Every morning Monica woke to a new color. The operation, which she had saved for over the past five years, was coming in two weeks. Her plane ticket to Mexico City, the clinic confirmation, the conversion of her savings into pesos -- everything had been planned. She saw violets and pinks that she had never seen before. Her new life as a woman would be full of flowers, trips to different plazas for fresh fruits and vegetables, maybe even a smile at the distinguished men who happen to appraise her.Monica was only two weeks --
The girls at the club were so excited they whispered about Monica even when she was in the room. She felt suddenly important, feminine, and brave. She would be the first at the Pink Lantern to really go through with it. Not spending her life with siliconed breasts, estrogen, and a penis that has to be taped up every morning.
No one would know she was the original Miss Santa Monica Boulevard, hence her name, Monica. She would become another Dolores del Rio, a woman of the river, but it would be Monique del Rio: mysterious, French and Spanish, retired from Hollywood -- from a glamorous career. She would even marry and adopt if the chance came.
She had promised herself to do it correctly; her doctor in Los Angeles put her through psychological tests before he referred her for the operation. She had heard the tales of drag queens who weren't sure but went through with the surgery anyway; they wound up suicides or eunuchs in a dress, hustling the streets, shunned by their families. Monica would not have it. She was meant for the change.
Her best friend, Theda, as in Theda Bara, explained everything to her one night after the show. Monica had Mexican shawls over all the lamps in her apartment, and Theda, way past 50, was in her stage drag -- a silvery puffed-shoulder number. She wore a diamond ring on every finger. Her summer diamonds: some are, some aren't, she explained. In the dim red light, she seemed tired, grotesque as she puffed on her black cigarettes and spoke in her vacant, she-male voice cluttered with hormones and years of practice.
"You see, dear, you are one of the lucky ones," Theda said. "God just made a small mistake with you, and she does not -- I repeat, does not-mind if you correct it. You were meant to be a woman. Don't let the fools out there tell you different. We know, don't we?"
Theda had spent years on
the strip circuit because she was fat and her tits, which were her own,
looked like they belonged to a woman. And her penis was so small she could
easily hide it under a G-string. She'd made a fortune stripping in Alaska
in the sixties. No one ever knew she was a man. If someone got too rambunctious,
she would beg off with female problems. The only obstacle was avoiding
the theater managers who wanted a taste of the talent. If they had known
she was a fat boy in drag she would have been killed. Fairbanks, Theda
pointed out, was a boom town for a smart
"Today there are no restrictions, Monica," Theda would tell her. "I'm the kind of drag queen that's going out of style, I suppose. Now people line up to see the tits, knowing the cock is still there."
Monica had heard it before. She would stir another pitcher of martinis and the two would talk until three or four in the morning about the best drags, the Charles Pierces who played big halls and were real stars. Theda would reminisce about how, in the fifties, men couldn't dress in drag in public without facing arrest. In clubs they wore a tux and a wig, lipstick, maybe a pair of earrings, and conjured it up, the bitchy glamour.
The only reason Monica had started in drag was because there was no other way to get through her life on a reasonable basis. She was 35, and wanting to be the woman she was, and needed to be, was like a honey that covered her heart, making her gasp for air during the early-morning hours when she tried to sleep.
Her world was self-created; it shimmered every night at the Pink Lantern. Here she discovered there were many women like her, beauties all of them, waiting for the colors only women know, the magic and the white light. It was all around them, in the eyes of their audience, the mirrored ball in the center of the room, and in the pink, hushed back bar where the girls greeted people after the show and dreamed.
Monica had worked her way up to three spots in the show-all glamour drags -- lip-syncing to Latin songs. She dyed her hair jet black and wore green contacts, and her breasts, as large and soft as the doctor in Palm Springs could make them, were always displayed proudly. Electrolysis had taken care of her beard, and collagen and estrogen had made her flesh soft and rounded. Monica was lucky; hardly an Adam's apple, and tiny hands and feet. She was thin, a size six, and now went almost everywhere as a woman, even to the market.
