by Hiwaru Kibi (火悪 木美)
“You were really good out there.”
Tanya looked up from her phone to see a very familiar face — even though she didn’t know the woman wearing it. Tanya remembered her from the competition, though. She’d chosen a more contemporary Anaïtis look, something like what Anaïtis had worn on the Kissing You Forever tour that had just ended last March. In fact, unless Tanya missed her guess, what this woman was wearing was a take on what Anaïtis had worn to the January 5th show in Berlin.
“Um, thanks,” Tanya said, tucking a slowly sagging curl back behind her ear. Even the most powerful hairspray she’d found could only last so long against the twin forces of stage lights and her hair’s natural texture. “I mean, not that good, but … thanks. For saying so.”
“No, you really were.” The woman nodded with such conviction that for a moment, Tanya thought this other impersonator might somehow be making fun of her. But no, there was something about her that seemed so sincere. “I don’t hear ‘Lonely Star’ performed very often at these things, so … that was nice.”
So she really did remember Tanya’s performance, and wasn’t just being nice to a fellow competitor. “Thanks,” Tanya said again, this time really meaning it. “It’s my favorite Anaïtis song, so when I got into doing this, I couldn’t imagine performing with anything else.” ‘Lonely Star’ had debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at #45, which was the best it had ever gotten, then sauntered downward into general oblivion. There’d never been a music video for it, and Anaïtis rarely performed it live. There’d been competitions where Tanya had overheard some of the other entrants saying they hadn’t even known that was an Anaïtis song at all.
“Yeah?” Still smiling, the woman sat down on the other side of the bench. “It’s my favorite too. And you did a really good job of it.”
Tanya could feel the color rising in her cheeks a bit. Out there on stage, pretending to be Anaïtis, it was easy to have confidence, to be a diva. But once the performance was done, everything got difficult again. “Well, and you were–” Tanya pointed to the third-place trophy, which the woman was holding in her hand. “I mean, you were really great. I thought you were the best one out there.”
The woman laughed at that, and the sound was so eerily like Anaïtis’ own laugh that Tanya could understand why she’d gotten into this business. Most people had to work hard to get the illusion right, but this woman was a natural. “Hey, third place is pretty good for me. The winners keep getting younger every year, and I, well, don’t. I’m Nan, by the way. You know, underneath all this makeup.”
“Tanya,” Tanya said, shaking her hand. Anaïtis’ real name was Nahid, though her childhood nickname had been Nan. Tanya didn’t know if this was actually the woman’s name or some real deep-lore dedication to the bit, and she figured it was too rude to ask either way. “So have you been doing this long?”
“Couple years,” Nan said with a shrug. “How about you?”
Tanya’s fingers worked at the frayed edge of her sequined wrap. The hem was beginning to unravel; she’d have to stitch it up before she brought it out again. “Eight. But I just moved to Seattle a few months ago. All the other competitions I’ve done were out on the East Coast, back where I grew up. It was my mom’s idea to get into this. She even made this dress.”
Nan let out a low whistle. “She must be a really good seamstress.”
“Yeah,” Tanya agreed, “she was.”
There was always a weird moment when Tanya let that piece of information slip, a bit where the other person didn’t know which steps of the Sorry Your Mom Is Dead dance they were supposed to perform. Nan, however, just nodded and glanced at the people around them. The lobby of the building was starting to empty as the crowd thinned out. “Hey, do you want to go get a drink?” Nan asked.
It was Tanya’s turn to face the awkward uncertainty about her response. “With you?”
“Yeah!” Nan’s grin broadened. “Come on. I don’t get out much. And there’s a little place across the street people tend to go after this, so it’s not like we’ll stand out. Come on, what do you say?”
Despite her anxious heart’s thumping in her chest, Tanya bit her lower lip and nodded. “I’d like that.”
The café was indeed a microcosm of the competition, with every third person or so still entirely or partly in their Anaïtis drag. The funniest to Tanya’s eyes were the ones who had removed just enough of their costume so that the effect was incongruous, like the participants who’d pulled of their wigs to reveal short, butch haircuts, or the ones in sequined gowns who’d traded their platform heels for ratty old sneakers. Tanya had always gone home with her mother right after the competitions were done. She’d had no idea there were little afterparty gatherings like these.
