Dark Turns & Noise

“Now that is a great peach,” said an enthusiastic voice.

“Ooh, very plump,” replied the energetic, flamboyant voice of an elderly gay man.

“Do you think she works out?” posited the first voice.

“Oh, that goes without saying,” you reply, given the fact that the peaches you talk about don’t grow on trees. The woman’s butt is a sight to behold and you find you’re immediately jealous due to your own derrière failures.

“But what do you think she does?” Abs, the first voice, postures. “Yoga, pilates…”


“That hard shit,” John, the flamboyant unicorn, says, aghast.

“Or maybe running, like your boy-toys?”

“Ooh, ooh, oh yes, that’s always a possibility,” he dances, sipping through his straw in delight as he pictures oily half-naked twinks running the Tahoe basin and him following behind like Paul Lynn playing Mick from Rocky instead of Burgess Meredith.

“I don’t know,” countered Abs. “That peach came from more than running. There needs to be a Stairmaster in there somewhere.”

“That’s showing our age.”

“Speak for yourself,” John says while waving his hands to ward off the bad vibes of age.

The three of you have a laugh at your collected nostalgia. Two pansexual women in their forties and one over-the-top gay man in his fifties. A good time at the expense of the straights in all directions, at the Pioneer Center during a showing of RENT, seems only fitting.

Ogling the athletic, nip/tucked and young was all you can do during the intermission as the three of you wait for a straight friend and two partners to work their way through concessions for drinks. It’s a tough game of patience, but someone has to do it.

A tap on your shoulder takes you out of the sight-seeing.


“Excuse me,” a woman’s voice says. You try to ignore her. She taps your shoulder once more, this time with intention. It is that important to get your attention.

Crap. Must be Peaches’ friend, sister, girlfriend, partner, feminist representative ready to give me a #MeToo lecture. Damn my loud mouth. All right, prep face for a dousing. Hopefully her drink isn’t too viscous. I spent a lot of time on these eyes.

Turning around to face your assumed accuser, your heart does something you didn’t think it was capable of. Crushing in, it skips a beat. Seeing her face fills you with a rush of emotions, heartburn, makes your knees go flaccid. The tidal wave is so overwhelming you lose the ability to speak.

Your infinite silence doesn’t stop her.

“This may sound weird from a stranger.” Out of nowhere, you know what’s coming. “Do you know Drew Larson?” Okay, maybe not that, nor what she says next. Nervously, she pulls a length of her hair back over one ear. “I mean, are you his younger sister?”

A compliment you absorb in place of a proper response. You look into her eyes, those glistening onyx orbs. It’s been twenty years since you last saw them. But Donna’s eyes still sparkle as they did the first time, and you’re not high. Her hair is still as long as you remember. The platinum, green and red highlights have been replaced with a simple golden ombré in her chestnut locks. A little crow outlines that heart shaped mole near her right eye. You attempt to look her body over without being obvious, not easy with a liquor cabinet rolling through your system. Once over, you can tell she is doing justice to that sheath dress. A few tattoos poke out from the material. A couple you recognize from back in the day and couple that must have come after your guest appearance in her life.

You’re not looking for flaws, you’re looking for… You’re not sure what you’re looking for. A piece of the past? The fountain of youth? A wormhole to the year 2000? A DeLorean to appear in a white flash in the courtyard?

Before this dance grows any more uncomfortable, you ready a response. It takes a great deal of effort. You do your best to pull back on any note of sarcasm. Only it isn’t you that breaks the silence…

“Babe, here’s your water and whiskey. Babe? Babe? Drew? Drew? Earth to Drew,” your date says, unintentionally outing you. Pushing an awkward moment a bit further over the edge. Donna’s eyes go wide from the revelation. “Drew, what’s wrong with you? I need you in our world right now,” your date obliviously continues.

Not only outing me but insulting my day-dreaming at the same time. I fuck this woman why, exactly? She’s not as hot as Peaches, at least in the butt department. She has her beat in the chest department. Definitely has the exotic thing down. Oh right, she’s just as cynical as me.

Taking the water and whiskey, you let out a small “thanks,” trying not to show your discomfort. Despite your reservations, you really like Carly. When she’s not crass to you, she does mean well. You’re not an easy person to be in a relationship with. You just wish this already awkward encounter wasn’t made even more so by your date’s lost patience.

A bell chimes. Intermission is almost over.

“You coming?” Carly says expectantly.

Through a sigh: “I’ll be there in a bit.”

“Okay,” she says, walking off with the rest of your horde.

You turn back to Donna. How the fuck do I pull the rip cord on this? “So… uh…” is all you can muster to resume the conversation.

Donna is taken aback. “You’re Drew Larson. Wow, just wow.” She looks you up and down. To hell with subtlety. You watch the gears in her head. You can already hear those innocuous re-introduction questions. This is hardly your first rodeo.

