By Esme Reid-McLaughlin
I only work nights. Now I don’t know what that makes you think of me, but I know what it makes men and women on the street think and let me just tell you that I am not, and have never been, one of those quiffs. I’m just a dancer.
I used to work at one of those comedy shows, though. That was the lowest I got. There, I was a joke. A pretty painted piece of meat. Me and the other clowns, made up to look black when they were white or white when they were black. It was the closest thing New York City got to a circus. People thought that I was funny, a man dressed up as a woman for fun, for comedy. No one understood who I really was and I gave up trying to explain eventually. The degradation just became another part of the job. Then, I was the lowest of the low. So low even children laughed at me. And then not any longer, I said. Not any more. So I left. There ought to be more professions for women like me I thought, and I was right.
Now, I work drums. I’m not involved in that lowly bootlegging business though, Wouldn’t dream of touching if with the possibility of the cops catching me red handed with that shit. Besides, I don’t drink. It distracts me from my work.
You’ve hear people say dance is their passion, dance is their livelihood but, honey, let me tell you, none of them know it like I do, feel it like I do. I’m not just a dancer, see. The men in the bars call me a flapper.
I like the name, It reminds me of the little flecks of sparrows on the skyline at night and the sparkling dresses that shimmer on my body as I shake the night away. Now, I know the men don’t intend it as the complement I think it as. They like the way I shake but the don’t see it like I do. For them, I’m not shaking my night away. For them, I’m shaking away their children, their white collar jobs. Their wives. At best I’m shaking away their nights for cheap back alley tips. But, like I said, I’m no quiff. I don’t involve myself with my clients and they don’t bother to involve themselves with me. There are plenty of girls who are much more willing; I don’t drink and I don’t fraternize.
I almost made an exception though. There’s always an exception to the rule, right? Mine’s name was Walter. Walter was a different kind of guy. Aren’t they always. He had this bright red hair and at first I thought maybe he was one of those three letter men, you know the ones that hid their feelings from the authorities and found each other in those big city small drums. He was just so sweet, the way he would talk to me after I got off work. There we would sit, at the empty bar, for hours and hours on end past closing time. He would lean into the counter and ask me if I would make him a drink, sugar. I would just say I wasn’t about to get arrested for bootlegging and besides I wasn’t no bartendender. He would just smooth back his hair and laugh. I know, he would say, I was a flapper. One day he leaned over the counter, his sports coat wrinkling at his elbows, and pressed his lips to mine. I told him I wasn’t no quiff either. He said he didn’t want it like that and I thanked God because neither did I.
We went back to his place, a dingy little apartment above a pizza joint, and I was ready to make my exception. He opened a bottle of wine and poured me a glass but I told him I didn’t drink. Thank you, I added, as he seemed kind of put off. He tipped his glass into his mouth and I watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down with the liquid. He smoothed his hair back with his hand and I thought that I might want that hand to touch me. It did. It traced my jaw and my spine. It ran down my neck and up my dress until it tensed up and pulled away in horror at what it found there.
“Jesus. What was that!” His eyes widened in panic.
I should’ve known this would happen.
He scrambled, his arms pawing behind him like stunted crab pincers as he cowered at the end of the couch. He stood on the arm and pointed to me like I had some kind of plague. Maybe even afraid of the chance that I could infect him.
“You. You’re–” He tried to step backwards and fell of the couch, landing flat on his good looking bottom.
“You’re one of those fags that dresses up like a woman!”
I made the mistake of standing up.
“No, don’t touch me. I heard about you guys. You try to trick men into, into–”
I took another step forward.
“Don’t come any closer or I swear I’ll call the cops.”
“But Walter you have to listen to me.”
“I swear to God I’ll do it.”
“Walter I am a woman, you have to trust me.”
“Just get out you, you pervert!” He stumbled back into the table as I took another step towards him.
He hid his face in his hands. “Just get out!”
And I did. I left through the fire escape so I didn’t have to walk past him to get to the door. He had been clutching his wine glass in a way that made me far too nervous to get any nearer. I escaped with my life and my freedom, but I had lost my dignity and my love. Still, I should’ve known it was still too good to be true. You see, because the next day, Walter came to the bar just like he always did but this time he wasn’t alone. The boss came out of the back room and all the bartenders were yelling “Raid!” as they frantically stashed their booze. But, no, why would cops be after the illegal booze when I was there?
I was out of there faster than the boss could fire me. He was fully aware of my…condition, I had never hidden it from him, and he knew that I was the best damn dancer he ever had but when the authorities showed up flashing their shiny badges none of that mattered anymore. They handcuffed me and read me my rights while they pinched my sides and prodded my fabric stuffed corset bra. They even tried to tear off my dress so that they could “see what was really underneath.” They laughed the entire time they did it and Walter tried not to look at me.
They told me I was in violation of a brand new law, passed just this week, that required men to wear at least three items of clothing while out in public. I tried to plead, tried to tell them that I wasn’t a man, I never was a man, but they wouldn’t have it. They laughed harder.
“No use…. ‘Honey’.” The head cop chuckled while he shoved me past the dumbstruck crowd and through the door. The men cheered. “Take him away!” They yelled. “We don’t want no fags here!” I was nearly certain that the man who yelled that was one of the three letter men we sheltered in secret.
“We have you on charges of abominable sexual advances and attempted rape.” The cop ran his tongue over his teeth and looked back at Walter. “He really had you fooled, huh kid?”
Walter turned towards the bar counter and still didn’t look at me.
“Sir.” I tried to turn my head back to look at the cop as he thrust me towards the exit. “Sir you have it all wrong. I’m not a man and I’m not a rapist!”
“Who do you want me to believe.” He gave me one final push out the door onto the streets crowded with New York’s usual night crawlers. I didn’t see a single sparrow and when I tried to look up at the moon the cop shoved my head down to the ground. He stood there while I laid on the wet cement.
“A respectable stock broker or someone of the likes of you.”
* * * * *
And now here I am, in the New York County Prison, male ward 6B, inmate 5876 on charges of “abominable” sexual advances, attempted rape, and impersonating a woman. They took away my dress and my shoes and my breasts and they replaced them with work clothes. They wouldn’t let me shave and stubble quickly sprouted up for the first time since I had been a teenager. It quickly grew into a full beard. They took away my wig and made me shave my head. I had been so close to finally having the luxurious blond hair I had always wanted, without a wig. When I asked if the state would supply me with the new hormone pills I had gotten from a doctor who had taken a liking to me back at the bar, they laughed at me. They made me shower with the “other men.”
Laughing, they were always laughing. The authorities that guarded me, the men who surrounded me behind bars, even the jury who tried me. I was lucky I even got a trial: I had heard of cases being dropped mysteriously and inmates never being released. I faced ten years, but I knew there had even been the looming possibility of a life sentence. The death penalty was far too severe, they said, but they might as well have burned me at the stake. I know when I get out of here, ten years from now, I will still have a shaved head and a full beard, maybe my hair will even be graying by then, no money, and no career. There was no way any drum would ever hire me again and I was not going back to that terrible comedy show. Despite everything, I still knew I was a dancer, a flapper, not some freak clown that made the little kiddies laugh.
Esme Reid-McLaughlin is currently a rising 12th grader at Sonoma Academy who enjoys writing and the humanities as will as biology and genetics. She has never been published before but often spends her time writing fiction of all genres, including science fiction, historical fiction, and realistic fiction.