Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (3 page)

Steve jerked away. “I didn’t ask for your analysis, Skeet.”

Jansen didn’t back off, the bastard seeing too much as usual. “Look. I get it. You wanted to help save him, and something went wrong you can’t identify or fix. It’s practically a rerun. Except you don’t know this kid, and you’re not responsible for him. Also, this guy seems in firm possession of all his marbles, unlike Gordy. You can stand down.”

Steve’s jaw hurt from clenching it. “I need to get back to Luis.”

Randy caught his shoulder when he tried to leave. “Hey. Chill. I won’t bring up Gordy again.” When Steve gave a curt nod, Randy let him go. “So he was fine until I showed up. But it was
he looked at like you’d gutted his kitten. That’s the pot right there, the space between me scaring him and this somehow being your fault.”

Steve had no idea how to read the gap. “I’d ask Luis, but he’d never tell me anything unless he thought the kid was in danger.”

“Well, you got his name, right? Did you forget your hacking skills in the hour and a half since I last saw you?”

That angle had occurred to Steve. He knew he shouldn’t go there, but God he wanted to. He
to fix this with Chenco. Steve longed to take the young man’s pain, hold it in his hands and turn it into something as beautiful as the boy himself.

Randy put a hand on Steve’s arm. “Give him a Google while I make dinner. If nothing else, maybe we can give the intel to Luis. Sound good?”

Steve nodded, but he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d hand this over. No matter how bad an idea it was, he’d have every electronic record on Chenco Ortiz before Jansen finished layering his lasagna.

If Chenco needed saving, Steve would be the one to rescue him.

Chapter Two

For a week after the ordeal at the lawyer’s office, Chenco pretended nothing had changed. He went to work. He went to the club to rehearse. He didn’t open any more mail, no matter how friendly it seemed.

He couldn’t stop watching over his shoulder every time he was in public, however, always looking for signs Steve Vance, Randy Jansen or Mitch Tedsoe had found him again.

They hadn’t, but Chenco lay awake every night, cheeks burning as he thought of what an idiot he’d been, falling for Vance’s trap. He’d almost had Chenco too, which was the scariest part. At first he hadn’t been sure if Randy Jansen was the same guy he’d seen with his half-brother around town, but then he’d heard Mitch’s name and there’d been no question.

He couldn’t make out how Vance connected to whatever Chenco’s brother had in store. Vance had said he was gay, but if a friend of Mitch’s was his houseguest, and the guy hung out with Mitch…well, who knew what that meant. Probably it meant Steve had lied.

Except the guy was so good Chenco had almost fallen for his lines. He had to steel himself constantly against thinking maybe Steve
on his side somehow. Nothing would come of wallowing in his weakness. He had to be strong.

Goddamn, but he wished more than ever he could go back to his mom and cry in her lap. He pulled her old notes—he’d saved the silly messages she’d once taped to his bedroom door—out of the cedar box in his bedroom, but that was all he dared allowed himself. Her renewed rejection was the one thing he didn’t think he was strong enough to take right now. Cooper could fuck him over six more ways from Sunday, but one look of disappointment from Carmelita Ortiz and Chenco would fold.

Except Chenco was running out of time. He’d done a cursory look for new places to live, and his prospects were worse than he’d expected. As time dragged on, Chenco’s anxiety increased, and when he flipped through a wig catalog, trying to plan for Pride month performances, the cold depths of reality hit him—Cooper’s betrayal didn’t just affect him, it threatened his alter ego.

Chenco called Lincoln.

He caught his friend on the way to work—Heide had a show at Lasers, Lincoln said, but she’d finish at midnight if Chenco could meet after at the club. Since Chenco worked until nine, he agreed, and after running home to shower and change, he headed up to Edinburg to catch the end of Heide’s act. As soon as he stepped into the main room, he heard the drag queen’s booming, brazen voice bellowing across the bar. She was in the middle of her erotic balloon-tying act, the audience roaring as Heide gave a swollen green penis a heavy hand job.

