I’m the photographer. She’s the dancer.
She steps into the spotlight on the Los Angeles bar’s flimsy stage, the crowd buzzing, eyes on her glittering bra, drinks in hand. With the camera to my eye, I push the shutter button, the flash popping off the beads in her hair. I see the fixed smile on her face as she sweeps across the risers, swinging her thin hips from side to side.
I know this girl — transgender, Asian, trained — an entertainer. She’s been certified by her government, worked in Japan, speaks Japanese. I know that steely smile is daring, determined, defiant.
She takes the microphone and sings a Madonna song, her voice echoing, imitating, becoming Madonna’s own as my flash bounces off the chromed metal in her hand. The crowd is hushed and silent, staring at the stage. I shoot their faces, agape and amazed this dancer does more than lip-synch and actually sings.
There’s an anxious stir. This was not expected. The strange is always cause for wariness. Is this mockery? Sarcasm? A bad joke? Or is it adulation? The sweetness in her voice reassures them and they relax on their barstools, raising eyebrows in admiration, leaning toward the stage to hear better, some parading up, dollars in hand, to pay homage.
The dancer’s smile tightens another turn. She’s won the first round. She’s proved she’s no boy in panties and a bra. She’s an entertainer, a real entertainer, a real woman — not like these American gay boys who paint and prowl nighttime streets but work the morning in suits and ties. She’s a woman who rides the bus to her day job in a dress and heels. The viewfinder frames her insistence on being more than a costumed queen.
I also see her disdain for the crowd which looks at her with awe. She’s more than passable. She’s feminine, girly, beguiling, believable. That’s who she is. Why are they surprised? They have no right to be surprised.
Behind the disdain which disappears in the camera’s flash is the barefoot island child; the years of snarled insult; sandy, hidden copulations on afternoon beaches and kisses in midnight shadows; the beatings and betrayals; the lies and the love that only comes to those on the run from the rites and rituals of religion and the cold world of sneers and seduction.
Knowing everyone is stained, she throws off her cape and swirls through the light — nearly naked in the sparkling thong she’s festooned with glass, working on her bed in the squalid flat where she lives. She beads and bastes and sequins her costumes. She’s an artist and can do more than dance and sing. She creates illusion and arouses curiosity and lust and respect.
Men surround the stage waving money, fives and tens and twenties. My camera freeze-frames her hand as she plucks the bills like a gardener gathering blossoms. She stuffs her bra with the mad money of the moment, incensed like an icon by the raw breath of aroused males panting with hungry need.
I zoom in on their fingers — thin, gnarled, grasping. I tighten to her smile — rigid and contemptuous — then swing the lens to her eyes — triumphant and ebullient. “I’m no drag queen, no female impersonator. I’m dancer, a star!” She twirls and grins.
This money goes back home. It supports her family — her mother and frowning father, her sneering brothers and their glutinous wives. A rebuke to their grim, thin mouths while feeding their swollen-stomached children with chicken adobo, a gift from Tia Bonita whom they adore.
She spins and lifts her leg high in the air, the camera stopping her foot above her head as she kicks through closed doors to a green card and an American life. She is here to stay and her fierce dance flashes with the bright fire of her ambition.
She takes the mic and sings again, bending to the faces at her feet, searching for kind eyes watching with admiration. The flash lights the tableau, calming the chaos of shouting and music and cruising. She stops, cheek to cheek with a man whose strong shoulders have the assurance to lift some curtains and carry her forward. She knows that look from the Tokyo john who liked his flesh seared by a burning cigar. The camera catches her calculating glance as she leans into his hand which caresses her face.
She steps back into a bright shaft of light, her voice rising to a last, thrilling note. My camera captures her closed eyes in that musical moment and I gasp, the soft smile on her face telling me I’ve lost her.
Chuck Kramer is a writing teacher with a MFA and cohosts the Weeds Poetry Open Mic every Monday night in Chicago. He’s worked as an advertising copywriter, a public relations writer, and the theater critic for the Oak Leaves newspaper. He’s also a photographer who freelances for the Windy City Times and other media outlets. His poems and short stories have appeared in many publications. He’s written two unpublished novels and is currently working on a third.