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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 16

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Flambé and Devon Settle In, as Election Day Nears

Flambé felt desired.

She lay on her side in Devon’s big bed. He was spooning her, asleep, his arm thrown loosely across her ribs. It was early, before dawn; the streets were mostly empty, although the first garbage and recycling trucks were beginning the day’s noisy advent. Flambé reached for the pack of cigarettes on Devon’s side table, tapped one out, and lit it with his butane lighter.

Beside her, Devon did not stir. They’d had a long, late night. The lovemaking had lasted hours. Flambé’s mind retraced events: how Devon had kissed her from head to toe, lingering in certain areas that made her groan. How he knelt before her, she a princess royal, he a supplicant. How he took off her panties as carefully as if he were polishing crystal.

He treated her well, like a lady. That was all she’d ever wanted: to be treated like a lady. Few had done so. She’d been with many, many men, and would not undo any of them, but deep within her she knew that she was disposable. Flambé could have been Desirée, or Farrah, or Trixie, or any of ten thousand other drag queens, trannies and cross dressers across the Bay Area.

There had been many times when, returning alone after a crazy night to wherever she happened to be living, she felt welling tears in her eyes. Part of her knew how deeply unhappy she was, but another, greater part understood that there was no point in feeling sorry for herself. The great secret transsexuals hold close in their breasts is Hope: that things will be better. Flambé did not believe in white knights coming to the rescue. But she did not disbelieve in them, either, or, more accurately, she dared not disbelieve. If she did, the entire edifice she had carefully constructed around her personality might collapse.

Devon, in their time together at S.F. State, had been the best thing she’d ever found. He was (to use a discredited phrase) “a real man,” real, that is, in the sense of being utterly handsome and charming and strong. His self-confidence inspired her, since she, herself, had so little. Flambé, during those years, did not fully understand the breadth of Devon’s sex life. She knew what he was with her; she did not know what he was with anyone else. Devon kept his cards close to his vest, and Flambé liked that. To the extent he was a mystery, he rose in her esteem as a man.

Now, he began to stir. He stretched the long body, catlike, lengthening joints to make them supple. He yawned. Flambé turned under his arm, toward him. He opened his eyes and saw her gazing at him trustfully and unabashedly.

“Morning, babe.” His breath was warm and a little sweet, like honey. Flambé leaned in, kissed him deeply. He uttered a little moan, got hard. They made love again. Flambé could still orgasm, in the old way; she was intact (and Devon loved that), although taking the next step—the neo-vagina—was increasingly on her mind. There were pros and cons about that final, radical intervention. Among the cons was the cost: at least $50,000. She could not have raised even ten percent of that impossible amount.

She knew the rules: she must be out of his apartment and gone by 6 a.m., to avoid anyone seeing her. Devon couldn’t afford the potential scandal. It wasn’t the way she would have preferred it to be, but she acknowledged that, if Devon were to have a political future, she would have to be relegated to the sidelines. It wasn’t even (he had explained to her) because she was a transsexual. If she’d been a straight woman, or even another man, he would still have had to be on the down-low with her. At least until after he won the election, that was the way it had to be: just as rock stars hide their marriages because being available makes them more desirable to women (and not a few men), so too a good-looking, ambitious politician must be seen as unhitched. Of course, Devon told Flambé, the ideal would have been to show off a pretty wife with three or four gorgeous children. But since that wasn’t about to happen, his next best choice was to remain single, surrounded with an aura of erotic mystery.

“As soon as this damned election is behind us, babe,” Devon told her on numerous occasions, “then we can go public. But trust me on this.”

