GEORGE BY DAY, SONIA BY NIGHT
He led a double life. During the day, he was George Watkins, costume designer for a small theater company. But as soon as the sun went down, he’d become Sonia, femme fatale. He would throw off the T-shirt, faded dungarees, and sneakers he’d worn all day, take a long, hot, scented bath, put on an elegant gown, high heels, and an upswept blonde wig, and be transformed into what he knew himself to be.
George was quiet, hardworking, and unassuming. Often ignored. No one ignored Sonia. Her favorite haunt was the drag bar just across the street from FBI Headquarters in downtown Washington. She found the irony of that odd juxtaposition delicious. She would arrive by cab and take up her accustomed position on a high-backed stool at the brightly lighted end of the bar.
She was surrounded by admirers all evening, every evening – well-dressed, middle-aged men mostly – but she would keep them at a distance, tilting her head and smiling so they wouldn’t go away entirely, but remaining aloof. She was waiting for the moment she knew would come. That moment, late at night, usually well after midnight, when a hard-muscled, sexy young man with a telltale crew cut would wander in alone, believing that he had camouflaged himself by leaving his regulation dark-blue suit at home and coming in a sport shirt and casual slacks instead.
Sonia always seemed to know, at these moments, whether to glance toward the door or not. She could tell instantly whether it was someone who’d been in before – or a newcomer, unable to resist any longer. Oldtimer or newcomer, it was always the same. First, he would look around to be sure no one he recognized was there. If he was satisfied, he would stay; if not, he would disappear back out the door.
If he stayed, he would sit at first off in a back corner, nursing a beer, keeping to the shadows. But then, if she was patient, he would be drawn to Sonia’s side, like a moth to a flame. She more than any of the other girls. There was something about her. He would buy her a drink – always a glass of Chablis – talk to her, dance with her, go with her to her apartment not far away.
When he first started getting sick, George tried hard to keep Sonia going. Makeup covered the first of the lesions on her face and the dark circles under her eyes. Gowns with long sleeves replaced the strapless ones she preferred. But when the flesh began to melt away and getting her put together took too much of his strength, he gave up and spent his evenings at home, for the first time in years. With half of his life gone and no idea what to do with so many long, dark hours, he felt lost. It was no wonder the disease progressed so rapidly. He was in and out of the hospital for a while, then in to stay.
One of the nurses’ assistants on his floor, a young black man named Andy, was particularly fond of George. He came by as often as he could – to chat, to rub George’s shoulders, to try to cheer him up. He didn’t meet Sonia till near the end.
Late one afternoon, his strength nearly gone, George said to Andy, “I hate to impose, but would you be willing to do me a very big favor?”
“Of course,” said Andy. “Just name it.”
“Could you go by my apartment and bring me a few things? I’ve got a list here. And the key.”
The next morning, George was even weaker, barely able to speak, unable to move. Andy lifted him up, gently, and put on the lacy lavender bed jacket and the dark purple velvet turban. He followed George’s barely-heard instructions and plucked a few stray hairs from his eyebrows, painted his upper lids a pale blue, put a touch of blush on his stubbly cheeks and a bit of lipstick on his mouth.
“I’m afraid I’m not very good at this,” said Andy.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sonia whispered.
When Andy had finished, Sonia pointed at the hand mirror. He held it in front of her. She winced at first, then almost smiled. What she saw was the faintest shadow of what she once had been, but it was enough.
She nodded and settled back on the pillow.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Now I can go out in style.”