lived to entertain. On stage, he was Jasmine and loved. Standing-room only. Now he was sick. How long would he be able to afford his apartment in Hillcrest?
The obituaries from three newspapers spread across the coffee table. Circled in black were the names of seven young men.
Jasmine wanted to live, to work again at Glitter Glam Drag. But James didn’t.
No can do, James. You’re not going to pull me down today. It’s Pride. I’m going to party.
Donna was coming.
At St. Mark’s, the only person who bathed and dressed him, changed his sheets and consoled him, was Donna, the pretty dyke nurse who was now his source for food, medication, and shots—his entire life.
It was Sunday, her day off, and she promised to take him to Pride. Jasmine had never missed a parade, but James’s taunts of looking butt-ugly opened more scabs than he had on his body.
Jasmine dressed in black sweatpants and a gold lámay blouse, brushed her long stringy hair, pulled it into a ponytail, and clipped it with a rhinestone barrette. She applied red lip gloss and blue eyeshadow.
When James fell ill and admitted himself to St. Mark’s Regional, the doctor asked how many men he had slept with. Was he kidding? “Honey, how many stars are there in the heavens?” Hundreds, thousands, in parks, bath houses, clubs, from San Fransisco to LA and San Diego. The doctor had kept a straight face when James answered. The nurse turned her back on him.
Gay liberation tore the hinges off closet doors. Men like him left the Midwest for the coasts and found a bacchanal of men, a confectionery of sex and drugs, a feast for the starving who thought they were alone in the world.
James’s life had been about dick and where to get the next fuck. Jasmine’s life was drag, antique stores, and Vogue Magazine.
When his conservative, homophobic, fundamental Christian parents caught him in his mother’s dress and high heels, they demanded, “Get out now and don’t you ever come back.” He promised them, “I’ll live up to your expectations. I’ll make the most of a trashy life.”
Jasmine grabbed a green boa from the trunk and wrapped it around her neck. You think that’ll hide your Kaposi’s Sarcoma, James baited. Jasmine tugged at the feathers that made her neck feel on fire.
Grace Jones’s, “Pull up to the Bumper” boomed from the ghetto blaster. Jasmine wanted to dance, but her legs ached. You can’t even walk, sucker.
“Shut-up, James.” Jasmine said, pulling herself up and moving to the window.
When he heard a car, he backed out of view. James never wanted Donna to know what she meant to Jasmine.
He held onto furniture as he made his way to the red velvet couch and sat, poised, waiting.
Donna knocked and opened the door.
“Well, don’t you look jazzy,” she said, pushing a wheelchair inside with a rainbow flag attached.
You’ll look like a sick bastard in that baby buggy, James bullied. Everyone will know you have AIDS.
“I can’t go.”
“It’s up to you.”
“Are we so pathetic we need a parade?”
“Yes.” Donna pinned a button that read, Gay by birth, fabulous by choice, on his blouse.“We need to pump ourselves up. If we don’t, who will?”
“They want all queers dead. Looks like they’ll get their way.”
“Not everyone. “The Blood Sisters” keep donating blood, and they’re delivering food and medicine.”
“Thank God for lesbians,” he said and wondered if gay men would do the same if lesbians were dying.
Donna released the footrests on the wheelchair.
“I’m not going. Everyone will know I have AIDS.”
“You do, James.”
He looked away, not wanting to disappoint the woman who showed him so much compassion and strength.
“What if I run into someone I know?”
“You’ll know what to say.”
“Like I’m dying of pneumonia. Like all those fake obituaries,” he said, kicking the coffee table. “Fucking closet cases. Even in death.” Jasmine felt the weepies coming on. James scolded, Be a man. Only sissies cry. But Jasmine was female, too. “In my obit, I want you to put that I died of AIDS. I want everyone to know.”
He held onto the seat of the wheelchair and winced as he pulled himself up. The smell of barbecue wafting in from the open door reminded him of summers back in Kansas City, his mom cooking the catfish that he and his dad caught in the Missouri River, his dog Corky—was she still alive?—joyful memories that always left a wake of loneliness.
Today was supposed to be happy, floats with dancing bare-chested boys, banners, dykes on bikes.
Donna shoved the wheelchair forward. “I’ve brought water and trail mix.”
“Poor substitute for poppers and quaaludes.”
Donna laughed, pushed him outside, and shut the door.
The ocean air breathed vitality into his frail body. He raised his face to the sun and began to gather life like flowers. A bouquet of drifting purple and orange balloons floated high toward the swirling white splashes in a blue background. He heard applause and whistles as he watched a float pass by on Park Boulevard. “Go faster, Donna. I don’t want to miss anything.” For just one afternoon he wanted to wave the rainbow flag and cheer the parade on and forget about himself and all the dying young men.