The End of The Beginning

The Agents of Death are restless and agitated. They demand fifteen names this time, and are shouting at us to finish “quickly, quickly!”

I was pretty safe last year, so I only add my name once. I am sitting, as usual, with Santiago. The dreaded “death music” plays on loop. Instead of choosing names from the hat and reading them immediately, the Agents take the hat and exit the cabin, leaving us to look around at each other, wondering what was happening. At first, I expect them to come back and tell us who they will be taking. But they don’t.

I glance around the room at each person, wondering how I’d feel if they were called. As my eyes rest briefly on each person, I have the sudden realization that there is not one table in the entire room that doesn’t have at least one person I care deeply about sitting there. My chest feels tight, and tears are already cascading down my cheeks. No, I think, I don’t want to lose anyone else. But I know that I can’t stop Death.

I stand up, wanting to hug my friends. I find Charlotte sitting next to Sorrento and lean down to embrace them both, tears running down my face.

When I straighten up, Nate approaches me. He straightens my shirt collar and smooths my hair, murmuring a soft, “There you go,” before moving on to someone else.

The next person I spot is Ike sitting at the table across from Charlotte. I go over and hug him tightly. He hugs me back. When I finally take a step back, he gives me a sad half-smile. I give the same sort of smile back and nod before squeezing his shoulder, speaking without words.

I look around for Artie. We make eye contact and immediately walk towards each other. He envelops me in a bear hug, and I squeeze him back.

I make my way around the room like this, stopping every few feet for a long, tearful hug. Saying goodbye is too much for me to bear thinking about: I’m simply looking to both give and receive comfort.

Nate is staring out the window, pretending to fix his hair as he wipes tears from his cheeks. I can tell that he is trying to be strong for everyone else. I go over and place a comforting hand on his shoulder. When he turns back around, his face is once again calm and composed. He wipes a tear from my cheek with a finger and smooths my hair again, smiling sadly. “There. All better,” he says soothingly, and turns from me to do the same for someone else.

I let him go. I can tell that he’s struggling not to lose it.

Finally, the Agents return. “Follow us,” one of them says. No names are called.

Together, we trudge toward the field where the coffins lay in the sunshine. The beautiful day seems almost mocking. I walk slowly, terrified to see whose names would be in those coffins. We are told to remain in a single file line. People are sobbing ahead of me. Dragging my feet, I take a deep breath and approach.

First, I see Eli and Max. I find no comfort or relief in seeing people I was not close with. Death is death.

The next name I see is Nate’s. Oh, god. Not him. I begin sobbing in earnest.

I keep walking, tears blurring my vision. The next coffin is Steven’s. I feel a small gut-punch upon seeing his name.

And lastly, Nick. Another friend.

I weep into a tissue forlornly, circling the coffins and and making my way back to the grassy field so that others can see who we’ve lost.

I am distracted from my own grief by a loud keening. It’s Sinclair. “NO!” he wails. His face is bright red and crumpled in grief, and he is barely able to stand. He is being held up by Ike and Ruben who stand on either side of him as he reaches out for Nate. I immediately go over to comfort him, but… how does one comfort a friend who has just lost the love of their life? I reach out and hug him, feeling helpless.

Nate finally appears and the two embrace. I step back and leave them to their goodbyes.

When I turn around, Steven is standing there. I throw my arms around him. “You changed my life,” I choke out between sobs.

“And you changed mine,” he replies. I look at him in amazement and gratitude, and my shoulders quake. He turns to allow others to embrace him, saying their own goodbyes.

“It’s time,” says the Angel of Death. Steven, Eli, Nick, and Max head to their coffins and lay down. Sinclair is weeping and clutching at Nate. Nate is attempting to extricate himself, but Sinclair refuses to let him go. “No! NO!” he shrieks, grasping at Nate’s arm.

Nate seems just as calm as he was earlier in the main cabin, though his eyes are shining and wet. He holds Sinclair by the shoulders, looking into his eyes and speaking quietly and earnestly. He closes Sinclair’s fist around something and manages to take a step back. Finally, he turns and walks to his coffin, his head held high like the Queen we all know he is.

Sinclair is inconsolable. “Wait!” His voice cracks as he pleads through his sobs, “Take me! Take me instead!” He has to be physically restrained by Ruben and Ike from throwing himself in Nate’s casket. The Angel of death simply bows their head in sorrow.

