I jump awake at 5 a.m., worried about the photos I can’t find, the ones of Ken, my brother. In my dream the photos were in a box on my desk in the office. In reality everything I have of him can fit in this box on my desk in the office. They’re not there. In one of them, I remember, he was dressed in drag. On the back he wrote: Halloween 1996. Don’t worry, I don’t dress like this every day. Not like when I was a kid.
Rumor is, it started when my mother was pregnant with me. She sat on the edge of the bed, in the small house just outside of Hanscom Air Force Base. Her hand over her secret mound, she whispered, “I want a girl.” Ken was watching her from the hall. That’s when she said he grew his nails, painted them and clomped around in her high heels and dresses.
My mom really thought it was as simple as that. Then again she was the axis upon which the world spun. She and I left when I was three, but the way it was told to me was that when the lady at the checkout counter asked Ken whom he wanted to marry when he grew up, he said me. I was his dolly, his little baby doll. He doted over me, pushing me in a carriage and dressing me up and wiping away my spittle and sticking a satin bow designed for presents on my head so everyone would know: I was a girl.
Despite all my moves I’ve managed to keep his letters. The earliest one is dated December, 1982. It says:
I miss you very much. I love you and Missy very much. When I found out that you were never coming back my hert felt like it was broken.
The second letter came on August 12, 1985. I was eight and he was in high school. He wrote me letters in bubbly cursive that changed colors with his moods. He told me about all the music he liked. A Brit-pop band called 5 Star. The Jets, Air Supply, New Edition. He said this is my favorite color when he switched to red. I was thrilled to be in touch with him. I wanted it all. All the information. Tearing through the letters. The ones addressed to me and the ones addressed only to my mom.
The letter to my mom read:
Mom, I must tell you something that hurts and will haunt me until I die unless I face it and stop denying it. I want you and Dad to be proud of me, but you can’t. Mom, I’m gay!
I learned a new word that day: bakla. Bakla means faggot in Tagalog. My Lola had read the private letter, too. I heard her whisper ‘bakla’ at the dinner table and excused myself. I went to the bathroom and cried.
The letters kept coming, each one begging my mother for forgiveness and continued love.
Me, I acted like I didn’t know, like I hadn’t read the letters. But when I sent him stuff from the local stationery store I was always careful to pick out things that were not too masculine. Colorful stickers and neon pencils.
There was a long span of time when we lost touch, from the time I was eight until I got to college.
He was kicked out of his house for being gay. Bakla.
My mom, our mom, was hitting my thighs with coat hangers and locking me in closets. Ken was busing tables and go-go dancing in gay bars in Dupont Circle, in Washington, D.C. He asked if he could come live with us and my mom said no. She thought L.A. wasn’t safe for him. She said there was too much AIDS here. It made me so damn fucking angry. How did she know if there was too much AIDS in Los Angeles? The only gay guys she knew were the guys who danced at Chippendales, and she didn’t even know they were gay because she was dumb enough to squish money down their shorts. Money we never had.
I started running. I entered foster care. Was in and out of group homes. Moved, changed schools, changed neighborhoods, changed families.
I eventually tried to find Ken. It wasn’t hard. He worked for the government. The Department of Agriculture. I called him at work.
“I’m not sure if you know who I am,” I said. “I’m your sister, Melissa.”
“Well, yes,” he said. “I’m looking at a picture of you right now.”
A photo of the sweet eight-year-old me was on his desk at work.
When antiviral drugs finally became available to him it was too little too late.
He came to visit me once at my apartment in Northridge. Your quintessential first apartment. Shit brown carpeting, cottage cheese ceiling. Hot. It was on the second floor. This was right after the big earthquake, so the school let me in and the rent was dirt cheap. There was a swimming pool but I never dared use it. I didn’t drive. This was by far the least glamorous place for Ken to come visit in all of Southern California, but by the looks of him you never would have known it. When he was here we walked to the local 7-Eleven to get something to eat. He always reached for something phallic: a corn dog or Big Stick popsicle. He wore his Daisy Duke shorts and a football jersey cut in half revealing his navel, his nipples poking through the netting, his long hair flipping back and forth with what Tyra Banks refers to as ‘wind in the hair.’ He walked with a switch, up and down the street past the Indian shopkeepers, past the Cholo gangsters, past the smoking landladies, past the RTD bus line, past the crying babies. He walked his runway walk and to me he was the fiercest, bravest person I had ever seen.
We stayed up late and he talked about guys and I talked about girls and I’m sure it was different than he imagined it would be, but that’s just the way it was. We smoked cigarettes and drank coffee and it felt like a slumber party. He was mega-fabulous and didn’t cook and brought me gifts for the vain, like a hand-held mirror. At the end of the night, he made a bed out of couch pillows on the floor. He was able to make do with a sheet and no blanket and he slept in the living room just like a big brother and not like a diva.
I used to wonder how the fuck he could go to work everyday. How could he go to this mediocre job working for the government, filing and stapling, answering phones, being the office sunshine boy. How could he do that, knowing that he could die, that any day could be his last?
When I asked him he said, “Well what if it’s not?” What if he continued to live? He’d still have bills to pay and rent to make. You hear people talk hypothetically about terminal illness and how they would write up this bucket list and go skydiving and move to Europe, but to maintain a regular standard of living seems to be where the real bravery is. To do this is to not accept death; it is to embrace life.
I moved to San Francisco. I started stripping to make money to see him. I danced at a cheap local chain of strip joints called Déjà vu. It wasn’t the fancy club, it was the club for mediocre girls that had no tricks, like me. I still tried desperately to be special, not like all the other girls when I was up there. I dressed in drag and would strip down to a pair of boots and a latex garter. I tried to tell a story. He and I had both abandoned our bodies below our waste. He with a ritual of blind tucking and taping. Me, with a blind spot. Nothing there.
By then Ken’s life was no secret. He’d already fought all his battles. His last battle was against AIDS. I thought about it everyday when I was dancing in the strip joints. I needed just enough cash to get me from San Francisco to D.C., the Castro to Dupont Circle. It was like a gay tour of the United States, ROYGBIV across the land. I was what you’d call “soft butch.” Short platinum dyed hair and a thick 10-gauge septum piercing in my nose and the signature leather wallet with a chain attached to my belt loop.
It was two months after I started stripping, noon on a Saturday morning. I had enough money to see him.
He’d already been dead a month.
His roommate told me. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this. We tried to get a hold of you, but we had no number.”
I threw the phone and kicked the carpet and shoved the coffee table across the room. I went into the kitchen and sat on the floor and sobbed. Shook my fists in the air. Hit the floor. Scratched my face.
I felt sorry for myself. Broke up with my girlfriend. Had sex with people in bathrooms. Told people to leave. All the time leave, just leave.
He had spent his last days shopping on QVC, the home-shopping network. He bought costume jewelry. Tons of it. I still have some of the gold chains and cubic zirconia in a small metal box, although he’d probably be mortified to be associated with such things today. He would probably laugh. I just love love loved hearing him laugh.
I wish I still had these two photos of my brother. Perfect mirrors of each other. Both of them were of him sitting at his desk at work. One of him in business attire. The other of him in drag. In the photo you saw his boring grey cubicle with one of those ‘bang head here signs’ taped to the inside, his office phone, his desk like everyone else’s desk. On it was a framed picture. An eight year-old photo of me. On the back I wrote ‘I hope your hert feels better.’