Issue 20 / Winter 2020
They call me “beautiful.”
They call me “darling” and “sweet mama” and “cocksucker.” They call me “hey faggot.” They all call me “baby.” They call me “redbone, what’s your name?” They call me “wanna put those big lips on this fat dick?”
They call me “bitch, where you going?”
When people look at me, they don’t see me. They see what they want, whatever they most desire.
I cross a room, and eyes follow me. They latch onto a body that I don’t actually wear, that I don’t possess. Sometimes I try to figure out what they see. Is it a firm, tight ass straining against skinny jeans? Muscular forearms, dusted with fine red hairs? A svelte-hipped tawny back?
Of course, enough of them tell me, especially the trash-dicked insecure assholes with time on their hands and a superiority complex. Since they see what they truly desire, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, sometimes I don’t hear lewd come-ons; I hear threats from the man who can’t own that he’s drawn to a trans woman, who’d never dream he’d feel that way about a woman who wasn’t white or wasn’t his wife—the kind of man who wants to smash my face in because the sight of me makes his dick fill up with blood.
My own body is unremarkable; sometimes I’ll stand in front of the mirror in my underwear and just look.
I don’t mind it.
But there’s nothing to see.
I step close to Roundhouse as if by accident and draw my finger against her back in a pre-arranged signal: point of interest, seven o’clock.
I move away and bend down to tie my shoe, and I see Roundhouse observing the woman standing just to her left: forty-something, strong-looking, wearing sunglasses—even though we’re underground—and an architect’s tube worn over her shoulder. More than that, she doesn’t react the way everyone else does when they see me. Something I notice.
And she has a gun. It makes a recognizable bump against her jean jacket.
The train arrives, and we all get on. I sit four seats away from her, Roundhouse giving me a warning glare when I tried to scooch closer.
I work with a team. We don’t wear costumes or anything, but we’re all strange in our own ways. Atari is the genius. Roundhouse is the muscle. Beretta is the artillery.
My codename is Beautiful.
I’m the honeypot. I stroll up to the front desk, the security guard, or the CEO. I do what I do: I transfix. And even if I show up on cameras, no one remembers seeing that mousy person on the surveillance. They remember the vixen, the stud, the knockout—or, someone sick, like a twelve-year-old kid. Usually when I’m called names or treated like shit, I get out of the way, but there is nothing more satisfying than breaking the nose of a man who thinks he’s wooing a child, then unbreaking it and breaking it again. Atari had to yank me out of there one time. I remember the look on her face as she pulled me away from that bloody scumbag, incredulous over the computer mainframe she’d just stolen from the power plant. I couldn’t even explain; it was so revolting.
I’m not just a pretty face; I learned how to fend for myself. You have to, when you deal with as much crap as I do.
The woman with the sunglasses on the train doesn’t fidget. She has her arm held so no one will bump against her gun. I start to obsess over what’s inside the tube. Stolen plans? Another weapon?
“Do you have the time, sir?” the girl on my other side is asking, short skirt hugging the tops of her thick thighs. I glance at my watch, tell her, then pointedly stare at an advertisement for community college. She clears her throat a time or two like she might say more, but she doesn’t. I can feel eight or nine other pairs of eyes boring into me.
Not Shades, though. Not a glance.
After I joined the team, I slept with Beretta a handful of times. He has an interesting body, lean as fuck, all wiry hair and scar tissue. I remember the first time. He knows what I do, and what I am; of course he does. And I could see his hands hesitating as they touched me, as if he might shatter the illusion, but somehow it’s unbreakable. I guess it doesn’t just fool eyes; it fools minds too.
I wasn’t going to ask him. I tell myself not to, but eventually I can’t help myself.
He won’t describe it—me, or say what he sees with words. But he drew me a little sketch: proud, wide nose; long braids; a strong brow. She’s beautiful; I’m beautiful. Of course I am.
But she isn’t really me.
I shouldn’t have asked.
We ride the train to the end of the line. The crowds thin, but Shades sticks around. Roundhouse is starting to get apprehensive. When the doors open, I’m right there, walking through them first. Sure, maybe Roundhouse should have been on point, but plenty of hired muscle have been undone by the ass they most desire.
My phone buzzes, a text from Atari: hey bravo, we’re not alone, extron must have hired a rival team. you’ll need to hurry to the site.
I knew something was up. Shades must be an agent.
The corridor is practically empty. I stop at the metro map and turn to catch Roundhouse’s eye, but my head smashes into the glass covering the map. Shades has got me against the wall.
She pulls my hand free and holds it to the side. “Tell your girl to back off.” Behind my back I give Roundhouse the signal for go ahead, I got this. I know there’s no time; Roundhouse has to meet Atari at the checkpoint. I’m just an ace in the hole.