“When did you become a woman?”

“Did you go all the way?”

“Did you always feel that way?”

“How old were you when you realized?”

“Are you gay?”

“Are you into guys?”

“Are you into girls?”

“Are you into both?”

Somehow if people would just ask, “who do you fuck? how do you fuck?” and “can I see your new genitals?” you would feel less offended.

The dance of having to be polite to satisfy an ignorance that a simple Google search would resolve is an irritation you thought would go away the further you were from the operating table. Yet, every so often, the cosmos gets bored and you end up going through the same twaddle again. I should buy a set of FAQ brochures and be done with it.

At least it’s not as degrading as when you came out to your gay friends: “Honey, face it, you’re a drag queen.” And let’s not forget your favorite, stemming from opening up about your pansexuality: “Bitch, you’re greedy.”

None of those phrases came from Donna. Instead, she says, “Well I don’t want to keep you from your… uh… partner—?”

“Girlfriend,” you abruptly cut her off, as though it was essential she knew your current relationship status. You try to lighten the situation by saying you two should catch up. You hand her one of your personal business cards. She’s taken aback by what she reads on the front.

“Short story writer and novelist,” she reads aloud—the title you’ve given yourself. “I thought you were a screenwriter. Don’t you write for movies and television?”

“No, not for a while.”

“How come? I thought you were going to be a big filmmak—”

“Uh, not really,” you cut her off again. It’s clear that had you been successful, she would have seen your name in lights, and you wouldn’t be in downtown Reno on a Saturday night. If anything, you stop her to quill the even more awkward discussion of a lost ambition. “That would be a long story that requires coffee, be it regular or Irish.”

Such an admission gets a little chuckle. “Perhaps another time.”

The call chimes. Time to take your seats.

After shaking hands and one uncomfortable hug later, you make your way to the balcony seats. You see Donna heading for the orchestra pit.

Lights go down; the players and chorus set out. A rousing rendition of “Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes” carries across the hall. Abs and Carly are singing along. Your straight friend is captivated. John is trying to contain a river of memories of the friends he lost during the AIDS crisis. You have your own flood to hold back.

You look over the balcony railing for Donna, for a glimpse of the past. Amongst the sea of long hair, shave heads and bald spots, the formal and business casual dress are cast in theatre shadows. There is no way of telling one body from another. And that is assuming she was sitting close to the stage.

Maybe Angel will toss another sparkler-laden poodle into the audience, you wish.

All you can do is watch the rest of the play and put the encounter with Donna behind you. Like the late 1980s of RENT, the early 2000s have to stay where they are in the past, never to return.

Put Donna out of your mind. That’s what a reasonable person would do.


Months go by. The seasons change. It is another monotonous day at work. Not even the glow of copy machines can break the trance of boredom. Another repaired fuser, another arm-length drum, another two-thousand-dollar length of gold, another dollar, another day’s long drive to the next location. The music from RENT is still stuck in your head. You can still hear “Seasons of Love” and “Without You” playing over and over. Sometimes you involuntarily sing “Today 4 U” while stripping, cleaning and putting back together copiers and printers inside the offices of hospitals and warehouses. Those are the only memories of the previous November, apart from an idiotic group selfie in the pouring rain. A fool’s gambit of holding onto a night that can stay in the past alongside the musical. Or so you think…

Hey Drew! It’s Donna. Sorry for not getting back to you sooner…” The text goes on for several paragraphs of intricate minutia at the level of an IRS audit. A menagerie of people, places, events, bowel movements, operations, political organizations and temporal anomalies that are of no consequence to anybody but herself.

Out of courtesy, you want to send a simple reply of “no worries” or “long time no see.” Any approach that could be perceived as the bullshit Jane Cool routine you might have tried in college and throughout your twenties, and even into your thirties. Because Donna won’t see through that. Yeah right.

It is still relatively early in the day. There are too many stops before 4:00 PM, before you can call it a day. Replies require a degree of concentration you can’t spare at the moment. You won’t attempt the voice recognition dictation on your phone—the damn thing makes you come off as a drunk. Donna can wait. You hadn’t seen her in twenty years. The concert was seven or eight months ago, what’s another four hours? You put your personal phone back in your purse and pull out your work phone for your next assignment.

But Donna’s text nags at you over the course of the next few hours. The paradoxical nature of texting allows for both simultaneous messaging as well as delayed replies, brief simple-sloppy messages, and long, calculated responses. When you’re not thinking of work, you spend the coming hours thinking of what to text back. The not-so-casual part of you wants to go over every statement she sent with a fine-tooth comb. Another part of you wants to be cavalier and reply: “What the fuck took you so long? Rent was in November, here it is nearly fucking June. Have you become mental in your forties?

