Viva wants her boobs back. Viva is seated on the zebra skin toilet cover, whining in a high falsetto at Barbarella—a linebacker of a drag queen—at the cool porcelain sink. “Barbarella, Give Me that Bra,” “Barbarella, You Ain’t Got No Right,” “Barbarella, You Best Watch Your Ass or I’ll Sic G.I. Joe on It.” Barbarella applies her Peach Perfection eyeliner in the mirror and says, “Stop flapping them gums, honey. I’m catching cold.”
Viva’s homemade “Thunder Bra” is really an old Menudo T-shirt that she has carefully, artfully, sewn into the perky C-cups of a Wonder Bra. Barbarella straps it over her wide hairy chest, beneath her black kimono, and throws Viva an air kiss. In Des Moines, there’s only one decent lingerie store for a respectable trannie to go (Victoria’s Secret, on the second level of Valley West Mall) and it’s all the way on the west side of town, in the tony suburbs (formerly oat fields) west of downtown. Eleven point five miles from The Rice Bowl, and neither Viva nor Barbarella—divas who shine like windows after rain—owns a car.
Everyone in Des Moines knows The Rice Bowl: how good our food is, how we’re just across the wrought iron gates of the fairgrounds, but most importantly (and here I speak with affection), the kind of girl who works here. Viva once said to a curious reviewer from The Des Moines Register: “Baby, don’t you know a glamour puss when you see one?” Barbarella leaned on her shoulder and added, “We’re just a couple of Twinkies: yellow on the outside, white and dreamy on the inside.” The geeky reviewer ate his cashew chicken and sweat through his short-sleeved dress shirt. Barbarella is Filipino; Viva, Chinese, like me. I’m not a drag queen. I’m just gay. When I ask the girls to do something, wipe down the booths or set a table for a party of six, they give me a hard time, call me “Double Happiness” (my real name is David), or something they think is equally sassy. But taking shit from the two of them doesn’t bother me; it’s part of the manager’s job. My father, Louie Chen, opened The Rice Bowl in the winter of 1969, one year after he immigrated to the States with his wife. Mom had accepted a fellowship in civil engineering at Iowa State, and sometimes Dad, in his I Am Funny Immigrant mode, jokes with the regulars that I was a “gift” from the university. He and Mom were always joking like that before she split with a physics professor and moved to Southern California.
Even without her, The Rice Bowl is thriving. As I see it, there’s three reasons for our success. Number One: We don’t pretend to be something we’re not. Number Two: We’ve got the best damn spare ribs in town—the kind that melt off the little finger bones when you bite into them, unlike the radioactive things The Other Mr. Chen serves at China Palace, a few blocks down on East 14th Street. But most importantly, Number Three: Viva and Barbarella, our only waitresses (they prefer to be called “entertainers”) are a big draw. The Register reviewer compared them to schoolgirls in his four-star review: “except Viva’s hips are more slender,” he wrote, “and Barbarella looks like she has hockey pads for shoulders.”
Des Moines is a little backwards, but not as unwelcoming for a gay person as you might think. I mean there are three gay bars, the friendliest being The Garden. That’s where I met my boyfriend Howard—a lanky, somewhat bookish, mealy-haired teacher at West Des Moines High School. Viva calls Howard “The King of Square,” but his nerdiness, his endless chattering about quantum things and mathematics (he teaches Algebra II and geometry), are exactly what I find attractive. When he bought me a drink at my 25th birthday party, it was his nerdy black glasses that caught my eye, his scraggly, unshaven jaw; even now, years later, I love the way Howard cocks his head when he’s puzzled, like a dog. Too bad he’s lived here his whole life, and is ready to call this city quits.
Des Moines definitely has its quirks: this whole obsession with skywalks (Viva calls them big glass penises), countless shopping malls (two Lane Bryants for every fat housewife in the city), and endless ribbons of farmland on which, lately, 18-hole golf courses and miles of gated communities have begun to appear. Howard’s school was built a couple years ago out past the airport, on a ploughed-over field that once harvested soybeans and corn instead of hormonal teens. “Sprawl is taking over America,” he proclaimed to Viva the other day, “Des Moines is doomed.” His green eyes glinted maniacally and his hands curled into talons. Viva just puckered up and gave him her trademark Figure-Z snap, and sashayed into the kitchen. She thinks if Howard wasn’t a teacher, he’d be writing conspiracy theories in some carbon-copied newsletter. But Viva has demented visions of her own.
