A Short Story by DC Diamondopolous
“It’s ready,” Venus said holding the Walt Whitman bag.
They went down the stairs. Brenda thought about her own deceit, traveling four hours and spending the night at a hotel to buy marijuana.
With her eyes on her cousin, she stepped onto the landing. He leaned against the counter, next to his boyfriend with his arm around his waist. So natural. How long had they been together?
She walked over to the register, paid for her medicine, and thanked Venus for helping her.
In seven years as a politician Brenda learned to shovel manure and throw it on opportunity. A vote for her bill, equal pay for women, came up at the end of the week. Now, she had something to fight with. As her youngest daughter would say, sweet!
She strolled up to Bakar holding the handles of her bag. “Hello Ray,” she said as if she had run into him at the county fair.
His arm snapped to his side. He gaped at her. His round face a fluctuation of red, crimson then scarlet.
He never called her that. He was as phony as Frank Underwood.
“I’d never take you for a pothead.”
“I’m not,” she said. “The THC helps me sleep. Is that why you’re here, Ray?” she asked. “Because you can’t sleep at night? I can understand why.”
She held out her hand to Ray’s boyfriend who looked like a much younger version of Ray minus the cowboy getup. “I’m Brenda Bustamante, a cousin of Ray’s.”
He glanced at Bakar. “Yeah, Ray’s mentioned you. I’m Martin.”
They shook hands.
“I’ll meet you outside, Ray,” Brenda said.
She left the dispensary.
Gusts of wind rustled her paper bag. Leaves drifted from the street lined trees. She remembered a closed sign in a photo shop with a recessed doorway and an awning. Brenda went up the street and waited.
Bakar walked toward her, his swagger replaced with hunched shoulders. His face sagged like a sack of guilt. He was a real grizzly, wide as a side of beef. When they’d meet in the halls of the state capitol, his deep voice bellowed out arguments to stress his opinions. She tried to have an exchange, but Ray never took a breath. He had the lungs of a whale.
Now it was her turn to talk.
He stood next to her in the doorway facing the street. “No one will believe you. It’s your word against mine.”
“I filmed you with Martin. I took pictures, too.”
He sucked his teeth. She felt his anger roll off of him like a tumbleweed. He took a step forward, snatched his hat in his hand and whipped it across his thigh.
Brenda didn’t flinch but her heart did. She remained poised in the hollow of the entrance, watching as he lumbered down the street, stop and pace. She wondered how he could hurt so many people to protect his lie.
Ray adjusted his hat, gave a yank to his vest, looped his thumbs in his pant pockets and came toward her.
“What’s it gonna cost me?”
“You’re going to vote for my bill. And persuade two other senators to vote for it.”
“I vote for your bill, they’d all know something is up.”
“Oh please, Ray. You can come up with a reason.”
“I’m dead if I vote for that bill.”
“You’re more dead if they find out your gay.” She had him. But he was still family. “I remember the hell you went through when Mike died. The way you and Larry were picked on.”
“Oh, Jesus, Brenda,” he said turning away. “Do you have to bring that up?”
“Isn’t that the crux of it? The hiding?”
He confronted her. “You aren’t? You came all the way from home to buy pot in the Castro. You could have at least ditched the pumps and the pressed slacks for jeans and tennis shoes.”
That was true. She was prone to overdress, but what a jerk. “You’re a phony, Ray.”
“So are you.”
“I should come out and tell my story,” Brenda said. “It could help others. But don’t think you can spin what I saw. I’ll send the film and the pictures of you and Martin to the press. I’ll post it on Facebook. You vote for it, Friday. And get me two more votes. That’s all I need. Cousin or not, I’ll expose you.”
He crossed his arms and loomed over her. “I could come out before Friday. Then you’d never get the vote.”
“Do that. I’ll still send the pictures to the press. Everyone will know why you came out.”
They both remained silent in the alcove of the doorway. The wind hissed. Buses and cars sputtered down Market. A woman’s laughter floated on the air like notes from a musical instrument. The sun half above the hills the other half descended toward the sea. The moment Brenda shared with her cousin, a moment so charged became a noise all its own.
At last, he looked at her. She expected anger, instead she saw sorrow. “Your family was always kind to us, not like the others.” His voice just above a whisper. He stared across the street at the shopping center. “I had cancer. I’m okay, now. Forty years old. I’ve lost all my hair, high blood pressure, yup.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ray. I want my girls,” Brenda said, “all women, to have the same rights, the same pay for doing what men do.”
Ray listened. He shifted his weight. Hitched his shoulders. Crossed his arms.
“If you choose to come out, you’d have the support of my family. I promise. If you don’t choose to come out, and you get my bill passed, I’ll never ask for another favor. You have my word.”
“The vote’s only five days away. What happens if I vote for it but can’t get the two other votes?”
“People owe you, you have power, charm them. You can get two votes.”
“But if I can’t.”
“Then the deal’s off.”
Ray snickered, then exhaled through his mouth.
“You know, Ray, during that horrible time,” Brenda said, “I remembered your mom, how she went to the PTA and told them to help stop the bullying. What she must have gone through, losing her eldest boy and then treated like an outcast.” She took a step closer to her cousin. “When they cut your father’s hours, your mom took a job. Bet she didn’t even make minimum wage.”
“She was the heart of my life,” Ray said.
Brenda lowered her gaze. She now knew how hard it was for him to be honest.
Martin came toward them holding a white paper bag. His shaved head along with his beard started to grow a five o’clock stubble. His expression vacillated between concern and hope.“Can I join you?” he asked with a lopsided smile.
“Of course you can,” Brenda said.
Martin looked at Ray. “You were always worried you’d be outed. You’re lucky it was your cousin.” He glanced at Brenda’s bag. “You must’ve bought a lot to get a Walt Whitman bag.”
Brenda smiled. “I don’t like to smoke and I have a weakness for sweets.”
“Did you get the carrot cake?”
“I got a chocolate chip cookie,” Martin said. “I’m getting fat. But they have a genius baker.”
“I’m hungry,” Brenda said.
“Me too. Cafe La Folie is just down the street.” Martin gestured in the direction where the rainbow flag brandished its colors at the foothills of San Francisco. “They have the best crème brûlée.”
“I like it with a really thick crust,” Brenda said. “You know, where it’s hard to crack.”
“Let’s have dinner. I’ll save us a table on the patio.” Martin took off.
“He’s a nice young man.”
“Yup, he’s a keeper.”
“Let’s go break some crème brûlée.”
“Ah, I need to lose weight.”
“We all do. What else is new? C’mon Ray,” Brenda said taking his arm.