The Angel of Death finally speaks. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Eli.” I hear someone sniffling behind me. “We are gathered here to mourn the loss of Max.” The Angel pauses between each name, looking around at the mass of grief. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Steven.” I flash back to Steven’s speech last year. He really did change my life, and I am glad I had the courage to tell him. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Nick.” I blow my nose and hand my packet of tissues to whoever is standing besides me. I don’t even look to see who it is; we all need them. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Nate.” Sinclair cries out in anguish, falling to his knees. I and a few others try to help him up but he is inconsolable, crumpling to the ground in a heap of despair.

The Angel of Death’s voice seems to become even quieter as the final name is announced. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Howard.”

My eyes widen. Howard, the kitchen boy? I’d kissed him once, in jest, simply because I’d been enjoying making him blush. Pepper, Priest and I all had a laugh when he’d backed away in shock and then his junk fell through the leg of his tiny shorts. He’d been mortified. I would smile now at the memory, if I weren’t so miserable.

As the ritualistic sounds of “Just A Little Lovin” reaches my ears, I am crying so hard that I can barely breathe. There is an ache deep in my chest, and I am turning to hug whoever is closest to me. Is this what people mean when they refer to heartache? I wonder. Everyone around me is also seeking out friends and loved ones for solace. I am both comforting others and being comforted in turn. Santiago, Artie, Charlotte, Sinclair, Ike and Ruben, Terrence, Enrique, Claire… everyone I love who is still here: we all mourn together.

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
Beats a cup of coffee
For starting off the day

Just a little lovin’
When the world is yawnin’
Makes you wake up feeling
Good things are coming your way

This old world
Wouldn’t be half as bad
It wouldn’t be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had, yeah

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
That little extra somethin’
To kinda see them through

Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin’
Like a little bit of lovin’
From some lovin’ someone like you

This old world
Wouldn’t be half as bad
It wouldn’t be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
(Just a little lovin’)
(When the world is yawnin’)
Just a little bit of lovin’, ah
Oh, in the morning
Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin’
Make a little bit of lovin’
It’s so good, it’s so good

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It’s Not A Party Until…

I am hanging out on the back porch when Enrique, Claire, Pen, Sorrento, Nate, and Sinclair. “Heyyy, Katherine… you busy?” Enrique asks.

I study the group. Claire is watching the exchange and giggling. “Umm… not really. I was just dancing. Why, what’s up?”

“Well, a few of us,” Enrique gestures toward his entourage, “were thinking about going over to the Darkroom.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Okay… so?”

“So, I was wondering if you’d like to come along.” He tilts his pocket toward me, and I see that it’s stuffed full of condoms.

I laugh and I glance over my shoulder at Santiago. “I might be convinced. Is this party invite-only?” Santiago catches my eye and comes over.

“What’s happening over here?” she asks, wrapping an arm around my waist.

“Enrique’s just invited us to a little gathering over in the Darkroom,” I answer, nodding my chin towards the pocket that he is still displaying.

“Oh, fuck yes!” Santiago exclaims.

Still Got It

This year, the drag show has a mixture of sad, funny, and poignant acts. Marcie goes first, which is astonishing in and of itself – Nate usually opens the show himself. I’ve never really spoken with Marcie outside of our encounter backstage last year, and I am surprised when she announces to the audience that she’s positive. She cleverly pounds that point home with a play on the words: “Some of us are going to get sick: I’m positive. Some of us are going to die: I’m positive.” She launches into a heartbreaking rendition of Amazing Grace. After a few bars, the audience joins in and finishes the song with her. The mood is melancholy when she leaves the stage, but that changes quickly when the Queen of Manhattan comes out (so to speak). She performs beautifully as usual, and is just as sassy as ever. Mary Lou performs again this year, and this time receives a standing ovation. She’s really going places, I think. She’ll be on the radio soon!

Next, in an interesting juxtaposition from Mary Lou’s performance, the sounds of pop music fill the room. Chantelle bounces out from behind the curtain to perform Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” When she starts pulling people from the audience to dance with her, Santiago mutters, “Oh, hell no.” She leans over to me. “If she tries to get me up there, I’m sending you. There is no way I’m getting on that stage.” I laugh. True to her word, when Chantelle takes Santiago’s hand and tries to tug her on stage, she places my hand into Chantelle’s and shrinks away. Laughing, I allow her to pull me onto the stage. I aggressively dance very close to her, dipping her at the end of the song, and dance her off the stage still holding her very close. I wave at the audience as we disappear backstage.