Her delusions have to do with the endless blight on August called the Iowa State Fair. It’s the largest of its kind in the upper midwest, and people drive their boxy mobile homes hundreds of miles to see god-awful attractions like Elsie the Cow, a six-hundred pound butter sculpture with an udder that squirts milk. To top it all off, over Labor Day weekend, live on the Kum ‘N Go Main Stage, there’s entertainment by every smiling swing choir in the state. Now this, by golly, is entertainment. Viva wants the three of us to enter the talent show this year (cash prize is $1,000) and lip synch Diana Ross’s all-time greatest hit (at least in her mind), “I’m Coming Out.” I think it’s a bad idea and tell her so. Viva, however, has stars in her wily eyes. One morning while setting tables, she unveils her name for our singing trio: Asian Slaw. Barbarella loses it, her blue pageboy tilting on her head.
Howard and the regulars think the girls are a crack-up. One Friday morning near the beginning of June, Mr. Henry asks Barbarella out on a date. Old Mr. Henry, a retired librarian, was my father’s first customer when he and Mom opened The Rice Bowl in 1969. Every day he appears in our doorway, beneath Dad’s Feng Shui motif, dressed in these bright orange suspenders that clash with his purple fedora. Once he asked Dad if he had any candles lying around, to celebrate five years of collecting Social Security! The old guy’s harmless, though he calls whoever waits on him (including me), Girlie. Who knows, maybe he got the habit from Dad, who sometimes sits with him and reads the Chinese newspaper. Mr. Henry eats his lunch at 10:30 each morning, at the round six-top next to the swinging kitchen doors, and calls out to whoever’s nearby, “Girlie, you’re keeping an old man waiting!” He orders the same lunch special (No. 36), consisting of egg drop soup, egg fu yung with pork, and on the side, cubeless iced tea. For some reason, he likes Barbarella the best. Her tips from the old geezer are twice as much as Viva’s or mine.
So when Mr. Henry asks her out, the crazy Filipino girl says yes. Viva whispers to me, “Where they gonna go? Val Lanes for a couple rounds of Rock ‘N Bowl?” When Mr. Henry leaves, I close the door to the little girl’s room while Barbarella is changing into this crushed velvet number that clings to her huge frame like a wetsuit. “That old geezer really thinks you’re a girl,” I say. “He’d knock you silly if he knew you played football at East High!” But she won’t listen, she just keeps penciling in her eyebrows and powdering the blotchy temples above her eyes. “Doesn’t matter if he thinks I’m the Queen of Sheba,” she says, “He asked, and I’m going.” I pinch her arm and let the bathroom door latch.
Friday morning her round, made-up face is glowing, her nails done in a bright shade of purple with silver glittering specks. She tells us that she and Mr. Henry are going to run off together, to some remote island in the Caribbean. “We’re in love,” she says, refilling small hourglass bottles with soy sauce. “He’s my little rumpled prince.”
Viva plops in the booth opposite Barbarella and scowls, tearing the wrapper off a pair of wooden chopsticks. “Barbie,” (a nickname that Barbarella hates), “you’re a fool. You gonna give that old geezer an angina.”
* * *
There’s a new restaurant opening in the old Subway shop, The Other Mr. Chen stops in to tell us. “My daughter,” he says, his hair wispy like the brim of a straw hat, “she works at Home Depot and talked to construction men. They buy three chandeliers and wall-to-wall carpeting!”
The Other Mr. Chen pumps his arms over his head like a cheerleader. He and Dad never talk business, kind of like my father and I don’t talk about Howard. It’s not that my father isn’t accepting of my sexuality; we just haven’t made an after-school special of it. I consider Dad’s comfort with Viva and Barbarella as proof that he’s okay with The Wide, Wide World of Gays. Howard thinks I should push him more, but I think Howard’s had too much diversity training.
Dad says to The Other Mr. Chen, “South Side can not support another Chinese restaurant. No one better than Rice Bowl!” The Other Mr. Chen cups his mouth in shock. My father quickly amends his comment—he can’t bear to hurt Mr. Chen’s (or anyone’s) feelings—and says, “I mean The Rice Bowl and China Palace the best,” though we both know China Palace is a dive that serves mediocre food to run-off customers from the T.J. Maxx next door. Of course, no one mentions that other restaurant—Grand China—which pulls in twice as much business as our restaurants combined. But Grand China caters to a different crowd, rich insurance men and their sparkly families near Valley West Mall. Once I treated Dad to a birthday dinner there—fresh boiled lobster, Peking duck, taro root ice cream. Dad could only obsess over the wholesale price of the lobster and the cost of washing the linen napkins every day. Grand China strikes me as the Hong Kong of Chinese restaurants: cool and dependable, but utterly irrelevant in the greater market. On the other hand, another Chinese joint in our neighborhood is definite cause for worry.
