Drag Night Boot Camp
Sophie MacNeill (Griffith University, Australia)
Sweat drips down the boot camp instructor’s clavicle as she wraps up the seven-thirty class. Ellie watches a particularly large droplet veer off path and make its way down the instructor’s left bicep. The morning sun is already hot and harsh; she really should talk to Mads about switching to an evening class now that it’s almost summer. Mads bounds across the grass with their water bottles and hits her on the arm.
‘Checking out those guns?’
‘Sorry?’ Ellie grabs the bottle from her friend and takes a swig of lukewarm water.
‘I saw you. And you say you’re just in this to “feel good”. I know you secretly want to get buff. Anyone would after staring at those biceps for an hour every Wednesday.’
Laughing, Ellie pretends to spray Mads with water from her bottle. One of the men in the class is walking towards them; he glances at Ellie, grinning at her goof. She looks away, smile dropping. The man spins on his heels and jogs over to the mass of towels and bags under a nearby tree.
Mads nudges her and winks.
‘Shut up. Come on, it’s your turn to buy coffee.’
At the café, the same man sits alone at a table by the door, drinking a glass of sparkling water. A bike helmet rests on the empty seat next to him. He averts his eyes as Ellie grabs Mads’ arm and pulls her inside. She guides them to a booth at the back, which is partially hidden behind an overgrown fern in a big cement pot.
‘Why do we have to sit back here? The window seat is free.’
Ellie shrugs. ‘Cooler back here under the aircon.’
‘Yeah, and there’s no rogue boot camp cuties back here. Come on, that guy clearly has a crush on you.’
‘Sounds like a bad idea for him.’
‘What’s so bad about having a crush? Seems like it could be kind of romantic, meeting in an exercise class. You could accidently reach for the same dumbbell one day, your eyes lock, and bam! It’d be a great meet-cute story.’
‘No, that’s the problem. Having a crush on someone in your boot camp is setting yourself up for failure. Think about it: you see them once a week, just enough to keep the interest going. But you never talk to them, so all you have to go on is a fantasy you build up in your head about what they’re like. I bet if he actually got to know me it’d kill the fantasy Ellie he’s been fucking every night.’ She catches the eye of one of the regular waiters, flashing her a nod and a peace sign to indicate they’ll have their usual order. ‘All he knows about me is I like expensive athleisure brands and can’t do a push up to save my life.’
Mads is rolling her eyes. ‘Oh, come on. When did you get so pessimistic? He’s probably just a nice guy who thinks you’re pretty and wants to get to know you. I’ve seen him try to approach every week for at least a month now. Why do you always snub him?’
‘See, that’s what I’m saying. He can’t even get up the nerve to say hi, let alone ask me out. It’s hopeless.’
‘Yeah, but El, even you have to admit you’re a bit intimidating.’
Stretching her long, Lycra-clad legs under the table, Ellie snorts. ‘Any man who finds me intimidating isn’t worth dating. I want to be with someone who treats me like a human, not a mountain to conquer.’
Now Mads is the one to snort. ‘You’ll never meet a guy with that attitude. They need a little bit of encouragement, you know. And I mean, it’s been, what, over a year now since you left Dave? I thought the whole point was to enjoy being single while you’re still young.’
‘I am enjoying being single.’
‘Yeah, okay.’ Sighing, Mads slides out of the booth. ‘I’m going to the loo. Be back in a minute.’
Ellie smiles at her friend as she walks away, glad that particular thread of conversation is over. That’s one of Mads’ good qualities, she thinks. She always knows when to leave something alone, to recognise when Ellie has hit her limit. But her friend does have a point. Ellie knows she’s attractive, at least conventionally. I’d better be, she thinks, twirling a lock of honey highlights between perfectly manicured fingers. Or I’d need to request a whole lot of refunds. She’s not even sure anymore why she spends so much money on her looks; Ellie is not at all interested in finding a man. Still, she keeps going to her regular wax, tan, hair, nail, eyebrow, eyelash, and facial appointments. Keeping up appearances, she supposes.
The waiter approaches with two soy flat whites in bright red ceramic cups. Her hand brushes Ellie’s as she places them gingerly on the table. Ellie looks up at her—looks at the layers of beaded chokers around her thin neck, her pale blue eyes accented by smudged eyeliner, her edgy buzz cut. The waiter flashes a half-smile. She has deep dimples on both sides of her mouth.
‘Anything else today?’ Her hand gently touches Ellie’s shoulder.
‘Oh. No, thank you. Just the coffees.’ Is she laughing at me?
