Emily Rubin

WE THREE, 1983

We were something back then. To be more truthful, we were almostsomething, and that was perfectly fine most of the time. Three sisters in performance we were, who spit and growled about rampant chauvinist mores of the time with our agitprop comedy fueled by Reagan-era extravagance and pomp. We weren’t famous—simply notable, awkward, and happening, at least in our hairstylist’s eyes. We hired Louisa to tame our locks from straight to curly and all the way to and from kinky. Her magic scissors and mousse gave us a three-tiered sculptured look. My coif was modeled after a broken teacup cradling a clump of dried flowers in a forgotten still life. Framing my ‘do’ were multiple ear piercings decorated with golden rings and crystal studs that would flash in the meager stage lights focused on us when we came onstage in the nighttime-club head of multiplying adrenalin rushes. We were an after-work, late-night performance troupe, a family not related by blood, but often sharing full-moon ‟dropping” times. We were known as the Sirens of Sleaze. 

“Clever, subversive feministas,” the local press quipped and said we were “three roving magenta magic carpet gals flying on heavily kohl-lined clouds travelling the circuit of the underground scene.”  

We loved cheap red wine, cheaper champagne, and were riddled with angst for the excess of the trickle-down economic times. Writing and performing got us into the clubs gratis. The fifteen-dollar covers were an extravagance for our waitress tips and temp-job hourly earnings. 

Barrel-chested bouncers at the clubs were angels in dark suits, shielding us from the hordes and ceremoniously opening the velvet ropes ensuring our safe passage through the fiery circling maze of club habitués praying for entry into the darkness where they could worship at the altar of thumping sound systems in warrens of pop culture-themed rooms. The crowds watched moonfaced up at stages with Keith Haring backdrops and backlines for the twenty or more bands that would play through the night. We three performed two- to four-minute sketches in between the bands. Never the headliners, we were paid minimal fees for our labor, usually twenty-five dollars—and more often than not, additional perks of spirited lines of cocaine. Smoothies slurped before going on, and snorts and wipes when our job was done.

We three had spiked hair dyed brashly orange to match the couches burning in the streets outside the clubs. We were obsessed with bad taste. Mimes who wouldn’t shut up and sang off-key, dancers who stumbled and belched on cue. Fun and gross, sensually tricky, challenging ourselves with a collective interior gaze. We wrote at night after work with bottles of wine and tightly rolled joints, honing our rants for the crowds of fevered “I’m Coming Out” flashbulb popping, popper inhaling clubbers. Our anger for inequality molded us, fueled by the realities that health care was for the privileged few, so we called it wealth care. We were treated at Bellevue Emergency Room for head, foot, and eye injuries. None of us had insurance and the backstage areas were often badly lit, making our entrances and exits treacherous. Ovarian cysts also popped up now and again, facilitating times in emergency rooms littered with candy-bar wrappers and run by doctors with dark circles under their eyes like eclipses of the moon in binocular lenses.

Talia was a leggy redhead, swimmer and mime from Montgomery, Alabama with a psyche formed by New Orleans’s sultry summers, Marie Laveau, and downing Pimm’s Cup at her favorite corner table at Napoleon House. She played Nancy Reagan in our sketches. Lorna was six-foot in flats, a square-jawed patrician who could do a spot-on upper-crust New England accent or a deep Southern drawl on cue as a clueless or inebriated guy. She played Ronald Reagan. I was Ron Jr. My five-foot, plump frame was a stretch, but I was a ballerina in a tutu flitting around saying, “I am the dying-son swan”. 

Backstage we were bitchy and loving in our uniform of thrift-store matching paisley jumpsuits. We wrestled with complicated whale-boned lingerie and sized up large boxy wool suits for our act. Duffel bags and suitcases exploded with costumes that we flung onto tattered couches in the graffiti-scrawled downtown club dressing rooms of Danceteria, Pyramid Club, Limbo Lounge, and 8BC. Signatures of the bands we worshipped were under layers of stratum. Butthole Surfers, The Cramps, Ramones, Blondie, and Coup d’Etat. At Danceteria there was a quote in French on the wall, untouched and surrounded by a protective neon halo. Patti Smith was the rumored scrivener of this quote from her beloved, Rimbaud. The French was obscure. Ionly had high school comment vas-tuFrench, Lorna had a beau from Bordeaux, and Talia knew Cajun français, so between the three of us we were able translate the lines that became a mantra for taking our act on the road.