Monica never thought about men. She could have made money advertising in TV Epic or She-Male magazine and possibly even found a lover, but disease terrified her. When she saw herself naked in her mirror, she would study her penis. It was not hers; only a mistake that belonged to someone else. The idea of men would take years of living as a woman to understand. And there was no time now.
She remembered when there was time, when she was 16 and still living with her mother, who found her wasted on speed, wearing her old wedding dress and crying at the attic window, repeating over and over, "I'll never get married like you, don't you see, Mama? I'll never get married like you." Her mother stood there at the sight of her son who she knew was her daughter and spat, walking away. Monica took her mother's trunk of old clothes from the fifties and never came back.
There was Laddy, an Armenian hustler, who found Monica, Miss Santa Monica, three weeks later in front of the Formosa Café wearing high heels and a black eye. It was a dazed, hustled-out night in Los Angeles, full of shirtless kids giving head on front lawns, and alleys of night-blooming jasmine. Such nights were fast and painless except when a john found out she wasn't a woman; hence her black eye. But she was proud that she had gotten that good. Laddy told her he was straight, that he didn't like queers. But it was fast money when he needed it. He was 16 too.
"You're a very pretty woman. You know that?" he asked. Monica was startled. She had seen Laddy enough on the streets to know that he knew she wasn't a real woman. Why the act? She liked him, though. He was small and muscular, with curls of black hair on his chest that smelled like aftershave.
"Thank you. I like to think so."
They wound up back at Laddy's place, a garage conversion. It belonged to a leather queen who let him come and go as he pleased, as long as he brought a couple of guys over every Sunday. There were books everywhere. Monica picked up a few.
"Where did you get these?" They were all about movie stars. Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. Judy Garland.
"I steal 'em from Pickwick's. It's easy. You go in with a newspaper and you come out with a book. I like to get stoned and read during the day."
"I knew you'd like them. I got them for you."
"That's nice, Laddy." She heard her voice become very small. He must have been watching her all this time. Waiting for the right move. He slowly reached over and kissed her. This was the first time a man had kissed her in that way, a thing she always imagined and pretended in front of her mother's mirror; how she would look up into his eyes, her neck arched, her hair falling behind her.
She lived with Laddy for six months, almost never going out. He brought her everything: books, magazines, dope, food, and candy. Laddy would find old wedding dresses in trash cans or steal them from thrift stores, and Monica would dye them midnight blue, black, and coral. They listened to Brazilian music, always the samba.
The old leather queen in the front house grew fond of Monica, calling her "your Grace." Once he took her and Laddy to a club called the Bull Pen where Mexican drag queens had a Thursday night show. Everyone got smashed and Laddy pushed Monica up on the stage, grinning. There was a disco song playing and she started dancing to it. The audience applauded. Monica still remembers Laddy's face that night with his stupid, doped-up grin, so alive, keeping an eye out for johns and whistling at her.
The Bull Pen gave her a job, and three days later Laddy was gone. She woke up with the old leather queen standing over her, telling her Laddy was dead; it was the drumbeat of young men who disappear in parks. Monica took her books and dresses and left, deciding then she would become a woman.
There were more men who were roommates and occasional lovers, but they saw Monica as something else, an amusement, a party gag. She saved her money, worked hard, and said nothing. She went to a clinic and began the estrogen. By her early thirties, she'd performed in Reno and El Paso and had a secure job at the Pink Lantern. Five nights a week. After the show she often watched herself in the dark, her silhouette in the mirror. Every minute gesture took hours to perfect. She decided Mexico, with its warm winds, would be the place of her rebirth.
But there was still a vacancy she did not understand; a room she had to find, perhaps painted yellow and open to the morning sun, where she would know, finally, she was a woman. Something still didn't feel right. Until two weeks before the trip to Mexico City, when Monica met Jack.
