“This is my ‘permission slip,’” Vanilla said, handing me a snapshot.
“Who’s this?” I asked, looking at an image of an unconscious man wearing a dress.
“The man responsible for bringing me into this world. At least, that was my mother’s contention. I was never a hundred percent sure.”
“So, your father was also a drag queen.”
“Hardly. Dear old papa was Mister Macho. Ran a construction crew. But late at night when my sister and I were safely tucked away, it was playtime for the grownups. Mommy and Daddy were majorly into dress-up. It was their game. She’d put on a three-piece suit or a top hat, coat, and tails and he’d get into one of her dresses complete with pantyhose and a wig. It was their secret.”
“Or not so secret from the looks of this photo.”
Vanilla laughed as she looked in the makeup mirror to apply lip liner. “I took that with an old Polaroid when I was about seven. Found him passed out in the kitchen after one of their ‘special’ nights.”
“Did he know you took it?”
“No. That was my secret.
“Why do you call it a ‘permission slip’?”
“When I was a teenager and had urges to put on dresses, I did. Daddy did, so why not? It seemed perfectly normal. I never felt shame. I mean, if a macho guy like him could run a gang of foul-mouthed steel workers, then come home and play dress-up with my mother, I’d say that was permission, wouldn’t you? Daddy showed me that you can be anything you want to be.”
There was a knock on the door and a shout. “Showtime, Van. Thirty seconds.”
“Gotta go, my friend.” Vanilla gave a tug on her wig and a last flourish of powder on her nose, then wrapped a sequined boa around her neck. “I’ll see you sitting out there applauding.”
“Break a leg, Vanilla.”
After she rushed out, I looked again at the snapshot, then reached over and stuck it back into the frame of the mirror. I stood up and looked at the rack of dresses. The myriad colors reminded me of a large box of crayons. I picked out a dress with a plunging neckline that looked as if it was made of chrome, took it off the hanger, and held it against my chest. As I looked into the mirror, I whispered the word “permission.”
Sixteen-year-old Nadiya left home on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol and walked west with a plastic bag of clothes and her dog. She wanted to get to the other side of the city before the Russians encircled it. She had heard that buses were taking people to the western part of Ukraine where it was relatively safe. It took her six hours walking through debris-filled streets and around collapsed buildings. Halfway across the city a bomb exploded. Nadiya wasn’t hurt, but it frightened her dog so much that she had to leave the bag and carry him in her arms. Both were hungry. The only food she had eaten in the previous two days were two bananas. When she arrived at the depot, she was told to wait with several hundred others. Five hours later, she was told that it was her turn. But when she stepped onto the bus, the driver stopped her and said there wasn’t room for the dog. She asked if she could hold the dog in her lap. The man shook his head. Nadiya thanked him and stepped off the bus. She began walking home in a light snowfall with the dog following close behind.
Jim Woessner works as a visual artist and writer on the Sausalito, California waterfront. He has an MFA from Bennington College and his poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Sea Letter, FewerThan500, Literary Yard, Critical Read, Adelaide Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, Unbroken Journal, Ariel Chart, and Peeking Cat. Additionally, two of his plays have been performed in community theatre.