After The Other Mr. Chen leaves, Dad calls everyone together in the kitchen for an emergency meeting. Everyone: Viva and Barbarella, me, and Mauricio, our Brazilian cook. Mauricio is as old or older than Dad, and sometimes they argue like a married couple. Shape Up, Dad announces, is our new motto for The Rice Bowl. Shape up our tables, shape up our service, shape up the way the girls talk to his customers. I flinch; it’s the first time he’s referred to our customers in the possessive. When he finishes his speech, he walks past the bathrooms to the back stoop (he calls it his “office”) to smoke a Pall Mall. The screen door creaks.
Viva turns to Barbarella and, within earshot, says, “Who woke Richard Simmons-San up on the wrong side of the bed?”
* * *
We’re slammed on Saturday afternoon. Dads dressed in L.L. Bean fishing vests are fighting with their kids and ordering broccoli chicken in bulk. Pushy, mud-cleated brats are screaming for cheeseburgers, and then disappointed with the way Mauricio cooks them, boiled, on white bread. I’m covering three of Viva’s tables and manning the register up front, and I can hear Dad in the kitchen screaming at him in Mandarin (God knows why, because Mauricio barely understands English) about running out of water chestnuts.
Dad storms through the swinging door holding a withered cabbage. Is he headed outside for a smoke? I catch him accidentally whacking a toddler in a high chair and hurry over to the kid, offering my apologies to the parents. Then Viva comes up behind me and whispers that I’m needed in back. I give her a look—now?—and when she responds with a look of helplessness, I follow her to the kitchen.
Under a rack of hanging pots, Barbarella is seated on the rice bin in tears. Mauricio is at the stove ignoring her. Dad walks in, still holding the wilted cabbage, and takes her leather order book away. He places her manicured hand in his: it looks like he’s going to propose.
“What’s wrong, Girlie?” he asks, and for a second it’s like the dining room on the other side of the swinging door is empty, the screaming game-show families silenced, the tornado of forgotten side orders and offended parents and tinkling silverware stilled—for just one Brady family moment—as my father pulls himself onto the wooden bin and wraps his arm around Barbarella’s shoulders.
“He’s gone,” Barbarella says, dotting her thick mascaraed lashes with her finger. Dad’s short legs dangle next to her stockinged ones. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenty-eight years at the Rice Bowl, it’s that whatever catastrophe happens here, whatever crisis (financial, personal, weather-related) befalls us, it seems to find a natural balance in Dad’s goodwill.
“He wasn’t even man enough to dump me,” Barbarella says, whimpering a little. “This morning I walked by China Palace and there he was, sitting at that round table in the window. And he saw me, too, I know he did, Louie! But he looked down in his egg drop soup like he was embarrassed to even say hello!”
I lift a metal spatula from the counter and scrape crusted egg off it with my fingernail. Maybe Mr. Henry led her on. Howard thinks he slept with Barbarella, and then told her whatever she wanted to keep her big mouth shut. Despite what I said earlier, being gay in Des Moines isn’t total sunshine. At times it’s like being a Buddhist in Salt Lake City.
Dad lifts Barbarella’s chin and looks her in the eye. “You don’t need him,” he says, smoothing her blue pageboy wig, “You are beautiful woman.”
“Mr. Henry no good for business, anyway,” he adds, “Always hanging around, ordering refills with no ice!” Barbarella chuckles. Viva offers her a high-five.
My father stands, tottering on the rice bin, and sticks his tongue out at the customers on the other side of the order window. Then he leans down and kisses Barbarella on her head.
Mauricio screams at us to get out of his kitchen. Dad jumps to the floor. “Now, shape up, Girlies!” he says, banking the cabbage off the rim of the garbage can. “Hungry Rice Bowl customers waiting!”
* * *
The plate glass window of the Subway shop is soaped in white circles, and if you stand across East 14th Street it resembles the scales of a fish. Every morning as we walk by, Dad makes a face like he’s caught a whiff of rotten bok choy and tells me (as if it’s some kind of epiphany), “David, a new restaurant is moving in! A new restaurant is moving in!” The Other Mr. Chen, formerly Dad’s Number One Enemy, stops by our place regularly, he and my father sipping tea from handleless cups while the rest of us wipe down the vinyl booths. He’s become as permanent a fixture as Old Mr. Henry, who stops eating at both The Rice Bowl and China Palace altogether. Mr. Chen’s daughter has been snooping around, and learned that in July, the landlord of the shop leased it to a company called Wok Express.