I push Chantelle up against a wall and lean in to kiss her. She kisses me back, but after a moment she pulls away abruptly, looking behind me. I turn around and see a man dressed in a bright orange cut-off tshirt.

“Hey babe. This is Katherine. Katherine, this is Sterling – my husband.” Both Chantelle and Sterling seem unperturbed by the strange situation.

“Hello!” says Sterling.

“Hi there,” I say. I glance back at Chantelle. “So, did you want to continue…?”

She glances at her husband, but I shake my head. “Not him. Just you.”

“I can just watch,” Sterling interrupts. “I mean, if that’s cool with you.” He sounds eager.

I look back at Chantelle, who shrugs. “Okay, sure,” I say. “But let’s go outside, where it’s dark. Everyone else is inside watching the show, so it will be more private.”

They follow me outside via the stage door. I waste no time in pushing Chantelle up against the side of the lodge. I’m feeling aggressive tonight. My left hand holds her there by her throat as my right hand scratches her leg gently, starting at her knee and trailing up her inner thigh. I watch her face as my hand snakes up her skirt, and… oh.

“No panties, huh? You must have been hoping for some action tonight.” She gasps as my fingers make contact with her wetness.

I hear the rustling of clothing behind me. I’d forgotten Sterling was there.

“You love showing off for him, don’t you?” I taunt as I penetrate her. “Teasing him, showing him what he can’t touch?” I remove my hand from her neck and lean forward to nibble  the sensitive skin just behind her ear. She moans. I blow softly into her ear and pinch a nipple through her dress. I can hear wet, slapping sounds behind me. “Your husband is going to cum watching his wife get fingered by a lesbian,” I whisper into her ear.

Music is blaring from the window above us, and I can hear people hooting, “Yeah Reginald, WOOO!” Chantelle’s breath becomes shorter. She’s getting close. I keep fucking her while I play with her clit.

“Oh, fuck,” she gasps. Her hands clench into fists.

I can hear Nate thanking Reginald for his act just as Chantelle starts moaning her orgasm. I guess she’s a screamer. She pounds the window frame as she cums, and I can hear Sterling moaning behind me. “That’s it, straight girl. Cum for me.” I grin to myself. I’ve still got it.

A Test You Can’t Study For

I almost miss the opening ceremonies again. I hurriedly shove my lipstick into my purse leave the bathroom, wading through the crowd to find Charlotte and Santiago. A couple of people do a double-take as I walk past, and I grin. I’m wearing a long-sleeved gold-colored shirt with decorative cut-outs around the collar. The shirt stops just above my midriff, and I’ve matched it with a pair of plain black slacks. It was not my usual style to show so much skin, but I am having fun showing off a little. Besides, I no longer have a job that I need to “look professional” for. What I didn’t tell people was that the shirt had actually been a loan from Kimberly, and this was my way of making sure she attended the party with us, at least in spirit.

This year, Terrence has arranged for HIV testing to take place on-site. Santiago and I decide to head over and get it out of the way at the beginning of the party. There is a long line of folks ahead of us. We’ve both been safe since the debacle last year, but sitting in the waiting room is still nerve-wracking. I am next in line when I see Sinclair rush through the waiting room. He doesn’t even notice us sitting there. A moment or two later I see Nate rush through the room after him. I turn and give Santiago a worried look, opening my mouth to speak.

“The doctor will see you now,” says the nurse.

I stand up, and Santiago also stands. I turn to her. “It’s okay. I can go by myself.”

“I’m coming with you,” she says. Her voice is insistent.

I sigh. “I don’t need–” I stop when I look at her face, seeing the fear behind her eyes. I nod. “Okay.”

The nurse leads us into a room where the doctor is waiting. “Hello. Please have a seat. Can you confirm your name?” His bedside manner is cold, brusque. I pretend that I’m not bothered by it, and cover up my nervousness.

“Katherine Stockton.”

“And why are you here?”

“For the AIDS testing,” I say.

He studies me. “Hmm.” His face is expressionless, but I can’t help feeling judged. “Tell me about your habits.”

