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TALES OF THE TOWN

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The first three chapters

1.

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Danny Eagleton walked out of Terminal A at Oakland Airport, smelled the fresh salt air, felt the soft Spring mist settling on his face, saw the East Bay hills verdant in the distance, and knew he was home.

His Lyft was right where it was supposed to be, a late model white Toyota Camry. He shuffled over to it, peered through the window. His driver—a young woman named Cindy—nodded. He climbed in, dragging his suitcase with him.

“Good trip?” she asked, as he buckled in.

“Yup. Good to be back in the Town.”

Cindy chuckled, as she began negotiating the exit route towards the 880 Freeway. “I know what you mean.”

Nothing had changed in the two years he’d been gone, Danny thought. The same fast food restaurants and gas stations along Hegenberger. Then, approaching the freeway, he saw a large construction project, four stories, with masonry walls being put up on steel girders.

“What’s that?” he asked his driver.

“That? Oh, probably another luxury condo. They’re all over town. You should see mid-Broadway. It’s like a whole new city within a city.”

“That’s near to where I’m going,” Danny said. The driver glanced at her iPhone. “Oh, right. I’m taking you to 737 Perkins. You been away for a while?”

“Yeah. Two years.” He figured she’d ask where he’d been, and why, but Cindy said nothing. She’s probably been told not to ask personal questions, Danny thought. So he added, “Been working for a tech firm in Boston. South of Boston, actually, little town called Milton. Now, they’ve transferred me back here.”

“Sweet,” Cindy acknowledged, lapsing into silence. Danny glanced at the back of her long, brown hair, at her neck. They were now winding their way north along the 880 through thick traffic. At least that hasn’t changed, Danny thought.

He sat back and became thoughtful. His two years back east had been okay, although not particularly memorable. The money was good, but even so, he hadn’t been able to save much, because his rent in Milton, where he’d lived, was high. He hadn’t really made many friends. And the weather! Don’t even ask. Frigid, snowy winters, blazingly hot, humid summers, with a few nice days wedged in between—days that invariably reminded him of Oakland.

Now that he was back, he’d be bunking for a while with his old college buddy, Nick. Nicholas Claudio Huff was his full name. They’d been roommates at Cal for a couple years, sharing a two-bedroom flat on Channing Way. Nick had been into sports: martial arts, track, weightlifting. Nick was more the artistic type. When he came out, in their senior year, Danny wasn’t all that surprised. He’d suspected Nick was gay, but figured it wasn’t his place to bring the subject up.

Now, Nick was working at Pandora, downtown, and was renting a small flat of his own in Adams Point. He was happy to let his old friend stay there, until Danny could get his bearings and find a place of his own. Danny was idly looking out the window, as the driver went on past the Oak Street turnoff, then veered onto the 980 towards the 580 and Broadway. As she approached 27th Street, Nick he saw the spires and skeletons of the new developments.

“Holy shit!” he murmured, half to himself.

“Yeah,” Cindy replied. “They’re like cancer. Gentrification. My rent’s almost doubled since I moved into my place, four years ago. I’m thinking of moving someplace else. Portland, maybe.”

Twenty-seventh was crowded with construction workers in orange jackets. It was lunchtime, and the men (and a few women) were sitting on walls, ledges and curbs, or in their cars, munching on their sandwiches and tacos and drinking colas and water. Food trucks lined the street. When Danny had left two years previously, this area was dead, with unbusy auto repair shops and struggling car dealerships. He could hardly believe his eyes.

Cindy took back streets through the hills above Piedmont Avenue, then crossed the 580 overpass at Adams Street and maneuvered her way through Adams Point, with the GPS lady directing her. Then, there it was, No. 737 Perkins, a three-story beige-colored structure with red pillars and balconies with weird art deco railings.

“Here we are,” Cindy announced, pulling over. Danny thanked her, then rolled the dice. She was cute. He’d lost touch with his girlfriends in the years since he’d been gone. Did she mind if he called her sometime? She smiled shyly (cute!) and said no, she didn’t mind. Danny filed it for future reference.

After she drove off, he stood there for a while, suitcase on the sidewalk beside him, before texting Nick. He just wanted to feel back in Oakland again, to feel himself feeling. An old man passed by, walking a fluffy little white dog. Two young guys across the street were laughing. A Mexican woman, short and stout, was wheeling a baby carriage. Two Somali women came from around the corner, tiny little things, their heads covered with lacy, pastel-colored scarfs. Nick caught something from the corner of his eye, and turned. A Black sagger kid was zooming down Perkins on a lime green scooter, swerving around a double-parked UPS truck. The driver, in brown shirt and shorts, sat behind the wheel, listening to talk radio. From a window somewhere Danny heard the throb of a bass line: someone was listening to dance music. It was the ebb and flow, the flora and fauna of Oakland. After the sterility of Milton, population 27,000 and overwhelmingly white, Danny had to smile. Welcome back to The Town, he said to himself. Then he texted Nick: I’m downstairs.