She did. She went to his place three, four times a week, always after midnight, and always leaving by six, often with a hat pulled down low over her face. To Nick, she offered no explanation, nor did he expect one. They still maintained the façade of a relationship; indeed, they both cared for each other, on a deep, visceral level. But the steam was gone. Nick knew it. But he was too much of a gentleman to make an issue of Flambé’s increasing absences. She’ll either get over it, he told himself, and come back, or she won’t. Either way, I have no right to cage her. Meanwhile, Election Day neared.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 15

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Mrs. Wu Tries to Reason with Danny

Mrs. Wu’s emotional and physical health continued to deteriorate, even after she was discharged from the hospital. Her daughter was now gone; Mrs. Wu’s phone calls to her went unanswered. Dr. Wu, on Cindy’s sudden leaving home, retreated even further into his normally stolid shell. The house felt like a funeral. During the day, when Dr. Wu was at Kaiser, Mrs. Wu watched hours of daytime television. Every so often, she would pick up a photo of Cindy, hold it to her breast, and weep.

She told herself “I have to do something.” She was in danger of losing her daughter, and possibly even her husband. Cindy would not talk to her; perhaps the boyfriend would. His name was Danny; that was all Mrs. Wu knew. She let herself into Cindy’s bedroom. Maybe somewhere in here was an address or phone number. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for: a Lyft printout of Cindy’s customers for the previous quarter. Mrs. Wu went down the list. There it was:

Eagleton, Danny

737 Perkins

510-555-1445

She called him immediately. He answered; she explained who she was. Danny said he remembered her. She asked to meet with him. He accepted. Their rendezvous was at Whole Foods. Mrs. Wu had a cup of tea, Danny a cappuccino, which she paid for. They found seating out front.

“I am here as a mother, and as a wife. This has not been an easy time for me. You are causing great dissension in our family.”

Danny did not want a fight. At the same time, he did not wish to be railroaded. He had done nothing wrong; neither had Cindy; she was an adult. Her parents should stop trying to control her life.

“You perhaps do not understand our tradition,” said Mrs. Wu. “Tell me, your religion: what is it?”

The question annoyed Danny, but he was determined to be as polite as he could be. “My mother is Catholic, although not very religious. My father is Episcopalian. I was raised as a Christian, but I’m not a very good one.”

“And tell me, in your family, what is your heritage?”

“We’re mostly English, Welsh and German. I think I had a Belgian great-grandmother.”

“And all these parties intermarried freely?”

“Yes.”

“But there was never a union outside the white race?”

Danny saw where things were going. “No, Mrs. Wu. But had one of my ancestors fallen in love with a non-white person, I’m sure the family would have welcomed them with open arms.”

“Can you be so sure?” Mrs. Wu looked doubtfully at Danny. “Perhaps. But in our culture, things are not so…well, loose. Never in the history of either Dr. Wu’s family or of mine—a history we can trace for more than 500 years—has anyone married a non-Chinese, except for one unfortunate recent case, which ended in disaster.”

“Yes, Cindy told me about that.”

“I appeal to you as a gentleman. I know that you care for my daughter and that she cares for you. However, I beg you to understand the difficulties such a union would entail. It will present roadblocks to your happiness, and Cindy’s, and will certainly not be welcome by our family.”

Danny looked at this frail, small woman incredulously. “That is so racist.”

Mrs. Wu now was offended. “Racist? That, it most certainly is not. I have said nothing offensive towards you or towards any white people. Many of my husband’s colleagues are Caucasian. Among the members of the clubs and societies with which I am involved are Caucasians. The Doctor and I live in a mostly-white neighborhood, where we enjoy excellent relations with our neighbors. To suggest that we are racist is insulting.”

“Well, Mr. Wu, I don’t know what you would call it, but we have a saying: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

“We too have a saying. ‘Even a hare will bite when it is cornered.’” She looked at Danny with flat, insolent eyes that took him aback.

“Is that a threat?”

“I ask you once again. Please stop seeing my daughter. If you know what is good for you and for her, you will break this off.”

Danny had had enough. He stood, nodded to Mrs. Wu, and said, “Please give my regards to Dr. Wu.” And with that, he strode off.