‘Well, just let me know.’ Twirling on her feet, the waiter walks away.
Mads slides back into the booth. ‘What was that about?’
‘What? Oh, nothing. She was just checking she got the order right.’
Taking a sip of her coffee, Mads closes her eyes for a moment. ‘Tastes right to me. God, I needed a coffee this morning. Did I tell you what Blake said to me last night? He’s so ridiculous. We were up half the night arguing.’
Leaning her elbows on the table, Ellie shakes her head. ‘Tell me everything.’
Office workers rush here and there down the city’s pedestrian-only shopping street. Ellie’s heels click on the pavement as she pushes through the lunchtime crowd. Her shift doesn’t start for another twenty minutes, so she tells herself to calm down and walk a bit slower, take in the city scene. Checking her reflection in a shop window, Ellie notes the way her pale pink pencil skirt highlights her fresh tan and feminine curves. She plucks at the tight fabric around her hips. She feels like a fraud, wants to crawl out of her own skin.
A woman in a flimsy green slip dress is walking towards her. No bra, glossy black hair in a high pony. Ellie averts her eyes and swallows the lump in her throat. Don’t be a creep The woman’s perfume trails behind her as she passes. Sweet. Two young women in crop tops pass on Ellie’s other side. Don’t. Be. A. Creep. She speeds up and practically sprints into the store. Colin, the manager, is adjusting a rack of silk ties by the register. He follows her to the back room, and watches as she dumps her bag on the lunch table and slumps in a chair.
‘Everything alright, El?’
‘Mmhmm. Just so crowded out there.’
‘Right, well it’s as dead as a brothel on Christmas day in here. Although you missed the most gorgeous customer this morning. Teeth to die for.’ Colin winks at her. ‘Got to measure him up for a three-piece suit totally uninterrupted. I think he was straight though, so I’ll let you have him if he comes in again.’
Ellie forces out a laugh. ‘Great, very generous of you my darling boss.’
‘Anything for my star employee. Your ass is the reason we get half the customers we do, so I figure I better keep you happy.’
‘You can keep me happy by cranking that aircon.’ Dabbing at the corner of her mouth, Ellie checks her fingers for any rogue lipstick. ‘I’m sweating.’
‘Don’t worry, you look fresh and sweet like usual.’ He pokes his head out to check the shop floor before crossing the break room to grab a mini can of Diet Coke from the fridge. ‘We still dancing tonight?’
‘Yep. Mads wants to come too. Even though we’re both busted from boot camp this morning.’
‘Are you sure she’ll like it? I can’t imagine that girl in the club.’
‘She needs a night away from the ol’ husband I think.’
‘Well, she better not wear any pearls or a sweater set or something. I have a reputation to think about, you know.’
‘Col! She’s not that conservative. Don’t worry, I’ll lend her something skin-tight and sequined and she’ll fit right in.’
‘That I’d like to see.’ Smirking, he drains the last of his Diet Coke and dumps the can in the bin. ‘But come on; she got married at twenty to her high school sweetheart, and she goes to chur—actually, this could be fun. Don’t tell her it’s drag night. I want to see the look on her face when you guys walk in and see me all wrapped up in feathers and glitter.’
A soft twinkling sound emits from the shop floor and Colin disappears around the doorframe. Ellie stands, smoothing out the creases in her skirt. A rack of new stock rests against the wall across from her, waiting to be processed. She eyes the slim-cut pinstripe grey suit at the end of the rack, an idea hitting her. If Colin wants a show, she’ll give him one.
Blue and red strobe lights flash in Ellie’s eyes. Mads grips her arm, grinning. She stumbles a little in Ellie’s stilettos and a micro mini as they cross the half-empty dance floor looking for Colin. A group of teenagers shimmy past them in flapper dresses and cheap wigs. At the bar, they order shots of tequila with lemon and salt.
‘I thought it would be busier than this.’ Mads glances around.
‘It’ll pick up in an hour or so. Col likes to get here early and claim space on the dance floor. I don’t see him though.’
A loud shriek carries from the other side of the dance floor. Ellie turns and strikes a pose as Colin skips over, bedecked in a filmy pink negligee and a white feather boa.
‘No! You didn’t. I can’t.’
Twirling on the heel of her new leather loafers, she lets him take in the full effect.
‘Just shocked at how fucking amazing you look in that, darling. Who knew you’d suit the androgynous look so well?’
Ellie shrugs, a pleased smile curling at the sides of her lips. ‘What can I say. Anyway, this suit was so expensive, it’d probably look good on anyone. Thank God for our employee discount.’