“Who do you work for?” Shades is rough with me, breath hot on my cheek. I drop all my weight to the ground and knock her feet out from beneath her, and we tumble for a moment. I suspect she used to be more limber; twice she attempts an aggressive move, well-practiced, but one she can’t quite deliver on. In the tussle, her shades fall off and expose her eyes, irises covered by milky cataracts. Makes sense.
She could have had the better of me, but she’s fighting too careful. “Why should I tell you?” I flip her over; she arches her body to protect the tube, her torso tense against mine. She’s trembling something fierce, holding herself up, face catching in a grim sneer of determination.
She’s protecting whatever is in the tube. I use that, trying to knock her around, and it almost feels like a fair fight. Maybe I’ll get to brag about it to Roundhouse.
But she cocks her head in response to some signal that I can’t see or hear, then lets herself fall down and crush the architect’s cylinder. She flings me over her back, and I sprawl hard against the tile; it knocks the wind right out of me.
“Well, Bravo, tell your friend that you’re too late. We’ve already transmitted the data.”
Somehow she’d intercepted my text message?
Later, I show the contents of the cylinder to Atari to try to piece it together. She says it’s a relay system, but one that shouldn’t have worked. Somehow Shades had powered it—with an external power source.
Which didn’t make sense, unless you accounted for all manner of unusual people, like someone that can produce desire in anyone that looks at them. Still, it was beyond the imagination of most.
Despite her immunity to my unique charms, there was one sign of desire she hadn’t hidden from me. I certainly didn’t imagine her erection against my thigh.
Atari initially recruited me over Skype.
Through the protective bubble wrap of technology, I’m just me, not “whatever you most desire.” Sometimes when I need to be spoken to like a normal human being, I go into group video chatrooms, and just talk. It’s nice to be treated like nobody.
But considering what she was recruiting me for, it wasn’t a great show of my talents, so of course we had to meet in person.
When she finally laid eyes on me, Atari flinched. I swear I saw the whites of her eyes, but she didn’t say anything.
Six months later, we’d done a few jobs together, and I finally ask her what she sees when she looks at me.
She takes a deep breath. “My dead wife.”
The next time I see Network (nobody calls her Shades but me) I’m busting her out of jail. It’s not like she’s innocent, but we need her for our next job.
“Why hello there, Bravo,” she says while I choke out the guard. “This is a nice surprise.”
Is it tacky that I’m not sure I ever really felt seen until I fell in love with someone who was blind? But after a while, I had to acknowledge that Shades has another idea of me inside her head too; it just isn’t built on the bones of a desire I instilled through preternatural chemistry.
Before the breakup, I hear Shades ask Atari what I look like. “Not, you know, in person, but in photographs or whatever.”
Atari is silent for a while. “Small eyes? Brown, maybe. Some freckles.”
There is this one guy we know called Nails; not too flashy of a dude, but his thing is you couldn’t shake him: can’t make him cry, can’t make him talk. I mean, he bleeds like anybody else. But, you know, he’s tough as.
I go to him after me and Shades split. I want him to teach me how to not be beautiful, to just be myself. I think, maybe he could be the mountain, and I could be Moses, but it doesn’t work. It’s just torture for both of us.
I could wring longing from a stone. What difference was a nail?
Let’s just say that someone accustomed to feeling nothing doesn’t take kindly to whatever feeling they get when they see me.
Roundhouse is the one who made sure I knew how to throw a punch, how to connect with knuckles instead of the long flats of your fingers. She always taught me to go for their liver or their ribs, to avoid the hard bones of the face.
Catcalling shitheads taught me to go for the throat. They used to call me “baby, come suck this,” and I’d just walked away.
Not anymore. Now I call them “worthless,” or “not this time.” I call them “smears of blood” and “crying fucks hunched over on the sidewalk.” I say it over my shoulder while they beg for their gods and their mothers.
And I don’t look back.
When Shades leaves me, I keep thinking I’ll be devastated.
And I am, at first. I have to walk through the rain, almost a mile. I don’t want to get in a cab. I don’t want to deal with some dude who gets hard watching the hottest person he’s ever seen crying into their hair.
It feels good to have a basic girlfriend problem like the rest of the world; it feels trite but true. I know that’s some emo shit, but it’s real for me. I lean into it.
She doesn’t get to run from the law for long. My team and I have to put her back in jail a couple months later. It’s a basic mission, a high-speed chase, a narrowly averted nuclear launch. I stop her the old-fashioned way, with a high kick to the solar plexus. She doesn’t take it personal, though; she knows how it works. I think she’s proud.
Last thing she says to me?
“Bravo, Beautiful. Bravo.”
dave ring is the chair of the OutWrite LGBTQ Book Festival in Washington, DC. He has stories featured or forthcoming in a number of publications, including Speculative City, GlitterShip, and A Punk Rock Future. He is the publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press, as well as the editor of Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of a City That Never Was from Mason Jar Press. More info at www.dave-ring.com. Follow him on Twitter at @slickhop.