“What do you want?” asked Nan, pointing up to the wide menu board that hung above the counter. “My treat.”
“Oh, you don’t have to–” Tanya began.
Shaking her head, Nan wrapped her free hand around Tanya’s elbow and tugged her close. “I asked, so I’m paying.”
Tanya chewed nervously on her lip. There were too many drink options listed there in bright chalk, some with names like Lucky Ducky and Float’s Howling Castle that Tanya had no hope of deciphering in time. Just as she was about to panic, her eyes lit on a familiar set of words: “Irish coffee,” she told the clerk behind the counter. It wasn’t even that she necessarily wanted one, so much that she knew what one was, and that would have to do.
Nan made an approving noise. “Ooh, that sounds good. I just changed my mind. Two Irish coffees. And one of the big fruit and cheese boards. I’m starving.”
As the clerk rang up their order, he looked them both over. “How’d you ladies make out over there?”
“Third place!” Nan announced, lifting her trophy.
Tanya gave a little shrug. “Ninth.”
“And she was robbed,” Nan told the clerk with great conviction, tightening her grip on Tanya’s arm. “You should have heard her! She has a beautiful voice and excellent taste in music. That’s a first-place combination no matter what the judges say.”
By the time their coffee and assorted cheeses were ready, Nan had settled them into a booth against the cafe’s far wall, and Tanya had somehow tripped and fallen into telling Nan her entire life story.
It surprised Tanya, when she heard it all together, that there really was something of a story there worth telling. It started with Tanya’s single mother and her three daughters: two driven, career-focused older girls, and then Tanya, the aimless baby of the bunch, the one still living at home in her early twenties. Music had been about the only thing Tanya and her mom had ever really had in common, which meant that when her mom had started getting sick, it had been the only thing they’d had to talk about that wasn’t medications or doctors or hospital stays.
The competitions had been sort of a fluke — Tanya’s mom had seen one of the Bascov’s Look-Alike Competition ads on Facebook and had immediately seized on the idea of combining her love of sewing with Tanya’s (by that point mostly neglected) musical talents. Tanya had figured it would be a fun activity to distract them from everything else going on, something that would mostly be a funny story to tell later about the one crazy time they’d tried this weird thing together. Tanya had thought that right up to the point when she’d put on the dress and curled her hair and seen a face in the mirror that was brighter and more beautiful than her own face ever could have been. Then she’d been hooked.
As she listened, Nan sipped her coffee. Her bright pink lipstick left a brilliant print on the glass rim. “Is she the one who picked ‘Lonely Star’ for you?”
Tanya nodded. “I have a horrible confession to make,” she said, laughing softly. “And it’s worse now that I know you like the song too, but … I hated it.”
Nan let out a surprised giggle. “You compete with a song you hate?”
“Not hate. Hated. Big difference.” With a little sigh, Tanya took a drink of her coffee. Well, even if she hadn’t precisely wanted it, it was good, and also shockingly alcoholic. Whoever was in charge of bartending tonight had a heavy pour. “It was just a real downer. Which sounds stupid, I know,” Tanya added before Nan could point out anything to the contrary, “because it’s not, right? But all the stuff about believing you’ll one day find the one you’re meant to be with … kinda sucks when you’re an awkward college dropout who’s just figured out you’re into girls, and you’re pretty sure that happiness is for other people.”
“Hey, I get it,” Nan said. She popped a slice of cheese into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully for a second. She had such pretty eyes, Tanya thought every time she looked at Nan. This close, Tanya could see they sparkled with little flecks of green even in the fading evening light. “Hope is hard.”
“Hope is hard,” Tanya agreed. She’d been on exactly one date since arriving in Washington, and the less said about that awkward event, the better.
“So what turned you around on it?”