Mads hands out a round of shots and punches Colin lightly on the arm.
‘And how’d I do?’
‘You look hot babe. Hope you can dance in those shoes though.’
‘After a couple of these I can.’ Mads tips the shot glass back, barely wincing as the cheap liquor hits the back of her throat.
Colin squints at Mads. ‘So you’re not shocked by my outfit tonight, then? I guess our dear friend here warmed you up to it with her butch look.’
‘Hey, I’m not as sheltered as you think, you know.’
Mads looks irritated, and Colin seems disappointed by her rebuttal. To break the sudden dour mood, Ellie lifts her shot glass and gives her friends a too-enthusiastic cheers. A woman at the other end of the bar is looking at her over Colin’s shoulder, her thin face framed by the quivering white feathers from his boa. She watches with a smirk as Ellie takes the shot and licks salt from the back of her hand. Adjusting the collar of her suit, Ellie checks it’s still being held in place by the double-sided tape she stuck to her bare cleavage. She wonders if the woman is still watching.
‘You’re good darl.’ Colin grabs her and Mads’ hands. ‘Come on, let’s dance.’
Ellie and Mads stumble out of the club five hours later, their hair tousled and faces red. They almost collide with a group of polo-shirted men walking past. One of them stops to apologise, and a look of recognition passes over his face. He gives them a quizzical smile and a half wave before jogging to catch up with his group.
‘Woah,’ says Mads, pulling Ellie to the side of the footpath. ‘That was boot camp guy!’
‘God, is he stalking me now?’ Ellie smooths hair away from her face. It’s fallen loose from the braided crown she started the night with. ‘Well, the fantasy will definitely be broken now.’
‘No shit. We just stumbled out of a gay club and you’re basically in drag. He probably thinks we’re a couple now.’
Ellie pulls bobby pins out of her hair, storing them between her lips as she starts to undo her braids. She shrugs and doesn’t say anything.
‘Doesn’t that bother you, if he thinks you’re gay?’
Mumbling around the bobby pins, she looks away from her friend.
‘What? I can’t understand you.’ Mads reaches down and unstraps her shoes. ‘Well, it’s officially time to become one of those women who leaves the club with her heels in her hand. Maccas?’
Ellie takes the pins out of her mouth and tucks them into her clutch bag. ‘Yeah, I could kill a cheeseburger.’ She hesitates, then takes a deep breath, wondering if she’ll regret this once she’s sobered up. ‘But what I said was, he wouldn’t be entirely wrong. If he thought that, that is.’
‘Excuse me?’ Mads is swinging the shoes by their straps, her mouth open. ‘What are you even talking about?’
‘Well, I don’t know Mads. I just. I think maybe I like women a bit.’
The two friends stare at each other.
‘I mean, I guess always. I’ve always liked them. Didn’t you see me dancing with that woman tonight?’
‘Yeah but, it was just drunk club dancing. And anyway, you were with Dave for like, forever. Are you telling me you hated being with him all that time?’
‘No! It’s not like that. I’m not saying I don’t like men. I do. I think.’ Ellie runs her hand through her now loose hair. ‘I don’t know anymore. Dave was great, really. But there’s always been this other thing just, there. I tried to talk to him about it, but I don’t think he really got it. He just wanted me to be the me he thinks I am.’
Mads shakes her head and looks away. Her face is even redder than before. Ellie reaches out to touch her arm, but she steps back.
‘Maybe you should go back in and find Colin. He’s probably still dancing all those shots off. You can hook up with your girl or whatever.’
‘Hey, what’s the problem? I’m just trying to tell you how I feel.’
‘Bit late for that.’ Mads keeps her eyes on the cab rank down the street. ‘I’m going home. Some of us have real jobs to go to in the morning. See you later.’
Mads walks off towards the cab at the front of the line. Ellie watches her friend go, hoping she’ll turn back, that she’ll at least look at her and wave goodbye. She doesn’t. The cab peels away from the curb, and Ellie waits a moment before going back inside.
Sunlight filters in through the sheer bedroom curtains, falling across Ellie and her cat Patches, stretched out next to each other on the bed. Both are lazing there with their eyes closed, Ellie waiting for an appropriate time to start getting ready for work, Patches waiting for nothing. Usually this would be the time Ellie would be at boot camp with Mads, but she’s avoided going for three weeks now. She has no idea if Mads has been going. They haven’t spoken since drag night. Ellie wonders if they’re both just being stubborn, neither wanting to be the first to text or call, or if Mads is actually as angry as she’d seemed that night. It doesn’t make sense to her; she doesn’t understand why her friend would feel that way about something like this. Despite what Colin thinks of Mads, Ellie knows she is open-minded.
