Spectrum | a Short Story by Millie Norman


In the thick grey lattice of New York’s streets, past the White-Shirts and the street vendors and the drunks and the hookers there’s a club called Spectrum—where when the day crawls into the dark a cursive sign pulses in pink neon, guiding, through the black, those that dare to live in colour. And under the sign a jaded queen with a round face painted in harsh lines leans against the door half-checking the IDs of the dancers and twinks (what are you twelve baby get the fuck outta here) and arty-types and queens who line its street as she lights another cigarette off the hard-sucked butt of the last. You can hear the tobacco jangling in her lungs with every laugh. By night she goes by “Ambrosia”. She plants deep red kisses on the cheeks of the regulars (TY/SAM/HARRY/RITA/VENUS/DONNA BABY THE FUCK ARE YA) and deep red blushes on the cheeks of the new faces who she reads for their rhinestoned collars (Liberace big fan nice a ya to come on down). She’s worked this queue every Friday and Saturday night for twenty years—since she fell into the club’s lap at nineteen. And every Friday and Saturday night she watches Ty and Sam and Harry and Venus and Rita and Donna and every other dancer twink arty-type and queen shake off their corporeal chains and find a home in the stage lights and thundering synths like she found hers—make-believing the morning will never come.

Through the doors and behind the bar there’s Saffron and Alec. Saffron has a bleached blonde shaved head and has silver rings pierced through her nose and in a half-moon up her ears. The queens love her because when they bark at her she barks back harder. She paints thick black triangles from the inner corners of her eye up to the last faint hairs of her frowning brows (PLEASE lemme do ya makeup Saffy ya look like Zorro says Venus Fuckawf says Saffron). She wears mini dresses in fuschia and lemon and moves elegantly around the bar in soft, measured lines that stop her embodying the punk she’s straining to become. She was training to compete nationally as a gymnast (and I was damn fuckin good) until her parents disowned her for getting caught kissing her teammate in the shower room. When the boys include her in enough of their rounds of sambuca she does a routine on the bar like it’s a beam. The weight on her furrowed brow begins to slack; her mouth bends nervously into a proud smile. Her eyes stop searching for someone picking her apart and look instead for someone who adores her.

Alec’s hair falls in baby brown ringlets (Ambrosia insists on calling him Cherub) and he wears a polo neck nightly in spite of the steaming stage-light heat. He’s twenty-one and falls in love twenty-one times a night: with boys with sculpted facial hair and tight white vests, with boys with bold red lips and dangling gold earrings, with skinny boys, muscular boys—once Saffy, for a brief moment. Obsessing over their neon-lit frames: watching the way their arms circle above their heads and imagining how they might wrap around his waist; how their fingers would pine for him and press into his flesh; cocking his head to the side to imagine how it might fit onto their shoulders to rest. Creating a past and present and future between them and him that only lasts until the lights come on.

But there’s a newfound heaviness to the lines the dancers draw with their arms in the air. There’s a quietness about the barks of the queens. There’s a way that the weight of the day crawls into the dark of the club to press down on the bends of their smiles. The sambuca that sets fire to the boys’ bellies is guzzled faster and faster each night just to burn out the rage, the relentless, dizzying grief of burying their brothers.

One killed by the virus every half hour in the thick grey lattice of New York.

*

Ambrosia’s thinking tonight. Her skin is stamped with the faint print of last night’s makeup. She’s struggling to light a cigarette against the spit of the wind. Looks up at the black as she inhales, smoke grating against her throat. Notes it’s a little colder, a little darker than last night.

She remembers a night like this one, years before, bare legs shaking in her heels cackling arms wrapped around Kevin’s neck him singing my baby don’t care forrr...high-toned places (think I’m some cheap date fuckawf)…ba ba do caint remember the fuckin wordsssss spinning her under his arm and pulling her back I WONDER WHAT’S WROOOOONG WITH BABYYYYYY (CHRIST KEV WANNA MAKE ME FUCKIN DEAF)…my baby just caaaares for me kissing her neck as she threw her head backwards and laughed up into the sky.

She exhales.