It had been only a day since the theft of all their possessions. He and Cindy had spent the night at Nick’s place, after striking the tent, which they stored in Nick’s basement. Cindy was driving for Lyft; Danny had to get back to Creava. On the walk to work, his mind was troubled and turbulent. Between the theft and Mrs. Wu’s amazingly patronizing words, his thoughts raced and crashed into each other, in a spiral of over-thinking that formed a pattern he knew all too well. He wanted only to be with Cindy, to lay with her in a warm, safe place of their own—preferably with plenty of vodka. On Webster he passed yet another high-rise going up, undoubtedly more condos. Square would soon move into the old Sears Building, now redubbed Uptown Station. There would be more young techies, with more money, looking for more places to live in Oakland; prices would only continue to rise. Depression cast a black cloud around Danny. He needed a drink.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 14

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Devon Tells Flambé How It Has to Be

“You’ll be working closely with me,” the candidate told Flambé over miso soup and California rolls. “But we’re going to have to be careful about being seen together.”

“Why?”

“Franklin—Flambé—look. It’s not like the old days. I’m a public figure now. People are watching me, looking for something to bring me down. I have to watch my step, especially just six weeks before an election.”

“But what does that have to do with me?”

Devon looked around the restaurant. Public figures are always aware they’re being scrutinized. Devon knew that, merely by having lunch with the flamboyant Flambé, he was taking a risk. It might be a small risk in a town as tolerant as Oakland, and as he’d previously calculated, having a transsexual working for him could actually be a plus. But still, there were boundaries. It was one thing to have a transsexual employee. It was another for there to be talk about a private consensual relationship. Tongues would wag. Politics is the most gossipy profession. The last thing Devon needed was malicious gossip.

“You can’t be seen coming to my apartment,” Devon said. Flambé didn’t understand. Devon tried to explain. “I don’t mean you can never come. But we have to be careful. Late at night, maybe. And if you stay the night, you’ll have to leave early the next morning, like, by 5:30. People get up early to go to work. I can’t risk having them see you.”

Flambé’s eyes by now were welling with tears. “You haven’t even invited me to your place yet!”

Devon leaned in. “I will.” It was his eyes again—dark, flashing, penetrating. They made Flambé weak. “Dry your eyes.” He handed Flambé his napkin. “Stop crying. You’re making a scene.” Flambé took the cloth and dabbed her cheeks. The rest of their lunch was uneventful. When it was over, they walked back to campaign headquarters. “I’ll have Hedda show you around. You’ll mostly be working to keep my lists up to date: contributors, precinct workers, that kind of thing. I can give you $150 a week; it’s all we can afford now. If the war chest builds up, it’s more money for everyone.”

What Flambé didn’t say—what she should have said—was: I don’t want money. That’s not why I came. I came for you.

* * *

Devon asked her to his apartment the next day. They both were at headquarters. She was at her little desk, working a laptop, trying to figure out the intricacies of Excel. He was in his office with his campaign manager, a lanky, ex-Marine everyone called Grit. Flambé watched Devon through the window—the calm way he listened, chin in his left hand, with a barely perceptible nod of the head when he agreed; the way he became animated while making a point, slashing the air with one hand, sometimes bringing the other down on the desk with a hard “slap.”

After a while Devon came out of his office and towards the front door, accompanied by Grit. As he passed Flambé, he dropped, almost absent-mindedly, a post-it note on her desk. She picked it up, read: TONIGHT. 9:30. MY PLACE. RING BUZZER AND I’LL LET YOU IN. d.

She was numb for the rest of the day, in a state of high anticipation. At home, Nick noticed. “You’re distracted,” he told her. “Just tired,” she replied, then changed the subject. “How’s Danny?” It was the day his and Cindy’s belongings had been stolen from their tent, although neither Nick nor Flambé knew it. “I guess he’s okay,” Nick said. “I give them at most another two days. A tent!”

