Inspired Writer Contest Top 20
A Drag Show For 275
Edward watches me unwrap a slab of sirloin, fresh out of the fridge, and hover it over a skillet. A bed of oil pops, hissing in anticipation. Edward and I aren’t close, especially by roommate standards, but we share an unremarkable kinship; we both cook and eat dinner late, very late. After most people have been asleep for several hours late.
I lay the sirloin flat, and a flash of smoke and steam greets me in response. Arms crossed, I watch it intently, wait, and turn it over. Again I wait (for what feels like forever), and transfer the steak to a plate.
“That was really fast,” Edward says.
I stick a fork into the center, ignoring a gush of red, and cut a piece. “Oh my god,” I say, mid-chew. “It’s ice cold on the inside.”
Edward’s face scrunches up. “That’s disgusting. You’re gonna get salmonella.”
I hold a forkful up to the light, as if to examine it for contaminants. “That’s not how it works. I seared the surface, which is where germs and bacteria multiply. It’s perfectly safe to eat now.” This is categorically untrue.
“Whatever you say man.”
“Want some?” I ask Edward. The steak is practically submerged in a shallow, bloody pool. I gesticulate at it as if I were a QVC presenter showcasing a collection of pearls.
Edward wanders out of the kitchen, and waves me away. “It’s all yours.” He seems to float down the hallway, slowly and frictionless, and I wonder if I had been interacting with a specter the whole time.
I finish the rest of the meal, add my dirty dishes to the growing pile in the sink, and go to bed. It’s 2:30 a.m.
In college, anyone could tell I was poor if they simply studied my relationship with food. Meals were not planned, cooking was not an art. I ate purely for sustenance — just enough to live and work and breathe and scavenge another day. I always prepared steaks cold and bloody, because I simply didn’t care to cook them, or felt that I deserved better.
When I was twenty-one and fresh into my second year of university, my prefrontal cortex four years from maturation, I took a job as a “service assistant” at an events center. I applied for the opening, in part, because I already knew the facility like the back of my hand; I spent most of my afternoons loitering there while I worked as a janitor the preceding summer. I also really needed money.
Several of my coworkers were strapped for cash, too. Vanessa, who had a habit of losing her keys, showed me how to “hack” food delivery services to get a twenty percent discount on every order, taking advantage of their gossamer-thin security system.
To return the favor, I showed Vanessa how to gain access to the building’s roof. This involved two secret doors and scaling an iron staircase with white paint peeling like bark. We hoisted ourselves onto the rooftop one morning, breakfast in hand, and watched the sun rise and crack like an egg over the horizon. “Oh shit,” I said as the campus began to wake up. “We forgot to unlock the building.”
Twice, I stole bread from a supermarket.
One evening, while I took garbage out to the loading dock, I came across a trash bag filled with sandwiches, cakes, pastries, and wilted salads. I realized that unsold food from the upstairs bakery must reach the end of their life here, in this bag. That night, I slung the bag over my shoulder like an old-timey cartoon villain, and skipped home. It was the first time I felt victorious in years. Another night I found the bag in tatters. Raccoons had gotten to it first.
Fishing food out of the bag was far, far from dumpster diving, but that didn’t stop people from turning their nose up at it. I loved it when they did that, and would often launch into a story about “the time food from the bag made me puke my guts out.”
I never told my parents about the bag. Which means I never told them that I got food poisoning from the bag — twice. My mother often texted me, 今天吃什么? What did you eat today? And I’d respond, steak. Definitely not a bleeding, cold brick of flesh, no, I had steak. She’d reply with an emoji, and that would be the end of our interaction. These are still some of the longest conversations we’ve ever had.
Sometimes I’d treat myself to spaghetti, if the food bank happened to receive a donation of pasta sauce. I rarely boiled anything, save for instant noodles, curry sauce, and thrice, a whole potato (those were never worth the wait, by the way). My meals were revolting, truly heinous. They were a far cry from the food I grew up with, the food I watched my mother chop, braise, and toss from a wooden kitchen stool.
Of all my mother’s cooking, I missed 牛尾湯 the most. 牛尾 meaning oxtail, and 湯 meaning soup. I would watch her rinse chunks of oxtails under a tap, and pat them dry with paper towels. She’d slide the meat, bone-in, into a pot of water, where tomatoes, carrots, quartered potatoes, and onions bobbed in unison, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the headlining ingredient. A beautiful alchemy took place underneath the sweaty lid, a chemical reaction that sweetened the sweetest carrots and gave the translucent broth an invigorating, orange glow. Several hours later, the oxtail meat would melt like cream, begging to slide off its tube-shaped bones. Every time I told my mother that I’d be visiting home, she’d prepare another pot.