I take a deep breath. “Well, I’ve had some unprotected sex over the years, since the outbreak started. Mostly with women, but last year there were a few men…” my voice trails off. I’m still embarrassed about that night, especially with Santiago standing next to me.

“I see,” the doctor says. “And this is your girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been together?” he asks.

“About three years now,” I answer.

“And you’re exclusive?”

“Well, no… but it’s pretty much just women.” The doctor is scribbling in his notebook and nods without looking up.

“We’re going to do a few tests.” He takes a few vials of blood and hands them to his assistant. The assistant leaves the room while the doctor scribbles some notes and Santiago and I wait silently.

A few moments later the assistant returns, handing the doctor a small slip of paper. The doctor reads it and then looks up at me. He is not smiling, and my heart skips a beat. “I have good news,” he says. I breathe a sigh of relief and sag slightly in my chair as he tells me that my results are negative. Santiago squeezes my hand, and I stand to let her take my seat.

The doctor goes through the same questions with Santiago, and takes her blood. I know that I’ve been riskier than her, so I’m pretty sure that she is fine… but I still let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when the doctor tells her she’s negative.

We walk back through the waiting room into the hallway, giddy with relief. “Let’s wait for Charlotte and Sorrento,” Santiago says, gesturing towards the window that shows who is still waiting.

I nod. “Of course.”

A few moments later, Charlotte walks out. “Negative.”

“Thank goodness!” I hug her. “Santiago is just waiting for Sorrento, and then we can–” I stop when I see Claire over Charlotte’s shoulder. She’s walking slowly, looking dazed.

“Claire?” I ask. She looks up, and her face immediately crumples. Oh, no. I embrace her. “Oh, honey.” I stroke her hair. “It will be okay. We’ll take care of you. We all will.” I step back and Charlotte and Santiago also hug her, trying to sound reassuring.

Charlotte walks Claire back towards the party while I wait with Santiago for Sorrento. When he finally comes out, we look at him expectantly. He starts talking about something else when Santiago interrupts him. “So are you…”

He hesitates for a few seconds. “Oh! Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, shaking his head. “Negative.” I turn away to roll my eyes at his nonchalance.

Casual Cruelty

After the ceremony, the kitchen staff brings out a tray of the Saratogan’s infamous Green Drink. Kohana calls out to those gathered. “The color green holds the energy of life and growth.”

Kim, standing by his side, continues for him as the tray gets passed around. “We are survivors and in this green and growing place, we take health and life into our bodies.”

Kohana speaks again. “Drink and become vital, become vibrant.”

They speak the last word together: “Live!”

I haven’t tried it before, but when the tray comes around, I shrug and take a cup. I take a swig and almost gag. God, that’s foul. I set the cup down gingerly and look around.

“Where’s Sinclair?” I say aloud, to no one in particular. I haven’t seen him in a while, which strikes me as unusual.

Francis, Artie’s best friend who happens to be standing nearby, answers me. “He got pretty high and wandered off somewhere.”

“What? Shit.” I take off down the path to find him.

Sinclair has not been doing well recently: he’s been fighting more and more often with his wife Mary, who keeps demanding that he spend less time campaigning and more time at home with her and their children. She doesn’t know that at least half the time he’s “campaigning,” he’s actually been at Club Diamond with Nate. And he’s been getting pushes from several of our friends to come out publicly, which he is not quite ready for. I know that he’s been feeling pulled in a hundred different directions, and lately he’s been turning to drugs to escape. I’ve been asking him to slow down, to no avail.

At this point I’m feeling pretty sober, though the Green Drink does seem to be having the effect of heightening my emotions. I’m worried about the article I’ve promised Ruben I’ll write, I’m worried about the spreading disease, and I’m worried about the friends who will inevitably get sick. But right now, I’m focused on worrying about Sinclair.

I peek into the Darkroom, but he’s not there. I head for the Pillow Room. I don’t bother taking my shoes off; I simply peek inside. He’s not there, either. I turn to check the private room that’s in the same cabin as the Pillow Room, and find myself face to face with Ike.

“Hey, Ike. Have you seen Sinclair?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Ike says.

“Where is he? I’ve been looking all over for him. I heard that he was… not in a good place.”

Ike glances over his shoulder, then back at me. “He’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” I realize that Ike is not just casually hanging out – he’s guarding the door.