It was the last show of the evening and the Pink Lantern was half full, mostly drunk married couples. Dee Dee, the manager, had given Monica a new number, "The Look of Love," by Dusty Springfield. Monica wore a black velvet strapless dress and put pearls and a strand of rhinestones through her hair. She liked the number because she could just stand and emote. No dance steps. Her feet were tired and she wanted a martini.
He was staring at her with his arm around a woman who was probably his wife. Married couples always sat rather indifferently with each other, while lovers were still thick with excitement. She played the number to him, not getting off the stage for the tip. He stood up at the end of the song and clapped and whistled. His wife, a nice-looking woman, maybe 40 with upswept blond hair, smiled. Monica bowed and looked past the curtains for Theda, who was on next with her monologue of dirty jokes. Instead, she saw Dee Dee gesturing with her hands, saying keep going, keep going.
The silence was strange to Monica, but she kept her head bowed dramatically until another song started playing; she'd know by the first few chords whether it was a lip-sync or a dance routine. She could feel the overhead lights go off and the Rita Hayworth backlights go on; she loved they way they lit her from behind, a silhouette. When the song started she was startled; it was Brazilian -- a samba -- her favorite, but she didn't have a routine for it. It was too slow for a regular drag queen march across the stage.
She looked back at Dee Dee again, who signaled for her to strip. She had never stripped. Why now? In two weeks she would be a woman. A woman who would never strip for anyone. A woman who would lead a gracious life. Someone quiet and dignified. Monica thought about walking off stage, but she needed this last paycheck. Dee Dee was making I'm-going-to-cut-your-throat signals.
Monica breathed in the shadows of glistening mauve and took off a glove, then another, her hips rotating very slowly. She pushed her hair out of its bun and let the pearls and rhinestone chain fall on the stage. She could see the light hit them; they sparkled like coiled snakes. There was a chair at the far end of the stage. She walked over to it, dancing lightly to the music, and sat à la Dietrich, with legs crossed. Monica knew she had plenty of time with this song, and she smiled at the audience. She ran her hand up and down her leg, which thrust out beautifully from a five-inch heel. Then, timing herself, she began unsnapping the quick-change buttons at the back of her dress as gracefully as possible. She wasn't wearing a bra because her dress had built-in boning to push her breasts out. The only thing she had on was a thin black-lace G-string. Her penis was bound with soft black tape and would never show. She let the dress fall to the stage as she stood up, cupping her breasts. The audience seemed very still. That man was whispering something to his wife. He should be watching her! Monica walked off the stage into the audience, letting her hands drop to her sides and shaking her titties lightly. The audience was thrilled. Most of the strippers never left the stage.
Monica figured she might as well finish off with a bang, so she sauntered over to the man and bent over the table to touch his hair. Her breasts rubbed the top of his cocktail glass. His wife turned very red and averted her eyes. Monica could feel the ice steam on her nipples as she smiled at the man, looking directly into his blue eyes. Monica danced back to the stage, picked up her dress, and took a bow. The audience clapped, but lightly. They were tired, and she felt like she'd made a fool of herself.
Backstage, Dee Dee looked panicked. Dee Dee never looked panicked. "Why the hell did you put me in a strip?" Monica demanded. "I never strip." She waited for one of Dee Dee's smart-ass replies.
"Miss Theda wasn't here and you know she's always here . . . Monica, Miss Theda had a stroke and died."
Monica studied Dee Dee's face with its beard and acne showing through white pancake makeup. The last song kept playing over in her mind: the slow shh of the drums, the saxophone, her naked breasts, the man's blue eyes, the smoke in the club. She studied the racks of sequined dresses in flame yellows and hot oranges that would be taken apart and resewn next week for a new show, the turkey feather trims and fake fur headdresses, the collars of paste rubies and sapphires. Theda was there, hidden in the colors and reflecting the light.
Monica started to sob.