* * *

2

Danny Moves In

Danny got the sofa to sleep on. That wasn’t the problem. Nick had a “roommate” he hadn’t mentioned.

Flambé was a big woman, easily six feet in her platform heels. When he’d entered the apartment, there she was, this exotic figure, in a glittering multi-colored gown, pink boa curled around her like a snake, slow-dancing to a song he recognized as by Usher that was blasting at about 100 decibels. It was that bass beat he’d heard in the street.

“Danny, this is Flambé.” Nick introduced the two of them after Nick set his bag down. Nick smiled and extended his hand, but Flambé was too busy dancing to take it. “Howyadoin’, honey,” she crooned, in a sultry voice above the pulsing music. “Nice to meet ya. And just to avoid questions, I’m transitioning.”

“She used to be Frank,” Nick offered.

Nick explained the situation a little later, as he and Danny walked down the hill to the Playa Bar, the little sports dive on Grand. “I wasn’t planning on living with anyone after the fiasco with Angel,” he said—causing Danny to remember the shaven-headed hustler Nick had gone with for a few months until realizing that Angel was stealing his prescription drugs and cash. “But then I met Flambé at Club Serenade.”

“I thought you didn’t go to clubs anymore,” Danny said.

“I don’t. But it was a Saturday night, and I was super lonely. And it was the sheets.”

“The sheets?”

“Folding them by myself. That’s got to be the loneliest thing in the world. I wanted somebody to help me fold the sheets. So I walked to Caramba, sat at the bar, ordered an IPA, and the next thing I know, this drag queen is flirting with me, with her hand on my thigh.”

“So she’s a drag queen?”

“Not really. Well, the categories are fuzzy. Frank started his physical transition last year. She’s on hormones, and is now living fulltime as a woman.”

“Somehow, she doesn’t seem your type.” Danny sensed Nick flinching at that, so he hastened to add, “I mean, you go for the rugged, straight type, like Angel, and what’s his name, that guy from the Coast Guard.”

“Bradley.”

“Right. Flambé is hardly what I’d describe as the straight type.”

“I know. But she’s so sweet and kind. I can talk to her in a way I can’t with anyone else, except maybe you. And the sex is—”

“What?”

“Unreal.” Nick laughed out loud. Danny didn’t need to hear any more. By now, they were at the Playa Bar. At this time of day—mid-afternoon—the place was nearly empty. An old Fleetwood Mac song was playing. They sat at the bar in the cool afternoon darkness. Danny ordered his favorite vodka gimlet while Nick asked for an IPA.

Something was bothering Danny, and he had to get it off his chest. “You never told me about Flambé when you said I could stay with you. I mean, I really appreciate it, Nick, but I’m a little uncomfortable with three of us sharing your flat. Just one bathroom. And I get the feeling Flambé listens to a lot of loud music.”

“Yeah, she’s a music freak, all right.”

They lapsed into silence.

“Well,” Nick said, “I mean, would it have made any difference if I’d told you I was living with someone?”

“I guess not,” Danny answered.

“You had nowhere else to go. Besides, Flambé’s cool. You’ll like her. If the music’s a problem, I’ll ask her to keep it down.”

* * *

Flambé had felt like a woman as long as she could remember. When she’d been little—Frank—she much preferred playing with her cousins’ dolls, while the other boys were playing ball, or tear-assing mountain bikes through the foothills of Sunol, where Frank’s parents lived.

In 2000, when he was twelve, Frank saw a T.V. program about transsexuals, on Oprah. His parents, who were strict Catholics, wouldn’t have permitted him to watch it, but he’d been sick that day, and his stay-at-home Mom, Gloria, had gone to Safeway, to get some Robitussin. Frank was mind-struck by the women he saw; one in particular reminded him of Beyoncé. Frank’s heart leapt when she described her own transition process, and how liberated she felt when she finally accepted the fact that she was a woman.

In that moment, in his mind, Frank became Flambé.

He lived a secret life for the next five years, dressing up in Gloria’s clothing when alone, and developing an inner life that was his own, precious secret. In 2005, he was accepted to San Francisco State University, and moved into a dorm there, his first time away from home. He quickly found himself enmeshed in the sexual politics of group identity. There were the gay kids, of course, but even they were divided into all sort of groupings. There were transvestites who were straight but liked wearing women’s clothing, and transvestites who liked other men. There were “straight” guys who enjoyed a little fun when they were drunk—they were on the D.L., Frank learned. And then there were the men who, like him, were convinced that nature had played a cruel trick, or made a mistake, in assigning them the male gender.

Frank wasn’t even old enough to drink when, in his freshman year, an older friend took him to his first club. The Headquarters was South-of-Market, in Clementina Alley. “Just tell the doorman you’re 21 but you forgot your I.D.,” his friend told him. The strategy worked. Frank—5’10”, handsome and lanky, with thick, curly black hair and dark eyes, looked older than his years.