Massaging the length of Patches’ back in long, slow strokes, Ellie tries to stop thinking about it. She wonders instead if she should go out tonight with Colin. Ever since she told him about her attraction to women, he’s made it his personal objective in life to find her a suitable one to hook up with. There have been a few pashes on various dance floors over the last few weeks, but Ellie always stops it from going any further. A slew of texts from these random women have gone unanswered. Ellie doesn’t know how to tell Colin that she’s terrified of the next stage—not just the sex part, but the idea of dating a woman, of having to tell people she’s dating a woman. She picks at the last of her fake tan, stubbornly hanging around the backs of her hands. More than anything, she wishes Mads was around to talk to about this. Despite having married the only boy she’d ever dated, Mads always has helpful advice when it comes to dating and sex. Maybe that’s why she’s mad, thinks Ellie. I’ve stepped into territory she has no wisdom for. She might think her role in my life is moot. She stretches out her arm, resolved to text her friend and reassure her. As she picks her phone up, it starts to vibrate. Ellie is surprised to see Mads’ name displayed above ‘incoming call’.
‘Hey ….’ A pause. ‘I don’t even know where to start.’
‘Are you still mad at me, then?’ Ellie starts peeling off the shellac from her left thumb, phone nestled between her ear and shoulder.
‘No! I’m embarrassed I got so mad. I was mad for a while, I’ll admit. But then I realised how shitty that was. And then I just didn’t know what to say. I feel like I let you down.’
‘I mean, you did a bit.’ The thick gel polish comes off in flakes with Ellie’s furious picking.
‘I’m so sorry, El. What can I do to make it okay again?’
‘Will you tell me why you were so angry? I just don’t get it. I thought you were cool with that kind of thing.’
‘I am, I swear. It’s just … well, look El, we’ve been friends since we were twelve. I thought we told each other everything. We taught each other how to use tampons for God’s sake! I tell you everything about me and Blake. But for some reason you didn’t think I could handle this?’
Sitting up, Ellie grabs the phone and holds it tighter to her ear.
‘It’s so not like that Mads. This whole thing is so complicated, and I didn’t even understand myself what I was feeling. I still don’t. I didn’t want to like, make it my identity without being sure.’
A long sigh echoes down the phone line. ‘Okay, I get that. I think I was feeling insecure too, with you hanging out with Colin so much. He always looks at me like I’m such a bumpkin.’
Ellie laughs, relieved they’ve fallen back into their usual conversation pattern already. ‘He just thinks everyone from the country is backwards. I’m sorry it upset you. I promise I’ll tell him to stop being rude.’
Mads lets out a dramatic groan. ‘Dude, does he know I’ve been living in the city since I was ten? You and I went to the same high school!’
‘I know, I know. I keep telling him.’
Silence for a moment. Looking around her sun-drenched room, Ellie feels a lightness in her chest she didn’t know was missing.
‘So,’ Mads says. ‘Are you sure now?’
‘Like, can I start looking for some pretty women to set you up with? That waiter at the café always gave me a bit of a vibe.’
‘Oh Mads, I don’t even know. Colin …. Well, he’s been trying every time we go out, but honestly it’s all so overwhelming.’
‘Want me to come to drag night again tonight? I can be your backup in case you need an out?’
‘That sounds amazing, but do you want to just do something chill tonight? Just the two of us? Maybe dinner here …. I could really use a chat and a night in.’
‘Of course! We can hash out a dating strategy for you, and then you have to listen to all the things Blake has done in the time we’ve been apart. Deal?’
Ellie is grinning by the time she ends the call, relieved that she and Mads have sorted things out. And it’s time to get ready for work. A morning not wasted after all. Ellie saunters over to her closet. She pulls out the pinstripe suit pants she hasn’t been able to bear looking at since Mads left her standing there outside the club, alone and confused. Leaving the matching jacket in her closet, she shimmies into a crisp white button-up and the same loafers she wore to drag night, no socks. She applies simple makeup and brushes her hair back into a high bun. Better, she thinks, examining herself in the full-length mirror. I’m getting somewhere close to myself now.
Sophie MacNeill is a writer and PhD candidate at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, where she is working on her first novel. Her short fiction has appeared in TEXT, The Incompleteness Book, ACE Anthology, Talent Implied: New Writing from Griffith, and the Bareknuckle Poet Annual Anthology.