"I'm sorry, Miss Monica, but the DJ left 'cause it's late and took all the songs. Said he wants more money. It's all we had in the bin. I put it on 'cause you like that song. Least you say you do."
"But it's a strip song."
"I'm sorry. I really am."
Monica held Dee Dee's hand. She didn't know what else to do, and Dee Dee was crying too, like a boy. The same pitch. "Has everybody else gone already? Do they know?"
Dee Dee nodded her head. "Candy is calling everybody. She's even set up the service. It's gonna be tomorrow. Real fast. It's what Miss Theda wanted."
That night Monica went to bed at dawn, drinking martinis and thinking of Theda. How she had wanted Monica to be a woman, living in Mexico City, speaking many languages, seeing all the colors.
Theda was laid out in a big beige coffin, wearing a white-and-red silk organza dress. All the queens from the club were there, some in smart Christian Dior black skirts and jackets bought at secondhand stores, the older drag queens in red sequin gowns, holding clusters of balloons. A jazz band played "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "Cow-Cow Boogie." The musicians had been instructed to end with "My Funny Valentine."
Many of the glamour queens stayed aloof, studying each other's hair, makeup, and dresses. Others blew their noses and cried. Everyone whispered that Theda's passing was the end of an era. Monica watched the service from the back of the room. She memorized the fluttering hats, the shrieks and whispers, the music. She'd given Dee Dee her notice that morning and she was already packing for Mexico in her mind-only what a real woman would wear, not the exaggerated outfits of men hidden as women. As the service lurched on with old show tunes and recordings of Theda's act, Monica imagined what it must feel like to wear white Mexican cotton on sunburnt skin.
The reception was loaded with food: quick casseroles, store-bought quiches and cakes, Jell-O, deli turkey, cubed cheese. Candy, who'd had too much wine, got up and sang "You Made Me Love You" and cried. Everyone began to fade. The queens started remembering their afternoon beauty naps, the slow application of makeup before the cocktail show. The top of Theda's coffin was put down in the adjoining room. Monica left quietly, not saying good-bye.
Monica stopped by the Pink Lantern to retrieve her makeup. As she was leaving, she saw the man from the night before parked outside in a silver Mercedes, watching for her. She walked past with her head bowed. He honked the horn. She pretended not to notice even though she knew it was idiotic; there was no one else around. Then he got out of his car.
Monica froze. Why was he here? Slowly she turned and looked at him. He was younger than her, with sandy blond hair and a deep tan. He was short when she had thought of him as tall. She wondered how she must look to him. Like a woman in the sun, sad and doubtful? Or a drag queen who was making the jump because everything was getting old?
He seemed out of breath when he finally spoke to her. "You performed last night, right?"
Monica stared at him and managed a smile. "That was me, yes."
"You were very good."
"Thank you." Monica started walking to her car.
He followed her. "My name is Jack. I'm a photographer. I would like to take some pictures of you." Monica was almost at her car. She looked for her keys in her bag as she tried to think of the perfect thing to say to get rid of the bastard.
"Pictures? What about your wife, Jack?"
He stopped, confused. "How did you know that was my wife?"
"She thinks it's a great idea. I'm a serious photographer. Here's my card."
Monica took it without looking at it. He was as real as any come-on, she thought, and she was leaving the come-ons behind. Monica got in her car and looked up at Jack. "I don't think so."
"It's for a series I'm doing for American Photographer. They're nudes in natural light. Without makeup or props. Nothing sexual." Jack let his shoulders drop.
Monica appraised this man with his silver Mercedes and his tennis shoes. "Did it ever occur to you that showing my body naked is not what I'm about?" She was furious.
"Yes. Precisely. I'm trying to capture an essence that no one understands."
"You mean the best of both worlds? Please, Jack. I don't think so." Monica started her engine and looked up at him.
"The series is about women," he said.