Inside, the music was blaring. People danced in various states of intimacy, or alone. Lasers struck rotating mirrored balls hanging from the ceiling, throwing shards of gleaming light on walls, clothing, faces. A strobe light amplified the hallucinogenic effect. His friend disappeared into the throng, leaving Frank alone. Sipping a coke, his eyes sought out certain among the crowd, including a woman in her thirties, kind of hippie-ish, very pretty, who incongruously reminded him of Phoebe, on Friends. She must have felt him staring at her, for she walked over, smiled, touched the back of his hand, and asked what he was drinking.

That was the beginning of his friendship with Moira. It also marked an important milestone in Frank’s transition to Flambé.

* * *

3

Danny Makes a Friend

It had been a little more than two weeks since Danny returned to Oakland. He was back at work at Creava, an app developer. Danny was in the games division; his current project, which he’d begun in Milton, was called “Game of Bones.” It was a dog-walking challenge, sure to be a hit: users piled up points every time their pet went peepee, with different scores for grass, bushes, trees, telephone poles, fire hydrants. Fifty cents of the $3.99 download price went to the local SPCA.

He was at home, in Nick’s apartment, on one of the rare Friday nights when both Nick and Flambé were out. Danny popped a beer and sat back on the couch to watch T.V. Idly flicking through the channels, he had the sudden inspiration to text Cindy, the Lyft driver.

Hey, it’s Danny, the guy you picked up at Oakland Airport a while back. Remember? Well I was wondering if you wanted to get together for coffee or something.

Almost as soon as he sent it, the reply came back.

Love to! When did you have in mind?

Wow, Danny thought. That was fast.

What are you doing tomorrow evening?

Nothing! My social life leaves something to be desired lol.

Maybe grab a drink?

Sounds good! Nine okay?

Sweet.

Cindy lived off Piedmont Avenue, near Kaiser. They agreed to meet at Playa Bar. Danny was nervous. Was this a date? A casual chat? A meet, greet and dump? That was the thing; you never knew if something was going to work out. For that matter, you never even knew what “work out” meant.

He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Sure, he wouldn’t mind having a special lady friend. He wasn’t the most physical guy in the world, but he had his desires. He was 27, making fairly good money at Creava, and while he wasn’t looking to settle down, it wasn’t out of the question.

On the Saturday, he went to 24 Hour Fitness and had a long workout, aerobic and weights, followed by a hot shower. Then he slung his gym bag over his shoulder, dropped it off at Nick’s, and walked down to Playa. It was a balmy May night, warm enough to tease out the jasmine. He felt a stirring in his blood.

She was already there, sitting in a booth. She stood when she saw him. They shook hands. He wanted to hug her, but with all the #MeToo business, wasn’t sure if she’d consider that invasive of her personal space.

Cindy wouldn’t have minded hugging Danny either, but, like him, she held back. Don’t be needy, she told herself. Still, she liked what she saw. Danny was a cutie. Not very tall, only three or four inches more than her own 5’6”, but well-proportioned, with a flat stomach and narrow waist, and she could tell that he was a weightlifter. He also had, she noticed approvingly, a nice ass.

Danny took the lead. “What would’ya like?”

“Umm, I don’t know.” Cindy studied the chalkboard. “I guess a Negroni.”

“Give me a minute.” Danny walked to the bar. It was crowded. The bartender was mixing drinks; there was nothing to do but wait. He smiled over his shoulder to Cindy. She smiled back.

When he got their drinks (despite his preference for gimlets he, like her, had a Negroni), Nick went back to their booth. He lifted his glass; she brought hers to his with a clink. They both said “L’chaim!” and laughed at the simultaneity. Danny felt like he knew her, even though they’d barely exchanged a dozen words.

Two hours and four Negronis later, Cindy said she had to be going, to walk her French bulldog, Klutz. “You okay to drive?” Danny asked. Cindy grinned. “I’m fine.” He walked her to her car, the white Camry she’d picked him up in. She unlocked the door but didn’t get in, just stood there. So did he.

It was “that moment.” Should he? Shouldn’t he?

He didn’t have to wonder long. Before he knew it, Cindy took him into her arms and shoved her tongue through his all-too-willing lips. Danny reciprocated, parrying her tongue mid-palate with his own. Each had the impression of exploring infinite sweetness. Then, wordlessly, she tugged away, got into her car, and drove away.

Danny watched as the Camry headed west down Grand. Even when it had vanished into the distance, he remained transfixed. He was, it occurred to him, high, and not just from the drinks. It was as though he had forgotten how to walk. Or maybe he simply didn’t want to jar the memory of what had happened. When he finally caught himself moving, he had no idea how long he’d been standing. He was left with a single, ravishing thought: Cindy!

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