“A franchise!” The Other Mr. Chen says, “Who can compete with large businesses?” They remind me of a couple of old women in a Terrace Hill mansion, complaining about the subdivided Victorians and all of the Brazilians and Vietnamese moving in. For the rest of the day, I work on soothing my father, telling him that competition is good for us: market share, supply and demand, basic stuff I learned in business school.
“Besides,” I say to him, “it’ll separate our loyal customers from the rest.”
That evening I give Mauricio fifty bucks to take Dad to Prairie Meadows to gamble on the greyhounds. It’s a warm night in July, not too humid, and my father loves the smell of mulch at the track. Mauricio pulls Dad out the screen door, my father yelling, “Lock all doors and do not forget to bring the drawer home!” (which seems the worst practice to me, but after all these years he refuses to buy a safe). If my father had his way, he’d open and close the restaurant seven days a week. But because of his backaches, Dr. Cureg’s forced him to cut his 70-hour weeks in half.
Viva is at the apogee of her State Fair obsession. Tonight she’s ranting louder than the obnoxious DJ, who promises “all hits, all the time” from the boom box in the order window. I’m counting ten dollar bills, and force myself to block her out and concentrate on my task. But all Viva can talk about is the livestock exhibition—the cows! the heifers! the bovines!—while Barbarella mocks her roommate’s strange obsession. “Double Happiness,” she says to me, “you would not believe our apartment. We’ve got hundreds of stuffed cows in our goddamn bathroom!”
Viva gives Barbarella a shove and changes the subject to the fried dough she loves, the air of cotton candy (as if I’ve never been myself), and the hot guys who set up the yellow tents. “Those ripped T-shirts and tight jeans,” Viva says, snapping in a Figure-Z. She turns and walks to the little girls’ room. Through the open door, I can see her adjusting her boobs so that they’re level. “Mister Trade Boy!” she leans out and yells to Barbarella. “I’ve got your rice cakes over here!”
Barbarella shrugs, and joins her in the little girls’ room. The register receipts that Dad printed are a mess, and it takes me a good half-hour longer than it should to write my reports. From my table in the middle of the dining room, I listen to the girls weigh alternatives for the evening—fart around with the closet homos at The Garden all night or rent White Squall for the zillionth night in a row. The radio emits a low static hum, and I barely notice when it stops and the cassette deck is opened. When I glance up, a white glove appears in the window, gently replacing the boom box on the counter. Suddenly the high-pitched voice of Diana Ross (albeit fuzzy and somewhat canned) bounces off the framed prints of pork dumplings and lo mein adorning our walls.
“I’m coming out!” Viva sings with Diana Ross, pointing at me with a long white glove and parading between two banquet tables. She’s wearing an immaculate, frilled Shirley Temple dress, and shouting, “I want Des Moines to know, got to let it show!”
Barbarella emerges from the little girl’s room, equally decked out in a (Size 12?) silver-threaded kimono. “I’m coming out!” she belts. Her manly hands are on her waist: “I want the boys to know! Got to let it show!”
I stare down at my reports and imagine one of those long canes yanking them out the back door. Soon their arms are wrapped around each other like two beige-skinned queens straight out of Rocky Horror. Their free hands grip imaginary microphones to their lips and their screeching is joined by a dog outside: “I’m coming out,” (bark, bark), “I’m coming out!” (barking and howls).
The trumpets and drumline crescendo and then, thankfully, fade. Barbarella stands behind Viva and holds her at the waist, both of them bowing deeply in front of me. I repeat my mantra: “I’m not doing the diva bit. Louie would have a shit fit,” though I’m not sure he really would. I stack the money into piles of ones, fives, tens, and twenties. Howard would probably ask me: If wearing a dress did upset him, would that be a bad thing?
Viva smoothes her ruffled dress and calls me “Double Humpiness.” She and Barbarella turn their backs and shuffle to the little girls’ room. I grab the bills, zip them into a bank pouch, and place it in my backpack. “Let’s go to the Garden,” I call out, “my treat.”
* * *
After Viva and Barbarella change from their kimonos into more subdued dresses, Howard honks his horn and drives us to The Garden. The Garden is located in a former grain storage warehouse in the old business district skirting the state capitol. The business district is really block upon run-down block of boarded-up storefronts, dilapidated copy places, and fenced-in lots. All the big businesses in Des Moines, Traveler’s Insurance and The Meredith Corporation and NCR, have moved out west, to these suburbs built of pink-hued concrete, with town officials who have managed not only to hide the trash but the old people and minorities as well. The young couples who live out there have identical houses that look large enough to hold Mass.
