"Do you want your mother off your back or not?"
This was how our conversation had started, four hours ago.
Prince gave me his very best sad puppy face. "I can't, Ellis," he said. When he put it like that, I almost let him have his way. Prince is ridiculously gorgeous; six-two, naturally blonde, and very Nordic. My fake eyelashes cost me a fortune, and they never look as good as his real ones do.
The fact that Prince was being self-deprecating again made me want to kick him, but my feet were killing me.
It was way too early for me to be awake, and dancing all night in stiletto heels is a lot harder than it looks. I sipped my coffee. Prince had paid for it, and that was decent of him. I was getting a bit tired of his bitching though.
"You don't understand," Prince whined. "My mother has expectations."
I snorted. Prince knew what I thought about his mommy drama. I was a survivor of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, in and out of foster care until I aged out of the system. I worked my ass off running a nightclub which almost never made money. I had very little sympathy for the personal trials of a Fortune 500 heir, whose greatest life challenge so far had been choosing which Ivy-League University to attend.
I sighed heavily. "We're not talking about marriage here. We're talking about one date!"
Once again, I found that I was repeating myself. I lit my third cigarette.
Prince shot another exasperated look in my direction. "Well, I can't. I can't just use someone like that!"
"Are you kidding? Who's being used? Filet mignon, all the champagne you can drink, and celebrities galore? People kill for tables at the MET ball!"
"Do you want to go?" Prince asked. He sounded hopeful.
Was Prince inviting me?
I stared at him. "Doesn't your mother have expectations?"
Of course, I would have given my right arm to go to an event like that… but Prince needed a date. More important, all of the formal wear I owned was from the mid-1980s and made for women. I was not a woman and had no desire to be one, except onstage. I could never figure out if that was a good or bad thing from Prince's perspective. All of the problems my friend had began and ended with persons of the female gender. If it wasn't his mother, it was girlfriend trouble.
It was thanks to Prince's most recent ex, "Bleach Tanner", that we'd met in the first place. "Bleach", real name either "Brooke" or "Becky", had a thing for drag shows. She'd brought Prince to my club and left him drowning his sorrows in the remains of her Cosmopolitan. He'd stuck around till closing time, and since he was too drunk to drive, I helped him stumble home.
We stopped into a diner for some late-night fuel and wound up talking until sunrise. Before we parted ways, we agreed to meet again. That had been twenty-four Thursdays ago. I was still counting. I'd never spent so much one-on-one time with someone I wasn't having sex with, and I was curious how long it would last. I could picture the two of us sipping coffee and playing chess when we were both old and gray. As different as we were, we were also alike. Prince had a thing for whiny country love songs, which I couldn't stomach… but we both knew every back-alley taco shop in the city, and could easily waste hours mulling around the Strand looking for something strange, old, or interesting to read.
"You never know… you could end up meeting someone you like!" I said, poking him with my teaspoon.
Prince groaned. "It's not that easy, Ellis," he argued.
In a roundabout way, that got us back to what we'd been talking about before. "It's exactly that easy. There's nothing wrong with speed-dating," I said. "I'm sure plenty of reasonably normal people do it."
"Reasonably normal people?" Prince echoed. He gave me a critical look, not that I blamed him.
I'd come to the coffee shop straight from work, as I usually did… but I hadn't been performing. I was dressed in jeans that had seen better days, a faded concert shirt, and a pair of strappy silver heels that I was trying to break in. According to my business partner, Carmen, I looked like a middle-aged Sid Vicious wearing Barbie's shoes.
"Oh, my sweet Prince!" I teased him. "I'm not normal. I'm spectacular!"
"I wish you wouldn't call me "Prince"," he grumbled.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of!" I told him, though I understood why he didn't like his tabloid nickname. "I'm royalty too! Second runner-up of Miss Universal Show Queen 2013!"
That got a smile out of him, although just a small one.
"Look, you can't pine for Bleach Tanner forever," I told him. So far as I knew, Bleach had run off with a washed-up pop star. The pop star wasn't as rich as Prince was, but he had better social skills.