That slide into bitterness surfaces some old wounds.

I should definitely wait until after work.

After working out?

After yoga?

After I get home should be fine. Maybe after dinner.

If not today, definitely before the weekend.

Texting procrastination at its finest.


That night during dinner, Donna’s message becomes a more immediate concern. The War and Peace text is still on the home screen of your phone. Carly happens a peek as it rests on the charging plate.

“Jesus, what a flake.”

“Who’s a flake?”

“This chick on your phone.”

You drop one of your chopsticks and the dog and cat jump up expectantly for their share of your dinner. “I’m not sure whether I should feel violated or not.”

“Violated,” she scoffs. “A secret rendezvous? Is she someone new I don’t know about?”

“It’s not that—”

“Relax, Drew, I’m just bustin’ your balls. I’m sure if you didn’t want me to know, you wouldn’t be so reckless to leave a message like this on your phone’s front screen.”

“Yes, because I am so damn secretive,” you say flatly, hoping she won’t bring up—

“Like the time you were getting me a bracelet for my birthday through your friend Naya and she texted me instead.”

“You’re never gonna let me live that one down, are ya?”

Carly chuckles. “Nope.” She playfully kisses you on the cheek. “It was a great gift, by the way.” She holds up her wrist. “You see I still wear it.”

“Glad you do.” You take another bite of your food to suppress a curse.

“Oh don’t be bashful.” She laughs. “You’re such an open book, it’s ridiculous.” She looks at the screen. “So who’s this Maybe: Donna Brentwood? Sounds like a realtor.”

“She might be.”

“Funny. Who is she?”


“Yeah, the chick with the Lord of the Rings-length text?”

“It’s not that long.”

“True. It doesn’t have fifty different endings.” Literary banter only clears the air for so long. “So who is she?”

You aren’t concerned with how to approach the Donna question. You’ve been with Carly for the past four (going on five) years and have lived together for two and a half of those. A miracle in and of itself. By now you thought your normal asshole self would have driven her out. Cheating, perhaps? Or an act of self-destruction that would have made Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem like fireworks. That’s what you were expecting…

“If this chick is your mistress, please tell me she’s not this wordy in the sack.” Carly isn’t easily put off like most of your previous partners. She’s had your number from the first day you met.

After a series of disappointments, all instituted by your failings as an antisocial human being, you had firmly come to the conclusion that it was, in fact, you—not them. That whole “free spirit” thing just doesn’t jibe with people once you’re in your thirties and forties. Some people, any way. The idea of coupling had become the furthest thing from your mind, laying somewhere between a root canal with an ancient manual drill and paying taxes for the Southern border wall—both painful for different reasons. From that standpoint, on your fortieth birthday, you were expecting to spend it in solace and reflection over at the Riverside Grille, taking in tumbler after tumbler filled with bright red Mount Fuji (Japanese whiskey and cranberry juice).

But it seemed as though your closest friends hadn’t read the memo. You ended up at a spoken word event at the coffeeshop formerly known as the Java Jungle—performing, no less. Not wanting to fall into the depressionistas trap, you attempted to fall back on the tried and true satirical short story… only to find the former Jungle’s audience now consisted of late-term Millennials and Gen-Zeders, members of the population who had their senses of humor genetically written out of them at birth because someone thought Gattaca (1997) was a good idea. A crack about a gluten-free, fat-free, protein-free bacon-lettuce-tomato wrap and the temperamental vegan demanding the wrap to be oxygen-free, landed with a thud. The rest of your set was a long, long uncomfortable silence followed by a pitiful series of golf claps. You made a beeline for the Vino side of the establishment, knocking back three fingers of Canadian Club before the glass hit the mahogany, raising your finger for another before the bartender could ask if you wanted to open a tab.

“Holy shit! Did you even taste that?” were the first words you heard from Carly. She was sitting in a neighboring stool wearing the baby blue sundress and matching panties you’d come to love so much. Hell, you loved that panty-encased rump before meeting it up close and personal, thanks to a gust of wind that sent the skirt half of her dress flying as she was walking into the shop.

“No, I didn’t taste that, but I’m sure by the time I get enough in me, I won’t care how badly I bombed.”

“A sound theory.” She raised her glass in a toast and you clinked hers in return. She moved closer as you were polishing off your second drink. “If I crashed and burned as you did, the vodka would be my friend. Brings out the inner Russian. That’s more this crowd’s speed.”

“’Life sucks and then you die’ is more this crowd’s speed.”

“Maybe.” She took a sip from her drink. “Does it have a happy ending? You know how these people love their happy endings.”

“It certainly does. The big band throws out miniature Snickers.”