I eye him suspiciously. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. He’s with Ruben. They’re talking,” he says.

I relax. “Oh, okay. Good.” I trust Ruben. “Well, just… make sure he calls his wife, okay? She gets pretty upset when he’s out late and doesn’t call to tell the kids goodnight.” Ike nods, and I turn to go.

Just then, Chain walks in and marches straight up to Ike. “Where’s Sinclair? I need to talk to him.”

“He’s busy,” Ike says, firmly planting himself in front of the doorknob.

“Oh, come on,” Chain says. “I just want to talk to him.”

The door to the Pillow Room opens yet again. “Where is he?” Nate demands. Ike steps aside and lets Nate into the room he’d been guarding, then stands in front of it again, blocking Chain from following.

“What?” cries Chain. “Are you kidding me? Why does Nate get to go in?”

Ike sighs. “Because he’s Nate. Nate does what he wants.”

“What, does Sinclair need protecting? From you? You couldn’t even protect your own boyfriend from getting attacked,” Chain spits angrily.

Last New Year’s Eve, Ike and Ruben had ducked into an alley for a quick kiss. Unfortunately, they were spotted and attacked by some thugs who decided to “teach those fags a lesson.” In his fury and in trying to protect Ike, Ruben had ended up getting beaten so badly that he’d been airlifted to the hospital. He’d needed emergency surgery, and it was weeks before he could even speak. Even today, he still sometimes gets stuck on words or loses his balance.

I gasp at Chain’s callousness. I don’t know Chain well, but his words seem uncharacteristically cruel.

Ike shrugs, seemingly unperturbed by Chain’s comment. I hear a scramble behind the door, and Ruben bursts from the room. He advances on Chain, fists clenched. “What the FUCK did you just say to him?” he snarls. He’s standing so close that I can see bits of spittle land on Chain’s face.

“Ruben,” I say softly, laying my hands on his fists and gently pushing his arms back down to his side. He ignores me.

“How fucking dare you. Don’t you ever speak to him like that. EVER,” Ruben growls. His fists raise back up to his sides, and I push them down again before placing a hand on his shoulder. He is shaking with fury.

“Ruben,” I say again, gently. “Come on. You don’t want to do this.”

Thankfully, Chain seems to come to his senses. “You’re right. I should not have said that.” He turns to Ike.” I was very upset, but that’s not your fault. I’m very sorry.” He turns back to Ruben. “That was unfair of me. I apologize.”

Ruben scowls at Chain down for another moment without speaking, then turns and goes back into the room, pausing only to stroke Ike’s cheek briefly.

Close Call

NOTE: This post contains spoilers related to the Lottery of Death.

As a player, I’m not entirely sure where in the timeline the Lottery of Death happens. I think that’s probably unclear on purpose; since it’s not the way things “really” happen (well, as far as we living people know, anyway).

People are in good spirits until the bell rings, signaling that the Lottery is about to begin. The room goes silent as ominous music fills the room. I sit close to Santiago, my left arm linked through her right. Nate already has a tear sliding down his face. I smile at him, slightly bemused. “Already?”

Santiago gives me a Look. “Well, yeah. This is scary,” she says. I immediately wipe the smile off my face and nod somberly. She’s right.

One of the two Agents of Death passes out small pieces of paper to write our names on: one for the least risky behavior over the past year, up to five for very risky. Everyone must throw their name in at least once. The second Agent collects the names in a hat from which they will pull the names of the unfortunate. I am unsure whether to put my name in two times or three, but in the end decide to go with my original instinct and put in three. Death announces that they need ten names. Ten? I think, looking around. steps There were roughly forty people. That’s a lot.

Death asks Pepper to pull the names. Pepper steps out of the kitchen and comes to stand at the front of the room. He reaches into the hat and begins reading off the names, not pausing for more than a second or two between each. “Sam. Tomasz. Max.” As each name is called, that person stands up and goes to the front of the room to wait.

“Simon. Leon. Ruben. Trevor.” The room is silent save for the music and Pepper’s solemn voice.

“Joani.” Gasps all around the room, and one high-pitched voice lets out a horrified wail of, “What!?” I am slightly shaken, myself. I knew Joani. Not well, but I knew her. She was a bit of a quack, but she was kind and she had a good heart.

