“You’d be at home in San Francisco—there are little earthquakes every day,” someone once said to me. The summer after I called off my wedding and traveled around the world, I was looking to find a place to stay put. San Francisco was a befitting destination, to somehow settle an unsettled girl. Months before I arrived, I dreamed and plotted my life in California.
Like most of my dreams and fantasies, the imagery in my mind was wild and vivid: glowing sunsets over the Pacific, communing with the redwoods, sun showered days on the beach. I would eat seafood on the Pier, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and drive into the sunset wearing Jackie O glasses in a convertible I had yet to own. I saw the movies and I had already been watching my future life unfold. I was always able to picture myself in different places, doing fantastic things, able to live the entire experience in my mind, almost so fully, it felt like it happened.
Reality was always something else.
I needed an apartment fast and used Craigslist to land a cheap street-level room in the Mission with metal bars on the windows. The recent random shootings in the hood were somehow canceled out by our proximity to Delores Park and the authentic Mexican food we could buy at the market across the street.
The main tenant (my landlord) collected Social Security Disability and had moved into the spare closet to save rent money. He was in a band and did some sort of job with a van during the day that allowed him to pursue his other passion, which was hoarding. He was always bringing home anything he found abandoned on the street: old comics, bad art, or broken furniture. One time he picked up a bunch of old medical devices from a local hospital. I came home and all five of my roommates were rolling around in wheelchairs or swinging on crutches.
It was supposed to be funny, but it felt like a Stanley Kubrick film.
All of the decorations I purchased for the wedding reception were still stuffed in the trunk of my car. There were silk flowers, bright pink paper lanterns, and enough string lights to fill an entire banquet hall. It was the first time I had my own place to live in over a year, and it had been even longer since I had my own room. I felt like a child tying to replicate my earliest fantasies of what a bedroom should be. I was so grateful for the privacy, the autonomy of space.
I painted the walls hot pink and strung all of the paper lanterns from the ceiling. I draped the lights between the lanterns and around the room and made a fire hazard out of every inch. I bought vintage furniture from the local flea market, built my own vanity and wired big theatrical circle lights and hung a blue feather boa on a coat hook next to my vanity. My room looked like The Moulin Rouge, and it wasn’t an accident.
My next big fantasy was to become a burlesque dancer.
I saw a lot of burlesque in New York, drawn to the neo-burlesque movement, the revival of this spectacle and the indulgence of sensuality and glamour. I loved all of the acts from the garish, bawdy and comedic to the more romantic, vintage cabaret. Even as a child, I loved the fetishism of femininity. I always thought, “I’m so glad I’m a girl, it must be so boring to be a boy,” because clothes and make-up. Dolly Parton has always been one of my greatest role models. So, after my breast implant surgery, it wasn’t like ‘”Oh I can do this now,” but I definitely felt liberated about what my body was, what I could do with it. And maybe fixing this one part gave me the confidence I needed to be seen.
I started taking burlesque classes at studio off a shady street downtown San Francisco. On the first day, we learned how to sexy walk, the art of undressing, the performance of flirting. We picked characters and burlesque names and practiced using different props and costume pieces. There were tricks like how to remove a layer, turn, look over the shoulder with a well-timed wink or how to bend over gracefully to remove a stocking. A few weeks in, we stuck on pasties and learned how to twirl nipple tassels. You can go right, you can go left, you can go center or outerswing, you can alternate. There were so many options.
It was a good day.
The classroom had a full closet of costumes and accessories to play with: boas, heels, bras, corsets, jackets, gloves, and scarves to cover and toss. Every Wednesday, we would all layer up and one by one remove our clothing until we were down to those gold, silver, sequinned, star-shaped, or circle pasties. For weeks, we practiced for our show which was slated for the Elbo Room on Valencia. We each had a single act and then a group performance.
It was around Christmas time so we were doing a Grinch-themed act. I don’t remember all the moves, but I do remember there was a sexy Grinch whipping a bunch of burlesque-clad Who’s-From Whoville into submission to the theme- song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.”
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch.
You’re a nasty, wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk Mr. Grinch.
Whip. Whip. Whip. Spank. Spank. Spank.
I choreographed my solo performance to David Bowie’s Dancing With Myself, donning a trench coat, carrying an umbrella and enter from a rainy street and into a woman’s boudoir. I shake off then play with the variety of props in the pockets of the trench coat- headphones, handcuffs, gloves, hats, and scarves. The trench coat opens to the right, then the left, I spin around and it falls to the ground. I am down to a corset, then tassels. It was wild and high energy and fun and I practiced it over and over in my Moulin Rouge bedroom until I was out of breath.
A few days before the performance I thought about the scene and our breakout routine—what it would really be like. The Mission bar that smelled like old beer and what if the lights were bad or the audience was just a bunch of gross dudes. Maybe I got scared, or if I was still a bit awkward about doing the nipple tassels in a room full of strangers. Whatever happened or how it turned out, I knew that the reality would never be as good as the fantasy I had created in my own mind. I had successfully done the performance, from my own room, with my boas and hats, beneath the the festooned, repurposed wedding lights.
In my room, where the lights irradiated the room, the costumes more full, and complicated, and dazzling, and the audience swooned. I heard the roar of laughter and cheering. It was 1930’s vaudeville, I was enveloped by lights and starlet adoration, the headlining act, captivating with grace and ease, shedding each layer, awakening the audience to frenzy with my feverish shimmies and shakes. After rounds of erotic tease, my flawless grand finale strip down met an uproarious round of final applause that went on, and on, and, into the night…
In the end, I stayed home, I had already completed the perfect burlesque show, inside my own head.