Of course, a goldfish had better social skills than my friend. Prince turned bright red. "I'm not pining for Bridget!" He protested.
"Bridget, Brooke, Bleach. Whatever!" I rolled my eyes. "I promise, you will find your Cinderella, Prince. But you've got to put yourself out there! You need more confidence!"
"Does that come in a silver M.A.C. cosmetics box?" Prince asked.
"You bet it does," I told him. "It's on the shelf right next to attitude!"
The next morning, at the unholy hour of nine-thirty am, Prince was outside my apartment with his finger glued to my doorbell. I stuffed my pillow over my head and groaned. When he didn't leave, I fumbled around on the floor for something to throw, and finally settled on one of my shoes. It hit the target I'd hurled it at with a dull thump, but Prince still didn't get the message.
"Go away!" I shouted.
Prince knocked on the door, and my cell phone started to ring. The song I'd set for Prince's ring-tone was more obnoxious than I'd ever realized.
Call Me. Blondie. Why Blondie? Was I drunk when I set it?
I accidentally kicked my phone under my bed trying to turn it off, and didn't bother to grab my robe. I went straight to the door and threw it open.
"Why are you here?" I demanded.
Prince stared at me. I had Batman pajama pants on, and the remnants of last night's mascara, but nothing else. My hair was all over the place, and when I spoke I could feel a nasty rasp in my voice from too many cigarettes and a regrettable rendition of "Poker Face" with one of the new girls.
"You're not coming?" Prince observed.
"Do you want to have sex with women?" I sighed. "Or do you want me to do their hair and nails?"
"I don't know. You said you'd take notes for me yesterday," Prince confessed.
"I was joking!" I groaned. Although I knew I'd regret missing so much sleep, I almost did want to see how Prince's speed-dating went. I could easily get myself a cup of coffee and find a quiet corner to hide in while I fed my inner voyeur. I wasn't sure if I hoped Prince would find a girl, or if I hoped he would still be alone and miserable when it was all over. As irritating as Prince could be, he was "my" Prince. Even if I couldn't get him into my bed, I still had no desire to share him with a brainless sorority sister or some ambitious social climber looking to dig her claws into someone rich and woefully naive.
I found the clothes I'd been wearing yesterday and got dressed. Prince watched me with some concern as I grabbed my silver heels. "Are you going to wear those again?" He asked.
"I've got to break them in before Saturday," I replied. "The only way to do that is to wear them as much as possible."
I glanced at my left foot and noticed that my smallest toes were red. I'd probably regret wearing the shoes by the end of the day, but I'd regret it more if I didn't get them broken in before work. Because I felt cold, I grabbed the purple silk scarf hanging over my lamp and wrapped it around my neck. "All right, I'm ready. Let's go," I decided.
"How do you do it?" Prince asked, seeming amused.
"Coffee and nicotine mostly," I shrugged.
As we walked toward the train station, I lit a cigarette. Smoking took the edge off the cold, but only a little bit. "So do you have some questions planned?" I asked. "What are you going to ask?"
"I was thinking about the basics," Prince admitted. "You know, what do you do for a living?"
"Dress like Elizabeth Taylor, water down drinks, and give bad advice," I replied, though I knew he hadn't expected me to answer.
"You don't give bad advice," Prince argued.
"Well, I'm certainly not qualified to be a therapist," I said. "I got a "D" in Introduction to Psychology."
"You went to college?" Prince eyed me suspiciously.
"One semester. Graduated from the School of Hard Knocks with a degree in chemical mischief and Cher," I told him, dodging his question with a joke.
"Okay, so what are your hobbies?" Prince asked, though he already knew. Apart from my club, it was books, fashion, and music that absorbed most of my time.
"I enjoy drawing mustaches on pictures in magazines and lacing my friends into excruciatingly painful corsets. Besides that, service to the Crown." I bowed dramatically to him.
"You're crazy," Prince sighed.
"You asked," I replied.
The venue for the speed-dating thing was a conference room at the Marriott. It was a wide-open space with lots of natural sunlight and institutional furniture upholstered with mid-nineties patterns. There were artificial plants everywhere, which seemed to suggest that the hotel staff were trying to create a sense of privacy where there was none. I noticed a chair in the corner near a ficus tree, underneath a print of some Parisian flaneur.