“Then gets socially indicted by those who have peanut allergies,” Carly was quick to spout off. “Hashtag: Baby Snickers Kill.”

It took every ounce of your willpower not to choke on your next tumbler of whiskey. You weren’t sure if what she said was really that funny or if it was just the alcohol. Either way, you didn’t get your Mount Fuji that evening.

A couple years went by and she was still around. Carly is a decade your junior but can keep up with your whacky antics, even encourages them. Another couple of years and she moved in with you, despite all your bad habits and bad stories.

When you approached her last New Years in one of your typical moments of self-doubt, forcing the other shoe to drop instead of waiting for it to happen at any moment, she put your fears to rest by saying, “I know you’re a mess. I’m a mess, too.”

“Not like me. Not as bad as I’ve—”

“Hush.” Silencing you like the child you are, she places her fingertip on your lips. “Babe, I think you would have enough wherewithal to know I wouldn’t pussyfoot around if you slight me. I’ll drop your ass and go. Then you’ll have to pick up the pieces after that.”

“I hope you’re speaking metaphorically.”

She smiled with that fiendish grin of hers and pulled you for a kiss as the first chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” rung in the New Year. If there were any doubts about you two, at that point they faded with the fireworks in the cold January sky. You knew that she had figured you out early on. She knew you were broken and didn’t care to have you any other way.


Over the years, you learned one solemn truth: Carly is a no-bullshit person. Important for a lawyer, especially one that makes a living wading through the cesspools of loopholes in the entertainment industry. It was her swimming with the sharks that cut you a good deal on your second book. She knows the truth behind your writing. There is no point in bullshitting her. Not in your work. Not in your daily life. And not about a piece of your past.

“Donna is an ex.”

Carly looks at you as though expecting your head to spontaneously combust. “And she’s this civil? That can’t be possible, not with your string of winners.”

Albeit, as long as Donna’s text proved to be, Carly did have a point. Most of your exes wouldn’t perform CPR on you if they saw you gasping for air. More than likely they would make sure you were dead before calling 911. One of them working in the medical field made it even more problematic.

There was Hello Nurse, who you only refer to as such because of a half-baked callback to the cartoon Animaniacs. You can’t remember why you couldn’t see her as anything other than some deluded teenage fantasy cropping up in your early thirties. Except some stethoscope play—the less discussed, the better—it was access to prescriptions that had you around. It came to an abrupt end when you hooked up with a pool hustler that turned out to be a patient of hers. Suffice to say, she made it clear never get into accident and end up at her hospital. Chances were pretty strong you weren’t going to come out alive. Not an impossibility for an atheist at a St. Mary’s facility.

After the medical scare came the Burner Reporter, who you let it be no secret it was nothing more than a means of getting laid. Charles Burkowski, whatever part of hell he resided, would be proud. Her hippie-dippie nature turned out to be in stark contrast to the “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism she often reported. You couldn’t get away fast enough when she mentioned off-hand one night a desire for a disaster at Burning Man. “I’ll be the first one on the scene of a massacre. CNN, here I come.” How Wolf Blitzer of her. You didn’t feel all that guilty when you anonymously called the FBI and Homeland Security for a potential domestic terrorist attack. Hopefully when she gets out of Guantanamo in 2069, they’ll still let her into the Black Rock Desert—assuming there aren’t houses out there by then.

The Coffee Girl will always have a special place in your heart, and your hair, and your laptop, and your wardrobe, and anywhere else you ended up with coffee stains. She wasn’t a barista or even a coffeeshop owner. To be quite honest, you aren’t sure what she did for a living, nor do you have any recollection of her real name. She was three exes’ before Carly, but she knew her all too well. Carly gave her the Coffee Girl moniker after said ex doused you repeatedly with iced-white mochas at a dozen coffee houses in the area. It got so bad you only drank at Starbucks for a year because you didn’t know which mom and pop coffeeshop she might be hiding in. The eventual restraining order was only a given at that point—as well as having to replace half of your summer and fall business casual attire. All from a simple Fraudian slip that you can’t even remember. You just wished the insult from another had been as nonsensical.

The “Artist” was the most famous of your failures, in more ways than one. Air-quotes were a requirement when describing her. Mentally you blocked her name from your memory in case the cosmos wanted to drop a rock on you. After a particularly vile cacophony of cusses, insulting her choice of improv over playwriting, that asteroid seem more than certain to be on course to wherever you were walking in the street. At least until you found out about a stage-play she wrote based on your insult. A stage-play that started locally, got picked up off-Broadway, was fast-tracked to Broadway, and is now in negotiations for a film deal at 20th Century Fox. You thought about suing for defamation, but the idea of admitting you’re the basis of a fifteen-minute rant that made Alec Baldwin’s curse-filled salesman monologue from Glen Gerry Glen Ross seem tame by comparison… well, it isn’t something you want as your legacy. But if she wins an Oscar to go with the Tony, all bets are off.