Before I quit community college—where I knew more about operating a business than any of my economics professors—I wanted to become one of those suburban types. But at some point (Barbarella would say it was when Mom ditched us), this goal became sort of meaningless, as generic as the fortune in a fortune cookie. What I really want is something less tangible: to make my father happy. I want him to retire in the next few years. I want him to see the aunts and uncles he left when he emigrated from China. I’ve never been there myself and I’m curious to visit. Maybe we could travel through Beijing and the provinces for a couple months. But would Howard come, too? I told Barbarella the other night that if I had one wish I’d move with Dad to someplace truly exotic (Vermont or Oregon would do) and become one of those personal chefs who work for outrageously wealthy people. You know, Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates. Who couldn’t use a good-looking guy like me dishing up spare ribs and fried rice?
When we arrive at The Garden, Viva cups her hand like royalty and waves at her friends in a corner table. She and Barbarella immediately desert us. Howard pulls out a stool for me at the bar. “It’s gonna be a Wok Express,” I say as he removes his jacket, “The chains are slowly moving in.”
I order a sloe gin fizz from the cute redheaded kid who just moved here from Boston. Howard doesn’t know it but last Thursday, after too much vodka and a 2 a.m. last call, the redhead and I went home together. In the front seat of his Honda I went down on him as he told me his name, Chad Kline. Later, in his bedroom, both of us shirtless and slumped on a futon on the linoleum floor, I felt his perfect six-pack, teasing him. Abs are signs of obsessive behavior, I said. He shrugged and said he used to wrestle.
Now Chad disappears behind a jagged row of liquor bottles. “It could be a good thing,” Howard says, sipping his Diet Pepsi. “You know, David vs. Goliath (David: Get it?),” he says, grinning. “It’s a chance for you to drum up some free publicity. You can use this to show Des Moines how corporate America is crushing Mom ‘n Pop businesses like The Rice Bowl!” He’s getting excited, as if he’s explaining one of his algebra proofs, gesturing with his lanky arms.
I glance across the room at Viva, who’s holding her arms in the air like a field goal. She shimmies her chest for the group of applauding drag queens. Howard touches my arm and I turn. “Do you really think anyone gives a shit about us? The newspapers want funny stories about Viva and Barbarella, but nobody would notice if The Rice Bowl burned to the ground.”
Howard wants me to quit the restaurant and move to Chicago. There’s a lot more opportunity, he says—he could get a job at one of the museums or a charter school. “We could get an apartment in Lincoln Park; you could start a catering business or something.” I nod. The idea of moving to a new city just to re-establish distributors, stump for clients, spend my day hiring and firing a bunch of inexperienced cater waiters? No, thank you. Chad sets my sloe gin fizz on the bar with one of his freckled smiles.
What would I do differently in Chicago? After his “Shape Up” talk the other day, I sat with my father on the back stoop of the restaurant. He told me in his broken English that he’d willed The Rice Bowl to me. It was one of those weird Kodak moments, not because of the revelation, but because his death was something I’d never thought about. Besides his recent backaches and some minor arthritis in the wrists, my father will live until he’s 150. It may sound cheeseball, but I want to keep The Rice Bowl, this thing that he built from scratch, lucrative, and alive.
I sip my drink and lie, say to Howard that Chicago is a great idea. I don’t want to fight. He eats a handful of almonds from a shot glass on the bar. “I’ve got some money saved,” he says, “It’s enough to get us set-up. We can be partners—Howard and David’s Catering.”
“You want to start a tab?” Chad asks, dimples fast at work. I remember removing his black t-shirt, his boxers, running my lips along the thin trail of hair from his belly button to his penis. Howard doesn’t have a clue. I, on the other hand, know about his indiscretions — Barbarella has seen him here alone, and told me he picked up a farm boy on the dance floor.
Howard orders another Diet Pepsi, then turns to watch Viva. Chad squirts pop into his glass from a blue nozzle, staring at me. Not a hard stare like he’s cruising, but with a soft focus, as if to ask, How about it? I look away. Barbarella is dancing, her blue wig bumping into a disco ball. When I swivel back to the bar, Chad has tucked a piece of paper under some napkins and I read it when Howard isn’t looking. In small letters it says, Later?