"That's where I'm going to sit," I told Prince. "Try and get a table close to there."
I turned around, realizing that I was being addressed. A woman with abnormally white teeth and disturbingly perky fake breasts made eye-contract with me and waved her sign-in sheet.
"Oh, I'm not participating," I told her, and scooted out of the way. A few of the speed-daters were looking at my shoes and my scarf. The men wanted to know why I was wearing women's shoes. The women wanted to know where I'd found such incredibly flashy, strappy silver stilettos in a size 11.
Prince sighed and stepped forward. After everyone was checked in, all of the men got in the left line to get a table, and the women in the right line to get a list of numbers. Most of the women were staring at Prince, not that anyone would blame them. A few of the men were watching him too, probably wondering how they could possibly compete with someone wearing a five-hundred dollar suit who looked like a young David Bowie.
I topped off my coffee and went to hide behind the tree. As I'd instructed him to, Prince took the closest table and set a card with the number "5" on it in front of him. There was a timer running in the middle of the room. Basically, the women who were seeking had a set amount of time to sit with each man, and then they would exchange tables. If they liked what they saw and heard, they'd check a box on the sheets they were given to share their contact information. It was simple enough in theory, but I wanted to see what kind of "normal" people the game actually turned up.
The first woman to come sit in front of Prince was tall and blonde with what looked like a feminine version of a military haircut. She wasn't unattractive, save for an unfortunate nose, and she was dressed in a slightly rumpled blue suit which screamed workaholic. Mostly, she looked tired. I didn't hear a word out of her mouth, but the way she yawned as Prince earnestly tried to talk to her made it obvious that she didn't really want to be there. I wondered if one of her friends had goaded her into going, just as I'd pushed Prince.
Sleeping Beauty's cell phone rang at the two minute mark, and she excused herself to go answer it.
The next woman couldn't have been more different from the first. She was short and petite and dressed in a very feminine, frilly purple sundress. Notably, her arm was in a sling and she looked like she'd taken a fall down the stairs with a bruise the size of an egg on her face. When she started the conversation with a yawn, Prince took a deep breath.
"Are you tired?" He asked.
"Oh, I didn't sleep a wink all night," the woman replied. "I'm staying in a hotel for a few days while the windows in my apartment are replaced. The mattress was so lumpy, I swear I felt like I was sleeping on a pile of rocks."
The Princess and the Pea. I thought to myself, smiling slightly.
"How did you hurt your arm?" Prince asked. "I realize it's kind of a sudden question, but..."
"No, it's all right," she said. "It's the first thing everyone asks. It accidentally got shut in a window. Fracture."
"Ow," Prince grimaced. "And the bruise on your face?"
"One of my co-workers threw an orange at me, and I didn't catch it. I have hemophilia. My blood doesn't clot correctly, so I bruise easily." As the Pea Princess said that, she lurched forward and bonked the table with her knee, spilling most of her water. I winced as Prince got up and tried to dry her off. The woman attempted to help him, knocking over a chair in the process.
As the timer rang, she apologized profusely for making a mess and scurried off.
The third woman who approached Prince's table looked down at him with a self-satisfied smirk, as he was trying to clean up the mess Pea Princess had made. She was much better-looking than either of the first two and obviously knew it. She was dressed in a strapless black leather number that would have been more appropriate for some kind of fetish party rather than a morning coffee at a four-star hotel. She'd taken a red apple out of the fruit arrangement and bit into it as Prince started up at her. Some of her scarlet lipstick got on her teeth, but she seemed to sense that and licked it off right away.
One look at Snow White, and I knew she was poison.
Prince didn't seem comfortable with her either. They talked for a bit, but the more she inched towards him, the faster he scooted back.
After the third session ended, a fifteen-minute break was announced.
"So what do you think so far?" Prince asked, turning to me.
"Sleeping Beauty is not into you. Pea Princess is a klutz. She should have a warning sign, probably. And knee pads or something. Can't hold that against her… but at the MET ball, that could be dangerous. Snow White… mhm."
