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NOLA

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A friend introduced us. I'd never have thought to come alone. Small room, narrow, slept-in bed, the plaster dripping water. As I watch, a droplet beads to absolute fullness and rolls down the wall, becomes a tear on a Voodoo Queen's face in a faded poster.

It's four o clock in the afternoon, and NOLA's putting on her face. Don't think of it as war paint, she tells me. War paint implies confrontation, which is not to say she wouldn't, couldn't, can't fight if she has to. She tongues at a chipped tooth and covers a black eye with layer after layer of powder.

She lays out each piece carefully: lipstick, shadow, base, Kohl...a cigarette for after. The frame of the mirror is hung with plastic beads, the prettiest and the ones with the pirates heads. Maybe Manhattan wasn't the only one bought and sold for a handful of beads. She smokes too much, sleeps too little, doesn't believe in living easy or clean or safe. Where would be the fun in that? If you want 'easy', don't talk to the one just tilting her head to scrape Kohl against the inside edges of eyelids. Easy would be flannel and denim. Sequins have a cutting edge. Stilettos take years off your life. Easy's boring. Clean has no discernible taste.

She picks her colours carefully; green, gold and purple are party colours, living colours. A palate for rebirth. Outside, the rain is over. Four o'clock is a clean, warm time, after the worst of the heat. She holds out one hand to me. Her nails are painted indigo; not blue, not black, studded with glitter and jewels. The illusion isn't perfect but it's close enough. Bruises show as shadows. She walks with a slight limp. A man in a dress soon learns how to stand on his own two feet.

She wiggles her fingers, beckons me to take her hand.

"Baby, let's dance," she says.

A lesson: that bruises heal, and that some things matter less than the ways in which you survive them.