With a shrug, Tanya sighed. “Mom was crazy for it. And I figured, even if I didn’t like it for itself, I could like it because she liked it. Then it just grew on me. Which I guess is a good warning against ever doing anything ironically.”
Nan laughed at that, brushing her dark hair back from her face. “I think that’s really appropriate for the song, though. You know, sort of … fake it ’til you make it? Keep doing and believing something, and eventually it’ll be real.” Nan paused, then scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “No, wait, that sounds too woo-woo. More like, sometimes you have to pretend something is true just so you can make it through the day. And then you pretend long enough, and it eventually gives you the strength to keep going even when you’re not pretending anymore.”
“Is that why you do this kind of thing?” Tanya asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” Nan said, the look in her eyes suddenly serious. “Actually, that’s why I like it. It’s good to remember that it’s all kind of a costume. It reminds me there’s a real me underneath it all.”
Tanya couldn’t say she’d ever approached the impersonation game that way. More often, she thought of it as a way to forget about that real self, to disappear into the illusion and glamor of celebrity. Anaïtis’ face was a face meant for the spotlight, not one that had to face the grey cubicle background of Tanya’s everyday life. But then again, Nan was certainly beautiful and confident enough that she didn’t have to hide behind someone else’s mask, and she chose to anyway. So maybe there was more to it than that.
Nan pointed to Tanya’s glass. “Want another?”
Tanya was equally surprised to find the glass was empty and surprised to find her answer was yes.
“Who are — who are you calling?” asked Nan, teetering on her heels.
“Not calling anyone.” Tanya frowned at her screen, tapping at it with her too-long acrylic nails. She had to make an appointment to get those filed down. “Trying to get a Lyft. But the app’s not working.”
Nan blew a raspberry, then giggled as the lights in the café window shut off. They were standing on the street just outside, after the staff had politely but very firmly informed them that this was last call and they would be closing in ten minutes. “Come upstairs with me,” Nan said, grabbing at Tanya’s elbow.
“Upstairs?” Tanya looked at the one-story café and frowned.
“No, that’s–” Using her trophy like a pointer, Nan stabbed in the direction of the convention center hotel just across the street. “There. I’m upstairs there.”
Tanya’s brain was fuzzy with alcohol; she was glad Nan was holding on to her, because if she hadn’t been, Tanya suspected one or both of them might have fallen right over. She looked the hotel up and down, then looked back at Nan. “Are you asking me back to your hotel room?”
Nan nodded and leaned closer, trusting more of her weight to Tanya’s steadiness than Tanya supposed she strictly should. The combination of alcohol and caffeine meant that Tanya was at the same time both fuzzy-headed and wide awake. Nan slipped her hand into Tanya’s and twined their fingers together. “I’m asking you back to my room,” Nan said with an impish little smile, “because you like girls, and I like you, and like I said, I don’t get out a lot. At least, not in places that let me meet real people like you.”
“Real people?” Tanya laughed. “You usually deal with imaginary ones? Like, ghosts?”
Nan’s answer was just another tug on Tanya’s hand. “You can say no. But I really don’t want you to say no.”
Tanya should have said no. Tanya — just plain Tanya — would of course have said no. Just Plain Tanya didn’t do things like hook up with women she’d just met, no matter how beautiful their eyes were, or how magical they looked in a sequined corset. Just Plain Tanya went home straight after competitions and took off her outfits so they wouldn’t wrinkle or tear and made a boring dinner and definitely did not stay out drinking Irish coffees until standing up straight became something of a challenge.
But she wasn’t Just Plain Tanya. She wasn’t Anaïtis either, sure — but all done up like this, she figured she knew a little of what it was like to be Anaïtis. Anaïtis was brave. She was powerful. She didn’t have to play by the rules. She could do whatever she wanted. She could want whatever she wanted.
Which was why Tanya found herself grabbing Nan’s face and kissing her hard, right there on the street, right where everyone could see.