From your current form, those were the highlights of you bad relationships that Carly knew about. Others were just a mix of sex-acts gone wrong to one-night stands in embarrassing places. I’ll never live down the confessional box.

Discussing Donna, only one word comes to mind: “Steppenwolf.”

Unable to control herself, Carly asks, “Did she take you on a ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ or was she just too ‘Born to be Wild’?”

“Funny” is your only remark on her college years spent in a record shop. “Less John Kay and more Herman Hesse.”

“Herman Hesse? He wasn’t part of the band.” You’re always impressed by Carly’s musical knowledge, which stretched back before either of you were born. Her literary knowledge, not so much.

The 1927 Herman Hesse novel, translated into English in 1929 and a number of other times post WWII, was a gift on your twenty-first birthday. In retrospect, the present made sense, though seemed like a letdown at the time. It was a gift from Donna and later a bone of contention when your twenty-one-year-old mind misinterpreted the story.

“She ripped the book apart and tossed it in your face?”


“All because you didn’t understand the book? What a bitch.” Carly lightly punches you in the shoulder. “Some English major you are.”

“That’s what she said, but with a little more force, anger and whole lot of obscenities. Some that weren’t even in English.”

“Jesus Christ, that’s terrible.” Carly shifts in her seat, flipping a lock of her hair like a child. You know she’s irritated. She only flips a lock when she’s irritated. “Why the hell are you pining over this woman? She sounds like a pain in the ass.”

“I’m not pining over her. I’m just… wondering.”

“Wondering what?” You let out a heavy sigh. Carly rolls her eyes. “Oh boy. It’s something deep, isn’t it?”

“I knew her before.”


“The other me.”

“Oh,” she says, drawing out the syllable.

“When I first transitioned, I often wondered if things could have been different had I been honest. Had I been able to be honest.”

“Now you lost me.”


“No, but you never seemed the type to wonder what-if, at least as long as I have known you.”

“What-if was kind of my jam for a while.”

“Yeah, in the Man in the High Castle/Sliders type of what-if, not the fucking ‘what if you never transitioned.’”

“I never said that.”

“Then what?” Carly sounds desperate and upset, horrified that you might want to change a major mistake.

Attempting to comfort her, you say, “It’s not like that, it’s more like… like…” You ponder a moment. What you’ve been saying or not saying, you can see has upset Carly. Not usually an easy thing—then again, these aren’t normal circumstances. When you finally collect your thoughts, you move closer to her. “With time to reflect, I thought she might have been sending me a message, a message via the book.”

“Now I’m completely lost.” Waving her hand over the bookshelves, she says, “You’ve got thousands of fucking books here and you think one from twenty years ago holds some untold meaning?” You say nothing. “Well?”

When in doubt, intellectualize it. “In the book, the main character is a bit of a loner and a bit of a self-absorbed slob, a beast of a man… at least by nineteenth century Germany’s standards.”

“I can see the connection,” she scoffs.

Ignoring her comment, you continue: “He’s brought to life when he meets the character of Hermaine. Hermaine is like the foundation for a host of free-spirited characters to come after.”

“A free spirit. Just your type.”

Still ignoring her. “Some scholars have argued that Hermaine is the reflection of Herman—the main character, not the author.”

“An author who names the main character after himself—what a novel concept.”

“It wasn’t that uncommon back in 1927.”

“I thought you said it was nineteenth century Germany? 1927 is the twentieth century.”

“The story takes place in the late nineteenth century. Hesse wrote and published it in the early twentieth century. Hermaine is the feminine version of Herman, and a number of literary scholars have speculated that Hermaine is a figment of Herman’s imagination or that she is secretly who he wants to be and can’t. From this, under the guise of jealousy, he kills her at the end.”

“Spoiler alert. Jesus.”

“It’s a book from nearly a hundred years ago, not a Marvel movie that came out last week.”

“Still, you almost had me onboard with the plot until you spoiled the ending.”

“That’s just one part of the ending, there’s more to the story than that.” You shift uncomfortably in your seat. “The relevant point is that Hermaine is described in the book as a hermaphrodite.”

“Oh wow.” Carly was taken aback. “Did hermaphrodite mean the same thing a hundred years ago? It couldn’t have, could it?”

“In definition, but not in context.” You admit to making the same assumption she made and dismissing it with disastrous results. You would read it again on your way to being you and again thereafter. Along with supplemental materials, you came to the conclusion that Donna was trying to tell you to be honest and all you could do was push her away. A fear of rejection, of humiliation, of being ostracized—you took it upon yourself to take the pre-emptive strike only for it to blow up in your face. It became total annihilation of your self-esteem, your relationship with Donna and those to follow.