“Dawn.” I hear a choked sob, and look over to see Charlotte’s shoulders shaking. I am sad for her, but feel surprisingly calm: lots of people were more risky than me and my friends. I become more and more relieved as names are called and none are people I am close with.

“…and Katherine.”

Santiago and I look at each other in shock. I hesitate, then realize they are waiting for me. I stand up to join the crowd of names that had been pulled, my eyes wide. This isn’t real. This isn’t happening. Santiago lets out a primal scream of grief that sounds almost inhuman. I jump, and look over numbly. Her face is buried in her arms.

“Please follow us outside. The rest of you, wait here.”

I fall into line in a daze as we follow of the Agents of Death dressed in black. As we march outside single file, I am filled with regret. “I made stupid choices,” I thought. “I should not have been so careless.” One anguished thought rises above the others: “I’m not ready to die!”

They lead us outside to a field behind the cabins. “Wait here. Do not speak.” We are left with the Angel of Death. I am standing amongst nine other people, and yet I have never felt so alone in my life. Tears stream down my face. We wait for what feels like forever before we are told to advance down the field. I can hear the distant strains of the same sad music from inside wafting down the field.

I see coffins in the distance. Only five? I squint in confusion. We are stopped about ten feet from the coffins. “Those of you who see your names in the coffins, lay down in them. If you are covered with a shroud, then you have passed on. The others who see your names in a coffin have contracted the virus, but you may not know it yet. The rest of you have had a near-death experience sometime later this year, but you survive.” My stomach drops as I advance, skimming the names in search of my own.

It isn’t there.

It takes a moment for the news to sink in. I’m not dead? I back away from the coffins and see the rest of the crowd starting to approach. Santiago rushes at me and envelops me in a bear hug. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again!” I find Charlotte and Kimberly and hug them, too. I look around at the crowd, which is a mixture of people embracing and sobbing. There are two bodies still in the coffins. I don’t remember who.

The music slowly dies down, and the Angel of Death faces us solemnly. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Leon.” The former disco star. I hear more gasping sobs from the people around me. The Angel of Death looks around sadly. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Simon.” The rock star? He was part of Urban Renaissance.

As the opening notes of Just A Little Lovin’ trickle from the speakers, there are no words. The vastly different cliques mingle, embracing both friends and strangers, united in their grief.

Your Pen Doesn’t Work

I always enjoy the drag show. Nate is as sassy as ever, the kind of Queen you can’t help but love… or love to hate, for some! A few of the Club Diamond regulars perform (Lady Verona, Reginald), as well as a few new guest stars. When Santiago’s girlfriend Pen takes the stage, I can feel her tense up beside me.

Earlier in the day, Santiago had told Charlotte, Kimberly and I that Pen was planning something. “I don’t know what,” she says, “but something ‘to show the world that you belong to me’ or something. I don’t know– whatever. I’m sure it will be fine,” she says, waving her bejeweled wrist dismissively. But I know better – Santiago hates feeling anything less than independent and especially hates feeling “caged.”

Knowing this, I almost expect her to bolt as soon as Pen takes the mic. “Touch me,” she croons. “How can it be?” She glides effortlessly up and down the stage, as though she was born to be in the spotlight. “Hold me close to your heart…” Pen reaches into the audience, past the first row to the second where Santiago and I are perched. “Touch me…” She grabs Santiago’s hand, smiling. “And give all your love to me…” Santiago’s eyes are wide with shock as she gapes at Pen, transfixed. Pen drops her hand and finishes the song to much applause. Afterwards, she returns to her seat without so much as a glance in our direction.

I turn to face Santiago. She looks… uncomfortable? Certainly not happy. I lean over and whisper, “You okay?”

She nods unconvincingly. “Just…  feeling overwhelmed.” I don’t quite believe her, but I don’t push. Knowing Santiago, she’ll tell me when she’s good and ready, so I let it go.

After the drag show, Urban Renaissance takes the stage. “Move those fuckin’ chairs, and let’s dance!” they cry out. I sway with the music, enjoying the buzz from my beer. After a few moments, I can feel someone’s eyes on me. I turn and make eye contact with a butch-looking woman. I generally tend to go for femmes, but something about her intrigues me. I dance closer, closing the distance slightly. She does the same. We dance together for a few moments, wordless.

I step off the dance floor and grab my beer, studying her. We make eye contact again, and she comes over.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Dawn.”