Nan wobbled for a second, but just a second, and caught her footing fast. She laughed and threw her arms around Tanya’s neck, giggling as their lips pressed together. Tanya imagined they must have been quite a straight sight: two almost-replicas of the same diva, locked in a passionate embrace on a street corner, drunk and giggling and bubbly. Tanya couldn’t have stopped smiling then if she’d wanted to. Nan’s body felt so good next to hers, and her lip gloss tasted fruity, and her hands were amazing, and everything about her made Tanya’s head swim.
“Come on,” Nan said, breaking from the kiss and taking off toward the hotel, Tanya’s hand still tucked firmly in hers. “I know a back way in.”
There was something to be said about having a whirlwind romantic evening with another performer, and that was that they both understood, it was not only acceptable but necessary to put the brakes on the passion to make sure they got out of their clothes without incident. They both even had different considerations in that regard: Tanya needed careful unfastening of her dress and its associated architecture, while Nan’s costume just seemed to have a million different little parts. Tanya watched as Nan divested herself of it piece by piece, laughing as Nan swore at a few of the buckles and straps. “That’s part of why I go for her earlier stuff,” Tanya explained as she squeezed out of her girdle. “The dresses are complicated, but the tradeoff is, once you get one done, it’s done.”
Nan laughed a little at that while she unhooked her leather bra. “Yeah, I have to say, I don’t know about this as an aesthetic change.” She regarded it for a moment before adding it to the discard pile she’d created on one of the hotel chairs. “I personally prefer a little more of the evening-gown look. I think it’s classy, but in a fun way. Kind of trash-classy, you know? Little bit drag queen. But fashion is what it is, and stylists get what they want, I suppose.”
“I suppose,” Tanya agreed. She debated for a moment leaving her panties on, then decided against it — not for any prurient reasons, but because she’d gotten dressed that morning in comfy granny panties, never expecting that anyone would see what was underneath her costume. Try as she might, she just couldn’t imagine the appeal of seeing herself all done up in fancy makeup and hair, and then with cotton underpants coming up over her navel. With a little yank, Tanya let them fall to the floor.
By the time Tanya was completely nude, Nan was as well, and sitting cross-legged on the bed, looking at an assortment of vibrators and other sex toys in the bedside drawer. “How do you feel about penetration?” Nan asked cheerfully.
Tanya could honestly say she’d never been asked that question before. “It’s fine, I guess.”
“Ever worn a strap?”
Tanya shook her head.
Nan considered this for a minute, then patted the bed next to her. “Let’s take it easy, then,” she said, brandishing a pale green vibrator that, somewhat inexplicably, seemed to have a faceted crystal as its on/off button. “You want to use this on me first, and we’ll see where it goes from there?”
If Nan had been beautiful earlier, all done up in her performance outfit, she was stunning now, with her legs spread and her back arched. Tanya curled up against her side and held the vibrator between Nan’s legs, rubbing its curved tip slowly up and down Nan’s slit. Its gentle buzz was a low counterpart to the soft, pretty sounds of Nan’s breath. “Is this okay?” Tanya asked.
Her eyes shut, Nan nodded. She reached up and cupped her hand around the back of Tanya’s head, then drew Tanya’s mouth down closer to her breast. Tanya licked her lips, then took one of Nan’s plum-brown nipples between them. Nan gasped at the touch, a noise of encouragement if Tanya had ever heard one, so she did it again. “A little harder,” Nan whispered. Tanya responded on both fronts, shutting her teeth lightly around the soft flesh of Nan’s nipple and pushing the vibrator more firmly up against the folds of Nan’s pussy.
Tanya wasn’t outright drunk anymore, but she wasn’t sober either. She was instead floating between the two states, warm and almost sleepy as she pressed her body against Nan’s. Nan let out a contented little sigh and parted her legs, urging Tanya to touch more of her. Even without making contact herself, Tanya could feel how wet Nan was from the slick way the vibrator moved up and down her pussy, up to her clit and then back down again just over her slit. There was something almost meditative about it — a thought which almost made her laugh, considering how her middle sister kept trying to get her to start yoga classes. No thanks, too busy achieving mindfulness by fucking other women, was the kind of text Tanya did not send back.