In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.

We hit the road for the southern climes—from Kentucky to Alabama to Louisiana, Georgia and the Carolinas. Saw a ’gator while camping on Grand Isle, and fled with costumes flapping like young herons while the cops raided a party that hired us to perform in Kitty Hawk. We three fled like geese chased by a dog and passing the Kill Devil memorial to Orville and Wilbur Wright.

We always warmed up backstage by giving each other cheek kisses and directives before going on. 

“Plump up your ladykins!”

“You need some glitter for that décolletage.”

“Does everyone have their codpiece?” Johnny G the stage manager at 8BC asked as he gave us five-minute warnings. 

Our cassette tape cued to the right track and played by Stewie, the sound person in the booth, was our signal to burst on stage lip-synching and prancing to Dolly Parton’s “Stand By Your Man” for our cross-cross-cross-cross dress routine. We transformed from female to male, back to fem and back again to men, throwing off suit jackets, Lily Pulitzer florals, swirling paisleys, fedoras, stuffed jock straps, bustles, bras, and mustaches. We revealed merkins made of natural sponge and ended the set by presenting our most feted objet de sleaze,a giant lipstick fashioned in homage to our mothers’ Helena Rubinstein gold lipstick holders. The prop was constructed from the largest of mailing tubes and painted shiny Egyptian gold. This was the “LipDick.” Guiseppe, our prop master, fashioned it with a top that slid off to reveal a larger-than-life, bloodred wedge of lipstick. We waved the shiny phallus like a flag, and as Dolly Parton’s voice swelled, we shot off confetti guns over the audience. 

“I can feel the LipDick!” came the cry from the sweaty pit. 

“Give us more of that Lip!”

“Touching the gold costs a thousand bucks,” we would quip and accept a beer instead.

After one show Karen Finley summoned us to a drooping couch in the VIP section at the back of 8BC. We hadn’t time to change out of our sequins, boas, and sombreros. I played the saxophone back then and flung it over my back like a papoose.

“Make it messier. Sleazier. You do call yourselves the Sirens of Sleaze, isn’t that right?”

“The clubs are booking us as the Sleazebuckets. The name seems to be sticking—or maybe it’s just sticky,” I boldly said.

Finley smiled, but did not laugh. Performance art was serious. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon were passed to soothe our parched throats. As she bid us adieu Madame gave us advice.

“Not sure the name will get you an NEA grant, but why not write something about menstrual flow or the illegally backed-by-the-United States Contras in Nicaragua, or both.” 

Armed with a mission we thanked her and went backstage to change in the presence of the club’s resident beer-drinking bunny. We were a noisy family for a short, frenetic time. At the end of it all there was heartache, tears, jealousy, and divvying up of costumes as we three moved on. I don’t remember who got the LipDick, but I imagine it somewhere leaning against a wall, a reminder of a time when we thought we were and were not just perfectly fine all at the same time. 

Emily Rubin’s debut novel, Stalina (2011 HMH/Mariner Books), was a selection in the Amazon Debut Novel Award Contest. She was the first recipient of the Sarah Verdone Writer Award in 2011, a finalist in the International Literary Awards, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction and essays have appeared in All the Restaurants in New York (Abrams, 2019) by John Donohue, Red Rock Review, Confrontation, NY Observer, Poets & Writers Magazine, and HAPPY. In 2005 she founded Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose, a reading and performance series that takes place in laundromats around the country. She has running The Write Treatment Workshops in New York City hospital cancer centers since 2011 and has taught fiction workshops at Bard College’s Lifetime Learning Institute and as part Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine Program. She is at work on a novel. www.emilyrubin.net