Taking in this revelation, Carly can only say, “If she was trying to send you a message back then, why was she appalled at the show?”

“I don’t think she was put off by it. Surprised, yes. I don’t believe she would attempt to reconnect to me if she was horrified or offended.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know.”

A long silence. Carly takes her wine glass. You are expecting in stereotypical fashion, like in all those movies you grew up watching, for her to gulp the liquid down in one swig. Instead, she swishes the wine around in her glass, taking in the deep floral aroma. After nearly five years, you realize she enjoys the bouquet of a vintage more than the act of drinking it. She isn’t one for flowers or perfumes or anything of the traditional romantic scents. A mature wine from a good year and a snifter—that’s the way to her heart.

Another sniff and the glass is back on the table. Carly knows she has your full attention. “Do you know what makes me work as a girlfriend for you, Drew?”

Shaking your head, you reply, “I… uh… ‘Cuz you’re Carly.”

“Cuz I’m Carly,” she snickers. “That’s a good take. I work for you because I am not the jealous type or the smothering type. I don’t try to change you. I’m well aware you’re set in your ways. I give you your space because I know you need it. From that, I’ve learned your habits and have been willing to look the other way since you don’t constantly attack my habits.” She takes a sip of her wine. “Frankly I could give a shit what, with, or who you hit on because I always know, or at least knew, you were just entertaining a fancy. As was I.”

“Maybe a little more than a fancy,” you quip, trying to lighten the mood. It falls flat.

Carly continues: “This Donna, though, is a whole different ball of wax. She’s from the old you, a you before you were Drew—my Drew, at least. That part of you that’s still the lost boy. That part of you which, no matter the years and the changes, will never go away.”

“It’s not—” She puts up a hand, stopping you as she takes another sniff and then sip of her wine.

“If you’re gonna meet up with Donna, Drew, then I’m not gonna stop you. If this is the end, there’s no coming back. Not ever. If you’re going to pursue some twenty-year-old flame, and run a wrecking ball through our relationship, then pack up now.”

“Pack up? But this was my apartment before you moved in.”

“Yeah but I like this apartment, it has a great view of the valley and the mountains, and the rent is still reasonable. Besides, it’s only fair that if you do something stupid, it should go to me. Consider it a consolation prize.”

Carly gets up, grabs the bottle and heads out to the balcony. On her way, she picks up her bong from the mantel.

You have never been married. Before Carly, the longest relationship you had lasted a year. There’s a nagging feeling at the back of your neck. You suddenly feel the loss of divorce.


“What can I get started for you today?” asks the chirpy young barista. She startles you out of your funk. It is as though she is dancing in place to a rhythm of her own. The random alternative, theatrical and pop music blaring over the coffeeshop’s sound system. You wonder if she’s controlling these arrangements from the white slab that serves as a register. You try to regain some composure. The painted menu takes a bit to absorb. There are too many choices for a small mom and pop shop—teas, smoothies, gluten free pastries, IPAs. You assume there are coffee drinks in there somewhere. The Spotlight—still no idea why it’s called that—is labeled as a coffee “boutique” instead of a shop. Whatever the hell that means. You look through the options, trying to stave off a headache the caffeine itself would take care of, if only you could figure out what to order.

“Do you happen to have cappuccino?” You fallback to the only choice that comes to mind. You’re too tired and confused to figure out a lengthy coffeehouse—sorry, coffee boutique’s menu. You would like to see it as an homage to days gone by, to those days with Donna. The many late hours of coffee at the Deuge with the clique from the theatre department, and the wannabe director whose name escapes you—if you ever knew it to begin with—but for some reason picture as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The blaring music shifts from the soundtrack of Little Miss Sunshine with the wailing vocals of Devotcha to piano rhythms and the gospel of INYA. Or was it that Moby song that sounds like INYA? You wish Carly was here so you’d know what you are complaining about when you ask the proprietors to turn it down.

The barista manages to upsell you a gluten-free pastry. Apparently, croissants are no longer considered healthy—the war on carbs seems to still be afoot. You are certain a million French people would take umbrage with that. God only knows what she would have said had I asked for a bagel. Handing her cash, she gives you a confused look. “What? Is this a cash-free store?”

“No, no, we accept all forms,” she says, pointing to a Bitcoin bumper sticker. “But if you use a card, you can receive special points and be exact with your tip.”

Now you remember why you don’t venture to this side of the valley, particularly in vicinity of the damn Scheel’s Mall. Every shop, be it independent or a corporate entity, has some bizarre aversion to physical cash. You hand her a ten-dollar bill, enough to cover the cappuccino, pastry, and what you hoped would be a tip large enough for the foam in your coffee to be foam and not spit.