"Mhm?" Prince raised an eyebrow in my direction.
"Not unless you think jail and Japanese rope bondage would make a good night out," I replied.
"Well, there's still some time left," Prince sighed, checking his cell phone. "You should probably, ah..."
"Go hide?" I suggested.
He nodded, looking flustered.
"Don't worry about me. You're doing great," I reassured him.
That didn't seem to set him at ease.
The next speed-dater to walk over was a red-head, the first warning sign. She had some kind of stick-on rhinestones on her face, probably meant to look cute… and from my perspective, that was strike number two. Prince seemed genuinely interested in her, and I scrolled down my Facebook feed while he asked her the same questions he'd asked the other women.
It was almost time for the round to end when I heard a couple of words chained together that I didn't know how to process.
"I'm a living mermaid."
I'd made some jokes about princesses earlier, but apparently fate had decided to go for a full planetary alignment of weird.
"The tail is made out of silicone, and I can swim while wearing it," the girl explained. "I do commercials and photo shoots, and sometimes birthday parties. I mean, it sounds weird… but it's not weird."
"One of my best friend is a drag queen," Prince replied.
"It's not like that," the Mermaid protested. "I don't think I am a mermaid. What I do is more like... theater."
I was a little surprised that someone who'd just confessed to dressing up in silicone and pretending to be half-fish didn't like the idea of a man dressing as a woman, but it was obvious that Little Miss Mermaid was afraid to be compared to someone who might be gay or trans.
"Bitch, you have no idea what drag is," I interrupted. "And for your information, I don't think I'm a mermaid either!"
I probably shouldn't have said a word, but I couldn't help myself. Chucking my empty coffee cup in the trash, I looped my scarf back around my neck and sashayed dramatically over to Prince's table. The silver shoes really pulled the walk together, adding a great little sexy swing to my step.
The Mermaid looked mortified. She scurried off.
"I am so sorry for making you do this," I told Prince.
"It's been entertaining," he said.
"You're too kind," I told him. "Tacos La Bamba?" I suggested, offering him my arm.
"God, yes," he agreed.
Several of the speed-daters watched us leave together. I felt a bit victorious, but that wouldn't last.
Prince still didn't have a date to the MET ball, and tomorrow was the night.
Even the best street tacos in New York didn't make me feel much better. No matter what we tried to talk about, the discussion kept worming its way back to Prince's mother and the MET ball.
"The hell with my mother," Prince said. "Come with me. It's a benefit for the Costume Institute! You'll be right at home. You know more about fashion than half of the people who are going to be walking the red carpet. And you don't need to worry about buying anything. You know Karl Lagerfeld? He's a world-famous designer, and he always looks like he shops at Goodwill."
"That's high fashion for you. Unconventional tailoring," I replied.
"As I understand it, the weirder it looks, the more of a statement it is," Prince shrugged. "My point is, if you wanted to wear your silver heels with your Batman pajamas, the MET ball would be the place to do that."
"Prince, if I was going to the MET ball, I would go shopping. I would spend more money than I am ever going to have on a white Dolce & Gabbana suit that I would wear only once. I might still wear the heels though," I said. "I like being tall."
"So you're going?" Prince asked hopefully.
"No, I said "if I was going", which I am not," I replied.
I was sorely tempted to tell him "yes", but also more than a little nervous. I didn't want to spark a new conflict between Prince and his mother. I also didn't understand why he was so intent on inviting me. Even after the apparent failure of the speed-dating, all of the women Prince had met still seen fit to give him their contact information. Snow White had even added "XOXO" to the bottom of her sheet with the words "Call Me".
I was immediately reminded of Prince's Blondie ringtone on my phone. I decided to change it while I was still thinking about it, and began scrolling through my music for something better.
Prince noticed I was distracted. He watched me.
"Well?" He pressed.
"I can't," I said, closing my phone without noticing what I'd selected. "I have social anxiety."
"You?" Prince laughed. "Social anxiety?
"When I'm me I do," I paused. "I'm a different person in drag. When I put my face on... I can be as sassy and nasty as I want."