“Katherine.” She offers no further information, and I don’t ask. Her arms encircle my waist. After a few moments of dancing close, she gestures over her shoulder with her chin. “Wanna get out of here?”

I smile devilishly and open my mouth to answer when I hear a shriek, and a hysterical voice yelling. Santiago. The music stops as I whirl around.

“…WITH YOUR FINGERS IN MY CUNT! YOU DON’T FUCKING OWN ME! FUCK!!” Santiago runs from the club in tears, leaving Pen standing by herself near the stage. Without a second thought, I leave Dawn alone on the dance floor and race outside after her.

“Santiago! Santiago, WAIT!” I catch up with her. “What the fuck just happened??”

Her voice cracks as she spits, “She fingered me on the dance floor. But it wasn’t for me. She just wanted to show people that she owns me, to show off how fucking perfect her life is. But no one fucking owns me. NO ONE!

Her shoulders are still quaking. For a moment I am lost. The strongest woman I know looks back at me, her face streaked with tears. It pains me to see. I wrap an arm around her and escort her back to the cabin we share with several others. Thankfully, it’s empty. We lay on a mattress on the floor and I hold her until her tears subside, stroking her hair and whispering that everything was going to be okay.

Suddenly, her lips are on mine. After a moment, she pulls back slightly. “Katherine, what are we… I mean…” I hesitate, then tangle my fingers in her hair and pull her face back to mine. She moans into my mouth. There is a small voice in the back of my brain warning me that we’d both promised not to do this again, that we are better off as friends, that this is going to be a disaster… but I ignore it: this feels so right. She kisses across my cheek to my ear, nibbling at my earlobe. I dig my nails into her back when she gently bites the top shell of my ear and breathes hot air against it. Her lips travel down my neck to my breasts, pausing there. I pull her shirt up and rake my nails down her back, which arches at the sensation.

I raise my hips to allow her to pull my skirt down and off, along with my panties. “Wait,” I pant. Sitting up, I pull my shirt off and unclasp my bra. Leaning forward, I pull her shirt up over her head. I caress her cheek, tracing her jawline. “You’re so beautiful,” I whisper, pulling her lips to mine again. She twines her fingers through my curls. When she pulls away, she pushes me back down gently and her lips continue their downward descent.

She is gentle – more gentle than she’s ever been with me. Our lovemaking feels both frantic and tender. She knows exactly how to touch me: my body is her canvas, her touch the paint brush. I shudder beneath her, calling out her name – not the name everyone calls her, but her real name, the one she tells almost no one. When I’ve caught my breath, she is staring at me in wonderment. My mind flashes briefly back to the tantra workshop from earlier in the night. How does it feel to really be seen?

I pull her down next to me, kissing her passionately. Then I raise myself up to kneel over her. I lick and suckle at her breasts, rolling her nipples in my fingers before lowering my mouth to her center. I am gentle also – almost too gentle, as she pushes a hand on my head and thrusts her hips up at the same time. I chuckle against her and lick her with greater fervor. I feel her convulse beneath me, and I continue. She convulses again… and again… and again…

Tantra and Heavy Breathing

I spend the rest of the afternoon chasing after Evelyn. I introduce myself and find out that she’s a doctor. She also makes a point of telling me she’s straight. Well, “mostly straight” are her exact words. She shows zero interest, and I am becoming increasingly frustrated. I almost give up on her until Morgan taunts me again, making me even more determined.

“Hey, Nate,” I call out.

Nate, AKA the Queen of Manhattan, is the owner of Club Diamond. He’s one of New York’s best drag queens. He also has a knack for knowing all the gossip. He smiles and and kisses the air next to both of my cheeks.

“Katherine, darling. So good to see you!”

“And you! Hey, I was wondering… do you know anything about that girl over there?” I indicate behind him with my chin, where Evelyn is chatting with two other women.

Nate glances over. “Which one?”

“The one with the copper skirt. I hear she’s straight, but…”

“Hey, you!” he interrupts me as calls out to her. “No, not you – your friend. Yeah, you. Come here a sec.” She exchanges looks with her friends, but walks over. “You’ve met Katherine, right?” he says. “She works for the Times.”

Evelyn nods. “Yes, we met earlier. Hello again.”

Nate continues, “Well, she really likes your skirt, and wants to know if you’d be willing to take it off for her later.” With that, he walks off without a backwards glance.