As Nan’s breathing started to speed up, Tanya set the head of the vibrator right up against Nan’s clit. Nan exhaled sharply. “Going to warn you, I’m loud,” she managed in a heavy rush. And before Tanya could even ponder just what Nan might mean by that, she got a demonstration. With a heavy, wordless cry of pleasure, Nan arched her hips up from the bed and pressed back against the vibrator. The noises she made during her climax were so beautiful and obscene that Tanya could feel them all the way through her own body. She’d gotten her partners off before, sure, but there was a difference between making someone come and making someone come like this.
Then, as though some cord suspending her had been cut, Nan collapsed back against the bed. “Oh, fuck, fuck, that was good.” She took a deep breath, then let it all out in a laugh as she pawed loosely in the direction of Tanya’s hair. “Fuck, I needed that so much. There’s nothing like an after-performance orgasm, right?”
Tanya felt her cheeks pinken. “I, um, wouldn’t know.”
“What?” Nan’s hazel eyes snapped open. “You mean, you’ve never gotten someone to fuck you stupid after you get offstage?”
With a sheepish little laugh, Tanya buried her face against the curve of Nan’s shoulder. “No,” she admitted.
“Like a girlfriend or something? No?”
Tanya shook her head. “I’ve never … I mean, I’ve never really been with someone who knew I do this kind of thing.”
With all the air of a queen given great offense, Nan sat bolt upright in the hotel bed. She grabbed a hair tie from the nightstand and twisted her dark, curly hair back into a bun with almost military precision. Then she grabbed Tanya’s legs and flipped her onto her back with surprising strength, given Nan’s slender frame. “Unless you tell me no, I’m going to eat you out,” Nan warned her with a grin. She pressed a kiss against the inside of Tanya’s calf. “Cool with you?”
There was no dignified way to respond, so Tanya settled for nodding her approval. With a smirk, Nan settled herself down right between Tanya’s legs and flicked her tongue up against Tanya’s clit. Tanya let out a surprised little yelp despite herself and clapped a hand over her mouth. Oh, if she’d known the evening would have ended up like this, not only would she have worn more exciting underwear, she would have shaved a little more thoroughly.
Nan, however, didn’t seem to mind a bit. She spread Tanya’s lower lips wide with her fingers and let her tongue slip between them, teasing at the sensitive folds of Tanya’s skin. The way arousal built in Tanya’s body made her realize that the tension and anxiety of performing hadn’t gone away just because the performance had ended — her muscles were still tight, her reflexes still on edge. She wouldn’t even have noticed if she hadn’t so keenly felt all that melting away as Nan’s mouth worked its magic on her. Nan closed her lips around the bud of Tanya’s clit and let her tongue flick over it until Tanya was whimpering and grabbing at the sheets, Nan’s hair, anything just to keep her from feeling like she was about to float off into space.
Then again, maybe floating off into space wouldn’t be so bad, if Nan could stay right where she was. Tanya gave herself the giggles imagining them out among the stars, two naked lesbians perplexing astronomers together. She clapped her hand over her mouth, horrified that she might give Nan completely the wrong impression of the effect she was having. “Sorry, I–” Tanya sputtered, trying to get herself under control.
But Nan just kissed the inside of her thigh. “You have a pretty laugh,” Nan said with a wink before diving right back in. Her fingers pressed up against the entrance to Tanya’s cunt, turning Tanya’s giggles into breathy moans. Nan never got any closer than that to pressing inside Tanya, but she didn’t need to; the tease was delicious enough.
“You have a pretty everything,” Tanya murmured as she reached for Nan’s hair again. It was so soft and lovely; that must have been its natural texture, with no need to jump through the hoops Tanya did to make hers behave. Tanya wrapped her fingers around a strand that had fallen loose from Nan’s messy bun.
When Tanya’s orgasm came, she bit her lower lip and held her breath, feeling the sensations build inside her. Then they broke over her like a wave, rushing up from her pussy and out through the rest of her body. Compared to Nan, Tanya was much quieter, but the sensations were no less intense. She writhed against the sheets, barely held down by the weight of Nan’s grip on her thighs. Then she let out one final exhale and melted, boneless, into the mattress.