Heide was full-on clown queen. She drew on her lips almost to her nose, and Chenco knew from bra shopping with Lincoln her tits were 36HH—HH for Heide Hole. She made them perky by special blow-up inserts affixed to the straps of her gaudy green gown. Her hair tonight was a three-foot-high fire-engine-red tower of curls set off by the tackiest gold tiara this side of a toddler beauty pageant. Her earrings were fiber-optic lilies dangling to her shoulders, matching the necklace nestled snugly in her faux bosom. Her shoes as always were stunning—six-and-a-half-inch clear stilettos with a string of dice along the heel stem, a glitter buckle, and floating disco balls in the see-through rise below the balls of the feet.

Caramela was
borrowing those.

Chenco settled back to enjoy the show. When she closed her final set and blew the audience a kiss goodbye after her encore, Chenco gave her a few minutes to get settled before heading through the stage door and knocking at her dressing room.

“Come on in, hooker,” a clear voice called in singsong.

Slipping inside the cramped former closet, Chenco smiled as their gazes met in the reflection of the stage mirror. “Bitch, have you been getting collagen in those lips? You look like you gave a blow job to a Hoover attachment.”

Heide snorted. She sat hairless now, Lincoln’s patchy mop of dull brown locks matted beneath the nylon cap as she curled her lip at herself in the glass. “Allergic reaction to new lipstick.”

Chenco flattened his lips. “What did I tell you about buying out of the clearance bin?”

“Whatever.” Heide pulled off one of her lashes, wincing as the last of the glue gave way. “So, go on. Rip me to shreds, skank, I’m ready.”

This was their game when they saw each other work, and usually Chenco was all over it. Tonight, though, he didn’t have it in him. “It was good.”

Heide stopped tugging at the second eyelash and turned to Chenco with the accessory winging up toward her overly penciled brow like a demented neon caterpillar. “What the fuck.” She pointed at the stool beside her. “Sit. Spill. And if you try and bullshit me, I’ll kick your ass.”

Chenco sat. He gave Heide the whole story, starting at the funeral. He told her about seeing his half-brother Mitch there and leaving before the ceremony started. Heide threw shade as only she could.

“What a fucking
. He hasn’t been back to the valley in years, and he shows up now, lurking around waiting to jump you?”

“That’s just it. I still don’t know for sure he knows about me.” He explained about the letter and the meeting with Cuevas.

When Heide heard about the trailer going to the KKK, she shouted so loudly and angrily the stage manager came in to make sure everything was okay. Heide shooed him back out, muttering under her breath as she wiped off the last of her makeup.

“What a
. Oh my God, I knew your dad was an asshole, but even I didn’t see this coming.” She tugged off her nylon cap and rubbed a wet wipe furiously around the base of her hairline. “Do you have an apartment yet? What am I talking about, you don’t have any money. Fuck the apartment. You’ll move in with me.”

“There’s no room.”

“We’ll make room.” She was in the strange transition between Heide and Lincoln now, titless and wearing her male side’s face but still using Heide’s vocal tones and hand gestures. Caramela usually shut off with the wig, but Heide liked to linger.

Chenco shifted uneasily on his chair. “The lawyer bought me some time. Unless of course he’s in on the scam with Vance.”

“What scam? Who’s Vance?”

Chenco told the story of interrupting Vance’s meeting, of his finding Chenco in the alley and offering to help. “Vance kept after me, like he couldn’t let it go. I was almost ready to trust him when this other guy shows up, the one I’ve seen hanging out all over town with my brother. God, what would they have done to me if I’d been stupid enough to believe he really wanted to help me?”

Instead of commiserating, Heide frowned. “Honey, something about this is off. You said the lawyer made time for you, cut off this other guy’s appointment. The leather daddy was nice to you, and he came right out and said he was gay.”

“It could have been part of the act.”

“Maybe not. Maybe it’s Jansen and your brother who are the assholes.” Heide arched Lincoln’s eyebrow to her hairline. “Or maybe your daddy lied about your brother too.”