Taking a window seat, you look out at the manmade lake. The Sparks Marina can get nothing more than a shake of your head. It is an unnatural body of water and its neighbors are all too fitting: Interstate-80, the Scheel’s Mall, smaller shops, luxury apartments, an RV park, and a by-the-hour hotel/casino. The park, which takes up a third of the immediate space, was clearly nothing more than an afterthought for the city of Sparks. The lake is too shallow for anything other than wave-boarding and the occasional planted fish. At least when there isn’t the strong smell of algae in the air. As a visitor to this side of the valley, it’s difficult to marvel at the fake lake when the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe are natural bodies close by. You rarely have a reason to venture past the west side of Spaghetti Bowl, unless there’s a movie event Carly insists on seeing at the Luxury IMAX theatre. Most of the time you see the Marina in the dark, illuminated by the old-fashion light poles that encompass it on all sides. You never took in the surroundings of Sparks before and couldn’t imagine there was anything to see in the warehouse district. There is no reason to be invested in houses and apartment complexes sprouting up all around.

If I make a mess and things go sideways, I’ll need one of those apartments. You shutter at the thought. Mental note: pick up brochures from the neighboring apartments.

The barista drops off a bathtub of cappuccino on the table. The comically large cup reminds you of the coffee served to Mike Myers at the start of So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993). Then you’re suddenly depressed when you realize you’re thinking of a movie from nearly thirty years ago, and an even older joke if production times and pop culture are any indications. You’ve become your late father, referencing old crap.

Old enough to know better. My ass! The thought creeps into you as you reach under your silk blouse to nonchalantly straighten a strap of your red push-up bra. The bra you only wear when you’re on the make. A thought sticks around as you place your hands upon your velvet skirt and the patterned tights that lead down to your butterfly booties. Oh no, this meet-up is definitely causal. How many times did you check your makeup in the rear-view mirror before coming in? Five, six?

You set down the oversized cup, reach for your phone and check for messages. Part of you is expecting a message from Donna: an update of where she is, a cancellation, alien invasion, anything. Instead, nothing. Of course there are no messages. Why would there be? She’s running late. Like a schmuck, I’m on time. Twenty years and at least there’s one constant.

A heavy sigh. You sit back. It bothers you. It still bothers you that she’s late. Why does it still bother you after all this time? You’ve been in relationships with people after her who were compulsively late. Hell, your closest friend Abs is never on time. So much so, for events where punctuality is key, when she can’t look it up, you often lie to her about what time to show up. It’s scummy, but I am not paying a fucking late entrance fee. Yet Donna’s tardiness is raising your blood pressure. You find yourself sighing in a way you haven’t since you quit working at that casino. Jesus Christ, she’s devolving me over—

A familiar piano intro plays over the coffeeshop speakers. Your heartbeat faulters. After twenty seconds, a voice you hear every so often echoes out…

“Though the sun is in your eyes / Hurricanes and rains and black and cloudy sky…”

“Oh no,” you let slip as your eyes well up. This is the one song that chokes you up every time. It is the only song you always cry over: “Wicked Little Town.”

Suddenly, you’re transported back to 2001. There are no Space Odysseys, no flattening buildings, no wars in the zeitgeist. At least not yet. It is a small theatre in San Francisco not far from the western approach of the Bay Bridge. You’re with your crossdressing and drag friends, people you met online that aren’t judging. They insisted upon a meetup, and scripture came down from the group organizer that you all had to see a new underground show that was traveling across the country.

One of the ladies had seen it in New York and said, “If you love Rocky Horror and Priscilla, this will knock your panties off.”

That couldn’t have been more spot on.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch wasn’t like anything you had ever seen before. The transgender star was a stark contrast to Frank-N-Furter and Bernadette Bassenger, or not. The excitement, the heartbreak, the music, the East German singer’s struggle and triumph—it was a rallying call for one’s identity. The rock/punk/cabaret nature of the show hit close to home.

It was all fun and games until the one-two punch of “Wigs in a Box” followed by that song which opened up old wounds, that song that caused Niagara Falls, that “Wicked Little Town.”

At first you weren’t sure what it was. A weight sank to the pit of your stomach. Your throat began to close in on itself. A burning developed you hadn’t felt since childhood, clawing at the corners of your eyes. It started with a few drips. As the song carried on, as John Cameron Mitchell released Hedwig’s sultry and sad voice across the room, the river came crashing through.

By the time she uttered, “you know you can follow my voice / through dark turns and noise,” you fell apart, running to an exit.

In the heavy summer fog, you rested against the cold brick of a San Francisco back alley. Losing your balance, you slid to the ground, your leather skirt riding up in the process. That didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing could go on. Your eyes were the rainstorm. It was a wailing and crying you hadn’t let loose since you were a child, since you were a little boy. That brought out even more tears.