They were watching “Riverdale” that night when Flambé suddenly announced she had to go out. “My client just texted. Her Frenchie needs a walk and she’s with her boyfriend. I’ll be at most an hour.” Even as she said it, she knew she was in trouble: she would be gone, not an hour, but—if everything went as planned—the entire night. How she would explain that the next morning, Flambé had no idea. She wasn’t thinking clearly anyway. She was being led, not by her reason, but by another part of her body, a part that still existed, still stirred deep within her and drove her sometimes to acts of stupidity and excess. She not only could not afford to rid herself of this part just yet; she was far from certain she wanted to. It all could wait. Decisions always could wait. What could not wait, this night, was her overwhelming, physical desire to see, and be with, Devon.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 13

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Nick’s and Flambé’s Worlds Cross Through Devon

Nick arrived in the Bay Area in 2002, after being admitted to Cal. He’d grown up with his hippie parents in a kind of commune in the Mendocino Highlands, a vast, mountainous region of Redwood forests, marijuana plantations, vineyards and wilderness, where mountain lions, black bears and elk roamed the slopes. On clear days, from a spot near the summit of 1,500-foot Mt. Umpquah, he could see all the way down the coast to Point Reyes. Beyond that lay San Francisco, a magic town, to which Nick had never been, but which fueled the imagination of the young man, just coming to terms with his gayness.

Nick never formally “came out.” It wasn’t necessary in the commune’s counter culture. In another environment he might have been ridiculed, or bullied, by children, the way Franklin had been, and been driven into secrecy and self-doubt. Instead, out there off the grid, people, including his parents, accepted Nick on his own terms. He had therefore no neurotic feelings about being gay. When in fact he moved to Berkeley and discovered the vast subculture of the LGBTQ community, he was somewhat surprised. There had been no politics of group identity where he’d grown up; there’d been no need of one.

Nick’s new roommate in Berkeley, Danny Eagleton, was his opposite in many ways: straight, apolitical, athletic. But the two of them quickly bonded. There was one night, early in their roommate relationship, when, drunk and high, they’d fooled around physically, with a series of rather frenzied gropings and a quick shedding of clothes. But it happened only once, and they both agreed never refer to it, and never to let it happen again.

They shared a small flat off Adeline, walking distance to their classes on the sprawling Cal campus. After graduation, both had gone their separate ways—Nick immediately after graduation to Pandora, Danny to a series of startups in San Francisco. They kept in touch loosely, through social media. It was at this time that Nick experienced his “fiasco” with Angel. He had met the good-looking, muscled young Mexican-American with the shaved head and toothy grin at the UPS Store, where Angel was, briefly, a clerk. Angel came on strong: flirty from the get-go, handing Nick a piece of paper with his phone number on it, and urging a rather startled Nick to “Call me.”

Nick did call Angel. They dated for nearly six months. It did not end well. Then Nick met Flambé, who moved in with him into the Perkins Street apartment. Both of their lives seemed to be getting back on track.

The political background to his parents’ activism increasingly rose to the surface in Nick’s mind. The advent of Donald J. Trump to the presidency stirred him profoundly; he thought of Trump as thoroughly, incontestably evil, and it blew his mind that the Republican Party not only tolerated this degradation but actively encouraged it. Nick became involved in local politics. When he learned of the candidacy for City Council of a local Black man, Devon Camber, whom most of his co-workers at Pandora seemed to like, he volunteered to work for Camber’s election. This was shortly before Flambé herself had volunteered for the campaign, although Nick didn’t know about Flambé’s involvement, and Flambé didn’t know about Nick’s involvement.

Nick met the candidate on a number of occasions and was, frankly, smitten, as were so many others. Davon at 35 was at the height of his charms: lean, good-looking, well-dressed, friendly, accessible, charismatic as hell. Devon did little things around campaign headquarters. When Devon learned of his programming skills, he put him to work on improving the campaign website, and also at increasing Devon’s presence on social media. Nick went into the office less; he could do his thing on his laptop. He was not in the office the day Flambé had her fateful lunch with Devon.

That lunch had left Flambé confused and at cross-purposes with herself. Devon had spelled out the parameters of their relationship—and it was not one Flambé was comfortable with.  She felt herself drawn to the blazing flame of Devon like a helpless moth. At the conclusion of this was bound to be tragedy. Flambé did not care.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 12

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Cindy and Danny move into a tent

Cindy continued to see Danny as summer slipped into fall. Her parents continued to resent it and harass her for it. Cindy took shelter in secrecy: she would not tell Dr. and Mrs. Wu where she had been when she came home at night. She never mentioned Danny by name. A frosty silence descended over the household.