"You're sassy and nasty all the time," Prince informed me.
"Not with everyone," I replied.
"Am I different?" He asked.
"Obviously. We're having this conversation."
"Do you ever stop making jokes?" Prince asked.
"I'm easier to like when I'm funny," I admitted.
It felt like a very big thing to confess. Prince seemed surprised to hear it. He watched me for a long while, but didn't say anything right away. I could see the wheels in his head turning, but I wasn't sure what he was trying to process.
"I don't know why you're so hard on yourself, Ellis," he confessed.
"I could say the same for you," I shot back, mostly to say something.
"If you really don't want to go, just say so," Prince sighed. "And I'll stop bothering you."
"I really don't want to go," I lied.
"You are such a shitty liar," Prince observed. "It starts at 7:00."
Seven o'clock came and went, and Prince never showed up.
I called him eleven times, and he never answered his phone.
I wasn't sure what I'd expected, but my gut told me something was wrong. I hadn't gotten a chance to buy myself the white designer suit I'd told Prince that I was going to get, but I had a silk shirt and a dated tuxedo jacket with too-short sleeves. With an old pair of aviator sunglasses, a silver purse, and my silver heels, I figured I could probably walk right down the red carpet before anyone realized I didn't belong there.
My feet were killing me before I made it out the door, but I didn't care. I was about to try to walk into the MET ball without an invitation. I needed all the confidence I could muster, and I was almost out of mascara.
The ball was even busier than I'd expected. I didn't know how I'd find Prince in such a crowd, but I did see Karl Lagerfeld while I was waiting in line. An A-list actress threw a glass of champagne at her boyfriend, drawing the attention of the security guards long enough for me to slip inside. I hid behind a plant near the bathroom, expecting that I'd be found immediately. I took out a cigarette and considered lighting it, wondering if anyone would notice me smoking. It would have helped my nerves, but I really didn't want to draw the attention of security.
A curvy twenty-something bottle blonde who looked like she was wearing a pink bridesmaid's dress brushed past me. She seemed to be in a hurry, and I noticed that her cell phone was buzzing.
"Why do you keep calling me?" She hissed. "I'm with a client!"
The person on other other end of the line responded, and the woman in pink groaned, rolling her eyes. "Stop it, Juan. Stop it. It's just business. I'll be home by midnight."
She hung up with a sigh and glanced at me.
"Sorry," I said. "I was just waiting for the bathroom and couldn't help overhearing. Boyfriend trouble?"
"He's possessive, and he doesn't like what I do for a living," the woman in pink sighed. "Listen, if you ever need a… ah." She didn't actually finish what she was saying, but she reached into her bra and produced a business card. It read "Fox Escort Service".
"Oh, honey… no offense, but you're not my type," I told her.
"I'm not a prostitute," she corrected me. "I'm a date for hire. Actually, some of my best clients are gay."
She looked over her shoulder as she said that, and I followed her gaze. I wasn't sure who she was looking at, but my eyes came to rest on an unmistakable silhouette. Prince was sitting with an older woman in a slightly frumpy metallic gold dress. One look at her, and I knew she was his mother. She watched everyone in the room like a bird of prey, especially the escort standing next to me.
That was when I put it together.
"Shit," I said, audibly.
A few conversations stopped, and Prince stared right at me.
"Ellis?" He seemed shocked.
"You invited me," I said, though I was sure he remembered that.
"I didn't think you would come," he replied.
"Obviously not," I glanced at the escort. "It's all right. I'll go."
Prince looked ready to say something else, but his mother grabbed his arm with her talon-like fingers and I took the opening that presented itself. I almost knocked over Beyonce and one of the Kar-trashians as I bolted out the door.
I hailed a cab and tried to sprint after the first one that zipped past, but I almost tripped off the curb. I kicked my shoes off and shoved them in my purse.
The cab driver eyed me suspiciously as he stopped. "Are you getting in or are you smoking?"
I cursed, realizing that I still had an unlit cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I put it behind my ear and climbed in the cab.
"Where do you want to go?" The cab driver asked.