“You’re forgetting the Pulitzer-level journal in the trailer detailing all the ways Mitch hates fags and hopes they all get AIDS and die.”

Heide grimaced. “Fair point. Well, fuck them. I still don’t think the lawyer’s part of this. Nobody’s come to kick you out yet, so either the KKK doesn’t give a fuck about a half-rotted trailer in Donna, Texas, or the lawyer really is doing you a solid. My money’s on the latter. Did you Google him?”

“Whatever. You know I don’t have a computer or a smartphone.”

The last of Heide slipped away as Lincoln rolled his eyes and picked up a phone from the dressing table. “What was his name? Luis Cuevas?” He punched at the screen with his index finger. “Hmm. Well, if he’s fucking you over, he’s in some deep cover. He’s done pro bono on a few bashing cases, and he’s big on immigrant rights. Looks like he does the estate and property work to pad the bank so he can save the world on the side.” Lincoln put his phone down. “I’ll ask around at work, but I think this will check out. Besides, why would a legitimate businessman draw out an elaborate scheme when he could laugh at you and tell you to get off his lawn when the will already had you nice and fucked?”

“Why would a father bleed his son dry, lie about his will and leave everything to white supremacists?”

“Cooper Tedsoe wasn’t a father. He was a professional cunt-sandwich.” Lincoln reached for a bottle of water. “We’ll look around for a place, sweetie, but if you don’t find something you like, you’re coming to mine. I never get laid anyway, so you can take the other side of the bed with a clean conscience. We’ll put Caramela’s stuff in the garage or rent a storage space.”

“Oh my God, she wants to claw your eyes out so hard right now.”

“Miss High-and-Mighty can surely try, but this old queen can take your skinny-assed Chiquita any day, any time. Makeup and melty shit comes inside, but her precious muff-muggers and designer mop heads can survive a bit of baking. You can let your queen fly, but she don’t get to drive.”

This, this right here, was why Chenco hadn’t come to Lincoln straight off. He never understood about Caramela, despite being the one who’d helped her come to life. Chenco would let Lincoln tease him and distract him, and he’d let his friend help try and find somewhere new to call home, but as he headed to the flats and his bed, he made his queen a promise they’d only go to Lincoln’s apartment if it was absolutely the only place left in the valley to go.



Caramela was Chenco’s savior and his damnation both. He’d made peace with this duality, though it had taken many years, buckets of tears and one terrifying night of hysterics on Lincoln’s couch. On that sacred night, Caramela had risen from his ashes, and she had never let him down.

She was the reason he worked two jobs and was still broke, but she was also the reason he wasn’t living some false life as an accountant or a doctor or whatever career his mother would have forced him into. She’d helped him fight Cooper, and to this day she stood ready to guard him against whatever he didn’t want to face. Caramela was the reason he was free. Letting her run the checkbook seemed a fair trade.

However, as another week wore on after his talk with Lincoln, as the day Cuevas would call to let Chenco know he had to move out drew ever closer, neither he nor Caramela were happy. He still had nowhere to live, and Lincoln was starting to get annoyed at his refusal to move in. Chenco had put in some hard hours on the public library computers trying to find a new place, but nothing felt right. Nothing felt safe. He had no idea what to do, and the terror of his future gnawed at him until he could hardly stand to eat anything and couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at night.

His scheduled gig at Club 33 on Valentine’s Day should have been a lighthouse, but as he began his transformation into Caramela, the yawing pit inside him was as hollow and raw as ever. He’d feel better after he performed. Even with this affirmation, his hands shook as he pulled on his pantyhose, and by the time he had the companion nylon stocking over his hair, he had to stop and swab out his pits. Several times he’d had to prop his elbows on the vanity, resting his face in his hands.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

Chenco complied with his own order. He felt dizzy, but some of the red edges around him began to bleed away.

There you go. Now get your shit together and put your face on. We have a show to do.

The makeup application focused him—it was difficult and full of ritual, both practical and personal. Mostly, though, Caramela saved him. She made him pick up the makeup brushes and work. She put him together even as she created space for herself to be.

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