That September Mrs. Wu fell seriously ill, with bacterial pneumonia in both lungs. She ended up in the same Kaiser hospital in which her husband worked. Although she was not his patient, Dr. Wu followed her charts, and worried. Her blood oxygen fell to dangerously low levels. The antibiotics weren’t working; her fever spiked to 104. They had to intubate her, to enable her to breathe. She remained hospitalized.

One evening Dr. Wu and Cindy ate dinner with barely a word exchanged. He was filled with anger and resentment, she with guilt and fear. Finally, he put down his knife and fork and said, “You have made your mother sick, with your willful disobedience. If she dies, it will be your fault.”

Cindy rushed from the table, went to her room, cried, then called Danny.

“Playa. Ten minutes. Don’t argue.”

She told him what had happened. Danny listened helplessly. Cindy could neither stay home under the circumstances, nor leave, since she had nowhere else to go. It was the same old conundrum. Suddenly, Danny blurted out, with no aforethought, “That’s it. You’re leaving. We’ll live in a tent if we have to, until we figure out what to do.”

Danny took the next day off from Creava, drove to REI and bought a large canvas tent, for which he paid $900. A mobile modem would give them internet connection, including cell phone. He also bought cooking, refrigeration and heating equipment for camping; the weather would remain warm through October, but he had no idea how long he and Cindy would be living in their new abode. Oakland winters can be cruel.

Where would they set up? Cindy opted for Lakeside Park. “Somewhere near the water, with a view. Not under some overpass,” is how she put it. Danny remembered hearing something about Mayor Schaaf saying she planned to end tents in the parks. He and Cindy rode Limes all around the park, from First Avenue in the south, to Lakeshore in the east, Lakeside in the west, and Children’s Fairyland in the north. There were tents everywhere; on that fine afternoon, tenters tossed frisbees, read, smoked weed, ate, slept on the grass. Whatever Schaaf was talking about, camping in Lakeside Park seemed safe enough. They chose a gentle slope above the wildlife sanctuary, with a sparkling view of the lake and, behind them, the Bonsai garden. There they established their new home, about 100 feet from another camper, George, who seemed friendly enough.

Danny told Nick and Flambé he was moving out of the Perkins Street flat.

“Into a tent?” Flambé gasped.

“For how long?” Nick asked.

“Yes, into a tent. And I don’t know for how long. Cindy has to get out. Her father is practically accusing her of murder. And since we have no other options, a tent is what it’ll be.”

Cindy adapted cheerfully. She brought potted plants—jade, begonia, blooming amaryllis, small cacti—and pinned some of old Chinese prints to the canvas. A Persian rug covered most of the floor. Danny installed LED lights with dimmers. Nick contributed a pewter candelabra with red candles, Flambé a personalized “Cindy & Danny” doormat (actually paid for by Nick). They had a housewarming party: tequila, Lagunitas and magnums of Woodbridge. Pizza from Round Table, buns and noodles from Cindy’s favorite Chinatown bakery, Tao Yuen. And weed, of course.

After their guests had gone, Danny and Cindy crawled into their double sleeping bag and made love. Cindy was soon gently snoring. As Danny drifted off, his girlfriend spooned in his arms, he listened to the susurrating trees in the night breeze, the background music for Cindy’s soft, regular breathing. Lulled by the rhythm, he drifted off to not untroubled sleep.

He walked to work the next morning around 8. Cindy began her Lyft shift at 11. He came back from work sometime after 5 and found her sitting in front of the tent, hands around her knees, crying. Someone had ripped off everything, even the Cindy & Danny doormat. Nothing was left except the tent itself.

Danny was furious. Fists clenched, he looked around. On the other side of the slope he saw their neighbor, George, waving and smiling. Cindy continued crying. Danny looked up at the sky, at the clouds tumbling in from the sea. He felt more powerless than ever in his 27 years. Something was terribly broken, and he didn’t know how to fix it.


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