Nan gave a smug little laugh as she kissed Tanya’s clit one last time, then sat up. “Good?” she asked with a wink.
Tanya gave a limp thumbs-up. “You’re amazing.”
“Nah.” Nan wrinkled up her nose, then laughed. “I’m just me.”
“No, you — you really are.” Tanya reached for her hand and took it, and Nan let herself be guided down until they were lying next to one another, foreheads pressed together. “You’re maybe the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”
A strange look passed Nan’s face then, an expression Tanya was far too worn out to identify before it disappeared. “Maybe I’m just pretending to be,” Nan said softly.
“Then you pretended so good you made it true,” said Tanya, though much of the end of her sentence was lost inside of a giant yawn. It seemed she had been more keyed-up than she’d thought, and now that tension was gone, not even the caffeine could keep her going. As she felt herself drifting off, though, an anxious thought popped up into the front of her mind: “Do I need to … I mean, should I go?”
With a gentle smile, Nan shook her head and drew the covers up over both of them. “Go on and pass out,” she said, tenderly drawing Tanya’s hair back from her sweaty forehead. “You earned it.”
Tanya mumbled something like a thank-you and promptly fell asleep.
Her text-message tone woke her from a sleep so dead that she’d made her way out of bed, found her phone, and unlocked it before she’d even had the wherewithal to wonder about the strange hotel she was waking up in. But by that point, she was already reading the message from her best friend Mindy:
omg ur on anas insta
Which would have been an inscrutable enough message on its own without the followup:
how did she no all that a bout ur mom?
Still with only the foggiest idea of what was going on (a feeling not helped by the teensy hangover she was still nursing), Tanya opened Instagram. There, at the top of her feed, was a new post from the account anait_is_a_star, sent out to its fifty million or so followers. In it was a short clip of a woman who looked and sounded like Anaïtis — whom Tanya might even have believed was Anaïtis, except that Tanya knew exactly who had handmade that dress. It was a minute-long clip from the competition the previous day, and it came with the caption:
Shout out to the gorgeous ladies, theydies, and all the other fabulous fans who showed up yesterday in Seattle to do their best impressions of me! It’s always incredible to see myself through other people’s eyes. Everybody was amazing and I love you all! But one performance really touched me and that was Tanya’s version of Lonely Star. That song has always meant a lot to me because it came from a time in my own life when hope was hard to find. Singing it helped carry me through those dark times and on to something better. Tanya’s mom made that dress and must be smiling down from heaven on her amazing, confident daughter. I know your mom is proud of you, Tanya!
Tanya had to sit down.
The side of the bed was the closest flat surface, so she let herself plop down there. She read the message several times, trying to see if it was some kind of prank Mindy was playing. But no, it was the official Instagram app, and Tanya could see all the comments and likes getting added in real time.
On the nightstand was a folded piece of hotel stationery. Tanya stared at it for a long time, trying to make herself believe anything about the previous twelve hours of her life.
Sorry just to disappear. Had an early flight and you were sacked out like you needed it. Order room service breakfast on me. I’ll let you pay for our next date.
Beneath the words was not a signature, but a little hand-drawn star, followed by a phone number.
Tanya was going to take a shower next, a long shower in which she would think about nothing in particular except for how much better the water pressure was here than in her apartment. She would then respond to Mindy’s texts — and not just to Mindy’s, given the way her phone was now pinging every minute or so. She would figure out exactly how to explain to everyone else what had happened in a way that didn’t make her sound delusional even when Tanya didn’t wholly believe it herself. She would also figure out how room service worked, which she hoped would be fairly self-explanatory, because she was starving.
But for now, Tanya just stood in front of the bathroom mirror, staring down her own reflection. Sleep and sex and time had worn the previous day’s makeup down almost to nothing, but Tanya could still see the hints of where someone else’s face had been. Soon the last of it would wash away beneath the shower spray, leaving her the person she was underneath it.
When that happened, Tanya hoped she could still be brave, because that person had a phone call to make.