I thought about that for a moment. Home was near the top of my list, followed by Tacos La Bamba or the coffeeshop, but I nixed all of those when I considered that Prince might come looking for me. He'd certainly seemed alarmed when he noticed me walking out.
"Ginger's," I told him, and gave him the address of my club.
My phone rang. It was playing "Somebody to Love" and I didn't have to check the caller identification to know that it was Prince.
I silenced it and ignored the buzzing.
The cab driver dropped me off out front, and I stormed inside. It was slow for a Saturday night, and more than a few people noticed my entrance.
Carmen, my business partner, followed me into the dressing room and hovered over me, her hands on her hips. She was a big woman, and she was dressed in a gown of dark blue sequins. The stage lights behind her made it look like an angel had come down to earth and assumed the form of Aretha Franklin.
"I thought you were going to the MET gala," Carmen observed. "It's not even midnight."
"God hates me," I said, burying my head in my hands.
She gave a low whistle. "That's a hell of a thing to say, Ellis. And you know it's not true."
"It feels true right now," I replied, glancing at my wig. I was torn between remaining miserable where I was and getting dressed so that I could channel all of my negative energy into something constructive. It seemed like a good night to sing Etta James.
"You do this to yourself, you know. You've got to stop falling for straight boys," Carmen scolded. It was a nice, loving scold, and immediately followed by her pouring me a shot of Jameson.
"Bless you," I said. "And I'm not in love with Prince."
Carmen gave me "the look", and I bit my tongue. I didn't have any business lying to my sister from another mother. Being an orphan, she was the closest thing to a family that I'd ever had.
"Drink some water and go home. You're supposed to be off tonight," Carmen said.
"I'd rather be here," I said truthfully.
"Well, stay if you want to. But don't get drunk and pass out on the couch again!" Carmen sighed. She went to check on the bar, and I started putting on my make-up. I didn't get very far before I heard the door slam, right at the end of Cherry's Pat Benetar number.
"I'm looking for Ellis," I heard Prince say.
I pushed aside all of the costumes in my way and peered around the corner. Sure enough, Prince was standing in the doorway of the club, still dressed in his tuxedo. He looked even more infuriatingly perfect than he had hours ago, and that made me hate him just a little.
"I don't know any Ellis," Carmen eyed him suspiciously. That was a lie, but Carmen was great at getting rid of my ex-boyfriends, cops, and anyone who was likely to serve me some kind of misery-inducing papers.
"It's fine, Carmen," I said, poking my head out of the back. "I'll talk to him."
I knew I looked like hell with only half of my face on. I'd met Prince while in drag, but outside the club I was always Ellis. He didn't seem prepared to witness the actual transition.
"This way," I said, and we stepped out into the alley.
I lit a cigarette, not because I need one, but because it gave me something to do with my hands. It was damned cold outside, and my ancient t-shirt wasn't cutting the cold in the same way that several layers of underwear and tafetta had. I glanced at Prince and waited for him to initiate the conversation.
There were a lot of things I wanted to hear him say, starting with "I'm an asshole".
When I thought about it, I realized there were a few things I needed to get out myself.
"It's all right," I said. "I know the escort wasn't your idea."
"The escort's an idiot," he told me.
"She's an escort," I replied. "Boobs and a caboose. But that doesn't explain why you're here."
Prince sighed heavily. He held up a familiar strappy silver heel. The shoe was a little scuffed up, but not a complete loss. I hadn't even realized it was missing, but sure enough, only the left shoe was still sticking out of my purse.
"How did you lose one shoe?" Prince demanded.
"It probably fell out of my purse," I sighed. "Those heels are brutal."
He laughed. "Look, Ellis. There's something I've been meaning to tell you."
"You didn't leave the MET ball just to bring me my shoe?" I eyed him suspiciously.
Prince groaned. "Why did I think this was going to go differently?"
"I'm not sure what you're talking about, but the reason is… you're an idiot," I took the shoe from him. "I appreciate the return of my shoe though. Very sweet of you. I suppose this means I'm Cinderella now."
Prince smiled slightly. "Actually," he said. "You are."