The night’s cruise director, alias Meiko, found you in the alley, the mess of mascara running down your cheeks. She fixed your skirt and made a racy comment you couldn’t understand through your misery. She did what she could to comfort you, at one point hugging and kissing you like a sister or a worried mother or spouse. You could feel her fake breasts with their fake/hard nipples pressing against your skin. For some reason, that made you cry even more. Eventually she convinced you to go back inside for the rest of the show.

It was a tough sit. It was a tough ride back to the hotel. It was a tough change back. It was rough ride home. It was an even rougher several months.

Classes were a nightmare. Getting close to anyone felt impossible, at least in boy-mode. Club became your classes, became your home. It was the only place you could be you and be seen and in touch with people as you.

Donna thought you were cheating on her. Mostly socially, occasionally sexually. Admitting half of that didn’t stop the fights.

Steppenwolf is when it all came to a head. A twenty-first birthday gift that wasn’t alcohol. Lord knows you could have used the alcohol. Not really a possibility inside the defunct Borders Bookstore.

The torn pages rained across your face to the tune of a question that still rings in your head: “What the hell is wrong with you?”

The answer wouldn’t materialize for twenty years.

Better late than never.

You had always thought you would see the return of the Borders Bookstore Corporation before you would see Donna Brentwood again. Apparently the cosmos had a greater desire to prove you wrong than bring back competition for Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Sitting back, the song long over, you stare at the coffee cup. The foam from the cappuccino has deflated. The liquid is now cold. The pastry barely eaten. A lipstick stain glares back at you. The color is not your usual. Coral. You chuckle. It’s Carly’s lipstick pigment of choice. Bright to go against her naturally tanned skin. You put on hers by mistake.

Looking back out at the fake lake, at the ever-changing Truckee Meadows, brings you back inside. You look around the coffeeshop, and it is a coffeeshop and not a boutique. You look at yourself. You look at the people around you. They don’t know who you were. They don’t know what you were. They have only seen and interacted with you, the you of now. Carly has known you now.

What the hell am I doing here? Truly, why the hell am I sitting here, waiting to see her? You move around in your seat, you look out again, taking in the ever-growing suburban desert. This isn’t the Reno from the early aughts. Shit, it’s not even Reno, it’s Sparks. Donna is not the same person and I can say, regardless of an operational change, I am not that me from twenty years ago. And yet I’m here. I am still making those goddamn immature mistakes.

“What the hell is wrong with me?”

Without thinking, you reach for your phone and pull up a picture from the past four years. It is a picture of you with Abs, John, your straight friends, and of course, Carly. You flip through to another picture of just you and her. And pictures of just her. Your favorite is of you two goofing around at Imperial Sushi with your couple friends, Edge and Naya. Carly is making cutesy faces at a line of Salmon Rolls. You are waving your hands up and down like a monster over the Godzilla rolls. In another picture, you two are re-enacting the kiss from Lady and the Tramp with a seaweed roll. Only the next picture reveals how wasabi can put the kibosh on such a romantic gesture, as it is clear you two are scrambling for cold saké. That doesn’t stop an opportunity to intertwine each other’s arms while drinking. A laugh escapes your lips.

Sitting back, you think, Am I fucking stupid?

You send Donna a text: “Sorry. I have to take off. Something came up from work.” You don’t bother elaborating in your lie. You don’t even bother with a rain check. You just walk out of the coffeeshop without cleaning your table.

A burning has taken over. You want to run home like it’s a movie set in New York City, like Isaac running to Tracy in Manhattan or Harry for Sally at New Years. Not happening. Reno is not a walking city, let alone a running one. It stretches too far for anything like that. You run to your car, remote starter at the ready. You hop in and head out. From the street vantage point, the freeway is a mess. It’s rush hour. A Nevada rush hour. Californians would scoff at only ten miles of bumper to bumper.

Changing plans, you head north on McCarran. The speed is a relative concern: sixty-five in forty-five and fifty isn’t the end of the world. You drive several miles past both interstates 580 and 80, past the university and a few Walmarts, until you reach Mae Anne. Heading up the oh-so familiar loop, past what used to be a Super K-Mart and straight into the apartment complex for professionals and the retired.

Her car is still in her spot. Thank god.

Racing up the stairs, you take a moment to realize you need to make better use of your gym membership. Fumbling with your keys, you find the right one and dash inside. The door slams behind you, starling Carly.

“What the hell?”

Amongst gasps of air, you cut her off to say what you should have said a while ago: “Carly, I love you.” You follow it up by saying the two words you never thought you would ask another human being: “Marry me?” She stares at you like you’re a mad woman and breaks out laughing.

You’re not sure if that’s her answer, so you wait. You’ll wait for as long as it takes.