Sometimes, if I took too long to reply to her messages, my mother would ask, 上班吗? At work? On some occasions, she’d mention my father, like if they fought or were having money problems. I rarely spoke to my father after I left for college, or before, or after I graduated. But whenever I visited home he’d immediately take me to my favorite 순두부 (Sundubu, a Korean tofu stew) restaurant before I even dropped my bags off. He didn’t have very much money, but he’d order as if he did.
I enjoyed working at the events center while going to school. I really enjoyed being financially independent, because I really hated asking my parents for money they didn’t have.
I noticed that focusing on the deficits in my life — food and money, mostly, maybe friends — led me to become prideful, rather than demoralized. I liked to look at the things I lacked, and mold their absence into an armored exterior. I was a self-sufficient machine, goddamnit.
I would rather wear my money problems like a badge, and side-eye my peers who were off to self-actualizing internships instead of janitorial jobs, than acknowledge the entrenched barriers to social mobility that kept me in this posture. Conceal and deflect.
This was probably just a coping mechanism. Like when a specific kind of person shares and hits “Like” on a Facebook news article about a boy who walks 5 miles to school every day (and in a blizzard or something) because he’s not an entitled millennial. These are the same people who regurgitate something about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. It’s easy to vilify people who dare to believe that they deserve more. Sometimes you do that to yourself.
I loved and hated my job at the events center. I loved that we built things, knowing that several hours after finishing a setup, people would stream in and give the empty husk a heartbeat. I hated that it didn’t teach me how to send a business email or “network.” Maybe I loved that, too.
One day, having been briefly reprieved from class and work, I went to the university lawn to have lunch, and lie in the grass. I took off my sweater, put it inside my backpack, and rested my head on it, occasionally kneading it into a new shape. Slowly, I removed the plastic wrap around my lunch: a grilled Caprese panini I found in the bag. Last night’s bounty.
I texted Edward: Hey if you’re at home could you take my steak out of the freezer to defrost on the counter. I forgot to take it out this morning. I had told him earlier in the week that the events center was hosting a free drag show that evening and that I was in charge of setting it up. Edward was involved in campus ministry, so I knew it wasn’t really his scene. I just thought it’d be hilarious if he came.
He didn’t come, which is okay, because again, we weren’t close.
The night I cooked steak in front of Edward was the night I set up a drag show for 275 people at my job. It was my biggest assignment yet. At this point I had been working at the events center for over a year and was now a manager. My new name tag had just been minted.
I, along with three service assistants, computed how we’d squeeze 275 chairs into the event space: a food court. From a bird’s-eye perspective, the food court was the shape of a fat crescent. Restaurants lined the curved bend, while tables filled the remainder of the floor. A stage would occupy the caved-in part of the crescent shape.
I directed my assistants to clear the floor, and began to shape the seating skeleton. I shot down the idea of a lecture-style arrangement, where 275 chairs would be gathered in one section, like a rigid audience assembled to hear an authoritarian address. Not fitting for the “Winter Wonder Drag,” I said.
Instead, I created three separate seating sections with plenty of room between the rows, which gave the drag queens freedom to interact with their audience and move effortlessly to collect tips (all of which went to charity). Spacing out the rows also gave the impression that the room was much larger than it was, as we had to stretch seats from the tip of the stage to the end of the food court.
The center section, the largest, had twelve rows of ten chairs. The left section, nine rows of eight. The right section, eight rows of ten. I actually set up a drag show for 272, but don’t tell. Years later I found out that my seating arrangement had become the standard for drag shows for 275 at the events center. To date, it’s the only legacy I’ve ever left, anywhere.
During the show, I visited the queens’ dressing room to refresh linens, and take out the trash. When I opened the door, I was flattened by the smell of vodka. The trash cans were filled with empty, lip-stick stained solo cups. Laughing, I took a picture for posterity, and went back to supervise the remainder of the show.
I was tired. Vanessa was there. She was tired. I missed my Caprese panini, and wished that I had saved half of it. I supervised the show from a distance, watching the queens vogue and lip-sync around my setup to hoots and affirming screams from the audience. It was validating in a way that I can’t explain. I thought: I made that shit, man.
At the end of the night I texted a group photo of me, my assistants, and the drag queens to my mother.
Your friends? she responded.
My phone buzzed again. She had sent me a candid photo of my father, mouth agape, followed by an emoji with its eyes rolling.
I replied, 哈哈.