Viva comes up and holds my knees. “Barbarella has officially agreed to be my co-star,” she says. This is not new news. “That only leaves room for one more entertainer.” She touches the tip of my nose and I push her hand away.
“There is no way I’m making a fool of myself in front of Greater Des Moines.” Howard—ever the instigator—leans into Viva and whispers, “I think David’s scared of commitment.”
I sigh. “I’d like to see you in a gold lamé dress.”
“Why not?” Howard says, chugging his Diet Pepsi. “I’m not afraid of making a fool of myself. Viva, count me in.”
She kisses him on the cheek, leaving a red mark next to his scraggly beard. “Honey, we’ll make a glamour puss out of you yet!” Then she pinches my tricep and cranes her chin toward Howard: “Your boyfriend’s gonna drive those pretty little math students out of their heads.”
They rant and giggle about the act. I catch Chad’s attention and point at my empty glass. He nods. With him, I know I barely have to say a word.
* * *
It’s after 3 a.m. when Chad drops me at home. Louie’s asleep on his burgundy La-Z-Boy and a handful of crumpled tickets litters the coffee table. “Dad, go to bed,” I whisper, lifting his elbow. Since Mom left, my father’s routine consists of opening the restaurant, closing the restaurant, and then coming home to watch The Weather Channel with a six-pack of Sapporo beer. It makes me feel helpless and paternal to see him like this, a button left in a dresser drawer.
I guide him to his bedroom and remove his food-stained sneakers and pants. “The Rice Bowl the best,” he mutters. “Number One in all of Des Moines.” I ease him under the blanket and his mumbles become snores. This is important to my father, that The Rice Bowl not only succeed, but be the best. Funny, because it was originally Mom’s idea to open a restaurant. My father wanted to be an astronomer. The other night I discovered him on the back porch, a bottle of Sapporo in hand, gazing at the star-besotted sky. On the bamboo calendars he prints every year for advertising, he includes an astronomical calendar with a black-and-white moon in its various states of undress. I’m sure he never came to America to cook Chinese food; Mom was the one with the business savvy. She kept our books before I quit school and took over. Then she left.
In my room I lie on my single bed, arms behind my head, staring at the white ceiling. It’s too bright. I stand up again and close the lights. The restaurant scene in Chicago must be better than Des Moines! Outside the window, a motorcycle revs its engine and pulls away. It strikes me that Howard’s offer is a lot like Mom’s offer to Dad all those years ago in China. Why did he follow her around the world?
Dad’s snoring filters through the drywall separating our rooms. In the stark moonlight, the shadows of objects—a chair, a shelf, the broccoli-top rack in the corner—divide the room like a neat silverware drawer. Sometimes Dad’s snoring comes through the wall like a radio wave and wakes me, and I believe we’re in the same room. Maybe I should have stayed at Howard’s apartment tonight; he asked. But Howard always asks. I said I’d take a cab home with the girls and when The Garden closed, I went with Chad to his apartment.
In the morning, my father pokes his head into my room. I roll away from him and yank the pillow over my head. I hear the click of the light switch. “Shape up, David!” he says.
* * *
The opening of the Iowa State Fair always brings a slew of television people to The Rice Bowl, ordering rounds of coffee and leaving bad tips, stuffing fried won tons down their gullets, regressing to teenagers in a high school cafeteria. We’re located right across from the media gate. White vans with TV logos and towering antennas line both sides of East 14th. In our nine booths, half a dozen guys dressed in bush vests accompanied by blonde-haired reporters in dress suits gossip and primp about the others. Viva and Barbarella carry trays of steaming food over their heads, bitching at the camera guys for leaving their equipment in the aisle. “Sweetie, that ain’t the kind of pole I want in my face,” Viva says to a stocky man near the kitchen. He laughs, then winks at his table of friends.
My father and The Other Mr. Chen have banded together against Wok Express. We’ve printed expensive books with coupons for free spare ribs or a dessert with any meal. On the back cover, a huge winking moonface (Dad’s idea) says, Support Your Local Businesses!!! and yesterday I hired some responsible-looking kids from the neighborhood to pass them out at the gates.
Howard and the girls have been practicing their routine in his apartment after the restaurant closes. Barbarella is sewing a mini-skirt for him to wear, and last night he careened around the living room in a pair of Viva’s heels, knocking over a flower vase and a stack of ungraded essays. I don’t think he’s been that off-balance or vulnerable his entire life.