Monica turned her engine off and tapped her nails on the steering wheel. "Listen, I'm a preoperative transsexual. In two weeks, I fly to Mexico City to complete what I have waited a long time for. I'm not a woman yet, so buzz off. It won't work."
"But you are a woman." Jack looked at her and blinked his eyes nervously. "I saw that last night. That's why I'm here."
Monica's head began to throb as though driven by doves. Sometimes when she was frightened or confused her knees would shake, and they were shaking now. Jack smiled at her and lit a cigarette. He offered her one, which she took and inhaled deeply.
Monica still didn't understand why she was in Jack's big studio at six a.m., looking at his photographs on the rough brick wall. Jack was in the darkroom, and his wife, Sue, the lady with the upswept hair, was making pancakes in the adjoining kitchen.
"You know, Monica," she said, "I'm so pleased you agreed to be photographed. This is an important addition to Jack's collection. It means a great deal to him."
Monica smiled numbly. She
looked at the pictures of Sue on the wall, pregnant and naked. There were
photographs of old women lying on chrome chairs, some laughing and smoking
cigarettes. Monica studied their vaginas and the curls that thrust up through
the roundness of their bellies. There was no fantasy here. These women
in shadow and morning light were not perfect. They had been marred by reality,
something that had always been unnecessary for Monica. She had shaped her
Jack came out of the darkroom wearing sweats, with a sleek black camera around his neck. Monica caught herself staring at it.
"It's a top-of-the-line Olympus. Best pictures you can get," he assured her.
Monica looked around. This light would show the lines in her face. She thought about running very fast into the darkroom and not coming out. This was all wrong.
"You want to get started?" Jack asked, smiling. "I want you to be comfortable. Don't mind Sue. Should I turn up the heat?"
Jack went over to the wall and adjusted the thermostat. "Well, how about it?"
Monica took her clothes off. First the shoes and skirt, then her blouse. She slowly peeled her panties down, then looked around, first at Sue, then Jack.
"I have to take the tape off. It takes a little while." Her voice was pathetic and small. She slowly undid the tape while standing up, her hair hanging over her face. When her penis finally emerged it seemed like a child she had forgotten. She started to cry.
Sue walked over and handed her a cup of coffee. "Sweetheart, don't be embarrassed. You're a very special lady, you know?" Her eyes sparkled. "And by the way, the coffee is spiked with enough rum to set you on your ass for a week."
"Monica, I want you here by the glass wall," Jack said. "See how the light is hitting it?"
"Stand facing me in half shadow. Just look at me the way you are now. You don't have to pose, just stand there and relax."
Monica tried to tuck her penis farther into her legs.
"Leave your penis alone," he said.
Monica looked at Sue, who gave her a big smile and a thumbs-up sign. As Jack's flash began to pierce her eyes, Monica realized her hair was hanging in strands over her face and her eyes were red. She could feel them.
"You're still too self-conscious, Monica, honey. All you've got to do is relax. So when do you go to Mexico?" Jack asked.
"That's better. Now turn slightly to your right."
"How long does the operation take?" It was Sue's voice.
"About six hours. Sometimes longer. Sometimes less, I guess."
"Are you going to live there or come back here?"
Monica turned to look at Sue as she spoke. "Oh, live there. I know it's supposed to be real crowded, but I hear it's wonderful, too." She suddenly realized how innocent she must sound. Like a little girl.
"I'm so envious of you." The frankness in Sue's voice stunned Monica. Jack stopped to reload his camera.
"What do you mean?" Monica asked.
"The idea of starting over with an identity you've decided on for yourself. Every woman wants to be able to have that freedom of choice. We get married and divorced and have children and take care of our parents, but never ourselves. You're lucky."
Jack laughed. "Sue wants to go in your place, Monica."
"Well, I don't think Sue would ever want to be in my place."
Sue sipped her coffee. "You'd be surprised, honey."