Across the street there’s Venus, a Latina queen—six-foot-tall and so thin that it looks as if her skin has been ironed onto her bones. She’s drunk stumbling and clad in mopped Moschino, clawing onto the arm of a man Ambrosia doesn’t recognise yelling HEY!!!! BROSY!!! ARE YOU WORKING….AT THE…AT SPECTRUM TONIGHT?! She lets go of her man who slumps to the ground, his eyes a quarter open Baby I’ll be…I’ll be one second baby and stomps in her size eleven stilettos to the front of the queue. Hey get in line! snaps a severe beret-wearing type. Oh…FUCKawf cackles Venus before turning back ARE YOU WORK-are you working tonight baby? Her pupils are like a supermoon in her eyes’ whites, moving in slow-motion across Ambrosia’s face. Jesus abuela ya look busted pinching the cigarette out of Ambrosia’s mouth to take a drag. Awl crusty, shiiit tskkkkk cracking up through slitted lids and gritted teeth. Yeah yeah fuckawf. Course I’m workin tonight are YOU workin tonight? nodding towards the man now lying out cold on the sidewalk. What? OH, yeah, that’s Michael, he’s my john. Spins YOU OKAY BABY? Dull groan. He lives. Inhales Whatta catch, Vee. Aw Brosy he’s awlright. Stage-whispers He’s real rich Brose. I’m gonna look sickening next time you see me…oh…bet! Retch VEEEEENUS! Aw shit I better go laughter shaking her ribs like a tambourine. She sighs. Stretches out her hand Hey—how’s-how’s Kevin? Ambrosia draws another cigarette. Eyes crossed as she lights it. Sharp inhale He died last week. Oh…baby… VEEEEEENUS!! Michael grapples at the ground and stumbles upwards like a new-born deer. Plants his fat hands against the wall and gags in thundering pulses before caking the concrete with acid-yellow vomit. Ambrosia booms Rising like a phoenix from the ashes. Knows Venus wouldn’t hear her voice crack. Inhales and whispers Stunning. Venus’ jaw slowly drops. He’s FROM Phoenix. Beat. Venus begins saying something like out of his pain but it’s all white noise in fought so hard the pits of Ambrosia’s a credit eardrums and she can’t Reagan untangle the out of his pain sounds and piece them call me in the back. Together. I love you Brosy.

Kisses her cheek and clacks backwards slowly, then spins and skips off into the night.

Lids shut. Ribs rise. Ribs fall.

Lids open and snaps Got an ID or what then kid?

*

Saffron’s thinking tonight. Her furrowed brows slacken less these days; her elegant lines more like the sharp edge of glass. In the New York Times this morning Saffy read a poll with fifty-one percent of respondents wanting AIDS victims quarantined; forty-eight percent wanting them to carry identification cards; fifteen percent wanting them tattooed. What percent of the respondents could afford not to know what the acronyms AZT and FDA meant? What percent could afford to see the deaths of a community as an interesting fuckin political point? What percent could afford to not fuckin care because the closest they’ll come to the crisis is through a poll in print in the New York fuckin Times? There’s a fury that sets flames alight in her belly. On the subway last night she heard a group of guys barking about the Anally Injected Death Sentence. Flames poofs flames fairies FLAMES FAGGOTS FLAMES when she thinks how her boys who are dancers and queens by night are pallbearers by day. She felt sick when Ty leant over and said if you have to bury me Saff, bury me with rage.

*

Alec’s thinking tonight. Vodka tonic, cherub says Ambrosia What? says Alec VODKA TONIC says Ambrosia Not lemonade? says Saffron Watching my weight baby says Ambrosia lighting a cigarette What? says Alec. The doctor called today. Two weeks bed-bound with sweats that glued his curls down to his forehead brown curls dyed black from the wet that irritated the rashes he scratched until they bled in neat red blobs wanted to scream from their heat but it hurt his throat to speak and besides he didn’t have the energy reassured himself (tried to) it was just flu he’d only had sex with three guys consoled himself (tried to) by getting tested anyway just for. The doctor called today. This morning? You’re positive. Early What? afternoon? You’ve tested positive no, morning for HIV. Beat. What? said Alec.

Woahwoahwoahwoah Alec thrusts a hand spins Brose get behind here now NOW fallen to the floor and whole body shaking convulsing in thundering sobs rendered silent by the pound of the synths Hey Alec breathe fa me kid breathe ribs rise ribs splutter stagger back down I got you we got you salt and snot bass pounding pulled into Ambrosia’s chest shhhhhh….sharp inhale...shhhhhh…sharp inhale…shhhhh baby…inhales….that’s it…exhales…that’s it…sharp inhale…it’s okay…exhales…it’s okay…

*

They sit, heads bowed in a triangle. Arms threaded around necks and stitched into shoulders. Hands locked tight to trap the outside world like a fly. Breathing as one.

Their bodies painted in pink neon light.