Howard has told me that if they win the talent show, he’ll put his share of the thousand dollars toward a deposit on our house. He’s trying to sell me on the moving-in-together idea. I listen carefully, wonder if his performance with Viva and Barbarella is a way of proving something to me. Whether in Chicago or (he’s now decided) Des Moines, he wants us to live together. Near The Rice Bowl, if necessary, and near my father on the South Side.
Dad’s talking up The Rice Bowl to a short, balding news anchor seated below a photo of The Great Wall. The bald anchor looks amused and when I clear the table, his is the only plate that’s clean. “Human interest!” Dad says finally, pulling Viva over to them. “You talk to this Girlie. She give you good soundbite.”
“Or good something,” Barbarella adds, passing their table. Viva ignores her, smoothing her satin kimono.
“We’ll see, Louie,” the bald anchorman says, shaking my father’s hand. He tells his crew to pack up their equipment, and walks across the street to the fair.
* * *
Barbarella is going to wear Viva’s Thunder Bra. Tonight, with her blessing. It’s a humid, mosquito-ridden night before Labor Day and I sit in the grandstands with my father and The Other Mr. Chen. Maybe a hundred people—a few actually sporting mesh tank tops—crowd the fairground’s metal bleachers. Overweight, sunburnt, white-trashy Moms and Dads, chowing down on Footlongs and blue cotton candy. The murmur reminds me of a small brook, and I imagine the three of us swept to the stage in the soft gurgling noise.
A sickly-looking spotlight scans the stage and lands on Viva, face tilted toward the green and purple flags drooping above the stage. She looks shorter than usual, a five-foot munchkin in her frilly gown and arm-length gloves. Her orange wig is piled high on her head like a turban. The gigantic speakers bookending either side of the stage emit a buzz that’s more static than sound, and when Viva opens her mouth the voice of Diana Ross exclaims:
A lone guitar riffs from the speaker on the right. Trumpets from the left, and then drums building under Diana Ross’s voice. Center stage, Viva shimmies her tiny shoulders and a man next to me, wearing a Budweiser hard hat (with plastic can holders and a long snaking straw), places two fingers in his mouth and whistles in that anonymous, crowd-like way.
Barbarella and Howard, dressed in tight polyester mini-skirts, black scoop-necks, and long gloves to match Viva, appear from the right and strut across the stage, hands on their hips. I’m coming out! a chorus of back-up singers blasts at rock-concert volume, Barbarella and Howard mouthing the lyrics. I notice two svelte women with backpacks below me, bobbing their heads to the disco beat.
Howard is still shaky in Viva’s heels, but when the three of them form a row and do that supermodel strut they’ve been rehearsing, I can tell he’s hit his mark. The crowd suddenly cheers, like the greeting of a studio audience. The women with the backpacks are laughing (the tall one raises an arm in the air and cheers), and then they begin to clap with the rest of the crowd to the music, the young kids beside them screaming I’m Coming Out! in unison. Behind me the crowd is singing out loud: I want the world to know! Got—to—let—it—show! There’s more whistling and Beatles screaming and Howard and the girls, onstage, are flashing white, white grins. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Howard truly enjoying himself (besides driving around gated communities) since we started dating more than two years ago.
When their act ends, Howard and the girls curtsy, the crowd stomping rhythmically on the metal bleachers. Even from a dozen rows back, I can see them sweating. Howard’s grin is larger than Viva or Barbarella and he shades his eyes from the harsh stage lights. I doubt he can see me but I wave.
* * *
Dad’s balding anchorman snubs us after the talent show, but one of the pink-suited reporters does a feature on Viva, Barbarella, and Howard for the ten o’clock news. A harmonica player from Council Bluffs took first place, but, as always, Viva and Barbarella provide the more interesting story. For her part, Viva is her siren self. She gushes about her new singing gig at The Garden, finally managing to put in a plug for The Rice Bowl. The chipper, long-legged reporter pulls the microphone away from Viva and asks what sets us apart from the fast-food chains down the block.
“It’s about the love, Sugar,” she says, raising one of her pencilled eyebrows at the camera, “or else it’s just soggy old pork on a plate.” She’s using that long-lashed, Streisand voice of hers. “Isn’t that what everybody wants? A little bit of love?”
The pink-suited reporter smiles, turns to the camera, and signs off by stating her name and location. Viva leans in and mugs for the camera.
Dad taps me on the shoulder and points at Howard, approaching us in his tight mini-skirt and a pair of lycra biking shorts showing beneath. He looks endearing and ridiculous. Dad mutters, “Howard make one ugly girl.”
I laugh. Howard wobbles unsteadily toward us, winging me a smile, balancing on the dirt ground.