“Nate!” I exclaim incredulously. There aren’t many people who can make me speechless, but somehow Nate manages it.

I turn to Evelyn, shaking my head in amusement. “Are you planning to attend the tantra workshop?”

“I am, yeah,” she replies.

“Great, me too. Let’s go.” I sling an arm around her shoulders as we walk over to the Pillow Room. It feels awkward, unnatural. We are both tense, and she doesn’t relax into me as most girls do. Hmm. This is going to take a lot more work.

We enter the Pillow Room and it’s packed. Somehow, thirty some-odd people have managed to cram into a space meant to sleep six people. The heat is stifling. We remove our shoes and squeeze in. Evelyn finds some space on the floor, and I quickly sit in the space right next to her, leaning up against one of the cots that’s been pushed against the wall.

Joani starts off by telling us that there is no actual sex involved in this workshop, and I sigh quietly. So much for that. Oh, well. I decide to struggle through the workshop and see if I can fake it, for Evelyn’s sake. Joani is droning on about breathing through your nose and chakras and some other stuff that’s a bit too “woo” for my tastes. Most people have their eyes closed, but I keep mine open because it’s so warm in there I’m afraid I might actually fall asleep.

Finally, Joani tells us to face our partners and take their hands. Yes! Getting to the good stuff, I hope??… oh, nope. She says something about joining our breathing, and I tune out again, focusing on the feel of Evelyn’s hands in mine. I catch her eye and make a face towards Joani. She smirks a little. Aha! So she’s not as into it as I thought. Good. I roll my eyes and she seems to be struggling not to laugh. A few moments later, Joani tells us to release our partners, and starts going around the room asking people how they felt, one by one. Huh. That’s it? That wasn’t sexy at all. When it’s my turn, I make up something about not having as intense an experience as the others – no point in hurting Joani’s feelings – and Evelyn echoes something similar.

After the workshop, I escort Evelyn out and back down the path towards the main cabin. We pause next door at the Darkroom where a large crowd has gathered. “Huh… what’s going on here?” I wonder aloud. Evelyn’s brother Chain is handing out pieces of rope… some kind of demo? Evelyn fidgets and refuses the piece of rope his… assistant? offers her.

I glance at her. Now or never, I think. “Do you want to get out of here?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says, looking relieved. We continue along the path toward the main lodge, where some of Nate’s crew is setting up a stage for Club Diamond drag show.

“That was… interesting,” I say.

She laughs. “Yeah.”

“So…” I continue, “tell me about yourself.”

She chuckles softly. “Still a doctor… still mostly straight.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Mostly?”

“Well, I’ve had sex with women before,” she says.

I shrug. “Well, I think we’d have fun together.”

She glances at me, hesitates for a second. “Well… if it involves an orgasm, I’m down.”

I stop walking and turn to face her, my face lighting up. “Really?”

She shrugs. “Sure. Why not?”

I grab her hand and pull her towards the left, over to the bathroom cabins. As soon as we’re close to the entrance, I push her up against the wall outside and slip my hand under her skirt. I watch her face carefully, which is bathed in light from the single bulb above the bathroom door. Her eyes are closed, her mouth open in a perfect “O” as her hips writhe against my hand. Within minutes, she’s crying out. Loudly. We’ve got a screamer, I think to myself, chuckling.

When she’s caught her breath, I lean against her, pinning her to the wall with my body. She wastes no time, both hands reaching under my skirt, spreading me open with one hand and rubbing my clit with the other. I groan softly, gritting my teeth. “You’re–AH! Pretty good at this, for a–ahhh, ah– straight girl,” I gasp out. “Oh, fuck!” Her finger fucks me while she keeps rubbing my clit. I’m humping her hands and crying out as I cum, all pretenses of staying quiet abandoned.

“God, that was good,” I sigh contentedly. “Did you have fun?”

She smiles. “Yeah, I did.”

We go inside the bathroom to fix our clothing and wash up, then head back to the main lodge for the drag show. Once inside, we smile at each other again, but go our separate ways.

Surprising absolutely no one, the drag show is running late. Still slightly giddy, I spy Santiago conversing with some other party-goers and head over. Leaning in, I whisper into her ear, “Straight girl’s not so straight!” and then stride off without waiting for an answer, gloating.