Jack positioned Monica in the middle of the room and walked around her, taking pictures. It was then that Monica saw herself for the first time as a woman like Sue, in a kitchen, running down the hall to check on a baby, breasts and hair in the light. She smiled to herself. The colors she saw were no longer artificial, only for the stage. She knew this was the start of her trip; she was moments away from Mexico City. The colors were measured and clear as bells.
Two weeks later. Mexico City belongs to Monica. It's big, screaming with life, smothered in a red dirt she sees on children's hands and women's shawls. She's had two days to wander the city and find an old apartment bathed in sun with terra-cotta walls overlooking a courtyard of tomato plants and wrought-iron cages filled with game hens and doves.
Everywhere there is the drama she'd hoped for. There are parks filled with flowers and dirty lagoons. Men who spit out coca leaves and dance shirtless, with patent-leather shoes and slick hair. Girls who run around in school uniforms and church dresses. Women who step elegantly out of taxis in white leather suits. There is the odor of foods cooked on makeshift grills, and kitchens full of dogs. There are billboards of women in black, smoking cigarettes with soldiers behind them like a firing squad, upside-down exclamation points, and the chatter of Mexican pop that rises like an aria out of the streets.
Now in her hospital room Monica looks out over a park filled with Aztec stones and unwatered grass. Medical students are having lunch outside, their white coats fluttering in the hot wind. She has written to everyone in Los Angeles, at first choosing postcards of Mexican film stars with names like Marta and Diabla, then putting them back in favor of the ones with pictures of peasant women holding flowers in their arms and smiling with blackened teeth. These, Monica realizes, are the real woman. These are the postcards that have her signature on the back.
No one here will ever know Miss Santa Monica. She will make her trips to the plazas, maybe someday buy a small car she can take to the mountains and to Acapulco even though the roads are bad. She will always stop to consider each color laid before her, and she will be free.
The doctor comes in, and Monica's heart is beating rapidly. He is a kind man with a crew cut and expensive new shoes that she can smell from her bed. He sits beside her and holds her hand. His English is perfect. "I think we're about ready, don't you?" he asks.
She nods her head.
"Monica, you must remember there will be a great deal of pain when you wake up. And it doesn't go away until your body adjusts to its new set of rules. Can you accept this?"
"The tissue from your penis will be inverted, so in the future if you choose to have relations you will experience a sense of pleasure. But remember, it is not orgasm. Those days, my dear, will be gone."
"I understand." she turns her head and looks at the telegram Jack and Sue sent her. She's taped it to her wall. "BEST PICTURES YET STOP WE LOVE YOU STOP GOOD LUCK STOP."
A spray of orchids and Mexican wildflowers that smell like licorice are by her bed. Her pubis has been shaved, and the painkillers were injected an hour ago. She can fly now, above mountains and stages of mirrored lights open to sky. With sequined wings and drugstore perfume leaving clouds of snow behind her.
Monica watches the nurses with their teased blond hair and too much makeup. She knows they approve of what she's doing, she can see they think she'll be quite attractive as Monique del Rio. The ceiling is mint green. She thinks it should be painted with a fresco of little boys who become women in the clouds, with God's hand, a woman's hand, touching their faces.
Monica thinks back on years of nights spent singing with no voice, the pain of estrogen throbbing in her breasts, making her cry for no reason, and the first glimpse of her new chest in the clinic mirror. She remembers the gutters where she was beaten and discarded, her mother's menacing silence when she came home bruised, already knowing she was a woman.
One of the nurses puts the gas cup over Monica's nose and mouth. She can hear a samba coming through the walls-a young man's yelp and the roll of soft drums, then a woman's voice singing in Brazilian with maracas. She can hear the sea humming lazily somewhere south where the carnivals pulse nightly.
Monique del Rio laughs as
she goes under, laughs with all the women whose secrets will be hers. She
sits with them in a circle in the sun, dreaming with a swollen belly and
the smell of men forever beyond the garden wall.