* * *
We drive to Howard’s favorite suburb, Grassy Day, after an impromptu celebration at The Rice Bowl. On the 16-inch TV above the cash register, Viva’s interview had been edited to a few soundbites about the difficulty of wearing heels, keeping her hair from frizzing in the hot weather, and then a brief shot of Howard and the girls framed in the round spotlight. No mention of Viva’s singing gig or The Rice Bowl. Dad scowled and Mauricio waved his metal spatula at the TV. The girls ditched us altogether to gloat (unperturbed) to their friends at The Garden, and Dad told me to take the rest of the night off.
Now, speeding down I-80, just Howard and me, the headlights of his pick-up catch green signs before they whiz by, spelling out for us what we’re nearing, and how far. The All-Hits Station is paying tribute to 80’s music (no different than usual; they’re always playing 80’s pop), a parade of songs by bands with cute, alliterative names like Culture Club and Duran Duran.
We drive past the granite birdbath that marks the entrance to Grassy Day. On the radio, Boy George sings about Karma Chameleon: You come and go, you come and go-o-o-oh. “What the hell is this song about?” I ask, but Howard isn’t amused. He turns off the radio and stares at me. “Are you sleeping with somebody?”
Where’s this coming from? Did Viva tell him about Chad Kline? “Huh?” I ask, playing it cool, fiddling with the radio knob.
He reaches for my hand and holds it still. “David, I’m asking you a question. Have you been screwing around?” He pulls up on the gearshift and parks his pick-up in front of an unfinished house, this huge skeleton of 2 by 4’s, exposed staircases leading nowhere, and one or two low-pitched roof beams. It looks like a ribcage or an architect’s model, something scraped raw and built of Tinkertoys instead of wood.
“Would it matter to you?”
“Of course it would,” Howard says. He’s wearing that look of pity he gets when he thinks that I’m lying. ”We’re talking about our relationship.”
But I hate talking about our relationship. Or any of the cheesy things that have to do with commitment. Howard is a romantic; he loves Valentine’s Day and stray animals and internet cards that play musical greetings. There’s a sitcom-gone-serious quality to it all that makes me cringe. Why don’t we talk more about the things we hate: how we sometimes despise the same people we love? How come no one ever wants to talk about that?
“There isn’t anybody,” I say.
“Viva told me about that red-headed kid.” He cocks his head, waiting.
“And what did Viva say?”
“She said you seduced him.”
“Come on, Howard.”
He stares through the grimy front window. Dirt is caked around the edge of the windshield, and I imagine a pair of giant binoculars. “Viva said you went to his apartment that night after The Garden.”
A bunch of teenagers, joyriding in a compact car, scream at us as they speed past. Sheets of newspaper float down the street in their wake. I don’t want to lie to Howard, but I also don’t want to confess; I’m too much of a wuss for that.
He touches me on the forearm. “I don’t care if you did, David. It’s just sex. It doesn’t mean anything.” I want to ask him about his cheating, who he’s picked up at The Garden, but this too seems pointless to me, to accuse each other, slam fists on the dashboard and fight. What would happen if I told him about Chad? Would we break up? I don’t want to be alone. After one of their late night rehearsals in Howard’s apartment, Barbarella told me how lucky I am. “Howard is exactly the opposite of other guys,” she said. “Mr. Henry wouldn’t show his emotions for all the iced tea in the world.”
Howard clears his throat. “Those guys,” he says, “they don’t matter.” There’s a soft raspiness in his voice. I turn and stare at the unfinished house. Some kind of animal is sending sawdust up from the floor, a raccoon or a stray cat—something small on four legs. It moves with its belly close to the ground then jumps up the stairs and disappears.
We sit in silence. “Are you ready?” I say at last. Howard doesn’t reply, just turns the key in the ignition and pulls away.
A mile or two from the entrance to Grassy Day, the ranch houses with their bright picture windows begin to thin out, separated by blocks of new construction. I place my hand on Howard’s thigh. His jeans feel scratchy and rough. I wonder if he’s still wearing those smooth biking shorts beneath.
Howard’s pick-up is the only car on the street. If you drive far enough into this subdivision, the ranch houses disappear completely and the only sight is acres and acres of undeveloped lots. I’ve never told Howard but this is my favorite part—the paved roads dotted with streetlamps, the empty lots uncluttered with houses or crops or people. Howard turns on the radio again and Cyndi Lauper sings “Time After Time” in her grating Betty Boop voice. Howard covers my hand on his thigh with his own. I wonder if there’s another exit in this direction, but I don’t ask. I don’t want to know.